• Published 2nd Jun 2012
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The Price of Loyalty - M1SF0RTUNE



A dark, dystopian dramatic thriller set in an alternate universe with a divided Equestria, and a tale of redemption for a traumatized young soldier of Queen Luna's army.

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Journal #2

“Ashen?” called Doctor Archer, trying to get my attention.

I had been staring at the floor for ten, maybe twenty minutes, my mind miles away after he had asked me a question I already forgot about. After the fourth time, at least I thought it was the fourth time, maybe the fifth, he called my name again, which got through to me this time. I glanced up at him.

“What?” I replied flatly.

“I asked if you can recall what happened at the Out-”

“Yes,” I interrupted sharply. “Yes, I remember.”

He paused a moment as I glared angrily at him, then he took in a breath as he leaned forward in his chair slightly. “I heard about it on the radio Ashen. They said four dead, and five wounded, including you.”

I broke eye contact and looked away, wishing he would shut up, but he pressed anyway. “They said the tower was in flames, Ashen.”

“…It was,” I mumbled.

I was looking at the floor, where I think another couple minutes went by. Maybe it was five minutes, maybe more, maybe less. The concept of time went out the window in favor of the memories from the night prior began consuming my thoughts again.

“Ashen, what happened out there?” said his now-distant voice, but the screams drowned him out. All I was able to see, feel, think about or even register from that moment…

…was fire.

------

Four Nights Ago

I felt heat. A lot of heat. It felt like I was by a furnace.

No…

Inside the furnace.

I opened my eyes and saw a wash of fire, a great blur of red, orange, yellow, and the black silhouettes of the houses of the village. I could hear screams…

They were so damn loud. Some were like nails on a chalkboard, others were guttural, raw, and pained moans of mares and stallions, even foals, that would induce fear for the feint-hearted. I was losing consciousness just from the deafening howls of the dying villagers.

…No, wait. It wasn’t the village.

I slowly managed to regain my focus, and I felt my head throbbing, my ears were ringing. Something felt wet against the side of my head. It was hot, too.

I tried shaking my head to clear it from the concussion, which helped very little. The first thing I was able to identify was the burning supports of the tower and large piles of stone debris.

I’m in the Outpost… why is the building sideways?

I realized I was on my right side, and my back was to where I was assuming was the entrance to the tower. Quicker than I should have, and in the middle of my daze, I tried to jump on all four hooves only to feel my left foreleg buckle out from under me as a sharp pain spiked through my leg. I fell and hit the floor, cursing and groaning in pain, which was barely dulled from the concussion.

I tried standing again, only to falter once more accompanied by that sharp stab of pain through my whole leg. The third time, I tried keeping my weight off it, but still struggled to get up on my other hooves. I moved to prop myself against the wall behind me so I could stand, only be greeted by the searing hot stones, causing me to scream out in pain loudly into the air. The least I was able to do was prop myself on my haunches, then I surveyed the situation I was in.

Off to my right, the machinery that powered the barrier was completely destroyed and the massive crystal was shattered. The specialist I brought with me looked back at me from his back under a pile of debris, but all signs of life were completely missing. He was as still as stone, and his eyes devoid of life, while his blood pooled around his partly-burning corpse.

Something suddenly exploded above me and a section of the top of the tower came barreling down in front of me and landing on the dead stallion, then created a massive plume of smoke to which I gagged and coughed. I used my injured leg, which caused me to wince, to hold a bit of my coat collar over my face to block any more of the hot smoke and ash from entering my lungs, but wasn’t able to stop from burning my eyes. All I could see was orange, red, and yellow blurs and blobs inside the dark, cloudy mass. Even though I couldn’t see, I remembered where the entrance was, and tried to drag myself into the general direction.

Then I heard the sound of somepony screaming just behind me. It was faint, and hard to comprehend with the amount of ringing in my ears, the roaring cackle of the flames, and crashing debris, but after a moment, I heard it. Louder this time.

“SOMEPONY! HELP ME, PLEASE!!”

I glanced over my shoulder, and saw Corporal Sparks lying up against a splintered section of a wooden wall. He was just behind a fallen burning support beam that blocked my path. He was coated in crimson all along his right side, which was missing a lot of its’ fur… and a foreleg. On top of him was what was left of the staircase we were ascending before the explosion, trapping him in place. He was coughing up blood, but reaching out to me with his remaining foreleg in my direction, begging for help from behind the large burning column.

It was easy to hop over, even with an injured leg. Just one little hop…

But the fire…

…Fire.

I watched the flames dancing mockingly at me along the column. It was only then when aftershock from the explosion wore off, and the full gravity of the situation began to dawn on me.

I was surrounded by fire. The heat was suffocating me, the flames were reaching out for me, wanting me to burn. Every second longer I stayed there was a second more the fire was going to get me, and I wanted to run as fast as I could.

Panic was starting to set in, my mind was going blank when it wasn’t filled with my own screaming.

No, NO NO NO NO NO! I shouted at myself. No, please no no no! I gotta get out of here!

I was hyperventilating, and the room was growing smaller and the flames more menacing by the second. I had to get out, I had to run and get as far away from this box. Where do I go?! I gotta get out of here, I have to-

“PLEASE! HELP ME SIR, PLEASE!!” begged the dying Corporal.

Sparks…

Sparks.

SPARKS!!

This snapped me from the flames that possessed me and threatened to make me abandon the dying soldier. My eyes shifted back and forth from him and the flames that blocked my path.

I can’t leave him! I berated myself. I shook my head hard, and tried to focus past the beam, or at least away from it where there wasn’t any fire. Okay, come on Ashen just hop over… and get him out. Just… jump on three… you can do this…

I took several deep breaths.

One…

I stepped back several paces.

…Two…

I crouched.

*CRASH!*

Buck it, THREE!

I sent every ounce of strength I had into my hind legs and propelled my leap over the burning beam, where I felt the tips of the flames kiss the fur under my belly as I sailed over, then landed on the other side of the beam unscathed. Without a second more of hesitation or even consideration to the situation I was in, I began pulling away at the wood that trapped the Corporal.

“Hang on! I’m gonna get you out!” I shouted over the roaring flames.

Adrenaline was flooding through my veins, helping me clear the rubble in a matter of seconds, freeing the younger stallion.

“Put your leg over me!” I shouted as I crouched low next to him. “Come on! We need to get out of here!”

Barely conscious, he threw his remaining foreleg over my neck. I used a combination of my teeth and my good leg to pull him onto my back, his head hanging limply just off to the side as he lay along my back.

I looked at the beam that blocked my path. For some reason it seemed a lot taller and a lot more menacing this time, like the flames had gotten meaner, and was ready to get me this time.

No. I gotta get him out, I scolded myself, shaking my head. I gotta get the kid out of here. Come on Ashen!

I turned to my side, and quickly swung my body around and bucked my legs, throwing the Corporal over the beam. He landed with a hard thud on the other side and rolled a little, his blood creating a small trail. I backed up and looked away, grit my teeth, then ran forward and jumped over the beam once again, the flames almost catching onto my fur. Once I landed, I quickly pulled the now-unconscious corporal’s foreleg over my neck. He was still breathing though.

“Hang on, we’re almost out,” I said aloud.

I faced the door, which was now visible, and limped towards it, dragging the dying stallion with me. I used my shoulder to bash at the door, sending it flying open. I then heard another explosion behind me, and I looked up to see part of the building ready to collapse.

Letting reflexes take over, I jumped down the staircase pulling the wounded stallion down with me, narrowly dodging the collapsing building as we rolled down the stone staircase, landing on almost every other step on the way down. We hit the dirt ground hard. Before I even managed to get back on my hooves, I heard screaming…

And the sound of steel ringing against steel.

I looked up to try and find the source of the fighting, but all I could see was huge walls of fire. There was fire everywhere.

The fire was getting closer.

Run! screamed a voice inside my mind. Get the hay out of here!

I didn’t know where to go. There was no way out in sight, the flames were coming in far too fast, and they blocked off every exit. The heat felt like it was already scorching the tip of my fur. It was suffocating, and my legs, were turning to rubber from under me.

However the voice of my inner officer rang out loud and clear, Get a hold of your self soldier! Ponies are dying, the Corporal needs immediate medical attention, and you are under attack!

My disciplined mind urged me to move, but the sight of the fire locked my body in place.

Move damn it!

“Get down!” somepony shouted, and a moment later I was tackled to the ground, landing on my bad leg. An earth pony soldier with a dark coat I couldn’t tell the color of wearing, dented black armor, and blood oozing down the side of his head was lying on top of me. I was disoriented from the hit, and my leg was screaming out in pain, but in my daze, I barely made out a spear flying right over our heads, which clattered against the dirt past us.

“Hey! Snap out of it! We’re under attack!” he shouted at me.

“Who?! Who’s attacking us?!” I shouted.

“Look out!” he shouted, then rolled us away as the ground exploded in a red blast where we were only a second ago. He got up and charged at whoever threw the spear at us, managing to ram his head against the assailant, then trampled him with his forelegs. The assailant managed to get out of the barrage of attacks, and started running toward the side of the fallen tower. My rescuer ran back toward me and quickly pulled me up just as I was sitting up. “I don’t know but we need your help, NOW!”

My years of training in combat finally managed to kick itself into gear. I quickly scanned the situation. There were soldiers, most of them unicorns, clad in bright golden armor with the crest I recognized, fighting off a couple of our wounded soldiers behind the flames at the sides of the tower. We were losing.

I quickly glanced around between the spear that missed us just a moment ago, the dying Corporal Sparks, and the rest of the battlefield. Snap decisions began taking over.

“Listen, this guy needs medical attention, keep him alive!” I barked at the earth stallion.

“What are you gonna do?!” he said, as a loud blast of magic created a hole a mere inch away from him; the one who caused it moving toward us for the kill.

Without a second thought, I charged at him, using a few powerful flaps of my wings to get myself up to a quick running speed. He sent a blast of magic at me, which I dodged using a combination of my wings and legs to sidestep the attack without sacrificing my momentum. He prepared to hit me with another spell, but before he had the chance, I rammed my shoulder into the white-colored invader, and used my wings to lift him up the ground and sent him flying in a partial corkscrew. He landed on his side, quickly recovered from my charge, and began to charge up another spell.

But I was already on him.

I took a quick step forward, then put my weight down on my good leg to spin my body around quickly with an assisting flap of my wings, then put all my strength into my hind legs and made contact with his head. His helmet flew off as the kick sent the golden-armored soldier rolling along the floor with blood running down his forehead. He was wounded but still putting up a fight.

Not willing to risk another second for him to try and cast another spell at me, I went up to him, reeled up on my hind legs, and prepared to bring my forehooves down on his head, when the wind got knocked out of me from a quick, but nonlethal blast of magic.

I flew back several yards, and saw my attacker now standing over the wounded soldier, priming another spell. I quickly rolled to my side as he sent a blast of magic which exploded the ground where I just was a second ago. My attacker charged another spell, and I crawled backwards narrowly avoiding another hit, before I rolled and got up to my hooves, busting into a sprint away from the spellcaster as he sent blast after blast barely whisking past my head while I ran toward the spear.

Once I got to it, I swept it up with my teeth, the spearhead on my left, and swung around to return to the fight, only so that I saw his horn was glowing brightly as another spell was about to head my way. Before he could cast it, I spread my wings, and slammed them down as I jumped into the air, narrowly dodging another blast.

I kept to a low hover, flying toward him with a rapid speed, as I took the spear out of my mouth using my forehooves, and as soon as I got close enough, I threw it at him.

Unfortunately it missed the mark as he dove out of the way, but it also interrupted his spell.

Before he could recover, I slammed into him, my body colliding hard with his as my breath escaped and pain from my injured leg spiked through my body. We tumbled across the ground, and he threw me off of him mid-roll, myself crashing on my side with a painful shock to my shoulder.

Just as I was getting up, there was another golden-armored soldier right on top of me, about to plunge a spear into my chest, and I had no time to react.

This was it.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a black nightbreed soldier with blood-soaked armor and a half-scorched face of flesh and fur smashed into the side of the spear wielder, using his head and horn to help knock him away past a high wall of flames.

The nightbreed turned to me, and held out a hoof. “Got your back, sir!” he said with a smirk as he pulled me up, when something exploded right next to us.

The wounded spellcaster from earlier was about ready to hit us with a much larger blast of destructive magic.

Thinking fast, I turned back to the nightbreed and shoved him back with a hind leg, then rolled away from him along on the ground, the red magic projectile flying right past us. As soon as it missed, I got back up, the other nightbreed slowly rising as well, who only then noticed the spellcaster.

“Take the left!” I shouted at the other nightbreed, who took a second to realize what I meant, as I swept up the nearby spear again with my teeth, and ran around to the right.

We both ran around and toward the spellcaster, who started sending sparks of smaller spells towards us, but wasn’t able to take us both at the same time. I could tell he was tired from the series of quick spells. He did unfortunately get one lucky hit on the other nightbreed, who tumbled to the ground and released a sharp scream of pain.

I didn’t let this deter me.

I turned my head, aimed the weapon, and just before the spellcaster could even react, I jammed the spearhead into his side, shouting with a fury as I continued to push, until he fell to his side.

As he fell, I lost my footing, and stumbled over him as the embedded spear also yanked itself from my teeth, and I trampled him a little before flipping over onto my back with a thud.

I shook my head, shaking the disorientation off, then quickly rolled back upright and prepared to strike again, when a magically amplified-shout was heard off in the distance.

“Retreat!” yelled another gold-armored stallion I was barely able to make out off in the distance behind the wall of flames. “Fall back!”

This distracted me from the spellcaster, who’s horn quickly discharged before I noticed.

The force sent me flying backwards, where my head collided with a large bit of stone debris from what was left of the tower, and saw a brief flash of white. My vision was blurry and dark now.

I tried standing and crawling toward him, struggling to stay conscious as my vision went in and out. I could only barely make out the speared soldier limping away, with a couple of his pegasus comrades flying in to help him along.

My strength left me, and I couldn’t stay awake anymore.

The darkness swallowed me whole.

