• Published 9th Dec 2018
  • 420 Views, 16 Comments

New Neighton - FlyingSaucer



When the long dormant portal to a lost pony colony opens unexpectedly eighty-six years after vanishing without a trace, a small group of Lunar Guard is sent through on a mission to find answers.

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Chapter 4 - Misery, Mystery and Two Awful Moons

“Nope!” said Star Duster, stamping a hoof. “That is way too many moons.”

“It’s just two,” said Distant Voice, his eyes locked skyward.

“Nah, I’m with Star Duster on this. That’s just weird. Bad weird,” said Sable Shield.

“How come this planet is allowed to have two moons?” asked Far Out, sounding almost disappointed. “You think we could get another one?”

With one last indignant glare at the pair of looming moons, Star Duster pulled his eyes away. Slowly he began to take in his new surroundings. His comrades all seemed to be present, most with their eyes still glued to the offending moons. Winter Sky was the lone exception, as the captain had his muzzle buried in one of his saddlebags. Star Duster watched the captain root through it, his efforts punctuated here and there by a snort of frustration. After a brief struggle, he withdrew a large piece of worn looking paper, and dropping to his haunches, began to unfold it.

“Alright Cookie,” said Winter Sky, “Dismount the portal and set a perimeter while I get our bearings. Watch, have a look at this map with me.”

“Yes sir!” came the replies, and the bat ponies began to fan out, save for Watchful Eye who made his way towards the seated captain.

“Captain.” Watchful Eye nodded, craning his neck in a clear attempt to read the map in the officer’s hooves.

Star Duster watched the two ponies for a moment, before turning his attention to the task at hoof. He and Dawn Trotter now stood on a patch of grass a few ponylengths from the portal itself, his tail and helmet plume blowing in the light but constant wind. He sniffed at the breeze as he scanned his surroundings. The smell was a strange combination of the alien and the familiar. Grass, trees, probably flowers. Rain. Strange, but familiar enough to recognize. A faint hint of salt on the wind told him they weren’t too far from a coast. The immediate area seemed to be a grassy clearing of sorts, filled with small twigs and broken branches and surrounded by trees, all of which were gently moving in the wind. Above the darkened treetops, what few clouds there were passed by with great rapidity.

“What’s with this wind?” said Sable Shield, who had also taken to sniffing the air.

“A storm’s been through here, and recently by the looks of it,” said Rapid Advance, from the opposite end of the portal’s stone circle. “A big one.”

“A large cyclone of some sort, or so the Marshal believes,” said Winter Sky, looking over the top of his map. “They saw a fair amount of storm damage when they sent the construct through earlier.”

“So, like a hurricane or something?” asked Sable Shield.

“Yes, something like that, though perhaps not quite as strong,” the captain said, ducking back behind his map.

“Yeah,” added Distant Voice, from somewhere on the other side of the captain. “Hurricanes were a thing here. The whole planet is nothing but wild weather. From what I remember reading, New Neighton had a pretty crazy weather team to deal with it all.”

“Well,” said Dawn Trotter, raising a hoof to his muzzle in thought, “you kinda have to be crazy to live on a totally different planet to start with. But then signing up to join a team that fights giant killer storms that attack without warning, well, that’s like a whole ‘nother level of crazy. That’s double crazy.”

“I like double crazy,” added Far Out, who had taken up position a few ponylengths away, watching the distant treelines. She had one ear turned towards the conversation. “It’s like, twice as fun. Crazy you can share with friends.”

Star Duster rolled his eyes, taking another sniff at the wind. “You know, this place smells strange, but not alien-planet-on-the-other-side-of-the-universe strange.” The steel-blue bat pony continued his explorations, beginning to walk the perimeter of the portal’s stone base with his muzzle to the ground.

“Well, that makes sense,” said Dawn Trotter, who was running a hoof over the stone of the portal edge. “It’s an alien planet and all, but at the same time, it has to be Equestria-y enough for ponies to live on.”

“Hey, check this out!” yelled Distant Voice.

Turning around, Star Duster could see the small pony sitting on his haunches, gesturing towards some kind of small stone structure standing near, and possibly attached to, the portal base.

Walking over to Voice and his find, he could see now that it seemed to be part of the portal. It was a small stone box of sorts, and coming around its other side, Star Duster saw that though it was set a bit away, it was indeed connected to the portal base itself by some sort of extension. On the side of the box facing Distant Voice, towards its top, were set two large crystals. Below those, and under a block of Equestrian text, was a raised circular relief, depicting the twin Alicorns of Equestria’s great seal. Further below that were a trio of the smallest levers the stallion had ever laid eyes on, all of which seemed to be locked in place by some kind of safety bar.

“That would be the controls for this side of the portal,” said Winter Sky, walking over with Watchful Eye in tow.

“Wait a sec,” said the sergeant, “doesn’t that mean that whoever, or whatever, opened the portal the first time, or at least, the first time recently, did it from right where we are standing?

“Assuming it was opened deliberately, yes,” nodded Winter Sky.

“If a pony opened the portal, they would have simply gone through themselves, would they not?” asked Rapid Advance.

“You would think so,” said Watchful Eye. The stallion turned, walking a short distance from the group. He narrowed his eyes and began to scan the area behind them.

“So...” said Sable Shield, “not a pony?”

A palpable feeling of unease spread through the rest of the squad. Looking about the group, Star Duster observed a few sets of ears pinned back in concern.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions just yet,” said Winter Sky.

“Captain Winter?” said Watchful Eye, whose eyes were locked on a treeline behind the group.

“Yes?” said Winter Sky, turning to face the sergeant.

“Do you see that? Over there in the treeline, about hallway between the tallest tree and the big break on the end?” Watchful Eye pointed a forehoof as the captain moved up beside him. The captain squinted as as he followed the line of the pointing hoof.

Quietly, Star Duster came up behind the captain, as close as he dare, stretching his neck around him to see what the sergeant was pointing at. His own eyes could make out the treeline in good detail, thanks to the unusually bright light of the double moons. His eyes moved to the spot Watchful Eye was indicating. Just below the low hanging branches, barely visible behind the tall grass that rose to nearly touch them, was a strange splash of greyish color.

“Hey, I see it!” said Star Duster, causing Winter Sky to jump briefly in surprise. The officer’s head spun to face the offending private, his glare of displeasure causing the pony to pin his ears and step quickly back with an uneasy grin.

“Well then Private,” said Winter Sky, his eyes menacingly narrowed, “Do tell?” His tail swished quickly to one side.

“Well,” Star Duster nodded quickly to the captain, then moved up to stand next to him. He pointed a hoof at the spot in question. “Over there, where Sarge was pointing, there is something gray-ish behind the leaves, sorta hidden behind the leaves of that big fallen one.”

“Exactly.” said Watchful Eye. “Light grey, straight lines it looks like.”

Winter Sky blinked, then turned to face Watchful Eye. “Probably not a random rock or such then. Hmm.” Quickly the captain brought back up his map. “Nothing marked here other than the portal. It’s rather close, let’s go take a look.”

“Alright Cookie,” said Watchful Eye, turning to address the now gathered bat ponies, “you heard the captain. Let’s take a walk to the mysterious gray mystery spot. Captain, do you want anypony eyes-up?”

“No,” said Winter Sky, “no flying just yet. Too easy to spot an airborne pony from distance in this moonlight. We stay groundside until we get a bit better idea of what can be found here, or we get more clouds.”

Watchful Eye nodded, and fell back into the group of ponies now following Rapid Advance to the treeline. Star Duster paused, letting Winter Sky get a safe distance ahead before falling back into the group himself, immediately in front and to the side of Sable Shield, who was bringing up the rear.

“Why am I always the rump end?” asked Sable, after several minutes of walking in silence.

