• 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 16: Skyfall

Chapter 16: Skyfall

The music and laughter almost drowned out Safe Haven’s voice as he ushered Twilight and Rainbow Dash inside the tavern. “Come, come! Don’t worry, they won’t bite… mostly.” Within a few seconds of walking through the door, Haven found them an unoccupied table that was more or less out of the way. There the three ponies sat, with the two Equestrians quickly embracing the refuge that the shadowy wall offered them.

“They call this place Ashes and Ale, for fairly obvious reasons,” Haven remarked as he sat on the bench next to Twilight. “Don’t mind the black grit on the table, it’s just the void dust we’re all breathing in.”

Twilight shuddered as she brushed some of the grime away from herself. Poor Rarity would have a fit here, especially with her white coat. “I don’t understand why you guys continue to live here. Void crystals are extremely bad for magic. Continued exposure increases the risk of magical atrophy, and—”

“Please, Twi, just cool down a little,” Rainbow interrupted. Unfolding her wings, she spread them across the wooden backrest and let them soak up as much heat as possible. “Ahh… I almost forgot what it’s like to be warm and toasty.”

Haven chuckled and raised a hoof into the air to try and catch a waitress’ attention. “Enjoy it while it lasts, cause in a few days, I’ll be bringing you down south to the Dragonfire Bridge. And Twilight, when you’re fighting your government, sometimes you don’t have the convenience of choosing where to live. Coltpenhagen is safe from the Black Cloaks, and that’s honestly the only thing that matters to us here.”

As he finished speaking, a rather large earth pony mare walked over and rested her forehooves on the edge of the table. “Гавань, мне было интересно, когда ты вернешься. Являются ли кобылок портится от Сараево?”

Haven glanced to Rainbow Dash and Twilight and shook his head. “Нет, решительный, они Наездники я помог избавиться от этого беспорядка. Не Альянс рассказать вам все, что там произошло?”

“Он сказал мне, что Сараево получил трахал, но ничего не сказал еще об этом.” She leaned closer to Haven and whispered in his ear. “Мы проиграли, не так ли?”

“Боюсь, что да,” Haven remarked. Then, turning to his companions, he gestured to the mare. “Rainbow Dash, Twilight, this is Resolute. She’s one of the few natives left in Coltpenhagen after the Revolution. You need anything from her, you just ask.”

Resolute nodded. “Is being not often that I see Equestrian here. What making you leave Canterlot in winter?”

“Erm,” Twilight hesitated, “Well, my friend Rainbow and I came out here to do a little archaeology work. I was looking for some of Commander Hurricane’s journals, and Rainbow wanted to come along and help.”

“Worst. Decision. Ever,” Rainbow grumbled from across the table.

“I am seeing,” Resolute said in her broken Equiish. “Ark-ay-owl-ogy… is Equiish for digging through old ruin?”

Twilight dipped her head. “More or less, it’s the study of pony activity in the past, primarily through the recovery and analysis of—”

“I am not caring,” Resolute broke in. “Hard enough to be shovel out snow and ice for plant potato and other crop. Ice being thousand years old few inches below top. Don’t move easily.”

Twilight sighed and looked away, disappointed that a fellow equine didn’t share the same enthusiasm for etymology as she did.

“Right…” Haven said, filling in the lull in conversation. “Вы не могли бы нам водки? Что-то немного света для кобыл.”

Resolute raised her eyebrows. “Вы должны позволить им жить некоторое время, что они здесь. Это, пожалуй, единственное, что нужно сделать.”

“No, no,” Haven replied in Equiish before returning to Stalliongradi. “Они едва коснулся крепкой водкой и раньше, и в последний раз одна радуга были некоторые, Сараево были сожжены.”

Resolute laughed, a deep and rumbling sound that Twilight was sure made the teeth in her jaw rattle. “Правильно! Не хотелось бы, чтобы это произошло здесь, не так ли? Не волнуйтесь, я получу что-нибудь легкое для них.”

With that, Resolute smiled and walked towards the bar. Haven chuckled quietly and turned back to Twilight, who had one eyebrow raised in confusion.

“What was so funny?” she asked, leaning a little ways away from Haven.

Haven waved it off with a hoof. “Nothing. Just ordering some drinks to warm us up.”

“I didn’t know vodka could be so hilarious.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Haven insisted. In a few seconds, Resolute returned with their drinks before departing to another table, her auburn tail swishing in her wake.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been back here,” Haven remarked as he thoughtfully sipped on his vodka. “But it’s just as I remember it. Resolute’s been working here for at least the past fifteen, twenty years, if not more. Glad to see some things never change.”

Just then, a terrified squeak from Rainbow Dash knocked Haven out of his nostalgia. The table grunted and groaned as an impressive weight forced its way in. In one fluid motion, an orange and black-striped paw swept up Rainbow Dash’s tankard and returned it empty a second later.

“Haven; I was wondering when you would get back,” a distinctively female voice purred.

“Yóumín, it has been quite a while,” Haven answered without missing a beat. “I see we’re still learning the meaning of the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you?’”

The figure sitting across from him and next to the trembling body of Rainbow Dash was no less remarkable for her size than for her rarity. Within a body that easily dwarfed Big Macintosh were coils of lean muscle under a coat of long orange and white fur. The figure’s feline face and bushy tail were all decorated in an entrancing pattern of black stripes that matched the pattern over every other inch of her body. Long claws scratched at the wooden table, tearing massive gashes out of the wood. With a long, pink tongue, the feline licked droplets of vodka off of her whiskers, making her massive, yellow teeth plainly shown in the process.

Twilight at least had the decency to perform her spit-take back into her tankard before lowering it. “A… tigress?! I didn’t think your kind ever left the Far East! What are you doing here in Stalliongrad?”

The tigress snickered and crumpled Rainbow Dash’s empty tankard in a powerful paw before passing it back. When she spoke, her exotic voice flowed over her words with the quickness and perfection of a running stream. “Wandering, mostly. Picking a place here or there to stay and fight; usually the side with the best food and shelter.”

“Yóumín joined us a little more than a year back,” Haven said, nodding to the tigress. “We found her on the run in Stalliongrad. The rebellion offered her shelter and camaraderie, and she gave us her… remarkable skills in combat.”

Instead of laughing, Yóumín purred. “The moment I got off the train, Black Cloaks were all over my striped behind, harassing me for this, that, and everything in between.” With a small flckt, the tigress unsheathed her claws and licked at their frighteningly sharp points. “I think they got the message after the first dozen had their throats ripped out. And, since I had made such a horrid first impression, I figured, ‘why not make it worse’ and jumped at the rebels’ offer for protection.”

“That, and she didn’t want Roscherk to find her with a full company of Black Cloaks.”

“Shut up,” Yóumín growled. “I could have killed that flying feather-fucker in a second.” With a small cough, she turned to the two mares at the table. “I apologize for the language.”

“It’s okay,” Haven assured her. “You’ll find worse in any city you go to. I’m sure it’s nothing that they haven’t heard before.”

Yóumín looked unconvinced. “Where I come from, you don’t curse someone unless you really mean it. I’m still amazed at how… loose you ponies are with your vocabulary.”

“Yes, well, not all of us are so ‘loose’, as you put it,” Twilight insisted. “Where did you learn your Equiish? It’s fairly good.”

Yóumín shrugged. “Picked it up in city to city. I spent a little time in Baltimare—the new part of town that’s more accepting of foreigners. Even there, though, I didn’t really fit in. For some reason or another, I decided to go east to this frozen wasteland, where I picked up the language easily enough.”

“Wow,” Twilight remarked. “Just how many languages do you know?”

The tigress actually had to pause to count on the toes of her paw. “Five. Tigrian, which is my native tongue, along with Equiish, Stalliongradski, Gryphonic, and Elkish, believe it or not.”

“That’s impressive. Have you been to all those nations?”

“More or less. I never really fit in anywhere outside the East. Stalliongrad’s the closest thing I’ve had to a home in years.”

Glancing to her side, Yóumín noticed Rainbow Dash trembling for perhaps the first time and roughly hoisted her up with a paw before patting her on the head. “You don’t have anything to fear from me, colorful pony. Any friend of Haven’s is a friend of mine.”

“…Name’s Rainbow Dash,” the pegasus murmured, still not reassured.

“Rainbow Dash,” Yóumín repeated. Looking at Twilight, she cocked her head to the side. “And what’s your name? Let me guess… Purple Read?”

Twilight’s ears flattened against her head at the name even as she recoiled slightly from it. “Purple…? No, miss, my name is Twilight Sparkle, personal student of Princess Celestia.”

“Ah…” Yóumín purred. “I don’t understand you ponies and your names. But a student of the Princess, you say?” Then she laughed and slapped her paw on the table, causing the wood to groan in agony. “It must be strange to have an immortal tell you all what to do. Back in the East, there is just the family. A tigress is loyal to her family from the day she is born to the day she dies.”

“Then why did you leave?” Rainbow Dash quietly squeaked.

Yóumín sighed and leaned back on the bench, letting the backrest shoulder most of her musculature. “Because my family is dead. A rival family killed it. I escaped, and eventually made my way here. Now the rebellion is my family.” After a pause, she looked out the window into the blizzard outside. “Yóumín is not my birth name. It is simply what I am; a vagrant.”

“What is your birth name, if you don’t mind me asking?” Twilight prompted.

“Another time, Twilight Sparkle. Perhaps one day, when you have earned it, I shall tell you.”

With a sigh, Yóumín slowly worked her way out of the seat and rose onto her four paws. “It was a pleasure talking with you all. I’m going to go hunting. You take care of them mares, alright, Haven? They’ve got good heads on their shoulders.”

Haven smiled and waved to her. “Don’t you worry about it. I’ll get them safely back to Baltimare in no time.”

With a flick of her tail, Yóumín turned and roughly pushed open the tavern door, letting the wind slam it shut behind her. When she was gone, Haven laughed and emptied the rest of his vodka.

“I can’t tell you how many times she’s saved us all,” he remarked. “I haven’t ever seen a pony that could stand up against her. It’s not just her power, either; she’s quicker on her paws than even a—what is it you call them? A Wonderbolt? It’s amazing really.”

“Did she…” Rainbow began as she pushed around the crumpled remains of her tankard. “Did she say she was going to go hunting?”

“She’s a tiger,” Haven replied as he shrugged his shoulders. “They’re carnivores.”

“I’m surprised she’d even be able to find anything here,” said Twilight. “It’s not like there’s a lot of grass for wildlife to feed on.”

“You’d be surprised,” Haven countered. “I don’t know how she does it, but she always comes back with blood on her paws and meat in her belly. She saves the feet of the rabbits, too, as some sort of good luck charm.”

Twilight and Rainbow stared blankly at him, to which Haven just shrugged. “I don’t get it either.”

“Right.” With a dissatisfied sigh, Twilight emptied the rest of her vodka and set the tankard aside, letting the alcohol warm her blood. She turned to look out the window; in the darkness of the storm, she could barely see the lumbering shadow of what she supposed was the tigress walking down the streets.

The castle in the background loomed into the night, seemingly calling out to her.

“Hey, Haven,” she began.

“Hmm? What is it?”

“Can you take me to Castle Black? I want to see what’s inside of it.”

Haven bit down on his lip. “Well, uh, I guess, if you really want to. I normally wouldn’t, given the option.”

“Why’s that?”

Safe Haven sighed. “The locals around here are real superstitious. They claim the castle’s haunted or something. They don’t go in it. I know for sure that Baron Frostbite didn’t let his army go in it. Not a one of us have bothered to go in it. It’s a relic from thousands of years ago, that much is certain.”

“Right…” Twilight murmured softly. “A relic, or perhaps a time capsule. I’m willing to bet that there are some things from the time of Hurricane in there. And it’s simply up to somepony with the gall to brave it to find them.”

“Woah, now, Twi, one thing at a time,” Rainbow Dash broke in as she pulled a loose feather from her wing. “We haven’t even finished Hurricane’s journal yet, and you already want to go find more of this stuff?”

“Rainbow Dash is right,” Haven said. “This is a matter that can wait. Now, come, I imagine you’re pretty tired. I’ll see if I can go find a room for you two to stay at. We’ll settle this issue in the morning.”

“Alright,” Twilight relented. “If you insist.”

“Good.” With a grunt, Haven stood up and collected the empty tankards on his back. “I’ll be back shortly.”

Then he left, leaving Twilight to stare at the castle in the distance, trying to unravel its secrets.

-----

“Ha ha! Raise those mugs high!”

All was jovial as ever in the Legate’s Lookout, the rather large tavern just south of the palace in Cloudsdale. It was a favorite amongst the older Legionnaires—although ‘old’ was defined as having fought in the Red Cloud War, making most of its patrons in their late thirties or early forties. Wooden mugs of ale slammed down on worn tables with rhythmic regularity, and near one of the many fireplaces sat a few soldiers playing on their own instruments. The warm music filled the bar and effectively deadened the cold bluster of the blizzard just outside the cloudstone walls.

It was difficult to even find room to stand in the Legate’s Lookout, it was so packed, but that did little to stop a group of soldiers from forming a small knot around a keg of ale and sing their drunken and merry songs to all present. Their pitch was awful and their rhythm something to be embarrassed by, but that didn’t stop them from singing. In fact, with each fresh mug of ale, they only got louder and more raucous.

Stumbling through the last verse of their song, the soldiers finally managed to rally and finish on the same note. With one merry cheer, they all stomped their hooves down on the ground and broke apart slightly, laughing. The pegasi sitting nearest to them shouted friendly insults their way and stamped their hooves in applause.

