• 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 11 - Cloak and Dagger

As soon as the first wagon landed softly on the ground, ponies were pouring out and doing their best to establish a secure perimeter. This was arguably their most vulnerable moment after all. Until everypony was landed and re-organised, their strength as a fighting force was weakened and their responses would be slower. If discovered, it would be much easier for them to be overrun.

Luckily though, it seemed the two pegasi that Sentry and the others had encountered earlier were the only ones that had been out here. Perhaps they were forward scouts, or they had simply left the camp to explore the area. In any case, Dusk ensured that they were both treated properly; the bodies were taken away and buried with military honours. Even enemies deserved some modicum of respect in death.

Around twenty minutes later, everypony had landed and reconnected with their friends and comrades. It was still quite dark, though Dusk expected that, before long, the first hints of daylight would be appearing on the horizon. Gathering together, Dusk and Flintlock began to brief them all.

“Alright, good to see you all made it here in one piece, more or less.” That got a laugh out of the assembled ponies. Dusk continued. “Now, all platoon and squad leaders have received their briefings whilst we were in the air. They will be briefing you on your individual mission objectives. For security, you will not be informed of the activities of anypony else unless absolutely necessary. However, we will be going over the general plan with you now.” He turned to Flintlock. “Captain Flintlock?” The grizzled thestral stepped forward.

“The plan on the table, everypony, is simple enough. This,” he stamped on the ground with a hoof. “Is our line in the sand. We have to hold the Bright Lights here for as long as possible, so that the civilians can safely reach the Badlands. We’re going to be facing tough opposition, and we’re going to be heavily outnumbered. But I say,” his voice rose a few octaves. “When has that ever stopped us?!” The guardsponies cheered at that. Flintlock allowed himself a small smile. And turned the floor over to Dusk.

“Alright everypony. Good Luck to you all, and remember; hold fast.” With that, the meeting broke up.

Since the numbers were so disproportionate, the thestrals would be carrying out a short and sharp guerrilla style campaign in the apple orchards. They could move through the woods more easily, strike quickly, and then disappear back into the night; it was what they were best at.

And in the style of guerrilla campaigns, central command would be somewhat weakened. Dusk would remain at the landing zone, with a small staff and defence force, directing the overall plan and taking reports on progress. However, the attacks would be undertaken by several small groups of ponies, each one unaware of the activities of the other. Much to Dusk’s sadness, he knew most likely that at least one of these small units would not return when the time came to fall back. As such, they couldn’t risk the other groups being compromised, which is what had happened when they had captured Arrow Head.

Before departing himself to lead one of the units, Flintlock saw to a few finishing touches around the landing zone. The wagons were quickly wheeled into the trees and covered with leaves and branches. They were by no means invisible, but they could go unnoticed by passing enemy troops. He also saw to the construction of another network of foxholes around the area. As before, these most likely wouldn’t be used in a straight fight, but would allow the enemy to pass over them before opening up and catching them in crossfire.

Ideally, none of this would be needed, as the thestrals would be far away before the enemy reached here. By then, the constant surprise attacks would have forced the Royal Guard to slow its advance to a crawl. And by the time they realised they were no longer being harassed, the lead gained by the smaller, swifter group of Lunar loyalists, would be enough to ensure they reached the Badlands without incident.

“Alright, Star,” Flintlock said as he settled the saddlebags onto his back. “Everything is set up to go here.” It felt a little strange for him, more than he cared to admit. For several months, Flintlock had stuck by Dusk, serving as his right hoof pony. But as an experienced officer, he was now needed on the front line. Dusk meanwhile, as the commanding officer, could not be spared.

“You just be careful out there,” Dusk joked to hide his concern. “I don’t want to have to waste time training up somepony else to your standard.” His smile turned to a frown for a moment. “Be on your guard and take care, my friend.”

“You too, Star. You too. I’ll see you at the rendezvous!”

Flintlock then departed to join the small section he would be leading. Sentry had been put in charge of another, as had Quick Strike along with several other officers. The only ones remaining here was Dusk himself, the general staff officers, and Father Moonapple, who had insisted on coming along, rather than being left all by his lonesome at the Moonflower.

