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Heart of War- Prologue

ThingPaste Mar 7th, 2016 (edited) 3,669 Never
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  1. >"Captain Anon. Would you like to accompany me to the war room?"
  3. "Don't roll your eyes at me, child. I've been leading your people into battle since I was your age."
  4. >You point to where your beard joins with your hair.
  5. "See these greying bits? Men in my line of work generally don’t get to enjoy the slow pain of aging. I've survived over twenty years on the battlefields, and don't you forget it."
  6. >She rolls her eyes once more.
  7. "That kind of mentality will just get you killed. Just because you're royalty doesn't mean you're invulnerable. Countless noblemen from my world lost their lives and those of their men, because they assume that they're infallible."
  8. >She sighs.
  9. "A shamed then demoted middle-aged man and a nearly disowned royal, exiled to the peripheries of the kingdom."
  10. >You begin ranting.
  11. >"Really, this one again?"
  12. "Shush you. Exiled. Sent to administrate and keep peace in the western frontier. Given only minimal financial assistance and a token military force. We have only two dozen men to keep peace in an area that is half the size of the core of the kingdom. This is no time to look on the situation with romanticism about the glory of battle."
  13. >"It's not my fault that my Uncle would always return from battle with great war stories to tell to me while I was growing up."
  14. >A condescending grin forms across her face.
  15. "And it's not my fault that you took them to Heart."
  16. >The grin is shattered as she groans.
  17. >"Ughh, I though you didn't pun anymore."
  18. "Well I was inspired by the snow Flurry from the other day..."
  19. >You can't help but chuckle as she places her hoof into her face while groaning.
  20. >"Uncle Anon..."
  21. >However she takes your lectures, you only mean to help her learn the lessons that you've picked up over the years.
  22. >She means well, but lacks experience.
  23. >And you don't want to outlive the young impulsive mare that has been the daughter you can never have in this world.
  24. "Come on. Let's get to that council."
  26. >…
  27. >The past two decades have been good for Appleoosa.
  28. >It had expanded fivefold; overlooking the main street you see dozens of lights illuminating the town.
  29. >This last dusting of snow should signify the last stand of winter.
  30. >From the third floor of town hall you can view the entire town.
  31. >You hope that within your lifetime you can see the town blossom into a proper city.
  32. >Behind you the council’s bickering brings you back into the now.
  33. >”Governor Flurry, we absolutely cannot allow these brazen attacks to go unpunished!”
  34. >The town’s new mayor, a mare by the name of Manifest Destiny continues to press the issue.
  35. >”Two separate homesteads have been burned down, are you waiting until lives are lost to actually take action?”
  36. >A glance at Flurry shows obvious indecision on her face. She was after all trained only with subordinates that respected the proper authority.
  37. >As she prepares to make a statement, Manifest cuts her off.
  38. >”If you can’t take action then I will. Captain, ready the men to move at dawn. Burn down that tribal encampment before they attack my town.”
  39. >She needs to be reminded of her place.
  40. “Enough! Would you be so willing to start a war over a rumor if it was your life at stake? You know nothing of war, and you see this cities attachment solely as a political tool. Besides, there are only two individuals for over a hundred miles that have the actual authority to mobilize troops: myself and Princess Heart.”
  41. >”My life is at stake Captain, each of the families who fled their burning homes reported that a band of buffalo drove them away. The war has already started, and it won’t stop until we have lost all of our land.”
  42. “Fear mongering might have worked for the election, but we both know that last year’s land settlement treaty allows each side to grow more than ten times over before there would be an issue with borders. We both know that there’s more going on here.”
  44. >”Taking the side of those barbarian? Quiet you dirty ap-“
  45. >”Silence!”
  46. >There’s your girl.
  47. >”If there is something more going on, then we will find out. At dawn, the captain and myself will head over to their camp and learn the truth.”
  48. >”But Governor-“
  49. >”Princess is the appropriate title”
  50. >”Forgive me, Princess-“
  51. >”Don’t forget that again, until then you are dismissed.”
  52. >”I…”
  53. >You shoot an angry glare that shuts up Manifest.
  54. >She gives a half-assed bow before leaving, obviously discontent about the situation.
  55. >You wait until the door closes behind her and you hear her hoofsteps leaving.
  56. “Once you found your footing, you handled yourself well. Perhaps a bit too sternly though.”
  57. >She has a bit too much of you inside of her.
  58. >”It needed to be said. Besides, if I hadn’t stopped it the two of you would be arguing until dawn.”
  59. “Heh, maybe.”
  60. >”So do you really think that the buffalo aren’t behind it?”
  61. >You figure that she’s old enough to know the truth.
  62. >Something you had never told to any living soul.
  63. “I’m wary of second-hand information. Remember the First War of the Saddle Arabian Coast? It was what, fifteen years ago now?”
  64. >She nods. 
  65. “What caused it?”
  66. >”Their king at the time ordered all equestrian nationals to be executed, hundreds died. We mobilized the army, invaded, deposed the king and forced reparations which led to the Second War.”
  67. >That’s the official story.
  68. “When I was a colonel, my battalion was on the front lines for the majority of the war. We spearheaded the entire invasion.”
  70. >”And they promoted you to general after the end of the war, I remember your promotion ceremony.”
  71. “If I recall, you threw up onto your mother.”
  72. >She blushes from embarrassment long since forgotten until now.
  73. “Anyway, in the final days of the conflict, I stormed the royal palace. Sword in hand, I approached the king. He attacked and I defended myself.”
  74. >”But the new monarch publicly executed the old king when he was solidifying power.”
  75. >She knows her history.
  76. “As he slumped over and revealed his true form, it turned out that this king was an imposter.”
  77. >”A changeling?”
  78. “Indeed. We found the real king in an oubliette. He had been imprisoned since well before the war had started.”
  79. >You avert your eyes from her shocked face.
  80. “Neither population would accept that as the truth, not after all of the death and destruction. So we sent the real king away to a countryside estate and acted as if he were actually the instigator in the war.”
  81. >She remains silent.
  82. “There was no changeling involvement in the second war. That was our folly and our folly alone… There’s not a night that goes by that that night doesn’t play itself in my mind. I should have revealed the truth, but when orders come from Celestia herself…”
  83. >”I… I’m so sorry.”
  84. “Don’t be. I don’t want you to feel the weight of my past demons. The point I’m trying to make, is that you shouldn’t rush so quickly to bring ruin onto others.”
  85. >A bell begins ringing outside.
  86. >Ten at night
  87. “You should head to bed; we’ve a long day tomorrow.”
  88. >Silently you accompany her to her room in town hall.
  89. >You nod at the two posted guards before heading across the hall to your own quarters.
  90. >It was many hours until you were able to sleep, as over and over again you repeated one of your personal vows in your head.
  91. >You won’t let her make the mistakes that you made.
  93. >Your eyes shoot open as you hear a gentle pair of knocks on your door.
  94. >”Psst. Uncle Anon, come quick.”
  95. >You put on a shirt and open the door, finding Flurry looking up at you expectantly.
  96. >”This way, and stay quiet.”
  97. >She leads you down the hallway to a balcony overlooking Main Street.
  98. >Below are two of the new recruits that have been sent to your division.
  99. >They’re hooked up to the carriage you’ll be taking to the tribe’s camp.
  100. >Left continues speaking.
  101. >”I’m telling you, he was a Brigadier. I saw the promotion with my own eyes.”
  102. >The right brushes off his statement.
  103. >”You did not. Anyway, my big brother served in the Second Coast War, he was a full General.”
  104. >”Your brother worked supply lines.”
  105. >”And he always called him ‘General’ not ‘Brigadier General’”
  106. >”That’s because you don’t call they by their full rank; it’s only for the official thingies.”
  107. >Flurry starts giggling.
  108. >”You hear something?”
  109. >”Only you being wrong.”
  110. >”Fifty bits says I’m right.”
  111. >”Deal”
  112. >Flurry begins openly laughing as the Right guard shoots his attention upwards.
  113. >”He was the Field Marshal of the entire army!”
  114. >She manages to sputter out between laughing.
  115. >The one to the left speaks up.
  116. >”See I won!”
  117. >Right taps him, prompting Left to double take a look towards the balcony.
  118. >”Uhhh. Sorry Ma’am, and Sir Brigad- Field Marshal Sir.”
  119. “It’s alright son. But remember, I’m only a Captain.”
  120. >”Sorry sir Captain Sir.”
  121. “At ease. Get ready, we leave in ten.”
  122. >”Yes Sir!” they reply simultaneously.
  123. >Being two and a half feet taller than most ponies has made most of your ‘at ease’ commands fall on deaf ears.
  124. >You and Flurry leave the balcony, but not before hearing one of the guards say to the other:
  125. >”What’d he do to get sent out to the middle of nowhere?”
  127. >Exactly ten minutes later you exit the town hall, dressed in your normal attire.
  128. >A custom tailored beige officer’s uniform beneath a sturdy steel breastplate.
  129. >Though not full armor, you always make sure to be prepared for battle.
  130. >You adjust your peaked cap before resting your left hand on the pommel the sword on your waist.
  131. >The curvature of it helps you feel at ease, that same sword has been on your belt for twenty-three years. It has saved your life more times than you can count.
  132. >Flurry is waiting for you on the carriage, as you step onto it your weight makes it lean slightly.
  133. >Warfare in this world has always fascinated you, with its strange blend of modern and medieval methods.
  134. >Being rather well versed in your own world’s centuries of conflict has aided you to no end.
  135. >Sun Tzu, Alexander, Hannibal, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Napoleon, Rommel, and untold others have built up your reputation as the paramount military mind Equestria has ever seen.
  136. >After the Second War of the Saddle Arabian Coast ended three years ago, no nation has dared declare war.
  137. >When peace looked universal after that, there was rapid demilitarization after a couple decades of consistent world conflict.
  138. >You were much less skilled at court intrigue, but you always tried to do what was best for the nation.
  139. >The nation and its people. Not just the nobility.
  140. >And look where it got you.
  141. >To be fair though, you had always assumed that you would end up pulling a Nelson at the end of some campaign, forever solidifying your legacy.
  142. >But at least Elba is nice in the spring.
  143. >You lightly chuckle to yourself over the military humor.
  144. >Flurry brings you out of internal thoughts.
  145. >”Alright, the encampment should be just over that hill.”
  146. “Good, let’s get to the bottom of this… Wait. Is that smoke?”
  148. >The cart reaches the crest of the hill.
  149. >Below, you see smoke rising from a large hut to the northeast of the camp.
  150. >It looks like a handful of ponies are struggling against the buffalo’s warriors, as others rush to quell the flames.
  151. “Stop the cart.”
  152. >The drivers halt, and you take a closer look from the steadying carriage.
  153. >Four ponies are being restrained.
  154. >All of them are wearing army standard issue armor.
  155. >”Are those?”
  156. >Flurry asks.
  157. “It can’t be. I would know if any action was taken, my men all know my signature for orders.”
  158. >The locals end up beating back the flames, and you notice more than a few of them beckoning towards your carriage.
  159. “Stay here with the cart, I’m going down.”
  160. >You dismount from your seat, but Flurry’s voice draws your attention back.
  161. >”I’m going with you.”
  162. “Flurry.”
  163. >”Anon.”
  164. >You both know damn well that you can’t stop her from following.
  165. *sigh*
  166. >She flutters down from the cart, and stands next to you.
  167. “If there’s even the slightest sign of trouble, you fly away. Period.”
  169. >As you descend the hill, you see dozens of warriors at the bottom preparing spears and bows.
  170. >You raise your hands to shoulder level, clearly away from your sword.
  171. >You stop a few paces from them, and open your mouth to speak.
  172. “We-“
  173. >Flurry goes on ahead and cuts you off.
  174. >So much for staying safe.
  175. >”We just came from Appleoosa, is everypony- er- buffalo here ok?”
  176. >The bison share some unsure looks with each other
  177. >”Wait!”
  178. >A booming voice resounds, as a large grey bull approaches from behind the spear wall.
  179. >You had met the chief only twice, but you were always under the impression that you had reached a mutual respect with him.
  180. >”Why have you attacked out food supply, Two-Leg?”
  181. “Hail, Chief Thunderhooves. I ordered no such attack; in fact, some ponies back in town are saying that your people have attacked them. We have come to hear your side. But if you take me to those prisoners, I believe I can prove what has really been happening.”
  182. >Flurry adds in.
  183. >”Chief, we’ve come in peace. There hasn’t been conflict between our people for a generation. I assure you that we intend to keep it.”
  184. >The chief looks in at you for a fair while, before shifting focus to Flurry.
