• Published 8th Apr 2015
  • 1,084 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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Assault

Equestria has expanded its territory by 37% over the past five years.


“Captain Shining Armor? They will see you now.”

The stallion looked up, tearing his gaze away from the tiles arranged into mesmerizing patterns, and nodded at the mare standing by the open door. He stood up, adjusted his uniform, and took a deep breath before slowly making his way through the doorway and into the dimly-lit room. The door slid shut behind him as soon as he was through, shrouding everything around him in darkness.

In the dim haze, he could just barely make out a wide table in front of him. A light snapped on above, illuminating a spot in the center of the room, indicating where he was supposed to stand. His eyes narrowed as they struggled to adjust, while also trying to make out some of the blurry shapes in the shadows. He caught motion behind the table – ponies shifting in their seats and rubbing their chins as they stared at him silently.

He swallowed and firmly stood at attention. “Reporting as requested, sirs.”

There was a brief moment of silence, followed by the sound of papers being ruffled, and the figure directly in front of him spoke up. “Ah yes, Shining Armor. Glad you could join us.”

He nodded.

“Very punctual, even with the last minute change in the schedule,” the figure went on. “And if I remember correctly, the Crystal Empire is almost a day’s journey by rail.”

“I came as soon as I got your message, sir,” Shining replied.

“Indeed you did,” the figure said in a bemused tone. “Speaks volumes about your commitment, and we have yet to ask any questions. I do hope you appreciate us taking the time after you went through such lengths to speak to us.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your application for the mission had been rejected two times already. We had hoped this would communicate our opinion, but you instead threatened to use the princesses as leverage.”

His legs tensed up slightly. “I wanted to be given a fair chance, sir. It didn’t sound like you even looked at my—”

“Your contributions to fending off the changeling attack during your own wedding, as well as the King Sombra crisis,” a new voice said, coming from his right. Shining winced and hesitantly glanced over, barely making out a shape in the shadows. “We all read the newspapers, Shining Armor.”

The center figure glanced at the other speaker, then sighed and looked back at Shining. “The council decides who it will send to do a job on its own terms, Captain. It is not your position to question them. But since you went through all this trouble and forced us to spare time, please enlighten us. Why do you insist on being involved in this… ‘mission’, which may or may not even exist?”

“Sir, I… forgive me, but my motivations aren’t relevant. I am, however, the most qualified. If I’m not chosen, I at least want to know who is.”

“Quid pro quo, Captain. You insisted on an audience. We wish to to know who we are dealing with.”

He took a deep breath. “We’ve all seen the news. The city is in chaos, and we can’t ignore it now that ponies are involved. It’s only a matter of time before the public will demand action. I know there’s already a plan in place, and I believe the right pony should lead it.”

“The news? Captain, even after Novy Rubezh rose to prominence in our foreign affairs, our intelligence reports were two pages long at most. I know of journalists that have conjured up longer stories about the city in the tabloids. Even so, every word tells us it is an unpleasant place, to put it lightly. No offense to your intelligence, but you have no idea what you’re getting into.”

“With all due respect, the Royal Guard isn’t squeamish. Whatever happens, I’m sure we can get the job done, and done right.”

“You may want to differentiate between yourself and the Royal Guard, Captain,” the other voice spoke up again. “So far, you and your troops have a reputation for sitting by while others solve serious incidents for you. Your involvement does not equal to that of the Guard… and the same applies even more to the involvement of your sister.”

Despite every bit of his training for discipline screaming in his head, Shining could no longer stay silent. “Sir, she has nothing to do with this. I just—”

“We need to send experts, not those hoping to clean the dirt off their record by—”

The center figure raised a hoof, making them both fall silent. “Putting aside the flawed rhetoric… we have no doubts regarding your skills, Captain. Aside from these unfortunate ‘incidents,’ your record is indeed impeccable, and we’re certain you would perform well on this mission... were we to send you.”

The odd emphasis at the end made Shining frown slightly. “You don’t want to send me.”

For a moment, he could have sworn he caught the figures flashing grins. “That may be putting it too bluntly. But your proposal implies military action, or ‘peacekeeping’ if you prefer. Not something we can do on a whim.”

“And not something we can just send royalty to lead,” the other voice remarked. “Imagine what it might seem like to the rest of the world.”

“But if we accept that, then comes the issue with the region itself. This would not be just a flashy parade through Appleloosa, Captain, but a journey into uncharted and hostile territory. And no matter how highly you view your soldiers, there is a risk of failure, as with any assignment.

“It’s part of the job,” Shining replied firmly.

“Indeed. But if someone had to take the fall, we would prefer that it was not you. You’re an excellent officer, not to mention the leader of an important ally of Equestria.”

“You’re a prince, Shining Armor, if not king,” the other voice added. “Or, emperor, I presume?” A chill ran down Shining Armor’s spine as he could have sworn he heard the council chuckling. “We’ve heard rumors of an heir on the way. But there hasn’t been much progress in solidifying the political structure of the Crystal Empire, has there? And that is just two of the many problems that you and your wife have to be dealing with. Why you would want another piled upon your shoulders so eagerly?”

He gritted his teeth. “I’m worth no more or less than any soldier we’d send into the Frozen North. Many of them have children, many are husbands and wives, and they have relatives. Many should be at home and solving their own lives instead of putting it on the line for others. Why should I get to opt out?”

“This isn’t a matter of chivalry, Captain,” the lead voice said. “Nor is it about heroism, regardless of whose name it would improve in the eyes of the public. We need to send the right pony. One who will follow orders and carry them out. One who can adapt to the situation and make the right decisions for the benefit of all.”

“Then I am your pony. The Guard have been standing aside for too long. How long before everyone thinks Equestria is a pushover? If we don’t show that it’s not just six of our ponies who can get things done, what’s going to stop them from thinking the rest can be treated however they want?”

“And now we come back to those six again?” the voice on the right asked. “The other nations are not clueless, Shining Armor. They are bound to see the relation between you and her. By your logic, the best we can hope for is increasing that number of ‘capable ponies’ to seven. Still think you are the one for the job?”

“I concur.” This time, the lead voice did not come to his aid. “Are you sure there are no personal motives?”

