• 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 1

You know, Hunter thought as he took another look around the interior of the airship. I’m a bit gobsmacked how warm this thing is as high up as we are. He let out another breath, eyes almost crossing as he watched the air in front of him, but saw nothing. Amazing. I wonder if that has something to do with the superboilers we use, or if it’s just something else? He was sure that if he asked Sky Bolt, she’d be able to tell him exactly how she’d done it as she had both designed and built The Hummingbird, but at the moment, that wasn’t exactly important. What was important was that despite being at an altitude where he normally wouldn’t have dared fly without a heavy jacket, the inside of The Hummingbird was quite comfortable.

Not that everypony found it so agreeable. Particularly one specific member of the team that found the cold a little more … bracing … than everypony else. He let his eyes slip to the side of the cargo bay, where Sabra, the only zebra member of their party, had already wrapped a small scarf around his neck.

If he thinks this is bad, Hunter thought as he turned his attention back to the crate of medical supplies he was securing with “crash” webbing. He’s going to be really suffering when we actually reach the Crystal Plains. He reached out and caught the end of the knot he was securing with his teeth, giving it a strong yank before leaning back and shoving at the crate with one hoof. It didn’t move. He shoved it again, this time with both forehooves, and nodded as it moved only slightly. A little give was okay, Sky Bolt had told him, but too much could spell a problem if they encountered heavy turbulence. Something they were sure to find with the winds coming off of the Crystal Mountains.

Satisfied, he stepped back and took a quick look around the rear cargo storage of The Hummingbird. The last time they’d taken the airship out, the entire interior had still been incomplete, the decking underhoof bare metal and none of the dividing walls in place.

Sun above, half of the piping and wiring was exposed on that trip, he thought as he stepped up to another carefully-webbed crate, tugging at one of the knots to make sure it was secure. There were clips along the walls for easier attachment, of course—either Sky Bolt had put an astounding amount of thought into usability, or she had a very thorough guide somewhere—but with the amount of materiel they’d stuffed into the room, they’d used them in short order, leaving them with little choice but to move away from the walls and into the center of the room. There were clips in the floor for just that purpose, but they required more work to make effective use of. As it was now … This place almost looks like a completely different ship from the last time we used it.

Satisfied that the crates wouldn’t slip, he stepped back and took another look around the bay. Sabra was still securing a crate on his side, the colt not quite as befuddled by knots and ropes as he had been when he’d first joined the team, but far from an expert either. But aside from that minor hang-up, the cargo bay looked …

Secure, he thought as he watched Sabra give one of his knots a final tug with his teeth, whipcord muscle up and down the colt’s body standing out as he pulled at the tail.

“That it?” Hunter asked as Sabra let go of the offending end of the knot.

Ndiyo,” the colt replied, shaking his shoulders to settle his scarf back into position. Then he turned, pivoting on one hoof and giving the crate a sharp shove that, despite the apparent lack of balance to his position, Hunter had no doubt was every bit as effective as one of his own. “Our cargo has been secured.” His words were almost melodic with his Plainsland accent, though Hunter had to admit that the rhythm behind his words fit the whole “carefully balanced” theme the colt seemed to have going for him.

“Good,” Hunter said, giving him a nod. “Steel’ll be rapped to hear it. So will Sky Bolt.” The way Sabra’s ear twitched at the mention of the pale-grey pegasus didn’t escape his notice. He took a final, quick look around the room, even giving his wings a quick beat to make sure everything was in its proper place from above, and then gave Sabra another nod.

“Looks spot on,” he said. “Properly balanced and all just like she asked.” He turned forward, heading for the hatch that led to the rest of the airship, his mind once again jumping to just how different everything looked now that the interior was finished.

The deck underhoof, for example, was covered in a sort of stiff, rubbery padding material with circular holes cut in it. Probably to reduce weight. Rather than a large, wide-open interior space, there were actual rooms, such as the cargo storage he and Sabra had just left, and a small, T-shaped hallway that divided it from the forward compartments. He made his way down the center of the “T,” Sabra following behind, only slowing as they both neared the medical bay on the port side of the airship. The door was open wide, and he could see the telltale glow of magic from within, as well as hear the cultured tones of the team’s resident medic, Dawn Triage.

