• Published 12th Jan 2013
  • 4,301 Views, 368 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
 368
 4,301

Chapter 7: Dreaded Shadows

Chapter 7: Dreaded Shadows

“You what?!”

Hurricane’s alarm was enough to topple Pan Sea in fear, and with good reason. For the usually calm Commander to display emotion when making a tactical decision was startling enough. For that emotion to be anger and alarm would give ponies who knew Hurricane well a heart attack. Pan Sea thought he felt his heart constrict tighter than a cloudstone matrix as the black stallion’s eyes darted between the treetops with obvious anxiety.

“W-what is it?” Pan Sea whimpered. “D-did I do something w-wrong?”

Hurricane picked up the axe again to check that he had seen it right. Yes, the symbols SPQC were still there, and yes, the axe head was worn from use. There were sharp nicks in the stratus blade and smaller scrapes along the length of the handle. Firewood would not damage the weapon in anyway. Diamond and gold would simply shatter under its force. The only thing that could deform stratus skysteel was harder stratus. Coincidentally, Legionnaire armor was made out of nimbostratus. That did not bode well for two soldiers of the Cirran Legion isolated in the middle of nowhere.

Gently placing the axe on the snowy ground, Hurricane flexed his wings and checked that his weapons were ready. “Pansy, I need to know where you found this. Why did you even take it in the first place?!”

Pan Sea gulped and shuffled nervously from hoof to hoof. “Well, um, sir, like I said, I was looking for you after you left Cloudsdale. I had tracked you to this general area, but I couldn’t see where you touched down, so I had no choice but to search the land on hoof. I came across a campsite that I first thought was yours, but it looked abandoned. Like, several days abandoned. I found that axe there, and, well, I took it. I didn’t know that was bad! Why is that bad? What does it mean?!”

Hurricane placed a hoof on the jittery pegasus to quell his shaking. “Pansy, calm down, you didn’t know better. Look, I’ll tell you why that’s bad, but then we’re packing up here. You’re coming with me, like it or not. Okay?”

The yellow pegasus emphatically nodded his head.

“Good. Short version, we’re dealing with deserters. Long version, about six months ago, there was a riot in the earth pony province of Coal Hagen. The locals, several thousand strong, threw out the garrisons of Legionnaires stationed in the region and declared themselves independent of the Low Valleys and the Tri-Pony compact. Now, not only does Cirra get food from Coal Hagen, the entirety of our coal and onyx for making Praetorian armors comes directly from the mines the province manages. So, when Chancellor Puddinghead requested that Cirra put down the insurrection and reclaim Coal Hagen, we were already two steps ahead of him.”

Hurricane had begun sprinting around the camp and gathering equipment while he talked, and he paused by the remains of the fire pit to try and bury the charcoal under heapings of snow. “Legate Streak Wing was in charge of the division I sent in. I’m sure you’ve run into the Legate a few times around Cloudsdale. He’s a survivor of the Red Cloud War, just a year or two older than me. He was on the eastern front around Stratopolis before it collapsed due to a call I made to pull back their reserves. It would have collapsed anyways with the sheer force the griffons were throwing at us, and I needed those troops for the defense of the city itself. He hates me for that, though, but he never showed it until Coal Hagen.

“Twenty-four thousand battle-hardened veterans were sent in under his command to take the province—no matter the cost. Streak Wing despises the earth ponies as much as he does me, and he saw the opportunity to spite two birds with one stone, as it were. So he led his regiment into the district capital and decimated the makeshift militia Coal Hagen had managed to muster to its defense, but it didn’t stop there. No, that was only the beginning of his slaughter. Every earth pony was killed, every stallion, mare, and foal, and every building was burnt to the ground. Then, when the Legion found out about his actions and attempted to have him tried and hung, he disappeared into the wilderness with his most loyal soldiers and has been harassing our scout parties ever since.”

Pan Sea’s chest was heaving as he fought back panic. “What about the other soldiers? C-couldn’t this be o-one of their w-weapons?”

“No. The other soldiers were all court martialed and dishonorably discharged from the Legion for their part in the massacre. They wouldn’t be out here, because they don’t have anything to gain from it. Also,” Hurricane tapped the axe with a hoof, “this is Streak Wing’s axe. Battle axes are not standard issue in the Legion. They’re unwieldy and heavy, so pegasus military doctrine on speed doesn’t apply if you’re carrying one. Streak Wing was the only Legionnaire to carry an axe into combat.” Looking at the SPQC, Hurricane grunted in annoyance and pushed the axe back to Pan Sea. “What a bucking irony that those four letters are engraved on this axe. No soldier who fights for the Senate and the ponies of Cirra slaughters innocents to spite his homeland.”

The wind picked up again, whistling through the trees with a disturbing rush of air. Branches creaked and limbs moaned, but Hurricane paused and glanced towards their tops. His ears were perked and swiveled from tree to tree, while one hoof was held in the air before his chest. The wind stopped, and so did the noise, and Hurricane quickly strapped the gear down to his sides.

We have to go,” he muttered under his breath. Once all the bags were firmly attached to his flanks he tossed the axe back to Pan Sea and began to gallop for the momentum to launch himself skyward.

“What? What did you hear? Are they coming?” Pan Sea whirled in a frenzied circle, searching the clearing for any signs of movement. Finding none, he quickly fumbled with the axe before fastening it to his flank and sprinting after Hurricane. “H-hey! Wait up! D-don’t leave me here, Commander!!”

The gale had increased with altitude, buffeting Pan Sea’s face and neck with sharp crystals of snow and ice. Severe crosswinds ripped along his wings, shearing several feathers from the limbs and stripping altitude with each successive blast. Flying in a storm was bad enough, but attempting to do so while wearing a relic of iron armor from twenty years past made it nigh impossible for the diminutive pegasus. With the dark skies of night, Hurricane’s black coat was dreadfully hard to locate.

“Commander!” Pan Sea wailed into the night, searching for any sign of his superior. “Commander, where are you!!”

There was a tap at the yellow stallion’s shoulder, and Pan Sea shrieked in fear, his wings momentarily locking against his sides and stealing several dozen feet of sky from him. Before he could fall farther, strong hooves grappled his sides and unceremoniously flung him skyward again. Pan Sea stabilized his flight to see Hurricane gliding next to him, a hoof to his lips.

“Shh,” he hushed, glancing over his shoulder. “We’re being followed.”

They were difficult to spot against the cloudy skies in the dead of night, but Pan Sea knew he sure as hell saw something. Gray masses of clouds spiraled and twisted among each other with the winds, but he thought several times he saw other figures flowing with them, hopping from cloud to cloud to cover their advance. Was that a glint of light he just saw against skysteel?

Hurricane had already put fifty feet between him and Pan Sea, and the small pegasus had to struggle to keep up. The unnatural weight of the axe strapped to his side put Pan Sea off-balance several times, but within a few seconds he was closing on Hurricane’s tail hairs. Now, if he could just keep that pace for the rest of their flight…

Something whizzed by Pan Sea’s left ear, the thin, dark shape spinning end over end as it fell into the shadows below. The sudden appearance of the throwing knife halted Pan Sea in flight, his mouth hanging open while his wings fluttered to keep him aloft. “Um… Commander…?”

Hurricane flipped onto his back just in time to see a gray figure tackle Pan Sea out of the air. Only a few stray feathers lost on the wind and a dismayed shout remained as the pair of pegasi fell towards the ground.

“Shit.”

The Commander’s single utterance was all he had time to say before a chilling war cry descended upon him. Throwing his bladed wings to the sky, Hurricane heard them ring against the slash of a sword. Sparks from the steel fell around his face, and the pegasus flipped to drive his hind legs directly into the face of the astonished assailant. Hoof met bone with a resounding crack, and the helmet of Hurricane’s attacker flew off his head from the force. The unconscious pegasus tumbled out of the sky, and Hurricane caught its helmet. Nimbostratus skysteel glared back at him, the brow decorated with strips of cumulus. A centurion’s helmet, although the Cirran Blue plume had been frayed and repainted red. Tossing the armor out of his hooves, Hurricane descended to find Pan Sea.

Screeches and shouts guided him towards his beleaguered companion, and the Commander broke through a low clearing of clouds almost immediately on top of Pan Sea. The Legionnaire had somehow wormed his way out of his attacker’s grip and was busy trying to dodge ferocious strikes from bladed limbs, lending a weak hoof punch or two towards the rogue’s exposed face and neck. Pan Sea was not a particularly strong fighter, and the bandit shook off his attacks like the frost that accumulated on his chin. But what the skittish soldier lacked in strength, he more than made up for in speed and agility. The frustrated rogue found himself unable to land a single hit on Pan Sea aside from the initial tackle that took him out of the sky.

Shouting, Hurricane rammed his shoulder into the spine of the deserter, eliciting a satisfying groan of skysteel as his armor bent and twisted his opponent’s into his back. The gray pegasus shouted in agony, and Hurricane managed to grab his bladed wing against his side and twist. There was a sickening snap of bone and sinew, and the deserter immediately went limp; Hurricane figured he must have snapped the wing at the base, forcing the pegasus’ body to go into shock. Releasing the twisted limb, Hurricane let the body fall to the ground and flew towards Pan Sea.

