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Heart of War- Act XVIII

ThingPaste Oct 8th, 2017 (edited) 491 Never
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  1. >…
  2. “You know something Harv?”
  3. >”No, I don’t”
  4. >He replies dryly.
  5. “Well alright then…”
  6. >You stop.
  7. >”What?”
  8. “What?”
  9. >”What do I know?”
  10. “I don’t know. You said you don’t.”
  11. >”Don’t I?”
  12. “How should I know?”
  13. >”You said I don’t.”
  14. “Cause you said you don’t.”
  15. >”Did I?”
  16. >Alright, that’s enough.
  17. “As much as I’d like to keep up this Pinter-esque scene, I think it’s getting old.”
  18. >”What’s getting old?”
  19. “Very funny.”
  20. >”So what did you want to say?”
  21. “Well I was going to bring it around to something like: we’re in the East, right?”
  22. >”Very astute.”
  23. “And your inter-dimensional baddie is over here too?”
  24. >”Yes.”
  25. “Same as those parasites that it used to piggyback its way into my mind…”
  26. >”Ah, you want to know if you have to worry about any more treks into your subconscious.”
  27. “Something like that.”
  28. >”Well it depends on how desperate the author is to pad out this section of the story…”
  29. “What?”
  30. >”Most likely, yes. I should be able to give you a heads up if one of the bugs lodges itself in your head.”
  31. “Should?”
  32. >”Yes, should. Come now Anon, I though you knew basic definitions of words.”
  34. >…
  35. >When the carriage lurches to its final stop, you look over to Rarity as you sit comfortably on the padded velvet seats.
  36. >She pulls back the curtain over the window to confirm.
  37. >”We’re here.”
  38. “Well when aren’t we ever ‘here’ Rarity?”
  39. >”Yes, yes, very clever. So there’s quite the crowd outside. After you?”
  40. “Well come now Rarity, if I head out first, then nopony will be looking at you.”
  41. >”That’s a fair point.”
  42. “So, after you.”
  43. >As Rarity opens the carriage’s right side door, you see camera flashes go off as she makes her entrance.
  44. >You can hear dozens of voices speaking, gossiping most likely, as Rarity steps out of the carriage and makes  her way forward.
  45. >And now it strikes you that you don’t know what the estate actually looks like.
  46. >You’re going into this pretty much completely blind…
  47. >Could be worse.
  48. >Alright.
  49. >Your dress is fine.
  50. >Shoes are snugly attached to your hooves.
  51. >And your hair is straight, for the first time you can remember.
  52. >So pretty much the entirety of high society will be here, including the Maretonians.
  53. >No pressure…
  54. >With any luck, a pit to Tartarus will pop up in the backyard.
  55. >That would be about as pleasant.
  57. >…
  58. >You let Rarity have a few moments before you make your own entrance.
  59. >As you swing your head over to look at the closed door, your flowing mane annoys you.
  60. >You’re used to it being rather tightly curled.
  61. >The length and movement is rather off-putting.
  62. >But you’ll just have to deal with it.
  63. >Okay…   
  64. >Time to make your appearance.
  65. >Using your magic, you push the carriage’s door open.
  66. >Immediately you see camera flashes go off, as the paparazzi have their moment.
  67. >Fluttering your wings, you then take a single movement to get from your seat to the exterior of the carriage.
  68. >You keep your head slightly high as you inspect your surroundings.
  69. >Currently, you’re on the road.
  70. >Directly in front of you is an ornate wrought iron gate.
  71. >It’s open, and to each side there are several ponies with cameras- those who don’t have the status to enter the estate proper.
  72. >Through the open gate, you see a large fountain with three layers directly in front of the gate.
  73. >The path splits to either side, then meeting up to the main entrance to the mansion.
  74. >But to each side, the paths split off, leading to hedges, courtyards, and gardens that are all split off from the city by the fence around the estate.
  75. >If you remember the city layout, then the far left corner of the estate should overlook the cliff that Canterlot’s built on.
  76. >On each interior side of the gate, you see a private guard posted.
  77. >They’re the ponies who keep the majority of the press out, presumably.
  79. >Between them, a bright blue and white unicorn stallion levitates a clipboard in the air to his right.
  80. >When he glances up from the papers, he immediately bows his head.
  81. >He then outreaches an arm and moves it towards the mansion.
  82. >”Right this way, your Majesty.”
  83. “Thank you.”
  84. >You start walking into the estate.
  85. >As you move, you can see several groups of nobles and aristocrats among the hedges looking at the incoming ponies.
  86. >While they take the time to judge and critique your appearance and choice of attire, you keep your eyes firmly forward.
  87. >Instead you approach the fountain.
  88. >Taking a moment to inspect it, you observe the design.
  89. >The entire thing is shaped like a rose bush.
  90. >At the top, there’s a single large flower that lets water flow between its petals.
  91. >The next highest level has the water dripping down from the thorns that line the rim of the pool.
  92. >Finally, among the leaves, the water is pumped back up to the top.
  93. >The fountain is actually pretty tall.
  94. >Shifting focus to the mansion itself, you see that (from this side) the building is shaped like an H.
  95. >To each side of the fountain, you could continue on a path that goes around the main building.
  96. >But if you were to go forward, the main doors are recessed and up a few stairs.
  97. >To each side of the main door, the mansion juts out towards the road.
  98. >While the main building seems to be three stories tall, the outermost rooms on those extensions seem to go up four stories.
  99. >And while the building seems to be rather boxy from this angle, the detail among the many windows offsets the basic construction.
  100. >Each windowsill, balcony, and ledge looks like months of work were put into them.
  102. >Passing the fountain, you see the stairs to the main door.
  103. >Double doors that are at least fifteen feet tall.
  104. >And even larger windows are on either side of the entrance.
  105. >Stained glass windows that mainly feature winding glass roses.
  106. >They match the lush rosebushes below the windows.
  107. >You walk by a small group of ponies who are talking at the foot of the stairs.
  108. >Though you do notice heads turn.
  109. >Reaching the steps, you see that they’re carved from marble.
  110. >Many of the windowsills are made of it too, and at corners a tall column rises up to the roof.
  111. >Of course the columns are just for show, they’re not actually supporting anything.
  112. >At least it looks pretty.
  113. >Ascending up the stairs, you see stallion in a suit in front of the door.
  114. >His mane has fully greyed from age, and his coat looks like it used to be a bright gold but has faded.
  115. >He bows as you approach.
  116. >”Welcome your majesty.”
  117. >The pony then reaches over and opens the main door for you.
  118. >Great, a butler.
  119. >Now you have a chief suspect if anyone mysteriously dies tonight.
  120. >Alright, time to-
  121. >Whoa that’s a big entrance room.
  123. >…
  124. >You place your hoof against one of the evergreens.
  125. >The trees have been pretty dense, but most of their branches only start a few yards off the ground.
  126. >How old are they?
  127. >These conifers tucked up in the mountains.
  128. >You might actually be the only pony to ever have seen them.
  129. >Unlikely, but possible.
  130. >A gust of wind moves through the woods.
  131. >Blowing the ever present scent of pine into your nostrils.
  132. >You stop a minute and take in the scent and the songs of chirping birds.
  133. >Ponies like to- well it’s not just ponies.
  134. >People like to say that the world is chaotic.
  135. >Millions of things all going in random and conflicting directions.
  136. >No method, no organization.
  137. >No order.
  138. >But that’s the thing…
  139. >The world is perfectly ordered.
  140. >Each and every living thing all interconnected to each other.
  141. >It might not always be fair or nice, but everything is and always has been structured by the natural order of the world.
  142. >It’s people who are the chaotic ones.
  143. >As they focus on all the meaningless and artificial complications.
  144. >Jobs, taxes, down payments…
  145. >People focus so much on living, that they never come to properly value life.
  146. >Because there is no big secret, no giant complexity.
  147. >Just… live.
  149. >…
  150. >You swat away a mosquito that’s about the size of your fist.
  151. >Bastard keeps buzzing you.
  152. >Then, you…
  153. >You reach back and hit the brakes, so to speak.
  154. >The boat led you to a dead end.
  155. >You’re surrounded by banks, other than the way you came.
  156. “Harv, are we there yet?”
  157. >”Not by a long shot.”
  158. >He says as he appears next to you.
  159. >As in, right next to you.
  160. >It’s a snug fit…
  161. >You push him over the edge and into the water.
  162. >He then pops over to the seat opposite yours.
  163. “So, what’s this?”
  164. >”I don’t know! Why do you always expect me to know?”
  165. “Well you’re the one who- Wait!”
  166. >”What?”
  167. “So, you’re facing me… and you see what I see… so what does it look like when you’re not looking the same way as I am?”
  168. >”Well I’m glad you have your priorities straight. Well I still see me sitting over here like so.”
  169. >He waves at you.
  170. >”This is only here to give you a focus point when talking to me.”
  171. “Right… So, autopilot has failed.”
  172. >”Then go back around. Should fix itself after a turn or two.”
  173. >You turn to grab the rudder.
  174. “Harv…”
  175. >”Yes.”
  176. “Didn’t there used to be more swamp that way?”
  177. >”That’s why I answered yes.”
  178. >You start twisting your head around.
  179. >The banks completely surround this little patch of water.
  180. “You didn’t super hear anything, did you?”
  181. >”Nothing out of the ordinary.”
  182. “Well… shit.”
  184. >…
  185. >You step into the foyer of the mansion.
  186. >Although foyers are supposed to be small entrance rooms.
  187. >This is more like a hall.
  188. >Directly ahead of you, maybe thirty feet off, is a large staircase that goes half a story up before splitting to either side.
  189. >Each side then goes up to a balcony that overlooks the entrance room, with many doors leading off to other rooms.
  190. >On either side of the staircase are double doors that lead further into the mansion.
  191. >And to your right and left, are smaller double doors that lead to the wings.
  192. >Looking to the staircase, you see that there’s two guards posted to dissuade anypony from going up.
  193. >Must be private.
  194. >Or for only the select ponies.
  195. >You take a moment to inspect the guards.
  196. >No weapons.
  197. >No armor.
  198. >Just plain black suits.
  199. >They don’t even have ties.
  200. >Probably chosen for their stature and build, not their actual strength or skill.
  201. >Well, the military does have somewhat of a monopoly on soldier types these days…
  202. >It’s to be expected that any muscle at these events is purely for show.
  203. >And given the usual crowd at these events, the show is all they care about.
  204. >To the walls on your left and right, by the smaller set of double doors, there are crowds of ponies.
  205. >All wearing fancy attire.
  206. >Some chose simplistic designs, like Rarity made for you.
  207. >But others are wearing highly intricate and ornate getups.
  208. >You even think you see a unicorn mare with a mane that looks like it took a week to style into position.
  209. >It must be three feet off of her head, in intricate spirals that reach up to the ceiling.
  210. >As you scan the crowds, you can’t pick out Rarity.
  211. >She must be further into the mansion.
  213. >…
  214. >This is…
  215. >Different.
  216. >The banks all look alike.
  217. >A mound of dirt that sharply drops down into the water below.
  218. >Tall grasses and reeds crowd the water just adjacent to the land.
  219. >And ancient tree roots pop out of the tiny cliffs and go down into the water.
  220. >Everything around you looks like it hasn’t changed for decades.
  221. >But you were in a bog, on the open water.
  222. >Now you’re just in a tiny lake.
  223. >You’re still in the swamp though.
  224. “Hey Harv?”
  225. >”Hmm?”
  226. “So, there’s nothing stopping me from just taking the boat over to the edge, and pulling it over into the other water, right?”
  227. >”Again, you ask like I know.”
  228. >Reaching back, you let the propeller slowly push you towards the edge of the water.
  229. >Nearing the land, you let off on the throttle and as the boat thuds as it gently hits the dirt, you tip the motor into the boat so the propeller is out of the water.
  230. >Standing up, taking care not to flip the boat, you look over to the next patch of water.
  231. >After ten or so feet of not-so-dry land, there’s…
  232. >Another tiny lake.
  233. >Pretty much identical to the one you’re in.
  234. >Off to each side, you can see another pond.
  235. >How far does this go on for?
  236. “Harvey… what the hell’s going on?”
  237. >”I. Don’t. Know.”
  238. “Wait…”
  239. >”What?”
  240. “This is… circular clearings separated by paths which would be a pain to get through. If I want to drag the boat with, that is.”
  241. >”What are you going on-“
  242. “Harvey, you feeling a third wheel in there?”
  243. >“What?”
  244. “Is there a bug rooting around in my brain? Back before Discord and I had our little scuffle with, what’s his face, I remember a dream that was a bit similar to this.”
  245. >Harvey pauses for a moment.
  246. >”No, just you and me in here.”
  247. >”Why hello there…”
  248. >An elderly female voice calls out from behind you.
  250. >Nothing ever just happens in view, does it?
  251. >Whenever even the slightest disturbance hits, it always has to be from behind.
  252. >Just once you’d like to see the ominous thing before it makes noise to get your attention.
  253. >Well, might as well turn around and see what all the fuss is about.
  254. >You shift your body, and-
  255. >That’s new.
  256. >There was like fifty feet of water behind you.
  257. >Now you’re barely off of the shore, and next to a wooden dock that’s covered in moss.
  258. >When you glance back at the bow of the boat, you’re still butting against the shore that way.
  259. >You’re literally in a twenty foot wide pond.
  260. >Okay…
  261. >At the end of the dock, standing on solid ground, an ancient looking unicorn is looking over to you.
  262. >Behind her dull grey, and thinning, mane that covers her left eye, you think that it’s milky white- blind.
  263. >The other eye is a deep purplish red.
  264. >And you have no idea what color her coat used to be, but now it’s fully greyed, but is slightly darker than her mane.
  265. >Beyond her, there’s a simple one or two room shack.
  266. >Made of rough wood, has a single window that’s letting out an orange-ish glow, and smoke is billowing out of a crude chimney.
  267. >The thatched roof does not look like it would keep out rain…
  268. >Yeah, you can definitely trust this hermit/witch.
  269. “Can I help you?”
  270. >Harvey materializes over next to her, and begins looking closer at her face.
  271. >She speaks:
  272. >”Oh, you CAN speak. That’s fascinating… In all my years, I’ve never seen any…one quite like you.”
  273. >Harvey pulls a comically large magnifying glass out from an inner pocket of his suit’s jacket, and begins looking at the mare’s blind eye.
  275. “Well…”
  276. >You scan around the tiny pool of water you’re in.
  277. “It seems I’ve gotten lost.”
  278. >”Oh the marsh can do that… that’s how I get most of my visitors.”
  279. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind pointing the way out, I’d be out of your hair before you can say ‘weltanschauung’.”
  280. >”Well that might be a problem now. When she decides to shift, it can be months before she turns back.”
  281. >You glance a bit at Harvey and cock your eyebrow, and he shakes his head.
  282. “Hmm… Well that wouldn’t be the strangest thing I’ve seen over here.”
  283. >”Well don’t worry…”
  284. >You start to phase out her voice, as you get a glimpse of her cutie mark.
  285. >Is that really a bubbling cauldron?
  286. >Oh that’s priceless.
  287. >”… I’ve plenty of room, and you’re free to stay until the marsh releases your boat.”
  288. “Actually… I think I’ll continue on foot.”
  289. >”Are you sure?”
  290. >Grabbing the grip of your rifle, you look around the boat as you decide what to ‘pack.’
  291. “Yeah.”
  292. >You glance over to the witch hermit.
  293. “I’m on a bit of a tight schedule.”
  294. >Her horn then lights up in a sickly green aura, and a light green mist rolls over you.
  295. >”Are you sure you don’t want to stay just a little while… for dinner at least.”
  296. >Harvey then breaks out laughing.
  297. >”She’s… she’s actually trying to curse you!”
  298. “Dinner… that sounds nice… I suppose I could stay for just a while…”
  300. >You work your way to the side of the boat and step out onto the dock.
  301. “So, how long you been out here?”
  302. >”As long as I can remember… and that’s a strange spear.”
  303. >She means the bayonet on the end of the M16.
  304. “It’s one of my people’s ancestral weapons.”
  305. >”Your people?”
  306. “Humans. A species of warriors- both hero and villain.”
  307. >”Then are you good or bad?”
  308. “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun.”
  309. >”And what does that mean?”
  310. “It means that I’m immune to magic, and don’t take too kindly to attempted mind control.
  311. >The look on her face goes from a smug sense of security, to complete confusion, to anger within a second or two.
  312. >Then you pull the trigger, because you’ve been lining up the rifle you have at your hip to her head.
  313. >It looks like she was going to cast another spell of some kind, because after the bullet popped through her good eye and into her skull, you see her horn give off a small aura as she falls over.
  314. “Harv… Did I just murder an old woman?”
  315. >”I’d say it was well founded.”
  316. >He nods over to the witch’s shack.
  317. >It’s fading into, well nothing.
  318. >Looks like it’s being replaced by open water.
  319. >The entire patch of land you’re on is fading out.