One of the pegasi in particular stood out as the leader among his compatriots. Although young for the company he enjoyed at the age of thirty-five, Scout Centurion Pathfinder of the 18th Cirran Legion absolutely dominated the center of the tavern with his impressive charisma. Despite missing most of the Red Cloud War from an injury suffered in Nimbus, Pathfinder had enough scars befitting a Praetorian, with the stories to match. Even the story behind his mark, a copper compass rose, was well worth a few drinks. His forest green coat was covered in pale white lacerations from Gryphon and Crystal weapons alike, and his dark brown mane was prematurely graying; but such matched his character, and Pathfinder wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Good one, boys!” he cheered, patting each of his companions (some of them legates ten years older than he) on the back. He paused to dump the remains of his second keg into his tankard and down it in a few gulps; there was nothing Pathfinder liked more than mares and fine ale, and the Legate’s Lookout wasn’t known for being popular with mares. The only ones a soldier was likely to find would be the centurions and legates who could handle themselves, and a stallion was more likely to be picking his teeth up off the floor than bedding one of them.

Setting the wooden mug aside, Pathfinder spread his wings and shook a few loose feathers out. Smiling to the ponies gathered around him, he made a drunken bow followed by a drunken salute. “We’ll be here all night, gentlecolts and the odd lady or two in the back.” He finished it up with a wink to a light blue mare by the bar, who simply shook her head and waved him off with a bored wing.

Pathfinder smiled and shook his head. “Ah, can’t blame a stallion for trying. So, before us fine lads drink ourselves stupid—”

“What, you’re not drunk yet?” a young private in the back called out, earning snickers and laughter.

Pathfinder reproachfully held up his wings. “Be patient, greenwing! There’s no sense being drunk before you’ve had all your fun!” The comment drew a few whistles from the crowd, and the Centurion settled back against the keg of ale. “I figure we got about one more song left before I can’t see straight, so what’ll it be, lads?”

The names of songs were thrown at him left and right, but Pathfinder ultimately settled down on one in particular. “You want the song of the Drunken Soldier, eh?” Turning to his fellow soldiers, he raised an eyebrow. “Shall we?”

The ponies behind him all filled their mugs with ale and downed several heavy gulps in response.

“Ha! Alright, let’s give it to them!” Kicking aside a stool, Pathfinder walked a few steps closer to the crowd and cleared his throat. When he sang, his hoarse voice wavered but quickly settled into its loud rhythm after the first few words.

What do you do for a drunken soldier?

What do you do for a drunken soldier?

What do you do for a drunken soldier?

Early in the morning

As soon as Pathfinder finished the first stanza, the quartet of soldiers behind him quickly picked up the response, somehow arranging their half-drunken pitches into one cohesive harmony.

Sit down and listen to his little story now

Tales of valor and passing glory now

Sit down and listen to his bitter story now

Early in the morning

Pathfinder smiled and picked up his mug of ale, proudly displaying it to the rest of the bar while he sang the next call.

Joined the service when he was so young

Fought a battle when he was too young

Killed a boy who was just too young

Early in the morning

As the song got to its chorus, Pathfinder rose on his hind legs and waved his wings to the patrons around him. “Come on! Altogether now!”

Hey-oh up we’re rising

Hey-oh and there we’re fighting

Hey-oh we’re up there dying

Early in the morning

“Good, good!” he cheered back to them. Merry laughter and applause followed, and Pathfinder quickly cleared his throat before moving on to the call.

Made some dear friends on the front line

Thought they had a little more time then

Watched one by one as they fell in their stride

Early in the morning

As before, the soldiers behind him answered his call with a stanza of response, raising their voices to be heard over the joviality in the tavern.

Died in that cold field all alone now

Never got to see their child born now

Never got to hold that little hoof now

Early in the morning

What do you say to his weeping mother now?

What do you do for his heart-broke lover now?

How do you face his pleading child now?

Early in the morning

Just as Pathfinder was beginning to lead the chorus again, a loud clatter and a smash at the door interrupted him. Normally such noise would go unnoticed in the tavern, but when it was accompanied by a bloody Legionnaire sailing through the doorway and crumpling just inside, it was a different matter altogether.

The music became dead silent as a trio of young Legionnaires proudly walked into the bar, dragging a centurion behind them.

All eyes were on the lead Legionnaire of the group, a faded orange stallion dressed in recently polished armor. He moved with control and authority, and he matched each and every patron with a powerful stare of his own. With a flick of his tail, the Legionnaire walked farther into the bar with his companions dragging the beaten centurion along.

Pathfinder watched for a few moments and bit down on the side of his lip. He didn’t like this one bit. Something was off; this was far more than a drunken fight. Come to think of it, he could hear things through the open door of the tavern. Awful things.

He carefully loosened the latch on the sword at his side before attempting to welcome the newcomers.

“Must have been something pretty serious if a group of privates would beat up a centurion over it,” he began. “Tell me; was she pretty?”

The question earned a few snickers from the older soldiers closest to Pathfinder, but they were silenced with a scowl from the lead Legionnaire.

“Funny,” he leered, walking a few steps closer to Pathfinder, “but hardly the reason I’m here.”

Pathfinder mouthed an ‘oh’ and smiled to his companions. “So it’s ale you want then? Well, me and the boys did a pretty good number on it in the past few hours, but I think there’s an untapped keg around here somewhere for you.”

“I’m not here to drink. I’m here to find those loyal to the cause.”

There were several murmurs and grumbles among the soldiers in the tavern, but Pathfinder simply scratched his chin. “Cause? What kind of cause is this? The cause to help a young Legionnaire lose his virginity?”

Several short bouts of raucous laughter answered him, but the Legionnaire only responded by shaking several tongues of fire out of his wings. “The cause to take back Dioda, you drunken bastard.”

Silence.

Now firmly in control of the situation, the young soldier began to pace back and forth across the center of the bar. “That’s right. Dioda. I’m looking for soldiers who are willing to take it back. Together, we’ll burn the Gryphon hordes and restore what is ours. The Empire will rise again, spanning an ocean with its indomitable might.”

Many of the soldiers shared curious whispers, and some moved a bit closer to the Legionnaire. Pathfinder, however, simply took a swig of his ale and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh yeah? What makes you think that we’re going to follow a young and untested soldier like yourself on a suicide mission half a world away?” A pause, and then, “And what claim do you have to be emperor?”

The Legionnaire shook his head. “You’re not going to be following me. I’m not going to be emperor.” Hopping onto a table, the soldier kicked away the tankards of beer and spread his wings. “Our cause is the just cause of Imperator Cyclone, First Emperor of the new Cirran Empire.”

“Idiots,” Pathfinder mumbled under his breath. “You need more than a few devoted soldiers to destroy Gryphus. And I’ll tell you what, even if Imperator Cyclone’s a traitor, the entire damn Legion stands against him.” Turning to his comrades, Pathfinder smirked. “Swift Spear should just use the belt on him and discipline the pup.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” the orange soldier countered. Hopping off of the table, he walked over to one of the drawn curtains and threw it open.

A collective gasp punctuated by several curses were made in response. Even Pathfinder trotted away from the center of the tavern to look out the window. Raising a wing to his eyes, he squinted through the gray morning at what was beyond.

Chaos. Absolute chaos. Several buildings within the city block alone had already caught fire. He could hear the screams of dying Legionnaires and the crash and clang of skysteel on skysteel. The air was swarming with pegasi, fighting amongst each other like two rival nests of hornets. Even the streets were littered with dying and dead Legionnaires, while others fought tooth and nail for their lives.

“You say the Legion stands against him?” the young Legionnaire taunted. “Cyclone already has the Legion. He already has the Praetorian.” He smiled at Pathfinder, an awful, evil thing. “Those that stand against him will die.”

Pathfinder was too dumbfounded to move. This couldn’t be happening. Gods, no.

The orange soldier grimaced as he walked forward. “That’s right. You can either fight for Swift Spear and the rest of Hurricane’s deluded ideals, or you can fight for Emperor Cyclone. Through his lead, we shall unify the three tribes under the Cirran banner, and from there, we will take back Dioda. If you’re still not convinced of the legitimacy of Cyclone’s claim, look outside. There you see what happens when you stand against the Emperor.”

Pausing to watch the angry or frightened faces of the soldiers around him, the traitor sneered and walked towards the center of the tavern. “If you want to live, stand by me, and together we’ll cut off the rotted flesh of Cloudsdale and make the Empire strong. If you want to die, then I dare you to stand against the might of Emperor Cyclone’s Legion. Your names will not be remembered when we take back Stratopolis and slaughter the griffon hordes.”

“And what do you know about the griffon hordes?”

The orange Legionnaire glared at Pathfinder, who had turned away from the window to confront him. The Centurion’s face was twisted in rage, and he slammed his mug down angrily on the window sill. “You weren’t there in the Red Cloud War. You never saw what they did to us.” He nodded, attempting to swallow some of his anger but not succeeding.

“I was there. This wound on my side?” He turned his left flank towards the treacherous Legionnaire, where a long, white scar from shoulder to stomach was visible. “This scar was dealt by a griffon spear. I was a prisoner of war when we fought them. You ever hear of pegasus POWs?” The soldier stared at him, and Finder shook his head. "Thought not. That's because most of us didn't last three days. I was there a week, just one week, and I was one of the lucky ones. If the emperor hadn't dispatched a team to save us, I would've died, too." Taking a shaky and furious breath, Pathfinder glared at the orange soldier. “Griffons don’t fight like Crystal barbarians. They’re ferocious and vicious. The spear that gored me was jagged and serrated into a thousand points. It took me six months to recover from that. And no matter how ‘just’ you or Cyclone think this cause is, I will not aid a usurper that seeks to kill off those leaders who saved Cirra from certain destruction.”

The Legionnaire scoffed at Pathfinder. “Noble words from a relic of the war. But the war isn’t over. Cyclone is going to finish it. So,” he proclaimed, boldly facing the entirety of the tavern, “you can either fight with me, with honor, with Emperor Cyclone, or you can stand with him and die just like the rest of Cirra’s weak.”

“I’m twice the soldier drunk than you are sober,” Pathfinder threatened.

“I look forward to seeing you prove it,” the traitor retaliated.

“So be it.”

With a roar, Pathfinder flung the tankard of ale at the Legionnaire and kicked off of the wall, spreading his wings to gain distance. The Legionnaire deflected the tankard with his sword, but Pathfinder caught it in midair and slammed it down on the young soldier’s head. Wood scattered everywhere, and before the traitor could stumble backwards two steps, Pathfinder already unsheathed his sword and was plunging it into the gap under the Legionnaire’s breastplate.

As the two fell to the ground, one dead and one alive, the bar exploded into chaos and death.

-----

The large house on the edge of Cloudsdale’s northern district hardly stood out from the even larger houses around it. In fact, it seemed to blend in among the white walls and with roofs of its neighbors. But despite that, it had some inkling of a reputation. After all, the residence of Commander Hurricane’s younger sister was bound to attract attention.

It wasn’t the royal palace, but it was finely decorated with all sorts of artwork made by pegasus, unicorn, and earth pony artists alike. Some of the expertly tasteful selections even predated the Exodus by a few years. Statues and pottery, both abstract and simplistic, were strategically placed according to the very definition of aestheticism. For a mare who spent most of her time outside of Cirra’s borders, Twister knew how to arrange what little of Cirra she owned to her liking.

The house was neatly divided into rooms centered around a large kitchen, which was furnished in only the finest of cloudstone tabletops and surfaces. The clinking of utensils against plates gently echoed throughout the house, accompanied with the voices of a stallion and two young fillies. Twister’s husband, Echo Wing, and her daughters, Gust and Squall, were currently eating what little dinner Swift Spear’s mandated rations allowed them. Twister, however, was uncharacteristically absent.

The mare in question wasn’t missing dinner by choice. She was confined to her study, fighting against the disease that was political paperwork. A massive stack of papers, scrolls, and documents of all kinds dominated the side of her cloudstone desk. Every once in a while the mare would reach and pull one over, review it, groan, write some notes down, and occasionally sign one. The process had repeated itself for millions of times over the past two weeks, ever since Hurricane had left Cloudsdale. Twister grumbled as she stamped a wax seal on another scroll. Here she was handling paperwork, when her brother was out adventuring in some undiscovered land. Weren’t their jobs supposed to be the exact opposite? The chance to see new lands and meet new ponies was the sole reason Twister agreed to become Cirra’s Legatus in the first place, not to do paperwork.

As she scribbled down some annotations on a document, the quill Twister held in her mouth suddenly snapped, sending a few spatters of ink onto the desk around her. Sighing, Twister flung the light brown feather away and held up her left wing. There was already a noticeable gap in her secondaries where she had tugged feathers out to use as quills over the past few weeks. The spring molt couldn’t come soon enough for her, and she’d hopefully be able to get rid of that spot on her wing. Or she could stop pulling out her feathers altogether. That’d work too.

Twister pushed her chair back from the desk and leaned over its backrest, stretching her cramped spine and raising her forelegs skyward. After a satisfied groan, the Legatus lowered herself back into a sitting position and reached for a bite of the lettuce and cold chicken that she had been nibbling on for the past hour. As she chewed on the food, she regarded the stack of paper sitting on her desk with the ultimate manifestation of disdain.

“Fuck. You.”

Disdainful indeed.

Scowling at the paper a moment longer, Twister slid her chair back and stumbled out of it. She immediately dropped towards the floor like a cat and stretched her limbs out one by one. After that, she spread her wings and let them pull her body back into a standing position. By the Gods, she had been working for too long. Far too long.

