• Published 8th Apr 2015
  • 1,083 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...

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Slow Riot

Equestria had seen no armed conflicts for the past 1003 years.

Entry 34

March 14, 1003

Another day, another photo. Time well wasted. I did want to catch some shots of the crew and the guards when we set sail, maybe even the ship, but not like this. Didn’t expect to be stuck here for so long, and by now I have to save film for when we get to the city.

If we ever get there.

I guess it’s a good thing not many of these ponies like me taking pictures. Leaves me even less compelled to bother when it always leads to shoving and yelling. The last one said he’d throw me overboard if I did it again. Maybe then I could swim ashore and actually get some work done. Speculating over useless books and reports isn’t enough anymore.

Out of boredom, I tried asking some of the sailors if they knew anything or heard any stories. Most of them said it’s all humbug, but the locals are really superstitious, so I might get something out of them.

We’ll see. I hope we will, anyway. This is getting on my nerves.

Entry 35

March 15, 1003

Word is spreading among the crew. Looks like we’ll finally get off this rust bucket. After so many weeks spent riding huge waves, drowning in fog and staring at a blizzard through the window, I can’t wait to get my hooves on solid ground again. Getting seasick so much that I could barely sit here, writing this damn thing. There’s not a whole lot to document when you’re stuck on a ship, and the best you can do is stare at the coast. And all there is out there is white and black. Mountains and snow. That’s what I’m looking forward to now, setting hooves on land that is mostly snow and pines and goats. Of all the places where this could show up in, it’s in here. Until I get anything solid, there won’t be an awful lot to write. Yet here I am, and I think I’m writing to myself right now.

‘The smokestacks in the distance spewed clouds a few shades darker yesterday.’

Not exactly front page material. Insane asylum though, yeah, that’s for sure, this whole journal.

I managed to talk to the officer in charge of the guards. Lieutenant Coalcutter. Caught me slipping into the bridge with some of the civilian crew. He got angry at first, but I guess he just couldn’t be bothered. Can’t blame him. He looked even worse than my reflection in the morning, and that’s saying a lot.

While there, I overheard him talking to his superior on the radio. The conversation got pretty heated. I hope the bastard on the other end wasn’t too hard on him. Coalcutter is a nice guy, if a bit neurotic. I didn’t get much out of him afterward. He said we got our orders, and we’re offloading everything and everyone starting tomorrow.

He sounded very nervous. Are we in trouble?

Entry 36

March 16, 1003

I’m writing on the move. Don’t want to mess up the details by trying to remember later. Gonna keep it short and simple.

The lieutenant rounds everyone up and tells them to grab their stuff. We’re moving out as soon as we get the boats ready. Pegasi teams are already hauling cargo onto the shore.

I talked to Coalcutter after the meeting. Hated to nag him, he didn’t look too happy about it, but he let me hitch a ride on one of the boats. Guess it’s time to say goodbye, Atoll. No offense, but I don’t want to see you again until the journey home.

The shore looks no less bare and lifeless than it did from the ship. There’s a few factories further along the coast to the east, while the mainland is to the south. The troops are forming up and stacking the cargo for other teams to move it inland.

They’re sending squads to scout ahead. I’m tagging along with a small reserve unit. A bunch of ponies from Fillydelphia, I think. Some of them could pass for kids who should still be in school. They’re teasing me, asking me to take photos of their NEVERMIND

fuck these guys

Strange thing happened. I overheard one of the officers mentioning “civilians”. He was on the radio, asking why we need to take detours. Coalcutter just told him to shut up and get moving. When I asked, they said the troops from the other ships “cleared a path,” but some parts are still too risky, so we need to go around them.

My legs are freezing off. Who in their right mind would want to live here? Maybe no one actually does. Almost every village we passed was empty and buried in snow. We passed an old couple going in the opposite direction. They were nice, but didn’t have much to say, except “don’t go to the city”.

Too late now.

I keep seeing smoke in the distance. Sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. Each time, we go around the other way. No one says anything. At first I thought it must be some villages where goats still live. Fireplaces making smoke and all that. But it was too thick and black. There was too much of it. Can’t help but think of the smoke I saw from the ship. Not a nice thought.

Something is watching us. Every time I look at the horizon, I see figures. Tall, four legs, weird things sticking out of their heads. I’m just a botanist, sure, but they don’t look right to me. Inequine. Sometimes just one, sometimes a dozen. Their movements are like impossible to describe. I prefer when they’re standing still. And boy do they stand still.

