A dark, dystopian dramatic thriller set in an alternate universe with a divided Equestria, and a tale of redemption for a traumatized young soldier of Queen Luna's army.
A thousand years ago, Equestria was divided. Princess Luna was banished from her homeland, taking her followers and loyal “nightbreeds” with her to found a new country now known as The Twenty-Six Territories of the Lunar Confederacy. Trapped in an infertile land between Equestria in the East, the icy North, dragon-infested South, and the mountains and sea of the West, the Confederacy has struggled and suffered for their survival despite leaps and bounds in technological advancements.
Born into a dark age of starvation, rebellions, and population restrictions, Lieutenant Ashen of the Nightwing clan of nightbreeds has endured many hardships, and made many sacrifices in his duty to protect and serve Queen and Country. Perhaps too many.
It’s then when the Confederacy is suddenly attacked, with Equestria as the prime suspect, that Ashen is sent on a mercy mission to initiate peace talks with their eastern neighbor. As the truth of the attack unravels, so too does the emotionally scarred Lieutenant’s sanity and resolve.
The only question left is can the Lieutenant prevent all-out war between his home and the home of a pegasus that will test everything he has come to know about loyalty, or will he lose everything he has left to his duty and regret?
Sometimes it goes to the highest bidder, other times it goes to whoever holds the most power. It can be given out of fear, or an eagerness to please. It’searned through hard work and strong leadership, or used as a deadly weapon to hurt the ones you care about. Loyalty is something hard to earn, but easy to break.
It can also go to somepony you fall in love with; a pony who knows loyalty better than you do.
I thought I knew what it meant to be loyal, but I clearly didn’t.
Years ago, I swore an oath to defend the Lunar Confederacy and her Queen at any cost. Since then, I’ve had to do very terrible and unforgivable things; things that had to be done for our survival.
Sacrifices had to be made.
However, I realized far too late that I had made one too many, and now I’m about to face the consequences.
Queen Luna’s army will be here in two days, and Equestria is assembling their forces to retaliate. They’ll destroy each other and every other living thing caught in the crossfire, and it’ll be my fault if that happens.
I think I might have an idea on how to stop this entire mess before it even starts, but I don’t know if I have enough time. Worse still, I’m not sure if it’ll even work. It’s all I’ve got to go on though.
Whatever they’re worth, I’ve left you my journals in case anything goes wrong. They’ll tell you what happened, how this all started, and who you can blame for the mess you may or may not be in. I might have betrayed my country, but maybe I can do at least one thing right to earn some forgiveness, even if I don’t deserve it.
Like I said, loyalty is a funny thing.
Good luck, you’ll need it.
A copper-colored unicorn clad in a grey overcoat stood beside the liquor cabinet in his office, leaning against a counter as he took a few sips of scotch, something he reserved for nights of therapy that could potentially be, or had been, bad.
This was one of those nights.
Doctor Archer had a lot on his mind, which prevented him from taking the time to organize his messy desk to prepare for his next appointment sometime within the next couple hours. He had become so lost in his thoughts that he’d lost track of the time, but judging from his yawns and the fact he hadn’t woken up too long ago, it was probably around ten at night. This was further evident from the many flashes of city lights through the open blinds of his window that partially illuminated his dim office, indicating that it was quite active outside his building’s thick walls.
While the dim lighting from the world outside and the small lamp on his ornate wooden desk were paramount to maintaining an atmosphere for complete concentration between him and his patients, it also served as a good way to sink himself deep into his thoughts. At least it prevented him from being able to see the ugly abstract painting in the back of the room he’s still not sure why he bought for six-hundred bits, or the cheap, fake plants that helped to decorate the room along with the dull blue carpet and tacky tan-and-white walls. The only thing he needed to see was the large red sofa in front of the desk, where he would seat and converse with his many, many patients, one of which in particular was on his mind right now.
The stallion took one last sip of his glass for the night before his absent-minded gaze locked onto the wall of cabinets just behind his desk and short brown chair. A thought entered his mind, one which made him decide to step away from his counter by the liquor cabinet, and cross the room to open one of the large wooden containers.
Inside were shelves holding several stacks of white reels, each wound with magnetic tape containing audio recordings of his many sessions. His horn and two stacks of reels glowed yellow, allowing him to levitate them in front of and around him. He glanced through each of them until he found the ones he sought, taking three of them before returning the rest to their corresponding stacks. Archer shut the doors behind him as he returned with the spools to his desk as he sat down and began affixing the spool onto the small metal audio box. Once he wove the tape onto a smaller, empty spool on the device, he pushed one of the large buttons, and with a “click,” the spools began to spin up and the box started talking while he began organizing his mountain of paperwork.
“Date: October 27th, year 1010 of Her Majesty’s reign. Today I’m interviewing Commander Artemis Greywing about one of my patients, Ashen Nightwing,” came the past voice of doctor Archer through the small box, while the doctor himself glanced at a description form about Greywing he found buried on top of his pile. A picture should have been clipped to it, but it must’ve been lost somewhere under all of his documents.
Surname (if applicable): Greywing.
Doctor Archer skimmed through the remainder of the unimportant details on the page, the main focus of his attention on the black box as it began to speak up again.
“Good night Commander. I’m glad you could come in to speak with me on such short notice. From what I understand, you’re the new head of Dragonlands expeditions, am I correct?”
“Good night to you too, doctor, and yes, you’re correct; I was just assigned the position last week, thank you,” replied an older, experienced stallion’s voice, one with a calm demeanor that was soothing to the ear, accompanied by the sound of hooves connecting together and shuffling; sounds accompanying that of a hoofshake. “I’m hoping I can be of some help. Ashen’s been a close friend for years.”
“Ah, yes, I’m sure you will. I just want to say that I am very grateful that you found the time to speak with me despite your new post.” There was a pause accompanied by the sounds of squeaking chairs. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure the Greywings were as hospitable as your reputation claimed. Most, if not all, of my nightbreed clients haven’t been as… ‘polite,’ shall we say. No offense.”
“None taken. My kin and I are soldiers; it’s what we’re good at and have been good at, for the past thousand years since our creation. It’s nothing personal, doctor. We live for Her Majesty in the royal guard or defending the southern border from dragons. Most serve for life, after all. While the other nightbreed lines, those damn Bloodwings especially, aren’t known for being civil, my family just does what they can to keep the peace and provide counsel whenever it’s needed.”
“I understand, and I’m not holding anything against you or your kind. I just don’t meet many hospitable nightbreeds.” Sounds of drawers being opened and paperwork being stacked were heard. “However, I’m not one to complain about that kind of thing. None of us would’ve survived the Dragon Wars or made it past the Founding and Seizing of the Twenty-Six Territories and countless other conflicts if not for all of you.”
“That was 200 years ago doctor. We were just doing our duty then.”
“Oh don’t be so modest. I, for one, am grateful for how hard you and your kind work, especially in defending the southern border. I thank the Three Goddesses every day for you all.”
There was a pause.
“Oh, I apologize. I forgot nightbreeds don’t share our religion.”
“It’s quite alright. While we believe in our Queen and Creator, I have nothing against your religion.”
“Most do,” Archer commented. “Especially most of the separatists in that uprising of theirs two years ago.”
The box went silent again.
“Is… something wrong, Commander?”
“No, just… ever since that day, Ashen hasn’t been the same since,” came Greywing’s solemn reply. “I can’t even begin to imagine how much he went through, especially at such a young age….”
“Actually, that’s why I asked you to come in today. I wanted to talk with you about what he was like before then. He’s… proven to be very difficult to work with.”
“I see. What can I do for you then?” Greywing asked.
“Well, he hasn’t told me much about his life before the… incident,” Archer said. “I was hoping you could fill me in about what he was like earlier in his military career. Is that okay?”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
“Alright, so, first question: How would you describe Ashen when he was first put under your command?”
Archer remembered that when he had asked that question, the other stallion’s smile stretched ear to ear. He set the document down and slumped against his desk as his entire focus was diverted to listening to the recording.
“He was eager; naïve, but very eager, and determined, like he wanted to prove himself. Never complained once; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anypony else who volunteered for duty on South Watch, or even the expeditions.”
Archer remembered looking up at Greywing in disbelief at this statement.
“Forgive me, but… he volunteered for the expeditions?”
“Yes,” replied Greywing with conviction.
“Nopony volunteers for the expeditions.”
“Well, Ashen did.”
There was a brief pause, before the sound of scratching of a quill writing notes down was heard from the box, before the Doctor’s voice spoke up again.
“You say he wanted to prove himself? Who was he trying to prove himself to? The Queen?”
“I’m not sure, actually. If I were to guess, I’d say his father.”
“The previous Law & Order Representative?” Archer asked.
“The same. He often spoke poorly about him, how his father thought he was worthless, and that he wanted to prove him wrong. I’m assuming that’s where his ambition to become a member of the Royal Guard came from. Either way, he was very loyal to Queen and country, no matter what was asked of him.”
“Yes… that would explain a lot….” Archer said to himself.
“What do you mean?”
“Sorry, but I can’t discuss anything about my conversations with my patients, including Ashen. Patient confidentiality agreement and such.”
“I apologize Commander, I know he’s a close friend-“
“No, no. That’s quite alright.” Greywing hastily interrupted, his tone understanding.
The black box was silent once again, save for the sound of the spinning spools and a scribbling quill. A moment later, Archer spoke up again.
“Would you say he was… lonely?”
“I’m… not sure. He hasn’t given me that impression.”
Quill scratching was heard once again during another brief pause.
“You said earlier he was naïve. Could you tell me why?”
“Ah… yes… he… he was one of those recruits who felt like they were some kind of noble hero or paragon or something. He had a very kind heart though; he was selfless. He never once thought of himself as he stood and defended the south border, or when he rescued ponies from thieves, rapists, and other criminals here in the streets of the Capital. Whenever other ponies were in danger, he’d put himself in harm’s way to protect them, especially fellow soldiers.”
As Greywing spoke, the subtle sound of the scratching quill accompanied his voice.
“You should’ve seen him the first day,” reminisced Greywing. “He thought he would be the first one to find fertile land in the Dragonlands expeditions and singlehoofedly save the country. Such fire he had in his eyes back then…”
The quill stopped, creating an uncomfortable silence in its wake.
“It must be so hard to believe now, I’m sure,” came a miserable-sounding comment from Greywing.
“What do you mean?”
“Ever since Operation Specter.”
Silence lingered from the box, before the scratching noise was heard again, and the doctor cleared his throat.
“I’d… like to change topics,” started Archer. “Was he always prejudiced against unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies?”
“Well, he didn’t like Equestrian kind before. Never told me why. After Specter though-”
“I… think I get the idea, Commander.” Archer interrupted. “So on that note, he has more kinship with other nightbreeds, especially yourself, am I right?”
“Could you elaborate on your affiliation with him?”
“Sure. I took him under my wing just after he was recruited. A year and a half later I brought him with me on most of my expeditions. I even trained him myself.”
The sound of opening drawers accompanied by rustling paper came from the box.
“Ah, yes. Says here Ashen is one of a few ponies certified with Runeblades and CrystalTech. You trained him with these?”
“I’m told Runeblades are difficult weapons to master.”
“Indeed they are, as are any CrystalTech weapons, gear, and machinery which are even more challenging to use efficiently.”
“Would you say Ashen is adept with these?”
“Okay…” mumbled the doctor as more scribbling was heard. “So it’s safe to say you carry a mentor-student relationship?”
“Something like that.”
It was quiet again for a few seconds.
“Is there more to it?”
“Ashen… is like a son to me, really. We took care of each other in a lot of close calls with wildlife over in the Dragonlands. There were times he was scared, or angry, or sad, but never showed it. Back then he didn’t approve of our strict laws either, being as strict as they are. I tried to be there for him all those times he was in doubt and needed somepony to confide in, and let him know there’s good worth fighting for, despite our harsh laws and the blood we have to spill to survive. I suggested once that he should try working to become a member of the Queen’s council; follow his father’s hoofsteps and try to change things for the country. Told him I’d even vote for him, heh…”
Scribbling was heard once more.
“How’d he respond to that?” asked Archer.
“He… was against the idea.”
“I see,” responded the doctor, flatly, as he was heard scribbling a few more notes down. “Would you say that he respected you just as much?”
“I couldn’t tell you how he might’ve felt. He confided in me though, so I suppose I should say yes.”
Quill scratches and scribbles again.
“So… after Specter, have you two kept in contact?”
“…Not exactly. We rarely talk anymore.”
“Is it because of your different postings?”
Silence reared its ugly head once again, for a brief moment.
“I thought as much,” said the doctor as a few more scribbles were heard. “I have one last question.”
“When was the last time you spoke with him?”
“…probably three months ago.”
“What did you talk about?”
“…Work, I guess you could say; his and mine. In the rare instances we talk, that’s about all we discuss. Rest of the time we quietly drink, him more so than me,” he said, before a long and uncomfortable pause. “…Much more.”
There was a bit more scribbling heard, then the sound of a small object being set down.
“Alright, well, I’d like to thank you for your time Commander. Hopefully our talk tonight might help me significantly with my case.”
“I hope so too. If you need anything, just-”
Doctor Archer stopped the recording, letting off a deep sigh as he brought the half-empty glass over to him with his magic, took another sip. He’d heard enough for the time being. He set his glass down and stared vacantly up at the ceiling, leaning back in the chair and propping his hind legs up on the desk.
He often dwelled about this particular case. It even robbed him many nights of sleep. The unicorn had dealt with a few PTSD cases in his many years of experience, but he hadn’t dealt with anything like Ashen before. It was probably why he took this case so personally, especially since he’d been working on it for the past year and a half. He had taken it upon himself to do everything in his power to help him, despite how little progress he’d made. When he’d asked Greywing to come in that day over a year ago, it was out of desperation for results, for answers, and it’s a tactic he normally wouldn’t utilize.
However, Ashen was definitely his longest case as well as his most challenging. After spending that long with him, he was determined to cure him, not solely for the sake of his job, but also because he wanted Ashen out of his life after taking up so much of it. Since his talk with Greywing though, he looked at his case with a new perspective, one that contained a level of sympathy he hadn’t had from the outset. It also became a major goal, almost an obsession, even, to help his patient, no matter the cost. If there was one thing he needed after all this time, it was closure. He doubted he could even help many other clients until he had done so with Ashen.
Doctor Archer glanced at a small, neat stack of papers near the edge of his desk piled under various other ones. He figured he had a long while still before his patient would show up. The stack of papers was something he had read through a dozen times already, but he would search through them a dozen more times if it would help him find answers he sought.
He thought this over for a moment.
I’ve got time. Might as well.
The stack of papers levitated over to his lap, and he began to read.
Nothing much to report. It was just another night, except for the fact I had to meet with that damn doctor, again.
I know I said it a hundred times before, but I’m getting very sick of these therapy sessions.
“What happened to you this time, Ashen?” asked a slightly annoyed Doctor Archer as I entered the room. He examined my injuries, which included a black left eye, and a bloody forehead, with a large streak that stained the fur on the left side of my face.
“Do you honestly have to ask?” I said, grumbling in annoyance as I sat down on one end of the sofa. He went over to his mini-refrigerator behind his desk, producing an ice pack, which he levitated to me before I took it and held against my eye.
“Here, this’ll help with the swelling,” he said, before taking a seat behind his desk and started organizing the papers strewn about. I eyed his glass that rested at the end of the desk. It was still full of ice.
He must’ve been drinking, which meant he wasn’t having a good day and he wanted this to be over with in a hurry.
Good for me.
Once he got his desk in order, his magic opened the large cabinet behind him containing his blank recordings. He lifted off a spool already attached to the black box, and set it on the side of his desk while he mounted the new one into it, and pushed one of the buttons.
“Doctor Archer with patient Ashen Nightwing. Date: July 8th, 1011. Subject was late for his counseling appointment…,” he paused for a brief moment to look over me, before turning back to the black box and began speaking again. “He came in with a hangover as well as multiple bruises and blood patches on his fur. Probably from last night, if I were to guess. Beginning session.”
He always began with this mundane garbage. It ground my gears on some days, with him starting these conversations like it were some kind of lab experiment that he had to document every detail on.
I hated that.
I hated that box, these sessions, even the doctor himself on bad days.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice, with the only upside being this was a more favorable option than the alternative I was given.
“So, how are you feeling today Ashen?”
“Like death,” I mumbled.
“Care to tell me why?”
I sighed. I wasn’t keen on answering to him and that infernal box of his, but once again, it was this and a few more months of crappy desk jobs, or a padded cell.
“I had a rough night.”
I scowled at the Doctor, who was giving me a blank expression. He knew what I was going to say but decided to ask anyway; just more crap that irritated me. I glanced at one of his plants to the side.
“Do you really need to ask?” I muttered.
“Where was it this time?”
I didn’t bother saying anything. He already knew the answer.
“Starry Skies Tavern again, then,” he says nonchalantly, his eyes focused on his notes as the quill scribbled across them. A moment later he turned back to me.
“So what happened?” he asked.
Some stallion struck me again, this time into my jaw, before another one bucked me out the front door and out into the red-lit street, where I crashed into some trash cans that sat across the way. I was too drunk and disoriented to get up and resume the fight. I didn’t care much for it anymore either, I’d already lost.
One of my assailants stood at the entrance, ready to continue the fight, but some of the other patrons were holding him back.
“Come on Basher, he’s had enough.”
“Get off of me! I wanna kill him!” shouted the brown earth stallion, his eyes alight with fury.
“He’s not worth it. Just let it go,” shouted one of the ponies who restrained him, whom ironically happened to be one of my first assailants along with the burly earth stallion.
Eventually the brown one, Basher, shook out of their grasp, but didn’t continue with his assault.
“If I see you again nightbreed, I’ll buck your damn head in,” he said and spat in my direction before he shouldered through the crowd and back into the bar. Some of the other patrons glanced angrily my way, some of them shaking their heads, but all of them turning to resume enjoying their night as I lay like some discarded trash, not unlike the garbage I was laying in.
“Damn daykind…” I muttered with a cough as I struggled to regain my breath. The cough felt like I just took another buck to the chest. “You need to learn your place! We’re the right hoof of the Queen, and I deserve some respect!” I shouted at the building across the road as I thrusted a few angry hoofshakes at it, before I sighed and let my foreleg fall back down onto the ground in bitter defeat.
Who was I kidding? Nightbreeds have fallen far from their superiority a thousand years ago. There was a time where we struck fear into our enemies with our large webbed wings, our manes that would glow in the night like the Queen’s herself, and our powerful and destructive magic; but that’s not the case anymore. We hardly even resemble our ancestors, seeing as those of us with the glowing manes are few and far between. Those of us who have magic are even more rare.
We were just Queen Luna’s soldiers now; grunts. We’re obligated to do her bidding since she created us, and even though we make up her royal guard, we’re nothing more than simple, expendable infantry who barely have a place in the Lunar Confederacy anymore, and no matter how highly she depends on us or tries to defend the reason for our existence, that doesn’t change where we stand in this day and age with the daykind.
I slowly brought a hoof up to check my pounding head, and drew it back to reveal my charcoal fur was now stained crimson. There was blood trailing down past my broken horn and along the side of my face. It was a little hard to see out of my bruised left eye, and a violent sting of pain was accompanied with every blink. It didn’t compare to the pain in my chest though, from where the stallion bucked me out of the tavern. I was pretty sure I had a cracked rib.
Could’ve been worse, or so I figured. It was one of my better nights.
I struggled to sit up, wincing with each shock of pain that not even the vast amounts of alcohol I had consumed moments prior were able to drown out. I glanced around to see that the street was deserted tonight, save for a few random and uncaring passersby down the road. I was grateful, since I wasn’t keen on anypony else seeing me in my current state. As I was about to get up, I noticed some new damage to my favorite duster coat.
There were new cuts in the canvas as well as small blood stains, some of which didn’t belong to me, as well as stains from whatever I was sitting in. Damages were minimal at least, thanks to the tough fabric. Too bad it wasn’t enough to prevent any bruises, which I was sure would hurt like hay tomorrow morning when the alcohol wore off.
I groaned and rested my head back, brushing my glowing blue mane out of my eyes as I looked past a couple of rectangular, bright, and transparent holographic signs, and up at the night sky. Dawn was coming soon, and I needed to get home. There was an alley nearby I had slept in numerous times before, and the thought of doing so extremely tempting. However, I wanted to be as far away from the capital, and the rest of civilization within, as possible. Especially the tavern and the angry ponies within. I learned the hard way that sleeping in the Red Light district after getting into a fight isn’t a good idea either.
Reluctantly, I summoned the willpower to get up, though it took a few attempts. Eventually I was on my hooves, and inspected my wings to check for any damage. I couldn’t fly home with broken or torn wings after all.
Aside from the initial pain in my torso from unfolding them, all of the thin, grey sheet-like membranes in between the long black fingers and appendage that held them all together were intact. I gave them an experimental flap, which I winced to as they sent pain flaring through my chest.
I knew it was going to be murder flying home that night. Being drunk with impaired vision and injured is a bad combination for doing so. I was seriously considering the alley again at this point, until I suddenly remembered something.
I had an appointment tomorrow night, one I wasn’t allowed to miss.
“Great,” I muttered to myself. “Doc’s gonna kill me.”
I crouched low, extended my wings, having to bite my lip to try and ignore the pain in my chest, before I slammed my wings down and propelled myself into the air, then banked southward toward home.
If I had a choice, I would’ve skipped tonight’s session, regardless of how many I already missed.Last night was absolute torture trying to fly home. I ended up crashing after flying too low to the forests’ treeline, and landed in the clearing outside the house, adding another few bruises. I was in so much pain, I practically had to crawl inside. Never even made it to the bed.
(Wouldn’t have been a half idea to just sleep in the clearing again, but I don’t know what possessed me last night.)
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to miss another session this month or he would extend my field suspension again
Doctor Archer sighed and shook his head.
“That explains the injuries.”
I made no comment as he jotted a few notes down.
“So why’d you start the fight?” he asked without looking up.
I scowled at the accusation.
“What makes you think I started-“
“Don’t give me that Ashen,” he said, looking back up at me with a scowl of his own. “We’ve been at this for a year and a half, and I’ve seen you come in here from fights dozens of times, most of them you started. If I don’t hear it from you, I end up hearing about it on the streets or from one of your colleagues.”
I merely stared in annoyance at the shrink for a moment, then I rolled my eyes and turned away, avoiding eye contact with him. I heard him write a few more things, before the scratching noise of the quill stopped, and there was a brief, uncomfortable silence.
I sighed. “I was just in a bad mood.”
“…Just a bad mood,” he repeated with an undertone of disbelief.
“Just a bad mood,” I restated, reinforcing my point. “That’s why I went to the Starry Skies to get a drink.”
“Or five,” flatly commented the doctor, as he wrote a few more notes down.
I ignored the remark.
“So why were you in a bad mood?”
“I don’t even remember anymore,” I said, rubbing my head a little with the ice pack. “I think it had something to do with my last assignment.”
“Hm… alright… does it have anything to do with why you were late tonight? I expected you half an hour ago, and even then, that’s late.”
“…No,” I reluctantly stated. “I got… held up.”
Deafening, is the quickest way to describe the mind-numbing beeping noise my alarm clock was making. It went on in repeated, intermittent drones, causing my ears to ring. I stumbled onto my hooves from the wooden floor of my dark room and slammed my hoof down on the infernal thing, effectively silencing it and causing the holographic digital display it projected to flicker a bit.
Had it not been for the time it showed, I would’ve fallen back to sleep on the floor. Unfortunately, the clock said it was almost midnight.
That meant I was running late. Very late.
I groaned, and reluctantly got to my hooves. It was only then that the pain, which had been dulled by the alcohol last night, came back in full force. I couldn’t stand straight, and my head pounded relentlessly. There wasn’t a single part of my body that wasn’t stiff, sore, or in some kind of pain, plus it was even harder to see out of my injured eye.
I dragged my half-asleep self into my washroom to inspect the last night’s damage. As I looked in the mirror, it was hard to see my reflection through multiple cracks that stemmed from an indented, round spot full of tiny pieces of broken glass near the bottom-right corner of the frame. I leaned in to look at the largest shard of the mirror, and examined my eye. Where normally my eye should be populated with white, blue, and black, there was a lot of red surrounding my pupil. It was also darkened and slightly puffy. Surrounding my eye, I saw a large stain of red across the right half my face, more so on my forehead and cheek. The patch ran all the way down to my jaw line.
“Guess I got off lucky this time,” I mumbled to my reflection, as I propped my forelegs up on my sink and glared angrily at the pony in the mirror.
I loathed seeing him; just looking at him makes my blood boil. Deep down, I knew he didn’t fulfill his quota of injuries last night, and he badly needed more of them. I could never pity the pony I saw in the mirror, and I didn’t care one bit how much pain he was in or the humiliation he received throughout the last couple years. That pony deserves worse, and he also owes me a new mirror.
The alarm suddenly went off again in the other room, taking my attention from my brooding and reminded me that I needed to get going. The shower just off to my right felt inviting, but I didn’t have the time nor willpower to get in it and clean myself off. Instead I just turned on the faucet and splashed some water on my face a few times with my hooves, making a rather lazy attempt to clean the blood off of it with little success. I glanced at my reflection once more to inspect the clean-up job, and thought of how pointless it felt. There were deeper stains I couldn’t wash out of my fur that were invisible to the naked eye as is, so why was I even trying to clean this fresh patch of blood off?
I shut off the valve to the sink, and dried my face off with the dirty towel that rested on it, already stained with a few red patches as is. Once I finished, I threw it over my shoulder without a care where it landed, then returned to the bedroom and silenced the alarm clock, which said it that it was midnight.
I sighed and crossed the room to the open closet, and considered changing into one of my old black, blue, and purple uniforms or suits for the sake of variety, or at least something that wasn’t dirty. That or consider following up on my therapist’s recommendation to start working on my etiquette. Ultimately I decided he, nor anypony else, would particularly care how I looked. Besides, I prefered my duster anyway.
While it was dirty, torn in places, and rugged, it’s what I normally wear anyway, and I hardly went anywhere without it except on very rare occasions. I tightened the straps around my torso, but kept the shirt-piece loose. I brushed some of the dust off my long sleeves that hung down along my forelegs ending just short of my ankles. Lastly I made sure the tail of the coat was comfortably draped over my back, which partially covered my folded wings, and my tail went through the split near the flank area. Hoping I was at least a little presentable, I turned to leave, but stopped just short. An object in the corner of the room temporarily demanded my attention, because it was a stark reminder of why I was going where I was going.
As I stared at this object, the room felt like it dropped a few degrees in temperature, and a pit formed in my stomach as horrible memories flooded into my mind.
“What are you doing?!” echoed the disembodied voice of a particular, distant memory.
I was unable to take my eyes off the thing. The scabbard containing an old friend - and an old enemy - within it, and just seeing it sent painful reminders of the past relentlessly into my mind.
“You monster!” screamed a different voice from the same memory.
Part of me wanted to run. I wanted to run a million leagues and never stop running.
I couldn’t escape, no matter how far I could’ve ran. Not from these memories. I felt like I was trapped in a dark void with this damn thing keeping me locked in place. It refused to let me leave as the room filled with visions of blood and fire.
I wanted to die then and there just to make them stop.
“Please…,” came yet another voice, a mare’s this time.
I swallowed hard and my heart felt like it was pounding 200 times a second.
“Please don’t do this!” begged the same mare.
I wanted her to shut up, I wanted this torture to stop, and I wanted to stop staring at that damn object, but I couldn’t move, and I couldn't tear my eyes away.
I held the blade, ready to strike her down...
“NO, WAIT! STOP! ASHEN, DON’T-!”
I jumped as the sound of my alarm snapping me out of my trance, and quickly pulled my eyes away, forcing them shut. It took me a brief moment to recover, but also realize that I had forgotten how to breathe. I released my breath and stood there, gasping for air.
“Damn it…,” I cursed to myself.
I shook my head. “I don’t have time for your crap tonight Justice,” I muttered at the thing in anger as I adamantly kept my eyes away from the accursed object. Eventually I turned to the clock, and a small smirk crept across the side of my muzzle. Frankly, I don’t remember the last time I’ve ever been grateful for that stupid clock.
I walked over and switched the alarm off, for good this time, and turned to leave, only to find myself stopping again for a moment and casting a forlorn glance back at the object. Not even a second later I shook my head, sighed, and turned to the door.
“There’s plenty of time for it later.” With that, I finally left the foreboding room.
Okay, so yeah, my night didn't start off well. A hangover and an obnoxious clock makes for a lousy combination. I’m amazed I actually slept through that thing for a whole hour though.
Anyway, despite being in a ton of pain, I grabbed the first thing of food I could get my hooves on and bolted, which unfortunately meant my only apple. I meant to save that thing for a special occasion or something, those damn things are rare and expensive.
For the record though, it was a really good apple even if I probably got ripped off by a few dozen bits. Too bad I won’t get to eat another one for a couple months; it was the sweetest thing I’ve had in ages. Put me in a better mood, at leastuntil the pain in my chest started flaring up again and I had to keep landing every now and again on the way capital, making me even more late. One of those breaks were spent at my favorite view of the city, which was nice, I guess.
I circled the small mesa, descending slowly, and nearly crashed into it. My landing ended up becoming a stumbling trot before I managed to come to a halt at the edge, panting heavily with a few groans of pain mixing in.
“Almost there Ashen… almost there.” I said to myself in between breaths, trying- but failing, to give myself some motivation. Remembering where I landed, I turned to my right and smirked.
Might as well enjoy the view while I catch my breath, I decided. I walked toward the edge, settled onto my haunches, and smiled at the dazzling, moon-lit vista.
“Hello, Starlight City,” I said to the warm night air as I took in the sights.
The dazzling capital of Starlight City stretched roughly twenty miles from end to end and was filled with structures of many shapes and sizes, each correlating to designs relevant to the district they were housed in. It lit up the entire night in a collage of bright, vibrant neon colors from the holographic signs, the crystal-powered lights, and the reflective surfaces of the mirror-like towers to the northeast, and of course, Her Majesty’s full moon.
Almost all of the city rested level on flat terrain in a rough circular shape, save for the northwest corner, part of the Red District, that’s settled on a cliff and overlooked the city. The eastern-southeastern part of the city wrapped around the towering Mount Gale, a mountain many miles around and many more miles high, with a blanket of snow tipping the peak.
The Red District, or what we call the “Red Light Sector,” or just “Old Town,” is a residential area, and the oldest part of the city. The district has small one to five-story buildings, and contained more wood and bricks than metal or marble like the rest of the city. As the nickname implied, it’s a run-down part of the capital, and also the darkest part of the city. Some bad ponies tend to live in that region, as well as the poor. The only great things about Old Town are the main reasons I frequent there; the bars, the clubs, and the drinks. Unfortunately, they’re hard to enjoy nowadays, thanks to my rather poor reputation I've formed there, but I've made do.
Then in the southeastern quarter of the city is Yellow District (aka “New Town”), another residential sector. New Town is similar to Old Town, except less decrepit, and a more rural feel to its design and population. It has some slightly taller buildings than Old Town, with a use of marble in a lot of the architecture. It’s also the part of the city that received the most renovation over the years, thus the nickname. It was definitely a nicer part of the city to be sure, but it’s more costly to live there, especially due to added conveniences. Not as many good places to drink there.
The northeast corner housed Blue District, home of the skyscrapers. It’s a sleek, silver, and very clean, almost sterile, part of the city, compared to the other three districts. Mostly, it’s a place for corporate desk jobs, businesses, news joints, food vendors, mail services, and many other types of jobs I don’t even know about. It’s called the “Work District” for a good reason. I usually don’t visit that district, apart from where I go to get my therapy. I know probably one bar there, but it’s far too uptight and classy for me, plus the drinks aren't as strong.
In the final quarter of the city was the Green District, perhaps the most important part of the city next to the capitol in the center of it. It consists namely of laboratory buildings, warehouses, and factories, office complexes and so on. It’s where all of the food from the entire country’s twenty-six territories goes into, gets processed and managed, and then shipped out to the different towns. It doesn't have a nickname, and sadly, no bars or drinks. However, a lot of assignments there have had me quell riots on a rare occasion, or frequent labs there for testing of CrystalTech prototypes- power crystal-driven devices, that range from our defenses and weapons, to appliances and devices. CrystalTech is what powers the entire city, if not the entire country.
Power crystals are the country’s dominant resource, and we've spent years trying to utilize them and the magic they contain. Unfortunately, their discovery 200 years ago also kick-started the Dragon Wars. All of the early research was restricted solely to defense, then priority shifted after the four-year-long war to using the crystals to assist in the harvests, and eventually they began powering homes and devices. Every radio, holo-vid viewer, even the lights (which ironically made up the names of the districts) are all powered by power crystals. I don’t know where our society would be without them, especially with their usage and extraordinary capabilities during the Dragon Wars and today’s defense of the south border, a fact that several of those annoying bureaucrats at the Royal Palace never fully appreciate.
The Royal Palace is easily the most protected and oldest part of the city, which is a major standout from all the rest of the capital in terms of its’ design. Taking up roughly a quarter of a mile in diameter in the center of the capital, the massive castle is split into five different buildings, with four being connected at each corner of the main building, what we call the “Citadel,” with the subsections housing the different Departments, one of which was where I work. They run or manage every aspect of the country, from agriculture and economy, to laws and regulations. Inside the main structure, the Citadel, was where the Queen and her Council resided. Every decision that’s made for the country, is debated and decided on inside that structure. The Palace itself is a marble building with purple and black roofing, with gold and silver trimming. Decorating the top of the dome-like top of the Palace was a recreation of the stars in the night sky, with each one being encrusted with a different gem to give off glimmers and twinkles from the moon and city lights. It was a beautiful building, supposedly inspired from architecture in our neighbor’s capital, Canterlot. Surrounding the Palace was a large marble wall, with built in security using power crystal-generated devices that would keep unwanted intruders or fliers from getting in or out without authority. It was a near-seamless blend of technology and architecture that made up that surrounding wall, while the Palace itself remained tech free in its’ design. It was definitely old fashioned, but still an awe-inspiring sight no matter how many times I saw it.
I eyed over the entire city, finding my breath taken away as it usually is when viewing it from my small perch. I’m about twenty minutes away and it still looks enormous. I can even hear the sounds of all the busy residents inside the city, enjoying the nightlife, or working one of their busy jobs.
This was just one of the small reasons why I love my country. I could sit here and gaze at the capital for hours and hours at a time. There are very few things in this life I enjoy anymore, and this was one of them.
Sadly, this isn’t one of my more relaxing nights to soak in the view. I had an appointment to keep, so I was only able to spare a few minutes to catch my breath and marvel at the sight of the Capital, before I reluctantly got back up, spread my wings, and leapt off the edge of the mesa, now gliding in the direction of the Blue District.
I was flat on my back on the sofa staring up at the ceiling as I finished explaining why I had been so late. As I explained and had to keep taking the ice pack on and off my head, he silently nodded and jotted more of his notes down.
