• Published 9th Dec 2018
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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 5 - Ruins, Riddles and Ghosts

“Help! It’s got me again!” cried Far Out.

Winter Sky sighed, watching the mare struggle futilely against a pair of vines that had ensnared her by the harness.

This is getting ridiculous.

Cookie Squad had travelled a fair distance, making their way further into the interior of the ruined colony. The battered road they had been following had all but disappeared, with only the vaguest outline of broken stones and stalled growth serving as a guide. The group had found its progress slowed, and now nearly stopped, by the oppressively thick foliage that seemed to get thicker as the group progressed towards their goal.

Well stop flailing and maybe I will!” said Star Duster, who was attempting to grab one of the vines with his teeth.

“This is what, the third time now?” asked Watchful Eye.

“Fourth,” said Winter Sky, nodding to the sergeant at his right, “though in her defense, the road has pretty much disappeared.”

“Ow! Stop kicking!” yelled Star Duster, who had just failed to dodge one of the mare’s frantically flailing hind hooves.

Watching the exchange, the captain shook his head. “Watch, why don’t you pop up above the trees again and tell me what you see. We should be somewhat close.”

“You got it.”

Winter Sky watched as his friend hurled himself into the air, beating his wings until he disappeared above a nearby treetop. Turning back to face his struggling private, he could see her now surrounded by the other members of the squad, all pulling and snapping at vines with their teeth.

How the hay does she always manage this? ...And why is she upside down?

Far Out, furl your wings,” said Dawn Trotter, “when I bite through this one you shou-”

The uncooperative mare yelled, falling a short distance to the ground with a thud.

“-fall free.” Dawn Trotter glared at Star Duster, who stood to his right with half of the severed vine in his mouth. “Way to wait for the warning, Star.”

“Whoops.” Star Duster chuckled, patting the prone form of the mare at his forehooves apologetically.

“Uhh, a little help here guys,” said Distant Voice.

Turning, Star Duster and Dawn could see the form of the little stallion partially hanging from another vine by a hindleg.

“Holy hayburgers, it’s contagious,” muttered Dawn Trotter, moving to assist his friend. Star Duster just giggled, helping Far Out back to her hooves.

“Little Pony Problems,” added a snickering Sable Shield, who stood just outside the debacle with Rapid Advance.

Winter Sky continued watching his charges, his expression as neutral as he could manage. A familiar conflict simmered within the grey bat stallion, one that often afflicted him when it came to anything concerning this particular squad of ponies. He found himself torn once more, unsure whether to scream in frustration, or laugh madly. He was leaning more towards the latter at present. The fact that every single one of these ponies had passed Royal Guard competency and physical testing, on multiple occasions, certainly seemed to warrant it.

A subtle thud broke him out of his contemplation, and the Captain turned, nodding to the returning sergeant.

“What did you see, Watch?”

“A herd of idiots wrestling in the woods,” said the ever-grinning sergeant.

“Yes, well, aside from that.”

Watchful Eye nodded, sucking in a breath. “Well, the good news is that we are pretty much right on the river. I think that’s why the plants got so crazy here. Go just a bit further thataway,” he motioned to somewhere vaguely behind him, “and you hit water. Across it, and a bit further out to the east, across town I’d wager, is a pretty substantial rise. A hill or something, with some ruins on top.”

Winter Sky nodded, recalling details of the map he had been viewing for much of the evening. “Yes, I believe it was host to a winery, and most of the colony’s windmills. Probably the ruins you are seeing.”

“Then to our west,” Watch continued, “just a ways down the river are two pretty large stone ruins. One had a pretty hefty a wall around it, so I’m guessing it’s the garrison compound.”

“The other large ruin, is it by chance on the opposite side of the river?” asked Winter Sky.

“Sure is, sir.”

“Then the other one is probably the town hall. Sounds like you found the center of town, sergeant.”


“Also,” added Watchful Eye, with a bit of a smirk, “just a bit ahead of us the forrest clears away almost entirely, along a small strip. Looks like what’s left of another road that follows the south bank of the river. It looks to be in way better shape than the one we were following here. We should be able to follow it straight to where we want to go, as well as avoid more ambushes by savage alien weeds.”

Winter Sky could hear some snickering behind him, which abruptly quieted as he swiveled an ear towards it. “Good job Watch.”

The captain then turned, facing the rest of Cookie Squad. “It seems we have a specific objective at last. You all heard the sergeant’s report. We have some ruins to investigate. I want us back in proper order as soon as we get to this river road.”

The captain began to move off, then paused abruptly, casting a glance back over the squad. “And I swear, if I see one more guardspony lose a fight to a plant I am going to be very put out.”

******

The road, and river, were just where Watchful Eye had put them. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, Cookie emerged from the dense, vine infested forest bank and onto a much clearer road. Assuming the same order they had been following prior to their encounter with the creepy magic statue, the bat ponies continued their journey.

“You think there are any fish in there?” asked Dawn Trotter.

“If there are, I don’t think I want to meet them,” said Star Duster.

“Hmm...probably not,” added Distant Voice, “I don’t think there was much of anything here.”

Winter Sky moved his ears in time to the conversation, training them on each speaker in turn. His mind was elsewhere however, as try as he might, the captain could not drive the image of the unsettling alien face from his mind. A feeling of unease and general foreboding had clung to the captain since they’d left the object behind them. Weighing most heavily of all on his mind was the effect it had on Distant Voice when the little pony touched it. Though he had escaped relatively unscathed, if something as unassuming as a statue was capable of something like that, he dreaded thinking of what other surprises could be laying around the ruins of the colony.

“Something on your mind sir?” asked Watchful Eye, snapping the captain to the present. The sergeant had resumed his position walking at his side, and was giving him a curious look. “You’ve got that... look again.”

Winter Sky turned his head to the sergeant. “I appreciate the fact you didn’t use the word ‘face.’”

Watchful Eye chuckled. “Almost did. Still, what’s on your mind?”

The captain shot Watchful Eye a hesitant glance, gathering his thoughts. “That thing, it could have killed Voice if we had been a bit less lucky. We need to be more careful. Who knows what else might be lingering here, eight decades later or not?”

“Yes sir,” said Watchful Eye, “though I don’t think anypony is very keen on touching anything too mysterious or spooky after what happened. Especially if it happens to be some kind of screaming space-face.’”

“That’s the thing, Watch,” said the captain, “I’m worried about the stuff that doesn’t. Whos to say any other hazards are going to stand out as much as those statue things.”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep our eyes open,” said the sergeant. “Or at least I will. I’m pretty good at it after all. Talented, you might even say.”

Winter Sky snorted, glancing at the sergeant. “Do you ever stop grinning?”

“On occasion,” nodded Watchful Eye, “you don’t want to be around when that happens.”

“I’ll second that.” said Distant Voice.

“Thirded.” added Star Duster.

The journey along the river road proved far less frustrating than their previous road going attempt, and in short order Cookie Squad found themselves nearing the location described by Watchful Eye. Two large ruins loomed above the treetops on either side of the river, and bat ponies slowed their pace, taking in the scenes.

Directly ahead, the road continued into an area of forest sparser than what they had been traversing, and low stone ruins, in great numbers, could be seen scattered amongst the thinning trees. Further back, and sitting in the midst of those smaller ruins, were the remains of a much larger, heavily damaged structure. Across the river from it, an overgrown, though still impressive wall could be glimpsed between densely packed trees. Rising above this wall was a battered, weather beaten tower of medium size. Though ravaged by time and whatever disaster had befallen it, the graceful lines and remnant gold cladding still clinging to the remains of the tower’s top marked it as a unicorn-wrought structure.

“That should be the town hall up ahead,” said Winter Sky, his eyes darting between his map and the ruins directly ahead of them. Around the captain, the bat ponies slowed to a halt.

“Or what’s left of it,” said Star Duster.

“Which makes that the garrison across the river,” added Watchful Eye, squinting as he stared at the location in question.

“Hmm,” said Winter Sky, his eyes moving between the two ruin sites. Tapping a forehoof to his muzzle, he returned his eyes to the map.

“Something on your mind, sir?” asked Watch.

Winter Sky turned to his sergeant, nodding. “Getting to this point has taken us longer than I would have liked. We don’t have too much night left, though I want at least a cursory look at these two sites before we find a place to set camp.”

“Split the squad?” asked Watchful Eye.

“Exactly what I was thinking,” said Winter Sky, nodding in approval. Moving to stand next to Watchful Eye, the captain turned to face the rest of the squad.

“Cookie, we’re splitting into two groups. Rapid Advance, Distant Voice and Far Out, you’re with me.”