“Sir! I just… thank you… I’m—”

“Shut it!” Hurricane shouted as he slapped Pan Sea. “Tighten your sword and fly through the trees! We’re outnumbered and exposed; it’s time to change the game!” When Pan Sea hesitated, the leading feathers of Hurricane’s wings crackled to life in fire. “That isn’t a damned suggestion, Pansy! Follow your orders!” Not looking to see if Pan Sea was behind him, Hurricane dove beneath the canopy as hostile shouting and whistling began to pick up around the shadowed forest.

Tree branches whipped past his head and wings as he pushed himself ever faster through their tangled mess. Leaves followed his hooves in a gusty whirlwind, drawn towards the center of his flight as the air he displaced returned with renewed vigor. The shouting was growing distant behind him, but he dared not slow down. He could only hope that Pan Sea was following him close behind, for the yellow stallion’s own sake. If he allowed himself to be caught, he was good as dead.

“Hurricane!!”

The cry of dismay hit the Commander like a nimbus hammer to his face. He quickly glanced over his shoulder to see two bandits wrestling Pan Sea to the ground, with each pegasus gripping one of his wings. A third was approaching with his sword drawn, his eyes burning and his wings trailing real fire. Hurricane twisted his wings backwards, trying to dump the speed he had amassed and return for Pan Sea.

A ferocious shout made itself audible to Hurricane a split-second before a body crushed the air out of his lungs and crumpled his wings. Several hundred pounds of skysteel and pegasus slammed into Hurricane, immediately reversing his momentum and launching the Commander backwards nearly thirty yards. Hurricane’s body whipped through tree limbs that splintered upon impact, and his face dragged for several additional yards in the dirt and snow as he slid from the impact. When he came to a rest, his face was pouring blood from scratches and from his nose, and his frayed wings were held to his sides in pain. Finding it impossible to breathe, he was unable to stand up to the troop of pegasi descending on him.

Hurricane, Commander, it has been quite a long time.” The voice came from beyond the edge of Hurricane’s starry vision, and his neck lacked the strength to turn and locate it. He was beginning to recover his breath, but he remained still, trying to hide the rapid rising and falling of his chest. He would need that surprise for later.

Four white hooves entered Hurricane’s vision, the fur around the fetlocks matted and mud stained. Those limbs rose up into powerful legs supporting an off-white coat that covered the pegasus’ frame. Powerful brown eyes glared at Hurricane from under a black and red mane, but that wasn’t the rogue’s most distinctive feature. The primaries of his wings were a deep crimson in coloration, contrasting sharply with the white secondaries and bladed wing arms attached to powerful shoulders. The pony wore a heavy set of nimbostratus armor, with the decorative cumulus plates repainted a vibrant red. Intricate red war paint decorated the rest of his armor and his face, leaving the pegasus an intimidating countenance.

“Streak Wing,” Hurricane spat. “How dare you attack your Commander.” He tried to stand up, but the former Legate roughly shoved him back down into the ground. Hurricane’s grunt covered up a grimace of pleasure. Streak Wing wasn’t afraid of him. Excellent.

“You were never my Commander,” Streak Wing hissed. “You were once my Emperor, but even then you still lost your authority in my eyes. You’re a damned coward who hides behind stratagem to have his way. I knew the moment you came to power after Haysar’s death that it was the end of four hundred years of military doctrine. You spurned the traditions of the Empire with your rule. Hell, you finally killed it when you struck the title of ‘emperor’ from our command structure!”

Hurricane coughed, leaning onto one of his shoulders. He could barely see Pan Sea sitting across the small clearing, a bandit holding onto each wing. The Legionnaire was terrified, and his lips trembled as he watched Hurricane lie defeated before Streak Wing. Hurricane wished he could communicate with him, but to do so would draw Streak Wing’s ire towards the soldier.

“You wouldn’t know the kinds of choices I had to make… the kinds of choices I still have to make. Legionnaires think in terms of engagements, centurions in objectives, Legates in theaters of war. I had to manage an entire empire, Streak Wing. That not only includes its armies, but the ponies that live under its rule. I had to think of them first, Legate. You should understand. You swore an oath to Haysar, the Senate, and the Legion that you would place the lives of the innocent above your own. I understand what you went through—”

Streak Wing interrupted Hurricane’s words by stomping on his jaw. “No, Hurricane, you understand nothing! You were done after Feathertop, when Haysar made you Emperor for whatever Gods-damned reason! You didn’t fight in the Heartland, where day after day we retreated and fled like terrified foals! Where every town you stopped in, you knew, you knew, that those ponies wouldn’t survive the week, because the griffons would be upon them in days! You never were forced to cast your final stand in your hometown, trying to stand up to thousands of griffons with only a few hundred soldiers!!” Streak Wing was screaming, his hooves tearing up the ground in front of him as he thundered down on Hurricane. “You never stood in your own home, trying to shelter your single mother and three sisters with a company of griffons ripping apart the door! The very walls!! And then to hear that no reinforcements, absolutely nothing, would be coming to save your family because the ponies of Stratopolis were more important…!”

The white pegasus panted, his wings hanging loosely by his sides and beginning to form a coat of ice from his sadness. After screaming at the top of his lungs, his next murmured words carried even more weight than the sentences preceding it. “They forced me to watch my family die, Hurricane. The griffons held me down and ripped out their throats right before my very eyes. I can still hear my mother’s screams in my nightmares, feel my sisters’ blood pour onto my face in the rain. And it’s because we didn’t have the reinforcements needed to secure the town for evacuation. Because you kept them from us. You killed my family, Hurricane. And for that, I intend to make your death every bit as painful as my family’s, and then twice over.”

Hurricane spat out the dirt and snow in his teeth, grinding his jaw back and forth to relieve the pain from the blow. “Streak Wing, it’s been twenty years. Two decades! I lost my family too, but did I blame it on somepony else?” He shook his head what little he could on the ground. “Twenty years is a long time to hold a grudge. Do you know what that can do to a pony?”

Streak Wing pulled a dagger out of its scabbard and held it to Hurricane’s face. “A grudge?! A damn grudge?! This is more than a bucking grudge, Hurricane, this is vengeance, this is payback for the family you stole from me!” Taking a vial of clear liquid, he coated the blade with the solution, shaking off the excess drops. As two other pegasi grabbed Hurricane’s shoulders and pulled him into a sitting position, Streak Wing sat in front of the Commander and showed him his blade.

“You know what this is? Galm’s elixir, I believe the apothecaries call it. Named after the Lord of Disease and Sickness. Really, it’s just a fancy name for poison. A terrible, agonizing, horrendous poison, but a poison nonetheless. Colorless, odorless, tasteless, and slow to act. The perfect weapon for the sadistic assassin. You want to know what they say it feels like to die from this?” Streak Wing chuckled, resting his knife on the crown of Hurricane’s helmet. “Survivors who’ve encountered only a drop or two of it can survive. They say it feels like you’re burning apart on the inside. Your organs go into shock, one by one by one. Your skin falls apart and begins to bleed. Your feathers fall off of your wings in minutes. Soon enough you’re drowning in your own blood and vomit. Then, if you’ve had too much, your lungs begin to dissolve.” Giggling now, Streak Wing placed the tip of the blade on Hurricane’s chest. “They say if you cut the corpses up afterwards, their insides are indistinguishable from meat stew. What an excruciating, painful, terrible way to go, especially for the soulless leader of a once-proud Empire.”

The blade whistled through the air as Streak Wing reared skywards, and Hurricane grunted in pain as he felt the dagger sink into his chest. Streak Wing left it there, smiling as he walked over to where Pan Sea was being held. Retrieving his axe from the yellow Legionnaire’s side, Streak caressed it like a newborn before sitting down opposite Hurricane. Watching the Commander try to pace his breathing and slow his heart from delivering the poison to his body, the white pegasus laughed mercilessly and rested the pole of his axe on the ground. “Why try to delay it, Commander? I want to see you writhe in agony when the poison kicks in. Hear you pleading for me to end your life, to spare you from the horrible death the Elixir bestowed upon you. And I will laugh, and right as you choke on the remains of your lungs, I’ll drive my axe through your skull.” Baring his teeth in an unnatural smile, Streak Wing leaned closer. “I’m an honorable soldier, Hurricane. If you have any last words, I’ll make sure that your family hears them. I would not wish them additional suffering for the justice I bring down on you today.”

Hurricane coughed, finding it difficult to move with the dagger lodged in his chest. His wings were tingling, but he couldn’t tell if it was from the poison that was beginning to work its way through his body or the piece of skysteel embedded in his ribcage. Whatever it was, he had to trust that he could still use them. It was his only opportunity…

“I don’t have any last words,” Hurricane spat, leering back at Streak Wing’s face. “And you deserve no such honor!”

