• 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 7 - Innocence Lost

I had to learn the hard way that there are two lines in life that once you cross, you can never go back. One was pleasurable, the other decidedly not. The latter happened long before the former for me, and marked a loss of innocence that only those ponies who have directly experienced it can understand.

Growing up, I knew none of this. All I did know was that I enjoyed fighting. That I liked to duel. That I loved the adrenaline rush of combat, would even later learn I thrived on it. Even as a filly I sensed I had been born for battle, that a warrior was what I was meant to be. So I eagerly devoured old military stories. I studied all the fighting manuals I could. I looked with admiration on the exploits of pegasus heroes both past and present, like Commander Hurricane or Captain Typhoon.

And yet, through it all, there was something important that escaped me. An act and duty I would one day be called upon to perform. ’Twas a day when I would finally answer the dreaded question that Windshear had put to me...

The day that naive young filly finally learned what it was to be a warrior, and the terrible price that must be paid.

I’d been in charge for less than an hour, yet already found myself near wits’ end.

Having assisted Sundiver in his duties before, I knew well how he did most of his functions. I knew that, as the outpost’s commanding officer, he was responsible for much. And yet, I still didn’t know just how much until I stepped into his place. The sheer number of tasks that needed doing—patrol assignments and drill schedules, daily reports and supply requisitions among others—daunted me, and for a moment, I wondered what Sundiver had been thinking, choosing me for his second-in-command.

Thank Celestia that Blindside was there. She had emerged from the skirmish virtually unscathed along with her entire squad; I had noted with approval she had put down at least two raiders herself during our pursuit, dodging darts and bolas with surprising ease. When she stepped into the outpost commander’s office, she found me ready to tear my own feathers out, bemoaning how much there was to do. However, she said nothing; she merely took a seat next to me and began aiding me with the reports, the schedules, and everything else.

“I may lack one working eye, but writing has never been difficult for me, nor has planning,” she told me in response to my astonished look as she sorted through the report scrolls quickly, filling out all the various forms for me with a surprisingly practiced pen. She clearly came from a very learned background and I found myself thinking that she and Wind Whistler would get along quite well, should they ever meet.

That was all on the evening immediately following the attack. Tensions were still running high, and I decided to put my fledgling leadership skills to the test. Leaving Blindside in charge of the paperwork seemed to be the best solution on that front, so I went out to take care of the troops, assembling our remaining twenty effectives in the training field and reorganizing them into two improvised squads. As we were down to nearly a quarter of our normal operating strength until promised reinforcements arrived, I announced that everypony in the base would have to pull double-shifts on patrols.

“This attack on us happened because we grew lax,” I snapped through the groan of dismay that arose from my words. “Methinks they chose us because they thought us an easy target. No longer. From now on, we wear armor at all times whilst on duty, not just out on patrol. Further, all patrols are doubled; we will have two flights out at any given time and keep visual contact between them, so that if one runs into trouble, the other can assist and alert the outpost.

“We will also no longer rely on magical detection; we will be setting up cloud perches in spite of the wind and the watchtower is to be staffed at all times,” I recited, stalking down the line. “There shall be no repeat of what happened here today! Is that quite clear?

There was a brief pause, before one corporal snapped a salute, and barked out, “Ma’am, yes ma’am!” He was followed soon after by the rest of the outpost’s remaining garrison.

“Bully,” I nodded. With that, I set up a new patrol and training schedule with Blindside, keeping it flexible so that the veteran squads could be cycled in.

* * * * *

Early the next morning found me waiting by the outpost’s landing pad, Blindside at my side as we watched three naval transports arrive from Outpost Omega. I’d decided to welcome them personally to the outpost, as Sundiver had with Blindside’s squad and myself. As the carriages landed and the troops disembarked, I approached.

One Corps mare, the ranking member of the group to judge by her collar insignia, saw me approaching and trotted over to meet me. “Sergeant First Class Fell Flight,” she introduced herself brusquely. She stood half again as tall as I did, making her quite sizeable as pegasus mares went. She presented an intimidating spectacle, less for her size and the rough-hewn gryphon blade clipped to her uniform vest than her eyes. Though her wings were feathered and her ears normal for a pony, she had the slitted cat-pupils of a thestral.

