• Published 12th Jan 2013
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A Song of Storms: Snow and Shadows - The 24th Pegasus



With the onset of the windigo curse, Commander Hurricane and the other tribal leaders leave in search of new lands. They aren't the only ones to face challenges, as the tribes inch closer and closer to ripping each other apart with each day.

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Chapter 12: The Narrow Strait

Chapter 12: The Narrow Strait

Twilight yawned and set the journal aside, making doubly sure that it was safely nestled within her saddlebag. The fire had died down to but a few sparks, and she was starting to feel some of the Stalliongrad cold creep its way into the building. It tickled her mane and pricked at her hooves, and her leg involuntarily twitched to shake off the chill.

Rising from her seat, Twilight sighed as her joints popped and cracked. Slowly trotting over to the hearth, the unicorn sat down and began to poke at the logs, trying to stir up the embers and force the armies of winter into a hasty retreat. As she did so, a quill dropped on her hooves. She examined it for a second before her tired mind realized that she had released it from her Arcana to jostle the logs. The blue feather that Rainbow Dash had offered her had already been worn to a rounded and blunt point, and with a grumble, Twilight tossed it into the fire. She would have to ask the pegasus for another quill tomorrow. If only she had her own wings, then she could pull quills from them whenever she wanted.

She stifled another yawn and glanced to her right, where Rainbow Dash lay curled up in a colorful ball on top of her winter coat and jacket. The pegasus was breathing quietly, her wings twitching slightly with her dreams. At least she had recovered from her hypothermia and was sleeping peacefully. Twilight knew she would never have forgiven herself if something bad had happened to her companion.

With the fire now flared up to a comfortable warmth, the lavender mare smiled softly and spread out her own coat and jackets before the fire as a makeshift bedroll. Judging by the stack of notes she had taken while poring over the last two chapters of Hurricane’s journal, she had probably been up for four or five hours after Rainbow had given in to sleep. At least she wasn’t planning on heading south again for another day. This little cabin in the middle of nowhere had saved her life, and she wasn’t ready to leave it behind just yet.

Twilight was snoring before she knew it. She also didn’t remember what woke her up barely an hour later. Her nerves were frayed and the dim glow of the crackling fire was a blinding shear of light. The simple wooden room blurred and swam across her eyes, and she placed a hoof against her head to try and pound out the sleepiness. Leaning against the wall, Twilight took a deep breath and listened.

The cabin was quiet and still. The only movement was the dancing of the shadows against the opposite wall from the crackling fire. There were only three distinct sounds: the fire, Rainbow’s quiet snoring, and Twilight’s own heartbeat as she tried to swallow her heart.

She must have stood like that for five minutes before taking a breath and moving back to her original spot by the fire. “It’s okay, Twilight,” she muttered to herself. “You’re just paranoid and worried that you’re going to get a sickle driven through your neck. There’s nothing wrong. Statistically speaking, seventeen out of every eighteen ponies would be scared if they were in your position.”

Having calmed herself with the infallible force that was logic-based reasoning, Twilight sighed and lay down on her jackets. Good old logic. It always held the answer to every problem.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to have an answer Twilight would have liked to hear when she heard growling outside of the cabin door.

Twilight locked up stiff as a board. There was definitely a continuous growl from the door to the cabin, along with what sounded like a snuffling sound. Gently pushing aside the covers with trembling hooves, Twilight scooted over to Rainbow Dash and shook her.

“Nnnnooooo… Five more minutes, Papa, please… mmmm, maybe fifteen.”

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight hissed, recoiling from the noise of her own voice. The growling at the door had stopped, but the unicorn had a distinct feeling that it wasn’t gone. “Rainbow Dash, get up! I… I don’t think we’re safe here.”

“Twilight?” Rainbow Dash rose and rubbed her bleary eyes with heavy hooves. “Can’t you let a mare sleep? What is it, four in the morning?”

Twilight held a hoof in front of her muzzle and shushed the pegasus. She pointed with her horn to the door, where the growling had resumed at a lower pitch. “Get your gear, Rainbow.”

The pegasus gave a curt nod and began to prowl about the room, her wings flexing and arching above her back and by her sides in preparation for flight. “What are those? Diamond dogs?” She laughed slightly as she put her saddlebag together. “If only we had Rarity here to deal with them.”

“I don’t think they’re diamond dogs,” Twilight muttered as she carefully placed her saddlebag on her flank.

“If they’re not diamond dogs, then what are they?”

With a snarling bark and growl, the door to the shack was shorn from its hinges and flung aside. In its place stood the largest animal Twilight had ever seen, aside from a dragon. The figure stood on its short hind legs as it gripped onto the sides of the doorframe with arms as large as a pony. Powerful muscles rippled under a patchy coat of short black fur and white scars. The wood creaked in agony as its canine claws crushed the doorframe, and its drooling jaws snapped with anticipation of a meal. Bloodshot eyes leered at Twilight as she stood frozen in place.

The eye contact lasted only a second before the massive canine charged through the door, its claws ripping chunks of wood out of the hall. Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and dove to the side, slamming her skull against the cabinet but managing to hop away from the gnashing teeth of the beast. The dog snarled and turned, but before it could charge again at Twilight, a blue blur swooped through the air and kicked the brute to the ground.

“Hah!” Rainbow whooped, spinning away from the downed animal. “How do you like that, you hairy mutt? Next time pick on someone your own—!”

Rainbow’s words were cut off as the dog whipped its arm from the ground and enveloped her entire body in one hairy paw. With a ferocious roar, the canine flung Rainbow Dash against the wall. The wood cracked, but the pegasus didn’t stop there. With a cry of pain, Rainbow was sent completely through the wall and into the snows beyond.