Seconds ticked by in silence, and he realized it was not a rhetorical question. “I… pardon me, if I may…” His legs twitched as an odd, ugly sensation coursed through his nerves. The conversation had led to a trap, and he was letting them spring it. “I owe it to them. To her. At the very least I owe them this much… and the same goes for my country.”

He could almost feel the council’s gaze piercing him, waiting for him to speak the words. He had exposed his neck, and on his call, they could sink their teeth in. “I intend to pay my debt, no matter the cost.”

The figure at the center raised his hoof again, and Shining held his breath. The ponies behind the table turned to each other, murmuring and nodding their heads at him several times. He heard the ruffling of pages, and all eyes fixed on him once more.

“Very well, Shining Armor. The council has acknowledged your proposal. Please wait outside until we make our decision.”

He nodded and turned around, squinting as the receptionist opened the door, allowing light from outside to flood one half of the dimly lit room. There was a clear tension in his gait as he walked outside, and he had trouble breathing properly from a constant, almost painful pressure on his chest. He sat down on the bench and hung his head, giving a deep sigh.

“Why did they say ‘proposal’ though?” he thought. “Wasn’t this what they always wanted?”

Minutes ticked by, and his limbs got more and more restless, needing all of his discipline to remain still. He only got up a few times, walking back and forth along the corridor, after which he would sit back down and stare at the doors. After what felt like hours, it creaked open once more, and the receptionist beckoned him inside.

He took up the same position as before, standing tall as he stared down the ponies lurking in the shadows. The two he had conversed with no longer spoke. Instead, a third figure on the left cleared her throat.

“You are to report to Fillydelphia tomorrow with a guard detail of your choosing. One brigade size. Three transport ships are arranged to carry you to Novy Rubezh. You are to oversee preparations, followed by the operation which will be detailed in full on site. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He heard the ruffling of pages. “You are to travel to Gueldergrad, occupy the city, and begin peacekeeping operations until the region is fully stabilized. The safety of the equine population has top priority. Casualties are acceptable, but preferably minimal. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.” His voice showed no tension this time. Orders were easier to deal with than politics and negotiation.

The mare glanced to the centre figure and nodded. The stallion looked through his own papers and hummed. “You are aware of standard procedure in case you find… anomalies in your cargo roster?”

Shining blinked and gave a curt nod. “Yes, sir. I must report it immediately.”

“Well, I’m sure we can ignore protocol in case of a small error. No need to clog up the whole bureaucratic system over a simple misprint. Wouldn’t you agree?”

His jaw dropped for a fraction of a second, and he shifted on his legs uncomfortably. The Council’s eyes bored into him.

“Captain?”


“Captain?”

Shining Armor blinked, the voices coming through his earpiece fading from his focus, turning into a drone in the background as he stared at the flickering lights of the radio set in front of him. His eyes were reflected in the glass over the frequency dial, staring right back at him.

In those eyes, he could see himself, just like yesterday. A face of rage and desperation staring back at him from a pair of mirrors, mere moments before his hooves came down to crush them.

They had pushed back the insurgents, though at a cost. Dozens of guards were seriously injured, some of them still in critical condition. As for their opponents, while the guards held back to wait for their orders, the insurgents exchanged caution for bravery. With great enthusiasm, they emerged from cover and advanced, and were thus left exposed when the soldiers were finally unleashed.

The Botva were lowlifes that only cared about themselves. If the fight was not against the weak and helpless, they would rout at the first sign of trouble. High Strung’s “Legion”, as they came to be known, was far more committed to its cause. Their efforts were fueled by a selfless goal that they valued above their own lives. But their devotion aside, most of them were still just farmers and laborers willing to put up a fight. None of them could match the strength and skill of trained soldiers, whose only weakness until now had been their restraint.

It was more of a slaughter than an actual battle. The Legion’s bravery only served to keep them from retreating in time, allowing the guards to overrun and cut them down by the dozens. Some officers reported that High Strung himself had to announce to his troops to fall back and dig in.

While Shining knew he had even taken part in the melee itself, he could not remember any part of it. Whenever he thought back, all he could see was a red haze and a loud roar in his ears. His pulse and breathing picked up the pace, and his limbs tensed up, until he shook his head and focused his mind on something else.

“Captain? Sir, do you copy?” He could faintly hear the officer on the other end ask his radio operator if there was something wrong with the channel. “HQ, is anyone there?”

“Uh… roger that,” he blurted out. “Proceed to waypoint Delta. Keep it quiet. Command out.”

Shining huffed and leaned back from the desk, putting down the mic. Shaking his head, he stumbled back to his table and looked over the map of the city, crossing out another one of the circled areas. After the blurry memories of close combat, he recalled having to radio his forces to stand down, lest their rampage spread them across the entire city, where they could be surrounded and wiped out. Even so, the Guard had pushed rather deep into the Legion-held parts of the city yesterday, and he had spent all night making sure they could solidify the new front lines.

His ears twitched as he heard the door across the room click and swing open. Shining stifled a yawn and looked up to see Setterline trudge in, giving a lazy nod at the other officers in the room as he passed by. His eyes followed the faint trail of bloody hoofprints leading back toward Shining’s table, then off to the side where his scorched and battered armor lay in a pile.

“You alright?” he asked.

“Yeah… I’ll live.”

“Good.”

Shining could see the tension in his friend’s gait, and the bitterness in his tone nearly made him wince, especially when the obligatory response slipped out.

“And you?”

Setter hung his head and gave a frustrated sigh. “Never been better.”

Shining narrowed his eyes, following Setter’s gaze down to his legs, where the captain noticed faint bloodstains all over the medic’s hooves. No doubt he was too exhausted to clean himself properly.

“How bad?” Shining asked.

“They’ll all make it,” Setter replied with another sigh. “It seems the Guard are made of tough stuff after all. The shiners in particular. Good thing we got some practice on the bleaters too.”

Shining nodded silently, ears twitching when Setter gave a cold laugh.

“Funny, isn’t it?” he went on. “Having such close anatomies, yet we think we’re so different?” He lifted a hoof to rub his forehead. “Well, if guns are easy to handle, I hope we don’t ever go up against unicorns.”

“What do you mean?”

“Those… Legionnaires, or whatever you call them? They weren’t so lucky… even when fire spells are nice enough to cauterize the wounds they cause. And as it turns out, living in this frozen wasteland doesn’t make you immune to frost magic… or giant rocks flying at you with the speed of a Wonderbolt.”