  185. >He then nods to his right.
  186. >”Prove this quickly then.”
  188. >You begin walking over to the charred ruins with the chief.
  189. >Surrounded by suspicious eyes watching you.
  190. ”Tell me chief, have your people ever encountered Changlings? Insectoid quadrupeds that can change their appearance at will?”
  191. >”Legend tells that in the time of my grandfathers’ grandfather, the Shapeshifters hunted my people before we drove them from the plains. Many think this merely to be a story though.”
  192. >At least some authority figures in this area have some open mindedness.
  193. “The Shapeshifters are no story. They have been plaguing the ponies for perhaps more than twenty-five years. Two years ago, I thought I had stormed the last of their nests; however I now fear that some of them have returned here.”
  194. >”Troubling.”
  195. “Indeed.”
  196. >You arrive at the ruined tent to find the four ponies hogtied in a line.
  197. >Three earth ponies and a pegasus.
  198. “You have only my word, but I know the faces of each of my men. And I have never seen these ponies before.”
  199. >You approach the right most.
  200. >Thankfully you have developed a trick that can shock a Changing back to its true form.
  201. >Only one had ever resisted it.
  202. >Kneeling down you reach behind the earth ponies left ear, and give a tense pinch with your middle finger and thumb.
  203. >The bright green flash startles Flurry and the Chief (although he was very good at hiding it).
  204. >”Shapeshifters!” the chief booms.
  205. >”Eew, so that’s what they look like?” Flurry says, with audible disgust in her voice.
  206. “Now for the others.”
  207. >You reach over to the next prisoner, reach behind his left ear and give a sharp pinch.
  208. >”Owch!”
  209. >You pinch again.
  210. >”Stop it.”
  211. >You go to try the pegasus.
  212. >No change.
  213. >Nor with the other earth pony.
  214. “What the hell?”
  216. “Chief, I’ve done that to hundreds of them, it has always worked.”
  217. >You pace back and forth in his tent.
  218. >”Are you sure that it always works?” Flurry asks.
  219. >Unless all three of them are Changling Queens, then yes.
  220. >”Why would a pony ally with Shapeshifters? The Chief Inquires.
  221. “I don’t know. As far as I know, no pony has ever worked for Changlings.”
  222. >”But has Changling ever worked for pony?” Thunderhooves rebuttals.
  223. “I don’t know. But either way, those four out mean that something very strange is happening.”
  224. >”And where did they get the armor?” Flurry adds. “This piece you took from one of them is stamped with a seal from Canterlot. It’s not just some fake.”
  225. “A fair question, but remember that a lot of armor has been made over the past decades.”
  226. >What is truly strange is that the attack took place in broad daylight. The two farmsteads were burned at night.
  227. >Something out here wants a war between ponies and bison. But why?
  228. >Both sides had been prospering recently. Manifest Destiny is one of the few remaining voices for conflict.
  229. >But you doubt that she could have arranged it. The stalwart mayor is a pencil pusher who thinks she is much cleverer than she actually is.
  230. >”CHIEF!” A voice resounds from outside the tent. “The prisoners escaped, they flee north to the hills.”
  231. >”Ready all who are able, we will follow.” Thunderhooves declares.
  232. >Wait.
  234. “Chief, it’s a trap. Why else would they be so open when they attacked.”
  235. >”Continue…”
  236. “They wanted to get captured, presumably so they could incriminate Appleoosa for the attacks. They wanted a war; we need to make sure that there isn’t one.”
  237. >”But why shouldn’t we run them down now?”
  238. “Because they’ll lead us straight back to their base if they think they aren’t being followed. We know that they most likely are set up in the mountains to the north, somewhere close enough that they could reach the farms under the cover of night to be exact. Even if they don’t remove those armored hoof gear, they’ll leave tracks in the loose dirt and remaining snow.”
  239. >”You still do not say why we should not follow them now, Two-Leg.”
  240. “Because we don’t know the terrain, if you and your people follow them now, you could find any number of traps or ambushes along the way. Let me go to scout the area, learn the land and their defenses. Then with my men and your warriors we can drive them back together.”
  241. >The bull stares you down. 
  242. >”Humph, very well, you have two days. At dawn on the third, regardless if you have returned, we ride north.”
  243. “Thank you Chief. You said earlier that the tent they destroyed was for food storage, if you wish I could have a stagecoach over here to replace what was lost.”
  244. >”Thank you Two-Leg. Have luck to the north.”
  246. >With that, you and Flurry head back to the cart and begin the ride back to town.
  247. >It looks to be around four in the afternoon.
  248. “Tomorrow morning I’m heading into the mountains alone.”
  249. >”What!” Flurry begins to plead. “You can’t go up there all by yourself. You said it yourself; there could be an ambush or traps.”
  250. “That’s exactly why I need to go alone. One person could avoid them much easier than a larger group could. Also I’m the only one in town with any actual experience in rough terrain.”
  251. >”At least let me come with.”
  252. “Out of the question. Don’t worry kiddo; I’ve been through a lot worse.  Besides, I need you in town in case something happens. Also I need someone to keep an eye on the Mayor while I’m gone.”
  253. >”You don’t think she could be hiding something?”
  254. “She’s a politician; of course she’s hiding something!”
  255. >You laugh to lighten the mood.
  256. >”Come on Uncle, You don’t think that she’s involved with this somehow?”
  257. “Lighten up a bit Flurry; no I don’t think she’s involved. But I know for a fact that having her riling up townsfolk won’t do any good.”
  258. >”Do you really think the ponies there will listen to me?”
  259. >She asks with a dour tone.
  260. >Touchy subject.
  261. “I know that if there’s any princess that they would listen to, it would be you.”
  262. >”Do you really mean that?”
  263. “Of course kiddo.”
  264. >She is visibly shaking from the dropping temperature.
  265. “Come here.”
  266. >You place your arm around her to bring her in for warmth.
  267. “I know you did everything you could.”
  268. >You reach down and wipe a forming tear from her eye.
  270. >You had won the war but lost the home front.
  271. >Equestria had consistently been an alright place to live, aside from the odd monster/demigod rampage.
  272. >However the nation had always been a monarchy first.
  273. >For a thousand years Celestia had been more or less benevolent, and cared for the small folk.
  274. >But decades of war had affected everyone, Celestia included.
  275. >The nation lacked a defined Constitution, and most of the representation took place from annual councils of regions and towns. Laws generally existed on a local level, and the ponies prospered.
  276. >But tension rose, and fear of infiltration took hold in the nobility and royalty, ending with the annual councils being put on indefinite hold.
  277. >On a nation level, the press had been converted into a state press. Perhaps merely a necessity during wartime, but the press remained nationalized after peace had ended.
  278. >Restrictions were placed on internal movements of civilians, and the checkpoints continue to be staffed.
  279. >Taxes were raised, and remain at wartime levels.
  280. >Rationing had mostly ended, but control over materials designated as ‘war necessities’ is still in place.
  281. >Much of the industrial capabilities were nationalized, only allowing the free market for relatively small ventures.
  282. >All of these were the grim realities of total war. But the wars had ended, and the royal decrees remained in place.
  283. >The real tipping point was the crackdown on dissention.
  284. >Prior to the end of the Second Coast War, the ponies accepted that the wartime measures were necessary evils.
  285. >But when it ended, protest broke out.
  286. >Work camps, or as they call it ‘centers for national unity’, began to be made for dissenters.
  287. >In the Crystal Empire, it was made a capital offense to compare the current system to Sombra’s regime.
  288. >Celestia, Luna, and Cadence all agreed to continue the policies, and as Princess Twilight had disappeared over a decade ago, there was only one potential voice to rival them.
  290. >As she was growing up, between the war stories, she had always been interested about your world.
  291. >She was fascinated by the ways in which your world’s modern states governed themselves, without Sun raising monarchs.
  292. >You described concepts of democracy, constitutionalism, and representation; then tried to explain the significance of the Bill of Rights, the Napoleonic Code, and Enlightenment thinking.
  293. >She was young and took those ideals to heart, you never actively tried to inspire subversion but you never went as far as to quell those ideas, especially as the war powers continued on.
  294. >She drafted a document calling for the repealing of wartime decrees, the drafting of a constitution to grant universal rights to all citizens regardless of race or social class, and the formation of a parliament.
  295. >Nothing outlandish like a call for anarchy or the dissolution of the monarchy.
  296. >She ended up getting mixed support. Many of the elected officials from various regions, and even a small portion of the upper nobility signed the document.
  297. >One hundred twenty-three signatures lay at the bottom.
  298. >First was the Princess herself.
  299. >None of this would actively upset the monarchs, Flurry Heart was ever sure to keep everything in a positive light.
  300. >Celestia even gave the ever so slightest smile as she read through it.
  301. >But at the very bottom of the document, one name turned her reaction from mild amusement to frightened tyranny.
  302. >Field Marshal Anonymous.
  304. >As you were in charge of the entire nation’s armed forces, she saw the ‘Declaration for Lasting Peace’ as a veil for a military coup.
  305. >There was no planned coup, but before you could even blink, the royal guards had seized you.
  306. >Of the 123 signers of the Declaration, 121 went to a gulag in the far north of the Crystal Empire.
  307. >For her blood relation Celestia sent Flurry to be a governor on the western peripheries of the Kingdom.
  308. >The official story is that Flurry wanted to help on the Frontier.
  309. >For your past services to the nation, she demoted you and put you in charge of military protection for the region and to guard the life of Princess Flurry Heart.
  310. >Since then, she has been trying to retcon your military service.
  311. >She only didn’t make a decree banning the mention of you, because she felt it would give you legitimacy.
  312. >Then she began to compartmentalize the military before vastly reducing its size in favor of secret police and paramilitary groups.
  313. >It’s almost as if war had darkened the souls of the leadership.
  314. >Perhaps Equestria has gone through similar periods until Celestia realized her folly.
  315. >But that doesn’t change what’s been happening now.
  316. >For what it’s worth, you and Flurry managed to bypass most of the wartime decrees for the region.
  317. >But the ponies still distrust her as a symbol of a corrupted system.
  318. >You had managed to accept the demotion, and continued to do your duty.
  319. >Flurry says that she is okay, but periodically you can see the look in her eyes.
  320. >The look that says she thinks she had failed: Failed both herself and her home.
  321. >Seeing her like that is worse than any wound you had sustained from your career.
  322. >No matter how intense the fighting or however immense the destruction, you would always return to find a good and pure heart in a conflict ridden world.
  323. >She didn’t deserve any of this.
  324. >And it kills a bit of you on the inside to see her going through it.
  326. >After arriving back in town, Flurry assembled the ponies to give a speech.
  327. >She recapped what happened on your trip, and urged the population to remain calm, promising that the true perpetrators will be found and brought to justice.
  328. >All in all she was much more warmly received than you would have feared.
  329. >Perhaps the ponies are finally realizing that she is on their side.
  330. >After arranging for supplies to the bison, you went to the garrison’s barracks to apprise your men of the situation.
  331. >They mean well and you trust them to do their duty, but only one of them has had any actual experience on a battlefield.
  332. >Too many boys.
  333. >While you’re gone the Princess’s guard will be doubled, and there will be near constant patrols in case the enemy tries something.
  334. >You prepared them as much as you could to face those who have access to similar equipment and at least one changeling.
  335. >It’s all you can do on such a short notice.
  336. >As the day winds closer to its end you found yourself in your room in town hall.
  337. >Relaxing in much more casual dress and sipping tea, while writing your memoirs.
  338. >You doubt they’ll ever be published, but it helps you to put things in perspective, although you had barely covered a quarter of your exploits.
  339. >A hoof beats at your door, and you place your quill down to see who’s there.
  340. “Hey kiddo.”
  341. >”Hey Uncle, you mind coming over?”
  342. “Trouble sleeping?”
  343. >”Of course not! I am and adult mare who absolutely does not want a bed time story.”
  344. “Who said anything about a story?”
  345. >…
  346. >”Please?”
  347. “Alright, go get tucked in, I’ll be there soon.”
  349. >In a few minutes you found yourself pulling up a chair next to Flurry’s bed.
  350. “So what one do you want me to tell?”
  351. >”Something I haven’t heard before.”
  352. “Actually I think I’ve got just the one, but I don’t think you’d like it.”
  353. >She kicks you in the side through her blanket before making a pouty face.
  354. “What was all that about being an ‘adult mare’?”
  355. >”Come on Anon.”
  356. “Alright. Jeez, kids these days.”
  357. >She kicks you again.