“Star Duster, Dawn Trotter and Sable Shield,” said Watchful Eye, making eye contact with each pony in turn, “get your rumps over here, you’re on Team Watch.”

Winter Sky waited a moment for the assorted members of Cookie Squad to gather around their assigned team leader. “Watch, you take Town Hall. I’ve got the garrison compound. Everypony understand what we are doing?”

“Yes sir!” answered the group.

“Very good!” said Winter Sky. “Watch, I say we’ve got two hours to look around, after which I want to start looking for a place to set camp. Do you see that bit of ruin straddling the river up ahead, about even with the big one on our side?”

Watchful Eye turned to face the direction indicated by the captain, and squinted his eyes. After just a moment of searching the bank, the sergeant nodded. “Yeah! Looks like what’s left of a bridge.”

“That’s it. In two hours, we meet there. You’ve got your timepiece yes?”

“Yes sir.”

“Very well then. two hours, see what you can find. Lets move out.”

“You got it, sir,” said Watchful Eye, who turned to face the ponies assigned to him. “Star, Sable, Dawn, let go take a peek, shall we? And please avoid any creepy alien faces you may feel compelled to touch.”

Winter Sky watched as the sergeant moved off, leading his team down the road towards the large ruin that was once New Neighton’s town hall.

“Well then you three,” he said, looking back to his team, “lets see if the garrison holds any answers.”

The captain then spread his wings, beating them quickly until he was at treetop height just above the river. He turned, waiting for his ponies to join him. They did so in short order, though not as quickly as he expected.

“Feeling sluggish?” he asked.

“A bit harder to get aloft than it should be.” said Rapid Advance, who took up position next to the hovering captain.

“Oh not this stuff again.” added Distant Voice.

Far Out looked a bit concerned, but said nothing.

The captain nodded to the trio. “Another one of those things must be around here somewhere. Get groundside as soon as we are across the river and stay there. I won’t have any of us plummeting to our doom because we flew too close without realizing it.”

The four ponies moved on, alighting together on the far bank of the river. Before them, a short distance from the water’s edge, could be seen the pale grey stone of the garrison compound’s still formidable wall.

“Ugh, there is definitely one of those things nearby,” said Distant Voice.

“It must be in the compound itself,” added Rapid Advance, glancing at his small friend.

“Or close to it at least,” said Winter Sky, running his eyes along the top of the wall between the trees.

“Yeah, it’s super hard to fly again,” said Far Out. She was standing a bit behind the others, a look of exertion on her face. “You gotta’ flap like a hummingbird to get up at all.”

“Or like Dawn Trotter when he eats a whole box of cupcakes,” added Distant Voice, who nodded to Far Out in understanding.

“Lets just go in through the gate,” said Rapid Advance. “I’d rather not flutter over this wall just to face plant onto one of those statues on the other side.”

“What Rapid Said!” added Distant Voice.

Winter Sky took in the wall before him, scanning down its length as far as he could see in both directions. Biting his tongue, he probed his memory for details. He remembered learning the various types of pony military structures, though the details were proving frustratingly vague.

“Let’s see,” he thought aloud, “Canterlot style outpost tower and associated buildings...about a century ago, hmm.” The officer rapped a forehoof against his helmet a few times, as if trying to dislodge a specific memory. “I think if they had built this place like the normally would, we just need to follow the wall further west along the river, then turn north. The main gate should be fairly close after that. Not too far, but it will be a bit of a walk in all this undergrowth.”

“Cool!” said Far Out, swishing her tail. “Though couldn’t we like, go through the hole in the wall back there?”

Winter Sky blinked slowly, fixing his eyes on private Far Out. Slowly, the equally confused heads of Rapid Advance and Distant Voice slid in to either side, taking position directly beside the befuddled captain’s.

“What?” all three stallions asked at once.

“You know, the big hole back there” said Far Out, who motioned in the general direction with a wing.

The heads of all three stallions craned as one, stretching to see around the now equally confused mare. Sure enough, not far behind Far Out, in the opposite direction, was an area of dark shadowing on the otherwise uniformly grey wall. On closer inspection, it was clear to see that it was indeed a breach in the structure, one that had been rather inconveniently hidden by the treetops during the brief flight across the river.

“Oh,” said Winter Sky.

“Good job, Far Out,” said Rapid Advance, clearing his throat.

“Wow, we’re terrible,” said Distant Voice, snorting for effect. The little pony quickly found himself under the withering glares of the other two stallions.

“Uhh I mean-” Distant Voice’s reply was cut short as the oversized forehoof of Rapid Advance came down on his helmet, ringing it like a gong.

“Shhh,” said the much larger bat pony, who turned his attention to Winter Sky.

“This way,” said the captain, nodding to Rapid before moving past him towards the opening. The rest of the group fell in quickly behind, and together they moved through the breach.

Ducking his head, Winter Sky passed through into a large, heavily overgrown area. Motioning a stop command with a wing, he glanced to either side, trying to fix his bearings. All around, thick, tall grass grew, sprouting up about chunks of fallen stone. He knew that they should be entering into a courtyard or mustering field of sorts, but the overgrown, dilapidated nature of his immediate surroundings made it impossible to be sure. His only real landmark was the short, ruined spire looming above the surrounding vegetation.

“The stable barracks should be at the base of the tower, running southwest. Or whatever passes for southwest here. Seems a good starting point,” said Winter Sky, his eyes on the tower rising before them.

“I can see the top of it from here, actually. Straight ahead and left of us, fairly close,” said Rapid Advance.

“Well lucky you,” said Distant Voice. He let out an indignant nicker.

Turning his head to face the little stallion, Winter Sky could see his ears, and a plume of purple mane, rising above the tall grass.

“Oh no, we’ve lost our Voice!” said Far Out, unable to stifle a snicker.

“Very funny,” said Voice.

Winter Sky rolled his eyes. “Let’s go. Grass looks to get more manageable up ahead.”

“I sure hope so.”

The assembled ponies, or what could actually be seen of them, nodded, falling in behind the captain. They began to push through the tall grass, making their way in the general direction called out by Rapid Advance.

“Captain,” said Rapid Advance, “there’s something up ahead, off to the right. Well, a pair of somethings.”

Winter Sky stopped, halting the group. He raised an eyebrow, turning to the corporal. “A pair of somethings? “

“The remains of some sort of carts it looks like. Guard equipment, maybe,” nodded Rapid.

“Hmm. That way?” asked Winter Sky, pointing ahead and to the right.

Rapid Advance nodded again.


Winter Sky moved off in the direction Rapid had signaled, his group in tow. Moving a short distance through the tall grass, it began to abruptly thin, opening quickly into a clearing. Catching sight of the objects spotted by Rapid, he trotted towards them. Nearing the decaying objects, the captain began to recognize them. Wood and steel, covered with what was once a shining metallic overlay. Large arms extending on either side, surrounded by a heavy, once swiveling frame. The rotted remains of tensioning cables, and the broken winches that once serviced them. All around, the moldering remains of the wooden carts that once gave the machines their prized mobility. Once, they were finely crafted machines of war. Now, they were derelicts.

“Star Throwers,” said Rapid Advance, voicing Winter Sky’s own thoughts. He moved up slowly, taking position at the captain’s side.

“Yes, the smaller variant of them.”

“Oh, Star-Tossers,” said Distant Voice.

Far Out giggled.

“Please tell me ponies don’t actually call them that,” said Winter Sky.

“They do,” said Rapid Advance.

Winter Sky shook his head, returning his attention to the old weapons. He looked to a pair of shafts protruding from the remains of one of the ruined carts. Ragged bits of what was once heavy harnessing tack hung limply from their ends. The bat pony captain stared into the empty space and couldn’t help but wonder about the pony that once cinched those ruined straps. It was a feeling that only seemed to be getting stronger, the more of the colony he saw.

There’s nothing here but ghosts,” he whispered.

“What’s that, Sir?” asked Rapid Advance, who had pulled his head away from one of Star Throwers he was closely examining.

“Nothing, corporal. Just thinking,” said Winter Sky. Closing his eyes, he attempted to clear his mind and refocus on the task. There was something else about the weapons, something that didn’t seem right.

“Aye,” said Rapid.

The captain turned to face him, cocking his head slightly. “Other than the fact they are half rotted away, do you notice anything peculiar about these weapons, corporal?”

Rapid Advance raised an eyebrow, then quickly returned his eyes to the Star Throwers.

“Well,” Rapid paused, thinking for a moment, “for starters, there are only two of them. These things come in batteries of three. Secondly, they look to have been deployed, yet the sliders are locked back in transport position. Seems they didn’t get to finish deploying them?

