• Published 5th Jul 2012
  • 10,940 Views, 636 Comments

Where Loyalties Lie: Honor Guard - LoyalLiar



Rainbow Dash saves Princess Luna's life, and uncovers a conspiracy bigger than Equestria itself.

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VI - Ignoble

VI: Ignoble
- - -

Shining Armor, justifiably proud of his fitness, nevertheless found himself panting desperately as he struggled to keep up with the massive strides of Soldier On. The buildings of Canterlot flew past them at an astonishing rate. Crowds of ponies, unaware of the true threat their nation faced, parted with indignation as the two soldiers barreled by.

When the larger mare skidded to a stop, her hooves were set firmly in the sand of the Royal Guard headquarters' large training ground. She seemed both the most relaxed and the calmest of the ponies present. Three other guardsponies were standing together in the yard. Only one noticed the approaching Captains, and he seemed far too perturbed to recall anything as formal as a salute.

"What's going on here?" Shining shouted, approaching the huddled group. His words had been meant for the Honor Guard Captain, but they were answered instead by a surprisingly young filly, one of the three recruits clustered on the sand.

"Captain! Oh, thank Celestia. Okay, so we were just on patrol, doing double-cycles like you ordered, and we'd stopped to get some coffee, so we-"

"Stop," the captain ordered, silencing her with a hoof. His steady gait had brought him into the rough circle of his three subordinates, and what he found in the center told him more than he truly needed to know. Laying there on red-stained wet sand, was the body of a guardspony, liberated from its head. There were a thousand thoughts flying through his mind as he processed the corpse, but the first to gain his focus was his duty to his still-living troops. "The rest of the garrison dispatched to try and track down the perpetrator?” A nod answered his question. “Good. Then you three, go inside. Sit down. Get some water. I’ll speak to you in a few minutes; do whatever you need to calm yourselves."

"But Captain, he's—"

He didn't need to shout; a cold directive was more than enough to override their fear. "That was an order."

As the three terrified recruits shuffled away, Shining took a deep breath and remembered how he had felt standing in their hooves. He shook himself quickly to free his mind of the memory, and set to work. His first action was a burst of magic to clean the powder from the stallion's face. As the chalky substance gathered into a tiny ball, matted turquoise fur was revealed.

A voice slashed through the fog of worries and stresses flooding his mind. Calm, firm, and cold to the dead body lying there in the sand. "Armor, you need to come with me."

He looked back at Soldier On, who stood expectantly at the doorway to the headquarters. If anything was bothering the Honor Guard, her body hid it well. She seemed totally unaffected by the decapitated body a dozen feet away and the severed head three feet beyond. Her apathy set Shining Armor on edge.

"Why were you the one who told me about this, Captain On?"

"Upstairs," was all she said.

Armor shook his head. “You’re too close to this. You knew about an attack on the Royal Guard headquarters before I did. And with the way Foresight and Red Ink talked about you in the palace, I have to know how you know all of this.”

On frowned, though her only other motion was to whip her short-cropped tail back and forth. “Predvidenie and Roscherk are mistaken. The pony they are looking for died five years ago. I’ve served Celestia for five years, and the Commander trusted me.” And then, for the first time since he had met the mare a scant few months before, Shining Armor saw a measure of deep emotion across her features. Her ears sank, and her stiff posture shifted, just a bit.

“Were you close to the Commander?”

As if realizing her weakness, On drew up to her full height. Looking down her muzzle with a piercing green glare, she added “We all did. But now is not the time for stories, and that is all you would want to know. And all we will discuss in the open.”

Though Shining cocked his head at the choice of words, his gut told him better than to press her. Instead, he gestured to the body in the sand. "I'm not done here. This is one of mine, Captain."

She nodded slowly, and then turned to the structure. "Take care of whatever investigation you need. I will speak to your recruits."

"Wait.” Mid-stride, the Stalliongradi froze and glanced back over her shoulder, watching Shining closely.. “I'll take care of them."

Soldier On's tone made it clear that she took offense. "Do you not trust me, Captain Armor?"

The unicorn spared his attention from the corpse long enough to offer a look of pitying judgment in Soldier On's direction. "It’s not that. They just… They need to hear this from me. They deserve that much from me." He turned back to the body, clearing away the powder from the fallen soldier’s cutie mark. His focus was again interrupted by the Stalliongradi mare.

"This will not be my first time comforting after a loss."

Perhaps it was the stress of the crime scene, or the continuing pressure of putting up with the nobles, or perhaps it was the slowly growing realization that he could not save the Princess. Whatever source it came from, Shining Armor's strained emotions brought out the cold, unfeeling truth.

"You're Honor Guard. They might not know what you do,” he said, waving his hoof vaguely in the direction of the barracks, “but I've heard the stories.” Then, standing up from the body, he set himself to face On yet again. “I'm going to be the one to talk to them, because it still bothers me when I see a dead body. Especially this one."

Soldier On allowed herself a deep breath, and then offered him a deep nod. "Who is he?"

"Mark Down. My best friend when I enlisted, all through basic."

"I'm sorry."

Shining wondered if she was as cold as those words had been. Without daring to ask, he stood up, hardening his face. The only thing he was sure of was that he didn't believe her. The words were too hollow, and too controlled. "We should go inside."

Soldier On held the door for him. The captain's purple armor glinted one last bit in the evening sun before it entered the shadowy, empty interior of the headquarters.

In the lobby, he immediately set eyes on the three recruits, sitting on the cushioned benches in the waiting area and talking in hushed tones amongst themselves. One mare had obviously been crying, while the other held a foreleg tightly around her shoulders. The lone stallion of the group stared vacantly into a glass of water as he whispered.

Shining took a deep breath and walked forward as casually as he could manage. All three younger ponies looked up as he approached.

"Captain," the more lucid mare muttered, offering a surprisingly stiff salute. He shook his head and waved a hoof to brush off the formality of the motion.

"There’s no need for that right now, Swish.” The mare’s eyes widened, surprised he knew her name off the top of his head. He let her reaction pass without comment, turning to the crying mare, Private Run. “I understand you ponies have probably never seen something like this before." He took a deep breath, pondering whether they could even believe his words. When they saw him only as a distant leader, it was hard to be a comforting presence. "This is what we fight against, as guardsponies. This is what we protect everypony else from. I'm not going to tell you not to be upset. This hit me just the way it hit you. This shouldn't have happened. But we're facing a challenge now, and we need to stand strong." His hoof grated slowly along the wooden floorboards, the only sound in a quiet, chilled lobby. "I won’t pretend I have all the answers now, but if there’s anything I can offer, you only need to ask."