  320. >Her body just disappears and then the dock begins to vanish.
  321. >So with that, you hop back into the boat.
  322. >And continue to watch as the environment fades away, leaving you in open swamp.
  323. >No more riverbanks facing forward.
  324. >”Huh.”
  325. “What?”
  326. >”At a guess, she managed to temporarily teleport her… abode over here.”
  327. “So, she was going to try and eat me, right?”
  328. >”Oh absolutely.”
  329. “Well then… onward.”
  331. >…
  332. >So much of this land between the Crystal Empire and Equestria proper is untouched.
  333. >No ponies, or any other people, to ruin these mountain environments.
  334. >But you can only wonder how long that’ll last.
  335. >Eventually ponies will need to spread out.
  336. >Maybe they’ll go west first, but some day there’ll just be too many.
  337. >At least until that eventuality, this serenity is untouched.
  338. >Other than a passerby moving along.
  339. >You’ve entered a patch of forest that looks to be much newer than the ancient evergreens you passed earlier.
  340. >All of the conifers here are small.
  341. >Some of them aren’t even as tall as you.
  342. >And there’s plenty of foliage on the ground.
  343. >Grass, bushes, flowers.
  344. >It’s an entirely different landscape.
  345. >And while pine is still the predominant scent in the air, there’s a welcome aroma of pollen and nectar coming from the flowers.
  346. >It’s nice.
  347. >That’s the only way you can really describe it.
  348. >At a guess, a forest fire must have sparked here about a decade ago.
  349. >All of the old growth burned down, leaving this new patch to sprout up.
  350. >The oldest pines must have been at least a century old…
  351. >Their time still came…
  352. >You don’t know why, but you swat away a small tear that was forming in your eye.
  353. >Then you keep going… somewhere.
  355. >…
  356. >This room is massive.
  357. >The main hall, you presume.
  358. >You could probably fit a couple thousand soldiers in here if you packed them tightly enough.
  359. >There are two, no- three bars on the sides of the room.
  360. >In the far corners, you see a large staircase leading up to the higher floors and down to the basement.
  361. >On the far side from the main entrance, there’s an area that’s currently housing a band.
  362. >Though it’s closer to a small orchestra than a simple band.
  363. >Strings, brass, woodwinds, even a grand piano.
  364. >Clearly no expense has been spared.
  365. >You can only imagine how empty this room must feel on a normal day.
  366. >The sound of hoofsteps echoing against the walls and support pillars alone must drive the owners insane.
  367. >But there’s plenty of noise in here right now…
  368. >You’d guess there’s at least a hundred ponies in here, not counting the staff.
  369. >All well dressed and in their various groups.
  370. >The bars and hors d’oeuvres tables are packed.
  371. >But the main floor is somewhat sparse.
  372. >Over against the far wall, a few musicians are playing.
  373. >Two violinists, a cellist, and a bassist have stepped forward to perform a string concerto.
  374. >Good acoustics in here.
  375. >Alright, this certainly seems to be the main area.
  376. >Let’s see how things develop.
  378. >…
  379. >So.
  380. >Much.
  381. >Smalltalk.
  382. >Sure it’s been a year or so since you were in the loop, but this is just absurd.
  383. >The simple ratio of words to worthwhile words is incredible.
  384. >You never knew that so much could be said with so little meaning behind it.
  385. >Maybe the war just spoiled you…
  386. >You never had to worry about who was wearing what.
  387. >Or what so and so thought of so and so.
  388. >And this makes daily meetings with High Command seem thrilling.
  389. >Honestly, you probably wouldn’t be bored out of your mind if there actually was a bit of intrigue going on.
  390. >But no…
  391. >Apparently Anon spooked all the scheming out of the aristocracy.
  392. >It seems the only one to have an agenda is that damned Maretonian.
  393. >Thankfully, you haven’t bumped into him.
  394. >Yet…
  395. >Well, have to get it out of the way sooner or later.
  396. >Really though… at this point…
  397. >A nice little war with Maretonia sounds rather exciting.
  398. >NO!
  399. >Bad Flurry.
  400. >It’s boring, but it’s not ‘start a civil war’ level boring.
  401. >Yet…
  402. >”Your Majesty.”
  403. >Son of a-
  404. >”You look… absolutely stunning.”
  405. >Duke Astéri steps into view.
  406. >He’s wearing a sparse version of traditional Maretonian garb.
  407. >No draping cape this time…
  408. “And I was having such a good evening…”
  409. >You say as you look over to Astéri.
  410. >”And now it is exceptional, no?”
  411. “Keep telling yourself that.”
  412. >”Of course, my dear.”
  413. >You could punch him…
  414. >He’s in the perfect place for a right hook straight to the jaw.
  415. >Might even knock him out on the spot.
  416. >Patience Flurry.
  417. >You have a plan.
  418. >But at this point…
  420. >Hey, you’re not saying that you’d prefer a pit to Tartarus to erupt right in front of you, but you wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to it.
  421. >But that would ruin Amethyst Shower’s nice big room.
  422. >And she seemed nice enough.
  423. >Not in any way stuck up like most of the nobility.
  424. >If you recall correctly from your talk a while ago, she was eighth or ninth in line for the families money, but everypony ahead of her died fighting in the various wars.
  425. >Amethyst was just going to be a local jeweler in Phillydelphia.
  426. >But instead she took over one of the biggest estates in the world.
  427. >These yearly events are really the only high society things she takes part in.
  428. >The rest of her time is spent in the same jewelry shop she started in.
  429. >A good mare.
  430. >”Your Majesty?”
  431. “Hmm?”
  432. >You say without thinking.
  433. >”Imagining our future.”
  434. “You wish.”
  435. >”Oh… I do love it when you play hard to get.”
  436. >You notice a fair crowd eavesdropping in.
  437. “Look, I-“
  438. >You get cut off as a loud crashing noise booms through the hall.
  439. >You think a door just got slammed open… or blown off its hinges.
  440. >A voice then calls out and echoes.
  442. >You glance over to the doorway that Blunt Force has… forced his way through.
  443. >”TOnight we’re going to CELEBRATE… MINOtaur style!”
  444. >It takes every muscle in your body to focus on not cracking up at his vocal intonation alone.
  445. >And the best part is, that as the plus one of the Princess, there’s no way he’ll get kicked out.
  446. >You look over to Astéri.
  447. “Excuse me while I welcome the Ambassador.”
  448. >”… Of course…”
  449. >He really doesn’t like that minotaur.
  450. >Which is exactly why you brought him.
  452. >…
  453. >”Go on! Tell us more of your conquests… Princess of War.”
  454. >Blunt yells.
  455. “Well, and as my host was then moving to relieve the pressure on the defenders of Baltimare, we had to use the roads dangerously close to Canterlot if we wanted to make best time.”
  456. >You lean against a bar as dozens of ponies wait for your word.
  457. “And the Royal Guard noticed as well. They moved in magical artillery to bombard our camps in the dead of night. So, in that darkness, I rallied out pegasi. And as the ground forces did eventually deal with the stragglers, we made sure that the guns were taken out before they could do heavy damage to the encampments.”
  458. >You pause to take a sip of water.
  459. “I led a portion of that aerial charge. And keep in mind, at that time my magical skills weren’t that well developed.  So as we hit the first artillery emplacement,  we easily overtook it. But, the Royal Guard didn’t give up that readily. I saw a bright arc of arcane firepower heading straight towards us. Would have hit two… maybe three dozen soldiers. But in the last possible moment, and I’m still not sure how I managed it, I summoned up a magical barrier to protect every member of the charge.”
  460. >You then pause as praises are spoken.
  461. >Above all other voices, Blunt Force then booms:
  462. >(And he’s sitting in the barstool right next to you, so it is rather loud)
  463. >”A true tale of prowess! May it not be near the last of the type!”
  464. >He says before taking a swig from a bottle of something golden brown.
  465. >As you have a moment to inspect the crowd, you’re happy to note that Astéri seems to be packed back behind a few rows of ponies.
  467. >…
  468. >Fancy bathroom.
  469. >As you close the door behind you, you see a large granite sink in front of a mirror that’s got a border of intricately woven gold spirals.
  470. >The sink has two knobs.
  471. >The one on the right is encrusted with sapphires, and the one on the left has rubies.
  472. >Now that’s just tacky.
  473. >Across the spacious room, you see a large window overlooking het garden.
  474. >A thin white curtain is draped over it.
  475. >And a larger pearl color one can be closed over that.
  476. >The walls are covered in wallpaper that bears a pattern of white and pink roses.
  477. >Thin vines swirl around to lead to the flowers.
  478. >At least the toilet is rather normal.
  479. >No…
  480. >You think the flushing lever is made of silver.
  481. >No solid gold seat though…
  482. >Heh.
  483. >Back to why you’re here though.
  484. >You reach over and close the thicker curtain.
  485. >Starlight should be dealing with the sunset right about now.
  486. >Nothing to do but wait…
  487. >Alright, once the moon is up, you might head out into the gardens.
  488. >You heard that there’s a larger courtyard out back where a fair amount of the guests have gotten to.
  489. >Things have been stagnating in the main hall.
  490. >If this plan is going to work, you’re going to need some ponies around, but not a huge tightly packed crowd.
  491. >There’s a couple of ways this could go.
  492. >It all depends on how you, Blunt Force, Astéri, and his brother act tonight.
  493. >That is if you can find the Duke’s brother among all these ponies.
  495. >…
  496. >The scent of nearby lavender plants fill the air.
  497. >There is quite the ‘scene’ over in the courtyard, but honestly you needed a few minutes on your own.
  498. >So you’re off in the gardens, sitting by a water fountain.
  499. >It’s made so that two stone sparrows each shoot a stream of water across the basin that lands just to the side of the opposite bird.
  500. >A cool breeze blows through your mane, sending the straightened strands flowing with it.
  501. >It’s a bit chilly.
  502. >Autumn should properly start any week now.
  503. >Then winter brings a whole different field…
  504. >Dealing with your little apocalypse would be difficult enough in summer.
  505. >The winter logistics alone…
  506. >Sure, you could just have Cloudsdale override it, but that would just throw the ecosystems out of whack.
  507. >And hey…
  508. >The animals that crawl up from Tartarus seem vaguely reptilian.
  509. >What are the odds that they’re cold blooded and will just die in the cold?
  510. >Quite low actually, because since when has anything worked out to be easier…
  511. >You hear hooves scramble as a tiny pony stumbles.
  512. >Glancing over to the child that’s been watching you for the past minute or so, you see that she’s now in the center of the pathway that leads to the fountain.
  513. “You know, I’m sure it can’t be comfortable leaning around the hedges like that.”
  515. >The filly looks both ways wildly before bolting back behind the corner.
  516. "I promise that I don't bite."
  517. >You pause a moment.
  518. >Because you didn't hear a tiny set of hooves running off.
  519. "Oh, she's gone… I guess I'll just look over in that direction."
  520. >You don't move your head.
  521. "Wow! Would you look at that! It's beautiful!"
  522. >You see a small head peek round the corner.
  523. "Got ya."
  524. >And it shoots back out of view.
  525. >You giggle a bit.
  526. "Why are you hiding back there?"
  527. >"My mother says I shouldn't talk to strangers."
  528. "Well do you know who I am?"
  529. >"I think."
  530. "And who do you think I am?"
  531. >"The Princess."
  532. "Very observant. But if you know who I am, then am I really a stranger?"
  533. >"I guess not."
  535. “Come on out then.”
  536. >The tiny earth pony steps properly into view.
  537. >She’s got a honeydew coat, with a curly strawberry mane.
  538. >Her curls almost remind you of your natural hair shape, but a bit shorter.
  539. >She’s wearing a pretty simple emerald green dress.
  540. “So who might you be?”
  541. >”Meadow Berry your height-ness.”
  542. >You giggle at the mispronunciation.
  543. “Highness, not height. But you can just call me Flurry.”
  544. >”Okay.’’
  545. >You pat the marble bench you’re sitting on and beckon the filly to come join you.
  546. >As she walks over, you speak.
  547. “That’s a very pretty dress Meadow. How made it?”
  548. >”I don’t know. My mom gave it to me.”
  549. “And where is your mother?”
  550. >”Over talking with other big ponies.”
  551. “Is that what brought you out here?”
  552. >”Yeah… there are some other kids here, but they’re all stuffy and boring.”
  553. >Sounds familiar.
  554. “How are they stuffy and boring?”
  555. >”Well they always just talk about fashion and trends… and if they aren’t talking about that, it’s just about their parent’s boats! I mean, would it kill them to just play hide and seek for once?”
  556. “Yes, it would. But don’t tell anypony! It’s  state secret.”
  557. >You join Meadow as she laughs at the joke.
  559. >But she’s quick to ask a question of her own.
  560. >”So, why are you out here alone?”
  561. “Well there are some other adults here, but they’re all stuffy and boring too… and there’s one in particular that’s just plain annoying.”
  562. >”Can’t you just tell them to stop being annoying.”
  563. “Well… you know how some of the other kids won’t shut up about clothes or yachts? It’s kind of like that.”
  564. >”But you’re the Princess.”
  565. “Exactly.”
  566. >”What?”
  567. “See, I have to take extra care with how I deal with others, because so many ponies are watching.”
  568. >”But… you’re the Princess. Why do you have to worry about other ponies?”
  569. >You pause to think of an analogy.
  570. “Well… being Princess is like being at school. Sure, I could just bully the other kids into doing what I want, but that doesn’t work if you want reliable friends who will help you with anything.”
  571. >”Oh.”
  572. “Let’s just say it’s very complicated.”
  573. >”Okay.”
  574. “So how are you enjoying the night, other than being bored that is.”
  575. >”Well, I get to stay up late… and there are lots of sweets at the tables.”
  576. >You laugh a bit.
  577. “At least there’s that.”
  578. >You then hear a mare call out:
  579. >”Meadow? Meadow!”
  580. >The filly looks at you:
  581. >”That’s my mom. I need to go!”
  582. “Take care kiddo.”
  583. >”Bye Princess Flurry!”
  584. >As she scampers off, you realize what you just said.
  585. >Kiddo.
  586. >That’s…
  587. >Yeah.
  588. >Is this what getting old feels like?
  589. >You sit for a second listening to the fountain.
  590. >Well, time to go raise some mayhem.
  592. >…
  593. “Hello, hello ponies!”
  594. >You loudly say as you enter back into the courtyard.
  595. >Looks like the same quartet that was inside is put here now.
  596. >Glancing over at the string quartet that’s pausing between songs, you speak to them:
  597. “Are any of you boys veterans?”
  598. >One of the two violinists raises a hoof.
  599. >”I am, your highness.”
  600. “When did you serve?”
  601. >”Second Coast War. I was drafted by royal order.”
  602. “I’m sorry that you didn’t choose it, but thank you for the service.”
  603. >”You have nothing to apologize for. Conscription wasn’t your decision.”
  604. “Thank you.”
  605. >You look around to see the ponies out here all looking at you.
  606. “How many veterans do we have out here tonight?”
  607. >Ten or twelve hooves are raised, and you here a couple verbal acknowledgements.
  608. >Looking back over to the violinist, you speak once more:
  609. “I know it’s rather popular among the ranks, so you should know the tune. If not, I’m sure you’ll be able to follow.”
  610. >You then look to the crowd.
  611. “And that goes for any of you as well.”
  612. >You then take a moment to prepare your voice before you start singing.
  613. “Our flag is proudly flying on the land and on the main,
  614. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!
  615. >It’s then that the violin kicks in, and the other string instruments are quick to follow.
  616. “Beneath it oft we’ve conquered, and we’ll conquer oft again!
  617. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!”
  618. >As you begin the chorus, many of the veterans and other ponies who know the tune chip in.
  620. “Equest’ra forever! She’s never had a loss!
  621. Down with the falcon, and up with the sun!”
  622. >The falcon being the sigil of the Saddle Arabian nationalists in the Second Coast War, and the sun being Equestria’s flag.
  623. >A flag no defunct due to Celestia being imprisoned and all.
  624. >In all this time the military hasn’t set the new flag…
  625. >But you keep singing with the people despite that fact.
  626. “We will rally ‘round the flag, we will rally once again,
  627. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!”
  628. >As the next verse starts, the crowd lets you sing solo.
  629. “Our gallant boys have marched to the rolling of the drums.
  630. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!
  631. And the leaders in charge cry out, “Come boys come!”
  632. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!”
  633. >Then for the chorus:
  634. “Equest’ra forever! She’s never had a loss!”
  635. >You then have to pause to cough.
  636. >The entire song paused with you.
  637. >But in the silence, one voice from the crowd picked up the next line…
  638. >“Down with the su-un, and up with the heart!”
  639. >And everything goes silent after that.
  640. >Anon taught you the original song, but he tailored it for the troops to fit the situation.
  641. >That situation being supporting Celestia…
  642. >Who you helped depose…
  643. >You could hear a pin drop.