Still, as I had with Blindside, I kept my surprise to a minimum. “Sergeant Firefly, acting commander of Outpost Epsilon,” I replied, giving her a salute. “’Tis good you’ve come, Sergeant First Class. Many of us are still convalescing in the wake of yesterday’s raid.”

She seemed to ignore me for a moment, glancing around and not returning the salute, a fact which made me narrow my eyes slightly. Her gaze fell briefly on my red Guardspony rank insignia and when she looked at me again, her green cat-eyes held a look of disdain—the same look many of my superiors in the Guard had on first meeting me. “Is this some sort of jest, Sergeant? You are the outpost’s acting commander?”

I schooled my expression into a neutral glower. “Aye. ’Twas on Lieutenant Sundiver’s orders that I take his place until he has finished healing.”

Fell Flight snorted in response. “Orders or no, I am two ranks above you. I direct that you cede command of the outpost to me, as the ranking pony.”

Blindside stepped up before I could reply. “Equestrian Aerial Corps Military Protocol, Article Seven, Section Twelve clearly states that an outpost commander who is taken off duty for the purposes of healing may name his temporary replacement as he sees fit, and nopony of less than commissioned officer rank may countermand his orders.”

I looked from her to Fell Flight, impressed that Blindside could recite that on cue. “There you have it, Sergeant. First Lieutenant Sundiver’s orders were explicit.”

If I’d hoped she would be pacified by that knowledge, the anger that flashed through her slitted eyes told me I was mistaken. “So I am to take orders from some guardsmare who has yet to see actual combat?!” she scoffed. “’Tis an insult and an outrage!”

In the crowd of veterans, I could see many murmuring their own discontent. I’d heard of this mare; ’twas said she’d endured much to join the Corps in the face of light blindness and bigotry against her thestral blood. She had earned her place and the Corps’ highest award for heroism following a daring cross-border rescue of kidnapped ponies some years earlier, and she was now said to be one of the Corps’ premiere soldiers.

Still, her exploits did not excuse her arrogance, and I kept my expression neutral. “Sergeant First Class, I highly suggest you mind your tongue. ”

“And why, pray tell, should I?” she shot back. “I have served in the Corps for six years. I have fought gryphons many a time, and lived to tell the tale with nary a scratch on my body.” She stepped closer to me, a challenge implicit in her angry gaze. “I am a highly decorated Wing Warrior with command experience, and I will not take orders from some hatchling of a guardsmare who is two ranks my junior!”

I idly reflected that this must be how Windshear felt when I’d first confronted him months earlier. And thus, I responded much as he did back then. “Flattery will get you nowhere with me, Sergeant Flight. Now, either you acknowledge me as your commanding officer until Lieutenant Sundiver recovers, and I forget that charming little repartee… or you continue making a foal of yourself and I put you in your richly-deserved place.” With effort, I kept the smile off my face.

Her reaction was much like mine, to my own guilty pleasure. “Put me in my place?!” she snarled, stepping close enough that we were nearly muzzle-to-muzzle, her wings flared in anger. “And what arrogance leads a waif like you to presume to place me anywhere?!”

Perchance she’d sought to intimidate me with her larger size, but such a plan was doomed to failure. I had easily bested every Guardspony pegasus recruit in grappling and even wrestled (unsuccessfully) with Stonehoof, an earth pony stallion who outweighed me nearly three to one. Even in his case, it had taken the better part of a half-minute to pin me, and he had conceded that it was only his earth pony stamina and strength that gave him his victory. As such, I was hardly intimidated by a pegasus mare who was but half his size. More to the point, she had stepped in too close to me, giving me a very easy opening.

In answer, my forehoof slammed into her barrel, quick as lightning. Her eyes bulged as the wind was forced from her lungs, but I didn’t stop there. Hooking one forehoof under her neck and the other above it, I lifted her over my head and slammed her back-first into the ground behind me. It was a move I’d learned from a book from Germaneigh, called a ‘suplex’. And Wind Whistler had been a very good sport, letting me practice it on her.

Whilst Fell Flight was stunned, both from lack of air and being slammed into the ground, I rolled over backwards to straddle her, pinning her in place as I deployed my wingblade at her throat. She looked up at me, eyes wide in shock and no small amount of fear.

