• 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 5

Come on you three, Hunter thought, working his shoulders back and forth and burrowing deeper into the snow bank. Find me! Overhead, the greyish-black sky rumbled again, a jagged cut of lightning arcing through the clouds and briefly flashing across what little of the plains he could see from his current vantage point. Come on … I left a trail wide enough a foal could find it!

Well, he admitted after another gust of snow swept over his position, flakes settling atop his head and forelegs. Maybe a really smart foal. But still, this possie shouldn’t be that hard to find.

He let out a sigh, the sound swallowed up by the drifts of snow around him. So close to the Crystal Mountains, the terrain was a little less even than the rolling hills of the plains. He’d struck out north, away from the group and on hoof, then broken eastward toward the foothills and found himself the little depression he was in now. Snow had been piling up in it for who knew how long, centuries maybe, forming a deep snowdrift on one side that he’d backed up against and partially wormed his way into.

That had been almost fifteen minutes ago. The point of the exercise was for the team to practice following tracks and signs against the elements—currently the same roiling snowstorms that had been growing since they’d arrived—and try to find him before growing completely lost. Hopefully to help aid the team in finding this “King Sombra” figure whenever he broke free from his prison.

Maybe I gave myself too much of a head start, Hunter thought as he glanced over the side of the snow-swept mountains rising above him to the north. I did a bodgy job covering my tracks, but with so much snow coming down and blowing around … He pressed his front hoof into the snow and then pulled it back, watching to see how quickly it filled in.

Nothing.

Granted, you’re in a bit of a hole. That’s why you’re here, he thought as he ran his eyes over the Crystal Mountains once more. So that wouldn’t exactly be the best test. A shiver rolled down his back, and he frowned. And I’m not going to give them much longer. Even under this heavy parka—he glanced down at the thick wool-lined coat he was wearing over his armor—I’m not exactly warm.

Another minute ticked by, the occasional snowflake settling around him. From time to time a gust of wind would kick up, lifting some of the snow around him free and carrying it off into the sky to begin the cycle anew. Wild weather, he thought, looking up at the clouds. Worse than the Everfree.

Thankfully, the rate at which it had been growing worse seemed to have slowed, though it was still certainly getting more crook by the hour. The day prior, when he’d been tasked with piloting The Hummingbird so that Sky Bolt could practice with the team, he’d spent the entire time fighting against the heavy winds. It had been no wonder to him that Steel had asked him to monitor the ship during the night for a few hours so that the pegasus could get some uninterrupted sleep. He had a sneaking suspicion that she’d been more grateful for the break than she let on.

Now she’s somewhere overhead, he thought, twisting his ears and looking up to try and locate the nearby airship. He couldn’t see it, but he could hear it, ever so faintly. It was probably closer than it sounded, with all the snow muffling things, and the faint howling of the wind.

Which makes it all the worse that they haven’t managed to find me yet, he thought as a snowflake came to rest on his visor, melting a moment later into a stream of water that he wiped away with one hoof. He’d have to mention that to Sky, see if the next models couldn’t get a self-cleaning or repelling spell of some kind on the glass or whatever it was that he was looking through.

“Another minute,” he said, his voice swallowed up almost instantly by the winds. That’s all the longer I can stand to spend in this snowdrift, freezing my flanks off—

He froze, his body going stiff. Something was … off. He couldn’t say what. He’d be running his eyes across the northern mountainscape once more when something deep in his gut had twitched. He squinted, peering hard at the wind and snow-swept stones.

What was it? It wasn’t like his instincts to fire off for no reason. He couldn’t quite put his hoof on it, but something … Something is out of place. Did a snowpack shift?

Or maybe you’ve just been stuffed in the snow so long you’ve gone starkers. Still, even as he pulled his gaze away from the side of the mountain the feeling that something was out of place didn’t go away. His wings shifted, pressing against the snowpack he’d shoved himself into. Again his eyes came back to the mountainside. As before, it was steep and jagged, mostly-bare rock packed with thick snow. Here and there scraggly trees poked above the drifts, the stunted, diminutive growths serving only to break up the white-and-grey monotony with their dark green branches.

