• Published 2nd Feb 2024
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Fury of the Storm - HK-FortySeven



Anon escapes captivity with his new evil apprentice and takes revenge on the world. And has a great time doing it.

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Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll


Months before the invasion of Equestria...


“Fuck a duck,” you groan.

You wince a bit as you shuffle the ice pack on your forehead, pained as much by the movement of your arm as you were by the sudden lack of cold. For the second fucking time, your dumb ass failed to factor in your current power limits. And for the second goddamn piece-a-shit time, your astoundingly dumb ass went and got himself saturated. And for the second motherfuckin’ shit goddamn sonuvabitch time, your phenomenally dumb ass was wiped out in the captain’s cabin of your out-on-patrol airship. Wasting time recovering from your fuck-up that could have been spent training up your powers for your upcoming usurpation of the Storm King.

For fuck’s sake, you couldn’t even read the stack of old reports by your bed right now! How’s an honest supervillain supposed to do his job like this?

The cabin door opens, and in steps Cid. In the company of trusted beasts, he allowed himself to distinguish himself from the others, just like Biggs and Wedge did. He didn’t dare bring his nice suit out in the field, though: he settled with just a clip-on bowtie, as opposed to the pair’s respective sunglasses and nerdglasses. Of far more interest to your bleary eyes, however, was the tray he had perched in his hand, containing a big ol’ bottle of red wine plus glasses, a steamin’ pitcher of coffee plus mugs, a big ol’ bowl of soup that also steamed away, and most importantly, a tall wire basket full of charged magic crystals.

Cid wastes no time, setting the tray down on the other nightstand not filled with paper and forking over the container of sweet, sweet magical gems. All it took was that one touch, and the nectar-like juice flooded right into your system, that little bit’a hair of the dog soothing all those aches better than any amount of ice packs or bed rest could.

Ohhhhh fuck yeah,” you moan, greedily draining the gems of power. “Oh, daddy needed this.”

With the gems spent and a little bit of gas in the tank, you still felt like total dogshit, but that was monumentally better than how you felt before. So good, in fact, that before you know it, your still dumb ass had drifted off to sleep, like a lil’ baby fresh off’a mama’s titty.


The whole-ass city—a wacky amalgam of San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, and other such urban hellholes—stood before you, filled to the brim with furries doing the most heinous, abominable things to each other: the kind of things that only Slaanesh could pop a hermaphroditic stiffy to. A thick, pitch-black cloud hung overhead, and the ‘rain’ that spilled from the cloud was pure crude oil, used liberally by the crowds below to lube up their endeavours, the nastiness of using crude for their degeneracy entirely lost on them. Or enhanced by it.

Your arm reached out, the limb—and the rest of your body—drained of colour and with a soft, almost hazy quality to it. It occurs to you in that moment that you’re dreaming. And in the following moment, a wicked smile splits across your face. If this is a dream, and you’ve got control over it, then you know exactly what you’re gonna do to this city.

So you raise your hand to the heavens and wish for the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah before you to have a meteor dropped on it. That doesn’t happen, but something real similar to it does. The sky splits open like God himself parted it, and a harsh, wildly fluctuating green light filters down, the same colour as your cypher power. Looking up, the source is some kinda...

Uhh.

Okay, you’ll be honest, you have no idea what it’s supposed to be. It looked like it was suffering some major, crippling indecision on whether it wanted to be a sun or a crystal, and was repeatedly cracking, splintering, melting, and otherwise breaking itself all over in completely random places, and doing a horrible patch job of fixing itself soon after into whichever shape that given region wanted to be. Which would last for all of about three or four seconds before the spot ripped itself up and repeated the cycle all over again, with absolutely no discernible pattern to it all.

Well, whatever it was, it sure shone like a sun, and bolts of unstable power crackled and burst from it every time it’s surface broke, which was a lot. And judging by it’s appearance, you’d say it probably belongs to you. Testing that theory, you point a couple of fingers at it, but you pause your finger swipe to marvel at how your neon-green power coursed along your pointing arm and swiftly spread out along your whole body. It felt pretty good, but not quite like your usual exercise of power. Regardless, once your navel-gazing was done, you put on a fresh smirk and resume pointing up at the sun, swiping your fingers down to the city as if calling down a lightning strike.

It responded exactly like you thought it would. Green energy, as much lightning as it was fire, split across the cityscape with a deafening, otherworldly CRACK, and a huge chunk of the city was shredded by the impact and destroyed outright. What wasn’t destroyed caught on fire, ignited by that same power. And that fire? Oh, it started green, but then it lit all of that black gold on fire, rapidly spreading across just about all of the city and burning a mixture of green and orange. The cacophonous moans coming from it before melted into cacophonous screams instead, and you could smell the ashes and flames from here, which you merrily drank in with a big sniff.

You spread your arms out up towards the unheavenly body with a laugh, singing some Blue Öyster Cult as you look out at carnage unfolding before you. The light from your not-sun overtakes the scenery in bright green, followed by bright white.


“Ahh,” you sigh happily as you return to the land of the waking. “What a wonderful dream.”

Even more wonderful than that reminder of the world you fought hard to obtain was the notable lack of most saturation symptoms. Sure, there was still some pain, and you didn’t wanna push your luck training yourself in this state, but at least you weren’t a bedridden mess anymore! So with that wind in your sails, you pick you still somewhat sluggish ass out of bed, hit the shower, and come out with just a fresh bodysuit on, plopping down at a desk and deciding to at least get some report reading done, if nothing else.

Man, that dream was wild, though. You almost never remember them, and there was definitely something different about this one, beyond the fact that it was lucid. That weird not-sun was the biggest thing that stuck out. Wonder what that’s about? A Freudian phenomenon? Hmm, nah; not enough mother fucking for that. So, some kinda weird undocumented cypher thing? Maybe, maybe.

Well, you know what? If getting dreams like that only happens when you saturate, you’ll just have to be happy with the one-off. Shit ain’t worth it.

Refocusing, you sift through the reports. Cid brought you a big ol’ pile of the Storm King’s prior exploits, mostly for your own entertainment as much as it was probing his whole family of twenty’s grocery list worth of weaknesses. But around an hour into your reading, helped by Cid checking in and getting some fresh coffee for you, one report in particular—dated a few months before you’d allowed yourself to be recruited—really caught your eye.

The report on the failed invasion of Zebrica.

This report was full of additional notes added by Cid just for you, which was already an oddity. Apparently, he and the other two boys had been part of this invasion. But the real interesting part was how it wasn’t fought off with superior tactics in the King’s own country, or by the superior technology of the minotaurs. This one was fought off with only four guys: the so-called Four Princes of Zebrica.

And the reason they could pull it off was pretty obvious: just like you, all four of ‘em were full-blown cyphers, and laid absolute waste to his forces and fleet, forcing him to retreat just seven minutes after he attacked. You’d call that especially pathetic on his part—which it was—but judging from the damage reports, it was also a really strong display on the faraway land’s part, too. You say ‘land’, because even according to Wedge’s additional notes—helpfully provided for you in each of these reports—it was still an open question whether or not Zebrica was a country or a continent, noting a ton of different factions and power struggles, on top of a lot of decidedly not zebra races living there as well.

Reading a bit further past the big chunk of Wedge’s limited Zebrica intel nets you an additional bit of entertainment: according to Cid, the Storm King got so shitter-shattered about taking that catastrophic L from the zeebs that he spent an entire week retreating all along the Zebrican coastline to drive-by bomb any settlements he ran across, driven by pure salty rage. That didn’t end up working too well on account of one of those Princes chasing his ass down with a fleet of around thirty seafaring warships full of troops, pelting his storm cover all the while with ballista fire and the Prince’s huge laser sword beams, taking out a surprising number of airships and forcing him to just cut his losses and gun it. And of course, it never occurred to him to deviate away from the coastline. Though honestly, you’re a little surprised they’d only send one Prince to chase his ass down. On the other hand, the results don’t lie: they only really needed the one.

Humming, you procure your Testament for a moment and inscribe a reminder to not fuck with Zebrica until you’ve attained ultimate power. That was likely what it would take to crush those guys in a straight-up fight, especially if they came at you all at once.

In any case, you finish reading the report and pack it back up, moving onto reading the rest while sipping on your mug of the other black gold.

So much work to do, and so little time to do it. But at least you’ll have your full power back for your next target. Mount Aris ain’t gonna conquer itself, that’s for goddamn sure.


PRELUDE
Mirror's Edge


Months earlier, six days after the Storm King’s failed invasion of Zebrica...


My raft coasted along through the still black waters of the great lake. The oar in my fetlocks broke the utter silence with it’s strokes in the utterly lightless waters, without so much as a breeze or an insect filling the quiet. All around, the water stretched out to each horizon as far as my eye could see, the still body reflecting the twinkling starlit sky above on the rare occasions I looked down from that very sky. Was I entranced by it? Or navigating with it? I did not know. I did not care.

Then, far off in the horizon, the telltale yellow glow of the sun began to appear, rapidly growing in size and intensity. Tendrils of yellow flame heralded it’s arrival, licking the skies with chaotic strokes and leaving an almost iridescent trail in their wake beyond just distorting the air with their heat. When the sun finally peeked across the horizon, it’s true nature was revealed.

The great ball of malevolent yellow flame loomed in the distance, the innumerable yellow tendrils making up it’s mass spreading from a great black expanse within it’s very centre, as if it were the unblinking pupil in a great burning eye. Hot air began to blow from it’s direction that brought waves in it’s wake, the scent of ash carried along with them. The ersatz sun remained rooted to the horizon with a great column of that same yellow flame as it grew like a flowering weed. The tendrils of flame grew longer and more numerous, stretching as if to envelop the very sky itself, bathing everything in it’s intense, unnatural light. The breeze became as a gale as the now choppy and illuminated greenish-blue waters began to steam and boil under the oppressive light of the fire.

My oar burst into flames and clattered to the smouldering deck of the raft. A great tidal wave of boiling water loomed towards me from the false sun’s root at the horizon. Yet I could not bring myself to care. All that mattered was the great ball of fire. I understood on an intellectual level that it was a terrifying force of destruction. Yet the sight of it calmed me, as if I were looking upon the smiling face of a familiar friend for the first time in years.

I reached up with a smile, as if to hold it in my hoof. Yellow fire ignites across my fetlock and quickly spreads across my foreleg and the rest of my body in short order, yet it is as comfortable as a warm blanket. The black central mass leaked blindingly bright liquid flame, the fluid defying perspective and dripping onto my frog and fetlock. It sizzled and boiled violently against my coat, yet never hurt nor injured me.

The roar of the tidal wave approaches. The sun’s light intensifies. The black mass is drowned out in the glow. Everything is yellow. Everything is white. Everything is...


“Mnngh...”

I reflexively screw my eyes shut at the harsh orange-gold rays of the unflinching Zebrican sun, peeking through the boards covering the window and cresting across my eyes as if nagging me to wake up already. It doesn’t take long for me to adjust, and I gingerly rub a fetlock across my eyes in an attempt to wake myself just a bit faster.

