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Heart of War- Act XIX

ThingPaste Jan 1st, 2018 (edited) 553 Never
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  1. >…
  2. >Everything is here.
  3. >The world is before your eyes.
  4. >And it’s been completely incoherent for so long.
  5. >But… it’s euphoric.
  6. >Everything is.
  7. >Everything is…
  8. >It’s.
  9. >A voice.
  10. >”I… it’s done what it could to fix your mind. Soldier? It needed you as a conduit, but something was left in you. It’s likely that you won’t remember any of this, anything that we’ve been speaking about. And I know what you’re feeling, but you need to pull away.”
  11. >What?
  12. >But it’s…
  13. >”PULL AWAY!”
  14. >-
  15. >You’re in front of the crystal.
  16. >As you look down to your hoof, you see that it’s started to grow around you.
  17. >It’s hard, but you manage to pull your hoof free.
  18. >Watching the wall, a rush of pain flows over the bottom of your hoof.
  19. >Almost like it was sucking against your skin.
  20. >Eating away at it.
  21. >Where…
  22. >Where are you?
  23. >The past weeks are like a haze.
  24. >Winter… That’s perfectly clear though.
  25. >But everything, with the oasis and this… walk you had through the mountains.
  26. >It’s like you weren’t even there, not really.
  27. >As you look to the crystal wall, you want to touch it again.
  28. >Find out what really happened.
  29. >But as you stretch out your hoof, you find yourself unable to actually to touch it.
  30. >Like if… you do touch it, then you won’t come back.
  31. >No.
  32. >You saw it.
  33. >You saw something.
  34. >And you know what has to happen.
  35. >You know how this ends… even if you can’t actually remember how it ends.
  36.  
  37. >…
  38. >When you finally work your way out of the cave, you work past the waterfall.
  39. >Stepping onto the grass, you look to the surroundings.
  40. >You have no idea where you are.
  41. >The mountains… between the Crystal Empire and Equestrian core, you think.
  42. >As you take in the cool mountain air, things begin to hit you.
  43. >You resigned…
  44. >Your father served.
  45. >One of his grandfathers was a Royal Guard.
  46. >That’s not who you are.
  47. >You’re a soldier, everything they say about duty…
  48. >You took it to heart- no, it was already in your heart without ever needing to hear it.
  49. >Then there was the attack on the Crystal Empire.
  50. >It was from… Tartarus.
  51. >You saw the creatures in the crystal.
  52. >Their ferocity.
  53. >Their hunger…
  54. >You then fall to your knees.
  55. >Winter.
  56. >Your son…
  57. >She was so sure it was a daughter, but you saw- you felt it.
  58. >Everything he could have been.
  59. >Everything you and her could have been…
  60. >You didn’t even have more than two months with her in person.
  61. >But you knew that she was the one.
  62. >There was a whole lifetime that you should have had together…
  63. >A lifetime that you don’t have anymore.
  64. >She’s gone.
  65. >And when you saw… everything, you could see that there’s nopony else that you could ever share that kind of bond with.
  66. >Nopony.
  67. >There’s no-
  68. >”You’re role is not yet-“
  69. >You shake your head as you hear… remember… sense a flashback.
  70. >That was…
  71. >You only have one thing left.
  72. >Duty.
  73. >Other than that, you have nothing.
  74. >Here and now… there’s nothing.
  75. >You’ve seen so many of our friends die, even held a couple as they went.
  76. >And for those brief moments, you saw their families… how those deaths still loom.
  77. >Here…
  78. >Now…
  79. >You are a soldier.
  80. >And know, you sense-
  81. >No, you know.
  82. >That you have a job that needs doing.
  83.  
  84. >…
  85. >When you reached the next cavern, you quickly saw Harvey’s next box.
  86. >And when you opened it…
  87. >Another regular torch.
  88. >That was it.
  89. “Harv…”
  90. >”What?”
  91. “I swear if there’s just another torch in the next one…”
  92. >He remains silent.
  93. “Harv…”
  94. >More silence.
  95. “The next one is another torch, isn’t it?”
  96. >And he’s nowhere to be heard.
  97. “Son of a…”
  98. >Well, you pull out your lighter to spark the torch.
  99. >Another hour, another tunnel.
  100. >Here you were insulting your time on the boat…
  101. >At least there were different sights there.
  102. >…
  103. >While you pass through the mountain, you realized that this one is different than the last.
  104. >This one doesn’t have a cavern.
  105. >Just a single passage.
  106. >But, you eventually came to find a different sight.
  107. >Eventually the bare rock gave way to a springy web.
  108. >It’s sticky, but one thing is clear.
  109. >Spider nest…
  110. >Haven’t seen one of those before.
  111. >You keep the torch in your left hand, but draw your sword.
  112. >It had to be spiders…
  113. >Back as a kid you hated the things.
  114. >Now you’re desensitized to them.
  115. >Doesn’t really make sense with everything you’ve seen.
  116. >Now… you only have to worry about wiping some web off of your blade.
  117.  
  118. >…
  119. >You walk into the observation deck without knocking.
  120. >And you hear Brairheart berating:
  121. >”You had ONE order!”
  122. >Call is the one he’s yelling at.
  123. “Did he?”
  124. >The Admiral looks over to you:
  125. >”What?”
  126. “Did you hear his side?”
  127. >”He had his-“
  128. “Did you let him speak?”
  129. >Call then butts in:
  130. >”No Ma’am.”
  131. “Yes he’s here, but he’s got more experience in unorthodox situations. Let him go with the pegasi you’ve got onboard.”
  132. >Brairheart then speaks to you:
  133. >”You could have let somepony know.”
  134. “It’s been a busy day.”
  135. >”Fair enough but…”
  136. >He looks over to Call.
  137. >”Get out of here Corporal.”
  138. “Belay that.”
  139. >You look to Call.
  140. “You’re part of the Old Guard, right?”
  141. >He responds:
  142. >”Yes.”
  143. “But only a Corporal. Most of them aren’t lower ranked soldiers. Most of them could be trusted to lead groups of hundreds.”
  144. >”I turned down promotions.”
  145. “Why?”
  146. >”Well then you don’t have the alliteration. Call, corporal starts with a C.”
  147. “So you’re saying that you should be a high ranked enlisted pony, if not an officer?”
  148. >”I wouldn’t go that far…”
  149. “But you’re experienced enough that Lancer would give you more personal assignments.”
  150. >”Yes.”
  151. “Look Admiral, let’s be fair. Offense would do know worse, but you wouldn’t yell at him for it… okay, you would yell at him for it. But the point still stands.”
  152. >Brairheart then responds:
  153. >”This is an army Ma’am.”
  154. “How did you achieve the rank of Admiral? If I recall, your ship went down and you linked up with Anon…”
  155. >”That’s… accurate.”
  156. “And this man takes initiative, so you reprimand him?”
  157. >”He has a history of questionable actions.”
  158. >You look over to Call.
  159. “Is that true?”
  160. >”Yeah.”
  161.  
  162. “So you’re both in the wrong… then let me put a hoof down. Corporal, remember your rank in the future. You might get results, but that can’t hold up forever. Admiral? Let this go. He’s here, it’s not a strain on the ship, so let him fight.”
  163. >You look to each of them.
  164. “And that will be all that’s said about the issue. Understood?”
  165. >”Understood.”
  166. >”Understood.”
  167. “Good. Now Admiral? I know you said we’d be to Baltimare quickly… I want it done quicker.”
  168. >”Yes Ma’am.”
  169. “Now, I’ll find my way to my quarters on this ship.”
  170. >You need the rest…
  171. >As you exit the room, you have an aide lead you to an empty room.
  172. >…
  173. >Call ended up following you.
  174. >And as the aide left, Call came up to you.
  175. >”Ma’am?”
  176. “Corporal… I’m tired.”
  177. >”I’m sure you are, just… thank you. You didn’t have to do that, but you did. For what it’s worth… we’re on your side. The ‘commoners’ like me that is. Whatever happens, we all know you’re on your side.”
  178. “Thank you Corporal. Now go do as you will.”
  179. >He bows.
  180. “And Call?”
  181. >He raises an eyebrow.
  182. “I trust him when he says you ignore orders pretty often. And I can’t have that. You need to make a decision. Do you want to be the soldier taking orders, or the pony giving them… you can’t have both. Keep your rank, or accept promotion.”
  183. >”Honestly it’s not that-“
  184. “No it is. I don’t have a problem with mavericks, command has no problem with mavericks. Why? Because a maverick is just a promising officer before they become an officer. But you can’t keep it up for long… That’s just walking the line, and when the day ends, you’re ultimately just a distraction.”
  185. >”I understand.”
  186. “NO YOU DON’T!”
  187. >You don’t let him respond.
  188.  
  189. “If you DID understand, we wouldn’t be having this conversation! Where did you fight? Before this year.”
  190. >”The Second Coast War.”
  191. “How many of your friends died? How many of your unit?”
  192. >”At the end… all of them.”
  193. “Then why are you here?”
  194. >”I…’
  195. “WHY. ARE. YOU. HERE?”
  196. >”I don’t know.”
  197. “Thank you. Now, why are you still going on?”
  198. >”Thunder… he’s my friend. Honestly, the first friend I had after the Second War. And I followed him… and in that service found somepony I could love. She’s…”
  199. “Why aren’t you with her?”
  200. >”What?”
  201. “You head me.”
  202. >”Because…”
  203. “Call?”
  204. >You look deep into his eyes.
  205. “You’re stuck in two places. I know, I’ve been there. I had to make the choice: be the nice princess who plays by the rules, or take up the sword and play by the rules Anon taught me. You’ve got to make the choice: are you stuck in your life with your mare, or are you here FOR her. FOR your friends, or your only friend if you’ve lost so much. We all have our reasons for being here, but you’re stuck between staying and leaving.”
  206. >”Ma’am?”
  207. “Go ahead.”
  208. >”I… I understand why you’ve got your reputation.”
  209. “What reputation?”
  210. >You have a few…
  211. >”My friends, my family, my officers… my drill sergeant even. They never really hit so close to home. I was an actor, but you understand  the… pony condition better than anypony I’ve ever met.”
  212. “Did you ever meet Anon?”
  213. >”Only a few times.”
  214. “Well that’s why.”
  215.  
  216. >”He was your?”
  217. “Uncle… not technically, but that’s what I always called him.”
  218. >”He saved my life, well not him. I saw him on the field, but his reinforcements and his charge saved me.”
  219. “When?”
  220. >”The Second. I was on the beachhead… most of my battalion and division died. I was the only member of my company to survive… Just me and some soldiers I never knew. Then he charged in with his second wave. The survivors on the field, they saw him and his men like Celestia herself came to save them. Sorry if you take issue at ‘Celestia’ but that’s how it was.”
  221. “No, there’s still some hope for her… I understand.”
  222. >”I joined the army because the mare I love was killed. I joined in anger, hate.”
  223. “That might be a decent reason to sign up, but it isn’t a real reason to stay.”
  224. >”I… know.”
  225. “So what are you going to do?”
  226. >”… I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
  227. “Good.”
  228. >”What?”
  229. “If I can change your worldview in a single talk, you don’t really deserve a higher position. Unless I really am that good at this, which honestly I doubt.”
  230. >”I’ll fight in this war… maybe something will change, but I can’t promise you that.”
  231. “Good, I might be the Princess, but I don’t want- I don’t need blind service. I need true and honest duty- faith.”
  232. >”That’s about the opposite my drill sergeant said.”
  233. “And that’s the difference between training and service. Anon, Lancer, command. They saw something in you. And I trust their views. But if something’s seen in you, you have to prove it when called upon… and if you make a ‘call’ pun, I swear I’ll throw you off this boat.”
  234. >”I… I’ll be honest, there’s nothing I can say right now to make you feel better or worse… that need time… proof.”
  235. “Glad something held.”
  236. >”Rest well Ma’am. We’ve got a busy day ahead.”
  237. “Yes we do Corporal, yes we do.”
  238.  
  239. >…
  240. >The web completely covers the tunnel, forming a wall between you and the other side.
  241. >No giant spiders to be seen.
  242. >Glancing back, you don’t see one creeping up on you.
  243. >Alright…
  244. >Holding the torch up to the web, you dry out the silk.
  245. >It takes a bit of time, but while also using your sword to brush away the rest, your path is clear ahead of you.
  246. >Still no giant spiders.
  247. >And you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
  248. >God that phrase is going to be overused these next few days.
  249. >As you continue walking along, you eventually reach the end.
  250. >More mountain paths ahead.
  251. >Some of the peaks in the distance are actually snowcapped, it looks like the mountains are getting much taller the further you’ll have to go.
  252. >Getting to-
  253. >”Anon!”
  254. >You feel a pinch on your left hand.
  255. >Setting your sword down, you flick the spider that just bit you.
  256. >The twin pinpoints actually itch a fair amount.
  257. “Damnit Harv, though you were supposed to warn me about these things.”
  258. >You pick up your sword and bat away the remaining strands of silk on it, then place it into the sheathe.
  259. “Harv… Harvey!”
  260. >Your hand feels like it’s asleep.
  261. >Numbing.
  262. >Dropping the torch, you start to get the picture.
  263. >Venom.
  264. >You feel the same numbness start to spread into your shoulder.
  265. >Too late to try and suck it out.
  266. >That shouldn’t happen.
  267. >Your blood stream doesn’t travel that fast.
  268. >Placing a finger up to feel some veins on your neck, you realize that your heart’s beating quickly.
  269. >Far too quickly.
  270. >As in, you should be dead.
  271. >Why doesn’t your chest feel like it’s moving that fast?
  272. >Unable to properly move your legs anymore, you try your best to hit the ground with some modicum of decency.
  273. >Harv better be doing… his…
  274. >Damn…
  275. >You don’t get far enough in that train of thought before losing consciousness.
  276.  
  277. >…
  278. >That’s…
  279. >Still pretty numb.
  280. >You don’t know how long you’ve been out.
  281. >Looking down you see.
  282. >That’s a big spider.
  283. >It looks as large as a housecat.
  284. >The back segment where it’s spinning web around you is hugely bloated.
  285. >It working its way up your body, and has only gotten to your ankles.
  286. >Reaching to draw your machete, you swing it through the spider.
  287. >God your muscles ache.
  288. >Working your way out of the web, you try to pull yourself up to stand.
  289. “Hey Harv. So what was that? Some kind of spiders that work together?”
  290. >Beautiful English there.
  291. >It’s nearing sundown, and you are absolutely starving.
  292. “Thought you dealt with that stuff. The growling that is.”
  293. >That’s…
  294. “Harv?”
  295. >Silence.
  296. “Harv…”
  297. >Son of a…
  298. >Every single inch of your body is in pain.
  299. >You’re hungry.
  300. >Exhausted.
  301. >And really need to shit.
  302. “Alright… you deal with the venom… I’ll be here.”
  303.  
  304. >…
  305. >You’re awoken as a hoof knocks on your door.
  306. “What!”
  307. >”Ma’am, we’ve…”
  308. >You can’t hear anything else through the door.
  309. “Come in!”
  310. >As the door cracks open, light floods over your bed.
  311. >One of the runners is at the door.
  312. “Say again?”
  313. >”Ma’am we’ll arrive at Baltimare soon.”
  314. “What time is it?”
  315. >”About four in the morning.”
  316. “That’s… we’re here that quick?”
  317. >”The engineers have been pushing every last ounce of speed for this.”
  318. “Thank you… Tell him I’ll be there soon.”
  319. >”Yes Ma’am.”
  320. >The door then shuts, leaving you in darkness.
  321. >You sigh for a nice long time.
  322. >That’s good, but you’ve got to address the situation in darkness.
  323. >If you could still control the sun, an early sunrise would be pretty good.
  324. >But instead Starlight will keep to her schedule.
  325. >Alright… you need to get your armor.
  326. >…
  327. “Where are we Admiral.”
  328. >”Take a look.”
  329. >On the horizon, you can see some fires in the city.
  330. >There’s a flash of cannon fire.
  331. “At least someone is still down there.”
  332. >”Someone?”
  333. “Shut up.”
  334. >”There are some smaller lights, torches maybe.”
  335. “What kind of lights you have on this ship?”
  336. >”It’s a ship… and they’ll go up any-“
  337. >Large floodlights illuminate the sparsely built up frontier of the city.
  338. >You don’t see any ponies down there.
  339. >No Tartarus creatures either.
  340. “Somewhere soldiers are out there. This beacon is all they’ve got right now.”
  341. >”We need to find their command post.”
  342. “Look, I want the pegasi fighters you’ve got in the air and working with the men on the ground. But this ship’s only priority is to hit the pits. Try the main gun, but if you can’t get a good angle, get some pegasi to drop gunpowder barrels.”
  343. >”That’s the plan.”
  344. “Look!”
  345. >There’s a torchlight in the sky.
  346. >”A runner.”
  347. “I’ll head out to see them. I want to be on the ground as soon as possible.”
  348.  
  349. >”Ma’am that’s-“
  350. “I have the most experience against these things.”
  351. >”I can’t argue that.”
  352. >You turn to leave, but Brairheart stops you.
  353. >”Ma’am. We’ve had our issues recently. My loyalty to Equestria is absolute. It shouldn’t need to be said, but we don’t have the same relationship as I do with Anon. No matter our issues, I don’t want you to think that I’m being needlessly contrary.”
  354. “Admiral, let me stop you there. I don’t care how heated things get. You have your honest thoughts on a situation, I have mine. Lancer, Wave, and Offense have theirs. That’s what we all just think is the best way to respond. If I do end up acting in the inverse interest of the people and nation, then I honestly hope that you and the others throw me back into a cell. Because we really can’t know if I’ve truly been freed from the parasite’s influence. It’s all just speculation in the end.”
  355. >”That’s…”
  356. >He doesn’t continue.
  357. “Brairheart, I fully mean that. Consider it a standing order even. Yeah, today- yesterday… we had two big issues. Anon and Call. Anon hit close to home, and I shouldn’t have let it hit that hard. For that, I apologize. With Call? Collectively command sees promise in him. Probably not a general or anything like that unless he really changes from what I’ve seen, but he could be a damn good small unit leader- maybe even the head of the Old Guard someday.”
  358. >”Maybe…”
  359. “For what it’s worth, I lectured him a bit afterwards.”
  360. >”More than a bit. He came by to tell me what actually happened today… and for what it’s worth, I think he took a few things to heart.”
