• Published 4th Sep 2015
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Remember the Moonflower - Blade Star

On the run from the Royal Guard following Nightmare Moon's defeat, a group of thestrals make their final stand.

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Chapter 9 - Searching

And so, for the first time in several years, Colonel Star Dusk once again found himself in command of an actual fighting force. There were no more civilians, no more need to play politics, no more mucking about. He, and everypony else, could at last fall back into the comfortable routines and procedures of military life. A place where orders were not debated, commands not questioned, and every decision rested with the most senior officer.

However, it also brought back the long, dull periods between engagements. While the civilians were indeed safely away and by tomorrow would be out of range of the Moonflower, and by extension the enemy, there was still one slight problem.

“So how the hay do we find them?” Flintlock asked, sitting with the other senior officers, who were again gathered in Dusk’s small office. “We can’t just hope they’ll find us. If this plan is going to work, we need to be the one calling the shots. We pick when and where we attack. But until we know where the Bright Lights are, we’re stuck.”

“We’ll just have to step up patrols until we find them. We know which direction they’re coming from; the north. And if we assume that they’re following the same route as that scouting force we knocked out, we can narrow the search area quite a bit. We still have plenty of time, a full blown army moves at an extraordinarily slow pace. I’d anticipate that we have at least three days before they start getting close,” Dusk replied.

“You’d think they’d at least have the common courtesy to show their faces, wouldn’t you?” Sentry added, his comparative inexperience showing a little. “Damn Bright lights won’t even stand and fight.”

“Lieutenant, I remind you,” Flintlock countered. “That we didn’t exactly ‘stand and fight’ either. They’re following their training; stay concealed for as long as possible before engaging with the enemy.”

“That could work to our advantage,” Another officer, a unicorn by the name of Quick Strike, said.

“How so?” Dusk enquired.

“Well, think about it. You just said they’re following their training. From what we know this new Royal Guard isn’t the old Army of the Canterhorn. It’s new, inexperienced. They’ll stick to their playbook.” Sentry grinned.

“And we know their playbook, right?”

“Exactly, until the war, we all shared tactics. If we reverse the situation, and consider what we’d do, then that is probably what they’ve done.”

“So, how would you approach storming an isolated stronghold like this, captain?” Dusk asked Flintlock. The stalwart captain considered for a moment.

“Here, let’s get a couple of maps out on the table here,” he said. Grabbing a few items to hold the corners fast, Flintlock folded out a map of the area. Based on the reconnaissance they’d done when they’d first arrived, the thestrals had been able to draw up a pretty accurate map of the territory, including topography and potential points of interest. All the officers examined it carefully, as a gifted player might a mid-game chessboard. Silence reigned for a while, aside from the odd cough, or ruffling of leathery wings. Eventually, Flintlock spoke up.

“How about this area here,” he pointed to a sort of land based causeway. On each side were markers indicating unstable, shifting sand; a death trap for anypony without wings. “It protects the flanks well, and you’re hidden behind a whole bunch of dunes and hills. If you stayed on that course, you could come around behind us and trap us in a pincer movement.”

“What about from over this way,” Sentry offered. “The whole areas filled with apple orchards; perfect cover from the air, and an easy way to keep supply lines open.”

“And there’s this plain here. If they have got the numbers we think they have, they might be confident enough to just steamroller us straight up the middle, and forget about any fancy manoeuvring,” Quick Strike suggested.

Dusk looked at the map with a practiced eye. All of the suggestions were valid tactics, and tallied with his memories of his time in the war. There was still a lot of ground to cover, but it was a start.

“Alright then,” he said at length. “We’ll start by looking at these points. Flintlock, organise small patrols to head out as soon as it drops dark. We’ve got three days, and the clock is ticking.”

By late evening, the patrols were ready to head out. Their orders were simple; find the enemy and report back as soon as possible. This time, they were not, under any circumstances, to engage the enemy. Dusk needed to know how large an enemy force they were facing, what equipment it had, how they were positioned, anything to help give them an edge. A great deal of the approaching battle would be decided by whoever found the other first.

If the thestrals knew where their enemy was, then they could pick and choose when and where to attack. They would dictate the tempo of the battle, and at the same time, they would be able to remain hidden. If however, on the other hoof, the Royal Guard found them first, it would be just the opposite. They would find the Moonflower, encircle it and put it under siege. Then it would simply be a matter of time. So, if they were to survive to fight another day, it was imperative that they find the enemy first.