The crying mare lifted her head, sucked down a sniffling breath, and spoke up in broken tones. "Did you know him?"

The answer was hard. It was Shining's pride that he knew the names of most of the Royal Guard. Even had he not bothered with such focus, he still would have been familiar with the dead pony lying outside. "That was Lieutenant Mark Down. He was one of the best guardsponies I ever had the pleasure of knowing. We went through basic training together."

"He was my brother."

Shining Armor froze up as the world around him was washed away by the world in his mind. Twilight Sparkle sobbed before him. Her face was pressed heavily into Princess Celestia's shoulders, as the monarch slowly lowered a polished wooden coffin into a deep pit in Canterlot Cemetery. The unicorn's body convulsed with every breath. All around were guardsponies, sabers presented in a long tunnel. A horn called, as one of the guardsponies began to speak.

"Captain Armor?"

He shook himself, once more actually seeing the mare sitting in front of him. Her coat was powdered white, not lavender, and the wings on her back could not have belonged to a unicorn.

"I'm sorry. I was just thinking back." He looked around the room again, regaining his bearings, and then slowly let his eyes fall back on the unfortunate mare. "What's your name?"

"P-private Run Down, Captain."

"Run Down, I'm very, very sorry for your loss. I can't tell you that we're going to make everything better, but I'm going to do everything in my power to catch whoever did this. Do you remember seeing anything that might have to do with this?"

The stallion of the group, Sergeant Trove, spoke up to answer. "We were in the yard when he— came back with another guardspony pegasus. I didn't recognize him, but I think he was a Sergeant, from the neck bands. A little while later, another pony came by. He was a unicorn, but I didn't see his rank. He had powder on. After he went inside, we heard fighting, but before we even made it in the doors, Lieutenant Down just came flying..." His voice trailed off as Run Down broke into tears again. He shook his head, leaned forward, and whispered softly. "He was thrown out the window like that, Captain. I think... I think it was your window."

Shining Armor took a step back, as his mind reeled with confusion and concern. His office? "Thank you, Sergeant. Um... Private Down, take some leave. A week, at least. More if you need it. That is an order." He turned back to Sergeant Trove. "Go to the palace. Find Princess Celestia and report what happened here. This is a matter of national security, so your report, as well as my presence in this investigation, are for her ears only. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." After a crisp but clearly regretful salute, he galloped off.

Shining's gaze finally shifted to the other mare in the room. "Private Swish, I need you to head downstairs and bring up a bag." He silently prayed that she knew what he meant.

"Captain, with respect, I'd like to be with Run Down. I think she needs somepony."

The captain of the Royal Guard shook his head slowly, desperately wishing he could grant that request. "We all need somepony right now, Private. The guard can't spare you. Run Down, you should go home. Your family will be there for you. I'll be there as soon as possible to deliver a formal apology." With those final words, Shining Armor stepped away, turning toward the stairs to his office.

Soldier On followed with a heavy gait, waiting until they were up the stairs and out of earshot to speak again. "You have a gift for words, Captain."

"I'm terrible, compared to Captain Vigil.” At On’s cocked glance, he waved a hoof in a short circle. “My predecessor, Captain Unending Vigil. She gave me nearly the same speech, when I’d just made Colonel."

Again, On cocked her head. "What happened?"

"It was during the Griffin border conflict in Zebrica, seven years ago. One of my squad mates had his throat slit by a griffon scout." Soldier On closed her eyes for a moment, and offered only a curt nod. "It was the first time I ever saw anypony die."

"Did they give you leave?"

He shook his head, snorting in bitter humor at the thought that he would ever have left that battlefield willingly. "They couldn't spare me. When I made Captain, she asked me if I remembered what she'd said. She told me I'd have to give the speech too."

"She was a good Captain."

Shining Armor vacantly nodded, already beginning to climb the headquarters stairway toward his office. "At least it was the easy speech." His hoof set down on the squeaky floorboard in the upper hallway. Only a few more steps left. His horn ignited in magic, pushing gently on a door that still hung ajar. It swung smoothly inward.

The office was a mess. His desk and chair had both been overturned, lying at crooked angles on the floor. The wall of portraits was now nearly blank, with only three pictures still hanging soundly. The rest had fallen to the floor, where their glass lay broken in a rough minefield of shards. Some bore fresh blood. His other two chairs, for guests and guardsponies, were broken into planks and cushions, whose padding was spilled into the sea of chaos on the floor. The bookshelves of records and histories on the opposite wall were likewise spread every which way.

In the center of the chaos lay a pegasus stallion, breathing slowly despite the obvious damage to his body. Shards of glass had cut through his coat to his neck, legs, and flank. None were deep enough to cause any real threat, but at a glance they seemed terrifyingly deadly. A heavy bruise was already beginning to form on one of his eyes. The worst wound by far, though, was his left wing, which hung barely connected to the rest of his body at its shoulder. Tendon, muscle, and even bone were clearly visible where feather and flesh had been torn away. The wound had clotted into a nasty mess, but not before coating his entire olive green side in crimson.

Shining gasped. “Thunder Crack?” Rushing to the side of the fallen soldier, his focus returned, and his horn ignited. The body of the injured stallion was surrounded in magic, though it remained unmoved.

"What are you doing?" Soldier On asked, maintaining her unnerving calm.

"Checking for internal injuries” After a few more seconds of focus, his magic faded. “It seems like he'll be fine, though I don't know how well the wing will heal. Go get a medic—”

“They are already on their way.”

Shining’s temper shattered. “You knew he was up here, and you let me spend all that time with the recruits?”

“No,” she answered calmly. “Your guard’s messenger told me there had been an attack, and at least one casualty, so I ordered him to find a medical team while I found you.”

Forcing down two breaths, the unicorn continued to feel his brow throbbing. “Why is an Honor Guard wounded in my office? Why is it every time I turn around in this case, one of the dozen of you manages to be involved somehow?”

“There are six of us now,” On corrected with her unshakeable calm. “Eight before Masquerade killed the Commander and Lieutenant Commander Morning Star.”

