• Published 9th Jul 2019
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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.

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Chapter 11

A bright pink beam shot into the sky, ascending upward like a rocket until it burst apart in a spray of prismatic sparks. Right from the end of the rail-line, where the contingent of Royal Guard had been waiting. A reply to The Hummingbird’s flares that they too had seen the arrival of the Crystal Empire, and acknowledged the Dusk Guard moving for it.

“It’s confirmed!” Hunter called, pulling his head back into the interior of the airship and pressing the door shut. The latch locked in with a heavy thunk. “Message received!” The call rolled on ahead of him, relayed as he gathered up the two remaining flare packs he hadn’t used—one on his back, one in his teeth—and made his way forward. He hadn’t even made it around the bend when The Hummingbird began to tilt, propellers picking up speed. By the time he’d secured the flares in the cargo netting of the main room and made it to the cockpit, the airship was already roaring toward the changed plain.

So that’s the Crystal Empire? he thought, staring at the distant city. Not much of an “empire” when it’s just one big, spread-out city like that. Then again … Anything outside of that capital is long gone. Who knows how much ground it covered. Or maybe they just like really ornate names.

“Hey.” Sky Bolt’s voice shook him from his thoughts, and he turned away from the view of the distant city to look at her. “You ready?”

He nodded. “Been ready. I was getting stuffed just sitting around doing nothing but training.” Sky let out a curt laugh, and he frowned. “Are you?”

Again the same curt laugh. “Sure!” But he shook his head.

“Seriously Bolt,” he said, stepping forward so that he could look her in the eyes. “It’s okay if you aren’t.”

“I …” She bit at her lower lip. “All right, I’m a little nervous.”

“That’s fine.”

“I know,” she said quickly, shaking her mane. “I just didn’t want anyone to know about it.”

“Well, between you and me,” he said, leaning in slightly and lowering his voice. “I wouldn’t let your coltfriend know.” The bright red blush from her cheeks said it all. “At least, not like that. If you do tell him, tell him you’re nervous, but that you’ll be fine.”

“As for me?” he said, pulling back. “I’d rather know up front. You’re in my care, so if you’re nervous, I want to know. That said … You’re a Dusk Guard. We’re going to be fine.”

“Thanks.” Bolt gave him a smile, and he turned to look back out the cockpit glass. The city was closer now, the spire at its center growing as they moved nearer. They weren’t quite close enough for him to pick out any details like a good landing zone, but they were making good time.

“Right, you remember what you’re supposed to do, right?” he asked, peering past a streak of water left by an errant snowflake.

“Of course I do,” Bolt said. “Why do you think I’m nervous? The Hummingbird is a big target.”

Oh, duh. That’s why she’s nervous. Hopefully his surprise wasn’t showing on his face. “Yeah, well, while they’re bound to spot us, they won’t have any way of knowing who or what we are without checking us out. And they’d need wings for that. I guess this ‘Order’ might have some, but …” He flexed a wing. “That’s what I’ll be doing.” He was starting to see some signs of detail now: individual buildings, smaller roads.

And a lot of red flags. Two guesses what those are. He glanced around the cockpit, mind switching processes for a moment before remembering where the binoculars had been.

“Binoculars?” he asked, holding out his hoof. Bolt nodded, pulling the pair of high-powered glasses out of their compartment and passing them to him. They were heavier than they looked, far moreso than the field glasses in his saddlebags. But they’d give him a much more distant picture, even through the glass wall of the cockpit.

“What do you see?” Sky Bolt asked as he peered through them. The distant buildings seemed to leap, the edge of the empire growing close. And blurry. He twisted at the knob on top of the binoculars, watching as the distant picture became first more blurry, and then snapped into clarity with startling precision.

“Give me a minute.” As sharp as the image now was, it was still hard to make out any detail. Even the faint vibrations of the propellers were enough to make it hard to fix the binoculars on one image, to say nothing of his own limbs, or the winds kicking against the aircraft. Or the visor the end of the binoculars were pressed up against.

Still, by panning the binoculars back and forth a few times, he was able to build a gradual picture. “City’s definitely still occupied,” he said, not dropping the glasses. “I’m seeing some citizens. At least I think they’re citizens. Hard to tell at this range.” And when I can’t keep my view steady. Nevertheless, there were definitely ponies of some kind poking their heads out of crystal-like structures, wandering around in what he assumed was awe.

Except for that group, he thought, glasses waving over a closely-knit group of ponies clad in red and black barding. Don’t need much of a guess to figure out who those folks are. Another pass showed the other ponies backing away, ducking back into their homes or running away from the group in red. Enforcers of some kind. His swinging view stumbled over a building much taller than the others, a crystalline tower decked out in red banners, and he managed to hold it steady long enough to make out the logo in the center, an emblem of a red slash—a horn perhaps—on a field of black.

Order of the Red Horn. That must be a local watchtower. The jerking movements of The Hummingbird tugged his view away, but he’d already seen enough. Those other splashes of red across the city are probably the same thing.

