• 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.

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Chapter 8: The Long March

Chapter 8: The Long March

Life in Stalliongrad has a reputation for being mundane, monotonous, a never-ending cycle of ennui, where years might just as easily be days, and weeks a millennium. Life in nearby Saraneighvo was even more mundane, even more monotonous, and even more cyclical than the capital to the south, from the mashed potatoes and potato stew Twilight had eaten every day for the past week to the vodka that seemed to be the only thing the inn had to drink. Much to her horror, the Equestrian found herself taking a liking to the strong drink she despised only a few days ago. If she kept it up, she might turn out like Berry Punch. Twilight shuddered, trying to force the drink away with a lazy hoof. She didn’t want to end up like Berry Punch. Nopony wanted to end up like Berry Punch.

The grind of the days had nearly worn Twilight out with the continual boredom they had bestowed upon her. She would wake in the morning, get something to eat, then trot around the block without her winter gear to see if the cold could snap her to attentiveness. After that, she tried to talk with the innkeeper, who was friendly enough to foreigners. He at least understood Equiish, and Twilight had learned a few Stalliongradi words in return. She knew that the pony’s name was Тихое Прибежище, or ‘Safe Haven’ in Equiish. He also had taught her common greetings and phrases, including one sentence that she had only learned just the night prior: ‘Не стреляйте, я тайну знаю.’ Twilight had begged to know what the words meant, but Safe Haven only responded with a smile, saying that he would tell her another time, if she happened to stay longer. The lavender mare had left the bar fuming, knowing that there was information whose meaning she was not yet privy to, but at least it would give her something to talk about later. As much as she hated Saraneighvo, she loved talking with the cocoa unicorn. She would have to make sure that she wrote down the inn’s address before she left so she could send letters to him.

The door opened with a jingle of bells, and Twilight set her empty plate aside, expecting Rainbow Dash to return. The pegasus had flown off earlier in the day out of sheer boredom, and Twilight couldn’t say that she didn’t blame her. The only thing Rainbow had to do in the inn was look through Hurricane’s journal, but that activity had been on hold while Twilight went back and annotated much of the text on a separate sheet of paper. She hadn’t been taking notes as they read to quicken the story for Rainbow, and the information was starting to leave her brain. Now that she was caught up, Twilight was ready to tackle another section of the text with her friend. She looked up, one hoof reaching for her saddlebag as she turned.

The figures that entered the inn were decidedly not Rainbow Dash. The trio of Stalliongradi ponies, a pegasus, unicorn, and earth pony, paused in the doorway, their eyes darting between the tables. Twilight felt the pegasus’ eyes rest on her for a brief moment before a scowl overtook his face. He turned and whispered to the unicorn accompanying him, and Twilight saw his gaze flit across her features in return. The ponies whispered harshly among themselves, and Twilight was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable. Maybe she should just go…

“Дверь закроете, может? Ночная тьма не следует за сумерками. Она приходит только перед рассветом.”

Whatever their apprehensions were, Safe Haven’s quick words to the newcomers seemed to be enough to dispel them, and the three ponies nodded in acknowledgment before gently closing the door and finding a seat. They didn’t leave their heavy coats by the door, instead choosing to huddle underneath them where they sat. Their backs were turned towards the entryway, leaving them all facing in Twilight’s direction. The unicorn mare gulped on her vodka before slipping from her table and sidling over to the bar where Safe Haven stood polishing glasses.

“Privet, Twilight. What can I do for you?” The innkeeper’s voice was lively and steady, and the sound of it brought a smile to the mare’s lips. Glancing at the ponies sitting at the table, he took three mugs out from behind the bar and began to fill them with liquor; two whiskeys, one bourbon, no vodka.

“Who’re they?” Twilight whispered, flicking one ear backwards to where the three were conversing in hushed undertones. “And why do I get the feeling they’re looking to put a knife in my back or something?”

“Who, them?” Safe Haven waved away the question. “They’re just some regulars that have been out of town for the past week. You were sitting at their favorite table. No big deal.” Setting the tankards on a tray, Safe Haven whistled to the table. One of the ponies, the pegasus who had entered first, stood up and trotted over to the bar. His artificial coat gently brushed against Twilight’s natural lavender one, and the mare glanced out of the corner of her eye to get a closer look at him.

The pegasus was taller than most, and his light-orange wings were coiled against his impressive structure. His mane bordered a gray-white coloration, and dark umber eyes ignored Twilight completely. Numerous scars covered his chest and shoulders, and the feathers along his wing were disheveled and in desperate need of a preening. His wing shifted, and Twilight suppressed a gasp as a feather touched her neck.

“Ах, Альянс, как идут дела?” Safe Haven questioned. The pegasus flitted his eyes towards Twilight’s, and seeing the blank confusion on her face, he relaxed his shoulders enough to lean across the bar.

“Лучше, чем на прошлой неделе. Еще больше присоединилось с тех пор как занесло железную дорогу. К тому времени как ночь ответит, город будет готов помочь.”

Safe Haven nodded, nudging the tray towards the pegasus with his nose. “Ты принес счет?”

The pegasus grunted and pulled out a few paper banknotes, passing them along to Safe Haven. The innkeeper readily accepted them, turning to slip them into the cashbox behind the counter while the orange pegasus returned to his table with the drinks. Twilight thought it odd that a pony would conduct business with banknotes rather than the security offered by bits. She also thought it odd how Safe Haven pulled one of the notes out of the stack and slipped it into the pocket of his apron, but she wasn’t going to ask. Things in Stalliongrad had a tendency to become complicated, fast, and Twilight wanted no part of that.

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a target painted on her back even as the three ponies at the table behind her seemed too involved with their own conversations to bother. She slid the half-full tankard of vodka between her hooves as she thought, listening to the satisfying grind of aluminum against wood. She was getting tired; probably because of the drink. Her body simply wasn’t used to the strength of the vodka.

“Banknotes? What’s that all about?” Twilight wondered aloud to Safe Haven. The unicorn shook his head and began running a cloth across his bar to clean up the liquor that had splashed out of Twilight’s tankard. “Sorry.”

“It’s quite alright, Twilight,” Haven countered. “It’s something to do, at least. As for the banknotes, well, sometimes it’s easier to do business with IOUs. In case you haven’t noticed, Saraneighvo probably has barely enough gold to melt down and make a pocket watch. Bartering’s the order of the day around here. Why, the bits that you paid me when you stopped by the first time probably more than doubled the wealth of the town.”

“Huh. I guess that makes sense,” Twilight relented, balancing the tankard between her hooves. She was too tired to lift it with her magic, and instead she physically brought it to her face like a pegasus or earth pony. Celestia, how she hated loving the drink.

The door jingled open again, and in staggered Rainbow Dash, her winter coat hanging loosely across her shoulders and an empty bottle of whiskey clutched between her teeth. After nearly toppling the hat stand and coatrack, the prismatic pegasus stumbled over to Twilight and hoisted herself onto the bench next to her friend. Draping a foreleg across the unicorn’s shoulder, Dash smiled around the drooping bottle in her teeth.

