• Published 9th Jul 2019
  • 374 Views, 77 Comments

The Dusk Guard Saga: Hunter/Hunted - Viking ZX



An ancient, lost empire is on the verge of returning from its imprisonment, and the Dusk Guard have been dispatched. Their mission? Retake the city, secure it, and above all, keep its ancient ruler from seizing control once more.

  • ...
1
 77
 374

Chapter 9

A bolt of lightning forked by above, the crack so loud Hunter tried to fold his ears back through his helmet’s protective covering. He could feel his coat standing on end, small sparks leaping between his pinions as the charge surged past above him. The wave of sound ruffled his feathers, shoving him down in the air even as competing wind currents seemed to tear at his body. He could feel his magic being pressed at all sides, his natural skill as a pegasus working hard to keep him stable among the unfriendly skies.

Unfriendly indeed, he thought as another wind shear roared past, hot and ozone-scented in the wake of the most recent electrical surge. He could feel the way his magic pressed against the wind, his body’s field twisting and forming an envelope around him that somewhat mitigated the powerful forces he was fighting against.

Somewhat mitigated. By the time he’d stabilized himself, the downward blast of wind being counteracted and canceled out by an equally dangerous updraft, he’d lost several hundred feet of elevation.

And I think I’m all right with that, he thought as he stared up at the titanic mass of dark clouds above him. This thing is dangerously out-of-control.

Worse yet, there was no apparent cause. That had been the whole reason he’d volunteered for such a dangerous flight in the first place, into a storm system so unpredictable and powerful that even now, just trying to hover he could see vivid green lines of magic glowing along his undersuit as his magic fought to keep him in place. Worse, he could feel how drained he was after just a short time fighting the storm.

It’s a good thing Sky Bolt’s managed to find a decent altitude for The Hummingbird to hover at, he thought, glancing back over his wings at the distant airship. He’d need to turn around and move to catch it soon, before he was tired enough that doing so would put him at risk. Sky Bolt had circled it around him so that he would mostly be able to fly with the wind on the way back, but if he was tired out and out of magic …

I could end up on the ground, he thought, his gaze switching to the distant surface of the Crystal Plains. And that could be bad. The conditions on the surface were horrid. As high as he was, he could clearly see massive rifts of snowfall forming where two high-speed wind patterns were grinding against one another, creating long tunnels of competing, swirling currents.

Just like the storms, he thought, bringing his eyes back up as another jagged bolt of lightning lit the dark clouds. Competing storm systems, all fighting one another with no rhyme or reason. Well, rhyme or reason that they’d been able to see from the safety of The Hummingbird, which was why he was currently fighting against the storm to get a better look.

Not that it’s telling me much, Hunter thought as he began pumping his wings once more, climbing through the turbulent air. The green lines of his undersuit flared as another gust of wind rolled into him from the side, his innate magic dampening its effect against him. This storm isn’t just impossible, it’s starkers!

For starters, it still hadn’t merged into one storm. Somehow, against all reason, it had stayed a mix of around seventeen storms, each one large enough to require the management of a full weather team on its own. As it was, they should have either cancelled one another out or merged into one superstorm that would have been titanic, but instead …

They’re all fighting, Hunter thought as he found a tight updraft, spreading his wings and soaring up several hundred feet in moments. The hair of his coat began to prickle again, and he tucked his ears close, his magic already pushing away the spare electrical charge in the air. Another bolt of lightning tore across the sky a moment later, its jagged forked claws ripping at the clouds. As if in reply, another nearby storm let loose a bolt of its own, an answering crack echoing across the storm-torn sky. All of them.

Seventeen angry weather systems, and somehow all of them are staying separate and getting stronger. It defied logic, but … There it is. He tucked his wings in as the air he was in abruptly became another updraft, powerful enough that he didn’t even fall more than a few feet before it was over.

He could see the barriers between the storms, the rifts where the mighty systems ground against one another, had even gotten close to two of them, and yet … I still can’t find a cause. Even activating his mod, washing his vision with literal magic, hadn’t shown him any source of the storms’ growing power.

Then again, the mod is short range, and I did have to keep my distance from those lines between the storms. He didn’t know what kinds of speeds the air was reaching inside the rifts. But I know I definitely don’t want to find out. There’s no telling where I’d end up. Or if I’d make it back at all.

Another bolt of lightning carved a bright path across the storm, lighting the clouds and making them look as if some titanic beast had gone to war deep within. He floated for a moment, feeling the wave of sound rush over him, followed by the rumbles of the answering echoes bouncing back from the Crystal Mountains.

Seventeen storms, no cause that I can see, unless there’s a meaning to everything looking slightly more vivid when I use the mod. More magic maybe?

Still, if he couldn’t see it, there wasn’t much point in hanging around beneath it, waiting for a bolt of electricity to decide his body made up one of the best local conduits. It was rare, but it happened, and even though Bolt had assured him that his armor would provide some insulation against an electrical strike, her emphasis on “some” and second, quicker admission that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea hadn’t filled him with much confidence.

He took a final look around the storm-wracked sky. The air was dark, almost looking like twilight rather than the noon the ship’s clocks had said it was. The clouds were simply too thick and too dark for much light to make it through. And all that snow makes it even worse. The swirling flakes filled the sky in all directions, sucking up light on their own and making it even harder to pick out details through the dimness that remained.

Still, I don’t think I stand to learn anything else out here other than how cold it is, or how quickly I can end up in over my wings. Said wings were starting to burn a little now, the constant exertion starting to drag even at his long-practiced beats. And though he was still warm enough between the suit and his own innate adaptability, something pegasi were good at, he could see traces of snow buildup along the edges of his armor plate, as well as ice tracks building where the plating overlapped.

I’m going to have to ask Sky Bolt about that, he thought, running a hoof along one of the tracks and watching as the pressure flaked the thin ice layer away. The howling wind caught the flakes, tearing them away and out of sight in an instant. Ice adds weight. And enough of it can make moving difficult. Did she plan for that when she made the armor?

