• Published 12th Jan 2013
  • 3,872 Views, 372 Comments

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.

  • ...
6
 372
 3,872

Chapter 2: Troubling Winds

Chapter 2: Troubling Winds

A loose strand of wintry wind, lost in the caverns far below the snowy world, tugged gently at Twilight’s mane as she set the book down. Rainbow Dash had already prepared a fire in the ancient stone hearth embedded in the walls of the crypt, letting the water cook a soup of boiled greens and flowers for the two of them to eat. Both the unicorn and the pegasus gave each other surprised looks at what they had just read.

“Well… I sure haven’t ever heard of that story before,” Rainbow commented as she turned back to the soup. She inhaled deeply, allowing the smell of tendered lettuce to waft into her nostrils. The warm, moist steam was a very pleasant change from the excruciatingly cold and dry cavern air that she had been breathing for the past hour. Her powdery blue wings fluttered, creating currents of air that forced the steam together in front of her face as a loose cloud of vapor. With a puff of air, Rainbow blew a hole through it, causing the steam to change into a ring as it dissipated.

Twilight Sparkle had unfolded a scroll of parchment paper and was busy writing down passages from the chapter she had read, annotating the copies instead of the text itself. Setting her quill aside, she gathered the notes and buried her nose in them as she spoke.

“This passage predates the Eternal Blizzard by twelve years, so it wouldn’t be common knowledge to the general population. Actually, I had read of this defense of the Unicornia province of the Diamond Kingdom in some of Star Swirl the Bearded’s logs from the era. Who knew that this was where Hurricane got his armor? I just assumed it was standard for the Cirran commanders of the time.”

Although obviously intrigued, Rainbow lazily brushed her hoof across her mane as she watched the soup. “Who cares about some dingy old armor? It’s been over a thousand years since then. Don’t you think the guardsponies would have come up with better armor by now?”

“Hurricane’s armor is legendary, Rainbow, not just because it was worn by Commander Hurricane, but because no other pegasus armor in existence has ever matched its durability despite its age. It’s still worn by the commander of the Royal Guard, and as far as Shining Armor told me, it hasn’t had to have been mended once since its creation. It’s capable of absorbing incredible amounts of Arcana or Empatha attacks, and allows its wearer to turn into one of the basic manifestations of Empatha, like fire or earth.”

Rainbow’s brow rose slightly as she considered how awesome it would be to turn into fire. “That’s pretty cool. But what about some of the other stuff that Hurricane said, like the crystal ponies actually trying to attack the city? I thought the Crystal Empire was supposed to be a pretty chill place full of love and friendship and crap like that. That doesn’t sound anything at all like how Hurricane described them.”

“Actually, I read about some of this in the books Princess Cadence lent me from the libraries of the Crystal Empire.” Using her magic to sift through her numerous bags, Twilight produced one of the many accounts she brought with her for the expedition. “During the Age of Tribes, the crystal ponies were a bunch of scattered groups led by powerful warlords. It was around the time of the Eternal Blizzard that they began to cast aside their traditionally violent ways and unify into the Crystal Empire that we know today. The process took fifty-odd years with the warlords opposing the movement, but eventually, enough of the groups united to throw out their violent leaders and establish their empire of love and friendship.”

The soup was boiling now, so Rainbow quickly removed the pot from the fire and poured two hot bowls for herself and Twilight. Bringing the wooden bowls back to the table, the colorful pegasus sat down next to her companion and looked over the text of the book. “I don’t see what any of this has to do with the Hearth’s Warming story, though. Does he go on about it for much longer?”

Twilight’s horn illuminated as she skimmed through the pages of the book. “For about another hundred pages. It talks a lot about the proliferation of skysteel weaponry and the advanced Empatha training the Praetorian began to receive after that battle. He said this was a log of what happened, but it seems more like a journal to me.”

Rainbow brought her hooves to her forehead and groaned. “Can we just skip to the good stuff, please? I’m afraid if we have to listen to twelve more years of this I might as well ask some of the corpses here to move over.”

“First, this isn’t a burial temple. It’s a crypt of knowledge, so there aren’t any corpses here. And second, how could you want to pass up on all this learning?!” Twilight regarded Rainbow’s lack of zeal for learning like an inquisitor from the days of yore cornering a heretic in their hovel.

Rainbow simply ignored Twilight’s glare and shrugged her wings. “Because it’s just, like, boring. Don’t get me wrong, Commander Hurricane’s a pretty cool pegasus, but I want to hear about the Hearth’s Warming story.” Her chest inflated slightly as her features hardened into her classic cocky grin. “I want to know how awesome a portrayal of him I did!”

Twilight rolled her eyes, knowing very well that Hurricane was hardly the brash and insensitive military hothead that the stories made him out to be. “Fine, we can jump to the later pages. At least I’ll be able to look over the whole book in detail when we get back to Ponyville.”