I held the threatening pose for several long seconds to make sure the message was driven home, just as Windshear had done with me. “Under normal circumstances, I would have you thrown in the brig for open insubordination and conduct unbecoming,” I ground out the words, holding the blade in place a moment longer before sheathing it and stepping off of her. “However, these are not normal circumstances. I need all the aid I can muster… and an experienced second-in-command I can trust.” I offered her a hoof along with the position. She accepted, albeit reluctantly, and I pulled her back to her hooves.

“M-my apologies, commander,” she said somewhat shakily, using the title for a noncom who was put in charge of a facility like this. “Perchance I may ask how you learned to fight like that?”

I gave her a sideways glance. “The training for the Royal Guard’s armored division is brutal, Sergeant First Class. Barely a quarter of those who attempt it make it through. And Sergeant Major Windshear is a taskmaster like no other. He made sure I would not leave basic without being able to best all who challenged me.”

I had decided to drop Windshear’s name to gauge her reaction, as well as those of the other veterans. Not surprisingly, they all seemed astonished, Fell Flight most of all. “You trained under Sergeant Major Windshear?” she asked, her voice reverent. “He was my former commander. He is now legend amongst the Corps.”

“So I hear,” I replied blandly. “’Twas not easy, being yelled at and drilled by him for six months straight, and my duel with him prior to my graduation was easily the most difficult victory I’ve ever earned.”

Her eyes went wide and jaw dropped open. “Then… the rumors…”

“They are true,” Blindside spoke up, smirking. “Before she could graduate as the first guardsmare, Sergeant Firefly was required by no less than Captain Typhoon to best Sergeant Major Windshear in a full-combat aerial duel, decided only by surrender or death. That is how she earned her place and rank.”

If they were astonished before, the veterans were dumbfounded now. Fell Flight worked her jaw for a moment, before straightening up and saluting. “It will be a pleasure to aid you, ma’am!” she barked out. As one, the other veterans fell into line and saluted as well.

I allowed myself a smirk of my own. “At ease, then. Let’s get you all situated.”

* * * * *

My command of Output Epsilon lasted two weeks.

Sundiver recovered well enough to resume the bulk of his duties within days but was temporarily recalled to division headquarters ‘for urgent consultations’, over his own protests. He couldn’t tell me what that meant, except that it had something to do with the previous gryphon raid. Unicorn mares from the Equestrian Intelligence Service were still trying to figure out how they’d shut down our magical intrusion detection network and slipped a score of raiders in without us knowing, and had few answers as yet—at least, none they were willing to share.

The ponies they’d taken hostage had indeed been returned none the worse for wear, most bewildered at what had happened to them. They had no memory of their captivity past the initial ambush; the Gryphon sleeping potion they coated their pinion darts with was potent and could knock out a large stallion within seconds. After passing magical scans, most were allowed to return to active duty, though some seemed confused, having lapses in memory like they were suffering concussions.

Our unicorn medics chalking it up to a passing side effect of the sleeping potion, they convalesced at a large Equestrian Army base in the city of Maresk. Meanwhile, the rest of us prepared to mark Hearth’s Warming on the frontier with nothing more than a few decorated pine branches, some minor gifts and a somewhat meager feast.

’Twas a holiday that had never meant much to me, having little in the way of family. The orphanage did try to provide us a decent time during the season; a few toys, scarfs or scrolls given as gifts on the day in question.

Growing up, I had spent a couple Hearth’s Warmings with Wind Whistler’s family, though I’d stopped when it became clear they thought of me as little more than a ruffian and troublemaker. They had never really approved of Wind Whistler being my friend, but in the end relented after I saved her from the Diamond Dogs, even going so far as to thank me personally and pay my healer bills.

Nevertheless, I recognized its importance to other ponies, and ’twas with great reluctance that many requests for leave that came across my desk were denied, and some already scheduled were cancelled. Division headquarters was adamant, however, seeing an uptick in gryphon activity and recalling that in the past, they’d staged raids over the holidays knowing our frontier forces were weakened.

We would not be caught off guard again, the directive came down, and border towns were placed on alert as well. If they were hit, the Equestrian Army would defend them, but the Corps remained the first line of defense.

