• 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 2

When he’d lived in the Unicorn Range, Sabra realized as he lay on the small bunk with his scarf wrapped tightly around him, he’d once thought that it would be nigh impossible for the world to grow any colder. For the howling winds and deep snows to grow any more impactful than they already were.

Of course, even then he’d known that he had been wrong. That he’d simply been telling himself that to downplay the constant chill, the cloying cold that never seemed to leave his coat, by imagining that such was true. He’d known he’d been wrong.

At the moment, however, he wished he’d been right. The Hummingbird shook again, the bunk beneath him jerking as a gust of wind roared into its side, and he adjusted his shoulders, trying hard to worm deeper into the large blanket he’d been given the night before. It provided warmth, yes, but not quite as much as he would have wished. It had been enough to get him through the night without too much discomfort, but now …

I will simply have to adapt. Dawn Triage had started him on what she’d called “acclimation exercises,” designed to help his body adjust to Equestria’s colder climate as they moved toward winter, but they’d begun them only recently, and as she’d commentated the day before, they had not had near enough time to achieve the results either of them had been looking for.

Maybe I should begin sleeping in my armor suit, he thought as another gust of wind shook The Hummingbird. Rattling echoed through the interior, but he ignored it. His talent told him it was merely the crate of eating utensils shifting again. It would prove impractical if I needed to relieve myself, but … He shifted again, accidentally opening a slight crack in the comforter that let a scythe of cold cut down his side. He pulled back, deeper into the blanket. It might be worth it.

Nearby, he heard the pattern of someone’s breathing shift. It only took him a moment’s focus to identify the owner, and even then it wasn’t surprising. Captain Song always did rise early. Sabra waited. Was the captain rising, or had he just shifted in his sleep? There was enough light touching his eyelids that the sun had to be rising soon, but how early it truly was he wasn’t sure.

Nor did he really want to know. A small part of him felt tired, dragged out by the strange experience of sleeping aboard a floating airship. The winds had rocked the vessel all night, and despite Sky’s assurances, there was a part of him that had worried the machine would simply drift into a mountain while the entire team was asleep.

Sky Bolt hadn’t just had to assure him that it wouldn’t happen. She had slept in the cockpit, on a fold-down bunk so she could check on the ship throughout the night and be there in case anything went wrong.

The sound of Captain Song rolling in his bunk echoed across the room, giving further evidence that the captain had awoken. Which means that soon it will be time for all of us to rise. Not for the usual morning routine—there was no place for the team’s more dedicated workouts and exercise aboard the small airship—but to ready for the mission. Captain Song had given the orders the night before: all members of the team were to be at combat readiness, or minutes away from it, at all times once they neared the mission objective. Suits at minimum, armor if possible.

He shifted again, trying to capture what little warmth he could and forcing his mind to still. If the captain was just shifting, and wasn’t intending to arise, then maybe he could drift back to sleep and gain a little more rest before—

A heavy gust shook The Hummingbird, and for a brief instant he was hanging in the air, his stomach rising as the airship dropped. It lasted only a moment, the wind shear that had rocked the airship already past, but his eyes snapped open, unbidden.

Perhaps I should consider asking the captain to assign me to the team that will deploy to this city, he thought as he stared up at the cabin’s metal ceiling. Where it may be warmer. Or at least sheltered from the wind somewhat. The magilights were off save a few, but a faint glow from outside the windows added its own ambiance to the room. He turned his head to the side, but could make out nothing outside the window aside from a dull, grey sky.

It’s as if the colors have abandoned the world, he thought. Or a summer monsoon swelled to fill the horizon. Apparently the long swaths of grey cloud were common so far to the north, though Sky and Steel both had mentioned they did clear from time to time. Now, however …

You couldn’t make it this grey if a whole city lit fires with green wood and filled the sky with smoke. His belly gave a slight rumble, mind leaping from "smoke" to "smoking,” and from there to the smoked treats of his homeland. Breakfast. That would be one of the benefits to simply forgoing what little time he had left to sleep altogether. He’d gotten by on far less sleep before. And thanks to Lieutenant Hunter, much of the provisions they’d brought on board were of decent quality.

Steel shifted again, his breathing pattern steadying. Asleep then. Either he’d simply shifted and thrown off his rhythm, or he’d awakened for a moment and decided to go back to sleep.

Either way, it wasn’t aiding his own rest at all. He closed his eyes, focusing his ears on the sounds of the rest of the team around them. His own bunk was against the left—Port—wall and forward, while the one behind him was occupied by Lieutenant Hunter. Of all the members of the team, the sounds he made while sleeping were the easiest to identify and position. He snored. Not loudly, but there was a definite drone to each rise and fall of his chest.

Steel, meanwhile, had taken the forward right—Starboard, he reminded himself, sounding out the pronunciation of the word in his head—bunk, the solid earth pony’s restful cadence like a rolling stone. Behind him was Nova, who was almost as quiet a sleeper as he was an active speaker when awake, though there was some sense to be had in that. Nova was an active speaker when he chose to be. Growing up leading the life he had, staying as silent as possible while asleep could have been a benefit … or it simply could have been balance making up for his waking habits.

A faint smile came to Sabra’s lips. Despite Nova’s checkered past, there was a surprisingly sharp and capable mind buried behind the quick quips and the rapid barbs. His manner was … unusual, at least as far as his own culture went, sometimes reminding Sabra more of a griffon than the zebras of his homeland. But at the same time, I spent much of my life in a monastery, he thought as he rolled onto his right side, trying not to suck in a breath as another shock of cold air crept between his blankets and down across his barrel. My life has not quite been what one would call “usual.”

Especially now. He opened his eyes again, taking in the crowded common room. Boxes and supplies had been stashed any place they could find space. Thankfully Sky, brilliant as she was, had accounted for such a need—it seemed that anywhere he looked there was either a cabinet or a webbed mesh waiting to hold something. Even the ceiling above their bunks was filled by shelves and more of the webbed mesh, securely clipped in place to prevent cargo from shifting, right down to the windows. As was, he knew, the space beneath each bunk as well, though that space had been given cabinet doors, securly clamped in place to prevent the contents from spilling out during violent maneuvers.

