The Last Trumpet's Call

by Cold in Gardez

First published

A gryphon survives a battle in the north. His friend does not. He wonders, sometimes, who really won.

The Long Patrol is an extension of the crown. It brings the rule of law and the princess's banner to the far reaches of the kingdom, the places where harmony fades and the wild chaos of nature still reigns.

In times past, all the tribes took part in the patrol. Today, it is mostly pegasi and a few gryphons. The distances they travel are simply too vast for anyone without wings.

Like most gryphons who join, I wanted to get away from my kind. I dreamed of the adventures I would have and the friends I would make. I certainly got those.

I just wish the price weren't so high.

[My entry for the EqD Summer "Outsider Insight" contest.]


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It was still dark when I landed in Cloudsdale.

Cloudsdale at night was like a lantern drifting in the sky. A thousand thousand streetlights, windows, signs, floodlights, lamps, candles and even fireflies cast away the darkness. The land beneath the city was awash in its gentle gleam, as though the sun had never quite managed to set, and the world was filled with the twilight glow of the pegasus city, drifting high above in its many-pieced splendor. It was like a comet, soft, beautiful, and never the same.

Pegasi love the night. I never understood why, or how the other pony tribes tolerate their night-owl cousins, but among the ponies I knew the pegasi were always the last to rise in the morning, yawning and blinking into wakefulness around the time the sun reached noon. Perhaps, when one has seen how beautiful the night sky is above the clouds, or how the world below transforms into a jeweled mosaic, with rivers that reflect the stars and snow-capped mountains dusted with silver moonlight, one simply appreciates the night more than ponies who only see it from the ground, and bump into each other with blinded eyes spoiled by the day's harsh light.

Alone among the ponies, it was the pegasi who supported Princess Luna when she became Nightmare Moon. That's what Cirrus told me. It had the sound of a self-serving myth, of a noble warrior people fighting for a lost cause, but when you spend much time around pegasi, you get used to that sort of thing. They like to brag – one of the things I love about them.

Anyway, all this is to say that when I arrived in Cloudsdale, it was still dark, and there were plenty of pegasi up and about. By the time I landed on one of the floating city's wide boulevards, the eastern sky was just starting to brighten with the touch of dawn, and many of the ponies seemed to take that as their cue to head home. In ones and twos and hundreds, they took to the air and sped toward their waiting beds. The city's lights went out as the sun broke over the mountains, and morning returned to Cloudsdale.

I should add that I was completely lost. I knew I was in Cloudsdale, but that city is big. When you can make streets and homes and parks and everything else out of clouds, there's no reason not to keep building and building and building until your city is a sprawling mass that drifts about, barely connected to itself. I could imagine earth ponies, so regimented and staid, looking up at it and having fits.

So I set off walking down the street. I'd landed in a commercial district, apparently, and none of the stores lining the sidewalks looked like they'd be opening for several more hours. As I watched, a bright blue pegasus trotted out of one, pulled down the shutters, locked the doors, and jumped into the air.

Odd business hours, but whatever. I wasn't here to shop.

A cherry red mare stepped out onto the street a few paces away, and I swung toward her, stopping a polite, non-threatening distance away. Her eyes widened when she saw me, but she didn't scream or bolt. Cloudsdale was a big city, and they probably saw gryphons fairly often – enough to become inured to our presence.

“Excuse me, ma'am,” I said. It's important to be polite with ponies when first meeting them. Polite is not frightening. “Do you know where Stratus Heights is?”

“The neighborhood?”

I nodded, and she continued. “I think it's on the southwest side of the city today. If not, try the north. It's usually pretty high, unless it's low. Never in the middle.”

“I see,” I said, which was something of a fib. But then, wasn't Cirrus always like that, too? Born with an incredible ability to navigate, like all pegasi, but seemingly incapable of sharing that knowledge with others. The old joke about pegasi making maps out of clouds sauntered into my head, and just as quickly was banished.

“Thank you for your help,” I said.

“Oh, of course!” She smiled, as happy as only ponies can be. “And welcome to Cloudsdale!”

I gave her a little wave and then jumped into the air, my wings quickly propelling me above the clouds. All around, Cloudsdale extended like a floating wedding cake, with each layer drifting in its own direction, unconcerned with the fate of the others. Dawn painted them pink and orange and yellow, and the wind pulled pieces of them away, white bits of cotton caught in a stream, and for a moment I wondered why anyone would ever want to leave such a beautiful place.

Enough. I shook my head and banked toward the southwest, or maybe toward the north.

* * *

Against all expectation, I did find Stratus Heights. The neighborhood was not in the southwest, or the north, but eventually enough friendly ponies managed to steer me toward it. It was an outlier, almost a suburb, a city of its own floating far enough from the center of Cloudsdale that you could be excused for thinking it was just a massive cloud passing along in the wind. The sun was well above the horizon by the time I touched down on the wide, columned avenues, and a few early birds were already up and about fluffing the clouds in their lawns. They waved as I passed, and I waved back.

I spent the next hour just wandering about the cloud, from street to street, until I had passed through the entire neighborhood. Some houses were large, some small, some the size of palaces, others mere one-room cabins. Unlike for pretty much everyone else, to pegasi, house size is not an indicator of wealth. Clouds are free, after all. Homes are as large as they want them to be.

After some more help from friendly neighbors, I found the house I was looking for. It was modest and tall, with several floors piled atop each other, each with its own balcony and wide windows. A rare flash of green caught my eye from above, and I peered closer to see the branches of a tree swaying in the wind from a rooftop garden. That was interesting – not many pegasi kept gardens in the clouds. It required a deft touch to keep them from falling out.

The door was a dark, stained wood. Etched in the lintel above it was a pair of cutie marks: a stylized swirl of wind and three feathers. The swirl was Cirrus's father; the feathers, I assumed, his mother.

So, right house, right neighborhood. I took a deep breath and shook my wings to settle them. And again.

And again. For some reason my heart wouldn't slow down, and the speech I'd spent hours rehearsing during the long night-time flight was a jumble in my head. I closed my eyes and took another breath.

Just do it. Knock on the door.

Before I could have any second thoughts, I balled my talons into a fist and rapped on the door.

Inside, I heard the mumble of voices. There was a silence, and then the soft tap of hooves on a packed cloud floor. The sound drew closer, and finally the door opened.

I stared down at a foal, no more than half my size. He was light blue with a tan mane, and he gawked up at me like he'd never seen a gryphon before.

“Mom!” he yelled. “It's a gryphon!”

Of course, it was possible he looked at everyone that way. I kept a neutral expression on my face while his mother trotted up behind him and gently pushed him to the side. She was large for a pegasus, her eyes nearly level with mine. I caught a glimpse of her flank, and yes, three feathers, bright orange against her slate coat.

“Good morning, sir. Can I help you?” Her voice was pleasant, but her ears were tilted away. Cautious.

I had a speech for this. I'd spent hours practicing it, especially that first line. How did it go, again? Something about our unit? I stared at her, lost, while the speech I'd carefully crafted and rehearsed and agonized over fled from my mind in tatters. My heart began to race, and my tail lashed against the clouds behind me. My wings flared, ready to pull me away, to escape.

The mare frowned. She pushed the colt further away, and her hoof reached to the door. To close it.

I panicked.

“I knew Cirrus!” I blurted. I was panting. This was all a mistake. Anywhere, anywhere else but this.

Silence. She stared at me, her mouth open just a hair, as though she had frozen in the midst of speaking. Below us, the colt looked back and forth, his ears up and straining.

“Oh,” she finally said. Her eyes drifted down to the chevrons dyed into my feathers. “Oh. I... I'm sorry, I... you surprised me.” She paused and glanced down at her son, and then back into the house. “Would you like to come in? I was just brewing some tea.”

I didn't want to come in. I didn't want to be there at all. I wanted to flee and forget that I came, that I made the mistake of finding this house and knocking on that door. But that was what I had done, and now it was too late to stop.

Besides, I still had to give my speech. If I could remember it.

“Yeah,” I mumbled. I swallowed and tried again, louder. “Yes, I would be honored.”

She nodded and stepped aside, and I walked into my friend's home.

The Deerfolk

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Gryphons don't live in the clouds.

We can walk on them just fine, and sleep in them, and all the other things pegasi can do. We can even shape clouds, some of us, just as well as pegasi can – don't let them tell you any different.

