• Published 4th Aug 2015
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Before the Storm: The Rise of Firefly - Firesight

Before the Wonderbolts, there were the Bolt Knights. And before Rainbow Dash, there was Firefly. The story of Rainbow Dash's ancestor, the origin of the Wonderbolts, and the coming of the Great Pony/Gryphon War.

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Part 6 - Outpost Epsilon

There were many firsts in my life. My first words, my first flight, my first duel… and much further in the future, my first kiss, lover and foal. Before then, I would have to deal with my first deployment and the promise of my first real action.

’Twould be a lie to say I wasn’t eager. For when the time came, I sought all my firsts eagerly, seeing them as a mark of maturity, relishing each new experience I had…

Save for one I was dreading.

Fort Spur was a beehive of activity the following morning, with the next wave of recruits due that very day. As had happened to me six months earlier, three new companies were scheduled to be inducted at 1600… and would soon be facing a very real ordeal that would test both body and spirit and ultimately break many, sending nearly three-quarters home, unable to keep up mentally or physically with the harsh training regime.

My flight carriage not scheduled to depart until 1800, I was there to see the new recruit class admitted through the front gates and was invited to observe as the screaming began. Windshear was in fine form right off the bat, marching through the pegasus ranks and actively berating each recruit in turn for their appearance or some trivial slight, alternately questioning their breeding, cutie marks and very virility… memorably asking one particularly cocky and sassy recruit if he’d paid a mare to bear his foal.

That earned an immediate challenge… which lasted all of three seconds and sent the first recruit washout to the infirmary with a severe concussion from a simple headbutt, many of the remaining recruits now looking upon the Sergeant Major in very real fear.

Acting like nothing had happened, Windshear picked up right where he left off, getting in the face of each new stallion in turn, just as he’d done with me my first day. Perchance ’twas only fitting, then, that once he finished chewing out the entire company for being useless and hopeless, he motioned me forward.

“Take a good look, recruits!” he yelled. “This is what a Guardspony is! She is what you aspire to be!” he announced as the recruits openly gaped at me, a mare in their midst. “But ‘tis certain you sorry excuses for stallions will never make it! Methinks you’ll never be half the pony she is, either in the Guard or out of it!”

At that moment, one recruit announced audibly under his breath that he’d tucked uglier-looking tails than mine, to the snickers of his neighbors.

Windshear’s ears flicked. “Who said that? Who the buck said that?!” he thundered, silencing the stifled laughs. “Who’s the slack-jawed sorry piece of hen-humping gryphonbait that just signed his own death warrant?!” he asked as he stalked back down the line, his wings flared in only half-feigned anger. When nopony replied, he got creative. “Nopony, eh? The bucking Tooth Breezy said it? I’ll work you all until you break! I’ll fly you all until you bucking die! Was it you?” he then snarled in the face of one hapless recruit.

“Sir, n-no sir!” The wide-eyed stallion replied in a trembling voice. With his fragile psyche and softer physique, I gave him two weeks at most before he quit.

“Sir, ‘twas me, sir!” a second, more solid-looking stallion next to him said, this one orange-furred with a dark blue mane and a shield-on-cloud cutie mark, drawing himself up straighter as the Sergeant Major drew near.

“Well, whaddaya know…” Windshear almost sounded impressed as he sidled over, going nose to nose with the newcomer. “And your name, gryphonbait?”

“Sir, Sky Sentry, sir!” he proclaimed proudly and almost without fear.

Horseapples! Since you seem to think yourself a comedian, from now on your name’s Recruit Jester!” Windshear snapped. “At any rate, I appreciate your honesty! Hay, methinks I even like you! Methinks I’ll take you back to my place so you can tuck my daughter!” With that, he delivered a vicious blow to the newly-dubbed Jester’s barrel, causing him to nearly collapse.

Before training, such a casual assault on a stallion might have given me pause, but now I barely batted an eye. In fact, as entertaining and enlightening as it was to watch a master trainer at work, I wanted to make an impression of my own. “Sergeant Major!” I called out. “With your permission, I would like a moment with Recruit Jester here.”

Somewhat startled, Windshear looked back at me, then smiled. “The floor is yours, Sergeant. Just try not to kill our newest comedian.”

Stifling a grin, I put on my sternest, meanest look—and believe me, I’d gained a good one over the course of my training—and marched up to a still-shaky Jester, glaring at him. “So, Recruit Jester…” I began ominously. “Wouldst you care to repeat your last line?”

“N-no, milady!” he replied through gritted teeth, trying to bite back his pain.