“Back end’s secure,” he said, sticking his head around the doorway to see the pink mare juggling several emergency medical kits in the orange glow of her magic. Why they had so many of the kits he still wasn’t certain, since they weren’t for the team, but the Princesses had been adamant that they stow as many aboard as possible before they’d departed. Which, of course, had left them with the puzzling conundrum of where to put them.

“Wonderful,” Dawn said, not even looking at him as she floated the medkits over to an already over-piled shelf, only to scowl and shake her head, mane bouncing. “Unfortunately, we’re still dealing with dozens of these blasted medical kits here, and I don’t believe they’ll count as stowed if I simply shove them into an empty box, nor do I expect Sky Bolt will be particularly thrilled if we mount them on the walls the way they were before we cleared the Palace of them.” Dawn gave her tail an annoyed flick, the orange hairs snapping past the bandage-wrap-and-syringe cutie mark on her flank. “At this point, I’m almost considering simply piling them atop the table and praying we don’t need it in the foreseeable future.”

A flash of movement from up the hall caught Hunter’s eye, and he stepped back as a deep-purple unicorn jumped over the open hatch divide, his horn aglow and several more medkits floating in the air behind him, wrapped in a blue glow.

“Nova,” Hunter said, giving the colt a nod. The former-thief-turned-Dusk Guard gave him a quick nod, but ducked around the entryway to the med bay, speaking as soon as he spotted the frustrated doctor within.

“Bad news, Dawn,” he said. “Sky Bolt says we’re putting too much weight on this side with all those kits. She wants us to either move them to the starboard—right—”

“I know what starboard means, Nova,” Dawn said, though the words lacked venom.

“Right, well, she wants us to either move them to the right side of the ship in the main room, whatever that one’s called, or the brig next to the bathroom.”

“The brig?” Dawn’s tone made it clear what she thought of that suggestion.

Nova simply shrugged. “Steel okayed it.”

“Hmm … Brig it is then, if we’re not going to need it. And if we do, whoever is in it will simply be very healthy.” The doctor turned her attention back to the med-bay, and Hunter took another step back, glancing at Sabra.

“Why don’t you help these two get the rest of those kits into the brig,” he said, tilting his head in the direction of the medical bay. “I’m going to go speak with Steel.” Sabra’s only reply was a quiet nod before stepping in to help with the pair. As he left, Hunter could hear Dawn already issuing him instructions as to what to grab.

“Captain,” Hunter said, leaving the hall and stepping into the “crew room.” He wasn’t actually sure what it was supposed to be called, but it was the central cabin of the ship, at least as far as the team was concerned. Some seating—much of it currently filled with duffel bags of winter gear that had been hastily thrown aboard—was scattered here and there along the walls, while equipment lockers took up most of the front wall. Wide windows on both sides gave a star-studded view of the night sky, the cloud cover beneath them lit by a thin crescent moon. Couches that doubled as bunks lay beneath each one. They’d been in a different location the last time they’d used the airship, but they otherwise looked the same. The back of the room was given over to storage and, on the starboard side, a galley.

And right in the center of the room—well, Hunter admitted, slightly forward if one was being picky—was a low-set, ridged table currently occupied by a spread of maps and folders. Captain Steel Song, their commander, was standing in front of it, his back to Hunter as he pored over the collection, his faint rumble of thought barely audible over the hum of the airship’s propellers.

“Lieutenant,” Steel replied without looking up. “How’s the cargo bay looking?”

“Secure and tied down tight,” Hunter said as he stepped up alongside the massive olive-green stallion, casting a quick glance down at the spread of paper covering the table. The map was what his eyes were drawn to first, a massive sheet of paper displaying the whole of the Crystal Mountains as well as a good portion of the territory to the south and north alike. “Dawn, Nova, and Sabra are getting the stash of medkits stowed away now that they’ve got a good location for them, and then that’ll be taken care of. The winter gear we’ll leave in here, where it’s needed.”

Steel gave a faint rumble of affirmation, but didn’t reply, his eyes fixed on one of the sheets of paper in front of him. It took a good portion of Hunter’s willpower to resist the urge to simply peek at it.

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir,” he said, “and not to be stroppy or anything … but can you at least give me a heads-up as to what this is all about? We’re not going to do a hot extraction for—” He took a quick look around the room to make sure no one else was nearby. “—Blade, are we?”