Finally, civilization. Gueldergrad’s proud northern district. I’d hate to imagine what hit this place and why. Broken homes wherever you look. The skyline is like a torn up falling apart. More of the black smoke further in. The clouds are glowing orange. I really hope it’s from the streetlights.

We march silently through the streets. Everything is broken. Even the pavement is cracked all over. Smashed and burnt out carts vehicles everywhere. Hoofsteps around the corners, but no sign of who made them. I was expecting cheers, protests, but not dead silence. It’s like we’re walking into a giant corpse. I’m getting creeped out.

Scratch that. I’d prefer silence now. The deeper you go, you’ll find signs of life. Just barely. Eyes peeking at you from every window. Bitter looks from the goats on the streets. They move aside, never saying a word. Kids dance around us, laugh, try to poke us. Their parents drag them away, but more keep coming. The guards stop to play along, but the officer tells us to keep moving.

Every corner has some locals huddled together around a fire. They’re skin and bones, eating stuff that looks worse than anything I’ve ever thrown up.

I tried to talk to them, but they just grumble something and give the cold shoulder. Do they hate us so much, or is there really nothing to say? Can’t be the language barrier. One of them had some really nice things to say about my mother.

We pass through a square. Some kind of residence? I see makeshift walls and roofs. They’re all smashed, knocked over, and on fire. Dark black puddles and stains everywhere. There’s a hanging, metallic smell mixed with burned hair. I have a bad feeling about this. Something bad must have happened not long ago.

I hear someone crying. There’s a doe clutching her child and screaming her throat raw. Her voice mixes with some demented tune playing on the other side of the street. I see a band of a half-dozen overgrown goats, dressed in pitch black, swinging brasiers and lanterns around while they sing. Or moan? I can barely find words. This is getting far too surreal.

A pair of old hags show up. They try to drag the doe inside. Her kid isn’t moving. We pass another smashed hovel, and I see a cloven hoof sticking out.

We’re past the square. A group of angry goats bleat at a few thugs in matching vests. This quarter is so ruined, there’s not even any fire anywhere, and all the lights are broken. Whatever those goats have on their vests, it glows in the dark. Might help if there was any traffic. Now it looks like bullseyes painted on their backs.

I’d laugh if I wasn’t right next to it all. The crowd screams like a pack of rabid timberwolves. There’s a squad of guards holding them back, while their leader tells the militia to keep moving. Probably for their own good.

They knocked over a power pylon of some sort. Can’t imagine what was going on here. The wires dangle right over our heads, and I swear I can hear them buzzing. Now I am laughing. I’d even say I got the chills if I wasn’t already freezing. Looks like the local humbug is infecting me.

The squad leader says they’re setting up camp in this district, and it’s best if I don’t hang around. Gotta follow the camps until I get to the market. The captain will be there.

“We cleared out the last two Botva hideouts in the district. No casualties.”

“Good work. Set up defences and report any movement. I’m sending Granite Three to back you up as soon as they’re done getting off the ship.”

The guard nodded and hurried off, while Shining let out the breath he had been holding the moment the guard turned the corner. “‘Good work’ my flank. I don’t like this one bit,” he muttered.

“What’s wrong?” Setter asked, having dismissed his own subordinates.

“Everything. We’ve been poking the city all day, yet things are quiet. Too quiet.”

As if on cue, the various hidden speakers all over the city buzzed to life again, giving the third broadcast since morning.

“Well, unless you count that,” Shining added. The smug voice that High Strung kept using made him frown and grit his teeth. It was the same speech as the first time, then every time since, listing the horrible sins of the goat leadership, welcoming Equestria’s soldiers, and promises that his cause is just and solely for the benefit of the city. After a few minutes, it turned off.

“But still,” he went on. “You can see how tense these guys are every time we’re around. They’ve got to be plotting something by now. Even now, with Granite and the other squads finally out of the water, we’re spread dangerously thin. No way they don’t see it.”

Setter said nothing. They watched a column of guards hurry down the street toward their objective, an engineer team close behind them, laden with tools and supplies. Shining waited a few more beats before he nudged his friend. “What are you thinking, Setter?”

The medic glanced at the sky, taking note of the dark clouds being herded overhead by icy winds, and turned to meet his gaze. “Can we blame them?” he asked.

Shining gave a deep sigh and shook his head. “No. Not really. I’d be angry too if I had a foreign army trampling all over my home, while a bunch of fanatics torch the countryside.” He huffed. “Why did I ever talk to those loonies? Just hope Coalcutter really did get a clear path now.”