I wasn’t about to let him off that easily, leaning in closer, my eyes narrowing. “Do I look like a noblepony to you? It’s ma’am. And perchance I misheard you. Didst you say, and I quote, that you hadst ‘tucked uglier tails’ than mine?”

He swallowed hard, but to his credit, he owned up. “Ma’am… y-yes ma’am!”

I held my glare for a beat longer. “Well then, Recruit Jester… since you saw fit to judge my flank, ’tis only fair I return the favor!” With that, I marched around behind him, ordered him to flag his tail… and proceeded to give a very harsh inspection of his anatomy, pointing out every flaw and wrinkle I could spot, questioning very loudly and floridly how such an inferior pair of apples had ever sired foals.

I couldn’t see his face, but I could all but feel the heat coming off his cheeks. When despite that he began to get visibly antsy and aroused under my scrutiny, his wings twitching and threatening to go erect, I ended his excitement quickly by suggesting that, for his disrespect, perchance I should simply relieve him of his malehood entirely so there could be a second mare in the guard!

Giggles erupted all over the company; even Windshear had to stifle a laugh as Jester broke out in a very nervous sweat.

’Twould be a lie to say I wasn’t enjoying myself. In truth, ’twas rather fun being on the other side of recruit training, making a stallion squirm. Despite that, he had actually passed his test with me as I walked back around to face him. His attitude and assertiveness reminded me of myself, and perchance some of Windshear’s ability to spot Guardsponies in the making had rubbed off on me as I sensed this one had some potential. Nevertheless, I only gave him a fifty percent chance of completing training. Or perchance the odds would be increased if…

I got very close to his face as I said my next words. “Listen and listen well, Recruit Jester. The only way you have even the slightest chance to tuck this tail is if you complete basic training and graduate at least a Corporal. Is that understood?”

He gaped at me, struggling to hold his attention pose, fear warring with excitement as his pain and embarrassment were instantly forgotten. “Ma’am! Yes ma’am!” he shouted as forcefully as he could.

“Bully,” With that, I stepped away, walking past Windshear, who was looking askance at me, a bemused look in his eyes. “Thank you for your indulgence, Sergeant Major,” I nodded at him as I trotted off, a twinkle in my eye.

For just a moment, he twinkled back before returning his attention to his newest recruit company, passing out more nicknames before proceeding to chew out Jester for ten straight minutes.

* * * * *

The new recruits had been marched off to the barber and dye shops by the time evening fell. I would have loved to have seen the looks on their faces as they were all colored grey and shorn of their manes and the better part of their tails, but my flight would be leaving soon.

Leaving a parting note for Windshear thanking him for all he had done for me, at 1800 sharp I arrived at the fort’s loading dock for airborne chariots and carriages, used for long-distance travel—the average pegasus could fly fifty miles easily, but five hundred was too much even for well-conditioned Guardsponies.

The only vehicle there was a unicorn-driven flying carriage, big enough for fifteen ponies to fit comfortably. It was decked out in Equestrian Aerial Corps colors, sky blue and white in marked contrast to the silver, red and gold of the Royal Guard, using the same vehicular flight magic to travel through the air that was found on Royal Navy airships—and appropriately, the unicorn driver wore the indigo fur dye and white uniform of the navy. “Sergeant Firefly? Welcome. You’re right on time,” the Airedale mare acknowledged after a quick scan of my orders. “Get in and we’ll be underway shortly.”

I nodded and stepped into the carriage, laying a rucksack at my side. As it took off, I took a seat and glanced around, for I wasn’t alone. With me was a thirteen-pony squad of the Aerial Corps. As was typical for such a squad, most were mares and all but one bore the rank of Private or PFC, with that one being a single corporal as squad leader. Many of them seemed nervous, perchance because they knew they were bound for the Gryphon frontier. I kept to myself, but I carefully evaluated each member of the squad as best as I could with sight alone. I could see that all of them were your average, fresh-out-of-training ‘hatchlings’, as I knew the veteran corps pegasi called them. It made me wonder about why they were, like me, being deployed to a border outpost so quickly.

My scrutiny stopped when I came to the squad’s leader, a blue-eyed mare. She was, as was standard for all lower-ranking Aerial Corps pegasi, dyed cloud-white. Her sky-blue pleather combat uniform was well-maintained, her silver corporal stripes highly visible on her shoulders. But what drew my attention was when she turned to look at me and I saw the patch over her left eye. It wasn’t decorative, as some ponies were wont to use. ’Twas a fully-functional patch, designed to completely obscure the eye.