With his best friend now absent, Dusk retreated to his small campaign tent. Having left the Moonflower, his living conditions, along with everypony else’s, had gone decidedly backwards. Here, they at least had the luxury of tents and blankets. Out there though, it would be a case finding a sheltered spot and doing their best to keep warm, living off the apples and other foods they could find.

Dusk’s tent was large enough, with a small fold out table inside. On it sat a map, with movable markers indicating where their own forces were, and where the enemy was believed to be. This would be updated by a steady stream of reports from each unit as it met with the enemy. Sighing to himself, Dusk sat down at the table.

“And now, we wait,” he muttered to himself.

Flintlock, having left Dusk and his staff far behind, now steadily pressed on through the apple orchards. He couldn’t help but feel confused as he made his way through the tall trees and the long grass. It was all such a far cry from the desert that he had been used to. It was amazing what earth pony magic could do, after all, it wasn’t just that they possessed superior strength and stamina.

He had eleven other ponies with him; a healthy mix of thestrals, unicorns and earth ponies. They would be the first part of a ‘one-two punch’ manoeuvre that would hopefully rattle the enemy.

The main camp was a few more miles north of them. At present, it was believed to be lightly guarded and relatively easy to reach undetected. Since they were still so far away from San Maretonio, and unaware that they had been discovered, the Royal Guard were content to move at a steady pace, and would not be taking precautions until they drew nearer to their target.

The plan, an invention of Flintlock’s, was simple enough. Under cover of darkness, his group would sneak into the enemy camp and perform a closer inspection of the enemy, gathering intelligence and possibly taking care of some senior officers as well. With that done, they would make their presence known and raise Tartarus in the camp. In the ensuing confusion, they would retreat the way they had come. Given their superior numbers, the Royal Guard would recover from the initial shock quickly, and begin to give chase.

This was where the second group would come in. Following up behind Flintlock and his troops, this second contingent would lay traps and prepare an ambush for the enemy. Naturally, the Bright Lights would not send out everypony they had, it would just cause confusion, as it had when their forward scouts had been captured. Instead, they would send a sizeable, but nonetheless manageable force, out to bring Flintlock and his boys in. As a result, they would take a severe beating from the traps, and either be forced to retreat, or killed outright, in the eventual ambush. As a result, they would have given the main enemy force a bloody nose.

Dusk had agreed that it was a good opening move. It would also set the tone for the rest of the campaign; small scale, swift attacks coming from multiple directions. The difficulty in retaliating would demoralise the enemy, and the constant threat would force them to slow up. Then, when the time came to retreat back to the Moonflower, they would simply stop. Slowly easing off would only give the enemy a hint. So instead, they would keep giving it their all until the moment to withdraw came.

Of course, there were problems with his plan. It did depend a lot on chance. If they were picked up before the second contingent was ready, the traps wouldn’t be set and the ambush wouldn’t be prepared. Then they would suffer the fate intended for the Bright Lights. Say they ran into an enemy patrol beforehoof, or were detected before they were able to infiltrate the camp. Flintlock shook his head. There was no point in dwelling on such things now. He simply had to accept that no battle plan survived first contact with the enemy.

Flintlock reached their ‘launch point’ with a few hours of night left to protect them. They’d been careful and done all they could to leave no trace of their presence. They sure as hay didn’t want the Bright Lights following them via their tracks. They were all gathered now, the five of them, on a small hill that overlooked the enemy camp. To say it was big would be an understatement. Tents stretched as far as the eye could see. Fires burned making stealth difficult, and every now and then ponies could be seen moving between the various sections of the camp.

“Alright, we’re here. Suggestions?” Flintlock asked. He knew what needed to be done, but having seen the camp, they now needed to work out how to accomplish the task set.

“There’s no fences, we can work our way in from any angle. It might be better to work our way around.” Flintlock shook his head.

“We don’t have enough time; it’ll be dawn in another three hours or so. We need the darkness to get in, get out, ambush and disappear,” he replied. “We’ll just need to be careful. There don’t seem to be that many guards…Wait a minute.” Flintlock paused in his assessment.

Just stepping out of a tent, he spotted a guard in a more ornate form of armour. It was gold, but with a number of purple accents. This marked its owner out as a ranking officer, like a captain or major. Taking somepony like him out would do a great deal of damage, both psychologically and from a practical perspective.

