Remember the Moonflower

by Blade Star

First published

On the run from the Royal Guard following Nightmare Moon's defeat, a group of thestrals make their final stand.

Among the thestrals of the Lunar Guard, no battle cry is more potent than that of 'Remember the Moonflower!'. And like all battle cries, it has a story to go with it. A proud, yet tragic tale of defiance, loyalty, heroism, and great sacrifice.

Prologue - A Very Bloody Affair

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The Lunar Rebellion was fought in ten thousand places; from the darkened woodlands of the Everfree Forest, to the icy mountains of the frozen north. High above the grassy plains, in the new seat of the fledgling monarchy. In the glittering metropolises of Manehatten, Baltimare, and Fillydelphia. Amongst the clouds and rainbows of the bustling Cloudsdale, and in the scorching heat of the desert, in far off Appleloosa Territory.

Over a million ponies fought in it, and over two hundred thousand, two percent of Equestria’s population, would die in it. What began as a bitter dispute over the length of days and nights ended as a struggle for harmony in Equestria.

Ponies from all walks of life, for the first time, found themselves in the front lines of a war from which there was no sitting out, and from which there was no hiding. In the major cities, such as Baltimare, Manehatten and Vanhoover, the call to arms went out as both sides sought to build armies able to overwhelm the other. And one by one, every region, every city, every town, every village, every street, every family and everypony, chose sides.

The war was a long and painful one. It was a war nopony really wanted. One of Princess Celestia’s most trusted advisors, unable to quite comprehend the scale of devastation brought on by the outbreak of hostilities, dubbed it, in typical Canterlot understatement ‘a very bloody affair’. For the first time post-unification, pony fought pony.

At the outbreak, the conduct of both armies was confused and disorganised, as desperate negotiation sought to avert the crisis. Pre-existing wartime plans were not set up around the idea of a civil war. What were supposed to be safer areas of the country, such as the peaceful city of Whinnyappolis would become front lines and fought over. The city itself would change hooves no less than twenty seven times, and be forever scarred by destruction.

‘There is no alternative,’ commented Captain Goldwing, a distinguished Solar Guard commander, and the Army of the Canterhorn’s first commanding officer. ‘If we are going to put down this rebellion, we shall have to do so with the point of a spear. In this instance, a quill and a scrap of parchment is not going to save our hides.’

The first engagement; First Colt’s Run, brought home to both sides just how disorganised their armies were. Confused by the variety of uniforms, several Lunar regiments inadvertently engaged each other. Whilst the Solar volunteers, fearing imminent attack from the sky by thestrals and frightened at the howling of the advancing Appleloosian brigade, dropped their weapons and ran as the Lunar vanguard advanced on their position, allowing them to score an early victory.

However, by the middle of 1013 PD (Post Discordia) the situation had very much been reversed. The lack of organisation between the various armies of the rebellion and several key victories the previous year, allowed the forces loyal to Princess Celestia to slowly isolate enemy formations and defeat them.

‘No terms,’ was the order of the new monarch. ‘None are acceptable except unconditional surrender.’ By the end of the year, the lines had been pushed back, Whinnyappolis had changed hooves for the final time, and most loyalist cities were now beyond the reach of the few thestrals who were willing to risk a raiding flight. The hopes of the Lunar cause were fading fast.

‘Our only hope now rests with the griffons.’ Warned Princess Luna’s senior military advisor. ‘If we are to stand any chance of victory, we must pray for an intervention by the Griffon Kingdom, to recognise us as the legitimate government of Equestria and force our enemies to heel.’ Such aid however, was not forthcoming. And while there were sympathisers for both sides in Equestria’s former foe, neither were willing to act.

By the winter of 1014 PD, the only force of the rebellion still capable of action, aside from various small scale raiders, was the Army of Northern Mareginia. From the outset, a highly capable force, this large army, roughly about half the size of the Army of the Canterhorn, held out for several months, braving both the winter and loyalist attack. And with the arrival of spring, they struck back.

The sudden action caught Celestia and her commanders off guard and for several tense weeks, the Army of the Canterhorn retreated. Only with the engagement at Stalliongrad would the Lunar advance be brought to a halt. By the middle of 1015 PD the forces of what was then the Army of the Canterhorn had been able to close the noose around the smaller, scattered armies of the various militia and volunteer regiments that made up the Army of Northern Mareginia; the only large Lunar force, aside from the original peacetime Lunar Guard, that was able to assemble itself before being cut off from friendly forces. The once proud Lunar army was humbled, taking losses as high as thirty percent.

By the end of the year, after no less than twenty bloody battles, each with casualties as high as the Battle of the Borders during the Third Griffon War, the armies of the rebellion had been routed and the way lay open to what had once been the seat of the old government. From here, the armies held back, as the two princesses locked horns for their ultimate showdown, the last battle between day and night.

But the story of the Lunar Rebellion, or the War of Solar Aggression, carries on well past that. The war did not end merely with the departure of Princess Luna and the nightmarish creature that had overtaken her. Instead, the war would rage on for four more years, as the new government desperately attempted to stabilise and rebuild the shattered nation, and the battered armies of each side sought to bring a final end to their bloody feud. It was a period known as ‘reconstruction’.

While Equestria was now a monarchy and with no hope of the exiled princess returning, the rebellion did not die quietly. Whilst the survivors of the Army of Northern Mareginia attempted to return to their lives, in other areas, many of the bands that had regularly raided loyalist supply lines and outlying regions refused to halt their activities. Many feared, despite their ruler’s assurance of a full pardon, that they would be incarcerated for their actions. Many of these were quickly labelled as criminal gangs, and hunted down by the Royal Guard and deputised posses.

However, while many of the vanquished foe sought to move on and return to some sense of normalcy, many loyalists were out for blood.

‘I will not stand by and live amongst these traitors,’ one mare commented. ‘We must drive them out, just as we did the evil witch that led them.’ And so, what we might call the second war began. All across the country, mobs attacked thestrals homes and business, as well as those of anypony else who was suspected of supporting the Lunar cause, or refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Celestia.

The situation quickly spiralled out of control. The Royal Guard itself, against the orders of Princess Celestia, began to join in. Regiments were dispatched all over the country to force the 'resettlement' of all thestrals and other suspected Lunar supporters. The princess herself could do little but watch.

Many were forced to flee their homes, but some, particularly those former guardsmen, now stripped of their rank, chose to stand and fight. For four more years, Equestria would be in turmoil.

Most notable of all these post-war battles was a battle that lasted for seven days, centred around a small settlement built up around a Lunar mission. A thousand years ago, open worship of both princesses was commonplace, and in the far reaches of Equestria, temples and churches were set up to spread the faith, both prior to and during the war.

Inside the settlement, a total of roughly two hundred ponies, mainly from the remnants of the rag-tag militias and volunteer bands that had fought the Army of the Canterhorn, stood their ground against a force of over five thousand guards from the newly reconstituted Royal Guard. They had retreated inside the old mission as a final redoubt, after drawing off the vast army, away from the long columns of ponies, mainly thestrals, who were now compelled to either leave Equestria for exile, or else be forcibly expelled from the country. Their crime was taking the wrong side in the war or, as one soldier put it, ‘my crime is loyalty’.

This small band of defenders, ill equipped, low on supplies, and with no hope of either reinforcement or relief, would hold their ground for seven long days, buying priceless time for the evacuation convoys to escape to the mountains and caverns of the Badlands, beyond Equestria’s borders.

In terms of casualties, the battle was little more than a large skirmish. But to the thestrals and others, who today stand loyal and true with the returned Princess Luna, the final stand of these ponies represented their greatest triumph against their most bitter of opponents.

The mission was, of course, in the small town of San Maretonio, on the border with Mexicolt. It was known, as the Moonflower.

Chapter 1 - Crossing the Desert

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Standing on the top of the highest rise for miles, Colonel Star Dusk, officer commanding what had once been the Appleoosian Rangers, a respected and highly decorated regiment, looked down on the sprawling evacuation column of ponies, carts, and wagons. The desert was not the best place for them. But the tyrannical mare, who now ruled Equestria alone, seemed determined to cook them all with the unforgiving sun she commanded, rather than let them flee and go in peace.

It was not an ideal situation; there were the older ponies to think of, not to mention the foals who found the long daily treks exhausting. And that didn’t even begin to consider the requirements of all the new-borns that made up the vast, seemingly endless column. Most of them weren’t even true supporters. Many had merely voiced their concern over Celestia’s creation of a monarchical government, concerned for the loss of the balance of power, the exact reason the diarchy had worked the way it did. But for their objections, they had been vilified, forced from their homes by angry mobs or offered ‘resettlement’ by the new Royal Guard, made up only of Celestia’s faithful and the few Lunar guardsmen who, at the moment of truth, had betrayed their cause and their countrymen.

But that hardly mattered now did it? Dusk knew, as everypony did, that there was no going back. The small band of former guards who escorted the great column were little more than the remnants of a defeated army. They had once been so sure of victory; they had forced Celestia and her conspirators to flee the castle, and raised their colours, tearing down those of the sun. But now? Now they were insignificant; guards without a princess and with little more than the armour on their backs to their name.

He remembered the day four months ago, when he had first taken command of this unruly mob. He’d been forced to grab what little he could from his home as the mob closed in. Bugging out the back door, he’d managed to give most of them the slip. What had he done? It had been the better part of a year since the war ended. Why had they suddenly started hunting the thestrals down now? There had been no time to grab much; just his old armour, his officer's sword and a few supplies.

After he gave the roving bands the slip, he’d lived out in the wilds for a couple of days, before blind luck led him to meet a few others in a similar predicament. They told him how the same thing was happening all across Equestria, and that the old top brass was ordering everypony to evacuate. As the most senior officer, he had naturally been given command. It was a far cry from what he had hoped. Less than seventy officers and men looking after over a thousand civilians. And all they did was complain! Why couldn’t they fight? Why couldn’t they take much with them? It was as if they hadn’t seen what those solar butchers were doing to anypony they caught. It made even a hardened veteran like him feel sick.

Still, there would be some temporary relief soon; San Maretonio was only another day or so away. Here and there, advance scouts were reporting scrabble farms and ranches, and occasionally the odd encounter with buffalo tribes. The settlement was neutral, or at least as neutral as could be. They would hopefully be offered temporary shelter for a couple of days, and perhaps an opportunity to replenish supplies. Their final destination, of course, was that of all exiled ponies; the Badlands. Beyond the rocks and lifeless sands, there were vast mountain ranges and huge cave networks. Mountains like that would be perfect, a place to hide and rebuild. What was left of the Lunar Guard’s chain of command, now declaring itself to be the government in exile, had ordered all surviving soldiers and their families to head there in whatever way they could.

For most, that meant evacuation in groups. It was a long, slow trip, made even more difficult by the roving bands of Bright Lights that nipped at their heels like timberwolves. They would get there though. After this last stop, it was less than a week until they reached Equestria’s border. At least then, they would be safe from their enemies.

Satisfied that the column was moving forward at a good pace, and that there was no sign of the enemy, Dusk briefly opened his bat like wings and took to the sky, gliding back down to the main trail to re-join his command staff. Assuming you could call two corporals and a reservist a staff. Still, they kept their men in line. Other than the enemy, and their perilously low supplies, the biggest concern for Dusk was the morale situation. Their beloved princess was gone, as were most of her noble guards; it was a very real possibility that the military structure they depended on would simply break down. After all, was their really any point in following these orders? Why didn’t he just quietly slip away, find a place out of the way, where he could live quietly? Out in the bayou country perhaps? Dusk was startled out of his thoughts by a report from one of the corporals; a thestral by the name of Swift Sentry if he remembered correctly.

“Sir, the convoy is proceeding normally. No sign of enemy movement. But we are beginning to run low on water,” the youngster said, saluting his vastly superior officer. He acted like a colt playing settlers and buffalo; maintaining this air of an aspiring young officer, even masking his thick Mustangian accent. Dusk wondered how the poor colt had even survived the war, never mind got this far. Still, taught to uphold the finest traditions of the service, he returned the salute.

“Very good. I can just about make out San Maretonio ahead of us. It should be safe harbour for a couple of days. With any luck we might even meet up with some other evacuation columns, maybe pool our resources.” Dusk hoped to Luna there was somepony there, aside from the miniscule population, mainly from Mexicolt, who called the small settlement their home; somepony who knew how to do something like this. He had been trained to command a regiment in battle and in peace. But his command now was mainly civilians desperate to reach safe haven, and not always willing to obey orders.

“Has there been any more news about what’s happening in Canterlot, sir?” Sentry continued, perhaps trying to make conversation. The home of the nobility was now the new home of the monarchy that moved the sun and the moon and ruled the battered country. Celestia had even made the recently completed palace (the final spires were actually only completed two years into the war) her seat of power, leaving the badly damaged Castle of the Two Sisters to rot and decay in the Everfree Forest.

“All I’ve heard is more of the same,” the aging colonel replied. “Everypony has to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarchy or they have to join us. They’ve been trying the rest in batches, like griffon republicans.” He paused to shake his head and clear his thoughts. “Still, there are still some rumblings in Baltimare and Mareginia. It seems like not everypony is willing to accept the new order. Who knows, the griffons might even try something.” Sentry cracked a smile.

“Yeah, maybe then we could go back, save Equestria and force Celestia out of that stupid golden throne!” So headstrong, you would have thought the war would have beaten that out of him. To his credit, Dusk merely chucked.

“It ain’t that easy, kid. Like it or not; this is our future for the moment. Until the time is right, and Princess Luna is able to break free of whatever spell that witch cast, we have to stay away.” Corporal Sentry merely snorted irritably. For a few pleasant moments, he was quiet. Dusk had a few precious seconds to admire to desert landscape before his thinking was again interrupted.

“So, what’s San Maretonio like then, sir?” Sentry asked. Dusk did his best to repress a groan. The kid meant well really. But would it really kill him to shut his mouth for five minutes? Placing a hoof to the bridge of his snout in an attempt to ease the oncoming headache, Dusk replied.

“It’s desert, kid,” he replied simply. The only difference between here and there is that there they’ve got a couple more scrabble farms and a watering hole or two. It ain’t gonna be much more comfortable, but they’ll give us some place to rest.” Perhaps Luna, from her new prison now smiled upon her old soldier, for Sentry at last fell silent, before promptly excusing himself to go and check the rear of the column.

And so, once again, Colonel Star Dusk found himself relatively alone as he continued to lead the column toward the town. There had to be somepony there. There just had to be. Sure the losses had been bad, and everypony had been caught napping when the evacuation orders came, mainly by civilian mail, but he knew there would be other columns like this. Hay, he knew some had already reached the Badlands. Who knows, maybe High Command would send somepony out to meet him halfway. He just needed something to support them. San Maretonio was the last stop before you hit the Badlands, if they were going to meet anypony on this Luna forsaken journey, it would be there.

Looking behind, to the west, Dusk could see the setting sun. Not so long ago, this would have been an important time of his day. Chaplain Darklight would be leading the guards in evening prayers, granting them safety for the night on behalf of Luna herself. Now though, each moonrise was just another reminder of his failure. Each night the moon was raised by that evil tyrant, who mocked each and every thestral alive, moving Luna’s moon with her own blasphemous solar magic.

Luna would return, of that he was sure. There was no prison that could hold his princess indefinitely. And when she did, he privately hoped that he would be the one to lead the column up the Canterhorn, into that glittering palace and hurl Celestia from her ill-gotten throne. Then, he would watch his goddess dispense justice to the traitors.

Shaking his head, Dusk departed from his fantasy. By all accounts, the prison Celestia had made for her sister would take at least ten centuries to break free from, even with alicorn magic. He would not live to see the day. Still, his memories of the old ceremonies did give him an idea.

Many of the thestrals within the vast column were good, honest believers in their princess and goddess. San Maretonio, if he remembered correctly had an old mission, long abandoned of course, but all the necessary articles should be there to hold a proper service. Perhaps it might be a good idea to set up shop there, rather than attempting to billet everypony all over the town. Once they were settled, perhaps they would hold a service, just like he was used to. Wasn’t there a chaplain in this mob?

Looking around for a moment, he scanned the area ahead of him looking for one of his guards. He spotted one of the thestrals just gliding above the ground, heading back towards the column having just been on a scout.

“Hey, you there!” Dusk called out, catching his attention. The thestral quickly landed and cantered over to him.

“Yes sir?” the young fellow said, after briefly saluting him. Unlike Sentry, this fellow wasn’t aspiring so badly. He was aware of his duties and carried them out correctly and without complaint. Dusk could ask for nothing more.

“I want you to head a little way back and find that Lunar chaplain that joined us at Dodge Junction, and bring him up here as soon as you can.” The young thestral, who was probably only just old enough to have enlisted during the war, promptly nodded.

“Very good, sir. I’ll bring him up right away.” And with that, the youngster took to the skies again, skimming over the column looking for the only pony that sported a ‘dog collar’.

As it turned out, the pony in question was a rather elderly unicorn. Dusk was amazed that he had made it so far. He was clearly getting on in years; his face sported an impressive grey beard that rivalled that of Starswirl the Bearded. He wore the traditional deep blue and indigo robes of a Lunar priest, though of course, they too had clearly seen better days, just as Dusk’s armour had. Here and there a button was missing and the hem was frayed in places. But what surprised Dusk most of all was the stallion’s expression. On the surface, it was that of a kind and friendly figure, almost like a father perhaps. But looking into the old stallion’s eyes, Dusk saw fire within. In days gone by, it would have clearly paid to get along with him. And whilst that fire had perhaps dulled as he had aged, it was still nonetheless potent.

“You sent for me, Colonel?” he asked in a voice that sounded as if it had been dragged up from a well. Dusk was known for having a fairly gruff voice, but he was taken aback by him. He briefly bobbed his head in a quick bow as a sign of respect.

“Yes, Father,” he replied. “I was wondering if I could perhaps ask a favour of you.” The ageing stallion did little to react, so Dusk continued. “When we reach San Maretonio, I plan to settle most of the column in the old mission in the town. Luna willing, the temple will still be intact. Would you perhaps be willing to perform a service for my guards?”

“I suppose I can throw something together for you,” he replied after briefly considering the idea. “But to what end?”

“I thought maybe it might serve as a boost to everypony’s morale. What with all we’ve been through these past months, it would be pleasant to have a moment to rest and reflect. And to hope for the future. You yourself must know the predictions some of your own superiors have put forward.” The priest snorted and tossed his head.

“Yes, yes, I heard it,” he answered dismissively. “The stars shall aid in her escape, correct? Interesting that they gave a timetable of a thousand years.”

“Still, it does not hurt to hope, does it, Father?” Dusk countered. “Forgive me, I never asked your name.” The priest paused to adjust his collar for a moment before regarding Dusk coolly.

“My name is Moonapple,” he replied. “Father Moonapple to you, my boy.” It felt strange to the middle aged colonel to be addressed in such a way. “Very well, when we reach San Maretonio, you would be so kind as to lend me a few of your stallions, and I will get to work making the temple, at least, presentable. I shall not be holding services upon a pile of drums! Luna willing, I will call you all for prayers before moonrise.” Dusk bowed again.

“Thank you, Father.” With that, Moonapple headed back down the column to wherever had had previously been.

Dusk watched him retreat for a moment, before turning his attention back to the front. It had been a long time since he had seen a priest. With the start of this new conflict, the temples were one of the first things to go; burned to ashes, along with all the scriptures, stained glass, hymn books, and alters. As an officer, Dusk had always been a deeply religious stallion, just like any good guard, he was loyal to his princess. Although some might say he, like most thestrals, bordered upon fanaticism. But how long had it been since he had set hoof in a temple, three years, four?

As Moonapple left, he passed another pony heading in the opposite direction. Like Dusk, this one wore the uniform of an officer of the Lunar Guard, although the markings designated him to be a captain rather than a colonel. He was however, the second highest ranking officer in the entire column. That made him Dusk’s second-in-command. He had actually been the one to find Dusk on that darkest of nights in the woods as he did his best to hide.

This was Captain Flintlock, formerly of No. 4 Guards; one of the seven peacetime regiments. Three were Lunar regiments, three were Solar regiments, and the final, smaller contingent was made up of volunteer griffons as a way of fostering good relations between Equestria and the Griffon Kingdom.

Like Dusk, Flintlock was a well-respected thestral officer and had no less than three citations for gallantry in action to his name. He also had a great deal of experience, having been in the war from the get-go. He was in the Castle of the Two Sisters when the war officially began, and took part in the confused room to room fighting that ensued. Two Bright Lights had attempted to have him arrested at his post for conspiracy, he had fought back. In the end, he had rallied the faithful with him and successfully taken the library and barracks areas. This in turn allowed the Lunar Guard to get behind and outflank their opponents, who had moved to defend the throne room. In that sense, he played a pivotal role in the first battle of the war, though he never would admit to such a thing.

However, while he was proud of his position, he did somewhat resent being led around by Dusk. While by rank he was his senior, in terms of experience, Colonel Star Dusk was around a year his junior and had hardly seen the ferocious fighting that he had. Hay, when he first found the poor devil out in the wilds, he had mistaken him for a frightened cadet.

Still, he viewed him as a decent commanding officer. After all, he had gotten them all this far without major incidents, or contact with the enemy, aside from that one near miss with that Las Pegasus militia outfit. And he did agree with his current course of action; the enemy forces were overwhelming, now was the time to draw in their horns.

Given his position then, Flintlock took up the typical position of the second-in-command; that of an enforcer and disciplinarian. With no activity by the enemy, he had used the time to do what training he could as the column moved forward. Any able bodied stallion was inspected and tested by him. If they passed, he did his upmost to give them a crash course in the basics of soldiering. It was thanks to this measure that the number of guards now hovered nearer to a hundred than the previous two dozen.

Flintlock had spent the time Dusk had been searching the horizon and chatting with Moonapple to work his way along the line. That is, going about the various sentries he had been ordered to post, and checking up on them. As he trotted towards Dusk, the colonel called out to him.

“Well, Captain, how goes the watch?” he asked. Unlike the lower ranking guards, Dusk was far more informal with Flintlock. In the previous months, he had grown used to having him available as a sounding board for ideas, and he considered the stallion to be his friend.

“All quiet, Star,” Flintlock answered, briefly touching his helmet in an informal salute. “A couple of my boys spotted some buffalo scouts about half an hour ago, but they seemed to have moved on. My guess is they were just curious, as long as we keep out of their way, they shouldn’t bother us.” Dusk nodded.

“Things are looking up it seems then,” he said, beaming a little.

“Oh, how so?”

“Well, we’re less than a day away from safe harbour, no sign of the enemy for miles, and with any luck, your boys will be able to at last rest up after all this time.” That was true; they’d been on the run, ever watchful and getting little sleep for the better part of a month. Flintlock remembered that he’d read something about how a stallion was only good in the field for a maximum of ninety days before his effectiveness began to fall away. If they didn’t get a chance to really rest soon, they’d pass that barrier. By the time you hit day one hundred and twenty, a stallion would more than likely be a detriment to his allies due to stress and fatigue.

“I hope so,” Flintlock replied simply. “If we do get some time to hole up here, it would be a good chance to get some training done. I’ve done what I can, but a lot of your ‘guards’ are just colts taught to hold a spear. And that doesn’t even begin to include our lack of air cover."

Flight was a tiring thing to do in full armour, plus it took skill to fly, never mind fight, with the addition of the blades attached to the wingtips. With so few real guards, their biggest concern was being overwhelmed from the air by their pegasi cousins.

“Well, once we are rested up, it isn’t that far until we reach the border. If worst comes to worst, we can skip in and out of the Mexicolt border. But I think…” Dusk was cut off by a cry from above, one of his airborne scouts.

“Heads up! Possible enemy contact ahead!” he warned as he circled over the column. Flintlock craned his head back.

“What do you see, Shadow Flame?” he called back.

“A group of ponies, sir. Civvies by the looks of it. They’re heading our way. I’d say another ten minutes and they’ll run right into us!” Dusk snorted at the news.

“Well, there goes our secrecy then,” Flintlock said to him. “If they’re heading towards us, they know we’re out here. They could be civvies, or they could be a lure.” Dusk nodded in agreement.

“Alright, Flint, here’s what I want you to do. Form the guard up. Two platoons of skirmishers, send them out on either side of us to sniff out any Bright Lights trying to encircle us. Then send a small detachment to lift those ponies ahead. Escort them back here and we’ll see what’s what. Everypony else you can spare is to be ready to circle the wagons at a moment’s notice.” Flintlock nodded and quickly began to bark orders to the guards.

While the response seemed excessive for only a couple of ponies, Dusk was certain it was the best course of action. Why, you ask? Because if he wanted to ambush a slow moving enemy column, this is how he would do it. Draw them in with the promise of allies, and then encircle them, creating a killing floor. He didn’t have many options anyway. If he backed off or tried to skirt around, they could potentially blunder into the enemy. Hay, the noose may have already closed; with so few ponies to spare, reconnaissance was limited at best. So he would attempt to turn the trap on them. When the small detachment lifted the bait, they would probably charge. But instead of hitting the column, they’d meet the concealed bands of skirmishers on his flanks. Since the tactic depended on surprise, there was a decent chance they could repulse the initial assault, then tighten their formation and punch out, before fighting a rear-guard action. Like all good strategists, Dusk always planned several moves ahead.

Many ponies have a distorted view of what war is really like. They often think of it as a continuous struggle that is forever on-going. The reality is quite different. War is, for the most part, boring. Dusk had been leading this column for a few months. In all that time, they had only encountered the enemy twice. However, the boring monotony aside, war is also littered with brief moments of absolute terror. This is what Dusk, and everypony else was bracing themselves for. It would take around ten minutes for the forward scouts to reach the ponies ahead. All they could do for the moment, was wait.

Chapter 2 - San Maretonio Arrival

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Flintlock stood still, calm, and impassive. Whilst Dusk quietly fidgeted and occasionally paced, as was his custom at times like this, he remained as still as Discord. There was nothing to be done. He had given his orders, all that could be done now was watch them be executed, and see if the enemy reacted.

Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t as concerned as Dusk. Potentially at this very moment, dozens of Bright Lights may be moving into position to attack. At any second the skirmishers sent out along the column’s flanks might come into contact. But whilst the ponies he had sent out now had the potential to affect the situation in one way or another, he was little more than a bystander.

That was, to his mind, one of the most difficult things to deal with when one became an officer. You went from following orders as a private, to giving them and following them through as a sergeant, to simply watching those orders be executed as a captain. Flintlock was a mustang in the true sense of the word, having entered the service as a humble private and risen through the ranks on merit and skill.

The rest of the column had fallen silent as well. The marching had stopped, and even the usual sounds of hooves and wheels on the desert roads had ceased. But even the little things had stopped; even the young foals had stopped crying. It was as if everypony knew that something was about to happen, for better or worse, quite soon.

Looking over to his colonel, Flintlock saw that he was once again pacing, and beginning to wear a fine trail into the sand beneath his hooves.

“They’ll get back when they get back,” he offered in an attempt to calm the anxious colonel. Star Dusk replied by glancing at him worriedly. He then switched his gaze to the western horizon; in another half hour or so, it would be completely dark.

“They been gone a hay of a long time,” Dusk replied. “What if they got jumped, and now they’re just going to wait it out until nightfall?” Flintlock rolled his eyes.

“Oh yes, of course. Naturally, our sun loving enemies would attack at night, when we have the advantage in vision and hearing, and when they’re hampered by their highly reflective armour. By the moon, Dusk, get a hold of yourself!” Out of the corner of his bat like eyes, Flintlock spotted something.

Turning to get a better look in the fading light, he saw five, perhaps six ponies making their way towards them. Two of them were quite clearly thestrals. And judging by the way they were flanking the other ponies, which were two earth ponies, and a unicorn clad in typical western attire, they were well in control of the situation.

“See, what did I tell you?” Flintlock said, gesturing to the small party. “Safe and sound, and no sign of retaliation. C’mon.” Taking the lead in a move that, during the war, would have been viewed as incredibly insubordinate, Flintlock led Dusk towards the returning scouts and their new prisoners.

As the two trotted up, the scouts promptly snapped to attention and reported themselves, just as they had been trained to do by Flintlock.

“Sir, we retrieved these three ponies as requested. They claim to be from San Maretonio.” Putting on his best intimidating face, and with Flintlock behind him, backing him up, Dusk addressed the three captives.

“What are you three doing so far out of town then? Somehow I doubt there are any apple orchards out here.” The trio were clearly a little scared. For the moment, that was exactly how Dusk wanted it. The eldest of the three, an earth pony stallion with a tan coat and dark brown mane spoke up.

“We heard that there was a group of refugees heading towards us, sir,” he said hurriedly. “The three of us thought it would be a good idea to come out here and meet you first, before you reached town.” His accent had a hint of Mexicolt to it, but it was masked by a partial Canterlot one, which indicated that this stallion was not some simple farmer.

“A welcoming committee?” Dusk replied, curious.

“If you like, sir,” the stallion nodded. “I assume you are seeking somewhere to rest before you continue your journey?” The answer caught Dusk off guard. He had expected that he would have to negotiate their way into the town. What he hadn’t expected was this sudden hospitality. Flintlock broke into the conversation

“Seems awfully generous of you, friend. Most ponies wouldn’t be too happy about having the better part of a thousand ponies suddenly turn up on their doorstep.” The stallion smiled disarmingly.

“Most ponies, sir, have not had two similar groups pass through their town in the last month. We have enough space to let you all rest briefly, and we welcome the business and trading opportunity you provide.”

Dusk turned to Flintlock, their eyes meeting briefly. Having served together for so long at time, the pair could, at times, almost read each other’s mind. In this case, their thoughts were almost identical. This was exactly what they had been hoping for, and here it was served up on a silver platter. And that was what worried them. It all seemed too perfect.

On the other hoof though, what choice did they have? They couldn’t bypass San Maretonio. Regardless of their supply situation, the civilians would probably start rioting if they got wind that they were going to pass by the only rest stop for miles. They all needed the rest. They needed supplies; food, water, medicine and so on. What choice did they have? Dusk turned back to the stallion and his two compatriots.

“Alright. We accept your invitation,” he said, still sounding wary. “If you have no objection, we will set up a small outpost in the old mission just outside of town.” The stallion merely nodded.

“I take it we are free to go then?” he asked.

“Yes, you are free to go.” Dusk turned to one of the two thestrals who had brought the trio in. "Sergeant, release these three.” The manacles around their hooves were promptly removed, and they began to walk away. Before he left, the stallion turned back to Dusk.

“I hope you will all enjoy your brief respite. Permit me to introduce myself, my name is Rare Diamond. If you have any question or concerns feel free to drop by and see me at Governor’s House.” That explained the Canterlot accent and the slimy feeling Dusk got around him. The stallion then turned to the sole unicorn of the group. “If you would be so kind?” The trio then vanished in a flash of light as the unicorn performed a teleport.

“Well, that explains how they got out here so fast.” Flintlock muttered. Dusk frowned a little.

“Yeah, it sure does.”

And so the column prepared to move out again. With night drawing on fast, Dusk gave the order to recall all the patrols that had been sent out. Whilst thestrals may possess excellent night time vision, it was still quite possible for them to inadvertently lose each other in this near featureless desert. And given how cold it became at night, a pony could not afford to get lost.

The assembled guards were now instead stationed around the column in a protective cover, just as they had previously been. When everypony was gathered and ready, Dusk gave the order to move out, and the column began its march again.

Up ahead, it was now possible to make out the settlement of San Maretonio, which was now partially illuminated by a few dozen lanterns. It was a new moon tonight, so the lights served as a useful guide. In the end it became so dark that it was difficult to make out the horizon on the open plain. The only light for miles was the town itself, and the few touches of light here and there in the column. Normally, by now they would be resting up for the night, with Flintlock and his guards enforcing a strict blackout. But since they were so close to their objective, it seemed foolish to spend another night out in the desert.

Dusk and his staff were already planning how things were going to be once they arrived in town. He still didn’t like the way they had been ‘greeted’ by the mayor and his two associates. Something about the guy just didn’t sit well with him. Perhaps it was simply because he was a politician; Dusk always did have a fierce distrust of politics.

There were more important matters to attend to though. Chief among which was where everypony was going to be put up for the night. It had already been decided that the old mission would serve as a suitable barracks for the guards, as well as a bastion for the more important ponies in the column. But the mission would not hold a thousand ponies, perhaps barely a quarter of that.

The civilians would have to be billeted elsewhere; something he was not particularly comfortable with. Spreading them all out meant that, in an emergency, it would take that much longer to get everypony organised and together. He would prefer it if they could keep them all close at hand. With the column still plodding steadily on, he left his position near the front and went searching for Flintlock.

Flintlock himself was in two minds about their destination. But it was very much a case of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either they went to San Maretonio, got what supplies and rest they needed, and risked enemy attack. Or they could go around, run out of supplies, face an out of control civilian population and never reach their destination. Whichever way he looked at it, the risks of going to the town were outweighed by the rewards. Just as he was contemplating going to talk with Dusk about it, he found the colonel standing behind him.

“Dusk, I was just about to come and find you,” he said as the colonel drew up. “You still feeling uneasy about this?” Dusk nodded.

“Yeah,” he replied, briefly removing his helmet and scratching at his mane. “But I don’t see that we have much in the way of a choice. We have to stop within the next three days, maximum, or we’ll die of thirst somewhere out here. You have any ideas?”

Flintlock thought for a moment. Whilst there was no question of the column not stopping in San Maretonio, there were several approaches open to them. He sure as hay wasn’t about to send the entire column in together.

“Maybe,” he began. “Maybe we ought to do a little bit of recon first. Send a couple of my guys into the town, quietly. They have a look around, check everything’s how it’s supposed to be, then we bring in the rest of the guard, followed by the civilians. If there is anything waiting for us, we’ll have a fighting chance.”

Dusk considered the idea, it was sensible enough. But it didn’t exactly win much in the way of hearts and minds did it? Their invitation to rest was presumably based on the vague support and goodwill of the townsfolk. If they saw a couple of thestrals sneaking around in the shadows, who knew what conclusions they’d draw. For all Dusk knew, they’d see it as preparation to attack and turn on the column. Perhaps they might even alert the hostile mobs and militias.

On the other hoof though, based on their previous experiences, and the knowledge that ambushes had claimed the lives of Lunar supporters in the past, they’d be fools to go into a town without exact knowledge of what it was like. It was eventually this which won out, and Dusk told Flintlock to organise a reconnaissance patrol.

The patrol was to fly high up, and not touch down until they returned. They were to search for any signs of prepared ambushes or other evidence of enemy activity, as well as getting a layout of the settlement for strategic purposes. With that knowledge, the few guards they had would be better prepared when they entered the town. When they were confident the area was secure, then they could move the civilians in.

Flintlock also suggested that they keep them near the Lunar mission. Whilst most would be outside its walls, he suggested setting up a few small guard posts on the perimeter. So there would be two rings of protection. On the outside would be the first ring of guards, protecting the civilians. Then, inside the walls of the mission, would be the rest of them, along with what few cannons they had, to provide heavy covering fire to the outer ring. With an established base, they could also perform a few recon sorties to keep an eye out while they remained in the mission.

The initial patrol was to be as small in numbers as possible. In the end, it was boiled down to just two of the more experienced guards Flintlock could call upon. One would actually perform the recon, the other would watch his back and act as a second pair of eyes. They would fly as high as they could, so as not to be spotted and stick close at all times. Just to be safe, Flintlock ordered them to approach the town from the east, rather than the west, which was the direction the column was approaching from. If there were any eyes watching the darkened skies, they were most likely looking in the most obvious direction.

To keep their weight down, and thus increase their endurance, as well as their stealth, both thestrals decided to forgo their armour. Given the nature of their mission they hopefully would not require such protection. Just before the pair departed, dusk gave them their final orders.

“Alright, with any luck this should be a simple milk run for you. With any luck there won’t be anything there, and our suspicions will be unwarranted. However, we will be depending on you to be both thorough and discreet. You must not, under any circumstances, be detected by anypony. If anypony so much as glances in your direction, you are to abort and RTB immediately. Is that clear?” Both flyers nodded in understanding.

“Yes, sir,” they both answered. Dusk smiled.

“Good. All that remains then is to wish you both luck and good hunting. I expect you back here within the hour. If we don’t hear from you by then, we’ll assume you’ve been compromised.” The two thestrals nodded again before taking off. Within thirty seconds, even Dusk’s sharp, and specially adapted eyes, had lost them in the gloom.

To prevent their move being guessed, the column continued moving forward, albeit at a slower pace. But to all intents and purposes, they were all once again forced to play a waiting game. And once again, Dusk began to grow nervous.

It was around twenty minutes later that the patrol returned; well within their one hour window. Just as they had departed, the two thestrals returned almost silently, their leather like wings making next to no noise, unlike the feathers of pegasi. Emerging out of the darkness, the pair alighted almost directly in front of Dusk and Flintlock, who were discussing the finer points of logistics with Dusk’s general staff.

For a moment, Dusk’s face betrayed a hint of surprise, the sudden arrival of his subordinates having caught him off guard. However, he quickly masked this with a friendly smile; it would hardly do to let them see that they had spooked him.

“Ah, excellent, you’re back,” he greeted them. “Well, what have you to report?” The older of the pair spoke up after saluting.

“Sir, we conducted a thorough aerial observation of the town, from the western approach, and across, including the old mission.”

“How does it look, can we billet ponies there?” Dusk enquired.

“It looks a little worn, sir. But the walls and main doors are still intact. It should serve as a useful base camp and as a defensive position if needed.” Dusk grinned, his biggest concern, aside from the obvious potential threat, was that the mission, due to age and damage, would not be defendable.

“Excellent, and what about the town?”

“We made three passes, sir. And we couldn’t see anything untoward. There is certainly no large enemy force there. As for the civilian population, they seemed to be going about their evening, no signs of weapons or any organised groups. I’d say the place is perfectly safe.” Flintlock scowled at the somewhat flippant remark, but otherwise was impressed. The pair then gave a brief outline of the town’s layout.

San Maretonio was a typical frontier town. Simple wooden buildings, all collected together to form one main street. At the head of it was Governor’s House where the mayor lived. On either side was a collection of businesses, including a saloon and a general store where supplies could be bought through bartering. Just outside the town, connected by a well-trod path, was the old mission, known as the Moonflower.

Surrounded by high stone walls, the Moonflower was almost a fort in its basic design. One main door at the front was large enough to accommodate carts and wagons. There were only a couple of other entrances and these could easily be defended or blocked off altogether. Inside the mission, there were a number of buildings; the Lunar temple itself, a couple of bunkhouses, as well as some storage buildings, all of which could be used as further defensive positions, in the event the walls were breeched or scaled. Even better, the thick walls had a sort of catwalk running all the way around at the top. On this, it would be possible to station sentries, as well as the few canons they had. All in all, it was an excellent place to hole up in.

And so, satisfied that there was no immediate danger to resting in the town for a few days, Dusk ordered Flintlock to move his guards into the town in order to make a path for the civilians. They would all move through the town, and settle around the Moonflower. Most of them would be resting outside its walls, but if needed, the mission offered a safe haven as it always had. Just as in other nations, a pony could, if in flight from persecution, step onto holy ground and claim sanctuary.

Whilst they would still be, for the most part, sleeping in tents or wagons, they would now have the luxury of running water, and freely available food and medicine, as well as any other supplies they needed. It would still be a far cry from their old lives, but it was a step in the right direction.

And so, just before eleven o’clock, the weary, battered column finally made its way into San Maretonio. Led by the guards, the civilians steadily made their way through the town towards the safe haven of the Moonflower. Most of the foals had fallen asleep and were being carried by their parents; the hour was far too late for them.

Everypony was simply exhausted, the long trek, combined with the heat, and now the rapidly encroaching cold had left everypony tired. The two more recent pauses to their progress had also served to put everypony on edge. But now, having entered the town without incident, everypony slowly began to relax.

A few residents of the town were still out, evidently waiting to greet them. The odd store here and there was still lit, as was the saloon, whose owner extended an offer of free drinks for all the guards in the group. Said offer was diplomatically, but nonetheless firmly, declined by Star Dusk, much to the irritation of the lower ranks. Still, they were satisfied with the promise of eventual leave, just as soon as they were set up in the Moonflower. Until then, they were still very much on duty.

In the end, it took about twenty minutes for the column to pass through the town. In that time, the governor, who had previously greeted them, awoke from his bed. Still dressed in his night clothes, with a large great coat thrown over them, he too came out to greet them. Once again, he welcomed Dusk and Flintlock, as well as the rest of the staff to the town and reminded them of his offer to assist them in any way he could.

Still somewhat uneasy around the stallion, Dusk merely asked for assistance in setting up basic amenities, such as water and some food for them all. Despite his apparent kindness, neither Dusk, nor Flintlock, could shake the feeling of unease around him.

It took another two hours before everything was set up in the Moonflower. Upon arrival, they found it necessary to force the main gate open; since the lock, due to age, had rusted shut. After that though, the place was suitable enough. Dusk quickly organised the large bunkhouses into barracks, in order to keep the guards and civilians separate. This was an old tactic. Were he still serving in a proper regiment, when resting at camp, there would be a contingent of Lunar Guard troops between the senior officers, and the rabble that made up much of the Lunar militias, as a safeguard in case there was any disturbances.

It took a fair while to examine the other various buildings that made up the mission. There were a few storehouses, a small house, which Dusk chose to set up a command post in, and of course, the Lunar temple itself.