Deciding to remedy that problem, Twister pushed open the door to her study and walked into the kitchen where her family was cleaning up from the meal. Well, more like Echo Wing was, while the kids were roughhousing on the living room floor. Sauntering up to her husband, Twister wrapped a wing around him and kissed him on the neck.

“Missed you too, Twist,” Echo Wing answered her as he rubbed the top of her muzzle with a hoof. Twister’s husband was a rather tall stallion with an off-white coat and a light gray mane, but what had first caught Twister’s eyes years ago was his wings. They were beautiful things, with secondary feathers a light shade of gray and his primaries darker. She had spent many a cold night hunkered down in bed with those wings wrapped around her.

“Dinner was alright?” Twister asked, leaning her head against Echo’s neck.

“Mmm… the food was decent for winter rations. I didn’t get to see your face though. I’m starting to think you’re cheating on me with this ‘paperwork’ stallion.”

“Shut up,” Twister giggled, lightly punching Echo in the chest. “Just remember whose salary got us this nice house.”

“It was either this or live in the palace,” Echo joked as he set a soapy plate aside. “Sometimes I don’t know why you turned that down when your brother offered. Not many blacksmiths get to live under the same roof as the Commander. Do you think he would have let me use the skyforges?”

“I’m telling you, all you have to do is ask.” Stepping out of her embrace with Echo, she stuck her hooves in the soapy water and began to help wash dishes. “Besides, I told you before that I’d rather avoid all the commotion that goes on there. Seriously, the Praetorians drill in the courtyards every morning at the crack of dawn.”

“And that’s a bad thing? I would’ve liked to have seen that.”

“Believe me, you would’ve had a good view of it. The room my brother was going to give us was right next to the courtyard.”

Echo raised an eyebrow. “Can’t see what’s wrong with that.”

Twister rolled her eyes. “You’ve obviously never tried reading while the Praetorians practice. Unlike the regulars, I’m pretty certain these guys try to kill each other when they drill. And they’re loud.”

“Surely that can’t be your only reason for turning it down,” Echo countered.

“That, and I hate it when my brother fawns over me. I appreciate that he’s concerned for my wellbeing, but seriously, ever since the Exodus he’s been on my case whenever I’m around the palace.”

“I see.”

“Don’t you ‘I see’ me,” Twister ordered as she splashed some water into Echo’s face with her wing. “You know I hate it when you do that.”

“I know.”

“Urgh!” Twister groaned, turning to face Echo. “Why do you have to do that?”

Echo snickered. “Because you’re adorable when you’re angry.”

“Right, and you’ll be adorable with a broken—”

“Mommy! Daddy! Come quick!” one of Twister’s children shouted excitedly. “I think the Legion’s doing a parade!”

“It’s not a parade, dummy,” the other of her children, Squall, said. “It’s obviously some sort of war game! Just look at them! They’re all flyin’ around and stuff like fwooshhhh wooosh whoaahh!”

Twister and Echo both turned away from the sink and walked over to the window their foals were peering out of. Twister scratched her head. Swift Spear wasn’t planning on any demonstrations, Cyclone was supposed to be conducting some campaign in the west against Crystal bandits, and Typhoon was… well, Twister only hoped that she’d be able to secure her niece’s freedom. That was what half the paperwork on her desk was about, anyway.

“Wow! They must really be going all out, then! Look at the fire!”

Twister’s heart stopped cold. She turned to look at Echo and saw that the same pale expression had overtaken his face. Looking back to her kids, Twister trotted up to them and wrapped each one in a wing. “Fire? Just what are you…?”

What she saw took her words away. Cloudsdale was burning, spewing black smoke into the sky. Every second another fire would spring up somewhere else, and the ring of flames only continued to spread outwards. Based on her knowledge of the city, Twister concluded they had started in the east wing, where the entirety of the Legion was stationed.

The skies above the city were even less comforting to the mare. Spinning and fighting through the rising black clouds of noxious smoke, thousands of pegasi fought in a deadly aerial dance. Their combat formed a sprawling and contorting black cloud of blood and death that grew in size as pegasi from across the city flew up to join the melee. Bodies fell from the sky with frightening regularity; thankfully, Twister’s house was too far away to make out anything in great detail.

“By the Gods!” Echo exclaimed. “What in the name of… this can’t be happening!”

The excitement on the fillies’ faces changed into nervous anxiety as they watched their parents’ bewildered faces. “Mommy? What’s going on?”

Twister was too shocked to respond. This couldn’t be happening. But yet it was. For some reason, the Legion was ripping itself apart over its own skies.

No. Not for some reason. There could only be one reason, and Twister knew what it was. She had voiced her concerns to Typhoon little more than a month ago.

“Damn it, Cyclone,” she growled as she rose to her hooves. Turning to Echo, she nodded slowly.

Echo took a step closer to her. “Twister? Twist, please don’t. This isn’t your problem! You don’t even know how to fight!”

Squall and Gust looked between their parents as fear slowly took root in their minds. Twister noticed them and, sparing enough time to glare at her husband, bent down and gave her children a quick hug. “Go to your room and listen to whatever Daddy says, okay?”

The two fillies nodded, and Twister pulled them close one last time. “I love you two.”

“Love you too, Mommy,” both fillies mumbled into her shoulders.

Twister smiled and looked at their faces. So young, so innocent. “You two are Mommy’s pride and joy. I wouldn’t give you up for the world. I love you so much.” Then she stood up and slowly ushered them away with her wings. When they had finally scampered off, Twister glanced at Echo and went to their bedroom. There she found the ornamental sword Hurricane had given to her long ago. The gold trim was a little deteriorated with age, but the skysteel blade was sharp as ever. It would do for her purposes.

Echo stopped her at the doorway as she tried to leave. “Please, Twist, I’m begging you. Think about this rationally! We can get the kids out of Cloudsdale, they’re old enough to glide long distances! Please, think about them!”

Twister hardly regarded him as she strapped the scabbard down to her left flank. “I have to go find Swift. She’s like a sister to me, and I’ll be damned if I let my brother’s wife all alone in a palace full of soldiers out for her neck. She won’t know what’s going on until it’s too late unless somepony warns her, like myself.”

Echo pressed a hoof against his shoulder, desperation in his eyes. “Twist, the kids—”

“Take them out of the city yourself if you’re worried about them. In fact, that’s probably a good idea. I’m sure being Hurricane’s sister has me as a pretty important target.”

“I need you to help me!” Echo protested.

“No, you don’t,” Twister countered. “You said so yourself; they can glide long distance, they’ll be able to get to the ground safely.”

“Damn it, Twist, I don’t want to lose you!” Echo shouted at her. When Twister didn’t respond, he lowered his forehead against hers. “Look, you’re planning on fighting trained Legionnaires, hell, maybe even Praetorians, and you’ve got no training of your own, and no armor! I don’t want you to die! Please don’t do this to me!”

Twister touched Echo’s face with a hoof. “I don’t want to go either, but I have to. You know that leaving you pains me more than anything. But I can promise you this,” she said as she took a step back. “I will come back alive. With Swift or without, I’m not dying today. Pity on the pony that tries to kill me.”

Echo sighed and lowered his head in defeat. “We’ll be at the Horns Divide. You’ll know where to find us.”

Twister nodded. “Where we had our honeymoon. I’ll never forget it.”

Reaching out a wing, Echo enveloped Twister in a tight embrace and nuzzled her forehead before planting a kiss between her eyes. “Come back safe, Twist.”

Twister happily sighed as she pressed her neck against his. “I will, Echo.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Then the couple kissed and broke apart. This time Echo didn’t stop Twister as she tried to leave the bedroom. He only watched, sadly, as she made her way to the front door and opened it.

Twister paused at the door and looked back. With a sad smile and a nod, she waved goodbye.

Closing the door was the hardest moment of her life.

Taking a deep breath, Twister fiddled with the weight of the sword at her side and spread her wings. In a few seconds she was airborne, making low circles over her house.

Then, without a second look back, she started on a wide arc away from the fighting and towards the palace.

-----

Swift Spear sighed as she sat in her bedroom. Ever since she had come to odds with Cyclone a few days ago, it seemed like the Legion was becoming more and more unresponsive. There was a divide in Cirra, that much was certain, and it only seemed to get worse each day Hurricane was absent. He was the glue that held the nation together; without him, it was slowly splintering into pieces.

She would need to have a word with Cyclone. She understood his plight well enough; she was suffering from Typhoon’s capture as well. Unlike her son, however, Swift was determined to let her sister-in-law handle things diplomatically. Storming River Rock with a company of Praetorians was precisely the last thing Cirra needed to do. The tribes were treading perilously close to the edge as it was; honestly, she was surprised Typhoon’s capture didn’t start a war with the Diamond Kingdom.

Suddenly her ears perked towards the door. Holding her breath, Swift set down the book she was reading and listened. Sure enough, she could hear panicked hooves clopping along the cloudstone floor in the hallway outside her room. The distinct rattling of armor came as well. Quickly shouldering a spear, Swift readied herself as the hoofsteps came closer.

“Imperator!” the pony outside her door began shouting as he began to pound on it. “Imperator Swift Spear, come quick! We need your help!”

“Help?” Swift cautiously replied as she moved towards the door. She didn’t like this at all; the pony at her door didn’t have the voice of one of her usual Praetorian Guards stationed outside. “What could you need my help for? Have you at least brought this issue up with Imperator Cyclone?”

“I couldn’t, ma’am, you have to see this for yourself!”

“And what, pray tell, stopped you from doing so?” Swift sharply retorted as she began to unlatch the door. She hated it when Legionnaires ignored protocol and brought issues directly to her. She was busy enough as it was; she had subordinates to handle their petty concerns.

Something about this soldier, however, told Swift this was no petty concern. Perhaps it was the frenzied and fearful look on his face. Perhaps it was the blood and feathers decorating his weapons and armor. A painful gash had completely wiped away the hair on his left brow, and blood trickled from several wounds around and underneath his armor. He was panting as well, and several feathers hung loose from his wings after what Swift supposed was a frantic flight.

“By the Gods, soldier!” Swift Spear exclaimed. “What in Razgriz’ name happened to you?!”

The pegasus swallowed some of the blood trickling from his nose and saluted. “Private Quick Shot, ma’am. And we have to get the palace locked down, fast. Cloudsdale’s in total anarchy outside!”

“Shit,” Swift muttered under her breath. “Soldier, tell me everything. Now.”

The soldier known as Quick Shot took a deep breath and relaxed his wings. “I was off-duty in the barracks when it started. Some other Legionnaires—centurions and legates by the looks of them—came into the place and started rounding up troops. They were saying a lot of stuff about a ‘New Empire’ and your so—erm, I mean, Imperator Cyclone. Lots of soldiers went over to them, but me and my friends didn’t believe them. Then…” he shuddered and glanced at the blood on his hooves, “Then they attacked us. Called us heretics and griffon sympathizers. I… we…”

He swallowed hard and looked back at Swift, tears in his eyes. “I had to kill my way out of there. My friends didn’t make it. But it’s not just the barracks. This is going on all over the city, and they’ll be here before we know it.”

Swift pursed her lips and held her spear with a wing. “Alright. Gather up any loyal soldiers left around the palace and take them to the throne room. It’s the most secure part of the palace. We’ll hold out there as long as we can.”

Quick Shot nodded. “Be careful whom you trust, ma’am. They could be anywhere.”

“Right.” With a flick of her wing, Swift dismissed the Legionnaire and began to gallop towards the throne room. She couldn’t believe it had come to this. She always knew her son was rash, but she never thought he was treasonous.

At least now she knew why she was having so many problems with the Guard. Cyclone must have been working on this for months. Was losing Typhoon just another part of his plan?

She rounded a corner and came to a dead stop. There were three Legionnaires conversing in the hall just outside the throne room. Were they loyal, or had they sided with her son? She didn’t want to risk getting stabbed in the back.

Thankfully, she had an idea, and with a little luck, she would know for certain where they stood. Letting down her guard, Swift loosened her spear and began to calmly walk towards the three soldiers. They all stopped their conversations and turned to watch her, unsure of what to do next.

Swift raised a wing as she approached. Hopefully this would work. “Are you looking forward to killing some griffons, soldiers?”

The three soldiers watched her for a second longer before the foremost among them relaxed and smiled. “Our cause is just; with the unicorns behind us, Dioda will be ours.”

Unicorns? That was shocking news to Swift, but she did her best to push the surprise away from her face and calmly nodded. “That’s what I thought.”

Before they could even react, Swift snapped her spear-carrying wing open, flipping the heavy nimbus skysteel weapon into the air, where she clamped her jaws around the haft. Then, spinning on her back hoof, she let the weapon slide through her jaw until she was holding onto just the end and clubbed the lead pegasus over the head with the point. As he fell, his companions jumped back in surprise but quickly drew their weapons as their training kicked in.

It would do little to help them. As the first pegasus stumbled to the ground sputtering around broken teeth, Swift Spear twirled through the air like a dancer and planted both her rear hooves on the traitor’s neck as she landed. His windpipe collapsed with a satisfying pop, and Swift lashed out at the other two soldiers with her spear to force them back. Then, with a twist of her wings, she flipped and landed on four hooves, her iconic weapon balanced in her mouth.

Attempting to overwhelm Swift, the two remaining soldiers both rushed her with their swords brandished. The first pegasus to reach the mare swung his sword down towards her head, while the second tried to jab at her flank. Swift dived between the both of them, catching both weapons on opposite ends of her spear. With a heave, she forced them backwards a step and tossed the weapon into the air.