He wasn’t sure what to make out of the fact that he’d not seen one bit of their cargo shift in its place thus far despite the winds. Inside their containers and crates, yes, but outside, they remained as yet solid and immovable. Whether that was a sign that their work had simply been that good, or that they were prepared for—perhaps expecting—far worse weather was a question he’d yet to answer. And wasn’t one he wasn't certain he wished to ask.

Another gust of wind shook the ship, the bunk vibrating beneath him as the faint drone of the propellers jumped in their pitch before settling back down. This room needs more color. The thought spun across his mind unbidden. Or perhaps more soothing colors. The bland grey of the metal was the most dominant, coupled with the black covering across the floor. The eye-catching part of the room past that was the bright colors that made up the webbed mesh securing so much of their supplies. Even the lockers on the forward wall of the room were simple, finished metal.

It was Sky’s airship, yes, but it still felt incomplete. It lacked a certain … warmth. The team lockers were identical, uniform save for the single, small number plate on the face of each one. His own was the fourth, but it didn’t feel like his own.

He shifted again as the dull roar of the propellers changed once more. Beneath him he could feel the deck tilting, rolling ever so slightly to one side as The Hummingbird made another course correction. A sigh slipped free of his lips.

It is too late, he thought as the deck evened out. You’re awake. Slightly tired, but awake. In addition, there was a new, growing need from below his belly, a rising pressure that said he’d need to leave the bed before long in any case. He let out another slow breath, closed his eyes … and then threw the covers back.

The cold felt like he’d wrapped his limbs around a sculpture made of ice, sliding across his coat in a rush that took his breath away. He brought it back with a gasp, the sound quiet but sharp. Across the room he saw Nova stir, the deep-purple unicorn shifting ever so slightly, one eye cracking open only to close again almost immediately.

He shut his eyes, focusing his will inward, and his breaths began to slow back to their normal pace. The cold still cut across his coat, but he was already adjusting to the shock. Thankfully, the rubbery covering across the deck kept his hooves from making much noise, as well as from the doubtlessly cold deck metal as he made his way back—Aft—and down the hall to the ship’s small bathroom. Or as Sky, Lieutenant Hunter, and Captain Song had all called it, a “head.”

Why have a different name for the same thing? he wondered. Why not call it a bathroom?

A minute later, his ablutions finished, he trotted out of the “head,” shivers of discomfort running over his body. The only thing worse than a cold room and bed was a cold, metal toilet. He stood at the doorway to the common room for a moment, letting his eyes drift over the rest of the team. All three were still asleep. He hadn’t heard any sounds of motion from the med-bay as he’d walked past either, so it was likely that Dawn was still asleep in her bunk there.

No one else is yet awake, and I would be remiss to bother them. He took another quick look around the common room. And assembling a meal would likely create enough noise to wake somepony. He frowned as the faint hollow in his gut made itself known once again. And I’m not even certain where our food supplies are at the moment.

The Hummingbird rocked again, Sabra swaying on his hooves easily to absorb the motion. He could practice his forms … but with the rocking of the ship, that would run the risk of him being caught by surprise, making noise, and awaking the rest of the team.

I cannot eat, and I cannot practice. He frowned. Meditation? It would be difficult with the motions of the ship, but would be welcome. And the odds of bothering anypony would be low—

A faint clunk from the fore of the ship caught his ears, and he turned to see the door to the cockpit slide to one side. Sky Bolt walked out with her eyes half-shut, one wing covering her mouth as she let out a quiet yawn. He had his hoof to his lips, waving for silence, even before her yawn was over, eyes opening. They lit up as he saw him, and for a moment the cold interior of the airship didn’t seem that bad. He motioned to the rest of the team, asleep in their bunks, and she nodded, though the alert gleam didn’t leave her eyes. Instead she simply smiled at him, then nodded in the direction of the rear hallway and darted past, heading for the same room he’d just vacated.

Well, he thought as the door shut behind Sky, her tail giving as sharp snap to one side before it vanished. I could meditate … or I could wait for Sky in the cockpit.

The decision was easy. Everyone else on the team would expect him to meditate during what few morning exercises they could do. And if Sky was already awake …

He crossed the deck easily, swaying only once as the airship bucked beneath them. The early-dawn light of the cockpit—though he still wasn’t sure it was dawn, not with so many clouds obscuring the sky—was enough that he could easily make out the chair Sky sat in while she piloted the ship, as well as the bunk she’d been sleeping in on the left—Port!—side. A warm rush ran over his coat, and in surprise he looked down to see a small vent pumping heat out of the wall. It wasn’t enough to take away the chill of so much glass, but he eased himself up against it all the same, relishing the small spot of warmth it gave.

The only thing obscuring the endless grey outside the ship were the rolling blankets of white, blasts of snow in every imaginable size and shape that twisted past the windows. Far to the left—Port—he could see the faint, jagged spires of the Crystal Mountains on the horizon, clad in white—or at least he assumed it was white. It was hard to tell in the dim light and with so much snow whipping through the air. His eyes drifted away from the window and to the compass in the center of the control board, surrounded by several rings used for navigation and control.

The sound of hoofsteps crossing the rubbery decking in the common room caught his ear, and a moment later Sky Bolt stepped into the cockpit, flashing him a smile as she did so. One hoof caught the handle of the door, and a moment later it slid shut with a faint click.

“There we go,” she said, her voice low but easily audible. “Habari za asubuhi?

Baridi kidogo,” he replied. “Hujambo?”

“Not bad,” she said, switching to Equestrian and then hiding another yawn with one hoof as she moved past him. She paused by the control board, checking a number of readouts before dropping herself down into the pilot’s seat with a soft thump. “Kind of didn’t sleep too much last night. This is the first real test of The Hummingbird’s navigation system, so I kept an eye on it most of the night.” She motioned toward her bunk. “Take a seat.”