Setter gave a half-hearted smirk. “Maybe we shouldn’t have come here?”

“It wasn’t an easy decision.” Shining nodded slowly. “But we can’t start complaining now. We have to do our jobs and hope for the best.”


The captain managed to smile as well and nudged Setter again. “On that note, any good news for a change?”

“Kind of.” The pegasus kicked at the pavement idly, nudging a small pile of half-melted snow. “We managed to whip one of the hospitals into shape. The goats might be giving us ugly looks, but they don’t mind having a place to get patched up. I’d say we—”

A distant, thunderous boom rang out, and the pavement shuddered under their hooves, making a few glass shards and loose bricks rain from the nearby buildings. Both ponies’ heads snapped up, and Shining’s heart skipped a beat when he looked in the direction of the noise. He had at least three squads in that area, so—

“District twenty-two is under fire!” a voice yelled in his ear. “Unidentified hostiles! Sir, do we engage?”

Shining blinked, wondering why they would even bother to ask. Still, the voice gave him some comfort, as it did not sound like screams of agony or panic. “Negative!” he replied. “We’re on our way. Granite Four and Six, move to D-22 on the double!” He clicked off the device and turned to his friend. “Come on, let’s go!”

Setter quickly grabbed a medkit, and they took off, galloping down the street to the east, braving the mangled asphalt and dodging any of the wreckage that had not been cleared away yet. Above their heads, a squadron of pegasi rushed in toward the fresh column of smoke now rising above the rooftops. They circled around it, keeping to a safe altitude until the rest of the troops caught up.

The district they approached was one of the countless “modern” sections of the city closer to the edge. “Modern” in this case referring to hideous concrete slabs piled onto each other to form tall, cheap apartments, as opposed to the more elegant structures closer to the center, most of which were now reduced to piles of rubble. Gunfire echoed off the walls, becoming louder with each block they passed. Strangely enough, the few civilians they noticed did not seem too hasty about seeking cover.

They slowed down just before reaching the last corner, and Shining carefully peeked around it, the sounds of fighting now dangerously close. To his surprise, the guards assigned to the district seemed completely out of harm’s way, hesitantly peeking over their cover to see what was going on. Further ahead, a large, cube-shaped brick building was crumbling apart under a hail of bullets, along with the occasional explosion from larger projectiles.

One of the guards told the others to stay down, then ran up to him. “Sir, they’re attacking the Militia station!”

Shining took deep breaths, slightly winded by the gallop. “Is anyone hurt?” Behind him, Setter and one of the squads he had ordered turned the corner as well.

“Unknown. There’s still some heavy fighting going on. They look pretty shot up though.”

Shining glanced at Setter and frowned. “Anyone from our own, Corporal,” he said to the guard.

“No, sir.” The stallion glanced over his shoulder at the clouds of dust and smoke, the occasional tracer round zipping through it, leaving a bright trail. Goats bleated as they frantically returned fire or tried to crawl away through the holes blown in the building. Equine figures closed in from the surrounding streets and rooftops, using the roadblocks and wreckage as cover while they kept bombarding the militia. “It’s… strange. We moved our position several times. No matter where we are, they avoid us as far as they can.”

Shining blinked and turned back to the guard. “Come again?”

“We had two squads on the street, caught in the perfect spot for a crossfire ambush. Those freaks on the rooftops never fired a shot. Every bullet was thrown at the militia.” The corporal shrugged. “They seemed very careful not to hit anything pony-shaped.”

“Understood,” Shining replied. Truth be told, that was a lie. Things seemed all the more ridiculous, but he did not have time to discuss it with the guard any longer. “Hold position. Wait for my order.”

He waved at the squad behind him and radioed the pegasi above. The troops on the ground carefully snuck closer to the battle, making sure to stay low and use every bit of cover, despite the lack of any fire in their direction. The moment he had everyone in position, Shining jumped to his hooves and lit his horn, forming a large purple shield in front of the guards. They followed suit, weapons aimed and horns glowing, only to pause moments later, staring in confusion.

“Where the hay did they go?” Setter asked.

“This is Basalt Two. Sir, the attackers are pulling back.”

“What?” Shining’s head snapped up, his eyes locking onto the lead pegasus in the squadron, who was hovering in place while she tracked something in the streets below.

“They’re moving back through District 25. Shall we engage?”