He pulled the binoculars away for a moment, blinking as his eyes readjusted, and noticed something new. Smoke. Faint pillars of grey rising into the sky over the city. But what was more, they weren’t moving.

“What?” Bolt asked, apparently catching something in his expression as he held the glasses up once more.

“Smoke,” he said, panning his view until the nearest pillar came into sight, twisting gently up into the sky. Like there isn’t the father of all storm systems spitting the dummy right overhead. “There’s smoke, and it’s not affected by the winds.”

“What?”

“It’s not affected by the winds,” he repeated. “And I’m not seeing much snow either.” How, I have no idea. He panned the glasses back down once more, trying to get a better view of the source of the smoke.

It wasn’t hard to find. A deep gash had been cut across the cityscape, a black, charred line that ended in a collapsed building. There weren’t any open flames that he could make out, but there was a hive of activity that looked organized, if not very quick. Plus more of the red barding, just faintly visible at the distance they were at.

More signs of Sombra’s enforcers, he thought. So they’re either still in control of the city, or working to regain it.

There was also a nearby plaza, he noted, that was filled with a lot of still forms that he suspected were bodies.

Civilian casualties, he thought, his heart giving a soft pang even as his mind catalogued the location for his report to Steel. Which means wounded, too.

A plaza like that would be a good place to set the ship down, he thought as he moved the glasses on. Except that most of them seem to be a good ways into the city. He had counted at least a dozen of the banner-flying towers now, as well as twice again that many that had been reduced to smoking wrecks. More and more signs of battle were presenting themselves the longer he looked, from smoking ruins of buildings, to jagged scars across the crystalline pavement of the roads, to even in one case, a pile of bodies wearing a familiar-looking golden-colored armor.

The Princesses’ Guard, he thought, holding the glasses over the distant blob for a moment, the image too far away for him to make out any further detail. And from the lack of movement … His chest panged again. Over a thousand years out of time, a thousand-plus years fallen.

He made a note of the location. Securing it would be a high priority. They were fellow Guard, even ancient ones, and that meant they wouldn’t be left behind. Or left to have their bodies desecrated.

He spotted several more buildings flying the red banners of Sombra’s order as he moved on. “Still no sign of a good landing zone, but Steel, Dawn, and Sabra are going to have plenty of hard yakka ahead of them. I’m seeing a lot of these banners that can’t be anyone but that order’s.” He moved his view to the center of the city, and the enormous crystal spire that dominated it. Red banners of multiple sizes still flew from its walls and hung from its peak.

He held back a sigh. Okay, so a large chunk of the city is still under the direct control of the order. Albeit loosely. There had been a number of sections where the populace seemed to be wandering around somewhat aimlessly, without any of the red-clad overseers. But none of them are anywhere I’d want to suggest landing an airship. Which means …

He brought his gaze to the edges of the city. We land outside it. Somewhere away from the red banners, away from the … He frowned.

“What?” Sky Bolt asked.

“The edge of the city,” he said, adjusting the binoculars. “It’s got some sort of … weather shield.”

“What? How?” There was a curious, almost excited undertone to Bolt’s question, the tantalizing prospect of something new being dangled in front of her immediately catching her attention.

“Magic, probably,” he said, shrugging. “But I can see it. Not whatever’s doing it, but the effect.” The snows swirled around the edge of the city, but there was a clear line in the air that seemed to be pushing them away. “Explains the lack of wind inside the city.” Something is pushing it away. But if it can push the wind away …

He lowered the glasses. “I don’t know if we can fly through that.” Bolt’s eyes widened. “We could always just try, but … I’m not seeing anywhere inside the city we could make a safe landing and unloading anyway. Not without running the risk of those enforcers showing up and damaging something.”

“So we land outside of it?” Sky Bolt asked.

He nodded. “Without any better idea of what’s keeping that weather out of the city, I’d say that’s our best bet.” He lifted the binoculars again, running them across the outskirts of the Crystal Empire. A wide, open expanse caught his eyes, and he focused on it. “Bingo.”

“What?”

“There,” he said, lowering the binoculars and pointing. “See that road?” It was one of the main “arms” of the snowflake design the city’s roads seemed to be based on, carving a straight line south of the tower and right to the edge of the city.

Sky Bolt nodded. “Yeah. The south one?”

“That’s it.” He held the binoculars up again, focusing on the southernmost tip of the city. “It ends in a wide gate. A bit past that, the road just … stops.” Maybe it got cut off when the city was disconnected. “We’d be setting down in the snow, but I’m not seeing any rough patches in the plains south of it, and the road would make distribution easier. We could drop things right in front of the gate. As long as …” He panned the binoculars over the south end of the city once more, pausing only at the wrecks of both of the nearest towers. “Okay. Both the nearest buildings flying those Order banners seem to be rubble.”

“Rubble?” He glanced over to see Bolt’s eyes wide with shock.

“Yeah, rubble,” he replied. “This was a war, remember? It looks like the Princesses came through her like a tornado. A very guided, specific tornado, but a tornado all the same. There’s a lot of damage down there.”

“Right.” Bolt gave her head a quick shake. “Just still getting used to the idea.” She shook her head once more as he opened his mouth again. “I’m fine.”