Before the deserters could react, Hurricane smashed his wings together and shook off the ponies holding them down. Streak Wing flinched, and the Commander made him pay for the motion with a shoulder to the chin. Blood flew from the former Legate’s nose, and Hurricane ripped his sword from its scabbard, the ethereal skysteel aimed directly for Streak Wing’s throat.

Metal rang on metal, and Streak Wing rebounded one of his namesake limbs off of Hurricane’s sword, deflecting the weapon entirely. Twisting out of the block, Streak Wing aimed a hoof at Hurricane’s wounded chest. The black pegasus hopped over it, the dagger lodged just under his breastplate hindering him in no way. Spinning on his front hooves, Hurricane delivered a powerful buck to Streak Wing’s neck, kicking him back several feet. The air whistled as the sword was again brought to bear on the Legate, and the pegasus managed to catch the blade on the handle of his axe. Maneuvering the heavy weapon put him off balance, and Hurricane was in for the next strike before he could react. The sword glanced off of Streak’s bladed wing, cleaving six or seven skysteel scales from the weapon, as well as trimming several red and white feathers.

Streak Wing tried to counter, but again he was too slow. Hurricane twisted under a clumsy axe swing, tripping the Legate with his hind leg as he passed. The white stallion stumbled to the ground, and Hurricane drove his sword deep into the traitor’s flank. It was not a kill wound, but it was crippling nonetheless, and the charges in Hurricane’s sword made it much more painful. Fire, ice, thunder and lightning tore across the Legate’s side, forcing him to cry out in pain. Streak Wing tried to stand and retaliate, but his wounded leg refused to obey him. Rolling away from another stab of Hurricane’s sword, Streak Wing managed to flutter to safety from across the clearing.

Hurricane attempted to pursue him, but the pain in his chest came back to hit him again, along with a sensation he didn’t recognize. He was sweating profusely, rivulets of salty water pouring off of his neck and sides, and his muscles burned and writhed in agony beneath his crawling skin. Black spots decorated the edge of his vision, disappearing only to reappear seconds later. The poison was beginning to cut him apart, and soon enough it would attack his organs.

The rest of the deserters had formed around Streak Wing, their weapons bared and their faces bloody. Opposite them, Pan Sea limped over to where Hurricane stood, his wingblades coated in blood and his sword clamped in his teeth. The two sides glared at each other, two Legionnaires against ten traitors.

“Damn you, Hurricane,” Streak Wing spat as he looked at his wound. “Damn you and your sword of storms to the gates of hell! May Garuda spite whatever it is that you have in place of a soul to the underworld! You will die alone, in agony and alone!” Gesturing for his cohorts to step back, Streak Wing lit his coat on fire with a burst of Empatha, cauterizing the wound against his side. Although it stopped the bleeding, it could not repair the damaged muscle underneath, and the Legate was too weak to fly. Instead, he stumbled off of the battlefield, his fellow rogues supporting him as he left.

Hurricane’s breathing was growing increasingly ragged as he watched them go, and he began to stumble about the clearing. Pan Sea tried to support him, but the private was hardly better off than the Commander himself; blood poured from wounds along his neck and face, and one wing was held awkwardly to the side. He tried to offer soothing sentiments and advice, but Hurricane’s ears had long since stopped working. The only thing he heard was the rush of blood against his eardrums, carrying its lethal payload to his brain. Gods, his insides were burning.

Wait. Burning. Hurricane’s increasingly disordered mind recollected the events of not even a minute past, when Streak Wing had used his Empatha to cauterize his wound. Could he…?

It was worth a shot, but first, Hurricane needed something flammable. His eyes scanned the clearing, seeing through what little field of view he had left. Alcohol, lantern oil, anything! They were bandits, for Mobius’ sake!

There. Hurricane nearly collapsed as he tried to run towards it. Nestled against the side of a tree was a large bottle of whiskey. Releasing a guttural sound in place of a cry of joy, Hurricane fumbled with the glass container to see that it really was whiskey. Indeed it was, and a very high proof rating at that. That was good. Hurricane needed as much straight alcohol as he could get.

He almost swallowed the cork as he dumped the contents of the bottle down his throat. He had lost feeling in his wings, and his eyesight was on the brink of total darkness as well. Emptying the bottle in one quick chug, Hurricane tossed it to the side, almost hitting Pan Sea in the process. The yellow stallion trotted up to Hurricane, worry and confusion plastered across his face.

“S-sir? What are you doing? Are you sure now is a good time to drink? I-I mean, if you really want to, that’s okay with me, I guess, but—”

“Shuzuhp, Panshee,” Hurricane slurred, his deteriorating condition making it difficult to speak. He gave the alcohol several seconds to soak into his bloodstream, as long as he could possibly spare. This would either work and save his life or it would backfire tragically and only kill him faster. Whatever would happen, it was his only shot.

Hurricane squinted his now-blind eyes and gritted his teeth, focusing his energy on mobilizing his incredible Empatha reserves. He could feel the magic moving within his bloodstream, competing for space with the alcohol and poison he consumed. When he felt he was ready and his breathing was beginning to grow strained, Hurricane shouted in rage and sparked the Empatha within him.

His first sensation was one of incredible warmth. Every extremity in his body, from nose to wingtips to hooves, suddenly felt like it had been resting near a skyforge for far too long. But still Hurricane concentrated, forcing more Empatha into the fire he had sparked within his own bloodstream.

The second sensation was much more pleasant than the first. The burning, writhing agony from the poison slowly began to melt away, as did the fire in his gut from the alcohol. His mind began to clear and his vision began to recover. The adrenaline that had been pouring through his veins was suddenly vaporized, bringing Hurricane from a state of alarm to near calm in seconds. Then, as quickly as it began, the fire stopped, and Hurricane collapsed onto the ground.

“Commander!” Pan Sea shouted, stumbling to Hurricane’s side. The black pegasus was lying face down in the snow, his wings spread carelessly to either side. But his ears twitched and his shoulders moved. He was alive.

It took several minutes for the side effects of the toxin to fully clear from Hurricane’s body, but when they did, he stood up on shaky hooves. Panting, the Commander’s bloodshot eyes darted across the clearing from tree to tree. He ran a hoof across his face, his neck, his wings, checking that he was in one piece. When he found that everything was intact, he smiled. Then he laughed. Then, he stumbled to Pan Sea and gave the private a warm hug.

“Alive!” Hurricane whispered to himself. “I’m alive! I can’t believe that worked!” His chuckles continued as he separated, and he fluttered several feet off of the ground. A kink in his wing arm and pain in his chest forced him back to the ground in pain, and Hurricane quickly bent down and pulled the dagger out of his chest. A quick application of Empatha was all that was necessary to staunch the bleeding.

“How?” was all Pan Sea muttered as he walked closer to Hurricane, still unable to believe that he had survived. “That was Galm’s Elixir. It’s more dangerous than anything the unicorn alchemists have ever produced. You shouldn’t have been able to survive it!”

Hurricane laughed again and swished his tail. “No, I shouldn’t have. But I cheated.” Smirking, he found his sword where it had lay on the snow. “Streak Wing’s quick application of fire Empatha to cauterize his wounds gave me an idea. You know how a pegasus can light themselves on fire and not be hurt? Well, I figured it had something to do with the interactions between the pegasus body and their Empatha. So I started a fire within myself to burn away the poison. I was worried that only our coats keep us safe from our own fire and that I would roast myself from within, but luckily, that wasn’t the case.”

The Commander looked at his sword for several seconds before gently putting it back into its scabbard. Sword of Storms. He liked that name. He’d have to make sure he thanked Streak Wing for it before he split his neck. Panting, Hurricane took several more steps before collapsing on his side from exhaustion. “I… I think I’ll be taking a nap now. That was damned tiring. Whew.”

Pan Sea trotted over and sat down by Hurricane’s side. “Sounds like a good idea, sir. What about Streak Wing? He got away.”

The answer came simply enough as Hurricane felt the long awaited embrace of sleep fall upon him. “Streak Wing? That’s easy. We find him. Then we kill him.”

-----

Daylight came soon enough, shedding its feeble rays through the gray skies and finally providing the first real light Clover and Platinum’s campsite had seen since the fire burnt out. The dull shadows scurried back to their sources against the dim sun rising in the east, and the first of the winter birds began to sing their lonely melodies. The music reached Clover’s ears from afar, and she looked up from the rocks she had been examining. She had already covered several million years in the fossil records they provided, and it seemed like a good point to take a break. Shuffling to her hooves, she began a quick trot along the lakeside to stretch out her muscles.

Star Swirl had taught his apprentice long ago about the benefits of physical exercise to her magic, and Clover took those lessons very seriously. A fat and unfit unicorn found it harder to channel the mana needed to pull off feats of Arcana than a healthy and lean one, and Clover was certainly healthy and lean. The physical exercise widened the blood vessels leading to her brain and her horn, making it easier to collect and utilize mana for her spells. She hummed happily to herself as she trotted along, her bushy green mane flopping with her gait and the slight breeze. She needed to encourage Platinum to take up a similar regimen to prevent the decay of her own Arcana like so many of the nobles in River Rock. The Princess was gifted with a large amount of mana and had the ability to focus it better than most unicorns, but channeling it was what hindered her arcane ability. It would be a shame to let that gift go to waste.