“Alright; new plan,” Flintlock whispered. “See that Rupert over there?” he asked, pointing to the Royal Guard officer. “We grab him, find out what he knows, and then get rid of him. Give them time, he’ll alert the others and we can get the chase going. Sound like a good idea?” The other four guards nodded, grinning.

“Okay, we’ll work our way down the hill, and then use the tents for cover. When we reach him, we’ll get in through the back of the tent. Two of us grab him and we lift him. Then we take him up here for interrogation. If it all kicks off, I won’t object if he’s collaterally damaged.” With that, they began to make their way into the camp.

Major Steel Pike of the Equestrian Royal Guard was bored. The last meeting with the other battalion commanders had dragged on. Ever since that forward patrol came limping back through the lines, reporting their discovery and the capture of their senior officer, the top brass had been twitchy.

For Celestia’s sake, this wouldn’t be that difficult in any case. The force they could now bring to bear would easily crush the fledgling bat pony militia that was left. It didn’t help them though, that their advance on the enemy stronghold, believed to be somewhere near the town of San Maretonio, had slowed to give time for scouts to locate the enemy’s position precisely.

It was a fool’s errand coming all the way out here. At least they were comfortable though. Resting in the pleasant shade of the apple orchards, with plentiful supplies to loot, was a welcome change from marching through the rough open country that made up most of Appleloosa Territory.

Reaching into a small pocket within his armour, Pike fished out a small cigarillo case and a box of matches. The damn things could be difficult to hold, even with wings, and it was hard to stop dampness from ruining the matches, but it kept his nerves calm. He’d resolved that once this tour was over and done with, he’d do his best to kick the habit; new medical research was suggesting that tobacco was actually more harmful to a pony’s health than it was beneficial. He had been coughing a bit more recently.

Striking a match against his armour, he managed to bring a fledgling flame to life, enough at least to give him a light. Inhaling the smoke, he let out a brief cough as it suddenly went down the wrong way. A moment later though, and he was contently looking up at the night sky. Perhaps when he got back to Baltimare, he and the wife could take a vacation, give them a chance to get away from everything that had been happening over the last few months.

Suddenly though, with virtually no warning, Steel Pike felt his hooves give way from under him. He was violently hauled backwards and into the shadow of the tent, out of sight and out of everypony else’s mind. Spitting the cigarette out of his mouth, he tried to cry out, but quickly found his mouth covered.

“Keep quiet and keep still!” a whispering voice ordered. Pike struggled for a few moments. Quickly though, he realised his efforts were futile. The pony restraining him, and the one addressing him were not the same pony. He ceased his struggles and his enemy’s grip on his throat lessened.

“Good. My friend is going to take his hoof away now. Keep quiet and you will be fine. If you scream though, he will slit your throat. Understand?” Pike nodded worriedly, already feeling the cold steel of a blade against his neck. A moment later, the hoof was removed and he was allowed to stand. He still however, felt the pressure of a pointed tip on the back of his neck. Attempting to regain some of his lost dignity, Pike brought out some false bravado.

“Who the hay do you think you are? What is your business here?” he demanded angrily. The pressure against the back of his neck increased a little, causing him to gasp.

His question was answered when two ponies made their way around from behind him. One from each direction, giving him the feeling of being encircled, triggering ancient prey instincts. The sight of the two thestrals, in full armour, made his blood run cold.

“Oh sweet Celestia!” he muttered. The one thestral, evidently the stallion in charge, shook his head.

“Close, but no. My name is Captain Flintlock, of the Lunar Volunteer Army. And you, sir, are under arrest for treason. Come with us.” Pike found himself being herded out of the camp, bypassing every guard post and patrol. Making their way up the hill, they even passed a unicorn in Lunar Guard armour, evidently providing overwatch. Eventually, he was led to a small glade that overlooked the Royal Guard camp. Made to sit on his rump, he now faced all five of the enemy soldiers who had captured him. Suddenly, quitting smoking didn’t seem like such a big priority anymore.

Looking about him, he examined his captors closely. A mix of five ponies, three of those damned bat pony demons, and one earth pony, and a unicorn. They had probably been corrupted by those twisted servants of Nightmare Moon. The one thestral carried the markings of a captain alright, the rest wore typical guard armour, albeit of the Lunar Guard variety.