“‘Ey, ‘Ilight! I ‘aven’t ‘een you all ‘ay!” Spitting out the bottle, Rainbow let it clatter to the floor where it spilled a few drops of whiskey into the wood. “What have you been up to, lately? Same old, same old?”

Twilight stiffened under Rainbow’s embrace, glancing toward where Safe Haven watched, amusement spreading across his face. “Erm… Rainbow? Are you feeling alright?”

“What? Of course I feel alright! Why, I feel absolutely fine! Perfect! Twenty percent better than ever!”

Twilight lifted Rainbow’s foreleg off of her back and guided it toward the bar, where it stayed. “Rainbow, I hope you didn’t go out and spend the entire day drinking. I really, honestly hope that wasn’t what you did.”

“Especially since you could have done the same thing here,” Safe Haven added. Twilight glared at him, and the unicorn responded with a satisfied smirk.

“Yeah? Well, you know, it was some good drink.” Rainbow placed a hoof to her chest before releasing a loud belch that silenced the inn. The three ponies at the table glanced at Rainbow, animosity growing on their faces. Twilight laughed nervously and levitated the bottle Rainbow dropped off of the floor. She set it on the bar, where Safe Haven cautiously approached to garner a look.

“Rainbow,” Twilight began, her voice taking on a motherly tone, “where did you get this at? You’ve had me worried sick for the past two hours, waiting for you to come back.”

“Hey, I didn’t do nothing wrong, Twi,” Rainbow protested, shoving off lightly from Twilight. “The ponies who gave me that whiskey were very nice. They just wanted to make sure that we were comfortable where we were rooming at.” Leaning forward, Rainbow stretched her wings into the air behind her, inadvertently brushing the coat of the pony nearest her. The stallion glared, and Twilight nudged Rainbow’s wings back to her body.

Safe Haven grasped the bottle with his Arcana and rotated it to get a closer look at the label. When he did, his face visibly paled beneath his brown coat. Nearly dropping the bottle, Safe Haven turned towards the drunken pegasus. “Miss… Rainbow Dash, was it? Did you happen to tell the ponies who gave you this whiskey where exactly you were staying?”

The door answered for her. The bell nearly shattered under the force of the wood slamming open, and the tiny brass chime fell to the ground. A solid hoof in a horseshoe of steel crushed it into the floorboards, eliciting a pitiful cry of metal on metal. The inn had fallen silent, and the three ponies at the table visibly tensed, even though they didn’t see who opened the door.

A company of five Stalliongrad ponies walked into the bar, all wearing heavy black jackets. The sleeves extended down the foreleg to just above the ankle, and actual fur lined the collars and the thick padding underneath the fabric. The ponies all wore the jackets open, and Twilight could see an alarming gallery of weapons against their chests. Swords, daggers, and even an axe or two glinted in the light from the fireplace. Muscles rippled underneath their jackets, and several pairs of wings fluttered off the snow that had accumulated on them. There were no unicorns or earth ponies in the company.

The lead stallion, a pegasus with a sickle strapped to his chest, stepped forward with a frightening smile on his face. His lean limbs moved with purpose and precision, and he took his time strolling into the open of the inn. His coat was wheat brown, with a mane full of spikey gray hair. Angry green eyes flickered in their sockets, and the pegasus’ predatory tongue ran over a row of jagged teeth. His wings were scarred, and several badly frayed feathers stood almost perpendicular to his body. It was obvious to Twilight that the pegasus’ wings had seen much use in their lifetime, and probably had not been preened once within the past two years.

Safe Haven pretended not to notice the arrival of the five Black Cloaks, the brutish police force that ran most of the Domain of Stalliongrad, but Twilight could see the sheen of sweat that quickly formed around the base of his horn. Instead, the brown unicorn set about polishing several glasses on his counter, working each one over several times until it had the perfect level of sheen.

The Black Cloak with the sickle and officer insignia on his shoulder flashed Twilight one of his toothy smiles before sidling up to the bar. Tapping his shod hoof against the counter, the wheat pegasus waited for Safe Haven to turn around. Haven took his time doing so, stealing one or two quick breaths before approaching.

“Подполковник, я не ожидал увидеть вас так поздно ночью. Есть что-то, с чем я могу помочь?”

The pegasus officer grinned and flicked one of his wings, nearly touching Twilight’s face. “Ну, может и есть. Я ищу троих предателей, что по слухам орудуют в моем городе. Болтают, они пытаются смешать Сараево с дерьмом и вышвырнуть отсюда Черные Плащи. Так вот, если это действительно так, я хочу чтобы любой житель, который хоть что-то знает, пришел и рассказал мне об этом лично. Чем быстрее мы схватим этих подонков, тем лучше.”

Twilight perked her ears, trying to decipher the words while Rainbow quietly hiccupped beside her. She could only understand bits and pieces—‘Saraneighvo’ was mentioned, along with ‘Black Cloaks’, ‘information’, and a lot of curses. She thought she heard the word ‘traitors’, but she wasn’t sure.

Safe Haven nodded, pushing a mug of ale towards the pegasus. “Само собой, губернатор. Как только я что-нибудь узнаю—”

“Заткнись,” the Black Cloak interrupted. “Я тут хочу внести предельную ясность, что если кто-то предоставляет им хату, убежище или еще какую блядскую нору, того будут судить и казнят как военного преступника. Вот теперь, есть ли что-нибудь, что ты хочешь мне рассказать, Прибежище?”

Twilight couldn’t understand what the two were saying, but she heard Safe Haven’s name twice, combined with several other swears, and ‘war criminal’. She could tell that Haven was becoming increasingly distraught, despite how much he tried to cover it by polishing an errant glass. Try as she might, though, she was unable to bring herself to ask what was going on. Even Rainbow Dash in her stupor had enough sense to hold her tongue.

“Ты думал, что проследив за прибывшими из Еквестрии, выйдешь на нас, Серп?” the pegasus at the table chided. Amusement quickly filling his face, the Black Cloak who Twilight inferred was named Serp with what she gathered from the orange stallion’s words left the bar and began to walk towards the table.

“Естественно. Мятежная сволота вроде вас всегда ищет внешней помощи в своих пиздаватых планах. Я смотрю, сдесь две носительницы Элементов Гармонии. Не надо далеко идти, чтоб понять как остальные четверо гадят в остальных Царских городах.”

Serp reached for his sickle, and the other Black Cloaks responded by drawing their own respective weapons. “Комендант будет ох как рад увидеть ваши мятежные морды выстроены перед ним на коленях. Особенно твою, я притащу тебя к нему скованным, сломленным и с обрезками крыльев. Я аж сейчас слышу его похвалы.”