He nodded. If she says she’s fine, she’s fine. Besides, she’ll be on the hunting crew with me and Nova anyway. He took a final look through the binoculars, noting the number of figures moving about on the wide street, again without the red barding, and gave a final nod.

“All right,” he said as he passed Bolt the binoculars. “That’s our destination. Right outside that south gate. We can drop the cargo right in front of it.” And, if the citizens don’t run, maybe get them to point us at some local authorities that aren’t working for Sombra.

“ETA?” he asked as he turned for the door.

“Depends on the wind,” Sky replied. “Couple of minutes at most at the speed we’re making. Say three minutes.”

Hunter nodded and stepped into the main room, eyes searching. Steel was standing by the door, a heavy load of winter gear across his back. He noticed Hunter almost immediately. “Lieutenant. You find us a landing site?”

“Yeah. South end of the city. Right on the outskirts of one of the main roads. There’s some kind of barrier over the city keeping the weather out. Didn’t want to risk seeing if we could run an airship through it.”

Steel nodded. “Resistance?”

“It’ll materialize. Counted at least a dozen watchtower-looking places atop buildings flying a red-and-black banner, plus ponies wearing the same colors that looked like they were trying to restore order. Spotted a few combat zones with what are probably dead and wounded too. Including,” he said, lowering his voice. “What were probably Royal Guard.”

If the news shocked Steel he didn’t show it. “What about that central tower?”

“Still flying the same red-and-black colors as the watchtowers.”

“Hmm …” Steel pointed at the table. Paper and pencils had been scattered across it. “Map it. Small scale. Something I can carry. I know you’re not a cartographer. I just want something I can consult.” The Hummingbird shook, the wind outside briefly rising in pitch. “ETA?”

“Three to five minutes, according to Bolt,” Hunter answered as he stepped over to the table.

“Then make the map in two to four minutes,” Steel ordered. “I want you in the sky flying recon before we ever set down.”

“You got it.” There wasn’t much else he could say. The armor around his forehooves made dealing with the pencil tricky, and after a few bad scribbles on a pad of paper, he took his helmet off and clasped the end of the pencil with his lips.

Come on … Come on … The lines weren’t the straightest, but they’d have to do. He sketched out the rough shape of the city, with the southern end facing him. Once that was done, he marked the rough locations of the towers he’d seen across the city, as well as the locations where the damage was the worst and where he’d seen bodies or signs of activity.

Not my best, he thought as he finished labeling his markers and dropped the pencil to the tabletop. But Steel will make sense of it.

A glance out the window as he buckled his helmet back in place told him he hadn’t finished a moment to soon, either. He could see the Crystal Empire through the side windows, which meant that they had to be getting close.

Which means I need to be ready. He tore the sketch free of its pad with one hoof and tucked it into his wing, turning toward the T-hall and passing Sabra as he moved down it.

It wasn’t easy. The passage was no longer open, especially at the far end. The end of the hall was packed in both directions with crates of supplies, all reorganized under Dawn’s system. The mare herself was standing nearby, performing a last minute check of each box, her horn glowing as she walked slowly down the row. Steel was past her, and Hunter called out.

“Boss,” he said, extending a wing and holding the slip of paper out. “Like you asked.”

“Thanks.” Steel took the slip of paper in his hoof and stepped back, his backside pressed right up against the crates as he studied the paper. “Recon.”

Hunter nodded, already moving past the captain and squeezing down the tightly packed hall. Ahead of him, near the door, Sabra was standing atop one of the crates in his armor, checking its contents. They nodded at one another as he passed, but no words were spoken. They both had a job to do.

The entryway itself was still clear, and he took advantage of the space to doublecheck his equipment. Saddlebags: Light and tight. Armor: All secure. He gave himself a final shake, spreading his wings and checking the feathers to make sure none were lying out of position. Snow swirled outside the porthole in the outer door, and on a whim he glanced up.

Huh. What do you know. The lines between the storms looked like they were fading away, the rifts fading as the storm systems at last began to behave normally. Guess the Crystal Empire was responsible for that weather after all.

Good thing they’ve got that barrier or shield or whatever though. Now that the magic keeping those storms apart seems to be gone … He peered up at the sky once more. Some of them will cancel out, but most of them will just merge.

The weather was going to get worse. A lot worse.

Satisfied he was ready to deploy, he sat back on his haunches, a nervous tremble of energy making its way through his back legs. Any moment now. His ears twitched, swiveling as they waited for the telltale signal that would tell him it was time to move.

Any second now … He shifted his hooves. Any second …

There! The propeller pitch changed, drifting down as the deck underneath shifted, a faint weight pressing everything aboard forward. His hooves were on the latch immediately, his mouth opening as he called out over his shoulder. “Door opening!” Wind tore at his wings as the hatch opened, and he tucked them close as he dove out into the open sky.

Only to snap them open a second later, the currents catching and launching him out through the air. He twisted, flipping his body around as he took in his surroundings. The Hummingbird was still powering ahead, but even he could see that the airship had slowed as it neared the swirling dome of snow around the city.

