When Diamond Dogs kidnap four foals, it's up to Ponyville's first batpony immigrant to lead the rescue into the caves.
Dusky isn't looking for trouble. All she wants is a job, a place to call her own, and a quiet life.
But when Diamond Dogs kidnap four foals, it's up to Dusky—formerly Major Dusk Fireball, Household Battalion, Equestrian Royal Guard—to lead the citizen-soldier reservists of the Ponyville Home Guard into the Dogs' caves in a desperate rescue mission.
Just before midnight, Rarity was sketching a commission concept at her worktable when somepony pounded on her front door. She dropped her charcoal pencil and trotted to open the door, expecting Luna again.
Rain misted down from low clouds, and streetlights glowed inside halos as the fog swirled. Ponyville smelled of clean air and damp mud.
A light-brown earth pony stallion stood on her stoop, a soaked poncho covering a full suit of Guard officer's armor.
"Davenport?" Rarity said. "Whatever is the matter? It's a bit after quill or sofa hours."
"Where's the major?" he snapped.
Rarity blinked twice, then asked, "You mean Dusky? She's asleep, in my basement."
"Wake her. Tell her to meet us at the armory in five minutes. Two minutes. And do me a favor, Miss Rarity, go shake the princess out of bed at the castle and get her to the armory, too. Then wake the other Element Bearers. All ponies on deck."
Rarity's head lightened and she put a hoof against the door frame to stay steady. "Davenport—what's wrong? What's going on? Wherever is this alleged armory?"
"Town Hall's basement. Tell them all, 'Several foals have been taken.'" He took off at a gallop.
It had all begun a week before.
Angry shouting echoed across town square.
"Sis?" Sweetie Belle asked. "What's wrong?"
"Shush! Somepony's causing a commotion." Rarity looked around, rotating her ears, trying to fix the sound.
That direction, Rarity decided, and hurried toward the noise.
Several other ponies were moseying away from the racket, rather quickly.
The shouting grew louder as Rarity crossed town square, and when she reached the propped-open front door of Ponyville Inn, she could understand the words easily.
"And I'm telling you to get off my property," shrieked Rental Room, the unicorn stallion who owned the inn. "I'm not taking your business."
On the other side of the inn's front desk, a petite mare in a khaki cape said, "That's unlawful."
"We're a long way from Canterlot," Rental growled.
The mare's voice was quiet. "I've been on my wings all week, and my left wing... well, I'm sore as Tartarus and I need a hot bath and a rest."
"Get out!" he screamed.
Sweetie trotted up beside Rarity, on the hotel's stoop.
"Stay here, Sweetie Belle." Rarity dropped her saddlebags full of groceries, pulled herself up to her full height, raised her nose as imperiously as she could (which, being Rarity, was most imperious indeed), and stormed into the Inn's lobby.
"Rental, daaaaarling, whatever is wrong with you? Never in all my years in Ponyville, which are all my years, I'll remind you, have I ever seen you behave in such an uncouth and indeed—"
Rarity's teeth clicked together.
She now stood side-by-side with the petite mare, who was dark blueish-gray, with short blond mane and a blond tail.
The mare was a batpony.
"This is none of your concern," Rental growled.
Rarity looked into the batpony's sunglasses, then turned her anger at Rental Room. "Need I involve the Princess or the Mayor? You know full well discrimination is unlawful. Perhaps I should see you admitted to a remedial kindness class at the Friendship School, hmmm?"
"I'll take my chances with the Mayor and Princess," Rental said. "Get off my property, too, ratlover."
The batpony hissed and her hackles rose. "Forget it, forget you, I'll go sleep in the Everfree. I've bivouacked before."
Rarity pointed a hoof at Rental. "You will be hearing more from me, scoundrel!"
She then turned to the batpony, and pointed a hoof at her. "And you! You shall do no such thing as sleep in the Everfree. Who are you, Rainbow Dash on a silly dare? You will sleep in my guest bedroom."
The batpony's jaw dropped open, exposing sharp fangs in the top of her mouth.
The batpony used her right wing to snatch an orange from a fruit bowl on the Inn's lobby refreshments counter as she trotted past, and it disappeared somewhere under her cape.
"Hey! You didn't pay for that!"
"Involve the law, Rental, darling," Rarity called over her shoulder. "I dare you."
Sweetie Belle's eyes widened as Rarity and the batpony left the inn's lobby.
Once back in the public street, Rarity turned to the mare and raised a hoof. "I'm Rarity, and this is my sister, Sweetie Belle."
She tapped hooves with Rarity, then Sweetie. "I'm Dusky."
"A pleasure! I assure you, most of Ponyville isn't like... this. Come, come, Sweetie Belle is staying with me for a few days while mother and father are on holiday." Rarity levitated up her saddlebags. "We were just heading home from the farmer's market. Would you care for some dinner?"
Dusky licked her lips. "I'm.... I appreciate your generosity, but I... I have an orange..."
"Don't bother arguing," Sweetie Belle said. "Generosity is sorta her thing."
She lifted up her sunglasses with her right wing-claw, and gold, slit-pupiled eyes narrowed. "You're that Rarity? I don't want to impose on an element bearer. I don't want to... well... take advantage? Do you even have a choice about being generous....?"
Rarity waved a hoof. "Pssshaw, it's my pleasure. You said yourself you were tired and sore, on your wings all day. My friend Dash is a Wonderbolt, I've seen how she gets."
Dusky smirked and wagged her eyebrows. "Wonderbolt? Lightweights."
"Sweetie Belle and I will make dinner while you have a hot bath."
"I'll... I only have a little money. Essentially none, honestly. I'll find a job, so I'll pay what I can, when I can."
Rarity giggled into a hoof. "Honestly, Dusky, don't worry about it. Pass on the generosity to somepony else, someday, and we'll be more than even."
Dusky dropped her sunglasses back down. "Well, thank you. We'll discuss this more, once I've earned some money."
Rarity led off, with Dusky to her left, and Sweetie to Dusky's left.
"Dusky?" asked Sweetie Belle. "What kind of job do you do?"
"That's my main problem, isn't it?"
Sweetie Belle frowned. "Hobbies?"
"I've heard that word before... now, what did it mean...?" Dusky grinned at Sweetie.
When they entered the Boutique, the batpony lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head, tapped on the floor with a hoof a few times, cocked her ears, sniffed deeply, and then nodded.
"The guest room is upstairs, on the right," Rarity said. "The bathroom is next to it. Feel free to avail yourself."
"I... I don't know what to say. I mean... thanks!"
Rarity smiled, then waved a hoof toward the stairway. "Off with you, shoo shoo! We'll make dinner."
Dusky's wing snaked under her cape, and she put the orange on the kitchen table, then trotted for the stairs. "I can contribute that."
Once Dusky was upstairs, Sweetie Belle asked, "Rarity? What are you doing?"
Rarity levitated the saddlebags open and extracted the groceries: cucumbers, pears, peaches, tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, a glass bottle of cream.
"She's a stranger."
"She's in need. You heard her—she would have been camping in the Everfree tonight."
"Haven't you heard about batponies? They're not like us."
Rarity glared at her sister. "How many batponies have you met before?"
"The other foals in school all say batponies are really—"
"Sweetie Belle! This is somepony who needs help."
"They say batponies carry ebola."
Rarity facehoofed. "And your school friends have never met a batpony, either. I've never even met one face-to-face, excepting a few palace guards."
"Rental Room called you ratlover."
"I fought Nightmare Moon, Discord, and Sombra, Sweetie. I can take name-calling."
"I heard they eat weird food, that they're crazy for fresh fruit," Sweetie pointed at the orange, "that they love meat, too, and that they're... loose."
"Sweetie Belle! I don't approve of such language. Whomever you heard that from has never met a batpony, either."
Sweetie Belle concentrated, lit her horn, and then extracted the groceries from her saddlebags, and started washing produce under Rarity's faucet. "Well, that's true. What do you suppose she's doing here?"
"In my home?"
Rarity paused, levitating a chef's knife just above a cucumber. "Well, either passing through... no, wait, she said she was looking for a job. She must be moving to Ponyville."
Sweetie rubbed her chin. "I wonder why?"
"Ponyville's economy is picking up, what with the castle and the school, and Princess Luna passed that new anti-discrimination law. I suppose some batponies will naturally want to spread their wings."
"Did you see her wing?"
"What's that, Sweetie?"
"Her left wing. It was shaking, like Fluttershy after a long flight. It had scars, too. Bad scars."
Rarity looked up at the ceiling, and heard the water running in the upstairs bathtub. "Well, she said she was sore."
Sweetie Belle looked at Rarity. "If this is her first day in Ponyville, let's make her a good meal."
Dusky came downstairs about thirty minutes later, her mane damp, wearing her saddlebags and cape, sunglasses atop her head.
"Dusky, darling...." Rarity said. "You're wearing your saddlebags. You aren't planning to decamp without dinner, now, are you? I simply will not permit you to sleep in the Everfree. It will break my heart."
Dusky smiled, and her golden eyes twinkled. "No. I was going to ask... do you have a basement? I mean, I can hear my hoofsteps echo, so I know you have a basement. Could I sleep there?"
"There's no bed!" Rarity cried. "Just my treadmill and excess fabric storage."
"There're spiders," said Sweetie Belle.
"I have a bedroll in my bags, and spiders are good protein. Rarity, first, your guest bedroom was decorated by a filly," Dusky looked at Sweetie Belle, "and second, you've clearly got a guest. I don't want to take her bed."
"I don't mind bunking with Rarity."
"Third... I'm a batpony. I... well, I haven't been in a cave lately. The basement will be good for me."
Rarity stood up to her full height, which was a good two and a half hooves taller than Dusky. "Well.... if you're more comfortable, and it will keep you out of the Everfree... There's certainly... hmmm... adequate humidity in the basement, but the bedroom would be much more comfortable. However, if you're happier down there, then by all means, I shan't stop you."
Sweetie Belle said, "Well, I really don't mind sharing a room with Rarity, if you prefer the guest room. Rarity only snores a little."
Dusky leaned down, eye-to-eye with the filly. "Thank you so much! But I'll feel much better knowing you're comfy. .....Hey, that smells good!"
Sweetie Belle levitated up a bowl and ladle, and scooped some soup. "Cream of zucchini soup! And fruit salad and haycakes, along with baked pumpkin bites."
The batpony licked her lips, and her fangs flashed. "Fruit salad?"
Sweetie Belle smirked. "We put your orange in it."
Dusky licked her lips again. "We never... well, I'm from the desert. No citrus growing up, ya know? Mostly just green chile, piñón, and maize."
"I shall see what I can do for dinner tomorrow, Dusky," Rarity promised.
"I'll find a job and get some money to help out."
As they sat down to dinner, Rarity asked, "Have you any job leads?"
Dusky turned pale and shook her head.
Late the next afternoon, Friday, Rarity returned home from the Friendship School to find Sunshower Raindrops, Sweetie Belle, and Dusky huddled around her kitchen table.
"Sunshower! What a pleasant surprise. Stay for dinner?" Rarity smiled, but felt an internal frown. Sunshower—a yellow mare with a cyan mane—served as Ponyville's weather manager, now that Rainbow Dash had joined the Wonderbolts full-time. Why was the weather manager in Rarity's kitchen?
The pegasus stood up. "No, thanks, Rarity. I need to get back to work. I just wanted to make sure Dusky was all right."
Rarity spun to look at the batpony. "'All right?' Whatever do you mean?"
Dusky was wearing her sunglasses and cape, and her nose was shiny with a white salve. Wet towels covered her wings, and she sat with her head on folded forelegs, her ears flat.
"Whatever happened to you, dear?" asked Rarity
She mumbled, "Sun poisoning. They hired me on the weather crew today, but... I don't think that's going to work out."
Sunshower trotted around the table to Dusky, and ran a single feather down her cape, along her spine. "We'll call you whenever we have a night job to do," Sunshower said. "You're a hard worker."
"How often is that?" Dusky asked.
"Once every week or two."
Dusky nodded. "The bits will help. I'm afraid I'm going to have to cobble together gig jobs instead of full-time. Stupid cutie mark..... Thanks, Sunny."
"Hope you feel better," Sunshower said. "You're a hard worker, I'm sorry I can't offer you the full-time job. Big cities like Cloudsdale or Canterlot have full-time night crews. I'd write you a reference."
"I want a small town, but thanks."
Sunshower shrugged her wings. "I still think you should go see a doctor."
"No," Dusky said, whole body shuddering. "I hate hospitals."
"Oh, Dusky?" Sunshower said.
The batpony looked up.
"While you were passed out on the floor of my office," Sunshower said, "I noticed a booklet propping up the uneven leg of my desk. Equestria Weather Service Policies on Employing Non-Pegasus Sapients. It said, on page one, 'Do not hire batponies for the day shift.' I guess Rainbow Dash used the book to level her desk, and never bothered to mention it when she trained me for this job. Do you two have any idea what the restrictions on employing griffons are?"
Dusky shook her head. Rarity said, "No, darling."
"Me, neither. I need to read that manual, because unlike previous weather managers, I try to be by-the-book, but I have to know there is a book! I'm going to zap Rainbow with a lightning bolt at my next opportunity."
Rarity looked at Dusky's miserable expression. "I shall hold Dash down for you, Sunny. Dusky, didn't you know you would sunburn?"
"I.... well, I got sunburned bad in boot camp, way back when, and once—worse than this—on deployment, dug in on a glacier, waiting to spring an ambush... never mind. I figured I could gut through a few days or a week while I found an indoor or nighttime job. I've gutted through worse..."
"Boot camp?" asked Sunshower. "Weren't you years and years younger then?"
Dusky raised her head and thonked it into the table. The white salve smeared from her nose onto the wood.
Sunshower shrugged her wings at Rarity, and said, "I hope you feel better, Dusky. I'll call you for night jobs. Hey, I've got a big family, all here in Ponyville. If I hear about any jobs—I'll put a good word in. You're a hard worker. I've never seen a pegasus work at such a hustle."
Dusky looked up. "Thanks! I appreciate that. I do."
Sunshower brushed her tail against Rarity's flank, and left the Boutique.
Sweetie Belle had disappeared during the conversation, but came back in right then, levitating two sopping-wet towels. She changed them for the ones on Dusky's wings, and Rarity saw that her wings were blistered and peeling. "Did you say cutie mark?" Sweetie asked. "My thing is kinda helping ponies understand their cutie marks. It's my mark. Ummm.... batponies have marks?"
Dusky smiled at Sweetie. "Thanks! I actually heard about you three today, from the weather crew. I understand my cutie mark just fine. The problem is, I can't follow it anymore. Not since I left the Guard. I'm trying to find myself a new path, here in Ponyville. Too much... momentum... back home."
"Ohhhhh....." said Sweetie Belle. She cocked her head, looking at Dusky, but the batpony's cape covered her marks. "Why did you leave the Guard?"
"I got transferred from an assignment I loved... to one I didn't."
Rarity sat down, and levitated up Dusky's sunglasses. The bright eyes were bloodshot, and the slitted gold had a hint of grayish cataracts.
Dusky reached with her wings and yanked the sunglasses back into place.
"You're—" Rarity said.
"No!" Dusky snarled. "No hospitals."
"I'm more than happy to help you with the cost," Rarity said.
"That's not it." Dusky shook her head. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. I don't have to pay any doctor in Equestria: veteran. I just... I... no hospitals."
Sweetie Belle turned on her adorable filly act, complete with higher-pitched voice and wide eyes. "But Miss Dusky! You're hurt. You don't want to lose your eyesight, do you?"
She smiled down at Sweetie, and rubbed the filly's mane. "I'm a batpony. Not my first case of sun poisoning. I'll sleep it off, and try to find an indoors job tomorrow morning. I've been way worse off than this, before."
Sweetie Belle bit her cheeks and frowned at Dusky.
Rarity levitated up a quill and scribbled a note. She passed it and several bits to Sweetie. "Sweetie Belle, dear, do run to the farmers' market. I forgot a few ingredients. I wrote them on the list. Don't dawdle."
