The Dusk Guard Saga: Hunter/Hunted

by Viking ZX

First published

An ancient, lost empire is on the verge of returning from its imprisonment, and the Dusk Guard have been dispatched. Their mission? Retake the city, secure it, and above all, keep its ancient ruler from seizing control once more.

Long ago, a city of great magical power and ability was beset by evil and sealed away beyond the scope of time. Now that seal has begun to fray.

First Lieutenant Hunter and the rest of the Dusk Guard have been dispatched. At face value, their mission seems straightforward: Secure the city. Hold until reinforced.

But nothing for the Dusk Guard is ever quite that simple, and this mission is no exception. As the city nears its return so does its ancient king, a shade who once wielded enough power to bring even immortals to their knees. And if he is allowed to regain his throne, will once more. Worse, the city may very well be under the iron hoof of his own followers, a ruthless order who will stop at nothing to see their king regain his former glory.

Dark magics. Cities lost to time. Ancient evil.

The Dusk Guard's first official mission has begun.



Book III of The Dusk Guard Saga
Epic Fantasy
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Can be found on TV Tropes at The Dusk Guard Saga’s page (Page outdated)
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Alpha and Beta read by Halusm, Seirs, Bugsydor, and son_of_heaven176. Many thanks for your help!
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Author’s note: From time to time you may encounter a hotlink in the text. These hotlinks are background themes I listened to when writing the fic and can be clicked or passed over at your own choice. It is recommended that for maximum enjoyment beforehand if you do wish to follow them, make sure that your volume settings on YouTube are at a comfortable level and make use of Ctrl+Shft+Clicking or the middle mouse button to open the song in a new tab. Be aware that there may be ads if you do not have an adblocker.

Or just don’t click on them until later. They are an entirely optional experience, and can be passed over without incident.

Prologue - Fray

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Who am I!?

The call echoed through the void around him, bounding and rebounding in strange ways, echoing back in a twisted mockery of his own words.

Who are you? Who were you? What were you? And beneath them, unbidden, came the voices.

Nothing. A failure. A mockery. A shadow.

No!

He lashed out against the voices, against his own mind. Because they were his own mind. His own thoughts, echoing back at him from the strange edges of his prison. Clawing at his thoughts, screeching at him from the dark corners of his existence.

Failure. Nothing. Weak.

No! His “voice” echoed out once more, a pulse shrieking free of his form and cascading back against him as the shell of his prison reflected it back. The keening sound of his own rage cut across his mind like the fine edge of a razor, pain cascading through his being. But he wouldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. No!

I am not weak! I am not nothing! The words tore out of him, cascading in all directions, twisting, spinning, and corkscrewing as they broke against the walls of his cell like waves against a fortress.

Ice waves … some small part of him suggested as the shouts tore into him once more, his own anger slamming back into his form with blows that were almost physical. Ice waves?

It was a memory, broken and fragmented. A single image of … a place? A dream? He could no longer tell. So much of his mind was in tatters, broken over the ages by his imprisonment.

You don’t even know who you are … The thought oozed out of the darkness like poison, seeping into his soul and digging in deep. You remember nothing!

Lies! He pulled inward, away from the walls of his prison, away from the endless echoes of his own voice. I remember … I remember …

Pieces. Fragments. Split by tiny fractures that ran through his mind. He’d been important. Powerful. He knew that much. Grand. On his way to becoming … He let out a cry as he tried to reach through the splintered void that was his mind. Something. He could no longer say what. He’d know at some point, back when he’d first been imprisoned. But that memory was lost to time, lost to the countless years he’d been locked away. He wasn’t even sure how long it had been. But the memory was gone. Whatever he’d been destined for … was out of reach. He couldn’t even bring it to mind.

He could remember the rage, though. The ceaseless anger. Burning inside of him like black cloud, sweeping away everything in its path. Even with his memories gone, he could still feel the seething rage, burning, always burning.

He could remember other things too. There had been a battle. A monumental one. With who, he couldn’t quite recall. He had visions, sometimes, flashes of imagery when the broken pieces of his mind drifted into place. A duo, clad in resplendent, terrible armor. Powerful as the … as the …

He no longer knew. But they had been powerful, he knew that. And there had been two of them. An elder, and a younger. Sisters both.

Their names were as lost to time as his own.

Still, he remembered … a battle. Combat. In bits and flashes, brief moments of triumph and rage.

He remembered that he had lost.

Weak.

Somehow, they had won. They had stood against him, that pair. They had meant to take everything from him. They had succeeded.

Almost … The word trickled out of his consciousness like a faint stream of water from a sheering iceberg. He remembered … remembered …

His body. He’d lost it somehow, hadn’t he? In escaping their clutches? Except that he hadn’t escaped. He remembered … a sealing of some kind. That was how he’d come to be in his prison, trapped by the walls with too many sides and too many directions … wasn’t it?

Another memory surfaced, a faint glimpse of a muzzle, a long horn, burning with magic. A forgotten spell.

No, he thought, the cackling of his own mind echoing back at him. Not just my spell.

There had been several spells. One was his own, a burning, all-encompassing thing that had swept away his very form, making him …

What am I? Who am I? If he’d had a head to shake, he would have done so. Why did I do it!? But the memory was gone, along with so much else. But he could remember … satisfaction. Yes, that was it. Deep satisfaction, welling up within him. He’d lost, yes … he could recall the anger, the burning fury as his destiny was snatched away.

Then why? Why the satisfaction?

His thoughts seemed … clearer than normal. Not by much. Then again, he didn’t know how long it had been since he’d slipped back into sanity, into contemplation. Time in his cell was … immaterial. Wrong. Eons could have passed in the real world … or seconds. He could not tell. He didn’t even know how many times he’d broken, gone mad and lashed out at the walls around him, the reflections of his anger and rage rebounding back on him and shattering what little sense of self he had left. Five? Ten? A dozen? More?

It didn’t matter. He was trapped. He’d been trapped. His mind flickered once more, the amorphous mass that made up his essence shifting and coiling as another piece of memory surfaced. A powerful spell, strands of magic wrapping around his very essence. Fear and anger surging through him … along with … triumph?

The younger one. I did something to her.

No, not just to her. There had been a city. A civilization. An empire. Frozen and cold. His consciousness clawed at the image, a silent scream echoing across the void as he attempted to force its secrets out of it.

Crystal. The word came to mind and was gone again, the memory shattering as his own howls rebounded back once more. His essence shifted, rolling and roiling as the echoes of his cries tore into him. They had been smart with his cell, his prison, those two. Binding him outside of time. And he … And he …

He had done something to make them regret it. More than he’d done to the younger of the pair. He’d interfered with the spell, hadn’t he? Bound it through him to something else. It had been rushed … incomplete. But it had been enough, he remembered, to steal away their victory, to deprive them of that which was—

Rightfully MINE!

For a moment he froze, stunned as the words rolled away from him, bouncing off of the void at impossible angles. Soon they’d be back, and he’d be forced to endure another onslaught as the sisters’ prison reflected his own rage back at him.

But there was something … wrong about that, wasn’t it?

No … some part of him hinted. Wrong about you.

His cry slammed into him, sliding across his soul like hot blades across bare flesh, the anger searing him. The feeble concentration he’d pieced together shattered, the few bits of himself he’d managed to collect scattering once more. Existence once again became madness as new cries echoed forth from his being, snapping back to torment him once more.

And then he stopped, shocked. Something … had changed. Something was wrong.

Who am I? He ignored the question, as he did the faint stirrings of thought that he’d just been thinking about something important, something vital. Something … else … was wrong. He couldn’t put a hoof on it—not that he had any, not anymore. He couldn’t even remember what it felt like to have physical form. Just as he couldn’t remember his name.

Who am I!?

The cry was plaintive. Lost.

Weak.

But the reflection that came back to him now, that clawed into his soul and threatened to make what little sanity he’d acquired break once more … was off.

Weak.

Something had changed. Something was … different.

Weak.

For the first time he could remember, he moved, willing the shadowy clumps of magic and spirit he’d become to move, to slide through the void toward the vivid edges of his cell. He couldn’t “see” them in the traditional sense. His eyes were as long-since-gone as his hooves, burned away when he’d completed the spell to make himself a being of pure energy, able to use the full might of—

Pain lanced through him as the walls of his mind slammed shut. But something about the way they did so felt …

Familiar. The word oozed through him like a shiver. Yes, familiar.

The world around him spun as he neared the multi-sided walls, time and space bent by the powerful magics that had locked him away. He could sense the threads faintly through the walls, the spellwork that had warped the very fabric of reality, tearing and folding it like … like … There was a word for it, he knew. He just couldn’t remember it.

But the magic had done it. Thick threads of golden-yellow and cobalt-blue winding in complicated patterns that could have possibly driven him mad if he hadn’t been already. And mixed with those, faint threads of red, black, and purple, like parasites feeding off of what had already been woven, using their strength to add a layer of their own. To seal … something important, he was sure of it. The sight of the strands brought back that same feeling of triumph, even if he couldn’t recall why.

Who are you?

Weak.

Nothing.

Failure.

Shadow.

The voices tumbled around him, but he ignored them, even as their echoes bit into his being. There was something about them, something about the way they were burning into him, that—

THERE!

He felt it, now. The echoes around him were not all equal. The reflections from the void were disproportionate to one another.

Echoes rolled back into him, digging into his form, but he didn’t care now. He needed them. The pain would show him the way. He turned, following the path of each echo, sliding along the wall toward one infinite point.

Then he saw it. The thread had weakened. Here much of the spellwork had been blue, been from … the younger of the pair. He’d done … something … to her? To the spell? Again there was that strange sense of triumph.

Who are you?

The thread had weakened. Something had eaten away at it. It was thinner than it should have been. Had been? Would be? No, that wasn’t right. But it was thinner.

He pressed himself up against the edge of his prison, ignoring the faint sense of discomfort that came from being so close to the spell. Long, long ago, before he’d gone mad, he’d pushed against the barriers. That, and the endless damage of his own anger, had forced himself to feed on his own essence to survive. That was why he was weak. That was why his own memories were so fragmented. He’d turned on himself to—

He paused. I remember. Faint slivers on the edge of his mind were sliding together now, and with a trembling sense of completeness, he felt it.

Magic. Leaking through the void. Ever so faint.

When he should have been sealed.

His prison was weakening.

But not enough. The faint trickle he was now feeling was far too little to sustain him. But if it could be widened …

Who are you!?

He ignored the mad mutterings of his own mind ranting at the pieces of his past. The seal was weakening. He could see it now. He pressed up against the side of his prison, spirit burning at the touch of the spell that kept him imprisoned … but not as painfully as it once had.

With a snarl he surged into it, ignoring the sudden pain as whole clumps of his being burned away. His snarl became a maddened howl of rage as he slammed his form against the wall again, only to stop as, even as more of him burned away, he felt the walls of his prison give.

Eons or decades, he couldn’t say. But the walls had never flexed. They were supposed to be immovable. Unyielding until the spell was either released from the outside … or the magic holding his walls in place failed.

Or he ceased to exist, torn apart by his own rage, and it no longer mattered.

He pressed again, shoving his being against the walls and watching as the spellwork binding them bent again. His spirit was howling in agony, more of him burning away with every second.

Who are you?

He would die before he found out. Or before he gave up. He could see the strands stretching, the parasitic growths that were his own infesting them, stretching alongside the weakened blue. He could feel himself fading too, breaking apart as more of more of what little was left of him burned away.

No! He pushed harder, his words changing to scream as his body bled away.

And then, with a sudden snap he felt rather than heard, the weakened strand broke, the thread of overstressed spellwork coming apart and unwinding. He shot back, away from the accursed walls as the prison shuddered. He could see the reverberations of that single strand moving through the entire spell, each piece and part vibrating as the entire collection of spellwork struggled to absorb the sudden change. Glee suffused him as it shook, shifted … and held.

NO! He surged forward, the last of his essence determined to crash against the wall—

And froze as he felt something he’d not felt in so long he didn’t recall. Magic.

Real magic. The energy that had infused his home, the energy he’d wielded as a king. A thin, steady stream … but widening.

He could see it now, seeping through the gap his assault had made on the weakened wall. Where the spell had cracked, so too had the walls of the void, time and space sliding back into contact with reality for a brief moment.

And that magic flowed into him. He drank eagerly, like a starving, dying pony in a desert who’d found a hidden stream. It was faint—barely enough, some part of him suggested, to even make a faint glow. But it was all he had, and he consumed it with relish, letting out a whimper of pleasure as it sank into his being. His form, starved for magic after so long, drank it greedily.

And with it, he felt the edges of his mind stir. Memories, locked away by starvation and madness, crept back into the fringes of perception. Indistinct, but enough. He remembered the rage as he’d been sealed … as he did the triumph when he’d corrupted the spell through his own link to … to … something powerful. He’d forced them to seal them both. He in his own cell, the … thing … out of time.

He sucked in the faint magic, small bits and pieces coming back to him with each passing moment. The voices in his head fell silent, greedily pulling their own scraps from what little he could gain. He took it all in, clarity falling across his mind as more and more of his form began to regrow.

He turned his gaze to the walls. They were still in place. Still held together. Save for the one small location where they did not, where the snapping of that single thread was allowing a faint piece of reality to break through.

With each passing moment, that trickle of reality widened, the natural order of time and the universe fighting back. He could already see the faint signs of the spellwork around the breach weakening. Quivering like metal cords stretched taut.

Before long, another would snap. He didn’t know how long it would take, but that no longer mattered. And with each breaking piece of the spell, the rest of the whole would be weakened. More magic would rush in.

And he would be reborn.

After so long, he began to laugh, not even caring about the few echoes of his own demented cries that echoed back into him. Where once they had clawed at him mercilessly, now their wounds were shallow. Magic healed over each one even as it formed, his form growing stronger with each passing moment.

Soon, the spell would fail. He would be free. Free to at last emerge victorious. Regain his power. Rebuild his mind.

He waited, watching as the walls around him continued to shake, laughing as his battered, wounded form began to grow once more, memories coming together in his mind and taking shape.

Who am I? The thought darted across his consciousness as yet another memory slipped together, feeding his own laughter. If he had possessed lips, he would have smiled.

He couldn’t remember the names of those that had imprisoned him yet … but after so long, he now knew his own.

I … am Sombra … and I am a king …

Chapter 1

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You know, Hunter thought as he took another look around the interior of the airship. I’m a bit gobsmacked how warm this thing is as high up as we are. He let out another breath, eyes almost crossing as he watched the air in front of him, but saw nothing. Amazing. I wonder if that has something to do with the superboilers we use, or if it’s just something else? He was sure that if he asked Sky Bolt, she’d be able to tell him exactly how she’d done it as she had both designed and built The Hummingbird, but at the moment, that wasn’t exactly important. What was important was that despite being at an altitude where he normally wouldn’t have dared fly without a heavy jacket, the inside of The Hummingbird was quite comfortable.

Not that everypony found it so agreeable. Particularly one specific member of the team that found the cold a little more … bracing … than everypony else. He let his eyes slip to the side of the cargo bay, where Sabra, the only zebra member of their party, had already wrapped a small scarf around his neck.

If he thinks this is bad, Hunter thought as he turned his attention back to the crate of medical supplies he was securing with “crash” webbing. He’s going to be really suffering when we actually reach the Crystal Plains. He reached out and caught the end of the knot he was securing with his teeth, giving it a strong yank before leaning back and shoving at the crate with one hoof. It didn’t move. He shoved it again, this time with both forehooves, and nodded as it moved only slightly. A little give was okay, Sky Bolt had told him, but too much could spell a problem if they encountered heavy turbulence. Something they were sure to find with the winds coming off of the Crystal Mountains.

Satisfied, he stepped back and took a quick look around the rear cargo storage of The Hummingbird. The last time they’d taken the airship out, the entire interior had still been incomplete, the decking underhoof bare metal and none of the dividing walls in place.

Sun above, half of the piping and wiring was exposed on that trip, he thought as he stepped up to another carefully-webbed crate, tugging at one of the knots to make sure it was secure. There were clips along the walls for easier attachment, of course—either Sky Bolt had put an astounding amount of thought into usability, or she had a very thorough guide somewhere—but with the amount of materiel they’d stuffed into the room, they’d used them in short order, leaving them with little choice but to move away from the walls and into the center of the room. There were clips in the floor for just that purpose, but they required more work to make effective use of. As it was now … This place almost looks like a completely different ship from the last time we used it.

Satisfied that the crates wouldn’t slip, he stepped back and took another look around the bay. Sabra was still securing a crate on his side, the colt not quite as befuddled by knots and ropes as he had been when he’d first joined the team, but far from an expert either. But aside from that minor hang-up, the cargo bay looked …

Secure, he thought as he watched Sabra give one of his knots a final tug with his teeth, whipcord muscle up and down the colt’s body standing out as he pulled at the tail.

“That it?” Hunter asked as Sabra let go of the offending end of the knot.

Ndiyo,” the colt replied, shaking his shoulders to settle his scarf back into position. Then he turned, pivoting on one hoof and giving the crate a sharp shove that, despite the apparent lack of balance to his position, Hunter had no doubt was every bit as effective as one of his own. “Our cargo has been secured.” His words were almost melodic with his Plainsland accent, though Hunter had to admit that the rhythm behind his words fit the whole “carefully balanced” theme the colt seemed to have going for him.

“Good,” Hunter said, giving him a nod. “Steel’ll be rapped to hear it. So will Sky Bolt.” The way Sabra’s ear twitched at the mention of the pale-grey pegasus didn’t escape his notice. He took a final, quick look around the room, even giving his wings a quick beat to make sure everything was in its proper place from above, and then gave Sabra another nod.

“Looks spot on,” he said. “Properly balanced and all just like she asked.” He turned forward, heading for the hatch that led to the rest of the airship, his mind once again jumping to just how different everything looked now that the interior was finished.

The deck underhoof, for example, was covered in a sort of stiff, rubbery padding material with circular holes cut in it. Probably to reduce weight. Rather than a large, wide-open interior space, there were actual rooms, such as the cargo storage he and Sabra had just left, and a small, T-shaped hallway that divided it from the forward compartments. He made his way down the center of the “T,” Sabra following behind, only slowing as they both neared the medical bay on the port side of the airship. The door was open wide, and he could see the telltale glow of magic from within, as well as hear the cultured tones of the team’s resident medic, Dawn Triage.

“Back end’s secure,” he said, sticking his head around the doorway to see the pink mare juggling several emergency medical kits in the orange glow of her magic. Why they had so many of the kits he still wasn’t certain, since they weren’t for the team, but the Princesses had been adamant that they stow as many aboard as possible before they’d departed. Which, of course, had left them with the puzzling conundrum of where to put them.

“Wonderful,” Dawn said, not even looking at him as she floated the medkits over to an already over-piled shelf, only to scowl and shake her head, mane bouncing. “Unfortunately, we’re still dealing with dozens of these blasted medical kits here, and I don’t believe they’ll count as stowed if I simply shove them into an empty box, nor do I expect Sky Bolt will be particularly thrilled if we mount them on the walls the way they were before we cleared the Palace of them.” Dawn gave her tail an annoyed flick, the orange hairs snapping past the bandage-wrap-and-syringe cutie mark on her flank. “At this point, I’m almost considering simply piling them atop the table and praying we don’t need it in the foreseeable future.”

A flash of movement from up the hall caught Hunter’s eye, and he stepped back as a deep-purple unicorn jumped over the open hatch divide, his horn aglow and several more medkits floating in the air behind him, wrapped in a blue glow.

“Nova,” Hunter said, giving the colt a nod. The former-thief-turned-Dusk Guard gave him a quick nod, but ducked around the entryway to the med bay, speaking as soon as he spotted the frustrated doctor within.

“Bad news, Dawn,” he said. “Sky Bolt says we’re putting too much weight on this side with all those kits. She wants us to either move them to the starboard—right—”

“I know what starboard means, Nova,” Dawn said, though the words lacked venom.

“Right, well, she wants us to either move them to the right side of the ship in the main room, whatever that one’s called, or the brig next to the bathroom.”

“The brig?” Dawn’s tone made it clear what she thought of that suggestion.

Nova simply shrugged. “Steel okayed it.”

“Hmm … Brig it is then, if we’re not going to need it. And if we do, whoever is in it will simply be very healthy.” The doctor turned her attention back to the med-bay, and Hunter took another step back, glancing at Sabra.

“Why don’t you help these two get the rest of those kits into the brig,” he said, tilting his head in the direction of the medical bay. “I’m going to go speak with Steel.” Sabra’s only reply was a quiet nod before stepping in to help with the pair. As he left, Hunter could hear Dawn already issuing him instructions as to what to grab.

“Captain,” Hunter said, leaving the hall and stepping into the “crew room.” He wasn’t actually sure what it was supposed to be called, but it was the central cabin of the ship, at least as far as the team was concerned. Some seating—much of it currently filled with duffel bags of winter gear that had been hastily thrown aboard—was scattered here and there along the walls, while equipment lockers took up most of the front wall. Wide windows on both sides gave a star-studded view of the night sky, the cloud cover beneath them lit by a thin crescent moon. Couches that doubled as bunks lay beneath each one. They’d been in a different location the last time they’d used the airship, but they otherwise looked the same. The back of the room was given over to storage and, on the starboard side, a galley.

And right in the center of the room—well, Hunter admitted, slightly forward if one was being picky—was a low-set, ridged table currently occupied by a spread of maps and folders. Captain Steel Song, their commander, was standing in front of it, his back to Hunter as he pored over the collection, his faint rumble of thought barely audible over the hum of the airship’s propellers.

“Lieutenant,” Steel replied without looking up. “How’s the cargo bay looking?”

“Secure and tied down tight,” Hunter said as he stepped up alongside the massive olive-green stallion, casting a quick glance down at the spread of paper covering the table. The map was what his eyes were drawn to first, a massive sheet of paper displaying the whole of the Crystal Mountains as well as a good portion of the territory to the south and north alike. “Dawn, Nova, and Sabra are getting the stash of medkits stowed away now that they’ve got a good location for them, and then that’ll be taken care of. The winter gear we’ll leave in here, where it’s needed.”

Steel gave a faint rumble of affirmation, but didn’t reply, his eyes fixed on one of the sheets of paper in front of him. It took a good portion of Hunter’s willpower to resist the urge to simply peek at it.

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir,” he said, “and not to be stroppy or anything … but can you at least give me a heads-up as to what this is all about? We’re not going to do a hot extraction for—” He took a quick look around the room to make sure no one else was nearby. “—Blade, are we?”

Steel shut his eyes and let out a short sigh. “Lieutenant, I think that when you start using terms like ‘sir’ at all, it’s a clear sign you’ve been kept out of the loop for too long. Although,” he added as he turned to look at Hunter. “It’s not quite anything I can blame myself for. I didn’t know until my briefing with the Princesses was over, and I needed you to get the team ready on short notice.”

“That said …” He turned back to looking at the map for a moment. “We’re not going to the Ocean. That hasn’t changed. In fact, we’re not to set a hoof over the border under any circumstance, something I hope doesn’t interfere with our actual assignment.”

“We’re not going to Northgait either,” Steel said, predicting Hunter’s next question before he could voice it. “Blade made a huge mess of it when she tore through it, but none of the chaos in the Ocean has come back to hammer down on it, thankfully.”

“Okay …” Hunter paused for a moment. What else could we be running into, especially with all those medkits? “Refugees coming over the Crystal Mountains?”

“That’s a pretty plausible theory,” Steel said. “But no. And I don’t know of any refugees fleeing the Ocean. Most of them seemed determined to hunker down whatever storm is rampaging through it right now.”

There was an unspoken sting to his words, and Hunter merely nodded. I deserve that. “So then … what are we doing?”

“We …” Steel said, sliding the folders aside and slapping his hoof against the map, drawing Hunter’s eyes to a large, circled area of the otherwise empty Crystal Plains. “Are going to hunt a mad king. And hopefully, if the Princesses played their cards right, save a kingdom.”

* * *

“Wait a minute,” Nova said, shaking his head as soon as Steel had finished speaking. “Have we ever heard of what?”

“The Crystal Empire,” Steel said again, his eyes flitting across the team as he spoke. Hunter had a pretty good idea of how Nova felt.

Considering that was me, not ten minutes ago, when Steel dropped this whole thing on me. The captain’s pre-briefing had been quick and to the point. Worse, it had left him completely gobsmacked. A feeling he had no doubt the rest of the team was about to experience first-hoof.

“The Crystal—?” Nova began, only to be cut off as Dawn spoke up.

“I’ve heard of it,” she said. Looks of surprise swept across the group’s faces, mirrored, he knew, by a look of shock on his own.

“You have?” he asked, the question slipping out of his mouth before he could stop it. He glanced at Steel, but when no sign to stop appeared forthcoming, continued. “How?”

“It’s one of the unexplained mysteries of the modern archeological age,” Dawn said, her normally calm expression slightly surprised, as if the relevance of her knowledge was as shocking to her as it was to the rest of the team. “Ancient historical records make mention of such a place, artifacts have even been found … but of the actual empire itself … no trace of it exists. Trade records, vases, ancient writings, all speak of an ‘ancient empire of the north whose heart glittered like the crystal the empire was carved from,’ which was fabulously wealthy for its exports and art. And then one day the records just stop mentioning it. Not that they mentioned it much in the first place. No trace of its physical presence has ever been found, despite centuries of searching. Artifacts and relics by the hundreds exist that claim to be from the fabled ‘Crystal Empire,’ but without any concrete source of proof.”

She shrugged. “To this day the topic is hotly contested among historians and archeologists. Many consider it a legend from before The Breaking, others swear it must have been a real place to have left so many unified artifacts that show a common trace, and still others claim that such artifacts could have been made to represent the ideal of what the ‘Crystal Empire’ supposedly was. The difficulty lies in that there’s so much evidence on both sides. Artifacts, historical records speaking of this ‘crystalline wonder’ on the one hoof … and on the other, no actual location that could ever be ascribed to the descriptions of its grandeur. And no signs of a calamity of the power that would be needed to destroy such a well-developed civilization.”

“Some have suggested that it existed in the unknown lands,” Dawn said, shrugging. “Others say that the trade records indicate it had to be located near Equestria. Some argue that it sank into the sea or ran afoul of some other calamity when Discord went on his rampage of the Equestrian continent—despite trade dates from after his defeat suggesting otherwise—others that it was consumed by the jungles of the south, and is simply lost, waiting for the right adventurer to find it. Regardless, it has been regulated to the conspiracies of history, the unexplained and the unknown that most are always ready to argue about, but few would seriously pursue, like the location of Asterion’s Jewels, the whereabouts of Reus and Kyr, or how the death cults of Anubis still secretly run the Griffon Empire. Though I’ll admit the last one is far past the point of credibility,” she added with a roll of her eyes. “Those cults are as dead and gone as their founder. Point being,” she said, looking at the rest of the group. “I have heard of it before.”

“I’d say you’ve more than heard of it,” Hunter said, noting the slow nods from the rest of the team as he spoke. Even Steel seemed caught off-guard by the mare’s sudden fount of knowledge. “How’d you know all that anyway?”

“A mare can have hobbies, you know,” Dawn said, seemingly for the first time realizing how many stunned looks were directed at her. “I find the study of the unknown interesting, that’s all.”

“Study nothing,” Sky Bolt said, her fire-colored eyes staring right at Dawn. “It sounds like something out of a Daring Do novel.”

“Oh, Daring Do has never done a story about the Crystal Empire,” Dawn said quickly, waving a hoof. “The closest Yearling has come has … been … to …” Her eyes went wide, her voice trailing off as she noticed the looks of surprise and, in at least one case, unabashed amusement around her.

“Really …” Nova said, drawing the word out as a positively gleeful smile moved across his muzzle. “And you know this ho—?”

“None of your business!” Dawn snapped, her raised hoof coming down atop the table with a sharp clop. “Captain, I believe you were about to say something that turns a thousand years of established history on its head?” There was an urgent tone to her voice, one that, given the look of absolute glee on Nova’s face, he didn’t blame her for. He could hardly believe it himself.

The ice-queen of the medbay, the high-society master torturer of needle-based pain … is a Daring Do fan!?

“Umm … Right.” Steel Song shook his head, clearing his throat. “Well, as Dawn Triage so unexpectedly explained—” There was a slight “hmmph” of disapproval from her side of the table, followed by another wide grin from Nova. “—the Crystal Empire has been a legend and mystery for centuries. Few have ever heard of it—though clearly, there are some that have.” Dawn’s lips pursed together into a thin line, and Hunter fought back the urge to laugh.

“Sun above,” Steel continued. “I was halfway through the briefing myself when I made the connection between what Princess Luna and Princess Celestia were describing to me, and the contents of an Adventures in the Unknown comic I’d read as a young colt. But as Dawn so eloquently put it, its existence has been a hotly-debated topic for centuries.” He paused for a moment, his eyes darting down to the map sitting on the table in front of them. “Until today.”

“I knew it!” Dawn’s outburst caught everyone at the table by surprise including, from the wide-eyed look on her face as she clapped a hoof over her muzzle, herself.

“Sergeant major,” Steel said, biting back a cough that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. “Are substantial revelations on the nature of Equestrian history going to be a … problem?”

“No sir,” Dawn said, letting out a curt cough as she straightened her mane with a hoof. “Not at all. I was merely …”

“Excited,” Hunter suggested.

“Exuberant,” Sky Bolt threw in.

“Completely and utterly … How do you put it?” Nova asked, glancing at Hunter before adopting a suddenly very passable imitation of his accent. “Utterly rapped to hear such a ripping bit of news?”

“That’s … not quite how I would put it,” Hunter said. “But not bad on the accent.” He sucked in a breath, ready to come between the two as Dawn … simply shrugged and sat back with a look on her face that was almost unreadable. On top of being completely perplexing. Nova seemed as shocked by her response as anyone else, but then again, maybe that was the point.

“Apologies, Captain,” she said, her voice perfectly level. “It shouldn’t—won’t—happen again.”

“By all means, Dawn,” Steel said, his eyes darting between her and Nova. “If you do have something to add, I welcome it. The depths of your knowledge on this topic—and your dedication to it—was unknown to me prior to this moment, but there’s a good chance it could be helpful going ahead. That said, getting back to it, earlier this evening, yes, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna authorized me to confirm that yes, the Crystal Empire is a real place … and that’s where we’re headed.”

“Is?” Sky Bolt’s question was almost cut out by a squeak of surprise from Dawn, again drawing eyes, though the mare said nothing. “Don’t you mean ‘was?’ This place vanished thousands of years ago.”

“Roughly thirteen to sixteen hundred, depending on the record,” Dawn said quickly, before snapping her jaw shut. Steel merely nodded.

“Actually, both are correct and wrong at the same time,” he said. “At least that’s how the Princesses explained it to me.”

Oh yeah, there’s the look of confusion I had about ten minutes back, Hunter thought as he looked over the rest of the group. Magic does stuff that’s just plain starkers.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Nova was the first to speak. “How can something both exist and not exist at the same time? Wasn’t this place wiped out or something? If it’s still there, it’s still there. If it’s not, it’s not.”

“I concur,” Sabra said, his melodic voice drifting through the airship bay. “Unless my knowledge of Equestrian is proving a barrier, such statements would be in disagreement with one another.”

“It both does exist and doesn’t exist because of what happened to it,” Steel said. “And understand that I don’t quite have a full grasp of it myself. To get that, you’d need to talk to the Princesses. But the short of it is that the entire kingdom, the whole thing, got sealed away.”

Both Nova and Dawn’s eyes went wide, though Hunter suspected for different reasons. “That would take an … enormous amount of power,” Nova said, speaking first. “Also, sealed away how?”

“It did take an enormous amount of power,” Steel said with a nod. “But to explain exactly where it came from, I need to explain some background on the empire and its inhabitants. As far as how, though, the answer is ‘outside of time.’”

“Wait, outside of time?” This time it was Sky Bolt that had spoken. “How does that work?”

“Believe me, I wish I could give you an answer,” Steel said, lifting a hoof to rub at the side of his head. “What I’m telling you is simply what Princess Celestia and Princess Luna told me, and I trust their explanation. But the entire empire, all its inhabitants, infrastructure, even land, is bound up in a ‘pocket’ somehow, outside of time. Princess Celestia said that if the world as we know it were a spherical balloon, then what happened to the empire was like taking a small piece of that balloon, stretching it up and away from the rest of the surface, and then twisting it at the base until you have a little bubble all off on its own. But with time, or something.”

“Wait a minute …” Sky Bolt said. “The Crystal Anomaly.”

“The what?” Hunter asked.

“It’s a weird thing with the territory south of the Crystal Mountains,” Sky Bolt replied. “If you take large measurements of the region and try to work out how many square miles the territory has, you get a number. However, if you measure smaller and smaller regions and do the math again, the smaller numbers don’t add up to the larger number. It’s a known mapping problem, but the Crystal Anomaly is so-called because the area south of the Crystal Mountains has a much more pronounced variation of the problem than other mapped regions.”

Steel shrugged. “I don’t know if that has anything to do with it or not. All I can say is that the whole empire—land included—got wrapped up in a bubble and “sealed” outside of … well … time.”

“Okay,” Nova said, nodding. “But how did it happen? What has the power to do that?”

“The Princesses might,” Sabra said. “They wield impressive magical powers as the undying—immortals.”

“It took more than them,” Steel answered. “But yes, they were involved. And to answer the questions that answer brings, we have to go back to who founded the Crystal Empire: the crystal ponies.”

“The who?” It didn’t matter who had voiced the question. It was written on everypony’s face.

“The crystal ponies,” Steel said again. “Were—or I guess, are—another subtype of the pony race. Earth pony, pegasus, unicorn … and crystal pony.”

“Legends exist of such a type, though as a specific subset of unicorn or earth ponies,” Dawn said, though she didn’t elaborate further, even when Steel paused.

“Yes,” he said. “They do. But as it was explained to me, what makes crystal ponies … well, crystal ponies, aside from some very unique coloration to their coats, was their magic. Just like earth ponies have earth pony magic, and pegasi pegasus magic, crystal ponies had their own, unique form of magic. Collective, empathetic magic.”

“Hang on a second,” Nova said, his face screwing up as he worked through the captain’s words. “So they were heavily invested in emotional magic … as a group?”

“That’s precisely it,” Steel affirmed. “Individually, a single crystal pony held only a small amount of magical energy. But if a few of them gathered together, and were of a similar emotion, they could rival a unicorn. A few more, and that power grows. According to Celestia, back during the Breaking, when she and her sister weren’t always able to control the sun and moon, unicorns would team up with groups of crystal ponies to achieve the power necessary to at least keep the orbit stable.”

“Really?” Sky Bolt perked up. “The history books don’t say anything about that. Though I guess knowing the ancient unicorn kingdom, that makes sense.”

“Well,” Steel continued. “That and Princess Celestia and Luna apparently carefully buried any history of the Crystal Empire to keep it secre—”

Dawn shot up straight. “They what?” she asked, a look of purely incensed horror on her face. “How could—?”

“For reasons,” Steel said. “Reasons I’ll explain if you give me time to. I know, it sounds appalling, but with what they told me not three hours ago … I understand why they did it.”

“Point being, Crystal Ponies liked to band together, and they made a lot of power when they did so. So while the three tribes banded together to make Equestria, the crystal ponies banded together on their own near the Crystal Mountains and founded their own nation. Acting collectively, and as a group, they could defend it even from immortals and other outside threats.”

“So then … what went wrong?” Nova asked.

“A unicorn,” Steel said. “Named Sombra. He apparently took notice of the amount of power the crystal ponies wielded, as a whole, and started studying it for his own ends. The Princesses didn’t go into a lot of detail, but he discovered a way to make himself a focus, a central point for all that power.”

“Emotion-based magic,” Nova said, his voice quiet. Steel nodded.

“Exactly. He worked his way into the kingdom, acquired a position of power and … took over. Princess Luna called it a ‘reign of terror.’”

“Dark magic,” Dawn said, her expression one of disgust.

“Exactly. He made the crystal ponies afraid, fearful … and then focused all that magic back into himself.”

“For what?” Sabra asked.

“The oldest goals around,” Steel replied. “Power. Dominance. And … immortality.” He ignored the shocked gasps from around the table. “Apparently, he was looking for a way to make himself an immortal like the rest of them. But worse. Stronger. More powerful. The only immortal. He built an army, began to set his sights on Equestria …”

“And the Princesses intervened, didn’t they?” Nova asked, a faraway look in his eyes. “Sombra—” He shot a quick look at Sabra. “Sorry buddy, but this Sombra guy … I think Princess Luna told me about him once. She said she and her sister were forced to defeat him, but that his story was … incomplete.”

To Hunter’s surprise, Steel let out a quick chuckle. “That’s one way of putting it, but I’ll bet you’re right. They faced him, in combat … and it was a draw.”

“A draw?” Dawn asked, incredulity in her voice. “Against two immortals?”

“The Princesses are not all-powerful,” Steel said. “And Sombra was drawing on the might of an empire of crystal ponies. Despite that, according to Princess Celestia, they almost won. She and Luna attempted to seal him outside of time, in a prison that would leave him aware but powerless as the days passed. Where he would have starved to death. Grim, I know, but considering what they were up against.”

“How’d he get out of it?”

“By interfering with the spell and sacrificing his own body to do it.” Hunter let out a gasp of shock, one echoed by the rest of the team. This part, Steel hadn’t told him.

“He became a shade, ‘a being of magic, spirit, and rage,’ as Princess Luna put it,” the captain continued. “He sacrificed his body and most of his power to link his own fate to—”

“The focal point,” Nova said suddenly, cutting Steel off. “He was linked to the empire already, so he amplified that, channeled their spell back along to every single part of it.”

Steel paused. “You have been studying.”

Nova shrugged. “Princess Luna is a good teacher. Also, she cheats at poker.”

“From what I’ve heard, so do you,” Steel countered. “But you’re right. He linked the Princesses’ sealing spell through him back to the entire empire. So when he vanished … so did it. Though they at least locked it in time, unlike Sombra, so they’re not aware anything has happened. Hopefully. They did say there might be some slippage, maybe a few hours or so. But setting that aside, the Princesses won … and they lost. So the empire exists … but yet doesn’t.”

“So what does this have to do with us?” Sky Bolt asked. “It’s gone, right?”

“For now,” Steel said, and Hunter watched as the team’s ears flicked forward almost in unison. “When the Princesses realized what he was doing, they altered the sealing. Since Sombra was trying to do that anyway, I guess it wasn’t that difficult, as far as things like that go. Anyway, the sealing wasn’t perfect. According to the Princesses, it’s already begun to come apart, and before long it will unravel completely. And when that happens—”

“An entire empire of time-displaced ponies is going to reappear,” Dawn said, her voice awed. “That explains the medical supplies.”

“Not just them,” Hunter said, speaking up for the first time. “A time-displaced empire … and maybe the power-mad shade of a king.”

“Ah,” Nova said, nodding as if he’d finally put the pieces together. “I think I see what our part in this is going to be.”

“Not quite,” Steel said. “The mission is straightforward. The Sisters know that the spell is coming undone, but they still don’t know how long it could be before it actually unravels completely. Could be hours, days … or weeks. We’re going to patrol the area roughly around where the empire used to be until that happens.”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” Sabra said. “But I have a question. Why did the Princesses cover this event up?”

“Right. They explained that too,” Steel said. “Because Sombra had followers. An ‘Order of the Red Horn.’ Some of them were in the city when it was sealed, but others weren’t. The Sisters buried records of the Crystal Empire’s existence because the longer it was sealed, the weaker Sombra would be when it came back—if he even came back at all. The prison they sealed him in was not nice, apparently. But if he had followers out there, followers that could study the area, or gain access to very specific components of the city—”

“They could break the seal early,” Nova jumped in. “And this dude would be back in the real world, without most of his power lost.”

“And neither of them wanted to take that chance,” Steel finished. “Does that answer your question?” Sabra nodded.

“Right,” Steel continued. “So once this city appears, we have two objectives. The Sisters assure me that Sombra himself will not be there. He was sealed somewhere else, off near the Glacier of Woe. So we’re going to split the team. Three of us will stay at the city center. That team’s mission will be to secure it, treat the populace, and most importantly of all, take out what’s left of this ‘Order of the Red Horn.’ Celestia and Luna said they decimated the group prior to their final battle with Sombra, but the capital was still held in sway by loyalists. They’ll root them out, and secure the palace for the arrival of Captain Armor and Princess Cadance, along with some Royal Guard to help distribute supplies, keep the peace, and the like. Captain Armor and Princess Cadance together can erect a shield around the city that will be able to keep Sombra out. Once that shield is up, and the city is secure for the arrival of the Elements—not my department—it’ll rejoin the other team.”

“This other team will have a different mission. They will take The Hummingbird, find Sombra, and—”

“Crush him?” Nova suggested.

“No,” Steel said, shaking his head. “The Princesses assured me we have no chance of that. They’re to delay him. Harry him. Keep him distracted. According to the Princesses, he’ll be weak, so whoever goes might have the edge on him when he’s freshly released, but even then they won’t be able to kill him, not with how he’s tied himself to the city. And the longer he’s out, the more power he’ll regain.”

“Okay …” Nova said, lifting one eyebrow as he glanced at Hunter. “So they’ll be accomplishing what, then?”

“They’d be keeping him from getting to the city until Princess Cadance can put her shield up and the Elements arrive,” Hunter said. “A delaying action. Once the city appears, we’ll send up a flare to notify Guard along the northern rail line. They’ll relay that signal south. Princess Cadence is already being brought back to Canterlot, and she’ll be on her way north soon. This other team’s job will be to keep Sombra busy until she and the Elements of Harmony are safely inside the city.”

“Annoy an ancient king?” Dawn asked. “Sounds like the ideal job for you, Nova.”

“I’m liking the sound of it myself,” he replied. “One last question though. Why the Elements? Why not the Princesses? They beat him once, sort of. If he’s weak, why aren’t they stepping in?”

Silence fell in the wake of his question, the drone of the airship’s propellers the only sound as one by one all eyes turned to Steel.

Good question, Hunter thought as he joined in looking at the captain. Did they answer that? For several seconds, Steel Song was silent.

“They have their reasons,” he said at last. “Neither of the pair would elaborate. If we or the Elements fail, they will serve as backup. However …” He paused again, swallowing. “Princess Celestia did pull me aside as I left to warn me not to underestimate Sombra. He deals in fear and doubt. She told me … She told me that the last time they faced Sombra, she ultimately lost her sister. She wouldn’t elaborate any further than that.”

A chill ran down Hunter’s spine. How in the blazes are we supposed to deal with something that can do that?

“She did,” Steel said, “have one last bit of advice, though. She said to have faith in one another. We trust ourselves, we trust the team. Sombra preys on doubt and fear, revels in it. She said the best way to counter that was to have faith in one another, and in all things that fight fear.” He looked up at each of them, eyes circling the table.

“We have faith in one another, and we put this shade back in the dregs of history where he belongs.”

Chapter 2

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When he’d lived in the Unicorn Range, Sabra realized as he lay on the small bunk with his scarf wrapped tightly around him, he’d once thought that it would be nigh impossible for the world to grow any colder. For the howling winds and deep snows to grow any more impactful than they already were.

Of course, even then he’d known that he had been wrong. That he’d simply been telling himself that to downplay the constant chill, the cloying cold that never seemed to leave his coat, by imagining that such was true. He’d known he’d been wrong.

At the moment, however, he wished he’d been right. The Hummingbird shook again, the bunk beneath him jerking as a gust of wind roared into its side, and he adjusted his shoulders, trying hard to worm deeper into the large blanket he’d been given the night before. It provided warmth, yes, but not quite as much as he would have wished. It had been enough to get him through the night without too much discomfort, but now …

I will simply have to adapt. Dawn Triage had started him on what she’d called “acclimation exercises,” designed to help his body adjust to Equestria’s colder climate as they moved toward winter, but they’d begun them only recently, and as she’d commentated the day before, they had not had near enough time to achieve the results either of them had been looking for.

Maybe I should begin sleeping in my armor suit, he thought as another gust of wind shook The Hummingbird. Rattling echoed through the interior, but he ignored it. His talent told him it was merely the crate of eating utensils shifting again. It would prove impractical if I needed to relieve myself, but … He shifted again, accidentally opening a slight crack in the comforter that let a scythe of cold cut down his side. He pulled back, deeper into the blanket. It might be worth it.

Nearby, he heard the pattern of someone’s breathing shift. It only took him a moment’s focus to identify the owner, and even then it wasn’t surprising. Captain Song always did rise early. Sabra waited. Was the captain rising, or had he just shifted in his sleep? There was enough light touching his eyelids that the sun had to be rising soon, but how early it truly was he wasn’t sure.

Nor did he really want to know. A small part of him felt tired, dragged out by the strange experience of sleeping aboard a floating airship. The winds had rocked the vessel all night, and despite Sky’s assurances, there was a part of him that had worried the machine would simply drift into a mountain while the entire team was asleep.

Sky Bolt hadn’t just had to assure him that it wouldn’t happen. She had slept in the cockpit, on a fold-down bunk so she could check on the ship throughout the night and be there in case anything went wrong.

The sound of Captain Song rolling in his bunk echoed across the room, giving further evidence that the captain had awoken. Which means that soon it will be time for all of us to rise. Not for the usual morning routine—there was no place for the team’s more dedicated workouts and exercise aboard the small airship—but to ready for the mission. Captain Song had given the orders the night before: all members of the team were to be at combat readiness, or minutes away from it, at all times once they neared the mission objective. Suits at minimum, armor if possible.

He shifted again, trying to capture what little warmth he could and forcing his mind to still. If the captain was just shifting, and wasn’t intending to arise, then maybe he could drift back to sleep and gain a little more rest before—

A heavy gust shook The Hummingbird, and for a brief instant he was hanging in the air, his stomach rising as the airship dropped. It lasted only a moment, the wind shear that had rocked the airship already past, but his eyes snapped open, unbidden.

Perhaps I should consider asking the captain to assign me to the team that will deploy to this city, he thought as he stared up at the cabin’s metal ceiling. Where it may be warmer. Or at least sheltered from the wind somewhat. The magilights were off save a few, but a faint glow from outside the windows added its own ambiance to the room. He turned his head to the side, but could make out nothing outside the window aside from a dull, grey sky.

It’s as if the colors have abandoned the world, he thought. Or a summer monsoon swelled to fill the horizon. Apparently the long swaths of grey cloud were common so far to the north, though Sky and Steel both had mentioned they did clear from time to time. Now, however …

You couldn’t make it this grey if a whole city lit fires with green wood and filled the sky with smoke. His belly gave a slight rumble, mind leaping from "smoke" to "smoking,” and from there to the smoked treats of his homeland. Breakfast. That would be one of the benefits to simply forgoing what little time he had left to sleep altogether. He’d gotten by on far less sleep before. And thanks to Lieutenant Hunter, much of the provisions they’d brought on board were of decent quality.

Steel shifted again, his breathing pattern steadying. Asleep then. Either he’d simply shifted and thrown off his rhythm, or he’d awakened for a moment and decided to go back to sleep.

Either way, it wasn’t aiding his own rest at all. He closed his eyes, focusing his ears on the sounds of the rest of the team around them. His own bunk was against the left—Port—wall and forward, while the one behind him was occupied by Lieutenant Hunter. Of all the members of the team, the sounds he made while sleeping were the easiest to identify and position. He snored. Not loudly, but there was a definite drone to each rise and fall of his chest.

Steel, meanwhile, had taken the forward right—Starboard, he reminded himself, sounding out the pronunciation of the word in his head—bunk, the solid earth pony’s restful cadence like a rolling stone. Behind him was Nova, who was almost as quiet a sleeper as he was an active speaker when awake, though there was some sense to be had in that. Nova was an active speaker when he chose to be. Growing up leading the life he had, staying as silent as possible while asleep could have been a benefit … or it simply could have been balance making up for his waking habits.

A faint smile came to Sabra’s lips. Despite Nova’s checkered past, there was a surprisingly sharp and capable mind buried behind the quick quips and the rapid barbs. His manner was … unusual, at least as far as his own culture went, sometimes reminding Sabra more of a griffon than the zebras of his homeland. But at the same time, I spent much of my life in a monastery, he thought as he rolled onto his right side, trying not to suck in a breath as another shock of cold air crept between his blankets and down across his barrel. My life has not quite been what one would call “usual.”

Especially now. He opened his eyes again, taking in the crowded common room. Boxes and supplies had been stashed any place they could find space. Thankfully Sky, brilliant as she was, had accounted for such a need—it seemed that anywhere he looked there was either a cabinet or a webbed mesh waiting to hold something. Even the ceiling above their bunks was filled by shelves and more of the webbed mesh, securely clipped in place to prevent cargo from shifting, right down to the windows. As was, he knew, the space beneath each bunk as well, though that space had been given cabinet doors, securly clamped in place to prevent the contents from spilling out during violent maneuvers.

He wasn’t sure what to make out of the fact that he’d not seen one bit of their cargo shift in its place thus far despite the winds. Inside their containers and crates, yes, but outside, they remained as yet solid and immovable. Whether that was a sign that their work had simply been that good, or that they were prepared for—perhaps expecting—far worse weather was a question he’d yet to answer. And wasn’t one he wasn't certain he wished to ask.

Another gust of wind shook the ship, the bunk vibrating beneath him as the faint drone of the propellers jumped in their pitch before settling back down. This room needs more color. The thought spun across his mind unbidden. Or perhaps more soothing colors. The bland grey of the metal was the most dominant, coupled with the black covering across the floor. The eye-catching part of the room past that was the bright colors that made up the webbed mesh securing so much of their supplies. Even the lockers on the forward wall of the room were simple, finished metal.

It was Sky’s airship, yes, but it still felt incomplete. It lacked a certain … warmth. The team lockers were identical, uniform save for the single, small number plate on the face of each one. His own was the fourth, but it didn’t feel like his own.

He shifted again as the dull roar of the propellers changed once more. Beneath him he could feel the deck tilting, rolling ever so slightly to one side as The Hummingbird made another course correction. A sigh slipped free of his lips.

It is too late, he thought as the deck evened out. You’re awake. Slightly tired, but awake. In addition, there was a new, growing need from below his belly, a rising pressure that said he’d need to leave the bed before long in any case. He let out another slow breath, closed his eyes … and then threw the covers back.

The cold felt like he’d wrapped his limbs around a sculpture made of ice, sliding across his coat in a rush that took his breath away. He brought it back with a gasp, the sound quiet but sharp. Across the room he saw Nova stir, the deep-purple unicorn shifting ever so slightly, one eye cracking open only to close again almost immediately.

He shut his eyes, focusing his will inward, and his breaths began to slow back to their normal pace. The cold still cut across his coat, but he was already adjusting to the shock. Thankfully, the rubbery covering across the deck kept his hooves from making much noise, as well as from the doubtlessly cold deck metal as he made his way back—Aft—and down the hall to the ship’s small bathroom. Or as Sky, Lieutenant Hunter, and Captain Song had all called it, a “head.”

Why have a different name for the same thing? he wondered. Why not call it a bathroom?

A minute later, his ablutions finished, he trotted out of the “head,” shivers of discomfort running over his body. The only thing worse than a cold room and bed was a cold, metal toilet. He stood at the doorway to the common room for a moment, letting his eyes drift over the rest of the team. All three were still asleep. He hadn’t heard any sounds of motion from the med-bay as he’d walked past either, so it was likely that Dawn was still asleep in her bunk there.

No one else is yet awake, and I would be remiss to bother them. He took another quick look around the common room. And assembling a meal would likely create enough noise to wake somepony. He frowned as the faint hollow in his gut made itself known once again. And I’m not even certain where our food supplies are at the moment.

The Hummingbird rocked again, Sabra swaying on his hooves easily to absorb the motion. He could practice his forms … but with the rocking of the ship, that would run the risk of him being caught by surprise, making noise, and awaking the rest of the team.

I cannot eat, and I cannot practice. He frowned. Meditation? It would be difficult with the motions of the ship, but would be welcome. And the odds of bothering anypony would be low—

A faint clunk from the fore of the ship caught his ears, and he turned to see the door to the cockpit slide to one side. Sky Bolt walked out with her eyes half-shut, one wing covering her mouth as she let out a quiet yawn. He had his hoof to his lips, waving for silence, even before her yawn was over, eyes opening. They lit up as he saw him, and for a moment the cold interior of the airship didn’t seem that bad. He motioned to the rest of the team, asleep in their bunks, and she nodded, though the alert gleam didn’t leave her eyes. Instead she simply smiled at him, then nodded in the direction of the rear hallway and darted past, heading for the same room he’d just vacated.

Well, he thought as the door shut behind Sky, her tail giving as sharp snap to one side before it vanished. I could meditate … or I could wait for Sky in the cockpit.

The decision was easy. Everyone else on the team would expect him to meditate during what few morning exercises they could do. And if Sky was already awake …

He crossed the deck easily, swaying only once as the airship bucked beneath them. The early-dawn light of the cockpit—though he still wasn’t sure it was dawn, not with so many clouds obscuring the sky—was enough that he could easily make out the chair Sky sat in while she piloted the ship, as well as the bunk she’d been sleeping in on the left—Port!—side. A warm rush ran over his coat, and in surprise he looked down to see a small vent pumping heat out of the wall. It wasn’t enough to take away the chill of so much glass, but he eased himself up against it all the same, relishing the small spot of warmth it gave.

The only thing obscuring the endless grey outside the ship were the rolling blankets of white, blasts of snow in every imaginable size and shape that twisted past the windows. Far to the left—Port—he could see the faint, jagged spires of the Crystal Mountains on the horizon, clad in white—or at least he assumed it was white. It was hard to tell in the dim light and with so much snow whipping through the air. His eyes drifted away from the window and to the compass in the center of the control board, surrounded by several rings used for navigation and control.

The sound of hoofsteps crossing the rubbery decking in the common room caught his ear, and a moment later Sky Bolt stepped into the cockpit, flashing him a smile as she did so. One hoof caught the handle of the door, and a moment later it slid shut with a faint click.

“There we go,” she said, her voice low but easily audible. “Habari za asubuhi?

Baridi kidogo,” he replied. “Hujambo?”

“Not bad,” she said, switching to Equestrian and then hiding another yawn with one hoof as she moved past him. She paused by the control board, checking a number of readouts before dropping herself down into the pilot’s seat with a soft thump. “Kind of didn’t sleep too much last night. This is the first real test of The Hummingbird’s navigation system, so I kept an eye on it most of the night.” She motioned toward her bunk. “Take a seat.”

“I …” He rapped the vent at his back with one hoof, and Sky Bolt let out a light laugh.

“There’s one behind my bunk, too,” she said, rolling her eyes. “With the lower temperature in here, I figured it was a necessity.”

He nodded, stepping behind her chair and carefully setting himself atop her bunk, trying not to let any trepidation show in his expression. It’s just a fold-down bunk, he thought. Nothing more.

The vent along the side, however, was nice.

‘So,” she asked, one hoof coming up and folding down a flat, wide map from the ceiling. “How did you sleep?”

“In truth, my sleep wasn’t the most restful,” he said as he watched her tap several positions on the map, her eyes darting down each time to check on her instruments. As he watched, she moved several slides on the edges of the map, each movement adjusting the position of a colored marker atop the map itself.

“First time sleeping aboard an airship?” she asked without looking, her hoof coming down to tap one of the rings around the compass.

Ndiyo,” he said, nodding. “It was a bit like trying to sleep aboard a ship,” he said, his mind flashing back on the crossing he’d undertaken from the Griffon Empire to Equestria. “Only with less … weight?” He shook his head as The Hummingbird rattled again. “Less regularity.”

“I getcha,” Sky Bolt said, finishing her adjustments and folding the map back up into the ceiling. “I remember the first time I tried to sleep aboard a boat. With the waves and the up and down?” She shook her head. “It was like sleeping on a cloud, but a whole lot slower.” She paused for a moment, cocking her head to one side before looking right at his with a grin. “‘Weighty’ is a good way to put it, I think.” She turned back to the controls and made a few more adjustments before turning her whole body in its seat to look right at him. “Hopefully it gets a bit easier with time. We might be up here for a while.”

A faint shiver crawled down his back, slow and methodical. “I shall simply have to do my best to adjust,” he said, offering her a plaintive shrug. “If time is what we have, time is what I will take.”

“Did you ever adjust on the voyage over here?”

“I did … after a time,” he said. His hungry stomach gave a faint pang at the memory of the rolling waves. “It was … not the most pleasant of journeys.”

“Oooh.” Sky leaned forward, resting her chin on one hoof. “Were you on a griffon courier ship? I hear those things are fast, but they really can roll a bit.”