  358. “Fine be like that. So, Have I ever told you about the battle of the frozen waterfall from the Yak Invasion?”
  359. >She shakes her head.
  360. “Alright, so this was back in the first war I was in here. I was just a lowly lieutenant, and some genius up the chain of command had decided to counterattack the yaks in the middle of winter. They had been regrouping in their homeland, so the brass wanted to strike before they could reform en mass.”
  361. >You remember that you did actually tell her this story when she was two.
  362. >Might as well continue thought.
  363. “So My commanding officer, Captain Summer Soldier led his detachment north. After weeks of traveling through snowy mountain side, he ended up deserting. I never found out what happened to him.”
  364. >”Really? The cold didn’t get him?”
  365. “Really, he turned tail and ran after a brief skirmish. So, as I was next in command, I realized that it was quite obviously a bad plan.”
  366. >”Like marching on Moscow in winter!”
  367. “Just like marching on Moscow in winter. So, after letting the fifty or so men I had rest after the forced march that Summer put us through, I sent out scouts to screen the pass back to the south. It had completely been covered in snow, and we didn’t have the supplies to clear it. The only way through was forward.”
  369. >”What happened then?” 
  370. “After another couple of days, we encountered the enemy camp. And the rumor that they were reforming was completely true. We were on this ridge, a Cliffside overlooking a valley. And remember we had like fifty men.”
  371. >”How many yaks were there?”
  372. “We found the main staging ground, there were at least five thousand of them in the camp below. But, they hadn’t seen us.”
  373. >”So what did you do?”
  374. “Well I had actually planned on stopping the story there, but because you asked... I had the men set up a camp out of sight, then went to survey the area better.”
  375. “A frozen river flew through the valley, coming from the higher mountains opposite the ridge we were set up on. You should have seen it, an entire waterfall was frozen, and you could see this beautiful hundred foot spire of ice reaching up into the mountains.”
  376. >That ice spire was definitely among the top ten most beautiful sights you have ever encountered.
  377. “Then one of the men says to me, I kid you not: ‘Sir, I know we’re all going to die anyway, but we’re also almost out of food’!”
  378. >”He did not!”
  379. “Did to. So, we wait for night. Then I take my twenty best men down into the enemy camp. They go off to steal as much food as possible, while I look for any intel I could find.”
  380. >”What happened to your men?”
  381. “They all got back just fine. So I’m skulking through the yak encampment, covered in this huge winter coat that’s been frozen over. I turn a corner, and there are no less than a hundred yaks around a huge fire. All of them were armed, angry, and staring straight at me.”
  382. >”Don’t stop now.”
  384. “In that moment, I had a stroke of genius or insanity, probably both. I sprint over to the fire pit, Grab out the two largest flaming sticks I can find, and turn to face the yaks. I bash the flaming logs against the ground, and then start pointing them around at the crowd. In the deepest and most imposing baritone I could muster, I bellow: “YAK ENCROACH ON SACRED YETI BREEDING GROUND. YAK. WILL. SUFFER. RETRIBUTION!” And I swear- you have not lived until you hear a hundred plus big yaks scream at a pitch that would make the best opera soprano jealous.”
  385. >”This did NOT happen.”
  386. “Cross my heart, it did. So now I’m running through camp, and chaos is breaking out. They’re trampling everywhere and utterly ruining the camp. Then I run into this huge artillery piece, big enough to fit three of the largest Equestrian cannons inside of. And it’s loaded.”
  387. >”No.” 
  388. “Yup, So I pointed that straight at the waterfall, and lit the fuse. I start running away, and I must be at least a hundred yards away when the earth trembles and a resounding BOOM goes through the valley. While my ears are ringing, I turn to see this hundred foot tall ice spire shatter into miniscule little particles, that start shimmering down. In front of the resulting avalanche that is. I barely manage to get back up on the ridge that the rest of my men are camped in and look back to see the entire enemy army engulfed by the snow and ice.”
  389. >”Was that one of Washington’s tricks?”
  390. “No, the avalanche was Mulan, but the yeti was me. Then with the enemy army gone, me and my men marched straight to the yak capitol and forced the peace treaty. My first command and I lost not one soldier.”
  391. >You talk for another couple minutes about the end of that war before noticing that Flurry has fallen asleep.
  392. >You make sure she is tucked in before turning out her lights. 
  393. “Night kiddo. I love you.”
  394. >With that you close the door to let her rest, and head back into your own room.
  396. >You awoke before sunrise in order to leave before Flurry got up. Better to avoid any more pleading to have her accompany you.
  397. >After dressing in beige and grey camouflaged fatigues you gathered a light pack of supplies for the trek into the snowcapped mountains.
  398. >You adjust a pair of sheathes on the left side of your waist, one for your sword and the other for a balanced throwing knife.
  399. >Then after tying your boots tight, you set off.
  400. >By the sunrise, you could barely make out Appleoosa on the horizon behind you.
  401. >Your heading is straight north, once you reach the mountains you’ll head west, hoping to pick up any sign of recent movement to follow.
  402. >As the sun reaches higher in the sky, the temperature on the plains rises.
  403. >Not enough to melt the snow though, perhaps lingering just around thirty degrees.
  404. >As you near the mountain range, the temperature drops at least by ten from the winds.
  405. >You’re getting old, but your eyesight remains superb.
  406. >Taking a pair of binoculars, you start scanning.
  407. >Nothing
  408. >You begin heading west.
  409. >After a half hour or so, something catches your eye.
  410. >A glimmer.
  411. >After checking to make sure the surrounding area was clear, you start heading for it, eyes locked on what could be paths and alcoves in the mountains.
  412. >Just because you don’t see any scouts, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
  413. >Nearing the glimmer, you see a buckle and a torn strap.
  414. >You rush over to investigate further.
  415. >In your haste, you feel your leg going down further into the ground than normal
  416. >You didn’t know that ponies knew what punji pits were.
  417. >And you brace yourself for the impending mangling of your right leg.
  419. >…
  420. >No stakes going through your foot.
  421. >No stakes tearing the sides of your leg.
  422. >You remove your foot from the pit.
  423. >Mother
  424. >Fucking
  425. >Jackrabbits
  426. >Thankfully it doesn’t feel like you sprained your leg.
  427. >Reaching out you grab the buckle, it looks like it was torn off of standard issue armor.
  428. >Searching the area, you think that you can pick up the trail.
  429. >You keep a slow but steady pace, following the mountain passes.
  430. >Ever diligently watching for any sign of life.  
  431. >As you get deeper, the temperature steadies around zero, despite the sunlight.
  432. >Best not to be caught out here at night.
  433. >But the cold isn’t affecting you so much as the waiting is.
  434. >In the heat of battle, the adrenaline and will to survive kicks in.
  435. >But waiting for the inevitable battle, that’s the hardest part of war.
  436. >Knowing that the peace you’re at is only a temporary status that can end in the blink of an eye.
  437. >The sun had reached its peak some time ago. You’ll have maybe three hours until sundown.
  438. >Peaking past a corner, you see your prize.  
  439. >Built into a cliff side is an old mining complex, half a century old at least.
  440. >There’s a building on each side of the mine’s mouth.
  441. >To the left lies a smaller, one room wooden structure.
  442. >Administration maybe.
  443. >The structure on the right is three stories tall, possibly fitting four of the smaller building on each floor.
  444. >The windows are all boarded up, no sign of movement.
  445. >Alright you should head back now, and formulate a plan to siege the complex with assistance from the bison.
  446. >But on the other hand, you’re not THAT old…
  448. >If you hug the left side of the canyon’s wall, you should have cover from various rocky outcrops.
  449. >Ten years ago this wouldn’t have been a question…
  450. >It’s been two years since you’ve had a good fight.
  451. >You take a deep inhale and look at your surroundings.
  452. >The flush of cold air rejuvenates you as you see snowcapped mountains as far as your eyes can see.
  453. >Today is a good day to die.
  454. >You spin around the corner and crouch behind the rocks, trying to stay out of view.
  455. >The knees ache a bit more than they did in your prime, but you manage to stay down, hugging the wall until you reach the smaller building.
  456. >You hear an echoing from the mine.
  457. >A speech.
  458. >You can only make out a few words.
  459. >”Attack…. Night…. Targets…”
  460. >If the leader is giving a speech to the men, then the buildings out here should be empty.
  461. >Trying your luck you sneak into the smaller building.
  462. >Only one door on the eastern side, facing the larger building.
  463. >No enemies.
  464. >There are a few storage crates to the west, some looking new while others look just as old as the mine itself.
  465. >A desk is in the southeast corner, with new looking papers on it.
  466. >A large map of the mine is posted on the north wall; it looks like the main entrance is the only access.
  467. >Something is wrong.
  468. >The background hum of the echoing voices has ended.
  469. >You hear dozens of hoofsteps outside.
  470. >Running, as silently as you can, you throw yourself behind a pair of crates.
  471. >A moment later, the door opens.
  473. >The blast of cold air subsides as the door closes.
  474. >A single set of hooves trots around the room.
  475. >You hear a chair being pulled out.
  476. >The hoofsteps end.
  477. >Whoever it is has settled into the desk.
  478. >Controlling your breath, you weigh your options.
  479. >You can wait it out, but risk being found.
  480. >Or
  481. >You can try and get the drop on him, and hope the others aren’t alerted.
  482. >Reaching down you slowly draw your knife.
  483. >There will only be a couple of seconds before a reaction.
  484. >And you only have one shot.
  485. >You start controlling your breathing, mentally preparing for a near blind throw.
  486. >You can remember the positioning of the desk, and your relation to it.
  487. >Hopefully your aim hasn’t rusted.
  488. >You prepare to spring up and turn.
  489. >3
  490. >2
  491. >1
  492. >GO
  493. >As your view shifts to the corner, you see a single stallion at the desk with a paper in his hooves.
  494. >You let your instincts take the throw.
  495. >While you release, the target blinks once.
  496. >The knife pivots in the air.
  497. >His head starts to turn at you.
  498. >The knife continues.
  499. >He blinks again, letting go of the paper.
  500. >As it falls, the knife goes right over it.
  501. >Landing in the target’s neck.
  502. >He slumps back in the chair, and you hear quiet gurgling as he tries to find breath through the blood.
  503. >By the time you get over to him, he lies motionless, with blood dripping from the wound.
  504. >You remove the knife, clean it on his fur, and then sheathe it.
  505. >You wait and listen.
  506. >…
  507. >No commotion outside.
  508. >Time to take stock of the room.
  510. >The paper the dead pony was looking at was a sort of ledger.
  511. >the other building is storing most of their supplies, and a dozen men.
  512. >Another three dozen are camped out in the mine.
  513. >Learning this, you stuff the remaining documents into your pack, then start looking through the crates.
  514. >The newer ones contain weapons and armor.
  515. >The older ones have the good stuff.
  516. >One of the crates contains smaller barrels of oil.
  517. >The other is full of dynamite.
  518. >You can work with this.
  519. >Grabbing as much of the TNT as you can carry, you crack open the door to peak outside.
  520. >Looks clear.
  521. >All of the hoofprints in the snow head into the other building.
  522. >You’ll have to work quickly.
  523. >Scurrying over to the far side of the larger complex, you start placing TNT around the perimeter.
  524. >You can hear voices inside talking.
  525. >Complaints about the cold and questions about payment seem to be the big topics.
  526. >You finish rolling enough wire to hook up to the explosives that you’ve placed around the ageing structure, and you head to the mouth of the cave.
  527. >It declines sharply after a few paces; a mine cart remains locked at the top.
  528. >You place the remaining dynamite along the walls to either side, and then roll the wire for those as well.
  529. >Running to a safe distance you set up the detonation plunger back towards the canyon wall that you snuck by earlier.
  530. >There’s only one last thing to do as you head back into the admin shack.
  531. >You carry out the small barrels of oil, and start pouring them into the mine cart.
  532. >You fish out a match book and get ready.
  533. >After putting all of your effort forward, you manage to get the rusty cart to move.
  534. >You stop just before it would fall down the slope.
  535. >You take a match, light it, and let it fall into the oil.
  536. >As the flame catches, you push it down the tracks.
  538. >While sprinting over to the plunger, you can hear frightened screams coming from the mine.
  539. >Sliding to the ground, you brace yourself behind a rock, and cover your ears as best as you can before pushing down.
  540. >The mountains shake.
  541. >If it had been earlier in the winter, the explosion would surely have caused an avalanche.
  542. >Instead, you look up to see a ruined complex.
  543. >The three story building was a five foot high pile of rubble, and the explosive force had shattered the north and east sides of the admin building.