“Alright, sir. It’s dark enough now,” a young guard said to Dusk, who was standing in the courtyard before the three reconnaissance teams.

“Okay, Gentlecolts,” he began. “This is our best shot. We find them, and we can start the next phase of this little plan of ours. Those of you who previously ran search patrols should find this much easier. Our best guess has the enemy’s strength to be as much as five thousand ponies. That’s twenty five to one, their favour. We have to catch them off balance, and to do that, we need to know where they are. So head out to your assigned areas, keep a sharp lookout, and do your best to stay hidden. Good luck!”

With that, the three small patrols took off into the night sky. This time, they didn’t have the advantage of a new moon. In fact, it was now well past half moon and getting on for three quarters. Slowly, each night was getting a little lighter, though not enough that anypony risked detection.

Each small group would head to each area the senior officers had identified. Assuming that they had started out the day after the thestrals had arrived in San Maretonio, the officers had worked out approximately where the enemy army would be now. Assuming of course, that they were heading along any of the routes that Dusk and the others had come up with.

Dusk reminded himself that he was still taking a very big risk. If there was no news tonight, that was another night wasted, with only two remaining before the main enemy force would be within range of the Moonflower. He was forced to wait, as they all were. Once again, the supposedly exciting career of soldiering was reduced to long stretches of utter boredom. With little else to do, he chose to once again find comfort in his faith. Leaving the other officers, who were approaching the current calmness in their own way, Dusk headed for the large wooden doors of the Lunar temple.

Another benefit of the civilians’ departure was that the temple was now much quieter. There were far fewer ponies about. Even with all the thestrals here, there would still be enough room for a few more in the pews. It was as quiet as it had always been. Not an uncomfortable quietness mind, Dusk found the peace comforting in its own way. He had come here several times already, when he needed to clear his mind. With all that had happened over the past couple of days, it would not be a huge surprise if the stress began to get to him.

Walking carefully up the aisle, and making little noise (for he had removed his horseshoes) Dusk settled himself in one of the pews closer to the altar, on the left hand side of the aisle. Sliding himself in, he sat down and removed the helmet from atop his head. It is said that ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’. To Dusk, that helmet had only grown heavier as the long journey toward the Badlands had continued. It had eased a little when they first settled into the Moonflower, but now it was back with a vengeance.

Placing a hoof on the back of his neck, the slate grey thestral tried to massage the pain away. Eventually, after finding some respite, he looked up, towards the beautiful stained glass windows that dominated the centre of the temple. With the steady waxing of the moon, the nights were growing brighter. And as a result, the stained artistry shone just as well as it did in the daytime. Multi-coloured shadows, half resembling the images on the windows played across the floor of the altar. He sighed to himself.

“What would you do?” he asked the image of Princess Luna. The princess of course, did not reply. She merely maintained her posture, her forelegs flailing as she reared up. Her one visible eye looked to hold a steely determination. Yet as Dusk looked on, it seemed to take on an almost pitying, maternal expression. It almost felt as if she was looking directly at him.

Dusk was startled out of his thoughts when another, decidedly more real being, sat down beside him.

“If you really want her to answer you, son, you should consider visiting the moon.” It was Father Moonapple’s voice. The elderly minister had elected to remain behind in order to maintain, and if necessary, safeguard the sanctity of the temple, as well as continue with his regular services. After all, without Moonapple, there would be nopony to give a general absolution when the time came. He sat down in the pew directly across from Dusk.

Over the past week or so, his temperament had softened noticeably. He no longer had the short temper and gruff attitude Dusk had found when he first met him on the road to San Maretonio. He still kept a small hip flask under his robes though. He was a far cry from the old minister Dusk remembered from his foalhood.

“I just wish I had somepony else to turn to, Father,” Dusk replied. “I mean, yes, I’ve led ponies before. I’ve taken them into battle. But this…” he trailed off. “Father, you do realise, we may not come out of this one.”

“I may not be a soldier, colonel,” Moonapple replied. “But I always was led to believe that any situation carries risk. You’ve taken us through quite a few tricky situations these past few months. Hay, any day now, a lot of ponies are going to reach safety thanks to you.”

“I’m sure General Custard was equally confident in success, Father. And look what happened to him.”