“Eight? How could you possibly—?” Shining shook his head. “Nevermind. I don’t want to know. I just need to know what Sergeant Crack was doing here.”

Soldier On responded only with silence. Shining's mind ignored her, dancing a thousand lines of processed thought. Despite what he said aloud, he already knew that Thunder Crack hadn't killed Mark Down, nor had Mark Down been the one to damage Crack's wing. The logic he had given her was simply easier than trying to justify his hunch. The wounds didn't match a battle between two pegasi. A third party had been involved, and the cuts were too clean and at too strange of angles to be dealt by a blade clenched in a pegasus’ teeth. Further, save the steel lined shoes Crack wore, the green pegasus was unarmed.

Able to walk the floor thanks to his own military grade shoes, Shining stepped toward his desk. It was clear the chairs had been smashed when somepony was thrown onto them, hard. That, or his desk or a bookshelf had fallen on them, though that seemed unlikely. A strong unicorn could have hurled a pegasus that hard, but a big earth pony was more likely. His eyes flashed up to Soldier On, before he discarded the idea. The subject would have bruising around the fetlocks, if it was indeed an earth pony, plus whatever blows an Honor Guard and one of the best soldiers in the Royal Guard managed to land in return. She might have hid that sort of wound, but not while running to the Palace and back.

Shining's solid oak desk, laying on its side beside the window, was much more useful. The organized chaos of his paperwork was strewn behind it, and several drawers were hanging open. His magic searched the scene as his eyes analyzed the carnage.

Underneath the desk, he saw something. A little sliver of metal. He casually hefted the heavy wooden surface with his magic, and righted it. The metal then flew free, brought up to his careful examination by the same rose-colored light. It was the fragmented edge of a finely honed blade. It had broken from a blunt blow, thrust directly against something too hard for it to pierce. He'd seen that sort of damage hundreds of times on the broken spearheads of new recruits who tried fancy tricks at the drill range. The only difference was the quality of the metal. He pocketed the shard, determining to speak to somepony who knew more about such a specific topic.

His eyes glanced over the scene once more, and froze on the pile of papers at his hooves. Lines upon lines of text stared back up at him, mesmerizing his eyes with an overload of unread information. Every page sat face up. With a sudden focus, he gathered them into a single pile, and began to read. Each familiar header he tossed away in an idle heap against the floor.

"What are you looking for?"

"Somepony's been through this." His pace quickened. "They were looking for something." Pages flew from his telekinetic grip two, three, even four at a time. About halfway through the stack, he stopped.

... motivated by the Blizzard Revolution. Regardless, this traitor knows where Masquerade is, and is maintaining contact with her.

Given that information, this traitor must have come from one of the other two guards. While I cannot rule out the Night Guard, what I know of them suggests that they would not betray Princess Luna. One of us can ask Princess Celestia about them. However, given this conclusion, I'm led to believe that there exists a real traitor in the Honor Guard. This would explain how Masquerade was able to catch their Captain off-guard and assassinate him unnoticed, especially given his reputation for solitude, and how she was able to establish a time and place to insert herself into the Royal Palace.

It also brings up a big problem. Amongst the papers I got were maps of the Royal Guard's deployment across Equestria. I don't know how they got this, or what their plan is, but I do know that you've functionally emptied Canterlot of the Royal Guard, and that they have at least a level of knowledge regarding the Honor Guard's deployment as well. I can't say this for sure, but I don't think there are that many of them around either.

Shining, we might be looking at something bigger than an assassination plot here. I don’t know how much further it goes—how much further past killing a princess can it go?—but here’s what I’m confident about so far. This isn’t extranational; between what I already talked about and the pile of old bank notes I have from Lubuck, we at least know Masquerade got paid in bits. And although I hate to think about it, this doesn’t seem like the plan of somepony who just hated Luna. Whatever’s happening, I don’t think it’s over yet.

When I'm able to speak to you face to face, we can discuss this further, but I think I might have asked a few of my questions to the wrong ponies. I'll be fine, just like in Zebrica, but if you read this and I'm not around, my best suggestion would be to stay close to Princess Celestia. And don't trust anypony. Your magic should be able to hold off any move anypony might make against her, even if the traitor is Honor Guard. I'm going to see if I can't disappear and find some more information. If you need to find me before I find you, ask Grizz. Don't bring the armor.

Good luck, Shining. Maybe we'll save Equestria again.

-Lt. Down

Shining lowered the page, feeling as though he'd seen a ghost. He could almost hear Mark's cocky voice in his head, especially at the end. Slowly, his eyes moved to Soldier On. The mare was watching him coldly, as if waiting for something. His mind was racing with ten thousand possible reactions, and it took him a moment of blank-faced thought to choose a course of action. Though he didn't channel enough mana to bring a glow to his horn, he readied himself. As casually as possible, he lowered his center of gravity, ready for an attack. Only when he was truly ready for violence did he speak his mind.

"Why is Thunder Crack here?"

On looked away for a moment, but she made no hostile move. "The Commander had the EIS hunting Masquerade for months, ever since she killied Count Cavalier in Prance. One of us, Mirror Image, turned up one of her middle-ponies. We were watching him, hoping to catch Masquerade, or whoever was paying her. But after the move on Luna, I ordered Officer Image to apprehend the middle pony. He ultimately gave us directions to somepony who'd been in contact with Masquerade—”

"Ultimately?" The word sat wrong on Shining's tongue.

Soldier On ignored him. “—before some spell the assassin put on him killed him mid-sentence. With no other leads, we went after the pony he pointed us to. No name to go on; just a description and a location—here in Canterlot. Crack and I marked them. One of them was a unicorn with a white coat and a white mane; probably an illusion. The other one was you stallion.”

“Wait, Mark Down met with your target?”

“I don’t think he knew. I didn’t know he was one of yours until I saw him in the courtyard; he was wearing powder to conceal his coat color, and he was out of uniform. I followed him, and Crack tracked the unicorn. I don’t know what happened with Crack from there, but your friend knew Canterlot better than I do. I lost him near the Royal Academy, so I went to find Sergeant Crack. We'd agreed to meet up at the front of the Palace. I waited there until a messenger showed up, looking for you."

Shining closed his eyes and offered a single nod. Though he had little more reason to trust her, he felt safe enough to release the hold on his magic. Then his hooves began to carry him out of the room.

