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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 3

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 2020-12-18 00:48:21
Expiry: Never

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  7. FAQ & Locations/Character List:
  8. Character art: (characters in order of appearance; possible spoiler warning)
  10. CHAPTER 3
  12. > You are *huff* Sergeant Purity *puff* Ebonshield, and *huff* this is *puff* quite a *huff* workout.
  13. > The Royal Engineer had spent all of the evening, both before and after the supper, working at his desk.
  14. > Only when the sky was black and the Moon shone down upon Equestria did he get up and announce that it was time for the physical exercise.
  15. > So here you are, now, 'jogging' alongside the Great Lord, having deliberately decided to run rather than fly.
  16. > With his tall stature giving him a great stride, and his hairless body allowing him great endurance, keeping up with your VIP was quite a challenge.
  17. > As he strides confidently onwards, sweating profusely, you are reminded of the early days of your tutelage under the Master of the Shining Stellar Dance, Draxon.
  18. > You remember quickly becoming tired galloping alongside him as well.
  19. > '¡Maestro!', you protested. 'Why do you make me run on my hooves so?'
  20. > The old Master simply looked back at you, the whiskers of his moustache swaying with each step he took.
  21. > 'Student, how else wilt thou chase down thy prey, thou who wouldst dance among the shining stars?'
  22. > Huffing and puffing, you struggled to hustle up beside him, kicking up grey moon-dust behind you.
  23. > 'Master, why with the wings that the Mother-of-Stars has, in her wisdom, given us.'
  24. > Draxon chuckled as he leaped effortlessly over a small crater.
  25. > 'Ha! But has the Mother not given us hooves as well? Dost thou propose to ignore these gifts?'
  26. > You had had to go around the same crater, believing yourself unable to make the jump without flapping your wings and earning the ire of your Master.
  27. > For he had decreed that you may hold your wings during this exercise as you pleased, provided that you did not at any point use them to propel yourself.
  28. > And you were certain he would notice even the slightest flutter.
  30. > 'No, Master! But, having been blessed with these wings, shall we not find better uses for our hooves instead than treading dust?'
  31. > The supreme Master of your school nickered.
  32. > '¡Pnnggh-h-h-h-h! Thou wouldst do well to stay thy tongue and keep thy mind to the task before thee...'
  33. > Once again launching himself across a deep crater that you were forced to circle around, he shouted at you from above.
  34. > '... But, I can see that thy questions are as numerous as the stars above. So I will speak only this wisdom:'
  35. > Landing on his hooves far ahead of you, he looked back over his shoulder and spoke, still coursing ahead.
  36. > '... When a Dancer fights, he does so without the shackles of rules and restrictions. Therefore, those who aspire to join the Stars high above had best prepare themselves down to the very bottom of their soles!'
  37. > And with that, he had found some new reserve of strength and galloped off, leaving you choking upon his dust.
  38. > This had not seemed very enlightening at the time, but later, when you finally caught up with him, sitting calmly atop a small mesa, he invited you to sit.
  39. > Master Draxon then proceeded to critique every aspect of your running technique.
  40. > Trying to lengthen your gait instead of keeping to your natural stride.
  41. > Throwing your hooves against the ground in advance of your knees, over-stretching yourself.
  42. > Keeping your wings held too tightly against your flanks, preventing them from serving to cool your body.
  43. > Allowing your head to bob, as if that would propel you forward instead of wasting energy and motion.
  44. > And, the worst sin of all, trying to carry on a conversation instead of focusing on the race.
  45. > Just then, the Royal Engineer interrupts your reminiscence.
  46. > "I've been thinking, Sergeant."
  47. "Yes, Great Lord?"
  49. > Your human VIP swallows in-between hurried breaths.
  50. > "About the combat training. I was wondering if we're going about it the right way."
  51. "If the Great Lord has concerns, his humble servant will gladly hear them."
  52. > The two of you quickly hustle around a corner, keeping the main hedge on your left as you use the rose-garden of the Princess of the Sun for a purpose most unintended.
  53. > "Well..."
  54. > He gulps, then coughs as some spittle goes down the wrong way.
  55. > It as if the spirit of Draxon was here, punishing your Great Lord for speaking during a run, just as he would switch you with his stick when you disobeyed him.