But we don't. We live in our mountain aeries, where the rocks rise to touch the sky. Where two worlds come together. A hybrid place, just like us.

Still, sitting in the kitchen in Cirrus's old home, I could see the appeal. It was not all blinding white, like I expected; the walls were a subtle shade of turquoise, the color of the sea at dusk. The floor was bruise black, like the darkest of storm clouds, and the ceiling was as blue as the sky outside. The palette was vaguely reminiscent of a long flight over the ocean. It was cool and soft.

The colt scrambled up beside me, climbing onto the table to get a better look at my claws. I leaned back, bemused, but he followed until he was practically hovering over my lap.

“Alto! Get down from there.” The mare's voice was like a whip, cracking the silence. The colt rolled his eyes, but nevertheless he bounced down from the table, taking a seat next to me.

“Sorry, he likes to climb on things,” the mare continued. She trotted over to the counter and pulled a pair of ceramic mugs out from the cupboards, and then filled them with the contents of a steaming teapot sitting on the stove. Balancing them on her wings, she trotted back to the table and set them down. After a moment's hesitation, she took the seat across the table.

And... nothing. We sat, staring at our steaming cups. Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked by the seconds. Its echoes were the loudest sound in the room.

I had a speech for this. About pride and honor. About valor and Cirrus and brotherhood, and I tried as hard as I could to remember the first word.

The mare interrupted those destructive thoughts. “I think introductions are in order,” she said. “I'm Aurora. You've already met Alto.” She gestured toward her son, who still sat between us, gawping at my alien form.

He was adorable, so adorable I almost missed my cue. “I'm Corvus,” I said, just a moment late. “I... Like I said, I knew Cirrus. We were partners up north.”

Aurora's expression softened, and she tilted her head, as though to look at something in the distance. “Corvus. He mentioned you in his letters. I didn't realize you were a gryphon, though.” She paused to take a sip from her tea. “No offense, of course. I should have realized from the name.”

My ears perked up. “He mentioned me?”

A nod, and another sip. “He would write us sometimes. We still have his letters.” She glanced through the doorway leading into the living room as she spoke, an unconscious gesture, one I wasn't sure I was supposed to see. “He spoke highly of you. Of all of you.”

I considered my tea. It smelled bitter, and I got the impression Aurora wasn't the sort of mare who took sugar with her drinks. Had she always been like that? Was there a jar of sugar somewhere in her pantry, crusted shut with neglect?

“He was the best of us,” I mumbled. I don't think I meant for her to hear, but those damn pegasus ears. They can hear a snowflake hit the ground from miles away, I think.

She took another sip and closed her eyes. The conversation seemed to die, and what replaced it was not the awkward silence that so often fills the space between two strangers sitting side-by-side, but something contemplative instead. We had our thoughts to occupy us, to get lost in.

Eventually, when my tea had grown cold and Alto had curled up into a feathery ball of slumber at my feet, she spoke again, quietly. “He never said much about what he did. He said it was boring and that we wouldn't be interested.”

I rolled my shoulders. “That sounds like something he'd say.”

“Can you tell me?”

I had a speech, dammit. I'd rehearsed it. Instead, I nodded, and set my cup down on the table.

“Yeah, I can.”

* * *

The Equestrian borderlands are often a bleak, uninviting place. But even in their desolation, one finds color and life.

Lots of ponies think the borders are just mountains, an endless line of crags and peaks stretching across the world from horizon to horizon, beyond which lies only monsters. That it is a land of endless winter, outside the writ of the princesses, where nature and animals and weather all ignore the polite harmony of Equestria. Where only savages would dwell.

That's not really true. There are forests along the borderlands, and it does not always snow. There are a spring and a summer, short though they may be, and sometimes, in the autumn, when the vast groves of aspen have turned yellow and gold, and the air is filled with the buzz of arctic bees making the final rounds of the season, and the world smells like fallen leaves and cold water and loam, the borderlands don't seem so bad. They are beautiful, in their wild way.

There are monsters, though. That part is true.

Autumn had just begun when I arrived. The days were already growing short, and at night the temperature dropped well below freezing. Some mornings, when I stumbled out of my tent, the long grasses would be stiff with frost, and the sun would take hours to melt it away.

There weren't many other gryphons in the Long Patrol. Not many of us join the Equestrian services, though our treaty with the princesses affords us the same citizenship rights as ponies or donkeys. I always thought that was a bit odd – we're such a warlike people, but so few of us become soldiers, much less rangers.

Pegasi, though. Lots of pegasi in the Long Patrol. I asked Cirrus once why that was, and he said he didn't know. He only knew why he joined – obligation.

Me? I was excited just to be there. Months of training, waiting, more training, more waiting, and then finally getting word to fly north. To join a squadron patrolling the Chillwind Forest. I don't know if Cirrus mentioned it in his letters, but that's what we always hoped for in training: to be stationed out on the edges of the kingdom, to be the very farthest point in Equestria's crown.

And that's where I met him, of course. The morning after I arrived, the sergeant major grabbed me by the wing and dragged me across our little fortified camp to an open-sided tent filled with tables, books, loose papers and scrolls. There was a pony inside, and I could smell his feathers, but it was too dark to see anything else. He looked up as we approached.

“Cirrus!” the sergeant major barked. That's just how he spoke. I don't think I ever heard him speak any other way. “Got a new one for you. This is Corvus. He's your new wingman.” With that, the sergeant major turned and flapped off before either of us could respond.

The pony inside the tent stepped out into the sun and squinted. His grey coat was starting to get a bit shaggy for the winter, but his feathers were immaculate. He was also kind of short for a stallion, the tips of his ears barely coming to my eyes, but he didn't seem intimidated by me. Maybe he was used to gryphons.

“Hey,” he said. “Corvus, huh? I'm Cirrus, glad to meet you.” He held out a hoof.

I bumped it with my fist. “Yeah, Corvus.”

And that's how I met him.

* * *

I think it was a month after I arrived that we saw our first action.

That probably makes it sound more exciting than it really was. Let me describe an average day.

First, if you're on the day shift, you get woken up about an hour before dawn by the sergeant-at-arms blowing reveille on his trumpet. Why a trumpet? I don't know; tradition, or something. There are other songs – sorry, 'calls' – he plays, for various events: lights out, under attack, retreat, you get the picture.

So you stumble out of our tents and into the chow line, where ponies get boiled oats and gryphons get boiled oats with a small piece of smoked fish. Yeah, it's about as delicious as it sounds. Don't worry – dinner is better. You get two pieces of fish.

After that, you form up with your unit and go about your duties. For some ponies, that means staying in the camp and keeping the place running. For Cirrus and me, it meant starting our patrol along the border. Imagine wandering through the wilderness for twelve hours, and you've got a pretty good idea of what those entailed. With luck we'd make it back before the sun sets and collapse into our cots, and the whole thing would repeat itself the next day.

It sounds pretty terrible when I say it like that, doesn't it? It wasn't. As hard as the conditions may have been, we weren't miserable. We had friends, and the lands we walked were beautiful, and sometimes hours would pass while Cirrus and I just talked about anything that came into our heads. I got to know him pretty well in that first month. He was the first pony I ever felt was really my friend. Not just a buddy or a squadmate, but an actual friend.

So that's an average day. But this day, this day was different. We got a report from the night scouts of a commotion in the forest beyond the border, trees torn up, odd sounds, unusual weather. The commander wanted it checked out, and Cirrus was one of his best rangers. I was just lucky to tag along, really.

I remember when we reached the edge of the forest, maybe a mile or two past the border. There's no real sign or marker out there to signify the lines on the map; one step you're inside Equestria, the next you're not. The world seems the same on either side.

We'd been past this stretch of the woods before, and there was nothing special about it. Thousands of aspen trees, most bare by that point but some still clinging to their yellow leaves. A few pines and spruces added splashes of green throughout the woods, and beyond them, leagues away, a range of mountains rose into the sky. They were already white with snow, and the glare from them at noon was blinding.

Beneath us, there was a white trail a few yards across where the long grasses had frozen solid, starting at the edge of the woods and leading deeper into the forest. They snapped like glass beneath our feet. I leaned over to peer at them; each blade had grown long, feathery rimes of frost. They melted in my breath, revealing the amber stalks beneath.

We stopped in this frozen path, both of us silent. I'd never seen anything like it. Cirrus just frowned.