Rising onto her hind legs, Swift caught the spear with the fetlocks of her forehooves and slammed it down towards the first soldier. The traitor was able to catch it on his sword, but the nimbus skysteel produced a shower of lightning that connected with his face. As he reeled backwards in pain from the electricity, Swift quickly pulled back on her spear and jammed it forward as hard as she could. It connected solidly with the pegasus, puncturing his armor along with his lungs and much more. Giving the weapon a twist, Swift dislodged the weapon from the corpse’s chest and swung it at the remaining soldier.

Luckily for him, he was fast enough to duck underneath the attack and avoid getting his brains splattered against the opposite wall. Jabbing forward with his sword, he managed to draw blood on Swift’s foreleg. The mare grunted in response, but the scratch did little to slow her down. Snarling, Swift rammed her shoulder into the pegasus and sent him stumbling back. Then, she began to break apart the soldier’s defense.

The traitor put up a good fight, managing to parry and deflect most of Swift’s attacks, but his luck failed him when he tripped over the body of one of his companions. As he fell, Swift Spear ruthlessly drove her weapon through his shoulder and into the cloudstone floor, where the point stuck, leaving the soldier screaming in agony and struggling to break free.

Drawing a dagger from her flank, Swift kneeled down in front of the stuck stallion. Placing the dagger to his neck, Swift looked into his eyes and spoke one final prayer for him.

“May Garuda judge your soul and send you to where your honor demands it go.”

The soldier struggled a second longer against Swift’s weapon before placing his hooves against her chest. “Please! Wait, I ca—!”

Swift didn’t give him the chance to finish. Whatever he had left to say escaped through the bloody gash in his throat as his eyes rolled back and his body went limp. Sighing, Swift wiped off her dagger on the soldier’s own coat before placing it back in its sheath. Then, with a few hard tugs, she dislodged the spear from the ground and kicked the dead Legionnaire’s body off of it.

“Right. Throne room dead ahead,” she muttered to herself as she folded the bloody spear under her wing. As she walked into the massive room, she made a quick glance around to check for any hidden pegasi. Finding none, she turned around and slowly shut the massive doors and lowered the heavy bars in place.

“May Mobius cast his mercy over our skies.”

-----

The winds were good to Hurricane and Pan Sea the entire flight home. There was a strong and steady tailwind to accelerate their progress, and luckily most of the storms had cleared out of their path. Killing the two windigos seemed to have lessened the storm over the Compact lands, but it was by no means broken. Every once in a while, a strong wind shear like the one they were carving through now would drive the two soldiers off course and fling hail into their eyes. After spending two days in warm and pleasant lands, it was almost insufferable to fly through snow and ice again.

“You think they’re going to listen to us?!” Pan Sea shouted over the roaring winds. “The earth pony Board and King Lapis have no reason to trust pegasi, Commander!”

“I know!” Hurricane shouted back. “But it would take too long for Chancellor Puddinghead and Princess Platinum to trek all the way back to their capitals! That’s why we have to try and get the other tribes moving without them!”

“But how?!”

“I don’t know, but Platinum gave me some of her mane, and Puddinghead gave me his hat!” Hurricane replied. “Do you have any idea how much importance the earth ponies place on their hats?! The Board will know it’s from him!”

“I sure hope so, or else everything we overcame in Equestria will be for nothing!” Pan Sea called back.

Hurricane grunted as a gale pushed him several feet to the side, jabbing ice into his face all the while. “You and me both, Pansy, but first we need to get back to Cloudsdale! Nothing else gets done until I see my wife and children and make sure they’re still okay!”

A cold sheet of rain and hail blasted Pan Sea, causing him to gasp and his flight to wobble as he struggled through. With a few determined flaps (and a few loose feathers) he was able to weather through it and stay by Hurricane’s side. “I’m getting sick of all this rain and ice… how close are we?”

“We should be there in a few more minutes!” Hurricane shouted as he struggled over some turbulent winds. “Once we pass this cloud ridge, we’ll see…”

Pan Sea struggled in silence for a few seconds, waiting for Hurricane to finish his sentence. “We’ll see what, sir?”

Hurricane stopped flying and began to hover in place. “Cloudsdale… by the Gods, what happened?!”

Straining as hard as he could, Pan Sea fought to navigate his petite body over the storm clouds and gales to hover by Hurricane’s side. What he saw was entirely beyond belief. He had expected a city buried under snow and ice, but no, that wasn’t even close to how it looked now.

Cloudsdale was on fire.

At this distance, it was difficult to make out, but among the natural grays and blacks of the storm were several plumes of quite unnatural smoke and haze. Fires roared out of the windows of the largest buildings, and several bore heavy scarring along their facades. Both ponies winced as a loud snap and a boom sent a multistory apartment crumbling to the ground, shedding blocks of cloudstone as it fell, spinning, from the great heights of Cloudsdale.

High above the city streets was a swarm of angry pegasi ripping each other apart. Blood, wings, bodies, and weapons plummeted down to the ground with each kill. The air currents trailing off of the fighters’ feathers cut grooves and niches into the rising plumes of smoke. As Hurricane watched, more combatants would fly up in small groups to join the melee. It was absolute chaos.

“By the Gods!” Hurricane cursed, “It’s Feathertop all over again!”

“What’re we going to do, Commander?” Pan Sea asked. “We don’t even know who’s fighting for who or what started this whole mess!”

“That’s why we’re going to find out!” Hurricane shouted as he lowered his shoulder and sprinted towards the city, leaving a few black feathers behind him. The wind tried with all its might to hold the Commander back, but the pegasus whose very name was a storm shoved it aside and made his way forward. Following in his wake, Pan Sea tried to keep up slightly less impressively.

“Now I know how Haysar felt!” Hurricane spat. “To see victory come so close and get stabbed in the back! May Mobius give the pegasus responsible mercy, for I shall deliver them none!”

Private Pan Sea was too out of breath from trailing Hurricane to respond.

In several exhausting minutes, Hurricane and Pan Sea found themselves on the outskirts of the city. The fighting was much more brutal from up close, and it gave the Red Cloud War veteran haunting flashbacks to fighting griffons high up in the skies. Even without the ferocity and ruthlessness of griffon combatants, blood rained freely onto the cloudstone streets, painting them disconcerting shades of pink and red.

Hurricane wasn’t sure where to begin, so he flew along the edge of the city, trying to avoid combat as best he could. Ducking between and around burning buildings, the Commander and Pan Sea eventually made their way to one of the main downtown streets. There they landed amidst smoke and ashes, with several mangled bodies lining the road on either side of them.

“Damn it,” Hurricane cursed as he walked up to the nearest body. The pegasus’ glassy eyes were half closed, and his neck flopped loosely around a gash running down one side. Nearby was a bloody sword with bits of fur and feathers stuck to it. With a sigh and no way to determine who the soldier fought for, Hurricane closed his eyes and moved on to the next body.

“They’re all sorts of ranks,” Pan Sea commented as he spread the wings of a dead soldier to guide his soul to the afterlife. “Legionnaires, centurions, even legates. What do you make of it?”

“It means whoever orchestrated this coup didn’t pull it off cleanly,” Hurricane said. “There was still a sizable faction loyal to me and Swift. There must still be, judging by the scale of the fight up there. I only hope that we’ve got the numbers on our side. Whoever started this damn thing didn’t think that the true Legion would put up such a fight.”

“Or maybe they did, and there are a lot of them,” Pan Sea offered.

“Maybe, but think about it,” Hurricane said as he turned to the private. “It only takes a few loose lips to blow a coup like this out of the sky. If this thing was larger than a thousand, word would have gotten out.”

“Maybe it did, sir, but what if somepony really high up orchestrated the whole thing?”

Hurricane paused, uncertain. It made sense; it would be possible to let something of this scale build up if the pony in charge was also in charge of how the Legion responded…

No. It couldn’t be. He would never betray him like that.

Just then, a group of pegasi sprinted around a corner, weapons gripped tightly in their teeth. Behind them was another group of pegasi with blood on their faces and dripping from their swords. The leader of the first group saw Hurricane and waved a desperate wing.

Without sparing time to think, Hurricane reacted and dove towards the thick of things. In one smooth motion his sword was drawn even before his hooves hit the cloudstone. With a slight slant to the left, he slid past the pegasus that had waved to him and drove his sword straight through the neck of the bloody Legionnaire behind him. The soldier choked back on the sword in his throat even as his companions around him cursed. As they turned to face Hurricane, the real slaughter began.

Kicking off from the corpse on his blade, Hurricane removed the sword and swung it behind his head. There was a shower of blood and a sickening gag, followed by the thump of another body as it hit the ground. Just then, the soldier opposite Hurricane jabbed his sword at him, but the black pegasus quickly spun to the side and rammed his wingblades into the traitor’s jaw. The bone not only dislocated; it shattered with such force that splinters were sent out of the soldier’s cheek. As he collapsed, the fourth traitor swung his sword down at Hurricane with lethal force, but the Commander quickly caught it on his opposite wing. With a slice of his sword, Hurricane liberated the soldier’s neck from his body and sent it tumbling away.

As the corpse fell, the fifth and final Legionnaire threw away his weapon and shot into the air, flying for his life. Rather than pursue him, Hurricane sheathed his sword and watched the young soldier fly off.

“Should have killed him,” the leader of the Legionnaire posse that Hurricane had saved mumbled. “He threw a tankard of ale at me at the Legate’s Lookout.”

Hurricane raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure you’re more than enough of a soldier to shake that off.”

The soldier, a forest green stallion, simply shrugged his wings and looked off to the distance. “Wasn’t worried about getting hurt. It was some damn good ale that he wasted.”

Hurricane shook his head, exasperated. “Can you at least tell me what’s going on, soldier?”

The pegasus shrugged. “Name’s Pathfinder, sir. We were leading these traitors into a trap…”

“Looks more like you were retreating to me,” Hurricane observed.

“A Legionnaire never retreats, we just advanced in the opposite direction.”

Hurricane remained unconvinced.

Pathfinder coughed awkwardly. “Well, I was having a good time at the Legate’s Lookout until your son’s devoted came in and started trashing the place—”

“Wait, Cyclone?” Hurricane interrupted. “Soldier, you better not be making that up.”

“With all due respect, sir, who else would be able to muster a force of fifteen thousand to try and take Cloudsdale while you were gone?”

Hurricane gritted his teeth and swore. After a moment of silence, he looked up with a mixture of sadness and anger in his eyes. Turning to Pathfinder, the Commander nodded and loosened his sword. “I need to get to the palace. My wife is in danger, and my daughter—”

“Your daughter’s not in Cloudsdale, sir,” Pathfinder informed him. “She’s in a prison cell in River Rock.”

Hurricane stared at him, dumbfounded. Finally, with a screech of rage, Hurricane slammed his hoof into the ground. “Soldier, get me to the palace. Now. Maybe I can fix this mess.”

Pathfinder nodded. “I’ll getcha past most of the fighting, sir. They don’t call me Pathfinder for nothing.” As he passed Hurricane he looked over his shoulder and grinned. “When this shit storm’s all over and the sky stops falling, drinks are on me, Commander.”

Then he and his companions took wing and began to circle west of the palace. Hurricane followed them with Pan Sea at his side. The yellow pegasus, who until now had been quiet, piped up.

“How did you know they were the good guys, sir?”

Hurricane shook his head and accelerated after Pathfinder. “The ‘bad guys’ wouldn’t be so happy to see the pony whose government they’re trying to overthrow show up. Plus…” he paused as he flew. “Lucky guess?”

If the atmosphere had been more appropriate, Pan Sea would have chuckled. Instead, he found himself holding his breath as the group of pegasi skirted around the edges of the fighting, slowly making their way closer to the palace.

-----

Twister slammed her back against the side of a dark alleyway as several soldiers rushed past. She couldn’t tell who they were fighting for; she couldn’t tell who anypony was fighting for. All she knew was that Legionnaires were massacring each other all across Cloudsdale. The fighting in the sky had only gotten worse, and the free-for-all literally rained blood onto the ground underneath it. Twister cursed as she looked at her wing and tried to shake out several drops of blood from it. So far, luck was with her, and none of it was her own.

Peering around the corner, Twister made sure that everyone around her was too occupied with running each other through on their blades to notice one lightly armed mare. Taking a deep breath, she extended her wings and slammed them against her sides twice, accurately crossing the street and concealing herself in another alleyway in less than a second. The short sprints were starting to become exhausting, but she had little other choice. If a soldier cornered her, she was as good as dead.

Taking a deep breath, Twister again peered into the street. A flurry of arrows sailed past her head, and she cursed as she stumbled backwards into the alley. Another company of Legionnaires had joined the fight, this time a group of archers, and Twister could see dozens of ponies suddenly stop their fighting to clutch at the hafts of wood sticking out of their throats. There was more shouting, and suddenly two ponies appeared in the alley, bows drawn.

With a grunt, Twister quickly rolled to the side and slammed her face against the cloudstone wall of a building. As soon as she did, she heard two arrows skitter across the ground where she just was. With an athletic tumble, Twister was back on her hooves and running in the opposite direction as the archers grasped more arrows to reload.

Fearing for her life, Twister threw caution to the wind and galloped away as fast as she could. Winding through corner after corner, the mare sprinted past courtyards and the decorated facades of the homes of upper class of Cirra. As she ran, she glanced upwards. The palace still stood out strong against the chaos around it, but most of the fighting had moved into that area. Cyclone’s soldiers were quickly gaining ground, and the scattered and confused Legion was struggling to repel them, much less identify them.