------

I had my head in my hooves. The injuries were four days old, but the headache was still killing me, my chest hurt, my leg, thankfully, wasn’t seriously injured, and my broken horn got chipped during the skirmish, but in all, these felt only minor compared to what the rest of the survivors experienced. I sat there on Doc Archer’s sofa, and I couldn’t erase the searing images of the dead specialist, the battle… the fire…

Yet, Doctor Archer just sat there behind his desk, expecting me to recollect every little detail. I had half a mind to just to chew him out and tear his office apart just to get him to stop prying. I was so angry… but at the same time, I felt like I failed, that I didn’t do enough. That was, unfortunately, the reason why I was there.

Half of it, anyway.

“Is that all?”

“What more is there to say that hasn’t been broadcast to the whole country?” I responded coldly, casting an angry glare in his direction, which he returned with a unnatural calm.

“Well, they don’t tell me what you’ve been thinking, feeling, what you want to do, or how you’re handling yourself since then. You could tell me that, if you want.”

I sighed and pressed my face back into my hooves.

“Honestly Doc… I haven’t slept well these past few days… well… worse than usual anyway.” I meekly responded, and my hooves fell to my sides as I lay back against the sofa, staring vacantly off at the wall. “It was really bad Doc… I couldn’t protect all of them… I screwed up.”

Archer sat up in his chair and crossed his forelegs on his desk.

“You’re guilty about it. Why is that?”

“Why else? I failed to do my job. I failed to keep that outpost secure, the other soldiers safe….” I looked at the floor. “Now an entire sector of our barrier is down and we’re vulnerable to attack, should they decide to invade us again.”

“So what do you want me to say? Yes? It is your fault that four good soldiers are dead, and that you failed your job to protect that outpost? Okay. Sure. Fine. It is your fault, Ashen.”

I looked back up at him with some confusion.

“However, that statement’s a lie. The truth, on the other hoof, is that you did your best to hold that post. Last time I checked, if it weren’t for your efforts, the invaders probably would’ve won. You drove them off, and you saved five other ponies in the process. You should be proud, Ashen, not letting that damn guilty conscience of yours beat you up.” He got up and walked around his desk. “Don’t blame yourself. Blame whoever put you there, blame the world, blame the goddesses. Blame me,” he firmly stated, ordered almost.

I glanced aside. “Even if I did, it doesn’t change the fact Sparks is dead because of me.”

“He would’ve died no matter what you did Ashen.”

“I froze, Doctor!” I said, standing up, now shouting at him. “I stood there, for like, a minute, and I watched him bleed all over the damn floor. I wanted to run away and leave him there-

“But you didn’t!” Archer shouted, interrupting me. “Is that really what’s on your mind? Is that why you’re feeling guilty? You froze. Okay? You froze. That happens to the best of us though, Ashen, but that doesn’t change the fact that you went back for him and you TRIED to save him.”

I turned away, avoiding eye contact with him. “I could’ve saved him… he’d still be alive if I just acted just a little bit sooner.”

“He was missing a leg, Ashen,” he continued undeterred. “If you want somepony to blame for Sparks, then the only person you should blame is the bastard that blew a hole in that building. You are not at fault for his death, so quit deluding yourself.”

I paused for a moment. “After the attack… I was with the other wounded in the hospital. I went go see Sparks. His mother was there.” I turned to look into his eyes. “He just died, when I got there.”

Archer waited and listened, silently, though I could already tell he didn’t like where it was going.

“She was crying her eyes out, and was begging the goddesses to give her son back, that he didn’t deserve this. She started screaming, wanting to know who murdered him. I just watched as curses and accusations just… started flying all over the place. When she saw me, she wanted to know what I was doing there. I just… I told her…” I looked at the floor shamefully. “I told her it was my fault he was dead. I told her I couldn’t protect him. ‘Why didn’t you save my son?’ she shouted. ‘You were his hero, why didn’t you watch out for him?!’ ‘You should’ve died instead of my boy! You murdered him!’”

“Whoa, no,” said Archer, stopping me in my tracks as he walked over to me and turned me to face him. “You listen to me right now. You did your very. Damn. Best, to save that colt. She shouldn’t have been looking for somepony close by to pin the blame on in her state. Hay, she should’ve been thanking you for pulling him out of a burning building and protected him from the invaders, if not the entire country from them! You should’ve gotten a damn medal if it were my call.”

I glanced away, but he kept my muzzle pointed toward him.

“Frankly, I don’t care if you don’t believe me Ashen, but that is the cold, hard truth, so quit lying to me, and quit lying to yourself that this was your fault. All you’re doing is locking yourself in your own jail cell and subjecting yourself to your own torture. That doesn’t do a bit of damn good for you, Sparks’ family, or the country. Now, you came to me for advice, and that’s what I’m telling you. Take it or leave it.”

He went back around his desk and sat down. It was silent for a moment, as he tapped his hoof against the arm of the chair.

“But something tells me that’s not what you came here to talk with me about,” he deduced. “You could’ve just called, if you wanted counseling Ashen.”

I didn’t respond to him, other than glancing aside.

“This is about your Royal Summon isn’t it?” he asked.

I stood there in silence for a moment, before I eventually nodded.

“So tell me what happened.”

------

Two Nights Ago

Two Days after the attack

A messenger from the Palace delivered a letter for the summon straight to my bed in the hospital the night prior to the summon. It had only been a day after the attack, and I had no time to recover. Even the doctors said I shouldn’t be up and about for at least another few days. Unfortunately, I was the only one who wasn’t dead or dying, and the doctors couldn’t say no to the council. Neither could I.

That was something I hated about politicians; they have no respect for the dead nor the wounded. If I had been in a worse state, they would’ve dragged in a pony who had his wings amputated from severe burns and had multiple broken bones from the explosion. However, despite this, plus my throbbing headache and discomfort with my various wounds, it was my duty to tell the council what I saw.

Of course, that didn’t mean I had to like it, which I didn’t. Not one bit.

After my one night in the hospital, and this evening at home, I stood in front of two nightbreeds guards donning royal black and dark-blue armor who were double checking my summon letter, having me wait outside the Citadel doors until it was verified. The one not checking my letter was giving me concerned looks with all the bandages that covered most of my body.

“Alright, you’re good Lieutenant,” said the one who was reading the letter, before opening the door with a hoof. “You’re a little early. The council hasn’t called assembly yet.”

“Yeah, I know. Thanks guys…,” I mumbled tiredly and I rubbed my eyes before taking the letter back and stuffing it into a pocket with my teeth. Only reason I was early was because the headache kept me from getting a good day’s sleep.

That’s what I kept telling myself anyway.

“Do you need any help, sir…?” asked the one who gave me the worried looks.

“I’m fine. Hey, is the café open?” I asked, deflecting the guard’s concern.

“Should be, yeah,” said the one left of the door, the same one who verified my letter. At least he wasn’t asking any questions. Then again, he must have a good idea already about the situation.

“Right… thanks guys,” I muttered and went inside, avoiding looks from the other guard as I passed them.

They shut the door behind me, and I was in the massive main hall, a huge round room with a domed ceiling that could easily fit over a hundred ponies. The recreation of the constellations with embedded gemstones on the domed ceiling looked as dazzling as ever, as well as the polished marble floor that had the design of a half-moon. The dark side of the moon was a silhouette of Her Majesty’s divine image, and her turquoise eye pierced into the hearts of anypony who would dare look into the eyes of the powerful and terrifying Nightmare Moon.

Nightmare Moon… a name as ancient as the Day/Night War, and one that had been long abandoned. That sigil in the floor of the Palace was all that was left of the old flag of Queen Luna, before she became the ruler of the Twenty-Six Territories.

There were three hallways, one opposite the entrance I came in, and two hallways at the sides, the one on the right having the café I asked the guards about. It wasn’t very busy today, despite multiple groups of suits, politicians, ambassadors, and other officials going about their business talking about things I could care less for.

I crossed the room and took one of the dozen-odd seats at the small built-in café, then rung a small bell in the middle of the counter. A beige earth pony with short brown hair and green eyes poked his head in from the back door of the shop.

“Hell-, Oh! Ashen! Long time no see!” came the surprised remark of the middle-aged shopkeeper as he stepped up to the counter.

“Hey Cuppa Joe. Yeah, it’s been a bit, hasn’t it?” I mumbled, followed by a sigh as I pressed my face into my hooves.

He scanned up and down my battered body. “You look terrible.”

“When don’t I?”

He shrugged at my remark.

“So what can I do ya for? I got a light ale in the back if you’re interested.”

“Oh, no,” I told him with a disheartened sigh. “I’m testifying to the council tonight.”

“About wh-… wait. Do you mean what happened out east?”

I silently nodded as I crossed my forelegs on the counter. “Apparently I’m the only witness in a fit enough condition to testify what happened so… yeah.”

“That’s horrible.” He frowned. “Are you alright?”

“…Not really, no.”

“I see… I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine Joe, you got nothing to be sorry about.”

“Still, I’m sorry that happened to you. The radio made it sound like it was a warzone over there.”

“It was.”

“Um… is-… is it true?” he nervously asked.

“Is what true?” I asked, looking up at him.

“Was it Equestria?”

I didn’t respond. Instead, I rested my head back on my hooves.

“The… radio, was saying that it might have been Equestria… that this is the start of a second Day/Night War. Is that true, Ashen?”

“I’d rather not talk about it right now, Joe.”

“Right… sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

He looked at the counter with sagged ears for a moment, before he glanced up at me with an encouraging smile. “Guess you haven’t been a very lucky pony these days, have you?”

“I guess not,” I murmured. At least it was a modest attempt to lift the mood. I glanced around at some of the other ponies passing by, then to the empty seats. “Hey, where are all your customers? You’re usually busy right about now,” I said, changing the subject.

“It was busy a couple hours ago when everypony first came in, but that was about it. It’s been kinda frantic here in the palace since…well… you know.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Mhmm…,” he said, glancing around, watching some of the passersby’s.

“Guess your great grandfather must be turning in his grave that the ol’ shop’s not getting a lot of business these past few nights,” I commented.

“Probably. I don’t think he was counting on something like this happening when he made the slogan.”

“What was it again?”

“’The Lunar Confederacy runs on our coffee.’”

“Oh, that one. Odd slogan.”

He shrugged. “True though. Ever since he convinced the council to let him build this shop here, it’s been doing pretty well. Better than working in the western territories.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because every territory from the Nebula to the Sapphire provinces are having a hard time keeping stock.”

“That’s at least five of the Territories, Joe.”

“Yeah, I know. Coffee is in high demand, especially by the crystal mines, but there’s never enough to go around. Gotta think though, if coffee is struggling this much, I can’t possibly imagine how food is doing.”

You don’t want to know, Joe, I thought to myself.

“Makes me actually kinda envy you nightbreeds sometimes, since you don’t have cutie marks that have you stick to one job all your life. You can change jobs if you wanted to. Then again, I don’t know any nightbreeds that aren’t in the military. Never really understood that, having all that freedom but only choosing one line of work. Er, no offense.”

Probably the same reason I can’t understand you daykind and your obsession with “cutie marks,” I thought with some distaste.

“Ashen?” called somepony, whose voice I recognized, off to my right.

My ear twitched, and I turned toward the source of the voice over to my right. Walking in my general direction were four ponies. Three of them, two stallions and a mare, were following a single white unicorn stallion, at least until he stopped to address me.

“That you kiddo?” he asked.

I shot straight up out of my stool and saluted. “Chancellor Eclipse! Sorry, I didn’t see-

“Oh for goodness’ sake Ashen, put your hoof down.” He turned to the rest of his group. “We’ll finish this discussion later.”

“But sir, how are you going to protect the border territories? Grey Sky and Shale are still exposed-” one of the stallions started to argue.

“What about the economy?” started the mare of the group. “Have you considered the cost to repair Outpost Andromeda and how it’ll impact research-

The Chancellor cut her off. “Yes, yes, look, I’ll bring your cases up in the hearing tonight,” Eclipse stated. “Now I need to talk to my…er… associate, here. Important business. Council business. I’m sure you all understand. Okay? Thank you, off you go.”

They looked back and forth from the Chancellor to myself, unconvinced. With a quiet grumble from the mare, and frowns exchanged between the two stallions, they broke off and went their separate ways. The chancellor waited for them to be out of earshot, before he released a loud sigh.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am you’re here. That mare was from the Department of Economics. She would not shut up about how we should be using our tax money to handle all the repairs instead of pulling from our research funding-… Ashen?”

I was standing there, staring at him awkwardly.

“What? Do I have something on my face? Is my mane messed up? Are there green spots on my fur or something?” he asked in a jovial manner. A moment later when I didn’t respond, he glanced over at the shopkeeper. “There aren't any green spots on my fur or anything is there?”

“Uh, no sir…?” said Joe.

The white unicorn glanced between the two of us and sighed.

“And here’s one of the reasons I dislike being chancellor. Everypony’s taking me so seriously I can’t crack a joke and even get so much as a chuckle,” he said as he lightly shoved my shoulder with a hoof. “Lighten up a little will ya?”

“Er, sorry Chancellor…” I trailed off and glanced elsewhere.

“And another thing, stop calling me Chancellor will you? Hearing it from a good friend makes my skin crawl. It’s bad enough I get an earful from the other ponies here in the palace on a day-to-day basis.” He rolled his eyes and took a seat. “Hey Joe, the usual please?”

“Oh yeah! Sure, you got it sir,” said the shopkeeper, as he turned and used his teeth to pick up a steaming coffee pot to pour a couple cups. Not long after, he added the necessary extra ingredients.

Five drops of sugar and a dash of cream. Just like I remember.

“Hey Ashen, what’re you getting? I’m buying,” asked the Chancellor.

“Um, sir, that’s not really-

“Oh no, no, no. You are going shut up, you are going to let me buy you a drink, you are going to enjoy it, and you are going to talk to your old buddy. Chancellor’s orders. So what’ll you have?” he asked with a wry smirk.

“If you insist…” I mumbled, as I sat back down next to him, and turned to Cuppa Joe. “Just black, Joe.”

“Sure thing Lieutenant.”