“Aww, forget it.” He kicked out with his rear hooves, shoving his body forward and out of the snowdrift. It collapsed behind him, a sweeping wave of fine snow particles sweeping over him as he spread his wings. The first few beats kicked up an even greater cloud, but he outpaced it quickly, rising into the wind and beating furiously as he headed north.

“Just to put my mind at ease,” he said aloud as he rose higher. “Aerial reconnaissance. Stay high, stay alive.” No sense in landing and being ambushed by a yeti. Or worse, a pack of iceworms.

He powered through the air, his wingbeats steady and strong, and before long found himself nearing the steep mountain face. He slowed, running his eyes over the terrain. The feeling had faded now, but it had left an aftertaste, like a faint sense of uneasiness that refused to leave.

Nothing. He couldn’t see any signs of things being out of place. I could always drop lower, but ... He shook his head.

“Jumping at shadows.” He flicked one wing, turning in the air, but then stopped.

Of course, if there is something, I could always try that mod out. He glanced at the small dial in the lower-right corner of his helmet. The needle was all the way to the right, the mod’s battery crystal completely charged. After all, I’ve yet to give this thing a real test. And what could it hurt?

He glanced southward. He could barely make out The Hummingbird through the constant snow, even though it was only a mile or two south at most. Visibility. That was another thing they were losing slowly but surely as the storms worsened.

Not far enough away that I couldn’t get to them in a minute or two with my beacon if something went wrong, he thought, one hoof going to the small device attached to his jacket. An enchanted device, the beacon would, once activated, send out an invisible pulse every thirty seconds. Low power magic, according to Nova. But enough that a skilled unicorn could “hone in” on his position by following the strength of the pulse. Better yet, they could send out a pulse of their own that would make the beacon jerk, allowing a lost pony to head toward their rescuers if able.

And a necessary precaution for a team as unused to the current conditions as several of them were. Dawn and Steel were fine, but Nova, Sky, and most of all Sabra, were untested.

He took another look down at the mountainside. Was he too far away for the mod to work? There was only one way to find out.

He reached inside himself, hunting for that same magical “spark” he felt when he used weather magic and gathering it. It had taken him a few tries to figure out how to activate the mod, but with practice, he’d gotten it down. It wasn’t instinctive yet the way Sabra and Sky Bolt were when they used theirs, but he was getting better.

He “poked” at the ball of magic resting in his chest, then thought about the spell between his wings and “shoved” the orb toward it.

And … magic.

A bright sphere of pure energy exploded out of him, vivid green mixing with purple to form a brilliant-blue translucent wall that rushed away from him in all directions. It faded from normal sight almost immediately, but to his own eyes, attuned to the spell, he could still see it sweeping out in all directions, fading but not slowing, until the side of it closest to the mountain sank into the stone. No sooner had it begun to than the magic vanished, leaving him with a view of the world that was somewhat brighter but muted at the same time, as if all the colors had been cranked up in intensity but all the sharp edges between them blurred together. He could see the bright cylinder of white that was his beacon hanging from the front of his jacket, the magic spell on the small device shining like a magilight. But below him …

Nothing. No bright bits of magic, or even dull ones. Nothing but the normal background. No bright shapes through the snow that signified living bodies lying in wait.

That had been the other discovery that had thrilled him when he’d gotten the mod to work. Not only did the mod highlight magic to his eyes, but that included the magic innate to each individual. He could see the glowing ethereal form that was their own magic.

Even if they were currently behind something like a wall.

In essence, while it gave away his own position, it also let him see the position of anyone nearby, no matter how many walls or barriers they were behind. Though a few tests had shown that the armor they wore did lessen the effect somewhat.