That same sun, that same fire, had haunted yet another of my dreams. No, haunt isn’t the right word: accompanied is more accurate. Just as it accompanied so many of my dreams from when I was still a colt. And though I still don’t understand what it is or what it means even after all these years, it’s presence was never unwelcome. Especially for the odd nightmare that it was more than happy to burn to ashes.

I shuffle about a bit as I wake my body up. My shuffling, unfortunately, wakes the mare that was sharing my bed. And after a short groan of her own, she immediately latches onto me, burying her muzzle in my mane.

mmmnfh nooooo, five more minutes,” she groaned, shamelessly rubbing her belly against my barrel as her tail flicked about under the covers, trying to lash against my flank.

Well, she certainly helped wake me faster, but not for the reason she no doubt fantasizes about. Regardless, I need to start the day properly. Once my body had woken up enough, I pulled free from her hold and stepped out of bed. But she refused to let me go that easily, flopping herself lengthwise across my back. She giggled like a lovestruck schoolfilly, kissing and nuzzling against my head while wiggling her hips in an attempt to arouse me. Her efforts only earn her an annoyed snort and a roll of my eyes, and I easily carry the mountain zebra like this towards the front door. There, I unceremoniously dump her onto the ground outside.

“Out,” I ordered.

“Call me!” she swooned, utterly unbothered by my treatment of her.

SLAM

She definitely had hearts in her eyes. Hrm, how many times have I taken her to bed, now? Seven, eight perhaps? Well, no matter.

I went down my mental checklist for this abandoned house: changing the sheets, making the bed, soaking the used sheets in some soapy water for later, making sure I had plenty of protection and supplies left in the nightstand, making sure nothing else needed cleaning up, double-checking all of the traps, and finally, locking the house up. Once done, I climb the ladder in another room and push past the trapdoor to the roof. And after stretching my limbs out and savouring the cracks and pops it brings, I break into a sprint, leaping across to another rooftop. From there, I continue running at a dead gallop, jumping from one rooftop to another and making swift progress to my true home.

Today looked like yet another normal morning on the crime-infested isle of Farasi. Below the great numbers of densely packed and short, reddish-orange buildings made of terracotta and bricks, zebras of all stripes went about their daily routines: trading with one another, going to work, the usual fare. And for the numerous members of the large criminal syndicates that roamed the streets alongside them, they busied themselves with trading in narcotics, fighting and mugging those from opposing factions, and other such pleasant activities. None bothered to hide their actions: in a place as thoroughly corrupt as this, there was simply no need.

And it never failed to bring a smile to my face.

With practiced ease and the benefit of my natural speed, I navigate the rooftops of the bustling port town of Bandari quickly and uneventfully. In mere minutes, I reach my destination: the massive and monolithic bell tower a fair distance from the furthest inland outskirts of the town, standing at what must be at least a hundred and fifty metres in height. Though it was weathered and dilapidated from many decades, or possibly even centuries of abandonment, the solid black stone of it’s construction, laced with stripes of white stone as if to emulate a zebra’s pattern, stood strong against the climate and the passage of time, as if in open defiance of nature herself.

It wasn’t the only one of it’s kind, far from it: there were five other bell towers like it all across Farasi. All were avoided by most zebras for the same reason they avoided most abandoned structures beyond just the structural issues: out of fear of the spirits that haunted such places. In my experience, I’ve never seen spirits of any kind, even if others swear that they have. But I’m certainly not about to correct their superstition. Not when it provides cover for both my true home, and my various hideaways in Bandari.

Upon entering the base of the tower, the first thing I do is check the traps. Just like in the abandoned house I left, the traps were there to maintain the illusion of the place being haunted by vengeful spirits, and thus chase any inquisitive zebras away. Some were harmful to intruders though, just to be on the safe side, but most of those traps were in this building, and not hideouts like that house.

Regardless, they were all undisturbed and in working order, so I move to ascend the tower itself. A single spiralling staircase provided my path up towards the belfry, made of the same black stone as the tower. Shielded from the weather outside, the stone still retained some of the sheen from it’s long-gone days of glory. The climb is a bit slow due to the gentler angle, but that same angle also makes it a very relaxing trek. Before long, I make it to the top, pushing the relatively recent wooden trapdoor open with my head and stepping into the belfry proper. My home proper.

Well, our home proper, anyways. My cohabitant could be heard snoring loudly inside of the long-overturned bell, as was normal for her.

The belfry had already been enclosed by it’s designers, with only a few slits to the outside world that were made to blend in to the stone when looked at from outside. We’d brought up some wooden boards and painted them black before boarding those slits over from the inside and draping plenty of blackout curtains over them, just to keep the illusion up. Indeed, the only real light source inside the otherwise completely blacked out enclosure was the smattering of oil lamps hung all around on the walls, and on several coat stands placed across the floor. Most were off, but a few were kept lit for my sake. That wasn’t counting the unlit candles and torches spread around either, but those were there more for backup lighting: the lamps simply lasted far longer.

As always, my first destination was the bathroom. The wide-open and solid stone space meant proper rooms were out of the question, but we made do with privacy screens and folding walls. The shower was little more than a perforated bucket hanging above a freestanding bathtub that sat next to a few barrels of collected rain water, but it cleaned me up all the same. And after a quick trip to the freestanding sink to brush my teeth and mane, I emerge fresh and renewed, ready for the day’s trials.

Well, I would be ready for today’s trials, if she weren’t still sleeping. So I head over towards her bell to rectify that problem.

A healthy stockpile of gold, gems, and other precious items poured out from the thick, slightly tarnished brass bell like a spilled cup, and on top of the treasure hoard, sleeping like a foal, was Cinder. The dark grey dragon snored like a sawmill, splayed out and displaying her belly scales for all the world to see, dark green in colour yet still a shade lighter than the scales of her body. Smirking, I take hold of a large golden dish and stride up towards her. Sadly, she stirs before I can ring it like a bell again, and her red eyes widen for a moment before narrowing along with her scowl, the only warning I get before she blows a small plume of orange-green dragonfire my way as a warning.

“Uh-uh, no,” she huffs. “You can screw right off, Zobachi.”

“Why yes, I did have a good morning,” I mock, smirk still intact. “Thank you for asking.”

“Tailhole,” she mutters, pausing to yawn and stretch out as she sits upright and cross-legged, developing a smirk of her own. “So which stallion tried to scope yours out this time?”

“None, actually.” I let the dish drop from my hold at this point, and it tumbles back to the bottom of the pile. “Had a mountain mare this time.”

“Lemmie guess, the short one with a major crush on you?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea how little that narrows it down?”

Pfft, whatever.”

Cinder finally stands to her full measure, which was head-to-head with me in height without counting either her horns or the red, semi-serrated fin on her head. And given that I was a fairly large stallion already, that made her quite intimidating to most zebras that saw her. She gives her wings a few experimental flaps before floating up into the air, and by the time I turned around and stepped off of her hoard, she took her usual seat on my back, settling in for the walk back to Bandari as I make for the trapdoor leading back out.

“So who’re we shaking down this time, Z?”

“Let’s start with the food stalls, and work our way up from there.”

“Good, I’m starving here.”


“Zebrat got attacked?” Cinder spits more than speaks through her mouthful of bread.

“Apparently,” I confirm, pausing to bite into my round of pita as I continued to read the newspaper. “Seems a foreign army of some kind from across the ocean attacked it, right as all four of the Princes were together there for some kind of ceremony.”

Snrk.” She doesn’t hide her amusement, and nor should she. “How dumb can you get?”

“I know,” I sigh, more disappointed than amused. “Shame, too. I would’ve loved to see the Empire be given a bloody snout for once.”

“Ah, well.” We both finish our breakfast at around the same time, and she returns to my back once she’s done. “Speaking of bloody snouts, we’d better get a move on, Z.”

“Patient as ever, I see,” I deadpan. “Fine. I suppose this crossword just wasn’t meant to be.”

“Less talking, more stealing!” she exclaims, smacking her heels against my marks.

Snorting with amusement more than annoyance, I take off from our spot atop a building overlooking the bazaar square, and start today’s work proper.


“Well, well, well,” Cinder hums next to me, a claw on my withers as we both look down into the alleyway beneath us. “Those’re some good marks to end the day on, wouldn’tcha say?”

We were both smiling like wolves at the sight beneath us: a drug deal in progress. A pair of fairly nervous and well-to-do mainlander stallions, both imperials, in the middle of haggling for their next hit of pink salt with some gangbangers from one of the big crime families. The one doing the deal was a lithe plains mare, acting flirtatious and aggressive as a clearly successful tactic to intimidate her marks. Flanking her were a pair of large and muscular imperial stallions serving as her protection, though she looked like she could handle herself in a fight just fine without them. The three criminals all wore the black, red, and yellow scarves of their gang—I forget which one, they’re all the same to me—patterned after a coral snake. And each of them had hoof-switchblades strapped to their fetlocks, ready to maim or kill anyzebra who dared to pick a fight with them.

Unfortunately for them, me and Cinder were more than a match for them.

“Which ones do you want?” I ask.

“The tourists,” she answers instantly, eyeing up their jewellery.

“Leaving the dangerous zebras to me again,” I sigh with insincere offence. “On three?”

“On three.”

“One, two, three.

We both leap down into the alley, with Cinder opening her wings to slow her descent, letting me get the first strike. One of the larger gangsters broke my fall, and he barely had a chance to cry out before he was down for the count. As quick as a viper, I spin around to buck his neighbour into the wall before he can react, the force of my strike causing him to leave an indent in the wall before he falls to the ground with a stunned groan, losing consciousness almost immediately. True to her plains blood, the mare was very fast to react, spinning around with momentary surprise before narrowing her eyes and folding her ears in fury and recognition alike.

You!” she growls.

I reply by way of my well-practiced and infuriating smug smirk. She responds in kind by flicking her hoofblade out and preparing to lunge. But in turning around, she failed to notice Cinder landing behind the two terrified mainlander tourists and breathing a huge plume of fire into the sky. The display made the two grown stallions shriek like schoolfillies and cling to one another, and the noise and light caused the gangmare to whip her head back around in alarm.

A costly mistake on her part, and I capitalized on the expected distraction by lunging towards her, my own agility an easy match for hers. Her head came back around just in time for my hoof to collide with her temple, and she cried out in pain as she tumbled back from the impact, her blade skittering across the ground. Somehow, she didn’t lose consciousness from that strike, and she attempted to dart back towards me, only for Cinder to fly up and punch her in the back of the head when she wasn’t looking. That took her out of the fight, bringing a swift end to the scuffle.

“Well, that was easy,” I sigh, giving my neck a crack. “Almost disappointing, if I’m being honest.”

“Hey, easy money’s easy money,” Cinder laughs, turning around to face the two terrified stallions and fixing them with a predatory grin. “Hey there, pretty colts. Come here often?”

While she shakes them down for their bits and valuables, I start searching the gangzebras for theirs. I pull a few bit pouches of a very healthy size and weight off of their unconscious bodies, tossing them into my saddlebags. While I’m at it, I also take the pouches of pink salt from the mare as well; I had no intention of using this garbage myself, but it always sold well, so it was still worth stealing. I finish my searching just in time to see Cinder chasing the stallions off with another gout of flame and an exaggerated roar, clutching a nicely sized bag of bits and other valuables.