And the city. So close, the details leapt out at him. The buildings themselves were angular, corners sharp and geometric. All of them had a faint shine to them that reminded him of the crystals beneath the Canterlot Mountains, or more closely the sheen of his own armor. Each seemed to follow a uniform color—or at least where there wasn’t damage of some kind.

He swept his wings back, powering through the heavy wings and rushing ahead of The Hummingbird. He could see ponies—crystal ones, presumably—milling about the street, pointing in his direction. Or the airship’s, it didn’t really matter which. They’d been noticed. Not that it would have been hard to, considering they were the only airship for miles.

He pushed slightly harder, green lines glowing faintly on his black undersuit as his magic helped him push through the strong winds. Ahead of him, he could see the barrier that separated the Crystal Empire from the weather outside of it, the snow in the sky almost having piled into a moving wall around it. And beyond it … Grass? He blinked in surprise. Maybe Sabra won’t need that heat mod after all.

He let himself slow as he neared the “wall,” eyeing the barrier even as his wings and magic fought to keep his body level. Well … here goes nothing. He poked his hoof out, past the swirling snowflakes.

It passed through without pause. There was a faint … something … around it that he could feel with his magic, a faint sense that tickled at his innate ability to control weather. The barrier is weather magic of some kind, he thought as he pulled his hoof back. And if it’s weather magic …

He threw himself forward, almost going into a tumble when the winds his strong strokes had been correcting for vanished. Warmth washed over him—not hot, but nowhere near as icy and frozen as the weather outside the city. Huh. The howling of the storm seemed diminished as well, almost nonexistent. He rubbed a hoof at his visor, brushing away a few already-melting stray flakes, and took his first, close-up look at the Crystal Empire.

Beneath him, a broad, shining street that almost appeared to be made of tinted glass stretched down what looked like the full length of the city, or at least all the way to the tower at the center. Buildings made of crystal flanked both sides, along with the small, grassy lawns he’d seen earlier. This close, he could see that the hard, geometric lines he’d noticed at a distance had rounded, softened edges.

But the most important thing he saw were the ponies standing in the street in front of him, staring up at him with wary eyes.

Crystal ponies. Huh. The largest difference he could see off-hoof was that their coats were sort of a dull, pastel color with a fine sheen to it. I can see how they got the name. They don’t look healthy, though. Many of them looked underweight, or like they hadn’t had a good night’s rest in weeks. As he watched, they began to cluster together, bunching up against one another, their eyes still fixed on him. Several of them looked ready to bolt.

Maybe it’s the armor? he wondered. Or it’s just that I’m an outsider. He held up his hooves and let himself drop a few feet. Better make contact. Figure out what’s been going on. Slowly, he lifted his hooves and undid the clasp on his helmet, sliding it up and out of place. The wary looks didn’t vanish, but a few of the crystal ponies seemed to relax a little. His rear hooves touched the ground, and he tucked the helmet into his wing. “Ah …” Crikey, what do I say? “He—”

“Are you with the Princesses?” a mare in the back of the group blurted, only to recoil and cover her mouth with her hoof, eyes wide with fear as if she was about to be struck.

“I …” Come on, Hunter, you’re a Dusk Guard. Act like it! He pulled himself up. “I am. First Lieutenant Hunter of the Dusk Guard of Equestria.” The group of ponies shot sideways glances at one another. A few still looked hesitant at his words, but some of the others appeared hopeful.

“Can you tell us what happened?” A crystal stallion spoke up, taking a step forward, his pastel purple coat glimmering faintly. His accent sounded vaguely like that of the Canterlot nobility, but with its own inflections. And a little of Dawn’s Manehatten accent thrown in for good measure. “Did the Princesses defeat King Sombra? Was that what that light in the sky was?”

“Why could we not leave the city?”

“Where did the rest of the world go?”

“Where are the Princesses?”

He held up his hooves as the crowd began to step forward, questions spilling out of them like water from an unstopped faucet, and they quieted.

“Sombra is … it’s complicated. The Princesses beat him, but not permanently. That’s why my team is here. The sky changing …” He paused. Come on, think of something. “You were cut off, correct? From the outside world?”

“The whole world vanished,” one of the ponies said. “The sky went all purple, and everything felt strange, and then that was all there was.”

Okay, so they were aware during the time they were out of … well, time. But for how long? “How long did it last?”

The crystal ponies glanced at one another. “It wasn’t a full day,” one of them said at last, a mare with a shiny yellow coat. “Not even a half. Just under. The Order came around telling everyone to get back to work, to ignore it, but most of us didn’t know what to do. Then everything came back, and there was the snow outside and …” The mare shook her head. “We do not know what to do. The Order have been telling everypony to stay in their homes or work their shifts, but …” Scattered murmurs rose from the group around her as her voice trailed off, the rest of them speaking up.

“Hold up, hold up.” Hunter held up his hooves once more, and the group stopped, though they were all still looking at him with expectant eyes. And I get to tell them what’s happened. Great. As if they haven’t had enough shocks for the day. “Who’s in charge?” he asked. “Not the Order, but locally. There has to be some kind of local leadership or somepony you all turn to, right?”