Twilight was able to pick up on the gist of the message; the grain-coated pegasus was threatening the orange one and was demanding that he surrender. She leaned closer to Safe Hazen, her hooves fumbling with each other in alarm. “What is he saying? What’s going on?”

Safe Haven released a tense breath and narrowed his eyes on the back of the Black Coat’s head. “Twilight, I want you and Rainbow Dash to gather your belongings and get out of here as quickly as you possibly can. Then leave Saraneighvo. Don’t stop until you get to Stalliongrad, and don’t talk with any Black Cloaks until after you get to the castle.” His hooves moved beneath the counter, and Twilight heard the flicking of latches, like the kind that would be used on a weapons case.

“What? Why? What do you mean?” Twilight pleaded. The Black Cloaks were closing in on the three ponies sitting at the table, but they didn’t seem to care. Twilight thought she saw a smile flicker to the orange pegasus’ face just before the lead enforcer reached out to touch him. “What exactly is—?”

There was a blinding flash of light, coupled by wails and screams of pain that poured out from the center of the inn. Twilight found herself face down on the floor, hunched over Rainbow Dash’s shaking body as the world exploded around her. When she stood up, the light had receded, leaving a faint ring of burnt mana lying around the now overturned table where the trio of ponies had been sitting at. Twilight realized that the unicorn must have placed a proximity spell around the table that casted a brilliant light whenever it was breached. She then ducked in fear as Safe Haven jumped the bar, sword held aloft in a grip of Arcana, and drove it into the back of the nearest Black Cloak.

The inn had exploded into a chaotic brawl as the three ponies plus Safe Haven swung weapons at the four remaining Black Cloaks scattered throughout the room. Terrified, Twilight nearly hurled Rainbow Dash into their room with her magic before sprinting in after her and slamming the door shut. She then stood with her back to the door, panting.

“What the hay?! Rainbow shouted, backpedaling towards her bead. “I didn’t know that coltfriend of yours was a freaking psycho! He just attacked the police!”

“I’m sure he had a very good reason!” Twilight protested, throwing her books into her saddlebags and tossing her winter gear over her coat. “I knew something was up with those ponies the moment I laid eyes on them! That was Governor Serp, the pony in charge of Saraneighvo and its garrison of Black Cloaks! They’re some of the cruelest ponies in all of Equestria!” Pausing, she turned to scowl at Rainbow Dash. "And he's not my coltfriend!"

Rainbow Dash had gathered enough of her wits about her to help with the packing. She shoveled food, clothes, anything she owned into a bag and threw it across her back, making sure to adjust her winter gear first. “Whatever you say. And just what are you talking about?! Those were the ponies I was talking with earlier!”

“And they used you to find their way back here! I’m not sure what exactly is going on, but the Black Cloaks were looking for somepony, and they figured we had something to do with it! Now, we’re probably wanted criminals!” Twilight hopped nervously from hoof to hoof on the verge of hyperventilation. “Oh, how am I ever going to become an Archmage if I have a criminal record?! This is bad, bad, bad!” Pounding on the door caused her to shriek, and Rainbow scurried next to her.

“Then teleport us the buck out of here, Twi! Something tells me we aren’t going to get a fair trial if we open that door!”

Twilight vigorously nodded, her breathing growing increasingly ragged and stressed. “Alright! I’m getting us out of here—anywhere but here!”

The door exploded open with a gust of wind to reveal Marshal Serp standing there, blood dripping from the point of his sickle, just as Twilight and Rainbow Dash teleported away. Twilight was still screaming when the two of them fell fifteen feet to the ground below on a hilltop just outside of Saraneighvo.

“Twilight! Twilight, chill out!” Rainbow Dash shouted as Twilight’s body visibly shook from her panic. “Twi, we’re outside of the city. We’re safe.”

Taking several deep and strained breaths, Twilight sat up and glanced at Saraneighvo. Fires were beginning to light in the block around the inn, and she could see figures leaving their buildings and meeting in bloody clashes up and down Mane Street. Sirens began to go off as the smoke poured out of the town, and dozens of pegasi flew off of rooftops around the city to meet in aerial combat. The city of Saraneighvo was in full-fledged revolt.

The two Equestrians looked on at the increasingly chaotic battlefield before sliding down the side of the hill towards the rail lines below. The steel tracks stretched onwards into the night to the south, two thin trails of reflected light under the howling of the winter storm. Rainbow and Twilight looked over the tracks for a long time before Dash made the first move.

“Well, we ain’t gonna get anywhere by just standing here. C’mon, let’s get back to Stalliongrad.”

Twilight remained in shock for seconds longer as Rainbow Dash began to follow the tracks to the south. The fires were multiplying in Saraneighvo along with the smoke, and she very much doubted that any trains would be coming from the town anytime soon.

So, shifting the weight of her saddlebags over her flanks, Twilight began a brisk trot after Rainbow into the Stalliongrad night. And here she thought she’d just be spending a week in Saraneighvo reading about Hurricane’s life.

-----

The windswept cliffs of the steep valley shivered under the cold and snow they bore on their brows. The gray rocks raced downwards in jagged lines, loose boulders sitting where they lay nestled against rogue trees that clung to the sides of the cliffs. A raging river of white rapids defied the tense chill trying to freeze it solid, spurning away the frosts and devouring the snow along its banks. Somehow its tributaries had not been frozen over, and the sky and valley continued their duel with splashing and howling.

The valley plateaued into a narrow mountain pass about fifteen feet wide that weaved between the jagged spires rising up on either side of the river. Some of the mountains stood thousands of feet tall, their gray sides trying to shrug off the ice that clung to them. The little pass threaded around these monoliths, taking the time every once in a while to find a break in the stone curtain and reveal the massive plains to the west.

Smart Cookie paused by one of these such breaks, taking the time to rest his hooves by dangling them off the edge where he sat. The sun had sliced open a swath of sky behind him, and its shimmering rays fell into the glittering river below or danced off of the icy field ahead. It was a majestic sight, and he smiled as the wind tickled his cheeks and the light stubble that was teasing its way through the fur around his jawline. Even if he was in the middle of nowhere without the beloved razor he used to keep his face prim and proper, the views like the one he was enjoying right now made the journey bearable.

Of course, he still had to contend with the mind-numbing Chancellor, day after day. Adjusting the hat to sit more comfortably on his brow, the Representative turned to where Puddinghead was marching in circles. A groove at least several inches deep had been worn into the path which had seen centuries of use, the gravel and dirt on its face ground and compressed into a smooth trail. Smart Cookie knew that they were following what was in the old days a Crystal Pony marching path, long since abandoned. He never knew why the Crystal warlords had stopped following the path; as far as he could remember, the last time the trail had been worn by the barbarians was not even two years past, and they had pillaged several villages in the Low Valleys before Cirra could respond. The last warlord to use it had even routed a regiment of Cirran fliers that tried to pursue them into the pass. Why would they abandon it when it was such a defensible position?