If not, it was going to make the rest of the mission even more difficult. Snow getting packed into an opening in the plating was one thing, but it would eventually melt or fall out if one moved enough. But when the wind is cold enough to make it ice?

He turned toward the small saddlebags on his back. The cloth sides were stretched tight, as was usual for saddlebags made for heavy weather and low drag, but even then he could see the sides flexing with each passing burst of wind. Opening them was a trick with the wind howling around him, but the bags had seen a lot of careful, skillful designs over the centuries they’d been in use, and even when the zipper was peeled back, the howling wind tugging at the contents, none of them went anywhere. All had been securely locked in place by velcro. All the additional engineering did make for less overall capacity in the bags … but it was more than made up for by not having to worry about losing everything in said bags the moment the going got rough.

And right now, this definitely counts as that, Hunter thought as his searching hoof found what he was looking for. This crook storm would have ripped an ordinary pair of saddlebags right off me. He freed the small, cardboard cylinder from its housing, lifting it up so that he could clearly make out the writing printed along the side as well as the color of the cylinder itself. He didn’t want to grab the wrong one by mistake. Green meant he was on his way back, while red, or a flurry of every color he could grab in a panic, meant trouble, and to come try and pick him up.

Green. He nodded and zipped the saddlebags closed. A quick twist of the hoof later, and the sharp hiss of the flare lighting barely graced his ears before being overcome by the storm, barely audible. The light the flare put off, however, was not, instead so bright that his visor automatically tinted, and he turned his head away, making sure to keep holding the flare out and steady for a few moments, long enough for Bolt to have noticed it and translated the message. Coming back in; moving to intercept.

After a few seconds more he let the flare drop. The wind, already tearing against it in his hoof, took it immediately, bouncing the flare off of his side and then past his wings as it hurtled off into the sky. For a moment he tracked it, twisting his neck to watch as the bright, green glow arced off through the thick swirls of snow. It never vanished, but it did fade slightly, and even take a slight upwards delay for a moment, some wind shear hurling it skyward before gravity caught it again.

He turned his gaze back southward to see the lights on The Hummingbird faintly flashing once, then twice. Message sent and received, bush-style. He changed the angle on his wings, beating southward and searching the sky for any sign of snow going his way.

It didn’t take him long to find it, tucking himself into a tight, spiral roll as he passed the barrier between two currents and coming out in a long, upward-rising corridor of wind that was swiftly heading south. Which let him ease off of the heavy wingbeats, the break, however momentary, welcome against the slow but steady burn that had been building in his muscles. He kept his eyes on The Hummingbird, watching as it adjusted its own course, angling to the side so as to line up with his approach a bit better. He was far enough away that he could just barely make out the rotating propeller mounts that aided the aircraft in its sideways scuttle.

I must have flown further north than I meant to, he thought as he powered along the channel of wind. Another brilliant bolt of lightning arced across the sky, ozone peppering his nostrils seconds later, the smell hot and angry. And maybe I’m a little higher now than I wanted to be. He could see the wind channel he was following breaking apart ahead of him anyways, splitting into smaller streams that went in every direction.

Which is crazy to see on such a small scale, he thought, picking one of the streams and following it along. This is like what you’d find high above the clouds, or on a smaller scale between mountain peaks or canyons. But in the open like this? Like the weather, it made no sense.

And yet, here I am flying in it, he thought, bringing his wings in tight against his sides as another gust cut across his path and dropping through the thick snows. The Hummingbird was closer now, more details coming into clarity across its triangular shape. A light dusting of snow had somehow taken root across the top of the envelope, giving the craft a wind-sculpted appearance. As he drew closer, the source of the nooks that let the snow clump became apparent: ropes and ridges along the envelope, a source of drag that wasn’t avoidable, but also tiny in comparison to the rest of the craft.

He was still too high. He adjusted his altitude, settling as best he could into a glide and letting himself lose altitude as The Hummingbird came closer and closer. He could hear the faint, constant rumble of the propellers now, the winds and storms not enough to cover it up, and see the lit glass from the cabins, though making out much detail was still too hard. He couldn’t tell if Bolt had spotted him yet, but the airship was holding steady at its current location, twisting so that door on the side was facing in his direction. It wasn’t open yet, but why they would bother under the current conditions would have raised a host of questions. Another forked talon of lightning arced across the sky behind him as he beat his wings harder.

He was closer now, the rumble of the propellers swelling to a dull roar. He’d have to be careful once he got close; his armor was good, but getting sucked into a prop would likely be more than he could stand. Or the propeller, I guess, he thought as he dropped down even further. Thankfully, the swirling snows were a good indicator of exactly where the vortexes around each propeller were.

But no sense in making it any riskier than it needs to be. He dropped again, coming at the airship from slightly beneath its azimuth. A gust of wind threatened to send him to the side, and then toward the surface of the airship much quicker than he’d intended, and he flared his wings, green lines on his suit glowing fiercely as his magic reacted. He hit the side of the crew cabin just forward of the door, his front hooves impacting the metal with faint clunks that he felt more than heard due to the combination of storm, propellers, and wind assaulting his ears. His wings were beating quickly, working to keep him in place as he moved to the side and battered one hoof against the door. Through the thick porthole glass he saw a purple, crystalline helmet, and then the door opened, snow howling through the opening. Hunter darted in after it, the door slamming shut in a yellow glow and cutting off the outside rage.

“Thanks,” Hunter said, stretching his wings as he looked over at Nova. “I was wondering how we’d get that door shut again.”

“Not a problem,” Nova replied, his voice only just barely muffled by his own helmet. Hunter shook himself, stretching his wings and watching as flakes of snow and ice broke free of his armor. Again, Sky Bolt had thought ahead, the deck directly in front of the door a mesh grating rather than a flat surface. “Looks like it was pretty nasty out there.” He motioned with one hoof, pointing at Hunter’s head and then tapping the underside of his own helmet.