“Right…” The captain let out the breath he had unconsciously been holding. “Good work. Thank you.”

“A pleasure, sir.” Setterline approached the table and glanced at the maps. “So what next?”

“I’m working on it.” Shining nodded his head at the technicians working with the radio equipment nearby. “Been tracking High Strung’s broadcasts all night, trying to triangulate his position. We need to get to the heart of this insurgency and take it out, before it blows up the entire region.”

Setter nodded. “Uh-huh… What’s left of it.”

Shining’s hooves tensed up, and he struggled to keep his voice calm. “We didn’t start this,” he growled. “The insurgents did.”

“They’re not insurgents. They’re criminals.”

Shining blinked and looked up from the map, staring in shock at his friend.

“They attacked us,” Setter went on, his tone showing disgust. “Without warning. Without any provocation on our part.”

“I… yeah, but… didn’t you say—”

“They’ve been at war with the local government, which was a den of parasites. We can’t judge them for that. But when we arrived, we didn’t shoot first. We may have locked away their messengers, but we didn’t hurt them.”

“Yeah…” Shining looked back at the map, eyes tracing the lines drawn between the various sectors now under the control of his troops, and the areas of the city collectively labeled ‘HOSTILE TERRITORY’. “I can’t even imagine what’s gotten into them. We did everything we could to not come across as a threat. We cleaned out… what, a dozen Botva hideouts?”

“That we did,” Setter replied half-heartedly.

The captain shook his head. “This makes no damn sense. We offered a hoof of friendship the whole time. What do they hope to accomplish by starting a war with us?”

It was Setter’s turn to remain silent. The two of them stared at the map for a while, until eventually Shining leaned back, rubbed his eyes, and gave a long yawn.

“So… what do you think?” he asked.

“We should leave,” Setter replied almost immediately. “As soon as we can.”

Shining’s eyes widened. “Leave? Now? We barely just arrived.”

“Ponies fought against ponies, Shining. They died. The same ponies we came here to protect.”

“We don’t protect those who open fire on us for no reason. My mission is to protect those who these criminals, as you call them, are putting in danger.”

“This ‘just cause’ of ours won’t last.” Setter placed his hoof on Shining’s shoulder. “Look, we can quit while we’re ahead. Just pack up, put everyone who is willing on the boats, and go home. Nopony will think less of us.”

“Don’t you get it?” Shining gritted his teeth and pulled away. “We can’t leave. We’re supposed to be here. If we quit now, this whole region will fall apart. A lot more ponies will die, and who knows what else it might set in motion.”

The medic narrowed his eyes. “So that’s how it is, huh? We’re staying until the bitter end?”

“If that’s what it takes, then yeah. We are.”

“And what end will that be? What kind of victory do you expect here?”

“We find this High Strung bastard and make him answer for his crimes.”

“And our own?”

Shining took a step closer, almost nose to nose with his friend. His gaze looked like it could rip right through the pegasus, yet Setter remained firmly in place. “You’re not the only one with a conscience around here, Lieutenant Setterline,” he growled. “No need to keep reminding me.”

With that, he turned away and approached the comm station again, picking up the headset. Setter grimaced, his clenched teeth showing for a moment, and his limbs trembled slightly before he shook his head and stormed out of the room. Shining pretended not to even notice as he put the headphones over his ears.

“...my warriors continue the struggle, even as their old home, their old friends, come to attack them. The faith of the Legion is stronger than ever. And why should it not be? This is their new home, and the injustice they suffered in Equestria will haunt them no more.”

With an annoyed grunt, Shining removed the headset and turned to the technician next to him. “Corporal? I’m tuned into the command channel, right?”

The stallion blinked and leaned over, checking the dials on the device, and he gave a hesitant nod. “Yes sir.”

“Then what the hay is this?” Shining said. He gave the headset to the technician. “I thought we had this problem fixed already.”

The stallion listened into the earpiece. “Sir?”

“I can still hear him,” Shining said. When the technician just blinked in confusion, the captain’s frown deepened. “High Strung.”

“Oh…” The technician tapped his own headset and fiddled with the knobs on the radio. “I’ll… check it again, sir.”

“Thank you,” Shining muttered. Putting the earpiece back in place, he cleared his throat and pressed the button to speak. “Granite Two and Four, report.”


My attempts to identify this mysterious flora (if it is even a living part of the ecosystem) began with the analysis of local documents, as well as folklore. Cross-referencing these could provide enough clues to determine whether we are talking about a creature of some kind, or some other phenomenon mistaken as that of a life form.

A capric folk tale dating back for centuries speaks of Zhelesad, a goat who was obsessed with planting trees into the frozen, inhospitable lands of the North. After many of his experiments failed, he planted what appeared to be saplings made of metal, and when neither water nor sunlight would make them grow, he fed them his own blood. Their roots began to spread, their trunks grew higher and higher, and their branches reached far and wide. But their hunger grew as fast as their size, and Zhelesad could no longer quench their thirst, as he wanted to see his garden in its full bloom. Goats from nearby villages began to disappear, and many claimed to have seen the crazy gardener stalking them at night, beckoning them to come and visit his ‘masterpiece’. Those who did would never return. In the end, with most of his blood and sanity drained, Zhelesad offered himself as the final meal, just before the family and friends of his victims could reach him to get vengeance. It is said that the trees burrowed straight into the ground right after they devoured him, leaving no trace of the cursed garden, though many who walked through it afterward claimed to hear the whispers of the lunatic and the creaking of metal branches in the wind.

Some evidence suggests that these stories were a form of public outcry in response to the ever increasing rate of industrialization Novy Rubezh went through. Around the time Equestria was still relying on squadrons of ex-military pegasi for weather control, the caprics had already developed elaborate steam machinery fueled by coal to help them survive in the harsh Frozen North. This is difficult to confirm, however, due to the severe shortage of written records, as many of the capric regimes in the region have worked to erase such “rebellious material” from public memory. The story itself is pieced together from multiple fragments that I’ve managed to gather and compare.