  544. >The mine entrance looked completely cave in.
  545. >Unless the map was wrong and there was another entrance, the burning oil should snuff out much of the oxygen trapped down there.
  546. >You almost feel sorry for the poor bastards.
  547. >Drawing your sword, you go to see if anyone above ground had survived the blast.
  548. >As you approach the scene, you hear some groans and screams of pain.
  549. >One had lost a leg
  550. >Another was impaled by a support beam.
  551. >The third’s chest was torn open.
  552. >The last survivor had his neck snapped, but was still clinging to life.
  553. >You tried to make their ends as quick and painless as possible.
  554. >The direct threat was ended but you still have no idea why they did it.
  555. >Hopefully some of the papers you grabbed will shed some light on the situation.
  556. >Looking to the sky, you have perhaps an hour before sundown.
  557. >You should be able to reach a cave you passed on the way before then.
  558. >You gather some wood from the wreckage before setting off.
  559. >After all, you’ll need dry wood for a fire tonight.
  561. >You awake in bed, feeling fully rested.
  562. *Yaaaawwwnnn*
  563. >The light shines through the blinds, illuminating the room.
  564. >Stretching out your front hooves, you start to get out of bed.
  565. >You have the tingling sensation that your wings are asleep.
  566. >After moving them around, the blood starts to circulate much better.
  567. >You recoil after looking into your mirror.
  568. >Using your magic you grab your hair brush and start grooming your bed head.
  569. >Soon your mane and tail are both curled back into your favored position.
  570. >You normally don’t wear any regalia; however you levitate and clinch your sterling silver locket around your neck.
  571. >You grab it with your front right hoof, and open the heart shaped doors.
  572. >You’ve been wearing it for almost twenty one years now.
  573. >Inside on the right is a picture of your parents from their wedding day.
  574. >They were so happy.
  575. >You’ve added a picture of your Uncle in uniform to the other side.
  576. >Getting the locket is one of the few things you can remember about Dad.
  577. >Dad gave you it as a gift, so that his little girl would remember what he looked like when he got back.
  578. >But he didn’t.
  579. >It hurt Mom the most.
  580. >When his expedition across the eastern sea never came back.
  581. >For years after scheduled return date had passed, Mom cried every night for him.
  582. >You remember that he loved you more than anything in all of Equestria, but not much else.
  583. >It’s sad, but you know that it wasn’t his fault.
  584. >You know Anon can’t have any children of his own, and you’re glad that it was him that stepped into that job.
  585. >Closing the locket you give feel stronger with it around your neck.
  586. >Then you leave your room, ready to handle whatever the day can throw at you.
  588. >As you open the door you find four guards ready to accompany you.
  589. >Really Uncle?
  590. “I’ll be just a bit longer.”
  591. >”Ma’am”
  592. >The poor ponies respond.
  593. >Back in your room, you grab a scarf before opening the window.
  594. >It’s a tight squeeze, but you get out and close it behind you.
  595. >As you flutter down to the ground, you give the guards fifteen minutes before they realize you’re gone.
  596. >Plenty of time to get on with your daily dealings before they catch up.
  597. >You don’t have anything specific to do, but you like to immerse yourself with the ponies and the locale.
  598. >You decided to take a morning stroll through the cherry orchards.
  599. >Once all the snow melts, the blossoms should be absolutely beautiful.
  600. >Still though, watching flurries of wind make the snow dance off of the tree branches is quite the sight.
  601.  >You giggle at the thought
  602. >’Flurries of wind’
  603. >Uncle Anon would be proud.
  604. >You hope he’s ok.
  605. >Wherever he is, you have faith in him.
  606. >He’s a tough old guy.
  607. >You didn’t bother to check if he had set out in the morning, because whenever he goes off to some campaign, he always leaves before you wake up.
  608. >That’s why you pressured him for a story.
  609. >It’s your way of saying ‘goodbye and good luck’
  610. >And if you just happen to enjoy them, that’s an added bonus.
  611. >You stop a moment to take in the sights.
  612. >But you hear something on the wind.
  613. >Sounds like a scuffle up ahead.
  614. >You start galloping forwards before a voice calls out
  615. >”Watch out Princess!”
  616. >THWAK
  618. >You shake the snow off of your face, and find ten little fillies and foals frozen in fear ahead of you.
  619. >One of them, a little filly with a yellow coat and red mane speaks up.
  620. >”I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you. They ganged up on me and my brother, and I just threw without seeing you.”
  621. >You recognize her. She’s standing behind a wall of snow with her twin, a foal with a red coat and yellow mane.
  622. >She is Yellow Cherry, and her brother is Red Cherry.
  623. >The entire snowball fight has paused while all of the children look visibly afraid of what your response will be.
  624. “They ALL ganged up on you two.”
  625. >The twins sheepishly nod their heads
  626. “Well that seems horribly unfair, we can’t be having that can we?”
  627. >The twins sheepishly shake their heads.
  628. >You fly over behind the wall and start packing snow.
  629. >Within an instant the battle is back on.
  630. >You and the twins hide behind the cover between volleys of snow.
  631. >You manage to hold the line but just barely.
  632. >After all, it is still eight against three.
  633. >As the other side slowly advances between the trees, things look bleak.
  634. “Come on kids, remember the Alamo!”
  635. >”Yeah, the Alamo!” Red yells as he throws at the attackers.
  636. >He then turns to you.
  637. >”What’s an Alamo?”
  638. “That is a long story for another time.”
  639. >You fling your own snowballs towards the advancing army.
  640. >But they just keep coming.
  641. >You and the twins end up retreating to some of the trees behind you as the enemy starts using your own wall against you.
  642. >There’s only one course of action.
  644. >After the kids throw their latest volley, you charge forwards.
  645. >As you near the wall you turn to shoulder it, falling over and collapsing it.
  646. “The wall is breached!”
  647. >You and all of the kids start laughing as you lie in the ruins of a once great fort.
  648. >Advancing hoof steps end up causing the children to run away to play elsewhere, leaving you still on your back in the snow.
  649. “Hey guys, I was wondering when you’d get here!”
  650. >They don’t seem amused.
  651. >”Princess we-“
  652. >You cut him off with your last snowball, and start laughing.
  653. >He wipes off the snow, still looking as serious as ever.
  654. >As he does that you use magic to create another snowball out of sight.
  655. “No need to be so serious.”
  656. >”Please Princess, we-“
  657. >You cut him off with a snowball to the back of the head.
  658. >You actually got the others to snicker a little.
  659. >There’s hope for this army yet.
  660. >You get up and start shaking off the snow.
  661. “Alright, what’s up?”
  662. >”Princess we-“
  663. >He cuts himself off and ducks, prepared for a third snowball.
  664. >You can’t stop yourself from giggling.
  665. >“*sigh* This morning the mail mare dropped by and told us that there’s a package for you at the post office, they need you to sign for it.”
  666. “You could have just said…”
  667. >”But Princess I-“
  668. >Snowball.
  669. >The others laugh.
  670. “I’m so sorry, I just had to.”
  671. >Was that the slightest grin on Mr. Serious?
  672. “Alright, let’s head to the post office.”
  673. >While heading back into town, the escort spooks away any chance of small talk with the townsfolk.
  674. >And they wonder why you ditch them at every possibility.
  676. >You reach the post office and sight for the mystery package.
  677. >It’s unmarked and battered.
  678. >The mail mare says that it has been in the system for years, with instructions to deliver it to you after fifteen years; it then took a few months to find its way over to Appleoosa.
  679. >After signing for it, you head back to your room in town hall.
  680. >As you enter the room you turn to your guards.
  681. “I promise that I won’t fly away again… today.”
  682. >With that you shut your door and fly over to your bed to inspect the package.
  683. >Utterly normal as far as you can tell.
  684. >You untie the string binding it together, and then go to open it.
  685. >Its…
  686. >A book?
  687. >No words on the front, back, or binding.
  688. >As you open the front cover, you find a folded letter resting inside of it.
  689. >TO: Flurry
  690. >FROM: Aunt Twilight
  691. >Aunt Twiley?
  692. >That makes sense if the package was over fifteen years old.
  693. >Five years after Dad went east, Aunt Twiley set out to find him.
  694. >She came back three years later, but was… different.
  695. >You only got to talk to her once, but she was so much more distant and cold than you remembered her.
  696. >Three days later she disappeared. She was last seen leaving the Royal Palace in Canterlot.
  697. >Unfolding the letter you begin to read:
  700.     Dear Flurry,
  702.  I must admit that I’m not sure how to start this. Right now I’m watching you play in the gardens; your mane is braded, and the bows on the ends are fluttering in the wind as you test out your wings. I trust that by the time you will be reading this, you’ll be an expert flyer. Your parents and I were always so proud of you. No matter what else happens, I want you to remember that your family loves you very much.
  704. That being said, I’m writing this because I am honestly scared. When your father’s air ship didn’t return, I started doing all of the research on the eastern lands that I could. Every pony that has ever returned (The few that did return, that is) left their sanity behind. Not even the brightest minds in medicine and psychology could make sense of their ramblings. The legends tell of monsters and horrors beyond imagining, but even if legend is to be believed (which on its own is a doctoral thesis waiting to be written (Sorry I’m rambling)). The point I’m trying to make is that if anyone could survive over there it’s my brother, your father.
  706. I’m having this package sent to you in fifteen years from this day. In this book you will find every bit of my studies (both published and unpublished) that I think could help you. Friendship lessons, magical theory, bits of personal journals, and five chapters worth of reference material are included within this binding (among other things). If you’re reading this, then it means I never came back. If that is the case, remember that I am so proud of you. Someday you will do great things.
  708. Now you’re asking to have me teach you how to levitate items, so I think I’ll sign off.
  710.     -Your loving Aunt, Twilight Sparkle
  713. >What?
  714. >You read the letter again.
  715. >And again.
  716. >And again.
  717. >This just left you with questions that you had assumed for so long would never be answered.
  718. >Did Aunt Twilight want you to follow her when you were old enough?
  719. >What didn’t she tell you?
  720. >Maybe she’s in hiding, and there’s some secret message that will tell you how to find her?
  721. >Why was the letter so short?
  722. >And the book!
  723. >It has to be at least a thousand pages, if she was trying to have you find something, why did she make it so expansive.
  724. >Maybe there’s something inside that can help.
  725. >You begin flipping the pages.
  726. >…
  727. >…
  728. >…
  729. >It’s like a big handwritten text book.
  730. >You knew Twilight was smart, but you can barely understand half of what she wrote.
  731. >If there is any hidden meaning, it’s been lost on you.
  732. >What if… she didn’t have any ulterior motive though?
  733. >What if you’re only assuming that because you want answers to these question that have been brought back up after so long?
  734. >Maybe she just had this sent as a final gift to her niece.
  735. >Ugh.
  736. >Why did this have to come up now?
  737. >Why did these long since healed wounds have to be ripped open once more?
  738. >Why couldn’t your life just be normal?
  739. >*KNOCK KNOCK*
  740. >Quickly you hold back the forming tears.
  741. >Your room is dark.
  742. >How long have you been in here?
  743. >”Excuse me, Princess, but the mayor is downstairs in the lounge. She asked if you want to join her for tea.”
  744. “I’ll be right down.”
  746. >You descend the stairs, looking at the chair the mayor is resting in.
  747. “No offense, but I would assume that I’m the last pony you would want to have evening tea with.”
  748. >”Nonsense Princess, that’s just politics. I’m sure that you and I will become great friends.”
  749. >Her tone seems off, much less abrasive than usual.
  750. >And in the months you’ve been her, she’s never tried to open up.
  751. >Maybe there actually is a pony under all of that.
  752. >You head down to sit opposite Manifest Destiny.
  753. “So, Mayor Destiny.”
  754. >”Please, call me Manifest.”
  755. “Alright. Manifest. Why do you hate the buffalo so much?”
  756. >”Well I think that despise would be a better word, dear.”
  757. >She laughs, high and nasally.
  758. >You blink.
  759. >”Not one for that type of humor I take it?”
  760. “No”
  761. >You curtly shoot back at her.
  762. >”Well to answer the question, it’s not about the buffalo specifically. If it were any other species living in that dirty collection of tents, I would take the same position.”
  763. >She pauses as the town’s bell starts ringing.
  764. >Ten at night.
  765. >”Tell me dearie, when you look out at the plains around this town what do you see?”
  766. “Grass or snow, the horizon, the sky…”
  767. >”And what do they make up?”
  768. “The plains?”