The pages fluttered past Twilight’s nose as she pressed forward twelve years, finally stopping when she found the relevant dates. “Ah, here we go. This is one of Commander Typhoon’s logs. Nineteenth of Bare Trees, Four Hundred and Twenty-One After Empire.”

-----

Amber Field was one of those towns whose unassuming façade belied a rat’s nest of danger and crime that thrived within the shadows of its dirty and worn buildings. The capital of the Low Valleys was considered the birthplace of the earth ponies, but despite its thousand years of history it was a wide but thinly populated town. Thousands of acres of fields surrounded the settlement in every direction, dotted here and there with large communal farmhouses. In the summer they would be overflowing with abundance in wheat and grains, but the year’s exceptionally harsh winter had killed off much of the excess. Instead, hardy vegetables such as broccoli and potatoes were all that grew in the cold season.

Despite its rickety wooden houses, weathered brick storefronts, and stained governmental buildings, Amber Field was the single most important city in the entire tribal area. Everything the earth ponies produced passed through Amber Field on its way to the holds of Cirra to the north or the Diamond Kingdom to the south. Its central location between Cirra and the Diamond Kingdom made it the political center of the tribal world, and hundreds of unicorn merchants and traders had permanent residence in the earth pony city. Delegates from the three tribes would meet and discuss business in Amber Field, although in those days not much was discussed anymore.

Such a prosperous city along a central trade route was a beacon to all manner of organized crime, with several powerful gangs operating out of the town. The proliferation of criminals and felons of all sorts warranted the garrison of an entire legion of the mighty Cirran armies to be permanently stationed in the city just to cut down on the crime. The excessive use of Cirra’s already incredible force had choked the once rampant gangs into the shadows, freeing up the streets in broad daylight to be safely travelled. The shadowy alleyways, however, were absolutely teeming with the scum of the equine world, and not even the Legion dared to commit centuries to clear them out.

The first fifteen years of Cirran policing in the city were well received by Amber Field’s inhabitants, and it was considered a dishonor amongst the residents if you didn’t stop to salute a passing century of the mighty legionaries as they patrolled the city. Citizens were more than happy to provide food or drink to the soldiers in the summer months, and many of the merchants offered their wares at discounted prices to the enlisted. A party couldn’t start until off-duty legionaries entered the bar and filled it with their drunken songs and war stories from that unimaginable empire that once thrived far to the east. Knowing a legionary was an honor, and their natural agility and grace that came with being a pegasus made them highly sought companions during any of the numerous balls that were held on a routine basis in the town hall.

How the times had changed since then.

With the increasing pressure from the Crystal warlords to the northwest, crime in the city had spiraled out of control despite the heavy Cirran presence. In response, Imperator Secundus Cyclone, the Praetorian directly responsible for maintaining order throughout the tribal lands, tightened the Legion’s grip on Amber Field and imposed martial law. Centuries of legionaries led by imposing centurions prowled the streets with a strict regimental order, and archers watched the citizens below from every rooftop, their bows always fitted with an arrow. Gone was the friendliness and cheer from the pegasi who once walked the streets, replaced by coldness and distrust to those who came near. Such was necessary in those times, when ponies could be murdered in plain sight and not even the Legion was safe from attack.

Imperator Tertius Typhoon walked the streets of Amber Field alone, accompanied only by her own thoughts and the regular click of her scabbard against her flank. She had known these streets when they were much friendlier, and it pained her to see so many closed shutters and cold shoulders. Amber Field was practically her home despite her heritage; once she had learned how to fly, she routinely accompanied her older brother Cyclone on patrols, tagging along at his side with nothing but a kitchen knife she had stolen from the cooks in Cloudsdale as some foalish approximation for a skysteel sword. ‘The Little Legionary’ they had called her then, and Cyclone’s century was always happy to have her with them.

Despite her youth at the time, she was as well trained as some of the legionaries that she accompanied. Her father was Hurricane, Commander Maximus of Cirra, and her mother was Swift Spear, Imperator Primus of the Cirran Legion. She had never seen the heights of Stratopolis or the gates of Nimbus, and all she knew of the old Cirran Empire was what her father had told her. She was born in Cloudsdale, two years after Cyclone and three after the exodus, and had been trained from the first day she flew to become one of the Praetorian Guard.

Those years of training had paid off, and she joined the Legion when she was sixteen. In only two years, she fought her way through numerous skirmishes and battles to climb into the ranks of the Praetorian, eventually being appointed Imperator Tertius with recommendations from her brother and the prestige attached to the legend that was her father. With Cyclone being Imperator Secundus of the Cirran Legion, he commanded it from the field, and Typhoon became his top officer. The siblings fought as a remarkable tandem, a perfect balance of Cyclone’s fiery aggression and Typhoon’s calm and patience.

Now, however, Typhoon cantered through Amber Field by herself. Cyclone was busy leading a raid against a Crystal Pony encampment to the west, leaving his sister in charge of the town in his absence. In direct violation of Cirran protocol, however, she patrolled the streets alone. A company of legionaries attracted too much attention for her purposes, and despite her Praetorian’s armor and colorful mane of red, yellow, brown, and black hair, she would be able to get much closer by herself.