  361. >You glance over to the light in the sky.
  362. “I should go, that messenger is getting close.”
  363. >”Just stay safe… please. I know you want to lead from the front, just like Lancer to an extent. Just like Offense wholly. Just like Anon…”
  364.  
  365. “I will.”
  366. >”And Flurry? I don’t think he’s dead, not really. But if there’s one thing he taught me, it’s to expect and prepare for everything.”
  367. “You were with him on the actual field. He always held back a few of the more brutal details with me. But even if I don’t want to think about those realities, I need to accept them. And thank you for voicing that.”
  368. >”I’ll see you on the other side.”
  369. >That’s one of Anon’s lines.
  370. >Last time you heard it was when you were taking final tests.
  371. “I don’t know how things look like on the ground, but no matter what we need you in the air. If things are going great, then the reinforcements will clinch the battle. If we’re on the ropes, we need you. And just the sight that people are coming to help… that might, just might be able to turn the tide.”
  372. >”Good luck.”
  373. “Thank you Admiral.”
  374. >…
  375. >As you pass through the cargo bay, you happen along Corporal Call.
  376. “Corporal!”
  377. >”Ma’am.”
  378. >He looks over to you.
  379. “You’re with me, let’s move.”
  380. >”Yes Ma’am!”
  381. >…
  382. >You fly along, Call being your only support.
  383. >And you’ve met the sole runner…
  384. >Flier?
  385. >You’ve met the sole pegasi.
  386. “Report in soldier!”
  387. >”You’re Highness… I…”
  388. “Quiet man! It’s a pleasure to meet you, but there’s a job that needs done.”
  389. >”Right this way.”
  390. >…
  391. >He leads you to a bombed out tower.
  392. >One of the old ruins from the Saddle Arabian siege on the city.
  393. >Among several runners, an earth pony barks orders to others.
  394. >Her coat is a light, and the torch light shows that her mane and tail are a solid red.
  395. >Colonel Rose Thorn, presumably.
  396. >When she turns to see you and bow, you can see that her left eye has a scar over it.
  397. >And the eye looks glazed over, like she’s blind in it.
  398. >”Princess.”
  399. “This isn’t the time.”
  400. >She looks back to you.
  401.  
  402. >“We’ve been giving it our all… but it’s bad.”
  403. “How bad?”
  404. >”There are four pits, and we weren’t able to form a proper perimeter. They all showed up at once.”
  405. >She looks out to the field.
  406. >”Reinforcements needed on the south side, move!”
  407. >As a pegasi flies off, she looks back to you.
  408. >”I’ve set the 89th to reinforce out necessities and try and contain the beasts we haven’t been able to meet.”
  409. “That’s a good plan, if even one of them gets out, hundreds could die. But where are we?”
  410. >”The 88th is at least own to half strength. The 89th is down by at least a quarter, but I haven’t heard from the detachments that are out scouring the outskirts.”
  411. “What about the 17th Airborne?”
  412. >”Not here yet. Outside of the 89th, you’re the first reinforcements I’ve got.”
  413. >They should have got here quicker.
  414. “Alright, first thing first, we need the location to the pits sent up to the airship. They’ve got enough ordinance to collapse them.”
  415. >Thorn looks over to a pegasi and nods.
  416. >As she flies off, the Colonel looks back to you.
  417. >”For what it’s worth, we got one pretty quickly.”
  418. “Good, last I heard it was three or four in total.”
  419. >”Four, three after the one we got.”
  420. “So it sounds like there’s not a ton of communication here.”
  421. >”Contact with the men on the ground is bad. They’re fighting well, but the chain of command is pretty malleable. The 89th has been properly in contact, but I’m really not sure how my boys are doing.”
  422. “Alright, that’s what we’ve got to work with. We’ve got a few good fliers that can properly help in the light. Another day, we’ll get the Old Guard in.”
  423. >”All of them?”
  424. “Most.”
  425. >”We need the elites. If I may, we need individual squads spread out over the whole battle. These things have done nothing but force retreat after retreat.”
  426. “Is it that bad?”
  427.  
  428. >”Again, I don’t really know. But I’ve got a lot of notices of retreats. These things are overrunning our lines, even when we fortify.”
  429. “Things are bad…”
  430. >”Princess?”
  431. “I don’t want to continue, it’d be an insult to everypony who died… but you’ve held on better than I feared.”
  432. >”That’s our job.”
  433. “Just… if you have contact with any units in the field, tell them that help is on the way.”
  434. >”We see the lights from the ship… we know.”
  435. “I only wish we got here sooner.”
  436. >”Your Majesty. If I may?”
  437. “Of course Colonel.”
  438. >”Most of my boys are vets. We all know that we just need to hold on for support.”
  439. “Did ya think I’d be here personally?”
  440. >”Some of us did… I hoped, but I’m glad that my hopes proved true.”
  441. “Alright, enough of that… we have a job to do. How are the civilians?”
  442. >”I always made sure my boys knew that civilians were the top priority, some here and there weren’t accounted for, but only two of the evacuation groups went unaccounted for.”
  443. “How large were evacuation groups?”
  444. >”Two thousand workers and locals.”
  445. “That’s four thousand plus unaccounted for.”
  446. >”We’ve got dozens of evac groups.”
  447. >At least there’s that…
  448. “Have you been in contact with the other groups?”
  449. >”Yes, they’re all right.”
  450. “At least there’s that.”
  451. >You look over to Thorn.
  452. “You’ve done well given the situation. Keep getting me up to date on the situation, then once we get to day, I’ll take proper command.”
  453. >”Ma’am?”
  454. “What?”
  455. >”Can’t you just… raise the sun? Our men could definitely use the light.”
  456. >Son of a…
  457. >Think.
  458.  
  459. “Between you and me, the sun takes a lot out of me, so since this whole Tartarus stuff came up, I’ve contracted a good alternate. And let that be between us.”
  460. >”I understand.  You need to be focused on the here and now, not the there and here.”
  461. “Thank you. Daylight will come on scheduled time. Until then, het as many reports as you can. We’ll look over it when that light does come.”
  462. >The Colonel whistles over to a few pegasi.
  463. >They fly off, without any words spoken.
  464. “You keep a tight ship.”
  465. >”Thank you.”
  466. >You nod over to outside the bombed out room you’re in.
  467. >She follows.
  468. >In private, you speak.
  469. “Leader to leader, how have things been going.”
  470. >She sighs.
  471. >”It’s like you said. Better than we feared, worse than we hoped.”
  472. “Really, what are the casualties?”
  473. >”Deaths… at least ten thousand. Wounded or missing…”
  474. “From what I’ve seen firsthoof, you did the best you could in the situation.”
  475. >”That doesn’t make it easier.”
  476. “I know…”
  477. >”So what do our reinforcements look like?”
  478. “The 17th Airborne should be here soon if they really haven’t arrived yet. We’ve got the Old Guard within another day, depending on rail speed. Then a few air wings, then the IIIrd corps. All of it. Within a few days.”
  479. >Thorn sighs.
  480. “Better than you feared, worse than you hoped?”
  481. >”That’s one way to say it.”
  482. >She then looks into your eyes.
  483. >”We’ll make it work. We have to.”
  484. >You pat her on the shoulder.
  485. “That’s what I like to hear.”
  486. >You then let a slight grin form on your face.
  487. “Good job Colonel. I know you weren’t given much in the way of support, but you and your men have gone far beyond the call.”
  488. >”Thank you, your Majesty.”
  489. “Drop the ‘your Majesty’ we don’t need pleasantries now.”
  490. >”Well we have jobs to do.”
  491. >You motion your hoof back into the command room.
  492. “Then after you Colonel.”
  493.  
  494. >As you reenter the command post, you glance at Call, who’s been waiting for you.
  495. >Colonel Thorn speaks to the remaining runners.
  496. >”I want a full status report of the evac groups. A full count of any units that are still fighting, word from the 89th, and status on the remaining pits.”
  497. >As the last of the pegasi fly off, Thorn then speaks to you.
  498. >”We haven’t heard any more pits popping up. If they have, they’re far past audible reports.”
  499. >Call then gets a quip in:
  500. >”At least there’s that.”
  501. “That’s a fair enough point. Before now, all the puts have been on the same battle zone. Maybe there’s a bigger strategy, but it’s been on the tactical level so far.”
  502. >Thorn speaks:
  503. >”And that’s beyond our level. Here and now, we have a problem to contain.”
  504. “And we’ll do everything possible. Do you have eyes on the pits?”
  505. >”Yes, scouts have been watching them.  Those things have been coming out all day, but eventually they stopped. Right around sundown.”
  506. “How many came out?”
  507. >”Thousands, easily.”
  508. “Alright… When we get light, I need all your messengers onto getting proper communications back up.”
  509. >”Now that we have some proper air support, not a problem.”
  510. >You motion over to Call.
  511. “If you need a good man in a pinpoint, send him out.”
  512. >Thorn looks over to Call.
  513. >”Do you see that light? Two stories over the ground?”
  514. >”At eleven?”
  515. >”Yes. They could use some support but we don’t have anypony else.”
  516. >Call then looks over to you and speaks:
  517. >”Are you sure?”
  518. “You heard the Colonel.”
  519. >”Yes Ma’am.”
  520. >Call then flies off.
  521. >Leaving you and Thorn over a dimly lit map of the city.
  522. >You then remain being honest:
  523. “We still have a good amount of time to hold out.”
  524. >”With you here… I think we can do it.”
  525. “Don’t thank me before the battle is done.”
  526. >”My brother died in a purge… I trust you.”
  527. “… Then I only hope I live up to the expectation.”
  528.  
  529. >…
  530. >As the first sunlight starts to peak over the horizon, you can start to see the streets.
  531. >Most of the city is still in ruins.
  532. >Rubble is still littering the roads.
  533. >You can see squads of ponies patrolling, some bodies laying out in the open.
  534. “Where are they?”
  535. >You can’t see a single beast.
  536. >”Some tried to scatter, others attacked our soldiers encampments, most are stalking the buildings… we can’t even collect our dead because they’ve used them as bait to ambush others.”
  537. >You see a pair of squads form up and rush into an old apartment building.
  538. >”Each and every house has to be cleared out, room by room, building by building, block by block.”
  539. >A few minutes later, you see soldiers running out of the same building.
  540. >Five or so get out, and as a sixth gets his head out of the doorframe, he’s quickly pulled back inside.
  541. >Another soldier looks back and turns to run in after the other, only to be stopped by different soldier.
  542. >”But when every other advance goes like that, it’s hard to keep cohesion. Progress is lost as quickly as it’s gained… quicker even.”
  543. >As the surviving soldiers help a wounded man limp back down the street, you see movement from the house.
  544. >One of the creatures jumps to the ground from a window, and two more exit through the door.
  545. >”Then this happens far too often.”
  546. >They wouldn’t even be able to make it at a full gallop.
  547. “Once to every man and nation…”
  548. >”What?”
  549. >As you run to the edge of the bombed out tower and jump, Thorn realizes what you’re doing.
  550. >”Ma’am you can’t!”
  551. >You don’t hear anything else as you get up to speed racing down the street.
  552. >Magic might have never been a strength for most of your adult life.
  553. >But you can fly with the best of them.
  554. >Thanks Rainbow.
  555.  
  556. >As you close in on the distant soldiers, you see the creatures start their charge down the street.
  557. >Last time you tried this, you couldn’t muster the energy…
  558. >The creatures run forward in a chevron, and you focus on the center leader.
  559. >Your head starts to ache as you pull everything you have into-
  560. >A brief magical beam fires at the target.
  561. >As the center beast trips, it collides into the one on the right, sending them both to the ground.
  562. >Drawing your sword and preparing to lower speed, you line up with the right gill pouch of the remaining creature.
  563. >Passing over the heads of the soldiers, your focus is only on one thing.
  564. >The third one has stopped dead in its tracks, waiting to meet the charge.
  565. >Bank left.
  566. >Just before impact, you swing over to drive your sword into the other set of gills.
  567. >The blade goes into the creature, almost all the way to the hilt.
  568. >As you land and pull the sword from the beast while it slumps down to the ground.
  569. >You then to face the one that crashed into the stunned one.
  570. >Flurrying your wings, you take off and fly up over the right shoulder of the creature, then dropping down to hug the ground and fly between its tail and the street.
  571. >Slashing at the back of its rear left knee, you then continue to circle the beast.
  572. >When you get to its left gills, you thrust the sword into it and twist the blade.
  573. >Pulling your sword out, you then fly over to the downed creature.
  574. >It’s still stunned.
  575.  
  576. >Flipping the grip in your hoof, you slam the sword down into its head.
  577. >Letting out a heavy breath, you look over to the soldiers.
  578. >They’re standing there dumbfounded.
  579. >Probably aided by the fact that the rising sun is directly behind you from their perspective.
  580. >In the distance, you can dots in the sky as pegasi squadrons from the ship move out.
  581. >And the Prwdwen lets out a large blue beam as the main gun goes firing into the ground.
  582. >The immense boom then follows as the ground shakes.
  583. >You pull your sword from the creature.
  584. “What are you waiting for, we’re getting that man to safety.”
  585. >…
  586. >”You’re actually here.”
  587. “Well I wasn’t about to watch as you all get torn to pieces.”
  588. >”I mean… you’re here here.”
  589. “Don’t worry boys, more help is on the way. Just have to hold out a bit longer.”
  590. >”No, YOU’RE here!”
  591. >The wounded soldier barks over to the one who’s talking.
  592. >”Stow it Private.”
  593. >”Corporal, she’s here! We were dead… she’s here… she’s here…”
  594. >You place a hoof on the private’s shoulder.
  595. “What’s your name?”
  596. >”F… Fields. Green Fields.”
  597. >The boy’s young, can’t even be twenty.
  598. >And just saw a lot of friends die over the past few hours.
  599. >A lot of them.
  600. “Fields… a very wise man once told me that you should never order people into a situation you wouldn’t put yourself into.”
  601. >”You’re…”
  602. “Green! Look at me.”
  603. >His vague gaze focuses onto your eyes.
  604. “I’ve been to the brink, I know what you’re going through.  You only come back from that if you have the heart and the will to overcome it.”
  605. >You nod for the other men to continue walking.
  606.  
  607. “Green, focus. Think of your friends and brothers who died tonight… Think, but don’t grieve. Not yet. They gave everything. More than we can ever repay. Ever! But all we can do, is make sure those sacrifices weren’t for nothing. If they win here, it’s all for nothing. Don’t worry of those who have died, think of all those you have the power to save.”
  608. >You see that he’s got blood on his armor.
  609. >Pony blood, not from the creatures.
  610. >What has he been through…
  611. “Come here.”
  612. >You pull him into a hug.
  613. >When you pull away, you see tears in his eyes.
  614. “These days will live with you for the rest of your life… it’s up to you to decide what to do about it… things only get harder from here, I know. But we need you. Those men need you. Your family needs you. Equestira needs you.”
  615. >You then pause a moment.
  616. “I need you.”
  617. >”I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we failed, I’m sorry that I failed.”
  618. “You’ve only failed if you let setbacks hold you back.”
  619. >His unfocused gaze seems to settle into proper sight.
  620. “We’ve only lost if hope dies.”
  621. >”You saved my life… I won’t let you down.”
  622. “No… don’t let yourself down.”
  623. >“… I won’t”
  624. “Come on, we’re falling behind.”
  625.  
  626. >…
  627. >After seeing the soldiers off to a command post and making sure their corporal got medical attention, you headed up to the tower.
  628. >And met Rose Thorn again.
  629. >”Ma’am, that was-”
  630. >You look to the only other pony up here with you, a pegasi runner.
  631. “Get up to the ship, make sure it’s ready to hit any buildings that are infested with those things. We have air superiority and we’re going to use it.”
  632. >The soldier nods before flying off.
  633. >”Ma’am, that was too risky.”
  634. “I’ve fought these things on three separate occasions now.”
  635. >”But you’re-“
  636. “And I didn’t run from the front lines the other two times.”
  637. >You chuckle a bit.
  638. >”Princess?”
  639. “Just remembering Rommel.”
  640. >”Who?”
  641. “A leader from Anon’s people. He would always circumvent the middle officers and order the men himself. The soldiers loved him, officers… not so much.”
  642. >”You went out alone!”
  643. “And five men are alive, who wouldn’t have been if I didn’t.”
  644. >You then properly turn to face her.
  645. “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide.”
  646. >And you continue.
  647. “You shouldn’t give orders that you personally aren’t ready to undertake. Now, you’ve done much more than expected given your situation, but the time has come to release command. And if my hoofs on style isn’t to your liking, I’m sorry but it won’t change.”
  648. >”No, it’s not that… somepony has to say it.”
  649. “Colonel, I’m already surrounded by ponies who say it.”
  650. >“I just wanted to state that-“
  651. “Enough. There’s a job to do here and now. Make sure that you’re in constant contact with the airship. If you need more messengers, there’s plenty aboard.”
  652. >”Yes Ma’am.”
  653. “You did the best with the situation, and I applaud you for it. But the situation has changed. We’ve got to secure our lines of communication and solidify the battle lines. At least until more help arrives.”
  654.  
  655. >…
  656. >Brairheart sent a couple of runners down to the tower.
  657. >The main gun was able to properly collapse the tunnel when it was aimed at the maximum depression it can tilt.
  658. “Alright, once the remaining pits are dealt with, the Prwdwen’s guns won’t be needed until large concentrations can be located. First thing’s first. I want word established with the pegasi wing. We need to get them properly integrated into the command structures on the ground… as soon as we can consolidate.”
  659. >You look over to Thorn.
  660. “You said that lines are scattered in the city, right?”
  661. >”We started from multiple positions and were able to link up, but a proper battle line  would look more like a battle squiggle on an actual map.”
  662. “Start consolidating everypony you’ve got into the blocks surrounding this tower. We can’t clear building by building if they can just occupy ones already checked. After that we’ll properly start to clear, leaving enough men behind to make sure there are no gaps.”
  663. >You then glance to the runner you were speaking to.
  664. “After we get a headcount, with our air support we’ll make as much progress as we can until reinforcements arrive. When the IIIrd gets here, we can perform a proper sweep across the entirety of the city. Once Baltimare is secure, we then move out to help deal with the creatures that escaped to the outskirts.”
  665. >Then you look back to Thorn.