“Huh?” It wasn’t hard to see what he’d been pointing at. Thin, windswept icicles hung from the underside of his helmet, clustered around the grill he’d been breathing through. A probing hoof told him that the clasps beneath his chin had been crusted over with ice as well. “That’s a little worrying,” he said, trying to get his hoof to release the clasp and failing as it slid over the ice. “Little help?” Nova’s horn lit with a yellow glow, and a second later the clasp gave way.

“Thanks a second time,” Hunter said, lifting the helmet over his head and feeling a faint sense of relief as his mane was freed at last. He sat back on his haunches, rotating the helmet in his hooves and looking at it. There was definitely ice built up around the grate they were supposed to both speak and breath through, as well as … He twisted it slightly, angling the entryway’s light down into the openings.

“Yup,” he said. “That’s going to be a problem. There’s ice in there. Not much, but if you didn’t clear it out periodically under heavy use, you’d find it harder and harder to breathe.”

“That’s not good,” Nova said, pulling his own helmet off with a wave of his magic.

“Nope. It’s not.” He brought one hoof down against the side of the ice, the small icicles shattering under the impact and dropping down through the grating. He gave the helmet a quick shake, watching as the clumps of ice inside the grill, now disturbed, dropped free. “Bolt’s work is pretty much spot on. I mean—” He rapped a rear hoof against the grating beneath him. “Stuff like this. But I don’t think she planned for this one.”

“Or that,” Nova said, pointing at Hunter’s chest.

He glanced down, away from the last of the ice he was shaking free of his helmet. “What, the ice?” he asked, pausing to rap his free hoof against his chest.”

“Higher,” Nova said. “Neck of your suit.”

“Neck of my—? Oh.” He could feel it now. A chilled band of ice where the material of the undersuit stopped. The same material was spread along the inside of his helmet and made to overlap, but only on the sides. Along the front …

“Right. One more bit of build up. Not life-threatening, though.”

“Uncomfortable, I’d bet,” Nova replied, and he nodded.

“Yeah, it is.” A single swipe of his hoof swept the packed snow away, though it didn’t remove the now-obvious dampness in his coat. He shook himself again, more bits of ice and snow—more than he’d truly realized—sliding off of his tan armor or out from beneath the plating.

“Guess that’s what you get for flying through this,” Nova said, watching as Hunter gave himself another shake. “It’s almost as bad as what we’d look like after our practices.”

“No,” Hunter said, running a hoof along his side and dislodging a bit of ice beneath one crystal plate. “It’s worse. This is ice. Snow-packed to ice is one thing, this is snow melting to ice and freezing over.”

“Nothing good heat spell can’t take care of. Or a shake,” Nova added as Hunter flapped his wings once more, water, snow, and ice flying free of the feathers in near equal amounts. Without his magic, he wouldn’t have even been flying.

“But that takes time,” he pointed out, folding his wings against the cold sides of his armor. “No armor’s perfect, granted. Field testing finds all kinds of problems. We’ll just have to mention them to her and hope future models have a fix.”

“Future models?” Nova asked as he gave himself a final shake. “Like the armor?”

He nodded. “You didn’t notice Steel and I’s helmets are a bit different from yours?” He held the helmet up so Nova could get a good look at it. “She’s always improving on the design. We’ve all got the Mark II armor sets, but Steel and I are the only ones with Mark II helmets.”

“What’s the difference?” Nova asked, taking the helmet from him and holding up alongside his own.

“Better hearing protection. The little dial for the mod’s part of the helmet. And … a flashlight.” Hunter took the helmet back and slid it over his head before pressing its side with his hoof and holding his cheek against the interior for a few seconds. A bright light stabbed out from a pair of small crystals alongside his eyes. He repeated the motion, holding for a few seconds, and the light faded. “Apparently, it was expensive. But Bolt made it happen.”

“Huh.” Nova stared down at his own helmet for a moment. “Well, if that’s all it does, I think I’ll be content with my first one for now. Those are nice additions, but hopefully I won’t need them while hunting this King Sombra guy.”

Hunter nodded. “They’re minor, like I said. Anyway, I’d better make my report. Steel in the crew area?”

“Last I saw,” Nova said, stepping down the hall and past the head. “I’ll bet I can summarize it, though.”

“No bet,” Hunter replied. “You’ve looked out a window.”

“So can Steel.”

“Touché,” Hunter replied, setting his helmet back atop his head but not bothering to strap it in place. “By the way, where’s my hat?”

“On your bunk,” Nova replied as they reached the middle point of the T-shaped hallway and turned forward. “Seemed to be the best place for it.”

He nodded. “It’ll feel good to put it back on.”

“Why’d you leave it, again?” Nova asked.

“The enchantment on it doesn’t work as well with my helmet,” he said, rapping a hoof against the hard crystal. “Goes all aggro thanks to the magic-nullifying stuff.”

“You were wearing it earlier, though.”

“I was, yeah,” he said as he stepped into the common room. Steel was seated in front of the table, his eyes on a map. No one else was present. “But that was before the wind picked up. Even without the enchantment, my hat can be removed. With the enchantment going weak and the wind outside the way it is now …” He shook his head, even as he walked over to the bunk and swapped his helmet out for his Stetson, leaving the crystal helm sitting atop the bedding.

“You could ask Sky Bolt about that,” Nova suggested as Hunter turned to look at Steel. “She could probably fix it.”

“Could, yes. Is it important?” He waggled a wing-tip. “At the moment, no.” Not that I’m not considering stuffing it into my saddlebags the moment we deploy. He cleared his throat, then brought one hoof up in a salute, waiting for Steel to acknowledge his presence.

The captain let him wait for a moment, still studying something on the map, and Hunter leaned forward, eyes tracking downward. Huh. It was a map of the Crystal Plains, the kind that came wrapped in plastic so that a commander or Ranger leader could draw on it without permanently marring the surface. A recent one too, judging by the inclusion of the Northern Rail Line cutting up from its southern edge. A number of locations had been marked in red, either with circles or some other mark, and a capped marker was sitting by Steel’s left front hoof.

Finally, Steel looked up, his blue eyes stern as they locked with Hunter’s, and he returned the salute. “Lieutenant.” His tone was formal. One of those moments, then.