The main reason I would consider this worthy of analysis is simple - I doubt the goats were advanced enough to have means of survival outside industrialization, nor were they ignorant enough to oppose it. There has to be more to the origin of this tale. That, or the goats really were stubborn enough to survive without technology for generations, letting them make up cautionary tales about the machines that could turn these cold wastes into gold.

Shining Armor sighed and closed the notebook, then opened it back up to glance at a smudge on the bottom of the page. It was dull brown, yet the faint smell emitting from it did not resemble mud. Looking away, he closed the book and put it back into his saddle bags lying nearby, after which he took a deep breath and made his way toward the double doors ahead. A gentle nudge was enough to make the flimsy construction open up, the rusty hinges giving a sharp squeal.

Stepping inside, he found himself before a loose semicircle of chairs that had been brought over from the adjacent rooms, a pony seated in each one. In the dim light from the windows behind him, he could see that the majority were hunched over, resting their heads on their forelegs or rubbing their eyes, giving long yawns or chatting with each other, not seeming to notice or care about the presence of their commander. Given the dark haze and the scarce movement, as Shining looked at them, he could almost believe the ponies were all asleep.

Or dead...

He frowned slightly and lit his horn, encasing the rope that controlled the blinds in his purple aura. The mechanism gave a soft whine as the canvas lifted, bathing the chamber in the full morning light from outside and making the assembled ponies groan in response. Each one had circles under their eyes and wore expressions of varying degrees of bitterness as they all fell silent, fixing their gaze on the captain.

“Good morning, fillies and gentlecolts,” he began. Despite the almost playful choice of words, there was no humor in his tone. He was well aware that trying to get chummy with his troops after keeping them – and himself – awake all night would not earn him a hint of respect or sympathy. “Before we begin, I’ll need a quick status report from all squad leaders. Do you have everyone and everything in place?”

One by one, the lieutenants gave their brief reports. Everyone was accounted for, every soldier where he had directed them to be, and they were standing by for further orders. Shining then glanced at Bonnie, who was standing to his right and doing her best not to be noticed, despite the ethereal glow emitting from her body.

“Morale?” he asked.

She hesitated for a few moments. “My ponies are… battle ready, sir, and the reports I got from the squad leaders show no insubordination.” Eyes alternating between the grumpy audience and her superior. “Just… everyone’s a bit tense after what happened.”

“Understood, thank you.” Shining turned back to the others. “Sorry to say, but our work from last night is far from done, and we’ll be needing everyone to put in some legwork.” No further complaints came, and everyone sat up straight, eyes and ears peeled. Though they did not seem delighted, there was a job to be done, and doing it well demanded their attention.

The captain focused his magic once more and projected an image of his map in mid-air. The colors provided a clear contrast between the parts of the city controlled by the Guard and the Legion. “As you are all aware, we’ve been attacked on almost every front yesterday.” Bright dots highlighted dozens of spots along the border between the two regions. “The insurgents took heavy losses and got pushed back, allowing us to advance deep into their territories.”

As he spoke, the bright blue region indicating the areas under the Royal Guard’s control expanded, consuming several districts formerly under the red coloration of the Legion’s influence. Within moments, nearly half of the city had been wrestled away from the insurgents, most of the fronts now running along the winding Pergol River that bisected the city. Few of the Guard’s advances have crossed it, and despite the large gains, no one in the room seemed in the mood to celebrate.

“Our progress was virtually uncontested, but it’s not like the Legion was trying to put up a fight. Outside of a few pockets of resistance, they pretty much gave these areas away, pulling out as soon as we pressed our attack.” Shining’s frown deepened. “So far, they haven’t surrendered any vital assets to us… and every territory we gained, our forces just got spread more and more thin.”

The tension in the air was replaced by a more subtle, yet unpleasant weight. Everypony stared at the map, their eyes seeking out the districts held by their own troops, silently wondering whose position the Legion would find the most ideal to strike at. Shining was in no mood to hand out any false hope. “We can’t be sure how strong they really are, but considering the game they’ve played so far, it’s only a matter of time before they hit us again. That leaves us with two options – draw them into an open engagement in force and gain a decisive victory, or find something vital to them and take it out.”

Cut off the head of the snake, and the body dies, he thought.

“Over the last few days, we’ve been using their leader’s transmissions to triangulate their source, tracing it to the old industrial district.” A portion of the map was highlighted, and the image zoomed in to show a specific structure well within the Legion-held territories. “Our forward scouts sent into the area have confirmed that this building plays a central role in their activities. From what we’ve gathered, this is a power plant and hub for the city’s power grid, pretty much responsible for keeping the lights on for most of the city.”

A blurry image of the structure was projected next to the map, showing the bulky concrete giant with a tall metal spire at the center.

“And there’s more,” Shining went on. He pointed at the spire. “Apparently, High Strung and his followers have modified it to have an additional function: radio relay. This tower, as well as any underground cables he has control of, allows him to broadcast into every corner of this city, not to mention the entire region. This is our target.”

One of the officers raised his hoof, and when Shining nodded, he pointed at the picture. “Is he there too?”

The captain shrugged. “We can’t know for sure, though there’s a good chance he will be. Given his image, he’s likely to pick a place that stands out. And even if he won’t show up, we can just turn the lights out on any other assets he has left.”

A few of the officers exchanged glances, not all of which were confident. Shining cleared his throat to turn their attention back to him. “Since we don’t know what exactly we’re up against, we can’t make a direct assault. A deep strike might work, but there’s a high risk of the squads getting cut off, so it’s our backup plan at best.” He highlighted a section of the front between the two factions. “The plan is this: we break through their lines here, pushing as deep as we can. If they slow us down, a small team will infiltrate their territory, make their way to the power plant, and take it out.”

Glowing arrows appeared on the map for emphasis, penetrating the border between the territories to indicate the lines of attack against the Legion’s positions. A closer look revealed each arrow to be labeled according to the Guard sections they represented, which let each officer know where their ponies would have to attack.

“Once we’ve broken through, all forces are to attack on every front,” Shining went on. “You need to keep their forces tied up while we get the job done. Keep the lines organized. I don’t want anyone pushing too far and getting cut off. Questions?”

Coalcutter, having been squirming in his seat nervously until now, almost immediately raised his hoof. “Who will be leading the team?”