“Well, crud,” he said to nopony. “Nothing.” He gave the mountain a final look, the glowing distortion over his eyes fading at last as the spell ran out, and turned southward. The needle in the corner of his visor was all the way to the left, the mod’s battery empty. It would take several minutes to recharge, absorbing ambient magic as he flew.

But I’ve got time, he thought as he began flying south, heading in the direction of the faint rumble of The Hummingbird’s propellers. He kept himself low, only a few dozen feet above the ground to avoid the worst of the wind, and in less than a minute had spotted several ponies making their way along the snow-encrusted plain.

Well, he thought as he dropped down, the team catching sight of him and calling out, their voices caught by the wind. They’re not too far off of where I was. He could see the faint depressions left by his passage, even after so many minutes. Though, if he was being honest, they were slight.

“Lieutenant,” Steel said as Hunter tucked his wings, dropping the last few feet into the snow to avoid stirring the drifts any further than they already were. “Get bored out there?”

“Cold, mainly,” he replied, pulling his hooves up and watching as they sank back into the snow, sinking halfway up his armored fetlocks before stopping. “I figured you didn’t want the team to finally track me down only to find a popsicle.” He motioned towards Nova, waving one wing. “Pass me those snowshoes. How’d they do?” The question was aimed at Steel.

“Not bad,” Steel replied. “Granted, they’re a little off your trail now, but they were doing pretty well all things considered.

“We watched for the depressions, as you said,” Sabra added, pointing at the “track” the three had been following. “But over that last rise …”

Hunter nodded. He knew which one they were talking about. He’d taken his trail right over a rise in the foothills … and then down into one of three narrow fingerlings of the next hill over. Barely a misdirection, but with the snow and wind covering his tracks, it apparently had been enough to throw the team off.

“We were about to double-back,” Nova added as he pulled Hunter’s snowshoes out of his saddlebags. “The plan was to check all three of them.”

Maybe not. He glanced at Steel, and the captain gave him a slight nod. All right, maybe they’re doing better than I thought. “Why not check all three at once?”

“Ambush,” Sabra said as Hunter caught the snowshoes and began putting them on. Each snapped into place with a barely-audible click. “Splitting up while tracking a foe that could be dangerous could leave us at a disadvantage. Especially in unfamiliar terrain.”

Hunter nodded and set his front hooves back atop the snow. This time, they didn’t sink in. “Good. But this wasn’t a combat exercise.”

“Like that means anything,” Nova said, rolling his eyes behind his visor. “Give us some credit, Hunter. We know how much you and the captain like to surprise us. Better safe than sorry. And earning extra laps because we didn’t bother to make the right maneuver.”

“Heh.” He checked his rear hooves and then gave his wings a quick shake, brushing off the snow that had settled on them while he’d been talking. “That’s a pretty solid reason.” Satisfied his snowshoes were properly attached, he took another quick look at the group. “So where’s Dawn?”

“She’s setting up part two of the exercise,” Steel said, grinning behind his visor. “As a former Ranger, her inclusion would have made this challenge pointless. Seeing as how Sabra and myself will be securing the Crystal Empire, there could be traps.”

“So she’s setting up a bunch of traps of her own around where we landed,” Hunter said, returning the grin. “Got it.”

“Which you are not to point out,” Steel added. “This one’s for me and Sabra. I want you and Nova to hang back. You’d throw off the whole test.”

“Hey, works for me,” Nova said, shrugging and moving forward through the snow. “But we’d all better get moving before too much longer. It’s going to be dark soon.”

“Yes, please,” Sabra said, a shiver running down the stallion’s back, visible even through the thick parka he was wearing. “I do not want to remain outside after night falls.”

“Me either,” Hunter said. A howl of wind kicked up around them, a long, echoing cry that brought a fresh barrage of snowflakes screaming by. “Let’s move out. Take us home, Sabra.”

“To Canterlot?” Sabra asked. He sounded serious, but Hunter could see the faint smile in the stallion’s lips behind his helmet.

“Not quite yet,” Steel said, turning and pointing back the way they’d come. “Dusk Guard, move out!”