  56. > And what does your ephemeral Master have in store for you for indulging your VIP, hmm?
  57. > "... Sorry. I meant to say, I *huff* was wondering if we should go straight into fighting with weapons and armour. Shouldn't we start with, like, more basic exercises first?"
  58. > Now, this is a sentiment most curious.
  59. > When you were but an initiate under the Master and his senior *estelares*, how you thirsted to be allowed the thrill of the true battle, instead of the seemingly pointless exercises and rote individual forms demanded of you instead.
  60. > Of course, these things had not been pointless at all, serving as the foundation of what was to come later, but that truth was beyond your understanding when you were first initiated.
  61. > Yet here is your VIP, to whom you have proposed to teach combat in its fullest, and before you have even begun, he expresses the concern that perhaps you are already moving too quickly.
  62. > Is he possessed of some wisdom unseen?
  63. > You decide to check.
  64. "If the Great Lord would prefer this, it may certainly be arranged."
  65. > Grunting as he hustles, step by step, up the long staircase to the terrace central of rose-garden, the two legs of the Royal Engineer have to work twice as hard as your four.
  66. > Despite this, he is still close on your heels when you reach the top first.
  68. > "I'm not saying I'd necessarily prefer it, Sergeant. I'm just throwing it out there that I'm not desperate to get straight to spears and blades..."
  69. > Pausing for a moment, he nods his head to the right, and you both take off in that direction.
  70. > "... If I'm going to learn to fight, and I mean to *really* fight, I'd like to do it properly. So I don't want you to take any shortcuts on my account, even if it means leaving my armour off and doing some boring stuff first."
  71. > Fascinating!
  72. > How overjoyed your master would have been to receive such a student whose head is already so populated with the wisdom.
  73. > But then you also consider that your VIP is a decade or more older than the vast majority of those who show up at the steps of any of the temples of the Stars.
  74. > Still, you can recall a few who entered the School of the Shining Stellar Dance with the knowledge that naturally comes with age, yet without the wisdom or the patience.
  75. > And a few of them were already trained warriors, having departed another school to learn instead the Dance.
  76. "Of course, Great Lord. Please rest assured that your humble servant shall not allow the appearance of vanity to get in the way of proper training..."
  77. > As you ponder the source of this apparent wisdom, a thought enters your head.
  78. "... But, may I ask: has the Great Lord previously received any kind training in combat?"
  79. > A curious smile appears on the face of the Royal Engineer.
  80. > "Not unless you count a summer weakly punching air for half-an-hour once a week, as a chubby pre-adolescent, at Master Mike's Midtown Mixed Martial Arts..."
  81. > 'Master Mike'?
  82. > Before you can inquire further, he laughs.
  83. > "... And you shouldn't. So, no, I haven't."
  84. > Curious.
  85. "Then may I ask, how do the people of the Great Lord train to fight, to '*really* fight'?"
  86. > The smile disappears.
  88. > "My people don't fight with swords and shields, Sergeant -- not any more, not unless it's for sport. For modern soldiers, physical training is still important, like being able to jog, run, and crawl, all while carrying a heavy load on their backs. And they do a little training in hand-to-hand combat, though it's mostly to build aggressiveness and determination."
  89. > Exiting the rose-garden, you both continue to jog back towards the palace.
  90. > "... My people fight with *tools*, Sergeant; tools so complex they can take tens of thousands of people hundreds upon hundreds of hours to build. But with these tools, a mere flick of a finger can kill an enemy a mile away -- or worse."
  91. > The people of the Great Lord are powerful indeed.
  92. > There is, however, something about the tone your VIP is using -- it is not just merely exhaustion from running around in the garden.
  93. > It is a certain seriousness mixed with a kind of sadness.
  94. > You feel also as if he is holding something back.
  95. > Before you finish processing his statement, the Royal Engineer bounds ahead of you, hustling up to the patio behind his chambers, then coming to a stop.
  96. > Doubling over forwards, he places his hands on his knees, taking several deep breaths.
  97. > You arrive shortly after him, panting as well, with your wings softly beating to clear the heat.
  98. > There is much humidity in the air tonight, for a mid-spring day, and the sky to the west is beginning to cloud over.
  99. > Perhaps it shall rain tomorrow night.