The temple, much to the relief of Moonapple, was relatively untouched. It had certainly been spared the destruction that befell so many of its counterparts. Of course, like most places left for so long a time, the place was covered in dust and was generally untidy; Moonapple found a number of hymn books and scriptures scatted on the floor. The ancient organ in the far corner was also completely out of commission. Luckily though, the beautiful stained glass windows, which held images of the princess herself and those commonly associated with her (though not her sister), as well as some depictions of stories from the scriptures, were still intact. All in all, Moonapple was quite happy, and Dusk quickly assigned what few guards he could spare to making the place presentable. While they were too late, and too tired, to hold a service tonight, Moonapple said he would be happy to hold a service at sunset tomorrow. Dusk figured that by then, everything would be organised and squared away.

On the military side of things, all that remained was to set up the cannons and post the sentries for the first watch. Prior to starting their journey in earnest, some of the guards in the column had attempted to make a counter attack, using old cannons that had been left in their casements. These had been secured and hauled halfway across Equestria in order to provide some form of firepower if needed. Flintlock’s suggestion was now to use what few they had in order to cover the whole area at a greater range. With cannons on the catwalk, they could fire at a range the better part of half a mile.

However, given their weight, they were forced to rope in what unicorns were available and use them to lift the weight. It was hard going for the exhausted ponies, particularly as many of the unicorns were not guards and did not have particularly powerful magic. Eventually though, with great thanks from Dusk, the last of the four cannons was in place. Now they could fire shot at any approaching enemy from any direction.

As for the civilians, they slipped into the familiar routine of their lives. Many had tents to erect, but some had been able to bundle their lives into carriages before they were forced to flee. These were all now arranged around the fort, forming the beginnings of an odd shanty town. Many were planning to purchase what materials they could in the town in order to make themselves more comfortable.

Finally, beyond them, a select few guards, some of the strongest in the group, began to dig at the soft, sandy soil; doing their best to create foxholes and other entrenchments.

With everypony at last settled and the stars shining brightly above them, dusk stepped out onto ‘battlements’ as it were to address the civilians and the assembled guards.

“Alright everypony, I shall not keep you too long, I know you all want your rest.” This provoked a chuckle amidst the civilians. “We will be resting here for the better part of a week, so I encourage you to make the most of it. We are now very close to our final destination. I know it has been hard for you all, but I want you to know that I am proud of the way you have all handled yourselves these past months. Many of you knew nothing of military life or hard living when we began. But now, we have almost completed our journey. Soon we will be safe from our enemies, free to bide our time until our princess returns. So settle in, get some food in your bellies and get some sleep. You have all earned it."

Chapter 3 - The First Night

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That night, the majority of the civilians got their first real night of sleep in over four months. For the first time, they had access to beds, running water and were completely safe. They were still very much ‘on the run’ of course, but in the tranquil town, it didn’t feel as if such a thing was taking place. Amongst the youngsters, a spirit of holiday even prevailed, as their parents allowed them to head off and explore their new temporary home. Everypony was able to relax, for the first time since they had begun their flight.

A good number of the guards, however, did not get much rest that night. Regardless of how tired they all were, somepony still had to take the first watch, keeping a look out for anything untoward around the mission. Most of these were ex-Lunar Guards, rather than volunteers from the old army. Thestrals after all, are nocturnal by nature, and their body clocks kept them wide awake throughout the small hours. Not that there was any need. Very little of note happened throughout the night. It was calm, cool and quiet, with a new moon and a beautiful display of stars.

Whilst the moon was now marred by the ghostly image of their fallen princess, and controlled by their bitterest enemy, the night sky itself remained relatively unaffected. Celestia lacked the capability and the knowledge to properly maintain the night sky, insofar as correcting drifting orbit and so forth. In fact, upon Luna’s return, the younger princess had to dedicate the better part of a week to repositioning all the stars that had drifted in the course of her absence.

Some of the senior officers were also still up and about. Flintlock for example, was a light sleeper by nature, and rarely did he sleep for more than a few hours at a time; another habit picked up from his time as a Lunar guard. Having sufficiently rested himself to the point where he now felt wide awake and ready to take on the world, the guardsman had now taken to wandering around his new temporary abode.

As one of the senior officers, he had been given a spot in one of the bunkhouses along with Dusk and the others. Whilst modest by typical standards, to a pony who had spent a quarter of a year in the wilds of Equestria, the simple mattress was a welcome relief, as was the small trunk at the foot of each bunk where a pony’s possessions could be safely stowed. The building itself was equally modest, being little more than a large, wood-framed shed. However, it was warm, dry and suited his needs, so he was not about to complain.

After Flintlock had awoken, he had checked to see who else might be up. He quickly noticed that Dusk’s bunk was also vacant. He had expected the older stallion to rest for a fair while longer. Though he was a thestral like himself, he did not possess the training and habits of a true Lunar guardsman; Flintlock expected him to have slept until dawn. So, after checking with the various sentries, and taking great pleasure in loudly waking up that over eager foal Sentry, he went searching for his commanding officer.

Star Dusk had indeed been restless and had awoken a little after two o’clock that morning. Despite the apparent security of their new situation, he could not shake a rather ominous feeling of uncertainty that he felt in the pit of his stomach.

As was his custom in such a situation, he had begun to pace. But fearing that this would assuredly disturb his still slumbering comrades, he left the bunkhouse and began to wander around the mission, with no destination in particular. He went around all the buildings inside the mission, before heading outside the Moonflower’s walls to check on the few ponies amongst the civilians who were still awake. He then found himself heading up and down the line of the outlying guards, who were dug in around the civilians. He also briefly paused to re-awaken one of his guards who had been briefly claimed by the sandpony (this was actually Sentry, though Dusk could not see him in the dark. Flintlock would wake him again around half an hour later).

In the end though, he wandered back inside the high, stone walls. He eventually found himself standing in front of the Lunar temple. The guards he had leased to Father Moonapple had spent the time most had taken to making themselves at home affecting repairs, as well as cleaning the interior.

It was not a large temple by any means. It barely held a candle to the beautiful cathedral that once stood within the walls of the Castle of the Two Sisters. But it was a temple nonetheless; a place where a pony might find some solace, even amidst the fires of war. Like its brethren, the temple was furnished lavishly. At the far end of the temple, ringed off from the pews, was the alter decorated with a beautiful blue and purple silk cloth. To the left of that, and slightly elevated, was the pulpit, where a minister would read prayers and excerpts of the scripture. Most of it was of course, based far more in fantasy than reality (in fact Princess Luna herself disliked the way she was sometimes portrayed in this revisionist history), but faith is a very useful thing, in war and peace. And of course, the inflated tales of the Lunar princess’ deeds helped reinforce the fanatical loyalty of the thestrals.

The centrepiece though, was on the far wall, above the alter, in full view of all who entered. The stained glass windows were a sight to behold. Forged by the most talented of artisans, these shimmering pieces of art depicted events found in the scripture. In the centre though, was the largest window; a circular affair with an image of Luna silhouetted by the rising moon.

Dusk had found the door unlocked, a custom of most religious buildings, and quietly made his way inside. Upon entering, he removed both his helmet, as well as his horseshoes, just as he had been taught to. The place still needed a little bit of work; there was still a fair amount of dust lying around, but it was presentable enough. Walking up the aisle, Dusk stopped just before the alter to gaze up at the image of Luna. He sat there for a few minutes before speaking out loud.

Bowing deeply to the princess, Dusk recited an old prayer commonly said during a service. Like most religions, thestrals felt a strong need to confess and be absolved on their wrongdoings, lest they disappoint their princess. A more cynical mind might see this as a clever means of control, however Dusk, who always was a tad more of a believer than most, viewed it as something he did by choice, rather than necessity. The prayer was traditionally sung without music, and Dusk’s sole voice gave it a haunting quality.

“Confiteor nocte omnipotens. Beatae Luna verum princeps. Ad noctem sacratíssimam. Lunam et omnia astra caeli.”

Dusk never could quite remember exactly what he was saying in the long forgotten language of the thestrals, but it brought him comfort nonetheless. After all, there is comfort to be found in routine; one of the appeals of organised religion. After this, he fell silent again, gazing idly up at the image of his princess, wondering if she had heard him.

Presently though, his thinking was interrupted, as he heard the doors of the temple, behind him, once again open to admit somepony.

“I thought I might find you here,” Flintlock said as he entered. Closing the door softly behind him, he walked up to the alter to stand alongside Dusk. “It’s been years since I’ve been in one of these.” Dusk nodded.

“Yeah…me too. It’s peaceful, isn’t it?” Aside from their hushed conversation, the building was silent. It was a comforting silence though, Dusk felt safe where he was; calm and relaxed.

Flintlock didn’t offer any reply. Dusk clearly did not want to talk too much. He could be like this sometimes; wanting to be alone with his thoughts. The best thing to do was let him be. Nothing really required his attention at this late hour. The whole place was quiet, almost as if the war itself had stopped.

He did linger a little longer though. As with Dusk, being in the temple brought on a faint feeling of nostalgia for Flintlock. It brought back memories of a happier time. A time when Equestria was new and bright, where the two princesses would go gallivanting off on adventures, making friends with other species, helping other nations, and defeating villains that threatened their ponies. He was just a lowly guard back then; all he had to worry about was who had which shift and what pranks Luna was planning to pull on her sister.

Now though…that was all gone. In its place, was a world of hardships and darkness, even in the light of the midday sun. Ponies fought each other, other nations squabbled and fought. And even the famous Elements of Harmony were gone; sealed away by Celestia. And worst of all, his own princess was gone for, what to him would be, forever. Perhaps that was what had brought both Dusk and himself here; clinging on to those memories in the hopes that one day, everything would be alright again.

Flintlock shook his head to clear his thoughts. There was little point in reminiscing. All that mattered was the present. They had to reach their new home, then they could think about saving the world. Quietly, and not disturbing the still brooding Dusk, Flintlock left as quietly as he had entered.

Leaving the temple, Flintlock returned to his wanderings again. Still wide awake from his comparatively short nap, it seemed silly to waste the available time. He had already gone around the outer line of guard posts (though by this time, Sentry had once again managed to doze off), so he decided to remain within the confines of the Moonflower for the time being.

Heading past the bunkhouse, and well away from the temple, he found one of the four stone staircases that led up to the large catwalk that ran around the top of the wall’s perimeter. Carefully making his way up, he found himself on top of the makeshift battlements that had been set up. All along the wall, at intervals, there was a guard, be it thestral, unicorn, earth pony, or even the odd pegasus (since Cloudsdale was a loyalist stronghold during the rebellion, it was odd to see a pegasus within the Lunar ranks). These guards were all keeping watch, like their counterparts below, for any sign of activity by the enemy.

As luck would have it, among the supplies that had been found in the mission on their arrival, were a number of telescopes. In thestral mythology, the night sky plays a central role, so study of the night sky was a common activity, as well as purely for leisure. However, these scientific instruments, now repurposed, were being used to search much further than even the sharp eyes of the thestrals could.

In addition to the guards, who if needed could provide some sort of firepower or reinforcement to the outer line if needed, each side of the mission boasted a lone cannon. Flintlock himself had been involved in the rather daring operation to recover them from an old armoury that they had found on their journey. Whilst not ideal, the projected firepower of these, comparatively small guns, could prove vital in a defensive battle, providing a shield to the guards below and prevent them from being overrun.

Flintlock skirted the whole catwalk, pausing here and there to talk to one of the guards on duty. Satisfied that all was well, there was little left for him to do. So, in what he might call a moment of weakness, he decided to have a little fun.

Leaping from the battlements toward the courtyard below, Flintlock opened his bat like wings and took to the sky.

The sun rose steadily into the sky the next morning, bathing the Moonflower in a soft light of the dawn. Already, out in the civilian encampment, ponies were beginning to stir and arise from their slumber. For many, it was quite an odd feeling, awaking to the sunrise. Most of the assembled group were thestrals, and consequently, they had had to change their body clocks for the duration of the journey. The desert was after all, far too cold, and there was no where they could safely rest in the daytime without the constant fear of being discovered by their pursuers.

Before long though, that would be over; when they reached the mountains and ended this journey, they could all return to their usual patterns. For the moment though, they had to put personal preferences aside for the benefit of all.

Since today was their first actual day in San Maretonio, most of it would most likely be spent gathering supplies. The main reason for the town’s existence was as a supply post for ponies travelling to the province of Mexicolt; one of Equestria’s more exotic territories. Everything a traveller could either want or need was available; from food and medicine, to parts for wagons and harnesses. All for a small fee, of course.

The civilians, as well as the guard’s quartermaster, would be kept more than busy today. With the near desperate need for supplies, it was probable that they would strip the town bare, at least, as much as their funds allowed them to. As much as they had, they were not likely to get far with the old Equestrian bit, which bore the markings of both princesses. These had been repealed in favour of one purely depicting Celestia’s seal. Thus the only value they had was the gold on their surface. The ponies did have other things though; gems and other valuables, that could be bartered.

As for the Lunar guards, their mission was somewhat different. Whilst they now had at least some form of defence against an enemy attack, they were not sure how long they had to prepare. Indeed, for the past few months, they had simply been moving as fast as possible away from the danger, rather than engaging the enemy in any way. Now though, in a fixed position, it was vital that Dusk and the others had the lay of the land. Such knowledge can be vital in battle. For all they knew, there was a canyon that could be used to evade pursuit, or a rocky pass that could be used to ambush. So, that was the order of the day.

“Alright, everypony!” Dusk called out from his position on the catwalk. Below him were the assembled guardsmen. “Today is going to be boring and tedious. But also necessary. Learning about the terrain around us, and everything on or above it, may very well prove vital in the next few days.

“You will all be split up into pairs, each with an assigned search area. In your area, you are to make a note of any usable landmarks, from the air, or on the ground for navigation purposes. Also look for anything that may provide some kind of strategic advantage, particularly killing floors. Finally, keep a look out for any movements by the enemy. We can be almost certain that a column this large is being tailed to some degree. If they are spotted early, we will have time to prepare, plan and escape.” Satisfied that he had gotten his point across, Dusk quickly wrapped things up. “Alright, Captain Flintlock will be giving you your assignments. Good luck and good hunting.”

With that, he turned the briefing over to Flintlock, who was also up on the catwalk. In his grasp he held a scroll with the name of every stallion on the duty roster, aside from those who had taken the night watch and were now in dire need of sleep. Working with the various platoon leaders, he had devised a plan for mapping a twenty square mile area around the Moonflower and San Maretonio.

“Alright, as the colonel said, you are all going to be assigned to a particular area. To keep things simple for you idiots,” Flintlock was well versed in the guise of a drill instructor. “We’ve cut the area around our position into squares. Each pair will cover one square mile; so in total we are going to have forty flyers airborne at once. So watch out for traffic and bandits. Right, let’s get this show on the road.”

Flintlock then began to read out the list of pairs and the area they were all assigned to. The ones furthest out would take off first, to avoid the need to dodge other flyers operating in their own area. With that, the forty ponies that made up the reconnaissance operation set off. This left the Moonflower itself with roughly sixty ponies, including those currently dozing, available to defend the mission as needed.

It was around four hours later that the last thestral landed back outside the Moonflower, having flown a round trip of twenty miles, plus however long they had loitered in their assigned area. All around, the reports were the same. There was nothing. No sign of any enemy forces. There also weren’t that many features to this territory. Dusk had hoped that they would be able to find some locale that could provide a tactical advantage to them. But all around, it was just featureless desert, along with hundreds upon hundreds of cacti.

Whilst Dusk was somewhat disappointed by the apparent futility of the expedition, Flintlock saw things in a more ‘glass is half full’ way.

“Look, Star. The way I see it, it’s a case of no news is good news. We don’t need to worry about finding escape routes and strategic areas. Hay, if I were a betting stallion, I’d even go as far as to say the Bright Lights aren’t even following us anymore. For all we knew, they’ve worked out where we were going and decided to leave us to it.” Dusk sighed, realising that Flintlock was most likely correct.

“I guess so, Flint. I guess it’s just I’ve been operating under the idea that we were being chased, and gotten so used to it, that it’s hard to accept that we might be away.” Flintlock smiled.

“This is the last stop before we reach our new safe haven, Star. You’ve gotten us through the worst of it, now all you have to do is take the last few steps. This time next week, we may even be there.”

Just as Flintlock finished speaking, the large old bell on the roof of the temple began to toll. Moonapple was evidently ready for his evening service. The sun was setting after all.

“Well, looks like Moonapple is ready. You coming?” Dusk asked.

“Sure,” Flintlock replied, nodding. “I s’pose it’ll do my immortal soul some good.” He let out a short laugh.

“You can appreciate the work your colts did on the place. How did they take to Moonapple anyway?” Flintlock looked his CO straight in the eye.

“Dusk, that crazy old padre ought to have been a drill instructor!”

Returning to the temple, the two officers found it already filling up with ponies. Given the huge disparity between the size of the building and the number of ponies, it was pretty packed inside. Most were standing wherever they could, although the aisle and the far end were kept clear for the service. It was a shame, Dusk thought, that the temple didn’t have an upper gallery to take a few more ponies in. But this was a mission out on the frontier, not a cathedral in a major city.

At the front end, standing just before the alter, facing the assembled throng, Moonapple was preparing himself. Dusk saw that he had, in addition to using the guards he assigned to help fix the place up, also roped them in to assist with the service. Three of them were dressed in the proper, if ill-fitting vestments of the clergy.

High above, the bell continued to toll for a few moments longer. Like the rest of the temple, it was a simple thing, and a far cry from the beautiful harmonies and melodies that Dusk recalled from his youth.

The pair slowly edged their way forward, nudging past ponies with the manners of a pony from Trottingham. Given their respective ranks, they both naturally, had a seat saved toward the front of the temple. Dusk’s eyes briefly met with Moonapple’s as he made his way forward, the old stallion nodded to him, briefly smiling.

As the two sat themselves down in their respective seats, Moonapple raised his front hooves into the air, signalling for silence. It actually wasn’t too noisy, although there were quite a few hushed conversations going on. The assembled crowd quickly fell silent as Moonapple began.

Turning around, Moonapple faced the alter and the large stained glass window that held Princess Luna’s image. Walking slowly, but with purpose, he stepped into the shaft of light that came through the window. Bowing deeply, to the point where the tip of his horn actually touched the floor, he uttered the phrase ‘Beatae Luna’. This action was quickly mimicked by his aides. He then turned around to face the congregation.

“Greetings, and may the night bless and protect you all,” he said, loudly, so as to be heard by all.

The service lasted the better part of two hours. While none of the ponies in attendance knew it, such religious worship had been something the princesses had tolerated for a few centuries. At first, it had been flattering in a way, but by the time of the Rebellion, both had grown tired of the pedestal their subjects placed them on. In another few decades, such worship of Celestia would begin to taper off, and eventually simply fade into obscurity.

Moonapple’s service was a perfect example of how high a pedestal the princesses sat on. It included prayers, hymns, offerings, sermons and all other sorts of odd ceremony. All of which was directed at Princess Luna. One might have thought that knowing that their deity had been imprisoned would be sufficient to cause a loss of faith. But in fact, this catastrophe had strengthened the faith of many ponies, on both sides. Whereas Equestria itself would soon distance itself from such religion for the most part, the thestral settlements would continue to maintain their own temples for their entire exile.

In fact, this continued into modern times, with the figure of Nightmare Moon being incorporated into the thestral orthodoxy as a sort of anti-Christ, reviled by all.

With the conclusion of the service, the assembled ponies slowly began to file out back into the mission. Many would be heading off to bed, whilst the guards would be again taking up their duty stations for the night. While Flintlock headed back to the small headquarters that had been set up to assign the shifts for the night, Dusk remained behind to talk to Moonapple.

The old stallion was slowly making his way up and down the aisle, closing the pew doors and picking up any books that had been left out. He also was careful to extinguish all the small candles that were lit on the alter and around the room to provide some light.

“That was a wonderful service, Father,” Dusk said as he walked up to him. “You brought back a lot of good memories.” Moonapple nodded, mumbling to himself a little.

“We all need faith, boy,” he replied gruffly. “Something to hold onto in these trying times. I expect you’ll be wanting nightly services starting tomorrow?” Dusk nodded.

“Just a short service, Father. Just something to keep everypony in good spirits.” Placing a hoof under his vestments, Moonapple withdrew a small hipflask and passed it to Dusk in his magic.

“If that is all you want, that should do the trick,” he said sourly. Dusk was taken aback at the idea that Moonapple had had that on him the entire service. Clergymen weren’t supposed to drink after all. Chuckling to himself, Moonapple put out the last set of candles and left Dusk to his thoughts.

He was certainly a strange stallion. He was certainly a far cry from the one Dusk remembered from his days as a young colt. That old minister had been a paragon of morality, always keeping the young thestral on the straight and narrow. But this old coot, he drank, and according to Flintlock could swear like a trooper. Like most things though, Dusk couldn’t afford to choose. He still gave a good service, and, to be fair, he did make a good point.

Chapter 4 - An Invitation

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The next morning, as reveille was being played, and the night watch were heading off to bed, the peace and quiet that had prevailed inside the Moonflower was shattered by a warning cry from one of the sentries. He had been alerted by one of his comrades below, and had passed it on to alert the senior officers.

“Sir!” the young unicorn called, catching Dusk’s attention.

“What is it?” Dusk bellow back from his position in the doorway of the bunkhouse. He had only recently risen himself, and was still feeling a little groggy.

“Visitors, sir!” the sentry replied. “It’s those ponies who came to meet us on the way in here.” Ah, that meant that Rare Diamond was paying call on them. Briefly retreating back inside the bunkhouse, Dusk hastily threw on his armour, horseshoes, and helmet. He then quickly headed back outside, being careful not to wake the sleeping Captain Flintlock, who had been in charge of the night watch, and had only recently fallen asleep.

Now looking far more presentable, Dusk quickly had one of the platoons on duty line themselves up in front of the gate. A decent show of force, just to remind this slippery customer who he was dealing with. In short order, Dusk, along with a line of fierce looking thestrals, all fully armed, arrayed themselves before the gate. Turning his gaze upward, and cupping his snout with a hoof, Dusk called up to the sentries in the gatehouse.

“Alright you two; open the gate!” he called up. One of the earth ponies waved a hoof to show he had heard him.

The large, solid doors that let ponies and large vehicles in and out of the Moonflower were actually quite complex in design. Fashioned in a way similar to loch gates on old canals, the heavy doors could only be opened with ease via the use of two large paddles inside the gatehouse, which sat above the entrance and linked to the catwalk and battlements that ran around the mission’s walls. The paddles were part of a mechanism of wheels and cogs, which turned the minor movements of the paddles into sufficient force to move the heavy doors.

The two earth ponies, whose strength made them well suited for the role, heaved away. Slowly but surely, the doors opened, just wide enough for the three ponies that were waiting patiently outside to enter.

The governor and his two aides trotted into the mission. Whilst his two aides seemed a little unsettled by the small collection of military might before them, the governor himself remained calm and impassive. It was this apparent air of calm that unsettled Dusk the most. He would have been happy even if the stallion complained at the overt display. Instead, the earth pony greeted him as an old friend.

“Colonel Star Dusk, so good to see you again. I see you’ve already settled yourself into this old place,” he said, smiling disarmingly.

“I think you’d agree it’s an excellent place to hole up for a while,” Dusk replied. “As you can see, we have excellent security, and are ready to repel any attacking force.” Once again, the governor smiled and nodded his head. Beyond that, Dusk could not read him.

“I hate to suddenly come and bother you like this, I’m sure you are quite busy at present, but I was wondering if you would like to come to dinner this evening at my house?” Dusk raised an eyebrow.

“Dinner?” he replied.

“Please, sir,” Diamond replied. “I am nothing, if not a good host to my guests. Plus, my wife would very much like to meet you as well.”

Were it any other pony, hay, were it even Celestia herself, Dusk would have been far less suspicious. However, no matter what he did, he couldn’t quite shake the feeling of suspicion he felt around the earth pony. He was far too calm and collected. It was as if he knew what Dusk was going to do, before he himself did. Everything about him left the guardsman feeling uneasy. Still, regardless of his concerns, there was no practical reason to turn down the offer. And who knows, the stallion might prove useful at some point. Plus, it was something of a necessity to keep up good relations with the people of San Maretonio.

“Very well then,” Dusk replied at length. “I shall call on you at just after five. Will that be acceptable?” The governor seemed to grow even more relaxed.

“Of course, of course,” he replied, that unnatural smile still on his lips. “Though I would hope you would drop the suit of armour.” Dusk nodded. He had one or two dress uniforms in his trunk that would be suitable. “And of course, do bring your second-in-command with you as well; he seems like an amicable fellow.” It was here Dusk had to check the governor’s plans.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he replied. “Captain Flintlock was in charge of the night watch, and he’s catching up on his rest. Unless you want a grouchy soldier at your table?” The governor laughed. Once again, it sounded fake and forced.

“No, no, that is quite alright, my friend. Very well then, I shall see you in a few hours.” And with that, he turned to leave, his two aides following. Dusk again signalled for the gate to be opened. He had hoped that the notion of being locked in would unsettle the visitors, but again, the governor seemed immune.

Leaving the sentries to go about their duties, Dusk returned to the bunkhouse he had left not so long ago, and began to search. After going through the hoof locker and a few of his own cases, he was able to find one of his old uniforms. These were typically for special occasions and formal events. In the Lunar Guard, the standard officer’s dress uniform was a deep blue tunic, similar to Luna’s coat, with a small row of silver, star shaped, buttons running along the chest. On the shoulders, there were gold epaulettes; these were complemented by the gold insignia sewn onto the arm, which signified Dusk’s rank of colonel. Finally, on the left side of the chest was the small ribbon that signified Dusk’s various decorations. All in all, he looked quite the respectable officer.

He decided that he would go alone; after all, it was less than a mile from the mission to the town, with the governor’s house at the far end. He was also doubly glad that Flintlock was unable to attend. As gifted as the stallion was in matters of soldiering, when it came to social niceties, he had an alarming tendency to misstep, and occasionally cause fights.

To save time and effort, Dusk elected to fly over the wall, instead of bothering the two guards that had been posted in the gatehouse. While the Moonflower was well defended against ground based attacks, it was still quite vulnerable to a strike from the air. The large open courtyards inside the mission could quite easily become a killing floor, if enough enemy pegasi were able to gain superiority. That was the reason Dusk had constant patrols over and around the mission. If those Bright Lights were going to take this place, then by Luna, they would have to shed a lot of blood for it.

Leaving one of his staff in charge, with explicit orders to immediately go and wake Flintlock if anything untoward happened, Dusk took to the skies. With a running start he leapt into the air and began to flap his bat like wings which thestrals are known for. Such a short take off proved quite taxing for the ageing colonel. Thestral wings were designed to glide and perform well at high speed. Ideally, a guardsman would jump into the abyss from a vantage point, then gain speed, rather than attempt to take off from the ground.

Luckily, for Dusk, he didn’t need to keep it up for long. Pounding his wings and straining himself somewhat, he just about managed to clear the top of the wall. He then relaxed, allowing his outstretched wings to glide for a few moments longer. He landed in the odd no pony’s land between the walls of the mission and the inner most point of the civilian settlement. Much to his annoyance, the landing on the hard, sandy ground kicked up a fair amount of dust onto his dress uniform. He quickly brushed off what he could and hoped that he wouldn’t look too unkempt.

The next part of his route, of course, took him through the shanty town the civilians had set up for themselves. It was pleasant enough, with the charm of a Saddle Arabian souk. It was crowded and busy everywhere he went. But everypony seemed happy, foals were playing, darting in and out of the wagons, carts and tents that dotted the landscape. The adults meanwhile, were equally relaxed. With supplies now far more readily available, many were taking the opportunity to enjoy themselves, talking to neighbours, playing card games and trading what they had amongst themselves. All in all, Dusk decided that the morale situation that had previously weighed heavily on his mind, was something that could now be put on the back burner.

After around ten minutes of weaving and edging his way through the crowded settlement, Dusk eventually found himself on the outer line of the Moonflower’s defences. Here, as per instructions, the guards had dug themselves foxholes; small fortifications that would give them a fighting chance in an attack and allow them to hold the line for longer. Dusk had originally intended to create a small trench network, but Flintlock had advised against it. If one part of a trench was breached, then the whole thing was compromised. Whereas a group of foxholes would have to be taken one at a time. Plus, as they were individual positions, they didn’t have to form a line and could be dotted all over the landscape. Furthermore, as a fall back option, the foxholes could be covered and hidden; then when the enemy advanced, the unicorns inside could spring up and cut them to ribbons before they knew what was happening. As he continued, Dusk came upon one of these foxholes, with a pair of unicorns standing watch. Upon seeing Dusk, they quickly saluted; a comical show considering only their heads were above ground.

“All quiet I take it?” Dusk asked as he walked up.

“Yes, sir,” one of the unicorns answered confidently. “Nothing out there but desert. And if anypony tries to sneak up on us, we’ll spot ‘em five miles out.” Dusk smiled at the stallion’s slightly cocky attitude.

“Glad to hear it,” Dusk replied. Just then, an idea struck him. “Tell you what; I’m heading out now to meet with Rare Diamond, San Maretonio’s governor. It’ll probably drop dark by the time I return. On my way back, I’ll try to sneak past the line. There’s ten bits in it for you if you can make me.” The two unicorns grinned at each other before replying.

“I hate to take money from a senior officer, sir. But if you insist.” Dusk laughed at the jab and headed on his way. He liked to think he had a good connection with his subordinates; he certainly didn’t want to be seen as unapproachable or aloof. With that, he waved goodbye to the pair and headed off for San Maretonio.

You might expect that, having trekked for the better part of two months through the desert, Dusk would be more than sick of the sight of it. After all, Appleloosa Territory was hardly well known for its natural beauty. Compared to say the stunning vistas of Neighagra Falls or perhaps the glittering lights of Manehatten, the region had little to offer. For mile after mile, there was nothing but sand, dirt and endless cacti.

Still, Dusk had found the place steadily growing on him. Like the icy Frozen North, the desert appeared barren and lifeless, but it was still a thriving ecosystem. Its beauty was more subtle. But in its own way, this seemingly hostile desert could look truly beautiful. In that way, it was a lot like Princess Luna. Most ponies were in awe of Celestia’s obvious beauty and hundreds over the years had asked for her hoof and fought each other for her favour. Luna in contrast, had a more subtle beauty that was so often eclipsed by her elder sister. Perhaps that was why Dusk found himself enjoying the walk between his temporary home and the small settlement of San Maretonio. Perhaps he equated this desert with his fallen princess.

The route was not particularly long, nor was it overly treacherous. The Moonflower and San Maretonio were connected by a small, winding dirt path. Prior to the mission being abandoned when war broke out, the trail would regularly be used by ponies going to and fro. The mission depended on the town for its supplies, since it was one of the few trading settlements in the region.

Cresting over a small hill, Dusk once again found himself outside the town, which at this time of day was fairly busy. Shops were open for business, as was the local watering hole, and ponies were contentedly going about their own affairs. Few if any paid much attention to Dusk as he walked up the main street. Then again, it had been only the day before that the town had been all but overrun with civilians from his band looking for supplies themselves. It stood to reason that most would no longer be fazed by the sight of a thestral.

It was a straight shot to Governor’s House. The town, being one of the so-called ‘boom towns’ of the region, was of a very basic design. The various shops and houses were arranged in two straight rows facing each other, creating one large, open main street. At the end of each was either the sheriff’s office or Governor’s House. As it was one of the few settlements in the territory (and its population of just under five hundred being the largest) it was the logical place to set up government offices.

Dusk steadily walked up the street, cutting in from the right hand side, just behind the sheriff’s office. For the most part, the place had a pleasant rustic charm to it; all the buildings were of a fairly simple construction but were nonetheless serviceable. Governor’s House however, was quite a different story. It was a large, almost ridiculously so in comparison to its surroundings, timber framed mansion, with three stories if one counted the partially converted attic. The timber had at some point been painted white, though by this point it was beginning to chip and peel. Regardless, Dusk couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated.

Reaching the large double front doors, Dusk reached for the bell cord on his left, giving it two swift tugs. Somewhere inside, he heard the connecting bell ring. A moment later, the doors were opened by none other than Rare Diamond himself. The Canterlot bred stallion now wore a formal suit, complete with waistcoat and pocket watch. It was certainly a far cry from the more western attire he had previously worn like so many of the townsfolk.

“Colonel, glad you could make it!” he greeted warmly. Dusk did his best to smile and shook Diamond’s hoof. “Please come in, come in.” The governor backed away and ushered Dusk inside.

While it was not quite as opulent as Dusk had imagined, the interior of the mansion was still a major step up from his own humble quarters. The building boasted electric lights (a relatively new invention at the time requiring a number of large, magically charged crystals) and was lavishly decorated. Dusk quickly found himself seated on a more than comfortable sofa, while Diamond went to fetch his wife.

It had been a long time since he had been in such an opulent place. Sitting there, in what was actually his last halfway decent dress uniform, he couldn’t help but feel somewhat like the poor relation in his current surroundings. Still, Diamond seemed to be amicable enough, and was offering a hoof in friendship. For the time being, Dusk decided to put aside his previous misgivings and just enjoy his stay.

A few moments later, Diamond returned with a young mare in tow. Like her husband, she was dressed in finery and gave off the aura off high society. She was an earth pony like him, with a mane that was black as a raven’s wing. On looks alone, Dusk came to the conclusion that she probably originally came from Mexicolt. During the column’s long journey, beauty had been one of the many things sacrificed. Make up and mane products were not essential to survival, and so quickly ran out. Seeing this pretty young thing stirred a feeling in Dusk that he had almost forgotten.

“Colonel,” Diamond said as he held his wife by the foreleg. “Allow me to introduce my wife, Crystal Leaf. Crystal, this is Colonel Star Dusk of the Lunar Volunteer Army.” Dusk quickly got to his hooves as the governor spoke to be respectful. Doing his best to remember his proper manners, Dusk took the young mare’s hoof in his own and bowed as if to kiss it; the correct behaviour toward a married mare.

“Charmed,” Dusk replied, doing his best to smile suavely. An amicable silence held for a moment as Crystal Leaf smiled at Dusk, again causing forgotten feelings to bubble up. Rare Diamond quickly moved things along.

“Well, Colonel, if you would like to follow me.” He turned and began to head back toward the door he had just come through. Presumably this led to the dining room. “I’m sure you will enjoy this little soiree; my cook is the best there is in the entire territory.”

Following the couple, Dusk was led out of the sitting room, and out into the main hallway of the house. The finery persisted throughout the short journey. Everywhere was well lit and had the finest décor. Dusk even spotted a handful of portraits and other paintings that certainly couldn’t have come cheap.

Diamond led him past another couple of rooms, one of which appeared to be his offices, before finally leading them to a set of solid oak doors with beautiful stained glass set in them. Throwing these open revealed the dining room. A long wooden table complemented by lavishly upholstered, high backed chairs. At the far end of the room was a large fireplace, which had evidently been lit only recently, as the kindling was still catching. The table itself was quite long, obviously intended to entertain more than just a single guest; there were at least a baker’s dozen worth of chairs. In this case though, the table was set for three. One at the head of the table, and one either side.

“Make yourself comfortable, Colonel,” Diamond said, gesturing to the nearest chair. “The starter should be with us shortly.” Dusk settled himself down in the chair, with Crystal Leaf sitting opposite him, and Diamond himself at the head of the table. Reaching onto the table, Diamond rang a small silver bell. A moment later, the doors on either side of the large fireplace opened, and the servants began to lay out the first course.

The first course of the evening was a soup starter, something that took Dusk back to his foalhood. It was vegetable soup; a piping hot broth with fresh sliced vegetables floating here and there. With a pinch of salt and pepper, it was quite a tasty dish. San Maretonio may have been out on the frontier, but being such a large settlement, fresh produce was easier to find than in other, more isolated settlements. The civilians in his charge were more than grateful for this fact, and had probably emptied half of the town’s stocks in their sudden rush to purchase supplies.

Diamond dismissed the help with a wave of a hoof and quickly engaged Dusk in idle conversation.

“So Colonel, out of curiosity, where were you serving prior to your current situation?” he enquired. “Somehow I imagine you didn’t elect to take on your current role.” Crystal looked up from her own meal to hear the thestral answer. Taking a moment to clear his throat, Dusk answered.

“Well, I volunteered about a month after the war broke out,” he began. “It was just after Colt’s Run. Most of the folks I knew figured we didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Tartarus before that. But when those Bright Lights all turned tail and ran, it was one hay of a boost for the Lunar cause. So, I left my home and joined up with the Appleoosian Rangers as a lieutenant.” At this point Diamond cut him off.

“Ah, one of those ‘bushwhacker’ outfits if I’m not mistaken. Famous for doing raids behind the lines.” Dusk bit his tongue for a moment; he didn’t care for the connotations of ‘bushwhacker’.

“Not as much as you might think. Most of our time was spent on the front lines. Although we did perform some raiding operations. When I was promoted to captain, I was actually running with General Nighthorse; and I was involved in the capture of old Goldwing.” Goldwing was the commander of the Solar Guard for the early part of the war. His capture was a massive propaganda coup for the rebels.

“Oh, now there’s a story I’d like to hear,” Crystal commented, interrupting the two stallions. Dusk smiled; this was a story he did not mind telling, Luna knew he’d gone through some experiences he never wanted to think about again, but this one made for a good tale.

“Yes, Colonel,” Diamond added. “I heard a few bits and pieces, but it would be interesting to hear the story from your own side.” Taking a moment to enjoy the attention, Dusk began.

“Well, let me think. I’d say it was about six months after Shy-yolk. Luna, what a mess that was; I don’t think I’d ever been as scared as I was on that day. Anyway, for whatever reason, the Bright Lights didn’t press home their advantage after they drove us off from around Baltimare. That gave us a load of time to rest, regroup, and lick our wounds. When we realised that they were planning to simply wait us out, Nighthorse ordered us on the offensive.

“We were outnumbered of course, as we so often were, but we knew a lot of the Bright Lights were raw recruits and wouldn’t stand their ground if we could spook them. The plan was to repeatedly hit the enemy positions and cause confusion. That way when Shooting Star’s brigade showed up, we could push them back. Nighthorse decided we needed to damage their morale. Well, what better way to do that than to capture the leadership. I and two other captains, along with Nighthorse himself, were to attack the enemy camp and grab as many officers as we could. We didn’t think we’d actually find our way to Goldwing’s tent.”

By the time Dusk was wrapping up his story, which was actually very close to the actual events, rather than being boastful, the main course had arrived. As the servants laid out a vegetable pie with a salad garnish, he continued.

“And so, we’re all running as fast as we can, flapping our wings to try and speed up, with Bright Lights on our tail. Nighthorse still had Goldwing, still unconscious, on his back, and was making for the lines. Anyway, eventually he comes to, realising there’s a bag over his head and that he can’t move his legs. So he calls out ‘Where am I? What’s going on?’, and Nighthorse turns back to him and asks him ‘Have you heard of General Nighthorse, sir?’. And Goldwing replies ‘Have you caught him?’. So we all start laughing and Nighthorse just says ‘I am Nighthorse!’. Poor guy froze. We got him back to the camp and sent a party under a white flag to tell the Bright Lights we had their CO. Damn were they mad.” Dusk began to laugh at the memory. Diamond and Crystal both joined in, though with a more restrained air.

“Really, Colonel,” Diamond said, taking a moment to dab his eyes. “You make the war sound as if it were all some colthood adventure.”

“It had its moments I think, sir. But I’d rather not have to go through it all again. Hay, I’d rather not have been forced down that road in the first place.” Crystal Leaf set her utensils down a moment.

“You were fighting for what you believe in, Colonel. You still are. As much as I hate to say it, from what I understand, your only option seemed to be war after the thestral ministers were expelled from the court.” Her judgement took Dusk by surprise, even more so when she flashed him an endearing smile from across the table.

“Alright, I think that’s enough talk of such matters for now,” Diamond declared. “I must confess that I’m more interested in what you are doing now. It must be quite a difficult task moving all of those ponies over such a distance. And with the…” He made a motion with his hoof. “Unpleasantness that has suddenly sprung up. What exactly are you planning, Colonel?”

Now, Dusk put himself on his guard. It was a probing question, quite different from the idle stories that had been the subject of conversation for most of the evening. Everypony of course knew that the thestrals that could, were making their break for the Badlands. But Dusk was under strict orders to give no more information than that. If the Royal Guard found out where they were hiding, it was quite possible they would continue their assault. The caves were hidden well, but they would not survive a protracted siege. Setting his glass of wine down, Dusk worded his reply carefully.

“Our orders are to head for the border, out towards the Badlands. And from there we will go where we can.” More of an omission than a lie, Dusk hoped it would close down Diamond’s line of questioning. All of a sudden the unease he had felt before around the governor returned.

Luckily, Rare Diamond seemed satisfied with the response, at least, enough not to press Dusk further. The remainder of the meal went off without any incident. Mind you, by the time desert came around it was quite clear to the thestral that Crystal Leaf was doing everything within her power to flirt with him, though whether or not Diamond noticed he did not know. In any case, he decided, he certainly wouldn’t mind seeing her again. He gave Diamond an open invitation for the pair to visit the Moonflower as his guests at some point in the next few days. While he could not match their price tag, he could nonetheless offer them a meal by way of thanks.

Eventually, after a cup or two of after dinner coffee, Dusk took his leave. Thanking the governor again for his kind hospitality, Dusk departed and began to head back the way he had come. It was getting on for early evening. He had arrived at around a quarter to five; it was now almost ten o’clock. The last dregs of the day were clinging on to the western horizon, and in the east, the stars were beginning to appear.