Eventually he spoke up again.
“Well, probably a good thing you decided to stop at your ‘perch’ again. It’s healthy to find… sober and less painful activities. Although I still wish you didn’t crash into my building. Again.”
“That was a bit hard to help, Doc,” I stated dismissively.
“It could have been helped, had you decided not to get into a fight last night.”
I ignored the comment and continued to stare aimlessly at the ceiling, but I also did my best to avoid eye contact with him to avoid a lecture. Thankfully, he just started writing some more notes again until then I heard the small clink of the quill being placed back in its’ bottle.
“Let’s change topics. Maybe you could tell me about that assignment you mentioned? The one that left you in a bad mood?”
“It was just another damn Population Control job with Moonbeam out in South Hayford. She was giving me a hard time and making my job a lot more frustrating.”
“Because I’m sick of her lectures and how naïve she is when she tries to handle these kinds of jobs. It’s the law, she needs to get over it.”
“You shouldn’t be so harsh, you know. Moonbeam just tries to let them down easy is all.”
I turned to him, just to see a look of pity on his face. This made me a little annoyed as I sat up.
“It’s law, Doc, and part of our job. Somepony has to enforce the law, and anypony who’s in the Queen’s service knows it has to be done. There’s no time for bleeding hearts or sympathy when we’re barely getting by this season.”
“I’m not saying I disagree with you Ashen. Law is law. If families can only have one foal per household to keep our food supplies from running out, then it’s my duty as a member of this country to support that. Just not everypony else thinks it’s fair or necessary.”
“Then they’re selfish idiots who risk sounding like separatists,” I said as I laid back down, turning back to the ceiling. “They forget or seem to be oblivious to the droughts we’ve had the last couple months, and the southern farmlands are barely pulling in any fresh food. Even the Council’s worried they’ll have to cut back on the food shipments to the Territories for rationing this winter.”
“I’ve seen the bulletins, Ashen, so I know how bad it’s getting. That doesn’t mean you have to treat Population Control assignments so bluntly, however. They do need to be done, yes, but you should think about what the families involved are going through, at least just have a little respect for their situation. You know it’s almost always unintentional.”
“My job description does not include consoling ponies who violate our laws. All Moonbeam accomplishes is wasting a lot of time, and it makes my job harder.”
He sighed and shook his head, before scribbling some notes down. A few moments later he spoke up again.
“So tell me what happened with your last assignment.”
Two days ago…
We just arrived in South Hayford, a small village surrounded by multiple large farms. It consisted of many wooden buildings with straw rooftops, most of them small, none exceeding two stories. The village itself was situated in a massive flatland, with the capital’s bright lights shining over the hills off to the east. It’s one of those kinds of towns that use old fashioned farming methods and don’t use power crystals.
The mayor was the first to greet myself, Moonbeam, and two rookie soldiers escorting us, at the outskirts of town.
“You good ponies must be from the capital. Welcome to South Hayford, how may we help you today?”
“Greetings. We’re actually following up on a report considering the ponies in the…” started Moonbeam as she levitated her clipboard in front of her, her violet eyes scanning through a list of notes through her half-moon glasses. “Picker estate?”
The tan-colored mayor stallion frowned and nodded. “Oh, I see. Come to uphold the law, have you?”
Moonbeam sighed and levitated her clipboard back into her saddlebag, as she brushed a few strands of her black mane out of her eyes with a white hoof. “We’re here to follow up on it is all.”
“You mean rid a mother of her unborn child. Don’t try to dress it up with me, Official. I know exactly what this means and it doesn’t mean I like it here in my town. I’ll have you know that Mr. and Mrs. Picker are two of my oldest friends and they have done more for this country than you’ll ever know.”
“Please, I don’t like this any more than you do but it’s the law.” Moonbeam was offering as sincere a smile as she could possibly offer, but it wouldn’t do much to ease the stallion. “It’ll be painless, I promise.”
“Not for her, it won’t be! For goodness sake, her son is about to move out in less than a year which is not a violation with the law!”
“I’m sorry mayor, truly I am,” said Moonbeam reassuringly. “But law is law and we have to carry it out, otherwise we’ll have to arrest them, and nopony wants that.”
“I don’t understand! Why can’t you cut them some slack, as I’ve said, their son is-
I sighed with impatience.
“I’m not dealing with any more of this,” I interrupted, stepping up to the mayor. “According to Article Three, Section Two of the Queen’s Law, there is only one foal allowed per household. Anypony who resists or interferes with this section Queen’s Law is to be arrested and tried for treason against Her Majesty’s will. Now if you’re going to continue to get in the way of our job, I’ll be the one to escort you to the prison myself,” I finished, staring down at the stallion, who was now looking fearfully into my eyes. “Am I understood?”
“Y-…yes…” he responded, cringing. “Then I will not interfere with Her Majesty’s business anymore. My apologies.”
“Good. Just be sure to remember your place, daykind.”
For a moment I thought I saw Moonbeam flash a scowl up at me, but I didn’t particularly care. The night was off to a bad start, and it was a long walk to the town and a long walk back, plus it was late. The quicker we got this done, the better.
“You two, with me,” I called to my two guards, and eventually Moonbeam caught up to me as I began to walk away from the mayor. “Where’s the Picker Estate?” I asked flatly.
“It’s the farm on the other end of town. Look, Lieutenant, was that honestly necessary?”
“Your behavior back there, with the Mayor.” She said trying to keep up. “He was just looking out for his friends, you don’t need to be so blunt.”
This made me stop in my tracks, and I turned to my two escorts, two young stallions, one in white fur, the other in a dark grey.
“You two, head over to the Picker Estate, we’ll catch up.”
“Yes, sir…” mumbled the white one, and the two of them pulled a meek salute before they walked past us. When they were out of earshot, I spoke up again.
“Listen, I don’t care if you’re supposed to be my handler, your job is to do as we’re told, just as I am. We’re not here to sympathize, we’re not here to coddle, we’re here to do a job, and then go home. That’s it.”
Moonbeam just glared angrily at me. I tend to get this kind of glare often from here but I’ve grown to ignore it over time, as well as her many lectures and repeated nags. The look just indicated one of them was coming.
“Law is law, Ashen. Yes, I know all about it, and we have to obey otherwise we could risk starving the rest of the populace. This isn’t the first time I had to abort a pregnant mare before, so don’t you dare remind me how to do my job-”
“Then don’t you tell me how to do mine,” I interrupted. “I don’t care if you dislike how I get things done Moonbeam; this job requires a firm hoof. We have a job to do, and trying to coerce violators of the law is a waste of time and practically encourages others to do it if they think we’re going easy on them. Let’s get this done and get out of this dump.” I said as I began to walk away from her.
“Why? So you can just drink yourself to death again, Lieutenant?!” she shouted at me, causing me to stop in the middle of a field with an added groan and I glance over my shoulder to see her approaching. Part of me was grateful nopony else was around, because she was starting one of her lectures.
“Don’t think I know what you do whenever you’re off duty for the remainder of the night, Ashen. I’ve also had to be the first to listen to all the complaints and reports about fights you start, and I have to be the one to clean up your mess. Hay, if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t still have your job. The least you could do is look at me when I talk to you Ashen!”
I was glancing aimlessly off to the side, partly ignoring her up until that last sentence.
“Yeah yeah, that’s nice Moonbeam, I don’t care,” I stated dismissively and started walking again.
“I have half the mind to just make sure you get court martialed, but you know what Ashen? I know about your condition. I know about your therapy sessions and the fact you barely sleep at night. I also know how hard you keep trying to kill yourself when you start those fights! For buck’s sake, even your therapist even called me in once after a fight you got in months ago. They almost killed you!”
“You stay out of my business Moonbeam,” I said sternly at her, stopping in my tracks again baring my teeth, my wings unintentionally flaring as my frustration built up. “I don’t want you, or anypony else giving a damn about what I do with my life, and more importantly, I want you and the rest of the world to just shut up and leave me alone!” I finished, punctuated with a slam of my hoof into the dirt, before I turned away from her once more. However she followed up behind me, and wouldn’t let up.
“Ashen, please, just let me help you.”
“I don’t want your help! I want to just get this damn job over with, get drunk maybe, and go home! End of story!” I shouted back.
“But-” she faltered and finally decided to shut up, her voice quivering into a pathetic whimper. As we continued our walk in silence, I cast a forlorn glance back at her, to see her ears sagged and eyes watching the floor.
It took us only a few minutes to cross the large field of rather unhealthy-looking trees to end up a small farmstead. It was a two story building built out of dark wood, and even darker brown shingles adorned the triangle-shaped roof. Behind the home was a much larger red building which I assumed was their barn. It seemed relatively bright compared to the house, as well as the rest of the farm.
The two guards were already waiting in front of the door, speaking with the residents inside; a middle-aged brown earth stallion with a darker brown mane streaked with signs of grey, and a teenager of the same coat color standing next to him with a mane of black. Both of them seemed very unhappy of the guards’ presence, and their expression only worsened as Moonbeam and I finally arrived at the front door.
It was silent for a moment, before Moonbeam brushed a few strands of her mane out her eyes with a hoof and cleared her throat, her tone returning to a professional manner.
“Hello, Mr. Picker. We’re here about your wife.”
He just glared at her angrily, but she kept a strong face.
“No. You’re here about my kid, who hasn’t even been born yet,” he responded seethingly.
“…Yes, you’re right, I apologize,” she said calmly. “I first want to offer my condolences however. This pains me a great deal to do this, Mr. Picker.”
“If it weren’t for the fact, ma’am, that I have a family to support, I’d risk jail time and tell you all to go buck yourselves and leave me and mine alone.”
Her eyes fell to the floor, darting around for a moment, before she glanced up at the stallion again.
“I would too, to be honest. Frankly, I hate this job, and even more so, since I was in your wife’s situation before.”
This caused the two residents and even my two guards to look at her with curiosity. However I rolled my eyes before looking elsewhere, since I knew what was coming. I often wondered if she was an actress in a past life. This was one of her three or four stories she became rather adept at telling, but I for one wasn’t in the mood to listen to this one again.
“I was met with another Official, just like you are today, and told me about this too. My own husband was furious the day they came for me and my unborn foal, but I told him that I didn’t want our ten-year-old son to live his life without a father, and I didn’t want to bring another foal into the world who would starve and suffer just like my son had. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, but I just hoped what I was doing might be better for my baby. I still regret it to this day, but I have seen how much our poor country struggles.”
She then glanced over her shoulder over at the various trees.
“You have a lovely farm, Mr. Picker, but not very many trees have been producing apples, have they?” she asked, turning back to him.
Suddenly his eyes fell to the floor and his ears sagged, the younger stallion looking toward his father with the same expression.
“The drought this year has been killing our business, miss. We’ve hardly had any good produce for months. My family and I have been praying that maybe the weather pegasi over in the capital were looking hard for another large enough water reserve for rain to come to these parts. It pains me to see my wife and my son here barely get by with what little food we’re allowed to keep. This season’s been hard on us…”
Moonbeam nodded understandingly, a sympathetic expression still adorned on her face. I’ll give it to her, she knows how to sell a performance. She at least had the two of them and even my other guards convinced.
Now it was the younger stallion’s turn to speak up.
“I still don’t see why you couldn’t make an exception though. I’m going to be moving out of here in less than a year, and my mother has always wanted me to have a brother or a sister.”
“The mayor told us about that. However I’m not the one who wrote the law, I’m afraid, and we can’t make exceptions, especially with this season.”
“Most of the farms haven’t been bringing in much produce, and we’re worried we’ll have to cut back to start rationing again for the winter. Ask your father. According to our records he wasn’t able to meet the quota for the season.”
The younger stallion turned to his father.
“She’s… she’s right. We’re well short of the amount we normally are able to harvest due to the drought.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with you, son,” he said, looking back up to Moonbeam, his expression was a bit more calm now. “If my boy is moving out, and the law says there can only be one foal per household, then I don’t see why we can’t-
“Mr. Picker, we can’t do that. It’s unfair to every other family in the Confederacy, as well as illegal. The country simply cannot afford risking our overall food supply, especially this season.”
“Ma’am, look… you have a kind heart, but I’m only just asking for a year, please. Think about your own foal, wouldn’t you have done something at least give it a chance?”
“Well…uh…” she started, but I stepped forward, holding a hoof in front of Moonbeam, stopping her from answering further. This is where I knew the song and dance would go horribly wrong, since wasn’t one of her most rehearsed parts of her story.
The time for negotiation was over.
“Mr. Picker,” I spoke up with authority. “Let me make this perfectly clear. You either let us come in and do our job, or we’ll have to arrest you.”
That was when his anger returned.
“How dare you! This is my home, and this is my wife and an unborn foal you’re talking about here! This is murder!” he shouted.
My two guards looked at me with a shocked, yet worried look in their eyes.
“I’m only going to say this once. Get out of our way. Now.”
“N-No!” stuttered Mr. Picker, who was going on the defensive now, his son standing there unsure what to do. Mr. Picker however was barely standing his ground.
This was when I forced my way into the front door and shoved the two of them aside with little resistance.
“Mrs. Picker!” I addressed into the house. “In the name of Her Majesty, Queen Luna, I order you to come out, NOW!”
I heard a shout from a room just off to the left, which seemed to be a kitchen. I glanced back at my two guards.
“With me,” I commanded.
Reluctantly the two of them followed, with Moonbeam standing at the front porch as we made our way into the kitchen.
I found Mrs. Picker sitting at a small table made for three, with plates full of half-eaten food set at each spot. She sat there looking up at me with fear in her eyes.
“You’re hereby ordered to submit to abortion, according to Article Two, Section One of the Queen’s Law. Resist and you will be arrested and tried for treason.”
“Please! Don’t do this! I’m begging you!” shouted Mr. Picker from behind me, but my two guards were blocking the way.
“Ensign.” I said, turning to the white unicorn.
“Are you familiar with the procedure?”
“Y-yes but… I’ve never done it bef-”
“Good. You’ll be handling it.”
“S-sir?!” he asked, his pupil’s shrank down to a fraction of their normal size.
“Corporal, help me keep her still.” I said to the grey one, as I approached Mrs. Picker, who was slowly backing up toward her kitchen counter.
“N-no! Please! Not my baby!”
“Don’t move and you won’t be harmed,” I said, going up to her and holding her in place by the counter where she put up a bit of a struggle. I turned back toward the grey corporal, who simply stood there staring at me. “Hey! Get over here and help me Corporal, that’s an order!”
Reluctantly he came over and tried to hold Mrs. Picker still as she continued squirming, shouting, and crying.
“Please! For goddesses’ sake, stop this madness!” shouted Mr. Picker from the hallway. Moonbeam was standing next to him, as well as Mr. Picker’s son.
“Ashen?! What are you doing?!” shouted Moonbeam.
“My job. Ensign!” I shouted at the white stallion, who looked dumbstruck back at me. “What are you waiting for?”
He refused to move. Suddenly Mr. Picker shoved past him, and tried to pry me off.
“Get off of my wife!” he shouted.
He just made my day a lot harder.
I released Mrs. Picker and brought my elbow into the older stallion’s stomach, before bringing my hoof up to his jaw, sending him reeling back. He was about ready to throw a punch, before I pinned him to the wall, my foreleg pressing up against his throat.
“You’re lucky I’m feeling nice today or so help me I will have you thrown in prison for the rest of your life, Mr. Picker, then we’ll see how well you can support your family.” I said with a snarl, before glancing over my shoulder at the stunned white guard.
His eyes whipped up to me.
“Either do your job or I’ll have you thrown in prison instead.”
“Ashen!!” called Moonbeam, but I ignored her.
“Now or never, Ensign. I’m warning you.”
This finally got him moving, albeit shakily. He walked over toward Mrs. Picker. The other guard was barely holding her down, but he flashed a horrified, pleading look between me and the white stallion, wanting one of us to stop this insanity from unfolding.
“I’m so sorry, please forgive me,” said the white stallion pitifully, as his horn began to glow a bright blue. A moment later, Mrs. Picker’s stomach started to glow as well. She was screaming and begging for the stallion to stop, but it was all over in a matter of seconds. His horn stopped glowing, then he stumbled his way backwards, bumping into the table before he fell onto his haunches.
“I-…it’s…it’s done, sir…” said the white stallion in shock.
The grey guard released the mare, and leaned back against the counter, while Mrs. Picker rubbed at her belly, crying in denial at what had just transpired. At this point I released Mr. Picker, who slid down and sat against the wall in defeat. Moonbeam and the younger Picker stood in the hallway, the latter still carrying the same shocked expression as his parents and the recruits, with the former adorning no readable expression as she turned her back to me.
Mr. Picker’s son dragged himself over to his mother, along with his father, and held her in a tight embrace, even crying with her. Mrs. Picker was wailing a manner of unintelligible things amidst her sobbing, however one thing she started shouting was crystal clear.
“You monster! How could you?! You’re nothing but a heartless, soulless murderer!”
I hesitated for a moment, before I stepped up to Moonbeam.
Yeah. I know, Mrs. Picker, I thought to myself. I know.
“Job’s done. Let’s go.” I said to Moonbeam coldly before turning to my other two guards, who still wore their stunned, shocked expressions, unable to comprehend with what they just took part in. “You two! Let’s go!”
The two of them slowly looked up between me, eachother, and Mrs. Picker, before they got up, and tried to carry themselves out the front door. The white stallion stopped and looked at me in the eye. I saw the look dominantly of horror, but I also saw a flash of anger, just before he followed the grey one outside. Moonbeam followed suit.
Just as I was about to follow, something caught my eye just to my left, down the hallway. At the end, I saw a door cracked open, and I wasn’t entirely sure, but I thought I saw a crib in the dark room.
“Get out of my house you monster!” shouted Mr. Picker from behind me. The entire family’s eyes were in tears, and they cast angered looks my way as I stood there looking at them.
I turned away, and silently stepped out the front door.
The two guards were over to the side, quietly talking with one another, did their best to avoid eye contact with me as I glanced in their direction. Moonbeam was sitting down opposite the house, looking out past the fields and toward the light coming from the capital over the hilltops.
I approached her, and stood next to her.
She stared vacantly off in the distance, but her eyes weren’t filled with the same shock, sadness, or anger, unlike the guards and the Pickers had. Instead, she seemed distant and detached.
Silence hung over us for a moment. Eventually I spoke up.
“It’s a job Moonbeam. Somepony has to do it,” I stated flatly with a sigh.
“…That doesn’t mean I have to like it, Ashen,” she mumbled back.
“I don’t enjoy this job either. Just be happy that we didn’t have to arrest anyone this time.”
She glanced over at me.
“I’m amazed you just take it all in such stride, Lieutenant. What on earth makes somepony so cold and ruthless?”
I sighed and turned aside, incidentally in the direction of the other two guards, then frowned.
“By being loyal, Moonbeam. Be loyal long enough to Queen and country, eventually nothing can phase you anymore.”
Her eyes fell to the ground.
“I pity you, Ashen. What happened two years ago… I’m sorry it happened to you. I’m sorry it made you so heartless.” Her ears sagged at this point as another moment of silence passed, before I broke it.
“How many more do we have tonight?” I asked coldly.
I sighed and stood up. “Let’s finish up then. Come on.”
Save your pity for somepony who deserves it, Moonbeam.
So after a spectacular crash into the building and an hour of mindless talking in, the Doc had me tell him about the assignment with Moonbeam the other night. The rest of it went without a hitch, and Moonbeam was fairly quiet, save for when she had to give one of her “speeches.” I’m still a bit ticked off that she won’t stay off my case.
I get enough of it from Doctor Archer.
My story finished about five minutes ago, and things were uncomfortably quiet, save for the rare sound of his quill scratching paper. He paused, then set his quill down and glanced up at me.
“You were angry with her for being concerned of your well being?”
“…Yes.” I said; my attention and any conviction in my voice were elsewhere, and I was slouched into the couch, glancing at one of the doctor’s paintings.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes after a pause.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing, Ashen. This isn’t the first time you told me about a fight you had with her. I think, however, you really should let her in. You could use somepony in your life who cares about you.”
“I’m better off alone, Doc,” I responded almost immediately without even looking at him.
The uncomfortable silence came back, before he turned his attention to his notes, where he spoke up without looking at me.
“What happened after that assignment?”
Music pounded through the dark night club, making everypony get up and move to it. The place was illuminated with lights generated from choreographed power crystals, creating a dazzling light show to go with the accompanying soundtrack. Most of the dance floor was populated with dozens and dozens of ponies, all enjoying the nightlife as the music possessed their bodies to move and refuses to let them stop, not that they didn’t seem to want to.
Loud, trance-like dance music played in a quick rhythm full of heavy beats; an engaging song produced by a musician sitting at the helm of various machines to produce his hypnotic sounds, his head banging to the addictive rhythm as well. All felt drawn to dance to it, except for one pony.
I sat at one of the few tables that populate the place, drinking something heavy with alcohol that I don’t even remember, as I silently spectated the multitude of dancers. Everything was a multicolored blur of bright lights, with the music becoming slightly distorted.
The Dark Side of the Moon is the only club I frequent often, considering they can serve good drinks, play good music, and a lot of fine mares went there. Tonight I was here for more than just the drinks to put my mind at ease.
A tan colored pegasus was on my table, showing off her moves in rhythm to the music. I watched her while slouched back against the long sofa-like seat that curved around the corner of the wall I sat against. She flashed the occasional sultry smile at me, and I downed a bit more of my glass every now and again, while my hindhoof tapped the air in rhythm with the music as I enjoyed my personal show.
Several minutes went by, and I guess I was feeling generous that night. I pulled out my moneybag and threw down about five bits, which was quite a tip, especially considering I probably only had roughly thirty left. She smiled even more brightly, continuing on with her show, her wings also extending to add that little extra dazzle with the occasional flap of them, even brushing the feather tips against my muzzle every now and then.
I smirked at each teasing display, and before long it all started to go to my head, creating a deadly concoction when mixed with the alcohol in my system.
That mare was really pretty.
I shoved the tan-colored mare back through the club’s side exit door and out into the alley as I invaded her with a barrage of kisses. Lust was driving me wild that night and I didn’t have a care in the world as I made out with her in that dark, dank alley. I pressed her back against the wall, and felt my body grinding against hers, her wings flailing about with excitement along with my own. I ran my forehooves along her slender frame, my tongue eagerly sought hers out to fulfill a mystery of what its’ delectable taste was. I could just smell her enticing scent, one that was mixed with a bit of sweat left over from her performance only a moment ago.
Eventually she switched places with me, my back now against the wall as I hugged her abdomen tightly and she kissed me back with such fervor. Eventually our lips parted, and our eyes met. I gazed deeply into those soft, brown eyes, and for a moment I thought I saw a need, but also pity. However I’m sure I just dismissed this as a side effect of the alcohol and thought nothing of it. I just pressed my lips back against hers, engaging in another tango of aggressive kisses.
I felt her forehoof run down my chest, as I continued to explore her body with my own forehooves, even brushing them against her soft wings a few times. The passion fueling the kiss continued to grow, as I ground my body against her own, which she returned in kind. Her hoof traveled along my chest, and then to my side as it ran along my coat.
At first I thought she was just exploring my body in return, causing me to drop my guard, and the inevitable intercourse would occur, but it was then I learned of her true intent, which ended up ruining my night.
In a few short seconds, we were exchanging saliva, then suddenly I doubled over after being kicked in the stomach, then got clocked upside the head. I was on my haunches by the alley wall, and I thought I saw her doing something to me and my coat with her mouth, before I watched her in my daze as she fled down the alleyway, disappearing into the night.
It only took me a few seconds to recover. I groaned with the difficulty of breathing, combined with the pain in my stomach as I stood up and sighed. As I began to brush myself off with a hoof, it stroked once over my pocket.
My coin bag was gone.
It took me a moment to register this. My foreleg fell back to the floor, and I rested my eyes shut for a moment, running the moment over again in my head.
I started laughing.
I just laughed and laughed and laughed, and anypony who saw me then would’ve thought I was going crazy. After the moment passed and my mad laughing died down, I glanced down the direction the mare fled.
If I took off after her just then, I probably would have caught her with no problem.
Instead, I simply smirked, turned around, and walked the other way.
The doctor was scribbling a few more things down. I was on my back on the sofa once more, staring aimlessly up at the ceiling.
“You didn’t track her down or contact any local authority?”
“So…you let this mare mug you, and just get away with your money?”
I shrugged, looking toward the couch. “Didn’t care I guess.”
“Or… perhaps you let her have it?”
I looked at him nonchalantly, which he returned it with a more inquisitive look. I just turned back to the ceiling. “Think what you want.”
“That’s quite touching Ashen,” he said with a brief smile. “Maybe you aren’t so hopeless after all.”
I ignored the comment.
“Do you have another question for me?” I asked, trying to change the topic.
The doctor then looked through his notes for a few moments.
“Hmm… well I do have one more before we end tonight’s session.”
“Have you seen Greywing this week? I heard that our forces just returned from their latest expedition earlier this week.”
“He’s your friend, isn’t he? Somepony you can talk to and relate with?”
“No. He was just my mentor. That’s it.”
“Right…right,” said the doctor as he wrote my response down. “So have you spoken with him?”
“…Yes. Saw him three nights ago. I just got off duty for the night after doing a bunch of stupid paperwork.” I turned the opposite end of the sofa from my head as my ears sagged a bit. “I didn’t sleep well that night.”
The doctor gave me a puzzled look with a raised eyebrow. “Did you have another one of your dreams again?” he asked.
I hesitated a moment, but then I nodded.
“Do you recall which?”
I considered long and hard whether or not to tell him, but if I didn’t say anything, I knew he’d bug me about it anyway. Not like he hasn’t heard about them before. Still, it wasn’t something I was fond of sharing.
“...the…one with the dark room, where I….” I trailed off.
He gave me a troubled look. He understood what I meant, and promptly began to write a few more notes down. “Is that why you went to see Greywing that night?” he asked.
“No. He found me actually. I was already on my fourth drink by the time he showed up. Good thing too.”
Three days ago…
I slouched against the black tabletop of the bar, my head rested on my left foreleg while my right was aimlessly tilting around a brown bottle full of a fizzy liquid. The place was lit with a few neon red lights, save for one white floodlight that hung behind the bar. Some slow, instrumental guitar music was coming from a large music box in the corner of the room accompanied from some quiet chatter from others populating the bar.
This was one of my regular places, and closest to the Palace, so it was a very short flight. “That Place” is the name of it. Simple little bar, with a simple bartender, simple patrons, and simple, but good, drinks.
“Rough day, Ashen?” asked the brown unicorn bartender, as he levitated a glass and cleaned it with a rag.
“Something like that,” I mumbled, still playing with the bottle.
“Usually you’re not here unless you’re depressed.”
“…Yeah.” I simply said.
“Wanna talk about it? I’m a good listener y’know.”
“Thanks… but no thanks, Bar Keep.”
The large stallion shrugged. “Suit yourself then.”
I glanced up at him.
“Do other ponies come in here to share their life story often or something?” I asked.
“Sometimes. Most folks don’t come to my bar. When they do, they often come with some story or other. Rarely any of ‘em happy.”
“Oh.” I simply said, looking back to the bottle.
“You should go home, Ashen. You look like you haven’t eaten all day.”
“…Yeah,” I said vacantly, poking the bottle with my hoof again.
I was probably like that for a few moments before I heard a voice behind me.
“I thought I’d find you here, nightbreed.”
It was a familiar voice. It wasn’t a friendly voice either.
I glanced over my shoulder. Standing at the door was a bright grey unicorn stallion accompanied by a light green pegasus. It took me a moment to register who they were.
The green one started talking again. “We actually expected you over at the Break of Dawn tonight, I was hoping we could have a little ‘chat’ after our last ‘discussion.’”
“Buck off, Air Raid. I’m not in the mood for your crap right now.”
“Oh I’m sorry,” said the unicorn sarcastically. “Are we inconveniencing you? Well that’s too damn bad.”
“Javelin, Air Raid, you may be military, but you’re not trashing my bar tonight.” said Bar Keep as he spoke up. Everypony else in the room glanced up to see what the fuss was.
“Shut up ‘Keep, we have a score to settle with this mutant trash.”
I sat up and grumbled as the bartender stallion went silent.
“Why don’t you run along and do something more productive, Javelin? I’d hate to bust up that pretty face of yours again. Not to mention I don’t want to break one or two of your boyfriend’s wing bones before I send you both back to the Dragonlands as easy pickings.” I said, turning around back toward the bar.
Air Raid chuckled a bit, taking my snide remark in stride. “Oh I’m so gonna enjoy kicking your flank, nightbreed,” he said rather casually as he flared his wings and began to approach me, with Javelin right behind him.
I glanced over my shoulders as I saw him advance. Once he was close enough, I took the neck of my bottle with my teeth and smashed it against the corner of the table, spilling its’ contents, and swiped at the pegasus, narrowly missing him by a matter of inches as he backpedaled to avoid the attack.
I crouched low on all fours with my wings spread high, putting up an intimidating display.
“Well, well, Jav’, looks like he’s got a bit of fight in him.”
“Tell you what, I’ll hold him down, maybe you can start with breaking his wings.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Air Raid with a smirk, Javelin wearing the same expression as his counterpart.
The tension was mounting and it wouldn’t have been long before somepony snapped. Just as one of us was about to make a move…
“Enough!” shouted a voice from outside.
The two of them suddenly cringed a little, and glanced in the direction of the doorway as a grey figure stepped through.
Suddenly I recognized who it was, as did the other two, who they dropped what they were doing and saluted.
“Commander Greywing! Sir!” exclaimed Javelin.
Artemis Greywing stood tall over the other two, not in physical height but authority, his slate coat grey from years of experience. His silver eyes darted between the other two ponies and myself.
“Outside, you two,” he commanded. “Now.”
Air Raid opened his mouth to argue, but Javelin snapped at attention, saluting the older nightbreed. “Sir! Yes sir! Right away, sir!” he said, worry was almost easily audible in his tone, as he quickly pulled the pegasus out the entrance, while casting an angry scowl back at me as he left.
I dropped my guard another moment later, then spat out the bottle, letting it clatter and roll around on the ground, as Greywing turned back to me.
“Still getting into bar fights Lieutenant?”
I silently turned around in my seat and resumed my previous position, slouching once more against the tabletop, minus the bottle to distract myself. Greywing came up and took a seat next to me.
“It’s been a while, kiddo.” He tapped the bar. “Hey there Bar Keep. The usual, if you please?”
Bar Keep smiled and nodded. He used his magic to clean up some of the mess while he fixed up a glass of light ale, a drink I knew well that former commanding officer enjoyed. He set the glass down in front of the grey nightbreed, who picked up the glass with a hoof and took a sip.
“Mmm… and this is why this is my favorite place in Old Town. Good job, as always Bar Keep. You still know how to make a good drink.” He said, setting a few bits down on the table with a smile. Bar Keep then pushed the coins back to Greywing.
“On the house, my friend. Thanks for stopping those two, they always tend to give me trouble.” He said, glancing in my direction. “Among several others when the good Lieutenant’s visiting my bar.”
Greywing briefly glanced in my direction, before turning back to the unicorn. “Please keep it anyway, at least for the damage.”
Bar Keep shrugs, and levitates the coins into his pocket. “If you insist. Would you two like some privacy this time?”
“That’d be appreciated, Bar Keep,” said the older nightbreed.
“Very well then. Ashen, Artemis,” he said nodding to each of us as he said our names, before disappearing into the back room.
I silently sat there, my head rested against my crossed forelegs, and I was staring vacantly at the bottle rack behind the bar. The quiet mumbling from the other patrons plus the quiet twangs of the guitar from the nearby music box were the only sounds filling the room for a moment, until Greywing got my attention.
“So how have you been, Lieutenant?” There was an undercurrent of concern in his voice.
I wasn’t sure how to respond at first, before I sighed and shrugged, mumbling “The usual, I guess.”
“Still having trouble sleeping?”
“Guess that explains why you’re here tonight. Usually you’re at ‘That Place’ when something’s got you down.”
“Uh-huh….” I mumbled with mild sarcasm.
“How’s Maelstrom? I thought he might be here tonight. He’s usually here on Thursdays.”
“He died three weeks ago.”
“…Oh. Do you-”
“Dragons; South Watch.”
“I thought he was working the east border.”
“Transfer.” I said quickly.
“…I see. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Why?” I asked, glancing up at him.
“I thought you two were friends.”
“We just had a few drinks every now and then, not much else.” I said, turning back to the wall in front of me.
“So you’re not mourning him?”
“No. Anypony else who’s on dragon defense duty knows the risks.”
“He didn’t request the transfer did he?”
“Then it’s a bit unfair to presume-
“No offense Artemis, but he’s in the Queen’s military. These kinds of things are expected of him. If he wasn’t prepared for it, then he shouldn’t have joined. Probably what got him killed in the first place.”
“That’s rather heartless,” he commented.
“That’s life,” I responded.
“…I see,” he said sullenly. “Well, here’s to Maelstrom then.” He took a rather large swig of his drink, before setting the half-empty glass back down.
Things got quiet between us again for another moment, as Greywing looked into his glass, searching for his next words.
“Have you been seeing any other ponies from our old squad?”
“No, besides Sharp Shot and Wraith for a couple drinks. Thought I saw Gale last week over at the Dark Side of the Moon, but I didn’t talk to him.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t been talking to Jetstorm or Nightfire. Those two look up to you, Ashen.”
“I haven’t been really interested in getting in touch with anypony, to be honest.”
“You should, Lieutenant. What happened at North Hayford was two years ago, you should really get out and see the world again.”
“With all due respect, sir, I get that enough from my psychiatrist, and I’m not interested.”
Greywing sighed. “Figured you’d say that….”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked as I glared up at him.
“Nothing. Just means I’m concerned about you, kid.”
“You’re not my father, Greywing, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop trying to act like it.”
“I’m sorry, but somepony needs to look after you. You clearly aren’t taking care of yourself.”
I sighed and glanced to my left, staring blankly at the music box, namely to avoid eye contact if anything else. “Well, I’d rather you didn’t. I can look after myself,” I mumbled.
“You’re hardly even doing that Ashen, since you keep drinking yourself to death every other night.” I knew where this was going, and I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture, especially from Greywing.
“How was the recent expedition?” I asked evasively. It took him a few seconds as he gave me a look, but thankfully he took the hint.
“Not so good.” He turned toward the wall behind the bar. “I lost a couple stallions to a manticore after we crossed the fifth marker.”
“That’s fairly early in.” I commented.
“Yes, well, we were looking to try heading southeast once we got to there; too many dragons to the east of that region, so we decided to try elsewhere. Thought we found something after a kilometer or so away from the marker, but unfortunately it was a manticore nesting ground.”
I sighed and shook my head. “Ever wonder if these expeditions get pointless after a while?”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. We’ve had these expeditions for the better part of thirty years. We’ve traveled miles through the territory and we still have yet to find any fertile land out there. Even if we do, there’s too many wild creatures for any new farms.”
“Ashen, you know these are necessary.”