“Rainbow!” Twilight shouted, peering through the suddenly opened hole in the wall. She could see the powder blue coat of her friend rolling through the snow in the darkness outside of the shack.

Behind her, the canine scrambled to his feet and barked at Twilight before beginning to lunge at her. The unicorn’s face tensed in concentration, and a barrage of purple bolts of Arcana scattered across the dog’s coat, burning patches of fur from its skin. The canine yipped and fell to the ground, writhing in pain, while Twilight sprinted through the gap in the shed to Rainbow’s side.

“Nnngh…” Rainbow groaned, clutching her side in pain. “I’ve always been more of a cat person anyway…”

As Twilight helped Rainbow up, a chorus of low howls reflected off of the moon and the silver night skies. The two ponies clutched each other as the calls rose in pitch before dying off, one by one.

“Are you hurt?” Twilight whispered to Rainbow.

The pegasus grunted and stretched each of her limbs one by one, pausing on her left foreleg. “M-my leg…” She tried to stretch the leg again but winced and ground her teeth against each other. “Sprained… I’ve had worse.”

“I’ll look at it when we get to safety,” Twilight assured her. “But right now, we have to move. Can you walk?”

Rainbow Dash nodded and began to limp away, even as she bared her teeth in pain with each step on her left foreleg. Twilight tried to support Rainbow’s shoulder, but the pegasus nudged her away with the crest of her wing, determined to walk on her own.

The two ponies only made about fifty feet of distance from the cabin before the first of several pairs of yellow eyes appeared in the darkness ahead of them. The growling soon followed, and Twilight could hear the shuffling of snow all around them just outside of her sight. With a simple spell, a bright purple manalight appeared above her head and illuminated the hilltop.

No less than fifteen canines of varying size hissed and whimpered as they threw their meaty arms in front of their eyes. They all resembled the lumbering beast Twilight had incapacitated inside the cabin, from the patchy and scarred coats to the long, yellow fangs that were too large to hide behind split lips. The fur around their claws and teeth was the color of dried blood.

As the dogs began to recover from the flare Twilight had created, she channeled another spell into her horn. With a distinct pop and the slight caress of nausea, both ponies found themselves outside the pack of diamond dogs. Shaking off the aftereffects of the teleportation spell, Twilight nudged Rainbow away from the dogs and tried to help her move as fast as possible.

A howl of rage split the night, and the pack of canines turned as one to bear down on the two ponies. Snow and ice were torn from the ground and kicked into the air like a dust cloud following a stampede in the desert. The wind caught the ice and scattered it into the sky, obscuring the dogs for but a second.

A shout of exertion rose to challenge the howling of the pack, and the entire stretch of frozen tundra between Twilight and the diamond dogs rippled and bucked skyward. The explosion of ice launched the pack into the air, where they yipped in terror before slamming into the ground. The cracking of bones was picked up by the wind and propelled across the surrounding countryside, and Rainbow Dash pressed her ears flat against her head to block out the noise.

“Way to go, Twilight!” Rainbow cheered while holding her foreleg against her chest. “That sure showed them!”

The lavender mare moved to dip her head, but the small action turned into a face plant in the snow. Twilight groaned and rubbed her eyes to clear the stars. “Heh… Did everypony see that? Because I am not doing it again.”

Rainbow Dash knelt down next to Twilight and struggled to pick her up with one hoof. “Come on, Twilight. Don’t make me have to worry about you not being able to walk now.”

“Give me a minute, Rainbow,” Twilight pleaded as she massaged her temples. Furrowing her brow, the unicorn looked off in the direction of the churned earth and bit her chapped lip. “Umm… Is it just me, or is it awfully quiet?”

Rainbow gulped and ushered Twilight to her hooves. She could see several bodies, crippled and dead, but the rest of the pack was nowhere to be seen. “Maybe we scared them off.”

“Wishful thinking on your part.”

Both ponies turned towards the masculine voice as he emerged from the settling snow. The brown unicorn held a sword in his magical grip and trotted over to the nearest twitching canine. With a small grunt, he impaled the beast’s neck, eliciting a small cry of pain alongside a wheeze.

Twilight squinted at the figure before her jaw dropped. “Haven?”

Sheathing his sword, Safe Haven smiled and cantered towards the two Equestrians. “Privet, Twilight. Miss Dash.”

Rainbow groaned and smacked her head with her good hoof. “Celestia… that sounds so lame…”

“I don’t get it,” Twilight began, looking over Haven’s bloodstained winter coat. “I thought you were still back in Saraneighvo? And just what in the hay happened back there anyway?!”

Haven laughed and passed Twilight a canteen of water, which she took several sips from. “I was in Saraneighvo until just recently. I do apologize if my service was not up to Canterlot standards, but war is war.”

“Wait, you’re with the rebels?”

“For what other reason would I leap over the bar to drive my sword into a Black Cloak’s shoulders?”

“I thought…” Twilight trailed off. “I don’t know what I thought. It all happened so fast.”

“I’ll give you the quick version, but then we have to go,” Haven said. “Those three ponies who walked into the bar? They were the rebel leaders in Saraneighvo. They were planning the whole revolt for months, and that just happened to be the night it was set to go off. Unfortunately, Miss Dash brought the Black Cloaks to us in her drunken stupor.”

“It was some pretty good vodka…” Rainbow Dash muttered to herself.

Haven rolled his eyes. “Black Cloaks already have a poor enough tolerance for crime as it is. Marshall Serp goes insane whenever he sees a rebel. The moment he walked in, I knew it was a bloodbath waiting to happen.” Levitating his sword from its sheath with his magic, Haven showed off the series of notches in the iron of the blade. “The Marshall’s got a few of his own on his beloved sickle. At least there were too many of us for him to deal with before he could rip my throat out with it.”