As he headed back, he contemplated the evening’s events. He had hoped the meeting would give him a better read on his erstwhile host. Yet he still felt uneasy. There didn’t seem to be any real danger, in fact, Rare Diamond had gone out of his way to be as helpful as he could to Dusk and his stallions. But that last question…

On the surface, it was innocent enough, but the way he had eased it into idle conversation. Dusk had felt as if he were being played. Still, he knew he had given nothing away; no details and no names. Try as he might, he could neither force himself to drop his concerns, nor could he prove that any sinister scheme was at work.

In any case though, Dusk didn’t feel overly threatened. He had a hundred guardsmen to call on, and knew that there was no enemy for miles around. And in another few days, they would be safely on their way to their new home. All he had to do was hold his nerve.

Chapter 5 - First Blood

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Much to Dusk’s happiness and glee, as he carefully made his way back to camp, he saw a small red flare shoot upwards, lighting up the surrounding scene. The guards were trained to do this, only if they believed there was a possible intruder out there somewhere. Evidently, despite his care, he had been noticed by his men. Quite quickly, a challenge was shouted to him from the lines. After giving the appropriate counter-sign, two thestrals guards came out to meet him. He quickly recognised the pair as the two that he had passed in their foxhole on his way out.

“I reckon you owe us ten bits, sir,” the armoured stallion said, grinning a little. Dusk returned his smile.

“I must be losing my touch, sergeant. Come see me when your watch ends and I’ll pay up.” Privately, Dusk considered adding a little something to the stallion’s winnings. Perhaps some extra rations or a better position. He liked to give the ponies under his command something to aim for, with a tangible reward. Not just the ‘rewarding’ feeling of a job well done.

Dusk headed back the way he had come, threading his way through the civilian shanty town and eventually taking wing briefly to fly back over the wall. Landing in the main courtyard, he found all to be quiet. Since their arrival, everypony had begun to settle down, no longer too concerned about looking over their shoulder for pursuing Bright Lights. Around a dozen or so off-duty guards were gathered around a campfire. A couple had managed to get their hooves on some instruments, a violin, a guitar and a banjo. It was enough for a little sing song; just like the old days. As Dusk passed by, the little group began to sing.

Twas midnight when we built our fires,
We marched at half past three.
We know not when our march will end,
Nor care we follow Glee.
The moonlight gleams on many a thes’ral,
An’ many a well tried blade.
This handful marching on the left,
This line is our brigade.

Our line is short because its ranks,
So lavishly have bled.
Across the many countless plains,
Where battle we have led.
There are Vanhoovers on the right,
Their ranks are thinning too.
Now in one company they say,
They now can count but two.

There’s not much talking down the lines,
Nor shouting amidst the gloom.
For when the night is clearest,
Then we’re thinking most of home.

Dusk smiled, remembering the old tune from his own days on the lines. Dear Luna, without songs and music, the war would have been near intolerable! He was glad to see them all relaxed though. Even soldiers need some respite in conditions like these.

Heading back to his office a short ways from the bunkhouse, he found Flintlock outside, waiting for him. The thestral had been looking after the Moonflower in his absence, apparently doing a very good job of it.

“Back before midnight,” the guardsman offered as Dusk trotted up. “And apparently still sober. I’m impressed.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dusk returned idly. “At least I didn’t start a fight or hit on anything with a pulse.” Flintlock barked a short laugh.

“Do you really think so little of me, Star? Anyway, how was it? Learn anything from our friend in town?” Becoming more serious, Dusk shook his head.

“No, not really. Honestly, I think it may just be a wild goose chase. Maybe he’s just naturally shifty. He did ask one probing question though.”

“What?” Flintlock asked.

“He asked where, exactly, we were going.” Flintlock grimaced.

“Somehow I doubt he wants to know so he can send a house warming gift. What did you tell him?”

“I just deflected and told him about the Badlands, nothing more.”

“Good, good,” Flintlock seemed to relax a moment. It was a strange situation. It was almost as if Dusk was reporting to his subordinate.

“Honestly, I don’t think he is a risk. We know there’s nopony for miles; it doesn’t seem likely that he's talking to anypony. We’re only here for a few more days anyway, we’ll just draw in our horns and rest, I think.” The pair of thestrals began to walk back toward the bunkhouse, passing a few guards, here and there, along the way.

“I’d still like to keep up those patrols nonetheless, Star,” Flintlock continued. Dusk nodded.

“Makes sense. It’ll keep everypony busy. The last thing we need is for stallions to start going stir crazy in here.” It was a simple fact that when soldiers were not required to fight, they would vent their frustrations elsewhere, including on each other. Reaching the bunkhouse, Dusk prepared to head off for a brief rest.

“Alright, Flint. Send out patrols at regular intervals, ten mile radius, same as before. I’m going to have a quick rest; too much food in one sitting.” The stallion raised a hoof to cover his mouth as he yawned. “I’ll be up at two, tomorrow morning.” And with that, the two officers parted ways again.

For the next few days, the inhabitants of the Moonflower settled into a comfortable routine. The civilians, now fully rested up, were now more than able to help out wherever needed. Many even volunteered their services to some of the local farmers in exchange for a little coin. The shanty town now looked less like a slum and more like a modest settlement. The hastily constructed, ramshackle buildings had been replaced with more sturdy looking structures and the whole thing was now far better organised, rather than a maze of poor hovels. For Dusk, Flintlock, and the many guards that also called the mission their temporary home, life had also improved. As with the civilian settlement, everything had been fixed up and brought to a more comfortable level. The general staff even now had their own rudimentary administration system up and running to ensure all guards were properly paid and equipped.

Each day, a few thestrals, selected via a rota, would head off on a reconnaissance patrol. One was performed at first light, one at midday, and one at sundown, plus a longer night time patrol that doubled as a training exercise. This kept Flintlock quite busy, regularly pushing the stallions under his command to near their limit. As a result, their ability as a fighting force improved greatly, and it kept everypony busy, avoiding troublesome incidents.

That’s not to say that there weren’t any incidents. A couple of guards were put in the stockades, so to speak; mainly for minor offences, often caused by too much salt. And of course, every now and again, there would be a bit of infighting amongst the civilians. But given their current situation, these were often resolved quickly.

And of course, there was Father Moonapple, the wizened old stallion continued to, without fail, perform nightly services from the Lunar temple. Some of the guards, who in their previous lives had been repair ponies, had even managed to fix the ancient organ, allowing for hymns to be properly accompanied. It kept morale up and the faithful happy. And, Dusk privately thought, it would please the imprisoned princess as well, knowing that he had not abandoned the old ways as so many had.

The thestral colonel then was left with very little to do with his time. On occasion, he led some of the recon patrols out and back to keep his senses sharp. Most of his time though was spent behind his desk in his office. In another couple of days, it would be time to move on and cross over into the Badlands. That would mean a whole other headache; taking everything down, stowing everything away, and getting ready to move out. Despite the short time they had been here, they were all quite well settled. Indeed, Dusk had grown quite accustomed to the earth and clay walls of the Moonflower, and attending nightly services at the temple with everypony else. He just hoped his final home would be as much to his, and everypony else’s liking.

Later that night, the last patrol was completing its sweep of the area around the Moonflower and San Maretonio. The flight of four thestrals was led by Swift Sentry, the young, aspiring officer that Dusk had been forced to endure on their journey to their temporary homestead. The young stallion was indeed, somewhat headstrong and perhaps a little overconfident. However, with training, and perhaps just a little bit of angry shouting from Flintlock, he had become a more refined young officer. Still, his comparative lack of experience was a hindrance at times, hence why he was so regularly selected to lead these patrols.

Of the three other thestrals that accompanied him, two were veterans of the war, and one was a youngster who had volunteered to undergo Flintlock’s crash course training scheme. Whilst they might sound like a rag tag band of vagabonds, the four ponies were nonetheless skilled in their occupation. Which, as it turned out, was a lucky stroke for all concerned.

“Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” One of the flyers called out, hailing Sentry. The young buck turned his head to face his counterpart.

“What is it, Comet?” he asked over the wind, which was blowing quite badly at the time; they had been warned that there was a possible sandstorm on the way. With no real weather control this far out, systems tended to form on their own, and the Lunar loyalists didn’t have the resources to do much about it. Responding to Sentry’s question, the private pointed off into the distance.

“I can see something over that way, sir. It looks like a light or something.” Sentry followed the youngster’s outstretched hoof. Squinting through the gloom and using his superior eyes, which were suited for seeing in near total darkness, Sentry searched for the light.

He was just about to give up and tell his subordinate it was just his mind playing tricks, when he spotted it. Just over the crest of a hill to their north, there was indeed a glow of some sort; yellowish in colour and possibly from a fire. Fire of course meant ponies, and in their current situation, ponies potentially spelled trouble. His orders were quite clear, any unusual activity was to be investigated and a report delivered upon their return to the Moonflower.

“I see it too, Comet,” Sentry replied. He then raised his voice to address the other two members of the patrol. “Alright, everypony. Comet has spotted something just to the north. We’re going to extend our route a little to investigate. Keep close together and stay high; we don’t want to risk getting spotted.” With that, Sentry banked to port and began to head north, the three ponies following him quickly mimicked his action. The extended route meant they would be late getting back. He just hoped they wouldn’t take too long. If a patrol was overdue by more than half an hour, it was standard procedure to send out a second patrol to search for them.

The four thestrals sped over the darkened landscape toward the faint light. As they drew nearer, Sentry’s suspicions began to grow. They were miles away from the town, and there were no farms this far out. They could be shepherds he reasoned, using the fire to keep warm, and predators away. But why would they be this far out? The light soon transformed from a mere glow to what was clearly a campfire, and a big one to boot. To be safe, Sentry signalled his compatriots to increase their height.

Finally, after about ten minutes flying, they reached the source of the light. What they saw made Sentry’s heart jump into his mouth. Below them, standing around the fire, with a couple of supply wagons nearby, were at least twenty Royal Guards. They wore the grossly ostentatious gold armour of the traitorous Solar Guard, with blue plumes on the helmets. The white pegasi were huddled around the fire for warmth, or eating near the wagons.

As Sentry did his best to calm down, he quickly, and quietly, ordered Comet to begin making observations. Carefully reaching into a small pocket on his armour, Comet took out a notebook and quill. Then Sentry, backed up by the other two flyers, began to dictate to Comet everything they thought of note about their enemy below. How many there were, any regimental markings, supplies, weapons; anything that could prove useful. Comet then dutifully wrote everything down. This would be passed on to the senior officers when they got back.

While what he had found was indeed serious, after taking a moment to think, Sentry realised the situation wasn’t yet that dire. The Bright Lights appeared to be in no hurry, nor had they come in strength. Like himself, they were probably just a small reconnaissance patrol sent out to try and track them down. With the knowledge they now had, it was quite possible that tomorrow, they could continue the observation and eventually ambush them while the numbers were in their favour.

As Comet finished making his notes, Sentry prepared to turn south-west again and head for home. Just before he did so though, something caught his eye. In his peripheral vision, he could have sworn he saw a flash of gold. Turning, he saw it appear briefly again. He was just about to tell the others something was amiss when all of a sudden they appeared. Out of the darkness, apparently flying using the light of the fire below, four pegasi, clad in golden armour emerged. At almost the same moment, each side recognised the other, and almost inadvertently colliding in mid-air. In the event, the Lunar flyers recovered first, coming to the realisation just as the stunned solar flyers passed beneath them.

“Contact!” shouted Sentry. “Break, break, break!” With that, both sides scattered, and the fight began.

Whilst the tactics and conduct of ground forces has changed greatly over the course of history, aerial combat has remained largely unchanged for many decades. At one time, it solely consisted of an odd sort of mid-air boxing match, with two pegasi attempting to physically knock each other out of the sky. However, when Equestria first went to war against what was then, the rising Griffon Empire, a change of tactics was called for.

In contrast to the rather brutish methods of the pegasi, the griffin flyers relied upon their claws and beaks to inflict damage to their opponents. They would single out a lone pegasus and brutally slash at him until he could no longer fly. Unable to retaliate using their own methods, the Royal Guard sought to mimic the griffon methods.

The result was the creation of a new fighting style. Small, sharp blades were incorporated into the guard’s armour. Placed along the leading edges of their wings, this allowed Equestria’s flyers to mimic the tactics of their foe. Instead of mindlessly ramming into each other, they now slashed and cut with their wings. It also resulted in the intimidating sound these pegasi can make when unfurling their wings quickly, sounding much like a sword being drawn. Combat then, quickly changed. Death now could, quite literally, come in a thousand cuts, as flyers dropped from the sky due to blood loss. This was the brutal reality Sentry and his squad now faced.

As soon as the fight began, everypony scattered, heading off in a different direction in an attempt to confuse their enemy. In the darkness of the night sky, the thestrals had the advantage, being able to see further and clearer than their opponents. Their opponents however, had numbers on their side; the shouting from above had alerted the resting pegasi, and they were now scrambling to get into the air.

Sentry knew that it would be idiotic to stand and fight. But if they merely retreated, there was a high probability that somepony would be able to track them. That would mean the discovery of the Moonflower, and the defenceless civilians. There was no doubt in his mind that these ‘guardsmen’ would make no distinction between soldiers and regular ponies; to them they were all fair game. So, his only option was a rear-guard action; if he and his squad could hold off and find an opening, they could eventually slip away into the shelter of the night.

As he circled, he again saw a flash of gold, off to the left. Turning sharply, he found himself on the tail of a pegasus, who had evidently gotten a bit disorientated due to the lack of light and discernible horizon. At any other time, the young thestral would consider his actions cowardly and dishonourable. But this was combat at its most brutal; if you stopped to preserve your honour, you had a tendency to end up dead.

Sweeping down, gaining speed as he went, Sentry passed just over the pegasus. As he did so, he slashed hard with his left wing. The blade on the tip cut cleanly and shallowly along his opponent’s spine. The pegasus howled in agony at the sudden attack and rolled over in a reflex to protect himself. Unfortunately, this exposed his underside to Sentry’s attacks; his second strike was not as slight. Gripping his forelegs to the large gash across his gut, the young pegasus, perhaps a little younger than Sentry himself, dropped away into the darkness. Sentry was glad the wind and the sounds of battle masked the dull thud as the injured stallion hit the ground below.

There was little time to reflect on his actions however. Seconds later, Sentry found the situation reversed as a pegasus came charging at him from below. The armoured stallion swiped at Sentry, missing by perhaps a hair’s breadth. Using his opponents speed against him, Sentry rolled and dived for the ground, the pegasus quickly overshooting. Taking the opportunity, Sentry vanished into the relative darkness of the night. Already his heart was beating like a drum; he’d been in this situation before, sure. But the odds were so heavily stacked against him, he couldn’t help but doubt the possibility of his own survival. Turning back towards the fight, and what flyers refer to as ‘the bowl’, Sentry again began to search for targets.

As his commanding officer twisted and turned through the night and slashed at his enemies as they came, Comet was all but bolting in fright. Unlike Sentry, he did not have his experience, being only a recruit hurriedly trained by Flintlock. He knew the basics of aerial combat, of course. However, as is so often the case, theory and reality are two very different animals. Everything around him was a blur; flashes of gold, and occasionally purple shot across his vision. As soon as he tried to follow one, they pulled some seemingly impossible move and he lost them. He couldn’t find any of his fellows and consequently felt quite alone in the brutal dogfight. Consciously looking behind him, Comet feared that any moment, he might see some veteran Bright Light come sweeping down to kill him. Unbeknownst to him though, many of the pegasi he faced were actually recruits, with limited experience.

Angling himself higher, Comet climbed in an effort to get a better vantage point. One of the many reminders that rang in his head was Flintlock’s advice on attacking airborne enemies; approach from above and behind, coming out of the moon if possible. So he climbed higher, heading toward the vague comfort of the glittering stars.

Levelling off, he began to circle, examining the battle below. Squinting, he briefly spotted Sentry as he came up from his dive. The two spotted each other and Sentry quickly pitched up to join his frightened comrade. As he did so, the young officer had to jink hard to avoid two unfortunate Solar guards. The pair had evidently collided in mid-air, and in a cruel twist of fate, they had become locked together by their armour. Unable to create enough lift for both of them, they were now spiralling down towards the ground. Sentry hardly blinked; he had seen such a sight many times.

Beating his leathery, bat like wings, Sentry drew up alongside Comet, close enough to communicate by voice, rather than the frantic gestures that were commonplace in the realm of such combat.

“You’re doing okay, Comet,” he called out reassuringly. “Just stick on my tail and you’ll be fine; we’re going to get out of this. We just need to make a hole."

“How the hay are we supposed to do that?” Comet shouted back. In response, Sentry gestured downward to the on-going battle.

“Look at it down there. It’s too dark for most of those idiots to see properly. Half of them are chasing their own tails. Trust me; it looks much worse than it is. If we can just find the rest of the guys, we can try and slip away, leave them to fight each other. Do you see what I’m saying?” Shakily, Comet nodded. “Alright, follow me then.” He then pitched over and dived back into the fray.

Comet quickly followed, his head almost constantly on a swivel. He still expected to be pounced on at any time. But as he followed the more experienced Mustangian through the maelstrom, he realised that very little was actually happening. There were so many pegasi in the air, all of whom could hardly see, that they were having trouble merely organising themselves. That didn’t even account for the relative inexperience of many.

Soon enough, Sentry was able to pick out a speck of purple and grey amidst the gold and white. The other two flyers, falling back on a simple trick, had dived for the deck and stayed there, using the ground itself as a means of camouflage. The four quickly met up, and after checking each other for injuries, agreed that it was probably a good idea to make themselves scarce. Keeping low, and holding in their laughter, they left perhaps twenty guards chasing each other’s tails amidst the darkness.

While they had evaded the sudden attack quite well, to be safe, Sentry took their patrol on a longer, less direct route back home. Sticking close to the ground, they carefully weaved their way through low lying clouds and other obstacles that would hopefully throw any would be pursuers.

Eventually, the dark shape of the old mission came into view. They were soon ‘buzzed’ by a pair of their own thestrals, who promptly challenged them. After being properly identified, they headed for the mission itself. Landing in the courtyard, all four of them let their wings drop to their sides; the extended flight time, plus the fight, had taken its toll on them all. Nonetheless, Sentry hurried to find Dusk to report what had happened; there was after all, a real chance that they were still in danger.

“You do realise what this means don’t you?” Dusk asked as he stood behind his desk in his office. Sentry had quickly found both Dusk and Flintlock near the temple. For the sake of privacy and to avoid spreading panic, they had returned to his office to hear Sentry’s report.

“Respectfully, sir, we knew they were following us in some way,” Sentry offered. Dusk sighed and put a hoof to the bridge of his snout.

“True, but they now know we are here. Even if you did manage to slip away, pegasi know how far they can fly. They must know that they won’t be far away from us. It would have been better if you had just monitored them, not gone in close and gotten yourselves compromised.” At this point, Flintlock spoke up.

“Well, at least we know there aren’t too many of them. You said there were no more than twenty or so, right, lieutenant?” Sentry nodded, glad that Flintlock wasn’t treating him quite so harshly.

“But how long before they call for reinforcements?” Dusk countered. “We’ll need to be on the move by tomorrow night if we want a chance of outrunning them.” It was here that, despite the lecture he had already received from his CO, that Sentry decided to offer an alternative solution.

“Sir, might I offer a…” Dusk quickly cut him off.

“No, you may not. You’ve put us in enough hot water as it is.” Luckily, Flintlock stepped in.

“Hey, hold on, Star,” he said, addressing the colonel in an informal manner than caught Sentry off guard. “We need to cover all the bases here. Let the colt speak. Go on, lieutenant.” Swallowing nervously, Sentry began.

“Well, sir, the way I see it, if the Bright Lights wanted to search an open region like this, they’d send out small teams to different areas, the same way we performed recon when we first got here. They’re probably pretty spread out, so communication will be quite difficult. Finding us was an amazing stroke of luck when you think about it.” He paused for a moment.

“Go on, kid,” Flintlock said encouragingly. Sentry straightened himself up and continued.

“Then, it stands to reason, sir, that there’ll be a delay in them getting a message out. If we were to attack them now, there’d be a decent chance that we could nip the whole problem in the bud. Their commanders would take time to realise they’d been knocked out. By the time they did, we’d be away.” Dusk thought for a moment.

“Alright, how do you suggest we proceed?” he asked. Fighting to hold back a grin, Sentry began to outline the plan.

Chapter 6 - Riding a Raid

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Knowing that time was not on their side, the thestrals of the Moonflower moved quickly after young Sentry had outlined his plan. After conferring with Flintlock, Dusk agreed that there were a sufficient number of stallions on the roster to mount a medium sized assault on the enemy. The Moonflower itself would have to be left lightly defended for a couple of hours, but it was agreed by all parties that this was a necessary sacrifice. And besides, unless the raid was a complete and utter disaster with heavy casualties, the returning thestrals would easily sure up the numbers. After all, at any one time, around half of the garrison was resting, leaving only a hundred guards to defend the area.

In the end, Flintlock settled on taking eighteen stallions on the attack, a little under a quarter of the Moonflower’s defence. He, as the most experienced officer, would lead the assault, while Sentry would act as second-in-command. They would all be divided into ‘flights’ of three giving them six flights in total. Each would operate independently of the others, but would be committed to the same end.

Sentry’s plan was simple in itself. Having just run into a group of thestrals not six hours ago, the enemy formation would most likely be preparing to move out. Since it was a common misconception that thestrals cannot fly, or even see clearly, in daylight, there was a decent chance they could catch the enemy unawares. Even if they were still at their bivouac, the attack would come at the time they would most likely be having breakfast. In any case, they would be less prepared than normal.

Working on the assumption that Sentry’s claim of three kills during his patrol; one by himself and two by one of the other guards, their numbers would be around even. The shock of the sudden attack, coupled with the ensuing confusion would hopefully provide them with an advantage.

The end goal was to either eliminate or capture the enemy guards where they were. Their wagons were to be searched for supplies and any intelligence. Survivors were to be taken as prisoners of war. However his opponents chose to see matters, Dusk was adamant that his thestrals would abide by the laws of war and accept surrender. As the sun began to broach the horizon and drown out the stars, the raiders began to assemble in the courtyard.

“Alright, everypony; listen up!” Flintlock began. “There are Bright Lights out there, searching for us. If we let them go free, they’ll report us to their princess and we’ll have the whole guard jump on us. As such, we are going to strike first!” At this point a cheer went up amongst the assembled thestrals, given the importance of this mission, Dusk had selected ponies that had had previous experience, Flintlock’s recruits would be left to guard the Moonflower.

“It’ll be nice to give those diamond dogs a little of what we’ve been taking!” one thestral called out. That made Flintlock smile. In spite of all they had been through, these guards were still eager to see action. Other guards quickly voiced their agreement. Eventually though, Flintlock had to bring them back to the matter at hand.

“Alright, alright, pipe down!” The assembled guards promptly fell silent. “This mission is going to be a long distance raiding mission. Nothing like that sightseeing trip to Manehatten mind you.” This got a chuckle out of the stallions that were familiar with that particular escapade. “We’re going to go in quick and with force. With any luck the enemy will still be on the ground, but any pegasi in the air is to take priority. Once we have them pinned, we’ll give them a chance, otherwise chalk this up as a search and destroy mission. Take out their wagons and supply train and we’re golden. Any questions? No? Alright, hop to it!”

Ten minutes later, the thestrals were all grouped into their formation and began to take off. Circling the Moonflower itself served as both a nice show for the civilians, and allowed everypony to stay close. Given his comparatively senior rank, and the fact that this was the young buck’s idea, Flintlock gave Sentry his own section; he’d come a fair way in the last week or so, plus he did have some wartime experience. The older thestral reckoned that if he could come through that ambush and claim one and a half kills, he would be up for this little outing.

As the last trio took to the air and took its place, Flintlock called down to Dusk, who was watching below with some of his staff officers.

“Raiding patrol ready to move out, sir!” Flintlock called down. Placing a hoof alongside his snout, Dusk replied.

“Carry out your orders, Captain. And may the night protect you.” He then saluted his fellow officer by touching the brim of his helmet. Flintlock briefly returned the gesture before quickly turning in the direction of the enemy, the other sections promptly followed.

Down below, Dusk watched more than half of his command, certainly the most experienced half, head off into the distance. He now had to defend the mission and the civilians camped around it with a little over a hundred ponies. It would certainly be an interesting couple of hours, that was for sure. Still, if this mission succeeded, he wouldn’t have to worry too much about future battles. The Bright Lights would be reeling from the sudden attack and they would have all the time in the world to slip away.

He still couldn’t help but feel slightly irritated however. Once again the supposed commander of this motley collection of guards, former soldiers and bushwhackers was left idle, with little to do but wait for his forces to return. Dusk wished it was him, rather than Flintlock, that was the one leading them. He knew what it would be like when they reached the enemy camp. After all, the Appleloosian Rangers had perfected long distance raiding into a fine art. It wasn’t just a matter of winning the battle. You had to balance the supplies needed with what everypony could be expected to carry. You needed experience in both aerial fighting and swordsmanship. You needed to be fast to outrun and evade the enemy. And you needed cunning and guile to overcome the vast odds that were stacked against you.

But no, here he was, stuck back in the relative safety of the mission. There would be no battle for him. No frightened neighing of ponies, no clashing of swords, not the maddening high of the charge. If Dusk was honest with himself, sometimes, he wished he’d stayed a lowly lieutenant.

Still, he had confidence in the ponies that had gone in his stead. The Bright Lights wouldn’t know what hit them and they could nip this whole problem in the bud, before the civilians picked up on the fact that something was wrong. Even now, if they got wind of the fact that there was an enemy force twenty miles away, they’d panic and riot.

“We’ll be alright,” Dusk said, to nopony in particular. “We’ll be alright.”

In the skies above, and about five miles out from the Moonflower, the raiders were settling in for their lengthy flight. Flintlock had them keep fairly tight in formation, but left sufficient room so that, if need be, each section could scatter without risking crashing into each other. It would be a long and difficult flight. A normal flight through the cool night skies, and this would be a breeze, but in the piercing daylight, it was a much more difficult proposition.

It was hot (it was the desert after all) but to fly in it was causing every thestral in the sky to sweat beyond belief. Then there was the brightness; the sky was a light blue, whilst the golden sand reflected the sun’s light, making the thestrals eyes, which were adapted for darkness, sting badly. That didn’t even begin to account for how conspicuous they looked. Purple and slate grey were not exactly camouflage colours at that moment.

To offset this final disadvantage, Flintlock decided to make use of the only natural camouflage available; the clouds.

“Everypony listen up,” he called to the whole group. “I don’t want to risk getting spotted before we hit our target, but in this light, that’s going to be a hay of a job. So we’re gonna use the clouds to mask our approach. There’s no weather patrol out here, so we can pick and choose. Follow me, and each section take its own line. But for Luna’s sake, keep in visual contact; I don’t want to lose anypony up here, and I don’t want anypony getting picked off. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” came the chorused reply. With that, Flintlock signalled for a turning climb to port and headed for a group of cumulonimbus'. Banking sharply, the group headed towards the large cloud mass. The best course of action would have been to hide inside the cloud itself. However, the magic within the thestrals, like pegasi, allowed them to touch clouds. Thus, flying into a cloud would just result in a very soft crash. So, instead, the flight of raiders would have to skirt around the clouds, dashing from cover to cover as they approached.

As luck would have it, there were quite a few stray clouds floating about, particularly as the temperature began to increase. Flintlock, Sentry and the others then, were able to move quite freely through the daylight sky, although they were always on the lookout for an enemy patrol. As the hour slowly ticked by, they grew nearer and nearer to their objective.

Roughly an hour later, the raiders had all but reached their destination. As a final rest stop before the attack, Flintlock had had some of the flight gather a few of the larger clouds together to form a platform. Here the group could rest up and prepare for the attack. Flintlock and Sentry took this opportunity to give a final briefing.

“Everypony, listen up!” Sentry began, doing his best to keep his voice quiet, lest they be heard by the enemy below. “Below us, are roughly twenty ponies of the new Royal Guard. We know that they are pursuing us, hunting us. We’re going to show them that’s not such a good idea.” The assembled thestrals chuckled amongst themselves. “The plan is simple enough. We’ll leave here and dive, hard and fast. Drop down as low as you can, those Bright Lights will be watching the skies, not the ground. We’ll keep as low as possible and sweep in from the east. Once we’ve made our charge, you can expect them to circle the wagons, just keep nipping at them, and eventually they’ll break. Don’t try and charge in; those spears will cut you to ribbons. Everypony pick and mark and stick with it. In the event that they surrender, we are to escort them back to base. But otherwise, this is kill or be killed, gentlecolts.” The younger officer turned to Flintlock, who had been quietly listening. He was beginning to think he might have misjudged the young buck.

“Alright, any questions?” Flintlock asked. There were none. “Okay, hop to it, and good hunting.” With that, the thestrals took to the skies and began their rapid dive for the earth.

Down below, the white pegasi of the Royal Guard were blissfully unaware of the maelstrom bearing down on them. The small detachment was one of twelve sent out into the desert to search for the fleeing traitors. Unlike their counterparts, they were well aware of what had happened to Princess Luna, although not quite everypony believed the story of the night princess’ dark transformation. In any case though, the remaining guards were all known to be mutinous.

For the majority of the war itself, the issue at hoof had been one of sovereignty; who ruled Equestria. But with the sudden appearance and subsequent banishment of this being calling itself Nightmare Moon, the whole nature of the war had taken a more severe tilt. From that moment on, anything even remotely connected to the moon or the night was seen to be imbued with dark magic, and possessed a malign intent. Hence the sudden hard line attitude against any Lunar supporters. Anypony who supported Luna supported the Nightmare, and sought to cover Equestria in night time eternal.

As a result, it had been determined by the newly restructured command of the Royal Guard, that all former guards, soldiers, or advocates of the Lunar cause were just as much a threat as the fallen princess herself. Whilst the thestrals saw the attacks on them as being motivated by hatred, in reality it was mostly fear. They were no longer guards, or even former enemies; they were creatures consumed by the Nightmare, hell-bent on Equestria’s destruction.

It was this fear that had brought the twenty-five strong detachment out to this Celestia forsaken sandbox. They were under orders to push as far as they could toward the Badlands, and then turn around to cut off any fleeing thestrals. If they made it to the Badlands, they might very well rebuild, and one day return, possibly even freeing their dark ruler. Still, at least they had dropped lucky with their new contact. Now they had an opportunity to gather some valuable intelligence on their foes, while the rest of the Royal Guard began to move in.

That was not to say that any of them liked what they were doing. Even using their wings, it was a long hard slog out into the blazing hot desert. Most would rather just get back to their lives; there were enough problems at home without half of the guard gallivanting around looking for old enemies. Still, those were their orders. More importantly, they knew they were close. The night before, the final patrol of the day had just been coming back in, when they had literally run right into a marauding group of thestrals. The corrupted demons had hacked and slashed their way through the small unit before disappearing into the darkness once more. They’d lost two flyers, and two more were in bad shape.

One thing they could be thankful for though was the noon day sun, the light and heat would keep any thestral at bay for the time being. Only when the moon rose and the temperature plummeted, something the guards had not anticipated when they set off, were they at risk. As such, none of them could have predicted what happened next.

The first thing any of the resting guards noticed, was the sudden quietness. Even out in the desert, there was life, and most of the time, you could hear birdsong. Now though, even the wind had dropped. Quite soon, a sense of unease began to spread amongst the gathered pegasi, and they began to scan the skies uncertainly. Even their commanding officer, a young corporal, left the small communications hut to see what had suddenly gotten his guards spooked.

The only warning they had was the dust. Out away from their camp, beyond the ridge, a cloud of dust suddenly appeared, moving towards them. Initially, the guards feared a sandstorm was imminent, and thought that could explain the sudden quietness. But as it drew nearer, they could tell it was no sandstorm. Just as they were about to stand to and prepare for another fight though, it vanished. The sand settled, and nothing moved. With that, the guards began to relax, talking to each other and returning to their rest which had been interrupted.

Without warning, dozens of birds charged over the camp. Everything from crows, right up to vultures and hawks all came tearing through the sky in a maddening cacophony of squawking and screeching. Less than ten seconds later they were gone. The guards had one final moment of peace before the thestrals struck.

“Wa-woo-woohoo!” Sentry cried, raising the infamous rebel battle cry, an unsettling cross between a foxhound’s yip and a banshee’s squall. This was quickly picked up by the rest of the charging thestrals in the strange mob mentality that prevails in a charge. As they roared over into the camp, this kept up. Like baying hounds the thestrals screeched and screeched in the joy of the charge.

Not needing any further hint, the pegasi promptly turned tail. Being young recruits made them green as it was, but that frightening yell would make any stallion bolt. Amongst the Solar Guard there was a saying. ‘Any pony who says he heard that yell and says he wasn’t scared, either hasn’t heard it, or is a damn liar!’.

And so, as the thestrals surged forward into the enemy camp, the pegasi were driven like sheep. Too frightened to even consider taking flight, a good many simply curled up where they were and begged for mercy. Many were injured as the thestrals flashed by; their wings tips cutting them somewhat. However, only two were killed outright, both of whom attempted to put up a fight.

After the thestrals made their first pass through the camp, they zoom climbed up again. If their foe had any kind of sense, they’d now try to form a square or circle to provide mutual protection. Instead though, they simply began to scatter. Sentry himself, like most caught up in it all, looked down at the chaos and happily began to belt out an old thestral song.

How the Night’s great heart rejoices,
At your cannons ringing voices.
To arms, to arms, to arms,
For Luna.
For faith betrayed and pledges broken,
Wrongs inflicted, insults spoken.
To arms, to arms, to arms,
For Luna.

Advance ye flag of Luna,
Hurrah, hurrah.
For Luna’s night we’ll face the fight,
And live and die for Luna.
To arms, to arms,
And conquer peace for Luna.
To arms, to arms,
And conquer peace for Luna.

With that, they dived in again for another pass, this time managing to topple over one of the wagons that the guards had been using for supplies. Once again, the poor white pegasi were driven along until the thestrals zoomed up again. They were about to make a third pass to finish the job when they saw what the enemy were up to below.

The surviving guards, thoroughly traumatised by what had just happened, had broken out any piece of white cloth they could find, and were waving frantically at Sentry, Flintlock and the other raiders. They’d more than had enough.

“Stand down, everypony!” Flintlock called out. “They’re surrendering, stand down!” The trouble with a charge like this, was that once it got going, it was quite difficult to stop. Luckily, the action had not deprived the captain of his voice.

“I said stand down, you colts!” he bellowed. Finally, everypony stopped to look at him and the high of the charge faded to the point where the thestrals could think again. Taking the lead, Flintlock had them all land about two hundred yards away from the surrendering ponies. As the senior officer, and as he had let Sentry lead the charge, Flintlock would be the one to conduct negotiations.

The Royal Guard camp was a mess, both of their wagons were overturned, the ground was heavily marred by dozens of rushing hooves, and the remaining guards were all huddled in a bunch, still waving their makeshift flags. One look at them told Flintlock all he needed to know; these poor saps were rookies, new recruits. They wouldn’t be putting up much of a fight.

“Where is your commanding officer?” Flintlock called across the gulf. Presently, a young pegasus, dressed in slightly more ornate armour, emerged from the huddled group.

“I am, sir. Corporal Arrow Head of the Equestrian Royal Guard.” Flintlock was slightly impressed at the young stallion’s conduct. He returned the younger pony’s salute.

“I’m Captain Flintlock of No. 2 Guards, Equestrian Royal Lunar Guard. Currently assigned to the 23rd Appleloosian Rangers, Army of Northern Mareginia, Lunar Volunteer Army.”

“Respectfully, sir, I wish to discuss terms of our surrender.” The youngster offered. Flintlock smiled and motioned for the thestrals to stand to, aiming their spears at their enemy.

“You aren’t in a position to negotiate, corporal. You will immediately surrender your weapons and armour. Then you may accompany my men and I back to our base as prisoners of war.” Flintlock saw a number of the guards gulp or turn a paler shade of white.

“Captain, the war is over. You are being pursued as criminals and terrorists. You have no right to take us prisoner. Doing so would be tantamount to foalnapping,” Arrow Head replied. Flintlock thought for a moment.

“Well I can hardly release you, now can I? You will simply go and alert your superiors. I cannot allow that.” One pegasus behind Arrow Head looked like he was about to say something, but quickly thought better of it.

“Then we are at an impasse, sir,” Arrow head declared. “I am not willing to surrender my command, and you are not willing to simply cut us to ribbons.”

“Then what do you suggest we do?” Flintlock replied. He could hardly believe his own ears. He was bargaining with a damned Bright Light!

“If I was willing to turn myself over to your custody, as a prisoner of war, would you see fit to grant my men safe passage? On the assurance that they will not report this incident.”

Luna’s moon, this was a tricky situation! Flintlock was a soldier, not some pacifist diplomat. His method of negotiation involved a blade against his opponent’s neck. Here, he was feeling decidedly out of his comfort zone. As much as he was loathe to admit it, he had underestimated the young corporal. With no other officers to call on, the thestral guard turned to young Swift Sentry for advice. If only Dusk had come with them.

“What do you think, kid?” Flintlock asked, keeping his voice down. Sentry frowned and thought.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place, sir. Unless you fancy having a hoof in a re-run of Ghastly Gorge,” (during the war, Lunar troops, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of a surrendering column in the confined space, had panicked, and inadvertently massacred over a hundred disarmed solar guards) “I don’t see any other way. We take him prisoner, have the rest turn over their weapons, and then release them.”

“But we can’t trust these Bright Lights!” Flintlock countered, raising his voice a little.

“Sir, we don’t have much of a choice.” Snorting in annoyance at how the situation had gotten away from him, Flintlock turned to address Arrow Head.

“Alright, corporal. I can accept those terms. You will be taken as a prisoner of war. The rest of your men are to turn over their weapons and armour to us. The wagons also stay here. Is that acceptable to you?”

“Yes, sir” the pegasus replied.

“Excellent,” Flintlock said, adding a curse against the cunning youngster under his breath.

With their surrendered foes appropriately disarmed, the thestrals released them to head back to Equestria. Many of the poor young recruits had decided that living through one bayonet charge was enough for them. With no armour or weapons, many planned to simply return to Canterlot and attempt to resume their duties there.

With their departure, all that remained was the young corporal, now shackled and under guard, as well as the remains of the Royal Guard camp. It would simply not be possible to bring the whole thing back to the Moonflower. So, Flintlock ordered a small group to go through each wagon and search for anything of value. There could be anything in there from maps, orders, codebooks, extra weapons or provisions, or maybe even something that could be bartered with back in San Maretonio. However, what the thestrals found was a bit more out of the ordinary.

“Captain, you’ll want to see this, sir!” Sentry called from the other side of the camp. Flintlock had been previously explaining to Arrow Head what would become of him. They would not be holding him prisoner forever; only until they were out of danger. Once the thestrals made it to the safety of the Badlands, beyond Equestria’s borders, would he be released.

“What is it?” he called back. Sentry held something in the air with his hooves. From this distance, Flintlock couldn’t quite work out what it was.

“It’s a newspaper, sir. From about two weeks ago by the look of it. You should come and take a look, sir.” Leaving Arrow Head with his gaolers, Flintlock crossed the camp to the overturned wagon Sentry had just come out of.

Sentry had found a couple of old newspapers, presumably taken by one of the guards when they left Canterlot. The headline, and accompanying photographs on the front page shocked Flintlock to his core.

‘Atcanter Burned! Royal Guard Destroys Last Thestral Stronghold.’

Below the headline, Flintlock beheld a black and white photo showing the city of Atcanter in flames. The city had indeed been one of the last bastions of the Lunar cause during the war. But there had been peace for so long! He struggled to believe that ponies were capable of such things. He was certain neither princess would ever give such an order. Skimming through the article, he read that a skirmish had broken out between a few thestrals who sought to stay in Equestria, and the Royal Guard sent to arrest them. The situation had quickly spiralled out of control and become a full scale riot. The city had been home to thousands, at least fifteen hundred were reported dead or missing, all civilians. A quiet rage began to bubble away inside Flintlock.

“Hey! Hey, I’ve got something here!” another thestral called out. Flintlock cast the paper aside and followed a few of the other guards to the other wagon, which was still on its wheels, though at one point somepony had ploughed straight through it, as evidenced by the thestral shaped hole on either side.

As Flintlock, Sentry and a few others surrounded the wagon, a small creature stumbled out of, falling down the too large steps, onto the soft ground below.

“What the hay is that? A lizard?” Sentry asked in confusion. The small creature was a reddish colour, with a yellowish front and spines sticking out of its head and back. It did indeed look quite reptilian. Flintlock had a vague suspicion as to what it might be. This was quickly confirmed when the creature, apparently emboldened by the thestrals confusion, projected a small jet of green fire, causing a couple to leap back in surprise.

“It’s a dragon!” Flintlock exclaimed. “And a youngster too by the look of it.” Since nopony else was willing to go near the small beast, Flintlock took it upon himself to grab the small creature. He then walked back over to Arrow Head, who now looked quite smug.

“What in the name of Luna are you idiots doing with a baby dragon?” Flintlock asked incredulously. Grinning, Arrow Head replied.

“It was recently discovered that dragon fire possess some magical properties. With the right enchantments, their fire can be used to perform some basic spells. For instance, the teleportation of objects to a fixed point. Reports and letters, for example.” Instantly, Flintlock understood.

“You’d already reported us before we attacked didn’t you?” he asked darkly. Arrow Head continued to grin.

“And you kindly released my men too, very kind, sir.” With that, Flintlock officially lost his temper. Drawing his officer’s sword from its scabbard, he slashed the blade against the pegasus’ ear, cutting it cleanly, and causing the appendage to fall to the ground. Arrow Head screamed in agony. Scowling, Flintlock turned to the other thestrals.