Winter Sky nodded. “Good observation, but look more closely. The slider is pulled back as far as it can be, true, but it isn’t locked for travel.”

The captain pointed a hoof at the center of the device, a geared assembly around which the weapon could be turned or elevated. “The weapon is free to aim, and has been deliberately craned back at that angle. Whatever they were planning to shoot at, was up. Though as for where the third weapon is, I have no idea.”

“Who the hay fires a Star Tosser at something in the air,” said Distant Voice, the sudden question causing the two stallions flanking him to jump in surprise. The pair had been so engrossed in their musings on the siege weapons that the presence of the little stallion between them had gone completely unnoticed.

“They are too small to hit anything far away, and anything close enough is moving too fast. They are only good against things on the ground.”

“So help me private, I’m going to tie a bell to your harness,” said Winter Sky, glaring at the offending pony. “No, three bells. You really need to stop sneaking up on your squadmates like that.”

“Hey, you guys just didn’t see me. Absolutely no sneaking involved,” said Voice, spreading his wings defiantly. “Maybe you should be more alert!”

“Yes, well maybe you should be taller,” said Rapid Advance, making a rude gesture with his lips.

“Oh yeah, hey, great idea Rapid,” said Distant Voice. A nefarious smile began to form on his muzzle. “I’ll get on that right now.”

Distant Voice dropped low, springing upwards with all the grace of an angry cat. With a few short flaps of his wings, he settled onto Rapid Advance. Fluttering his webbed wings once more, he lowered himself into a rather awkward looking sitting position on the Corporal’s back.

“Wow, that was a great idea. I can see way more now!’ Distant Voice kicked Rapid’s side, motioning ahead of him with a forehoof. “Onward, noble steed! I want a close up look at those Star Tossers.”

Rapid Advance turned calmly to face his captain, a completely unreadable look on his face.

“Permission to kill private Voice, sir?”

Slowly, Winter Sky shifted his gaze from Rapid Advance to the triumphant face of Distant Voice, sitting smugly atop his new mount. Shifting it back to Rapid, he nodded.

“Permission granted, Corporal. Just wait till we get home. I don’t want to fill out a casualty report.”

“You know, that’s kinda hot,” said Far Out, a burst of giggles erupting behind the trio of stallions. All three heads swung to face her.

“Voice, kick his side again!”

Without a word, Rapid Advance suddenly reared, flaring his massive wings. Distant Voice flew backwards with a screech, disappearing back into the tall grass.

“Or... maybe not,” she grinned.

“The stable barracks is just over there,” said Winter Sky, still staring at Far Out. “We are going in to have a look around. You too Voice, if you’re still alive.”

******

“Watch your hooves coming in, the rubble is kind of slidey,” said Watchful Eye, making his way carefully down a pile of debris. His wings were spread for added balance and each step he took was slow, as he half expected to trigger an avalanche of debris with each hoof fall.

The sergeant’s group had just entered what remained of New Neighton’s town hall; a large, formerly splendid Canterlot-style structure that was now reduced to a vine-choked, half-collapsed corpse of a building. Though they found themselves in what was technically a lower interior room of the building, large portions of the walls and ceiling had fallen away. Moonlight streaming through gaping holes in the walls and ceilings gave the group a well lit view of the devastation surrounding them.

“Slidey? Is that even a word?” asked Sable shield. She followed carefully behind Watchful Eye, her wings spread in a similar fashion. Behind her followed Star Duster and Dawn Trotter, moving with just as much care.

“Absolutely,” said Watch. It probably wasn’t. Not that it mattered, the sergeant thought, as there were clues to be found. Hopefully. The interior condition of the building was, by and large, worse even than the field of smaller ruined buildings the group had made its way through to get to it. Only the fallen tower they passed on the way in seemed to be in worse shape. That tower was, at least once upon a time, part of the complex they now found themselves in. At some point though it had lost its battle to time or the weather, and now lay shattered across the nearby river.

Watchful Eye paused, trying to picture what the view from that tower may have looked like, long ago when it still stood tall and proud high above the center of Equestria’s most incredible achievement.

The sergeant shook his head, trying to clear the image. That sort of thinking was a habit of his, and on occasions like this it only served to give his mood a tinge of melancholy. The tower was long gone, as were all the ponies that had seen its views. Now all that remained was forgotten pile of stones half submerged in a river nopony remembers the name of.

“So, where to sarge?” asked Dawn Trotter.

“Well,” said Watch, turning to face the trio that were now standing in a patient semicircle behind him. “There isn’t too much left of this place that is still standing, so the parts that are, that’s where we look. From the outside, it looked like a corner on the second floor, and about half of the first. Guessing by the amount of rubble strewn about, this place probably had more than two floors, so hopefully what we are looking for wasn’t in those sections. Or in that tower that used to be attached.”

“And just what are we looking for, sarge?” asked Star Duster, cocking an eyebrow.

“I have no idea,” said Watch, tapping his muzzle with a forehoof. “Something, anything that could shed some light on what happened here.”

“We may as well check the second floor, while we can still sorta fly,” offered Sable Shield.

“Yeah,” said Star Duster, “we’ll see how long that lasts. This place really wants to keep us on the ground.”

Watchful Eye nodded to Sable Shield. “Up it is then,” he looked up, scanning for the safest point of entry to the floor above. “And Star, I don’t think this place minds flying ponies. Whatever left those face things though, well, that’s another story.”

The group headed up, Watchful Eye in the lead, wings beating furiously against the unnatural effects of the unseen alien objects. They landed together in another, smaller ruined room, most of which had fallen away, exposing what remained of the floor to the open air.

“We aren’t going to find much in the rooms open to the weather,” said Watch. “Hopefully there are still a few intact up here.”

Moving deeper in, the bat ponies searched on. Room after ruined room they found, each a little better off than the last. The one thing they all shared in common though was a lack of anything useful. Water, ceiling plaster and chunks of wall seemed to be the only contents of note in any of them.

Watchful Eye found himself examining a large picture frame. It leaned against the bottom of a wall from which it had clearly fallen. The room he and his team now found themselves in was one of the best preserved they had yet encountered, though that wasn’t saying much. The image the frame had once contained was still discernible; A painted scene of flowers on a large hill, with a small number of suspiciously familiar windmills in the background. He suspected it was a painting of a location in New Neighton itself, probably done by one of the locals.

“Sarge, take a look at this,” said Sable Shield, gesturing from the opposite side of the little room.

Walking over to the private, Watch examined her find. Scattered on the floor before her were a number of small, tarnished metal cylinders. Some appeared to be missing some kind of cap on the end, a number of which were visible in the pile.

“What the hay are those?” said Watch, narrowing his brows in confusion. “They look sort of like signal scroll containers, but they are way too tiny.”

“And not magical either. They’re just regular old bronze,” said Sable Shield.

“Well, they are made by ponies at least,” said Star Duster, who had appeared at Sable’s side.

“I think I know what they are!” yelled Dawn Trotter, from further into the room. “Come take a look!”

Dawn was all the way in the back of the room, his head well into a doorway that lead to the next. Coming up behind him, Watchful Eye squeezed past.

This room was in even better condition than the one they had just been in. The layout was strange, containing a large bench like table, set against a wall, above which a large, and amazingly intact, sliding window sat partially open. Along the opposite wall was a line of tall cages, stacked two high, all of which sat open. On the far wall, on either side of a door leading to a mostly collapsed room were large open boxes, filled with what appeared to be straw.

“Oh, well now that make sense,” said Watch, walking over to the table by the window. On the table was a small rack, containing more of the little bronze cylinders. Beside the rack, what appeared to be some kind of perch.

“Yep,” nodded Dawn Trotter.

Sable and Star Duster walked up to the sergeant, their eyes moving between the cylinders, the perch, and the window.

“Oh,’ said both.

“Yeah, should have realized it as soon as I saw the tiny tubes” said Watchful Eye, who turned from the table to start exploring the rest of the room. “It makes sense they’d be using messenger birds. It’s not like there are any telegraph lines, or established mail services on an alien planet. They’d have to be able to keep in touch with the ponies that were out exploring and such.”

“Well, it looks like the birds escaped at least,” said Dawn Trotter, who had moved over to inspect the row of empty cages.

“Well, I’m glad something did,” said Star Duster.

Watchful Eye continued to run his eyes over every inch of what he now knew to be a messaging loft, catching sight of something beneath the large table. Walking back over to it, he dropped to his belly, and began feeling about underneath with his forehooves. Finally finding the object against the wall, he scooted backwards, rolling it out from its hiding place beneath the table. Rising to his haunches, lifted the item in his forehooves.

