• Published 13th Dec 2011
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Far From the Tree - Rust



A mysterious pony turned to stone 1000 years ago is revived by the denizens of Ponyville.

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Leading the Pack

Author: So, somepony decided to do a sketch of our beloved hero. Looks pretty dead on.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


LEADING THE PACK

Captain Cloudhammer inhaled a deep breath of frosty morning air, attentively listening to the hustle and bustle of the train depot as work began for the day. A glimmer of sunlight cut through the steam he exhaled and reflected off his helmet, the standard blue crest now replaced with a wickedly sharp blade of enchanted steel. Punctual to the second, as most military ponies had a tendency to be, he had arrived on schedule to board the special train to Canterlot, the one that would be returning with Princess Luna as a passenger. The necessary security measures had been taken for her stay at Ponyville; a small detachment of Centurions, Luna's personal guards, had been placed under his command. After scouting out the town for potential threats, they had been assigned different sections of Ponyville to watch over as the Princess spent her days there. They had been arranged in a spread out formation across town, so that they always had at least one Centurion, or Cloudhammer himself, watching over her, and had an eye on all other parts of Ponyville at the same time.

The Captain had some animosities toward working with the Centurions. Made up of exactly one-hundred of the elite Royal Pegasi Guards, the Centurions were all volunteers and specially screened by the Princess of the Night herself. Black-armored, lizard-eyed Pegasi with bat-wings, they underwent somewhat controversial procedures during their training. Magical augmentation, brutal physical requirements, and a reputation for being utterly ruthless had earned the Centurions a reputation of notoriety. And yet, they were as loyal to their Princess as Celestia's own guards. Perhaps even more so. Cloudhammer had no personal qualms with the guards themselves, but still harbored some suspicion regarding Luna herself. He had every right to be suspicious, after all, he had been one of the first to fight against the mighty Nightmare Moon upon her return, in an attempt to rescue Princess Celestia. He'd lost. Very, very badly. Then again, being swatted out of the sky by a magical thunderbolt would do that to you.

The captain mulled this over while he waited for the train, the sleek orange behemoth called The Daylight. He chuckled a little at the irony. The Princess of the Night traveling on a vehicle named after her opposing dominion was quite a gag. Cloudhammer made a mental note to go over the security roster one final time during the trip. Celestia had given him little to work with, which was understandable, considering that Ponyville was one of the few places in Equestria not currently terrified of her sister, whom until recently had literally been the stuff of nightmares. Nonetheless, she needed protection, surrounded by friends or not. And so, he and his Centurions would watch from above, making sure that they spotted and nullified any danger before it presented a serious harm.

A soft chugging sound filled the air as a long orange and black steam engine, pulled by a team of six ponies, glided up to the depot. Cloudhammer remembered back when the trains had run on magic alone, moving along a pre-ordained route automatically and without any assistance. Addimitedly, it had been a good system, until a train collided into a rockslide that had buried the tracks. He grimaced as he remembered that particular incident - he'd been one of the guards that had helped pull the survivors from the wreckage.

The train rolled to a stop with a soft hiss, jets of steam bursting out of the pistons as the manual brakes activated. Cloudhammer watched as the team of ponies up front began to check and double check their harnesses. He squinted as he looked over the group. Large stallions for the most part, with two well-built mares in the last spots of the lineup. The leader of the team began running through a mental checklist, calling out to the group as he did. Cloudhammer permitted himself the smallest of grins as he realized that he recognized the leader, a hulking black beast of a unicorn.

He trotted over to the side of the quay and greeted dark mountain. "Mister Obsidian."

The unicorn looked up from his harness, squinting in the morning light before recognition flooded his features. "Cloudhammer! How's it going?" he said in his usual baritone, slightly inflected with a bit of an northern accent.

"Captain Cloudhammer," he reminded Obsidian. He felt himself stand even more at attention with the mere mention of his rank. "It's going decently. I'm here as an escort for the Princess. I take it you're going to be the Alpha today?"

Obsidian shook his large head, removing his harness. "Ach, not today. Miss Whistler decided to give our new recruit the lead today. I'm actually going to be the Beta."