By the time the sun was halfway up in the sky, Clover figured she must have trotted ten miles back and forth along the shore. Stopping for breath, the light-green mare sat down on the pebbly beach and stared across the sapphire waters towards the distant shore. The night before, she had seen lights there. Now, she only caught short glimpses of a burnt pyre settled in a large clearing. Low-lying fog obscured the ground, so Clover couldn’t see how many tents were erected, if any at all. Even if the ponies who had camped there the night before were gone, the scholar in her demanded that she find a way across the river and learn all she could about their customs and behaviors.

Standing up, the mare looked for a way across the lake. It was about a quarter mile between the two shores at the bottleneck, and with the water temperature likely just above freezing, it would be much too cold to swim across. The surprising lack of ice on the lake’s surface meant that walking there was impossible, and Clover knew with absolute certainty that walking around the shores of the lake to get to the other side was impossible. Sapphire Lake was a hundred miles in perimeter, too far to walk around. No, she needed a way directly across the surface of the lake.

It took Clover’s observant eyes only two seconds to find a solution. The lake was host to a large island directly between the two shores, covering most of the distance needed to get across. The problem was the deep and fast channels of water that surged past it on either side. Trying to swim through them meant certain death, and there weren’t any bridges to cross with. Or were there?

A large, dead oak lay near the shore of the river, its trunk about sixty feet in length. Easily long enough to cross the rapids, but its structural integrity was another question. Trotting over to the log, Clover tested the wood with her horn and her hoof. The bark was soggy and rotted, but the wood within was strong and supportive—to a point. Although Clover had few doubts that it would be able to support the weight of a pony going across, she had no way of telling if any of the core wood was rotted out. Plus, it looked exceedingly heavy. Clover had used her Arcana to move three hundred and fifty pounds of solid iron from the floor to the roof of a storehouse during one of Star Swirl’s strength tests, but the log was probably much heavier. To move it, she would need Platinum’s help. And Platinum’s help could not be earned, it had to be bought.

Trotting back to the camp, Clover carefully bypassed the tent where Princess Platinum’s obnoxious snoring was actually causing the canvas flap to flutter. It was already half past nine—so much for an early start on the day’s hike—but Clover had no intention of waking the Princess just yet. Sneaking around the tent, the mare found the baggage which contained Platinum’s ‘personal luggage’. Rummaging through the contents to make sure anything of practical value was removed, Clover snorted as she nosed open a box of expensive pastries. Why, the nerve! Platinum was so worried about her own hunger and comfort that she stole those away from River Rock, where they could easily counter a few days’ worth of hunger for a poor family of four. Clover grunted in annoyance and slid the pastries into one of her own bags. Since the Princess had brought them along, she might as well spare them from what she was about to do next.

Holding the luggage in front of her with her magic, Clover happily cantered towards the closest point along the shore to the campsite on the other side. Factoring into account wind speed, direction, distance, and air pressure with some observant estimates, the mare cocked the luggage behind her head, aligning her horn in a precise angle. Firmly planting her rear hooves in the ground, Clover reared and flung Platinum’s spare robes and perfumes across the lake as hard as she could.

The saddlebags tumbled through the air end over end before impacting the opposite shore with a dull thud. Clover smiled as she noted where they landed. Okay, so she was a little bit off on the air pressure and wind speed, but her angle of release gave the bags enough hang time to clear the lake in no problem. They just landed a little bit closer to the water and a little bit farther to the right than she had intended. No matter, she would take within a twenty-five foot radius any day if it furthered her goals.

Now that Platinum had lost something of value that could only be recovered by helping Clover out, the green mare returned to camp and began to prepare the morning meal, singing to herself as she did so. She was badly off-key—most unicorn composers would have thought she was singing in a different key signature—but she didn’t care. There was learning to be done, and that made the day, by default, a very excellent day.

Platinum finally emerged from the tent as the smell of breakfast reached her. She immediately jammed her hooves into her ears as she heard Clover’s singing in all its majesty for the first time, her tail held tightly between her knees as she cringed in agony. Turning around from the kettle she was manning and taking notice of the Princess, Clover abruptly cut off the high note that was at least seven flats too many and ran a hoof through her mane, her green cheeks taking on a rosy color. Quickly filling a bowl with some celery and broccoli stew, she levitated it over to the still yawning Princess and shuffled her hooves across the sand and pebbles.

“Uh… hi, Princess. I trust your night’s sleep was… adequate?”

Platinum nodded, taking a small sip of her stew and pretending that she hadn’t borne witness to Clover’s mutilation of popular operas. “Oh, it was passable, darling. The bedrolls are obviously not quite as comfortable as what I’m used to back in the castle, but it could be worse. I could have to spend my nights sleeping in the mud like the earth ponies. Still, that’s one lesson to consider as you grow older. No matter how bad things might seem, they’ll never be as bad as they could be in the Low Valleys. Hmm.” She sipped again from her bowl, savoring the flavor as it soaked her tongue. The weather was warmer at least, probably pushing forty degrees, and that would make for good hiking. Platinum already had the schedule planned out. Hike for thirty minutes, rest for an hour and clean her mane; hike for another hour, rest for a half hour to clean her tail. Walk for fifteen minutes, then pause for an hour long lunch before continuing onward again, alternating half hours of walking with half hours of rest. Maybe by the end of the day she would be able to see her new home in the distance. But first she would have to get ready for the day’s journey, and that meant clothes.

“Clover, dear, could you fetch me my morning dress? I need to change out of this formal robe into something different. I’m afraid it’s going to get ruined if I continue on in it for much longer.” The mareservant nodded and walked off behind the tent, her hooves taking on almost too-perfect of a rhythm as she passed Platinum. The Princess raised an eyebrow at it, but disregarded the action completely. Who knew what caused servants to act the way they did? It wasn’t for Platinum to ponder.

“Uh… Princess?” Clover’s voice bounced timidly around the tent, reaching Platinum’s perked ears. The Princess had just finished chugging the rest of her stew in a decidedly unladylike manner, feeling safe that nopony was looking at her. She quickly slammed the empty bowl back down on the rock in front of her when she heard Clover’s voice, glancing nervously over her shoulder to make sure that her actions were unseen.

“What is it?!” She asked, perhaps several decibels louder than acceptable social tone. There was a pause from behind the tent as if Clover was trying to figure out the reasoning behind the increase in volume, but her answer continued without much hindrance.

“Your baggage is… gone, your Highness.”

Platinum spluttered, rising to her hooves and whirling around the tent faster than she had ever moved in her life. “Gone?! What do you mean it’s gone?! It can’t be gone!! All my fine dresses and gowns were in those bags!!” She collapsed onto the beaches in dismay, her forelegs outstretched to the heavens above, asking the sun why such a thing would happen to her.

“Wait, Princess! I think I see them!” Pointing with her hoof, Clover gestured across the lake to the distant shore. Platinum followed her foreleg, then pulled on her mane when she saw where Clover was pointing.

“There?! How on Earth did it get over there?!” Platinum wailed, placing a hoof to her forehead in dismay. She began to pace back and forth, leaving Clover to stare at her in uncomfortable silence.

“What are we going to do, your Highness?” the green mare finally chirped up. Platinum barely stopped her pacing as she considered Clover’s question, the white fur of her gown quickly taking on a browner coloration as more dirt and grime affixed itself to the hem.

“Well we can’t just leave it there,” she muttered, mostly to herself. “Those dresses cost thousands of bits; thousands! And they’re my favorites, too! Why, we need to find a way to cross. But how? It’s not like we have a boat or anything.”

Clover took a deep breath, trying to slow her heart. “Well, when I was trotting the shores this morning, I found an island that we could use as a stepping stone to cross. There was a rotten tree trunk nearby that was long enough to get from one shore to the other. We could move that in place to cross easily!”

Platinum’s eyebrows perked, and she let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, that’s wonderful news Clover. Well, get on it, will you? I’ll just hang back here and watch the camp.” Locating a leafy branch, the Princess pulled it towards herself and set about using it to sweep away as much of the sand on a nearby rock as she could, with the obvious intention of sitting on it to watch Clover try to cross the river.

The light-green mare coughed into her hoof and rolled her shoulders. “I… uh, I can’t move it on my own, your Highness. It’s much too heavy. I’d need your help to get across.”

“Oh heavens, no, Clover, you must be out of your mind. I am a Princess; I don’t need to do such rough and manual labor.”

“It’s either you help me, or we leave your baggage over there. I can’t get it by myself.”

Platinum bit her lip. She really didn’t want to do work… but on the other hoof, she really liked those dresses. It was a tough decision for the pampered Princess, and she spent several minutes thinking about it before finally making her choice.

Soon enough, Platinum found herself straining alongside Clover to lift the log out of the sand and mud. A light-green aura pulled on three quarters of the log, while a withering blue aura strained on the remaining quarter. Both ponies were covered in sweat, and they had only managed to move the tree trunk several feet closer to the water.