“Great, so I’m now consorting with outlaws?” Twilight half-joked, half-accused. “If there were so many of you, how come you’re not in Saraneighvo?”

“The Commandant of the Black Cloaks showed up, that’s why,” Safe Haven responded. “Came all the way from Stalliongrad itself with his other lackey, Marshall Molot. Our hold on the city was shaky enough as it was after the first night. The Commandant’s soldierly prowess is enough to turn that tide on his own. I’ve heard the bastard’s had training from the captain of Canterlot’s Honor Guard.”

Twilight wanted to ask more questions, but a distant howl stopped her. Haven glanced in its direction and frowned. “We need to move. They may have fled with their tails between their legs but they’ll be back soon enough. Killing some of the pack just makes the rest angrier.” With a curt nod, he began to walk away to the west.

“Um… Haven? Stalliongrad is to the south.”

The stallion paused before shaking his head and continuing onwards. “I know.”

With no other option, Twilight and Rainbow shrugged and limped after him, each trying to clutch their jackets against their coats in defiance of the shrill winds.

-----

Commander Hurricane and Pan Sea marched on towards the west, chasing the setting sun as it disappeared across glacial tundra. They had left the ruins of Onyx Ridge far behind them, and the smoke was just an inky black splotch against an indifferent gray sky. At least the storm had lessened the farther west they had travelled.

Hurricane grunted as he climbed over yet another series of craggy hills. His chest was killing him, and each breath was only another spear in his gut as his lungs expanded and contracted around the splintery ends of his broken ribs. With an annoyed breath, the Commander pulled his dragging wings up to his sides again, where they immediately began to droop. The two lines on either side of him extended for at least a quarter mile into the distance.

“Are you okay, sir?” Pan Sea asked as he approached Hurricane. “It’s your chest again, isn’t it?”

“’S’nothing,” Hurricane groaned, trying to shake the ache out of his chest. He regretted the action a second later when his diaphragm cried out in protest, leaving the stallion gasping for breath.

“With all due respect, sir,” Pan Sea began, “It is something. Broken ribs are always a pain—no pun intended—when you’re trying to travel. You can’t fly, you can hardly walk, and you can’t fight.”

“And what would you have me do about it?” Hurricane growled. “Sit and wait until it gets better? We’re on a short timetable, Pansy. The longer it takes for us to cross the Narrow Strait, the longer Cirra starves. I will not lose my nation through inaction.”

Hurricane pushed off of Pan Sea with a wing and began to walk again, despite the Legionnaire’s protests. “Commander, it’s gotten worse since the fight, that much I can tell! If you don’t stop to rest… you might never fly again.”

The black pegasus halted before lowering his head. “I don’t care if I never fly again. What good is it to fly when my family is dead? I have my priorities, private, and I’ll die before I see them failed.”

Pan Sea stared in exasperation before cursing and trotting after his commander. “Damn it, sir, I’m just trying to look out for you!”

“I understand that,” Hurricane spat back, “And I don’t give a griffon’s ass. We move, or Cirra dies. It’s as simple as that. I intend to keep moving.”

“At least promise me that you’ll refrain from straining yourself.”

Hurricane rolled his eyes. “I can’t promise you anything, Pansy, but I’ll give it my best if that’s what it takes to make you shut up for once.”

Somewhat satisfied, the yellow pegasus was content to nod and trot after Hurricane at a several pace distance.

After several more miles of slow and agonized walking, Hurricane and Pan Sea finally found themselves at the edge of the Narrow Strait. Instead of finding a sea like the maps predicted, however, they only found an icy waste stretching from one landmass to another.

“The storm must be really powerful if it’s pushing glaciers this far out,” Hurricane muttered.

“At least it makes it easier for us to cross, sir. You know, since you can’t fly and all.”

“Humph. That much is true,” Hurricane conceded. “Still, I’m alarmed it’s spread this far. What is it, a three days’ flight back to Cloudsdale from here? If this goes on for much farther… The Exodus was bad enough. I do not want to relive that again.”

Pan Sea involuntarily shuddered at the horrible memory. Even twenty years past and the flight still haunted him. The tattered remains of a broken empire…

Hurricane was already walking on without him, and the private shook the thoughts out of his head before trotting to catch up. “But it doesn’t.”

“And just how can you tell, Pansy? All I see is the glare of ice for miles.”

“Because if the storm was raging on the other side of the Strait, wouldn’t it produce its own glaciers that just stack up in the middle? I don’t see a ridge of ice or anything, and listen.”

Hurricane paused with one hoof in the air and flicked his ears about. Sure enough, he could hear the popping and heaving of thousands of tons of ice crawling across the ground. From there it covered the Narrow Strait until it began to brush against the opposite shoreline. In the air, he could also hear the calls of seagulls.

“Birds? I thought they all fled from the storm or perished with the cold. You’re right, Pansy, we must be getting close now.”

With careful hoofsteps and wings splayed open for balance, the two pegasi slid down an icy slope and clattered their hooves onto the glacier below them. The sounds of hoof against solid ice was one they had not heard for a long time; almost the entirety of Compact lands were coated in snow, not thick ice. Still, the translucent surface did not give way, and after a few moments struggling for balance the Cirrans began to march across it.

The experience could be equated to walking across the desert, except much worse. Howling winds deafened the two, and snowdrifts stung their face and eyes. The air was devoid of any humidity whatsoever, and Hurricane’s hooves slipped several times on the ice. One time he tripped and fell on his side, incapacitating him while he fought to clear the various shades of red from his vision.

“Ungh… How I wish Swift was here.”