“Ah … no,” he said. Rubbing the back of his head with one hoof. “It was a Plainslands cargo ship. Very wide, very stable.”

“Oh, one of those?” Sky Bolt tilted her head back. “Yeah, I’ve seen a few of those. Those are supposed to be pretty stabl—Oh.” Her eyes widened as she caught what he was implying.

He nodded. “Yes. Sea travel did not agree with me. It was … not an experience I hope to repeat.” A faint shudder of revulsion traveled through his core as he recalled the feel of the deck railing against his chest, the tightness in his stomach, and then the sight of his meal cascading into the ocean.

“Well, so far air travel doesn’t seem to disagree with you that badly,” Sky Bolt said, smiling. “Hopefully that stays true, but if not, I’m pretty sure we’ve got some metal buckets around here, since, you know, opening a window wouldn’t be the best idea.”

His expression must have soured at the thought, because she laughed again. “I know, it’s not the best option. But …”

“I doubt it will come to that,” he said, shaking his head. “Sleep will merely be a challenge until I become accustomed to the way the airship moves.” As if to emphasize his words, another gust of wind shook the vessel, spiraling flurries of snow sliding across the cockpit glass. Some, he noted, stuck to the glass and quickly melted, leaving faint tracks of water that moved like snails across it. “There is a lot to become accustomed to, being part of this team.” He turned his attention to Sky once more and gave her a smile. “But that does not mean all of it is bad.”

A soft flush came to her cheeks, alongside a smile of her own. It was a smile warmer than the vent at his back.

For a moment they were both quiet, eyes gradually turning away from one another and back to the windswept world outside the cockpit. The clouds above them, if anything, looked even thicker than when he had awoken. Then again, I do not claim to know much about weather. It simply looked wild. Almost dangerous. As if hearing his thoughts, another gust of wind rattled the airship.

“Well,” Sky Bolt said as the blast of wind faded. “I do agree with you that there’s a lot to get used to. That metal toilet seat in the bathroom …”

Nakubali!” he said in a rush. “Ni mbaya sana!” Sky Bolt’s laughter rang through the cockpit at his outburst, even as she nodded.

“It is!” she said, the words skipping out between laughs. “It’s the worst! Like, I’m already tired and the toilet is weird, and then I sit down on it, and … Ugh!” She gave an exaggerated shiver, and he let out a laugh of his own.

“Yeah, not something I was thinking about when I had that installed,” Sky said, shaking her head. The motion made her sky-blue mane dance around her shoulders. “Then I sat down last night and …” She let out a sound somewhere between a groan and a retch of disgust, her shoulders shaking. “It’s like ice. What was I thinking?”

“I do not know,” Sabra said, still smiling and speaking around his own humor. “Why metal?”

“Eh.” She shrugged. “Most places use it. Dawn pointed out that it was easier to keep clean. Sure, she’s right, but she’s going to be the one cleaning it if any of my frozen backside ends up stuck to it.”

The snort that tore free from Sabra’s mouth surprised him almost as much as it seemed to shock Sky Bolt, who reacted, it seemed, only by laughing harder. “That would be … an unfortunate event,” he said, feeling a faint rush as his cheeks burned at the image. His words only served to amplify Sky’s laughter. He shifted on the bunk, unsure of how to react, though it had been funny.

“Thanks,” Sky said as her laugher subsided, another gust shaking The Hummingbird. “After a long night worrying about something going wrong, I needed that. Asante, Sabra.” She flashed him another smile, and again he felt a rush of warmth move through his core.

“So,” she said, her voice moving back toward seriousness. “Any luck getting that answer yet?”

“Ah … not in recent days, no.” He leaned back, resting his shoulders against the wall and watching as more trails of water made their way past the window. It was interesting the way they didn’t always move down, instead moving sideways, as if The Hummingbird and the world both were tilted. Sometimes they even moved up. “I have spoken to several philosophers and sages—professors—at Princess Celestia’s school, and all have offered insights, but all have offered so many different answers as well.”

“Well, does it have to be one answer?” Sky Bolt asked, her flame-red eyes turning to him once more. “I mean, different ponies can have different experiences, right?”

“Yes.” The answer came quickly. “But through it all, if there is a unifying element, then it is my duty to identify it, and share it with my monastery. I find lately, however, that my mind does keep coming back to the answers your Princesses gave, about …” He let his voice trail off as he noticed her staring at him, a soft smile on her face. “What?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just glad to hear you’re still making progress on it.”

“I may never find it,” he replied. Sky Bolt just smiled.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be giving up. Or giving in to discouragement. You’re too smart for that. Besides—”

Another, larger wind shear struck The Hummingbird, Sabra’s stomach leaping as the aircraft dropped and then rose several feet. A muffled thump followed by a faint exclamation of surprise from through the wall suggested that the rest of the passengers—or at least one of them—had found the sudden drop jarring.

“Besides,” Sky Bolt continued, turning her attention to the control board once more, hooves darting over the controls. “You’ll find it.” She shot him a quick smile, then returned her attention to the board once more. “I’m sure of it.”

Asante,” he said again, smiling. Her answer felt … right. In a way he couldn’t describe. “Asante.”

“Not a problem,” Sky Bolt said. “Unlike these wind shears …” She went silent as the door to the rear of the airship slid open, Captain Song stepping though. She waited until he’d shut the door behind him once more to speak. “Captain.”

“Captain Song,” Sabra said, giving his head a slight bow.

“Corporal Bolt, Specialist Sabra,” the captain replied, giving them each a faint nod of the head. “Difficulties sleeping, I gather?”

Sky Bolt nodded. “I had to be up every half-hour to make sure everything was running all right, anyway.”

“The movement of the airship is hard to get used to,” Sabra added as the captain turned in his direction. “I awoke not long ago, and when I found Sky Bolt was awake, determined to keep her company in the cockpit.”

“I see,” Captain Song said, nodding as he looked out the cockpit glass. “That’s quite the cloud cover.”

“It is,” Sky agreed, reaching up and folding down one of the maps she’d used earlier. “Worse, it’s out of season.”

“Out of season?”

Sabra’s ears perked at the captain’s question. Sky hadn’t mentioned this earlier. Though in fairness, I did not ask.

“Yeah,” Sky said, reaching up and pulling a plastic overlay down over the map. Its bottom edge snapped into place with a faint, metallic click. “Look.”

Magnets, Sabra realized as Sky pulled her hoof back. Quite ingenious. The overlay was showing a chorus of colored arrows sweeping across the map, arrows that meant little to him, but clearly meant something to the animated pegasus.

“See these wind patterns?” Sky said, tapping one of the colored lines on the map. “This is what we’re supposed to be flying in at this time of year. Lots of steady, solid winds from the southwest. Instead …” She pointed out the cockpit glass, off to the left. “We’re getting gusts from the northwest.”

“Now sure,” she said, tapping the map once more. “This area isn’t that well-monitored. And we could just be seeing the tail-end of some storm. But the weather teams generally do a good job keeping tabs on weather outside Equestrian territory or even just in fringe locations like this one because it’s all interconnected. The weather we’re getting right now?” She shook her head. “Not normal for this season.”

“I see.” The captain frowned. “Any ideas?”

Sky shrugged. “Like I said, could be the tail-end of some storm. It doesn’t feel like that though. Storm leftovers would have faded by now, but this almost feels like it’s getting worse.”

“Could it have something to do with this empire returning?” Sabra asked.

“It’s possible,” Sky said, glancing at him. “I mean, an empire vanishing and then reappearing would wreak havoc with local weather patterns. Then again, depending on the spell it might not.”

“Magic turbulence?” Captain Song suggested. “It could be from the spell coming apart. There might be a lot of ambient, wild magic breaking off. That could explain it.”

“It might. You’d have to ask Dawn. She might know more about that than I would. But I guess …” She paused for a moment. “Yeah, when the battery crystals on Radiant’s golems broke and the spell unraveled, they let out quite a bang … How much energy went into sealing this place?”

All three of them looked at one another. It was the captain that broke the silence. “I’ll speak with Dawn about it as soon as she arises. In the meantime … Sabra?”

Sabra snapped up straight. “Yes sir?”

“Let’s let Sky Bolt get back to keeping this thing on course. We are on course, aren’t we?” His eyes flicked back to Sky.

“Pretty much,” came Sky’s reply as she tapped the map once more. “We arrived on the edge of the zone you indicated last night.” Her hoof brushed the marker she’d moved earlier atop the map. “And we’ve been holding roughly steady in that area. I wasn’t sure if you wanted to go further in, so we’ve basically been holding a slow, steady northward run without covering much ground.”

“For now, just hold steady,” Captain Song replied. “We’ll set up a more back-and-forth patrol later, after our morning meeting.” He paused for a moment. “You’re still good with what I suggested last night, correct?”

Sabra’s ear flicked. Am I overhearing something I shouldn’t? He batted the errant thought away. Captain Song tended to be fairly precise with his actions. If it had been important that he not hear, the captain wouldn’t have spoken.

“I can handle it,” Sky said, giving the captain a quick salute. “Bring it on!”

“All right,” Captain Song replied with a smile. “Then keep at it. I’ll have somepony bring you your breakfast. Sabra? You’re with me. Let’s go see what kind of meal we can rustle up.”

Ndiyo bwana.” He hopped down from the bunk, a shiver running down his back as his hindquarters left the warmth of the heating vent. He shot Sky a quick smile and a nod, which she returned, and then he followed the captain out into the common room.

Breakfast was, surprisingly, better than he’d expected. Once out in the common room, the captain had gone to work with barely a word, folding down the small table and stove—he’d called it a “galley station”—and put Sabra to work almost immediately chopping fresh apples he retrieved from one of the nearby boxes of supplies. The stove soon was home to a pan full of shredded potatoes—pre-shredded, Sabra was glad to see. Slicing the apples was more difficult than expected thanks to the constant motions of The Hummingbird. Before long, the sizzling sound of frying potatoes filled the common room, a higher-pitched crackle beside the lower drone of the propellers. A deep, rich scent came with it, one that brought a renewed reminder from his stomach of his hunger … One which he temporarily sated with a few slices of apple that he’d managed to cut rather poorly.

The other members of the team stirred at last, Hunter quieting as he shifted to wakefulness, at least until his sniffing nose caught the scent of the potatoes, at which point the pegasus seemed to come to full alertness. Nova, on the other hoof, simply rolled over until Captain Song tapped the side of his bunk and barked a quick “Up and at ‘em, private.”

Sabra returned his attention to slicing the last few apples as Nova rolled out of his bunk, his eyes half-shut and his hoofsteps unsteady. If not for how quickly he’d seen the unicorn spring to alertness before, he almost would have bought it. As it was, he simply chose to smile and offer a polite “Good morning” as the stallion passed.

“Morning …” Nova mumbled, rubbing one hoof through his mane. Then he yawned again. It looked … genuine.

One never can tell with him, Sabra thought as he went back to cutting the apples. Hunter sauntered over, took a sniff, and then snatched a few slices from the pile.

“Morning, Sabra,” he said, speaking through a mouth full of apple slices. “How’d you—?”

A sudden “Yipe!” sounded out from down the hall, and Hunter paused, lifting one brow.

“Metal toilet seat,” Sabra said, Hunter’s look of confusion morphing into an amused smile.

“Good to know,” he said, casually letting his head dart down and swipe another apple slice. “Well, I think I’ll wait until he’s warmed it for me.” He winked as if that had been his plan all along, and then sauntered down the hall.

It only took a few minutes more for the rest of the breakfast to come together. Before long, the whole team was standing around the common room’s central table, the hot breakfast steaming in the center as Nova floated out small metal trays and utensils for everyone.

“All right, team,” Captain Song said. “In the interest of time management, we’re going to hold our morning meeting while we eat. So everypony grab a tray and dish up. Hunter, you and Sky have clean-up detail, provided she checks our course occasionally. We’ve got plenty to discuss, and plenty to keep us busy until this Crystal Empire makes its comeback. But like I said, food, so everypony dish up.”

Sabra waited as the clatter of trays and utensils filled the air. The table was decently large, but not so large that none of them could reach the food at its center. Dawn had the easiest time of it, simply using her magic to levitate her tray over to the food and portion out what she wished, while Nova went for a more direct, hooves-on approach. Still, there were only six of them, and before long each of their trays were filled.

“All right,” Steel said once each member of the team had dug in. “So, first up, and most important: we need to parcel out Sky Bolt’s mods beforehand.”

“Mods?” Nova perked up, his ears standing tall, all traces of sleep vanishing from his face. “We have enough now?”

“Yup!” Sky Bolt said, grinning. Somehow, she’d already managed to get a splotch of ketchup on her cheek. “I actually have six fully-operational mods at this time. All different.”

“Which is why we need to talk about them,” Steel said. “While the eventual goal is for our team to be able to swap them out as needed for our assignments, with each of these being new to most of us, for this mission we’re going to pick one and stick with it unless otherwise necessary.”

Sabra nodded. It made sense. After all, his own attempts at using the strength mod Sky had built for him to demonstrate as a proof-of-concept had been clumsy at first. Even figuring out how to use it had been a challenge in and of itself.

“So what do we have?” Hunter asked. “What are our options?”

“There are eight total,” Sky Bolt said. “And I brought all of them with us. One’s still a little experimental, though, and doesn’t quite work the way I wanted, while the other is more a test for cold weather gear—”

Sabra’s ears twitched as he straightened. “Cold weather gear?” he asked. If there’s something that could make this cold a little more bearable …

“Uh, yeah,” Sky replied. “It’s kind of still in the testing phases—I was kind of counting on having until winter arrived. But it’s a thermal regulator combined with a heating spell—”

“I claim it,” Sabra said, throwing his hoof into the air. When no one challenged his words, he repeated them again. “I claim the thermal mod.”

“But … you tested the strength mod.” Sky had a look of surprise on her face. “You’re the one that’s used to it.”

“I am,” he agreed, giving her a nod. “But I can explain its use to somepony else. I would like the thermal mod.”

The captain let out a dull rumble, clearing his throat. “Let’s let Sky Bolt finish her list before we jump to assigning anything. Corporal?”

“Captain,” Sky said, though her eyes flicked back to Sabra before she continued. He could see the confusion and surprise in them.

If you knew how cold I was, you would not be surprised, he thought. And that is inside your marvelous airship. His eyes flicked to the wind-swept snows visible through the side windows, spiraling past the airship with each gust of wind. And it’s only going to become colder the moment I step outside.

“Anyway,” Sky Bolt said, her momentum coming back. “I did bring the thermal regulator, but it’s nothing impressive yet. Just a low-level heat spell that can be activated occasionally, plus some exterior improvements—minor ones—that help the suit regulate its occupant’s body heat a little better. Like I said, a work in progress.”

“The other one I brought that isn’t quite up par yet is a detection mod. If you’re familiar with magic-detection, it operates on the same principles as a magic detection spell.”

“With some of the same drawbacks, I’d imagine?” Nova asked.

“Worse, actually,” Sky Bolt admitted with a grimace. “Like I said, testing. It lets you see magic, so a non-unicorn can use it. But in return …”

“Any magic users know where you are?”

“Worse,” Sky said, shaking her head. “The spell activates with a very visual flash. So not just magic users. Like I said, still in testing phases, but I brought it along just in case.”

“What about working mods?” Captain Song asked. “Ones that have passed inspection?”

“Right, right,” Sky said, giving the captain a quick nod. “We have six. So, one for each of us. All different. We’ve got the strength mod, which Sabra used. When activated by loyalty, your strength, and to a degree your resilience, are enhanced to high levels. Those of you who saw or heard about the test know about it. Sabra—” She shot him a quick smile. “—climbed a thirty-foot building in a single leap during the demonstration.”

A few members of the team turned his way and nodded. He returned the gesture but stayed silent.

“We also have the speed mod,” Sky said, pausing to take a quick bite before continuing, speaking around the hash browns in her mouth. “Like the strength mod, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Works off of laughter and good humor. Casts a high-speed spell on you for a brief moment. Your perception doesn’t quite speed up to compensate, and it’s short-term, but you can really move when it’s active. Past that …”

She swallowed. “Then we have the barrier shield mod, or as some like calling it, the bubble. It drops an impassable barrier of a variable diameter around the user that lasts a good thirty seconds or so, depending on how much punishment it has to absorb. The recharge time is lengthy though, almost five minutes. Standard safety modifiers apply, so it won’t cut anypony in half. It’s tricky to get it to work, but it seems to work off of giving. The spirit of generosity, apparently.”

“In line with that, we’ve got a phalanx shield mod as well,” she continued. “Rather than a bubble, it’s a directional ‘wall’ that appears in front of whatever direction you happen to have your body facing. Pretty sturdy, shorter recharge than the barrier, and it can move with you. Shorter duration too. It’s hard to use, though. You have to conceptualize honesty for it to work—”

“Right, I’ve read the reports, and I’m sort of familiar with the concept,” Hunter said, speaking up. “But honesty, generosity, humor? That’s emotional magic, right? I’m not a unicorn.”

“Right,” Sky said, nodding. “It’s the same principle still. The spells we’re using need an emotional component to work. And that’s something we can’t replicate through a crystal. It has to come from the user. The magic part of it—the mod can handle that. But in order to activate the spell, the mod needs that catalyst.”

“Luckily for us,” Sky continued, looking around the table. “Each of us has emotions. Combined with our own, innate magic, it’s more than enough to act as the catalyst the spell needs. If it helps, think of it like the mod uses your own magic and emotions as a starting point to make the rest work. Which is why Sabra could make the strength mod work, even though he’s not a unicorn.” She flashed him another smile. “As long as he was holding something in mind that made him feel loyal, the emotional catalyst the spell needed, the mod worked.”

“Right,” Hunter said. “So what counts as ‘loyalty’ then?”

“You’ve been skimming the reports, haven’t you?” Captain Song asked, his attention shifting to the tan lieutenant.

“Absolutely,” Hunter said, throwing an exasperated look at Steel. “With the amount of paperwork that keeps coming across my desk, it’s the only way to have some free time. I’m still getting that logistics chain set up, remember.”

“Fair enough.” The captain turned his gaze back to Sky Bolt, the brief aside over. “Continue, corporal.”

“Yeah, well … basically, you have to discover that for yourself. Now that we know what we’re looking for, and thanks to a little help from Nova—”

“And Princess Luna,” Nova cut in.

“Right, and Princess Luna,” Sky filled in without missing a beat. “We know what emotion triggers each mod, and I’ve personally tested each one, so I can verify that they work. The trick is finding what brings that emotion out in you, personally. Especially when you’re in the middle of dealing with a bunch of other distractions. But whatever brings that emotion, that feeling, to the front … It’s not going to be the same for me as it is for somepony like Sabra. Or Dawn.”

“Gotcha,” Hunter replied, a thoughtful look on his face. “Hence the practice.”

“Right,” Sky said. “And the reason Steel—sorry, Captain Song wants each of us to stick with just one for this operation. It’ll be hard enough getting used to bringing up one emotion or feeling when we’re in the middle of a mission. Swapping out mods on top of that …” She lifted one hoof, shaking it back and forth in the air. “Yeah, no.”

“I see.” Dawn leaned forward, adding her own voice to the mix. “So you’ve given us four of the six. What are the other two?”

“Right!” Sky Bolt said, clapping her front hooves together. “The last two I’m particularly proud of. One’s a utility spell. Spider’s cling?” Her gaze darted around the table. “Any guesses?”

“Climb as a spider does?” Sabra offered, and she rewarded him with a quick grin, her wings folding out ever so slightly.

“That’s it! Unicorns in construction use it all the time. It’s a loyalty-based enchantment that allows your hooves to cling to surfaces like a gecko or a spider. It doesn’t alter gravity’s pull or anything, so you still have to deal with that, but while the spell is active, you can basically stick to just about any surface. It’s a low-cost spell, too, so the mod can keep it going for quite a while. The more you move, the faster it drains, but if you just stand—well, hang—in place, you can stay there for about two minutes before it wears off.”

“Interesting,” Captain Song said, leaning forward. “I must have missed the report on this one.”

“Nope.” Sky shook her head. “You haven’t gotten one yet. I didn’t get this one done until yester—uh, two days ago. But I tested it, and it worked under a variety of conditions, so I brought it along.”

The captain nodded. “And the final mod?” Sky Bolt grinned, and suddenly Sabra had the impression that she’d saved the “best for last,” according to the popular Equestrian expression.

“The last one,” she said, leaning forward and rubbing her front hooves together, wings extended back in a position of readiness. “I call the supercharger.” She waited for a moment, letting the name sink in.

“So what does it—?”

“I’m glad you asked!” Sky said, rounding on Nova. “I had the idea a few months ago, when I was working on your helmet, but it wasn’t until last week that I really could find the time to test it out. Well, and got the crystal delivered, but that’s beside the point.”

She turned back to the rest of the table. “Basically, the supercharger is a magic enhancer.”

“Like an amplifying effect?” Dawn asked, a look of interest clearly on her face as she leaned forward.

“Sort of. But not quite,” Sky replied. “While an amplifier—at least the ones like we have in our armor—helps channel things, the supercharger mod basically acts as a battery to dump more magic into whatever you do.”

“I understand,” Dawn said, leaning back. “So it allows you to ‘supercharge’ whatever spell or magic is being cast by dumping the magic in the mod’s battery crystal into the spell as well.”

“Exactly! Whatever spell you cast, the mod basically acts as a battery reservoir of magic that adds its power to your own, allowing you to put out greater amounts of magical power at once. Granted, there’s a hard limit, but …”

“And you’ve tested this?” Dawn asked. “I have not heard of it, nor does Nova appear to have.”

“That’s because you weren’t the ones that tested it,” Sky said, grinning. “You were both busy, and I was in a hurry, so I had the armor crew and a couple of Royal Guard give it a shot with a few prototype test suits. It works.”

“Interesting …” Dawn leaned forward, pressing her breakfast—mostly apple slices—to one side with a soft tap of a hoof. “If possible, I think I’d be interested in laying claim to that mod, at least for the duration of this operation.”

“Really?” Sky Bolt sat back, a hint of confusion on her face. “I was actually thinking it’d be best for Nova, since he’s kind of the big spellcaster of the group.”

“Exactly.” The doctor’s reply was curt and crisp. “Nova already amasses the largest concentration of magical power among the six of us. Unless I misheard, this supercharger mod does not scale with regards to its user’s power, correct?”

“No …”

“Which means it would provide a much smaller boost for Nova than it would for someone of more average magical capacity, such as myself,” Dawn said. “The amount of power it adds is fixed.”

Sabra nodded, taking another bite of his breakfast. He’d almost forgotten about it. The surface had gone cold, but the interior was still warm. “Dawn’s words make sense,” he said as soon as he’d swallowed the small bite. “A bucket of water makes a larger difference to a pond than it does a lake.”

“An apt analogy,” Dawn said, nodding in his direction. “Thank you, Sabra.”

Karibu.”

“In addition to that reasoning,” Dawn continued, “unicorn magic is the most readily versatile. While I don’t doubt that Captain Song, yourself, or Hunter could make use of such a mod, such usage would be limited to far more specific applications.”

“She’s spot on,” Hunter said, adding his voice to the mix. “I like the idea, I really do, but …” He shrugged. “Unicorn magic has the versatility angle. Dawn is the best choice.”

“I agree.” Captain Song’s own stern voice rolled through the interior. “The reasoning is sound. Any objections, corporal?” Sky Bolt shook her head.

“Very well then.” The captain turned to Dawn. “It’s yours. Get used to using it as quickly as possible.”

Dawn nodded. “I can manage that. Provided I know what emotion I need to exemplify.”

“Ah … Magic?” Sky Bolt shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, but that’s what I’ve got.”

“Ah. A very particular and difficult feeling,” Dawn replied. “But I shall manage.”

“That’s one,” Hunter said. “Unless anyone objects, I’d actually like to try that magic pulse mod you were talking about.”

“Really?” Sky seemed surprised. “It’s not the greatest yet.”

“Yeah, but seeing magic, considering what we’re about to go up against? It complements my tracking, and I can get up high and get a good view of things.”

“It does have a maximum range,” Sky said quickly. “Think of it like … a sphere, extending in all directions around you. And while it makes you a target, it won’t highlight magic for anyone else.”

“Hmm … that could go wonky … But I’ll take it anyway. It’s that or that spider-cling spell, and I can already fly.” He fanned his wings twice, as if to remind the team.

“All right …” Sky said, though Sabra could hear the concern in her voice.

It is a … His mind struggled for the word. Prototype? Yes, prototype. Untested compared to her other, more complete mods. And Sky Bolt didn’t like letting untested things out of her workshop.

Though in this case, she tested it enough to bring along. It was probably more, then, that it hadn’t performed the way she’d wanted it to.

“Okay, that’s two,” Sky said, her eyes moving across the rest of the table. “What about—?”

“I would like again to request the thermal mod,” Sabra said.

“Are you sure?” It only took a second for Sky Bolt to reply, but he could hear the hesitation in her voice. “After all, you’re the most experienced with the strength mod, so—”

“Just let him take both,” Nova said, rolling his eyes. “Come on, Bolt, it’s freezing out there, and Sabra is from the Plainslands. Besides, you can swap mods, right? That was how these things were made.”

“Yes, you can, though they’re designed to drop their charge when not attached to a suit—a safety feature. So it’d have to recharge.”

Nova shrugged. “So? He can pop the strength mod in when he needs it, and the rest of the time he can use the thermal mod. Like you said, he already knows how to use the strength mod, so it’s not going to impair his capabilities on the mission.”

“Those are valid points, Nova,” Captain Song said. “Well thought-out.”

“Yes.” Sabra gave the unicorn a quick nod of thanks. “I agree.” He brought his eyes to Sky Bolt once more. “Would that work?”

Sky hesitated, rubbing at her cheek with one hoof. “I guess …” she said. “You wouldn’t be able to swap them out on a moment’s notice, but if you planned ahead … and as long as you didn’t lose track of one of them … Okay.”

“But!” she said, her sharp tone cutting off his thanks before he could speak. Her red eyes stared into his own, red fires beneath the blue sky of her mane. “It is a prototype. When the mission is over, I expect a full report on how it functioned. A complete breakdown, as detailed as you can make it.” At some point, she’d leaned forward, half her body across the table. “I need everything.”

“Everything, huh?” Nova’s voice pulled Sky up short. “You kind of look like you’re planning on getting it right—”

Sky Bolt snapped back into her seat, cheeks flushed, even as Captain Song let out a stern cough.

“Right, right,” Nova said. “Extra exercises today. The usual.”

“Double ‘em,” Steel said. “As for the terms, are they acceptable, Specialist Sabra?”

He nodded. “Of course. I will make sure to detail any observations I have about the performance of the mod.” I might even suit up and try it out as soon as this meeting is over.

“Then it’s settled. You’ll take two.” Captain Song turned back to Sky Bolt. “As for myself, I think I’ll try that barrier. That’s the bubble-shaped one, correct?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s the one I want. Which just leaves you and Nova,”

“I’ll take the other shield, actually,” Nova said with a quick shrug. “I’ve got the crescent shield down, sure,” he said with a pointed look at the captain. “But I can think of plenty of uses for having two shields at once I can call on. Besides,” he said, one ear flicking as he leaned back and looked at Sky. “Bolt is more familiar with the speed mod, as she said. So rather than having both of us working to get used to a new mod, she can stay with the one she’s familiar with. And unless I miss my guess, that’ll leave us with one pony on each team that will be familiar with the mod they’re using.”

“That sounds pretty well-reasoned,” Captain Song said. “Mind explaining how that leaves a pony on each team with mod experience?”

Nova shrugged. “Didn’t take much. You said yesterday we’d be dividing into two teams. One team goes to secure the city, the other to hunt this ‘King Sombra’ shade. Whichever team goes to do that needs to take The Hummingbird. Which Bolt is the only pilot of.”

“Of course,” he continued, a smug smile on his muzzle. “That team will also be tracking somepony … well, something anyway. So Hunter needs to go. And since this ‘Sombra’ was a magical powerhouse, and him getting that power back is one of the big worries, you’re obviously going to want someone with magical talent on the team. That leaves myself and Dawn. But Dawn is the team doctor, and one team is going into a city that was ruled over by a despot. With a bunch of medical supplies.”

His grin widened as he leaned back, floating a forkful of hash browns up in his magic. “So myself, Sky Bolt, and Hunter are making up the tracking team, while you, Dawn, and Sabra are the city team. How’s that?”

Captain Song was silent for a moment, his eyes locked on Nova as if he were examining the unicorn, his gaze stripping away flesh and bone to look at the soul beneath. Then he nodded. “Well put, spec. I’m impressed. That was well-reasoned, and furthermore entirely accurate.”

Hunter nodded. “You brought up the same points Steel and I did last night when we were hashing this out. I mean, sure, there’s only six of us, but still. Onya.”

“Careful, specialist,” Dawn said as Nova just grinned. “That’s how one gets promoted.”

“Yeah, no worries about that happening,” Nova said with a shake of his mane. “Convict, remember? I’m a specialist for good.”

“Back on topic,” Captain Song said, rapping his hoof on the table. “Sky Bolt needs to get back to charting our new route, and we all have work to do. But the two teams, as Nova discerned, stand. I’ll lead the city team, with Dawn and Sabra. Our objective will be to secure the city and provide temporary relief for the citizens as well as dismantle any controlling elements left by Sombra. Hunter’s team will have Nova and Sky Bolt, as well as The Hummingbird. Which brings us to another issue.”

“Starting today,” he said. “First Lieutenant Hunter will be the first of us to begin training with Sky Bolt on how to fly The Hummingbird. Since one of them will need to come pick us up once the city is secured, having two ponies who can fly our transportation will be much better than one. This practice will be separate from the team practices we’ll be doing later today, practicing rapid drops and exercises in this area. This means yes,” he said, looking around the table. “We will be going outside today for exercises.”

“But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be resting in here while we wait. We’ve got plenty to do. We secured most of our cargo; now we need to organize it. Get it ready for a fast deployment. We need to make sure our gear is ready to go at a moment’s notice. We need to sort through our supplies and make sure everything is where it needs to be.”

“In addition,” he added. “We still need to tend to personal exercises as best we can. I know the space is cramped, so we’ll do it in shifts.” He turned. “Corporal Bolt, if you can, keep an eye on the weather conditions. Let me know if it’s worsening or getting better. Also, once we’re roughly around the area the Princesses indicated, set us in a circling patrol over the area. Can the autopilot handle that?”

“It’s tricky …” Sky said, grinning. “But you wanted the best, and The Hummingbird is! It’ll manage just fine.”

“Good. Finish your breakfast and get to it. The rest of you, you either already know what you need to do, or you’ll be grabbed by a senior officer that does. For now, we’re going to focus on being as ready as we can be before the Crystal Empire arrives. It could happen tonight, or it could happen next week. We’ve no way of knowing. Any questions?”

“I have one,” Sabra said, speaking up. “Last night you said that Captain Armor and Princess Cadance would be arriving based on our signal. Will that be before or after the city appears? And if after, how will they know?”

“Good questions.” Captain Song gave him a nod. “While we were taking the direct route here, the Princesses loaded up a train full of Royal and Night Guard to secure the northern rail line. Their mission was to head along it and drop a team every twenty miles or so, at the nearest high ground. They’re probably in place now, or close to it. The last team will wait at the end of the line. The moment the city appears, we’ll fire off a powerful signal flare. The lieutenant mentioned it last night, as you may recall. The team at the end of the rail will see it, and send a signal further back. From there, it’ll make its way to Canterlot, and Captain Armor and Princess Cadence will be sent on their way, while we make ready for their arrival. That answer your question?”

He nodded. “Naelewa. It does.” I pray our flare is bright enough to pierce these clouds. Outside the windows, the grey shapes continued to spool through the sky.

“Good.” Captain Song rapped his hoof against the tabletop. “Then everypony finish up eating, and let’s get to it.” The Hummingbird rattled again as a gust of wind slammed against it.

“We’ve got plenty to do.”

Chapter 3

View Online

Alright Hunter, he told himself as the control yokes jerked in his hooves. You’ve got this. Nice and easy, just like she said.

“Nice and easy.” Sky Bolt’s voice echoed at his side again. He didn’t bother to look. His eyes were fixed on the instruments in front of him, pressure dials and power readouts, all dancing as The Hummingbird powered forward through the sky. An increasingly aggro’d sky.

One that seemed less and less welcoming by the minute.

Nice and easy, he thought, his eyes darting to the most important instrument of all on the console: The compass. He eyed their heading, checking first the current reading and then those on the various rings around the device. Not long now, he thought, eyes darting to the fold-down map in the upper right corner of his vision. Sky Bolt had helpfully charted their course for him atop one of the covers. All he needed to do was follow that and keep the ship steady, and—

Another gust of wind struck The Hummingbird, the aircraft shaking and skittering slightly to the side. He tightened his grip on the yokes, hooves locking down. He could feel his wings twitching, trying to react to the sudden motion and “correct” their course. Naturally, if he did that, all he’d accomplish would be looking foolish. And maybe smacking the muzzle of his teacher with an outstretched wing.

“Relax,” Sky Bolt said from beside him. “This isn’t some early-model airship. The controls have safeties into them. They resist external force, prioritizing force from the yokes. Just keep a steady hoof.”

“Right.” He nodded, eyeing the sky ahead of them and the compass with alternating glances. We really should have started one of us on this earlier, he thought as he watched the compass heading sway once more, The Hummingbird’s course once again sliding with the wind. Then again, this thing’s been under construction until just recently, and with everything else that’s been going on, plus the chaos of getting a unit like ours supported …

Should have, would have, oh well, he thought, one of his father’s old sayings leaping to mind. Now there’s nothing left but to make do.

He checked the compass heading again. The heavy dial had eased slightly to the right from the indicator he’d marked with one of the rings. Another degree or two and—

“Check.”

Sky Bolt’s single word almost made him jump. I was checking, wasn’t I? He bent down closer, eyeing the compass reading. Was it the wind? The heading was swaying, but not that badly. The device was rocking in its cradle, staying as level as possible with each shake of the ship, but he didn’t think the heading was that off …

“Check.”

Crikey. He’d definitely made a blue if she’d repeated herself twice. It couldn’t be their heading. Was it one of the other dials? Had his tension thrown something off? His eyes darted over the control board, rapidly snapping from dial to dial. Airspeed … fine. Pitch … fine. How can something I do so naturally require so many complex readings?

“Relax,” Sky Bolt said, and she shifted, leaning forward and more fully into his field of vision. “Altimeter.” She tapped the small indicator. He turned to look at it, and as he watched, the number flipped down once more.

He let out an exasperated sigh. “How?”

“Well, for starters, it doesn’t have a setting next to it to notify you what your altitude was,” Sky Bolt said. “Just an autopilot setting. And since we’re not using that …”

Hunter nodded. “I forgot what out altitude was supposed to be, and lost track.”

“In your defense, we are flying through some pretty disagreeable weather. With all the pressure fronts and wind shifts, I wouldn’t exactly call this an easy training. Usually if you’re going to hand someone the yokes of an airship, you do it under a clear sky so they can get the feel for it. For somepony who’s being asked to pilot one through … Well, whatever this weather is—” She waved a hoof at the spinning snow scything past the airship windows. “You’re doing just fine for a first time.” She paused, settling her haunches back on the fold-down bunk she’d been using as an extra seat while he piloted the airship. “So, you think you can get her back to the proper altitude?”

He glanced down at the controls, trying to remember the crash course she’d given him at the start of the whole exercise. Also, I really don’t like the name “crash course.”

“Relax,” Sky Bolt repeated. “Just think of it like the opposite of you teaching me Tempest and Hurricane. You show me something, I mess it up, you correct, I get better.”

“Is that really the best comparison?” he asked as his eyes searched the control board. There had been multiple ways to make the adjustment, if he was remembering correctly. He needed the one that kept the airship the most stable. “I mean, if you do something wrong there, you just go off balance or something. If I do something wrong here, I risk plowing this thing into the ground.”

“Hah! Like I’d let you do that to my baby,” Sky Bolt said, though a quick glance in her direction showed that her wings had lifted slightly in a defensive manner. “That’s why we were at the altitude I set. Which was …?”

“Um …” He glanced at the dial. I’m pretty sure that we’re lower than we’re supposed to be, so the starting number must have been higher. So … “Thirty-five hundred feet?”

“You’re guessing, but you’re correct,” Sky Bolt replied, and his stomach dropped.

Right now we’re hovering right around three thousand. How’d I manage to lose five-hundred—?

“Relax, Hunter.” Sky Bolt leaned forward once more. “You’re still three thousand feet above plowing into a snowbank somewhere. We’re over the frozen plains, a few dozen miles south of running into a mountain. So just move her back to the proper altitude and you’ll be fine.”

"I’ll be fine," she says. I feel like I’m about to make everything go sideways. He ran his eyes over the controls again. I really wish she’d let me watch a while before jumping to hooves-on training.

Granted, he thought as he reached the end of the control board and started over. If she had, you’d probably just have ended up chinwagging and not paid the slightest attention to what she was doing. But at least you wouldn’t be trying to square the—

“So how’s Thistle?”

“Eh?” The question jerked his attention away from the control board. Sky Bolt was looking at him with a wide-eyed, expectant look on her face.

“You were gone all day yesterday,” Sky Bolt said, leaning forward slightly and turning her head so she could give him a knowing stare. “It was your day off, and you have been seeing Thistle a lot, especially since she broke up with her last coltfriend …”

“How do you know about that?” he asked, jerking his eyes back to the controls. Which one was it!?

“Uh … duh, you talk. And I’m pretty sure Dawn’s been keeping tabs on it just because that’s sort of her job?” The last bit of her statement stretched into a question, as if she wasn’t positive that was what Dawn was supposed to do, but at the same time wasn’t really questioning it. “But anyway, you took yesterday off, so …”

She doesn’t know, Hunter thought as his chest let out a subdued pang. Either that, or she hasn’t connected the dots. “I uh, didn’t take the day off to see Thistle. She was working anyway.” Please don’t ask further, please don’t ask …

It wasn’t entirely a lie. He had seen Thistle. When she’d followed him to Swift’s grave. And that wasn’t something he wanted to share with Sky Bolt, as friendly as the young pegasus was. That was … private. And hey! There it is! He tapped a control with one hoof, watching and waiting expectantly. After a few moments, he felt the telltale heaviness settle against his body, and the altimeter began to rise.

“Hey, nice job,” Sky Bolt said. “And now—”

“Check the heading,” he said, nodding and looking down at the compass once more. A glance at the number Sky Bolt had written atop the map told him that he was almost just on the edge of going too far, and he turned the yokes to one side, The Hummingbird going into a gentle turn. The navigational tools were different than the ones he’d been trained to use in the Rangers, but they followed the same principles.

“Good,” Sky Bolt said. “See? I told you that you just needed to relax.”

Get my mind off of one thing, maybe, he thought as he adjusted one of the dials around the compass. But relaxing that wasn’t.

“Anyway, you’re almost at the end of this section of the loop. You want me to take over, call it a break for now?”

“Oh yes please,” he said, sinking back and letting go of the controls and moving to slide out of the seat. “I would like nothing better.”

“Hang on.” Sky Bolt held a hoof out in front of his chest, blocking him from leaving the seat. “Before you leave, you need to engage the autopilot. The Hummingbird isn’t going to let a gust of wind throw her rudder or flaps out of alignment, but if you don’t set the autopilot, she won’t notice if she ends up facing the other way either.”

“Right.” He nodded. Autopilot … autopilot … autopilot … There! A switch sat to one side of the compass, helpfully labeled. Manual … automatic … weather?

“Weather,” Sky Bolt said, as if sensing the reason for his hesitation. “It accounts for gusts and inclement elements, focusing on averaging out readings over time rather than making by-the-minute corrections.”

“That’s …” He looked out the cockpit glass. “Pretty impressive.”

“Yeah,” Sky Bolt said, motioning for him to move. “And really expensive.”

“Good thing we have a budget, then,” Hunter said as he stared out the glass. The Crystal Mountains were off to their right now, The Hummingbird on an almost easterly course. Below them stretched the frozen plains of the northern end of Equestria: a flat, white tundra shrouded in snow.

“It’s pretty bleak, isn’t it?” Sky Bolt asked, matching his gaze as she moved back into the pilot’s seat.

He nodded. "I can’t imagine who’d live up here. Or why.”

“People live on the Ocean. Ponies, griffons, minotaurs …”

“Yeah, but that makes sense. The Ocean is a source of ethereal crystal. This?” He waved a wing at the wide expanse of white outside the windows. “It’s just … nothingness. Their city must have looked like an icicle.”

“Hey, they made it work,” Sky Bolt said, glancing at the map and then folding it back out of sight. “I’m pretty curious to see what it looked like myself. What sort of insulation materials did they use? And crystal ponies? What did they look like?”

“We’ll find out, I guess,” Hunter replied before glancing at the door. “So … am I good to go?”

“Yeah,” Sky Bolt said, her eyes back on the controls once more. “That’s enough for today. We’ll do a little more tomorrow. For now, you should probably get suited up. Just in case something does happen.”

“Right.” Sky Bolt had grabbed him as soon as breakfast had been over, so there hadn’t been time to get changed. And given our team would be taking the airship … “Hey, how do we go about cleaning our suits? Mine’s got a funky odor.”

“Dawn has a cleansing and sterilization spell,” Sky Bolt said. “Were you practicing with the armor the last time the cleaning crew came through?”

“Three days ago?” he asked.

“You were. Take it to Dawn. She’ll clean it up, though she might give you flak for it.”

She probably would. “Thanks. And thanks for the lesson.”

“Not a problem,” Sky said, snapping the autopilot off and adjusting the airship’s altitude controls. He felt the deck press against him once more, The Hummingbird rising closer to the dark grey storm of clouds above. “If Nova’s free, it wouldn’t hurt to send him in here.”

“I can check,” he said, putting a hoof on the cockpit door. “Anything I should let Steel know about the weather?”

“Only that it’s getting worse,” Sky Bolt said with a shake of her blue mane. “I can’t make sense of it, either. It’s not acting like it should. Granted, I’m not about to go flying out in it to take readings, but it feels like it should be getting weaker, when instead—”

A dull rumble echoed through the cockpit, distant but deep. Hunter’s ears flicked. He knew that sound. Sky Bolt did as well, judging from her expression. “It’s getting worse,” he said. “If that thunder rumbling was any sign.”

“Yeah,” Sky Bolt said. “I really hope it is something to do with that empire coming back, because that would suggest it’d burn out once it is back. If not …”

“Right,” he said, taking the unsaid implication. If not, this mission’s going to get a lot more stroppy. “I’ll let Steel know. And send in Nova, if he’s free.”

He nodded and slid the cockpit door open, stepping into the common room. Steel and Nova, both fully suited short of their helmets, looked up at him as he closed the door behind him. One of the duffels of winter gear was spread across the table in front of them, its equipment in varying states of being packed. Nova was holding a pair of snowshoes in his magic, apparently in the middle of trying to work out how to attach them to his armored hooves.

“Was that thunder we just heard?” Steel asked as Hunter stepped up to the table.

“It was,” he replied with a nod. “We didn’t see it, but the clouds are definitely rumbling.”

“I see …” Steel said. “Would I be right in guessing that the weather’s getting worse?”

Hunter nodded again. “Slowly but steadily, yeah. Worse, it doesn’t look like a single storm. It’s more like … a lot of little storms kicking up all over the place.”

“Lovely,” Steel said, turning back to the table. “One more thing to worry about.”

“Sky Bolt also wanted to know if she could give Nova a pass at learning how to fly.”

“Really?” Steel asked. Nova looked up, eyes wide with surprise. “I don’t see why not. If the weather’s getting worse, giving him a crash course now wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“Boss?” he interjected. “It sounds better when you don’t call it a ‘crash course.’”

“Good point.” Steel turned to Nova. “Well, Spec?”

Nova seemed to consider it for a moment before sliding the snowshoes back to the tabletop. “Seems like a good idea to me,” he said. “Right now?”

“Head on in,” Hunter said, motioning toward the door. Nova nodded and trotted through, sliding the door open and shut with a quick glow of his horn as he went.

“So,” Hunter said as the latch shut with a faintly-audible click. “How goes the check of the winter equipment?”

“So far, so good.” Steel reached into the duffel and pulled out a long, metal rod. “They’re about what I expected.”

“Fifty-percent organized, fifty-percent chaos?”

“A little more like eighty-twenty, but yeah,” Steel replied. “Sabra’s helping Dawn in the med-bay. She’s sorting through all the medical supplies. Organizing them based on severity of injury they’re good for.”

“Sounds like a good plan.” Hunter stepped forward and picked up one of the snowshoes. It was a basic design, an interwoven ribbing of wooden mesh spread out across a light, metal framework. “I need to ask her to clean my suit.”

“Clean …?” Steel looked up, recognition dawning in his eyes. “Oh right, cleaning was—”

“A few days ago, and I missed the memo,” he finished as he walked over to his locker. “It’s not bad yet, but it is a bit noticeably … ripe, in a few spots. Especially since I was doing a workout in it.”

“Understood,” Steel said, turning his attention back to the tent poles he’d been messing with. “Go get it cleaned, suit up. You know the drill.”

“Yeah, I’ve got it,” he said as he opened his locker, exposing the carefully racked plates of armor within. “On a side note, you’ve mentioned to Sky Bolt that we shouldn’t have to try to do the impossible in these things when we need to use the bathroom, right?”

“It’s been brought up,” Steel said as he plucked his suit and threw it over his shoulders. “It’s a low priority at the moment, but she’s working on a few solutions.”

“Should the fact that you said ‘a few solutions’ instead of ‘fixing it’ worry me?” Hunter asked as the locker shut with a bang.

“Considering that one of the options I’ve heard her exploring so far is a mod that simply removes waste from your intestines via some sort of failed teleportation magic, possibly,” Steel replied. “But I told her ‘no’ to that one.”

“Sun above, thank you,” Hunter said, a faint, watery feeling coursing through his insides. “I’m not using something like that unless I’ve clearly cracked a fruity.”

“To say nothing of the test subjects,” Steel said as he walked around the table and headed for the rear hall. “I’ll keep her grounded, don’t worry.”

Good, Hunter thought as he made his way down the hall. The door to the med-bay was shut, and he lifted a hoof to knock. A mod to get rid of waste using teleportation? A faint shudder ran down his limbs and out to his wingtips. I’m all for magic most of the time. But that? Starkers.

His hoof rang against the metal hatch, a faint “Enter!” echoing along a few moments behind it. He brought his hoof down and pulled the latch back, the door opening with a light pop that was almost lost under another distant rumble of thunder.

Great, he thought as he slid the door to the side and stepped into the medbay. Weather’s getting worse.

“Ah, hello lieutenant.” Dawn’s voice greeted him as he shut the door behind him, carefully running his eyes over the array of medical paraphernalia spread across the floor. The mare herself was standing on the far side of the room, multiples of the emergency medical kits they’d scavenged from the Palace floating in her magic. Sabra was nearby, an array of items and—Hunter assumed—several empty medical kits spread across the medical table before him. The zebra turned and gave him a welcoming nod before turning back to sorting what was atop the table into each of the kits. Dawn, meanwhile, seemed to be restocking his supply of items as she opened new kits and floated the contents out. As he watched, Sabra finished one of the medical kits and slid it to one side. A piece of colored tape—green, though he wasn’t sure what the significance of the color was—floated over to it in Dawn’s magic glow and secured itself atop the latch. The magic field then swelled to cover the medkit, and it floated down behind the table. A quick step to one side showed an open container resting on the deck, gradually being filled.

“We’re checking and clearing each medkit,” Dawn said, answering his unasked question. “The Palace was able to supply a large number of them, but very few of them are uniform, especially some of the less-frequented ones. So we’re sorting them manually, making sure each one has the necessary supplies for each color.” She opened another medkit in her magic, and a cascade of bandages spilled out of it … and nothing else.

“What’s the green signify?” he asked.

“Basics,” Sabra replied. “Bandages, antiseptic, soap, clean cloth, burn cream, and other basic medical supplies.” He snapped another lid shut, Dawn’s magic sweeping it away. “For ponies with minor, self-treatable injuries.”

“We’re going to do another set with water and food,” Dawn added. “Blue tape. Orange, yellow, and red we’ll save for more capable kits.”

“Ranking with severity,” Hunter said, nodding. “I see. Pretty good thinking. Prioritization.”

“And something that hopefully their own doctors can pick up on rapidly,” Dawn said. “Despite being a thousand years behind the times.” She levitated another completed medkit away and then looked at him. “Now, what can I do for you, Hunter?”

“Actually,” he said, flipping his head around and snagging the neck of his suit with his teeth. “‘ou’d you ‘lean ‘is?” An orange glow settled around one of the legs, and he let go, watching as it floated away. “I sort of, uh, missed our last cleaning day.”

“Hmm,” Dawn said, lifting one eyebrow and giving the suit a critical look as it approached. “Fortunately for you, I do know a few cleaning and sterilization spells, though I’m not the best at them. Still, given a few minutes …” She looked at Sabra, who was just finishing another medkit.

“Sabra,” she said, catching the zebra’s attention. “If you don’t mind, would you go see if the captain needs your assistance for a few minutes? I have some questions I’d like to ask the lieutenant while he’s here. Thank you for your aid, and for the conversation.”

Karibu,” Sabra said, offering a quick bow of his head. He gave them both a salute, then stepped out of the medbay.

“You know,” Hunter said as soon as he was gone. “I do outrank you. I could just, you know, go …”

“Oh relax, Hunter,” Dawn said, still holding his suit in a magic glow as she turned and began finishing off the medkits Sabra had left atop the medical table, her hooves deftly divvying up what was left. A few were left incomplete, and she set them to one side, her magic laying the suit across the table in their place. “For starters, no needles. I promise. Secondly, while you do outrank me, yes, I could simply exercise my right as the team’s medical doctor.”

“Yes …” he replied, drawing the word. He could feel his wings itching. Relax! She doesn’t bite! Much.

No, she doesn’t, another deep, quiet part of him said. That’s what the needles are for.

“Of course, if you did that,” he continued, “We’d be right back at needles.”

“Not always,” Dawn said, her horn lighting up and casting a wide ray of orange light down across his suit. “Don’t forget that I am responsible for the team’s mental health as well as physical. Which is why I wanted to ask you how your day yesterday went.”

“Ah.” Of course. Should have seen this one coming. “Yesterday.”

“It went well, I hope?” Dawn asked, her magic narrowing in on one part of his suit.

“I …” There was no sense in holding it back. “It did, yeah,” he said. “It hurt—it always does, but this time it felt … I don’t know, different?”

“Different? Different how?”

He threw his mind back, remembering the quiet peace of the graveyard, the grey, carved stone of Swift’s memorial. “You know, I don’t know,” he said after a moment. Thinking about it brought back the same old ache … but at the same time it didn’t quite feel the exact way he remembered it.

“Thistle was there.” He’d spoken before he’d even realized it, and Dawn’s magic sputtered, blinking for a moment in surprise.

“She was?” she asked, her magic fading as she gave him her full attention. “I thought she had a delivery to make or somesuch?”

“She surprised me,” he said, staring at the table as he remembered. “She knew it was my day off, so she swapped shifts or something with somepony else at her job to come say hello.”

“And you took her to see Swift Wind’s grave?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I didn’t. She, uh … followed me after I made a bodgy excuse.”

Dawn nodded, her eyes going back to the suit. “And? If you’re comfortable telling me about it, that is.”

“She … actually handled it pretty well. And, if I’m honest …” He brought a hoof up, rubbing at the back of his head and tilting his Stetson forward. “I was really glad she followed me. She …” He wasn’t quite sure how to say what was running through his mind. “She was respectful about the whole thing. Honestly, it felt like she understood, really understood how much it hurt. I was glad she was there. It felt … good, really to share that with someone other than Derpy. It took the edge off. Sharing that with her …” He shook his head. “I don’t know. In a way it kind of reminded me of when I first met Derpy.”

He sat back, haunches hitting the rubbery deck. “Not quite the same, though. Derpy … She and I were … the phrase ‘birds of a feather’ comes to mind. She knew what I was going through. She helped pull me out of it. Because she’s a good pony, and she understood what I was going through, and knew that there weren’t that many who did. She knew what the mire was like, how it pulls you down. Plus, if she could help pull me out, she knew I’d be able to do the same for her.”

“Thistle …” He could feel himself struggling to find the words, to articulate exactly what he was feeling. “She understood. I …” He shook his head. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. But her being there … it helped. Just having her there, by my side, in that moment …” His throat felt heavy. “I think they really would have liked one another, you know? Thistle and Swift. They really would have gotten along.”

He fell silent, unsure of what to add. The ache in his chest was back, embers of an old loss stirred up in pain, but at the same time, they weren’t the same. There was something … warm … about them.

“You might be feeling all worried,” he said, lifting his head back up and running a hoof along one eye. It came away slightly damp. “But honestly … it still hurts. I think it always will, at least until I, you know, see her again. But …” He took a deep breath. “I guess the best comparison I can make is how it felt after I talked with Derpy the first time. I was deep in the thick of it, and Derpy … Well, having her around sort of pulled me up a bit, you know? It still hurt, but not the same way.”

“Thistle?” He shrugged. “Her being there was kind of a similar experience. I mean, I was shocked at first, surprised, but … After we’d talked, it was kind of like it was with Derpy. Once I opened up … I felt a lot better about it. And Thistle …” He shook his head. “She got it. I knew she understood how I felt. She didn’t try to press it off or pull back or anything. She just … accepted it and understood it.”

He let out a deep breath. “So yeah. If you want to know how I’m feeling, well …” He looked up. Dawn was looking right at him from across the table, his suit clearly forgotten. He smiled. “Honestly, I feel better about it than I have in years. And certainly better about it than I normally would after … well, you know.”

“Which isn’t to say that it didn’t hurt. I bawled, Dawn. It hurt. But it’s like … I let it out. It still hurts … but that just means I loved her that much.”

“Hunter,” Dawn said, a smile of her own gracing her muzzle. As always, it looked refined. Dignified. But there was a warmth behind it, clear as the sun. “Thank you.”

“Thank you? For what?”

“For trusting me,” Dawn said, still smiling.

“Hey, you’re the team doc.”

“True,” she said. “But I’m also the … ‘ice queen of needles?’”

“Well …”

“I’m just saying thank you for being so candid, even with your reservations.” Her magic gripped his suit once more, picking it up. “And, if I may, I’m glad to hear that the … anniversary visit, if I may call it that, went so well. You seemed well, but I wanted to ask.”

“No,” he said, rising. “You needed to ask. That’s your job. To make sure I’m not … gone starkers with grief.”

“Well, yes, that is true,” Dawn said, her horn once again glowing. “But I also wanted to ask, job or not. It is who I am. I know it may not always seem like it, but … I do care for your well-being, Hunter.”

“Well …” Hunter trotted forward, striding right up to the end of the table. “Thanks,” he said, holding out a hoof.

“Anytime,” Dawn said with a smile, tapping her hoof against his. They shook, and then he stepped back.

“So … How’s the suit?”

“Not bad,” she said, her horn glowing again. A glob of … something … floated free of the material. There was a soft hiss as her magic sterilized it, and then she dumped it in a nearby receptacle. “I’d imagine in another few days you would have noticed the smell.”

“Isn’t it enchanted against stuff like that?”

“It is …” Dawn said, horn brightening again. “But there’s only so much an enchantment can do. One more thing to suggest to our resident mad engineer for future experimentation.”

“Easy with how you use that term,” he added. “Did Steel tell you about her idea for making it easier to use the bathroom with these things?”

“No …” Dawn said, brow furrowing. “I hadn’t.”

“I’ll let you ask him about it,” he said as she floated the suit up into the air and gave it a final pass with her horn. “It’s … well, frankly, terrifying.”

“I’ll have to ask, then,” Dawn said as folded the suit and set it on the tabletop. “There. Done.”

“Thanks,” he said, tugging it onto his back. “You want me to ask Sabra to come back in here?”

“If you would,” Dawn replied as he turned for the door. “And Hunter?”

He paused, hoof outstretched. “Yes?”

“Derpy introduced you to Thistle, didn’t she?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “She did. Why?”

Dawn’s eyes seemed to sparkle. “It sounds like you have yet another thing to be grateful to her for.”

“Oh, she knows.” he said, and slid the door open. Another rumble echoed through The Hummingbird as he stepped out of the med-bay. She knows.

He turned toward the front of the airship. There was work to do, an ancient empire about to return, and a whole lot to get ready for when it did.

But despite all that, he felt pretty good.

Chapter 4

View Online

He was falling, the world around him receding even as it flipped beneath him. He frowned, the physical sensation drifting across his awareness like an errant leaf.