“Good haul?” she asks, turning to me with her smirk intact.

“Good haul,” I echo in agreement, nodding her way. “Now let’s get out of here.”

“Let’s.”

After stuffing her bag into one of my saddlebags, she climbs onto my back again. Only this time, instead of sitting, her arms and legs clasp tightly around my barrel. She begins flapping her wings in fast, powerful beats, kicking dust and loose debris from the ground up as she begins lifting me up into the air. She groans with the strain of carrying so much weight, but doesn’t have to endure it for long: she stops her flight once we clear the top of the building, and I take that opportunity to land on the rooftops and begin the journey back home. She shifts to holding onto my neck in order to stay seated on my back as I gallop and jump across the rooftops, acting as a second pair of eyes and always on standby to help with any stretches that required a short flight. Luckily for her, I didn’t need the assistance this time. Before long, we arrive back at the bell tower without incident, just in time for the sun to begin setting.

“Whew, what a day!” she exclaims once we push past the belfry’s trapdoor, giving her limbs a good stretch. “You figure all this shit will be good for the next few days?”

“It better be,” I snort. “I’ll be very unhappy if I have to make a supply run during the storm.”

“Yeah, you and me both.”

Cinder unstraps my saddlebags and flies off to her hoard to add the bits and valuables to the pile, peeling off afterwards to add the pink salt to a separate, smaller pile of other pouches full of the illicit narcotic. Meanwhile, I take stock of the food and other supplies we’d stocked up on while out today; some of it I bought, some of it we both stole. According to the weatherzebra in the bazaar square, there was a huge freak storm coming that was supposed to bring nothing but pouring rain for the next day or two, and of course that meant everyzebra and their mother was in a rush to stock up for it.

If this were mainland Zebrica, I would enjoy the storms quite a bit. On Farasi, however? The rooftops were downright dangerous to run across when wet, and gang members and police forces would prowl the streets in force even during the rain, making travel all but impossible for a zebra as universally hated as me. A shame, too: some of our victims from today—mares and stallions alike—were quite fetching, and some were even eyeing me up when they thought I wasn’t paying attention. I’d have rather liked to bring one of them to a hideout, and have them do nothing but scream my name and beg for more the whole night.

But I suppose even in paradise, there’s always a snag or two. Though to be honest, I’d been really indecisive on picking between taking a mare or a stallion for the entire day. I suppose I could have gone all in and had both, but I simply couldn’t justify the work it would take, not after today. Besides, it’s nice to have a break every now and then: I’ve been meaning to catch up on some books anyways.

All in all? We’d stolen just over eight hundred bits, about eleven hundred more bits in jewellery and gems, and a solid seven hundred and a half bits worth of pink salt by my estimate, all over the course of twenty-nine muggings. An excellent haul for the day, it has to be said, especially when factoring in all the return trips and the supply runs.

However, my work isn’t quite done yet. While Cinder immediately flops onto her hoard and starts getting ready to sleep, I scale a small makeshift wooden spiral staircase off to the side that leads to the roof of the bell tower, up where the bell used to hang. Cinder had made the access hole by simply melting through the solid stone with her dragonfire, and with the exception of a few hoses running through it and down to the rain tanks, the hole was covered up with a weighted and oilcloth-covered wooden trapdoor to keep the weather out. The wind immediately buffets me as I climb onto the roof, but it’s far from the worst I’ve dealt with, so I pay it no mind and proceed to the telescope I put up near the edge that overlooked Bandari and the rest of the coastline facing Zebrica. The metal legs of the tripod stand were melted into the stone with Cinder’s help to permanently fix it in place, and eliminate the need to adjust the thing quite as much.

I stop to wipe the lenses down first before peering through the scope, and go down another mental checklist of things to observe. First was Bandari itself, with me checking the police compound and a few known gang hideouts for anything out of order before I moved on to the sprawling and spacious docks that Bandari was known for. Certainly, each town on the coast here had docks of their own, but Bandari was explicitly the major port town of Farasi, and handled most of it’s cargo and passengers as a result. And today’s observations of note are a passenger ship and two empty merchant vessels preparing to leave for the mainland, no doubt heading to Casabronco.

I would get to the easterly mainland port city later, but for the moment I scout out the rest of the Farasian coast for anything unusual. I pay extra attention to the other coastal “town” at Jela, at the far northern end of Farasi that still faced Zebrica. It’s port was a healthy size too, and reasonably active as well, but only because it exclusively served the enormous prison complex that Jela—and by association Farasi as a whole—was infamous for across Zebrica. Seeing no incoming or outgoing prison ships or supply barges, I go over the prison itself briefly, finding nothing particularly noteworthy beyond the usual confluence of corrupt prison guards allowing prisoners to escape, and the corrupt bounty hunters skulking around the escape routes to recapture the fools that weren’t part of the island’s major criminal groups.

Moving on, I turn back to the east to gaze across the steadily reddening sea, increasing the magnification to get a good look at the distant Zebrican mainland—Casabronco in particular. The city itself was built around a sizable enclosed bay, and ships constantly travelled to and from the enormous, busting port that covered nearly all of said bay’s coastline, with very few of the departing vessels bound for Farasi. Instead, most of those ships—particularly the merchant vessels—were leaving for the far-off port of Nanga, a much larger port that exclusively serviced Zebrat, the Empire’s capitol. The odd warship from the Casabronco coast guard patrolled around the entrance of the bay to ward off any Zhaaneph corsairs or kelpie pirates, but there wasn’t much of a police or martial presence beyond the mercenary warships some of the merchants hired to escort their ships. My eye turns towards the large, cobbled, and well-guarded land routes to Casabronco next, and it didn’t seem like there were any big caravans coming into the city tonight.

Finally, after scanning the far-off mainland coastline for any oddities as well, I turn the telescope back in the direction of Nanga to appraise the incoming storm front. Though it was too far away to properly examine even with maximum magnification, it only hammered home just how massive the system was. The tall, inky black clouds churned and boiled, eclipsing all that lay beneath them. The torrential downpour it brought to the land looked like a dark mist from the distance. And lightning coursed through the cloud in regular intervals, sometimes forking down onto the land and sea beneath it and providing very brief illumination to the blacked out lands beneath. Judging from the system’s speed, I estimate that it will make landfall here by either midnight or the dark of morning. Annoying, but not much I could do about it.

Strange, though. It wasn’t storm season yet, but that system was among the biggest systems I’d seen out here. It seemed to be moving against the wind, too. And every now and then, I swear I could see some lightning firing back from the sea into the cloud. Impossible, of course; it must be some kind of optical illusion. The storm is certainly an oddity, that was for sure. I only hope it doesn’t cause too much damage when it makes landfall.

Regardless, with all my sights seen for the day, I set the magnification back to normal and point the telescope back towards the floor to keep the lens from getting too dirty. And then, I slip on a pair of sunglasses, walk to the western side of the tower, and lie down near the ledge, gazing at the hot Zebrican sun as it sets into the perfectly flat, ocean-covered, and ever-so-slightly curving horizon. I let out a sigh that was equal parts pleased and relaxed as I took in both the last few rays of sunlight, and the majestic sight itself.

It’s hard to believe sometimes that we’ve only been on Farasi for a single year, yet it’s been one of the best years of our entire criminal careers, nevermind our lives. No longer did we worry about finding shelter out in the savanna or the desert, mugging armed travellers and guarded caravans, hopping from town to town to case them by day and rob them by night, or fleeing from the military forces that often policed those smaller inland towns. No longer did we have to juggle our heat with the Empire, the Zhaaneph, or the other smaller zebra factions that all claimed to be the true rulers of Zebrica. Here, we could simply ply our immoral craft in relative peace, away from the prying eyes and the intervention of the persistent Imperial Guard on one side, and the fanatical Zhaanephi Inquisitors on the other. Compared to them, dealing with Farasi’s criminal groups and the underfunded and corrupt local police was like dealing with yapping little puppies, as opposed to fully grown wolves out for blood.

For the first time, I was at peace. Peace with my surroundings, and peace with myself. Here, everyzebra was crooked, everyzebra knew it, and everyzebra was usually proud of it. I certainly knew I was.

The sun finally crested beneath the ocean, and for the briefest of moments, a green pillar of light flashed upwards from where it had set. Pleased that I caught the rare sight this time, I make one final check on the water collection basins and their hoses before heading back inside. Cinder was fast asleep by the time I got back, as usual, and I fixed myself something to eat from our new stockpile. Then it was off to the washroom to clean up before bed. I opt for a nice long bath, owing to Cinder remembering to heat the hot water tank this time around. Then it’s off to dry off, brush my mane and teeth, and take a good look at myself in the mirror for anything that was amiss, even though I knew she would have said something if there was.

I was a good size for a zebra, but that was hardly surprising, given my mixed heritage of plains and imperial blood: what little I lost in height and size from halving my imperial side, I made up for in agility from the plains side. My criminal lifestyle necessitated good fitness, and my muscles reflected that, my current regimen emphasizing endurance over the already considerable power and speed I had built up before coming here. My mane and tail, as usual, was straight, fairly long, well kept and conditioned, and when paired with my sharp jawline and good features, was the weakness of straight mares and bent stallions across the land, a fact I routinely took advantage of. As for my stripe patterns, I didn’t think them too noteworthy: long, thin, and densely packed straight lines encircled my barrel and legs, taking after my plains blood. The exception was my face, which was what most zebras distinguished by anyways. It took after my imperial side, the stripes that would normally adorn my muzzle and jawline for the other tribes having moved down along my neck and chest instead, leaving my lower face clear of any markings. My distinct feature, however, was the large, thick stripe that stretched across my eyes and ears like a blindfold, terminating into my maneline and darkening a wide fan of my mane from that connecting point outwards. It framed my bright, fiery yellow eyes exceptionally well, and gave my gaze a wonderful bit of extra contrast that helped to both intimidate many enemies and charm many lays.

Whoever my parents were, I certainly couldn’t fault them for their genetics.

With the nightly bout of narcissism concluded on a high note, I finally retreat to my very comfortable cot for the night, off on the opposite end of the belfry from Cinder to minimize the sound of her snoring.

It doesn’t take long for me to join her in the realm of sleep.


The air is deathly still and I hear nothing but tinnitus and my own breathing as I travel amidst the starlit dunes of the vast desert, heading straight towards the setting moon in the far distance. Every now and then I look back at the trail my hooves have left in the sand, stretching for a great distance. How long had I travelled this way? Where was I going? I did not know. I did not care. The moon finally crested beneath the horizon, and the yellow light of the sun began to glow across the dunes behind me. I felt no need to look back, even as it finally crested the opposite horizon and bathed everything in it’s harsh, burning light. The sand began to lightly glow and smoke with the intense heat, but I only noticed the soothing warmth of the rays upon my body, bringing a similarly warm smile to my face.