It had been my intention upon assuming command that I would continue to look the part of an Aerial Corps pegasus and not flaunt my Guardspony status. However, ’twas recommended by no less than Sundiver himself that I don my armor and switch my colors to the grey fur dye of the Guard to make my status clear, believing it would help head off any further questions of command or potential challenges. Thus I did so, making rounds and going out on patrol in full Guardspony battle armor, astonishing many Aerial Corps pegasi with my ability to fly and fight in it. I even allowed Fell Flight to try it on just so she could understand how strong I really was; she could barely get off the ground in it. That earned me additional respect with her, and the squads under her command.

“You must be part earth pony, to carry all that weight so effortlessly!” she’d exclaimed, getting her over-taxed wing muscles massaged to help them recover from the strain. In truth, I had no idea if she was right, but as I’d always been stronger than the pegasus norm, ’twas certainly a possibility. There wasn’t much interbreeding among the pony races yet, though Fell Flight’s thestral eyes were certainly proof it happened.

I could only imagine how rough her upbringing was for it, and it did gain her a strong measure of respect in my eyes. Thestrals remained in severe disfavor throughout greater Equestria for allying with Nightmare Moon nearly three centuries before, and as a result, kept mostly to themselves in the ceded province of Thestralslovakia; the capital of which was a town called Hollow Shades.

Though physically weaker than the average pegasus, they were cat-quick, possessing superlative senses and night vision. Fell Flight certainly had the latter, and I found myself glad for her presence and willingness to stand night watch; her slitted feline eyes reassuring me that we would not be caught unaware by a nighttime raid.

Three days before Hearth’s Warming, Sundiver had still not returned, sending word that senior division commanders remained heads-down trying to discern the intent of recent Gryphon activity. That was above my pay grade but I’d settled into my command quite well; there had been no further challenges and my ability to best all comers in training matches, even longtime veterans, had earned me a great deal of respect.

After making my customary final patrol round after dusk, I turned the outpost over to Fell Flight for the night and retired to my quarters. Technically, I was allowed to take Sundiver’s private quarters for the duration of my command but refused, feeling it belonged to the First Lieutenant. I’d been instead sleeping in the senior enlisted bunks with the other veteran sergeants, though there’d been a couple nights we’d stayed up late swapping stories or playing cards.

There would be time for neither sleep nor card games that night as a series of alarm gems suddenly activated throughout the base, glowing bright red and emitting a shrill sound as they vibrated hard in their casing. They could only be set off via remote magic at division headquarters, and their use meant an attack was underway.

The outpost responded immediately, ponies spilling out of bunks to hastily don their flight gear and make for the armory, pulling on wingblade assemblies and even readying a few storm clouds if they were needed. Whilst they assembled, I immediately flew up to the tower, where Fell Flight had already received a message from division HQ via dragonfire gem.

I scanned it and learned a large force of gryphons had broken past our defenses near Outpost Delta—they’d hit a town on the other side of Delta halfway to Outpost Gamma hard to draw in the bulk of the Corps ready forces from both bases, and now a second force estimated at sixty strong was slicing through the gap that had created in our patrol screens, descending on the town of Gallop, nearly eighty miles inside Equestria.

They’d chosen their target well. Being set back so far from the border, that town, a farming community, didn’t have an Army presence, only earth pony militia, and their fighting quality was said by Sundiver to be highly suspect at best. In any event, my orders were clear—intercept immediately, protect the townponies, and… as nearly a dozen Corps pegasi had been slain in the attack on Alpha, we were to go in ‘hot’, with wingblades on!

I stared at the order for a moment, praying I’d misread it, but there was no mistake—the gryphons had returned, and this time they were out for blood. And thus, we were to respond in kind.

“Commander?” Fell Flight prompted, sensing my sudden anxiety and giving me a wary look. “Orders?”

I forced myself to focus and drive my fears away—ponies were in trouble, and Epsilon was the only uncommitted border force in this sector. Sundiver had done his best to teach me squad and platoon-level tactics, and ’twas now time to put them to the test.

“Leave two squads here to defend the base, as well as one weather team, with orders to go on continuous patrol. The rest of us will head off the Gryphons. You will lead Cirrus’ and Skyfire’s squads to a blocking position east of town and position our other two weather teams to bracket the gryphons with lightning as they approach.