Sweetie looked at the paper, looked at Rarity, and said, "I'll grab my saddlebags and be back as fast as I can."
Rarity gathered fruits and veggies from the icebox to chop, and Sweetie took off.
"Rarity?" Dusky asked.
"Yes, darling? Do you like apples? My friend Applejack ensures I have more than I can ever hope to cook. Having a second, and indeed third, mouth will help none go to waste. Sweetie Belle's at the age when her stomach is a bottomless gaping maw—I think she's grown an inch this moon—and I still let apples go bad."
"I'm not stupid, Rarity, despite what you ponies think of my race."
Rarity levitated her knife down, and turned to look at her. Dusky's sunglasses sat on the table, and she was folding the towels with her hooves and mouth.
"I never thought you were stupid, but after dealing with my friends Rainbow and Applejack, I've learned how to identify stubborn."
"Who's Sweetie Belle bringing? A doctor? I hate doctors."
"No, Dusky," Rarity said with a shake of her head. "Nurse Redheart. She's ex-Guard, herself. I don't know her whole history, but I know she was a medic. A good medic. I've seen her save lives."
Dusky laid her head down, chin flat on the table. "Oh. Well, I appreciate the thought, but I'm still fine."
"Do you like apples? Should I buy some oranges? Other citrus?"
"I'm sorry I didn't make any money today. I wanted to help cover dinner."
Rarity turned back to her cooking. "Sunshower said they work a few nights a month, that'll be some bits."
"That doesn't help me today. I saved every bit I could, and sold all my stuff, but I've been two weeks on my wings, from Equuicigalpa to Ponyville. Luna knows I couldn't afford the train. It'll be a month before my disability check catches up with me here. I'm getting thin on funds."
"Hmmmpf!" Rarity said. "You're getting thin all around. Were your cheeks that sunken in when you were in uniform? I'm making it my personal campaign to fatten you up."
"Ha, ha. You're so funny." Dusky sighed. "But yeah, I'm probably down a stone. I've been skipping meals, and flying twenty miles or more a night."
Twenty miles a night? Rarity clicked her tongue against her teeth. That is not very far, by pegasus standards. Foals fresh out of flight camp can make twenty miles without any trouble. Just how bad is her wing?
Rarity levitated an apple over to her. "Grab a snack, dearest, and don't be shy about eating all you want."
She ate the apple, core, seeds, and all, leaving only the stem. Rarity chopped up another fruit salad—it seemed the stereotypes about batponies and fruit had some truth—and put four herb-seasoned eggplants parmesan in the oven.
Dinner cooked. Rarity failed several times to start a conversation. Dusky brooded, and ate four more apples.
Sweetie Belle and Nurse Redheart arrived just as the oven timer rang.
Dusky stood up, raised her sunglasses to the top of her head, and she and Redheart stared into each other's eyes for perhaps five seconds.
Dusky nodded. "Dusk Fireball. Ponies call me Dusky. My pleasure."
Redheart stiffened, going into a position something like attention, but didn't salute. "I'm S– Nurse Redheart, ma'am. Your eyes look bad. I've... seen this before. Let me get some drops in them, stat, then I can do the rest after supper. The way that oven smells, it would be a shame to let it get cold."
Rarity sprinkled crushed black pepper onto the steaming eggplants and plated dinner while Sweetie Belle set four places. Redheart squeezed some drops into Dusky's eyes.
"So," Dusky said to Sweetie Belle as all they tucked into the meal, "Tell me all about some cutie mark problems you've solved."
And that little stratagem prevented the adults from saying a single word for over an hour.
After dinner, Redheart took Dusky into the basement for privacy. Sweetie Belle went out with the Crusaders—to knock out their weekend homework at Sweet Apple Acres, allegedly—and Rarity cleaned the kitchen.
After about another half-hour, Redheart returned up the basement stairs.
"You were right to call me, Rarity," she whispered. "Her eyesight was in danger, and the sunburn on her wings could have scarred and affected her flying. I treated both."
Rarity dropped the dishrag into the sink, and whirled on Redheart. Rarity whispered, "It was that serious? Honestly, she reminds me of Applejack."
"It was serious. I've treated worse. She must need money bad to spend half a day with the weather crew, up in the thin air, close to the sun, before she admitted defeat. Look, batponies hate to show weakness in front of our kind. They think we think batponies're stupid and lazy, and it drives them..."
Redheart facehoofed. "Raaarrrity...."
"Honestly, Redheart, I don't know anything about her situation. Did you...?"
Hooves sounded on the basement steps.
The nurse whispered even more softly into Rarity's ear: "Don't let her be stubborn." Then loudly, "Keep an eye on my patient and tell me if she gets worse. Thanks for dinner, Rarity. Hey—I'm hoping my twins will be old enough to start at the Friendship School in a few years. Put a good word in for me with Headmare Twilight."
"Oh course, daaaarling," Rarity trilled. "Thank you ever so much for the housecall. Ta-ta."
Redheart headed out the front door as Dusky emerged from the basement.
"Rarity—I... I'm angry, but I'm also grateful. Redheart scared me straight. I won't do that again."
"That's excellent. Hungry?"
"No, no. You made a great meal. Oh! Good news... and bad news."
Rarity quirked an eyebrow. "Bad news first."
"I need a favor, yet another favor, but I promise I'll pay you back."
"That's hardly bad news. What's the favor?"
"There's the good news! Did you know Redheart is the local Home Guard's platoon sergeant?"
Rarity cocked her head. "I knew she was 'a' sergeant, but I didn't know she was 'the' sergeant, whatever that means."
Dusky nodded her head, and her bobbed blond mane bounced. "Tomorrow is Saturday, and it's their Guard weekend for this month. If I muster with the platoon on town square at dawn, they'll advance me my first payday. I was a reservist back home, while I recuperated, so I planned to join the local Home Guard, anyway, once I settled in."
"That's wonderful, and you're sure to make some connections about full-time jobs, too."
She rubbed her chin. "Maybe? I got thrown out of quite a few 'Help Wanted' businesses today before I tried the weather crew... Well, here's the thing. Muster is at dawn, and I won't fit into my uniform. I've lost... well, a lot of weight. Also, I need my Equucigalpa Home Guard flash removed, and the Ponyville flash put on.... Redheart said you keep Ponyville flashes in stock?"
"Of course, Dusky. I do all the Guard and Home Guard alterations for twenty miles in any direction."
The batpony trotted down to the basement, and came back up with a canvas bag in her teeth. She gently laid it on the table. "Rarity? Thanks."
Rarity lowered her head, headbutting her guest, herding Dusky into the Boutique section of her home. "I need your measurements, darling, if I'm to alter your uniform. Off with the cape, off, stand here, stand still, wings loose."
Dusky did so. Rarity stood to Dusky's right, levitated up a tape measure, and rolled a large wheeled chalkboard to herself.
She saw Dusky's cutie mark for the first time: a grey orb of some sort, with something like a sunburst around it. All of Dusky's ribs showed, and loose skin hung down her flanks.
Food, Rarity though. Buy snacks and leave them out. Heavier home-cooked meals. Ask Spike to come cook. Get desserts from Pinkie.
She took the measurements that were the same across all three tribes of ponies—or was it four tribes? Rarity wasn't sure how that worked—and also the wing-specific measurements.
"The base of your wings is three inches farther forward than a pegasus's would be," Rarity said after a few minutes, "But I have the numbers now." She trotted around to Dusky's left side and sucked in a loud breath.
The batpony tucked her wings close and turned around to face Rarity head-on. "Got the measurements?"
"Whatever happened to—I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry. Yes, I've got the measurements."
Dusky looked down her left side, and raised her wing about an inch. "I healed, they're just scars from the skin grafts and surgeries. Redheart gave me medicine for the sunburn—I'm going to bed before I pass out. Thank you so much, Rarity, for helping me. As soon as I get paid, I'll pay you for the uniform tailoring. For everything. Leave my invoice on the kitchen table?"
Purple hair bounced as Rarity shook her head. "Didn't Redheart tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"I do all Home Guard tailoring for just the cost of any materials, and Mayor Mare pays that from the town's general fund. I'll leave your uniform on one of my ponnequins for you to find in the morning."
Yellow eyes narrowed. "Are you just saying that?"
"Ask any of the others at muster tomorrow."
"Oh! Okay. Thank you again. G'night."
"Good night, have you an alarm clock? You don't want to miss your first muster."
At the top of the basement stairs, Dusky looked over her shoulder. She twitched her tail and smiled. "Don't you know? Batponies don't need alarm clocks. We wake up exactly when we want." She headed downstairs and shut the door.
"Indeed..." Rarity said, as she found one of her smallest ponnequins, barely bigger than Sweetie Belle. Dusky was tiny for an adult, more the size of an adolescent, and clearly down at least thirty pounds or more from her peak weight, given how her skin had sagged off her ribs.
Rarity levitated her uniform out of the canvas bag and gasped.
Rarity levitated Dusky's uniform out of the canvas bag and gasped. Dusky was an officer. And not just an officer—a major! How old was the batpony? Rarity's age, or a year older, at most, unless batponies aged very differently. Dusky didn't have wrinkles or any gray in her mane. She was at least five years, or more like ten, too young for her rank.
How was such a young pony a field-grade officer?!?
Rarity tapped a hoof. This question would drive her crazy, she could tell.
Dusty's uniform wasn't like any Guard uniform she'd encountered before. Normally they consisted of armored plates layered over a tunic; this one, obsidian-black, more resembled a hooded cloak, like her civilian cape. Which made sense, Rarity supposed, given the sunburn Dusky was suffering from.
Rarity draped the uniform over the ponnequin and snipped the Equuicigalpa Home Guard flash off the right shoulder. That flash showed an adobe mountainside pueblo city surrounded protectively by the wings of a snarling, red-eyed, bloody-fanged bat. She sewed on the Ponyville flash, a stylized orange-maned yellow alicorn with a shield, standing between a dark and foreboding Everfree and Ponyville Town Hall.
Both the Ponyville and Equuicigalpa patches were embroidered with the Home Guard's motto: We stand resolute, between the chaos and our family.
On the right lapel was the Combat Action Badge, meaning Dusky had seen battle at least once. On the left lapel were almost three dozen decorations. Most were new to Rarity, and she consulted a Guard uniform manual she kept in a drawer.
Fourteen combat decorations, one-two-three-four-five-six! wounded-in-action badges, and a dozen non-combat decorations.
The first two decorations were silver ribbons Rarity didn't recognize. She checked her book: the Silver Shield, only awarded for 'extreme valor in direct action in the face of the enemy.'
They were, the book said, the second-highest military honor in all of Equestria, and both of them, along with two wounded-in-action badges, bore midnight-blue "L" symbols, the Combat-L device, meaning the decorations bearing the L had been earned at the side of Luna herself.
One of her lesser combat decorations bore a sunlight-gold Combat-C device, earned at Celestia's side. So did one of the wounded-in-action badges.
Wounded in combat three times at the side of a Princess... and three other times, as well...
Most Guards went their entire career without seeing combat even once. This was a most unusual houseguest, indeed.
Fluffing the uniform, hemming the shoulders and flanks to Dusky's new smaller size, Rarity hummed to herself as she worked.
"Rarity!" Sweetie Belle said, galloping into the Boutique. "I did my homework at Sweet Apple Acres and.... what's that?"
"Dusky's uniform. Dusky's asleep, do be quiet."
Sweetie Belle circled around the ponnequin to its left side. "Strange. The qualification badges are all gone."
Rarity looked at the uniform's left shoulder. At least six patches had been snipped off, leaving a patch of slightly darker fabric where they had been.
"We've got quite a guest on our hooves, Sweetie Belle."
"Uh-huh. Can I have ice cream?"
Dusky's alterations were simple, really, and took Rarity less than fifteen minutes. That put Rarity in the zone, however, and she attacked one of her commissions, a wedding dress for a Canterlot aristocrat. She sewed and added gems, humming loudly. Sweetie Belle lazed on the chaise, reading a Daring Do novel and listening to a record.
The sharp snap-pop of a teleport outside the front door was followed a second later by a knocking hoof.
"Honestly, Twilight," Rarity called, "or Starlight, I've told you both Celestia-knows-how-many times you never need to knock."
A blue aura opened the door, and Princess Luna stepped into the Boutique.
"Must ponies always use my sister as their invocation? 'Luna-knows-how-many' rolls off the tongue easier; fewer syllables. 'Cadance-knows-how-many' would have, at least, the benefit of novelty."
Rarity dropped her needle and thread to her work table and bowed. Sweetie Belle hopped off the couch and genuflected.
"Arise, arise," Luna said. "I believe it is past a filly's bedtime."
Sweetie Belle squeaked and bolted upstairs, levitating her novel behind her.
"Princess. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Luna's horn glowed and the needle lifted off of Sweetie Belle's record, quieting the Boutique.
In the new silence, Rarity heard some muffled noise from...
"Her nightmare is usually not so severe. I think the pain of her sunburn has made her sleep fitful. With your permission....?"
Rarity levitated her red spectacles down to her worktable. "By all means! But don't you usually enter ponies' dreams?"
A muffled scream drifted up the basement stairs.
"I will speak to you before I leave, but right now, time is critical."
"Yes, darling, yes!"
Luna trotted downstairs to Dusky's basement, closing the door behind her.
Rarity continued sewing, but wasn't really concentrating. She kept listening to the sounds from downstairs.
The words were too muffled to understand. Luna's voice woke Dusky, then Dusky screamed, spoke, cried, bawled, sobbed.
The sounds tapered off, and maybe thirty minutes or an hour after arriving, Luna came back upstairs.
"Would you be so kind as to make coffee, Rarity?"
"Of course! Please, sit."
A few minutes later, Luna sipping coffee and Rarity drinking hibiscus tea, Luna said, "You are correct that I usually handle nightmares in the dreamscape. But..."
Rarity pointed her horn at the ponnequin bearing Dusky's uniform. "I've never actually met somepony with 'Combat-L' devices on her decorations before. She fought alongside you?"
"Dusk Fireball and I shed blood in battle together, yes, so she is my sister. A particularly vile incident required I put my hooves on batponies, at a mere moment's notice, and she was officer on duty that night. She volunteered to lead her Ronin section, and then she spent the last year.... Sweetie Belle! It is rude to eavesdrop. Come join us."
Sweetie Belle, face red and legs shaking, trotted into the kitchen and sat in the chair next to Rarity. "Princess Luna... I'm sorry I eavesdropped, but I never met a batpony before. I'm curious about her. It sounds like she was a brave soldier."
Luna nodded. "Her nightmares are well-earned. I keep an eye on her, as a friend and a comrade-in-arms. I detect batponies' nightmares, but they are hard to penetrate. Simply waking batponies and talking is most effective, I find."
"Can you tell us, Luna?" asked Rarity.
Luna shook her head. "It is not my story to tell. I've encouraged Dusk Fireball to engage a psychiatrist, but I cannot force her. I imagine her emigration to Ponyville is, at least in part, to help leave bad memories behind. She spent nearly a year in Equuicigalpa's hospital and veteran's home, recovering from that night, learning to fly again, receiving skin grafts and magical treatments. Her left wing will be featured—anonymously, of course—in a forthcoming issue of The Proceedings of the Royal College of Orthopedic Surgeons."
Luna stood, and dipped her head. "Rarity, you are indeed Generosity. Keep my friend well. Sweetie Belle, I am pleased you take after your sister."
"Princess?" Sweetie Belle said.
Luna looked at her, ears perked forward.
"The stallion who runs the Ponyville Inn wouldn't rent Miss Dusky a room. Others wouldn't let her even apply for jobs."
"The new law I passed is still to be fully appreciated by the population," Luna said. "I am pondering my next steps. Celestia forbids me to use the old encouragements. Constitutional diarchy is so irritatingly... constraining."
She teleported out.
From below came the sound of soft snoring, no sobs or cries.