But then, I see something in the distance, off where the moon had set to give way to the scorching morning. Something rose from the moon’s spot, but it was clearly not the lunar body. It looked like a sun all unto itself, but was a pale metallic blue with a soft white centre, like a sun covered by an icy fog. I stop in my tracks and look on at the rising body, feeling a knot growing in my stomach. Large portions of the land beneath it begin to crack and fracture before sinking deep into the earth in sharp, perfectly cut pieces, only to come back up as bodies of dark blue water with great sheets and chunks of ice floating in it. The new terrain spread rapidly, as if conquering the desert landscape, and the frigid looking water began spilling across the sands that hadn’t been ripped out of existence yet: the vanguard to the invading reality.

Something was wrong here. Something was deeply, horribly wrong.

The light of the yellow sun at my back shrank back, as if in fear of the sudden competitor. It mirrored my own rising fear of the body as it’s uniform, harsh, and cool light swiftly overtook the burning yellow light. The air began to chill as the light sapped the heat rather than add it, the encroaching water coming ever closer in the distance. I knew in the pit of my stomach that this sun and it’s landscape heralded nothing but disaster for me. I felt a chill run down my spine as I felt the sun’s gaze settle upon me, as if noticing me for the first time. I begin stepping back as it’s white central mass wept bright blue energy, much like the yellow one wept burning yellow flame. But this time, the energy suspended itself in the air. It took shapes I couldn’t see from this distance. And then, in rapid succession, the shapes rocketed towards me.

I yelp and leap back in shock as a large sword of blue magical energy embeds itself in the sand before me, the blade burning the silica and melting it into white-hot glass from contact alone. A shortsword of the same energy lands to my left. It’s only when another blade of energy sails over my head with a heavy whoosh that I finally snap out of my shock, swiftly turning tail and breaking into a dead sprint. I run as fast as my legs will carry me, my heart hammering in my ribs and my breathing coming on quickly as both organs work overtime to fuel my muscles. All around me, more swords composed of that energy continue to impact the terrain from the sun’s clear attempts to kill me. I have to keep my eyes forward, ready to avoid any that impact ahead and block my path. The light from the sun becomes colder, brighter, and decidedly hateful in intensity, and the temperature falls dramatically to match, turning my breath into mist as it leaves my throat. And the weapons that fall vividly distort the air from their incredible heat, now contrasted to their icy surroundings.

I do not dare look back. My eyes are set only on the yellow sun, a frail ember of it’s former power, connected by the barest of yellow threads to the horizon. It waves, as if trying to beckon me to safety. I sprint towards it as fast as my legs will carry me. I can feel the remaining warmth of the air being sucked behind me, towards the ice water I can now begin to hear roaring from it’s rapid flow. Something deep in my soul warns me that looking back at the cold orb pursuing me, even for a second, will be the last thing I ever do. And so I continue to run. Even as the size and number of the weapons increases, my pace never slows.

Finally, I can see a small cave in the distance, inside of a small, sand-covered mountain that towered over the surrounding dunes. The yellow sun’s thread came from within it, swaying in the air. I redouble my efforts, ignoring the burning in my muscles and relying on pure adrenaline and mortal terror to carry me. The opposing sun’s weapons continue to rain down, only now it has added great spears of energy, attached to large chains that no doubt lead back to the sun, each pulling taut with the sound of hollow, ethereal jangling the moment the spears bite into the sand. It seems to know I am close to escaping it’s grasp, and I can feel the cold fury in it’s baleful light on my back. It would not suffer my existence, and there was no debate to be had with it. I knew it would not stop until I was dead. Or worse.

At the final stretch, the yellow sun intervenes on my behalf. It’s black core weeps with that bright yellow flame, just like the other sun. That power erupts forth, spewing great bursts of bright, almost iridescent yellow flame in random, chaotic arcs towards me in a wide cone, providing cover for my approach. The bursts leave small carpets of clinging flame on the sand as they detonate, which proves essential: the energy weapons dissolve and detonate with unearthly BANGS when they so much as graze the flames, leaving most of my path clear. Finally, I pass into the mouth of the cave. The sun follows closely at my back as if riding along, it’s presence wholly welcome. The weapons continue to impact overhead, and the sandstone walls of the cave tremble and crack at the force, the opposing sun unwilling to give up the chase.

Abruptly, the floor collapses underneath my hooves. I cry out as I enter a freefall into a massive, city sized cavern, a great lake of still, clear water far beneath. The yellow sun at my back illuminates the entire cave as I fall, creating a perfect reflection upon the water’s surface. In this reflection, I see the sun, and instinctively reach out towards it. My hoof ignites with the soothing yellow fire again, and as it travels along my body to blanket me in it’s warmth, I see the cavern ceiling breaking above me. Enormous blades of energy shred the ceiling into massive pieces that are ripped upwards with those chain-linked spears, creating an opening for the other sun to look down upon me, complete with a torrent of ice-filled water flooding down into the hole. But by the time it’s hateful gaze has settled back upon me, I was nearly at my destination, and it knew it couldn’t reach me in time. It’s hate expressed itself in it’s icy light, and the lake’s surface began freezing from the corners at a rapid pace, but still was not fast enough to stop my approach to the centre.

Defying perspective, I dive headfirst into the yellow sun’s reflection. I knew I passed the boundary of the water, yet no splash or impact came. Instead, my vision filled with bright yellow as I continued to fall. A bone-chilling, otherworldly blast of wind howls from behind me, briefly tinting my vision blue. And then I see nothing but white.


I’ve had exhausting nightmares many times before, but I haven’t screamed after waking from one of them since I was a teenage colt. This nightmare bucked that trend.

I only realize I had bolted upright once I fall back down onto my dampened sheets. Sweat poured from my pores and ran in rivulets down my coat as my heart hammered in my chest and my breathing came in heavy, ragged gulps. I’m not sure how long I laid there, staring up at the ceiling, trying to calm myself down. But once I become aware of the sounds of the thunder, the wind, and the rain outside, I shut my eyes and focus on the sounds, finding that my composure returned much faster with the sounds of nature as a focus.

Though my legs were slightly weak and wobbly from the experience, I still pull myself from bed with little issue. I light some lamps as I pace about, lost in my still-turbulent thoughts on what had just happened.

“It invaded my dream,” I mutter aloud, voicing my thoughts to nozebra in particular. “Like it was... looking for something. Looking for me.

I still feel that sensation in the pit of my stomach: the anxious, fearful knots. My survival instincts scream at me, telling me I am still in danger.

“Calm down, Zobachi,” I attempt, taking a few breaths. “It was just a dream, like all the others.”

It wasn’t working. That primal urge to flee for my life persisted. Something was wrong. That nightmare really wasn’t like the others. It was too different. Too real. Too...

Familiar.

“No,” I immediately deny. “No, no, no, no, no. This was nothing like that time.”

It was exactly like that time.

I force myself over to one of the drape-covered, boarded-up slits in the belfry, determined to drown out the intrusive memory with the noise of the storm. But it was too late. Already I can feel my breathing quickening, my limbs trembling, and my sweating beginning again as the buried memory begins emerging and commingling with the recent one. Leaning a foreleg against the wall, I bury my face into my fetlock, trying to focus on nothing but the weather. That wasn’t working, either.

The sun was different. The light was different. The attacks were different. But everything else was the same.

“Damn it,” I mutter, losing the battle to keep calm. “Get a grip, Zobachi! It’s not like that time. This isn’t the mainland. They don’t have any reason to come here.”

I couldn’t get the memory out of my head. Of how I had hidden from him in mortal terror, as that same teenage colt at the orphanage. Of how he had mistaken another teen for being the one he was looking for. Of how he dragged the other colt into the desert, crying and begging that he hadn’t done anything.

My mind’s eye keeps picturing another one of them, dragging me or Cinder off next.

boom

My ears prick up at the sound. That wasn’t the booming of thunder. That sounded like...

boom
bang
BLAM

Explosions.

My ears flatten and my mouth turns dry as that urge to flee intensifies. It’s only by the barest of threads that I stay in control. I decide right then and there that the longer I try to deny what was happening, the more likely it was that me and Cinder would meet a terrible fate. And if I was wrong, then I was wrong. And by the Elysian fields, I hoped I was wrong.

Decision made, I let the instinct to flee motivate my movements, my first order of business being to wake Cinder. So I gallop over towards her hoard and immediately start shaking her awake.

“Cinder, wake up!” I hiss. “Wake up!”

Mnnnnugh, what the shit?” she murmurs, becoming more agitated the more my shaking continues. “The hells is your problem, dude?!”

“My problem is that we’re in danger! Get up, now!

She wasn’t expecting me to use such a sharp tone with her, and it helped rouse her quicker, obvious concern etched across her tired face. All the while, I kept an ear open for the sounds of the explosions, which were getting louder and closer. But it’s strange. It’s too close to be from the coast, but if it were from the town, I would see more light by now. It was like it was coming from...

Above?

KA-BOOM

Cinder bolts straight up into the air with a shriek, and I don’t fare much better. The ground shook a great deal with that explosion and knocked many of the lanterns to the ground, the light from the blast seen coming from the tower slits opposite of Bandari. I’ve never heard anything like it before.

“Whoaly shit, okay!” Cinder exclaims, landing back onto her hoard. “I’m awake now! Z, you wanna tell me what the unholy horseshit’s going on?”

“I’ll tell you once I figure it out myself!” I half-lie. “Get the emergency supplies together, we’re leaving now!

With that, I scramble back to our supply pile to get ready while Cinder peels off to grab the emergency kit. I partly load my saddlebags with food and water, and she comes by just in time to finish loading them with medicine, bandages, light, and any other necessities that will fit. Her backpack—fashioned by herself but rarely used—was loaded up similarly, only she packed gems instead of normal food. She then brings out my rarely used cleated horseshoes, and wastes no time nailing them into my hooves. Two heavy grey oilcloth raincoats are draped over us, with a saddle stitched into mine and slits cut into hers for her wings. Finally, Cinder thinks fast and grabs a gold-plated spyglass from her hoard. And with that, we were finally ready to leave.

But first, I need to see precisely what’s going on out there first. Going onto the roof is impossible in this weather, so I opt instead to head to one of the slits in the belfry nearest to the explosion, where Cinder pulls one of the boards off to let me get a better look outside. We both look down at the obvious source of the blast, and both of us are just as confused by what we see.

It looked like a ship—an entire ship—fell from the sky and collided with the ground, but the vessel wasn’t like any ship I had seen before. It was covered in dark metal armour plates, and a large frame was built above the deck that held a massive, split-open balloon that billowed fire and some kind of deep blue electrical energy. The hull was pockmarked with craters from explosions and had been split open by the impact, and large bipedal white-haired creatures I’ve never seen before scurry about from the crash. They were wearing armour and brandishing weapons made of that same dark metal, and busied themselves with dragging their injured kin from the crash site. The more decorated beasts carried weapons that looked like bidents, which had some of that same blue electric power crackling between their prongs.

“What are those?” Cinder remarks.

“I don’t know,” I hum, frowning at their mere presence. “But I think it’s in our best interest to avoid them.”