It was another of the little bronze message cylinders, though slightly different. This one was still sealed, wrapped in twine. Beneath the twine, around the outside of the cylinder, was an image, still visible on aged paper. It was a crude depiction of three pineapples. A cutie mark, Watch guessed.

“Sable,” said Watch, offering the cylinder to the private. “Try to get this open, you’re better with your teeth.”

The mare nodded, taking it in her hooves. She bit dit down and twisted, spitting the cap onto the table. Taking the rest of the cylinder in her teeth, she mouthed it back to Watchful Eye.

Grasping it gently between his own teeth, he tilted his head sideways, shaking it in a manner that must have seemed incredibly silly to the rest of the bat ponies watching. A few moments of very awkward shaking later, a small roll of paper slid out, bouncing gently onto the table.

“Ah ha!” said Watch, spitting the empty tube from his mouth. He brought his face close to mysterious little roll, examining it intently.

“Now, try unrolling that, as gently as you can,” he said, nodding to Sable Shield. “I think I’d squash the thing with these cloppers.” The sergeant waved a forehoof in the air for effect.

“Yeah, those weak little hooves may be just what we need,” said Star Duster, snickering to her left.

“Oh? Wanna see how weak they are?” said Sable, holding one of them up to the blue tinged stallion. “Well get ready, cause’ I’m about to shove this one clear up yo-”

“SABLE,” said Watch, hastily. “Paper. Now.”

“Fine, fine,” said the mare, giving one last glare to Star Duster before turning to her task.

Star Duster grinned.

Watch rolled his eyes. Still, it could be worse. With this particular pair of ponies, it often was.

“What’s it say?” asked Dawn Trotter, pushing in closer to get a closer look.

“Give me a sec,” said Sable, who had just begun to roll the tiny sheet flat.

The group watched nervously as she gently pushed her free hoof across the tiny parchment, slowly pushing until it was at its full extent. Pinning the new edge with her other hoof, she held it firm.

“There.”

“Great job private,” said Watchful Eye, who leaned in close, running his eyes over the newly revealed words. They were legible, but barely. The writing was messy, clearly written in haste.

“Find Swift quick,” he read aloud, “get to vineyard cellars. Guards are closing doors. Hurry.”

Watchful Eye looked from the little letter to his group, all of whose eyes were fixed on him.

“There’s no signature I’m afraid. Whoever wrote that, did it in a hurry.”

“And never got to send it,” said Dawn Trotter.

“Well that explains all the cylinders in the other room, doesn’t it?” asked Watch, turning to look back through the door behind them.

“How’s that?” asked Star Duster.

“A lot of ponies must have been trying to get messages out at once. As many as they could, as fast as they could, judging by the number of these things littering the floor.”

“So that’s why all the cages are open,” said Dawn. “All the birds were out when whatever was happening got here.”

“These ponies,” said Sable shield, her eyes locked on the message pinned beneath her hooves, “the one writing these, sending them out on the birds. That is a lot of cages, a lot of birds. A lot of little messages to write.”

“Sure was,” nodded Star Duster, who turned his eyes to the cages.

“And whatever happened here happened quick,” continued Sable. “They must have been here sending out messages until the end. They stayed at their posts.”

Watchful Eye looked at Sable Shield, pondering her words. Slowly he turned, facing the wall of cages opposite the table.

“That they did. Guard ponies or not, they had a duty to do, and they did it. More than that, they may have given us our first real clue as to what happened here.” Watch spun around, locking his eyes on the message in Sable’s hooves.

“It said the guards were shutting the doors to the ‘vineyard cellars’. If the guards were there, chances are some of the other ponies were too.”

“This sounds a scary amount like the build to a last stand,” said Dawn Trotter

Watchful Eye nodded slowly. “It may very well be, Dawn. There was a vineyard marked on Captain Winter’s map. Sounds like we may know where we need to go.”

His three companions nodded in unison.

“Let’s get this back to the captain,” said Watch, moving back towards the door.

“Sarge,” said Dawn Trotter, “aren’t we going to have a look in that last room before we go?”

Watch turned, looking to the doorway on the far side. The room beyond seemed to be mostly in ruins, choked with fallen stones, plaster, and all the other detritus associated with a building collapse. It wasn’t completely filled however, and some empty space could be seen amidst the rubble.

“It seems pretty wrecked Dawn, I doubt there’s anything to find in there.”

Dawn Trotter dropped to his belly, his eyes focused on something within the other room. “Its not whats in that room sarge, it’s what past it. I think there’s a path through all that junk, to whatever is beyond it. It just seems pretty tight.”

Watchful Eye froze. “You mean crawl through that?” The sergeant stepped back hastily, not liking this suggestion in the slightest.

“Yeah! At least to see what’s past it, I think its another room. The middle seems to get pretty close though. A smaller pony wouldn’t have any trouble getting in I bet.”

In unison, Star Duster and Dawn Trotter turned slowly to face Sable Shield.

“Of course,” she said, her eyes narrowed in annoyance. The mare moved towards the door in question.

“Sable, you don’t have to go there,” said Watch.

She paused, turning to face the sergeant. “Nah it’s fine, I’ve squeezed through worse.” She cocked her head. “Uh, sarge are you ok? I’m the one going in there but you look like you’re about to pass out.”

“No no, I’m fine” he assured her. “If you’re sure, just get in and out as quick as you can.”

Sable nodded, then turned back to the door. She dropped low, close to her belly, and moving slowly through, disappeared into the next room.

A few minutes passed, with Watchful Eye pacing nervously at the doorway. He was not a fan of confined spaces. Underground? With enough space, no sweat. Low ceiling? That’s ok too. Narrow corridors? Totally manageable. But when the walls and ceiling are touching you at the same time, when the whole room seems like it wants to squeeze the life out of you? That was a definite nope. It’s not something he could really deal with, and he didn’t like the idea of sending one of his friends to do it either.

“You doing ok in there?” he called through the door. No response.

“Sable Shield?” he called again. Still no response.

“SABLE?” he yelled, beginning to trot in place.

“Yeah, I’m here.” came the answer, sounding somewhat distant.

Watchful Eye stopped, dropping low to get his head more on her level. “Everything okay?” he yelled to her.

“Yeah, but you guys need to see this.” she yelled back.

Watch paused. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah!”

“Can’t you just describe it?” Watch yelled again, his voice sounding suspiciously like a whine.

“No sarge. I think this might be important. I pushed some stuff out of the way. It’s a little tight, but you guys should be able to get through.”

Watch dropped to his belly, his reddish hued tail going limp in defeat. His ears pinned back against his head and his pink eyes moved to one side, staring at nothing. He took a deep breath. He heard hooves to his left.

“I can shove you through if you want,” said Star Duster.

Watch didn’t even need to look at the other stallion to know that he was wearing that annoying smirk of his. He could feel it.

“And I could go first and pull!” added Dawn Trotter.

Watch turned his head and glared at the pair. He looked between the teal eyes of Star Duster, and Dawn Trotter’s blue. He couldn’t help but think, for a fleeting moment, how much better they would look in black. He returned his attention to the door.

“Let’s go,” he said, crawling slowly through the opening.

One harrowing crawl and near panic inducing squeeze later, Watchful Eye made it to Sable Shield. The mare sat in a void, an area of free space just beyond the mostly ruined room they had just passed through, motioning at the floor beyond her. Coming up to her position, he paused, and saw what had caught her attention.

A large, jagged, rectangular hole in the floor about the size of four ponies, was tucked against the wall. A few steps could be seen descending from its edge.

“A stairway!” said Watch.

“What’s left of one anyway,” said Sable. “The room down there is pretty dark too, I think it’s sealed up tight. Its hard to see very far across it.”

“You can thank those awful face statues for that,” said Watch, inching close to the hole for a better look.

Sable shield had been correct. The area of the room close enough to be seen in detail was in relatively good shape. While there was debris scattered across the floor that he could see, none of it was the heavy stone chunks that had choked the floors of most of the previous rooms they had seen.

“Well private, seems you’re right. We need to get down there.”

With that, Watchful Eye made his way down the stairs. With Sable Shield and the others following close at his tail, he moved slowly into the darkened room. Cautiously, the bat ponies fanned out, and details started to become clear. Though weakened by the effects of the strange alien statues, their night sight still functioned, and after a few minutes of careful exploration, the room started to reveal itself.

It was a fairly large rectangular space. Along one of the longer walls, a row of windows, through which only debris could be seen. On the far end of that wall was a large set of double doors. In between the windows were rectangular shapes, tattered pieces of paper clinging to most. To Watchful Eye, they looked like bulletin boards, or what remained of them. Across the room, near to the other longer wall, was a long counter, running the entire length of the room.