“No. Keep eyes on them and report on every move. Make sure they keep moving away from us. Shining out.” He flicked the radio off and cursed silently. The last thing he wanted to do was to be lured into a trap. If they wanted to play games, they would do it on his ground of choosing.

The guards nearby quickly made their way to the ruined building, searching the wreckage for those caught inside. Setterline ordered his medics to tend to the wounded goats, surprisingly without any disgust on his face. “Gonna get them patched up,” he told the captain while trotting back. “My staff needs experience in treating wounds from these weapons. Every little bit counts.”

“Very well,” Shining said. He looked away and nodded at a half-broken sign depicting High Strung, his smug grin pockmarked with bullet holes. “This is nuts. Fourth time in two days that he puts on a show. They blow up a militia station and have us right where they want us, yet we weren’t even touched. What in Tartarus do you think he’s up to?”

The medic followed his gaze and chuckled coldly. “No idea. Maybe he does want to negotiate?”

“Hmph…” Shining frowned at him. “And what does he offer? Mindless propaganda, while his fanatics blow things up?”

Setter glanced at the surviving militia, still cowering next to the piles of rubble, some already tossing their weapons and uniform away. “If you ask me, he’s taking out the trash.”

“Yeah,” Shining muttered. The speakers nearby started up again, a familiar voice making him grind his teeth together. “And leaving his own instead.”

Now I can’t sleep. Got guards all around me on watch and I can’t sleep. I swear there’s something wrong here. Better yet, no, fuck it. These halfbaked “soldiers”, I saw their snouts drop a mile as we went through the city. I know plants, sure, but I’ve got eyes and I can look at a pony. I might be sleepless and rambling to myself in my journal in the middle of the night - if it is night at all, who knows with the damn weather, won’t stop raining and it freezes as soon as it hits the ground - but I think it’s them who are cracking.

As far as they’re concerned, I’m the dead weight here. The more of this we see, the less they’ll want to keep a stallion whose job is to investigate a brain-plant-whatever-thingy. If I’m sleeping, it's with my back against the wall.

They captured some of the fanatics last night. Caught them sneaking through the alleys to hit another militia barracks. The guards popped out of cover, all geared up for a fight. Shields, fire spells, crossbows, and lances wherever you looked. Those crazies on the ground didn’t even flinch. Their leader just smiled, and they dropped all their weapons. He came forward and said High Strung “sends his regards” and wants us to talk to his “messengers”.

Last I looked, they were carrying guns, not a flag of truce.

Still, kooky ones like these are probably a sensation back home. I’m supposed to work on my research, but this seems too good to pass up. I’m gonna ask the officers if I could interview one of the prisoners.

The walk back to the headquarters was slow and uneventful. The city remained as lifeless as ever, yet Shining’s legs twitched every now and then. He could still see that familiar grin on the leader’s face while Boninite’s troops were leading him away. One moment Shining was excited to finally catch the insurgents off-guard, the next he was the one that felt duped.

He sighed upon nearing the square once more, the same one they first walked through after entering the city. Since it was the closest position to the road back to the port, and currently the area most deeply within the pony-controlled parts of the city, he chose to set up his base of operations here.

The vendors were allowed to stay, despite the wide tents and hastily erected walls now taking up most of the room. The goats seemed nonplussed by the guards marching back and forth constantly, some even trying to make business with any soldier they found off duty. Several of his officers asked to clear the place, but he would not risk provoking the locals any more than he already had.

Fortunately, his own quarters were isolated from this chaos. One of the buildings surrounding the square was an unfinished shopping center with plenty of offices on the upper floors. He passed the guards in front of the revolving doors, almost cracking a smile as he trudged along the dusty red carpet leading to the stairs. A couple of abandoned stores even had advertisements written in Equestrian on their windows. The locals were indeed quick to adapt.

After exchanging his helmet and armor for a simple uniform vest and leggings, he left his private room and moved into the adjacent office. The officers inside stood up from their desks, and he quickly waved them back down before taking a seat at the center. Stacks of papers awaited him, reports that needed to be discussed, decisions had to be made, and orders had to be sent out. The radio set up in the far corner droned constantly as his troops continued to stream into the city.

Minutes stretched into hours, though there was an odd comfort to the tedious work, as it allowed his mind to work on autopilot and not wrestle with the idea of where he was. He glanced up for a moment, giving his eyes a moment of respite. Boninite dismissed a crystal pony who had knocked on the door, and she returned to the captain’s side at the desk. “Onyx reports we’ve established a perimeter at the bridgehead. No contact.”