As the black pegasus began to move again, his thoughts drifted to his wife and his children. What were they doing? How did Cirra fair? Hopefully it was doing alright. He knew his family was competent enough to run the nation, but they had no means of saving it. That was his job, and his job alone. Still, what he wouldn’t give to curl up next to that blonde coat one more time…

“Hurricane!”

Hurricane snapped back to the present and managed to stop himself before he stepped off the abrupt edge of the glacier. He turned around and sat on his flank, looking at the ice stretching off behind him. The opposite shoreline was but a distant smear of white against a lighter blue and gray. Had he really gone that far already?

With Pan Sea arriving by his side, the two pegasi faced west. What Hurricane saw stole his words and his breath.

Green. So much green. Verdant fields, rolling hills, blue skies and a yellow sun. It was life made into the Earth, and it was beautiful. Hurricane couldn’t remember the last time he had seen such a healthy shade of green. He looked down at the fifty foot drop from the edge of the glacier and whistled. That little crevice was the dividing line between an old land and a new; a dead land and a fresh one.

“Thank you, Mobius, for bringing us to green hills and blue skies,” Hurricane prayed. “May we find peace and abundance with your all-seeing eyes and your fleet wings.”

With a deep breath, he crossed the threshold to life.

-----

It was a solemn kind of quiet that filled the air as Smart Cookie and Chancellor Puddinghead supported Jade as she walked through Onyx Ridge. The screams of war and death were now in the distant past. What took its place was only a calm melancholy as the Union soldiers sifted through the remains of buildings, doused fires, treated the wounded and buried their friends.

There had been cheering—at one point. Jubilation, shouting, laughter. Hugging, hoof-bumping, singing, dancing. Soon enough there would be drinking and gambling if the officers were kind enough. But not now. Now, the army only watched as their commander threaded her way between them, supported on either side by foreign ponies.

Jade’s beautiful green coat had lost some of its luster under streaks of blood and dirt, and her limbs trembled with every step. She had barely recovered from her body going into shock, and now she was forcing it to march on again so soon. Her wings—her good wing—was loosely coiled at her side, while the wounded one dragged across the ground, despite how much Smart Cookie tried to keep the appendage draped over his back. Crystal blood from the split crest soaked his shoulders, but he didn’t care.

Despite that, the mare’s eyes were bright. Not with the fire of bloodlust or anger, but the soft twinkle of pride. Pride not for herself, but for every one of her soldiers. From the siege engineers to the swordsponies to the archers to even the nurses and medics, she gave them all her undivided praise. They noticed it, and their smiles, no matter how small, reflected some back.

Two Crystal Ponies approached Jade, stopping before her, each covered in blood. Their eyes widened in shock when they saw the condition she was in, and both only gave the shortest of salutes before rushing to her sides. “Commander…”

“It is nothing, generals,” Jade spoke to them. Her voice was loud, clear, and confident. Smart Cookie couldn’t find the slightest trace of pain in it, even though he could feel her wing periodically spasm on his back. With an imperceptible nod, she signaled the two generals to step aside and let her through. They complied without question.

There were steps in front of her, and the powerful alicorn stopped to collect her breath before trying to mount them. Smart Cookie and Puddinghead were the only ones near her sides as she did so, and so only they could hear the gasps and moans of pain as she ascended. Jade glanced to both her earth pony companions and shook her head, silently asking them to let her go on alone. They both dipped their heads and stepped back several paces.

When Jade finally came to a stop, she was in the center of the courtyard that had served as the last stand for Halite’s garrison. The ground was slick with blood, and the colts had yet to clear away all the bodies. Smart Cookie shuddered as he saw several off to the side. So much death. He hoped he would never have to hear the final death toll that Jade’s dream had cost her.

“Brothers…” Jade began, letting the single word hang in the air. “I never asked you to do this for me. I never wanted to lead any of you to the blade. It wasn’t my place to do so. But… you did. You did it anyways. I… I honestly don’t know how to thank you. Mere words are not enough. They will never be enough. The dead don’t need words, they need somepony to remember them.

“Fifteen years ago… fifteen long, agonizing, bloody years ago… my father dreamt of a time when the Crystal Ponies could live in peace. The elders called him a dreamer; the warlords called him a weakling. He wisely admitted to one and rejected the other. Dreams shape the world, not the other way around. Dreams make the pony. They certainly made my father. From just a couple of ponies tired of belittling themselves and dreaming of a greater life for our race, to the army that stood and fought and died today, we all gave ourselves unto this dream of unity. Not in part, but with every last drop of sweat and blood we could possibly give. Because that was what was right.

“I look east, and I see three races, disparate, weak, and filled with hate, and I pity them. Their wars bring unnecessary death and wanton destruction. They don’t need to fight, but they do anyways. Were that they could all gather here and watch what we all gave just so that we could have the opportunity to stand together. I believe they could have learned so much from us.”

Smart Cookie shuddered and looked at his hooves. He could feel the eyes of the soldiers glance towards him and Puddinghead, but they were not there long.

“In the end, that dream is not something that I can give to them. Unity is something they must find in themselves, not for me to share with them. I would not ask you to follow me were I to do so anyways. It isn’t your place. It isn’t mine either. But I know that one day, maybe on a day just like this, they will find peace with each other. The warlords believed that peace is the absence of war. I believe that war is the absence of peace. Representative Smart Cookie, Chancellor Puddinghead, you would do well to remember this and counsel your larger and more militant neighbors.”

The two earth ponies dipped their heads and stood tall, letting Jade’s praise shine through them. Jade smiled, then began to walk in a slow circle to see all her soldiers.