Rarity didn't speak to Dusky for two days, although she saw the batpony, now wearing a baggy cape in camouflage field-gray, exercising and camping with the other Home Guard reservists in the fallow fields north of town all Saturday and Sunday.
Rarity had a plan for Dusky for Monday, and got Twilight in on it that weekend.
Monday morning, Rarity awoke to the smell of cooking.
"Sweetie Belle, if you smoke out my kitchen one more time...." she muttered, throwing off her sleep mask, grabbing a robe, and heading downstairs.
Her little sister sat at the kitchen table, munching a pastry of some sort. Dusky, covered in flour, sat across from Sweetie. She said, "Rarity! I got paid. It wasn't much, but I made batpony frybread to thank you and Sweetie Belle for your hospitality."
Sweetie Belle levitated a second piece of bread over and took a loud bite. "These are really good, Miss Dusky."
Rarity smiled and said, "Why Dusky! That was hardly necessary, but thank you ever so much."
Rarity poured herself a glass of skim milk from the icebox and then sat down next to Sweetie. She levitated over a round of the flat, greasy bread, and took a dainty bite.
She chewed, and noticed extremely loud crunching, and a very odd mouthfeel.
Dusky's saddlebags were on the counter, and several small cans, labelled in a foreign language, were open. Dusky apparently had dug into her personal stash to make this meal.
After swallowing, she took a drink of milk and asked, "What sort bread is this? I'm unfamiliar with the flavoring."
"Piñón, green chile, and crickets!" Dusky proclaimed, her yellow eyes wide, and fangs flashing with a grin.
Dizziness swirled around Rarity, and she placed her hooves on the table for balance. "Crickets?"
Sweetie Belle nodded. "It's really good! When Scootaloo tows us on her scooter, I keep my mouth closed so I don't eat so many bugs, but I like them fried."
Rarity forced herself to eat a whole round of frybread, then excused herself and brushed her teeth before returning to the kitchen and grabbing herself some yogurt and a banana for breakfast.
"Seconds?" Dusky said with a grin.
"No thanks, Dusky, but crickets aren't my favorite, I'm afraid."
Dusky smirked. "Good thing I wasn't seriously entertaining my 'Open a Batpony Bistro' idea, hmmm?"
"How was your first weekend in the Ponyville Home Guard?"
"Awkward. You saw my uniform when you altered it."
"I did indeed, Major."
The batpony blushed. "I outrank First Lieutenant Davenport, who's the official and legal commander of the unit. Outrank him a lot. However, Princess Luna and her new laws aside, no batpony tries to boss around... y'all."
"What do you mean, 'you all?'" Sweetie Belle asked.
"This is going to be an awkward conversation," Dusky muttered, and took a bite of frybread.
"We're fine, Dusky, really," Rarity said.
"The three tribes. Earth ponies, unicorns, pegasi," Dusky explained.
"Shouldn't it be four tribes?" Sweetie asked. "How does that work, actually?"
Dusky looked at Rarity, and quirked her eyebrows.
"She's old enough," Rarity said.
"Awkward," muttered Dusky.
"Old enough for what?" Sweetie Belle demanded, frowning.
Rarity sighed. "Remember how you had all those questions for mother and I after Miss Cheerilee gave you fillies the 'where do foals come from' lesson?"
Sweetie Belle blushed, and nodded.
Dusky said, "Imagine a batpony and somepony from the three tribes got married. A unicorn, for example."
"Okay," Sweetie Belle said, blushing even redder. "By 'got married,' you're really saying, 'tried to make a foal,' right?" The filly buried her tomato-colored face into her hooves.
"Right, darling," Rarity said, with a pat on her sister's mane.
"Well," Dusky said, "It doesn't happen. No foals. Ever. That means: batponies are a different species than you three-tribes ponies. That's why I called you three-tribes ponies." She shrugged her wings. "We need a word, that's what we call you in polite company."
"What do you call us in private company?" Sweetie Belle asked.
Dusky shook her head no. "My deepest desire is to be just another Ponyville citizen, no more remarkable than anypony else. I won't let myself think us-them."
Sweetie Belle nodded. "Why can't you boss Mr. Davenport around if you outrank him? I'm not guard-crazy like those colts at school, but I know that much."
"Before I found the weather crew, I wandered into Davenport's Quills and Sofas shop. He had a 'Help Wanted' sign up, and he tossed me out. I'm not going to press my luck with him. I want to be just another Ponyvillian, not that bossy batpony bi..... witch who thinks she owns the place. I'm happy to stand quietly in the back of the muster."
"Miss Dusky, why did you get so many promotions?" Sweetie asked. "You look younger than Mr. Davenport."
Dusky's grayish-blue face paled into something lighter than Rainbow's color, and she used her wings and forelegs to grab onto the table.
Sweetie Belle said, "I'm sorry—I didn't mean...."
Dusky shook her head. "It's... it's not your fault."
"Would it help to talk about it, dear?" Rarity asked.
Dusky looked down at Sweetie Belle, then to Rarity. "You've done some ugly things as an Element Bearer, so maybe, yeah, we'll both talk, someday. But... not in front of a foal."
Sweetie Belle harrumphed and crossed her forelegs over her chest. "I'll be a teenager my next birthday."
Dusky narrowed her eyes at Sweetie Belle. "My promotions," she said, "were all in combat, into dead superiors'—dead friends'—horseshoes."
Sweetie's eyes widened, and her ears flattened.
Rarity wiped her lips with a napkin. "Off to school, Sweetie. Today, you and I, Dusky, are going to the Castle. Twilight always has odd jobs that need doing, and she knows everypony in town."
Dusky grimaced, and smacked her lips like she'd eaten rancid peanut butter. "A Princess? Uhhhhh... well, okay. Let me get my cape and sunglasses. It's going to be sunny today, and I'm still sore."
Starlight Glimmer led them into Twilight's library, introducing herself as they trotted.
"I deployed to Sire's Hollow once," Dusky said. "The town wall made for a good assault exercise for my unicorns and earth ponies. Neo-Vanhooverian architecture."
"Wow!" Starlight said. "My dad's ex-Guard. You sound like him. You're pretty up on architecture for... uh... um...." Starlight turned bright red.
"...for a batpony." Dusky whispered.
"I– I– I–" spluttered Starlight. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Starlight, don't twist your tail over it. But, I love architecture. Equuicigalpa is all adobe, and boring. The best part of being in the guard was the travel. I've been working on a master's in construction engineering from Open University Canterlot," Dusky said. "Makes it easier to tear buildings apart if you know how they're put together. This castle is amazing—it's unlike anything else in the world."
Starlight, biting her lip, opened the library door. Inside the library, the princess stood from her seat, walked around the table, and gave Rarity a hug.
"Twilight, darling, please meet my new friend Dusky, Miss Dusk Fireball, who's—"
Dusky genuflected and flared her wings, the thick scar tissue on her left wing rippling, her chin flat to the ground and tail flagged high. "I await your orders, Highness."
Twilight blinked several times. Her left ear twitched, then her eyes widened and she sucked in a breath through gritted teeth.
Starlight cocked her head and frowned.
Rarity had never seen the thousand-year-old Fealty Ritual before, but had certainly read about it in many of her romance novels. (Specifically, the romance novels where the dashing guard officer woos the princess.)
Twilight drew herself up to her full height and flared her own wings. Her voice carried a tiny hint of Royal Canterlot, ringing through the crystal library: "Arise, and be at ease, Officer of the Crown."
Dusky stood, and both ponies drew their wings back in. Twilight offered a hoof, and Dusky tapped it.
"With the formalities out of the way," Twilight said, "it's my pleasure to meet you! I didn't realize Rarity's new friend was an officer."
"Presently without portfolio, but I've started exercising with the local Home Guard. My previous assignment was Equuicigalpa for medical rehabilitation." Dusky looked away from the others, and wiped her eyes with her good wing. "I failed my last physical fitness test, and lost my Household Battalion status, and they drummed me out into the reserves. So I decided to start fresh in a new town."
"You were an officer in the Household Battalion?" gasped Rarity.
Starlight asked, "What? Who?"
"Luna and Celestia's praetorians," Twilight said. "The Guard's elite."
Dusky nodded. With a bitter voice, she replied, "I was, yes."
"Well!" Twilight sidled up next to her, and nuzzled Dusky's neck. "I'm sorry to hear that, but: welcome to Ponyville, and know that I make special time for any veteran, especially..." Twilight glanced at Dusky's scarred left side, "well, especially veterans."
"Thank you, Highness."
"Please, call me Twilight."
"Her Lunar Highness and I have been a first name basis since... the time, at the place... but I think one first-name princess is my limit, Highness."
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Whatever makes you comfortable. The Mayor and I went to the Ponyville Inn and spoke to Rental Room. He'll rent to you now, but he won't like it."
"You heard about that, ma'am?" Dusky shuffled her wings. "I don't like stirring up trouble. My ambition is for ponies to forget I'm a batpony."
"Dusky is more than welcome to continue at my place, Twilight," Rarity said.
"I prefer a basement to a hotel, any day."
"There are plenty of rooms here at the castle," Starlight said.
"Regardless of your situation," Twilight said, "the next batpony who comes to Ponyville will be able to rent a room. The economy is booming, so it's only a matter of time. We can't expect Rarity to be right there to swoop in and save them, too, now can we?"
"Well—thank you, Princess," Dusky said.
"Rarity says you're looking for work?" Starlight asked.
"Yes! I'll do anything. I've gotten on part-time with the weather patrol and Home Guard, and I have a partial pension for my wounds, but cobbling together gig jobs won't pay rent for a place of my own." She grimaced. "Not even a basement."
Starlight said, "My hoof-in-mouth just proved that we could use a guest lecture or two on batpony history and culture at the Friendship School. That wouldn't be full-time, but...." Starlight shrugged.
Dusky nodded. "Sure."
Twilight beamed. "Excellent! Well, cleaning windows is boring, but it's out of the sun, and I'll pay a fair wage. Zephyr Breeze never did finish the job, if you're interested."
Dusky's eyes widened. "It's my pleasure, Princess. I'm happy with any civilian work I can find. I had expected to retire from the Guard, but after I got wounded..." she shrugged her wings.
"Tell me the story, please."
Rarity looked at Dusky, then Twilight and Starlight. Rarity said, "You remember your Tirek unpleasantness, Twilight. Starlight, you took apart Chrysalis's hive. They might understand better than you suspect, Dusky."
Dusky looked around the library, and plopped down into a chair.
"Fine. Luna said I should talk. So I'll talk. You see my cutie mark?" She hiked up her cape.
"But I don't understand it, darling," Rarity said.
Twilight wrinkled her nose. "It's a minotaur invention ponies adapted to hooves about a century back. A 'hand grenade.' How under Cadance's pink aurora did a foal get a combat cutie mark?"
"All the little batpony colts and fillies join Junior Guard in middle school. We're poor, and the Guard's the only path out of the desert most of us can see. It's certainly the only path to college. The academy gave me my bachelor's degree. I could buck dummy grenades into a bullseye at one hundred yards like that pink buckballer. Got my mark. Well, when your brother, Princess, was Captain of the Guard, he and Luna had an idea: specially trained hostage rescue ponies."
Twilight nodded. "Is that what he spent so much time secretly doing the year before his wedding?"
"I volunteered for his development team. Sixteen, twenty hours a day, one day off per moon. Ronin Detachment, we called ourselves. Ronin-for-R, R-for-Rescue. I became a section leader, and my section was on duty that night. A unicorn and some henchponies and henchgriffons took some foals, unicorn foals, to sell into slavery. Sex slavery."
Rarity shook her head. "Thank you for refusing to discuss this around my sister."
"Luna tracked them, but their hideout was three hundred miles from Canterlot. They would move again at dawn, so Luna asked me to assemble a team with wings. I had five minutes. Seven pegasi, seven batponies, and me. We flew hard, we flew fast, and we left our armor behind to make better time."
Dusky flared her scarred wing. "Armor..." she whispered, and shook her head. "I can't do this. Where are the windows you want cleaned?"
Princess Luna stepped out of a shadow. "My friend, you must. You've never come so close."
Dusky leapt in surprise, flapped twice, and planted herself against the ceiling of Twilight's library. Her hooves stuck to the smooth crystal, and she hung there, looking down at the others, cape, mane, and tail hanging. "Oh.... Hi, Luna."
Starlight was still looking up. "You're standing on the ceiling. How do you stand on the ceiling?"
The batpony flared her wings and dropped, landing back in her chair.
"Batpony," Twilight explained. "That's an aspect of her racial magic."
Rarity nuzzled Dusky behind the ear. "Tell us the story, for your own good."
Luna smiled. "Tell the story accurately. Your sense of false modesty is almost as bad as mine. I was there, and I will not allow you to lie."
Dusky shook herself. "It was a cave. The pegasi—well, few pegasi can handle caves. One in fifteen, maybe."
"Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy helped save me from Diamond Dogs," Rarity said.
Luna held up a hoof. "Your two pegasi had the Elements' influence. They aren't typical."
"Anyway," Dusky said, "usually Luna is the first one into the fight, because she's so tough, and can hold a shield spell and fight simultaneously. But we didn't have any unicorns, that night, so Luna had to stand back and cast the spell to blow the door... and... and..."
Dusky laid her head down on the table and covered it with her wings, her ribs heaving and tail thrashing.
Twilight and Rarity moved to either side of her and hugged her.
"So I blew the door apart with a spell," Luna said. "And Dusk Fireball rode my fireball into the lair of the beasts. Sometimes it takes decades, but a pony's name will always resonate with her life, no? Such bravery... She singed off half her coat to gain a tenth of a second more advantage. Not many officers choose to be the first through the door, into the maw of Tartarus."
Dusky choked once, then continued. "My batponies followed close behind me, my pegasi watching the mountain for escapees. I bucked two grenades, killed several of the griffons, and an earth pony. I caught a griffon with my wingblade, opened his carotid artery, and left him to bleed out as I ran deeper into the cave. I hit the next door with all four legs, knocked it off its hinges. And inside... the foals. Chained together."
She shook and stopped talking. Luna's horn glowed, and the room filled with the calming smell of lavender. Dusky closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
After a minute, Dusky spoke again. "The unicorn was charging his horn. Killing spell, I could smell it. I hit him with a grenade, but accidentally caught myself in the blast. Woke up three weeks later. It took nine months to learn how to fly again. Four months after that, I emigrated to Ponyville."
Luna clicked her tongue. "Liar. There was no accident. You did precisely what you intended. Your mark runs too deep. Dusk Fireball bucked the grenade at the villain, knowing she was herself within its lethal radius, and then covered the foals with her own unarmored body. The foals are alive, uninjured, and back with their families. 'Fireball,' indeed."
Starlight whistled. A tear stung Rarity's eye.
"I nominated Major Fireball for the Cross of Valor, Equestria's highest combat honor..." Luna's voice turned harsh, thick with hatred, "but the Guard, in its infinite wisdom, downgraded it to the Silver Shield. Heavens forbid a batpony's name be spoken with reverence! Never before in history has the recommendation of a Princess who personally fought in a battle not been granted. In my disgust, I forced through the Batpony Anti-Discrimination Act, which is now law. In a year or two, I will insist your award be upgraded, and you be recognized as a Hero of Equestria."
Dusky looked up, and wiped her nose. "I don't care about medals. I just want... I just want a new life. New friends. Away from my past. I want a job. It's hard to find civilian work with a combat cutie mark, never mind the discrimination. I want to meet... meet... meet a stallion who's not turned off by scars.... I'm not picky about tribe... just, y'know, a kind stallion... somepony quiet. My fantasy... heh... never said this to anypony before... is to lean up against him, on the couch, and fall asleep reading a book together. My life hasn't been quiet. I need quiet."
She buried her face into Rarity's neck and sobbed. "I want to not see that bucking cave everytime I close my eyes to sleep. I moved to Ponyville because—no caves. A batpony who's afraid of caves is like a pegasus who's afraid of clouds. Rarity, I asked to sleep in your basement because it's as close to cave as I can stand. I've been hoping it would help me, y'know, reacclimate..."