  644. >Attempting to diffuse the situation, you roll with it.
  645. >”That works.”
  646. >Then you continue the chorus.
  647. “We will rally ‘round the flag, and we will rally once again,”
  648. >And they’re back with you:
  649. “Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!”
  650. >And they leave this verse to you again:
  651. “They have laid down their lives on the bloody battle field.
  652. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!
  653. Their motto is resistance- “To the tyrants never yield!”
  654. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!”
  655. >And they come in with you again.
  657. >Many of the obvious civilians have picked up the chorus at this point too.
  658. “Equest’ra forever! She’s never had a loss!
  659. Down with the su-un, and up with the heart!
  660. We will rally ‘round the flag, we will rally once again,
  661. Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!”
  662. >You then let the stings have a moment to finish off the song.
  663. >Then you take the time to address the crowd:
  664. “Well it seems a bit narcissistic, but I think the new lyric there worked well enough. I doubt that I personally will ever get used to it, but that’s my problem- now isn’t it?”
  665. >You hear a few laughs from the crowd.
  666. >As they died down, you hear a set of hooves clapping.
  667. >You look over to the source.
  668. > Astéri.
  669. >Of course it is…
  670. >Just when you thought you were getting a break.
  671. >And he’s talking…
  672. >”A beautiful alto! I should never have assumed the limits of your skills.”
  673. “Underestimation won’t get you far in life.”
  674. >”Evidently… now as there is a moment.”
  675. >He says very loudly.
  676. >Almost like he wants everypony out here to know about it.
  677. >You start glancing around for an out.”
  678. >”Your majesty, might I ask for your-“
  679. >There it is!
  680. “AH! Ambassador!”
  681. >You yell over to Blunt Force as he leaves the mansion and steps out into the courtyard.
  682. “Excuse me Duke, I’ve been meaning to ask our minotaur ambassador about his thoughts of the evening. Now that he’s had some time to settle in, of course.”
  683. >You’re already walking away before Astéri can respond.
  685. >You can only imagine the look on the duke’s face as you trot away.
  686. >Honestly, you’re not entirely sure if he’s more concerned with the political power, or just a personal ‘conquest’.
  687. >Both probably…
  688. >Ugh.
  689. >Out of earshot, you let out a sigh.
  690. >People like him make absolute authoritarianism sound nice.
  691. >Anyway.
  692. >You approach Blunt Force.
  693. “Ambassador, tell me you’re almost ready. Sure, I can do it but it’s probably more likely if you start it.”
  694. >He knows what you mean.
  695. >But he stares off over to the side.
  696. >”Yes… you want a… yeah. Of course!”
  697. >Oh come on!
  698. >You put your hoof up to your forehead.
  699. “How much have you had?”
  700. >”A keg.”
  701. “Well that’s just great.”
  702. >”Of whiskey.”
  703. “How are you alive?”
  704. >”Four stomachs Princess!”
  705. “OH COME ON! You had one job tonight!”
  706. >He stumbles to the side slightly.
  707. >”HEY!”
  708. >He then points forward, then moves his hand down to actually point at you.
  709. >”It’s not my fault that you people make it sweet and smooth. The way you age it, and make it based off corn… we don’t have much of that back home. IT’S HORRIBLE! By the time I realize it’s going down, I’ve already had too much. And you know-“
  710. >You stop him there.
  711. “Okay, look! Just relax and hold onto that thing for me. I’ll deal with the rest.”
  712. >”I’ll have you know that I am perfectly cohesive right now.”
  713. “Coherent.”
  714. >”Exactly!”
  715. “Look, I really need just a second to use the bathroom. Just… relax tonight, okay?”
  716. >”Of course.”
  717. >This was going to be hard enough without your only ally here being drunk.
  718. >Just stay calm.
  719. >Oh this is going to crash and burn.
  721. >…
  722. >You return outdoors after a quick trip to the restroom.
  723. >The night air is actually rather cool.
  724. >Autumn is going the properly arrive any day now.
  725. >You stop dead in your tracks as you hear the sound of glass and wood shattering.
  726. >Immediately afterwards you hear harsh words in a foreign language.
  727. >Looking to the far end of the courtyard, you see that Blunt Force has just broken a refreshment table.
  728. > Astéri is standing right next to him.
  729. >Galloping over, you brush past the crowd to get a frontline view of what’s going on.
  730. >Your minotaur ambassador is stumbling among the wreckage.
  731. >So many tiny sandwiches ruined.
  732. >He then points to Astéri as he speaks:
  733. >”Why, don’t… you say that again!”
  734. >And the Duke is quick to retort:
  735. >”What? That you are a filthy minotaur, or a filthy minotaur that cannot hold his liquor?”
  736. >”Listen here you little shit. During a peace deal I went hoof to toe with your Anonymous in a drinking contest. I might have forgotten to bathe these past couple days, but I CAN hold my drink. YOU GOT THAT!”
  737. >Wait… you haven’t heard that story.
  738. >Astéri chuckles, having not noticed that you’re right there watching the back and forth.
  739. >The Duke then comments:
  740. >”Ugh… forgive me. The scent of your breath is just horrid. What was that?”
  741. >You hear a few laughs from the far end of the crowd.
  742. >Glancing over, you see a few of Astéri’s guards.
  743. >Or at least you assume them to be his guards due to their equipment.
  744. >Blunt Force doesn’t seem to take being laughed at so well.
  745. >You see him reach under his cloak and retrieve a dagger.
  746. >Astéri’s eyes go wide for a moment, but the Ambassador throws the blade into the ground between himself and the Duke.
  747. >Then the minotaur bellows out:
  749. >”You are a craven and insult my stature! By ancient Maretonian right laws, I challenge you to an honor duel… thing.”
  750. >He then hiccups.
  751. >And the Maretonians in the audience laugh even louder.
  752. >Astéri pauses to comment:
  753. >”It seems the drunk is well read… however not well read enough. I do not believe a Maretonian nobility duel has been declared in three generations. And that was under the old legal system before joining with Equestria. A nice effort however.”
  754. >You then take the time to clarify:
  755. “Actually.”
  756. >All eyes shoot over to you.
  757. “An honor duel between nobility was one of the laws kept under the royal decree that made Maretonia a vassal to the Equestrian Crown.”
  758. >And the Maretonians go silent, until Astéri gets the courage to speak.
  759. >”Well, he is still not a Maretonian of stature, so the challenge has no legal right.”
  760. >And Blunt Force takes the moment to get a word in:
  761. >”What? Are you afraid little pony?”
  762. “Well, as our minotaur friend here is an official Ambassador to the Crown, and as Maretonia is a vassal of the Crown, I’d say he does have the stature to challenge. And I don’t believe your laws ever specified the species of the challenger as being an issue.”
  763. >”With… all due respect your highness.”
  764. >You stop him there.
  765. “Well Duke. I happen to have a copy of the legal code right with me.”
  766. >You reach into the front of your dress and pull out a folded piece of paper.
  767. >Giving it over to Astéri, you continue:
  768. “And you’ll note that the bottom left corner is signed with your father’s seal. He signed four copies of the portions of your legal codes that would be kept after becoming a vassal, two kept in Canterlot and two kept back in Maretonia.”
  769. >He looks at the signature for a while.
  770. >”Hmm… It seems I should have more closely inspected the obscurities of our joining.”
  772. “Well, Duke Astéri, it seems like you have a challenge. And if you read further, you’ll be reminded that should you fail to see the challenge in a dues- you’ll have to give up all land and titles, then go into exile.”
  773. >The Duke glances over to his guards for a moment, before glancing over at a voice that speaks from behind you.
  774. >”Is this true?”
  775. >The stallion speaks with a similar accent to Astéri.
  776. >The Duke responds after seeing a shrug from a guard:
  777. >”I suppose it is Efedrikós.”
  778. >The brother!
  779. >Where is he?
  780. >You turn and glance, but you can’t pick out any obvious Maretonian garb.
  781. >But you need to act quickly.
  782. >Turning back to Astéri, you speak:
  783. “So Duke. Will you see to this challenge? Because if you won’t, I’m sorry to say that I’d have to lay out the law that your government wanted to remain in place for Maretonians.”
  784. >And the voice speaks once again.
  785. >”Yes brother, will you?”
  786. > Astéri looks around before putting on a confident face.
  787. >”Of course I will. I can surely deal with a single intoxicated minotaur.”
  788. >And then Blunt Force comes back into the discussion:
  789. >”Well, about that. According to article B… no, D of your legal code. As a cripple…”
  790. >He holds up his mutilated hand.
  791. >”I withhold the right to name a champion. A right that able bodied persons can’t take.”
  792. >”So I have to fight a sober minotaur! I see no issue.”
  793. >They exchange smug smiles before Blunt Force speaks:
  794. >”I name Princess Flurry Heart as my champion. Will she accept?”
  795. “Of course, Ambassador.”
  796. >All that Astéri can do is stare with wide eyes.
  797. >And you smile with your own smug glare.
  799. >”I… well that is… one moment.”
  800. >Unable to find the proper words, Astéri quickly steps over to his entourage.
  801. >You tilt your head slightly to look at the minotaur.
  802. “Took you long enough.”
  803. >”What are you talking about? I’ve only been here ten minutes.”
  804. >It’s been at least three hours since he arrived.
  805. “Of course, Ambassador.”
  806. >You hear a Maretonian accent speak to you.
  807. >”Your Highness?”
  808. >Glancing over to the voice, you see a pony rather similar to Astéri.
  809. >Same white coat and curly brown mane, but he’s a bit shorter and younger.
  810. >And his jaw is more well defined.
  811. >And his voice is a bit lighter.
  812. “You must be the Duke’s brother. Efdrikos?”
  813. >” Efedrikós, your grace.”
  814. “Sorry. So what can I do for you?”
  815. >”To be completely honest… you do know that my brother has been attempting to court you?”
  816.  “Unfortunately. But yes.”
  817. >”And you do know that he has bested some of the mightiest Maretonian warriors.”
  818. “Has he now?”
  819. >”During two separate tourneys, and a melee. Our father made sure to give his heir the best training possible.”
  820. “Well Duke Efedrikós, you see-“
  821. >”Duke?”
  822. “Very astute. Now, could you do me a favor?”
  823. >”What would… that be?”
  824. “My memory is a bit shady, but it’s rather well known. Could you remind me about something?”
  825. >”And what would that be?”
  826. “Who raised me as a child?”
  827. >”Oh.”
  828. “Treat your people well, serve the realm as you’re sworn to, and please- don’t hit on me.”
  829. >”OH!”
  830. >You reach up and pat the pony on his shoulder.
  831. “Good man.”
  833. >You then turn towards Astéri, and speak for all the crowd to hear.
  834. “So, my Lord. By law, you’re required to put yourself forward to duel as soon as both parties are ready. And I think we’re both ready… unless you want to break your own leg to put it off, that is.”
  835. >Astéri turns away from his men to look at you.
  836. >”Why…”
  837. “Oh, I think you know.”
  838. >”But…”
  839. “So, exile? Or are we going to add a little spice to this night?”
  840. >”I just wanted… for our children.”
  841. “Alright! Make way!”
  842. >As you yell, the on looking ponies start to back away.
  843. >And Astéri sighs.
  844. >He then reaches to his shoulder to unclasp the long cape that reaches over his torso.
  845. >Once he throws it off, he glances and whistles at one of his guards.
  846. >At his word, a spear is tossed towards him, and he grasps it as it soars in the air.
  847. >In a hushed voice, you hear him speak to you and you alone.
  848. >”Hopefully Celestia is more welcomed to my assistance… or Luna perhaps.”
  849. >He the speaks louder for the others to hear.
  850. >”Do you not have a weapon?”
  851. “Ambassador!”
  852. >In the corner of your eye, you see Blunt Force toss the side of his bear pelt cloak to the side, revealing your sword resign in its sheathe.
  853. >Your outfit had no good place for a blade.
  854. >Focusing on the pommel, you use telekinesis to pull the blade out and towards you.
  855. >You bring it to your front right hoof.
  856. “Magic would be cheating, now wouldn’t it?”
  858. >Holding onto your sword, you take a moment to phase out all the surrounding noise.
  859. >The crowd is nearly bursting with whispers.
  860. >But a louder voice catches your focus.
  861. >”What’s going on out here!”
  862. >You see a trio of large stallions in suits approach.
  863. >Some of the bouncers hired for the evening.
  864. “Personal combat. What does it look like?”
  865. >”Oh…”
  866. >The lead guard looks puzzled.
  867. >He has his protocol an orders, but isn’t sure if they apply to you.
  868. “Go on then, scurry back to your posts.”
  869. >The lead stallion looks over to an ally, who immediately shakes his head ‘no’.
  870. >And then over to the other, who promptly replies:
  871. >“I didn’t sign up for this.”
  872. >With a sigh, the lead bouncer starts walking away.
  873. >”… past my pay grade.”
  874. >Good lads.
  875. >You look to the space you have now that the crowds have pushed back a bit.
  876. >Pretty circular, maybe a twenty foot radius.
  877. >And it’s clear too.
  878. >Just you and Astéri.
  879. >The ground is pretty level- the cobblestone is tightly packed.
  880. >There’s a bit of a gap!
  881. >A slice of dirt is visible between two of the stones.
  882. “So!”
  883. >You glance to the Duke.
  884. “Ready?”
  885. >The Maretonian looks at his spear for a moment before spinning the shaft in a flourish.
  886. >Yes, yes, showing off.
  887. >When he finishes, he brings the spear to face forward, cradled in his raised right arm.
  888. >The shaft runs parallel with his forearm, the blade pointing forwards, and the end of the shaft sticking back past his elbow.
  889. >”Ready.”
  890. “Alright then.”
  891. >You spin your sword around in your hoof, and stick the blade down into the small patch of dirt.
  892. >Taking a few steps over to the right, you then continue.
  893. “Go on, hit me.”
  894. >Astéri is taken back for a moment.
  895. >”What?”
  896. “It’s a fight. No wings, no magic. Hit me!”
  898. >...
  899. >You arrive home after a long day at the base.
  900. >Just meeting after meeting, and papers to sign.
  901. “Honey?”
  902. >You hear a voice ring out:
  903. >”In here!”
  904. >Before you leave your entranceway, you toss your officer’s cap onto the table next to your door.
  905. >Sounds like it came from the kitchen.
  906. >And something smells absolutely great.
  907. >Heading through your hallways, you soon peek your head over into the room.
  908. “What’s cooking?”
  909. >”Just a little treat for the two of us.”
  910. >Hold on.
  911. “Shhh.”
  912. >”Hmm?”
  913. “It’s quiet, where’s our squirt?”
  914. >”The sleepover was today.”
  915. “Right… that was today.”
  916. >”Oooh.”
  917. >Your wife heads over to sit on the nearest chair.
  918. “The twins still being a pain?”
  919. >”I can’t wait for the due date… that way you’ll have to put up with them too.”
  920. “Can’t be that much worse, honestly.”
  921. >”Oh really?”
  922. “I’ve got to deal with you, and you’re even worse with two in there.”
  923. >She give you a light punch to the shoulder.
  924. >”Jerk.”
  925. “Love you too, Winter.”
  926. >-
  927. >A ear-piercing crack wakes you up.
  928. >Huge crack of thunder, and pretty close to you.
  929. >Getting onto your hooves, you shiver a bit.
  930. >Pretty cool out here tonight.
  931. >You are in the mountains though…
  932. >But it’s probably going to be raining soon, you should look for better shelter.
  934. >…
  935. >Astéri takes a quick step to either side, testing the field.
  936. >He hesitates, so you begin to pace to your right, leaving your sword behind.
  937. >As you begin to circle around the impromptu arena, the Duke matches your steps, always remaining opposite you.
  938. >Eventually he reaches the area that you started at, so you stop.
  939. >You remain silent, watching his eyes.
  940. >And his are watching yours.
  941. >He drags his front left hoof across the cobbled ground, preparing the charge.
  942. >You hear him exhale deeply from his nostrils.
  943. >There is dead silence among the crowd.
  944. >As Equestrian high society watches the encounter, not one of them makes so much as a peep.
  945. >That’s a first.
  946. >You must have blinked or slightly grinned at the through, because he began his charge.
  947. >He’s quicker than you expected.
  948. >It’s barely more than a moment before he’s closed the distance, the spear aimed right to your center of mass.
  949. >With your right hooves, you push off and pivot on your front left.
  950. >Twisting on the leg, you see the tip of the spear push through the air where your chest was just at.
  951. >You let the Duke rush past you, taking a moment to reassess your stance.
  952. >He’s quick to slow down and turn.
  953. >If you had been armed, he’d be dead.
  954. >And he better realize that.
  955. >The tip of his spear then comes slashing towards you, parallel to the ground.
  956. >Ducking your head away from the blade, you avoid the strike.
  957. >As you glance up at the spear tip and haft that swings over your head, you could end this here.
  958. >But where’s the fun in that?
  960. >…
  961. >As Astéri charges once again, he lets out an angered screech.