“When they arrive, you’ll hold them there whilst I make a wide sweep with Blindside and Derecho’s squads and attempt to… well, blindside them,” I winced at my clumsy phrasing. “I want your eyes in front, Fell Flight. You need to spot them before they see us so we can position properly and get the first strike in. Signal via flare when you’re heavily engaged, then look for us to attack out of the moon,” I nodded upwards at the Mare in the Moon, hoping her light might shine favorably upon us that night.

“Aye-aye, ma’am!” she acknowledged and started barking out orders whilst I donned my own armor, trying to ignore the growing tightness in my chest.

On paper, ’twas a good plan, one I was certain Sundiver would approve. I was sending the veteran squads and weather teams lead by my senior NCO and best pair of eyes to find and hold the gryphons whilst I slashed in with two more squads from an unexpected direction, hopefully breaking up their raid before it could hit the town proper. I cringed again at the idea that I might be required to kill, but I cringed even more at the thought of the Gallop townponies preparing Hearth’s Warming festivities in their homes with no idea of what was about to hit them. In the past the gryphons had shown little regard for civilians, and utter contempt for pony holidays.

My armor on, I donned my flight goggles and wingblades, which felt strangely heavy against my back. I did not deploy them, even though many corps pegasi already had.

Nothing said I had to before we arrived at the scene.

* * * * *

We took flight at 2335 hours, scarcely eight minutes after the alarms had sounded—I was gratified by the rapid reaction of the base, at least. The town of Gallop was seventy-five miles away, and the Gryphons had a head start on us. But whilst they had stamina, we had speed, and we closed the distance quickly; within thirty minutes the town lights were in sight. I wasn’t sure whether or not to be relieved by that; on the one hoof it meant the town had not been hit yet, on the other they were completely unaware the gryphons were coming.

And how could they NOT be? My brow furrowed. Methinks if we were alerted, they would have been as well…

Something wasn’t right. Ordering my two squads to alight and rest on a nearby hill that overlooked the town, I swooped in and found the town of Gallop… not on alert, but readying for the holidays, the pubs open and earth ponies and a few unicorns bustling about despite the late hour. Here and there was some caroling, a pegasus weather team was assembling snow clouds overhead without a care in the world, whilst the town militia base had barely any activity at all, shut down in anticipation of Hearths Warming.

Normally, I would present myself at the front gate, but there was no time. I blasted right through the perimeter—the base was so lax that even the anti-intrusion enchantments had not been kept powered—and, finding the messages and mail office, I burst in through a window to find… a single earth pony sentry standing low watch, though ‘standing’ was a very generous term given he was sleeping on duty.

His uniform tunic was unbuttoned and he himself was snoring softly as he lounged back in his chair, his hind hooves propped on his desk and forehooves hanging limply to the sides, a spilled mug of cider nog having fallen from one. “Corporal!” I barked, startling him awake, causing him to lose his balance and fall backwards to the floor.

“What? Who?” he focused with some difficulty on the surprising sight of a mare in silver and red Guardspony armor wearing a blue-and-white Aerial Corps wingblade harness. “Oh, wow. Nice costume, filly, but methinks Nightmare Night was two months ago…”

The narrowing of my eyes gave him pause. “I am Sergeant Firefly of the Royal Guard, you brainless twit! Who is your commanding officer?” I demanded to know. “Why are you not on alert? Did you not receive word of a gryphon attack?”

The stallion stared at me like I was crazy. “Filly, what are you talking about? What word? What attack?”

Sensing I was getting nowhere, I scanned the magical communications gems arrayed behind him. The alert gem was dark; there were no message scrolls waiting beside the dragonfire gems either. He may have been a buffoon, but he was telling the truth; they’d received no word of any intrusion or attack, and ’twas beyond belief that word had gotten to us but not to them. Impossible, even. “No attack? Then why were we…?”

A sudden chill went down my spine. In that moment, I sensed what was happening, and what the real target was. “They’re not coming here,” I whispered, a huge pit forming in my stomach. “They’re coming for…”


Without bothering to reply, I shot back up into the sky and found Fell Flight. “’Tis a trick!” I told her frantically. “Methinks they sent false messages to our alert and dragonfire gems!”