Breathe. The command drifted across Sabra’s awareness as gravity returned with a sudden lurch deep in his gut. Breathe. Focus inward. Forget.

Faint voices echoed around him, mixing with the dull roar of The Hummingbird’s propellers … and the ever-present howl of the wind. For a brief moment the identities of the voices resonated within him, his mind attaching names to each of them.

Sky Bolt. Captain Song. Hunter. Nova. Dawn.

Then they were gone again as his mind settled. The deck beneath him shook as well, another gust of wind shaking the airship, but he let that fade like the voices had, slipping to the back of his consciousness. It wasn’t that they no longer existed—he could still feel the soft give of the rubbery deck coating beneath his hindquarters, and the chill cool of the airship’s air against his skin. They were simply part of the physical, part of the world. He sank back, deeper into the void. A sense of falling overtook him, this one mental, rather than real, as he dropped further into his own mind.

Every breath was a measured movement, every firing of a muscle a controlled, monitored motion. Everything flows together, he intoned, the words echoing through his mind. Everything flows as one. Each breath. Each twitch of an ear. Each pulse of his heart. All were around him, part of him.

All were physical. He let himself sink back further, a void closing around him as he dove deeper. And with it … With it came the lake.

He could see it now, stretched out all around him like a mirrored pool. An endless pool of water, stretching from horizon to horizon. His own hooves rested against the surface, their touch barely enough to send ripples cascading out from his position, endlessly outward toward each edge.

It appeared tranquil and quiet, but he knew the truth. He could see the ways the ripples of his own appearance were shifting and shaping as they moved across the surface. The lake appeared calm, but it wasn’t. Soft waves lapped in the passing of each ripple, small at first, but then larger and larger. Currents boiled beneath, roiling and spinning.

He was ill-at-ease.

Some of the turbulence held a clear cause. A set of new ripples broke out across the lake as those caused by his presence swept over them. With them came scents and sounds, feelings and discomfort. Smells of oil. A taste of ginger. A churning feeling inside his gut.

The Hummingbird. Sky Bolt was doing her best to make their experience a comfortable one as the weather had worsened, but despite her efforts over the last two days, the craft had continued to rock and pitch with every gust. Which in turn had left him feeling less than capable. Again the sense of the real world swelled as he thought of the physical, and he had to steady himself, pushing back as the ripples of The Hummingbird’s memories became waves.

Peace. Sabra let the word roll out of him, echoing across the unruly waters. The waves subsided, but they didn’t truly fade. Worse, he could see other areas of the lake beginning to churn as well, the normally smooth stillness breaking apart as more thoughts and memories surged within his mind. Even the normally blank void around him was showing signs of color, swaths of deep purples and greens rolling across the “sky.”

Breathe. For a brief moment he let the real world come back to him, his breaths steady and even. Breathe. He could feel the pulse of his heart with each beat, feel the rush of each wave of blood as it pulsed through him. The lake began to still once more, the waters growing less turbulent with each passing moment. Breathe.

He let the physical realm slip away once more, his focus solely on the spiritual. The lake beneath him clarified, each lapping wave thrown into sharp relief.

You cannot force peace. The thought drifted across the void, bringing with it another cascade of ripples that were soon lost among the waves. You can only gain it by truly understanding.

That, he knew, was the problem. Around him, the various waves rippled against one another. He could not find peace because he was not at peace. Because I do not understand, he thought as he watched the waves bound off of one another.

All this time, and I still lack an answer. Part of the lake rippled, new waves cascading out from a place very close to the center, mixing with the ripples of his own presence and forming small waves atop what was already there. Different ideas and feelings, mixing with one another to create something new. For better? For worse? He couldn’t say.

Again the sensation of falling threatened to pull him away, the void lifting away around him before jumping back in sharp clarity. New waves ran across its surface, brought on by his sudden attachment to the real world.

That part, at least, he understood. The real world could often make understanding the one within more difficult. It was immediate, tangible. Its cries for attention were like cannon shots across a moonlit lake. Achieving the mental clarity needed to peer deep within one’s self took both focus and practice.

And even the most capable mind, when it believes it is falling, will have difficulty peering inward.

The waves still cascaded, rolling back and forth across the lake like wind-swept grass on a field. He steeled himself, looking out across the rolling waters, noting the points where the largest waves came together and tracing them back to their points of origin.

Of course. It was a part of it. The question. He could feel himself circling it. Like a leviathan it lurked beneath the waters, each movement sending out a new cascade of ripples.

What is life? He still didn’t know. With each being he’d asked, with each answer they had given, the space beneath the waters had grown only more vast. He could feel it, pressing against his psyche, an underwater mountain of knowledge growing with each adding insight, each new approach. And yet for all that, it only felt more restless.

What is life? The question that had seen him leave his home to find a new one. The question that had been his sole driving force for several years of his existence. The quest that had brought him out of the Plainslands and into Equestria.

And yet the more I give it, the further I feel from my goal. He couldn’t explain it. He didn’t understand it. And all around, he could see the impacts of those ripples as they combined with every facet of his life, building to waves across his mind, making the surface of the lake pitch beneath his hooves.

Life is a gift to be shared. Life is the triumph of becoming more than we are. Each ripple brought with it a new memory, a new face, another pony’s answer. Life is being you. Life is just life. Life is hardship you succeed in. Life is ‘freaking rad.’ The last one had left him with some confusion, at least until he’d gotten Sky Bolt to explain some of the unfamiliar wording.

Sky Bolt. More ripples erupted across the lake, colliding with others in what would have been wet slaps had there been any reality to what he was seeing.

So unsure, he thought as the waters churned around him. So much to understand.

Again he let himself fall inward, sinking into the waters, and bit by bit they began to quiet, though none of them stopped. It was a sharp shock compared to the stillness they had possessed just weeks ago.

Then again, according to many, that was his answer. Hardship you succeed in. Progress through struggle. New knowledge came with it a demand for understanding. Inability or unwillingness to understand led to turmoil. Careful contemplation and study led to insight and growth. Which in turn, led to peace once more … at least until the next drip of knowledge came along.

The Hummingbird shook again beneath him, sending more ripples across his mind, distractions that tugged at his senses, but he slipped below the waves, feeling them out, locating their sources.

He had much to think about.

* * *

Some time later he opened his eyes, stretching and feeling pins and needles rush down his lower legs. It had been a long time since he’d adopted the most basic position for falling into his own mind, but with the tumbling and the pitching of the airship, it had felt like the best choice.

Especially as balancing on my staff was out of the question, he thought, cocking his head to one side and then the other. The interior of the airship was brightly lit, the sky outside the windows nearly black. He had been out for some time.

“Hello, Sabra.” Captain Song was standing in front of the small galley, hooves darting around two pots. “I was wondering when you would be done.”

“Captain,” he said, still blinking as he looked around the rest of the room. Nova was standing by the table, breaking several eggs into a bowl with his hooves. Of the rest of the team there was no sign. “How long …?”

“Thirty minutes almost to the dot, like you said,” the captain replied, and Sabra let out a quick sigh of relief. The darkened windows had made it look much later, though now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see that it was mostly the cause of the lights inside the airship making it appear darker than it really was outside the ship. Though the thick, black clouds certainly weren’t helping.

“Good.” He rose from his seated position on the deck, a shiver rolling down his back as he became aware of how cold he felt. Even clad in the dark bodysuit that made up the underlayer of his armor, simply sitting motionless in one place for so long had brought a chill to his skin. Still, he was warmer than he had been earlier that day, when they’d left the confines of the airship to practice maneuvers on the ground. Another shiver grew atop the first, prompted only by the memory. Never in my life have I felt such cold.

“May I help?” he asked, slowly moving toward the table, giving time for blood to flow through his rear legs once more.

“No need,” Nova said, using his magic to pass the bowl of shelled eggs to Captain Song, who shook his head. “We’re pretty much done.” The captain emptied the bowl slowly into the tall, deep pot he’d been stirring, pausing every so often to give it another adjustment with his ladle. “Pretty much done.”

He nodded. The pair had already been at work when he’d taken a seat to begin his meditations, working with a pre-made broth and other supplies. Now that he was more alert, he could smell the result of their efforts, a rich, tantalizing scent that curled through his nostrils. His stomach let out a growl, and Nova grinned.

“Guess we did pretty well.”

Ndiyo. You did,” he said with a nod. “What is it?”

“Egg-drop soup,” Captain Song replied as he set the now-empty bowl aside. Then he shrugged.”Well, sort of. The closest we can get to it with canned broth and a smaller cooking window. And with a few add-ins for our nutritional needs: dumplings, onions, potatoes, carrots, noodles—”

“Plus beans as a side dish,” Nova said, deftly stacking the leftover empty eggshells one by one atop a hoof. “Canned, but hey, protein.” The Hummingbird shook again, the eggshells falling from his hoof only to be caught in a magic glow just before they hit the tabletop. They floated over to a nearby garbage receptacle and dropped in with faint plops. “And I’m sure looking forward to that after running around in the snow.”

“Agreed,” Sabra said as his stomach let out another little rumble. Even after the captain had directed everyone to put on the “snowshoes,” moving around across the thick snows had been far more difficult than he had expected. The frozen scenery had lied about everything, from how deep it was to how lightly he could put a hoof upon it. More than once he had found himself sinking deep into snowdrifts that only a moment earlier had appeared perfectly safe. Lieutenant Hunter had stated that with time, he would grow familiar with the signs and subtle differences of the terrain, but as for the current mission?

Well, he’d spent a lot of their exercises digging himself out of snow drifts or picking himself up, snow caked to his suit. He’d drained the thermal mod multiple times over the course of the short hour they’d spent on the ground, but always, without fail and within minutes, the chilling cold had returned.

“Here,” the captain said, sweeping an empty metal can off of the galley counter and into the same garbage can. “If you want to lend a hoof, you can take the trash back into the back and deposit it in the garbage stowage. While you do that, Nova and I can clean up our mess.”

Sabra nodded and stepped up to the can. “All right,” he said, the words rolling off of his tongue. The affirmation was met with nods of thanks, and he pulled the can toward him, noting the way the back seemed to “stick” to the galley wall.

Magnetics, he thought as he began pulling the plastic bag out of the bin and rolling it in his hooves. Clever. With all the pitching and rolling the airship could be—and currently was being—subjected to, the design made a lot of sense.

It only took him a single try to roll the open end of the bag around one hoof—a marked improvement, given his lack of luck with knots thus far—and tie it off. He pulled it out of the can slowly, checking for any signs of leakage before setting it astride his back. The cans within it let out a metallic rattle as the contents shifted. Keeping the load perched on his back with the swaying of the airship would be a fitting challenge.

“Hey, while you’re back there,” Nova said as he turned for the door. “You want to let Dawn know we’ll be eating soon? Say, maybe …?” His voice trailed off as he looked at Captain Song.

“Three minutes or so,” the captain replied as he slid a few dishes into the galley’s deep sink.

“That I can do.” He turned and stepped out of the common room, carefully making each step to counteract the faint, jerky motions of The Hummingbird as the exterior winds lashed at it. Another dull rumble rolled through the ship, and he felt his ears twist as the hall around him let out a faintly resonant echo.

That one was close, he thought an answering rumble rolled past the ship again, rebounding off of the nearby mountains and across the Crystal Plains. Or perhaps more violent.

Then again, he thought as he raised a hoof to rap against the med-bay door. It could easily be both. He waited for the rumble to fade before bringing his hoof down against the door, the thick, rubbery coating of his suit deadening the sound somewhat, but not completely.

“Enter,” came Dawn’s voice from inside. He slid the door aside, noting almost immediately that the floor was no longer covered in the various emergency medical kits that it had been the day before, but rather occupied by two large wooden crates that likely had only barely fit through the doorway. Both were open, and the sergeant herself was currently occupied with sorting through the contents—or so he assumed based on the way she was floating several of them in her magic as well as spreading them out on the table. She smiled as she saw him, the motion slight but ever-apparent. “Yes, Sabra?” she asked. “What is it?”

“The captain wished me to inform you that our meal will be ready in around three minutes’ time.”

“Ah, excellent,” Dawn replied. “Thank you for informing me, Sabra. I’ll be right out.”

Karibu.” As he slid the door shut, another rumble rolled through the airship. A moment later the deck jerked, as if the wind itself were trying to match the electrical fury of the storm with its own boasts. His cargo shifted, rolling across his back, and he dropped himself low, catching it before it could tumble off entirely.

The garbage stowage was in the rear of the ship, near the boilers on the left—Port, he reminded himself—side of the vessel. It was a small room that was sealed against leakage into the rest of the ship and had venting to the outside air to dispose of any noxious scents that built up—which also meant it was, at the moment, ice cold.

Thankfully, there was little more for him to do than open the door and toss the partially-filled bag from his back through the opening into a large, waiting metal box that was, at the moment, almost completely empty. It hit the bottom with a ringing thud, a cascade of metal on metal crashes following behind it as the contents settled. As quick as the motion had been however, he still felt a cool chill of freezing air roll across his body as he shut the door.

How could a whole empire live here comfortably? He turned and looked out a nearby porthole, watching as large flakes of snow swept past, darting out of the darkness and flashing white under the lights of the airship before vanishing once more. As he tilted his head back, looking up, he caught sight of a distant jagged fork of lightning arcing across the dark, a brilliant bolt of neon clawing its way through the clouds. A flick of his ears was just in time to catch the faint crack and echoing rumble left in its wake. All this cold, this weather … It’s so inhospitable.

He shook his head, driving the foalish thoughts away. And the same has been said of many about the Plainslands, he reminded himself as he turned away from the cold glass. Yet our nation has thrived, survived numerous challenges, and risen to be grander than we ever hoped. He glanced back, eyeing the glass. And if we could do that in the endless heat of the plains, who is to say others could not in the endless storms that seem to wrack those that are frozen? He resumed his pace back toward the common room. After all, there are beings living further north, on the Ocean of Endless Ice. Surely it must be even colder there.

He paused for a moment as a thought occurred to him. But how do they do that? He’d seen the news stories about the Ocean, especially since what was apparently the usual fighting across the ice had turned into a small war of some kind. And it hasn’t been lost on anypony that Hunter and Captain Song have had strong words about it. Which meant, everyone knew, that Hunter had been involved, though exactly how outside of something to do with the griffon they’d faced at the ERS headquarters, no one could specifically say. Or was permitted to say, after Captain Song had issued orders to be quiet about the whole thing until it blew over.

Still, he thought as he passed the med bay, once again smelling the scent of food from the common room. How do beings live up there? Where do they get food? Or fuel? Do they import it? He frowned as his mind caught up with the implications of what he’d just been considering. Will this Crystal Empire need the same? Will there be trains coming up the rail line the Princesses built loaded with food and needed materials?

The captain may know. He stepped into the common room, ears twitching and swiveling in the direction of the galley as dishes clattered against one another. As may Lieutenant Hunter. Or even Sky Bolt. He smiled as Nova and the captain glanced at him. I’ll have to ask.

“Dawn coming?” Nova’s voice pulled Sabra away from his thoughts, and he answered the unicorn with a nod.

“In a moment,” he said. “What about Lieutenant Hunter?”

“Cockpit,” Captain Song said, motioning toward the front of the ship. “He’s flying right now, under Sky’s tutelage. That way he can keep an eye on the ship tomorrow when we drop, and she can get some experience and practice in the snow.” The captain turned to the pot of soup and gave it another quick stir. A fresh cloud of scented steam rose into the air, and Sabra’s eyes darted to the nearest windows, which were beginning to fog over with condensation.

“I see. Should I inform them?”

“I already did,” Nova said, his magic aglow as it settled a small array of bowls and spoons on the table in a single stack. A moment later the ship shook again, wind slamming into it from outside, and the stack wobbled. Nova frowned, his horn lighting as he split the stack in two. “For now, if you’re ready …” A single bowl lifted up in his magic and floated over toward Sabra.

The door to the cockpit slid to one side, Hunter poking his head out. “Well,” he said, his voice ringing through the room as he entered. “That smells like it was delivered by the Creator. We about ready to eat?”

“Grab a bowl.” Captain Song stepped away from the pot. “Just be wary. It’s hot. Beans are on the side.”

“Soup first,” Hunter said, grabbing a bowl in his teeth and stepping up to the galley. “I’d rather that warmth heat me up than the room.”

Sabra nodded in agreement, taking his own offered bowl and moving up behind the stallion. “I agree,” he said slowly, taking care to enunciate the Equestrian tongue around the foreign object he was holding in his teeth. “The warmth will be appreciated.” His eyes slid to the side as Hunter set the bowl down and ladled himself a steaming dollop of the soup. Diced carrots and potatoes mixed with noodles dropped into his bowl amid a thick, almost gooey broth.

He could feel himself salivating. He couldn’t help it. While the meal looked to be a far cry from the traditional form he was familiar with from his homeland, it still smelled heavenly. Hunter ladled another half a ladleful of the soup into his bowl, then gently picked it up with his teeth and made his way over to the table. A moment later The Hummingbird jerked to one side, and a pained yelp echoed across the compartment.

“Ow!” Hunter said, holding a hoof to his muzzle and glaring down at the bowl, which was sitting steaming on the tabletop. It wasn’t until Sabra noticed the dampness around the pegasus’ muzzle that he realized what had happened. “Right up the nose!”

“I warned you!” Captain Song said as all of them, Hunter included, began to laugh. A richer, more vibrant laugh echoed from the cockpit, followed by a faint “Sorry!”

“You did,” Hunter said, wiping at his nose with one hoof. “But I did it for the good of the team. All of you?” He sat back, making a grand wave with his hoof. “Steel, Nova, Sabra …” He paused as Dawn trotted into the room. “Esteemed doctor, and Sky Bolt, I have learned, for the good of the team, that in the current, inclement weather conditions, one-and-a-half ladles of soup in a bowl is a little too much. Heed my warning, and beware!” The last word came out stretched out like a storyteller around a late-night fire, and Sabra grinned as the lieutenant threw his hoof back dramatically.

“Never fear, Hunter,” he said, throwing the ‘wounded’ pegasus a quick bow from one knee. “I shall learn from your example. One ladle, no more.” He turned, and with a quick flip of his head, scooped out a single ladleful, dropping it into his bowl.

“Good pony,” Hunter said, his voice ripe with mock seriousness. “The rest of you could do to learn from his example.”

“And learn from your mistakes?” Nova asked, grinning. “How many more do you plan to demonstrate tonight?”

“Hey now, I’m a superior officer,” Hunter said, pointing a wing at Nova. “No whinging, or I’ll send Steel after you.”

“Hunter,” Captain Song said, though Sabra could see the faint smile on his face. “I’m your superior.”

“Really?” Hunter asked as Sabra carefully dropped a spoon into his bowl, and then glanced toward the cockpit. “I don’t know. Sounds like a wonky way to run a company.”

“Well, we could always trade,” Captain Song replied. “I know you’d love to have more paperwo—”

“What was that, captain?” Hunter asked, snapping a quick salute and sitting up straight. “I’m not sure what you’re referring to, sir! No idea, in fact, sir!”

Sabra turned and caught sight of Dawn rolling her eyes as she walked over to the table. “In all seriousness, Hunter, you weren’t burned, were you?”

“Just my pride,” he said. “It’ll be fine once I blow the soup out of it.”

Dawn shook her head, stepping away with an exasperated look on her face. Her horn began to glow, one of the bowls on the table lifting up and floating along beside her. Nova, meanwhile, grinned and tapped his bowl into the air with a flick of his hoof, catching it with his magic and jumping up to the pot before Dawn got there.

Of course, Sabra thought, carefully grasping his own bowl and trotting over to the table. From behind him he could hear Dawn making her displeasure known at Nova’s actions, along with an amused defense in return. He would.

He set his meal down—without any accidents—and took a quick look around the table. “Will Sky Bolt be joining us?” he asked.

Hunter shook his head, the motion a little truncated by the hoof he was still massaging his burned nose with. “No,” he said. “She wanted to stay in the cockpit and keep an eye on things.”

“Don’t worry!” came Sky’s voice, echoing around the open door. “I’ll stick it on autopilot in a few minutes and come dish up. As long as you leave me some I’ll be fine.”

Sabra looked down at his meal, his stomach letting out another little rumble as a wisp of steam blew into his nostrils. Then, his decision made, he bent down and picked the bowl up in his teeth once more. “No need,” he said quietly as he turned and moved toward the cockpit, Hunter giving him a knowing wink as he went.

He stepped in as quietly as he could, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Sky was barely visible at first, sitting in near darkness in front of the control board, the only light coming through the door or from the running lights on the outside of the airship. Snow was sweeping past the glass, occasionally getting stuck and melting, but more often than not sweeping away to one side or the other.

“—is really picking up,” Sky was muttering to herself, her attention completely fixed on some of the instruments in front of her. “I’m going to have to keep a good eye on it tonight while—Oh!” She started as she turned, wings snapping out slightly. “Sabra! Habari!”

Habari,” he replied around the bowl held carefully in his teeth. “I brought you some dinner.”

“Aww.” He couldn’t make out the color of her cheeks under the dim light, but he knew from the look of surprise on her face, as well as the way her wings had shifted position slightly, that she was blushing. “Sabra, you didn’t have to.”

“I know,” he replied as she reached out with one hoof and pulled a small drawer out of the side of the control panel. It was indented, one of the depressions in its surface slightly larger than the base of the bowl. And, he noted as he set the bowl down, rubbery. How clever. The bowl would not slide, not with a gripping material underneath it. Further still, as he stepped back The Hummingbird shook again, and the platform tilted slightly, adjusting its angle to compensate. Somepony was thinking ahead. He looked back up at her, smiling. “But I wanted to.”

His stomach let out another growl, and Sky laughed, the sound ringing through the cockpit. “Oh Sabra, you’re just … Wewe ni mzuri sana. Na njaa.” She glanced back at the controls before turning to look at him once more. “Would you like to keep me company in the cockpit for dinner? Once you get food, I mean,” she added quickly, but he was already nodding.

Napenda hiyo,” he said, smiling. “I will be right back.” He turned and stepped back through the door, a lightness to his movements. Captain Song was standing by the pot of soup, ladling up his own bowl, while Dawn and Nova had joined Hunter by the table.

“If I may, captain,” Sabra said as he neared the galley. “Could I—?”

“You may,” Steel Song said, one corner of his mouth turning up in a smile even as his eyes stayed fixed on the pot of soup. “We’re not going to be discussing anything important over dinner. Go keep the specialist company so she doesn’t have to eat alone.”

Asante.”

The captain gave his head a slight shake before bending down to pick up his bowl. “Think nothing of it,” he said before biting down. Then he stepped back without a word and trotted over to the table.

“So,” Sabra heard Hunter say as he served up another bowl and began making his way back to the cockpit. “What do you say tomorrow we make a giant snowpony? Huh? Anyone?”

He stepped again into the cockpit, the conversation behind him fading from his focus. Sky had left her seat, standing on the left—Port—side of the cockpit. As he looked at her, eyes adjusting once again, she waved a hoof at him.

“Bunk’s down,” she said, lifting into the air with a quick flap of her wings. “Here.” She darted forward, cupping her hooves under his bowl and taking it from him. “There’s a place for your bowl over on this side.”

Asante.

“Not a problem.” She settled back into the pilot’s seat shrugging. “You brought me my dinner, so …” She motioned, and he stepped past her, taking a seat atop the waiting bunk.

“Settled?” she asked. “Good.” She leaned over and slid the cockpit door shut. “There,” she said as the light from the common room vanished. “That’s better.”

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but as they did, the world outside the glass grew, clouds coming into view. He could see distant swirls of snow spiraling through the air, as well as distant flashes in the sky where more bolts of lightning arced, concealed by the thick storm.

The control board, he realized after a moment, was lit as well, small gemstones near the instruments glowing with a faint light that didn’t distract from the world outside the glass.

“So,” Sky said, her attention fixed on her instruments once more. “This weather is wild isn’t it?”

“‘Wild’ in the sense that it’s untamed by pegasi?” Sabra asked as he bent down and blew on his soup. Even in the low light he could see a faint wisp of heat rising from it. He could feel it too, against his cheeks. “Or ‘wild’ as in ‘frantic and furious’?”

“The latter,” Sky said, her attention still fixed on her instruments. “We’ve got wind shears coming from every direction, cloud currents that make no sense …” She adjusted a lever and sat back in her seat. “I mean, look at this!”

She reached up and folded the map down. A light set at its base began to glow in a soft green, illuminating the map and the plastic overlay Sky was pulling down over it.

“Look,” Sky said, motioning with her hoof at a tight cluster of circular arrows and patterns drawn across the plastic. “I’ve been trying to make sense of these wind systems, but it’s chaos, and I’m not a weatherpony. I only know as much as I need to fly. This?” She sank back with a frustrated sigh. “It’s like there are twenty different storm systems all fighting out here.”

“Maybe there are,” he suggested. The airship shook again, the flurries of snow outside the glass suddenly switching direction and soaring off into the night.

“No, I know there are,” Sky said. Her voice held just a hint of weariness. “It’s just frustrating trying to keep us on course with all of it. If the patterns were more regular it’d be a bit easier to compensate for, but even today a number of these storm clouds have just plain switched directions and angles.” She let out another sigh. “I know it’s probably the whole ‘empire from beyond returning’ with leaking magic or whatever, but I just wish I could pilot us through it a bit better.”

“Oh well.” She shook her head, then scooped up a spoonful of soup before letting out a sharp yelp. “Hot! Hot!” Her wingtips came up, fanning her mouth as she jerked back from the offending bowl.

“Yes, it is,” Sabra said, trying not to laugh as Sky continued to fan her mouth. “Didn’t you hear Hunter’s warning?”

“Meh,” Sky said, sticking her tongue out at him and then smiling. “It just caught me by surprise, that’s all.” She reached out and folded the map back up, the world outside the cockpit coming into greater detail as the source of light vanished. At the moment, however, Sabra found his eyes drawn back to his soup. He reached out, carefully spooned up a small portion, and then, with a careful look to see if it looked to be releasing too much steam, sipped it up.

His eyes widened in surprise. It wasn’t identical to the soup of the same name from his homeland, but at the same time, the difference wasn’t unwelcome. It wasn’t better, nor was it worse—unless, of course, he compared it to his mother’s, but that was hardly a fair comparison—but it simply was …

Comparable, he thought after a moment. Different.

And, he realized as he took another bite, and then another, delicious. They ate quietly for a moment, each of them focused on sating their hunger. Only when his spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl did he realize that neither of them had spoken in several minutes.

“Good soup, isn’t it?” Sky asked as his spoon clattered against the empty metal bowl.

He nodded. “It’s different, but no less delicious. And the warmth in my stomach is most appreciated.” He sank back, leaning his shoulders against the vent and letting his legs stretch out in front of him. “I may need to go get more before long, however.”

“Well, after all that running around and climbing you did in the snow today, I’m not surprised,” Sky said, her own spoon dropping into her bowl with a metal-on-metal clink. Another gust of wind shook The Hummingbird and sent it skittering to one side, a pair of twin clicks following as their spoons both spun freely. “You were really working out there.”

He nodded. “It was … harder than I expected.” Somehow, the knowledge that she’d been observing from above wasn’t at all surprising. “You were watching, then?”

She nodded. “Steel told me to. It’s an awareness thing. I have to keep an eye on the sky and on the team at all times, in case they signal for an evacuation, or I see that they need my help.” She reached out and flipped a switch with an audible click, before leaning back and eyeing the compass carefully.

“So you know how often I got stuck.”

Sky let out a small giggle. “Sorry,” she said, turning to look at him. “I shouldn’t laugh, but it was funny.”

“I don’t disagree,” he said, returning her smile with one of his own. “I would have been laughing myself had my face not been too frozen to make any expression.” A shiver rolled through him.

“Did the thermal mod help?” Sky asked.

“It did, but it could only do so much. I’ve never felt so cold before in my life.”

Sky frowned as she slid down from her seat, stealing a single glance at the compass as she did so. “Well, hopefully you’ll get used to it before long. And the mod should help.” She stepped up to the bunk and sat down next to him. “In the meantime, well …” She leaned up against him, resting her cheek against his shoulder. “We’ve got all that winter gear. You could try putting that over your armor.”

“I think I will,” he said, shifting his position slightly so that he could lean into her as well. It felt … good. Soothing. “Ah, which reminded me. I had a question you might know the answer to.”

“Oh?” One of Sky’s ears flicked against his cheek as she perked up, her body rising slightly. He smiled.

Ever the engineer.

“What’d you want to know?”

“The Ocean of Endless Ice,” he said, shifting his head slightly so that he could just see her fire-red eyes out of the corner of his own. Another gust of wind roared past, snow shooting past the cockpit and out over the endless Crystal Plains below. “Do they grow their own food? Or fuel for their boilers? Or do they pay for it?”

“The Ocean?” Sky shifted slightly against his side before settling. “Well, I’m not an expert on it, but I know they do pay for imported foods and goods. It’s expensive, but they’re producing ethereal crystal, so they can. They do grow some too, though. They use these huge greenhouses with really thick, multipane glass and lots of heating. They grow plants that they can harvest for fuel, too. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s what they can do, so …”

He nodded. “Those must be impressive greenhouses.” He’d seen some in his homeland, but they were often quite open, given the climates of the Plainslands.

“What made you ask?” Sky asked, burrowing a little deeper into his shoulder as another distant rumble of thunder echoed through the air.

“I was wondering about this place we’re saving. The Crystal Empire. The weather we’re seeing … How did they grow food? Did they purchase it from others? What with?”

“If they did, you can bet the Princesses knew about it,” Sky replied. “And that they’ve got some plan for dealing with it.”

“They do seem to have a plan for everything.”

A brilliant flash of light lit the cabin, almost blinding against the sudden darkness, and both of them jerked up. An almost deafening crack followed seconds later, the very bunk beneath them vibrating.

“More lightning,” Sky said as the rolling roar echoed across the plains, rebounding off of the distant mountains and rumbling back.

Sabra nodded. And no sign of any city, he thought as Sky settled back into position.

“So,” Sky said. “How’d the meditation go earlier?”

“It …” He paused for a moment, mulling the memory over in his mind. “It could have been better,” he admitted.

“Hard to think?”

“Not entirely, but that did have a bit to do with it.” He smiled. “It is hard to focus on the spiritual when the physical makes such urgent demands for attention.” The Hummingbird jerked in the air, rising and then falling. A chorus of clinking sounds rang through the cockpit as their spoons bounced. “Such as that.”

“Sorry,” Sky said sheepishly, blowing a tuft of hair out of her face with a short snort.

“It’s not your fault. It’s just a challenge of where we are.”

“But that wasn’t all of it?”

“No,” he said, giving his head a slight shake. Out in the distance another bolt of lightning arced across the sky. A distant rumble followed a moment later. “I am merely … unsettled, I think, would be the best word. Trying to … ‘digest?’ Yes, digest recent knowledge.”

Sky nodded. “The question?”

“The question.” Neither of them needed to expound any further on what it was, or what it meant to him. Sky understood, in her own way.

“No answer yet?”

He shook his head again. “No. Not as of yet. But sometimes I wonder if I’m coming closer to an answer, or if I’m simply adding more knowledge to a peak I may never reach.”

“Didn’t the Princesses give you good answers? And the teachers at Princess Celestia’s school?” Sky asked with a faint frown.

“They did. And they have,” he answered. “But while all of their answers are amazing, none of them has felt quite … right? Sijui.” He shook his head again. “All of their answers are thought provoking or insightful, but none of them feels … Again, I do not know. Maybe all of them together.” He shifted again, only to pause as a warm blanket descended over his shoulders, one of Sky’s wings wrapping around him.

“You’ll figure it out,” she said, pulling her wing tight against him. “You’re the youngest master your monastery has ever seen. How long did it take others to find answers to their great questions?”

“Decades.”

“Exactly,” Sky said. “You’ve only been at it for a few years. You’ll find it. And while you look, you’re always going to be welcome here.” She smiled, burying her head in his shoulder. “And we’ll all do what we can to help. Even if that does mean you’ll need to go when you’ve found it.”

He smiled. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Sky Bolt said. “And besides, you’ve earned it. You brought me soup. Speaking of which …” She sat up, her wing leaving his side and leaving it feeling bare, even through the suit. “I don’t know about you, but I’m still pretty hungry. I feel like I’m up for another bowl. You?”

Ningependa hivyo,” he said, rising as Sky dropped off of the bunk, grabbing both his bowl and hers in her wings. She gave the controls a quick glance, checking that they were still on the same heading, then slid the door to the common room open.

Vizuri?” she said, giving her sky-blue mane a toss. “Nje!”

He smiled and followed her out. He’d correct the slip up later.

Chapter 5

View Online

Come on you three, Hunter thought, working his shoulders back and forth and burrowing deeper into the snow bank. Find me! Overhead, the greyish-black sky rumbled again, a jagged cut of lightning arcing through the clouds and briefly flashing across what little of the plains he could see from his current vantage point. Come on … I left a trail wide enough a foal could find it!

Well, he admitted after another gust of snow swept over his position, flakes settling atop his head and forelegs. Maybe a really smart foal. But still, this possie shouldn’t be that hard to find.

He let out a sigh, the sound swallowed up by the drifts of snow around him. So close to the Crystal Mountains, the terrain was a little less even than the rolling hills of the plains. He’d struck out north, away from the group and on hoof, then broken eastward toward the foothills and found himself the little depression he was in now. Snow had been piling up in it for who knew how long, centuries maybe, forming a deep snowdrift on one side that he’d backed up against and partially wormed his way into.

That had been almost fifteen minutes ago. The point of the exercise was for the team to practice following tracks and signs against the elements—currently the same roiling snowstorms that had been growing since they’d arrived—and try to find him before growing completely lost. Hopefully to help aid the team in finding this “King Sombra” figure whenever he broke free from his prison.

Maybe I gave myself too much of a head start, Hunter thought as he glanced over the side of the snow-swept mountains rising above him to the north. I did a bodgy job covering my tracks, but with so much snow coming down and blowing around … He pressed his front hoof into the snow and then pulled it back, watching to see how quickly it filled in.

Nothing.

Granted, you’re in a bit of a hole. That’s why you’re here, he thought as he ran his eyes over the Crystal Mountains once more. So that wouldn’t exactly be the best test. A shiver rolled down his back, and he frowned. And I’m not going to give them much longer. Even under this heavy parka—he glanced down at the thick wool-lined coat he was wearing over his armor—I’m not exactly warm.

Another minute ticked by, the occasional snowflake settling around him. From time to time a gust of wind would kick up, lifting some of the snow around him free and carrying it off into the sky to begin the cycle anew. Wild weather, he thought, looking up at the clouds. Worse than the Everfree.

Thankfully, the rate at which it had been growing worse seemed to have slowed, though it was still certainly getting more crook by the hour. The day prior, when he’d been tasked with piloting The Hummingbird so that Sky Bolt could practice with the team, he’d spent the entire time fighting against the heavy winds. It had been no wonder to him that Steel had asked him to monitor the ship during the night for a few hours so that the pegasus could get some uninterrupted sleep. He had a sneaking suspicion that she’d been more grateful for the break than she let on.

Now she’s somewhere overhead, he thought, twisting his ears and looking up to try and locate the nearby airship. He couldn’t see it, but he could hear it, ever so faintly. It was probably closer than it sounded, with all the snow muffling things, and the faint howling of the wind.

Which makes it all the worse that they haven’t managed to find me yet, he thought as a snowflake came to rest on his visor, melting a moment later into a stream of water that he wiped away with one hoof. He’d have to mention that to Sky, see if the next models couldn’t get a self-cleaning or repelling spell of some kind on the glass or whatever it was that he was looking through.

“Another minute,” he said, his voice swallowed up almost instantly by the winds. That’s all the longer I can stand to spend in this snowdrift, freezing my flanks off—

He froze, his body going stiff. Something was … off. He couldn’t say what. He’d be running his eyes across the northern mountainscape once more when something deep in his gut had twitched. He squinted, peering hard at the wind and snow-swept stones.

What was it? It wasn’t like his instincts to fire off for no reason. He couldn’t quite put his hoof on it, but something … Something is out of place. Did a snowpack shift?

Or maybe you’ve just been stuffed in the snow so long you’ve gone starkers. Still, even as he pulled his gaze away from the side of the mountain the feeling that something was out of place didn’t go away. His wings shifted, pressing against the snowpack he’d shoved himself into. Again his eyes came back to the mountainside. As before, it was steep and jagged, mostly-bare rock packed with thick snow. Here and there scraggly trees poked above the drifts, the stunted, diminutive growths serving only to break up the white-and-grey monotony with their dark green branches.

“Aww, forget it.” He kicked out with his rear hooves, shoving his body forward and out of the snowdrift. It collapsed behind him, a sweeping wave of fine snow particles sweeping over him as he spread his wings. The first few beats kicked up an even greater cloud, but he outpaced it quickly, rising into the wind and beating furiously as he headed north.

“Just to put my mind at ease,” he said aloud as he rose higher. “Aerial reconnaissance. Stay high, stay alive.” No sense in landing and being ambushed by a yeti. Or worse, a pack of iceworms.

He powered through the air, his wingbeats steady and strong, and before long found himself nearing the steep mountain face. He slowed, running his eyes over the terrain. The feeling had faded now, but it had left an aftertaste, like a faint sense of uneasiness that refused to leave.

Nothing. He couldn’t see any signs of things being out of place. I could always drop lower, but ... He shook his head.

“Jumping at shadows.” He flicked one wing, turning in the air, but then stopped.

Of course, if there is something, I could always try that mod out. He glanced at the small dial in the lower-right corner of his helmet. The needle was all the way to the right, the mod’s battery crystal completely charged. After all, I’ve yet to give this thing a real test. And what could it hurt?

He glanced southward. He could barely make out The Hummingbird through the constant snow, even though it was only a mile or two south at most. Visibility. That was another thing they were losing slowly but surely as the storms worsened.

Not far enough away that I couldn’t get to them in a minute or two with my beacon if something went wrong, he thought, one hoof going to the small device attached to his jacket. An enchanted device, the beacon would, once activated, send out an invisible pulse every thirty seconds. Low power magic, according to Nova. But enough that a skilled unicorn could “hone in” on his position by following the strength of the pulse. Better yet, they could send out a pulse of their own that would make the beacon jerk, allowing a lost pony to head toward their rescuers if able.

And a necessary precaution for a team as unused to the current conditions as several of them were. Dawn and Steel were fine, but Nova, Sky, and most of all Sabra, were untested.

He took another look down at the mountainside. Was he too far away for the mod to work? There was only one way to find out.

He reached inside himself, hunting for that same magical “spark” he felt when he used weather magic and gathering it. It had taken him a few tries to figure out how to activate the mod, but with practice, he’d gotten it down. It wasn’t instinctive yet the way Sabra and Sky Bolt were when they used theirs, but he was getting better.

He “poked” at the ball of magic resting in his chest, then thought about the spell between his wings and “shoved” the orb toward it.

And … magic.

A bright sphere of pure energy exploded out of him, vivid green mixing with purple to form a brilliant-blue translucent wall that rushed away from him in all directions. It faded from normal sight almost immediately, but to his own eyes, attuned to the spell, he could still see it sweeping out in all directions, fading but not slowing, until the side of it closest to the mountain sank into the stone. No sooner had it begun to than the magic vanished, leaving him with a view of the world that was somewhat brighter but muted at the same time, as if all the colors had been cranked up in intensity but all the sharp edges between them blurred together. He could see the bright cylinder of white that was his beacon hanging from the front of his jacket, the magic spell on the small device shining like a magilight. But below him …

Nothing. No bright bits of magic, or even dull ones. Nothing but the normal background. No bright shapes through the snow that signified living bodies lying in wait.

That had been the other discovery that had thrilled him when he’d gotten the mod to work. Not only did the mod highlight magic to his eyes, but that included the magic innate to each individual. He could see the glowing ethereal form that was their own magic.

Even if they were currently behind something like a wall.

In essence, while it gave away his own position, it also let him see the position of anyone nearby, no matter how many walls or barriers they were behind. Though a few tests had shown that the armor they wore did lessen the effect somewhat.

“Well, crud,” he said to nopony. “Nothing.” He gave the mountain a final look, the glowing distortion over his eyes fading at last as the spell ran out, and turned southward. The needle in the corner of his visor was all the way to the left, the mod’s battery empty. It would take several minutes to recharge, absorbing ambient magic as he flew.

But I’ve got time, he thought as he began flying south, heading in the direction of the faint rumble of The Hummingbird’s propellers. He kept himself low, only a few dozen feet above the ground to avoid the worst of the wind, and in less than a minute had spotted several ponies making their way along the snow-encrusted plain.

Well, he thought as he dropped down, the team catching sight of him and calling out, their voices caught by the wind. They’re not too far off of where I was. He could see the faint depressions left by his passage, even after so many minutes. Though, if he was being honest, they were slight.

“Lieutenant,” Steel said as Hunter tucked his wings, dropping the last few feet into the snow to avoid stirring the drifts any further than they already were. “Get bored out there?”

“Cold, mainly,” he replied, pulling his hooves up and watching as they sank back into the snow, sinking halfway up his armored fetlocks before stopping. “I figured you didn’t want the team to finally track me down only to find a popsicle.” He motioned towards Nova, waving one wing. “Pass me those snowshoes. How’d they do?” The question was aimed at Steel.

“Not bad,” Steel replied. “Granted, they’re a little off your trail now, but they were doing pretty well all things considered.

“We watched for the depressions, as you said,” Sabra added, pointing at the “track” the three had been following. “But over that last rise …”

Hunter nodded. He knew which one they were talking about. He’d taken his trail right over a rise in the foothills … and then down into one of three narrow fingerlings of the next hill over. Barely a misdirection, but with the snow and wind covering his tracks, it apparently had been enough to throw the team off.

“We were about to double-back,” Nova added as he pulled Hunter’s snowshoes out of his saddlebags. “The plan was to check all three of them.”

Maybe not. He glanced at Steel, and the captain gave him a slight nod. All right, maybe they’re doing better than I thought. “Why not check all three at once?”

“Ambush,” Sabra said as Hunter caught the snowshoes and began putting them on. Each snapped into place with a barely-audible click. “Splitting up while tracking a foe that could be dangerous could leave us at a disadvantage. Especially in unfamiliar terrain.”

Hunter nodded and set his front hooves back atop the snow. This time, they didn’t sink in. “Good. But this wasn’t a combat exercise.”

“Like that means anything,” Nova said, rolling his eyes behind his visor. “Give us some credit, Hunter. We know how much you and the captain like to surprise us. Better safe than sorry. And earning extra laps because we didn’t bother to make the right maneuver.”

“Heh.” He checked his rear hooves and then gave his wings a quick shake, brushing off the snow that had settled on them while he’d been talking. “That’s a pretty solid reason.” Satisfied his snowshoes were properly attached, he took another quick look at the group. “So where’s Dawn?”

“She’s setting up part two of the exercise,” Steel said, grinning behind his visor. “As a former Ranger, her inclusion would have made this challenge pointless. Seeing as how Sabra and myself will be securing the Crystal Empire, there could be traps.”

“So she’s setting up a bunch of traps of her own around where we landed,” Hunter said, returning the grin. “Got it.”

“Which you are not to point out,” Steel added. “This one’s for me and Sabra. I want you and Nova to hang back. You’d throw off the whole test.”

“Hey, works for me,” Nova said, shrugging and moving forward through the snow. “But we’d all better get moving before too much longer. It’s going to be dark soon.”

“Yes, please,” Sabra said, a shiver running down the stallion’s back, visible even through the thick parka he was wearing. “I do not want to remain outside after night falls.”

“Me either,” Hunter said. A howl of wind kicked up around them, a long, echoing cry that brought a fresh barrage of snowflakes screaming by. “Let’s move out. Take us home, Sabra.”

“To Canterlot?” Sabra asked. He sounded serious, but Hunter could see the faint smile in the stallion’s lips behind his helmet.

“Not quite yet,” Steel said, turning and pointing back the way they’d come. “Dusk Guard, move out!”

They began moving back across the Crystal Plains, wind now howling at their back … though not always. It seemed to shift and leap almost randomly, sometimes ahead, sometimes above, sometimes at their sides, and always with a fresh crop of snowflakes.

“Ugh,” Nova said after a few minutes, reaching up and rubbing a hoof at his horn. “There it is again.”

“There’s what again?” Hunter asked, eyeing Nova as his motions knocked a clump of snow free of his snowshoe, dropping it across his visor. “That itch?”

Nova nodded. “It’s like … Crud, I don’t know how to describe it. A tingly feeling up and down my horn.”

“Like a static charge?”

“That works.” Nova lowered his hoof, though his eyes still were directed upward. “A small static charge running up and down my horn.”

“Same as before?” Hunter asked, frowning.

“Yup.” Nova shook his head. “And … it’s gone. Just like the last couple of times.”

“And you’re sure it’s not that helmet?” He glanced at the opening in the crystal where Nova’s horn emerged. The base around the opening was bulky, bulging outward from the helmet itself, while four narrow, crystal pieces jutted out alongside the horn, guarding it from impacts and helping provide a sort of ‘amplifier’ effect similar to old dueling rings. “You’ve never worn your armor for so long while doing magic—”

Nova shook his head, cutting him off. “No, that’s not it,” he said. “First of all, Dawn’s got the same design, and it hasn’t bothered her. And she’s using that booster.”

“The supercharger.”

“Right. That.” Nova shook his head again. “Besides, it doesn’t feel like that. It’s not my magic. It’s … wild magic.”

“Like wild weather?”

“Sort of,” Nova said with a shrug. “Sometimes a big spell or a sloppy enchantment or something will let off tendrils, you know. Just … pure energy. You can’t see it, not unless something goes really wrong or it’s a really impressive spell, but it’s there. Normally it’s so tiny, you don’t notice it.”

“But here it’s making your horn itch?”

Another nod. “Yeah. It’s gotta have something to do with this ‘sealing’ that Steel told us about. The magic coming undone or something.”

“That makes sense. As far as I understand magic, anyway. Which isn’t too much past the basics.” Another gust of wind roared past, and Hunter put a hoof to his hat out of reflex, the string tied around his chin going taut as the storm overpowered the enchantment that was supposed to hold it in place.

“Could you ask Dawn?” he said as soon as the gust had passed. “I mean,” he added as he saw Nova’s confused look,. “Sshe might have something that can detect wild magic flows.”

Nova shook his head. “Not in her gear. We already talked about it. She’s not felt any of the surges yet, but … Hey, you know what? She doesn’t, but you do.”

“I d—” He caught himself before he could go any further. “My mod?”

“Hey, it could work,” Nova said, his hooves sinking deep into a fluff of powder as they reached a lull between two low hills. Ahead of them, Steel was plowing a path with his chest, pushing snow aside to leave a narrow channel, Sabra following in his hoofsteps.

“You said your vision was fuzzy when you used the mod, right? Or blurred?” Nova asked as they both fell into single file along Steel’s channel.

“Not quite, but yeah. Something like that.”

“That’s magic. Ambient magic,” Nova said. “At least, that’s what I guess. So if you fire up that thing when my horn is itching, and—”

“If it is a bunch of magic all gathered together, I might be able to see it!” Hunter finished. “Onya, Nova. That’s a good idea. Just let me know when your horn is itching next, and I’ll give this thing a go." He bent one hoof back, pointing at the mod.”

“Speaking of which, was that flash from near the mountains you?” Nova asked. “A minute or two before you reached us?”

“Could you tell? Like, sense it?” If the mod had that wide of a side effect—

“No,” Nova said, shaking his head. They rose out of the depression, the powder on both sides falling away as they rose up atop snow once more. The roar of The Hummingbird’s propellers was a lot closer now, and Hunter glanced upward to see the faint shape of the airship’s envelope flickering through the storm. “We just saw the flash. It didn’t seem like thunder, but at the same time …”

“It could have been,” Hunter admitted, tilting his head back and looking up at the dark, seething sky. “But no, I did use it while I was out there.”

“Testing it out?”

“More or less. I was also checking to see if somepony was around.”

Nova frowned. “One of us? Or …”

He shrugged. “Not really sure. Something about the mountainside felt … off. You know, that feeling you get in your gut when something’s gone crook?”

“Yeah,” Nova said with a nod. “I know it.”

“Right. Well, I figured I’d check it out—from up high—just in case it was a yeti or a pack of iceworms. Or frostwolves, I guess, though those are pretty rare. I didn’t find anything, though. Might have just been the weather getting to me.” A deep, low rumble echoed across the sky, as if the storms were adding their own thoughts to his own.

“Could it have been our target?”

“King Sombra?” Hunter shook his head. “Not likely. He’s not supposed to break out until this Crystal Empire is back.”

“Right, that’s what Steel said. But …” Nova’s voice lowered. “What if the Princesses were wrong?”

“Wrong?”

“It’s not impossible,” Nova said with a shrug. “They’re not infallible. They’re immortal, but that doesn’t mean that they’re flawless. They make mistakes all the time.”

“I know, but—”

“Besides, according to Steel, King Sombra changed their spell. What if he’s already out?”

Crikey. Kid’s got a good point. “If that' is the case, then …” He took a quick look around. They were definitely getting close to their drop point, based on what he could remember and the way that Steel and Sabra had slowed. “I guess there’s not much we can do about it but keep our guard up. But that’s a fair point. I should mention that to Steel. If he hasn’t been thinking about it already.”

Ahead of them, both Steel and Sabra had slowed to a stop, looking down the long, even slope before them. Several hundred yards away, Hunter could just make out the figure of Dawn Triage standing in her pinkish armor, watching. Steel leaned out and said something to Sabra that was swept away by the wind, and the Zebra responded by drawing his Ffimbo from his back and extending it to its full length.

Not bad, he thought as his eyes picked out the slight difference in the sheen of the snow ahead of the pair. Someone—more accurately somepony—had disturbed the snow there recently, and though they’d smoothed the hard crust back over with their magic and let the wind do a little more, it hadn’t been enough to fool his eyes. Or those of the captain, apparently.

Though I wonder ... he thought, a grin coming to his face. Did they follow that all the way? He could see the subtle shift in the snow as it went across the snow in front of them … as well as doubling back to behind them. He elbowed Nova as Sabra reached out with his fimbo, poking at the recently disturbed snow.

A rope snapped up through the snow, its two ends exploding upward with far more force and wrapping around Sabra’s Ffimbo. There was just a hint of a glow to the trap, the rope moving just ever so slightly unnaturally as Sabra yanked his staff back.

Just in time for a whole mess of ropes to launch into the air around his hindquarters. To his credit, he didn’t panic. Sabra leapt forward, coming down atop the snow with only one rear hoof caught in a loop. Steel, meanwhile, had jumped as well, the ropes having missed him entirely.

“Nice,” Nova said as Sabra pulled his hoof free. “Two in one.”

“She’s good,” Hunter said with a nod. “You can’t run from Dawn’s med-bay.” His hoof extricated, Sabra and Steel began making their way toward the distant sergeant, scanning the snow in front of them.

“No,” Nova said, shaking his head. Then he frowned and turned to look at him, “By the way, has she said anything about being unhappy at something I did recently?”

“At you?” He paused for a moment, looking back over the last few days. “Not that I recall. Why?”

“She’s been acting strange around me,” Nova said. “Quiet. Cold. And yes,” he said as Hunter opened his mouth. “I know she was the Ice Queen of the Rangers. But we’ve been on pretty good terms, or so I thought. But ever since the missions started, she’s been … I don’t know. Polite, but standoffish.”

“You ask her about it?”

Nova shook his head. “No. Not yet.”

“Well, she hasn’t said anything to me. Want me to ask her?”

“Not yet,” Nova said after a moment. There was a burst of snow as one of Dawn’s traps caught Steel’s leg. “Maybe it’s just the mission.”

“Could be,” Hunter admitted. Down the hill, Steel and Sabra were charging forward, the massive earth pony breaking through clumps of snow like a ship through waves at sea and the more nimble zebra dancing across the snowpack in his wake. “This is, technically, our first real mission. We kind of volunteered ourselves for the last one. And it’s … Well, it’s a big one. With how little we know, and all the preparations we’ve been going through, we—”

He stopped abruptly, his mind catching up with what he’d been saying. We’re all stuffed. Crikey, Hunter, this was what Steel recruited you for in the first place, and you go and get all bodgy the moment things get serious.

Nova was looking at him, one eyebrow lifted. “What?” he asked.

“I think I see the problem,” Hunter said. When Nova turned to look down the slope, where Steel and Sabra were both trying to extricate themselves from a spiderwebbed tangle of snares, he shook his head. “Not with those two. They’re doing … about as well as we can expect, really.” As they watched, Steel tossed his front snowshoes aside, extending his gauntlet spikes and laying into the ropes around him. “And that’s not going to work.” A small net of twine erupted out of the snow, clad in the orange glow of Dawn’s magic and snaring one of Steel’s gauntlets.

“But no,” he said as Steel went down, Sabra leaping to his aid. “I wasn’t talking about them. I was talking about the team. We do have a problem, even if it’s not the same one you’re having with Dawn. Might be related, though.” He glanced over at Nova. “Offer’s still open for me to ask her about it.”

The unicorn appeared to think about it for a moment before shaking his head. “No, I’ll ask her myself.”

“Suit yourself,” Hunter said, turning to look back down the slope. Steel was down, thoroughly caught, while Sabra was still flipping over the snowpack … though he wasn’t getting any closer to Dawn.

“Well,” Hunter said, shifting his weight and giving his wings a good stretch. “I think this is just about over. Let’s mosey on down there and see about getting started on fixing the problem.” Another gust of wind swept over the plains, stirring up the snow already disturbed by Sabra and Steel’s antics, followed by another dull roar of thunder from above.

They followed the path carved by Steel and Sabra, snow beating against their bodies as they made their way down to where the pair were being unraveled by Dawn. The medical unicorn looked up at them as they approached, her horn aglow as she undid a collection of snares around Sabra’s forelegs. “Welcome back.”

“Having fun?” Hunter asked as a few more loops slipped off of Sabra’s hooves.

“Of a sort,” Dawn replied, her response as curt and polite as it normally was. “And it would appear I can look forward to more of it in the future.”

“Right,” Hunter said as Steel picked himself up out of the snow, shaking his body off. “Well, that’s actually something I noticed on the way down here. We’ve been making a big mistake with our training.” He directed the last few words at Steel, and the olive-green armored pony gave him a curious look even as he stepped over to where his snowshoes had landed. “Unfortunately, I didn’t notice it until a few minutes ago.”

“Really?” Steel asked, the spikes on his gauntlets snapping back into a “sheathed” position. He let out a sigh. “Well, with everything else we’ve been doing, it’s not too surprising that we’ve missed something. What is it?”

“Actually, it’s pretty simple,” Hunter said, rolling his forehooves in the snow. “Fun.”

His snowball caught Steel right in the visor, impacting with a soft wump and completely covering the glass. Everypony, Steel included, locked in place.

“We’ve been so busy working to get ready for something we’re only part-way informed about, we’ve been going starkers,” he said, hefting another snowball in his hooves. “Let’s face it: We’re trying to make everything as spot on as possible, when we don’t even know half of what we’ll be facing. It’s squaring the circle, and focusing on it has everyone on edge. So,” he said, hefting his hoof. “I think we need to relax before somepony cracks a fruity. And since we’ve got a lot of snow here …” He pulled back, making ready to throw the next shot.

Bap. Snow billowed around his head as a snowball slammed into the back of his helmet. “I agree,” Sabra said, looking at his own now-empty hoof with a measure of awe. “One must relax to properly shoot an arrow. Or,” he said, smiling,. “Throw a snowball.”

For a moment all of them were still. Then it was like a switch had been flipped. Hunter shot into the air, letting the wind carry him to the side as a snowball shot through the space where he had just been. He whipped around and let fly with his own, striking the snow where Steel had just been standing. The captain had leapt to the side, hastily ducking behind a nearby bank of ice.

Hunter threw himself into a tight spin as two more snowballs flew past, Sabra hunting for an opening, and then took to the ground, taking cover behind one of the winter-equipment duffels and quickly making use of the snow behind it.

Nova, meanwhile, had moved, his horn glowing as he readied several snowballs, his attention on Steel. And, Hunter noticed, not on Dawn, who was readying several snowballs of her own. The first hit his flank, and with a startled shout Nova dove to the ground, Dawn’s next two shots missing. And leaving her wide open for a retaliatory strike from Steel, which caught her in the chest.

“Captain!” Dawn called, fake scandal in her voice as she ducked behind a nearby pile of snow. “How could you?” A second snowball caught her in the back of the head, and she spun to see Sabra grinning at her. Sabra, who unlike the rest of the team, had not gone into any cover.