  666. “The 89th will have to do their best dealing with the ones outside the city. When the 17th airborne gets in, they’ll move out to hold back the tide with them. Once consolidated, our job will be to push over towards the rail station. It’s not too far off from here, and it’ll let the Old Guard safely disembark. After that, we push out to the west, hopefully getting to the edge of the city to meet up with the IIIrd corps.”
  667. >Thorn then speaks to the runner:
  668.  
  669. >”We’ll need those pegasi supporting the men as the fall back to these couple blocks. And if you have any medics aboard, we have plenty of wounded. Some would need transport up to a proper doctor if you have one on board.”
  670. >”Yes, the medical bay aboard the ship has room for two dozen, another ten or so might be able to be squeezed in.”
  671. >”We’ll send the worst up to you and deal with the rest down here. Any medical supplies that could be spared would be welcome though.”
  672. “Once we realized the Prydwen would be needed for rapid action, all sorts of supplies were tossed into the cargo bay. Could have brought another couple hundred men, but what’s the point of it if everypony else on the ground is starving.”
  673. >You then speak to the runner again.
  674. “One last thing. Brairheart has his air wings coming in, have them link up with the 89th and 17th on the outskirts. If these things are packed into buildings, they’ll have too much cover for the wings to be effective. And we need as many fast attack groups working on containment.”
  675. >”Aye Ma’am.”
  676. “Now get-“
  677. >You hear and feel another blast from the main gun.
  678. “Going.”
  679. >As that runner flies off, you then speak to Thorn.
  680. “As you get word to the command posts, have them wait to pull back. Once the pegasi are ready to move in and support, we’ll start bringing them in.”
  681. >”There is one thing…”
  682. “What?”
  683. >”Relatively secure paths exist for most of the men, but there are a few pockets that are cut off.”
  684. >She motions toward a map of the city.
  685. >”Forty men are stuck on the upper levels of this office building. A company has fortified this barracks with any civilians that weren’t luck enough to get to an evac group. And according to a few who escaped, the remnants of a platoon had to barricade themselves in a basement here.”
  686. “Alright, you see to the consolidations. I’ll take a couple of squadrons and deal with the others.”
  687.  
  688. >…
  689. “Alright boys, take a look around but stay high. I don’t want to find out how high these things can jump?”
  690. >The old office building has all of the windows blown out.
  691. >But the top level has been boarded up and barricaded.
  692. >You can see some claw marks on the brick.
  693. >No movement on the roof or other levels.
  694. >A pegasi yells over to you:
  695. >”Same on this side!”
  696. >Another yells:
  697. >”No movement!”
  698. “Stay up here, and be ready!”
  699. >You could try the roof access door, but that could lead to a stairwell that’s open to the lower levels.
  700. >Looking over to the closest two pegasi, you speak:
  701. “With me, watch my back.”
  702. >Flying down to one of the boarded up windows that’s a bit further from any openings below, you try to yell through it:
  703. “Anypony still in there?”
  704. >You pick up some muffled chatter, then hear some crashes.
  705. >After somepony yells, the desk that’s up against the window gets levitated out of the way.
  706. >The ponies in the window look astounded, then a voice starts speaking from further in the floor.
  707. >”Well it’s about damn time. Took your-“
  708. >The soldier then gets a view out the window.
  709. >”Princess?”
  710. “Status report, now.”
  711. >”Thirty-eight men trapped in here, two are wounded but nothing serious. We got cut off by dozens of them. I think most have gone on, but there are still enough in here, every now and then they test the barricades.”
  712. “Alright, look. We’ve got a full company of troops just six blocks over. We’re going to get you guys down then move onto get them. How many pegasi do you have?”
  713. >”Six.”
  714. “Alright, have four of them carry your wounded to Colonel Thorn’s command tower. You know where that is right?”
  715. >”Affirmative.”
  716. “Now let’s open up the next window over. My pegasi will start ferrying you to the ground.”
  717. >You glance over to one of the pegasi you had follow you.
  718. “Have a squadron secure a landing zone, the other will get these guys  down and provide cover if they try to climb outside.”
  719.  
  720. >…
  721. >Just a few blocks…
  722. >One squadron is close above, another is scouting the immediate area.
  723. “Keep it tight boys. Eyes peeled.”
  724. >You look up to the squadron and whistle.
  725. >Grabbing the leaders attention, you yell up:
  726. “Send a couple men to scout on ahead, see how bad things are at the barracks.”
  727. >With a nod, three of the pegasi fly out further.
  728. >By the map, the barracks are set up inside of an old elementary school that was rendered unusable from the war damage.
  729. >And one of the pits popped up two blocks away.
  730. >You hear another blast of the Prydwen’s main gun.
  731. >It wasn’t nearby, so the pit by the barracks is already dealt with.
  732. >You can hear a few soldiers whispering behind you as you lead the men down the street.
  733. >”I can’t believe it’s really her.”
  734. >”Think I’m in love.
  735. >”Thought she’d be taller.”
  736. >You’re normal height…
  737. >Right?
  738. >”Imagine our luck. Thought we were done for.”
  739. “I can hear you.”
  740. >And that’s the last peep you hear.
  741. >…
  742. >It’s not long before the pegasi return.
  743. >You beckon one down to you.
  744. “Report.”
  745. >”Ma’am, they’re there and awaiting us. No sign of any hostiles.”
  746. “Good, get back up with the others.”
  747. >As you continue, you pay close attention to the surroundings.
  748. >So far it’s been a nice walk through a ghost town.
  749. >Maybe they’ve accepted that the pits are down and they’re most effective inside the ruins.
  750. >Or maybe they’re planning something bigger.
  751. >You’re not sure what’s worse.
  752. >But you hear something in the distance.
  753. >Marching… in complete unison.
  754. >Hard steel against the roads.
  755.  >Around a corner a few blocks forward, a heavily armored line of soldiers turn to approach.
  756. >Shining steel, the edges of each piece stained a bright red.
  757.  
  758. >Their uniforms underneath are an equally bright red.
  759. >Their front left legs are much more heavily armored than the right.
  760. >Halberds fly in the air, cradled in their front left hoof.
  761. >Their helmets have forward facing brushes of bright red.
  762. >They have swords at their sides, and pouches around their necks.
  763. >And all of them are tall and heavily built.
  764. >You didn’t know it was a grenadier company.
  765. >As more start to turn around the corner, you then hear… singing.
  766. >”Some talk of the Bronze star, and some of Hurricane.”
  767. >”Of Magnus and ol’ Star Swirl, and such great names as these.”
  768. >”But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that compare.”
  769. >”With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to Equestrian Grenadiers.”
  770. >That…
  771. >”Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades.”
  772. >”Our leaders march with steel, and we with hoof grenades.”
  773. >”We throw them from the glacis, about the enemies’ ears.”
  774. >”With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to Equestrian Grenadiers.”
  775. >Anon just had to teach them the British Grenadiers…
  776. >”Then let us fill a bumper, and drink the health of those.”
  777. >”Who carry caps and pouches, and wear thy louped clothes.”
  778. >”May they and their commanders live happy all their years.”
  779. >”With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to Equestrian Grenadiers.”
  780. >The company is fully straightened the road now.
  781. >As you approach, the leader, who’s on the left of the formation from your perspective stops.
  782. >He’s wearing identical armor to the rest, but his helmet’s brush goes forward rather than shoulder to shoulder.
  783. >He speaks:
  784. >”88th division grenadier company reporting in, your Majesty.”
  785. “At ease…”
  786. >”Captain Steady March, at your service Ma’am. If I may?”
  787. “Of course.”
  788.  
  789. >”When the Tartarus rift appeared, my men were on the front lines. We held off for as long as possible while getting civilians to safety. At the center of out marching unit, we have approximately one hundred civilians who we’ve been protecting. The enemy quickly overpowered my men, and I sounded retreat to protect as many civilians as possible until reinforcements could relieve us. We fought the enemy as hard as we could, but there were too many. I personally take full responsibility for any failures that might be attributed to my unit.”
  790. “Captain March, you had only two hundred men against untold thousands. As far as I’m concerned, you quick response saved hundreds of lives. I’m here to get as many soldiers and civilians to safety as possible. How many do you have after the battle?”
  791. >”One hundred and seventy-nine soldiers, and ninety-seven civilians.”
  792. “You only lost twenty-one men?”
  793. >”And sounded the retreat. We were pushed back from the precipice of the rift. That was my tactical decision and mine alone.”
  794. “Captain, you made the right call. And your willingness to take judgment speaks immensely to your character. Right now, we need to rescue more soldiers then get everypony back to safety until proper reinforcements arrive, and I’ll need your men to make sure that happens.”
  795. >”Thank you, your Majesty.”
  796. “Alright.”
  797. >You look up to the air wing above you.
  798. “Work with any pegasi present to start carrying these civilians to safety.”
  799. >You then look back to the Captain.
  800. “We’ve got over twenty of blocks to march, and I’ll need your men ready to defend an attack from every direction. Protecting civilians is the highest priority.”
  801. >”Understood.”
  802.  
  803. “And Captain? You don’t know how much I’m relieved that the company I came to get was grenadiers. With luck, we might just get back in one piece.”
  804. >There’s only one grenadier company in each division.
  805. >Except in the 1st and 3rd armies who have three in each division, as the 1st and 3rd are the armies who saw the most combat.
  806. >And only veterans or the very naturally skilled become grenadiers.
  807. >It might not be the Old Guard, but it’s the next best thing in terms of infantry.
  808. >You flap your wings to fly up and see the men.
  809. >The scraggly ones you rescued, and the grenadiers who surround the civilians.
  810. “Alright ponies! You’ve seen a lot these past days. I know that it’s shaken you. I know that it’s been hard. I know that you’ve lost friends, or even family. But this is the turning point. It won’t be easy, but I promise you that we will endure. Civilians, I swear that you will all be taken to safety. Soldiers, I swear that I will fight alongside you as we fight this battle. This isn’t the end. It isn’t even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning. If some force from Tartarus wants to test Equestria, then we will face them, and we will end victorious.”
  811. >You pause.
  812. “There’s nothing that can stop us when we work together. No matter how dark things get, ponies have always overcome our problems by joining together in friendship. In camaraderie. In brotherhood… I can’t promise that things will get better, not yet. But what I can promise is that we will band together. It won’t be easy, but I promise you that Equestira will live, and march on!”
  813. >Is this what it felt like to be Anon?
  814. >Making definite statements in the hope they prove true?
  815. >No Flurry, not the hope in they prove true- that you’ll make it true… somehow.
  816.  
  817. >…
  818. >In the marching column, you’ve put the grenadiers on the outside, then the other soldiers, then the civilians.
  819. >Properly experienced soldiers need to be on the frontlines.
  820. >And when the first beast struck from an alleyway, you didn’t even have enough time to get to the fight.
  821. >The two nearest grenadiers crossed their halberds and held the creature back, while each soldier to their sides struck deep into the gills.
  822. >Those two who held it back probably wouldn’t have been able to if they weren’t so heavily built.
  823. >The situation at the pit must have been really bad if they deemed the tide too strong.
  824. >It’s a good thing that the Tartarus ‘demons’ don’t have a culture or narrative that would overtake if they win.
  825. >Because then you’d get the Napoleon treatment.
  826. >Being short because there are the tallest soldiers around you.
  827. >Although that one soldier did say that he thought you’d be taller…
  828. >You’re going to get Napoleon’d, aren’t you?
  829. >Again, is this what it’s like to be Anon?
  830. >Being in a life or death situation, making jokes in your head to stay grounded…
  831. >You can’t wait to compare notes when he finally gets back.
  832. >Your train of thought stops as you see movement.
  833. >Across the street in front of you, dozens of the creatures start to emerge from the doorways and windows of the ruined buildings.
  834. >”Ma’am!”
  835. >Captain March yells over to you.
  836.  
  837. >You’ve been marching a few paces ahead of the formation.
  838. >You glance over to him.
  839. >”Take to the skies, let us do our job.”
  840. >You want to see them in action.
  841. “I’ll do what I can form up there.”
  842. >You flap your wings and ascend.
  843. >March speaks as you move up.
  844. >”Company, hold!”
  845. >The group stops.
  846. >”Phalanx… round!”
  847. >The grenadiers all turn towards the closest edge of the rectangular formation, rounding out the corners.
  848. >You can see that a couple creatures are emerging from the sides, and another large force is descending from the rear.
  849. >The first ring of men put down their halberds to face out.
  850. >The second ring place their weapons out between the shoulders of the front.
  851. >The third are lowered in the air aimed up over the bodies of the first two ranks.
  852. >And the fourth are above the third.
  853. >One the ends of the formation, the further ranks have their halberds at the ready but pointed up.
  854. >”FRONT AND REAR! GRENADES!”
  855. >The front rank facing forward and the rear rank facing backward set their halberds down and pull a grenade from their satchel.
  856. >They then light them against the long burning wick that’s tied over their front right leg’s armor.
  857. >And toss them down the street in both directions.
  858. >Dozens of explosions then sound out as the grenades eviscerate the beasts caught in the blasts.
  859. >Some are killed.
  860. >Others are wounded.
  861. >But more creatures are coming from the buildings.
  862.  
  863. >You glance over to the pegasi in the air.
  864. “Do what you can about the ones climbing down the walls, then wait to see how the ground forces do.”
  865. >The pegasi move out and strike at or shoot arrows at the beasts that are descending from higher levels of the buildings around you.
  866. >But you hold back a moment to watch as lines meet.
  867. >Beasts crash against the lines, but the grenadiers hold true.
  868. >The line remains coherent, and where a creature overcomes them, they push it back quickly.
  869. >One of the men on the front rank is killed as a beast chomps down onto his head.
  870. >But that beast is immediately struck down by the men around it.
  871. >You catch a moment when one of the creatures stops just shy of the wall, only to get quickly stricken down by a pegasi who charges in to lodge a spear into its head.
  872. >In the corner of your eye, you see a beast on a roof.
  873. >It’s charging ahead… to jump to the center of the formation.
  874. >Right on the civilians.
  875. >You…
  876. >Can’t really quantify what happened.
  877. >You saw a beam of energy shoot out from your horn.
  878. >You feel extremely tired, but the next thing you know, the beast was mostly turned into ash.
  879. >An arm and a couple claws were all that remained.
  880. >Those limbs then rained down onto the soldiers.
  881. >And the civilians.
  882. >But the normal soldiers, they did their duty.
  883. >They kept the civilians from panicking and disrupting the men who were on the front line.
  884. >The blast, taxing as it was kept you from fully viewing the battle for a while.
  885.  
  886. >By the time you properly came to recognize your surroundings, the grenadiers had broken formation.
  887. >Groups moved forward, slaughtering the wounded stragglers of the battle.
  888. >As you inspected the field, you saw that only one grenadier had been lost.
  889. >No soldiers and no civilians died.
  890. >Landing next to Captain March, you spoke to him:
  891. “Your men have exceeded my wildest expectations. See to it that your fallen soldier is brought back and receives a proper burial.”
  892. >”It will be done.”
  893. >He nods towards the nearest soldiers.
  894. >”Ma’am, if I may”
  895. >March whispers.
  896. >You speak in an equally as hushed tone:
  897. “Of course.”
  898. >”My men are talented, but it’s only due to your presence that we lost so little today.”
  899. >He continues:
  900. >”I only fought alongside the Field Marshal on one occasion, but If I may be so bold, your presence is worth more than even his.”
  901. “That’s a compliment that I don’t take lightly. To be honest, it might be the greatest one I’ve ever heard.”
  902. >You then speak loudly to the formation:
  903. “Alright, let’s move as best we can past the bodies, then get back into proper ranks!”
  904. >March responds:
  905. >”It will be done!”
  906.  
  907. >…
  908. >There were a few more isolated encounters, but no casualties among your men other than a couple cuts.
  909. >One soldier sprained an ankle after a dead beast’s body crushed him.
  910. >But the path to the last group of cutoff soldiers was fairly clear.
  911. >The building used to be at least three or four stories, but there’s not much left of the upper levels.
  912. >The far side of the building still reaches up three levels, but on your end, most of the wall is down to the ground in a large pile of rubble.
  913. >There is something of a tunnel that leads into the remains of the first floor.
  914. “Captain. Give me three squads.”
  915. >He whistles over to a few men.
  916. >They break from formation and come towards you as you walk towards the opening.
  917. >Glancing back, you speak to them:
  918. “Alright, stay close, I’ll take point.”
  919. >Even though you move forward, for the slightest moment you questioned the decision.
  920. >Taking point.
  921. >You want to help the people of Equestria- your people.
  922. >But when surrounded by trained and experienced soldiers, what’s better?
  923. >Leading the charge, so to speak.
  924. >Or standing back and let them do their jobs.
  925. >Should you lead from the front or the rear?
  926. >By everything you know, Anon managed to properly synthesize them.
  927. >Even if he was at a single battle, he knew and regularly gave orders to the entire war effort.
  928. >No.
  929.  
  930. >You are your own person.
  931. >Every day you’re surrounded by ponies who know how to lead from the rear.
  932. >And if today is any evidence, your presence turned the tides.
  933. >The common soldiers were astounded to see you alongside them.
  934. >The experienced men rallied and moved out from their safe fortifications to meet you.
  935. >You’ve trained your hardest almost every day with some of the best fighters, tacticians, and strategists.
  936. >But if your simple presence can inspire a dozen men to fight like a hundred…
  937. >Lancer might be a bit more cautious then you are, but when those times arise, you can overrule him.
  938. >Because when it comes down to it, you’ve only disagreed with Lancer and all of high command on maybe one or two percent of situations.
  939. >You can trust them.
  940. >You have trusted them.
  941. >Celestia, Luna, your mother… they never set foot on an actual battlefield in the more recent wars.
  942. >You have.
  943. >If your presence does more good than your ability as a warrior, a strategist, a leader…
  944. >That’s all that matters.
  945. >Because if you just sent a pegasi wing to do this job, everypony here might be dead.
  946. >If being a glorified battle flag saves more people than your actual fighting…
  947. >Then that’s your best role.
  948. >Even if there’s dozens- no, hundreds or thousands of soldiers that could best you in a straight up fight, Alicorn unconscious bursts notwithstanding, that’s your duty.
  949. >Leadership, your position in an army, it all boils down to one base question.
  950. >How can you do your part?
  951. >This… this is your part.
  952.  