“How?” Fell Flight asked, visibly skeptical in the moonlight, her thestral eyes glowing with its reflected light. “Their communication magic is supposed to be unbreachable. And if ’tis a trick, to what end? If they’re not coming here, then where—?” Her eyes went wide as the only possible answer hit her even before I spoke my next words.

“Don’t you see?” I made a sweeping motion with my hoof, trying to bite back the fear and panic threatening to overwhelm me. “’Twas all a ruse! They were just trying to draw the bulk of us away! They’re not raiding Gallop, they’re attacking EPSILON!”

The forty minutes that followed were the longest and most harrowing of my life.

I wanted to head back immediately, but I dared not without first getting the word out. Realizing that the dragonfire gems could not be trusted, I wrote a series of hasty notes in the militia base communications office, personally (and rather rudely) rousting the drunken commander and ordering his ponies to stand to.

Gathering up my scattered squads, I dispatched several couriers to make the long flight to Outpost Delta and Division HQ to let them know what was happening. Then, leaving a full squad behind to brace the town defenses just in case, I flew with the remaining fifty Corps pegasi of my command back towards Epsilon in platoon echelon-V formation, one squad up front and two held back and higher up on the wings.

My instinct was to rush back, and before basic I might have just charged in headlong. But Sundiver’s training and bitter lessons of lost duels had taught me tactical sense and I knew we had to approach carefully lest we fly into an ambush. As I flew at the head of the formation, I couldn’t help but wonder… would the outpost still be there? Was the raid already finished and would we arrive to find all the defenders dead? And if so, would it not be my fault? Should I not have suspected a trick or at least left more pegasi behind to defend the base?

“Recriminations can wait, Commander,” Fell Flight noticed my brooding, the veteran Sergeant First Class snapping me out of my worried thoughts. “Focus on the battle to come. We’ll be on top of the base in minutes and we need to know what we’re up against. We should reconnoiter first.”

“Aye,” I forced my fears from my head and concentrated on the task at hoof, going forward with Blindside’s squad as scouts and leaving the two veteran squads in reserve with Fell Flight. We circled west, hiding in the cloud bank and approaching low through the canyon, finally closing within a mile to find…

There was a pitched battle underway, and appeared to have been for some time, raucous gryphon cries mixing with defiant shouts from inside the base. The outpost was afire in places, the ponies defending it to the last. The weather team I’d left behind was still active as well, if the bolts of lightning were any indication, but as I got closer I realized they were not the source—in the center of the small storm was a single figure, a stave-wielding eagless surrounded by a glowing spherical shield, electricity crackling around her as she gathered up magical energy for another strike on the stubborn defenders…

A Mage Gryphon!

Whilst she wielded her arcane magic to bring lethal bolts down on the base repeatedly, setting fresh fires and slowly bringing the structure down, her compatriots tried to gain entry to the lower levels where the remaining defenders had holed up. My heart clenched as I found the ground around the base littered with the bodies of a dozen fallen ponies and at least half again as many gryphons—though badly outnumbered, the defenders had given a very good account of themselves.

Judging by the secondhoof armor and green-dyed attire they were wearing, ’twas the same raider group as before. It looked for all the world to me like another capture raid gone wrong and now, incensed at their losses, they had simply upgraded their orders from kidnap to kill. They seemed determined to wipe out the stubborn resistance, earth-gryphons pounding on doors and walls with war hammers to gain entry to the barracks and headquarters bunkers and as I watched, one struggling unicorn healer stallion was pulled out and run through, screaming his last as his life’s blood spilled free.

My guts clenched at the wanton murder of a male—far worse, a male under my command. My teeth clenched and hooves shook. Time was short, and I had no idea how long the survivors had or even how many were left. All my doubts and fears fled in the face of such barbarity, and I swore I would not fail in my duty now!

Instead of blinding me like it had so many times in the past, my rage gave me new clarity. “Corporal Blindside! Take two flights and circle around from the northwest! They won’t expect an attack from the Gryphon side! Await my red signal flare, then take down the orbiting gryphons from high to low, one flight per gryphon.

”Private Shrike!” I didn’t wait for Blindside’s acknowledgement before addressing her third flight leader, the only stallion in her squad. He looked like he was in shock; his lip trembling and wetness welling in his eyes as he had seen his fellow stallion slain. Corps stallions being generally few, they tended to form tight cliques and know each other well; in hindsight it shouldn’t have surprised me that they were friends.