Her target was never more than fifty feet in front of her, yet not once had he seen the elusive mare in his walk across the city. The streets were full of earth ponies and unicorns under the frosty sun, providing her ample cover to stalk her prey. They wandered past old storefronts and around crumpled corners until they finally entered the markets. Typhoon felt her wings twitch in anticipation as the pony she was following began to slow down and peruse the various stalls and vendors.

The target in question was an earth pony stallion with a brown coat and matted black mane. He must have been near thirty, and his thick hooves struck the cobblestone with a heavy clop that made him easy enough to follow by sound alone. Typhoon did not need to listen to figure out where he was in the crowds, however. The stallion was perhaps the tallest pony she had ever seen in her life, a titan of over four feet from hoof to head. Adorning his flank was a horseshoe surrounded by three stars. To the nobility in River Rock, it would have looked like he was some kind of stunt actor or some other dazzling profession, but Typhoon knew it represented what a pony saw if his hooves struck their head... assuming the blow didn't kill them instantly.

The behemoth had stopped at one of the fruit stalls and was idly browsing through its contents when he suddenly glanced over his shoulder. Typhoon’s heart jumped into her throat as she saw his eyes drift over her form from the corner of her vision, and she simply continued walking as if she didn’t notice him. After walking to another stall, she spared a quick look back to where the stallion was walking away. Seeing his tail swish lightly with his gait, Typhoon let out a sigh of relief and began to follow him again. If he had been aware that she was following him, he would have been much more tense and his steps a little too easy. Reading ponies was something that the pegasus mare excelled at, and no ponies were easier to read than the inhabitants of the Low Valleys.

They were approaching an alleyway along the west end of the markets. Her heart pounding, Typhoon began to accelerate her pace and close on her target. Once he disappeared between the shadows of the buildings, he would essentially be lost from her. Being a Praetorian, she had the skill to take on five earth ponies by herself, but even her legendary rank would not be enough to help her there. If she had learned anything in her years of training, it was that you never fought against unicorns alone, and despite their aristocratic stereotyping, there were certainly several horns who had made the streets and gangs of Amber Field their home. The last time she had fought a pair of unicorns alone they had screwed with her internal compass, making her body think west was north for a week. She couldn’t fly straight the whole time.

She was ten strides from the stallion, and he was five from the alleyway. Knowing that now would be her only chance at apprehending him, Typhoon popped the latch on her sword and spread her wings, ready to leap onto the brute’s neck and wrestle him to the ground. Her blood roared through her ears with anticipation of the fight, but instead of adrenaline and excitement, it seemed to carry an icy sedative. Imperator Typhoon was known for being calm in combat, even borderline statuesque, and that level-headedness made her as dangerous as her more reckless brother.

One flap of her wings, and she was airborne. Another flap set her in motion towards her target. The stallion’s ears perked at the sound of feathers pushing through the air, and he began to look across his shoulder. Three flaps and Typhoon had halved the distance between them. Four…

A ball of ice and snow slammed against her helmet, exploding into a hundred tiny pieces and bringing the startled Praetorian to the ground. Snarling, she jumped to her hooves in time to see the earth pony disappear into the alleyway. To her right, three children, two colts and a filly, were giggling in amusement at the pegasus’ clumsy fall to the earth. Staring daggers at the children, Typhoon reached deep into herself and summoned an icy burst of Empatha at their hooves, freezing them to the ground. Satisfied that the wailing brats would learn their lesson in the two hours it would take for their hooves to thaw, Typhoon ignored her better judgment and jumped to the rooftops to pursue her target from above.

The stallion was quick, using his long legs to push himself to speeds difficult for even a pegasus to match on hoof. Typhoon’s hooves clopped against the slippery tiles of the rooftops as she followed him, shattering several as she leapt from building to building. She would have taken to the air and pursued him directly, but he was penetrating deeper and deeper into gang territory, and unicorns loved to take shots at legionaries flying over their turf. Despite the attention her target was raising in his scramble for safety, she could do much worse by taking wing.

Although the brown earth pony was exceptionally gifted in strength and size, the same could not be said for his mind. Not bothering to consider whether Typhoon was following him from above, the stallion turned and twisted through sharp corners and narrow alleyways to lose the pony he assumed was chasing him on the ground. Instead, Typhoon bounded across the buildings, adding a flutter or two from her buff-colored wings to cross streets.

Swift Spear was renowned for her quickness and agility, and those were certainly traits that Typhoon had inherited from her mother. Diving off the edge of one building, the Praetorian tucked her body into a tight roll and smashed through the window on the top floor of the house across the street. Streaking past a terrified unicorn mare and her foal, Typhoon broke through the window opposite from her entrance and fell onto the stallion’s neck below.