Steel shut his eyes and let out a short sigh. “Lieutenant, I think that when you start using terms like ‘sir’ at all, it’s a clear sign you’ve been kept out of the loop for too long. Although,” he added as he turned to look at Hunter. “It’s not quite anything I can blame myself for. I didn’t know until my briefing with the Princesses was over, and I needed you to get the team ready on short notice.”

“That said …” He turned back to looking at the map for a moment. “We’re not going to the Ocean. That hasn’t changed. In fact, we’re not to set a hoof over the border under any circumstance, something I hope doesn’t interfere with our actual assignment.”

“We’re not going to Northgait either,” Steel said, predicting Hunter’s next question before he could voice it. “Blade made a huge mess of it when she tore through it, but none of the chaos in the Ocean has come back to hammer down on it, thankfully.”

“Okay …” Hunter paused for a moment. What else could we be running into, especially with all those medkits? “Refugees coming over the Crystal Mountains?”

“That’s a pretty plausible theory,” Steel said. “But no. And I don’t know of any refugees fleeing the Ocean. Most of them seemed determined to hunker down whatever storm is rampaging through it right now.”

There was an unspoken sting to his words, and Hunter merely nodded. I deserve that. “So then … what are we doing?”

“We …” Steel said, sliding the folders aside and slapping his hoof against the map, drawing Hunter’s eyes to a large, circled area of the otherwise empty Crystal Plains. “Are going to hunt a mad king. And hopefully, if the Princesses played their cards right, save a kingdom.”

* * *

“Wait a minute,” Nova said, shaking his head as soon as Steel had finished speaking. “Have we ever heard of what?”

“The Crystal Empire,” Steel said again, his eyes flitting across the team as he spoke. Hunter had a pretty good idea of how Nova felt.

Considering that was me, not ten minutes ago, when Steel dropped this whole thing on me. The captain’s pre-briefing had been quick and to the point. Worse, it had left him completely gobsmacked. A feeling he had no doubt the rest of the team was about to experience first-hoof.

“The Crystal—?” Nova began, only to be cut off as Dawn spoke up.

“I’ve heard of it,” she said. Looks of surprise swept across the group’s faces, mirrored, he knew, by a look of shock on his own.

“You have?” he asked, the question slipping out of his mouth before he could stop it. He glanced at Steel, but when no sign to stop appeared forthcoming, continued. “How?”

“It’s one of the unexplained mysteries of the modern archeological age,” Dawn said, her normally calm expression slightly surprised, as if the relevance of her knowledge was as shocking to her as it was to the rest of the team. “Ancient historical records make mention of such a place, artifacts have even been found … but of the actual empire itself … no trace of it exists. Trade records, vases, ancient writings, all speak of an ‘ancient empire of the north whose heart glittered like the crystal the empire was carved from,’ which was fabulously wealthy for its exports and art. And then one day the records just stop mentioning it. Not that they mentioned it much in the first place. No trace of its physical presence has ever been found, despite centuries of searching. Artifacts and relics by the hundreds exist that claim to be from the fabled ‘Crystal Empire,’ but without any concrete source of proof.”

She shrugged. “To this day the topic is hotly contested among historians and archeologists. Many consider it a legend from before The Breaking, others swear it must have been a real place to have left so many unified artifacts that show a common trace, and still others claim that such artifacts could have been made to represent the ideal of what the ‘Crystal Empire’ supposedly was. The difficulty lies in that there’s so much evidence on both sides. Artifacts, historical records speaking of this ‘crystalline wonder’ on the one hoof … and on the other, no actual location that could ever be ascribed to the descriptions of its grandeur. And no signs of a calamity of the power that would be needed to destroy such a well-developed civilization.”

“Some have suggested that it existed in the unknown lands,” Dawn said, shrugging. “Others say that the trade records indicate it had to be located near Equestria. Some argue that it sank into the sea or ran afoul of some other calamity when Discord went on his rampage of the Equestrian continent—despite trade dates from after his defeat suggesting otherwise—others that it was consumed by the jungles of the south, and is simply lost, waiting for the right adventurer to find it. Regardless, it has been regulated to the conspiracies of history, the unexplained and the unknown that most are always ready to argue about, but few would seriously pursue, like the location of Asterion’s Jewels, the whereabouts of Reus and Kyr, or how the death cults of Anubis still secretly run the Griffon Empire. Though I’ll admit the last one is far past the point of credibility,” she added with a roll of her eyes. “Those cults are as dead and gone as their founder. Point being,” she said, looking at the rest of the group. “I have heard of it before.”