“Rrraaugh!!”

Twister gasped and instinctively ducked just in time to feel a sword shave several long hairs from her mane. Her momentum carried her forward, and she ended up sliding underneath the burly and well-toned body of a centurion. Unfortunately, even though she had managed to dodge the soldier’s first attack, a blind kick with his rear hoof struck her across the chin and sent her tumbling away.

Spitting out dust and cloudstone, Twister scrambled to her hooves. The centurion was coming back around for her, his sword still tightly clamped in his jaws and his wingblades dripping blood. A red smear of paint decorated one side of his helmet; Twister supposed that was how Cyclone’s soldiers identified each other. His armor was covered in blood and small dents from the futile attacks of ponies he had killed to get here.

Now he lowered his neck and advanced towards her, eyes practically glistening with bloodlust.

Backing up, Twister reached down and pulled out her sword as well. The tarnished gold trim caught the light slightly, but the centurion only laughed as he advanced.

“Nice sword you got there, filly. Who gave that to you? Some legate with a crush on you?”

Twister growled at him and stood up, straight as she could manage. “My brother, Commander Hurricane, gave me this sword years ago. I suggest you back off and leave me be, and maybe nothing will happen to you.”

The mention of Commander Hurricane was enough to pause the centurion, but then he only stepped forward with a menacing smile. “Hurricane’s dead, and Swift Spear’s Legion is broken. There’s nopony who can help you now, filly.”

Twister kept pace with him in the opposite direction, her eyes never leaving his. Her heart was pounding; with the exception of Zephyrus, nopony had ever tried to kill her before. She couldn’t imagine her brother doing this day in and day out. The prospect of death was terrifying as much as it was energizing.

Suddenly, Twister’s back hoof made contact with a wall behind her. She glanced over her shoulder in surprise, and the mistake gave the centurion the opening he was looking for. With a ferocious war cry, he charged forward and drove his sword down at the mare.

Twister recognized her mistake just in time, and she managed to flop roughly to the side to avoid the strike. The centurion’s blade caught cloudstone for half a second, but with impressive force, he ripped the weapon out and swung it at Twister in combination with his wingblades. Gritting her teeth, Twister rolled as far away as she could before spinning back up to her hooves. She was immediately rewarded with a slash across her face from a wingblade, and she cursed as blood dripped into her eyes.

The centurion seemed to be enjoying himself, and he let Twister stumble away from him as she tried to clear her vision. Walking forward at a calm pace, the centurion slowly closed the ground between himself and the mare, all the while with his wings flattened out to the sides, ready for an opening.

Twister saw him coming just enough to scurry backwards and raise her sword in something roughly resembling a defensive stance. With a laugh, the centurion dashed forward and slammed his sword against hers. With a cry of metal, Twister was able to repel him, but that was what the centurion was anticipating. Using the momentum Twister supplied him, he rebounded off the block and struck out at her forelegs. With a quick hop backwards, Twister was able to avoid having her shins cut out from under her, but the centurion took a forward step and rammed his shoulder into her chest, sending the mare stumbling backwards.

With another shout, the centurion pursued his advantage and began to slam his sword down against Twister’s repeatedly. Each block sent a jarring shock through the mare’s jaw, loosening her grip on the sword. Finally, with one powerful strike, the centurion put Twister off-balance enough that he was able to turn and buck her across the face.

The sword went sailing through the air with Twister not too far behind as her light body was launched a good fifteen feet away from the kick. As she hit the ground she groaned and spit out a tooth. The pain in her face was incredible; the buck must have given her a broken nose. Her wings lay out to their sides in a pile of sand and cloudstone dust.

The centurion laughed to himself and walked closer, taking amusement in Twister’s crumpled body. “Had enough, filly?” he taunted, the sword bobbing in his mouth as he spoke. Lowering his weapon, he came to stand right above the bleeding mare, waiting for her to try and struggle away.

Instead of struggle away, however, Twister suddenly rolled onto her back with surprising speed. As she did so, her right wing scooped up a sizeable pile of cloudstone dust and flung it into the centurion’s face. The centurion cursed and stepped back, trying to wipe the dust out of his eyes, but Twister was faster. With a shove, she forced the centurion back, and in the same motion grabbed a dagger out of a sheath along his breastplate. In a fluid spiral, she carried her momentum into a full rotation before slamming the dagger right into the side of the centurion’s neck. Blood spurted across her face, but she held onto the dagger, forcing the centurion’s body to the ground and twisting the blade while she did so.

With a last, shocked gasp, the soldier collapsed against the cloudstone ground and twitched once before lying still, forever.

It took Twister a few seconds longer before she calmed her nerves enough to let go of the dagger and take several shaky steps back. It was then she could feel the sheer amount of blood coating the side of her face, and it scared her. She would never have thought so much blood could come from one small wound. Even now, the body was still pooling blood around it. The sight of so much crimson made her sick to her stomach, and she turned away to go retch in a corner.

When her stomach finally settled, Twister stood up and shuffled away from the corner, pointedly avoiding the centurion’s body. Looking up, she was able to see she was only about two streets away from the base of the hill the palace rested upon. The air was absolutely swarming around the palace, but she would have to take her chances. Speed and aggression would have to help her where caution would not. That, and a little bit of luck, and she would get inside unnoticed.

With a deep breath, Twister sheathed her sword and began to fly low over the rooftops of Cloudsdale. There was so much smoke and soot in the air that it was hard to breathe, and there were so many updrafts that it was hard to fly low, but her advance was concealed for the time being. With several flaps of her wings, Twister suddenly burst through a wall of smoke and right into the middle of the chaos over the palace.

In the first three seconds, Twister could count no less than seven deaths happen right before her eyes. Madness and chaos dominated the skies around her, and in the frigid air, thousands of tiny contrails quickly formed and dissipated off of the tips of each combatant’s wing feathers. Every renewed gust of wind carried a spatter of crimson moisture, and the temperature seemed to drop by almost twenty degrees as Twister skimmed her way around the worst of the fighting and towards the palace.

She briefly considered swinging by the main entrance as habit threatened to take over her wings, but she quickly reconsidered and veered away. At the main entrance to the palace and the numerous side doors, Cirran loyalists had taken up strong defensive positions to keep out Cyclone’s soldiers. It was slaughter, pure and simple as that, and Twister wanted no part of it. Besides, she may have gotten lucky with the centurion, but she would be eviscerated in a second.

Quickly spiraling away from the palace, Twister began to circle around the rear of the building. To the common soldier, it was little more than an impenetrable series of stone walls and iron bars, but to her, having had a hoof in the architecture of the building, Twister knew a few concealed access points. Most were little more than maintenance shafts to get to the interior of the roof, but a few dropped down right into major hallways.

One such access point wasn’t hard to find, if one knew where to look. Twister knew exactly where to look, and with a few sharp tugs on a Cirran emblem, she pulled open a small tunnel. It was cramped and dark, but at least there weren’t going to be any traitors in it. Sliding into the tunnel, Twister kicked that the back of the emblem as she entered. With the grinding of stone against stone, the emblem slid back into place, drenching the tunnel in complete darkness.

The darkness was a little disconcerting at first, but once Twister’s eyes adjusted, she was able to navigate with the minimal light. Her wings scraped against the dusty sides of the narrow tunnel, and she cursed as she tried to shake them out. Pressing onwards, she wound her way through a few corners until she found the tile she was looking for.

With a few cramped kicks, a fairly large stone panel was ejected from the ceiling, where it shattered across the floor. After a few second delay, Twister dropped down as well, taking the time to check both ends of the hall before beginning to move out. She instantly recognized where she was; the East Wing of the palace, which was close to Hurricane and Swift’s bedroom. Quickly checking her bearings, she sprinted down the halls in that direction.

It wasn’t a long run to get there, but she was still stopped short of her objective. Rounding a corner, Twister slid her hooves to a stop and scrambled back behind the wall. Standing in front of the open door to Swift Spear’s room were two Praetorians, each with a smear of red paint on the side of their helmet. They appeared to be talking to each other, and as she watched, two more Praetorians came out of the bedroom and shook their heads. Together, they began to walk back down the hallway.

Twister gasped lightly and took off in the opposite direction, her hooves tapping lightly on the cloudstone before she gained enough momentum to take wing and fly somewhat more silently away. She could hear the voices murmuring quietly behind her, but she dared not look over her shoulder or slow her flight for a second. Instead, she only accelerated, winding her way down the halls and towards the throne room. She wasn’t sure if she should be happy or worried that the doors were solidly closed and refused to budge when she pressed on them.

Backing up, Twister took a deep breath and began pounding on the iron. “Swift Spear? Swift Spear, are you in there? It’s me, Twister!” She pounded on the door a few more times for good measure and nervously glanced over her shoulder. “Swift, if you’re in there, you’ve got to let me in, now! There’re some Praetorians coming and—!”

She stopped as she heard a massive bar of iron scrape against the door from the inside. “Thank the Gods you’re alive,” she heard Swift Spear’s muffled voice say from the other side of the door. “Just give me a few minutes… nnngh… to unlock…”

Twister let out a sigh of relief. Swift was alright, and the throne room was apparently secure. At least it would provide them some place to wait out the siege; Cyclone’s forces, despite the jump they got on the actual Legion, could only win if they took control of the chain of command. As long as Swift was alive, that was impossible.

“You don’t know how good it is to hear a friendly voice,” Twister began. “I’ve been fighting and dodging my way through the battlefield for the past few hours just to get here. It’s hell outside; the whole sky is falling apart.”

There was another scrape of iron as Swift fought to unlock the door. “You’re safe in here… unngh… for the time being, at least,” she said. “One last lock…”

Twister smiled and let her wings hang by her sides in relief. She didn’t like being out in the open at all, but at least that was going to end shortly. She opened her mouth to speak when she felt cold steel press against her neck and a hoof secure her shoulders.

“Open this damn door now, or her death is on your hooves!”

As the blade cut into her skin let loose small founts of blood, Twister could feel her hope drip out with them.

-----

A few minutes earlier…

-----

Swift’s nervous hooves took her back and forth across the throne room for the hundredth time. The windows had all been barred and the door was heavily locked; the only way she could judge how the battle was progressing was through the various screams and shouts that forced their way through the stone of the palace.

Staring out the window, Swift scowled at the orange glow that decorated her face. She still couldn’t believe this was happening; it just seemed so unreal. To find the rug pulled out from under your hooves, and by your own son, too—she didn’t want to think about it. Focus on something else.

She groaned, and strode back to the iron throne. It was hard to lock herself in a room like a coward; her very nature was screaming at her to get into the fight, to find her son, and put an end to this, one way or another. Her honor demanded that she show herself and fight, yet reason stayed her hooves. With Hurricane gone and Typhoon captured, she was the last of the Legion’s imperators to stand against Cyclone. If Cyclone’s troops captured or killed her, the rest of the Legion would turn over to him. After all, there would only be one voice giving the orders in Cloudsdale then, not two.

The butt of her spear nervously tapped against the ground as she waited. It had been an hour since she last spoke with Quick Shot, and so far, no reinforcements had materialized. She could hear the fighting rumble and shake the palace around her; they must be getting close. At least the door was doubly, even triply locked. It would take the traitors some time to get to her, time they did not have.

Somewhere in the distance, a heavy crunch of stone echoed throughout the palace with a large clatter. The noise sent Swift’s heart racing. It was too close. She thought she had secured all the windows and corridors leading to the throne room to buy herself some more time. They couldn’t be this close already, could they?

Swift glanced about the room. There were several cloudstone pillars that could offer her temporary concealment if somepony were to break in, but they wouldn’t help her much. Every Legionnaire was taught the basics of breaching and clearing rooms, and the throne room, despite its grandeur, was still a room. She might be able to stab one cautious soldier in the face as he rounded the pillar, but she would be immediately sliced open from behind. No, there would have to be a better way to do this.

It was certainly a gamble that would come down to a few seconds, but it was perhaps the only option Swift had left. Slowly walking to the center of the room, Swift stood directly in front of the iron throne and confidently rested her hooves on the end of her spear. If she could convince any group of traitors that managed to break in that there were more loyalists hiding throughout the room, she might have a short amount of time to escape during their confusion. Even if that failed, at least she would have the chance to run her spear through at least one bastard on the way out before they took her down.

Just then, there was a frantic knock on the door. It wasn’t the sound of somepony trying to break in, that much was easy enough to figure out. She briefly wondered if it was Quick Shot before a familiar voice put ice in her veins.

“Swift Spear? Swift Spear, are you in there? It’s me, Twister!”

As Twister paused to knock on the door from the outside, Swift immediately dropped her spear and flew up to the door. The bars holding it shut were several hundred-pound slabs of iron placed across the seam. Reaching up to one, Swift placed her back underneath and began to heave as Twister spoke again.

“Swift, if you’re in there, you’ve got to let me in, now! There’re some Praetorians coming and—!”

The groaning of iron against iron, combined with gasps from Swift’s exertion, drowned out the rest of Twister’s words. As Swift finally pushed the bar back against the wall with a thud and a click, she coughed lightly and stretched the knots out of her muscles. “Thank the Gods you’re alive. Just give me a few minutes… nnngh… to unlock…”

“You don’t know how good it is to hear a friendly voice,” Twister began as Swift moved to the next heavy iron bar. “I’ve been fighting and dodging my way through the battlefield for the past few hours just to get here. It’s hell outside; the whole sky is falling apart.”