The saying ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’ assumes that the subject in question can be toppled. Typhoon found herself on the unfortunate end of the exception to that general rule of feather as she clung onto the brown stallion’s neck for dear life. She had fought manticores before and had grappled with the mane of one rather large specimen in particular, and to say that they were easy to take down would only be valid if compared with the pony she was currently trying to pin. The brutish earth pony was furiously jumping and bucking, and the small pegasus had already lost her breath as her armored chest slammed repeatedly against his spine. It was then that Typhoon wished that the Legion had adopted the idea of the spiked horseshoes that the Diamond Guard wore so she could cling onto the stallion’s hide.

Slowly fighting her way up her target’s neck, Typhoon strained to reach the stallion’s forehead. The titanic pony was slamming his back against the sides of buildings to shake her off, and the Praetorian had to keep her wings tucked against her sides to avoid having them accidentally broken. Locking the earth pony into a stranglehold, Typhoon managed to set her hoof at the base of his skull and discharged her built-up emotion. The creation of such emotion allowed the pegasus to channel her Empatha into freezing the droplets of sweat and water along the pony’s neck, effectively numbing his spinal column and bringing him to the ground. It was a neat trick that Hurricane had taught her on one of their many father-daughter camping trips, although those ‘camping trips’ usually involved dispersing small groups of bandits from their campsites and back into the wilderness.

Once his legs finally gave out from under him, the big stallion hit the ground with the grace of a crate of liquor being dropped from the streets of Cloudsdale. For the first time in what seemed like ages, Typhoon was afforded the opportunity to inhale as she slid off of the brown pony’s back. Shaking the cramps out of her legs and wings, she casually trotted over to where the earth pony’s head lay panting in the snow.

“Big, strong, fast, but certainly not smart.” Crouching down in front of the lethargic pony, Typhoon leaned her magenta eyes closer to his brown irises. “You would have had a better chance running in a straight line. Now that we can finally speak, I’d like to get to know more about you. Or, more specifically, your employers.”

The earth pony coughed and managed to raise his head off of the snow just enough to appear somewhat dignified. “I don’t talk to peggers… especially not little mares in big suits. Did your father get you that sword?” He started to laugh, but the feeling of sudden pain through his ear caused him to choke on his words.

Typhoon withdrew her sword from the ground and shook the blood and remnants of ear-hair off its surface. “Actually, I made this weapon myself. Skysteel sword, the most dangerous kinds of weapons in Cirra. Forged it from a high-flying cirrostratus when I was thirteen. It makes a remarkable weapon if you ask me; incredibly lightweight and fast, and tends to freeze things it cuts through.” Sure enough, the trickle of blood that the stallion’s severed ear had spawned had already crystalized into dark crimson gems around his head. “And Commander Hurricane isn’t the topic of this discussion. Now, unless you would like to answer to him, I suggest that you talk.”

The massive earth pony’s head shook vigorously, and Typhoon was convinced his bugging eyes were going to drop off of his terrified face. Smiling, she returned her frosty sword to its scabbard. “Good. Let’s start with the basics now. Give me your name, who you’re working for, and what you do.”

The bulge in the stallion’s neck quivered as he swallowed. “Name’s Brown Oats, though most juss' call me Brown or Big Oats, it don’t really matter much—” The stallion grunted as Typhoon’s hoof brought him back on topic. “Right. Been on the streets for two year now, smugglin’ food for th’ gang. Lotta profit ta be made in th’ smugglin’ bidness, ‘specially in th’ winter months.”

“You know what that food smuggling is a capital offense established by the Accords twenty years ago, correct?”

Brown Oats’ head nodded nervously.

Typhoon sighed and clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Then you know that all smugglers are supposed to be executed on sight, as per Imperator Cyclone’s directive. Now,” she wrapped her hooves around Brown Oats’ neck and pulled him into a lopsided sitting position, “you have luck going your way. For instance, I’m not my brother. If you want to cash in on those few extra chances that I’ve given you, then you’ll tell me who it is you work for, hm?”

“He would, but he’d die if he so much as considered telling you.”

Dropping the cumbersome earth pony in her grasp, Typhoon wheeled about and drew her sword in the same instant to confront the origin of the voice. Strutting out of the shadows was a blue unicorn stallion accompanied on each side by another horned bodyguard. His long horn pressed out of a crop of silvery hair that was cut short even by unicorn standards. His limbs were muscular, rivaling those of well-built earth pony farmhooves. A cuirass of sapphire and gold armor covered his chest and flanks, obscuring his cutie mark. Typhoon noted all this in the breadth of a second, but her eyes remained focused on the length of his horn. A deadly shade of blue aura covered the structure from base to tip, and the Praetorian knew he already had gathered mana for a spell.

More ponies, unicorn and earth pony alike, emerged from the various alleyways and shadows surrounding the clearing that Typhoon stood in. The mare’s wings were flared and ready, and the sword gently rose and fell with her breath. She wasn’t going to get out of this one without losing a few feathers, but she planned to splinter as many horns as she could in the process.