“Smart Cookie! Come on, Representative! We’ve got to get a move on!”

The orange stallion groaned and clambered to his hooves, shouldering the packs he had to carry. Puddinghead was staring at him impatiently through the remains of the map. After the first few days, Smart Cookie had just accepted it and moved on. He didn’t really need the map anyway. Just keep going west, ever westward until there was no more snow. Then he’d stake a claim for the land and head back home. Of course, he’d need a map to do that… Oh well, he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

“Yes yes, this is definitely the right direction!” Puddinghead proclaimed as his hooves completed their circuit for the fiftieth time.

Smart Cookie paused by the edge of the circle, dulled indifference filling his face. “Chancellor, you do realize that you’re going in circles?”

Puddinghead stopped dead in his tracks, confusion overtaking his features. “But that’s impossible! Are you saying that I’m reading the map wrong?!”

The Representative could barely conceal his exasperation. “Absolutely not, your chancellorship.” Smart Cookie had to spit into the snow to clear the sarcasm dripping from his tongue. “It’s only that there are holes in the map, and—”

“Well of course there are!” Puddinghead interrupted. “How else am I going to see where I’m going?” His careless steps took him dangerously close to the edge of the cliff, sending snow falling into the ravine below.

“I… uh…” Smart Cookie mumbled as he watched Puddinghead draw nearer to the edge. Would it really be a crime to let his idiotic leader fall to his death? A better question was whether or not doing so would disqualify him from running in the elections that summer.

Unfortunately, the Chancellor spun around right at the edge of the cliff. “Or talk? I need to be able to talk! I mean, how would we survive if I just suddenly shut up?”

“Heaven forbid that should happen, your chancellorship,” Smart Cookie began. “It’s just that, uh, the map is also upside down.”

Puddinghead scowled at Smart Cookie. “I got a newsflash for you, Smart Cookie. The world is round. There is no up or down.” Satisfied, the Chancellor turned his nose skyward and trotted away from Smart Cookie… in the direction they just came from.

Smart Cookie huffed and rolled his eyes. Would it really be too hard to carry on by himself? Unfortunately, Puddinghead was carrying all the food with him, and it didn’t look like they were going to find any in the ravine. Sighing, he rolled his shoulders and called after the Chancellor. “You’re right! It’s such a relief to me that you’re in charge of the map…”

Puddinghead, still under the impression that he deserved a servant as Chancellor, hastily backpedalled as Smart Cookie reopened the topic. “Relief?! You don’t need relief! If anypony around here needs, relief, it’s me! I’m a Chancellor! I’m a big shot! You’re just my… my…”

“Representative, secretary, foalsitter…”

“Exactly!” Puddinghead shouted, oblivious to the implications of Smart Cookie’s last example. Sucking the map into his maw, the Chancellor chewed on it for a second before spitting it onto Smart Cookie’s face. The Representative cringed under the wet piece of parchment and quickly slapped it off of his muzzle. “You take the map, while I enjoy some relief!”

Smart Cookie grumbled as he held the map against the ground and tried to repair the damage done to it. Puddinghead had ripped out the sections containing Cirra and the Diamond Kingdom but had at least left the depiction of the lands to the west of Amber Field mostly intact. Now that he had the map, Smart Cookie was sure he could optimize their progress through the mountain passes. In no time at all, they’d find a homeland, and he could get back just in time to start his campaigning for the chancellorship!

Puddinghead, meanwhile, had wandered to the edge of the cliff. The snow bank he strode over quivered as his hooves advanced closer and closer to the ravine. Chunks of snow and ice fell nearly two hundred feet down to the river below, bouncing noiselessly off of the valley walls as they descended.

There was a dull crunch and snap as the ice cracked, and the bank Puddinghead was standing on plummeted off of the overhang to the bottom of the ravine. The Chancellor let out a startled yelp before falling with the snow and ice, frantically flapping his forelegs like a bird. The wind tore through his coat as he dropped, stealing his hat away from him.

Smart Cookie looked up just in time to see Puddinghead’s hat flutter off of the edge of the ravine. Cautiously approaching the edge, the Representative gulped and looked over. He may have wished Puddinghead harm to amuse himself before, but now…

Now he saw the Chancellor clinging onto a branch about fifty feet from the rushing waters below. It was difficult to see Puddinghead’s brown form against the gray cliffs, but he was there all right, his legs flailing as he struggled to grab hold of the frozen bark. His hat glided down on the currents after him, somehow alighting on the very end of the tree just out of the Chancellor’s reach.

“By the sun…” Smart Cookie muttered under his breath. He turned and began to rifle through one of his saddlebags for some rope. “You doing alright, Chancellor?!”

“Just dandy!!” came the stranded pony’s reply. “I’m very relieved right now! Yup, enjoying lots of relief!” There was an audible snap, and Smart Cookie perked his ears. The Chancellor’s words came again, although not as confident as before. “Yeah, lots of relief down here. Say, you wouldn’t mind hauling me back up again?”

Smart Cookie pulled out a section of rope and tied one end to a pickaxe he was using as a makeshift stake. Setting his gear down around him, the Representative wedged the pickaxe into the rock as hard as he could and tossed the rope off of the edge. The coil fell down, down, down, approaching the Chancellor at an ever-quickening rate…

…only to stop about twenty feet short. Smart Cookie groaned in frustration and held his hat across his chest to think. He didn’t have any more rope to get to Puddinghead, and the Chancellor was stuck on his branch without a means to get closer to the dangling line. That left only two options. Either leave the Chancellor, or go down himself and try to save him.

“Smart Cookie!” Puddinghead wailed from the tree limb. “I can’t reach the rope!”

“I know, Chancellor!” Smart Cookie retorted. “Just hang on a second, I’ll see what I can do.”

“A second!” The sound of laughter reached Smart Cookie, only hastening his withdrawal from the ledge. “I can hang on for more than a second, Smart Cookie! I mean, if I don’t, I’ll surely die! Ha ha ha ha!”

The Representative cursed Puddinghead’s inability to take anything seriously. Even on the brink of falling to his death, the Chancellor was still as lighthearted as ever. How Puddinghead was considered a sane pony, Smart Cookie would never know.

His stomach growled as he looked through his saddlebags, and the Representative tried to appease it with a few stalks of hay he pulled out of his bedroll. If only Puddinghead didn’t have all the food! It was to the brown pony’s luck that he did, though. If Smart Cookie was in possession of the food, he probably would have left as soon as the rope fell short.

Even with the hay to munch on, the growling continued. Smart Cookie grumbled as he tried to ignore the noise before realizing that he didn’t have to ignore the pain. His stomach felt absolutely fine. A little on the light side, but not famished. Gulping, he glanced towards the shadows of the mountain wall to his left.

A pair of green eyes glared at him from the darkness. They blinked once, then were joined by another pair. The growling began to rise in pitch and volume as more sets of eyes appeared out of the dark, and Smart Cookie stumbled backwards. Whatever those eyes belonged to, he had a feeling it wasn’t friendly.