. “You’re safe in here… unngh… for the time being, at least,” Swift said as she heaved against the iron. With another thud and a click, it was secured in place against the edge of the doorframe. Shaking out her limbs, Swift moved to the center bar on the door and placed her hooves under it. “One last lock…”

As Swift Spear pushed against the lock, she could hear Twister sigh in relief. Even as the iron groaned against itself, however, that sigh turned into a gasp. Swift paused just long enough to hear somepony shout orders at her from the other side of the door.

“Open this damn door now, or her death is on your hooves!”

Swift Spear froze in place. She could hear several hooves take positions around the door—four of them, by her guess—as well as Twister’s gasps and struggles against whoever it was that had her.

“Don’t open it!” Swift could hear Twister choke out from the other side. “There’s only five of them! They can’t get it open by themse—!”

“Silence!” a hoarse voice shouted from the other side of the door. He was then followed by the clang of a pony’s head slamming against iron, and the door in front of Swift shook violently. When the voice spoke again, it was with a deadly coldness. “You have five seconds to open the door, Imperator, before I crush her skull against it.”

Without hesitation, Swift reached up and slid the iron bar the whole way open, unlocking the door. Just as the ponies tried to get inside, however, she bucked off of the door, slamming it back in their faces, and launched herself towards the spear she dropped in front of the throne. By the time the traitors had forced their way in with Twister as a hostage, Swift had already lowered her weapon in anticipation of a fight.

There were five Praetorians, each one with clean and bloodless armor. Under different circumstances, Swift would have assumed they were some of the loyal soldiers, but then she noticed that each one had a splotch of red paint on the right side of their helmet. It was an odd symbol, but easy enough to confuse for blood. In that way it was perfect for letting Cyclone’s soldiers identify each other.

The Praetorian holding Twister stepped forward with his wingblade underneath her chin. He was a gray pegasus with a few strands of light gold to make up his tail. He was a high-ranking Praetorian, that much was clear by the emblem and trim decorating his armor. As he advanced, the four other Praetorians by his sides advanced with him, until they were all standing only thirty feet away from Swift Spear.

“Let. Her. Go,” Swift growled as she pointed her spear right between his eyes.

Thunder Hawk smirked and adjusted his grip around Twister’s neck as she struggled in his grasp. “Put down your weapon, Imperator, and I swear that she will live.”

“You swear?” Swift asked, doubt in her voice. “Swear by what? What honor do you have left that has any value to me?”

Thunder Hawk stomped on one of Twister’s hind legs, taking out the muscle and bringing the mare painfully to the ground. There he signaled for one of his other comrades to take her as he slowly advanced towards Swift. “I swear on my life and on his. If she dies, Emperor Cyclone will kill us both. The only thing I have to swear by is the Empire, so I hope it’s good enough for you.”

Swift scowled at him but didn’t lower her weapon. “You swear by the thing that’s killing thousands of good Legionnaires as we speak?! Are you trying to insult me?!”

Thunder Hawk’s demeanor remained unchanged. “I swear by that which is. Tribal Cirra is gone; why Hurricane ever thought it would work is a foal’s guess. We were a proud race once, and now Emperor Cyclone is going to make us so again.”

“Hurricane—my husband—saved the entirety of the pegasus race!” Swift shouted back in disbelief. “If he didn’t abandon Stratopolis, if he insisted on fighting the griffons to the cold, bitter end, we all would have been dead! The pegasus race, Cirra, the old Empire itself, all of it would be nothing more than a quickly forgotten memory! Do you think the griffons would have cared enough to remember us once we were exterminated?!” She furiously shook her head. “No! And it’s never going to come back! We lost, don’t you get it?! The Red Cloud War is finished! At least here we can remember our ancestors and our history! Don’t throw away what little we’ve managed to save on some pipe dream of rebuilding the glory of twenty years ago!”

“Heretic,” Thunder Hawk began, shaking his head. “Sympathizer. Coward. That’s what you are, that’s what your husband is, that’s what every pegasus who stands against us is. When we bring the Diamond Kingdom and the Low Valleys under our wing, we will destroy Gryphus, from the land and from the sky.” Then he stepped forward, almost pleading with his eyes to Swift. “Put down your weapon and come with us. Emperor Cyclone, your son, promised that you would be spared. He demanded that I take you alive. Please, join with us, and all this bloodshed will come to a stop.”

Swift’s wings were shaking. She might be a good—hell, great soldier—but she couldn’t take on five Praetorians by herself. Especially not when they held Twister hostage. She couldn’t possibly let her sister-in-law, the last true family her husband had, die. She looked again at the struggling mare and loosened her grasp on her spear.

Twister stopped struggling long enough to look at Swift Spear. She saw the conflict in her eyes as the tip of her weapon lowered. Then she saw the end was rising in response.

Gritting her teeth, she looked towards Swift and nodded.

It was all she needed.

With a sudden twirl of her wing, Swift snatched up the tip of the spear from the ground and launched it at the Praetorian that was holding Twister down. Faster than the eye could see, the spear travelled across the room and pierced the soldier’s throat, sending his body tumbling off of Twister. As it fell, Twister grabbed a dagger from his armor and jumped up, slamming it into the shoulder of the soldier next to her. As that Praetorian cried out in pain, Twister bucked him backwards and drew her sword before spinning it across her body and splitting open his neck.

“Restrain her!” Thunder Hawk shouted as he drew his weapon. “I’ll take care of Swift Spear myself!”

While the two remaining Praetorians focused on disarming and incapacitating Twister, Thunder Hawk stormed up the stairs to duel Swift Spear. The mare was ready and waiting for him, her chest lowered towards the ground and her wings flared to either side. As soon as he got near, Swift darted out to the side and towards the weapon still lodged in the dead Praetorian’s throat.

Thunder Hawk watched her go and satisfied himself with taking the high ground. At the other side of the room, Twister was backed into a corner, her lack of training evident against two of the Legion’s elite. She was forced to twisting and craning her neck in awkward angles to block their attacks, and each powerful attempt to sunder her weapon took several sharp fragments of skysteel from the sword.

As Swift bent down to take the spear, she felt a dagger go whizzing by her leg. Yanking it out of the dead soldier’s body, she turned to see where Thunder Hawk stood with one less dagger against his chest. The two soldiers glared at each other, and then Swift launched herself like a bird of prey towards her opponent, screeching as she flew.

A spear made of pure nimbus skysteel is a difficult weapon to handle; nevertheless, Swift spun the weapon over her head and brought the heavy weapon down on Thunder Hawk. The Praetorian quickly angled his sword to catch it, producing a very heavy shock that rattled the teeth within his skull and forced him to stumble backwards. As he did, he struck out at Swift’s jaw to try and dislodge her weapon, but she nimbly lowered her head under the attack and rammed the blunt end of her weapon into Thunder Hawk’s chest. The nimbus spear, which easily weighed twenty pounds, nearly leveled the Praetorian, but he was able to roll with the blow and quickly slide out of Swift’s attack range.

That didn’t stop Swift Spear from pressing her advantage. Quickly rebalancing the spear between her jaws, the mare charged forward and began to swing her spear at alternating strikes against Thunder Hawk. The Praetorian blocked each strike in turn, either with his sword or his wingblades, or sometimes even both for particularly powerful strikes. Each blow from Swift’s spear pressed the Praetorian farther back until his hooves clicked against a pillar behind him.

Swift’s next strike was particularly vicious. Quickly blocking a desperate sword strike on her wing, she twirled in place and let the spear slide through her teeth until she caught the knob on the end in her jaws. When four feet of spear suddenly collided with Thunder Hawk’s cheek, it launched the Praetorian off to the side with a crackle of thunder and lightning. As Thunder Hawk’s back smashed into the far wall, he let out a grunt of pain and realized he could smell burning fur along the side of his face. Smothering out the embers that clung to his cheek, he looked up just in time to see Swift Spear charging towards him.

Rolling to the side, Thunder Hawk heard Swift’s weapon smash into the cloudstone behind him. Several shards of stone rained down upon him, and as he twisted back onto his hooves, he saw Swift struggle to wrench the spear out of the wall. Adjusting his grip on the sword, Thunder Hawk galloped forward and slashed at Swift Spear.

Rather than jump to the side to dodge the attack, Swift inexplicably propelled herself towards Thunder Hawk. Twisting in midair, the mare slammed her back into Thunder Hawk’s chest and caught his sword on her left wingblade. The sudden impact winded the Praetorian and pushed him back, causing him to lose his sword in the process. As Thunder Hawk was forced to retrieve his weapon, Swift was able to yank her spear free from the wall and bring it to bear on the Praetorian.

Sparks flew as the two weapons met yet again. Rebounding from the attack, Thunder Hawk swiftly transitioned to strike at Swift’s opposite side, but the mare slid the spear to halfway between her jaws so that she could block from both sides. With a simple flick of her head, she was able to counter attacks coming from either the left or the right without difficulty. As Thunder Hawk searched for some opening to try and disarm Swift, the mare was able to slide the weapon back out to full length and wallop him across the head.

Thunder Hawk stumbled away, but with a brief shake he was able to clear his vision and charge back into the fray. With lightning precision, the stallion attacked left and right, up and down, twirling and darting around the range of Swift’s weapon to try and get an angle on her. However, the mare was incredibly agile with her heavy weapon, and each time he darted to her sides she was able to keep pace and force him back.

As a last resort, Thunder Hawk spread his wings and began to hover just outside of Swift’s range. As expected, Swift’s training took over, and she squatted against the ground, resting the end of the spear against a tile to brace it against an aerial dive. Thunder Hawk was forced to fly around the mare in circles, trying to find some opportunity, but finding none. As Swift refused to budge from her defensive stance, the Praetorian threw away his caution and dove recklessly towards her.

The pain was intense, but Thunder Hawk was used to worse. He had played his cards right, spinning out of the way just in time to avoid having his armor punctured. Instead, he managed to get the tip of the spear lodged harmlessly in his shoulder, forcing the weapon out of Swift’s grasp. Unfortunately, the pain destabilized his flight, and he slammed roughly into the ground, losing his sword in the process.

Swift Spear cursed at the loss of her weapon, but didn’t spend much thought on it. Instead, she simply ripped out a dagger from a series of sheaths against her right side and charged towards the downed Praetorian. There was a rage in her eyes, and she abandoned her caution in favor of slicing open Thunder Hawk’s neck.

His sword too far away to reach and his daggers down by his side, Thunder Hawk grabbed onto the only weapon within his immediate reach. Clamping down on the spear lodged in his shoulder, he gave it a sharp tug as he twisted. With a ripping and tearing of flesh and blood, the Praetorian forced it out of his shoulder and tried to turn it to stave off Swift Spear.

Even as he moved, however, the unnaturally heavy weight of the spear fought against him. He had grabbed it near the tip, and the extra weight at the end pulled his head to the side and pointed the tip upwards. As he fought for control over the weapon, Swift had already leaped into the air, dagger ready for his neck.

Sudden desperation in his eyes, Thunder Hawk turned the spear.

Sudden realization in her eyes, Swift pulled back on her dive.

The sound of a weapon piercing through armor and flesh was painfully audible as blood spattered the ground.

-----

“Here, in here,” Pathfinder called over his shoulder as he alighted at the east wing of the palace. He, Hurricane, Pan Sea, and the two other soldiers from Pathfinder’s group were gathered around a small grate at the base of the palace wall. All around them, the sounds of war raged on, but their group had found a slight overhang to stay out of sight as they worked on getting into the palace.

“They’re already at the palace,” Hurricane muttered to himself, shaking his head. “How did things get so badly out of hoof while I was gone?”

“Your son spent a lot of time getting this ready,” Pathfinder said. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was working on this whole fiasco for months. It was just convenient for him that you decided to remove yourself from the equation for a while.” With a heave, the centurion forced the grate open and set the skysteel aside. “You did find what you were looking for, right, sir?”

“I wouldn’t have come back unless I did,” Hurricane flatly answered.

Pathfinder shrugged his shoulders as he pulled a torch out of his saddlebag and lit it with a spark from his wing. “Lucky that you weren’t a day later. I doubt the Legion will be able to hold out without your support for much longer. If they get to Imperator Swift Spear…”

“It’s not going to happen,” Hurricane insisted, pushing past Pathfinder and staring into the open grate. “Swift’s as good a soldier as I am. She can hold her own against even the best of the Praetorian Guard.”

As he began to descend into the dark pit, Pan Sea peered over the edge at Hurricane as his black coat melted into the shadows. “Uh, sir? What about a torch?”

“Don’t need one,” Hurricane answered. With a snap of his wings, he brought fire to their crests, illuminating the dark tunnel around him. Having secured his own means of light, the Commander advanced deeper into the bowels of the palace. With a few shrugs, Pathfinder’s companions followed after him, dragging Pan Sea along.

Pathfinder looked at his own torch and sighed. “Aw, to hell with it,” he muttered as he chucked the torch over his shoulder and descended as well.

The tunnels underneath the palace were dark and grimy, or as grimy as being carved out of a cloud could possibly be. The walls were little more than reinforced cumulus and stratus, and the air smelt of moisture. Within a few minutes, each pegasus was drenched in sweat as the humidity ate away at their coats under their armor, and still there was no sign of an exit.

Pan Sea paused to wipe away the sweat from his brow and leaned against the cloud wall. Almost immediately, he felt something sticky grip at his feathers, and he turned away to shake them off. They were surprisingly red and smelt of copper.

“What…” Pan Sea whispered as he fought the urge to gag. “Is that blood?”