“Remind me, cap,” one of the thestrals said. “Why am I not allowed to just kill him?” The question made Pike turn an even paler shade of white than he already was.

“Stow that!” Flintlock ordered. He then turned back to Pike. “Alright, let’s start with what you can tell me. Name, rank and number.” Pike knew this little game, it was basic guard training, those were the three bits of information you could give out.

“Steel Pike, Major, 22456-B Equestrian Royal Guard,” he responded. Flintlock smiled.

“Thank you, major,” Flintlock replied. “I’m sorry for the sudden cloak and dagger, but we need your help.” Pike quickly cut him off.

“There’s no way I’m ‘helping’ vermin like you,” he spat angrily. Flintlock merely rolled his eyes. A moment later, Pike was knocked sideways as the earth pony slugged him in the gut, making him double up in agony.

“Very noble, major,” Flintlock went on. “But also quite pointless. Besides, I am not asking you to betray your comrades. My men already have all the information we need. This order of battle should prove most useful.” He held up a number of files, getting a rise out of Pike.

“Then what do you want, bat pony?” he demanded. Flintlock and the others smiled.

“Simple. I want you to run down the hill, into your camp, and inform your commanders that there are enemy soldiers right outside their front door.”

“What?!” Pike exclaimed.

“Well, if you’d rather not, my associate here will happily slice your jugular and throw your corpse in instead. It would achieve my ends nonetheless.” That, understandably, persuaded Pike, particularly when he felt a blade once again brush against his neck.

“Alright! Alright! I’ll do it!” he pleaded.

“Good,” Flintlock replied. “Feel free to tell everypony what you have seen. I’m in need of a good fight.” With that, he motioned for Pike to be released. The pegasus promptly took off running down the hill, yelling as he went. Flintlock watched him with baited breath.

“Think he bought it?” the earth pony asked sarcastically.

“Hold on,” Flintlock cautioned. “We need to see what they send out first.”

A moment later, alarms were being rung, ponies were rushing to and fro, and the slumbering camp was suddenly wide awake. Now just to hammer the point home.

“Right, Starbright,” Flintlock said, turning to the unicorn of the group. “Let them know we mean business.” Nodding, the slate grey unicorn fired off a few shots of magic, each one causing a small explosion as it hit home. This served to only further provoke a reaction.

In fact, not twenty seconds later, the small band began to take fire from the camp. Unicorns were firing indiscriminately in the direction Pike had run from. Meanwhile, pegasi and earth ponies in their typical golden armour, were already tearing their way up the hill towards them.

“Right, time to go!” Flintlock shouted over the din. “C’mon, back to the others!” And with that, the five ponies took off running, with no less than fifty guards on their tail.

The five ponies now ran as fast as their legs could carry them through the fledgling apple orchards, lit only by the silvery moonlight. Dusk and the other thestrals had the advantage here, whereas other types of pony would find the going more difficult. This did not however, stop the pursuing guards from keeping pace with them, and raining them with magic and a few other projectiles.

“Captain Flintlock, sir!” one of the thestrals called out over the din.

“What is it?” Flintlock demanded, already starting to feel his legs straining at the constant rapid pace.

“Permission to speak, sir?” Flintlock would have laughed if he had the breath to do so.

“Granted,” he replied, grinning.

“Sir, can I just say this was a stupid plan!” At that moment, they were all shaken when a bolt of magic passed perilously close to their heads, forming a small crater when it hit the ground ahead of them. Jumping over, Flintlock turned to the thestral.

“Well, I’m open to any suggestions!” he replied.

“Run faster, maybe?” Another bolt barely missed them, this time even singeing the helm of Flintlock’s helmet.

“C’mon. We’re almost there. Just stay ahead!”

Further along the trail, the trap was indeed set. Around a dozen unicorns had perched themselves in the branches of the apple trees. This gave them both concealment and a height advantage. When the Bright Lights ran through, they would be cut to ribbons.

“Alright, everypony, here they come,” Quick Strike called out. “Make ready!” The unicorns, himself included, all charged their horns, each glowing in the darkness. Now the orchard was punctuated by small dots of blue, gold, pink, and green.