  962. >This has been going on for a few minutes now, and he hasn’t even gotten close.
  963. >Alright, let’s change things up.
  964. >The tip is pointed right towards your left shoulder.
  965. >Astéri is distraught at the show the crowd’s been getting, and his lack of success.
  966. >But his spear is still steady.
  967. >And he’ll be expecting you to dodge.
  968. >As the spear tip reaches your torso, you lean to the right and grab the haft just beyond the blade with your left hoof.
  969. >Letting his momentum close the distance, you then use your right hoof to uppercut into his jaw.
  970. >Staggered by the strike, you take the time to trot away.
  971. >With a smug grin across your face you then turn to face him as he spits out blood onto the ground.
  972. >As he furrows his brow in anger, you follow up:
  973. “Don’t worry, by my count that was only the fourteenth time you left yourself open for a killing blow. No, sorry: Fifteenth.”
  974. >”Is this just some kind of game to you?”
  975. >Taking a moment to step over to your sword, you place a hoof on the grip.
  976. “Not anymore.”
  978. >Astéri whistles over to one of his guards as he tosses the spear to the side.
  979. >The Maretonian soldier then promptly steps from the crowd to offer him a sword.
  980. >The blade is rather plain, no gilding or ornamentation.
  981. >Three feet long, a slight curve to the final few inches.
  982. >Feeling the weight of your own sword in your right hoof, you begin to approach Astéri.
  983. >Once six or so feet away, you begin to circle each other.
  984. >He’s waiting to strike.
  985. >But you’re not letting him get that opportunity.
  986. >Charging, you take a single step straight towards the Duke.
  987. >Before tossing your sword into your left hoof.
  988. >As your right hits the ground to continue the charge, you shift your direction to the right.
  989. >Your right, his left.
  990. >Thrusting your sword into his upper chest, you release the grip and continue to run past him.
  991. >Don’t want to ruin your dress if he managed to connect a swing after the impact.
  992. >You hear the sound of steel clanging against stone, and turn to see that Astéri is still standing.
  993. >But his sword is on the ground.
  994. >All he does is turn slowly to face you.
  995. >You can see some shock on his face, but mainly fear.
  996. >His mouth opens as if to speak, but no words escape.
  997. >Then as his left hooves start to give out, he collapses onto the ground.
  998. >Well, that’s that.
  999. >Now you’ll need to speak with Astéri’s brother.
  1000. >And apologize to the owners of the estate…
  1002. >…
  1003. >Sitting in the boat, you let auto pilot take you further through the jungle.
  1004. >You’re putting more bullets into the empty magazines you’ve got.
  1005. >Had to waste a lot of lead on the gators you passed last night.
  1006. >You ran out and had to fix the bayonet onto the rifle.
  1007. >Harvey gave you a magic engine for the boat that could work for a century or two, but the bastard gave you a gun that needs to be reloaded.
  1008. >He’s currently sitting across from you, leaning back and napping.
  1009. >Or at least acting like he’s asleep.
  1010. >Having brimmed the last magazine, you tap it against the side of the boat’s hull to help the bullets settle.
  1011. >Then set it down and reach for Three-Leg’s flask.
  1012. >”Anon, it’s barely noon.”
  1013. “Thanks to you, I don’t need sleep. Only difference between day and night is how dark it is.”
  1014. >You open the flask up and hold it in the air towards Harv.
  1015. “Cheers.”
  1016. >As you take a sip of the moonshine, he starts talking:
  1017. >”You know, back when I was in the academy, we would follow every toast with a song.”
  1018. “You never went school.”
  1019. >”Come cheer up my lads-“
  1020. >You reach for your knife with your free hand and hold the tip against your temple.
  1021. “I will lobotomize you right here and now if you sing one more word.”
  1022. >”You sang with the Avalon crew all the time.”
  1023. “Yeah,”
  1024. >You take another sip.
  1025. “But for you, I haven’t had nearly enough of this.”
  1026. >”Alright, alright.”
  1027. “So how much longer on the bayou?”
  1028. >”Not long. We’ll be soon entering a desolate and rocky stretch of land, and then you’ll have a choice.”
  1029. >You wait for him to continue.
  1030. “Harv!”
  1032. >”Oh, yes. The boat will take us to a mountain range. There should be a large waterfall, and I doubt you’d like to see if it can fly. Now, you could attempt to scale the cliffs or attempt to go through the caves in the area.”
  1033. “What’s quicker?”
  1034. >”Assuming you don’t get lost, the caves.”
  1035. “And what’s more dangerous?”
  1036. >”Dangerous is a relative term over here.”
  1037. “Caves it is. My knees don’t need rock climbing. Two questions though.”
  1038. >”And those would be?”
  1039. “What’s in my next care package?”
  1040. >”That would be telling.”
  1041. “Figures… These caves natural, or mined out?”
  1042. >”Natural.”
  1043. “So no fire demon on a narrow bridge?”
  1044. >”Oh I’m sure you’ll still have fun.”
  1045. “Really though, when do I get super powers?”
  1046. >”That’s your fourth question of two.”
  1047. “I’m punching you the second you’re back into your body.”
  1048. >”Love you too honey.”
  1049. “Harvey…”
  1050. >You tap the tip of your knife back against your temple.
  1051. >”Okay, noted. That’s the line.”
  1052. “Hey Harv.”
  1053. >He cocks an eyebrow.
  1054. “Keep us on auto, but bring up the white room.”
  1055. >As he snaps his fingers, you find yourself in the usual blank void.
  1056. “Well this won’t do.”
  1057. >You force a small bar into the void, complete with two barstools and a stocked selection of liquor.
  1058. >You take a seat in one of the stools, and reach over for a bottle of whiskey.
  1059. >Pouring two glasses, you slide one over to Harvey.
  1060. >He takes the other stool.
  1061. “Cheers.”
  1062. >He clinks his glass against yours as it’s offered.
  1063. >Now let’s see if you can remember the instruments…
  1064. >There’s the strings.
  1065. “Kind Captain, I’ve important information. Sing Hey, the kind commander that you are. About an intimate relation. Sing hey there merry maiden and the tar.”
  1066. >Harv then steps in as the Captain.
  1067. >https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhRXPqyZsFA
  1069. >…
  1070. >”So what happened then?”
  1071. >Metal clangs against metal as you deflect the blow.
  1072. >But he’s quick to follow through, pressing forward with another pair of slashes.
  1073. >You manage to parry them with your own blade, but have to jump backwards as he lunges towards you.
  1074. “Well, first thing I went over to Efedrikós and congratulated on his inheritance. I then had a private word with him and Amethyst Shower, the host and the soon to be mother-in-law  of our new Maretonian Duke.”
  1075. >You swing, but he catches your blade.
  1076. >The swords grind against each other before he pushes you away.
  1077. >”How much did you tell them?”
  1078. “Well, I made it clear that Astéri had to go. Even knowing what’s happening with Tartarus, he came in here and basically tried to extort a political marriage out of it. Efedrikós explained that technically the duel was completely legal, and she eventually came around.”
  1079. >He feigns a lunge and comes in with a heavy slash down towards you.
  1080. >You catch it with your blade, but it’s thrown from your hoof.
  1081. >He follows through with a slash back towards your right.
  1082. >You jump back, then kick off to roll in the direction your sword was knocked.
  1083. >Grabbing the grip, you reaffirm your stance and prepare for the next blow.
  1084. >”Anything else fun?”
  1085. “Well, Rarity was a bit shocked at it, but I reminded her about how he was a two-faced suitor that cared more about prestige than love. After that she was just happy I didn’t scratch or get blood on my dress. Oh, and our minotaur ambassador tried to pick a fight with a security guard, but I was able to stop it before the poor guy got hurt.”
  1086. >Lancer eases from his fighting stance, placing the tip of the blunted training sword onto the ground, resting on it like a cane.
  1088. >He glances over to Brairheart and Wave
  1089. >”Thoughts?”
  1090. >Wave speaks first.
  1091. >”Her form is still too sloppy.”
  1092. “Thank you General.”
  1093. >Escapes in a condescending tone.
  1094. >Wave then looks over to Lancer:
  1095. >”His was worse.”
  1096. >You let out a decent chuckle at that.
  1097. >Brairheart then offers something:
  1098. >”We’ll have to watch and make sure that the brother doesn’t mind the death of his elder. Yes, we gave him a political favor; however, we don’t know if he’ll resent us for it.”
  1099. “The Maretonians are still in the city, let’s bring him in later tonight to talk business.”
  1100. >Lancer then speaks to Wave:
  1101. >”Hey Red, swap out?”
  1102. >”At least Offense stayed in practice after his promotions.”
  1103. >Wave walks over to you, and stretches out his right hoof.
  1104. >You grab the dull blade of the sword, and offer him the grip.
  1105. >As you leave the center of the sparring room, you head over to Brairheart on the sidelines.
  1106. >Wave is quick to put Lancer on the defensive, sending a trio of quick slashes.
  1107. >Blades then are locked as they wrestle to push the other away, but Wave gives a left hook with his free hoof to stagger Lancer.
  1108. >Wave then swings and stops the blade just in front of Lancer’s neck.
  1109. >Lancer then nods down, to show that his own Sword is pointed up, ready to go into Wave’s lower chest.
  1110. >”How’s that for sloppy form?”
  1111. >”You’re still dead.”
  1112. >”Just like you.”
  1113. >They then each take a few steps away to reset.
  1114. >Brairheart then speaks to you:
  1115. >”So where is our minotaur friend? I haven’t seen him all morning.”
  1116. “Still in bed I think. He pretty much bankrupted the hosts with how much he ate… and drank.”
  1117. >”Of course he did.”
  1119. >…
  1120. >After a few rounds with Harv, you decided to head back into the real world.
  1121. >Still in the swamp.
  1122. >But you can see something in the water up ahead.
  1123. >Reaching back to the throttle, you slow the boat down.
  1124. >Three white swans are sitting in the center of the river.
  1125. >They’re not moving.
  1126. >Reaching down, you grab at your rifle and check to make sure a round is chambered.
  1127. >Holding it with your finger on the trigger, you reach back with your left hand to pilot the boat manually.
  1128. >You try to give the birds a wide birth, heading around them to the right.
  1129. >As you approach, they remain utterly motionless in the water.
  1130. >Getting closer, you can see that their bodies reflect a bit of light, almost glowing on the water.
  1131. >You pass by the small cluster, maybe ten feet away from them.
  1132. >They don’t have eyes…
  1133. >Or wings.
  1134. >Then the closest one turns to face you, the water remaining completely undisturbed.
  1135. >Those aren’t feathers, either.
  1136. >It’s a wet skin, like a pure white salamander.
  1137. >On its back, you can see a small pair of holes… nostrils?
  1138. >Turning up the throttle, you decide just to go your own way.
  1139. >But you notice that the ‘swan’ follows you, increasing speed as the boat does.
  1140. >Alright, that’s enough.
  1141. >You swing the rifle around and go to aim at it.
  1142. >But it’s gone.
  1143. >You fire off a single shot into the water, hoping the noise will spook it away.
  1144. >As you scan the water for any sign of the creature, you glance at the water down river.
  1145. >Then reach down to slow the throttle.
  1146. >The ‘swan’ is in the water, fifty or so feet from the boat.
  1147. >However, the boat can only slow down so much, and you quickly reach the animal.
  1149. >As you do, the ‘swan’ rises from the water, tipping away from you.
  1150. >The shiny white skin gives way to a dark grey.
  1151. >The swan was merely a crest of sorts atop it’s head.
  1152. >The head being almost as wide as the boat.
  1153. >A hinged jaw, that’s currently closesd, beady black eyes that are widely separated.
  1154. >It rises further, a pair of stubby arms coming off of its body.
  1155. >It was at that moment you decided to start firing.
  1156. >You quickly bleed the gun dry, as the beast slams the front of its body down onto your boat.
  1157. >It doesn’t tip the boat over, but the head is barely two feet from you.
  1158. >The swan like crest sticking up into the air, like a top hat that only covers half of the head.
  1159. >The jaws open up, revealing rows of small needle like teeth.
  1160. >You shakily stand in the rocking boat, and jab the rifle’s bayonet down into the creature’s head.
  1161. >It barely fazes the giant salamander, but as it wriggles its head, it almost sends the rifle flying out of your hands.
  1162. >Pulling back the rifle, you toss it into the boat, and reach for the four bore you had made.
  1163. >Running low on ammo for both weapons, but that’s not a problem for today.
  1164. >The creature rears back up in the water, preparing to crash down once again.
  1165. >You cock one barrel, and take aim for the center of mass.
  1166. >As you fire, after the ear-shattering boom dies down, you hear the beast grunt, but it’s still there.
  1167. >So you cock the other barrel, and aim for the head.
  1168. >Feeling the mule of a shotgun batter your shoulder, you see the creature slink back into the water.
  1169. >Maybe dead, maybe not.
  1170. >You’re not staying around to find out.
  1172. “Hey, Harv?”
  1173. >He pops up in the seat across from you.
  1174. >”Well done.”
  1175. “What was that?”
  1176. >”I don’t know.”
  1177. “Thanks Harv… Thanks a lot.”
  1178. >He snaps his fingers.
  1179. >”A Swanamander!”
  1180. “What’d I say about you naming things?”
  1181. >”That you love my names, and once we get back, we’ll co-author an autobiographical tale recording the species encountered here.”
  1182. >He then pauses for a second.
  1183. >”Just think about it: Harvey and Anon’s Voyage into the Unknown!”
  1184. “More like Harvey and Anon’s Bogus Journey.”
  1185. >”Oh come now, Anon.”
  1186. “And it’s Anon and Harvey, not the other way around.”
  1187. >”Oh we can deal with the trademarking later.”
  1188. >You then decide to ignore the voice in your head, and get to taking stock.
  1189. >First thing is to wipe the blood off of the bayonet.
  1190. >Then you flip open the footlocker and start counting bullets.
  1191. >Got three full magazines of twenty.
  1192. >Popping the empty one from the rifle, you start to fill it.
  1193. >You can only find eighteen spare rounds.
  1194. >Damn, Harv gave you what, three or four hundred?
  1195. >How bout for the four bore?
  1196. >Twelve shots left…
  1197. “Hey Harv?”
  1198. >”Hmm?”
  1199. “How much farther?”
  1200. >”Yes.”
  1201. “Give me an estimate, jackass.”
  1202. >”Maybe a tenth of the way there in terms of distance.”
  1203. “Well I hope you left plenty of goodies along the way.”
  1204. >”Just wait until we hit the desert and savannah.”
  1206. >…
  1207. >You sit in the meeting room with Lancer and Wave.
  1208. >Eventually, you hear a knock at the door.
  1209. >That should be Brairheart and Efedrikós.
  1210. >As the door opens to reveal the two, the Admiral returns to his seat while the Maretonian remains standing.
  1211. >White coat and a curly brown mane, just like his brother.
  1212. >Shorter though.
  1213. >He has a wider jawline, but lacks a beard.
  1214. >It is the younger brother after all.
  1215. >And he’s not wearing any Maretonian garb or regalia.
  1216. >He bows his head before speaking:
  1217. >”Your Highness.”
  1218. “Duke Efedrikós, please take a seat.”
  1219. >He walks over to the nearest chair around the table, and sits.
  1220. “Now, I believe we can be frank here.”
  1221. >”If I may, your Highness?”
  1222. “Of course.”
  1223. >”I understand fully why my brother is dead. He was a brash and rude stallion. Honestly, he was a bully to many around him, including myself. But he was still my brother, and I cannot forgive you for it. However, I will work with you to protect both of our people.”
  1224. >You see Lancer and Brairheart share a glace.
  1225. “I respect your position, and also your sheer nerve.”
  1226. >”Then let us begin.”
  1227. “Astéri tried to woo me with fifty thousand battle hardened veterans, and another fifty thousand men in training. A number I find to be overestimated.”
  1228. >”He did like to boast. Maretonia currently has roughly ten thousand soldiers on call, with another forty thousand veterans or abled bodied stallions ready to volunteer if requested. Beyond that he intended to conscript the remaining fifty he promised you.”
  1229. “At this point I’d like to avoid conscription. Given the severity of the situation, I don’t think volunteers will be in short supply.”
  1230. >”A reasonable idea.”
  1232. “Now, I’m ready to completely exempt you from paying the taxes stated in the treaty between Maretonia and Equestria for three years starting now. After that every year they will be incrementally increased back to the original rates.”
  1233. >”A generous offer, what do you want in return?”
  1234. “First, the Maretonian army will remain a Maretonian army, but your military leadership will take orders directly from Equestiran high command in this conflict. In older wars, your leaders had the final say on troop movements and engagements. Not anymore.”
  1235. >”Acceptable, on the condition that a large enough force of Maretonians will be allowed to stay within our territory to protect it.”