They began moving back across the Crystal Plains, wind now howling at their back … though not always. It seemed to shift and leap almost randomly, sometimes ahead, sometimes above, sometimes at their sides, and always with a fresh crop of snowflakes.

“Ugh,” Nova said after a few minutes, reaching up and rubbing a hoof at his horn. “There it is again.”

“There’s what again?” Hunter asked, eyeing Nova as his motions knocked a clump of snow free of his snowshoe, dropping it across his visor. “That itch?”

Nova nodded. “It’s like … Crud, I don’t know how to describe it. A tingly feeling up and down my horn.”

“Like a static charge?”

“That works.” Nova lowered his hoof, though his eyes still were directed upward. “A small static charge running up and down my horn.”

“Same as before?” Hunter asked, frowning.

“Yup.” Nova shook his head. “And … it’s gone. Just like the last couple of times.”

“And you’re sure it’s not that helmet?” He glanced at the opening in the crystal where Nova’s horn emerged. The base around the opening was bulky, bulging outward from the helmet itself, while four narrow, crystal pieces jutted out alongside the horn, guarding it from impacts and helping provide a sort of ‘amplifier’ effect similar to old dueling rings. “You’ve never worn your armor for so long while doing magic—”

Nova shook his head, cutting him off. “No, that’s not it,” he said. “First of all, Dawn’s got the same design, and it hasn’t bothered her. And she’s using that booster.”

“The supercharger.”

“Right. That.” Nova shook his head again. “Besides, it doesn’t feel like that. It’s not my magic. It’s … wild magic.”

“Like wild weather?”

“Sort of,” Nova said with a shrug. “Sometimes a big spell or a sloppy enchantment or something will let off tendrils, you know. Just … pure energy. You can’t see it, not unless something goes really wrong or it’s a really impressive spell, but it’s there. Normally it’s so tiny, you don’t notice it.”

“But here it’s making your horn itch?”

Another nod. “Yeah. It’s gotta have something to do with this ‘sealing’ that Steel told us about. The magic coming undone or something.”

“That makes sense. As far as I understand magic, anyway. Which isn’t too much past the basics.” Another gust of wind roared past, and Hunter put a hoof to his hat out of reflex, the string tied around his chin going taut as the storm overpowered the enchantment that was supposed to hold it in place.

“Could you ask Dawn?” he said as soon as the gust had passed. “I mean,” he added as he saw Nova’s confused look, “she might have something that can detect wild magic flows.”

Nova shook his head. “Not in her gear. We already talked about it. She’s not felt any of the surges yet, but … Hey, you know what? She doesn’t, but you do.”

“I d—” He caught himself before he could go any further. “My mod?”

“Hey, it could work,” Nova said, his hooves sinking deep into a fluff of powder as they reached a lull between two low hills. Ahead of them, Steel was plowing a path with his chest, pushing snow aside to leave a narrow channel, Sabra following in his hoofsteps.

“You said your vision was fuzzy when you used the mod, right? Or blurred?” Nova asked as they both fell into single file along Steel’s channel.

“Not quite, but yeah. Something like that.”

“That’s magic. Ambient magic,” Nova said. “At least, that’s what I guess. So if you fire up that thing when my horn is itching, and—”

“If it is a bunch of magic all gathered together, I might be able to see it!” Hunter finished. “Onya, Nova. That’s a good idea. Just let me know when your horn is itching next, and I’ll give this thing a go." He bent one hoof back, pointing at the mod.”

“Speaking of which, was that flash from near the mountains you?” Nova asked. “A minute or two before you reached us?”

“Could you tell? Like, sense it?” If the mod had that wide of a side effect—

“No,” Nova said, shaking his head. They rose out of the depression, the powder on both sides falling away as they rose up atop snow once more. The roar of The Hummingbird’s propellers was a lot closer now, and Hunter glanced upward to see the faint shape of the airship’s envelope flickering through the storm. “We just saw the flash. It didn’t seem like thunder, but at the same time …”

“It could have been,” Hunter admitted, tilting his head back and looking up at the dark, seething sky. “But no, I did use it while I was out there.”