Luna flicked her tail. "I believe in you, Dusk Fireball."
"Me, too," said Rarity.
Twilight wrapped a wing around Dusky, and Starlight trotted up and put a hoof on her back.
Dusky wiped her nose again. "How do you all do that? I haven't.... I haven't talked about that stuff to anyone. Not my parents. Not even grandpa. How did you get me talking?"
"It's what makes them Element Bearers," Luna said.
"Or a guidance counselor," Starlight said.
Dusky smiled, and her fangs glinted. "I'm ready to get to work, Princess Twilight."
"Call me Twilight."
Dusky glanced at Luna. Luna nodded her head a fraction of an inch.
Rarity met Dusky at the castle entrance that evening. Dusky jangled a coin purse from the hooked claw on her left wing. "Let's fetch your sister from her school, and I'll buy dinner!"
"Mother and Father are home from holiday today, so Sweetie's back with them. But I'm certainly famished."
Dusky's eyebrows furrowed. "Can... can I treat them, too?"
Rarity looked at Dusky, and saw tension around her eyes. No, Rarity thought, you're offering because you feel indebted to me, but you and I both know you can't afford to feed five.
"They'll cook as a family," Rarity said, "and catch up from their time apart. Sweetie Belle missed mother and father terribly."
Dusky settled her cape over her wings and pulled up her hood, and then donned her sunglasses. "You and me, then. Hey, asking for a friend, do you know any single stallions in town?"
"Literally dozens," Rarity replied. "Perhaps a hundred, if we count the outlying farms and homesteads."
"Twilight could use a date, too."
Rarity chuckled. "You have no idea."
They headed into central Ponyville, and crossed paths with Redheart and her husband, a light-yellow pegasus named Accounts Payable, who ran the hospital's billing department. Redheart and Dusky smiled and waved at each other. The couple's preschool-aged twins—pegasus colt, earth pony filly—trotted at the nurse's hooves, the colt trying to get airborne.
Rarity grinned to see Dusky cantering with a little bounce in her step and some spring in her wings. The batpony smiled under her hood and sunglasses, and her tail wagged as they trotted. She tossed her hood back and the low evening sun caught her blond mane. Her fluffy ears stood straight up, flicking in time with her steps.
Amazing what a hard day's work, fairly paid, did for some ponies' attitudes.
Savoir Fare seated them at Café Hay and the couple at the next table—pegasus stallion and unicorn mare—stared at Dusky, paid their check, and took their mostly uneaten meals to go.
Dusky pulled her wings tighter under her cape, pulled her hood down over her face, and glowered at the table.
After a minute, Dusky said, "The dozens of single stallions I was asking about, for a friend?"
"What fraction of them would date a batpony with a horrifically scarred wing and torso?"
"Not one hundred percent," Rarity admitted, "but neither zero. And your scars aren't 'horrific.'"
"We're talking about my unspecified friend, not me. And I've looked in a mirror."
"A good stallion will see the heroism and love for foals not even of your species, and not see the scars."
Their food came and they ate in silence. Dusky paid the bill, Rarity paid the gratuity, and they trudged back to Rarity's house just after sunset.
"Mind if I have a bath, Rarity? I'm sore from being on my wings all day."
"Don't let the obnoxious ponies at the cafe get you down, darling. Not all of Ponyville is like that."
"About fifteen percent, by my running tally." Dusky hung her cape in the coat closet and trudged upstairs.
Two nights later, just before midnight, Rarity was sketching a commission concept at her worktable when somepony pounded on her front door. She dropped her charcoal pencil and trotted to open the door, expecting Luna again.
Rain misted down from low clouds, and streetlights glowed inside halos as the fog swirled. Ponyville smelled of clean air and damp mud.
A light-brown earth pony stallion stood on her stoop, a soaked poncho covering a full suit of Guard officer's armor.
"Davenport?" Rarity said. "Whatever is the matter? It's a bit after quill or sofa hours."
"Where's the major?" he snapped.
Rarity blinked twice, then asked, "You mean Dusky? She's asleep, in my basement."
"Wake her. Tell her to meet us at the armory in five minutes. Two minutes. And do me a favor, Miss Rarity, go shake the princess out of bed at the castle and get her to the armory, too. Then wake the other Element Bearers. All ponies on deck."
Rarity's head lightened and she put a hoof against the door frame to stay steady. "Davenport—what's wrong? What's going on? Wherever is this alleged armory?"
"Town Hall's basement. Tell them all, 'Several foals have been taken.'" He took off at a gallop.
Lieutenant Davenport and Mayor Mare were up on the portico of town hall, with Vinyl Scratch and Octavia Melody. Vinyl's sunglasses and headphones were missing, her face bloody, and a massive bruise blackened her left eye. She levitated an icepack to her skull as she slumped in a rocking chair.
Rarity, standing in the rain, levitated an umbrella over herself, Spike, and Twilight. The nineteen enlisted ponies of the Ponyville Home Guard stood at ease on the portico of Town Hall, out of the rain, ponchos covering their armor. Sergeant Redheart's poncho, bright white, was emblazoned with red crosses. The others wore slate-gray camouflage. Dusky was nowhere to be seen, even though Rarity had watched her leave the house, airborne before she was even out the door.
"When did you last see your sister, Vinyl?" Davenport asked.
Vinyl Scratch looked at Octavia, and then moved her forehooves, ears, and tail in Equestrian Sign Language. Her response took many seconds.
Twilight's wings trembled and she pawed the mud with a forehoof.
Octavia translated, "She says, 'Right around sundown. I must have lost consciousness.'"
Mayor Mare looked at Vinyl and asked, "Are you sure it was Diamond Dogs?"
Vinyl nodded yes, yes, yes.
"The other three foals?" Davenport asked. "Who were they?"
Rarity's eyes widened and she felt the umbrella shake as her magic spluttered. Three additional foals? Four foals were gone? Taken?
This. This was the worst possible thing.
Vinyl signed a long response, and Octavia concentrated, glowering.
Octavia asked, "Dinky, Toola Roola, and Coconut Cream?"
Vinyl nodded and gestured on the nose.
Spike, wearing a green rain slicker, sobbed once. Twilight wrapped a wing around him, and pulled him close. Rarity placed a hoof on Spike's shoulder. Spike, after all, was the same age as the stolen foals, and knew them well. Spike always played goalie on the hoofball team Toola Roola captained.
Mayor Mare pointed to Pinkie, Starlight, and Fluttershy. "Go tell their parents, and get them here."
"What were you doing, again?" Davenport asked Vinyl.
Vinyl's response took over a minute, and Twilight's horn sparked as they waited. Rarity shifted the umbrella slightly to protect it from any sudden magical discharge.
Rarity looked around again. Where was Dusky? Surely the batpony had not flown Ponyville in terror...
"Babysitting," Octavia translated Vinyl's signs. "My mom is sick, dad is taking care of her. Didn't want little Lemon to catch it. Sister wanted to go skip rocks at Froggy Bottom Bog with her friends. We were trotting home when dogs jumped me."
Dusky spoke, and Rarity finally saw her, hanging upside-down in the shadows from the ceiling of the portico. "Which direction did they go?" asked Dusky.
Vinyl shook her head and signed. Octavia translated, "Not sure. Hit my head hard."
Dusky melted back into the shadows. Rarity was looking right at her—she knew that. But she still couldn't see the batpony.
After a few more questions, Mayor Mare said to Octavia, "All right, take Vinyl to the hospital." The Mayor gestured Twilight up to the portico. Uninvited, Rarity and Spike followed.
"What do we do?" asked the Mayor.
Twilight replied, "Spike'll take a letter for Princess Celestia. We'll have a full Guard battalion here two hours after sunup."
Rarity shivered. A battalion of the Guard—the last time entire battalions had deployed.... was Tirek. (For all the good that did.)
"Canterlot Guards aren't what we need," came Dusky's voice from the shadows above. "Luna will relay the message to Equuicigalpa, and get us the Mountain Battalion. It'll be nice to see Grandpa... but it'll be midnight before they can get here, or dawn tomorrow. We need to do this ourselves, right now."
Mayor Mare said, "The battalion from Canterlot should go into the caves."
Spike pulled a scroll and quill out from under his slicker and dashed off a letter. Twilight whispered one or two changes to him, and then whoosh! it was off to Canterlot.
"I'm inclined to wait for Princess Celestia," Twilight said. "This is too important to risk making a hasty mistake."
Davenport shook his head. "Those dogs are digging in and fortifying as we speak. Could you come down out of the shadows, please, Major?"
Dusky dropped, and landed between Twilight and the mayor.
"Major... I... well..." Davenport looked at his hooves, and his ears wilted. "It's my unit, here. I don't like you showing up one fine day and upsetting my chain of command. I'm not gonna say I like batponies living in my town. But foals are in danger."
Dusky closed her eyes and her whole body shook. "I haven't been underground since I got wounded. I don't know if I can."
Rarity flicked her umbrella closed, leaned it against the protico railing, and trotted over to nuzzle Dusky. "Luna said you've saved foals from worse threats before, darling. I know these Diamond Dogs—they aren't evil. Goodness knows what's gotten into their heads, but two squads of Guards will put their tails firmly between their legs."
Pop! With a flash of green magic, a scroll appeared. Spike grabbed it and read: "Your grim message is acknowledged. I shall awaken my sister and gather reinforcements. I place all authority—and my unalloyed trust—in your hooves, Princess Twilight, until we arrive. Signed, Her Lunar Highness."
Twilight flicked her ears. "That's unambiguous. Well... we've actually had pretty good relationships with the local dogs since they ran afoul of you, Rarity. This is stupid."
"Dogs aren't stupid," Dusky snarled, stomping and thrasing her tail. Her wings flapped once. "Ponish is their second language, so don't confuse disfluency with stupidity. But this does stink of either stupid... or of a deliberate provocation. They know we ponies will do anything to rescue foals. They must be wanting trouble. But why?"
Rarity fought a grin—Dusky had just said 'we ponies,' lumping herself in with the rest of the town. Yes. Yes, that's my mare, darling.
"Provocation!" came a raspy voice from the rainy darkness. "It'sss a deliberate provocation!"
Rover—the medium-sized diamond dog who had once led Rarity's kidnapping—emerged into the streetlights.
The guardponies spread out to either side, unicorns drawing swords, the two pegasi going airborne, and earth ponies wrapping forelegs around spear shafts.
"Unarmed!" Rover yelled, throwing up his right hand, his left arm limp. "Unarmed! Homeless, deposed, unwanted, injured!"
Dusky tucked a grenade back under her rain poncho, and then flapped twice to land at the dog's feet. She stood up to the maximum of her rather modest height and demanded, "Yield."
The dog—more than thrice Dusky's height—bowed his head and raised his right hand higher. "Surrender."
"Treat the prisoner's wounds. C'mon, you, up on the porch, out of the rain. Somepony clear a bench."
The guardsponies spread out, surrounding the dog, and he tucked his tail. Claw marks and bruises covered his body, and his left forearm was blackened and swollen from a broken bone. Rarity wrinkled her nose in sympathy at the painful wound.
He sat down, and Redheart splinted the broken bone and cleaned and bandaged the lacerations. Sergeant Sparkler levitated a chain around his waist, snapped a hoofcuff around his good wrist, and used the hoofcuffs to secure the chain like a belt. Redheart fitted a sling for his left arm.
"Talk," Davenport snarled.
"Rex," Rover said. "Came from another pack. Challenged me for alpha. Won. Drove me out of my pack. His old pack... far, far away. Not near ponies. Near griffons, much fighting. Think fighting normal. Rex not understand ponies. Griffons... griffons not work together to punish dogs. But ponies...." He nodded his head at the uniformed soldiers. "Ponies make herd. Ponies work together. Ponies punish dogs."
"Whyever did he foalnap four ponies, Rover?" Rarity asked. "This is how Diamond Dog packs bring the wrath of all Equestria down on their heads. Don't your legends describe what the herd will do to protect its young?"
"Yes! Yes!" rapsed the dog. "That's why I came here—try to save pack's lives. Not know Rex's whole plan, but probably coins for trade. Demand favors of ponies. Doubt foals are hurt... yet."
The herd muttered.
"They hurt Vinyl Scratch," said the Mayor. "The adult babysitting the foals."
"Adult horn-ponies—dangerous. Needed her hurt, first, to not make horn-power." He looked at Rarity. "Only took beautiful pony because of gem-hunting horn. Horn-ponies risky."
Rarity muttered, "Brutes!" and flipped her soaked mane.
"See what I meant?" Dusky said loudly. "Dogs aren't stupid. This Rex has a plan to deal with us calling in reinforcements. It might not be a good plan, but I don't want to give him the chance. We need to go, right now, and hit them before they know what's what."
"Is that wise?" asked the Mayor. "I want you to wait for reinforcements and the Sisters."
Twilight nodded. "We've got twenty-one reservists, counting you, Major. This is a full pack of Diamond Dogs, looking for trouble. Is a hasty assault wise?"
Davenport pawed at the wooden decking of the portico. "I... I don't like you, Major, okay? I'm the kind of pony that anti-discrimination act is pointed at. But I think you're right. The sooner we hit them, the better."
Everypony looked at Twilight. Equestria's junior-most princess trembled. Spike reached up and patted his sister's ribs.
"Major Fireball," Twilight said, her voice formal.
"Your Highness?" Dusky said, snapping to attention. "I await your orders."
Twilight drew her hooves together and stood at her full height, wings flaring into Royal Command Posture. "You're the pony with the most experience. As the senior officer, the glory or the ignominy will be on your wings. I recommend waiting for Canterlot—but I leave the decision on your hooves, I will endorse your decision, whatever it may be, and I will accompany you into the caves, if you chose to strike now."
Dusky looked at Rover. "Will you lead us to the cave entrance?"
"Don't hurt my pack. We make deal. No hurt my pack."
Dusky looked at Davenport.
Davenport replied, "You're the major, Major."
She looked at Rover. "We're getting those foals back, but I swear on my honor as an Officer of the Crown that we'll do our best not to hurt any dogs, if it can be reasonably avoided. But I can't promise. Take that deal, or go to the dungeons in Canterlot and we do it without your help. And that will get bloody, for both dogs and ponies. You'd better hope we sort this out before Luna and my grandpa get here, or your pack will be extinct."
Rover flinched. "Pups. Would you cry over dead foals, but not dead pups?"
"Of course I'll cry for dead pups. But I already cry myself to sleep every night. What's a tiny bit more blood on my hooves? In my dreams, every time I close my eyes, the blood is up to my shoulders."
"You bark loud for part-time soldier from tiny village," Rover said.
Dusky snarled, and turned flank-on to the dog and the gathered adults of Ponyville. She unfurled her damaged wing, and used a hoof to pull her poncho up and expose her torso. The scars of the grenade blast, the surgeries, and the skin grafts caught the hard torchlight, and cast vile shadows across her bluish-gray coat.
"I'm no green recruit, dog. I'm no half-trained reservist. I've commanded the hardest shock troops on the face of the planet, and I led them from the front. I've bucked down more doors than you've opened in your entire life. Don't think for a second I won't kill every last dog, every last bitch, every last pup, sacrifice every one of my own ponies, and trade my ownlife, to get those foals back. Do you doubt me?!?"
The troopers and townsponies muttered, and shuffled their hooves. Dusky dropped the poncho and furled her wing again.
Rover blinked at Dusky for several seconds, panting.
The batpony stared back, expression flat and breathing slow.
Then, Rover looked at Rarity. "Pretty pony—we are not friends, but we are not enemies, either. Remember—I not hurted you. Tell me true. Can I trust cave-pony's oath?"
Rarity nodded. "Yes. Yes. Yes!"
The dog made a fist and held it up. Dusky bumped it. "We have deal," Rover said. "Foals' lives for dogs' lives. Rex, I not care so much."