“Looks like some kind of reception area,” said Watch.

“Yeah,“ said Dawn Trotter. “Probably the main entrance, going by the windows and doors.”

“How did it not get completely squashed?” asked Star Duster, walking over to one of the nearby windows. He tapped a pane of intact glass, giving the rubble on the other side a suspicious glare.

“Looks like the top of the building fell off and landed right on the doorstep,” said Sable Shield, joining him at the window.

“I think that is exactly what happened,” added Watch, walking over to the counter on the opposite side. “The floors above toppled over and landed in front of the place, rather than collapsing into it.”

“Sounds like somepony came by and just knocked its top off,” sad Star.

“Yeah, about that,” said Dawn Trotter, “something isn’t right about all this.”

“A lot isn’t right about all this,” said Star Duster.

“Well, yeah,” said Dawn Trotter. “Sable said the ponies here stayed till the end, but if they did, why haven’t we found any of them? There had to be a lot of ponies in this building trying to send messages and stuff, and I mean, look at this place.”

He sat down, gesturing all about him with his forehooves. “I don’t think everypony could have gotten out of here. There is so much junk, we should have found somepony in here. Or, you know, part of somepony.”

Star Duster turned from the window, facing Dawn. “That’s a creepy, but good, point. It was the same with those houses on the road. Nopony anywhere. Not a trace.”


“Whoa!” said Watchful Eye. “Hold those thoughts you three, you need to see this.”

The sergeant was on his hind legs, his forehooves resting on the counter top. His neck was stretched clear over the top of it, his head pressed as closely to the floor as it could manage. His tail twitched excitedly as his companions approached, and he began to examine his find in detail.

Before the sergeant, on the floor where it had seemingly fallen, was a great crest. Two alicorns, one wrought of a bluish silver and the other of gold, circled a massive field of purple crystal. Within the crystal were set a great many smaller gemstones, which appeared to be diamonds. Amidst these smaller gems, and at their center, were set a large sun and moon.

“Holy horseapples,” said Star Duster, who peered over the countertop next to Watch. The others quickly joined him.

Sable Shield gasped, but said nothing.

“What Star said,” added Dawn Trotter.

“This thing is incredible,” said Watch, who was stretching precariously over the counter to get a better look.

“You have no idea,” said Sable Shield.

“Huh?”

“Do you have any idea what that is?” asked Sable, pushing her way onto the counter top. She waved a hoof at the crest.

Watch cocked an eyebrow. “Of course I do. We all do. It’s the Great Crest of Equestria. I’ve just never seen one like that.”

Not that!” said Sable, stamping a hoof. “That.” She waved her hoof again, indicating the left side of the crest.

“The silver alicorn?”

“Yes! Well, no, just..” Sable hopped down behind the counter, moving closer to the fallen crest. “This isn’t silver. Or at least, not normal silver. This is freaking Moonsilver. “

“No way,” said Star Duster, leaping over the counter. He moved in close to the crest, low to the ground, displaying a sort of reverent caution that Watch had never seen from the stallion before.

“Wait,” said Watch. “Are you saying that thing was made by-”

“The Princesses,” said Dawn Trotter, from behind the group. “I know what it is.”

Three heads popped up from behind the counter, their eyes locked on Dawn.

“Voice mentioned it on the road on the way in. It’s the town’s official seal thing. Celestia and Luna brought it as a gift when they came to see the colony.”

“And they made it themselves.” said Sable Shield. “Moonsilver is beyond rare. It’s not natural, and nopony can make it anymore. It only ever came from one place, one pony, and she’s gone now.”

“Princess Luna,” said Star Duster.

“Yeah,” nodded Sable. All the Moonsilver that exists, everywhere, was made by Luna herself. And that is a huge chunk of it. I mean..” Sable seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Even if you ripped off the gems, the gold, everything else. Just that Moonsilver… Do you have any idea how valuable this thing is?”

“Yet here it is, tarnishing on the floor of a ruined building,” said Watchful Eye.

Sable turned back to the fallen crest. “Who the hay attacks a town, and leaves the most valuable thing in the whole place behind?”

******

“Anything in that one, Corporal?” yelled Winter Sky.

“No, just more of the same,” replied Rapid Advance.

The captain’s group, having made its way into the ruined garrison proper, now found itself searching what was once its stable-barracks. Winter Sky knew it should be of a similar design to what they knew back home in the Moon Tower, though he found himself a bit surprised at how much smaller it was. A familiar narrow passage was flanked on either side by individual stalls, each of which was once home to a pair of Royal Guard ponies. So far, Team Winter’s search of the stalls had yielded little in the way of answers; half-rotted mattresses and a few discarded bits of Solar Guard barding could be found, as well as the personal belongings of the stall inhabitants- most of which was scattered amongst the debris or still contained within their hoof lockers.

Winter Sky found himself on his haunches, staring at one such locker. It was still sealed, its latch on tight, exactly as it’s owner had left it. He hesitated a moment, thinking about the pony that may have owned it. On any normal night, an officer about to rifle through one’s hoof locker would be a cause for alarm. It was the only truly personal space a guardspony had when in stable, and thus was home to that particular pony’s most personal belongings. Not that any of that was a concern now. The owner of this locker, whoever he or she was, was eight decades gone.

He popped the latch, gently flipping it open. Tattered paper. The remains of letters could be seen resting atop a small stack of effects. Carefully removing the largest piece he could, he placed it on the ground beside the locker and began to read.

...ker! Way cuter than that, even. The whole night was amazing, especially dinner on the hill. You should see the sky here at night, Diz. It’s so dark, so clear, so different. I’ll have to tell you all about that too when I get home. Just a month to go, and you will fin-”

Winter reached the end of the fragment. He closed his eyes, sighing as he moved the fragment aside. Returning his attention to the locker, he removed the remaining letter fragments, setting them aside in a pile. Tipping out the locker’s remaining contents on the floor, he began to inspect them. A pair of colored military tailbands, similar to the one he himself now wore. A small drawstring pouch, empty. A small pin. There was an inscription on the front, small and worn. It was hard to make out with his hindered vision.

Reaching back to one of his saddlebags, he nosed under its flap, and after a bit of prodding withdrew a small object. It was a white, circular stone, which was set within a thin, though ornate, metal rectangle. A small tab protruded on the top of the rectangle, which the captain quickly pressed. There was a brief flash of light from the face of the rectangle. Magical characters glowed dimly for an instant, before fading to darkness. The stone in the center began to glow.

He placed the Sunstone on the floor near the contents of the locker, and took the pin between his forehooves. The glow of the Sunstone, even diminished in strength, lit the interior of the small stall brightly, and to the eyes of a bat pony, even ones so hindered as Winter Sky’s at that moment, the room seemed as if it was lit by the sun itself. He could now read what was inscribed on the little metal pin.

Unbridled

“Hmmm,” mused Winter Sky. He knew that word, or rather, why that word would appear inscribed on a pin worn by a guardspony, or at least he used to. The captain gently rapped his head with a hoof, trying to remember. It had something to do with a historical event, something from even before the colony was founded. He just couldn’t place it. After a moment of thought, the captain placed the pin in his saddlebag. Deactivating the Sunstone, he returned it as well. Though useful, the spell powering the device had a limited duration, and he didn’t want to squander it. Returning the remaining locker contents, he relatched it, taking one last look around the tiny room before stepping back into the corridor.

“Anything of use?” asked Rapid Advance, who was standing in the narrow corridor to the captain’s left.

“No, it’s just like the others,” said Winter Sky, “seems everypony managed to get on-line at least, judging by what all is here. And what isn’t.”

“Well,” said Distant Voice, emerging from a stall door further down the corridor, “that’s a whole bunch of nothing in here too. Unless you like eighty year old stinky mattress. There’s a bunch of that.”

Winter turned, heading towards Distant Voice with Rapid Advance in tow.

“Nothing on our ends either, Voice,” said the captain, moving past the little stallion. He motioned with his head for the group to follow. “Where’s Far Out?”

“In here!” shouted the mare, from somewhere beyond the doorway at the end of the corridor.

“Far went to look in the next room,” said Voice.

“Well, hopefully she has more luck than we did,” said Rapid Advance.

“Indeed,” said Winter Sky, “though I did stumble a curious little thing in one of the lockers. A small pin, with an inscription reading ‘Unbridled’”.

“Ooh, neat.” said Distant Voice.

Winter Sky craned his neck around to look at the private. “You know the meaning, private? It seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.”

Distant Voice nodded. “Yeah, though why you would find one here of all places is kind of confusing. It’s sort of like an unofficial medal. You remember learning about the time Equestria was conquered, for like a week?”