The unicorn stallion’s lips twitched in amusement as he approached. “Imperator Tertius Typhoon, fourth-highest ranked officer in the entire Cirran Legion. I would have thought you smart enough to remember where your boundaries lie, Praetorian. You don’t just intrude on Blue Coat territory whenever you feel like it.”

Despite the unicorn’s obvious attempts to rile her up, Typhoon maintained her calm and stared at him coldly. “You’re one to talk, aren’t you? The Legion chased your kind off of the streets years ago, and now you hide in the shadows like so many rats from Cirran wrath.” Perking her ears, a slight smile came to her face. “You have no more than fifteen seconds to surrender before ponies begin to die.”

Typhoon was sure she could see the unicorn’s face convulse with rage for a brief moment. “Typical of a pegasus, to think that you hold all the cards just because you’re good with the sword! We know what happened to your kind, Typhoon. You were beaten to the brink of extinction, and only because you fled with your tail between your legs did you have any hope of survival!” He leaned closer, and the sour smell of alcohol and grime made itself all the more present to the Praetorian. “The Legion thinks it owns this city, but they’re only on lease from us. When the time is right, we’re going to drive you feathered bastards back across the ocean from whence you came.”

“I would be awfully disappointed if you didn’t try.”

Typhoon grinned as the voice reached her ears from the rooftops. The blue unicorn stepped away from Typhoon and backed towards the rest of his soldiers, whose eyes were glued to the sky. There, clad in their legendary skysteel armor, were sixty legionaries, each with their weapons drawn. A red pegasus with a short black mane and tail stood on the highest rooftop, and the fire in his eyes was clearly visible under the gold and onyx armor of the Praetorian Guard. Adorning his helmet were strips of forged nimbus skysteel added for visual effect. From his lofty perch, Imperator Secundus Cyclone extended his intimidating command over the entire city block.

“I told you that you had no more than fifteen seconds,” Typhoon whispered in the unicorn’s ear right before she slammed her helmet against his nose. The blue stallion released a surprised snarl as he stumbled backwards, discharging his mana in a powerful bolt of Arcana that pierced the sky.

The slight offset of his rival figure was all it took for Cyclone to dive into the fray. Ignoring the twenty or thirty gang members surrounding their leader, he tackled the unicorn in a wreath of fire that caused the snow and ice to suddenly burst into steam as he passed. As the unicorns in the clearing struggled to channel their mana into spells to repel the pegasi, the legionaries descended on the earthbound ponies like hawks, outnumbering each three to one.

Typhoon, like any good pegasus, didn’t waste time jumping into the action. Immediately after Cyclone had tackled the blue unicorn out of the way in his spectacular kamikaze, she slammed her wings against her sides to propel herself at the unicorn closest to her before his horn could even light. The poor creature shouted in alarm as Typhoon drilled her shoulder into his neck, spinning off of the impact to draw her bladed wing up and under his chin. A splatter of blood coated the wall behind him, and the unicorn was dead before he hit the ground.

The unicorn next to the one Typhoon felled was much faster on the draw. Rather than trying to summon a time-consuming spell, the stallion drew a sword with his horn and pointed it at the pegasus mare. With a cold sigh, Typhoon prepared herself for the next fight. She always hated dueling with unicorn bandits, as their magical grip on their swords made them much harder to disarm and substantially more dexterous than a pony holding a weapon in their mouth. At least she had three blades and years of training to compensate for it, and her armed wings flexed in anticipation.

The unicorn struck first, using his magic to jab his weapon at Typhoon from a distance. The sword travelled remarkably quickly through the air, and she had to spin to her side to dodge the lethal blade. Even then, she thought she heard the tinny sound of metal bouncing off of metal as it passed. Knowing that it would take time for her opponent to apply enough Arcana to reverse the direction of travel of his weapon and bring it back at her, Typhoon practically leapt on top of the yellow unicorn. Her skysteel sword flew in a rapid succession of strikes afforded it by its lightweight construction, and it was impossible for the unicorn to dodge all of them. The white blade traveled in a blur, and when the first drops of blood hit the ground the stallion had already been stabbed three times.

“Fall back! Fall back to the sewers! Come on!” The gang leader’s voice echoed off the walls of the houses as he stood to the side of the battle, burnt and bloody. Only three of the original twenty-odd earth pony and unicorn gang members had survived the fight, and they too fled with their leader into the shadows between the buildings. The legionaries in the street shouted derogatory remarks about the purity of their blood as they ran, then turned back to their commanding officers.

Cyclone limped over to where his sister stood and flicked several flakes of ash and snow off of his wings. “How is it that I always end up covered in your mess, Typhoon? This must be the third time this month.” If Cyclone could laugh, he would have, but in all her eighteen years Typhoon had never once seen her older brother honestly laugh. Instead, a slight loosening of his primary feathers and a smile that on anypony else would be considered a grimace told her that he was amused.

Completely disregarding the formalities that the Praetorian was taught to always display, Typhoon playfully slapped a wing across Cyclone’s back. “Nopony’s making you get involved, Cy. I think you just enjoy it.” She laughed lightly, and Cyclone lazily nodded his head.