“What is it?” I finally asked.

He took his time before answering. His wings fluttered at his side, like he wanted to take off, and his ears plastered themselves back against his mane.

“I think it's blood,” he said.

“Blood?” I looked around again. There was no scent of blood, or hint of red, anywhere in that trail of frost. Only ice and white.

“Maybe. Let me try something.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

I'd always known pegasi could control the weather. Gryphons can do the same thing, really; we can drag around clouds, or kick them to make it rain. We just don't want to.

But before that moment, I'd never seen a pegasus really control the weather. Not just with clouds, but actual magic. The kind of thing you – well, gryphons, anyway – read about in books but never expect to see.

It happened fast. One second it was dry and freezing, and then he made some weird motion with his wings, and suddenly it was like a warm spring day. Every bit of frost within a dozen paces melted away, leaving us in a little dry circle in the middle of the sub-arctic plains. Further away, the frozen path continued into the woods.

I waited for him to open his eyes before speaking. “You mean we've been freezing our asses off this whole time, and you could have done that?”

He smirked. “It's harder than it looks. Besides, it won't last long.” He was right; already the warm air was rising, replaced by a cold breeze flowing in around our legs. Within seconds it was only a memory, and we were as cold as before.

“So why'd you do it?”

“Because...” He trailed off, his muzzle low to the grass. He sniffed at it, and then trotted a few steps toward the forest. “Here. Look at this.”

I followed and peered down where he was pointing. In the midst of the muddied ground where the frost had melted, there was a small patch of ice. It was dark, almost black, and as I watched, the grasses around it slowly began to freeze, writhing as the ice conquered them once more.

Next to the ice, there was a depression in the ground, a spot where the grass had been crushed into the dirt. A hoof print, but larger, larger than any pony I've ever seen could have left. Too large even for the princesses.

Cirrus set his hoof in the print. He could have put all four hooves in it, with room to spare.

I looked again at the patch of ice. The ring of frost around it had grown, and from a certain angle, with the sun hitting it just so, I thought I could see the faintest hint of scarlet, like it was the darkest of rubies still lurking beneath the earth.

“Windigo?” I whispered. We'd learned about them in training; rare, but not unknown out here in the borderlands. It was suddenly important to be very, very quiet.

Cirrus nodded. He looked up, along the frosted path, into the forest. “Wounded, obviously. Chasing something, or being chased.”

“Should we head back?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. Let's see if we can find where it went.”

“Is that safe?” I felt like a fool as soon as I asked. Me, a gryphon, asking if something was safe. I'm a gryphon, a predator. The monsters should be fearing me.

If he noticed my sudden flush, he kept it to himself. “It'll be fine. Windigoes aren't terribly fast, even in the air. If things go pear-shaped, we'll just make a break for it.”

'If things go pear-shaped.' Did I mention I love pony metaphors?

Anyway, I just nodded, and together we entered the forest, walking along the frosted path, our ears up and alert for any sound other than the hammering of our hearts in our chests.

It was a pretty easy trail to follow. The white, frozen ground pointed like an arrow into the forest, and wherever it had passed a tree, only a broken, splintered stump remained. Every few dozen yards, great furrows rent the ground. I saw more splatters of frozen blood – now that I knew what to look for, it seemed that they were everywhere. At one point, I accidentally stepped on one, and it felt like plunging my claw into a glacier. It burned for an instant, and then it went numb, all the way to the bone. I still have a scar in the shape of that little drop of blood.

We followed that trail for almost a mile, deeper and deeper into the woods, until it just ended. No windigo body, no cave, nothing. Just freshly fallen leaves, blowing in the light breeze. We stopped and looked around, searching for any clue we might have missed.

“Ideas?” Cirrus asked.

“Flew away, I guess.” I looked up at the low clouds above us. No one really knows how windigoes fly – they don't have wings. Still, they manage it pretty well. “Think it caught whatever it was chasing?”

“I'd prefer to think it didn't. C'mon, let's head back. Maybe we missed something.”

We started back along the frosted path. It was warm enough now that the ice was starting to melt, and not even windigo blood has enough magic to fight the sun forever. Within a few hours, I guessed, the path would be gone entirely, and in a few years new trees would sprout along it, and in enough decades the forest would bear no sign of this scar.

I was almost lost in those thoughts when something caught my eye. Far to our left, almost lost in the maze of trees, there was a flash of motion. A branch, a leaf, a spot of something that didn't move with the wind. Pegasus ears might be sharp, but they have nothing on gryphon eyes. We can see a rabbit crouching in the grass from miles away.

Cirrus noticed the change in my posture, and he sidled a few steps closer. “What is it?” he whispered. He was sharp like that, especially out in the field, always seeming to know when something was wrong, even if he didn't know what.

“To our left, maybe fifty yards.” I kept my eyes straight ahead, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. “Something's pacing us.”

His ears twitched. We kept walking in silence, listening, watching. I did my best not to breathe.

“I hear it,” he said, after we'd moved another hundred yards. “It has hooves, whatever it is.”

“Windigo?” My wings flexed involuntarily.

“No, too light. It's more like a pony.” He paused to hop over a smashed tree that had fallen across the path. “See anything more?”

“No.” I strained my eyes, but whatever it was had moved further away, and there were simply too many trees. “Do you think we should fly—“

“Stop,” Cirrus said. His voice was as calm as if he were talking about the weather, but I froze in place. I'd already learned to trust him.

Ahead of us, maybe forty yards away and standing directly across our path, was the largest stag I had ever seen. He was taller than I was, at least by a foot, and he bore a crown of antlers that rose like a forest from his brow, tipped with dozens and dozens of points, more than even my sharp eyes could count. It must have weighed hundreds of pounds, and I couldn't imagine how his neck bore the weight without snapping.

A patch of forest moved to our left again, and I glanced over to see a doe step out from between the trees. She was lithe and leggy, smaller than the stag, and she moved with an unearthly grace, like a spirit herself, flowing across the forest floor. Her antlers were little more than nubs, barely noticed between her ears, and in the crook of her foreleg she held a staff, a long, willowy thing that bent under its own weight, with a small cloth pouch hanging from the far end.

We'd seen deerfolk before, usually from the air. They lived far beyond the border, ranging up and down the mountains, passing from forest to forest with the seasons. As far as we knew, they were peaceful; they shunned outsiders, always bolting away if we drew too near. No one has ever spoken with them, because they cannot speak. They have no vocal chords. How they manage to communicate is one of the mysteries of the borderlands.

I'd always assumed they were shy and unthreatening. This stag did not look either of those. The doe stared at us with her huge brown eyes and an unreadable expression.

“Okay, don't worry,” Cirrus whispered. I'm not sure if he was talking to me or himself. He cleared his throat and said, louder, “Greetings. We are members of the Equestrian Long Patrol, here on business of the crown. We have no desire to trouble you or your kind.”

Silence. The deer stared at us. They might as well have been statues.

Cirrus licked his lips and continued. “We were tracking a wounded windigo through these woods, and now we are leaving. In peace.”

That last part felt tacked-on, but I definitely felt where he was coming from. The deer were unnerving. I couldn't take my eyes off of them, so when Cirrus lifted his hoof, I had a perfect view of what happened next.

The doe moved. I know that doesn't sound like much, but one moment she was a statue at this stag's side, and the next she was in front of him with that long staff held behind her. If I'd blinked I would have missed it.

Cirrus froze, sensibly. For a long minute the four of us just stood there, staring at each other.

“Fly?” I whispered.

He nodded. “Slowly. Try not to spook them.” With his eyes still fixed on the doe, he started to spread his wings.

The doe moved again, whipping her staff toward us, and an aspen stump a few feet to my left burst into a shower of damp splinters with a crack of thunder. I flinched away, almost tripping over Cirrus, and eventually managed to scramble into a humiliating, belated combat stance, my wings and claws out.

The doe didn't seem impressed. She tipped her staff back over her shoulder, casually fished a round river stone out of some hidden pouch, and flicked it into the air. At the apex of its flight, she snagged it with the leather thong at the end of her staff and turned back toward us.

I'd seen ponies use slings before. Among gryphons, they're usually considered toys, something for fledglings to play with before they molt and get real weapons. No self-respecting warrior would ever use one, I was taught. Which just goes to show, sometimes gryphons can be idiots.

“What now?” I asked. It came out in a wheeze.