Rapid Advance scoffed. “Conquered? Equestria was never conquered.”

“Yes it was!” said Voice.

Winter Sky blinked. “Ah, that’s it, of course.”

“What?” said Rapid, whos confused eyes darted between the other two stallions.

“The Storm King invasion, like 100 years ago,” said Voice. “Unbridled was what the guardsponies that managed to avoid getting caught called themselves.“

“Yes, I remember now,” said Winter Sky. They harassed the invaders and such, made it difficult for them to take ponies outside of the capital.

“Yep. Those guys never gave up, never surrendered, and were never taken prisoner.” Distant Voice hopped over a piece of debris and continued walking. “They were still fighting when Princess Twilight blew up the Storm King. That pin would have belonged to one of them, though the timeline doesn’t make much sense.”

“That is not a conquest,” said Rapid Advance. “They just raided the place for a week until we threw them out. That hardly counts.”

“They captured the capital Rapid, it totally counts. They were just awful at everything else,” said Voice.

“What do you mean about the timeline not making sense, private?” asked Winter Sky.

“Oh. It’s just that, well that stuff all happened 100 years ago or so, but New Neighton vanished like eighty-six years ago right? So that guard pony was still enlisted, fifteen years later? I mean, shouldn’t he be an officer or retired or something?

“Probably given to this particular pony by a parent then. Seems like something a family could be proud of,” said Winter Sky, nodding as he walked.

The trio made it to the door, and lead by the captain, moved into the next room. Private Far Out was ahead, standing in the center of the large, rounded space. Winter Sky recognized it as the main floor of the central section section of the garrison. Around the perimeter of the room could be seen a series of doors, one of which they had just come through. To the right, a larger set of doors, which clearly lead to the main entrance of the structure. They were open inwards, but blocked by vegetation and debris. To the left, directly across from the entrance doors, was another large, but shorter set of doors. Scattered about the interior wall were several smaller pony sized doors leading to small rooms, and to the tower visible from the exterior. Several large holes in the upper walls let in a fair amount of moonlight, casting the room in an eerie glow.

“Well then, where to look?” asked Rapid Advance, seemingly to himself.

“We need to search the garrison commander’s office,” said Winter Sky, taking in the scene around him, “but keep your eyes open for anything that stands out.”

“What about you Far, you find anything.” asked Distant Voice, walking over to the mare.

“Uhh, yeah. Lots of things. Something bad happened in here, I think.” she said, her eyes on something above them.

“What are you looking at?” asked Distant Voice, stopping by her side.

“Those marks up there, on the ceiling,” said the mare.

Distant Voice squinted his eyes, looking up. “The dark spots?”

“Yeah. There are lots of them in here.”

“They look like spell burns,” said Winter Sky, appearing beside the pair. His eyes moved slowly between the spots in question. To him, they seemed very much like the traces left behind when a powerful spell blast strikes something unyielding. In this case, stone. Darkened pits, with black marks radiating in all directions like some kind of haphazard sunburst. There was something else.

“Though that would be odd. It takes a rather powerful unicorn to cast a spell that can scorch stone, and few of those happen to be trained in offensive magic. Even fewer of those would be found in a Solar Guard garrison like this, if any.”

“There’s a bunch of them too,” added Distant Voice. “A few on the ceiling, and uh, a bunch over there on the far side by the looks of it.”

Winter Sky narrowed his eyes, going over the evidence in his head. He didn’t like the picture that was starting to form.

“They are on the wrong side,” he said, tapping his muzzle with a forehoof.

“Huh?” said Far Out.

Distant Voice turned to face the captain with an inquisitive look.

“To be made by the garrison ponies, I mean,” the captain continued. “Well, unless they were trying to recapture the place. Those marks are mostly clustered around the walls on the far side from the entrance back there. Whatever made them, it was coming in. Through the front door, and through the way we just came, it would seem.”

“So there was a fight here,” nodded Distant Voice.

“That there was,” said Rapid Advance, somewhere behind the trio. “I think you all need to see this.”

Winter Sky turned, quickly finding Rapid Advance across the room, standing by the wall near one of the small doors. He trotted over to the corporal, Voice and Far Out in tow.

Rapid Advance nodded, then gestured at the floor with a forehoof. “See for yourself.”

The corporal pointed to a large, dark spot on the floor immediately in front of him. Several long, broken streaks extended away from it, towards the center of the room. A few old hoofprints could be seen in the stain, as could many more marks that the captain could not place at all, some of which contained a strange patterning.

Distant Voice shifted uncomfortably. “Uhh, is that-”

“Blood, yes,” said Rapid Advance. “A great deal of it, too. Pony blood, I think. It’s about the right color for the age, and well, it’s on the side of the building they would have been defending. The armory is right through the door there I think. Also, over by the entrance, there are a few spent crossbow bolts, definitely Solar Guard.”

Winter Sky nodded again. “And those?” he pointed at the trails leading away from the stain,“drag marks?”

“I figure they were just stacking corpses, sir.” said Rapid.

“Well, that is just horribOH, what’s that?” said Far Out, pushing past the stallions. She headed past the bloody stain, and straight to the wall a bit to the side of it.

“Looks like she found something!’ said Voice, scurrying after her.

“Oh wow,” said Far Out, scooping something into her hooves.

Winter Sky couldn’t see what she had from his vantage point. He sighed loudly, starting to trot over. So much for being careful.

“What is it, private?” he asked, glad the mare hadn’t fallen over dead.

“Noo idea, but it’s neat, look!” she turned, a strange object cradled in her forehooves.

She held it out for all to see. It was a rectangular box or case, narrow and rounded on the corners, looking a bit like something that should hold a pair of eyeglasses or the like. It was made of something the captain could not identify; a light grey, silvery material that did not appear to be metal at all. Far Out tapped it with a hoof, as if reading his mind.

Definitely not metal.

“What the hay is that?” Asked Distant Voice, pushing his face right up to the mysterious object.

“A mystery box,” said Far Out, angling it so the little stallion could get a better look.

“There are more of them here, against the wall,” said Rapid Advance, who was busy examining the ground near to where Far Out had found it.

“Wait a sec,” said Distant Voice, squinting his eyes. “Far, can I borrow that?”

Far Out paused, giving him a suspicious look. Hesitantly, she offered the object over.

“Thanks, I’ll give it back,” said Voice. “Look though! It’s faint, but there is something on it.” He took a deep breath, blowing the dust from the object. He rubbed it against his muzzle, then examined it again.”

“Yeah, see, there is some kind of symbol or something. Looks like...” Voice squinted even harder, cocking his head. He stared intently at the object for a moment. “It looks like a snake and a line or something? And a triangle.”

Winter Sky walked up behind the little bat stallion, taking a close look at the object himself. Voice was right. The symbol was there, and did seem to depict a snake of some variety, coiling around a vertical line. The image was framed within a triangle, forming some kind of logo or emblem.

“That seems eerily familiar,” said Winter Sky.

“I don’t see how,” said Distant Voice, “pretty sure that thing was made by-”

“Aliens.” nodded Far Out, who quickly snatched back the object from a startled Distant Voice.

“This one is open,” said Rapid Advance, approaching the group with one of the objects dangling from his mouth. It hung open on a hinge, and flapped like some sort of strange silvery butterfly as he walked. He dropped it on the floor before the group.

“There’s nothing in it,” he continued, “but that little latching mechanism… I don’t see how anypony is supposed to get these things open. It’s tiny.”

The captain looked at the peculiar object, flipping it over with a hoof. It was indeed empty, and the mechanism mentioned by Rapid was barely visible at all. Some kind of tiny, sliding button near where the two halves joined. He still couldn’t shake the feeling he had seen the symbol on the object, or something like it, before. He knew that should be impossible though, as these things were clearly not made by the ponies of the garrison, or anypony else for that matter. At least, not by any pony that actually wanted to work them.

“Whatever was in them must have been used, then the boxes discarded,” said Rapid Advance. “We should take one back with us.”

“Don’t worry, private Klepto here already has three in her bag,” said Distant Voice, motioning with his head to the mare beside him. She was on her haunches, her teeth clamped down on the strap to one of her saddle bags. She was frozen in mid pull, meeting the gaze of the three stallions whose attention she had suddenly found herself the focus of.

Winter Sky brought a hoof to his forehead. “Of course she does.”

The captain took a deep breath. “Very well, moving on. I want to check out those larger doors across from the entrance before we head up to the garrison commander’s office.”

The assembled bat ponies nodded, following him across the open space to the larger doors beyond. They were open slightly, the room beyond in darkness. More of the dark marks surrounded them. Distant Voice moved close to inspect one.