“Oh,” was all the zebra had time to say as three of them unleashed a barrage of snow fire. He took four rapid blows … and then with a leap he was arcing away through the air, twenty feet above the snowpack, purple lines flashing along the black of his undersuit.

He used his mod, Hunter thought as Sabra landed some thirty feet away, snow kicking up at his impact. Clever, but I’ve got wings to even that out! The pile at his forehooves was complete, and he scraped it into his armored limbs, crouching and launching himself up into the sky with steady wingbeats. A snowball shot past, a slight spin all he needed to avoid it … and then with a sudden orange glow, it switched directions, catching him in the back.

“Onya, Dawn!” he called as he dodged another magic-fired snowball. “But air power will reign supreme!” He was high enough now that he could see all three of them over their cover, and he began throwing snowballs down at all three of them. Dawn lit her horn and teleported several feet, snapping out of existence while Steel ran for it. Nova was the only one to stay in place, an orange shield wall covering him from above and absorbing several snowballs. Yellow lines ran down his own suit. His own mod in use, Hunter realized.

Still, I can keep them on the run, he thought as he skimmed to one side, dodging several retaliatory strikes from Steel and Dawn. Sabra was running back toward the group, a large ball of snow balanced carefully on his back. From the look of it, he was heading for Nova.

Hunter laughed as he fired another snowball toward Dawn, this time hitting her right in her armored muzzle. She glared at him, a trio of snowballs arcing toward him, only for two of them to change direction mid-flight and head for Steel, who had been coming up behind her with a few snowballs of his own. He rolled to the side, firing several snowballs back.

“Air power!” Hunter called again, going into a dive and grabbing a load of snow. Sabra was almost at Nova’s back, while Nova meanwhile seemed to be alternating his fire between Steel and Dawn. Sabra went into a run … and then abruptly changed direction, rocketing up into the air in a leap that brought him right at Hunter, his foreleg drawn back with the bowling-ball-sized orb of snow in it.

Hunter’s jaw dropped at the sudden maneuver, his body locking in surprise. Too late he tried to tilt his wings to adjust, and Sabra brought his foreleg forward, his cargo slamming into Hunter’s helmet with enough force to drive him back and down. He hit the snow with a heavy whump, landing on his back as Sabra landed beside him.

“Air traffic … control,” Sabra said as Hunter wiped snow from his visor and sat up. “Says you’re grounded.” Then he laughed, and Hunter stared at the zebra before adding his own laughter to the mix.

A snowball pelted Sabra’s side, and he spun away, Ffimbo snapping out and knocking two more from the air with a complex pattern. He then flipped, scooping his staff through the snow and using it to sling a clump at Nova. The phalanx shield popped into being once more, stopping the shot as surely as a stone wall.

Hunter pushed himself back up and out of the snow, noting the faint imprint he’d left behind. Okay, pulling out all the stops, huh? he thought, snapping his wings out and gathering two hooffuls of snow. Well then let’s go all out!

He snapped his wings down and back, throwing himself forward as fast as he could. Sabra heard—or saw, he wasn’t sure which—him coming and ducked away from his attack. Hunter pumped his wings again, moving clear of the zebra so that his own back wasn’t open, and dove for Nova.

The shield didn’t help against somepony determined to move around it, and Hunter brought both his forehooves down, dumping a load of snow across Nova’s head and back as he flew past. A snowball caught him in the wing, and he went into a quick spiral, Steel’s next two shots catching him only with glancing blows. Laughter echoed across the plains, mixing with the howl of the wind and almost pushing it back.

“Hey!” For a moment everyone froze, looking up as they spotted Sky Bolt winging her way down through the air above them. “You guys are having a snowball fight? Without me?” She landed in the middle of the group, shaking her head. “How could you?”

Hunter glanced at the rest of the team. Sabra looked almost like he was torn between speaking up and looking guilty, while Steel and Dawn just looked surprised. Nova, on the other hoof, had narrowed his eyes, readying a snowball of his own. Just in case, I guess.

“Well …” Steel said, shaking a pile of snow off of his hindquarters. “It was a spontaneous thing, and you were piloting The Hummingbird.”

Sky Bolt frowned, pawing at the ground with her hoof. “Well … I do have to keep a close eye on her.” She glanced upward, and Hunter followed, eyeing the airship holding somewhat steady a few hundred feet above them. “So …”

I-guess-I’ll-have-to-be-fast!” The words came out in an almost indecipherable blur, strung together as something slapped against the side of Hunter’s head, almost bowling him over.

He shook his head, snow falling away as Bolt came to a stop right where she’d been when she’d started, a wide grin on her face as red lines of magic faded from her undersuit.

Speed mod, Hunter thought, letting out a laugh as he saw the surprised and confused looks on the rest of the team’s muzzles as they brushed snow off of themselves. Bolt’s quick lap around them had thrown the snow into a momentary cyclone, one that was already fading as the winds returned to normal.

“Well played,” Steel said, brushing snow off of his shoulders with a chuckle. A moment later it had morphed into a full-fledged, deep belly laugh, and the rest of the group, Bolt included, joined in.

“Okay,” Steel said once the laughter had faded. “Hunter was right. Is right. We needed that.” He shook his head again. “We’re going to cut back. Tomorrow we’ll take a break. You can practice if you want to, and we’ll still get some work done, but for the most part, I want us to relax. For all we know, we could be out here for a few weeks. Makes no sense to wear one another raw before anything even really happens.”

“With that in mind,” he said, his gaze focusing on Sky Bolt. “I think right now I could use a warm shower and some dinner. And for that, we need our airship. Corporal Bolt, if you’d bring her down for us?”

“With pleasure, captain.” Bolt snapped the captain a quick salute before taking off straight up into the sky, a trail of scattered snowflakes riding along in her wake. In a moment she was beside The Hummingbird and opening its side door.

“And the rest of us,” Steel said as Hunter brought his eyes back down. “Let’s gather up our gear before she lands that thing. Good job, everypony. That was fun. Let’s go eat.”

Yeah, Hunter thought as The Hummingbird began to descend, magilights springing into being around its base. That feels right. The tension around the group had evaporated, faded away like snow beneath a hot sun. We might be facing the unknown, but if we don’t forget to relax… He picked up one of the winter duffels, throwing the strap over his shoulder and brushing snow off of it.

I think we’ll be just fine.

Chapter 6

View Online

Sabra let out a sigh of contentment as he let his weight sink, stretching his back and haunches. Moving through the freezing snow had left him a lot more sore than he’d expected.

Then again, maybe the cold was to blame for that.

Then again, perhaps not. A small part of him said it was foolish to lay the blame there, but at the moment he didn’t care. The cold and snow could take the blame for his soreness, whether or not they were responsible for it.

He leaned forward again, pushing his head under the warm spray that made up the front of the shower and letting out another sigh as the hot water ran down his neck and sides. Warmth! Sun-blessed warmth! Part of him simply wanted to stay there, burying his head under the showerhead and pretending that the flow of warm water would last forever. But … it wouldn’t. And Nova was still waiting for his turn at a shower, so he couldn’t simply wait as long as he wanted to.

Still, he could wait a minute or so more. The Hummingbird had a strong—and expensive—filtration system, so the water would be recycled. And there was a nearly endless supply of it. But …

As wonderful as it feels, he thought, tilting his head back and letting the steaming water splash over his closed eyes and muzzle. It is only temporary.

He pulled his head away and turned, pivoting inside the small shower and giving his body a final, warm rinse to make sure that he was free of suds. How does the captain even fit in this thing? he wondered as he took a quick look around the small, enclosed confines. It must be a very tight fit.

He gave his back legs a final glance to make sure that no soap remained, then shut off the water, the warm spray weakening before dying out completely. Sky said to wait a few moments for the steam to fade before opening the door, he thought, running a hoof down his side and pressing water out of his coat. It bounced against the rubber matting that made up the bottom of the shower before pooling and running down the drain.

He continued running his hoof down his coat until the steam had faded, collected through a fan above him or condensed on the walls of the shower. Once the air was clear, he undid the latch on the shower door, bracing himself for what was to come.

Cold. The opening shower door brought with it a rush of freezing air that made his skin prickle, and he all but jumped free of the shower, grabbing his towel and hurriedly trying to press as much water out of his coat as possible. He worked fast, rubbing the towel back and forth over his limbs and sides to generate as much heat as possible and work the chill out. Gradually the cold feeling began to fade, but the air still had a sharp bite to it. His coat smoothed out, standing on its own rather than stuck tightly against his body. He spent another minute working the towel across his body, getting as much water as he could out of his coat and mane, then tossed it over his shoulders and headed for the door.

“The shower is yours,” he said to Nova as he stepped out of the bathroom. The unicorn had been waiting by the door, a towel on his back, clearly ready. “Enjoy.”

“Thanks,” Nova said, stepping past him in the hall. The bathroom door shut with a click a moment later.

Now to dry the towel. Rather than heading forward, toward the galley and crew area, he moved aft, his wet towel slung across his back. A small cabinet at the end of the ‘T’ and opposite the ship from the garbage room opened with a blast of warm air, revealing a small row of numbered drying racks. Half of them were occupied by towels, another half by the winter parkas the group had worn during their exercise. Multiple vents blasted hot air up on the clothes, using spare heat from the boilers to dry their equipment.

He added his own towel to the racks before turning and letting the warm current rolling out of the dryer run across his still-damp back, giving the coat there a final once-over before shutting the cabinet again. His towel would dry quickly under the onslaught, leaving it ready to use once more when he next needed it.

Until then, the cold returns, he thought as the momentary sense of warmth vanished, bringing with it the familiar chill of the airship. A shiver ran unbidden down his back, bringing with it an uncomfortable crawling of his flesh, and he turned and trotted for the galley. At least it would be a bit warmer there.

Not just warmer, he thought as the galley entrance came into sight. But more lively as well. He could hear several voices talking, mirth shining through the words. A scent tickled his nostrils, his stomach growling in response, and he picked up his pace.

The galley was well-lit and surprisingly warm. Or perhaps that was simply his body reacting to what little new warmth it could find after the cold of the hall. Nonetheless, the chill did fade slightly as he stepped in.

It was warm in atmosphere as well. Steel and Dawn were both seated on opposite sides of the table, the captain throwing his head back as he let out a laugh. Between them was a colorful but small cardboard box of some kind, halfway open. Hunter, meanwhile, was occupied with the actual galley, his attention fixed on something frying atop the small stove.

“—not even the end of it!” Hunter was saying, his head twisting and turning as he split his attention between whatever he was cooking and the ponies seated around the table. “So then, Dawn here looks at our loudmouthed new recruit and says ‘Well, then why don’t you go get it?’ And this recruit panics, looks her dead in the eye, and says …”

Dawn spoke up, a look of amusement on her own face. “‘All the way up there?”

Steel laughed again, a deep, rich rumble that competed with the cry of the storm outside the ship. “The pegasus?” Lighter laughter echoed from the cockpit, its door open.

“The very same,” Dawn continued, her smile of amusement widening into a smile. Her eyes flicked to Sabra. “Welcome, Sabra. Have a seat.” She motioned with one hoof toward the side of the table.

“We’re just swapping old stories about recruits and newbies,” the captain said as he sat down. “Dumb mistakes, pranks, embarrassing moments. For example, when I first took a job in the Griffon Empire—”

“I think I remember this one,” Hunter said, smirking.

“Quiet you. Anyway,” Steel continued, his eyes on Sabra. “When I first took a job in the Griffon Empire, I wasn’t quite familiar with the language yet. Actually, 'almost no grasp' would be more accurate. But it was a paying job, so … Anyway, I report to my employer, and she assigns me to this old griffon warrior who had about as good a grasp on Equiish as I had on Griffon. I introduce myself, he does likewise, and then he tells me to follow him. So I did. And he takes me to this bathroom. And explains to me—or at least I thought he had—that I’m to guard the latrine all night. That’s my post. He goes to walk away, and I stay there, so he tells me to come find him when my shift is done.”

“Except that wasn’t what he’d told you at all, was it?” Sabra asked. I think I see where this is going.

“No, it wasn’t,” Steel said, ears folding back. “It turned out, what they wanted me to guard was this old griffon’s office. He was a logistical commander, and they’d been having an issue with someone raiding their supplies at night. My job was to patrol the office and the attached supplies to keep an eye out for things and maybe catch the crook.”

“What happened instead?”

“I spent two hours guarding a latrine, getting all kinds of strange looks from the everyone who came by to use it, and really questioning my career choices. Then after two hours, that old griffon, who was seriously starting to wonder where I was and why they hadn’t seen me, tracked me down.” Hunter’s laughter split the air, and Steel rolled his eyes. “Thankfully, none of them were too upset about it and understood the mistake almost immediately. Turns out that he’d just wanted to show me where the latrine was in case I needed to go before or during my shift. Didn’t stop the jokes from following me for a while. Or the smell, for that matter.”

“Oooh.” Sabra shook his head. “Did you ever catch the thief?”

Steel let out a laugh. “We did. Didn’t take long, either. Turned out to be one of the talon-members at the outpost who’d had a dispute over their pay. They were sneaking into the supplies and swiping low-key items to ‘make up’ for the difference. He put up a fight when I caught him, but I took him down, and that got my contract picked up elsewhere.”

“But that,” the captain said, shifting and rolling his shoulders. “Leads into other stories for another time.”

“Though there were probably plenty of mistakes there, too,” Hunter added.

“Oh sure.” The captain waved a hoof. “But guarding a latrine for two hours because you didn’t understand your orders is pretty hard to beat.”

“Didn’t you wonder why you were guarding a latrine?” Sabra asked.

“Oh sure,” Steel replied. “But I figured it was just some sort of hazing or someone in the command chain wanting to test my resolve. The Guard does that in the academy. They’ll pick cadets at random and assign them to protect something that doesn’t really need protecting at all—like a rose bush, or some cadet’s bunk—and then leave them there for a while. The way the cadet reacts to it tells you a lot about the cadet.”

“This sounds like a personal experience,” Dawn said. “What were you assigned to watch?”

“A teacher’s stuffed parrot,” Steel said, his voice flat. “In the middle of the academy quad. For five hours. In the sun. And if anyone mimicked a parrot, I had to turn and offer the parrot crackers.” He paused for a moment. “I may have been a little obstinate with the teacher and gotten my just desserts. Anyway …” he said, shooting a narrow-eyed look at Hunter before giving Sabra his attention once more. “I assumed that being asked to guard the latrine was sort-of the same thing.”

“A humility test,” Sabra said, nodding. “I understand.”

“Pretty much,” Steel confirmed. “If a pony reacts poorly too it, like it’s beneath them or something, it’s time to consider that being a Guard might not be for them. Or that they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Granted, there are plenty of places where being a guard isn’t just standing keeping watch on one location, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to do it.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I stood there for two hours, guarding the latrine. Left a few impressions.”

“So you used it as well as—” Hunter’s muzzle snapped shut, Dawn’s horn glowing.

“How about you?” Dawn asked, turning to look at Sabra. “Did life in your monastery ever lend itself to embarrassing moments?”

“I …” He thought back. “It did,” he admitted after a moment. “I accidentally incapacitated my Fimbo instructor.”

“Incapacitated?” Steel asked, leaning forward. “How?”

“Foolishly,” he said as all eyes in the room turned toward him. “It was in my early days there. Training and mastery of the body is as important as training and mastery of the mind, and so all are required to participate in both. During those first weeks of physical training, as a novice student, my teachers noted my skill with the staff. We do … did complicated routines. Practice exercises. Some are quite complicated. Others more simple. I picked mine up with ease, and my teachers were impressed. So they asked a Fourth Hoof of the art of the Fimbo to observe me.”

“Naturally,” he said, the words flowing a little easier from his mouth as he settled into a comfortable rhythm. “I was excited.” All eyes in the room were on him now, even Hunter’s as he juggled lifting a fried bread of some kind from the pan and looking at him. “So my teacher goes and brings the Fourth Hoof over to see my progress, and he asks me to demonstrate by going through a few of the harder forms for beginners.”

“So I did, and performed them flawlessly. Which was where the problem began.” He leaned forward, grinning as his own memory of the moment flashed through his mind. “My success emboldened my young mind, and so I thought to move past what I had already accomplished.”

“Uh-oh …” Hunter’s dismay echoed across the galley. “I’ve been there. That almost never goes well.”

“Shush, Hunter,” Dawn said, still looking at Sabra. “So, Sabra. What happened?”

“In my … elation? Yes, elation, I attempted to spin my Fimbo around my hoof,” he said, holding out one hoof and sliding the other across the top in an approximation of the movement they’d seen him perform dozens of times. “Except … I was not as skilled as I might have hoped. My motion was too grand, the momentum of the staff to great. It flipped off of my hoof in a downward arc, skipped off of the ground—first the front end, and then the rear, which snapped the front end further up … And into the Fourth Hoof Fimbo instructor.”

“Oh,” Dawn said, leaning back. “That’s not so bad.”

“He was so surprised that he didn’t move,” Sabra continued. “It bounced between his front legs … and rose to strike him squarely between his back.”

“Oh …” Hunter said, eyes wide and spatula in his mouth momentarily forgotten. “Are you saying you struck him …?”

“Squarely,” Sabra repeated, drawing out the word. “Both were hit.”

“Oh sun above,” Hunter said, rear legs folding in slightly as the pegasus cringed. Dawn meanwhile, had started to laugh, while Steel appeared battling between holding back the same and reacting with a cringe of his own. “Sun and moon! What did he do?”

“Well,” he replied. “For a moment, nothing. Then he let out a very long, high-pitched squeak that just … kept going. His lung capacity was truly impressive.” Dawn was laughing harder now, her normal, formal composure completely shattered, while the captain was trying even harder to not laugh and failing.

“After that, he sort of pulled inward on himself and curled up in … Well, I suppose he was better at his flexibility exercises than many gave him credit for. I don’t know if he ever matched that particular pose again, either. And he just laid there, on his side, making no noise save that constant, high-pitched squeak.”

“And me?” He shook his head, folding his ears back and putting an expression of horror on his face. “I started bawling. I thought for sure I was going to be thrown out of the monastery.” He dropped the look of fear and shrugged, giving them all a grin. “I stood right there, panicking and not knowing what to do.” He leaned back, watching as all three other occupants of the room continued to laugh. He could even hear Sky’s laughter from the cockpit, light and warming. She’d heard the story before, however. He’d told it to her to lift her spirits one night when she’d been unable to sleep.

It was good to know she still found it funny.

“So,” Hunter said once he’d regained his composure. Dawn was still chuckling, wiping at her eyes with one hoof, and Steel was just shaking his head and laughing. “What did end up happening?”

“The local shaman made him a potion that kept him from suffering any permanent harm,” Sabra said. “And after a day’s rest he was teaching once more. And he did assist in my teaching, though he was known to flinch every time I would spin my staff around my hooves. And sometimes, during the more showy moves, he would step back and sort of cross his forelegs a little, sort of like this?” He pressed his front legs together, crossing them slightly and holding them up.

Dawn lost what composure she’d regained, giggles bursting free of her muzzle even as she clapped her hooves over it.

“How’d he take you becoming a master of the Fimbo?” Steel asked, still grinning.

“He was understanding,” Sabra answered, leaning forward and putting his forehooves on the table as he looked at the rest of the team. “However, unless my ears deceived me—and with my talent being what it is, I find that unlikely—I’m fairly certain I heard him say something beneath his breath about being glad I moved out of his teaching so quickly.”

“Did you ever see him again?” Hunter asked as he scooped another fried piece of bread, or perhaps a roll, from the frying pan.

“Naturally,” he replied, nodding. “He was a member of the monastery. We all knew one another and saw one another daily.”

“That said,” he added as the laughter finally died down to chuckling and warm smiles. “I never did cross my staff with his after I left his … tute … tute—? What is the word for one who is a student?”

“Tutelage,” Dawn said, still smiling, her ears flicking atop her head.

Asante.” He gave her a small bow of the head. “After I left his tutelage I never crossed staffs with him again. Many others would practice with me, but never he.”

“In his defense,” Steel said, shifting. “I probably wouldn’t either. A hit like that …” He shook his lead and let out a heavy breath. “Those stay with you.”

“Personal experience, captain?” Hunter asked. Sabra watched as he slid another ball of dough down into the pan, a sharp crackling sound filling the room like the breaking of thousands of twigs as it hit the hot oil.

“On more than one occasion,” Steel said with a nod, shifting once more. “Let’s just say there was a griffon talon I served with that learned the full range of Equiish foul language that day, and though they were a pretty good crew, to this day I can’t meet them without feeling just a little uncomfortable.”

“I understand,” Sabra said, giving the captain a nod. “One of my childhood friends and I were playing one day and he dared me to climb atop a wall. One thing led to another and … Well, it was not his fault, but you couldn’t tell my nethers that.”

“Stallions,” Dawn said, rolling her eyes. “Thank the Creator that this is one pain I will never need to experience.”

“Definitely thank them,” Hunter said, flipping another chunk of fried bread out onto a waiting plate. “It’s the lesson every young colt learns.”

“Sometimes again and again,” Steel added.

“How about you, sergeant?” Sabra said, shifting his attention to Dawn. “Have you already shared a story?”

“I—” Dawn began, but the captain cut her off.

“No,” he said, his grin widening. “She’s been tag-teaming with Hunter, but she hasn’t offered a story of her own yet.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” Dawn leaned back, her eyes growing distant. “A story about one of my own rookie mistakes, then? Hmm … Yes, I think I have one of those.” She moved forward once more, resting her forehooves on the table. “Well, as many of you can attest, I’ve always had a bit of a headstrong, or perhaps one could say stern, nature.”

“You didn’t earn your nickname for nothing,” Hunter added.

“No,” Dawn said with a quick shake of her head. “I did not. And it was even worse when I was young. I knew exactly what I wanted to be, what my cutie mark was for, and how I would go about it.” She smiled. “Not that I always was as confident as I let on.”

“Uh-oh.” Steel let out a chuckle. “Headstrong and nervous?”

“Indeed,” Dawn replied. “So, despite all of my knowledge and capabilities, there were still times when I was beset with all manner of doubts. And one such time was when I was given the freedom to do my first examination.”

“I was fresh from my education, mind,” she continued, her blue eyes sliding over each of them. “Manehatten General was my first real experience being a doctor rather than a student. I had performed flawlessly under the tutelage of a superior, and after several weeks, he elected to let me work directly with patients on my own, without his oversight.”

“Naturally, I wanted to impress him, as well as perform to the best of my ability. I was nervous, yes, but knew I could do it. I arrived that morning, and before long my first patient was led into the room, along with their spouse.”

“I was on it in an instant. I asked all the right questions. I sat them down and conducted a full examination, as indicated on their chart. I did everything perfectly, diagnosed their problem flawlessly, and led them back out.”

Steel was chuckling now, and Sabra glanced at him. So where was the mistake? The captain, it appeared, had seen it, but he hadn’t yet.

“I met my superior outside the door and gave him a full rundown, right in front of the patient. I was quite pleased with myself. And it was at this moment that he informed me of my error. He nodded, told me that he was impressed with my work, that my examination had been quite thorough, but that I had missed one small detail, which I can see the captain has already deduced.” Her eyes fixed on Steel, as if waiting for him to speak.

“You examined the wrong—” he began, but she cut him off, her words tumbling out in a rush.

“I examined the wrong pony, yes,” she said, shaking her head back and forth as Hunter began to laugh. “The single most important question I could have asked, and I skipped right over it.”

“Was their name not given to you?” Sabra asked, speaking through his own smile. To have gone so far without noticing …

“It was on the chart I was given,” Dawn said, a chuckle of her own skipping out of her muzzle. “But they were there with their spouse, and I never asked which of them was which. One of them was keeping their weight off of one hoof and, well … I assumed.” She let out another chuckle. “And I was so forthright and declarative with my examination that neither of them dared speak up. I wasn’t unfriendly, just …”

“Cold?” Steel suggested.

“Focused,” Dawn replied, frowning for a moment before her look of humor returned. “In any case, it taught me a lot about my own pride. And thankfully, the couple understood once Doctor Stable had explained my situation. They found the whole thing hilarious. And to be fair, I had identified that the stallion I’d examined had injured his frog, so in the end, everything was all right. At the time I thought I would die of embarrassment, however.”

“What was the condition of the other patient?” Sabra asked. “Did you complete the exam?”

“Actually, I did,” she answered. “As it turned out, the stallion’s wife was feeling out of sorts and was pregnant. So they went away with good news … and a soft boot for the husband’s injured frog.”

“So a good end for all involved,” Hunter said, flipping two more of the buns out of the pan. He had yet to drop a single one, Sabra noted, despite the unwelcome weather all around The Hummingbird.

“Indeed,” Dawn replied. “And a lesson learned, despite my absolute panic at the time.” She shrugged. “I still earned my nickname, but that day taught me to at least learn the name of the pony you’re treating. They’re a sapient being, not a tally mark.”

“Who’s a tally mark?” The group turned as Nova stepped through the hatchway aft, his normally fire-red mane lying damp and dark against his head and split around his horn. His eyes darted to the center of the table and then stopped. “And who brought Clan Wars?”

“I did,” Steel said. “By accident. I was playing it with my nephew and had it in my saddlebags when the call came. Didn’t bother to take it out before we left.”

“And I was explaining the importance of reminding one’s self that each patient is a living, breathing being, not just an injury or illness to be treated,” Dawn said as Nova skirted around the table, took a quick glance at what Hunter was cooking, and then sat down opposite Sabra.

“So, you’ve played Clan Wars?” Steel asked.

“Yeah,” Nova said. “Not in a long time, but at one point yeah.”

“All right. So you’re familiar with the concept.” His eyes switched to Dawn. “And you’ve not played before.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head.

“And how about you, Sabra? Ever played Clan Wars?”

He shook his head. “Not by that name, if at all. How does one play?”

“It’s a little tricky to get the hang of,” Steel said, reaching out and tilting the box so that he could see the cover. Several differently-armored and plumaged griffons stared one another down, some with blades drawn, others holding tools and spears. A zebra stood nearby, wrapped in a cloak, while on the opposite side of the board, a whole assortment of much darker hooded figures sat wreathed in shadows. “It’s a popular game from the Griffon Empire. Four players, four different factions with different goals.”

“The loyalists,” he said, setting a hoof atop the griffons with tools and spears. “Their goal is to build up the empire. Secure things. Protect their holdings. While the revolting clans—” His hoof switched to the more aggressive-looking griffons. “Their goal is spread and seize territory from the loyalists through combat.”

“The death cults—” His hoof switched again, this time to the shrouded, darkened figures at the corners. “Play everyone against one another from the shadows, using sabotage and stealth until they can challenge the other two, while the wanderer …” His hoof moved to the lone zebra. “Or as they’re officially known, acolyte of Zawati, maneuvers between all three sides, working with and against all of them in pursuit of their own objective, usually one that, according to the card they draw at the beginning of the game, will resolve all three factions to the most peaceful resolution.” He glanced at Nova. “I’m guessing you liked to play as either the acolyte or the death cult?”

“Me?” Nova shook his head. “No, I enjoyed playing as the rebels. I’ve played all four, but the rebels were where I had the most fun. I was a thief. Why play a game as one? That was my job.”

“Fair enough,” Steel said, shrugging. “My apologies for assuming. Anyway, since we were going to spend the evening relaxed, I figured I’d drag it out and see if anyone wanted to play.”

“I would be interested,” Sabra said, bringing his eyes back to the box. “There is a similar game played in the Plainslands, though different. But I believe I have heard of this one under another name. Is there a recommended position for a beginner?”

“Not really,” Steel said. “But if I bow out and we get a fourth to cover, and assuming Dawn plays, I can coach each of you individually.”

“I’ll play!” Sky called from the cockpit. “Hunter’s taking over for me in here tonight anyway.”

“Once I’m done with these,” Hunter said, pointing a wing at the pile of fried bread he was assembling. The smell wafting off them was rich and sharp, like peppers and cheese. Then again, it almost looked as if there was some in the bread. “And if someone else cleans up afterward.”

“I’ll do that,” Steel said. “I can manage cleaning up and coaching the four of you on the game at the same time. But … let’s wait to get set up until after we’ve eaten. You almost done there, Hunter?”

“Nearly,” Hunter replied. The Hummingbird rattled again, a distant crack of thunder lighting the windows for a brief moment. “Just a few more minutes.”

Hmm … a short while longer … Sabra looked at Nova. “Well, Nova,” he said, his voice drawing the rest of the room’s eyes to him. “Each of us has shared an embarrassing moment from when we first began training or working in our professions. Would you share one of yours?”

For a moment Nova was quiet, as if weighing his options, but then he grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “I can. But only,” he added, his gaze going to the rest of the team. “If you guys retell all of yours. I missed ‘em.”

“I can do that,” Steel said, casting his eyes to the rest of the team. Dawn nodded.

“I’m good for telling that tale again,” Hunter said.

“I am as well,” Sabra added, letting his weight sink back, muscles relaxing as Nova’s grin widened. The unicorn began to speak, the words flowing out in a rush like a storyteller on a hot summer’s day.

Except it wasn’t hot, and instead quite cool. But as he listened, he found he didn’t mind.

He felt warm enough on the inside.

Chapter 7

View Online

“Ugh.” Hunter blinked, trying to drive away the sticky, molasses-like sensation behind his eyes. “How did Bolt do this for three days?” He took another quick look around the cockpit, holding back a yawn. Outside the glass, the sun was rising. Or, at least, he assumed it was. There was enough light coming through the clouds that he didn’t feel like he was blind anymore.

The yawn won out, forcing its way past his muzzle and sounding out across the cockpit. He slumped back, one hoof idly coming down to smack against the control board with a faint thud. Granted, she probably gets more sleep at it than I have.

He let his tired eyes slide over to the bunk. Sky Bolt had told him to use it to catch sleep in small bursts, but between his worry that something actually would go wrong and the constant battering of The Hummingbird by the endless storms, he’d barely been able to sleep a wink. The few times he’d managed to finally nod off, he’d been awoken within minutes by the timer so that he could check the airship’s course.

And speaking of time … There was a small, dialed clock on the control board. Several of them, actually, but the one he was interested in was the one keeping track of Canterlot time, since they were still in the same rough time zone.

Just after five. I hope Sky Bolt was rapped to get that break, because I really want to sleep right now.

He set his eyes on the distant mountains, almost invisible through the thickening storm. Were they that hard to see last night? He checked the compass. We haven’t drifted that far. So no. A frown shifted across his muzzle. They are harder to see. Lovely. The snow was getting thicker.

Thicker and more crook every day, he thought as another gust rattled the airship, followed by a crack of distant thunder. The sky looked even more unwelcome than before, the clouds thicker and darker than he’d ever seen them.

And there’s no way this is natural, he thought as he squinted, making out the distant whorls and spirals of multiple, competing weather systems. The thick clouds almost looked like mountains themselves, powerful and domineering. Mountains carved from thick, black stone, however, rather than the blue and white ice of the Crystal Peaks.

“And shifting,” he said aloud as one of the clouds lit from within, another distant crack rolling across the plains. The thunderhead was warping, twisting in ways that would have made a day-to-day weather team fly for help.

So naturally, we’re flying around underneath it. We must all be starkers.

They could get above it, possibly. Bolt had rigged the airship with a pressurization system, and though its use was limited, it was likely the way she engineered things that The Hummingbird could clear the cloud cover with ease.

But then they’d be blind to the ground, and to any sign of the very thing they’d been sent looking for. Hunter let out a sigh, letting his hoof clop against the control board once more.

“Bored … bored … tired … bored.” A nearby crack of lightning made him flinch, The Hummingbird shaking under the sound of the strike, and he revised his meandering. “Alarmed … bored … bored … tired … bored.”

He snapped his jaw shut, teeth snapping against one another with a sharp clack. There has got to be a better way for me to keep from cracking a fruity, he thought as another sharp crack echoed across the sky,a vivid bolt of lightning arcing across the clouds above them. This one had come after the flash, however, rather than with it. Further away.

It was still unsettling. I should have brought a book. Something to keep my mind off of the storm. Bolt had assured him that the airship was layered with the best precautions against being hit by a bolt of lightning that one could buy, but the nearby snap kept stealing his attention.

Especially since they do seem to be getting more violent, he thought as he checked the altimeter. Or closer. Or maybe both. The airship was still holding the same altitude it had when Bolt had left him the night before but … He leaned forward, trying to peer up and around the underside of the envelope.

Those clouds definitely feel closer. He eyed the rippled shapes, shifting and spinning in rapid eddies, churning like a dark, inverted ocean. For a moment the cabin was lit by a brilliant flash of white, another bolt arcing through the clouds and leaving him blinking away spots, and then another roar swept across The Hummingbird, shaking it.

That’s not good. He shook his head, clearing away the spots from his eyes. Thankfully, pegasi eyes adjusted a little quicker, and in moments he was casting his gaze out on the storm again. That’s really not good. While he wasn’t close to a weather pony, even he could see that there was something wrong about the way the clouds were moving. Where ordinary storms would have merged into one, something in the sky—magic, ancient spells, chaos, who knew what—was somehow keeping the mass above them separate. Where each storm rubbed up against another he could see clouds tearing, ripping as the storms fought against one another. Small spirals of cloud tuft spun and ground against the edges, turning and finally subsiding as newer chunks of each storm tore free. Elsewhere, an electrical charge built up, lightning arcing across the gap and through one of the clouds.

And the barometer is still sliding down, he thought, his eyes checking the small instrument on the side of the control board. Not by much, but it’s definitely gone down. His eyes slid to the nearby clock, and he nodded and moved a small notched piece of metal on the side of the barometer down slightly, noting the time on the clock and changing a ring around the edge to the current hour.

And … back to boredom with brief moments of terror. And worry. Another gust of wind roared over the airship, the cockpit shaking as the whole ship rattled, dropped a few feet, and then rattled some more.

Getting around on hoof today is going to be tricky if the wind keeps getting worse. He checked the controls once more, confirming that the airship was still holding steady on its course. Just moving around the cabins is going to get tricky.

Which probably meant it was a good thing he’d made them the fried bread the night before, when things had been relatively stable. We can lock the pots and pans to the galley stove, he thought as a sudden force pressed him down against his seat, The Hummingbird rising on another gust before settling. And we can lock the lids. But you can’t fry something that can’t stay in the oil. Not to mention it’d be almost suicidal to use boiling hot oil with the ship bouncing like this.

Which meant they were either going to have to limit themselves to simple things … or break out the rationed mixes Dawn had requested. Some of which were fine—he’d always had a soft spot for a good granola bar, especially if there was chocolate in it—but some of which went straight into unappetizing. Whatever “kale” was, he was fairly certain it had never been meant for consumption by intelligent beings.

The Hummingbird dropped again, his mane lifting slightly as the winds pushed it down, and a sharp thump against the cockpit door made his ears flick. A moment later, the airship stabilized once more, there was a soft click as someone undid the latch, and he turned just as the door slid to one side.

“Morning, Hunter,” Sky Bolt said as she stepped into the cockpit, her wings slightly flared for balance and giving her the appearance that she was going to take off at any moment. The night off he’d given her had definitely left its mark: The bags under her eyes that had been taking shape had vanished, and there was a lightness to her step that spoke volumes about how much energy she’d regained. That, or she’d found a stash of cupcakes somewhere and was riding the sugar train.

Then again, it could be both. “Morning, Bolt. How’d you sleep?” he asked, moving to his left and giving her room to take the pilot’s seat.

“No, don’t get up yet,” she said, waving a hoof for him to stay in place as she slid the cockpit door shut. “I just want to take a look at things. I’m not ready to take the seat back yet unless something’s gone wrong. And I slept like a foal, thank you.”

“With all the shaking we’ve been doing?” he asked, moving a bit more to the side as Bolt stretched over the instrument panel, her eyes darting from readout to readout.

“Eh, I’ve slept in far worse,” she said, ears folding back against her skull as she turned and looked out the window, then back at the controls. “This storm is picking up though, isn’t it?”

“It’s dropped lower too,” he said, nodding. “And I just took another barometer reading. Still dropping.”

“Yikes.” Bolt stretched over to his side of the console, her body held above the controls only by the tips of her wings.

Looks like all those wing-strengthening exercises are paying off, he thought as Bolt, satisfied with her observations, leaned back to the far side, standing on her hind legs with forehooves atop the console. Again she turned and looked out the glass, her head tilting back as she stared at the thick, dark clouds above them.

“Wow,” she said as another jagged fork of lightning crawl across the sky. “There’s like … six different storms up there. And that’s just what I can see. It makes no sense.”

“Makes for some lousy weather, too.” The Hummingbird shook once more, another gust of wind jerking it. “And getting worse.”

“Yeah,” Bolt said, flicking her sky-blue mane out from in front of her eyes. “All right, here’s what I want you to do.”

He felt his ears lay flat against his head as he pulled back. “Me? I thought you were relieving me.”

“Not yet,” Bolt said, glancing back out at the outside and then flashing him a smile. “Relax. It’s not that bad. I just want you to drop us down another hundred, two-hundred feet. Try to find something smooth. Me, I’m going to go back and check out the boilers, make sure there aren’t any maintenance surprises I need to take care of.”

“Oh,” he said, blinking more sand out of his eyes. “That does make sense, yeah.” I didn’t even think about how she’s running this thing like a one-mare crew. “Maybe in the future we should look into having someone else in the team that knows what to look for.”

“Believe me, it’s on the list,” Bolt said, stepping back from the controls and putting a hoof on the door latch. “But it’s a pretty big list. It’s on there, but …” She shrugged. “Roam wasn’t built in a day.”

“Well, technically it was, at least when they were the wandering city. But you could argue that was a process that took years to—”

“Right, checking on the mechanics now,” Bolt said, the latch coming undone with a faint click. “Drop us down and level out. Nice and gentle. If you panic, don’t.” Then she was stepping out of the cockpit, the door sliding shut behind her.

“On it,” he said, grinning as he turned back to the controls. Only for his grin to fade as swiftly as some of the snowflakes alighting themselves on the cockpit glass. “Right. Down two-hundred feet.”

The Hummingbird rattled again as he eased his focus over the instruments, running his mind through the list of instructions Bolt had carefully run him through over the prior few days. Just a gentle— The airship shook again, another gust of wind sending it sliding to one side, jerking him against the side of his seat. For given values of gentle, he corrected, descent. Slowly, and with care, he reached over and disengaged a safety lock on one of the levers, then gave it a small, downward tug.

Too small? he wondered, his eyes darting between his hoof, the snow-laden winds outside the cockpit, and the altimeter. But then, slowly but surely, the altimeter began to drop. Very slowly.

Works for me, he thought, leaving his hoof on the lever. Slow and— A distant flash lit the landscape, each particle of snow momentarily becoming a spotlight in the early dawn. A sharp crack split the air in its wake, shaking The Hummingbird before echoing back off of the distant mountains as a dull, rumbling roar.

Steady, he finished as the cockpit stopped shaking. Slow and steady. Better to do it right than make a mistake. If Bolt were here, or the weather not so disagreeable …

Another click echoed through the cockpit, the door sliding to one side. Hoof still on the lever, he turned to see Nova stepping through, each hoofstep taken with obvious care as The Hummingbird shook again. He cocked his head as his eyes fixed on Hunter, a surprised look on his face, but waited until he had shut the door behind him to speak.

“Sky Bolt hasn’t relieved you yet? I thought she was up?”

“She is,” Hunter said. “And good morning. But she’s checking on some mechanical stuff in the back. Making sure all this rattling and bouncing hasn’t shaken anything important up.”

“Right, morning,” Nova said, hiding a yawn. “Early morning.”

“Yeah, tell it to somepony who got sleep,” Hunter said, letting his eyes slip back to the altimeter. They were still dropping, slowly but surely. “Why? Were you looking for her?”

“Not her in particular. Just whoever was flying this thing,” Nova replied. “I was wondering if it was going to stay this bumpy.”

“Well …” Hunter said as another gust hit the side of the airship, both it and the altimeter swaying up and down. “Ideally not, but if you’ve looked out the windows, we’ve not got much choice in the matter as long as we’re under this storm.”

“Drat.” Nova shook his head. “I kind of figured, but that’s still a downer.”

“Having trouble sleeping?”

“Yeah,” he said with a nod. “I think most of us are. It’s hard to sleep when the world feels like it’s dropping out from underneath you. If this empire ever shows up, we might be too tired to do anything.”

“I hope not, but then again at the moment, I wouldn’t be up for any heavy action. At least, not at full capacity.”

“You didn’t sleep last night?” He shot Nova a look and the unicorn nodded. “Point taken. If I was having issues …”

“What about Sabra?”

“Sabra?”

Hunter nodded, checking the altimeter again. Halfway there. “Yeah. He sleep all right?”

“Actually, he did.” Was he mistaken, or was there a touch of envy to Nova’s voice.

“Really?”

“Once he turned around, that is.”

“Turned arou—Oh.” His mind caught up. “Sky Bolt took my bunk, didn’t she?”

“Yup. He was up for about an hour or so after everyone else had fallen asleep—those who could anyway—and then he turned around so his head was facing aft. Woke up Sky Bolt, wrapped a hoof around hers … and he was out.”

“Cute.” Those two really have started to depend on one another. Hopefully it wouldn’t be a problem when the team split.

“Yeah, but I wasn’t about to try the same thing with Captain Song.”

A snort tore itself free of his nostrils, a laugh chasing at its hooves as he turned to look at Nova. The colt was sporting his usual sardonic grin. “Yeah,” Hunter said, shaking his head again. “Maybe if you did one of those disguises, made yourself look like Rapid Cap.”

“Which just starts moving into creepy territory,” Nova said, though he was still grinning. “Speaking of which, making yourself look like a mare? Harder than it looks.”

His eyebrows rose, even as he flicked his attention back to the altimeter. Nice and steady. Almost halfway there. The air did seem to be smoothing out a little. “You’ve done that?”

“Once or twice,” Nova admitted. “It was a lot easier when I was younger. It’s a lot harder when you’re older.”

“But you’ve actually done it?”

“Like I said, once or twice.” Nova shook his head. “It’s a pain, and it really only works on low-light. Anyone gets a good look at you, and the disguise tends to fall apart pretty quickly. You can only do so much to hide certain features. Like the muzzle,” he added as Hunter let out another snort. “I mean, yeah, that too, but that’s easier to hide with the right pair of saddlebags or clothing.”

“So you had to learn this because …?”

Nova shrugged. “It’s in the job. Or, was in the job,” he corrected quickly. “I doubt I’ll be doing that for this team anytime soon. But there were some jobs where it was easier to get in and out if you were a mare that looked like she knew what she was doing.”

“Huh …” His eyes came back to the altimeter. “You know, I’d honestly never thought about that.”

“Which is why it worked,” Nova said, flashing a grin once more. “I mean, it wasn’t easy. Coat dye, mane dye, makeup for contouring …” He shuddered. “It’s a nightmare to make work. But if it gets the job done … Good for creating a fake pony to put the pursuit on too.”

“How’d you learn how to do that?”

“Necessity,” Nova said, turning his head to shade his eyes as a particularly bright bolt of lightning carved a channel across the sky. The roar came a moment later, the controls vibrating under Hunter’s hooves. “As a young colt it was easier, sometimes, but when I got older and spotted something I knew would fetch a good price that needed a … feminine touch … I snuck into a theater in Baltimare that was doing an old-style Romane Empire production. You know, the kind where all the roles are played by stallions? Snuck in and watched their makeup crew.”

“Huh.” He glanced back at Nova, pulling his eyes away from the altimeter. “I wouldn’t have thought of that. And it was all makeup?”

“Not all of it,” Nova said, shaking his head. “No one in the audience is going to be bothered by an actor disguising their coat color with a spell for an hour or so, and they have the makeup crew on hoof to recast the magic as needed backstage. But it’s just a quick cover. Some of it was easier to do with makeup.”

“But you went with dye instead of magic in case someone noticed the spell.”

“Exactly.”

“Huh.” He turned his attention back to the altimeter. Almost there. “And it worked?”

“Like I said, not easily. Low-light areas and distance were a must. Makeup and adjusting my posture could only do so much to hide a muzzle and other physical differences.”

“You ever meet anyone else who tried it?” he asked.

“Actually, yes. Going both ways.” Nova shrugged. “Like I said, it worked. I was a pro, though.” There was a hint of pride to his words. “I knew a couple of thieves that used magic as a shortcut and eventually got caught.”

Almost there. “Well, learn something new every day, I guess.”

“Hey, you knew I knew disguises.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I did. But honestly, until this moment I’d never actually thought of using them to pretend to be the other gender.” He paused, then frowned. “Wait, hold up a moment. If magic as a disguise can be spotted by a unicorn, why do we have such a hard problem finding changelings?”

“Changelings?” Nova shook his head. “That’s actual shapeshifting magic. Like, full on transformational stuff.”

“Really? What’s the difference?”

“Yeesh,” Nova said, sitting back on his haunches and rubbing at the back of his head with one hoof. “Ask the hard ones, why don’t you.”

“If you don’t want to—”

“No, I got it,” Nova said quickly. “Just don’t expect the most advanced explanation. But makeup magic? Like changing coat colors and the like? It’s … it’s like putting a temporary coat of paint on something. It’s an illusion, usually. Or an enchantment that adjusts the spectrum of light that is absorbed or emitted. Sometimes, for advanced, high-level magic, it can bend light to make an illusion.”

“So makeup and coat change magics are just variants on an illusion.”

“Not all of them,” Nova said. “There are cleaning spells, spells to puff a coat up and help it hold a shape, or smooth it down … All kinds of stuff. But in most of those cases, the spell is there, holding that illusion or that shape in place.”

“Or the illusion.”

“Yeah. It’s a magical construct.”

“Okay. So then shapeshifting is …?”

“Not an illusion,” Nova said. Then he spread his front hooves in the air in front of him. “And before we go further, I’m not exactly the most magically-educated. So if you want a more detailed answer than what I can provide, you’d have to talk to Dawn. But basically, shape-changing magic is a forced, magical shifting of what a creature’s very core is. It’s taking magic—a lot of magic, and I mean a lot—and actually transforming the very basis of that creature into something new. So it’s not putting a new coat of paint over something, it’s like … magically taking the house down and rebuilding it while still keeping the house intact. Which is why it takes so much magic.”

“But once it’s been changed, it stays changed? It doesn’t need anymore magic?”

“Sort of. There’s a biological catch to it, though.” Again his hooves came up. “And trust me, I know pretty much none of the details at this point, just the basics. But when you transform something … oh, say you actually had the magic to make a pony into … a griffon. Like I said, it’d take a phenomenal amount of magical power. I might be able to manage something like it someday if I really practice, according to Dawn.”

“What about something non-biological?”

“It’s a lot easier. Something about a living being having a template it wants to jump back to. That said, if you try and change something inanimate into a living thing, it does shift back.”

“Really?” The altimeter was almost at the proper height. Any second now. “Why’s that?”

“Something to do with how living things work, and I think the way magic works? We’re getting over my head.”

“Sorry.” There! The lever went back to the center position, lock engaging once more. He took a quick look around the outside of the aircraft. It does feel calmer. Time would tell.

“No bigee,” Nova said. “Anyway, when you use magic to change something’s shape, it does change. It becomes that thing. Right down to the … DNA? Yeah, that’s the word for it. Right down the DNA in the cells, though it does leave some trace markers of the origins.”

“So it’s not magical,” Hunter said, extrapolating forward, “because whatever’s been transformed actually becomes what it’s turned into?”

“Right. If we used magic to make me a griffon, I’d actually be a griffon. I’d probably keep a semblance of my coat and mane colors unless that was part of the change, but I’d actually be a griffon. I could walk right past a bunch of unicorns, and there wouldn’t be a single bit of magic saying I wasn’t a griffon that they could detect without specialized equipment.”

“So there would be traces?”

“Really, really tiny ones,” Nova said. “And there’s the problem with transformations. They don’t last.”

“Okay …” He glanced at the compass, checking that the airship was still on its proper heading, then turned to face Nova. “What do you mean that they don’t last?”

“Exactly that,” Nova replied with another shrug. “You know how everything’s got a magic field, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that same magic I guess knows somehow that it’s not in the right shape. So it pushes back against the spell that made it something it’s not. It ‘remembers’ maybe? I don’t know the details. But it shoves back. So before long, whatever’s been changed changes back. You can make it last longer, but eventually the original form wins out.”

“So changelings—” he began.

“Are a special case,” Nova said quickly. “They’re supposed to transform. So that’s what they do. Maybe their magic is flexible and recognizes that? But if someone with a really large amount of magical power were to turn me into a griffon, like I said, I’d be back to being me in an hour or two tops unless they came back and constantly reinforced it.”

“Which is a tight time limit.”

Nova nodded. “And like I said, we’re talking a massive amount of power. I might never be able to pull one off, and I’m a few levels above average. It’s just easier to use makeup and forget the magic. Oh, and it’s not predictable.”

“What do you mean, not predictable?” he asked.

“Unless you’re powerful enough to actually know how long it’s going to take an innate magic field to push back, and have the power to override it, you’re kind of guessing. So their form might snap back in twenty minutes, or an hour.”

“Which makes a tight time limit for something like your old job all the more wonky.”

“Exactly. There’d be no signature, but where’s a thief going to find that kind of power and reliability?”

“The Princesses?”

For a moment they were both quiet, and then Nova nodded, a thoughtful look on his face that Hunter knew was mirrored on his own. “Yeah, that would do it. They could possibly even make it permanent.”

“That can happen?” Hunter caught himself. “Wait, no, I’ve heard of a plant that does it. Really rare and dangerous. It’s not instant, though.”

“It couldn’t be,” Nova replied. “It’d take too much power. But in theory—and just to be clear again that I’m not an expert here—if you had enough magic to overcome that last bit of innate magic, you could make a permanent transformation. There have definitely been claims of it throughout history. A few wizards in legend claimed to have made items that assisted in transformation too, but those are all …” He brought up one hoof and waggled it from side-to-side. “A little murky.”

“Could a magic battery handle it?”

Nova shook his head so quickly his fire-red mane was a blur. “Not even close. Not unless you want one the size of one of our superboilers. And Sky Bolt’s been having trouble figuring out how to work teleportation. Changing something is way past that on the complexity scale.”

“So you need a starkers amount of power and lots of smarts.”

“Pretty much.” Nova lifting one eyebrow. “Why? Thinking of trying something out?”

“Me?” He shook his head. “No, I was just curious about how the changelings managed it. But once you got going on it, it did make me wonder if there could ever be a use for that. We do have a direct line to the Princesses.”

“Huh,” Nova said, holding a hoof to his chin, eyes rolling back in thought. “I guess you’re right. We do. Maybe I should see if I could work a favor out of one of them.”

“Wait, what?” He turned away from the controls, staring down at Nova, gobsmacked. “Really? Why?”

Nova shrugged. “Hey, you’ve got wings. I don’t. It’d be nice to give that a try. I wonder if I could wager that in a poker game with Princess Luna …” Nova’s voice trailed off, his attention elsewhere.

“Well, if you do,” Hunter said, a sly smile on his face. “Don’t tell the captain about it.”

Nova perked up, ears twitching. “Really? Why?”

“Because I want to be there to see his gob drop open in complete confusion, that’s why!” Hunter said. “And tell me in advance, so I can get a camera.”

“Bonus points if I can make him question reality?”

“Hmm …” Hunter put a hoof to his chin as he leaned back. “Maybe. I might be able to do you one better and swing you a day off or something.”

“Deal!” Nova said, grinning and sticking out his hoof. “Gives me something to look forward to when I get back. And I want copies of the pictures!”

“Deal.” Hunter slapped his hoof against Nova’s as they shook on it. “Granted, you’ve got to get the Princess to agree to it …”

“You know, I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” Nova said, rising with a grin. “In any case, we’re shaking a bit less now, so I might as well try and get a little more sleep. Later, Hunter.” He turned for the door, hoof reaching for the latch.

Something flitted through Hunter’s mind, and he spoke. “Actually, before you go …” Nova’s hoof stopped, the unicorn turning and looking back at him. “Did you ever speak to Dawn about how she’s been acting around you?”

Nova nodded, the look of mirth sliding from his face. “I did. Last night.”

“And?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. She apologized, but said it was simply her dealing with the all the stress of the mission and getting everything taken care of for it.”

“And?” he asked, crossing his forelegs across his chest. He could hear the unspoken words hanging on the end of Nova’s statement, hanging in the air like the storm-clouds in the sky. Though hopefully not as violent or dangerous.

Nova let out a sigh and rolled his head. “She was lying. I’m certain of it. I’ve got a lot of experience in that area. She wouldn’t give me the full story. Something is bothering her, but she wouldn’t admit it. She gave me a convenient excuse, and that was all it was.”

“Hmm …” He frowned. This is unlike Dawn. She’s cold, but hiding something? “All right,” he said slowly. “I’ll admit, that’s odd, especially for her. I can see why that’d aggro you, especially with how straightforward she normally is. All right, I’ll talk to her as soon as Sky Bolt comes back and relieves me—” The end of his sentence was stolen by a yawn, and he covered his mouth with one hoof. “And as soon as I’ve had a nap,” he added. “Anyway, I’ll have a chat with her about it, and see what the problem is. Make sure this isn’t just a beat up. Not saying you’re wrong,” he said, cutting off Nova’s retort before he could speak. “But she really could just be a bit more uptight than normal, even for her. The last few days haven’t been easy on any of us.”

“That’s … fair,” Nova said, nodding. “All right. Thanks, Hunter.”

“Welcome. Now go try and get some sleep, take advantage of the rest day while we have it.” The door slid to the side with a faint rumble that, oddly enough, echoed the rumble of another bolt of lightning outside, and then Nova was gone, the cockpit his own once more.

All right … He leaned forward in his seat, eyeing the compass and then the altimeter. Being a little lower is a little smoother, so that’s at least a step in the right direction. Just wait for Sky Bolt to get back and then …

Sleep. Glorious sleep. And after that …

After that, he thought, I go have a little talk with Dawn. Unless, of course, this Crystal Empire shows up at last and everything really gets interesting.

Speaking of which, I really do need to have a more in-depth talk with Steel about that, and …

The Hummingbird drifted on through the sky, propellers spinning as Hunter planned.

Chapter 8

View Online

Sky’s hoof was gone. It was the first thing Sabra noticed when he woke up, bunk rattling around him. His forehoof was cold, poking out into the cabin air, without any hint of warmth on the other side. For a moment he lay still, ears twitching as he searched for nearby sounds like a mongoose scanning the plains. He pushed aside the rumble of The Hummingbird’s propellers, cut away the faint howl of the wind and the distant roar of the storm, searching instead for living beings.

Captain Song’s steady, patterned breaths were the first sound he heard. Followed by faint signs of chatter from the fore of the vessel, muffled enough to be mostly indistinct, but still recognizable as masculine tones. A second or two more of listening, and he’d picked out who the voices belonged to based on their patterns and tonal inflections. Lieutenant Hunter, he thought. And Nova. Which explained why he hadn’t heard the unicorn’s own, distinctly light breathing pattern on the other side of the room.

But still, neither of them was Sky. Which meant …

Engines. The thought boiled up from somewhere in the back of his mind, a recess that hadn’t quite fully come to the surface yet. She said something about checking the engines, didn’t she? Yes, that felt right. Light flooded the corners of his mind as he woke up, bringing with it clarity.

She wanted to check the engines and mechanics, make sure that everything was working properly. The airship had been running for … This would be the fourth, he realized. Four days, then, without maintenance. The longest it had been used yet outside of tests.

So she wanted to make sure nothing went wrong. He pulled his hoof back, letting it slide back under the covers where it was relatively warmer. That must be it.

That, he admitted, or she’d gone to the facilities and would return any minute. It was hard to tell without knowing what time it was.

For a moment he lay there, but then his curiosity welled inside him like a spring, and he cracked one eye open. The common room was dimly lit, the overhead magilights still either off or at a low setting, but there was more light in the room than could simply be accounted for by them.

The sun, then. Sunrise, or close to it. Which meant the captain would be rising soon, as would the rest of the—

Wait. No. He caught himself. That was why Sky was in the back. Or at least, why he assumed she was in the back. Lieutenant Hunter had taken her position for the night, so that she could rest like the whole team would be.

It’s a rest day, he thought, tucking his chin a little closer into his blanket. That’s right. So perhaps the captain wouldn’t be waking up in a few minutes, ready to get the team underway. Or if he did wake up, he wouldn’t be taking the team with him.

That was, of course, assuming that most of the team wasn’t already up. So far it seemed that those still abed and those aware were evenly split. Unless Dawn was already awake and at work in her medical bay. Which was … possible, considering the sheer amount of materiel she was dealing with.