  769. >”The West! You see, all of this untamed land out here is just begging to be civilized. Towns like this should end up being no different than Manehatten or Canterlot. This is all part of Equestria, and it should look like it. Go for hundreds of miles further west, there supposedly is an ocean. Everything from here to there is rightfully part of this great nation. And we ponies are out here taming the wilderness, bringing civilization to this wild expanse. But those bison out there refuse to be civilized. They refuse to progress beyond that which their ancestor have always done. That my dear is why I don’t look too favorably to the tribals.”
  770. >Thankfully the sound of a boiling kettle stops her rant.
  771. >”I’ll be right back.”
  773. “So what do you have?”
  774. >You ask into the adjacent room.
  775. >”Oh you’ll just love it. We’ll be back in season soon, so I broke out the last of my Deerjeeling tea.”
  776. >She soon returns, holding a tray.
  777. >Kettle, cups, coasters, sugar, and milk.
  778. >”Let it steep a while more”
  779. “Not to sound rude, but how did you get elected?”
  780. >”Of course. Oh this would be some eight months before you arrived into town. The old mayor didn’t run again, so it was me against a Stallion by the name of Brass Hoof. Easy on the eyes if you know what I mean.  But his mother back in some town outside of Manehatten took ill, so he rushed back home to take care of her. No one decided to run after he left, so I was the new mayor.”
  781. >Fortunate for her.
  782. >”Well that should be enough.”
  783. >She raises the kettle and pours a cup before asking:
  784. >”How do you take it?”
  785. “Plain.”
  786. >A habit you picked up from your Uncle.
  787. >”Okay”
  788. >She passes you the cup, which you take and levitate closer to you.
  789. >Then she pours her own cup, adding two sugar cubes.
  790. >You wait for the tea to cool.
  791. “So are you a local, or?”
  792. >”Oh I’m Appleoosan born and bred. I’ve been here my whole life aside from two years of law school in Canterlot.”
  793. “You went to the Royal Academy!”
  794. >”Oh no no no, I went to the public university on the south side.”
  795. “That’s still no easy feat.”
  796. >”Oh maybe. Well then I was visiting back home when the old mayor resigned so I decided to throw the proverbial hat in the race. That cut law school short, but I felt that I could do more good for the town as Mayor.”
  797. “There is a real pony under all the politics after all!”
  798. >The two of you share a short laugh.
  799. >You levitate to cup closer to take a sip when:
  800. >CRASH!
  802. >You are hit with a gust of cold wind.
  803. >You look to the door
  804. >Uncle anon has just kicked in the door, sword in hand.
  805. >His hair and beard are covered in snow and ice; his eyes look bloodshot from the cold.
  806. >He approaches you, placing himself roughly between yourself and the mayor.
  807. >His sword is pointing right at the mayor’s neck.
  808. >She has frozen, as her eyes go wide looking at the blade.
  809. >You sit confused, your teacup still levitating in front of yourself.
  810. >”Flurry, get behind me.”
  811. “What. Are. You. Doing!”
  812. >He reaches into his pocket with his free hand, and retrieves a folded letter that he passes towards you.
  813. >He never shifted his focus from the Mayor, and his blade remains perfectly still.
  814. >”Found it at the hideout. Group of mercenaries called the Galloping Iron.”
  815. >You grab the paper with your magic, and unfold it. You then start to read aloud.
  816. “Don’t worry. You and your men will receive payment after the job has been finished, not before.”
  817. >That’s it, the paper is unsigned.
  818. >Anon speaks as you finish.
  819. >”Now look at the seal.”
  820. >Turning over the paper, you see the wax seal. It’s badly battered, but still very recognizable.
  821. >You set down the cup.
  822. “Is that…?”
  823. >”Office of the Mayor of Appleoosa.”
  824. >”WHAT?” The mayor yells as she snaps back into reality.
  825. >”Don’t move an inch.”
  826. >The Guards from upstairs shuffle down, after hearing the commotion.
  827. >”Flurry, get behind me. We’re taking the mayor into custody.”
  828. >The guards take up a position next to Anon.
  829. >”But, I didn’t do anything! Let me at least see the letter.
  830. >Anon stands unflinching.
  831. “Is there any real harm in letting her see it?”
  832. >”…I suppose not.”
  833. >You levitate the paper over to the mayor as you distance yourself from her.
  834. >How could she have been involved with those monsters?
  835. >Is she really not above burning down the homes of innocent ponies?
  837. >She grabs the paper from the air, and stats to look at the seal.
  838. >”Impossible!”
  839. >She flips it open.
  840. >”This isn’t my hoofwriting!”
  841. >”Likely story. One of you go into the back offices and find something written by the mayor.”
  842. >One of the guards nods, and then heads further into the building.
  843. >”Captain. Please, I’m telling you the truth. I had nothing to do with whoever attacked us.”
  844. >”Where do you keep the seal?”
  845. >”Well, my office of course.”
  846. >”And who has access to it!”
  847. >”Only me. Captain, I keep my office locked! That you found this with my seal surprises me just as much as it does you.”
  848. >”Does it now?”
  849. >The guard returns with a stack of paper that you take from him.
  850. >You start looking at the writing.
  851. >You flip through some of the papers.
  852. “Uhh, Captain. She might be telling the truth. That letter was written in near perfect form. And to be honest, the Mayor has abysmal hoofwriting.”
  853. >”See! I can’t hold a quill to save my life!”
  854. >Uncle’s stance remains unchanged.
  855. >”Maybe. Either way, we’re keeping you in the jail until we can get to the bottom of it.”
  856. >He puts his sword away, and then turns to his men.
  857. >”Lock her up, I what at least two guards on her at all times.”
  858. >They nod then start to take the mayor away.
  859. >The mayor goes willingly, but turns around before exiting the building.
  860. >”Captain, I assure you that I am innocent. I might not care for our bison neighbors, but I would NEVER harm my citizens. If you need my assistance finding the true perpetrator, then you know where to find me.”
  861. >She carried herself out with great dignity.
  863. >As they leave, Anon turns to you.
  864. >The snow and ice covering him has left him sopping wet.
  865. >”So how was your day?”
  866. “Nice to see your priorities survived the cold.”
  867. >”Come on, I’ll tell you what happened.
  868. >You start a fire while Anon changes into something dry.
  869. >He comes to sit on the floor in front of the fire with you, and then recaps his trek into the mountains.
  870. >…
  871. >”So I set up in the cave, then started going through the papers.  Most of them were useless, accounts of supplies, duty rosters, and the like. But a few piqued my interest. You’ve already seen the letter, but take a look at these.”
  872. >He reaches in his pack and pulls out a pair of pictures.
  873. >One of himself, the other of you.
  874. >Each with a large red X painted in the corner.
  875. >”Someone thinks we’re popular.”
  876. “Clearly” you reply dryly.
  877. >”The last thing of importance was the CO’s journal. The merc company was on hard times after the last war ended, and had to downsize. It was looking like the entire venture was going belly up until an unidentified benefactor called for our lives. The tension between Appleoosa and the tribe was meant to get one or both of us killed in the fighting. After which, they would come in for the kill after the fighting had weakened us.”
  878. “Good plan, but you’re better.”
  879. >He chuckles at the statement.
  880. >”I don’t know kiddo; I’m forty-six this fall, getting a bit too old for this.”
  881. “Nope.”
  882. >”Nope?”
  883. “It means you’re not allowed to get too old for this.”
  884. >”What, so you expect me to drop dead? If you just jinxed it, I am haunting you for decades.”
  885. “No no no. I just mean that. Well. You’ve been through so much. And you always are okay after everything settles.”
  886. >”Fine. Only one decade of haunting.”
  887. >Although he keeps his joking demeanor, you can see in his eyes that he wants to say so much more.
  888. >That he knows he won’t be around forever to watch over you.
  890. >”Hey, stop that thinking. I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.”
  891. “I’m that easy to read huh?”
  892. >”No, I just taught you how to read people and avoid being read.”
  893. “That’s cheating.”
  894. >”Not by my rules. At this rate the student will never become the master.”
  895. “If you say so.”
  896. >The two of you sat there in front of the fireplace for some time.
  897. >The silence is broken only by the crackling of the fire.
  898. >You like times like this.
  899. >Since being shipped over to Appleoosa you’ve often only seen the work side of your Uncle.
  900. >It’s nice to see him act how he did when you were growing up.
  901. >You can scarcely imagine what your life would be like without him.
  902. “Hey Uncle.”
  903. >”I know kiddo. I know.”
  904. >You sit in quiet for a bit longer before breaking it.
  905. “I think I know how we could find out who wrote the letter.”
  906. >”What’s your idea.”
  907. “Well, I think if we set up some sort of form, a mock census maybe, we could go around town to have the ponies fill it out. It wouldn’t be exact, but it could help to narrow down suspects.”
  908. >”Looks like you’re becoming a little detective.”
  909. “Well I was taught by one of the best so…”
  911. >”Anyway. Tomorrow, I’ll work on getting writing samples from the population. I’d like you to search through records to find any older samples. The mock form idea works, but with the mayor in jail, I’m banking on whoever either assisted the mayor (or set her up) to work on covering their tracks. When focusing on committing a perfect crime, people often overlook the simple details.”
  912. “Do you really think it’ll be that easy to catch whoever is behind it?”
  913. >”Unlikely, but I do know one thing.”
  914. “What’s that?”
  915. >”That we won’t catch anyone if we’re exhausted.”
  916. >After that, you said your goodnights, and headed up to bed while Uncle put out the fire.
  917. >Soon after, you heard his own door close across the hall.
  918. >He must be exhausted after his day.
  919. >The entire ordeal has left you rather tired as well.
  920. >But there are just so many questions.
  921. >First is Twilight and her book.
  922. >is it just a coincidence that the package got here today?
  923. >And the mayor.
  924. >Was her opening up just some ruse to get your defenses down?
  925. >Or was she really just being set up?
  926. >Somepony is still out there.
  927. >You can only truly trust your Uncle.
  928. >But you can’t imagine that any of the ponies here would really want you hurt- even the mayor, with all of her faults.
  929. >You still don’t have the full picture, but you know one thing.
  930. >The truth is out there.
  932. >Another glorious day in this man’s army.
  933. >You had spent seven hours walking around town to give all of the adult ponies their own form where they’re ask to write a few sentences on the state of Appleoosa.
  934. >Your hand aches as you have been taking notes all day.
  935. >The pony, whether they are right or left hooved, any vocal or physical inflections to suggest they’re being untruthful, etc.
  936. >After the last townspony gave their response, you headed over to the barracks.
  937. >You have a similar test to your men, and then poked through their personal effects.
  938. >Just as you expected, you didn’t find anything suspect, but you made note of who seemed to disapprove of you searching their things.
  939. >They all knew that a commanding officer has that authority, so none of them openly said anything.
  940. >Now that every recorded and able bodied pony in the town had written their statements, you were heading back to town hall to go over your findings with Flurry.
  941. >You’d take a straight fight to all of this subterfuge any day.
  942. >The next train isn’t due in for another three days.
  943. >You have until then to find out who wrote the letter.
  944. >After that, there would be legitimate reasons for any pony leaving town during the investigation.
  945. >You have calmed down about the changelings though.
  946. >You had eliminated the last of the queens, but who knows how many drones survived?
  947. >That some signed up with merc groups makes sense.
  948. >They can work as near perfect infiltrators.
  949. >But you doubt that a changeling wrote the letter.
  950. >The styling was too perfect.
  951. >Whoever wrote it was formally educated.
  952. >That rules out just about every pony in town.
  953. >More and more it feels like the Mayor is being set up.
  954. >Unless that’s what they want you to think.
  955. >Reaching town hall, you enter the building and wipe your feet on the welcome mat.
  956. >You then head into the record office to meet Flurry.
  958. >The record room was at the center of the building.
  959. >No windows and each of the walls are covered with filing cabinets.
  960. >Between additional rows of file storage, there’s a small desk for archival work.
  961. >You find Flurry sitting at it, her face resting on the desktop.
  962. >The light snoring ends as you close the door behind you.
  963. >”Wah? No, just resting the eyes! Oh, it’s you.”
  964. “Nice to see you too. You get what we need?”
  965. >She levitates a pair of boxes onto the desk, each of them brimming with potential sample documents.
  966. >As she drops them, they give a loud thud against the desk.
  967. >She had managed to find previous papers with writing samples from about ninety percent of the townsfolk.
  968. >After the two of you spend quite a bit of time matching old documents with new forms, you don’t notice any major differences in writing styles between matching pairs.
  969. >The two of you then start to compare the letter to the samples.
  970. >Then you double check.
  971. >And triple check.