“Jeez, Smart Cookie! What’s taking you so long up there?” Puddinghead questioned. “It’s not like I’ve got all day! Oh, wait, I do. Carry on then!”

The sound of the Chancellor’s voice only seemed to entice the creatures farther. The growling abruptly stopped, and Smart Cookie could see one begin to leave the shadows from which it appeared. With one loud snort, the creature emerged from the mountainside and began to advance on Smart Cookie.

The monster was at least six feet tall, standing on two spindly legs covered in gray fur. Its torso was massive and muscular, and its arms made up more than half of its size and heft. Jagged teeth were bared from under bloodied lips, and its eyes glinted with malice and hatred. The beast’s ears followed Smart Cookie’s breaths and its nose tentatively sniffed the air. A stubby tail shook from underneath its patchwork garments of cloth and leather. All across its body, the monstrosity was adorned with gems and jewels of all kinds.

Smart Cookie gasped as he tripped over the bags lying near the edge of the cliff and nearly fell off. With a distinctively canine growl, the beast advanced at a faster pace, the claws on its paws gouging out huge chunks of earth. It stopped just short of the Representative, its nose twitching as it sniffed and its tongue running over its teeth. It leaned in closer until Smart Cookie could feel its breath rolling across his neck, the hot and sticky air clinging to his coat.

“Um… I d-don’t suppose we could talk this over, could we?” the pony pleaded. The beast’s sniffing halted and it drew back to regard the creature it had pinned. After deciding that it did not understand the meaning of the pony’s words, the monstrous canine only roared into Smart Cookie’s face, blowing his hat off the edge of the cliff.

The Representative gulped and bit his lip. “Yeah… I kind of figured as much.” Before the beast could respond, the earth pony drew his legs against his chest and bucked off the beast with all the force he could muster. It was no small amount, and the monster was launched several feet into the air before slamming into the mountainside, twenty feet above the path below. Smart Cookie considered himself lucky he was an earth pony and had access to their Endura. The strength the magic gave him was the only reason he could move a beast of that size. The other two races would have had to fight their way out with more indirect tactics.

He also considered how unlucky he was to be an earth pony without access to a pair of wings or teleportation magic to escape from the howling pack rushing him from out of the shadows. Scrambling to his hooves, Smart Cookie searched for a way out. He was cornered on the edge of the ravine, and there was nowhere to go except down. Except down…

“Sweet Celestis, have mercy on my troubled soul!” Smart Cookie shouted as he flung himself off of the ravine. Immediately he regretted the action. The wind ripped across his face faster than he had ever experienced in his life, and he finally understood why he was afraid of heights. Screaming, he flailed his limbs on the way down, but to no avail. His speed increased at an alarming weight, and he could feel his organs shifting within his chest.

“OhCelestisohLunispleasehelpmeIdon’twanttodiepleasepleasepleasepl—”

The icy sting of the river suddenly forced its way down Smart Cookie’s throat, cutting off his words along with his access to air. He struggled, spasms wracking his abdomen and limbs as he fought his way to the surface. The world around him lightened, and Smart Cookie knew he had broken the surface as the wind returned to buffet his face. Coughing the water from his lungs, the Representative struggled to find a rock to grab onto. Pulling himself onto the shore, Smart Cookie kissed the gravelly sands. Alive and safe! He smiled to the skies as he choked out the last of the water in his lungs. Celestis and Lunis were looking out for him after all.

“OOOOHHHH DEAR HEAVENS!! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, SMART COOKIE!! RUN LIKE HOW YOU DID WHEN YOU FOUND THAT RAT IN YOUR OFFICE LAST MONTH!!”

Smart Cookie quickly shuffled back against the valley wall as Puddinghead sprinted by him at top speed, leaving a cloud of dirt and snow in his wake. Shaking the water off of his face, Smart Cookie glanced to where the Chancellor had come from just in time to see a pack of fifteen more of the canine monstrosities pursuing him. His ears drooped. “Son of a…”

The Representative didn’t give himself time to finish the sentence, instead choosing to turn tail and flee after Puddinghead. The Chancellor had impressive speed and agility, weaving around boulders and other obstacles in his way until Smart Cookie could only see his ever-shrinking tail outdistancing him along the river. A glance over his shoulder revealed that the dog-like creatures were closing on him, their mouths oozing in anticipation of their next meal. Panting, the orange stallion redoubled his resolve and struggled to put more distance between himself and the canines.

“Puddinghead!!!” he wailed, kicking up dirt as his hooves scrambled across a particularly slippery patch of stone and sand. Figures that this would happen to him! He would have preferred it if karma had waited a day or two to pay him back for considering abandoning Puddinghead. It’s not like he actually did leave, anyway! Well, if the Gods weren’t going to cut him some slack, then he’d have to devise his own escape. He just needed somewhere to lose the dogs…

There. A break in the river valley, opening up to the plains outside. He could flee through there and possibly outrun the dogs pursuing him. They were clumsy and ill-suited to running, best he could tell. Besides, he was running in their home turf. Sooner or later they would find some shortcut to catch him. In the open, though, they wouldn’t have that advantage.

His breath paining his throat, Smart Cookie poured the last of his energy into getting through the gap. Leaping over a large stone in his way, the Representative stumbled out of the valley. Wide expanses of land greeted him on either side, along with a gentle breeze and the warmth of the sun, complete with fifty charging Crystal Ponies.

Smart Cookie tried to skid to a stop, but his hooves only collapsed under him and he tumbled headlong into their charge. His muzzle slammed against the ground, bringing stars to his eyes and causing him to harshly bite down on his tongue. He spat blood onto the ground and squeezed his eyes shut, expecting any second to be ripped limb from limb by the barbarians’ cruel iron weapons. So much for becoming Chancellor of the Low Valleys.

The sound of hooves thundered all around him, and Smart Cookie peeked from under his hooves at the ponies rushing around him. Not over him like he anticipated, but around him. Rolling onto his back, he watched as the ponies stopped the gap he had previously burst through.

Unreal howling filled the air as the Crystal Ponies ripped apart the pack of dog-creatures that had pursued Smart Cookie. Their lines were solid, resolute, disciplined, and unlike any Crystal barbarians he had seen before. Their armor was uniform, coated in diamond and void crystals over a strong layer of steel. Cyan plumes and armor plates decorated their crystalline coats of various colors. Orders were given not with the clubbing of subordinates, but from the calm and educated voice of what Smart Cookie inferred was a general of some sorts.

In seconds it was over, and the mangled bodies of several monsters lay in the pass next to several crushed ponies. The soldiers withdrew, carrying their dead with them while a pair of soldiers advanced to burn the bodies of the canines. They bypassed Smart Cookie completely, not even sparing him as much as a glance.