General Thick Custard was the head of a Royal Guard expedition out into what was then the unexplored territory of the buffalo tribes. While subsequent settlers would do their best to work with, and negotiate with, the buffalo tribes, Custard took a different approach. He tried to drive them out. He was warned of their fighting capabilities, but took no heed, believing that since he had come through so many close shaves before, smelling of roses, this one would be no different.

He, and his entire command, was lost to enemy action, when the buffalo encircled and destroyed the ponies outright. The incident was taught ever since as the price of overconfidence and ignorance. The chief issue was that he had ignored all those around him, and tried to lead alone.

Dusk had expected a number of responses from Moonapple. Everything from gentle encouragement and reassurance, to a much more stern command to pull himself together, since now was the time they all needed him to have his head in the game. What he got stunned him into silence.

“Colonel, Custard was a pussy. You ain’t.” Dusk took a moment to fetch his jaw from the floor. A member of the clergy, using such language, in Luna’s house no less!

Still, after he recovered his senses and thought, Dusk did feel some confidence in himself returning. He wasn’t some overconfident general. Everything that had happened had been the result of everypony pooling their ideas. He might be the most senior officer, but he was not alone at the top of the tree.

After his surprising outburst, Moonapple said nothing further. He left Dusk alone with his thoughts again, and began to prepare the temple for the service in an hour’s time.

Flintlock meanwhile had returned to Dusk’s office. While the colonel did his upmost to calm his nerves, the captain had taken it upon himself to start considering other options. As any good chess player knows, it is prudent to think several moves ahead. Dusk had a general plan, yes, but he had not covered some of the more tactical decisions. His plan, whilst valid, was still quite vague.

Assuming that they did find the enemy army tonight, what were they to do? This was Flintlock’s role as Dusk’s dutiful second-in-command. Dusk drew up the grand schemes, whilst Flintlock made it possible, and worked out the finer points. Tonight for example, Dusk had been the one to suggest searching each of the areas likely to hold the enemy army. But it had been Flintlock who had assigned everypony to their sections. Sorted out who was going where. He even provided them with routes and ways to approach the enemy without risk of detection. In that sense, it was far more work playing second fiddle than it was being the first chair. A trying, but nonetheless apt way of testing an officer for his own command someday.

Flintlock smiled to himself. If they did somehow make it out of this, they would all be damned heroes. They would have pulled off one of the greatest escapades in military history. There would certainly be medals and promotions involved. Major Flintlock certainly had a nice ring to it.

He shook his head to clear his mind, there was no point trying to gallop before you could walk after all. Blinking his amber eyes, which were watering a little from the candle light, he returned his attention to the various maps that were laid out on the table.

Flintlock’s first order of business was the backup plan. If there was no good news tonight, they would need to start up a new search. That meant trying new areas. They couldn’t just send the few fliers they had out all over the desert. Even if they flew non-stop for the remaining time they all had, Flintlock worked out that they would cover less than a quarter of the desert. If only they’d gone north, towards where the Crystal Empire once stood. The cold might have worked to their advantage. Perhaps they could have sought asylum in Yak-yakistan; that small nation was isolationist, but also quite powerful militarily speaking. The Royal Guard wouldn’t even think about following them there.

He realised he was getting side-tracked again. He did his best to shake the cobwebs from his head and focus. Luna knew he needed to. Rather than search for general routes that the enemy might take, which he would then have to guess at how far along they were, Flintlock considered the other side of troop movement; rest areas. Everypony had to rest sometime, and given the estimated size of the enemy army bearing down on them, the camp would be quite large. Camouflaged or not, it would be not too difficult to spot from the air. He quickly set to work, looking for concealed areas, hidden valleys, anywhere that might provide cover. If not tonight, he would find them soon, he would bet his wings on that.

Lieutenant Sentry also now found himself idle. Having been quite involved in most of the recent escapades, the lull was somewhat unsettling to his younger, more eager mind. Until recently, he’d been running patrols every night, he’d gone on a raid with Flintlock, and he’d even helped devise the plan that was currently underway.

However, whilst he was merely a lieutenant, technically a second lieutenant but he didn’t like to mention that, he was still an officer. With his rank came experience that could prove vital in the coming days. Plus, since he was so heavily involved in planning their current operation, Dusk had denied him the opportunity to take part in the search. The colonel had argued that the risk of his capture, and subsequent interrogation, was too great. The enlisted sent out on the search only knew that they were looking for the enemy. Aside from that they knew nothing, and therefore could say nothing if the worst happened.