“Alright, everypony. We’ve got what we came for, and two prisoners to boot. Let’s head for home. I hate to say it, but I doubt we’re going to get much sleep in the near future.”

Chapter 7 - The Fog Lifts

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It was a couple hours later that the tired raiders finally returned to the Moonflower. The return had been a much more arduous journey than the trip out, since they had to have two thestrals fly together whilst chained to the captive Arrow Head, and somepony had to carry the young dragon they had found, who didn’t take well to the idea of flying.

Before the group landed, Flintlock gave the lot of them a very stern talking to, warning them that if word somehow got out about their new situation, he would have somepony’s head on a platter before nightfall. There would be no easy way to explain it. The civilians certainly wouldn’t take it well. Luna help them all if they began to panic or riot.

Landing in the courtyard, Flintlock first had the medics take a look at the two wounded ponies, Arrow Head, whose ear was now caked with dried blood, and one of the thestrals, who had been somewhat singed by the baby dragon’s brief attack. With that done, he and Sentry headed to Dusk’s small office to debrief him, whilst the other guards were ordered to stay put until they were told otherwise. It was going to be a very long day.

“Oh dear sweet Luna!” Dusk exclaimed upon hearing Flintlock and Sentry’s report. On the one hoof, the mission had gone well; they had eliminated the nearest threat to themselves, gathered some supplies, and brought two prisoners home to boot.

But that paled in comparison to the fact that whatever secrecy they had before was now gone. Since their journey began, Dusk had known that they would be followed, but they had always managed to stay one step ahead and slip between the cracks. Now though, whilst the exact location of the thestrals temporary home was not known, the entirety of the Royal Guard knew they were close by. It wouldn’t take the Bright Lights long to work out that they had most likely passed through San Maretonio. From there, they would easily find the mission, and then that would be it; their backs would be against the wall with nowhere to go.

“We don’t know exactly how long we have, sir,” Sentry offered.

“Not long, that’s for sure,” Flintlock replied. “Now they know roughly where we are, they’ll send everything they can spare out here to hunt us down. I’d say we have three, maybe four days at most.” Dusk nodded gravely at his captain’s assessment. He just wished it wasn’t true. Assuming it was an all-pegasi force, running with only the bare essentials in supplies, and taking trains as far south as they could, they would be around their ears by the end of the week.

“Alright, gather the senior officers together, Flint,” Dusk ordered. “We need to work out our next move.”

“Yes, sir,” Flintlock nodded. He and Sentry then left to find, and in some cases wake, the other officers. Dusk merely leaned back in his chair and tried to calm his nerves.

Twenty minutes later, all the senior officers were assembled in Dusk’s small office. It was a cramped affair, but they needed the privacy. When they announced this to the rest of the guards, as well as the civilians, they needed to do it in a controlled manner, and have an answer to every question. Already, rumours were starting to circulate that all the top brass had been hurriedly called to Star Dusk’s office, and that a number of them looked decidedly worried. The previous relaxed atmosphere quickly began to fade. By the time all the officers had settled themselves down, the Moonflower was a powder keg, just waiting for a spark.

Each of the officers squeezed themselves onto one of the small cushions that had been hurriedly brought to Dusk’s office. It was hardly the ideal briefing room after all, being not that much larger than a large shed. It was meant as an office. While there were places for ponies to gather, there was nowhere where a small number could be gathered for a private discussion, without raising suspicion.

“All right everypony, quiet down,” Dusk said, in an attempt to get the worried chattering to stop. If they were going to come up with a plan, everypony would need his head screwed on. Silence quickly fell as Dusk repeated Flintlock and Sentry’s report.

“I’m afraid, we have been discovered. The raid was a success, the enemy surrendered and we have gained a valuable cache of weapons and supplies. However, it seems that since our departure, magical science has made a remarkable leap forward. It is apparent that it is now possible to use a dragon’s fire breath ability to send and receive objects, such as messages, via a new kind of teleportation spell. Our previous plans assumed that, while the small group we had run into knew of us, nopony else did. We must now set that aside. It can be assumed word has been passed to the enemy’s high command. They will be coming for us. The question is, what the hay do we do about it?” Dusk sat down at the head of the meeting. “I am open to suggestions.”

“Our first priority has to be the civilians,” one of the more senior officers declared. “If it were just us guards, as well as the recruits we have, we could keep up a decent rear guard action and get away. But if we have to fight with the civilians in tow, they’ll overhaul us and pull us down.”

“So what, two separate evacuations?” Flintlock asked.

“Exactly! If the civilians set off now, with a few of the recruits as a bare bones escort, they stand a good chance of getting away. We can then move out and draw the Bright Lights towards ourselves, hold for as long as we can, and then follow. As long as we stay ahead, we should make the Badlands.”

“Hang on though,” Sentry piped up. “A lot of those civilians are family groups, with husbands, fathers, and brothers in the guard. You think we can just convince them to abandon them here?”

“They aren’t abandoning; they’re going on ahead. We’ll catch up soon enough. It would be a temporary separation, nothing more.” That was another think that irked Dusk. In a typical military situation, everypony followed orders without question. But with these civilians, he was often forced to be more political than he liked. But then, if the civilians objected, he could face a breakdown of order amongst them, and possibly his own ranks. Therefore, it was vital they be placated at all times. The idea of leaving their loved ones would be a difficult pill to swallow.

“Okay,” he said. “Say we can convince them to all go on ahead. What exactly are we going to do? You may not have noticed, lieutenant, but we aren’t exactly the Army of Northern Mareginia. We can’t just go toe to toe with the Bright Lights and expect to get away.”

“We may not be that many in number, sir, but nor was Major Dagger at the siege of Richcolt. He even divided his army again. But in lashing out at his enemy, he put them on the back foot. Hay, we almost drove them back to Baltimare after that, and we lost all but one of the engagements. That would give us the breathing room we need. We keep lashing out in small attacks to slow them down and spook them. Then when the civilians are away, we give them one last bloody nose and disappear.” Across the room, Flintlock smiled.

“And by the time they realise we’re gone and begin to speed up their advance again, we’ll be safe across the border.”

“Precisely.” Dusk leaned back in his chair. At the end of the day, the decision was his. Pushing the civilians out with a minimal escort was a grave risk. There was a danger that the enemy would simply bypass them and the stronghold of the Moonflower and run down the civilians. With that, they could turn around, having cut off any chance of escape, and starve out the thestrals, or simply storm the place.

But on the other hand, they couldn’t all stay here. There was no way the Moonflower could stand up to a protracted siege or large scale attack. And they couldn’t all depart for obvious reasons. As long as they could get the Bright Light’s attention, there was a good chance this could work.

“Alright, we’ll evacuate the civilians,” Dusk said at length. “Assemble all the guards in the mess as soon as possible. We’ll brief them on the situation first. With luck, they’ll be able to convince the civilians to go. After that, we’ll announce everything to the civilians and begin preparation for their immediate evacuation. If we’re going to do this, they need to be gone tonight.”

“Agreed,” Flintlock replied. “Is there anything else, anypony?” Nopony spoke up. Their situation was still desperate, but at least now the moon had come out from behind the clouds.

“Alright, get going. Dismissed.”

Gathering the entirety of the guard complement, including all the ex-guards, volunteers, and the new recruits Flintlock had trained up, in the mess hall only further fanned the flames of rumours amongst the civilians. The guards were already prepared for some bad news when they were all assembled. All that remained was to tell them how bad things were. However, with their new plan to hoof, Dusk and Flintlock were able to soften the blow somewhat and prevent much in the way of panic. For the most part the guards took things quite well. Yes, they were in a bit of a pickle, but they were by no means out of the fight yet. It wasn’t far to the Badlands, all they had to do was hold out for a little while.

Of course, they were aware that the new plan involved engaging with the enemy, and would most likely result in some of them not making it to the Badlands. But such was the price of war, and of eventual victory. Plus, everypony had heard the stories and rumours of what the new Royal Guard and the various deputised bands did to Lunar supporters they captured. Suffice it to say, nopony wanted to see any of their loved ones amongst the civilian population suffer the same fate. As a result, morale remained quite high, and most of the thestrals were raring to go, and put their new plan into action.

The civilians on the other hoof, didn’t take things quite so well. As soon as Dusk told them what was on its way towards them, a few more excitable ponies amongst the assembled audience began to panic. A small scuffle quickly broke out in the crowd as panicked ponies tried to rush back to their homes to begin gathering their supplies. Fortunately, a mixture of Dusk’s reassuring words and a small number of the guards being sent in to round up the instigators quickly got things calmed down.

Still, unlike the guards, the civilians were not as confident in the idea of this rear guard action. Many feared that marching on with such a minimal escort, considering that it had been small before they got to the Moonflower, would leave them exposed to attacks by bandits or wild animals that were known to roam around in this part of Equestria’s frontier.

However, many did begin to come round to the idea as Dusk and Flintlock explained the alternatives that lay open to them. For once, Flintlock’s bluntness came in quite handy. He certainly didn’t pull his punches when he told them what would happen if they simply tried to hold their current position, explaining precisely how long starvation and the other effects of a prolonged siege can affect a pony.

In the end though, it was not a guard that got the civilians in board, but old Moonapple, who arrived late, having spent the afternoon preparing the temple for what was now the usual nightly service. Hearing a duly appointed representative of Luna herself tell them that this was the best course of action ultimately swayed the civilians and alleviated the air of unease and near panic that had previously filled the Moonflower.

With everypony, eventually, on board with the idea of an evacuation followed by a rear guard action, everypony dispersed to begin packing their possessions. The civilians would take all that they could with them, taking their settlement apart again and bundling it all up into their wagons or carrying what they could. The same had to be said of the guards, many of whom entrusted their belongings to friends or relatives amongst the civilians, since they would need to travel light to keep ahead of the enemy once they broke off their engagement.

Some things though, were to be left behind. Sadly, nothing of much could be taken from the temple, aside from a few books of scripture, since the idols and such were so heavy and, at the end of the day, not necessary for their survival. The four canons would also have to be left behind. Since there would be no toe-to toe engagement, artillery was not something that was needed. And hauling the heavy guns would simply slow them down. As such, it was decided that, after the guards began to head back to catch up with the column, a small team would briefly stop by the Moonflower and spike the guns. That is to say, they would destroy the barrel, blow the gun off its carriage mounting, and render it inoperable and beyond repair, so that it could not be used by the enemy.

Before long, the civilians were almost ready to go. With everypony pitching in to help, the shanty town that had previously surrounded the Moonflower like an ingenious, cheap, form of body armour was taken apart. Everything that could be was packed into the various carriages, wagons and carts that the column had used to haul their possessions across Equestria.

It was a difficult and busy operation. After all, there had to be the better part of a thousand ponies including the guard. So, there were roughly eight hundred civilians to be accounted for. Inevitably, there were incidents. A few ponies squabbled over possessions and things that had been community property during their comparatively short stay. There was also the difficulty of everypony staying together. Given the size of the temporary settlement, its sudden removal disorientated quite a few ponies. After all, quite suddenly, landmarks and signposts had completely vanished and navigation back to one’s own ‘home’ became a bit of a task.

As a result, a large portion of the guards’ time was spent either breaking up arguments, or helping lost ponies, mainly foals and the elderly, reunite with their loved ones.

With things well underway, and apparently progressing smoothly, Dusk took a moment to rest up. Like everypony else, he had been helping out wherever necessary. He had just returned to his position on the ramparts after helping a little lost filly find her mother again. The poor thing had gotten jostled by the crowd and lost her grip on her mother’s hoof, and the crowd had inadvertently carried her away. Luckily, she was a smart little tyke and knew roughly where her mother would be. With Dusk’s help, the pair had been reunited in less than ten minutes, both quite grateful. As he continued to watch the final preparations, Flintlock alighted beside him, having just come from the cells where Arrow Head and the baby dragon were being held.

“Nearly ready are they?” Flintlock enquired as he tucked his leathery wings to his sides. The captain had recently finished interrogating Arrow Head at length, he’d given him quite a few interesting insights.

“Pretty much,” Dusk replied, nodding. “Amazing, isn’t it.”

“What is?” The colonel gestured to the vast herd below.

“Down there, about eight hundred ponies have just about packed up their lives, everything they own, and are prepared to go on another slog through the desert. If you’d told me civilians could do that without making much of a fuss two years ago, I’d have called you an idiot.”

“They’re a lot stronger than most folk give them credit for,” a third voice offered. Dusk and Flintlock turned to see Moonapple standing behind them.

“Oh, you spooked me there, Father,” Dusk said as the elderly stallion walked over. “How is everything going at the temple? Any problems?” Moonapple shook his head.

“No, there isn’t much in the way of packing. I’m having your colts take only the essential icons and scripture. I understand the necessity of travelling light. And it is still more than we had before.”

“Well, why don’t we take a look, Star?” Flintlock suggested. Dusk quickly agreed. Privately, he had been hoping to set hoof inside the temple one last time before they had to leave. He was sure that, in time, new temples would be constructed in their new home. But having been here for a little over a week, he had gotten used to visiting the ancient building, taking it as a sanctuary of sorts. If only the Royal Guard would honour the old cry of ‘sanctuary’.

Heading back inside the temple, the three ponies noticed immediately that the building now looked decidedly barer. The altar had been stripped completely bare, as had the lectern. Everything that could be carried, and was not too heavy, seemed to have been taken away and packed up. As they walked up the aisle toward the bare altar, Moonapple continued to direct the ponies who were still packing things away.

“That goes,” he said, pointing at a sapphire statue of the princess. “That too.” One youngster almost dropped one of the icons. “Hey, damage that and I will have your head!” It was remarkable to Dusk just how commanding, and perhaps a little intimidating Moonapple could be, considering his age and appearance. And of course, the fact that, when holding a service, he was one of the kindliest stallions in the whole group. Outside of services, he was gruff, ill tempered, and usually had a flask to hoof. Yet when he was at the lectern, giving a sermon or reading, he was quite the inspiration.

As the two senior officers watched the elderly stallion continue to delegate with all the kindness and sensitivity of a drill instructor, an earth pony guard came trotting in. His head was swivelling around, looking for somepony in particular. When he spotted Dusk and Flintlock, he called out to them.

“Sir, that governor feller, Rare something, has come back. He’s waiting outside the front gates.” Dusk was surprised. Whilst his dealing with the governor of San Maretonio had been fairly smooth sailing insofar as relations go, he had nonetheless expected that the governor would be glad to see the back of him and his column. What could he possibly want now?

“Is it just him, corporal, or did he bring any other ponies with him?” Dusk enquired.

“Just him, sir,” the earth pony answered. "But a couple of our guys are with him, keeping an eye on him.” Good. Regardless of their situation, Dusk felt the need to continue putting up a front with Rare Diamond.

“C’mon, Star,” Flintlock said, remembering what Arrow Head had told him. “Let’s go see what this idiot wants now.” And so, they left Moonapple to his own devices, and he continued to bark orders as he directed the final preparations for leaving the temple. Dusk had a good idea what this would be about, based on the information Flintlock had gotten from Arrow Head. If he was right, and he hoped he wasn’t, the next few minutes would see a great curtain lifting on a number of matters.

This time, Dusk decided to meet Rare Diamond outside the mission. Briefly taking flight, the two thestrals cleared the top of the ramparts, before gliding back down to earth, landing with surprising precision, in front of the governor.

“Rare Diamond,” Dusk said, greeting the governor warmly. For once, he was determined to have the upper hand in their meeting. “To what do we owe the pleasure?” The governor appeared somewhat nonplussed at Dusk’s overtly friendly greeting.

“Well, Colonel, I had heard from a few ponies in town that there was some commotion going on over here. I merely came to see what the matter was. Are you leaving?”

“Merely moving on. We’ve had plenty of time to rest up and gather supplies. But you have to remember that we aren’t exactly welcome here in Equestria anymore. We’ve entertained your kind hospitality long enough, so we’re heading off for the border. We should be off a little before nightfall I think. Although I would add that us soldier types will be holding fast for a little longer, just to tie off a few loose ends.” Rare Diamond looked a little concerned.

“Oh, I see. I was under the impression you would be spending a few more days here.” Flintlock narrowed his eyes. He knew a snake when he saw one. Dusk maintained his façade.

“I had been planning on that, but the battlefield is an unpredictable place. My scouts picked up an enemy patrol a day ago. I think it is best if we keep ahead of the hounds as it were.” Rare’s mask briefly faltered again.

“Oh, yes, yes. Of course.”

“In fact, we were even able to take a couple of prisoners. Captain Flintlock here has been talking with them since yesterday. They certainly provided some valuable insights into the enemy’s strength.”

Flintlock had indeed interrogated Arrow Head, the Royal Guard pegasus that had hoofed himself over to ensure his subordinate’s freedom. He’d had his suspicions from the start that it was too much of a coincidence. After all, the deserts of Appleloosa Territory were over a thousand miles across. Even with the entire Royal Guard turned out, they could not simply throw out a dragnet; it would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Thus, the presence of the enemy patrol so close by seemed a major stroke of good fortune for the enemy.

The logical answer was that the Royal Guard had somehow been tipped off to their presence. Luna knew that they had been careful to conceal their tracks wherever they could, as well as taking multiple routes and doubling back every now and then. That meant that somepony nearby had alerted them. It had taken Flintlock a while to get all the answers, but eventually Arrow Head had admitted that his previous story was horseapples. Now, Dusk was determined to prove his earlier misgivings about the charismatic earth pony.

“For instance, we learnt of this fascinating new advance in magical science. Now, I’m not a gifted unicorn, but if I remember correctly, the folks back in Canterlot have found a way to bind a complex object teleportation spell to various creatures. That’s how those Bright Lights were communicating over such great distances. It’s a bit like a telegraph I suppose. Anyway, we found this little baby dragon with the guards. It seems that his fire breath has been bound to the spell. Mind you, it’s a very basic system, only communicating between the dragon and whoever the recipient is.”

While Dusk had been explaining all of this to Rare Diamond, Flintlock had quietly called over a guard and given him a crucial set of instructions. He then returned to Dusk’s side, Rare didn’t seem to notice. The guard meanwhile, hurried to the makeshift cells, where Arrow Head and the young dragon were incarcerated.

“Yes, well…that does indeed sound like a remarkable system,” Diamond replied, now seeming very uncomfortable, almost to the point of sweating. “Well, anyway, I must be going I’m sure you have a lot of work…” his departure though, was suddenly interrupted.

A little off to his side, an odd swirling mass appeared. It seemed to consist partly of a light purple smoke, the odd bit of green fire, and the golden shimmer, similar to a unicorn using its magic. All of a sudden tough, this swirling mass vanished. With the recognisable sound of a teleportation spell, a small rolled up piece of parchment appeared in the air. It lingered briefly for a moment, until the magic dissipated, whereupon it fell to the ground. Rare Diamond was suddenly quite pale.

“Well, that’s odd,” Flintlock said curiously, with a hint of ever increasing sarcasm. “Why has that turned up here? Unless…oh right.” In an instant, two thestrals Flintlock had had waiting in the wings pounced or Rare Diamond and wrestled him to the ground.

“Argh, get off me you idiots! Get off me!” Diamond demanded as he continued to struggle. The two thestral guards however, were more than a match for him. Dusk looked down at him in disgust.

“I knew there was something fishy about you, Rare Diamond. But until we found out about that dragon, I don’t think we’d ever have suspected you. You’ve been sending messages the Royal Guard. Each time a bunch of thestrals came through, you’d tip them off and watch them get cut to ribbons.” The ageing thestral scowled at him. “Have you no shame?” Much to Dusk’s surprise though, Diamond was laughing, even as he was hauled back to his hooves.

“What, you think you’ve dodged the bullet, Colonel? You think that pitiful little band was all that was sent after you? There’s a damned army out for your blood! You and that witch that called herself a princess!” Diamond’s angry ranting was cut short as Dusk struck him across the face. Outwardly, he maintained his angered façade, but inside, he was worrying about the possibility Diamond suggested. He remained silent for a moment, his brief attack had been almost instinctual. After all, Diamond had insulted his princess. It also made his hoof throb a little. Looking the earth pony dead in the eye, Dusk gave his orders to the two guards restraining the governor.

“Get this piece of manure out of my sight.” And with that, Diamond was hauled away.

Chapter 8 - War Crimes

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With the governor of San Maretonio now temporarily incarcerated in the Moonflower’s ad hoc brig, Dusk could turn his attention to other matters. He was glad to have finally been able to put the issue of Rare Diamond to rest. From the outset, when he had first come to meet the column outside the town, Dusk had felt that something was amiss with him. Now he knew beyond all doubt, that he was right.

It was one thing for one soldier to kill another in combat. Both had the required training, weapons, and skills. Both stood an equal chance of victory or defeat. But what Diamond had been doing, for Luna knows how long… It made a shiver run up the ageing thestral’s spine. How many other groups had passed through? How many had fallen into the trap that they themselves were now facing? And through it all, Diamond had never shown his hoof. Always playing the innocent bystander, willing to offer some shelter to tired ponies. And in reality, each time, he would call it in, and watch the inevitable happen.

Dusk snorted angrily. This time, things would not be a repeat. They’d caught him out, and at the very least blunted the enemy’s initial assault. The group Flintlock and Sentry had driven off were certainly scouts. The enemy would have to operate with little intelligence. Luna willing, they could use that to their advantage. If their first attacks were strong enough, vicious enough, perhaps they could do an action replay of Richcolt, and convince the Bright Lights there were greater numbers than there actually were.

Flintlock was considerably less optimistic in his outlook. Okay, yes they’d caught Diamond. But it was too little, too late. There was an army bearing down on them, and probably another three behind it. Whichever way you looked at it, this was going to be a close run thing.

Privately, Flintlock had to give some respect to Rare Diamond. The unassuming earth pony had managed to fool them all for quite some time. And, setting aside the morality and sense of honour that some older soldiers, such as Dusk still carried, it was a clever little system. The Bright Lights had realised that there was no way they could cover the whole desert that eventually led out to the Badlands. So, they improvised. They were like fishermen, Diamond was the lure; a promise of safe haven and supplies in the otherwise empty, and lifeless, desert. Once their quarry was settled, all Diamond had to do was tug on the line and the catch would be reeled in. Were the roles reversed, the pony that came up with it would probably get a hoofbump from him if they met.

Whilst Rare Diamond’s arrest had removed one issue from the thestrals’ plate, it had brought out another in its place. The fact of the matter was that they were, illegally, holding the duly appointed representative of San Maretonio and Appleloosa Territory prisoner. By the laws of Equestria’ new monarchical government, he had committed no crime in advising the Royal Guard of the location of known threats to Equestria’s security. Even out in the desert, the people of San Maretonio would not sit idly by, while their governor was held captive. Dusk knew they needed to get ahead of the issue, and quickly. There was also the small matter of explaining to the ponies of San Maretonio that, over the next few days, their sleepy border town could potentially become a war zone.

It wasn’t that long before the first curious ponies cautiously made their way up the front gates of the old Lunar mission. They’d seen Rare Diamond go in, apparently under escort, and he’d not come out since. Whilst nopony thought anything was really amiss, they had after all gotten to know most of the members of the motley group over the course of their stay, they were a little concerned.

Within half an hour, the small band of curious earth ponies had grown to a small crowd, all asking the same question.

“Where they hay is Rare Diamond?” A larger sized stallion bellowed up to the ponies in the gatehouse.

“He’s in here,” replied one of the guards. “Don’t worry; our CO’s gonna come out and explain things in a minute." Turning away from the crowd, the guard called over his companion.

“Tell Colonel Dusk he better get out here now. This crowd’s getting pretty antsy. I’m getting worried about our boys down below in those foxholes.” Indeed, the crowd’s confusion was steadily turning toward anger, and before long somepony would start boiling over.

Having legally arrested Diamond in the name of the legitimate diarchical government of Equestria, Dusk was now hurrying back to the gatehouse above the main entrance to the mission. It was time for him to make a statement about what had just happened. This would go over either fairly smoothly, or it would flare up into a full blown riot. Hay, by comparison, his own civilians were easy to keep under control. For all the hospitality they’d been granted, the thestrals and other lunar supporters were still very much outsiders. It wouldn’t take much for the ponies of San Maretonio to start seeing them as enemies. With Flintlock and Sentry flanking him, Dusk trotted up to the gatehouse to address the ponies below.

As Dusk appeared, the crowd at last began to quieten down. However, the somewhat hostile feeling that it gave off still hung in the air. It was with this feeling pressing down on him, that Dusk began to speak.

“Fillies and gentlecolts,” Dusk began. “I am Colonel Star Dusk, the commander of this detachment. I am here to answer your questions. You are correct in assuming that Governor Rare Diamond is in here. He is currently being detained on charges of high treason against the Kingdom of Equestria.”

The reaction was instantaneous. Shouted questions drowned each other out and temper’s quickly flared. The reaction wasn’t unexpected and Dusk quickly began to try to calm everypony down again.

“Please…please, if you will just listen. I assure you I will explain everything.” At length, the roar dropped to more of a murmur. “It has come to my attention that Rare Diamond has been in communication with the newly reorganised Royal Guard. As I’m sure you are aware, we are attempting to leave Equestria peacefully. We have already been driven from our homes without any good reason, and we are still being chased across this desert. Regardless of what others may say, we are still members of the Equestrian Royal Guard. As such, it is our duty to root out those involved in the usurpation of the throne. We do not recognise this new government, or its authority. As such, by communicating with the enemy, Rare Diamond has committed treason, and shall undergo due process.

“As for ourselves, we will soon be moving out anyway. I for one do not wish to have civilians in the line of fire between ourselves and the rebel forces. Upon our departure, we shall turn Rare Diamond over to the custody of local law enforcement”

At this promise of eventually releasing the governor, most of the concerns appeared to quieten down. Plus, Dusk’s little statement about the current plight of the thestrals helped sway some ponies. After all, whilst it had been what could be called a swing seat, Appleloosa Territory had leaned more toward the Lunar side during the war. However, there was still one pony who was not satisfied. Out of the crowd Dusk saw a familiar mare emerge. It was Crystal Leaf; the governor’s wife.

“And what exactly do you plan to do to my husband then?” she asked, concern and noticeable anger clear in her voice. Picking the mare out from the assembled crowd, Dusk quickly had a couple guards escort her away. For all they knew, she had been in on Diamond’s scheme as well. That and it would be better to discuss such matters privately. As she was escorted away, Dusk however did address her question.

“Rare Diamond shall not be harmed whilst in our custody. He is currently being detained in our cells. Given the current political situation, as the most senior officer of the Royal Guard present, I have the authority to bring to order a special court of justice to settle the matter. Other officers shall serve in the various offices. Diamond will be entitled to a defence, and will have an opportunity to explain his actions and prove his innocence.”

This was something of a stretch on Dusk’s part. As with almost every situation conceivable, there were procedures in place to cope, if the typical norms of law and order broke down. However, the ‘special court of justice’ was not what you might expect from a normal trial. It would be a military court, running under martial law. The court possessed wide ranging powers, up to and including donning the black cap. The rules of the court would also be military in nature, being that of a tribunal and disregarding some of the laws of a civil court.

The whole thing had been devised as a way of keeping order, even if the entirety of the Equestrian government collapsed, as it almost had on a couple of occasions. These kinds of procedures had only been implemented haphazardly when Discord had first attempted to stake his claim on Equestria. It had been considered during the brief appearance of Scorpan and Tirek, but that crisis was over before such measures were implemented. This was the first time the so-called ‘shadow judiciary’ was actually put into practice. And of course, it never assumed half the government would still be functioning and hostile to the other half.

Escorting Crystal Leaf personally, with Flintlock and Sentry breaking off to continue overseeing the evacuation of the civilians, Dusk made his way into one of the larger store rooms in the Moonflower. As there was a need for such things to maintain discipline, the residents of the Moonflower had fashioned this small structure into a rudimentary jail. Large eyebolts on the floor allowed for prisoners to be clapped in irons, while rudimentary wooden walls kept prisoners apart.

It was here that Rare Diamond now found himself. Aside from a ruffled mane and clothes from his brief fight, the stallion looked quite normal. Around his right hind leg, a large clasp had been locked on, this was connected to a chain which fed through the eyebolt and back again, thus chaining him to the floor and limiting his movement. As Dusk entered with Crystal Leaf following, he looked up.

His wife looked tired if nothing else. She had hardly been able to comprehend the tale Dusk had told her. She initially dismissed it as vile lies. Knowing her husband, she knew he was incapable of such actions. Then, when Dusk went on, she did all she could to try and prove his innocence. But by the time they began the walk to the cell, all of those had been cast aside, and now she was moving into the second stage of the coping process; anger. However, Diamond did not yet realise this.

“Ah, so now you incarcerate my wife,” he said, venom in his voice. “To garner more secrets from me, or just for your own amusement?” Dusk snorted in quite real surprise.

“I am a soldier, Diamond, not a monster. Your wife is not under any kind of duress. I am merely allowing her to visit you. Undoubtedly you wish to make arrangements to cope with your absence.” Naturally, taking away one of the most important ponies in the territory was bound to eventually cause problems. Crystal Leaf could help greatly, acting as a liaison of sorts.

“Never mind that!” Crystal interjected. She looked down at her husband. “Is it true? Is it true what the colonel has told me? You’ve been helping those roving bands butcher fleeing ponies?” Diamond scowled at her.

“I’ve been helping to protect us!” he replied angrily. “The colonel here, and his kin are a threat to us all. They serve that vile demon…” Dusk again struck him across the face, silencing him. Ironically, had he let him continue, he would have heard about Nightmare Moon, and perhaps understood why he and the thestrals were pursued so heavily.

“They are still ponies though,” Crystal replied, biting back her anger. Her dark eyes looked like black coals, with a piercing gaze to match. “They could have killed you when they realised what you did. Yet instead they showed you mercy, and are willing to give you a trial.”

“Bah! You mean a show trial,” Diamond replied, rolling his eyes.

“I think that’s almost more than you deserve!” Crystal countered. “How many deaths are you responsible for? Not just these guards, but ordinary ponies, mares, foals. Foals for Celestia’s sake!” On that front, Diamond seemed to lack a sufficient response. Thoroughly disgusted by her husband’s actions, Crystal took her leave, not saying another word to Diamond. Dusk promptly followed her out of the cell and back out into the courtyard.

The exchange had clearly been hard on her. Dusk could not blame her; it was a lot to take in. Her husband had gone from a respectable gentlecolt to a mass murderer by proxy in a single evening. She tried to breathe slowly, but it only came out as shuddering gasps and the occasional sob. Not knowing what else to do, Dusk merely wrapped a foreleg around her, and held her close. At length, she composed herself and prised herself loose.

“I am truly sorry, Colonel,” she said, dabbing her still moist eyes with a handkerchief.

“Don’t be,” Dusk replied. “You couldn’t have known what he was doing.” Crystal snorted angrily.

“He let you into our home, made you his guest, his friend. And yet all the time, he was plotting to betray you.” Slowly, she composed herself. “What will happen now then?”

“The civilians will be moving out soon enough. They’ll do their best to get as far away from here as they can. It’ll take some time for the rest of us to be ready to head off to engage the enemy. I suppose between now and then, we will conduct court proceedings.”

“I see. Do you mind if I, or anypony else, wishes to attend?” Crystal asked. Dusk thought; technically these courts were military only, and not subject to the same rules as a civil court. If he wanted to, he could exclude all non-essential personnel. But given the situation, it was probably best to be as transparent as possible.

“I suppose that would be alright,” he said at length. “But please remember that this will be a military court in wartime. So it may not be quite what they expect.” Crystal nodded in understanding.

With nothing further holding her up, Crystal Leaf departed, heading back firstly to the still waiting crowd and then on to the town. Dusk fancied that she might find herself as an interim leader for the moment. Given how the other ponies respected her, she seemed up to the task. Still, there would be trying times ahead. The trial would not be a pleasant experience.

Officially, it was still a court, with a defence and prosecution. However, given the situation, it was certain that Diamond would be convicted. Treason in wartime carried only one sentence. In that sense, he was right to call it a show trial. Dusk almost thought about turning the earth pony loose; he did after all have more important concerns. But, on the other hoof, justice needed to be done.

It was decided to set up the court in the mess, as it was the largest building in the mission, second only to the temple itself. Father Moonapple was adamant that such a sanctuary would not be used for a trial of any sort. The tables were quickly moved out of the way, and the large open space was rearranged to resemble at least, a courtroom. At the front was the long table with three chairs which would hold the three judges. As the most senior officers present, such a role would fall upon Dusk, Flintlock, and Sentry, the latter of whom decided he was certainly moving up in the world. Due to the unusual nature of the court, they would double as the prosecution. At any other time, this would naturally be entirely illegal, but under the rules of these special courts, such things were permissible, mainly because it was expected that there would be many cases to go through, most open and shut, and ending with a defendant being taken outside.

However, the defendant’s right to have an advocate to manage their defence still remained. Certainly not a job for volunteers; at least not ones without bias. Initially, it was suggested that the remaining officers draw lots to see who got the singular dishonour of defending Rare Diamond. However, this was quickly overruled when Diamond expressed his desire to stand as a pro per; acting as his own defence. With that argument settled, the necessary paperwork was drawn up and the court was called to order.

Naturally, the majority of the residents of San Maretonio attended, being escorted in groups to the ad hoc courthouse by the guards. In addition, under escort, Corporal Arrow Head; the captured guard, was also brought out to appear as a hostile witness for the prosecution. Again, doing away somewhat with the niceties of the civil court, he was all but compelled to testify, lest he be implicated. Or at least, so he was told.

And so, with everypony settled in, and all preparations complete, the ‘trial’ such as it was, began.

The whole procedure was a fairly short affair, both by necessity as the thestral’s time ticked away, and as there was little doubt as to Diamond’s guilt. Once Crystal Leaf had left, evidently word had spread through the town like wildfire. Like most ponies, the townsfolk were appalled at Diamond’s actions, particularly when one considered the extent to which the region had managed to escape the war. Add to that the sheer vindictiveness of his actions, and many in their number were baying for his blood.

The trial lasted a little over an hour. Given its nature, it would be pointless to give a blow by blow account. It began with the charges being confirmed and the presentation of evidence, namely testimony from Arrow Head. As he was to be turned over to the locals here in San Maretonio, he quickly realised it was in his interest to shift as much of the blame as possible away from himself. He explained in detail how Diamond had reached out to his commanding officer when they first swept the town when the second war began. With the new message abilities found in enchanted dragon fire, the Royal Guard and Diamond had established a horribly efficient system for ensuring nopony else made it to the Badlands.

Diamond of course, was given an opportunity to defend himself and explain his actions. However, knowing that such actions would do him no good, he tried a different tack. Since his punishment would be administered by his own people rather than Dusk’s, there was a chance he could revive some old loyalty from them. Instead of offering a defence, he criticised the court and questioned its right to charge him, going so far as to call it illegal. He went on to claim that the guards were little more than fleeing terrorists and deserved the fate he had planned for them.

This did little to sway anypony. Over the last week, the two communities had become quite close to one another, and his stories of ‘lunar atrocities’ didn’t really wash when the genuine article was in the same room.

With his ranting over, the court passed sentence. The expected outcome was the only one available. The penalty for treason, in war or peace, was death. Out here on the frontier, that meant death by hanging. Indeed, a few ponies had even been callous enough to bring a noose with them. However, in a surprising turn, Dusk, and Dusk alone, relented.

Before all the assembled ponies, he admitted that the court was indeed a far cry from the trial Diamond was entitled to. As servants of a princess, they were supposedly the guardians of law, justice, and harmony. To sentence Diamond to death in such conditions as those they faced, would undermine all that. They would be betraying the very government, albeit in exile, that they claimed to defend. And so, to everypony’s surprise, the court placed Diamond under house arrest, thereby turning him over to the people of San Maretonio. Once Equestria had settled again, he would stand trial, properly.

And just like that, the court disbanded.

“You want to enlighten me as to what you just did?” Flintlock asked Dusk as they entered his office.

“I took the most appropriate course of action. You were there, you heard my reasons.” The colonel moved to stand behind his desk. Flintlock snorted angrily.

“And you’re just going to let him go?” he asked incredulously.

“No, I did no such thing. Flint, think for moment. Given what they’ve just sat through, do you think Diamond has a friend left in all of Appleloosa Territory? It’s probably only the fact that we didn’t hang him high that’s keeping him alive.”

“That sorry excuse for a stallion is responsible for maybe thousands of deaths!” Flintlock replied, seething.

“And killing him will of course bring them back,” Dusk replied, equally scathing. “Besides, do you really want to kill a stallion in front of his wife?” Flintlock had no answer for that. “Diamond, and Arrow Head, will face justice. Later. Right now, we have more serious things to worry about.” Snorting again, but apparently accepting his commanding officer’s words, he had after all been treading a fine line arguing with him, Flintlock changed the subject.

“The evacuation group is almost ready to move out. There’s going to be about a dozen guards with them, mostly some of the older guards and a few youngsters. They’ll head for the Badlands as soon as possible.”

“Good,” Dusk said, the usual warmth returning to his voice. “And how about ourselves?”

“Most of my guys are ready to move out as soon as it gets dark.” This time, they’d attack at night, anything to tip the overwhelming odds in their favour. “I’ve had a few patrols out scouting, but no sign of the Bright Lights yet.” Dusk sat down, leaning back in his chair.

“That’s going to be the hardest part, finding them. We find them first, we lash out, and they take the bait. But if, Luna forbid, we miss each other, they’ll catch up the civilians and we’ll all be up a creek.”

“Then sir, we find them first,” Flintlock replied, a confident gleam in his eye. Dusk smiled, glad to have his friend back again. He had been worried that his sudden change of heart regarding Diamond would create a schism between them. That was the last thing he wanted. However, their short reconciliation was suddenly interrupted as they were joined by Swift Sentry, who had been overseeing the final loose ends of the evacuation. Poking his head through the open door, he called out to Dusk.

“Colonel, the civilian column is ready to move out now,” he reported dutifully. The two higher ranking stallions quickly got to their hooves. Dusk had made a point to see them all off.

Heading outside, Dusk and Flintlock found the Moonflower much quieter than it had previously been. All of the visitors from Sam Maretonio had departed not too long ago. They’d taken both Rare Diamond as well as Corporal Arrow Head. The latter would ultimately be turned loose once the thestrals were safely away. However, Diamond was to be incarcerated within his home. He would not have the niceties he was accustomed to, nor would he wield the authority he once did. Again, as with Arrow Head, once the incident was over and done with this punishment would be lifted. However, Diamond would not be released, the townsponies planned to petition Princess Celestia herself. Even among the thestrals, it was understood that Celestia herself was not the driving force behind their current situation.

Briefly trotting up onto the ramparts of the Moonflower, the pair were able to look down on the assembled column. It was almost as Dusk remembered it; a long, vast line of ponies, wagons, carriages, and carts. Each filled to the brim with possessions and supplies. All but a few were civilians. Many were now being separated from loved ones; husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers, who were serving in the guard.

They all had a long journey ahead of them, although the end was now in sight. They would continue their long march south towards Equestria’s borders, eventually entering the Badlands, and ultimately reaching their new home in the mountains there. They would all be safe, free to rebuild their lives as best they could. So that one day, when the princess freed herself, they would be able to return and take their place at her side.

As Dusk looked on, he saw a few ponies making their final farewells to those who were staying at the Moonflower. Unbeknownst to all of them, this would be the last time they would see each other. With a final signal from Dusk, the column steadily began to move out, the tiny guard detail doing its best to keep up a protective ring around them.

The guards all lingered on the ramparts for a while, waving goodbye to their friends and family. Only when the large crowd of ponies had gotten a fair ways off, did they stop and head back to their work.

“Well, that’s two problems dealt with,” Dusk said, mainly to himself. “Now we just have to defeat the entire Royal Guard.”

Chapter 9 - Searching

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And so, for the first time in several years, Colonel Star Dusk once again found himself in command of an actual fighting force. There were no more civilians, no more need to play politics, no more mucking about. He, and everypony else, could at last fall back into the comfortable routines and procedures of military life. A place where orders were not debated, commands not questioned, and every decision rested with the most senior officer.

However, it also brought back the long, dull periods between engagements. While the civilians were indeed safely away and by tomorrow would be out of range of the Moonflower, and by extension the enemy, there was still one slight problem.

“So how the hay do we find them?” Flintlock asked, sitting with the other senior officers, who were again gathered in Dusk’s small office. “We can’t just hope they’ll find us. If this plan is going to work, we need to be the one calling the shots. We pick when and where we attack. But until we know where the Bright Lights are, we’re stuck.”

“We’ll just have to step up patrols until we find them. We know which direction they’re coming from; the north. And if we assume that they’re following the same route as that scouting force we knocked out, we can narrow the search area quite a bit. We still have plenty of time, a full blown army moves at an extraordinarily slow pace. I’d anticipate that we have at least three days before they start getting close,” Dusk replied.

“You’d think they’d at least have the common courtesy to show their faces, wouldn’t you?” Sentry added, his comparative inexperience showing a little. “Damn Bright lights won’t even stand and fight.”

“Lieutenant, I remind you,” Flintlock countered. “That we didn’t exactly ‘stand and fight’ either. They’re following their training; stay concealed for as long as possible before engaging with the enemy.”

“That could work to our advantage,” Another officer, a unicorn by the name of Quick Strike, said.

“How so?” Dusk enquired.

“Well, think about it. You just said they’re following their training. From what we know this new Royal Guard isn’t the old Army of the Canterhorn. It’s new, inexperienced. They’ll stick to their playbook.” Sentry grinned.

“And we know their playbook, right?”

“Exactly, until the war, we all shared tactics. If we reverse the situation, and consider what we’d do, then that is probably what they’ve done.”