  1236. “Very well.  One more thing. Maretonia has large food stockpiles stored up. I want half of it to be able to be transferred to the rest of Equestria if required. After Celestia’s conscription policies and having to feed so many troops after the past few years, we only have enough to last for two or three years unless this season’s harvest is particularly large.”
  1237. >”And if transfer is not required?”
  1238. “Then it’s still yours.”
  1239. >”Is there anything else?”
  1240. “Not from me. Generals? Admiral?”
  1241. >Brairheart speaks:
  1242. >”I’ll see to it that a logistical aide is sent with you. If your soldiers need anything in terms of equipment or armor, we’ll make sure they have it.”
  1243. >”Thank you.”
  1244. >Efedrikós scoots his chair out, and rises.
  1245. >”Then I will take my leave.”
  1246. >You’re not sure what to make of his face as he bows.
  1247. >Hate, respect, and fear in equal parts.
  1248. >As Brairheart heads to the door to see your guest out, you stop Efedrikós before he leaves.
  1249. “Duke?”
  1250. >He glances back at you.
  1251. “I do respect your forthrightness.”
  1252. >He gives a nod before following Brairheart out.
  1254. >Once the doors shut, you speak to the generals.
  1255. “Thoughts?”
  1256. >Wave starts:
  1257. >”His boldness was an act. He entered this room knowing that there’s nothing he has that we couldn’t take.”
  1258. >Lancer counters:
  1259. >”But he knew that we would waste more resources taking than what we would gain.”
  1260. >He then addresses you:
  1261. >”For what it’s worth, I believed him. Seemed like a decent lad… at least compared to his brother.”
  1262. “I’m just happy that this is over with… now we can focus on more important things.”
  1263. >Lancer then jests:
  1264. >”Personally I liked the diversion.”
  1265. “So, has there been any news from other nations?”
  1266. >”No sight of any Tartarus breeches in Saddle Arabia. The minotaurs and griffons have also said it’s clear for now.”
  1267. “Yaks?”
  1268. >”Never responded to our envoys.”
  1269. “Didn’t we also send word over to the bison?”
  1270. >”Yes, that chief near Appleoosa said he would send word further west.”
  1271. “If Thunderhooves said he’d keep in contact, we’ll know as soon as anything happens… but by hoof any word will come in pretty slowly. See to it that a few squads of pegasi scouts are sent his way. If something happens out west, we’ll need troops out there as soon as possible to help.”
  1273. >Wave then offers:
  1274. >”Anon had four forward forts built. The Royal Navy is still camped out on the coast in Shipbreaker, but I’ve had the other three properly manned. If anything happens out west, there will be a sizable force ready to respond.”
  1275. “How large?”
  1276. >”Currently there’s a full corps at each of the three. When we get back to full capacity, I intend a full army at each.”
  1277. >Sixty thousand to a corps.
  1278. >Three corps in an army.
  1279. >Two hundred thousand per army when you include support divisions.
  1280. “Last I remember we had less than three hundred thousand men in service.”
  1281. >Lancer then answers that question:
  1282. >”Between returning veterans and fresh blood in training we’ve doubled that. If current rates keep up, we’ll have our million man army back within a month.”
  1283. “Who will be leading the armies with Anon gone?”
  1284. >”Wave will return to commanding the 3rd, Offense will take the 4th. Anon used to personally oversee the 1st, and I used to lead the 2nd. If you’d prefer to solely oversee the armies, I’d step into the 1st.”
  1285. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll oversee the army. I am the ‘Princess of War’ after all.”
  1286. >”Maybe one of the only things Astéri said that I agree with.”
  1288. >Lancer then continues:
  1289. >”However, I’d prefer to command the 5th. Anon specifically made it as a national defense army. It’s divisions will be spread out through our territory for immediate local defense before reinforcements can arrive. If these pits arise in multiple areas, somepony will have to remain here to oversee everything, and I could lead it from Canterlot.”
  1290. “That’s fair enough.”
  1291. >”The 1st will remain in the immediate area around the capitol, and remain ready to reinforce any fields foreign or domestic. The 2nd will be based out of Fort Expanse out west, the 3rd at Fort Gateway in the south, and the 4th will be posted at Fort Snowbound in the north.”
  1292. “Who will be commanding the 2nd?”
  1293. >”I think it’s time to promote Colonel Arrow. He’s a good officer, and the clear choice among the colonels.”
  1294. “What do you think about that Wave?”
  1295. >”It’s either that or bring in one of Celstia’s old generals. And there is a reason why Anon let them all retire once given full control of the military… no, sorry. There are many reasons.”
  1296. “Do Brairheart and Offense agree?”
  1297. >Lancer then takes over again.
  1298. >”Brairheart does, Offense voiced that Major Thunder be promoted. But given that he’s inexperienced with leading larger units and still hasn’t returned…”
  1299. “Alright. Bring Arrow in.”
  1300. >”We’ll have him here within a week.”
  1302. >…
  1303. >As you float downriver, you’ve begun to remove the bandages over your left arm.
  1304. >You had to cut off a lot of the skin on the forearm.
  1305. >Looks like it’s healing decently.
  1306. >Still red and raw, but no open patches of flesh and muscle.
  1307. >Harvey has his work cut out for him.
  1308. >Reaching over for the roll of bandages, you begin to redress the arm.
  1309. >For as much as you complain to him, he’s actually been pulling his weight so far.
  1310. >But that doesn’t mean that half the time he isn’t a major pain in your ass.
  1311. >With the fresh bandages snuggly tied to your arm, you then roll your sleeve back down.
  1312. >Setting your bandages away, you take out a cigar.
  1313. >Might as well have one while you take stock.
  1314. >Let’s start with what’s left of Discord’s first goodie box.
  1315. >Deck of cards.
  1316. >Flare gun with two flares.
  1317. >The MREs.
  1318. >His endless water canteen.
  1319. >Almost forgot about that…
  1320. >You toss the olive boonie hat over your head.
  1321. >The cigars.
  1322. >The lighter.
  1323. >And a smoke grenade.
  1324. >And the gun and bayonet, but that’s all in the footlocker.
  1325. >Other than the cassette tapes, but you’re not going to lug the speaker with you.
  1326. >Now for your stuff.
  1327. >All the weapons you packed aren’t damaged.
  1328. >You got about halfway through your rations before Harv made it so you only need to eat every couple days trick.
  1329. >God, when he gets out of your head you’ll be starving and exhausted…
  1330. >You’ve also used most of your bandages redressing your arm.
  1331. >Next you’ve got various odds and ends for outdoors living.
  1332. >Rope, a piece of flint for starting fires, a blanket, a tarp, and a steel pot for boiling water.
  1333. >Pack light on gear, heavy on weapons.
  1334. >Your sword, dagger, kukri, hatchet, machete, and a knife in each boot.
  1335. >Then there are the guns.
  1336. >Your backpack should easily be able to hold what Discord left for you.
  1337. >When you finally get out of this swamp, that is.
  1338. >Any day now…
  1340. >…
  1341. >As it turned out, that day was tonight.
  1342. >Around midnight by your guess.
  1343. >Accompanied only by the sound of the engine, and the chorus of insects chirping in the night, the near pitch black swamp gave way to a star spangled sky.
  1344. >The tall jungle canopy cut off most light.
  1345. >But the massive trees immediately opened up, the stark dichotomy between your surroundings was apparent in an instant.
  1346. >In a way, the moon and starlight was almost blinding.
  1347. >The rather flat terrain of the swamp opened up, allowing you to see a vast horizon, even in the night.
  1348. >Around you, you see rolling yet jagged hills comprised of a light grey stone.
  1349. >Virtually devoid of vegetation.
  1350. >You think you can see some miniscule trees sprouting from crags, but that’s about it.
  1351. >Ahead of you, the river continues on, the water undisturbed with the immense field of stars gently reflecting off of it.
  1352. >Not a cloud in the night’s sky.
  1353. >You reach back to slow the boat, eventually coming to a complete stop.
  1354. >Turning the engine off, you pause to take in the sight.
  1355. >Cool breezes of fresh air blow against your face, a welcome feeling after your time in the swamp.
  1356. >The atmosphere out here is free from the stuffed grime you’ve grown accustomed to.
  1357. >You’re here.
  1358. >A world away from any other people.
  1359. >Alone.
  1360. >”Is something wrong?”
  1361. >Not quite alone.
  1362. “No… It’s beautiful.”
  1364. >…
  1365. >You hear a knock on your door.
  1366. “Come in.”
  1367. >You levitate your hairbrush down and look to see who’s there.
  1368. >Captain Crop.
  1369. >He’s in his dress uniform.
  1370. “What’s the occasion?”
  1371. >”Ma’am, Colonel Arrow has arrived in the city. The present officers are getting dressed and ready for the ceremony.”
  1372. “That was quick.”
  1373. >Word was only sent three days ago.
  1374. “Thank you Captain.”
  1375. >As he departs, you realize something.
  1376. >You don’t have a uniform for these occasions.
  1377. >The usual armor will have to do.
  1378. >After all, it’s the closest thing you have to regalia.
  1379. >And you realize something else…
  1380. >You don’t have a speech ready.
  1381. >…
  1382. >As you step out into the throne room, the rows of officers stand at attention.
  1383. >But Arrow isn’t here yet.
  1384. “At ease.”
  1385. >As the soldiers relax their stances, you walk down the path towards the throne.
  1386. >As you pass them, you can see their uniforms and rank insignias.
  1387. >Most of the ponies are in the dark green jackets and pants that signify they’re part of the Army.
  1388. >On their shoulders, you can see the metal pins bearing their rank.
  1390. >Junior lieutenants have a gold bar, senior lieutenants have the same bar but in silver.
  1391. >Captains have two silver bars.
  1392. >Majors have a golden horseshoe that points towards their necks, then lieutenant colonels trade in gold for silver.
  1393. >Colonels have a silver rampant stallion, the hooves facing forward.
  1394. >Pegasi and unicorn colonels have the stallion replaced by a pegasi or unicorn respectively.
  1395. >As you reach the throne, you see a small contingent of officers in dark navy blue uniforms that are otherwise identical to the army counterparts.
  1396. >They’re from Brairheart’s reorganized air fleet.
  1397. >If you recall, a gold stripe signifies an ensign.
  1398. >Lieutenants have the same stripe but with a gold star laying just above it when looking from shoulder to neck.
  1399. >Lieutenant commanders are the same, but with two stripes.
  1400. >Then commanders have three and the star.
  1401. >For captains, the three strips would merge into one thicker one.
  1402. >Brairheart is the only Admiral, so he’s taken the captain insignia but in silver.
  1403. >If the air fleet gets big enough to need multiple admirals then more stars would be added.
  1404. >Then everypony has a peaked officers cap.
  1405. >And any further metals are placed on the right breast of their jackets.
  1406. >Butpeaking of the Admiral, he’s standing just to the right of the throne, Lancer is on the right and Wave is next to him.
  1407. >Wave has two silver stars on each shoulder, Lancer has three.
  1408. >As you take your seat on the throne, Lancer offers you a small black case.
  1409. >You open it to see two silver stars resting on a piece of dark velvet.
  1410. >One for each shoulder.
  1412. >You lean over to Lancer.
  1413. “Are these the officers who were in the city?”
  1414. >”Brairheart has his senior crew, the rest are only those that were in the palace.”
  1415. >There’s four or five hundred officers present.
  1416. >”We wouldn’t have room for every lieutenant.”
  1417. “Well, now we wai-“
  1418. >You stop yourself as the main doors open.
  1419. >The hall then booms as the officers stand to attention in unison.
  1420. >Captain Crop and Colonel Arrow are standing in the doorway.
  1421. >Arrow is in dress uniform, but you think you can see his eyes go wide in shock.
  1422. >Lancer then whispers to you:
  1423. >”We didn’t tell him it was a promotion.”
  1424. >As the soldiers make their way down the room, Crop sinks into an open space in the ranks.
  1425. >The pegasi continues to the foot of the throne, his light brown wings sticking out of his uniform, and his steel colored mane tucked under his cap.
  1426. >When he comes to a stop, he bows.
  1427. “Colonel Steel Arrow. When we first met earlier this year, I knew you to be decorated officer, having previously served with distinction in the Second War of the Saddle Arabian Coast. And when the call to war returned, you were among the first to return to serve your people.”
  1428. >You pause a second.
  1429. “But more importantly, you continued to serve with distinction. After Field Marshal Anonymous was incapacitated, you aided me in commanding his forces. Your loyalty and skills aided our quick victory. Then once victory was achieved, you continued to lend your abilities to help stabilize and reconstruct our nation.”
  1430. >Again you take a moment of pause.
  1432. “But Equestiria now find itself in crisis, and talented leaders will be necessary to see us through the coming conflict. Which is why for your talent and extensive service to your people, it is the opinion of military command and myself that the rank of Brigadier General be bestowed upon you.”
  1433. >You then rise from the throne.
  1434. “Do you accept the rank, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that come with it?”
  1435. >”I do, your Majesty.”
  1436. >Levitating the small box, you descend down the steps.
  1437. >Standing eye to eye with Arrow, you open the box.
  1438. >Using magic, you unhook the pins of his silver rampant pegasi colonel insignias.
  1439. >You take them over to the box, and set them down, grabbing the stars.
  1440. >As you levitate them over, and pin them in, you then close the box and set it gently on the ground.
  1441. “Now, raise your right hoof and repeat after me.”
  1442. >Each of you raises your right hooves.
  1443. “I, Brigadier General your name.”
  1444. >”I, Brigadier General Steel Arrow.”
  1445. “Do solemnly vow to support and defend Equestira and her people from all enemies foreign and domestic.”
  1446. > Do solemnly vow to support and defend Equestira and her people from all enemies foreign and domestic.”
  1447. “And I swear that I take this oath freely without any reservation or purpose of evasion.”
  1448. >“And I swear that I take this oath freely without any reservation or purpose of evasion.”
  1449. “And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office for which I am about to enter.”
  1450. >“And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office for which I am about to enter.”
  1451. >You then lower your arm, and he follows.
  1452. “Congratulations.”
  1453. >You reach out to shake his hoof.
  1454. >”Thank you, I won’t let you down.”
  1456. >You then address the officers.
  1457. “Ladies and gentlecolts. May I present to you, the newest Brigadier General in the Equestrian Army.”
  1458. >Once the applause dies down, you speak again to Arrow.
  1459. “Is there anything I’d like to say.”
  1460. >”Yes, your highness.”
  1461. >He turns to face the down the hall, and begins.
  1462. >”I’m generally rather straight to the point, so I’ll keep this brief… When I heard that General Lancer, and the others were planning to overthrow Celestia I remembered my vow. The same vow that each one of us has taken. And honestly, I was torn. What was proposed was treason, turning against Equestria, but we all knew how bad things really were. And  I was conflicted for a long while, until I remembered the exact oath we take in the Army.”
  1463. >He then reiterates a line.
  1464. >”To support and defend Equestria and her people from all enemies foreign and domestic. And any of you who assisted in that war, I think we all came to the same conclusion. We’re all here to protect our people, from any threat they face. And right now, our people need us now more than ever.”
  1465. >He scans the crowd.
  1466. >”And as I look around this room, I see hundreds of faces that are all here for the same reason. Our profession, our job. It isn’t about the glory, it isn’t about the honor, it isn’t about the money. We wear this uniform to protect our families, to protect our friends, and to protect our people.”
  1467. >He then pauses.
  1469. >”And as I look around this room, through all the hundreds of faces… I can’t imagine a better group of ponies I’d rather be serving alongside. Not lording and commanding over, but serving with, as brothers and sisters in arms towards a common goal. There may be dark days ahead, but I trust and believe in each and every one of you to be able to do their duties to overcome whatever lies ahead. Just as I promise you all, that I will do all that is in my power to protect our nation and our people. Thank you.”
  1470. >You then hear Lancer give a:
  1471. >”Hear, hear.”
  1472. >And many officers give a hear, hear among the applause.
  1473. “General?”
  1474. >You grab Arrows attention.
  1475. >Levitating the case that now contains his old colonel insignia towards him, you continue:
  1476. “A very good speech, but I believe these are yours.”
  1477. >”Thank you.”
  1478. >You then turn towards the throne, and ask the others:
  1479. “Any of you have a speech?”
  1480. >As you sit in the throne, you beckon Arrow over to stand beside Brairheart.
  1481. >Once he is in position, Lancer takes a step forward.
  1482. >”Well I’m not sure I’ll be able to top that, but-“
  1483. >He stops as the main doors burst open and an armored pegasi runs into the room.
  1484. >”General!”
  1485. >The soldier stops dead in his tracks when he sees what he burst into.
  1486. “What is it soldier?”
  1487. >You call over to him.
  1488. >“I- I’m from the 88th division, there’s been an attack! Three or four of those pits!”
  1489. “I haven’t gotten the latest troop movements yet, where’s the 88th posted?”
  1490. >”Baltimare, your Highness.”
  1491. >You then address the room.
  1492. “Alright people, we’ll have to cut this short. Get to your units and await further orders!”