“I don't want to fight them,” Cirrus said. That was good – I wasn't looking forward to fighting that doe either. “We'll make a break for it. When you see the fog, fly back to the forest's edge. Stay below the treetops.”

There was no fog anywhere around us. I was too confused to ask what he was talking about before he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as though he were preparing to dive to the bottom of the ocean.

The doe noticed. Those huge brown eyes narrowed, and the tip of her sling bobbed at the end of that slender willow staff, eager to fly toward us.

Cirrus let out his breath. “Now,” he said, as calm as a windless day.

All hell broke loose.

The air temperature plunged, going from a cool autumn day to the most frigid, barren winter night you can imagine. The cold burned my skin and eyes. In an instant, all the moisture in the air condensed into a thick, billowing fog that roiled all around us, consuming the forest for dozens of yards. The deerfolk vanished within it, as lost as we were.

We bolted. A hair's-breath behind us, something whistled through the air, and a second later there was a loud crack as the doe's sling demolished some poor tree.

We burst out of the fog bank together, our wings pumping like mad. I kept expecting another stone to smash into the back of my skull or shatter my legs, but within seconds we were a hundred yards away. Nothing could catch us.

“You okay?” I yelled. I could barely hear over the rushing air.

“Yeah!” He looked beat – either the flying or the weather working had drained his energy. His ears sagged and his legs dangled beneath his belly, like he didn't have the strength to hold them up. I heard his breath wheezing in his chest.

“Okay, we're almost there. Just stay by my—down!” I shouted and ducked at the same time. A piece of the forest to our left blurred, and another stone came singing toward us with enough force to twist the air in its wake. Cirrus bobbed, and the missile skimmed across his mane.

The doe was chasing us. That sounds silly, I know – a landbound creature chasing a pair of flyers, but she did it. She bounded through the forest like nothing I had ever seen, each of her legs a spring that launched her dozens of yards through the air.

I've never seen anything so beautiful, before or since.

I angled my wings and banked toward her. She had another stone out, somehow loading it into the sling even as she ran. She cocked it back, and there was no way she could miss at that range. I was close enough to smell the pine tar on her hooves, the juniper berries she had crushed and worked into her coat, and the hemlock staining her antlers.

I slashed at her face. She whipped her head away, dodging easily, but it was enough to unbalance her. She landed awkwardly, stutter-stepped to recover, and dropped the willow sling.

Good enough. Cirrus was already far ahead of us both, and I zipped away through the trees before she could retrieve her weapon. The last thing I saw of her, before the trees between us grew too dense, was a tiny frown.

Cirrus was waiting outside the forest, hovering hundreds of yards above the frigid plains. He looked exhausted, about to fall out of the sky. His coat was dripping with sweat, and his wing beats were ragged.

“You okay?” he asked.

That should tell you a lot about him. The first words out of his mouth weren't “I'm tired,” or “I need help.” No, he asked if I was okay.

“Yeah, fine. Also, what the hell happened back there? What were they doing?” Our hover became a glide, carrying us southeast, to home. “And how are we going to report this?”

He chuckled, and something inside my chest relaxed at the sound. “Creatively, I guess. The commander's a smart pony, she'll know what to do.”

But we all thought we knew what to do, back on that first day. We didn't know anything.

The Windigoes

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Aurora listened to the last of my tale, her front legs crossed atop the table. Her ears, which had bent toward me for the past hour, sagged for a moment before snapping back to attention, and she looked down at her hooves.

“He never wrote us about that.”

I rolled my shoulders, letting my spine release some of the tension that had built up in my back. Gryphons aren't meant to sit for so long.

“Maybe he didn't want to worry you,” I said. “Maybe he thought there wasn't any point.”

“It would have been nice to know.” She prodded her empty mug with the tip of her hoof, mostly, I think, so she didn't have to look at my eyes. “We could have done something.”

How do you respond to a mother who says that about her lost son? The silence returned, and I found my thoughts drifting back to the borderlands, drawn there by memory's terrible gravity.

“So,” she asked, after some time had passed, “what happened to the windigo?”

“That particular windigo? We never saw it again, or if we did, it was just part of the pack. I always assumed it caught whatever it was chasing and carried it back into the sky.”

“Hm.” If that image bothered her, it didn't show on her face. “And the deer? Why did they attack you?”

That I did know. “They were just scared. Their herd had been fleeing from one forest to another in the borderlands for weeks, ever since the last day of summer. Those two were the first of hundreds.”

“What were they running from?”

I opened my beak to answer when we heard someone land outside on the cloud a few feet from the door. Alto, who had dozed through my story in a feathery ball at our feet, suddenly sprang to his hooves. “Dad's home!” he shouted, and then he vanished in an azure blur out of the kitchen.

I heard the front door open, and then Alto's voice again, almost bursting with excitement, “Dad! There's a gryphon here! He knew Cirrus!”

That was answered by a pause. Aurora and I exchanged a glance, and we both stood as Cirrus's father entered the room.

I recognized him immediately from Cirrus's stories. Slender and short, like Cirrus was, with a gray coat a few shades darker and the same tan mane as his youngest son, who bounced in at his side. His eyes were the most colorful part of him – a brilliant, deep green, like grass emeralds. The same as Cirrus's eyes.

“Cumulus,” I whispered under my breath. His ears twitched, and I cursed myself silently as I stepped forward, my arm extended toward him. “Apologies, sir. Sergeant Corvus, at your service. I had the honor of knowing your son.”

Cumulus met my arm with his hoof, tapping it against my talons. “So you're Corvus?” His voice was soft, reserved. He glanced over at his wife, who met his gaze silently. “Cirrus mentioned you a few times. Said you were his best friend out there.”

Hearing that, my throat closed for a moment, and I took my time before speaking. “Not all the ponies were comfortable around us. Gryphons, I mean.” I sat back on my haunches, doing my best not to tower over the stallion. “It didn't bother him, though. I don't think he ever mentioned it, after we met.”

“He wouldn't.” Cumulus walked around me to Aurora and gave her a gentle nuzzle. “So, what brings you to Cloudsdale, sergeant?”

I had a speech. “I was... I wanted to—“

Aurora interrupted, or rescued me, depending on your perspective. “Corvus was just sharing some stories with me, about Cirrus.” She returned her husband's nuzzle and captured his eyes with her gaze. “The things he never wrote us about.”

They stared at each other, their noses just inches apart. It was like they hard forgotten me, and it quickly became uncomfortable. Poor Alto, confused by all the adults, glanced between the three of us, uncomprehending of the wordless conversation.

Finally, Cumulus turned back to me. “You were his friend?”

“We were inseparable.”

“You fought beside him?”

“He saved my life.”

“You were with him when he” – there was a pause, a hitch in his voice, so short I almost missed it – “when he died?”

I looked away. “I was as close as anyone.”

Silence again, except for that hidden clock, still ticking away the seconds. Aurora's expression was reserved; Cumulus frowned at something only he could see.

What was I accomplishing here? I had no good answer. I was only dragging these two ponies back through the swamp of their loss, soiling them with memories they had clearly just started to forget. This was all wrong. A mistake. I stood and started to speak the apology that would do nothing to assuage them.

Cumulus beat me to it. He glanced up, his brilliant green eyes transfixing me. “Would you like to stay for dinner? I would love to hear one of these stories.”

I should have said no. Said I had to leave. Said I just wanted to stop by and thank them for raising such a wonderful pony.

I let out a quiet breath. “Of course, I would be honored.”

* * *

Cirrus and I weren't the only scouts to run into trouble that day.

Our camp – really just a bunch of tents with a line of sharpened wood stakes circling it – was responsible for forty leagues of the borderlands. The nearest village was a a half-day's flight to the south. The nearest real city is Crystal City, which is days away. The borderlands are huge; they stretch on and on across the north, from coast to coast, filled with mountains and forests and tundra that we haven't even begun to map. They are wilderness.

All along our piece of the border, a line that stretches further than the distance between Cloudsdale and Fillydelphia, our scouts saw signs of windigoes, or herds of deerfolk moving through the forests, or strange storms boiling over the mountains. Most stuck to the air, and didn't have problems like Cirrus and me. All together, the platoon saw or encountered evidence of twenty-two windigoes.

Let me put that in perspective – before that day, over the past fifty years, the Long Patrol recorded three windigo sightings. All three were on the same day, during a blizzard so fierce it dropped more than a foot of snow on Canterlot, a thousand miles to the south. Along the borderlands, the snow took years to melt.