And the direction they were moving made that rather difficult: they were headed straight for the bell tower, no doubt to use it as a fortification. Which means we don’t have much time before they cut us off.

“Let’s go, now. Before they get here.”

Cinder doesn’t protest, mantling onto my back and holding on as I open the trapdoor out of the belfry and run down the stairs. It takes me a moment to get used to the traction of the horseshoes, especially on the stone floor of the bell tower, but I’m very thankful for them once we step out into the drenched and muddy outdoors, the coat doing a wonderful job at keeping me dry.

“Any idea what the hells is going on, Z?” Cinder shouts above the now very loud sounds of the weather.

“We can swap theories once we’re in town,” I shout back. “We’ll hunker down in one of my hideouts.”

“I swear to the Dragonlord, those monsters better not touch my damn hoard! I just got it the way I like it!”

I let her rant, focusing only on the trek back to Bandari and the location of the nearest hideout. But I was under no illusions: I wasn’t running from those creatures, despite the danger they posed. I was running to avoid being caught by one of them. That fear kept my hooves moving, and before long, through the din of the heavy rain, the town limits come into sight.

“Holy shit,” Cinder mutters before raising her voice. “Dude, look up at the sky!”

A split second before she had said that, I saw streaks of red fire upwards from the direction of the sea and into the clouds, naturally drawing my gaze upwards. Though it was hard to see through all of the rain pouring onto my face, I saw red lights flashing from deep inside the pitch black clouds, and the thunderous booming of explosions in their wake that, indeed, I mistook for thunder while my eyes were elsewhere.

A louder staccato of explosions and the matching flashes of red ring out moments later, heralding another one of those strange balloon sky ships falling from the clouds in a ball of flame. It struck the coastline to the right of Bandari, near the lighthouse, kicking up a huge plume of steam and sand and shaking the earth enough to cause the lighthouse to topple over, adding another tremor to the ground.

My mind is awash with so many questions and precious few answers, but the overhead carnage only distracts me for a moment. Shaking my head, I resume my gallop towards Bandari, intent on reaching my closest hideout.

“Dude, this is nuts! What’s going—?”

“Later,” I hiss. “We’re almost in town. Play pretend!”

Cinder stifles her protest and responds accordingly. I feel her shuffle around on my back as she pulls her wings and limbs in, pulling her raincoat around herself and making it look like she is a large sack I am balancing on my back. Before long, I finally arrive at the outskirts of town. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of zebras either standing in the streets or leaning out of their windows, transfixed by the skyward carnage that was unfolding. Others were in a state of panic about it all, frantically packing their bags and sprinting to and fro in small groups. Either way, it meant that for once, I was able to run down the streets without anyzebra paying attention to me, which sped things along quite nicely.

And then, halfway to my hideout in this part of town, the townzebras start to get frightened for an entirely different reason: the lines of heavily armoured and armed zebras marching up the main streets. Alarmed, I duck into a nearby alley, peeking out to observe them. They wore full sets of iron scale mail armour that covered all of their heads, necks, and barrels, and carried a mixture of spears, scimitars, crossbows, and even a few greatshields. But it was the blood-red cloth used for their distinctive neck scarves and thick battle saddles that gave them away as soldiers of the Imperial Legion.

I’ll ruminate on what the unholy hells they’re doing here when I’m not in imminent danger.

Remarkably, they weren’t paying attention to the frightened civilians, their eyes firmly fixed forward. Occasionally they would yell out for everyzebra to return to their homes immediately. Sensing an opportunity to slip through, I wait for a group of zebras to run by and weave myself into the small herd. The gambit worked, with nozebra giving me so much as a second glance as I peel off towards my hideout—another abandoned house, this time a badly damaged two-storey one—without any further complications.

It’s only once I get past the traps inside and reach the safe room on the second floor that I allow myself to catch my breath, planting my forelegs onto the run-down kitchen counter top and allowing myself to rest for a moment.

“Okay, we’re safe for now,” I exhale.

Cinder works quickly to untangle herself from her raincoat, throwing it to the side as she hops off of my back and looks up at me with a mixture of confusion, discomfort, and just a hint of fear.

“Dude, what the hells is going on out there?!” she exclaims. “What are those creatures? What’s the deal with those flying ships? Flying ships! And who’s shooting them outta the sky?”

Exhaling again, I pull my own hood back and wipe the water from my face. “The Imperial Legion, that’s who.”

She gets noticeably more nervous at the mention of the military force. “W-wait, seriously? There’s imps out there?”

“They’re already here. I had to sneak past a line of soldiers to get here.”

The ground trembles with another distant impact, and I can hear the panicked cries of the townzebras from their homes in response to it. Meanwhile, she peels off towards one of the boarded-up windows to see for herself if I was telling the truth about the soldiers. Judging from that gasp she made, I’d say she indeed did see for herself.

“Holy shit, dude,” she quietly exclaims.

“Nevermind the troops themselves. Where are they going?”

“Uh, well, l-lemmie see...” She whips out her golden spyglass to get a look. “Uhh, they’re... Wait! Our tower! They’re headed there!”

“The tower?” I question. My first thought was that they were there for me, but after seeing those beasts and their strange sky ships, I’m not so sure anymore.

“Dude, come over here!” she exclaims, waving me over. “Those weird monsters, they’re fighting it out with the troops! Come look!”

Is that what’s going on here? A theory begins to develop in my mind as I canter over towards Cinder, and the theory begins to crystallize as I take the spyglass and look out at both the tower, and the land at it’s base.

A line of legionnaires has formed up into a tight semicircle around the base of the tower, protected up front by the zebras with greatshields. The monsters occupying the tower covered the entrances with large shields of their own, and it didn’t take a tactician to figure out that their superior weapons, hulking size, and bipedal nature gave them a significant advantage against the attacking zebras, beyond their obvious combat training. From the belfry, bolts of blue electric power rained down onto the legionnaires, fired from the bidents carried by those decorated beasts. The bolts impacted against the greatshields with little effect, no doubt thanks to all the alchemy those shields had been marinating in for Elysium knows how long. Unfortunately for the Legion, the bident-wielding beasts knew to fire at the exposed points in their ranks, electrocuting the troops and putting them down for the count.

“Isn’t that wild?” Cinder exclaims, her excitement over seeing a fight overshadowing her unease, if only for this moment. “They’re kicking their tails, too!”

“The Zebrat attack,” I blurt, the dots finally connecting in my head.

“Er, what?”

“I know what’s going on, now,” I continue, lowering the spyglass and giving Cinder my full attention. “You remember that paper we read about that attack on Zebrat from a foreign army?” When she nods, I gesture to the distant tower with my hoof. “Meet the foreign army.”

“Wait, these guys?” she splutters. “I-I mean, I guess that qualifies as foreign, but... damn, dude.”

“Honestly? They look like they probably could have taken Zebrat. But...”

“The damn Princes were there already, yeah, I know.” She sighs, sounding quite disappointed. “Man, that sucks! So what, they’re attacking here now?”

“No. Not attacking. Running.”

Prolonged flashes of light briefly draws our attention to the window again, where we both look out to see a flare signal being fired from the top of the bell tower. Bringing the spyglass up, I see a ring of those bident-wielding beasts on the roof, the blowing wind barely affecting them at all as they point their weapons up to the sky. Streams of electric power fire from their bidents’ tips and into the clouds, bringing down a swirling vortex from the storm above, bristling with lightning. I give the scope to Cinder to see the display for herself.

“Man, that’s cool,” she murmurs, though noticeably annoyed. “If only they weren’t doing this cool shit on our tower! They’ve totally touched my hoard, too!”

“Like I said,” I continue, ignoring her commentary, “They’re not attacking us. They’re running away. I’ll bet you anything that flare they used was a call for evacuation.”

“Why bother running?” she snorts. “They’ve got this shit on lockdown!”

“It’s not the imps they’re running from,” came my deathly serious response.

“Huh?” She pulls away from observing the bell tower being enveloped by a tornado, looking to me instead. “Then what are they running from?”

It’s in that moment, as I open my mouth to tell her, that I feel the temperature drop by several degrees. A cold shiver runs down my spine, stealing the words from my mouth. And it wasn’t because of the cold.

“Whoa,” she remarks with a slight shiver of her own. “Did it just get colder, or—”

Shh!

That came out more fearful than I intended. Or perhaps exactly as fearful as I intended. Either way, Cinder fell silent. I turn my eyes slowly towards the streets full of soldiers, my mind slowing the movement of my eyes as if refusing to confirm what I already knew was happening. I saw the soldiers no longer marching, but bowing before something approaching down the street behind them. Somezebra behind them.

That zebra steps into view.

I can feel my heart lurch the moment I see my very worst fear in the flesh. One of them.

One of the Four Princes.

I barely register just how deathly silent Cinder got when she sees the royal for herself as well. This Prince was clearly different than the one from my colthood, but his presence was no less mortifying. He was, like myself, a large plains-imperial hybrid, and his entire body up to his neck was covered in the distinct armour—weathered iron plates interwoven with red cloth, set atop chainmail under-armour—that immediately gave away which Prince this was.

Prince Zabraxas.

Surrounded by four of his highly decorated honourguards, he maintained an easy walking pace. His face was stony as he stared towards the storm-cloaked tower, but the look in his harsh, icy blue eyes betrayed exactly what he was feeling.

Fury. Anger. Cold, unyielding wrath.

He stops for a moment, lifting his hoof in a silent order to hold position. I feel an inexplicable pressure in the air moments later, and the entire environment around him begins to freeze, the rain turning to hail and the water at his hooves freezing into ice in a metre-wide radius around him. I could see blue energy begin to crackle from his legs. And then, he breaks into a dead gallop towards the tower with speed that shouldn’t be possible for even the fastest of plains zebras to have, leaving a trail of frost in his wake.

“No way,” I hear Cinder murmur. She sounded stunned more than frightened.

Though it was hard to see without the spyglass, I still looked on, transfixed by the speeding royal. He leapt over the semicircle of now retreating troops, and began his own attack immediately after landing.

Great spears of blue magical energy phased out of his back and launched towards the tower, connected to large chains of that same energy. Illuminating the entire tower with just their ambient light, they effortlessly impaled the tower’s body and the belfry alike, the chains pulling taut moments after impact and completely ignoring the swirling winds that protected it. A greatsword of energy phased from his back next and floated up into the air, cloaked in steam from the rain. Raising his hoof to the sky, a stream of bright blue energy snaked from that hoof and poured into that floating greatsword, rapidly increasing it’s size until it was as thick as the tower itself. With one swift swipe, that blade cleaved through the base of the tower with the ease of a hot knife cleaving through butter, the stone glowing red hot from the slice. It did not stop there, spinning through the air to maintain it’s unbroken momentum as it continued slicing the tower into pieces, even as the chains began pulling the now unanchored structure to the earth. The tower toppled over and crumbled into a pile of rubble, and I could feel the deep, reverberating THUMP of the impact as much as I could hear it from here, shaking loose objects in the house around from the force. The greatsword continued to float under it’s own power, slashing and stabbing at the tower’s base with precise movements, the enormous weapon wielded with the finesse of a surgeon wielding a scalpel.