I initially wanted to avoid saying anything, for fear of offense, but I remembered Windshear’s words; the Aerial Corps was Equestria’s most experienced service. And if I was going to be working with them, perchance it would be best to get to know them. So I cleared my throat. “Forgive me for asking, but methinks you’ve seen action already, Corporal?”

The rest of the squad jumped; apparently, they hadn’t expected me to break the silence that had been in the carriage for the past several hours. I was just starting my journey, but they had been traveling all day—the Aerial Corps training base of Fort Stratus was located on the other side of Equestria, well away from the Gryphons. The corporal, however, simply smiled. “If you’re talking about the eye, then no. That wasn’t a gryphon’s doing.” She reached up and removed the patch, revealing the perfectly unblemished skin and eyelid beneath. My confusion persisted, until she opened her eye to reveal a milky-white orb.

To my credit, my reaction was limited to a mere widening of my own eyes. More so than the other pony tribes, pegasi are reliant upon keen vision. Especially when flying at high speeds through obstacle courses, we need our depth perception to navigate close quarters and reduce the likelihood of crashing. This mare had apparently been born blind in one eye, so she had no depth perception and yet… here she was. For her to achieve the rank of Corporal with such a disability… I found myself thinking that this was a mare I could respect.

As if reading my thoughts, she glanced at me with her working eye. “Huh. Most ponies, like these hatchlings, usually say something when they see this.” At her words, the rest of the squad looked away, abashed. Apparently, they’d all made foals of themselves when first meeting her.

I snorted at that. “Corporal, methinks if they knew half of what they should know about basic pegasus functionality, they’d applaud you for getting this far with such a… disadvantage.”

She blinked, then grinned. “You hear that, hatchlings?! That’s what I want to hear! I didn’t bust my flank at Fort Stratus to achieve Corporal, just so I could be poked fun at!” she barked at her squad. Her subordinates ducked their heads as she turned back to me, replacing the patch over her eye as she did so. “Corporal Blindside, Equestrian Aerial Corps,” she introduced herself, offering her hoof to me.

I smiled, and bumped her hoof with my own. “Sergeant Firefly, Royal Guard.”

Her one visible eye widened. “Ah, so you’re the ‘upstart mare’ who has half the Guard frothing at the mouth.” At my surprised look, she chuckled. “Word travels fast along the wind, Sergeant. Even in the Aerial Corps, we’ve heard about what you’ve accomplished. Though I’m not sure how much of what we’ve been told is the truth…”

She gave me a sideways look before speaking again. “You’ll forgive me for saying so, but ‘tis hard to believe you bested Sergeant Major Windshear in single combat. His reputation in the Corps is legendary. They even named a training field in his honor back at Fort Stratus.”

I grinned—I hadn’t heard that, but wasn’t surprised at all. “Methinks you can be forgiven for doubting. But the story is true. Captain Typhoon himself witnessed our duel and pronounced me the winner after I put my blade at Windshear’s throat.”

The rest of the squad gaped at me, and Blindside was doing her best not to do the same. “You bested a Wing Warrior and Defender of Harmony awardee in single combat? Huzzah! ‘Tis no wonder you made Sergeant right out of basic training!” she shook her head, visibly impressed.

I leaned back, a cocky smile on my face. “’Twas a surprise to me too—as was the fact that the rest of my fellow graduates sought to buy me drinks afterward. Though ‘tis also true that many in the guard were left ‘frothing at the mouth’ as you say. I was challenged by three veteran Guardsponies the very night I graduated. I won, though in truth, ‘twas not much of an accomplishment. Methinks they were all drunk on cheap horse piss.” I couldn’t resist a dig at the Drunken Rat, arguably the worst pub in town, suddenly wondering if any alcohol would be available on the frontier.

At the request of the now-attentive squad, I recounted the entire duel with Shadowslash and his two friends. By the time I finished, they were all looking at me in awe. “Well then, methinks it’s an honor to meet you, Sergeant Firefly,” she bumped my hoof again, and the rest of her squadmates did the same as Celestia’s sun began heading for the horizon, dusk falling over Equestria.

“We look forward to serving with you at Outpost Epsilon.”

Night had fallen by the time we landed at the outpost. I was the first pony out of the carriage; ’twas only appropriate as I was the highest-ranking.

