• Published 25th Jan 2018
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XCOM: Ranger - Wanderer D



Sunset Shimmer escapes Equestria... with unforeseen consequences.

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Chapter 72: Camp

Ranger

Chapter 72: Camp

By Wanderer D

Three Years Ago

It had taken Sunset three weeks to get used to her training regime enough to be able to read her books again at night. In that time she had started to run for longer, swim faster and more effectively, carry heavy things for longer, eat better and shoot better.

She had also figured out, much to her surprise that her better physical abilities somehow reflected on her mana reserves. In some unknown way, she had been using her magic constantly, probably to fuel her through the times that she felt like her body was going to give in.

With this thought in mind, she took notes and opened her Blood Magic tome. The way the magic was expressed in this specific art was very different than the external channeling of energy that unicorns learned naturally and from an early age.

Blood Magic demanded internalizing the power—filtering it through the caster's own mana pool, and creating a direct link with it beyond the meager manipulation of energy demanded by regular spellcasting.

In a way her intense training had her already doing that, although instead of feeding her magic for a power boost, it had allowed for her muscles to heal faster. The ratio of magic-used-to-magic-replenished was also very low.

If she could start applying some of the theory while she practiced, then she'd be able to start learning how to channel the blood magic properly, and that,in turn, would allow her to start controlling it.

The next day, however, after her run and swim, she was taken somewhere new. "Um… what happened to the lifting?"

Mox snorted. "We don't want you to build too much muscle yet. That training was intended to build your strength and stamina, yes, but keeping you doing the same thing over and over won't benefit you as a warrior."

He led her into the camp, where a small rink had been set up, and a female Skirmisher stood waiting.

"This is Tala," Mox said as introduction. "She will train you in hand to hand combat."

"I thought the point of having guns was to avoid that kind of thing," Sunset said, raising an eyebrow.

"You never know when you might lack a weapon," Tala said. "And Skirmishers get close to their enemies for some of our most effective attacks. Your eye to hand coordination also will improve the better you get at this."

Sunset glanced at Mox, who shrugged. "I too am going through hand to hand combat, a skill I usually left to Lancers. If you want to be the best, Sunset Shimmer, you must master all skills."

Tala smiled. Surprisingly, it wasn't the vicious or predatory smile of a fighter about to destroy their opponent. "Don't worry, I'll make sure to teach you as much as I can."

Sunset blinked in surprise, reassessing her tutor as she walked into the rink. Every day her impressions of the Skirmishers were challenged, and every day she had to reconsider her options, her tactics and her plans.

"Alright, first you need to relax a little, and assume a ready position…" Tala spoke up. "Try to imitate mine. It's not a martial art… we're used to brutal fights, so I'm going to teach you how to demolish your opponents, and the easiest way to do so, is when they're not ready for attacks, just like you are."

Sunset frowned. "What do y—"

Before she could finish speaking, Tala had moved within striking distance with a surprising efficiency of movement. Just as Sunset was registering where the Skirmisher was, a leg had slid behind her own, her left arm had been grabbed and she was suddenly on the floor, staring up at her tutor.

Tala raised an eyebrow.

"Fine." Sunset pushed herself up, and accepted Tala' offered hand. "How did you say I should stand again?"

That night, Sunset barely managed to get into her tent before she was already asleep in her usual gear.

The following weeks fell into her new routine; run, swim, gun training, unarmed combat. At night, she would dedicate one hour at least to figuring out Blood Magic, and how to adapt that to her own original magic as well. It would be a couple of months before she was deemed ready enough to go hunting.

"So what are we hunting?" Sunset had asked. It was rare for parties to go out, and with how busy her schedule had been, she had never really paid attention to how they got their food.

"ADVENT," Tala replied.

They had been organized into what was called a "Pod". Tala, Sunset and a big brute called Gorack were under Mox's orders for this mission.

Sunset paused midway through securing her shin protector. "Wait. Have we been eating ADVENT soldiers?"

This drew a laugh from the others. "No, we are not Reapers," Gorack said. "We hunt ADVENT for more weapons, supplies and fellow Skirmishers."

He handed Sunset a stun lance. "If the chance presents itself, attack our brethren with this. It will knock them out and short-circuit their chip… if they survive, we will bring them with us."

Sunset glanced at the weapon. "Don't they… you know, fight when they wake up?"

"You would be surprised at how… overwhelming it can be to not have voices and clear orders in your head," Tala said a bit softer than usual. She looked pensive as she tightened her armor and slid her grappling hook into place.

Sunset grimaced at that, thinking of her own plans. She wasn't a monster. Returning them to that state… would that be… better for them? Worse? Sometimes she got the sense that the Skirmishers missed being linked together like that, but now that they had tasted true individuality, could she bring herself to do that to them? Even if it would make things easier for her?

These thoughts continued as they took an old vehicle and drove off from camp. They stopped near a train station of some sort, where equipment was being loaded. Mox motioned with his hand for them to follow, sneaking into the complex.

They eventually managed to find a higher location from where they could overlook the area. Mox hummed, then glanced at them. "Sunset Shimmer," he called out.

Sunset grimaced under her helmet. Figure's that she'd be sent on point. "Yeah?"

"You said you had tactical training, correct?" Mox asked, surprising her. "Why don't you tell me what you would do?"

Sunset was taken aback, but quickly looked over the area, making a headcount of enemies and comparing their equipment to their own. Being ADVENT, their training wouldn't be too different, which made them predictable.

She thought about Mox and the others had come here for, and studied a little the patterns of their patrols. She smirked. "I think I have an idea."

The first patrol consisted of a Captain and a trooper. They hadn't spotted anyone of higher rank, so they had become Sunset's first priority. Fortunately, ADVENT wasn't expecting any attack, so when Tala ran out of a crate they had walked past several times before and flipped him over her shoulder, he didn't even have time to react before the close combat specialist had rammed her electric prod straight to his head.