"Where are you going?"

"Back to the Stable of Nobles. I need to speak with the Princess." It was then that an idea caught his mind, one which might have even brought pride to the judgmental politicking of his in-laws. "You're welcome to join me," he told her, in the most inviting voice he could manage, in light of the events of the day.

"No." She offered a glance to Thunder Crack, and then sat down beside the door. "I will wait for the doctors. When he awakens, we can learn who your Lieutenant was talking to. We can go from there."

"Agreed." Shining Armor offered a final bob of his head in acknowledgement of the mare who bore the title of his peer, and then strode out of his ruined office. Rather than fear or sadness, he found his every step brimming with determination. It wasn't an emotion that most ponies would feel, not after the death of a close friend and a deepening threat to their very world. Most ponies weren't like Shining Armor. It wasn't that he lacked sadness or compassion; instead, he had set such feelings aside for when he could afford them. For the first time in days, he no longer faced an issue of decisions and politics. It was time to hunt.

- - -

"This is where we're staying? It's kinda..." Rainbow found herself searching for the right word. Her usual 'lame' or 'lousy' wouldn't cut it; Rarity would probably say something like 'rustic', but that wasn't quite a good word either. She needed something else, something more specific; something like...

"Ramshackle?" Marathon offered. "I know. It used to be a mail station, fifty or so years ago, when ponies were still trying to map the jungle. Now nopony's out here except old Deadeye."

The building in question was a tiny lodge, made of thin planks that were falling off. The roof and walls were overrun with ivy, which made the holes in the ceiling less obvious, but filled the room with funny patterns of light and darkness. Rainbow sat staring into the door-shaped hole that had long-since lost its door, and wondered aloud about something entirely unrelated.

"Why do you call him that?"

"You'll see in a minute, Rainbow."

"No, I don't think I will. He's not here." Rainbow groaned aloud. "Is this really happening? We flew four thousand miles and this guy isn't even gonna show up?"

"Relax, Rainbow." Marathon pulled a bag from over her armor and carried it into the center of the room. There, she opened it, revealing a rather large pile of medical supplies, topped by four enormous daffodil and daisy sandwiches. When the wind from her wings began to disturb the pile, the messenger pony awkwardly lowered herself onto the stumps of her back legs, and folded down onto the floor. "We'd need to eat, even if he was here. Come on. Sit down."

"If you say so." Rainbow nervously moved into the building. "I don't trust this place. It looks like it's about to fall over."

Marathon shook her head, and answered with a teasing voice. "I know it doesn't look so great, but this place has been standing longer than you have. It'll hold up for dinner. Unless Rainbow Dash, Equestria's greatest architect, says otherwise."

"Actually, I do know a little. My grandpa's a cloud architect."

Marathon's brow rose ever so slightly as she took a bite of her sandwich. After a bit of chewing, she broke a quick smile. "Everypony's got their surprises. Well-"

Her words were cut off not by a loud noise or the attack of a surprising monster, but by a little tingling, like bells. The sound was accompanied by a spread of green sparks which coalesced into a scroll that fell gently atop the pile of supplies.

Rainbow and Marathon stared at the letter for a few moments before the faster of the two ponies snatched it up and ripped off the seal.

"Looks like my friends finally wrote me back. Let's see..."

My most trusted Honor Guard

Today, I have received some grave news. Doctor Asclepius, the stallion I tasked with treating my sister, has diagnosed her condition. His assessment came with what I must unfortunately call a deadline. Princess Luna has lost her timelessness; her 'immortality', as many ponies would call it. She is aging to death. The doctor gives her five days before it claims her life.

I know you are already doing your very best, but please, for my sake if not for hers, hurry. There are not many I can turn to, if not you.

-Princess Celestia

Rainbow set down the letter as she pronounced the last words, and simply looked forward. She seemed to forget the jungle, and the food, and Marathon.

"Uh, Rainbow... you there?"

The racer answered by grabbing her sandwich and wolfing it down in two enormous bites. Then, with a powerful determination, she walked out of the little cabin.

"Rainbow, don't go out there! It's dangerous!'

"Yeah, well, I'm a guardspony now. Danger is what we do, right? I promised the Princess that I would save Luna, so that's what I'm gonna do." Rainbow squared herself, and then broke into a run.

Marathon took to wing, struggling to fly after the mare racing on foot into the unknown. "This is stupid! You don't even know where he is!"

Dash didn't feel the need to stop, so instead she shouted back as her running became flight. "Who said I'm looking for him? I'm gonna find a cure for Luna on my own."

"Rainbow, stop!" Marathon pumped her wings, only to see the rainbow trail of her charge pass off into the distance. "You don't know what-"

The words were lost in the wind. Rainbow, for her part, veered past tree after tree, swerving and diving at impossibly tight angles. The speed she maintained through the natural obstacle course would have turned the Wonderbolts green, though at that moment, they were as far from her mind as anypony could be. Instead, her thoughts were of Luna, and Celestia, and a thousand other things that could be going wrong. There wasn't time to wait, especially when Marathon crashed down from the canopy overhead to block her path. "We need to talk, Rainbow."

"No!"

"Shut up and listen!" The intensity of Marathon's shout was enough to convince Rainbow to spread her wings, stopping her flight on a dime. Already, she'd lost sight of the pathetic cabin shelter in the thick trees and vines that surrounded them. The air was a blanket of humid heat and buzzing insects. None of it seemed to matter when the flying mare put her face up against Dash's and spoke in the sharpest, most serious tone to have left her mouth since their introduction. "I get that this seems urgent, but you have no idea what you're doing. You're running off into the jungle without any food or water, or even a plan. Were you hoping to just run into a magic cure-all plant, face-first? You need to stop, and wait. Getting yourself killed won't help Luna. Deadeye will know what to do."

Rainbow hated to admit it, but Marathon was right. She didn't know what she was looking for. Flying off had just seemed like the best way to get it. She still didn't want to wait for some pony that wasn't showing up. "Well, then where the hay-"

The words stopped meaning anything about the time a feline roar escaped the air just a few dozen feet to the side of the pair. Slowly, both their heads turned toward the jungle, and the pair of glowing eyes peering through the thick undergrowth.

"What's that?" Rainbow whispered.