Seen under Luna’s light, the outpost itself was, something to my surprise, a small base consisting of a simple series of ground structures with a single large watchtower in the center, perched on a rugged, rock-jumbled cliff edge overlooking a large canyon. Aside from the tower, there was a barracks, an armory, a mess hall, a headquarters bunker and at least two training fields. On the other hoof, there were no cloud perches—as they were almost impossible to maintain in the face of strong winds blowing out of the north and east, I later learned—whilst the buildings themselves were made of wood and stone and generally camouflaged against the canyon lip in a far cry from the brightly-colored structures ponies usually favored. The approaches were kept clear of already-sparse vegetation and I presumed protected with magical tripwires that could detect both air and ground intrusions.

As I waited for Blindside’s squad to disembark, I noticed an older pegasus stallion approaching. Unlike most of the Aerial Corps, he wasn’t dyed white; rather, he had his natural fur color of a brilliant orange, so brilliant I thought I might go blind looking at him even in the dim light of firestones. His mane was bright gold and close-cropped like all Corps soldiers, his cutie mark that of a diving pegasus silhouetted against the sun. Instead of flight armor, he was clad in a dark blue Aerial Corps dress uniform, and my eyes were drawn immediately to the single silver vertical bar on his shoulders—the signifying mark of a First Lieutenant.

Seeing that, I immediately snapped to attention. “Officer on deck!” I barked and snapped a salute. The hatchling squad, having been milling about, fell into line beside me and saluted as well.

“At ease,” the stallion said, returning the salute. His voice was calm, cool, and collected. It was a sharp contrast to the bombastic nature of Windshear and other basic training instructors yet he had the same effect; all of our eyes were on him from the moment he opened his mouth, his powerful presence and air of authority commanding our attention immediately. “I am First Lieutenant Sundiver, commanding officer here at Border Outpost Epsilon. Welcome to, if not the front line, then as close as you’ll get for the time being.”

He paced in front of us, every movement measured and even. “Some of you may question the decision to have you hatchlings assigned to a border outpost this soon. Well, Outpost Epsilon is not your average border base. We’re a bit out of the way, not on the beaten path, which means we’re not a hotly-contested region. The most we’ll see is a rare raiding party now and again… which makes it the ideal place for new Corps pegasi to get some seasoning.

“I’m proud to say that during my ten years here at Outpost Epsilon, we have not lost a single pony to enemy action.” He paused briefly. “I shan’t have to mention that we’ve not lost a single pony to friendly action either.” Resuming his pace, he continued, “The key to our success, in addition to our position, is that I make sure you know what you’re getting into.” He looked us over, then settled his eyes on me. “Sergeant Firefly!”

I didn’t hesitate, stepping forward and saluting. “Reporting, sir!”

“Word of your exploits has preceded you,” he said without preamble, returning the gesture promptly, “and you have apparently caught the attention of Captain Typhoon himself. But perchance you are under any illusions, know that being the first armored Guardsmare gives you no leeway with me. Your prior accomplishments carry no weight here; you will be treated the same as any other pony of your rank. That said, as you are currently the second-highest ranked pony here, you will be acting as my second-in-command during your stay.”

I fought the urge to blanch or cheer; I wasn’t quite sure which was stronger. “Sir? Why do you not have a dedicated second-in-command?”

He smiled. “Because whilst they are here to learn how to fight,” he nodded to the incoming squad, “you, as a Guardspony Sergeant, are here to learn how to properly lead. And grooming new leaders has been something of a specialty of mine. I’ve been here for ten years; I know how everything works and will in turn impart that knowledge to you. Your duties will at first entail simply following me around and obeying my instructions, same as any other pony, but in the process you will observe how I run the base, and thus learn what it is to command.” He paused again, seeing my uncertain look. “’Tis quite clear, Sergeant, that you already know how to fight given the duels you’ve won. As such, the emphasis of your training will be how to lead others; how to direct squads and flight elements rather than fight on your own.”

I nodded slowly. So Captain Typhoon was indeed not sending me here as a form of exile, he was actively grooming me for command! “Aye-aye, sir!” I made a point of giving the standard Corps acknowledgment of an order.

He glanced at the horizon, where the last vestiges of Celestia’s light were fading away into a sea of stars. “But that will all come tomorrow. Methinks you’ve all had a long day, so I’ll show you to the barracks this once,” he promised, but not before passing me a series of scrolls. “Here’s everything you need to know about the base. I expect you to be able to relay relevant information to the rest of this squad, Sergeant.” He turned around. “Follow me, everypony! Tonight you sleep, and tomorrow, your lessons begin!”

I, along with Blindside’s entire squad, blinked. Lessons? was the unspoken question passing along with glances between us.

* * * * *

Lessons indeed. Much to our surprise, and no little disappointment on my part, neither I nor my new squadmates were sent out on patrol right away. Instead, Sundiver had us in briefings, classes, and training drills for the better part of the first two weeks, teaching his newest squad how to fly and fight together… and his newest Sergeant how to lead them.