“I …” He rapped the vent at his back with one hoof, and Sky Bolt let out a light laugh.

“There’s one behind my bunk, too,” she said, rolling her eyes. “With the lower temperature in here, I figured it was a necessity.”

He nodded, stepping behind her chair and carefully setting himself atop her bunk, trying not to let any trepidation show in his expression. It’s just a fold-down bunk, he thought. Nothing more.

The vent along the side, however, was nice.

‘So,” she asked, one hoof coming up and folding down a flat, wide map from the ceiling. “How did you sleep?”

“In truth, my sleep wasn’t the most restful,” he said as he watched her tap several positions on the map, her eyes darting down each time to check on her instruments. As he watched, she moved several slides on the edges of the map, each movement adjusting the position of a colored marker atop the map itself.

“First time sleeping aboard an airship?” she asked without looking, her hoof coming down to tap one of the rings around the compass.

Ndiyo,” he said, nodding. “It was a bit like trying to sleep aboard a ship,” he said, his mind flashing back on the crossing he’d undertaken from the Griffon Empire to Equestria. “Only with less … weight?” He shook his head as The Hummingbird rattled again. “Less regularity.”

“I getcha,” Sky Bolt said, finishing her adjustments and folding the map back up into the ceiling. “I remember the first time I tried to sleep aboard a boat. With the waves and the up and down?” She shook her head. “It was like sleeping on a cloud, but a whole lot slower.” She paused for a moment, cocking her head to one side before looking right at his with a grin. “‘Weighty’ is a good way to put it, I think.” She turned back to the controls and made a few more adjustments before turning her whole body in its seat to look right at him. “Hopefully it gets a bit easier with time. We might be up here for a while.”

A faint shiver crawled down his back, slow and methodical. “I shall simply have to do my best to adjust,” he said, offering her a plaintive shrug. “If time is what we have, time is what I will take.”

“Did you ever adjust on the voyage over here?”

“I did … after a time,” he said. His hungry stomach gave a faint pang at the memory of the rolling waves. “It was … not the most pleasant of journeys.”

“Oooh.” Sky leaned forward, resting her chin on one hoof. “Were you on a griffon courier ship? I hear those things are fast, but they really can roll a bit.”

“Ah … no,” he said. Rubbing the back of his head with one hoof. “It was a Plainslands cargo ship. Very wide, very stable.”

“Oh, one of those?” Sky Bolt tilted her head back. “Yeah, I’ve seen a few of those. Those are supposed to be pretty stabl—Oh.” Her eyes widened as she caught what he was implying.

He nodded. “Yes. Sea travel did not agree with me. It was … not an experience I hope to repeat.” A faint shudder of revulsion traveled through his core as he recalled the feel of the deck railing against his chest, the tightness in his stomach, and then the sight of his meal cascading into the ocean.

“Well, so far air travel doesn’t seem to disagree with you that badly,” Sky Bolt said, smiling. “Hopefully that stays true, but if not, I’m pretty sure we’ve got some metal buckets around here, since, you know, opening a window wouldn’t be the best idea.”

His expression must have soured at the thought, because she laughed again. “I know, it’s not the best option. But …”

“I doubt it will come to that,” he said, shaking his head. “Sleep will merely be a challenge until I become accustomed to the way the airship moves.” As if to emphasize his words, another gust of wind shook the vessel, spiraling flurries of snow sliding across the cockpit glass. Some, he noted, stuck to the glass and quickly melted, leaving faint tracks of water that moved like snails across it. “There is a lot to become accustomed to, being part of this team.” He turned his attention to Sky once more and gave her a smile. “But that does not mean all of it is bad.”

A soft flush came to her cheeks, alongside a smile of her own. It was a smile warmer than the vent at his back.

For a moment they were both quiet, eyes gradually turning away from one another and back to the windswept world outside the cockpit. The clouds above them, if anything, looked even thicker than when he had awoken. Then again, I do not claim to know much about weather. It simply looked wild. Almost dangerous. As if hearing his thoughts, another gust of wind rattled the airship.

“Well,” Sky Bolt said as the blast of wind faded. “I do agree with you that there’s a lot to get used to. That metal toilet seat in the bathroom …”

Nakubali!” he said in a rush. “Ni mbaya sana!” Sky Bolt’s laughter rang through the cockpit at his outburst, even as she nodded.

“It is!” she said, the words skipping out between laughs. “It’s the worst! Like, I’m already tired and the toilet is weird, and then I sit down on it, and … Ugh!” She gave an exaggerated shiver, and he let out a laugh of his own.

“Yeah, not something I was thinking about when I had that installed,” Sky said, shaking her head. The motion made her sky-blue mane dance around her shoulders. “Then I sat down last night and …” She let out a sound somewhere between a groan and a retch of disgust, her shoulders shaking. “It’s like ice. What was I thinking?”

“I do not know,” Sabra said, still smiling and speaking around his own humor. “Why metal?”

“Eh.” She shrugged. “Most places use it. Dawn pointed out that it was easier to keep clean. Sure, she’s right, but she’s going to be the one cleaning it if any of my frozen backside ends up stuck to it.”

The snort that tore free from Sabra’s mouth surprised him almost as much as it seemed to shock Sky Bolt, who reacted, it seemed, only by laughing harder. “That would be … an unfortunate event,” he said, feeling a faint rush as his cheeks burned at the image. His words only served to amplify Sky’s laughter. He shifted on the bunk, unsure of how to react, though it had been funny.

“Thanks,” Sky said as her laugher subsided, another gust shaking The Hummingbird. “After a long night worrying about something going wrong, I needed that. Asante, Sabra.” She flashed him another smile, and again he felt a rush of warmth move through his core.

“So,” she said, her voice moving back toward seriousness. “Any luck getting that answer yet?”