Dusky stomped, and thrashed her tail. Loud enough for everypony in Town Square to hear, she declared: "We go. Right now. Before the dogs fortify any more. Or... before they get hungry."
The word hungry sent a shiver across the gathered herd.
The batpony looked at Twilight.
Twilight scowled, but nodded yes.
"One more question," Dusky said, pointing at Redheart in her bright-white poncho. "Will Dogs respect the red cross, or should I put my medic in camouflage?"
Rover spat on the portico floor. "Dogs not barbarians! Question is insult."
Spike sent a letter to Luna, updating her on Dusky's plan.
The instant reply: Good hunting. —Luna.
The rain turned from a mist to a downpour. Twilight, Rarity, Rover, Davenport, Dusky, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and the nineteen enlisted ponies trudged through the mud, westward toward the Diamond Dog colony.
Corporal Bon Bon broke ranks and galloped to the edge of town square. She threw back her hood and tucked her helmet under her foreleg. Lyra trotted to her, mane and tail soaked by rain. Bon Bon kissed her wife, and then they hugged each other, foreheads touching for a few seconds.
Lyra levitated the helmet back on her wife, and wiped tears and rain from her own face. Bon Bon flipped her hood back up, and trotted back to her place in the formation.
Then, Lyra plopped down to her haunches in the mud and buried her face in her forehooves as the soldiers marched away.
Redheart broke ranks, too, and hugged her husband, brother-in-law, and twins, before retaking her place in the formation.
The tiny twins howled into the rain as their mother marched away.
How many widows and widowers come dawn? Rarity thought. How many orphans? Davenport has three foals. These are reservists, Home Guard, not regulars, not the elite like Dusky's old Ronin section, yet look at them march to combat. Terror, yes, I smell terror even through the rain, but no hesitation. Not even Lieutenant Davenport has seen combat before. Dusky and Redheart are the only veterans.
Rarity took a deep breath and trotted after them, taking the tail position of the column, levitating a jar of fireflies to light her way.
The Mayor, Starlight, Spike, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie stayed back in town, comforting the missing foals' parents, and the many other foals who only understood that their friends were gone, gone, gone.
Rain soaked the camouflage guard poncho Rarity wore, and she lamented what it must be doing to her mane and tail.
They marched for an hour, into the wilderness outside Ponyville.
Rarity thought, I should have grabbed some spare armor...
"Here," Rover said, pointing to a depression behind some fallen scree. "Cave entrance."
Davenport looked at his troopers. "Flitter! Cloudchaser! Front and center!"
The pegasi flapped over to him.
"Pick a number between one and ten," Davenport ordered.
"Nine," said Cloudchaser.
"One," said Flitter.
"It was three," Davenport replied. "Flitter, stay topside and guard the prisoner. I'm not letting twins go into combat together."
"Sir!" Flitter said, flipping down her hood, the rain drenching her mane instantly. "I want to do my part. I can fight down there." Her voice broke, and she blinked away tears and raindrops. "I'm... I'm not afraid!"
"I'm terrified to tell your dad and little brothers I got you both killed," Davenport said. "I've known your dad since he and I were in diapers. Stay topside, Private Flitter. That's an order."
Flitter looked at Cloudchaser. They hugged, and Rarity heard some sniffling and perhaps a sob.
They broke their hug, adjusted each others' helmets and rain ponchos, and then moved to their separate duties.
Dusky moved to Flitter and whispered, "Rover's left arm is broken, in a sling. Stay to his left side and behind, and keep a close watch. Private, have you seen action before?"
Flitter shook her head no, once, a spasm. Her helmet rattled and her ears wilted.
"You've had hoof-to-hoof in basic?"
"Yes, ma'am. I scored expert in aerial combat training."
"Can you kill in self-defense, private? There's no shame in saying no. Most ponies can't. You won't have the herd around you. You'll have to make your own decision."
Flitter scrunched her eyes closed. Her tail flicked, flicked, flicked, and her chest heaved.
Rarity's guts clenched as she watched the pegasus. She knew Flitter well, having been one year ahead of the twins in Ponyville Schoolhouse all through foalhood. Flitter even once had asked Rarity to a school dance, although Rarity—preferring stallions—declined. They all had spent many a foalhood Saturday on the fields outside town as part of the herd, playing tag or hoofball or hide-and-seek. Flitter, the poor thing, and Cloudchaser, too, only joined the Home Guard for college bits, their widower father struggling to support seven foals.
Flitter opened her eyes and looked at Dusky. "Yes, Major. I can."
"If he tries to jump you," Dusky said with a nod, "slice low with your right wingblade and open his femoral artery. That's a sure kill. I think he's helping us, but his mind could change. Don't hesitate. If he gets in close before you can slice, bite his bad arm on the break, then try to open his throat with a wingblade. Headbutt if you have to. Dogs have weak chins and your helmet is hard."
Flitter nodded, another sharp spasm of her neck. "Yes... yes, ma'am."
Dusky smacked her upside the helmet with her right wing. "Good. You'll do good, Private."
Rarity watched Flitter as Dusky trotted off. Flitter closed her eyes, took several deep breaths, and then stiffened her face and flapped her wings out from under her rain gear.
Her sharp wingblades glistened in the torchlight.
Flitter trotted over to the dog, and stood behind him and to his left. Applejack and Rainbow Dash stood nearby, poncho-less and soaked to the skin, but glaring at the dog as well.
Dusky pulled Davenport aside, and Rarity walked to join them. "Lieutenant," Dusky said, "we should leave both pegasi topside."
Davenport shook his head. "No, skipper. Cloudchaser actually qualified with high marks in cave training. Flitter... did not. Passed out, actually."
Rarity hid a smile. Davenport had just called Dusky skipper.
Dusky blinked and flicked her ears. "Lucky you picked 'three.'"
"I didn't. I lied to keep Flitter topside, without embarrassing her. "
"Oh," Dusky said. "She volunteered to go down."
Davenport shrugged. "Flitter's brave as Tartarus, but some pegasi are biologically incapable of caving, no matter how brave they are."
"How many other ponies in the unit are cave-qualified?" Dusky asked.
"Redheart and Cloudy. Skipper—what about you?"
Dusky's ears went flat. "I qualified master. Instructor, too. But... I couldn't even go to my little sister's birthday party two months back. If I freeze up—take command."
Davenport paled slightly, his face sickly in the torchlight. "Yes, ma'am. Major—if you knew that's a risk, why aren't we waiting for Canterlot?"
"Every minute gives more chances for the foals to get hurt."
"True." Davenport rubbed his chin. "Yes, Major, that's true."
"I'm coming, too," Rarity said.
"No," Dusky replied. "This is in the Guard's hooves."
Twilight trotted up. "Rarity? You and I are both coming, but you'll stay with the rear guard. The dogs respect you, and the goal is negotiation. Understood, Major? Lieutenant? Rarity is our voice to the Dogs."
"Yes, Princess," both officers replied.
Dusky shuffled her wings under her slate-gray cloak.
"Skipper?" Davenport said. "You're not wearing armor."
"Nothing in the armory fit me," Dusky replied. "Batpony wings sit further forward than pegasus wings, and my head's too small for any of the helmets."
"Crud," said Davenport.
"Shadows will have to be my armor. Princess, I need you to knock out the dogs' light fixtures. Knock most of them out, but not all, so I have deep shadows to work with."
Davenport shouted over the rain to his troopers. "I've worked with you all for years. We've only known the major for a few days—but we need a cave expert, and Celestia saw fit to send us one." He stepped aside. "Skipper?"
Dusky raised her voice and flared her wings. "This isn't a buckball game. There are foals in danger. We're the Royal Guard. Every last one of us is a volunteer. We all raised our right hooves and swore oaths in front of Celestia Herself that if this day ever came, we would step up and fight. Well, this day came. That means we're getting those foals back, safe and unharmed, even if it costs every last one of us our lives. Anypony who's not okay with that, anypony who's not willing to die for those foals, die tonight, can shed their armor and go home right now, because I don't trust you covering my back. Any takers?"
"No!" growled the troopers.
"Okay," Dusky said. "We're taking the alpha dog down. We want to negotiate, but we'll settle for his head. Remember: we're ponies, not barbarians. We're trained Guards, not irregulars. We will respect surrender, and we will hold wounded and medics sacrosanct, but we will kill anydog who won't throw down arms. Is that unclear?"
"The Home Guard's motto is: 'We stand resolute, between the chaos and our family.' Well, guess what? The chaos already came. The chaos caught us asleep in bed. The chaos took us by surprise. So we're going to go buck its doors down, and take on the chaos in its own home, and teach the chaos a Lunafucking lesson. Sound good?"
"If I go down, the lieutenant takes command, then Sergeant Sparkler, then Corporal Bon Bon, and on down the line. So long as even one of us can stand, we keep fighting. Single file, me in front, the lieutenant in the rear, weapons out, stay quiet, follow me."
Rarity looked at Rainbow Dash and Applejack, standing guard near Rover, and Rarity waved goodbye. Rainbow and Applejack waved solemnly back, and Rarity entered the cave.
Dusky stood just inside, with her troopers, her wings shaking, twisting her head left and right, up and down, to take in the stone surroundings. Her chest heaved as she fought for breath.
She's so small, Rarity thought. She's not much bigger than Sweetie Belle, but she's fought through so much. How many ponies, or other creatures, has she killed? How many of her own have died under her orders?
...I don't want to know, Rarity decided.
Dusky looked over her shoulder, at the cave entrance and the night beyond, and her wings flapped out of time with each other.
Rarity took a few steps toward Dusky. Davenport held up a hoof, against her chest. "You stay in the rear."
"Dusky—the Major—needs me."
Davenport's gaze followed Rarity's, to where the batpony stood, her legs shaking and wings drooping.
"I'll talk to her," Davenport said.
"Oh?" Rarity asked. "After you ejected her from your shop, for having the temerity to ask if the 'help wanted' sign meant you wanted help?"
"You heard about that?"
"Are you really the ideal emissary to the place she's in, Davenport?"
Davenport took a step backwards, his ears flattening against his head and face going pale. "We've got to send her back topside," he replied.
"No. I've got to get her calmed down, if we want to save those foals." Rarity strode past him, and flipped her tail against the tip of his nose as she passed.
Dusky quailed in terror, staring at the rocky ceiling and walls, her entire body shaking. "It's.... it's so much like it... that cave... with the other foals. It must have been an old dog cave, dug centuries before, and abandoned."
Rarity sidled up to Dusky, leaning against her, soaking poncho to soaking poncho, and draped a foreleg over the much smaller mare.
"Rarity– I can't do this– I– I–"
"You. You are the bravest pony I know. You are my friend. And you can do this, darling. You gritted your teeth through hours of sun poisoning with the weather crew for mere money, I know you can grit your teeth now, for something important."
"Because you have to, Dusky. You said yourself—there are four foals in danger, and nopony but you has the... has the ability. Are you going to shed your armor, and go home?"
"No. I—no. No, I can't do that." A fanged grin. "I don't have armor."
"I'm your friend, and I'm right here, behind you. I believe in you. Twilight is here because she believes in you, and Redheart. Aren't they your friends, too?"
"But... but if I freeze up, if I screw up? The ponies like Davenport, or the couple at Café Hay... I'll just prove them right."
"Then you can't screw up, now can you? We're all with you. Davenport is right here, at your tail, because even he knows you're the mare for this job."
After about ten seconds, Dusky's wings steadied and retracted to her flanks, she ground her teeth, her eyes narrowed, and she looked into Rarity's eyes. "Thank you. I... my friend. Sweet Luna, I'll be pissed off if you die. Please be careful."
"You, too, Dusky."
Dusky waved one forehoof to her troopers in a Follow me! gesture, and snuck down the cave, belly low, nose sniffing for a trail.
"That's my filly," Rarity whispered. "I knew you could do it."
Dusky, Corporal Bon Bon, and Sergeant Sparkler led the two squads into the cave. Twilight and the bulk of the guards followed behind them, spread out with about one pony-length between each trooper. Davenport, Rarity, and two earth pony privates—Cherry Berry, a pink mare, and a blue stallion named Eiffel—covered the rear of the column.
Sweat covered Rarity's back and flanks, and dripped into her eyes, despite the frigidness of the wet poncho. Her ears twitched at any tiny sound, and her chest hurt as she fought to calm her breathing.
Twilight cast spells, squelching light fixtures before Dusky reached them, and the batpony slinked from one well of shadow to another. Rarity shivered as the chill of the cave bit through her soaking-wet rain poncho, but she kept sweating, too, and shivers of terror gripped her, starting in her groin and extending up to her nose and down her tail.
And then, ahead of the ponies, a wood and stone barricade blocked the tunnel, with several armored Diamond Dogs waiting behind it with spears and bows.
"Ponies faster than Rex expected," called one of them.
Rarity belly-crawled, feeling the grit of the cave floor grind into her coat and tail. "Twilight," she whispered. "Want me to go—"
The batpony was also flat on her belly, and her tail twitched, right-right-left, right-left-left, left-right-left.
Code, Rarity realized. Dusky was spelling orders to Twilight with the tail twitches.
Davenport crawled up as Twilight squelched a few more light fixtures, leaving the ponies in deep darkness and the dogs in solid light.
"What's the plan, princess?" Davenport asked.
"The major wants me to teleport the barricade away without hurting the dogs behind it. She'll hit them with a stun grenade and your troopers will make a pike wall to keep them back. Pass the word."
"Can you teleport the barricade?" asked the lieutenant.
"Easily... although I'm not sure about the 'not hurt the dogs' part... I'm going to teleport it to the middle of Luna Bay, and hope that none of them are holding on too tight. ....I... I think Dusky is going to use me as an artillery piece. That's actually not a bad idea, but I feel like I could do more."
"There's no class called 'Proper Utilization of an Alicorn' in reserve training," Davenport said. "The skipper went to the Academy, but I suspect they don't have that class, either."
The dogs rattled their shields and banged their spears. The two armed with bows nocked arrows.
Davenport crawled from trooper to trooper, and each one nodded as he whispered to them.
Rarity squirmed, burrowing deeper into the dirt that covered the rocky floor. Her unarmored spine prickled, and the two bow-armed dogs held her full attention.
She really, really should have grabbed some armor earlier, darling, but it was so rushed and confused...
In a deep shadow, Rarity saw a brief glint of gold as Dusky flagged up her blond tail—
—and then slashed it down.
Twilight jumped to her hooves and charged her horn.
The dogs drew back their bowstrings, aiming towards Twilight.
A small orb flew through the cavern, from Dusky's shadow, toward the dogs.
Twilight's horn flashed.
The barricade disappeared in a purple miasma.
The dogs fell, off-balance, and two arrows flew wild.
Dusky's grenade bounced off a dog's helmet.
Rarity clapped her hooves over her ears and buried her face into the dirt.
Rarity looked up, dust stinging her eyes, ears ringing. Dusky grabbed onto a dog's armored back, beating its head with her wings, fangs sunk into its neck. The dog threw himself backwards to crush Dusky, but she leapt to the cave ceiling and hung upside-down from the smooth stone.
Cloudchaser landed on the dog's chest, and held a wingblade to his jugular. He opened his hands and stilled. His mouth moved, but Rarity couldn't hear his words over the ringing.
Other guards held another four dogs at spear or sword point.
Two dogs ran down the tunnel, deeper into the warrens.
As Rarity's hearing returned, she heard a stallion screaming: "Mare down! Mare down! Medic!"
Rarity spun, lighting her horn bright, looking for the injured trooper.
The other troopers were binding the Dogs' hands and ankles, and stripping them to the fur to check for weapons. Twilight zapped each of them with a spell, and the ropes binding them glowed a soft pink, magically reinforced.
Sparkler sprawled flat on her belly, right leg splayed out, the shaft of an arrow sticking from the meaty part of her thigh, blood soaking her poncho. She twisted and almost bit down on the arrow.
Redheart, galloping up, smacked her on the nose. "No! It's near an artery."