Though we had all learned how gryphons fought at our respective basic training, this took it to a whole new level. We were taught their ranks and services, uniform and unit recognition, their favorite formations, weapons and tactics, how to defend against both ground and air incursions, and the difference between the faster, higher-flying sky gryphons that had grown up in the harsh northern mountains of their homeland versus the plains-dwelling earth gryphons of the southern grasslands. Whilst the sleek-bodied former had great flight stamina, able to fly several hundred miles at a time at higher altitudes and harsher conditions than most pegasi, the latter could only fly a few dozen leagues but were larger and possessed strength nearly the equal of earth ponies, able to wield heavy weapons like massive shields and war hammers with ease.

All in all, it painted an ominous picture, one Sundiver drilled repeatedly into our heads: “Methinks this cannot be said enough—they are disciplined, determined foes, they have warrior heritage the equal of pegasi, they see ponies as prey, and if you show any weakness to them, they will hunt you down without hesitation or mercy,” he warned us repeatedly, going on to detail several favorite ruses they used to lure ponies into ambushes… and what they sometimes did to their captives.

It turned my stomach at the thought they might eat us, but certainly drove home that we were dealing with predators and meat-eaters—that there were certainly places in this world where harmony had no hold.

After living my entire life being responsible for little except myself, leadership was a new experience for me, and one I was admittedly very uncertain about to start. I had learned single combat quite well, certainly, but as Sundiver had made abundantly clear, being a sergeant I became responsible for many, not just myself. It was only then I understood that rank meant real responsibility, and not just the right to give orders and torment an incoming recruit class.

As I followed him around, I also started to understand how much leadership meant not just giving orders, but inspiring confidence in others, both in themselves and their commanders. A compliment and kind word had their place when a pony merited it, but so did criticism and punishment, which Sundiver did not hesitate to mete out when a pony failed to meet expectations. Even I ended up on the receiving end more than once when I didn’t get a training field ready in time or simply didn’t get reports written to his satisfaction. It was, as animal trainers might say, a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to leadership, a tried-and-true method that worked well.

Over time, he began giving me more responsibility as I understood more about how the base worked, everything from simple report writing to training new arrivals. An eighty-pegasus outpost nestled in a rocky crag overlooking a canyon that marked the furthest western fringe of the Gryphon/Equestrian border, it was indeed a place with comparatively little action, somewhat to my frustration after weeks of fruitless patrols where the most I ever saw of the gryphons were some shed feathers on the valley floor. But I had certainly settled into my role as Sundiver’s second, and found myself mildly amazed at it.

Wonder what Wind Whistler would think if she could see me now? I asked myself with a grin, resolving to write her again at the earliest opportunity.

Three months after my arrival, we had settled into a routine of drill, eat, sleep, patrol, repeat.

In my case, there was also inspect, train and write reports, the latter of which I had come to despise most of all my duties, though to be certain my penponyship had improved considerably from the rough scrawl it started as—even Wind Whistler in her last letter had noted somewhat teasingly how good it was getting. I had also become good friends with Blindside and most of the mares of her squad; even taken to wearing the white fur dye, blue uniform and lighter armor of the Aerial Corps whenever I went out with them, though I still made a point to drill in my heavier armor to make sure I didn’t lose my ability to fight in it. In fact, whenever I went out on patrol, the only outward sign I was actually a Guardspony was the red three-stripe inverted-V rank insignia on my uniform collar, different than the upright silver ones the Corps wore.

But regardless of the uniform I was wearing, fighting was not something I’d gotten to do since I’d been there. None of us had; the frontier had been very quiet, as was often the case that far west.

It might have been complacency after months of no action, the latest storm off to our east drawing off two of our six pegasus squads to help deal with it, or the fact that some pegasi were starting to go on leave in advance of the winter holidays, leaving us even more short-hoofed. It might have been planned, or we might have just been a target of opportunity. But either way… all that changed in dramatic fashion one late autumn morning, with Hearth’s warming just weeks away.

It began as a breezy, cold, but otherwise ordinary day. Winter was coming, and this far away from the heart of Equestria we were more or less at the mercy of wild weather, rain-and-snow-laden storm fronts rolling out of the heart of the Gryphon Empire that I tended to think were just a means to torment ponies and keep Aerial Corps weather teams busy. We were told that sometimes the Gryphons took advantage of such storms to launch raids, knowing pegasi would be pulled from other sectors to deal with them, but it hadn’t happened once in the twelve weeks I’d been there.