“So, how would you approach storming an isolated stronghold like this, captain?” Dusk asked Flintlock. The stalwart captain considered for a moment.

“Here, let’s get a couple of maps out on the table here,” he said. Grabbing a few items to hold the corners fast, Flintlock folded out a map of the area. Based on the reconnaissance they’d done when they’d first arrived, the thestrals had been able to draw up a pretty accurate map of the territory, including topography and potential points of interest. All the officers examined it carefully, as a gifted player might a mid-game chessboard. Silence reigned for a while, aside from the odd cough, or ruffling of leathery wings. Eventually, Flintlock spoke up.

“How about this area here,” he pointed to a sort of land based causeway. On each side were markers indicating unstable, shifting sand; a death trap for anypony without wings. “It protects the flanks well, and you’re hidden behind a whole bunch of dunes and hills. If you stayed on that course, you could come around behind us and trap us in a pincer movement.”

“What about from over this way,” Sentry offered. “The whole areas filled with apple orchards; perfect cover from the air, and an easy way to keep supply lines open.”

“And there’s this plain here. If they have got the numbers we think they have, they might be confident enough to just steamroller us straight up the middle, and forget about any fancy manoeuvring,” Quick Strike suggested.

Dusk looked at the map with a practiced eye. All of the suggestions were valid tactics, and tallied with his memories of his time in the war. There was still a lot of ground to cover, but it was a start.

“Alright then,” he said at length. “We’ll start by looking at these points. Flintlock, organise small patrols to head out as soon as it drops dark. We’ve got three days, and the clock is ticking.”

By late evening, the patrols were ready to head out. Their orders were simple; find the enemy and report back as soon as possible. This time, they were not, under any circumstances, to engage the enemy. Dusk needed to know how large an enemy force they were facing, what equipment it had, how they were positioned, anything to help give them an edge. A great deal of the approaching battle would be decided by whoever found the other first.

If the thestrals knew where their enemy was, then they could pick and choose when and where to attack. They would dictate the tempo of the battle, and at the same time, they would be able to remain hidden. If however, on the other hoof, the Royal Guard found them first, it would be just the opposite. They would find the Moonflower, encircle it and put it under siege. Then it would simply be a matter of time. So, if they were to survive to fight another day, it was imperative that they find the enemy first.

“Alright, sir. It’s dark enough now,” a young guard said to Dusk, who was standing in the courtyard before the three reconnaissance teams.

“Okay, Gentlecolts,” he began. “This is our best shot. We find them, and we can start the next phase of this little plan of ours. Those of you who previously ran search patrols should find this much easier. Our best guess has the enemy’s strength to be as much as five thousand ponies. That’s twenty five to one, their favour. We have to catch them off balance, and to do that, we need to know where they are. So head out to your assigned areas, keep a sharp lookout, and do your best to stay hidden. Good luck!”

With that, the three small patrols took off into the night sky. This time, they didn’t have the advantage of a new moon. In fact, it was now well past half moon and getting on for three quarters. Slowly, each night was getting a little lighter, though not enough that anypony risked detection.

Each small group would head to each area the senior officers had identified. Assuming that they had started out the day after the thestrals had arrived in San Maretonio, the officers had worked out approximately where the enemy army would be now. Assuming of course, that they were heading along any of the routes that Dusk and the others had come up with.

Dusk reminded himself that he was still taking a very big risk. If there was no news tonight, that was another night wasted, with only two remaining before the main enemy force would be within range of the Moonflower. He was forced to wait, as they all were. Once again, the supposedly exciting career of soldiering was reduced to long stretches of utter boredom. With little else to do, he chose to once again find comfort in his faith. Leaving the other officers, who were approaching the current calmness in their own way, Dusk headed for the large wooden doors of the Lunar temple.

Another benefit of the civilians’ departure was that the temple was now much quieter. There were far fewer ponies about. Even with all the thestrals here, there would still be enough room for a few more in the pews. It was as quiet as it had always been. Not an uncomfortable quietness mind, Dusk found the peace comforting in its own way. He had come here several times already, when he needed to clear his mind. With all that had happened over the past couple of days, it would not be a huge surprise if the stress began to get to him.

Walking carefully up the aisle, and making little noise (for he had removed his horseshoes) Dusk settled himself in one of the pews closer to the altar, on the left hand side of the aisle. Sliding himself in, he sat down and removed the helmet from atop his head. It is said that ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’. To Dusk, that helmet had only grown heavier as the long journey toward the Badlands had continued. It had eased a little when they first settled into the Moonflower, but now it was back with a vengeance.

Placing a hoof on the back of his neck, the slate grey thestral tried to massage the pain away. Eventually, after finding some respite, he looked up, towards the beautiful stained glass windows that dominated the centre of the temple. With the steady waxing of the moon, the nights were growing brighter. And as a result, the stained artistry shone just as well as it did in the daytime. Multi-coloured shadows, half resembling the images on the windows played across the floor of the altar. He sighed to himself.

“What would you do?” he asked the image of Princess Luna. The princess of course, did not reply. She merely maintained her posture, her forelegs flailing as she reared up. Her one visible eye looked to hold a steely determination. Yet as Dusk looked on, it seemed to take on an almost pitying, maternal expression. It almost felt as if she was looking directly at him.

Dusk was startled out of his thoughts when another, decidedly more real being, sat down beside him.

“If you really want her to answer you, son, you should consider visiting the moon.” It was Father Moonapple’s voice. The elderly minister had elected to remain behind in order to maintain, and if necessary, safeguard the sanctity of the temple, as well as continue with his regular services. After all, without Moonapple, there would be nopony to give a general absolution when the time came. He sat down in the pew directly across from Dusk.

Over the past week or so, his temperament had softened noticeably. He no longer had the short temper and gruff attitude Dusk had found when he first met him on the road to San Maretonio. He still kept a small hip flask under his robes though. He was a far cry from the old minister Dusk remembered from his foalhood.

“I just wish I had somepony else to turn to, Father,” Dusk replied. “I mean, yes, I’ve led ponies before. I’ve taken them into battle. But this…” he trailed off. “Father, you do realise, we may not come out of this one.”

“I may not be a soldier, colonel,” Moonapple replied. “But I always was led to believe that any situation carries risk. You’ve taken us through quite a few tricky situations these past few months. Hay, any day now, a lot of ponies are going to reach safety thanks to you.”

“I’m sure General Custard was equally confident in success, Father. And look what happened to him.”

General Thick Custard was the head of a Royal Guard expedition out into what was then the unexplored territory of the buffalo tribes. While subsequent settlers would do their best to work with, and negotiate with, the buffalo tribes, Custard took a different approach. He tried to drive them out. He was warned of their fighting capabilities, but took no heed, believing that since he had come through so many close shaves before, smelling of roses, this one would be no different.

He, and his entire command, was lost to enemy action, when the buffalo encircled and destroyed the ponies outright. The incident was taught ever since as the price of overconfidence and ignorance. The chief issue was that he had ignored all those around him, and tried to lead alone.

Dusk had expected a number of responses from Moonapple. Everything from gentle encouragement and reassurance, to a much more stern command to pull himself together, since now was the time they all needed him to have his head in the game. What he got stunned him into silence.

“Colonel, Custard was a pussy. You ain’t.” Dusk took a moment to fetch his jaw from the floor. A member of the clergy, using such language, in Luna’s house no less!

Still, after he recovered his senses and thought, Dusk did feel some confidence in himself returning. He wasn’t some overconfident general. Everything that had happened had been the result of everypony pooling their ideas. He might be the most senior officer, but he was not alone at the top of the tree.

After his surprising outburst, Moonapple said nothing further. He left Dusk alone with his thoughts again, and began to prepare the temple for the service in an hour’s time.

Flintlock meanwhile had returned to Dusk’s office. While the colonel did his upmost to calm his nerves, the captain had taken it upon himself to start considering other options. As any good chess player knows, it is prudent to think several moves ahead. Dusk had a general plan, yes, but he had not covered some of the more tactical decisions. His plan, whilst valid, was still quite vague.

Assuming that they did find the enemy army tonight, what were they to do? This was Flintlock’s role as Dusk’s dutiful second-in-command. Dusk drew up the grand schemes, whilst Flintlock made it possible, and worked out the finer points. Tonight for example, Dusk had been the one to suggest searching each of the areas likely to hold the enemy army. But it had been Flintlock who had assigned everypony to their sections. Sorted out who was going where. He even provided them with routes and ways to approach the enemy without risk of detection. In that sense, it was far more work playing second fiddle than it was being the first chair. A trying, but nonetheless apt way of testing an officer for his own command someday.

Flintlock smiled to himself. If they did somehow make it out of this, they would all be damned heroes. They would have pulled off one of the greatest escapades in military history. There would certainly be medals and promotions involved. Major Flintlock certainly had a nice ring to it.

He shook his head to clear his mind, there was no point trying to gallop before you could walk after all. Blinking his amber eyes, which were watering a little from the candle light, he returned his attention to the various maps that were laid out on the table.

Flintlock’s first order of business was the backup plan. If there was no good news tonight, they would need to start up a new search. That meant trying new areas. They couldn’t just send the few fliers they had out all over the desert. Even if they flew non-stop for the remaining time they all had, Flintlock worked out that they would cover less than a quarter of the desert. If only they’d gone north, towards where the Crystal Empire once stood. The cold might have worked to their advantage. Perhaps they could have sought asylum in Yak-yakistan; that small nation was isolationist, but also quite powerful militarily speaking. The Royal Guard wouldn’t even think about following them there.

He realised he was getting side-tracked again. He did his best to shake the cobwebs from his head and focus. Luna knew he needed to. Rather than search for general routes that the enemy might take, which he would then have to guess at how far along they were, Flintlock considered the other side of troop movement; rest areas. Everypony had to rest sometime, and given the estimated size of the enemy army bearing down on them, the camp would be quite large. Camouflaged or not, it would be not too difficult to spot from the air. He quickly set to work, looking for concealed areas, hidden valleys, anywhere that might provide cover. If not tonight, he would find them soon, he would bet his wings on that.

Lieutenant Sentry also now found himself idle. Having been quite involved in most of the recent escapades, the lull was somewhat unsettling to his younger, more eager mind. Until recently, he’d been running patrols every night, he’d gone on a raid with Flintlock, and he’d even helped devise the plan that was currently underway.

However, whilst he was merely a lieutenant, technically a second lieutenant but he didn’t like to mention that, he was still an officer. With his rank came experience that could prove vital in the coming days. Plus, since he was so heavily involved in planning their current operation, Dusk had denied him the opportunity to take part in the search. The colonel had argued that the risk of his capture, and subsequent interrogation, was too great. The enlisted sent out on the search only knew that they were looking for the enemy. Aside from that they knew nothing, and therefore could say nothing if the worst happened.

It was a sensible precaution to be sure, but that didn’t mean Sentry had to like it. Being a bit younger than the other officers, he had an unfortunate tendency to take things personally. None of the other officers were cleared to take part in operations either. But for Sentry, he couldn’t help but view it as though he was being denied a chance to prove himself, just as he had during the war. He’d fought for three long years starting as a private, worked his way up to corporal, then sergeant, and eventually had become an officer, but he didn’t feel as though he had achieved all that he could. He had rather hoped the war would grant him his own captaincy.

As a result of this complex, he was now pacing along the battlements, moving between the four gun batteries. Mind you, it was debatable whether a single small calibre canon could qualify itself as a battery.

Above him, the night was clear, and the moon was now high in the sky. The eerie, unsettling image of the so-called ‘Mare in the Moon’ was emblazoned on the surface. While not so much of a fanatic as Dusk was, Sentry was nonetheless appalled at what had happened to Princess Luna at the hooves of her own sister. Another consequence of his lack of years was a firm and decidedly platonic view of right and wrong, with no room for grey in between.

As he continued to pace impatiently, his sharp ears, which could just about pick up sonic level sounds, picked out a faint sound in the quietness of the night. He instantly recognised it; the sound of air rushing over wings. Somepony was heading towards them. It ought to be one or more of the patrols that was sent out. However, Sentry was not about to take that chance.

“You there!” he called down to one of the unicorns outside the walls of the mission. “Send up a flare will you.” The unicorn in question promptly angled his spiralled horn skywards, and launched a small point of light. Coloured bright red, this simple spell was great for lighting up the area, as well as serving to dazzle any would be attackers.

The spell rocketed up before bursting like a firework and bathing the area in a reddish hue. With his specially adapted amber eyes, Sentry searched for a hint of the approaching ponies. He quickly, and much to his relief, saw three pairs of amber eyes glinting in the darkness. They were thestrals; one of the patrols returning home. The flare spell hung in the air for a few moments longer before it extinguished itself, returning the desert to the darkness of the night.

“Sergeant,” Sentry said to one of the ponies manning the nearby battery. “Go and find Colonel Dusk and Captain Flintlock. Tell them one of the patrols had returned.

“Sir,” the sergeant replied. He hastily took wing to glide down into the courtyard. Sentry meanwhile waved at the approaching trio, who happily waved back. The question was, what news did they bring?

The three returning guards, after touching down and letting their wings drop to their sides for a moment, were quickly escorted to Dusk’s office to deliver their report. Everypony stopped their usual activities to wait for the result. It could be that soon enough, they would be marching out to go and take on the Royal Guard, just like the old days.

With Flintlock bringing up the rear, the three young privates were herded into Dusk’s office, with the door being closed, and locked, behind them. Dusk, who had been brought galloping straight out of the temple by the news of the first group’s return, was seated behind his desk.

“Report,” he ordered sharply. The young thestral in charge of the small group stepped forward, stood to attention, and saluted, before giving his concise report.

“Sir, our patrol covered the entirety of the designated area twice at high altitude. We found no sign of the enemy, or any indication that they had passed through the area.” Flintlock did his best to hold back a groan, while Dusk merely scowled at the map that lay in front of him.

“Alright, very good,” Dusk said at length. “Hit the mess, clean yourselves up and then get some rest. Dismissed.” The three privates again drew themselves to attention and saluted. “Git!” Dusk ordered irritably. They quickly left the office. Flintlock closed the door behind them, again bolting the door. He snorted angrily, tossing his head.

“Well, that’s one lot come home to roost,” he said, annoyance clear in his voice. “We’ve still got two more patrols out though. There’s still hope yet, Star.” Dusk looked up from his desk.

“Yes, I suppose you’re right there, Flint. It wouldn’t have hurt our chances if we’d had such an early opportunity to head out though.” Taking a pencil from his desk, and holding it between his teeth, Dusk crossed out the highlighted area on the map the patrol had been searching.

“One down, two to go.” He rose from his chair and headed for the door. “I’m going to head back to the temple. I think I’ll stay there for the service. If either of the other patrols returns before then, let me know at once.”

“Right,” Flintlock replied. He too was planning on returning to his earlier activities. With that, the waiting resumed.

However, this time the interval was nowhere near as long. Not fifteen minutes later, the second patrol returned. Once again, flares went up to identify them, a challenge went out, and the three thestrals alighted in the courtyard. Again, the three guards were taken by Flintlock to Dusk’s office to hear their report in private. The result was, unfortunately, the same as the first group. They hadn’t found the enemy camp, nor had they even been able to find any trace of their movements through the area.

Both the open plain and the odd causeway between the shifting sands had been searched. That the army was advancing across the plain had been Dusk’s biggest fear. It would mean a hard battle for his own smaller force, with little opportunity for guile and cunning; perhaps the only thing that would tip things their way. And with the causeway ruled out, there was less concern about a complete encirclement. At least they wouldn’t end up in a ‘kessel’ as the griffons called it. If the enemy did make it to the Moonflower, they would have a chance to make a break for it cross-country.

So, all that remained now was the apple orchards. These were a relatively new arrival in the territory. As civilisation began to spread further and further into what was quite hostile country for ponies, the need for fresh produce became a problem. Railroads were still a new concept, there was only one leading this far south. As a result, it was difficult to get things like fruits and vegetables out to the territory, without them spoiling on the way.

To counter the problem, some earth ponies were attempting to cultivate the arid land, planting trees and roots, and seeing what would grow. While not as bountiful as those grown back in Equestria’s interior, these trees could survive and bear some fruit. Earth pony farmers were even beginning selective breeding to adapt the trees for the environment. Almost a thousand years later, this would result in the creation of one of the largest apple orchards in Equestria, near the town of Appleloosa, which was founded following the boom in farming in the region, as well as improved relations with the buffalo tribes.

The enemy, as young Sentry had suggested, could be using the scattered orchards to serve as camouflage, masking their approach. However, such a place could be turned to their own advantage. The trees would make visibility on the ground a chore in itself, and manoeuvring would be difficult. It could work as an ideal ambush site. The trees sheltered both sides from the air, could conceal unicorn sharpshooters, and if they attacked at night, the difficulty in moving would spread panic and confusion amongst the enemy. The question was though, would they be there. Dusk pondered this as he again sat in the comforting quietness of the Lunar temple.

The last patrol did not return for quite some time. Dusk had expected that they would be back around the same interval as the last patrol. Instead, much to his concern, he found himself going to attend the nightly service in the temple without the final patrol having returned. The service lasted for a further hour, and all the way through, Dusk was expecting some runner to come up to him and inform him that the last patrol was in. But there was no such luck.

When the service concluded, just as the clock was reaching eleven, Dusk found they had still not returned. By now thoroughly concerned, he went to consult Flintlock, who had taken to standing near one of the cannons, looking out. The look on his face could be likened to that of a mare standing out on the widow’s walk of a lighthouse.

“Still no sign?” Dusk asked him as he walked up. Flintlock shook his head, showing clear signs of worry for both the mission and the stallions that had been sent out.

“No. I’m starting to get worried, Star. If they aren’t back by the turn of the watch, I think we ought to assume them missing in action.” Dusk looked at his hooves.

“What do you think we should do then? Send out a search party, or assume they’ve been captured.”

“We assume they’re dead, Star,” Flintlock replied flatly. “And no rescue attempts; all that would do is cost us more ponies.” Dusk began to ponder, trying to work out a better plan. If the patrol had been captured or, Luna forbid, killed, then they had just lost the advantage.

“Wait! Sir, what’s that?” One of the earth ponies who manned the large cannons was looking up excitedly, his hoof gesturing to the north. The two thestrals, who possessed better eyes, quickly scanned the horizon and picked out three flyers against the starlit sky.

“I see them,” Dusk said, feeling suddenly relieved. He called down to one of the unicorns. “Send up a flare!” For the third time that night, the sky was briefly bathed in a bright red glow. The three were quickly identified and ordered to report to Dusk immediately.

The colonel met them on the ground personally and with Flintlock in tow, took them to his office. All ponies present noticed that the three flyers were grinning like a timberwolf with a young lamb.

“Well, sergeant, what news?” Dusk asked excitedly. Grinning, the sergeant took out his dagger that was carried on his armour; a last resort weapon for close defence. In one swift movement, he rammed the blade into the map on the table, right into the centre of the apple orchard.

“We got ‘em, sir.”

Chapter 10 - Ride of the Thestrals

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Until a few minutes ago, Dusk had been wrought with worry. The entire plan that had been drawn up to elude the pursuing forces had hung in the balance. There were dozens of ways it could have all unravelled right there and then. But, as luck would have it, fate had smiled upon the beleaguered ponies that made up the rag-tag force of the Moonflower garrison. They now knew for certain where the enemy was. They knew how many there were, what equipment they had with them, and had a rough idea of the enemy’s plan of attack. And so now, they began to plan their first strike.

“Okay, okay, settle down, everypony,” Flintlock called as the assembled officers chatted excitedly about the recent stroke of luck. Seeing so little effect of his words, Flintlock raised the volume.

“I said; QUIET!” His days as a sergeant had left him with a commanding voice that could still intimidate ponies. The chatter dropped off as Dusk began to brief them.

“Alright,” he began. “As you all know, we had previously sent out patrols to cover three possible approach routes to the mission. We now know where the enemy is. They’re marching through these apple orchards. Here.” Grabbing a ruler, he gestured to the relevant area of the map.

“The apple orchards are one of the largest this far south. It’s not exactly a full on forest, but it provides excellent cover. Our patrol only managed to spot them due to the light from a few fires. I think you’d all agree that this gives us a great opportunity to launch an ambush.” There were several murmurs of agreement and a few hushed conversations.

“Our original plan was, and remains, to hold up the enemy, by way of several sudden, sharp attacks. This will buy time for the civilians to make the Badlands, and also force the enemy to slow their pace, allowing us to flee when the time is right. If we can keep them in this wooded area, then we have a good chance of victory.

“A series of small scale surprise attacks, ambushes, and booby traps, should be enough to slow the enemy column down, or even bring it to a halt. So, what should be our first move?” Eager to offer his two bits, Sentry stood up and addressed the other officers.

“Well, I think we’d all agree, that it would be best to strike tonight, before the dawn. If we wait until tomorrow night, then who knows how far they might get. We don’t after all know the pace that this force is moving at. It could be that by tomorrow they could clear the orchards. Out in open country it’ll be much harder to attack them with the numbers we have.”

“That makes sense,” Flintlock agreed. “We move out tonight, lay into them for three days or so, then fall back to here, complete any preparations for leaving and then make a break for it.”

“Hang on though,” Quick Strike broke in. “You’re saying that you want everypony to move out tonight, reach these orchards, and launch an attack? For Luna’s sake it’s almost thirty miles! I know that might be alright for you thestrals and pegasi, but us unicorns and the earth ponies, we’d never make that distance in time. And if we somehow did, we’d be exhausted; there’d be no question of launching an attack.”

“Well, can we just make this another flyers only mission?” Dusk asked. Flintlock shook his head.

“We need the unicorns and their magic to help lay traps, provide shielding if needed, and act as sharpshooters, possibly even providing supressing fire. As for the earth ponies, they’re ideally suited for closer engagements, hoof to hoof combat. If we just took thestrals and the few pegasi we have, any attack we launched would get overrun. There just aren’t enough of us. Either we do this together, or not at all.”

And so, once again, the assembled ponies hit a proverbial brick wall. Consequently, they fell back into silence, each one trying to find some way of moving all the troops over the distance in the short time they had. Whilst the healthy mix of thestrals, unicorns, earth ponies, and the odd pegasi had frequently served them well down the years, there were times, such as this one, where it could be a hindrance. Eventually, after about twenty minutes or so, Flintlock spoke up again.

“Hey, how about this?” he said, prompting the others to all look up from their own thoughts and theories. “How did the princess and other higher ups used to get about?”

“They had those fancy chariots. Princess Celestia still does. They use ‘em to ship the nobles about too,” Sentry replied.

“Exactly! So why don’t we just do that? We have plenty of wagons here. If we spread the weight right, and use our stronger flyers, we could airlift everypony else.”

“We’re talking about sixty ponies, Flint,” Dusk countered. “Not just a couple nobles.” Flintlock shook his head.

“No, we can do it. It wouldn’t be the lap of luxury, but we could do it. Ten non-flyers to a wagon, with two thestrals to pull it. Six wagons in all.” Dusk still looked doubtful.

“Lieutenant Quick Strike, you know more about magic than anypony else in here,” he said, turning to the unicorn. “Do you think it will work?” Quick Strike considered for a moment.

“Well, colonel, thestrals have the same passive magic as pegasi. Aerodynamically they cannot fly. In pegasi, when they’re connected to a chariot, the frame was used to channel the magic, hence how they could pull it. I suppose that, if we could modify the wagons as Captain Flintlock has suggested, then yes, we could do it.” Dusk was now intrigued.

“Of course, you would be slowed down a little by the weight of the wagons, but not by much. We should certainly be able to get into position to attack before dawn breaks. We would though, most likely, be down twelve thestrals. They would have to stay with the wagons to ensure our swift departure.” Dusk decided he could live with that.

“How long will it take to modify the wagons?” he asked.

“If all the unicorns pitch in, call it ten minutes per wagon. We’d be ready to go in an hour.”

“Do it,” Dusk ordered.

With the meeting concluded, two things happened. Firstly, the entirety of the Moonflower was scoured for the vitally needed wagons that would be used to transport the unicorns and earth ponies in the garrison. Four were simply taken from the wagons that the thestrals had used to haul supplies whilst out on the trail. Another was found languishing behind the temple. After a bit of repair work, it was passed fit for military use. The final one proved something of a challenge. In the end, the thestrals ended up borrowing a wagon from the blacksmiths in San Maretonio.

With the wagons in their possession, they were first stripped of anything unnecessary, such as shovels and other implements that were fixed on the side, as well as the seats for the driver, which wouldn’t be needed. After that, a few ponies broke out the paint and began to paint them. This was mainly to ensure that the wagons, like the thestrals that would pull them, blended in with the night sky. Care was also taken to ensure nothing reflective remained, such as metal covers or steel bolts. As an humorous finishing touch, and as a way of keeping up tradition, a few of the more talented ponies painted mascots on the side of the wagons. In the manner of soldiers, some of these were quite lewd. Father Moonapple in particular objected to one group of ‘artists’ painting Princess Luna reclining rather informally on a cloud, giving what could only be described as ‘bedroom eyes’ to anypony that looked her way.

With that done, the unicorns promptly set to work. As thestrals, neither Dusk, Flintlock, or Sentry fully understood what they were doing. Their own magic was something they tended to take for granted, as it required no spells or concentration; it merely acted when they flew. In fact, it was the magic itself that allowed them to fly at all. In contrast, the unicorns were now doing what they referred to as ‘connecting’ the wagons. When the two thestrals hooked up to the front, their own magic would spread to the wagon behind them. Without this aid, the wagon would either not get off the ground, or if it did, it would continuously pull the flyers down.

The unicorns took a fair hour or so, going to each of the wagons and steadily covering it in their odd aura, moving their horns across the surface of the wagon. At length though, they were all pronounced ready. The wagons were by no means comfortable, or particularly safe for that matter; wood would do little to protect ponies from spears or magic blasts. However, it was believed that they would do what was required. They would each be able to carry ten ponies, just, to and from the battlefield. Plus, they would be protected to some degree by the thestrals and few pegasi who would be flying with them.

Still, when he lay eyes on the finished creations, Dusk wasn’t exactly sure.

“This is what we’re going to use?” Dusk asked, a noticeable lack of confidence evident in his voice.

“They may not be pretty, colonel,” Quick Strike replied, “But they’ll do the job.” The colonel briefly ran a hoof through his mane.

“Alright, lieutenant, if you say so.” Dusk still wasn’t feeling entirely comfortable about this. From what he’d been told, he had been expecting six chariot-like vehicles, camouflaged and possibly even armed in some way. What he actually got was six jalopies painted black, dark blue and grey, with some bawdy pictures of the princess on the nose. Magic or not, he doubted these would even get off the ground.

Still, it wasn’t as if there were other options available to them. This was the only way that they could transport the part of the garrison that was confined to the ground.

“Get some canvas covers to go over the top of the wagons; keep the guards warm,” Dusk suggested. “We’ll start with the mission briefing in ten minutes, in the mess hall.”

“Yes, sir,” Quick replied, touching the brim of his helmet in a salute.

With their transport sorted and ready to go, the guards all gathered in the mess hall. Even here, it was something of a tight squeeze. After all, this time everypony was being committed to the operation. This wouldn’t be a small contingent; this would be everything they had being thrown at the enemy. Hay, this would most likely be their last night in the Moonflower. They would only briefly return here to destroy the cannons and collect the remaining supplies. The rest of the time would be spent in the apple orchards, doing their upmost to slow the enemy down.

“Alright everypony, listen up,” Flintlock called out over the general hubbub. Conversations quickly died away. “In a short time, we will be moving out to meet and engage with the enemy. We know from previous recon patrols that they’re currently holed up…” he turned to a large map board that stood behind him, the Moonflower, the apple orchards, and the enemy positions were all marked. “Here.” He pointed to the red markers that indicated the foe.

“We don’t have the numbers to win in a straight fight, so this operation is going to consist mainly of ambushes and hit and run tactics. So business as usual.” This got a laugh out of the assembled ponies.

“The first phase of this operation, will be getting to the area in question. Our friendly neighbourhood unicorns have modified six wagons for us. These can now be towed by flyers and held aloft. So, all you unicorns and earth ponies will be riding in these, with ten ponies to each stick. The rest of us will fly with the six wagons, acting as escort. The flight shouldn’t take more than forty minutes.

“Once we get to the staging area, the wagons will be hidden, and we’ll all scatter out. Briefings for individual groups will take place whilst in flight. After that, each group will, at the designated time, briefly engage with the enemy, by way of ambush, booby traps, or hit and run attacks. This will go on for three days, during which the enemy advance must be brought to a near halt. With that accomplished, we will all regroup at the staging area, board the wagons and move out, stopping back here briefly to finished evacuation procedures. And after that, we ought to be home free. Questions?” There were none.

The plan was complex to be sure, but all involved believed that the chances of success warranted the risk. After all, it was these kinds of tactics that the smaller Lunar bands had been famous for during the war.

With the briefing over, the assembled guards all headed outside into the courtyard. Here, they were divided up into their various squads, sections, platoons and companies. For the thestrals and the two pegasi, this was merely business as usual. However, for the unicorns and earth ponies, a slight re-organisation was needed.

Naturally, each company and section had a healthy mix of the three main tribes of ponies. But since those who could not fly would be riding in the wagons, they would have to be temporarily separated for the rest of their unit and placed in a ‘stick’ of ten ponies for the ride in the wagons. Plus, a few flyers would have to also fly in harness, pulling the large wagons to the field.

Luckily, the temporary disorganisation was not too much of an issue. The only real difficulty was getting the ponies into the wagons. Quick Strike had warned that travel would not be in the lap of luxury, but Dusk hadn’t expected things to be this dire. What with all the equipment and the armour they carried, a lot of the ponies needed help just getting into the wagons. They were, after all, quite tall vehicles in comparison with a Royal Guard chariot. Entering through the tailgate, the ten ponies sat along the sides, crammed in like sardines, with their weapons and other equipment in the middle between their hooves. With boarding and other preparations done, the long take off procedure could begin.

The thestrals took off first, in small groups so as to limit the risk of an accidental collision. As had been the case with the previous raid, they all circled the mission, protecting themselves and their comrades still on the ground.

With about half of their number circling above them, the wagons now began their take off. Given their size and weight, they instead had to take off at a run, rather than simply flapping their wings and heading skyward. The large, heavy carriages lumbered across the comparatively small courtyard, each one could be heard groaning in protest at the high speed and excess weight. Dusk held his breath for a moment. He feared that they might not even clear the far wall.

Luckily, just before such an unfortunate outcome, the wagons clawed their way into the air, with the poor thestrals pulling them already sweating visibly. They had a good forty minute flight ahead yet.

Finally, the remaining thestrals still on the ground took to the sky, Dusk, Flintlock, and Sentry included. With around two hundred ponies dotting the skies, the small armada began to form up. The wagons would be in the centre of the formation, protected from all angles by thestral escorts. And so, with the moon still high in the blackened sky, they set off to face the foe.

It was a cold night, with a fairly strong wind blowing. For the thestrals, that meant getting buffeted around by the breezes. Most of them suddenly found themselves longing for a functioning weather patrol section. But out in the desert of Appleloosa Territory, such things were hard to come by. And so, they endured, shakily holding formation as best they could. Still, once or twice a couple of ponies bumped into each other in mid-air, often ending in a few choice words from the pony on the receiving end, and stammered apologies from the offending pony.

Conditions were not much better for the unicorns and earth ponies riding in the wagons. Like their winged counterparts, they too were getting buffeted around. Even worse, as most weren’t used to flying, least of all in such turbulent conditions, there were quite a few cases of ponies having to lean out over the side to be sick. Many cursed the lack of a few packs of medicine that would help settle their stomachs.

Even more annoying for the wingless contingent, the tarpaulin covers on the wagons could not be tied down enough to seal them off from the outside, so the cabin was filled with wind and noise as the covers rattled irritably.

“Don’t worry,” one of the earth ponies bellowed over the howling wind. “It’ll all be fine when we land.” The moment these words left his mouth, the wagon dropped several feet and the gravitational forces propelled him up, causing him to bang his head on one of the struts, and the rest of the group to burst out laughing.

As for Dusk, who was flying alongside Flintlock quite near to the centre of the formation, he was starting to think that the universe itself, never mind Celestia, was conspiring against him. He’d been a guard for quite a few years, and this had to be one of the worst flights he’d ever had to make. Out here in the warm desert it had been a case of long, still days, and clear, cool nights. Now that seemed to all have been thrown out the window. It was as if they were flying through the Everfree Forest. Eventually though, the torture ended.

“There it is!” Flintlock bellowed, despite the fact that Dusk was no more than six feet away. The colonel could just about hear him. Following Flintlock’s outstretched hoof, he saw the medium sized clearing that Flintlock had selected as a landing site.

“Alright,” he replied. “Let’s get these ponies on the ground. Send a squad down there to make sure it’s clear, and then we’ll start getting everypony on the ground.”

Flintlock decided to send four ponies down to investigate the landing zone; Sentry, Comet, the young thestral who had been with him when they first found the Royal Guard scouts, and two of his own recruits. The four thestrals landed together in the near centre of the clearing. Each one did his upmost to land softly on grass rather than on bare earth, lest their arrival be noticed.

As soon as they touched down, each of the four ponies began to scan the area on front of them. With no obvious signs of the enemy, they cautiously began to probe further in. Miming to keep silent Sentry quietly ordered his four subordinates.

“Alright, we’ll sweep around the clearing anti-clockwise, heading about fifteen feet into the trees. Walk softly, and keep your eyes and ears open.” The three ponies with him nodded to show their understanding.

And so, they carefully began to creep around the clearing, walking a wedge formation; one pony scanning forward, two checking left and right, and one pony acting as the tail end Charlie. The wind that had been battering them through the heavens was significantly calmer here on the ground. The slight breeze that blew through the trees concealed the sound of their careful hoofsteps. Of course, Sentry reminded himself, that advantage also applied to any enemy waiting in the shadows.

Up above the four thestrals, the rest of the ponies were still circling above the area, and were still being buffeted by the high winds. It had been around five minutes since the squad had been sent down, and as yet, they hadn’t returned. Dusk was starting to get concerned. After all, they couldn’t just stay up here forever. There weren’t any stable clouds to land on, and even if they could, the earth ponies and unicorns would be stuck in their wagons, since they lacked the magic necessary to walk on clouds. He pondered briefly; perhaps some unicorn could create a cloud walking spell? Somepony had managed to turn dragon fire into a mail carrier after all.

Meanwhile, Sentry’s small band was still working their way around. They were almost three quarters of the way done, when the young thestral lieutenant heard something. Instantly, he raised a hoof, signalling his fellows to halt and get down. Keeping silent, he strained his ears; he was sure he heard something.

But there was nothing. Perhaps it was just the wind? Turning to look over his right shoulder, he turned to Comet.

“Did you hear something just now, Comet?” he asked, speaking in a near silent whisper.

“There’s something out there, sir,” Comet replied, equally hushed. “A little to right of us.”

“Alright,” Sentry said. He turned to the other two thestrals. “You two,” he said nothing more, communicating only by hoof signals. His instructions were to circle around behind where the sound had come from. Then they would both go in with a pincer movement. The two thestrals nodded and cautiously moved away.

Keeping low, Sentry and Comet stalked through the long grass like a pair of timberwolves. Whilst they couldn’t yet see their prey, their bat-like ears granted them hearing vastly superior to other ponies, another adaptation that made their species excellent night time warriors. As they continued to creep forward, they began to pick up on other sounds, there were at least two of them out there, they could just about hear them breathing, and a little way beyond, once or twice, Sentry picked out soft hoofsteps; that would be the other two thestrals.

Finally, the pair came to the spot that hopefully contained their quarry. It looked like just another patch of tall grass, swaying peacefully in the breeze. But Sentry and Comet could both pick out faint sounds of life from within. Taking great care, the two edged ever closer. When the moment was right, they would all spring through the grass and attack the foe with their bare hooves. Swords and spears were simply too unwieldy for this kind of combat.

Then, just barely, Sentry spotted a glint of gold among the desert grass; guard armour. He realised that they were facing away from him and Comet. Obviously, they had seen them split up and feared an attack from behind. Ironically, they had now left their front exposed. Turning to Comet, Sentry gestured to the two guards. He began to nod and mouthed

“One.” Both ponies tensed up, like coiled springs.

“Two.” Sentry felt his heartbeat begin to race, his fight or flight response was kicking in.


The two sprung out of their hiding spot, leaping at the two guards, their wings spread in an ancient scare tactic. The guards didn’t even to have time to turn around before they were on them, and found themselves tackled to the ground. The other two thestrals burst forth a moment later to help.

Sentry first threw a punch to stun his opponent, who attempted to kick him away with his hind legs. Dodging quickly, Sentry all but summersaulted in the air, landing in front of the pegasus. This placed him in a perfect position to kick hard with his hind leg at his opponent’s skull. That left him out for the count as one of the other thestrals grabbed him and covered his mouth. Neither side had made any noise so far, aside from pained grunts as blows landed.

Comet had a tougher time. Being of a slighter build, his opponent initially was able to throw him off before he could pin him. Without weight to rely on, Comet turned to strength and speed. Flaring his wings, Comet slashed at his foe with the blades mounted on the tips, disorientating the pegasus. He then kicked out with his forelegs, striking his opponent in the knees. As soon as his forelegs buckled, Comet turned, and bucked him onto his back. With that, he followed Flintlock’s training, jumped on the pegasus’ barrel and punched at the stallion’s throat as hard as he could.

And just like that, it was over. In total, the whole matter had lasted less than twenty seconds. Both of the enemy guards were dead; one from Sentry’s swift kick, which had broken his neck through compression; the helmet having protected his skull, and the other from Comet’s punch, which had collapsed his windpipe.

After taking a moment to collect themselves, they finished up their sweep. Though really, if there had been anypony else, they would have shown their faces as soon as the fight started. Satisfied, the four ponies, again on Sentry’s non-verbal signal, took to the skies.

It had now been ten minutes since the squad had been sent down and Dusk was performing the aerial version of pacing. They’d been gone far too long, of that he was certain. That meant they would have to find somewhere else to land, assuming there wasn’t a boatload of guards hiding behind a cloud. The anxious colonel was just about the give the order, when Flintlock spotted them.

“Look, there they are!” he called over the wind.

The four thestrals flew a little unsteadily, having gotten used to the calmer winds down below. Dusk also noted that they were sporting a couple of minor wounds as well. Something was up. With Flintlock alongside him, Dusk glided over and flew with Sentry and Comet.

“What happened down there?” he asked.

“Just a little welcoming committee, sir,” Sentry replied, a little cockily. “Two hostiles killed, sir. The landing zone is clear now.” Dusk smiled, feeling relieved.

“Alright, good work,” he said. He then turned to call to Flintlock. “Captain, let’s start getting ponies on the ground. I want a defensive perimeter set up within the hour!”

With a great collective sigh, the ponies of the Moonflower began to take their turns landing on terra firma. The wagons were given priority, allowing the exhausted thestrals that had kept them aloft to finally rest. Without fail, the moment they were released from the harnesses, each one of them fell fast asleep. They’d need it over the next two days.

Chapter 11 - Cloak and Dagger

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As soon as the first wagon landed softly on the ground, ponies were pouring out and doing their best to establish a secure perimeter. This was arguably their most vulnerable moment after all. Until everypony was landed and re-organised, their strength as a fighting force was weakened and their responses would be slower. If discovered, it would be much easier for them to be overrun.

Luckily though, it seemed the two pegasi that Sentry and the others had encountered earlier were the only ones that had been out here. Perhaps they were forward scouts, or they had simply left the camp to explore the area. In any case, Dusk ensured that they were both treated properly; the bodies were taken away and buried with military honours. Even enemies deserved some modicum of respect in death.

Around twenty minutes later, everypony had landed and reconnected with their friends and comrades. It was still quite dark, though Dusk expected that, before long, the first hints of daylight would be appearing on the horizon. Gathering together, Dusk and Flintlock began to brief them all.

“Alright, good to see you all made it here in one piece, more or less.” That got a laugh out of the assembled ponies. Dusk continued. “Now, all platoon and squad leaders have received their briefings whilst we were in the air. They will be briefing you on your individual mission objectives. For security, you will not be informed of the activities of anypony else unless absolutely necessary. However, we will be going over the general plan with you now.” He turned to Flintlock. “Captain Flintlock?” The grizzled thestral stepped forward.

“The plan on the table, everypony, is simple enough. This,” he stamped on the ground with a hoof. “Is our line in the sand. We have to hold the Bright Lights here for as long as possible, so that the civilians can safely reach the Badlands. We’re going to be facing tough opposition, and we’re going to be heavily outnumbered. But I say,” his voice rose a few octaves. “When has that ever stopped us?!” The guardsponies cheered at that. Flintlock allowed himself a small smile. And turned the floor over to Dusk.

“Alright everypony. Good Luck to you all, and remember; hold fast.” With that, the meeting broke up.

Since the numbers were so disproportionate, the thestrals would be carrying out a short and sharp guerrilla style campaign in the apple orchards. They could move through the woods more easily, strike quickly, and then disappear back into the night; it was what they were best at.

And in the style of guerrilla campaigns, central command would be somewhat weakened. Dusk would remain at the landing zone, with a small staff and defence force, directing the overall plan and taking reports on progress. However, the attacks would be undertaken by several small groups of ponies, each one unaware of the activities of the other. Much to Dusk’s sadness, he knew most likely that at least one of these small units would not return when the time came to fall back. As such, they couldn’t risk the other groups being compromised, which is what had happened when they had captured Arrow Head.