“Ah … not in recent days, no.” He leaned back, resting his shoulders against the wall and watching as more trails of water made their way past the window. It was interesting the way they didn’t always move down, instead moving sideways, as if The Hummingbird and the world both were tilted. Sometimes they even moved up. “I have spoken to several philosophers and sages—professors—at Princess Celestia’s school, and all have offered insights, but all have offered so many different answers as well.”

“Well, does it have to be one answer?” Sky Bolt asked, her flame-red eyes turning to him once more. “I mean, different ponies can have different experiences, right?”

“Yes.” The answer came quickly. “But through it all, if there is a unifying element, then it is my duty to identify it, and share it with my monastery. I find lately, however, that my mind does keep coming back to the answers your Princesses gave, about …” He let his voice trail off as he noticed her staring at him, a soft smile on her face. “What?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just glad to hear you’re still making progress on it.”

“I may never find it,” he replied. Sky Bolt just smiled.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be giving up. Or giving in to discouragement. You’re too smart for that. Besides—”

Another, larger wind shear struck The Hummingbird, Sabra’s stomach leaping as the aircraft dropped and then rose several feet. A muffled thump followed by a faint exclamation of surprise from through the wall suggested that the rest of the passengers—or at least one of them—had found the sudden drop jarring.

“Besides,” Sky Bolt continued, turning her attention to the control board once more, hooves darting over the controls. “You’ll find it.” She shot him a quick smile, then returned her attention to the board once more. “I’m sure of it.”

Asante,” he said again, smiling. Her answer felt … right. In a way he couldn’t describe. “Asante.”

“Not a problem,” Sky Bolt said. “Unlike these wind shears …” She went silent as the door to the rear of the airship slid open, Captain Song stepping though. She waited until he’d shut the door behind him once more to speak. “Captain.”

“Captain Song,” Sabra said, giving his head a slight bow.

“Corporal Bolt, Specialist Sabra,” the captain replied, giving them each a faint nod of the head. “Difficulties sleeping, I gather?”

Sky Bolt nodded. “I had to be up every half-hour to make sure everything was running all right, anyway.”

“The movement of the airship is hard to get used to,” Sabra added as the captain turned in his direction. “I awoke not long ago, and when I found Sky Bolt was awake, determined to keep her company in the cockpit.”

“I see,” Captain Song said, nodding as he looked out the cockpit glass. “That’s quite the cloud cover.”

“It is,” Sky agreed, reaching up and folding down one of the maps she’d used earlier. “Worse, it’s out of season.”

“Out of season?”

Sabra’s ears perked at the captain’s question. Sky hadn’t mentioned this earlier. Though in fairness, I did not ask.

“Yeah,” Sky said, reaching up and pulling a plastic overlay down over the map. Its bottom edge snapped into place with a faint, metallic click. “Look.”

Magnets, Sabra realized as Sky pulled her hoof back. Quite ingenious. The overlay was showing a chorus of colored arrows sweeping across the map, arrows that meant little to him, but clearly meant something to the animated pegasus.

“See these wind patterns?” Sky said, tapping one of the colored lines on the map. “This is what we’re supposed to be flying in at this time of year. Lots of steady, solid winds from the southwest. Instead …” She pointed out the cockpit glass, off to the left. “We’re getting gusts from the northwest.”

“Now sure,” she said, tapping the map once more. “This area isn’t that well-monitored. And we could just be seeing the tail-end of some storm. But the weather teams generally do a good job keeping tabs on weather outside Equestrian territory or even just in fringe locations like this one because it’s all interconnected. The weather we’re getting right now?” She shook her head. “Not normal for this season.”

“I see.” The captain frowned. “Any ideas?”

Sky shrugged. “Like I said, could be the tail-end of some storm. It doesn’t feel like that though. Storm leftovers would have faded by now, but this almost feels like it’s getting worse.”

“Could it have something to do with this empire returning?” Sabra asked.

“It’s possible,” Sky said, glancing at him. “I mean, an empire vanishing and then reappearing would wreak havoc with local weather patterns. Then again, depending on the spell it might not.”

“Magic turbulence?” Captain Song suggested. “It could be from the spell coming apart. There might be a lot of ambient, wild magic breaking off. That could explain it.”

“It might. You’d have to ask Dawn. She might know more about that than I would. But I guess …” She paused for a moment. “Yeah, when the battery crystals on Radiant’s golems broke and the spell unraveled, they let out quite a bang … How much energy went into sealing this place?”

All three of them looked at one another. It was the captain that broke the silence. “I’ll speak with Dawn about it as soon as she arises. In the meantime … Sabra?”

Sabra snapped up straight. “Yes sir?”

“Let’s let Sky Bolt get back to keeping this thing on course. We are on course, aren’t we?” His eyes flicked back to Sky.

“Pretty much,” came Sky’s reply as she tapped the map once more. “We arrived on the edge of the zone you indicated last night.” Her hoof brushed the marker she’d moved earlier atop the map. “And we’ve been holding roughly steady in that area. I wasn’t sure if you wanted to go further in, so we’ve basically been holding a slow, steady northward run without covering much ground.”

“For now, just hold steady,” Captain Song replied. “We’ll set up a more back-and-forth patrol later, after our morning meeting.” He paused for a moment. “You’re still good with what I suggested last night, correct?”

Sabra’s ear flicked. Am I overhearing something I shouldn’t? He batted the errant thought away. Captain Song tended to be fairly precise with his actions. If it had been important that he not hear, the captain wouldn’t have spoken.

“I can handle it,” Sky said, giving the captain a quick salute. “Bring it on!”

“All right,” Captain Song replied with a smile. “Then keep at it. I’ll have somepony bring you your breakfast. Sabra? You’re with me. Let’s go see what kind of meal we can rustle up.”

Ndiyo bwana.” He hopped down from the bunk, a shiver running down his back as his hindquarters left the warmth of the heating vent. He shot Sky a quick smile and a nod, which she returned, and then he followed the captain out into the common room.