“This fortress… this ground… this dream has seen so much death and bloodshed today. Far more than there should ever be. I always heard talks in camp about how we would turn this place into a monument of our victory when we were done. How we would hallow this ground as a symbol of Crystal unity. I can assure you that today, you did. It was not I who did this. It was the brave ponies, living and dead, who struggled here, that have consecrated this land, far above my poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what I say here, but it can never forget what you did here. And I would not have it any other way. The dead are the true heroes. Although my name will be forever attached to this spot, remember them over me. It would be wrong to do otherwise.”

Jade sighed and looked to her left wing, where blood still slowly trickled from the open wound. “We all paid a price here today. Some of us, it was a mere scratch. Others, it was a limb, a sense. For too many, it was a life. It should make sense that those who gave the most receive the highest honor. But they would not want us to drag our hooves over them. The time has come to set about finishing our dream of unity. We may have removed the jams in the machinery, swept the rocks from the gears, but we still have work to do. Now, for the first time in history, the Crystal Ponies will have a nation. We must decide who shall rule that nation.”

It didn’t take long before several Crystal soldiers stepped forward and bowed to Jade. Drawing their swords, each lay the length of their blade at the mare’s hooves and backed up, leaning low to the ground. A low cry began to fill the fortress, starting softly but soon being taken up by the entire army present. The chant rang out over and over again, until it was the only thing Smart Cookie could hear:

“Queen of the North! Queen of the North! Queen of the North!”

Jade looked on at all her soldiers with tears in her eyes. She looked like she wanted to stop them, but knew that she couldn’t. It was the one thing that she hoped she never would have had to hear, but she knew that nopony else could take the title for her. Raising a muddy hoof to the sky, she quieted the chant, but not the enthusiasm.

“I could never ask for such a title, but I could not turn you down either. You have done so much for me… If it is I you want to lead you, then very well. I will try my best. If I fail you, feel free to have my head and my wings. You have given so much for me, and it is the least I can give back.”

With a sad smile, Jade spread her good wing across her chest and bowed to her soldiers. “Now up! There is much to be done! In but a few days’ time, we move north again and return home! I don’t believe I have to remind you that your families await you!”

With a loud cheer and the stomping of hooves against the muddy ice, the Union soldiers dispersed and set about picking Onyx Ridge clean of food, weapons, corpses and stragglers. As they all left, Jade slowly stumbled down from her podium and approached Smart Cookie and Puddinghead.

“That was a beautiful speech, my lady,” Smart Cookie offered, bowing low. He was raised with a gentle hoof under his chin.

“I am no lady,” Jade scoffed, smiling slightly. “Just an icon. Royalty and nobility is not for me, but if it suits my soldiers—my new subjects—then I will put up with it. Still, it will be something else to be called Queen of the North instead of simply Commander.”

“You deserve it.”

“Yeah!” Puddinghead enthusiastically offered, his limbs trembling as he fought the urge to bounce in place. “I didn’t think you were a cool pony before, but now I see differently. It takes guts to do what you did and be willing to give your life for a cause. I don’t have those kind of guts—I know, shocking—but I admire you for it. Perhaps I can learn a thing or two about myself from all this.”

Jade laughed and pushed a sweaty lock of her mane from her face. “I think you might. There’s always something to learn.” Turning to Smart Cookie, she leaned downwards slightly. “What about you, Representative? Did you find out if you are truly a good pony?”

Smart Cookie released a breath and looked away. “No. I’m not.”

Jade and Puddinghead both looked taken aback.

“Did I fight for what was right?” Smart Cookie asked. “Yes, I did. Was I willing to give my life for that? I guess. I’m not a good soldier, but I tried. But I don’t have that drive like your soldiers do, Jade. It wasn’t my cause I was fighting for. I still don’t have one of my own. Until then? Maybe then I’ll call myself a good pony.”

Jade walked over and draped her good wing across the Representative’s orange back. “You are a good pony, Smart Cookie. It doesn’t take a cause or a dream or death to make you one. It simply takes a heart in the right place. And though sometimes you may feel lost or confused, I know that your heart is in the right place. Nothing can change that. Nothing.” She quickly drew her wing away from the Representative’s back and knelt down in front of him, bringing the two to eye level. “You’ll find it one day, Representative. You’re closer than you think.”

Puddinghead waited several seconds before shifting his weight. “Hey, Jade, do you think you have any supplies you can spare? The Representative and I need to get going west really soon. I hope to do that by tomorrow morning.”

The mare stood up and pointed with her horn to the castle. “Head there, Chancellor. You’ll find our requisitions officer organizing Onyx Ridge’s spoils. I’m sure he can find something for you.”

The Chancellor nodded and began to trot away. Smart Cookie looked after him and grabbed his hat. “I should probably go too—”

He was cut off as Jade stayed him with a wing. She bent her long neck down to the Representative’s eye level and smiled. Smart Cookie blinked as he felt her warm breath on his cheek and neck. They were only inches away.

“Thank you, Smart Cookie,” Jade whispered in his ear. “Thank you for everything.”

It wasn’t a kiss, but the nuzzle she gave him was more than Smart Cookie had ever dreamt of.

-----

Clover pulled down her hood as she and Platinum braved the winds on the rocky plains to the west of Onyx Ridge. Behind them, Greenleaf and Diadem walked with all the prisoners who escaped from Halite’s fortress. The train of haggard ponies formed a snaking line through the snow and ice, but the warmth of hope pervaded the group. For many, it was the first time they had left Onyx Ridge in months.

After several hours of walking, the two lead unicorns spread out their robes underneath them and sat on the frigid snow. From there, they were able to admire the setting sun as it shed its sad, orange light through a gap underneath the gray clouds. Somewhere, a bird twittered in the distance, and the happy call was answered by another.

“It’s beautiful,” Princess Platinum remarked as she rested her chin on her hooves. Clover responded with a small nod and mirrored the Princess’ posture. It certainly was a beautiful sight.