“I’d say you’ve more than heard of it,” Hunter said, noting the slow nods from the rest of the team as he spoke. Even Steel seemed caught off-guard by the mare’s sudden fount of knowledge. “How’d you know all that anyway?”

“A mare can have hobbies, you know,” Dawn said, seemingly for the first time realizing how many stunned looks were directed at her. “I find the study of the unknown interesting, that’s all.”

“Study nothing,” Sky Bolt said, her fire-colored eyes staring right at Dawn. “It sounds like something out of a Daring Do novel.”

“Oh, Daring Do has never done a story about the Crystal Empire,” Dawn said quickly, waving a hoof. “The closest Yearling has come has … been … to …” Her eyes went wide, her voice trailing off as she noticed the looks of surprise and, in at least one case, unabashed amusement around her.

“Really …” Nova said, drawing the word out as a positively gleeful smile moved across his muzzle. “And you know this ho—?”

“None of your business!” Dawn snapped, her raised hoof coming down atop the table with a sharp clop. “Captain, I believe you were about to say something that turns a thousand years of established history on its head?” There was an urgent tone to her voice, one that, given the look of absolute glee on Nova’s face, he didn’t blame her for. He could hardly believe it himself.

The ice-queen of the medbay, the high-society master torturer of needle-based pain … is a Daring Do fan!?

“Umm … Right.” Steel Song shook his head, clearing his throat. “Well, as Dawn Triage so unexpectedly explained—” There was a slight “hmmph” of disapproval from her side of the table, followed by another wide grin from Nova. “—the Crystal Empire has been a legend and mystery for centuries. Few have ever heard of it—though clearly, there are some that have.” Dawn’s lips pursed together into a thin line, and Hunter fought back the urge to laugh.

“Sun above,” Steel continued. “I was halfway through the briefing myself when I made the connection between what Princess Luna and Princess Celestia were describing to me, and the contents of an Adventures in the Unknown comic I’d read as a young colt. But as Dawn so eloquently put it, its existence has been a hotly-debated topic for centuries.” He paused for a moment, his eyes darting down to the map sitting on the table in front of them. “Until today.”

“I knew it!” Dawn’s outburst caught everyone at the table by surprise including, from the wide-eyed look on her face as she clapped a hoof over her muzzle, herself.

“Sergeant major,” Steel said, biting back a cough that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. “Are substantial revelations on the nature of Equestrian history going to be a … problem?”

“No sir,” Dawn said, letting out a curt cough as she straightened her mane with a hoof. “Not at all. I was merely …”

“Excited,” Hunter suggested.

“Exuberant,” Sky Bolt threw in.

“Completely and utterly … How do you put it?” Nova asked, glancing at Hunter before adopting a suddenly very passable imitation of his accent. “Utterly rapped to hear such a ripping bit of news?”

“That’s … not quite how I would put it,” Hunter said. “But not bad on the accent.” He sucked in a breath, ready to come between the two as Dawn … simply shrugged and sat back with a look on her face that was almost unreadable. On top of being completely perplexing. Nova seemed as shocked by her response as anyone else, but then again, maybe that was the point.

“Apologies, Captain,” she said, her voice perfectly level. “It shouldn’t—won’t—happen again.”

“By all means, Dawn,” Steel said, his eyes darting between her and Nova. “If you do have something to add, I welcome it. The depths of your knowledge on this topic—and your dedication to it—was unknown to me prior to this moment, but there’s a good chance it could be helpful going ahead. That said, getting back to it, earlier this evening, yes, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna authorized me to confirm that yes, the Crystal Empire is a real place … and that’s where we’re headed.”

“Is?” Sky Bolt’s question was almost cut out by a squeak of surprise from Dawn, again drawing eyes, though the mare said nothing. “Don’t you mean ‘was?’ This place vanished thousands of years ago.”

“Roughly thirteen to sixteen hundred, depending on the record,” Dawn said quickly, before snapping her jaw shut. Steel merely nodded.

“Actually, both are correct and wrong at the same time,” he said. “At least that’s how the Princesses explained it to me.”