Rarity flopped down next to Sparkler and grabbed her head, held her cheek to cheek, holding tight so that Sparkler had to look forward, away from her own wound.
But holding Sparkler that way put the bloody action right in front of Rarity's nose. She swallowed and clamped her jaws tight.
"Rarity," Redheart said, "hold still. I need your hornlight."
With hooves and teeth, Redheart tore Sparkler's poncho away from the arrow shaft. Blood smeared Redheart's muzzle. The arrow had punched clean through the armor and deep into Sparkler's flesh.
"I thought Guard armor was enchanted?" snapped Rarity.
"When... when... when the enchantments get old and weak..." Sparkler gasped, "they give the regulars fresh armor, and give the old to the Home Guard."
Rarity gasped. The reservists had marched into battle with armor they knew was inferior.
"Shhhh, I've got you," Rarity whispered into Sparkler's ear. The injured trooper's body shook as Redheart grabbed a pair of shears in her teeth and snipped off the feathered shaft of the arrow. Sparkler broke out in sweat and Rarity wiped her forehead.
"Dinky," Sparkler breathed, gritting her teeth. "Dinky..."
"We're getting your sister back," Rarity said. "Don't worry. Redheart's an artist."
"Flip on your back," Redheart commanded, guiding Sparkler's damaged thigh as Rarity helped her roll. Once upside-down, Sparkler tucked her tail over her belly.
"I've gotta get this out," Redheart snapped. "It's really close to the artery. Hold still. Princess! Princess Twilight!"
Twilight sprinted and slid down next to Sparkler, opposite Rarity. "Yes, Redheart?"
Redheart nosed Sparkler's steel combat knife from its sheath. "If I hit the artery, heat that blade red-hot with a spell so I can cauterize the wound."
Sparkler shuddered. "Will, will I lose my leg?"
"Hold still," Redheart growled.
Twilight forced a smile, and touched her nose to Sparkler's, looking into the upside-down mare's eyes from a few inches away.
"We both live in Ponyville, but we only ever hang out when there's a crisis," Twilight said. "Thanks for handling Cranky and Matilda's wedding when we fought the bugbear."
"No... no... no prob'm...." Sparkler's sweat was turning frothy.
Redheart grabbed a scalpel in her teeth and cut at the inside of her thigh, where the arrow's point distended the skin.
Tears filled Sparkler's eyes.
"Remember school?" Twilight said.
Sparkler's left foreleg pounded the ground, and she gasped for breath as Redheart's scalpel sliced deep into muscle, her blood now pouring. Rarity hugged her tighter. Sparkler wheezed, "Yeah.... yeah, Twilight."
"Remember when Lemon Hearts got her head stuck in the flask in potions class?"
"Tryin' distract?" Sparkler gasped, blinking to clear her eyes, shaking harder as Redheart cut her thigh muscles open.
Redheart spit out the scalpel, and began working the shaft-end of the arrow deeper into Sparkler's thigh, and the wicked barbed end of the arrow, black metal coated in gore, emerged out of the meat.
Rarity swallowed, and hugged Sparkler tighter.
"Lemon Hearts ran all over the lab," Twilight said. "Moon Dancer and I were working. I don't remember who saved Lemon Hearts, do you?"
Redheart got the barb free, and then slid the arrow shaft clean through and out the far side.
"Gaaaaahhhhh!" Sparkler grabbed Twilight around the neck, shaking, breath shuddering, uninjured thigh spasming against the floor.
"Missed the artery!" Redheart cheered.
"She's done, darling," Rarity whispered.
Sparkler looked over, across her belly, at Redheart packing the wound with gauze.
"That hurt! Sweet Celestia, in training, they didn't explain how much that hurts. I... I've peed all over myself."
"It's okay, darling," Rarity whispered into her ear, trying to ignore the stench of blood, agony sweat, and rank urine.
Wiping her face with a wing, blood pouring from her nose and muzzle, Dusky trotted up from where she had been securing the prisoners. "Redheart? How's the sergeant?"
"She's not walking on that, skipper," Redheart said, slapping a sticky bandage over Sparkler's wound. "She needs surgery stat. Can we spare somepony to get her topside?"
"Congratulations, Sergeant Sparkler," Dusky said. "Your wounded-in-action decoration will have the first Combat-T device in history. Luna hates being a walking medal factory, Princess Twilight. I bet you won't enjoy it, either."
Twilight's face paled, and then she said, "Let's hope none of these decorations are posthumous. And your nose is broken, Major. You're bleeding badly."
"Pfffttt. I did this earlier today, tossing a hoofball with Spike at your castle."
"You're a worse liar than Applejack," replied Twilight.
"Rarity," Dusky asked, "can you carry Sparkler back to the surface?"
"No!" Sparkler shouted. "I'm not leaving this cave without my sister!"
"Sister?" Dusky said. "Lieutenant Davenport, did you allow a trooper on a mission to rescue her own sister?"
"Yes, skipper. This isn't Canterlot. I can't spare one of my squad leaders."
Dusky flapped her wings and glared. "We'll talk later. All right, Sergeant Sparkler. You won't go topside but you can't walk. So you stay here." Dusky pulled a grenade from her satchel, and held it up, balanced on a hoof. "Can you levitate this? Or is your magic blown out from the pain?"
The wounded sergeant blinked her eyes and lit her horn, and her grayish-opal aura lifted the grenade and carried it to her.
"Good," Dusky said, then raised her voice to be heard. "That's a fragmentation grenade, enchanted for higher bursting power. If the dogs struggle against their bonds, or other dogs try to rescue them... kill them. We can't have dogs loose in our rear."
The dogs stopped squirming against the Twilight-enchanted ropes.
Sparkler nodded. "Yes, skipper. Get my sister back."
Dusky leaned down, and kissed Sparkler's mane, just behind her horn. "I swear—I swear—I won't leave this cave, alive or dead, without those foals."
They continued their advance. Twilight squelched light fixtures, and Dusky crawled along the ceiling and dropped stun grenades onto three more strongpoints, allowing the rest of the troopers to swarm and tie up the dogs with minimum bloodshed.
Not to say no bloodshed. The scalp flapped free on Cloudchaser's forehead, skullbone exposed, and her white bangs dripped red. Most of the troopers, Davenport, and Twilight bore bloody cuts and scrapes. Rarity's right flank bled from a rock fragment that had sliced open her poncho, and would need at least dozen stitches.
Birch Bucket, a seafoam-green unicorn whose day job was at the Ponyville Spa, limped on a broken foreleg, using a crutch improvised from his sword scabbard.
Redheart, unwounded but her white medic's poncho red with others' blood, packed gauze into an unconscious Diamond Dog's bleeding ears.
Several Dogs were going to need major medical treatment, when all was over. If the battle took too long, they very well might die. Redheart stabilized them as best she could, and Twilight cast time-slowing spells on them to reduce their bleeding.
Rarity shook her head, her own ears ringing.
Twilight looked at her and mouthed words.
Twilight leaned in and shouted into Rarity's ears. "We're all gonna need some Zecora potions for our hearing tomorrow!"
Dusky waved, Follow Me! and the ponies advanced deeper into the cave. Birch Bucket stayed behind, leaned against the wall, cradling his broken leg, levitating another grenade, and watching the tied-up dogs.
He, too, was under orders to kill them if they tried to escape.
Rarity waved at Dusky. The batpony fluttered down from the ceiling and whispered, "What?"
"I recognize this. We're coming up on the center of the Dogs' lair." Rarity's horn glowed involuntarily, and she could taste a particularly rich pocket of blue diamonds just at her hooves. "Ohhhh... myyyy.... No! I mustn't get distracted. Dusky, I'm willing to go forward and parley with them. This Rex villain may be the new alpha, but Fido and Spot will still be his henchdogs. I may be able to talk some sense."
"I don't know, Rarity...." Dusky rubbed her chin. "They're really interested in fighting. More than I had expected. Lieutenant?"
Davenport shrugged. "I'd hate to give them another hostage, but if your goal is still to negotiate, well, somepony has to negotiate."
"Princess?" Dusky said.
"It's our least-bad idea. I can teleport in and then back out with Rarity in two, two and a half seconds, if needed."
Redheart trotted up. "Skipper? Rover said they'll respect the red cross. Let me go, too, and see if they'll let me check on the foals."
"They might respect the red cross," Dusky said.
"Foals, skipper," Redheart said. "Foals. I'll risk it. Foals. I volunteer. Foals."
Dusky turned around, with her back to the others, flapped her wings three times, and stomped. Then she turned back. "Ponies have died before under my orders. That hurts worse than when I took my own grenade burst."
"But—" Rarity said.
"But do it, Rarity. Redheart. Approved, on my discretion and responsibility. Princess, keep a close watch. Redheart, you aren't volunteering, I'm ordering you to go forward, so that it's on my withers if you get hurt. Everypony, stand to. If they attack our delegation, we'll go in and we kill anydog that doesn't instantly throw down arms."
"You're my best friend. Please don't die."
Rarity removed her poncho, wearing nothing but her own coat, to show the Dogs she was unarmed. Blood trickled from the laceration on her right flank. Redheart stripped her armor and wore only her blood-stained red cross poncho, and a pair of large white saddlebags, also marked with red crosses, slung over her hips.
"Dogs!" Twilight shouted, her voice thundering from magic amplification. "Dogs, we're sending in two unarmed ponies to talk."
The echoes of Twilight's voice died, and then silence reigned through the cavern.
Rarity closed her eyes, listening to the ringing from Dusky's stun grenades in her ears and the pounding of her heart. My hearing is badly damaged, Rarity thought. I hope Zecora has something!
With her eyes closed, she was holding Sparkler again, and her own body shook with the purple unicorn's pain. Her foreleg throbbed with Birch Bucket's broken bone, and her eyes watered with Cloudchaser's seeping blood. I must stop dwelling on this, I must think of the foals and not the wounded....
The fight with the changelings before Cadance and Shining Armor's wedding had been objectively worse, more desperate, higher stakes and against more dangerous enemies, but over in mere seconds.
This grinding advance down the caverns left her with time—ninety minutes and counting, four barricades and counting, slowed by Dusky's meticulous set-piece attacks—damnable time to worry and fret and stew in her own tension and adrenaline. Dizziness filled her and Rarity shook her head. She wanted to go behind a rock and vomit.
"Okay!" came back a Dog's voice, loudly. "Okay, send in ponies with not weapons to bark with us."
Rarity looked into Dusky's yellow eyes.
"Your play," Dusky said. "Get us those foals back. You can promise immunity, you can promise audiences with the Mayor and Princesses, but nothing more. You can't encourage them to try this again. Nocreature's been killed yet, but this can't happen again. They have to learn this is a losing play. A draw is fine, but the dogs can't win."
Rarity nodded once, a jerky twitch of her head.
Dusky patted Rarity's head with a wing. "Stay alive, if at all practical. Good luck."
Rarity trotted down the cavern and into the gallery at the center of the Dogs' territory, Redheart close at her right.
The stench of unwashed dog and rotten food chewed by rotten teeth pressed down on her. Her stomach twisted, but luckily dinner was many hours past. The temperature dropped several degrees and humidity beaded on Rarity's coat.
Rex was obvious: more than Rover's size, about the same off-white color as Bon Bon, and covered with bloody clawmarks from his fight for alpha.
"Pretty pony!" Spot called with a wave. "You comed back!"
"Take me to the foals!" Redheart said with a stomp, her sergeant's snap in her voice. "Now."
Fido and two armored dogs pawed through her bags and under her poncho. She scowled, but she allowed the frisking. After they decided Redheart was, in fact, unarmed, they lead her to a side tunnel. Rarity counted carefully: third tunnel to counter-clockwise of the entrance they had just come through.
"Rex, I presume?"
"Yessss. You are gem finding pony. I heard about you. Maybe we keep you again, but put on muzzle so not whining. Or put dumbcane in food. A few weeks of that, you never whine again!"
"You're ever such a smart dog, Rex," Rarity said, batting her eyelashes and flirting her tail. "Otherwise, how could you have become alpha? Surely a smart alpha knows that Dog packs who kidnap ponies get trouble, darling, and packs that kidnap foals suffer even worse. Surely you don't want trouble for your first day as alpha, do you? You've such a handsome coat, and it would be ever such a tragedy if you had to hide it away, deep in the Everfree, forever, because—"
"Shut false flattering face," Rex ordered.
"Simply by giving us those foals back, you'll show how merciful and well-considered your leadership is, and tomorrow, when the Princesses arrive, they would certainly be more than happy to—"
"—more than happy to listen to your grievances over a nice spot of tea—no offense, Spot—and discuss with you how—"
"Pony!" Rex yelled, and threw a rock that hit Rarity in the left cheek. "I will break your jaw if keep babbling."
Rarity scowled at him, and felt a drop of blood trickling from where the rock had sliced her. "You realize, don't you, darling, that a company of the Guard" — no reason to undersell by saying something truthful, like half a platoon of Home Guard reservists with decrepit armor — "is ready to storm in here? Do you realize that an entire battalion is en route from Canterlot, and the Mountain Battalion of batponies will be here a few hours after that? Whatever are you thinking, Rex, kidnapping foals? Have you cubic zirconia for brains?"
The other dogs murmured, and one banged a spear against the floor.
"You have just fifteen or twenty. I smell. You not dare storm in here."
"Oh no?" Rarity said, drawing herself up to her full height, and with what she hoped was a haughty flip of her disheveled mane. "One of those ponies is an alicorn princess, with more magic in a hoof shaving than your entire pack has in all their carcasses. Another one of us is a batpony, late of the Household Battalion, trained and hardened to rescue hostages and fight in caves. Are you really willing to risk your pack's lives against them?"
"You talk nasty, pony. Maybe I cut talky parts. Have you debarked."
Rarity's eyes widened at the threat to her vocal chords, and her knees shook. She stormed several steps forward and poked Rex in his belly with a hoof. "Even by Diamond Dog standards, you. Are. Stupid. Rex. Rover came to Ponyville and made a deal to preserve this pack's lives," she made an encompassing gesture at the other dogs, "and we've not killed any dog, yet, although several are rather worse for their wear. But if you've harmed those foals, or if we need to cut our way through you ruffians to save them, we will!"
"Traitor!" Rex hissed. "Rover makes deal with ponies? He not deserved this pack!"
"You don't deserve this pack! Rover came to us to save your dogs' lives. Ponies are herd animals, and the herd will always protect the foals from the pack. We've no desire to kill. But we will. Give us those foals back now, and never dare test us again!"
"Oh? And without hostages, your princess collapses our tunnels on us and our pups tomorrow."
"Lies! Lies and slander." Rarity flipped her mane and tail, thinking. "I'm given the authority to deal with you. Wish you immunity? Wish you to return to the status of a few hours ago, before you took our foals? I can make that deal. But you must give them back."
Rex cocked his right hand back and slapped her, a wicked backhand, knocking Rarity several feet across the gallery. She slid another body length or two after she landed, the rough dirt and grit grinding into her coat and rubbing bloody spots across her left flank.
She lost five or ten seconds, dazed, or perhaps even unconscious. Her eyes swam with tears and the edges of her vision sparkled.
She stood up—shakily, to be sure, darling—and fixed her eyes on the dog. It took several more seconds for her double vision to clear.
Salty blood ran down the back of her throat. Her neck throbbed with whiplash and her muzzle bent at a funny angle at the bottom edge of her vision. Broken sinus bones flared with her pounding heartbeat and oh sweet Celestia it hurt.
She shook her head, clearing her thoughts.
I never told mother and father goodbye, she realized. I never told Sweetie Belle goodbye. Oh, by Celestia and Luna, I don't want to die in this cavern.
Blood poured from her shattered nose to the floor.
Her back hooves twitched and her spine tingled, ready to spin and run, gallop as fast as she could for the cavern entrance and the rainy night and fresh air.
She looked over her shoulder, judging the distance to her escape.