  100. > Alas
  101. > So long as tonight is clear, you should hopefully have success at the clubs once again.
  102. > Perhaps even you will see the same colt as this morning!
  103. > He said he would be there.
  104. > And what a delightful young stud he was...
  105. > Your VIP slowly stands up again, exhausted and drenched with sweat, then walks over to the small cocktail-table where he had placed the water jug and two of the glasses from his room.
  106. > Filling both, he takes a deep drink from one even as he hands one to you.
  108. > You sit down and refresh yourself, looking up at your VIP.
  109. > There is something quite attractive about a sweaty colt, panting and tired.
  110. > You can just imagine gliding back and forth across his slick, steaming-hot body...
  111. > Hmmm...
  112. > Yes, you definitely must strive to find some companionship tonight.
  113. > It is not good to leave the appetites unsated.
  114. "When the Great Lord spoke of 'boring stuff', was there some thing in particular which he had in mind?"
  115. > The Royal Engineer sighs and shrugs as you take another sip.
  116. > "I dunno. Physical exercises in general, I suppose. I guess sparring is out since pony hooves are much stronger than human fists. What about grappling? Do ponies wrestle?"
  117. > You lower the glass.
  118. "Ponies do wrestle, Great Lord. However, I should point out that the Great Lord has a significant advantage in such an activity, owing both to his hands and to his greater size, stature, and reach. I think he would quickly find it all too easy to seize a pony opponent and wrestle them into submission."
  119. > Your VIP looks at you quizzically.
  120. > "Isn't that a point in favour of it, then? Shouldn't you teach me to wrestle, first?"
  121. > Oh, and how you dearly *would* like to teach him to wrestle!
  122. > Just a different kind of wrestling; one not so useful on the battlefield.
  123. "I beg the forgiveness of the Great Lord, but I must point out that any pony trained in combat will be certain to strive most strenuously to keep out of the grasp of any enemy possessed of the hands or the claws. It is known that such enemies are most dangerous when they can take hold of us. I do not therefore think it will serve in any way as a means to fight in itself..."
  125. > After flapping your wings to dissipate the unbearable heat build-up at your flanks, you continue.
  126. "... Since the Great Lord appears to be in a shape most excellent already, and has expressed a desire to remain an engineer first and foremost, I believe that it may be possible to proceed straightaway with the conducting of the training in his armour and with his weapons."
  127. > The Royal Engineer nods.
  128. > "All right. And I appreciate the compliment..."
  129. > With a deep, final breath as he's fully recovered from the fast pace of the exercise, he looks up at the stars.
  130. > "... By the way, Sergeant, where are we going to conduct the training? Are we just going to use the palace's grass fields outdoors? Because we should probably get permission from Her Royal Highness's landscapers beforehand."
  131. > You smile.
  132. "It shall not be necessary to disturb the gardeners of the palace, Great Lord. While the Specialist Sparkshower was finding for the Great Lord a blacksmith able to provide him with armaments, his Sergeant did secure for him a suitable training ground."
  133. > "Oh, good. Where?"
  134. > Putting down the glass, you bow.
  135. "If it pleases the Great Lord, we shall train in the Grand Hall of Stars, in the Night Guard rookery, underneath Canterlot Mountain."
  136. > The Royal Engineer's brow furrows almost imperceptibly.
  137. > "A batpony training ground? Hmm..."
  138. > As he takes another sip of water, you wonder if he is perhaps not so accepting of your kind as he has previously let on.
  139. > This would be strange since, as the Mother-of-Stars pointed out, he has not been raised with any sort of prejudice...
  140. > "... I suppose it might be a good idea if you instructed me in your people's ways first. I don't want to make any gaffes in etiquette while we're there."
  141. > Ah, clever!
  142. > You bow again.
  143. "The Great Lord is most considerate; it is clear that his manners are already impeccable, but his humble servant shall certainly make such instructions as are necessary..."
  145. > Lifting your head, you look him in the eyes.
  146. "... However, as I have planned for us to use these facilities during the *day*, when the Night Guard normally rests, it is unlikely that we shall have many encounters with the other Children. Beyond, of course, the servants and attendants of the Grand Hall itself."
  147. > The Royal Engineer nods.