“Good, good…” Shining leaned back to rub his eyes, and his jaw tensed up as he struggled not to yawn in front of his subordinates. “Send the engineers after them. Set up defenses and make repairs if needed.”

“Yes sir.”

He sighed and leaned over the large map on the desk again, portraying the large city with the individual districts outlined. Scribbled lines, arrows, and circles littered the printed sheet, covering up most of the already inconsistent, oddly bulging circular mess that hugged and crawled onto some of the nearby mountains. His eyes blinked rapidly from the constant and lengthy strain, the white thoroughly stained by red near the edges.

The crystal mare stepped closer. “Everything alright, Captain?”

Shining chuckled. “You worry too much, Bonnie. Anything else?”

Bonnie nodded her head at the door. “Lieutenant Coalcutter is waiting to see you.”

“Understood.” He stepped away from the desk and waved at the rest of his staff, who all got up and left the room. Bonnie was the last to exit, and a thin earth pony in grey armor stepped in afterward.

“Sir!” He snapped to attention. “Coalcutter, reporting as ordered.”

Shining did his best to show a neutral expression as he walked within a few paces of the stallion. “Are your squads in position?”

“Yes, sir. Last ones should arrive within the hour.”

“The cargo?”

“Still moving what we can. The ‘package’ is too heavy, we’ll have to circle back to the port first.”

“Very well. Now…” He moved closer, and the guard visibly tensed up. “Care to explain what happened? Why you sailed around without any orders to do so?”

“S-Sir… with all due respect… we did get an order from you.”

Shining frowned, making Coalcutter struggle not to blink. “What are you talking about?”

“We got a radio transmission on the command channel. Badly distorted, but it was a clear order in your voice that we need to find an alternate landing spot.”

“And you just went along with it?” Shining’s frown deepened. “Why didn’t you respond later, or send out pegasi?”

Coalcutter started to breathe a bit faster. Oddly enough, it was clear that he was less intimidated by his superior, and more by the situation not making any sense. “We tried, sir. The channels were blocked, and the weather was against us. Crew said we were lucky we didn’t end up smashed on the cliffs.”

“Any chance of sabotage, or mutiny?”

“No, sir. The equipment was fine, and the crew followed orders.”

“Obviously not.” The captain sighed. “It doesn’t matter now. Thank you, lieutenant, that will be all.”

“Sir?” The stallion blinked in surprise, no doubt expecting to be a part of an investigation, if there would even be one.

“Return to your squads. We’re pushing further into the city tomorrow, and we’ll need every pony we have. Dismissed.”

Coalcutter hesitated for a few moments, then gave a quick salute before hurrying out the door. Boninite returned, the worried look on her face ever-present.

“Sir?” she began.

“No, I’m not alright.” Shining went back behind the desk and leaned onto it, forehooves rubbing his temples. “You know what this means, right? They’re hacking into our command channels now.”

The mare glanced at the radio in the corner. “‘They’?”

“Someone out there is working against us. Either that High Strung, or someone who’s not just all-talk.” The captain followed her gaze. “They picked the Atoll specifically. For all we know, they might even know about the ‘package’.”


Q: “Alright… where do I… yeah, I’ll just leave it here. Hope you don’t mind I’m using one of these.”

A: “Sure.”

Q: “Okay. Give me a name and city of origin first.”

A: “Blaise Fore. Hoofington.”

Q: “Your line of work?”

A: “There or here?”

Q: “How about both?”

A: “Used to do mining jobs. Now I’m a soldier.”

Q: “One of High Strung’s… Legion, was it?”

A: “Yeah. Not a fan of the name, but if it gets the message across…”

Q: “Right, right. So, Blaise… what made you decide to leave Equestria?”

A: “I did it because I like eating. I like not having a starving wife and kids I had to leave with my brother-in-law while I scrape together what little I can.”

Q: “So you felt betrayed by the country?”

A: “That was High Strung’s obsession. I don’t blame Equestria. They didn’t hold a grudge or anything. There’s just so much they can do for ponies down on their luck.”

Q: “Didn’t you try to reach out to the princesses? I heard Twilight Sparkle herself went down after the riots happened.”

A: “By that time, it didn’t matter. The whole point of the movement changed. We were failures, but we didn’t want to be cradled by the government. We’d go out and make our own luck.”

Q: “So you chose Gueldergrad?”

A: “Something else that kook was obsessed about. War-torn place, harsher than Tartarus itself. But it was also an opportunity. We could come here and set things right. Build a future for ourselves without the help of others.”