Before departing himself to lead one of the units, Flintlock saw to a few finishing touches around the landing zone. The wagons were quickly wheeled into the trees and covered with leaves and branches. They were by no means invisible, but they could go unnoticed by passing enemy troops. He also saw to the construction of another network of foxholes around the area. As before, these most likely wouldn’t be used in a straight fight, but would allow the enemy to pass over them before opening up and catching them in crossfire.

Ideally, none of this would be needed, as the thestrals would be far away before the enemy reached here. By then, the constant surprise attacks would have forced the Royal Guard to slow its advance to a crawl. And by the time they realised they were no longer being harassed, the lead gained by the smaller, swifter group of Lunar loyalists, would be enough to ensure they reached the Badlands without incident.

“Alright, Star,” Flintlock said as he settled the saddlebags onto his back. “Everything is set up to go here.” It felt a little strange for him, more than he cared to admit. For several months, Flintlock had stuck by Dusk, serving as his right hoof pony. But as an experienced officer, he was now needed on the front line. Dusk meanwhile, as the commanding officer, could not be spared.

“You just be careful out there,” Dusk joked to hide his concern. “I don’t want to have to waste time training up somepony else to your standard.” His smile turned to a frown for a moment. “Be on your guard and take care, my friend.”

“You too, Star. You too. I’ll see you at the rendezvous!”

Flintlock then departed to join the small section he would be leading. Sentry had been put in charge of another, as had Quick Strike along with several other officers. The only ones remaining here was Dusk himself, the general staff officers, and Father Moonapple, who had insisted on coming along, rather than being left all by his lonesome at the Moonflower.

With his best friend now absent, Dusk retreated to his small campaign tent. Having left the Moonflower, his living conditions, along with everypony else’s, had gone decidedly backwards. Here, they at least had the luxury of tents and blankets. Out there though, it would be a case finding a sheltered spot and doing their best to keep warm, living off the apples and other foods they could find.

Dusk’s tent was large enough, with a small fold out table inside. On it sat a map, with movable markers indicating where their own forces were, and where the enemy was believed to be. This would be updated by a steady stream of reports from each unit as it met with the enemy. Sighing to himself, Dusk sat down at the table.

“And now, we wait,” he muttered to himself.

Flintlock, having left Dusk and his staff far behind, now steadily pressed on through the apple orchards. He couldn’t help but feel confused as he made his way through the tall trees and the long grass. It was all such a far cry from the desert that he had been used to. It was amazing what earth pony magic could do, after all, it wasn’t just that they possessed superior strength and stamina.

He had eleven other ponies with him; a healthy mix of thestrals, unicorns and earth ponies. They would be the first part of a ‘one-two punch’ manoeuvre that would hopefully rattle the enemy.

The main camp was a few more miles north of them. At present, it was believed to be lightly guarded and relatively easy to reach undetected. Since they were still so far away from San Maretonio, and unaware that they had been discovered, the Royal Guard were content to move at a steady pace, and would not be taking precautions until they drew nearer to their target.

The plan, an invention of Flintlock’s, was simple enough. Under cover of darkness, his group would sneak into the enemy camp and perform a closer inspection of the enemy, gathering intelligence and possibly taking care of some senior officers as well. With that done, they would make their presence known and raise Tartarus in the camp. In the ensuing confusion, they would retreat the way they had come. Given their superior numbers, the Royal Guard would recover from the initial shock quickly, and begin to give chase.

This was where the second group would come in. Following up behind Flintlock and his troops, this second contingent would lay traps and prepare an ambush for the enemy. Naturally, the Bright Lights would not send out everypony they had, it would just cause confusion, as it had when their forward scouts had been captured. Instead, they would send a sizeable, but nonetheless manageable force, out to bring Flintlock and his boys in. As a result, they would take a severe beating from the traps, and either be forced to retreat, or killed outright, in the eventual ambush. As a result, they would have given the main enemy force a bloody nose.

Dusk had agreed that it was a good opening move. It would also set the tone for the rest of the campaign; small scale, swift attacks coming from multiple directions. The difficulty in retaliating would demoralise the enemy, and the constant threat would force them to slow up. Then, when the time came to retreat back to the Moonflower, they would simply stop. Slowly easing off would only give the enemy a hint. So instead, they would keep giving it their all until the moment to withdraw came.

Of course, there were problems with his plan. It did depend a lot on chance. If they were picked up before the second contingent was ready, the traps wouldn’t be set and the ambush wouldn’t be prepared. Then they would suffer the fate intended for the Bright Lights. Say they ran into an enemy patrol beforehoof, or were detected before they were able to infiltrate the camp. Flintlock shook his head. There was no point in dwelling on such things now. He simply had to accept that no battle plan survived first contact with the enemy.

Flintlock reached their ‘launch point’ with a few hours of night left to protect them. They’d been careful and done all they could to leave no trace of their presence. They sure as hay didn’t want the Bright Lights following them via their tracks. They were all gathered now, the five of them, on a small hill that overlooked the enemy camp. To say it was big would be an understatement. Tents stretched as far as the eye could see. Fires burned making stealth difficult, and every now and then ponies could be seen moving between the various sections of the camp.

“Alright, we’re here. Suggestions?” Flintlock asked. He knew what needed to be done, but having seen the camp, they now needed to work out how to accomplish the task set.

“There’s no fences, we can work our way in from any angle. It might be better to work our way around.” Flintlock shook his head.

“We don’t have enough time; it’ll be dawn in another three hours or so. We need the darkness to get in, get out, ambush and disappear,” he replied. “We’ll just need to be careful. There don’t seem to be that many guards…Wait a minute.” Flintlock paused in his assessment.

Just stepping out of a tent, he spotted a guard in a more ornate form of armour. It was gold, but with a number of purple accents. This marked its owner out as a ranking officer, like a captain or major. Taking somepony like him out would do a great deal of damage, both psychologically and from a practical perspective.

“Alright; new plan,” Flintlock whispered. “See that Rupert over there?” he asked, pointing to the Royal Guard officer. “We grab him, find out what he knows, and then get rid of him. Give them time, he’ll alert the others and we can get the chase going. Sound like a good idea?” The other four guards nodded, grinning.

“Okay, we’ll work our way down the hill, and then use the tents for cover. When we reach him, we’ll get in through the back of the tent. Two of us grab him and we lift him. Then we take him up here for interrogation. If it all kicks off, I won’t object if he’s collaterally damaged.” With that, they began to make their way into the camp.

Major Steel Pike of the Equestrian Royal Guard was bored. The last meeting with the other battalion commanders had dragged on. Ever since that forward patrol came limping back through the lines, reporting their discovery and the capture of their senior officer, the top brass had been twitchy.

For Celestia’s sake, this wouldn’t be that difficult in any case. The force they could now bring to bear would easily crush the fledgling bat pony militia that was left. It didn’t help them though, that their advance on the enemy stronghold, believed to be somewhere near the town of San Maretonio, had slowed to give time for scouts to locate the enemy’s position precisely.

It was a fool’s errand coming all the way out here. At least they were comfortable though. Resting in the pleasant shade of the apple orchards, with plentiful supplies to loot, was a welcome change from marching through the rough open country that made up most of Appleloosa Territory.

Reaching into a small pocket within his armour, Pike fished out a small cigarillo case and a box of matches. The damn things could be difficult to hold, even with wings, and it was hard to stop dampness from ruining the matches, but it kept his nerves calm. He’d resolved that once this tour was over and done with, he’d do his best to kick the habit; new medical research was suggesting that tobacco was actually more harmful to a pony’s health than it was beneficial. He had been coughing a bit more recently.

Striking a match against his armour, he managed to bring a fledgling flame to life, enough at least to give him a light. Inhaling the smoke, he let out a brief cough as it suddenly went down the wrong way. A moment later though, and he was contently looking up at the night sky. Perhaps when he got back to Baltimare, he and the wife could take a vacation, give them a chance to get away from everything that had been happening over the last few months.

Suddenly though, with virtually no warning, Steel Pike felt his hooves give way from under him. He was violently hauled backwards and into the shadow of the tent, out of sight and out of everypony else’s mind. Spitting the cigarette out of his mouth, he tried to cry out, but quickly found his mouth covered.

“Keep quiet and keep still!” a whispering voice ordered. Pike struggled for a few moments. Quickly though, he realised his efforts were futile. The pony restraining him, and the one addressing him were not the same pony. He ceased his struggles and his enemy’s grip on his throat lessened.

“Good. My friend is going to take his hoof away now. Keep quiet and you will be fine. If you scream though, he will slit your throat. Understand?” Pike nodded worriedly, already feeling the cold steel of a blade against his neck. A moment later, the hoof was removed and he was allowed to stand. He still however, felt the pressure of a pointed tip on the back of his neck. Attempting to regain some of his lost dignity, Pike brought out some false bravado.

“Who the hay do you think you are? What is your business here?” he demanded angrily. The pressure against the back of his neck increased a little, causing him to gasp.

His question was answered when two ponies made their way around from behind him. One from each direction, giving him the feeling of being encircled, triggering ancient prey instincts. The sight of the two thestrals, in full armour, made his blood run cold.

“Oh sweet Celestia!” he muttered. The one thestral, evidently the stallion in charge, shook his head.

“Close, but no. My name is Captain Flintlock, of the Lunar Volunteer Army. And you, sir, are under arrest for treason. Come with us.” Pike found himself being herded out of the camp, bypassing every guard post and patrol. Making their way up the hill, they even passed a unicorn in Lunar Guard armour, evidently providing overwatch. Eventually, he was led to a small glade that overlooked the Royal Guard camp. Made to sit on his rump, he now faced all five of the enemy soldiers who had captured him. Suddenly, quitting smoking didn’t seem like such a big priority anymore.

Looking about him, he examined his captors closely. A mix of five ponies, three of those damned bat pony demons, and one earth pony, and a unicorn. They had probably been corrupted by those twisted servants of Nightmare Moon. The one thestral carried the markings of a captain alright, the rest wore typical guard armour, albeit of the Lunar Guard variety.

“Remind me, cap,” one of the thestrals said. “Why am I not allowed to just kill him?” The question made Pike turn an even paler shade of white than he already was.

“Stow that!” Flintlock ordered. He then turned back to Pike. “Alright, let’s start with what you can tell me. Name, rank and number.” Pike knew this little game, it was basic guard training, those were the three bits of information you could give out.

“Steel Pike, Major, 22456-B Equestrian Royal Guard,” he responded. Flintlock smiled.

“Thank you, major,” Flintlock replied. “I’m sorry for the sudden cloak and dagger, but we need your help.” Pike quickly cut him off.

“There’s no way I’m ‘helping’ vermin like you,” he spat angrily. Flintlock merely rolled his eyes. A moment later, Pike was knocked sideways as the earth pony slugged him in the gut, making him double up in agony.

“Very noble, major,” Flintlock went on. “But also quite pointless. Besides, I am not asking you to betray your comrades. My men already have all the information we need. This order of battle should prove most useful.” He held up a number of files, getting a rise out of Pike.

“Then what do you want, bat pony?” he demanded. Flintlock and the others smiled.

“Simple. I want you to run down the hill, into your camp, and inform your commanders that there are enemy soldiers right outside their front door.”

“What?!” Pike exclaimed.

“Well, if you’d rather not, my associate here will happily slice your jugular and throw your corpse in instead. It would achieve my ends nonetheless.” That, understandably, persuaded Pike, particularly when he felt a blade once again brush against his neck.

“Alright! Alright! I’ll do it!” he pleaded.

“Good,” Flintlock replied. “Feel free to tell everypony what you have seen. I’m in need of a good fight.” With that, he motioned for Pike to be released. The pegasus promptly took off running down the hill, yelling as he went. Flintlock watched him with baited breath.

“Think he bought it?” the earth pony asked sarcastically.

“Hold on,” Flintlock cautioned. “We need to see what they send out first.”

A moment later, alarms were being rung, ponies were rushing to and fro, and the slumbering camp was suddenly wide awake. Now just to hammer the point home.

“Right, Starbright,” Flintlock said, turning to the unicorn of the group. “Let them know we mean business.” Nodding, the slate grey unicorn fired off a few shots of magic, each one causing a small explosion as it hit home. This served to only further provoke a reaction.

In fact, not twenty seconds later, the small band began to take fire from the camp. Unicorns were firing indiscriminately in the direction Pike had run from. Meanwhile, pegasi and earth ponies in their typical golden armour, were already tearing their way up the hill towards them.

“Right, time to go!” Flintlock shouted over the din. “C’mon, back to the others!” And with that, the five ponies took off running, with no less than fifty guards on their tail.

The five ponies now ran as fast as their legs could carry them through the fledgling apple orchards, lit only by the silvery moonlight. Dusk and the other thestrals had the advantage here, whereas other types of pony would find the going more difficult. This did not however, stop the pursuing guards from keeping pace with them, and raining them with magic and a few other projectiles.

“Captain Flintlock, sir!” one of the thestrals called out over the din.

“What is it?” Flintlock demanded, already starting to feel his legs straining at the constant rapid pace.

“Permission to speak, sir?” Flintlock would have laughed if he had the breath to do so.

“Granted,” he replied, grinning.

“Sir, can I just say this was a stupid plan!” At that moment, they were all shaken when a bolt of magic passed perilously close to their heads, forming a small crater when it hit the ground ahead of them. Jumping over, Flintlock turned to the thestral.

“Well, I’m open to any suggestions!” he replied.

“Run faster, maybe?” Another bolt barely missed them, this time even singeing the helm of Flintlock’s helmet.

“C’mon. We’re almost there. Just stay ahead!”

Further along the trail, the trap was indeed set. Around a dozen unicorns had perched themselves in the branches of the apple trees. This gave them both concealment and a height advantage. When the Bright Lights ran through, they would be cut to ribbons.

“Alright, everypony, here they come,” Quick Strike called out. “Make ready!” The unicorns, himself included, all charged their horns, each glowing in the darkness. Now the orchard was punctuated by small dots of blue, gold, pink, and green.

Slowly, the din of spells firing and ponies shouting drew nearer. Each pony, in his own way, prepared to face the inevitable onslaught. So far the wayward band of ponies under Dusk had been lucky. They had lost nopony, and only had a few serious injuries. Now though, unquestionably, that was about to change. Quick Strike found himself bracing himself in the tree he was perched in; already that small voice in his head was begging him to run. It wasn’t too late, he could get away.

He quickly shut that voice down. Everypony else was just as scared, and they weren’t running, he told himself. He would not be the pony to break first, though doubtless some would.

Finally, out of the din and ominous glow came Flintlock and his own band, now half running and half flying in order to stay ahead. Any moment now, the enemy would be upon them. Much to Quick’s surprise though, as the group passed through the prepared gauntlet, Flintlock and the others wheeled round, and too readied themselves. Quick had expected them to keep running, the two officers nodded to each other in respect. Raising his voice, Quick Strike gave his orders.

“At one hundred yards, volley fire, present!” Each unicorn angled their horns towards their target. Then, the first specks of gold began to steam through into the clearing.

“Fire!” he called. And with that, the whole world lit up.

The previously dark night could now almost be mistaken for the daytime, as flashes of magic lit up the clearing as if it were a thunderstorm. In addition to the fire raining down on them, the guards quickly found themselves getting disorientated by the continual flashes. Within about thirty seconds a small pile of guards had formed at the small choke point.

However, it was not smooth sailing, nor was it a straight up slaughter. A good number of the enemy guards realised what was going on and checked their headlong charge. Instead, they used what little cover there was to establish their own line. Blasts of magic quickly began to come back at the Lunar ponies. Every now and again, Quick and Flintlock picked out a muffled cry and a dull thud as one of their sharpshooters was plucked out of their perch.

Still, being sufficiently far away from the enemy camp, there was little risk of enemy reinforcements arriving to bolster their already depleted number. While Flintlock saw that they had taken losses, the thestrals and unicorns of the Lunar Guard definitely had the upper hand compared to their counterparts.

About two minutes later, the fire from the enemy slowly began to trickle off and eventually it halted altogether. The Bright Lights had had enough it seemed. Whistling as loudly as he could, Flintlock signalled for everypony to cease fire. With that, silence returned to the clearing.

About an hour later, long after Flintlock, Quick and the others had made a sensible retreat, Major Steel Pike walked onto the battlefield. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, furious. He had been captured, been made to look a fool, his entire unit had been made to look a fool. Hay the whole damn Royal Guard had! These bat ponies had snuck in, stolen tactical information, and then kidnapped him, all just to goad them on. None of that fell within the rules of war he was so accustomed to.

But that was just like them wasn’t it? Always the ones to rely on cowardly, dishonourable tactics, instead of meeting the foe face to face. They had lost the war, but instead of going quietly, they’d started with these sporadic attacks that had ultimately culminated in the destruction of Atcanter. Or at least, that was what he believed.

After Flintlock had released him, Steel Pike had made sure to turn out everypony he could. Of course, their initial assault was quite small. If he had just had more ponies, they would have crushed the bat ponies’ pathetic little ambush. But instead of holding back for reinforcements, the foals in charge had run headlong into the enemy ambush and been cut to ribbons. There were only ten or so ponies left alive in the entire QRF for Celestia’s sake!

The dead littered the orchard floor. And while there were a few dead thestrals, or unicorns in Lunar armour, they had clearly succeeded in their goal. They knew they couldn’t win in a straight fight, so they would do this instead. Pick at them every now and again; slowly bleeding them out until they were forced to retreat.

Well, there was no way in Tartarus Pike was about to let that happen! He considered the entire affair a personal insult, never mind the tactical victory the thestrals attained. Their whole plan relied on him and the Royal Guard being slowed down by these hit and run ambushes. But the Royal Guard had numbers on their side. Hit and run attacks only work if you have enough ponies to hold your ground. In his report to the rest of the general staff, he put forward one recommendation; start marching and bulldoze the vermin out of the way. Then, find out where they were cowering and…deal with them.

Chapter 12 - Retaliation

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Flintlock, Quick Strike, and the others returned to Dusk’s ad hoc command post just as the sun was beginning to rise. While they had, of course, maintained their usual discipline over the course of their journey back, the group had nonetheless been in high spirits. Their first probing test of the enemy had fallen well into their favour. Only three of their own had been lost in the fight, compared to the better part of forty of the enemy. It had been a simple case of superior supressing fire, though the apparent lack of skill of the Bright Light had helped.

That issue had surprised Flintlock greatly. He had anticipated a far tougher fight. After all, the Royal Guard was a force to be reckoned with any day of the week. He had anticipated the quick response, of course. However, the tactics and strategy of the enemy seemed…well, infantile. The large band sent after them, presumably a QRF of some sort, had simply charged straight at them. Had they not considered the possibility of an ambush?

Flintlock reminded himself that he did possess foreknowledge of what had been planned. But why had it been so easy? They struck at an hour the enemy would expect, they had clearly baited them. So why had they just charged to their fate? Why didn’t they try to encircle them, or engage them at range? Why did they all just charge in one after the other?

Of course, Flintlock knew that this reconstituted Royal Guard was relatively new, it was to be expected that the average squaddie wouldn’t be that smart. But the commanders in charge had to be old hooves. It had taken him a moment, but he had recognised the officer they had captured. It had been old Steel Pike. The last time Flintlock had seen him, the two had been lieutenants, now he was apparently a major in the new Royal Guard. He knew for certain that Pike was no fool.

So why had things gone their way so spectacularly? More to the point, how would the enemy react to this? Their plan assumed they were dealing with ponies with a tactical ability similar to their own. Nopony had planned for stupidity. And sometimes, even foolish moves can result in victory.

Leaving his merry band to resupply, get fixed up, and otherwise again made battle ready, Flintlock headed to deliver his report to Dusk. The thestral was sitting looking at the map of the area, concern clear on his features. He looked up as Flintlock entered.

“Well, that went well, didn’t it?” he said, concern clear in his voice. Flintlock nodded.

“We gave them a bloody nose. But I don’t like this, Star,” he replied. “There was no way it should have gone that well.” All their plans estimated that no more than a dozen ponies would be killed before the Lunar forces had to withdraw. “It could be that they aren’t as smart as we thought.”

On paper, that might sound a good thing. However, inexperience also made a pony unpredictable. Their current plan relied on the training they knew and mimicked their own reactions, were their circumstances reversed. If this new Royal Guard really was led by ponies that were from the same class as them, then who knew how little training the lower ranks had? For all they knew it was little more than a mob.

“So what then?” Dusk asked. “Do we change our plans?” Flintlock shook his head.

“No, they should still respond in the same way, just not initially. We might be looking at a kneejerk reaction soon. Instead of trying to work out what happened, they may just start advancing; try to steamroller us.” While such a tactic would most likely succeed, it was not the sort of thing most commanders would elect to do. In a straight fight, the Royal Guard could easily overwhelm the rag-tag force of the Moonflower. But they had no idea where they were.

“Alright,” Dusk said at length. “We’ll hit them again tonight. Sentry’s squad should be in position by now. This time we’ll hit them from behind. That should make them think twice about advancing in one direction.

Many miles to the north, Sentry and his own small band were touching down at that very moment. Unlike Flintlock’s little endeavour, Sentry’s raid would rely solely on thestrals. Flintlock had probed the enemy’s defences, testing them for weaknesses, checking their response times. It was clear that they had some room to work with. The next step in the grand plan was to confuse the Bright Lights of where they were coming from.

Dusk and the others had known for some time now where the enemy camp was; it was a fixed position. While, in contrast, Dusk had a small command post, the ponies of the Moonflower had no real base of operations within the orchards. As such, they could use their mobility to attack from several angles; thus confusing their opponents as to where they were.

Having done a fair bit of damage the first time; Flintlock had not only succeeded in killing the better part of thirty enemy troops, but he had also obtained a great deal of intelligence. Now was the time to put the fear of Luna into them. Taking inspiration from the buffalo tribes, Sentry and his small team would conduct what was known as a coup.

This was the act of touching an enemy, and escaping unharmed and undetected. It was frightening enough for a soldier to see his comrades killed in battle. But it was much worse to find them unconscious at their posts, with no alarm, and no sign of the enemy. It would unsettle the average soldier, affecting his morale by removing the supposed aura of safety of a friendly base camp. The idea that any of them could be attacked at any time, from any direction would certainly give them reason to pause.

Panicked soldiers were slower and less effective in the long term, and more likely to cause trouble, or possibly even desert. This was the goal of Sentry’s raid, his coup.

The small band of thestrals had flown as high as they could over the orchard, avoiding the enemy patrols, and had landed roughly half a mile to the north, that is behind, the enemy camp. It would be here that they would start. Infiltrating the enemy camp, they would either kill or subdue a small number of guards, preferably those in more secure sections. They would then conceal their victims and depart the way they had come. If all went well, there would be no knowledge of their deeds until sunrise.

This would form the basis of their campaign. They had shown their fighting strength with Flintlock and Quick’s attack. Now they would demonstrate their ability to come and go as they pleased. It would be this that would, hopefully, paralyse the enemy force, which would give them a window to fall back to the Moonflower, and then follow the civilians to the Badlands.

Keeping as low as they could in the tall grass, Sentry and the others looked out toward the camp. It was clear that defences had been stepped up since the previous night. The place was now much more well-guarded, and looking much more busy. Infiltration would be the hardest task. Once they were inside the enemy perimeter, they would most likely encounter far less resistance. But for now, they would have to tread carefully.

It took quite a bit of effort on the thestrals’ part to actually get through the initial perimeter. There was now a good mix of fixed guard positions, and continuous patrols. As a result, they couldn’t simply take down one of the guards and slip by; such a thing would quickly be noticed. In the end, after watching the pattern that was in play; patrols seemed to run on a fixed schedule, with no changes, the small band managed to slip in one by one through a small gap in one of the wire fences. Due to the patrols, this took the better part of half an hour, with each thestral sprinting from their cover, forcing themselves down under the wire, and then taking refuge behind some crates inside the camp. Eventually though, all of them were inside, and consequently past the most difficult obstacle.

Thanks to Flintlock, the group had a rough idea of the camp’s layout. The officers and senior staff tents, as well as other important areas, were deep inside the camp, while the enlisted were camped around them, forming a fairly thick ring around the more important ponies of the Royal Guard. Ideally though, tonight Sentry and his lot would be reminding them that just because there were nearly a thousand ponies in their way, it wouldn’t stop them from reaching them.

“Alright, keep low and stay out of the light,” Sentry instructed. “We’re looking for anypony with officer markings on them. No matter what though, we mustn’t be detected. Understand?” The other three thestrals nodded silently.

As they steadily pressed on further into the camp’s interior, they continued to encounter the odd patrol or guard post. But the nearer they got to the centre, the fewer there were. Of course, it would be the reverse getting out, and the prospect of getting past those guards a second time was already making Sentry nervous.

Eventually, they came upon their first target; an earth pony stallion, wearing the uniform of a captain. There didn’t seem to be anypony with him and there were no guard patrols as far as the thestrals could tell. Gesturing with a hoof, Sentry ordered them to grab him.

Sentry was strongly opposed to killing any of these ponies. Not because he saw them as former comrades, but because, to his mind, it would be far better to leave them alive. After all, who could fight with the knowledge that your opponent’s had literally had your life in their hooves? It would serve their overall purpose far better, and feed into the thestrals’ mystique that they knew to exist within the enemy’s ranks.

Comet, the second stallion in the four pony team, steadily crept around to get behind the captain. Just as Flintlock had done with Steel Pike, Comet would kick his opponent’s legs out from under him. This time however, instead of restraining him, Comet would follow up with a good sharp strike behind the head, knocking him out. Due to the thestral’s comparatively smaller size compared to his comrades, Comet had no trouble going unnoticed.

Just as Sentry hoped, Comet suddenly leapt from the shadows and promptly subdued his opponent, with barely a sound to be heard. Sentry and the other two quickly followed up, helping him conceal the body a little way off the beaten track.

“Nicely done, Comet,” Sentry said. “Right, take his helmet.” In keeping with the traditions of a counting coup, the thestrals would also be taking something from their foe. In this case, their helmets. Sentry then planned to leave these near a guard post as they left, again as a way of inspiring fear amongst the enemy.

“Well, one down, sir,” comet said. “Four to go?” Sentry nodded, five ponies from all over the camp seemed like a good practical strategy, given time constraints and the ever present risk of discovery.

Three hours later, and the small band of thestrals had completed their mission, nearly. Scattered all around the enemy camp, were the unconscious bodies of five ponies of the Royal Guard; an earth pony captain, three pegasi lieutenants and a unicorn major. Each one was now missing their helmets, which were now in the possession of the thestrals.

Having done what they set out to do, the thestrals had carefully made their way back to the stretch of wire that didn’t quite connect with the ground, allowing them to crawl under it. It would be a case of repeating their method of entry, only in reverse. Before that though, Sentry and Comet had paused to drop off their stolen prizes. They settled on placing them just behind a guard post near where they planned to leave.

The act struck Swift Sentry as the sort of thing some twisted serial killer might do. The message however, was quite clear; ‘We had your number. Are you sure you want to cross us?’. It would certainly bring home to the Bright Lights the fact that numbers weren’t everything.

With that, all that remained was to creep back out the same way they came in. While difficult, they got through without too much trouble. In four hours, under cover of darkness, four thestrals, without support, had infiltrated the main enemy base, successfully subdued five high ranking guards, and then left their calling card, before escaping completely undetected. The Royal Guard certainly could not boast of accomplishing such feats.

As the sun rose on the second day, Steel Pike’s fury returned. His demands to the senior officers had been all but ignored. They wanted to wait around and ‘gather intelligence’ as they put it, which was a polite way of saying that they would sit on their flanks and do nothing. The fact that they’d been attacked had to mean that they were getting close to wherever the Lunar bandits were holed up. All they had to do was keep pressing forward!

But no, all that had been done in response to the attack was to increase patrols around the camp. No stepping up the search, no hint of a reprisal. Those Lunar dogs were probably laughing at him now! The Royal Guard, pride of Equestria, and it sits on its flank whenever it’s asked to do something half way important. It was the same during the war! When Goldwing was captured, instead of charging in after him, they negotiated their way out, even giving away a prisoner of their own in ‘exchange’.

All on its own, it was bad enough. But this morning, by Celestia, this morning. No less than five officers had been found unconscious all over the camp. All of them had been well inside the perimeter when they were surprised by their assailants. And then, just behind a guard post on the perimeter, they had found all five of the guards missing helmets. These rebels were playing practical jokes on them!

The effects had been two fold. On the one hoof, all the senior officers were now deeply troubled and had fallen to discussing the situation on endless meetings. But also, the rank and file of the Royal Guard were now starting to break. News had quickly gone around the camp regarding the night’s events. What everypony had thought of as a quiet night had actually been another raid. They were all rattled, Pike himself had even caught some would be deserters. Talk was going round of how the thestrals were invisible and silent, undetectable, and that next time they came by, they wouldn’t stay their hoof. Morale was at an all-time low.

Pike snorted and tossed his head in irritation, making his armour jangle slightly. When were they going to do something?! They’d been attacked twice now. This whole thing was supposed to be easy clean up; reports said that there were no more than two hundred enemy troops. How was it that they had the upper hoof?

To his mind, there was no need for debate or discussion of tactics. All they needed to do was push forward. Why wouldn’t anypony listen?

“Major?” a voice called, startling Pike out of his rant. Turning, he saw a pegasus guard.

“What is it now?” Pike demanded angrily. Undaunted by the major’s disposition, the guard continued.

“Sir, the senior staff wishes to speak with you.” Pike smiled; at last he was being taken seriously! Dismissing the guard with a curt order, Pike set off towards the senior staff tent.

Twenty minutes later, the major emerged, smiling. His suggestion had finally been taken up. Given that the enemy was taking advantage of their current weaknesses so brilliantly, it was decided to reverse the situation. The camp, which had proved easy to attack, was to break up as soon as possible, and marching would resume. They would head to San Maretonio, a day’s march south of where they were. As the only settlement in the region, the enemy would have to have stopped there.

Pike shook his head, laughing to himself. Of course they had stopped there, a week or so ago. They had the supplies they needed. Now the rebels were fighting to slow them down. They knew they couldn’t win in a straight fight, so they were doing all they could to slow and unsettle the Royal Guard.

Well, that would no longer help them, he thought darkly. Now they would have to face the might of an advancing army. No little pin prick attacks would stop them now. They would push through this orchard, driving the rebels before them, then pull them down once they were in the open. Summoning his aide, Pike gave orders to begin mobilising his own units.

“We need to move. Now!” the young scout said as he addressed Dusk. The sudden nature of his arrival, as well as his unusually commanding tone threw Dusk for a moment. He had been engaged in pondering over their next move after Sentry’s little stunt last night. By tomorrow night they would be moving out. They would briefly return to the Moonflower, gathering up all they could and spiking the guns, before taking off to catch up with the civilians and head for the Badlands.

“Hang on, just who do you think you are?” Flintlock demanded of the young thestral. “Colonel Star Dusk is your commanding officer, and you will address him as such!” This served only to make the youngster even more anxious.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said hurriedly. “But there’s no time. We really do need to leave right away!” Both senior thestrals realised what the colt meant at the same moment, their slate grey faces undoubtedly turned a shade or two paler.

“How many are there, and how far?” Dusk asked, now sounding equally worried.

“I’m pretty sure it’s the entire enemy force, sir. They’re pushing south right through the orchards. I’d say we have about ten minutes before their forward scouts find us.”

“Mother of Luna!” Dusk muttered. “Flint, let’s get everypony away. Right now, captain!”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Flintlock replied. Galloping over to one of the sentries, he grabbed the whistle that was hung around his neck and blew it as loudly as he could. Quite quickly, everypony stopped.

“Alright, everypony listen up! We are falling back now! All non-flyers into the wagons, everypony else, grab what you can and get airborne! Head back for the Moonflower and we’ll…” He didn’t get to finish that sentence as blast of magic struck the tree behind him.

“Contact!” cried one of the sentries.

Seconds later, the whole area was alive with magic criss crossing through the air. For once the Lunar Guard had been caught napping. The Royal Guard had managed to close so quickly that there had been barely any time to give warning. Thestrals and pegasi swarmed into the air, desperately fighting to stay there. With white pegasi shooting around, there was no way the lumbering wagons could risk taking off, unless they wanted to be cut down in seconds.

On the ground, more guards charged through the trees with spears, swords and horns. Again, with so few in terms of numbers, the Lunar Guard was quickly overwhelmed. Even with everypony, including Dusk and Flintlock fighting for their lives, the ponies of the Moonflower soon found themselves hemmed in and surrounded on all sides, whilst escape from the air seemed almost impossible.

“Dear sweet Luna!” Flintlock bellowed over the roar of the battle. He grabbed Dusk and pulled his head down so he could shout in his ear; the only way to be surely heard. “Star, we need to break out! If we try and hold then this is our curtain! If we all attack at one point, we may be able to buy enough time for the wagons to get away!”

“Get on with it then!” Dusk bellowed back. “I’ll stay here and try to hold the line!” The pair ducked at another near miss. “Take all the flyers you can find. Gather them by that termite mound! I’ll take all the unicorns and earth ponies and counter charge! I reckon we have about five minutes. After that we’ll be overrun! Get going!”

Flintlock broke into a headlong gallop. He didn’t dare risk flying in this; the magic criss crossing over the sky, combined with all the enemy pegasi made it a risky proposition.

“Okay! Listen up!” he called as he ran. “Thestrals and pegasi, follow me. We need to break out of here.” A few thestrals who weren’t still shocked by the sudden attack began to rally around him, raising the same cry. “Come on, let’s go! Follow me!”

With about a dozen thestrals and one pegasus following him, Flintlock leapt into the air, beating his wings as hard as he could. Flying in a column style formation, the thestrals would attack the enemy with the force of a bulldozer. One hostile flyer running into you was bad enough, but two or three more would be enough to knock somepony out of the sky. This time, there would be no slashing with wingtips, and nothing in the way of real strategy or tactics. They would now fall back on the practices of their forefathers; they would ram their way out.

“Charge!” Flintlock bellowed, somehow being heard over the din. Like a sliver of liquid, the line of thestrals charged at their target point. If they could create a hole, and hold it long enough for the wagons to get clear, then they might stand a fighting chance.

The pegasi flyers saw realised what was happening seconds too late. They expected their enemy to slash at them and then shoot away, as was the norm. But this time, there would be no such retreat. Flintlock knew that this would be the only charge. As they closed, the thestral captain could clearly see the look of fear in the eyes of the younger pegasi. He would use that.

Bearing their fangs, flaring their wings, and doing all they could to appear as big, and as threatening as possible, the thestrals connected with their foe. The air rang with the sour sound of armour hitting armour as both sides slammed into the other. Sentry’s engagement with the Royal Guard above their camp had been described as brutal. But compared to what was happening now, it might as well have been a tea party. There were no rules, no quarter given. The thestrals simply didn’t stop ramming, punching, kicking, and screaming their way through.

Meanwhile, far down below, Dusk was watching his command struggle to survive. The unicorns and earth ponies approached their situation with a similar lookout to their thestral friends. The fighting was growing in intensity. There weren’t even really any lines to speak of; the whole field was the scene of a dozen small battles culminating into one, as the unprepared Lunar guards tried to hold where they were.

Dusk’s own patch of land was on a small knoll, giving him some advantage. The unicorns had fallen back on a tried and true tactic and formed themselves into squares. In this formation, nopony had their back exposed and every angle was covered by multiple ponies, all firing as much as their magic would allow. Plus, the psychological effect of lots of arrayed pointy horns prevented ponies from charging in. The only real problem was attacks for the air. As a result the unicorns were having to split their time between defending themselves on the ground, and taking pot shots as passing pegasi, enough at least, to convince them to stay away.

The earth ponies, last of all, simply did what they did best; fight hoof to hoof. Out amid the madness of the battle, Dusk could see some of them, often on their own or in groups of no more than four or five, holding off dozens of enemy pegasi, grabbing them by their helmets and swinging them round, or banging them together to incapacitate them. Dusk almost laughed at the way they fought. It was as if they were rival hoofball fans that had gotten into a disagreement brought on by too much salt.

They were holding on, only just, but they were holding on.

Up in the skies, Flintlock and the other thestrals had almost managed to break through. They were all now quite bloodied and bruised. Flintlock himself had injured his shoulder and right wing quite badly, and had lost a back tooth or two. There were fewer thestrals in the air than when they had started, but there were also fewer enemy pegasi. It wasn’t exactly a perfect escape route free from danger, but it would have to do.

“Sentry!” Flintlock called out, searching for the other senior flyer. He spotted him holding his own against two pegasi that were trying to take him down. Ramming into one of them with all the speed he could muster, Flintlock helped Sentry away.

“Captain!” Sentry replied, spitting out the blood that had accumulated in his mouth, and holding a hoof over a serious looking gash on his foreleg. “How is it all going?”

“We’re doing a lot better than we deserve to,” Flintlock replied. “Listen, I need you to find Colonel Dusk, and tell him that it’s safe enough for the wagons to make a break for it. Tell him to send them westerly, straight past us. We’ll hold here and keep the exit open. Once they’re all away, we’ll do a fighting retreat back to the Moonflower and see about losing these bastards. Understand?”

“Yes, sir. If I can’t reach him, who should I tell, sir?” Flintlock quickly understood what Sentry was asking. Who was in charge if Dusk was already dead? Luna knew there were quite a few dead guardsmen littering the ground.

“Come back up here, and I’ll oversee the evacuation.” With that, Sentry flew off. Flintlock meanwhile quickly found himself under attack again, as a charging pegasus took a swing at him with a spear. It was the cornfield at Shy-colt all over again.

Dusk was just about to give a final order to circle the wagons when Sentry landed next to him. His sudden arrival almost resulted in his end, as Dusk at first thought him to be another pegasus. Fortunately, at the last moment, he stayed his hoof.

“Dammit, Sentry! Don’t creep up on ponies like that!” he bellowed over the continual sound of magic shooting back and forth.

“Sorry, sir. Captain Flintlock sends his respects, sir. It’s safe for the wagons to take off now; there’s a safe area to the west.” Dusk’s eyes went wide.

“Alright, do all you can to get the non-flyers on board. We’ll hold as long as we can. If you see a chance to get away, tell the wagons to depart.” He turned to talk to somepony else. “Quick Strike! Get your colts on board the wagons!”

Sentry then quickly took off and began skimming along the battlefield, calling out for all the unicorns and earth ponies to start falling back towards the wagons. As he continued his flight, his sensitive ears picked out the sound of the general retreat being blown. Quite quickly the battlefield began to shrink, and the noose tightened.

Before long, ponies were piling aboard the six wagons, whilst thestrals up above continued to do all they could to keep the area around them clear of the enemy. In view of their recent losses, almost all the wagons were taking off somewhat lighter than before. But still, they were quite vulnerable. The first wagon, despite the best efforts of the thestrals, barely made it a hundred yards before the two flyers pulling it were cut down. The wagon dropped some two hundred feet, smashing on impact.

Luckily, that attack drew a great many of the enemy away from the other wagons, and they were able to climb quickly, getting out and away. Hiding within the relative safety of the clouds, and out of range of the magic of hostile unicorns, the five wagons began to limp back toward the old mission and safety.

The thestrals meanwhile had a harder time. They were invested in the battle. It was not simply a matter of crying ‘break contact’ and vanishing. It was almost ten o’clock in the morning, and the sun gave them little opportunity to hide. So, all the way back, it was a fighting retreat.

By the time they reached San Maretonio and the mission, they were down Luna knew how many; there was little time for casualty reports. In actuality, including all the Lunar guards, volunteers, half trained ponies and walking wounded, there were no more than two hundred, against an army of five thousand.

Chapter 13 - Surrounded

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It was a long and desperate fight back to the relative safety of the Moonflower. With the Royal Guard hot on their heels, the thestrals turned to unusual tactics.

The wagons carrying the unicorns and earth ponies landed first, being the most vulnerable and also vital to their immediate survival. As soon as they touched down, the unicorns piled out and began to fire their magic up into the air. While it wasn’t accurate, it was enough to temporarily deter any pegasus from attempting to come too close. This bought time for their real attack.

With the battle raging all around, Dusk touched down along with Flintlock, Sentry, and the other surviving officers. All of them were close to breaking. In a matter of minutes, they could potentially be overrun. They needed to clear the skies around the mission, and force the enemy to back off, giving them time to breathe.

“Sentry!” Dusk bellowed. “Find any of the earth ponies that were assigned to the gun crews and get those cannons readied. Flint, go to the stores and find that load of griffon shells we picked up back in Las Pegasus!” The two thestrals quickly darted off. It wasn’t a brilliant plan, but it was something, to his knowledge, these Royal Guards had never encountered the weapon they were about to deploy. It would scare them and rout them. That would give them time to at least set up a perimeter.

Sentry raced up to the battlements where the canons still stood. He thanked Luna that they had not spiked them before they left. Corralling as many earth ponies as he could find, he ordered them to man the great guns, getting them ready to take the shot.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mission, Flintlock was hauling a small wagon of ammunition as fast as he could, doing his best to avoid the fire flying about. The boxes were marked as dangerous, and also carried the emblem of the Griffon Kingdom, an ally of Equestria.

“You three, come here!” Flintlock called over to a trio of unicorns. “Take a box each and head to one of the cannons. Meet up with me, along with Colonel Dusk when you are done. Understand?” The trio nodded and each took one box, leaving Flintlock to carry the last up to Sentry.

A few minutes later, the supplies had been taken to each gun, and had been loaded in. Flintlock, desperate to act in time, flew down to Dusk from the battlements. Above them, even with the impressive fire the unicorns were putting up, they were slowly losing ground.

“All guns loaded and ready, sir!” Flintlock reported. Dusk nodded.

“Then fire at will, captain!” he ordered.

“Yes, sir!” Flintlock turned to Sentry and the cannons. “FIRE!”