Shining raised an eyebrow as he stared at the stallion, and a smile tugged on his lips. “I will.” Intense murmuring was set off among the audience, but he stomped his hoof to keep them quiet. “And Lieutenant Boninite will accompany me… as well as you, Coalcutter.”

The stallion’s eyes widened, and he leaned back in his chair. “Me, sir?”

Shining nodded. “I’ll need a pony on point. Someone who knows Capric and is good with urban environments.”

The lieutenant gulped and returned the nod, breaking eye contact with his superior and fixing his gaze on the floor. “I’ll… do my best, sir.”

“Glad I could count on you.” The captain offered a reassuring smile – a rare display that morning. “Anyone else?”

After a few moments of silence and a motionless audience, Lieutenant Osprey raised his hoof. Tension built in Shining’s limbs, as the officer in charge of the recon teams could have only one current pressing issue on his mind.

“Yes?”

“Any word on Basalt Five?” Osprey asked.

Shining bit his tongue, delaying for a few moments, then shook his head. “Not yet. We’re still trying to contact them, but it’s possible the weather damaged their equipment.”

“Sir… with all due respect, I know Gregale and his squad. They’d have come back by now, through any hail or wind. Maybe the enemy found a way to jam their—”

Shining cut him off. “As soon as we find anything, you’ll be the first to know. For now, focus on your mission.” He kept Osprey silent with a stern look. “Anyone else?”

When nopony replied, he shut off the spell that projected the images in mid-air, then turned around and approached the large windows of the meeting room, staring at the view of the city. Fresh columns of black smoke could be seen rising above the rooftops, along with the flickering of the occasional flames among smoldering ruins. These were the remnants of last night’s violent clash, and the fires had yet to be put out, except few were free and courageous enough to tend to them.

“Dismissed,” he said.

The chairs ground against the concrete floors, as proper tiling never got installed in the half-finished building, and one by one, the exhausted officers filed out of the room. Shining closed his eyes and exhaled, doing his best to not even think about what awaited them. Moments later, he blinked as he heard hoofsteps approaching him instead of leaving out the doors.

Setter came to a halt behind him and cleared his throat. “Captain, I formally request that I accompany you on your mission.”

Shining gave a long sigh and turned around. “I formally request you cut out the formalities. Gonna drive me nuts if I can’t talk normally to anyone.” He rubbed his forehead. “Look… I know you’re not happy about all this, but… we’ll just have to deal with that later. I need your commitment, same as everypony else.”

The medic nodded curtly. “Fair enough. The question still stands though.”

“Right.” Shining lowered his hoof and looked his friend in the eyes. “Why do you want to come?”

“You will need an interpreter. Coalcutter knows some Capric, but just barely.” Setter walked up to the window to gaze at the damaged skyline. In spite of the violence yesterday, on top of decades of destructive conflict, the steel and concrete giants dotting the city wore their old and new scars with pride, and they stubbornly refused to crumble. “And you’ll need a medic too. Both the commander and the executive officer of this entire force are going off on a mission deep behind enemy lines. Someone should be there to keep them alive.”

“I understand.” Shining lit his horn and tugged on the strings to close the blinds, returning the room to the dim haze from before the meeting. “Request denied.”

Setter wheeled around, pausing for a moment with his mouth open as he held back his suddenly rising temper. “Why?” he said in a low voice.

“You said it yourself. Both the second-in-command and I are off on this ‘quest’, and I’d rather not risk the life of the chief MO as well.”

The medic frowned. “I’m not the only one who can handle a scalpel. Think my life is worth more than theirs?”

“If things go south for us, having a medic won’t make a difference.” Shining made his way toward the door. “I need you back here a lot more.”

Setter looked away and nodded slowly. “Very well, sir.

“Good. Thank you.” The captain paused next to the doorway and held the rusty door open for his friend. “Shall we?”

Without replying, Setterline made his way out of the room. “Cut off the head of the snake,” he remarked along the way, “and you’re still stuck in his pit.”

Shining stared after him, mouth half-open as he struggled to think of what he could reply. Nothing came, and he cursed under his breath as he watched his friend round a corner and disappear from view. The captain used his hind leg to slam the door shut, and he hurried back to the command center, desperate to escape the bitterness that lingered in the dark room.


A pale yellow sun rose sluggishly over the rooftops, the occasional puffs of black smoke dimming it for a moment as the morning breeze kept nudging the tall, dark pillars. An eerie silence hung over the city, with none of the goats emerging from their homes to go about their daily routine, as though some extra sense told them what was about to pass, and that they should stay in the relative safety of the battered structures. Those more observant would realize that no such ethereal power was at work – the goats simply knew when and when not to come out, having experienced war and civil unrest countless times before.

Even so, the stillness of the city was chilling for those who did dare venture outside, especially those who had plans to enact that day. Plans that now felt like they had failed to remain a secret, and everyone around them was onto their scheming. They held their breath, glanced at their watch, and turned their gaze to the icy, steel-colored water of the Pergol River just below, a sickly twin of the sun above forming on its wavering surface. The shadow of the Ledoviy bridge shrunk slowly as the glowing orb ascended, sunlight poking through the numerous holes torn through its deck.

At precisely 7 AM, Oriental Daylight Time, a bolt of purple light shot above the rooftops on the southern bank, and dozens of figures ascended from between the buildings further back. They arranged themselves into a wide formation, at first rising to dizzying heights, then suddenly going into a steep dive, rapidly gaining velocity as they neared the ground. Mere seconds before impact, they pulled up, zooming above the winding river at breakneck speed. A loud boom rang out, and the misty air around the figures exploded outward as they broke the sound barrier, cutting swathes in the surface of the water in their wake.

Large waves crashed against the far bank as the pegasi reached it in the blink of an eye, now passing over the first of the buildings. Their remaining windows shattered violently, the airborne shards glinting in the morning light as they showered onto the streets, and the structures all rattled from the powerful shockwave.

“Pyroclast, start the barrage. Quartz One and Two, stand by.”

A grim voice came through Shining’s earpiece. “Roger that, Captain. Initiating bombardment.”