Q: “And did it work?”

A: “At first we were getting along. Goats don’t mind us that much, and they liked a helping hoof. But then those sons of mules on high started poking their nose into everything. Sent the Militia after us when we didn’t pay ‘rent’, as they called it. So we fought back.”

Q: “That’s how the Legion formed, right?”

A: “If Friendship won’t cut it, then we’ll do it the hard way. These bastards deserve to get kicked out.”

Q: “Right. So… what about the Royal Guard? What does High Strung want from them?”

A: “That’s what we came here to tell you. But apparently the captain doesn’t want to talk to us. What are you, his lackey, or something?”

Q: “I had nothing to do with that. I’m just a reporter for—”

A: “So that’s how it is. We finally try to make our nation proud, and they send the Guard over to lock us up like a bunch of crooks? What next, they’re taking us home for a time out?”

Q: “It’s just a misunderstanding, I’m sure.”

A: “Right. You sound just like those bleating bastards. ‘We burned your house down, but it’s all just a misunderstanding.’ You don’t get it. We’re fixing this place, with or without your help. And if you get in our way, we’ll stand our ground. Equestria was our birthplace, but this is our home now, and we’ll defend it no matter what.”

“No movement, Captain.”

“Thank you, Brand.” Shining Armor leaned against one of the wrecked cars on the road and stretched his forelegs. This close to the edge of the pony-controlled half of the city, a lot of the debris had not been cleared away yet, and some even got piled up on purpose as improvised roadblocks. The large buildings of the city center gave way to smaller apartments, the highest only five stories tall, concrete walls blending with the gray afternoon sky.

“With your permission, sir,” the lieutenant said. “You shouldn’t be here. This isn’t a secured area.”

“It’s not a warzone either,” Shining muttered. “I’ll be fine. Just needed a walk to clear my head.”

He glanced at the officer next to him, who stood firmly without moving a muscle, his hawk-like eyes unblinking as they tracked a couple of goats further down the street. His expression was as stony as ever, so Shining could not really gauge how Brand felt on the inside. Given the cold atmosphere lingering around the warhawk and his entire squad, he was not sure he wanted to either.

Following Brand’s gaze, he watched a middle-aged couple smack their children on their flanks to herd them back into their apartment. They cast a few glances at the guards nearby, but otherwise ignored the ponies’ presence. Still, Brand watched their every move until they were out of sight.

“Think they’re up to something?” Shining asked, half-jokingly.

“I don’t know, sir,” Brand replied. His tone was firm, hinting at suspicion rather than doubt.

Shining smirked, and was about to speak again when the familiar crackling of the speakers rang out all over the district.

“Good afternoon, fellow citizens of the mighty Gueldergrad. I am High Strung, your ever loyal servant and protector.”

“Oh great, not again.” He lifted his foreleg to bury his face in it. Brand did not move a muscle, though the air around him did feel a lot more tense.

“Unfortunately, today’s broadcast carries darker news than what I can usually offer. While the valiant fighters of the Legion continue to root out the corrupt thugs of the old regime, I have extended a welcoming hoof to our guests, urging them over and over again to join our struggle and bring harmony to this place once and for all.”

Rolling his eyes, Shining looked around, hoping to find something to focus on and reduce the speech to background noise. A group of guards were gathered around a unicorn with a rather frustrated look on his face. At first, the captain almost mistook him for an officer, since he was wearing one of their spare winter coats, but the face was unfamiliar.

“Who’s that?” Shining asked.

Brand glanced over as well. “A journalist. ‘Linebreak’, unless he faked the name. Found him talking to the prisoners, so we put him under watch, away from the headquarters.”

“Right… and the coat?”

“He was freezing. Soldier or not, we tend to our own.”

“Yet they have rejected it. My ambassadors are held captive, denied the freedom we promise everyone in the city. It pains me greatly, but the truth is undeniable: our visitors are not here to help. They are aggressors, just like the filth they collaborate with and shelter, while we suffer in the cold.”

A pair of guards emerged from a nearby apartment, one of them balancing something on their back. A hysterical doe barged out after them, showering curses and tossing a few hooffuls of trash. The captain watched as the soldier set down the box, revealing it to be a primitive radio. The doe just kept bleating and thrashing against the other guard, her eyes fixed on the device.

“Care to explain that?” Shining said, his tone now going serious.