“Testing it out?”

“More or less. I was also checking to see if somepony was around.”

Nova frowned. “One of us? Or …”

He shrugged. “Not really sure. Something about the mountainside felt … off. You know, that feeling you get in your gut when something’s gone crook?”

“Yeah,” Nova said with a nod. “I know it.”

“Right. Well, I figured I’d check it out—from up high—just in case it was a yeti or a pack of iceworms. Or frostwolves, I guess, though those are pretty rare. I didn’t find anything, though. Might have just been the weather getting to me.” A deep, low rumble echoed across the sky, as if the storms were adding their own thoughts to his own.

“Could it have been our target?”

“King Sombra?” Hunter shook his head. “Not likely. He’s not supposed to break out until this Crystal Empire is back.”

“Right, that’s what Steel said. But …” Nova’s voice lowered. “What if the Princesses were wrong?”

“Wrong?”

“It’s not impossible,” Nova said with a shrug. “They’re not infallible. They’re immortal, but that doesn’t mean that they’re flawless. They make mistakes all the time.”

“I know, but—”

“Besides, according to Steel, King Sombra changed their spell. What if he’s already out?”

Crikey. Kid’s got a good point. “If that' is the case, then …” He took a quick look around. They were definitely getting close to their drop point, based on what he could remember and the way that Steel and Sabra had slowed. “I guess there’s not much we can do about it but keep our guard up. But that’s a fair point. I should mention that to Steel. If he hasn’t been thinking about it already.”

Ahead of them, both Steel and Sabra had slowed to a stop, looking down the long, even slope before them. Several hundred yards away, Hunter could just make out the figure of Dawn Triage standing in her pinkish armor, watching. Steel leaned out and said something to Sabra that was swept away by the wind, and the Zebra responded by drawing his Fimbo from his back and extending it to its full length.

Not bad, he thought as his eyes picked out the slight difference in the sheen of the snow ahead of the pair. Someone—more accurately somepony—had disturbed the snow there recently, and though they’d smoothed the hard crust back over with their magic and let the wind do a little more, it hadn’t been enough to fool his eyes. Or those of the captain, apparently.

Though I wonder ... he thought, a grin coming to his face. Did they follow that all the way? He could see the subtle shift in the snow as it went across the snow in front of them … as well as doubling back to behind them. He elbowed Nova as Sabra reached out with his fimbo, poking at the recently disturbed snow.

A rope snapped up through the snow, its two ends exploding upward with far more force and wrapping around Sabra’s Fimbo. There was just a hint of a glow to the trap, the rope moving just ever so slightly unnaturally as Sabra yanked his staff back.

Just in time for a whole mess of ropes to launch into the air around his hindquarters. To his credit, he didn’t panic. Sabra leapt forward, coming down atop the snow with only one rear hoof caught in a loop. Steel, meanwhile, had jumped as well, the ropes having missed him entirely.

“Nice,” Nova said as Sabra pulled his hoof free. “Two in one.”

“She’s good,” Hunter said with a nod. “You can’t run from Dawn’s med-bay.” His hoof extricated, Sabra and Steel began making their way toward the distant sergeant, scanning the snow in front of them.

“No,” Nova said, shaking his head. Then he frowned and turned to look at him, “By the way, has she said anything about being unhappy at something I did recently?”

“At you?” He paused for a moment, looking back over the last few days. “Not that I recall. Why?”

“She’s been acting strange around me,” Nova said. “Quiet. Cold. And yes,” he said as Hunter opened his mouth. “I know she was the Ice Queen of the Rangers. But we’ve been on pretty good terms, or so I thought. But ever since the missions started, she’s been … I don’t know. Polite, but standoffish.”

“You ask her about it?”

Nova shook his head. “No. Not yet.”