  1493. >You then look back to the generals and the admiral.
  1494. “Meeting room, now.”
  1495. >Looking back, you yell to the pegasi.
  1496. “With us soldier!”
  1498. >…
  1499. >Entering the meeting room, you head for your usual seat.
  1500. >Lancer, Wave, and Brairheart do similarly.
  1501. “Sit down.”
  1502. >You say to the pegasi.
  1503. >Simultaneously both he and Arrow settle into the closest open seat.
  1504. >Lancer then starts to question him:
  1505. >”What’s your name soldier.”
  1506. >And he responds:
  1507. >”Open Horizon, general. Private Open Horizon, sorry.”
  1508. >”That’s fine pri-“
  1509. >Wave interrupts.
  1510. >”Take off your helmet.”
  1511. >And Horizon speaks:
  1512. >”I- what?”
  1513. >”You heard me, take it off. Now.”
  1514. >The pegasi pauses a moment before doing as told.
  1515. >Over his pale blue cheek, you can see a distinct ‘I’ branded into his flesh.
  1516. >He’s ex-Royal Guard.
  1517. >Wave then speaks again:
  1518. >”If this is some kind of subterfu-“
  1519. “That will be all general. He can explain himself.”
  1520. >The soldier then looks to you:
  1521. >”Thank you, Princess. Yes, I was a member of the Royal Guard. But I was also the fastest flier my commanding officer had. They popped up out of nowhere, across the ruins of the city. Three or four of those tunnels, when I left reports weren’t sure. It’s been… ten hours I think since they erupted. Colonel Thorn sent me as she heard them form.”
  1522. >The private’s eyes drift.
  1523. >”The noise, when they exploded from the ground… it was like Canterlot all again…”
  1524. >Lancer steps in:
  1525. >”Did your CO say anything else?”
  1526. >”Only that word needs sent immediately. Civilian evacuation was started and she’d do the best  to contain and deal with the rifts, but with only a single division, reinforcements might be necessary.”
  1527. “Is there anything else you can tell us?”
  1528. >”It was dark when I left, but in the moonlight I passed over one of the holes. Those… things were already coming out. I saw dozens of them in the ruins.”
  1530. “Alright… go see Captain Crop outside, he’ll see that you get rest and a decent meal.”
  1531. >Wave objects:
  1532. >”Ma’am.”
  1533. “You heard me private.”
  1534. >As Horizon collects his helmet and leaves, Wave continues once he’s left the room.
  1535. >”Are you sure that was wise?”
  1536. “We have the Royal Guard a chance, and he took it. I trust that even if he gets up to no good, the Old Guard will be able to deal with it. End of story.”
  1537. >”Understood.”
  1538. “Now, Admiral. You had gotten to work on air units dedicated to fighting these things, what’s the status?”
  1539. >Brairheart starts:
  1540. >”We have two main designs. The first is a small chariot that can be pulled by a single pegasi and carry a single unicorn. We’ve started calling them close air support units. The larger chariots are drawn by four pegasi, and have two ponies on board with large quantities of grenades to drop on the enemy. They’ve been referred to as bombers.”
  1541. “How many do you have?”
  1542. >”Ready to go, three wings of close air support and one wing of bombers.”
  1543. “A wing?”
  1544. >”Comprised of ten squadrons, a squadron is twelve air chariots.”
  1545. “Where are they?”
  1546. >”All posted near the capitol. They could be ready to go within an hour.”
  1547. “Good, have them and your airship ready to go. About time I see your Prydwen in action.”
  1548. >”With pleasure.”
  1549. >You then look over to Lancer.
  1550. “You said that the entirety of the 1st army is fully manned, right?”
  1551. >”Yes Ma’am.”
  1552. “The airborne support division attached to it was the 101st, right?”
  1553. >”Ten thousand pegasi, affirmative.”
  1554. “Send them with Brairheart’s wings. They should be able to make the same time. I’ll take the Admiral ahead with the Prydwen to get on the scene as soon as possible.”
  1555. >Brairheart offers a word:
  1556. >”The ship would be able to get there in half the time as the others.”
  1557. “General Arrow.”
  1558. >His ears perk up.
  1559. >”Yes Ma’am?”
  1561. “The 1st army is posted in the immediate area around Canterlot. I want you to take the IIIrd corps from it and start the march to Baltimare. I want the Ist and IInd remaining here just in case.”
  1562. >You then look over to Lancer and Wave.
  1563. “I want you two to fast track the Old Guard over via rail.”
  1564. >Lancer responds:
  1565. >”We’ll make sure they’re there as soon as possible.”
  1566. “Good, and if another area has anything pop up before we deal with Baltimare, I want Wave out there post haste.”
  1567. >Wave then responds:
  1568. >”I’ll make sure a chariot is ready at all hours to take me to any forward post.”
  1569. “Thank you. Lancer, You’ll hold down the fort and make sure troops are redistributed as needed.”
  1570. >”Of course.”
  1571. >You then speak to Brairheart:
  1572. “You can go get your forces ready, I’ll meet you on the ship.”
  1573. >”Ma’am.”
  1574. >As he gets ready to go, you then look to Wave:
  1575. “Get the IIIrd corps and the Old Guard mobilized.”
  1576. >”Understood.”
  1577. >As Wave starts to leave, you then look to Arrow:
  1578. “Busy first day on the job, huh?”
  1579. >”Don’t worry, I’ll get the IIIrd there in time.”
  1580. “Lighten up General, I know you will… but look, if we manage to deal with Baltimare, and no other pits pop up for a while, you’ll be taking over command of the 2nd army. It’s being posted out west, based out of Fort Expanse.”
  1581. >”The 2nd? Shouldn’t General Lancer or Wave take command of her?”
  1582. “Lancer wants to command the 5th, it’ll allow him to stay in the capitol. Wave is returning to the 3rd. I know it’s a big post to step into, but we wouldn’t have promoted you if we thought you weren’t up to it.”
  1583. >”I understand.”
  1585. >Lancer then speaks up:
  1586. >”Additionally, I’d like you to help me oversee recruitment and training. While posted in Manehattan, you went out and got a lot of ponies to sign up, and you weren’t even ordered to do that. You’ve got a talent for it and I don’t plan on wasting it.”
  1587. >”Of course, once this situation is dealt with.”
  1588. “Now that we’ve gotten through the basics of what we need from you, I’d suggest catching up with Wave. At a decent pace, you should get the IIIrd to Baltimare in a week.”
  1589. >Arrow rises from his seat.
  1590. >”I’ll make it five days, your Highness.”
  1591. “You better not just be trying to impress.”
  1592. >”I would never.”
  1593. >He responds in a completely serious tone.
  1594. “Relax, it was a joke… dismissed.”
  1595. >He bows and sees his way out.
  1596. >Lancer then speaks:
  1597. >”I’d estimate the Prydwen can be there in a day, the pegasi and Brairheart’s wings in a day and a half. The Old Guard can get there in one and a half or two days if we can find the train cars for them all. Either way, that’s not a lot of men to hold off for Arrow’s five day estimate.”
  1598. “Well, if Brairheart’s fancy toy can’t change the tide, it’ll have to do.”
  1599. >You scoot out of your chair.
  1600. “I should get going.”
  1601. >Lancer then stands:
  1602. >”Ma’am, just stay safe… please.”
  1603. >You take a step over to Lancer and place your hoof on his shoulder.
  1604. “General. You were my Uncle’s closest and most trusted friend. That coupled with what I’ve been able to see of you, I completely trust that if the worst was to happen, Equestria would be in good hooves… But, for what it’s worth, I’ll try to stay safe.”
  1606. >…
  1607. >After a few days of rocky terrain, you could see the mountains on the horizon.
  1608. >And in the distance, you can hear the waterfall Harvey spoke about.
  1609. >Just ahead of you, the river falls off and you can see a valley among the rocky crags.
  1610. >While the water speeds up, you turn the boat onto the nearest bank.
  1611. >The boat rocks as you impact the stone.
  1612. >”Lay of the throttle, why don’t you?”
  1613. >Glancing back, you see that barely the propeller is still in the water.
  1614. “Alright Harv, this is it.”
  1615. >”You didn’t even play the rest of the special cassette…”
  1616. >He’s right…
  1617. >As you let out a small sigh, you reach down into the footlocker.
  1618. >Only the cassettes are left in there.
  1619. “This one’s for you.”
  1620. >What’s next on the track?
  1621. >https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQTCS6aWRSc
  1622. >At first you were just humoring him.
  1623. >Then the music actually started…
  1624. >While the music plays, you take a look around.
  1625. >A good long look around.
  1626. >Behind you lies miles of rocky wasteland, with barely a moss or tiny tree sticking up.
  1627. >And ahead…
  1628. >An endless horizon of tall peaks, a field of grey stone rising into the sky.
  1629. >Everything you’ve been through.
  1630. >Every fight, every battle, every war…
  1631. >You’ve been running on for a long time.
  1632. >A long time.
  1633. >Looking up to the pale blue sky, you turn back and hit stop as the song runs out.
  1634. >Then you just sit for a moment.
  1635. >”Anon?”
  1636. >You didn’t really register that.
  1637. >”Anon?”
  1638. “What?”
  1639. >”Do you believe?”
  1640. “In what, God?”
  1641. >”Yeah.”
  1642. “As a kid, yeah. As an early teen, no. As a late teen, maybe… kind of.”
  1643. >”I mean now.”
  1644. “Sometimes I want to… with how many I’ve killed, it’s probably better if I don’t.”
  1645. >”I find your people’s systems of faith interesting.”
  1646. “You believe in fate Harv?”
  1647. >”In certain ways.”
  1648. “Spirit of chaos believes in fate. Ain’t that a hypocrisy?”
  1649. >”Not necessarily.”
  1650. “Yeah? Well it’s like that.”
  1651. >Time to get moving again.
  1653. >Standing up, you reach and toss the backpack over your shoulders.
  1654. >After that, you sling your four bore over your shoulder.
  1655. >Then, you grab the rifle, and step out of the boat.
  1656. >Might need it… eventually.
  1657. >Setting down the rifle, you grab the bow and drag it fully onto the dry land.
  1658. >Collecting the rifle, you speak:
  1659. “Where to now?”
  1660. >”There should be a ledge against the river.
  1661. >Pacing over to the waterfall, you take a glimpse down it.
  1662. >Maybe a hundred foot fall.
  1663. >Against jagged outcroppings and boulders.
  1664. >To the left, you see there is actually a path down.
  1665. >And by path, you mean six or seven inches you’ll be able to place your feet on.
  1666. “Damnit.”
  1667. >You toss the rifle down onto the rock behind you.
  1668. >Then fish out the remaining magazines from your pockets and discard them with it.
  1669. >You’ll need two hands for this.
  1670. “Where am I going?”
  1671. >”Do you see that little plateau to your eleven?”
  1672. “Yeah.”
  1673. >”The first cave is in the rocks there.”
  1674. “… Alright.”
  1675. >The way the cliffs form around the river makes it look like it formed this canyon from erosion.
  1676. >By your guess, you’ve got five hundred feet to go over, then maybe twenty up.
  1677. >This immediate ledge can take you a few dozen feet, after that it looks like you’ll have to drop down.
  1678. >Then a couple hundred over, forty odd feet up, and you might be good from there.
  1679. >Been a long time since you’ve done anything like this.
  1680. >Last one was when you tried to get up to the dragon that gave you the scar over your eye.
  1681. >You were in better shape then…
  1682. >Your knees didn’t ache.
  1683. >Your arm wasn’t flayed.
  1684. >And you weren’t weighed down by a backpack.
  1685. >It was only you, your sword, clothes, and a shield over you back.
  1687. >…
  1688. >You test the rock directly above, you as your left hand gets around it, it falls down into the chasm below.
  1689. >Glancing down you watch it tumble,  ricocheting off of the jagged stone below.
  1690. >Reaching a bit further, you find a steady ledge.
  1691. >Working your right foot up, you continue the climb.
  1692. >As you head gets past a tiny crag you see-
  1693. >You shoot your right hand out to grab the neck of a grey snake as it lunges towards you.
  1694. >It hisses as you toss it back off the cliff.
  1695. “Well Harv, at least it isn’t raining.”
  1696. >”Don’t tempt fate.”
  1697. >You pull up the last hurdle and look over.
  1698. >Starting to shimmy across the rocks, the odd one here or there breaks under your foot.
  1699. >Slow and steady.
  1700. >…
  1701. >Last climb.
  1702. >Almost there.
  1703. >When you finally pull yourself up onto the plateau, you take a moment to sit and rest.
  1704. >Damn you’ve let yourself get out of shape.
  1705. >Well, let’s see what’s here.
  1706. >The ledge you’re on is about ten square feet.
  1707. >Into the rockside, a large opening leads further into the mountain.
  1708. >Just next to the entrance, there’s a small rectangular box of metal.
  1709. >Pulling yourself off the ground, you go to open it.
  1710. “Come on Harv! That’s it?”
  1711. >”I left others.”
  1712. >You pick up the only item in the  box.
  1713. >A wooden torch, with damp oily rags tied around the top.
  1714. >Fishing the lighter out of your pocket, you light it up.
  1715. >The torch immediately catches, and after tossing your lighter back into a pocket, you look into the tunnel.
  1716. “What’s the odds no one’s home?”
  1717. >”Slim.”
  1718. >Yeah.
  1719. >Reaching back, you draw the kukri and start to descend.
  1721. >…
  1722. >You walk through the halls of the palace as higher officers bark orders to their subordinates.
  1723. >There’s a navy blue uniform.
  1724. “Airman!”
  1725. >Pegasi , grey coat with a darker mane but with a light blue streak going through it.
  1726. >As he stands to attention he speaks:
  1727. >“Ma’am.”
  1728. “Where’s the Admiral at?”
  1729. >”He just went down that corridor on the left.”
  1730. “As you were.”
  1731. >You rush to follow the directions.
  1732. >As you turn the corner, you see the Admiral in the distance.
  1733. >Approaching, you see the two officers he’s speaking to nod before going their own way.
  1734. “What’s the status?”
  1735. >”Air wings are scrambling and will be in the air soon. The Prydwen can out pace them, so they’re moving in on their own.”
  1736. “When’s the ship ready to go?”
  1737. >”Some of the crew were on leave, they all should be reporting in within half an hour.”
  1738. “Why Baltimare? If there’s something behind these attacks, what sense is there in destroying a city that’s still in ruins?”
  1739. >”Your guess is as good as mine… morale maybe? Attack what we were rebuilding.”
  1740. “Maybe. Still, heading back there will be-“
  1741. >”Admiral!”
  1742. >A voice from behind yells.
  1743. >Brairheart looks over to the pony.
  1744. >”What is it Call!”
  1745. >You glance to see the corporal standing there without any equipment.
  1746. >”I just got back, what’s bloody happening?”
  1747. >”We’re moving out, what does it look like? Report in to Lancer then catch up with the Old Guard.”
  1748. “Wait, Corporal?”
  1749. >”Your Highness?”
  1750. “What’s the word on Thunder?”
  1751. >”He’s… going off the grid for a while. He’ll be back… I think.”
  1752. “Alright, get moving.”
  1753. >He nods before running off.
  1754. >You look back over to Brairheart.
  1755. “Well this day’s going well.”
  1757. >…
  1758. >You’ve been walking down this tunnel for a while now.
  1759. >Any light from the entrance is longs since gone.
  1760. >Eventually you entered into a larger cavern.
  1761. >The light from the torch ends quick, but you can see a few columns of stone supporting the ceiling.
  1762. >Three of them are visible right now, and speaking of the ceiling it goes up quite a way.
  1763. >You have no idea how big this room is…
  1764. >Moving forward at a slow pace, you continuously scan the visible area around your torch.
  1765. >Hold.
  1766. >You can hear movement…
  1767. >Four, no five individuals.
  1768. >They’re skittering around you, staying in the darkness.
  1769. >Quadrupeds, claws not hooves.
  1770. >All on your plane, none of them are from above on the columns or ceiling.
  1771. >They’re staying far from the torch, so either the light hurts their eyes, or they’re waiting for the right moment to charge.
  1772. >Best to keep moving for now.
  1773. >Don’t want to show your hand.
  1774. >As you walk, you focus on their sounds.
  1775. >No growls or anything like that, only the sound of claws tapping lightly against stone.
  1776. >But when you move ahead, the one that’s in front of you is moving back.
  1777. >That would indicate that the light is what’s keeping them away.
  1778. >And either they’re light on their feet, or they aren’t that large.
  1779. >Or they’re just good at not making much noise.
  1780. >You whistle out a few notes from In the Hall of the Mountain King, letting it echo through the cave.
  1781. >Nothing.
  1782. “Not hungry?”
  1783. >”Anon what are you doing.”
  1784. “Harv, I’m serious. Just shut up for the next five minutes.”
  1785. >You don’t hear him respond.
  1786. “Come on guys, got some grade A prime human beef. A bit rough, but still fresh you bastards.”