“These really do look like spell hits,” said Distant Voice. “Strong ones too, like Bright Bolts or something.”

“I thought so too,” said Winter Sky, “but there are just too many of them. No garrison has that many powerful unicorn ponies, unless it’s Twilight Guard. And they didn’t exist at the time.”

“More than that,” said Rapid Advance, moving up beside Voice and placing his hoof on the mark, “whoever it was throwing the spells, how did any of them do it with those things with the faces making magic nigh unusable?”

“That...is a good question,” said Winter Sky.

“Maybe it’s not magic?” asked Far Out. “Maybe it just looks like it?”

“And leaves holes like it,” added Distant Voice.

“The more I see, the more disturbing this whole thing seems,” said Winter Sky, moving past the three ponies and into the darkened room beyond. Pausing, he withdrew his Sunstone again, and a faint light began to fill the room.

“That stone seems to be struggling,” said Rapid, coming into the room behind the captain.

“It is, worse than in the stables too,” said the captain. “We must be closer to one of tho-”

“Oh.”

Winter Sky froze, his eyes catching a familiar shape in the dim light cast by the Sunstone. Directly ahead of him, towards the back of the room, sat another small Star Thrower. Unlike the two from earlier, this one looked to be completely intact. Faded bronze inlays could be seen covering a dark, but sturdy wooden frame. The large bow, minus it’s drawstring, sat slightly elevated in storage position. Between the two protruding wooden shafts at the front of the machine, hung a perfectly intact, expertly stowed set of harnessing tack.

“Oh wow!” said Distant Voice, galloping across the room towards the weapon. At the last moment, he flapped his wings and dropped, skidding on his haunches to its side.

“Well then, there’s our missing Star Thrower,” said Rapid Advance, approaching the weapon in a much more casual manner.

“So it appears,” said the captain, moving towards the pair. Far Out trotted along behind. “A Solar Guard Star Thrower at that. They don’t make them in that livery anymore.”

“I know, right!” said Distant Voice, eagerly examining the device. “They haven’t made them like this since the big War. The Sunburn patrol doesn’t really do Star Throwers anymore, they are all about cannons and mortars and catapults and other lobby things.”

Winter Sky ran his eyes over the weapon. Distant Voice was right of course. It was an antique. Yet another ghost from the past.

“Ooh, it even has the rising sun plate on the front,” Voice added.

“This entire room is in strangely good shape,” said Rapid Advance. “Seems having no windows and only one way in kept things somewhat tidy.”

“Oh hey, check this out!” said Far Out, a bit behind the trio.

Turning about, the captain looked to what she’d found. The mare was sitting before a large wooden box, one of several, the contents of which she was now digging through. Her head had disappeared entirely into the box as she struggled with something within. With difficulty, she slowly withdrew a coil of what looked to be rope, spitting it onto the floor.

“There are a couple of these in here, and some little metal hook things.” she said.

“Spare Drawstrings,” nodded Winter Sky. “I suppose it makes sense there would be some in here. This was probably where they worked on all three of the pieces.”

“Guess it explains why this one wasn’t out there with the others,” said Distant Voice. “Replacing those things is super annoying, it takes like four ponies. They probably couldn’t get it done when all the… whatever it was started happening, so they only used the two outside.”

“Four ponies? Hardly,” scoffed Rapid Advance. “It’s tough, but you only really need two ponies that know what they are doing. Or one pony, if he’s strong enough and knows what he’s doing.” Rapid grinned.

“Horseapples,” said Distant Voice. “You’re strong Rapid, but not that strong. There’s no way you could do that by yourself.”

“I already have, ye of little height. Not on this Star Thrower of course, but another.”

Distant Voice shook his head. “No way I’m believing that.”

Winter Sky watched the exchange, grinning slightly to himself. Rapid Advance was a strong pony, one of the biggest he’d ever seen, and certainly the largest in the Lunar Guard. This though, this was something even he had trouble believing.

“That’s quite a boast, Corporal. Care to put it to the test?” asked the Captain.

“Always,” grinned Rapid. Far Out, would you tyaAGGH” he staggered backwards as a large coil of drawstring struck him squarely in the face.

“OH GOSH RAPID I’m sorry!” yelled Far Out from her seat at the box.

Rapid Advanced snorted, shaking his head, before picking up the coil between his teeth. He moved towards the rear of the Star Thrower.

The armored form of the captain moved in beside him, a grin still tracing his muzzle.

“Alright Ponysseus. String your bow.”

Rapid’s nostrils flared as he nodded his head. Uncoiling the drawstring, he let one end fall, which he then pinned to one of the mechanisms of the Star Thrower with a hoof. Straddling the machine, he maneuvered the free end around the other side of the mechanism, and moving between hooves and mouth, managed to get it threaded through four different points, before pulling the free end of the string tight. Holding the small free portion in his mouth, he managed to contort himself in one of the most painful looking ways the captain could remember seeing a pony do intentionally, and with a loud snort, began to slowly tension the weapon.

Holding steady on the bit of drawstring in his mouth, and with great strain, the immense stallion continued to push the two tensioning mechanisms with his forehooves. His leathery wings spread wide, resting against the bow arms of the device, steadying the pony as he worked. Slowly the mechanisms turned, emitting a steady series of high pitched clicks as Rapid exerted all his strength against them. Click. Click. Click. His eyes closed as he began to struggle, the clicks coming at a slower pace. He nickered to himself, and his entire body began to shake.

Just as Winter Sky was about to say something, the Star Thrower emitted a loud, deep CLACK and the position of its arms changed slightly. Rapid Advance slumped against the machine, breathing heavily. His forehooves hung limp over each side, but his wings continued to steady him. His three companions, all of which had formed a small circle around him as he worked, stood with mouths agape.

“See, you little unbeliever,” said Rapid, opening an eye and fixing it on Distant Voice. You just need one pony.”

Distant Voice continued to stare. It took him a moment before he could form a response. “You aren’t a pony, Rapid. You’re a beast!”

“And how!” said Far Out.

Winter Sky blinked. His eyes darted between the exhausted form of the corporal on the Star Thrower, and the weapon itself.

“Uh.”

“Ha!” exclaimed Distant Voice, whirling to face the captain. He waved a forehoof in his direction. “You even made captain Winter sound like a normal pony for a second! That’s even better than the string thing!”

The captain narrowed his eyes, locking them on Distant Voice. The little pony stepped back slightly, but continued to grin. A soft giggle could be heard from behind.

Winter rolled his eyes, clearing his throat as he focused on the Star Thrower. “Ahem. Impressive work corporal,” he said, trying his best to avoid looking at the other two ponies. “Does that mean it’s functional now?”

Rapid Advance sat up, slowly removing himself from the top of the weapon. “Sure is. Well, if we had anything to shoot it would be. The string is in good shape, considering how old it is. They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“Oh! Oh!” said Far Out, darting back to the boxes. She stuck her head into one that rested directly behind the box from which they recovered the coil of drawstring.

“No pwobehm, luh heer,” she mumbled, withdrawing her head from the box. She turned, trotting to the front of the group with something large and pointy in her mouth.

It took the captain but a moment to recognize it. A Star Thrower bolt.

Far Out spit the bolt out on the floor in front of the weapon. “There’s like, lots and lots of those in boxes back there!”

“Oh neat,” said Distant Voice, who had pushed his face to within an inch of the bolt, and was examining it in what was probably too much detail. “Enchantment is long dead though. Just a big crossbow bolt now.”

“That’s right,” said Winter Sky, “the long term ammunition enchantments didn’t show up until decades later. These things required unicorns on the weapon crew to reset the enchantments as they were loaded.”

“No unicorn, no boom!” added Far Out, who had returned to rifling through the boxes.

“Still, boom or no, a crossbow bolt of that size does quite a bit of damage,” said Rapid Advance. “And it’s all mine.”

Yours?” said Distant Voice. “How is it yours, it’s a big Solar Guard artillery cart thing!”

“It was abandoned, I fixed it, it’s mine.” said Rapid Advance, patting the weapon on the side.

Winter Sky rolled his eyes again, then returned his attention to the now functional weapon. “I’m going to make a note so that whoever is sent here after us gets this piece back to Equestria. For now though, we need to move on. We don’t have much time before we need to meet back up with Watch and his team. We are going to check out the tower. CO’s office should be on the second level. Hopefully.”

The bat ponies nodded, and with Winter Sky in the lead, headed out of the room. A quick check of the adjoined tower’s first level yielded nothing of note, and the group ascended the stairs leading to the second level. Here the signs of battle were far more apparent; more burn marks could be seen on nearly every surface, and dark staining on the worn stairs carried an unspoken, grisly implication. Entering the second level, the group came upon the door to garrison commander’s office. Or rather, where the door should have been. It was gone, and the entrance stood open.