They’re exactly like from my dream.

An intact flying ship chooses that precise moment to descend from the cloud cover, on an intercept course towards the signal it received minutes before. Far too late to rescue their compatriots. It begins to turn around, trying to manoeuvre it’s bulk back towards the sky, but it’s far too slow. The great energy sword points upwards and launches straight towards the fleeing vessel, clearing the distance in a matter of seconds and burying itself in the balloon. And with one last swipe, it cleaves downwards and straight through the ship, bisecting the entire vessel lengthwise. The energy blade dissipates in a cloud of blue particles as the two halves of the ship fall to the ground, burning and detonating long before they hit the ground with a pair of thunderous crashes.

I fall back onto my haunches as the troops below erupt into cheers. Cinder continues to stare slack-jawed at the sight, and only now do I notice she was using the spyglass to observe the entire thing. I can’t speak. I can barely think. All that’s in my mind is the foggy mental tinnitus of cold, heart-stopping terror.

“Z?” I hear her speak, but her voice seems so distant. “Z, come on, snap out of it!”

My mind is gripped with images of Zabraxas chasing us down. Catching and wounding us in a thousand different ways. Heading off any attempt to escape from—

SLAP

“Agh!” The world snaps back into focus at the sudden pain, and I scowl up at Cinder. “What are you—?!”

SLAP

“Ah! Stop it!”

“I’ll stop once you’re done shutting down on me!” she fires back. “Stay with me here, Z! Focus!”

“Focus? Focus?! Do-do you have any idea who’s out there? What’s out there?!”

“Yeah, a big scary Prince with big scary Prince powers.” I can hardly believe it: she’s rolling her eyes, like this wasn’t a huge deal! “This isn’t my first time dealing with one of those tailholes, Z.”

A halted noise is all I manage as her words halt the ones in my throat. Comprehension dawns on me as that brief shard of memory filters into my awareness. She’s right: this wasn’t her first time dealing with a Prince. It wasn’t even the first time a Prince destroyed her home.

Dissatisfied with my lack of reaction, she goes in for another slap across my face. This time, I block it with my hoof.

“Enough!” I exclaim, pulling myself back onto four hooves. “I’m here, damn it!”

“Finally,” she grunts, evidently annoyed with me. “Here enough to think?”

My head shakes with disbelief. “You are far too relaxed about a Prince being here.”

“And you’re way more shit-scared of these pretty colts than you should be.”

“No,” I sigh, rubbing my eyes. “I’m exactly as shit-scared as I should be.”

Riiight. Anyways, first things first.” She grabs my withers and looks me dead in the eyes. “Z, did you know this guy was coming?”

“I...” I swallow dry. “I knew a Prince was coming.”

“So you dreamt about him?”

“I-I did,” I nod. “Just like when—”

“I know the story.” She interrupts with a nod. “You knew he was coming, so you woke me up and got us the hells outta there. Right?”

“Right.”

“Right. Thanks for that, by the way.”

Cinder’s total irreverence and her borderline superpower of remaining cool under pressure always surprised me, especially in horrid situations like this. Despite everything, she still wore her cocky little smile.

“All settled down now?” she presses.

“Not really, no,” I admit. “But enough to think clearly. I think.”

“Good enough. Now what’s the theory here? That royal tailhole sure as shit didn’t bring all this to find you.

“He didn’t,” I agree, quickly recalling the puzzle I’d pieced together. “He’s chasing these foreigners out of Zebrica, and brought a huge Legion fleet to help him do it.”

“Yeah, and seeing all the weird sky ships that keep dropping, I’d say he’s doing a real good job of it.”

“Of course he is,” I huff. “This is Zabraxas we’re talking about.”

“All the same to me,” she dismisses. “Any other Princes with him I should know about?”

“No,” I quickly confirm, shaking my head. “No, he’s the only one here. I’m sure of it.”

She sighs in relief. “Well, that’s something, at least. Now, what’s the plan?”

“You think I have a plan for this?!”

“No, but I do think you can come up with one nice and quick. C’mon dude, you’re the brains here.”

“Touching,” I deadpan, drawing a snicker from her. Regardless, I sigh and rub my forehead, trying to think of a plan to get out of this mess. That process gets quite a bit faster when she digs through my saddlebag to give me a food ration.

She always knows what to do in the heat of the moment, doesn’t she?

While I sit down and busy myself with thinking, eating, and recovering my energy, she heads back to the window with her spyglass to keep an eye on things. It’s always been this way with us; I plan, she acts. I have my thoughts, she has her instincts. Quite the combination. In a way, this felt like business as usual, like planning yet another caravan heist or store robbery, just with very different stakes. It was... comforting, in that way.

Okay. Onto the plan.

“Well,” I sigh, “I know what we have to do, just not how we’re going to do it.”

“Hide until this blows over?” she offers.

“No. Escape Farasi and run back to the mainland.”

“Wait, escape? You want to go back there?”

“Not at all. But we don’t have a choice.”

“The hells do you mean, we’ve got no choice? Dude, that Prince isn’t here for you, he’s here for them! Heck, he’s still down there, shooting laser swords into the sky, bringing down more sky ships! Once they’re gone, he’ll just clear out and leave this shithole!”

“No, he won’t. Even if he didn’t know I was here, and wasn’t planning on killing or capturing me, I need to stress again that this is Zabraxas we’re talking about. Probably the worst possible Prince that could have come here.”

“Worst how?”

Elysium help me,” I groan from behind my facehoof. “I know you don’t give a shit about the Princes, but I do.”

“Right,” she snorts with laughter. “That’s why I keep you around!”

I snort with annoyance. “Anyways. He’s called the ‘cold blade of justice’ for a damned reason: he’s the one Prince that actually gives a shit about law and order, justice and punishment, and all of that nonsense. Even if I wasn’t a factor in all this, he’d be compelled to stay behind and clean this place up regardless. His damn code won’t let him do any less.”

Cinder finally looks over at me.

“So what’s that all mean?”

“It means he’s not leaving Farasi until every single zebra that even thinks about crime is thrown into a prison cell.”

She laughs once again. “Dude, that’s like, all of Farasi!”

“Yes. It is.”

My tone carries no trace of jest, and neither does my expression. And as the seconds drag on, her amusement withered away and died as my words set in.

“Y-you’re serious?”

“I am deadly serious. He will do it.”

“Even if it takes weeks?”

“Even if it takes years,” I qualify. “You really should give more of a shit one of these days. If you did, you’d know this is the same stallion that took Zuul’raan. By himself.

She pales a bit at the mention of the former Zhaaneph stronghold turned Imperial fortress. The same stronghold that her fellow dragons couldn’t destroy. And they tried. Really, really hard.

“Okay,” she nods quickly. “We get the hells off of this rock, and fast. Gotcha. Loud and clear. Any ideas?”

“That’s the hard part,” I huff. “Ignoring the freak storm out there, there’s going to be a whole damned armada of Legion warships out there. Once these foreigners are chased out, they’ll turn those ballistae of theirs towards patrolling the isle.”

“And all those troops down there, you figure he’ll use them to help clean this place up?”

“He absolutely will. Honestly, I think you’re right when you said it would take weeks. Only weeks.”

“Shit, then we don’t have much time,” she curses, going back to observing the outside world.

“We don’t,” I agree. “One way or another, we’ll need to cross the sea. But I have no idea how we’re going to do it. Boats won’t work: the storm’s too strong for that, the docks will be crawling with soldiers, and the fleet will absolutely spot us after the storm’s gone, night or day.”

Seeing in the dark is very possible with mountain alchemy. Knowing the Legion, they’ll have stocked up on the potions for that, and will have alchemists on hoof to make more.

“Not like we can fly, either,” she sighs. “I mean, I can make the trip. But uh, your heavy flank weighs too much. No offence.”

“Fly,” I mutter, mulling the thought over. Flight. Could that be a possible solution here? No, no, I don’t think so. It’s a novel idea, but far too much can go wrong with it. Ships are going to be a problem, but they’re the only means I can think of that can get us across the water. But not through the blockade. That’s not counting the fact that most ships aren’t built to handle extreme weather like the warships are.

Wait. Most ships...?

ding

I spring to my hooves as the hacked-together plan of escape begins falling into place in my mind.

“I’ve got it,” I exclaim.

“Finally,” she laughs. “Crazy plan, I assume?”

“This is a crazy situation.”

“True enough. Where to?”

“The fishing town on the other side of the isle.”

“All the way there? What for?”

“The trawlers,” I continue. “They’re big, metal-hulled ships, built to withstand storms like this. And they can sail for days out on the open ocean. We’ll steal one while the storm’s still here, sail it out into the ocean, and curve it back around to the mainland.”

“I mean, that works, I guess. But still, that’s a long run.”

“It is. Over half an hour at an easy trot, in fact.”

Fiiine,” she sighs dramatically. “I hate long runs.”

“The sooner we leave, the better. Now come on.”

With a dramatic groan, she pulls herself from the window and dons her raincoat again, while I make sure everything in my bags is accounted for.

“Streets are all cleared out now, by the way,” she adds. “Don’t think we can take ‘em again.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

With that, I head to the roof access ladder and push my way past the trapdoor, with Cinder following close behind. The wind flips my hood back the moment I stick my head out, but she’s nice enough to flip it back down once we’re both up. Then, she climbs onto my back once again, holds on tightly, and I begin leaping between rooftops again, the cleats invaluable in providing traction for this stretch of the journey; normally, I would be worried about the noise and damage they cause, but with the rain as intense as it is, my loud hoofsteps were completely drowned out. Before long, we leave the city without raising any alarm, and begin the trek towards the fishing town. She dismounts once we’re away from prying eyes, and we both maintain an easy pace side-by-side to preserve our energy.

Off to the side, I see the blue energy blades of Zabraxas floating up, fed with streams of power, and growing massive before being launched into the clouds at regular intervals, just like Cinder said. It was a constant reminder for me to stay on guard and keep my eyes open at all costs, unless I wanted him to catch us and...

I shake my head to try and dislodge the intrusive thoughts. It’s only somewhat effective.

“What’s up?” Cinder remarks.

“Just trying not to think of what he’ll do to me if he catches us,” I reply.

“Well keep thinking about the damned plan, instead!”

“Honestly, that isn’t much better,” I groan. “Gods, it’s awful. I mean, I know I came up with it in only a few minutes, but it’s just so shit.

“Then keep making it less shit, because it’s the best we’ve got right now.”

“Yes. It is.”

Unfortunately.

Still, it’s all I can do to pass the time and keep my thoughts away from the nearby Prince. With only my prior long distance observations to work with, all I could do was think around possibilities and happenstance instead of the facts and certainties I would strongly prefer. It threatens to become a counterproductive rumination in it’s own right, but at least it’s much easier to corral those thoughts than my ever-present fear of the Princes.