  148. > "Alright... Although, with a name like 'Grand Hall of Stars', you have me expecting a pretty formal atmosphere, Sergeant. And Her Royal Highness did effectively ask me to try to help bridge the gap between your kind and the rest of Equestria. I'm not averse to some lessons beforehand."
  149. > Hrm.
  150. > Despite his casual wording, it appears that your VIP is insistent on this point.
  151. > How much should you tell him?
  152. > It is, after all, an awkward subject.
  153. > You had known how Equestrian society functions, and in the past five days, had gotten to see it first-hoof as well.
  154. > And it was known to you that the native society of the Royal Engineer functioned in a way far more similar to that of Equestria than to that of the Moon.
  155. > Will he understand what you tell him?
  156. > Will it upset him?
  157. > If you had grown up in Equestrian society, you certainly believe that it would upset *you*.
  158. > But then again, Anonymous has displayed a certain kind of patient wisdom.
  159. > And since you are all but forbidden to lie to him, the question was really only how much to try to hide.
  160. > Just then, a cloud passes in front of the moon, and the grey patio stones grow dark.
  161. > As your eyes open wide, banishing the shadows that would cloud any other kind of pony's sight, you regard your Royal Engineer.
  162. > Despite lacking the iridescent eyes of a batpony, he still looks casually back at you with wide retinas, as if able to see just as well in the gloom as you can.
  163. > And, most importantly, unafraid of the encroaching shadows.
  165. Suggested background music: (Mark Morgan & Richard Band - 'Bones of the Night', from 'Planescape: Torment' [1999])
  167. "Such lessons have not, to my knowledge, ever been given, but since the Great Lord asks, I shall try."
  168. > You take a deep breath and try to find somewhere to begin.
  169. "... The first thing that the Great Lord should know is that from the moment we enter the rookery, he shall be a Great Lord no longer."
  170. > The Royal Engineer raises an eyebrow, and you carry on.
  171. "... You are not a warrior, Great Lord, and neither can you claim to be a Priest. Therefore you are beneath both, so, unless you wish to issue a challenge, you must yield completely and utterly to anyone of such ranks."
  172. > You do not have to wait long for the inevitable rebuttal.
  173. > "My title was given to me by *both* Princesses. Doesn't that mean something?"
  174. > Licking your lips, you continue.
  175. "It means a little, yes. Being so recognized, you shall at least not be treated as an outsider, a Shadow. And some of the Children may see you as more than what you appear to be. They may choose to show you respect, but it is not required. Therefore, you must prepare to be disrespected. Although I am sworn to defend you, under the mountain, I shall outrank you. If you see me yield to another pony, you must yield as well. And it would be preferable if you do not speak unless I invite you to do so."
  176. > "What about the other members of my quaternion? Are they outsiders, too?"
  177. > Ah!
  178. > He catches on quickly; very perceptive.
  179. "They are my comrades-in-arms, my battle-siblings. Therefore they are not Shadows, either, but are Stars as I am."
  181. > The Royal Engineer bends over and puts his glass down on the low wall that encloses the patio, then wipes his arm across his sweaty forehead.
  182. > "'Shadows' are outsiders, 'Stars' are warriors... These sound like social classes, or even castes, and you mentioned 'priests' distinctly as well. What class do I fall into, if I'm not a Shadow?"
  183. > You blink.
  184. > It appears that your VIP is far more understanding than you thought.
  185. > Perhaps his world is not so homogeneous in its societies.
  186. > Or, perhaps his people once behaved as your kind still do.
  187. > At this point, it might be easiest to tell him everything.
  188. > You take a breath and clear your throat.
  189. "As the Moon has five shapes, so there are five ranks among the Children, Great Lord..."
  190. > Understanding implicitly that you have more than just a few things to say, the Royal Engineer steps over to the wall and turns around to sits down, still listening attentively.
  191. "... When the moon is dark, the Shadows cover the land. Those who dwell in the darkness are outcasts, and count among their number outsiders, exiles, those whose work is foul and impure... and, at the very bottom of this darkest pit, anyone not of the Children."
  192. > Before you can continue on, your VIP whispers a word.
  193. > "Untouchables."
  194. > Forgetting your place in Equestria, you nod, rather than bow.
  195. "Yes, Great Lord. A succinct description."
  196. > "Go on."