The trooper was also taken by surprise, but just as he raised his weapon to shoot her, an electric surge starting at the base of his neck made his body seize up and convulse, before falling to the floor.

Sunset kneeled behind her victim, checking for a pulse and sighing in relief when she found one. She glanced at Tala, who grinned and gave her a thumbs up.

From her position, Sunset signaled Mox, who then rushed out, followed by Gorak, taking cover behind nearby crates. Even though they had taken them out fast, the ADVENT Psychic network guaranteed that all aliens in the area knew they were under attack, if not specifically where.

Sunset and Tala left the unconscious ADVENT behind them, running to take cover parallel to Mox's position. There were only a couple more troopers left, and their fate depended on whether Sunset's predictions were true.

Unfortunately, they weren't.

Upon realizing where the enemy was coming from, the troopers separated and took cover. Sunset had placed too much faith in them checking on their downed comrades. The problem was that if they were to attempt to bring them down alive, it would put them all at risk… and Mox wasn't willing to do that.

A grenade arched overhead, landing at the feet of one of the troopers. It looked down dumbly before the explosive tore through him and Tala' shot broke down the crate where the other was taking cover.

Before she knew what she was doing, Sunset had stepped forward, aligned her rifle and released a burst of bullets, shredding through the last trooper's armor. She stared in shock at the dead body.

Slowly, metallic-orange blood started pulling under the trooper and something within her, something primal, felt satisfied. The blood was calling to her. Almost a whisper. And it scared her just as much as it excited her. It was written in her book that she'd start bonding with blood as almost an anthropomorphic entity, even if it also warned that it was not, in fact, conscious or sentient.

She looked down at the weapon in her hands. It felt warm. She could still feel the vibrations from when the burst had shaken it in her hands.

"Well done," Mox said, approaching her. "Thanks to your plan we saved two lives today."

Sunset gulped. "At the cost of two more."

Mox shook his head. "They would not have hesitated to kill you, Sunset Shimmer. Their consciousness is warped, belief forced in... at the cost of their sanity and personality. In a way, you have freed them too."

They watched as more Skirmishers arrived in other vehicles and started loading them with supplies, as well as picking up the two unconscious soldiers.

"Come," Mox said, "we must report to Betos. It was a good plan, Sunset Shimmer."

"Too bad I didn't predict what they would do properly."

Mox chuckled. "I would rather follow a leader that believes in compassion."

Betos was quiet while Mox explained how the mission had gone. While it saddened her that some of her kind had been killed, she also understood how deep within, the freedom granted to them went beyond simple words.

The young human in front of her had ambition. But she was not reckless. She planned. She was devious and competent. A dangerous mix, if left unattended. She had met humans with similar qualities in ADVENT, but there was something about her that, just like Mox, made her want to at least give her the benefit of doubt.

Sunset Shimmer had proven at least willing to train herself. She had proved that she was willing to do the legwork for her goals. That she had a gameplan of her own, that might or not involve the Skirmishers.

Today, she has been given a chance to prove her worth as more than a simple trainee, and Mox had said good things about her performance. It touched her, on some level, that Sunset had felt regret at having to kill.

It was an empathy that was lost in many Skirmishers. Her plan had accounted for kindness and compassion as compelling her opponents to act a certain way. It was no doubt a wake up call for the human to see that the world did not work that way, but in the end, her strategy had worked, and that's what mattered.

"You have done well, Sunset Shimmer," she finally spoke. "And it honors me to present you with this."

The human's face when she had pulled out the grappling hook had been priceless. Priceless and touching.

It was clear that Sunset was very aware of what that meant for Skirmishers, and that she had not expected it at all. Perhaps it would curve the human's ambitions towards something more positive to know that she was not only welcome with them, but considered worthy of being a Skirmisher herself.

To her people, it was just the beginning of a journey; an acceptance of a new life, outside of the control of ADVENT. For Sunset Shimmer… only she knew what it really meant, but it was at least clear that it had not been taken as a simple action.

"You will join the training in using this device... " Betos picked it up to show it to Sunset. "Welcome to the Skirmishers, Sunset Shimmer."

Present Day

"And of course she decided soon after to try and start her own faction among the Skirmishers, Mox said, as they all worked to clear their camping area for the night.

Elena snorted from where she was on the perimeter, setting up traps. "I had wondered why you didn't remain with them."

Sunset growled, pulling tight the rope that held their tent up straight and tied it securely, just like she had been taught. "I would be in charge of the Skirmishers by now if they hadn't decided that I should try my luck somewhere else."

Mox shook his head. "Betos has a lot of respect for you," he said, "as evidenced by her vouching for you when the Commander returned. She saw your potential, Sunset Shimmer, and I have to agree with her assessment."

Sunset didn't hide her smile. "I do miss her, and Tala… and that idiot Gorack."

Angel hissed as she secured their extra equipment and finished covering it. Just in time apparently, as they heard the distant roll of thunder. The viper had led them away from the water and to higher grounds, to an outcropping of rocks that turned out to house under it a small cave.

Evidence inside indicated it had been used by Fluttershy's people before, which was how Angel had known about it, but when she had insisted they camp there, it had taken Sunset's uncanny understanding of the viper language to explain why she was so insistent on setting up there, rather than continuing forward.

"She was a lot less sure of herself when she got to our camp," Elena said, having finished her preparations and coming in to join them just as the first drops of rain hit the canvas above their camp's entrance. "Perhaps she had learned some wisdom by then."

Sunset smirked in response to Angel's hiss. "Sorry, that is a story for tomorrow."

o.0.o End Chapter 72 o.0.o

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