“That would be me.” The voice belonged to the stallion that had spoken up earlier. “Unofficially. Sterling Garnet.”

“Right.” How to put this. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, Garnet. All of you, really. That brief ‘blip’ you all had? Where the whole outside world went bodgy? That was … a sealing spell.”

“What are you saying?” one of the ponies asked. “Were the Princesses protecting us from Sombra?”

“Ah … sort of?” You’re doing a terrible job at this. “Look, that whole battle you remember? From just a few minutes ago? Between the Princesses and Sombra?” He glanced around at the group, taking in their harried expressions. Just say it. “Yeah … that was about thirteen-hundred years ago.”

“I … What?” Garnet’s stunned exclamation was echoed by several others throughout the group. “I do not understand what you mean!”

“Ah crikey.” Hunter began to bring a hoof up to rub at the back of his head, but caught it before it had made it too far from the ground. Gotta look confident. They have to believe this. “Look, I’m not trying to make a beat up about this, and I don’t want you all to crack a—to lose it.” Several of the crystal ponies in the back were edging away, he noticed. Doing a great job so far here, Hunter. “But you have to understand this. The battle between the Princesses and King Sombra? That happened over a thousand years ago, plus a few centuries.” Some of the crystal ponies were giving him wide-eyed looks, ears folded back. Like I’ve sprouted a horn or something. Probably a red one. “You’ve been gone a very, very long time.”

“No …” It was one of the mares in the back of the group, backing away. “It cannot be. You are … You speak lies!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, offering a shrug. “But I’m really not.”

“But why?” Garnet asked, splitting his focus between Hunter and the rest of the group. “If what you are speaking of is true—and I will admit the changing of the sky and the sudden season beyond the edge of the city would seem to—” His voice hitched for a moment. “—support it, why?”

“To save you.” It was the best answer he had. “It wasn’t intentional—”

“It was an accident?”

“No! Sort of.” He held up a hoof. “Look, all I know is that during the battle with King Sombra, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna tried to defeat him once and for all by trapping him in a pocket dimension or something until he starved. Getting him out of the fight and freeing all of you. Except he used his connection to the city or whatever to pass the spell on or something?” He could see blank-faced looks on the crowd in front of him, along with plenty of wary eyes. You really are bad at this. “Point being Sombra got your whole city sealed as well.” This is getting out of hoof. Reel it back in.

“Point being,” he said, his voice temporarily growing so loud that some of the crystal ponies flinched. “I’m sorry, but you’ve all be gone a really, really long time. For you it was hours, I guess, but for the rest of the world, it was centuries. Centuries during which the Princesses had time to prepare for your return.”

He took a step to the side, waving his hoof at the edge of the city and the large, triangular shape of The Hummingbird. “That airship belongs to the team I’m part of. We’re here to operate as a spearhead to a rescue and relief effort. Those boxes?” He pointed to the large crates floating out of The Hummingbird’s side, wrapped in yellow and orange magic. “They’re full of medical supplies, food rations, and materiels. You’re a local leader, Garnet?” he asked, looking right at the crystal stallion. The ponies around him still looked shocked; some were even stepping away, but it couldn’t be helped. “Then we’re going to need your help. For us, this battle was a thousand-plus years ago. For you, it was moments ago. We have medical supplies, a skilled doctor, and a whole train worth of Royal Guard should be here within a day or so. We need connections with locals like yourself to know where these supplies need to go, and who to give them to.”

“But the Order—” one of the crystal ponies began, their voice quivering with fear.

“We’ll deal with the Order,” Hunter said, cutting her off. “We’re the Dusk Guard, ma’am. But if you can spread the word—”

“That what!?” someone in the back shouted. “That we were lost to time?” The stallion turned and ran, a panicked look in his eyes even as Garnet called after him. His departure set off several other crystal ponies, several of which ran with cries of … terror, or maybe panic, Hunter wasn’t sure. Several of them ran into homes, doors slamming shut behind them, while a few others ducked between buildings or down offshoot streets, the sounds of their frantic galloping echoing after them.

Crud. Maybe I should have left this to Steel. Or Dawn. If those ponies kick off an even bigger panic …

It was too late to do anything about it now. He turned his eyes back to the remaining crystal ponies. About two-thirds of them had stayed, still wary. Garnet was one of them.

“Lieutenant …” he said, his voice sounding strained. “It is not that I do not … Well …”

“It’s outrageous, I know,” Hunter said. “I’d have trouble believing it myself if it hadn’t come from the Princesses.”

“But it … is true?” He could hear the hope in Garnet’s voice, the faint cry holding out that what he’d been told was in some way, not what had happened. That thirteen-hundred years hadn’t just passed in the blink of an eye, that the strange distortion they’d experienced hadn’t been the sign of the world they’d known being ripped away from them, but some other event.

