• Published 23rd Apr 2018
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Flash Sentry and the King's Ghost - Carabas

Flash Sentry, hero of Equestria and all-round cad, reckoned a peaceful posting in the Crystal Empire would keep him far away from any danger. He reckoned wrong.

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Chapter 1: The Better Part of Valour

If there’s been one driving adage behind my every effort to avoid the heroics ponies expect of me, it’s this: ‘Volunteer for nothing.’

There are exceptions, of course — the choice between volunteering between something like, say, ‘A death-defying mission deep within enemy territory’ or ‘Minding the general’s drinks cabinet’ is a fairly black-and-white one for any stallion like myself who’s exalted cowardice to an artform. But firstly, by and large, volunteering for great endeavours is a suitable task for valiant ponies, not those who merely cultivate the image. And secondly, even if the endeavour doesn’t seem so great, there’ll inevitably be some nasty sting in its tail which renders the whole exercise distressingly perilous to life and limb.

I received a thorough education in that second point when, idiot that I was, I forgot my watch-words. I volunteered for a posting in the Crystal Empire.

Consider the circumstances, and you’ll appreciate it seemed sensible at the time. True, it was a fragile little point of civilisation on the edge of terrible, bleak wilderness. True, it had recently been host to a mad sorcerer-king. And rest assured, had that still been the case, you couldn’t have lured me up there for anything short of waggling a bottle of Chateau de Cheval at my front and jabbing the business end of a pointy stick at my rear.

Thing is, it had recently been host to a mad sorcerer-king. Through means I didn’t entirely grasp, the Element-Bearers and Princess Cadence had apparently put him down for good, and now the whole place was back in the Equestrian fold. Princess Twilight had recently joined the roster of crowned heads as well, through means likewise beyond my grasp, and dignitaries and ambassadors and imposing guards from all over were converging on the place for her first summit. In short, while that summit persisted, you’d have struggled to find a more well-guarded or safer place in all the world. The guarantee of complete security while being required to do little more than stand around and look suitably stalwart and heroic appealed.

That, and shortly before I volunteered for the posting, I might have been embroiled in some minor indiscretion with one of Canterlot’s leading noblemares**. Said noblemare’s existing paramour, last I saw him from behind a pair of curtains, had been brandishing a sword and indicating a fervent desire to discover what colour my insides were. A short holiday away from Canterlot’s high society seemed prudent.

**While Sentry doesn’t name names, popular and well-supported rumours from the same period would seem to indicate that this was Lady Redwood, who allegedly determined early on that she would be at least mentioned in connection with every instance of courtly drama. She succeeded, and would undoubtedly be proud to know of her starring role in an ongoing series of licentious historical fiction.

And so I volunteered, was delightedly accepted by some pony who was in charge of organising summit personnel and who didn’t know me better, packed my bags, and, while keeping one wary eye on my surroundings at all times for any sign of aggrieved stallions bearing pointy implements, made my way down to the train station and from there to the frozen north.

During the long hours of travel, which I spent in happy seclusion in a private cabin with some chosen liquors and a small collection of suitably trashy reading, I contemplated the happy aimlessness that undoubtedly lay ahead. The crystal ponies were a little behind the times, so I’d gathered, but so too would be their wine cellars, and who knew what vintages awaited that begged an appreciator? With any luck, a fair few crystal mares might like a well-polished modern uniform, and, with even more luck, some of them would want it removed.

The train sped on. Rolling grasslands and hills turned to tundra and icy wasteland, as morning ambled on to evening. And then, from a great height, as the train crested a ridge and spiralled down towards a breathtakingly green and verdant valley, the great star-shape of the Crystal Empire revealed itself.

Damned pretty place. Crystals and neat geometric patterns seemed to be the mainstays, and it all glittered entrancingly under the starlight. At the centre of the city, the spire of the Crystal Castle itself jabbed up at the heavens, as if trying to skewer passing deities.

Impressive, to be succinct. Once I got off the train, my luggage in tow, it was no great trouble to navigate in its direction, taking the scenic route through the wide streets as I went. Crystal ponies were still out and about at this hour indeed, just warming up for even more vigorous outing and aboutingand as I covertly ogled the lustre of their hides and manes, I was aware of getting a few curious and admiring looks myself. I favoured the more overt of these looks with a dashing wink or several, but kept on my way.