"Manticores. At least two, I think. Just try and back away slowly, but be ready to fly." Her wings beat the air as slowly as possible. "You start going back that way. I'll-"

What Marathon had intended to do suddenly became irrelevant, as one of the monsters lunged out at her. While she moved quickly enough to avoid a lethal claw to her head, the creature's heavy leonine paw landed a heavy blow to her wing. The force sent the messenger into a spiral that ended with a sudden thud, as her face met dirt.

"Marathon!" Rainbow immediately surged forward, straight toward the monster. Its paw swiped again, wide and strong, but too slow to ever catch the racer. Rainbow slipped under the attack with ease, before thrusting a hoof forward into the creature's muzzle. The inertia of her incredible speed was enough to leave the creature reeling, and the opening was all Rainbow needed to get inside its guard. As its wings flared, trying to escape, Rainbow stomped down on its shoulder. The leathery limb seized and crumpled, but before its scorpion tail could strike, the chromatic attacker darted away again.

"What's wrong, big guy? Can't keep up?"

"Rainbow, look out!" Marathon's shouted warning came just in time for the younger of the pair to dodge a heavy-pawed rake from a second manticore, lunging out of the wilds.

"Okay, two of you. Now we're talking." Rainbow twisted her head from side to side, watching as the two creatures paced widely around her, waiting for an opening. They were each larger that the beast she and her friends had encountered in the Everfree Forest - Fluttershy had been right in calling that one a 'little baby kitty-cat'. Rainbow waited, until one of the creatures was straight in front of her eyes, and the other directly behind her. She wasn't really watching them, though; her attention was on her ears.

The creatures both lunged as one, and Dash let herself crack a small smile. It was just like how the Wonderbolts timed the 'Death-Defying Double Dive'; with two ponies flying loops beneath your belly, you couldn't see where your opening in the formation was. Instead, you timed by hearing, and by waiting.

Rainbow's timing was perfect. As the two manticores lunged out at her, she thrust up with her wings, and then thrust out all four legs in a double buck. The sensations on all of her hooves told her that she had scored the muzzle of the back manticore, while her eyes let her know that the other had taken the blow to its neck. That unfortunate creature crumpled beneath her, as she rolled forward to avoid a reprisal from the still-conscious monster at her back.

Its roar of pain was deafening, and the breath that accompanied it blew back Rainbow's mane like a hurricane. It took only a shake to restore her usual style, though, and then her eyes were back on the action. The creature was still circling her, though its comrade had been taken out of the picture. Rainbow wondered what sort of opening it was hoping for. She started walking in her own wide circle, keeping her eyes on the creature.

Then everything in the world went mad. Something small and gray shot out of the jungle to her left. Her head swiveled to watch it. That was the opening the manticore had been looking for. Rainbow was tackled to the side as the creature roared and dove forward fangs first. Rather than her coat, it found empty air.

Dash pulled herself to her hooves with a quick thrust of wind, and found herself staring at the back of another pegasus. The stallion was surprisingly old, with a coat that had long since turned gray, and was now taking a further turn toward pure white. What little remained of his messily-cut mane and tail bore the same colors. His flanks bore a cutie mark of a map, punctuated by a red-dashed line and a bold X.

"You will stop now." His voice seemed to echo in the jungle air, as his focus was locked onto the creature. Rainbow couldn't see his face, but she could certainly imagine it, by the look of pacification and fear decorating the manticore. "Sit down. Close your eyes."

The creature obeyed timidly, curling into a little ball. The stallion walked slowly forward, and then turned his head to some sort of stick poking out from under his folded wings. His teeth wrapped around its end, and with a flick of his neck, he pulled free a long, rounded steel blade. The hiss of metal leaving sheathe did nothing to stop the creature's trembling fear. Instead, it remained still, and nearly silent, as the pony lined up his blade with its neck, and then drew up onto his hind legs.

Something in Rainbow forced her to close her eyes. All she heard was the noise. It began with a hum, and then became more of a whistling, before it ended with the sound of a small splash and a gentle trickle. Then came the hiss again, as the blade was put away. With no small trepidation, she opened her eyes.

"What are you doing out here, Marathon?" The stallion's voice was calm, smooth, and untroubled by the moment's violence.

"Well, looking out for her, right now." Marathon, who was brushing herself off as she took to wing, offered a quick nod in Rainbow's direction. "Actually, I guess she was kinda looking out for me."

The stallion turned Rainbow's way, and for the first time, she saw his face. His left eye was the most noticeable of his features. The orb was a solid blank white, fractured by what looked like a crack. The eyelid surrounding it was marred by three parallel scratches, which ran the length of his face, and partway down his neck.

His other eye, a sharp blue thing with a definite focus, seemed to notice Rainbow's attention. With a smile, he slapped the side of his head. Rainbow recoiled, wings flaring, as his eye flew free, only to be caught deftly by his wing.

"Don't worry. It's just glass." His feathers turned it over idly, inspecting the cracks. "Did you bring me the new one, Marathon?"

"Yeah."

"Good." He pressed the false eye back into its socket, and then smiled as disarmingly as he could manage at Rainbow. "So what's the Royal Guard doing down here?"

He scratched a dirty hoof against the tan safari shirt covering his chest. The garment was itself held down by at least a dozen leather straps and belts that held random tools and bags to his sides. Rainbow couldn't help but feel her eyes gravitate toward the sword beneath his wing.

"You killed it," she whispered.

"What?"

She coughed and cleared her threat. "It was afraid of you, and you killed it."

The stallion gave her a confused stare, and then turned to Marathon. "She's that green?" Marathon answered with a short shrug, which left the stallion to return his one-eyed gaze to Rainbow. "Listen to me, kid, it was him or us, all right? I can stare 'em down for a few minutes, if I keep up my focus."

"That was the Stare? You used the Stare, and then you killed it?"

"I... look, we can talk about this later. What's your name? What are you doing here?"

Rainbow opened her mouth to speak, but Marathon was faster on the uptake. Apparently, after her introduction to Magnus, she had lost the privilege of introducing herself. "This is Rainbow Dash."

"You're the one who tried to take on Nightmare Moon with us a few years ago?" He shot her a cocky grin, ruined by the little splash of blood at the corner of his mouth. "So what're you doing way out here in guardspony armor? Did you join up with the Royal Guard?"

"She's with us, Deadeye."