The four cannons, originally intended for assisting a ground defence, were now tilted skyward, right at the enemy pegasi. With a belt of smoke and flame, the cannons rocked back on their mounting. The pegasi above didn’t expect what happened next.

Instead of simply passing them by, or perhaps knocking down a single unlucky soul, each shell from the cannons suddenly exploded in mid-air. Worse still, it sent shrapnel rocketing out in all directions, and left an ominous black splotch in the clear blue sky. No less than a dozen pegasi unceremoniously dropped.

The thestrals you see, had a small store of an unusual griffon weapon; a leftover from the last war with Equestria, and still used to quell the occasional local insurrection within the kingdom. They called it a ‘Gegenflugwaffen’ in their own tongue, literally a ‘counter flight weapon’. When the shell was fired, it had a small fuse lit. This meant the shell exploded, rather than just relying on force of impact to deal damage. Loaded with shrapnel, it was like a mine going off in mid-air. It was perfect for deterring airborne foes.

The four small canons continued firing for a little longer, though the pegasi wasted no time in retreating out of the weapon’s range. And so, at last, they were safe. For the moment. They had not been overrun and wiped out. But that was still quite likely. Even as the pegasi retreated, more and more of them continued to fly in, landing a little way outside San Maretonio. They were settling in for a siege.

An hour later, and things had settled down. With the four cannons covering the open approaches to the mission, the Royal Guard didn’t dare mount an attack from the air. Of course, there was little to stop them advancing by land. Due to their sudden retreat, everypony had been forced to take shelter within the Moonflower. Their original plan of having dozens of foxholes filled with unicorns was now unworkable. At this point there were probably less than two dozen unicorns left anyway.

The losses on the bloody road back to the mission had been severe. When they had arrived in San Maretonio, there had been a little over one hundred serving guards. With the addition of the ex-army volunteers, and the recruits Flintlock had hastily trained, that number had swelled to around three hundred and fifty. Now, they were hovering at about two hundred, including medics and walking wounded. That meant at least a hundred and fifty ponies were out there unaccounted for.

In terms of supplies, the mission would not hold for more than a week. Ammunition for the cannons was already scarce as it was, and this was made only worse by the desperate firing of the great guns an hour or so earlier in order to see off the enemy. Food was also beginning to run low. With the enemy around a quarter of a mile away, there was no chance of reaching San Maretonio, assuming the town wasn’t already under occupation. Long story short, the Moonflower could not hold. They were cut off from any retreat by an army no less than twenty five times their own number. They had little in the way of supplies, and a perimeter that could not possibly keep the enemy out for very long.

Flintlock looked out over the lifeless desert at the encamped enemy army and sighed to himself. There was no way out. He didn’t want to believe that, he desperately wanted to have one last madcap plan to call on, some clever trick or deception, or reinforcements perhaps. But there was no chance of that. What little was left of the old volunteer army was staying well outside Equestria, and high command would certainly not risk it to save ponies from an unwinnable situation. He laughed a little as he remembered what his drill sergeant had told him on the day he signed up.

‘There is nopony out there to help you. Nopony is on your side. Never forget; no matter how cold, wet, starving, dead on your hooves you are, there is one thing you can depend on. There is far worse to come.’

That was when he saw the dust cloud rising from the desert floor.

It wasn’t the whole enemy force. Hay, it barely passed as a small squad. But it was nonetheless coming towards them.

“Heads up!” he called out, warning the ponies bellow in the courtyard. Flintlock then turned to one of the guards on duty. “What do you see, corporal?” Extending his looking glass, the young thestral squinted and did his best to make out just what was coming for them.

“Sir,” he reported. “Enemy troops approaching, under flag of truce.” Flintlock was surprised to say the least. Truce? They wanted to negotiate? Maybe their recent escapades had had an effect after all; they thought it too much trouble to storm the place. There might be a way out of this yet. After all, they only needed to remain here and occupy the enemy, until they were sure than the civilians were safely across the border. He smiled.

“Go and fetch Colonel Dusk at once!” he ordered. The youngster quickly scampered off. Dusk was most likely with the other officers, planning for their final stand.

Meanwhile, the other guards on duty, including Sentry, made ready to engage. The thestrals opened their wings in preparation to swoop down, whilst the unicorns charged their horns with magic, and earth ponies grabbed their spears. Worried that this posture might be misinterpreted, Flintlock quickly called them off.

“Stand down, the lot of you!” he ordered. “Those ponies are protected by a flag of truce, and this garrison will uphold the laws of war.” The assembled guards all relaxed themselves, but remained where they were.

Down below at the wall, the small group of Royal Guards pulled up and stopped. There were five of them, a senior officer and four enlisted escorting him. One of them carried a standard, which had been replaced by a pure white cloth, the international sign of truce. As the senior officer stepped forward, Flintlock challenged him.

“You down there!” he called “Identify yourself!” The pegasus looked up at Flintlock, perhaps noting the stallion’s uniform markings. Flintlock realised that the pony below was a captain like himself. They were on equal footing.

“I am Captain Sure Strike, of the Equestrian Royal Guard. By order of Her Grand Royal Highness Princess Celestia, monarch of Equestria, ruler of the day and the night, you are hereby ordered to lay down your arms and surrender.” Well, that was pretty clear, wasn’t it?

“And what makes you think we would do a thing like that, captain?” Flintlock called back.

“You are impossibly outnumbered, and have no chance to escape. But her majesty wishes to avoid further bloodshed, particularly of your own kind. We give you the opportunity to surrender honourably.” Flintlock shook his head.

“Oh c’mon, captain. You and I both know that’s a load of horseapples. Your new guard hasn’t spared a single thestral since you started your little cleaning house number. I know what you colts did to Atcanter! You wouldn’t know honour if it came and bit you on the rump!”

“If you will not surrender, then we will have to force you out!” Strike warned gravely. Flintlock though, shook his head.

“No you don’t, captain. I’m sure the last thing either of us wants is another battle. Enough blood has been spilled here as it is. You think I don’t realise our situation? We don’t want a fight any more than you. All we want is to leave this wreck of a nation in peace and start our lives again.”

It was then the idea came to him. He had been in this position himself mere days ago; a small enemy force, unwilling to surrender, yet too much of a force to risk a full blown engagement. Could he perhaps pull the same trick that Arrow Head had used on him? It was worth a shot; it could get some of them out.

“Alright, captain. How about this? Allow the rank and file here safe passage. Most of these ponies are volunteers. They aren’t soldiers. Hay, some of them only picked up a spear a few days ago. Let them go back to their families. Then, when they are safely away, those of us who served in the Lunar Guard will surrender ourselves to you.”

Meanwhile, the young corporal Flintlock had dispatched, was trotting into the Lunar temple in search of Dusk. It had become something of a habit of his to retreat into the place when times were tough. The corporal found him sitting in the middle of the aisle, looking up at the stained glass window that dominated the far wall. A few other ponies had joined him, perhaps making their peace with the world.

“Colonel, sir,” he called out. Dusk snapped out of his meditative trance. “Colonel, Captain Flintlock reports a small party of the enemy at the north wall, under flag of truce, sir.”

Dusk snorted in disgust. His nostrils flared and his amber eyes bulged in their sockets. Those Bright Lights dared to negotiate now?! After all they had done?! They had defeated him in war, then they had denied him his peace, then they had pursued him across the country, to corner him here like an animal. Now they wanted to talk?

Getting to his hooves, the emotionally charged thestral stormed out of the temple, his hooves echoing loudly on the stone floor. Heading out into the sun, which caused his eyes to sting badly, he heard Flintlock’s voice and that of a stranger. Listening to their conversation, he quickly picked up on what was happening. Flintlock was trying to negotiate a way out of their predicament.

Under normal circumstances, Dusk might have been proud of this; after all it was not how one fought that was important, but understanding when to fight. But matters had changed. Losing so many of his ponies in such a short time, on top of everything else that had happened over the last few months had finally made him snap. Unbeknownst to him, he was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He became single minded; they’d been on the run too long, now was the time to make a stand. If they wanted this mission, this temple, then they would have to pry it from his cold, dead hooves.

Snorting angrily, and with his wings twitching at his side, he galloped up to the ramparts. Flintlock’s continued negotiations had become a dull drone, in spite of the success he was having. Making his way to the north facing cannon, he barked orders to the gun crew.

“You four! Get off your flanks and engage that enemy!” he demanded. The gun crew were, understandably, confused.

“Sir, Captain Flintlock is negotiating with them,” one replied. “And they’re under a white flag, sir.” Dusk snarled.

“Do you want me to have to taken out and shot for insubordination?!” he asked furiously. “I said; fire!” The four ponies looked to one another, unsure of what to do. For a moment, Dusk’s tone softened.

“Look,” he explained. “Do you really think they will let us surrender and walk out of here? When have the Royal Guard done that, eh? Exactly, they haven’t. And I sure as hay am not going to parlay with these Bright Lights.” Unwilling to question their commander, and unable to come up with a suitable counterpoint, the crew complied.

Flintlock’s heart was racing. There was a decent change that he might be able to save at least a few of the ponies that were now held up in the Moonflower. The proposal he had given to Captain Sure Strike seemed to him like a fair exchange. If this whole mess really was about catching all of the ‘lunar traitors’ then there was little to gain by taking in a bunch of half trained civilians who meant no real harm. Plus, the potential propaganda coup of taking in a load of Lunar guards without a fight would be a good thing for the new Royal Guard, particularly in light of their recent defeats at the hooves of the thestrals. There was a way out of this, Flintlock was sure.

Just then though, both parties were startled by the sound of canon fire. The shell landed several yards short of the enemy party, and caused a small explosion, which sent dust and debris flying up into the air. The reaction of the Royal Guard was instant.

With a sharp snort and whiney, the five white and gold ponies made a rapid about face and began galloping off back towards their lines. And with them, went any chance of negotiation or settlement.

“Hold your fire, dammit!” Flintlock bellowed. He then called out to the still retreating enemy. “Wait, come back! It was just an accident. We can still work this out!” But the enemy paid him no mind and departed.

Flintlock was understandably furious. That was there last hope, gone. That was it; they were screwed! They couldn’t fight their way out, they couldn’t run, and now they couldn’t negotiate. If he remembered correctly, the correct term for this situation was ‘zugzwang’. No matter what they did, it would only, at best, prolong the inevitable. Angrily, he turned to the crew of the gun that had just fired.

“What, in the name of Luna do you think you are doing?!” he demanded. “Do you have any idea what you have just done? Do you?!” The five earth ponies that made up the gun crew all kept silent, unable to meet the enraged thestral’s gaze. It was then that Dusk emerged from behind the gun carriage.

“They just saw off an enemy scouting party, captain,” he declared. “If they want to take this place, they shall have to spill a lot of blood over it.”

Flintlock was bewildered. Dusk had given the order? Why? He’d known Dusk for quite a while at this point. He had always regarded him as a sound tactician. Hay, until now his tactics had kept them one step ahead of the Bright Lights.

“You?” Flintlock asked, pointing a hoof at Dusk. “Dusk, didn’t you see what I was doing. They wanted to talk.” Dusk however, cut him off.

“They wanted to take this place without a fight,” he replied. “They would force us out, put us up against a wall, and be done with us. Then they will burn this whole place down as a ‘shrine to traitors’. Well, I say no more!” Flintlock tried to break in, but Dusk continued with his rant. “We’ve done nothing but run this whole time. Our entire culture has been all but destroyed. Well, I say enough! This time, I will not run.” With that, Flintlock snapped.

“No, you won’t run; because we can’t!” he exclaimed. “We’re surrounded on all sides by an enemy we can’t hope to defeat. And you’re little stunt just killed any chance we had at getting some of the volunteers away safely! What they hay were you thinking, Star?” Dusk bristled at that.

“I will not let them have this holy site! We will hold here, and we will repel them!” Flintlock couldn’t believe his ears.

“With what, two hundred ponies? You stupid zealot foal; you’ve killed us all!” With that, he launched himself at Dusk. The impact knocked him from the gun carriage and sent the pair tumbling down the stairs and into the courtyard. The continued tussling, rolling over and over, with neither pony gaining the upper hand. Ponies quickly gathered around to watch the spectacle.

Just as things were about to get out of hoof though, the pair found themselves pulled apart.

“Hey! The pair of you, pack it in!” a voice bellowed. A pair of hooves held them apart, despite their efforts to resume killing each other. “Hey, stop! We have bigger problems to deal with!” Finally, the two stopped their fight to see who it was who was ordering them around like a drill sergeant.

It was Swift Sentry, of all ponies.

“You are officers of the Lunar Guard!” Sentry bellowed. “Act like it!” Finally, the pair stopped their struggles. There was quite a crowd gathered at this point.

“Right,” Sentry said, his voice a little hoarse. “Let’s examine the facts. We are now trapped here. We cannot run from the situation. We cannot fight our way out, either. We have two choices. Surrender ourselves and hope for the best, or stay and fight to the end.”

“I am not leaving the temple to those dogs,” Dusk said bitterly. Flintlock snorted in disapproval.

“Will you stop banging on about your stupid bucking temple! I knew you were a whack job when I first met you, but I thought you at least had a sense of self-preservation! I could probably have you deemed unfit to command.”

“Good luck with that,” Dusk replied. “Try to relieve me and I’ll kill you first.” It was quite clear to Sentry that Dusk was teetering on the edge of madness. Having lost so many ponies, and faced with almost certain death, the ex-volunteer’s mind was close to breaking.

“Colonel,” Sentry said. “Whether you defend the temple or not, the mission cannot hold. The choice we have is whether or not we go with it.”

“It’s better to try and save as many as we can. The situation may be salvageable; we can still surrender,” Flintlock offered. Sentry now turned to him.

“But what of the civilians, sir?” he asked. “We still need to hold the enemy up for another full day to ensure that they reach the Badlands. If we surrender, firstly, the enemy may, as Colonel Dusk says, simply do away with us. But more importantly, they will resume advancing. They will overtake the civilians and pull them down.

“Now, I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t want that to happen. While the colonel’s reasons may be a little foalish, I agree with him. If we stay here, we can still save the civilians. If we surrender, everypony will die.”

Silence prevailed amongst the gathered crowd of ponies. Each one taking stock of their new situation. Much to Sentry’s relief, he no longer had to hold back Dusk or Flintlock from each other. The two thestrals slowly backed away from each other, bruised and bloodied, and the whole group seemed to breathe a collected sigh of relief.

Dusk did his best to steady himself. He had indeed been on the verge of a nervous breakdown; a consequence of his wartime experiences, and the traumatic memory of their retreat to the mission. Flintlock was no better, he had just seen what he believed to be their final chance at salvation slip away. Still, both officers did their best to bury their personal feelings. If they broke, so would everypony else, and then those Bright Lights would win. Eventually, Dusk spoke up, addressing the assembled ponies.

“Lieutenant Sentry is right. Gentlecolts, we are out of options. This is where we will make our stand. We have to hold out, just a little longer, to make sure that those we all care about make it to safety.” He paused for a moment. “However, having said that, I cannot order any of you to do this. Every guardsman knows that someday he may have to give his life to protect Equestria and its people, but I cannot, and will not, order you to die. So…those of you who wish to try and leave…do so now.”

Silence prevailed again, save for the sound of the desert wind and the twittering of the birds. The ponies of the Moonflower all looked to each other; thestrals, unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi. All of them, undoubtedly, felt the pull of their basic instinct to survive, to run from danger. They all felt that same fear, of the future, of death, and of what lay beyond it.

But still, nopony moved. Eventually, Flintlock spoke up.

“Colonel Star Dusk, permission to resume my post, sir?” he asked. Dusk smiled faintly.

“Very well, captain,” he replied. He then addressed the rest of the assembled ponies. “All of you, resume your posts; we have a battle to fight!”

At once all of the ponies cheered. A strange turn of events considering their now inevitable future. They were doomed. Each and every pony within the walls of the Moonflower knew that. Yet they still took pride in their work, morale stabilised, armour and weapons were cleaned, duty shifts were maintained flawlessly, and order held.

A few hours later, Dusk and Flintlock, who had both apologised to each other and consequently made up, were summoned by one of the watchful gun crews. The enemy camp had raised a signal flag. With the first ever telegraph network still very much under construction in Canterlot, many communications were sent by way of signal flags, a method more commonly used at sea. Typically, different colours and patterns were different numbers, with each three digit number corresponding to a word or phrase in a codebook. This however, was something different.

“Pass me you glass,” Flintlock ordered as he and Dusk looked out to the small fluttering speck that was the enemy’s signal. Bringing the instrument up to his right eye, Flintlock squinted, adjusting the focus of the lens to clear up the image. He quickly found the signal flag.

“Sir,” he said, reporting to Dusk. “Enemy camp has raised a red flag.” The young earth pony who had first seen it was one of Flintlock’s volunteers and as such, did not understand the sombre, blunt message that it entailed.

“Well, what does that mean, sir?” he asked. Flintlock however, had fallen silent, so Dusk explained.

“A red signal flag is rarely flown, private. It means ‘no quarter’. The enemy will not take prisoners, or show any mercy when they attack, and nor are we required to. This will be a fight to the bitter end.”

Chapter 14 - Final Hours

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After the sudden flaring of tempers between the senior officers had settled, things returned to a state of relative normalcy. Most ponies inside the Moonflower had already made their peace. Father Moonapple, who still insisted that he would remain behind, found himself performing confessions en masse, as a mix of old devotees and sudden new converts descended on the temple seeking absolution.

It was a strange situation; everypony knew that tomorrow, in all likelihood, they would be dead. An odd sort of unreality set in. Everypony accepted the turn of event. After all, there was little they could do about it now. But at the same time, they all remained hopeful that some odd Luna ex machina event would come along and save them.

Others, such as Dusk, whose devotion to the fallen princess bordered on fanaticism, ignored their oncoming demise almost entirely, content in the fact that they would take a whole mess of the enemy with them. Flintlock sort of fell into this group. Though, rather than being driven by religious fervour, his simply wished for one last good fight; an opportunity to give his foes a bloody nose one last time.

Such was the final day inside the old mission turned fortress that was the Moonflower.

Meanwhile, across the expanse in the enemy camp, the mood was much more different. After their brilliant success the night before, Steel Pike’s temper had cooled. It had been a bloody battle with heavy losses on both sides, but it was clear who had held the field, and who had been sent scurrying back to their little hovel. It was the perfect situation for the Royal Guard. The numerically inferior enemy force was now safely bottled up, with no chance of escape.

Of course, there had been attempts to negotiate a settlement, much to Pike’s dismay. The Royal Guard didn’t negotiate with criminals and bandits, why should these vermin be any different? Luckily, though, in their usual fashion, the thestrals had proved to be turncoats. They’d initially accepted the small delegation sent out to try and talk them out. However, about five minutes in, one of the cannons the buggers seemed to have somehow gotten their hooves on had opened up, barely missing one of the senior officers.

After that debacle, it was decided to simply starve the idiots out. They had to be low on food as it was. It would take, at most, a week before they either came crawling out to beg for mercy, or drop dead from starvation and disease.

Pike had initially been against such a plan. He saw it as a waste of time. After all, being this far out in the middle of nowhere was already a stretch for the Royal Guard as it was. It wouldn’t be long before their own supplies began to dwindle. That and there were other hotspots that needed their attention; Mareginia was still trying to relive her glory days, despite what they had done to Atcanter. Why couldn’t ponies understand that this was all for their own good? The harmony of Equestria had to be maintained, and every single thestral stallion, mare, and foal was a threat to that harmony.

It would be far better off they just rushed the place now. At best, the enemy had about two hundred ponies, including those who were badly wounded yesterday. It would take less than a quarter of the Royal Guard forces to overwhelm them. The senior staff however, disagreed. They’d been badly spooked by the four large cannons that defended the approaches to the Moonflower. At first, the pitiful defences had been dismissed. With so few thestrals, it was expected that their own pegasi could easily gain air superiority. However, those cannons turned out to be more dangerous than anypony realised.

Pike had heard his grandfather talk about ‘flak’; something the griffons had cooked up during the last war with Equestria. He’d told of how it was like shrapnel in mid-air, and how one shell could knock down a dozen pegasi. He hadn’t believed him, until yesterday. He didn’t know how, and he didn’t really care, but somehow those thestrals had gotten their hooves on a few crates of the stuff. When their pegasi assault group tried to establish air superiority over the mission, effectively ending the battle before it began, the thestrals had wildly fired the stuff into the air. The survivors had been lucky to get away unscathed.

As such, nopony really wanted to go anywhere near the enemy stronghold. It was possible though, of that Pike was sure. A land advance would be far more effective, the small calibre cannons would be far less damaging, and they could use their larger numbers to overwhelm the thestrals. The Moonflower’s courtyard could then become a killing floor.

He just needed to persuade the brass to act. And in light of his recent success in that department, he very much fancied his chances.

“Sir,” a voice said, off to the side, catching him off guard.

“Oh, what? What is it?” Pike demanded; he’d been so lost in his own thoughts of victory that he’d been caught unawares.

“Sorry, sir. But the senior officers are all meeting to discuss the plan of attack.” Pike’s eyes widened. Well that was one issue sorted.

“Oh, I see,” Pike said more calmly. “I’d assumed we were just going to starve the vermin out.” The young guard shook his head.

“No, sir. Word around the camp is that we’re to be redeployed as soon as possible. Apparently there’s some issues back home to deal with. Command wants this all wrapped up as soon as possible, so we’re to attack soon.” Pike took in the details gleefully.

Following the young guard, he made his way to the large campaign tent where the other senior officers, including the general in charge, had gathered to discuss their plans.

“So you’re saying we can’t just blast away at them?” one officer asked.

“Not with the guns we have. If we had access to some long range pieces we could simply flatten the place with the enemy inside. But as it is, we’d be in range of their guns as well. And I don’t want to run the risk of them using that flak stuff as artillery.” There were murmurs of agreement all round.

“Fine,” another officer said. “Then the attack will have to be an infantry based one. We can’t use aerial attacks because of their flak weapon. But we should be able to advance overland; overwhelm them with numbers.”

“Why not just treat this like we’re assaulting a castle?” Pike offered up, causing everypony to take notice of his arrival. “Instead of just trying to rush the place, why not scale the walls? If we can get up high, we can take their guns out of play, or even turn them on the courtyard below.”

“I don’t know, major,” another pony replied. “It would be a bloody battle just getting onto the walls. You’d just end up with choke points. What about smashing the wall down in a few places? Our unicorns know a few demolition spells. We could knock out the cannons that way; undermine them. Then we could think about an attack from the air again.”

“Does it really matter?” Pike broke in again. “We’re going to take this place; we can’t lose. It’s two hundred against a thousand, and that’s just our initial attack force. What does it matter of the battle is a bit ‘bloody’?”

“It matters, major,” one of the generals replied. “Because we are talking about ponies lives here. Not just an expendable commodity. If we can reduce the loss of life as much as possible, I would be a very happy stallion. We had a decent chance of negotiating until that sudden burst of canon fire. It didn’t help that you went and ran up a red flag either.” Pike seethed.

“For Celestia’s sake!” Pike exclaimed, making himself a few enemies amongst the more senior commanders. “These are thestrals, lunar vermin. We’re better off without them!”

“Major!” one of the generals barked. “That is enough! We will be attacking the enemy camp tomorrow. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. I still can’t believe what your unit did at Atcanter.” He then addressed the assembled commanders. “Right, we will attack the enemy stronghold tomorrow. The attack will be a ground offensive, with the aim of breaking into the stronghold and disabling the enemy guns. Ordinarily, I would call for a final chance for the enemy to surrender. But thanks to Major Pike here, that is impossible. We will be fighting against ponies who know their back is against the wall. Alright, go and brief your units.”

With that, the meeting broke up. Pike now felt suitably foalish and was undoubtedly viewed as such by the other officers. Still, he was getting his way. Tomorrow the Moonflower would fall. He smiled to himself, looking forward to the coming dawn.

Back across No Pony’s Land in the Moonflower, the surviving senior officers were also making their own plans. Of course, it wasn’t as if they had much of a chance of overcoming the enemy attack in any way. All they could do was to hold for as long as they could. At the end of the day, every minute that they held out, would mean that the fleeing civilians would be another minute ahead of the Royal Guard.

Dusk looked around the table a little despondently. There were more than a couple of empty chairs tonight. Quick Strike had been killed in the initial surprise attack out at the orchards, and Moonbeam had been pulled down by a load of pegasi before anypony could drive them off. Then there were the numerous injuries and those ponies that were walking wounded. Suffice it to say that the small, battered garrison was in no shape for a fight on even terms, never mind against a vastly numerically superior foe. The tired thestral colonel leaned back in his chair and addressed the others.

“So, how long can we realistically hold?” he asked.

“Well, assuming the enemy still rely on their old playbook,” Flintlock answered. “If they attacked tomorrow, I’d say a couple hours at best.”

“What about tactics?” Sentry asked him. Flintlock thought for a moment.

“Well, they certainly won’t come in by air to start with; they’re too rattled by those flak shells. Speaking of, how many of those do we have left?”

“About a dozen or so, why?” another thestral, who was sporting a freshly bandaged gash along his side, replied. Flintlock’s brows furrowed.

“I figured we might try using them as artillery. If they go off a few feet above the enemy advance, it’ll still hurt them badly, maybe even cause a rout for a while until their officers get them in line.

“Still, that ought to be our first move. Once they start advancing, we start shelling the bastards. The more we take out before they get too close, the easier it’ll be.”

“The canons will probably be the first thing they go for,” Dusk added, nodding sagely. “Once we lose one of them, an entire front will be exposed. Even with what unicorns we have putting up a base of fire, we won’t be able to hold them.”

“And once they reach the wall…” Sentry said ominously.

“Once they reach the wall, either they try to scale it, and we have a chance to catch them in a choke point for a while, or they use explosives. Again though, any hole they make, we can still make it damn difficult to get through. We should be able to hold there for quite a while.”

“Eventually though, they’ll take out two walls, then three. We can keep fighting until they make it into the courtyard. Then we’ve had it.” The assembled ponies agreed.

“Well, when that happens, we can fall back to the temple; we’ll make our stand there,” Dusk decided.

It seemed a fitting place to him, and to quite a few others. Father Moonapple, who had refused all offers of attempts at securing him safe passage, was already preparing his own defences inside the temple. Unwilling to let the enemy raze it after he was gone, Moonapple was determined to instead, as a final blow against the enemy, blow the whole temple sky high. With that, the meeting was brought to a close.

“Alright, everypony,” Dusk said. “We can expect them to come at us tomorrow, or at best the day after. Make sure everypony is up to speed with the plan of action. Remember, at the end, we may well have to deal with a total breakdown of command.” That was a polite way of saying that the lower ranks would have to fend for themselves, as there was a good chance Dusk, Flintlock, and the other officers would be dead. “And I want all security procedures finished today; all maps, communications and logs are to be burned before moonrise."

With that, the meeting broke up for the final time.

Dusk had little to do. Everything was prepared as best as it could be. The mission would not hold, no, but taking it would be a very difficult undertaking. From a utilitarian perspective, it made the most sense. If his small unit had to be sacrificed, it was better that it took as many of the enemy as possible with it. So, like a thousand other commanders, on a thousand other battlefields, he awaited the dawn.

Sunrise was a few hours away yet, he expected that that would be the time the enemy would make their push. A night attack, whilst definitely possible, would be more costly for them. Thestral eyes would give his own ponies the advantage, in addition to their more suitable dark armour. Steadily, Dusk made his way to the temple.

He was still in two minds about what would happen tomorrow. His death was an almost absolute certainty, and thanks to his beliefs regarding Princess Luna, the thought did not bother him that much. As long as he died defending his princess, he decided, he would be happy. Laughing hollowly to himself, he realised that he was probably already walking over his own grave. Assuming he survived long enough, the temple would be where he met his end.

Others, of course, were not taking things as easily, or took different approaches in regards to making peace. The more atheistic Flintlock was more determined to go down in battle, taking as many with him as possible, whilst Sentry was, like a lot of the youngsters, still in that strange state of unreality. After all, it was a hell of a thing to know that tomorrow you would die. Most ponies didn’t get such a chance. The denizens of the Moonflower though, they had the luxury of getting prior notice. Dusk wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or a curse.

Walking along the aisle, his hooves softly echoing as he went, Dusk made his way towards the pews at the front, near the altar. Of all the ponies in the mission, his belief was probably the strongest. Some might even class him as a religious zealot, possibly even an extremist, based on the serious attitude he took when it came to his beliefs. Still, even he was not sure what would happen tomorrow.

Religious worship of the princess was common at this point in history, but very little was said about the mystery of death. Most of the scriptures focussed on the princesses themselves, their supposed divinity, and various inflated stories of their successes. But there was no consensus on what lay beyond the world. Dusk thought to himself; perhaps he would join Princess Luna in the moon, forming a new Lunar Guard of vengeful spirits, to one day help her take her place as rightful ruler of Equestria.

It was at that moment, that his train of thought was interrupted.

“Why am I not surprised?” Moonapple said as he made his way up the aisle towards Dusk. “Of all the ponies stuck here, of course you would be the one to come and seek solace in faith.”

“It cannot hurt,” Dusk replied. “I’m surprised you aren’t praying too. I would have thought an ordained member of the clergy would naturally fall back on his faith.” Moonapple scowled.

“Trust me, my faith is the only thing keeping me from losing my marbles at this point. Well, that and keeping myself busy with this.”
As he drew level with Dusk, the thestral realised that he was in the process of laying the explosives that would be their final gesture of defiance. He was presently unwinding the fuse cables and preparing to connect everything to the detonator. Rather sensibly, he had selected the infamous dead pony’s switch to ensure that the process couldn’t be stopped.

“Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance, Father?” Dusk asked curiously. Seeing that he was in for a bit of a chat, Moonapple set the cable down, and took a seat across the aisle from Dusk.

“Well, it’s my job,” he answered. “I’m supposed to care for and maintain the temple as best I can. And since my original parish was rather unceremoniously burned to the ground, I thought I’d have another go here.”

“But you’re going to blow it up,” Dusk replied. Lighting his horn a moment, Moonapple levitated the cables to one side, out of the way.

“True, but it shan’t be defiled by those sun worshipping morons.”

Silence settled again for a little while. Dusk looked down at his hooves in thought, occasionally glancing up at the image of the princess that dominated the stone wall in front of him.

“What do you think will happen tomorrow, Father?” Dusk asked, the unicorn minister was characteristically blunt in his response.

“I’m fairly certain that we’ll all die in a rather pointless battle.” Dusk shook his head.

“No, no, no. I mean after that,” he added. Moonapple thought for a moment.

“Well, I remember my old grandpa used to say that every star in the sky was a former guard of the princess, watching over their successors,” he said. “But personally…I’m not sure. Nopony is. And anypony who says they are is a lying idiot.”

Moonapple got up and moved to sit next to Dusk, placing a comforting hoof on his shoulder.

“Look at it this way. What you and your colts have done here has saved a lot of lives. And one day, when this war is all over and done with, their foals will be able to come back, and live out their lives in peace. Now, I may not know Princess Luna personally, but I think that if she could see the sacrifice you’re about to make, she’d be proud of you. Just hold onto that thought.”

With that, the elderly minister brought his magic to life again and began to head up towards the altar to finish connecting up the last of the explosives. Dusk himself stayed a while longer, staring up at the image of the princess before finally heading back to his room to catch his last few hours of sleep.

Despite the approaching maelstrom, Dusk, and most other ponies inside the Moonflower, slept rather soundly. There were some of course, who could not bring themselves to rest. They paced around the mission, cleaned their armour, checked their weapons, or practiced spells; anything to take their mind off of the future.

For the most part, it worked. There were no incidents in the night, no fights, no last desperate attempts at defection or flight. Dusk himself slept for several hours, awakening a little after four in the morning.

Heading outside into the courtyard, he found quite a few ponies already assembled. A few had stationed themselves up on the high walls and ramparts, a couple had commandeered the large telescope used to survey the enemy. All were looking up at the night sky, and at the moon which still hung above the horizon.

Dusk had always found the shadowy figure now emblazoned on its surface unsettling; a permanent reminder of their ultimate failure. Well, not permanent, he reminded himself. He would not live to see it, but one day, he knew Princess Luna would break free and retake her throne. Who knows, perhaps someday, the sisters would reconcile, and they could go back to ruling together as they had before all of this.

Looking out across the expanse, he could see the fires and lights of the enemy camp, who were also evidently already up and about. Like them, they were probably preparing for the coming battle in their own way. Even after all these years, Dusk still felt anxiety bubbling away in the pit of his stomach.

Heading along the catwalk, Dusk settled himself down in a quiet spot away from other ponies. He wanted to be alone for this. Looking up at the moon, he stared at the face of the shadowy mare on it for a good long while, trying to think of something to say. Finally, he began.

“Princess,” he said softly. “It seems I have failed you again. I’ve done my best, and done all I could to protect your ponies from harm. But it seems some of us now have no choice but to face our foes. I know this is not what you wanted for Equestria, and I know you did all you could to prevent it. I do not know what will happen next, and I’m afraid. If it is still within your power, please, help me to lead these ponies in their final hours.”

The moon of course, did not reply. Dusk however, did feel a sudden sense of peace wash over him, along with a cool night breeze. For a stallion with his level of conviction, that served as a valid response. Briefly bowing to the large white orb, he returned down to the courtyard and went to put on his last good uniform.

As the sun rose steadily into the sky, both sides were gathered. On the one side, holed up within the protective walls of the Moonflower, was the small group of thestrals, unicorns, earth ponies, and two pegasi, which made up their diminished garrison. And facing them was a vast army. The Royal Guard were committing almost an entire legion, with nearly a thousand ponies assigned to the attack. They were mainly pegasi, mixed with unicorns and a few earth ponies, all dressed in their shining golden armour.

The two groups stared at each other across the abyss of No Pony’s Land. All in all, the Royal Guard would have to cross almost half a mile of open ground to reach the mission. Had the Lunar Guard chosen to rest in San Maretonio itself, things would have been far less difficult. As it was, the thestrals had themselves a very defendable position. Both sides knew that the coming battle would not be an easy one.

Conversely though, both sides also knew the inevitable outcome. Ultimately, the Royal Guard would win out by sheer weight of numbers, and there was nothing to be done about that. Still, the thestrals were determined that if they were to go down, to take as many of the enemy with them as possible.

Dusk stood with Flintlock on the catwalk, facing the main enemy force, examining them through a spyglass. On this occasion he wore no armour, instead turning out in his formal uniform, complete with his medals and epaulettes.

“Well, looks like there’s enough of them for us to make a decent fight of it,” Dusk said. Flintlock chuckled at his dark humour. “Is everypony prepared?”

“Yes, sir,” Flintlock replied, becoming serious again. “Everypony is in position, all cannons are loaded and ready, and the explosives are set and primed. The ball’s in their court now.” Dusk nodded and returned to observing them. However, a moment later, Flintlock spoke again.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” he asked. Dusk put down his glass and turned to him.

“When have you not, my friend?” he replied, smiling.

“I just wanted to say; it’s been a pleasure serving with you, Star. I know we’ve had our disagreements every now and again, but you’ve been one of the best ponies I’ve served under.” Dusk was thankful for the helmet on his head, lest the captain see him blush a little.

“Thank you, Flint. I enjoyed serving with you too.” Dusk was then cut off by Swift Sentry, who was further along the catwalk, also observing the enemy.

“Sir, enemy movement front!” he called out.

Dusk quickly returned to his spyglass. It wasn’t initially obvious, but judging by the dust that was being kicked up, the enemy was indeed advancing.

“Stand to, everypony!” Dusk called out. By now, it was clear that the Royal Guard were in a full gallop, charging across the open country. The colonel carefully put on his helmet, though did little else to protect himself.

“Lieutenant Sentry!” Flintlock called out. “A ranging shot if you please!”

“Sir!” Sentry answered, he then turned to the gun crew that was manning the cannons that faced the main enemy force. “Elevation forty, full charge. Ready. Fire!”

The cannon rang out, fire spewing forth as it rocked back on its gun carriage. Watching carefully, Dusk looked for the impact. Ten seconds later, a mound of earth suddenly shot up just ahead of the charging ponies.

“Twenty yards short, I think,” Dusk declared. “Wait a moment and then let them have those flak shells.” Half a minute later, the enemy were within range of the great gun.


Chapter 15 - They Died With Their Horseshoes On

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The cannon on the north wall of the Moonflower barked out yet another belt of flame as it rocked back on its mounting.

“Reload!” Sentry ordered, his voice already hoarse from shouting. In addition to the canon firing every thirty seconds or so, almost every unicorn in the mission was firing magic, mainly a mixture of stun spells and pyrotechnic magic, in the general direction of the enemy. The sound was almost unbelievable.

Even better though, the heavy fire had forced the advancing enemy down onto their bellies. They were now crawling along the open terrain, doing their best to avoid the massive amounts of fire coming their way. They’d certainly had a shock when they took the first hit. Once the cannon had sent out one or two ranging shots, Dusk had ordered the flak shells to be used. While they weren’t designed for ground combat, exploding directly over the heads of the enemy had decimated their initial assault force, and caused quite a few to break and turn tail.

However, the flak hadn’t lasted too long, and they were now back to using regular cannonballs, firing into the enemy columns as they advanced. They’d adapted quickly and spread themselves out to minimize casualties. The unicorns were acting as a mixture of sharpshooters, and as a means of providing further supressing fire. After all, as long as it forced the enemy to get down and slow up, the fire didn’t need to be accurate. As a result, it would take the Royal Guard longer to reach the Moonflower itself, and thus the Lunar garrison within could hold out just a little longer.

For the moment though, the battle was going their way. They hadn’t taken too many casualties yet and the enemy were spilling a lot of blood for every foot they advanced closer to the mission. Still, Dusk knew that this was an impossible battle. Heading up towards one of the lookout posts, he found Flintlock doing his best to direct the cannon fire.

“Flint!” Dusk called as he walked up the steps. The thestral pulled himself away from the telescope.

“Star! Good, you’re here. I think they’re trying different tactics at last.”

Up to this point, the Royal Guard had focussed all their energy on attacking the northern wall which faced San Maretonio. They’d advanced in columns and been quite easy pickings for the cannons, especially the flak shells. It had struck Dusk as a stupid approach; it allowed him to focus all of his resources on the one side, rather than being forced to spread himself thin defending three or four. At last it seemed, the Bright Lights were learning.

“They’re starting to spread out are they?” Dusk asked. Flintlock nodded and pointed at the extreme left and right of the enemy formation.

“They’ve stopped pressing forward almost entirely. Instead they’re heading outwards. They’re stretching their front line wider.” Dusk looked out at the seemingly expanding enemy force and frowned.

“Buffalo horns,” he declared. “Remember reading about the tactics the tribes out here used?” Flintlock nodded.

“Yeah. Makes sense though. They’ll keep spreading out, and then try and form a ring around us, overwhelm the defences.” Dusk thought for a moment.

“Alright, have the cannon shift fire to damage the edge of the line. Let’s make it harder for them to advance around.”

The Moonflower had four cannons, with one for each point of the compass. Of course, a lone cannon could do little against the vast army that was now attempting to encircle the mission. The gun crew first began by alternating the direction of the cannon; first firing on the far left flank, and then switching to the right. This naturally, slowed down the already ponderous fire rate and the enemy army actually sped up its advance.

In response, Dusk ordered two additional cannons brought to bear. In addition to the north facing emplacement, which was already engaged, the east and west guns were brought in. Pivoting round, the two guns were better suited to attacking the far flanks, and overcame the need for constant aim adjustment. On the downside though, it did mean firing the guns over everypony’s heads. The unicorns beneath the great guns certainly didn’t think it was the best idea.

Nonetheless, the tactics was, at least partially, effective. The steady outward expansion of the enemy force into a line was temporarily checked, whilst they were again pounded down the centre by the north facing gun. With the situation temporarily stabilised, the ponies in the Moonflower could afford a moment to catch their breath, caustic as it was from the cordite fumes that now hung in the air.

Meanwhile, a little way behind the enemy’s front line, Steel Pike watched events unfold with a certain cold detachment. Whilst for the thestrals, every stallion lost was a blow, the Royal Guard’s vast numbers afforded them a certain buffer. To quote Neighpoleon; ‘The death of one pony is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.’. Pike did not have much of a close relationship with the five hundred ponies in his own unit, never mind the thousand that made up the attack force. As such, he was not particularly moved as he watched another two or three get blown up in the air by the impact of a cannonball.

If anything, he was annoyed. The advance was far too slow! The stupid foals were getting bogged down and taking cover, rather than pressing forward. It didn’t help that, like idiots, they had attacked in a column formation. What possessed them to do that, Pike had no idea; they knew they had cannons after all. Thus, he felt no pity when the first wave was cut down by what had to have been the bat ponies’ last few flak shells.

After that debacle, and some desperate shouting from commanders, the mass of golden armour had steadily began to spread out. But still, they tried to attack a single front, allowing the enemy to concentrate all his forces in one area. Did any of these foals go to the academy? Did any of them know anything about attacking an enemy stronghold?

Luckily, senior officers had then stepped in, holding their hooves, and telling them to use encirclement tactics to overwhelm the inadequate defences. Of course, by that point, the bat ponies had spotted what was happening. Now they had three of their damned cannons firing, one at the centre of the front, and one each on the exposed flanks. Progress was still criminally slow. It would probably take the better part of the day to surround them, and all the time, their numbers were being slowly bled off by cannons and unicorn sharpshooters.

“For Celestia’s sake!” Pike exclaimed. “Is this a battle or a snail race?” Another major, standing next to him, observing the advance as well, turned to him.

“Come on, Pike,” he replied. “It’s open ground with no cover and they’re taking heavy fire from their front. You can’t expect them to just run to their deaths.” Pike snorted and put a hoof to the bridge of his snout.