“Reporting as requested,” Hunter said, dropping his hoof to the deck.

“And? What’s your report?”

“Any weather crew that wasn’t starkers would turn tail and run, sir. The weather out there is so crooked it makes the lightning look straight—” Another flash lit the room, a dull rumble echoing after it. “And worse, trying to make sense of it is—”

“Like trying to square a circle?” Steel asked, his tone still gruff.

“Eh, I was going to say ‘likely to make one crack a fruity,’ but that works too.”

Steel nodded, the motion so firm it looked more like a stone statue shifting its perch than a living being. “How many separate storms?”

“At least seventeen, boss, Possibly more.”

“Possibly?”

He nodded and took a deep breath. “You can have a storm system on top of another storm system, though it’s rare and the two usually end up combining. Given what we’re seeing here, where these storms aren’t … Well, they’re not behaving like normal storms. So there could be a whole layer of storms higher up that I couldn’t get to. But down here? Seventeen that I counted.”

“Are they stable?” Steel asked.

He frowned. “Depends on your definition of stable, sir. Again, this weather’s pretty crook. I’m not trying to talk a beat up about it. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve traveled around a lot. The wind shears where the sides of the storms are rubbing up against one another?” He shook his head. “I didn’t even want to get close. There’d be a high chance I wouldn’t make it back.”

Steel nodded again, breaking eye contact at last and turning his attention to the map in front of him. “Would you say these storms pose a threat to The Hummingbird?”

“Absolutely.” The admission was out of his mouth without a second thought. “No mistake, boss, The Hummingbird is the best airship I’ve ever been on, true dinkum, but these storms are something else entirely. The amount of power being tossed around in that lightning, plus the winds and the gradients where the storms are rubbing up against one another?” He shook his head. “If we weren’t torn to pieces, we’d end up grounded. Like I said, any weather crew that wasn’t starkers would be leaving this one be.”

“And are we starkers, lieutenant?” Steel asked, still eyeing the map.

“Nah,” he replied, grinning. “We’re worse. We’re Dusk Guard.”

Steel smiled. “That’s what I was hoping to hear.” He looked back up again. “All right, then based on what you’ve seen, tell me this: Does it appear that the storms are being controlled in any way?”

“Controlled? Like … Somepony or someone was using them?” He shook his head. “If they are, it’s pretty hooves-off. It doesn’t look like anyone is in charge out there. It’s just kind of … a mess.” Another distant rumble underscored his comments.

“All right,” Steel said. “What about patterns. Any sign of rhyme or reason to it? Cause?”

Again he shook his head. “No sir. If there’s a pattern there, I couldn’t see it. It’s just a bunch of inexplicably supercharged storms running up against one another like two hydras fighting over territory.”

“And crushing everyone beneath them,” Steel said, his voice low and gravelly. “An apt analogy.”

“That’s why I said it.”

“Fine,” Steel said, letting out a long sigh. “I’ll be honest, I was hoping you’d find a little more, a pattern or something, but … If it’s not there, then there’s little you can do.”

“Not that I could see, boss,” he said. “Sorry.”

“Anything else to report?”

“The winds out there are cold enough to freeze your breath into ice,” Hunter said, nodding in the direction of his helmet. “I had a decent build-up of it around the grill on my helmet when I got back, plus a few other places along my armor.”

“Mmm.” Steel shifted his gaze toward the helmet in question. “Mention it to Sky Bolt, I’ll let the rest of the team know before we deploy so we can keep an eye on that. Last thing we want is someone suffocating because of build up. While you’re at it, tell Sky Bolt to take us a little lower. If the storms are that bad and getting worse …”

“They are,” Hunter said when Steel paused. The captain nodded.

“Then tell her to drop us down a bit lower when she can. And later I’ll need you to take over for her while I run her over what I have of the deployment plan. Other than that … Stay in your armor and at the ready. That’s all.”

He nodded as Steel turned his attention back to the map. He’s worried, Hunter thought. I haven’t seen him this tense in a while.

“Nova,” Steel said as Hunter moved back to his bunk, picking up his helmet and cradling it in one wing. “Come over here. I want you to look over what I’ve got so far while I explain it. See what you think.”

“Sure.” Nova moved across the room as Hunter made his way to the cockpit, reaching the side of the table just as Hunter hit the latch on the cockpit door.

“Coming in,” he said, drawing the door to one side and stepping through without waiting. Now that he’d warmed up a bit, his body was sending other messages his way, including one that would require removing his armor for. A conversation cut off as he entered, Sky Bolt looking at him from the pilot’s seat, Sabra’s own calm, collected gaze coming from the bunk on the port side.

“Sky Bolt, Sabra,” he said, sliding the door shut behind him. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“No no, it’s fine,” Bolt said, giving him a grin. “We were just chatting. What’s up? New orders?”

He nodded. “Steel wants you to take us down if you can. Further from the storm.”

“All right …” Bolt replied, drawing the word out. “I can, but if we get far enough down, we’re going to start running into weather coming off of the ground, or mid-level systems. I can drop us, but it’ll be a little blind without a few suggestions, or you know, a recon report.”

“What’s our altitude currently?”

“About thirty-five hundred feet.”

“That low?” He let out a whistle.

“Storm clouds keep dropping.”

“Right, well try taking us down another five-hundred. That shouldn’t put us in anything much rougher than this.”

Bolt reached out, hooves at the controls, and a moment later the airship began sinking, just quick enough that he could feel it in the bottoms of his hooves. “Anything else I need to know?” she asked.

“Seventeen storms, wind so cold it’s freezing water into ice, and build-up on the armor.” He twisted his wing, bringing the helmet around. “Especially around the grill on my helmet. I had a whole bunch of icicles starting to clog it up when I got back. It hadn’t turned into a problem yet, but had I stayed out there long enough, it probably would have become one.”

“Ice build-up?” Sky Bolt frowned as she took the helmet from him. “Ponyfeathers. I didn’t think about that.”

“Can you do anything to fix it while we’re on this op?” Hunter asked as Bolt flipped the helmet in her hooves. “Heating or something?”