And that he would react no differently than I would to witnessing a friend’s death at the paws of a hated foe.

When he didn’t immediately respond, tears now streaming down his cheeks as he stared at the scene of carnage below, I grabbed his uniform collar and shook him hard, snapping him out of it. “Focus! We fight now, mourn later! Now listen carefully. Report back to Fell Flight. Tell her to converge her squads from two directions, wait for my red signal flare and then attack at once!

“Tell her we do not go in piecemeal, we strike en masse and wipe these mass-murdering chickenhawks out!” I resorted to the ugly slur for the first time. “Do you understand? Repeat what I just said!” I ordered, forcing him to look at me, worried about his state of mind.

Somewhat to my surprise, he pulled himself together with a single, shuddering breath and did so to my satisfaction. “F-Fell Flight… two directions… w-wait for flare… then kill them…” he paraphrased in clipped tones, all but hissing out the last two words between gritted teeth. As he spoke them, his eyes squeezed tightly shut for a moment before opening again, a dangerous glint in them that wasn’t there before.

The sudden change was a bit surprising for me, but a welcome one compared to how he had been but moments earlier; one that told me he was at least determined to do his duty and whatever was necessary to avenge his friend. “And you ma’am? What will you do? When will you give the signal?” Shrike all but demanded to know, a new note in his suddenly-clear voice I could only describe as both impatient and strangely eager as his gaze fixed on the gryphon who had killed the healer.

I wasn’t sure what was going on in his head, but I couldn’t worry about it then—Celestia knew there was more than enough going through mine at that moment as well. Another magical lightning strike streaked down to emphasize my next words, my voice ice cold and jaw set.

“When I take out the mage.”

* * * * *

As long as the flight back had felt, the next five minutes were even worse.

I had to stay in a hover at half a mile’s distance waiting for my instructions to be delivered and the rest of the Corps pegasi to position themselves, knowing if I struck or signaled too soon, the element of surprise would be lost, leaving us facing a far more difficult fight. Each moment of waiting was interminable to me, both because I knew that every second that passed was one in which another outpost defender could die…

And that each moment brought me closer to a single fateful action I was dreading.

When I judged enough time had passed I began moving closer. My wingblades were still not deployed, as I told myself their glint in the moonlight might give me away—I knew full well ’twas a feeble excuse, but some part of me still wished to put the moment off as long as I could. I approached her from an oblique angle to make sure I wasn’t upwind, gliding down from above as to not make a sound. Being predators, gryphons had superb hearing and sense of smell, after all.

Finally, I had closed within fifty yards and pulled one of my red ruby command gems. Though now compromised as a communication device, they had a little-known secondary use in combat; one Sundiver had taught me—they could interfere with spellcasting by disrupting magical auras when brought into contact with them. And I would need it to penetrate her magical shield, which illuminated weakly in the moonlight as she began gathering up a fresh electrical charge.

When I heard the crackling sound, I tucked my wings and dove hard on her, holding the gem held in one outstretched hoof. I hit the shield with the gem first, causing the latter to shatter and the former to shimmer and warp. The disruption weakened the magical barrier enough for me to punch right through it, though the passage was still quite painful, feeling like a thousand heated needles raking my flesh.

It robbed me of most of my momentum but not enough to keep me from tackling her, the sudden disruption to her aura causing the stave to crack. She squawked in pain from the magical feedback as one of her lightning strikes was partially turned back on her and the electricity caused my fur to stand on end briefly as well, dancing over my metal plates.

But despite the pain, I did not let go. I dared not, fighting her for the stave, which I knew was the source of her power and if I gave her a moment to gather her senses, she would turn it fully on me. Pegasi were weather-resistant, and I was doubly so for reasons methinks are best saved for later, but I didn’t know if that extended to being able to take a point-blank lightning bolt and didn’t want to find out.

We tumbled from the sky together, striking at each other with hooves and talons as we fell. She snapped with her beak at me as well, but I finally put a stop to that by using all my strength to drive her own stave back against her forehead, snapping it in two and dazing her long enough for me to knock her out with a quick uppercut to the chin, letting her fall along with the now-useless pieces of her splintered staff to the cliff edge below.