The first sign that something was wrong was an overdue patrol flight. A flight was a lowest level of Aerial Corps organization, a simple four-pegasus element with a PFC usually in charge, though I’d led them myself just to gain experience and get out on patrol more. I was prepared to chalk it up to strong canyon winds on a breezy day, but a half-hour late was a little much.

Lieutenant Sundiver thought so too, immediately moving the base to a higher alert level and readying additional patrols, even donning his own armor for the first time since I’d been there. As for myself, I had an odd sense of foreboding, my shortened mane hairs standing on end as I stood on the canyon edge and the breeze picked up again, carrying a myriad of sounds and smells…

It was a sixth sense that would serve me well in the years to come, and this was the first time I felt it. At the time, however, I thought I might only be imagining catching a brief scent and hearing a distant trill. “Sergeant!” Sundiver snapped me out of my reverie as even more ominously, there was a report that the outpost’s magical anti-intrusion enchantments had suddenly stopped working. “Gear up! Take Blindside’s squad and sweep the canyon within three leagues of base. If you spot gryphons, observe and report back immediately but do not engage unless attacked!” he told me.

“But sir! If they’re on our side of the canyon…” I protested as I pulled on my wingblade harness, but trailed off as Sundiver pinned me with a glare.

“Trespassing alone is not grounds for attack, Sergeant. And I’m not sending any more ponies into an ambush! We’re not doing anything until we know what we’re up against…”

I had barely time to acknowledge the command before a series of blinding flashes and deafening booms left my eyes seeing spots and ears ringing. Thunder gems! Some part of me automatically identified, remembering one of Sundiver’s earlier lessons on gryphon weaponry, realizing it was a prelude to a raid as a series of large figures popped up from beneath the cliff edge and a volley of projectiles whistled out of the air.

My Guardspony training and instincts forged in a hundred training duels kicking in, I dodged immediately, a narrow arrow-like object passing close by my ear. Other ponies were not so fortunate, as I heard a series of muffled cries. I looked up, terrified I was going to see ponies with crossbow bolts sticking out of them, only to see some kind of odd, feathered dart stuck in shoulders and necks, through watery eyes.

Pinion Darts! I recognized from another briefing. Their tips typically coated in a quick-acting sleeping potion, they were fired from blowpipes and from them immediately realized from them our assailants’ intent—they weren’t here to kill us, but to capture us, and with a half-dozen ponies already down in addition to our missing patrol, they were off to a good start.

As my vision cleared, I beheld our adversaries for the first time—black-garbed figures with leonine hindquarters and various hues of chest feathers, front legs that ended in eagle talons, long, curved scimitars strapped to their backs and helmeted heads under which peered out two large eyes over a long, predatory beak. They were generally larger than pegasi, and certainly stronger being they were mostly males.

Despite my initial revulsion at their appearance—and ’twould be a lie not to say a moment a fear as well—I didn’t waste any time. Pulling out a special red gem, I threw it to the ground, breaking it open and releasing its contained magic. Immediately, alarm bells rang throughout the outpost, startling everypony into alertness. Sundiver nodded at me, and pulled out his own gem, this one blue. “ROUSE UP! ROUSE UP! WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!his voice boomed throughout the outpost, followed quickly by the sound of a different alarm bell ringing. I could hear pegasi scrambling to get airborne and battle-ready; in addition, I knew that the unicorns in the infirmary were preparing to receive injuries.

The gryphons had been briefly startled when the bells went off, but as Sundiver barked out his orders, they recovered and quickly resumed their strike, picking off more ponies with their darts as they emerged. Three of them dove directly for him, the obvious leader whilst another three went for me, more pinion darts flying out from their blowpipes. Adrenaline surging through me, I back-flipped away, beating my wings to give me more breathing room as the darts hit the dirt in front of me. One of them swooped in, intending to pin me with his talons; I flipped over him, and slammed my hooves on the base of his wings. He gave a pained squawk as he plowed into the ground, wings completely numbed by the attack as I quickly followed up, knocking him cold with a hoofstriker hit to his head.

The attack had been half-instinct on my part, having done the same to pegasi in prior duels; it was good to know that gryphons, too, were vulnerable to being disabled in such a way. But I had no time to rest, as his two friends came at me, one wielding bolas, which she began twirling over her head with increasing velocity, and the other quickly reloading his blowpipe.