A low, rising hum started up behind the city blocks lining the south bank, followed by a series of bright flashes, reflecting off the dull clouds overhead. Shining could feel faint tremors pass through the ground, and his ears twitched as haunting shrieks passed above, like a morbid echo of the pegasi teams. He glanced up to see a dozen comets with red tails, trailing black smoke as they hurtled above the river. They crashed into the buildings lining the bank, the hard outer shell of each comet lasting just long enough to tear through the walls before the superheated interior detonated. Several of the buildings had their faces torn off, while others collapsed entirely. A second volley followed, decimating the survivors and taking a toll on the blocks further in.

“All units, green light!”

The engineers were the first to rush to the shore, dozens of regular troops close behind. The front line held their spears and halberds at the ready, while those further back primed their crossbows, the crystalline tips of the bolts emitting a faint light. The two Quartz teams lit their horns in unison, and a pair of glowing pathways appeared on either side of the crumbling bridge. Once the light solidified, the troops double timed it across the river, keeping a generous distance between squads to avoid getting bunched up in case of an ambush. Once on the other side, the ponies fanned out, checking the ruined buildings and the side streets for any presence.

“Clear!” yelled one of the sergeants after inspecting a half-collapsed apartment. Other squad leaders echoed him shortly afterward, and by the time the last squad made it across, the entire bridgehead was declared to be secured. Shining let out a sigh of relief. From the looks of it, all the civilians had the wits to leave after the pegasi made their pass, and thus were not caught in the bombardment.

Or maybe they left even earlier? he thought.

Another flight of pegasi passed overhead at high altitude, and in the distance, they could see the other squadrons making passes along the frontline, followed by a chorus of dull booms. Shining frowned slightly as he recognized the sound of his other artillery squads, but no return fire of any kind. Background noise aside, an eerie silence dominated the district as the Guard formed up.

“Granite One, lead the way,” he said over the radio. “Two through Four trailing behind, Five keeps this bridgehead secure. Basalt Three, eyes open up there.”

“Roger that, Captain.”

The first Granite squad marched down the wide street that continued right off the bridge and through the city, another two trailing behind, while the rest of the troops would advance on their flanks using the parallel streets. As soon as the engineers reported that everyone had made it across the light bridges, they got to work on patching up the Ledoviy, while Shining ordered the rest of the squads to follow Granite’s lead.

The squad up front progressed nearly six blocks without any incident, the eerie silence taking over completely as the bombardment ceased across the city. All Shining could hear was dull hoofsteps, the faint rattling of the Guard’s equipment, and the occasional cough or grunt. The road was littered with broken glass and chunks of debris, adding to the junk and disrepair that had piled up over decades. In almost every corner, the ponies could see tents, hovels, vendor stands, and even fireplaces that had been hastily abandoned, judging by the flames still winking in them. Judging by these signs, the place was certainly alive, though hardly in the manner a normal downtown street should have been. With all the barricades and other obstacles in the way, road traffic alone would be an absolute nightmare.

Despite all that, Shining could not help but notice that, compared to the other streets he had seen so far, this one could almost be considered “clean.” There were no buildings half-collapsed onto the road, no wreckages left to rot in the middle of the street, and there were even signs of obstacles having been recently cleared, almost as if—

Wait…

A sharp whine rang out, echoing off the walls of the surrounding buildings, making the ponies wince and fold their ears.

“Good morning, members of the Royal Guard. I am delighted to welcome you to our humble, yet delightful residences here in Gueldergrad. Please make yourselves at home. My welcoming committee will be with you shortly.”

An ominous, rapidly rising melody began to play through what Shining assumed was a powerful loudspeaker somewhere nearby. With the walls reflecting the sound from all directions, however, there was no way to locate the source.

“Basalt Three,” he whispered into his headset. “Where is that coming fro—”

Without warning, gunfire erupted from almost every window and corner up ahead, less than a block away from where Granite One was standing, almost fully exposed. The lead pony twitched and fell to his knees, blood trickling out of his neck, and his body jerked as additional rounds struck him. His comrades scrambled for cover, two more of them stumbling along the way as the Legion’s bullets hit their mark. There was a sharp whistle, followed by a loud boom as a rocket hit the sidewalk, knocking the survivors off their hooves. One of them did not get back up to follow the others into the safety of a nearby alley.

“Disperse!” Shining roared. “Take cover and return fire!” Gritting his teeth, he lit his horn and eyed the smoke trail left by the rocket, tracing it back to a goat on a balcony who was hastily reloading his launcher. He bleated in surprise as a spot of purple light appeared on the wall next to him. Moments later, a wide, bright orange beam tore across the street from the bridgehead and struck the exact same spot, and the balcony vanished in an explosion that tore a large chunk out of the entire floor of the building.

Meanwhile, the rest of the troops scrambled to follow Shining’s orders, their horns and crossbows spraying the buildings up ahead. The Legion was favored by elevation, however, and the barren street offered little to no cover for the ponies. In the heat of the moment, Granite Two actually tried to advance first, aiming for another alley ahead that could shield them from incoming fire completely.

The moment they began to move, Shining noticed some commotion on a corner up ahead. A half-dozen insurgents dragged what looked like a large cart out of one of the ruined buildings, fiddling with its mechanisms as they set it up. At first, he could not even imagine it to be a weapon, but his blood ran cold when he noticed the silhouette of a large barrel aiming right at the guards rushing for the alley.

“No!” Time seemed to slow as he turned to look at the squad, noticing how a few of the ponies had paused, staring at the large device in confusion. “Granite Two, pull back right now!”

The staccato of gunfire was drowned out by a slow, powerful thudding that made the air itself vibrate. Shining watched in horror as the large calibre rounds tore into the guards, throwing up plumes of dust as they tore hoof-sized holes out of concrete, steel, and flesh alike. One particularly unfortunate stallion’s head disappeared in a cloud of red vapor. Another cried out and fell over as he ran, his front leg torn in half. He continued to wail desperately as he tried to crawl the rest of the way into the alley.

“Celestia help us...” The captain quickly lit his horn again and pointed it at the gun emplacement. His heart pounded in his ears as he watched them turn the barrel, pointing it at the next exposed clump of ponies. A macabre beat joined the music coming from the speakers, making his skin crawl as the rhythm of the two nearly matched, and a choir of screaming guards answered.

“Tephra, why aren’t you firing? We need that gun taken out!”

“We can’t get a good shot from here, Captain. Would have to redeploy.”