“I hate to say it,” Hunter said, his ears folding back. “But it’s pure dinkum. The truth. I don’t know all the details, and I’m sorry you had to hear it from me. I can’t imagine what you must all be feeling like right about now, but whatever it is, my team needs your help. We can’t distribute supplies without the ponies of the empire. We’ve seen the smoke: We know there were fires. This whole city just came out of a battle. I know everything I’ve just said has to sound like a load of goss that’s totally sus. Suspicious gossip?” he added when he saw the confused looks. “But it’s true. And if you can spread the word, or point our team where those supplies need to go, or better yet help us get them to a proper distribution chain, or get one set up, that’ll free our hooves up to stamp out what’s left of the Order.” He took a deep breath. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but—”

“I will do it.” Garnet’s sure voice cut him off, and he looked at the stallion, first in surprise, then with a smile as the crystal pony pulled himself up. Was it his imagination, or did he look just a little brighter? “Sombra was not in power so long that all of us have forgotten how to stand on our own hooves. I can talk with the neighboring streets. Spread the word. Tell ponies to stay in their homes, or come to places for medical aid.”

“That’d be … perfect, actually,” Hunter said, grinning. He pointed back at The Hummingbird. “You’ll want to speak with my superior, Captain Steel Song. Wearing green armor. Built like a wall. You can’t miss him. He and our medical officer will be able to better coordinate with you.” He waited until Garnet had nodded before continuing. “I’ll let him know who you are, you can speak with him as soon as you’re ready. I need to make a recon flight and check out the surrounding area. Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news.”

“It …” Garnet took a deep breath. “We will manage. I do not believe even I fully understand yet, or even want to, but even if the words you have spoken are not true … this city is wounded. If you bring supplies, and word from our would-be saviors, then we will do what we can. There will be time for healing.”

“It’s our job to give you that time,” Hunter said, sliding the helmet down over his head. “I’ll let the captain know you’re coming. But before I do, is there a nearby center, plaza, or location I should be checking that might serve as a rally point? Somewhere we can bring all the supplies to instead of, you know, out in the snow?”

“There was the old social hall several blocks over,” one of the crystal ponies said, her ears folding back even as she spoke to him. “But the Order turned it into one of their offices. The Princesses hit it when they went past. I do not believe any of us have had the nerve to go see what became of it.”

Order stations. Definitely worth checking out. What’s the bet that there’s a prison cell under each one? Sombra ruled this place through fear and terror to get what he wanted. His muscles tightened. “That’s good to know, I can give it a look. Anything—”

“Alone?” A different crystal stallion had spoken up, voice shaking with fear. “Against an Order guardhouse?”

“And I’m a Dusk Guard,” he countered. “You don’t know what that is yet, but believe me, you’re about to. And so is the Order.” He turned his eyes back to Garnet. “Anything else close by I should check out? Those towers, maybe?”

“The Order Watchtowers? There are not any near here.”

“What about collaborators? Are there any?”

At that, Garnet’s face soured. “There are,” he said. “Some serve in hidden ways, from the dark, others openly. Those that are open wear the king’s emblem, work with his Order, and fly his flag from their homes. Those in secret skulk around in the dark.”

Hunter nodded. Watch your back, in other words. Gotcha. “Do you have any idea of ponies that might be secret collaborators?” The last thing we want to do is start a wild hunt, but at the same time …

Thankfully, Garnet shook his head. “No. Only that those who speak out in what they believe to be confidence find themselves punished not long after. Sometimes one is revealed, but … The Order does their best to keep them hidden.”

“Right.” He nodded. “Well, I’ll check out the wreck of that Order office. What about central meeting areas?”

“Taken by the Order,” Garnet said, and Hunter nodded again.

Right. That makes sense. Central locations. Public ones. Which likely meant that there were hidden ones as well. Small, subversive locations for the hidden informants to operate out of. We’ll have to watch our backs. Or rather, Steel and his team would. And I will while I’m flying recon. Which I really need to do.

“Okay,” he said. “Thank you for your help. Again, talk to Captain Song. Green armor. I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.” And hope that you’re not one of those secret collaborators you hinted at, or this mission will be off to a great start.

“I can round up a few volunteers to help with supplies,” Garnet said.

“I can let the nearby streets know,” a second pony added. Hopefully they were tactful about the “thirteen hundred years” bit. Or didn’t mention it.

“I have a wagon,” another crystal pony cut in. “In my shed. We can use that.” The rest began talking among one another, and again Hunter had the strange impression that some of their coats were growing a little brighter.

“Good. Talk to the captain, he’ll appreciate the help. I’ll let him know you’re coming.” He snapped his wings down, launching himself into the air before he could be further roped into the crystal ponies’ hopeful conversation, and headed back toward the barrier.

He hit it at a slightly higher speed this time, green lines in his suit flaring as his pegasus magic fought the sudden shift in weather across the barrier. The howl of the wind leapt into his ears, along with the faint, droning buzz of The Hummingbird’s propellers. Distant shouts rolled across the wind as well, voices he recognized belonging to both Steel and Dawn as they unloaded the cargo from the airship. There was already a decently sized pile of crates on the ground, and as he neared another floated into place, wrapped in a yellow and orange glow.