“First time I’ve seen the sunset in Sun knows how long,” Clover said.

“I know what you mean,” Platinum answered as she shifted her flank to sit more comfortably on the snow. “All it’s been for the longest time is gray and bleak, mixed here and there with a little black and crimson.”

Clover winced at the subtle nod towards Onyx Ridge. Even though she had been lucky, and her time at the fortress had been little more than a day, she knew the things she had seen would haunt her for the rest of her life.

Platinum seemed to pick up on Clover’s thoughts, and she shifted a little bit closer to the pistachio mare. “No need to be glum, dear. What’s past is past. Look on the bright side; you found your father, and now you’re heading west again.”

It was amazing to see the Princess act in such a way for Clover. Barely two weeks ago she would have regarded the mare as she always had: a stuck-up brat whom she had to obey simply because Platinum was royal and she was not. Now, her perception of the Princess was entirely different. Not only was she less harsh, but Platinum actually seemed to care for her. That, and she no longer acted like a spoiled princess. That much was obvious as the white unicorn sat on the ground in her tattered and stained royal garments like any other pony.

There was the light pattering of hoofsteps behind them, and Clover turned to see her father and Diadem slowly walking through the snow. Clover spread her hoof across the snow and gestured for them to sit, to which the old stallion happily obliged. Diadem, on the other hoof, simply spent time bouncing in circles around the other three unicorns.

“Woohoo! I’m soooooo excited to see the Narrow Strait! I’ve never been this far out west before! What do you think we’re going to find over there? Magical creatures that are… like, magical?! That’d be so awesome!”

“Ease up a little, kiddo,” Greenleaf happily remarked to her. “We still have a ways to go until we’re across the strait. Until we get there, conserve your energy. You’ll need it for later.”

Platinum raised an eyebrow. “You plan on crossing the strait as well?”

Greenleaf nodded. “Of course, although, probably not until a little while after you do. I have to get our little group here organized before we set off.”

“You should come with us,” Clover pleaded, wrapping a foreleg around her father’s. “We can all make the journey together.”

“Believe me, Clover, there’s nothing more I’d rather do. But I have more than just you to take care of. Diadem, the other prisoners… they all look up to me. And I, like it or not, have to lead them because of that.”

“But we’ve only just been reunited…”

“I know, Clover, I know.” Greenleaf smiled and placed his hoof under Clover’s chin. “But you’re a strong mare, now. You don’t need me to watch your back. Diadem does. I know you’ll be just fine without me. Besides, this isn’t the end. When you’re done with your mission, you can come and find me.”

“And where will you be?”

Greenleaf simply extended a foreleg and pointed to the west. “Somewhere out there. Diadem and the rest of the prisoners and I are going to make a home for ourselves. A small hamlet that might one day grow into an impressive city. A city for the ponies like us whom life has beaten down over and over again. We escaped the cages warlord Halite locked us in, and that city will be for us, the ever free.”

Clover rolled the words around on her tongue. The City of the Ever Free. “It has a nice ring to it, wouldn’t you say?”

“It certainly does.” The stallion’s expression hardened, and he turned towards Clover. “What about yourself? What will you do when you find this land of yours?”

“I guess I’ll have to head all the way back across the wilderness to tell King Lapis and then march all the way back,” Clover replied. “After that, it’ll be back to the same old grind. Same job, different castle.”

“Oh, Clover, I assure you that I’ll make sure you’re treated like a noble,” Platinum interjected. “It’s about time I pay you back for all the hard work you’ve done for me for ten years.”

“Well, I just want you to know that I’ll never close my door to my daughter,” Greenleaf said. “You’ll be welcome to join us wherever it is that we finally settle down. Besides, I’d like to catch up on all that father-daughter time we missed.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Clover said as she nuzzled her father’s chest. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer at least a few times.”

Just then, an earth pony stallion trotted up to them. “Greenleaf, we’ve got the supplies you asked us to gather all organized. We should rest tonight and be ready to leave by tomorrow morning.”

Greenleaf dipped his head. “Thank you. We’ll move at first dawn.” Standing up, he gestured towards the distant west. “I’ll walk you two down to the Strait if you want. It isn’t too much farther from here.”

“That’d be great,” Platinum replied. “But what will we do about Diadem?”

All three ponies turned to where the little filly was passed out in sleep on a snowy rock. Greenleaf laughed and wrapped a scrap of cloth around her body to keep her warm. “When I told her to calm down and save her energy, I didn’t mean to crash. Don’t worry, she’s a heavy sleeper. She won’t be up for another few hours.”

“Today has been fairly draining,” Clover said. “And I doubt that she got much sleep the night before the breakout. I remember when I was a filly, anything as exciting as that would keep me bouncing from hoof to hoof.”

“Heh. She’ll be disappointed she didn’t get the chance to say goodbye,” Greenleaf remarked. “But I imagine you’ll all see her again soon enough. Let the child have her sleep. She’s going to need it.”

As Greenleaf stepped to the side, Clover and Platinum both approached Diadem. Clover gently rubbed her mane and smiled. “Goodbye, Diadem. It was great to get to spend time with you, and I’m so happy to have met you. Take care of my father, okay? He’ll need you to get through the day, you little bundle of energy.” Her face darkened, and she slightly lowered her head. “I’ll be praying that you find your brother someday. One way or another, I hope that you do. But know that you’ll always be loved, no matter who it may be.”

Placing a kiss on Diadem’s forehead, Clover stepped back. Princess Platinum then took her place and knelt beside the aqua unicorn.