The Hearth's Warming legends – the real ones, not the dressed-up fairy tales your foals put on as plays – say that in the ancient times, before the princesses, when all the pony tribes lived in the north, the windigoes roamed the skies in packs. In the heart of winter, they galloped across the night sky, their hooves like thunder in the snow. Their glowing eyes were as numerous as the stars. From the heavens they conquered the hearts of the ponies below, sowing discord and hatred, driving the tribes apart, and plunging the world into darkness. They began an ice age that lasted a dozen centuries.

In the oldest tales, the ones only gryphon loremasters tell, the windigoes were once ponies themselves. They were full of pride, and they believed themselves above all the other creatures of the world. They enslaved their lessers and grew fat off them, until one winter their subjects revolted and abandoned them. The masters, suddenly alone, had no one to build them shelters or harvest their food. They froze, and they starved, and as they froze and starved the last of them, desperate, ate the flesh of her dead brothers. The gods – yes, the gods; this is a gryphon tale, remember – cursed her for this crime: they chilled her blood and filled her heart with an endless, aching hunger that could only be sated by strife.

And thus, the first windigo was born.

Do I believe those tales? No, they are just myths, like the Hearth's Warming legends. But at the heart of every myth is a grain of truth, and if even a single grain of those tales are true, then windigoes are something to fear indeed.

All this is to say that when we convened that night in our camp, and the scouts reported their sightings, we were concerned. Pegasi and gryphons don't mind the cold much, but there are limits to what even we can stand. The prospect of an endless winter is a haunting one.

The snow began the next evening. Just a few flurries at first, but by the time I crawled out of bed the entire world was smothered in white. The sky was filled, from horizon to horizon, with low, thick clouds, dark and heavy with moisture. What I remember most, though, was how silent everything was, as if the falling snow muffled every sound. Even the sergeant-at-arms' trumpet, normally a piercing cry audible for miles around, sounded weak and subdued.

I found Cirrus in the weather tent, seated in the center of a pile of books and charts and maps. He seemed frazzled. He didn't even look up as I entered.

“Cirrus,” I asked, “why is it snowing?”

I won't describe the look he gave me. Obviously, I wasn't the first person to ask him that question. It's a fact of military life that the weather pony always gets blamed for bad weather, even if he has nothing to do with it.

“We're in the borderlands. It snows in the borderlands. There's nothing unusual about this.” He closed the thick tome on his desk and pushed it away, and then stood and shoved past me, stepping out into the winter morning. “Except it's not normal snow.”

I tilted my head to peer down at my shoulder, where a dust of snow was already accumulating on my feathers. It looked real, it smelled real. I touched my tongue to them, and it tasted real as well.

“Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“As sure as I can be without flying up there.” He pointed with the tip of his wing toward the clouds. “And the commander won't allow that. Says it's too dangerous after yesterday's sightings.”

“Sounds reasonable.” I peered up at the sky. It was hard to tell how far away the clouds were from the ground – even with gryphon eyes, I didn't have any scale to compare the clouds with. These felt so close I could have tossed a rock and hit them, though. They pressed down on us, hunching us over. I blinked away tears as snowflakes melted on my eyes and then looked back at him. “Can you tell how long it will last?”

He huffed under his breath and sat beside me. His coat seemed to blend with the curtain of flurries between us; only those bright emerald eyes of his stood out. Even in the snow, I could have seen them from a thousand yards away. “As best I can tell? Forever.”

I waited for him to clarify. He said nothing, just staring up at the clouds.

“When you say forever...”

“I mean, there's no natural cause for this snow. No mass of rising moist air, no low pressure system, no large body of water nearby. It's literally coming from nowhere.” He paused. “Well, not literally. It's falling from the clouds, but it shouldn't be. It will keep snowing until whatever is up there stops.”

I ran my talons through the snow. It was dry and fine; as much as I wished to, I couldn't squeeze it into a snowball. “Enough to build a snow fort, you think?”

He flicked my shoulder with the tip of his wing. “At least. Right now, we're getting an inch every three hours. It'll start to compact under its own weight, so the real rate is more like an inch every six hours. That's...” He paused for a moment. “Four inches a day.”

“That's not so much.”

“You say that now, but there will be almost ten feet by the end of the month. You'll be able to dig tunnels.”

I thought back to my mountain home, the aeries whose leagues of tunnels wound through frozen rock, and I frowned. Tunnels should be made of stone, not snow.

“Do you think it's the... you know.” I spoke softly. Everyone on camp had heard of the windigo sightings, but the subject was still treated with fear. As if merely saying their names could draw them out.

“It has to be,” he said. He pulled the tent's flap shut and laced it tight to keep the snow from his precious books. “Nopony knows if they cause the snow or if it somehow causes them, but... well, yeah. It's gotta be them.”

I nodded and looked back to the sky, trying to imagine what ten feet of snow was like. More than twice my height. Its weight would crush our flimsy tents.

I don't know how long we sat there, each of us lost in thought. The flurries built up on his coat and my feathers, anointing us in winter's garb. For all the tension and fear, it was oddly peaceful there in the falling snow.

A shrill, piercing note broke the silence. Even in the muffled air, the brassy scream of the sergeant-at-arms' trumpet woke every soul, set ponies shouting, lit the camp on fire. A rapid, pulsing tattoo – report to stations. Cirrus and I flinched, but in moments we were already airborne, soaring to the nearest picket tower. Other ponies were starting to gather along the fence to peer out into the snow.

“I don't see anything,” Cirrus muttered.

“I do,” I said. I squinted, trying to puzzle out the shapes in the distance. The falling snow, light as it was, still obscured the dark forms out on the horizon, but gryphon eyes are the best in the world. I could count the snowflakes falling miles away. After a few seconds, I managed to focus through the din.

There were deerfolk, hundreds of them, walking through the snow toward us.

* * *

“What deerfolk?” Cumulus asked. He had listened silently through my tale to that point.

“You missed his first story, dear,” Aurora said. “They found some deerfolk in the woods.”

“I thought they avoided ponies.” He paused. “And gryphons.”

“They do.” I took the interruption as an excuse to sip at my water. I wasn't used to speaking for hours on end, and my throat felt raw. Like each word was a grain of sand, slowly wearing my voice away.

We had moved into the living room after Cumulus returned, taking seats on that lovely furniture pegasi are so fond of. They weren't so much chairs as amorphous blobs of cloud-stuff fluffed into extra springiness. I had one to myself; Cirrus's parents nestled together on another, vaguely couch-shaped puff, their wings draped over each others' barrels.

Were pony couples always so intimate around strangers? I didn't think so, but I had little experience to judge from. I frowned at the thought, and took another sip.

Aurora's eyes touched on my glass. “Would you like to take a break, Corvus? It's almost time for dinner.”

I nodded. “Sounds wonderful.”

We moved from the living room to the kitchen, all of us except for Alto, who had vanished at some point. I realized it had been at least an hour since he had tugged at my feathers or tried wrestling with my tail. I peered under the table and up the stairs, but there was no sign of him.

Cumulus gave me an odd look, followed by a chuckle. “Don't worry, I'll find him. Go ahead and get started, dear.” He gave his wife a kiss on the cheek and then trotted down the hallway to the front door.

Pegasus foals, Aurora explained to me while preparing dinner, tended to roam when left to their own devices. It was harmless, most of the time, and every evening around sunset the streets of Cloudsdale and other pegasus cities filled with mares and stallions, mothers and fathers, all searching for their wayward progeny. Sometimes, if they couldn't find their own foal, they would pick some random other colt or filly and adopt them for the night, well aware that elsewhere in the city their own children were enjoying an impromptu sleepover too.

It sounded rather haphazard, and I couldn't imagine an earth pony or unicorn family ever allowing it. But as Cirrus was always reminding me, the pegasi were the oddest of the tribes. They took a certain pride in it and never tried to conceal their differences.

Aurora was just finishing dinner – hay lasagna with a side of fresh cod for me – when Cumulus returned, bearing a squirming bundle of muddy fur and feathers. He vanished upstairs with his prize, and ten minutes later descended with a still-damp Alto riding on his back, apparently no worse for wear. They settled down at the table just in time for Aurora to start setting out plates.

I'm still not sure where the colt found that mud. It was a cloud city.