“Hunter,” Steel said, turning to face him as he came in for a landing. “We’re almost unloaded here. What’s the report?”

“Contact made with the locals. Gathered some information you’d want to hear.” He pointed back at the edge of the city. “First of all, that barrier is permeable. You can pass through it. The Order still seems to have control over the city, or at least what’s left of it. All the central locations are controlled by them as well. Or were.”

“How long has it been for the locals?” Steel asked.

A grimace slipped across his face before he could stop himself, not that Steel would see half of it with his helmet in place. “Less than half a day. I couldn’t get a more specific length out of them. More than a few hours, though.”

“Sun above.”

“Worse, there are collaborators. Public, and secret.”

“So this contact you made …”

“Sterling Garnet. Could be, yeah. Claims to be sort of a local community leader. Said he’d help with getting the word out and giving you ideas about supplies. One pony said they’d bring a wagon.”

“One of them could be a collaborator,” Steel said, and Hunter nodded.

“The thought occurred to me. But with us, it’s buckleys if they try anything.”

Steel nodded. “It would be. What about the situation. Do they know?”

“I told them how long they’d been gone. That’s it.”

“How’d they—Easy with that!—take it?”

He shook his head. “Shock and denial, mostly.”

“Dawn’s going to have her work cut out for her. Anything else?”

“I’m going to check out the surrounding area, do a proper recon. Check out one of the Order’s offices that’s supposed to be nearby. The Princesses apparently hit it on their way in.”

“Right. We’ll be unloaded in a few minutes. Make it fast.”

He nodded, snapped a quick salute, and with a flick of his wings was airborne again, heading for the edge of the city. Again he passed through the barrier, the howling winds cutting out so abruptly it was like someone had flipped a switch. He pushed down, ascending higher into the air and over the rooftops, giving him a wider view of the surrounding blocks. Below him, he could see the group of crystal ponies he’d talked to just moments earlier wheeling a four-wheeled cart out of a shed behind one of the houses. There were fewer than he remembered, and a glance at the nearby houses showed a few of them heading inside, either to take shelter until things blew over, retrieve something, or maybe just to hide and come to terms with what he’d told them.

He climbed higher, wings beating in strong, wide strokes as the houses shrank beneath him. The neighboring streets showed signs of activity as well, crystal ponies poking their heads out of doorways and looking around. He spotted several groups to both the east and the west that appeared to have noticed the airship. There were no hooves pointed in his direction, however. At least, not currently. Even once he’d pulled out his field glasses to give himself a better look, none seemed to have noticed him, high up as he was.

All right … fairly standard layout, aside from the snowflake design. His eyes locked on a pile of what looked like scorched, crystalline rubble that had once been a street corner at least four or five blocks to the west. Black streaks across the ground from multiple directions centering on the charred superstructure made it clear what it had probably once been. One of the Order offices. There was a crowd of ponies sifting through the rubble, some with magic, some with hooves. The ones with magic, he noted, were wearing red.

Five of them, he counted. Though only four are unicorns. The last was a crystal pony, who seemed to be shouting orders at the rest of the group sifting through the rubble. Looking for survivors. One of the unicorns took a step forward, a whip lashing out and striking at one of the ponies moving rubble, and as far away as he was, he imagined he could hear the cry. He brought his hooves up, ready to dive down … and then caught himself.

It’s happening all over the city. And if you don’t report it, it won’t stop. He tensed a muscle, then pulled his gaze away to look over the rest of the nearby area.

Okay, aside from the Order station, there are several groups of crystal ponies looking around in confusion. That section of homes has collapsed; they’ll likely need medical attention. That home has Order flags on it, and that pony out front seems to be giving orders to the rest of them. And that … looks like a scouting party. The last was coming from the center of the city, straight down the road toward the city’s edge, though they were well off from it. At least … three ponies?

A cry caught his ears, and he snapped his focus back to the Order station. The unicorn with the whip was at it again, cracking it across the withers of one of the ponies so hard that they had fallen, their cries no longer imagined, but echoing faintly through the air.

His decision was made in an instant. He snapped his wings back, throwing himself into a sharp, downward dive. He took advantage of the near freefall to stow his binoculars, and then he brought his wings out, leveling out in a fast glide that took advantage of his downward rush. Air whistled past the edges of his armor as he picked up speed, throwing in a wingbeat every so often as he shot through the air. The cries had died out, but the boiling in his blood hadn’t.

Five versus one. He thought back on the training he and the rest of the team had been through. Almost a fair fight.

Almost. And he had no plans to make it fair.

He was just above the rooftops now, streaking over them at high speed, wings half-tucked against his sides. Ahead of him, he could see a faint haze of smoke twisting up from an open intersection, rising from a noticeable gap in the city skyline. This is it!

He shot out over the final rooftop, his rear hooves almost scraping over the crystalline surface, and spotted his target.

The unicorn was standing on the far side of the street, a whip handle gripped in their blue magic. He was clad in red-and-black barding of some kind, with a simple, metal chestplate. Across from them, splayed across the rubble, was a crystal stallion, his back and legs bloody. As was the tip of the whip the unicorn had been using to lash him.