Oh yeah, there’s the look of confusion I had about ten minutes back, Hunter thought as he looked over the rest of the group. Magic does stuff that’s just plain starkers.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Nova was the first to speak. “How can something both exist and not exist at the same time? Wasn’t this place wiped out or something? If it’s still there, it’s still there. If it’s not, it’s not.”

“I concur,” Sabra said, his melodic voice drifting through the airship bay. “Unless my knowledge of Equestrian is proving a barrier, such statements would be in disagreement with one another.”

“It both does exist and doesn’t exist because of what happened to it,” Steel said. “And understand that I don’t quite have a full grasp of it myself. To get that, you’d need to talk to the Princesses. But the short of it is that the entire kingdom, the whole thing, got sealed away.”

Both Nova and Dawn’s eyes went wide, though Hunter suspected for different reasons. “That would take an … enormous amount of power,” Nova said, speaking first. “Also, sealed away how?”

“It did take an enormous amount of power,” Steel said with a nod. “But to explain exactly where it came from, I need to explain some background on the empire and its inhabitants. As far as how, though, the answer is ‘outside of time.’”

“Wait, outside of time?” This time it was Sky Bolt that had spoken. “How does that work?”

“Believe me, I wish I could give you an answer,” Steel said, lifting a hoof to rub at the side of his head. “What I’m telling you is simply what Princess Celestia and Princess Luna told me, and I trust their explanation. But the entire empire, all its inhabitants, infrastructure, even land, is bound up in a ‘pocket’ somehow, outside of time. Princess Celestia said that if the world as we know it were a spherical balloon, then what happened to the empire was like taking a small piece of that balloon, stretching it up and away from the rest of the surface, and then twisting it at the base until you have a little bubble all off on its own. But with time, or something.”

“Wait a minute …” Sky Bolt said. “The Crystal Anomaly.”

“The what?” Hunter asked.

“It’s a weird thing with the territory south of the Crystal Mountains,” Sky Bolt replied. “If you take large measurements of the region and try to work out how many square miles the territory has, you get a number. However, if you measure smaller and smaller regions and do the math again, the smaller numbers don’t add up to the larger number. It’s a known mapping problem, but the Crystal Anomaly is so-called because the area south of the Crystal Mountains has a much more pronounced variation of the problem than other mapped regions.”

Steel shrugged. “I don’t know if that has anything to do with it or not. All I can say is that the whole empire—land included—got wrapped up in a bubble and “sealed” outside of … well … time.”

“Okay,” Nova said, nodding. “But how did it happen? What has the power to do that?”

“The Princesses might,” Sabra said. “They wield impressive magical powers as the undying—immortals.”

“It took more than them,” Steel answered. “But yes, they were involved. And to answer the questions that answer brings, we have to go back to who founded the Crystal Empire: the crystal ponies.”

“The who?” It didn’t matter who had voiced the question. It was written on everypony’s face.

“The crystal ponies,” Steel said again. “Were—or I guess, are—another subtype of the pony race. Earth pony, pegasus, unicorn … and crystal pony.”

“Legends exist of such a type, though as a specific subset of unicorn or earth ponies,” Dawn said, though she didn’t elaborate further, even when Steel paused.

“Yes,” he said. “They do. But as it was explained to me, what makes crystal ponies … well, crystal ponies, aside from some very unique coloration to their coats, was their magic. Just like earth ponies have earth pony magic, and pegasi pegasus magic, crystal ponies had their own, unique form of magic. Collective, empathetic magic.”

“Hang on a second,” Nova said, his face screwing up as he worked through the captain’s words. “So they were heavily invested in emotional magic … as a group?”

“That’s precisely it,” Steel affirmed. “Individually, a single crystal pony held only a small amount of magical energy. But if a few of them gathered together, and were of a similar emotion, they could rival a unicorn. A few more, and that power grows. According to Celestia, back during the Breaking, when she and her sister weren’t always able to control the sun and moon, unicorns would team up with groups of crystal ponies to achieve the power necessary to at least keep the orbit stable.”

“Really?” Sky Bolt perked up. “The history books don’t say anything about that. Though I guess knowing the ancient unicorn kingdom, that makes sense.”

“Well,” Steel continued. “That and Princess Celestia and Luna apparently carefully buried any history of the Crystal Empire to keep it secre—”

Dawn shot up straight. “They what?” she asked, a look of purely incensed horror on her face. “How could—?”