“Well, she hasn’t said anything to me. Want me to ask her?”

“Not yet,” Nova said after a moment. There was a burst of snow as one of Dawn’s traps caught Steel’s leg. “Maybe it’s just the mission.”

“Could be,” Hunter admitted. Down the hill, Steel and Sabra were charging forward, the massive earth pony breaking through clumps of snow like a ship through waves at sea and the more nimble zebra dancing across the snowpack in his wake. “This is, technically, our first real mission. We kind of volunteered ourselves for the last one. And it’s … Well, it’s a big one. With how little we know, and all the preparations we’ve been going through, we—”

He stopped abruptly, his mind catching up with what he’d been saying. We’re all stuffed. Crikey, Hunter, this was what Steel recruited you for in the first place, and you go and get all bodgy the moment things get serious.

Nova was looking at him, one eyebrow lifted. “What?” he asked.

“I think I see the problem,” Hunter said. When Nova turned to look down the slope, where Steel and Sabra were both trying to extricate themselves from a spiderwebbed tangle of snares, he shook his head. “Not with those two. They’re doing … about as well as we can expect, really.” As they watched, Steel tossed his front snowshoes aside, extending his gauntlet spikes and laying into the ropes around him. “And that’s not going to work.” A small net of twine erupted out of the snow, clad in the orange glow of Dawn’s magic and snaring one of Steel’s gauntlets.

“But no,” he said as Steel went down, Sabra leaping to his aid. “I wasn’t talking about them. I was talking about the team. We do have a problem, even if it’s not the same one you’re having with Dawn. Might be related, though.” He glanced over at Nova. “Offer’s still open for me to ask her about it.”

The unicorn appeared to think about it for a moment before shaking his head. “No, I’ll ask her myself.”

“Suit yourself,” Hunter said, turning to look back down the slope. Steel was down, thoroughly caught, while Sabra was still flipping over the snowpack … though he wasn’t getting any closer to Dawn.

“Well,” Hunter said, shifting his weight and giving his wings a good stretch. “I think this is just about over. Let’s mosey on down there and see about getting started on fixing the problem.” Another gust of wind swept over the plains, stirring up the snow already disturbed by Sabra and Steel’s antics, followed by another dull roar of thunder from above.

They followed the path carved by Steel and Sabra, snow beating against their bodies as they made their way down to where the pair were being unraveled by Dawn. The medical unicorn looked up at them as they approached, her horn aglow as she undid a collection of snares around Sabra’s forelegs. “Welcome back.”

“Having fun?” Hunter asked as a few more loops slipped off of Sabra’s hooves.

“Of a sort,” Dawn replied, her response as curt and polite as it normally was. “And it would appear I can look forward to more of it in the future.”

“Right,” Hunter said as Steel picked himself up out of the snow, shaking his body off. “Well, that’s actually something I noticed on the way down here. We’ve been making a big mistake with our training.” He directed the last few words at Steel, and the olive-green armored pony gave him a curious look even as he stepped over to where his snowshoes had landed. “Unfortunately, I didn’t notice it until a few minutes ago.”

“Really?” Steel asked, the spikes on his gauntlets snapping back into a “sheathed” position. He let out a sigh. “Well, with everything else we’ve been doing, it’s not too surprising that we’ve missed something. What is it?”

“Actually, it’s pretty simple,” Hunter said, rolling his forehooves in the snow. “Fun.”

His snowball caught Steel right in the visor, impacting with a soft wump and completely covering the glass. Everypony, Steel included, locked in place.

“We’ve been so busy working to get ready for something we’re only part-way informed about, we’ve been going starkers,” he said, hefting another snowball in his hooves. “Let’s face it: We’re trying to make everything as spot on as possible, when we don’t even know half of what we’ll be facing. It’s squaring the circle, and focusing on it has everyone on edge. So,” he said, hefting his hoof. “I think we need to relax before somepony cracks a fruity. And since we’ve got a lot of snow here …” He pulled back, making ready to throw the next shot.