Rainbow shouldn't have been surprised at the name, having seen his glass eye, but her mind had been too consumed by the bloody sword beneath his wing to process his identity. Realizing he was to be her partner, she recoiled with wings flared. The motion grabbed his notice, and in order to counter her fear, he offered her a wide smile.

"I have to admit I'm surprised that you're Honor Guard, but you've certainly got the fight in you. I'm Dead Reckoning." He offered her a hoof. She stared at it for a moment before realizing he wanted a shake. She shot out her own hoof too fast, trying to deal with the awkwardness of the situation, and found herself slapping his ankle instead. If the motion bothered him, he made no mention of it. "We should get back to the cabin, at least for the supplies. I take it you didn't come out here just to meet me."

The three ponies made their way out of the jungle clearing. Rainbow paused only long enough to glance back at the clean red slit that decorated the neck of the manticore, and the pool of blood gathering around it.

- - -

Shining Armor plodded into the Royal Ballroom with a fire in his eyes and a burning in his heart where he had buried all the other raw emotion of the day. He was a guardspony first; the mourning friend would have to wait. He had resolved not to show the nobles either sorrow or rage. As he scanned the gathered crowd again, he saw them no longer merely as obnoxious rulers, but as sources, and players, and perhaps even conspirators and criminals as well.

Chief among these high-living lowlifes was the stallion who stood chatting with his wife at the far end of the room.

"Blueblood..." Shining uttered under his breath, his tone bearing the disgust of having bit into an apple and found only half a worm. His hooves settled into a steady rhythm as he drew toward the stallion.

"And that, my dear Cadenza, is why we ought to have stayed together after the Bicentennial. I do rather regret the way I came across that night."

"It seems you and I recall the Crystal Ball very differently, Prince. Perhaps we can compare memories some other time, though." Cadance leaned past the theoretically 'noble' Prince, and smiled at her approaching husband. He didn't think much about the fact that he didn't smile back, as his gaze quickly met that of Prince Blueblood himself.

The two stallions, of nearly identical size and strength, met each other eye to eye, and glared.

"Captain." The word might as well have been pronounced 'commoner'.

"Prince Blueblood," Shining responded. "It's always a pleasure to see you."

"I do wish I could say the same, but I'm afraid the sight of you always brings me back to my own days in the guard. I've always felt a pony like myself could do so much more for Equestria managing Canterlot's productive, peaceful ponies."

"I couldn't agree more, Prince. Now, I hate to steal her away, but I need to share a few words with my wife."

"Of course, Captain. I was just leaving." He bowed deeply in Cadance's direction, as Shining resisted the urge to stab him in the flank. When he rose, he offered only a quick glance to the military pony, before striding away with his chest puffed out and his muzzle in the air.

Cadance rolled her eyes as she walked to her husband's side. "I still don't get it. We're married, and he still thinks I might be interested in him?"

"I don't know, Cadance. He's always been like that, even when he was in the guard."

His few, rather unimportant words were enough to clue Cadance in that something was wrong. "Is something wrong?"

For just a moment, the captain considered lying. Ultimately, he knew it would do no good; his wife was more than capable of reading the little twitches of his face. "Do you remember my friend Mark Down? He was at the wedding."

"I think so. He was a pegasus, right? His cutie mark was a checklist?" Shining nodded grimly. The motion was enough to spike Cadance's fear. "Did something happen? Is he alright?"

"No, Cadance. He's dead."

Her mouth hung open for just a moment, and then she leapt onto Shining Armor and clung to him in a tight hug. She pressed her neck tightly against his, and leaned up to whisper in his ear.

"Are you safe, Shining?" It would have seemed a silly question for the Captain of the Guard, were he any other pony. In her eyes, he might as well have been invincible.

"Of course," he lied. He didn't expect to fool her, but he could not bring himself to admit that his life was in danger. "But I'd like it if you left Canterlot, for just a few days."

"What?"

"Just until things settle down here. I'm worried, Cadance. About you."

"I could go stay with Twilight for a few days..."

"Not Ponyville," he whispered. "It's too close. Not back to the Crystal Empire either. Head back to Roam with your family when they leave tomorrow."

"I guess I could do that, Shining, but what about you? Are you sure you're going to be safe? What are you going to do, here?"

He just rubbed his neck against hers, and then stepped away. "I'm going to save Equestria." He knew his tone lacked confidence, but it was enough to earn a smile from Cadance, and that was enough for him. "Now go back to visiting. I have to talk to Princess Celestia." He looked around the room, and then turned back to the pink alicorn before him. "Have you seen her?"

"She came down for a few minutes, but she didn't stay. I think she went to the gallery, upstairs."

"Thank you." He turned away, only to stop in hesitation, turn back, and offer his wife a short parting kiss. "I love you, Cadance."

"I love you too, dear."

His hooves carried him away from his love, up the red carpeted stairs, and through the palace with ease and familiarity. He'd hoped the short distance to the gallery would get him there without any interruptions, but he was quickly learning that there was no hope of going through his day uninterrupted.

"Captain Armor, is that you? Oh, I'm glad I ran into you."

The boisterous, echoing address could only have belonged to the captain's father-in-law. Sure enough, Sforzando Eccesivo approached from a crossing hallway, eyes twitching to the side to ensure nopony was around.

"What are you doing up here?"

"Is that meant to be a warning, Captain? I'll have you know that the Princess opened the entire palace to us."

"I was just wondering. You seem to be concerned that somepony will catch you here."

"Well, to be honest, I would rather that our conversation stay between us." The heavy unicorn gave a final quick look around the barren upper hallway, and then finally returned his attention to Shining Armor. "There's an issue that is on the mind of every pony here today, even if none of them are actually talking about it."

"You mean Princess Luna's poisoning?" Shining raised an eyebrow, and then lowered both into a glare. "Do you know something, Sforzando?"

"Do you honestly think I would be mad enough to try and keep such a secret from Celestia? No, my colt, I don't know anything. That's not what I meant, in fact, though it isn't far from the idea."

"Well, then, what is the point?" Shining pressed. "I need to speak to the Princess, as soon as possible."

"Fine, Captain, fine. I was hoping to speak with you about what will happen in the event that we are unable to save Princess Luna."

Shining Armor's every tiny motion stopped, as his mind drifted back to a grim afternoon two days earlier, when Celestia had broken her eternal calm demeanor for the first time in years in worry over the nobles who were coming to her side.