“No,” she said, scowling and tossing the helmet back to him. “I could modify it if I were home, or figure out a fix for it with a new helmet entirely, but out here …” She shook her head. “Sorry, but I can’t. How fast did it build up?”

“How long was I out?”

“So about a half-hour then.” She rubbed at her chin with one hoof. “That’s not too bad. As long as we check one-another’s helmets, we should be okay. Any other issues?”

“Ice and snow pack along my neck.”

Another scowl. “I knew that was going to be a problem. I tried to cut costs, but …” She threw her hooves up. “One more thing to change about the undersuits for the Mark III, I guess.”

“It’s not that bad,” he began, but she shook her head, holding up a hoof.

“Nope, not buying it,” she said. “If snow and ice can build up there, so can something else. And if it’s that close to something like the neck, that’s bad. Water could get inside the suit along the coat, all sorts of possibilities. It’s a vulnerability. I’ll make a note of it.”

“All … right?” Flashes of the mad engineer Sky Bolt sometimes became were shining through in her eyes, ideas sparking around behind them like the lightning bolts of the storm. “Well, there was some snowpack build up under some of the plates. Ice build up under the ones that overlapped. Came off when smacked, though.”

“Good, because there’s not too much I can do about that without sending the cost sky-high,” she said, her eyes still wide with thought. “What about the suit?”

“The suit?”

“Yeah, the undersuit,” she said, her mane flipping as she spun toward him. “Did the material ever feel stiff or brittle? Like it was resisting at all?”

“I …” He paused for a moment, rolling his mind back. “Not that I remember,” he said. “It seemed pretty normal to me, personally.”

“Good!” Sky Bolt threw a hoof into the air. “So that’s holding up just fine.”

“Magic lines or whatever worked well too.”

Her smile widened, though the thoughtful look in her eyes stayed. “Good. Anything else?”

“Sometime later tonight, Steel’s going to have you and me swap spots for a few minutes while he talks you through a more detailed deployment plan, and gets your input on it.”

“I can handle that. Been wondering about it myself.” As she spoke, Sky extended a wing, pushing at the controls. There was a faint sensation of downward pressure as The Hummingbird settled at its new altitude, and then it was gone, the faint shivering of the superstructure under the wind the only sense of motion. “Anything else?”

“Nope,” he said with a quick shake of his head, tucking the helmet back under one wing. “So I’ll leave you two to your talking and—”

“That’s all we were doing!” Sky Bolt said suddenly, eyes wide.

“And get out of your manes,” he finished, his voice a little quieter. He gave the pair a grin. “Should I have been saying something else?”

“No!” Sky Bolt all but squeaked, her face flushing a vivid red and her ears flat against the back of her head. Sabra seemed to have taken a moment longer to catch on, but Hunter could see the pale flush rising in his cheeks.

“I mean,” he said, leaning against the door and giving them both an even wider grin. “I’m the team tracker. I can see from the way the covers are on the bunk, as well as the shape of the mattress, that neither of you have been involved in any sort of makeout-based dereliction of—”

“I-am-the-pilot-and-as-the-pilot-off-my-bridge!” Sky Bolt squeaked out, standing in her seat, her head almost touching the ceiling. “Out-out-out-out-out!”

“All right, I’m going, I’m going!” The latch gave with a soft click beneath his hoof, the door sliding aside with ease as he backed through it. He didn’t give her time to bark a retort, shutting it just as quickly as he’d opened it.

“Trouble?” Steel asked. Hunter turned to see the captain looking at him with a quizzical expression on his face.

“Nah,” he replied, unfolding his wing and tossing his helmet, catching it in the air with his front hooves. “Just a beat up, mixed with a little goss.” He trotted over to his bunk and set the helmet down atop it. “Nothing to get worked up over.”

“All right.” There was an unspoken undercurrent to the words, an undercurrent that said “I don’t know quite what you mean by that, but I suspect it’s not worth undermining your position as a lieutenant to find out.”

And he’d be right, Hunter thought as he turned toward the T-hall and the med-bay once more. Rank hath its privileges, as they say.

And, he recalled, sobering as he neared the med-bay door. It has its responsibilities and drawbacks as well. He reached up with one hoof and knocked against the door.

“Enter.” Dawn’s voice was crisp and clear, with just a hint of her Manehatten accent. He hit the latch, sliding the door to the side and stepping through. Dawn was standing in her pinkish armor, sorting through the medical kits she’d spent the first few days putting together and, from the look of it, double-checking her counts.

“Lieutenant,” she said as he closed the door behind him. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure? Does the captain need something?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Actually, I do.”

Dawn paused in her count, lifting one eyebrow as she looked at him. “All right, Lieutenant. And, for you to willingly walk in here, it must be official business.” She set down the clipboard she’d been holding in her magic, the orange glow winking out as she gave him full attention. “What do you need?”

“A conversation,” Hunter said, mind racing. I should have given more thought to how I was going to do this. He paused for a moment as Dawn stared at him. Might as well just go right for it. No sense making this any sort of chinwag. “About Nova Beam.”

“I see. Has he done something that requires my attention? Or, should I say, is he planning on doing something that will?”

He shook his head. “No, actually. Let me rephrase that. It’s about you.” He kept his eyes on hers as her forehead furrowed, watching for any sign of hesitation or wariness in them. “And how you’ve been acting around Nova for the last few days.”

There. The corner of her eye had twitched ever so slightly, a very slight widening that she had caught very quickly.

“Uh huh,” he said as she opened her mouth, and without commenting she closed it again. “He noticed it the first day. Told me you were acting slightly cold around him. More stroppy than usual. He said he’d tried approaching you about it, but you brushed him off. Made him all kinds of sus, and to be honest, me as well.”

“So?” he asked, taking a step closer. “What’s the deal?”

Dawn stood there, her body locked, frozen beneath his gaze. Her expression shifted, looking almost worried, and a river of icy-cold fear rolled through his gut.