Conversation over dinner was light, about my family and my plans for the next few months. Nothing about the borderlands or Cirrus. Alto regaled us for a good twenty minutes with a story about a talking robin he had found with his friends. That led into a discussion about other birds, which somehow took us to a conversation about the best places to migrate for the winter. Apparently, the whole city voted in the fall, and then Cloudsdale would actually fly there.

I felt a twinge of jealousy. Mountains couldn't fly anywhere.

After dinner, we went outside to catch the last of the setting sun. Alto and I tossed a ball around, and I showed him how gryphon hunters would hide beneath the clouds to ambush their prey. He tore up the lawn imitating me, and proudly told his parents before being dragged off to bed that he wanted to be a gryphon when he grew up.

Eventually, well after the moon had risen and the stars were out, Aurora, Cumulus and I found ourselves back in the living room. The gas lamps in the corners of the room gave the place a warm, cheery feeling, and I found myself sinking ever deeper into the cloud seat.

“Tired?” Cumulus asked.

“A little,” I admitted. “I flew most of the night to get here, but I'll be fine for a few more hours. Would you like me to continue?”

“If you don't mind,” Aurora said. She snuggled up closer to her husband and leaned her head against his shoulder.

“Not at all. So, the deerfolk...”

* * *

We didn't have any plans for fighting deerfolk. I don't think anyone had ever considered the possibility. They were too shy, too flighty to even imagine in battle.

But out there, veiled by the falling snow, hundreds of them marched toward us. They outnumbered us several times over. All around me, ponies shouted and hustled to the wall, grabbing whatever weapons they had on hand. A few scouts took to the air, but the low clouds smothered us still, preventing them from rising too high. Not even the appearance of a small army outside our post could make us forget the threat of the windigos.

Cirrus vanished back into his tent and stumbled out a minute later, his wingblades half attached and a long spear held in his teeth. He passed the spear to me, and then set about fastening the wingblades fully into his primaries. Normally it only took him a few seconds, but his wings were shaking, and he missed the snaps several times.

“Need help?” I asked.

“I've got it.” He swore under his breath and glared out at the snow. “What do you see?”

“They're not moving very fast.” All along the wall, small knots of ponies had formed around the few gryphons in our ranks. The commander, a grizzled pegasus mare twice my age and with four times as many scars, listened quietly as Aquilas, our only gryphon officer, whispered in her ear. Unlike most of us, they didn't seem frazzled, just intense.

Out there, still leagues away, the mass of deer moved toward us. They seemed to trudge through the snow, and as they drew closer I made out more details and passed them to Cirrus. I saw antlered stags, and does, and finally fawns, almost lost between the legs of their parents. Some limped. A few leaned on their brethren, and at least one was being carried, stretched across a stag's back.

By now, they were close enough for the ponies to see. The hum of alarm faded, and pegasi pressed against the wall, peering over the edge, more curious than frightened.

“They don't look like they're here for a fight,” I said. “They don't... they don't look very good.”

That was an understatement. When the deer finally stopped, just a few yards outside our stake wall, they looked like refugees. Many of the stags dragged simple sleds behind them, stacked atop which were mounds of canvas and sticks. As we watched, the healthier deer pulled the bundles off the sleds and began assembling tents out of them. Most, though, just sagged to the ground. They looked exhausted and hungry. Defeated.

We all looked to the commander. For the first time in the months I had known her, she seemed uncertain. Even more than the snow, it was chilling to see her like that, at a loss.

But she was a good commander. She noticed our attention, and look of uncertainty was instantly banished, replaced by the same look of cool command that wore so well on her face. “Watch them,” she barked at the sergeant major, and then she and her officers vanished into her tent. Within moments, I heard their voices, indistinct but loud and energetic.

“What are they saying?” I asked Cirrus.

“They're just arguing. Nopony knows what to do.” He stared at the tent before turning back to the deer.

In the space of just a few minutes, they had set up several tents and moved most of the fawns inside. Only the stags and a few does remained out in the snow. They gave us a few inscrutable looks, but mostly they stared out, and up at the low clouds.

* * *

By nightfall the deer had set up a small camp outside of our fort. They didn't approach us, or try to speak to us, or acknowledge us with anything other than wary gazes whenever we stepped outside the low stake wall separating us. A few had weapons – slings and spears and staves – but nothing they brandished at us. All pointed outward, toward the distant forest from which they had come.

The commander doubled the watch, which was easy to do, since none of us went out scouting in the snow. In other circumstances, a day spent lounging on the wall might have counted as a day off. Instead, keyed-up and frazzled as we were, the enforced idleness simply made things worse. We felt like prisoners rather than soldiers. The pegasi, who like all ponies were high-strung to begin with, scowled out at the snow, or snapped at each other. Shortly before sunrise, I caught Cirrus gnawing on his primaries, a nervous habit he had confessed to during one of our earlier, happier scouting trips.

I took his spot on the wall and sent him off to bed. He looked like he needed the rest.

And still it snowed. The dry, powdery flakes came up over my talons now. The wind picked it up, sweeping bare the flat parts of our camp and piling the snow high against the tents and walls. Every few minutes I would shake my wings, scattering the dust that slowly clothed me.

An hour after sunrise it was still dark. The sky to the east was a brighter gray than the rest of the world, but otherwise it was as if night had never surrendered to the dawn. North, above the forest, the sky churned with clouds the color of slate, of lead, bilious and threatening. They promised a storm like none we had ever known.

We woke Cirrus up. He was grumpy, but as soon as he saw the northern sky he became a different pony. Sober, calm. Worried.

“That's bad,” he said.

We were gathered around the northern fence. A few yards away, stags and does sat out in the snow, staring north with us. The commander stood next to Cirrus. I held his books.

“How bad?” the commander asked. Like the rest of us, she had strapped on her armor, and now looked like someone straight out of a recruiting poster. Even I felt a little intimidated, and I was twice her size.

“I don't have much to go by. A cold wave, at the very least. If the winds keep picking up, and that system moves further south, we'll have blizzard conditions in a few hours.”

“Can you stop it?”

He shook his head. “It's miles across, ma'am. I might be able to keep the winds down locally, or prevent a major cell from forming directly over us, but this isn't a job for one weatherpony. It would take a large city team to have any effect on the whole system.”

“So, what do you recommend?”

Leave, I wanted to say. We were out there to patrol the border, not to guard it from the weather. The borderlands had always been wild and always would be – there was no harmony to impose here, no order in the chaos. Those clouds above us might as well have been the stars rising in the night sky, for all that we could stop them.

But she hadn't asked me, so I kept my peace. Cirrus, who I suspected didn't have an answer either, merely stared up at the clouds. Perhaps he heard something in them I couldn't.

I saw something he didn't, though. High above, at the edge of the twisting mass of dark clouds, something moved. A soft blue glow, faint at first, began to light the clouds from within, as if a cold sun had risen behind them. It moved with the wind, growing brighter and brighter, until even the ponies around me could see it. I heard them gasp and shout.

The light flared, filling the clouds. A bright spark, blue as a sapphire, momentarily broke through, painting the snow and the fields and the bottoms of the clouds with its sharp, cold light. The air upon my face grew chill where it touched, and frost began to form on the metal tip of my spear. For a brief instant, before the spark darted back into the cloud and vanished from sight, I saw a tangled, wild mane, and two eyes filled with malice. Even from miles away, they seemed to stare straight into my heart.

I let out my breath. All around us, ponies muttered and clutched their weapons tighter.

Cirrus spoke first. “Windigo?”

The commander nodded. “The stories don't do them justice. Cirrus, do whatever you can to keep the worst of the snow away. Corvus, keep him safe.” Without waiting for any questions, she turned and stalked away, shouting orders to the ponies on the line.

“Well,” Cirrus said. He rolled up the weather chart in his hooves and tucked it away. “It's nice to have a clearly defined mission. Even if it's impossible.”

“That makes two of us.” I looked back up at the clouds, which seemed lower, closer. Far off in the distance, another patch of the sky began to glow with a gentle blue light. “How many do you think are up there?”

“No idea. Frankly, I'm happier not knowing.”

I wondered if I was, too. Some dangers were best faced in ignorance, others with knowledge. I pondered which of those quandaries this might be while we watched the storm gather.

After a while, I realized we had an audience. A young fawn, small enough to walk under her mother's belly, stared up at us with wide, brown eyes. As always, I had no idea what she was thinking.