“Black huh? Since when did you start drinking bitter coffee?” asked the white unicorn.

“Since now, I guess,” I sullenly responded.

The blue eyes of the unicorn looked up and down along my bandaged body.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and guessing you got in a fight with a chimera or… maybe an ophiotaurus.”

I couldn’t help but scoff. “Something like that. It feels like it, though.”

The white stallion chortled briefly, but then it quickly faded as I slouched back against the counter. He was about to say something when Joe set a tray with our cups down on the counter. The Chancellor was quick to levitate his cup to his lips to take a sip.

“Ah…” Eclipse sighed in satisfaction. “Perfect as always Joe. I still want to know your secret by the way. Do you grow golden coffee beans to the east or something?”

“Not really. It’s just a skill that’s been in the family.”

“I still think that’s a load of crap, Joe. Coffee this good should be charging a hundred bits a cup. Thirty is a steal.”

Joe chuckled a bit and smirked. “Well, if it weren’t illegal for me to change my own prices, I’d consider it.”

“Hm, maybe I could put a bug in the Queen’s ear for ya Joe. She needs to know how important your shop is to the political foundation of the country!”

As the two continued to banter among one another, I tuned them out quietly sipped my cup full of the dark, charcoal-tasting liquid. I wasn’t paying any attention for probably a good minute or so, staring blankly into the cup until-

“What do you think Ashen?” asked Eclipse.

“Huh?” I said, glancing up at the white unicorn. “Sorry Chancellor-

“Duskfall. Or just Dusk. Come on Ashen, how many times do I have to keep telling you to stop with the titles? We’ve been past the first name basis for the past two years now.”

“Right… sorry….”

He raised an eyebrow, and then turned to Joe.

“Hey buddy, is it alright if you gave us a few?” he asked as he levitated a pouch of bits from one of his coat pockets and set it on the counter. “Keep the change.”

“Sure thing Chancellor.” Joe picked up the pouch in his teeth then tucked it under the counter. “Just ring if you need me.”

The beige pony went into the back room, leaving the two of us alone. I quietly sipped a little coffee a couple times, and stared blankly at the counter. The two of us sat there quietly for a moment, myself occasionally glancing at a couple ponies walking (or running) past, before the Chancellor spoke up.

“What’s it been, three months?”

“Four.”

He did a double take, before hitting himself upside the head with a hoof. “By the stars, seriously!? Has it really been four months?”

I silently nodded.

“Damn….” He sighed. “Yet another reason why I hate this job. So much time goes by, and I have next to no time to see old friends.”

I looked over at him. “I wasn’t aware we were friends.”

He returned the comment with a weird look. “What’re you talkin’ about? Of course we are! Where would you get such a daft idea that we weren’t?”

I resumed my slouched position and shrugged. “We hardly talk, ever since you made Chancellor. Just figured you had more important things to be concerned about.”

He sighed again and crossed his forelegs against the counter. “Let me tell you something from personal experience about politics Ashen. All it is is just old stallions and mares just… arguing. Arguing using big, overcomplicated and complex words, and they bicker and squabble like foals fighting over who gets a turn with their favorite toy.”

I cast a forlorn glance at him after this comment.

“Don’t ever go into politics Ashen, you’ll hate it. Trust me. I know I do. I can’t stand five minutes of those councilor representatives from the Pony Resources and Law & Order Departments ranting and squabbling at one another for hours when discussing new policies like it was going out of style. Yknow Aurora’s never been too fond of nightbreeds, but she must really hate Bloodwings or something. She and Bane never get along.” He sighed and rubbed his temples. “Not to mention Agriculture’s always got some problem or other going on, same with the Economics, it’s just chaos control. I don’t know how Cropper and Baron do it.”

He paused, as if hoping I would comment, before he sighed and rolled his eyes.

“So yeah. This job sucks Ashen, but somepony’s gotta babysit the other councilors before they rip each other’s heads off. Though I have to admit, to this day I still can’t figure out how I got elected to this position.”

I shrugged, downed the rest of my coffee, then whacked the empty cup at a trash can behind the counter, missing it entirely as the styrofoam thing clattered on the ground. “Probably because you’re so charismatic?”

He chuckled briefly at the unintended joke. “Oh yeah, forgot about that. Guess that might be why.”

I shrugged, then yawned and rubbed my eyes, before asking, “What time is it?”

“Why? Got somewhere to be?”

I looked at him, confused. “I’m here for the hearing.”

He suddenly returned the same look of confusion.

“Wait, you mean the council hearing tonight?”

I nodded.

You’re the witness from Andromeda?”

“Yeah,” I simply stated. “I thought you knew.”

He stared at me dumbfounded for a moment, then grumbles.

“Unbelievable. Next time I see that idiot Paper Weight, I’m going to buck him into next Tuesday.”

“I thought you-

“No, that’s that damn Councilor Aurora’s job… she’s the one who manages the summons because it goes through her department. I was supposed to know about it earlier tonight but it’s been so frantic since the attack. There’s been a lot of miscommunication, messed up paperwork, misplaced money, and other such nonsense that’s been going on in this mad house. One pony actually thought the Queen was murdered the other night. Or at least, that’s what all Aurora told me. I’m willing to bet she intentionally kept your involvement from me.” He groaned and rubbed his temples with a hoof. “If I had known Ashen-

“It’s fine,” I interjected.

“No, it’s not fine! Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately? You shouldn’t even be out of the hospital, let alone put in the spotlight in front of the damn Council!”

“It’s not a big deal Eclipse-

“Yes, yes it is a big deal, because I don’t like those other bigot politicians manhandle citizens like this, let alone my friends. Look, I’m going to talk to them about rescheduling when you’re in better condition, or I’ll just find another witness-

“Eclipse,” I firmly stated, interrupting him. “I’m fine, really. Besides, everypony else is… in worse condition than I am.” I had to struggle to get the words out.

“They’ll tear you apart in there Ashen! You know how the Council is like, especially Aurora toward anypony military.”

“She’s just a pencil-pusher from the Pony Resources Department. Why should I be worried about her?” I asked rather smugly.

“You never met her, did you?”

“Should I have?”

He sighed.

“Let me give you the short version; she’s the secretary from Tartarus. She’s not fond of the military, the expeditions, and she’s been trying to get Article Three abolished for some time now. She can be pretty intimidating.”

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Sounds like the last pony we’d want as a Chancellor. She would’ve driven us into the ground.”

“Hey, don’t badmouth her. She just believes in her ethics and morals, don’t fault her for it. By rights, she should have won the election. Had a great campaign and everything. I would’ve voted for her myself. However…,” he started with a sigh. “Those were very difficult times then Ashen, for everypony. There were things that had to be done for the good of the country. Hard choices. Ones I felt she couldn’t make.”

I turned away. I knew what he was referring to, but this was a horrible time to bring it up. He seemed to notice my reaction, before he reached over and patted my back a few times.

“I’m sorry. Have you uh… have you been holding up alright…?”

“Take a good look at me Eclipse.” I turned to face him. “How do you think I’m doing?”

He looked over me briefly, before he glanced to the side, tapping his glass with a hoof. “You shouldn’t blame yourself so much. It was my idea, my call, not yours.”

“So what’s worse then, the pony who gave the order, or the pony who carried it out?”

“Ashen-

“Don’t…” I said, holding up a hoof. “Just don’t. I don’t wanna hear it.”

“Alright, alright, fine,” said Eclipse as he raised his hooves defensively. “But assuming you’re going to tell the council what I think you’ll be telling them, that’s not gonna stop Aurora from bringing it up in court.”

“Why? It has nothing to do with this.”

“Because she’ll do anything to make sure we don’t go to war, regardless of who’s responsible or why. She’s willing to use anything at her disposal to keep her from doing so, and I could be wrong, but she might use that to ruin your credentials.”

On any other day, I would’ve socked him on the spot. Unfortunately, assaulting a Chancellor earns you an execution. Besides, he probably had a point. I sighed, and glanced up at a clock hung up in the back of the coffee stand. “I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”

He followed my gaze, and his ears sagged. “I see,” he said, turning back to me. “Last chance to reconsider. It’ll be rough in there, and I’ll have to do my job as Chancellor. I won’t be able to make it any easier for you.”

“Eclipse, I don’t want special treatment, okay? I’m not crippled, I’m not handicapped, and I am more than capable of speaking for myself. I came here to testify what I saw to the council, and I am going to testify. So let’s just get it over with, alright?” I said with some strained frustration.

“Alright, well…,” he downs the rest of his glass. “Guess I should get ready then.” He patted a hoof against my shoulder and I glanced up at him.

“I’ll see you in there. Good luck.”

With that, he got up and walked past me, rounding the corner toward the Queen’s chambers, leaving me to spend the next twenty minutes slouched against the counter, preparing for the long night ahead.

---

I stood outside the entrance to the Council Chambers, two nightbreed guards stood with spears crossed in front of the towering and ornate wooden door. Half an hour had gone by since I separated with the Chancellor, roughly three or four of those minutes were spent standing there in front of the entrance, waiting for my queue to enter.

The guards were quiet, keeping their post with an admirable silence that was almost uncomfortable. I wasn’t ready to break that silence myself, but I was starting to grow a little impatient, since I wanted to get in and out as quick as possible. I had some pretty bad ideas about what was going to happen, thanks to a lot of the holovids about council proceedings. There would be a lot of arguing and debating, of the loud variety. If this was going to be anything like those videos, it was going to be that and ten times worse, considering the subject matter. It was going to be pretty grueling, I was sure, and standing outside thinking about it wasn’t helping things along.

Another minute went by, before one of the two guards turned their head to the side, holding a hoof to his ear. His eyes flitted across the ground for a moment, before he turned to his companion and nodded to him, and then he turned to me.

“They’re ready for you now Lieutenant. Head on in.” They lifted their spears, and the guard on the right who spoke pushed the door open and they stepped aside, and I went in.

Before me was a massive atrium of a room, with large arch-topped windows at either side in between massive marble pillars. Up toward the ceiling, a complete recreation of the night sky, but not with gems, jewels, paint or any other kind of artificial décor; this was the night sky itself. A magic enchantment that showed Luna’s brilliant night hung over the room, in a big wispy black cloud. In the veil I could easily see all the many stars and constellations that fill up the dark canvas, and the full moon shone brightly through the room, the light reflecting off of the tiles to give the room a subtle glow.

This moonlight drew attention to one of the centerpieces of the large chamber; the council stands, which stood tall over the room by the right wall. At the very top and center stood Chancellor Eclipse. A step down on either side of him were two of the councilors, the blue and young unicorn mare Aurora to his left, and to his right sat an older black nightbreed stallion in uniform, a scar covering the right side of his face as well as over his eye, which was colorless and vacant from blindness. His red-tipped black mane hung behind his head, as red as his Bloodwing namesake.

One further step down from them was another two stands. A step down from Aurora sat an elderly brown earth stallion with a hoe for a cutie mark, who I knew was Cropper. He bore no clothing, and had a mane overtaken by grey with some darker-brown still lingering. Then there was Baron, who sat next to the nightbreed councilor. He was a green pony, about as old as the Chancellor, who sported formal attire; a suit with cuffs at his forehooves and a monocle over his right eye going well his slicked back hair and bits marking his flank. All of them were signs of showing his stature and business experience, not to mention wealth.

These five showed their class and power with their presence, let alone their position on those stands, but they paled in comparison to the main attraction of the massive room; a long carpet extended from the entrance across the long hall until it came to a small circular staircase. Resting at the top was the highlight of the room; the throne, and seated upon it, its’ ruler.

Queen Luna.

“Greetings, young Lieutenant,” she opened a vocal bravado that demanded respect to her authority and royalty.

I bowed low. “It’s an honor to be in your presence, Your Majesty.”

“Rise.” She rose from her throne and stepped down, stopping in the center of the room a few mere yards away from me, both of us standing before the Council podiums. She smiled. “No need to be so formal, young Nightwing. After all, these are dark times that bring us here tonight,” she said as she looked up to her advisors, the other councilors.

I stood at attention. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”

Eclipse at the top podium cleared his throat, signaling to begin the proceedings.

“Lieutenant Nightwing,” he began. There was no crass or cavalier attitude in his tone; it was emotionless, firm, and professional. This was how a leader would address their subjects, not their friend. “Four nights ago, our country was attacked by an unknown force, effectively destroying one of our crucial outposts, and sabotaged grids 17 and 18 of our kinetic barrier that surrounds the city. Three stallions and a mare died in the line of duty, and five more ponies, yourself included, were wounded in the attack. Two of which are in critical condition. However, I don’t believe I need to explain that this is nothing compared to the threat we now face. Five miles of the barrier are down, and the eastern border is open to attack. Many towns, villages, and farmlands are vulnerable.” He paused briefly. “You have been brought before the Queen and Council tonight to testify what you saw the night of the attack. If you’d be so kind, please repeat after me.”

I sat on my haunches, and crossed my right foreleg over my chest.

“Do you solemnly swear to speak the truth, nothing but the truth, and the absolute truth before the audience of your Queen and Council?”

“I do,” I aptly responded as I lowered my hoof and stood at attention again. I took in a deep breath, and then began my tale. “I was assigned to deliver a transfer order and perform maintenance on the outpost generator if it needed to be done. I was with another CrystalTech specialist and a… Corporal, that greeted us once we arrived at the other end of the gate. Everything was normal, and they said there was nothing strange apart from a curious cyclops that tried to pass through the barrier, which was deterred from its’ attempt.”

The green economic pony, Baron, raised a hoof to interrupt me, and spoke up in his regal accent. “Lieutenant, did the generator encounter serious fluctuations from the cyclops that could have compromised the barrier?”

“…I’m sorry?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Outposts were designed to have structural barriers to protect the towers themselves from attack, yes?”

“The… eastern, western and northern border barriers have minor barriers compared to the south, which at least requires two generators per building to maintain the field, but yes, they do have structural barriers,” I explained.

Baron shuffled through a few papers until he found the one he was looking for. “Initial reports have stated that the building itself took a direct hit, and wasn’t protected from the structural shield. I’m essentially asking if you know whether or not the barrier for it was disabled due to the cyclops.”