“For reasons,” Steel said. “Reasons I’ll explain if you give me time to. I know, it sounds appalling, but with what they told me not three hours ago … I understand why they did it.”

“Point being, Crystal Ponies liked to band together, and they made a lot of power when they did so. So while the three tribes banded together to make Equestria, the crystal ponies banded together on their own near the Crystal Mountains and founded their own nation. Acting collectively, and as a group, they could defend it even from immortals and other outside threats.”

“So then … what went wrong?” Nova asked.

“A unicorn,” Steel said. “Named Sombra. He apparently took notice of the amount of power the crystal ponies wielded, as a whole, and started studying it for his own ends. The Princesses didn’t go into a lot of detail, but he discovered a way to make himself a focus, a central point for all that power.”

“Emotion-based magic,” Nova said, his voice quiet. Steel nodded.

“Exactly. He worked his way into the kingdom, acquired a position of power and … took over. Princess Luna called it a ‘reign of terror.’”

“Dark magic,” Dawn said, her expression one of disgust.

“Exactly. He made the crystal ponies afraid, fearful … and then focused all that magic back into himself.”

“For what?” Sabra asked.

“The oldest goals around,” Steel replied. “Power. Dominance. And … immortality.” He ignored the shocked gasps from around the table. “Apparently, he was looking for a way to make himself an immortal like the rest of them. But worse. Stronger. More powerful. The only immortal. He built an army, began to set his sights on Equestria …”

“And the Princesses intervened, didn’t they?” Nova asked, a faraway look in his eyes. “Sombra—” He shot a quick look at Sabra. “Sorry buddy, but this Sombra guy … I think Princess Luna told me about him once. She said she and her sister were forced to defeat him, but that his story was … incomplete.”

To Hunter’s surprise, Steel let out a quick chuckle. “That’s one way of putting it, but I’ll bet you’re right. They faced him, in combat … and it was a draw.”

“A draw?” Dawn asked, incredulity in her voice. “Against two immortals?”

“The Princesses are not all-powerful,” Steel said. “And Sombra was drawing on the might of an empire of crystal ponies. Despite that, according to Princess Celestia, they almost won. She and Luna attempted to seal him outside of time, in a prison that would leave him aware but powerless as the days passed. Where he would have starved to death. Grim, I know, but considering what they were up against.”

“How’d he get out of it?”

“By interfering with the spell and sacrificing his own body to do it.” Hunter let out a gasp of shock, one echoed by the rest of the team. This part, Steel hadn’t told him.

“He became a shade, ‘a being of magic, spirit, and rage,’ as Princess Luna put it,” the captain continued. “He sacrificed his body and most of his power to link his own fate to—”

“The focal point,” Nova said suddenly, cutting Steel off. “He was linked to the empire already, so he amplified that, channeled their spell back along to every single part of it.”

Steel paused. “You have been studying.”

Nova shrugged. “Princess Luna is a good teacher. Also, she cheats at poker.”

“From what I’ve heard, so do you,” Steel countered. “But you’re right. He linked the Princesses’ sealing spell through him back to the entire empire. So when he vanished … so did it. Though they at least locked it in time, unlike Sombra, so they’re not aware anything has happened. Hopefully. They did say there might be some slippage, maybe a few hours or so. But setting that aside, the Princesses won … and they lost. So the empire exists … but yet doesn’t.”

“So what does this have to do with us?” Sky Bolt asked. “It’s gone, right?”

“For now,” Steel said, and Hunter watched as the team’s ears flicked forward almost in unison. “When the Princesses realized what he was doing, they altered the sealing. Since Sombra was trying to do that anyway, I guess it wasn’t that difficult, as far as things like that go. Anyway, the sealing wasn’t perfect. According to the Princesses, it’s already begun to come apart, and before long it will unravel completely. And when that happens—”

“An entire empire of time-displaced ponies is going to reappear,” Dawn said, her voice awed. “That explains the medical supplies.”

“Not just them,” Hunter said, speaking up for the first time. “A time-displaced empire … and maybe the power-mad shade of a king.”

“Ah,” Nova said, nodding as if he’d finally put the pieces together. “I think I see what our part in this is going to be.”

“Not quite,” Steel said. “The mission is straightforward. The Sisters know that the spell is coming undone, but they still don’t know how long it could be before it actually unravels completely. Could be hours, days … or weeks. We’re going to patrol the area roughly around where the empire used to be until that happens.”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” Sabra said. “But I have a question. Why did the Princesses cover this event up?”