I grumbled at that and pressed a hoof to my forehead. “No, they’re not. We’ve been at it for so long just because we’re desperate; we’ve spent more resources than we’ve found, especially lives. The only good the expeditions are for is making sure we don’t overpopulate and starve the country.”
He glanced my way, a shocked expression on his face.
“You don’t really believe that.”
“If it weren’t for the expeditions and South Watch, sir, then the population laws would be far more strict, you know that. It’s been up for serious discussion for the past year that we might have to write a new law to cut back food shipments to the twenty-six territories and we may have to resort to only one foal per family, maybe even a max population for each territory.”
Greywing continued to stare at me for a few moments, then shook his head.
“Never imagined you’d become this cynical, Ashen.”
“Hey, I’m not the one who started the expeditions, and I’m certainly not the one who wrote the laws, I just enforce them.”
“And you’re okay with killing unborn foals? Sending good stallions to their deaths out there in the Dragonlands? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I didn’t say that. I just said I enforce the laws. That’s my job as well as yours. If the Queen and council say to ‘jump,’ we ask ‘how high?’ Have you forgotten what it means to be a nightbreed?”
He released a defeated sigh and turned to his drink. After a pause,
“I remember roughly four years ago, I met a colt who wanted to be the first to find new fertile land on the expeditions. A volunteer. Nopony volunteers for the expeditions, or even the South Watch, Ashen. I loved him like he were my own son, and he had such fire in him. One of the most ambitious and kind ponies I’ve ever met.”
I glanced in his direction.
“What happened to him?” he asked sullenly.
My glance fell to the table, then eventually I turned away from him, my head resting on my crossed forelegs.
“He was too young. Naïve, delusional, and stupid, thinking that anything he did made a difference in this country,” I muttered, with a sigh. “He’s dead, Greywing. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can stop living in denial.”
We sat there in silence for a few moments. I heard the sound of tinkling ice against glass as he downed the rest of his liquor and set the glass down.
“I have to report to the Law & Order Department about our latest expedition. Maybe once I finish, why don’t you and I share a few more drinks? My treat.” He offered a smile with the sincere request.
I’ve seen that smile before. He always gave ponies that kind old smile, where it was meant to lift spirits, and let others know that they had a father-figure who would do anything to help them. It was also the same smile where he was hoping I would accept his request, and be friends just like “old times”, as if nothing’s changed.
That’s not the case anymore.
“I’ve got work tomorrow, Greywing.” I slumped out of the chair and back onto my hooves. “Maybe another time.”
His smile faded just as quickly as it came, and his ears drooped. Just as I was about to step out of the doorway, he spoke up again.
I stopped for a moment, leaning my side against the doorframe. After a pause I glanced back over at him over my shoulder.
“You need to stop throwing your life away, and you need to forgive yourself. What happened two years ago wasn’t your fault.”
“You weren’t there, Greywing.”
“…No. No I wasn’t….” He paused, looking to the side briefly. “I’m an old stallion Ashen, and I’ve seen many horrible things, and I’ve had to do things I’m not proud of. I can’t even imagine what you’ve been going through.”
He looked back up at me.
“But I can’t just watch you let your guilt tear you apart Ashen.”
I wanted to say something. Something that might shut him up and never make him speak of this, or to me, again. Maybe just give him some depressing line about how hopeless I am, or how late his advice is. There were probably a number of things I wanted to tell him.
A very small part of me, however, wanted me to tell him that I really did appreciate how much he cared, but that was something I could never tell him. I didn’t deserve his kindness, his concern, or any of that. Not after what I had done.
Without another word, I stepped out of the bar, and for a moment, I thought I heard him call out my name again.
I turned right, and started walking down the street with no destination, wanting to go wherever this road would take me as long as I didn’t have to look Greywing in the eye again. This would’ve dragged on until dawn, perhaps even wandering into another bar before I went home, but instead, I took a passing glance down an alleyway moments after I had left the bar. What I saw made me stop walking.
I saw a young unicorn mare with a pair of saddlebags and two ragged-looking stallions beating her senseless down a darkened alleyway, where a dim red light of the street just barely illuminated the crime in progress.
I just stood there and stared. Watched. I didn’t raise a hoof to help, I didn’t call for the local authorities, I didn’t shout at the crooks to make them give up and leave, I didn’t run over to beat the criminals within an inch of their lives to teach them a lesson; I didn’t do a single thing, just watched in silence, and reminisced on what Greywing was discussing with me only moments before.
If this scene were two years ago, I would’ve rushed in without hesitation to save the day, just like I had countless times before. I would have sent the two muggers running home making them regret the day they started stealing, and would’ve escorted the young mare to the hospital, wish her well, and be off, like some kind of superhero that mattered to somepony. I was so naïve then, thinking any and all of the little things I could do to help ponies would be for the good of the country, when all I was really was doing was stopping one crime when five more would take their place; delaying the inevitable. It all became so pointless after a time, trying to save one pony after another when it just didn’t make a single difference. The muggers would’ve done it a day afterward, and the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. The mare would’ve been mugged by somepony else, maybe she could’ve been another criminal herself, what with that stuff in her bags. A number of things could’ve happened, and have happened.
This was merely a small reminder of the desperate times our country lives in now. Starving, poor, nowhere to go, nopony to turn to, and we just tear ourselves apart more and more with each passing day.
We have no future.
We have no remorse for the horrible things all of us do to survive.
We have no hope.
Worse still, I learned far too late there’s nothing I can do to change it, and that it’d be a waste of time trying.
So too would any effort I make to save the mare in distress.
The two muggers eventually noticed me watching, and were about to stop and run, or fight, whatever they would need to do to survive. I only needed one look into their eyes and their bodies to realize that they’re just two more desperate souls, but also souls that have gone too far doing what they have done for me to be able to change it.
Only way I could stop them would be to end their misery.
However, I wasn’t in the mood for bloodshed that night.
I hung my head, and walked away , just as I heard the beating recommence.
We truly live in a hopeless world.
I was just ahead of the curve.
Doctor Archer stared at me as I finished my story of the night in question. I was on my back, forelegs wrapped behind my head. I acted relaxed and casual, but it was merely a mask to the ache that was in my heart. I avoided eye contact throughout the whole story, but I could just feel that look of disapproval staring daggers at me as he rapped on his desk with a hoof, and it was starting to get uncomfortable.
“So…,” started the doctor, much to my relief, since I couldn’t stand another second of that awkward silence. “I think that should wrap up tonight’s session.”
This caught me off guard. I turned to him and sat up.
“Already? Aren’t you going to say something?”
The doctor was merely keeping an apathetic expression as he stopped the recorder, and began filing away his notes. “No. We’re done for tonight Ashen,” he said, eerily calm.
“You usually say something about things like this.”
“There’s nothing I have to say, Ashen. Why, do you have something you want to tell me?” he said, stopping all actions to look me dead in the eye.
I sat there on the sofa, looking into his eyes, searching for what his intent was. The doctor was always persistent. He always tried to pry for any emotions that I would always tell him that don’t exist, he would try to fish for deeper understandings of why I’ve done what I’ve done. I was expecting him to ask me why I just left, or what I did afterwards, what I thought when I left, maybe how much I was drinking, what I was drinking, or if I said anything else to Greywing; I expected any number of questions.
Not a single one came, and it started to bother me.
“Are you just giving up or something? Did you finally accept that I’m beyond all hope of help so you’re just going to pack up and leave early? You don’t have any other questions for me about my week or anything like that?!” I said as my voice was gradually rising. “Do you not give a damn anymore about me letting another mare get mugged or me nearly getting into another fight? What about how I handled things with the Picker family? What about some sort of advice to try toning down my drinking or find something productive to do with my life?”
I stopped myself from saying anything further, because I just realized I was shouting at him.
However, he appeared unfazed as he watched me, expressionless. We stared at one another for the longest moment, and the silence was getting to me again.
“Say something!” I shouted.
“Why do you want me to say anything at all? I thought you wanted to get out of here as quickly as possible.”
“I…did,” I said, haltingly.
“So what’s the problem, Ashen?” he asked, his relaxed tone still present, as he set some paperwork down and approached me, settling onto his haunches in front of me.
The question caught me off guard. At first I wasn’t sure how to respond, but then I figured he was looking for an answer, like me wanting to talk more, or not wanting to leave, something crafty like that. I just turned to the side and tried to come up with a sound excuse.
“I thought we were going to be an hour is all.” I said with somewhat of an attempt to sound convincing.
“Ashen, we’ve been here for almost two hours,” he calmly explained.
Something sank inside my stomach, as I glanced to the nearby clock. The time showed that it was almost three. I slowly turned back to him.
“So, I think we got enough done for today, and I’d like to go home and see how my wife and son are doing. Unless you have anything you’d like to say, you’re welcome to leave now if you’d like.”
How could I have lost track of the time like that? I was sure that it hadn’t even been an hour yet since I got here. Was it the headache from my hangover and last night’s rumble, or did I just spend too much time talking and less time thinking about how much time had gone by?
More importantly, why did I even care? I was able to leave now, and get away from the doctor, and get back to…
What was I even going to do for the rest of the night? Where was I going to go? Drink some more? Get into another fight? Visit the club and get mugged again? Go home and dwell for a few hours until I go to sleep?
I was starting to wonder if I even wanted to leave, which became a real consideration had I not remembered that I was trying not to care.
No, I didn’t care. Period.
So why was I still sitting there?
Archer was still waiting on me to do or say something while I was mulling this over in my head in a matter of seconds. I shook my head and came back to earth, then got up.
“Fine. I don’t have anything else to report this week anyway.” I approached the door, just as I lifted a hoof up to open it,
I glanced over my shoulder to look back at him, and he was… smiling? “I’m proud of you. You’re showing some real progress today.”
What’s that supposed to mean? I thought.
“For the first time in months, if not years, I finally got to see a bit of the real you under that thick armor you’ve built up around yourself. I saw a good pony in there Ashen, you’re just refusing to let him out. The fact you wanted to talk some more, something you never usually do, is a sign of the you that wants to talk, to share your pain, and that you wanted somepony to listen.”
That son of a-... he was only pretending to leave to see how I would react!
I reeled around and faced him, now burning with anger.
“Oh shut up Doc, you don’t know a damn thing about me, so don’t act like you do!” I shouted.
“I do know for a fact Ashen that you came here tonight, and I know just a moment ago you weren’t ready to leave. You showed up late, but you still showed up, and then when we normally spend about forty-five minutes to an hour, you decided to talk with me for a couple hours. That’s the part of you that needs a friend, or at least someone to listen to you Ashen. You can’t deny that.”
“I don’t need any damn friends! I don’t need you, or anypony else, and I especially don’t need another one of your lectures!” I shouted with a stomp of my hoof.
“Then leave, Ashen. The door’s right behind you,” he said, gesturing with a hoof. “If you really feel like that I’m wrong and that this is a waste of time, that you don’t need somepony to talk to, then go ahead and leave. There’s nothing holding you here.”
I really didn’t want to admit it, but he actually had a point, much as I didn’t appreciate it. Instead of just turning around to leave, as simple as it is, I remained rooted to the spot. I bit my lip and turned aside, grumbling, releasing a groan.
“This is what I’m talking about. You think you’re so alone and hopeless Ashen, but I see a pony that is carrying so much remorse, regret, pain, frustration, loneliness, and anger, and that he needs someone to confide in, yet denies that he needs it. Here you are, not ready to leave, and even going out of your way to accuse me of giving up and ask why I didn’t ask any more questions or offer more advice. You were worried that I didn’t care anymore; that I didn’t want to listen and be somepony you could trust and talk to. It’s high time you opened your eyes and accepted that.”
I just wanted to shout at him, get angry with him and start breaking his stuff, maybe even hurt him just to shut him up; I wanted nothing more than to deny it, and spit back in his face how wrong he was. However, the problem was he was so right. He was so right, and it hurt so much that he was.
I didn’t want to be in that office anymore.
“Think whatever you want, Doc,” I said as dismissively as I could, and turned back to the door to push it open. “But I have a duty to perform for Queen and Country, and I can’t afford to think about friends or my own well being. I’m a soldier, one that needs to put their own thoughts and emotions aside to get things done, and that’s what I have to be to do my job.”
“You may be a soldier Lieutenant, but you’re still a pony; a pony that can bleed, suffer, and feel pain. Trying to carry that pain with you wherever you go is something that does not help this country nor the Queen. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can go back to the field,” he said with finality, he turned back to his desk to finish cleaning up.
I scowled one last time at him, and decided that I didn’t want to waste time trying to get the last say or prove a point. So without another word, I just walked out of the building, and took to the sky.
We finished the night with my night I talked with Greywing (which wasn’t a very pleasant story to begin with), he gave me some crap tidbit, which put me in a bad mood, and I pretty much went straight home. I was tempted to swing by Dark Side of the Moon again to try and shake the thoughts off, but I guess I just decided to come home and write to vent a bit before I went to sleep.
I really wish the Doc didn’t make me write these stupid things as part of my therapy, but he insists that it helps if I’m angry or depressed or something, it gives me an outlet to let off some steam. It’s a bit more tedious than the (ineffective) medicine he gave me, but it’s worked. Somewhat.
After today’s session though, I’ve kinda grown to hate the idea even more of making friends who tell me how to run my life. I don’t have the time for pointless pursuits like that. I have a duty to the Queen, not to make friends and make myself a better pony. Doctor Archer needs to get that through his thick skull, and clear me for field duty. The sooner the better, so I can finally stop writing these stupid journals, attending his sessions, and finally stop doing mediocre peon work up at the capital.
I’m hoping tomorrow will have some excitement, for once.
I guess that’s that for this journal. Let’s hope I can catch at least an extra hour on top of the usual four to five tonight.
June 9th, 1011 P.E.
First assignment of the new week, and unfortunately, it was a mediocre one. I was assigned to check on our shielding on the eastern border at Outpost Andromeda, along with some unicorn guy who was apparently newly certified with CrystalTech. I was mainly his escort, and seeing as I had a certification myself, I was to assist any and all repairs or tweaks if any needed done; make sure they went off without a hitch. I also had other work to do over there regarding transfers. That coupled with my certification ended up being the main reason I was given this tedious task. They gave me his name before we left, but I forgot about it. Didn’t really care about escort jobs anyway, especially when it came to maintenance.
The two of us walked through the underground halls of the citadel, looking for a certain room.
“So… are you sure it doesn’t hurt?” asked the rather timid brown unicorn, who seemed barely past his foal years. “I’ve never used Teleports before.”
“No, for the last time, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just disorienting, and can make first-time users nauseous but that’s it. Although there has been one case of a couple ponies that came out with their fur singed,” I joked.
He gulped, and I chuckled briefly at that. At least that made things slightly amusing.
The crystal-lit hallways illuminated the path to our destination, and eventually we found ourselves at the end of it where there was a large wooden door. I knocked thrice, and a slide on the middle of the door opened, revealing bright green eyes of a bright blue unicorn.
“Yes? Oh. You must be the ones they told us to get the teleport ready for,” said the rather disappointed unicorn.
“Is it ready?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, it’s all prepared, despite the short notice and all the work it takes to prepare a Gate for transmission.” He glanced at the brown stallion next to me. “Oh, lovely. Double transmission. Just what I needed,” he finished with a groan.
“Yeah yeah, look, can you hurry up and open the door? We needed to be at Outpost Andromeda ten minutes ago.”
“Yes, yes, one moment,” he said impatiently, shutting the small slide before the sound of various locks started coming undone could be heard. I rolled my eyes after a few seconds passed, and finally the door opened, the unicorn clad in a white lab coat and black mane waved us in.
“Well come along then,” he said impatiently. “If you’re in a hurry then hurry up and get in here!”
I sighed and walked in, my companion following just behind me. “Nice to see you too Doctor Sprocket,” I commented sarcastically as I passed him.
We were now in a massive laboratory. All over the place were dozens of tables, most of them having crystals of many sizes, shapes, and colors, some haplessly thrown around the room, others rigged to various machines and even some chemical contraptions. There were many different devices and machines that did things that were even beyond my own comprehension, like I’m sure one of them was a water purifier and something else had to do with growing potatoes (which I assumed after seeing a potato at one of the tables that was hooked up to a machine embedded with crystals. What it actually does is anypony’s guess). This was the central laboratory where crystal research is done, Doctor Sprocket being the head of the department.
At the end of the room, there was a very large machine that hung from the ceiling. Two computer consoles were positioned in front of the machine on the ground, that had a number of buttons, screens, levers, microphones and other gizmos. The entire machine was wired up to various crystals that lay scattered around the room, some hung, others settled on desks, and there was even one laying near to the machine on the floor.
A small staircase led up to a flat metal, circular pad. Above it were mountains of cables connected to a massive machine in the shape of a 4-ringed beehive. Suspended around this machine were three very large green crystals held in the air by retractable claws, each roughly the same size of an average pony, and were producing a deep humming noise indicating they were already warmed up.
There was a green pegasus mare with a teal mane and blue eyes off to my right working on some kind of experiment with half-moon glasses resting on her nose, also clad in a white coat, who was she watching my escort and I enter the room.
“I don’t suppose the council got my request for an actual unicorn assistant have they?” started the irritable Sprocket as he went over to the left console of the Gate. “Because, as absolutely gorgeous as this pretty girl is, I swear by the moon and the stars I’ve never met a bigger featherbrain so inept with CrystalTech in all my life.”
The assistant frowned and looked at the ground, her wings sagging a little.
“I swear, they just piss on my department without even having the courtesy of calling it rain. I ask them for more crystal experts, they send me pegasi instead. Nopony takes my work seriously and they have me working on some stupid new appliances for the masses instead of letting me get some actual useful research done! Do they think I run a damn Gate Station down here or something?”
Sprocket kept ranting as he started working the machine on the left console. This was one of the multitude of reasons why I never liked him. If he weren’t so important to current CrystalTech research, he would’ve been fired years ago.
“Alright featherbrain, get on that other console,” Sprocket barked.
“Yes doctor…” she meekly replied, then walked over to the right console.
“I swear, stupid bureaucrats can shove it up their flanks next time they decide to send me another pegasus,” he muttered.
“Come on,” I said to the brown unicorn while I walked up to the metal pad on the floor, and turned to face the two doctors. He reluctantly followed, and stood next to me.
“Power levels?” asked Sprocket.
“We’re in the green,” the assistant responded.
Sprocket pressed a button, and re-adjusted an extended microphone. “Outpost Andromeda, Outpost Andromeda, you read me?”
Scratchy noises came from the speaker on the doctor’s console. He turned a couple knobs, before a clear voice rang through. “Outpost Andromeda here, do you read us Green Station One?”
“Loud and clear. You ready for a double transmission over there?”
“We’re green across the board, ready to receive.”
“Standby.” Sprocket flipped a switch, and began operating the console.
“Now I’m sure I don’t have to tell you both to hold completely still, otherwise I’ll be sending you over there in a multitude of bloody pieces. Oh, and don’t try to touch the crystal field, it’ll rip you to shreds,” explained the doctor. I rolled my eyes, already having heard this before, but my escort seemed to shudder a little as his pupils shrank, even gulping too.
First timers. What a pain, I thought to myself as I shook my head and sighed.
“Send us,” I said to the doctor. He didn’t seem to acknowledge what I said, just started operating the consoles. The two started communicating with each other, Sprocket taking her through the process step by step and using a lot of big words that I didn’t catch, nor care to listen to. Before long, the whole room was starting to light up with a green glow. Magical energy could be felt flowing through the room, especially as the three crystals suspended above our heads began to lower to our level. They stopped a few inches short of the floor, and slowly began spinning around us. Cracks of lightning could be seen sparking from the crystals, and the humming as well as some other whirring and mild buzzing could be heard growing louder and louder. As each second passed, the crystals spinning faster and faster until they became a bright green blur, and the noises were nearly deafening to the point I couldn’t even hear the scientists anymore. A magical bubble began to form around us, going down to the pad, and above our heads. I could also hear the brown unicorn shouting at me over the noise, probably asking whether or not this is normal or if it’s safe again, but I just ignored him.
Within merely a minute, a bright flash of light blinded the two of us along with a thunderous pop, and suddenly we weren’t in the lab anymore.
Slowly, an orange unicorn stallion came into view clad in Her Majesty’s colors; black armor subtle hint of blue in the metal curved in many articulate ways around the soldier’s body in an elegant design, with a crest of the moon adorned on the front and constellations scattered along the back. Neat by design, but absolutely uncomfortable.
“Welcome to Outpost Andromeda,” said the soldier, accompanied by a salute. “Are you Lieutenant Nightwing?”
“Yes, at ease.” I saluted back, waiting for the crystals, which were still spinning, to slow until they eventually came to the stop, and raised back up to the machine; identical to the lab we were in only a moment ago. The crystals locked themselves in place, and the machine powered down as some smoke vented from the top.
I was only disoriented for a moment, and regained my bearings within seconds to look around the large room made of a dark stone. To my left, there were wooden stairs that led up to the second and third floors of the tower, which had the barracks and lookout tower, respectively. Across from us, behind the soldier, was a large wooden door on the right side, and adjacent of it in the corner of the room was another massive machine that had many wires that ran all around the room. It also contained a large glowing blue crystal embedded inside of it giving off a moderate glow, assisting the five or six torches that barely illuminated the place.
Just as the orange stallion was about to speak again, my escort bolted out the front door, smashing it wide open, more than likely to lose whatever lunch he might have had before the trip. The soldier and I watched him go, then released a mild chuckle.
“That must be the CrystalTech specialist we were expecting,” he started. “You’d think they teleport on a daily basis.”
“You’d think that,” I commented. “His first time, apparently.”
“Heh, no wonder he looked so green when you arrived.”
“Anyway,” I said, turning back to him and refocusing my attention as I stepped down off the pad. “We’ll be here for at least a few hours. By then the Gate should be recharged and we’ll be on our way.”
“Yes, sir. Do you want to check the fence first?”
“Yeah. Let’s go collect the maintenance guy while we’re at it.” I walked toward the large door, the soldier following in close behind.
“Um, Corporal Sparks, by the way sir, and I just wanna say it’s a pleasure to mee-“
“Have you had any fluctuations or faults with the barrier?” I interrupted.
“Er, no sir.”
“Any creature attacks?”
“No sir…well, actually, there was a cyclops…”
I stepped through the door, and I was outside the black towering building that was Outpost Andromeda. Illuminating the front entrance and a small stairway just in front of it were two bright blue crystals extended from rods inserted into the building’s dark metal walls. At either side of the building was the real spectacle, as well as half the reason my escort and I were here.
Extending across either side of the building was a transparent, but thick energized blue barrier. They were, in a very real sense, walls made out of strong magical energy, about as high as a four-story building. Each section of the high wall was interconnected by tall rods with crystals adorned at the top, and there was one for every hundred yards all the way to the outposts that were north and south here, extending the barrier to wrap all the way around the country’s borders.
My job along with my companion, was to perform routine maintenance on the generator that powered that massive energy field (the large machine with the big blue crystal). This was one of my more mundane jobs, but at least it got me away from office work back at the capital.
Speaking of which, I found the squeamish stallion come around from behind the small stairwell as Sparks and I descended it.
“S-sorry sir… I just… urp.” The now-green-brown maintenance stallion brought a hoof to his mouth, trying to prevent from throwing up again. Once he managed to regain his composure, he wiped his muzzle off with his foreleg and cleared his throat. “Ready for duty, sir,” he meekly stated.
The stallion even finished with a salute, which I just rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to the barrier.
“Did that cyclops do any damage to the emitter rods or the outpost building?” I asked, turning to the soldier who was eye-ing the wall along with me.
“No, sir. It just seemed to be a little curious about the wall, and tried to approach, but got zapped and ran away.”
“It didn’t cause a major drain to the generator crystal did it?” I said, turning to him.
“Uh, no sir. No major power drains. It only shocked it for a moment and went on it’s way. It was just a slight fluctuation, nothing worth mentioning really.”
I looked at the ground and found a pebble at my hooves, which I kicked up with a hind leg and whacked it with my tail toward the area above the fence. The nearest emitter rod suddenly extended a green crystal out from the top, and a green blast of energy shot up and shot the pebble out of the air.
“Looks like the anti-air countermeasures are working alright,” I commented. The brown stallion finally came over to join us as he witnessed the brief test I performed.
“Wow… they really are as accurate as they told us in training,” he said.
I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. “Is this your first time seeing the fence?”
“Uh, ‘fence,’ sir?” he asked.
“It’s a nickname the border watch ponies gave it a few years ago. Been calling it that ever since. Anyway, you didn’t answer my question.”
“Oh, sorry sir. Yes, I’ve been trained about the generator system and the emitter rods, but this is the first time I’ve worked with the barrier itself. It’s really stunning to see it first-hoof.”
“Well we’re not here to sight-see, we’re here to check the magical energy levels in case the crystal needs replaced, make any fixes if necessary, and report back to the capital. Understand?”
“Uh, yes sir. Sorry, sir,” he said, still standing there, looking apologetically at the floor.
The soldier and I were staring at him for a moment, and he looks back up at us in confusion.
“What?” he asked, unsure what to do.
“That means now, kid.” I said, and gestured with my head toward the building.
“Oh! Right! Sorry!” he exclaimed nervously, before going into a sprint back into the building, leaving the door open ajar behind him.
I sighed and turned back to the barrier. “Bucking civilians. I hate babysitting.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you here, sir? Couldn’t they have just sent the specialist?” asked Sparks who stood next to me.
“I’m here to assist with repairs if necessary, but I needed to check on you and the other ponies stationed here, make sure you’re all doing your jobs right, or seen anything strange lately, etcetera.” I said shaking my head, and then I remembered something else. “Oh wait, you said your name was Sparks, right?”
“Yes sir, why?”
I reached into one of my front coat pockets with my teeth, and produced a piece of paper, which I laid out on the ground and unfolded with a hoof. “I have a transfer order for you.”
He looked at me as if he got slapped across the face, and nervously asked. “Where to…?”
“You’re to report to Commander Greywing for the next expedition into the Dragonlands.”
His pupils seemed to shrink a little.
“When is-” he started, but I cut him off.
“You’re to come back with us through the Gate when we leave for your assignment. They’re leaving in three days, and they need you trained and briefed yesterday,” I nonchalantly explained.
“I…I see…I’ll need to tell the Captain….” His head hung and he looked at the floor, as if I told him his father just died.
“Where is he?”
“He’s up in the tower, we’re both on night watch detail,” he dismally responded.
“Just the two of you?”
“No, my friend Private Storm Cloud is flying along the perimeter somewhere south of here.”
I began to walk back toward the large building, him barely following alongside as we continued the conversation.
“And there are two other ponies stationed here for daytime duties, correct?”
“Yes, sir… they’re asleep right now.”
I pulled open the front door and stepped inside, where I saw the brown stallion already hard at work checking readings and running tests on the crystal inside the large machine. Sparks shut the door behind us as we entered, then I called over to the specialist.
“Hey, civilian, how’s the crystal looking? Good?” I asked, stopped part-way up to the stairs, with Sparks already climbing them ahead of me.
“Oh, uh, yes sir. There’s only been a small energy drain but nothing serious. This doesn’t need to be replaced for at least another year.”
“Alright. Finish your tests here then check on the emitter rods south of here, make sure they don’t need replacements.”
“You got it s-
Before he could finish his sentence, the wall behind him exploded.
“Ashen?” called Doctor Archer, trying to get my attention.
I had been staring at the floor for ten, maybe twenty minutes, my mind miles away after he had asked me a question I already forgot about. After the fourth time, at least I thought it was the fourth time, maybe the fifth, he called my name again, which got through to me this time. I glanced up at him.
“What?” I replied flatly.
“I asked if you can recall what happened at the Out-”
“Yes,” I interrupted sharply. “Yes, I remember.”
He paused a moment as I glared angrily at him, then he took in a breath as he leaned forward in his chair slightly. “I heard about it on the radio Ashen. They said four dead, and five wounded, including you.”
I broke eye contact and looked away, wishing he would shut up, but he pressed anyway. “They said the tower was in flames, Ashen.”
“…It was,” I mumbled.
I was looking at the floor, where I think another couple minutes went by. Maybe it was five minutes, maybe more, maybe less. The concept of time went out the window in favor of the memories from the night prior began consuming my thoughts again.
“Ashen, what happened out there?” said his now-distant voice, but the screams drowned him out. All I was able to see, feel, think about or even register from that moment…
Four Nights Ago
I felt heat. A lot of heat. It felt like I was by a furnace.
Inside the furnace.
I opened my eyes and saw a wash of fire, a great blur of red, orange, yellow, and the black silhouettes of the houses of the village. I could hear screams…
They were so damn loud. Some were like nails on a chalkboard, others were guttural, raw, and pained moans of mares and stallions, even foals, that would induce fear for the feint-hearted. I was losing consciousness just from the deafening howls of the dying villagers.
…No, wait. It wasn’t the village.
I slowly managed to regain my focus, and I felt my head throbbing, my ears were ringing. Something felt wet against the side of my head. It was hot, too.
I tried shaking my head to clear it from the concussion, which helped very little. The first thing I was able to identify was the burning supports of the tower and large piles of stone debris.
I’m in the Outpost… why is the building sideways?
I realized I was on my right side, and my back was to where I was assuming was the entrance to the tower. Quicker than I should have, and in the middle of my daze, I tried to jump on all four hooves only to feel my left foreleg buckle out from under me as a sharp pain spiked through my leg. I fell and hit the floor, cursing and groaning in pain, which was barely dulled from the concussion.
I tried standing again, only to falter once more accompanied by that sharp stab of pain through my whole leg. The third time, I tried keeping my weight off it, but still struggled to get up on my other hooves. I moved to prop myself against the wall behind me so I could stand, only be greeted by the searing hot stones, causing me to scream out in pain loudly into the air. The least I was able to do was prop myself on my haunches, then I surveyed the situation I was in.
Off to my right, the machinery that powered the barrier was completely destroyed and the massive crystal was shattered. The specialist I brought with me looked back at me from his back under a pile of debris, but all signs of life were completely missing. He was as still as stone, and his eyes devoid of life, while his blood pooled around his partly-burning corpse.
Something suddenly exploded above me and a section of the top of the tower came barreling down in front of me and landing on the dead stallion, then created a massive plume of smoke to which I gagged and coughed. I used my injured leg, which caused me to wince, to hold a bit of my coat collar over my face to block any more of the hot smoke and ash from entering my lungs, but wasn’t able to stop from burning my eyes. All I could see was orange, red, and yellow blurs and blobs inside the dark, cloudy mass. Even though I couldn’t see, I remembered where the entrance was, and tried to drag myself into the general direction.
Then I heard the sound of somepony screaming just behind me. It was faint, and hard to comprehend with the amount of ringing in my ears, the roaring cackle of the flames, and crashing debris, but after a moment, I heard it. Louder this time.
“SOMEPONY! HELP ME, PLEASE!!”
I glanced over my shoulder, and saw Corporal Sparks lying up against a splintered section of a wooden wall. He was just behind a fallen burning support beam that blocked my path. He was coated in crimson all along his right side, which was missing a lot of its’ fur… and a foreleg. On top of him was what was left of the staircase we were ascending before the explosion, trapping him in place. He was coughing up blood, but reaching out to me with his remaining foreleg in my direction, begging for help from behind the large burning column.
It was easy to hop over, even with an injured leg. Just one little hop…
But the fire…
I watched the flames dancing mockingly at me along the column. It was only then when aftershock from the explosion wore off, and the full gravity of the situation began to dawn on me.
I was surrounded by fire. The heat was suffocating me, the flames were reaching out for me, wanting me to burn. Every second longer I stayed there was a second more the fire was going to get me, and I wanted to run as fast as I could.
Panic was starting to set in, my mind was going blank when it wasn’t filled with my own screaming.
No, NO NO NO NO NO! I shouted at myself. No, please no no no! I gotta get out of here!
I was hyperventilating, and the room was growing smaller and the flames more menacing by the second. I had to get out, I had to run and get as far away from this box. Where do I go?! I gotta get out of here, I have to-
“PLEASE! HELP ME SIR, PLEASE!!” begged the dying Corporal.
This snapped me from the flames that possessed me and threatened to make me abandon the dying soldier. My eyes shifted back and forth from him and the flames that blocked my path.
I can’t leave him! I berated myself. I shook my head hard, and tried to focus past the beam, or at least away from it where there wasn’t any fire. Okay, come on Ashen just hop over… and get him out. Just… jump on three… you can do this…
I took several deep breaths.
I stepped back several paces.
Buck it, THREE!
I sent every ounce of strength I had into my hind legs and propelled my leap over the burning beam, where I felt the tips of the flames kiss the fur under my belly as I sailed over, then landed on the other side of the beam unscathed. Without a second more of hesitation or even consideration to the situation I was in, I began pulling away at the wood that trapped the Corporal.
“Hang on! I’m gonna get you out!” I shouted over the roaring flames.
Adrenaline was flooding through my veins, helping me clear the rubble in a matter of seconds, freeing the younger stallion.
“Put your leg over me!” I shouted as I crouched low next to him. “Come on! We need to get out of here!”
Barely conscious, he threw his remaining foreleg over my neck. I used a combination of my teeth and my good leg to pull him onto my back, his head hanging limply just off to the side as he lay along my back.
I looked at the beam that blocked my path. For some reason it seemed a lot taller and a lot more menacing this time, like the flames had gotten meaner, and was ready to get me this time.
No. I gotta get him out, I scolded myself, shaking my head. I gotta get the kid out of here. Come on Ashen!
I turned to my side, and quickly swung my body around and bucked my legs, throwing the Corporal over the beam. He landed with a hard thud on the other side and rolled a little, his blood creating a small trail. I backed up and looked away, grit my teeth, then ran forward and jumped over the beam once again, the flames almost catching onto my fur. Once I landed, I quickly pulled the now-unconscious corporal’s foreleg over my neck. He was still breathing though.
“Hang on, we’re almost out,” I said aloud.
I faced the door, which was now visible, and limped towards it, dragging the dying stallion with me. I used my shoulder to bash at the door, sending it flying open. I then heard another explosion behind me, and I looked up to see part of the building ready to collapse.
Letting reflexes take over, I jumped down the staircase pulling the wounded stallion down with me, narrowly dodging the collapsing building as we rolled down the stone staircase, landing on almost every other step on the way down. We hit the dirt ground hard. Before I even managed to get back on my hooves, I heard screaming…
And the sound of steel ringing against steel.
I looked up to try and find the source of the fighting, but all I could see was huge walls of fire. There was fire everywhere.
The fire was getting closer.
Run! screamed a voice inside my mind. Get the hay out of here!
I didn’t know where to go. There was no way out in sight, the flames were coming in far too fast, and they blocked off every exit. The heat felt like it was already scorching the tip of my fur. It was suffocating, and my legs, were turning to rubber from under me.
However the voice of my inner officer rang out loud and clear, Get a hold of your self soldier! Ponies are dying, the Corporal needs immediate medical attention, and you are under attack!
My disciplined mind urged me to move, but the sight of the fire locked my body in place.