“Because you’re a huge butt, mostly.” said Star Duster. The stallion smiled, having wisely placed himself distant enough to avoid any reprisals from the mare. She nickered indignantly.

“Hes right you know,” added Dawn Trotter, “you are pretty much the perfect pony for it.”

Before the mare could further respond, the group came to a halt. Star Duster could see the other ponies ducking under the branches of the nearby trees, and following close behind, found himself with the others, gathered around the mystery object.

Star Duster inched forward, meaning to get a better look at what they’d found. It was a weathered thing, light grey in color, looking like some kind of oddly shaped triangular pillar. It grew thicker as it rose from the ground. The top of the object was missing, broken roughly off and was lying in a great many pieces scattered around the object’s base. The cause of the damage was no mystery however, as the curious stallion could plainly see the fallen tree lying across the top of the damaged object.

“What is it? Some kind of statue?” asked Sable Shield.

“Awfully strange place for a statue,” said Rapid Advance, “it can’t really be seen from the portal, and certainly not from the colony. Wherever that is.”

“It’s also on the wrong side of the portal, judging by Captain Winter’s map,” said Watchful Eye. “The road is on the other side of the portal, so ponies coming and going on it wouldn’t see this thing.”

“A map that it isn’t on, I may add,” said Winter Sky

Star glared suspiciously at the object, trying to make sense of what was being said. He watched as Distant Voice approached the object, cautiously, his head close to the ground. The little stallion seemed to be on to something, and quickly had his face pressed almost into the side of the object.

“This is writing,” said Voice, staring intently at a spot on the side of the object. “Look, its small, but it’s everywhere. Some of these weird little shapes repeat, and are grouped together just like words. I just have no idea what these letters are.”

“Not Equestrian, then,” said Rapid Advance, moving to stand beside Distant Voice and taking a somewhat closer look at the object himself. He placed one of his large forehooves on the object, and gave it a few curious taps.

“It’s rather strangely shaped for a statue though, isn’t it?” asked Watchful Eye, who was looking intently at the bottom of the thing. “It doesn’t appear to be mounted to anything, the bottom is coming straight out of the ground. It’s larger at the top and smaller at the bottom, you would think it would be the other way around.”

“That does seem unusual,” nodded Winter Sky

“Hey,” came the voice of Far Out, directly from behind.

Turning, Star Duster saw the mare sitting, a neat pile of rubble gathered before her. She had a chunk of the ruined object cradled in her forehooves. She then extended it outward, towards Star Duster and the rest of the group.

“Some of these space rocks...” she shook the piece of rubble for effect, “they fit together in funny ways. I think there was something probably cool looking carved into the top of this thing, but there’s not enough left to see what it was. Oh and I’m keeping this,” The mare nodded, quickly stuffing the piece of debris into her open saddle bag.

Star Duster’s mouth hung open a moment, before shaking his head in disbelief. “Far Out! That thing, you can’t just keep random pieces of possibly evil space statues! It could be cursed, it could be filled with some kind of dark space magic or something!”

“Nahhh,” said the mare, shaking her head with a knowing smile. “it wasn’t magic enough to stop itself from getting smashed up now was it? Besides, we aren’t 100% sure ponies didn’t make it right? We may need a piece of it later, for science and stuff.”

Taking one last incredulous look at the mare, Star Duster shook his head again, and turned back to face the rest of the group. Distant Voice was still sniffing around the strange object, darting around with a piece of paper in his mouth, the other ponies of Cookie Squad having moved in to poke and prod it as well. The stallion walked over and joined them, looking over the thing, and the ring debris surrounding it.

“Sheesh, that tree really did a number on this thing,” he said, eyeing the immense trunk that lay splintered and lodged in the top of the object.

“Must have come down in the storm that passed through,” said Dawn Trotter.

“Most likely,” said Winter Sky. The captain dropped quickly onto his haunches, and pulling his map out once more, began to scribble something on it. “Well then. I’ve added the location of this thing to the map for now. Private Distant Voice, did you finish getting a rubbing of those characters?”

“Yes sir!” came the voice of the little stallion, somewhere on the other side of the object.

“Good,” said Winter Sky, “put that in your bag and hold onto it. We are moving on for now. We need to locate the road that connected the portal site to New Neighton proper, which, according to the map should be...that way.” The bat pony captain waved a hoof towards an area somewhere behind and to his side.

“Probably that break in the trees on the other side of the portal.” said Watchful Eye.

“My guess as well,” nodded the captain, “let’s head out then.”

******

It didn’t take Cookie Squad long to locate the remains of the old road. It was right where the map said it would be, between a break in the trees, ruined, overgrown, but still recognizable. The bat ponies moved slowly down the path in a loose formation, two groups of three with Watchful Eye, Winter Sky and his map in between.

Star Duster found himself in the rear trio of ponies, Sable Shield and Dawn Trotter to either flank. His ears were twitching and shifting constantly, the sounds of the wind in the nearby trees, and of shoes on cobblestone came from all sides, as did the voice of a rather chatty little stallion. Looking forward past the captain and his map, Star Duster could see Distant Voice gesturing animatedly with his wings, in the midst of some kind of explanation. To his left, Far Out seemed raptly interested in what he had to say, and to his right, Rapid Advance nodded along, without ever taking his eyes off the road ahead. Immediately in front Star Duster himself, Watchful Eye marched alongside the captain, scanning the trees to the side of a road with a grin, seeming to enjoy the conversation going on in front of him.

“Keep your eyes open for anything interesting. You never know what may be laying around. We’ve got a bit of a walk to the town itself going by the captain’s map,” said Watchful Eye.

“Why is that anyway?” asked Sable Shield, “couldn’t they have put the portal right in the colony itself or something? Why’d they build it so far away?”

“The portal here was constructed with haste, at the place ponies first set hoof on this world,” said Winter sky. “The original crossing used only one portal, the one in Canterlot, supplemented by a massive amount of Princess Twilight’s own magic. One of the first orders of business after those original ponies arrived here was to erect the second portal with components they brought with them.

“Yeah!” said Distant Voice, “and it took so much of the Princess’s power to do it that it knocked her on her rump for like a month. Of course, Celestia and Luna were still around in those days, so it wasn’t that much of a problem for Equestria, but it wasn’t something she would have wanted to do again.”

“Quite right, private,” said Winter Sky, picking up where he’d left off, “with the second portal established, the doorway could work as envisioned, and required no more input from the Princess herself. Traveling between worlds became as simple as pressing a button and standing in the right place.”

“Well, alright, I understand that part, but why build the town so far away from it?” asked Sable.

“The site wasn’t particularly conducive to settlement,” said Winter Sky, “it wasn’t until a little later, after ponies began to explore the area surrounding it, that they stumbled onto the place that would become New Neighton. That site had some rather attractive features that pretty much begged to be lived on. Not the least of which was a river.”

“Ohh,” said Sable Shield, the dawning comprehension in her voice impossible to miss. “I guess that does make sense.”

“Sure does,” added Star Duster, who was now scanning the treetops around the group as they walked, and seeing nothing of interest. “How far exactly is this hike anyway?”

“It’s only about 5 miles, actually,” answered Winter Sky

Star Duster nodded, satisfied with the answer, then turned his attention back to the trees. They seemed to be very similar to what would be found growing back in Equestria, though the shape of the leaves struck him as more than a little odd.

“I gotta say sir,” said Distant Voice, moving his head to face the ponies behind him, “I’m impressed how much you know about this place. I’m pretty well read on this-”

“You mean you’re a massive nerd,” quipped Dawn Trotter.

Distant Voice scowled, shooting the larger stallion a glare. “You’re one to talk!”

Dawn Trotter grinned. “Sure am!”