Breakfast was, surprisingly, better than he’d expected. Once out in the common room, the captain had gone to work with barely a word, folding down the small table and stove—he’d called it a “galley station”—and put Sabra to work almost immediately chopping fresh apples he retrieved from one of the nearby boxes of supplies. The stove soon was home to a pan full of shredded potatoes—pre-shredded, Sabra was glad to see. Slicing the apples was more difficult than expected thanks to the constant motions of The Hummingbird. Before long, the sizzling sound of frying potatoes filled the common room, a higher-pitched crackle beside the lower drone of the propellers. A deep, rich scent came with it, one that brought a renewed reminder from his stomach of his hunger … One which he temporarily sated with a few slices of apple that he’d managed to cut rather poorly.

The other members of the team stirred at last, Hunter quieting as he shifted to wakefulness, at least until his sniffing nose caught the scent of the potatoes, at which point the pegasus seemed to come to full alertness. Nova, on the other hoof, simply rolled over until Captain Song tapped the side of his bunk and barked a quick “Up and at ‘em, private.”

Sabra returned his attention to slicing the last few apples as Nova rolled out of his bunk, his eyes half-shut and his hoofsteps unsteady. If not for how quickly he’d seen the unicorn spring to alertness before, he almost would have bought it. As it was, he simply chose to smile and offer a polite “Good morning” as the stallion passed.

“Morning …” Nova mumbled, rubbing one hoof through his mane. Then he yawned again. It looked … genuine.

One never can tell with him, Sabra thought as he went back to cutting the apples. Hunter sauntered over, took a sniff, and then snatched a few slices from the pile.

“Morning, Sabra,” he said, speaking through a mouth full of apple slices. “How’d you—?”

A sudden “Yipe!” sounded out from down the hall, and Hunter paused, lifting one brow.

“Metal toilet seat,” Sabra said, Hunter’s look of confusion morphing into an amused smile.

“Good to know,” he said, casually letting his head dart down and swipe another apple slice. “Well, I think I’ll wait until he’s warmed it for me.” He winked as if that had been his plan all along, and then sauntered down the hall.

It only took a few minutes more for the rest of the breakfast to come together. Before long, the whole team was standing around the common room’s central table, the hot breakfast steaming in the center as Nova floated out small metal trays and utensils for everyone.

“All right, team,” Captain Song said. “In the interest of time management, we’re going to hold our morning meeting while we eat. So everypony grab a tray and dish up. Hunter, you and Sky have clean-up detail, provided she checks our course occasionally. We’ve got plenty to discuss, and plenty to keep us busy until this Crystal Empire makes its comeback. But like I said, food, so everypony dish up.”

Sabra waited as the clatter of trays and utensils filled the air. The table was decently large, but not so large that none of them could reach the food at its center. Dawn had the easiest time of it, simply using her magic to levitate her tray over to the food and portion out what she wished, while Nova went for a more direct, hooves-on approach. Still, there were only six of them, and before long each of their trays were filled.

“All right,” Steel said once each member of the team had dug in. “So, first up, and most important: we need to parcel out Sky Bolt’s mods beforehand.”

“Mods?” Nova perked up, his ears standing tall, all traces of sleep vanishing from his face. “We have enough now?”

“Yup!” Sky Bolt said, grinning. Somehow, she’d already managed to get a splotch of ketchup on her cheek. “I actually have six fully-operational mods at this time. All different.”

“Which is why we need to talk about them,” Steel said. “While the eventual goal is for our team to be able to swap them out as needed for our assignments, with each of these being new to most of us, for this mission we’re going to pick one and stick with it unless otherwise necessary.”

Sabra nodded. It made sense. After all, his own attempts at using the strength mod Sky had built for him to demonstrate as a proof-of-concept had been clumsy at first. Even figuring out how to use it had been a challenge in and of itself.

“So what do we have?” Hunter asked. “What are our options?”

“There are eight total,” Sky Bolt said. “And I brought all of them with us. One’s still a little experimental, though, and doesn’t quite work the way I wanted, while the other is more a test for cold weather gear—”

Sabra’s ears twitched as he straightened. “Cold weather gear?” he asked. If there’s something that could make this cold a little more bearable …

“Uh, yeah,” Sky replied. “It’s kind of still in the testing phases—I was kind of counting on having until winter arrived. But it’s a thermal regulator combined with a heating spell—”

“I claim it,” Sabra said, throwing his hoof into the air. When no one challenged his words, he repeated them again. “I claim the thermal mod.”

“But … you tested the strength mod.” Sky had a look of surprise on her face. “You’re the one that’s used to it.”

“I am,” he agreed, giving her a nod. “But I can explain its use to somepony else. I would like the thermal mod.”

The captain let out a dull rumble, clearing his throat. “Let’s let Sky Bolt finish her list before we jump to assigning anything. Corporal?”

“Captain,” Sky said, though her eyes flicked back to Sabra before she continued. He could see the confusion and surprise in them.

If you knew how cold I was, you would not be surprised, he thought. And that is inside your marvelous airship. His eyes flicked to the wind-swept snows visible through the side windows, spiraling past the airship with each gust of wind. And it’s only going to become colder the moment I step outside.

“Anyway,” Sky Bolt said, her momentum coming back. “I did bring the thermal regulator, but it’s nothing impressive yet. Just a low-level heat spell that can be activated occasionally, plus some exterior improvements—minor ones—that help the suit regulate its occupant’s body heat a little better. Like I said, a work in progress.”

“The other one I brought that isn’t quite up par yet is a detection mod. If you’re familiar with magic-detection, it operates on the same principles as a magic detection spell.”

“With some of the same drawbacks, I’d imagine?” Nova asked.

“Worse, actually,” Sky Bolt admitted with a grimace. “Like I said, testing. It lets you see magic, so a non-unicorn can use it. But in return …”

“Any magic users know where you are?”