“Maybe. I’m not letting you get hurt, at least not until you find a stallion and you don’t have to worry about scarring your pretty face anymore.” Typhoon’s face twisted into mock-rage, and she punched his foreleg. “Hey, watch it sis. The horn hit that leg up pretty good in our fight. Slippery bastard. He had great training, that’s for sure, and his armor took much of my Empatha when we hit. I think the two are related.” Seeing that his troops were watching them, Cyclone scowled and stomped his hoof against the ground. “Well, you know what to do! Standard procedure after a fight, identify the bodies and pile them for burial. You, you, and you, I want you three to see if you can find where those cowards fled to. The rest of you, get to work. Now!”

Extending their wings in salute, the legionaries quickly dispersed with their assignments, allowing Cyclone and Typhoon to walk together, alone. They stopped at the body of one of the blue unicorn’s personal bodyguards, and Typhoon removed the helmet to examine it. “Related, you say. What do you think of this?” She tossed the armor piece to Cyclone, who set it down to examine it.

“Sapphire and gold armor. Even for unicorn merchants, that’s incredibly expensive. Either these unicorns stole it from somewhere, or they got it off of a Diamond Guard. I’d say the former, because no matter how bad the horns’ military is, there’s no way that they’d get bested by a bunch of two-bit street thugs.”

“But you said the two were related, though. I’m assuming you mean that wherever they got their military training from was also where they got their armor?”

“Yeah. I’d rather it not be that possibility, ‘cause then we’re looking at some serious political ramifications. Diamond Guards don’t just renounce their positions to join street gangs. Appointment to King Lapis’ personal military is strictly hereditary, almost like its own nobility in a sense. You don’t just leave that, unless you were told to.”

Typhoon stripped the cuirass off of the dead equine’s head and looked inside it. “Dispelled for poor behavior, or something else?”

“Something else, obviously. The fucking Diamond Guard isn’t worth its weight in the damn gemstones it’s named after, and its officers could care less about insubordination. If they would actually tighten up their discipline like the Legion, we wouldn’t have to be saving their sorry horns every time a sizeable barbarian force attacks River Rock.”

“Whatever it is, I’d say these guys came from the guard recently. Let me ask you this, how many suits of armor does the Diamond Guard have with skysteel in them?”

“Let me see that.” Completely abandoning the helmet he was observing, Cyclone grabbed the cuirass between his hooves and flipped it over. Sure enough, under an additional layering of sapphire gems, there was a thick piece of cumulus skysteel embedded in the bulk of the armor. A few shattered gems on the helmet uncovered more of the metal.

“That explains why that horn was able to absorb my Empatha so damn well,” Cyclone muttered. “Cumulus skysteel is the best material at absorbing Empatha. How the hell these unicorns got their hooves on it I’ll never know. We only sent the Diamond Kingdom one shipment of steel the entire year, and most of the cumulus was supposed to go to Star Swirl for academic purposes. Damn it.” Despite his apparently calm intonation, a few sparks of stray Empatha sprung from his wings in anger.

“Perhaps we should go talk to Aunt Twister about this?” Typhoon offered. Twister was Hurricane’s sister and Cirra’s Legatus Primus, the chief diplomat for the pegasus nation with the other two tribes. She had lived through the Red Cloud War in Dioda and had spent her entire two decades in the tribal lands as Legatus. The mare was at least respected by the Low Valleys and the Kingdom, if hardly universally liked.

Cyclone shook the soot out of his feathers again and nodded. “I suppose it’s at least worth some discussion. I was due to talk to her about the results from the raid anyways. Is she still in Cloudsdale?”

“Yeah, she hasn’t left for tomorrow’s summit meeting yet. Typical of her.” The two siblings shared knowing smiles, even though only one of them was actually smiling.

“Right. My centurion can take it from here. We should have a favorable tailwind at least, if there’s to be any benefit to this winter weather.”

“Good. I would enjoy the winds around here more if they weren’t so damn cold. There’s not a single thermal to be found in the winter. At least Cloudsdale always has some good air.”

“Heh. It’s been too long since I last visited. Been stuck garrisoning this pathetic town or out in the field for months. It’ll be good to get back.” Taking a few short gallops, Cyclone launched his armored figure into the air with his powerful red wings.

“That it will,” Typhoon said to herself as she followed in his wake, letting the spiraling currents of air off her brother’s wings toss aside the falling snow before the flakes entered her eyes.

-----

Cloudsdale. The home of all pegasi. That was the popular moniker affixed to the floating city by the earthbound unicorns and earth ponies, but to the Cirrans who lived there it was an egregious insult to their history. Although the more conscientious and thoughtful unicorn scholars gave it names such as ‘the City of Warriors’ or ‘the crown of pegasus might,’ the Cirrans themselves knew it by a much less flattering title: the City of Survivors.