What if she’s not Dawn? He leaned back slightly, making sure he was balanced if something truly had gone wrong. What if she’s a changeling, and Nova was the only one she couldn’t fool

Then, to his surprise, Dawn slumped back, her hindquarters hitting the deck as she let out a sigh. “All right. I suppose it was too much to think I could simply bottle it up for later. And stop looking like you’re about to attack me, Hunter. This is just … difficult, is all.”

“Right … I’m not hearing any explanation.”

She glared at him, a cold gaze that almost did make him want to step back. “You wanted to know what my problem was. Fine. You’re going to hear it. The day we left I … I received some unexpected news.”

“News?” He frowned, relaxing his posture slightly, but not entirely. “What kind of news?”

“Hunter,” she said, her voice quiet. “Relax. I’m not about to try and pull a doctor’s prerogative on you.” She let out a sigh. “I need to tell someone about this. I would have preferred Steel, or nopony at all, but I suppose you’ll do.”

“So … you’re not a changeling?”

“A—!?” She rose. “Is that what Nova thinks?”

He shook his head. “No. But you were acting a bit unlike you a moment ago there.”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Of for the love of—! Fine. The first time I met you was in a medical post outside of Fillydelphia on the east side of the Foal Mountains. You were overdue on your shots, and so I brought out the needles, and you screamed like a little filly.”

Ouch. “Not untrue … but half the Rangers heard that story.”

“And you wrapped your hooves around a beam in the back of the station before I caught you.”

“Um …” Fewer knew that story.

“And I had to restrain you.”

Fewer still.

“And before you got the injection, you begged me to tell a certain young mare after you ‘died’ that she was the prettiest mare you’d ever laid—”

“Okay! Okay!” He held up his hooves. “Truce! Sorry. I just … It was a little … unlike you.”

“I suppose that’s fair … somewhat. I should be allowed to have an off day.”

“Fine.” He gave her a nod. “I apologize. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Well, that assures me you’re perfectly fine, then.”

“Hey …”

“So,” Dawn said, continuing as if he hadn’t even spoken. “You wanted to know why I’ve been cold around Nova.” It wasn’t a question. “Fine. The truth is … In a moment of weakness, I broke a law. A rather severe one.”

“Wait, you what?” For a moment he wasn’t sure he heard correctly, but no, there was Dawn, looking up at him with an expression he’d never once seen on her face. Regret? Fear maybe? Her ears had even fallen back slightly.

“I broke a law,” she said again. “I … At the time I convinced myself it was just on whimsy, but then—”

He waved a hoof, cutting her off. “Okay, start at the beginning. What law did you break, and why?” Maybe she’s just overreacting.

“The law against taking a creature’s blood without permission.”

“Oh.” Okay, yeah, that’s a pretty old one … but hardly anypony remembers that. “When?”

“When I was collecting blood from all of you to use for our supplies, in case any of you needed transfusions. I took extra from Nova.”

“Okay … why?”

She let out a sigh, then stared right at him. “Because despite his rough edges, Nova is a colt with a good heart and surprising depths. I may not have the greatest of bedside manners, but I try. I thought ... I …”

“You what?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I thought I would run a relations test with his blood. Or have somepony at Canterlot General do it. Just … in case.”

“Oh. That’s it?”

“I didn’t have his permission.”

“Yeah, okay, well that’s two strikes against you, but it’s not like you were trying to do outlawed magic or something with it. No one’s going to count the first. And sure, you’re supposed to get permission before doing something like that, but—”

He froze, his mind skipping ahead as his eyes went wide. Oh. Oh no. He looked at Dawn. “Crikey …” he breathed. “You don’t mean …?”

She nodded. “I just meant for them to do a local check, but because of my office, they sent a sample to every city and town in Equestria. Took them over a month to do the scan, check for relations, but … They found a match.”

For a moment he couldn’t speak. He felt gobsmacked. Thunderstruck. But after a moment, he found his voice. “He … has a family?”

“He has a sister,” Dawn said. “In Vanhoover. All I got was a name and a relation reading from the spell. But it’s definitely a sister.”

He worked his jaw, trying to come up with something to say and settling on “Crikey.”

“That’s why I’ve been trotting on eggshells around him,” Dawn continued. “I’d convinced myself that a tired, overworked slip-up was fine considering it had been made out of the kindness of my heart. And as time went on, I assumed that they’d simply found nothing, and that a low priority had somehow been assigned to it, which was why I wasn’t hearing back. And then, several days ago …” She let out a small huff. “And now I have to decide how and when to tell him that the truth he’s believed his whole life, that he was truly alone with regards to his family, isn’t true.”

“How did he not already know?” Hunter shook his head. “They test for that with missing pony cases like Nova’s, don’t they?”

“They do,” Dawn said. “But it only works if the blood of someone that they’re directly and clearly related to has already been collected and scanned. So if his sister or any other family members had never had their blood scanned—and to be quite fair, many never have had their blood kept track of in that way …”

“Then there wouldn’t have been any matches.” He sat back with a thump. “And then years later, his sister decides to look?”

“I don’t know,” Dawn said with a shake of her head. “It may have been that she was in a orphanage at the same time, and they didn’t bother with the spell because they knew where she’d come from. Or they did the same thing, and the timing was just such that no connection was ever made. I don’t know.”

“But now you do know, and I know, and … Oh boy.” He brought his hoof up, rubbing at his head under the brim of his hat. “And now you have to tell Nova. Not today!” he said quickly. “But sometime soon. Maybe after this mission is over. You have to tell him, Dawn.”

“I … I know.” Her voice was quiet. “I just don’t know how. I violated his trust, Hunter. And after it took so much to earn it, I don’t know exactly how he’ll react.”

“Does his sister know?”

She shook her head. “The doctors left it up to me to inform her. The files are sitting in my desk, locked, back in our barracks.”

“You have to tell him.”

“I know.” The emphasis Dawn had put on the word was more than enough to make it clear she understood. “I just need to figure out how. And when.”

“Does anyone else know about this?”

She shook her head, lips pursed tightly. “You’re the first.”