Before long, I reached the palace, and in its vast entrance hall, all bedecked with royal banners and crystal sculptures, a few members of the palace’s staff bustled this way and that, setting things out in readiness for the forthcoming summit. I looked about for anypony official-looking, to whom I might be expected to report, when a contralto voice from off-stage solved that problem for me.

“Lieutenant Sentry?”

I turned, and beheld a vision. A tall, sleek crystal unicorn mare glided down the length of a marble stairway towards me, her cobalt-blue hide shimmering under the reflected gem-light, her mane gleaming bronze, her well-formed figure sparking all manner of happily unwholesome thoughts. A smaller earth pony mare trailed behind her, buttoned up under a staff uniform, shawl, and broad hat. For a moment, I might have gawped before remembering myself.

“Present and accounted for, ma’am,” I replied, dropping a short Guard-standard bow in her direction and rising with my most winning smile. “I hope I’m not late?”

“Not at all, not at all, lieutenant. But word of you has preceded you, and everypony here has been most eager to make your acquaintance,” the strange mare replied, her voice thick with a deliciously antiquated burr, sweeping up close to me and meeting my own gaze with brilliant amber. The corners of her mouth turned up in a bright smile. “Oh, but you must forgive my manners. I am Chalcedony, Princess Cadence’s equerry … or, well, one of her equerries while she remains in residence. You have had a pleasant journey?”

“Pleasant enough, Chalcedony,” I replied, aware of her own positive attention, but trying not to let it show — where would we be if accredited heroes of Equestria became aware of things, I ask you? — and filled the air with whatever flattery came to mind. “The reception so far’s been even more pleasant, though. The Crystal Empire astounds.”

“Astounds? I am glad to hear it!” Chalcedony’s smile brightened yet further. “But it is so in no small part due to all the Equestrians coming here! All our far-flung kin, coming to us at last, and bringing their liberators and heroes with them. We have already met several. It remains delightful to meet another.”

Cue the modesty routine. Ponies never fail to like that. “I’d never say that about myself,” I said, putting on my best show of abashedness. “I just did what needed doing at the time. So would anypony in my position.”

“Ah, I am sure.” Chalcedony paused and then, to my surprise, winked. “Heroes must run themselves down, of course. But never mind my prattle. You will want rest? Food?”

I stifled a yawn. “I wouldn’t say no to some rest, Chalcedony.” It had been a long journey. Travelling from temperate to near-arctic regions doesn’t happen quickly.

“Very well. Rest this eve. Tomorrow will be a day for more prattling and duties also, alas.” Chalcedony turned to the staff member. “Root Cellar, do show the good Lieutenant to his quarters. Help him with his bags. See that he has whatever he needs.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the staff mare, Root Cellar, replied, nodding briefly. Chalcedony favoured me with another smile before turning on her heel and departing smoothly.

I watched her go, my mood brightening by the moment. With that sort of happy reception from a mare who was a delight for the senses, volunteering for this posting was looking to be one of the better decisions I’d ever made.

At this point, Root Cellar said, in light, dry tones, “Enjoying the sights, Sentry?”

“I — er,” I said, and then hesitated. Light, dry, and familiar. I gave Root Cellar a second look, and then a third just to be sure my eyes weren’t playing some manner of practical joke, and then squawked with disbelief. “Carrot Top?

“Low voices,” hissed Carrot Top, aka Root Cellar to Chalcedony, aka Special Agent Golden Harvest by her fellow agents in Equestrian intelligence, and aka all manner of blood-curdling shrieks by those unlucky to end up on the receiving end of her talent for close-quarters violence. The lithe, compact body under that uniform and shawl contained enough muscle to kick disassociated parts of me into different time zones. She eyed me, her eyes pure green calculation. “What are you doing here?”

There are ponies whom it is worthwhile lying to, and Carrot Top wasn’t amongst them. “Hiding from my mistakes after one romp too many. What are you doing here?” I gestured at the uniform she wore. “Has the Special Agent-ing fallen through?”

“Not quite,” she replied, an acerbic note creeping into her voice. “I am, in fact, Special Agent-ing right now. Trot this way.”

I did as bidden, picking up my bags. Carrot Top picked up the heaviest of them with nary a grunt and beckoned me down a corridor. I followed her until the noise and bustle of the entrance hall had receded to a distant murmur, at which point I spoke again. “Are there others here?”