“Hey, Cirrus?”

“Hm?” He had a faraway look in his eyes as he stared at the clouds.

“What about the deer?”

“Huh?” He blinked and looked down at the fawn. “Oh, they'll be fine. As long as they stay near us.”

I wish I could've been so confident. The deer had more faith in us than I did.

* * *

When the attack finally came, I was relieved. You can't fight a snowstorm or cold or the clouds; windigoes, at least, were something I could stick a spear into.

That was the theory, anyway. It wasn't as easy as it sounds.

Windigoes don't fight in neat ranks, following an order of battle. They are like a pack of wolves, harrying their prey for hours or days, seeking just the right moment, the weakness, the chink in the herd's armor, before they attack.

It was night when they struck. Without the moon or stars overhead, the only light came from the lanterns and bonfires we set throughout the camp. Outside, among the deer, only the weak and flickering shadows of our fires gave the night any definition. Their eyes, glowing like sparks when they faced us, were the brightest objects in the gloom.

The snow doubled, and doubled again, whipping around us in the crazed wind. It coated our feathers, sticking to them, binding them faster than we could shake them free. The temperature plummeted.

High overhead, almost lost in the cacophony of the storm, something began to wail. The sound pierced through the false courage I had clothed myself in. It tore away the mask I wore, the false strength and confidence that comes so easily to gryphons, and it mocked the childish hope I still clung to, for battle and the glory I was sure must be mine. The haunting notes grew louder, and a fear I had not felt since I was a fledgling came over me. I saw that same crushing weight on every pony's face.

How can I describe the battle? It was chaos. I remember images: the smothering clouds burning with a cold blue fire as the windigos descended; the dark silhouettes of pegasus warriors rising to meet them; the deer scattering in the snow, fawns clutched in their thin legs. The sky above us became a whirling cyclone, bands of clouds whipping around a great eye that opened high above, revealing the black sky and stars beyond. An arctic wind battered us, tearing the tents apart, sending swirls of snow hundreds of feet into the air. A sound like thunder rolled across the plains and shook our bones.

I thought dozens of windigos must be attacking us; in reality, it was only three or four, the ones most eager to test our defenses. They galloped over our heads, their hooves cracking on the air like it was stone, and one by one they descended on our little camp.

The stories, the plays, the illustrations in foals' bedtime stories – none of them do the windigos justice. They are massive, monstrous, a dozen times the size of a full-grown pegasus. They had no coats that I could see, only pale white skin and long, tangled manes that stretched out for yards behind them. Eyes like stars blinded us, and around each of them hung an aura of absolute cold. That, I think, was the most dangerous part about them – not the teeth that could snap a pony's wing clean off, or the hooves that could smash rocks; simply the cold they exuded, a cold-like death that sought out our hearts.

That makes it all sound so hopeless, doesn't it? But still we fought them. Pegasi and gryphons, agile and small, rose up like wasps to meet them. Our spears found their cold flesh and bit deep, spilling freezing blood onto the snow. Swords slashed at their hooves, scattering sparks everywhere. And all through the battle, the sergeant-at-arms rallied us with his trumpet, calling out attacks and withdrawals, feints and retreats. It was the one sound I still remember clearly from that battle, more than ponies voices, or the constant thunder of the windigos' hooves, or the screaming wind in the clouds.

We all survived that battle, and all because of Cirrus. He never lifted a blade or left the ground; all through the night, he summoned a south wind to blow against the windigos, weakening the terrible cold aura around them. Without it, they were still monsters, but vulnerable, and the Long Patrol knows how to kill monsters.

Wounded, angry, the windigos withdrew one by one, until only the greatest remained. His mane was streaked with silver, and any one of his legs could have crushed a pegsus or gryphon warrior flat. He screamed and bit at the ponies darting around him, ignoring the dozens of wounds they inflicted. Nothing, it seemed, could break through that ancient, frozen skin.

In the end, it was the commander who killed him, though it cost her dearly. She flew straight up beneath him, up into his jaws, and thrust her spear into his mouth. I cannot fathom the bravery it must have taken to do such a thing; the windigo shuddered and fell to the ground, but not before his blood splashed onto her wing. She lost most of it to frostbite, and never flew again.

She saved us. Cirrus saved us. All the pegasi who fought that night saved us.

Me? I just flew around like an idiot. I never even hit them.

* * *

I finished my tale staring into my cup, which was long-since empty. Tea? I couldn't even remember tasting it. For a long while there was only silence. I risked a glance across the room, and saw Cumulus and Aurora staring back.

Cumulus spoke first. “She lived, though?”

“The commander? Yeah. She had to retire from the Patrol, obviously, but she survived. She teaches at the academy, now.”

“I'm glad to hear that,” Aurora said. She shook herself, as if dislodging some memory. “I can't imagine losing a wing. It must've been terrible.”

“I don't think she cared much,” I said. “She knew it could have killed her, and she saved more lives than I can count. I have to believe that soothes her loss.”

Silence fell again, giving me the chance to reconsider those words. Perhaps that was not the best time to talk of soothing losses.

As if reading my thoughts, Aurora spoke again. “You said Cirrus saved everypony, too?”

“Oh, yeah.” I couldn't help but grin. “We treated him like a hero afterward, he was so embarrassed. Said it was just a little weather working, but it was what made the difference. Without him keeping that cold away, we never would have won. We'd have all died that night.”

Aurora matched my grin with a small, wan smile. It was the happiest I'd seen her all night.

Cumulus did not smile. He looked down at his hooves, out the window, up the stairs; everywhere but at his wife or me. His wings shook, and after a moment he stood and trotted out the room. I heard the front door open and shut.

I blinked. “Uh, is he...”

“He's fine,” Aurora said. The smile was gone, and I had to strain to hear her. “He taught Cirrus everything he knew about weather. He's why Cirrus became a weather pony.”

“Oh.” I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel about that. Happy? My confusion must have shown on my face.

“He blames himself, sometimes,” she said. “If he hadn't taught Cirrus to be a weather pony, he wouldn't have been up north with you.”

I swallowed. “He saved our lives.” It was a protest and a plea.

“I know, and I'm glad. But it still hurts.”

How do you answer that? “I'm sorry.”

“You don't have to be.” She stood and stretched her wings. “Do you have someplace to stay tonight? If not, we have a spare room.”

I hadn't planned on spending more than a few minutes in this house. Just long enough to give that speech. I should have been halfway back to Canterlot by now, perhaps sleeping in tree or on a cloud. Instead I nodded, and she beckoned me upstairs with the tip of her wing.

The guest room was small and unassuming, with a simple bed and dresser its only furnishings. I stood in the threshold for a long moment, pondering it, Aurora a dark presence by my side.

“Was this his?” I whispered.

She shook her head. “No. Alto sleeps there now. This is just an empty room.”

I let out a shaking breath. “Okay. Thank you.”

“Of course.” She pressed her nose against the side of my neck, ruffling my feathers. “Come find us if you need anything.” That said, she turned and went back down the stairs, to wait, I guessed, for her husband's return.

The Last Trumpet's Call

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I woke several hours later from a dream I could not recall.

Sometimes, in my dreams, I felt as though I was blind. I was crippled, and could only crawl. I shouted, but no one could hear. There was never any context to those dreams. Being blind and crippled and mute was the beginning and the middle and the end. Hours, it felt, would pass, and nothing would change.

In time, the dreams became more clear, and I realized it was not darkness that blinded me but rather light; blinding, glaring, burning my retinas. I squeezed my eyes shut to block out the pain. I was not crippled; I trudged through mountains of snow, straining to put one foot in front of the other. I was not mute; the screaming winds carried away my voice.

I woke in Cirrus's house, and for a moment I thought I might remember something, but too quickly it was gone, and I was alone in the night.

What am I doing here?

I closed my eyes, let out a long breath, and rolled out of the bed, landing silently on the soft cloud floor. The hallway was as dark as my room, but downstairs I saw a faint glow – one of the gas lamps left on overnight, I guessed. It provided more than enough light to navigate down the stairwell, back to the living room where I had shared my stories with Cirrus's parents.

I hadn't gotten a very good look at the room earlier. Now, alone and with no distractions, I let my eyes wander across it, taking in the bookshelves, the framed paintings, and the clutter and grime that foals seem to cultivate. The room was busy. It was alive.