“I’m not entirely sure, sir. I didn’t inspect the structural barriers while I was there.”

He sighed and fell back in his seat, rubbing his temple with a hoof. “Proceed,” he flatly stated.

I shook my head, and began again. “The Corporal, specialist and I were checking the emitters and their anti-air counter-measures outside for a few minutes. The specialist left us to check on the generator readings, and I was informing the Corporal about his transfer to the expedition team. We were about to go and speak with the captain of the outpost upstairs in the tower, when suddenly the… building exploded.” I struggled to recall that last bit.

The five councilors murmured, and the Queen’s expression changed to one of concern. She was the next one to speak up.

“What happened next?”

I glanced off to my right, reaching into the deepest recesses of my memory to try and recall every single detail, as unpleasant as they were.

“I was unconscious. I don’t know how long I was out, where the building was hit, or even where the rest of the ponies stationed there were when everything happened.”

The black nightbreed, Bane, sat up and leaned forward. “Did you identify the assailants?”

Eclipse waved him off with a hoof. “Let him finish, Bloodwing.” He turned back to me. “Continue.”

Bane grumbled quietly and sat back down, glaring intently at me, eager to know who was responsible.

I pressed on with my story. “I… heard Corporal Sparks screaming for help. He was trapped under a beam-

“You mean the young orange stallion who died in the hospital shortly after you brought him in?” came a sudden interruption from the blue unicorn Aurora, her dark ivory eyes and half-moon glasses looking down at me with conviction.

“…Yes.” I gave her a brief glare of my own, but continued despite the interruption. “Sparks… was trapped. He was begging for help and I was the only pony nearby, apart from the deceased specialist, who was dead by the generator. I… hesitated, when I tried to get him out-

Aurora interrupted me again. “You hesitated? Why?”

Eclipse spoke up next. “He was shell-shocked; he couldn’t possibly tell what was going on.”

Bane dismissed this with a hoof. “I want to hear his response. Why did you hesitate, Lieutenant?”

I glanced up at Eclipse, who frowned, but didn’t say anything. My gaze flitted across the tile floor, avoiding eye contact with the councilors.

“…There was fire in the way.”

Bane reacted with a look of disapproval, whereas Eclipse and Luna gave me a sympathetic one. The other three were emotionless.

I continued. “There was a collapsed beam that was on fire in front of me and… I hesitated to jump over it. It was the only way to get to Sparks. I… just managed to clear the burning beam, and got to Sparks, who was already missing his left foreleg…. I managed to get him out of the building just before it collapsed. Once we were outside… that’s when I saw the invaders.”

Bane looked up, then leaned forward, more so than the other four councilors. All ears were anxiously waiting to hear what I had to say next.

“They wore gold armor, and their insignia…”

I hesitated a moment, then looked Eclipse right in the eye, and spoke aloud.

“Was the crest of the sun.”

There was the briefest moment of silence, until all of the sudden the entire chamber exploded with outage.

“Equestria?!”

“What madness is this?!”

“Why would they attack us?!”

“Have you lost your mind?!”

“How can you be sure?!”

More accusations joined with confusion and anger continued to barrage me from the councilors, except from the Queen and Eclipse whom were as silent as the grave. The former had an expression of shock and pure confusion, even disbelief, and the latter was nearly blank, impossible to discern.

It took a moment before Eclipse even attempted to bring order back to the other four council members. “Alright, alright, enough! Quiet!” he shouted as he banged his podium with a hoof, and the unruly shouting of the politicians making it nearly impossible to continue. Many attempts later to control the other councilors later, they eventually died down. After a pause, the old pony Cropper was the first to speak.

“This is rather disturbing, Lieutenant, if what you say is true.”

“I know what I saw. It was Equestria, I’m sure of it,” I responded, with more conviction the second time.

“That is a very serious accusation, Lieutenant Nightwing,” said a very displeased Aurora. “You are suggesting to your Queen and council that our eastern neighboring country, a country might I just add we have had no quarrel with for the last thousand years and posed neither any threat or value to, and you suggest that they have attacked us unprovoked in the dead of the night, destroyed one of our outposts and an entire sector of our barrier, am I mistaken?”

“No, you’re not mistaken Councilor.”

“Damn Equestrians,” Bane Bloodwing muttered aloud. “I knew they would pull a stunt like this eventually.”

“We don’t have proof of his allegations, Councilor Bloodwing,” loudly stated Aurora. “There was no evidence at the site that could confirm this nightbreed’s testimony.”

“Then who else could have destroyed the tower? According to what few reports we managed to ascertain, it was leveled with powerful destruction magic, something I wouldn’t put past Celestia’s army being well trained in,” Bane deduced as he glared at his blue colleague.

“That’s just speculation! We have no idea of their military strength, their knowledge or power with magic, or anything for that matter. For all we know, it could’ve been imposters donned in Celestia’s colors!”

“And you really believe that Aurora?! The evidence is as obvious as the moon that shines above our heads! There is no way you are possibly naïve enough to think that it could be any other party. Who else would be holding any kind of grudge against us?”

“Chancellor,” said Aurora, who was fuming now, toward Eclipse. “Councilor Bloodwing’s opinion is biased. He’s not willing to open up to other possible leads, and is letting his hatred for Equestria get the better of his judgment.”

“Watch your tone Aurora, I will not tolerate your slander, especially in assembly,” recoiled Bane.

“Enough!” shouted Eclipse over the two of them, which caused them to silence immediately.

“Councilor Aurora, I suggest you keep in mind that we don’t have any evidence to disprove Lieutenant Nightwing’s testimony either. You said it yourself, none was found at the site. No banners, no bodies, no left over armor, or anything else that could identify who attacked.”

“But-

“That doesn’t mean I don’t think that possibility exists either. Once again, we have no evidence to neither convict nor rule out Equestria as the party responsible, without breaking the treaty and crossing the border. All we have to go by is the Lieutenant’s testimony, which I for one would like to listen to the rest of before we jump to conclusions.”

“Agreed,” said one after the other, save for a reluctant Aurora.

“Very well.” She turned to face me, with a look of malcontent quite clear in her tone. “Lieutenant, you may proceed with your testimony.”

I picked up where I left off, and told them the remaining details, about the soldier who saved me, the spellcaster I fought against, the description of the battlefield, the enemy I speared, up until the point where I was knocked unconscious. After I finished, there was an uncomfortably long pause.

Eclipse broke the silence. “So they just retreated?”

“Yes.”

“Were you able to identify their numbers?”

“I’m not sure. It was chaos out there; all I heard were the sounds of ponies fighting one another. If I took a wild guess, I’d say there was at least a small battalion, but I could be way off.”

“You have no other details you can recollect?”

“…No sir.”

Aurora was seated back behind her podium, digging her forehoof into her head with growing impatience and frustration. Eclipse noticed this after a moment.

“Something you want to add Councilor Aurora?”

“I do, actually.” She stood up, and brushed aside a few papers. “I’d like to start with putting an end to this insanity, by pointing out lack of credibility in our witness.”

“Excuse me?” started Eclipse. Bane was also shooting the blue mare a look, while everypony else in the room looked up at her confused.

“Lieutenant Nightwing, your efforts to defend the border are valiant, and admirable. Nothing short of commendable service to Queen and Country, so on and so forth. I was also hoping it wouldn’t have to come to this. However, I refuse to accept this madness about Equestria being responsible from a delusional and mentally unstable witness.”

Eclipse snapped her an offended look. “How dare you! I’ll have you know that Lieutenant Nightwing here is a decorated member of the Queen’s army. He has made very large contributions for the country for the past five years. Need I remind you that if not for his efforts against the separatists in North Hayford, we would have been overthrown and society as we know it would have crumbled?”

“That was a massacre, and you know it Eclipse. This nightbreed,” Aurora said as she thrust a hoof at me. “…was solely responsible for the deaths of over 200 citizens of the Twenty-Six Territories of the Lunar Confederacy!”

“You know damn well the majority of them were terrorists Aurora. The rest were casualties of war; a necessary sacrifice to prevent our entire government from being overthrown and the country as we knew it from collapsing. Ashen did the right thing that night, and I support what he had to do to get the job done.”

“Don’t you dare justify it just because he’s your friend, Chancellor. There were other options to take down the threat, and instead the Lieutenant chose to create a bloodbath.”

“Councilor Aurora,” interjected Bane. “I strongly suggest you stow that bleeding heart of yours. Lieutenant Nightwing had the stomach to do what had to be done, and I doubt I would have done it any differently if I were in his position. I’d say his credibility still stands.”

Eclipse raised a hoof. “Aurora, how about you cut to the point as to why this relates to your accusation. As far as I can tell, Operation Specter is completely irrelevant.”

“As a matter of fact, Chancellor, it’s completely relevant and I’m glad you brought that up, especially since it actually concerns the mental faculties of the Lieutenant after the operation finished.”

“Enlighten us then, Aurora,” stated Eclipse.

She filed through a few papers, before she pushed one forward, the tip of it peeking over the podium for all to see.

“This is a psych profile of Lieutenant Nightwing. It states that he is currently undergoing treatment for severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something the Chancellor is aware that was caused by the events in North Hayford two years ago. Initial reports show a considerable aggression towards any non-nightbreed races, a short temper, and the more important detail, frequent hallucinations and dementia. As of this report, taken just last night, Ashen is still not considered fully recovered. Now…” she slid the document back with whatever else she had on her podium. “We can’t possibly give credibility to a delusional witness, especially one biased against Equestrians. For all we know, he made the entire thing up because that’s what he ‘thought’ he saw.”

All except Luna and Eclipse murmured among themselves, while the latter glared at Aurora, who had the ghost of a smirk across her muzzle.

Baron cleared his throat. “Chancellor Eclipse, my Queen, I’m afraid Aurora has a valid point.”

“Indeed,” said Cropper. “As much as I commend the young Lieutenant on his bravery at the border, as well as the rest of the service he’s done for this country, this is something that cannot be overlooked.”

Bloodwing groaned quietly as he rubbed his temples around the base of his sharp horn. “This is rather insulting Aurora. Look at him! He nearly died fending off the invaders, and now you’re questioning him before the court? We should be giving him a medal, not trying to fling baseless accusations at him!”

“I agree,” said the Chancellor. “If he believes he saw Equestrian soldiers, then I’m confident that’s what he really saw.”

“Maybe you should be removed from this session Eclipse. Your friendship with the witness is affecting your judgment, and duty, as Chancellor of the Twenty-Six Territories,” Aurora sneered.

“That’s enough!” commanded a thunderous voice.

All eyes turned to the Queen, who glanced between her five advisors, and to myself. She then stepped forward toward the councilors.

“Be Ashen’s condition as it may, I, however, believe the Lieutenant, when he says he saw soldiers clad in my sister’s colors bearing her sigil. However, I do not believe that is the whole truth. I do not think Celestia and her subjects were the ones ultimately responsible.”

“Who do you think is responsible then, Your Highness?” asked Baron.

“I’m not sure. We have many enemies, but none that I know that reside outside the border, much less in Equestria. I do, however, see some potential for Aurora’s theory of imposters,” Luna explained.

Eclipse stared at her while the other four members of the council murmured among themselves for a moment, after which, Bane spoke.

“My Queen, that is something that can’t be proved either.”

“Councilor Bloodwing, I know my sister’s decision for our banishment from our homeland was harsh, but it was just.. This is not something she would do, I’m confident of that.”

Bane sighed. “Your Majesty, forgive my imprudence, but that was over a thousand years ago. You have not seen Princess Celestia once since then, and she may have changed.”

The Queen shook her head. “Not my sister.”

“Your Majesty, I have nothing but the highest level of respect, as well as faith in you. You are my kin and I’s Queen and Creator, and I would gladly give my life a thousand times in your name. However, I think you’re being naïve. If Celestia was willing to banish her own sister, then who’s to say she wanted to keep her from gaining any kind of power?”

“My sister is not a tyrant, Councilor Bloodwing. I know her far better than anypony in this room, and an unwarranted attack like this is something she would never stoop to.”

The room went still, and the only noise produced was a brief grumble from Councilor Bloodwing. An uneasy silence passed before Her Majesty spoke up again.

“These matters are to be discussed at another time however. For now, we need to get back on topic. I would beg a question from the Lieutenant though,” said Luna as she turned to me.

I looked back to her and stood at attention. “My Queen?”

“In your honest opinion, do you think it was Equestria who deliberately attacked us, and not a third party?”

“Absolutely,” I quickly stated.

“May I ask why?”

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to answer. Obviously, I didn’t want to insult, or anger, my Queen and Creator, however I wasn’t ready to lie to her either. In the end, after much debate, I went with blunt honesty.

“There could be a number of reasons, from wanting our technology, to keeping us in check out of paranoia. Maybe she just simply wants control. There’s a number of possibilities, Your Highness. However, I know just from fighting them that there is not really any other explanation.”

I was waiting for any kind of signs of anger, maybe even with an inevitable punishment of sorts to follow, but instead she gave me an apathetic look. Frankly, I was surprised and confused.

“Hm,” she mused, then turned back toward her councilors. “I believe the Lieutenant’s judgment is sound. I apologize, Aurora, but his testimony stands.”

“…As you wish, Your Majesty,” the blue mare grumbled through her teeth.

“Carry on, Eclipse,” stated the Queen as she walked back toward her throne.

The white unicorn bowed his head, then turned back to me, speaking loudly to address the entire court.

“Lieutenant Nightwing, we greatly appreciate your service to Queen and Country. Your testimony has helped us a great deal, and for that, we thank you for your assistance. It will surely help us going forward. Before you are dismissed, is there anything else you wish to share with the court?”

“No, Chancellor,” I stated, despite how much I really wanted to express my anger toward Councilor Aurora.

“Very well. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that what has been said here is not to leave these walls Lieutenant, am I understood?”

“Yes, Chancellor.”

“You’re dismissed then. May the stars watch over you.”

“You as well, Chancellor,” I said, bowing my head toward him, then bowed toward the Queen. “And you, my Queen.”