“Worse,” Sky said, shaking her head. “The spell activates with a very visual flash. So not just magic users. Like I said, still in testing phases, but I brought it along just in case.”

“What about working mods?” Captain Song asked. “Ones that have passed inspection?”

“Right, right,” Sky said, giving the captain a quick nod. “We have six. So, one for each of us. All different. We’ve got the strength mod, which Sabra used. When activated by loyalty, your strength, and to a degree your resilience, are enhanced to high levels. Those of you who saw or heard about the test know about it. Sabra—” She shot him a quick smile. “—climbed a thirty-foot building in a single leap during the demonstration.”

A few members of the team turned his way and nodded. He returned the gesture but stayed silent.

“We also have the speed mod,” Sky said, pausing to take a quick bite before continuing, speaking around the hash browns in her mouth. “Like the strength mod, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Works off of laughter and good humor. Casts a high-speed spell on you for a brief moment. Your perception doesn’t quite speed up to compensate, and it’s short-term, but you can really move when it’s active. Past that …”

She swallowed. “Then we have the barrier shield mod, or as some like calling it, the bubble. It drops an impassable barrier of a variable diameter around the user that lasts a good thirty seconds or so, depending on how much punishment it has to absorb. The recharge time is lengthy though, almost five minutes. Standard safety modifiers apply, so it won’t cut anypony in half. It’s tricky to get it to work, but it seems to work off of giving. The spirit of generosity, apparently.”

“In line with that, we’ve got a phalanx shield mod as well,” she continued. “Rather than a bubble, it’s a directional ‘wall’ that appears in front of whatever direction you happen to have your body facing. Pretty sturdy, shorter recharge than the barrier, and it can move with you. Shorter duration too. It’s hard to use, though. You have to conceptualize honesty for it to work—”

“Right, I’ve read the reports, and I’m sort of familiar with the concept,” Hunter said, speaking up. “But honesty, generosity, humor? That’s emotional magic, right? I’m not a unicorn.”

“Right,” Sky said, nodding. “It’s the same principle still. The spells we’re using need an emotional component to work. And that’s something we can’t replicate through a crystal. It has to come from the user. The magic part of it—the mod can handle that. But in order to activate the spell, the mod needs that catalyst.”

“Luckily for us,” Sky continued, looking around the table. “Each of us has emotions. Combined with our own, innate magic, it’s more than enough to act as the catalyst the spell needs. If it helps, think of it like the mod uses your own magic and emotions as a starting point to make the rest work. Which is why Sabra could make the strength mod work, even though he’s not a unicorn.” She flashed him another smile. “As long as he was holding something in mind that made him feel loyal, the emotional catalyst the spell needed, the mod worked.”

“Right,” Hunter said. “So what counts as ‘loyalty’ then?”

“You’ve been skimming the reports, haven’t you?” Captain Song asked, his attention shifting to the tan lieutenant.

“Absolutely,” Hunter said, throwing an exasperated look at Steel. “With the amount of paperwork that keeps coming across my desk, it’s the only way to have some free time. I’m still getting that logistics chain set up, remember.”

“Fair enough.” The captain turned his gaze back to Sky Bolt, the brief aside over. “Continue, corporal.”

“Yeah, well … basically, you have to discover that for yourself. Now that we know what we’re looking for, and thanks to a little help from Nova—”

“And Princess Luna,” Nova cut in.

“Right, and Princess Luna,” Sky filled in without missing a beat. “We know what emotion triggers each mod, and I’ve personally tested each one, so I can verify that they work. The trick is finding what brings that emotion out in you, personally. Especially when you’re in the middle of dealing with a bunch of other distractions. But whatever brings that emotion, that feeling, to the front … It’s not going to be the same for me as it is for somepony like Sabra. Or Dawn.”

“Gotcha,” Hunter replied, a thoughtful look on his face. “Hence the practice.”

“Right,” Sky said. “And the reason Steel—sorry, Captain Song wants each of us to stick with just one for this operation. It’ll be hard enough getting used to bringing up one emotion or feeling when we’re in the middle of a mission. Swapping out mods on top of that …” She lifted one hoof, shaking it back and forth in the air. “Yeah, no.”

“I see.” Dawn leaned forward, adding her own voice to the mix. “So you’ve given us four of the six. What are the other two?”

“Right!” Sky Bolt said, clapping her front hooves together. “The last two I’m particularly proud of. One’s a utility spell. Spider’s cling?” Her gaze darted around the table. “Any guesses?”

“Climb as a spider does?” Sabra offered, and she rewarded him with a quick grin, her wings folding out ever so slightly.

“That’s it! Unicorns in construction use it all the time. It’s a loyalty-based enchantment that allows your hooves to cling to surfaces like a gecko or a spider. It doesn’t alter gravity’s pull or anything, so you still have to deal with that, but while the spell is active, you can basically stick to just about any surface. It’s a low-cost spell, too, so the mod can keep it going for quite a while. The more you move, the faster it drains, but if you just stand—well, hang—in place, you can stay there for about two minutes before it wears off.”

“Interesting,” Captain Song said, leaning forward. “I must have missed the report on this one.”

“Nope.” Sky shook her head. “You haven’t gotten one yet. I didn’t get this one done until yester—uh, two days ago. But I tested it, and it worked under a variety of conditions, so I brought it along.”

The captain nodded. “And the final mod?” Sky Bolt grinned, and suddenly Sabra had the impression that she’d saved the “best for last,” according to the popular Equestrian expression.

“The last one,” she said, leaning forward and rubbing her front hooves together, wings extended back in a position of readiness. “I call the supercharger.” She waited for a moment, letting the name sink in.

“So what does it—?”

“I’m glad you asked!” Sky said, rounding on Nova. “I had the idea a few months ago, when I was working on your helmet, but it wasn’t until last week that I really could find the time to test it out. Well, and got the crystal delivered, but that’s beside the point.”

She turned back to the rest of the table. “Basically, the supercharger is a magic enhancer.”