Until a pair of hooves stopped by his head. Feeling them nudge against his damp mane, Smart Cookie turned his delirious eyes skyward. A towering pony, much taller than any he had ever seen before, stared back at him. The pony was a mare, complete with a jade coat largely obscured by her cyan armor of diamonds and gold. Her sky blue eyes wandered across his body, the hexagonal sparkle in their irises transfixing the Representative. A mane of darker green hung to one side of her neck, ending in frayed coils below her shoulder. A thin and expressionless mouth completed her face from under her steel helmet.

But that wasn’t what caught Smart Cookie’s eyes. Protruding from her helmet was a beautiful jade horn easily measuring over two feet in length. A slight rustling by her armored sides drew Smart Cookie’s glance towards her flanks. Two large wings of beautiful green feathers fluttered loosely against her body. The feathers were freshly preened, looking like they were treated with a level of care and attention that rivaled even that which Princess Platinum enjoyed. The tips of her feathers parted, revealing a cutie mark of a crystal sword crossed in front of a diamond shield.

Smart Cookie’s head lolled back onto the chilly grass. A unicorn… with wings? Or a pegasus with a horn? How…? All he knew for certain was that she was a Crystal Pony.

The mare looked over her shoulder and spoke to another stallion covered in armor. “Go find that other pony that came through here. I think this is one of his companions.” Her voice was smooth as silk and undulated like the gently rolling waves of a calm lake. Smart Cookie felt a sense of ease as she spoke, feeling confident that, for whatever reason, he trusted these Crystal Ponies entirely.

Faintness tugged on the edges of his mind, and Smart Cookie felt himself falling into the void. The jade mare leaned down and felt his pulse, whispering into his ear.

“You’re safe now. I promise.”

Then darkness overtook him, leaving her words to follow him to his dreams.

-----

Clover didn’t know how long she had been marching for. Her hooves were killing her. Her legs were killing her. Her horn was killing her. Every part of her body ached in some unique and painful way, and the barbarians refused to let her have a break and rest. They had been galloping at full speed for Celestis knows how long. She was parched, hungry, and violently shaking from the cold and the void ring still fastened to her horn.

The wagon had broken down fifty miles back, and they had been marching ever since. Even then, however, Halite had been careful to make sure that his prisoners didn’t take undue damage. They walked at a brisk yet comfortable pace along well-worn trails across open plains and hills for the majority of the journey, but something spooked Halite fifteen miles back. From then on, he ordered that his soldiers stay off of the roads and move only in the shadows of the forest, marching as brisk as they could possibly go. It was Tartarus, pure and unbridled Tartarus. Platinum had caved long ago, and Halite had two of his soldiers carry her across the rough terrain. Clover was forced to travel by her own four hooves, as weary and tired as they were.

Her hooves tripped over a root, and Clover was too tired to catch herself. With a painful crash and tumble, the pistachio mare cracked her jaw against the ground with such force she could only lay there, stunned. She brought a hoof to her face and saw it came off bloody, but the blood wasn’t from her face. She looked and saw a set of crimson hoofprints in the snow behind her, disappearing into the undergrowth of the forest. She had been marching for so long that she finally reached the point when she couldn’t move anymore.

The company of barbarians stopped at Halite’s whistle, and Clover could sense several eyes turn towards her crumpled and broken figure. One set of hooves in particular approached her. The fetlocks were gray and caked with mud. Just the pony she wanted to see, especially now.

Halite’s first action was to kick Clover’s snout to try and get her to stand up. The mareservant snorted in pain, trying to jolt her head away from the warlord and his painful hooves. Her limbs struggled briefly with the snow she lay on, but it was no use. She couldn’t stand.

“Get up,” Halite hissed, kicking Clover in the snout again. Her nose began to bleed, but still she couldn’t rise. “Get up.” Another crushing blow was delivered to her ribcage, causing the young mare to cough in agony. Growling, Halite took his sword from his scabbard and rested it on Clover’s neck.

“Sir,” one of the barbarians began, taking a tentative step towards his leader, “I thought we was keeping her. Wasn’t she worth some good amount o’ bits or somethin’?”

“She would be worth a few hundred, but I am hardly concerned. The Princess is worth much, much more. Besides,” he put slight pressure to the sword, drawing forth specks of blood, “she’ll only slow us down, and I want to get back to Onyx Ridge as soon as possible. Foul things follow the scent of wealth. Most of them fly.”

Clover strained against the ground, but her aching limbs wouldn’t support her. “Wait… I can march… just give me time to rest…”

Halite clicked his tongue and shook his head. “No, my little unicorn, we don’t have time to waste. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s going to have to be this way.”

Tightening his grip on the sword, Halite raised it over his head. Clover squeezed her eyes shut, cringing and huddling her limbs close to herself in a fetal position. Sun and Moon, this was how it was all going to end, wasn’t it?

“Wait!”

The iron sword buried its nose in the ground next to Clover’s neck, leaving the frightened mare whimpering in the snow. Halite picked up his weapon and turned along with the rest of the Crystal Ponies to where Princess Platinum stood, a jagged shard of iron gripped in her teeth. One of her guards lay bleeding on the ground next to her, the iron still dripping his blood. The other she had in a headlock, the shard of iron pointed at his neck.

“If you so much as hurt her, I’ll kill this poor sod!” Platinum shouted, the iron quivering in her grip as she spoke. It was a laughable sight to see a proud Crystal warrior held hostage by a princess whose first and only care was whether her mane looked right. It was also very unlike the Princess to threaten to kill another pony, much less actually do it.

Halite called the bluff immediately. “You would do no such thing. You had the chance to finish off the soldier you wounded, and you did nothing. You lack the resolve to harm another pony. It’s not in your nature.” He advanced, his hooves crunching the snow underneath with great malice. “Put the shank down, Platinum. It’s not like you’re going to fight us all off.”

Her eyes darting from pony to pony, Platinum pushed off of the hostage she had and stepped backwards. Halite was right, she couldn’t hope to fight off all of the barbarians, much less himself. And it wasn’t like Halite cared whether or not she killed his soldiers anyway. There was only one thing she could do. Clamping the piece of iron between her hooves, she aimed it at her own chest.

Halite paused before speaking again, but Platinum could tell his tone had changed. “Platinum, let’s not do anything hasty. You wouldn’t want to ruin your coat, would you? Much less take your own life.”

Platinum gulped, but her resolve was steeling. “I know I’m the only thing you care about here, Halite. I’m worth thousands, tens of thousands, aren’t I? How much money are you going to get off of a corpse? Especially a corpse with a nasty piece of iron sticking out of her heart?”

“You wouldn’t do it.”

“Try me,” Platinum spat. Stealing a breath, the Princess pushed on the shard of iron. Rivulets of scarlet began to trickle from her coat as she gasped against the pain.