She bowed her head respectfully in response, then turned to leave, just as the councilors began to argue with one another once more, a sound which was immediately silenced as the heavy wooden entrance doors slammed shut behind me.

------

“After my testimony, I’m assuming they spent the remainder of the night deciding on a course of action,” I explained as Doctor Archer rocked back and forth in his chair. “I’m actually still ticked with Aurora.” I paused to scowl at the orange unicorn. “And you.”

“Because I had to release the information? Unfortunately, patient confidentiality doesn’t extend to the will of the Queen and Council Ashen. I’m sorry.”

“Whatever. I’m still angry, especially with Aurora.”

“She’s just being cautious.”

“She was being disrespectful, not to mention stupid and gullible,” I said with a groan as I lurched over on the sofa. “We don’t have time for this crap… and more importantly she was way out of line, bringing up Specter.”

“Ashen-

“No. I at least earned some bucking respect and discretion after that hell. I spent five years of my life protecting this country from dragons and the separatists, and this is how she treats me? In front of Her Majesty and the rest of the council even!”

“At least Eclipse stood up for you, Ashen.”

“Damn lot of good he did.”

We sat there in silence for a moment. Archer eventually cleared his throat.

“Mind if I ask you something?”

I was still too irritated give him an answer, but he went ahead with his question anyway.

“Do you really believe Equestria was responsible?”

I got even angrier fairly quickly from that remark.

“What, you don’t believe me either!?”

“No Ashen, no, that’s not what I’m implying. What I mean to say is that I actually concur with Her Majesty’s theory. It could’ve been a group of imposters.”

I scowled at him for a moment, before I glanced aside and shook my head. “Can’t be. They were coordinated, their magic was well-disciplined and powerful, they were strong and skilled fighters, and there’s no way I could have mistaken that symbol. I can’t imagine who else, or even would, have taken down that whole tower. Not to mention they retreated back across the border. There’s no other explanation; they were Equestrian soldiers.”

“You’re sure?”

I sat up, and looked him right in the eye. “Positive.”

His eyes fell to the floor. “Then I pray to the Three Goddesses that you’re wrong, and they’ll deliver us from another Day/Night War.”

I glanced off to the side and shook my head slightly. “Doc, do me a favor and please keep your religious crap to yourself. Besides, that ancient Equestrian religion is more in the enemy’s favor than our own.”

“They don’t take sides, Ashen.”

“That’s because they don’t give a damn.” My anger was beginning to boil at this point. Religion was never a topic I liked to discuss. Ever. “They could’ve done something about our country starving over the years, like give us some fertile land, so we wouldn’t have to have made the abortion laws. They could have done something about the dragons when the power crystals were first discovered, but instead they let hundreds of us be slaughtered until we, not the Goddesses, built that wall that keeps all of you ponies safe. They could have stopped the Hundred Year Plague, the Early Rebellions, the Breed and Dragon Wars, or even the Bloody Founding. Maybe they could have done something about the separatist uprising for that matter, let alone what happened there at the border the other night!”

“Ashen, calm dow-

“No, fuck you Doc,” I cursed, seething through my teeth. “I’m sick of this crap. Do you know why I hate that religion of yours? You and your gullible daykind think that some Earth, Sky, and Magic Goddesses will solve all your problems for you, and that they’ll one day end our suffering and poverty. It irritates me to no end! It’s no different than Aurora being bucking thick enough to think that there’s a different explanation than the one right in front of her face! It’s no damn wonder we had the First and Second Crusades, because somepony needed to show you ungrateful daykind that we need to stop sitting on our flanks and doing nothing while we bleed, and we suffer, and we die every bucking day!”

“Ashen!” Archer shouted.

I was on my hooves, not realizing how much I let my anger take over. Had I kept going, I probably would’ve started breaking things. I grit my teeth and threw my head to the side, tapping my forehoof hard against the floor several times. This went on, along with some other angry fidgeting, for about a minute, the doctor remaining silent the entire time. Once I seemed to calm down, it was then he tried speaking in a rational and reasonable tone.

“…Better now?”

I sighed and slumped to the floor. There was nothing else to vent, everything I could have had building in my system was out in the open.

“No,” I said as I looked at the floor and paused. “Good ponies died that night, Doc. Now here was that damn Aurora questioning me, thinking I was making up the entire damn thing in my head.”

“Ashen.”

I glanced up at him.

“I’m not sure if you realize this or not, but she is trying to prevent us from going to war and causing the citizens of this country from suffering. She may have chosen a poor avenue of doing so, but her intentions are still good. War with Equestria is the last thing this country needs.”

“So what, we do nothing after they attacked us?” I was seconds away from lashing out again.

“I didn’t say that either.”

“Then what do you think we should be doing?” I asked spitefully.

“As I said, I agree with the Queen. I just don’t see why Equestria would do such a thing, and why now, a thousand years after our banishment. Then again, it’s still possible, and that maybe they’re looking to take away our technology or making sure we ‘know our place,’ as it were. We won’t know the truth for sure unless we confront them.”

“…Odd you should mention that.” I glanced off to the side.

“Why?”

“Because that’s why they asked me to come in again last night.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“There’s… a mission, they asked me to be a part of.”

Archer leaned back in his chair.

“They ‘asked’?”

“Yes.”

“Hm. What did you say?”

“…I haven’t decided.”

The orange unicorn raised an eyebrow at this, and leaned forward.

“Why not? Wait…” he glanced to the side and mulled the thought over, before turning back to me seconds later. “This is what you wanted my advice on?”

I didn’t say anything.

“It is, isn’t it,” he stated, not asking.

Once again, didn’t say anything, just avoided eye contact.

“Guess that explains why you wanted to see me on short notice.”

He leaned back in his chair again.

“Okay then. Give me the details. Don’t leave anything out.”

I thought he was jumping into this too quickly, so I asked, “Awful quick to help, aren’t you Doc?”

“I’m your therapist, Ashen. It’s my job to help you, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

I considered his request for a moment. My pride wasn’t willing to let me ask an outsider on the issue for help. I was perfectly capable of making that important decision myself, and that it was my decision to make and mine alone. However, the part of me that brought me to the office that night and get a second opinion was the same part that had me tell him about the second summon.

But I didn’t start that part of the story with the meeting.

------

One Night Ago

Three Days after the attack

“I got another one for you. There’s this pegasus friend of mine, Whirl Wind. He wanted some help moving into his new apartment over in the Yellow District. Now, this guy, he’s like a very good friend of mine, but I swear he can be extremely silly sometimes.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’ll tell ya. This friend, by the way, had never been using CrystalTech, since he lived in this lousy Red District apartment. I helped him move some furniture in, and he eventually discovers the thermal unit for the room. The crystal inside it for whatever reason was knocked out of place inside its’ adapter. He tells me ‘I can fix this,’ so he goes over and gets ready to buck the thing back into place.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Yeah. So Whirl Wind rears up, then bucks the thing as hard as he can, all the sudden ZAP! The thing pops and some sparks fly out, all the sudden he starts freaking out, running in circles because he thought his tail caught on fire.”

“Was it?”

“Nah, but it did scare him quite a lot. Yknow what he does next? He dives out the window, starts screaming bloody murder as he flies over the city, and right into the nearest water tower. They had to shut off a whole quadrant’s water supply so the scrubbers could clean it out for a whole two days!”

Cuppa Joe laughed at this stranger’s story as they sat there talking to each other like they had been the last twenty minutes or so minutes in the Palace’s café. It was almost three in the morning, and I was early again for the summon, but I found out later that there was a big delay. So I had been waiting for about two hours now, spending a hefty chunk of it at the café, and eventually was when that stranger showed up.

He was a bright tan unicorn, green eyes, half-moon spectacles, and I couldn’t see his cutie mark over his dark suit with its’ sweeps and blends of purple that mixed well with the black. It was easy to tell he was a pony of high stature, but he didn’t flaunt it, with his expensive, but not too expensive attire.

His name was-

“Hey, you alright?” the stranger asked me. I apparently didn’t notice that he was trying to get my attention for a short while now.

I just stared a him for a moment, before I looked back behind the café, ignoring him as I slumped against the counter.

Joe took notice of this, glancing between the stranger and I. “Sorry about him, he’s not usually much of a talker,” Joe went ahead and decided to explain as he indicated to me. “This is Ashen Nightwing.”

“Is he, really?” The stranger surveyed me for a moment. “I’ve heard a lot about you. They said you were the one that stopped the separatist uprising a couple years back,” he said enthusiastically.

I already didn’t like that guy.

“I’m Peace Walker, it’s an honor to meet you,” said the stranger to me as he held out a hoof for a hoofshake.

“That’s nice,” I said dismissively, hardly paying the guy any attention.

He glanced between Joe and I for a moment. Joe decided once again to take the liberty of speaking for me, without my consent (which I didn’t care much about anyway).

“You’ll have to excuse his rudeness, he’s normally not like this. He’s been having a bit of a rough week.”

Poor choice of words, Joe.

“Oh no, it’s fine. But still, it’s still quite an honor to meet the hero in the flesh. You did a really brave thing there, sir Nightwing, volunteering to stop the separatists. The military could use more soldiers like you.”

My eye twitched at this. I wanted to tell him to buck off right there, because he didn’t have a single clue what he was talking about. However, I just kept to myself and tried to ignore him.

Joe stepped in again, and spoke just above a whisper. “Um, sir, that’s… actually a very sensitive topic for the Lieutenant.”

“Oh, I see. My apologies then, sir Nightwing… I had no idea. Just trying to make conversation is all, at least until the council meeting starts. I’m curious what the hold-up is.”

That comment caught my attention. Up until then, I thought perhaps they just wanted to take another statement, maybe ask me more questions. I wasn’t sure why they called me back the following night, but I went regardless. Can’t say no to a royal summon, after all. My curiosity piqued, despite my intent to stay disconnected with this guy I didn’t even know.

“You mean the hearing that should’ve started a couple hours ago?” I asked.

“Well, yeah, before it got delayed,” he responded. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I was supposed to be in that same meeting,” I said and sat up. “Do you know what’s up with the delays then?”

“Really? Uh… as far as I know, it’s a large meeting tonight I believe. There’s been others coming in asking about the same hearing. If I were to guess, we’re waiting for several ponies who were summoned to arrive.”

“Who else is here for this then?”

“Well, apart from you, there was pegasus, who looked like some sort of messenger, and a nightbreed soldier. One of those Skywings I think. Saw him earlier, white fur, bright blue mane, a pretty carefree sort of fella’.”

Jetstorm.

------

“Jetstorm?” interrupted Doctor Archer.

“Yes.”

“What was he doing there?”

“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him in two months until then. No, wait, I take that back. I saw him two nights ago actually, after my first meeting with the council.”

“Why didn’t you mention this?”

I shrugged. “Slipped my mind.”

“Well, did you talk with him?”

“More like he talked to me.”

“Where at?”

“…The firing range.”

------

Two Nights Ago

Two Days after the attack

*K-THROWM* *K-THROWM* *K-THROWM*

My CrystalTech Mark II Energy Cannon thundered with an electric hum and resounding boom down the lane, before the red white-hot projectile of magic splashed against my targets with a satisfying thud.

*K-THROWM*

I pictured Aurora as each of the small round, metal targets with each one I shot. Each hit I landed helped me blow off a little bit of steam, but there was still more I needed to vent.

*K-THROWM*

The tips of the three small fold-able barrels surrounding my foreleg where beginning to glow with a ferocious orange heat from overuse in the past hour. I had already gone through eight crystals, and I had just spent my ninth. With my left foreleg, I flicked up a curved switch that curled around my leg, and flipped it up to where it stuck out from the apparatus. I pulled it back and ejected a small, lifelessly transparent crystal from the device between the top and bottom-right barrels that were strapped around my leg. The thing landed on the floor with a hollow tink and rolled away as I reached for a partially glowing crystal on the table to my lane. I slapped it into a designated compartment on the apparatus, then slid the lever forward and back down where it meshed and curved with the roundness of my leg. The action locked the crystal in place, and created the sound of a charging whir, then a steady but subtle hum, indicating I was ready to unleash more energy at the infernal targets that stood in front of me.

*K-THROWM*

The first shot met the closest target on my left before it hardly had a chance to pop out. I waited for the next pop-up that dared show itself.

There, the farthest one in the back.

I used my left forehoof to man a small lever between the top and bottom-left of the weapon, and pulled it.

*K-THROWM*

Hit! I was on a roll, and I was grinning like a mad pony at my streak.

One by one, with not but a few seconds in between, each target popped up, and I eliminated each one with speed and accuracy in a matter of milliseconds.

The final target was about to pop up.

There! Middle field, right side.

I readjusted my aim. Locked on. Now just pull-

“Hey Ash!”

*K-THROWM*

The projectile flew way off past the target and collided with a frustrating blow to the back of the lane, followed by an obnoxiously loud buzzer to further signal the horrible miss.

Damn it!

I turned to face the ignorant pony that dared to interrupt my perfect streak, and I was caught completely off guard by who stood there on the staircase that led back up to the Law & Order Department offices.

“Jetstorm.”

“Nice to see you too Ash.” He said with a wave before hopping down the stairs to wrap his foreleg around my neck and hugged me at his side. “It’s been ages, man. How come you never answer my calls? There was this smoking hot mare I know you woulda liked over at the Mare in the Moon the other night. Where were you?”

“…Busy.” I knocked away his embrace, before I lowered my foreleg then pushed and folded the trigger mechanism into the apparatus. This caused the three barrels to recede back so it went from sticking out over my forehoof, to folding back against the rest of the device along my leg, and the humming from earlier to wind down, effectively disengaging the weapon. Afterwards I reached down with my teeth, and began pulling at the thickly clothed straps. “What are you doing here?” I asked part-way through the process, then once the thing was loose, I slid it off like a sleeve, then threw it onto the table.

“I heard you were in town, so I thought I’d come and see what my old squad mate was up to.”

“Look, Jet, it’s nice seeing you, but this is really a bad time, so I suggest you high tail it out of here before I blow your head off, cuz you just ruined my streak.”