“Like an amplifying effect?” Dawn asked, a look of interest clearly on her face as she leaned forward.

“Sort of. But not quite,” Sky replied. “While an amplifier—at least the ones like we have in our armor—helps channel things, the supercharger mod basically acts as a battery to dump more magic into whatever you do.”

“I understand,” Dawn said, leaning back. “So it allows you to ‘supercharge’ whatever spell or magic is being cast by dumping the magic in the mod’s battery crystal into the spell as well.”

“Exactly! Whatever spell you cast, the mod basically acts as a battery reservoir of magic that adds its power to your own, allowing you to put out greater amounts of magical power at once. Granted, there’s a hard limit, but …”

“And you’ve tested this?” Dawn asked. “I have not heard of it, nor does Nova appear to have.”

“That’s because you weren’t the ones that tested it,” Sky said, grinning. “You were both busy, and I was in a hurry, so I had the armor crew and a couple of Royal Guard give it a shot with a few prototype test suits. It works.”

“Interesting …” Dawn leaned forward, pressing her breakfast—mostly apple slices—to one side with a soft tap of a hoof. “If possible, I think I’d be interested in laying claim to that mod, at least for the duration of this operation.”

“Really?” Sky Bolt sat back, a hint of confusion on her face. “I was actually thinking it’d be best for Nova, since he’s kind of the big spellcaster of the group.”

“Exactly.” The doctor’s reply was curt and crisp. “Nova already amasses the largest concentration of magical power among the six of us. Unless I misheard, this supercharger mod does not scale with regards to its user’s power, correct?”

“No …”

“Which means it would provide a much smaller boost for Nova than it would for someone of more average magical capacity, such as myself,” Dawn said. “The amount of power it adds is fixed.”

Sabra nodded, taking another bite of his breakfast. He’d almost forgotten about it. The surface had gone cold, but the interior was still warm. “Dawn’s words make sense,” he said as soon as he’d swallowed the small bite. “A bucket of water makes a larger difference to a pond than it does a lake.”

“An apt analogy,” Dawn said, nodding in his direction. “Thank you, Sabra.”

Karibu.”

“In addition to that reasoning,” Dawn continued, “unicorn magic is the most readily versatile. While I don’t doubt that Captain Song, yourself, or Hunter could make use of such a mod, such usage would be limited to far more specific applications.”

“She’s spot on,” Hunter said, adding his voice to the mix. “I like the idea, I really do, but …” He shrugged. “Unicorn magic has the versatility angle. Dawn is the best choice.”

“I agree.” Captain Song’s own stern voice rolled through the interior. “The reasoning is sound. Any objections, corporal?” Sky Bolt shook her head.

“Very well then.” The captain turned to Dawn. “It’s yours. Get used to using it as quickly as possible.”

Dawn nodded. “I can manage that. Provided I know what emotion I need to exemplify.”

“Ah … Magic?” Sky Bolt shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, but that’s what I’ve got.”

“Ah. A very particular and difficult feeling,” Dawn replied. “But I shall manage.”

“That’s one,” Hunter said. “Unless anyone objects, I’d actually like to try that magic pulse mod you were talking about.”

“Really?” Sky seemed surprised. “It’s not the greatest yet.”

“Yeah, but seeing magic, considering what we’re about to go up against? It complements my tracking, and I can get up high and get a good view of things.”

“It does have a maximum range,” Sky said quickly. “Think of it like … a sphere, extending in all directions around you. And while it makes you a target, it won’t highlight magic for anyone else.”

“Hmm … that could go wonky … But I’ll take it anyway. It’s that or that spider-cling spell, and I can already fly.” He fanned his wings twice, as if to remind the team.

“All right …” Sky said, though Sabra could hear the concern in her voice.

It is a … His mind struggled for the word. Prototype? Yes, prototype. Untested compared to her other, more complete mods. And Sky Bolt didn’t like letting untested things out of her workshop.

Though in this case, she tested it enough to bring along. It was probably more, then, that it hadn’t performed the way she’d wanted it to.

“Okay, that’s two,” Sky said, her eyes moving across the rest of the table. “What about—?”

“I would like again to request the thermal mod,” Sabra said.

“Are you sure?” It only took a second for Sky Bolt to reply, but he could hear the hesitation in her voice. “After all, you’re the most experienced with the strength mod, so—”

“Just let him take both,” Nova said, rolling his eyes. “Come on, Bolt, it’s freezing out there, and Sabra is from the Plainslands. Besides, you can swap mods, right? That was how these things were made.”

“Yes, you can, though they’re designed to drop their charge when not attached to a suit—a safety feature. So it’d have to recharge.”

Nova shrugged. “So? He can pop the strength mod in when he needs it, and the rest of the time he can use the thermal mod. Like you said, he already knows how to use the strength mod, so it’s not going to impair his capabilities on the mission.”

“Those are valid points, Nova,” Captain Song said. “Well thought-out.”

“Yes.” Sabra gave the unicorn a quick nod of thanks. “I agree.” He brought his eyes to Sky Bolt once more. “Would that work?”

Sky hesitated, rubbing at her cheek with one hoof. “I guess …” she said. “You wouldn’t be able to swap them out on a moment’s notice, but if you planned ahead … and as long as you didn’t lose track of one of them … Okay.”

“But!” she said, her sharp tone cutting off his thanks before he could speak. Her red eyes stared into his own, red fires beneath the blue sky of her mane. “It is a prototype. When the mission is over, I expect a full report on how it functioned. A complete breakdown, as detailed as you can make it.” At some point, she’d leaned forward, half her body across the table. “I need everything.”

“Everything, huh?” Nova’s voice pulled Sky up short. “You kind of look like you’re planning on getting it right—”

Sky Bolt snapped back into her seat, cheeks flushed, even as Captain Song let out a stern cough.

“Right, right,” Nova said. “Extra exercises today. The usual.”

“Double ‘em,” Steel said. “As for the terms, are they acceptable, Specialist Sabra?”