Move damn it!
“Get down!” somepony shouted, and a moment later I was tackled to the ground, landing on my bad leg. An earth pony soldier with a dark coat I couldn’t tell the color of wearing, dented black armor, and blood oozing down the side of his head was lying on top of me. I was disoriented from the hit, and my leg was screaming out in pain, but in my daze, I barely made out a spear flying right over our heads, which clattered against the dirt past us.
“Hey! Snap out of it! We’re under attack!” he shouted at me.
“Who?! Who’s attacking us?!” I shouted.
“Look out!” he shouted, then rolled us away as the ground exploded in a red blast where we were only a second ago. He got up and charged at whoever threw the spear at us, managing to ram his head against the assailant, then trampled him with his forelegs. The assailant managed to get out of the barrage of attacks, and started running toward the side of the fallen tower. My rescuer ran back toward me and quickly pulled me up just as I was sitting up. “I don’t know but we need your help, NOW!”
My years of training in combat finally managed to kick itself into gear. I quickly scanned the situation. There were soldiers, most of them unicorns, clad in bright golden armor with the crest I recognized, fighting off a couple of our wounded soldiers behind the flames at the sides of the tower. We were losing.
I quickly glanced around between the spear that missed us just a moment ago, the dying Corporal Sparks, and the rest of the battlefield. Snap decisions began taking over.
“Listen, this guy needs medical attention, keep him alive!” I barked at the earth stallion.
“What are you gonna do?!” he said, as a loud blast of magic created a hole a mere inch away from him; the one who caused it moving toward us for the kill.
Without a second thought, I charged at him, using a few powerful flaps of my wings to get myself up to a quick running speed. He sent a blast of magic at me, which I dodged using a combination of my wings and legs to sidestep the attack without sacrificing my momentum. He prepared to hit me with another spell, but before he had the chance, I rammed my shoulder into the white-colored invader, and used my wings to lift him up the ground and sent him flying in a partial corkscrew. He landed on his side, quickly recovered from my charge, and began to charge up another spell.
But I was already on him.
I took a quick step forward, then put my weight down on my good leg to spin my body around quickly with an assisting flap of my wings, then put all my strength into my hind legs and made contact with his head. His helmet flew off as the kick sent the golden-armored soldier rolling along the floor with blood running down his forehead. He was wounded but still putting up a fight.
Not willing to risk another second for him to try and cast another spell at me, I went up to him, reeled up on my hind legs, and prepared to bring my forehooves down on his head, when the wind got knocked out of me from a quick, but nonlethal blast of magic.
I flew back several yards, and saw my attacker now standing over the wounded soldier, priming another spell. I quickly rolled to my side as he sent a blast of magic which exploded the ground where I just was a second ago. My attacker charged another spell, and I crawled backwards narrowly avoiding another hit, before I rolled and got up to my hooves, busting into a sprint away from the spellcaster as he sent blast after blast barely whisking past my head while I ran toward the spear.
Once I got to it, I swept it up with my teeth, the spearhead on my left, and swung around to return to the fight, only so that I saw his horn was glowing brightly as another spell was about to head my way. Before he could cast it, I spread my wings, and slammed them down as I jumped into the air, narrowly dodging another blast.
I kept to a low hover, flying toward him with a rapid speed, as I took the spear out of my mouth using my forehooves, and as soon as I got close enough, I threw it at him.
Unfortunately it missed the mark as he dove out of the way, but it also interrupted his spell.
Before he could recover, I slammed into him, my body colliding hard with his as my breath escaped and pain from my injured leg spiked through my body. We tumbled across the ground, and he threw me off of him mid-roll, myself crashing on my side with a painful shock to my shoulder.
Just as I was getting up, there was another golden-armored soldier right on top of me, about to plunge a spear into my chest, and I had no time to react.
This was it.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a black nightbreed soldier with blood-soaked armor and a half-scorched face of flesh and fur smashed into the side of the spear wielder, using his head and horn to help knock him away past a high wall of flames.
The nightbreed turned to me, and held out a hoof. “Got your back, sir!” he said with a smirk as he pulled me up, when something exploded right next to us.
The wounded spellcaster from earlier was about ready to hit us with a much larger blast of destructive magic.
Thinking fast, I turned back to the nightbreed and shoved him back with a hind leg, then rolled away from him along on the ground, the red magic projectile flying right past us. As soon as it missed, I got back up, the other nightbreed slowly rising as well, who only then noticed the spellcaster.
“Take the left!” I shouted at the other nightbreed, who took a second to realize what I meant, as I swept up the nearby spear again with my teeth, and ran around to the right.
We both ran around and toward the spellcaster, who started sending sparks of smaller spells towards us, but wasn’t able to take us both at the same time. I could tell he was tired from the series of quick spells. He did unfortunately get one lucky hit on the other nightbreed, who tumbled to the ground and released a sharp scream of pain.
I didn’t let this deter me.
I turned my head, aimed the weapon, and just before the spellcaster could even react, I jammed the spearhead into his side, shouting with a fury as I continued to push, until he fell to his side.
As he fell, I lost my footing, and stumbled over him as the embedded spear also yanked itself from my teeth, and I trampled him a little before flipping over onto my back with a thud.
I shook my head, shaking the disorientation off, then quickly rolled back upright and prepared to strike again, when a magically amplified-shout was heard off in the distance.
“Retreat!” yelled another gold-armored stallion I was barely able to make out off in the distance behind the wall of flames. “Fall back!”
This distracted me from the spellcaster, who’s horn quickly discharged before I noticed.
The force sent me flying backwards, where my head collided with a large bit of stone debris from what was left of the tower, and saw a brief flash of white. My vision was blurry and dark now.
I tried standing and crawling toward him, struggling to stay conscious as my vision went in and out. I could only barely make out the speared soldier limping away, with a couple of his pegasus comrades flying in to help him along.
My strength left me, and I couldn’t stay awake anymore.
The darkness swallowed me whole.
I had my head in my hooves. The injuries were four days old, but the headache was still killing me, my chest hurt, my leg, thankfully, wasn’t seriously injured, and my broken horn got chipped during the skirmish, but in all, these felt only minor compared to what the rest of the survivors experienced. I sat there on Doc Archer’s sofa, and I couldn’t erase the searing images of the dead specialist, the battle… the fire…
Yet, Doctor Archer just sat there behind his desk, expecting me to recollect every little detail. I had half a mind to just to chew him out and tear his office apart just to get him to stop prying. I was so angry… but at the same time, I felt like I failed, that I didn’t do enough. That was, unfortunately, the reason why I was there.
Half of it, anyway.
“Is that all?”
“What more is there to say that hasn’t been broadcast to the whole country?” I responded coldly, casting an angry glare in his direction, which he returned with a unnatural calm.
“Well, they don’t tell me what you’ve been thinking, feeling, what you want to do, or how you’re handling yourself since then. You could tell me that, if you want.”
I sighed and pressed my face back into my hooves.
“Honestly Doc… I haven’t slept well these past few days… well… worse than usual anyway.” I meekly responded, and my hooves fell to my sides as I lay back against the sofa, staring vacantly off at the wall. “It was really bad Doc… I couldn’t protect all of them… I screwed up.”
Archer sat up in his chair and crossed his forelegs on his desk.
“You’re guilty about it. Why is that?”
“Why else? I failed to do my job. I failed to keep that outpost secure, the other soldiers safe….” I looked at the floor. “Now an entire sector of our barrier is down and we’re vulnerable to attack, should they decide to invade us again.”
“So what do you want me to say? Yes? It is your fault that four good soldiers are dead, and that you failed your job to protect that outpost? Okay. Sure. Fine. It is your fault, Ashen.”
I looked back up at him with some confusion.
“However, that statement’s a lie. The truth, on the other hoof, is that you did your best to hold that post. Last time I checked, if it weren’t for your efforts, the invaders probably would’ve won. You drove them off, and you saved five other ponies in the process. You should be proud, Ashen, not letting that damn guilty conscience of yours beat you up.” He got up and walked around his desk. “Don’t blame yourself. Blame whoever put you there, blame the world, blame the goddesses. Blame me,” he firmly stated, ordered almost.
I glanced aside. “Even if I did, it doesn’t change the fact Sparks is dead because of me.”
“He would’ve died no matter what you did Ashen.”
“I froze, Doctor!” I said, standing up, now shouting at him. “I stood there, for like, a minute, and I watched him bleed all over the damn floor. I wanted to run away and leave him there-
“But you didn’t!” Archer shouted, interrupting me. “Is that really what’s on your mind? Is that why you’re feeling guilty? You froze. Okay? You froze. That happens to the best of us though, Ashen, but that doesn’t change the fact that you went back for him and you TRIED to save him.”
I turned away, avoiding eye contact with him. “I could’ve saved him… he’d still be alive if I just acted just a little bit sooner.”
“He was missing a leg, Ashen,” he continued undeterred. “If you want somepony to blame for Sparks, then the only person you should blame is the bastard that blew a hole in that building. You are not at fault for his death, so quit deluding yourself.”
I paused for a moment. “After the attack… I was with the other wounded in the hospital. I went go see Sparks. His mother was there.” I turned to look into his eyes. “He just died, when I got there.”
Archer waited and listened, silently, though I could already tell he didn’t like where it was going.
“She was crying her eyes out, and was begging the goddesses to give her son back, that he didn’t deserve this. She started screaming, wanting to know who murdered him. I just watched as curses and accusations just… started flying all over the place. When she saw me, she wanted to know what I was doing there. I just… I told her…” I looked at the floor shamefully. “I told her it was my fault he was dead. I told her I couldn’t protect him. ‘Why didn’t you save my son?’ she shouted. ‘You were his hero, why didn’t you watch out for him?!’ ‘You should’ve died instead of my boy! You murdered him!’”
“Whoa, no,” said Archer, stopping me in my tracks as he walked over to me and turned me to face him. “You listen to me right now. You did your very. Damn. Best, to save that colt. She shouldn’t have been looking for somepony close by to pin the blame on in her state. Hay, she should’ve been thanking you for pulling him out of a burning building and protected him from the invaders, if not the entire country from them! You should’ve gotten a damn medal if it were my call.”
I glanced away, but he kept my muzzle pointed toward him.
“Frankly, I don’t care if you don’t believe me Ashen, but that is the cold, hard truth, so quit lying to me, and quit lying to yourself that this was your fault. All you’re doing is locking yourself in your own jail cell and subjecting yourself to your own torture. That doesn’t do a bit of damn good for you, Sparks’ family, or the country. Now, you came to me for advice, and that’s what I’m telling you. Take it or leave it.”
He went back around his desk and sat down. It was silent for a moment, as he tapped his hoof against the arm of the chair.
“But something tells me that’s not what you came here to talk with me about,” he deduced. “You could’ve just called, if you wanted counseling Ashen.”
I didn’t respond to him, other than glancing aside.
“This is about your Royal Summon isn’t it?” he asked.
I stood there in silence for a moment, before I eventually nodded.
“So tell me what happened.”
Two Nights Ago
Two Days after the attack
A messenger from the Palace delivered a letter for the summon straight to my bed in the hospital the night prior to the summon. It had only been a day after the attack, and I had no time to recover. Even the doctors said I shouldn’t be up and about for at least another few days. Unfortunately, I was the only one who wasn’t dead or dying, and the doctors couldn’t say no to the council. Neither could I.
That was something I hated about politicians; they have no respect for the dead nor the wounded. If I had been in a worse state, they would’ve dragged in a pony who had his wings amputated from severe burns and had multiple broken bones from the explosion. However, despite this, plus my throbbing headache and discomfort with my various wounds, it was my duty to tell the council what I saw.
Of course, that didn’t mean I had to like it, which I didn’t. Not one bit.
After my one night in the hospital, and this evening at home, I stood in front of two nightbreeds guards donning royal black and dark-blue armor who were double checking my summon letter, having me wait outside the Citadel doors until it was verified. The one not checking my letter was giving me concerned looks with all the bandages that covered most of my body.
“Alright, you’re good Lieutenant,” said the one who was reading the letter, before opening the door with a hoof. “You’re a little early. The council hasn’t called assembly yet.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks guys…,” I mumbled tiredly and I rubbed my eyes before taking the letter back and stuffing it into a pocket with my teeth. Only reason I was early was because the headache kept me from getting a good day’s sleep.
That’s what I kept telling myself anyway.
“Do you need any help, sir…?” asked the one who gave me the worried looks.
“I’m fine. Hey, is the café open?” I asked, deflecting the guard’s concern.
“Should be, yeah,” said the one left of the door, the same one who verified my letter. At least he wasn’t asking any questions. Then again, he must have a good idea already about the situation.
“Right… thanks guys,” I muttered and went inside, avoiding looks from the other guard as I passed them.
They shut the door behind me, and I was in the massive main hall, a huge round room with a domed ceiling that could easily fit over a hundred ponies. The recreation of the constellations with embedded gemstones on the domed ceiling looked as dazzling as ever, as well as the polished marble floor that had the design of a half-moon. The dark side of the moon was a silhouette of Her Majesty’s divine image, and her turquoise eye pierced into the hearts of anypony who would dare look into the eyes of the powerful and terrifying Nightmare Moon.
Nightmare Moon… a name as ancient as the Day/Night War, and one that had been long abandoned. That sigil in the floor of the Palace was all that was left of the old flag of Queen Luna, before she became the ruler of the Twenty-Six Territories.
There were three hallways, one opposite the entrance I came in, and two hallways at the sides, the one on the right having the café I asked the guards about. It wasn’t very busy today, despite multiple groups of suits, politicians, ambassadors, and other officials going about their business talking about things I could care less for.
I crossed the room and took one of the dozen-odd seats at the small built-in café, then rung a small bell in the middle of the counter. A beige earth pony with short brown hair and green eyes poked his head in from the back door of the shop.
“Hell-, Oh! Ashen! Long time no see!” came the surprised remark of the middle-aged shopkeeper as he stepped up to the counter.
“Hey Cuppa Joe. Yeah, it’s been a bit, hasn’t it?” I mumbled, followed by a sigh as I pressed my face into my hooves.
He scanned up and down my battered body. “You look terrible.”
“When don’t I?”
He shrugged at my remark.
“So what can I do ya for? I got a light ale in the back if you’re interested.”
“Oh, no,” I told him with a disheartened sigh. “I’m testifying to the council tonight.”
“About wh-… wait. Do you mean what happened out east?”
I silently nodded as I crossed my forelegs on the counter. “Apparently I’m the only witness in a fit enough condition to testify what happened so… yeah.”
“That’s horrible.” He frowned. “Are you alright?”
“…Not really, no.”
“I see… I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine Joe, you got nothing to be sorry about.”
“Still, I’m sorry that happened to you. The radio made it sound like it was a warzone over there.”
“Um… is-… is it true?” he nervously asked.
“Is what true?” I asked, looking up at him.
“Was it Equestria?”
I didn’t respond. Instead, I rested my head back on my hooves.
“The… radio, was saying that it might have been Equestria… that this is the start of a second Day/Night War. Is that true, Ashen?”
“I’d rather not talk about it right now, Joe.”
He looked at the counter with sagged ears for a moment, before he glanced up at me with an encouraging smile. “Guess you haven’t been a very lucky pony these days, have you?”
“I guess not,” I murmured. At least it was a modest attempt to lift the mood. I glanced around at some of the other ponies passing by, then to the empty seats. “Hey, where are all your customers? You’re usually busy right about now,” I said, changing the subject.
“It was busy a couple hours ago when everypony first came in, but that was about it. It’s been kinda frantic here in the palace since…well… you know.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Mhmm…,” he said, glancing around, watching some of the passersby’s.
“Guess your great grandfather must be turning in his grave that the ol’ shop’s not getting a lot of business these past few nights,” I commented.
“Probably. I don’t think he was counting on something like this happening when he made the slogan.”
“What was it again?”
“’The Lunar Confederacy runs on our coffee.’”
“Oh, that one. Odd slogan.”
He shrugged. “True though. Ever since he convinced the council to let him build this shop here, it’s been doing pretty well. Better than working in the western territories.”
“Because every territory from the Nebula to the Sapphire provinces are having a hard time keeping stock.”
“That’s at least five of the Territories, Joe.”
“Yeah, I know. Coffee is in high demand, especially by the crystal mines, but there’s never enough to go around. Gotta think though, if coffee is struggling this much, I can’t possibly imagine how food is doing.”
You don’t want to know, Joe, I thought to myself.
“Makes me actually kinda envy you nightbreeds sometimes, since you don’t have cutie marks that have you stick to one job all your life. You can change jobs if you wanted to. Then again, I don’t know any nightbreeds that aren’t in the military. Never really understood that, having all that freedom but only choosing one line of work. Er, no offense.”
Probably the same reason I can’t understand you daykind and your obsession with “cutie marks,” I thought with some distaste.
“Ashen?” called somepony, whose voice I recognized, off to my right.
My ear twitched, and I turned toward the source of the voice over to my right. Walking in my general direction were four ponies. Three of them, two stallions and a mare, were following a single white unicorn stallion, at least until he stopped to address me.
“That you kiddo?” he asked.
I shot straight up out of my stool and saluted. “Chancellor Eclipse! Sorry, I didn’t see-
“Oh for goodness’ sake Ashen, put your hoof down.” He turned to the rest of his group. “We’ll finish this discussion later.”
“But sir, how are you going to protect the border territories? Grey Sky and Shale are still exposed-” one of the stallions started to argue.
“What about the economy?” started the mare of the group. “Have you considered the cost to repair Outpost Andromeda and how it’ll impact research-
The Chancellor cut her off. “Yes, yes, look, I’ll bring your cases up in the hearing tonight,” Eclipse stated. “Now I need to talk to my…er… associate, here. Important business. Council business. I’m sure you all understand. Okay? Thank you, off you go.”
They looked back and forth from the Chancellor to myself, unconvinced. With a quiet grumble from the mare, and frowns exchanged between the two stallions, they broke off and went their separate ways. The chancellor waited for them to be out of earshot, before he released a loud sigh.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am you’re here. That mare was from the Department of Economics. She would not shut up about how we should be using our tax money to handle all the repairs instead of pulling from our research funding-… Ashen?”
I was standing there, staring at him awkwardly.
“What? Do I have something on my face? Is my mane messed up? Are there green spots on my fur or something?” he asked in a jovial manner. A moment later when I didn’t respond, he glanced over at the shopkeeper. “There aren't any green spots on my fur or anything is there?”
“Uh, no sir…?” said Joe.
The white unicorn glanced between the two of us and sighed.
“And here’s one of the reasons I dislike being chancellor. Everypony’s taking me so seriously I can’t crack a joke and even get so much as a chuckle,” he said as he lightly shoved my shoulder with a hoof. “Lighten up a little will ya?”
“Er, sorry Chancellor…” I trailed off and glanced elsewhere.
“And another thing, stop calling me Chancellor will you? Hearing it from a good friend makes my skin crawl. It’s bad enough I get an earful from the other ponies here in the palace on a day-to-day basis.” He rolled his eyes and took a seat. “Hey Joe, the usual please?”
“Oh yeah! Sure, you got it sir,” said the shopkeeper, as he turned and used his teeth to pick up a steaming coffee pot to pour a couple cups. Not long after, he added the necessary extra ingredients.
Five drops of sugar and a dash of cream. Just like I remember.
“Hey Ashen, what’re you getting? I’m buying,” asked the Chancellor.
“Um, sir, that’s not really-
“Oh no, no, no. You are going shut up, you are going to let me buy you a drink, you are going to enjoy it, and you are going to talk to your old buddy. Chancellor’s orders. So what’ll you have?” he asked with a wry smirk.
“If you insist…” I mumbled, as I sat back down next to him, and turned to Cuppa Joe. “Just black, Joe.”
“Sure thing Lieutenant.”
“Black huh? Since when did you start drinking bitter coffee?” asked the white unicorn.
“Since now, I guess,” I sullenly responded.
The blue eyes of the unicorn looked up and down along my bandaged body.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and guessing you got in a fight with a chimera or… maybe an ophiotaurus.”
I couldn’t help but scoff. “Something like that. It feels like it, though.”
The white stallion chortled briefly, but then it quickly faded as I slouched back against the counter. He was about to say something when Joe set a tray with our cups down on the counter. The Chancellor was quick to levitate his cup to his lips to take a sip.
“Ah…” Eclipse sighed in satisfaction. “Perfect as always Joe. I still want to know your secret by the way. Do you grow golden coffee beans to the east or something?”
“Not really. It’s just a skill that’s been in the family.”
“I still think that’s a load of crap, Joe. Coffee this good should be charging a hundred bits a cup. Thirty is a steal.”
Joe chuckled a bit and smirked. “Well, if it weren’t illegal for me to change my own prices, I’d consider it.”
“Hm, maybe I could put a bug in the Queen’s ear for ya Joe. She needs to know how important your shop is to the political foundation of the country!”
As the two continued to banter among one another, I tuned them out quietly sipped my cup full of the dark, charcoal-tasting liquid. I wasn’t paying any attention for probably a good minute or so, staring blankly into the cup until-
“What do you think Ashen?” asked Eclipse.
“Huh?” I said, glancing up at the white unicorn. “Sorry Chancellor-
“Duskfall. Or just Dusk. Come on Ashen, how many times do I have to keep telling you to stop with the titles? We’ve been past the first name basis for the past two years now.”
He raised an eyebrow, and then turned to Joe.
“Hey buddy, is it alright if you gave us a few?” he asked as he levitated a pouch of bits from one of his coat pockets and set it on the counter. “Keep the change.”
“Sure thing Chancellor.” Joe picked up the pouch in his teeth then tucked it under the counter. “Just ring if you need me.”
The beige pony went into the back room, leaving the two of us alone. I quietly sipped a little coffee a couple times, and stared blankly at the counter. The two of us sat there quietly for a moment, myself occasionally glancing at a couple ponies walking (or running) past, before the Chancellor spoke up.
“What’s it been, three months?”
He did a double take, before hitting himself upside the head with a hoof. “By the stars, seriously!? Has it really been four months?”
I silently nodded.
“Damn….” He sighed. “Yet another reason why I hate this job. So much time goes by, and I have next to no time to see old friends.”
I looked over at him. “I wasn’t aware we were friends.”
He returned the comment with a weird look. “What’re you talkin’ about? Of course we are! Where would you get such a daft idea that we weren’t?”
I resumed my slouched position and shrugged. “We hardly talk, ever since you made Chancellor. Just figured you had more important things to be concerned about.”
He sighed again and crossed his forelegs against the counter. “Let me tell you something from personal experience about politics Ashen. All it is is just old stallions and mares just… arguing. Arguing using big, overcomplicated and complex words, and they bicker and squabble like foals fighting over who gets a turn with their favorite toy.”
I cast a forlorn glance at him after this comment.
“Don’t ever go into politics Ashen, you’ll hate it. Trust me. I know I do. I can’t stand five minutes of those councilor representatives from the Pony Resources and Law & Order Departments ranting and squabbling at one another for hours when discussing new policies like it was going out of style. Yknow Aurora’s never been too fond of nightbreeds, but she must really hate Bloodwings or something. She and Bane never get along.” He sighed and rubbed his temples. “Not to mention Agriculture’s always got some problem or other going on, same with the Economics, it’s just chaos control. I don’t know how Cropper and Baron do it.”
He paused, as if hoping I would comment, before he sighed and rolled his eyes.
“So yeah. This job sucks Ashen, but somepony’s gotta babysit the other councilors before they rip each other’s heads off. Though I have to admit, to this day I still can’t figure out how I got elected to this position.”
I shrugged, downed the rest of my coffee, then whacked the empty cup at a trash can behind the counter, missing it entirely as the styrofoam thing clattered on the ground. “Probably because you’re so charismatic?”
He chuckled briefly at the unintended joke. “Oh yeah, forgot about that. Guess that might be why.”
I shrugged, then yawned and rubbed my eyes, before asking, “What time is it?”
“Why? Got somewhere to be?”
I looked at him, confused. “I’m here for the hearing.”
He suddenly returned the same look of confusion.
“Wait, you mean the council hearing tonight?”
“You’re the witness from Andromeda?”
“Yeah,” I simply stated. “I thought you knew.”
He stared at me dumbfounded for a moment, then grumbles.
“Unbelievable. Next time I see that idiot Paper Weight, I’m going to buck him into next Tuesday.”
“I thought you-
“No, that’s that damn Councilor Aurora’s job… she’s the one who manages the summons because it goes through her department. I was supposed to know about it earlier tonight but it’s been so frantic since the attack. There’s been a lot of miscommunication, messed up paperwork, misplaced money, and other such nonsense that’s been going on in this mad house. One pony actually thought the Queen was murdered the other night. Or at least, that’s what all Aurora told me. I’m willing to bet she intentionally kept your involvement from me.” He groaned and rubbed his temples with a hoof. “If I had known Ashen-
“It’s fine,” I interjected.
“No, it’s not fine! Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately? You shouldn’t even be out of the hospital, let alone put in the spotlight in front of the damn Council!”
“It’s not a big deal Eclipse-
“Yes, yes it is a big deal, because I don’t like those other bigot politicians manhandle citizens like this, let alone my friends. Look, I’m going to talk to them about rescheduling when you’re in better condition, or I’ll just find another witness-
“Eclipse,” I firmly stated, interrupting him. “I’m fine, really. Besides, everypony else is… in worse condition than I am.” I had to struggle to get the words out.
“They’ll tear you apart in there Ashen! You know how the Council is like, especially Aurora toward anypony military.”
“She’s just a pencil-pusher from the Pony Resources Department. Why should I be worried about her?” I asked rather smugly.
“You never met her, did you?”
“Should I have?”
“Let me give you the short version; she’s the secretary from Tartarus. She’s not fond of the military, the expeditions, and she’s been trying to get Article Three abolished for some time now. She can be pretty intimidating.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Sounds like the last pony we’d want as a Chancellor. She would’ve driven us into the ground.”
“Hey, don’t badmouth her. She just believes in her ethics and morals, don’t fault her for it. By rights, she should have won the election. Had a great campaign and everything. I would’ve voted for her myself. However…,” he started with a sigh. “Those were very difficult times then Ashen, for everypony. There were things that had to be done for the good of the country. Hard choices. Ones I felt she couldn’t make.”
I turned away. I knew what he was referring to, but this was a horrible time to bring it up. He seemed to notice my reaction, before he reached over and patted my back a few times.
“I’m sorry. Have you uh… have you been holding up alright…?”
“Take a good look at me Eclipse.” I turned to face him. “How do you think I’m doing?”
He looked over me briefly, before he glanced to the side, tapping his glass with a hoof. “You shouldn’t blame yourself so much. It was my idea, my call, not yours.”
“So what’s worse then, the pony who gave the order, or the pony who carried it out?”
“Don’t…” I said, holding up a hoof. “Just don’t. I don’t wanna hear it.”
“Alright, alright, fine,” said Eclipse as he raised his hooves defensively. “But assuming you’re going to tell the council what I think you’ll be telling them, that’s not gonna stop Aurora from bringing it up in court.”
“Why? It has nothing to do with this.”
“Because she’ll do anything to make sure we don’t go to war, regardless of who’s responsible or why. She’s willing to use anything at her disposal to keep her from doing so, and I could be wrong, but she might use that to ruin your credentials.”
On any other day, I would’ve socked him on the spot. Unfortunately, assaulting a Chancellor earns you an execution. Besides, he probably had a point. I sighed, and glanced up at a clock hung up in the back of the coffee stand. “I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”
He followed my gaze, and his ears sagged. “I see,” he said, turning back to me. “Last chance to reconsider. It’ll be rough in there, and I’ll have to do my job as Chancellor. I won’t be able to make it any easier for you.”
“Eclipse, I don’t want special treatment, okay? I’m not crippled, I’m not handicapped, and I am more than capable of speaking for myself. I came here to testify what I saw to the council, and I am going to testify. So let’s just get it over with, alright?” I said with some strained frustration.
“Alright, well…,” he downs the rest of his glass. “Guess I should get ready then.” He patted a hoof against my shoulder and I glanced up at him.
“I’ll see you in there. Good luck.”
With that, he got up and walked past me, rounding the corner toward the Queen’s chambers, leaving me to spend the next twenty minutes slouched against the counter, preparing for the long night ahead.
I stood outside the entrance to the Council Chambers, two nightbreed guards stood with spears crossed in front of the towering and ornate wooden door. Half an hour had gone by since I separated with the Chancellor, roughly three or four of those minutes were spent standing there in front of the entrance, waiting for my queue to enter.
The guards were quiet, keeping their post with an admirable silence that was almost uncomfortable. I wasn’t ready to break that silence myself, but I was starting to grow a little impatient, since I wanted to get in and out as quick as possible. I had some pretty bad ideas about what was going to happen, thanks to a lot of the holovids about council proceedings. There would be a lot of arguing and debating, of the loud variety. If this was going to be anything like those videos, it was going to be that and ten times worse, considering the subject matter. It was going to be pretty grueling, I was sure, and standing outside thinking about it wasn’t helping things along.
Another minute went by, before one of the two guards turned their head to the side, holding a hoof to his ear. His eyes flitted across the ground for a moment, before he turned to his companion and nodded to him, and then he turned to me.
“They’re ready for you now Lieutenant. Head on in.” They lifted their spears, and the guard on the right who spoke pushed the door open and they stepped aside, and I went in.
Before me was a massive atrium of a room, with large arch-topped windows at either side in between massive marble pillars. Up toward the ceiling, a complete recreation of the night sky, but not with gems, jewels, paint or any other kind of artificial décor; this was the night sky itself. A magic enchantment that showed Luna’s brilliant night hung over the room, in a big wispy black cloud. In the veil I could easily see all the many stars and constellations that fill up the dark canvas, and the full moon shone brightly through the room, the light reflecting off of the tiles to give the room a subtle glow.
This moonlight drew attention to one of the centerpieces of the large chamber; the council stands, which stood tall over the room by the right wall. At the very top and center stood Chancellor Eclipse. A step down on either side of him were two of the councilors, the blue and young unicorn mare Aurora to his left, and to his right sat an older black nightbreed stallion in uniform, a scar covering the right side of his face as well as over his eye, which was colorless and vacant from blindness. His red-tipped black mane hung behind his head, as red as his Bloodwing namesake.
One further step down from them was another two stands. A step down from Aurora sat an elderly brown earth stallion with a hoe for a cutie mark, who I knew was Cropper. He bore no clothing, and had a mane overtaken by grey with some darker-brown still lingering. Then there was Baron, who sat next to the nightbreed councilor. He was a green pony, about as old as the Chancellor, who sported formal attire; a suit with cuffs at his forehooves and a monocle over his right eye going well his slicked back hair and bits marking his flank. All of them were signs of showing his stature and business experience, not to mention wealth.
These five showed their class and power with their presence, let alone their position on those stands, but they paled in comparison to the main attraction of the massive room; a long carpet extended from the entrance across the long hall until it came to a small circular staircase. Resting at the top was the highlight of the room; the throne, and seated upon it, its’ ruler.
“Greetings, young Lieutenant,” she opened a vocal bravado that demanded respect to her authority and royalty.
I bowed low. “It’s an honor to be in your presence, Your Majesty.”
“Rise.” She rose from her throne and stepped down, stopping in the center of the room a few mere yards away from me, both of us standing before the Council podiums. She smiled. “No need to be so formal, young Nightwing. After all, these are dark times that bring us here tonight,” she said as she looked up to her advisors, the other councilors.
I stood at attention. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
Eclipse at the top podium cleared his throat, signaling to begin the proceedings.
“Lieutenant Nightwing,” he began. There was no crass or cavalier attitude in his tone; it was emotionless, firm, and professional. This was how a leader would address their subjects, not their friend. “Four nights ago, our country was attacked by an unknown force, effectively destroying one of our crucial outposts, and sabotaged grids 17 and 18 of our kinetic barrier that surrounds the city. Three stallions and a mare died in the line of duty, and five more ponies, yourself included, were wounded in the attack. Two of which are in critical condition. However, I don’t believe I need to explain that this is nothing compared to the threat we now face. Five miles of the barrier are down, and the eastern border is open to attack. Many towns, villages, and farmlands are vulnerable.” He paused briefly. “You have been brought before the Queen and Council tonight to testify what you saw the night of the attack. If you’d be so kind, please repeat after me.”
I sat on my haunches, and crossed my right foreleg over my chest.
“Do you solemnly swear to speak the truth, nothing but the truth, and the absolute truth before the audience of your Queen and Council?”
“I do,” I aptly responded as I lowered my hoof and stood at attention again. I took in a deep breath, and then began my tale. “I was assigned to deliver a transfer order and perform maintenance on the outpost generator if it needed to be done. I was with another CrystalTech specialist and a… Corporal, that greeted us once we arrived at the other end of the gate. Everything was normal, and they said there was nothing strange apart from a curious cyclops that tried to pass through the barrier, which was deterred from its’ attempt.”
The green economic pony, Baron, raised a hoof to interrupt me, and spoke up in his regal accent. “Lieutenant, did the generator encounter serious fluctuations from the cyclops that could have compromised the barrier?”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Outposts were designed to have structural barriers to protect the towers themselves from attack, yes?”
“The… eastern, western and northern border barriers have minor barriers compared to the south, which at least requires two generators per building to maintain the field, but yes, they do have structural barriers,” I explained.
Baron shuffled through a few papers until he found the one he was looking for. “Initial reports have stated that the building itself took a direct hit, and wasn’t protected from the structural shield. I’m essentially asking if you know whether or not the barrier for it was disabled due to the cyclops.”
“I’m not entirely sure, sir. I didn’t inspect the structural barriers while I was there.”
He sighed and fell back in his seat, rubbing his temple with a hoof. “Proceed,” he flatly stated.
I shook my head, and began again. “The Corporal, specialist and I were checking the emitters and their anti-air counter-measures outside for a few minutes. The specialist left us to check on the generator readings, and I was informing the Corporal about his transfer to the expedition team. We were about to go and speak with the captain of the outpost upstairs in the tower, when suddenly the… building exploded.” I struggled to recall that last bit.
The five councilors murmured, and the Queen’s expression changed to one of concern. She was the next one to speak up.
“What happened next?”
I glanced off to my right, reaching into the deepest recesses of my memory to try and recall every single detail, as unpleasant as they were.
“I was unconscious. I don’t know how long I was out, where the building was hit, or even where the rest of the ponies stationed there were when everything happened.”
The black nightbreed, Bane, sat up and leaned forward. “Did you identify the assailants?”
Eclipse waved him off with a hoof. “Let him finish, Bloodwing.” He turned back to me. “Continue.”
Bane grumbled quietly and sat back down, glaring intently at me, eager to know who was responsible.
I pressed on with my story. “I… heard Corporal Sparks screaming for help. He was trapped under a beam-
“You mean the young orange stallion who died in the hospital shortly after you brought him in?” came a sudden interruption from the blue unicorn Aurora, her dark ivory eyes and half-moon glasses looking down at me with conviction.