It was a sensible precaution to be sure, but that didn’t mean Sentry had to like it. Being a bit younger than the other officers, he had an unfortunate tendency to take things personally. None of the other officers were cleared to take part in operations either. But for Sentry, he couldn’t help but view it as though he was being denied a chance to prove himself, just as he had during the war. He’d fought for three long years starting as a private, worked his way up to corporal, then sergeant, and eventually had become an officer, but he didn’t feel as though he had achieved all that he could. He had rather hoped the war would grant him his own captaincy.

As a result of this complex, he was now pacing along the battlements, moving between the four gun batteries. Mind you, it was debatable whether a single small calibre canon could qualify itself as a battery.

Above him, the night was clear, and the moon was now high in the sky. The eerie, unsettling image of the so-called ‘Mare in the Moon’ was emblazoned on the surface. While not so much of a fanatic as Dusk was, Sentry was nonetheless appalled at what had happened to Princess Luna at the hooves of her own sister. Another consequence of his lack of years was a firm and decidedly platonic view of right and wrong, with no room for grey in between.

As he continued to pace impatiently, his sharp ears, which could just about pick up sonic level sounds, picked out a faint sound in the quietness of the night. He instantly recognised it; the sound of air rushing over wings. Somepony was heading towards them. It ought to be one or more of the patrols that was sent out. However, Sentry was not about to take that chance.

“You there!” he called down to one of the unicorns outside the walls of the mission. “Send up a flare will you.” The unicorn in question promptly angled his spiralled horn skywards, and launched a small point of light. Coloured bright red, this simple spell was great for lighting up the area, as well as serving to dazzle any would be attackers.

The spell rocketed up before bursting like a firework and bathing the area in a reddish hue. With his specially adapted amber eyes, Sentry searched for a hint of the approaching ponies. He quickly, and much to his relief, saw three pairs of amber eyes glinting in the darkness. They were thestrals; one of the patrols returning home. The flare spell hung in the air for a few moments longer before it extinguished itself, returning the desert to the darkness of the night.

“Sergeant,” Sentry said to one of the ponies manning the nearby battery. “Go and find Colonel Dusk and Captain Flintlock. Tell them one of the patrols had returned.

“Sir,” the sergeant replied. He hastily took wing to glide down into the courtyard. Sentry meanwhile waved at the approaching trio, who happily waved back. The question was, what news did they bring?

The three returning guards, after touching down and letting their wings drop to their sides for a moment, were quickly escorted to Dusk’s office to deliver their report. Everypony stopped their usual activities to wait for the result. It could be that soon enough, they would be marching out to go and take on the Royal Guard, just like the old days.

With Flintlock bringing up the rear, the three young privates were herded into Dusk’s office, with the door being closed, and locked, behind them. Dusk, who had been brought galloping straight out of the temple by the news of the first group’s return, was seated behind his desk.

“Report,” he ordered sharply. The young thestral in charge of the small group stepped forward, stood to attention, and saluted, before giving his concise report.

“Sir, our patrol covered the entirety of the designated area twice at high altitude. We found no sign of the enemy, or any indication that they had passed through the area.” Flintlock did his best to hold back a groan, while Dusk merely scowled at the map that lay in front of him.

“Alright, very good,” Dusk said at length. “Hit the mess, clean yourselves up and then get some rest. Dismissed.” The three privates again drew themselves to attention and saluted. “Git!” Dusk ordered irritably. They quickly left the office. Flintlock closed the door behind them, again bolting the door. He snorted angrily, tossing his head.

“Well, that’s one lot come home to roost,” he said, annoyance clear in his voice. “We’ve still got two more patrols out though. There’s still hope yet, Star.” Dusk looked up from his desk.

“Yes, I suppose you’re right there, Flint. It wouldn’t have hurt our chances if we’d had such an early opportunity to head out though.” Taking a pencil from his desk, and holding it between his teeth, Dusk crossed out the highlighted area on the map the patrol had been searching.

“One down, two to go.” He rose from his chair and headed for the door. “I’m going to head back to the temple. I think I’ll stay there for the service. If either of the other patrols returns before then, let me know at once.”

“Right,” Flintlock replied. He too was planning on returning to his earlier activities. With that, the waiting resumed.