“Did I? My bad.” He sat in a chair in the corner, stretched out and relaxed. Clearly, he wasn’t about to leave.

I never understood why Jetstorm liked me so much. We were both nightbreeds, sure, but he was one of those Skywings, one of those really good flying types. Easy way to tell this was from his bright blue turquoise mane. This guy was sort of a runt of the litter though; most of his clan were black or grey, but he was as white as snow, and bright blue eyes that were alight with a juvenile enthusiasm. He thought we were the best of pals, the closest of comrades, brothers on the battlefield, etcetera, after we went on dozens of expeditions together and trained together in CrystalTech and Rune Blades. Good guy, for the most part, but he was cocky and never was good at taking a hint.

That or intentionally ignored them.

He tilted his head as he surveyed my bandaged body.

“So how many stallions did you piss off this time? Five? Six? Maybe seven…?”

“It wasn’t a bar fight, idiot.”

“Right, and I can walk on clouds. Seriously, how many was it? Did you win?”

“It wasn’t a bucking bar fight, featherbrain,” I repeated angrily.

He rolled his eyes in disbelief, but thankfully dropped it. The white stallion strolled up to the lane next to mine, and looked out toward a scoreboard suspended from the ceiling, displaying a holographic “31 out of 32.”

“Must be getting rusty there Ashen, you missed one,” he casually commented with a playful smirk.

And he wondered why I never returned his calls…

“Do you want something Jet?” I said, intentionally letting a bit of my anger slip in.

He leaned against the table to the lane he stood at, and just stared at the scoreboard with his cocky smile plastered on his face. However, it wasn’t maintained as his gaze fell to the floor, and he dropped his snarky demeanor.

“Jokes aside Ashen… I heard about the attack.”

…Of course that’s why he’s here. I sighed and settled on my haunches.

“Yeah, well… who hasn’t,” I flatly commented.

“I also heard you were just in an audience with the Queen and Council, and you practically stormed out of the place.”

I glanced over at him.

“Figured I’d either find you here or in a bar. Thankfully I got it right on the first guess, because trying to find you would’ve taken forever. Do you know how many clubs and bars there are in the cap-

“Forty-six, yes, I know.”

“…It’s sad you know that, Ash.”

“Yeah well… what else is new,” I stated.

“So uh… everything okay?”

“Not really, no.”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“No.”

He sighed and shook his head.

“Of course… you wouldn’t be here otherwise would you?” The white nightbreed leaned back against the counter and sighed. “But just so you know, if you wanna chat, blow some steam, or anything like that, I’m your stallion.”

“Like you’ve been my guy since that expedition into the western part of the Dragonlands?”

“Hey now, that was an accident and you know it.”

“You nearly took my wing out.”

“It was an accident! How many times do I have to keep telling you that! My aim’s gotten loads better since then.”

“Yeah, right,” I said dismissively, then pointed a hoof at the range. “I bet you still can’t even hit half of these targets.”

“Oooh, I bet you I can prove you wrong. Ten bits,” he challenged.

I rolled my eyes, but I wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. Plus it would give me a chance to shoot some more, and maybe humiliating Jet might help me vent and get him to leave me alone. “Twenty,” I counter-offered.

“You’re on. First to fifteen wins.” He grinned, then went back upstairs to the front desk of the range to grab one of the cannons while I got mine re-strapped to my foreleg. A few minutes later he came back down with one of his own in his teeth, and stationed himself at the lane next to mine.

“You know, I never did like how these things force you to be stationary when you use them,” he said as he started strapping the cannon to his leg.

“Or when you’re flying,” I said with an indicative spreading and flapping of my wings.

“You know how hard it is to aim while you’re in the air, Ashen.”

I shook my head. “Excuses, excuses, like that time with the whelp dragon.”

“For the last time, that was an accident. My aim’s gotten loads better since then.”

“Put your money where your mouth is then Jet.”

“Yeah, yeah, just try not to take it too badly when I take your bits.”

I rolled my eyes just as the cocky Skywing finished strapping up his cannon. We both unfolded and locked the trigger mechanism back into position, and the three barrels on our cannons unfolded out and locked in position over our hooves, followed by the soft humming from the crystals loaded into them.

“Ready,” I said aloud, and a green light lit up over the lane.

“Ready,” said Jetstorm aloud afterward, another green light showing itself above the lane.

Both lights disappeared, and at the far end of the lane was a red line of three dots. A loud beep was heard, the third dot went out.

Three…

The second light went out followed by another beep.

Two…

Last light, last beep.

One.

A loud buzzer went off, and that same row of lights lit up green.

*THUK*

The first target popped up. Low in front. I aimed, and pulled the trigger.

Direct hit; the target went back to its’ rightful place down on the ground. My minor victory was short lived, I had another fourteen to go.

Middle field, high. I fired.

*K-THROWM*

Hit.

Back field, left.

*K-THROWM*

Hit.

Up front, high.

*K-THROWM*

Hit.

Each target went back down just as quick as they came up. I had just reached thirteen, two more to go.

*THUK*

Mid-right, I aimed-

*BUZZ*

The hay?

“Hah! That’s twenty bits Ash!”

I glanced over in his lane in disbelief. The number above it showed fifteen to my thirteen.

Since when the hay did he get this quick? I thought to myself, still unable to comprehend how he managed to beat me at my own game.

“Come on buddy, pay up,” he said in his cocky demeanor as he beckoned me with a hoof.

I grumbled, and locked the trigger mechanism, before I began fishing through my pockets for my coin bag. Once I found it, I threw it on the counter, spilling out the bits, and started counting.

“You must’ve cheated or something.”

“Not my fault you’ve gotten rusty,” he said with a smirk.

I counted his bits, then shoved them to the side as I collected the rest of the gold coins.

“Hope you choke on ‘em.”

“Why thank you very much. I’ll just take these…” he said, scooping up my bits and stowing them away in one of his uniform pockets.

I unstrapped the cannon from my leg and threw it back onto the table with a grumble.

“Don’t worry, I’ll put these bits to good use. I’ll start with buying my old buddy a drink down at Club Nebula, it’s a party down there tonight. How about it?” he asked with a friendly smirk. “There’s sure to be lot of fine mares there too.”

“No,” I replied. “I need to get home.”

“Ash, it’s only two in the morning, the night’s still young. Come on, let’s go have some fun, for old time’s sake.”

“I can’t, Jet. Sorry.”

He sighed.

“Look, I know you Ash. I know you have nothing better to do at home other than dwell in your little messy cave of misery, so could you quit being an ass and let me buy you a drink?”

“I said no, Jet. That’s final.”

He sighed. “Alright, more for me. But I’m telling ya, you’re missing out. The place was crowded and some great music was playing.” He was waving a hoof around dismissively, yet sarcastically.

“I’m sure it is. Thanks for the game.” I picked up the cannon in my teeth, and turned to the stairs, but he stopped me with a hoof.

“Okay, Ashen, I was kidding. Look, seriously, just come hang out with me for the night, get some drinks, dance the night away, meet a mare or two, yknow, have fun. Take your mind off things for a bit. It’s the least you could do before I head back to the South Watch.”

I was about to just push past his hoof and walk away, but something about that last sentence caught my attention. Hardly anypony was ever allowed to take a break from South Watch, especially not Jetstorm. His charisma made him a great leader, that’s why he was stationed there as a commanding officer of Outpost Aeries. Also as he just proved to me then and there, he became a much better shot in the very few times that I’ve seen him. He’s one of the best soldiers I know, and that’s why he needed to be down there on the Watch.

The thing that was bothering me all the sudden, was why he was here in the capital when he should’ve been on duty. Especially after an attack, the military would’ve had to knuckle down defenses on the south and the east, at least until the latter’s barrier was operational again. He should be out there, not here in the capital. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it earlier.

“What are you doing here anyway?” I asked after setting my cannon down on a table. “I thought you were down south.”

He blinked a few times, before he dropped his hoof. “Well… I was summoned to the capital, why?”

“Do you know why?”

“I don’t know. It was a royal summon, and it didn’t say. I just came in yesterday, and they want me for something tomorrow. Just figured it might have something to do with the attack but I’m not exactly sure.”

I pondered this for a moment, but ultimately I decided it probably wasn’t anything important, or at least relevant to me. “Right… well… okay then. Thanks I guess,” I said before picking up the cannon back up and making my way upstairs.

“You’re… welcome…?” he responded. “Hey! Give me a shout sometime Ash, I’ll be in town!”

“Yeah, yeah…” I mumbled.

------

“I see,” stated Doctor Archer. “Yeah, I was about to ask why Jet was here. Let’s get back on track though, when the stranger was talking about Jetstorm. What happened next?”

------

One Night Ago

Three Days after the attack

“Well, apart from you, there was pegasus, who looked like some sort of messenger, and a nightbreed soldier. One of those Skywings I think. Saw him earlier, white fur, bright blue mane, a pretty carefree sort of fella’.”

Jetstorm.

“Any idea why he’s here?” I asked.

“Not sure. He’s not the only one military here either.”

“You saw more military?”

“At least three other nightbreed soldiers, plus that messenger mare, a pegasus.”

“Uh, a messenger mare? You sure she wasn’t just a civilian or something?”

“No, she’s military. Had the uniform and everything.”

Okay. Five nightbreed soldiers, including myself, one pegasus… and this guy?

“What does that make you then? You don’t look military.”

“Oh, no. I’m actually the Lunar Confederacy’s representative.”

That was when all the pieces clicked together and I realized what this entire gathering was about.

This was all about an escort mission; a diplomatic envoy.

They can’t be bucking serious, I thought angrily to myself as I grit my teeth and pressed my face into my hooves. There is no way the council is bucking serious about this.

“Is something wrong…?” the ambassador asked me.

“No, just… not what I expected,” I said through my teeth.

------

Archer interrupted me again. “What’s so wrong about this?”

I flung myself up out of the chair and slammed my hooves on the doctor’s desk.

“What’s wrong is because Equestria attacked US! This is no time to be showing the enemy mercy. We need to fight back, not revert to useless politics!”

The Doc gave me a stern look for a minute.

“You’re really quick to judge, Ashen.”

I wanted to shout at him, but I restrained myself as I returned to the sofa. In a more calm tone, I said, “We shouldn’t be giving them the benefit of the doubt like this. They’ll just summon up more forces while we screw around, and they’ll attack us again, but this time they’ll be able to walk right in, with the barrier down and everything,” I explained as calmly as I could, but some of my anger was starting to seep in. “I didn’t walk in there the other night and told them about how I almost died just for them to do this crap. We need to take action to hit them back the same way they hit us. Show them not to screw with us.”

“Ashen, believe me, I understand your argument, I really do, but despite what you experienced and how many soldiers died on the border, it’s reckless starting a war without getting all of the facts, and I think that’s the point of the envoy.”

This was another one of those times where he had a point, a good point, but I didn’t like it. He was right, which made it more annoying.

“I’m not a bodyguard Doc. I’m a soldier. I’m supposed to fight on the front lines, to defend our walls from the enemy.”

“You haven’t fought a war Ashen. You fought dragons, and that wasn’t for over two years. In case you forgot, you barely scraped by in the surprise attack. Plus you need to consider we haven’t been in a ‘war’ since the fifth Breed Wars 213 years ago. Do you think our military would seriously be ready to fight Equestria, if they’re as dangerous as you say they are? Think about this from a strategists’ perspective, not a soldier’s.”

I grumbled, and fell silent. He made another one of those annoying, yet very valid points of his. It may be the smart move, but it sure as hay didn’t feel like the right move, sending an envoy.

This is irritating. Why did I even come talk to him for his advice? I pondered. This guy’s a damn pacifist or something; he doesn’t understand how pointless this envoy is.

“I know you don’t agree with me,” said Archer as if he read my mind. “But if it makes you feel better, think of it this way: it’s better to know your enemy before you fight your enemy. I think that might be the point of the envoy.”

“That’s not the case.”

“Why is that?”

“Will you let me finish?”

“Right, right… sorry. Carry on then. What happened next?”

------

“Is something wrong…?” the ambassador asked me.

“No, just… not what I expected,” I said through my teeth.

This seemed to bother the unicorn briefly, but he didn’t press. I guess I must’ve spooked him. Before the silence started to settle in, some red pony was running toward us from the main hall in a hurry, and then stopped right next to us, panting heavily.

“Lieutenant Nightwing?” he asked in between breaths.

“Yes?”

He turned to the stranger next to me. “And Emissary Peace Walker?”

“That’s me.”

“You’re both needed in the Council chambers. The session is about to begin.”

The ambassador and I looked at one another for a moment, before we got up.

“Alright, thank you. We’ll head there right away,” calmly stated the ambassador as he walked past, myself trailing behind just slightly.

We silently walked to the council’s chambers, then arrived at the doors where we greeted the two royal guards defending the door. One simply nodded to the other, before they both let us inside.

“Ah, excellent. Here they are,” said the Chancellor from his podium once he heard, and saw, both of us enter. All of the council members were present and accounted for, as well as the Queen, who sat at her throne. In front of both were a small group of ponies, including Jetstorm, who had been standing next to three dark-colored nightbreed soldiers decked in the royal armor. Next to him was a young white mare with bright violet eyes. She seemed young… a little too young.

I took a place next to Jetstorm, and the stranger known as Peace Walker stood next to the pegasus. The two of us bowed low before the Queen, before standing upright.

“Thank you both for coming, Ashen, Walker,” said the Chancellor as he politely nodded his head to each of us in kind. “We’re glad you made it.”

“Skip the pleasantries, Chancellor. We didn’t bring them here tonight to socialize,” said a rather huffy and irritated Bane Bloodwing.

Eclipse shot him an annoyed look, then sighed and waved a hoof. “…Very well then.” He cleared his throat.

“You’re all probably wondering why you’re here tonight,” he began, looking over the group. “As all of you no doubt heard, there has been an attack on the country. Lieutenant Ashen Nightwing here was one of the survivors of the attack,” he said with a subtle and indicative gesture toward me. “We have reason to believe that the party that might be responsible for the attack was our eastern neighbor, Equestria.”