Hurricane stopped and looked at the walls around him. “You weren’t at Stratopolis. The Plaza of the Emperor was drenched in so much blood that the clouds began to absorb it. We must be right under the front entrance of the palace. This is just the runoff from the fighting above us.”

Gesturing with his head, Hurricane continued the walk through the tunnels. Using his wings for light, he waved them back and forth to illuminate the walls of the tunnel around him. Eventually, they came to a point where the tunnel split into two, one going straight ahead and one going to the right.

“What even is the point of these tunnels?” Pan Sea asked. He took a sniff of the air and immediately recoiled in disgust. “And what is that smell?”

“These are the sewers of the palace,” Pathfinder answered as he walked up next to the small Legionnaire. “If you can keep the guards at their positions longer by giving them a spot to take a shit, the idea is that security’s less prone to being breached.”

“Right.” Hurricane answered as he began to walk off into the side tunnel. Pathfinder and Pan Sea watched him for a second before setting their hooves in motion behind him. Pathfinder’s two soldiers brought up the rear, nervously glancing at the shadowy walls around them as they walked.

The palace suddenly shook as if a great weight had been slammed against it, causing the group to jump in alarm. Hurricane suddenly cursed and accelerated his pace.

“What is it?” Pan Sea squawked behind him. “What was that?”

“They must have gotten their hooves on the siege weapons,” Hurricane said as he slid around a corner. “They’ve got them trained on the palace from afar.”

Pathfinder stopped and tilted his head to the side, befuddled. “Siege weapons? What in the name of Celeste’s striped shit are siege weapons doing in a floating city?!”

“If the barbarians or whoever were foolish enough to march an army near Cloudsdale, we’d rain cumulus cloudstone on them from afar,” Hurricane answered.

“Cloudstone? Doesn’t it just break for the other races like powder?” Pan Sea asked.

Hurricane glanced at him. “Not ultra-compressed cloudstone. Plus, cumulus cloudstone has a tendency to explode when suddenly broken apart.”

Another rumble shook the cloud near the palace, and Hurricane nodded. “Like that.” Then he immediately turned around and continued sprinting through the halls, his fiery wings leaving streaks of sparks behind them.

“I really wish he would stop doing that,” Pathfinder muttered to Pan Sea as he slowly built up the momentum to run after the Commander. “I ain’t drunk enough for this.”

Pan Sea gawked at the Centurion. “Not… drunk enough?”

“Look kid,” Pathfinder sighed, “when you see the kinds of things I’ve seen, you need that drink to focus.”

Pan Sea blushed. “I’m older than you, you know.”

“Were you ever wounded in battle?”

“Hengstead, yes. I spent the war recovering in Altus.”

“Altus?” Pathfinder asked, stopping to face Pan Sea. “I was there too after I was wounded. It’s my hometown, you know.”

“Really? Same here! How come you weren’t drafted at the start of the war like Slipstream and Feather Knot and I?”

This time it was Pathfinder’s turn to grumble and turn away, embarrassed. “Wasn’t old enough. But I did sign up a month later. The Legion wasn’t quite so picky then.”

“How old were you?” Pan Sea asked.

“…fourteen,” Pathfinder mumbled

“WHAT?!”

“Only by about a week.”

Pan Sea shook his head, dumbfounded. “And why did you try to get involved in a war when you were only fourteen?!”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Pick up the pace, will you?!” Hurricane shouted from the end of the tunnel. He had shut down the fire along his wings and was standing at the bottom of a ray of light. A small panel had been displaced in the tunnel above him, and Pathfinder’s two companions were currently flying their way up.

Pathfinder coughed and trotted over. “Right, sorry, Commander.” With a quick flap of his wings, the Centurion shot up and through the hole, leaving Pan Sea below with Hurricane.

“Sorry, Commander,” Pan Sea began to mumble.

Hurricane just pressed a hoof against his brow. “Just go, Pansy.”

As soon as Pan Sea ascended, Hurricane flew up through the gap and into the palace. A quick look around told him he was in the hallway leading to the courtyard behind the palace. Just in front of him, barely more than fifteen feet away, was a smashed stone ceiling tile leading to a passage above.

“Looks like somepony took the top way in,” Pathfinder commented. “Even I didn’t know about those.”

“My sister and I put them in,” Hurricane began, “but I didn’t think anypony else knew about them.”

“Maybe your sister’s here?”

Hurricane felt his blood freeze for not the first time that day. “Impossible. She lives at the edge of the city, and she knows I’m gone. She wouldn’t have flown here for no reason.”

“There’s been fighting here,” one of Pathfinder’s companions said as he walked up to a body. Around him were the bodies of numerous soldiers impaled on each other’s weapons. Reaching into the pouch under the body’s left wing, the soldier pulled out his documents. “Legionnaire Quick Shot, private. He was supposed to be off duty at the barracks today.”

Hurricane pushed past him and began to move towards the throne room. “If he got in, more will come. We’ve got to get to Swift Spear. Quickly, to the throne room.”

Creeping around the edge of the cloudstone masonry, the five soldiers went through the halls as quietly as possible. They could still hear the sounds of the fighting raging outside, but it seemed like it was starting to die down. Not from a lack of resolve, but most likely due to the fact that one of the two sides was probably almost worn down to nothing.

Sprinting past more blood and bodies, Hurricane suddenly came to a stop, causing Pan Sea and Pathfinder to almost collide with him. Both stumbled off to the side and barely managed to suppress glowering at the commander of their entire nation.

“Gods, no!” Hurricane shouted as he suddenly began to sprint again. In front of him, the doors to the throne room were opened wide, and several bodies littered the hall near it. He didn’t think anything of them until he slid through the doorway, slamming his shoulder against the iron door in the process.

“Quick!” a masculine voice shouted from the center of the room. “Get me some bandages! We’re losing her!”

Time slowed to a crawl as Hurricane looked around the room. Off to the corner, Twister was struggling against a pair of Praetorians, her face contorted into a scream of grief and rage. The Praetorians themselves looked nervous and were sweating profusely as they watched the figure in the center of the room. Two bodies laid on the floor near them, blood still pouring from their wounds.

Hurricane began to gallop into the room at a painfully slow pace. His sword slowly slid out of its scabbard even as the world refused to remove around him. There, in the center of the room, was a gray Praetorian with blood pouring from his shoulder. His face was badly bruised and bleeding, and his hooves were covered in blood. The source of that blood was the heaving chest of the mare he had placed them on. With a concentrated grit of his teeth, the Praetorian flung aside a sickly crimson rag and pulled another out of his saddlebag before swiftly placing it against the gaping wound in the mare’s exposed gut.

“SWIFT!!!”

With an agonized howl, Hurricane tossed his sword aside and flew up to the throne room. There was so much blood, staining the cloudstone crimson and matting the soft blond of her coat into sticky spikes of red. Not even caring whether the Praetorian crouched over her was the enemy or not, Hurricane roughly pushed his way through and kneeled over Swift Spear.

Swift was panting softly, and each breath sent blood trickling out of her nose and the corner of her mouth. Underneath Thunder Hawk’s hooves, the fresh rag quickly became red. Absolutely frantic, Hurricane tossed his helmet aside and desperately looked up and down Swift’s body, trying to find some way to miraculously heal her.

“Commander, I—” the Praetorian stumbled over his words before shaking his head and trying again. “I’m sorry. My orders were to take her alive, not this… no, Cyclone never wanted this. He never wanted his mother to get hurt—”

“Shut up!” Hurricane seethed as he shoved Thunder Hawk away. Picking up the rag to look at the wound, Hurricane almost broke down on the spot. The puncture wound from the sword stretched through her ribcage and one of her lungs, through her stomach, and into her liver. Every breath bubbled up blood, and droplets spattered across Hurricane’s muzzle. Her eyes moved beneath their eyelids, and a small amount of sweat had broken across her brow.

“Swift…” Hurricane pleaded as he knelt down closer to her. He placed a hoof on her forehead and shuddered. It was already frighteningly hot. “Please… Swift, please open your eyes…”

Tears had begun to stream down Hurricane’s face, falling softly onto Swift Spear’s neck and cheeks with a simple patter. There they turned red, turning into small rivulets of crimson down her side. Pressing his ear against Swift’s chest, Hurricane sniffled quietly to himself.

Behind him, Thunder Hawk had retreated to give the Commander some space. Now, he and his two Praetorians were standing off to the edge of the room. They had let Twister go, and she moved quietly forward towards Hurricane. The rest of Hurricane’s companions—Pan Sea, Pathfinder, and the other two soldiers—simply stood in the doorway and watched.

Hurricane didn’t even feel Twister rest a hoof on his shoulder. Even if she had spoken, he probably wouldn’t have heard her either. He was consumed entirely in his own grief as he lay there, listening to Swift’s rapidly fading heartbeat. Blood stained the side of his face, but he didn’t care. It was her blood, and it was some of the last she could ever give, for the Legion, for Cirra, for him.

“Please, Swift…” Hurricane murmured to her. He squinted as his eyes burned with tears, and, gritting his teeth, moved closer to press his muzzle against hers. “I… I don’t… I can’t…”

Then he started crying in earnest. Tears poured down the powerful Commander’s cheeks like those of a lost foal’s. His body shook and heaved with wracking tremors, and strength bled from his powerful limbs like life bled out of Swift Spear. Twister recoiled slightly as the air around him dropped by nearly thirty degrees. Already the sweat that had coated his armor and coat minutes earlier had frozen into tiny crystals of frost.

“Come back to me, Swift,” Hurricane whispered into her ear. “Just one more time…”

Laying down next to his wife, Hurricane reached over and kissed her forehead. She didn’t move at the contact, and instead just lay there, slowly taking her last breaths. Already her limbs had fallen into a paralyzed serenity, and her beautiful and soft wings had but a few last twitches to give as they shook against the ground.

Then, Swift Spear gasped and opened her eyes.

They were bloodshot and very glassy, but they were open, and they found Hurricane at her side. With a slight grunt, she managed to move her head a few degrees to the side. She also tested her limbs, but they wouldn’t respond to her. The most she could get was a few inches of movement from her right wing—the one brushing against Hurricane’s side.

Hurricane jolted at the contact and sat up. The fur under his eyes and on his cheeks was damp and matted, and his mouth hung open. Terror and desperation filled his face, but it washed away at Swift’s warm smile. With a shuddering breath, he leaned over and kissed Swift on the lips.

“I… I didn’t think… I would see you… again…” Swift whispered around painful and wet breaths. Every word she spoke caused her lung to gurgle, and the blood trickling out of her mouth started again.

“Swift,” Hurricane cried, “Swift, I’m so sorry. I never should have left you, I never should have gone and left you all alone, I—”

“Shhh,” Swift weakly interrupted. “Did you… did you find… what you were looking for?”

Hurricane sat up slightly and nodded. “Yes, Swift, yes I did. I found it. I found new lands… new lands where we could have lived a happy life together…” He meekly smiled and leaned his head back against hers. “The air was so warm… you would have loved it…”

Swift Spear attempted to giggle, but it only came out as a single, weak breath. Instead, she gently twitched her ear against Hurricane’s muzzle. “I know I… would have…. Flying with you…”

Hurricane shuddered and pressed closer against Swift Spear’s side. “Please, don’t go. Don’t leave me all alone. You’re my wife, the love of my life, the one mare who’s been through everything I have… the one pony to whom I can actually talk about what I saw… what we saw… to remember Silver Sword, to remember Streak Wing, to remember our parents, and our friends, and the way things used to be…”

He choked on tears and shook again. “Our children, our history…. Don’t leave that all to me, Swift… I don’t want to be alone…”

Swift smiled and kissed Hurricane’s cheek. “Hurricane… you won’t be alone… you’ve got Twister… her family, your nieces… our children are both still alive…” She shook her head, an action that took about three seconds but only covered a few inches of weak movement. “You know… you’ll never be alone…. Even when I’m gone… I’ll be there. Just look to the skies… look to your side… feel my presence next to you late at night… you’ll know I’m still there… you’ll know I still love you.”

“Cyclone… I’ll make him pay for this…” Hurricane panted. With every word, his voice grew more rapid and forceful, until he was shouting more with rage than actual thought. “For killing his mother, for tearing Cirra apart for betraying his sister, for everything! I’ll—!”

“Hurricane!” Swift cut in with surprising forcefulness. “Hurricane, please… Cyclone’s our only son… he’s my baby boy… I still love him… I’ll love him when I draw my last breath, I’ll love him even as I watch you from above. Don’t kill him… spare him his life… our family loses one life today… don’t let it lose another, please... spare our baby boy…” Coughing lightly, she looked into his eyes. “Promise me this… please…”

The black pegasus, looking shockingly old and tired, nodded and pressed his forehead against Swift’s. “I promise you, Swift. I’ll spare him. I can never forget this—never—but I’ll try… I’ll try my hardest to forgive him… because like you said…”

Hurricane stopped and bit his lip, trying to force back the tears and sobs that threatened to steal his speech any moment. “Because like you said, he’s my only son. And he’ll be my only son, I can promise you that. I love you, and I’ll always love you. Forever and ever, until the stars shine no more, until the sun shrivels and dies, never to rise again, I’ll remember you, and I’ll love you. Every day, every minute will be a horrible reminder that you’re not there. But I’ll carry on for you. Because I love you. I won’t give up because of you, Swift. I won’t give up, because I know you want me to go on.” Taking a deep breath, Hurricane kissed Swift’s forehead again. “And I won’t disappoint you. Even if I live for another forty years, I’ll make you proud. And then, one day, we’ll be together again. In the Great Skies, we’ll be whole. And I’ll never leave your side, ever again.”