“My colleagues? Quite a few. Some in discreet roles like mine, some blundering about as part of the delegation, and others going out of their way to make sure they’re not seen by anypony whatsoever. We’ve got eyes on the Crystal Empire from top to bottom.”

“Ah. Eyes looking for what, exactly?” Dread seeped in at the edges of my previous state of blissful ignorance.

“A few things. You’ll know that the previous ruler here was apparently dispersed,” said Carrot Top, the statement in tones that didn’t entirely conceal an underlying timbre of I don’t actually trust you to know that. “‘Apparently’ is a treacherous sort of phrase when it comes to arch-mages like him. We can’t rule out that he’s left more traps or more means for his return lying around the place. Going by history here, we can’t rule out anything.”

“I see.” The dread settled in for good. “But … but you’ve had chances to pick over the place for months now, surely?”

“Yes, and that’s let us tackle some of the more obvious snares he’d left,” Carrot Top replied. “But the way you phrased that suggested you think there’d be a limit to our paranoia when it comes to Sombra. Certain reliable sources who were there last time he was around have made sure we know what he’s capable of.**”

**If you want to know what that may have been, and didn’t want any sleep tonight anyway, a study of Wax Tablet’s Shadows In The North is recommended. To summarise, King Sombra was not a terribly pleasant pony.

“Oh, joy.” A crystal flickered at me funny. Probably out of pure spite to make my hide crawl.

“And not just Sombra.” Carrot Top’s voice dropped yet lower. “You’ll know that before he and the Empire were frozen away, he’d established a tyrannical rule over the Crystal Ponies?”

“Duly known.”

“We suspect there’s still a few Sombra sympathisers laying low.”

And that made the threats on offer quite a bit more tangible.

It’s an odd thing, but whenever you get even the most awful of regimes cropping up, who ought to be fought with every sinew in the body of any being with the moral sense the Creator gave a sea-cucumber (or who ought to be fled from, if you’re me, which I do hope you’re not, whoever you are), you’ll always get some inadequates playing the role of collaborator. Whether for security’s sake, or to get a chance to lord it over their fellows, or to just deal with those they disliked, or because maybe they even liked their mad sorcerer overlord.

And of course, they’d all been frozen in time. The collaborators were still out there. Or, at least, the more clever and subtle ones were.

“And you’ve, er, got a notion of who they may be?” I said in a somewhat strangled way. It had occurred that a hero of Equestria’s head on a platter might be just the sort of trophy piece such a collaborator might be keen on acquiring, and last-minute protests that I was actually a cad to the bone and that I surrendered unconditionally and please could I not be hurt too much would be unlikely to cut it.

“Investigations are ongoing.” Carrot Top’s mouth formed a tight, taut smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “We’ve embedded ourselves at all levels, to keep an eye on things. And we’re ruling nopony out. If any are planning trouble for the summit, we should sniff it out.”

“Please do,” I said. It’s never pleasant, discovering that the peaceful-looking paddling pool you planned to plouter in all along played host to piranha packs.

Carrot Top’s gaze met mine, and though her mouth remained hard, a certain — it surely couldn’t have been softness, I thought then — lack-of-jaggedness entered her expression. “You wouldn’t have jumped at this posting if you’d known, I suspect.”

“Not jumped, exactly. Some other verb, almost certainly.”

“You don’t have to stick around here if you don’t want to,” she said, with what seemed like bonafide gentleness. “I don’t need you to risk yourself here, and I still owe you a favour from helping out with my family. If you want, I’ll pull a string or two. A urgent mission will require your presence back in Canterlot.”

I swallowed and weighed my options. It was a tempting offer. Here seemed a lot less safe than I’d happily imagined it to be, and all manner of uncertain dangers lurked in the shadows.

But. But, but, but.

But on the other hoof, down south awaited the exceedingly certain danger of an aggrieved paramour. And better the devil you don’t know, especially when the devil you do know had been seen to heft a worryingly large sword with a worrying amount of ease.

Besides, Special Agents were on this like stripes on a zebra. If all else failed, there were still the Princesses and markedly more competent heroes in residence to tackle any danger.

So, fool that I was, I decided to stay the course. I swallowed and said, “It’s fine. I’ll stay.”

Needless to say, had I known what would follow, I would have galloped back to the train station, leapt aboard any free locomotive, and shrieked at the driver to speed south and not stop until we hit the tropics. And to have a breather there, and then keep going.