“Right. They explained that too,” Steel said. “Because Sombra had followers. An ‘Order of the Red Horn.’ Some of them were in the city when it was sealed, but others weren’t. The Sisters buried records of the Crystal Empire’s existence because the longer it was sealed, the weaker Sombra would be when it came back—if he even came back at all. The prison they sealed him in was not nice, apparently. But if he had followers out there, followers that could study the area, or gain access to very specific components of the city—”

“They could break the seal early,” Nova jumped in. “And this dude would be back in the real world, without most of his power lost.”

“And neither of them wanted to take that chance,” Steel finished. “Does that answer your question?” Sabra nodded.

“Right,” Steel continued. “So once this city appears, we have two objectives. The Sisters assure me that Sombra himself will not be there. He was sealed somewhere else, off near the Glacier of Woe. So we’re going to split the team. Three of us will stay at the city center. That team’s mission will be to secure it, treat the populace, and most importantly of all, take out what’s left of this ‘Order of the Red Horn.’ Celestia and Luna said they decimated the group prior to their final battle with Sombra, but the capital was still held in sway by loyalists. They’ll root them out, and secure the palace for the arrival of Captain Armor and Princess Cadance, along with some Royal Guard to help distribute supplies, keep the peace, and the like. Captain Armor and Princess Cadance together can erect a shield around the city that will be able to keep Sombra out. Once that shield is up, and the city is secure for the arrival of the Elements—not my department—it’ll rejoin the other team.”

“This other team will have a different mission. They will take The Hummingbird, find Sombra, and—”

“Crush him?” Nova suggested.

“No,” Steel said, shaking his head. “The Princesses assured me we have no chance of that. They’re to delay him. Harry him. Keep him distracted. According to the Princesses, he’ll be weak, so whoever goes might have the edge on him when he’s freshly released, but even then they won’t be able to kill him, not with how he’s tied himself to the city. And the longer he’s out, the more power he’ll regain.”

“Okay …” Nova said, lifting one eyebrow as he glanced at Hunter. “So they’ll be accomplishing what, then?”

“They’d be keeping him from getting to the city until Princess Cadance can put her shield up and the Elements arrive,” Hunter said. “A delaying action. Once the city appears, we’ll send up a flare to notify Guard along the northern rail line. They’ll relay that signal south. Princess Cadence is already being brought back to Canterlot, and she’ll be on her way north soon. This other team’s job will be to keep Sombra busy until she and the Elements of Harmony are safely inside the city.”

“Annoy an ancient king?” Dawn asked. “Sounds like the ideal job for you, Nova.”

“I’m liking the sound of it myself,” he replied. “One last question though. Why the Elements? Why not the Princesses? They beat him once, sort of. If he’s weak, why aren’t they stepping in?”

Silence fell in the wake of his question, the drone of the airship’s propellers the only sound as one by one all eyes turned to Steel.

Good question, Hunter thought as he joined in looking at the captain. Did they answer that? For several seconds, Steel Song was silent.

“They have their reasons,” he said at last. “Neither of the pair would elaborate. If we or the Elements fail, they will serve as backup. However …” He paused again, swallowing. “Princess Celestia did pull me aside as I left to warn me not to underestimate Sombra. He deals in fear and doubt. She told me … She told me that the last time they faced Sombra, she ultimately lost her sister. She wouldn’t elaborate any further than that.”

A chill ran down Hunter’s spine. How in the blazes are we supposed to deal with something that can do that?

“She did,” Steel said, “have one last bit of advice, though. She said to have faith in one another. We trust ourselves, we trust the team. Sombra preys on doubt and fear, revels in it. She said the best way to counter that was to have faith in one another, and in all things that fight fear.” He looked up at each of them, eyes circling the table.

“We have faith in one another, and we put this shade back in the dregs of history where he belongs.”

Author's Note:

Hello readers! And welcome to Book III of The Dusk Guard Saga! We're just getting started, so strap yourselves in for a ride! A new chapter will release each Tuesday and Friday mornings!

In the meantime, if you're enjoying TDGS and my fanfic offerings, I've got a lot of published works you can enjoy as well! You can follow me at my site or check my books out on Amazon and give them a read!