Slowly, the din of spells firing and ponies shouting drew nearer. Each pony, in his own way, prepared to face the inevitable onslaught. So far the wayward band of ponies under Dusk had been lucky. They had lost nopony, and only had a few serious injuries. Now though, unquestionably, that was about to change. Quick Strike found himself bracing himself in the tree he was perched in; already that small voice in his head was begging him to run. It wasn’t too late, he could get away.

He quickly shut that voice down. Everypony else was just as scared, and they weren’t running, he told himself. He would not be the pony to break first, though doubtless some would.

Finally, out of the din and ominous glow came Flintlock and his own band, now half running and half flying in order to stay ahead. Any moment now, the enemy would be upon them. Much to Quick’s surprise though, as the group passed through the prepared gauntlet, Flintlock and the others wheeled round, and too readied themselves. Quick had expected them to keep running, the two officers nodded to each other in respect. Raising his voice, Quick Strike gave his orders.

“At one hundred yards, volley fire, present!” Each unicorn angled their horns towards their target. Then, the first specks of gold began to steam through into the clearing.

“Fire!” he called. And with that, the whole world lit up.

The previously dark night could now almost be mistaken for the daytime, as flashes of magic lit up the clearing as if it were a thunderstorm. In addition to the fire raining down on them, the guards quickly found themselves getting disorientated by the continual flashes. Within about thirty seconds a small pile of guards had formed at the small choke point.

However, it was not smooth sailing, nor was it a straight up slaughter. A good number of the enemy guards realised what was going on and checked their headlong charge. Instead, they used what little cover there was to establish their own line. Blasts of magic quickly began to come back at the Lunar ponies. Every now and again, Quick and Flintlock picked out a muffled cry and a dull thud as one of their sharpshooters was plucked out of their perch.

Still, being sufficiently far away from the enemy camp, there was little risk of enemy reinforcements arriving to bolster their already depleted number. While Flintlock saw that they had taken losses, the thestrals and unicorns of the Lunar Guard definitely had the upper hand compared to their counterparts.

About two minutes later, the fire from the enemy slowly began to trickle off and eventually it halted altogether. The Bright Lights had had enough it seemed. Whistling as loudly as he could, Flintlock signalled for everypony to cease fire. With that, silence returned to the clearing.

About an hour later, long after Flintlock, Quick and the others had made a sensible retreat, Major Steel Pike walked onto the battlefield. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, furious. He had been captured, been made to look a fool, his entire unit had been made to look a fool. Hay the whole damn Royal Guard had! These bat ponies had snuck in, stolen tactical information, and then kidnapped him, all just to goad them on. None of that fell within the rules of war he was so accustomed to.

But that was just like them wasn’t it? Always the ones to rely on cowardly, dishonourable tactics, instead of meeting the foe face to face. They had lost the war, but instead of going quietly, they’d started with these sporadic attacks that had ultimately culminated in the destruction of Atcanter. Or at least, that was what he believed.

After Flintlock had released him, Steel Pike had made sure to turn out everypony he could. Of course, their initial assault was quite small. If he had just had more ponies, they would have crushed the bat ponies’ pathetic little ambush. But instead of holding back for reinforcements, the foals in charge had run headlong into the enemy ambush and been cut to ribbons. There were only ten or so ponies left alive in the entire QRF for Celestia’s sake!

The dead littered the orchard floor. And while there were a few dead thestrals, or unicorns in Lunar armour, they had clearly succeeded in their goal. They knew they couldn’t win in a straight fight, so they would do this instead. Pick at them every now and again; slowly bleeding them out until they were forced to retreat.

Well, there was no way in Tartarus Pike was about to let that happen! He considered the entire affair a personal insult, never mind the tactical victory the thestrals attained. Their whole plan relied on him and the Royal Guard being slowed down by these hit and run ambushes. But the Royal Guard had numbers on their side. Hit and run attacks only work if you have enough ponies to hold your ground. In his report to the rest of the general staff, he put forward one recommendation; start marching and bulldoze the vermin out of the way. Then, find out where they were cowering and…deal with them.

Author's Note:

Proofread by The Batmane of equestria and ThatPonyWithASword.

And so we've met the story's new antagonist, Major Steel Pike. I wrote him to be something of a counterpart to Dusk, each one taking the most hard line stance against their respective foe. We'll be seeing more of him in the remaining chapters.

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