Still, if left to his own … He shifted again, worming his shoulder a little further under the heavy, winter blankets and taking solace in the fact that at last he had something somewhat warm to sleep in. Sky had redirected a vent for him, and between that and some surplus winter gear the captain had taken no issues with him using, he’d been able to at least make his bunk comfortingly warm.

Which still left the abrupt, occasional jerking of the airship itself to confront, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. Though he had felt a lot more reassured with Sky around.

The Hummingbird jerked again, this time to one side and then back. He heard the voices from the cockpit switch in tone, reacting to the maneuver. On the other side of the room, the captain’s steady pattern hitched slightly, resuming as soon as the turbulence was over.

He must have slept aboard an airship before, Sabra reasoned. During the regency wars, perhaps. It would explain how the captain seemed to be the only member of the entire team that could sleep through almost anything. Almost.

He laid still for a moment, focusing his attention on his breathing, but the telltale slipping of awareness that indicated sleep was within his grasp eluded him, and he rolled onto his side. Perhaps then, a different kind of rest. He froze, holding his body absolutely still for a moment, and then let out a long, slow breath.

In. And out. Rhythmic. Patterned. In. And out. Steady. Sinking inward.

The Hummingbird shook again, upsetting his breathing, but he quickly recovered. In. Out. He extended his awareness, taking in every twitch of muscle, every pulse of his heart. In. Out. Slowly but surely, the outer world began to fade, a void growing around him as the physical faded away. It was odd to be holding such a relaxed position while attempting to meditate, but at the same time, it was merely a challenge to overcome.

Physical sensation began to fade, the steady, rhythmic sound of his breath and the gentle thump of his heart slipping away. Colors danced at the edge of his vision—or at the edge of his mind, he’d never been sure which—before fading as well. The real world slipped away … and the void took shape.

It stretched around him, endless and infinite. A black expanse that held everything and nothing at the same time. He slipped down through it, his presence still and gentle as he descended. The lake came into view, its surface already splintered with ripples, bounding off of one another and bouncing from place to place. Even at such an early day, his mind was far from still.

He willed himself to calm as the lake neared. While stillness was preferable, it was not a sign of good. Stillness, after all, could mean death, a dearth of input or mindfulness. A still mind could mean perfect control, harmony with one’s self … or it could be a sign that there was nothing to be in harmony with.

By contrast, a wild, untamed lake could hold the same duality. It could represent the mind of the seeker, one who was constantly acquiring new knowledge to study … or it could be the mind of the ill-focused, a mind with no clarity and aimless pursuits of purposeless abandons.

His hooves touched down on the lake, his slow descent coming to a halt as he gazed out over his mind. Detached from the physical world as he was, he could “see” the ripples, eddies, and waves spreading out across his mind, see the turmoil each brought. And, as always, the largest concentration of ripples were traced back to one source.

What is life? The mere thought of his quest and pursuit sent new ripples rolling out like sound from a bell, sliding across the surface of the lake and almost immediately mixing with counterparts to form waves. He focused, and a stillness slid out of his presence and across the surface of the lake, waves and currents freezing in place. Then, slowly, but surely, they shrank.

But they didn’t vanish. There was too much … uncertainty. Too much for him to simply still his rampant thoughts, questions, curiosities, and, yes, fears and doubts with a single moment of focus.

Besides, it wasn’t the surface that held the true cause of his turmoil. It was what lay underneath. If the currents beneath the water weren’t calm, or at least controlled, the surface never would be.

Keeping the surface still, however, would make it easier to track each current back to its source. Satisfied that his focus on the surface was held, he let himself slip downward, the cool waters of the lake closing over and around him.

It was a strange, but welcome experience. Memories and thoughts flitted around him, both at once part of him and apart. Logically, if he went deep enough, he would find the part of his mind that was in essence “him” at the moment, building the void inside his mind. A common tale at the monastery held that if one sank into that part of the mind, one would find another void with another, deeper part of the mind, and so on into infinity until one became as immortal and in tune with the world as Zawati and found all answers.

That, or end up lost in one’s own meditation. Perhaps someday he’d try, see if he could locate such a space. But at the moment, there was one thing that dominated his mind.

The tangle. He wasn’t sure what to call it. It was almost like a mountain, rising out of the depths of his mind, a mixture of ideas, thoughts, and feelings all so tightly wrapped around one another that they generated their own currents. Volatile ones, at that, with surprising strength and force.

Never had he encountered its like before. And in the space of one’s mind, that was … unsettling.

He probed at it, floating closer and feeling a rush of thoughts and feelings spill over him. Emotion threatened his hold for a moment, his body rising, but clarity returned, driving the sudden passion away.

He could feel … confusion, emanating from it. As well as curiosity. The tangle was before him now, massive and stretching in almost all directions. What are you? What has my mind so … different? He reached out, hoof catching against a current and rippling through it.

Wellness. Security. Warmth. The emotions rolled through him, and he pulled his hoof back. He probed again, this time at another part.

Curiosity. Drive. A search.

That one he knew. My question. He could feel ripples rolling off of him, churning the lake around him. Have I truly become so …?

He couldn’t think of a way to answer his own question. Concerned? Devoted? Alarmed? Worried? Obsessed? He could feel other emotions and memories mixed in the tangle. Some were familiar, recognizable. Pride. Sadness. Trepidation. Determination. Others were … not unfamiliar, but certainly not thoughts he would have associated with the question.

Where? He could feel more currents tugging at him, pushing and pulling from different sides and angles. But largely pushing. Actively pushing.

He was losing focus. The surface of the lake above him was breaking, lifting and twisting as the currents began to press harder.

I understand. He rose, leaving the lake behind, the void fading away as he brought his consciousness back to the forefront of reality. There was too much wrapped in whatever was rushing through his mind, too much riding on it, even if he wasn’t sure what it exactly was yet. So much so that merely attempting to study it by force would be like trying to swim up a waterfall. He would simply fail.

So instead, he thought as the sounds and scents of the galley returned in a rush, the physical world snapping back with sharp, crisp clarity. I must give it time. Patience. He’d need to work through his thoughts and feelings, carefully examine them. Examine this new source of turmoil and unrest from all sides.

Which would … take time. He resisted the urge to sigh, instead pushing away the impatient feeling with an admonition. Clarity may only come with time. You cannot force knowledge nor enlightenment.

Though I could write one of my old teachers, Sabra thought as he rolled over, pins and needles rushing along his coat with the sudden movement. How long had he been meditating? Surely no longer than a few minutes. Ask them if they have ever encountered a … tangle … and what they did about it.

Then again, such a thing would take time. A letter to his monastery could take a month to arrive, plus another to return, unless he sent it by a priority service.

Maybe I should try the embassy, he thought as he shifted again, this time kicking one corner of his covers up and letting in a shock of cold air. The captain’s rhythmic breathing was still steady on the far side of the room, but he couldn’t hear any conversation from the cockpit anymore. Nor could he hear any sound of Nova in the galley. The shaman there, Akeelah. She may have an answer.

He flipped onto his back, forehooves clenched around his blankets, and braced himself. He sucked in a few quick breaths, then quick as he could, threw the covers to one side. A wave of cold rolled down his body as all the warmth he’d so carefully built up was swept away by the unyielding cold, and he grit his teeth together to keep them from chattering.

So … cold!

He sat up, balancing on the edge of the bunk and rubbing his forehooves against one another. The friction brought a little heat, but it didn’t steal away the chill the air held, sucking away at him. He took a long, forced breath, sucked in through clenched teeth and willing himself to ignore the cold, ignore the way his pelt seemed to be standing on end.

It’s just cold. It’s warmer than you think. You were comfortable under the covers. It’s shocking in comparison. The train of thought helped … but not much.

Still, there was little he could do about it but get moving. He slid off of the bunk, his hooves meeting the rubber-matting atop the floor with faint, muffled clops, and headed for the back of the airship. The first order of business was … well, the first order of business for most in the morning.

He kept alert as he headed to the bathroom—Head—listening for any signs of other activity. The medbay was quiet, which meant that Dawn was likely still asleep. With the padding around the doors and walls, he couldn’t listen to hear otherwise.

The head meanwhile was occupied, the door shut and the sound of rushing water roaring through it. Nova then, and showering from the sound of it. He waited for a moment, twisting his hoof against the rubber matting, and then turned away. He was simply going to have to wait. The downside of having one bathroom and shower, as opposed to the larger space in our barracks, he thought as he headed for a door that ran rearward. Behind it, he could hear a cacophony of mechanical noises, thumping and hissing. A small cabinet had been built into the wall next to the door, and he opened it expose several sets of large ear mufflers, each latched in place.

Everything accounted for, he thought as he released one the of sets of mufflers and slid them down over his head. The large cups slipped over his ears, resting snugly against the top of his head and cutting off the outside world, the sounds losing their high pitches and reminding him almost of what it was like to dunk his head beneath the water.

Just with less distortion. He closed the box, hearing protection secure—though the plastic band connecting the two halves was pressing down on his mane in a slightly uncomfortable fashion—and opened the door.

The once-faint sounds became a tumult with the heavily-padded door open, and he stepped through quickly, sliding it shut behind as to not bother anyone in the crew areas. The rhythmic banging sound was the loudest, pinions and parts moving in concert against one another this far back in The Humminbird’s innards. He’d left the hallway behind, as well as the rubber matting, his hooves now on bare metal grating as he trotted further back.

The space around him was open, or rather would have been if not for the large amounts of moving machinery on both sides, moving with dizzying speed as it used the heat from the boilers to create and transmit energy to the rest of The Hummingbird’s systems. Thankfully, it wasn’t in easy reach: Sky had gone ahead and made sure that the edge of the grated metal walkway was at least a few inches away from any moving machinery, as well as separated by heavy wire mesh covers that could be opened and folded back as needed. And even with that protection, there was a large, brightly-lit and brightly-colored sign right on the side of the entrance that quite clearly spelled out both in pictures and several languages—his own native Zebra included—that there was to be no loose or flowing clothing, hair, or jewelry under any circumstances, and to keep a close eye on one’s tail given how dangerous the machinery could be.

Ahead of him, he could see a small open space, a square room of sorts, though given the open nature of the rear of the ship, it was more of an open metal platform. Almost a cage, really, with all the mesh. Sky had turned it into a smaller version of her workshop, complete with smaller workbenches and—of course—plenty of toolboxes. He trotted forward, his eyes scanning the machinery around him, searching for any sign of Sky’s blue mane. Even through the ear mufflers, he could hear the faint, steady hiss of steam as pistons expanded and contracted, in time with the dull, staccato-mixed drumbeat of so many mechanical parts moving against one another. The heavy, deep clangs almost sounded like log drums performance, deep and moving, resonating in his chest, but mixed with other clangs and clatters that no log drum could ever replicate.

He stepped into the small workshop, eyes and ears both turning as he searched for a sign of Sky Bolt. Breaks in the machinery on all sides led to mesh-lined pathways, as well as a steep stairwell in the decking that led down to a lower level—cramped as it was. But Sky needed to have access to every bit of The Hummingbird’s innards that she could while they were traveling.

On the plus side, this close to the boilers he wasn’t quite so cold anymore. The engines generated a large amount of waste heat, even with all the insulated piping and Sky’s own superboilers fueling things, enough that he felt almost warm.

A faint clang caught his ears, out of tune with the rest, followed by a string of words, all indecipherable under the din of the steam engines and boilers. He turned, ears twitching against their confines, and took a few steps forward, looking to the port side of the engine room. There, poking out from behind a mesh covering panel around some machinery, was a tightly bound sky-blue tail. It flicked as he watched before moving a little further forward, all the but the very end vanishing behind whatever machinery was inside the metal mesh. Sabra opened his mouth, about to shout, but then caught himself.

That might be a bad idea, he thought as he heard another out-of-place clang, followed by more grumbling tones just barely audible against the constant, all-consuming beat of the engines. She’s clearly working on something. The last thing somepony needs when working on moving machinery is someone shouting at them. He sank back on his haunches, the grated metal warm but not quite comfortable beneath his flanks, and waited.

There was another clang, followed by a tone he recognized even without being able to hear the words as “Finally!” and Sky’s tale reappeared, followed by her hindquarters as she backed out of the mesh-cabinet. For a moment they moved from side to side, tail swaying, and he turned his eyes elsewhere for a moment, giving her time to extricate herself from the machinery.

“Sabra!” He snapped his gaze back to her to see her face lit up with a wide, grease-stained smile. Then she paused, pursing her lips in with a coy look on her face. “About how long ago did you start looking at the ceiling so intently?”

“I …” He could feel a blush heating his cheeks. “I didn’t want to look as though I was staring.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” she said, picking up the tool she’d dropped to the deck and swinging the mesh caging shut with a bang that was almost lost amidst the sounds of the machinery. Then she paused. “Were you?”

He decided not to risk answering. “What were you doing?” he asked. The question was almost a shout, to be heard over the constant clatter of the mechanics and through their ear muffs.

“That’s not a no,” Sky called back, before letting out a laugh. “I was greasing some things,” she said, holding out the tool she’d been using in one hoof as she walked into the workshop area. It was a long cylinder with a flexible looking hose at one end and a lever at the other. Thick grease encrusted the end of the hose.

“All this constant running,” she said, waving her hoof at the engine around them. “It wears stuff down. Gotta check on it every so often and make sure it’s greased up with the grease gun. Luckily,” she said, pulling a drawer open and putting the tool away. “I had Hunter take us down so it wouldn’t be quite as rough. Still a bit alarming when she jukes on you though, and you’re right next to a large crankshaft.” She shook her head, and he noted that her mane didn’t flap around her face, the long hairs carefully tied back atop her head.

“Eugh,” Sky said, rubbing a hoof across her side and smearing a long streak of grease along both, matting the fur down. Sabra could see dozens of other grease stains around her barrel, shoulders, and wings. “This stuff gets everywhere. And some of those spots I had to get to? They were a lot easier to reach when we were in the shop.” She shook her head again, spreading her wings and glaring at the grease stuck between the feathers. “This is going to take forever to get out. I look like a mess.”

“You look—” He caught himself before he could say “like you always do.” Something in the back of his mind—self-preservation, maybe, said it was a bad idea. “Like you. Motivated.”

She flashed him a smile. “Thanks. But seriously, I need a shower once this over.” She folded her wings back in and trotted over to another toolbox. “What are you doing back here?”

He shrugged. “This was were you were.”

“Really?”

“Well … and the head was occupied.”

She let out a snort of laughter. “So you thought you’d come back here and s—” She let out a cough that didn’t quite sound authentic. “Bleck, sorry. See if I needed a hoof?”

He nodded. “And to talk. Keep you company.” Her smile widened, and he felt his own grow in response.

“Well then,” she said. “I’m open to all three. I don’t have much left to do back here, but you’re welcome to help out.” She stuck her head into one of the drawers and came out with an adjustable wrench.

“Here,” she said, passing it to him. “Carry this and follow me. There’s a fitting I want to look at.”

Again he nodded, and she turned and headed down the steep steps to the lower level. “Watch your head.”

“So,” she asked as he began to follow her down, calling over her shoulders. “How’s the meditation going? Still a little shaky?”

He waited until he reached the bottom of the steps and could spit the wrench into his hoof before replying. “‘Shaky’ isn’t quite the proper word for it. Tumultuous would be better. But yes, it is.”

“So you’re still digesting all that knowledge then?” Sky asked as she moved aft. He followed.

“I suppose,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what it means. I feel as though it means I am confused and unsure. But is that a result of what I’ve learned? Or am I confused and unsure because of something else?”

“Are you confused and unsure, though?” Sky stopped, her head framed by the side of one of the large superboilers as she looked back at him. “I mean, sure, you haven’t got your answer yet, but I wouldn’t say you’re confused and unsure.”

Hapana?”

Hapana,” she repeated, one corner of her mouth turning up in small smile. “There are a lot of words I would use to describe you, Sabra, but confused and unsure isn’t one of them.” Her smile widened, and then she turned and moved deeper into the back of The Hummingbird.

“Well then,” he said, following. “What would you suggest it may be?”

“Wait, really?” Sky called as she stepped around another mesh cage, coming to a stop next to a collection of piping set just above the side of the airship’s hull.

“Of course.” He smiled as he passed her the wrench. “Your cutie mark may be for machines, but that doesn’t mean your knowledge in other areas isn’t invaluable. And of everyone on this team, you’re the one that … knows me the best. And I trust that.”

“Well,” Sky said, holding the wrench in one hoof as she checked a collection of nearby valves. She gave one a twist, a heavy hissing sound filling the air as the valve clamped down.

“There’s a secondary line,” she said when she saw his eyes looking at it. “It’ll pick up the slack. Hunter’ll lose a little engine power, but not enough that he’ll notice.” She adjusted a couple of smaller, nearby valves, additional hisses sounding, and then moved back to the collection of pipes.

“Anyway, like I was about to say.” She wrapped the wrench around one of the pipes and began to tighten the end down. “If anything, knowing you, and having gotten to know you over the last few months …” The wrench secure, she put her hooves against it and began to push, pausing only when another gust of wind from outside shook The Hummingbird.

“You’re intelligent,” she said, her voice dropping a bit as she strained with the wrench. He stepped forward, offering a hoof, but she waved him back. “I’ve got it,” she said. “I put it on there, I can take it … Off!” The wrench gave with a quick jerk, slowing as Sky eased off. “You’re determined, too. And neither of those are bad things.” She worked the wrench with her hooves as she spoke, loosening the pipe fitting. “You also contemplative, courageous …” The fitting popped free, water trickling out of one end as she tipped it up. The small stream ran down between the metal grating beneath their hooves, and his eyes followed it.

“It’s fine,” she said. “This place is waterproofed, and there’s a catch to collect that stuff.

“But,” she said, holding the fitting up to a nearby light and examining it. “I don’t think you’re confused and unsure. If anything, you’re contemplative. You’re like …” She paused for a moment, tapping her chin with the fitting and, he noticed, getting a clump of something stuck in the fur of her muzzle as she did so. “You ever seen a stone crusher make gravel before?”

He shook his head. “No, I have not.”

“Right.” She tilted the fitting, checking it from all angles. “Well, it looks like this thing is okay. No signs of any weak spots.”

“Why check it?”

“Company sent out an alert,” she said, stepping back over to where the fitting was supposed to be and slowly screwing it back in. “They sent out a warning that there might have been a weakness in the metal that would give way under certain conditions, but gave a list of things to check for.”

“Why not check earlier?”

“Because we weren’t—and haven’t been—running under those conditions. Plus, there is a secondary if something had gone wrong, and the flaw itself is easy to find. Plus, I have spares aboard. But since I was here …” She reached for where she’d set the wrench atop a nearby pipe.

“But that kind of questioning?” she said, her fire-red eyes alighting on him as she tightening the fitting down. “That’s what I’m talking about. So a gravel crusher, right? It’s made up of these big metal jaws that angle toward one another. You …” She let out a grunt, tightening the fitting back down. “You set a gap at the end that at the widest aperture, with the size of gravel you want, and then you …” Another grunt. “Throw rocks and stones into the top. Or boulders, if you’ve got one big enough. Anyway, you get an engine to slap the jaws open and closed, and they break up the rocks. Each time they close, the rocks break and become smaller, so they drop further down when—almost there—the jaws open again. And then when they shut …” Her words faded out as she put her entire body into tightening the fitting down. “There!” she said, stepping back. “Now just the pipe.”

“But as I was saying, when the jaws shut, they crush those new rock pieces smaller still, until they’re small enough that they fall out of the opening at the bottom. With me so far?”

Ndiyo.”

“So what I’m getting at,” Sky said, picking the pipe up in her hooves. “Is that there’s a catch to this. The smaller and more fine you want the gravel at the other end, the longer the process takes, and the more it can back up. So if you just want a rock the size of your hoof, you widen the jaws up, toss some rocks in, and it won’t take long at all.”

“But if you want sand,” she said, grabbing the wrench once more and tightening the pipe. “You have to wait a lot longer, and the machine sort of backs up a little, because it’s working hard to grind those smaller stones into something even smaller.”

“Have you had experience with one of these machines?” he asked.

Sky smiled, one hoof pressing down hard on the wrench. “Farm outside of Dodge Junction, remember? Lots of rocks in that soil. We rented a stone-crushing machine plenty of times. Until I built my parents one, that is. But yeah.” She held up a hoof. “Spent a lot of days as a filly tossing rocks into one of those and watching them come out as gravel, sand, whatever we felt we needed.”

“Back on topic though, the point was that the finer you wanted that stone to end up being, the more time it took. And you?” She pointed her upraised hoof at him. “Your mind is like one of those rock crushers, set to the finest setting of sand it can manage. You’re always looking for new knowledge, new ideas, new concepts. Not just because you’re searching for the answer to your question,” she said as she turned herself back to tightening the pipe. “In fact, I’d say you’re searching for the question because that’s the way you are.”

“You seek out all these ideas and knowledge and concepts, and you feed them into that head of yours, and you break them down. You see how they fit together, what they’re made up of. But where most ponies would be content with … I don’t know, smaller rocks maybe, you’re not content until you’ve looked at it from every possible side and angle. You think on it, grinding them down for days, breaking it apart and working to understand it. They want stones, you want sand. You study it in your mind over and over again, and only once you’ve gained everything you can from it do you let it pass through … and then you start the process all over again.”

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’re thorough, and it’s one of those things I admire about you.” She flashed him another soft smile, and he felt a sudden surge in his chest, like he’d touched a stray lightning cloud, or maybe accidentally sipped more of that strange drink Nova kept bringing into the barracks. “You take your time thinking through things, studying them, digesting them. So it’s not that you’re confused or unsure, you’ve just dumped a lot into those mental ‘jaws’ in a short amount of time, and it’s taking time to chew through everything to break it down into manageable chunks.” She gave the wrench a final shove, then stepped back and looked the whole thing over.

“Stand back,” she warned, passing him the wrench. “If there was a weak spot, or I just didn’t tighten the piping well-enough, we’ll know as soon as I bleed the system and open the valve.” She trotted over to the valves she’d tightened before, flipping a few levers and then eying the pipe as she slowly loosened the main valve. A faint hiss filled the air, though whether it was steam, water, or some other substance Sabra couldn’t say amid all the noise. After waiting for a few seconds, Sky reached over and flipped the levers back before giving the valve a final spin to fully open it.

“Okay,” she said after another few seconds. “Looks like I’m done. But anyway, I don’t know. But that’s the way I see it.” She gave him a shrug. “Like you said, you’ve gotten a lot of knowledge lately. Maybe you’re just still breaking it down, seeing where all the pieces fit. Does that … help?” Her eyes widened as they stared into his own, and he nodded, smiling.

“It does,” he said. “It’s a new way of looking at it, but—”

“So I just added to the pile?” she asked, her smile letting him know she was joking as she moved forward once more.

“You gave me a new way to think about it,” he said, returning her smile as she walked past. “And it does ease my mind somewhat. Crushing rocks to examine them would take time, and the expression of sand as my result would be apt. Perhaps I’m simply impatient at my own …” He paused, searching for the appropriate word. “Digestion? We do not eat rocks, but—”

“No, that works,” Sky said, climbing the steep steps to the upper workspace. She waited at the top, taking the wrench from him before his rear hooves had even left the ladder. “I mean, it makes sense me. You think about thinking, Sabra. You’re a philosopher. It shouldn’t surprise you that the more you learn, the more you philosophize on others philosophies, or whatever. Bleh,” she said, sticking her tongue out of her mouth as she shut the drawer. “And that’s why I used a machine in my analogy.”

“It was perfectly clear,” he said, giving her another smile. “Both what you just said, and your analogy. You have a way with using machines, both in creating them, and in using them to bring your ideas across. It really is quite impressive.”

Asante.” The grease matting her cheeks didn’t quite work to hide her blush, and once again he felt the same electric tingle run right down to his hooves.

Hapana, asante,” he replied. “Your way of looking at things is, I think, invaluable.” This time there was no hiding the blush on her cheeks, nor the tingle in his hooves.

“Right, well!” Sky said suddenly. “Should we go see if somepony’s made breakfast? I’m starved.”

“After you,” he said, bowing his head and motioning with one hoof. Sky flashed him another smile and trotted for the front, a high kick to her step.

He followed, relishing the feeling in his chest even as he fell back into his own thoughts. He was no fool. He knew what was causing the lightness in his chest, the spark that coursed through him whenever she smiled. How the touch of her hoof at night had left him at ease enough to sleep through the storms The Hummingbird weathered.

He followed Sky out of the engine room and toward the common room. It was clearly another stone in the crusher.

But maybe … Maybe he was all right with that.

Maybe.

Chapter 9

View Online

A bolt of lightning forked by above, the crack so loud Hunter tried to fold his ears back through his helmet’s protective covering. He could feel his coat standing on end, small sparks leaping between his pinions as the charge surged past above him. The wave of sound ruffled his feathers, shoving him down in the air even as competing wind currents seemed to tear at his body. He could feel his magic being pressed at all sides, his natural skill as a pegasus working hard to keep him stable among the unfriendly skies.

Unfriendly indeed, he thought as another wind shear roared past, hot and ozone-scented in the wake of the most recent electrical surge. He could feel the way his magic pressed against the wind, his body’s field twisting and forming an envelope around him that somewhat mitigated the powerful forces he was fighting against.

Somewhat mitigated. By the time he’d stabilized himself, the downward blast of wind being counteracted and canceled out by an equally dangerous updraft, he’d lost several hundred feet of elevation.

And I think I’m all right with that, he thought as he stared up at the titanic mass of dark clouds above him. This thing is dangerously out-of-control.

Worse yet, there was no apparent cause. That had been the whole reason he’d volunteered for such a dangerous flight in the first place, into a storm system so unpredictable and powerful that even now, just trying to hover he could see vivid green lines of magic glowing along his undersuit as his magic fought to keep him in place. Worse, he could feel how drained he was after just a short time fighting the storm.

It’s a good thing Sky Bolt’s managed to find a decent altitude for The Hummingbird to hover at, he thought, glancing back over his wings at the distant airship. He’d need to turn around and move to catch it soon, before he was tired enough that doing so would put him at risk. Sky Bolt had circled it around him so that he would mostly be able to fly with the wind on the way back, but if he was tired out and out of magic …

I could end up on the ground, he thought, his gaze switching to the distant surface of the Crystal Plains. And that could be bad. The conditions on the surface were horrid. As high as he was, he could clearly see massive rifts of snowfall forming where two high-speed wind patterns were grinding against one another, creating long tunnels of competing, swirling currents.

Just like the storms, he thought, bringing his eyes back up as another jagged bolt of lightning lit the dark clouds. Competing storm systems, all fighting one another with no rhyme or reason. Well, rhyme or reason that they’d been able to see from the safety of The Hummingbird, which was why he was currently fighting against the storm to get a better look.

Not that it’s telling me much, Hunter thought as he began pumping his wings once more, climbing through the turbulent air. The green lines of his undersuit flared as another gust of wind rolled into him from the side, his innate magic dampening its effect against him. This storm isn’t just impossible, it’s starkers!

For starters, it still hadn’t merged into one storm. Somehow, against all reason, it had stayed a mix of around seventeen storms, each one large enough to require the management of a full weather team on its own. As it was, they should have either cancelled one another out or merged into one superstorm that would have been titanic, but instead …

They’re all fighting, Hunter thought as he found a tight updraft, spreading his wings and soaring up several hundred feet in moments. The hair of his coat began to prickle again, and he tucked his ears close, his magic already pushing away the spare electrical charge in the air. Another bolt of lightning tore across the sky a moment later, its jagged forked claws ripping at the clouds. As if in reply, another nearby storm let loose a bolt of its own, an answering crack echoing across the storm-torn sky. All of them.

Seventeen angry weather systems, and somehow all of them are staying separate and getting stronger. It defied logic, but … There it is. He tucked his wings in as the air he was in abruptly became another updraft, powerful enough that he didn’t even fall more than a few feet before it was over.

He could see the barriers between the storms, the rifts where the mighty systems ground against one another, had even gotten close to two of them, and yet … I still can’t find a cause. Even activating his mod, washing his vision with literal magic, hadn’t shown him any source of the storms’ growing power.

Then again, the mod is short range, and I did have to keep my distance from those lines between the storms. He didn’t know what kinds of speeds the air was reaching inside the rifts. But I know I definitely don’t want to find out. There’s no telling where I’d end up. Or if I’d make it back at all.

Another bolt of lightning carved a bright path across the storm, lighting the clouds and making them look as if some titanic beast had gone to war deep within. He floated for a moment, feeling the wave of sound rush over him, followed by the rumbles of the answering echoes bouncing back from the Crystal Mountains.

Seventeen storms, no cause that I can see, unless there’s a meaning to everything looking slightly more vivid when I use the mod. More magic maybe?

Still, if he couldn’t see it, there wasn’t much point in hanging around beneath it, waiting for a bolt of electricity to decide his body made up one of the best local conduits. It was rare, but it happened, and even though Bolt had assured him that his armor would provide some insulation against an electrical strike, her emphasis on “some” and second, quicker admission that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea hadn’t filled him with much confidence.

He took a final look around the storm-wracked sky. The air was dark, almost looking like twilight rather than the noon the ship’s clocks had said it was. The clouds were simply too thick and too dark for much light to make it through. And all that snow makes it even worse. The swirling flakes filled the sky in all directions, sucking up light on their own and making it even harder to pick out details through the dimness that remained.

Still, I don’t think I stand to learn anything else out here other than how cold it is, or how quickly I can end up in over my wings. Said wings were starting to burn a little now, the constant exertion starting to drag even at his long-practiced beats. And though he was still warm enough between the suit and his own innate adaptability, something pegasi were good at, he could see traces of snow buildup along the edges of his armor plate, as well as ice tracks building where the plating overlapped.

I’m going to have to ask Sky Bolt about that, he thought, running a hoof along one of the tracks and watching as the pressure flaked the thin ice layer away. The howling wind caught the flakes, tearing them away and out of sight in an instant. Ice adds weight. And enough of it can make moving difficult. Did she plan for that when she made the armor?

If not, it was going to make the rest of the mission even more difficult. Snow getting packed into an opening in the plating was one thing, but it would eventually melt or fall out if one moved enough. But when the wind is cold enough to make it ice?

He turned toward the small saddlebags on his back. The cloth sides were stretched tight, as was usual for saddlebags made for heavy weather and low drag, but even then he could see the sides flexing with each passing burst of wind. Opening them was a trick with the wind howling around him, but the bags had seen a lot of careful, skillful designs over the centuries they’d been in use, and even when the zipper was peeled back, the howling wind tugging at the contents, none of them went anywhere. All had been securely locked in place by velcro. All the additional engineering did make for less overall capacity in the bags … but it was more than made up for by not having to worry about losing everything in said bags the moment the going got rough.

And right now, this definitely counts as that, Hunter thought as his searching hoof found what he was looking for. This crook storm would have ripped an ordinary pair of saddlebags right off me. He freed the small, cardboard cylinder from its housing, lifting it up so that he could clearly make out the writing printed along the side as well as the color of the cylinder itself. He didn’t want to grab the wrong one by mistake. Green meant he was on his way back, while red, or a flurry of every color he could grab in a panic, meant trouble, and to come try and pick him up.

Green. He nodded and zipped the saddlebags closed. A quick twist of the hoof later, and the sharp hiss of the flare lighting barely graced his ears before being overcome by the storm, barely audible. The light the flare put off, however, was not, instead so bright that his visor automatically tinted, and he turned his head away, making sure to keep holding the flare out and steady for a few moments, long enough for Bolt to have noticed it and translated the message. Coming back in; moving to intercept.

After a few seconds more he let the flare drop. The wind, already tearing against it in his hoof, took it immediately, bouncing the flare off of his side and then past his wings as it hurtled off into the sky. For a moment he tracked it, twisting his neck to watch as the bright, green glow arced off through the thick swirls of snow. It never vanished, but it did fade slightly, and even take a slight upwards delay for a moment, some wind shear hurling it skyward before gravity caught it again.

He turned his gaze back southward to see the lights on The Hummingbird faintly flashing once, then twice. Message sent and received, bush-style. He changed the angle on his wings, beating southward and searching the sky for any sign of snow going his way.

It didn’t take him long to find it, tucking himself into a tight, spiral roll as he passed the barrier between two currents and coming out in a long, upward-rising corridor of wind that was swiftly heading south. Which let him ease off of the heavy wingbeats, the break, however momentary, welcome against the slow but steady burn that had been building in his muscles. He kept his eyes on The Hummingbird, watching as it adjusted its own course, angling to the side so as to line up with his approach a bit better. He was far enough away that he could just barely make out the rotating propeller mounts that aided the aircraft in its sideways scuttle.

I must have flown further north than I meant to, he thought as he powered along the channel of wind. Another brilliant bolt of lightning arced across the sky, ozone peppering his nostrils seconds later, the smell hot and angry. And maybe I’m a little higher now than I wanted to be. He could see the wind channel he was following breaking apart ahead of him anyways, splitting into smaller streams that went in every direction.

Which is crazy to see on such a small scale, he thought, picking one of the streams and following it along. This is like what you’d find high above the clouds, or on a smaller scale between mountain peaks or canyons. But in the open like this? Like the weather, it made no sense.

And yet, here I am flying in it, he thought, bringing his wings in tight against his sides as another gust cut across his path and dropping through the thick snows. The Hummingbird was closer now, more details coming into clarity across its triangular shape. A light dusting of snow had somehow taken root across the top of the envelope, giving the craft a wind-sculpted appearance. As he drew closer, the source of the nooks that let the snow clump became apparent: ropes and ridges along the envelope, a source of drag that wasn’t avoidable, but also tiny in comparison to the rest of the craft.

He was still too high. He adjusted his altitude, settling as best he could into a glide and letting himself lose altitude as The Hummingbird came closer and closer. He could hear the faint, constant rumble of the propellers now, the winds and storms not enough to cover it up, and see the lit glass from the cabins, though making out much detail was still too hard. He couldn’t tell if Bolt had spotted him yet, but the airship was holding steady at its current location, twisting so that door on the side was facing in his direction. It wasn’t open yet, but why they would bother under the current conditions would have raised a host of questions. Another forked talon of lightning arced across the sky behind him as he beat his wings harder.

He was closer now, the rumble of the propellers swelling to a dull roar. He’d have to be careful once he got close; his armor was good, but getting sucked into a prop would likely be more than he could stand. Or the propeller, I guess, he thought as he dropped down even further. Thankfully, the swirling snows were a good indicator of exactly where the vortexes around each propeller were.

But no sense in making it any riskier than it needs to be. He dropped again, coming at the airship from slightly beneath its azimuth. A gust of wind threatened to send him to the side, and then toward the surface of the airship much quicker than he’d intended, and he flared his wings, green lines on his suit glowing fiercely as his magic reacted. He hit the side of the crew cabin just forward of the door, his front hooves impacting the metal with faint clunks that he felt more than heard due to the combination of storm, propellers, and wind assaulting his ears. His wings were beating quickly, working to keep him in place as he moved to the side and battered one hoof against the door. Through the thick porthole glass he saw a purple, crystalline helmet, and then the door opened, snow howling through the opening. Hunter darted in after it, the door slamming shut in a yellow glow and cutting off the outside rage.

“Thanks,” Hunter said, stretching his wings as he looked over at Nova. “I was wondering how we’d get that door shut again.”

“Not a problem,” Nova replied, his voice only just barely muffled by his own helmet. Hunter shook himself, stretching his wings and watching as flakes of snow and ice broke free of his armor. Again, Sky Bolt had thought ahead, the deck directly in front of the door a mesh grating rather than a flat surface. “Looks like it was pretty nasty out there.” He motioned with one hoof, pointing at Hunter’s head and then tapping the underside of his own helmet.

“Huh?” It wasn’t hard to see what he’d been pointing at. Thin, windswept icicles hung from the underside of his helmet, clustered around the grill he’d been breathing through. A probing hoof told him that the clasps beneath his chin had been crusted over with ice as well. “That’s a little worrying,” he said, trying to get his hoof to release the clasp and failing as it slid over the ice. “Little help?” Nova’s horn lit with a yellow glow, and a second later the clasp gave way.

“Thanks a second time,” Hunter said, lifting the helmet over his head and feeling a faint sense of relief as his mane was freed at last. He sat back on his haunches, rotating the helmet in his hooves and looking at it. There was definitely ice built up around the grate they were supposed to both speak and breath through, as well as … He twisted it slightly, angling the entryway’s light down into the openings.

“Yup,” he said. “That’s going to be a problem. There’s ice in there. Not much, but if you didn’t clear it out periodically under heavy use, you’d find it harder and harder to breathe.”

“That’s not good,” Nova said, pulling his own helmet off with a wave of his magic.

“Nope. It’s not.” He brought one hoof down against the side of the ice, the small icicles shattering under the impact and dropping down through the grating. He gave the helmet a quick shake, watching as the clumps of ice inside the grill, now disturbed, dropped free. “Bolt’s work is pretty much spot on. I mean—” He rapped a rear hoof against the grating beneath him. “Stuff like this. But I don’t think she planned for this one.”

“Or that,” Nova said, pointing at Hunter’s chest.

He glanced down, away from the last of the ice he was shaking free of his helmet. “What, the ice?” he asked, pausing to rap his free hoof against his chest.”

“Higher,” Nova said. “Neck of your suit.”

“Neck of my—? Oh.” He could feel it now. A chilled band of ice where the material of the undersuit stopped. The same material was spread along the inside of his helmet and made to overlap, but only on the sides. Along the front …

“Right. One more bit of build up. Not life-threatening, though.”

“Uncomfortable, I’d bet,” Nova replied, and he nodded.

“Yeah, it is.” A single swipe of his hoof swept the packed snow away, though it didn’t remove the now-obvious dampness in his coat. He shook himself again, more bits of ice and snow—more than he’d truly realized—sliding off of his tan armor or out from beneath the plating.

“Guess that’s what you get for flying through this,” Nova said, watching as Hunter gave himself another shake. “It’s almost as bad as what we’d look like after our practices.”

“No,” Hunter said, running a hoof along his side and dislodging a bit of ice beneath one crystal plate. “It’s worse. This is ice. Snow-packed to ice is one thing, this is snow melting to ice and freezing over.”

“Nothing good heat spell can’t take care of. Or a shake,” Nova added as Hunter flapped his wings once more, water, snow, and ice flying free of the feathers in near equal amounts. Without his magic, he wouldn’t have even been flying.

“But that takes time,” he pointed out, folding his wings against the cold sides of his armor. “No armor’s perfect, granted. Field testing finds all kinds of problems. We’ll just have to mention them to her and hope future models have a fix.”

“Future models?” Nova asked as he gave himself a final shake. “Like the armor?”

He nodded. “You didn’t notice Steel and I’s helmets are a bit different from yours?” He held the helmet up so Nova could get a good look at it. “She’s always improving on the design. We’ve all got the Mark II armor sets, but Steel and I are the only ones with Mark II helmets.”

“What’s the difference?” Nova asked, taking the helmet from him and holding up alongside his own.

“Better hearing protection. The little dial for the mod’s part of the helmet. And … a flashlight.” Hunter took the helmet back and slid it over his head before pressing its side with his hoof and holding his cheek against the interior for a few seconds. A bright light stabbed out from a pair of small crystals alongside his eyes. He repeated the motion, holding for a few seconds, and the light faded. “Apparently, it was expensive. But Bolt made it happen.”

“Huh.” Nova stared down at his own helmet for a moment. “Well, if that’s all it does, I think I’ll be content with my first one for now. Those are nice additions, but hopefully I won’t need them while hunting this King Sombra guy.”

Hunter nodded. “They’re minor, like I said. Anyway, I’d better make my report. Steel in the crew area?”

“Last I saw,” Nova said, stepping down the hall and past the head. “I’ll bet I can summarize it, though.”

“No bet,” Hunter replied. “You’ve looked out a window.”

“So can Steel.”

“Touché,” Hunter replied, setting his helmet back atop his head but not bothering to strap it in place. “By the way, where’s my hat?”

“On your bunk,” Nova replied as they reached the middle point of the T-shaped hallway and turned forward. “Seemed to be the best place for it.”

He nodded. “It’ll feel good to put it back on.”

“Why’d you leave it, again?” Nova asked.

“The enchantment on it doesn’t work as well with my helmet,” he said, rapping a hoof against the hard crystal. “Goes all aggro thanks to the magic-nullifying stuff.”

“You were wearing it earlier, though.”

“I was, yeah,” he said as he stepped into the common room. Steel was seated in front of the table, his eyes on a map. No one else was present. “But that was before the wind picked up. Even without the enchantment, my hat can be removed. With the enchantment going weak and the wind outside the way it is now …” He shook his head, even as he walked over to the bunk and swapped his helmet out for his Stetson, leaving the crystal helm sitting atop the bedding.

“You could ask Sky Bolt about that,” Nova suggested as Hunter turned to look at Steel. “She could probably fix it.”

“Could, yes. Is it important?” He waggled a wing-tip. “At the moment, no.” Not that I’m not considering stuffing it into my saddlebags the moment we deploy. He cleared his throat, then brought one hoof up in a salute, waiting for Steel to acknowledge his presence.

The captain let him wait for a moment, still studying something on the map, and Hunter leaned forward, eyes tracking downward. Huh. It was a map of the Crystal Plains, the kind that came wrapped in plastic so that a commander or Ranger leader could draw on it without permanently marring the surface. A recent one too, judging by the inclusion of the Northern Rail Line cutting up from its southern edge. A number of locations had been marked in red, either with circles or some other mark, and a capped marker was sitting by Steel’s left front hoof.

Finally, Steel looked up, his blue eyes stern as they locked with Hunter’s, and he returned the salute. “Lieutenant.” His tone was formal. One of those moments, then.

“Reporting as requested,” Hunter said, dropping his hoof to the deck.

“And? What’s your report?”

“Any weather crew that wasn’t starkers would turn tail and run, sir. The weather out there is so crooked it makes the lightning look straight—” Another flash lit the room, a dull rumble echoing after it. “And worse, trying to make sense of it is—”

“Like trying to square a circle?” Steel asked, his tone still gruff.

“Eh, I was going to say ‘likely to make one crack a fruity,’ but that works too.”

Steel nodded, the motion so firm it looked more like a stone statue shifting its perch than a living being. “How many separate storms?”

“At least seventeen, boss, Possibly more.”

“Possibly?”

He nodded and took a deep breath. “You can have a storm system on top of another storm system, though it’s rare and the two usually end up combining. Given what we’re seeing here, where these storms aren’t … Well, they’re not behaving like normal storms. So there could be a whole layer of storms higher up that I couldn’t get to. But down here? Seventeen that I counted.”

“Are they stable?” Steel asked.

He frowned. “Depends on your definition of stable, sir. Again, this weather’s pretty crook. I’m not trying to talk a beat up about it. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve traveled around a lot. The wind shears where the sides of the storms are rubbing up against one another?” He shook his head. “I didn’t even want to get close. There’d be a high chance I wouldn’t make it back.”

Steel nodded again, breaking eye contact at last and turning his attention to the map in front of him. “Would you say these storms pose a threat to The Hummingbird?”

“Absolutely.” The admission was out of his mouth without a second thought. “No mistake, boss, The Hummingbird is the best airship I’ve ever been on, true dinkum, but these storms are something else entirely. The amount of power being tossed around in that lightning, plus the winds and the gradients where the storms are rubbing up against one another?” He shook his head. “If we weren’t torn to pieces, we’d end up grounded. Like I said, any weather crew that wasn’t starkers would be leaving this one be.”

“And are we starkers, lieutenant?” Steel asked, still eyeing the map.

“Nah,” he replied, grinning. “We’re worse. We’re Dusk Guard.”

Steel smiled. “That’s what I was hoping to hear.” He looked back up again. “All right, then based on what you’ve seen, tell me this: Does it appear that the storms are being controlled in any way?”

“Controlled? Like … Somepony or someone was using them?” He shook his head. “If they are, it’s pretty hooves-off. It doesn’t look like anyone is in charge out there. It’s just kind of … a mess.” Another distant rumble underscored his comments.

“All right,” Steel said. “What about patterns. Any sign of rhyme or reason to it? Cause?”

Again he shook his head. “No sir. If there’s a pattern there, I couldn’t see it. It’s just a bunch of inexplicably supercharged storms running up against one another like two hydras fighting over territory.”

“And crushing everyone beneath them,” Steel said, his voice low and gravelly. “An apt analogy.”

“That’s why I said it.”

“Fine,” Steel said, letting out a long sigh. “I’ll be honest, I was hoping you’d find a little more, a pattern or something, but … If it’s not there, then there’s little you can do.”

“Not that I could see, boss,” he said. “Sorry.”

“Anything else to report?”

“The winds out there are cold enough to freeze your breath into ice,” Hunter said, nodding in the direction of his helmet. “I had a decent build-up of it around the grill on my helmet when I got back, plus a few other places along my armor.”

“Mmm.” Steel shifted his gaze toward the helmet in question. “Mention it to Sky Bolt, I’ll let the rest of the team know before we deploy so we can keep an eye on that. Last thing we want is someone suffocating because of build up. While you’re at it, tell Sky Bolt to take us a little lower. If the storms are that bad and getting worse …”

“They are,” Hunter said when Steel paused. The captain nodded.

“Then tell her to drop us down a bit lower when she can. And later I’ll need you to take over for her while I run her over what I have of the deployment plan. Other than that … Stay in your armor and at the ready. That’s all.”

He nodded as Steel turned his attention back to the map. He’s worried, Hunter thought. I haven’t seen him this tense in a while.

“Nova,” Steel said as Hunter moved back to his bunk, picking up his helmet and cradling it in one wing. “Come over here. I want you to look over what I’ve got so far while I explain it. See what you think.”

“Sure.” Nova moved across the room as Hunter made his way to the cockpit, reaching the side of the table just as Hunter hit the latch on the cockpit door.

“Coming in,” he said, drawing the door to one side and stepping through without waiting. Now that he’d warmed up a bit, his body was sending other messages his way, including one that would require removing his armor for. A conversation cut off as he entered, Sky Bolt looking at him from the pilot’s seat, Sabra’s own calm, collected gaze coming from the bunk on the port side.

“Sky Bolt, Sabra,” he said, sliding the door shut behind him. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“No no, it’s fine,” Bolt said, giving him a grin. “We were just chatting. What’s up? New orders?”

He nodded. “Steel wants you to take us down if you can. Further from the storm.”

“All right …” Bolt replied, drawing the word out. “I can, but if we get far enough down, we’re going to start running into weather coming off of the ground, or mid-level systems. I can drop us, but it’ll be a little blind without a few suggestions, or you know, a recon report.”

“What’s our altitude currently?”

“About thirty-five hundred feet.”

“That low?” He let out a whistle.

“Storm clouds keep dropping.”

“Right, well try taking us down another five-hundred. That shouldn’t put us in anything much rougher than this.”

Bolt reached out, hooves at the controls, and a moment later the airship began sinking, just quick enough that he could feel it in the bottoms of his hooves. “Anything else I need to know?” she asked.

“Seventeen storms, wind so cold it’s freezing water into ice, and build-up on the armor.” He twisted his wing, bringing the helmet around. “Especially around the grill on my helmet. I had a whole bunch of icicles starting to clog it up when I got back. It hadn’t turned into a problem yet, but had I stayed out there long enough, it probably would have become one.”

“Ice build-up?” Sky Bolt frowned as she took the helmet from him. “Ponyfeathers. I didn’t think about that.”

“Can you do anything to fix it while we’re on this op?” Hunter asked as Bolt flipped the helmet in her hooves. “Heating or something?”

“No,” she said, scowling and tossing the helmet back to him. “I could modify it if I were home, or figure out a fix for it with a new helmet entirely, but out here …” She shook her head. “Sorry, but I can’t. How fast did it build up?”

“How long was I out?”

“So about a half-hour then.” She rubbed at her chin with one hoof. “That’s not too bad. As long as we check one-another’s helmets, we should be okay. Any other issues?”

“Ice and snow pack along my neck.”

Another scowl. “I knew that was going to be a problem. I tried to cut costs, but …” She threw her hooves up. “One more thing to change about the undersuits for the Mark III, I guess.”

“It’s not that bad,” he began, but she shook her head, holding up a hoof.

“Nope, not buying it,” she said. “If snow and ice can build up there, so can something else. And if it’s that close to something like the neck, that’s bad. Water could get inside the suit along the coat, all sorts of possibilities. It’s a vulnerability. I’ll make a note of it.”

“All … right?” Flashes of the mad engineer Sky Bolt sometimes became were shining through in her eyes, ideas sparking around behind them like the lightning bolts of the storm. “Well, there was some snowpack build up under some of the plates. Ice build up under the ones that overlapped. Came off when smacked, though.”

“Good, because there’s not too much I can do about that without sending the cost sky-high,” she said, her eyes still wide with thought. “What about the suit?”

“The suit?”

“Yeah, the undersuit,” she said, her mane flipping as she spun toward him. “Did the material ever feel stiff or brittle? Like it was resisting at all?”

“I …” He paused for a moment, rolling his mind back. “Not that I remember,” he said. “It seemed pretty normal to me, personally.”

“Good!” Sky Bolt threw a hoof into the air. “So that’s holding up just fine.”

“Magic lines or whatever worked well too.”

Her smile widened, though the thoughtful look in her eyes stayed. “Good. Anything else?”

“Sometime later tonight, Steel’s going to have you and me swap spots for a few minutes while he talks you through a more detailed deployment plan, and gets your input on it.”

“I can handle that. Been wondering about it myself.” As she spoke, Sky extended a wing, pushing at the controls. There was a faint sensation of downward pressure as The Hummingbird settled at its new altitude, and then it was gone, the faint shivering of the superstructure under the wind the only sense of motion. “Anything else?”

“Nope,” he said with a quick shake of his head, tucking the helmet back under one wing. “So I’ll leave you two to your talking and—”

“That’s all we were doing!” Sky Bolt said suddenly, eyes wide.

“And get out of your manes,” he finished, his voice a little quieter. He gave the pair a grin. “Should I have been saying something else?”

“No!” Sky Bolt all but squeaked, her face flushing a vivid red and her ears flat against the back of her head. Sabra seemed to have taken a moment longer to catch on, but Hunter could see the pale flush rising in his cheeks.

“I mean,” he said, leaning against the door and giving them both an even wider grin. “I’m the team tracker. I can see from the way the covers are on the bunk, as well as the shape of the mattress, that neither of you have been involved in any sort of makeout-based dereliction of—”

“I-am-the-pilot-and-as-the-pilot-off-my-bridge!” Sky Bolt squeaked out, standing in her seat, her head almost touching the ceiling. “Out-out-out-out-out!”

“All right, I’m going, I’m going!” The latch gave with a soft click beneath his hoof, the door sliding aside with ease as he backed through it. He didn’t give her time to bark a retort, shutting it just as quickly as he’d opened it.

“Trouble?” Steel asked. Hunter turned to see the captain looking at him with a quizzical expression on his face.

“Nah,” he replied, unfolding his wing and tossing his helmet, catching it in the air with his front hooves. “Just a beat up, mixed with a little goss.” He trotted over to his bunk and set the helmet down atop it. “Nothing to get worked up over.”

“All right.” There was an unspoken undercurrent to the words, an undercurrent that said “I don’t know quite what you mean by that, but I suspect it’s not worth undermining your position as a lieutenant to find out.”

And he’d be right, Hunter thought as he turned toward the T-hall and the med-bay once more. Rank hath its privileges, as they say.

And, he recalled, sobering as he neared the med-bay door. It has its responsibilities and drawbacks as well. He reached up with one hoof and knocked against the door.

“Enter.” Dawn’s voice was crisp and clear, with just a hint of her Manehatten accent. He hit the latch, sliding the door to the side and stepping through. Dawn was standing in her pinkish armor, sorting through the medical kits she’d spent the first few days putting together and, from the look of it, double-checking her counts.

“Lieutenant,” she said as he closed the door behind him. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure? Does the captain need something?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Actually, I do.”

Dawn paused in her count, lifting one eyebrow as she looked at him. “All right, Lieutenant. And, for you to willingly walk in here, it must be official business.” She set down the clipboard she’d been holding in her magic, the orange glow winking out as she gave him full attention. “What do you need?”

“A conversation,” Hunter said, mind racing. I should have given more thought to how I was going to do this. He paused for a moment as Dawn stared at him. Might as well just go right for it. No sense making this any sort of chinwag. “About Nova Beam.”

“I see. Has he done something that requires my attention? Or, should I say, is he planning on doing something that will?”

He shook his head. “No, actually. Let me rephrase that. It’s about you.” He kept his eyes on hers as her forehead furrowed, watching for any sign of hesitation or wariness in them. “And how you’ve been acting around Nova for the last few days.”

There. The corner of her eye had twitched ever so slightly, a very slight widening that she had caught very quickly.

“Uh huh,” he said as she opened her mouth, and without commenting she closed it again. “He noticed it the first day. Told me you were acting slightly cold around him. More stroppy than usual. He said he’d tried approaching you about it, but you brushed him off. Made him all kinds of sus, and to be honest, me as well.”

“So?” he asked, taking a step closer. “What’s the deal?”

Dawn stood there, her body locked, frozen beneath his gaze. Her expression shifted, looking almost worried, and a river of icy-cold fear rolled through his gut.

What if she’s not Dawn? He leaned back slightly, making sure he was balanced if something truly had gone wrong. What if she’s a changeling, and Nova was the only one she couldn’t fool

Then, to his surprise, Dawn slumped back, her hindquarters hitting the deck as she let out a sigh. “All right. I suppose it was too much to think I could simply bottle it up for later. And stop looking like you’re about to attack me, Hunter. This is just … difficult, is all.”

“Right … I’m not hearing any explanation.”

She glared at him, a cold gaze that almost did make him want to step back. “You wanted to know what my problem was. Fine. You’re going to hear it. The day we left I … I received some unexpected news.”

“News?” He frowned, relaxing his posture slightly, but not entirely. “What kind of news?”

“Hunter,” she said, her voice quiet. “Relax. I’m not about to try and pull a doctor’s prerogative on you.” She let out a sigh. “I need to tell someone about this. I would have preferred Steel, or nopony at all, but I suppose you’ll do.”

“So … you’re not a changeling?”

“A—!?” She rose. “Is that what Nova thinks?”

He shook his head. “No. But you were acting a bit unlike you a moment ago there.”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Of for the love of—! Fine. The first time I met you was in a medical post outside of Fillydelphia on the east side of the Foal Mountains. You were overdue on your shots, and so I brought out the needles, and you screamed like a little filly.”

Ouch. “Not untrue … but half the Rangers heard that story.”

“And you wrapped your hooves around a beam in the back of the station before I caught you.”

“Um …” Fewer knew that story.

“And I had to restrain you.”

Fewer still.

“And before you got the injection, you begged me to tell a certain young mare after you ‘died’ that she was the prettiest mare you’d ever laid—”

“Okay! Okay!” He held up his hooves. “Truce! Sorry. I just … It was a little … unlike you.”

“I suppose that’s fair … somewhat. I should be allowed to have an off day.”

“Fine.” He gave her a nod. “I apologize. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Well, that assures me you’re perfectly fine, then.”

“Hey …”

“So,” Dawn said, continuing as if he hadn’t even spoken. “You wanted to know why I’ve been cold around Nova.” It wasn’t a question. “Fine. The truth is … In a moment of weakness, I broke a law. A rather severe one.”

“Wait, you what?” For a moment he wasn’t sure he heard correctly, but no, there was Dawn, looking up at him with an expression he’d never once seen on her face. Regret? Fear maybe? Her ears had even fallen back slightly.

“I broke a law,” she said again. “I … At the time I convinced myself it was just on whimsy, but then—”

He waved a hoof, cutting her off. “Okay, start at the beginning. What law did you break, and why?” Maybe she’s just overreacting.

“The law against taking a creature’s blood without permission.”

“Oh.” Okay, yeah, that’s a pretty old one … but hardly anypony remembers that. “When?”

“When I was collecting blood from all of you to use for our supplies, in case any of you needed transfusions. I took extra from Nova.”

“Okay … why?”

She let out a sigh, then stared right at him. “Because despite his rough edges, Nova is a colt with a good heart and surprising depths. I may not have the greatest of bedside manners, but I try. I thought ... I …”

“You what?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I thought I would run a relations test with his blood. Or have somepony at Canterlot General do it. Just … in case.”

“Oh. That’s it?”

“I didn’t have his permission.”

“Yeah, okay, well that’s two strikes against you, but it’s not like you were trying to do outlawed magic or something with it. No one’s going to count the first. And sure, you’re supposed to get permission before doing something like that, but—”

He froze, his mind skipping ahead as his eyes went wide. Oh. Oh no. He looked at Dawn. “Crikey …” he breathed. “You don’t mean …?”