When the pegasi first arrived from Dioda, Cloudsdale was nothing more than massive puffs of cumulus cloud in the sky. With over three years of hard work, however, a sprawling metropolis had been formed quite literally from thin air, filling several cubic miles of sky. Millions of tons of cumulus had been compressed into cloudstone, the weatherproof material that all pegasus buildings were constructed from. When the plans for the first three years were finished, Cloudsdale could support three hundred-thousand pegasi. That number only continued to grow exponentially as more and more buildings and residences were constructed and attached to the white city.

The Cirran architecture from Dioda had been seamlessly carried over to the new city, and massive white columns supported solid roofs over spiraling stratocumulus foundations throughout the city. The Commander’s palace in which the functions of Cirran government resided was almost a complete recreation of the Emperor’s palace in that forgotten capital Stratopolis that lay in ruins across the ocean. Somehow, the designs for that building had escaped the Gryphon rage that had destroyed nearly everything else, and they had found use in new lands.

Typhoon found herself staring out one of the windows of the palace over the city below as Cyclone reported his findings to Legatus Twister. Twister was a light brown mare of thirty-six years with a long but neatly-styled black mane and tail. She was Hurricane’s younger sister by four years and seemed to carry enough enthusiasm between the two of them to make up for her brother’s traditionally stoic outlook on life. That wasn’t to say that she was wild or excitable as her windy cutie mark seemed to allude at, but within her golden irises there was a spark of energy that made her seem twenty years younger than she actually was.

“…they fled shortly thereafter. I sent some of my scouts to find out where they ran to, but at this point it’s unlikely we’re going to find them without more soldiers—and casualties.” Cyclone had taken off his helmet and was resting a hoof on its side as he spoke to his aunt, gently rocking the onyx piece back and forth from where it lay. Outside of his official Praetorian garb, the red pegasus seemed considerably less severe to Typhoon, but his scowl would still light a fire if the wood happened to cross him.

“Unfortunate. The more of those criminals we put to the blade or under lock and key, the better for the tribes and the easier my life will be. Chancellor Puddinghead called this meeting among the tribes tomorrow in large part to discuss your policies, nephew. The more news I have to tell the other representatives that they’re working, the better.” Looking over her scribbled notes, Twister picked up the unicorn helm that Cyclone had brought with them. “And about this armor…”

Cyclone nodded and cleared his throat. “Yes. Typhoon found that it incorporates skysteel into its construction, specifically cumulus steel. These materials are one of the secrets of the Legion, and I would like to know how they got into not only the hooves of the Diamond Guard, but those of common street thugs.”

Twister examined the helmet and procured a length of iron from one of the drawers at her desk. Sticking it into the inside of the helm, she lodged it under the edge of the skysteel and pressed down on it. After a few frustrated attempts, the piece of metal broke free of the interior and clattered noisily onto the table. Balancing it on her hoof, the brown mare brought it towards her eyes.

“Hmm. That’s definitely cumulus. A very fine specimen, too.” Released from her hooves, the metal unnaturally bounced several times on the surface of the desk as it hit the wood before settling down. Looking back at Cyclone, Twister waved off the rest of the helmet. “I can tell you a few things about this. I’m no blacksmith, but that helmet was retrofitted to hold the skysteel. The quality is something that our smiths haven’t been able to produce until the last half-year, so whoever made this got it from our last shipment. Strange, I thought that the cumulus skysteel request went directly to Star Swirl. At any rate, we didn’t send out more than thirty pounds of the stuff.”

Cyclone nodded and took the helmet back. “Thank you, Twister. I’ll pass this along to military intelligence and see if they can find out anything more about it. You will mention this incident to the other representatives tomorrow, yes?”

“When the opportunity presents itself, I will, Cyclone. I’m sure Typhoon’s adventures today will be the cause for heated discussion.” Typhoon dipped her head in embarrassment, while Cyclone only seemed to ignore the remark.

“Good. I’d better be going then and see if I can follow up on this. Good day.” He flared his wings in a quick salute before turning to leave, but Twister stopped him with her voice.

“Perhaps you would like to pass that along to Star Swirl? I’m sure he could tell you about the armor.”

The Imperator’s eyes glared over his shoulder for a moment before he continued walking again. “There’s no need to get the horns involved in this. For all I know, they could be the ones behind it.”

The doors mercilessly slammed shut as he left, causing Typhoon to flinch. Twister watched the seam of the doors for a forlorn second before shaking her head in disappointment. “Your brother is certainly a fun one to hang out with, Typhoon. He’s the spitting image of the old Praetorian Guard back in Dioda. I just wish he’d come to respect the other tribes for what they do. He doesn’t have to like them, I just ask that he’d respect the earth ponies for their food and respect the unicorns for the sun and moon.”

The last statement caused Typhoon to raise a skeptical eyebrow. “You don’t honestly believe that, do you? About the unicorns raising the sun and moon?”