“Fuck!” He leaped behind the nearest pile of junk and debris, as the gun crew had apparently noticed what he was up to and lined up on him. The loud thudding rang out again, and he curled up tight as he felt the heavy rounds rip through his cover like so many wads of paper.

The guards responded with a hail of magic and crossbow fire, briefly drowning the corner in small, multicolored explosions and smoke, but the crew were well entrenched, and the bulky device was too massive to be taken out by small arms. Every squad that fired on it merely painted itself as the next target and soon had to duck for cover.

“Captain, that gun is chewing us up!” Granite Two yelled over the radio. “What are our orders?”

“Hold position!” Shining used the brief respite to scramble for better cover. He rammed through the door of the nearest apartment and tumbled inside, mere moments before the heavy weapon tore up the doorway. “Onyx Omega, now’s your time to shine.” Before he could cringe at the accidental pun, he gathered all of his frustration into his next words. “I need that gun dead!

“Yes sir. Beginning tactical advance.”

As the smoke and dust settled near the doorway, he could see a group of guards emerge from cover and slowly march down the street in a wedge formation, their steps appearing quite weighty, almost sluggish. The gun immediately turned to open up on them, but while the heavy rounds hit their mark, none of the troops fell, or even faltered. Large holes were torn in their cloaks, revealing their brightly glowing bodies underneath, the light pulsing faintly to an identical rhythm between them. Shining watched in fascination as a round struck Sergeant Lazurite’s chest, making him pause briefly at the tip of the spearhead, a fresh scar across his shoulder where the bullet glanced off.

The goats operating the cannon yelled to their comrades, and the insurgents throughout the street opened up on the squad as well. Dozens of smaller bullets pinged off their bodies, and Shining noticed them wince and stumble a few times, their glow beginning to waver. Cursing under his breath, he lit his horn and ran out from his cover, projecting a large shield over their heads while he ran from cover to cover behind them. His head throbbed as his magic struggled to absorb the hail of gunfire, and despite the added protection, the tactical squad could not advance much faster, having to move in perfect unison and focus their power to avoid being ripped apart.

“Obsidian!” Shining yelled into his mic. ”We need air support! Give us some room to breathe!” He bit his tongue as one of the crystal ponies grunted, a direct hit carving a small chunk out of his neck. In spite of the wound, the crystallite carried on without pause, and Shining had to will himself to look away from the dull blue rock that landed amongst the rubble, its glow having faded.

“Roger that. We’re making our pass.” Groups of pegasi approached from the bridgehead, flying low over the rooftops and readying their crossbows. Their barding was more robust than the light armor of the Basalt scout squads, and their armaments were more extensive, composed of assault crossbows, hoofclaws, and explosives. The added weight meant they could not fly nearly as fast, making them somewhat more vulnerable, but they had the ordnance to carry out powerful strafing runs.

“Everypony stay low!” Shining yelled at the other squads, while Onyx pushed forward relentlessly. The gun up ahead paused, having to reload after firing non-stop at the adversary that seemed to shrug them off. Obsidian swooped in low, unleashing a hail of bolts at the windows looking over the street from either side.

The Legion’s gunfire died down, only to be taken over from elsewhere the moment Obsidian pulled up from between the buildings. Tracer rounds zoomed up from either side of the street and zipped past the pegasi. Two of them jerked oddly and dropped out of the sky, while the rest quickly broke off to engage the new threats.

“This is Basalt Three. I’m seeing multiple guns set up on the rooftops. Coordinates are…”

The cleverly placed gunners waited for Obsidian to enter the gauntlet before opening up from both sides, filling the air above the street with bullets. Their positions were over a block away, so the ground troops could not hope to reach them without scattering. Like the squads caught in the open below, it was the pegasi’s turn to be left with no cover, yet they could not withdraw while those on the ground needed their aid.

Obsidian Four, pull up! That approach is too hot. Almost lost another bird back there.

“Dammit! Basalt, are you going to mark them for the arty or what?”

“This is Pyroclast, roger that Basalt Three. All flight teams, be advised: incoming high-explosive ordnance. Clear the air above sectors...”

The rest of his voice was drowned out by the screeching comets trailing overhead once more, this time aiming for the areas surrounding the street. While the emplacements had managed to surprise the pegasi, they have also exposed their positions, and the rooftops provided little cover.

“Yes!” Shining grinned, feeling a victorious rush in his veins. A pair of unicorns joined him from either side, their horns projecting additional energy into his shield, which helped relieve the strain and allowed them to advance faster. Moments later, he froze, ears twitching as a sharp whistling noise joined the chorus played by Pyroclast’s shells. He looked up, just in time to see a pair of projectiles the size of his foreleg hurtle from the sky.

“Cover!” he cried out and threw himself to the ground. The rounds exploded less than a dozen yards away, the shockwave rattling his teeth, and the entire world disappeared under a dull whine in his ears. Chunks of asphalt and metal rained down, glancing off his armor, and clouds of dust obscured his vision.

“Where the hay is that coming from?” he yelled. His own voice sounded muffled in his head, until at last the ringing in his ears started to fade. The smoke from the explosions filled his lungs and gave him a coughing fit. “Basalt Three, report!”

“Captain, we’re seeing two mortar teams beyond the crossroads,” the scout leader replied after a brief delay. “They’re focused right on you.”

“That puts them beyond our extreme range,” the leader of Pyroclast said. “Shall we redeploy?”

“No, keep pounding that anti-air!” Shining crawled forward, refocusing himself on shielding Onyx from overhead fire. The mortal shells hit again, forcing the rest of the squads to lag behind. One of the two unicorns assisting him did not get back up. “Obsidian, as soon as you have a clear approach, take out those mortars!”

“Yes sir!”

The pegasi overhead made several passes, opting to use dives rather than strafing runs, as the latter made them easier targets. They switched to using their grenades as makeshift bombs, raining them down on the Legion’s positions. One squad even risked moving through the crossfire to engage the mortar teams, giving the captain a brief window to catch up with Onyx.

Shining dropped into a crouch behind a dumpster, drew his sword, and turned to the leader of the squad. “Sergeant! On my mark!”