“I wish I could say I was as well read as you on such...esoteric topics, private,” said Winter Sky, seemingly unfazed by the pair’s antics, “but I have to confess, I knew nothing about it before yesterday. As part of the preparation for this mission I received a rather extensive and...mentally exhausting briefing on the colony’s history courtesy of Princess Twilight herself.”

The captain stared directly ahead as he finished speaking, his eyes seeming to glaze over, as if the stallion were reliving some past trauma. “The books...” he whispered.

Star Duster snickered, returning his attention to his surroundings. “What kind of trees are these, anyway? They look weird.”

“That’s because they are aliens, Star,” said Watchful Eye, turning to look at the blue-grey bat stallion. “Big, leafy, one hundred percent pure certified aliens. And aliens get to be weird.”

“THE TREES ARE ALIENS?” yelled Far Out, coming to an abrupt stop. Watchful Eye, still walking with his face to Star Duster, walked straight into her.

“Oof!”

“That’s so cool,” said the mare, completely oblivious to the collision. She scanned the treelines flanking the road with something that could only be described as reverence.

Rolling his eyes, Star Duster watched as Watchful Eye nudged the star-struck mare with his head, getting her moving again.

“Speaking of Aliens,” said Rapid Advance, his eyes still locked on the road ahead, “I have yet to see, or hear, any sign of animal life. Did anything live here other than ponies and trees?”

“Yep!” said Distant Voice, before anyone else had a chance to respond. “A few critters. Some bugs, and a couple of bird-like things. But not much else. Nothing big, and stuff was only active during the day. At least, I think. It’s been years since I read about that stuff.”

“Seems we may be the only nocturnal critters on the planet then,” said Watchful Eye.

“Hopefully it stays that way,” added Rapid Advance, his tone ominous.

Star Duster didn’t like the implications of that. The bat stallion was perfectly happy being a member of the only nocturnal species on this particular planet. Whatever caused the disappearance of the colony all those years ago could still very well be out there somewhere, and if it was, he would rather it be sleeping.

******

Star Duster sighed. Things had gotten boring rather quickly. The group continued its march down what remained of the weathered old road, and aside from a bit of humorous conversation between the bat ponies, nothing really exciting had yet to occur. At least, not far away alien planet exciting. Tree after wind-blown tree and weathered cobblestones were all the road had to offer, and even those were getting harder to see. The road’s condition seemed to grow worse as they got nearer to the colony’s supposed location, with far more grass and plant debris obscuring the stones under hoof. The stallion prepared to let out a righteous nicker of boredom, but paused. Something caught his eye. A shape, tall and angular, lay just off the road to his right.

“Hey, what’s that?” Star Duster stopped, motioning to the thing in the trees.

As one, the group stopped, looked quickly to Star Duster, then to the spot he was pointing at. Watchful Eye quickly broke from the group, taking a few steps off the road towards the object. Squinting, he leaned towards it.

“Oh, it’s a road sign!” said the sergeant, hurriedly trotting over to it. Rearing up, he cleared some of the vegetation from the sign, brushing its surface with a hoof.

“New Neighton: 1 Mile”

“Oh for the love of!” Star Duster yelled, rearing and bringing his hooves down for effect. “We still have a mile to go? It feels like we have been walking for hours. This is giving me a headache.”

“Ugh, me too,” said Sable Shield, standing to his side.

“Me three,” added Dawn Trotter.

“Me...four?” said Rapid Advance, turning back to face the the trio. “This can’t be coincidence.”

“Does everypony have one?” asked Watchful Eye, glancing around the group in concern. “I know I do.”

The remaining ponies nodded in response.

“Well, that is ominous,” said Winter Sky. “Perhaps it’s some sort of teleport sickness? We did just experience the mother of all teleportation spells.”

“You know,” said Distant Voice, appearing suddenly between the captain and sergeant. “It does feel magical, that weird sorta, bleh. Not splitting, but just there. I bet it is, sir.”

“Hmm. Well then,” Winter Sky sat down, craning his neck back to fiddle with his saddle bag. “Everypony get some water. We are going to halt for just a few minutes while I give this map another look. Sit or lie down if you feel the need, I doubt we are going to be causing any traffic issues on this particular road.”

Sitting, Star Duster withdrew his canteen from its place on the side of his marching harness. Glaring once more at the pair of weird moons over the top of his canteen, he took a few sips and pondered the current situation. A muffled thud to his right let him know that Sable Shield had joined him.

“Fun times,” said Sable, pulling out the stop of her own canteen with her teeth. “But hey, at least we found a sign.”

“And a mysterious ruined statue thing.”

“Yeah, that was all kinds of creepy. No way ponies made it.”

“Aliens?”

“Aliens.”

Both ponies nodded in agreement.

“So,” said Sable Shield, “I thought this place was supposed to be pretty big. Even a mile away we should have seen something more than a sign, right? What was this place even like?”

“I have...absolutely no idea! I bet Voice does though!” Star Duster stretched his neck upwards, cupping his hooves to his muzzle. “Hey! Voice! Question!”

“I wasn’t that curious.”

A moment later the small, overburdened form of Distant Voice came trotting over. Seeing Sable Shield the stallion hesitated, his eyes darting between the two.

“Don’t worry Voice, she won’t bite,” said Star Duster, who immediately turned to face the mare at his side. “Don’t bite.”

Sable rolled her eyes, and was about to respond when the armored, grey coated form of Dawn Trotter suddenly pushed in, plopping down nearly in the mare’s lap. She reeled back, nearly falling over.

“Don’t worry I got this.” said Dawn Trotter, motioning Voice forward with a hoof. “I wanna know too.”

“Trotter what the hay are you doing!” yelled Sable Shield, spitting out bits of the stallion’s helmet plume.

Distant Voice grinned, closing the remaining distance. He took a seat in front of the others. “Well, from what I remember, New Neighton was like a big Earth Pony town. Cottages and such. The center part was built in unicorn style though, the part with the town hall and garrison and all that stuff. Then there was some kind of small, cloud based weather station too. It was like a tiny little Equestria. In space. Spacequestria!”

“Spacequestria would have been a way cooler name.” said Dawn Trotter, nodding with a hoof to his chin.

“I know right,” said Star Duster. “Spacequestria. For those adventurous space ponies.”

“And obnoxious space janitors,” came the voice of Sable Shield, somewhere behind Dawn Trotter.

“Hush you.”

A sudden, loud whinny from the other side of the squad caught the attention of the seated ponies.

“Look! An Alien!” yelled Far Out.

In an instant, the whole group was up. Star Duster spread his wings and lowered his head, backing towards the three ponies that had joined him. Each pony had adopted a posture similar to his own, and their eyes were fixed in the direction of the shout.

Far Out trotted into the midst of the group, carrying something long and shiny in her mouth. Moving over to Star Duster and company, the mare displayed her prize: A large, snake-like creature of frightening appearance, covered in stripes, was hanging from her muzzle, its tongue quickly lashing the air in much the way an actual snake’s would.

“Thee!” she said, shoving the creature towards the assembled ponies. It locked its eyes on Distant Voice, flicking its tongue for effect.

The little stallion shrieked, reared, and was gone in an instant. He appeared again, standing on the back of an unamused looking Rapid Advance, clear on the other side of the group.

“Far Out! What the hay are you doing!” he yelled, “get that thing away!” His wings flapped excitedly, and Star Duster could see his tail whipping side to side in aggravation.

Far Out sat down, placing the creature on the ground at her forehooves. “Distant Voice. Don’t be rude. We are guests on its planet.”

“Private,” said Watchful Eye, who cautiously approached the mare, his eyes locked on the strange creature. “Be careful, that thing could be poisonous.”

“Oooh. That thing’s creepy looking!” said Star Duster, furling his wings and studying the creature with glee.