Twister shook her head. “No, but it doesn’t matter what I think, it’s understanding what they want us to think. The earth ponies were foalish enough to fall for it, and they expect us to believe it as well. Regardless, it’s easier to do business with them if you just ‘accept’ it and move on. Their real importance to Cirra is their trade. We’d never survive without half of the supplies their craftsponies and artisans manufacture for us. As for your brother, just make sure he doesn’t grow a red tail.”

Typhoon winced as she heard the Cirran insult be applied to her brother. ‘To grow a red tail’ became popular pegasus jargon for any pony that let overt ambition drive their life after the infamous Legate Red Tail assumed power in the middle of the Red Cloud War twenty years ago. The young mare preferred to stay away from that part of history and the gory process that had ultimately caused Hurricane to have to come to power.

“While I can understand your concern, Aunt, I assure you that Cyclone has nothing but Cirra’s best interests at heart. He would never do anything like that, because it would require him to weaken the Legion. And nothing is more important to him than his Legion.”

“That's assuring, and I trust your judgment over mine. You know him better than anypony else does, I daresay even better than your mother. Regardless, your brother is not the point of this argument. Now,” Twister sat down in her chair and looked over the report Cyclone had given her, “you were pursuing this ‘Brown Oats’ pony on suspicion that he was a smuggler. In the process, you froze three young ponies’ hooves to the ground. Tell me, was that really necessary?”

Typhoon bit her lip but refrained from lowering her head in submission. “No, Twister, but they had interfered with my pursuit of the smuggler. That they provided him the opportunity to get away was the reason that Cyclone’s company ultimately had to become involved. Twenty-six ponies died, and four of them were legionaries. Frankly, my little lesson was the least punishment they should have expected to receive.”

Twister sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Representative Smart Cookie’s going to have a fit about this. Honestly, Typhoon, I would have expected such actions from your brother.”

“Cyclone would have lit them on fire.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t just hear that, for his sake.” The Legatus placed a hoof on her forehead and sighed. “Very well, so you felt justified in your actions. I’ll try to explain that tomorrow. What about this ‘Brown Oats’ fellow, is he in stable condition to talk?”

“He was secured by the Legion after the fight, and he was supposed to be taken in for questioning. The unicorn gang leader, though, said that if he talked it would kill him.” Typhoon rubbed a hoof against the back of her neck in thought. “I don’t know if he spoke the truth, but he was a powerful mage. I doubt he would lack the skill to create some sort of enchantment that would kill Brown Oats before he said his name.”

Twister scratched a few lines down on her parchment and nodded. “I’m not sure I would use ‘enchantment’, but I suppose you’re right. I trust that either you or your brother will be present whenever he is fit for questioning?”

“Of course. I plan on supervising the process once he’s healed. Cyclone’s Empatha fireball burnt his flesh pretty bad when he descended.”

“Shame. Well, keep me informed how that goes. I would like to have something concrete to build upon when I discuss this with the other tribes.” Writing a few words on an envelope, Twister rolled up a scroll and bound it. “Now, is there anything else you would like to discuss?”

Typhoon thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Not at the moment. You will tell me how it goes tomorrow, right?”

Twister smiled and stepped out from behind her desk to rest a wing over Typhoon’s shoulders. “Of course, Typhoon. You just take care, alright? I always worry about you and your brother whenever you go on deployments. The world’s a dangerous place, and the pegasi, Praetorians especially, are universally disliked by the other tribes. Be careful who you trust.”

Typhoon briefly leaned into the embrace before separating again. “Right. I’ll take your word for it, Aunt.”

“Please don’t call me Aunt. It makes me feel old.” Twister’s lips twitched into a smile as she set her youthful eyes on the city outside the window. “I’m only thirty-six. You can call me Aunt when my hair starts falling out and I’m too weak to fly.”

“Right.” Typhoon chuckled and shook her head. “Thanks for the time, Twister. It’s always good to speak with you.”

“Bah, you’re the only family of Thunder Gale’s blood that I talk to these days anyway. Your father’s too busy running the whole nation and Cyclone’s usually off playing his war games in the field. Hell, my own foals spend more time with their father than they do with me.”

“It’s not your fault, you’re just busy. Maybe after tomorrow’s summit you’ll have some time to spend with them, eh?” Typhoon offered helpfully. Twister simply raised the corners of her lips into a smile as she waved her off and went back to sorting through paperwork. Taking her cue to leave, Typhoon respectfully nodded her head to her aunt and left the office, carefully shutting the doors behind her. Picking a few splinters out of her fetlocks, the Imperator began to mutter to herself about how the Legion needed to fortify all the doors Cyclone used on a regular basis. Closing doors gently was one of the many manners he had never learned as a child, and the cost of replacing them was one of the most frequent deductions from his Imperator’s pay.

As she walked out of the palace and down the stairs to the streets below, the strong winds forced her to tighten down her saddlebags and helmet as she descended. Several ice crystals embedded themselves in her coat, threatening to flash-freeze her flesh were it not for the protection of her natural Empatha. Instead, they were simply a nuisance, a minor inconvenience of the winter months.

“Damn wind,” was all she said on the subject, and thought about it no more.