I came to a stop in front of the gas fireplace. Above it, resting on the mantle, was a framed picture of Cirrus wearing his dress uniform. He was grinning, and on either side stood his parents. Cumulus smiled for the camera, but it was Aurora who stole the spotlight. She was radiant, beaming, almost in tears, overjoyed to be with her son on the day of his commission.

To the photograph's left was a simple wood shadowbox, filled with all the medals Cirrus had earned. There were dozens. Far more than I had known about – I never saw Cirrus in his dress uniform, and we didn't talk about medals out in the field.

On the photograph's right was another frame, this one holding a letter. It was written in a flowing, elegant script, filled with loops and whorls, too much for me to puzzle out in that foggy, half-asleep state. I recognized the signatures at the bottom, though: Their Royal Highnesses, Celestia and Luna, written atop an intaglio sun and moon.

Above all three, hanging from the wall in the place of honor, was a piece of foal's artwork done in crayon. It depicted a pegasus family – two large ponies, colored like Cirrus's parents, with a smaller one standing between them. The figures were simple, almost like stick-figures, and the sun had a smiling face drawn on it to match the expressions of the ponies below.

I don't know how long I stared at that drawing.

In time, I realized I wasn't alone, and I turned to see Alto sitting at my side. He blended in well with the night, his soft blue coat an easy match for the mix of cloud and shadow that overtook the world. Only his tan mane gave him away.

“Hey,” I said.

He ducked his head. “Hi. Mom said you were leaving in the morning.”

“I will. Shouldn't you be in bed?”

“I had to use the bathroom.” He paused. “Did you really fight with Cirrus?”

“I did. Your brother was a very brave pony.”

“Celestia said he was a hero.” He pointed with his nose toward the framed letter. “She said we should be proud of him.”

I nodded. It was a platitude, rendered meaningless with overuse, but she was still right. He was a hero.

Perhaps I should have said something. I should have had some answer for him, something to steer the conversation to safer ground, where we could abandon it and both return to our beds. But instead I just stared at that old crayon drawing, and I barely heard Alto's next words.

“I want to join the Patrol too,” he said.

“You do?” I asked. It came out as a whisper.

He bobbed his head excitedly. “Yup! I'm going to join the patrol and fight monsters and save ponies, just like him!”

I pondered that in silence for some time. I imagined Alto grown, as tall as Cirrus, wearing that same uniform. I imagined his parents, standing by his side. I wondered what their expressions would be.

I looked down at Alto. “Would you like to hear a story?”

He shuffled his hooves. “Is it about Cirrus?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay!” He bounced in place, and then settled down with a glance toward the stairs. “Okay,” he said again, much more quietly.

I lay down on my belly, so my head was level with his. “Good. Listen closely, please.”

* * *

A week had passed since that first battle. Every night the windigoes attacked. They fell, and their corpses were like fountains of winter, pouring out cold. Not even Cirrus could keep us warm against them, and the camp slowly fell apart.

The deer moved in with us. By now it was clear they weren't our enemy, and they fought alongside us as best they could. I never saw the doe from our first meeting in the woods, but many of the grown deer were able to use slings or spears, and they did their part. When we were wounded, they used their skills and herbs to mend us. When their tents were trampled beneath the windigoes hooves, we sheltered them in ours. All without ever exchanging a word.

And every day we lost a little more. Every injured pegasus or gryphon was flown out the next morning, as soon as the gray dawn light penetrated the east clouds. None ever came back.

I don't know how many windigoes we slew after that first. At least one every night, but it made no difference. They danced above us, countless, filling the sky with their light. They could have swarmed us, falling on us by the dozens, and wiped us out. But for some reason they held back.

We caught what sleep we could during the day. Gryphons, like pegasi, aren't usually bothered by the cold, but for the first time in my life I felt like I was freezing. I huddled with Cirrus, sharing both our blankets, exhaling my breath into his coat. He did the same, and together our mingled warmth was enough to keep us alive.

The end came with the call of a trumpet. Rapid, frantic, it sounded retreat.

Cirrus and I tumbled out of the tent, untangling our wings from each other. The sun was just setting, and another night was on the horizon, but the world around me was as bright as day. The sky was filled with a thousand sapphires, and I gawked up at it, my mind still hazed.

An armored pegasus broke my reverie. He shook my shoulder, and shouted in my face. “Move it, soldier!” Just as quickly he was gone.

“What's going on?” Cirrus asked. He was groggy with cold and sleep. Frost had started to form on the tips of his feathers.

“I think we're leaving,” I said. Above us, pegasi were already in flight, forming ranks in the air and arrowing south.

“What? Why?” His wings shook, and for a moment the cold around us faded. The ice clinging to my talons melted, dripping onto the slushy ground.

To answer, I simply pointed up. His gazed followed, and together we stared at the heavens.

There must have been hundreds of windigoes. They were like leaves falling in autumn, or snowflakes in a blizzard. They tore across the sky in serried ranks, bending the clouds around them, leaving avalanches in their wake. They cavorted over us. They were filled with joy.

“Oh Celestia,” Cirrus whispered.

Gryphons don't swear on the princess's name. I shook my head and turned back to the tent, where what little possessions I had were stored. “Come on, we need to hurry.”

“Right.” He stumbled after me, his head still bent up. More than half our force was already airborne, circling, ready to leave. “What about the deer?”

I slung my bags over my back, not bothering with the strap. “Huh? What about them?”

“They're...” He stopped, staring around the camp. “We can't leave them.”

The deer had come out and huddled together in groups of three or four. Most stared at us or up at the windigoes. Some seemed to be asleep on their feet.

I swallowed. “They'll be fine. They'll run, like they did before. Now come on.” I grabbed at his wing and tugged.

He snapped it away. “They won't be fine. Look at them! They're practically dead on their feet!”

I looked around frantically. Almost all the other pegasi and gryphons were airborne by now and heading south as fast as their wings could take them. In the distance, I still heard the sergeant-at-arms' trumpet sounding retreat. Above us, the windigoes were coming closer.

“Cirrus, we need to leave now. We don't have time to—“

He snagged my wing with his teeth and pulled me back. “We can do this, Corvus! I can keep us warm, and you can fight them off! We can do it together!”

“Do it together?” I gawked at him, lost. “Cirrus, look at them!” I pointed skyward again. “Look at us! We lost, and now we need to get out. Come on!”

“But they'll die—“

“Then they'll die!” I roared. He flinched, but I continued. “We can't save them, Cirrus. All we'll do if we stay is die with them. That's not why we came out here!”

We stared at each other, both panting, sweat somehow pouring from us despite the barren cold. The wild look in his eyes faded, replaced by something calm. For a moment, he looked like the Cirrus I remembered.

“Why did we come out here, then?” he asked.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I looked around, desperate for help, for another pegasus to reason with him, but at last we were alone. Only the wretched deer remained, and the windigoes high above.

“Cirrus, please. Don't do this.”

“I'm staying.” He turned and walked back to our tent, emerging a few seconds later with his wingblades draped across his pinions and my spear in his teeth. He held it out to me.

I almost took it. Gods help me, I almost took it.

“Cirrus, I'm begging you.” I wanted to scream, but I could barely breathe. It was all I could do not to faint. “You can't stay.”

He didn't move. His trembling had stopped. He stared at me; I remember those green eyes of his, like emeralds in the grass, the warmest color in that dismal night. They challenged me.

I could imagine it; reaching out to take the spear, standing by his side no matter what might come. Fighting until our last drop of blood spilled out and froze. Dying as we had lived, as comrades, as brothers. I imagined myself doing the right thing.

But I didn't. I fled like all the rest.

* * *

Alto stared up at me, his eyes wide, as I finished. I waited there, in the dark room, in the silence, for him to curse me, or scream at me, or even attack me for my cowardice. I closed my eyes and wondered if it was time to flee again.

I felt his small legs wrap around my neck. They barely encompassed me, but it was enough for him to rest his head against my feathered shoulder.

“It's okay,” he whispered.

I swear I didn't cry. I didn't deserve his comfort or his family's forgiveness. I owed them the truth; I had a speech.

I did not cry; those were not tears wetting my cheeks. But maybe I did begin to sob, and in time I felt another set of legs embrace me, and through blurry eyes I saw Aurora and Cumulus join us on the floor.

I did not deserve forgiveness. But they gave it to me, nonetheless.