  953. >Even if it ends up being the death of you.
  954. >Especially if it’s the death of you.
  955. >Because whatever happens, you will not let yourself falter.
  956. >You will lead from the front.
  957. >You will not order anything that you wouldn’t do yourself.
  958. >You will be the… beacon that Brairheart said you are.
  959. >The space around you isn’t that dark.
  960. >Holes in the ceiling let a fair amount of light in.
  961. >Drawing your sword, you continue to walk along the burnt out building.
  962. >You honestly can’t tell what this building was supposed to be before the Saddle Arabian siege.
  963. >The entire building is completely burnt out.
  964. >Any beds or desks or defining features are gone.
  965. >Only charred remains on the wall…
  966. >And old blood splatters.
  967. >Some are faded dark from the age of the siege.
  968. >But some are fresher.
  969. >Not as decayed.
  970. “Keep in ranks… But space wider. Watch every corner and flank. Assume every movement and sound is a hostile.”
  971. >You hear the soldiers shuffling around.
  972. >A soldier, probably a sergeant speaks to you:
  973. >”With all of the older debris, it’s hard to tell what tracks are fresh.”
  974. “We’ll have to find the lower level on our own. Keep formation. If anything’s waiting for us, they’d pounce as soon as we’re alone.”
  975. >Room by room.
  976. >As you enter into the next one from a hallway, you have to duck backwards as a beast strikes out towards you.
  977. >Two of the grenadiers directly behind you immediately skewer it, as a third brings the pick side of his halberd down into the creature’s head.
  978. “Well done.”
  979. >The room has no other access points.
  980. >You need to find the stairwell.
  981.  
  982. >…
  983. >There was only one other beast waiting in the ruins.
  984. >At least through the rooms you checked.
  985. >You were fairly easily able to hit in in the gills.
  986. >But when you did find the stairs leading down…
  987. >A half dozen of them were waiting.
  988. >You got one, the others got the rest.
  989. >Once everything was said and done, you found the barricade.
  990. “Anypony in there hear me?”’
  991. >No reply.
  992. “Hold on. Don’t want to scare them.”
  993. >You might not be able to levitate the entire ‘fortification’ away, but you can put a magical aura around it.
  994. >That should tell any survivors that help has arrived.
  995. >You then watch as the furthest debris gets pulled away.
  996. “Hear me now?”
  997. >You hear a plethora of people cry out in celebration.  
  998. >As ponies toss the remainder of the barricades away, they… as expected, look on with blank faces.
  999. >You do notice a stench of… defecation from the room.
  1000. “Who’s in charge here.”
  1001. >After a moment of pause, a voice speaks:
  1002. >”Our LT was killed.”
  1003. “Well that doesn’t matter now. We’re getting you out of here.”
  1004.  
  1005. >…
  1006. >Gasping for breath, you awaken once more.
  1007. >The last time was…
  1008. >You managed to find a nice little alcove in the cliffs.
  1009. >After downing a day’s worth of rations in a single meal, you soon collapsed again.
  1010. “Harv?”
  1011. >Yeah, that’s what you thought.
  1012. >Sitting upright, you rub your eyes.
  1013. >There’s a pain in your upper spine.
  1014. >Your skinned arm feels like it’s on fire.
  1015. >And as you start to stand…
  1016. >Oh that hurts.
  1017. >You have to reach down and check that you haven’t popped your knees out.
  1018. >Well today will be just peachy.
  1019. >…
  1020. >You didn’t remember your backpack being so heavy.
  1021. >And as you step out of your tiny cave, you don’t remember things being as bright.
  1022. >Or as cool.
  1023. >Alright Anon, you have no idea the path Harvey set out for you.
  1024. >But you set out on this mission without even the slightest idea of where to go.
  1025. >Just keep on going east.
  1026. >No more caves though.
  1027. >Just you and a nice mountain stroll.
  1028. >What could possibly go-
  1029. >Some rocks under your right foot give way and you fall onto your side.
  1030. >The side of your head hits the stone.
  1031. >Not that bad…
  1032. >Pulling yourself back up, you reach and feel a bit of blood.
  1033. >You should have been able to brace that fall.
  1034. >Clenching your fists a couple times, you feel like a slug.
  1035. >Continuing down, you see the tiny gravel on the ground start to move.
  1036. >Like it’s-
  1037. >Not gravel.
  1038. >Those are ants swarming up from a hole.
  1039. >Moving around them, you pull yourself up onto a higher level in the crags.
  1040. >Glancing back, you see hundreds of the ants still pouring out.
  1041. >Hustling over the rocks, you glance back when you reach a more stable patch of ground.
  1042. >They’re still coming but you think you can outrun them.
  1043. >Damn your knees hurt.
  1044. >After you think your clear, you stop.
  1045.  
  1046. >Maybe it’s just the venom, but you’re actually getting tired.
  1047. >You used to run laps along city walls without a single bead of sweat before the third or fourth time around.
  1048. “Harvey. Look, if you’re there at all, just say one word.”
  1049. >Come on Harv.
  1050. “One word buddy.”
  1051. >Harv…
  1052. “Alright.”
  1053. >You look back, past the couple peaks you’ve gotten through.
  1054. >Then east, to the endless landscape of mountains and cliffs.
  1055. >The south?
  1056. >More mountains.
  1057. >You can’t turn back.
  1058. >Not now.
  1059. >Not ever.
  1060. >North…
  1061. >Only a few more peaks.
  1062. “We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”
  1063. >Adjusting your path, you keep on talking.
  1064. “Harv, when you get back, we’ve gotta have a talk. I said no help, the not eating or sleeping or shitting was alright. But I’ve been poisoned before, and this ain’t poisoning. This is withdrawal. You bastard.”
  1065. >Early on in your days here, you became a serious alcoholic.
  1066. >When there weren’t any wars to really fight.
  1067. >Thanks to Twilight and Shining, you quit.
  1068. >Cold turkey.
  1069. >And this feels like withdrawal.
  1070. >That might be the no eating, sleeping, or shitting thing, but you think it’s more.
  1071. >You told him to do what he could, but if evidently he has to be BUSY, this happens to you…
  1072. >You’ll take your chances on your own.
  1073. >As you turn round the bend, you see something that legitimately makes you think you’re dreaming.
  1074. >Maybe you’re actually still in your tent, dealing with… what did you name the parasite?
  1075. >Bob?
  1076. >Charlie?
  1077. >Steve!
  1078. >Like you’re still having a nice conversation with Steve.
  1079. >Around this corner, you see one of those golems.
  1080.  
  1081. >It’s kneeling down and offering a gem that’s similar to the one that was in the center of the other’s torso.
  1082. >The person it’s offering the gem to is a pony.
  1083. >Is that Pinkie Pie.
  1084. >She takes the gem and tosses it in a satchel.
  1085. >Then, as the golem returns to merge with the nearest cliff, she notices you.
  1086. >”Oh hi there Anon! What are you doing here?”
  1087. “I… what?”
  1088. >”I mean, I’m here to get a Hearth’s Warming gift for Maud. Thanks to my good old friend Rocky Two, I think I have THE. BEST. GIFT. EVER!”
  1089. “Are you…”
  1090. >”But don’t worry, Rocky Two told me about One, you’re A-Okay from the Rockies… as long as you apologize.”
  1091. “I’m… sorry. Really, mister Two. My bad.”
  1092. >”Wait what time is it?”
  1093. “I- I don’t know, around four?
  1094. >”I’m late!”
  1095. “What?”
  1096. >”Sorry Nonny, I’ve got to go!”
  1097. >She runs behind a boulder that’s taller than her body.
  1098. >You rush up to it.
  1099. >And look to other side.
  1100. >No one’s there…
  1101. >To settle the matter, you climb up atop it.
  1102. >No.
  1103. >You can’t see any pink.
  1104. >Anywhere.
  1105. >Okay…
  1106. >Okay.
  1107. >This was a hallucination.
  1108. >Has to be.
  1109. “Harvey… you better be able to answer this when you come to.”
  1110. >This is…
  1111. >What the hell?
  1112. >What in the serious hell!
  1113. “Uhh… Rocky Two… If you’re listening, I really am really sorry. I don’t have any magic aura or anything like that. Rocky One threw the first punch, but I could have just run away and continue on my way… so sorry. It’s just that well- I’m talking to myself, aren’t I?”
  1114. >Nothing happens.
  1115. “Cool… I’ll keep on keeping on. We’re good, right?”
  1116. >Nothing.
  1117. “Okay…”
  1118. >You’ll just be going…
  1119. >Just keep on moving.
  1120. >Keep on moving.
  1121. >Keep.
  1122. >On.
  1123. >Moving.
  1124.  
  1125. >…
  1126. >You’re tired- completely exhausted.
  1127. >Even though you tried to slash at a spider of unusual size, at worst you…
  1128. >Well that’s it.
  1129. >There was a spider or tarantula that was fairly small.
  1130. >And by ‘fairly’ you mean not as tall as your knee.
  1131. >Enough that looking at them and yelling at them made them scatter off.
  1132. >Another time you took a cut to the leg from another snow leopard before spooking it off with a warning shot from your four bore.
  1133. >But past that, you ended up on the final cliff overlooking the horizon.
  1134. >An endless forest.
  1135. >The trees aren’t as tall as the jaunt jungle you came from.
  1136. >Only thirty or so years of growth overall.
  1137. >By your estimates.
  1138. >Given the chaotic nature of this area, it could be a year, it could be a thousand years.
  1139. >But it’s a way forward.
  1140. >Form here it doesn’t look too bad.
  1141. >So you unsling the shotgun from your back, and use it as a sort of cane.
  1142. >A temperate forest.
  1143. >Can’t be worse than the Everfree.
  1144. >Until it IS worse.
  1145. >Because it’s always worse,
  1146. >Always.
  1147. >With the cut around your right leg bandaged up and fairly mobile, you start your way down the mountain.
  1148. >The way in which mountains blend into forest is stark.
  1149. >Like a wall separates the environments.
  1150. >Harvey better not be trying to teach you a lesson or moral.
  1151. >Being truly on your own over here…
  1152. >Well damnit.
  1153. >Even if you’re debilitated, you can move on.
  1154. >This is it.
  1155. >Until Harv gets off his ass, you’re on your own.
  1156. >One man.
  1157. >One old man.
  1158. >One old man who’s wounded.
  1159. >One old man who’s wounded and dealing with dubious withdrawal symptoms.
  1160. >It’s.. humbling in a way.
  1161. >No more adrenaline.
  1162. >No more madness.
  1163. >Just you against everything.
  1164. >How far you’ve come…
  1165.  
  1166. >…
  1167. >More creatures flood into the streets.
  1168. >But as the formation readies themselves, the beasts remain still.
  1169. >They’re trying something different.
  1170. “Hold.”
  1171. >Just out of range for the men to throw grenades.
  1172. >You whisper to yourself:
  1173. “What are they doing…”
  1174. >”I don’t know.”
  1175. >The Captain must have overheard you.
  1176. “We’re almost there.”
  1177. >”They’re smart, and might be trying to keep you from overseeing the battle as a whole.”
  1178. “I don’t know. They’ve exhibited tactical thinking before, but not strategic. I think it’s simpler… they want us to charge. Or take a different route that could lead to an ambush.”
  1179. >Before the junction they’ve came into, there are two turns you could take your column.
  1180. >And that’s setting aside falling back a block or two.
  1181. >Each and every turn could be an ambush.
  1182. >If you charge the beasts ahead, it still could be an ambush…
  1183. >Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
  1184. >What have you done previously against them.
  1185. >With the minotaurs you led a direct spearhead.
  1186. >In the Crystal Empire, you led the containment.
  1187. >Here you’ve rescued soldiers personally.
  1188. >By all they know, you lead yourself.
  1189. >You look up and whistle to a pegasi.
  1190. >When he flies down, you speak:
  1191. “Get to the ship. I want Brairheart to utterly level that crossroads.”
  1192. >”Aye.”
  1193. “I want that order relayed yesterday.”
  1194. >The airman flies off with no other words.
  1195. >He knows what you want.
  1196. >But, you can’t let the enemy think you’re planning something new.
  1197. “Alright people! Keep formation, and move up slowly.”
  1198. >Three blocks from the T junction the creatures are at.
  1199. >You’ll take it slow.
  1200. >Move up a block as slowly as you can…
  1201. >One step at a time.
  1202.  
  1203. >…
  1204. “Clear rear?”
  1205. >”Clear rear!”
  1206. “Clear flanks?”
  1207. >”Clear right!”
  1208. >”Clear left!”
  1209. >A few paces in front of the formation, you continue to approach the junction.
  1210. >Only a couple more buildings from the next intersection.
  1211. >Then-
  1212. >You hear a trio of explosions in the distance.
  1213. “HOLD!”
  1214. >Some of the beasts start to run forward.
  1215. >A moment later, three large blasts engulf the junction.
  1216. >The mortars…
  1217. >Dozens of the beasts are blown apart.
  1218. >But the creatures still standing are charging forward, as if nothing just happened.
  1219. >From the roads that lead onto the main street you’re on, more of the beasts run out.
  1220. >Why didn’t the scouts rela-
  1221. >A beam of magic strikes the furthest junction.
  1222. >The sound of the Prydwen’s main gun then sounds out a half second later.
  1223. >As the blast lights up and eviscerates the remaining creatures in the crossroad, the ones from the other streets are still coming.
  1224. >While the dust settles in the junction, more beasts run into the crater and turn to face your position.
  1225. >”Grenades!”
  1226. >You hear the March yell from behind.
  1227. >But his voice is distant.
  1228. >With dozens of the animals charging at you, you draw your sword.
  1229. >Steel balls are tossed over your head.
  1230. >When the explosions occur, some are killed.
  1231. >Some are slowed from wounds.
  1232. >Others keep moving at their peak speed.
  1233. >Courage Flurry…
  1234. >Stand firm.
  1235. >If you have to be a martyr…
  1236. >So be it.
  1237. >It’s not about you.
  1238. >It’s about Equestira.
  1239. >And Equestira is in hood hooves.
  1240. >Be the mare Anon taught you to be.
  1241. >As the beasts move closer, you see a single chariot fly low over your head.
  1242. >No pony is in it, only pegasi flying an empty one.
  1243.  
  1244. >Then somepony drops in front of you, presumably having jumped from the air chariot.
  1245. >Brairheart?
  1246. “What are you-“
  1247. >A wall of magical force rises up across the street.
  1248. >And as the beasts reach it, they’re stopped in their tracks.
  1249. >The wall rises up about two stories.
  1250. >Moving up to see Brairheart’s face, you see his eyes are dead set on the shield.
  1251. >”Before… all… this… I… was a… soldier!”
  1252. >As the beasts start to pile up on each other to scale the barrier, Brairheart’s horn shine brighter.
  1253. >And his wall pushes out down the street.
  1254. >The beasts fall to the ground, atop each other.
  1255. >As the force is paralyzed, you yell back:
  1256. “Grenades!”
  1257. >The Admiral falls to a knee as a new volley of explosives fly over your head.
  1258. >While the grenades explode, you look back.
  1259. “Move up! Charge!”
  1260. >You hear dozens of grenadiers scream out a battle cry as they move forward.
  1261. >While the men move out around you, the Admiral is fully laying the ground.
  1262. >You lean down and speak to- yell at him.
  1263. “What the hell was that!”
  1264. >”… Hell?”
  1265. >That’s one of Anon’s words you picked up.
  1266. >You drop your sword to pull Brairheart to his hooves.
  1267. “What. Was. That!”
  1268. >”My job… Ma’am. Might not be that good with a sword.”
  1269. >He pauses in thought as soldiers charge forward around you.
  1270. >”Not even that good with magic, but I can do my part.”
  1271. “You’re an Admiral, the only Admiral! You can’t just-“
  1272. >”You’re a Princess, the only Princess…”
  1273. “Well I’m your CO, get back up there!”
  1274. >”Yeah… I will. Just wanted a glimpse of the old days…”
  1275. “Get back to the ship!”
  1276. >You then flap your wings to get a view of the battle.
  1277. >The grenadiers are climbing over the corpses to reach the remaining few beasts.
  1278. >Towards the rear of the column, the soldiers are fighting against a flanking move.
  1279.  
  1280. >But as you watch…
  1281. >They endured.
  1282. >Quickly even.
  1283. >Among the ranks below you, you can see the Admiral looking up.
  1284. >Without any other beasts left living, you set down alongside him.
  1285. >With a slight grin, he speaks:
  1286. >”If there’s one thing that I’ve ever learned… it’s that a single act can turn the tide. An officer, a general, even the lowest soldier. Morale is everything.”
  1287. >He even chuckles a bit.
  1288. >”And besides, everypony else has proved themselves to you. About time I got my share in.”
  1289. “You don’t have anything to prove, that doesn’t mean that you have to put your life on the line!”
  1290. >Brairheart just gives a smug grin.
  1291. “Oh don’t use that on me.”
  1292. >Around you, the grenadiers spread out and check the beast’s corpses.
  1293. >Making sure they’re really dead.
  1294. “I bet you didn’t give him this kind of flack.”
  1295. >”When one of us would help him, he’d start with a ‘thank you’ at the very least.”
  1296. >You see the Admiral’s chariot set down beside you.
  1297. “Get out.”
  1298. >You joke.
  1299. >”Yes, Ma’am. We’ll be watching closely until you reach the others.”
  1300. >He slowly steps over and climbs onto the chariot.
  1301. >When he gets in the air, you look over to the soldiers.
  1302. “Alright, fall in. We’ll go down this way then get back on path.”
  1303. >While the forward grenadiers scale past the mound of bodies to file into formation, you look to Captain March.
  1304. >”Flyboys… show up late and take all the credit.”
  1305. >He then remembers who you are.
  1306. >”Ma’am…”
  1307. “Look, once we reach the lines, I want any of your men who are wounded to get treatment, even if it’s just a scratch. Everypony else will help me lead the push out to the rail station. We need to secure it for reinforcements.”
  1308. >”Of course.”
  1309.  
  1310. >…
  1311. >The forest before you is oddly tame.
  1312. >It’s actually not much of a forest.
  1313. >Down here it’s like a suburban lawn, but with more trees.
  1314. >Or like the Equestrian countryside just outside towns.
  1315. >For some reason, this is eerier than the alternative.
  1316. >Adjusting your grip on your four bore, you cock a barrel.