“Time!” Platinum shouted, collapsing onto the rotting wood but immediately shifting her trajectory to lie on the sand instead. “I can’t do this, Clover! It’s too heavy! Can’t you help out more?”

Clover sat down next to Platinum, sweat dripping from her mane and horn. “I’m sorry, Princess, but I’m already struggling to lift most of the weight on my own. I need you to carry more if we’re going to move this thing.”

“But I can’t! It’s no use! Those dresses are lost to us forever!” Platinum flopped on her back, already resigned to defeat, but Clover wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Leaning down closer to the Princess, Clover pointed towards the island. “That’s how far we have to go, Princess. We’re close, we’ve moved the log quite a bit, but we just need to get it over this channel and we’ll be golden. I know you’re strong enough to do it, your Highness. I may be gifted in the art of Arcana, but so are you! I’ve seen you do incredible things with your magic. You have a lot of mana—easily as much as your father! Don’t you want to prove to the King that you’re not just another noble, you’re a royal capable of protecting the Kingdom?”

Something triggered with the Princess. Platinum groaned and stretched her aching limbs skyward, but there was a determined resolve in her eyes. Scrambling to her hooves, she set her crown on the beach and shook the sand out of her mane. “Very well, Clover. Let’s see if we can move this.” Her horn sparkled to life, her blue Arcana greedily seizing more than half of the log and ripping one end out of the sand and mud with a sucking, popping noise. “Put your back into it, darling! Show me what you can do!”

Clover was stunned, but that wasn’t to say that she was disappointed. Jumping to her hooves, she bent down and grabbed hold of her share of the log with her Arcana and tugged on it. Together, the two unicorns were able to free the tree branch from the sand and haul it across the channel, bridging the island and the shore.

“We did it!” the young mare happily shouted, bouncing on her hooves and letting her tail and mane flop around her. Platinum smiled as well and levitated her crown back onto her head from the sand. Then she hopped onto the log and began to cross, her hooves taking tentative but steady steps across its rotting surface.

“Come on, Clover, we’ve got dresses to save!”

Nodding, the light-green mare bounded after Platinum on the log, carefully trotting across. When both unicorns were situated on the island, Clover led the way through the small thicket of trees, trudging around large piles of snow and other hazards. When they came to the other side of the island, they were greeted by a series of rocky stepping stones that crossed the swirling rapids to the opposite shore. They were easy enough to cross with some well-timed jumps, and soon the two unicorns were walking towards where Platinum’s baggage lay in a shallow crater near the water.

“Oh, Celestis, there you are!” the Princess cooed as she rushed over to her bags. She quickly opened them up, beginning to manually inspect that all of her dresses were intact and dry. The procedure would take several minutes, as Platinum had to turn each one about several times to make sure that they were all clean and presentable. That gave Clover enough time to scour the campsite for clues of the ponies who stayed there the night before.

The camp was nestled within a rather large clearing of trees that was very easily a full acre. A strong wall of pines and oak shadowed the forest beyond, and their trunks were fenced with an impenetrable mesh of bushes and brambles. Some winter berries hung from the bushes in relative abundance, their skins bright red and black. Clover would have to remember to pick some before she left.

The clearing itself was floored by a sand and silt composition not unlike the campsite that the unicorns had stayed at the night before. The sand was covered in drag marks leading to the water, hinting towards the presence of canoes or other forms of water transportation. Most surprising, however, was the splash of dried blood that decorated the ground in front of the remains of the pyre.

That drew Clover’s attention to the signs of habitation that littered the area. A massive pile of burnt wood easily standing five feet tall was ringed by a series of large rocks with the tops all angled inwards. Several logs made up the benches surrounding the pyre; the tree stumps they were cut from accounted for a few more. Outside the ring of seats was a wide space for tents and bedrolls, occupying a decent stretch of hardened soil and stone. Clover gleefully noted that several of the tents were still erect. Perhaps she could interview the ponies when they returned and learn more about their ways of life. She rarely got the chance to interact with other ponies outside of the castle. She only had time off once a week, and even then she was not allowed outside of the city walls.

Platinum had finished sorting through her bags and was looking about with a puzzled expression on her face, one hoof supporting her chin. “Clover, darling, have you seen a… package, lying about? I know for sure that there was one within the saddlebag carrying all the dresses.”

Clover had to suppress the twitching that came to the corners of her mouth as she turned back to her Princess. “Sorry, your Highness, I haven’t seen anything of the sort. All I see around here are tents and plates and…” Her words trailed off as she noticed for the first time a pile of charred white sticks. She carefully skulked closer, curiosity and apprehension fighting for control within her. With a hoof, she brushed aside a loose covering of dirt and sand that coated the sticks. Barely managing to stifle a squeal, Clover stumbled backwards in fear.

A large pile of bones greeted her, obviously the remains of rodents and other small creatures. The white skeletons had been burnt and charred from a fire, and several were cracked open for the marrow within. No trace of flesh or muscle hung from their surfaces. Whatever the creatures were, they had been skinned, cooked, and eaten.

“Clover, darling, what is it?” Platinum called from the shore. “Did you find anything? Like my… erm, parcel?”

Clover shook her head, trying to catch her breath. “No, Princess. But I did find… bones.” She gulped once, and looked about the clearing with a new sensation of dread. Suddenly, waiting for whoever resided in this camp to return didn’t seem like such a good idea.

There was a low whistle from somewhere in the woods to her left. At first, Clover thought it was a bird, but there was something off about it, like there was too much air behind the noise. A shorter whistle answered it from the right, the pitch climbing sharply towards the end before being cut off. Then there was silence. Cruel and merciless silence. Even the twittering of the cardinals in the treetops had fallen silent.

Platinum heard the whistling as well, and was clutching the bag against her chest. Her knees shook and her tail swished back and forth, but her horn was fully enveloped in a strong aura of blue Arcana. Clover was likewise readied, her legs spread out and her head lowered as she tried to create an intimidating appearance. Beneath that mask and the green Arcana she projected, the young mare was searching her mind for every offensive spell she could think of. Unfortunately, her brain refused to think properly, and the mounting silence was only bringing her closer and closer to hyperventilation.

“Princess…?” Clover began warily, trying to backpedal to her master without taking her eyes off of the bushes. The leaves were twitching, and dark shadows scurried between each other, disappearing from sight just before the mare could attempt to analyze them. She thought she heard a twig snap to her right.

“Clover, I think it’s best we be going,” Platinum began warily. Before Clover could even nod, the undergrowth exploded with charging ponies of all colors and sizes.

Clover screamed, letting loose every spell she could think of from her horn. Strikes of green Arcana scattered among the charging ponies, missing most but causing several to cry out in pain. The academic part of her mind observed that she was releasing pure mana with her Arcana rather than using it to weave spells, a simple yet brutish way for a unicorn to fight. Even then, it was the best she could do.

“Run!” Clover shouted, turning tail and kicking up dust to the attacking ponies. Platinum had surprisingly dispatched two assailants of her own, flinging another skywards with her Arcana. She breathlessly nodded to Clover and began to sprint back along the shoreline towards the stepping stones leading towards the island.

Clover could feel the ponies breathing down her neck as she ran, their shod hooves thudding thunderously on the sand behind her. Casting a few blinding flares behind her as she ran, Clover launched herself forward over what her ears discerned to be a frustrated dive towards her hooves and was soon caught up with her Princess.

Platinum’s breathing was heavy and her gait was strained underneath the flowing gown that billowed out from behind her as she ran. The rocks were only several more yards out in front of them. If they could just cross back to the opposite shore, they would be able to take down the log bridge and prevent their pursuers from following them.

“Princess, the rocks!” Clover shouted as she pulled alongside Platinum. Spinning on her hind legs, Star Swirl’s apprentice cast a few more offensive attacks at the ponies following her before completing the rotation and changing her angle for the stepping stones. They were almost there, so close…

A pair of bolas flew out of the woods, entwining around Clover’s legs with frightening force and speed, bringing the mare to the ground. She snorted as her chin hit the sand and snow, causing her to inhale loose grains of sand, before she painfully flopped onto her side and slid several feet farther. Her four hooves were painfully and tightly tied together, and she desperately flailed her limbs to try and shake off the weights binding them to each other.

Platinum barely had time to react before a similar fate ensnared her as well, the bolas wrapping around three of her legs and then once around her shoulders, fixing her limbs against her sides and her neck. It was much more uncomfortable than the position Clover was tied in, and the Princess wailed and struggled with her free leg and her teeth to try and free herself.

Seeing the pursuing ponies rapidly gaining ground on them, Clover turned her horn towards her bindings and tried to summon a rendition of the letter opener spell Star Swirl had taught her, except with much more power. But when the spell failed to start, Clover realized something she hadn’t before from the adrenaline and shock of being suddenly trapped; intense, escalating pain, seemingly paralyzing her entire body. Her horn flared erratically, producing painful sparks of Arcana that streamed onto her face and into her eyes and rendering the appendage useless. Finding the strength to move her legs, Clover was able to observe the bolas that bound her. They were connected with a thick cord of rope and sinew from some large animal, but the weights mortified her the most. Heavy black rocks sparked with contact from her skin, and she could see them absorbing streams of Arcana from her horn and body. Star Swirl had taught her what void crystals looked like and how they behaved long ago, but she had never actually encountered them before. The experience was something she’d never forget, so long as her brain would stop hurting long enough to form a coherent thought. Her head felt like a regiment of pegasi were romping within, banging on her skull and ears with their terrible skysteel weapons. It made her want to throw up.