“…Yes.” I gave her a brief glare of my own, but continued despite the interruption. “Sparks… was trapped. He was begging for help and I was the only pony nearby, apart from the deceased specialist, who was dead by the generator. I… hesitated, when I tried to get him out-
Aurora interrupted me again. “You hesitated? Why?”
Eclipse spoke up next. “He was shell-shocked; he couldn’t possibly tell what was going on.”
Bane dismissed this with a hoof. “I want to hear his response. Why did you hesitate, Lieutenant?”
I glanced up at Eclipse, who frowned, but didn’t say anything. My gaze flitted across the tile floor, avoiding eye contact with the councilors.
“…There was fire in the way.”
Bane reacted with a look of disapproval, whereas Eclipse and Luna gave me a sympathetic one. The other three were emotionless.
I continued. “There was a collapsed beam that was on fire in front of me and… I hesitated to jump over it. It was the only way to get to Sparks. I… just managed to clear the burning beam, and got to Sparks, who was already missing his left foreleg…. I managed to get him out of the building just before it collapsed. Once we were outside… that’s when I saw the invaders.”
Bane looked up, then leaned forward, more so than the other four councilors. All ears were anxiously waiting to hear what I had to say next.
“They wore gold armor, and their insignia…”
I hesitated a moment, then looked Eclipse right in the eye, and spoke aloud.
“Was the crest of the sun.”
There was the briefest moment of silence, until all of the sudden the entire chamber exploded with outage.
“What madness is this?!”
“Why would they attack us?!”
“Have you lost your mind?!”
“How can you be sure?!”
More accusations joined with confusion and anger continued to barrage me from the councilors, except from the Queen and Eclipse whom were as silent as the grave. The former had an expression of shock and pure confusion, even disbelief, and the latter was nearly blank, impossible to discern.
It took a moment before Eclipse even attempted to bring order back to the other four council members. “Alright, alright, enough! Quiet!” he shouted as he banged his podium with a hoof, and the unruly shouting of the politicians making it nearly impossible to continue. Many attempts later to control the other councilors later, they eventually died down. After a pause, the old pony Cropper was the first to speak.
“This is rather disturbing, Lieutenant, if what you say is true.”
“I know what I saw. It was Equestria, I’m sure of it,” I responded, with more conviction the second time.
“That is a very serious accusation, Lieutenant Nightwing,” said a very displeased Aurora. “You are suggesting to your Queen and council that our eastern neighboring country, a country might I just add we have had no quarrel with for the last thousand years and posed neither any threat or value to, and you suggest that they have attacked us unprovoked in the dead of the night, destroyed one of our outposts and an entire sector of our barrier, am I mistaken?”
“No, you’re not mistaken Councilor.”
“Damn Equestrians,” Bane Bloodwing muttered aloud. “I knew they would pull a stunt like this eventually.”
“We don’t have proof of his allegations, Councilor Bloodwing,” loudly stated Aurora. “There was no evidence at the site that could confirm this nightbreed’s testimony.”
“Then who else could have destroyed the tower? According to what few reports we managed to ascertain, it was leveled with powerful destruction magic, something I wouldn’t put past Celestia’s army being well trained in,” Bane deduced as he glared at his blue colleague.
“That’s just speculation! We have no idea of their military strength, their knowledge or power with magic, or anything for that matter. For all we know, it could’ve been imposters donned in Celestia’s colors!”
“And you really believe that Aurora?! The evidence is as obvious as the moon that shines above our heads! There is no way you are possibly naïve enough to think that it could be any other party. Who else would be holding any kind of grudge against us?”
“Chancellor,” said Aurora, who was fuming now, toward Eclipse. “Councilor Bloodwing’s opinion is biased. He’s not willing to open up to other possible leads, and is letting his hatred for Equestria get the better of his judgment.”
“Watch your tone Aurora, I will not tolerate your slander, especially in assembly,” recoiled Bane.
“Enough!” shouted Eclipse over the two of them, which caused them to silence immediately.
“Councilor Aurora, I suggest you keep in mind that we don’t have any evidence to disprove Lieutenant Nightwing’s testimony either. You said it yourself, none was found at the site. No banners, no bodies, no left over armor, or anything else that could identify who attacked.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t think that possibility exists either. Once again, we have no evidence to neither convict nor rule out Equestria as the party responsible, without breaking the treaty and crossing the border. All we have to go by is the Lieutenant’s testimony, which I for one would like to listen to the rest of before we jump to conclusions.”
“Agreed,” said one after the other, save for a reluctant Aurora.
“Very well.” She turned to face me, with a look of malcontent quite clear in her tone. “Lieutenant, you may proceed with your testimony.”
I picked up where I left off, and told them the remaining details, about the soldier who saved me, the spellcaster I fought against, the description of the battlefield, the enemy I speared, up until the point where I was knocked unconscious. After I finished, there was an uncomfortably long pause.
Eclipse broke the silence. “So they just retreated?”
“Were you able to identify their numbers?”
“I’m not sure. It was chaos out there; all I heard were the sounds of ponies fighting one another. If I took a wild guess, I’d say there was at least a small battalion, but I could be way off.”
“You have no other details you can recollect?”
Aurora was seated back behind her podium, digging her forehoof into her head with growing impatience and frustration. Eclipse noticed this after a moment.
“Something you want to add Councilor Aurora?”
“I do, actually.” She stood up, and brushed aside a few papers. “I’d like to start with putting an end to this insanity, by pointing out lack of credibility in our witness.”
“Excuse me?” started Eclipse. Bane was also shooting the blue mare a look, while everypony else in the room looked up at her confused.
“Lieutenant Nightwing, your efforts to defend the border are valiant, and admirable. Nothing short of commendable service to Queen and Country, so on and so forth. I was also hoping it wouldn’t have to come to this. However, I refuse to accept this madness about Equestria being responsible from a delusional and mentally unstable witness.”
Eclipse snapped her an offended look. “How dare you! I’ll have you know that Lieutenant Nightwing here is a decorated member of the Queen’s army. He has made very large contributions for the country for the past five years. Need I remind you that if not for his efforts against the separatists in North Hayford, we would have been overthrown and society as we know it would have crumbled?”
“That was a massacre, and you know it Eclipse. This nightbreed,” Aurora said as she thrust a hoof at me. “…was solely responsible for the deaths of over 200 citizens of the Twenty-Six Territories of the Lunar Confederacy!”
“You know damn well the majority of them were terrorists Aurora. The rest were casualties of war; a necessary sacrifice to prevent our entire government from being overthrown and the country as we knew it from collapsing. Ashen did the right thing that night, and I support what he had to do to get the job done.”
“Don’t you dare justify it just because he’s your friend, Chancellor. There were other options to take down the threat, and instead the Lieutenant chose to create a bloodbath.”
“Councilor Aurora,” interjected Bane. “I strongly suggest you stow that bleeding heart of yours. Lieutenant Nightwing had the stomach to do what had to be done, and I doubt I would have done it any differently if I were in his position. I’d say his credibility still stands.”
Eclipse raised a hoof. “Aurora, how about you cut to the point as to why this relates to your accusation. As far as I can tell, Operation Specter is completely irrelevant.”
“As a matter of fact, Chancellor, it’s completely relevant and I’m glad you brought that up, especially since it actually concerns the mental faculties of the Lieutenant after the operation finished.”
“Enlighten us then, Aurora,” stated Eclipse.
She filed through a few papers, before she pushed one forward, the tip of it peeking over the podium for all to see.
“This is a psych profile of Lieutenant Nightwing. It states that he is currently undergoing treatment for severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something the Chancellor is aware that was caused by the events in North Hayford two years ago. Initial reports show a considerable aggression towards any non-nightbreed races, a short temper, and the more important detail, frequent hallucinations and dementia. As of this report, taken just last night, Ashen is still not considered fully recovered. Now…” she slid the document back with whatever else she had on her podium. “We can’t possibly give credibility to a delusional witness, especially one biased against Equestrians. For all we know, he made the entire thing up because that’s what he ‘thought’ he saw.”
All except Luna and Eclipse murmured among themselves, while the latter glared at Aurora, who had the ghost of a smirk across her muzzle.
Baron cleared his throat. “Chancellor Eclipse, my Queen, I’m afraid Aurora has a valid point.”
“Indeed,” said Cropper. “As much as I commend the young Lieutenant on his bravery at the border, as well as the rest of the service he’s done for this country, this is something that cannot be overlooked.”
Bloodwing groaned quietly as he rubbed his temples around the base of his sharp horn. “This is rather insulting Aurora. Look at him! He nearly died fending off the invaders, and now you’re questioning him before the court? We should be giving him a medal, not trying to fling baseless accusations at him!”
“I agree,” said the Chancellor. “If he believes he saw Equestrian soldiers, then I’m confident that’s what he really saw.”
“Maybe you should be removed from this session Eclipse. Your friendship with the witness is affecting your judgment, and duty, as Chancellor of the Twenty-Six Territories,” Aurora sneered.
“That’s enough!” commanded a thunderous voice.
All eyes turned to the Queen, who glanced between her five advisors, and to myself. She then stepped forward toward the councilors.
“Be Ashen’s condition as it may, I, however, believe the Lieutenant, when he says he saw soldiers clad in my sister’s colors bearing her sigil. However, I do not believe that is the whole truth. I do not think Celestia and her subjects were the ones ultimately responsible.”
“Who do you think is responsible then, Your Highness?” asked Baron.
“I’m not sure. We have many enemies, but none that I know that reside outside the border, much less in Equestria. I do, however, see some potential for Aurora’s theory of imposters,” Luna explained.
Eclipse stared at her while the other four members of the council murmured among themselves for a moment, after which, Bane spoke.
“My Queen, that is something that can’t be proved either.”
“Councilor Bloodwing, I know my sister’s decision for our banishment from our homeland was harsh, but it was just.. This is not something she would do, I’m confident of that.”
Bane sighed. “Your Majesty, forgive my imprudence, but that was over a thousand years ago. You have not seen Princess Celestia once since then, and she may have changed.”
The Queen shook her head. “Not my sister.”
“Your Majesty, I have nothing but the highest level of respect, as well as faith in you. You are my kin and I’s Queen and Creator, and I would gladly give my life a thousand times in your name. However, I think you’re being naïve. If Celestia was willing to banish her own sister, then who’s to say she wanted to keep her from gaining any kind of power?”
“My sister is not a tyrant, Councilor Bloodwing. I know her far better than anypony in this room, and an unwarranted attack like this is something she would never stoop to.”
The room went still, and the only noise produced was a brief grumble from Councilor Bloodwing. An uneasy silence passed before Her Majesty spoke up again.
“These matters are to be discussed at another time however. For now, we need to get back on topic. I would beg a question from the Lieutenant though,” said Luna as she turned to me.
I looked back to her and stood at attention. “My Queen?”
“In your honest opinion, do you think it was Equestria who deliberately attacked us, and not a third party?”
“Absolutely,” I quickly stated.
“May I ask why?”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to answer. Obviously, I didn’t want to insult, or anger, my Queen and Creator, however I wasn’t ready to lie to her either. In the end, after much debate, I went with blunt honesty.
“There could be a number of reasons, from wanting our technology, to keeping us in check out of paranoia. Maybe she just simply wants control. There’s a number of possibilities, Your Highness. However, I know just from fighting them that there is not really any other explanation.”
I was waiting for any kind of signs of anger, maybe even with an inevitable punishment of sorts to follow, but instead she gave me an apathetic look. Frankly, I was surprised and confused.
“Hm,” she mused, then turned back toward her councilors. “I believe the Lieutenant’s judgment is sound. I apologize, Aurora, but his testimony stands.”
“…As you wish, Your Majesty,” the blue mare grumbled through her teeth.
“Carry on, Eclipse,” stated the Queen as she walked back toward her throne.
The white unicorn bowed his head, then turned back to me, speaking loudly to address the entire court.
“Lieutenant Nightwing, we greatly appreciate your service to Queen and Country. Your testimony has helped us a great deal, and for that, we thank you for your assistance. It will surely help us going forward. Before you are dismissed, is there anything else you wish to share with the court?”
“No, Chancellor,” I stated, despite how much I really wanted to express my anger toward Councilor Aurora.
“Very well. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that what has been said here is not to leave these walls Lieutenant, am I understood?”
“You’re dismissed then. May the stars watch over you.”
“You as well, Chancellor,” I said, bowing my head toward him, then bowed toward the Queen. “And you, my Queen.”
She bowed her head respectfully in response, then turned to leave, just as the councilors began to argue with one another once more, a sound which was immediately silenced as the heavy wooden entrance doors slammed shut behind me.
“After my testimony, I’m assuming they spent the remainder of the night deciding on a course of action,” I explained as Doctor Archer rocked back and forth in his chair. “I’m actually still ticked with Aurora.” I paused to scowl at the orange unicorn. “And you.”
“Because I had to release the information? Unfortunately, patient confidentiality doesn’t extend to the will of the Queen and Council Ashen. I’m sorry.”
“Whatever. I’m still angry, especially with Aurora.”
“She’s just being cautious.”
“She was being disrespectful, not to mention stupid and gullible,” I said with a groan as I lurched over on the sofa. “We don’t have time for this crap… and more importantly she was way out of line, bringing up Specter.”
“No. I at least earned some bucking respect and discretion after that hell. I spent five years of my life protecting this country from dragons and the separatists, and this is how she treats me? In front of Her Majesty and the rest of the council even!”
“At least Eclipse stood up for you, Ashen.”
“Damn lot of good he did.”
We sat there in silence for a moment. Archer eventually cleared his throat.
“Mind if I ask you something?”
I was still too irritated give him an answer, but he went ahead with his question anyway.
“Do you really believe Equestria was responsible?”
I got even angrier fairly quickly from that remark.
“What, you don’t believe me either!?”
“No Ashen, no, that’s not what I’m implying. What I mean to say is that I actually concur with Her Majesty’s theory. It could’ve been a group of imposters.”
I scowled at him for a moment, before I glanced aside and shook my head. “Can’t be. They were coordinated, their magic was well-disciplined and powerful, they were strong and skilled fighters, and there’s no way I could have mistaken that symbol. I can’t imagine who else, or even would, have taken down that whole tower. Not to mention they retreated back across the border. There’s no other explanation; they were Equestrian soldiers.”
I sat up, and looked him right in the eye. “Positive.”
His eyes fell to the floor. “Then I pray to the Three Goddesses that you’re wrong, and they’ll deliver us from another Day/Night War.”
I glanced off to the side and shook my head slightly. “Doc, do me a favor and please keep your religious crap to yourself. Besides, that ancient Equestrian religion is more in the enemy’s favor than our own.”
“They don’t take sides, Ashen.”
“That’s because they don’t give a damn.” My anger was beginning to boil at this point. Religion was never a topic I liked to discuss. Ever. “They could’ve done something about our country starving over the years, like give us some fertile land, so we wouldn’t have to have made the abortion laws. They could have done something about the dragons when the power crystals were first discovered, but instead they let hundreds of us be slaughtered until we, not the Goddesses, built that wall that keeps all of you ponies safe. They could have stopped the Hundred Year Plague, the Early Rebellions, the Breed and Dragon Wars, or even the Bloody Founding. Maybe they could have done something about the separatist uprising for that matter, let alone what happened there at the border the other night!”
“Ashen, calm dow-
“No, fuck you Doc,” I cursed, seething through my teeth. “I’m sick of this crap. Do you know why I hate that religion of yours? You and your gullible daykind think that some Earth, Sky, and Magic Goddesses will solve all your problems for you, and that they’ll one day end our suffering and poverty. It irritates me to no end! It’s no different than Aurora being bucking thick enough to think that there’s a different explanation than the one right in front of her face! It’s no damn wonder we had the First and Second Crusades, because somepony needed to show you ungrateful daykind that we need to stop sitting on our flanks and doing nothing while we bleed, and we suffer, and we die every bucking day!”
“Ashen!” Archer shouted.
I was on my hooves, not realizing how much I let my anger take over. Had I kept going, I probably would’ve started breaking things. I grit my teeth and threw my head to the side, tapping my forehoof hard against the floor several times. This went on, along with some other angry fidgeting, for about a minute, the doctor remaining silent the entire time. Once I seemed to calm down, it was then he tried speaking in a rational and reasonable tone.
I sighed and slumped to the floor. There was nothing else to vent, everything I could have had building in my system was out in the open.
“No,” I said as I looked at the floor and paused. “Good ponies died that night, Doc. Now here was that damn Aurora questioning me, thinking I was making up the entire damn thing in my head.”
I glanced up at him.
“I’m not sure if you realize this or not, but she is trying to prevent us from going to war and causing the citizens of this country from suffering. She may have chosen a poor avenue of doing so, but her intentions are still good. War with Equestria is the last thing this country needs.”
“So what, we do nothing after they attacked us?” I was seconds away from lashing out again.
“I didn’t say that either.”
“Then what do you think we should be doing?” I asked spitefully.
“As I said, I agree with the Queen. I just don’t see why Equestria would do such a thing, and why now, a thousand years after our banishment. Then again, it’s still possible, and that maybe they’re looking to take away our technology or making sure we ‘know our place,’ as it were. We won’t know the truth for sure unless we confront them.”
“…Odd you should mention that.” I glanced off to the side.
“Because that’s why they asked me to come in again last night.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“There’s… a mission, they asked me to be a part of.”
Archer leaned back in his chair.
“Hm. What did you say?”
“…I haven’t decided.”
The orange unicorn raised an eyebrow at this, and leaned forward.
“Why not? Wait…” he glanced to the side and mulled the thought over, before turning back to me seconds later. “This is what you wanted my advice on?”
I didn’t say anything.
“It is, isn’t it,” he stated, not asking.
Once again, didn’t say anything, just avoided eye contact.
“Guess that explains why you wanted to see me on short notice.”
He leaned back in his chair again.
“Okay then. Give me the details. Don’t leave anything out.”
I thought he was jumping into this too quickly, so I asked, “Awful quick to help, aren’t you Doc?”
“I’m your therapist, Ashen. It’s my job to help you, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
I considered his request for a moment. My pride wasn’t willing to let me ask an outsider on the issue for help. I was perfectly capable of making that important decision myself, and that it was my decision to make and mine alone. However, the part of me that brought me to the office that night and get a second opinion was the same part that had me tell him about the second summon.
But I didn’t start that part of the story with the meeting.
One Night Ago
Three Days after the attack
“I got another one for you. There’s this pegasus friend of mine, Whirl Wind. He wanted some help moving into his new apartment over in the Yellow District. Now, this guy, he’s like a very good friend of mine, but I swear he can be extremely silly sometimes.”
“I’ll tell ya. This friend, by the way, had never been using CrystalTech, since he lived in this lousy Red District apartment. I helped him move some furniture in, and he eventually discovers the thermal unit for the room. The crystal inside it for whatever reason was knocked out of place inside its’ adapter. He tells me ‘I can fix this,’ so he goes over and gets ready to buck the thing back into place.”
“Yeah. So Whirl Wind rears up, then bucks the thing as hard as he can, all the sudden ZAP! The thing pops and some sparks fly out, all the sudden he starts freaking out, running in circles because he thought his tail caught on fire.”
“Nah, but it did scare him quite a lot. Yknow what he does next? He dives out the window, starts screaming bloody murder as he flies over the city, and right into the nearest water tower. They had to shut off a whole quadrant’s water supply so the scrubbers could clean it out for a whole two days!”
Cuppa Joe laughed at this stranger’s story as they sat there talking to each other like they had been the last twenty minutes or so minutes in the Palace’s café. It was almost three in the morning, and I was early again for the summon, but I found out later that there was a big delay. So I had been waiting for about two hours now, spending a hefty chunk of it at the café, and eventually was when that stranger showed up.
He was a bright tan unicorn, green eyes, half-moon spectacles, and I couldn’t see his cutie mark over his dark suit with its’ sweeps and blends of purple that mixed well with the black. It was easy to tell he was a pony of high stature, but he didn’t flaunt it, with his expensive, but not too expensive attire.
His name was-
“Hey, you alright?” the stranger asked me. I apparently didn’t notice that he was trying to get my attention for a short while now.
I just stared a him for a moment, before I looked back behind the café, ignoring him as I slumped against the counter.
Joe took notice of this, glancing between the stranger and I. “Sorry about him, he’s not usually much of a talker,” Joe went ahead and decided to explain as he indicated to me. “This is Ashen Nightwing.”
“Is he, really?” The stranger surveyed me for a moment. “I’ve heard a lot about you. They said you were the one that stopped the separatist uprising a couple years back,” he said enthusiastically.
I already didn’t like that guy.
“I’m Peace Walker, it’s an honor to meet you,” said the stranger to me as he held out a hoof for a hoofshake.
“That’s nice,” I said dismissively, hardly paying the guy any attention.
He glanced between Joe and I for a moment. Joe decided once again to take the liberty of speaking for me, without my consent (which I didn’t care much about anyway).
“You’ll have to excuse his rudeness, he’s normally not like this. He’s been having a bit of a rough week.”
Poor choice of words, Joe.
“Oh no, it’s fine. But still, it’s still quite an honor to meet the hero in the flesh. You did a really brave thing there, sir Nightwing, volunteering to stop the separatists. The military could use more soldiers like you.”
My eye twitched at this. I wanted to tell him to buck off right there, because he didn’t have a single clue what he was talking about. However, I just kept to myself and tried to ignore him.
Joe stepped in again, and spoke just above a whisper. “Um, sir, that’s… actually a very sensitive topic for the Lieutenant.”
“Oh, I see. My apologies then, sir Nightwing… I had no idea. Just trying to make conversation is all, at least until the council meeting starts. I’m curious what the hold-up is.”
That comment caught my attention. Up until then, I thought perhaps they just wanted to take another statement, maybe ask me more questions. I wasn’t sure why they called me back the following night, but I went regardless. Can’t say no to a royal summon, after all. My curiosity piqued, despite my intent to stay disconnected with this guy I didn’t even know.
“You mean the hearing that should’ve started a couple hours ago?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, before it got delayed,” he responded. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I was supposed to be in that same meeting,” I said and sat up. “Do you know what’s up with the delays then?”
“Really? Uh… as far as I know, it’s a large meeting tonight I believe. There’s been others coming in asking about the same hearing. If I were to guess, we’re waiting for several ponies who were summoned to arrive.”
“Who else is here for this then?”
“Well, apart from you, there was pegasus, who looked like some sort of messenger, and a nightbreed soldier. One of those Skywings I think. Saw him earlier, white fur, bright blue mane, a pretty carefree sort of fella’.”
“Jetstorm?” interrupted Doctor Archer.
“What was he doing there?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him in two months until then. No, wait, I take that back. I saw him two nights ago actually, after my first meeting with the council.”
“Why didn’t you mention this?”
I shrugged. “Slipped my mind.”
“Well, did you talk with him?”
“More like he talked to me.”
“…The firing range.”
Two Nights Ago
Two Days after the attack
*K-THROWM* *K-THROWM* *K-THROWM*
My CrystalTech Mark II Energy Cannon thundered with an electric hum and resounding boom down the lane, before the red white-hot projectile of magic splashed against my targets with a satisfying thud.
I pictured Aurora as each of the small round, metal targets with each one I shot. Each hit I landed helped me blow off a little bit of steam, but there was still more I needed to vent.
The tips of the three small fold-able barrels surrounding my foreleg where beginning to glow with a ferocious orange heat from overuse in the past hour. I had already gone through eight crystals, and I had just spent my ninth. With my left foreleg, I flicked up a curved switch that curled around my leg, and flipped it up to where it stuck out from the apparatus. I pulled it back and ejected a small, lifelessly transparent crystal from the device between the top and bottom-right barrels that were strapped around my leg. The thing landed on the floor with a hollow tink and rolled away as I reached for a partially glowing crystal on the table to my lane. I slapped it into a designated compartment on the apparatus, then slid the lever forward and back down where it meshed and curved with the roundness of my leg. The action locked the crystal in place, and created the sound of a charging whir, then a steady but subtle hum, indicating I was ready to unleash more energy at the infernal targets that stood in front of me.
The first shot met the closest target on my left before it hardly had a chance to pop out. I waited for the next pop-up that dared show itself.
There, the farthest one in the back.
I used my left forehoof to man a small lever between the top and bottom-left of the weapon, and pulled it.
Hit! I was on a roll, and I was grinning like a mad pony at my streak.
One by one, with not but a few seconds in between, each target popped up, and I eliminated each one with speed and accuracy in a matter of milliseconds.
The final target was about to pop up.
There! Middle field, right side.
I readjusted my aim. Locked on. Now just pull-
The projectile flew way off past the target and collided with a frustrating blow to the back of the lane, followed by an obnoxiously loud buzzer to further signal the horrible miss.
I turned to face the ignorant pony that dared to interrupt my perfect streak, and I was caught completely off guard by who stood there on the staircase that led back up to the Law & Order Department offices.
“Nice to see you too Ash.” He said with a wave before hopping down the stairs to wrap his foreleg around my neck and hugged me at his side. “It’s been ages, man. How come you never answer my calls? There was this smoking hot mare I know you woulda liked over at the Mare in the Moon the other night. Where were you?”
“…Busy.” I knocked away his embrace, before I lowered my foreleg then pushed and folded the trigger mechanism into the apparatus. This caused the three barrels to recede back so it went from sticking out over my forehoof, to folding back against the rest of the device along my leg, and the humming from earlier to wind down, effectively disengaging the weapon. Afterwards I reached down with my teeth, and began pulling at the thickly clothed straps. “What are you doing here?” I asked part-way through the process, then once the thing was loose, I slid it off like a sleeve, then threw it onto the table.
“I heard you were in town, so I thought I’d come and see what my old squad mate was up to.”
“Look, Jet, it’s nice seeing you, but this is really a bad time, so I suggest you high tail it out of here before I blow your head off, cuz you just ruined my streak.”
“Did I? My bad.” He sat in a chair in the corner, stretched out and relaxed. Clearly, he wasn’t about to leave.
I never understood why Jetstorm liked me so much. We were both nightbreeds, sure, but he was one of those Skywings, one of those really good flying types. Easy way to tell this was from his bright blue turquoise mane. This guy was sort of a runt of the litter though; most of his clan were black or grey, but he was as white as snow, and bright blue eyes that were alight with a juvenile enthusiasm. He thought we were the best of pals, the closest of comrades, brothers on the battlefield, etcetera, after we went on dozens of expeditions together and trained together in CrystalTech and Rune Blades. Good guy, for the most part, but he was cocky and never was good at taking a hint.
That or intentionally ignored them.
He tilted his head as he surveyed my bandaged body.
“So how many stallions did you piss off this time? Five? Six? Maybe seven…?”
“It wasn’t a bar fight, idiot.”
“Right, and I can walk on clouds. Seriously, how many was it? Did you win?”
“It wasn’t a bucking bar fight, featherbrain,” I repeated angrily.
He rolled his eyes in disbelief, but thankfully dropped it. The white stallion strolled up to the lane next to mine, and looked out toward a scoreboard suspended from the ceiling, displaying a holographic “31 out of 32.”
“Must be getting rusty there Ashen, you missed one,” he casually commented with a playful smirk.
And he wondered why I never returned his calls…
“Do you want something Jet?” I said, intentionally letting a bit of my anger slip in.
He leaned against the table to the lane he stood at, and just stared at the scoreboard with his cocky smile plastered on his face. However, it wasn’t maintained as his gaze fell to the floor, and he dropped his snarky demeanor.
“Jokes aside Ashen… I heard about the attack.”
…Of course that’s why he’s here. I sighed and settled on my haunches.
“Yeah, well… who hasn’t,” I flatly commented.
“I also heard you were just in an audience with the Queen and Council, and you practically stormed out of the place.”
I glanced over at him.
“Figured I’d either find you here or in a bar. Thankfully I got it right on the first guess, because trying to find you would’ve taken forever. Do you know how many clubs and bars there are in the cap-
“Forty-six, yes, I know.”
“…It’s sad you know that, Ash.”
“Yeah well… what else is new,” I stated.
“So uh… everything okay?”
“Not really, no.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
He sighed and shook his head.
“Of course… you wouldn’t be here otherwise would you?” The white nightbreed leaned back against the counter and sighed. “But just so you know, if you wanna chat, blow some steam, or anything like that, I’m your stallion.”
“Like you’ve been my guy since that expedition into the western part of the Dragonlands?”
“Hey now, that was an accident and you know it.”
“You nearly took my wing out.”
“It was an accident! How many times do I have to keep telling you that! My aim’s gotten loads better since then.”
“Yeah, right,” I said dismissively, then pointed a hoof at the range. “I bet you still can’t even hit half of these targets.”
“Oooh, I bet you I can prove you wrong. Ten bits,” he challenged.
I rolled my eyes, but I wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. Plus it would give me a chance to shoot some more, and maybe humiliating Jet might help me vent and get him to leave me alone. “Twenty,” I counter-offered.
“You’re on. First to fifteen wins.” He grinned, then went back upstairs to the front desk of the range to grab one of the cannons while I got mine re-strapped to my foreleg. A few minutes later he came back down with one of his own in his teeth, and stationed himself at the lane next to mine.
“You know, I never did like how these things force you to be stationary when you use them,” he said as he started strapping the cannon to his leg.
“Or when you’re flying,” I said with an indicative spreading and flapping of my wings.
“You know how hard it is to aim while you’re in the air, Ashen.”
I shook my head. “Excuses, excuses, like that time with the whelp dragon.”
“For the last time, that was an accident. My aim’s gotten loads better since then.”
“Put your money where your mouth is then Jet.”
“Yeah, yeah, just try not to take it too badly when I take your bits.”
I rolled my eyes just as the cocky Skywing finished strapping up his cannon. We both unfolded and locked the trigger mechanism back into position, and the three barrels on our cannons unfolded out and locked in position over our hooves, followed by the soft humming from the crystals loaded into them.
“Ready,” I said aloud, and a green light lit up over the lane.
“Ready,” said Jetstorm aloud afterward, another green light showing itself above the lane.
Both lights disappeared, and at the far end of the lane was a red line of three dots. A loud beep was heard, the third dot went out.
The second light went out followed by another beep.
Last light, last beep.
A loud buzzer went off, and that same row of lights lit up green.
The first target popped up. Low in front. I aimed, and pulled the trigger.
Direct hit; the target went back to its’ rightful place down on the ground. My minor victory was short lived, I had another fourteen to go.
Middle field, high. I fired.
Back field, left.
Up front, high.
Each target went back down just as quick as they came up. I had just reached thirteen, two more to go.
Mid-right, I aimed-
“Hah! That’s twenty bits Ash!”
I glanced over in his lane in disbelief. The number above it showed fifteen to my thirteen.
Since when the hay did he get this quick? I thought to myself, still unable to comprehend how he managed to beat me at my own game.
“Come on buddy, pay up,” he said in his cocky demeanor as he beckoned me with a hoof.
I grumbled, and locked the trigger mechanism, before I began fishing through my pockets for my coin bag. Once I found it, I threw it on the counter, spilling out the bits, and started counting.
“You must’ve cheated or something.”
“Not my fault you’ve gotten rusty,” he said with a smirk.
I counted his bits, then shoved them to the side as I collected the rest of the gold coins.
“Hope you choke on ‘em.”
“Why thank you very much. I’ll just take these…” he said, scooping up my bits and stowing them away in one of his uniform pockets.
I unstrapped the cannon from my leg and threw it back onto the table with a grumble.
“Don’t worry, I’ll put these bits to good use. I’ll start with buying my old buddy a drink down at Club Nebula, it’s a party down there tonight. How about it?” he asked with a friendly smirk. “There’s sure to be lot of fine mares there too.”
“No,” I replied. “I need to get home.”
“Ash, it’s only two in the morning, the night’s still young. Come on, let’s go have some fun, for old time’s sake.”
“I can’t, Jet. Sorry.”
“Look, I know you Ash. I know you have nothing better to do at home other than dwell in your little messy cave of misery, so could you quit being an ass and let me buy you a drink?”
“I said no, Jet. That’s final.”
He sighed. “Alright, more for me. But I’m telling ya, you’re missing out. The place was crowded and some great music was playing.” He was waving a hoof around dismissively, yet sarcastically.
“I’m sure it is. Thanks for the game.” I picked up the cannon in my teeth, and turned to the stairs, but he stopped me with a hoof.
“Okay, Ashen, I was kidding. Look, seriously, just come hang out with me for the night, get some drinks, dance the night away, meet a mare or two, yknow, have fun. Take your mind off things for a bit. It’s the least you could do before I head back to the South Watch.”
I was about to just push past his hoof and walk away, but something about that last sentence caught my attention. Hardly anypony was ever allowed to take a break from South Watch, especially not Jetstorm. His charisma made him a great leader, that’s why he was stationed there as a commanding officer of Outpost Aeries. Also as he just proved to me then and there, he became a much better shot in the very few times that I’ve seen him. He’s one of the best soldiers I know, and that’s why he needed to be down there on the Watch.
The thing that was bothering me all the sudden, was why he was here in the capital when he should’ve been on duty. Especially after an attack, the military would’ve had to knuckle down defenses on the south and the east, at least until the latter’s barrier was operational again. He should be out there, not here in the capital. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it earlier.
“What are you doing here anyway?” I asked after setting my cannon down on a table. “I thought you were down south.”
He blinked a few times, before he dropped his hoof. “Well… I was summoned to the capital, why?”
“Do you know why?”
“I don’t know. It was a royal summon, and it didn’t say. I just came in yesterday, and they want me for something tomorrow. Just figured it might have something to do with the attack but I’m not exactly sure.”
I pondered this for a moment, but ultimately I decided it probably wasn’t anything important, or at least relevant to me. “Right… well… okay then. Thanks I guess,” I said before picking up the cannon back up and making my way upstairs.
“You’re… welcome…?” he responded. “Hey! Give me a shout sometime Ash, I’ll be in town!”
“Yeah, yeah…” I mumbled.
“I see,” stated Doctor Archer. “Yeah, I was about to ask why Jet was here. Let’s get back on track though, when the stranger was talking about Jetstorm. What happened next?”
One Night Ago
Three Days after the attack
“Well, apart from you, there was pegasus, who looked like some sort of messenger, and a nightbreed soldier. One of those Skywings I think. Saw him earlier, white fur, bright blue mane, a pretty carefree sort of fella’.”
“Any idea why he’s here?” I asked.
“Not sure. He’s not the only one military here either.”
“You saw more military?”
“At least three other nightbreed soldiers, plus that messenger mare, a pegasus.”
“Uh, a messenger mare? You sure she wasn’t just a civilian or something?”
“No, she’s military. Had the uniform and everything.”
Okay. Five nightbreed soldiers, including myself, one pegasus… and this guy?
“What does that make you then? You don’t look military.”
“Oh, no. I’m actually the Lunar Confederacy’s representative.”
That was when all the pieces clicked together and I realized what this entire gathering was about.
This was all about an escort mission; a diplomatic envoy.
They can’t be bucking serious, I thought angrily to myself as I grit my teeth and pressed my face into my hooves. There is no way the council is bucking serious about this.