Then she looked back at the alpha Diamond Dog. Those four fillies didn't get to tell anypony goodbye, either.
She looked up the tunnel and made a wave-off gesture with her left forehoof, hoping to prevent a rescue assault.
She stomped back to Rex and poked him in the belly again. "I'll forgive that this once, darling, if you give me back our foals!"
Rex leaned forward, nose to nose with her, and her blood smeared onto his snout. He stuck out his tongue and licked some blood off Rarity's nose, then smacked his lips.
"No," Rex said finally. "Shut mouth and wait for red cross pony, then be gone. Barking time is over."
He stood back to his full height, and crossed his arms over his chest.
Rarity plopped down to sit on her haunches, pinched her nose with her forehooves to try to stop the bleeding, tilted her face down, and breathed through her mouth. Blood soaked her forehooves and fetlocks. Her eyes streamed tears no matter how hard she fought against it. By Flurry Heart's fluffy bottom, it hurt.
About ten minutes later, Redheart and her three-dog escort returned from the side tunnel.
Redheart's eyes widened as soon as she saw Rarity's blood, and Rarity shrugged.
They trotted back up the tunnel, Rarity leaving bloody hoofprints behind her, returning to Twilight and the Home Guard.
"The foals are okay," Redheart said.
Redheart wiped blood from Rarity's muzzle, and Rarity screamed as a broken bone shifted inside her snout. Rarity's eyes watered again and her tail thrashed, and she spit out some fragments of teeth.
"They didn't have food or water, so I gave them my canteen," Redheart continued, her voice cracking, "and some lollipops I keep in my bags for my twins. I didn't bring any rations on this little jaunt. Toola Roola has a broken cheekbone. Celestia! That pink filly's face was black and blue. It ripped my heart. Otherwise: they're unharmed. Oh, I gave Toola Roola a mild painkiller."
"Well," Dusky said, "good. If the foals are unharmed, that means I don't feel a moral obligation to kill these dogs. But what's our play? I'm open to suggestions."
Redheart broke open a glass potion ampule, tilted Rarity's head up, and poured the potion down her nostrils. The bleeding slowed. Redheart scrunched her eyes shut. "I can't believe I left them. They're... they're friends with my twins! I know their parents! Coconut Cream's mom is my second cousin—or is it first cousin once removed? They're all alone and they're scared and there's nopony to hug them and and and I need to go back and just hold them until all this is over...." Her shoulders shook, and she sobbed. "They bawled when I left! I left them behind! Guard Medics leave nopony behind!"
"We need you out here, Sergeant," Twilight said. "We're going to get the fillies back, and soon. But we're going to have more wounded before this is over."
"What—how would I feel if my twins were locked in a stone cell, and an adult abandoned them?" Redheart dropped to a whisper. "I have to go back..."
Rarity rubbed a bloody fetlock against Redheart's flank. Rarity had previously altered Redheart's uniform, so she knew Redheart was the lone other pony in the Home Guard unit with the Combat Action Badge, and, like Dusky, was an ex-member of the elite Household Battalion of the Guard. Redheart herself held two wounded-in-action badges. And...
...and, Redheart also actually held the Cross of Valor that Luna desired for Dusky, the citation a deep, dark Royal Secret. That made Redheart perhaps the only pony this side of Canterlot Palace as combat-hardened as Dusky herself.
Redheart sobbed like a baby. "I'm going back. I'm going right now. How abandoned must those little fillies feel?"
"Stand down, simmer down," Davenport said, placing a hoof on her shoulder. "We'll be back there soon enough, together. Concentrate. Tell us everything."
Oh, Rex, you poor stupid scoundrel, Rarity thought. The potion burned her nose, but the pain began to fade as it deadened the nerves. You have no idea what ponies will do to protect our young!
"The fillies are chained, though," Redheart said. "Each of them has one hoof chained to an anchor set into the bedrock."
"The dogs don't like Rex," Rarity said, her voice nasally from the swelling. Talking shifted the broken bones in her face, and she saw stars. "If we can... deal... with him, the situation might be salvageable."
Davenport asked, "Where's the foals' cell, Redheart?"
She stopped wrapping Rarity's snout with tape, and her eyes crossed and defocused. "Down the tunnels seventy-three steps to the gallery. About two and a half hours of a clockface counterclockwise around the gallery, then up a tunnel one hundred forty steps, sharp right, seventy-five or eighty degrees, then two hundred fourteen more steps at a slight downward grade." Redheart looked at Davenport and her eyes refocused. "I counted the steps."
Dusky cuffed her in the shoulder. "You would make a good batpony!"
Twilight cocked her head, spread her hooves wide, and her horn glowed blindingly bright. Her wings and tail drooped as she concentrated on her spell. "I've... I've got them! They're actually quite close, through those rocks right there. Fifty or eighty yards. I can teleport in, there's enough open space. Then I grab them and out."
"Their chains are cold iron, Princess," Redheart warned.
Twilight stood still, head cocked, horn glowing dimly, as she held the spell to keep the foals' position in her teleport-sense. "An alicorn can work cold iron, but it'll take me time... maybe three or four minutes to burn through. Major Fireball, you'll need to hold the Dogs in play for me, so I can work."
Dusky nodded and grinned. Her own broken nose dripped blood across her fangs, making her look like the bloody-fanged bat on the Equuicigalpa Home Guard patch. "Now we've got a plan."
Davenport nodded. "If we can take the dogs, good. But if not... once the Princess has the foals topside, we can make a fighting withdrawl to a chokepoint and stand until Luna and the regulars arrive from Canterlot to relieve us."
"I like how you think, Lieutenant," Dusky said. "Prepare it."
The guardsponies advanced up the tunnel toward the Dogs' central gallery. Rarity followed a few steps behind, carrying one of Redheart's extra first aid kits. Twilight hadn't moved from her spot: once she found the foal's cell—whatever magic had allowed that—she couldn't risk losing them again.
With Birch Bucket and Sparkler wounded, the Home Guard unit was nearly depleted of unicorns: only two remained standing. Blossom Delight, a light-purple mare, and Comet Tail, a yellow stallion, both crawled forward of the others, huddled under their camouflage and staying in the shadows at the edges of the tunnel.
Dusky and Cloudchaser flared their wings and bent their knees.
The remainder of the Home Guards, all earth ponies, pulled off their ponchos, exposing their gold-colored armor, and gripped their spears in their teeth.
Rarity stuffed her hooves in her ears.
Dusky pulled the pin on another stun grenade and bucked it. The two unicorns tossed two stun grenades each with their magic.
Everypony stuffed their hooves or wings in their ears.
Everypony but Twilight, who stood still, several dozen paces behind them, and charged her horn.
BOOM! BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! The concussion grenades exploded.
Snap-pop! Twilight teleported.
Blossom Delight and Comet Tail slashed at the sconces with spells, and the central gallery went dark.
Rarity shook her head, dazed from the rolling concussion. The motion shifted the broken bones in her face. She staggered up to her knees.
A glance over her shoulder showed dim light up-cavern, towards Birch Bucket, Sparkler, the prisoners, and the surface—
But around her, darkness.
Ever since her first stay with the Diamond Dogs, and their first trip through the Everfree to battle Nightmare Moon, darkness—
No. Not now. Fear later, when they had time. Now, fight.
Her nose flared with agony as she panted. Standing, up to her hooves, she looked around, ears twisting left and right. She heard only the ringing of the grenades in her ears.
"Cloudchaser! Now!" Davenport screamed.
The pegasus trooper, hovering at the top of the Dogs' gallery, lit a flare and dropped it, then another, and another, and flickering light and deep shadows appeared. The troopers, earth pony and unicorn, made a line of spears and swords across the cavern entrance, and the Diamond Dogs squared up against it.
Redheart stood a few feet behind the line, Rarity stood next to Redheart, legs flexed, ready to run to the first injured trooper, heart pounding and the pain in her broken muzzle forgotten.
"Bat!" screamed Rex.
Everycreature turned to look into the gallery.
Behind the skirmish line, Dusky stood on Rex's chest, her fangs sunk into his neck, the dog flat on his back.
The dog held Dusky by the throat, both hands strangling her, Dusky's face turning as purple as Twilight's.
Cloudchaser dropped another flare, and another, zigzagging around the ceiling of the gallery, as dogs threw stones the size of stallions' heads at her.
A dog danced forward, swung a club, and cracked Bon Bon across the helmet. She staggered, slashed with her spear, and Comet Tail caught the dog across the hamstring with his sword. It fell, and crawled backwards, smearing blood on the floor.
Dusky's face was almost black as Rex strangled her. Rex lifted her, wrenching her fangs away from his throat, bloody strings of his own flesh hanging from the Major's jaws as Rex—still flat on his back—lifted her off his chest, lifted Dusky high, her legs and wings clenched tight to her barrel.
Just as Cloudchaser lit another flare, one of the stones struck her, crushing her right wing against the ceiling. The rock ricocheted and smashed her right rear leg. She fell and landed left-flank-first onto one of her flares, screamed, and rolled off the flames, feathers smoking. On three legs, she staggered to the side and threw herself down, rolling to extinguish the flames.
"Ponies not nearly so tough as griffons," Rex said, giving Dusky a hard shake.
Dusky flexed her right wing, a half-inch, revealing an armed grenade tucked tight between her humerus and her ribs. Rarity bit her hoof.
"Wanna die with me?" she choked out.
"Dusky..." Rarity whispered.
Rex's eyes widened and he whined.
One dog held Cloudchaser—deep inside the gallery, far from the other ponies—at spearpoint, while another dog poured a water jug onto her smoldering wing. Her rear right leg collapsed, and she lay prostrate, face twisted with hatred.
Dusky's right wing started to relax, and Rex let go of her throat. She landed flat on Rex's chest with all four hooves.
Rarity's head swam and her vision narrowed on the batpony.
Dusky stood, shakily, as her color returned. "Ponies!" she gasped. "Ponies, if I drop this grenade, run for cover!"
"Step... back!" Davenport ordered, and the line of spears and swords retreated half a pony length into the tunnel, without falter or waver. Bon Bon collapsed, unconscious, and the troopers to either side filled in the space, thinning their line but reinforcing the gap. Rarity sprang forward and bit Bon Bon's tail, dragging her back behind the line.
Dusky and Rex stared at each other, eyes flaring, inches apart.
Darling, Rarity thought, don't do it! Twilight won't be another minute, don't kill yourself to get him!
"You see this, Rex?" Dusky yelled. "I pulled the pin. If I let go of the arming lever, you die."
"Cave pony die too!"
The batpony smiled, then coughed, and Rex's blood dripped from her fangs. She licked her lips. "Do I look like I care?"
Dusky moved a forehoof to Rex's throat, and forced his head down. It thunked against the stone of the gallery floor. "You look like the one who's afraid to die, dog."
"You'll kill wing-pony," Rex said.
"Buck you!" Cloudchaser called, still crumpled on the floor, bleeding heavily. "Take him to the doghouse, skipper!"
The dog guarding her whacked her across the helmet with his spear butt. Cloudchaser snarled and snapped at the spear.
"Here's the deal, Rex," Dusky said. "The Princess has the foals by now."
Rex snarled. "Lies!"
"You never met an alicorn in Griffonstone, I wager. Even if you, me, and the other ponies die—you've lost. Canterlot will be here by morning, and your pack is extinct. Wanna bark about your surrender?"
Rex started to snarl something, but Dusky twitched her wing.
"Unchain Rover, and bring him down from the surface. As fast as you can sprint."
The earth pony galloped, and was past Rarity and up the cavern in an instant.
The line thinned again as the ponies reshuffled. The dogs banged their spears on their shields, eyes narrowed, calculating.
They can do it, Rarity decided. They can overwhelm us if they want to pay the bill. And they know it. It's up to Rex. Is he willing to brave Dusky's fireball?
And that was when Rarity decided she might—might—understand Rex's plan: use foals to suck in even more ponies, and take even more prisoners. Celestia only know what he planned to trade them for, but... he could have a dozen wounded Home Guards to add to his pack's stash, if he wanted.
Except, he hadn't counted on alicorns.... or batponies.
Redheart kneeled down and pulled off Bon Bon's helmet. The unconscious corporal vomited.
"Hornlight!" Redheart hissed. Rarity glanced at the dogs' archers, then lit her horn anyway, clenching her shoulders against possible arrows, and Redheart examined Bon Bon's wound.
"Dog! You." Dusky pointed with her left wing. "Light some of those sconces again."
A single dog—a rather runty one—scurried to relight the dogs' fixtures.
"I not speak to Rover!" Rex declared. "I am alpha."
"You," Dusky said, "are irrelevant. Dogs! Do you want your old alpha back? Or do you want to keep the alpha who's bringing the wrath of all Ponykind down on you, your pack, and your pups? I smell your females and your pups, I smell their fear. Save your pups from Rex's stupidity! If we kill you, who protects your pups from other dog packs?"
The dogs looked at each other, mumbling and grumbling in their own language. Rarity cocked her head and raised her ears, but she couldn't understand it. If only Twilight were here, she was probably fluent...
Twilight! Had she saved the foals? Where were they? Rarity leaned over and whispered, "Redheart—can you find the foals' cell again?"
"Lieutenant, let me past," Redheart said. "Rarity, keep Bon Bon's airway clear."
Davenport nodded. "Be safe."
Redheart trotted through the line of ponies. Dogs glared, and a few shifted their clubs or spears. "I'm still unarmed," Redheart yelled, and gestured to the red cross emblazoned across her chest. "I'm going to the prisoners."
Fido nodded, and barked once.
Redheart looked at the brutally wounded pegasus. "Cloudchaser–you okay?"
"Get the foals, Sarge."
Redheart trotted past the dogs, and disappeared up the tunnel, toward the prisoners.
"Dogs, your play is over!" Dusky shouted. "I'm the senior pony here. You get one chance: denounce Rex. Let us carry him to Canterlot. We'll lock him in a nice, high tower, far away from the catacombs and dungeons a dog might like."
"Never!" Rex snarled, and reached for Dusky's throat again.
She twitched the wing holding the grenade.
"Coward!" Dusky spat. "With Rover back as alpha—dogs and ponies can live in peace again. What say you?"
The dogs muttered and grumbled. Rarity used her magic to scoop gobs of vomit from Bon Bon's airway, and risked a glance into the cavern. Cloudchaser was prostrate on the floor, right wing swollen and bloody, left wing burned and blackened, face still oozing blood, leg bent out of shape. She swooned, her head barely up.
Dusky stood on Rex's throat, glaring.
"I am alpha!" Rex shouted. "Dogs do as I say!"
Dusky shifted more weight to the hoof on Rex's larynx.
The standoff lasted several minutes. Bon Bon's eyes fluttered as she fought back toward consciousness. Cloudchaser passed out.
From up-tunnel, Rarity heard a shout: "I am alpha!"
She turned, and saw Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Eiffel, Rover, and even Flitter. Flitter's face was pale and her chest heaved, but she trotted behind the now-untied dog, wingblades out, scowling.
Behind them were two dozen batponies and three pegasi, in heavy black armor.
Behind them strode Luna, clad in a dark-blue rain poncho and armor.
"Canterlot," Rarity whispered.
Next to Luna trotted Twilight.
Twilight winked at Rarity, and nodded yes.
Twilight walked to stand in the line of troopers, and her voice boomed, full-blown Royal Canterlot. Small stones cascaded from the ceilings. Dogs covered their ears, and ponies winced but held their weapons. "I teleported the foals to the surface. Dogs, throw down your arms. I'm prepared to teleport out my soldiers and collapse this tunnel on you. We've received reinforcements from Canterlot. This fight is over."
Rover squeezed past the line of ponies. His left arm still hung in its sling, but he raised his right arm. "I am alpha. Drop weapons."
"Never," Rex said. "How dare—"
"Screw you," Dusky said, and dropped her grenade on Rex's chest.
Many things happened at once. It took Rarity several conversations with the others to get all the details straight in her memories:
Dogs threw themselves down. Ponies turned and galloped several steps up the cavern and threw themselves to their chests and covered their ears.