As her captors closed around her, Clover began to bring the other significant aspect of void crystals to the top of her mind. They only affected unicorns, but neither the Low Valleys nor Cirra used them; the earth ponies simply couldn’t with how intertwined their society was with the Diamond Kingdom’s, and the superstitious pegasi condemned them as tools of the damned and sorcerers of black magic. There was only one nation that used void crystals, as much of a nation as they were.

Sure enough, the sun glinted off the coats of the earth ponies that gathered around Clover and Platinum. Both mares had stopped their struggling from the pain of the void crystals and were only able to look on helplessly as they became surrounded. Heavy iron weapons were planted in the sand and snow around their necks, and the ponies began to grunt to each other in the tongue of the Crystal Barbarians. Clover tried to make out what they were saying, for their language was not much different from Equiish, but the brutality with which they spat the phrases to each other made words impossible to discern. Glancing towards each other, both unicorns widened their eyes in fear. Everypony knew that the Crystal warlords had vowed to kill every unicorn they captured until the Diamond Kingdom finally collapsed. Clover had little doubt that her fate would be different.

The guttural shouting stopped all at once with a harsh word from somewhere behind Clover’s head. She tried to jerk her neck back to see where it came from, but all she succeeded in doing was sending brilliant flashes of red and purple to the backs of her eyes. She could feel her heart pounding as the Arcana in her blood reacted with the void crystals around her legs. Void poisoning was swiftly becoming a realer and realer threat for both unicorns as the crystals fed on the Arcana in their bodies. Clover squinted her eyes and began to moan through gritted teeth as she felt the energy literally leaving her through her hooves. Just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, the bolas were unwrapped from her legs and the cursed crystals were returned to whomever they belonged to.

“Unicorns,” said a low voice over Clover’s head, the single word filled with poison and hate. Rough hooves searched her body, checking her vitals and stripping away the bags she wore on her flanks. The foreign hoof lingered on her cutie mark for several seconds before it withdrew, accompanied by a short snorting sound. “They came to our camp? Did they steal anything, or alert others?”

One of the barbarians, a large stallion with a warhammer as long as Clover was tall, slammed the weapon into the ground with a thunderous force and pounded one hoof across his chest in customary Crystal Pony salute. “No, sir. We found ‘em sneakin’ about the pyre when we came back from th’ hunt. Chased ‘em down here, ‘fore you got ‘em. Best we’s could tell, they’s th’ ponies responsible for th’ fire across th’ lake lass night. Twas a small fire, right, boss? You’s the one who scouted it. Methinks they’s the only two horns here.”

The lead pony grunted and roughly placed his dirty hoof on Clover’s flank again. “Good. Round up their stuff from across the lake. I see exactly who we’re dealing with here. Isn’t that right, Princess Platinum?”

Two of the Crystal Ponies pulled Platinum off of the ground, each holding a foreleg in their grasp. The white mare was still panting from the effects of the void crystals, but the growl of her response was no less menacing because of it. The warlord only laughed, a powerful bass vibration that Clover could feel trembling through her body.

“So I thought. You’re a long ways from home, aren’t you, Platty? Whatever are you doing out in the wilderness?” His laugh again shook the ground around Clover, and she felt herself suppress a frightened whimper in response. “Did you anger your father? Did you shame your pathetic Kingdom, you and your Celestis-damned valley, where the unicorns do nothing but sit back on their bucking flanks and act like they already rule the world?! Bah!” He spat at the ground, missing Clover’s muzzle by mere inches. “I really hope one day that the world tears you pathetic unicorns a new one, Princess. How much I wish for it to be the Crystal Ponies under my command, but Cirra is too strong. So I guess I’ll just have to settle for doing what I can with the daughter of the unicorn king. And who knows, maybe one day it’ll be Cirra who finally does you spineless whelps in.”

“Cirra would never do that,” Clover moaned from beneath the warlord’s hoof. “They’re our sworn protectors… we signed a compact…”

The stallion above snorted and rolled Clover onto her back so she could look into his face. A large head of white and gray fur under a similarly light-gray mane bared down on her, blue eyes threatening to wipe her off the face of the Earth with a single blink. Those eyes burned with a passionate fire, the fire of incredible hardship and loss but also of victory and plunder. Those eyes had seen life, and they did not like what they saw. Clover felt herself trembling under the hexagonal irises that burned through her coat, their unnatural polygonal shapes putting fear into her heart. Those eyes brightened with a dark anger when the warlord began to speak.

“I do not recognize you, young mare. Perhaps you are one of Platinum’s servant girls.” Clover opened her mouth to answer, but the warlord slapped it shut with a hoof, leaving a painful red welt on her cheek. “Never talk when I am talking, horn, unless I give you permission to speak. Now, you must be a servant girl if you’re so naïve about how the world works. Tell me, why does Cirra protect the other tribes?”

Clover coughed, her nose twitching as she tried to blow away the dust decorating her muzzle. “Because… because of the Compact?”

The warlord’s face lightened, and he loosened some of the pressure on Clover’s shoulders. “Yes, because of the Compact. Little more than words on paper. A promise kept by Hurricane that Cirra would respect the rights of the other tribes so long as he lives. So long as he lives, pony. Hurricane is an honorable soldier, a worthy adversary; why, I would do just about anything to have the honor of one-on-one combat with him. But the rest of Cirra? The rest of the Legion? They may be loyal to his word, but no farther. The pegasus soul can be likened to a hawk, because in reality, that is all that they are. Majestic, graceful warriors of the sky, but they prey on the weak. They are driven by a desire for power, and they will stop at nothing to augment it in some way. That is how they founded their empire on that land across the ocean. They may be your allies today, but one day they will conquer you and enslave you, just like they did to their neighbors.”

Clover’s brow furrowed and she gritted her teeth against the slap she was sure to receive for speaking out. “But Hurricane isn’t the only strong leader! His wife and his children would see to it that the terms of the Compact remain in place even after he dies! Cirra would never turn on us!”

“You confuse power with honor, young mare. Politics are lost on you. I may be what you call a barbarian back in the Kingdom, but I am a strong leader, one of the strongest in the world. The warlords clamor over each other to ally themselves with me; I have an army of a hundred thousand, which I have been building for the past few years. While the majority of them may be tied down fighting the Unionists in the north and east, I still have a formidable force for taking River Rock. I am as strong as they come. Tell me, does that make me honorable? Do I obey laws and treaties?”

The chief warlord shook his head. “No, it does not. Honor is something personal. It knows no codes other than the ones its owner establishes on it.” He leaned closer, hissing into Clover’s face. “The Kingdom will fall, it is only a matter of time. And Cirra will break you; that too is only a matter of time. I tested the limits of the Diamond Kingdom twelve years ago, when warlord Heavy Trot led his fiery campaign across hundreds of miles of your territory. You were on the brink of collapse until Cirra routed my armies. Do you think you can stand up to their might?” He spat again and increased the pressure on Clover’s flank. “Your Princess knows it will happen. She and Hurricane hate each other, and hate brings only conflict and death. The skirmishes between the Legion and the Diamond Guard over food are only the beginning.”

Straightening his back, the earth pony watched as several of his warriors returned with most of Clover and Platinum’s provisions. Seeing them return, Platinum finally found the strength to speak up again.

“And just what do you plan on doing to us? Kill us? I may be sheltered, Halite, but I know that you’re not like the other warlords. You don’t kill what you can use.”

Halite seemed surprised that Platinum knew his name. “You’re more informed than I thought, Princess. I didn’t know that the Kingdom kept tabs on the warlords roaming about the countryside. But you’re right, I don’t kill what I can use.” Gesturing to some of his warriors, Halite stepped back from Clover. “Put rings on their horns and tie them up. We’re taking them back to Onyx Ridge. They’ll be worth something for sure, the Princess especially.”

Clover tried to put her thoughts in order before the Crystal Ponies could put a void ring on her horn and bring back the pain again. Halite, Halite, Halite. She knew that name from somewhere. Surely it was something that Star Swirl taught her. Or was it something she looked up on her own? The archmage wasn’t particularly fond of teaching Clover about the Crystal warlords that terrorized the countryside, but he might have said something about him. Halite the something, Halite…

Then realization dawned on her face as the barbarians slipped the ring on her horn. The warlord she was looking at was known as Halite Hornreaver. The warlord that destroyed an entire regiment of Diamond Guard with just a hoofful of scattered warriors. He had sent two thousand severed horns back to King Lapis after the battle, the stumps still bleeding. Halite was known for being calm on the outside, but he despised unicorns more than any other warlord. They said it was better to die than to suffer by his hooves.