“Is something wrong…?” the ambassador asked me.
“No, just… not what I expected,” I said through my teeth.
Archer interrupted me again. “What’s so wrong about this?”
I flung myself up out of the chair and slammed my hooves on the doctor’s desk.
“What’s wrong is because Equestria attacked US! This is no time to be showing the enemy mercy. We need to fight back, not revert to useless politics!”
The Doc gave me a stern look for a minute.
“You’re really quick to judge, Ashen.”
I wanted to shout at him, but I restrained myself as I returned to the sofa. In a more calm tone, I said, “We shouldn’t be giving them the benefit of the doubt like this. They’ll just summon up more forces while we screw around, and they’ll attack us again, but this time they’ll be able to walk right in, with the barrier down and everything,” I explained as calmly as I could, but some of my anger was starting to seep in. “I didn’t walk in there the other night and told them about how I almost died just for them to do this crap. We need to take action to hit them back the same way they hit us. Show them not to screw with us.”
“Ashen, believe me, I understand your argument, I really do, but despite what you experienced and how many soldiers died on the border, it’s reckless starting a war without getting all of the facts, and I think that’s the point of the envoy.”
This was another one of those times where he had a point, a good point, but I didn’t like it. He was right, which made it more annoying.
“I’m not a bodyguard Doc. I’m a soldier. I’m supposed to fight on the front lines, to defend our walls from the enemy.”
“You haven’t fought a war Ashen. You fought dragons, and that wasn’t for over two years. In case you forgot, you barely scraped by in the surprise attack. Plus you need to consider we haven’t been in a ‘war’ since the fifth Breed Wars 213 years ago. Do you think our military would seriously be ready to fight Equestria, if they’re as dangerous as you say they are? Think about this from a strategists’ perspective, not a soldier’s.”
I grumbled, and fell silent. He made another one of those annoying, yet very valid points of his. It may be the smart move, but it sure as hay didn’t feel like the right move, sending an envoy.
This is irritating. Why did I even come talk to him for his advice? I pondered. This guy’s a damn pacifist or something; he doesn’t understand how pointless this envoy is.
“I know you don’t agree with me,” said Archer as if he read my mind. “But if it makes you feel better, think of it this way: it’s better to know your enemy before you fight your enemy. I think that might be the point of the envoy.”
“That’s not the case.”
“Why is that?”
“Will you let me finish?”
“Right, right… sorry. Carry on then. What happened next?”
“Is something wrong…?” the ambassador asked me.
“No, just… not what I expected,” I said through my teeth.
This seemed to bother the unicorn briefly, but he didn’t press. I guess I must’ve spooked him. Before the silence started to settle in, some red pony was running toward us from the main hall in a hurry, and then stopped right next to us, panting heavily.
“Lieutenant Nightwing?” he asked in between breaths.
He turned to the stranger next to me. “And Emissary Peace Walker?”
“You’re both needed in the Council chambers. The session is about to begin.”
The ambassador and I looked at one another for a moment, before we got up.
“Alright, thank you. We’ll head there right away,” calmly stated the ambassador as he walked past, myself trailing behind just slightly.
We silently walked to the council’s chambers, then arrived at the doors where we greeted the two royal guards defending the door. One simply nodded to the other, before they both let us inside.
“Ah, excellent. Here they are,” said the Chancellor from his podium once he heard, and saw, both of us enter. All of the council members were present and accounted for, as well as the Queen, who sat at her throne. In front of both were a small group of ponies, including Jetstorm, who had been standing next to three dark-colored nightbreed soldiers decked in the royal armor. Next to him was a young white mare with bright violet eyes. She seemed young… a little too young.
I took a place next to Jetstorm, and the stranger known as Peace Walker stood next to the pegasus. The two of us bowed low before the Queen, before standing upright.
“Thank you both for coming, Ashen, Walker,” said the Chancellor as he politely nodded his head to each of us in kind. “We’re glad you made it.”
“Skip the pleasantries, Chancellor. We didn’t bring them here tonight to socialize,” said a rather huffy and irritated Bane Bloodwing.
Eclipse shot him an annoyed look, then sighed and waved a hoof. “…Very well then.” He cleared his throat.
“You’re all probably wondering why you’re here tonight,” he began, looking over the group. “As all of you no doubt heard, there has been an attack on the country. Lieutenant Ashen Nightwing here was one of the survivors of the attack,” he said with a subtle and indicative gesture toward me. “We have reason to believe that the party that might be responsible for the attack was our eastern neighbor, Equestria.”
This set off a series of murmurs from the three nightbreeds. The pegasus, Jetstorm and the ambassador however were silent, just shifting troubled gazes from one another.
“I know how shocking this must seem to all of you. Indeed, it came as a shock to all of us as well to hear the news. After all, Equestria had left us to our own devices without so much as a single word in the last thousand years, now only for this to happen. This attack was an act of war; an unprovoked assault to an already-struggling nation. I won’t lie to you, we do face tough times this year, being short in food supplies for another season. Councilor Aurora, Councilor Baron, and Councilor Cropper believe that we are not in a position to start a war with Equestria, for practical, economic, and agricultural reasons. However this doesn’t mean that any of us are willing to turn a blind eye to this crime. While Councilor Bloodwing and I believe a more appropriate response is to retaliate and make sure Equestria can never harm us again, it is the majority decision of the Council and Her Majesty that we refrain from taking such drastic action.”
Queen Luna held up a hoof. “Thank you, Eclipse. I’ll speak from here, if you please.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” responded the Chancellor with a polite bow of his head.
The alicorn Queen rose from her throne, walked down her steps and stopped before the group of us.
“It is mine and Councilor Aurora’s belief that there may be more to this attack than what we have seen. While it has been a very, very long time, I don’t think my sister Celestia would commit such a heinous act against my subjects and I. I believe a third party was responsible.”
I had to look away when she said this. On any given day, I would never question Her Majesty in her infinite wisdom, but I knew what I saw, and it still hurt to think that my Queen didn’t want to heed my word. It was then I noticed Jetstorm had an unconvinced look of his own, but he was more subtle about it than I was. Thankfully, nopony in the room seemed to notice or comment on it, as Her Majesty continued.
“The Council and I have decided that the best course of action would be to ascertain the truth, and only then will we decide on how to deal with those responsible. That is why you have all been brought before the Council and I tonight. Your task is of the utmost importance; to travel to Equestria, speak with Celestia and/or her representatives, and if Equestria was indeed involved, then you are to initiate peace talks immediately. If this cannot be done, and/or Equestria wasn’t responsible, then you are to return home, report to us what you have learned, and we will decide on what must be done.”
She paused, which was just enough time for everypony to share their own set of discomforted reactions. There was no fear, only uncertainty.
“Excuse me,” suddenly stated the ambassador unicorn. “May I speak, Your Majesty?”
“You may,” she responded calmly. She must’ve expected somepony to speak up about this.
“Thank you,” he said, politely bowing his head. “The news of this attack is startling, and even more so of Equestria’s possible involvement. Forgive me if I sound imprudent however, but how are we so sure Equestria is a suspect?”
That was when the night Queen turned to me.
All eyes were on me, and I had the spotlight, which was definitely not the place I wanted to be in. I just kept eye contact away from everypony as I took in a deep breath and simply explained, “I saw stallions in gold armor engraved with the sun crest. Fought them, even.”
Mixed reactions went about my small group, but Peace Walker was unreadable. He seemed as if he just took it as data, as he turned his attention to the Queen and continued his line of questioning without missing a beat.
“Has Equestria come forward about this at all?”
“They have not,” said the Queen.
He shifted about uncomfortably, before he took a deep breath and began again. “I apologize once again if this comes out as brash, but I thought we were banished from Equestria on the terms of a truce, one when if broken, is an act of war, and they would have every right to attack us. This is assuming that the attack was done by a third party, so even if we wanted to learn the truth, wouldn’t that still risk breaking the treaty?”
“That’s an excellent question Ambassador Walker. Yes, under normal circumstances, we are not allowed to cross the border, or it would be seen as a violation of the terms Celestia set on us a thousand years ago. However, this isn’t a normal circumstance. I’m convinced my sister would be willing to make an exception for negotiations on this matter.”
“Has a messenger at least been dispatched about our mission?”
“Yes, just last night, but he has yet to return,” explained Eclipse. “We may need to send the envoy anyway, and hope she understands our intent and doesn’t see it as breaking the treaty.”
“It’s still a risk,” suddenly came the flat response of Councilor Bloodwing. “Once again, if we’re assuming they weren’t directly responsible, Celestia may still consider it a violation of the truce once we send them.”
“We discussed this already in detail, Councilor Bloodwing,” interrupted Councilor Aurora. “We don’t have an abundance of options, short of going to war with Equestria without grounds, which you know very well we can’t do. This is a more reasonable solution, one we’re sure Celestia will allow.”
“I still don’t think-
The Queen had her hoofed raised, silently, yet calmly, signaling for the council to cease their banter. “It’s been debated and decided, Councilor Bloodwing. Your input has been noted before the court.”
Bane sighed and sat back in his podium. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
Suddenly, the doors to the chambers flew open from a panting pegasus who was being restrained by the two guards.
“Your Majesty… My apologies… but… I bring news… from Equestria,” he explained aloud in between breaths. He pulled out a letter from one of his saddlebags, which was stamped with a red seal.
“Bring it here, son,” said Eclipse to the pegasus. The guards let him pass, and without hesitation, he tiredly hovered up and gave the chancellor the letter, who took no time at all to open it, as he said to the pegasus. “Thank you. You may leave us, go and get some rest. You’ve done well.”
“Yes, Chancellor, thank you.” He left almost as quickly as he came. With the interruption now out of the way, all eyes turned to the Chancellor to await Celestia’s response. A moment of him reading through the entire letter, he spoke up.
“Celestia has agreed. The envoy has been given permission to cross the border and speak with her in Canterlot.”
Relief seemed to wash over Councilor Aurora and Cropper, as well as Peace walker, who was more subtle about it. The Queen on the other hoof, smiled.
Bane however wasn’t satisfied. “I find this a bit suspicious.”
Councilor Aurora cocked him an annoyed look. “You’re being paranoid. You should be relieved she agreed to see us.”
“Apologies to the Queen and Council, but my job is to be cautious and question any activity. She seems a bit too eager to discuss this matter if you ask me.”
“Enough Bane,” exclaimed the Chancellor with a stamp of his hoof. “I concur with your reservations, but regardless, it’s already been decided.”
The councilor grumbled quietly to himself while casting the occasional angry glance at Aurora. Luna turned back to us and began once again.
“So you have your mission.” The alicorn’s turquoise eyes shifted to me. “Lieutenant Nightwing, you are in charge of the protection of Ambassador Peace Walker. Ensure he arrives safely at Canterlot to begin negotiations.”
I wasn’t able to maintain eye contact, as I looked to the side of her, and without any sort of conviction, I forlornly stated, “Yes, Your Majesty.”
There was a pause for a moment, and I tried my hardest to keep from looking at her. I should have been honored, bowing before her and telling her that this was a great undertaking that I would be willing to lay my life on. I knew that this was a historical moment, finally getting to contact Equestria for the first time in a thousand years. However, I still had my suspicions about Equestria, and I had trouble comprehending that we were still doing this mission. That was only one of my concerns however.
It was in that courtroom I realized how little confidence I had in myself to handle such an undertaking, considering my condition, as well as being able to keep a level head about it all and prevent any sort of political incident. I hated Equestria after all. Nothing would’ve pleased me more than to see them burn, just so we don’t have to worry about them from attacking us ever again.
I wanted to throw up. There was no way in the world I could handle this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the position to say “no.” My duty to the Queen is to follow her every command, even if I disagreed with it. That’s my job as a soldier. I do what I’m told. At least, that’s what I kept trying to convince myself of.
“Ambassador Peace Walker, I trust you understand your mission?” the Queen asked as she turned to the respective pony.
He bowed low. “Yes, Your Majesty. It would be my honor to represent you.”
She smiled, and rested a hoof on his shoulder. “I believe you’ll be the perfect candidate for the negotiations. Your work with keeping the peace between the territories is legend, here in the Palace,” she explained encouragingly.
He just smiled in response. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
The Queen turned toward the pegasus. “Corporal Swift, am I correct?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the young mare. I could swear she was a foal, just from the sound of her voice. What was somepony her age doing in a uniform?
Luna smiled at her. “Some of your superior officers have told me great things about how quick a flier and hard a worker you are.”
“Um, thank you, Your Majesty…” she said, trailing off as she looked at the floor and several of her silver bangs of her long mane fell over her eyes.
“So much so, that they have recommended you to me as messenger for this mission. I’d like for you to be the pony to keep me informed about how the negotiations are going. Can you handle that for me?”
“Uh, yes, of course Your Majesty!” she suddenly exclaimed, standing upright and even giving a salute. “I’ll do my very best, promise!”
I watched in a suspension of disbelief. Is that mare even taking this seriously?
Her quirky behavior somehow prompted a brief chuckle from the Queen. “I’m sure you’ll do fine, Corporal Swift.”
“Excuse me,” said the unamused Councilor Bloodwing. “Forgive me, Your Highness, but we also need to remind Corporal Swift that should she fail to send us word every two weeks, then we’ll be assuming that our envoy has been captured or killed.”
The smile quickly disappeared from the Queen as she stood straight. Swift also took on a look of worry.
“In the event of that, we’ll be assuming Equestria declared war. So I encourage you to take this job seriously, am I understood?” he said, glaring down at her.
“Y-yes… yes sir,” replied Swift sullenly, as her gaze fell to the floor.
“One more thing,” suddenly said Aurora. “Peace Walker, we have one more task for you we wish for you to bring up during negotiations with Equestria.”
“I still think this idea of yours is insane, I’ll have you know, Aurora,” suddenly said a much more discontent Bane Bloodwing. “You’re a bigger fool than I thought you were if you honestly believe they’ll even consider listening to that rubbish, let alone consider it.”
I was suddenly very curious what they were on about, as were a couple of the other members of the group.
Aurora, however, ignored this remark. “Ambassador Walker, while in Canterlot, the Council requests that you also discuss opening trade routes with Equestria.”
She can’t be serious, I thought, while also casting a glare at her.
“I’m sorry?” asked the ambassador who did a double take.
“Councilor Cropper here has given me multiple reports about the very high chance of a shortage this year in the harvest. We may not be able to keep the markets replenished this coming winter, and we may run out of food well before spring arrives. This is why we need to turn to Equestria for aid, and ask them to open a trade route with us. We have a lot of gold we can trade, both in bits and raw form, and we have excelled in CrystalTech research, so we have much we could offer them in exchange for food. This attack has given us the opportunity of a lifetime, and it’s one we can’t squander.”
Obviously, disapproval fell among the ranks, between myself, Jetstorm and the other soldiers, and surprisingly enough, it was even present with Chancellor Eclipse. However, as much as I expected him to say something, and I hoped he would, he didn’t.
Peace Walker on the other hoof responded with an enthusiastic expression, and an uplifted tone as he spoke once more, “It would be my honor, Councilor.”
“This is absolutely ludicrous…” mumbled a noticeably annoyed Bane Bloodwing who wasn’t ready to back down. “Have we forgotten the fact that the ponies you’re suggesting to trade with are the same ponies who might’ve just destroyed our eastern barrier? Are you saying we’re this desperate to turn to the enemy for aid? Councilor Cropper, please tell me that we can’t be that short on food this season.”
Instead of answering, Cropper’s ears sagged as he turned away.
This being answer enough for Bane, he scowled and pressed his hooves against his face. He didn’t want to give up.
“Bane,” suddenly came the unmistakable voice of the Queen. “How many votes do you, Aurora, Cropper and Baron have?”
“…One,” he reluctantly stated.
“How many does Chancellor Eclipse have?”
“So, as we’ve established for the last few hours before our group here arrived, you and Eclipse voted against this action; four votes, correct?”
He sighed and sat back, knowing full well where this was going. “Yes, Your Highness…”
“The rest of us, Aurora, Cropper, Baron and I, vote for the trade route. How many is that, Bane?”
She nods. “So, Bane, we more than understand your reticence in this matter, don’t think we don’t. However, this is mine and the council’s decision to move forward with this. We may not have another chance to contact Equestria again, you know this. Despite the circumstances to what brought this about, it gives us a chance to talk with Equestria.”
“We need this trade route Bane. Think about it, we could abolish the abortion laws, the food rationing, even stop the expeditions! We can end our 200-year hostilities with the dragons and it’ll boost morale throughout the country exponentially. We can finally be able to thrive!” explained Cropper, with Aurora enthusiastically nodding.
Bane wasn’t ready to completely back down from his side of the argument; I know I wouldn’t if I were him, but it was hard for anypony in the room to ignore those possibilities. Problem is, that’s all they were; possibilities, and ones that would be a waste of time to try and pursue, let alone the fact that it was a risk if Equestria was in fact the ones responsible behind the attack.
“I do see the benefits. However, I just believe we’re ignoring the obvious. They banished us, and once again, might have attacked us, so why would they trade with us?”
“Bane, you’re speaking with your pride and not your head,” explained Aurora. “We don’t know if they actually will, but we have to try, at least, for the sake of the country.”
Bane shook his head. “Believe what you want, Aurora. However, since the council still won’t change their mind, then there’s nothing more I can say.”
Everypony in my group casted shifty glances at the nightbreed councilor, while I cast my own up at Eclipse. I really wanted him to say something, especially since the Queen explained he agreed with Bane and I, but he didn’t. This really began to bother me, but I chose to keep it to myself. I wasn’t one to start a fuss in the council chambers.
Especially in front of the Queen, as well as risk seeming disobedient or insubordinate.
“Before we bring this meeting to a close, does anypony else have any objections or questions they would like to add to this discussion?” the Queen asked. “Don’t hold anything back. You are the ones we’ll be sending on this historical mission, so your inputs are important.”
I half expected the ambassador to start asking more questions, maybe one from Jetstorm. Surprisingly, nothing came. It seems that the debate we just witnessed seemed to give us all a very strong idea of what we’ll be doing. However, I did have a feeling that there were things that were begging to be screamed out as to why this mission is either dangerous, risky, insane, and even suicidal. Not only that, it just wasn’t logical.
Then again, everypony in my group must’ve been feeling the same way: Don’t argue with the Council, or you may risk treason, even if they ask for your honest opinion, especially Her Majesty.
When Luna didn’t get a response to her request, scanning each of us as she waited for one, she inevitably nodded, and spoke once more, “Then it is decided. You will travel to Equestria in five days to begin the negotiations. This meeting is adjourned. Good luck.”
With that, she brought her hoof down on the marble tile, sending a *clack* with through the large chambers with finality. Everypony in the room turned to leave, as well as myself, before the unexpected voice rang out behind me,
“Lieutenant Nightwing, may I please have a word with you in private for a moment?” asked Queen Luna.
I turned around in a snap. “Er, yes, Your Majesty. Of course.”
I was a little shocked at the request, since rarely anypony outside the Council meets with the Queen in private, let alone a simple soldier like myself. Not to mention it’s a great honor to nightbreeds to be able to be in her presence, and she wanted a private audience with me.
If she asked me to one four years ago, I probably would’ve fainted. However, four years and early adult hood was four years and one Operation Specter ago.
The Queen walked over toward one of the large glass windows near the back of the room, and I trailed behind her. When she stopped, as did I a few paces behind her. Just outside, shining through the massive window was Her Majesty’s bright and beautiful moon, which caused her mane to twinkle and coat to shine, effectively giving her a radiant midnight blue glow. However, her expression didn’t reflect her beauty, as it was somber. Her ears were sagged and her head hung. I could only wonder what was going through her mind until she finally spoke after a minute of uneasy silence.
“A thousand years ago, before the Bloody Founding, my sister presented me with two choices.” She paused. “The first, banishment to the moon. All of my followers would be imprisoned, but eventually forgiven for their crimes. However…”
She turned to face me over her shoulder. “Your ancestors would have had to be wiped off of the face of the earth. They could not be accepted in society, especially after the war.”
I didn’t respond to this.
Luna turned back toward the moon.
The moon would have been my prison for my crimes, a thousand years would have been my sentence. As you, and the rest of your fellow countryponies know, I chose the second option: Banishment from Equestria, for all time. I would go with my followers, and you, my nightbreeds, and would never be able to set hoof in our homeland again.”
I remained unmoved. This was part of our history I was well aware of, and it was why nightbreeds were so unquestioningly loyal to her; part of the reason why, was gratitude for giving up her home and her birthright for us. My father always told me this story, as did any other nightbreed elder. This story was passed down time and time again through the ages, and we never forgot what she did for us. This was what also fueled our hatred for Equestria through the years too.
“I always wondered about a number of things over these last thousand years as they just… flew right by. What would I have been like had I chose imprisonment on the moon. Would I still have been angry with my sister, and try to cover the world in eternal darkness again? What would I have done to her? Her followers?” She paused again in contemplation, before she shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll ever know. I can only speculate.”
“Tell me something.”
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Do you think I deserved banishment from my home?”
“Absolutely not, Your Majesty.”
“Why do you think so?”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer, or even knew how to answer, so I just decided to go with honesty. “Because I think Celestia was cruel and unjust to do something like that to her own sister. The throne was yours just as much hers, Your Majesty. She had no right to take that away from you, even before the war.”
Thinking back, I realized how bad that must’ve sounded, and almost expected the Queen to do something to punish me. However, she just turned back toward the window, and calmly responded, “You’re not the first to think so, Ashen.” She took a deep breath. “This was something I also thought about, as I sat here in my chambers for the past millennia, whether or not I deserved it. Do you know what I think?”
“Uh, sure, Your Majesty.”
“I believe I did deserve it.”
“But that’s not true-
She threw a hoof up, cutting me short. As she spoke again, her tone was still calm. “With everything that has happened in this county, and the time I had to spend ruling over it, I’ve often thought back to the day I stood up to her in my foalish arrogance. With each passing day I watch you and the rest of my subjects suffer for my actions. I even considered if banishment to the moon would have been more of a mercy than everything we’ve gone through, from the Bloody Founding to the First and Second Crusades, the Dragon Wars to the Long Hunger, the Southern Riots to the six attempts to take the throne, the thirty assassination attempts, a dozen plagues, the Burning of Territory Twenty-Seven, multiple economic depressions, and all five of the Breed Wars. After all of this up until now, do you know what I feel…?” She looked at the floor, and there was a long pause, long enough for me to almost think that it wasn’t a rhetorical question.
“Regret,” she said sullenly.
I stood there, looking at her with confusion, as she walked past me, and looked up toward the throne. “Whenever I look at that old ‘chair,’ I feel how much I didn’t deserve it. My sister was the one that knew what it took to be fair, to be just, and to be kind in the face of evil. She was always a better pony than I was. Perhaps… it’s why I envied and grew jealous of her and how much her subjects loved her. I wanted to be her so bad, that I lashed out at her instead in a stupid, foal-ish campaign, and look where it left us. We must live in the most hopeless spit of land in the entire world, and I was the one who brought us here, and even had that throne built on top of this sad, infertile, and blood-soaked pile of dirt we call a country.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “It’s high time I own up to my mistakes. It starts with this, Ashen.”
She turned to face me.
“I knew you would have reservations about this mission, Ashen, and I don’t blame you.”
“Your Majesty, I’m more than capable of-
This shut me right up. Afterwards my eyes fell to the floor and across the room.
“I know you suffer; I’ve seen your dreams and I know what haunts you every night.”
I glanced back at her. “My feelings aren’t important, Your Highness…”
“They are to me.”
I stared at her for a moment, then I turned aside. She approached me, and rested a hoof on my shoulder.
“Ashen, your father was a very dear friend of mine. He was like family to me, almost. I’d like to offer the same courtesy to his son, if he’d let me.”
I continued to avoid making eye contact.
Her hoof eventually fell from my shoulder, and with a brief, forlorn glance, I noticed her expression saddened even more.
“You know, your father spoke often about you.”
I didn’t respond.
“He was very proud of you, you know.”
“Your Majesty… forgive me but… I find that hard to believe.”
“Why is that?”
“He was more of a councilor, and less of a father, to put it mildly.”
She looked at me, unsure if I was even talking about the same pony. I just turned aside and averted my gaze, but tried to keep a straight posture. I didn’t want her to see me showing any sign of weakness when mentioning that bastard of a father of mine. However if she noticed, she didn’t comment. Instead, she returned to her previous line of questioning.
“I see. But Ashen, I want you to know that you are welcome to confide in me as your father has, as a friend, and not your Queen. Please, tell me what’s troubling you. I want you to be completely honest.”
I mulled this over in my mind a moment. If there’s one thing I didn’t want to tell her, it was the truth about how I felt.
I wasn’t sure I was the one for this mission. The mission, in my opinion, was a waste of time. I should’ve guarding the southern border, or the now-vulnerable east border, not being sent to protect somepony.
Then there was my… “condition.”
A few days ago, I was dying to get back on the field, but now, where the entire future of my home is riding on this, I wasn’t sure I could be able to handle it. It was a huge responsibility. I’d be fooling myself to think I was mentally well enough to keep my act together the whole way.
But on the other side of the coin, this was a direct order from Her Majesty herself. To back out, hay, cower at the thought of this mission, then I would not only be breaking my oath to Queen and Country, but also committing a direct act of treason.
That was I thought up until she spoke again. “If you’re unsure, or have apprehensions about this task, you have the choice of staying, if you wish. As a friend of your father’s, I’d at least like to offer you that choice.”
This effectively put me on the spot. I wasn’t sure what to tell her. Every part of me screamed to say that I was more than capable of handling this mission, but I knew I would only be lying to myself, and to the Queen.
She noticed my reluctance however, and rested a hoof against my shoulder. “Ashen, go home and think on it. I’ll give you a few days leave from duties here in the Citadel. As you know, the envoy sets out five days from now. That should give you plenty of time to make up your mind.”
“You’ve contributed a lot to the Twenty-Six Territories, and if this is too much to ask from you, then you’ve earned the right to choose.”
I wish she didn’t give me the option. It was way easier when it was an order. However, one thing was on my mind, and I had to ask.
“Your Highness, if I may ask something.”
“Because Chancellor Eclipse vouched for you, and Councilor Bloodwing agreed with him. They told me of your many merits, and you’ve done more than anypony could have asked of you against he separatists. I wouldn’t have imagined anypony better for this task than somepony so loyal and hard working.”
“What about what Councilor Aurora said the other night? Won’t that jeopardize the mission?”
She turned away. “I haven’t forgotten what she said.” I waited, expecting to hear more, or an explanation of some sort, but nothing like that came. Instead, she just said, “Your choice on whether or not to lead the envoy still stands.”
I looked away, mulling over her words, but only briefly.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I said, unsure what more to say beyond that. When I couldn’t come up with anything, I bowed low. “I’ll let you know soon what I decide.”
I wished I didn’t utter that last sentence. I felt like I betrayed my oath a little.
She bowed her head politely in return. “Very well. Go with the night, my young Nightwing.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
After that, I left her chambers, skipped the bar, and went home for the day with a conflicted mind and barely a few winks of sleep.
“Even after spending the night shut in my own bedroom dwelling on what she said, I still couldn’t make up my mind. After that, I guess… I just needed a second opinion or something. I don’t know. For whatever reason I thought I should ask you, Doc. You know me better than anypony else, especially my condition. Thought you were the one pony to ask about this,” I finished explaining to Doctor Archer, who quietly listened, with the occasional nod of his head.
I saw him process the information and data from my last few nights over in his head, trying to come up with a result. This process lasted almost a minute, but once he finished thinking everything over, he stood up.
“I think you should go.”
“Wait… what?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“You should go, Ashen.”
“Why, because it’s my duty to the Queen?”
“No. Because I think this is something you need to do for yourself.”
“…I don’t understand.”
“Ashen, you’ve been cooped up in the Palace for goddesses know how long, and you would almost always go home drunk and with more bruises than the night before. You need to come back down to earth, and I can’t think of a better way than this. I understand it’ll be dangerous, but you need to be able to get back on your hooves again.”
“…I don’t know Doc… what if… what if I see him, while I’m there?”
Archer’s ears sagged and he grimaced. “You haven’t seen him in six months, Ashen.”
“But what if I do Doc…?”
He shifted uncomfortably, then lifted a hoof. “One second,” he said, before he turned back towards his cabinets, and opened one of them, fishing through many different drawers full of many small objects. Once he found what he was looking for, he pulled a small cylindrical container with an accompanying lid out from a separate drawer, and then levitated a couple dozen white tablets. He placed them inside the bottle, before screwing the cap on. He then turned to me, shutting the cabinets behind him, and he approached me.
“You know what this is, right?” He held up the bottle.
“I thought you wanted me off that stuff…”
“This is only in case of emergencies, Ashen. If you start seeing things, or start having one of those three dreams you told me about, you take two of them, just like before.”
“Doc, you know these didn’t help last time…”
“Take them anyway. Maybe they’ll help you this time.”
I frowned, unconvinced.
He sighed, then levitated it into one of the pockets by right wing. “Just keep it with you, alright?”
“But I still haven’t decided if I’m going.”
“But Ashen, in case they don’t do you any good, don’t forget what all we talked about this past year and a half.”
“I know Doc… just… you’re not gonna be around this time, if it happens again.”
“…What does that mean?”
I shook my head. “Uh, nothing… forget it.”
He wasn’t convinced, but he at least dropped it. “Last thing, Ashen.”
“I want to see more journals, when you come home.”
“Ashen,” he said insistently when he interrupted me.
He nodded. “Good luck, Lieutenant.”
I wasn’t sure why he kept acting like I had already made up my mind, but I just nodded in return to him, thanked him, and left the office.
An hour later, I landed at my front door. It wasn’t even 1AM in the morning yet, but I still felt drained and I wanted to sleep. I pushed in the front door, and turned on the light switch, and was greeted by my filthy living room and kitchen.
Clothes were everywhere, trash was thrown about in whole mountains, and all manner of things were in disarray. Furniture was knocked over and/or torn up, wallpaper was falling apart, some of the wood was rotten, rust was starting to take over some of the metal in the room, and there was broken glass and dishes scattering the floor. There was half-eaten food anypony else would have found a waste, and others would have dug through all kinds of trash to get through to eat. There was also a foul mixture of scents from the myriad of trash thrown about that I grew not to notice.
I don’t know why, but normally I never gave my filthy home any thought. That night, I just looked at the way I had been spending the last two years. The state of my house alone dictated how much I’ve been just throwing my life away.
And that all I wanted to do was continue throwing it away.
This was all I would ever do with my life. Get up, leave my filthy home, and skip cleaning up, go work a mundane desk job with the occasional chance to make some pony’s life a living hell, go to some bar, drink, get into fights, and then come back to my filthy home just to sleep anywhere in my mountains of garbage between the living room to my bedroom to repeat the whole process all over again.
So why wasn’t I doing anything about it?
I thought back to the meeting with the council the night prior. This could be a moment to change the course of our history, but it could be a number of other things. It could be the start of another Day/Night War, and I should be manned on the front lines while I let the ambassador fail the negotiations, so I could be ready when Equestria attacked us again. It all might actually work out, even though I was absolutely sure that wouldn’t be the case.
Something gave me pause though, in this line of thinking. I went toward the back of the room, and pulled open the door to my bedroom, and looked immediately to my left, and stared at none other than my old friend.
Justice and I shared a minute, maybe two, maybe five, maybe twenty, just staring at one another, and I listened to all of the memories that came flooding back like a relentless, rushing torrent of water through my aching mind.
However, it gave me one other thing to consider. Maybe… just maybe… I could finally find some peace, some closure… maybe forgiveness.
Would it all be worth the risk?
Justice and I stayed in that moment, that dark world that only consisted of it and I. After what felt like probably eons in deep thought…
I made a decision.
I went back into the kitchen, and rummaged through a few cabinets until I found a piece of parchment. After also finding a quill and bottle barely full of ink, I brushed off my kitchen table, set my stationary on it, then dipped the quill in the ink with my teeth, then wrote:
I had another nightmare last night. Couldn’t go back to sleep, so I thought writing might help me get my mind off things.
Guess I’ll start with the last few days.
I’m writing this in some stupid, “sophisticated” little town called “Trottingham,” several miles from the eastern border of the Shale territory. I get the feeling you’d want to hear what Equestria’s like so far but to be honest, it’s not very different from the Lunar Confederacy, just a lot greener. And brighter. Judging from what I’ve seen here in this town, I’m not very impressed. There’s no CrystalTech here; it’s very primitive. Picture the lights of the Capital only with candles and fire instead of magic or enchantments that don’t use any kind of crystals.
In fact, I haven’t seen any crystals since we got here.
Anyway, I’m gonna backpedal a little bit and start with the last night we spoke. That was a little over a week and a half ago. I sent word to the Council that I accepted the mission, and spent most of my time at home.
I took Justice out. It was kinda nostalgic, actually. But I could swear the thing’s a lot heavier than I remember. I don’t plan on using it this entire trip but I needed the practice (even though it wasn’t for very long). It has been two years since I last used it and all.
The rest of the time was spent preparing, putting requisition orders in, checking on the other soldiers in our convoy (reading their dossiers, military records, psych profiles, all that other garbage). They seem capable of getting the job done, but we’ll have to see how things pan out. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I’m actually grateful Jetstorm’s with us. He’s a good soldier and he and I work well together. Guess the suits up in the capital knew how to put a good team together. I’m not so sure about Swift though.
The ambassador, Peace Walker (the guy we have to foalsit), is a bit harder to get a good read on. He’s been the lead capital representative with the other Territories, keeping them in check, making sure they’re supplied, things like that. They say he’s a really firm but fair negotiator, but from the few exchanges I’ve had with him for the last few days, the guy’s got a bleeding heart. It nearly got him killed at one point, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I got to talk with him, or rather, he talked with me, just before we went to the Gate Station to head to the Shale just inside the palace’s walls. I got there really early since I didn’t sleep well the night before, and I wanted to make sure we had everything we needed, so I had Jetstorm pick up our weapons and equipment.
You should’ve seen it though Doc, there were so many soldiers, all from the many towns, some were from the cancelled expedition, others were all the way from the northern and western outposts. You’d think the place was gearing up for war.
Anyway, I was waiting for Jetstorm when Walker showed up earlier than I expected, and I swear the guy didn’t know how to mind his own business.
Jetstorm felt like he’d been gone for hours and I was starting to grow a little impatient. The only thing to pass the time was to watch the activity around the palace. I read and re-read our dossiers, information about what’s known beyond the eastern border and every other document that got shoved in my face to prepare for the trip.
I was leaning against the black wall that surrounded the Palace, beside one of the capital's famous gardens full of “glowing flora;” some enchanted plants and trees that glow various hues of cool colors ranging from the purple leaves of a white tree, blue ferns and flowers that looked similar to northern lights. They even seemed to “flow” a bit in the light, chilly midnight breeze. If I were an admirer of plants I could’ve stared for ages, but my focus was more diverted to the dozen or so politicians running amok, but also the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers that seemed to flood in from everywhere in the country.