Lazurite nodded. “Yes Captain.” He glanced back at the other shiners. “Tactical Squad, make ready!“

More fiery shells rained down around the street, silencing all but a few of the remaining guns. The pegasi overhead made a sharp turn, returning to formation before swooping in through the street. They flew level with the windows, where the insurgents could not fire back without a risk of hitting each other. Bolts and grenades were hurled into the buildings, those inside responding with panicked bleating and whinnies as they ran for cover. The team further ahead made another pass, and a bright flash over the rooftops showed them scoring a direct hit, setting off the mortar ammunition.

“Mark!”

The crystal ponies broke into a gallop, closing the last few dozen yards, their bodies no longer giving off the bright glow from before. The large gun tried to swivel around, but it could not hope to track them at such a short range. The lead shiner leaped among the horrified gunners, and those that could not back away quickly enough were crushed under his hooves. The others were cut down as they tried to scramble away, Shining himself firing a purple beam to take out the last one. The guard who took a hit to the neck roared furiously as he smashed the gun with his armored hooves, not stopping until the barrel itself was reduced to a twisted wreck.

All around, the guards managed to break through the suppressive fire and engage the enemy positions along the street, often close enough to enter melee. Shining watched as the ponies of Granite Two roared furiously, their leader running the nearest insurgent through with his spear and pinning him against a wall. The weapon broke in two, and the sergeant drew his sword, hacking apart two more goats before the rest quickly threw down their weapons, bleating for mercy.

The gunfire was slowly dying down as the rest of the insurgents pulled back. Both Pyroclast and Obsidian kept pushing them with merciless volleys, allowing the ground troops to keep advancing. Shining Armor ordered them to secure the area, and the squads set up positions on every corner, covering the advance for Tephra and those who were still waiting on the far bank. The engineers, having finished plugging the holes of the bridge, were now busy clearing the wreckage off the road to make room for larger equipment to be brought through.

“Where’s that damn racket coming from?” he yelled. His head turned left and right as the music kept playing dramatically, even though the fighting in the street had more or less died down. The noise felt like High Strung himself was mocking them, igniting fire in his veins as it brought back the image of his troops getting cut down. Holding his sword with his magic, he went from corner to corner, often leading attacks into the buildings personally while shouting for the guard to keep searching.

Eventually, he rounded a corner and froze, ears twitching as the noise suddenly became a lot clearer. Looking up, he spotted a rusty framework on top of an apartment complex. Thick bundles of wires dangled along the object’s sides, all leading to a quartet of speakers pointing toward the cardinal directions. Before his troops could react, he ran straight inside, shoving aside a pair of goats in tattered, stitched clothes that were huddled together on the ground floor corridor. They bleated after him, then screamed in terror as gunfire erupted in the stairwell.

Shining hurried up the stairs, not stopping for a moment, even as he heard the sound of ponies and goats shouting and running above. More gunfire came, pinging off the walls and whizzing past his ear as the insurgents fired down the stairwell. Moments later, there was a panicked yell, followed by an explosion that shook the whole building. A few of the voices above had been silenced, and a cloud of dust and debris filled the floors above, giving the captain the cover he needed to advance. The first enemy he ran into was a goat in brown overalls, coughing as he tried to get back up and aim his rifle. He screamed in pain as the sword nearly hacked off his forelegs, then gurgled when it pierced his lungs.

“This is the Royal Guard!” Shining roared. “Drop your weapons!

The pony voices became more panicked, but there was no indication of wanting to give up. Instead, he had to drop to the floor as a hail of bullets tore through the walls, one of them managing to graze his cheek. The insurgents bickered and moved around, and Shining heard clicking and clattering noises as they fumbled with their weapons. Meanwhile, heavy hoofsteps and familiar voices came from the ground floor, while the music above continued to taunt him. The captain gritted his teeth and sprinted further up the stairs, prompting another volley that tore up the wall in his wake.

Sweat drenched his coat, and his lungs burned by the time he reached the final flight, the music getting louder with each step he took, his anger growing along with it. The stairs led to a narrow passage that ended with a metal door, which he rammed through without hesitation. An icy wind blew into his face, making his teeth chatter as he could almost feel his sweat freezing on his skin, except where the blood trickling from his cheek thawed it out. He looked around, heart pounding, his bloodstained sword twitching slightly in his grip.

The roof was unoccupied, while the irritating music was now painfully loud. He trudged over to the contraption he had seen from below, legs stiff from the effort, and paused for a moment to inspect it. While it was clearly a new addition, it was anything but hastily built, every scavenged piece of equipment and material used with the precision of a true craftsman. If it were not a reminder of his hated enemy, Shining could almost have marveled at it. Instead, he lifted his sword and slashed at the cables that extended like roots from the base of the speakers.

To his shock, while there was a great shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke that burned his nostrils, the noise seemed completely unfazed. He roared in frustration and hacked at the other cables, not stopping while a single one was intact, yet the music continued to play. Eventually, he dropped his sword and rammed his forelegs against the base, the metal groaning and creaking in protest. He punched and shoved repeatedly, then turned around and bucked as hard as he could. The concrete supports crackled and eventually gave away, letting the tower topple over the edge and plummet to the street. On its way down, Shining could have sworn the music was still playing, echoing between the walls before it was drowned in a tremendous boom.

Gasping for breath, the captain collapsed against the edge of the roof, his limbs still shaking from the exertion. He waited a minute for the dizzying rush to clear from his head, then lifted it slowly, taking a look at the streets below. Squads rushed from building to building, checking them for any insurgents that tried to hide or set up an ambush. Many of them paused to stare back at him, no doubt having noticed him wrestle the speakers off the roof. Shining waved at them lazily to carry on.

Further away, he saw bright flashes and columns of smoke, along with the noises of the battle raging on. The radio chatter in his ear told him that the Legion was putting up an impressive fight, even as they crumbled on practically all fronts. His eyes lost focus and began to wander, until he closed them and turned away from the edge, shaking his head and trying to convince himself he was just seeing things. In the distance, one of High Strung’s speeches started up again, spewing forth from dozens of speaker towers spread across the city.


Due to their limited population, the Crystal Empire’s military focuses on training elite units. Regular troops are supplemented by Equestria.

Author's Note:

My apologies for the extremely long wait. I'm hoping the greater length makes up for it. In fact, I actually wrote way more than this, but then decided to split it up and finish the rest later. Otherwise, this chapter would have been way too long and taken even longer to come out.

That said, expect the followup to come soon.

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