  197. "The slim crescent moon belongs to those who work its thin soil, and so they are called the Dust. They are farmers, miners, labourers, and the failures unworthy of being banished quite so far as the Shadows."
  199. > The Royal Engineer nods silently, and you continue.
  200. "... A half moon is something greater, as when the moon-dust is collected into something greater, into the Rock. These are those who work with skill; artisans and artists, tradesponies, smiths, tailors, and others."
  201. > The clouds blacking out the moon finally pass by, and the white semi-circle shines down upon you both.
  202. "... When the moon is stronger still, gibbous and great, it shines in harmonious accordance with the Stars, and calls warriors to its banner. I count myself among their number."
  203. > "These classes -- sorry to interrupt again -- are they assigned at birth?"
  204. > You shake your head.
  205. "No, Great Lord. We do not have the concept of 'noble birth' as here in Equestria. A Child's place in society is determined by his profession, and he may change it by his actions or have it changed by circumstance."
  206. > "But where does he start?"
  207. > Drawing a deep breath, you glance up respectfully at the almost-full moon.
  208. "He starts where he is taken; when it is time to leave the *guardería*, the nursery-crèche, the different classes of his House will bid for him, making him different offers and promises based on his apparent value to them. He may accept whichever bid he pleases."
  209. > "Houses? This is more involved than just class, isn't it?"
  210. > Of course he immediately picked up on that; perhaps you should have left it out.
  211. > Oh, well.
  212. > You remember to actually bow this time.
  213. "Yes, Great Lord. But as the distinctions of House are moot outside of the moon, we need not discuss them at this time. All of the Children who are here in the Rookery have sworn to serve the Mother-of-Stars without regards for their House."
  214. > "I see."
  216. > Clearing your throat, you complete the lesson.
  217. "The final phase is when the moon is full and brightest, and in this brief moment it outshines the Stars and truly takes the centre stage in the night. As the League of Stars supported the Mother-of-Stars, so the Lunars are her priests among the Children, and they serve as the guardians of the next generation, as well as the ambassadors and messengers between the Houses of the moon."
  218. > The Royal Engineer nods.
  219. > "Shadow, Dust, Rock, Star, and Lunar. And where do I fall?"
  220. > You inhale sharply.
  221. "As the Great Lord is an engineer, a worker of fine things, he should number among the Rocks. But if you learn to fight as a warrior should, you may be counted among the Stars. And, because of your endorsement by the Mother-of-Stars, particularly as a kind of ambassador to the Children as a whole, it is also possible that you may be a Lunar..."
  222. > You lick your lips.
  223. "... However, such acknowledgements are normally made by the members of a House. Since the Great Lord is not formally a member, this complicates matters."
  224. > "But you belong to one, don't you?"
  225. > You bow.
  226. "Sí. And, if the Great Lord wishes it, I would gladly endorse him as a Star when I feel it would be appropriate. This would, however, have certain implications that we may discuss at a later date."
  227. > There was another option for his class as well, but it would be best not to overwhelm your charge with too much information at once.
  228. > In any case, despite the obvious similarities in your mind, it is unlikely that *they* would welcome him among their number.
  229. > The Royal Engineer sighs.
  230. > "I think I'm getting the idea. A strict hierarchy of social classes, but fairly fluid movement between them. And I'll need to bow and yield to soldiers and priests."
  232. > You gather up the two empty glasses and flap over to the water-jug to fill them both back up.
  233. "Neither of which we are likely to encounter during the training, Great Lord. But, yes, you must do this. And you must do likewise with other members of the Rock caste, since, without any specific acknowledgement among their number, you must count yourself as the lowest apprentice."
  234. > Your VIP laughs as you hoof him his water-glass.
  235. > "Hah, of course! Well, it's all right. I don't mind kowtowing to bigwigs if that's what's needed to get my work done. I did it when I first arrived here, too -- and I'm still a little uncomfortable with the social promotion I received as a result. I still apply what Chancellor Strings calls an 'oversupply of humility'."
  236. > You bow.
  237. "A most practical attitude, Great Lord."
  238. > Another shadow passes over the patio as another cloud -- bigger, and puffier this time -- moves in to obscure the moon as it covers the whole sky.
  239. > Yes, it will rain tomorrow.