Winter Sky sighed, and sat back down. Placing one hoof on his forehead, the captain said nothing.

“Far Out!” Sable Shield yelled, allowing her wings to relax. “What the.. this is a whole new level of crazy, even for you! What are you doing?”

“Diplomacy! I’ve made peaceful contact with the natives of this planet.” The snake-ish creature slithered back towards Far Out, coiling up near a foreleg. It seemed to tongue the air in approval.

“WHAT!” yelled Distant Voice, “how does that even work! What even IS that thing?”

“Some kind of totally rad space snake-wormapillar I think,” said the mare. Even as she finished speaking, her eyes went wide, and Star Duster could almost see the light bulb hovering over her helmeted head. “It’s a Spurmapillar!”

“Private,” came the the voice of Winter Sky at last. “Never say that again. That’s an order.”

“What?” asked the mare, now clearly confused.

“See, Voice,” said Dawn Trotter. “I TOLD YOU they were real.”

Distant Voice, still standing high on his perch, glared back at the stallion. “Dawn that is some random little alien snake monster, not a giant planet eating space snake!”

“Star Snake,” Dawn corrected. “It’s probably just a foal.”

Winter Sky, who had been sitting motionless with his hoof to his forehead through most of the exchange, sucked in a deep breath and rose to his hooves. “Okay, we are moving on. And no Far Out, it can’t come with us.”

“Aww.”

******

Cookie Squad continued its agonizingly slow journey down the ever worsening road. Other than the thicker vegetation and more fragmented nature of the road itself, everything seemed, to Star Duster at least, just much more of the same. Trees and stones. Wind and grass. Two strange looking moons. With the exception of the road itself and one sign, nothing yet had been seen of the colony itself. Worse yet, the headache that had started to trouble him not long after taking to the road was still present, and was getting a lot more annoying.

“We shouldn’t be too far from the outskirts of New Neighton proper,” said Winter Sky. The group had returned to the same loose formation it had adopted earlier, and Star once again found himself in the rear trio. He scanned his surroundings with a bit more care, hoping to be the first to catch sight of something important. Getting this close to the supposed sight of the town itself, he knew they should start seeing some sort of evidence very soon.

“I feel kinda weird,” said Distant Voice, walking in the middle of the forward trio. “Not just the headache but, like a whole lot of blah.”

“Do you need to stop for a bit?” asked Watchful Eye

“No sarge, but thanks. I don’t really feel ill, just kinda.. weird.”

“I feel it too. Can’t place it, but it’s there.” said Rapid Advance.

“That is somewhat concerning. I feel it as well,” said Winter Sky, studying the two ponies in question.

“Does it seem darker to anypony else?” asked Sable Shield.

“I thought the same thing, now that you mention it,” said Watchful Eye, craning his neck back to look at the pair of moons which hung high above the horizon. “The moons are still up, even higher than they were when we got here. Cloud cover is about the same too, nothing in front of them. If anything, it should be brighter.”

Oh great,” said Distant Voice again. “I hope we didn’t get some kind of space plague by coming here.”

“I really don’t want to die of space-itis.” added Dawn Trotter.

“Well, whatever is happening, it’s going to be harder to find what we are looking for if it much darker.” said Winter Sky.

“Sir?” asked Watchful Eye, “With permission, If I could pop up above the treetops for just a moment, I think I could get a better idea of what’s around us. I can be quick.”

Winter Sky thought for a moment. “Very well Watch. Just be very quick.”

Watchful Eye stopped, giving the captain a quick salute. The reddish grey bat stallion then spread his wings, taking a running leap into the air. With one powerful beat of his wings, the pony went absolutely nowhere. He came crashing back to earth in an extremely awkward faceplant, his hindquarters pointing skyward as if he were some sort of pony shaped lawn dart.

“WATCH!” the captain yelled, darting over to the fallen sergeant. “Are you alright?”

“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh ow.” replied the sergeant, his leg twitching.

“What happened?”

“Wings no worky,” the sergeant teetered over, then rolled onto his side.

As one, every other set of wings in the group spread and began to flap. Several seconds passed with no effect, and the flapping grew faster.

“Can anypony get airborne?” asked the captain.

Star Duster flapped as hard as he could. Nothing happened.

“Not good not good not good,” he said, looking to Sable Shield, who was flapping futilely beside him. The mare looked to him in turn, and in her eyes he saw something he rarely, if ever, had seen from her: panic.

“Star?” she said. “I can’t fly!”

“I know! Me either!” the stallion flapped his wings rapidly again for effect, one wingtip catching Sable Shield in the face. “Oops.”

The mare blinked, shaking her head. “Watch it you dummy!”

At least she was mad, rather than panicky now. Looking around, he could see the other ponies of Cookie Squad in similar states of alarm. Wings beat and ponies trotted in place, trying their hardest to get into the air with nothing to show for the effort. Watchful Eye slowly, and gingerly, rose to his hooves, giving his head a good shake.

“Everypony calm down a moment,” said Winter Sky, taking a deep breath and furling his own wings. “Let’s not panic any more than usual.”

Slowly the other ponies of cookie squad ceased their fidgeting, and turned their attention to the captain.

“I admit, I have no idea what exactly is going on here, but this is a strange, alien planet. Magic may work a bit oddly. I don’t recall any mention of ponies losing any particular abilities, but one never knows. We are going to continue, at least for awhile, unless anypony begins to feel genuinely bad. If that happens, we will just withdraw to the portal and report this to the Princess. For the time being though, let us continue. It would be a great shame to return empty hooved entirely, so let’s see if we can find something.”

The bat ponies looked to one another, slowly nodding in succession.

“The captain is right,” said Watchful Eye, straightening his helmet. “This is weird, but not ‘run-screaming-from-the-planet’ weird. At least, not yet.”

Extending a wing, Star Duster tapped Sable Shield on the top of her helmet, causing the mare to turn back to him. “See? Not panic time yet. We just get to pretend we are Earth ponies!”

“Fine.” she said, nodding. “Let’s also pretend you aren’t a huge idiot and complete the fantasy.”

“Aha, there’s normal Sable!”

She glared a moment, then motioned to the group with her head. “Let’s go.”

Grouping back up, the ponies moved on. Further down the road they went, pushing through yet more overgrowth. Thankfully for the ponies of Cookie Squad, the path, even in its deteriorated condition, was still very apparent. Between the darkness, and the wind’s constant motion through the ever thickening trees, Star Duster couldn’t help but find his surroundings a bit too spooky for his tastes. Judging by the darting glances of his companions, he wasn’t the only one.

“Halt for a sec,” said Watchful Eye, moving off the path, and into the nearby trees.

“See something, sergeant?” asked Winter Sky.

“Yeah. These little piles of rocks we have been seeing, scattered about? They aren’t rocks.”

The captain followed Watchful Eye to where he was standing, taking a look at what he had. Star Duster crept behind, curious as to what the sergeant had found.

“This is debris. What’s left of a building,” Watch pushed at one of the piles with a hoof, flipping over some small pieces of well rotted, but clearly worked, wood. Beneath, and mixed in amongst the rotted wood were some other things as well, a few pieces of what was clearly tile, and some shaped decorative work of some other material.

“Looks to be what’s left of a cottage, judging by the wood.” said Winter Sky, prodding the pile himself.

“The foundation is still here, though very overgrown,” said Watch. “I’d say a cottage style house is exactly what it was. Earth Pony style, going by that tile, and the carvings.”

“Just like Voice said,” said Star Duster, drawing the sudden attention of other two stallions.

“What did Private Voice say?” asked the captain.

“Oh, just that New Neighton was mostly Earth Pony buildings, except for the center, which was built unicorn style.”

“I’m guessing some of those other piles of ‘rocks’ we passed were more of the same. More ruined buildings.” said Watch.

