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Heart of War- Act XVIII

ThingPaste Oct 8th, 2017 (edited) 172 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.”
  33.  
  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.
  56.  
  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.
  78.  
  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.
  101.  
  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.
  122.  
  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.
  148.  
  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.”
  183.  
  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.
  212.  
  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.
  249.  
  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.
  274.  
  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…”
  299.  
  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.”
  330.  
  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.
  354.  
  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.
  377.  
  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…
  419.  
  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.
  441. >”ALRIGHT PONIES!”
  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.
  451.  
  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.
  466.  
  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.
  494.  
  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.”
  514.  
  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."
  534.  
  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.
  558.  
  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.
  591.  
  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.
  619.  
  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.
  656.  
  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.
  684.  
  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.
  720.  
  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:
  748.  
  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.”
  771.  
  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.
  798.  
  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.”
  832.  
  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?”
  857.  
  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!”
  897.  
  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.
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