Eventually, the town comes into view. The lights are on in many of the windows, no doubt from all the zebras gawking at the sights. But that fact alone told me that the Legion hadn’t gotten here yet. Though the relief I feel at that fact is palpable, I do my best to temper it, knowing that we were still a long ways away from being free of danger. We approach a more unoccupied section of the town where nozebra could see us, whereupon Cinder once again climbed onto my back, flew me up to the nearest rooftop, and from there I began my trek towards the docks.

Once we’re in a position to overlook the docks, I’m relieved once again to see the vessels I am thinking of are present, accounted for, and most importantly, unoccupied. Though sadly, not unguarded. There were still some zebras loitering on the docks that would no doubt raise a fuss if I tried to board one of the trawlers now.

“Hmm,” Cinder pipes up, no doubt having picked up on the issue. “You know, I could totally glide this gap.”

“Mmm,” I concur, tracing a curving path to the side of a nearby ship with my hoof. “Think you can glide that path, and avoid us getting seen?”

“Easiest glide of my life,” she scoffs, as boastful as ever.

With that settled, I retreat a few buildings back to get a running start, while Cinder grabs onto my barrel and gets ready to fly. Sprinting and jumping as fast as I can, my final jump off the side of the building is aided by a powerful flap of her wings, giving it much more height. Once airborne, she extends her wings and glides us towards the ship, our cloaks billowing out as we go. Though the torrential downpour and my heavy weight definitely caused us to quickly lose altitude, our excellent running start and high jump meant that we were just able to reach the deck by the time we were in the final stretch. Mercifully, my hooves make relatively little noise as they reach out with the motions of a canter in mid-air, until connecting with the deck and turning into an actual canter that I slowly ramp down into a slow walk in order to further minimize the noise our landing made.

“Nailed it!” she quietly cheers, complete with a fist pump. “Oh, we’ve so got this, dude!”

“Let’s make this quick,” I mutter, already headed for the hatch below deck. “We’re pushing our luck as it is.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve stolen a ship, but from the way Cinder was moving around, I’d swear it was only yesterday for her. She flew quickly all around the lower decks, getting things started for departure. While she does that, I head to the enclosed captain’s nest above deck and go over the checks required for departure. The steam boiler for the engines was still cold, and under normal circumstances, that would take upwards of half an hour to get working again. With Cinder, however, she could get that boiling in only a few minutes.

One of the many advantages of having a draconic partner in crime.

boom
blam

My ears pivot to the sound of nearby skyward explosions, and as I turn around and look up, I see...

“Oh, you’ve got to be joking!”

Another damaged and burning sky ship was falling from the ground, this time headed straight for the town. Already I could hear the townzebras panicking outside as it made it’s slower than usual descent, it’s balloon still partially inflated and slowing the fall, but evidently with no ability to steer.

I bolt back to the hatch below deck and begin shouting down to her. “Hit the deck!”

KA-BOOM

The blast wave sends me flying through the air for a moment, and when I do land back on the deck in a heap, the deck itself sways violently along with the rest of the ship, just as jostled by the impact as I was. Scrambling back upright, I see a plume of fire billowing from the coast, very near to where we were. The ship had just barely missed the town.

But it’s not long before I notice the sounds of zebras fighting, along with the grunts of creatures I can only assume are those invading foreigners. Managing to reach the railing, I confirm the sight with my own eyes: a large number of those strange creatures were coming from the ruined sky ship, still in good fighting condition and working their way into the town.

“Holy shit!” I hear Cinder call out from below deck. “Dude, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I shout back. “Get us started, now!

“On it!”

I scramble my way back to the captain’s nest to double-check that the blast hadn’t thrown anything off. By some small miracle, everything seemed to still be in order, and already I could see the steam pressure gauge begin to crawl upwards. Pulling a utility blade from my pack, I run back out onto the deck and begin slicing some of the ropes that bound us to what remained of the wooden docks. There, I see the path the creatures were taking.

They had the same idea as us. They were heading for the trawlers as well, no doubt to continue fleeing by sea.

“Oh, for the love of...!”

I don’t get a chance to finish cutting the ropes. Grappling hooks of that same dark metal are thrown up and onto the deck, far too many for me to cut. All I can think to do is head back below deck to warn Cinder of this development, and I rush back down through the hatch to do just that, seeing her without her coat or pack on and working hard at breathing fire onto the increasingly glowing-hot steam boiler.

“Those creatures are boarding the ships!” I call out.

She pauses to breathe normally before addressing me. “What do you mean, boarding?”

“As in, grappling hooks!”

We both hear the thumping of their feet up above on deck. My mind races and my eyes dart all around, trying to think of a solution to this new and completely unexpected problem. But my eyes stop on Cinder, who adopted a thoughtful expression with a matching hum.

“Hey Z, I’ve got an idea,” she hums, flying her way back towards the hatch.

What are you doing?!” I hiss, trying my best to stay quiet.

“Relax,” she chirps, briefly turning to flash me a smile. “I’ve got a good feeling about this.”

That doesn’t fill me with any amount of confidence. In fact, it’s filling me with the complete opposite of confidence. But very little can stop Cinder when she gets one of her ‘good feelings’, and she’s too far away for me to physically hold back regardless. Which left her free to throw the hatch wide open and fly up onto the deck.

“Hey, what’s up, guys?” she called out, friendly as can be.

I could hear every creature on the deck whip around to face her, synchronizing nicely with my stomach dropping damn near out of my barrel. She deftly flips back down when a pair of spears thrust towards where she was standing, and flies back on over towards the steam boiler as the foreigners begin charging down the steps to pursue. I, meanwhile, took cover behind a few nearby crates, peeking out to see exactly what kind of madness had decided to claim her this time.

She leaned against the cooling boiler as casually as possible, admiring her claws with her free hand as the beasts rushed down to surround her in a tight semicircle, spears and electrified bidents at the ready. Cinder never once looked intimidated by them: she was the perfect picture of confidence and control, and kept her cocky smile the entire time.

“Rocky start to our relationship, but hey, I’ve made friends on shakier grounds than this,” she opened. “Now, do you any of you boys understand the words that are coming out of my mouth? Go on, nod if you do.”

The beasts begin to look confused, looking towards one another. But one of the more decorated bident wielding beasts comes forth, nodding his acknowledgement.

“Oh, so you’re in charge?” She continues when she gets a nod back. “Good. Now here’s the score. I want off this damn island as much as you guys do. That Prince out there has a way of driving off girls like me. But sadly for you,”—she raps her knuckles against the boiler, creating a slightly hollow echo—”These ships take a whole half hour to start up from cold.”

The monster leader’s eyes widen in response to this. Judging from the lack of a reaction from the others, I’d say none of them understand a word of Zebrikaans.

“Now, we could fight each other and let that pesky little Prince throw us both into the Black Gulch, and trust me, you do not want to wind up at Black Gulch. Or, we could help each other out. See, I can get this ship started nice and quick for you. Only takes a few minutes.”

She exhales a small gout of dragonfire to prove her point. Lowering his bident, the leader grunts something in a language I don’t understand to the others, and they in turn lower their weapons. He then gestures to Cinder to continue, while I sit there slack-jawed at the entire scene.

“Here’s how this is gonna work. Z, come out already. Get your tail over here!”

Exasperated, I do just that, stumbling out towards her. The beasts briefly turn their weapons to me, but their leader growls at them to stop, allowing me to stand next to her.

“Me and my best buddy here,”—she wraps an arm around my neck—”Also need to escape that guy. So how about we work together here, and get as far away from this place as we can? I help you start this ship up, and in return, you guys help keep the Empire off our backs, and get us someplace nice and safe. How’s that for a good deal?”

I’m still in shock at just how composed and confident she is. Indeed, the foreigners’ leader looks taken aback by her performance as well. But after a moment’s thought, the creature’s posture slouches to reluctant acceptance, and the grunt he gives in response has the tone to match. He begins grunting at his underlings and waving them off, and like proper soldiers, they obey their commands immediately in spite of their surprise, with most of them returning above deck. Their leader grunts something at Cinder, and even though I know for a fact that she doesn’t understand this language, she responds as if she does.

“Of course he knows how to drive this thing!” she laughs, patting me with her holding arm. “We’ll be outta here in no time! But just so you know,” Her tone becomes lower and more dangerous, and she levels a smile-laden glare at the commanding creature. “If you or your troops so much as breathe on my friend here the wrong way, it won’t be the Prince you’ll have to worry about. Get the picture?”

Even when smaller and younger, a dragon was still a dragon, and even this large, hulking creature wasn’t immune to their intimidation. He nods after a tense moment of clenching his weapon, and then grunts something else, gesturing back towards the hatch.

“Alright Z, you heard the guy.”

“Wh-huh?

With an annoyed groan, she lets go of me and gives me a shove. “Are you driving this boat, or what? Go on, get! I’ve got things handled here!”

Blinking in confusion, all I do is sigh and start walking. I am... so done trying to understand what’s going on here. The leader doesn’t follow, and when I come back up above deck, I see the other creatures leaning over the railing, pulling their friends up from the docks while the others stand guard. Wanting no part of their activities, I focus on heading for the captain’s nest again, doing my best to ignore the two beasts standing guard inside as I work to get the ship started. The steam pressure was rising quickly, and in only a minute or two, we have enough power to start the engine, which I do right away.

The ship thrums to life underhoof and begins lurching forward as the propellers come to life. Looking back, I see a great deal of beasts aboard now, and briefly wonder if that was all of them from the wreck. Some of them were injured and unable to do much other than lie down, but others made themselves useful, undoing the rest of the ropes that kept the ship moored to the docks and allowing us to finally begin moving. With Cinder hard at work, the steam pressure kept on climbing in spite of the heavy load I was putting onto the throttle, allowing us to accelerate very quickly. Before long, we were entering cruise speed, heading straight ahead and into the open ocean.

It’s in that moment that I make a terrible mistake. I start to relax. I start to hope. I start to think that I’m finally out of danger, out of the clutches of both Empire and Prince alike.

The alarmed grunt-shouts of the beasts dashed those hopes as soon as they came. When I turned to see what the commotion was about, those hopes were ground to a fine powder.

A trail of frost leading from Zabraxas’s last location was briefly seen in a flash of lightning, but no lightning was necessary to see the Prince himself on the move, illuminated by an arc of smaller blades hovering over his body as he bolted with that unnatural speed towards the ailing town we had just departed. Though things were too far to see in detail, I knew there were still beasts left back there, and those blades of his flew off to strike them down. He makes it to the docks, jumping onto one of the ships still there. A massive blast of frost billows out from the deck and envelops the entire vessel in a massive cloud of mist, and through it, I could see both the ship and the patch of ocean it was tossing in frozen solid. He leapt to the other ships immediately after freezing that one, giving them the same treatment. And with a few last energy swords fired off into the city, I knew he had defeated the beasts there.

I swear I could feel him looking in our direction next. Looking at me. Renewing his arc of blades, he leapt into the ocean next. But instead of diving into the waters, the ocean froze before he could strike it, allowing him to land on solid ground. He broke into a dead run, patches of ocean freezing in front of him and breaking apart behind him as he sprinted, heading straight for us.

Heading for me.