Cloudhammer frowned. Obsidian was one of the most experienced ponies at the railyard. Who could replace him? The only pony he'd seen that could possibly qualify for the position would be... Oh. "You mean Sir Apple? He works at the railyard?"

"I wouldn't say he works, captain." The dark giant chuckled deeply. "He barely breaks a sweat, even when he's moving whole sections of trucks. Weird thing is he barely acknowledges it, as if it's normal."

The captain looked at The Daylight, slightly puzzled. "You railwayponies aren't exactly weak, you know. This whole train looks like it could weigh several tons, and yet there's only six of you on the team." His words were quite accurate. The train stretched out of the station, made up of several gleaming luxury passenger cars. To move even one car by himself would have taken a great deal of energy, despite his years of experience serving in the military. "I wish some of your kind were in the Guard. We could use ponies of your caliber," he said.

"Ach, it ain't that hard," Obsidian bashfully rubbed the back of his neck. "All we need to do is get the thing up to cruising speed, after that it pretty much rolls by itself." That wasn't entirely true. Roughly a third of the kinetic energy created by the rolling of the train's wheels went towards self propulsion, allowing for only a little relaxation on the puller's part.

Obsidian stepped up to the next spot in the line, second from the lead, and strapped himself in. The rest of the ponies in the lead all moved down one spot, except for the mare at the end, who detached herself to return to the railyard. That was usually how things worked on the puller's roster. Newest members got stuck with shunting trucks and bringing trains to the station, while the veterans like Obsidian usually got the Alpha slot, or the position at the head of the line of harnesses attached to the train. Today, however, Whistler had upset the usual pecking order. The gruff crew chief had decided to give Buck the Alpha slot while shunting Obsidian down to Beta, and on The Daylight no less; the flagship (or flagtrain) of the Ponyville Rail Yard. The black unicorn had to give it to him, though. The knight sure had a knack for shaking things up, both figuratively and literally.

Cloudhammer looked at the station clock. 8:13. The train was due to leave in two minutes. "Where's Sir Apple? We need to move out soon," he barked with some impatience.

"Right behind ya, mate."

The captain jumped a little, whirling around to see the enormous dark teal stallion leaning at ease a few step behind him, the worn out Stetson on his head cocked at a jaunty angle. Cloudhammer frowned at the fact that the bulky knight had snuck up on him, despite his years of experience granting him the heightened senses of awareness required for his job.

"G'day, captain," Buckshot said brightly.

Cloudhammer snapped to attention and struck a salute, somehow holding himself even more stiffly than before. "Sire!"

The dark teal stallion looked at him quizzically. "Err... Thanks? Righto, I'm not one for formalities, Cloudhammer. I was only a knight for a few months before I..." he paused, searching for the words. "...Before I moved here. I'd like better if ya just called me Buck. Or Buckshot." The massive stallion shrugged indifferently.

The captain relaxed, but only slightly. "As you wish... er... Buckshot. If you don't mind, the train is due to leave in a minute. Best not keep the Princess waiting."

Buck nodded and strode past Cloudhammer, hopping down from the quay and onto the tracks. He strode up to the Alpha slot to see Obsidian grinning smugly from the Beta position. The black giant chuckled deeply as the captain moved off to board the train. "Nice one, Buck. I haven't seen the captain jump that much since last Nightmare Night."

Buck chuckled softly as he strapped himself into his harness, careful to avoid tangling up his bandanna in the wooden collar. "No worries, mate. By the by, what's Nightmare Night?"

Obsidian looked at him like he'd grown an extra head. "How can you not know what that is? Equestrians have been celebrating it for centuries now."

"Uhm..." Buck's mental wheels were spinning on ice. "I... lived in the... woods?" he finished lamely. That was partially true, considering he had been in the Everfree during his incarceration.

His friend seemed to buy it, but only just. "Oh. Well, I guess I'll tell you about it on the trip then. Now, what say you get this thing moving, eh?"