This set off a series of murmurs from the three nightbreeds. The pegasus, Jetstorm and the ambassador however were silent, just shifting troubled gazes from one another.

“I know how shocking this must seem to all of you. Indeed, it came as a shock to all of us as well to hear the news. After all, Equestria had left us to our own devices without so much as a single word in the last thousand years, now only for this to happen. This attack was an act of war; an unprovoked assault to an already-struggling nation. I won’t lie to you, we do face tough times this year, being short in food supplies for another season. Councilor Aurora, Councilor Baron, and Councilor Cropper believe that we are not in a position to start a war with Equestria, for practical, economic, and agricultural reasons. However this doesn’t mean that any of us are willing to turn a blind eye to this crime. While Councilor Bloodwing and I believe a more appropriate response is to retaliate and make sure Equestria can never harm us again, it is the majority decision of the Council and Her Majesty that we refrain from taking such drastic action.”

Queen Luna held up a hoof. “Thank you, Eclipse. I’ll speak from here, if you please.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” responded the Chancellor with a polite bow of his head.

The alicorn Queen rose from her throne, walked down her steps and stopped before the group of us.

“It is mine and Councilor Aurora’s belief that there may be more to this attack than what we have seen. While it has been a very, very long time, I don’t think my sister Celestia would commit such a heinous act against my subjects and I. I believe a third party was responsible.”

I had to look away when she said this. On any given day, I would never question Her Majesty in her infinite wisdom, but I knew what I saw, and it still hurt to think that my Queen didn’t want to heed my word. It was then I noticed Jetstorm had an unconvinced look of his own, but he was more subtle about it than I was. Thankfully, nopony in the room seemed to notice or comment on it, as Her Majesty continued.

“The Council and I have decided that the best course of action would be to ascertain the truth, and only then will we decide on how to deal with those responsible. That is why you have all been brought before the Council and I tonight. Your task is of the utmost importance; to travel to Equestria, speak with Celestia and/or her representatives, and if Equestria was indeed involved, then you are to initiate peace talks immediately. If this cannot be done, and/or Equestria wasn’t responsible, then you are to return home, report to us what you have learned, and we will decide on what must be done.”

She paused, which was just enough time for everypony to share their own set of discomforted reactions. There was no fear, only uncertainty.

“Excuse me,” suddenly stated the ambassador unicorn. “May I speak, Your Majesty?”

“You may,” she responded calmly. She must’ve expected somepony to speak up about this.

“Thank you,” he said, politely bowing his head. “The news of this attack is startling, and even more so of Equestria’s possible involvement. Forgive me if I sound imprudent however, but how are we so sure Equestria is a suspect?”

That was when the night Queen turned to me.

All eyes were on me, and I had the spotlight, which was definitely not the place I wanted to be in. I just kept eye contact away from everypony as I took in a deep breath and simply explained, “I saw stallions in gold armor engraved with the sun crest. Fought them, even.”

Mixed reactions went about my small group, but Peace Walker was unreadable. He seemed as if he just took it as data, as he turned his attention to the Queen and continued his line of questioning without missing a beat.

“Has Equestria come forward about this at all?”

“They have not,” said the Queen.

He shifted about uncomfortably, before he took a deep breath and began again. “I apologize once again if this comes out as brash, but I thought we were banished from Equestria on the terms of a truce, one when if broken, is an act of war, and they would have every right to attack us. This is assuming that the attack was done by a third party, so even if we wanted to learn the truth, wouldn’t that still risk breaking the treaty?”

“That’s an excellent question Ambassador Walker. Yes, under normal circumstances, we are not allowed to cross the border, or it would be seen as a violation of the terms Celestia set on us a thousand years ago. However, this isn’t a normal circumstance. I’m convinced my sister would be willing to make an exception for negotiations on this matter.”

“Has a messenger at least been dispatched about our mission?”

“Yes, just last night, but he has yet to return,” explained Eclipse. “We may need to send the envoy anyway, and hope she understands our intent and doesn’t see it as breaking the treaty.”

“It’s still a risk,” suddenly came the flat response of Councilor Bloodwing. “Once again, if we’re assuming they weren’t directly responsible, Celestia may still consider it a violation of the truce once we send them.”

“We discussed this already in detail, Councilor Bloodwing,” interrupted Councilor Aurora. “We don’t have an abundance of options, short of going to war with Equestria without grounds, which you know very well we can’t do. This is a more reasonable solution, one we’re sure Celestia will allow.”

“I still don’t think-

The Queen had her hoofed raised, silently, yet calmly, signaling for the council to cease their banter. “It’s been debated and decided, Councilor Bloodwing. Your input has been noted before the court.”

Bane sighed and sat back in his podium. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”

Suddenly, the doors to the chambers flew open from a panting pegasus who was being restrained by the two guards.

“Your Majesty… My apologies… but… I bring news… from Equestria,” he explained aloud in between breaths. He pulled out a letter from one of his saddlebags, which was stamped with a red seal.

“Bring it here, son,” said Eclipse to the pegasus. The guards let him pass, and without hesitation, he tiredly hovered up and gave the chancellor the letter, who took no time at all to open it, as he said to the pegasus. “Thank you. You may leave us, go and get some rest. You’ve done well.”

“Yes, Chancellor, thank you.” He left almost as quickly as he came. With the interruption now out of the way, all eyes turned to the Chancellor to await Celestia’s response. A moment of him reading through the entire letter, he spoke up.

“Celestia has agreed. The envoy has been given permission to cross the border and speak with her in Canterlot.”

Relief seemed to wash over Councilor Aurora and Cropper, as well as Peace walker, who was more subtle about it. The Queen on the other hoof, smiled.

Bane however wasn’t satisfied. “I find this a bit suspicious.”

Councilor Aurora cocked him an annoyed look. “You’re being paranoid. You should be relieved she agreed to see us.”

“Apologies to the Queen and Council, but my job is to be cautious and question any activity. She seems a bit too eager to discuss this matter if you ask me.”

“Enough Bane,” exclaimed the Chancellor with a stamp of his hoof. “I concur with your reservations, but regardless, it’s already been decided.”

The councilor grumbled quietly to himself while casting the occasional angry glance at Aurora. Luna turned back to us and began once again.

“So you have your mission.” The alicorn’s turquoise eyes shifted to me. “Lieutenant Nightwing, you are in charge of the protection of Ambassador Peace Walker. Ensure he arrives safely at Canterlot to begin negotiations.”

I wasn’t able to maintain eye contact, as I looked to the side of her, and without any sort of conviction, I forlornly stated, “Yes, Your Majesty.”

There was a pause for a moment, and I tried my hardest to keep from looking at her. I should have been honored, bowing before her and telling her that this was a great undertaking that I would be willing to lay my life on. I knew that this was a historical moment, finally getting to contact Equestria for the first time in a thousand years. However, I still had my suspicions about Equestria, and I had trouble comprehending that we were still doing this mission. That was only one of my concerns however.

It was in that courtroom I realized how little confidence I had in myself to handle such an undertaking, considering my condition, as well as being able to keep a level head about it all and prevent any sort of political incident. I hated Equestria after all. Nothing would’ve pleased me more than to see them burn, just so we don’t have to worry about them from attacking us ever again.

I wanted to throw up. There was no way in the world I could handle this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the position to say “no.” My duty to the Queen is to follow her every command, even if I disagreed with it. That’s my job as a soldier. I do what I’m told. At least, that’s what I kept trying to convince myself of.

“Ambassador Peace Walker, I trust you understand your mission?” the Queen asked as she turned to the respective pony.

He bowed low. “Yes, Your Majesty. It would be my honor to represent you.”

She smiled, and rested a hoof on his shoulder. “I believe you’ll be the perfect candidate for the negotiations. Your work with keeping the peace between the territories is legend, here in the Palace,” she explained encouragingly.

He just smiled in response. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

The Queen turned toward the pegasus. “Corporal Swift, am I correct?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the young mare. I could swear she was a foal, just from the sound of her voice. What was somepony her age doing in a uniform?

Luna smiled at her. “Some of your superior officers have told me great things about how quick a flier and hard a worker you are.”

“Um, thank you, Your Majesty…” she said, trailing off as she looked at the floor and several of her silver bangs of her long mane fell over her eyes.

“So much so, that they have recommended you to me as messenger for this mission. I’d like for you to be the pony to keep me informed about how the negotiations are going. Can you handle that for me?”

“Uh, yes, of course Your Majesty!” she suddenly exclaimed, standing upright and even giving a salute. “I’ll do my very best, promise!”

I watched in a suspension of disbelief. Is that mare even taking this seriously?

Her quirky behavior somehow prompted a brief chuckle from the Queen. “I’m sure you’ll do fine, Corporal Swift.”

“Excuse me,” said the unamused Councilor Bloodwing. “Forgive me, Your Highness, but we also need to remind Corporal Swift that should she fail to send us word every two weeks, then we’ll be assuming that our envoy has been captured or killed.”

The smile quickly disappeared from the Queen as she stood straight. Swift also took on a look of worry.

“In the event of that, we’ll be assuming Equestria declared war. So I encourage you to take this job seriously, am I understood?” he said, glaring down at her.

“Y-yes… yes sir,” replied Swift sullenly, as her gaze fell to the floor.

“One more thing,” suddenly said Aurora. “Peace Walker, we have one more task for you we wish for you to bring up during negotiations with Equestria.”

“I still think this idea of yours is insane, I’ll have you know, Aurora,” suddenly said a much more discontent Bane Bloodwing. “You’re a bigger fool than I thought you were if you honestly believe they’ll even consider listening to that rubbish, let alone consider it.”

I was suddenly very curious what they were on about, as were a couple of the other members of the group.

Aurora, however, ignored this remark. “Ambassador Walker, while in Canterlot, the Council requests that you also discuss opening trade routes with Equestria.”

She can’t be serious, I thought, while also casting a glare at her.

“I’m sorry?” asked the ambassador who did a double take.

“Councilor Cropper here has given me multiple reports about the very high chance of a shortage this year in the harvest. We may not be able to keep the markets replenished this coming winter, and we may run out of food well before spring arrives. This is why we need to turn to Equestria for aid, and ask them to open a trade route with us. We have a lot of gold we can trade, both in bits and raw form, and we have excelled in CrystalTech research, so we have much we could offer them in exchange for food. This attack has given us the opportunity of a lifetime, and it’s one we can’t squander.”

Obviously, disapproval fell among the ranks, between myself, Jetstorm and the other soldiers, and surprisingly enough, it was even present with Chancellor Eclipse. However, as much as I expected him to say something, and I hoped he would, he didn’t.

Peace Walker on the other hoof responded with an enthusiastic expression, and an uplifted tone as he spoke once more, “It would be my honor, Councilor.”

“This is absolutely ludicrous…” mumbled a noticeably annoyed Bane Bloodwing who wasn’t ready to back down. “Have we forgotten the fact that the ponies you’re suggesting to trade with are the same ponies who might’ve just destroyed our eastern barrier? Are you saying we’re this desperate to turn to the enemy for aid? Councilor Cropper, please tell me that we can’t be that short on food this season.”

Instead of answering, Cropper’s ears sagged as he turned away.

This being answer enough for Bane, he scowled and pressed his hooves against his face. He didn’t want to give up.

“Bane,” suddenly came the unmistakable voice of the Queen. “How many votes do you, Aurora, Cropper and Baron have?”

“…One,” he reluctantly stated.

“How many does Chancellor Eclipse have?”

“Three.”

“And myself?”

“…Four.”

“So, as we’ve established for the last few hours before our group here arrived, you and Eclipse voted against this action; four votes, correct?”

He sighed and sat back, knowing full well where this was going. “Yes, Your Highness…”

“The rest of us, Aurora, Cropper, Baron and I, vote for the trade route. How many is that, Bane?”

“…Seven votes.”

She nods. “So, Bane, we more than understand your reticence in this matter, don’t think we don’t. However, this is mine and the council’s decision to move forward with this. We may not have another chance to contact Equestria again, you know this. Despite the circumstances to what brought this about, it gives us a chance to talk with Equestria.”

“We need this trade route Bane. Think about it, we could abolish the abortion laws, the food rationing, even stop the expeditions! We can end our 200-year hostilities with the dragons and it’ll boost morale throughout the country exponentially. We can finally be able to thrive!” explained Cropper, with Aurora enthusiastically nodding.

Bane wasn’t ready to completely back down from his side of the argument; I know I wouldn’t if I were him, but it was hard for anypony in the room to ignore those possibilities. Problem is, that’s all they were; possibilities, and ones that would be a waste of time to try and pursue, let alone the fact that it was a risk if Equestria was in fact the ones responsible behind the attack.

“I do see the benefits. However, I just believe we’re ignoring the obvious. They banished us, and once again, might have attacked us, so why would they trade with us?”

“Bane, you’re speaking with your pride and not your head,” explained Aurora. “We don’t know if they actually will, but we have to try, at least, for the sake of the country.”

Bane shook his head. “Believe what you want, Aurora. However, since the council still won’t change their mind, then there’s nothing more I can say.”

Everypony in my group casted shifty glances at the nightbreed councilor, while I cast my own up at Eclipse. I really wanted him to say something, especially since the Queen explained he agreed with Bane and I, but he didn’t. This really began to bother me, but I chose to keep it to myself. I wasn’t one to start a fuss in the council chambers.

Especially in front of the Queen, as well as risk seeming disobedient or insubordinate.

“Before we bring this meeting to a close, does anypony else have any objections or questions they would like to add to this discussion?” the Queen asked. “Don’t hold anything back. You are the ones we’ll be sending on this historical mission, so your inputs are important.”

I half expected the ambassador to start asking more questions, maybe one from Jetstorm. Surprisingly, nothing came. It seems that the debate we just witnessed seemed to give us all a very strong idea of what we’ll be doing. However, I did have a feeling that there were things that were begging to be screamed out as to why this mission is either dangerous, risky, insane, and even suicidal. Not only that, it just wasn’t logical.

Then again, everypony in my group must’ve been feeling the same way: Don’t argue with the Council, or you may risk treason, even if they ask for your honest opinion, especially Her Majesty.