Swift smiled and gently nuzzled Hurricane. “Mmm… I’d like that… very much.” With a sudden, soft gasp, Swift’s neck twitched and her head tilted back. Her eyes stared at the ceiling, and her sadness slowly began to leave her. “Hurricane, I… I see Silver…”

That was the last she spoke. Slowly releasing her breath, Swift’s head tilted back, back, back until it touched the cloudstone underneath. Then, her chest slowly crumpled, and the blood bubbled a few seconds longer before it stopped.

Nopony moved for the longest time.

Finally, Twister reached her hooves under Hurricane’s armpits and hugged him. The tired and broken stallion turned towards his sister and leaned against her chest, weeping. Twister only bent lower and ran a hoof through Hurricane’s mane, gently stroking it. It had been so long since she had been the strong one for her brother, perhaps as long ago as before the Day of Empire celebration twenty years prior. He had always been so strong for her; even when Thunder Gale and Raincloud were murdered, and she had stood there in shock as they died in front of her; even when Zephyrus was burnt to the ground, and everything she had ever known was cruelly turned into ash and fire against the bloody horizon; even when he sent her to Altus so he could die alone in Stratopolis, facing the Gryphon onslaught in a battle he knew he could not win, he was the strong one. Now, she realized just how much it had hurt him too. How much it had hurt him, and how little he had ever said about it.

Looking at his mane, she could see how the blue had already faded into silver as two decades of stress built up and crushed the stallion underneath. She had lost friends during the Red Cloud War, sure, but she hadn’t been to the front. Her brother saw almost everypony he loved killed before his very eyes. He thought he’d gotten away from it all after the Exodus, and then his wife died the very day he finally came back to Cloudsdale. Twister could only imagine the things he had wanted to say to her, the things he had wanted to show her, and instead, he had only been able to cradle her body as she died.

She knew she would never want to experience anything like that. She wouldn’t be able to bear seeing Echo Wing die before her. She could only imagine how Hurricane felt now.

She didn’t bother whispering lies how everything was going to be okay. It wasn’t her ground to judge what Hurricane was feeling and what he wanted to hear or not. Instead, she only held him until he could cry no more.

Only when her coat was thoroughly soaked with tears and the stallion could only whimper softly did Hurricane finally begin to speak. “T-thanks, Twister,” Hurricane whispered to her. Squeezing his little sister a little closer, the two shared a heartfelt hug, the first they had truly had in years. With a slight nod, Hurricane separated from the embrace and stood up.

His first thoughts were to address the three Praetorians standing in the corner. Each of them had laid their sword, helmet, and wingblades in a pile in front of themselves. They stood, stiffly, waiting for Hurricane to speak to them.

“Why did you come here?” Hurricane quietly asked of them. Despite the lack of volume, they were the most terrifying words any had ever heard the Commander speak.

Thunder Hawk nodded slightly and stepped forward. “We came on Imperator Cyclone’s orders, sir. He wanted us to take Swift Spear alive. She resisted, and despite my best attempts to disarm her, she nearly killed me. I tried to move her spear to block her attack, but the weight was too unnatural in my hooves, sir. I—I lost control of the weapon. I stabbed her in the stomach as she leapt at me. It was not my intention to do so, and I tried to save her, but there was little I could do.”

Bowing his head, an action the other two Guards copied, Thunder Hawk knelt down before Hurricane. “I ask not for your forgiveness, but that I am executed justly and honorably. I have done a disservice to Cirra; allow me to pay for it with my life.”

Pathfinder growled from the corner and pulled out a dagger. “Justly and honorably my ass, you backstabbing treacherous pieces of shi—!”

“Enough!” Hurricane shouted at him even as he raised a wing to stop Pathfinder. “These soldiers deserve as much. They did not run when confronted. They did not raise a feather against me when challenged. They took their orders as per their oath, even from a treacherous Imperator. The least they deserve is death with honor.”

Looking back at the Guards, Hurricane gestured with his wing. “I want the fighting outside of the gates stopped, now. Do this for me, and I promise your deaths will be swift and painless.”

Thunder Hawk and the two surviving Praetorian Guards stood up and saluted in unison. “As you command, sir.” Then they left, taking their swords and wingblades, but not their helmets, with them.

Pathfinder watched them go and angrily slammed his sword back into its scabbard as they went. “They’re going to fly, first chance they get, I can guarantee you that much.”

“No, they won’t,” Hurricane said. “If you’ve been through Praetorian training, you understand that your honor is the only thing you truly own. They would not waste that on a life without meaning.”

“Hurricane,” Pan Sea began, walking towards Hurricane’s side, “What do we do now? What about Cyclone? Do we… kill him?”

Pathfinder took a step back as if he had been physically struck. Turning to Pan Sea, his voice quickly began to crack. “My wife and I buried our baby girl not even six months ago. It… it was the hardest day of my l-life…”

When he looked at Hurricane, his eyes were wet and his lips trembled. “Sir, you… you don’t want to feel that pain, sir.”

Without saying anything more, Pathfinder walked out of the throne room, leaving Hurricane and Pan Sea behind with Twister and the other two soldiers. After a few seconds of pause, they saluted Hurricane and walked out as well.

Fighting with his thoughts for a few more seconds, Hurricane finally bit down on his lip and nodded. “Twister, I trust you to take care of Swift’s b-body,” he stammered as he walked towards the door.

Twister looked after him. “Hurricane? Cane, where are you going?”

Hurricane stopped just long enough to look over his shoulder at Twister. Before her very eyes, she saw her brother suppress his anger and anguish and fear behind the mask he commonly wore on the throne. In a second, the Hurricane who had cried against her coat was gone, replaced with the unbreakable leader of the Cirran Empire.

“Pan Sea, up,” Hurricane ordered, actually pronouncing Pan Sea’s name correctly. “We’re going to River Rock. It’s time to end this once and for all.”

Without anything more, Hurricane walked outside the room and towards the front doors. As he expected, he found Pathfinder and his companions standing next to the opened doors. Outside, Hurricane could see hundreds of dead bodies, but also hundreds of living pegasi split into two groups, loyalists and traitors, with the three Praetorian Guards he released standing between them. As he began to walk down the hall, the loyalists began to cheer loudly and parted for him to pass through. Even several soldiers on the other side cheered his approach, while others looked mostly unsure of themselves.

Stepping into the main clearing of soldiers, Hurricane looked them all over. They were worn and tired from battle, most were covered in blood, and several had broken pieces of armor, but each and every one watched the Commander closely. Even more comforting was the fact that none moved.

Satisfied, Hurricane nodded and looked to the sky. There was still a huge fight going on, and casualties continued to rise by the minute. It was up to him, and him alone to stop it.

Turning around, Hurricane closed his eyes as he raised his hind legs off of the ground. The crowd gathered around him watched, unsure of what he would do. Even Pathfinder and Pan Sea, who stood off to the side in the doorway, watched, transfixed, as he bucked his hooves out.

A massive bolt of lightning split the skies in two. The resulting blast of thunder shook the very foundations of Cloudsdale itself, and several of the more damaged buildings threatened to collapse. As the blinding streak of light seared across the sky and the smoke swirled from the thunder, Hurricane looked behind him to see that the fighting had all but stopped.

“Pegasi of Cloudsdale!” Commander Hurricane shouted into the sky with an unnaturally thunderous voice. “Followers of Imperator Cyclone and true soldiers of the Legion! The siege of Cloudsdale is now over! I, Commander Hurricane, have returned from my journey to the far west. The palace is firmly under my control, and the Legion remains unbroken. To continue fighting is futile—you will only find death if you continue to pursue Imperator Cyclone’s twisted dreams of power.”

Looking around, Hurricane could see many of the traitors across from him trembling in their armor. On the spur of the moment, an idea came to him, and he smiled. “Many of you are worried what will happen to you now that your treachery has failed you. I will tell you this; if you flee into the wild, we will not pursue you. If you turn yourselves in, your trials will be just. But if you fly with me to River Rock, which Imperator Cyclone and the Praetorian Guard currently have besieged, then you will be forgiven of your treachery. You will be allowed to stay within the Legion as pegasi of Cirra, and you will be allowed to come with us to the new lands I discovered in the west. This, I give you my word. Fly with me, and let us put this horrible chapter in Cirran history to a close!”

Hurricane looked around, panting, as he finished. At first, there was nothing. Not a response from any of the soldiers around him. He was almost worried that nopony would side with him when he felt a familiar presence by his side.

“I’ll fly with you,” Pan Sea meekly offered. But, standing tall, he faced off against the innumerous soldiers around him. “I have flown by the Commander’s side since he left Cloudsdale on his journey weeks ago. I would be a true coward if I did not fly with him now, even if I’m the only soldier with enough balls to do so!”

A few chuckles broke out around Pan Sea, and soon, soldiers began to step forward. They were almost interrupted by Pathfinder walking forward, waving a tankard of ale he managed to find somewhere in front of him.

“You deadwings better fly with the Commander and I, or else I’ll flay every last one of you alive after I get piss-ass drunk!”

A single laugh was heard from the side, and a mare advanced towards Pathfinder. She was a Legate by the armor she wore, and as she draped an off-white wing over the Centurion, he visibly paled. “You’re going to do what, dear?”

Pathfinder suddenly found himself at a loss for words. “I, uh, well, I mean, uh… nothing, honey…”

“Gods, I hope you didn’t learn how to threaten somepony from the bar,” the mare teased him. Seeing Hurricane, she swiftly saluted. “Sir, it's good to see you're alright. As for this sorry excuse for a centurion..." She shrugged, tilting a wing towards Pathfinder. "I dragged this poor bastard out of the fire at Nimbus during the counterattack and things kind of took off from there. It’s an honor to fly by your side again, sir.”

Hurricane quietly chuckled as Pathfinder tried to avoid his wife’s gaze but cut himself off as his thoughts drifted back towards Swift Spear. Instead he nodded towards the mare. “Legate Iron Rain. It’s good to have you with us—both of you. Your husband helped me get through the fighting on the way to the palace.”

“Oh, did he now?” Iron Rain lilted. With a hoof she rubbed at Pathfinder’s mane. “And I was always so much more of a fan of the Commander anyway.”

“Please, not now…” Pathfinder groaned.

“Love you too,” Iron Rain teased. Pushing away from Pathfinder, she stared out into the crowd. “CIRRANS, ON ME!!”

Several hundred pairs of hooves stomped together in response and formed up around her. With an impressive display of command, Iron Rain began to gather the rest of the soldiers around her into a makeshift formation as more and more volunteered and stepped forward.

As Hurricane’s soldiers built up, he began to fly into the air, with Pan Sea behind him. Circling the newly organized Legion, the two pegasi watched as they began to take flight into the air, regiment by regiment.

“Impressive,” Pan Sea murmured. “I… wow… I never thought we would actually do it.”

“It’s not over yet, Pansy,” Hurricane answered, slipping back into his old habit. “We’ve still got a battle to win. Then it’ll be over.”

Then, with the wind at their tails, Hurricane and Pan Sea soared across the frozen ground beneath them to the south. And, in their wake, the impressive unity of the Cirran Legion followed, tearing holes through sky in pursuit of Cyclone and the traitors he still commanded in River Rock.

-----

The sky was unnaturally dark that day, presumably due to the wind moving the clouds in from the north and over the city. River Rock, in all its frigid glory, continued to cling onto existence even as the snows tried to pry it off of the valley walls it owned.

There was hardly a guard to be seen on the walls, it was so cold. Instead, the ancient ramparts of the city were barren, covered only by snow that hadn’t been disturbed for several days. If there had been guards there, they might have noticed the low-flying black cloud swiftly descending from the north. Then again, if there were guards stationed along the walls, there would have been little they could do against the incoming onslaught.

For, diving out of the cloud cover that had sheltered their flight on the way south, was Emperor Cyclone of the New Cirran Empire, the entirety of the Praetorian Guard, and fifteen thousand Legionnaires. Each soldier was armed to the teeth, and each one had a streak of red paint along the side of their helmet. Their wingblades flashed in the dim gray light over the Diamond Kingdom with each powerful stroke that brought them closer to its capital.

When they were hardly more than a half mile away from the city, Cyclone stopped his advance and briefly hovered in place. Five of the highest-ranking soldiers in the Praetorian Guard flew up next to him and awaited their orders.

Cyclone smiled as he took it all in. River Rock, a city with so much history, standing for thousands of years against all manner of barbarian onslaught. A city that had begun to die of corruption and decay by the time the pegasi had found it. Cyclone wanted to remember this scene in the battle to come.

After all, he would need something to compare the smoldering and broken ruins of the city to in a few hours.

Baring his teeth, Cyclone glanced at the Guards around him. Then, softly issuing a single command, he grinned.

“Burn it all.”

With a few shouts from the Guards around him, twenty thousand bloodthirsty pegasi descended onto the city. In a few seconds, the real shouting began, and the first fires exploded off of the rooftops of the outlying houses as they advanced.

Drawing his sword, Cyclone laughed and dove into the fray.

Author's Note:

Sorry about the huge delay, but I hope over 20,000 words is worth it.

Major cameo by an OC (Pathfinder) my friend Ruirik is going to be using in a story of his own some time from now, as well as Pathfinder's wife. I hope he enjoys seeing Finder in action.

"Song of the Drunken Soldier" by Ruirik. So, yeah. Thank him for that little bit as well.

Also, huge shout-out to my translator, google translate. Whenever my living, native-speaking Russians aren't here to translate lines for me, I always have google.

One major chapter to go -- let's hope it doesn't take as long as this beast!