“That’s precisely what they’re supposed to do!” he snapped back. “These idiots couldn’t win a straight fight even if they had Celestia herself helping them. If they’d just complete the encirclement we could wrap this whole mess up and go home!”

“Well, by all means, major. If you think you can do a better job, head on out there yourself and relieve the battalion CO.” Pike glared at him, but made no move towards the front. Instead, he stormed off to prepare the next group of his unit.

As he stalked away, the officer noticed that a lone feather had fallen out of Pike’s wing. Casting a quick levitation spell, he brought it up to examine.

“Heh,” he muttered to himself. “Nopony but Pike deserves this so much.”

Whilst progress for the Royal Guard was slow, it was progress nonetheless. Taking moderate casualties as the cannons on the Moonflower steadily chipped away, they slowly encircled the tiny mission and its small band of defenders. By early afternoon, the Moonflower was under attack from three separate sides.

From the air, it looked as if the small mission was surrounded by a giant horseshoe. Attacks on the enemy’s flank were now pointless, and Dusk had earlier ordered the cannons to simply fire into the enemy formation. Since they were now in line formation, rather than a deep column though, a single cannonball had far less of an effect. The only upside was that it was still a great psychological weapon.

The ponies that were facing the Lunar guards were young, inexperienced. By modern standards, many of them were little more than colts. As such, they were not prepared for the frightening sounds of battle, the screams of the wounded, and the foul scent of copper blood and cordite fumes. So, while the advance continued, it was not an equal one, as large sections, every now and then, panicked and fell back a little, before more senior officers bullied them back into line.

An hour later, the previously clear horseshoe was now quite distorted, with bulges in the line here and there, and other areas that had not advanced a foot. In the grand scheme of things, the situation had become static, and the Royal Guard had lost its impetus.

“I honestly didn’t expect this,” Dusk said to Flintlock, as the north facing cannon barked out for the umpteenth time. “I would have thought that by now they’d be close to overrunning the defences. But look at them.” He gestured to the laughable mishmash that the Royal Guard called its front line.

“I don’t know, Dusk. Half of me wants to laugh at ‘em, the other half wants to scream,” Flintlock replied. The career soldier was equally appalled by the undisciplined rabble that, before long, would be forced to dig in to protect themselves.

All that the enemy needed to do was advance. The cannon fire wasn’t particularly strong, certainly not enough to check them. And yet all around them, the Royal Guard were at best crawling along towards them.

“It makes you wonder what they’ll do when they get close enough for our sharpshooters to start taking pot shots,” Dusk added.

When the attack had begun, all the unicorns had rushed to the ramparts to put up some shorter range defensive fire. However, two hours in, and the enemy had yet to come into the effective range of their magic. They ought to have been rushing at them, spending as little time as possible exposed to cannon fire, and cutting the time it would take to neutralise the sharpshooters. What in the name of Luna herself were they doing?

Back across in the Royal Guard camp, Pike was asking himself the same question. His troops were getting all but slaughtered out there. Not for the superior enemy fire, not for lack of a defence, but because they wouldn’t bucking move! After being called out earlier, he had plucked up the courage to go halfway out to the line. He’d yelled at anypony who would listen.

“Keep moving! Push forward!” he’d yelled. But the guards had all looked at him as if he were crazy, and continued to hunker down on their bellies. There was no cover for them, and it was only a matter of time before one of the guns zeroed in on them. There was now even talk of a general retreat in order to renew the attack.

Pike couldn’t quite put into polite words his feeling about that. At best the enemy had two hundred at his disposal, many of whom were wounded. They had a thousand committed, and a further four thousand in reserve. How could they be losing?! At length, the senior officers assembled for a rethink.

“Alright, what do we know?”

“Our first wave is bogged down about five hundred yards from the enemy stronghold, sir,” a captain replied. “The heavy cannon fire is making it difficult to advance, and with no cover we’re losing ponies rapidly.” Pike rolled his eyes.

“Well, we can’t dig into the earth that much, so there’s little hope of building trenches. Any suggestions?” Another officer, a unicorn major, spoke up.

“Pull back now and renew the attack tomorrow morning. If we keep pressing on, we’ll lose more ponies, and the night will give those thestrals the advantage.” Pike could stand the tedious debate no longer.

“We could do that,” he broke in. “Or we could, I don’t know, press on. The only reason we’re taking such losses is that those stupid foals won’t go forward.” The general turned to Pike.

“Major, those ‘stupid foals’ as you put it, are under heavy fire from large calibre guns with no cover.”

“Yes, but they wouldn’t be if they closed with the enemy. Artillery becomes less effective the closer you get.”

“And what of their unicorns?” another officer asked. “We know they have some excellent marksmen in there. Once they get under the guns, they’ll just be peppered by them.” Pike snorted. How could they not understand this?

“The same solution applies,” he responded, doing his best to keep his temper in check. “The sooner we breech their perimeter, the sooner we can put a stop to all their defensive fire. We just need to push forward!”

“Enough,” the general interrupted. “This attack has cost too many lives already; there’s no point trying to fix what is already clearly broken. We’ll pull what forces we have back toward our lines and try again tomorrow.”

“You can’t be serious!” Pike blurted out, temporarily forgetting he was addressing a superior officer. “We have a thousand ponies committed; we only need to kill two hundred. If we let up, they’ll have a chance to recover. Hay, they might even slip away in the night! Push forward, you stupid foal!”

“Major Steel Pike!” the general bellowed. All other conversation instantly died, and all eyes turned to Pike. “I will overlook your tone and language once, and only once. We will pull back until tomorrow morning, at which time, we will renew our attack. Until then, I do not want to hear another word out of you. Is that clear?” Pike remained silent, sulking like an errant schoolcolt.

“I said, is that clear, major? Or would you prefer the title of captain?” Pike fumed visibly, his face turning almost scarlet.

“Yes…sir,” he responded sourly. With that, he stormed out of the command tent.

Once again, the proud major had been made to look a fool, never mind get himself seriously reprimanded by the CO. Not something that he would take lying down. Pike could hardly believe that everything he had just sat through was real. An army of five thousand was being ordered to retreat in the face of two hundred weakened and battered opponents.

Heading out into the new camp, he looked out to the western horizon. The sun was barely beginning to set. There was still plenty of time to re-launch an attack and break the enemy’s defences tonight. All that was needed was a little encouragement. He began to think.

Eventually, the pegasus came across an artillery battery, one from his own unit. Said battery was oddly silent. The gun crew, previously resting, snapped to attention as he walked up.

“And just what in the name of Celestia do you think you’re doing?” Pike demanded as he walked up. “We’re attacking the enemy. Traditionally, that means the guns fire in support.” He sneered irritably at the lounging gun crew.

“Respectfully, major,” the more senior of the crew offered. “We aren’t in range to fire on the enemy. Command said putting us closer was too risky.” Pike had to restrain his jaw from dropping straight to the floor. A unit of artillery had been pulled, out of action, without casualties, because there was a fear it might get hit? What did those idiots think war was about? It was their job to stand there and get hit! And it was also their job to fire back!

“I can see the enemy from here. You can hit them easily,” Pike responded. “Elevate the gun and you’ll have more range. Or did you sleep through basic gunnery school?” The captain remained unruffled at Pike’s insult.

“Sir, if we do that, we won’t be nearly as accurate. Given how close our own forces are to the enemy, there’s a risk that we could hit some of our own.” Pike snorted dismissively and pawed at the ground.

“Do I look like I give a damn?” he asked. “Those oafs in charge have wasted enough time already playing things so safe. Elevate the guns to bring them to bear on the mission and begin indirect fire. That’s an order!” The gun crew paused for a moment. On the one hoof, they knew the order was at best ill-conceived. But on the other, insubordination in time of war meant execution on the spot. So, they began to load the cannon, and direct other crews to do the same.

Dusk could hardly believe his own eyes. With nothing but four cannons, and in spite of being almost entirely surrounded on three sides, the Moonflower had actually withstood the first of the enemy’s attacks. Looking out, he could see the golden armour of the Royal Guard forces, every now and again glinting in the early evening sunlight. They were actually pulling back!

He didn’t know why, nor did he really care. All that mattered was that they were indeed falling back. And, judging by the number of medical corpsmen he’d seen milling about, they’d taken quite heavy losses too. What he had expected to be a short and ill-fated last stand had turned, for the moment, into a successful defence. In a few more hours, it would be night time. Given how cautious the enemy had been so far, he doubted they would renew their attack until tomorrow.

“Flint, are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Dusk asked. Flintlock too, was equally shocked.

“Yep. We just held off a thousand ponies with four guns and two hundred walking wounded.” Dusk shook his head in disbelief.

“I’m half tempted to try and make a break for it if they don’t try anything tonight.” It certainly would be a great ending to things. Having been surrounded by a vastly superior enemy, to then actually fight their way out and escape; it would be the coup de grace of Dusk’s career.

“Now, don’t count your chickens just yet, Dusk,” Flintlock warned.

Had he believed in fate, Dusk might have held Flintlock’s comments against him, given what happened next.

Across the way, toward the enemy’s lines, there was a sudden bang; a short sharp noise, accompanied by a bright flash. This was quickly followed by several more. Cannons? Surely not; they were well out of range for any kind of accurate fire. It would be a useless gesture. To Dusk’s amazement though, the eerie whistling of cannonballs began to resonate through the air.

“Incoming!” Flintlock yelled. “Take cover!” He then grabbed Dusk by the scruff of his neck and pulled him down to the ground. A moment later, the first shell landed. The ground shook; the blast was close, but not so close as to actually hit them. The next three had a similar effect, though the final one was perilously close. After that, the barrage stopped.

Getting up to their hooves, Dusk and Flintlock looked out to see what damage had been done. The only way those guns could even get near to the Moonflower, was if they were angled well beyond the norm. They traded accuracy for range.

In front of the north wall of the Moonflower, perhaps some three hundred yards away, had been the enemy’s line, which was in the process of falling back. Now though, the area was littered with craters. The crazy Bright Lights had shelled their own trying to reach the thestrals! A dozen or so guards looked to have been killed, and many more wounded.

“Luna’s blood!” Dusk muttered as he looked down on the carnage.

“Hold your fire, Celestia dammit!” the general bellowed. “I said belay firing!” The gun crews quickly stopped the reloading process.

“Have you foals gone absolutely mad?!” he exclaimed. “Who the hay ordered you to begin firing anyway?!” Behind the general, Pike cleared his throat.

“I did, sir,” he said, with an air of disgust in his voice. The general rounded on him angrily.

“Listen a moment, major,” he said quietly. “What do you hear?” Pike listened carefully. With the cannons silent again, there was little to be heard but the wind…and the screams of the guardsman he had just accidently shelled.

“You just killed at least a dozen guards and wounded a dozen more with that stunt. Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” By now, everypony was backing away from Steel Pike and gathering around the other officers. The crowd of onlookers quickly swelled.

“I was merely doing my duty…sir,” Pike answered through gritted teeth. “There is a good chance that we can hit the enemy, even from here. With covering fire, we can safely advance to the mission and eliminate the thestral scourge.” Pike’s lack of guilt stunned everypony. The general was silent a moment.

“Captain Steel Pike,” he began, which caused Pike’s eyes to bulge in their sockets. “You will remain in command of your unit for the duration of this expedition. The moment the enemy threat is eliminated, you will be placed under close arrest. The princess shall decide your fate, assuming I don’t kill you first.” With that, the general walked away, and the assembled crowd dispersed.

Pike fumed. That dog had busted him down, in front of everypony! Why? For doing his job? It was more than he could take. Looking over to the battery that had just fired, he noticed that the guns were once again reloaded and primed for action. Well, his mother had always said that if you wanted something done, you had to do it yourself.

Stalking over to the gun crew he grabbed the botefeux before anypony could stop him, and lit the fuses of all five guns again. The gun crews barely had time to get clear before the guns fired.

“Dear Luna, here they come again!” Flintlock warned. He couldn’t believe it, were they really that desperate to hit them? Hunkering down, he waited for the shells to land. Unfortunately, this time, the ponies in the Moonflower would not be so lucky. It may have been a sudden gust or updraft, a cannonball may have bounced on impact, nopony would ever know. What they did know though, was what happened when the cannonball landed.

Instead of the same close impact as before, this time, Flintlock felt the whole world shake. There was a deafening crash, followed by an explosion close at hoof. He felt a strong heat sear at his exposed coat.

Eventually, after what felt like almost a minute, the cataclysm passed. Getting to his hooves, Flintlock found himself in a changed world. Roughly fifty yards away from him, where the north facing cannon had been, there was now a smouldering hole in the Moonflower’s wall. At a best guess, the cannonball had hit the cordite stored near the gun, setting it off. He could make our through the acrid smoke the battered remains of the gun, now warped beyond use or repair. Suddenly, he heard a voice, faintly.

“Flint? Flint, are you okay?” It was Dusk, his voice was muffled; the explosion had damaged Flintlock’s hearing.

“I’m alright,” he replied, taking Dusk’s hoof to get fully back on his hooves. “I’m alright." He paused. "Am I alright?”

“Yeah, you’re fine, Flint,” Dusk replied. The thestral barked a short laugh.

“Good, quit looking at me like that.” Dusk turned to survey the damage.

“Well, we’ve lost our north gun, and there’s a great big hole in the north wall. I’d say we’re in trouble.” Flintlock laughed hollowly.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” The pair were then interrupted as Sentry, who had luckily been at the gatehouse when the impact happened, shouted a warning.

“They’re coming back!”

“See? Do you see?” Pike exclaimed. “Now’s the perfect opportunity to attack! There’s an entire section of their front exposed. We can keep up the cannon fire and bring our forces in under it. Their sharpshooters won’t stand a chance.”

The general and the other officers looked out towards the Moonflower, which was now smouldering from the last barrage. There was still a few more hours of daylight left. It was the perfect opportunity. But, there was no desire to reward Pike for his earlier mistake which had cost lives.

“Very well, Captain Steel Pike. We shall make another attempt on the mission.” The general made sure to again emphasise Pike demotion; he was not off the hook.

As for Pike himself, he was feeling more than a little pleased with himself. The enemy was now completely exposed and had lost a quarter of their defence. With further shelling now allowed, their fate was all but sealed. He quickly began to organise his unit for a renewed attack. Hopefully this time the cowardly idiots would do their job, push forward, and break through.

Sentry was correct; the enemy was starting to re-engage. With no cannon to impede them, the buffalo horns around the mission were quickly reformed. Worse still, that lucky shot seemed to have emboldened the Bright Lights, they’d started to bring in all their guns, shelling indiscriminately. Whilst the fire was inaccurate, it was still a threat.

It was very clear to Dusk what would happen next. With their north front exposed, the Bright Lights would start attacking there. The west and east cannons were now required to split their fire between their own facing and the exposed north, which meant they were even less effective than they would otherwise have been. Unicorn magic alone would not be enough to hold them.

The world shook as another cannonball landed close by, striking the wall and doing considerable damage.

“Sir, enemy forces are closing in on all sides,” Swift Sentry reported. “We’re taking a pounding from those guns too.” As he spoke, another cannonball landed in the courtyard, rocketing two unfortunate earth ponies skyward. Dusk shook his head in an effort to clear his mind; he could hardly hear himself think.

“They’ll at least have to stop the barrage once their own guards get in range. They won’t want to hit their own again. Is Captain Flintlock still at the east gatehouse?”

“Yes, sir. He’s directing cannon fire,” Sentry replied. Dusk nodded.

“Good. Run over there and tell him that I’m assigning him to that approach. He is to hold that wall as long as possible and then when his defences are breeched, or another front collapses, he is to fall back to the temple. When that’s done, I want you to look after things on the western wall. I’ll hold here. Understand?” Sentry nodded and took off.

Flintlock was more than happy to focus on the eastern side of the mission. It was a logical approach, he decided, to divide the officers up between the three fronts. The plan overall was still perfectly serviceable, they would slowly reduce their front as they were pushed back by the advancing enemy. For now though, said enemy was still a few hundred yards away and being peppered by cannon fire.

This time, the Royal Guard seemed determined to keep advancing. Or at least, the officers behind the line seemed to. Perhaps, Flintlock thought to himself, the Bright Lights had taken a leap out of the griffons’ book and had got themselves some ad hoc commissars. It certainly seemed that the Bright Lights were more scared of the officers behind them that were egging them on, than they were of the enemy arraying in front of them.

The lone cannon did some damage, but it could not hold back the enemy. Plus, with the continued inaccurate fire from the enemy’s own guns, it was difficult to zero in on them and aim properly, as every close impact knocked the gun about on its mounting. Luckily, as the Bright Lights closed, this fire tapered off; so at least their commanders weren’t trying to shell their own men again.

The advancing line of gold and blue, and grey and silver, was now coming into range of the unicorn sharpshooters, who had lined themselves along the wall. The high walls would offer them some cover and they gained a small advantage from their superior height on the catwalk. Flintlock prepared himself.

“Alright, stand to!” he ordered. Roughly two dozen unicorns prepared themselves.

“Make ready!” Flintlock called. The best defence would be volley fire, with all the unicorns firing at once for maximum impact.

“Take aim!” The unicorns’ horns now began to glow as they charged their magic and weaved the necessary spell. For a moment, the Moonflower was lit up with almost a hundred points of light, red, blue, gold, green, and pink.

“Fire!” Flintlock ordered. There was a terrible cacophony as the magic was released. It looked as if a wave of hot, white light shot from the defenders. The concentrated blast of magic took a heavy toll on the attackers. However, this time, they barely wavered, being forced on by the officers bringing up the rear. Flintlock then prepared to fire off another volley. They would keep that up for as long as they could. Once the enemy closed sufficiently, it would be a matter of each pony picking his target in an effort to keep them off the wall.

“Keep going you foals! Keep going!” Pike bellowed as the unicorns atop the wall let off another volley.

The noise was absolutely deafening. While his group had successfully closed to be no longer threatened by the cannon, others had not, and every now and then the battle was punctuated as another gun fired. This was made only worse by the blinding light that was the magic the unicorns were throwing at them.

Pike had honestly not expected such heavy resistance. From the bat ponies perhaps, but good, honest unicorns and earth ponies? They were holding fast and refusing to break. Meanwhile, his own near worthless command now required constant babysitting just to advance. He himself was currently no more than twenty yards behind the front line along with a load of other officers. Each time a whelp turned and tried to make a break for it, Pike forced him back into line.

How was it that these bat ponies, tired, wounded and all but defeated, were putting up such a defence, and yet his own fresh, eager troops were performing so poorly? Still, Pike knew that numbers would ultimately win out. They had been steadily advancing and any moment now they could start bringing up the ladders to scale the wall, in addition to forcing their way through the breech in the Moonflower’s wall that had been made when the powder keg exploded.

“Alright, bring up the scaling ladders!” Pike ordered sharply.

At this, four groups of ponies, each carrying a long ladder advanced up toward the wall. The unicorns were now no more than ten or fifteen feet away and had resorted to individual fire, with each one picking his own target. Naturally, they tried to pick off the earth ponies that carried the ladders.

A few moments later though, the ladders were in place. Ponies on the ramparts were being drawn away, much to Pike’s pleasure, as another group wormed their way through the breech into the courtyard. The wall would break before long, and then they would have them. Pike continued to watch, smiling, as the pegasi and earth ponies forced their way up the ladders and onto the ramparts.

As the Bright Lights forced their way up, Sentry lashed out again with a wing tip blade. At such close quarters it was the perfect tool, particularly if one went for his opponent’s eyes. They’d done well for quite a while; their surviving cannon had thinned the enemy a bit, as had the unicorns that were covering their approach. Now though, at such close range, things had come down to hoof to hoof combat, or hoof to wing as the case may be.

All three of the walls the Bright Lights were attacking were feeling a similar strain, particularly Colonel Dusk’s lot with the gaping hole in the wall. There were already smaller battles taking place inside the courtyard as the majority of ponies tried to hold the line on the ramparts.

“Keep pushing them back, everypony!” Sentry encouraged. As bad as things appeared, they were still holding strong for the moment, and forcing the enemy to shed quite a bit of blood in the process. Even with the scaling ladders and the breech in the wall, the enemy was still mainly held up by bottlenecks. Though of course, with each passing minute, the Lunar Guard was losing more and more ponies and ground.

Sentry remained confident though; they’d come through dangerous situation like this before after all. Plus, given the adrenaline rush he was experiencing, he was hardly feeling much in the way of fear.

He didn’t notice it at first; all he felt was this odd hollow feeling and something warm trickling down his coat and armour. He kept fighting regardless of it, but as he continued, he began to feel light headed and woozy. Only then did he think to look down.

That was when he saw the head of the spear, broken from its pole, buried quite deeply in his chest. Presumably, it must have occurred when he tackled that rather vicious earth pony at close quarters. Blood was trickling down at a rate of knots from the large wound. At the sight, Sentry’s strength began to fail him. It was as if his ignorance of his mortal wound had somehow sustained him a little while. In any case, his ability to fight and defend himself slackened.

About a minute later, with his vision now faltering, a Royal Guard, who had, like a few others, successfully climbed the wall, managed to slash at Sentry with a sabre. This time, the wound went through to his gut. The effect was almost instantaneous, and the poor young thestral, Swift Sentry, fell down dead at his post.

Flintlock, oblivious to the loss of Swift Sentry, was also having a hard time holding the line. It was clear that the western wall was going to be overrun soon. Royal Guards were steadily forcing their way onto the ramparts and pushing their own forces back. Once that wall collapsed, Flintlock knew he would be fighting on two fronts. When that moment came, he needed to immediately fall back to the temple, lest he and the others get cut off by the advancing Bright Lights.

The one upside to their situation was that the cannon fire had now halted completely, given that the two sides were so closely intertwined. Still, the hoof to hoof fighting was getting more and more brutal by the second; a consequence of that red signal flag. Most of the thestrals and unicorns had now resorted to using their less manoeuvrable weapons, such as the spears, as clubs, whilst officers did their best to parry with swords, and the thestrals used their wing tip blades to slash at their oncoming foe.

The Bright Lights were really starting to pile over the wall now, Flintlock knew that they would have to break soon; there were just too many of them. However, just as he was about to give the order to retreat, a familiar face entered the fight.

Flintlock had known Steel Pike before the war broke out. The two had even been what you might call friends. Not close friends of course, but they got on with each other. They had shared a posting in the old castle in the Everfree. It had actually caught Flintlock off guard a moment when they captured him during that first raid on the Royal Guard encampment. He had all but forgotten him after the sudden retreat back to the Moonflower.

The two officers spotted each other at virtually the same moment. Clambering over the wall, Pike drew his sword and lashed out at Flintlock. The thestral promptly parried and did his best to push back and force the pegasus off the wall. However, with the many other guards backing him, this proved impossible, and the fight soon moved to the ramparts, joining a dozen other fights between small groups.

“Not going to catch me napping this time, Flint!” Pike shouted as he lashed out again. Flintlock easily parried and backed away; Pike always was a tad too aggressive.

“I see your swordsmanship still hasn’t improved!” Flintlock shot back, counterattacking with his sword and a wing tip.

“Well I must be doing something right, captain,” Pike countered, turning his shoulder a moment to reveal his major rank insignia.

“Oh, where’d you get that? Mess management?” Flintlock jeered. This only made Pike angrier, which made him easier to dodge. Neither of them was able to gain the upper hoof though.

“No,” Pike replied. “I got it for exterminating the vermin in Atcanter!” The situation suddenly reversed. Flintlock swung his sword wildly, and lashed out at his opponent. Pike backed off desperately, having barely any time to block the vicious attacks. Quite quickly, Flintlock had him with his back against the wall, or rather, the edge of the ramparts. If he backed up any more, he’d drop twenty feet down into the courtyard. And given the amount of magic flying about, taking wing, the obvious escape, was tantamount to suicide.

With one final strike, Flintlock successfully disarmed his opponent; his sword went clattering out of his hoof, along the floor, and out of his reach. Flintlock placed the tip of his own weapon against Pike’s neck.

“Any last words, Bright Light?” he asked. Pike made no reply.

At that moment though, Flintlock suddenly found himself seized violently from behind as two pairs of hooves wrapped themselves around him, restraining him. He quickly found himself disarmed by his attackers, but also pulled away from Pike.

With a cruel casual motion, Pike retrieved his weapon, smiling at the sudden reversal of the situation. Flintlock realised that he had been grabbed by two of his lackeys. Pike never was a pony to fight fairly; he was like a schoolyard bully. He struggled as much as he could, but his legs and wings were entirely pinned, and with the dozen other fights going on around him, he could hardly hope for help. The two pegasi holding him then lifted him onto his hind legs, exposing his unarmoured gut.

Still held fast by the two pegasi, Flintlock watched as Pike returned, a twisted smile on his lips.

“Now that you mention in, Flint. Yes, I do have a few last words for you. I’ll see you, and all your bat pony friends, in Tartarus!” With one swift motion, and with Flintlock having no possible way to protect himself, Pike stabbed viciously between the plates of the thestrals armour. Flintlock did his best to hold his tongue, but the pain was immense, he began to taste blood on his tongue.

Still not satisfied, Pike twisted the sabre gently. Still, though, Flintlock hardly made a sound. He kept his eyes locked with the pegasus, unsettling him even in death. Satisfied, Pike sharply withdrew the weapon, and Flintlock was released. He dropped unceremoniously to the ground and didn’t move.

In one final act of cowardice and degradation, Pike walked over to Flintlock’s body and spat onto the thestral’s bloodied coat.

“Vermin,” Pike muttered.

Just then though, Pike was startled as his two ‘assistants’ dropped down dead. Seeing no obvious cause, he hurriedly backed away and moved towards the edge of the catwalk again. Both the pegasi had had their throats slashed by wing tip blades. Pike had not even heard either of them cry out. As he looked back at the bloody mess that was Flintlock and his own two guards, Pike saw the reason for their demise. Dusk stood before him.

Fury did not express what Dusk was currently feeling. Not did rage, or anger; nothing could. He had seen many things in his life; things that would, and had, made lesser stallions sick to their stomachs. War was not a pretty thing, even less so when it pitted brother against brother. He had seen bravery and cowardice, honour and disgrace. He thought he had seen everything under Luna’s moon.

Then he saw what Steel Pike did to Flintlock.

That was not soldiering, that was not an honourable death at the hooves of an enemy in battle.

That was murder. And in that moment, Dusk vowed that before he met his own fate, he would end that pegasus.

He had seen the whole thing from his own small battle on the other side of the mission’s walls. Flintlock had gained the upper hand, and was about to deal the killing blow, when he was grabbed from behind, held fast, and then killed by that pegasus. He immediately left his own post, trusting that they would be able to manage without him for a moment.

Swooping across the courtyard, he carefully avoided Pike’s gaze. His rage only intensified when he saw what Pike did to Flintlock’s corpse. Landing just behind the two guards that had held Flintlock while Pike attacked him, Dusk quickly lashed out with his wing blades. He didn’t care about those two; they were probably just following orders anyway, so he allowed them a quick death. Pike had then looked up, and seen only his two dead comrades. He was clearly a coward, since he promptly backed away and searched for a way to escape. It took him a few moments more to notice Dusk.

The thestral’s anger had now entered a new phase, a quiet anger, a serene anger. His face became calm and impassive. His voice was restrained and even, without the passion one might expect. But his eyes held a dark fire that could not be quenched

“My name is Colonel Star Dusk,” he said in a sombre tone. “You killed my best friend. Prepare to die.” And with that, he attacked.

Pike had thought that Flintlock was a tricky opponent. As a regular Lunar Guard, and a veteran of the war, he was an excellent swordsman, thanks to years of training and practice. But this bat pony almost put him to shame. He was older than Flintlock, with a few grey strands in his mane, but he was a fierce fighter.

He attacked swiftly, with a combination of his own sword, and his wingtip blades. Those things could slash a pony’s throat in one fell swoop, and Pike cursed himself for not having any on his own wings. He quickly found himself desperately parrying and he was pushed back by the angry thestral. It seemed like he never let up, every attack seemed to be followed by another. He followed no pattern, so Pike couldn’t find an opening through which he could counter his foe; he was on a constant defence.

The two continued their battle as Pike retreated down the steps toward the courtyard. He didn’t have anypony to save him this time, and he didn’t fancy getting pushed over the edge.

The courtyard was abuzz with battle; dozens of ponies were clashing with each other, with no clear lines between friend and foe. The battle was undoubtedly entering its final stages. But given his current situation, Pike was seriously worried that he wouldn’t survive to see their final victory.

The thestrals all seemed to be moving towards the large temple that dominated the mission. Perhaps they had fortified it as a place to make their last stand? It was where Pike was being pushed to by Dusk in any case. In a desperate bid to save himself, Pike tried to get inside Dusk’s head.

“What the hay are you still fighting for, bat pony?” he called out over clashing steel. “You’ve lost. In another hour, this place will be ours!”

“Your kin are quite welcome to have it, Bright Light. But you are not going to leave here alive!” He slashed out at Pike again, this time scoring a hit on his armour, producing a sharp clanging sound.

By now, they were actually going up the steps of the temple itself. Normally, Dusk would not even consider taking a fight inside such a holy sanctuary. But the Bright Lights had demanded no quarter, and so he would give them none. The surviving Lunar Guard forces were doing their best to form a line on the steps, to hold back the enemy for just a little longer.

Dusk, due to the ferocity of his attacks, was beginning to tire as the clashing ponies made their way into the temple. Looking around, there were perhaps no more than a dozen or so ponies left in Lunar armour. Still, they were giving it their all; every second the enemy was held here, was another second bought for the civilians to get away safely. Nevertheless, the Royal Guard was slowly pushing its way into the temple itself. At the far end, standing at the altar, was old Moonapple himself. He was standing just in front of the altar, firing the odd blast of magic from his horn, and clasping the small detonator in his hooves. With one push of that button, all the explosives would detonate, destroying the temple, the mission, and anything else near it.

However, Moonapple choice of position was rather unfortunate. Whilst it was rather fitting for him to be standing in front of the altar, defending the inner temple from intruders, he was poorly covered. In fact, he was completely exposed. Hostile unicorns were pouring in through the front double doors, firing indiscriminately. It was only a matter of time before he was hit.

Again, in a rather fitting way, the fatal hit stuck him in the chest; right where his heart was. The elderly grey unicorn remained standing for a moment, the only indication of injury being the scorch marks on his robes. A moment later though, the damage made itself known, and he collapsed to the floor, the detonator falling a few feet away on the steps to the altar.

Meanwhile, Dusk was beginning to find himself put on the defensive. Despite his efforts to control and direct his anger, and his excellent fighting skills, he was still noticeably older than Pike. The younger stallion would simply outlast him. Eventually, Dusk would slip up and Pike would seize the opportunity. So, the only option Dusk could think of was to take Pike with him. He looked to the detonator lying near the fallen Moonapple.

However, at that moment, Pike began to gain the upper hoof, catching Dusk on the foreleg and drawing blood. Now on the defensive, Dusk backed away, toward Moonapple. He took solace in the fact that he knew exactly how and when he was going to die. Even amidst all the chaos and his own desperate fight for survival, he made one last silent prayer to his fallen princess. Then…he lowered his guard.

Turning sharply, Pike lashed out with his hind legs, hitting Dusk in the chest with a powerful kick. He was instantly knocked off his hooves and landed on his back. He smiled to himself as he felt a slight point of pressure on his back. Pike held the tip of his sword against Dusk’s neck.

“Enough, bat pony,” he declared. “Say hello to your princess for me.” He then prepared to strike. Dusk’s smile broadened, confusing Pike in those final seconds.

“Why don’t we go and see her together?” he asked. Dusk then eased off the pressure on the switch under his back, activating the circuit. Milliseconds before it happened, Pike realised he had been outwitted, and Dusk allowed himself a laugh.

Epilogue - A United Peace

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At this point, the story reaches something of a crossroads. And, to quote a notable Equestrian author; ‘Two roads diverged in Whitetail Wood. And sorry I could not travel both.’ There are two versions of what happened next, depending on who a pony talks to.

If you ask the few remaining die hard supports of Celestia’s monarchical regime, you will hear how, in a final bitter act of pointless defiance, the thestrals chose to commit mass suicide, taking as many brave Royal Guards with them as they could. The temple was demolished in a catastrophic blast, which took the lives of almost a hundred and fifty ponies, and wounded a hundred more. When the dust settled, not a single Lunar guardsman was left alive. And the few thestrals that had retreated earlier, disappeared into the network of caves in the Badlands, where they would remain for a thousand years in exile.

Conversely, if one were to talk to a thestral, they would hear how, facing impossible odds, the gallant thestral soldiers chose to fall on their swords, sacrificing their own lives in a blaze of glory to ensure the survival of the fleeing civilian column. At least one arguable war criminal, a Royal Guard officer who took part in the burning of Atcanter, perished on that day as well, although his name has been lost to the pages of history. The thestral officers however, went down in legend. In the intervening thousand years when the thestral ponies lived in a self-imposed exile, the exploits of ponies like Star Dusk, Flintlock, and Swift Sentry, would be passed down from generation to generation. To them, the Moonflower served as a reminder of where they had come from, and the homeland they would one day return to.

What is known for certain is this. The temple, and most of the mission, was entirely demolished when the explosives detonated, killing everypony within the Moonflower’s walls, and injuring many beyond them. The sudden turn of events, heavy loss of life, and the effective decapitation of the non-commissioned officer corps, forced the Royal Guard to halt their campaign in the region.

As a result, the civilian column of Lunar loyalists successfully reached the border and crossed over into the Badlands. They were soon met by elements of the re-organised Lunar Defence Force, the military and police force of the newly established thestral colony. The supplies they brought with them greatly aided the thestrals in the first few months whilst methods for growing crops within the caves were perfected.

They had all heard the distant rumble and seen a bright light on the horizon. A scouting flight by a small squad quickly brought back news of the Moonflower’s destruction, and the loss of the Lunar garrison there.

The action was noted by the thestral Government of National Emergency, and cited as one of the greatest acts of heroism in modern times, with the garrison’s commander, Colonel Star Dusk, along with several others, being posthumously awarded the Silver Crescent for gallantry in action. The refusal of the Lunar garrison to either surrender or retreat ensured that the civilian column was able to evacuate to safety, and also greatly checked the Royal Guard. Not three years later, Princess Celestia would finally bring the Royal Guard to heel, imprisoning those who aided the attempted thestral genocide, and reorganising the Royal Guard into a much smaller police style outfit compared to its wartime existence. Peace then finally returned to Equestria.

A thousand years later, both sides would once again meet, though this time as friends. At first, when the shadow of the ‘Mare in the Moon’ vanished, the thestrals returned to Equestria expecting another war. It was here that thestral soldiers were first encouraged by their commanders to ‘remember the Moonflower’. Having witnessed first hoof, the corruption of their princess by Nightmare Moon though, the thestral government quickly put itself into contact with the Equestrian government in Canterlot. Not six months later, the thestrals would finally return to their homeland and be reunited with their princess.

Of course, the path to reunification was not a smooth one. There were extremists on both sides; Solar supporters who still viewed thestrals as pawns of Nightmare Moon, and thestrals who viewed Celestia as a vicious tyrant that had forced their own princess from power, and viewed Luna’s corruption as a grand conspiracy. In time though, such issues began to fade.

In the end, it was Princess Luna herself who devised a means of bringing the tribes together again. She suggested a joint commemoration of the lives lost out in the deserts of Appleloosa Territory, now part of Equestria proper.

1,000 Years Later…

It had taken a great deal of effort on the part of many historians and archaeologists from Canterlot to Baltimare, but the ancient site had finally been found. There was little to be seen in the dusty plains, no walls, no crumbling ramparts, nothing. A thousand years was a long time, and what little had been left of the old mission had simply been swallowed up by the desert.

Still, the site had ultimately been found, thanks to diligent work by pegasi flyers, who had managed to spot the vague outline of the foundations in the desert floor. And after many an academic had had their fair share at examining the historical site, it was opened for a special service.

With the thestral state having effectively dissolved itself, and its population returning to Equestria, there was a need to foster solidarity between the two former sides. To that end, Princess Luna had suggested a joined special service of remembrance to be held at the site of the Moonflower. It would bring together the existing Royal Guard, and the newly returned and reactivated Lunar Guard, which was soon to integrate with them.

And so, the two princesses now stood out in the desert, around ten feet from where the northern wall had once stood, on either side of a covered statue. Lined up before them were ponies selected from both halves of the Royal Guard, all in their best dress uniforms. It was a solemn meeting, with the decorum of a funeral. After all, this mission was the final resting place of many a guardsman, from both sides. Princess Celestia spoke first.

“My little ponies,” she began. “This spot, to my mind, represents the epicentre of my greatest failure, as both a ruler, and as a pony. I failed my sister, letting her fall into darkness. I failed my own ponies, watching them become misguided in their pursuit of retribution. And, I failed my sister’s loyal disciples, who never once doubted her. I ask that you consider this, my apology.”

With a brief flash of her horn, Celestia removed the sheet that was covering the statue that lay between her and Princess Luna. The statue was that of a lone guardsman, though which side he came from could not be determined. He was sitting down, his spear leaning next to him, his face haggard and his eyes tired. Yet despite that, something about him still appeared defiant and noble. Beneath the figure, was a gold plaque which read as follows:

‘Beneath this stone rests the body of an Equestrian Warrior.
Unknown by name, rank, or loyalty.
Brought from the remains of the Moonflower to rest here in reward for his loyal service.
Buried here on the anniversary of the reunification of the Royal Pony Sisters, in the presence of Her Grand Royal Highness Princess Celestia, and Her Grand Royal Highness Princess Luna of Equestria, their ministers of state, the commanders of their armed forces, and an assembly of the new Royal Guard of Equestria.
Thus are commemorated all those who during, the Second Civil War of 2CR-5CR, gave all a pony may give; life itself.’

It was an unusual method of dedication, but nonetheless effective. The body had been selected jointly by both princesses, and was naturally, no more than a skeleton, with no identifying marks. It had been buried with full military honours, and been dedicated by both divisions of the Guard.

Nopony knew who exactly rested beneath that stone, though naturally, everypony believed it was one of their own, and honoured it accordingly, including the princesses themselves. Thus the service favoured neither party. There were no questions of who was right or wrong, just quiet remembrance of the folly of such a war. A moment later, Princess Luna spoke up.

“I feel that I too must share some of my sister’s guilt. Had I not fallen to darkness so long ago, this battle would have not needed to take place. At the same time though, I take pride in the way my guards acted in my absence, defending civilians at the cost of their own lives. By the same token, I respect many a guardsman, who fought gallantly, but was led astray by the propaganda of the times. Both sides fought for what they at the time, believed to be the truth, and it would be wrong of anypony to decry one side or the other as a villain.” She turned to her sister.

“Now, we shall turn proceedings over to the officers of the Royal Guard for the next part of the service.” At this, the two princesses stepped to one side, allowing two guardsmen, one solar, one lunar, to haul down from the nearby flagpole, the Equestria flag, and bring it to half-mast in salute.

As one, the assembled ponies snapped to attention.

Through a thousand years of separation, the ceremony for the remembrance of fallen comrades had not changed on either side. It was an excerpt of an old campfire song from the First Griffon War that ponies had sung around the campfires out on the cold tundra. It served as both a form of remembrance, and also as a way to boost the soldiers flagging morale at the time. The entire assembly of guards sang.

So when you feel that shiver boys,
Go running up your spine,
It’s just the guards who’ve gone before,
Standing by your side.
So now we’re all together,
Proudly raise your head.
For the wind that blows around us,
Tis the battalion of the dead.

Ironically, at this particular moment, a stiff breeze did indeed blow through the assembled ponies, even ruffling the magical manes of the two princesses. Most, of course, passed it off as a freak gust. One guard, a young earth pony, however, could have sworn that he heard something faintly on the breeze, something about not locking his knees, which he had been inadvertently doing. He then felt something brush against his shoulder. After a minute of silence, the guards relaxed, the reveille was sounded, and the flag was raised back to its proper position. A little while later, the assembly broke up.

A little ways off from proceedings stood an ageing thestral. He was by no means elderly, but he was definitely past his prime. Here and there, a few lines of grey appeared in his otherwise deep purple mane. Still, his amber eyes shone brightly, and his leathery wings looked to be in good condition. He wore the armour of an officer in the Lunar Guard, with the markings of a full colonel. The only thing missing was his helmet, which sat next to him atop the small hill he stood on.

He watched the proceedings closely, smiling as the guards were all dismissed. The two sections quickly merged into one as they departed back towards San Maretonio; a key artery that led to Equestria’s frontier towns. He assumed that they would probably be heading for the nearest watering hole; as guards are want to do. It was pleasant to see them all getting along together, acting as if it had never been otherwise.

His eyes were drawn though to Princess Luna. She had moved away from the newly unveiled statue, and was talking with her sister. Suddenly though, much to the thestral’s surprise, she paused the conversation she had been having and turned to face him. Initially, she looked somewhat worried, but a moment later, her expression was replaced with a kind smile and she nodded ever so slightly at him. She soon turned back to her sister, resuming whatever conversation she had been having.

Apparently satisfied, the thestral also elected to take his leave. Picking up his helmet with a hoof, he placed it back on his head, taking a moment to properly adjust it. He then turned and walked away from the site of the Moonflower. As he went, his body slowly seemed to fade, growing transparent and eventually vanishing altogether.

Back at the statue, Princess Luna looked up, in the late evening sky, the first few stars were beginning to come out, in spite of the fact that Celestia’s sun still remained firmly in the sky. As she examined the darkening eastern horizon, she noticed another spot of light steadily appearing as the sun continued to set; a star. She smiled to herself.