  972. >Flurry lets out a soft and low pitched ‘uggggggggg’
  973. >No match.
  974. >Nothing was even close.
  975. >”Any bright ideas now?”
  976. “Nothing comes to mind.”
  977. >”Nice to see that we wasted the day for nothing. Maybe whoever we’re looking for already left town.”
  978. “It’s possible. The mercs had enough supplies to have been there all winter.”
  979. >”So they’ve been planning this for a couple months?”
  980. “Possibly longer.”
  981. >”So what CAN we do?”
  982. >You don’t know.
  983. “I hate to say it, but I think the only thing we can do is wait for them to make the next move.”
  984. >”Well that’s a bad plan!”
  985. “Ya think?”
  986. >”Really! sarcasm at a time like this?”
  987. “Well the only other option I see is to enforce martial law, so I think I’d prefer sarcasm.”
  988. >You don’t like it; by you have to admit that for now they won.
  989. >Whoever ‘they’ is.
  991. >”So what are we going to about the mayor.”
  992. “Your thoughts?”
  993. >She wasn’t expecting you to call her out on the evasive question.
  994. >But that’s the point.
  995. >She too often defers to your judgment before voicing her own opinion.
  996. >”Well…”
  997. >…
  998. “Well?”
  999. >”I think that it’s likely that she isn’t involved.”
  1000. “And what makes you think that?”
  1001. >”The letter was unsigned. If she did write it, then using her personal seal defeats the purpose of not signing the letter. I think the seal was a red herring to throw us off of the real trail.”
  1002. “Agreed. I poked through her home and office earlier- nothing out of the ordinary.”
  1003. >”Isn’t that-“   
  1004.  “Anyway, I’m going to have her released, but until we find out what really is going on, she’s going to have an escort.”
  1005. >If she is involved, then you can’t catch her in the act while locked up.
  1006. >You really don’t like this situation.
  1007. >It reminds you of court at Canterlot.
  1008. >But with less sycophants.
  1009. >You should be fighting on the field, not fighting against shadows.
  1010. >Your thoughts start to drift towards the rest of the nation.
  1011. >By your world’s standards, things were a bit below average.
  1012. >But the ponies lack history of totalitarianism.
  1013. >Comparably it must be much worse for them.
  1014. >It’s a shame.
  1015. >You didn’t get to see much of this land before the wars started.
  1016. >You had spent over half of your life here, but were on campaign for nine tenths of it.
  1017. >It took you months to get used life while not on the march.
  1018. >Enough of that though.
  1019. >Back to the task at hand.
  1020. >”Zzzzzzzz.”
  1022. >You look up from your thoughts to find that she has fallen asleep.
  1023. “Come on kiddo.”
  1024. >You whisper, as you pick the mare up in your arms.
  1025. “Let’s get you to bed.”
  1026. >As you leave the room with Flurry, you see that it’s dark outside.
  1027. >How long were you in there?
  1028. >You ascend the stairs steadily, so not to wake her up.
  1029. >As you push open her door, the hinges creak.
  1030. >Thankfully without disturbing her.
  1031. >Carefully you lay her into bed and rest a blanket over her.
  1032. >She’s still soundly asleep as you close the door.
  1033. >You quietly retreat to your own room.
  1034. >She’s earned some rest.
  1035. >You remember back when she was just an infant.
  1036. >This was before the wars.
  1037. >You were a guard and Celestia sent you to watch a pair of high value individuals.
  1038. >A little Flurry and her aunt Twilight.
  1039. >Cadence and Shining were away for a couple weeks on some negotiation or other, and Flurry went to stay with her aunt.
  1040. >Twilight didn’t have any guards normally posted, so you were sent as a formality.
  1041. >Just in case.
  1042. >The little foal took a liking to you.
  1043. >Her little baby mind was fascinated by your fingers.
  1044. >Then every night, she would cry and cry.
  1045. >No matter what Twilight did to calm her, Flurry wouldn’t relent and go to sleep.
  1046. >On the first night, after half an hour, you took Flurry from Twilight to give her a break.
  1047. >You bobbed her up and down a bit, and then started to hum some old military songs.
  1048. >As you started Polyushko Polye, she was silenced.
  1049. >Her eyes locked onto you, and ever so slowly crept to a close as you finished the song.
  1050. >You then set her to rest; Twilight was amazed how you had been able to get her to sleep.
  1051. >Each night after that, she wouldn’t sleep before a tune.
  1052. >Battle Hymn of the Republic, Katyusha, Panzerlied, The British Grenadiers, Fredericus Rex, Der Koniggratzer March, each night you would give her a different song from your world.
  1053. >It was in those weeks that she started to be your little soldier.
  1055. >It was an… eventful time.
  1056. >And amazingly, Twilight’s place never burned to the ground.
  1057. >Only two carpets and one tapestry.
  1058. >You quietly laugh from an old memory.
  1059. >This one day when you and Twilight had woken up, she went to give Flurry her morning bottle.
  1060. >You ran into the room after hearing a loud shriek.
  1061. >Flurry wasn’t in her crib.
  1062. >So the two of you searched the castle at least ten times.
  1063. >No sign of the baby.
  1064. >Twilight came to the conclusion that she must have gotten out.
  1065. >So the two of you searched throughout Ponyville at least three times over.
  1066. >Not a soul had seen the Princess.
  1067. >It’s been like two hours and Flurry was still missing.
  1068. >You returned to the castle’s meeting room, and Twilight was losing it.
  1069. >She was rambling on about what’s going to happen.
  1070. >Honestly she was talking so fast that you couldn’t understand a word.
  1071. >Something about kindergarten.
  1072. >Anyway, after five solid minutes of ranting, she pauses for breath.
  1073. >Just before she continues, you hear a large ‘YAAAAWWWWN’ from above.
  1074. >Flurry had gotten on top of the damn chandelier.
  1075. >To make it better, as Twilight flies up there she hovered in front of her.
  1076. >Then starts lecturing the baby about how worried she and you were.
  1077. >For the ten minutes of lecturing, Flurry been doing as babies do when on tree chandeliers:
  1078. >Gnawing on it.
  1079. >Twilight didn’t even notice it over her speech.
  1080. >Good times.
  1081. >Everything was so much simpler.
  1083. >When Shining’s expedition went missing, Cadence was changed.
  1084. >The mourning hit her pretty bad.
  1085. >She was never a bad mother, just a bit more distanced- like she was always thinking of something else.
  1086. >Her dreams for a perfect family were shattered, and she couldn’t do everything on her own- not with her role in the nation.
  1087. >So you and Twilight stepped into the void.
  1088. >You tried your best, both of you did.
  1089. >But then Twilight went after her brother and…
  1090. >Yeah.
  1091. >Supposedly she came back for a few days.
  1092. >You never saw her, but that entire event has always seemed shrouded by something.
  1093. >Anyway, it’s probably best to let old matters go.
  1094. >What time is it anyway?
  1095. >You look towards the clock on your desk.
  1096. >One in the morning.
  1097. >Well at least you can get a couple of hours of sleep in before morning.
  1098. >Soon you lie awake in your bed.
  1099. >Your mind racing with the circumstances of the past few days.
  1100. >It’s sad to admit, but you truly don’t know what to do.
  1101. >You won’t know the true enemy until they spring their next plot against you.
  1102. >You only hope that you can protect Flurry when that happens.
  1103. >Coming to a new conclusion, you decide to stay near by tomorrow- err today- when you wake up.
  1104. >You need to be ready at a moment’s notice.
  1105. >Aside from her, you have no other real reason to go on.
  1106. >Not anymore at least.
  1108. >The next day went by smoothly.
  1109. >The mayor was released under escort, but aside from that nothing noteworthy happened.
  1110. >Flurry turned in early, around six.
  1111. >She said she wanted to get a full nights rest.
  1112. >You felt that the guards will be fine, so you took a quick stroll to clear your head.
  1113. >The sun had just set, and the evening chill had yet to fully set in.
  1114. >As you walk down Main Street, you’re attracted to some commotion coming from the saloon.
  1115. >You enter, and immediately see five of your men scramble to stand at attention.
  1116. >They’re surrounding a table full of cards and bits.
  1117. “Gambling?”
  1118. >One of them gets the courage to respond.
  1119. >Pegasus by the name of Approaching Thunder.
  1120. >A Sergeant, supposedly he served under you as a Private back in the Second Coast War but you hadn’t met him personally until he was shipped out here.
  1121. >”S-sorry Sir!”
  1122. “Well are you all off duty?”
  1123. >”Y-yes Sir!”
  1124. “Then as you were.”
  1125. >”Thank you Sir.”
  1126. >Gambling is technically illegal for active duty soldiers regardless of the circumstances.
  1127. >Some old rule an admiral came up with centuries ago that stuck.
  1128. >You never bothered to enforce it.
  1129. >It helps keep moral high and focus away from the nature of the soldier’s job.
  1130. >It also lets the men bond, get to better know and depend on their comrades-in-arms.
  1131. >As they go back to their game, you head over to the bar.
  1132. >You need a drink.
  1133. “Cider. Hard.”
  1134. >The barkeep nods, then slides a frothy mug your way.
  1135. >You don’t often drink, but you do enjoy the odd indulgence occasionally.
  1136. >”OOOOH” the men at the table shout.
  1137. >”You lose again Star Breaker, next round is on you.”  Thunder resounds out happily.
  1138. >The unicorn rises from the table, and approaches the bar.
  1139. >He’s a good man. Horrible at cards it looks like, but he’s the only unicorn under your command.
  1140. >Magic can be quite the game changer in a fight.
  1142. >As he asks for another round, the barkeep stops him.
  1143. >You eye the encounter while nursing your cider.
  1144. >”Listen here, buddy. This is the fourth round for you boys over there, and it’s not looking like you’ll be able to pay up.”
  1145. >”Come on, I’m gonna get it back next round.”
  1146. >”Don’t you think I’ve heard that story a hundred times before? You’re setting up a tab. No questions.”
  1147. >”Okay, okay.”
  1148. >The barkeep reaches down and pulls out a piece of paper, a quill, and some ink.
  1149. >”Alright, I’m gonna need you to write your name here, here, and here. Put your address there; give me the ones of your home and the barracks. And then sigh and date the bottom.”
  1150. >Star Breaker levitates the paper over and gives it a quick read over.
  1151. >”Alright, looks fine.”
  1152. >Then he uses magic to grab the quill, dip it in ink, and fill out the paper.
  1153. >Thought he was left hooved.
  1154. >”Here you go.”
  1155. >With that Breaker grabs the next round then heads back to the game.
  1156. >As he’s leaving, you hear the barkeep mutter.
  1157. >”Huh, fancy writing.”  
  1158. >What.
  1159. >You keep your voice low to ask the barkeep.
  1160. “Hey, you mind if I see that?”
  1161. >”Sure, just don’t spill anything on it.”
  1162. >He slides over the form.
  1163. >The writing is eerily familiar.
  1164. >You set down the paper and your drink, then turn around on the stool.
  1165. >The next round of gambling has commenced.
  1166. >You focus your gaze on Star Breaker.
  1167. >He’s looking down at his cards.
  1168. >As he blinks, his eyes shoot up to lock with yours.
  1169. >You place your feet off of the bar stool’s rest, and onto the floor.
  1170. >The weight of the sword at your hip is ever present.
  1171. >Your eyes are locked together, waiting to see who blinks first.
  1172. >He does.
  1173. >And he scrambles out of his chair, sprinting for the door.
  1175. >As you reach the door, you pause to draw your blade.
  1176. >The sound of the steel being unsheathed resonates through the saloon.
  1177. >Then you leave to give chase.
  1178. >As you step out into the cold night, you see Breaker dart into the bell tower.
  1179. >You run across the street, heading into the building.
  1180. >Thoughts stream through your mind.
  1181. >How could one of your own betray you?
  1182. >If he’s turned, then can you trust any of the men under your command?
  1183. >Who could he lead you to?
  1184. >How far does this plot go?
  1185. >As you enter the tower, you hear his hoofsteps galloping up the spiral staircase to the top.
  1186. >You start ascending after him.
  1187. >He must know that he’s leading himself to a dead end.
  1188. >That means either he expects to kill you, or he has no regard for his own life.
  1189. >Either way, the thought is unsettling.
  1190. >You are either running into a trap, or he has enough loyalty to someone that he would sacrifice himself for them.
  1191. >Before you reach the top, you take up a defensive stance.
  1192. >Stepping up the last stairs slowly, you stand at the top of the bell tower.
  1193. >Four stories up, the cold winds batter you from the west.
  1194. >The bell itself lies just above your head.