I abandon the ship controls, bolting back across the deck and down into the hatch below before he can get here. Nothing else was important at this point. Self-preservation was my only thought now. Cinder barely has a chance to react as I unsuccessfully try to skid to a stop in front of her, hitting her instead and sending us both to the floor.

“Ow! What the shit, dude? Get back up and steer this—!”

“He’s here!” I cry out.

groooooooooan

The entire ship lurches and the hull grinds all around, as if the ship were forcefully running aground. Running aground on ice. The machinery grinds in protest and begins to fail, with steam pipes bursting all around to show for it. I hear the alarmed grunts of the foreigners up above deck, and some of them run down the hatch, trying to escape what was to come.

A loud thump of a landing sounds out on the deck. Following it was an intense blast of cold, a bone-chilling blast of misty wind howling down the open hatch.

It sounded exactly like the wind from the end of my dream.

“Shit,” Cinder sighs.

This is it. I’m going to die here.

He’s going to see me for what I am, and he’ll kill me for it.

“Welp. Guess you’re the only one getting outta this, huh?” I hear her words, but don’t register them. “Sorry about this, Z. Just play along, all right?”

Awareness returns to me when I feel Cinder pinning me down. I see her flash me an apologetic wink before her face contorts into faux anger, followed by her raising her fist.

And then she starts hitting me. Hard.

Where I was once paralyzed with terror, I was now paralyzed with shock.

“Teach you to screw with me, shit for brains! Huh? Not so tough now, are you?!”

She was striking hard enough to bruise and concuss. She was aiming it all at my head. And she was not holding back.

“Yeah! That’s what you get! You should’ve—”

ZWOOSH

Cinder was batted away with a blade of blue energy. I think I hear her hit the wall with a grunt. I can’t really do much of anything at the moment. My head is spinning, I can taste blood, and I’m fairly certain my snout was broken. About all I can do is groan and cough.

“Hmph.” A new voice. It was deep. Male. Unemotional.

My body doesn’t obey my commands. Everything looks blurry, and darkness starts creeping into the corners of my vision. But something moves into the cone of my declining eyesight regardless. It’s a zebra. One with icy blue eyes. They almost looked like they were glowing.

“Easy, citizen,” the voice continued. “You are safe now.”

My body goes slack, and everything slips into darkness.


I am falling.

Nothing but utter black surrounds me. No features to be found in the void.

I can barely think. I don’t remember anything. I have no energy to cry out. All I do is continue to fall endlessly, with nothing but the resistance of the air to keep me company.

Something bright yellow below me breaks up the black monotony. I can’t bring myself to care. Not even as it gets closer and closer. It’s flaming tendrils reach out to me, but even that fails to get a response.

I zoom past the large, burning orb. I feel something wrap around my hindlegs. My movement arrests all of a sudden, leaving me dangling in the vast nothingness. But through the haze of my total apathy, the development is enough only to draw my eyes towards it. There, I see it’s appendages of flame drawing me up into it’s body, many centimetres at a time.

It feels so... familiar. So warm. So comforting. Though my weakened body was leaden and heavy, my foreleg moves up to reach towards it. The action is conscious, yet automatic, as if trained. As I reach it, yellow flame courses along that foreleg, wrapping my body in it’s embrace soon thereafter.

As I burn, the exhaustion abates. My awareness returns. And worst of all, my memory scorches back into the forefront of my mind. With it comes the fear.

The fear of the other sun.

Remembering myself, I take the sun’s offered appendages and quickly climb my way towards it’s dark core. It eagerly plunges me into it’s own void. From there, all fades to yellow. All fades to white.


“—counts of caravan robbery, sixty-one counts of store robbery, a hundred and eighty-seven counts of pickpocketing, a hundred and nine counts of assault—”

I wake with a start, adrenaline already flooding my veins. The bright lights all around force me to squint, but doesn’t stop me from moving my limbs. Their range of motion is greatly constrained by something attached to them, and the jingling and clanking that comes from the objects gives away their identities.

Chains. Manacles. Restraints.

“—sir, about all that’s not on this colt’s rap sheet is murder. And we don’t even know what he did on the other side.”

With a grunt, I open my now mostly adjusted eyes and scan my surroundings. I recognize the grey, faded mountcrete walls as the walls of Jela. My breathing is laboured and I feel metal between my teeth and over my snout. My eyes turn to my body, and I finally see the bonds around my fetlocks. I feel more clasped around my neck and barrel, and I recognize the thing on my face as a metal muzzle.

“Still makes him a career criminal, private. Well past the Prince’s threshold.”

Prince. Zabraxas. Cinder!

I try to stand upright, but the chains anchor me low to the ground, forcing me to flop back down to the ground with a pained grunt.

“Sounds like he’s up. Get him moving. His majesty’s wasted enough time waiting.”

The metal door to my side slides open, and in comes two Legion soldiers, each wielding shock-prods. They look at me with contempt, and a silent threat to comply on pain of, well, pain. I force myself to remain still and try my best to evaluate the situation as they unchain me from the floor and push me along, prods at the ready.

I have no clue where they’re taking me, so I keep an ear out for more information while I recall what happened. I remember our escape on the ship failing, with him catching up. But I also remember...

Wait a minute, Cinder hit me! She beat me bloody and knocked me out! Why would she—?!

Oh. Oh, no. Oh gods, I see it now.

She set things up to look like I was a prisoner, a bystander. She took the fall for me. She made Zabraxas save my life, not end it.

And just as soon as that realization hits, the emotions follow suit. I refuse to express them, not in front of these shoelicking bastards. But now, all I could think of was one thing: Cinder. What happened to her? Where is she? What did that bastard do to her?

The door before us opens as I feel my worries inflame into anger. Inside, I see a line-up of other zebra prisoners. All imperials, some of them hybrids. But a fresh knot of worry forms in my gut as I notice something else they all have in common: the stripes across their eyes. The guards shove me between some of the prisoners, close the door behind them, and leave through a different set of doors. The others range between frightened and angry, but something they all had in common was confusion. But with them all bound and muzzled like me, talking to them about what was happening was an impossibility.

The doors fly open, and my stomach drops at what was behind it. Zabraxas’s honourguards stormed in. Me and the others start to panic and back away as we see Zabraxas enter next. But my heart drops when I see what was trailing behind him.

Cinder.

She was in a small metal cage wheeled in on a flatbed cart, softly panting and down on her claws and knees. Her body was covered in dirt and scorch marks, and I immediately recognize the scorch patterns as strikes from his energy blades. They must not have been able to pierce her scales.

Everyzebra else trembled in terror at the Prince as he stepped forth. I was trembling too, but no longer for that reason.

I was furious.

Zabraxas’s eyes scanned across the line-up. His face was neutral and impassive at a first glance, but I could see the restrained disdain and contempt. Nowhere was that more evident than his gaze, his eyes making no effort to conceal how he looked down upon us all. By the hells, I don’t think I’ve wanted to wipe a look off of somezebra’s face this badly before.

With a small gesture of his head, Cinder’s cage is wheeled forth by an honourguard, stopping right beside him.

“I will make this simple for you, dragon.” His voice was deep, commanding, monotonous, and as unemotional as his expression, but I could still detect the distaste in his tone as he spoke her species’ name. “Say nothing, and you will die.”

My teeth ground against the metal of the muzzle’s bar.

“Reveal the rogue Prince for me, and I shall spare your life. Make your decision.”

So he was staying for me after all, and these zebras were reminiscent of me for a reason. Intellectually, I knew I should be terrified. But the fiery anger—no, the hate—boiling in my veins was surprising in just how much it quenched my fear of the Prince.

Cinder’s head rose slowly. I could see how tired she was. Her dull eyes scanned across the crowd, but stopped and double-took when she saw me. She didn’t move a muscle, but I could see the life return to her eyes. She pretended to observe the rest, but as her eyes went back over me, I knew exactly what that defiant little glint in her eye meant.

“I’ve got this.”

“All right,” she wheezes. “All right. You win. Just, no more. Please.”

“Point the rogue Prince out,” Zabraxas commanded. “Now.

She begins to weakly raise her claw. A part of me begins to worry that she’ll give me away to save her own scales. But a much larger part of me knows her better than that. She finally points to a zebra. At first, I think it’s me. But a moment passes before I see the very slight angle of her finger, and realize she was pointing to a zebra next to me. And that zebra begins to freak out, yelling something unintelligible through his muzzle.

I look over, and see he looks very similar to me. Darker yellow eyes, and a slightly thinner stripe across his eyes. He was also a pure-blooded imperial, and had facial scars that I lacked. But was similar enough that one could confuse him with me from a distance.

Zabraxas steps forth, looking the fall stallion dead in the eyes. Said stallion continues freaking out in a mix of anger and terror, no doubt motor-mouthing about how it wasn’t him. Possibly the worst thing to do if you’ve been accused of something, falsely or not. And sure enough, his terrible choice of actions convinces the Prince of his guilt.

“Your taint on the Lines ends today,” he speaks with finality. “Take him away.”

He cries and begs as the honourguards drag him off. It reminds me all too well of the first time.

“You have served the Empire well, dragon.” He doesn’t even turn around to look at her. “You will continue to serve it within the depths of the Black Gulch.”

He says no more, turning around and walking away, back through the door the other zebra was dragged through. I could still hear his begging all the way from here. The honourguards leave, collecting Cinder as they go. Before the doors close, she looks back up at me. Again, she’s smart enough to not make a gesture that gives away the deception. But she knows that I know what that boastful look in her eye means.

“See you later.”

The doors shut. Moments later, proper legionnaires file in to herd us towards who-knows-where. My body is on autopilot, going along with whatever they’re doing. But internally, my rage was almost palpable. That holier-than-thou son of a whore comes to my home, uproots my life, and lays his hooves on my best friend? Throws her into the Black Gulch?! I don’t know what small miracle keeps me from lashing out, but gods above, I can feel every muscle in my body tense and flex with barely restrained fury.

It wasn’t just fear I felt for the Princes now. Now, there was another feeling in the mix.

I hate them. I hate him.

I loathe him and his bastard ilk, more than I’ve loathed anything before in my life. I despise how they can just do whatever they damn well please. And I hate how there’s not a damn thing I or anyzebra else can do to stop them. I hate how they are so, so much more powerful than me or anyzebra—no, anyspecies else, so powerful they can simply impose their will without any consequence; not even a reprimand.

I have to force my teeth to stop clenching, before they threaten to break against the metal between them. My thoughts, which I believed would have been occluded with rage, have never felt more clear. I know exactly what I'm going to do.

The minute, the second, I escape whatever hellshole prison they're taking me to, I’ll find her. I’ll find a way to break her out of Black Gulch. I don’t know how I will. I don’t even know if I can. I only know that I will try—no, that I will. I’ll be damned if those all-powerful whore-sons get the last word on this. I will not let them.

I’m only dimly aware of us boarding a prison ship at the docks of Jela. The sun shines in the sky and the skies are clear, save for the smoke plumes from the fires pockmarking Farasi. The cell I am placed in is above deck, facing out into the open. I look on at the island as it begins to gain distance, not with regret, but with newfound determination.

Hold on, Cinder. I’m coming for you.