“Probably so,” said the captain. “Which would mean we’re already within the colony limits.”

“Welcome to New Neighton,” said Rapid Advance, walking up behind the trio, the rest of Cookie Squad in tow.

“What’s left of it.” added Distant Voice, moving up to take a good look at the pile of debris. “I guess 86 years isn’t kind to Earth Pony buildings with nopony to take care of them.”

“It’s more than that,” said Watchful Eye, dropping to his belly and moving his face within inches of the debris. He squinted his eyes, and nosed at a few pieces of the rubble with care. “Some of this damage isn’t from rot, or simple collapse. And here..” the sergeant motioned to a few pieces of dark tile had brought together in front of the pile “...that’s fire scorching. It’s burnt.”

“So it burned down?” asked Star Duster.

“Hmmm.” replied the sergeant, before moving further into the trees.

“Okay Cookie,” said Winter Sky. “I want everypony to fan out as far as you can, while still keeping me in sight, and try to find any other building remnants you can. If you find a foundation, stand by it.”

Star Duster saluted, turned, and headed off into the woods. All around him the other members of the squad did the same, and before long he came across another pile of debris. A low pile of rotted wood and assorted detritus, spread over a fairly wide area. He nosed through it, flipping over pieces of wood and broken tile, searching for the foundation of the building it once belonged to. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for. Clearing away a bit of dirt and debris, the stallion took his position on the overgrown slab of stone. Looking around, he could see a few other members of the squad had already stopped as well, and he began to realize just how many such buildings had once stood here.

A noise to his side caught his attention, and turning towards it, Star Duster could see his sergeant, muzzle pressed low to the ground, quickly approaching him as he sniffed at the ground.

“Good boy!” said Star Duster, smiling.

“What?” Watchful Eye stopped, raising his head to look at the private, a bit of confusion on his face.

“Nothin’. Got another building here Sarge, looks like the same deal as the first one.”

Watchul Eye nodded, then moved to inspect the debris in question. “Same as the other.” Quickly the sergeant had his muzzle back to the ground, and began to move off towards the other ponies. One by one, he moved to each stationary pony, inspecting their discoveries. It didn’t take Watchful Eye long to visit each pony that Star Duster could see, and he headed back into the trees that he had appeared from.

“Alright everypony!” came the sergeant’s voice. “Come on back!”

Quickly, the ponies of Cookie Squad had gathered again around their captain. Seeing that that everypony had returned, Winter Sky looked to Watch.

“Pretty much what I thought sir,” said the sergeant. “They all burned.”

“So the colony was razed?” asked Rapid Advance.

The captain looked to the large pony, subtly raising an eyebrow. “Or at least this section of it.”

“Not just razed but…Well I don’t really know what to make of it,” said Watchful Eye, “the way the debris is scattered about looks like some of them caught fire then got hit by a tornado or something. Some of the heavier chunks of tile, or even chunks of support beam, are pretty far from the buildings themselves.”

“Perhaps the storm blew them around?” said Winter Sky.

“I think it would have blown most of the other lighter debris piles around too in that case, but it didn’t. I suppose being in the middle of a forest like this can dampen the wind. Plus, with as deep in the dirt as some of the stuff is stuck, well, it’s been there awhile.”

Star Duster cocked his head, turning something over in his mind. “So they blew up?”

Winter Sky and Watchful Eye both turned to face the private. Watchful Eye blinked.

“They what?” asked Watchful Eye

“Blew up. You know, exploded...” Star Duster reared up, waving his forelegs for dramatic effect. “KABOOM!” He dropped back to all fours. “Well I mean, you said the stuff was burnt, and scattered all over the place right? Sounds like explosions to me.”

Watchful Eye continued to look at the private, tapping his chin with a forehoof. “Hmm. You would need some kind of siege weapon, like a mortar, to do that kind of damage. But then.. why the hay would you go through the effort of lugging something that unwieldy out to shoot at a bunch of cottages. I mean, you could just lob some torches on the rooftops and be done with it. Seems like complete overkill.”

“Siege mortars would have left some obvious craters as well, which we haven’t seen.” added Rapid Advance. “Magic perhaps?”

“Hmmm,” said Watchful Eye. “It just doesn’t make much sense.”

Star Duster shrugged. “Well sarge, I just said they were explosions, not sensible explosions! Maybe whoever or whatever caused them isn’t very sensible.”

“This is all rather cryptic,” said Winter Sky, moving in between the two stallions, “this particular section of town has been deliberately destroyed, in a possibly explosive manner. We need to get to other parts of town to see if the same holds true.”

“Good idea sir,” said Distant Voice, startling the other three stallions. “ This place is giving me the creeps.”

“Yeesh Voice, you need to stop doing that. Especially in creepy forests full of mysterious ruins.” said Star Duster.

“Sorry,” the little pony grinned, “though really I was just going to suggest we maybe head for the town hall or barracks, something in the middle of New Neighton, the unicorn style stuff. There may be more left of the stone buildings. They might not have, uh, exploded as much.”

“That is exactly what I had in mind, actually,” said Winter Sky, “though it will be a good walk through all this.” he gestured at the surrounding trees.

“Yeah, it sure would be nice to FLY there. This is stupid,” said Sable shield, who was sitting just within earshot of the four stallions, her forelegs folded in an indignant manner. Watchful Eye and Winter Sky both turned their heads to glare.

Sable’s eyes widened. “Did I say that out loud? Shoot.”

Star Duster smirked. Dummy.

“Uh,” the mare started, “ I meant, it’s a shame that our magic isn’t working, or we could just fly there really quick, sir.”

Winter Sky snorted. “Alright ponies, we are moving on again. Let’s pay a visit to downtown.”

******

Walking. Lots more walking. There were many things Star Duster liked, and walking was quickly falling from that list. Having fallen once more into their formation, It took the group several hours to make any progress at all. The ever thickening forrest and occasional stop to examine roadside debris slowed their march to a curious crawl. Every so often Winter Sky would call a brief halt to examine or mark something on his map, then they would resume their trek. If that wasn’t enough to drive a stallion completely bonkers, he still couldn’t fly.

“Hey Star?” said Sable Shield.

“Yeah?” said Star Duster, glancing at the mare beside him.

“What do you think happened here?”

“I have no idea. Nothing really makes sense, but we haven’t seen much of anything yet. Well, other than some exploded houses.”

“I know, and that is bugging me.”

“Well, yeah, it bugs me too! Burning down and/or exploding ponies houses isn’t exactly nice.”

“No you dummy, not that, I mean why haven’t we seen signs of anypony?”

Star Duster cocked an eyebrow. “Seen anypony? You mean bodies or something?”

“Yeah. Or really, any sign of them at all. If somepony, some thing was running around here torching the town, it’s not like ponies would just sit calmly waiting for them. Where are the dead, the discarded weapons, hay this road should be clogged with wagons and carts or stuff like that. You know, like we saw in those towns on the border after those big Griffon raids? Junk was everywhere! Why haven’t we seen any of that?”

“Humm” said Star Duster, “well we know it happened fast, maybe everypony ran to the center of town, where the stronger buildings are?”

“Maybe,” answered Sable Shield, “but you’d still think we would be finding more stuff along this road if half the darn town ran down it. Well, I mean stuff that isn’t just pieces of houses. Personal stuff or something. I just have a really bad feeling about this.”

“So then it happened really fast,” offered Star Duster, “so fast ponies didn’t even have a chance to grab anything at all. Maybe they just bolted, ran from whatever it was.”

“Ran, and never came back,” said Sable, somewhat more quietly.

“You know,” came the voice of Winter Sky, walking a short distance ahead of the pair, “you do have a good point about the road, private. We didn’t see anything at all around the portal either, or on the road leading up to it. It’s like nopony even tried to flee. Razing an entire settlement isn’t that fast. There would have been some time to react.”