  1195. >On the opposite side of the landing, Star Breaker was waiting.
  1196. >He’s still, just as you are.
  1197. >Each waiting for the other to make the first move.
  1198. >From bellow you hear Sergeant Thunder yell up from the street.
  1199. >”Sir, what’s happening?”
  1200. >You let the question go unanswered, instead opting to ask Breaker.
  1201. “Why?”
  1202. >”You’ll never know.”
  1203. >His horn glows a bright orange, as he charges up a spell.
  1204. >An immense magical bolt springs forth, hitting you square in the chest.
  1206. >”WHAT!”
  1207. >You stand, unfazed from the onslaught.
  1208. “I’m not from this world; you don’t think magic could really hurt me?”
  1209. >The trick has saved you whenever you’ve fought changelings.
  1210. >Pure magic has no effect on you whatsoever.
  1211. “It’s over Private.”
  1212. >The unicorn stands there in utter shock, unsure of what to do.
  1213. “I’ll ask nicely once more. Why?”
  1214. >”I’m not telling you anything!”
  1215. >He gulps as he visibly shakes in fear.
  1216. “We’ll see how long you’ll keep to that statement.”
  1217. >You take a step forward.
  1218. >Seeing this, the colt closes his eyes.
  1219. >And fall backwards.
  1220. >Swan diving head first into the ground.
  1221. >You rush to catch him, but he’s out of reach by the time you get to the edge.
  1222. >Even from four stories up, you could hear the cracking of bone as you see his body go limp after he hits the ground.
  1223. >NO!
  1224. >Not when you were so close.
  1225. >You had him within your grasp.
  1226. >You stand on the bell tower overlooking the town.
  1227. >The soldiers from the bar had rushed over to Breakers body.
  1228. >They’re waiting to learn something about what they just witnessed.
  1229. >Can you trust them?
  1230. >You don’t know.
  1231. >A closer look at Breakers personal effects seems to be in order.
  1232. >One way or another, sooner or later, you’ll find your answers.
  1233. >But right now, you only know two things for sure:
  1234. >One- that he was most definitely not working alone.
  1235. >And two- that you have quite a few questions for your men.
  1237. >The sun had come up several hours later after working through the night.
  1238. >You were sitting at a desk in the barracks.
  1239. >Just finishing the last of the one on one interviews with your men.
  1240. >The story was consistent.
  1241. >Breaker was ordinary in any sense of the word.
  1242. >A bit quiet though.
  1243. >He usually didn’t interact with anyone in particular.
  1244. >Last night was the first time the others had got him to open up.
  1245. “And nothing about the way he acted last night seemed strange?”
  1246. >You saved Sergeant Thunder for last.
  1247. >After you, he’s the highest rank soldier for a hundred miles.
  1248. >He’s a bit larger built than most pegasi, he’s got a light grey coat with a shot kept near-black mane.
  1249. >His eyes are an incredibly light blue, and they hadn’t given any suspicious movements throughout the interview.
  1250. >”No Sir, but most of us didn’t have much of a baseline to gauge if anything he said was out of character.”
  1251. “This here is his file. Take a look, and tell me what seems off.”
  1252. >You slide the folder across the table to him.
  1253. >He takes a minute to read through it before setting it down.
  1254. >”He looked to be the model soldier. Clear record and he exceeds all requisites.”
  1255. “Exactly.”
  1256. >”I’m not sure that I follow.”
  1257. >You reach over to the box of Breaker’s personal effects.
  1258. “Now look at this.”
  1259. >You hand a card to the Sergeant.
  1260. >”His ID badge?”
  1261. “What seems strange about that?”
  1262. >He scans through the information.
  1263. >”Looks to be in perfect order.”
  1264. “Exactly.”
  1265. >”Is there something I’m missing Sir?”
  1266. “Look at the date it was issued.”
  1267. >”Seven years ago, up for renewal this fall.”
  1268. “And the condition of the card?”
  1269. >”Well kept, no creases or roughed up corners.”
  1270. “Doesn’t it look in much too good of a condition to be seven years old?”
  1271. >”Maybe he just kept good care of it?”
  1272. “And the record is too perfect. Results like that should have sent him right on the track to becoming an officer; instead he was shipped out here.”
  1274. >The Sergeant looks unsure of what to make of the statement.
  1275. “Now, I admit that none of those are that strange on their own. But when his writing matches that of a letter to the same group that attacked this town, and that he decided to take his own life rather than face questioning…”
  1276. >”It becomes clear that Star Breaker had a different agenda.”
  1277. “I think that ‘Star Breaker’ never existed. That this alias was merely a façade to harm this town. And whoever sent him here clearly had the resources to invent his disguise.”
  1278. >You leave out that you and Flurry were specifically targeted.
  1279. >You’d like to trust your second-in-command, but best to err on the side of caution.
  1280. >And the less people that know about that in particular, the better.
  1281. >At least for now.
  1282. >”So who invented Breaker? He wasn’t a changeling, so who? The Saddle Arabians? Maybe the griffons somehow?”
  1283. “Best not to speculate like that. You’ll choose a favored suspect, then try and curve the actual evidence towards that conclusion.”
  1284. >”So you intend to wait for more conclusive evidence to be uncovered.”
  1285. “Indeed. Our job remains the same, to protect this town. If they are set on its destruction, then another attempt will be put into motion sooner or later.”
  1286. >”I suppose that it’s out only option.”
  1287. “Also, I think it’s safe to end the mayor’s escort. See to that for me, but make sure that the men still stay attentive to her. Just in case.”
  1288. >”Yes Sir.”
  1289. “Well, that should be all. Dismissed.”
  1290. >He remains seated.
  1291. “Yes?”
  1292. >”Permission to speak freely?”
  1293. “Of course.”
  1294. >”Do you think that it’s over?”
  1295. >You pause to think of the right words.
  1296. “Personally, yes. If our mystery group has any sense, they’ll know that their goal will be much harder to achieve until the events of the past few days are a distant memory. That being said, it doesn’t give us leave to let our guard down.”
  1298. >”Thank you Sir.”
  1299. >The pegasus stands, salutes, and takes his leave.
  1300. >Nothing but more dead ends.
  1301. >But Sergeant Thunder was right earlier.
  1302. >Who has been instigating the plot?
  1303. >There isn’t a foreign power out there that doesn’t have a reason to want you dead.
  1304. >Last you heard there weren’t any real anti-government groups operating domestically.
  1305. >The Ministry of Interior Defense, the government’s secret police definitely has the resources needed to have set everything up.
  1306. >But Flurry also being targeted muddies the issue.
  1307. >Despite the issues between her and the monarchy, there’s no way that Celestia would okay an assassination on her own blood.
  1308. >Could be some sort of rogue splinter group in the MID.
  1309. >Or even a group of nobles that fear you returning from exile to take over the nation and install Flurry as a puppet.
  1310. >Not that you would do that, but the fear must remain in at least a few minds back in the capitol.
  1311. >It’s like you said though.
  1312. >There’s no point in baseless speculation, you need to view the evidence objectively.
  1313. >Within the coming days, weeks, months, or even years, you need to be ready.  
  1314. >When they finally do strike, you need to be stronger.
  1315. >For Flurry’s sake.
  1316. >Still though, a new day has started.
  1317. >The lack of sleep doesn’t bother you, when you were on campaign sometimes you would go for much longer without sleep.
  1318. >War does funny things to sleep.
  1319. >It teaches you to get rest whenever you can despite whatever action is happening.
  1320. >But it also trains your instincts to focus solely on the unusual.
  1321. >You have slept through artillery barrages, only to be awakened by the sound of a snapping twig from approaching infantry.
  1322. >Enough of that thought tangent, where were you?
  1323. >Right.
  1324. >You have a new day to see to.
  1325. >With that, you leave the barracks and get to your routine.
  1327. >You slowly awaken, groggily becoming aware of the situation.
  1328. >The sun shines into your room between the blinds.
  1329. >You’re on your bed.
  1330. >Twilight’s book is lying next to you.
  1331. >You must have fallen asleep while reading.
  1332. >The previous night you had retired early to pick at it further.
  1333. >You still can’t decipher most of it, but she wasn’t lying when she said she had five chapters of reference reading.
  1334. >Most of the bits focusing on magical theory and practice are incomprehensible.
  1335. >Either because it was written in her own personal jargon or because you’ve never excelled at magic.
  1336. >You can grasp and move items perfectly, but anything beyond that…
  1337. >After Aunt Twiley disappeared, you fell out of training.
  1338. >The journal excerpts she included seem to have no overarching theme.
  1339. >In one she would recall battling against dragons or monsters, and then the next would focus on her friends and their relationships or antics.
  1340. >But if you know that there must be a reason why she included what she did, and in that order.
  1341. >You’re constantly second guessing yourself.
  1342. >On one hoof, your Aunt decided to impart her final wisdom to you. Simple as that.
  1343. >But on the other, she waited so long for it to be given to you so that you could figure out whatever it is she wanted you to know.
  1344. >There has to be something you’re missing.
  1345. >Your horn lights up as you pick up the book, and take another look at it.
  1346. >Maybe…
  1347. >No.
  1348. >Or…
  1349. >Probably not.
  1350. >What if…
  1351. >Impossible.
  1352. >The questions and potential answers flood your mind.
  1353. >You set the book down.
  1354. >Why couldn’t she just put a simple ‘By the way, the point of this is X’ at the end.
  1355. >At the end.
  1356. >You grab the book, and start flipping to the end.
  1357. >Last are a few blank pages.
  1358. >Before those are the reference chapters.
  1359. >And just before those is the last journal excerpt.
  1360. >You page to the beginning of it and begin reading:
  1362. >It’s dated just before she left to find Dad.
  1364.     Well, I’m finally ready. After months of scouring Equestria, I’ve finally compiled every single piece of recorded information on the eastern lands. The hard part is discerning what parts of it is truth, and what has merely been obscured by legend. For example, all of the talk of unspeakable abominations: if the supposed monsters across the sea are so fearsome, then they would have overrun Equestria centuries ago. The region is almost completely unexplored. If you were to add in hostile flora and fauna, as well as dangerous terrain, then logically one could come to the conclusion that the region is extremely unforgiving. Not cursed by ancient magic, not hunted by the souls of those who have never returned, and most certainly not plagued by eldritch horrors.
  1366.     Nevertheless, almost every pony I know has been urging me to let the matter be. They talk about how the voyage is reckless, and that the only thing that will come from it is that I’ll be lost too. But I need to do this, not only for myself- but for Cadence, My Brother, and most importantly, for Flurry.  She needs her father. Bringing him back is the greatest thing I could ever do for her. The only thing left to do now is to say my goodbyes. I’m going to make sure to keep things simple with Flurry. Just an ‘I’m going to get your daddy, I’ll be back as soon as I can.’ She deserves to know the truth, but not now. Sometime when she’s older, I should talk to her about it. But for now, she should enjoy her childhood. As much as she can with Shining still missing, that is.
  1368. >The next few paragraphs are from a following days.
  1369. >Her friends threw her a going away party.
  1370. >Then she met with the other Princesses.
  1371. >The following part catches your eye.
  1374. >It’s about Uncle.
  1376.     Anon was the hardest to say goodbye to. He opposed the idea from the beginning; he would always talk about how Flurry needed her family with her. And I would always respond that she needs ALL of her family. He just doesn’t want Flurry to grow up without her aunt after already losing her father, but I know that Shining is still out there. So, I told him that. I told him that there I just knew that he was still alive. We argued back and forth for at least an hour. He even ended up offering to go in my stead as soon as the current fighting was over. But the preparations were already made, and I wouldn’t be stopped. He can be so stubborn sometimes, but that’s just the soldier in him. I trust that he’ll watch out for Flurry while I’m gone. The last thing I said was that ‘I’m her aunt, and I will bring back her father!’ Then I teleported away. I never even got to say goodbye.
  1378. >That was dated as two days before she left.
  1379. >Only one entry was included after that.
  1380. >It was from the morning just before she set out.
  1382.     Anon changed his mind.
  1384. >Then it ends.
  1385. >That was the last addition to the book before she left.
  1386. >What was that stuff about Uncle Anon?
  1387. >What happened in the two days between those entries?
  1388. >And the last line.
  1389. >’Anon changed his mind’
  1390. >What does it mean?
  1391. >If only you could ask her what she meant.
  1392. >Should you ask him about it?
  1395. *Grrrrr*
  1396. >You realize that you haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon.
  1397. >After you perform your morning routine, you head out of town hall.
  1398. >As you stroll to the diner, you notice Uncle Anon leaving the barracks.