  1787. >Looks like this is how it’s going to be.
  1788. >You set the torch down onto the ground.
  1789. >And start walking back the way you came.
  1791. >You stop once you’re well into the darkness.
  1792. “Come on!”
  1793. >You bash the back of your kurki against your steel breastplate a few times.
  1794. >One’s approaching to your six, slowly.
  1795. >As you turn towards it, you hear it back off.
  1796. >Not getting away that easily.
  1797. >You sprint forward a few steps, raising the weapon.
  1798. “RAAAAAH!”
  1799. >At the end of your yell, you hear it scampering off.
  1800. >Then you turn around to the one that’s been flowing you.
  1801. >Bashing the back of the weapon against your armor, you yell again.
  1802. “I look like some helpless Billy goat.”
  1803. >You rush forward, but the animal skitters away.
  1804. “Come on! Baaaaaa. Baaaaaa. COME GET SOME!”
  1805. >After your screech finishes echoing, you hear dead silence.
  1806. “That’s what I thought.”
  1807. >You start walking to the torch in the distance, undisturbed by any locals.
  1808. >”You’re insane.”
  1809. “You have that effect on people.”
  1811. >…
  1812. >”I still don’t believe that actually worked.”
  1813. >You continue down a tunnel that you found off of the main cavern.
  1814. “They’re animals Harv.”
  1815. >”What does that have to do with anything?”
  1816. “Basic fight or flight. Prove to a predator that you’re not worth the effort, and they’ll back off. It’s people that don’t make sense. Saddle Arabians attack because it went so well for the yaks. Then they try again because the first time worked so well. But animal instinct is where the real reason comes out.”
  1817. >”But what would you have done if they called the bluff?”
  1818. “Kill ‘em.”
  1819. >”Because it would have been that easy…”
  1820. “Harv, you’ve seen my memories. Remember that cave back in the First Coast War?”
  1821. >”Yes, but I think you’d rather tell the story.”
  1822. “Saddle Arabians fortified a cave, used it as a supply depot. I went in alone and cleared it out, but when I was coming out, I saw that my men had to retreat because a larger force came in to resupply. I doused the lights, learned the caves, and hunted each and every one of them down in pitch black.”
  1823. >”Last I checked, Saddle Arabians can’t see in the dark.”
  1824. “It’s not about seeing. It’s about hearing the footsteps… smelling the sweat and later blood… feeling your body and your weapon as an extension of it. That’s why I’ve been around so long, it’s not about strength or even intelligence. It’s about adaptability and the will to do whatever is necessary to come out on top of the other guys. Everything else is just a bonus.”
  1825. >”Is it now?”
  1826. “Your damn right it is. So how much longer?”
  1827. >”I don’t know, how would I always know!”
  1828. “Figures. Cause you know everything when it suits you, and nothing when it doesn’t.”
  1829. >Harvey doesn’t dignify that with a response.
  1830. >Well look at that.
  1831. >The light at the end of the tunnel.
  1833. >…
  1834. “Alright Harv. Where to next?”
  1835. >There aren’t as many cliffs on this side, the terrain is rugged and steep, but you’ll have an easier time moving across it.
  1836. >”That peak straight ahead over this valley. See it?”
  1837. >You point to one.
  1838. >”The bigger one behind it.”
  1839. “Where’s the cave entrance?”
  1840. >”Near the base, you’ll have to get around between those two.”
  1841. “I see the path, shouldn’t be that bad. You got another torch down there?”
  1842. >”Something like that.”
  1843. >You toss the waning torch onto the ground as you start to descend into the valley.
  1844. >You sheathe your weapon, seeing no immediate threats.
  1845. >Besides if the ground gives-
  1846. >Several of the smaller rocks give way, and you slide down.
  1847. >The slope isn’t that bad, so you go with it.
  1848. >Reaching the bottom, you follow through and use the momentum to get on your feet.
  1849. “Yeah!”
  1850. >You brush some of the dirt off of your pants.
  1851. “Come on Harv, that was fun.”
  1852. >”Are you sure you’re alright?”
  1853. “Harv, it’s you and me out here and we’re moving. Really moving! No more of that sitting on my ass and shooting at things. Real movement, real actions!”
  1854. >You start walking as you continue the conversation.
  1855. “They say this place makes you crazy, but you’ve already been making me crazy. But you want to know the real thing that’s making you worry?”
  1856. >”Do I?”
  1857. “See, it’s an old secret of humanity. Insanity is our best tool. Well other than adaptability and will. But insanity is a strong number three. Tell us we can’t do something, and we’ll find a way in the craziest way possible. This place can’t make me crazy, cause I’m already crazy.”
  1858. >”An I thought you were the voice of reason…”
  1859. “I am talking to a voice in my head!”
  1861. >You step up onto a large boulder in your path.
  1862. “That makes me the opposite of the voice of reason!”
  1863. >You almost stumble as the boulder lurches.
  1864. >Looking down, you see eight eyes open up from the rock.
  1865. >It’s not a boulder.
  1866. >Reaching down, you draw your sword and spin it around.
  1867. >Grabbing it with both hands, you plunge it deep down into the arachnids head as it starts to rise from the ground.
  1868. >Twisting it for good measure, the spider slams back onto the ground.
  1869. >Pulling your sword out, you then reach for a rag to wipe the puss off of it.
  1870. >Then jump down from the spider.
  1871. >Continuing on your way, you sheathe the blade when it’s clean and tuck the rag back into a pocket.
  1872. >You enter into a tiny trench in the rocks.
  1873. “Now as I was saying Harvey, you said your mind’s influence would start making my pathetic brain lose it. And you know what?”
  1874. >You stop as from above the trench an animal starts to pounce on you.
  1875. >A snow leopard by the looks of it.
  1876. >In the air, you grab the cat by its neck, and push back, pounding it to the ground.
  1877. >Keeping hold of the neck, you then begin to bash it’s head against the rock underneath.
  1878. >You do that until the body goes limp, then a few more times for good measure.
  1879. “Know what Harv?”
  1880. >You rise and continue walking.
  1881. “I’m banking on it, you making me lose it that is. Cause if you made me lose it first, then this place can’t.”
  1882. >”That’s not how it-“
  1883. “Shut up!”
  1884. >You exit out of the small trench, and continue on through the jagged terrain.
  1886. >”But Anon-“
  1887. “What did I just say?”
  1888. >”Okay, okay.”
  1889. >Moving forward you-
  1890. >Two o’clock high.
  1891. >You unsling the shotgun and cock a battle, taking aim at the giant falcon that’s swooping down towards you.
  1892. >Or is that a hawk?
  1893. >Bracing the gun against your shoulder, you fire.
  1894. >Based on how the bird veers off and crashes into the ground, you hit it right in a wing bone.
  1895. “Whoo! Come on Harv, this is our life now!”
  1896. >”Ugh.”
  1897. “Harv, take a good long look at my trips to the Everfree. It’s all about momentum and adrenaline.”
  1898. >”Are those the fourth and fifth tools?”
  1899. “Damn straight.”
  1900. >You reach up and scratch your beard.
  1901. >God, you never should have shaved.
  1902. >Still, it’s feeling pretty decent.
  1903. “Anything else want some!”
  1904. >To your left you see a minor rockslide.
  1905. >No, that’s not a rockslide…
  1906. >Something’s coming out of the rock.
  1907. >And it’s… a rock.
  1908. “Well how ‘bout that.”
  1909. >A large bipedial figure emerges from the mountain.
  1910. >It’s got maybe three feet on you.
  1911. >Clearly humanoid, but no discernable features.
  1912. >No face, no fingers, no toes.
  1913. >Just a rocky head, torso, and limbs.
  1914. “What are you, some kind of golem?”
  1915. >Harvey is the one to respond.
  1916. >”Now you’re just provoking things.”
  1917. “Is it alive?”
  1918. >The golem takes a few slow steps towards you.
  1920. >”No… I think it’s a being formed from radiant magic. This entire place reeks of ambient magic, but with more than a hint of chaos energy. It could have mutated a crystal, giving it rudimentary control of a ‘body’ but that’s just speculation from your senses.”
  1921. “Wait this place has radiant chaos magic?”
  1922. >”Yes… that’s the reason why it’s so dangerous in the East, it’s like one big magical Chernobyl. I told you that.”
  1923.  “No you didn’t.”
  1924. >”I’m sure I did.”
  1925. >The golem stops ten or so feet from you.
  1926. >And just stands there.
  1927. “What’s it doing?”
  1928. >”I think it’s looking at you.”
  1929. “No shit.”
  1930. >”If it is a naturally occurring magical construct, it ‘sees’ through radiant magical auras that every life form puts off.”
  1931. “I don’t have a magical aura though.”
  1932. >”Exactly, it sees a blank void, but the lack of magic is just as puzzling as a strong magical aura.”
  1933. “What do I do?”
  1934. >”Just wait, I think it might leave you alone.”
  1935. >You have to rush to duck out of the way when it lunges a punch towards you.
  1936. “Damnit Harv!”
  1937. >”I didn’t do anything!”
  1938. >You toss your shotgun and backpack off of your back, before rolling out of the way of another swipe.
  1939. >It doesn’t take a genius to understand that getting hit by a living boulder is bad.
  1940. >You jump back from an uppercut as you search through your pockets.
  1941. >Disengaging for a moment, you step back and grab your brass knuckles.
  1942. >Bashing the metal fists together, you speak to the golem.
  1943. “Alright Rocky, let’s dance.”
  1945. >The golem moves forwards, bringing both of its large arms down to pound you into the ground.
  1946. >Before they impact, you jump back.
  1947. >Then lunge forwards to give a one-two punch into the top of its head.
  1948. >Your wrists won’t like it tomorrow, but you see some of the stone crumble away.
  1949. >Not wanting to give the golem a chance to counter, you then step onto its lowered arms.
  1950. >Using them as a platform, you unclench your fists and grab onto its head.
  1951. >From both the force of kicking off, and the leverage you have, you flip yourself over the creature,  landing against its torso back to back.
  1952. >Pushing yourself off of the golem, you then spin to face it.
  1953. >You give short angled jabs to chip away the rock.
  1954. >Right, left.
  1955. >Right, left, right.
  1956. >This method chisels away more rock then the straighter blows you delivered to the head.
  1957. >You then back off a bit as the golem stands.
  1958. >It doesn’t turn to face you.
  1959. >Instead, it’s joints seem to invert.
  1960. >Same with the slouch of its back.
  1961. “Ding, ding.”
  1962. >The joints…
  1964. >You sprint towards the golem, then hit the ground and slide under its legs.
  1965. >Working fast, you get to your knees and reach in to give a right hook into its knee.
  1966. >Another.
  1967. >On the third, the rock that connects its upper and lower legs completely shatters.
  1968. >As it does, you hit the dirt and roll over a couple times to avoid getting hit by the golem as it crashes to the ground.
  1969. >Back on your feet, you rush to the downed golem, and while it’s still on its side, you bash away at the head.
  1970. >Five quick right jabs in, and the entire head collapses into tiny debris.
  1971. >You then have to jump back and to your left as it brings it rolls onto its back, bringing its arm down, hammering the ground.
  1972. >Still going.
  1973. >Harv said a crystal.
  1974. >You look onto what is now its torso, where you hammered before.
  1975. >In the sunlight, you see the faintest glimmer.
  1976. >Jumping up onto its torso, you kneel down and hit the area with a few sweeping right jabs.
  1977. >It scrapes away just enough rock.
  1978. >Punching straight down into the exposed grey crystal, it shatters under your brass knuckle.
  1979. >And then…
  1980. >No more movement.
  1981. >You stand up on the torso of the lifeless golem.
  1982. >And you exhale deeply a couple times.
  1983. “YEEEAAAH!”
  1984. >Stepping off of the rock, you go to collect your things.
  1985. “Come on Harv, now that got the blood pumping.”
  1986. >”I know, I can feel it.”
  1987. >You exhale sharply.
  1988. “Yeah, well get used to it.”
  1989. >”You’re going to be the death of us.”
  1990. “Not on my watch buddy.”
  1991. >”That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
  1993. >…
  1994. >After collecting your sword, you followed Brairheart up to the Prydwen.
  1995. >The metal hallways lit by magical crystals are strange.
  1996. >Also there’s the ever so slight hum that comes off from the walls…
  1997. >But, the Admiral led you to the forward observation room.
  1998. >Outside he has multiple pegasi and unicorn runners that relay commands directly to various departments.
  1999. “Nice view.”
  2000. >You say as you glance out the window, looking over the Equestrian horizon.
  2001. “You don’t mind being protected by anything other than a panel of glass?”
  2002. >”The Captain of a ship needs to be able to see the battle before them.”
  2003. “How much did this thing even cost?”
  2004. >”Enough to build about fifty older model airships once everything was said and done.”
  2005. “Worth it?”
  2006. >”The hull shrugs off a Saddle Arabian broadside with barely a few dents.”
  2007. “So worth it.”
  2008. >”Unfortunately, the ship is ahead of its time. It cost as much as a fleet in money alone. In terms of steel, we could equip a full army with weapons and armor for the materials put into the Prydwen. If we didn’t have so much surplus equipment in storage, there’s no way Anon would have signed off on it.”
  2009. “Good to know we could melt it down for the swords.”
  2010. >”With respect Ma’am, over my dead body.”
  2011. “Ha.”
  2013. >”Also, the Air Fleet is coming together quickly. Twelve old model ships will be ready to fly by the end of the month, twelve more by the end of the year.”
  2014. “Finally getting to be an Admiral again… with how busy you’ll be, I’ll need a new go to paper pusher.”
  2015. >”You wouldn’t need one if Offense starts pulling his weight.”
  2016. “I wonder how he’s doing down south with the dogs.”
  2017. >”He said he could secure land passages between us and Saddle Arabia. He’ll either do it, or we’ll have something to never let him forget… imagine the embarrassment. Anon used to singlehandedly exterminate entire Changeling hives in the badlands, but Offense can’t get a few puppies to keep out of the roads.”
  2018. “So… the 88th. How do you rate their chances?”
  2019. >”May I be quite honest?”
  2020. “Always.”
  2021. >”Poor. Assuming protocol was followed, the 89th and the 17th should arrive quickly to reinforce, even before we get there. But that’s still two infantry divisions and one airborne division. Forty thousand ponies against untold hordes.”
  2022. “Tartarus has to run out of monsters eventually.”
  2023. >”Did you ever review the casualty ratios from the Crystal Empire attack?”
  2024. “I know we lost a good amount of men, but I’m not sure about ratios.”
  2025. >”Eighteen soldiers were lost to every confirmed beast we killed. Even if an equal number died from the defense of the pits and their bodies were unaccounted for- no, even if twice as many were killed and fell back into Tartarus than those that died in the city, it’s still a six to one ratio.”
  2026. “Still, in the grand scheme of thing, there can’t be hundreds of thousands of them down there.”
  2027. >”And if there are? What if there’s a million, or two?”
  2028. “We’ve got the minotaurs with us.”
  2029. >”And if they’re not enough?”
  2030. “We’ll always have Cloudsdale.”
  2032. >”I’m serious.”
  2033. >You pause to think a moment.
  2034. “A day to get to Baltimare from Canterlot… we could make a detour east.”
  2035. >”What do you mean?”
  2036. “East east.”
  2037. >”You want to bring Anon back?”
  2038. “Think it’d work?”
  2039. >”No airship has ever returned.”
  2040. “This isn’t your average airship, now is it?”
  2041. >”Even if we could survive the voyage, we don’t know where he is. He could still be at sea, or anywhere across an unchartered continent. We don’t even know if he’s a-“
  2042. “Don’t finish that sentence, I understand. By the time we found him, there wouldn’t be much of an Equestria left.”
  2043. >”I just thought you wanted honesty.”
  2044. “He’s coming back.”
  2045. >”With all due respect, that’s what was said about your father and your aunt.”
  2046. “You get one warning, and this is it. Don’t bring up that topic again. Now we’re going to pretend like that never happened, understood?”
  2047. >”Understood.”
  2048. >A knock on the door diffuses the tension.
  2049. >”Enter!”
  2050. >The door opens, and a soldier speaks to the Admiral.
  2051. >”Sir, everyone is accounted for. We can depart on your order.”
  2052. >”Baltimare, full speed.”
  2053. >”Aye Sir.”
  2054. >As the door closes you speak again:
  2055. “Let’s just hope there’s still an 88th to reinforce.”
  2057. >”You know, it’s almost like they knew.”
  2058. “What do you mean?”
  2059. >”We have twenty reserve divisions posted around the nation, mainly in large population centers. Baltimare was left off of that list because of the destruction. The 88th was never meant to defend the city itself, only move out to any situations in the immediate area.”
  2060. “I suppose if there’s one issue with Anon’s doctrine, it’s that. The armies would focus on offense, overrunning the opponent giving no time to properly reorganize. When a critical defense came up, he had enough time to see to it personally. The only problem is, a critical defense situation can now arise at any moment.”