  1317. >Everything is too calm.
  1318. >Too happy.
  1319. >You halt and take aim as you see movement coming down a tree trunk.
  1320. >A squirrel then hops across the grass, moving far out of your sight.
  1321. >When it’s far away, you let exhale the breath you were holding.
  1322. >A freaking squirrel.
  1323. >Not even a giant version, just your average furry tailed rat.
  1324. >Just as you start to move, you almost shoulder the shotgun again.
  1325. >You’re jumping at squirrels and now butterflies in the distance.
  1326. >Calm down Anon.
  1327. >Calm down.
  1328. >There’s got to be some catch to this area, but you’ll deal with it when it comes.
  1329. >And this is, this is.
  1330. >This is, you’re not thinking straight.
  1331. >Hold.
  1332. >Deep breaths.
  1333. >Stay in control.
  1334. >And calm down.
  1335. >You’re not in your right mind.
  1336. >It’s more like your left mind-
  1337. >Stop that.
  1338.  
  1339. >…
  1340. >Leaving the grenadiers outside, you walked towards the command tower’s access.
  1341. >As you walk through the command post, you over hear an enlisted man:
  1342. >”So we went all this way, just to figure out we’re heading right back there…”
  1343. “Absolutely! Command, am I right?”
  1344. >”Yeah sister, the brass just must not realize-“
  1345. >And the soldier noticed who was speaking to him.
  1346. >You continue on your way, chuckling as you move.
  1347. >…
  1348. “Where are we Colonel?”
  1349. >”Well, we’ve been able to get a count of the 88th. Glancing down at the men you’ve brought back, barely over three thousand are in fighting shape. A few hundred wounded.”
  1350. “That’s… only over a fifth of the division.”
  1351. >”Barely over a fifth. And that’s only from my men.”
  1352. >The bottom line is that the casualty figure will easily be into five digits.
  1353. “What’s the status on the rail yard?”
  1354. >Thorn motions over to it on the horizon.
  1355. >”Now that what’s left is condensed and has proper air support, we should be able to push forward. A two or three block wide advance maybe.”
  1356. “I want the grenadiers I brought back to be on point.”
  1357. >”You deal with the advance, I’ll make sure the lines hold.”
  1358. “Sounds good to me.”
  1359. >…
  1360. >The main gun rings out and utterly levels a building at the end of the block.
  1361. >As the boom subsides, you yell to the men.
  1362. “MOVE UP!”
  1363. >You hear an officer yell to men on the opposite side of the street.
  1364. >”Breech!”
  1365. >And he leads a few squads into a building.
  1366. >At the top of the same building, the squad that air support lifted up begins to work their way down.
  1367. >”Ma’am!”
  1368. >You turn back to see Captain March rushing up to your position.
  1369. >”The right flank’s been making good time. We’re almost a block ahead of the center and left.”
  1370. “Alright, push forward if you can, but don’t let your guys get cut off. We’re only a couple blocks away, then we just have to hold.”
  1371.  
  1372. >Another voice yells to you:
  1373. >”Ma’am!”
  1374. “Hold Captain.”
  1375. >As March stops, you look to the pegasi messenger.
  1376. “What is it soldier?”
  1377. >She relays to you:
  1378. >”Princess, we’re under attack. Hundreds of them pressing on our southern flank.”
  1379. >And you’re pressing north…
  1380. “How are you holding?”
  1381. >”To be honest, poorly. We’ve only lost a couple buildings, but casualties are high.”
  1382. >You look over to March.
  1383. “Give me one or two grenadier squads to reinforce the rear. You’re in charge up here, do what you can.”
  1384. >”Yes Ma’am!”
  1385. >Then you look to the messenger.
  1386. “Het up to the ship, I want all air of their guns supporting the defense.”
  1387. >”Ma’am, I-“
  1388. “Move!”
  1389. >Okay, that makes sense.
  1390. >You put all of your forces into a fairly small area.
  1391. >Makes sense they would try to wipe any stragglers from the field.
  1392. >For the time being, each of you are set off from reinforcements.
  1393. >They want to do as much damage as possible, you want to save as many as possible.
  1394. >As March gets two squads ready to march back, you look over.
  1395. “I’m moving up ahead, get there as soon as possible.”
  1396. >You then look to March.
  1397. “Captain, you know the stakes. Do me proud, do Equestria proud.”
  1398. >”We’ll get the job done!”
  1399. “Don’t tell me that! Show me results Captain!”
  1400. >…
  1401. >”Ma’am!”
  1402. “What do you want Call?”
  1403. >”What do you need?”
  1404. “Either get to the front, or get the Guard ready to go.”
  1405. >”But-“
  1406. “Choose, I’ve got a job to do.”
  1407. >You press on further.
  1408. >…
  1409. >Beast.
  1410. >High on your left.
  1411. >Right on the corner of a roof, you see one of them.
  1412. >You don’t even draw your sword.
  1413. >You just rush it with your shoulder.
  1414. >And that shoulder is going to be sore in the morning.
  1415. “Hold the line!”
  1416. >The other soldiers on the roof manage to push back against the creatures.
  1417. >Below, the lines on the street are being pushed back.
  1418. >The beasts packed just as tightly as your men are in the streets.
  1419. >Hold on… just a little bit longer.
  1420.  
  1421. >…
  1422. >Keep on moving Anon.
  1423. >This is, you’re messed up.
  1424. >But, are you messed up while awake, or messed up while asleep.
  1425. >On one hand you’ve been coherent for too long.
  1426. >When you’re self-aware, your dreams don’t last as long as you’ve been up.
  1427. >Other than your escapades with the parasite…
  1428. >But this isn’t like that.
  1429. >The parasite kept cycling you through settings to keep you unaware.
  1430. >This has been a continuous chain.
  1431. >You’re-
  1432. >Deer.
  1433. >The doe is looking right over at you with wide eyes.
  1434. >Venison…
  1435. >A loud gunshot then rings through the forest, sending birds flying off in flocks.
  1436. >…
  1437. >An few hours later, you sit next to the campfire.
  1438. >Bambi’s mom was pretty good.
  1439. >Stringy, but what venison isn’t?
  1440. >You take another bite of a rib.
  1441. >God you miss meat.
  1442. >Mainly steak.
  1443. >Cows here are sentient…
  1444. >Murder for sirloin is a step too far.
  1445. >God you miss a good rare steak.
  1446. >A few shakes of salt, and just a dash of pepper.
  1447. >And no steak sauce, just a tiny bit of ketchup on the corner of a bite.
  1448. >But above all else, no fat.
  1449. >Some people like it in their steaks, but those people aren’t really people.
  1450. >Not really.
  1451. >And for the slightest moment, the meat in your mouth tasted line a prime cut rare sirloin…
  1452. >But this isn’t your mind.
  1453. >This is reality!
  1454. >You’re a man in a forest.
  1455. >Eating deer ribs in front of a campfire.
  1456. >You look up to examine the surroundings.
  1457. >Still no movement.
  1458. >It’s a quiet night.
  1459. >But an hour later you hear it.
  1460. >A roar.
  1461. >Not a bear’s roar.
  1462. >You know bears.
  1463. >And not even a manticore.
  1464. >It’s too… primal to be a manticore.
  1465. >But it’s mammalian, so it can’t be a hydra or dragon.
  1466. >Or timber wolf.
  1467. >And it’s followed by five- no, six other roars from similar creatures.
  1468. >As night falls, you’re on your own out here.
  1469. >Just a shotgun leaning against a tree to your right, and a sword on your left hip.
  1470. >Come on…
  1471. >World.
  1472. >Let’s go.
  1473.  
  1474. >…
  1475. “Hold left!”
  1476. >You run across the roof to look at the other flank.
  1477. “Push forward!”
  1478. >You can see a few grenadiers pushing to the front line,  so hopefully they’ll be able to make the difference.
  1479. >In the past couple advances, you’ve had to throw too many men at the front line.
  1480. >Too many.
  1481. >You dropped down and killed a few at key points here and there, but it didn’t influence the actual battle line.
  1482. >Despite the tight formation, dozens of men have been lost.
  1483. >It’s something of a contradiction.
  1484. >The grenadiers work amiably in a tight formation.
  1485. >But their real strength lies when they spread out a bit and let their experience speak for itself.
  1486. >However with the average soldier, a tight formation is the only way to hold the line.
  1487. >Even if a tight formation just lets more men die in an individual attack.
  1488. >On one hoof individual actions are better, while on the other they result in more deaths.
  1489. >That’s… the difference between experienced soldiers and the recruits…
  1490. >No fighting force is the same, and you have to accept that.
  1491. >Even though a couple air strikes did their part, it’s not near enoug-
  1492. >Horns and trumpets blare out to the rear.
  1493. >In the street below you, you see the soldiers making way for a row of the Old Guard.
  1494. >Heavily armored ponies charge with blades, led by a unicorn.
  1495. >That unicorn is levitating a great sword that’s at least twice as long as your body is.
  1496. >The pegasi of the Guard fly overhead.
  1497. >Some dropping bombs, others diving in to pierce the enemy with spears and lances.
  1498. >You hear a large horn sound out from your rear.
  1499. >It echoes through the field.
  1500. >For blocks and blocks.
  1501. “FORWARD!”
  1502.  
  1503. >The horn still rings out, echoing through your bones.
  1504. >You fly down, sword at the ready to jab down into the head of a beast in the crossroad.
  1505. >While you remove the blade and move onto the next creature, you barely have time to reach as a unicorn stuns the animals that surround you with a single blast of magic.
  1506. >You slash at the nearest beast.
  1507. >Around you, you can see unicorns stun the Tartarus creatures, allowing earth ponies or pegasi to sweep in for the kill.
  1508. >Pegasi harass beasts to allow earth ponies to skewer them.
  1509. >Earth ponies hold back beasts so that unicorns can land a killing blast of magic.
  1510. >And the Guard still press forward.
  1511. >Moving up quickly to support your position.
  1512. >You’ve seen them in action before.
  1513. >But never against a truly greater foe.
  1514. >Here they have to push themselves to contend with the enemy.
  1515. >Each and every one of the Old Guard fought much harder than you could have.
  1516. >With the ferocity of a manticore.
  1517. >The loyalty you’ve only seen in Anon.
  1518. >And a skill that matches the best you’ve encountered- making the grenadiers look like raw recruits.
  1519. >They never faced the beasts before.
  1520. >But to your eyes, they might as well have fought them every day for the past decade.
  1521. >Setting aside magic, any one of them could best you.
  1522. >Easily.
  1523. >Even with magic it’d be a challenge.
  1524. >You haven’t seen a single Old Guard fall.
  1525. “MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!”
  1526. >While you have the momentum.
  1527. >They’re still cut off from reinforcements, and the more you can catch out here means less to skulk in buildings.
  1528. >…   
  1529. >You hear another roar echo through the forest.
  1530. >No.
  1531. >No no no no no.
  1532. >That’s a manticore!
  1533. >You can tell from the pitch.
  1534. >Deeper though, and more reverb.
  1535. >You take a last bite from the venison before standing up.
  1536. >The roar was relatively close.
  1537. “Schnell!”
  1538. >No, they wouldn’t know German.
  1539. >Not like Frederick.
  1540. >They wouldn’t even know English…
  1541. >Because they’re animals!
  1542.  
  1543. >No, focus.
  1544. >You pull yourself up to your feet.
  1545. >Then!
  1546. >A dozen or two feet in front of you, it descends from the light forest canopy.
  1547. >The lighting is still good enough to distinctly make out it’s body.
  1548. >Yup it’s a manticore.
  1549. >Strange sound for a manticore…
  1550. >But if an Equestrian manticore looks like a teddy bear, this looks like a feral grizzly.
  1551. >It- She’s almost twice as long.
  1552. >No mane, but instead of the almost cartoonish head and (lack of) mane, it looks hyper realistic.
  1553. >A slender torso and head.
  1554. >Muscle ridden limbs, and wings much larger than you’ve seen.
  1555. >The tail doesn’t look like a simple segmentation.
  1556. >Instead you can see the hairy exoskeleton that protects it.
  1557. >And her teeth…
  1558. >They look like they could cut through your flesh like a warm knife through butter.
  1559. >But, you have one thing going for you.
  1560. >Superior firepower.
  1561. >Grabbing out to the four bore, you cock the other barrel.
  1562. >And in the waning light of the evening, you take aim and fire.
  1563. >The manticore was able to take a couple steps to the side.
  1564. >Before the quarter pound chunk of lead imbedded itself in its general heart region.
  1565. >The creature slumped to the ground.
  1566. >And you turned to your backpack to reload the gun.
  1567. >But as you slid a fresh pair of slugs into the weapon, you head a resounding call upon the air.
  1568. >More roars.
  1569. >Just like from the manticore.
  1570. >At least a dozen of them, all reaching you at the same time.
  1571. >And you don’t have enough bullets left for a dozen manticores…
  1572. >Focus!
  1573. >One of the roars came from your six.
  1574. >All the others came from your front, even if vaguely.
  1575. “Harv?”
  1576. >Nothing…
  1577. >Nothing.
  1578. >You’re moving forward.
  1579. >Even if they look ‘scarier’ they’re still manticores.
  1580. >You’ve killed their kind before, without fancy guns.
  1581. >And you will-
  1582. >You need to sleep.
  1583. >Really.
  1584.  
  1585. >…
  1586. >You kept yourself up for a while.
  1587. >After the barrage of roars, the forest turned completely silent.
  1588. >Only the crackling of the fire, and the sound of your own breath.
  1589. >And the only movement you’ve been able to pick up is from leaves blowing in the wind.
  1590. >On a better day you would have been able to stay up for the night.
  1591. >Two maybe.
  1592. >But you honestly don’t have it in you right now.
  1593. >It’s getting dark, but the sky is clear.
  1594. >Should be fairly bright tonight.
  1595. >Your backpack’s to the side.
  1596. >The fire you set up is just next to a tree.
  1597. >Leaning your shotgun against it, you draw your sword.
  1598. >Then set it down onto the ground.
  1599. >Picking up the four bore, you sit upright against the tree.
  1600. >Your sword’s grip is within reach.
  1601. >Cocking a barrel of the shotgun, you put your finger on the trigger guard and close your eyes.
  1602. >Don’t focus on sight.
  1603. >Sight won’t be able to wake you up.
  1604. >Sound is what you need.
  1605. >With how quiet the forest is, you should be able to wake up if anything approaches.
  1606. >Smell is also a small influence on it.
  1607. >But sound is the most importan-
  1608. >You’ve heard manticore-like roars.
  1609. >And you’re sitting next to the remains of a skinned and cooked deer.
  1610. >Opening your eyes, you start to stand.
  1611. >Son of a bitch.
  1612. >Time to pack your things and go.
  1613.  
  1614. >…
  1615. >You fought with the soldiers.
  1616. >The fresh conscripts, experienced grenadiers, and the elites of the Old Guard.
  1617. >When the Guard arrived, you were properly able to push forward.
  1618. >Half of them were dispersed to deal with any counter attacks, and the other half pushed forward.
  1619. >You aimed them towards the outskirts.
  1620. >Where reinforcements should be coming from.
  1621. >It’s been over thirty hours since you’ve slept.
  1622. >You’re currently on a secured roof top, letting the men continue sweeps as you take a moment to rest.
  1623. >Funny… you’ve made sure that soldiers get shifts to sleep, but you’ve been running nonstop.
  1624. >How do the others do it…
  1625. >How did Anon do it?
  1626. >Hours upon hours of pitched battle.
  1627. >If you take a moment to rest, it could be in the moment you’re needed most.
  1628. >But if your lessons as a kid told you anything- it’s that if you force yourself up for a month, the second you actually rest you’ll get a D-day.
  1629. >”Ma’am?”
  1630. >Somepony else speaks…
  1631. “Well if it isn’t my favorite ony from Trottingham. Corporal…”
  1632. >You forgot his name.
  1633. >Call!
  1634. >”Manechester, your highness. Trottingham, they’re just… rubbish.”
  1635. “What do you want Call?”
  1636. >”Relaying updates from the officers.  The defensive minded Guard and other blokes have faced four smaller attacks, each repelled quickly. On the attack, both the Guard and local grenadiers are making quick gains.”
  1637. >He chuckles.
  1638. >”Actually the grenadiers and Guard have something of a race going on for most blocks advanced.”
  1639. “This isn’t a game.”
  1640. >”Sure, but- look I’m a performer first. Can I be blunt?”
  1641. “Hit me?”
  1642. >”In more than a few cases, especially with the less experienced men, wagers and levity are all that’s keepin’ them sane down there.”
  1643. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I’m just…”
  1644. >”Tired?”  
  1645. “Don’t tell anypony.”
  1646.  
  1647. >You notice a bloodied trio of slashes on his neck.
  1648. >Just above the armor’s collar.
  1649. “You okay?”
  1650. >”Wot, this? I’ve ‘ad worse.”
  1651.  “Well look, just make it clear to the officers that competition is fine between divisions. But if they let that competition hurt their efficiency, they’ll have to answer directly to me… We’re all on the same side here after all.”
  1652. >”Yes Ma’am. And-“
  1653. >He stops himself.
  1654. “And what?”
  1655. >”Well… you…”
  1656. “What!”
  1657. >”You do look pretty tired.”
  1658. “That’s enough Corporal, you have your orders.”
  1659. >…
  1660. >You set down on the outside of the Palace in Canterlot.
  1661. >You’re honestly amazed at how quickly you were able to find a railway and catch a ride to the capitol.
  1662. >Once the train stopped, you flew over to the palace.
  1663. >As you walked through the streets you were surprised at the number of soldiers running about.
  1664. >When you reached the palace, the guards at the gate stopped you.
  1665. “Very good. But I’m a Major. You can let me by.”
  1666. >”I’m sorry, but we’ll need to see some credentials.”
  1667. “Look, just send for Offense. He’ll speak for me.”
  1668. >”The Brigadier isn’t in the city.”
  1669. “Well send for somepony who is.”
  1670. >”Look civilian, we’ve got a lot to deal with right now. If you want to join, go talk to a recruiter.”
  1671. “Who even are you? I’m the head of the Old Guard.”
  1672. >”Well if you were the head of the Guard, you’d be in Baltimare right now.”
  1673. “What’s happening in Baltimare?”
  1674. >The guard chuckles.
  1675. >”Some leader…”
  1676. >This guy is an earth pony.