“I never really had the chance to speak properly with you, darling, but it’s been fun. Take care of yourself out there. Hone your magic, and I’m sure one day you’ll be a fair and just princess… more so than I have been.” With a soft smile, she levitated her silver and amethyst crown from her head and set it by Diadem’s tiny hoof. “Take good care of this for me, okay? It’s a princess’ crown. You don’t want to lose that.”

When Platinum backed away and stood by Clover’s side, Greenleaf chuckled once before beginning to walk to the west. “That was very generous of you, Platinum. I know she’ll love it. And she’ll be telling me how much she loves it for the next month.” He paused and shook his head as a mischievous smile crept across his muzzle. “Actually, I take that back. That wasn’t very generous of you on my behalf.”

They laughed quickly before setting into a comfortable silence. After a few short miles, the trio came to a sheet of ice stretching far across what used to be the Narrow Strait. They paused on a bluff overlooking the glacier, letting the little gusts of wind pull through their manes.

“I guess this is goodbye, then,” Clover said, her soft words barely getting any distance.

Greenleaf wasted no time walking towards his daughter and embracing her in a heartfelt hug. “I’m going to miss you.”

Clover returned the embrace with all the feeling she had. “I’m going to miss you too. Promise me you’ll stay safe?”

“And I thought I’d be the one asking that of you.” Greenleaf replied. “Of course I will. Make the Diamond Kingdom proud, and maybe make yourself a little proud in the process, eh?”

“I will.”

With that the two ponies separated, and Clover stepped onto the sheet of ice with Platinum. Before her was ice and eternity, but somewhere beyond that eternity was her home.

She looked over her shoulder and saw the silent figure of her father watch her walk away until the fog and mists finally obscured his outline.

-----

There was only a crescent moon obscured by a thick blanket of snowy clouds, but even then the little light that did manage to filter through lit up the snow and ice below as well as the sun. The hills and valleys caught and reflected the light like a ruined mirror, scattering the sad rays of moonlight across the countryside. The icy wind roared, but the snow on the ground had all frozen over. The only things that moved were two shadows.

Imperators Cyclone and Typhoon sliced through the stream of air high above the ground on their way to River Rock. Between the light reflected off of the ground and low level clouds, the two pegasi needed no lanterns to see each other. They only carried the bare minimum; their armor, weapons, and a small saddlebag stuffed with a few snippets of lettuce and parsley for the journey.

A powerful blast of wind caught Typhoon in the side and destabilized her flight, snapping her out of the trance she had been falling into. The mare grumbled and angled her wings, spinning out of the current and aligning herself in Cyclone’s slipstream.

“Wind’s starting to rip my feathers out!” she shouted towards her brother. “We close to the city yet?”

“A few more minutes!” Cyclone shouted back. “I’m just starting to see the spire of Burning Hearth! We should start trimming altitude now, fly in low so the Diamond Guard can’t see us!”

“And here I thought this would be a leisurely flight through the cold,” Typhoon muttered. With a slight twist of her shoulders she pointed her wing crests downwards and followed Cyclone towards River Rock.

Typhoon had only been to River Rock once in all her years in the Legion, as the city usually fell under her brother’s domain, but what she saw looked nothing like the splendor of the city she used to know. Instead of tall buildings of expertly crafted masonry, a city of ragged and crumbling towers filled their spots. Instead of vibrant banners and facades the color of every known gemstone and then some more, there was wet fabric and the sidings of gray stone. Instead of crowds and noise, there were icy streets and silence. Where there was once life, there was nothing. River Rock looked like a ghost town.

“Fly between the buildings,” Cyclone commanded as they lowered themselves towards the ground. “There’s probably Diamond Guards along the walls and rooftops.”

Typhoon scoffed. “Like there would be. The Diamond Guard isn’t a military force at all. It’s a bunch of nobles in glorified suits of armor, like any other unicorn. You know how much the unicorns love four walls and a roof.”

“They’d be an impressive fighting force if we put them through Cirran military training,” Cyclone countered. “I’d love to have access to magic when fighting an enemy. Especially griffons.”

“Since when have you ever fought a griffon?”

Cyclone drew out the silence. “There’s a first time for everything.”

Typhoon bit her lip, but ultimately decided to shake her head and focus on staying in the stream of her brother’s larger wingspan. Whatever Cyclone meant by that, now wasn’t the time to think about it. The Legionnaire’s creed demanded that she separate personal life from service. Right now, she was on active service.

They followed the wide clearing of Mane Street from the southern approach, taking care to stick towards the shadows as they did so. A few candle-lit rooms cast oblong shadows on the ice beside them, but luckily the curtains were all drawn against the dark of night. There was not a soul to be seen in the street, and that suited the two Praetorians just fine.

“I don’t like this,” Typhoon muttered. “Where’s the life? Where’s the noise? Isn’t River Rock supposed to be the largest city in Compact lands?”

Cyclone grunted and paused at a street corner. “Maybe the famine killed them off. To that I say good riddance. It’s not like we needed the unicorns anyway.”

“They build most of our fine trinkets and machinery.”

“Bah.” The stallion waved a hoof before decisively slamming it back into the ground. “Earth pony carpenters can take care of the woodwork, and our smiths can pick up the rest. Like I said, we don’t need the unicorns. The only thing they’d be good for is lending their magic to a fight. Nothing more.”

“Yeah…” Typhoon droned. “Unicorn wizards and researchers have found new ways to treat diseases and fashion new weapons, like the crossbow. We’d be missing a lot if they weren’t around.”

“They didn’t invent skysteel,” Cyclone maintained, “and that’s the only weapon I need.”

They walked for a few more blocks until they came to a quaint residence embedded into the cliff just adjacent to Burning Hearth Castle. Framed in iron and made of birch wood with intricate runes carved into the surface, Star Swirl the Bearded’s house seemed strangely more grand than the castle it stood next to.