Bap. Snow billowed around his head as a snowball slammed into the back of his helmet. “I agree,” Sabra said, looking at his own now-empty hoof with a measure of awe. “One must relax to properly shoot an arrow. Or,” he said, smiling,. “Throw a snowball.”

For a moment all of them were still. Then it was like a switch had been flipped. Hunter shot into the air, letting the wind carry him to the side as a snowball shot through the space where he had just been. He whipped around and let fly with his own, striking the snow where Steel had just been standing. The captain had leapt to the side, hastily ducking behind a nearby bank of ice.

Hunter threw himself into a tight spin as two more snowballs flew past, Sabra hunting for an opening, and then took to the ground, taking cover behind one of the winter-equipment duffels and quickly making use of the snow behind it.

Nova, meanwhile, had moved, his horn glowing as he readied several snowballs, his attention on Steel. And, Hunter noticed, not on Dawn, who was readying several snowballs of her own. The first hit his flank, and with a startled shout Nova dove to the ground, Dawn’s next two shots missing. And leaving her wide open for a retaliatory strike from Steel, which caught her in the chest.

“Captain!” Dawn called, fake scandal in her voice as she ducked behind a nearby pile of snow. “How could you?” A second snowball caught her in the back of the head, and she spun to see Sabra grinning at her. Sabra, who unlike the rest of the team, had not gone into any cover.

“Oh,” was all the zebra had time to say as three of them unleashed a barrage of snow fire. He took four rapid blows … and then with a leap he was arcing away through the air, twenty feet above the snowpack, purple lines flashing along the black of his undersuit.

He used his mod, Hunter thought as Sabra landed some thirty feet away, snow kicking up at his impact. Clever, but I’ve got wings to even that out! The pile at his forehooves was complete, and he scraped it into his armored limbs, crouching and launching himself up into the sky with steady wingbeats. A snowball shot past, a slight spin all he needed to avoid it … and then with a sudden orange glow, it switched directions, catching him in the back.

“Onya, Dawn!” he called as he dodged another magic-fired snowball. “But air power will reign supreme!” He was high enough now that he could see all three of them over their cover, and he began throwing snowballs down at all three of them. Dawn lit her horn and teleported several feet, snapping out of existence while Steel ran for it. Nova was the only one to stay in place, an orange shield wall covering him from above and absorbing several snowballs. Yellow lines ran down his own suit. His own mod in use, Hunter realized.

Still, I can keep them on the run, he thought as he skimmed to one side, dodging several retaliatory strikes from Steel and Dawn. Sabra was running back toward the group, a large ball of snow balanced carefully on his back. From the look of it, he was heading for Nova.

Hunter laughed as he fired another snowball toward Dawn, this time hitting her right in her armored muzzle. She glared at him, a trio of snowballs arcing toward him, only for two of them to change direction mid-flight and head for Steel, who had been coming up behind her with a few snowballs of his own. He rolled to the side, firing several snowballs back.

“Air power!” Hunter called again, going into a dive and grabbing a load of snow. Sabra was almost at Nova’s back, while Nova meanwhile seemed to be alternating his fire between Steel and Dawn. Sabra went into a run … and then abruptly changed direction, rocketing up into the air in a leap that brought him right at Hunter, his foreleg drawn back with the bowling-ball-sized orb of snow in it.

Hunter’s jaw dropped at the sudden maneuver, his body locking in surprise. Too late he tried to tilt his wings to adjust, and Sabra brought his foreleg forward, his cargo slamming into Hunter’s helmet with enough force to drive him back and down. He hit the snow with a heavy whump, landing on his back as Sabra landed beside him.

“Air traffic … control,” Sabra said as Hunter wiped snow from his visor and sat up. “Says you’re grounded.” Then he laughed, and Hunter stared at the zebra before adding his own laughter to the mix.