“Unless these houses were already abandoned when they were destroyed,” added Watchful Eye, jumping into the conversation.

All four ponies turned to look at the sergeant, all wearing the same curious expression.

“Well,” Watch continued, “if there was nopony here when the buildings were destroyed, there would be nopony to find in them, or to drop stuff along the road fleeing them.”

“Well, yes Sergeant,” said Winter Sky, “but then it becomes even more confusing. Why-”

“Building!” shouted Distant Voice suddenly, cutting the captain off mid-thought. All four ponies quickly turned their eyes to the direction of the sound.

“It’s a stone one too, walls are still up!” Voice continued, halting and gesturing at an overgrown shape looming ahead, just off the left side of the road.

Star Duster squinted his eyes, looking where the little pony was pointing. Sure enough, a small, ragged building, made of rough, dark grey stone could be seen ahead of them. “That doesn’t look like a unicorn building.”

“Nor should it.” said Winter Sky. “We aren’t near the center of town yet. That is something else.”

“Probably a granary or the like.” said Watchful Eye.

“That would make sense,” added Winter Sky, “Earth Ponies are rather industrious types, I imagine there are some functional structures they would need to build out of stone.”

“Whatever it is,” said Rapid Advance, “it’s the first building we have come across that is still standing. Well, sort of. It’s certainly worth a look.”

“Agreed,” said Winter Sky.

“Let’s have a look then, shall we?” added Watchful Eye, turning his eyes from the captain to the structure in question. He moved off, walking towards it, Cookie Squad falling in quickly behind him.

As the group drew close to the structure, its nature, and condition, became more apparent. The roof was strangely tall and surprisingly intact, save for one side which had partially collapsed. It’s walls, while still standing, were in worse shape. Cracked and crumbling in some places, they ceased to be entirely on one corner, having collapsed into a pile of stones and wooden beams that littered the overgrown ground around it. Laying in the grass not far from the ruin was a huge, elongated pile of fragmented wood, broken up at intervals by some sort of metal bands. The rotted remains of a giant wooden blade, Star Duster realized. This was what remained of a windmill.

“So, a windmill,” said Star Duster, pausing as he reached the nearest crumbling wall. Turning to face the others he froze, narrowing his eyes, “and, uh, is it just me or did it get even darker?”

“It’s not just you,” said Dawn Trotter, still at his side. “seeing the same thing here. Or well, not seeing.”

“This isn’t right,” said Watchful Eye, walking around the pair, his eyes trained skyward. “The moons are both clear and visible, and even higher up than earlier. It should definitely be brighter than when we got here.”

“Whatever is affecting our flight, could very well be affecting our night vision.” added Winter Sky, walking up to the sergeant’s side, his eyes also locked on the two moons. “Both are physical abilities that draw on magic to function.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” added Rapid Advance.

“Me either,” said Sable Shield, her unexpected proximity making Star Duster jump slightly.

Star Duster turned to face the mare. “Spooky stuff.”

She just nodded.

Turning back towards the ruin, the stallion scowled. “Well, you guys can keep looking at those moons, I’m going to check out what’s inside.”

“I’m coming too,” said Sable Shield, starting after him.

“We’re all coming,” said Watchful Eye, turning and trotting up to Star Duster, “Except for you Far Out. I need you and Rapid to sweep the exterior. See if there is anything laying around.”

The mare, and much larger stallion, saluted promptly and turned away. A moment later the pair had rounded the side of the building, vanishing from sight.

“You did that so Far Out wouldn’t loot the place, didn’t you?” whispered Star Duster.

Watchful Eye leaned in close, whispering back. “Yep. And so Rapid doesn’t wreck it. This thing looks like its about to fall over, and Rapid is about as gentle as a blind Yak on its tenth cup of coffee,” the stallion grinned.

The group, Star Duster in front, moved the short length of the nearest wall, coming up to the ruined corner at its end. Turning it, the stallion took one step and abruptly froze in place.

“What the hay is that.”

A large shape, tall and dark, loomed in the shadows of the ruined building. A vaguely familiar, very out of place shape, surrounded by chunks of debris.

“What in the...” said Watchful Eye, moving in on his right, Winter Sky at his side. Behind, Star could hear the rest of the group round the corner and pause in a similar manner.

“Isn’t that the creepy statue thing we saw near the portal? Asked Sable Shield, the unease in her voice impossible to miss.

“Let me see!” came a shout from behind, quickly accompanied the small form Of Distant Voice squeezing himself between the gawking ponies.

“Oh hey, it is! And it’s intact!” Having squeezed himself through to the front of the group, Voice approached the object slowly. Cautiously, curiously, he began to circle the object in an almost predatory manner.

Star Duster watched the curious little stallion for a moment, then tilted his head back, his eyes tracing the shadowy form upwards. “This thing has to be like fifteen feet tall.”

“So, there is more than one of these things...” said Winter Sky.

“...And this one was built inside a building?” asked a clearly confused Dawn Trotter. “That makes like no sense.”

Watchful Eye approached the object slowly himself, his head low to the ground his pink eyes pinned firmly on the object’s base.

“It wasn’t,” he said, “look at it. The base isn’t built on the floor, its piercing through it. “

“What?” said Winter Sky, his attention snapping to the sergeant.

“Its going through the floor, look,” he swept a forehoof along the floor, near the base of the object. “like a spike. Looking at the roof right here, I’d say it went through that too. And the wall. That’s why this corner of the building is such a mess. This thing came down through the whole thing, from above, like some kind of huge stone lawn dart.”

“Wait,” said Sable Shield, standing just behind Star, “somepony dropped this thing on the building?

“Watch is right. That’s why it’s narrower at the bottom!” said Distant Voice, nearly shouting at the sudden realization. “So that it can pierce the ground, I mean. Like an arrowhead!”

“It’s a weapon?” said Winter Sky, hesitantly, as if he not quite sure of the conclusion he was drawing.

“Well, at the very least it looks like its meant to drop into the ground like this sir. The other one was sticking out of the dirt in the same way.” said Voice.

Star Duster thought about that. Voice seemed to have a point with the shape of the object, but something still struck him as odd about the whole idea.

“That one didn’t seem to have been dropped on anything though. Other than the dirt, I mean. Seems like a big waste to haul something so big and clunky out there just to drop it on some trees.”

“Maybe they were aiming for the portal?” asked Sable Shield

Star Duster nodded. “True, maybe, but if they were that was one heck of a miss. And they never went back to try again.”

“And who drops a statue on a friggen windmill?” said Sable Shield, half to herself.

“The carving at the top of this one, it’s intact,” said Distant Voice, who was now on the opposite side of the strange statue, looking up. “It’s hard to make sense of though, the light is too dim. I am not sure what I am looking at. It’s almost like it gets darker the closer you get to it.”

“Somepony grab a Sunstone,” said Winter Sky, “we’ll risk a bit of light to get a better look at this thing.”

“Good idea sir!” said Distant Voice. “Then I can take another rubbing too, and compare them. The other one had a bunch of weird writing right her-”

Distant Voice screamed. A short, sharp, strangely agonized scream that jolted every pony present. The small stallion reared, staggering backwards on two legs. Cradling his forehoof, he managed but a few steps before collapsing onto his side.

Star Duster stared, mouth agape, unable to process what had just happened. Distant Voice moaned, writhing on his side, then curled into a fetal position.

“Voice!” shouted Watchful Eye, his eyes wide in alarm. Galloping over to the fallen stallion’s side, the sergeant sat quickly next him. “Voice, are you alright? Look at me.” Getting no response, Watchful Eye quickly removed his helmet, dropping it at his side. Just as quickly he had yanked off Distant Voice’s own. Gently, he began to nose the fallen pony’s neck, looking for signs of life.