The knight nodded and began the checklist for departure, one that he had been rehearsing with Whistler for when he was added to a train roster. "Righto, everypony," he barked, though not unkindly. "Daylight, sound off! Alpha, here!" he called out like a drill sergeant. Cloudhammer would have been impressed.

Obsidian rumbled out: "Beta, ready to roll."

The others sounded off. "Gamma, here."

"Delta, at the ready."

"Epsilon, good to go."

"Zeta, present."

Buck nodded. "Engineer, sound off!"

A golden mare poked her head out of the engine cockpit. "Sorry baby, gimme a second!"

Buck frowned. He didn't recognize this pony. "Engineer, who are ya?"

"I'm Honey Badger." The mare saucily winked at him. "But you can call me Honey, big boy."

"Err..." Buck ran a hoof through his shaggy mane, blushing slightly. "Honey, are you all set to go?"

"Honey Badger knows what she's doing! Kick the tires, light the fires! Let's roll 'em out, big boy!" she cried.

Buck cracked a smile at the mare. He turned to Obsidian. "I like her."

Obsidian chuckled. "Everybody likes Honey Badger, Buck. She's been working at the railyard longer than Whistler, so she knows what she's doing. Although... She can get a little, uh, odd a times."

The large knight shrugged, still smiling, and turned back around to face the tracks, eager to go. In the cabin, Honey Badger leaned back and threw some levers. The magical reactor that powered the boiler sparked to life. She slumped back into a chair and pulled the whistle twice, sending out two sharp blasts; the signal for all clear.

Buck reared up on his hind hooves. "Righto, mates! Let's get this scrap heap rollin'!" He sank back down to all fours and eagerly lurched forward, followed by the rest of the line. The train slowly began to roll out of the depot; as it took in the energy from the motion, steam began to shoot out form the smokestack and the lights inside the cars flickered on. The Daylight glided into the morning glare, sleek and glimmering in the dawn's light.

In the cabin, Honey Badger chuckled to herself as she flipped through an old issue of Playmares. "Ha. Rookies."

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

The Daylight was making good progress. Once out of the station and onto the main line, Honey had given the pullers the signal for full power. The entire train had literally jumped in the air when Buck had surged forward, dragging the crew of ponies and the train behind him as he powered on without breaking so much as a sweat.

Now the countryside whipped by him, a blur of brown,white, and blue. There was a light snow falling from scattered clouds, and the small flurries that fell smacked into him with a comforting stinging sensation. The tracks were extended far into the distance, seemingly stretching on into infinity. The rhythmic pounding of hooves on the tracks had lulled him into a state of relaxation, despite the fact that he was the one pulling most of the load. Buck enjoyed the feeling, the exertion of his muscles and the simple, yet intoxicating thrill of speed. He felt like he could just run and run forever and never look back, leaving everything else in the dust.

The line from Ponyville to Canterlot was well maintained, given its proximity to the capital, and the fact that it was part of a major trade route. The railway was laid out over Equestria in a manner similar to a river delta, spread out in the south as a series of small subdivisions and mere hoofcart tracks, which led to the breadbasket towns of the fertile southlands, and condensing into a few, large, critical main lines that ended in the great commercial cities of the north; Canterlot, Manehattan, Trotston; the list goes on. To the east, where the Samaren Desert (pronounced Sa-mare-an) began, stretching far off to Equestria's distant eastern border, a new system of railways was under construction. The recent expansion into the desert territory had produced several boomtowns, among them were Las Neighgas, Salt Lick City, and the newest addition, also the farthest east, Appleoosa. To the west of Equestria, only one major railway extended straight as an arrow to the coast, where it began running up and down the seaboard. Places like New Oatleans and Hoofston made a decent income from farming seaweed and shipping it inland, and from the trade between Equestria and Atlantis, an undersea nation populated by seaponies.

It occurred to Buck that he had missed out on quite a lot of Equestrian history. Spending some time at Twilight Sparkle's library would do him good. In fact, when he had first looked at a national map of the railway system, he could only recognize but a few of the many names and regions. So much had changed; customs, cities, ideas... Even holidays.

"So, mate, ya mind explainin' ta me what Nightmare Night is now?" he looked back at Obsidian, who was pounding along behind him.