  1677. >And the guard aside from him is an earth pony…
  1678. “Well if you won’t let me in…”
  1679. >You turn and start heading back into the city.
  1680. >”Come back with a recruiter, boy.”
  1681. >And then you flap your wings to fly over the guards.
  1682. >They still hurt from the wounds you’ve taken, but you can fly.
  1683. >”Hey, you’re not allowed-“
  1684. >You fly into an open window.
  1685.  
  1686. >…
  1687. >Moving through the palace, you pass by dozens of officers skirting around.
  1688. >There’s quite the commotion overall.
  1689. >But you haven’t passed by any ponies you can recognize.
  1690. >None of the men under your command are here.
  1691. >But-
  1692. >There’s Lancer!
  1693. >He’s speaking to the guard that stopped you from entering.
  1694. >You hear the guard speak:
  1695. >”Pegasi, average build. Description as I previously said. Entered maybe five minutes ago-“
  1696. >He notices you.
  1697. >”There he is!”
  1698. >Lancer glances over and yells:
  1699. >”Hold Corporal. He’s with me.”
  1700. >”But he-“
  1701. >”Go get Wave and send him to the meeting room.”
  1702. >”Yes Sir.”
  1703. >Lancer then walks up to you.
  1704. >”Thunder.”
  1705. “General.”
  1706. >”Get to the meeting room, and you’ll wait inside.”
  1707. “General, I-“
  1708. >”Do you hear me!”
  1709. “Yes Sir.”
  1710. >…
  1711. >You’ve been waiting in here for quite some time.
  1712. >Then the door finally opens.
  1713. >As Lancer enters the room, followed by General Wave, they approach you.
  1714. >Lancer ends up on your right, Wave on your left.
  1715. >You look to Lancer:
  1716. “Reporting for dut-“
  1717. >Lancer punches you in the jaw.
  1718. >Hard enough to send you recoiling back.
  1719. >”You better give me a damn good reason you’ve deserted!”
  1720. >As you recover from the hit, you look over to Lancer.
  1721. >The taste of blood in your mouth…
  1722. “Sir, I resigned. I didn’t desert.”
  1723. >Lancer grabs your shoulder and pulls you closer.
  1724. >His face is close to yours, as if he’s going to have a heart to hear-
  1725. >He uppercuts your jaw.
  1726. >”And why did you resign!”
  1727.  
  1728. “Sir, I-“
  1729. >He jabs in towards your jaw.
  1730. >You catch it with your left hoof.
  1731. >Then jab your right into his chest.
  1732. >The strike looked like it would be a dead center punch, but he grabbed it with his free hoof.
  1733. >And before you knew it, you were thrown to the ground: your spine meeting the hard floor.
  1734. >You grunt out in pain.
  1735. >”We trusted you, Thunder!”
  1736. “Sir, I…”
  1737. >”What!”
  1738. “I…”
  1739. >”WHAT!”
  1740. >You start to break down.
  1741. >Squirming out of his grasp, you scoot over to the nearest wall.
  1742. >And you lose yourself into the crystal for a moment.
  1743. “They took her… they killed my wife- My SON!... I felt him… deep in there.”
  1744. >You don’t exactly remember what you said.
  1745. “They took her.”
  1746. “The crystal, it hurt.”
  1747. “They took her.”
  1748. “It made my ears bleed”
  1749. “They took her.”
  1750. “I heard-sensed… everything.”
  1751. “They took her!”
  1752. “Everything, not everypony.”
  1753. “THEY TOOK HER!”
  1754. “Everything…”
  1755. “THEY TOOK HER FROM ME!”
  1756. “Everything… everything I had, and could have.”
  1757. “My- Our son!”
  1758. “But, I found it again and-
  1759. >-
  1760. “I don’t know!”
  1761. >As you continue to rave, you feel a slap.
  1762. >Then Wave is in front of you.
  1763. >As he slaps again, he speaks:
  1764. >”Get a hold of yourself!”
  1765. “I-“
  1766. >He slaps again.
  1767. “Okay!”
  1768. >Another slap.
  1769. “I’m good!”
  1770. >Lancer then stops him.
  1771. >Then he looks at you.
  1772. >”What happened to you?”
  1773.  
  1774. “The crystal, it… it could… I’m not sure how to describe it. It could sense every living thing. And for a moment I was in tune with it. Even when I pulled away, I still felt it… until I touched it again.”
  1775. >”You did what?”
  1776. “It, it, it it it… drew me towards it… there was something wrong.  Something it needed to fix.”
  1777. >”Hold on.”
  1778. >You hear the generals step away from you and whisper.
  1779. >And you can hear their conversation perfectly.
  1780. >Lancer starts:
  1781. >”What do you make?”
  1782. >”He’s unstable.”
  1783. >”How did he even get in here?”
  1784. >”Evidently security needs to be tightened.”
  1785. >”Yeah but what do we do with him?”
  1786. >”Plenty of cells in the dungeo-“
  1787. “I’m NOT crazy!”
  1788. >Wave continues:
  1789. >”He heard that.”
  1790. >”I know, Red… I know.”
  1791. “Genera- Lancer. Wave. It was like for a moment I could sense and understand every living thing. I’m not crazy… I just need to get back into the fight.”
  1792. >Wave is the one to speak:
  1793. >”Thunder, you’re not exactly sounding very sane.”
  1794. “Look,  don’t need platoons or companies. Or even a squad. All I need is to fight against these…”
  1795. >Their name is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t recall.”
  1796. “They took my pregnant wife from me… I need this.”
  1797. >Wave and Lancer then nod to each other.
  1798. >But Lancer is the one to speak:   
  1799. >”Look kid, I’ve seen this before. It rarely ends up good.”
  1800. “No! This isn’t in my head. It’s real!”
  1801. >”Son, you just admitted to communing with the desert, breaking down under pressure, running away from your duties, then taking a crazed walk through the mountains.”
  1802. “When I was there… with Winter… I was back. Everything that happened melted away. For a short time, I was myself again… then it was taken from me.”
  1803. >You…
  1804.  
  1805. “But when I touched the crystal… the one in the mountains. It gave me back my mind. And NO. I’m not back to normal! My mind was shattered and my wife was murdered! I have the pieces- all of them, but I need to do something to put them back together. I can’t just stand around, seeing shrinks and listening to slow music. I can’t just sit around for this to happen to other families. I can’t. And Sir, I’m going to be in this fight, even if it’s not with the military.”
  1806. >Lancer looks over to Wave, who has settled into his seat.
  1807. >Wave then holds up a piece of paper.
  1808. >Your resignation letter.
  1809. >”Is this your signature?”
  1810. “…Yes, it is.”
  1811. >”Doesn’t look like your hoofwriting.”
  1812. >He rips the paper in half.
  1813. “Thank you, now-“
  1814. >Wave interrupts.
  1815. >”Baltimare was attacked a few days ago, reinforcements are en route.”
  1816. “That’s why everypony is so busy around here.”
  1817. >”No, everypony is busy here because we just received word of an attack in Vanhoover. Due to its position by the griffon border, the 41st and 43rd were posted there, aided by the 24th Garrison division. The 94th was posted nearby, and is currently moving to assist. You and I will be moving out for the front within the hour. Along the way we’ll stop by Cloudsdale to pick up the 12th Airborne.”
  1818. “Vanhoover’s under attack?
  1819. >”No, this is all just one large joke.”
  1820. >Wave’s humor is…
  1821. >”Now go get your equipment! We’ve left your room untouched. The 12th is currently without a CO, so you’ll be taking command in the meantime.”
  1822. “Yes Sir.”
  1823. >He stops you as you start to leave.
  1824. >”You haven’t been dismissed.”
  1825. “I’m sorry Sir.”
  1826. >”And Thunder? If you are in any way unfit for service, if your mental state makes a single pony lose their life… there won’t be a discharge, honorably or other… I’ll kill you myself. Dismissed.”
  1827. >There’s…
  1828. >From anypony else you wouldn’t have believed it.
  1829.  
  1830. >…
  1831. >You actually managed to get a couple hours of sleep in.
  1832. >A blast from the Prydwen’s main gun woke you up, but you’ve got enough rest to keep going a bit longer.
  1833. >After getting caught up, you were pleased to hear that progress has been slow but steady.
  1834. >Slow, but low casualties.
  1835. >And that’s what going to matter in the long run.
  1836. >In terms of this little Old Guard/Grenadier rivalry, the grenadiers are doing well.
  1837. >But there’s only a few of them compared to the Guard.
  1838. >The point is that the best of the best are pressing forward.
  1839. >You might have spent more time alongside the Guard…
  1840. >But after everything you’ve been through with these grenadiers, each and every one of them are heroes.
  1841. >They deserve more than any medal you could pin to their chests.
  1842. >As much as the Guard can influence a battle, without these men here, there wouldn’t be a battle to influence.
  1843. >You’ll have to make a special medal for these men.
  1844. >Not just the grenadiers.
  1845. >Everypony who was a first responder to a pit arising.
  1846. >The Shield of Equestira.
  1847. >That’s what you’ll call it.
  1848. >You thought of the name as you flew over to the command tower.
  1849. >But as you landed, you found Thorn and several messengers.
  1850. >However, Brairheart was also present.
  1851. “Admiral.”
  1852. >His slight scowl says a lot.
  1853. “What’s wrong?”
  1854. >”We’ve just received word that Vanhoover has had several pits.”
  1855. “What!”
  1856.  
  1857. >”There are three divisions posted there, with another close by.”
  1858. “What else do we know?”
  1859. >”Not much. Wave should be moving in to reinforce and take command.”
  1860. “How quickly could the Prydwen get there?”
  1861. >”Three or four days, but by then I’m not sure what difference it could make.”
  1862. “If it had to be any further from here it’d have to be in Appleoosa.”
  1863. >”Which is why I’d rather have her stay here. There are ample amounts of men to respond in Vanhoover, but if after the Prydwen goes there, what’s left to quickly respond to Mareami or even Canterlot.”
  1864. “Your right, we can’t overly emphasize one front when another could pop up anywhere.”
  1865. >”If we-“
  1866. “No, we’re relatively central south, Vanhoover is the far northwest. How’s the northeast?”
  1867. >”Manehattan has three divisions and three more in close proximity. In addition to any minotaurs that might be able to help.”
  1868. “No, no. If this is a test to draw forces from the south, how are we in the south?”
  1869. >”Fairly decent. Baltimare was something of an anomaly.”
  1870. “The west?”
  1871. “I want at least a division out by Appleoosa. And double the forces in Fort Expanse.”
  1872. >”We’ll see to it.”
  1873. >But then, we lose the areas between population centers…
  1874. >If tens of thousands pour out from wilderness, a couple nearby divisions wouldn’t be able to make a difference.
  1875. “And scouts should be doub- no, tripled. Each scouting team should also be equipped with enough ordinance to collapse several pits.”
  1876. >It’s the perfect strategy.
  1877. >As far as you know, they could pop up in any spot.
  1878. >These things are the perfect counter to Equestrian doctrine.
  1879. >You can only hope that whatever is in charge doesn’t understand strategy.
  1880. >But when has underestimating an enemy ever turned out well?
  1881.  
  1882. >…
  1883. >After what you saw from the generals, you were shocked to find that your quarters look completely untouched.
  1884. >Approaching your desk, you even see a thin layer of dust.
  1885. >The quill you used to write your resignation letter is still there.
  1886. >Your inkwell is probably dry now.
  1887. >It was getting pretty low before you…
  1888. >You look to the framed picture on the desk.
  1889. >From your wedding day.
  1890. >She…
  1891. >No.
  1892. >You can’t bear to look at it.
  1893. >After you inhale deeply, you exhale slowly.
  1894. >Can’t let yourself break.
  1895. >Not again.
  1896. >Walking over to the corner where you discarded your gear, you see that it’s just as a disorganized mess as you left it.
  1897. >Reaching down you grasp your sheathed sword.
  1898. >You hold it in your hoof.
  1899. “Winter… I’ll stop this… or die trying.”
  1900. >You set the sword down to equip your armor.
  1901. >When all was said and done, you finished the promise.
  1902. “Because if I do, I’ll be with you again.”
  1903. >Moving to your bed, you pick up the helmet you wore in the war.
  1904. >You tossed it there when you headed to Saddle Arabia.
  1905. >Placing the metal cap over your head, you make for the door.
  1906. >But find yourself glancing back at the picture.
  1907. “I saw them. Every single stallion who has a wife and children at home. Every single wife who’s holding out hope for their soldier to come home. Every single child who dreams of their father to come back safely… They don’t deserve what I’ve gone through… what I’m going through.”
  1908. >You break your eye contact with her and look forward.
  1909. “I’ll end this.”
  1910.  
  1911. >…
  1912. >The meeting room was empty, but you quickly found Wave in the hallways.
  1913. “Sir.”
  1914. >He simply nods for you to follow.
  1915. >You don’t have a job to do.
  1916. >You have a duty.
  1917. >And you won’t let anything get in the way of it, least of all today’s events.
  1918. >The general led you outside of the palace.
  1919. >In front of you was an air chariot.
  1920. >Wave’s only an earth pony after all.
  1921. >But in the sky…
  1922. >An airship, one of the older types.
  1923. >There are several holes in the hull.
  1924. >Wave then comments:
  1925. >”Not much to look at right now, but the crew are experienced.”
  1926. >That’s not a shock.
  1927. >With how large the air fleet was before the demilitarization, they would have had enough trained sailors to man two more ships like the Prydwen.
  1928. >And those things don’t have much in the way of cannons, so the outer hull isn’t that necessary.
  1929. >While Wave steps onto the chariot, you fly alongside it.
  1930. >Your wings are still fairly sore from previous injuries, but you won’t let discomfort get the better of you.
  1931. >If anything, less weight will only let the unicorns push the sip faster.
  1932. >Assuming it doesn’t fall apart under pressure…
  1933. >…
  1934. >Nightfall.
  1935. >You’re far enough from your kill that the scent shouldn’t attract any predators.
  1936. >But you haven’t bathed for a long time, so your own smell might be an issue.
  1937. >And unless some of the bunnies around here have incredibly deep baritones, there are predators here.
  1938. >Manticores presumably, but that’d be an assumption you shouldn’t take.
  1939. >As you set your backpack and excess equipment down, you continue thinking.
  1940. >No fire.
  1941. >Even the slightest of light that could come off of it would be a beacon.
  1942. >Sitting against a tree, you make sure that many weapons are within a moment’s grasp.
  1943. >Okay.
  1944. >Still just dead silence.
  1945. >This is like your first night in the Everfree all over again…
  1946.  
  1947. >…
  1948. >You dreamt of that first night.
  1949. >The day was long.
  1950. >Back then you still hadn’t reached your physical peak.
  1951. >Maybe how you were earlier this year, with two decades less of experience.
  1952. >The terrain was harsh.
  1953. >After only an hour, your sleeves were in tatters.
  1954. >When a pack of timber wolves found you, they made some of your oldest scars.
  1955. >As you sat around a campfire, it took hours to get all of the splinters out.
  1956. >Then when you finally were ready to rest, you couldn’t.
  1957. >You kept yourself up long enough to see a looming silhouette approaching.
  1958. >A manticore.
  1959. >A juvenile one, but still plenty deadly.
  1960. >You took some scratches.
  1961. >Dealt some blows.
  1962. >Then it stung you right as you swung the killing blow.
  1963. >Venom flooded through your veins.
  1964. >In retrospect more than normal.
  1965. >Probably because it died before it could stop the flow.
  1966. >You laid there next to its corpse for hours.
  1967. >Completely paralyzed, your veins almost bursting.
  1968. >You knew it was hours because you could see the moon moving across the sky.
  1969. >Eventually you lost consciousness.
  1970. >In the afternoon when you awoke, your veins were still burning.
  1971. >But you had some control of your body.
  1972. >The next time you got stung, it didn’t really compare- you were even able to stave off the paralysis long enough to win that fight.
  1973. >After years, you even started purposely letting manticores get a sting in.
  1974. >Because they expect it to fully incapacitate a target… and by that point you were barely slowed by it.
  1975. >Still hurt like hell… but you’ve had worse.
  1976. >By then you’ve been cut, stabbed, shot with arrows, poisoned, burnt, had bones broken, even almost drowned.
  1977. >But that night…
  1978. >Maybe that was the turning point.
  1979.  
  1980. >Before it you survived off of decent skill, decent physicality, cleverness, and a whole lot of luck.
  1981. >After… sheer willpower.
  1982. >You spent the next few years honing yourself to its potential, then pushed further.
  1983. >Physically, you didn’t stop until you could wrestle a minotaur to the ground.
  1984. >Mentally, you focused on every last lesson you could remember from Earth and your experiences in Equestria.
  1985. >In terms of skill, you didn’t stop until you spar with three dozen Royal Guards.
  1986. >A dozen earth ponies, a dozen pegasi, and a dozen unicorns skilled at using telekinesis to control physical weapons.
  1987. >When the next war occurred, you had turned yourself from a lucky war hero into a force of nature.
  1988. >The only breaks you took were to deal with minor incursions.
  1989. >And to spend time with Flurry… your family.
  1990. >Soon after, Twilight left.
  1991. >But the reason as to why you pushed so hard was because as you lied on the forest floor that night, all you could think of were her tiny little eyes.
  1992. >Looking down over you.
  1993. >Looking down over your grave.
  1994. >Shining trusted you.
  1995. >Enough to vouch for you after only a few minutes in Equestira.
  1996. >He saw something…
  1997. >Brought you into his family.
  1998. >And when he left, placed his faith in you too look after his daughter.
  1999. >You never properly realized the weight in that faith until you were dying on a forest floor, alone in the wilderness.
  2000. >Maybe that’s the only reason you lived.
  2001. >-
  2002. >You then woke up.
  2003. >Just before the sunrise by judge of the darkness.
  2004. >Unsure if your dream was on your own, or if Harvey is trying to tell you something.
  2005. >Either way, there’s only one way forward.
  2006. >East.
  2007.  
  2008. >…
  2009. >The dawn of a new day.
  2010. >Now where are those reinforcements.
  2011. >You and the Guard fought through the night.
  2012. >Holding some areas, advancing in others.
  2013. >The beasts are getting more ferocious.
  2014. >And more crafty.
  2015. >One even managed to burrow into a pile of rubble… it didn’t move until the formation was hallway past it.