A loud series of hoof falls drew Star Duster’s attention to his right as Rapid Advance, trailed by Far Out, came careening around the corner.

“I heard a scream!” Said Rapid. “What hap-” he froze mid sentence, his eyes falling on the scene at the object’s base.

“VOICE!” he shouted, galloping over to the pair. His eyes darted between the prone form of Distant Voice and Watchful Eye, sitting at his side. “Watch, what happened? Is he..”

“No,” the sergeant, his eyes pressed tightly closed, shook his head quickly. “No, thank heavens, no. He’s alive. He’s just...I don’t know. He’s cold. He touched that thing,” he gestured at the mystery object with a forehoof, “and it did this to him.”

Rapid ’s nostrils flared, and he turned towards the object. Watching the scene unfold, Star Duster could feel that something bad was probably about to happen.

“Whatever you want to do Rapid, don’t. Don’t touch that thing!” said Star Duster

“Uhhhhhhhhh,” moaned Distant Voice, who stirred slightly. As one, all eyes moved to him.

Watchful Eye pressed his nose to the smaller stallion’s neck again, before pulling back and nodding. “He’s warming up.”

“Can he be moved?” asked Winter Sky, coming up behind the trio.

Watchful Eye turned to face him. “Maybe. I don’t know. I just, I have no idea what just happened. He touched it and… Did you see when he did? All the weird little shapes on it flashed, but just for an instant.”

The captain thought a moment. “Some kind of ward?”

“I don’t know, but it sure seemed like it.”

“Private Far Out,” said Winter Sky, moving his eyes to the prone form of Distant Voice.

In an instant,the mare appeared. She failed to salute, her eyes instead locked on Distant Voice.

“Sir?” she said.

“Did you hear what we were just saying?” the captain asked.

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Help Watch with Private Voice. See if you can do anything for him. I want to get as far away from this thing as we can, as soon as we can. Corporal,” Winter Sky looked straight to Rapid Advance, gesturing behind himself with his head, “with me. I’ll fill you in.”

Rapid Advance nodded, moving to follow the captain a short distance across the ruined room.

Star Duster watched, as the captain began relating to Rapid Advance what little they had learned, or rather suspected, about the two objects. Rapid would nod along as the captain spoke, but his eyes never left the limp form of his friend across the room. To Star Duster’s own left, a concerned looking Dawn Trotter sat, observing Watch and Far Out at work. Glancing to his right, he saw Sable Shield, standing emotionless, staring at the strange object that felled his friend.

“Far Out what are you doing? You can’t jus-” said Watchful Eye, the alarmed tone in his voice drawing Star Duster’s attention.

“Sure I can, watch!” said the mare.

“Wait!” said Watchful Eye, but Far Out was too fast. In a flash, the mare thrust a hoof forward, shoving something into, and almost down, the throat of the still motionless Distant Voice. She pushed hard on the exposed end of what he could now see was a potion bottle of some sort.

“He’s going to choke on that thing!” cried Watchful Eye, moving to intervene. Like lightning, the mare’s free hoof shot out, landing square in the middle of the sergeant’s face.

Star Duster watched the scene unfold with a mix of awe, and confusion. To one side, Far Out had a hoof pushing on a rapidly draining potion bottle lodged in the mouth of Distant Voice. To her other side, another hoof was firmly pressed into the snout of a vainly flailing Watchful Eye, who despite his best efforts, was unable to get any closer to the mare.

“Captain Winter said to help, and I’m helping! This stuff is totally disgusting, which means it’s really good.” The little mauve mare deftly doged the sergeant’s every attempt to interrupt her, much to the confusion of Star Duster, still watching the scene from across the ruined room. Watchful Eye’s tendency to get a little crazy whenever one of his charges so much as chipped a hoof was pretty well known throughout the company, but Far Out’s ability to hold him at bay was both impressive and unexpected. If she could grapple this well one hooved and sitting, Star Duster didn’t want to think what she would be capable of on all four hooves and angry. The stallion made a mental note never to find out.

A loud cough, followed by the clanking of a hastily expelled potion bottle brought the impromptu wrestling match to an abrupt end.

“Blarghh” coughed Distant Voice, pushing himself up slightly and spitting out some very unsettling looking green fluid. “What’s that awful taste?” he coughed again. “That’s not natural. Nothing should..” he paused, offering a last wheezing cough, “...taste like that.”

The little grey stallion froze, noticing the many eyes fixed on him. “What..?”

In a flash of maroon and mauve, he found himself swept into a multi-pony hug with the two ponies nearest to him.

The thunderous clomping of very large, and very quickly approaching hooves drew the attention of the three, and as one, three pairs of eyes went wide in alarm.

“Oh no,” said Watchful Eye.

Star Duster winced at the inevitable. The wrecking ball in pony form named Rapid Advance slammed into unfortunate trio, dragging them into far more imposing quadruple bat pony group hug.

Walking over to the quartet of aggressively embracing ponies, Star Duster said nothing, rapping the hapless Distant Voice on his now unhelmeted head.

“You scared us, you little nerd,” said Dawn Trotter, coming up beside Star. Smiling, he rapped the unfortunate little pony on the head as well.

“I am glad to see you are alright, Private,” added Winter Sky, walking up with a grin on his muzzle.

“Uhh, thanks sir?” said Distant Voice, his voice strained by the crushing embrace of Rapid Advance.

The captain cocked an eyebrow. “You sound...confused, private.”

Distant Voice grinned, a bit sheepishly. “I have no idea what’s going on sir. I remember touching that thing over there and then…. Far Out trying to drown me with the nastiest tasting stuff ever.”

“I helped!” exclaimed the mare, from somewhere within the mass of hugging ponies.

The captain’s expression changed, to something nearly unreadable. “You don’t remember what it did?”

“Nope, it’s sort of fuzzy?”

Winter Sky nodded. “I hate to break this up Cookie, but we are going. Now.”

Star Duster, returning the captain’s nod, turned towards Sable Shield. The mare hadn’t moved, and was still looking over the mystery object.

“Uh, Sable? You weren’t going to say anything?”

“What?” the mare responded. “About him? I knew he’d be fine. He always is. I’m more worried about that thing,” she nodded towards the statue.

Star Duster sighed. “Come on, lets go.”

“Yeah yeah.”

******

Back on their hooves, Cookie Squad made its way back to the exterior of the ruined mill. Pausing to repack supplies and re-don their helmets, the bat ponies prepared to leave this particular mystery behind, and head once more towards the center of the colony.

“Well that was fun,” said Dawn Trotter, once more taking position at Star Duster’s side.

“Yeah, hopefully we are funned-out now,” said Star Duster. “I am done having fun, if that’s what passes for it on this planet.”

To his left, the stallion could see Rapid Advance, standing a bit away from the group. He stood glaring at the strange object that caused his friend so much grief. Every now and then, the large pony would look to some part of the building instead, as if studying it.

“Uh, Rapid, what exactly are you doing?” asked Star Duster

“Thinking.”

“Oh.”

“So,” said Distant Voice, from somewhere behind him, “did anypony get to see what was carved on the top of that thing?”

“Afraid not, Voice. We had more important things to worry about. Namely you,” said Watchful Eye.

Star Duster couldn’t see him, but could just tell by the sergeant’s tone of voice that he was grinning.

“Heh. Well, drat,” said Voice, “I don’t suppose we cou-”

“No,” said Winter Sky, quite abruptly.

“Oh. Okay then.”

Star Duster turned to face the conversation now, the terseness in the captain’s voice drawing his attention.

“Captain?” said Watchful Eye, somewhat confused. “Wouldn’t it be worth just a quick look, especially considering what that thing could have cost us?” The sergeant noded subtly towards Distant Voice, who having turned to face the captain, was oblivious to the gesture.