He never knew what hit him. Hunter snapped his wings back a final time, descending like a bird of prey at the back of the unicorn’s head, riding the Order member into the ground and slamming him headfirst into the crystal paving stones. The unicorn’s helmet buckled and bounced away, torn free by the impact even as a wet smack echoed across the intersection mixed with the faint crunch of the stallion losing most of their teeth.

He didn’t stop. Before the other three unicorns could react he was flipping away, shoving his body up and sideways with his wings splayed behind him in a twisting flip that he’d learned from Sabra. The closest of the Order guards turned to see what had happened, just in time for the first of Hunter’s rear hooves to catch him right across the muzzle, shattering his nose and dragging his head forward and down.

Just in time for the second hoof to catch him in the back of the head, bringing him face-first into the paving stones, his face hitting so hard it would have bounced if not for Hunter’s weight bearing down behind it. Motion completed, his wings splayed and forehooves up in an offensive Tempest stance, he picked his next target.

“Alarm!”

Hunter threw himself forward as one of the remaining order members shouted. The unicorn in front of him tried to react, her horn lighting up with an azure glow, but by the time a shield began to form in front of her to block his charge, he was already halfway through it. For just the briefest moment he saw surprise in her eyes, then his armored hoof slammed into her head hard enough to dent her helm, snapping her head back, the glow of her horn winking out as she hit the ground.

He spun again, just in time to catch the collaborator’s charge, blocking a wild swing with one hoof. The motion was clearly practiced, but sloppy, more likely executed on defenseless civilians than somepony with actual combat experience. He slapped the blow aside, then countered with two of his own, staggering the crystal pony back.

“Alarm!”

He spun, jumping back and feeling his magic course through him as he threw a quick burst of wind at the other Order member, the sudden whirlwind shutting them up and sending them stumbling. It was a sloppy use of pegasus magic, but in a pinch, it would work as long as he didn’t use too many more. Capitalizing on the distraction, he used his wings to dart forward, tackling the unicorn and slamming him into the ground. He heard the faint “Ooof!” of the breath being knocked from the unicorn’s lungs, and satisfied that he was down for the moment, Hunter spun back to the crystal collaborator.

He was falling back, shouting something to the nearby ponies to help him. His shouts turned to terrified screams when a moment later Hunter’s hoof cracked across his chin, knocking him to the ground and into silence.

A bolt of hot, bright azure energy skipped off of his shoulder and into one of the nearby homes, and he turned to see the unicorn mare from before standing wide eyed, her horn aglow. He shoved himself up, another blast shooting by beneath him as he powered into the air. He tucked one wing against his side, throwing himself into a tight spiral that sent her third and final shot wide before his hind legs slammed into her body, knocking her to the ground. He felt something in her side give way with a faint pop, and she screamed as she hit the ground. A short, tight blow later, and she slumped back, unconscious or at least dazed for some time.

Another bolt of energy shot past his head, and he turned to see the last unicorn, the one he’d tackled to the ground, looking at him with wide eyes. The unicorn’s horn glowed, and with a pop, he vanished.

Long-range or short range? There was only one way to find out. He reached inside himself, summoning forth his magic and sending a wave of energy out in all directions from his mod. The world became bright and hazy with magic once more, and he twisted his head around, looking for any sign of the unicorn.

There. There was a blurry, bright figure trailing magic as they ran from a bright point at the peak of their head, behind one of the nearby buildings. Hunter rose into the air, wings beating steadily as he took off in pursuit.

A moment later he was back, the unconscious unicorn held in his front hooves, and he dropped him to the ground beside his fellows before taking a look around the intersection. Expressions of horror and shock greeted him. Not that I blame them. Part of him wanted to just walk into a back alley and hurl up his lunch at the amount of violence he’d just inflicted … but a single glance at the wounded crystal stallion, red tracks across their back and hind legs, shoved the nausea away. The stallion was panting with pain, but still aware, and Hunter trotted over to him.

“Are you familiar with the south gate?” he asked, pointing in the direction the airship had landed. The stallion nodded. “There are medical supplies there, along with personnel to treat your injuries.” He glanced around at the rest of the crowd, raising his voice. “If you’ll take these scum—” He paused to tap one of the unconscious Order members with a hoof. “—with you, the Guard there will handle them.”

“Is that … who you’re with?” one of the ponies asked, speaking up. “The Guard? From Equestria?”

He nodded, pulling himself up straight. “We are. We are the Dusk Guard of Equestria.”

“And we are taking back this city.”

END OF PART ONE

Author's Note:

You know, I remember when this episode came out hearing people ask why the crystal ponies were so down. Might have had something to do with "You've just been time-displaced a thousand years, and the world you were just living under was a despotic regime of literal terror."

All I'll add after that is that this was an interesting scenario to work out. Definitely had to pull from what working in occupied cities and countries has been like throughout history. Anyway, thus ends ... PART ONE!

Agin, new chapters release Tuesdays and Fridays, plus a bonus with every hundred upvotes! If you're enjoying the story so far, don't neglect to check out my website or my published works!

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