Redheart emerged from the same side tunnel at a trot, saw the grenade drop, and sprinted toward Cloudchaser, closer to the grenade, perhaps planning to carry the unconscious trooper to cover, or perhaps planning to cover Cloudchaser's body with her own. Not that she had enough time for either.
Dusky leaped and slapped her hooves into the ceiling, sticking there.
Rex flipped himself over, covered his head with his arms, and keened like an abandoned puppy.
Rarity leaned forward, jaw dropping. "Dusky!"
Twilight slammed a shield spell down, across the entrance to the gallery, shielding the ponies other than Cloudchaser, Dusky and Redheart from the coming blast.
Luna said, "My friend—"
The grenade billowed green smoke.
A puddle of urine spread around Rex.
"Gotcha!" Dusky crowed. "Dogs, see your coward of an alpha. Is an alpha who's so afraid to die for his pack that he pisses himself worthy of you?Throw down your weapons and save your pups and yourselves!"
The dogs stood, one by one, dropped their weapons, and raised their hands.
Rarity lead the column back up the tunnel. Trios of reinforcing batponies stood with Birch Bucket and Sparkler, helping guard their prisoners.
Two prisoners' faces were now covered by blankets. Rarity closed her eyes, and looked away from the dead dogs.
Rarity emerged into the rainy night, which was lit by far more torches than she remembered, and a hint of sunrise lit the horizon.
Fifty pegasi and batponies in full armor and slate-gray rain ponchos stood in a perimeter.
Celestia, clad in heavy armor and a white poncho, stood in the center of the torchlight.
Had Rarity ever seen the Princess in armor? She couldn't remember a time, no.
The four rescued fillies stood under an awning, out of the rain, hugging their parents, and in Lemon Scratch's case, her big sister, Vinyl, and future sister-in-law, Octavia, too. A batpony in white medic's armor examined Toola Roola's blackened face.
Luna emerged from the tunnel and strode to Celestia's side. Rarity trotted straight to her. "You were right about Dusky, Luna."
Luna smiled, and gestured a hoof at the armored Guards. "A full brigade is enroute on every train I could commandeer from Canterlot Central Station. We then brought the winged members of three sections of Ronin Detachment, and a medical section, but just as we were preparing to reinforce Major Fireball, Twilight teleported in with the hostages, and Private Eiffel arrived with word to bring the prisoner. Our timing was just a little too late." Luna frowned. "As usual...."
Davenport sprinted up. "Highnesses!" He saluted. "I have multiple wounded down, ponies and prisoners. I require stretcher bearers and doctors."
Luna whistled, and pointed to another batpony in medic's gear. He, in turn, waved to several other medics, and two dozen Ponyville unicorn civilians levitated up stretchers and followed the red-cross-clad batponies into the cavern.
Celestia grimaced, eyes clenched, teeth grinding. "I have ruled Equestria for one thousand years. Many tens of thousands of guards have died or been maimed at my orders. Yet, those words still break my heart, every time. Describe the wounds."
Davenport said, "No ponies killed in action."
Celestia sighed, and opened her eyes. "Thank goodness."
"Everypony has scrapes and bruises," Davenport said. "Major Fireball broke her nose, as did Miss Rarity, here. Private Cloudchaser suffered double-wing injuries and broke a rear leg."
"Private Birch Bucket broke a foreleg, but it doesn't look too bad. Sergeant Sparkler is in bad shape. She'll need surgery. Probably several surgeries. She took an arrow through her thigh armor."
"Sparkler? Another graduate of my School has shed her blood for Equestria." Celestia looked away, into the dark night, and her voice faded to a whisper. "That School has been my greatest joy, and darkest curse, for centuries."
"Corporal Bon Bon is unconscious," Davenport finished. "We don't know how bad she is."
"Sweetie Drops," Celestia muttered. "Well, this heroism need not be secret..."
Rarity frowned at that, puzzled.
Luna tapped a hoof as they watched the troopers of the Home Guard emerge from underground. Cloudchaser was levitated out on a stretcher, her mangled right wing spread carefully over her sister's back. Cloudchaser extended her burned left wing into the cold rain and gasped in relief.
"Combat-T devices on everything," Luna said. "Twilight will claim she did no fighting, but we all know better. The Combat Action Badge can only be awarded once per pony, so I cannot give it to Major Fireball and Sergeant Redheart, but the rest of you have truly earned it. Wounded in action decorations for all who shed blood or broke bones. And the Distinguished Unit Citation—the first Home Guard unit to earn such in..... what?"
"Sixty-five years," Celestia supplied.
Luna looked at Davenport. "And I shall expect the commander of the unit to provide recommendations for individual gallantry citations, as he sees fit."
The lieutenant nodded as his ears wilted and face paled. "Redheart and Cloudchaser. Just for starters."
Rarity migrated away from Davenport and the Princesses, and found Rainbow Dash. The two huddled together, sharing a borrowed poncho in the rain outside the torchlight. Rarity vomited, shook, and bawled into Rainbow's chest as the night's stress finally caught up to her.
Rainbow hugged her tightly and rubbed her withers with a hoof, nuzzling her, cheek-to-cheek. Rarity shivered in frigid cold, cold, cold, cold like she'd never felt before, cold worse than crossing the snowfields of the Crystal Empire with Sombra nipping at their hooves, cold as the last hours of continuous terror and adrenaline came to a sudden stop.
At least half of the reservists, Rarity saw, had taken themselves into the shadows to vomit in peace, now that the battle was over and the elite Canterlot troops were securing the scene.
Rainbow wrapped her forelegs and wings around Rarity, rocking her gently. Rainbow didn't even complain when Rarity splashed yellow vomit on her feathers.
She just rubbed Rarity's withers.
"You're awesome, Rarity," she said. "Twenty percent more awesome than me."
A pegasus in medic's armor found them. "Miss Rarity?"
Rarity looked up, out from under their shared poncho. "Yes?"
"Lieutenant Colonel Soft Feathers. Let me treat your nose."
"Redheart taped it up."
"No offense to the Sergeant, but I'm a surgeon, and Princess Twilight commands I examine you. I shall not annoy Her Highness."
Rainbow nuzzled Rarity, and released her hug. Rarity trotted with the surgeon.
"What happened to your snout, specifically, Miss Rarity?"
"A Diamond Dog backhanded me across the cave. I have whiplash, too."
"In the fight?" he asked.
"No, I went and parleyed with him under a truce, to try to settle this little débâcle."
The surgeon's eyebrows arched. "That's brave."
Rarity snuck at glance at the surgeon. The word HOUSEHOLD was etched on the shoulder of his armor.
"I failed," Rarity snarled.
"It's still brave."
Rarity looked around. Where was Dusky?
The awning shielded all the wounded, and the four rescued foals, from the rain. Dinky and their parents, a middle-aged couple—brown unicorn stallion, pink earth pony mare—hugged Sparkler as her stretcher was loaded into a pegasus ambulance. Her father climbed in the chariot with two medics, and their mother stayed behind with Dinky.
"Where's you taking my sister?" Dinky demanded.
A pegasus mare in silver armor looked at her, and mussed Dinky's mane with a hoof. "University Hospital Canterlot."
"Ain't ya staying in Ponyville?"
"She needs special doctors."
Dinky plopped down on her bottom and howled. "I'm sorry I got napped!"
Rarity looked around the medical tent. Where was Dusky? She had most certainly broken her nose, too.
Birch Bucket sat glumly on a tree stump, foreleg splinted and slung, his helmet upside-down next to him, discreetly filled with vomit.
Where was Dusky?
Lyra held Bon Bon as Dr. Horse, from Ponyville hospital, shined a flashlight into the dazed—but now-conscious—corporal's eyes.
Where was Dusky? Her muzzle was broken, and the dog's strangling must have done damage.
Coudchaser, now stripped of her armor and poncho, lay flat on her belly as surgeons splinted her broken wing and leg, wrapped her burned wing, and stitched her scalp. She whispered curses.
Flitter sat behind her sister, one hoof on Cloudchaser's left cutie mark. Their father sat behind the twins, shaking quietly, his wings limp.
Where was Dusky?
Colonel Soft Feathers unwrapped Rarity's nose and felt the alignment of the broken bones and cartilage. "I'll give you a painkiller. We'll take you to the hospital for X-rays, and see if you need surgery."
"Yes, darling," Rarity said, holding her head still but scanning with her eyes, looking for Dusky.
After a few minutes, a flash of blond in the deep shadows near the cavern entrance caught Rarity's eye.
"Colonel? Are you done?"
The surgeon looked at her. "I'd like to check your neck."
"I'll let the hospital do it," Rarity said, and trotted toward the cavern entrance.
Dusky laid in the mud, under a bush. She breathed through her mouth, her nose heavily swollen and crusted with clotted blood.
"Dusky, dear, you look worse."
"That last dog hit me right on the first break. It hurts a fair bit, and I can't breathe through my nose at all. My throat is a little tight, but it's getting better."
"There's a surgeon down in the tent."
"I think I'll fly to Appleoosa. I can make it that far before the sun gets too high. They might not rent a batpony a room, especially if it looks like she'll bleed on their bedclothes, but no doctor in Equestria would refuse to treat broken bones. I'll send dad a letter, and get him to send me some money for a train ticket home. Appleoosa to Vanhoover to Equuicigalpa. I can hide in the apple orchards outside town and check the post office once a day. Dad's a schoolteacher, he's not rich, but he can find the bits for a train ticket."
"Dusky, Ponyville is your home now." Rarity gestured at the crowds just visible in the rising sun. "You'll likely get a Key to the City from the Mayor."
"Lunadammit, Rarity, that's my point. I emigrated to start a new life—and here I am, fighting in caves again, like it's still two years ago, like I'm back on active duty. I'm going to be some sort of hero, even though I was just part of the team. Even though I want to be just an ordinary pony. And the next batpony who tries to immigrate—what will she have to do to earn the town's tolerance? How can she top this? Fight Tirek?"
"Dusky," Rarity said, laying down in the mud next to her, and slipping a foreleg over the small batpony's shoulder, "Some ponies are speciesist. There's nothing any batpony can do about that. Not even defeating Tirek would make Rental Room like you. But most ponies are good. Ponyville is a good town. You know my parents were among the first unicorns to move here? Before I was born. The earth ponies and pegasi didn't like having snooty hornheads in town." Rarity sniffed, and her eyes watered from the sudden pain in her nose. "Things are changing, faster every day, especially with the non-ponies in the School."
"I shouldn't have to spill somecreature's blood to be treated like a pony," Dusky said. "Did those donkeys have to fight into a defended cavern?"
"Dusky, I can't make you stay in town. But you're my friend. I should hate to lose you to become a mere distant pen-pal."
Dusky pulled her sunglasses from a pocket, put them on, and stared toward the rising sun. "I never thought I'd be doing this again."
"Doing what?" asked Rarity.
"Leading ponies into a fight. Sometimes I think the universe has it out for me. Cutie marks are so.... intransigent."
Rarity hugged her closer, and Dusky furled a wing around Rarity. The mud in her coat and tail nagged at Rarity, but she simply held Dusky as the sun rose.
"Rarity?" she asked, starting to shake.
"Move. I'm gonna puke."
Rarity hugged Dusky closer, all through the batpony's post-battle vomiting fit.
On a Thursday afternoon five weeks later, Rarity walked across Town Square from the friendship school to her appointment with Doctor Horse. Hopefully, the X-ray would show the bones in her muzzle fully knit by now, and she could stop taping up her face several times every day. The adhesive was pulling out the coat on her snout, giving her a mangy appearance, and leaving her skin red and irritated.
She looked to her left and smiled. "Dusky, darling, how are you?"
"Great! I'm finally settled into my new place. Hey, would you and Sweetie like to come over Saturday? I'll make dinner. No crickets this time!"
"Wonderful, darling! I'll ask mother and father if I can borrow her. Whatever are you wearing?"
A cinnabar-colored cape covered Dusky's torso and rump, her wings shielded under loose-hanging panels, the hood thrown back from her head. Like usual, her sunglasses covered her sensitive eyes. She wore two saddlebags that, although not terribly large, looked rather encumbering for a mare Dusky's petite size.
A quick flash of Rarity's magic straightened the cape, and she read Barnyard Bargains Delivery. "Oh! You got the job from Filthy Rich?"
Dusky nodded. "Yes! Deliveries, and running the evening shift at the sales counter. Roll in my bits from the reserve, pension, being on-call with the night weather crew, and lectures at the school, and I'm above water, finally. Filthy Rich is actually a pretty good boss." Dusky smiled, and whispered: "Best of all, when I knock on a door, the ponies just see me as the pony delivering their order, not that crazy batpony with the history."
"Wonderful! How's your nose?"
Dusky frowned, and rubbed her snout with a forehoof. "Sore, but it's not affecting my sleep anymore, unless I roll over. You?"
"The same, darling. Oh—I heard Sparkler is getting transferred to Ponyville Hospital tomorrow?"
Dusky's face paled. "Yeah, that's true. I caught the train and visited her in Canterlot. Yesterday was my day off."
"Goodness, that's kind of you."
Dusky swallowed, then swallowed again, and her ears went flat. "A trooper went down under my command, Rarity. Going to visit her is what good officers do. I learned from the best. Did I tell you Twilight's brother visited me while the doctors put me back together? He's the only unicorn I've ever seen willingly visit Equuicigalpa, in all my years, and he was already retired from the Guard and running the Empire when I got... uh, hurt......"
"Shiny is special, indeed. Princess Cadance is lucky she got to him before I did. Would you like a chocolate? I went to Bon Bon's shop earlier today. She's back to normal."
"No thanks, Rarity. Three-tribes chocolate is boring, I need to show Bon Bon how to add red chile powder to it. Hey, last time we talked, you promised to ask Twilight....?"
"Rex? He's standing on his right to remain silent, and driving his public defenders insane. The courts in Canterlot are trying to decide if he's a common criminal or a prisoner of war. With the three dogs that died, they're leaning toward a criminal trial. Dogs don't have a justice system to speak of, so Rover asked us to deal with Rex."
Dusky's face darkened, and she nodded. "I made a delivery to Cloudchaser earlier today. She's back on her hooves, and the doctors cleared her to try her wings next week."
Rarity smiled. "Good. The twins and I go back to earlier than I can remember. Ha! Cloudchaser and I once got in a physical fight over a colt, when I was in ninth grade, and she eighth... What's on your agenda this evening?"
"My shift's over, so I'm going home to drop off my uniform and saddlebags. It's less than two hours to dark. I won't sunburn without a cape."
Rarity fought down a smile. Dusky, without a cape? No longer hiding her scars? That was progress, indeed! "Care to go eat at Café Hay? I have an appointment at the hospital, but it shan't take long...... Dusky, why are you blushing?"
The batpony looked away, and flipped up her hood to shadow her face. "I'm not blushing! You're blushing!"
Rarity smiled. "Oh-ho-ho-ho! You can't go eat dinner with me because you already have dinner plans, is that the situation, dear?"
Dusky looked back at her. She was definitely blushing. "Yeah."
"You have a date, Lieutenant Colonel Fireball."
"No, I don't! I. Do. Not! It's just a sunset flight in the nice evening air, and then a late dinner at, well, Café Hay. It's not a date."
"Who's this lucky stallion? ...Or mare, I suppose?"
"Stallion. But it's not a date. Redheart invited me to dinner at her place a few days ago, with her family. Her brother-in-law was there."
Rarity laughed. "That clever nurse. She's trying to hook you up with Warm Front?"
"It's not a hookup. We're going to have a fly together, and then eat dinner. As acquaintances. Because I'm new in town and he was born here. And knows the town. It's not a date."
The batpony's bright-red blush was worthy of Fluttershy.
"Well, Dusky," Rarity said, "I shan't make you late. I'm happy to say I was your first friend here in Ponyville—and I'm even happier to say I'm not your last. Welcome home, darling."