  1399. >It doesn’t look like he’s changed since yesterday.
  1400. >Another all-nighter?
  1401. >You flutter over to join him.
  1402. >”Oh, hey kiddo.”
  1403. “Long night?”
  1404. >”You haven’t heard?”
  1405. “Heard what?”
  1406. >”Las-“
  1407. *Grrrrr*
  1408. >”Come on, I’ll tell you over breakfast.”
  1409. >The two of you enter the diner, settling into a booth.
  1410. >As you await your food, Anon starts to recap last night and this morning.
  1411. >…
  1412. >…
  1413. >…
  1414. “So” You say between mouthfuls of pancake. “We’re pretty much exactly where we were.”
  1415. >”Not quite.”
  1416. >Anon takes a sip of tea before continuing.
  1417. >”With Breaker gone, we’ve got a bit of calm before the puppet master tries anything new.”
  1418. “And it looks like the mayor is cleared.”
  1419. >”Yeah, I’m sure she’ll understand… or at least get over it eventually.”
  1420. >Both of you sit there eating for bit, only pausing for obligatory breakfast small talk.
  1421. >Until you ask a more pertinent question.
  1422. “Hey Uncle?”
  1423. >He raises his eyebrow.
  1424. “What do you remember about Auntie Twilley?”
  1425. >”It’s been a long while since you brought her up.”
  1426. “Oh, I was just thinking of her the other day.”
  1427. >You’re sure that you told him about the book.
  1428. >”Funny, I was as well.”
  1429. “What about?”
  1430. >”The first time I met you.”
  1431. “Oh, that old story.”
  1432. >”So what was your question?”
  1433. “You didn’t see her those few days she came back, did you?”
  1434. >”No, I was away on the front.”
  1435. “Do you think she’s still… you know?”
  1436. >”…I would hope so, but it’s been a long time.”
  1437. “I told you about the book right?”
  1438. >”What book?”
  1440. >Oh, you hadn’t told him.
  1441. “A couple of days ago I got a package… From Aunt Twilight.”
  1442. >His eyes shoot up to look at you.
  1443. “It was to be delivered to me after fifteen years.”
  1444. >You wish that you could read him better.
  1445. >Or at all.
  1446. >”And this book was in it?”
  1447. “Yes.”
  1448. >”That sounds like her alright.”
  1449. “And there was a letter. It said that the book was filled with what she thinks can help me.”
  1450. >”That’s rather broad.”
  1451. “So is the book, the reference pages alone are as long as a novel.”
  1452. >He gives a single laugh.
  1453. >”So what do you make of it?”
  1454. “Honestly not much. The parts about magic are way over my head, and I can’t discern any theme to it as a whole.”
  1455. >”I’m sure if she wanted you to have it after so long, she trusted that you’d eventually get a handle on it.”
  1456. “Actually, I wanted to ask you a question about it.”
  1457. >”Shoot.”
  1458. “The last bit before the references it a collection of journal entries from just before she left. In the second to last, she talks about having an argument with you, that you disapproved of her going. Then the final one just says ‘Anon changed his mind.’ The entries are two days apart. What happened in that time?”
  1459. >”I’d reckon that it means I changed my mind.”
  1460. “Okay Uncle sarcasm, why?”
  1461. >”Because it was clear that nothing I could say or do would change her mind. Firstly I did it because it would help to keep her mind less occupied on old arguments, and more on the task at hand. Secondly, because you shouldn’t make a habit of saying things to people close to you that you wouldn’t mind being the last thing you said to them.”
  1462. “I suppose so.”
  1463. >…
  1464. “Do you think she’ll ever come back? If she’s not… you know.”
  1466. >”I think that if she’s still out there, then nothing can stop her from making it home eventually.”
  1467. >You smile at the thought.
  1468. >As unlikely as it is, there’s nothing you’d want more than to have at least some of your family back together.
  1469. >And she would be able to properly explain the deal with the book.
  1470. >Alas, tis your life.
  1471. >It’s actually quite sad.
  1472. >You were a Princess; theoretically you should have had anything a little filly would need as she grew into an adult mare.
  1473. >But nothing can truly replace what you lost.
  1474. >You once again feel tears starting to swell in your eyes.
  1475. >”Hey kiddo, I know you miss Twi. I know you miss your dad. But they wouldn’t want to see you like this.”
  1476. >He reaches over and perks up your chin.
  1477. >”They would want to see their little Flurry grow into a strong mare. They would want you to be strong without them.”
  1478. >His other hand grabs a napkin that he dabs your tears with.
  1479. >”Not because it’s expected or because it’s what a Princess should do, but because they loved you. They wouldn’t want anything they ever did to have hurt you. Even if that was disappearing. You have grown into an amazing mare, and if they could see you, they would be so proud.”
  1480. >How does he manage to stay so strong?
  1481. >After everything that you did.
  1482. >If you hadn’t gotten it into your head to try and champion reform, he would still be the Field Marshal.
  1483. >Neither of you would be exiled to the far corner of Equestria.
  1484. >And one hundred and twenty-one innocent ponies would still be free.
  1485. >”It’s not your fault.”
  1486. “How?”
  1487. >”Because it was the right thing to do. Why? Because it still would be.”
  1488. “No. I meant how can you read me so easily?”
  1489. >”A secret I’ll never tell.”
  1490. >The two of you laughed, and enjoyed the rest of breakfast.
  1492. >As you finish, Anon pays the bill and leaves a tip.
  1493. >The two of you started walking back to town hall.
  1494. “I think I’m going to try and get better at magic.”
  1495. >”What’s brought this on? I thought you had given up.”
  1496. “Because you’re right.”
  1497. >”Regarding what?”
  1498. “Well, a lot of things, but specifically, when you said that Twilight thought that I could figure out her book.”
  1499. >”Well there aren’t any unicorns in town, at least after last night, and I would help if I could but... Anyway, you might want to check out the town’s library. It’s still pretty new, and not that well stocked. Or well-kept for that matter, but you might find something that can help you. You said that Twi’s book had a lot of references, so maybe you can find something there’s a copy of in town.”
  1500. “It’s worth a try at least.”
  1501. >With that, you headed back up to your room.
  1502. >Grabbing Twilight’s book, you started skimming the reference chapters, making a short list of all of the titles that sound like a beginners guide to magic.
  1503. >Folding up your list, you then head out to the town’s library.
  1504. >There isn’t a dedicated librarian, so the ponies come and go as they please.
  1505. >That being said, most of the ponies in Appleoosa aren’t too keen on reading.
  1506. >At least that’s what the layers of dust say.
  1507. >Thankfully, most of the books remained in their proper position.
  1508. >The selection is somewhat… limited.
  1509. >Popular works of fiction make up eighty percent of the libraries contents.
  1510. >On the bright side it makes it easier to search through the non-fiction sections.
  1511. >The ‘section’ for magic contains only a single book.
  1512. >But it’s on your list.
  1513. >An Introduction to Magic: A Beginners Guide to Discerning the Arcane Arts
  1514. >By: Princess Twilight Sparkle
  1515. >You flip through the first few pages.
  1516. >[Dedicated to my beautiful niece, Flurry Heart]
  1517. >Thanks Aunt Twiley.
  1519. >The train arrived the next day.
  1520. >One of the ponies arriving into town piqued your interest.
  1521. >He was an officer from Fort Expanse, the first train stop back into the core of Equestria.
  1522. >He met with Anon first, who then summoned you to join the talks.
  1523. >You met in Anon’s room.
  1524. >Away from prying ears.
  1525. >As you joined them, the stranger saluted.
  1526. >”Flurry, this is Lieutenant Crop. He was sent by General Lancer, an old friend of mine.”
  1527. >”Your highness.”
  1528. >”He was ordered to bring a letter to us, make sure that we read it, and then destroy it immediately after.”
  1529. >”Yes Sir, the General was very specific. This is for your eyes only.”
  1530. >With that the lieutenant retrieves a sealed letter from his coat pocket, and gives it to Anon.
  1531. >You watch him break the seal, and read the page.
  1532. >Then he hands it to you.
  1534. Sir,
  1535. The next train is in a month.
  1536. You and the Princess need to take it.
  1537. Meet with me at Expanse
  1538. -Lieutenant General R.M. Lancer
  1540. Yellow
  1542. >You fold the paper and give it back to the soldier.
  1543. >He pulls out a match, strikes it, and ignites the letter.
  1544. >As it burns to an end, he drops the remains into a metal trash bin.
  1545. >”Tell the General: Rose.”
  1546. >”Understood Sir. Ma’am.”
  1547. >The troop gives his salute, and takes his leave.
  1548. >You wait until his hoofsteps are out of earshot.
  1549. “What does ‘Rose’ mean?”
  1550. >”It was an old call sign we used. The call was ‘Yellow’: a reply of ‘Rose’ meant yes, and a reply of ‘Star’ meant no.”
  1551. “And why would the general want us to meet him?”
  1552. >”I don’t know. But I am positive that he wouldn’t be involved with the plot. I think he knows something that’s too delicate to risk including in a letter or to another pony.”
  1553. “Wasn’t he your second-in-command back in the day?”
  1554. >”The General was under my command since the First Coast War. He’s a good man, and I trust him.”
  1556. “What should we do?”
  1557. >”For now, we wait. After all, there isn’t much we can do.”
  1558. “So that’s it, you just want to go back to normal life until then?”
  1559. >”No. I want to let you enjoy the calm while it lasts.”
  1560. >What?
  1561. >There must be something he isn’t telling you.
  1562. >Does he expect a battle?
  1563. >Or even a war…
  1564. >No.
  1565. >It’s just his military jargon bleeding over into speech.
  1566. “I… Okay.”
  1567. >”It’ll be alright kiddo. I just mean that you should let things calm down till then. Relax a bit.”
  1568. >He’s right.
  1569. >You have had a busy few days.
  1570. >Some rest would do you good.
  1571. “I suppose you’re right.”
  1572. >”Besides, it gives you time to practice your magic.”
  1573. “How hard could it be?”
  1574. >”Nice job jinxing it MacBeth.”
  1575. “Who?”
  1576. >”Oh, nothing.”
  1577. “Alright, I’ll see you later.”
  1578. >You head over to your own room.
  1579. >You’re sure that Anon isn’t telling you something about the letter.
  1580. >And something about Aunt Twilight for that matter.
  1581. >But you know that pressing the issue won’t get you anything.
  1582. >If he really doesn’t want to talk about something then he won’t.
  1583. >Maybe it’s just old memories he doesn’t want to remember.
  1584. >After all, for the next month there isn’t much you can do.
  1585. >With that, you pull out Twilight’s Intro to Magic book and start reading.
  1586. >It’s much more succinct than the book she sent to you.
  1587. >The first chapters focus on basic explanations of magical terminology and theory.
  1588. >As you read through page after page, you start to feel hope.
  1589. >Maybe you’re not a complete lost cause.
  1591. >…
  1592. >You’re a lost cause.
  1593. >It’s been a week, and you still can’t do much more than a cheap parlor trick.
  1594. >And even your parlor tricks leave a lot to be desired…
  1595. >Why is this so hard?
  1596. >…
  1597. >Ten days and no progress.
  1598. >You give up.
  1599. >…
  1600. >The next day you tried again.
  1601. >Still nothing.
  1602. >At least the snow is gone.
  1603. >…
  1604. >Three weeks.
  1605. >Some progress.
  1606. >You’re glad that you kept at it.
  1607. >It’s a slow progress, but there’s no other way.
  1608. >…
  1609. >One day before the train.
  1610. >You managed to create a force field.
  1611. >It lasted all of two seconds, but you did it.
  1612. >…
  1613. >Today was the day.
  1614. >You awoke at first light.
  1615. >After getting ready, you started to pack.
  1616. >Everything you had could fit into a single suitcase, so it wasn’t that hard.
  1617. >You even kept the beginners magic book.
  1618. >You’ll return it eventually.
  1619. >Heading out onto Main Street, you met Anon.
  1620. >He wore a Jacket over his normal uniform.
  1621. >He once told you that he modeled his uniform off of Rommel’s.
  1622. >Anon was bringing the better half of his men with you, just in case.
  1623. >The remaining men are to stay in town and answer to the Mayor.
  1624. >Provided it doesn’t involve attacking unprovoked bison.
  1625. “Good morning.”
  1626. >”Morning Flurry. Are we ready?”
  1627. “As I’ll ever be.”
  1628. >It has been so long since you’ve seen any other part of Equestria.
  1629. >You wonder how it’s changed.
  1630. >You’ll soon find out.
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