When Luna didn’t get a response to her request, scanning each of us as she waited for one, she inevitably nodded, and spoke once more, “Then it is decided. You will travel to Equestria in five days to begin the negotiations. This meeting is adjourned. Good luck.”

With that, she brought her hoof down on the marble tile, sending a *clack* with through the large chambers with finality. Everypony in the room turned to leave, as well as myself, before the unexpected voice rang out behind me,

“Lieutenant Nightwing, may I please have a word with you in private for a moment?” asked Queen Luna.

I turned around in a snap. “Er, yes, Your Majesty. Of course.”

I was a little shocked at the request, since rarely anypony outside the Council meets with the Queen in private, let alone a simple soldier like myself. Not to mention it’s a great honor to nightbreeds to be able to be in her presence, and she wanted a private audience with me.

If she asked me to one four years ago, I probably would’ve fainted. However, four years and early adult hood was four years and one Operation Specter ago.

The Queen walked over toward one of the large glass windows near the back of the room, and I trailed behind her. When she stopped, as did I a few paces behind her. Just outside, shining through the massive window was Her Majesty’s bright and beautiful moon, which caused her mane to twinkle and coat to shine, effectively giving her a radiant midnight blue glow. However, her expression didn’t reflect her beauty, as it was somber. Her ears were sagged and her head hung. I could only wonder what was going through her mind until she finally spoke after a minute of uneasy silence.

“A thousand years ago, before the Bloody Founding, my sister presented me with two choices.” She paused. “The first, banishment to the moon. All of my followers would be imprisoned, but eventually forgiven for their crimes. However…”

She turned to face me over her shoulder. “Your ancestors would have had to be wiped off of the face of the earth. They could not be accepted in society, especially after the war.”

I didn’t respond to this.

Luna turned back toward the moon.

The moon would have been my prison for my crimes, a thousand years would have been my sentence. As you, and the rest of your fellow countryponies know, I chose the second option: Banishment from Equestria, for all time. I would go with my followers, and you, my nightbreeds, and would never be able to set hoof in our homeland again.”

I remained unmoved. This was part of our history I was well aware of, and it was why nightbreeds were so unquestioningly loyal to her; part of the reason why, was gratitude for giving up her home and her birthright for us. My father always told me this story, as did any other nightbreed elder. This story was passed down time and time again through the ages, and we never forgot what she did for us. This was what also fueled our hatred for Equestria through the years too.

“I always wondered about a number of things over these last thousand years as they just… flew right by. What would I have been like had I chose imprisonment on the moon. Would I still have been angry with my sister, and try to cover the world in eternal darkness again? What would I have done to her? Her followers?” She paused again in contemplation, before she shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll ever know. I can only speculate.”

Another pause.

“Tell me something.”

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Do you think I deserved banishment from my home?”

“Absolutely not, Your Majesty.”

“Why do you think so?”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer, or even knew how to answer, so I just decided to go with honesty. “Because I think Celestia was cruel and unjust to do something like that to her own sister. The throne was yours just as much hers, Your Majesty. She had no right to take that away from you, even before the war.”

Thinking back, I realized how bad that must’ve sounded, and almost expected the Queen to do something to punish me. However, she just turned back toward the window, and calmly responded, “You’re not the first to think so, Ashen.” She took a deep breath. “This was something I also thought about, as I sat here in my chambers for the past millennia, whether or not I deserved it. Do you know what I think?”

“Uh, sure, Your Majesty.”

“I believe I did deserve it.”

“But that’s not true-

She threw a hoof up, cutting me short. As she spoke again, her tone was still calm. “With everything that has happened in this county, and the time I had to spend ruling over it, I’ve often thought back to the day I stood up to her in my foalish arrogance. With each passing day I watch you and the rest of my subjects suffer for my actions. I even considered if banishment to the moon would have been more of a mercy than everything we’ve gone through, from the Bloody Founding to the First and Second Crusades, the Dragon Wars to the Long Hunger, the Southern Riots to the six attempts to take the throne, the thirty assassination attempts, a dozen plagues, the Burning of Territory Twenty-Seven, multiple economic depressions, and all five of the Breed Wars. After all of this up until now, do you know what I feel…?” She looked at the floor, and there was a long pause, long enough for me to almost think that it wasn’t a rhetorical question.

“Regret,” she said sullenly.

I stood there, looking at her with confusion, as she walked past me, and looked up toward the throne. “Whenever I look at that old ‘chair,’ I feel how much I didn’t deserve it. My sister was the one that knew what it took to be fair, to be just, and to be kind in the face of evil. She was always a better pony than I was. Perhaps… it’s why I envied and grew jealous of her and how much her subjects loved her. I wanted to be her so bad, that I lashed out at her instead in a stupid, foal-ish campaign, and look where it left us. We must live in the most hopeless spit of land in the entire world, and I was the one who brought us here, and even had that throne built on top of this sad, infertile, and blood-soaked pile of dirt we call a country.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “It’s high time I own up to my mistakes. It starts with this, Ashen.”

She turned to face me.

“I knew you would have reservations about this mission, Ashen, and I don’t blame you.”

“Your Majesty, I’m more than capable of-

“Ashen, please…”

This shut me right up. Afterwards my eyes fell to the floor and across the room.

“I know you suffer; I’ve seen your dreams and I know what haunts you every night.”

I glanced back at her. “My feelings aren’t important, Your Highness…”

“They are to me.”

I stared at her for a moment, then I turned aside. She approached me, and rested a hoof on my shoulder.

“Ashen, your father was a very dear friend of mine. He was like family to me, almost. I’d like to offer the same courtesy to his son, if he’d let me.”

I continued to avoid making eye contact.

Her hoof eventually fell from my shoulder, and with a brief, forlorn glance, I noticed her expression saddened even more.

“You know, your father spoke often about you.”

I didn’t respond.

“He was very proud of you, you know.”

“Your Majesty… forgive me but… I find that hard to believe.”

“Why is that?”

“He was more of a councilor, and less of a father, to put it mildly.”

She looked at me, unsure if I was even talking about the same pony. I just turned aside and averted my gaze, but tried to keep a straight posture. I didn’t want her to see me showing any sign of weakness when mentioning that bastard of a father of mine. However if she noticed, she didn’t comment. Instead, she returned to her previous line of questioning.

“I see. But Ashen, I want you to know that you are welcome to confide in me as your father has, as a friend, and not your Queen. Please, tell me what’s troubling you. I want you to be completely honest.”

I mulled this over in my mind a moment. If there’s one thing I didn’t want to tell her, it was the truth about how I felt.

I wasn’t sure I was the one for this mission. The mission, in my opinion, was a waste of time. I should’ve guarding the southern border, or the now-vulnerable east border, not being sent to protect somepony.

Then there was my… “condition.”

A few days ago, I was dying to get back on the field, but now, where the entire future of my home is riding on this, I wasn’t sure I could be able to handle it. It was a huge responsibility. I’d be fooling myself to think I was mentally well enough to keep my act together the whole way.

But on the other side of the coin, this was a direct order from Her Majesty herself. To back out, hay, cower at the thought of this mission, then I would not only be breaking my oath to Queen and Country, but also committing a direct act of treason.

That was I thought up until she spoke again. “If you’re unsure, or have apprehensions about this task, you have the choice of staying, if you wish. As a friend of your father’s, I’d at least like to offer you that choice.”

This effectively put me on the spot. I wasn’t sure what to tell her. Every part of me screamed to say that I was more than capable of handling this mission, but I knew I would only be lying to myself, and to the Queen.

She noticed my reluctance however, and rested a hoof against my shoulder. “Ashen, go home and think on it. I’ll give you a few days leave from duties here in the Citadel. As you know, the envoy sets out five days from now. That should give you plenty of time to make up your mind.”

“Your Majesty-

“You’ve contributed a lot to the Twenty-Six Territories, and if this is too much to ask from you, then you’ve earned the right to choose.”

I wish she didn’t give me the option. It was way easier when it was an order. However, one thing was on my mind, and I had to ask.

“Your Highness, if I may ask something.”

“Yes Ashen?”

“Why me?”

“Because Chancellor Eclipse vouched for you, and Councilor Bloodwing agreed with him. They told me of your many merits, and you’ve done more than anypony could have asked of you against he separatists. I wouldn’t have imagined anypony better for this task than somepony so loyal and hard working.”

“What about what Councilor Aurora said the other night? Won’t that jeopardize the mission?”

She turned away. “I haven’t forgotten what she said.” I waited, expecting to hear more, or an explanation of some sort, but nothing like that came. Instead, she just said, “Your choice on whether or not to lead the envoy still stands.”

I looked away, mulling over her words, but only briefly.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I said, unsure what more to say beyond that. When I couldn’t come up with anything, I bowed low. “I’ll let you know soon what I decide.”

I wished I didn’t utter that last sentence. I felt like I betrayed my oath a little.

She bowed her head politely in return. “Very well. Go with the night, my young Nightwing.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

After that, I left her chambers, skipped the bar, and went home for the day with a conflicted mind and barely a few winks of sleep.

------

“Even after spending the night shut in my own bedroom dwelling on what she said, I still couldn’t make up my mind. After that, I guess… I just needed a second opinion or something. I don’t know. For whatever reason I thought I should ask you, Doc. You know me better than anypony else, especially my condition. Thought you were the one pony to ask about this,” I finished explaining to Doctor Archer, who quietly listened, with the occasional nod of his head.

I saw him process the information and data from my last few nights over in his head, trying to come up with a result. This process lasted almost a minute, but once he finished thinking everything over, he stood up.

“I think you should go.”

“Wait… what?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“You should go, Ashen.”

“Why, because it’s my duty to the Queen?”

“No. Because I think this is something you need to do for yourself.”

“…I don’t understand.”

“Ashen, you’ve been cooped up in the Palace for goddesses know how long, and you would almost always go home drunk and with more bruises than the night before. You need to come back down to earth, and I can’t think of a better way than this. I understand it’ll be dangerous, but you need to be able to get back on your hooves again.”

“…I don’t know Doc… what if… what if I see him, while I’m there?”

Archer’s ears sagged and he grimaced. “You haven’t seen him in six months, Ashen.”

“But what if I do Doc…?”

He shifted uncomfortably, then lifted a hoof. “One second,” he said, before he turned back towards his cabinets, and opened one of them, fishing through many different drawers full of many small objects. Once he found what he was looking for, he pulled a small cylindrical container with an accompanying lid out from a separate drawer, and then levitated a couple dozen white tablets. He placed them inside the bottle, before screwing the cap on. He then turned to me, shutting the cabinets behind him, and he approached me.

“You know what this is, right?” He held up the bottle.

“I thought you wanted me off that stuff…”

“This is only in case of emergencies, Ashen. If you start seeing things, or start having one of those three dreams you told me about, you take two of them, just like before.”

“Doc, you know these didn’t help last time…”

“Take them anyway. Maybe they’ll help you this time.”

I frowned, unconvinced.

He sighed, then levitated it into one of the pockets by right wing. “Just keep it with you, alright?”

“But I still haven’t decided if I’m going.”

“But Ashen, in case they don’t do you any good, don’t forget what all we talked about this past year and a half.”

“I know Doc… just… you’re not gonna be around this time, if it happens again.”

“…What does that mean?”

I shook my head. “Uh, nothing… forget it.”

He wasn’t convinced, but he at least dropped it. “Last thing, Ashen.”

“…Yeah?”

“I want to see more journals, when you come home.”

“But-

“Ashen,” he said insistently when he interrupted me.

“Alright… alright…”

He nodded. “Good luck, Lieutenant.”

I wasn’t sure why he kept acting like I had already made up my mind, but I just nodded in return to him, thanked him, and left the office.

---

An hour later, I landed at my front door. It wasn’t even 1AM in the morning yet, but I still felt drained and I wanted to sleep. I pushed in the front door, and turned on the light switch, and was greeted by my filthy living room and kitchen.

Clothes were everywhere, trash was thrown about in whole mountains, and all manner of things were in disarray. Furniture was knocked over and/or torn up, wallpaper was falling apart, some of the wood was rotten, rust was starting to take over some of the metal in the room, and there was broken glass and dishes scattering the floor. There was half-eaten food anypony else would have found a waste, and others would have dug through all kinds of trash to get through to eat. There was also a foul mixture of scents from the myriad of trash thrown about that I grew not to notice.

I don’t know why, but normally I never gave my filthy home any thought. That night, I just looked at the way I had been spending the last two years. The state of my house alone dictated how much I’ve been just throwing my life away.

And that all I wanted to do was continue throwing it away.

This was all I would ever do with my life. Get up, leave my filthy home, and skip cleaning up, go work a mundane desk job with the occasional chance to make some pony’s life a living hell, go to some bar, drink, get into fights, and then come back to my filthy home just to sleep anywhere in my mountains of garbage between the living room to my bedroom to repeat the whole process all over again.

So why wasn’t I doing anything about it?

I thought back to the meeting with the council the night prior. This could be a moment to change the course of our history, but it could be a number of other things. It could be the start of another Day/Night War, and I should be manned on the front lines while I let the ambassador fail the negotiations, so I could be ready when Equestria attacked us again. It all might actually work out, even though I was absolutely sure that wouldn’t be the case.

Something gave me pause though, in this line of thinking. I went toward the back of the room, and pulled open the door to my bedroom, and looked immediately to my left, and stared at none other than my old friend.

Justice.

Justice and I shared a minute, maybe two, maybe five, maybe twenty, just staring at one another, and I listened to all of the memories that came flooding back like a relentless, rushing torrent of water through my aching mind.

However, it gave me one other thing to consider. Maybe… just maybe… I could finally find some peace, some closure… maybe forgiveness.

Would it all be worth the risk?

Justice and I stayed in that moment, that dark world that only consisted of it and I. After what felt like probably eons in deep thought…

I made a decision.

I went back into the kitchen, and rummaged through a few cabinets until I found a piece of parchment. After also finding a quill and bottle barely full of ink, I brushed off my kitchen table, set my stationary on it, then dipped the quill in the ink with my teeth, then wrote:

------

I’m going to Equestria.