  2016. >As you look over the secured area in the light of day, you see many beast bodies.
  2017. >You have no idea what the block used to be.
  2018. >But too many of the Old Guard died to take it.
  2019. >Not even in the triple digits, but more than should be expected.
  2020. >A few dozen of the best lost in a night means that after enough nights…
  2021. >What’s going to be left to turn the tide?
  2022. >An officer yells up to you:
  2023. >”Area secure! Move up to the next?”
  2024. “No, they seem more docile in the day. Give the men some rest. But keep watches ready!”
  2025. >He nods before looking to the soldiers.
  2026. >”You heard her, get some sleep while you can. You three!  Your men have first watch.”
  2027. >Honestly you could use some sleep too.
  2028. >Didn’t get any rest last night, and you were already running a long day yesterday.
  2029. >And you only got a couple ho-
  2030. >”Ma’am!”
  2031. >A pegasi yells from above.
  2032. “What is it?”
  2033. >”You might want to look for yourself.”
  2034. >As you gain altitude, you start to see the horizon beyond the cityscape.
  2035. >To the woods, legions of ponies are marching out from the tree line.
  2036. >Your reinforcements.
  2037. “Well it’s about time.”
  2038.  
  2039. >…
  2040. “Speiss voran, drauf un dran. Setzt auds Klosterdach den Roten Hahn. Speiss voran, drauf un dran. Setzt auds Klosterdach den Roten Hahn.”
  2041. >How’d that last one go?
  2042. “Gesshlagen ziehen wir nach Haus. Heia ho ho. Unsre Ekel fechten’s besser aus. Heia ho ho.”
  2043. >You think.
  2044. “Speiss voran, drauf un dran. Setzt auds Klosterdach den Roten Hahn. Speiss voran, drauf un dran. Setzt auds Klosterdach den Roten Hahn.”
  2045. >Yeah that was it.
  2046. >Close enough.
  2047. >You continue to move through the forest.
  2048. >Something else.
  2049. >Nothing German.
  2050. >Nothing military even.
  2051. >What do you have?
  2052. >How about…
  2053. “There ain’t no grave can hold my body down. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down.”
  2054. >That’ll work.
  2055. “When I hear that trumpet sound, I’m gonna rise right outta that ground. Ain’t not grave can hold my body down.”
  2056. >Yeah, that’ll work just fine.
  2057. “Well look way down the river, and what do you thing I see? I see a band of angels and they’re comin’ after me. Ain’t not grave can hold my body down. There ain’t not grave can hold my body down.”
  2058. >Just fine.
  2059. >One step at a time.
  2060. >If anything want to try you, then they can go ahead.
  2061.  
  2062. >…
  2063. >You set down once you find General Arrow.
  2064. >”Ma’am, sorry we’re late. As we approached the city, there were several skirmishes.”
  2065. “That doesn’t matter now. See that tower?”
  2066. >You point over to the building where Thorn had set up.
  2067. >”Yes.”
  2068. “There’s command. I’ve consolidated forces here and started from scratch. All the pits are dealt with, so you’re men will be taking part to systematically clear every building and block. Take whatever runners with you. “
  2069. >”Yes Ma’am.”
  2070. “And anything you reach before the lines should be treated as enemy territory. These things are crafty.”
  2071. >”I understand.”
  2072. “No, you don’t. Not in a proper battle and not in an urban setting. Each one of them is like two minotaurs, but they won’t face you openly. They’ll lurk in the ruins, burrow in rubble. Attack en mass at the slightest sign of a weak front.”
  2073. >”I under- noted.”
  2074. “And don’t think that’s all they’ll do. Every officer, every squad leader, every soldier needs to know that when you think you understand their tactics, they’ll still find a way to surprise.”
  2075. >”Everypony has been briefed on-“
  2076. >You place a hoof on his shoulder.
  2077. “Most of these men have been through a lot. You’ve been through a lot. But this is an entirely new enemy we’re facing. Every doctrine and strategy we have might be the right way to respond, or the absolutely worst decision.”
  2078. >”Ma’am, these men are ready.”
  2079. “Just… make sure that frontline groups are rotated to have some rest.”
  2080.  
  2081. >…
  2082. >Midday.
  2083. >You decided to take a short rest.
  2084. >After eating and performing… other necessities, you found yourself sitting against a tree.
  2085. >Sharpening your sword with a small whetstone you brought.
  2086. >The weapon has served you through countless battles.
  2087. >Maintaining it is less of a chore, and more of a show of respect.
  2088. >No other weapon feels as natural in your hands.
  2089. >It’s not a just a tool, or even an extension of your body.
  2090. >It’s a continuation of your soul.
  2091. >You’re naked without it.
  2092. >The weight, grip, and balance of the sword are ingrained into your memory.
  2093. >Which is why you never chose a newer or more ornate weapon to have at your side.
  2094. >When you made general, Celestia offered you a blade that was entirely made of gold and gems other than the blade.
  2095. >You told her to melt it down to pay for a few platoons.
  2096. >Maybe that’s when the nobility really started to dislike you.
  2097. >You did ruin most of the pomp and circumstance of the evening.
  2098. >Dragging the stone across your blade one last time, you test the edge with your finger.
  2099. >Sharp enough.
  2100. >After tossing the whetstone back into your bag, you stand.
  2101. >You take a few swings and jabs with the sword in one fluid movement.
  2102. >Then toss the grip between hands, ending in your left.
  2103. >Those swings are notably more sluggish due to injuries, but the feel of the blade is still intact.
  2104. >You then test the sword with both hands, first with your off hand dominant, then with your main hand leading.
  2105.  
  2106. >You might not be as strong or as able bodied as you were, but you still have your experience.
  2107. >So you sheathe the sword, toss your pack over your shoulders, and kick some dirt into the fire you had going.
  2108. >Earlier today, you noticed that the sounds of local animals returned.
  2109. >This place is actually rather serene.
  2110. >You do note that it’s been getting cooler.
  2111. >It’s the precipice of autumn.
  2112. >Then you can only imagine the winters over here.
  2113. >But you’ll pass that bridge when you come to it.
  2114. >If your path swings far enough south, it might not be a problem.
  2115. >Current trajectory or north?
  2116. >Then there’ll be problems.
  2117. >You’ve already gone fairly south on the boat, but the swamp may have ended up taking you north.
  2118. >Hard to gauge, but you think it’s been fairly straight east.
  2119. >So you’re roughl-
  2120. >Silence.
  2121. >You stop in your tracks to observe the-
  2122. >A manticore drops onto the ground, several meters in front of you.
  2123. >But it’s far from any manticore you’ve encountered before.
  2124. >Female judging by the lack of mane.
  2125. >Twenty to thirty percent bigger.
  2126. >And the body looks far closer to an Earth lion.
  2127. >Slender, and longer than ones from the Everfree.
  2128. >It’s wings are larger, and the tips are sharper.
  2129. >The tail looks slightly longer, and the scorpion like exoskeleton has a few hairs coming from it.
  2130. >You hear two impacts onto the ground.
  2131. >One from your four, the other at seven o’clock.
  2132. >Three.
  2133.  
  2134. >Manticores don’t hunt in packs.
  2135. >You’ve seen mating pairs hunt, but never a pride.
  2136. >Tossing your backpack to the ground, you then grab at the shotgun.
  2137. >Cocking a barrel as you bring it to bear on the first manticore, you shoulder it and shoot.
  2138. >You see the impact into its head.
  2139. >Then cock the other barrel and aim at the four o’clock target.
  2140. >The beast staggers, the shot maybe hitting the lower left of its torso.
  2141. >Tossing the four bore to the ground, you then draw your sword as you twist on your heel to face the one to your rear.
  2142. >Before you can properly face it, a deep piercing jab goes into your right shoulder.
  2143. >You have to act quickly before the venom starts to affect you.
  2144. >Half a minute until it’s height.
  2145. >The stinger is still stabbing in.
  2146. >You swing backwards, aiming high.
  2147. >The blade cleaves through the female’s tail.
  2148. >As your stance centers to face her, you feel the stinger fall out of our flesh.
  2149. >Swinging back, you slash into the mouth of the beast.
  2150. >The blade catches the cheeks on each side of the mouth, widening its lips.
  2151. >At the apex of your swing, you reverse the grip of your sword, grasping it backhanded.
  2152. >Then jab it deep into the maticore’s torso.
  2153. >While you pull your sword from the beast, you then feel another jab into your unarmored back.
  2154. >The venom is quick, you can already feel the boiling sensation spread through your veins and arteries.
  2155. >No paralysis yet.
  2156.  
  2157. >The stinger is pulled out as you turn to face the enemy.
  2158. >It was the second manticore, it must have been a grazing shot.
  2159. >Or it’s more resilient that you would expect.
  2160. >Either way, it claws your breastplate.
  2161. >The force of the strike would have been able to reach your spine easily.
  2162. >Instead it pushed you back and onto the ground.
  2163. >Still no paralysis.
  2164. >But instead, you can feel your veins almost bursting.
  2165. >Every inch of your body is burning from the inside out.
  2166. >And it’s much more intense than any mantiocre venom you’ve felt.
  2167. >Your muscles are shaking in the affected areas.
  2168. >As the manticore approaches.
  2169. >Front paws over your shoulders, an open jaw ready to bite down on your neck.
  2170. >Though seizing, your hand is still grasping your sword.
  2171. >You hack into the creatures neck.
  2172. >It reels slightly, but only moves to strike quicker.
  2173. >You hack again.
  2174. >And that sends it to your left.
  2175. >Enough to have a clear blow.
  2176. >You reach as far back as you can, and thrust the tip of your sword into the manticore’s lower jaw.
  2177. >Its open mouth allows you to see the blade pass from lower jaw, into its head.
  2178. >You pushed as hard as you could.
  2179. >The blade didn’t fully penetrate the upper skull, but the beast still went limp.
  2180. >Barely, you were able to push the body away from you enough to make sure it didn’t crush you.
  2181. >As you laid there, the part of your blade that didn’t pierce the manticore ended up clanging against your breastplate.
  2182. >The pommel was just about at your right shoulder.
  2183. >Venom… this venom.
  2184.  
  2185. >You’re not even paralyzed.
  2186. >Your shaking, but not stopped from movement.
  2187. >The pain is… well only three things compare.
  2188. >Your first encounter where the dead manticore overflowed you with venom.
  2189. >Being burnt by dragon fire.
  2190. >The last… when you faced Cadence.
  2191. >She dropped you thirty feet, then impaled you.
  2192. >The doctors said that your back’s armor indented and bruised your spine.
  2193. >Which is why you didn’t bring the back half of your chest piece here.
  2194. >If you had, then the manticore wouldn’t have been able to-
  2195. >That’s done.
  2196. >But with Cadence…
  2197. >Then when you removed it all, leaving her open to jab you with her horn, that also damaged the spine.
  2198. >In addition to the general puncture wounds, a doctor said you were lucky to even walk again.
  2199. >But as you laid there, trying to stand again…
  2200. >You were ready to kill her.
  2201. >If the spinal trauma hadn’t incapacitated you, you would have.
  2202. >In terms of manticore venom…
  2203. >It’s different.
  2204. >You don’t feel any focus on paralysis.
  2205. >Only pain…
  2206. >Maybe virtually instant death was the focus.
  2207. >Or they developed to cripple solely through pain.
  2208. >Maybe your experience with manticore venom  is keeping you alive.
  2209. >If it isn’t Harvey doing something in there.
  2210. >Either way, you were able to collect your things.
  2211. >Reload your shotgun.
  2212. >And continue on your way.
  2213. >If at a much slower pace.
  2214.  
  2215. >…
  2216. >You got maybe ten paces.
  2217. >No, ten minutes.
  2218. >The venom only feels like it’s getting more intense.
  2219. >And it’s been getting darker.
  2220. >Your right knee convulses, sending you down.
  2221. >You fall on your left knee, grasping at the right.
  2222. >Massaging the kneecap, you sit there in pain for a good while.
  2223. >Eventually you close your eyes and fall onto your back.
  2224. >Your backpack makes it uncomfortable, but that’s overshadowed.
  2225. >Reaching your right hand to your wounded arm, you grasp tightly and squeeze.
  2226. >Focus on the pain you’re in charge of.
  2227. >Your heartbeat is virtually audible.
  2228. >If you didn’t have armor on, it might just be popping out of your chest.
  2229. >A drop of water hits your forehead.
  2230. >If this is a drooling manticore…
  2231. >No, it isn’t.
  2232. >The sky is covered in dark grey clouds.
  2233. >A drop of rain hits your eye.
  2234. >You hear a rumble of thunder.
  2235. >Pretty far off.
  2236. >But only going to get worse.
  2237. >So you can sit here in the pain, rain and mud.
  2238. >Keep limping through the pain, rain and mud.
  2239. >Or find a nice thick tree to sit under.
  2240. >That sounds…
  2241. >Better.
  2242.  
  2243. >…
  2244. >Your room aboard the ship was mostly open to air.
  2245. >You could probably squeeze through the hull that’s missing.
  2246. >Maybe it was purposeful.
  2247. >This is most likely the biggest hole in the ship.
  2248. >Between the altitude and wind, your room is fairly uncomfortable.
  2249. >As you’ve had some time alone to think, it’s been…
  2250. >You don’t know.
  2251. >Maybe Wave and Lancer had a point…
  2252. >Maybe.
  2253. >At the start of this year, you were a frontline grunt.
  2254. >A squad leader, but still… you were expendable.
  2255. >When you went back west with the Field Marshal, he saw something in you.
  2256. >Something that was enough to fast track you into becoming an officer.
  2257. >And not just an officer.
  2258. >You headed up the Old Guard.
  2259. >Pretty much every other pony in it had seen far more combat than you have.
  2260. >You fought in one war, most of them had seen two or three.
  2261. >Some have seen even more.
  2262. >If none of the Tartarus things have occurred…
  2263. >High Command offered you into the fold.
  2264. >And from their perspective, you quit.
  2265. >But they didn’t go through what you did.
  2266. >None of them have even felt a quarter of the pain you’ve been through.
  2267. >And you can say that with ease.
  2268. >You saw them… and what baggage they hold.
  2269. >Offense is constantly looking back at the men who died under his command.
  2270. >He leads from the front to stop more people from losing their life from his orders.
  2271. >Brairheart just wants peace.
  2272. >But time after time, he’s thrust into another war.
  2273. >He just wants his efforts to stop all this conflict.
  2274.  
  2275. >Wave?
  2276. >He’s cold.
  2277. >He’s accepted that more ponies have died under his command than any other general in history of Equestira.
  2278. >High Commanders notwithstanding.
  2279. >There’s a lot of blood on his hooves.
  2280. >And he accepts it.
  2281. >He had to train himself to fight the nightmares he’s plagued with every night.
  2282. >Almost every time he closes his eyes, he has to open them and cut off the dream.
  2283. >In his own way, he’s compartmentalized it by looking at the big picture.
  2284. >Lancer…
  2285. >He just wants to help as many as possible.
  2286. >But he’s not used to being the pony in charge.
  2287. >And he doesn’t like that job.
  2288. >He wishes that somepony else would make the decisions.
  2289. >But this is the job he’s been given by his superior, and he’ll do it.
  2290. >However, for all you’ve seen…
  2291. >You can slightly understand what happened.
  2292. >But you can’t forgive it.
  2293. >All of them have their families.
  2294. >None of them have lost them.
  2295. >As much as they say they want to save families, they’ve never lost their own.
  2296. >Hundreds of thousands of ponies have had to.
  2297. >You’ve had to.
  2298. >Twice over now.
  2299. >First your father, now your wife.
  2300. >Virtually half of Equestria has lost a close friend or immediate family member over the past thirty years.
  2301. >And they don’t know what’s that actually like.
  2302. >The Princess has to some extent, but she’s still an idealist.
  2303. >She doesn’t know what it will really take to end this.
  2304. >You d-
  2305. >You hear voices yelling out and hooves pounding on the ceiling to your roof.
  2306. >Poking your head out of the hole in your wall, you can get a good view forward.
  2307. >Cloudsdale is on the horizon.
  2308.  
  2309. >…
  2310. >You were able to walk on the streets of the city without Wave’s presence.
  2311. >As an earth pony he’d just fall through the clouds.
  2312. >So you’ve been able to move on your own.
  2313. >Due to the nature of the city and the industry of the locals, you can’t see any hold overs from the griffon occupation.
  2314. >Cloudsdale looks just as intact as ever.
  2315. >Eventually you reached the area of the city that was built to house and train soldiers.
  2316. >Approaching the base, an entourage of armored pegasi flew down to meet you.
  2317. >Their leader, a pony with a dark grey coat and dark indigo, almost black mane spoke to you.
  2318. >He salutes.
  2319. >”Captain Stormy Night reporting, Major. I’m acting CO of the 12th Airborne.”
  2320. >You return the salute.
  2321. “Are you up to speed?”
  2322. >”Vanhoover is under attack. A decent amount of soldiers present but with precious little to defend themselves with. Most fortifications were built to defend against an enemy from the skies, not from under the ground.”
  2323. “It’s a decent flight from here, are your men up to it in one go?”
  2324. >”Ab-so-lutely, Major!”
  2325. “And what do you expect in the coming battle?”
  2326. >You see countless pegasi taking off in formation in the distance.
  2327. >”Permission to speak freely?”
  2328. >You nod.
  2329. >”I should think that would be obvious to you right now Major. We are going to defend Equestira, at all costs.”
  2330. >You place a hoof on his shoulder and pull his face closer.
  2331. >Stormy Night…
  2332. >He lost three brothers, two uncles, and five cousins to the wars.
  2333. “Don’t say that unless you truly mean it.”
  2334. >”I do, Sir.”
  2335. “Then don’t… forget it. Prove it. Prove it to me. Prove it to Equestria.”
  2336.  
  2337. >…
  2338. >The reinforcements…
  2339. >They were able to sweep over immense swaths of the city in under a day.
  2340. >With the veterans leading the way, casualties have been minimal.
  2341. >Reports from the outskirts  are also promising.
  2342. >After leading for a while, you retired back to the command tower.
  2343. >General Arrow is still down there somewhere.
  2344. >But Brairheart and Thorn were present.
  2345. “Alright ponies, where are we?”
  2346. >Thorn is the one to respond:
  2347. >”We’ve managed to secure thirty percent of the city. If pace keeps up we’ll have cleared it all by midday tomorrow.”