“Searched a few houses nearby,” Brand said plainly. “Found at least three local families hiding speakers, and even some leaflets.”

“Suspicions or not, I didn’t give you permission to start harassing the locals, Lieutenant.”

The pegasus met his gaze. “I didn’t even mention the weapons we found, sir.”

“Friends, we all know what the aggressors deserve. Are you about to let someone take away what we have been fighting for? Are we to submit to our old captors when we were about to expel the new ones?”

“Weapons?” Shining tensed up, already on edge from High Strung’s new speech. “Where? How many?”

“No, my dear citizens. With aching hearts, but with firm resolve, if we must fight our brothers, we will do so to our last breath. We have done so before, and we will not hesitate now.”

I wrapped up four interviews in total before the guards tossed me out. I don’t really blame them, there’s not too much useful in here. These guys seem convinced they’re fighting to save the world or something. I guess it can give a bit of insight on that whole “High Strung” mess for any history buffs out there.

Didn’t get anything new about the local “flora” though, or whatever I should call the stuff. Ponies know even less, though they do mention seeing weird things. Power lines climbing up walls like vines. At first it sounded interesting, but this place is an electrician’s nightmare already, so they’re probably just exaggerating.

While the cold doesn’t get any worse, it just stays terrible all the time. My wardrobe won’t hold up at this rate. One of the officers gave me a spare coat they had. I’d be thanking him if he didn’t also assign a guard detail to me for “safety”. It was only a matter of time before they’d want me on a tight leash. They still let me write though, but I now look like some military inspector with the big coat on and these brutes around me.

Broadcast again. That’s the two things you get: cold, and the constant racket. High Strung is the reigning champion in mindless rhetoric compared to his lackeys. Gotta admit, he’s pretty convincing, and his cause sounds noble enough. Too bad all it takes is one look at this scrapheap for any sane pony to give up.

Strange. He’s a lot more aggressive this time. Trying to sound tough and scare us I guess. It’s been quiet all day though. We’re finally getting some sun too, clouds are breaking up. Makes the whole speech feel empty. Locals don’t look too hyped up either.

I’ll try and meet with the captain after all. Promise to burn my tapes or something if he just lets me go out and research the loc

The tail end of High Strung’s speech was cut off by a series of loud shouts from the far end of the street, followed by the sharp hiss and pop of a flare. The underside of the gray clouds was lit up by a bright red dot making an arc over the rooftops, while the street burst to life with dozens of figures emerging from around every corner, each one carrying firearms of various sizes.

The guards scrambled to ready their weapons when one of the figures leading the crowd aimed a long, tube-like device at them. Shining’s eyes widened when he heard a frantic shout, and he turned to see the journalist hold up his forelegs, waving frantically.

“Wait! Stop!” he screamed. “Don’t shoot! Press! Journalist! Don’t—”

The blast and shower of debris made Shining stagger back, and he quickly threw himself behind the wrecked car. Through the ringing in his ears, he could faintly hear the rattling of gunfire and bullets whizzing past.

“Take cover!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.

A cloud of dust and smoke washed over him from the first explosion, and the ground shook as the wall nearby was obliterated by the second. Everything bled together in a cacophony straight from Tartarus. Brand could be heard yelling at his troops to form up, and they crouched behind anything that could withstand the hail of bullets.

A knot formed in Shining’s gut when a sickening noise rose above the gunfire. He turned around and saw the guards caught in the initial blast staggering to their feet, their armor mangled and stained with blood. A figure among them thrashed on the ground desperately, gurgling as his forelegs tried to grab at his throat. A dark red stain formed around his neck, spurts of blood making it larger every second.

The sound he made sent a deep chill through the unicorn’s body. Despite the chaos, he could see and hear everything. The twisted face of the journalist. The sound of him choking on his own blood. His groans as he tried to grab the wound. Around him, goats were bleating and waving from the windows, cheering for the murderous group heading their way.

Shining’s teeth were aching. He did not even realize he had them clenched. Without a word, he lit his horn and burst from his cover, the purple shield he had raised wavering as dozens of bullets glanced off it. He winced from the strain on his horn and held his ground while Brand formed up with his troops behind him.

Something massive slammed into his barrier, and his cry of pain was drowned out by a thunderous boom. His legs shook, digging into the soil as he struggled to stay upright, and he growled as he willed himself to move. The smoke cleared, and he spotted the lead figure fumbling with his shoulder-mounted weapon. The captain sped up to a jog and got within a few yards before he dropped his shield and pounced straight at the attacker.