I didn’t know why they weren’t going for their swords or even using their talons, but didn’t question my good fortune as I immediately shot towards the bolas-wielding eagless—their term for gryphon females, though we often used decidedly more derogatory ones—before she could bring them full up to speed. Startled by the sudden move, she tried to fend me off with her free claws, taking several defensive swipes and using her wings to buy time and distance to use her bolas but I wasn’t having it, using the strength I’d developed in basic to blast right through her guard and drive a hoofstriker into the bottom of her beak. Her head snapped back, her eyes rolled back in their sockets, and she fell from the sky along with the bolas from her grasp.

With that, I turned my attention to the third gryphon, who had just finished reloading but hadn’t been able to draw a bead on me; I’d been moving too fast. I shot under him then up behind and saw him twist in midair, discarding his blowpipe and going for the sword on his back.

I moved in quickly, out of fear—not of his weapon, but of the escalation; by our rules of engagement, lethal force was to be met with lethal force. And Windshear was right; I did NOT want to resort to it. So I put on a burst of speed and tackled him in midair before he could draw his weapon, ignoring his alien smells as I went for his head, pinning it in the crook of my foreleg, putting pressure on his carotid artery.

He squawked once and struggled, his claws digging into my arms above my hoofstrikers but I didn’t let go until he went limp, dropping his fainted body to the ground.

It never ceased to amaze me how combat seemed to slow time down. It had taken me less than twenty seconds to knock out three gryphons, yet if I’d been asked, I would have said it felt more like a minute. But regardless, now that I’d taken care of the immediate threats, I set about looking for other targets only to remember Sundiver’s words—I was a leader, and my responsibility was to the outpost and the ponies under my command, directing them in the fight.

I wasted no time, gathering the disoriented remains of two squads and setting them immediately on our assailants, using flights of four pegasi to dispatch a single gryphon whilst Sundiver solidified the outpost’s defenses, proving he was no mere desk officer by taking out two attackers himself. He paid a painful price, however, a bolas to the chest cracking his ribs and knocking the wind out of him, but he turned that to his advantage, using his injury to draw in the triumphant gryphon tiercel only to blast forward and drive both hoofstrikers into his chest, breaking his ribs in payback.

Their initial advantage lost and the base now fully rousted, the weight of our numbers started to tell as we chased down the remaining assailants. Sundiver ignored objections and led the direct assault despite his bleeding barrel whilst I led a wide sweep with Blindside’s squad to hunt down stragglers and cut off our enemy’s retreat, taking out two more raiders personally. Finally, we cornered our remaining quarry against the cliffside, where they were still trying to get away with their remaining prize—a single unconscious Aerial Corps pegasus stallion, which they now held hostage, a pinion dart sticking out of his shoulder and a scimitar blade to his throat.

That immediately froze their pursuers. Understandably, as it was a move designed to play on the fears and protective instincts of mares, and it even gave me pause… but in the end did not dissuade me. Not after training with stallions and all the duels I’d fought with them. “Harm him, and all of you die,” I flew forward and informed them coldly, deploying my wingblades for emphasis, the pair audibly locking into position on the leading edges of my wings, hoping against hope they wouldn’t force me to make good my threat as the Aerial Corps pegasi immediately followed suit with a series of metallic ringing sounds, like blades drawn from scabbards. “Release him, and you may leave with your lives.”

Trapped, their apparent leader looked to her remaining comrades then back to me. Whatever thoughts were passed between them, I caught nearly imperceptible nods. “We surrender,” she announced in accented Equestrian, dropping her scimitar to the ground and then holding her front paws up, palms out. “And methinks you’ll be wanting this refuse back?” she shoved the still-unconscious pegasus stallion hostage at me.

“Thank you…” I all but hissed to cover up my relief, retracted my blades, then proceeded to knock each of them senseless in turn.

* * * * *

After slapping leg and wing shackles on their unconscious forms, we dragged them back to base and threw them into separate holding cells, where a bucket of water in the face woke them up. After a brief interrogation, which revealed nothing of value except that they had apparently been paid in gems by unknown agents for their work—a substantial fee up front, and then a bounty on each live pony they brought back, surprisingly subject to forfeiture if any at the outpost were killed—the orders came from division headquarters to release them in exchange for the immediate return of the patrol flight they’d ambushed and captured earlier.

“The gryphons are claiming this group acted on their own,” a wounded Sundiver read the latest missive from division headquarters even as he was being treated, “and are demanding we give them back so ‘they can be punished appropriately’, saying they can’t ‘guarantee the safety of our soldiers’ until we do.” He shook his head in disgust, and I couldn’t help but do the same.

Acted on their own? Hardly likely. So there’s no punishment, and nary a response from us, either… I groused but obeyed my orders, stripping the trio of all their remaining armor and weaponry before escorting them with an entire squad to the canyon edge.