Whole platoons of soldiers of various colors, genders, and breeds populated the Palace exterior, performing role calls, drills, training, briefs, and all manner of other military routines before whole squads of troops left the Palace, more than likely to one of the local Gate Stations. There were small groups of soldiers awaiting orders talking with one another. From what I could overhear, they were nervous, talking about reports on the holovids and the radios and rumors between soldiers that apparently were from the eastern outposts. The bulk of it consisted talk of war. The atmosphere was tense, like everypony were waiting for some bomb to explode in the middle of the capital. Only murmurs populated the place apart from the shouting of the officers.
A lot of the soldiers were ponies I recognized, some of them I tried to avoid eye contact with, lest I got another rehearsal of some bar fight I might or might not have gotten into with them and I was in no mood to get into a confrontation. I wanted to avoid getting attention at all costs if I could help it.
Somepony else didn’t seem to know this though.
“Ah, hello there!” the ambassador, Peace Walker, shouted to me just off to my left. He must’ve just arrived and spotted me off by myself. Then again, I was the only nightbreed in the area with a glowing mane, broken horn, and not wearing full plated armor in the vicinity, so unfortunately I wasn’t hard to notice.
“Ambassador,” I simply stated without looking up at him.
“Lieutenant Nightwing, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded flatly, and in military fashion.
“You’ll be leading the escort?”
“Yes, sir,” I said again in the same tone.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed he was giving me a puzzled look, but I didn’t question or comment on it. A moment of awkward silence passed before he tried starting a conversation again.
“You’re looking better.”
“Sir?” I said, finally looking the brown unicorn in the eye. It was only then I noticed his “casually regal” attire. He wore a simple black coat with a purple and blue vest underneath that had various patterns in the design. It looked simple enough for travel clothing, but it was far too flamboyant and screamed “very important pony”, almost to the point he might as well have a bulls-eye pinned to his back.
“Your injuries. You were bandaged during the council meeting, I just thought you were doing better since you’re not wearing them anymore,” he explained.
I wasn’t sure how to comment on this, so all I said was, “Yes, sir.”
He gave me that puzzled look again. “Uh, Lieutenant, you can speak freely. I don’t know what it’s like with other ambassadors or politicians you’ve worked with, but you don’t need to stand on ceremony with me.”
I didn’t comment.
He frowned, pawed at the ground and watched the crowd briefly, then spoke up again. “So… uh… how long have you been in the military?”
“Five years,” I said.
“That’s quite a while.”
“Not if you’re a nightbreed.”
“Why’s that?” he asked.
“Most nightbreeds serve for life, ambassador,” I explained, as if I were telling this to a foal.
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot.” He said, poking the ground. “Guess that slipped my mind. I don’t often talk with nightbreeds, save for a few friends in the Grey-, Sun-, Mage-, and Spellwing clans that were either retired, planned on retiring, or were civilian.”
“Greywings aren’t the kind to retire, least not Artemis.”
“You mean the commander of expeditions?”
I turned to him. “Do you know him?”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve heard about him though. Leading the expeditions can’t be an easy job.” He paused, hoping I would comment, which I didn’t, before he asked, “Have you been on any?”
“What, expeditions?” I asked.
“That’s impressive. Have you had any luck?”
I shook my head.
“That’s quite a long time out there in the Dragonlands, though. I hear most expeditions take months. How long have you been out there?” he asked.
“Two years, on and off. The first one was about four months, the second was about six.”
“And the third…?”
“…Ten.” I glanced aside, recalling the long days and nights spend struggling to survive in the deep, monster-filled wilderness. “We had to stay during the winter.”
“That must’ve been brutal.”
“We managed. We lost the expedition commander to a frost dragon, but Artemis, who was platoon leader at the time, kept us alive. Jetstorm was there too.”
“You mean the Skywing accompanying us?”
“Incredible. Well then, I guess I’m going to be in some very capable hooves then,” he said with a jovial smile.
“What makes you say that?” I asked, ignoring the sub-joke.
“Oh, uh, nothing, just something my late dad used to tell me. He said that anypony who comes back deserves a dozen medals of honor, but those who go back are true patriots.”
“It’s just a job, ambassador.”
“Oh please, don’t be so modest. From what I’ve read up on you about the separatist uprising in North Hayford, you’re a hero Lieut-”
“Can we change the topic, sir?” I interrupted.
“…But I was just-
“With all due respect, I’m not privy to talking about my military history.” I said, an edge growing in my tone. The ambassador recoiled.
“Alright, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.” He pondered for a brief moment. “So… your father was Skarro Nightwing, wasn’t he? The former Law & Order Councilor?”
I scowled. “Let me rephrase. I meant a topic that doesn’t have anything to do with me or my life, ambassador, especially my father.”
He flinched a little, and then frowned, his ears sagged while he turned to the ground. Over the next minute or two, he watched the soldiers and politicians run, march, or trot briskly about the grounds, and again, he tried to start another conversation.
“Awful lot of soldiers here,” Walker said. “Where do you think they’re from?”
I sighed. “Some of them are from the northern and western border outposts, others were stationed all over the country in various towns.” I nodded my head in the direction of a small group of nervous-looking soldiers. “I know that group there was actually supposed to be shipped off with the next expedition before it was cancelled.”
“Cancelled? An expedition?” he asked in disbelief as he turned to me for confirmation. I responded to this with nothing but a stern gaze before I returned my attention elsewhere. “You’re serious… my goddesses. This must be larger than the news made it out to be, no wonder they seem scared.”
“And they should be. If things go south, they need to be ready for war.”
“I strongly doubt it’ll come to that Lieutenant…”
“Regardless, they need to know how serious the situation is.”
“…You’re making it sound like the mission’s going to fail before we even set out,” he stated.
“With all due respect ambassador, you must not know much about our military if you think I’m being cold, or cynical, or something along those lines.”
“This may come as a surprise Lieutenant, but I’m a lot more familiar with the Queen’s army than you think, and that’s what troubles me. For example, I know our forces our spread way too far and way too thin across the Territories. We don’t have the food, the numbers, the morale, the weaponry, or the organization to launch a campaign. We’ve barely been holding our own borders together and that’s not to mention the numerous uprisings, fallouts from the wars and plagues, and hundreds of other factors. I should know; my job is to pick up the pieces and keep any of the Territories from seceding from the Confederacy.”
Okay, so I guess I gave him less credit than I should’ve… I thought to myself.
“Anyway, that’s beside the point. Trying to go to war with Equestria is not only reckless and wrong, it’s suicide. We’re on this mission to keep that from coming to pass, as well as save well over half a million lives and the lives of any innocent bystanders in Equestria. Isn’t that why you fight Lieutenant? For Queen and country?”
“…Of course, sir,” I replied.
“Then just have a little faith, is all I’m saying, for us, and for Equestria.”
“No offense, sir… but I don’t exactly have any faith left to give.”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” I said, and he frowned. I sighed, and turned to him. “Look, ambassador, again, with all due respect, I’m only doing this mission because they’re the Queen’s orders, and it’s my job to see it through. Part of that means to plan for, and expect, the worst. My opinion and personal feelings are unimportant and irrelevant.”
“It is to me, Lieutenant.”
“Because I care about my country and the ponies living in it. Yourself included. Part of my job is listening to what my fellow confederates have to say, after all,” he explained with a friendly smile.
I’ve seen the many smiles of a politician, none of them genuine. They were natural liars, and only cared about themselves. To anypony else who’d listen to their speeches and promises and talks of politics concerning the country, they never realize just how much backstabbing and greed occurs during those charismatic speeches. I hated politicians because of this, and I’ve grown used to their talent for twisting words for their own benefit.
This case however, the way he talked, acted, looked into my eyes when he spoke, and spoke only in a tone one would address another pony, not the tone one would use to address a nation. I knew the difference far too well, and seeing this from this ambassador was a little surprising. His concern was actually genuine, there was no hidden agenda underneath. He was really looking out for his fellow pony.
If I had been anypony else, I would’ve embraced his friendliness and returned it in kind. However, I wasn’t that kind of pony, and I wasn’t out to make friends.
I just wanted to get this mission over with as quickly as possible.
“Regardless, sir, my opinion is still irrelevant, and I’m not at liberty to say. If I may speak freely…?”
“Um, of course.”
“My only concern is the mission and I’d appreciate it if you stayed out of my business.” I paused a moment. “Sir.”
Instead of recoiling from my rudeness, much to my surprise, he just smiled and nodded, then in a respectful tone he replied, “As you wish Lieutenant.”
Well, that was easy, I thought to myself. Probably should’ve just said that earlier.
So the two of us fell into a rather awkward silence. The ambassador looked like he wanted to prattle about something or other, but instead he just leaned against the wall and waited.
We didn’t have to wait long.
“Hey Ashen!” called Jetstorm.
Took him long enough…. The white nightbreed was on his way back with a couple of other dark-colored nightbreed soldiers and a cart strapped to them.
“Sorry I was late, but I assure you, there was a good reason,” he said, as he came to a stop in front of us along with the soldiers carrying the large cart.
“And that is…?” I asked and peeked over his shoulder to see the contents. There were a few bags carrying who-knows-what, probably food and other supplies, and a lot of power crystals.
“You’ve got some good friends or something Ashen. They told me you’ve been cleared to use one of the new prototypes that you tested… uh, what was it, four months ago?”
“Wait—, and it’s five months by the way. You mean they finished the C.L.a.W. Device?” I corrected and asked quickly.
“Yup! Told me that you’ve been granted access for field use.”
“I thought they were still calibrating the levitation field,” I said, unconvinced.
“Fixed, and before you ask, they told me to tell you they also fixed the overheating issue you brought up. They built a couple of fail-safes into it.”
“Yes, they fixed the cannon alignment too. Fires straighter than an arrow.”
I still wasn’t convinced, but if there’s one thing the techies in the Green District were good at, was efficiency.
“Um, excuse me,” started Peace Walker, who had been listening to the conversation and just stepped in. “What’s a ‘claw device’?”
“C.L.a.W., it’s an acryonym,” I corrected. “Stands for ‘CrystalTech Levitation and Weapon” device.”
“And that is…?”
“It’s a hybrid CrystalTech device. Has a cannon and a levitation generator built into it— Jetstorm, are you sure they fixed the thing about overheating? Because that was a serious risk of making crystals in the clip go critical and overload.”
“They told me they added a dampener, but in case it starts to overheat from firing, the weapon will lock up and make some kinda beeping sound when it’s cooled off. Second is that it’ll auto-eject the clip if it’s about to go critical and warn you if it does.”
“Sounds a little inconvenient,” I commented. “How many shots average can I get?”
“You’ll like this. It uses part of the Mark II and Mark V tech, at least I think that’s what they said. Anyway, they said that they were able to make the C.L.a.W. only use miniscule amounts of energy at a time. You could get a total of a thirty consecutive shots, average, and that’s without having to hold your fire for the cooldown.”
“What’s the cooldown then?”
He smirked. “One-point-seven seconds.”
“Bullshit,” I quickly said, looking at Jet as if he lost his mind or was pulling my leg.
“That’s what I said. The docs gave me an insulted look for it too. Gotta give them credit, they’ve made some real breakthroughs recently.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
“Excuse me, kinda lost here,” suddenly came ambassador Walker.
Jetstorm explained it this time. “Basically, most standard-issue weaponry only fires maybe a dozen shots average, twenty at the most. They have long cooldowns too, so you could only fire maybe three shots at a given time before you have to wait some five seconds in the heat of a fight. They’re still reliable for their accuracy though. Mark III and IV’s tried to fix the cooldown problem but it came at the cost of energy consumption and accuracy. Mark V fixed the cooldown problem altogether and didn’t cost as many shots, but was still inaccurate. So combine the Mark II’s accuracy with the Mark V’s shot-per-crystal and cooldown rate, you get the Mark VI, which has been integrated with the C.L.a.W.”
“Impressive. I didn’t know you were so well-versed with CrystalTech.”
“Um, actually, I’m not,” replied Jet with a nervous chuckle. “Ashen here’s the closest thing to an expert, and he had to teach me this same stuff several times when I asked him what the difference was between each cannon model.”
I just rolled my eyes. “Jetstorm here’s cocky and reliable, but he’s a bit of an idiot.”
We paused a moment.
“Okay,” Jet started. “I’m an idiot, but I’m a damn good-looking idiot who picks up all the hot mares and can out-shoot the good Lieutenant here in a marksmanship competition.”
I sighed and shook my head. “Moving on…”
“Uh, right. Anyway, I’ll just grab it out of the cart, one sec-“
“Hey, did you get the rest of the equipment I asked you to get?”
“The other cannons and T.C.E.D.’s? Yeah. We need those.”
Peace Walker turned to me suddenly. “Wait, hold on a second-
“Not now ambassador,” I interrupted.
“No, why are we bringing weapons? I thought this was a diplomatic mission.”
“It is,” I replied. “We’re bringing them for your protection-
“Lieutenant, we can’t just walk into Equestria armed to the teeth!”
“We can, and we are,” I explained. “For all we know, they could be setting up an ambush.”
“That’s insane, Lieutenant.”
“Ambassador, my job is to prepare for the worst. Remember? Besides, we might need these while we’re cutting through the Shale.” Jetstorm stopped mid-search for the device he mentioned and approached me.
“Ash, I thought we were just going to go to the Gate Station and travel straight to one of the border outposts.”
I turned to him. “Unfortunately, all of the Gates at the Outposts are unavailable. They’re reserved for the troops being moved across the country.”
“Can’t we just go once a Gate cools down?” Jet asked.
“No. Despite the mission, the council think it’s more important to get the eastern and southern borders garrisoned. Some of the outskirt towns are also being used for transportation, though the cooldowns are taking so long since they’re sending so many troops at a time, it takes days just to send a batch at any given time. The only thing we were able to get reserved for us is one Gate at the Station, and an exit in Skyjax in the Shale territory.”
“Skyjax? That’s still about half a dozen miles from the border,” Jetstorm said, his expression contorting.
“Yeah. We’ll be going on hoof.”
“That’s at least a couple days travel,” Jet explained.
“Well… do we have an escort crew coming with us at least?”
“Only about five other soldiers. We need to keep a low profile,” I explained.
“Seriously? They think we’ll run into bandits or straggling separatists or something?”
“I didn’t ask,” I told Jet, who sighed and ran a hoof through his mane.
“Well… that complicates things.”
Walker just silently watched our exchange. He didn’t seem to have anything to add, nor did Jetstorm after that.
“Where’s Swift?” I asked.
“Here!” shouted a voice from above us. A moment later before we even had the chance to look up, a snow-white pegasus touched down in front of us. Her bright violet eyes made contact with me as she smiled and saluted. “Reporting for duty, sir!” she said enthusiastically. She still had that purple headband keeping her mane behind her head. It was a bit distracting.
“Uh, hi Swift, at ease,” I deadpanned.
She dropped her salute and greeted the rest of the group, Jet and Walker returning with a hello of their own, but I didn’t give them the time to get to know each other.
“Alright, listen up,” I began, addressing Jet, Walker, Swift, and the two soldiers carrying the cart. “We’ll be heading to the town of Skyjax in the Shale territory. There we’ll be meeting with three other officers to lead us through the Crag on hoof through the mountains of the Shale until we get to Outpost Aeries. Once we’re at the border, we’ll then proceed on hoof to the closest-sighted Equestrian town. From there, we’ll have to rely on local transportation, if they have it, to get to the capital of Canterlot where we’ll be meeting with the Equestrian matriarchy. The trip should take approximately five to seven days, maybe more, maybe less. Depends on whether or not we run into any delays.”
“What kind of delays?” asked Walker.
“Best case scenario, there shouldn’t be any, maybe a little weather. Worst case scenario… we could run into trouble. If it comes to that, we’ll be ready. That’s why we’re bringing the cannons.”
Walker wasn’t too thrilled with my answer, in fact, it made him a little nervous, but he didn’t make any further remarks.
“Any other questions?” I asked.
“Alright. Jet, go ahead and distribute the weapons and T.C.E.D.’s.”
Jet nodded and went toward the cart. Then Swift suddenly chimed in. “T.C.E.D.’s?”
Jet glanced over his shoulder as he was rifling through the cart. “Tactical Combat Enhancement Displays. They’re not standard issue, but Ash here said we should all have them for the communicators and heads-up displays so we can keep track of and talk to one another.” He went back to searching for the buried cannons.
The fact she asked bothered me a little, I wasn’t sure why at the time. However, I had more pressing concerns, so I ignored the notion.
“Got it!” announced a muffled Jet through his teeth. He stepped down from the side of the cart and approached me with a smirk. In his teeth was the C.L.a.W., which looked like two large bracers held apart from each other by three flat pieces of the same metal of the rings. The flat pieces were at triangular points; one flat piece on the bottom, the other two on the top-left and top-right corners. The mount for the crystal that’s used to fire the weapon was easily visible, being connected to the top-right rod. I could see the trigger mechanism and the crystal ejection lever embedded into the front ring.
I had to give the thing a test run.
“Give it here,” I ordered. Jetstorm nodded and held it up for me to slip my hoof through the rings. If I remembered how this prototype was supposed to work, and even interface with the T.C.E.D., it was going to-
The two rings tightened around my right foreleg, and a needle of sorts jabbed into my right forehoof’s ankle, sending a sharp, yet weird pain spiking through my leg. It went numb a couple seconds later.
“You alright?” Walker asked, noticing my face contorting a little from reacting to the pain.
“Yeah, I’m fine, it’s just this needle thing that sticks into my damn leg so it can read my energy signature and monitor my health, adrenaline, and energy levels, stuff like that.”
Walker seemed to take that just fine, but Swift on the other hoof was looking at me like I just tried to explain advanced magic theory and quantum entanglement or something. This was odd to me, because energy signatures are in courses about Magic Basic, which then leads to teaching foals about CrystalTech.
I thought about bringing this up, but Jetstorm interrupted my train of thought a moment later. “By the way, the docs told me to give you a really quick crash course on the levitation device, and also to tell you that there’s a hoofblade built into the C.L.a.W.”
“That’s convenient,” I said, looking at the underside of the device, and sure enough, there was an opening in the bottom metal bar, where I assumed the blade was in. I gave a quick flick and quarter-turn of my ankle, and the blade popped out with a satisfying p-ching! That quick test out of the way, I pulled on a catch with my teeth and slid it down along the bar, which retracted the blade. “That’ll come in handy. At least I won’t need to use Justice.”
“I’m still surprised you brought it,” said Jetstorm, his playful demeanor gone, as he eyed the scabbard with the accompanying blade strapped to my back. I gave him a very brief look, then turned my attention back to the C.L.a.W., and changed the subject.
“You said a crash course on the levitation?” I asked.
“Oh, right, yeah. They said that it will read your energy signature to detect… well… if you want to pick up something. You don’t need to use a lever like on the prototype.”
“But I still have to use the trigger mechanism for the cannon?”
“They couldn’t get this to work with the cannon, not yet anyway. Something about the brain waves and energy signature, that kinda nonsense,” he explained. “Anyway, try just picking up that rock over there.” He pointed to a rock in the garden next to us.
To give this levitation mechanism a quick test, walked over and held my hoof over the rock. At first, I was shaking my hoof or trying to do something physically to make it work. I was used to manual control, this was new to me. So after a bit of fidgeting and finding that failing, I simply willed the rock to be picked up. After a couple tries, suddenly, a trio of small metal appendages unfolded from the front bracelet of the device and formed a “claw,” and hovered just in front of them in a white magical field was the rock.
Now I can see where the abbreviation came in, I mused. I swing my foreleg around, seeing if there was a delay. To an untrained eye, nopony would’ve noticed that the rock was lagging behind my swinging leg, but it was far more miniscule than the prototype version I worked with, and far less cumbersome. This could come in handy.
“Huh,” said Jet. “You picked up on that fairly quick. They thought you’d need a few hours.”
“I’m quick to adapt. Did they say anything about levitating power crystals with this?” I asked as I experimented with rotating the rock. Interestingly enough, the claws swiveled around along the front bracelet, so I didn’t have to rotate my leg in awkward and uncomfortable angles.
“Only that they didn’t recommend it. Picking them up doesn’t do anything, but if you try to use the firing mechanism while you’re levitating it, they said that can overload the crystal.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied. Satisfied with the test, I chucked the rock back into the garden, and the claws retracted to their previous folded position. Releasing the field was just as simple as it was to pick it up. With practice, I might be able to find a myriad of uses for the levitation mechanic. “Anything else I should know?”
No wonder it took him so long to get back from requisitions. “Alright, good. Can you get me a T.C.E.D.?”
“Give the others their equipment too while you’re at it.”
Jetstorm nodded, and not much longer later, he produced a small black box, with big white font saying “T.C.E.D.,” and placed it on the floor in front of me, before he started passing out the other cannons and T.C.E.D.’s.
I flicked my case open with a hoof, revealing two pieces inside it. Another bracelet, much like the same ones on the C.L.a.W., and a folded headpiece. The first to go on was the bracelet-piece, which slid over my hoof and then another unwelcome jab of my foreleg by another needle as the ring tightened around my foreleg. Unlike the C.L.a.W., there was a small button on the top of ring, which I pushed using my nose.
A green hologram suddenly appeared that wrapped in a semi-circle around part of my foreleg, displaying lots of yellow text and icons. It beeped after a few seconds, which was to indicate it was ready for use, then unexpectedly beeped again. A small yellow text prompt appeared.
\\:C.L.a.W. Device Detected. \\:Synchronizing...
A tiny light flashed on the side of the C.L.a.W. Device a couple times.
\\:C.L.a.W. Device Synchronized.
That was quick, I thought. The prompt shrunk out of existence and I pressed one of a row of buttons on the left side of the display, which showed my vital signs. Jetstorm’s suddenly popped up under mine, with his name clearly shown in the same yellow text. When I looked up at him, I saw he had his T.C.E.D. equipped and was working on his Mark II cannon strapped on. Alright, good, that works.
I then took out the headset, unfolded and slid out the thin set of rods that would set the device on top of my head, and at the end of it was a tiny box attachment, which I clipped around my ear. On the box was a big red button, which I held down with a right forehoof. This made another appendage pop out from the bottom of that tiny box, and it unfolded around to my right eye, stopping just short of it, then another holographic screen, a tiny one this time, popped up in front my eye.
This was the combat visor. It shows targets, terrain, who’s communicating with me, among other very useful combat prompts and information. A beep then came from the computer on my forearm, which indicated it detected the visor-piece. Only one more thing to check.
I touched my nose to another icon on the mini-computer, and a microphone popped out of the box which extended along my jawline. I reached up to my earpiece and tapped the button, not holding it this time, and spoke into the microphone. “Comm check.”
Jetstorm looked up at me and raised a hoof, indicating he heard me just fine.
Alright, I commented to myself. Everything’s in working order.
The six of us spent the next few minutes checking to make sure we could hear one another in the comm check, gave quick orientations (with Swift’s not being as quick) on how to use the T.C.E.D., distributed power crystals (aka ammo) to each other, and did one last check on our equipment and supplies. When I determined we were all ready, we set out for the Gate Station, and Skyjax.
He backed off, thankfully, but I swear that naïveté is going to get him killed one day.
Almost did, actually, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So I got this new prototype thing, which I can’t really talk about here, but I’ve been practicing with it whenever we took breaks just to get a feel for it. I had an itchy trigger finger and fire the thing, but I restrained myself, especially due to the ambassador and the rest of our party.
Which reminds me, the ambassador is a real chatterbox, and he was happy to get to know Swift and Jetstorm. Jet spared no expense in sharing some of the close encounters he and I had in the expedition, but when he wanted me to tell a version or part of the story, I just kept to myself. Eventually everypony in the group stopped talking to me while we were making our way to the Crag.
That was until we made a pit stop at a tiny village, which I forget the name of. Tall Stone, I think it was called. But it has this huge mountain trail that leads up to this little plateau where you could see in between a couple of the mountains. They call it “The Perch.” I swear you could see the entire country from that place.
I thought I’d have it to myself for some peace and quiet, but after like an hour or two, ambassador Walker joined me there.
I was testing the C.L.a.W. up on the Perch. I had a bench to myself and nopony else was populating the small flat and fenced plateau that made up the tourist destination. Tonight wasn’t one of the good nights to be up here, so the villagers at the foot of the mountain told me, because it was cloudy tonight and I couldn’t really see very many of the Queen’s stars. That was alright though, I wasn’t up there for the view. I was there for privacy.
I was in the middle of checking the trigger mechanism and running calibrations on the levitation mechanic with a large rock I found, to see if I could figure out what all I could levitate with the device. Turns out, even though it could levitate things, the weight of an object doesn’t cancel out, just decreases it drastically while in the field. There was a boulder by the rock face that I tried to lift earlier, but while the field wrapped around the object, I couldn’t actually lift it with all the strength I had. While I was contemplating on this and testing out the other functions on the device, that’s when I heard a voice behind me from the staircase that led up to the Perch.
“Mind if I join you?” asked Walker.
I nearly jumped out of my seat and pointed the weapon at him.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked a moment later, looking at the elder unicorn.
“I was just talking with Jetstorm for a while, and decided I’d get some fresh air and check this place out. I’ve always wanted to see the Perch, there were lots of stories of the view here.” He glanced past me toward the overlook, where a pair of mountains stood out of the darkness, and between them, the entire countryside lay. If you looked hard enough, out in the distance were the bright lights of the capital forming their own star on the surface of the earth just behind a vast network of hillsides, trees, and the mountain that overlooked the city. As Walker saw this, he approached the fence at the edge of the cliff and let out an awed gasp. “Oh wow….”
I watched him for a moment as he stared off in the general direction of the capital, and I resumed fiddling with the C.L.a.W..
“If only the pegasi weren’t scheduled to make it such a cloudy day today. I would love to see Her Majesty’s stars tonight.”
I didn’t respond; just kept to myself. A moment later the ambassador shivered a little, rubbing a foreleg of his.
“Kinda cold tonight. Isn’t it summer?”
Didn’t answer, though it wasn’t until he mentioned it that I noticed there was a chill clinging to the air. I thought it was the altitude for a while but in my flights to the capital, it’s actually warm outside. “It’s probably just the altitude. Though if it’s weather-related, they might be issuing a cold front or something, or maybe something blowing in from Equestria,” I guessed. “Probably won’t last long.”
“That’s a good guess. Have you worked in the weather factory before?”
“Nightbreeds can’t walk on clouds, ambassador,” I said.
“Oh… Oh! Right… sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I dismissed.
“Well…, anyway, still, strange weather for summertime.”
“Yknow, I’ve always been really curious what the weather factory’s like. I’m hoping there’ll be some CrystalTech enchantment to be able to walk on clouds for the public sometime soon, so I can go see what it’s like.”
“Weather’s not that interesting to be honest, considering we hardly get any,” I said plainly.
“I know, but still. It’s just one of those things in life you gotta see at least once, like the Perch, or I guess Equestria.”
I paused in my calibrating and tinkering for a brief second as he said this, then quickly resumed without a word. Things were quiet again for a moment, which was a little odd, so I glanced up at the ambassador. He was tilting his head and leaning around the fence, looking off in the distance.
“What’re you doing?”
“Huh?” he asked, looking behind him to me. “Oh, I’m just trying to see if I can figure out where my house is.”
I raised an eyebrow after he turned back toward the vista.
“Ah! I think I know where it is.” He raised a hoof and pointed just barely to the side of the capital. “There’s an old road that way. You travel along it in that direction…,” he said as he guided his hoof along the path he was specifying. “Then you’ll hit a fork. Left takes you to the capital, where you could see it shining like a gleaming diamond just over a few trees, the towers of the Blue District reflecting the night stars. I always liked that fork in the road. I’m always mesmerized, looking at those towers. After a few minutes of breaktime, I take the right path…,” he leaned forward a little, his hoof stretching outward. “Head that way for another twenty minutes or so, and there. You’re in the homey little town of Saddleton. Population, 136. Some of them include my friend Sky Hook and his unicorn wife Spellweave with her dazzling magic. Then there’s the Menders, who are easily the best fix-it-all ponies you’ll ever meet. Give them anything broken, they’ll give it back to you good as new. There’s next to no CrystalTech in that town. There’s streetlights filled with lots of bright, burning candles, and all of the townsfolk would happily go about their night, sometimes having a party together at one neighbor’s house or the other. Really nice ponies there…, I love that town.”
I didn’t intend to listen, but it was distracting. Kind of bittersweet to listen to, even. Stopped me dead in my tracks from working on my calibrations too. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ambassador turn to me.
“Maybe when we come back, you could come see it with me sometime,”
“No,” I simply said.
He frowned. “Why not?”
“I don’t do breaks, ambassador.”
“Maybe you should consider it sometime. From what Jet tells me-
I sighed at the mention of the name, which interrupted the ambassador.
He frowned. “Lieutenant, he respects you. He looks up to you, and he cares about you as a friend.”
“He’s not my friend, ambassador. Just a guy I trained and went on an expedition with, no more.”
“That’s not what he told me.”
“What did he tell you then?” I asked impatiently and frowned at him.
Walker chose his next words carefully. “He told me you were a kind pony once upon a time, but you went through a lot…, much more than any soldier should be ordered to do. He thinks you should find somepony nice to take care of you and you should make friends and settle down. He says you’ve done enough for Queen and country and that you should take a well-earned retirement.”
I sighed and pressed a hoof to my forehead. “He doesn’t get it. It’s not that simple.”
“Ashen, no, it is that simple. It doesn’t take a therapist or somepony else to see that you’re carrying a lot of baggage. As for what that is, I won’t ask because I’m respecting your request not to dig into your privacy, but from one pony to another, you should listen to him and quit with dignity.”
“It’s not dignity I’m concerned about ambassador,” I said, resuming my work.
“Then what is?”
“I can’t say.” I didn’t look up as I said this.
Walker wanted to press further, but he knew that would be prying, so he simply sighed and leaned back against the rail. A moment later, he formulated his next sentence.
“Maybe we both should quit.”
I raised an eyebrow at him after this odd request. “What kind of suggestion is that?”
He glanced to the side briefly, bit his lip, then turned back to me. “You’re not the only one here with some baggage they’re carrying. I may not have nearly as much as you, but I have reasons why I hate my job.”
“Then why don’t you quit?”
“Probably the same reason you can’t bring yourself to quit yours.” I mulled on this for a moment, then he spoke up again. “I know what it’s like, that feeling of obligation and duty. I know it very well. But I have a daughter in the capital, and I never get to see her because of this job. I want to quit so I can spend time with her, maybe try my hoof at therapy. My wife… used to say that I could be a good therapist. Doesn’t pay as much, but at least I’ll get to see my little girl, watch her grow up, find a stallion, get married, have a foal, maybe two if the goddesses would allow it and see this deal with Equestria go through.”
There was a bit of an irony here, but I didn’t want to mention it. I’m sure Doctor Archer would get a kick out of it though. But thinking about Walker’s request, I was ready to tell him “No,” and let that be the end of it. Instead though, I was actually thinking about his proposal.
Dozens of times, Archer tried to tell me I should find a job working in the mines. It’s a respectable job and is a contribution to the country, and he had a lot of convincing arguments that could lead me toward having a better life.
The only problem was that I didn’t have any right to one.
“Ambassador, look, I appreciate the suggestion, but I can’t.”
I stared at him, trying to formulate what to say. I ended up just telling him the ambiguous truth. “It’s complicated.”
He frowned, then asked, “Will you at least think about it?”
“Ambassador, I don’t-
“Please,” he interrupted.
I glanced up at him. We locked eyes for a while, before I turned away.
His ears sagged, and he sighs. “Well, I hope you’ll at least sleep on it… though for the record though Lieutenant, it might do us both some good.” He got up from the fence and passed me to head back down the stairs, stopping at the top step and looking back to me. “I hope you will consider it. Maybe I can introduce you to my daughter sometime.”
I didn’t respond.
He nodded a bit, then made his descent, leaving me alone again.
And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about his proposal.
He and I talked for a bit, though he made this stupid suggestion that he and I retire from our respective jobs. If only it were so easy.
Still, even after he left, I stayed up on the Perch for a couple more hours mulling over what he said. At first, I thought he was just full of shit, but then with every passing minute, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t want his help. I didn’t want Jet’s or Walker’s or even yours, and to be honest, I just wanted you all to leave me the fuck alone.
But that night was when I had that nightmare where I was in the capital. You know the one.
It was just another night on the town.
Starlight City. The city of the night.
Everywhere you turned, life was happening in some form or another. Ponies were dancing, music boomed through the clubs, they walked up and down the streets talking about parties, friends, gossip, and all manner of other conversations.
I was walking down some street in the middle of the Red District, and everypony looked happy. There was no misery anywhere to be found, just party after party, happy ponies after happy ponies walking right by. Some were standing around, chatting about the times, and foals were playing in the streets. The lights were dazzling too, and the music was moving.
I continued to pass by many clubs and places with their own kind of party going on. It seemed endless.
Then I turned a corner.
It was a major street, whole rows of houses and shops lined the place. Any other night I’d be packed with ponies going somewhere or throwing a party.
Except it was empty.
Worse, it was quiet.
No… It was dead silent.
Confused, I looked back where I had come from and where I had just seen and heard all the parties and ponies populating the street.
But they were gone.
Nopony was in that street.
I did a double take, looking back and forth from both streets. I thought maybe I was just going crazy. Something else was surely happening somewhere in Old Town.
I went down the second street and turned another corner. Again, I saw nopony.
I started picking up the pace of my trot. I went down the long street that was filled with normally populated clubs, and popular places where ponies would be enjoying the nightlife.
There wasn’t a single soul in sight, and the eerie sounds of my clopping hooves were echoing loudly through the streets.
I poked my head into one of the clubs, usually one of the busiest and packed full of party-goers, but nopony was there. No DJ’s, no dancers, no friendly ponies sharing drinks and swapping stories at the bar, nothing.
I went back outside, and I was breaking into a fast trot down the street now.
I turned another corner to a housing district. Desperately, I broke into each one. Somepony had to be in one of those houses!
The first house, nothing. I checked every room, every closet, every basement, attic, and back yard. The second house, same story, and again with the third… the fourth… the fiftieth...
I was panicking. I quickly trotted down the street until I found myself in the Blue District. It’s supposed to be the busiest place in the entire capital…
But nopony was there. Not in the markets, not in the skyscrapers, not even in Doctor Archer’s office. I checked schools, hospitals, businesses, malls, pharmacies, coffee shops, every single building in that entire district.
Not a single pony to be found.
I was galloping at full speed now.
Yellow District, Nothing.
Green District, Nothing.
I even went to the Royal Palace. No guards, no politicians…
Not even Her Majesty.
I smashed through the front doors, and started screaming, begging for an answer from somepony. Anypony.
I ran and ran and ran and ran, and I shouted, screamed, begged some more.
Nopony answered back.
I was alone.
I took to the skies, and started flying around local towns, but was met with the same story. Empty buildings, no signs of life anywhere.
I was truly alone.