He heard a cry of surprise, and they tumbled to the ground. He quickly tried to pin the other’s legs down, but the bulky armor on his hooves was meant for bludgeoning, not grappling. Up close, he could see that his opponent was a pony. Dark brown eyes stared up at him, filled with an unnameable hatred. Shining could feel him try to reach for something.

Don’t do it.

His hind leg kept his opponent’s own pinned, and his knee brushed against a device on the insurgent’s hip. The pony was reaching for it.

Don’t do it!

Around them, he could hear his soldiers and the insurgents grunting and crying out in pain, gunfire mixing with the sounds of crossbows and magic discharges.

Don’t make me

The pony under his hooves bared his teeth, and Shining heard something click. He reared up, and his forelegs locked together, coming down as one, straight onto the pony’s snout. He heard a wet crack, and the body under him jerked. He came down again and again, smashing his armored forehooves into the mangled face until all movement ceased.

The captain gasped for breath and stumbled back, leaving bloody hoofprints, eyes fixed on the remains of the face. Bullets and rockets tore through the air around him. His ears ached as frantic voices screamed into his skull.

“This is Granite Two! Under heavy fire! Sir, what are our orders?”

“Onyx, this is Basalt Two! Be advised, we’re seeing large hostile forces heading your way!”

“Captain, they’re right on top of us! Permission to engage, or we’ll have to withdraw!”

His head felt light. The guard protects ponies. The desperate pleas for orders turned into a scream of white noise in his throbbing skull. What are we doing here? His eyes lost focus, and every inch of him shook as he felt something foul welling up inside him.

Why do you have to leave now, Shiny?

He lifted a hoof to his headset, and the radio went silent as he opened the command channel.

“Take them out.”

The gunfire stuttered and halted. All around, the insurgents were frozen in shock as the massive armored figures rushed toward them, shrugging off bullets and tearing through any unlucky enough to be in their path.

A soldier sprinted ahead and thrust his lance straight into a goat’s chest, the tip ripping through flesh and bone as it came out the other end. The momentum slammed the corpse against one of his comrades, which the same guard proceeded to crush under his hooves. Salvos of red and white hot beams sliced through the air, setting fire to body parts or vaporizing them entirely. Pegasi teams picked off those on the rooftops, either with a hail of bolts or by simply ramming them, sending them hurtling into the carnage below.

Moments after he gave the order, Shining galloped forward, everything around him becoming a blur as he aimed his horn at the nearest figure that did not look like a guard. The purple beam tore right through the goat’s midsection, leaving just enough air in his lungs to give a weak yelp. He dodged as a mare blindly swung her rifle’s butt at his head, and the unicorn grabbed his opponent with one hoof, while the other proceeded to shatter her bones one by one. The pony screamed, dropping as her forelegs were crushed, then went silent when the final blow came down on her throat.

He looked up from the body, taking deep breaths, the deafening roar still in his ears. Faintly, he could hear the insurgents bleating and shouting all around him. Some voices belonged to ponies, howling words that he could understand. In the distance, flares were sent up all over the city. Their bright red glow illuminated dozens of pegasi descending upon crowds below, tracer rounds zipping past them from all around. Fresh columns of smoke rose above the rooftops, and the steady drumming of gunfire and explosions drowned out every other sound.

“The coat.”

Shining could barely hear what Bonnie said. He did not reply. Linebreak’s body was right where he last saw it, splayed out on a pile of rubble. His forelegs were limp, one of them resting against his neck, near the spot where a large shard of metal had pierced his throat. His pale face was twisted into that of pure horror, mouth half-open, eyes wide, as if frozen in an inaudible scream.

“They… I think they mistook him for an officer.” The mare’s voice shook. “With all those guards around him…”

Behind them, guards were busy rounding up every civilian that had not escaped already, along with any insurgents that managed to surrender quickly enough. Many of the armored equines limped or had to be carried by their comrades. By some miracle, or perhaps twist of fate, not one of them had suffered a mortal wound.

Shining Armor slowly knelt next to the corpse. He raised an eyebrow, noticing the corners of white pages sticking out from under the coat Linebreak wore. Holding his breath, the captain reached in and retrieved a wrinkled notebook, the pages stained with dirt and fresh bloodstains.


He opened it slowly, and his eyes landed on the title of the first page.

Metal Weeds: A Scientific Analysis of Mythical Flora in The Frozen North

Novy Rubezh is the 18th regional autonomy to receive Equestrian aid.

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