“Guards,” Cyclone whispered, pointing with his wing towards an alley two houses down from Star Swirl’s. Typhoon crept to his side and watched as the two unicorns spoke in shivering words to each other. “Told you there would be some.”

“So how do we get rid of them?” Typhoon asked.

“Easy.” Bending down, the stallion scooped up a sizable chunk of ice in his wing and held it before him, testing the weight. Bouncing the ice in the air a few times, he finally propelled it skyward and pivoted on his front hooves. With a solid thwack! he shattered the ice and launched dozens of razor-sharp shards in the direction of the two guards.

Typhoon cringed as she heard the sound of flesh being ripped apart and the cracking of ice against armor. When she looked again, she saw one unicorn slump over and the second struggle with a six inch shard of ice lodged in his throat before he too went limp.

“Not bad for a fire empath,” Typhoon remarked.

“And what would you do, miss ice queen? Freeze their hooves to the ground?”

“I would have frozen them over entirely.” Slinking out from the corner, she scurried to Star Swirl’s door and knocked.

There was a tense silence as she waited for an answer. After thirty seconds, she knocked again, louder, and was rewarded when she was the white glow of a manalight activating.

“Who is it?” grumbled an elderly voice from behind the closed door. “Some of us are actually trying to get some sleep on what little food we have left.”

“Imperators Typhoon and Cyclone of the Cirran Legion,” Typhoon answered. “We have important business we need to discuss with you.”

“Humph,” the voice grumbled as deadbolts began to slide away. “If you’re just some thugs or charlatans pretending to be such powerful ponies, I should warn you, just because I’m old, doesn’t mean I can’t fight.”

With the grinding of one massive bar of iron, the door finally opened, revealing Star Swirl the Bearded. The old unicorn’s tired eyes were even more tired this late at night, and his white beard seemed awfully frazzled and chaotic. He wore nothing but a simple silk nightgown decorated with the constellations of the universe.

“Oh!” the old unicorn exclaimed as his eyes finally finished their examination of Typhoon. “You are—my apologies, Imperators, I had no idea. If I had known—”

“Relax, Star Swirl,” Cyclone commanded as he walked towards the door. “If you had known, the Diamond Guard would have invariably found out. Not that we don’t trust you, but we don’t trust the rest of your nobles. Especially your princess, Platinum.”

“Platinum hasn’t been in River Rock for a week,” Star Swirl spoke. “She left to head west and find a new land for the unicorns to settle. It’s not like we can live here much longer.”

“Wait,” Typhoon interjected, running a hoof along the strands of red and yellow hair that had teased their way out of her helmet. “You’re moving west, too?”

“Yes… why?”

“Nothing,” the mare quickly answered. “It’s just that my father also went west to find a new land.”

“Well, I hope for their sakes that the two don’t cross into each other.” Star Swirl laughed, then smiled and bowed his head. “I’m sorry, where are my manners? I didn’t mean to leave you out there in the cold. Come in, come in, I’d by more than happy to have you.”

As the unicorn stepped away from the door he quickly located his signature hat and positioned it on his head with a small flare of magic. Typhoon and Cyclone both followed him in, with Typhoon taking the time to wipe her hooves on the worn welcome mat before walking towards a table. Pots, pans, dishes, and silverware of all kinds littered the kitchen, and reams of papers and dusty books covered the single couch in front of the fireplace. This was definitely the home of a wizard.

“So, what is it I can help you kids with?” Star Swirl chirped as he struck a flint against the stone of the fireplace to set the logs ablaze. “Considering you took the time to fly into River Rock when the King established a no-fly zone over the city, it must be pretty important.”

“We came to ask you to translate a book for us,” Typhoon answered as Cyclone withdrew the text from his saddlebag. “And we aren’t kids, we are soldiers of the Praetorian Guard.”

“When I’m seventy-something and you’re barely in your twenties, you’re kids to me, Praetorian,” Star Swirl gently teased. “Let me see this thing.” With an aura of green magic, he grabbed hold of the book and brought it towards his table where a quill and parchment were waiting.

As Star Swirl began to flip through the pages, Cyclone began to hover over his shoulder while he worked. “I’m pretty sure it’s draconic, from what I can tell. I don’t know what a gang leader would be doing with a journal written in draconic.”

“Hmmm… this is indeed draconic,” Star Swirl mumbled as he sifted through page after page. “It’s not really that surprising, considering who you’re dealing with.”

“What? A unicorn gang leader operating at a two-bit town like Amber Field?” Typhoon scoffed. “Seems likely.”

“The problem with you two is that you underestimate ponies who aren’t pegasi,” Star Swirl retorted. “The fact that he’s a unicorn is important. Let me ask you, what kind of ponies know draconic?”

“Well,” Cyclone began, placing a hoof to his chin as he thought. “Wizards like yourself, obviously, because most of your spells come from the dragons.”

“Yes.” Star Swirl’s response was almost an exasperated sigh. “Think harder.”

“Well there’s…” Typhoon began, before shaking her head. “No, it couldn’t be.”

“They spend a lot of time along the fringes of the dragon border, am I correct?”

“Yeah, but… that would explain a lot, actually.”

Cyclone shifted his hooves. “Somepony tell me what’s going on.”

Just then the house shook, sending Star Swirl, Typhoon, and Cyclone to the ground. Pottery and china fell off of shelves and counters, slamming into the ground and shattering into millions of pieces. The fireplace flared briefly, then was out.

“You have to go!” Star Swirl shouted as he slowly rose to his hooves. “I’ll try to meet up with you at the southern gate tomorrow!”

“Who is it?!” Cyclone shouted back, drawing his sword.

Typhoon scrambled into a sitting position and drew her own skysteel as well.

“Diamond Guards.”