“Right. Well, when I get a spare moment, I’m going to mention it to Steel. He needs to be in on this. But he’s going to tell you what I’m about to. This can’t wait long, Dawn. You’re going to have to apologize and hope he forgives you … and then you’re going to need to tell him. Just …” He paused, mind racing. We can’t hit him with this right in the middle of a mission. We just can’t.

“After the mission,” he said, watching as Dawn’s eyes widened in surprise. “Nova’s tough, but he can’t handle something like this right now. Not with what we’re in the middle of.” It feels cruel, but … It’d throw him completely wonky.

“And if something happens,” Dawn began. “And he doesn’t make it?”

“Then …” His chest felt tight, like something was pressing against it from the inside. “Then we tell his sister he died a hero.”

Privileges and responsibilities, he thought as they both fell silent. The higher you are, the harder they become.

“Very well,” Dawn said. “Thank you, lieutenant. And you’ll speak to the captain?”

“I will,” he said, nodding. “Tonight, before—” His words cut off as Dawn snapped a hoof up to her horn, eyes going wide.

“My horn!” she said before he could speak. “It’s itching!” A moment later, he heard a yell of surprise from outside the bay, a yell mixed with his own name.

“Hunter!” It was Nova. “It’s back! And it’s really burning!”

He spun, slamming the door to one side and bolting out into the hall, wings tucked tight against his sides. Nova was at the entryway to the common room, faint sparks sizzling off of the end of his horn.

“Move!” My helmet is on my bunk. Why did I leave it on my bunk? Nova stepped back even as Hunter brought his wings up to shove him aside, and he burst into the common room, eyes locking on his bunk. He snapped his wings back, throwing himself across the room in a single bound.

“Nova!” The shout belonged to Dawn. “Cast a spell. Anything! Burn off the excess!” Hunter’s hooves scraped across the surface of the helmet, slipping before finding purchase. Behind him, a bright, silvery glow lit the cabin as Nova’s magic went to work. He recognized the brief color. Crescent shield.

He shoved his helm down over his head, ignoring the pressure in his ears as his mane folded over them. At the moment, he didn’t need to hear. What he needed was …

The mod! He reached down inside himself, closing his eyes as he poked at the magic at the very core of his being. Come on, he thought, stoking the magic and feeling it swell. Just head for that mod on my back and …

He opened his eyes. Yes! The spell exploded out of him, a vivid sphere that moved in all directions, through the window in front of him, through the wall of the ship, through the storm, and …

Hunter felt his jaw drop.

“Hunter?” Steel’s voice almost felt distant. Far away. “What do you see?”

“I …” In front of him, moving through the sky, was a rift. Or a chasm. Or a tightly bound roll of universe that looked like a portrait, a picture that was at the same time flat and not. It was as if the world itself had been bound up in a bright, vivid tornado, the colors too bright, the movements all wrong, shifting in ways that made his eyes want to look at something else. Only he couldn’t look at something else, because the edges, bright and black at the same time, hurt even worse.

But still he looked, he had to look. Because inside of the chasm in front of him, he could make out ponies. Not whole ones, but bits and pieces. A hoof here. A side there. But twisted and wrong.

The twist in the balloon, he thought as the chasm swept toward them, twisting and turning in multiple directions at once. I’m seeing the twist. Jagged streams of what he assumed were magic were all around it, pulsing and shifting in ways that didn’t make sense, growing as they shrank and getting closer even as they pulled away.

Then it was on them, and he threw his hooves up, falling back on his back as the … thing … moved through the side of the airship like it wasn’t there, the world seeming to fracture around its edges like a shattered lens. He watched as it passed by his own hoof, the universe coming apart and yet not as it passed by.

“Hunter!” Steel was beside him now. “Hunter!” Hooves clutched at his shoulders. Then a more distant shout, Steel’s broken, distorted face turning to shout at Dawn, and Hunter realized that he could see past Steel’s skin, like the stallion’s head had been opened up and rolled inside of itself, interior and exterior both visible at the same time. “Can we take that helmet off?” It made his stomach churn.

But only his head … Hunter thought, his eyes shifting down to Steel’s body. Why not the rest of his body? It still looked … mostly fine, the pulses of magic wrapping around the chasm skipping off of it as they swept by. Why?

Hooves wrapped around the sides of his helmet, tugging upward. “No!” At his cry they fell back, leaving it on his head. The chasm was already moving out the other side of the aircraft, the world around it breaking and reforming as if nothing had happened, but there was something different about the way it was moving past Nova.

“Oh crikey.” It hit him almost like a physical blow. He shoved his way past Steel, ignoring the stallion’s surprised protest as he ran to the far side of the ship, where the last of the chasm was rolling out, and looked up.

The storms. The chasm was moving right along the rift between one of the storms. It is magic feeding the storms and keeping them separate. Something about the way they twist the world is doing it. He brought his eyes back once more as the last of the strange distortion passed out of The Hummingbird, holding up a hoof to the window as the tight channels of magic around it followed.

Then one of the trailing strands collided with his hoof, and before his very eyes, broke apart, breaking into pieces with too many sides and fading away. In front of him, the chasm pulsed, ripples that both were and weren’t running across and through it.

The armor. It resists magic. He stared down at his hoof in shock. And every time that spell hits us, it’s fighting against us to stay intact. Which means … He looked up to catch a final glimpse of the rift, more strands of magic around it snapping like overstretched strings, each one sending long ripples up, down, and … other directions.

And we’re right in the middle of it. Someone was shouting at him, trying to get his attention, but he shoved the words away. Like a twisted balloon. What happens to us … if we’re in that twist when it unravels? He turned and caught a final glimpse of the chasm sweeping out of the range of his mod. It was pulsing. Seething.

Swelling.

He tore the helmet off, eyes wide, and bolted for the cockpit. “Sky Bolt!” The door slammed to the side under his hooves. “Get us out of here!”

For a moment, Bolt appeared frozen, her hooves outstretched toward the control panel. Sabra had been caught halfway out of the bunk a look of alarm on his muzzle. Then one hoof slammed down, The Hummingbird’s propellers roaring as the airship came to full power. “What direction?” she called.