"What do you mean?"

Sforzando dragged in a deep breath, and then shook his head. "If one of the Princesses were to pass away, their... 'gift', as it were, could be passed on to another pony." It sounded ridiculous, almost like a fairytale. Shining's disbelief must have been obvious to the Prince of Bitaly, who held up a hoof and continued. "A thousand years ago, Princess Celestia told my ancestors this, before she went into battle with Nightmare Moon."

"That doesn't make sense. She used the Elements of Harmony. She never meant to kill Luna."

"Princess Luna meant to kill her." Sforzando took another long slow breath, and his head again scanned the room. Then his tone dropped to a surprisingly forceful whisper. "Do you understand what I'm asking?"

Shining thought for a moment, only to grow angry at the realization. "You're actually asking me to tell the Princess that you should gain control of the moon?" He stepped past the Bitalian ruler, shaking his head slowly. "I think you should forget about it."

"No, Shining Armor. I know you and I do not always see eye to eye, but I do not mean myself. There is somepony we can agree on."

Shining stopped in his tracks, though he did not turn back to face his father-in-law. "...Cadance?"

"Mi Amore Cadenza. My daughter is an alicorn, with experience in leadership, and a kind heart. She helped your sister save Equestria from the Changelings, and she is a personal friend of the Princess herself. She ought to be the perfect choice, but coming from me, it would sound like a stallion trying to take advantage of a dying Princess for his own gain."

"I'm not interested in getting into the politics of this, Sforzando. I'm a soldier."

"The only differences between you and I are the battlefield we fight on, and the weapons we use. I understand that this might seem wrong to you, but your family needs you now. I know you'll do the right thing."

Shining still didn't turn, but he heard the hooves of the other pony walk away down the hall. Part of him felt as though such a statement would be the same as giving up on Luna's life. He shrugged off the thought for later. It wasn't his job to make those sorts of decisions. He needed to find Celestia.

The rest of the walk to the Grand Royal Gallery of Canterlot was short and uneventful. When the Captain reached the door, it opened with only a slight press of his hoof. The room inside wasn't particularly large, and its art was not particularly notable. The vast majority of the pieces were gifts that visitors had given to Celestia, and as a result, the Princess' face was the subject of far too much of the room. Perhaps a desire for contrast was what gave the walls their dark-hued gray paint, and kept only dim chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

Amidst this darkness, an alicorn walked. Shining at first expected the Princess, but it was not her body that strode amongst the statues and the paintings. Instead, as the captain approached, he saw a surprisingly short, thin alicorn stallion with a peculiarly long horn. The shadows of the room gave the cavities of his cheeks a mysterious air, but at the same time drew attention to the rough state of his mane and tail. At first, he seemed not to have noticed the approach of the other pony, with his head craned back, looking up at the wall above all the paintings.

"Good evening," Shining softly greeted.

"I disagree," the stallion answered, with a firm and stately tone. "Our Princess is dying, and I have lost a friend. But thank you for the courtesy." He stepped away, craning his neck to another corner of the room.

After a long pause that felt uncomfortably quiet to Shining Armor, he spoke up again. "I guess I haven't gotten to introduce myself. I'm Shining Armor."

"Watchful Eye." The other pony responded bluntly. "I've heard of you, Captain. My sons had much to say of you earlier today."

"Your sons? Are you the Tsar of Stalliongrad?"

"In title," Watchful Eye answered with as much chill as the wind in his home. "Forgive me if I am not in the mood for such talk."

"You said that you'd lost a friend." Shining scratched a hoof on the floor, knowing how awkward his question would inevitably be. "Was it from the assassin?"

To Shining's surprise, the Tsar nodded. "I am afraid, though, that you already know everything I could tell you. Come here, and tell me what you see." As the captain walked forward, Watchful Eye pointed with a hoof at a point high on the wall.

"It's... a mantle, I guess? With statues on it?"

"Yes. Look at how they are arranged." His hoof moved with his voice, tracing around the room. Shining's eyes passed statue after statue, each about four feet from the next. They all depicted stallions, with rather generic faces, in slate gray. His eyes, as well as the Tsar's hoof, stopped on an empty space just over the door to the room, where a statue ought to have been. Instead, there was an eight foot gap between two statues.

"One's missing?"

"Many rooms in the Palace have this feature, Shining Armor. The audience hall, the ballroom, and even Princess Celestia's bedroom. All are missing a single statue. It was my friend's place, as he watched over the Princess."

Shining looked down at the smaller stallion with sudden curiosity. "You mean the Commander?"

"I never knew him by that name. When we met years ago, he went by 'сталь кромка'. Even then, all the way in Stalliongrad, his mind was on protecting the Princess. When he brought me back here, he showed me these places, where he would sit, blending in with the statues. That was his life. Now he is gone."

"I'm sorry."

"All ponies lose friends, Shining Armor. It is the nature of life. But you did not come here to share philosophy and sadness with me."

"No, you're right. I came looking for Princess Celestia."

Watchful Eye nodded. "She has already gone to prepare for the Stable. You and I will be summoned in a matter of minutes. Until then, you should wait."

"I ought to speak with her soon."

"Nothing will happen to her here, in the Palace."

Shining nodded, and began to wander around the room. All the while, a single thought gnawed at his mind. His eyes looked at the countless pictures of Celestia, no different than how he had seen her his whole life. The tiny plaques beneath the portraits declared that they were hundreds of years old. Could he imagine Cadance that way? His eyes drifted to the other pony in the room. His cutie mark, a fiery red gem in the shape of an eye, watched Shining Armor back. The guardspony couldn't help but wonder at a thousand unanswered questions about the alicorn ruler.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"I do not promise an answer, but I would not presume to tell you what you may say."

"Do you want to take Luna's place?"

The question was jarring enough to tear the alicorn's focus from the empty space above the door, but it did not seem to truly bother him.

"Do you ask this because I have both wings and a horn? I am not a powerful mage, nor a skilled flyer. My life has not lent itself to the gifts of my body. I would gain no use from Luna's power."

Shining nodded, but then pressed the question from a different angle. His mind thought of his beloved rather than the foreign pony before him when he spoke. "What about living forever?"