“Stop!” Halite shouted. “Stop!” His shoulders were shaking, and he swallowed sharply. Turning to his soldiers, he nodded his head. “Pick her up. We’re bringing her to Onyx Ridge with us.” He took a step closer to Platinum, bending down to her level. “I did what you wanted. Your servant is safe. Now, drop the shard.”

Platinum stared at her chest as she willed herself to stop hyperventilating. The blood trickled down her perfectly white coat until it dripped to the ground between her hooves. It was a shallow wound, barely worse than a paper cut, but the significance behind it scared her the most. She had come within inches of seriously hurting herself or worse to save the life of a servant. Why?

The shard of iron fell to the snow, her blood and the blood of the Crystal Pony she had wounded mingling together in a crimson stain. She didn’t have the urge to resist as two warriors replaced her bindings and carried her across their backs. As the barbarians began to move again, Platinum found she lacked the ability to express her emotions.

“Why?”

Platinum started as another pony gave her turbulent thoughts a voice. She looked across the marching barbarian’s back to see Clover being carried next to her, bruised and bloodied but alive. “Why did you save me?”

The question sat heavily in the Princess’ mind, but she found her answer not in her brain, but in her heart. A new mask of confidence overtook her features and she smiled softly to Clover.

“Because I realized that you’re my friend. Not just a servant. My one and only friend in this cruel, harsh world.”

Clover raised a weak eyebrow. “Really? I… I didn’t think you cared, Princess.”

“Of course I care, Clover darling. I didn’t before, that much is true, but now… well, now I realize that you’re important to me. You’re the only one who’s really ever had my side. Whether that’s from subservience or something else I won’t stop to ponder. But you’re here, with me, and I couldn’t turn my back on you.” Her eyes took on a resolved glint, and she nodded her head as if she had never been more certain of anything in her life. “And I promise you, Clover, that no matter what happens, we’re getting out of this. Together.”

The Princess’ intensity filled Clover with a newfound sense of awe and determination. Platinum was right. They would find some way to get out of this. No matter how tough the obstacles to their freedom were. No matter how high the walls were…

Celestis, those walls were high.

The troop of Crystal barbarians crested a hill on the edge of a forest to look out across a landscape of plains and fields that stretched on for a hundred miles in any direction. The snow shimmered softly under the early afternoon sun that had poked its way through the clouds, and tiny gusts and breezes swirled some of the crystals into lovely patterns. A backdrop of grandiose mountains in the west framed the picture beautifully. Clover knew that behind those silent obelisks of stone and rock lay the strait, her doorway to finding new lands for the Kingdom. Those thoughts were put on hold, however, when she saw the towering structure placed in the center of the fields about ten miles out.

The structure was a fortress of incredible strength and size. Black walls sloped upwards from the fortified ground surrounding it, their polished faces creating a blinding display as they scattered the sun’s rays across their onyx surfaces. They must have gone upwards for nearly two hundred feet; River Rock’s own stone walls paled in comparison, not even measuring to half of their height. Towers and buttresses of all kinds adorned the circular walls at regular intervals. Low ramparts ringed the fortress in concentric circles for at least a mile out from its impressive main gates. A brilliant castle, made of onyx bricks as far as Clover could tell, dominated the center of the fortress. It was then that the mare realized that Onyx Ridge was not just a fortress; it was a citadel of impressive scale, probably home to tens of thousands of Crystal warriors.

“Come on, move it!” Halite growled to his followers. “Onyx Ridge is only eleven miles away! Let’s hustle! I want to be in my own bed by nightfall!”

The two unicorns glanced at each other as their captors began the charge towards Onyx Ridge. Clover was glad that Platinum had given her that motivational pep talk. It gave her the strength and resolve to escape from Halite, no matter what the cost.

She would need that strength and resolve if she was going to find a way out of Onyx Ridge.

-----

“See anything?”

“Nothing, sir!”

“Dammit,” Hurricane swore from high above the treetops. He and Pan Sea had been searching for any sign of Streak Wing and his company of bandits for days now, and hadn’t come across a single trace in their ever-widening search. He figured he would find something by now—a campsite, discarded bones, anything—but his guesses all came up empty. He was beginning to think that somehow he had lost the traitors and all the energy he had expended on the search was going to end up being a waste. Part of him argued that he should just move on and forget Streak Wing; there was no way that the deserter believed him to still be alive, not with the potency of the poison he had given him. It would be safer and wiser just to continue heading west, find new lands, and return. The mountains still loomed large on the horizon, beckoning for the Commander to surmount them. They were only a two days’ flight out at this point.

Still, something far more powerful than wisdom pulled on Hurricane’s soul and demanded that he find Streak Wing and claim his life as payment for the wrongs he had committed against Cirra. Was it pride, challenging him to avenge the blows against his honor and the honor of Cirra that this one traitor and his band of deserters had dealt? Perhaps it was his sense of duty that ordered him to strike down deserters and traitors as the old Empire once expected him to do. Maybe it was fear, telling him that if he didn’t kill Streak Wing first, the former Legate would find a way to destroy him and his nation.

Whatever it was, it had prompted the search for Streak Wing the day after Hurricane recovered from the poison. Whatever gear the deserters hadn’t taken, Hurricane and Pan Sea split between them, and after Hurricane had hunted enough food to feed them for a few days, the two Legionnaires took to the skies and began their spiraling search for Streak Wing. Hurricane only knew that the deserters had gone somewhere to the south or west, but he had no way of knowing where the pegasus’ destination lay. So, resorting to brute force locating tactics, Hurricane and Pan Sea swept back and forth across the forest and hills in widening arcs to try and find some evidence of the Legate’s trail, only to find nothing.

Fuming with suppressed rage, Hurricane flew to the top of a cumulus cloud and draped himself across it. Pan Sea followed shortly afterwards, setting his helmet down on the cushiony surface next to him. The two pegasi scanned the land below from their lofty perch, all but giving up on the search.

“I can’t believe we lost him,” Hurricane growled. He flexed his wings, arching the tips to meet each other over his head. The poison had left his muscles badly cramped and his stamina greatly reduced, making it difficult to fly for several hours straight. Hurricane, however, had been flying for several days straight, only stopping to sleep or eat. His wings burned, and he had lost half of his secondary feathers. At least his strong primaries were mostly unaffected by Galm’s Elixir.

Pan Sea coughed nervously into his foreleg. “Um, perhaps we should just forget about Streak Wing, Commander. Or at least take a break. That would be good, sir. Don’t we have a more important mission, anyway? I would think finding a new land would be more important than this wind duck hunt. I know Cirra only has enough food to last a month or two before we’re completely out.”

Hurricane rolled onto his back and grumbled. “Gods be damned if I let a traitor attack Cirra twice and live. Streak Wing needs to pay. Even if we ignore him and find a new land, imagine how much havoc he and his followers could cause during the migration. He has some of the best trained soldiers in the Legion with him. And you know how good they were with their hit and run tactics.”