“I …” He darted forward, yanking the map down from the ceiling. “Where are we?”

“Here!” She tapped a lower section of the map with one hoof.

“South then. As fast as you can get us. Don’t stop until we’re out from under the center of these storms!”

“Got it!” Sky Bolt yanked the yoke to one side, the deck pitching beneath Hunter’s hooves as the airship went into tight turn. “Fast as we can go!”

“I just hope it’s fast enough,” Hunter said, turning to see Steel and the rest of the team staring at him from the main cabin. The captain’s face was all business, while Nova and Dawn both looked worried.

“Fast enough for what?” Steel asked over the roar of the propellers. “Got time to fill the rest of us in on what you saw, lieutenant?”

“I hope so.” He didn’t miss the look of increases alarm that shifted over the team’s faces as they digested his words. “I saw …” He sat back as the ship shuddered, putting his hooves to his head. “Crikey, Steel, I don’t know how to put it, how to get the words out of my gob. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Even in his memories, the scene felt unreal, like he was trying to grasp something that’d been coated in oil and then made slicker with water. “Sun and moon, Steel. It was like … the balloon.”

“The balloon?” Steel asked, head pulling back in confusion.

He nodded. “The balloon that you or the Princesses talked about. I saw it!”

“You mean like a giant city?” Steel asked. Behind him, Nova had a curious expression on his face.

“No.” He shook his head. “It was like … that little twisty bit keeping it from us. I saw that. And it was all … wrong, like the whole world had cracked. That’s what Nova’s been feeling every time his horn itched. It was that …”

“Tether,” Dawn suggested, Nova stepping past behind her.

“Yeah, that,” he said, nodding as he looked back at Steel. “A tether. And it’s coming apart. That’s what’s causing the storms. It’s moving along the path between them, and …” Something inside his head fell into place. “And there’s more than one,” he said. “That’s why there are so many different storms. There’s more than one of these things.”

“So why south?” Steel asked.

“Because of our armor.”

“What?” Hunter turned his head toward Sky Bolt as her outburst cut into the conversation. “What’s wrong with my armor?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it,” he said. “It works, and that’s the problem. I could see what I think was the spell around the Crystal Empire. And when it hit our armor … it came apart.”

“It’s a weak spell,” Dawn said, eyes lighting up. “Too weak to stand against something that would resist it. And so when it passes by us, it breaks.”

“And lets more of its energy out to feed the storms, and brings the Crystal Empire one step closer to coming back entirely.”

“But why south?” Steel asked again, glancing at both of them.

“Because,” Hunter said, looking the captain straight in the eyes. “What happens if there’s an ant climbing around on that balloon twist when it starts to come undone?”

For a moment the cabin was silent as everyone worked through what he’d just said, and then Steel nodded. “Oh. I see now.”

“A city appears in the air … which we’re on all sides of,” Dawn said. “Tearing us apart.”

“Or knocking us off to the side … Or really who knows what,” Hunter said, glancing at the cockpit. Bolt and Sabra both were in motion, but both had wide-eyed looks of shock on their faces. Bolt’s switched to a growl.

“No way am I letting that happen to my baby.”

“Well, I’d rather it not happen to me either,” Hunter said, turning back to the cabin. Nova was staring out one of the back windows. “But if these … tethers, I guess, is the best word. If these tethers are what’s causing the storm, than all we need to do is get out from underneath the storms, get to the edges. Use that as our compass.”

“Good thinking.” Steel stepped forward, poking his head into the cockpit. “About how long will that take us?”

“At this speed?” Sky Bolt shook her head. “Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Might be less, depending on the winds.” The vibration underhoof had grown, The Hummingbird fighting its way through the air.

“Like Hunter said, quick as possible.” Steel pulled his head back, attention moving to Hunter once more. “So every time Nova’s horn was itching …”

“We were right next to, or in, or however it works, one of those tethers.” Hunter tapped one hoof against his plates. “And tearing them apart.”

“So we might have been speeding the return of the Crystal Empire just by being here,” Dawn said.

“And accidentally killing ourselves in the process had we been in the wrong place when it happened.” Steel shook his head before looking at Dawn. “How quickly might we have sped it up?”

“I don’t know,” Dawn replied. “Without any knowledge of how much power was in the original spell outside of ‘a lot’ and measurements on how much damage our presence has caused, there’s no real way to—”

“Uh, guys?” Nova’s voice cut through the room like a whip. “I think you need to come look at this.” He was standing on the port side of the ship, helmet pressed up against the glass as he looked out of it, eyes fixing on something to the north. The three of them moved up next to him.

“Sun above,” Dawn said, awe in her voice. Hunter nodded, unable to say anything to agree.

There, to the north, the sky was split by a single, vertical gash, pulsing and throbbing with a garish light. Long, forked tongues of lightning lashed at the air around it, and as Hunter watched, the very world seemed to pulse around it, a bubble that swelled and then faded. It pulsed again, the gash widening and the world around it flexing … and then, almost as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone, the world rushing back in to fill the gap, and with a start Hunter realized that the scenery around it had moved to fill in the space.

The gap wasn’t in front of anything. It pushed everything aside. It made his head hurt.

“Look,” Dawn said, pointing out the window in another direction. “There’s another one.” Pulsing light filled the air off to the northeast, a second gash, this one further away, shuddering against reality. “And another.”

“Team,” Steel said, his voice low but carrying enough presence and weight to it to draw every eye to him. “New orders. Get set to deploy. Now.” His voice was rising in volume. “Gear up, get the equipment ready to drop, use the bathroom, grab a bite, whatever it takes. But you have minutes. Move!”

Nova and Dawn both broke, and Hunter spared Steel a quick nod as yet another flash lit the horizon, purple light backed by thunder. As he turned and bolted for the galley, he overheard Steel mutter one last thing under his breath.

“We’re about to be very busy.”

Author's Note:

Usually when the sky starts coming apart I get a little anxious too.

New chapters on Tuesdays and Fridays, as well as every hundred upvotes! If you're enjoying the story so far, don't forget to check out my website or my published books!

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!