Stepping into the room, Winter Sky slowly took in the scene. Scattered about the entry interior was a large and strangely concentrated pile of debris. It looked as if every furnishing and large object not nailed down had been moved to one spot in front of the door, then pushed outwards. The remains of a barricade, the captain surmised. Wooden splinters could be seen mixed in with the debris, and upon one a set of door hinges. A large desk, turned on its side, caught his attention. It was covered in more of the ‘spell burns’, and pushed a bit to the side of the entryway. The marks looked to be concentrated entirely on one side, and some of them passed clear through the heavy desk. Behind him, he could hear his team moving into the room.

On the far left side of the room was a large map affixed to the wall. It was something sturdier than simple paper, taking the form of some kind of board. He continued searching the room with his eyes, seeking something specific. On the far wall, a lone window, wide open. Then his right, nestled in the far corner, his eyes fell upon the object of his search. A recessed box, set flush into the wall. The commander’s strongbox. Alarmingly, it seemed ajar.

Winter Sky hopped over the nearby debris, trotting towards the box.

“Looks like they tried to barricade the door,” said Rapid Advance.

“Tried,” said Distant Voice, who the captain could hear stumbling over the debris.

Arriving at the strongbox, the captain could see it was indeed open. He pushed the door aside with a forehoof, revealing the contents within. Nothing. Whatever it had once contained was gone.

“Horseapples,” said Winter Sky

The room went quiet.

Turning, Winter Sky could see the eyes of his team on him. He rubbed a foreleg awkwardly. It was rare that his thoughts managed to escape his mind before he had carefully shaped them into something professional. Something worthy of a wise, collected, and respectable Lunar Guard captain.Unfortunately, this was one of those times.

“Ahem. What I meant to say is that the strongbox is empty. No Garrison log, no orders, no anything that may tell us what was going on just before all this started.” he cleared his throat.

Distant Voice grinned, but said nothing. He resumed digging through the pile of debris near the door. Rapid Advance turned away, examining the large map on the opposite side of the room. Far Out joined him.

Winter Sky pushed the door of the empty strongbox closed. He walked to the window ahead, taking in the view. It was probably rather nice, before the place was an overgrown ruin. The river would be visible off to the right, and the large hill to the north they saw coming in was still visible ahead. He sighed. The garrison log was his big hope as far as potential clues went, and it was gone. He’d figured knowing what the guard was doing just before the apparent attack could provide some insight into the nature of it. He thought back, trying to think of any other locations within the town that useful records may have been kept. Town Hall was the only other location that came to mind, and Watch was currently searching it.

The Captain closed his eyes and hung his head. It seemed there would be no swift answers. Opening his eyes, he paused. A faint outline could be seen in the corner of the window sil- one in the shape of a hoof. Examining it closely, the captain could see it was another dark stain, a bloody hoof print. A bit more on the side of the sil seemed to lead up, and slowly, he let his eyes follow. Another hoofmark was visible above, on the wall near the latching mechanism for the window. A window that he could now see had been opened, rather than shattered. His eyes moved between the intact glass of the open window, and the hoofprint on the sil.

“Somepony went out the window,” said Winter Sky.

“Can’t say I blame them,” said Distant Voice

“You should take a look at this map, captain,” said Rapid Advance. The big pony craned his neck around to face him, and gestured him over.

Winter Sky nodded and joined him at the map. It was large, covering fully half the wall. On various spots of the map, things were written, times, patrol routes, all common things to see in garrison planning.

“What’s with the big question mark?” asked Distant Voice, joining the pair at the map.

Winter scanned the map, finding the spot the private was talking about. At the northwest edge, a large mountain range, the same one visible on his own map. Drawn over it was a large question mark, which was circled. Below that, the printed name of the mountains themselves.

“Mountains of Mystery,” the captain read.

“How mysterious,” said Distant Voice

“Way.” added Far Out, who had now joined the trio as well.

Winter Sky nosed into his saddlebag, withdrawing his own map. This large one was far more detailed, and contained more identified features than his own. He dropped to his haunches, and began to scribble in the details.

“Petal’s Mill,” said Rapid Advance, pointing at a feature on the map. “I do believe that is where we encountered that thing with the face.”

You mean you do believe that’s the name of the building you dropped on top of that thing with the face,” grinned Distant Voice.

Rapid Advanced nickered, with a not-so-subtle hint of pride.

“Oooh, look at that one, the big hill. ‘Pink Sun’. That sounds so pretty,” said Far Out.

“That’s not the hill Far,” said Distant Voice, “I think that’s the name of the stuff on it, those buildings. Look underneath, it’s called Sunrise Hill.”

”Oh. Well hey, that sounds pretty too! Maybe the sunrise is pink?”

“Aren’t all sunrises pink?”

“Yeah but not like, space pink.” nodded Far Out.

Winter Sky cocked an eyebrow, looking up at the large map to see what the two were talking about. Sunrise Hill was on his own map, but nothing named Pink Sun. He checked his own map again. On the Sunrise Hill feature was another word: Vineyard

“Hmm. My map has the ‘Pink Sun’ feature described as ‘Vineyard.’

“Pink Sun is probably the proper name of it then,” said Rapid Advance.

“That would make the most sense,” nodded Winter Sky. He put away his map, happy with the new additions.

“At least we found this,” said Rapid Advance, gesturing at the map, “even if what you were really looking for wasn’t here. This is worth something.”

“It is,” said the captain, who turned to face the rest of the room. He stared at the remains of the barricade.

“What is it?” asked Rapid Advance.

“Why the barricade?” asked Winter Sky, gesturing to the debris on the floor. “It doesn’t take any time to open a window and take wing. Why waste time stalling at the door when they could just go out the window and put as much distance between them and here as they possibly could?”

“They probably weren’t all pegasi,” said Rapid Advance.

“How awful would that be,” said Distant Voice. The little pony walked up, observing the debris pile alongside the captain. “Imagine being one of the ground-bound ponies, stuck in a room, high up, the only way out a window and a fall that would probably break a leg.”

“I think being one of the ponies with wings, that had to leave them behind, that would almost be worse,” added Far Out. “I don’t think I could do it, even if ordered.”

Far Out glanced nervously at the captain. “No offense, sir.”

“None taken, private.”

“I don’t think any pony would,” said Rapid Advance.”Or rather, any guard pony. If somepony went out that window and left others behind, they did so under orders, and probably for a good reason.”

Winter Sky thought about that, nodding to himself. Rapid and Far Out had a point. He had a hard time picturing any situation in which one of these ponies he now found himself leading, would leave any of their number behind. It was the same in any guard unit. Squad mates were more than just comrades, they were family. Rowdy, often obnoxious and incorrigible, but family. If anything could drive a pony to leave his or her comrades behind, it had to be important, and as Rapid said, it had to be an order. Winter Sky’s eyes moved to the empty strongbox on the other side of the room.

“They were buying time,” said Winter Sky, his eyes moving between the door and the strongbox. “To get the strongbox open.”

Rapid Advance nodded grimly, but said nothing.

“So...Where did that pony...or ponies go?” asked Far Out

“That, private, is the ten thousand bit question,” said Winter sky. “I have no idea.”

“Well then here’s a million bit question.,” said Distant Voice, “how did the flying ponies get away with the creepy faces making it impossible to fly? It feels like the bad guys dropped them everywhere. And definitely here.”

“The bad guys,” hissed Rapid Advance. “Whoever they are.”

“I was thinking about that as well, Voice,” said Winter Sky. “Perhaps they weren’t all placed at the same time? They did have enough time to get the Shattered Spear scroll off, and that required magic. They must have experienced enough of what was going on to know they had no chance before they sent it, right? Whatever the case, if we are extremely lucky, they made for Town Hall, and Watch’s group may find something. Speaking of which, we are running out of time. We need to get back and meet the good Sergeant. The sun will be up soon, and I want us somewhere safe for the day.”

The group nodded.

“What about here?” asked Distant Voice.

Winter Sky cocked his head slightly. “Here?”

“Well, not this room specifically, but this garrison. This tower especially! One level up, the roof is mostly gone but is still there in places, and we’d have a good view of everything around while staying out of sight for the most part.”

Winter Sky mulled the suggestion over. It had merit. The oppressive effect of the alien statues was present here, but he suspected it would be the same most places they went. They would be mostly out of sight in the ruins if they stayed low, and he could set a pony on watch at the tower apex while they camped.

“That’s actually a good idea, private. I think we’ll do just that.”

******