She nodded. “I just meant for them to do a local check, but because of my office, they sent a sample to every city and town in Equestria. Took them over a month to do the scan, check for relations, but … They found a match.”

For a moment he couldn’t speak. He felt gobsmacked. Thunderstruck. But after a moment, he found his voice. “He … has a family?”

“He has a sister,” Dawn said. “In Vanhoover. All I got was a name and a relation reading from the spell. But it’s definitely a sister.”

He worked his jaw, trying to come up with something to say and settling on “Crikey.”

“That’s why I’ve been trotting on eggshells around him,” Dawn continued. “I’d convinced myself that a tired, overworked slip-up was fine considering it had been made out of the kindness of my heart. And as time went on, I assumed that they’d simply found nothing, and that a low priority had somehow been assigned to it, which was why I wasn’t hearing back. And then, several days ago …” She let out a small huff. “And now I have to decide how and when to tell him that the truth he’s believed his whole life, that he was truly alone with regards to his family, isn’t true.”

“How did he not already know?” Hunter shook his head. “They test for that with missing pony cases like Nova’s, don’t they?”

“They do,” Dawn said. “But it only works if the blood of someone that they’re directly and clearly related to has already been collected and scanned. So if his sister or any other family members had never had their blood scanned—and to be quite fair, many never have had their blood kept track of in that way …”

“Then there wouldn’t have been any matches.” He sat back with a thump. “And then years later, his sister decides to look?”

“I don’t know,” Dawn said with a shake of her head. “It may have been that she was in a orphanage at the same time, and they didn’t bother with the spell because they knew where she’d come from. Or they did the same thing, and the timing was just such that no connection was ever made. I don’t know.”

“But now you do know, and I know, and … Oh boy.” He brought his hoof up, rubbing at his head under the brim of his hat. “And now you have to tell Nova. Not today!” he said quickly. “But sometime soon. Maybe after this mission is over. You have to tell him, Dawn.”

“I … I know.” Her voice was quiet. “I just don’t know how. I violated his trust, Hunter. And after it took so much to earn it, I don’t know exactly how he’ll react.”

“Does his sister know?”

She shook her head. “The doctors left it up to me to inform her. The files are sitting in my desk, locked, back in our barracks.”

“You have to tell him.”

“I know.” The emphasis Dawn had put on the word was more than enough to make it clear she understood. “I just need to figure out how. And when.”

“Does anyone else know about this?”

She shook her head, lips pursed tightly. “You’re the first.”

“Right. Well, when I get a spare moment, I’m going to mention it to Steel. He needs to be in on this. But he’s going to tell you what I’m about to. This can’t wait long, Dawn. You’re going to have to apologize and hope he forgives you … and then you’re going to need to tell him. Just …” He paused, mind racing. We can’t hit him with this right in the middle of a mission. We just can’t.

“After the mission,” he said, watching as Dawn’s eyes widened in surprise. “Nova’s tough, but he can’t handle something like this right now. Not with what we’re in the middle of.” It feels cruel, but … It’d throw him completely wonky.

“And if something happens,” Dawn began. “And he doesn’t make it?”

“Then …” His chest felt tight, like something was pressing against it from the inside. “Then we tell his sister he died a hero.”

Privileges and responsibilities, he thought as they both fell silent. The higher you are, the harder they become.

“Very well,” Dawn said. “Thank you, lieutenant. And you’ll speak to the captain?”

“I will,” he said, nodding. “Tonight, before—” His words cut off as Dawn snapped a hoof up to her horn, eyes going wide.

“My horn!” she said before he could speak. “It’s itching!” A moment later, he heard a yell of surprise from outside the bay, a yell mixed with his own name.

“Hunter!” It was Nova. “It’s back! And it’s really burning!”

He spun, slamming the door to one side and bolting out into the hall, wings tucked tight against his sides. Nova was at the entryway to the common room, faint sparks sizzling off of the end of his horn.

“Move!” My helmet is on my bunk. Why did I leave it on my bunk? Nova stepped back even as Hunter brought his wings up to shove him aside, and he burst into the common room, eyes locking on his bunk. He snapped his wings back, throwing himself across the room in a single bound.

“Nova!” The shout belonged to Dawn. “Cast a spell. Anything! Burn off the excess!” Hunter’s hooves scraped across the surface of the helmet, slipping before finding purchase. Behind him, a bright, silvery glow lit the cabin as Nova’s magic went to work. He recognized the brief color. Crescent shield.

He shoved his helm down over his head, ignoring the pressure in his ears as his mane folded over them. At the moment, he didn’t need to hear. What he needed was …

The mod! He reached down inside himself, closing his eyes as he poked at the magic at the very core of his being. Come on, he thought, stoking the magic and feeling it swell. Just head for that mod on my back and …

He opened his eyes. Yes! The spell exploded out of him, a vivid sphere that moved in all directions, through the window in front of him, through the wall of the ship, through the storm, and …

Hunter felt his jaw drop.

“Hunter?” Steel’s voice almost felt distant. Far away. “What do you see?”

“I …” In front of him, moving through the sky, was a rift. Or a chasm. Or a tightly bound roll of universe that looked like a portrait, a picture that was at the same time flat and not. It was as if the world itself had been bound up in a bright, vivid tornado, the colors too bright, the movements all wrong, shifting in ways that made his eyes want to look at something else. Only he couldn’t look at something else, because the edges, bright and black at the same time, hurt even worse.

But still he looked, he had to look. Because inside of the chasm in front of him, he could make out ponies. Not whole ones, but bits and pieces. A hoof here. A side there. But twisted and wrong.

The twist in the balloon, he thought as the chasm swept toward them, twisting and turning in multiple directions at once. I’m seeing the twist. Jagged streams of what he assumed were magic were all around it, pulsing and shifting in ways that didn’t make sense, growing as they shrank and getting closer even as they pulled away.

Then it was on them, and he threw his hooves up, falling back on his back as the … thing … moved through the side of the airship like it wasn’t there, the world seeming to fracture around its edges like a shattered lens. He watched as it passed by his own hoof, the universe coming apart and yet not as it passed by.

“Hunter!” Steel was beside him now. “Hunter!” Hooves clutched at his shoulders. Then a more distant shout, Steel’s broken, distorted face turning to shout at Dawn, and Hunter realized that he could see past Steel’s skin, like the stallion’s head had been opened up and rolled inside of itself, interior and exterior both visible at the same time. “Can we take that helmet off?” It made his stomach churn.

But only his head … Hunter thought, his eyes shifting down to Steel’s body. Why not the rest of his body? It still looked … mostly fine, the pulses of magic wrapping around the chasm skipping off of it as they swept by. Why?

Hooves wrapped around the sides of his helmet, tugging upward. “No!” At his cry they fell back, leaving it on his head. The chasm was already moving out the other side of the aircraft, the world around it breaking and reforming as if nothing had happened, but there was something different about the way it was moving past Nova.

“Oh crikey.” It hit him almost like a physical blow. He shoved his way past Steel, ignoring the stallion’s surprised protest as he ran to the far side of the ship, where the last of the chasm was rolling out, and looked up.

The storms. The chasm was moving right along the rift between one of the storms. It is magic feeding the storms and keeping them separate. Something about the way they twist the world is doing it. He brought his eyes back once more as the last of the strange distortion passed out of The Hummingbird, holding up a hoof to the window as the tight channels of magic around it followed.

Then one of the trailing strands collided with his hoof, and before his very eyes, broke apart, breaking into pieces with too many sides and fading away. In front of him, the chasm pulsed, ripples that both were and weren’t running across and through it.

The armor. It resists magic. He stared down at his hoof in shock. And every time that spell hits us, it’s fighting against us to stay intact. Which means … He looked up to catch a final glimpse of the rift, more strands of magic around it snapping like overstretched strings, each one sending long ripples up, down, and … other directions.

And we’re right in the middle of it. Someone was shouting at him, trying to get his attention, but he shoved the words away. Like a twisted balloon. What happens to us … if we’re in that twist when it unravels? He turned and caught a final glimpse of the chasm sweeping out of the range of his mod. It was pulsing. Seething.

Swelling.

He tore the helmet off, eyes wide, and bolted for the cockpit. “Sky Bolt!” The door slammed to the side under his hooves. “Get us out of here!”

For a moment, Bolt appeared frozen, her hooves outstretched toward the control panel. Sabra had been caught halfway out of the bunk a look of alarm on his muzzle. Then one hoof slammed down, The Hummingbird’s propellers roaring as the airship came to full power. “What direction?” she called.

“I …” He darted forward, yanking the map down from the ceiling. “Where are we?”

“Here!” She tapped a lower section of the map with one hoof.

“South then. As fast as you can get us. Don’t stop until we’re out from under the center of these storms!”

“Got it!” Sky Bolt yanked the yoke to one side, the deck pitching beneath Hunter’s hooves as the airship went into tight turn. “Fast as we can go!”

“I just hope it’s fast enough,” Hunter said, turning to see Steel and the rest of the team staring at him from the main cabin. The captain’s face was all business, while Nova and Dawn both looked worried.

“Fast enough for what?” Steel asked over the roar of the propellers. “Got time to fill the rest of us in on what you saw, lieutenant?”

“I hope so.” He didn’t miss the look of increases alarm that shifted over the team’s faces as they digested his words. “I saw …” He sat back as the ship shuddered, putting his hooves to his head. “Crikey, Steel, I don’t know how to put it, how to get the words out of my gob. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Even in his memories, the scene felt unreal, like he was trying to grasp something that’d been coated in oil and then made slicker with water. “Sun and moon, Steel. It was like … the balloon.”

“The balloon?” Steel asked, head pulling back in confusion.

He nodded. “The balloon that you or the Princesses talked about. I saw it!”

“You mean like a giant city?” Steel asked. Behind him, Nova had a curious expression on his face.

“No.” He shook his head. “It was like … that little twisty bit keeping it from us. I saw that. And it was all … wrong, like the whole world had cracked. That’s what Nova’s been feeling every time his horn itched. It was that …”

“Tether,” Dawn suggested, Nova stepping past behind her.

“Yeah, that,” he said, nodding as he looked back at Steel. “A tether. And it’s coming apart. That’s what’s causing the storms. It’s moving along the path between them, and …” Something inside his head fell into place. “And there’s more than one,” he said. “That’s why there are so many different storms. There’s more than one of these things.”

“So why south?” Steel asked.

“Because of our armor.”

“What?” Hunter turned his head toward Sky Bolt as her outburst cut into the conversation. “What’s wrong with my armor?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it,” he said. “It works, and that’s the problem. I could see what I think was the spell around the Crystal Empire. And when it hit our armor … it came apart.”

“It’s a weak spell,” Dawn said, eyes lighting up. “Too weak to stand against something that would resist it. And so when it passes by us, it breaks.”

“And lets more of its energy out to feed the storms, and brings the Crystal Empire one step closer to coming back entirely.”

“But why south?” Steel asked again, glancing at both of them.

“Because,” Hunter said, looking the captain straight in the eyes. “What happens if there’s an ant climbing around on that balloon twist when it starts to come undone?”

For a moment the cabin was silent as everyone worked through what he’d just said, and then Steel nodded. “Oh. I see now.”

“A city appears in the air … which we’re on all sides of,” Dawn said. “Tearing us apart.”

“Or knocking us off to the side … Or really who knows what,” Hunter said, glancing at the cockpit. Bolt and Sabra both were in motion, but both had wide-eyed looks of shock on their faces. Bolt’s switched to a growl.

“No way am I letting that happen to my baby.”

“Well, I’d rather it not happen to me either,” Hunter said, turning back to the cabin. Nova was staring out one of the back windows. “But if these … tethers, I guess, is the best word. If these tethers are what’s causing the storm, than all we need to do is get out from underneath the storms, get to the edges. Use that as our compass.”

“Good thinking.” Steel stepped forward, poking his head into the cockpit. “About how long will that take us?”

“At this speed?” Sky Bolt shook her head. “Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Might be less, depending on the winds.” The vibration underhoof had grown, The Hummingbird fighting its way through the air.

“Like Hunter said, quick as possible.” Steel pulled his head back, attention moving to Hunter once more. “So every time Nova’s horn was itching …”

“We were right next to, or in, or however it works, one of those tethers.” Hunter tapped one hoof against his plates. “And tearing them apart.”

“So we might have been speeding the return of the Crystal Empire just by being here,” Dawn said.

“And accidentally killing ourselves in the process had we been in the wrong place when it happened.” Steel shook his head before looking at Dawn. “How quickly might we have sped it up?”

“I don’t know,” Dawn replied. “Without any knowledge of how much power was in the original spell outside of ‘a lot’ and measurements on how much damage our presence has caused, there’s no real way to—”

“Uh, guys?” Nova’s voice cut through the room like a whip. “I think you need to come look at this.” He was standing on the port side of the ship, helmet pressed up against the glass as he looked out of it, eyes fixing on something to the north. The three of them moved up next to him.

“Sun above,” Dawn said, awe in her voice. Hunter nodded, unable to say anything to agree.

There, to the north, the sky was split by a single, vertical gash, pulsing and throbbing with a garish light. Long, forked tongues of lightning lashed at the air around it, and as Hunter watched, the very world seemed to pulse around it, a bubble that swelled and then faded. It pulsed again, the gash widening and the world around it flexing … and then, almost as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone, the world rushing back in to fill the gap, and with a start Hunter realized that the scenery around it had moved to fill in the space.

The gap wasn’t in front of anything. It pushed everything aside. It made his head hurt.

“Look,” Dawn said, pointing out the window in another direction. “There’s another one.” Pulsing light filled the air off to the northeast, a second gash, this one further away, shuddering against reality. “And another.”

“Team,” Steel said, his voice low but carrying enough presence and weight to it to draw every eye to him. “New orders. Get set to deploy. Now.” His voice was rising in volume. “Gear up, get the equipment ready to drop, use the bathroom, grab a bite, whatever it takes. But you have minutes. Move!”

Nova and Dawn both broke, and Hunter spared Steel a quick nod as yet another flash lit the horizon, purple light backed by thunder. As he turned and bolted for the galley, he overheard Steel mutter one last thing under his breath.

“We’re about to be very busy.”

Chapter 10

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Saddlebag check. Sabra’s hooves flew as he opened the top, double-checking the contents. Food rations, enough for three days. They tasted horrid, like something that had been left out to dry in the sun for days even with the honey that was supposed to make them sweeter, but it was better than simply starving. It was a shame they couldn’t simply take granola bars, which tasted much better in his opinion, but weren’t nearly as energy efficient.

Flares and glow sticks. Plus a beacon if I become lost. The saddlebags were well-organized, the interior divided into small pockets and compartments. Medical kit. Scarf. Cleaning supplies and hygiene. Strength mod. That one was in one of the few pockets that could be accessed from both the inside and outside of the saddlebags.

Satisfied that his bags were ready, he slung them over his back, cinching them down against his armor and locking the clasps. Then he moved to the next item: his snowshoes. Those went into a tight net on the outside of the saddlebags. His Fimbo along his back, the short, metal, collapsible staff slipping between some of the extra straps and staying in place after his hoof left it.

Over that, balanced on his back, was his winter gear. Tent, sleeping bag and a heavy winter coat that he was tempted to put on straight away, but was better on his back until they deployed. Then, with everything else in place, he picked up his helmet and slid it down over his head. As usual, his short mane protested the sudden weight, but reluctantly gave way as the helmet settled, lying flat against the back of his head and neck. There had been talk, and even tests early on, of letting the mane slide through a sort of mesh or even just an opening like the helms the rest of the Guard wore, but Sky had decided that it hurt the overall structure, offering too much of a weak point to be worth the comfort and ease.

So I must suffer a little discomfort in the pursuit of a little more safety. At least it wasn’t as bad for him. Hunter, with his long mane, probably had the toughest time with it out of any of them. His mane had a tendency to bunch up when he wore it and come out around the front half of the neck, though his recent manecut had put a stop to it.

On the other hoof, he thought, clasping the helmet in place and giving his head a small shake to make certain that there was no excess movement or looseness. The mane does bring warmth. Not as welcome during a Canterlot summer, but during a winter, or the cold frozen north where they now were … There are benefits.

He turned away from his bunk, looking out over the rest of the cabin. Captain Song was already fully at the ready, clad in his olive-green crystal armor, poring over several charts of the area. His own winter gear was piled on his back. Nova was behind him, still at his bunk making sure all his own equipment was ready, though barring any changes, he’d be staying with the airship for his part of the mission.

Another flash of light from outside the windows caught Sabra’s attention, and he turned. Another one of the strange tethers had appeared, pulsing like an open wound on the face of the world. There were three of them in view now, though as he watched, one of them vanished, the universe reasserting itself.

It was … unsettling. Merely watching the strange … shapes? Openings? He wasn’t even sure what the proper term could be for them, but watching them left him feeling like something was wrong. A warning perhaps, from some ancient, old part of his mind that sounded the alarm in the face of danger. That spoke of an imminent threat, like a prowling wrathlion.

He turned away, shutting his eyes for a moment and closing out the disturbing image of the world warping and twisting like it was a picture printed on silk cloth. No, not quite silk cloth, he corrected. Silk cloth does not stretch or warp the way this looks. This is like a picture printed on rubber, then bent in ways it was never meant to.

Except that the rubber in question had depth and space to it. And yet it was still bending, flexing, and twisting. A faint shiver ran down his spine, ending with a twitch of his tail.

Imminent danger. He took a deep, slow breath, then trotted over to the table, snapping a salute as Steel looked up at him.

“Reporting as ordered, captain,” he said, dropping his salute as soon as the captain had acknowledged it.

“At ease,” Captain Song replied, eyes already back on the map. “Just wait.”

“Sir.” He eased back, resting his weight evenly across all four hooves.

Across the room, it looked as though Nova was almost ready, geared up in his armor and with his own saddlebags fully stocked. However, he wasn’t slinging them across his back just yet, nor had he put on his helmet. Instead he merely turned and presented himself to the captain with a salute of his own.

“Ready, captain,” Nova said, a purple flash filling the sky behind him. Sabra didn’t miss the way Captain Song’s eyes flicked to the window before going back to Nova.

“Same order,” he said. “Wait.” Nova nodded and sat back on his haunches, looking almost completely at ease. Except that most of his weight was resting in such a way that he could easily leap to his hooves at a moment if needed.

They both waited quietly, even when the pitch of The Hummingbird’s propellers lowered, the aircraft slowing. At least we’re out from under the storms, Sabra thought, glancing out the window as the ship went into another turn. He could count four of the tethers now. And they seem to be lasting longer as well.

Which meant that the return of Crystal Empire couldn’t be far off. Maybe. Or it’s just another sign of things to come, he thought. Like the storms.

But … given what Lieutenant Hunter had said, it didn’t seem very likely.

The Hummingbird completed its turn, the deck beneath them leveling out. A moment later, Sky Bolt trotted out of the cockpit and over to her locker, opening it and plucking her helmet out. She gave him a quick smile as it dropped into place, and then trotted over to stand by his side, flashing a salute at Captain Song.

“Reporting,” she said, her voice bright and spunky, though he could hear a faint, trembling undercurrent in it. “The Hummingbird will hold itself alright and steady here for about twenty, twenty-five minutes.”

“Good. At ease. Dawn and Hunter should be here in a moment.” As if summoned by his words, Hunter appeared at the end of the T-hall, trotting toward them with a quick pace.

“Flare packs are ready, boss,” he said as he entered the room. “Stowed on the starboard side of the hall, right by the entryway. They’re ready to go.”

Captain Song nodded. “Right. Now we wait for Dawn.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Less than a minute had passed before the door to the medbay opened, and Dawn came out, clad head-to-hooves in her own armor. She strode up to the table and gave a quick salute. “Sergeant Major Triage, reporting.”

“Good,” Captain Song said, looking up from his map at last. “We’re all here. I wanted to go over a more detailed deployment. You’re all familiar with the general plan of dividing into two teams. Hunter, Sky Bolt, and Nova will be hunting this ‘shade’ of King Sombra at the Glacier of Woe, and myself, Dawn, and Sabra will secure the Crystal Empire proper.”

“Question,” Nova said, his ears twitching to one side. “Do the teams have names?”

Captain Song frowned as he turned to look at Nova. “Is that important?”

Hunter shifted, holding up a wing. “Actually, boss, he’s got a point. Team names, squad names, talon names … all are kind of a big deal. Plus, when Captain Armor and Princess Cadance arrive, a team name is a lot quicker than running out everypony’s name.” He shrugged. “We’re going to need something. It’ll be easier for explaining the plan, too.”

“Fair point.” Captain Song’s gaze shifted to Nova. “Thank you, private, for bringing that up. Alright then. Sabra, Dawn, and I will be team one. Hunter, Sky Bolt, and Nova will be team two.” Nova and Sky both let out groans.

“Really?”

“Just numbers?”

“You asked.” Captain Song’s expression shifted slightly, almost morphing into a grin. “You don’t like it, don’t let me assign team names next time.”

“Anyway,” he said, his tone growing serious once more. “Currently, we’re here.” His hoof stabbed at the map, connecting with a southerly square. “Right on the edge of the storms. Hopefully, if Hunter and Sky Bolt are both right, that’ll put us out of any danger when this city finally makes its appearance. The moment it does, however, we need to move.”

“Our first step,” he continued, “is to alert the Guard stationed at the end of the northern rail line.” The tip of his hoof moved slightly further southward. “Luckily for us, that happens to only be a few miles away now. They’re stationed there aboard a train, awaiting our signal. When the city appears, our job is to ascend as high as we can while staying below the cloud cover, as quickly as we can. At which point Lieutenant Hunter will deploy the flare packs out the side of The Hummingbird and watch for an answering signal from the Guard.”

“And if we don’t get one?”

“If we don’t get one,” the captain replied, answering Dawn’s question. Something about the way she’d phrased it made it sound to Sabra as if she hadn’t been asking for herself, but for the other members of the team. “Or we don’t see one after all the flare packs are expended, then we move to their position as quickly as possible to confirm they’ve received our message. If not, they’ll get it as soon as we drop out of the sky. If we can’t find them, we assume they saw it, but we didn’t see their response due to weather.”

“What if neither of those is the case?” Sky asked, speaking up, an inquisitive look in her eyes.

“Then we carry with the mission as planned, hope someone figures out what we’re up against, and that the Princess and her husband arrive in time.” There was a dark undertone to the captain’s voice, a sense of finality that spoke of an underlying meaning the captain didn’t wish to bring up.

“In either case, once the Guard have been notified, we are to proceed for the edge of the city with all haste. The city itself may be in chaos, so Bolt and Hunter …” His eyes flicked to the pair of them. “You two will be in the cockpit, finding us a staging ground outside the city. Someplace we can bring The Hummingbird down and unload all our gear and materiel supplies without coming under attack.”

“Wait, under attack?” Sabra’s eyes darted to Sky as she pulled up, wings popping out from her body slightly in surprise. “As in, spells and angry soldiers?”

“Yes.” The captain’s tone was flat as he looked at her. “You are a Guard now, Corporal Bolt. The city, as the Princesses remembered it, was under what was left of the king’s ‘Order of the Red Horn.’ And for them this long-forgotten war may have been mere minutes ago.” His eyes shifted, moving around the table. “Our vessel appearing out of the sky may be a shock to them, but they will respond, and with force. Which is why we want a landing zone on the edge of the city, one that gives us an easy egress point for the supplies we brought, but is far enough away that we can hopefully offload them without any interruptions. But yes, corporal, we may come under attack, and you’re going to have to hold this airship steady when that time comes, until we’ve defended it and the supplies are on the ground where they belong.”

Sky sucked in a breath, hesitation in her eyes. She loves this ship, Sabra thought. But she knows her duty. As if she’d read his thoughts, Sky opened her mouth.

“Understood, boss,” she said with a nod, her chest puffing out slightly beneath her armor. “Hold until we have all the supplies on the ground.” Then, in a lower quieter voice. “I knew I should have put some sort of cargo bay doors on this thing.”

“Don’t worry.” Hunter tapped a hoof against his armor. “If they do come for us, they’ll find out for themselves just how much of a hoofful we are. We’ll keep them off you.”

“Exactly.” Captain Song took control of the briefing once more. “But with that in mind, Sergeant Triage and Specialist Nova will be doing the majority of the heavy lifting, using their magic to get as much of the supplies out at a time as they can.” His eyes slid to both of them, only to get nods in return.

“Once the supplies have been unloaded, team one will secure the area and begin their half of the mission,” he continued. “Which is when team two will part ways.” His attention moved to Hunter. “Lieutenant, you and your team will take The Hummingbird east with all possible speed, toward the Glacier of Woe. According to what the Princesses told me, that’s where Sombra was sealed.”

“Did they name it before or after he was sealed there?” Nova asked. “Because if it was before, given how far it is from the city, they had to be planning that.”

Captain Song shook his head. “I don’t know about the name, but I don’t see the Sisters trying to do that solely because of what the place was called. It’s more likely that they drove him from the city to try and keep casualties to a minimum, and happened to see the final stages of the battle there.”

“The name came afterward,” Dawn said, cutting in once Steel Song had stopped speaking. Her voice was clear and steady. “It’s first recorded use on maps was roughly nine-hundred years ago. Prior to that it was simply one of the many glaciers of the Crystal Mountains.”

“Why the name change?” Hunter asked. Sabra nodded in agreement. “I thought the Princesses were trying to bury records of the place.”

“It was so named,” Dawn said, “because of the strange sounds the ice made. They were described by explorers as ‘the moanings of a doomed soul.’ Those less poetic and more interested in the scientific side of things have been more precise, referring to it as a phenomenon where the shifting of the ice produces periodic but frequent resonant vibrations that sound like, long, distraught moans. For obvious reasons, most scientific teams aren’t very interested in hanging around the place. They describe it as having a ‘creeping aura of fear and doom.’”

“Sounds like something you’d get when you’re walking around a possie that’s holding sealed evil in a can,” Hunter said, tapping his chin with a thoughtful look on his face. Nova, meanwhile, was giving Dawn a knowing look.

“What?” she asked.

“Daring Do books?”

“I can, and I will, schedule you for another complete physical. With only my coldest tools,” Dawn said, her eyes narrowing.

“Just asking,” Nova said, holding up his hooves. His attention shifted back toward the captain. “So that’s where we’ll go to take down this Sombra dude?”

Captain Song shook his head. “No.”

Nova frowned. “I thought you said we’d be heading there.”

“You will be,” Captain Song said. “But you won’t be taking Sombra down. Your job is to delay him. I wasn’t joking when I said you had no chance of defeating him.” Nova’s frown deepened. “But we’ll get to that in a moment. For now, team one.”

Sabra pulled his eyes back to the captain’s. Team one. The city. Our responsibility.

“Team one’s mission is going to be threefold,” Captain Song continued. Somewhere off in the distance another bolt of lightning split the sky, the flash tinged with purple. A distant crack rolled through the airship a few seconds later, the captain waiting for the loud sound to fade before speaking again.

“As far as the Crystal Empire is concerned,” he said, his gaze switching between all members of the team, but focusing, Sabra noticed, on himself and Dawn. “This battle between the Princesses was yesterday. Or a few hours ago, depending on how much slip there was to the stasis.”

“Slip?” Dawn asked.

He nodded. “Near the beginnings and ends of the spell, time starts to come … ‘undone’ was the word Princess Luna used. So they won’t simply snap from the end of that battle over a thousand years ago to today. Anywhere from a few minutes to a day or two may have passed.”

“Regardless, this means that the city is likely to be in a bit of chaos. We have three objectives: The first is to secure the city,. We have to show the citizens that we’re in control. Encourage order, distribute supplies through existing supply chains. That means we need contact with local civic leaders. Even under a despotic king, they’d have to have them or the city would grind to a halt. We establish order, not as conquerors, but as allies. We get local medical facilities and relief systems set-up.”

“While we have a large number of medical supplies aboard,” Dawn said, “we currently don’t have enough to supply an entire city. Will more be arriving?”

Captain Song nodded. “Captain Armor and Princess Cadance will be arriving with an entire train-load of relief supplies to distribute to the Empire. Another reason we need to establish a sense of order and make sure local leaders can be in charge of distribution. But that brings us to our second objective.”

“The Red Horn,” Sabra said. The captain nodded.

“Exactly,” he said. “This ‘Order of the Red Horn.’ Sombra’s remaining forces throughout the city. Not only will we need to work to establish order, we’re going to have to work fast and strike hard to make sure their ‘order’ doesn’t countermand ours. That’s our second objective: Take. Them. Down. Hard.” The captain’s face had shifted, expression growing stony.

Or rather, like metal, Sabra thought, the captain’s name flashing to mind.

“Thankfully, we won’t be facing a full army,” Captain Song continued. “But we will be dealing with enforcers. Secret police. Brutes of unicorns and crystal pony collaborators that are willing to do anything and everything to prepare the city for Sombra’s return. We’ll need to stamp them out, and fast. Which is why we’ll need to make a strong impression with the citizens. We need them to be able to distribute our supplies so that we can focus on Sombra’s leadership and followers, as well as trust the crystal ponies and local authorities to keep any we capture imprisoned if we’re forced to rely on them.”

“I want to note,” he said, and his eyes switched directly to Sabra. “This means that we’re in the real now. Ponies will likely die. And they will be trying to kill us. If you have any reservations about that, now’s the time to let me know.”

“I am ready.” The words were plain, simple, and he nodded. “A wise question, captain. One who wishes to fight must count the cost. I have.”

“Good.” The captain nodded, his face softening slightly. “I’ve heard that quote before. I should have guessed you’d know it. It’s truer than most think.” His attention shifted back to the rest of the table. “Both of those two objectives, taken together, are key to our third objective: getting the city ready for Princess Cadance and Shining Armor’s arrival. Once they arrive with their Guard contingent, we—”

“Hey sorry.” Sky’s voice pulled their attention away as she waved a hoof. “Maybe I missed this in the other briefing, but why are Captain Armor and Princess Cadance coming here?”

“Governance,” Captain Song answered. “Though as I understand it, it’s not intended to be permanent unless the citizens of the Crystal Empire ask for it. Take that as you will. Point being, we’ll need to secure the seat of government so that Cadance can act as a temporary ruler and bring some real stability and coordination to it, as well as some form of protection from King Sombra simply waltzing back in. Apparently between her natural talents and Captain Armor’s skill with shield spells, they’re capable of blocking him off.”

“At that point, provided we’ve done our jobs, Captain Armor and his Guard should be able to keep the peace and hold things until the Elements of Harmony arrive, and we can break away to join team two.”

“To repeat,” he said, throwing his eyes around the table. “Secure the city and make contact with local officials for distribution of supplies. Dismantle any remaining vestiges of King Sombra’s power, from authorities to banners. Leave the local populace with no illusions that we’re here to remove all traces of his rule. And last …” He rapped his hoof against the tabletop for emphasis. “We ready for the arrival of Captain Armor and Princess Cadance and rejoin team two. Understood?”

“Yes sir.” Dawn snapped a quick salute. Sabra followed her actions.

“Understood, captain,” he said, letting a slow breath slide out of his lips after he’d spoken. One advantage to the helmet was that your body language tended to be a bit more “concealed” than normal, at least where the face was concerned. We’re going to liberate an ancient empire locked in time. He would be turning his Fimbo against ponies not in practice, but with full intent of violence.

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, he thought, the words of the ancient zebra general running through his mind. He took another slow breath, a faint shiver running down through his shoulders. You have trained, and you have prepared. You have faced true battle before.

You will not hesitate when the time arises.

“Okay.” It was Nova speaking. “So what about us, then? If we’re not supposed to defeat this King Sombra …?” He let the question trail off.

“If you could, it would certainly save everyone a lot of trouble,” Captain Song replied. “But the Princesses assured me that it is highly unlikely. Sombra’s a shade now, some sort of soul bound to magic rather than a physical form. Worse, the moment he’s released, his link with the Crystal Empire will be back in full force, which means every minute he’s back, he’ll be getting stronger. And the more afraid of him the crystal ponies are, the more power he’ll gain.”

“So we’re going to keep him from the city, then,” Hunter said, and Steel nodded.

“Exactly. Your mission is to hunt him—”

“I thought you said we couldn’t stop him?” Nova cut in.

“Hunt him and harass him,” Captain Song continued, another purple flash from outside lighting the air behind him. “While he’s weak, you’ll have the upper hoof. You won’t be able to kill him, but you can certainly push him into running away from the direction of the city.”

“But he’s going to get stronger,” Hunter said. Sabra nodded slowly. He hadn’t missed the way Captain Song had worded his orders.

“Yes,” the captain said. “He will. Eventually he’ll reach the point, no matter what you do, that he stops running, where your team is no longer a threat to him. I guess that’s why the Princesses wanted to remind us to have faith in one another. The strongest of us won’t be able to stop him eventually, and we’ll have to rely on one another.”

By strongest he must mean Nova, Sabra thought. He’s the one with the most direct magic on their team. How else would one harm a shade of magic and spirit? Throw snow? A faint shiver ran down his spine. Actually, maybe that would work.

But there were the Princesses’ words about faith. Something tickled at his mind. Why faith? Why not another word? Sky began to speak, and he pulled his focus back.

“So what do we do when we reach that point?” Sky asked.

“You change gears,” Captain Song replied with a nod at Lieutenant Hunter. “The Lieutenant knows how. Draw him away from the city. Distract him.”

“We make ourselves a target,” Hunter said. “He turns the tables, grows to be more powerful than us? We annoy him. Make ourselves so obstinate he can not ignore us. Aggro him until he goes starkers.”

“And if he figures it out?” Nova asked.

Hunter shrugged. “We up the game. Ever seen a small dog taunt a bigger one until the big one loses it?”

Nova nodded. “It doesn’t usually go well for the smaller dog.”

“True,” Hunter said, grinning as he leaned forward. “So let’s be smarter than the dog.” Then he turned back to Captain Song. “So … that it?”

“Not quite.” The Captain, shifted, glancing out the windows toward the distant storm. “At some point you’ll need to come pick us up. Once we’re done in the Crystal Empire, Captain Armor and Princess Cadance will put up a shield around the city that should keep Sombra out. Once you see that barrier, either you or Sky Bolt will need to bring The Hummingbird to pick us up, at which point all of us will work together to try and distract Sombra until the Elements arrive.”

Sabra spoke up, putting a voice to his thoughts. “And then?”

“Then … we stay out of the way.” Silence reigned across the team as they shot glances at one another.

We leave? With this Sombra still threatening an empire?

“I know what you’re thinking,” Captain Song said, his eyes darting to each of them. “Or at least most of you. We’re Dusk Guard, the best of the best. We’re supposed to be the ones called for when things go horribly wrong. But we cannot be the ones to finish this. It’s beyond us. And when that happens, it’s our job to retreat, to get out of the way and let those whose job it is deal with the assignment.” His eyes crawled across the team once more, staring at each of them, and Sabra could see the hard determination in the captain’s eyes as they moved over him. “When our job is to pull out, we will pull out. Understood?”

“Yes sir.” Only Hunter and Dawn had spoken.

“Dusk Guard,” Captain Song said. “This is not up for debate. These are your orders. Do you understand them?”

“Yes sir.” Sabra let his voice join Sky and Nova’s, as well as Hunter and Dawn’s as they echoed their words once more.

“Good,” he said with a nod. “I know it isn’t easy. But if we stay, we’re only going to get in the way of the Elements. Our job is to set things up so they, the Princess, and Captain Armor, can do their jobs.” Another purple flash lit the sky. “We do our part. Liberate the city, make it ready for their arrival, and make sure Sombra doesn’t arrive until after they do.”

Another purple flash, bathing the interior of the airship in violet light that washed over everything. “What’s being asked of us isn’t easy. It’s going to be hard. There’s going to be pain, there’s going to be challenge. There’s going to be cold.” The purple light faded, but not entirely, leaving a pale cast over the side of Captain Song’s armor. “But that’s why they called us. Because we won’t shy away from our duty. Because we will carry out what the Princesses asked of us. Because we are the Dusk Guard.” The purple light flared, growing bright and pulsing with an odd cadence.

“And unless I miss my guess,” the captain said, turning as Sky let out a gasp of surprise. “Our mission is about to begin.”

“Sun above,” Hunter said, his jaw dropping as Sabra turned. “Look at that.”

Outside the port window, facing north, the world was on fire, purple flames stretching from the sky to the snow. Only they weren’t flames. He could see right through them, though at the same time some part of him shouted that he couldn’t, that both were happening at the same time. He could see the sky, the distant Crystal Mountains, but at the same time, his view was blocked by the licking flames. He shut his eyes and then opened them again, hardly aware that like the rest of the team, he’d moved from the table and to the side of the cabin. He put one hoof up against the glass, watching as the purple fire seemed to spread, shift, and then stretch.

Lightning began to arc out of the sky, around and through the flames. Except they weren’t flames anymore. They were gashes, rifts he couldn’t explain and doubted he would ever see again. Vague shapes twisted about inside them, at once formless and with form and depth a sight that even at a distance made him close his eyes for a moment more. The distant cracks of thunder began to blend together as the strikes became more and more frequent, and as he looked out over the plains, the flashes were so bright that when he blinked, they left forked imprints across his eyelids, the rapid cascade too much for his visor.

Stranger still, the lightning was doing something. The forked bolts were striking inside the rifts, flickering out of existence and bending in strange ways as they fell through. And still the rifts, rippling and waving, grew.

“This is it,” Hunter said, his voice barely audible over the constant roar of the lightning. There was a new sound beneath it now, a whistling drone that Sabra could feel through the glass, and then the deck. The rifts swelled again, and one by one their sides began to touch … only to melt into one another in a way that looked flat, like both rifts occupied the same plane even when he could see that they didn’t.

“That looks weird,” Nova said. No one disagreed. More and more of the rifts were coming together now, merging into a shape that was both a half-sphere and a flat half-circle at the same time. Worse, inside the shape—something that didn’t even make sense as it was flat and not—were shapes, displaying the same strange physical substance as the rifts themselves.

“I don’t think we’re going to need to send much of a signal!” Hunter was shouting to make his voice heard over the constant roar of the thunder, and a quick sideways glance showed that those without their helmets had their ears pressed back tightly against their skulls. The light began to surge. “If they miss this—”

Whatever he was about to say was drowned out as a tremendous roar rolled over The Hummingbird, along with a shockwave that made the whole vessel judder under Sabra’s hooves. The sound changed, the drone building alongside something that almost sounded like a tear, but liquid somehow. His visor tinted, the only thing he could make out the bright flash from the north … and then the light faded, the sounds dropping away as well, several seconds later. And sitting on the Crystal Plains …

The Crystal Empire. There was no mistaking it. A tall, spindly tower of what looked like crystal shimmered even under the storm. Long roads stretched in all directions around its base, the paths splitting and branching among buildings like the arms of a snowflake. It was massive, miles across … but all dominated by that central tower, a clear focal point of the city that drew the eyes like the centerpiece of an art collection. The storm didn’t even appear to dare touch it, circling around the city like a wary predator.

“Dusk Guard,” Captain Song said at last, his voice subdued. “The Crystal Empire.” Then he spun, his voice bellowing across the cabin. “So let’s move!”

Chapter 11

View Online

A bright pink beam shot into the sky, ascending upward like a rocket until it burst apart in a spray of prismatic sparks. Right from the end of the rail-line, where the contingent of Royal Guard had been waiting. A reply to The Hummingbird’s flares that they too had seen the arrival of the Crystal Empire, and acknowledged the Dusk Guard moving for it.

“It’s confirmed!” Hunter called, pulling his head back into the interior of the airship and pressing the door shut. The latch locked in with a heavy thunk. “Message received!” The call rolled on ahead of him, relayed as he gathered up the two remaining flare packs he hadn’t used—one on his back, one in his teeth—and made his way forward. He hadn’t even made it around the bend when The Hummingbird began to tilt, propellers picking up speed. By the time he’d secured the flares in the cargo netting of the main room and made it to the cockpit, the airship was already roaring toward the changed plain.

So that’s the Crystal Empire? he thought, staring at the distant city. Not much of an “empire” when it’s just one big, spread-out city like that. Then again … Anything outside of that capital is long gone. Who knows how much ground it covered. Or maybe they just like really ornate names.

“Hey.” Sky Bolt’s voice shook him from his thoughts, and he turned away from the view of the distant city to look at her. “You ready?”

He nodded. “Been ready. I was getting stuffed just sitting around doing nothing but training.” Sky let out a curt laugh, and he frowned. “Are you?”

Again the same curt laugh. “Sure!” But he shook his head.

“Seriously Bolt,” he said, stepping forward so that he could look her in the eyes. “It’s okay if you aren’t.”

“I …” She bit at her lower lip. “All right, I’m a little nervous.”

“That’s fine.”

“I know,” she said quickly, shaking her mane. “I just didn’t want anyone to know about it.”

“Well, between you and me,” he said, leaning in slightly and lowering his voice. “I wouldn’t let your coltfriend know.” The bright red blush from her cheeks said it all. “At least, not like that. If you do tell him, tell him you’re nervous, but that you’ll be fine.”

“As for me?” he said, pulling back. “I’d rather know up front. You’re in my care, so if you’re nervous, I want to know. That said … You’re a Dusk Guard. We’re going to be fine.”

“Thanks.” Bolt gave him a smile, and he turned to look back out the cockpit glass. The city was closer now, the spire at its center growing as they moved nearer. They weren’t quite close enough for him to pick out any details like a good landing zone, but they were making good time.

“Right, you remember what you’re supposed to do, right?” he asked, peering past a streak of water left by an errant snowflake.

“Of course I do,” Bolt said. “Why do you think I’m nervous? The Hummingbird is a big target.”

Oh, duh. That’s why she’s nervous. Hopefully his surprise wasn’t showing on his face. “Yeah, well, while they’re bound to spot us, they won’t have any way of knowing who or what we are without checking us out. And they’d need wings for that. I guess this ‘Order’ might have some, but …” He flexed a wing. “That’s what I’ll be doing.” He was starting to see some signs of detail now: individual buildings, smaller roads.

And a lot of red flags. Two guesses what those are. He glanced around the cockpit, mind switching processes for a moment before remembering where the binoculars had been.

“Binoculars?” he asked, holding out his hoof. Bolt nodded, pulling the pair of high-powered glasses out of their compartment and passing them to him. They were heavier than they looked, far moreso than the field glasses in his saddlebags. But they’d give him a much more distant picture, even through the glass wall of the cockpit.

“What do you see?” Sky Bolt asked as he peered through them. The distant buildings seemed to leap, the edge of the empire growing close. And blurry. He twisted at the knob on top of the binoculars, watching as the distant picture became first more blurry, and then snapped into clarity with startling precision.

“Give me a minute.” As sharp as the image now was, it was still hard to make out any detail. Even the faint vibrations of the propellers were enough to make it hard to fix the binoculars on one image, to say nothing of his own limbs, or the winds kicking against the aircraft. Or the visor the end of the binoculars were pressed up against.

Still, by panning the binoculars back and forth a few times, he was able to build a gradual picture. “City’s definitely still occupied,” he said, not dropping the glasses. “I’m seeing some citizens. At least I think they’re citizens. Hard to tell at this range.” And when I can’t keep my view steady. Nevertheless, there were definitely ponies of some kind poking their heads out of crystal-like structures, wandering around in what he assumed was awe.

Except for that group, he thought, glasses waving over a closely-knit group of ponies clad in red and black barding. Don’t need much of a guess to figure out who those folks are. Another pass showed the other ponies backing away, ducking back into their homes or running away from the group in red. Enforcers of some kind. His swinging view stumbled over a building much taller than the others, a crystalline tower decked out in red banners, and he managed to hold it steady long enough to make out the logo in the center, an emblem of a red slash—a horn perhaps—on a field of black.

Order of the Red Horn. That must be a local watchtower. The jerking movements of The Hummingbird tugged his view away, but he’d already seen enough. Those other splashes of red across the city are probably the same thing.

He pulled the binoculars away for a moment, blinking as his eyes readjusted, and noticed something new. Smoke. Faint pillars of grey rising into the sky over the city. But what was more, they weren’t moving.

“What?” Bolt asked, apparently catching something in his expression as he held the glasses up once more.

“Smoke,” he said, panning his view until the nearest pillar came into sight, twisting gently up into the sky. Like there isn’t the father of all storm systems spitting the dummy right overhead. “There’s smoke, and it’s not affected by the winds.”

“What?”

“It’s not affected by the winds,” he repeated. “And I’m not seeing much snow either.” How, I have no idea. He panned the glasses back down once more, trying to get a better view of the source of the smoke.

It wasn’t hard to find. A deep gash had been cut across the cityscape, a black, charred line that ended in a collapsed building. There weren’t any open flames that he could make out, but there was a hive of activity that looked organized, if not very quick. Plus more of the red barding, just faintly visible at the distance they were at.

More signs of Sombra’s enforcers, he thought. So they’re either still in control of the city, or working to regain it.

There was also a nearby plaza, he noted, that was filled with a lot of still forms that he suspected were bodies.

Civilian casualties, he thought, his heart giving a soft pang even as his mind catalogued the location for his report to Steel. Which means wounded, too.

A plaza like that would be a good place to set the ship down, he thought as he moved the glasses on. Except that most of them seem to be a good ways into the city. He had counted at least a dozen of the banner-flying towers now, as well as twice again that many that had been reduced to smoking wrecks. More and more signs of battle were presenting themselves the longer he looked, from smoking ruins of buildings, to jagged scars across the crystalline pavement of the roads, to even in one case, a pile of bodies wearing a familiar-looking golden-colored armor.

The Princesses’ Guard, he thought, holding the glasses over the distant blob for a moment, the image too far away for him to make out any further detail. And from the lack of movement … His chest panged again. Over a thousand years out of time, a thousand-plus years fallen.

He made a note of the location. Securing it would be a high priority. They were fellow Guard, even ancient ones, and that meant they wouldn’t be left behind. Or left to have their bodies desecrated.

He spotted several more buildings flying the red banners of Sombra’s order as he moved on. “Still no sign of a good landing zone, but Steel, Dawn, and Sabra are going to have plenty of hard yakka ahead of them. I’m seeing a lot of these banners that can’t be anyone but that order’s.” He moved his view to the center of the city, and the enormous crystal spire that dominated it. Red banners of multiple sizes still flew from its walls and hung from its peak.

He held back a sigh. Okay, so a large chunk of the city is still under the direct control of the order. Albeit loosely. There had been a number of sections where the populace seemed to be wandering around somewhat aimlessly, without any of the red-clad overseers. But none of them are anywhere I’d want to suggest landing an airship. Which means …

He brought his gaze to the edges of the city. We land outside it. Somewhere away from the red banners, away from the … He frowned.

“What?” Sky Bolt asked.

“The edge of the city,” he said, adjusting the binoculars. “It’s got some sort of … weather shield.”

“What? How?” There was a curious, almost excited undertone to Bolt’s question, the tantalizing prospect of something new being dangled in front of her immediately catching her attention.

“Magic, probably,” he said, shrugging. “But I can see it. Not whatever’s doing it, but the effect.” The snows swirled around the edge of the city, but there was a clear line in the air that seemed to be pushing them away. “Explains the lack of wind inside the city.” Something is pushing it away. But if it can push the wind away …

He lowered the glasses. “I don’t know if we can fly through that.” Bolt’s eyes widened. “We could always just try, but … I’m not seeing anywhere inside the city we could make a safe landing and unloading anyway. Not without running the risk of those enforcers showing up and damaging something.”

“So we land outside of it?” Sky Bolt asked.

He nodded. “Without any better idea of what’s keeping that weather out of the city, I’d say that’s our best bet.” He lifted the binoculars again, running them across the outskirts of the Crystal Empire. A wide, open expanse caught his eyes, and he focused on it. “Bingo.”

“What?”

“There,” he said, lowering the binoculars and pointing. “See that road?” It was one of the main “arms” of the snowflake design the city’s roads seemed to be based on, carving a straight line south of the tower and right to the edge of the city.

Sky Bolt nodded. “Yeah. The south one?”

“That’s it.” He held the binoculars up again, focusing on the southernmost tip of the city. “It ends in a wide gate. A bit past that, the road just … stops.” Maybe it got cut off when the city was disconnected. “We’d be setting down in the snow, but I’m not seeing any rough patches in the plains south of it, and the road would make distribution easier. We could drop things right in front of the gate. As long as …” He panned the binoculars over the south end of the city once more, pausing only at the wrecks of both of the nearest towers. “Okay. Both the nearest buildings flying those Order banners seem to be rubble.”

“Rubble?” He glanced over to see Bolt’s eyes wide with shock.

“Yeah, rubble,” he replied. “This was a war, remember? It looks like the Princesses came through her like a tornado. A very guided, specific tornado, but a tornado all the same. There’s a lot of damage down there.”

“Right.” Bolt gave her head a quick shake. “Just still getting used to the idea.” She shook her head once more as he opened his mouth again. “I’m fine.”

He nodded. If she says she’s fine, she’s fine. Besides, she’ll be on the hunting crew with me and Nova anyway. He took a final look through the binoculars, noting the number of figures moving about on the wide street, again without the red barding, and gave a final nod.

“All right,” he said as he passed Bolt the binoculars. “That’s our destination. Right outside that south gate. We can drop the cargo right in front of it.” And, if the citizens don’t run, maybe get them to point us at some local authorities that aren’t working for Sombra.

“ETA?” he asked as he turned for the door.

“Depends on the wind,” Sky replied. “Couple of minutes at most at the speed we’re making. Say three minutes.”

Hunter nodded and stepped into the main room, eyes searching. Steel was standing by the door, a heavy load of winter gear across his back. He noticed Hunter almost immediately. “Lieutenant. You find us a landing site?”

“Yeah. South end of the city. Right on the outskirts of one of the main roads. There’s some kind of barrier over the city keeping the weather out. Didn’t want to risk seeing if we could run an airship through it.”

Steel nodded. “Resistance?”

“It’ll materialize. Counted at least a dozen watchtower-looking places atop buildings flying a red-and-black banner, plus ponies wearing the same colors that looked like they were trying to restore order. Spotted a few combat zones with what are probably dead and wounded too. Including,” he said, lowering his voice. “What were probably Royal Guard.”

If the news shocked Steel he didn’t show it. “What about that central tower?”

“Still flying the same red-and-black colors as the watchtowers.”

“Hmm …” Steel pointed at the table. Paper and pencils had been scattered across it. “Map it. Small scale. Something I can carry. I know you’re not a cartographer. I just want something I can consult.” The Hummingbird shook, the wind outside briefly rising in pitch. “ETA?”

“Three to five minutes, according to Bolt,” Hunter answered as he stepped over to the table.

“Then make the map in two to four minutes,” Steel ordered. “I want you in the sky flying recon before we ever set down.”

“You got it.” There wasn’t much else he could say. The armor around his forehooves made dealing with the pencil tricky, and after a few bad scribbles on a pad of paper, he took his helmet off and clasped the end of the pencil with his lips.

Come on … Come on … The lines weren’t the straightest, but they’d have to do. He sketched out the rough shape of the city, with the southern end facing him. Once that was done, he marked the rough locations of the towers he’d seen across the city, as well as the locations where the damage was the worst and where he’d seen bodies or signs of activity.

Not my best, he thought as he finished labeling his markers and dropped the pencil to the tabletop. But Steel will make sense of it.

A glance out the window as he buckled his helmet back in place told him he hadn’t finished a moment to soon, either. He could see the Crystal Empire through the side windows, which meant that they had to be getting close.

Which means I need to be ready. He tore the sketch free of its pad with one hoof and tucked it into his wing, turning toward the T-hall and passing Sabra as he moved down it.

It wasn’t easy. The passage was no longer open, especially at the far end. The end of the hall was packed in both directions with crates of supplies, all reorganized under Dawn’s system. The mare herself was standing nearby, performing a last minute check of each box, her horn glowing as she walked slowly down the row. Steel was past her, and Hunter called out.

“Boss,” he said, extending a wing and holding the slip of paper out. “Like you asked.”

“Thanks.” Steel took the slip of paper in his hoof and stepped back, his backside pressed right up against the crates as he studied the paper. “Recon.”

Hunter nodded, already moving past the captain and squeezing down the tightly packed hall. Ahead of him, near the door, Sabra was standing atop one of the crates in his armor, checking its contents. They nodded at one another as he passed, but no words were spoken. They both had a job to do.

The entryway itself was still clear, and he took advantage of the space to doublecheck his equipment. Saddlebags: Light and tight. Armor: All secure. He gave himself a final shake, spreading his wings and checking the feathers to make sure none were lying out of position. Snow swirled outside the porthole in the outer door, and on a whim he glanced up.

Huh. What do you know. The lines between the storms looked like they were fading away, the rifts fading as the storm systems at last began to behave normally. Guess the Crystal Empire was responsible for that weather after all.

Good thing they’ve got that barrier or shield or whatever though. Now that the magic keeping those storms apart seems to be gone … He peered up at the sky once more. Some of them will cancel out, but most of them will just merge.

The weather was going to get worse. A lot worse.

Satisfied he was ready to deploy, he sat back on his haunches, a nervous tremble of energy making its way through his back legs. Any moment now. His ears twitched, swiveling as they waited for the telltale signal that would tell him it was time to move.

Any second now … He shifted his hooves. Any second …

There! The propeller pitch changed, drifting down as the deck underneath shifted, a faint weight pressing everything aboard forward. His hooves were on the latch immediately, his mouth opening as he called out over his shoulder. “Door opening!” Wind tore at his wings as the hatch opened, and he tucked them close as he dove out into the open sky.

Only to snap them open a second later, the currents catching and launching him out through the air. He twisted, flipping his body around as he took in his surroundings. The Hummingbird was still powering ahead, but even he could see that the airship had slowed as it neared the swirling dome of snow around the city.

And the city. So close, the details leapt out at him. The buildings themselves were angular, corners sharp and geometric. All of them had a faint shine to them that reminded him of the crystals beneath the Canterlot Mountains, or more closely the sheen of his own armor. Each seemed to follow a uniform color—or at least where there wasn’t damage of some kind.

He swept his wings back, powering through the heavy wings and rushing ahead of The Hummingbird. He could see ponies—crystal ones, presumably—milling about the street, pointing in his direction. Or the airship’s, it didn’t really matter which. They’d been noticed. Not that it would have been hard to, considering they were the only airship for miles.

He pushed slightly harder, green lines glowing faintly on his black undersuit as his magic helped him push through the strong winds. Ahead of him, he could see the barrier that separated the Crystal Empire from the weather outside of it, the snow in the sky almost having piled into a moving wall around it. And beyond it … Grass? He blinked in surprise. Maybe Sabra won’t need that heat mod after all.

He let himself slow as he neared the “wall,” eyeing the barrier even as his wings and magic fought to keep his body level. Well … here goes nothing. He poked his hoof out, past the swirling snowflakes.

It passed through without pause. There was a faint … something … around it that he could feel with his magic, a faint sense that tickled at his innate ability to control weather. The barrier is weather magic of some kind, he thought as he pulled his hoof back. And if it’s weather magic …

He threw himself forward, almost going into a tumble when the winds his strong strokes had been correcting for vanished. Warmth washed over him—not hot, but nowhere near as icy and frozen as the weather outside the city. Huh. The howling of the storm seemed diminished as well, almost nonexistent. He rubbed a hoof at his visor, brushing away a few already-melting stray flakes, and took his first, close-up look at the Crystal Empire.

Beneath him, a broad, shining street that almost appeared to be made of tinted glass stretched down what looked like the full length of the city, or at least all the way to the tower at the center. Buildings made of crystal flanked both sides, along with the small, grassy lawns he’d seen earlier. This close, he could see that the hard, geometric lines he’d noticed at a distance had rounded, softened edges.

But the most important thing he saw were the ponies standing in the street in front of him, staring up at him with wary eyes.

Crystal ponies. Huh. The largest difference he could see off-hoof was that their coats were sort of a dull, pastel color with a fine sheen to it. I can see how they got the name. They don’t look healthy, though. Many of them looked underweight, or like they hadn’t had a good night’s rest in weeks. As he watched, they began to cluster together, bunching up against one another, their eyes still fixed on him. Several of them looked ready to bolt.

Maybe it’s the armor? he wondered. Or it’s just that I’m an outsider. He held up his hooves and let himself drop a few feet. Better make contact. Figure out what’s been going on. Slowly, he lifted his hooves and undid the clasp on his helmet, sliding it up and out of place. The wary looks didn’t vanish, but a few of the crystal ponies seemed to relax a little. His rear hooves touched the ground, and he tucked the helmet into his wing. “Ah …” Crikey, what do I say? “He—”

“Are you with the Princesses?” a mare in the back of the group blurted, only to recoil and cover her mouth with her hoof, eyes wide with fear as if she was about to be struck.