  2061. >”The older generals used to hate him.”
  2062. “How so?”
  2063. >”Before he had full control of the military, he would routinely circumvent the old royal appointed officers and generals. He rejected their strategies in favor of his own tactics. The troops loved him, but the aristocratic leadership hated it.”
  2064. “Even his tactics don’t apply here. This is an enemy we can’t strike back against directly. And I’m not sure how to adequately defend all of Equestria simultaneously.”
  2065. >”We need more men.”
  2066. “If there’s one silver lining to this, it’s that the attack was close to home. The minotaur pit was far off and to an old enemy. The Crystal Empire is on the northern frontier to the core. But Baltimare… after so many died defending it. Volunteers won’t be hard to come by.”
  2067. >”Fair enough.”
  2068. “Admiral… is that wrong? That so many thousands have died, and I’ve already resigned to that fact. Like they’re pawns on a chess board ready to be sacrificed?”
  2070. >”Ma’am, that’s a question that every officer, especially the higher ones, have to deal with every time they go into battle. Is it wrong? Maybe. Probably. But all that matters at the end of the day is the big picture. Arrow said as much in his speech: we all signed up for the same reason. We may not like it, but we’ve accepted that our lives have been given to a higher cause. If one has to die to save a hundred tomorrow, then that’s a necessary sacrifice.”
  2071. “All of Anon’s stories about how he saved lives. Putting himself between his men and his army, were they lies?”
  2072. >”I say this having served with him for years: no. If he told you about a battle, he would not embellish. But Anon… he’s no average man. He might not be magical in our sense, but there’s something about him: an aura of some kind. There has to be, because I’m not sure I could quantify it otherwise. Maybe us ponies just wear their hearts on their sleeves, but he can look into the soul of a man like no other. Inspire them to push harder and go farther than anypony would think possible.”
  2073. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
  2074. >”That’s one of his. For Anon, I can’t speak to the first, but he definitely lived up to the latter two. Princess…”
  2075. >Brairheart glances over to you, having previously been inspecting the horizon.
  2076. >”Flurry, you have fulfilled all three of those categories. The only pure born Alicorn… Leading armies and becoming ruler of Equestira… And leading us through this apocalypse. Anon isn’t here. He raised you, and taught you much of what he knew. But if Equestira is to survive, you have to stop living in his shadow. You have to stop asking what Anonymous would do, and start asking what Flurry Heart will do.”
  2077. “Is it really that easy though? At the end of the day…”
  2079. >”Ma’am, at the time of your birth I was still a child. It was a simpler time, a peaceful time. Far and wide, when ponies heard of your birth it was regarded as a miracle. Even a greater cause to rejoice for than when your Aunt achieved her state as a princess. Why? Because to everything that has ever been taught, you were a miracle- plain and simple.”
  2080. >He glances back out the window.
  2081. >”It gave us common folk hope. That despite all… impossibilities, anything could happen. Celestia was a beacon of stability, Luna was a beacon of redemption, Cadence was a beacon of love, Twilight was a beacon of friendship, but you? You were- you ARE a beacon of the future. A symbol of hope. No matter how bleak things seem, please remember that.”
  2082. “Yeah but against Tartarus and… God knows what, what good is hope?”
  2083. >”God?”
  2084. “Sorry, I picked up a few phrases from Anon. Still refer to front legs as ‘arms’ sometimes… a lot of times. Then there’s someone or somebody versus somepony. But STILL. What can hope alone do?”
  2085. >”Hope is what makes ten ponies fight like a thousand. Hope is all that saw us through the early wars. Hope is what let us win at Baltimare even though the numbers were against us.”
  2086. “But here...”
  2087. >”When we set out at the dawn of the spring, we had fifty thousand men, no naval fleet, and no air fleet. Against six nations while in a civil war. Why did so many take up the banner? Why did so many lay down their lives! Because with every possible factor against us, they. Had. Hope! You don’t have to conscript people to fill out the ranks, you only need to ask. The military is behind you. The generals are behind you. The people are behind you.”
  2089. >You begin thinking aloud:
  2090. “We don’t need Anon’s blitzes. We need air and magic power to be mobile to quickly and elastically respond to defense needs, rather than being the schwerpunkt to key advances. These creatures can’t fly, and magic is their only notable weakness….”
  2091. >You look over to the Admiral.
  2092. “When we get out of this, forget about the airships. We need your chariot wings, they’ve got to have coverage over the whole nation. Take whatever funds you need. We have infantry all over the nation, but infantry won’t win this war. They’re only to contain the enemy. Go ahead and finish the ships in construction, but we need thousands. No, tens of thousands in your fleet. And we need heavier bomber chariots, carrying enough explosives to collapse a pit with a single attack.”
  2093. >”Rapid, decisive response… in broad strokes, that’s not too dissimilar to Anon’s strategies.”
  2094. “That’s because above all else, the particular conflict molded his decisions. I forgot to include that part in my summary, Admiral.”
  2095. >You ‘forgot’ intentionally.
  2096. >”Figures. You’d know best of HIS tactics, even more so than Lancer.”
  2097. “For what it’s worth, I needed it to be said… again. It’s been said before- I’VE said it before. I need to stop living in his shadow. Now more than ever.”
  2099. >…
  2100. “March along, sing our song, with the Army of the free. Count the brave, count the true, who have fought to victory!”
  2101. >You sing the tune as Harvey is forced to listen.
  2102. “We’re the Army and proud of or name. We’re the Army and proudly proclaim.”
  2103. >Then you get into the old ‘caissons go rolling along tune’.
  2104. >Technically the Army took the tune, but hey?
  2105. >What’s the point in inspiring men if you can’t get them to sing whatever you want?
  2106. >Hell, maybe you have lost it…
  2107. “First to fight for the right, and to build the nation’s might. And the Army goes marching along! Proud of all we have done, fighting till the battle’s won. And the Army goes marching along!”
  2108. >Then this part.
  2109. “Then it’s: Hi! Hi! Hey! The Army’s on its way. Count off the cadence loud and strong. For where e’er we go, you will always know that the Army goes marching along.”
  2110. >You changed the battle sites to reflect early Equestrian wars you took part in.
  2111. “Manechester, Anon’s ranks, Griffonstone, and on the coast. And the Army went marching along! Volunteers from the start, always fighting from the heart. And the Army went marching along!”
  2112. >And the chorus:
  2113. “Then it’s: Hi! Hi! Hey! The Army’s on its way. Count off the cadence loud and strong. For where e’er we go, you will always know that the Army goes marching along.”
  2114. >Pause for the shift in tone.
  2115. “Men in rags, men who froze. Still that Army met its foes. And the Army goes marching along… Faith in friends, then we’re right, and we’ll fight on with al out might… as the Army keeps marching along.”
  2116. >And back to the main pace:
  2117. “Then it’s: Hi! Hi! Hey! The Army’s on its way. Count off the cadence loud and strong. For where e’er we go, you will always know that the Army goes marching along.”
  2118. >You then speak:
  2119. “Keep it marching!”
  2120. >Back to a singing:
  2121. “And the Army goes marching along!”
  2123. >You then speak directly to Harvey:
  2124. “Damnit Harv! After ‘count off the cadence loud and strong’ you were supposed to shout ‘Two! Three!’ each time.”
  2125. >”You know Anon, in all this time I still don’t understand your focus on putting your world’s military songs into the Equestrian military.”
  2126. “Well Harv, it’s simple. The greatest lesson of the military is camaraderie. Relying on the men around you, seeing them as brothers instead of random people. Military songs are an easy way to build those bonds, and Equestria didn’t have a big military tradition, so I borrowed some from Earth. Besides, you’ve heard how ponies sing spontaneously…”
  2127. >”Fair enough. But why did you teach your artillerymen the ‘caisson’ version of it while teaching the infantry that version?”
  2128. “Competition keeps everyone on their toes… well hooves in this case.”
  2129. >”I’ve noticed it’s only the songs in English you change the words for.”
  2130. “That’s because ponies don’t know German or Russian. I can vaguely translate them for them, and they spread that. If Panzerlied was in English, I’d have it explain what a tank is. But with the vague translations, it works. English songs require more effort… Shit, I think Flurry is the only pony I actually told the real translations to.”
  2131. >You stop in your tracks.
  2133. “Harv… Really, I know you were cut off from your body or whatever, but is there anything you can tell me about her? Do you know at all if she’s okay?”
  2134. >”… I know that she’s strong, and when I was cut off she was still fighting the parasite.”
  2135. >You exhale deeply.
  2136. “That’s my girl.”
  2137. >”Anon, a question if I may?”
  2138. “Shoot.”
  2139. >”Why exactly did you take such an interest in Flurry? You treated her as a daughter.”
  2140. “Well it started with Shining… Before he came over here he taught me a lot in terms of actual fighting. After that, well you know what happened… and damn, I don’t know. There was something about that baby, that kid, that mare. I can’t have kids, genetics and all that. But Flurry, no matter what hall I went through, no matter the death and destruction… I would come back and see her face. Her eyes. So pure… If I regret one thing in my life- only one thing. It’s that I taught her too well to be my little solider.”
  2141. >You pause.
  2143. “This life, in taking lives. It ruins a part of you. And yeah, it’s like with cutie marks and ‘destiny’ and all that bullshit, maybe there wasn’t anything that I could do to stop it. She knows how to take care for herself, I saw to that. But she was too good- too pure to be put in this line of work.”
  2144. >You fall down to sit on a rock.
  2145. “I tried to be a good… dad. I tried to teach her right. I never wanted her to end up like me. A killer. A mass murderer that’s praised as a hero… But in my stories and training, I set her on that path… And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
  2146. >You feel a tear fall down your cheek.
  2147. “If I didn’t take her out into the field, that thing wouldn’t have corrupted her mind. I WOULD STILL HAVE HER! But no: she was an adult, she was a princess… I let her be a tool in just another of my wars, my battle strategies.”
  2148. >Harvey doesn’t respond, but you sit there for God knows how long.
  2149. “I was her Uncle. Her guardian. Her Goddamned father! And she’s rotting in a cell because I failed to protect her. Harvey, can I be honest with you?”
  2150. >”Go ahead.”
  2151. “When it comes down to it, I don’t care if you live. Because I don’t care if I live. The past day hasn’t been insanity. It’s been frustration. All I care about, is making sure I fix my mistake. This thing, the entity, the parasite will die. I told myself that every battle I fought, every life I’ve taken has been for a cause, but it wasn’t. This is the only war that matters… and we need to keep moving.”
  2153. >…
  2154. >You found your own way onto one of the mortar pits atop the Prydwen.
  2155. >The usual artillerymen aren’t here, and you needed a place for your own.
  2156. >Your talk with Brairheart was pretty heavy.
  2157. >Since you met him months ago, he always seemed like the member of high command that played it safe.
  2158. >He was the only one at that meeting that voiced cautious ideas relating to breaking from the capitol.
  2159. >Sure, he had his moments that subverted his slow paced advice, but he never was so blunt- so forward.
  2160. >Maybe you just never knew him, or any of the others, as well as Anon did.
  2161. >You definitely didn’t know them as well as Anon did…
  2162. >As good as you know him, he knew them.
  2163. >That’s probably why he put them all into high command.
  2164. >When they agree, they’re a perfect ‘yes man’ but when they don’t, they’re open and vocal in their disagreements.
  2165. >No matter the potential ramifications to speaking up to their superior, or now even their Princess, he spoke it plainly.
  2166. >As did the others in matters that hit further to home.
  2167. >But as you think of it now, even though Brairheart insinuated that Anon might be… gone.
  2168. >It only makes his bit on hope strike so much closer.
  2169. >Maybe he is gone… dead.
  2170. >But as long as there’s the slimmest possibility he’s still out there, you have to believe it.
  2171. >Hey, that was probably his entire point.
  2172. >Hope…
  2173. >You glance at the surroundings outside the mortar pit.
  2174. >Far away from Canterlot.
  2175. >You’re on your own now.
  2176. >Even though you’ve told yourself that you need to, well, you have to stop living in a shadow.
  2177. >Then there’s that…
  2178. >You have your reservations about the deaths of thousands of soldiers doing their duties, but when it comes to Anon a single death seems worse than thousands… tens of thousands even.
  2179. >That doesn’t change the fact that in some ways at least, you can justify those souls.
  2180. >But when it comes to one in particular…
  2182. >Maybe this is how he felt about you all these years.
  2183. >Why he kept fighting on for so long.
  2184. >Why you need to keep on fighting…
  2185. >If you don’t-
  2186. >You glance over to the hatch that opens.
  2187. >A familiar pegasi pops his head through it.
  2188. >”Princess?”
  2189. >You can’t help but giggle.
  2190. >”Wot?”
  2191. “No, no. Come up Call.”
  2192. >You continue as he scales the ladder.
  2193. “It’s just that Anon used to do accents to me when I was a kid, and you reminded me of one.”
  2194. >”Well that’s just offensive.”
  2195. “What do you want Corporal.”
  2196. >”Ma’am, I wanted to talk. About Thunder.”
  2197. “Go ahead.”
  2198. >”Look, he lost his wife in the Crystal Empire. But I’ve seen ponies who lost spouses, and that’s not what it looks like.”
  2199. “What do you mean?”
  2200. >”That crystal wall from Saddle Arabia… I think it really messed up his mind. Existentially I mean. Before that he was dutiful, driven. But after… he wasn’t the pony I knew, not the pony I called a friend.”
  2201. “So you think there’s more to these crystals than we thought?”
  2202. >”I don’t know… I never claimed to be a smart pony- that’s a lie, I did claim to be a smart pony. On many occasions. But honestly, I think there’s somethin’ bigger at play here. And whatever it is, it took my friend from me.”
  2203. “Alright… that’s one more thing on the plate.”
  2204. >”Yeah, I’m sorry, Can’t imagine what you’re dealing with. In charge of Equestria and all that.”
  2205. “Trust me, as complicated as you think it is, it’s worse.”
  2206. >”And I thought I saw my fair share of shi- stuff.”
  2207. “You don’t have to censor yourself, I can handle it… wait.”
  2208. >”Ma’am?”
  2210. “Weren’t you supposed to attach yourself to the Old Guard?”
  2211. >”Right… about that, you see-“
  2212. “Cut it!”
  2213. “Ma’am, these things killed my best mate’s wife. And his sister-in-law.  I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I’ve got to do something. I can fly as good as anypony on this ship, I just want to do something for him. For Thunder. An’ look, I promise I’ll stay out of the way and just link up with the pegasi wing onboard. Just let me get out there as soon as I can.”
  2214. “Just… go. And don’t tell anypony that’s the reason I let you stay. Can’t have every soldier with a personal stake in a battle decide their going to fight. Go talk with Brairheart and tell him I approved it.”
  2215. >”Thank you, I won’t forget it.”
  2216. >You stop him as he looks to the hatch.
  2217. “But Call? Don’t make a habit of this.”
  2218. >”With all due respect, it already is a habit.”
  2219. “Don’t. Make. A. Habit.”
  2220. >“… Understood.”
  2221. >Again you stop him from leaving.
  2222. “And Corporal?”
  2223. >”Yes?”
  2224. “Thanks for the honesty… and the bluntness.”
  2225. >He doesn’t vocally respond, but he does give a bow before departing.
  2226. >Honestly you wish more ponies were like that.
  2227. >Brave or stupid enough to speak to a Princess in plain tones.
  2228. >Though you’re not sure if he’s brave or stupid…
  2229. >Maybe both.
  2231. >…
  2232. >You turn around a bend in the rolling hills and mountains that roll around you.
  2233. >In the light forest that surrounds you, you reach a decent sized river that flows through the terrain.
  2234. >To your left, a large waterfall drops down to your level.
  2235. >It must be a hundred feet tall.
  2236. >As you’ve been walking through the wilderness, you’ve felt drawn to something.
  2237. >You don’t know what, but you turn towards the waterfall and walk along the river banks.
  2238. >When you near the crashing rapids, a mist starts to hit you.
  2239. >Your gaze falls onto the cliff just behind the waterfall.
  2240. >Behind the water, you can feel.
  2241. >No, you can see a path.
  2242. >A cave.
  2243. >Hugging the wall, you start to step around the water.
  2244. >When you get around it, you stare at the dark passage in front of you.
  2245. >Then begin to descend into it.
  2246. >…
  2247. >You’re not sure exactly how long you walked.
  2248. >It’s  been…
  2249. >A long time.
  2250. >Just one small and rough tunnel into the ground.
  2251. >Then you saw it.
  2252. >A faint blue light.
  2253. >…
  2254. >You step out into the small cavern.
  2255. >A pure wall of glowing crystal.
  2256. >Just like the one in Saddle Arabia.
  2257. >But this one doesn’t pulsate.
  2258. >It doesn’t give you a headache, or make your ears bleed.
  2259. >It’s just there…
  2260. >It’s just calm.
  2261. >You reach your front right hoof out and touch the crystal.
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