However, this time the interval was nowhere near as long. Not fifteen minutes later, the second patrol returned. Once again, flares went up to identify them, a challenge went out, and the three thestrals alighted in the courtyard. Again, the three guards were taken by Flintlock to Dusk’s office to hear their report in private. The result was, unfortunately, the same as the first group. They hadn’t found the enemy camp, nor had they even been able to find any trace of their movements through the area.

Both the open plain and the odd causeway between the shifting sands had been searched. That the army was advancing across the plain had been Dusk’s biggest fear. It would mean a hard battle for his own smaller force, with little opportunity for guile and cunning; perhaps the only thing that would tip things their way. And with the causeway ruled out, there was less concern about a complete encirclement. At least they wouldn’t end up in a ‘kessel’ as the griffons called it. If the enemy did make it to the Moonflower, they would have a chance to make a break for it cross-country.

So, all that remained now was the apple orchards. These were a relatively new arrival in the territory. As civilisation began to spread further and further into what was quite hostile country for ponies, the need for fresh produce became a problem. Railroads were still a new concept, there was only one leading this far south. As a result, it was difficult to get things like fruits and vegetables out to the territory, without them spoiling on the way.

To counter the problem, some earth ponies were attempting to cultivate the arid land, planting trees and roots, and seeing what would grow. While not as bountiful as those grown back in Equestria’s interior, these trees could survive and bear some fruit. Earth pony farmers were even beginning selective breeding to adapt the trees for the environment. Almost a thousand years later, this would result in the creation of one of the largest apple orchards in Equestria, near the town of Appleloosa, which was founded following the boom in farming in the region, as well as improved relations with the buffalo tribes.

The enemy, as young Sentry had suggested, could be using the scattered orchards to serve as camouflage, masking their approach. However, such a place could be turned to their own advantage. The trees would make visibility on the ground a chore in itself, and manoeuvring would be difficult. It could work as an ideal ambush site. The trees sheltered both sides from the air, could conceal unicorn sharpshooters, and if they attacked at night, the difficulty in moving would spread panic and confusion amongst the enemy. The question was though, would they be there. Dusk pondered this as he again sat in the comforting quietness of the Lunar temple.

The last patrol did not return for quite some time. Dusk had expected that they would be back around the same interval as the last patrol. Instead, much to his concern, he found himself going to attend the nightly service in the temple without the final patrol having returned. The service lasted for a further hour, and all the way through, Dusk was expecting some runner to come up to him and inform him that the last patrol was in. But there was no such luck.

When the service concluded, just as the clock was reaching eleven, Dusk found they had still not returned. By now thoroughly concerned, he went to consult Flintlock, who had taken to standing near one of the cannons, looking out. The look on his face could be likened to that of a mare standing out on the widow’s walk of a lighthouse.

“Still no sign?” Dusk asked him as he walked up. Flintlock shook his head, showing clear signs of worry for both the mission and the stallions that had been sent out.

“No. I’m starting to get worried, Star. If they aren’t back by the turn of the watch, I think we ought to assume them missing in action.” Dusk looked at his hooves.

“What do you think we should do then? Send out a search party, or assume they’ve been captured.”

“We assume they’re dead, Star,” Flintlock replied flatly. “And no rescue attempts; all that would do is cost us more ponies.” Dusk began to ponder, trying to work out a better plan. If the patrol had been captured or, Luna forbid, killed, then they had just lost the advantage.

“Wait! Sir, what’s that?” One of the earth ponies who manned the large cannons was looking up excitedly, his hoof gesturing to the north. The two thestrals, who possessed better eyes, quickly scanned the horizon and picked out three flyers against the starlit sky.

“I see them,” Dusk said, feeling suddenly relieved. He called down to one of the unicorns. “Send up a flare!” For the third time that night, the sky was briefly bathed in a bright red glow. The three were quickly identified and ordered to report to Dusk immediately.

The colonel met them on the ground personally and with Flintlock in tow, took them to his office. All ponies present noticed that the three flyers were grinning like a timberwolf with a young lamb.

“Well, sergeant, what news?” Dusk asked excitedly. Grinning, the sergeant took out his dagger that was carried on his armour; a last resort weapon for close defence. In one swift movement, he rammed the blade into the map on the table, right into the centre of the apple orchard.

“We got ‘em, sir.”

Author's Note:

Proofread by ThatPonyWithASword and The Batmane of equestria.

I'm going to take a break over Christmas, so this is the last chapter for 2015. I'll be sending the next chapter off to the proofreaders in mid-January, so expect the next chapter around that time.

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