I came back to the capital and collapsed in a heap, ready to break down and grovel, mourn, and otherwise accept my horrible fate of my eternal loneliness and solitude. I wanted my friends. I wanted my family.
But nopony existed. I was alone, and always will be alone.
Then I heard a sound.
I snapped up straight, my ear twitched, trying to pick up where the sound came from, and just down the street, I saw movement.
Somepony was there!
I called out to the shadow, but it disappeared around another street.
“Wait!” I called. “Come back!” I got up and chased the shadow. He or she tried their hardest to lose me, and I begged them to stop, to slow down, but they continued to gallop undeterred.
The pony made a left, into a familiar alley I knew to be a dead end. I could finally talk to this pony and not be alone in this horrible world anymore.
I came around the corner to meet this other pony,
But they weren’t there.
There were no fire escapes to climb, sewers to duck into, no places to hide, just a wall. I looked high and low, searching for the friend I was looking for to rid myself of my miserable and lonely fate. When I couldn’t find them, my heart sank.
I was alone again.
I turned back around where I came from, to resume my grieving.
Then something grabbed me and pulled me downward.
…then I started drowning.
I gasped for air, sitting up straight with my heart pounding, my breath out of control, and my body damp in ice-cold sweat as I shook. It took me a moment to realize I wasn’t dreaming anymore, and that I was able to breathe and inside a small room at the inn of the village at the base of the Perch.
I slouched forward, muttering a number of curses to myself followed by a sigh. After taking a moment to regain my composure, I got up and stumbled my way out the door. I needed some fresh air.
There was a recreation deck on the fourth and final floor of the inn, which I stepped out onto. Many chairs, tables, and public benches populated the large patio that carved out a third of the roof and a bit of the building.
There was also a pony out there too.
That was when I ran into Swift.
Swift jumped and her wings shot out as she heard me come tearing out through the door, and I stopped mid-stride when I saw her. She eyed me up and down, noticing my fatigue. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Great…out of a fire and into a frying pan.
“I’m fine, just… just a bad dream.” I collapsed on one of the chairs by the door, then slouched forward, pressing my face into my hooves. “Just a really… really bad dream….”
Her ears sagged and frowned. She brushed one of her silvery bangs out of her violet eyes and approached me. “Do you get them often?”
I brushed a bead of sweat trailing down my brow. “Too often,” I muttered under my breath.
She studied me a moment, then out of nowhere she asked, “Cold sweats?”
I raised an eyebrow up at her. “Yeah… why?”
She suddenly turned away, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, it’s none of my business,” she said, then she turned to me with a bright smile. “Anything I can do to help?”
“No, just-… just don’t.” I said, holding up a hoof, before pressing both of my forehooves against my eyes. “I’ll be fine. Just give me a minute. Maybe twenty.”
She nodded meekly, and waited for me to say something or do something. I didn’t, so she turned back to the fence and reared up so that she leaned against it and stared up at the night sky. It was still cloudy.
“You think it’ll rain?” she asked.
I looked up at her. “That’s a silly question Corporal.”
“I know… just… I like the rain is all. We don’t get it very much in Grey Sky.”
“It’s just rain Corporal, only really used to water the farmlands. Well, barely, anyway.”
“It’s still nice though.” She looked up off in the distance, that smile still on her face. “When I was a filly, I used to always watch the clouds to see if it rains, and if it does, I’d always stick my head out the window just to get my mane all wet. My friends in school thought it was weird, but I told them that rain only comes around once or twice a month. My dad always laughed whenever I stuck my head out the window on those rainy nights. I’d always beg him to come play outside with me and we’d be out for hours, sometimes rolling around in the mud even when it stops raining. It’s a pain to get all of it out of my feathers once it dries, but I told Dad it was always worth it, even if it involved some painful preening. He wasn’t very good at it, being a unicorn and all,” she said as she stymied a giggle.
I stared silently at the quirky white pegasus for a moment. She caught onto this and beamed at me. “Sorry, I know I probably sound like a little schoolfilly.”
“Yeah, you do,” I said, unamused. She frowned and turned back toward the sky, her ears sagged again.
“Sorry, sir…,” she said meekly.
I stared at her, like she were some kind of puzzle I was trying to figure out, but when I couldn’t solve the solution, I had to ask for the answer.
“Why are you here?”
She looked over her shoulder at me, ears perked up but wearing a confused expression. “I wanted to watch the clouds,” she answered.
“No,” I said. “This mission. The military, even. You don’t look or even act like a pony in the Queen’s army, so why are you here?”
“Oh…,” she said. Her ears sagged again, but she glanced at me and offered a weak smile. “Because of my dad, I guess.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “He was military?”
“Mhmm..., he was an officer. Spent ten years in the service, one of them spent on South Watch.”
“Was he in any expeditions…?” I asked.
“’Thankfully’?” I repeated.
“Don’t get me wrong sir, I know the importance of the expeditions, but… everypony knows that most ponies don’t come back from the Dragonlands.”
“It’s… kind of what we all signed up for Swift. You both should’ve known this when you joined.”
“I know… I just… my dad….” She trailed off.
There was a depressing silence. I didn’t choose a good question to break it with. “Is he…?”
“No, thank the goddesses, no,” she replied quickly. “He… retired. Two years ago.”
I felt a stone drop inside my chest and I looked her in the eye. “Did-… was he at North Hayford?”
After a long pause, she slowly nodded. Then she forced a smile, though her eyes and ears didn’t match it. “My daddy-… dad… was an optimist. ‘Just give the world a little smile, because it could sure use one right now,’ he used to tell me. ‘There’s too much misery in the world, so ponies like us need to show it that there’s so much good in it if you just look for it,” he’d say.” Her ears sagged even lower, and she turned back toward the rails. “He’d always smile. He was the nicest pony in the whole wide world, and he’d do anything he can to make the day just a little bit better. A little bit happier. Then… then one day he came home… his smile was gone. He wouldn’t talk, he wouldn’t eat… and he couldn’t sleep.”
I stared at her, and a great, but unwelcome sense of empathy washed over me.
She continued. “I tried to talk to him, to make him laugh and smile. But he acted like I was never there, like I didn’t exist. He hardly ever left the house, and then he’d have these-… these horrible nightmares. Whenever he woke up, he-… he screamed… he screamed and begged for forgiveness, and he woke up with these cold sweats almost every night for the last two years. It took me over an hour just to get him to go back to sleep. Some days, he can sleep okay, but other days he wakes up every other hour and….” Her head sank. “He had to be admitted to an asylum for treatment… my mom passed away when I was just a filly, and I didn’t have a job. I just… wanted to understand… so… I signed up as a messenger pegasus for the army. I thought… I thought it might tell me how I can help my dad… but…”
“Corporal…,” I started. “I don’t know exactly what you were thinking, but joining the military was a really stupid idea.”
I knew what I just said was harsh, and it was at a bad time, but she needed a reality check, and she needed it well before we got to Equestria.
She looked hurt as she turned back to me. “But… but I just thought-“
“No. You need to wake up and face the facts. There’s no playing or screwing around. Ponies die in our line of work, almost every day. Fuck’s sake, we even kill ponies and unborn foals as part of the routine. Our job is to follow the Queen’s orders so that we maintain order in the country, which includes hurting innocent, starving civilians if need be, and defend the walls with our lives from constant dragon attacks to keep them from invading the country and kick-starting another Dragon War.”
“No. You need to wake up and realize you’re not doing your father any favors by drafting. And that optimism? If you don’t get your head out of the clouds, that will get you killed in minutes- no, seconds out in the field against dragons, bandits, traitors, or worse, and what good would that do your father other than seeing his only daughter be killed in the very thing that got him locked in a padded cell in the first place?”
What the fuck am I doing? a voice in the back of my mind asked.
She frowned and her eyes fell to the floor.
“Now I need you to quit fucking around, get your act together, put your personal affairs and emotional baggage aside, and focus on the mission. You were trained to be a member of the Queen’s finest. You need to act like it, or you’re going to get ponies killed trying to protect you.”
“Y-…yes, sir…” she said, meekly.
“Now we need to be up by dusk, so you need to go back to your quarters and sleep. That’s an order.”
She slowly nodded, and slunk past me. Once she opened the door, she glanced over her shoulder at me. I wasn’t sure what her expression was. Sad, sure but… was it… pity? I couldn’t tell for sure; she turned away a second later and went back inside the inn.
I sighed, and grinded my hoof against my forehead.
What the hell did I just do?
Swift and I talked. I don’t want to think about it, to be honest.
Anyway, I took like another half hour before I went back to sleep for some of the day, but not for too long. I ended up staying inside my room until dusk finally crawled up to us. I really, really wanted to go later, because as you probably know, nightbreed eyes are very, very sensitive to bright light, including daylight. Unfortunately, Walker was insistent, so I had to spend another hour outside just to get my eyes to adjust to the light.
Maybe if we waited another hour, maybe two so I could have my good night vision, or if we went another hour or two earlier where my eyes would’ve had more time to adjust… what happened next just maybe could’ve turned out a little better.
One thing I should’ve fucking checked before we set out were bandit sightings in the Shale, because before we knew it, not even an hour after we entered the Crag, we trotted right into a fucking ambush.
I counted two, maybe three dozen bandits consisting of earth ponies, unicorns, pegasi, and nightbreeds, and that didn’t include the ponies at our flank. Even though I could barely make them out in the partially-blinding light of the setting sun, I could tell they outnumbered the ten of us easily.
We got stopped by a broken down and turned-over cart that was blocking the path, and that’s when these raggedly dressed raiders showed up. They came from behind the cart, from foxholes with rock covers in the sides of the cliff, and from behind various large boulders scattered around the field. Us on the other hoof, we were completely exposed.
We were in a tense stand-off with a few that stood directly in our path, each side pointing their cannons at the other. Walker and Swift hid behind myself and two of our escorts from the village, while the rest had their sights trained at our sides and flank. It was only a matter of time before somepony took the first shot.
Then their ringleader, an orange-red earth stallion with a crimson mane and dressed in black rags, swung around the corner of the cart. “Well, well, lookie what we got here folks. We’ve got us a little merry band o’ mutants, and they’ve got lots of goodies ripe for the taking,” he said with a smirk as he eyeballed our cart, then he glanced over my shoulder at Swift. “Ooh, and they’ve got a pretty little pegasus with ‘em too. This seems like our lucky day.”
“In the name of Her Majesty, Queen Luna, ruler of the Twenty-Six Territories of the Lunar Confederacy, you are to drop your weapons and cease hostility immediately. If you don’t comply, we are authorized to use deadly force,” I ordered.
He laughed. Of course that didn’t work… never does with these bastards.
“What, the eight o’ you against all of us? I swear you freaks get dumber with every passing day. Tell ya what, mutie. Give us what you got in the cart and that smokin’ piece of flank you got behind you and we might consider letting the rest of you go. But y’know, that’s no guarantee.”
“I’m not gonna tell you again. You’re interfering with a high-priority mission sanctioned by the Queen and Council. If you don’t lay down your arms, we will be forced to open fire. You hear me?”
“Loud and clear batty, but maybe you didn’t hear me. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re in no position to give me orders. But hey, I don’t have a problem with taking what all you got off your corpses, how ‘bout the rest of you guys?” the ringleader asked the rest of his crew, who laughed and cheered. Then he turned back to us and smirk. “So what’ll it be? Your goods, or your lives and your goods?”
I was about to put a round between the bastard’s eyes. We would’ve gotten a few kills in and taken up defensive positions around the cart and what little cover we can manage, but at least we’d get the first shot. Not to mention I had a secret weapon waiting for my signal. But that’s not what happened.
Fucking bandits. I swear by all the stars in the sky, they can’t take a damn hint. We’ve killed hundreds of their kind, but thousands more have taken their place all over the country.
I swear if it weren’t for Peace Walker I would’ve shot them the second their ringleader opened his big mouth.
“Ash, stand down! Let me talk to these ponies,” said Walker as he tried to push past me, which I resisted.
“Stay out of this Walker,” I ordered, pushing him behind me.
“We can negotiate with them!” he exclaimed in a loud whisper.
I shot him a very brief look. “Are you fucking crazy? You can’t negotiate with these ponies Walker.”
“Ash, be reasonable, we can just-
“Walker, you don’t know how these bastards work,” I interrupted. “Even if we gave them our supplies, they still kill us.”
“You don’t know that!”
I shoved him behind me and trained my cannon on the ringleader again, but then that was when Walker broke through the guards and I. I tried to grab him with a foreleg but I missed.
“Walker!” I loudly whispered.
That fucking ambassador.
If he had so much as a shred of an idea what these bandits were capable of, he wouldn’t have fucked over that stand-off.
Bandits don’t just steal. It used to be only about stealing food, now they burned villages to the ground, they mutilated innocent civilians, they raped and killed them, and a number of other atrocities I don’t even wanna mention. They’re heartless, mindless animals, and Walker thought he could try where myself and others failed.
He almost got us all killed.
“Who the fuck are you?” asked the bandit ringleader.
“My name is Peace Walker. I’m an ambassador representing Her Majesty, Queen Luna. These soldiers and I are on a very important mission for the Queen. We’re not here to cause trouble, and I’d like to propose a compromise, if you’ll hear us out.”
“A ‘compromise’?” he laughed, so did the rest of the bandits.
“Walker, I’m telling you,” I warned. “Back off.”
The bandit leader regained his composure and waved the a hoof in the air, ordering his band of criminals to calm down. “Alright, alright, hah. Okay, official, what kind of deal do you have in mind?” he asked in a twisted, sarcastic manner.
The ambassador however, was unfazed. He kept his composure, and spoke with confidence. “We’re on our way to Equestria so that we can talk about the outpost attack here on the east border, you know about that, right?”
“Yeah, and…?” the ringleader replied.
“We’re going there to ask them about the attack, but we’re also going to talk about establishing a trade route-
“Get to the point, official. You’re making me lose my patience,”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to waste your time. The point is that we’re going to get food. Enough for the entire country, yourselves included.” The ringleader quirked an eyebrow. Walker continued. “You do want food after all, right? Isn’t that why you want our stuff?”
“Hmm, maybe you got a point. But you’re probably lying. Nopony goes to Equestria.”
“Well, we are. Look, we can give you a bit of the food we have in exchange for safe passage. Call it collateral, if you will. Now you look like a very smart pony, I can see that. Only a smart pony could’ve put a trap like this together.”
The bandit leader reacted positively to the compliment with a small smirk. “Well, I can at least agree with you there.”
“Right, so, the smart stallion that you are, you can see what would happen if we were to create this trade route with Equestria, right? All the food you could ever imagine. You’ll have full bellies and never need to starve again. On my honor, I promise you this, but only if you let us go.”
Walker locked eye contact with the ring leader, who was pacing a little, mulling the idea over. To anypony else, it would’ve seemed like he was considering it, but to me…
“Walker, please, listen to me,” I said, quietly. “He’s not going to make the deal-
“Hey! Mutie! Shut the fuck up, will ya?” barked one of the bandits.
“They’re plannin’ something boss, we should just kill ‘em,” said another.
The ringleader tilted his head, and leaned from one side to the other as he stood there, staring at Walker. “Hmm… interesting deal… very interesting indeed…” he began.
But in the end… I have no right to blame him. He tried. Far more than I or anypony else ever did. I thought maybe, just maybe, for a second, that the bandits would let us go. Maybe these ponies were different. Maybe there was real good still in this world…
…and maybe I was wrong.
A few seconds passed, and some of the other bandits started looking to their leader in confusion as he mulled over Walker’s proposal.
“What do you say?” Walker asked. “Do we have an accord?”
He tried hard. He really did.
I saw the bandit’s mouth slowly open and his forehoof raise in the air, ready to give an order to his followers. When I saw this…
I whistled a tune.
But I couldn’t take any chances.
A flash of red flew right into the ringleader’s skull from the sky and out the other side, sending a chunk of brain matter and scorched bone blasting out of his head as he fell limp to the ground.
“It was a fucking trick! KILL ‘EM!” shouted one of the bandits.
All hell broke loose.
Cannon fire began to rain in every direction from both sides. “Take cover and return fire!” I ordered to the other soldiers, as I ran up and grabbed a shocked Walker’s tail in my teeth and pulled him back behind a low rock just before one of the bandits took his head off. Two of the guards broke left and took cover behind a small boulder while they tried to pick off bandits that rained fire from above. Swift took cover by the cart while the other soldier tried to move past her and I to guard the flank. The bandits meanwhile had us suppressed, at least the ones that weren’t trying to find the aerial assailant that killed their leader. Said assailant was Jetstorm, who was raining cannonfire from above and picking off the opposition one by one with very well-placed shots.
Once the ambassador and I were safely behind cover, Walker shouted over the cannonfire as I armed the C.L.a.W.’s cannon. “What did you do?! I could’ve talked him down!”
“I just saved your ass ambassador, now stay the fuck down!” I shouted back as a bolt of red energy whizzed past our heads.
I stood up on my hind legs and aimed my weapon, left hoof on the trigger mechanism, ready to fire the C.L.a.W.’s cannon for the first time. As the target reticule from the T.C.E.D. helped me line up my aim with one of my targets, I only just noticed three barrels rise out of the three flat bar-pieces of the device and three cylinders popped out of them. When I pulled the trigger, a resounding thud was accompanied by the signature pulsed explosion of the blast leaving all three barrels at once, with all three converging on a single target’s chest. The shot exploded across his chest and sent him flying back a few feet along with a thick spray of blood.
One of the bandits saw me kill his comrade, and opened fire on my position. I ducked.
I was going to be relying on the T.C.E.D. the whole fight, since I still had trouble trying to see in the bright whiteness where I could barely make out colors and shapes of the world and ponies around me. I’m sure the other nightbreeds in our party weren’t going to be faring as well either.
We were at a major disadvantage.
Looking back, I could’ve made a better choice. There were more options, but I didn’t consider them all. Maybe if I just said something different to Walker at the Perch, or Swift in the inn, maybe the battle could’ve been avoided, or played out completely differently.
I fired at a couple cannon-wielders that were shooting at us from one of the slopes, killing them with a few well-placed shots, and their bodies tumbled down the cliff-side.
Walker was huddled against the rock, trying to keep his head down as I fired over it when he shouted at me. “Behind you!”
I whipped around just in time to see a bandit wielding a crude spear charging straight for me and was seconds from plunging the tip of it into me. I stood up on my hindlegs and sidestepped the blade, grabbing it with my foreleg, then swung my body around and used the momentum of the spin as he charged past then jammed the hoofblade through the back of his skull, killing him instantly.
Another bandit charged at us with another spear, but I saw him coming early this time. I shoved the corpse of the first spear-wielder back at him, who tried to dodge but failed, then I raised my weapon and fired a round into his skull.
I heard a mare shouting a war cry as she charged up behind me. Seeing her over my shoulder, and timing my swing just right, I whipped my body, and my hoofblade, around and sliced her throat open, causing her body to collapse in a heap beside me.
Two more bandits charged for me, one wielding a sword made out of a sharpened piece of bended metal in his teeth, and the other from above equipped with a hoofblade. Both were coming at me from the sides.
The pony with the blade tried to swing his sword at me, which I ducked past and slashed my hoofblade through his legs. I recovered, took aim at the hoofblade wielder from above, and killed him with two well-placed shots to his chest and head.
Then I heard a scream.
It was Swift, and there was a bandit tearing at her full stride, intent on the kill.
“Swift!” I shouted, whipping the cannon around and fired at the bandit.
“FUCK!” I cursed, and without delay I galloped at the approaching bandit who was about to bring his knife down on the curled up and frightened pegasus. I charged in and plowed into the bandit before he could strike, then I stuck my own blade into his throat before he had a chance to react.
Swift screamed, covering her head in her hooves as she huddled up against the side of the cart.
This is fucking chaos out here! I thought to myself as I took cover by the cart and reloaded my ammo. Walker followed behind me and huddled next to Swift.
I looked to the ambassador, and risked a peek over the cart to assess the situation. There were still over a dozen bandits in the area and we were too exposed. That’s not counting the three or four pegasi Jetstorm was in a dogfight with up above us.
I had to get the ambassador out of here, and I had to do it now. I risked another peek over the cart, the other two soldiers were still trying to hold the line.
“Damn it,” I seethed through my teeth, then turned to the only pony that wasn’t occupied in the battle. “Swift!”
She was still whimpering and curled up in a ball.
“SWIFT!” I shouted. She still didn’t respond.
I leaned down and shook her. “SWIFT! Look at me, LOOK AT ME!” I shouted, until she finally made eye contact, she was on the verge of tears. “Listen, I need you to take Walker and make a run for the outpost, it’s not that far, you can make it but you need to go now. Right now. You hear me?”
“I can’t!” she wailed. “I can’t, I’m scared-
I shook her again. “Listen to me! Jetstorm’s going with you and the other soldiers and I are going to cover you, but I need you to take Walker and run. You’re the only one who can.”
“I CAN’T!” she screamed, holding her head in her hooves. “I can’t, I can’t, I don’t want to, I’m scared,” she went off into an incoherent tangent mixed with crying and whimpering.
“Swift, if you don’t, both of you are going to die here, okay? I need you to get him out of here. We’re going to cover you, okay? You’ll be fine!” I shouted to her. A shot whizzed past our heads and another slammed into the side of the cart. “Damn it!” I shouted, then looked over the cart and fired off a few blind rounds in the general direction of the bandits, then pressed my hoof to my earpiece. “Jet! I need you to cover Swift and Walker.”
“I’m a little busy up here boss!” his voice crackled into my ear.
“Jet we’re fucking pinned down out here and we need to get the ambassador out of here!”
“Fuck! Hang on a sec-...... HEADS UP!” I quickly looked up, only to see a body of a pegasus raider collapse on the cart, his side scorched from a blast of energy and his dead eyes staring vacantly in the distance. Swift screamed when the body landed.
I leaned down in front of her and lifted her head to make her look at me. “Swift, don’t look at him, don’t look at him,” I urged. She was trying to glance at the corpse hanging over the cart but I made her keep eye contact. “Listen to me, you need to go now. Right now.”
She hesitantly nodded. “O-Okay…” she murmured, still in shock.
“Okay, now wait for my signal. When I say, you and Walker run straight down that way,” I pointed down the path. “You keep running and don’t stop, the outpost isn’t far. They’ll protect you. You got it?”
“I-… I don’t know if-
“Do you got it?!”
“I-… o-okay… I got it…”
“Alright, wait for my-
Another round slammed into the rail of the cart, sending a few chunks of wood into the air. Swift yelped.
I shook her again and looked her in the eye. “Swift, go on my signal,” I told her sternly, then leaned over the damaged cart and the body to fire a few rounds at some bandits taking cover up the cliffside. I pressed the button on my earpiece. “Jet, you good?”
“I’m trying to break off. Give me like- SHIT!” There was a loud pulse noise. “Fuck, I don’t know, a minute.”
“You’ve got twenty seconds,” I said and clicked off the radio. I’m sure he was going to argue but I didn’t have time to listen to it. I turned to swift. “You ready?”
She hesitantly nodded. I was about to peek up again when Walker grabbed my foreleg. “Ash, we can’t just leave you here.”
“This isn’t up for debate ambassador.” I pulled my foreleg free. “Your job is to stay alive, and I will not let you fuck up your job, now get ready.”
He was about to try and argue again, but a loud explosion of dirt blew up next to him from a blast of energy and interrupted him. I leaned over and shot a couple more blind rounds over the cart, then took cover and pressed my hoof to my ear again. “Alright, all of you, we need to give Swift, the VIP and Jetstorm cover fire, on my mark.”
I glanced at Swift and the ambassador. She was still scared out of her wits, though Walker was still extremely reluctant to leave. I waited for a lull in the cannonfire.
“NOW!” I barked into the microphone, swung over cover and began firing at the bandits, suppressing them and forcing them to take cover. The other five soldiers were providing what additional covering fire they could, and Jet hovered low over Swift and Walker as the two of them bolted from cover and started running.
“Come on!” shouted Walker, the white pegasus slowly lagging behind him.
“Covering!” shouted one of the nightbreed soldiers.
He stepped away from cover, and was completely exposed.
Alarmed, I shouted toward the exposed nightbreed soldier. “Get back in cover!”
He didn’t hear me, or ignored me, because he kept moving farther and farther in cover, using himself to shield Swift and Walker.
“Get the fuck down you idiot! That’s an order!” I barked at him, but again, my words fell on deaf ears.
Swift suddenly tripped.
The soldier saw this, and tried to help her up. “Come on! Get up!” he shouted to her. “Keep moving, get to the Outpost!” He helped her get up and running again. Once she was back on her hooves, he turned to resume covering-
A bolt went through both sides of his head.
“NO!” I shouted, running to him and grabbing him just before his body hit the floor. “Stallion down!” I shouted, and started dragging him back toward the cart with me, while the remaining soldiers continued to try and keep the enemy suppressed on all sides.
Once I got him behind the cart, I prayed to all the stars in the sky that he was okay.
But I knew I was fooling myself.
He was dead.
“FUCK!” I shouted, punching the cart.
I grit my teeth, tried to get myself to focus on the mission, but it was proving impossible. I wanted to kill those bandits. Every single one of them.
A voice blared through my earpiece. “I’m dry, sir!”
“So am I,” said another voice.
I pressed my hoof to the earpiece. “Hold this position,” I said, taking my hoof off as I stared at my dead comrade. I shook it off. I had to. “We need to give them enough time to get away from here.”
I paused, then pressed the button on the earpiece again.
“Kill as many of these fuckers as you can while you’re at it.”
Ten long, grueling minutes had passed since I told Swift and Jet to get Walker out of the combat zone, and we managed to whittle their numbers down to a small few, though I was the one who did the bulk of the whittling with my hoofblade and cannon, and even managed to kill one using the levitation mechanic of the C.L.a.W. and a spear.
One of the four remaining nightbreed officers were hit, and two of the others were completely out of ammo. It was too risky to try and fish for more out of the cart, since the remaining bandits had the higher ground along the cliffsides. I was down to just a couple crystals left that I had on me, including the one I just popped into the clip.
I tried to cover the wounded nightbreed, who was clutching his scorched shoulder, by shooting at the bandits up the steep cliff, but from the angle, I couldn’t hit them worth a damn. There were at least three of them tucked in a type of crater in the cliffside, which gave them adequate cover.
“Sir!” shouted one of the voices belonging to a soldier who was trying to clear some of the bandits in the cliff to my flank. “This side’s clear.”
I ducked behind a rock and pressed the transmitter button on the earpiece. “Alright, I need you to work your way over here.”
“Yes sir!” he responded. “Also, we’re both almost dry on ammo here. We can’t do much to provide support.”
“Copy,” I replied. I watched the two of them take cover behind the cart. “Stay down, they still got a good vantage point up there. Hold your fire and wait for my command.”
“Got it,” he responded. I turned my attention back up the steep slope. They were at least several yards higher than us. Flying to get the drop on them proved to be a bad idea, which was what led to the injury of the soldier next to me.
“Sir,” said the unwounded soldier next to me. “I’m out. Do you have any ammo?”
I reached for my pocket, and produced the only spare crystal I had left. “This is all I got left,” I said. I was about to give it to him, when an idea struck me. “Wait…”
Something Jetstorm said earlier about the C.L.a.W. device and using the levitation mechanism with power crystals and trying to fire the cannon at the same time. I looked at the crystal, then back up toward where the surviving bandits were holed up.
“I got an idea.”
“Sir?” asked the soldier.
I pressed the button on my earpiece. “Do you have enough shots to cover me for a few seconds?”
“I don’t know sir, why?” one of them asked.
I looked up the hill, and hit the button again. “Just answer the question,”
“Maybe for a few seconds, yeah.”
“Alright, good. On my mark, I want you to shoot directly at the group up the hill here. I’m going to try something.”
“Uh, alright, sir. Just say when.”
I really, really hoped that this crazy plan of mine wouldn’t backfire on me, especially since there was a very high chance of it.
“Alright, NOW!” I shouted, without using the earpiece, and began running up the mountain. I tried to keep myself a small target as the soldiers behind the cart started firing an intermittent series of shots up at the bandits who were trying to pop their head out. I kept my belly flat to the rock and moved as quickly and carefully as I could to a large rock just a short distance away that was sticking out of the cliff.
Just a little further…
One of the bandits saw me climbing and tried to take a pop shot at me, but I fired at him first, though it missed and hit the rock just under his foreleg. At least he took cover and bought me a couple more seconds.
I made it, though the other nightbreeds ceased firing, so my cover was gone. I took the spare crystal I had left out of my pocket again and stared at it for a moment.
I really, really hope this works…
I picked up the crystal in the C.L.a.W.’s levitation field.
Okay, the energy inside it’s not red yet… so far so good.
Then came the tricky part. I slowly raised my hoof to the cannon’s trigger mechanism… and pulled.
There was a very uncomfortable, low humming sound coming from the device. I watched the crystal.
The energy inside it turned red.
Okay… just a few more seconds…
A bead of sweat trailed down my brow. I refused to blink.
The glow got darker… and darker… and darker…
Then it turned black.
I leaned away from behind the rock, swung my foreleg back, then with a hefty throw, I sent the crystal flying through the air.
Then I started running my tail off!
I could only just make out the sound of the thing clinking against the cliff, and I was grateful that for whatever reason, the bandits weren’t shooting at me. I imagined they saw me throw it and wondered why.
That didn’t stop me from running full gallop down the cliff.
“GET DOWN!” I shouted repeatedly at the other soldiers on the road.
The force of the blast shook the earth violently and an earsplitting electric pulse cracked and buzzed fiercely loud through the air, and my body spiraled out of control like a ragdoll as it was thrown into the air. I hit the ground hard, landing on my left wing. As I laid there, reeling in pain from the landing, I looked up at where the bandits were.
Or at least what was left of them.
There was a thick cloud of black smoke, with vapor trails spraying in all directions from debris, I assumed. In the smoke, there were frighteningly red miniature lightning storms sizzling and popping about in the cloud. A few more crimson-colored lights blinked in and out of existence inside the black cloud, before it disappeared completely.
That’s when it started to rain debris, though I don’t think I wanted to even fathom a guess as to what some of the debris even was.
I watched, both horrified, and in awe, at the result of my reckless stunt, so much so, that I didn’t see a bandit charging at me.
He was half-crazed with anger.
But out of that… the most unexpected thing happened.
“You sick fuck! That was my brother up there you sick, fucking monster!” he shouted as he tackled me to the ground, trying to stab me with his hoofblade.
There was a burning rage in his eyes.
“You’re a monster! You’re a crazy, murdering fucking monster!” he screamed, punching me with his unarmed hoof and trying to stick his blade into my throat that I was barely holding back. “Die! Die damn it! Just! Fucking! DIE!!!”
I couldn't hold him back. He was going to kill me.
Just when I thought I was dead, and just when I thought I knew him…
“EEAAGGH!!” shouted a stallion, who then plowed his body into the bandit who tried to kill me.
“Get the fuck off me! Let me kill that sick bastard!” shouted the mad bandit. “GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME!”
I finally got up just as the bandit kicked off my rescuer, then turned to me a second later.
“DIE!” he shouted again, and charged.
I was ready for him.
He stabbed, I caught the blade, then slammed my hoof down on it, breaking his foreleg, then elbowed his jaw. Once he was stumbled back onto his hind legs, I swiped my hoofblade, and cut his throat.
I watched as the blood poured out and the sickening gargle of him choking on his blood, but never once did he break eye contact me, even as he fell, and even as the light left his eyes, his gaze still looked at me with all its’ fury and hatred.
My rescuer groaned a little. I turned to him, wondering who it was. I thought it was one of the soldiers.
It was Peace Walker.
The ambassador saves my life. After how shitty I treated him, out of nowhere, this fucking politician of all ponies, he comes back when I told him to leave, and he saved my life.
“You okay?” he asked.
I glared at him, then started shouting. “What are you doing back here? I told you to go to the Outpost!”
“I know. I decided to come back instead.”
“What the fuck were you thinking?!” I shoved him against a rock. “You could’ve gotten yourself killed!”
“I don’t care, Lieutenant. You were all still in trouble and I wanted to help.”
“Are you seriously that fucking stupid ambassador? You’re not expendable on this mission, we are!”
“That’s a lie. You’re not expendable Lieutenant, nopony is,” he said, then shoved my hooves away from him. “I don’t care if you hate me for it, but I wasn’t about to abandon all of you, even if the Queen ordered me to and my life depended on it.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. “You… stupid…,” I grumbled, bringing an accusatory hoof up, but I struggled to form anymore words. Eventually, seeing as it was pointless to argue with him, I gave up. I was far too exhausted and in pain to argue. “Just… just go help the others. One of them’s hit.”
“Alright,” he said.
“Wait,” I said. “Where’s Swift and Jet?”
“They’re fine. They’re probably doubling back for me right now I bet.”
I stared at him in disbelief for a few more moments, then sighed and shook my head.
Looking back though…
My ear twitched. That didn’t come from me, or Walker, or even the other soldiers.
I followed the sound, and Walker, who heard it too, followed behind me.
The coughing led us to a wounded bandit. He got a bad scorch in the shoulder, but it was far from fatal.
“Goddesses...,” said Walker.
There was a silence that hung in the air as we stared at this bandit.
“We should help him,” Walker suddenly said.
The bandit slowly opened his eyes, and looked between the two of us. “Help… help me… please…,” he begged pathetically.
“We can’t let him go,” I said.
The bandit’s pupils shrunk, and Walker ran in front of me.
“Ashen! He’s done, he can’t fight back.”
I glared at the ambassador.
“If we let him go, he’ll just kill some other poor pony who crosses paths with him,” I explained.
“No, I won’t, please…” begged the bandit. “Please, just let me go, please….” He was on the verge of tears.
“Ash, let him go, please,” begged Walker now. “There’s been enough bloodshed today.”
I look Walker in the eye. “…Alright, go get the medical supplies then. They’ll be in the cart.”
“Alright, I’ll be right back.”
I waited for the ambassador to take just a few more steps away. Once he was far enough…
“No, PLEASE! DON’T!!”
I don’t think I deserved it.
“Ashen?! What have you done!?”
I killed a pony in cold blood almost right after he did. He saved my life and I betrayed him by doing that.
What’s worse is that I don’t know whether or not I regret it. In fact, I don’t know if I regret my decision, or that Walker saw me do it.
Who saves a guy like that? Why couldn’t it have been the stallion who sacrificed himself to protect Swift and Walker instead of me?
Maybe I’m overthinking it, I don’t know. That’s probably my tiredness talking now. It’s getting close to morning, and reading everything I wrote, this journal’s getting long in the tooth, so I’m going to have to leave it here for tonight. If I got time tomorrow before our train arrives for Canterlot, I’ll pick this up then. For now though, I’m just going to try to get some sleep and take my mind off of things.
Though Doc, just for the record, I’m starting to wonder if the point of these journals isn’t to make me feel better by venting or whatever, but remind me of the consequences from the choices I’ve made or I’m about to make.
If that’s the case, then I’ll say it now. You’re a real bastard Doc.