“I …” Come on, Hunter, you’re a Dusk Guard. Act like it! He pulled himself up. “I am. First Lieutenant Hunter of the Dusk Guard of Equestria.” The group of ponies shot sideways glances at one another. A few still looked hesitant at his words, but some of the others appeared hopeful.

“Can you tell us what happened?” A crystal stallion spoke up, taking a step forward, his pastel purple coat glimmering faintly. His accent sounded vaguely like that of the Canterlot nobility, but with its own inflections. And a little of Dawn’s Manehatten accent thrown in for good measure. “Did the Princesses defeat King Sombra? Was that what that light in the sky was?”

“Why could we not leave the city?”

“Where did the rest of the world go?”

“Where are the Princesses?”

He held up his hooves as the crowd began to step forward, questions spilling out of them like water from an unstopped faucet, and they quieted.

“Sombra is … it’s complicated. The Princesses beat him, but not permanently. That’s why my team is here. The sky changing …” He paused. Come on, think of something. “You were cut off, correct? From the outside world?”

“The whole world vanished,” one of the ponies said. “The sky went all purple, and everything felt strange, and then that was all there was.”

Okay, so they were aware during the time they were out of … well, time. But for how long? “How long did it last?”

The crystal ponies glanced at one another. “It wasn’t a full day,” one of them said at last, a mare with a shiny yellow coat. “Not even a half. Just under. The Order came around telling everyone to get back to work, to ignore it, but most of us didn’t know what to do. Then everything came back, and there was the snow outside and …” The mare shook her head. “We do not know what to do. The Order have been telling everypony to stay in their homes or work their shifts, but …” Scattered murmurs rose from the group around her as her voice trailed off, the rest of them speaking up.

“Hold up, hold up.” Hunter held up his hooves once more, and the group stopped, though they were all still looking at him with expectant eyes. And I get to tell them what’s happened. Great. As if they haven’t had enough shocks for the day. “Who’s in charge?” he asked. “Not the Order, but locally. There has to be some kind of local leadership or somepony you all turn to, right?”

“That would be me.” The voice belonged to the stallion that had spoken up earlier. “Unofficially. Sterling Garnet.”

“Right.” How to put this. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, Garnet. All of you, really. That brief ‘blip’ you all had? Where the whole outside world went bodgy? That was … a sealing spell.”

“What are you saying?” one of the ponies asked. “Were the Princesses protecting us from Sombra?”

“Ah … sort of?” You’re doing a terrible job at this. “Look, that whole battle you remember? From just a few minutes ago? Between the Princesses and Sombra?” He glanced around at the group, taking in their harried expressions. Just say it. “Yeah … that was about thirteen-hundred years ago.”

“I … What?” Garnet’s stunned exclamation was echoed by several others throughout the group. “I do not understand what you mean!”

“Ah crikey.” Hunter began to bring a hoof up to rub at the back of his head, but caught it before it had made it too far from the ground. Gotta look confident. They have to believe this. “Look, I’m not trying to make a beat up about this, and I don’t want you all to crack a—to lose it.” Several of the crystal ponies in the back were edging away, he noticed. Doing a great job so far here, Hunter. “But you have to understand this. The battle between the Princesses and King Sombra? That happened over a thousand years ago, plus a few centuries.” Some of the crystal ponies were giving him wide-eyed looks, ears folded back. Like I’ve sprouted a horn or something. Probably a red one. “You’ve been gone a very, very long time.”

“No …” It was one of the mares in the back of the group, backing away. “It cannot be. You are … You speak lies!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, offering a shrug. “But I’m really not.”

“But why?” Garnet asked, splitting his focus between Hunter and the rest of the group. “If what you are speaking of is true—and I will admit the changing of the sky and the sudden season beyond the edge of the city would seem to—” His voice hitched for a moment. “—support it, why?”

“To save you.” It was the best answer he had. “It wasn’t intentional—”

“It was an accident?”

“No! Sort of.” He held up a hoof. “Look, all I know is that during the battle with King Sombra, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna tried to defeat him once and for all by trapping him in a pocket dimension or something until he starved. Getting him out of the fight and freeing all of you. Except he used his connection to the city or whatever to pass the spell on or something?” He could see blank-faced looks on the crowd in front of him, along with plenty of wary eyes. You really are bad at this. “Point being Sombra got your whole city sealed as well.” This is getting out of hoof. Reel it back in.

“Point being,” he said, his voice temporarily growing so loud that some of the crystal ponies flinched. “I’m sorry, but you’ve all be gone a really, really long time. For you it was hours, I guess, but for the rest of the world, it was centuries. Centuries during which the Princesses had time to prepare for your return.”

He took a step to the side, waving his hoof at the edge of the city and the large, triangular shape of The Hummingbird. “That airship belongs to the team I’m part of. We’re here to operate as a spearhead to a rescue and relief effort. Those boxes?” He pointed to the large crates floating out of The Hummingbird’s side, wrapped in yellow and orange magic. “They’re full of medical supplies, food rations, and materiels. You’re a local leader, Garnet?” he asked, looking right at the crystal stallion. The ponies around him still looked shocked; some were even stepping away, but it couldn’t be helped. “Then we’re going to need your help. For us, this battle was a thousand-plus years ago. For you, it was moments ago. We have medical supplies, a skilled doctor, and a whole train worth of Royal Guard should be here within a day or so. We need connections with locals like yourself to know where these supplies need to go, and who to give them to.”

“But the Order—” one of the crystal ponies began, their voice quivering with fear.

“We’ll deal with the Order,” Hunter said, cutting her off. “We’re the Dusk Guard, ma’am. But if you can spread the word—”

“That what!?” someone in the back shouted. “That we were lost to time?” The stallion turned and ran, a panicked look in his eyes even as Garnet called after him. His departure set off several other crystal ponies, several of which ran with cries of … terror, or maybe panic, Hunter wasn’t sure. Several of them ran into homes, doors slamming shut behind them, while a few others ducked between buildings or down offshoot streets, the sounds of their frantic galloping echoing after them.

Crud. Maybe I should have left this to Steel. Or Dawn. If those ponies kick off an even bigger panic …

It was too late to do anything about it now. He turned his eyes back to the remaining crystal ponies. About two-thirds of them had stayed, still wary. Garnet was one of them.

“Lieutenant …” he said, his voice sounding strained. “It is not that I do not … Well …”

“It’s outrageous, I know,” Hunter said. “I’d have trouble believing it myself if it hadn’t come from the Princesses.”

“But it … is true?” He could hear the hope in Garnet’s voice, the faint cry holding out that what he’d been told was in some way, not what had happened. That thirteen-hundred years hadn’t just passed in the blink of an eye, that the strange distortion they’d experienced hadn’t been the sign of the world they’d known being ripped away from them, but some other event.

“I hate to say it,” Hunter said, his ears folding back. “But it’s pure dinkum. The truth. I don’t know all the details, and I’m sorry you had to hear it from me. I can’t imagine what you must all be feeling like right about now, but whatever it is, my team needs your help. We can’t distribute supplies without the ponies of the empire. We’ve seen the smoke: We know there were fires. This whole city just came out of a battle. I know everything I’ve just said has to sound like a load of goss that’s totally sus. Suspicious gossip?” he added when he saw the confused looks. “But it’s true. And if you can spread the word, or point our team where those supplies need to go, or better yet help us get them to a proper distribution chain, or get one set up, that’ll free our hooves up to stamp out what’s left of the Order.” He took a deep breath. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but—”

“I will do it.” Garnet’s sure voice cut him off, and he looked at the stallion, first in surprise, then with a smile as the crystal pony pulled himself up. Was it his imagination, or did he look just a little brighter? “Sombra was not in power so long that all of us have forgotten how to stand on our own hooves. I can talk with the neighboring streets. Spread the word. Tell ponies to stay in their homes, or come to places for medical aid.”

“That’d be … perfect, actually,” Hunter said, grinning. He pointed back at The Hummingbird. “You’ll want to speak with my superior, Captain Steel Song. Wearing green armor. Built like a wall. You can’t miss him. He and our medical officer will be able to better coordinate with you.” He waited until Garnet had nodded before continuing. “I’ll let him know who you are, you can speak with him as soon as you’re ready. I need to make a recon flight and check out the surrounding area. Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news.”

“It …” Garnet took a deep breath. “We will manage. I do not believe even I fully understand yet, or even want to, but even if the words you have spoken are not true … this city is wounded. If you bring supplies, and word from our would-be saviors, then we will do what we can. There will be time for healing.”

“It’s our job to give you that time,” Hunter said, sliding the helmet down over his head. “I’ll let the captain know you’re coming. But before I do, is there a nearby center, plaza, or location I should be checking that might serve as a rally point? Somewhere we can bring all the supplies to instead of, you know, out in the snow?”

“There was the old social hall several blocks over,” one of the crystal ponies said, her ears folding back even as she spoke to him. “But the Order turned it into one of their offices. The Princesses hit it when they went past. I do not believe any of us have had the nerve to go see what became of it.”

Order stations. Definitely worth checking out. What’s the bet that there’s a prison cell under each one? Sombra ruled this place through fear and terror to get what he wanted. His muscles tightened. “That’s good to know, I can give it a look. Anything—”

“Alone?” A different crystal stallion had spoken up, voice shaking with fear. “Against an Order guardhouse?”

“And I’m a Dusk Guard,” he countered. “You don’t know what that is yet, but believe me, you’re about to. And so is the Order.” He turned his eyes back to Garnet. “Anything else close by I should check out? Those towers, maybe?”

“The Order Watchtowers? There are not any near here.”

“What about collaborators? Are there any?”

At that, Garnet’s face soured. “There are,” he said. “Some serve in hidden ways, from the dark, others openly. Those that are open wear the king’s emblem, work with his Order, and fly his flag from their homes. Those in secret skulk around in the dark.”

Hunter nodded. Watch your back, in other words. Gotcha. “Do you have any idea of ponies that might be secret collaborators?” The last thing we want to do is start a wild hunt, but at the same time …

Thankfully, Garnet shook his head. “No. Only that those who speak out in what they believe to be confidence find themselves punished not long after. Sometimes one is revealed, but … The Order does their best to keep them hidden.”

“Right.” He nodded. “Well, I’ll check out the wreck of that Order office. What about central meeting areas?”

“Taken by the Order,” Garnet said, and Hunter nodded again.

Right. That makes sense. Central locations. Public ones. Which likely meant that there were hidden ones as well. Small, subversive locations for the hidden informants to operate out of. We’ll have to watch our backs. Or rather, Steel and his team would. And I will while I’m flying recon. Which I really need to do.

“Okay,” he said. “Thank you for your help. Again, talk to Captain Song. Green armor. I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.” And hope that you’re not one of those secret collaborators you hinted at, or this mission will be off to a great start.

“I can round up a few volunteers to help with supplies,” Garnet said.

“I can let the nearby streets know,” a second pony added. Hopefully they were tactful about the “thirteen hundred years” bit. Or didn’t mention it.

“I have a wagon,” another crystal pony cut in. “In my shed. We can use that.” The rest began talking among one another, and again Hunter had the strange impression that some of their coats were growing a little brighter.

“Good. Talk to the captain, he’ll appreciate the help. I’ll let him know you’re coming.” He snapped his wings down, launching himself into the air before he could be further roped into the crystal ponies’ hopeful conversation, and headed back toward the barrier.

He hit it at a slightly higher speed this time, green lines in his suit flaring as his pegasus magic fought the sudden shift in weather across the barrier. The howl of the wind leapt into his ears, along with the faint, droning buzz of The Hummingbird’s propellers. Distant shouts rolled across the wind as well, voices he recognized belonging to both Steel and Dawn as they unloaded the cargo from the airship. There was already a decently sized pile of crates on the ground, and as he neared another floated into place, wrapped in a yellow and orange glow.

“Hunter,” Steel said, turning to face him as he came in for a landing. “We’re almost unloaded here. What’s the report?”

“Contact made with the locals. Gathered some information you’d want to hear.” He pointed back at the edge of the city. “First of all, that barrier is permeable. You can pass through it. The Order still seems to have control over the city, or at least what’s left of it. All the central locations are controlled by them as well. Or were.”

“How long has it been for the locals?” Steel asked.

A grimace slipped across his face before he could stop himself, not that Steel would see half of it with his helmet in place. “Less than half a day. I couldn’t get a more specific length out of them. More than a few hours, though.”

“Sun above.”

“Worse, there are collaborators. Public, and secret.”

“So this contact you made …”

“Sterling Garnet. Could be, yeah. Claims to be sort of a local community leader. Said he’d help with getting the word out and giving you ideas about supplies. One pony said they’d bring a wagon.”

“One of them could be a collaborator,” Steel said, and Hunter nodded.

“The thought occurred to me. But with us, it’s buckleys if they try anything.”

Steel nodded. “It would be. What about the situation. Do they know?”

“I told them how long they’d been gone. That’s it.”

“How’d they—Easy with that!—take it?”

He shook his head. “Shock and denial, mostly.”

“Dawn’s going to have her work cut out for her. Anything else?”

“I’m going to check out the surrounding area, do a proper recon. Check out one of the Order’s offices that’s supposed to be nearby. The Princesses apparently hit it on their way in.”

“Right. We’ll be unloaded in a few minutes. Make it fast.”

He nodded, snapped a quick salute, and with a flick of his wings was airborne again, heading for the edge of the city. Again he passed through the barrier, the howling winds cutting out so abruptly it was like someone had flipped a switch. He pushed down, ascending higher into the air and over the rooftops, giving him a wider view of the surrounding blocks. Below him, he could see the group of crystal ponies he’d talked to just moments earlier wheeling a four-wheeled cart out of a shed behind one of the houses. There were fewer than he remembered, and a glance at the nearby houses showed a few of them heading inside, either to take shelter until things blew over, retrieve something, or maybe just to hide and come to terms with what he’d told them.

He climbed higher, wings beating in strong, wide strokes as the houses shrank beneath him. The neighboring streets showed signs of activity as well, crystal ponies poking their heads out of doorways and looking around. He spotted several groups to both the east and the west that appeared to have noticed the airship. There were no hooves pointed in his direction, however. At least, not currently. Even once he’d pulled out his field glasses to give himself a better look, none seemed to have noticed him, high up as he was.

All right … fairly standard layout, aside from the snowflake design. His eyes locked on a pile of what looked like scorched, crystalline rubble that had once been a street corner at least four or five blocks to the west. Black streaks across the ground from multiple directions centering on the charred superstructure made it clear what it had probably once been. One of the Order offices. There was a crowd of ponies sifting through the rubble, some with magic, some with hooves. The ones with magic, he noted, were wearing red.

Five of them, he counted. Though only four are unicorns. The last was a crystal pony, who seemed to be shouting orders at the rest of the group sifting through the rubble. Looking for survivors. One of the unicorns took a step forward, a whip lashing out and striking at one of the ponies moving rubble, and as far away as he was, he imagined he could hear the cry. He brought his hooves up, ready to dive down … and then caught himself.

It’s happening all over the city. And if you don’t report it, it won’t stop. He tensed a muscle, then pulled his gaze away to look over the rest of the nearby area.

Okay, aside from the Order station, there are several groups of crystal ponies looking around in confusion. That section of homes has collapsed; they’ll likely need medical attention. That home has Order flags on it, and that pony out front seems to be giving orders to the rest of them. And that … looks like a scouting party. The last was coming from the center of the city, straight down the road toward the city’s edge, though they were well off from it. At least … three ponies?

A cry caught his ears, and he snapped his focus back to the Order station. The unicorn with the whip was at it again, cracking it across the withers of one of the ponies so hard that they had fallen, their cries no longer imagined, but echoing faintly through the air.

His decision was made in an instant. He snapped his wings back, throwing himself into a sharp, downward dive. He took advantage of the near freefall to stow his binoculars, and then he brought his wings out, leveling out in a fast glide that took advantage of his downward rush. Air whistled past the edges of his armor as he picked up speed, throwing in a wingbeat every so often as he shot through the air. The cries had died out, but the boiling in his blood hadn’t.

Five versus one. He thought back on the training he and the rest of the team had been through. Almost a fair fight.

Almost. And he had no plans to make it fair.

He was just above the rooftops now, streaking over them at high speed, wings half-tucked against his sides. Ahead of him, he could see a faint haze of smoke twisting up from an open intersection, rising from a noticeable gap in the city skyline. This is it!

He shot out over the final rooftop, his rear hooves almost scraping over the crystalline surface, and spotted his target.

The unicorn was standing on the far side of the street, a whip handle gripped in their blue magic. He was clad in red-and-black barding of some kind, with a simple, metal chestplate. Across from them, splayed across the rubble, was a crystal stallion, his back and legs bloody. As was the tip of the whip the unicorn had been using to lash him.

He never knew what hit him. Hunter snapped his wings back a final time, descending like a bird of prey at the back of the unicorn’s head, riding the Order member into the ground and slamming him headfirst into the crystal paving stones. The unicorn’s helmet buckled and bounced away, torn free by the impact even as a wet smack echoed across the intersection mixed with the faint crunch of the stallion losing most of their teeth.

He didn’t stop. Before the other three unicorns could react he was flipping away, shoving his body up and sideways with his wings splayed behind him in a twisting flip that he’d learned from Sabra. The closest of the Order guards turned to see what had happened, just in time for the first of Hunter’s rear hooves to catch him right across the muzzle, shattering his nose and dragging his head forward and down.

Just in time for the second hoof to catch him in the back of the head, bringing him face-first into the paving stones, his face hitting so hard it would have bounced if not for Hunter’s weight bearing down behind it. Motion completed, his wings splayed and forehooves up in an offensive Tempest stance, he picked his next target.

“Alarm!”

Hunter threw himself forward as one of the remaining order members shouted. The unicorn in front of him tried to react, her horn lighting up with an azure glow, but by the time a shield began to form in front of her to block his charge, he was already halfway through it. For just the briefest moment he saw surprise in her eyes, then his armored hoof slammed into her head hard enough to dent her helm, snapping her head back, the glow of her horn winking out as she hit the ground.

He spun again, just in time to catch the collaborator’s charge, blocking a wild swing with one hoof. The motion was clearly practiced, but sloppy, more likely executed on defenseless civilians than somepony with actual combat experience. He slapped the blow aside, then countered with two of his own, staggering the crystal pony back.

“Alarm!”

He spun, jumping back and feeling his magic course through him as he threw a quick burst of wind at the other Order member, the sudden whirlwind shutting them up and sending them stumbling. It was a sloppy use of pegasus magic, but in a pinch, it would work as long as he didn’t use too many more. Capitalizing on the distraction, he used his wings to dart forward, tackling the unicorn and slamming him into the ground. He heard the faint “Ooof!” of the breath being knocked from the unicorn’s lungs, and satisfied that he was down for the moment, Hunter spun back to the crystal collaborator.

He was falling back, shouting something to the nearby ponies to help him. His shouts turned to terrified screams when a moment later Hunter’s hoof cracked across his chin, knocking him to the ground and into silence.

A bolt of hot, bright azure energy skipped off of his shoulder and into one of the nearby homes, and he turned to see the unicorn mare from before standing wide eyed, her horn aglow. He shoved himself up, another blast shooting by beneath him as he powered into the air. He tucked one wing against his side, throwing himself into a tight spiral that sent her third and final shot wide before his hind legs slammed into her body, knocking her to the ground. He felt something in her side give way with a faint pop, and she screamed as she hit the ground. A short, tight blow later, and she slumped back, unconscious or at least dazed for some time.

Another bolt of energy shot past his head, and he turned to see the last unicorn, the one he’d tackled to the ground, looking at him with wide eyes. The unicorn’s horn glowed, and with a pop, he vanished.

Long-range or short range? There was only one way to find out. He reached inside himself, summoning forth his magic and sending a wave of energy out in all directions from his mod. The world became bright and hazy with magic once more, and he twisted his head around, looking for any sign of the unicorn.

There. There was a blurry, bright figure trailing magic as they ran from a bright point at the peak of their head, behind one of the nearby buildings. Hunter rose into the air, wings beating steadily as he took off in pursuit.

A moment later he was back, the unconscious unicorn held in his front hooves, and he dropped him to the ground beside his fellows before taking a look around the intersection. Expressions of horror and shock greeted him. Not that I blame them. Part of him wanted to just walk into a back alley and hurl up his lunch at the amount of violence he’d just inflicted … but a single glance at the wounded crystal stallion, red tracks across their back and hind legs, shoved the nausea away. The stallion was panting with pain, but still aware, and Hunter trotted over to him.

“Are you familiar with the south gate?” he asked, pointing in the direction the airship had landed. The stallion nodded. “There are medical supplies there, along with personnel to treat your injuries.” He glanced around at the rest of the crowd, raising his voice. “If you’ll take these scum—” He paused to tap one of the unconscious Order members with a hoof. “—with you, the Guard there will handle them.”

“Is that … who you’re with?” one of the ponies asked, speaking up. “The Guard? From Equestria?”

He nodded, pulling himself up straight. “We are. We are the Dusk Guard of Equestria.”

“And we are taking back this city.”

Chapter 12

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There they are, Sabra thought, eyes narrowing behind his helmet as he spotted the telltale red-and-black armor worn by the Order scouts. Just as I thought. They are unused to sneaking around their own city. At least, the two behind the one in the lead were. The one in the lead seemed to have some idea of how to stay out of sight, even clad in his fairly obvious armor. But the two following his lead were simply doing that: Following without the barest idea of why they were ducking behind the sides of buildings or moving along an alley. And while the stallion in front was at least passingly quiet, the pair behind him didn’t have the slightest idea how to move quietly. From the way they moved, it was all too clear that they were used to being in charge, to moving with a threatening swagger rather than a smooth silence. Without his eyes, he could have pinpointed all three of their positions simply based on sound.

He watched as the trio “snuck” forward, moving through a back alley, hooves clopping against the crystal stone that made up much of the ground. If this is to be our foe, then may we hope that all are as obvious as they. Sabra shifted slightly, letting his body move to one side as the trio passed beneath him. Unfortunately, the thought was simply that: A thought. Lieutenant Hunter’s words had already confirmed that there were other threats to deal with that wouldn’t be quite so visible, collaborators and secret enforcers who were likely to be far more skilled at keeping themselves hidden. No doubt one of the crystal citizens their team had met with had already ducked off to report the team’s existence and numbers. In fact, Captain Song had given them orders to act as though it had already happened. “Better to expect it than to be surprised by it,” he’d stated. The trio passing beneath him now simply hadn’t been in the chain of information, or had set out before such information had come in.

And now, they won’t be coming back, Sabra thought, reaching back over his shoulder and drawing his Fimbo from its place across his back. The trio was still moving down the alley, their eyes—especially those of the first—glancing in every possible direction.

Except up.

They are used to dealing with civilians, Sabra thought as he eased himself away from the steep, slick crystal roof. Not soldiers. The thought almost made him pause. Soldier. Rare is the occasion that I have thought of myself as such. The image that came to mind was of the warriors of his homeland, agile and swift or stalwart and immoveable. But he was like neither of those, in weapons, nor in ability.

I am a Dusk Guard, he thought, and dropped. The sudden clop of his hooves striking the paving stones caught the trio by surprise, and they spun, one letting out a cry of surprise even as their horns began to glow.

“Surren—” It was as far as he got before two of them lashed out, magic streaking down the alley toward him. He leaped, the faint swelling of loyalty in his heart barely a thought and more a reflex as he took advantage of his strength mod to fling his body upwards, well past what any reasonable foe would have expected of him. He twisted in the air, bringing his forehooves around and letting his Fimbo fly free even as his rear hooves kicked against the side of one of the homes around them.

His Fimbo made contact first, bouncing off of the crystal stone with a loud ping and rising upward to slam into the chin of the rearmost unicorn, snapping his head back. The grey glow around his horn fizzled out. A second later Sabra’s own forehoof made contact, a third spell from the lead unicorn blowing past him as he brought the full weight of his body down in a single blow to the lone mare of the trio, striking her helm just to the side of the horn. The metal buckled inward, followed by her legs, and she hit the ground hard enough to bounce.

He dropped with her, letting his body flow with his momentum, his hooves spread wide to absorb and redirect his trajectory toward the wall of the alley even as another spell, this one a tight, thin beam that he could feel the heat from even through his armor, scorched by overhead. He continued forward, ears twisting as he tracked his foe, kicking himself up the alley wall and flipping backwards over the beam as it scythed after him. He landed on one rear hoof, the other already lashing out to connect with his Fimbo as it rolled across the ground. The impact sent the long, metal staff flying through the air crosswise, and it collided with the remaining unicorn’s chest, eliciting a slight oof. The stallion’s spell stuttered, beam winking out.

Sabra’s hooves swept the stallion’s out from under him a moment later, and before he could even think of rising, he found the end of Sabra’s Fimbo held against his throat.

“Don’t. Move,” Sabra said, making each word as clear as possible. “I do not wish to cause you further harm, but I will if you resist.” He leaned on the tip of the Fimbo as the unicorn’s horn began to spark, and with a faint choking sound the magic winked out. The stallion’s eyes, however, spoke of a barely contained fury.

“Nice job, spec.” The words came from the end of the alley, and a moment later Captain Song appeared around the corner, his tread surprisingly quiet for such a large pony. “They play for keeps, don’t they?” Sabra followed the path of his eyes to the long, burned scorch marks the lead unicorn’s spell had carved across the alleyway.

“You are invaders,” the unicorn said. “We will drive yo—” His words cut off in a gurgle as Sabra put a slight amount of pressure against the staff.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Steel said, coming to a stop next to the unicorn. And, Sabra noted, likely purposefully making sure his heavy metal gauntlets were right next to the stallion’s eyes. “But I am curious why you think so. Congratulations scout, you’re going to deliver some intel.” He reached back around to his saddlebags, pulling out a small ring. “Just not to who you thought you were.” The unicorn’s eyes widened as the ring came into view.

“Filthy mud ponies!” he spat, apparently uncaring for the Fimbo at his throat. “You would take away that which you so desperately crave to claim from us?”

“Okay, so you’re a speciest,” Captain Song said, his voice still calm and level. “For the record, I don’t need your magic.” The ground trembled slightly, blue lines glowing across Steel’s undersuit. “Got plenty of my own. But if you want to keep yours, you really only have one choice.” He waggled the horn-ring back and forth.

“Never.” The unicorn tried to spit in the captain’s face but fell short, spittle falling across the paving stones. “My magic is my right. You cannot take away that which makes me a true servant of King Sombra.”

“Right …” Captain Song said, his voice sounding thoroughly unimpressed. The horn-ring sparkled in the light as he returned it to his saddlebags. “Well then, since we can’t count on you not knowing something that might let you escape …” He turned his eyes to Sabra. “Spec, break his horn off.”

The unicorn’s eyes went wide in a panic, horn already starting to glow. Then Sabra brought his hoof down atop it, twisting the unicorn’s head to one side. He felt the stiff keratin flex under the impact as the magic winked out, but it didn’t crack.

Yet.

“Your call,” Captain Song said. “Horn lock, or no horn. We’re not playing around.”

“Horn lock,” the stallion wheezed, tears leaking from his eyes. Sabra waited, keeping his hoof locked in place, the stallion’s head twisted at an awkward angle, letting up the pressure only when the captain was able to slide the horn lock into place. The unicorn let out a quiet whimper as it tightened into the base of his horn.

“Good.” Captain Song rose, gesturing toward the rest of the unconscious party. “Spec, why don’t you guide him back to our impromptu holding area while I take care of these two.” The unicorn’s eyes widened as the captain slid two more horn rings out of his saddlebags.

“You’re … You’re all fools,” he said as Captain Song locked the rings in place. “Our great king—”

“Is being taken care of,” the captain said, lifting both the unconscious Order members onto his back. “The sergeant is going to want to take a look at these two. Looks like you hit them pretty hard, Sabra.”

He didn’t miss the way the Order unicorn’s eyes widened at his name, even as he prodded with his staff for the stallion to stand. “When faced with a foe that would take your life, it is better to show mercy, but not so much that you lose your own.”

“Good call.” The pair of unconscious Order guards on his back, the captain motioned for them to move out of the alley and onto the main street. “Now, let’s get back to Dawn.”

“This is all for nothing,” the unicorn said as Sabra prodded him to move forward. “When King Sombra returns—”

“King Sombra lost.” The captain’s words were laced with steel, like his namesake. “In case you missed it, you’ve been gone over a thousand years.” Sabra didn’t miss the way the Order guard’s hooves stumbled. “Your ‘king’s’ final act was to seal the city away in revenge. Now he’s gone, and we’re here to clean things up.”

“Argent was right,” the stallion muttered as they walked out of the alley and onto the main street. Several hundred feet to the south, a cluster of crystal ponies were gathered around Dawn as she coached them through loading the medical supplies aboard wagons they’d procured. “Equestrians.” The words came out like a sneer.

“Who’s Argent?” Captain Song asked.

The Order member scowled, the expression barely visible from behind, but written in the slump of his shoulders. “I do not speak with Equestrians. Torture me as you may.”

Sabra raised one eyebrow and glanced in the captain’s direction. Has Equestria ever used torture? He knew the Plainslands had, though the act was distasteful. It had been viewed as a grave practice, with careful obligations and considerations to be made, even during the dark periods following the Breaking when the jackals had fought to the very last. The mental cost of torturing another sapient being was high.

But we learn to kill, an act that is also distasteful, but sometimes necessary. He shook his head. There had been entire schools of thought at the monastery dedicated to the complexities of war and civil defense, with debates that could last hours. At the time, he’d never believed that he would find himself in a situation where such debates would take on startling reality, but now they had.

“We don’t torture,” the captain said. “Not the way you would.”

“I will not speak,” the unicorn said. “I—”

“What you’ll do,” Captain Song replied, cutting him off as they neared the group. “Is enjoy a nice, magic-resistant cell to rest in while we dismantle the rest of your gang. How cooperative you are with our mission determines what—if any—leniency you’ll receive once things here have settled enough for you to get a trial.”

“Burn in the pits of Tartarus, mud pony.”

The captain shrugged, his limp cargo shifting with the movement. “Guess that’s that then.”

“You cannot lock me up,” the stallion said, his voice growing louder as they neared the crystal ponies. “Your airship has already fled! I am a member of the Order! The true king will prevail!” A few of the crystal ponies seemed to shiver at his words, their eyes turning toward the unicorn and, unless it was Sabra’s imagination, their coats growing a bit dimmer. “These interlopers will fail!” the unicorn continued. “And I will remember all of you when the time for punishment comes. Those who believe in their lies and aid the enemies of the king will be—”

Something small and wrapped in an orange glow darted out from the crowd, striking the unicorn right in the neck and cutting off his voice with a cry. Almost as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone, only a faint glimmer of orange light suggesting it had ever been there.

“What have you done!?” the unicorn cried, stepping back and rearing up. Then he stumbled to one side as if the ground had pitched beneath him. “What … have … you …” His words were slurred, drawn out, and then as they all watched, he fell to his side, unconscious.

“That’s enough of that,” Dawn said, stepping out of the crowd, an empty syringe held next to her. Her eyes flicked to the pair on Captain Song’s back. “And two more to treat, I see.”

“Low priority.” The captain shifted, dumping the bodies on the ground without any ceremony. A helmet bounced free of one of them, rolling across the ground. Crystal ponies scattered around it as if simply touching it could burn them.

Save one. The local leader that Lieutenant Hunter had spoken to, Garnet, stopped the rolling helmet beneath his hoof. Then, with a glare in the direction of the drugged unicorn, he kicked it, sending it skittering back across the ground toward the downed Order member.

An orange glow seized it halfway. “There will be none of that,” Dawn said, her sharp tone cracking across the street like a whip. Several of the crystal ponies flinched. “We’re here to liberate, not raise a mob.” Her eyes moved to Garnet. “A leader of his people should know better.”

Garnet nodded, the anger in his face vanishing. “I … apologize, Lady Triage. You are correct.” His eyes flitted to several other crystal ponies in the crowd that had also been looking on with incensed expressions. “We are not the Order.” A few of the unhappy faces in the crowd nodded.

“Sergeant,” Captain Song said. “If you’d take charge of these three and either keep them drugged or otherwise restrained until we have somewhere to put them, we’ll see about finding that place.”

Dawn nodded. “We have plenty of rope, and a number of additional horn-locks. I’ll see to it that they’re kept somewhere I or one of the crystal ponies can keep an eye on them.” She didn’t say the word “trustworthy,” but it was implicit anyway. Hunter’s warning had been heeded.

“Good,” Captain Song replied. “Sabra, with me.” The large stallion turned toward Garnet. “You’re back, so I’m guessing you were able to find a map for me?”

Garnet nodded, another crystal pony stepping up beside him, a large crystal plaque on his back. “I did,” he said, taking the plaque in his teeth and setting it on the ground. A large, geometric set of lines was spread across it, and with a slight start Sabra realized it was a map of the city. “I do not have something to mark it with, but—” The captain pulled a marker from his bag and uncapped it, the crystal pony’s eyes widening.

“Remarkable,” he said, taking the end in his lips and making an experimental mark along the side of the map before rubbing it away with his hoof. “More than anything, the casual air with which you treat such an astounding device gives credence to your words of the future.”

The captain merely nodded. “So we’re here, correct?” he asked, taping the end furthest from him with one hoof.

“Yes,” Garnet replied as Sabra moved closer, getting a better look at the map. The city was laid out like a wheel, twelve large main “spokes” radiating out from the center. Or, he realized as he looked closer at the side streets that split off, like a snowflake. The design was too clear to make it unintentional. A faint shiver crawled down his back at the thought of the snow. At least the barrier was keeping the weather out. For the time being.

“And the nearest Order offices?”

“Here, here, here, and here.” Garnet drew small circles on the corner of several intersections.

“That one’s gone, though,” the captain said, pointing. “Cross that one.”

Garnet complied, the marker squeaking against the crystal. “The rest are equidistant from what you see here, or as close to it as the Order were able to make it. Some of them may have been wiped out during the battle, however. Which ones, I cannot speak for sure. But I have sent those I trust to find out. They will be discreet.”

“Understood. What about public parks? Or those Royal Guard we spotted on the way in?”

“The park you are referring to, I believe, is here,” Garnet said, outlining a small, raised square on the map. The image of the city, Sabra realized, was etched lightly into the surface of the crystal, like an artisan had chiseled it there. “The Royal Guard I know about. They came in from the north after the Princesses made their strike and tried to take the palace. That was here.” He drew an arrow on the map. “And from what I heard before this ‘bubble’ we were in broke apart, the Order had a very large number of enforcers in that area.”

So we’ll need to be wary of them striking back, Sabra thought as the captain nodded.

“How well would one of the Order’s offices work as a staging ground for medical supplies?”

“For a small number it would be sufficient,” Garnet said. “But to supply something to the city, there are better places. I think an industrial storehouse lies on the northeast side of the city, though there exist others.” He tapped the map with the marker, but lightly enough that it didn’t leave a mark. “It depends on whether or not you want to use existing infrastructure or have the public come seeking you.”

“A question better left to Captain Armor.” Captain Song shifted. “But for what we have, would an Order office work? They have magic-resistant cells, correct?”

“They do,” Garnet replied quickly. “And it could work. It might make some hesitant to come for food or care.”

“Well, we need to tear down the banners in any case. Could you find people to hold an Order office if we took it?”

“I … believe that yes, I could. Many of the old city guard were killed in the mines, but there are a few still out there.”

Captain Song nodded. “Spread the word then. If nothing else, it’ll give us a place to lock up Order members with some security. Are these both the same size?” His hoof tapped the two closest circles on the map.

Garnet shook his head. “The one closest to us is an old civil authority station. The other is repurposed.”

“How many on duty at any given time.”

“Ah … a dozen? Perhaps more? They may be less given recent events.”

Captain Song nodded, then turned his gaze in Sabra’s direction. “A dozen unicorns, spec? What do you think?”

Sabra peered down at the map. Several blocks up, if I read this correctly, and several east. The banner should make identifying it easy. But the captain’s question had been vague. “What do I think?”

“Can a dozen Order unicorns put up much of a fight?”

Ah. He could see the way the captain’s weight was shifting. “They will,” he said, doing his best to mimic the older stallion’s grim smile. “But it will not be enough.” He hefted his Fimbo, snapping back into its folded position with a flick of his hooves. “Shall you take it? Or shall I?”

* * *

The Order guardhouse—or office, or whatever it was; the descriptors used seemed to change regularly when the captain and the others mentioned it—was clearly designed to be noticed, Sabra decided as he moved into position. Noticed, and to remind those around it that they were being watched, with its massive, banner-shrouded watchtower. It was the latter point that they were currently counting on.

Still, its design made the building quite striking. Like those around it, it had originally been built from the same crystalline material as the rest of the city, its surface a soft, glimmering sheen under the distant light of the storm. But at some point, presumably after Sombra had taken over the city, that had been added to. Thick, growths of black crystal had been grafted to the structure—or maybe grown in place, it was hard to tell where magic was concerned—climbing out of the building to form aggressive-looking spikes and thorns as they rose over the surrounding structures. Some of the growths merely ended in wicked-looking points, as if taunting a giant to come and dare to step on them, while others merged together to form the watchtower that rose above the surrounding city. Other growths, he noted as he moved closer, just seemed to be either decorative or to be pulling double duty as an attachment point for the numerous banners hanging across the structure.

Said banners, meanwhile, were clearly designed to remind the populace who was in charge. While straightforward, there was a clear motif on display across the several styles he could see. Each of them was a startling, crimson red, with the only variance being how that red was used. Several of the smaller ones simply held the image of a red, curved slash that was likely a stylized unicorn horn, while the larger ones held a similarly stylized image, but a portrait of a unicorn with a crown, plate armor, and purple magic leaking from his eyes.

Sombra, Sabra thought, flicking his eyes back up to the peak of the watchtower. The very top was dominated by an open platform, a latticework of spiky, black crystal forming a jagged-looking cup over which a unicorn clad in the red-and-black barding of the Order was staring. There had been two on duty in the tower, but one of them had darted down into the structure the moment Captain Song had come into view. And as they’d hoped, the one left was too busy keeping an eye on Steel to notice the other pony slipping closer and closer to the side of the structure.

Hunter was right, Sabra thought as he crossed another gap in the rooftops, bringing him one step closer to the base of the tower. They never look up. They were a force used to the straightforward, to a beaten-down populace. They weren’t prepared for, or anticipating, a dedicated, trained force.

Do not get ahead of yourself. He took the admonishment in stride. His training was that: Training. His experience was limited, and while the three scouts had gone down neatly, he’d held the element of surprise in each case.

There. He was almost at the base of the watchtower now. Two gaps were left between him and the side. He peered around the chimney he’d taken cover behind, glancing down the street. Captain Song was still slowly striding up it, each hoofstep loudly clashing with the pavement. He looked like a pony striding at a full march, but given that he was only halfway up the street thus far …

A simple, straightforward plan. And so far, it seemed to be working.

He took the second-to-last gap with a quick hop, not even bothering to use his mod. He wanted the battery at full power when things got moving, and he’d need enough of it in the moments to come as it was. One more gap to go. He cleared it in a rush, hooves sliding across the slick, crystalline roof of the Order office before the rubbery grip of his suit brought him to a stop. A quick look up showed no evidence of a curious ear or gaze turned his way, and he waved a hoof, Captain Song’s pace picking up shortly thereafter—not that it sounded like it.

So far, so good, he thought, co-opting an Equestrian phrase as he looked up at the watchtower’s structure, eyes tracing the best path up its length. There, he thought, picking out a particularly thick spike that looked as though it could bear his weight plus a little extra push. There … and there. Three of them, with the last one just under the lip. He’d have to use his mod carefully. Too much power and he’d end up too far above his target. Too little, and he ran the risk of wasting energy as well as exposing his position. Not that they’ve noticed so far. But then again, that was the whole point of taking a roundabout approach.

A loud crash from the street below heralded the opening of the guardhouse door, followed by a cascade of hoofsteps funneling out into the street. That’s my cue. He crouched, purple lines flaring and then mixing with red as his mod became active. He leapt, the motion nearly effortless under the strength-enhancing effects of the mod, his body sailing upwards and reaching its peak just past the top side of the first spike. He landed lightly across its base, his hooves finding purchase against the crystal, and turned, already eyeing the next one even as below, the cascade of hooves came to a stop.

Six, maybe seven ponies, he thought as he jumped again, magic-infused muscles propelling him upward and atop the second spike with ease. A glance back confirmed his guess. Seven Order unicorns were standing in front of the building, fanning out as they pointed their horns at Captain Song.

He leapt again, the needle in the corner of his helmet dropping once more. Only about a third of the battery’s charge was left. Hopefully it would be enough. He was just under the cupola at the top of the tower now. Voices echoed up from the street below.

“You there! Halt!” The lone sound of the captain’s hoofsteps echoed to a halt … but not before taking a few more steps. Sabra took another glance down. Captain Song had come to a stop a bare twenty feet at most from the fanned semi-circle of Order. “Identify yourself!”

“I am Captain Steel Song of the Equestrian Dusk Guard.” Sabra readied himself for a final, lighter leap, this one without the mod. “I hereby request your surrender in the face of overwhelming force.”

There was a smattering of laughter from below. Sabra leaped a final time, curling his hoof over the edge of the tower railing and pulling his body up and over the top, tucking his head to his chin in a tight roll. He came up with his hooves at the ready, but the lone guard left atop the tower hadn’t even flicked an ear in his direction. His attention was fixated on the tableau below, his horn faintly aglow with a spell at the ready.

“I have never heard any voice speak of this ‘Dusk Guard’ you claim to be,” echoed a reply from below as Sabra moved toward his target. “But I see no sign of this ‘overwhelming force’ either. Perhaps both are lies?”

Sabra’s Fimbo, still in its compacted state, snapped out and around the stallion’s neck, pulling him back from the edge before the unicorn could utter more than a faint choking noise. His horn was the next target, the chin of Sabra’s helmet thumping into it and sending a shudder of pain down the guard’s body even as Sabra rolled onto his back, the stallion’s legs kicking at the air.

Rest, Sabra thought, pulling the Fimbo in tighter. He had practiced the maneuver dozens of times in combat exercises, but there was always a risk to pulling it off in a real situation, even if they’d worked to make their exercises as real as possible. Rest.

“You can think that if you’d like,” Captain Song said, his voice echoing up from down below. “But I’d advise against it. Again, I’ll make my request. Surrender, or you’re all going to regret it.” Sabra could feel the unicorn’s struggles growing weaker and weaker atop him, the hooves going leaden. Then, with a final slump, the body went limp.

He didn’t let go. A very thoughtful Night Guard sergeant had shown him that before. Seconds later, the unicorn began kicking in earnest once more, but it was already too late. The body stilled at last, unconscious.

“Your arrogance is overwhelming, Equestrian.” Sabra slid the body off, already reaching for his saddlebags. “You are one to our seven. You are a mud pony from your appearance, and therefore lacking in magic, a gift each of us possesses. You are at our mercy. Bow, and we may ease our punishment at your insolence.”

He tightened the horn-lock into place, working quickly, then went to work with the unicorn’s hooves. Dawn would have used rope, but his skill with knots was … not the best. He’d opted for something else instead, something Sky had given him after the briefing: a collection of heavy duty industrial devices made of thick plastic she had called “zip ties.”

They were far easier to use than rope. Within a few seconds, he’d tied the stallion’s hooves together, both left and right to one another, and then front to rear. He wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“Last chance,” Captain Song said as Sabra moved to take the former guard’s overwatch position. The Order unicorns had fanned around him now, bodies lowered in clear-but-sloppy combat stances. Captain Song didn’t look up, but Sabra was sure he’d seen him all the same. “Surrender, or it’s going to hurt.”

He was in position. Beneath him, he could see the top of the largest of the banners, strung between two smaller spikes. That will work perfectly. He stepped up onto the railing, balancing on the edge. There was a bit of a lip between the base of the tower and the edge of the office, but that was fine. Less distance to drop.

“I have heard enough. Seize him!”

A chorus of bright flashes filled the air, magic streaking out at the captain even as Sabra tipped forward over the edge. A whitish dome snapped into being above Captain Song, the barrage of spells cracking against its edge and dissapaiting with bright flashes. Cries of dismay reached Sabra’s ears even as his hooves met the top of the banner and tore it free with a jerk. He spun, twisting himself around the banner so that he would land first as he drug it down, strength mod coming to life just before he hit.

The force of his impact had to have rattled the roof, he knew. It wasn’t enough to crack the crystal outright, but it was enough to reduce the charge in his mod to nearly zero. It didn’t matter, though. He could make the next jump without a mod.

Below on the street, the Order unicorns were letting out cries of shock and surprise at the appearance of the shield. “Focus fire!” the leader called, her voice echoing across the street as Sabra jumped once more. “Bring that shield down! Look for the—!” Whatever she was about to say was cut off as Sabra landed beside her and the two ponies flanking her, trailing the long banner in one hoof. Before her startled shout had even begun to echo across the street he was around her and her aides and back where he had started, tugging back on the banner and wrapping it neatly around the trio.

“Nova special,” he said, jumping toward the nearest unicorn and extending his Fimbo. The unicorn had barely started to react to Sabra’s sudden appearance before the staff caught him across the side of the head, sending him flying, body limp.

The second unicorn managed to fire off a single spell, which he sidestepped before bringing his Fimbo up and striking them in the chest. He dropped the staff, letting its own momentum carry it back down as he rained a quick set of strikes on the pony’s head and face. A quick kick of his rear hoof brought his Fimbo up once more, and he gave the unicorn a final blow that sent him sprawling to the pavement.

Across the street, Captain Song had gone into action as well, leaving the protection of the bubble to assault the surprised Order. One member was already down, and as Sabra watched, the captain bucked the second hard enough to lift them free of the ground and send them crashing into the front wall of the station. They didn’t get up.

Beams of light and fire began to tear through the banner, an angry snarl ripping free alongside the three unicorns it had covered. Sabra was already moving, however, and brought his Fimbo down neatly atop one unicorn’s head, clipping his horn and eliciting a howl of pain that cut off a split-second later as his head met the paving stones. Something hot and heavy slammed into his side, a sudden heat spiking through his armor and making his muscles dance as it threw him back. The electrical bolt cut out in mid-air however, Captain Song meeting the two unicorns from the other side and crashing into them with the force of a runaway train. Both went down. Hard.

Sabra was already running to meet the captain when the front door to the station burst open, several more unicorns starting to run out of it. Steel spun, ignoring the spells that flashed past him, and delivered a buck to the gut of the downed leader. She flew back through the air, her pained cries matching those of her compatriots as slammed into them, crashing them back through the doorway. Sabra was on them a second later, spinning and flipping as he lashed out at every target, the captain moving to cover him.

A minute of violence later, and the building was theirs. The orderly offices and waiting areas were trashed, battered stallions and mares lying across furniture, the few still conscious moaning as they clutched at bruised or in some cases broken limbs.

“You should have surrendered,” Captain Song said to their leader as he secured a lock around her horn. “I gave you a chance.” She said nothing in return, merely rolling her head back and letting out a faint moan at the sight of the ring cutting off her magic.

“Check the cells,” Steel said, pulling a set of crystalline keys from behind one of the desks and pointing at a wide set of stairs that headed down into the ground. “I’ll gather up the Order.”

“Yes, captain.”

“Steel will do,” Captain Song said, tossing him the keys. “Unless needed.”

He nodded. “Understood.” It wasn’t the first time the captain had reminded him otherwise, but Plainsland honorifics were different from those of Equestria. Keys in hoof, he headed down the stairs.

The brash, harsh light was what caught his eyes first. It was bright, so bright it was almost painful even through his visor, and a vivid red. It spilled over him as soon as he reached the bottom of the steps, visor tinting. For a moment he paused, confused, and then his mind reached a cause.

Psychological, he thought as he let his gaze wander across the short hallway in front of him. Six cells greeted his eyes, each carved from crystal. Or grown, maybe. He still wasn’t sure. But each had clear, crystal doors that allowed him to see what was inside.

Each was occupied by crystal ponies in what looked like various states of shock, fear, or surprise. In one cell a family was clustered around a crying foal, in another, a lone, aged crystal stallion was curled up on the cell floor, face to the back wall. The cells had a small trough in the back for taking care of what he guessed was personal business, but it was clear that none of them had been cleaned in some time. He could smell the faint rank scent of filth through his helmet.

It made him sick.

He strode over to the first cell in line, the one with the crying foal. Its parents looked up at him, their expressions broken. “Please,” one of them said, her voice cracking, barely audible. “We need water. We—” Only then did her eyes seem to register that he wasn’t one of the Order, and she shrank back slightly.

“Who are you?” her companion asked, his own voice just as dry.

“I am Specialist Sabra of the Equestrian Dusk Guard,” Sabra said, coming to a halt by the cell door. “And we’re here to liberate this city.” The pair’s eyes widened as he slipped the key into the lock, faint hope coming into their faces. The cell door opened with a heavy thunk, sliding to one side. “We would ask that you stay upstairs. Medical care will arrive shortly.”

The pair looked at the door warily but didn’t move. “How do we know you’re what you say you are?”

He nodded. They believe me to be a test. An Order game. “Simple,” he said, releasing the clasp on his helmet and sliding up over his head. “Mimi si mmoja wao. I am not one of them.” He stepped into the cell, squinting under the bright lights, just far enough that they could see who he was, see the black-and-white stripes of his coat.

“A zebra?” the stallion asked, his eyes going wide. “But …? How?”

“All will be explained,” he said, sliding the helmet back down over his head and tightening it into place. “But that can wait. For now, please go up the stairs and wait for Sergeant Triage to arrive. We need these cells.”

“For what?” The mare’s eyes still held suspicion, the foal clutched tightly in her forehooves.

“For the Order,” Sabra said, surprised at the sense of satisfaction in his words as he moved to the next cell in line. “These cells are magic resistant, correct?”

The stallion nodded. “They cut you off, soak up any excess. Drain you to power the lights. And those never shut off. Unless you’re dead.” There was a heavy sense of finality to his words. Sabra had no doubt he was speaking from first-hoof experience.

“Good.” He could feel a coal of rage burning in his chest as he opened the next cell. “Then it will be a perfect prison for them.” The three fillies in the next cell looked up at him with hopeful wide eyes, then moved past, heading for their stairs, their tails drooping.

A perfect prison, he thought as the stench of the next cell assailed his nostrils. The occupant in it had been sick and was lying on the floor, clearly malnourished. He was forced to help the stallion out with his hoof, the crystal pony too weak to walk. The fillies from the cell before it were still there, and they each took up positions around him, helping the elderly stallion down the hall and up the stairs. Captain Song—Steel—was just on his way down, a load of three Order members on him back and a grin displeasure in his eyes as he saw the state of the cells.

“Dawn’s at the end of the street,” he said as he tossed the first three into an empty cell. “She’ll be here soon. Once she gets the crystal ponies established, we’ll need to move fast. That lightning bolt do any damage?”

He shook his head. “The armor protected me.”

“Sky Bolt does good work, but have Dawn check you before you move out. Our next move is going to be a tough one.”

“Cut the head from the snake?”

“No.” Steel shook his head as Sabra opened another cell. “No, not yet. Harder, but more important. The head can wait. We need to cut the axe from their hooves …” His words echoed down the cells.

“And their limbs from the core.”

Chapter 13

View Online

A gust of wind slid into the side of The Hummingbird, sending the aircraft rolling to the side and almost pulling Hunter’s hooves out from beneath him. “Crikey! You’d think this weather couldn’t get any more crook!”

“Sorry,” Sky Bolt said as he let go of the cockpit door frame. The sudden gust had even made her wings flare out.

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” The deck beneath his feet jerked once more, and a crash echoed out of the main room. He turned to see Nova picking himself up off of the floor, a scowl on his face.

“This just gets better and better doesn’t it?”

Hunter nodded as another crack of thunder echoed through the cockpit. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better. A few of those storms will cancel one another out, but the ones that’re left? They’re going to make a right mess of things when they’re all working together. The worst of it is yet to come.” He turned back to Sky Bolt. “Speaking of which, Bolt, can you land this thing in weather like this?”

“Iffy!” Bolt called, her voice rolling over another cry of thunder. “If the wind goes down, sure. If not … there’s no way. Not without a hangar. The wind’s fighting us hard as it is!”

He nodded. Not the best news. It’ll make things right stroppy. Ahead of the airship, the winds roared around the Crystal Range, the mountains so wrapped in shear winds of snow that they appeared to have rivers moving through the air around them.

“What if you can’t land it?” he asked. “Is there any way you can deflate the envelope a little?”

Bolt shook her head. “No. I could, but we’d be grounded for days. The Hummingbird can generate a little liftgas if needed, but not enough to do something like that.”

“So you’ll have to stay aboard until the weather settles.”

“Pretty much.”

He let out a sigh. “Well … dang. Hopefully this weather lets up. Maybe you can run recon from the air.”

“Maybe. We wouldn’t be able to communicate, though.”

“I know.” Bolt leaned down and adjusted something as The Hummingbird shook again. “We could try landing on the other side of the mountains.”

He shook his head. “No. We cross the mountains, we’re out of Equestrian territory. Steel was explicit: The Ocean is off-limits. We poke our heads in there and get spotted, and we could be in a world of trouble.”

“Literally,” Nova called from the main room. “Bolt uses the ethereal crystal from up there in most of our gear.”

“How’d you know that?” he asked, turning and giving the unicorn a raised brow.

“I’ve watched her,” Nova replied. “She has me test some of the stuff out when she’s prototyping it.”

“I get it,” Bolt said, her voice loud and clear. “We violate international obligations, The Ocean stops trading with us, bad things happen.”

“That is the bad thing,” Hunter said.

“Is that why everyone’s keeping it so quiet that Blade is there on your instructions?”

His wings almost popped out before he stopped them, and he gave Bolt a stern look. “How’d you find out about that?”

She shrugged even as the airship shook again, rattling under a heavy gust of wind. “I put two and two together around the time you ended up with all that KP. Between what Steel was saying and what was going on … not too hard to figure out.”

Figures. “I guess we are supposed to be the best at what we do.” He turned and looked back at Nova. “What about—?”

“Two minutes after the meeting was over.”

Hunter frowned. “And you didn’t say anything to Steel?”

“Okay,” Nova said, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t figure everything out. I thought he knew, and the whole ‘not our job anymore’ thing was just cover. Right up until the KP. Unless that was cover too.”

Hunter shook his head. “Maybe I don’t give you guys enough credit. Is there anyone who didn’t know?”

Sky Bolt shrugged. “Dawn, maybe. Unless Nova told her.”

“I did not,” came Nova’s voice. “I figured it was ‘need to know.’ Clandestine, you know?”

“And I didn’t tell Sabra, but he might have figured it out on his own.”

“All that time you two spend together and it never came up?” Nova called.

“We’ve got plenty of better things to talk about than ramifications of Hunter’s KP.”

“I’ll bet.”

“You wanna walk home?”

Hunter shook his head, grinning as the banter between the two came to a stop, Nova chuckling. “Anyhow …” he said, grabbing the doorframe as The Hummingbird shook under a particularly violent gust. “So you won’t be able to land, but you might be able to run recon?”

“It depends on what I’m looking for,” Bolt said with a shrug. “Any ideas? And I still wouldn’t be able to talk to you outside of flashing the running lights.”

“Don’t military airships do that to communicate?”

She nodded. “Yeah, but they all have their own codes. Plus, they have colored lights.” Her face took on a darker cast, one of regret. “One more thing to add to the list of items that ‘should have been there when I built this thing.’”

“Hey,” Hunter said, resting a hoof on her shoulder. “Looking back, right?”

She nodded, the look of disappointment leaving her face. “Yeah, but it’s one more thing to put on the list of things to do.”

“That’s for after-mission reports,” Hunter said. “For now, let’s focus on the mission. About how far out are we from the glacier?”

“In this weather?” Sky Bolt flipped the maps down and checked her instruments. “Based on our current speeds … at least another hour. Maybe two. Depends on the storm.”

“How likely is it to go our way?” Nova asked from behind Hunter. He stepped aside, letting the colt into the cockpit.

“Not likely,” Bolt said as another gust shook the cockpit. “We might get a break near the edges, but …” She waggled her wings from side to side. “No way to know until we get there.”

“So then, an hour or two to figure out what you’re going to do until the weather stabilizes.”

If it stabilizes,” Nova added.

“If it stabilizes,” he corrected. “We can’t just abandon The Hummingbird—and it was never on the table,” he added as Bolt shot him a horrified look. “There’s no way we’re doing that. Best we can do is have you run recon from the air, maybe work as a mobile base? Until the weather clears and you can set her down somewhere.” He glanced down at the control panel. “She does have a searchlight, right?”