The black unicorn turned from where he had been looking at the passing view. "Nightmare Night. Where to begin..." He focused on some point ahead on the tracks, musing as he ran. "I assume you know the story of Nightmare Moon?"

Buck nodded, turning back around to look where he was going. Princess Luna herself had explained the story to him.

The Princess of the Night, finally overcome with the jealousy she felt for her sister, who's day was rejoiced while her night was scorned, had refused to lower the moon, bringing about an eternal night to Equestria. In the process of giving in to her jealousy, she transformed into the feared Nightmare Moon, a twisted version of herself, made of shadows and spite. After a titanic struggle between the Royal Sisters, Celestia managed to defeat her younger sibling, utilizing the power of the Elements of Harmony and banishing her to the moon for one thousand years.

Obsidian continued: "Well, once a year, on Nightmare Night, everypony puts on a costume, and goes around asking for candy. There are games, dances, feasts, you name it. Pranking is also quite common," he added with a smirk. "At the end of the night, there's a big candy offering to Nightmare Moon to ask her to not eat up the little foals. It funny, because last year was Princess Luna's first Nightmare Night. She didn't take it too well, actually. I could see why; you're gone for a thousand years, and suddenly you're nothing but an old ghost story used to get foals to go to bed." He chuckled, dodging a wayward spike in the tracks. "Also, it didn't help that everypony was still scared of her."

The large knight laughed silently to himself. To the Apples, he had become something very similar, more along the lines of a folk hero, a legend of the past.

"Back then, nopony had so much as seen or heard from her since she was redeemed by the Elements of Harmony, so it was a bit of a shock to see the Princess of the Night in the flesh, riding in on a black, spiky chariot, with thunder and lightning crashing everywhere. I rememeber freaking out for a bit before I remembered that she's good now."

Buck smiled. "Luna does like ta make an entrance," he said.

"Heh. Yeah. She more or less terrorized everyone with her Royal Canterlot Voice. Eventually, she got fed up with our cowering in fear, and just decided to cancel the holiday."

"Is it still canceled?"

"Nah. She ended up embracing the legend, and pretty much everypony in Ponyville loves her to death now. Terrific prankster now, so I hear."

The knight grinned and shook his head, remembering the many times that he and the Princess had pranked Celestia back in the old days, and said, "I can vouch for that."

There was silence for a while, both stallions simply running as one. Eventually Obsidian spoke up. "So how is it that you know the Princess?"

"We go way back, mate."

"How far is that?"

"Back when I was barely outta colthood, actually."

"What, so it's ancient history, then?"

Buck abruptly stumbled a bit. The black unicorn had hit the nail on the head.

"Er... Somethin' like that. We've known eachother for a long time."

"Oh."

The silence resumed. Buck began to worry where Obsidian's train of thought would take him.

It went in exactly the opposite direction.

"So, you ever tapped that flank?"

If Buck had been drinking something, it would now be coating the walls, ceiling, and faces of anypony and everything in a fifteen foot radius.

He turned his head back around to look at the unicorn, who was grinning mischievously. "Say what now?"

"You know. Tapped that. Scored. Did the nasty." Obsidian winked. "Maybe you sent her to the moon?"

Buck resisted the urge to facehoof. Doing so at these speeds would prove very painful. He thought back to the old days again. He had remained faithful to Leafdapple throughout the course of his marriage, but he couldn't deny that Luna was quite a beautiful mare. And on some levels, they had been closer than he and his wife. The mark on his chest was evidence enough to support that.

He shook his head. "Eenope. I'm a gentlecolt, mate. I know how to treat the ladies. And I had a wife, so I wasn't foolin' around in other stables, if ya catch me drift."

Obsidian shrugged. "All right, all right. I get the hint. But you're single now, aren't you?"

Buck had to admit that was true. Technically, his wife had been dead for a thousand years now. But from his perspective, it had only been several months. That alone weighed heavily on his heart.

"Well... Yeah. I guess."

Obsidian realized he'd gone too far, and backed off. "Sorry. Just wondering is all."

They did not speak again until they arrived at Canterlot.