To my relief and amazement, I’d taken her out without killing her, and now… I raised a hoof and fired my signal flare, which burst like red fireworks over the scene. The gryphons on the ground stopped and turned back up to stare at me in the sudden light, witnessing their mage falling broken to the ground…

And then all Tartarus broke lose.

* * * * *

The two highest-orbiting gryphons, who had paused in their flight to turn their attention on me, suddenly gave gurgling shrieks as their wings and throats were cut. At the same moment, Fell Flight’s two veteran squads shot in from different angles to either side of the outpost, overwhelming the surprised raiders and quickly killing nearly half a dozen.

Belatedly realizing they’d tarried too long and reinforcements had arrived, the remaining gryphons on the ground scrambled frantically for flight whilst the ones already airborne leveled their crossbows and turned to face their attackers, now deprived of their magical ally.

But Blindside’s squad cut them down before they could fire and their remaining comrades fared little better. I saw Fell Flight dodge a war hammer swing and then coldly and without hesitation slit the throat of an earth gryphon with a single well-practiced slash, shrugging off the blood that spattered all over her face and immediately turning to hunt for new raiders. Even Shrike got into the act, disobeying a direct order from Fell Flight to stay out of the fight (I later learned) in order to stalk and slay the gryphon he had seen murder his friend.

It all happened so fast that I had little else to do after taking out the mage but watch in some horror as my enraged outpost soldiers took bloody vengeance for the attack and their slain comrades. The mares in particular hunted down their assailants with a ferocity that would have given the gryphons themselves pause, and ‘twas no surprise that they did so—even without the loss of their friends, they had seen dead stallions, and that was all the motivation they needed.

Finally understanding their predicament, the surviving gryphons fled in every direction but had nowhere to run or fly. Several dove for the canyon floor, hoping to lose their pursuers in the narrow river ravine, but against pegasus speed and numbers, they weren’t going anywhere and given but another few seconds, all would be slain.

Sensing the situation getting out of hoof, I intervened. “ENOUGH!” I shouted into my blue command gem, its magic amplifying my voice enough to echo across the chasm, getting the attention of all. “Methinks there’s been enough blood spilled here this night! We take the remainder prisoner, understood?” I glared at each pegasus in turn.

To my great relief, they reluctantly relented, rounding up the remaining eight raiders. I didn’t know how, but somehow I’d made it through my first real battle without crossing the killing line myself, my blades still sheathed on my back. But for how much longer…? I couldn’t help but wonder as I continued to bark orders, trying to cover up my frightened thoughts at all I’d witnessed… and the carnage I’d helped cause.

I got my answer all too quickly as at that moment, a gryphon eagless burst from cover nearly forty yards away. Though wounded from a wingblade slash to her side she could still wield her scimitar, and she’d gotten the drop on a visibly enraged Blindside, who had disarmed and collared a badly frightened young tiercel who looked barely past puberty, angrily and very ungently dragging him along.

As the gryphon female closed the distance and raised her blood-stained blade for a strike, Blindside detecting her presence a fraction of a second too late, I realized three things—that the eagless was the leader from the previous raid, that there was no way a grounded Blindside could stop or dodge her attack…

And that if I did not act immediately, not just another pony but a friend would fall.

Time slowed down again as I shot forward with all my speed and strength. My wingblades deployed, locking into position just as I arrived on target. The enchanted metal sliced through both sinew and steel as I saw everything in vivid detail, including the upper half of her sword spinning backwards as my strike broke it in two…

And her head as it was separated from her body, falling from her shoulders and tumbling gruesomely to the ground below.

Author's Note:

There comes a moment in a soldier’s life where they must make the choice to take one. Respect them for it, especially those who can keep their basic humanity afterwards. This is Firefly’s moment, and though the aftermath is yet to be explored, she will never be the same for it. Pray for our heroine, and all those who fight on our behalf, who take that burden on themselves so the rest of us may sleep soundly and never know the horrors of war.

Thanks to AJ_Aficionado and SilentWoodFire for the prereads, and Leo Archon for writing a superb opening section with Fell Flight. Between the two of us, we cranked this out this chapter quickly, keeping all three of my stories rolling along.

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