“Yeah.” Bolt reached below the controls and fiddled with something. A brilliant beam of light cut through the storm ahead of them. “I can move it too,” she added, the beam twisting and turning. “Problem is, the darker it gets and the more snow we have, the harder it’ll be, and it blinds me to everything else.”

“Still, might be useful in a pinch. Signaling or something.” He let out a sigh. “Might help if we knew what we were supposed to be hunting down and distracting.”

“King Sombra,” Bolt said, but then Nova shook his head.

“That’s who, not what,” he said, earning him a frown.

“He’s a unicorn. Steel said that much.”

“No, Nova’s right,” Hunter said. “He was a unicorn. Now he’s a ‘shade.’ Whatever that is.”

“Whatever it is, it doesn’t have a body,” Nova said.

“Right.” He nodded. “So that’s one thing we know about it. So what will it look like? A ghost? Am animated pile of sticks sort of like a timberwolf? Snow monster? Sentient cloud?” He shook his head. “And if he’s any of those things, what sort of weird powers is he going to have? Can he fly? Pass through walls? What we know is pretty shonky, and what we don’t know …”

He let his voice trail off, silence—or as close as the interior of The Hummingbird got to it—filling the empty air. Both Nova and Sky Bolt appeared to be deep in thought, though about what, he couldn’t say for certain.

“Okay,” Sky Bolt said at last. “So we don’t know what we’re looking for, outside of maybe ‘we’ll know it when we see it.’”

“Well, anything the Princesses would describe as a ‘shade’ probably would be fairly easy to connect,” Nova broke in. “And Hunter knows the local wildlife, so he could probably point out if something is out-of-place or doesn’t look right. And Steel did say that it’s a being of magic and spirit—”

“Which means my mod—I mean, the one you’re using,” Bolt said, looking at Hunter. “It should be able to track him.”

“We guessed that. That’s why I took it.”

“Right,” Nova said. “But all cards on the table. If it’s magic, I can probably figure out a spell to hurt it.”

“Figure out a spell?”

Nova shrugged. “If all else fails, hit it harder, remember? I can blast things with the best of them. It might not stop him, but it couldn’t hurt. I mean … You know what I meant.”

“If the Princesses are right, we won’t be able to stop him,” Sky Bolt pointed out. “We’re a … what was it?”

“Holding action,” Hunter said. Another gust rolled over The Hummingbird, but this time the shake seemed to be coming from the rear of the aircraft, jostling him back slightly. Maybe the wind was shifting in their favor? “We can’t beat him, and he’ll only get stronger. We’re to delay him from getting to the city as long as possible.”

“Granted,” he said. “It does sound a bit stroppy given how little we know. But the Princesses wouldn’t have sent us if they weren’t sure we could handle it.”

“So we’re back to square one,” Nova said. “What do we do with The Hummingbird.

“The mobile base idea has merit,” Hunter said. “Stay low as you can, provide light, shelter if we need it. Glaciers aren’t going to have any trees growing on them, so we’ll have plenty of wide-open space if we need it. Off the glacier, though …” His eyes slid to the world outside the cockpit and the tight, rocky spires of the Crystal Range. They looked to be pure white at a distance, but he knew better. There were plenty of trees and rock on the steep slopes.

“What?” Nova asked. “Aren’t the mountains just stone and snow?”

It was Sky Bolt that shook her head. “No, and even that’s dangerous. Winds near mountains can get really aggressive and unpredictable. The last thing we need is for The Hummingbird to get sucked into a cliff-face and shredded.”

“But even outside that,” she continued. “There are a lot of trees on those mountains. Not a huge amount, but enough that I’d be at risk of getting tangled or worse if I got too close.”

“So he’ll have cover to hide under,” Nova said. “And plenty of places to keep far away from you.”

“Again, if I can land this thing, it won’t be a problem,” Bolt added. “But remember that I also have to get back to it when we see the dome go up over the city—”

“To get Captain Song and the rest of the team,” Nova said, nodding. “I know. I’m in with what we’re doing. Just … sorting it out.”

Again the silence descended, settling over them like a cold blanket. Hunter cleared his throat.

“Okay,” he said as they both turned to look at him. “Assuming Sky Bolt can’t land then, let’s formulate a plan for working with it. We know that Sombra was sealed somewhere around the Glacier of Woe.” He reached out and tapped the map for emphasis. “The glacier has shifted and moved over the last thousand years, though, and we don’t really know if his sealing moved with it or stayed in place. The glacier is large, but it does give us a decent place to start. Plus,” he said, rubbing a hoof against his chin, “maybe a clue in the name, too.”

“In the name?” Nova asked.

“You know why it’s called the Glacier of Woe?”

“Just what Dawn told us already,” Nova said. “It got names that after the first explorer said it was moaning all the time. And that it was creepy.”

“But … don’t glaciers do that anyway?” Bolt asked. “The moaning, I mean. Not the creepy bit. Like, it’s ice moving and all that?”

Hunter shook his head. “They’ll creak sometimes, yeah. Sound like thunder another. Moaning, though? Not normal. This one sounds like ‘a soul trapped in torment.’ At least, that’s the story I heard in the Rangers.”

“A soul in torment does sound a bit like a sealed shade,” Nova agreed. “Was there any more to that?”

“Nothing useful, unless you count the fact that everypony likes to turn it into a scary story about how the moaning drove the explorer mad, and he went back and dove into a crevasse, with his haunted corpse now hunting explorers and creating the very moans that drove him mad.”

“Seriously?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “First of all, the explorer was a her, but it’s a him in the story. Second, she retired after a number of expeditions to the North Pole. She was only in the Crystal Range for training anyway.”

“You looked it up, didn’t you?” Nova asked, grinning.

“Dinkum I did,” Hunter said, stomping one hoof. “But even if the story about the explorer cracking a fruity isn’t true, the story about why the glacier is named that is. Most beings avoid the place on account of it being ‘creepy.’ Sure, there’s plenty of goss and bush chinwagging going on about the place, but when it comes right down to it? It makes spooky, creepy noises.”

“And that could be because of our guy.”

He nodded. “Yeah. So with or without Bolt on the ground, we’ll start there. If we’re on the ground, we’re going to want to be tethered. Have either of you ever been on a glacier?” Bolt and Nova looked at one another before shaking their heads.

“Right, well, it’s dangerous. Really dangerous. The ice is moving. Slowly, but it’s moving. Maybe a few inches a year. What that means is that it’s always shifting. Crevasses can open up without warning. Sometimes the ice splits apart beneath a thin coat of snow, a little slot canyon of ice hundreds of feet deep and covered only by snow that looks the same as anything else. We’ll take climbing gear: Ice axes, harnesses, and we’ll stay tethered at all times. One of us falls in, it’ll be up to whoever they’re tethered to to get them out. As well as not join them.”

“Couldn’t you just fly out?” Nova asked.

“If it was wide enough for my wings,” he replied. “And sure, I could fly over the glacier, but the wind might be so strong I’d get tired out. If we have to do things the hard way—and it’s kind of looking like we will—we’d best be ready for it.”

“So we take full survival gear,” he continued. “In fact, it might be better if Sky Bolt stays in The Hummingbird and flies support if possible, at least at first. Give us a wider look at things without tiring yourself. At least help us find what we’re looking for.” He looked at the pegasus. “You do have that searchlight.”

“And I could flash the running lights if I find something,” she said, before reaching out and flicking a switch with her hoof, the magilights on the exterior of the airship flicking off and on. “Won’t be as useful in the day, but at night …”

“No, that’s good,” Hunter said. “And if Nova and I found something, I can light a flare, or Nova could send up a flash with his horn. As far as what we’re looking for …” He shrugged. “Anything that looks suspicious. Out of place. Oddly out of place.”

“What about when we find it?”

“I don’t know.” It felt almost relieving to say the words aloud. “I mean, I wish I did, but we’re kind of flying in the dark here. I guess it depends on what we find, and what this Sombra does. For all we know, we might find a thousand-plus-year old corpse.”

“Ugh,” Bolt said, sticking her tongue out in disgust. “I hope not.”

“What would we do then?” Nova asked.

He shrugged. “Secure it and keep looking. From what we know, he’s a creature of magic and spirit. A body doesn’t mean much if he’s given it up.”

“And if we don’t find anything?”

“We keep looking until we do, or Steel says otherwise.” Another gust rolled over The Hummingbird, again pushing them forward through the air. The mountains did look a lot closer. Maybe we’re making better time than we thought.

“Still, aside from safety and searching, we need to talk about the ‘delay’ part of our mission too,” he continued after a few moments. “Which, unfortunately, until we have a better idea of what we’re up against, is kind of hard to plan for. Best I can say is ‘we keep him away from the Crystal Empire.’ If that means traps, we make them. If it means fighting, we do that. If it means distracting, we do that. How …?” He shrugged again. “Maybe you’ll have better ideas, or we all will once we see this guy.”

“Well, running fights while keeping somepony occupied were something I used to have a lot of experience with,” Nova said with a shrug of his own.

“Used to?” Bolt shook her head. “I saw the chase you led the Night Guard on during that practice game last week. “You had them crashing into each other.”

“True,” Nova said with what was probably supposed to be a humble nod, though the grin on his muzzle spoiled it somewhat. “That was fun.”

“Good point, Bolt,” Hunter said, giving the mare a grin of his own. “Which means that for tactical, in-the-moment things, Nova, I’m going to be looking to you.”

“Wait, me? Wh—?” His jaw snapped shut, Nova having clearly already answered his own question. Hunter spoke, their voices echoing in tandem. “Because I’m good at it.”

“Because you’re good at it. Rather, you’re the best at it,” Hunter added. “You know how to find the buttons to push that’ll aggro up this Sombra so he won’t even think of heading for the Crystal Empire. I’ll keep you in-check, or you’ll explain to me why doing something is a good or bad idea.”

“Sort of like how Steel handles the big things while you handle us half the time,” Sky Bolt said as she checked their heading once more.

“Right. Sort of like that.”

“All right,” Nova said. For once his expression was one of pure seriousness. “I’ll do what I can.”

“Careful, Nova,” Sky Bolt said as she slapped the maps back up into the ceiling. “You’re getting leadership on you. Stuff’s contagious.”

“There’s six of us,” Nova replied with a roll of his eyes. “And of those six, Sabra and I are the only specialists left. Even if I got promoted, who would I order around? Him? Besides, I don’t think I can get promoted. Working off my crimes, remember?”

“He’s right,” Hunter said with a bit of a shrug. “He’s probably never going past specialist. Not that he needs to. When we’re in a blue and everything’s gone bodgy, if he’s the only one who hasn’t cracked, then he’s the one I’m following.”

“All right, all right,” Sky Bolt said, holding up a hoof. “I get it. I’ve still got one more question: what are you two going to do while I go back and get the rest of the team?”

Hunter glanced at Nova. “Depends,” he said after a moment. “On what we’re up against, I mean. We’ll probably both stay, but maybe not.” He shrugged. “We’ll deal with that storm when it comes. If it’s a storm at all.”

“So … flying in the dark.”

“To be fair,” he said. “That is our job. Golems, crazy railway mares … now an ancient empire.”

Sky Bolt nodded but didn’t say anything, staring out the cockpit at the storm. Nova looked at her for a moment and then gave him a pointed look.

Hunter cleared his throat. “Something else on your mind, Bolt?”

“It’s nothing.”

Right. And I’m a Princess. “You’re staring out at nothing, corporal.”

“What if … we don’t get the call to go back?”

Ah … She was worried, then. Maybe some shades of her stress issues after the ERS thing breaking back through.

“It’ll come,” he said, giving her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Steel will come out on top.”

“Are you sure?”

He nodded. “Have some faith in him, Bolt. Steel’s been in more battles than those ponies are likely to have seen or read about. For that matter, have some faith in your coltfriend. We’ll get the call. I just hope we’re not bored out of our minds when it comes.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Nova said. “There’s an old curse that basically says ‘may you live in interesting times.’ From the Plainslands, actually. I think. But given what we could be up against, I’d rather be bored.”

“Not a bad way to look at it.” Hunter glanced back at Sky Bolt. “But Bolt, they’ll be fine. Steel’s got a lot of experience with this kind of thing. By the time Captain Armor and the rest of the Guard arrive, they’ll be lucky if they have anything left to do.” There did seem to be a little bit of relief in her eyes, though it was hard to tell.

“They’ll be fine,” he said, bringing his eyes back to the nearing Crystal Mountains. Almost there. “They know what to do.”

I just wish we had as good an idea of what was coming as those three did.

* * *

“Hey, Hunter!”

He sat up with a start, a startled “Huh?” leaving his mouth. The world came back to him in a rush. Airship. Crystal Mountains. Sombra.

“You fell asleep,” Nova was saying. He was standing by the bunk. His bunk. That was right. He’d laid down for a moment to catch up on sleep after they’d finished discussing the mission. And then …

I guess I got what I wanted. He shook his head, blinking away stickiness and letting out a quick yawn. Nova wasn’t still speaking, or shouting, so it wasn’t an emergency. “What’s up?” he asked. “We there?”

Nova nodded. “Just about. Figured I should wake you up.”

“How long was I out?”

“About twenty-five minutes.”

He blinked. No wonder he already felt awake. “That quick?”

Nova shrugged. “The storm’s finally at our backs, so we’re making some good time.”

“Right.” He shifted, rotating and glancing out the side window. A sharp, steep, craggy mountainside met his eyes, dotted with tall, stiff pines and wrapped in wind-swept white. “Yup, those’re the Crystal Mountains all right.” Snow swirled past the glass, carried past by the heavy winds, and he twisted back, rolling out of the bunk and dropping to his hooves. A twinge in his neck made him pause, and he twisted for a moment, stretching the area and feeling a welcome pop from somewhere inside.

Note to self, he thought as he picked up his helmet. Sleeping in your armor can be uncomfortable. He stretched once more, then began trotting toward the cockpit.

He saw it even before Sky Bolt spoke at his entrance. Ahead of them, the rolling, craggy shape of the mountains was abruptly terminated by a plain of dirty white, a flat, crusted surface that stretched for a mile or more between the sides of two peaks. He looked north, his eyes following the glacier as it wound back through the peaks toward its source, and then south, his eyes following it down to the end of the range, where it carved a path across the plains. Eventually, it would calve and melt, the icebergs drifting down a shallow river until they joined Neighagra Falls and the rest of Equestria.

And somewhere along that length, we’re supposed to find our pony. “How’s the wind?” he asked before Sky Bolt could say anything, his mind skipping ahead. “Good enough to land?”

“Hard to say. We’re flying smoother, but the winds along the glacier might be pretty strong. I’m not sure what I would anchor to.”

Crikey. I forgot about that. “It’s fine.” He took a glance at the dimming sky. “We’re not going to have much light anyway. I want you in the sky, keeping overwatch on Nova and I and getting a better view.”

“Are we going to sleep on the ground?” Nova asked as he stepped into the cockpit behind him, his eyes fixed on the distant glacier. “Because that looks cold.”

“Not if we can help it.” He glanced at Sky Bolt. “We’ll take our gear just in case, but if we can sleep aboard The Hummingbird, we should.”

“It’d be warmer.”

“And safer,” Hunter said, staring at the distant glacier, his eyes rolling over each crimp in the rough surface. “This is prime yeti territory. Ice-worms too. And frostwolves. And worse. The stuff rangers drive out of Equestria. We’ll sleep in the tents if we have to, but unless we have to, I’d prefer to sleep somewhere off the ground.” He pulled his eyes away from the glacier and looked closer to the airship, his eyes searching the trees and open snows beneath them.

“Binoculars,” he said after a moment, and Sky Bolt complied.

“What is it?” she asked as he stepped forward, getting a better angle on the ground.

“Is it Sombra?” Nova asked. There was a hint of excitement to the colt’s voice, because of course there was.

“No,” he said. “Yeti.”

“What? Where?”

He lowered the glasses, pointing. “Not actual yeti, but sign. Down there. There’s a clear spot where the snow’s been beaten down and branches have been broken off the surrounding trees. Yeti nest. Abandoned now, but worth knowing. They’re aggressively territorial, and very dangerous if they catch you off-guard.” As they had Swift. A faint pang echoed through his chest.

“What do we do if we encounter some?” Nova asked.

“Depends on how many of them there are.” He lifted the glasses once more, checking the surrounding terrain. “They’re doubtlessly still around, but the storm might have them seeking shelter.” It was no use looking further: The storm had made it impossible to trace any tracks from their altitude. I’d need to be down on the ground. And we’re not supposed to be tracking yeti anyway.

Unless their quarry was using them somehow. Could a shade do that? He wondered as he lowered the binoculars. Steel really should have asked more questions.

Then again, maybe the Sisters themselves didn’t know. “Either way, with luck they won’t bother us. If they do …” He glanced over at the armored unicorn. “They’re a bit like a minotaur. Bipedal. Not quite as tough. More agile, though. And really poofy fur for warmth. And a really thick skull with horns; don’t go for a head-shot if you’re not sure it’ll connect. Go for the gut. Hit hard and fast, and they’ll fall back. They’re ambush hunters, not fighting predators. They get their claws on you though …” He couldn’t quite conceal the shiver that walked down his shoulders and back like a crawling spider. “You’ve got armor,” he finished. “Hope it doesn’t cut the undersuit.”

Thankfully, Nova didn’t ask any other questions, and he gave the clearing a final look, checking for any signs of a creche or recent kill. Nothing, he thought as he lowered the glasses once more. Either it’s hidden under the trees, or they took it with them when they moved on. The airship rattled again, wind jostling it in the sky.

“Hey, Hunter.” Sky Bolt’s voice tugged him from his focus, and he turned to see her holding out a hoof, her eyes fixed on something to the north of The Hummingbird. “Hand me those binoculars.”

“You don’t have a second set?” Nova asked as Hunter complied.

“Just give,” Bolt said, peering through the glasses, her brow furrowing.

“You see something?” Hunter asked. He tried following her line of sight, but all he could make out was the long trail of the glacier heading north.

“I’m not—wait a minute.” Sky Bolt adjusted the binoculars, scowling as the airship bounced beneath her and threw her view off. “Come on … There!” She pointed with one hoof, excitement in her voice.

“What is it?” he asked, stepping around the front of the control panel, hooves on the glass, and still looking in the same direction Bolt was.

“Here,” she shoved the binoculars toward him. “You see that dark patch on the glacier?”

“Which one?”

“The one on the right side. That kind of looks like a fish?”

His eyes locked on it. Or at least, what he hoped was it. “About a quarter of the way up the mountain from us? Yeah, I see it.”

“Look to the left. You’ll see it.”

“Right.” He hefted the binoculars, the distant world blurring before growing somewhat clear once more. He had to lower them once to make sure he was looking in the right direction, but once he was sure of it, he started panning the view left until—

“Oh,” he said as he brought the glasses to a stop, trying to compensate for the juddering motion of their ride. “I think I see it. Black-looking crystal jutting out of a crevasse?”

“Yeah. Is that natural?”

“No,” he said, eyeing the distant shape. It was simple, almost straightforward. In a way, it looked like the tip of one of the crystals found in the caverns beneath Canterlot, but so dark it almost looked like it was absorbing light rather than reflecting it. “How’d you spot it?” He lowered the glasses for a brief moment; the crystal was nothing more than a faint, black speck on the glacier.

“I thought I saw something glint, like glass.”

He nodded as he lifted the binoculars again, catching sight of the crystal’s surface flashing under distant bolt of lightning. “Just saw it too. Nice catch, Bolt.”

“Is that it, then?” Nova asked. “Can I see it?”

“It’s definitely not normal,” Hunter said, holding the binoculars on the bit of crystal and then on the glacier around it. “At least, it’s not natural. I’ve never seen anything like that in a glacier before, but it could be something carried down from somewhere else.”

“That said, it is crystal.” he said, passing the binoculars to Nova. “Weird-looking crystal. Good a place as any to start looking.” He glanced at Sky Bolt. “Can you bring us down right on top of it?”

“Not on top,” she said, adjusted the controls. “But I can bring us down pretty close.”

He nodded. “Good. Let’s get to it, and go take a look.”

Chapter 14

View Online

“You want to do what?” Dawn’s voice cut through the interior of the Order station, loud enough that Sabra folded his ears back against the sides of his helmet. Nearby a number of the crystal ponies jumped or shied away, including the one that she was examining. Or, at least, he tried to, but his body was so weak he could barely manage more than a slight jerk.

“I’m sorry,” Dawn said, composing herself and looking the starved, aged stallion in the eyes. “That was not meant for you. You were right; one of your ribs is broken, and will need to be wrapped.” Her horn, already aglow, shone brighter, a long roll of some kind floating out of her saddlebags. “As for you, captain,” she said, glaring at Captain Song. “If I may speak freely—”

“Denied.” Steel’s blunt request seemed to shock the mare, the bandage coming to a stop in the air for just the barest moment. “I already know what you’re going to say. Unless you’re going to genuinely surprise me.”

“These ponies need medical attention,” Dawn said as she lifted the aged stallion in her magic, breaking off a section of the bandaging and carefully attaching it to his side. “I’m the one best-suited to giving it to them.”

“I’m aware of that, sergeant,” Steel replied, his tone losing none of its sharpness. “But they have doctors as well.”

“Doctors that are over a thousand years out-of-date,” Dawn said back, glaring at the captain while easing the bandage onto the stallions side. “Some of my materials they won’t even be able to identify, much less use, and if what we found in this station was any indication, there are plenty of other ponies who will need aid.”

“Then they’ll have to make do.” Sabra could hear from the captain’s tone that there was no brokering any argument, despite Dawn’s best efforts. In fact, from the expressions on the crystal ponies, they’d seen the same thing. “At least until Sabra and I can spare you.”

“To take on the single largest concentration of the Order left in the city?” Dawn frowned as she released the stallion from her magic. “Here,” she said, addressing him as she floated one of the medical kits over. It was sealed with blue tape “Take this,” she said. “There’s food and water in it. Eat slowly, starting with the plainest of things. Your system might go into shock otherwise.”

The stallion nodded and slid off of the desk, Sabra stepping up beside him in support as his aged hooves met the floor. The crystal pony gave him a nod of thanks before taking a few shaky steps, and a few crystal ponies rushed out of the crowd to give him a hoof.

“Dawn, you’re a fine doctor, but you’re not a commander,” Steel said. “We have to meet the Order’s largest power-base head-on now. I’m giving you a direct order.”

“As medical authority—”

“Then hear me out,” Steel said, stepping right in front of her. “Charging the Order head-on may sound crazy, but you want to help these ponies, right?” He waved a hoof at the crowd.

“I do.”

“How will you help them when the Order forms up and pins us in here?” he asked. “They outnumber us. We can’t play defensively. You understand medicine, Dawn, but I understand war. If we don’t hit them now, they’ll cut us off. Then you won’t be treating anyone.”

“And you’re suggesting attack them in turn?” she asked.

“It’s the only way to keep from getting pinned down. We let them surround us here, we give them control over the engagement and weight things in their favor. We need to pick them off before they get rolling, or they’ll crush us with overwhelming force. And to do that, I need all of my team members. Not just myself and Sabra. If you invoke medical authority to stay here, you help a few ponies to leave the rest of the city in a lurch.”

“We need to take the offensive and keep their counterattack off-balance,” Steel continued. “If we take out the majority of their forces, they only have two options: Retreat into their strongholds like this station, at which point we can pick them off freely, or gather their remaining forces for a final push. Either option gives the ponies of this empire more freedom to move and act on their own. As well as allows you to treat those who truly need it, and somewhere more appropriate, like a hospital.”

Dawn stood for a moment, her forehead wrinkling with thought.

“Dawn,” Steel said, his voice growing slightly softer. “You know I’m right.” For a few moments more, the mare was silent, but then she nodded.

“I apologize, captain,” she said, inclining her head slightly. “I was … out of line.”

“No,” Steel said, shaking his head. “You were in line. You’re a doctor foremost. It’s just right now I need you to be a warrior before you can be a doctor.”

“I understand.” She glanced around the station. Many of the desks had been shoved aside to make room for the crystal ponies crowding into the place, and most of them were looking at the team, waiting silently. Sabra couldn’t help but notice how many of them looked … broken. Their shoulders were slumped, their ears laid back. Even their coats seemed to be dull, like a piece of glass that had been smudged by too many hooves. “I’ll go speak with Garnet. I’ll need to leave someone with medical authority in charge.”

“Three minutes,” Steel said, nodding. “Then we move.” Dawn nodded, snapped a salute, and trotted away.

“Captain Song,” Sabra said, waiting until Dawn had slipped out the doors, the line of crystal ponies waiting to be treated beginning to break up.

“Hold on,” Steel said, pointing at the line. “Where are you folks going?”

“You’re leaving,” one of the crystal ponies said, a dejected expression across her face. “And you’re taking the doctor with you. There’s no point in—”

“Stay right there,” Steel barked, freezing the breaking line in place. Sabra caught a hurried “Of all the—” muttered under the captain’s breath. “Yes, we’re leaving. But the doctor will be leaving her supplies and tasking some crystal ponies to look after your injuries. And unless I miss my guess, you’ve all been lined up by severity of injury and need of treatment. So stay in line and wait to be treated.”

“But the Order—” another pony began, fear in their eyes, only for the captain to cut them off.

“Isn’t going to be a problem much longer. That’s why I need my sergeant. So stay where you are,” Steel said with a stomp of his hoof. “That’s an order.” The crowd flinched at his words, but sank back into place. Sank, Sabra noticed, being the operative word. Captain Song, meanwhile, turned and marched for the door, and he fell in beside him.

“Was that the wisest course of action?” he asked as soon as they’d passed out of the front door. The steps were clear, though the street in front of the station wasn’t. Garnet appeared to have been speaking honestly when he’d spoken of his role as a local leader. Though he had since been joined by two other crystal ponies, one of whom had been in the cells of the Order station. All three were currently speaking with Dawn, several other crystal ponies nearby clearly waiting their turn. Their coats seemed a bit shinier than they had been earlier, but maybe it was the light.

“It wasn’t ideal,” Steel replied. “But neither was letting the ones most in need of medical care at the moment go limping home because we couldn’t treat them.” He deviated to the side, away from the cluster of crystal ponies and equipment. “Now,” he said, his voice lowering. “About that list. Did you find it?”

Sabra nodded and reached into his saddlebags and pulled out a small scroll. “In the desk of whoever was in charge of the station.”

“No magic?” Steel seemed surprised.

“The lock was magic,” Sabra said. “So I broke the desk.” Said lock was still sitting untouched on the floor of the office. “But this appears to be the list you were looking for.”

“And?” Steel asked, unrolling the scroll and taking a quick look at it.

“Garnet does not appear anywhere,” Sabra confirmed. “Unless he lied to us about his name, or the names on that list are merely cover—”

“I hope not, but I’m glad you thought of that.”

“—he would appear to be who he claimed to be.”

Steel nodded, but Sabra didn’t miss the way some of the tenseness in the stallion’s shoulders seemed to flow out. The list wasn’t a perfect confirmation, but it was a strong suggestion that the crystal stallion could be trusted to be who he said he was. “Well, I don’t know any of the names on this list,” the captain said after another few moments looking at it. “But I’ll bet he does.” He rolled the scroll back up. “What about the other list we were hoping to find?”

Sabra nodded. “This one wasn’t even sealed.” It wasn’t on a scroll either; it had simply been a piece of paper atop one of the desks. Old paper, rough in texture, but paper nonetheless.

“‘The weekly watch list,’” Steel read as Sabra passed the paper to him. “Garnet’s not on this one, either.”

“It is a weekly list,” Sabra pointed out. “This name, however,” he said, pointing at a name that had been crossed out about halfway down the list. “I know.”

“You do?”

He nodded. “They were one of the ponies in the cells. I heard their name called as they left.”

“So, weekly shake-down and watch list, maybe.”

“Or the Order discovered something they didn’t like.”

“All right.” Captain Song slid both the scroll and the sheet of paper into a pocket on his saddlebags. “Best we can do right now is pass this information on to Garnet and see if he has the ability to do anything with it. If not, we can pass it to Armor and his Guard when he arrives. We should assume that at least one of these collaborators has already split to inform other Order members about us. We might be able to use that.”

“Anyway,” he said with a shake of his head. “Wait here. I’ll go speak with Garnet.” He strode toward the crystal pony leader, the ponies around Garnet backing away slightly as Steel approached. Dawn had already broken away, and was currently leading a trio of crystal ponies into the station. Which meant at the moment there was nothing for Sabra to do but …

Wait, he thought, ears flicking as he shuffled through the various conversations around him. Most were subdued, but here and there he heard a spark of hope and spirit. Much of it seemed to be coming from the ponies they’d released from the Order’s cells.

I wonder if there were ponies inside that other Order station that Hunter attacked? The collapsed one? If there had been, hopefully the cells had been safe from the destruction visited on the upper floors.

He let his eyes drift to the skyline, up to the central tower and the red banners hanging from it. Smoke still hung over some parts of the city, though it was lessening. Ponies in those areas were getting control over the damage done from the battle between Sombra and the Princesses.

He shuddered. What must that have looked like? The Princesses were immortals, possessing great power and capability. To be brought to a standstill, almost, by a mortal? The city is lucky it is in as good a shape as it is. Then again, knowing the Princesses, they had done everything in their power to make sure that damage to the city had been kept to a minimum.

A minimum was not none, however. That was simply the way of things when war between powers arose. “All bear the scars,” an ancient minotaur philosopher had said. Granted, he’d followed a moment later with “So make certain that your enemy sees yours so that he knows how much you have survived.” Not subtle, but given the conditions of the burning lands the minotaurs called home, not unexpected.

This city will bear some scars, Sabra thought, watching as Steel began to show Garnet the scroll, keeping his voice low but not so low that it seemed suspicious. Garnet, on the other hoof, had no such reservations. His eyes widened in shock as he took the list in his hooves, and he sank back on his haunches. One of the nearby crystal ponies, a mare, began to back away, her own eyes going wide as Garnet turned to look at her.

She bolted, and Sabra leaped, his undersuit flashing with red-purple lines as he sailed across the street. He twisted in the air, bringing his Fimbo around and extending it even as he landed right in front of the mare. Her shock at his abrupt entrance only stunned her for a moment, and she jumped to the side, trying to dart around him. He didn’t even have to look as he stuck his staff between her hooves, tripping her and sending her sprawling to the ground.

“No!” she shouted, her hooves skidding over the crystal stones as she struggled to get back up. Sabra planted a hoof between her shoulder blades, pressing her down as Steel and Garnet rushed over. “No! Let me go! You cannot do this!” She lashed out with her forehooves, but the blows bounced off of Sabra’s armor with almost no impact.

“Amethyst,” Garnet said, and the mare quieted as the crystal stallion locked eyes with her. “Your mother would be ashamed.”

“My mother could not see the truth. Neither do you, Sterling,” the mare said, her physical protests ceasing as Sabra zip-tied her front hooves together. “We are the wellsprings of magic. King Sombra is a pony who can use that wellspring, and if we go along with it, make all our lives better. Have you forgotten why we were forced to flee to this wretched waste in the first place? To fend for ourselves? Sombra gives us the power we lack!”

“Power we lack only because he took it,” Garnet said, shaking his head. “And the heart.”

“The heart was weak. Under his hoof, we will be made strong. You may bow before foreign invaders, but I will not.” She snapped her jaw shut with a sharp click, glaring at Garnet as if daring him to disagree.

“If you want my advice, lock her up in the cells downstairs and sort it out later,” Steel said. “Just make sure you’re not trying to put her in one that we left the Order in. They might try to break out if they see we’re not around.”

“You should consider a guard as well,” Sabra added. “Or keep the keys on your own person.”

“Or both,” Steel said, nodding as he pulled Amethyst to her hooves. Only slightly roughly. The nearest crystal ponies were watching, Sabra noted, but most of them seemed to have already gone back to what they were doing in helping sort Dawn’s supplies.

They’re used to it, he realized as he and Steel began guiding the crystal mare back toward the Order station. She was holding her head high, as if she’d been vindicated somehow. Somepony getting pulled off of the street. Just another day for them, perhaps? It was a sobering thought.

“Captain,” Dawn said, stepping out of the doors as they approached. Her eyebrows rose, but she gave no other sign of being bothered by the pony between them. “Arrangements have been made. I am ready to move out on your command.” Only then did she bring up their quarry. “Problems?”

“Collaborator,” Garnet said, his glower adding more weight to his words than his tone. “One of several, it would seem, though I have not seen some of the others on the list in quite some time. We’ll have to check their homes. Captain, if you need to depart, we can take care of her. You already have her restrained.”

“Can you handle the other collaborators as well?” Steel asked. He stepped away from Amethyst, and Sabra followed his lead. The mare balanced for a moment before Garnet caught her.

“Not alone,” the crystal pony admitted. “But with the list you gave me, and a few friends ...”

“Some of them may not be believers like this mare here,” Steel said, gesturing at the restrained pony. “Some will be taking bits. Others will be collaborators of circumstance, or because of threats to a loved one. Be careful.”

“Careful?” Garnet let out a laugh. “You leave to take on the mass of Sombra’s Order in combat, and you speak of taking care? It is you and your team that should be careful, captain.”

“Send word to the surrounding areas to be ready,” Steel said to Garnet. “We’ll clear out the Order, then the streets are theirs.”

“Best of luck be with you, Captain Song,” Garnet said, even as Amethyst scowled her displeasure. “And with you as well, Sergeant Triage and … Specialist …” He said the word slowly, as if he were unfamiliar with it. “... Sabra.”

Or perhaps it is just his shock at seeing me to be a zebra, Sabra thought as he gave the stallion a nod. “Bahati njema.” He was glad for a moment that his helmet hid the smile on his face at Garnet’s confused look.

“Dusk Guard, move!” Steel’s command snapped him to attention, and he spun, rearing. All three of them charged out of the station, hooves drumming down the steps and against the paving stones.

Somepony cheered. He wasn’t sure who. But a moment later it was echoed by another. Then another. And another, and the street itself—no, the whole block—was coming alive with cheers as they ran down its length. Doors opened as curious ponies, hiding up until that moment, poked their heads out, ears perking and a faint shimmer moving across their coats as the cheers seemed to roll over them just as much as they did the team.

Then the moment was over, Steel turning them down a side street to cut west across the city, and the faint cheers faded. Still, he had to admit that it had brought with it a good feeling.

Hope, Sabra thought as they ran. We’ve brought them hope. A spark of luster, but a powerful one. An ancient sage had once said that without hope, there could be no faith. No belief. Even faith in themselves, Sabra thought as Steel turned again, taking them south.

There was something else that sage had said about faith and what it could become, what it could do, but he couldn’t recall what it was at the moment.

“Captain,” Dawn said as they turned down a smaller, more narrow street, heading west once more. “I can’t help but notice that you’ve not filled us in on a plan yet. Outside of meeting the Order head on.”

“You’re right,” Steel said, slowing at last, but only to a light gallop. “I haven’t. Or rather, I didn’t. Because I lied.”

“What!?” Dawn snapped her head back. “You—”

“Easy, sergeant,” Steel said. “You’re a doctor. I didn’t entirely lie. We couldn’t stay there and afford to get surrounded. That much is true. And we do need to take down the Order’s power base, which right now is measured in ponies.”

“But …”

“Hang on,” Steel said, glancing in Sabra’s direction. “Sabra can explain it, I’d imagine.”

I can? The hesitation was only with him for a moment before his mind cleared, the captain’s behavior falling into place. Of course I can. “We didn’t have the list of collaborators when the captain announced his plans,” he said as they ran down the street. “Anypony could have been listening in.”

“And running to tell the Order exactly what we were up to,” Steel said, nodding. “Good deduction, Sabra. So we let them know what we want them to know.”

“I understand,” Dawn said. “Misdirection. So we’re not going to strike at the Order army? Will we go for the palace instead?” She nodded at the towering structure at the center of the city. “Take their leadership?”

“It’s not an army, but we are still going after it,” Steel said with a shake of his head. “The lie was meeting them head-on. As confident as I am in our combat capabilities, the rumors Garnet was hearing puts their group at around forty or fifty ponies. Ponies tough enough to take on ancient Royal Guard. Sure, they might have had numbers, but they’re still part of Sombra’s army.”

“So what will we do then?” Dawn asked.

Steel’s eyes suggested he was grinning as he turned to look at Sabra. “Spec?”

Sabra nodded. “We divert. Distract. Divide and conquer.” Old strategies, but effective.

“Exactly.” Steel changed directions once more, this time taking them further north. “Meeting them head-on would be a gamble. I don’t like that. So we cheat. We break the odds in our favor. We pull them apart, cut them off, keep them off-balance.”

“And then strike and deliver the push that brings them to the ground,” Sabra said, nodding.

“Exactly.”

“Very well,” Dawn said. Was it his imagination, or did she look slightly perturbed? “How are we going to do this?”

“Easy,” Steel said, slowing as he turned them into a narrow alley. Ahead of them, several streets away, another Order watchtower poked above the buildings. “We give them a distraction. Several, in fact. Right now, the guard on the roof of that tower has probably seen us coming. And, unless I miss my guess …” As if on cue, a sequence of lights began flashing from the top of the tower.

“Communication lamps,” Sabra said, nodding as he saw the tower for what it was. The Plainslands had used a similar method for centuries.

“Or a horn,” Steel agreed, nodding. “If I’m recalling the map right, we’re still a good mile or so south of … let’s just call them the enemy force. If there’s one thing that’s nice about a large enemy force, it’s—”

“Easy to spot?” Dawn suggested.

“And even harder to move,” Steel answered. “Entire commands have made careers out of not being the best at battle, but being the first to move when the battle was joined. Smaller squads with more independence are more flexible, which is why behind-the-lines operations and flanks can be so effective.”

“Is that what we’re doing?” Dawn asked. “Flanking?”

“No, but that’s what we’re going to make them think,” Steel said, reaching into his saddlebags and pulling out a flare. “Then we move again.” He held the flare out toward Sabra. “Think you can get up into another watchtower without being seen?”

Sabra smiled. “Absolutely.”

“Good,” Steel said, motioning with the flare. He took it. “Knock the guard out, then roll him and the flare down the steps to the tower. After you’ve lit the flare. Then shut the hatch.”

“Thus making the building leak smoke and appear to be on fire,” Dawn said, nodding.

“And?” Steel prompted.

“And even if the Order inside it deals with the problem, even if they’re able to send a message, our foe will have wasted time changing direction.”

“Stringing them out across the city,” Steel finished. “You got it. You deliver the flare, Dawn and I will run interference.”

Sabra snapped a quick salute and slid the flare into his saddlebags, checking to make sure it was secure before moving down that alleyway at a quick gallop. He had flares of his own, but since the captain had volunteered one of his own …

I’ll have to stay low, he thought as he broke across the street, moving quickly for the businesses on the other side. Their doors were closed, shades pulled down tightly over windows. Thankfully, there was another alley to one side, a narrow passage between the structures that likely led to side doors. He took it.

It ended in a wall, deliberately or incidentally, he didn’t know. But it was low enough that he didn’t even need to engage his mod, his own power and the boost of his suit more than enough to see him rise up and over it. He landed in a run, already moving out of the alley and into the next street over.

The watchtower was close now. As was the unicorn at its peak, watching him. He had been noticed.

Good. His being there would lead more credence to the watchtower being under attack.

The unicorn’s horn was flashing again, and he was shouting something. A moment later he vanished from view, more shouts echoing from the top of the tower. It was easy enough to pick out the words “Alarm!” and “Make ready!” as he ducked into an alley once more, the street that met the watchtower directly ahead.

He cut to the side, keeping himself up against a wall as he ran. They’d be able to tell from the sound of his hoofsteps that he was still moving, but hopefully the echoes would keep them from knowing to where.

All he needed to do was get close enough to use the mod. Even if the unicorn at the top of the watchtower saw him coming, there wouldn’t be much he could do about it once he was close enough. Unless he was really powerful.

The shouting atop the tower was taking on a more worried tone, now. The watchpony reacting to their loss of vision on his position. He changed direction again, cutting between two homes as he made for the street. A flash of movement to the side caught his eye—a stunned crystal pony peering out their window in shock at the sight of his armor-clad form leaping past.

He grinned. Keep watching, and you will see far more.

“There!” A bolt of magic shot down from the tower, but he could tell by the angle it wasn’t any threat. The lead was far too poor, his speed to great. There was a sharp hiss from behind as the bolt slammed into the stone, and then he was in an alley once more, several buildings over from the station, walls extending above him.

Exactly what he needed. He kicked out once, then twice, then a third time, rear hooves propelling him upward first from the ground, then from the walls, the final shove pushing him up above the roofline and sending him skipping across the roof of the building, heading for the base of the tower.

Better yet, the move had clearly caught the watchpony off-guard. They were looking to the rear of the alleyway he’d ducked into, horn aglow and at the ready. The surprise wouldn’t last, however. He could already see the unicorn’s ears twitching in his direction, honing in on his movements from the sounds he was making. A turn of the head would follow shortly.

He made his choice in an instant, the purple-lines across his undersuit taking on a reddish-tinge as he activated his mod and shoved, using the edge of a roof to push himself forward. The bound carried him far further than it would have normally, rocketing him forward through the air and over an entire building. He used the next to try and bleed the momentum, skidding across the crystal roofing and managing a hop that carried him across the gap between it and the station roof. Another cry of surprise from above told him that his gambit had worked, though a quick check of the battery level in the corner of his helmet showed that he’d burned a quarter of the mod’s charge with the stunt. Getting up or down had just become a bit more difficult.

He stayed moving, darting around the base of the watchtower and then doubling back before committing to an upward leap that brought him to one of the lower spikes. Another quarter of the battery gone. Another leap, and he was almost at the peak. There was enough charge for one more jump, but after that, the battery would be drained. Getting down would prove interesting.

That journey could wait, however. He took the final jump, aiming for the lip of the tower rail—

A greenish-blue glow snapped into place around him, stalling him only for a second as he slipped past it, but still enough to rob him of his upward momentum even as a shocked cry came from the cupola. He reached out with one hoof as the glow broke apart, catching a protrusion on the side of the tower and heaving with all his might to save what little he could of his last leap.

It was enough. His hoof caught the edge of the rail, and he pulled himself up and over, bringing his other hoof up to guard his face just in case the unicorn had recovered as quickly as he had.

They hadn’t, but only in speed. The second his hooves touched the platform the unicorn charged at him, howling as they brandished a short, brutal looking club in their magic.

His Fimbo was still on his back. He jumped to the side, dodging the first blow, only to have the truncheon switch directions mid-swing and come after him. He blocked it with his forelegs, the impact rolling up his limbs but not enough to cause serious injury.

The truncheon changed directions once more, flipping in the air and coming back far quicker than it would have when handled by an ordinary pony. Magic at work. Powerful and useful, but not something he or the others had neglected training for.

He ducked under the next blow, then jumped up, catching the club with his shoulders as it went past above him and knocking it upward. The unicorn let out a short cry of surprise, horn flashing as they tried to compensate for the abrupt change in direction. By the time they’d regained control, however, Sabra was already moving across the watchtower, forehooves at the ready. Eyes widened, and then his hoof crashed into their chin, the glow around their horn winking out as they flew into the far railing. The truncheon bounced off of his shoulders and skipped across the platform, the magikinetic presence that had been holding it in place gone.

To his surprise, the unicorn did try to rise on shaky limbs, and he gave them two more quick blows to make sure they were down before dragging them over to the central hatch. Like the other tower he’d taken, the inside was dominated by a tight, steep spiral staircase. Unlike the last tower, however, the stairs in this one were occupied. By two other unicorns wearing red-and-black barding, both looking up at him with visible surprise.

“Intru—!” one of them began, horn lighting, only for the body of their comrade to crash into them, cutting off the cry and the magic as all three began tumbling down the steps, crashing out of sight. The trio were followed a moment later by the flare, bouncing down the steps behind them, spitting light and smoke. He shut the watchtower hatch, then after a moment’s pause, slid the heavy iron latch shut from the outside. Smoke was already drifting free out of the cracks. Hopefully the inhabitants of the tower would be in too much chaos to do much about it too quickly.

He could hear fighting in the street. The interference the captain had promised. But it was interference, not an outright assault. The sounds were already retreating. He had his window.

The mod was still only partially charged. He glanced over the side of the watchtower long enough to see that Captain Song and Dawn were retreating east, and then jumped, aiming for one of the larger support spikes. His hooves slipped a bit as he landed, and he shifted his weight as he dropped again, aiming for the next one. Again he skipped off of the side, his armored hooves sliding over the slick crystal and speed increasing as he dropped again. He missed the third spike he’d wanted to land on entirely, overshooting and falling past it. The roof of the station rushed up at him.

He activated his mod, strength pulsing through him as the roof neared.

The impact was enough to jar his teeth, his four hooves slamming into the crystal hard enough he was surprised the material didn’t crack, even as he did his best to redirect the momentum into a forward roll. It worked … sort of. The impact wasn’t quite enough to knock the breath from him, but as he came out of the roll and jumped the gap to the next roof, he could feel a dull ache mixed with a stinging sensation rolling up his hooves like a slow tide. Once the stinging faded, he’d want to check for any real injury, but at the moment nothing felt damaged.

He risked a glance back at the station as he ran, and was met with the sight of smoke drifting out of the tower and into the air. Hopefully it had the intended effect. Even if the occupants were able to signal the rest of the towers, it would still keep the larger Order force off-balance.

In fact, the smoke looked quite thick. A lot thicker than he would have expected from a single flare. He slid down the roof of the next building, catching sight of the captain and Dawn waiting in a nearby alleyway.

“It’s done,” he said as he ran up to meet them. “Though there is more smoke than I expected.”

“Flares burn pretty hot,” Dawn said. “It may have set something on fire.”

“Or those three fire spells you threw through the front door as we left might have had something to do with it,” Steel added.

Dawn shrugged. “The door was open. If we’re not going to take down the station or secure it, I figured it might as well be even more convincing.”

“No, it was a good idea,” Steel said, nodding. “Let’s do it at the next one if we can too. The more tied-up these towers get, the easier our job will be, and the more strung-out that large force will end up.”

His eyes shifted to Sabra. “You good?”

He tested his hooves and then nodded. “No injuries.”

“Good. The next station is about a half-a-mile to the north, and east of here. Let’s get moving.” He turned and began galloping down the alleyway without waiting for a reply, and Sabra settled into a steady gallop alongside him, Dawn matching their speed on Steel’s other side.

Behind them, a cloud of smoke bled into the sky.

* * *

They were nearing the third watchtower, the second having gone down much in the same pattern as the first, when they finally saw signs of their foe reacting to their efforts. Sabra almost came to a stop, his first instinct to duck back into the alley they’d just left, but then Nova’s training took hold, his movement continuing across the street. A sudden change of direction is more noticeable than motion that follows the same course. Or something like that, anyway.

He reached the alley on the far side, less an alley than it was a space between two homes, and looked back across the street. Dawn and the captain were just coming through the alley he’d left, charging at a hard gallop. He held up both his hooves, waving for the pair to stop, then pointed down the street he’d just crossed in the direction of the marching Order group.

The pair came to a halt, Steel nodding to show he’d gotten the message, and then crouched, putting his body low to the ground before peering around the corner. A moment later he pulled back, rose, and waved to Dawn. Both of them ran across the street in a quick, almost furtive manner.

“Looks like about a dozen or so of them,” Steel said as he entered the alley. He glanced around the corner again. “None of them appear to have noticed us. Or care if they did spot us. Then again, we do look a bit like oddly-colored crystal ponies at a distance, wearing all this armor.”

“So they’re moving to reinforce the next watchtower?” Dawn asked.

The captain nodded. “Looks like it.”

“Should we go elsewhere then?”

“What? No!” Steel shook his head. “We run ahead and hit it before they show up. Show them they’ve got reason to be splitting. Then we circle back in the direction of the Guard and start taking down any Order we find.”

“Understood,” Dawn said as they began to move forward again. “Then we will need to move quickly. The watchtower isn’t—”

A rumbling, low tone rolled through the city, so low Sabra almost felt he could feel the crystal vibrating beneath his hooves. It was long and loud, like the largest horn he could ever recall hearing, and as he looked around, trying to find the source, he saw it.

The peak of the crystal … tower? Palace? Whatever it was, it was glowing, light pulsing from deep within the structure. As he watched, beams of light began to shine up around it, and then, to his great surprise, a giant head took shape in the air, the head of a grey unicorn with dark eyes and a shawl of white fur around his neck. His horn, Sabra noted, had been dyed red. The image was slightly transparent, clearly a spell of some kind, but it was there. Then, it began to speak.

“Citizens of the Crystal Empire.” The voice echoed all around them, so loud it seemed to almost come from the very stones. Beside him, Steel and Dawn had come to a stop, both also staring at the titanic image floating above the crystal spire.

“By now you may have heard the rumors,” the voice continued. “Voices that flit through the city like bats on a summer storm, bringing with them fear and discontent. You may have heard that our King, Lord Sombra, has fallen. That this grand city itself was thrust away from the world for a time, and now that we have returned, Equestrians walk the city streets.”

“These words are lies,” the figure said, eyes narrowing to slits. “Our king has not fallen, and will soon return to us from his battle with the immortal tyrants. This city has not fallen through time, but stands as a testament to its people and of its king. What we saw was our mighty king exhausting his very self to protect us all from the wrath of the immortals.”

“And these ‘Equestrians,’ while real, do not freely wander the streets of our mighty city. They slink from place to place, like rats carrying disease, striking where they can and retreating to the shadows like craven wretches, seeking to bring our great city down from within. They are enemies of the natural order,” the unicorn continued. “Any who would aid them or seek to grant them shelter should be warned: To turn against the ponies of this city, against our great ruler, is treason, and a high price will be had for those found guilty of such crimes.”

“The Order is strong,” the voice continued. “We stand as one, and against these unrighteous aggressors, we will stand firm. Those who do not shy from their place or their role in the natural order of things find great honor and reward in holding strong, and together, the order will overcome all who would seek to weaken it.”

“If you see these ‘Equestrians,’ avoid them. They mean you harm, they mean the ponies of this city harm. They will tear down everything we have risen to if given the chance, in the name of false tyrants born to power and privileges abused. They are violent and dangerous. Stay indoors, or alert your nearest watch station. Do not speak with them. Do not trust them.”

“United, the natural order will stand strong.” The image of the unicorn winked out, the bright glow of the crystal palace beneath it fading.

“Their ‘natural order’ sounds a lot like speciesism,” Dawn said, her tone clearly shoved through a jaw tight with anger. “Remind me when we take the tower again?”

“After we’ve dealt with their other allies,” Steel said, his own tone sounding somewhat dark. “But you’re not wrong. Still, we can deal with them later. Let’s get moving and—”

“You there!” A loud voice from behind them cut the captain off. A unicorn in red-and-black barding was standing just inside the end of the alley. “What business do you—?” His voice cut off in a gasp of strangled surprise, eyes going wide with realization. “You—!”

An orange glow settled over his body, cutting off his yell and then yanking him forward with a suddenness that seemed to shock him further. He came to rest in the air before Dawn, her horn glowing so brightly with orange that it seemed to fill the small alleyway, and then the stallion’s eyes rolled back, the body going limp in the air.

“Oww …” Dawn said, rubbing at her horn with one hoof as soon as she’d lowered the stallion to the ground. “I’m not used to that much magic rushing through my horn at once.”

“Don’t burn out,” Steel said, kneeling next to the body. “Unconscious?”

She nodded. “A silence spell so he couldn’t shout, followed by basic magikinesis—though in large force—and a sleep spell usually used before applying an anesthetic. He’ll awake soon, though due to the mod I’m not sure how soon.”

“Do you have anything that can keep him unconscious?”

“Nothing that I wouldn’t rather keep in case one of us needs it.”

“Right,” Steel said with a nod before looking at Sabra. “Scout ahead. Stay down, don’t get caught. Then rotate back for us. We’ll shove this guy someplace he won’t be found and catch up, before his comrades come looking for him.”

“Good idea,” Sabra heard Dawn say as he turned and ran for the end of the alley. “One of their own just disappearing should bring a little fear into their minds. That I can get behind.”

He passed the next street at a run, only barely catching a glimpse of the Order one street down as he did so. They appeared motionless. Maybe they’re waiting for their scout.

Or, he thought, another of the team’s lessons coming into his mind. Maybe they’re an illusion, and they’re moving on the three of us already. He slowed, ears coming up at the alert. The Night Guard team that had pulled that trick had declared it one of limited use, but useful nonetheless.

Still … he wasn’t hearing anything. Not that it meant there wasn’t an invisible assassin lurking around, the sound of their passage hidden by magic. But that meant more than one spell, or a heavily-specialized spell, at least according to what he knew of magic. And true invisibility was difficult.

It is a shame Hunter took the magic-detecting modification with him, he thought as he moved forward. It would be most helpful right now.

Then again it would likely give away his own position away at the same time. But if it came down to being surrounded by invisible, silent enemies and relatively hidden, and knowing about said enemies but knowing where they were …

He shook his head as he crossed another street. He was letting himself get distracted. Stay focused. Scout the route ahead. If the group he’d seen were indeed the actual Order ponies, then they were waiting for the moment, though likely not for much longer. Though if they wanted to find their missing member, they’d either have to divert or split up.

Either approach would work well for us, Sabra thought as he jumped a small fence, cutting through what looked like a meager, half-starved garden. The more divided they become, the easier it will be to cut them down. Like a scythe through a field of grain.

He hopped the fence on the far side, darting across the next street and into another alley between two homes. It was fairly wide, more an extension of the street than anything else, with space for perhaps a single cart, but it was an alley nonetheless.

The watchtower was only a few blocks away, rising above the surrounding homes like a lonely pine atop a mountain of bare rock. It was shorter than the other towers they’d seen so far, though it appeared to have the same number of spikes. Perhaps it sits atop a shorter building? It made sense, given the number of tight homes around him. The area was clearly residential.

Where did they get their food? he wondered as he moved closer to the tower. His eyes had caught sight of a few empty-shelved markets as they had moved through the city, but nothing so much as resembling an agricultural base. Was it imported? Outside the city and left behind when the seal fell?

I hope we don’t save them only to see the city collapse in starvation. He chased the thought from his mind almost as soon as it had come. The Princesses wouldn’t stand for that.

The watchtower was getting closer, and he began to slow, picking his route with greater care. A block from the station he stopped, waiting and glancing back to see if the captain and Dawn had found their way to him, or if he would need to return. He waited, watching, only for a faint tap to reach his ears.

He turned, alarmed at first, only to lock eyes with a curious-looking crystal pony filly standing at a nearby window, one hoof holding the cloth that had covered it back. Her wide, blue eyes were fixed on him, her expression somewhere between shock and wonder. They matched her mane, a crystalline blue color that reminded him of Sky.

For a moment they stared at one another, the filly’s expression moving from surprise to confusion, and then curiosity. Slowly, he reached up and put a hoof in front of his mouth, quietly hoping that the sign for silence when the empire had vanished was close to what it was now. She cocked her head to one side, ears twitching from side to side, but her eyes never leaving his face.

He took a quick look around, but saw no one. Then, slowly he reached up and unbuckled his helmet, sliding it upwards. The filly’s mouth fell open in a small, round circle as he pulled the helmet free and gave her a smile.

She smiled back, coat and eyes almost seeming to shimmer with happiness. Again he gave her a motion for silence, this time from his homeland, tapping his mouth twice with his hoof and then drawing it across his muzzle as if sealing it. The tiny filly nodded excitedly, mane bobbing. He smiled again, then lowered the helmet back down over his head, securing it in place. The filly mouthed something at him—probably goodbye—waved, and then ducked out of sight, the cloth falling back over the window in her wake.

It would appear not everyone listens to the Order, he thought as he pulled his eyes away from where the filly had disappeared. With hope, others will share her trust.

He could hear hoofsteps coming from the south. Muffled slightly, but hoofsteps all the same. He turned to the alley he’d come through, waiting to see who appeared.

It was Dawn, and the captain, though they popped out of a space just further east from the one he’d used. He rose and lifted his hoof, catching their eyes with a quick wave.

“Good news,” Steel said once he’d crossed the street. “That Order force is delaying themselves looking for their friend.”

“Will they find him?”

Dawn smiled. “Depends on how quickly they’re willing to look in the nearest public garbage can. Granted, he might wake up, but then they’ll have to get him out.”

“In other words, we’ve bought a few extra minutes to hit this watchtower,” Steel continued. “Same as before. Flare. Some fires. Enough to keep them busy and off-balance.”

Sabra nodded. And this will be the last one. “Let’s get it done.”

Several minutes later, a third column of smoke was climbing into the sky above the city.