He nodded. “Of course. I will make sure to detail any observations I have about the performance of the mod.” I might even suit up and try it out as soon as this meeting is over.

“Then it’s settled. You’ll take two.” Captain Song turned back to Sky Bolt. “As for myself, I think I’ll try that barrier. That’s the bubble-shaped one, correct?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s the one I want. Which just leaves you and Nova,”

“I’ll take the other shield, actually,” Nova said with a quick shrug. “I’ve got the crescent shield down, sure,” he said with a pointed look at the captain. “But I can think of plenty of uses for having two shields at once I can call on. Besides,” he said, one ear flicking as he leaned back and looked at Sky. “Bolt is more familiar with the speed mod, as she said. So rather than having both of us working to get used to a new mod, she can stay with the one she’s familiar with. And unless I miss my guess, that’ll leave us with one pony on each team that will be familiar with the mod they’re using.”

“That sounds pretty well-reasoned,” Captain Song said. “Mind explaining how that leaves a pony on each team with mod experience?”

Nova shrugged. “Didn’t take much. You said yesterday we’d be dividing into two teams. One team goes to secure the city, the other to hunt this ‘King Sombra’ shade. Whichever team goes to do that needs to take The Hummingbird. Which Bolt is the only pilot of.”

“Of course,” he continued, a smug smile on his muzzle. “That team will also be tracking somepony … well, something anyway. So Hunter needs to go. And since this ‘Sombra’ was a magical powerhouse, and him getting that power back is one of the big worries, you’re obviously going to want someone with magical talent on the team. That leaves myself and Dawn. But Dawn is the team doctor, and one team is going into a city that was ruled over by a despot. With a bunch of medical supplies.”

His grin widened as he leaned back, floating a forkful of hash browns up in his magic. “So myself, Sky Bolt, and Hunter are making up the tracking team, while you, Dawn, and Sabra are the city team. How’s that?”

Captain Song was silent for a moment, his eyes locked on Nova as if he were examining the unicorn, his gaze stripping away flesh and bone to look at the soul beneath. Then he nodded. “Well put, spec. I’m impressed. That was well-reasoned, and furthermore entirely accurate.”

Hunter nodded. “You brought up the same points Steel and I did last night when we were hashing this out. I mean, sure, there’s only six of us, but still. Onya.”

“Careful, specialist,” Dawn said as Nova just grinned. “That’s how one gets promoted.”

“Yeah, no worries about that happening,” Nova said with a shake of his mane. “Convict, remember? I’m a specialist for good.”

“Back on topic,” Captain Song said, rapping his hoof on the table. “Sky Bolt needs to get back to charting our new route, and we all have work to do. But the two teams, as Nova discerned, stand. I’ll lead the city team, with Dawn and Sabra. Our objective will be to secure the city and provide temporary relief for the citizens as well as dismantle any controlling elements left by Sombra. Hunter’s team will have Nova and Sky Bolt, as well as The Hummingbird. Which brings us to another issue.”

“Starting today,” he said. “First Lieutenant Hunter will be the first of us to begin training with Sky Bolt on how to fly The Hummingbird. Since one of them will need to come pick us up once the city is secured, having two ponies who can fly our transportation will be much better than one. This practice will be separate from the team practices we’ll be doing later today, practicing rapid drops and exercises in this area. This means yes,” he said, looking around the table. “We will be going outside today for exercises.”

“But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be resting in here while we wait. We’ve got plenty to do. We secured most of our cargo; now we need to organize it. Get it ready for a fast deployment. We need to make sure our gear is ready to go at a moment’s notice. We need to sort through our supplies and make sure everything is where it needs to be.”

“In addition,” he added. “We still need to tend to personal exercises as best we can. I know the space is cramped, so we’ll do it in shifts.” He turned. “Corporal Bolt, if you can, keep an eye on the weather conditions. Let me know if it’s worsening or getting better. Also, once we’re roughly around the area the Princesses indicated, set us in a circling patrol over the area. Can the autopilot handle that?”

“It’s tricky …” Sky said, grinning. “But you wanted the best, and The Hummingbird is! It’ll manage just fine.”

“Good. Finish your breakfast and get to it. The rest of you, you either already know what you need to do, or you’ll be grabbed by a senior officer that does. For now, we’re going to focus on being as ready as we can be before the Crystal Empire arrives. It could happen tonight, or it could happen next week. We’ve no way of knowing. Any questions?”

“I have one,” Sabra said, speaking up. “Last night you said that Captain Armor and Princess Cadance would be arriving based on our signal. Will that be before or after the city appears? And if after, how will they know?”

“Good questions.” Captain Song gave him a nod. “While we were taking the direct route here, the Princesses loaded up a train full of Royal and Night Guard to secure the northern rail line. Their mission was to head along it and drop a team every twenty miles or so, at the nearest high ground. They’re probably in place now, or close to it. The last team will wait at the end of the line. The moment the city appears, we’ll fire off a powerful signal flare. The lieutenant mentioned it last night, as you may recall. The team at the end of the rail will see it, and send a signal further back. From there, it’ll make its way to Canterlot, and Captain Armor and Princess Cadence will be sent on their way, while we make ready for their arrival. That answer your question?”

He nodded. “Naelewa. It does.” I pray our flare is bright enough to pierce these clouds. Outside the windows, the grey shapes continued to spool through the sky.

“Good.” Captain Song rapped his hoof against the tabletop. “Then everypony finish up eating, and let’s get to it.” The Hummingbird rattled again as a gust of wind slammed against it.

“We’ve got plenty to do.”

Author's Note:

Hey Readers! I hope you're enjoying Book III of The Dusk Guard Saga! Remember, new chapters will release each Tuesday and Friday morning until the story is done, so check back soon! If that's not fast enough for you, I recommend checking out some of my non-fanfic published works to enjoy! You can find them at my website or by going direct to Amazon!

See you next chapter!

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