“That’s exactly why I want to get as far from it as we can, as quickly as we can, Watch.” said Winter Sky. “Voice said he couldn’t remember what happened after he touched it. He was definitely conscious. If there is even a chance that thing can mess with memories, get into minds, if that is even a slight possibility, I want us as far away from it as possible. That is not the kind of magic I want anything to do with. That thing is dangerous.”

A loud snort came from behind him, and Star Duster turned to its source; Rapid Advance.

“The captain is absolutely right,” said Rapid, “that thing is dangerous. Too dangerous.” The huge bat pony flared his nostrils, pawing at the ground with a foreleg.

“Rapid, what are you doing?” asked Star Duster, who was very certain this was going to end badly.

“Something.” Rapid Advance reared, charging straight towards the ruined mill.

“Rapid!” shouted Watchful Eye, clearly alarmed by the explosive launch of the corporal.

Before any answer could be made, the massive bat stallion collided with the building, disappearing into a jagged, Rapid Advance shaped hole in its side. Shards of stone and wood flew skyward, and the building shuddered. Creaking loudly, it began to take on a precarious lean, then, after going silent for a brief moment, collapsed in on itself, the bulk of the intact walls falling straight onto the strange statue within.

Suddenly, pain. Every pony present hissed or shouted, collapsing where they stood. Star Duster found himself gasping for breath as a sudden rush of heat washed over him. His vision blurred. The world around him flashed, growing brighter, and an overpowering flood of sensation the pony could not begin to describe drowned out his senses. Just when he thought he could take no more, it all began to fade, slowly at first, then building up speed until just as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Still gasping, the stallion craned his neck up, looking for his friends, and saw that everypony else appeared to be in exactly the same condition he was. Even stranger still, he could see no debris, anywhere near them. The building hadn’t collapsed on them, or anywhere near them.

“Uhhh?” Star Duster croaked.

“What... just happened?” added Sable Shield.

Star Duster couldn’t see the mare, but- actually yes, he could see the mare. Very clearly. He blinked.

“By the moon, I can see!”

“Moons,” groaned Dawn Trotter, somewhere behind him.

“No!’ snapped Star, “MOON. Our moon. Those moons are awful and I hate them. And that statue. And the wind, and and the walking and really I just hate this whole planet.”

“Huh?” came the voice of Watchful Eye, who’s head popped out of the tall grass a short distance away. “You’re right, it’s way brighter now.”

Movement to his left drew Star’s attention, and around the corner came the stumbling bulk of Rapid Advance.

“Did you all, uh, you know, nevermind,” Rapid fell hard on to his haunches, shaking his head as if to clear it.

All around, Star Duster could see the other members of Cookie Squad sitting up slowly, in similar states of disarray.

“Hey, wait a minute...” said Watchful Eye, hauling himself out of the grass. The sergeant staggered forward, past Star Duster, into a more open area between himself and the sitting form of Rapid Advance. Pausing, he slowly spread his membranous wings.

Raising an eyebrow, Star Duster watched with curiosity. Watchful Eye began to flap his wings. Slowly and hesitantly at first, then faster and more fiercely. Nodding, the sergeant then leapt straight into the air, pumping his wings and...rose. A moment later, Watchful Eye found himself airborne, hovering over the dazed ponies of Cookie Squad, all of which had their eyes trained on him.

“I can fly!” shouted Watchful Eye, looming high over the heads of his comrades.

“Yes sergeant, I can see that,” said Winter Sky, rising to his hooves before unceremoniously shaking himself off. “Now please, land before something sees you.”

“Wait, we can fly again?” said Sable Shield, who was dragging herself back to a standing position as well.

“And see,” added Far Out, who was prone on her back, and making no attempt at righting herself. “Look at those clouds. Pretty.”

“So, we have our magic back,” said Rapid Advance, returning to the group.

“Not back,” said Distant Voice, suddenly sitting up from the tall grass that had been completely concealing his small form. “No longer suppressed, I think. You broke that statue Rapid. Then this happened. At like, the exact same instant. Not a coincidence.”

“So that statue was some kind of giant magic suppressor?” asked Rapid, turning to face his small friend.

“Or siphon, or sink, or something....” added Winter Sky, walking up to join the two. “Voice is right about it though. The instant that building collapsed, everything went bright again.”

“So those statues stop magic from being used somehow?” asked Star Duster, trying his best to follow along.

“It would seem so,” answered Winter Sky.

“Well that explains the one by the portal, doesn’t it?” said Watchful Eye, alighting amidst the conversing ponies.

Winter Sky’s eyes went wide with comprehension. “Of course. The portal is magical. Everything about it is. If you prevent the use of magic, you prevent the use of the portal as well.”

“So it is a weapon.” added Rapid Advance.

“A weapon far more dangerous than we first considered,” said Winter Sky, turning back to look at the remains of the building. “Wait.”

Watchful Eye cocked an eyebrow, before turning to look at what had caught the captain’s attention. “Well what do you know... Voice, you may get your chance after all.”

Thoroughly confused, Star Duster walked up to the pair, determined to learn just what had caught their attention. It didn’t take him long to see it. Just outside of the pile of rubble, laying on its side, intact in the grass, was the top portion of the mysterious object about which they had just been speculating.

Cautiously, together, the group approached the fallen object, its features coming more clearly into focus. Like the other, it had sections of what was almost certainly writing covering portions of its grey, stone-like surface. Unlike the other, and now clearly visible as the group drew near, was the carven upper portion of the object, completely intact. Eight pairs of eyes found themselves fixated on that very feature as the ponies of Cookie Squad came to a halt immediately next to the fallen object.

“...what is that supposed to be?” asked dawn Trotter.

“I..I think it’s supposed to be some kind of giant face. It has a mouth?” said Distant Voice

“That is quite possibly the creepiest looking thing I’ve ever seen.” added Rapid Advance.

Star Duster stared at the strange carving. It did look to be a face of some kind, but it had to be the strangest face he’d ever seen. Even worse, was the expression it wore. The face appeared frozen in some kind of stylized scream, its features, as best as he could tell, contorted in pain. Beyond the creepy factor of a screaming alien face, there was something else, something unnerving about the whole thing that he just couldn’t place.

“Definitely nothing from our world, assuming it’s supposed to represent something real at all. Could be a mythical beast or god or something couldn’t it?” said Watchful Eye, the reddish stallion staring intently at the object.

To the sergeant’s right, Star Duster could see the strangely quiet form of Far Out, looking frighteningly out of sorts, something completely unheard of for her. Of all the ponies of Cookie Squad, Far Out is the one he would expect to be all over a huge, creepy space-face. Aliens were right up her alley after all.

“Far? What do you think?” he asked.

The mare just quickly shook her head.

Star Duster blinked. That reaction was infinitely more frightening than the face itself.

“There is something deeply unsettling about this face,” said Winter Sky, taking a few steps forward. Lowering his head to be level with the object, he continued. “As Watch said, it’s like nothing in Equestria, or anywhere on our world.” The captain cocked his head slightly. “Yet, somehow, in some way I cannot place, it seems…familiar.”

Star Duster felt his blood run cold. The captain was right. That was what seemed unnerving to him. Familiarity. Something that should not exist with an alien face, on an alien planet, somewhere on the other side of the universe.

Winter Sky raised his head, turning to face the assembled ponies. “Like something out of a half remembered dream.”

Glancing from side to side, Star Duster tried to take in the reactions of his friends. Most seemed just as unnerved as he did. Except for Far Out, who looked completely terrified. That fact alone unnerved him more than any strange, screaming alien face ever could. Whatever this was, whatever it represents, the stallion found himself hoping that this particular dream of theirs would not become a nightmare.