As the barbarians began to load up and placed Clover and Platinum in a prisoner cart, the young mare looked on at the powerful warlord and knew true fear for the first time in her life.

-----

Typhoon ground a stick of charcoal into nothingness with her hoof. The burnt wood offered little resistance, collapsing under the solid force of her hoof onto the scrap piece of parchment below. She was bored, and immeasurably so. Sitting in an office was never something she liked doing. She preferred to be out on the field, commanding the troops with her cool voice and iron resolve, not sitting down and writing paperwork. It was a burden that she wished she could give to a secretary and have them do, but these were papers on deployments and requisitions. Cyclone said that he wanted them done by the end of the week, and seeing as how he was her older brother and her superior, she had no choice but to comply. She was better at the micromanagement stuff anyways, not moving grand armies across the fields and skies. Get her one on one with a suitable adversary, and she’d cut him down in no time.

The mare cursed when she realized that her entire hoof had been recolored black from the charcoal she had destroyed, and she brushed the crumbs and ash off of the table. Walking to the window, Typhoon opened the glass and planted her hoof in the snow outside, using it as a substitute for a bucket of water. Wiping her hoof on the curtains, Typhoon trotted back to her chair and collapsed, sulking.

Her office was, as a general rule, barren, established with only the furnishings needed for it to be considered an office along with a few other sentimental decorations. A door, four walls, a floor and a ceiling, and a desk and three chairs were all that Typhoon needed, as the office only saw sparse use whenever the Imperator was back in Cloudsdale. Other than that, a portrait of herself hung next to portraits of Roamulus and her father against one wall, and a worn suit of armor in the corner completed the room’s decorations. The armor was special to her; it was the first skysteel she had ever worn, and it was the armor she had been wearing when she got her first kill. The other armors she had worn as she advanced through the ranks she had discarded or recycled into other skysteel components rather than hang onto them. She only needed her Imperator’s armor and her Legionnaire’s armor, and one day, she might carry the armor of a Commander across her shoulders.

But dreams were dreams and paperwork was all too real, and Typhoon pulled another stick of charcoal out of her supply box before bashing her head against the table. Mobius, how she hated paperwork! Folding her forelegs across her lap, the mare sent a quick prayer to the Great Skies for some of Mobius’ mercy, making sure to attach a footnote for her father’s safety in his travels. Hurricane had left little more than two days ago, but it already felt like a lifetime.

Things were changing in Cirra with her father gone, brief as it had been so far, and Typhoon wasn’t sure whether she liked the direction they were going in or not. On the one hoof, some of the red tape controlling the Legion’s actions had been lifted by Cyclone (with Swift Spear’s consent, of course), allowing Typhoon to bypass some of the usual procedures she had to run through the archaic Senate if she wanted to delegate a specific division of the Legion to quelling riots as they arose, or if she wanted to place an extra garrison in an earth pony settlement to protect Cirra’s food reserves. It certainly made her job easier and made the Legion more efficient.

On the other hoof, however, relations with the other nations were deteriorating, fast. The Board of Representatives in the Low Valleys had refused to accept Cirran delegates inside their borders and demanded that the pegasi close the field HQs in their towns. The Diamond Kingdoms had taken it one step farther, formally denouncing Cirra and demanding that all active duty Legionnaires be removed from their postings within Kingdom lands. Trade embargos were threatened, and Typhoon knew that Twister hadn’t slept in days with the political nightmare she was dealing with. The Imperator’s ears flicked as a draft forced its way through the windows to pull on her fur. Humph. Political shitstorm might be a more accurate term to describe it.

There was a knock on her door, and Typhoon almost squealed that she had something else to distract her from her paperwork. Straightening her helmet on her desk so that the brim was pointed towards the door and brushing a few loose scraps of charcoal from her coat, the mare coughed loud enough for whoever was at the door to hear. “Come in.”

The door opened to reveal Cyclone, fully armored and carrying his helmet in his foreleg. The sight drew a small smile to Typhoon lips even before she asked what he was dressed for. Whatever it was, it meant she could expect to be armored as well, and that meant no more paperwork.

“We’re going to the holding cell,” Cyclone began, his voice as level and steady as ever. “That earth pony we picked up a while back, Brown Oats? He’s ready to talk, and I want to hear what he knows.”

Typhoon picked up her helmet and began to strap on her armor. “You don’t say? It’s about time. We would have been able to get through this sooner if you hadn’t burnt him half to death when you tackled that Jewel guy in Blue Coat territory. Are you sure you don’t need counseling or something?”

The joke sailed over Cyclone’s head, and his eyes narrowed as fast as sparks burst from his wings. “I’m sure, sister. It doesn’t matter now, the medics were able to get him patched up, and he says he wants to talk.”

“Yeah, I kind of figured he would. A Cirran dungeon isn’t exactly the friendliest thing to the terrestrials.” She tightened the straps to her wingblades, then pulled a piece of parchment out from a drawer. “I just need to write a note to Twister. She said she wanted to know when we were going to interrogate the prisoner. I’ll just—”

“No time,” Cyclone interrupted, tapping his hoof on the cloudstone floor. “Brown Oats said he had something important to share with us, and I want to know what it is.”

Typhoon raised an eyebrow, the charcoal still held between her teeth. “It’ll only be—”

Important,” Cyclone repeated. The way he enunciated ‘important’ caused Typhoon to nod and slide the papers away. She trotted out into the hallway after Cyclone, turning and locking the door behind her. Cyclone interrogated so many prisoners on a weekly basis that he usually didn’t care one way or another what they had to say, so long as they said it. That he was getting worked up about a single illiterate earth pony in the dungeon caused Typhoon to reevaluate her interactions with Jewel so far. Just how big of a conspiracy was she stepping into?

It was a short flight across the courtyard outside of the palace towards the heavily guarded dungeon entrance, but even in that time Typhoon was able to see how much the blizzard was degrading Cirra’s power. Massive snow drifts covered much of the cloudstone courtyard, with most of the walkways not even cleared. Thousands of hoofprints meandered in meaningless lines across the snow and ice, and small piles of refuse were hidden in dark corners under the snow. The servants were beginning to lose their resolve to do their duties, and the Legion was becoming too undisciplined to keep them in line. Most of the Legionnaires stayed at the barracks anyways, hoping to find some warmth from the oppressive winds and snows outside. Military rationing had extended how long the food supplies would last, but the effects of hunger were starting to gnaw on the face of the proud Legion. Hunting parties had been organized to bring back meat to supplement Cirra’s remaining grain, but the orderly structure of those endeavors was swiftly falling apart. Individuals had begun to go out on their own for food; many of them didn’t return. The desertion rate was high, but the execution rate was higher. Desertion and stealing food were grounds for hanging, and no other crimes were growing as fast as those.

Snapping to attention at the two approaching Imperators, the four Legionnaires guarding the dungeon entrance opened the massive iron doors and stepped aside for Cyclone and Typhoon to enter. Picking up a lantern from the wall, Cyclone lit it with his wing and began to descend down the staircase, Typhoon in tow. As soon as her tail was past the threshold, the iron doors slammed shut behind her with a massive boom. The mare glanced over her shoulders, her breath leaving her mouth in frosty clouds. She hated interrogating prisoners.

Typhoon felt her hooves sag into the flooring as she stepped off of the stairs. The dungeon floors were loosely packed cloudstone, strong enough for a pegasus to rest heavy items on but too weak to support the weight of an earth pony or a unicorn. The failsafe ensured that no escaped prisoners could ever make their way to the palace and attempt to assassinate the Commander Maximus. The cells themselves had stratus skysteel plates that covered the floors which a prisoner could stand on, but as soon as they left their cells they would plunge to their deaths from thousands of feet in the air. The simple system had insured that in the twenty years since its construction, not a single terrestrial prisoner had escaped from Cirra’s grasp.

The two Praetorians walked past several prisoners, some shouting in defiance, others broken beyond hope. The former had been held for only a few days; the latter had spent at least a week in their cells. Cyclone’s interrogation tactics were brutal, and even the strongest of ponies caved when their horns were snapped in two or their limbs were shattered one by one. Buckets of waterlogged blood sat in the corners of each cell. At some point the wooden pails had contained water for drinking, but the prisoners put in as much blood as the water they took out. Typhoon shuddered as she felt her hoof slip on the edge of the walkways. Deep troughs had been carved into the floor from the cells, leading down the hall and to some back room that she had never visited. Crimson vitality trickled down the channels, its flow sluggish but hardly abating.

She flattened her ears against her head as wailing and shrieks of pain came from the more active interrogation rooms that they passed. Shadows moved along the walls as Praetorians beat information out of the more stubborn prisoners, the impacts of hoof against bone resounding off the brick. Typhoon could hear teeth being knocked out and blood spraying the walls, the sounds of bones breaking like twigs. Needless violence was never something that she saw point to, and she tried to follow Mobius’ doctrine in combat of ending an opponent’s suffering as quickly as possible. Cyclone, however, never seemed to have those qualms, and he walked past the torture as if he didn’t notice it. He had never shared his religious views with Typhoon, deeming them unimportant, but the mare had a strong feeling that he was not a follower of Mobius like her or her parents.