  2348. “Excellent. Admiral, how do you view our progress?”
  2349. >”The Colonel is right. Baltimare is virtually back under control.”
  2350. “Any more news from Canterlot?”
  2351. >”Not yet.”
  2352. >You don’t like being out of the loop while Vanhoover is under attack.
  2353. “Nothing noteworthy at all?”
  2354. >”No.”
  2355. >With wave heading out to Vanhoover and Offense still down in the Badlands, that leaves nopony else ready to move out.
  2356. “Admiral?”
  2357. >”Yes?”
  2358. “Get a chariot ready. We need somepony to respond quickly if a third front opens. I’m leaving you in command here.”
  2359. >”Are you sure?”
  2360. “Somepony needs to stay in Canterlot. I’ll be able to deal with any new attack, even without your favorite toy in the sky.”
  2361. >”It’s a ship.”
  2362. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
  2363. >Really though, a chariot ride means you get to sleep.
  2364.  
  2365. >…
  2366. >It’s still raining.
  2367. >When you woke up, your tarp draped over your head and shoulders, the rain is still coming down heavily.
  2368. >The venom in your body is still pretty bad.
  2369. >But you think the worst is behind you.
  2370. >Still, it’s bee-
  2371. >The hair on your arms and the back of your neck stand up as lightning strikes the ground sixty or so feet in front of you.
  2372. >And your ears start ringing from the thunder.
  2373. >Well at least you’ve been in worse conditions.
  2374. >Frozen northern mountains.
  2375. >Burning southern deserts.
  2376. >You can-
  2377. >Another strike of lightning impacts in the same point.
  2378. “That’s not how lightning works!”
  2379. >A third and fourth strike hits in quick succession.
  2380. >In the exact same point.
  2381. >Either the rules of nature don’t apply here, or the world’s just out to spite you.
  2382. >Probably both.
  2383. >A fifth strikes.
  2384. “BURN IN HELL, NATURE!”
  2385. >…
  2386. >You watch as foxes and rabbits start running further into the forest.
  2387. >Rain’s still coming down, and it’s pretty dark, but you can make it out clearl-
  2388. >A squirrel rushes down the tree you’re leaning against, using your head as a point to jump onto the ground.
  2389. >Great, all the fauna is running away.
  2390. >Away from what.
  2391. >Forcing yourself to stand, you keep the tarp over your body.
  2392. >Water’s starting to rise over the grass to your six.
  2393. >Coming from the mountains.
  2394. >And it’s flowing further towards you.
  2395. >Steadily.
  2396. >It’s a flood…
  2397. >And if the squirrels are running, that means trees might not be above the final waterline.
  2398. >Son of a bitch.
  2399. >Alright, time to pack your bag and rush into the forest as quickly as you can.
  2400.  
  2401. >…
  2402. >Captain Night wasn’t boasting.
  2403. >The men made excellent time.
  2404. >You were quickly able to overtake the airship Wave was on.
  2405. >Maybe if it was fully completed, they would have beaten you.
  2406. >Eventually you ordered them to stop.
  2407. >The men need some rest.
  2408. >You have them one hour.
  2409. >Some tried to catch naps.
  2410. >Others simply ate a bit and rested their wings.
  2411. >You remained on watch, overlooking them from a hill.
  2412. >Alone out there, you were able to relax.
  2413. >Relax and think.
  2414. >This is a beautiful scene, without the army that is.
  2415. >While the connection you had with the living flora and fauna of the world is gone, you still feel a respect for it.
  2416. >You respect its… simplicity.
  2417. >But the things you’re fighting don’t respect the natural order of things outside of their cavern homes.
  2418. >They simply devour everything and everything, even their own kind.
  2419. >Something is using them as a weapon.
  2420. >Aiming their brutality towards one goal- the utter extermination of all civilization.
  2421. >You wish you could see what was behind this.
  2422. >Even if you know something greater is at play, you can’t recall what it actually is.
  2423. >When you try to remember what you could feel through the crystals, you can’t.
  2424. >It only pops up occasionally when you don’t focus on it.
  2425. >Thankfully, you do know something.
  2426. >The creatures won’t stop.
  2427. >Not until the head is cut off of the snake.
  2428. >Their spawning pools deep in Tartarus are immense.
  2429. >Given time, they can and will outbreed anything that Equestira can throw at it.
  2430. >Either their unifying force is taken out, or their breeding grounds are.
  2431. >Take out an unknown but incredibly powerful force, or trek through the deepest reaches of Tartarus.
  2432. >Through countless horrors aside from the… Fipplenops?
  2433. >Why does that word come to mind?
  2434. >You shake your head and focus.
  2435. >The sheer amount of ordinance necessary to even make a dent in their capacity would be enormous.
  2436. >Virtually unimaginable.
  2437.  
  2438. >The only way this ends is if the leader or leadership is taken out.
  2439. >Or the entirety of Equestria’s production of gunpowder is stored for three years to blow up their breeding grounds.
  2440. >Where is it?
  2441. >The head of the snake…
  2442. >It’s the only way.
  2443. >Unless-
  2444. >Your attention shifts to Night, who is setting down alongside you.
  2445. >”Sir.”
  2446. “Yes Captain?”
  2447. >”We’re approaching an hour.”
  2448. >Already?
  2449. “You’re punctual.”
  2450. >”If I was punctual, I’d be speaking to you in five minutes. I’ve been speaking to the men. Many of them wanted to get flying again the second we set down.”
  2451. “I take it you’re one of them?”
  2452. >”Before this hour, maybe. After it definitely… This is our home, and we’re facing the greatest threat it’s ever faced by far. I speak for them when I say that we will sacrifice everything we have to keep Equestira safe.”
  2453. >You can see in the field below that the men are getting back up.
  2454. >Thousands of ponies forming ranks, ready to take off.
  2455. “Then let’s go defend it.”
  2456. >You stretch your wings and move over the center of the division.
  2457.  
  2458. “Troops! Soldiers! Men! You might not know me personally, and I don’t know most of you personally. Just as you might not know many outside of your squad. But we’re all here for one purpose and one purpose only!  To offer our lives to protect Equestria.”
  2459. >By know everypony is at attention.
  2460. “We’re not protecting a nation… we’re not protecting a city. We are here to protect our families. Our friends. Our people. There will be casualties, I won’t lie to you. The battle ahead of us is just one of many to come… If we die, if I die, then that’s only one step. Because if we fail in this struggle, then everything we know and love will be devoured. The enemy will show no mercy to civilians, not even the children. If we fail, then Equestira is dead. Not the nation… but the ideal. If we don’t end this battle and this war, then the world as we know it is gone.”
  2461. >You need to find the words…
  2462. “We have the opportunity to stop that from happening. And I know that I’ll fight and if need be die to stop it. I won’t tell you that it will be easy, because it won’t.  What I will promise you is that I will not send you to die needlessly. I will be with you on the frontlines. And I don’t want you to fight for me. Don’t fight for anything other than the ponies you have back home. Parents, siblings, children. When you see these things up close, you’ll understand.”
  2463. >You lose yourself for a moment.
  2464. “No matter what you’ve seen before, you’re about to look into the face of pure ravenous evil… But we will NOT falter. We will fight this battle. And the next. And the next. Until there’s no more left. Whether that last battle is our victory or defeat is up to you.”
  2465.  
  2466. >…
  2467. >You moved through the woods as quick as your knees could take you.
  2468. >But steadily, the water level kept rising.
  2469. >The water is halfway up to your knees now.
  2470. >Sloshing through the oncoming flood, you have to stop dead in your tracks.
  2471. >You barely kept your footing.
  2472. >Lightning strikes give you a clear view of what’s ahead.
  2473. >A canyon, at least a hundred feet across.
  2474. >Peaking down as water rushes past your legs, you see that it’s… deep.
  2475. >The cliffs are virtually ninety degree falls.
  2476. >A small river runs through at the bottom.
  2477. >But it’s too far away for you to jump, that’s assuming it’s deep enough to break your fall.
  2478. >The sheer distance to the bottom would most likely be fatal though.
  2479. >And then you’re stuck at the bottom of a flooding canyon.
  2480. >The water level is still rising.
  2481. >Much more time spent here, and the current will be able to throw you over.
  2482. >When another bolt of lightning illuminates your surroundings, you can see that periodically there are stone arches connecting the sides of the canyon.
  2483. >If you weren’t in the path of a flood right now, you might take the time to appreciate the aesthetics of the natural formations.
  2484. >Turning right, you start to move to the closest one.
  2485.  
  2486. >…
  2487. >After crossing over, you tossed off your backpack and sat against the nearest tree.
  2488. >Exhausted from the hustle, you sat in the rain and mud to watch the water flow down into the canyon.
  2489. >At its peak, the waterline reached halfway up the trunks of the oldest trees on the other side.
  2490. >Younger ones were completely submerged, and some saplings were just swept away.
  2491. >Eventually, the rain slowed to a stop and the clouds broke.
  2492. >You got up to see how far the canyon ended up filling.
  2493. >The water filled about three quarters of it.
  2494. >Resigned to rest for a good while, you removed some of the excess weapons you had on your person.
  2495. >Keeping all of them within reach, of course.
  2496. >As you sat there, drenched in rain and covered in mud, you couldn’t help but admire the scenery.
  2497. >Rays of sunlight peeing through onto the ground below.
  2498. >A canyon straight out of a high fantasy from home.
  2499. >How serene the forest seems to be so soon after a flood.
  2500. >The woodland critters are actually making their way back over the arches.
  2501. >Nice place to retire.
  2502. >If it didn’t try to kill you so often.
  2503. >Sitting there, your elbows resting on your knees, you-
  2504. >A manticore descends from above.
  2505. >Male.
  2506. >It’s hovering steadily in front of you, just before the edge of the canyon.
  2507. >Your eyes lock and both of you remain still, aside from the flapping if it’s wings.
  2508. >It moves slightly to the left, then back to the right.
  2509. >Looking for an attack.
  2510. >You slowly lower your right hand down to retrieve the throwing knife in your right boot.
  2511. >Drawing it, you spin the blade in your hand and get ready to throw as you move your elbow back up to rest on the knee.
  2512. >Wait for it.
  2513. >You line your focus onto it’s right wing.
  2514. >Pull back, and throw.
  2515. >The blade falls short, tumbling down into the canyon.
  2516. >You missed…
  2517. >Shit.
  2518.  
  2519. >As the manticore charges forward, you lung to your right.
  2520. >Grasping at the shotgun you placed there, you cock a barrel.
  2521. >Laying on your side, you take aim and fire just before it got into range.
  2522. >As the beast crashes next to you, you can’t help but think someone out there is really just out to get you.
  2523. >Maybe now you can get som-
  2524. >No, don’t tempt it.
  2525. >Is that?
  2526. >Too late.
  2527. >You can see manticore outlines in the distance, coming over the canyon.
  2528. >A dozen of them.
  2529. “Well Harv, that’s just great. They’ve discovered formation flying.”
  2530. >No response.
  2531. “At least I really know you’re out right now… you’d be playing Ride of the Valkyries right now.”
  2532. >While the manticores continue flying over the canyon, you stand up.
  2533. >Need to get to a position they don’t have air superiority.
  2534. >You sling the shotgun over your shoulder.
  2535. >On you, you have your sword, dagger, and the knife in your left boot.
  2536. >Not enough time to bring everything.
  2537. >Reaching down, you pull the kukri from its sheathe and start moving into the forest.
  2538. >…
  2539. >You rush through the forest, towards heavier tree cover.
  2540. >Two manticores were waiting for you.
  2541. >Swinging the kukri into the bark of the closest tree, you unsling the shotgun and cock the unfired barrel.
  2542. >You hustle forward, aiming at the rightmost target.
  2543. >After firing, you then move in to the second.
  2544. >When there’s only ten feet between you, you toss the empty shotgun into the manticore’s face.
  2545. >It manages to confuse the beast enough for one opening.
  2546. >Drawing your sword, you plunge it into the center of its neck.
  2547. >To your six, more of them are running through the trees.
  2548. >Pulling your sword out of the dead creature, you slide it back into the sheathe.
  2549. >Then pick up the four bore.
  2550.  
  2551. >Unlatching it, you reach into your pocket to pull out a fresh pair of shells.
  2552. >After this you only have two more on you.
  2553. >With at least twelve more enemies.
  2554. >Cock.
  2555. >Aim.
  2556. >Firing at the closest, it drops.
  2557. >Cock.
  2558. >Aim.
  2559. >One more kill.
  2560. >With the lead manticores dead, the remainder scatter and fan out.
  2561. >As they move weave through the trees, they’re aiming to surround you.
  2562. >You reload the final shells into the weapon.
  2563. >There’s no way you’ll be able to outrun them.
  2564. >And you’re moving on adrenaline alone.
  2565. >You move back to the tree and remove the kukri.
  2566. >With it in your left hand, and the shotgun in the other, you make either an incredibly smart decision or an incredibly stupid one.
  2567. >You’re going on the offensive.
  2568. >Not going to let yourself get surrounded.
  2569. >You’re the hunter here.
  2570. >You cock a barrel.
  2571. >Moving out, you start tracking through the trees.
  2572. >Go left and circle around.
  2573. >Your grip on the four bore is awkward trying to hold the barrel and kukri, but you only have two shots left.
  2574. >Rounding the next tree, you find a female ready to pounce.
  2575. >The muzzle is basically inside of the open jaw when you fire.
  2576. >As the shot rings out, your shoulder once again gets battered by the recoil.
  2577. >That’s one.
  2578. >Jogging around the body, you move up.
  2579. >Another one, twenty paces off.
  2580. >You cock your last shot on hand.
  2581. >Continuing the hustle forward, you fire.
  2582. >Then toss the shotgun to the ground.
  2583. >Shifting the kukri into your main hand, you take a moment to kneel down and draw your throwing knife with your off hand.
  2584.  
  2585. “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
  2586. >You heard footsteps running through the mud behind you.
  2587. >The manticore stops at a close distance, looking for an opening.
  2588. >When it jabs the tail in, you hack at it with the kukri.
  2589. >You manage to get enough momentum on the right angle to cut through entirely.
  2590. >After the slash, you jab up with your knife into the lower jaw of the manticore.
  2591. >As you twist the blade, you then hack at its neck with your free weapon.
  2592. >Retracting both weapons from the creature, you start to move back in the direction it came from.
  2593. >They’ll be converging on this location.
  2594. >One is already directly ahead, and another approaching from your right a bit further off.
  2595. >You move to the one in front of you.
  2596. >Running forward, you get ready to respond to any attack.
  2597. >Then…
  2598. >Your knee gives out, sending you tumbling to the ground just in front of it.
  2599. >You are able to slash the kukri wide across its throat, sending blood spatters onto your breastplate.
  2600. >Jabbing the knife into its jaw, you prop the head up from falling onto your body.
  2601. >And glance to the other one that’s now charging at you, teeth ready to strike.
  2602. >It’s risky but if the angle is just right-
  2603. >You toss the kurki towards it.
  2604. >The blade lodges deep between its eyes.
  2605. >Scooting out of the manticore, you leave the knife in its jaw.
  2606. >Five left.
  2607. >Or three if the first two were from the dozen in the sky.
  2608. >And you see three approaching.
  2609.  
  2610. >At twelve, three, and nine.
  2611. >Panting while you stand, you bash your fist at the side of your left knee, the one that gave out.
  2612. >Then draw your sword and move up.
  2613. >You move around the one who has it’s kukri in its skull.
  2614. >Gripping your sword with both hands, you charge to meet the one at twelve.
  2615. >As the distance is closed, you parry away its stinger, then slash down into the arm that’s attempting to claw at you.
  2616. >Then thrust into the torso.
  2617. >When you pull the blade out, you have to strike at the one to your left.
  2618. >You put all your force behind the swing, lining it up to slice against its open mouth.
  2619. >As each side of its cheeks are cut open, you continue.
  2620. >Swinging back, you hack into its head.
  2621. >You slam the blade against its eye.
  2622. >You hack again, this time actually reaching the eye.
  2623. >You hack again, and again, until you can see it’s skull split open.
  2624. >As the new round of venom starts to burn anew in your veins, your right thigh is torn by the claws of the one from your left.
  2625. >You twist and plunge the sword into the side of the manticore’s neck.
  2626. >Pulling the blade out, you then feel a stinger hit you.
  2627. >Your back left, lower torso.
  2628. >While the stinger retracts, you reverse the grip on your sword and jab back.
  2629. >Your right hand is on the grip, and your left pushing directly against the pommel as you spin your body as best as possible.
  2630. >Sending the blade down the manticore’s mouth.
  2631. >This fourth one must have sneaked up on you while you were-
  2632. >You then start to feel the early effects of the venom.
  2633. >Son of a…
  2634. >Stepping out from the corpses that surround you, it doesn’t look good.
  2635. >From the hit on your thigh, you can barely limp.
  2636. >The venom doesn’t help.
  2637. >Limping into the forest, you try to get your bearings.
  2638.  
  2639. >You came from-
  2640. >You catch the movement in the corner of your left eye too late.
  2641. >A male manticore flies at you, tackling you to the ground.
  2642. >Your lose grip of your sword.
  2643. >But you also feel, and hear shattering bone as one of its rear feet cracks your left knee back.
  2644. >Thrown to your back, it’s paws rest on your breastplate- the claws scratching against the steel.
  2645. >As it opens its jaw to bite at your head or neck, you reach your left arm up.
  2646. >The teeth tear into your flesh, hitting all the way to the bone.
  2647. >As the beast tears into your arm, you reach down with your free hand to grab your dagger.
  2648. >All you can do is jab into the side of its neck.
  2649. >The first blow doesn’t stop it.
  2650. >So you pull it out and try again.
  2651. >It’s jaw releases your arm somewhat.
  2652. >You strike again, it feels like you hit the spine that time.
  2653. >With all the strength you have left, you let go of the dagger and push the beast to your left- keeping it from collapsing onto you.
  2654. >You’re…
  2655. >Losing blood.
  2656. >Your left leg is numb.
  2657. >The claw wounds on your thigh are right against the mud.
  2658. >Manticore venom is flowing through your veins.
  2659. >And you can’t feel your left arm below where it was eaten away at.
  2660. >Sooner or later God’ll cut you down.
  2661. >You’ll lay here a moment.
  2662. >In the mud, sweat, and blood.
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