Once I had word from Sundiver that our missing patrol had been released—even more infuriatingly, I later learned we had also paid a ransom for their return—their shackles were unlocked. “We’ll be back,” their eagless leader said as she sat back to rub her wrists, giving me a cocksure grin that made me want to smack her again.

“And we’ll be waiting,” I immediately rejoined, giving her a glare back.

“Hmph,” she tossed her cream-feathered head. “Methinks you got off easy, Guardspony,” she said with a nod at my red collar insignia.

My eyes narrowed. “And methinks so did you,” I told her, getting up in her face—both to memorize her features and try to prove I wasn’t intimidated by her. “’Tis lucky you did not slay anypony this day, or you wouldst have paid an equal price!” I told her, still fiercely glad I had not been forced to make that choice.

She stared back at me, then grinned as if she could sense that doubt and weakness within me. “And ‘tis lucky we were told not to… or you wouldst now be dead,” the eagless replied as she and his compatriots took flight, cackling as she left. “Until next time… my little pony!”

We escorted them as far as the far canyon wall, then watched them fly back into their home territory until they were out of sight.

* * * * *

By the time we got back, we found the outpost still in an uproar, ponies getting treated for cuts, concussions and sleeping drugs… as well as more than a few broken bones. All in all, the base had just lost nearly half its remaining strength, and Sundiver had already called for reinforcements via dragonfire gems, with three veteran squads from Outpost Omega promised to arrive the following morning. “Sergeant,” he called to me in a somewhat pained voice as I entered the infirmary. “’Tis done?”

“’Tis done,” I confirmed, feeling post-battle fatigue finally starting to settle in, the adrenaline rush wearing off leaving my legs shaky. For now… I couldn’t help but add, remembering their leader’s last words, for the first time feeling some pain from the gryphon claws that had earlier been dug into my forelegs.

He nodded through another grimace. “Bully. You’re in charge of the outpost until I’m back on my hooves. Methinks this is no time to relax,” he warned me. “They may follow up with an additional raid whilst we’re weakened. Be ready,” he warned me through clenched teeth as his ribs were magically reset back into position with a sickening sound in his chest, the overworked unicorn medic immediately turning her healing magic to repair the internal damage, which judging by his wheezing included a punctured lung.

“Aye sir. But still… we drove off our assailants with minimal casualties,” I reminded him. “We got our prisoners back and suffered no deaths, wounding eleven and capturing six. Against a score of gryphon warriors, surely that is cause to celebrate?”

“Celebrate?” Sundiver shook his head sharply as the unicorn healer continued to attend him, sighing with relief as a painkiller potion began to take effect. “No, Sergeant. We got lucky. Those weren’t warriors, just raiders,” he corrected me, using a casual term for Gryphon irregular fighters and mercenaries. “You saw their garb. They weren’t real soldiers, just thieves and cutthroats they pay to test our defenses and stir up trouble. And they still nearly beat us,” he shook his head in disbelief.

“They were paid to capture, not kill, or we’d’ve lost many in their initial attack. And for as limp-winged as they caught us, methinks if they were actual Talons or Knights, we’d all now be prisoner or been slain to the last pony,” he shook his head again as he surveyed the dozen pegasi still in the infirmary. “Still… ‘twas thanks to your prowess and ability to quickly rally our forces they did not succeed. And for that, you have earned my gratitude and respect… Guardsmare,” he called me for the first time.

I immediately stood to attention and saluted. “I protect and serve my fellow ponies sir,” I recited part of the Guardspony oath. “And you’re welcome,” I added before taking my leave, going outside to organize patrols and rebuild our shattered defenses.

Author's Note:

Hope you enjoyed Firefly’s first skirmish! In addition to this new chapter, there have been some retcons made to earlier ones to make language use more consistent so characters don’t lapse into more modern English as opposed to the more archaic form they’re supposed to be speaking.

There are probably going to be significant changes made to the first two chapters in the days to come, with new scenes and sequences added, since some of the feedback I’ve gotten is that Firefly needs a better introduction and fleshing out when introducing her to readers; scenes from her past described in greater detail to help readers relate to her. Any suggestions of your own, feel free to make them.

Thanks as always to co-writer Leo Archon for some superb sequences and helping me past a couple points of writer’s block, to prereader AJ_Aficionado for his continuous feedback and running commentary, and a special shout-out goes to Denim_Blue for writing a private review and adding his own like to the pile. Still trying to pick up a few more, but the story goes on regardless. Thanks for reading!


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