Pan Sea gulped and dipped his head. He had never seen pegasi move like that before, wreathing themselves in cloud to stalk their prey. He hadn’t seen them, period. Not until they started diving out of the sky in their ambush. He could only imagine the difficulty the Legion would have in protecting its supplies and civilians against pegasi like them, especially at nightfall.

Scraping a bit of dirt off of his hoof, Hurricane let his legs dangle off of the cloud. “We have to kill Streak Wing. He’s too dangerous to let live.”

Looking at the trees below and the skies above, Pan Sea nibbled on his hoof as he thought. “Well, we know that they went to the south or west. Is there anything to the west, as far as you know, sir?”

Hurricane shook his head. “Nothing. At least, that’s what the explorers told me last year. They went as far as the mountains and back and didn’t find anything of importance. Just trees and hills.”

Sitting up, Hurricane turned to face the south. “But there was something that they did mention to me. There was a sizeable structure a good eighty or ninety miles south of here. A fortress of some sort, with walls of solid onyx and battlements of impressive strength. They said it was some sort of Crystal Pony city. Although I doubt that the warlords have the means or the desire to organize even a modest settlement, I know that the fortress does indeed exist. Perhaps we might find Streak Wing heading in that direction.”

Pan Sea raised an eyebrow. “You knew about a Crystal Pony encampment and didn’t do anything about it? Why?” He glanced at Hurricane nervously before shuffling his hooves across the cloud. “I mean, I’m sure you had good reasons, but—”

“Because I didn’t want to waste Cirran lives on destroying a distant and out of the way fortress that was of no bother to the Diamond Kingdom or the Low Valleys, that’s why,” Hurricane interrupted. “Crystal Ponies are stubborn as all hell when it comes to defending something they think they own. Just take Legate Thunder Hawk’s campaign against warlord Pyrite in the Middle Pass. Fifteen thousand dead to dispatch an encampment in the mountains numbering no more than five thousand. It’d cost so much more to destroy a stronger force inside a fortress. I don’t need to be throwing away the lives of my ponies on something like that. Let them come to us and do the attacking where we can dissect their ranks easily. It’s the best way to deal with them.”

Fluttering his wings, Hurricane hopped off of the cloud and began to circle higher and higher, Pan Sea following him close behind. They rode a light thermal up through the troposphere until they were several miles above the ground, offering Hurricane a good look at the world below. Gliding below some cirrus clouds, Hurricane began to fly to the south, looking for a break in the storm below.

“Come on, clear up you bastards,” he whispered to himself, his tired wings working to keep him aloft in the thin air. After several minutes of flying, his prayers were answered when a thin oculus opened above the plains to the south. The fields stretched out in every direction, but nestled in the center of their incredible snowbound brilliance was a single, solitary structure, its masonry as black as the darkest night.

Smiling, Hurricane began a rapid descent, feeling his ears pop as the pressure rapidly increased. His steep descent took him to speeds he had only reached a few times in his life, and he flattened his ears against the shrill winds his projectile shape cut through. He squinted his eyes against the cold air, feeling them begin to water beyond control, and he started to steer his descent with his wingtips alone. The thrill of diving at such a speed was remarkable, and he would have laughed if the air wouldn’t have choked him to death for doing so.

Feeling the air begin to tremble around him as he approached incredible speeds, Hurricane quickly dropped his legs and slowed his descent. He had approached the speed barrier that no Cirran could pass through, when all of sound seemed to disappear until there was only the wind and the flier. He had heard the stories of foolish pegasi who tried to break the barrier; how their wings had been torn from their body, how the sudden explosion of thunder and color proved absolutely devastating to any flying too close. The boundaries of the Gods were not so easily passed, and Hurricane had no intention of risking his neck on attempting to do so. He had a mission, and that came first and foremost in his mind.

The trees whipped past Hurricane’s tail as he descended closer and closer to the canopy below. He occasionally twisted or rolled to the side as a stray branch reached out to ensnare him, and the leaves swayed in the wake he left behind. He tried to measure his speed as he flew. He figured he must have been going eighty or ninety miles per hour. Undoubtedly, he was going much faster during the dive, but he had no real way of knowing how fast.

Several hours of flight took him to within twenty miles of the fortress, and he descended into a clearing, panting from his flight. He stumbled his landing but managed to recover into a trot, burning off his momentum with open wings as he came to a halt. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Hurricane turned and sat against a nearby tree. He was not as young as he used to be. He would need to remember that next time before sprinting several dozen miles in one go.

It took many minutes for Pan Sea to finally catch up, and when he did, Hurricane’s mouth twitched in amusement as the Legionnaire immediately began to preen his feathers. At least ten badly frayed quills were pulled from his wings in the first few minutes, and Pan Sea grumbled the whole time. While he was working, Hurricane took the time to inspect his own wings as well. They surprisingly weren’t nearly as bad as Pan Sea’s, but they could use some work. One or two loose feathers were pulled, and Hurricane smoothed the rest into place with his teeth. It occurred to him that the last time he had his feathers preened was when Swift Spear cleaned them the night before he left. A pang of loneliness filled his heart, as well as a strong longing for the friendly skies of Cloudsdale. It was difficult to leave all those he loved behind, but they never said being a leader was about making easy decisions. Instead, Hurricane turned the loneliness he felt into a stronger resolve to succeed in finding Cirra a new home, and he could start by killing Streak Wing and ending his dissention once and for all.

It took ten minutes for Pan Sea to decide his wings were in neat enough an order for his liking. Trotting over to Hurricane, he sat down next to the Commander and held his helmet between his hooves. “Are you sure you couldn’t have gone a teeny bit slower, Commander? I had a hard enough time keeping up as it was.”

Hurricane released a single breath of air that passed for a laugh. “No time to lose, Pansy. We don’t want Streak Wing to get too far ahead of us, now don’t we?” Swiveling his head across the tiny clearing they were nested in, Hurricane’s ears perked. “Especially not now.”

Standing up, the black pegasus began to trot to the opposite end of the clearing. Pan Sea leaned to his side, trying to see around Hurricane’s body. “What is it, Commander? Did you find something?”

“I found something, alright.” Bending down, Hurricane nosed a pile of leaves off of a glinting piece of metal lying covered near the tree roots. He smiled and balanced the blade between his hooves. Cirran lettering glared back at him, the grooves of the characters filled with dried blood. Looking again to the south, Hurricane tossed the knife aside and stretched his wings.

Pan Sea scrambled to his hooves and galloped over to Hurricane. “Was that Streak Wing’s, Commander? Are we back on the trail?”

Walking towards the edge of the clearing, Hurricane flicked his ears in response. “We’re back on the trail, Pansy. Streak Wing isn’t too far from us now.”

Pan Sea exhaled and checked his sword. “Are we going to be flying then, sir?”

“No. We’re going to walk. We’d be too exposed in the air anyway.” Glancing over his shoulder, Hurricane’s lips parted in a thin smile. “Looks like you finally got that break you wanted.”