A snowball pelted Sabra’s side, and he spun away, Fimbo snapping out and knocking two more from the air with a complex pattern. He then flipped, scooping his staff through the snow and using it to sling a clump at Nova. The phalanx shield popped into being once more, stopping the shot as surely as a stone wall.

Hunter pushed himself back up and out of the snow, noting the faint imprint he’d left behind. Okay, pulling out all the stops, huh? he thought, snapping his wings out and gathering two hooffuls of snow. Well then let’s go all out!

He snapped his wings down and back, throwing himself forward as fast as he could. Sabra heard—or saw, he wasn’t sure which—him coming and ducked away from his attack. Hunter pumped his wings again, moving clear of the zebra so that his own back wasn’t open, and dove for Nova.

The shield didn’t help against somepony determined to move around it, and Hunter brought both his forehooves down, dumping a load of snow across Nova’s head and back as he flew past. A snowball caught him in the wing, and he went into a quick spiral, Steel’s next two shots catching him only with glancing blows. Laughter echoed across the plains, mixing with the howl of the wind and almost pushing it back.

“Hey!” For a moment everyone froze, looking up as they spotted Sky Bolt winging her way down through the air above them. “You guys are having a snowball fight? Without me?” She landed in the middle of the group, shaking her head. “How could you?”

Hunter glanced at the rest of the team. Sabra looked almost like he was torn between speaking up and looking guilty, while Steel and Dawn just looked surprised. Nova, on the other hoof, had narrowed his eyes, readying a snowball of his own. Just in case, I guess.

“Well …” Steel said, shaking a pile of snow off of his hindquarters. “It was a spontaneous thing, and you were piloting The Hummingbird.”

Sky Bolt frowned, pawing at the ground with her hoof. “Well … I do have to keep a close eye on her.” She glanced upward, and Hunter followed, eyeing the airship holding somewhat steady a few hundred feet above them. “So …”

I-guess-I’ll-have-to-be-fast!” The words came out in an almost indecipherable blur, strung together as something slapped against the side of Hunter’s head, almost bowling him over.

He shook his head, snow falling away as Bolt came to a stop right where she’d been when she’d started, a wide grin on her face as red lines of magic faded from her undersuit.

Speed mod, Hunter thought, letting out a laugh as he saw the surprised and confused looks on the rest of the team’s muzzles as they brushed snow off of themselves. Bolt’s quick lap around them had thrown the snow into a momentary cyclone, one that was already fading as the winds returned to normal.

“Well played,” Steel said, brushing snow off of his shoulders with a chuckle. A moment later it had morphed into a full-fledged, deep belly laugh, and the rest of the group, Bolt included, joined in.

“Okay,” Steel said once the laughter had faded. “Hunter was right. Is right. We needed that.” He shook his head again. “We’re going to cut back. Tomorrow we’ll take a break. You can practice if you want to, and we’ll still get some work done, but for the most part, I want us to relax. For all we know, we could be out here for a few weeks. Makes no sense to wear one another raw before anything even really happens.”

“With that in mind,” he said, his gaze focusing on Sky Bolt. “I think right now I could use a warm shower and some dinner. And for that, we need our airship. Corporal Bolt, if you’d bring her down for us?”

“With pleasure, captain.” Bolt snapped the captain a quick salute before taking off straight up into the sky, a trail of scattered snowflakes riding along in her wake. In a moment she was beside The Hummingbird and opening its side door.

“And the rest of us,” Steel said as Hunter brought his eyes back down. “Let’s gather up our gear before she lands that thing. Good job, everypony. That was fun. Let’s go eat.”

Yeah, Hunter thought as The Hummingbird began to descend, magilights springing into being around its base. That feels right. The tension around the group had evaporated, faded away like snow beneath a hot sun. We might be facing the unknown, but if we don’t forget to relax… He picked up one of the winter duffels, throwing the strap over his shoulder and brushing snow off of it.

I think we’ll be just fine.

Author's Note:

Frostwolves? Lok'tar Ogar! Wait a minute, wrong setting.

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