"I don't want to live forever, Shining Armor. It was the worst pain in the world for me to lose my youngest son. I have no intention of watching the rest of my family grow old and pass away while I am still young." He looked straight at the unicorn, with surprising intensity. "Princess Celestia is a beautiful mare. She could have any stallion in Equestria if she wanted. Have you ever considered why she has no foals of her own?"

To the alicorn's confusion and surprise, Shining Armor nodded, and answered with two simple words. "Thank you." Whatever else was to be said of the strange pony, he had answered the question lingering in the back of Shining Armor's mind.

No sooner did the thought leave his mind, than one of the palace staff entered the room, guiding the two toward the fateful meeting of the night.

- - -

Equestria's fastest flier watched as her only friend in the Honor Guard flew off into the sunset over Zebrica. Every few moments, she would throw a glance over her shoulder to where Dead Reckoning was sitting in the run-down post depot. Marathon had spent the last hour discussing some sort of political stuff, which Rainbow apparently wasn't allowed to hear. Instead, she'd been given some food and sent to sit outside the hut, watching the jungle and waiting. The whole time, she'd been thinking.

She thought of her friends, particularly Fluttershy. She wondered what the meek little pony would think if she knew somepony else had used the Stare to kill a cowering, helpless creature. Though Rainbow had no intention of admitting it, the way that the Honor Guard had coldly killed the creature was still setting her off. Every few minutes, when a noise came from the jungle, she would twitch at it, expecting something to leap out at her. Instead, it would turn out to be the wind, or a small animal, or something else that didn't matter when all was said and done.

She patted the smooth golden armor on her chest, and couldn't help but feel like she was being abandoned out in the wilds. She didn't know this 'Deadeye' pony, and even if he was a guardspony, she certainly didn't trust him.

"Watching her go?" The sudden voice, from no more than a foot behind Rainbow, was enough to shock her into a hover twelve feet in the air, forehooves up and ready to strike. "Relax, kid. I'm not going to hurt you."

"Y-yeah." Rainbow drifted down. Dead Reckoning was leaning against the door of the hut, watching her with his one blue eye. "Sorry, I just wasn't expecting you."

"I know. I'm not usually that quiet. Come down, kid. I'd like to talk to you." Rainbow glided down and sat facing him. His missing eye, now replaced with an crack-free orb, seemed to watch her just as closely as the colored, natural one. "I bothered you, when I killed the manticore today." She didn't respond, and in her stillness, he continued. "Don't try and act tough, kid. I'm not going to hold it against you, but we do need to talk this through."

Rainbow nodded, taking a moment to find words. "Why'd you have to kill it?"

"Because otherwise it would have killed us."

"No, it wouldn't. It was afraid."

Dead Reckoning closed both his eyes, and his body shifted up and down in a slow breath. "It was afraid because I used my magic on it. You called it the 'Stare'?"

"Yeah, my friend Fluttershy can do it too. I thought she was the only one."

"Well, the 'Stare' only works as long as you maintain eye-contact. That's especially hard for me, now, so I can only do it for a couple of seconds. I had to end it then."

"Why didn't you just tell it to leave us alone?"

To Rainbow's surprise, the stallion only opened his false eye. Its eyebrow rose high onto his balding brow in something resembling confusion, or surprise. "Because I can't. It's a manticore. It isn't going to listen."

"Fluttershy could tell things to stop fighting. She even did it to a dragon, once."

Dead Reckoning's other eye opened, and he nodded. "Then your friend's 'Stare' is a lot better than mine. That's strong magic. Anyway, do you understand why I did what I did?"

"Yeah. I guess."

"I don't expect you to just be comfortable with me killing something. We don't get much of that in Equestria, thankfully. Out here, though, that's how you survive. It was us or it. Can you accept that?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Dead Reckoning smiled. "Good, kid." He shook his head, and then gestured with a wing into the back of the shadowy structure. "Toss your armor in there and we can get going."

"You want me to leave my armor behind?"

"Unless you really enjoy rashes and sores, yeah. It's too humid in the jungle for metal armor, and nasty stuff will get in your sweat. If you really wanna wear something, I've got another safari shirt in the closet there."

Rainbow didn't need any further motivation. She pulled off her armor and tossed it aside, before moving to the small rack that he'd called a closet. Off its one short rack, she grabbed a tan shirt, and to her infinite happiness, a shallow pith helmet. She didn't need a mirror to know exactly how she looked. Daring Do would be proud. She stepped out of the hut again, where Dead Reckoning was waiting with saddlebags.

"Where are we going?" Rainbow asked, as she let him put the bags on her back.

"There's a mad elk healer who lives a few hundred miles into the jungle. We're going to see if he knows anything about this poison. But first, we have to lay out some ground rules."

"Oh, come on! We don't have time to waste!"

Dead Reckoning started walking into the jungle, gesturing for Rainbow to follow. Their pace was slow, as the stallion seemed to be paying closer attention to Rainbow than his destination. "That's what the rules are for, Rainbow. So we don't wind up wasting our time fighting monsters and falling in quicksand every twenty minutes. The jungle's dangerous. Rule number one is always stay within line of sight of me. Shouldn't be too hard, but it's important for both of us. I expect you to be watching for predators in the jungle." He tapped the left side of his face. "It's pretty easy to blindside me these days."

"Stick together. Got it."

"Good. Second rule is that you do not fly unless you have to, and you never fly above the canopy."

"What? That's stupid! What do all you guardsponies have against using your wings?"

"I've got nothing against your wings, kid. They're nice wings, if I do say so myself." Rainbow flushed with color, and she growled under her breath, as the old stallion let out a little chuckle. "I'm only teasing. There are a set of wing blades in your bag, once I teach you how to use them. The reason you don't fly is because of all the flying monsters in the jungle. Manticores are nowhere near the scariest thing you'll find in here, and most everything will soar up and get you if it can see you up and out in the open."

Rainbow threw her hair back cockily. "Please. Nothing's going to catch me. I'm the fastest flier in Equestria."

Dead Reckoning raised his blind eye's brow yet again. "Well, that's fine, if you say so, but what I want to know is how long you can keep that speed up. The closest edge of the jungle is two-hundred miles west, at Grivridge. You get tired before then, and there'll be something out there waiting to gulp you down. Understand?"

Rainbow groaned. "Fine. No flying."

Reckoning smiled. "Good. Those are the rules. Now, why don't you tell me about how you ended up here?"

- - -

Special thanks to SatoshiKyu for pre-reading.