The winding halls took the two soldiers to the back of the dungeon where the larger cells were. Typhoon had been very clear with Cyclone that she wanted to question—not interrogate, question—Brown Oats in a nicer, more out of the way cell than the others. The earth pony had proved agreeable enough when she first pinned him, and she didn’t want him to regress during his stay in Cloudsdale. She would take any bonus she could to quickly get the information out of him, and not having to resort to breaking him first would save plenty of time. She was just glad that Cyclone had respected her wishes instead of ignoring them like he often seemed to do.

The doors to the cell opened with a key which Cyclone produced, and the two pegasi slowly trotted into the room. The cell had a higher ceiling and wider floor than the others in the dungeon, replete with wide stratus tiling and a chair and table. A thin bed of straw lay in the corner of the skysteel floor, with a bucket of water standing next to it. A filthy latrine sat at the opposite end of the room, and Typhoon shied away from the smell. Instead, she approached the table while Cyclone roused the brown figure lying in the bed.

The earth pony shambled to the table, guided by Cyclone’s gruff hoof. Half of Brown Oat’s coat was still in the process of growing back from the burns Cyclone had given him, and much of his neck and face was covered in white bandages. The chair screeched out from under the table, and Brown Oats flopped down into it, his hooves banging against the table as he sat.

“Brown Oats; it’s been awhile since we last talked,” Typhoon greeted, extending her hoof. “I trust that your stay in Cloudsdale has been… satisfactory?”

Brown Oats regarded the hoof held before him for a moment with a suspicious eye before visibly relaxing and shaking it. “Ya could say that, ‘suppose. Got me all fixed up after yer friend there burnt ‘alf mah coat off.” His eyes turned to glare at the stoic face of Cyclone before returning to Typhoon. “Don’t care too much fer th’ cramped livin’ space, though. Haven’t been able tah hear much ‘bout what’s been goin’ on outside, other than what th’ guards mutters from time tah time. It’s true, what they says? There’s a mighty blizzard goin’ on outside that’s got most a’ th’ tribes on edge?”

Typhoon nodded her head. “Yes, there is a blizzard going on outside. The Low Valleys haven’t been able to grow any of their winter crops, and food is starting to run out. All the tribes are in danger of starving to death.”

Cyclone raised an eyebrow toward Typhoon, worried that she might be giving out too much information. “Look here, mister… Brown Oats, was it? Anyways, what my colleague says is of little importance. We’re much more interested in this gang you were a part of. So far, they’ve tried to assassinate Commander Hurricane and the other tribal leaders at an important meeting held just a few days past. They’re threatening to destabilize the entire region, and at a time like this, it’s up to us, the Legion, to make sure that doesn’t happen. So, we need to know everything you know about the gang. What are their operations? Where are they headquartered? Who is their leader?”

Brown Oats tensed at Cyclone’s questions and flexed his forelegs, tapping his hooves against the edge of the table. “So, th’ Blue Coats gotcha runnin’ scared, eh? Now, mister red coat, Ah don’t like ya very much. Hard questions from th’ one who burnt mah coat off. Why should Ah say anything to you?”

Cyclone leaned closer, sparks beginning to fly off of his wings. “Do you have family, Brown Oats? Smugglers like yourself often do; that’s the reason you turn to smuggling in the first place. Let’s say that you refuse to cooperate here, today. Let’s say that I leave here without anything important to go on. Then, let’s say that I go to Amber Field myself to get some answers, and I happen to find a family that has a striking resemblance to a prisoner who refused to give me information. Now, we could suppose that they talked and gave me something of information, but what if they refuse? What if they’re just as stubborn as the pony who smuggles food for them from the granaries? What, Mr. Oats, do you suppose would happen next?”

The earth pony was starting to tremble, and Typhoon held out a wing to gesture for Cyclone to stop. Pulling her chair closer, she gently set both hooves on the table. “Mr. Oats, I apologize for Imperator Cyclone’s behavior, but I can’t apologize for the truth to his words. Stopping the Blue Coats is very important to us, and we are willing to go to any lengths to do so. If you won’t answer our questions, we’ll have to find answers on our own. Others might have to suffer for us to find those answers. Now, I can promise you that you will be given immunity from your crimes if you cooperate with us. We can even offer you protection from the rest of your gang. But you have to work with us, or we’re all going to be in unpleasant situations.”

Brown Oats’ shoulders had stopped shaking, but he still glanced at his legs uneasily. Taking several deep breaths, he was able to look at Typhoon from the corners of his eyes. “Fine. Fine, fine, Ah’ll help. Ah don’t wantcha ta hurt mah family. They’s innocent in all this, Ah swear. Ah’m th’ only one o’ them that’s involved in th’ smugglin’ bidness.” Scratching his mane, the smuggler slightly leaned back in his chair and placed a hoof to his forehead.

“Ya knows that Ah’m a member o’ th’ Blue Coats. ‘Twas only outta necessity, mind you, but Ah’m a member no less. Now, we’s got bases in mucha th’ Low Valleys, but our main hideout’s in Amber Field. Our leader conducts most a’ his operations from there. Good hideout, under th’ sewers ‘n catacombs. Can’t tell ya the way in, though.”

“And why is that?” Cyclone questioned, his leer beginning to sharpen. “We need to know everything—everything, Brown Oats. Every shred of information you withhold from us makes our job that much harder.”

Brown Oats shook his head apologetically. “Ah’m sorry, mister Imperator, but Ah jess can’t. Jewel told us that if we ever said anythin’ about th’ hideout, we’d drop dead on th’ spot. He done worked some o’ his fancy unicorn magic into mah head when he showed me th’ hideout. Ya may be lookin’ for information, but Ah’m lookin’ to hang onto mah life.”

Cyclone was about to press for more answers, but Typhoon again stayed him with a hoof. “We understand, Mr. Oats. Perhaps you could tell us the general area? I’m sure that you would be able to slip past the net of the spell that way. It would take far too much Arcana to weave a spell that broad. So, let’s go about it this way. Can you give us the names of the landmarks within a block of the entrance?”

Brown Oats thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay, Ah suppose we could try that. Have ya heard of Tear’s Wares? Half Mane’s elixirs is near it as well. There was an old church…” The earth pony winced, and slammed his hooves against his temples. “Rrraugh!! Ack, Ah… mah head…”

Cyclone and Typhoon both jumped out of their seats and approached Brown Oats from opposite sides. The earth pony was moaning and slamming his hooves against the table in pain. Typhoon’s eyes widened in alarm, and she searched the prisoner’s body for anyway to help. “By the Gods… Cyclone! We have to do something!”

The fiery pegasus was already ahead of Typhoon. Drawing his sword from its scabbard, he held it aloft, letting the blade catch the lantern light before putting it in motion. It descended with lightning speed…

“Cyclone! Stop!!”

…and slammed onto Brown Oat’s nose, flat first. The force of the impact sent the earth pony flying out of his chair and back into the wall with a resounding thud. Blood flew from his crushed nose, but his face was still intact. The body slumped against the wall, unconscious but breathing.

Flicking the droplets of blood from his sword, Cyclone returned it to its scabbard and trotted over to Brown Oats. “Don’t worry, Typhoon, he’s still alive.” Standing up, he addressed the pair of guards that had appeared at the door. “Take him back to the infirmary, and keep an eye on him. Some unicorn messed with his mind a while back, and we’re not sure how stable he is. Keep him alive as best you can; we may need him for later.”

The two Legionnaires nodded and draped Brown Oat’s unconscious figure across their backs. Typhoon watched them go before trying to wipe the thin spray of blood off of her armor. “Good thinking, Cy. Even if I thought you were going to kill him for a second.”

Cyclone grunted, shifting the weight of his armor across his back. “Never kill what you can use, no matter what you have to do to use it. Now come on, we got information. We need to be heading for Amber Field and dropping Jewel and his Blue Coats operation. Gather your things, then meet me back in the throne room. I have to give mom a debriefing.”

Typhoon flicked her ears in acknowledgement, and Cyclone disappeared through the doorway. The mare lingered a little longer to clean her coat of the blood, then trotted out after him. She couldn’t believe she was wrong about the breadth of Jewel’s spell. Her assumption had almost gotten an informant killed, and that would not have looked good on her record.

But her record was the least of her concerns. Whoever Jewel really was, he was a unicorn of intense power. Taking him down was going to prove much more dangerous than she originally thought.

Author's Note:

This is my first attempt at incorporating music into my chapters, since I didn't get any negative feedback about doing so when I posed the question in my blog. Yes, this is what I listen to when writing those scenes. I'm looking for any sort of feedback on the system that I could use to improve it in the future, or just scrap altogether if it isn't working.

PRO TIP: Press "ctrl + left mouse" to open the music in a new tab so you don't leave the chapter. Yeah, I know this shows up at the end after you've gone through and read the chapter already, but there really wasn't anyplace else to put it.