  240. > A breeze comes sweeping in across the gardens, rustling the trees and shrubs that are just reaching the peak of their efflorescences.
  241. > The Royal Engineer takes a sip and looks over the grounds.
  242. > "Looks like we're due for some rain. You might as well call it a night now, Sergeant. I'm going to take a shower and then turn in."
  243. > You bow.
  244. "Gracias, Great Lord, many thanks. But I will remain at my post until the shift is formally ended."
  245. > Corporal Bound has asked all of you not to give in to his requests for early dismissal -- at least not for a little while, lest he accidentally make a mistake.
  246. > "Sure. Come on, let's get inside before the heavens open up."
  248. > 'Heavens open up'.
  249. > What a curious turn of phrase.
  250. > And yet, how appropriate.
  251. > With an unusual new sense of appreciation for the wisdom and intelligence of your VIP, you enter his chambers behind him, shutting and latching the glass door behind his desk as he trundles off to the washroom.
  252. > You are in need of a shower yourself, to be sure, but you can wait another hour or two until midnight.
  253. > Perhaps the Royal Engineer will have more questions when he emerges from his bath.
  254. > At the very least, it will give you time to consider what else you should tell him.
  255. > As you settle in at your post in front of the main doors, you are reminded of something Master Draxon always liked to say.
  256. > 'A Dancer must not settle into one form; he must adapt it and build his own, and let it grow. He must become like water.'
  257. > Surely, if you are the first batpony to walk openly in the streets of Canterlot, you are considerably liquid already.
  258. > However, lubricating the graceful entrance of your VIP into batpony society...
  259. > Now, this is a task requiring a fluidity most supreme.
  264. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and it's time to turn in.
  265. > Having spent the last two hours perched on a barstool in the Canterlot Barracks canteen, your plot could stand a trot somewhere further than the washroom.
  266. > At least your company for the evening has been conservative with his drink, discouraging you by example from allowing yourself to get too sloshed.
  267. > Drunkenly stumbling your way back to the Palace would really not be a good idea.
  268. > Especially not with the rain coming down outside.
  269. > As the thundershower, whipped up by spring winds, lashes against the canteen's windows, Alex Castlerook, one of the only ponies you ever respected in the Royal Guard, sits across the little cocktail table from you, nursing the final dregs of his ale.
  270. > You've had a pleasant time swapping stories, but you really ought to be going now.
  271. "I should probably call it a night."
  272. > The Sergeant -- Sergeant! You could've been one too by now, if you'd put your mind to it! -- nods his head at you.
  273. > "Yeah, me too. We've gotta bugler in the 186th who thinks 'e's Princess Celestia, blowin' loud enough to raise the sun, never mind the whole regiment."
  274. > Already slurring his words slightly, it's apparent that Castlerook is a bit of a lightweight after just five stout pints.
  275. > Not like you, still holding it together after eight.
  276. > Well, who cares?
  277. > Drinking alcohol is hardly a skill to boast about, is it?
  278. > Buck no it isn't, not unless you're some blasted 'shoe fresh out of camp!
  279. > "... It was nice to catch up with you, Bound."
  280. > You blink your eyes and nod.
  281. "Likewise, Castlerook."
  282. > Alex tilts his head slightly sideways and plays with the handle of his beer-glass, rotating the mug back and forth.
  283. > "How'dya feel about doin' this again sometime... Honour?"
  284. > First name.
  285. > You'd stayed on last names so far tonight.
  287. > At first the excuse was because there were a few other NCOs from the 186th in the bar, and he was introducing -- or re-introducing -- you to them when they came by.
  288. > But now, this close to last call, there was hardly anypony left.
  289. > No surprise, after a long ride and march up here from Filly'.
  290. > They were all just tuckered out, and the alcohol sure didn't help.
  291. > But Castlerook was keeping it together, even if the conversation had been thin.
  292. > You hadn't really contributed much.
  293. > Which was a surprise even to you.
  294. > Before you left, you'd donned your red service uniform and dabbed just a hint of makeup on around your eyes.
  295. > Not that you had any makeup on you -- but Glamerspear did, and you doubt she'd miss the minuscule amount you borrowed off her.
  296. > What the hay, you can pay her back later if she complains.
  297. > But instead of loosening you up and putting you in the mood to socialize, this preparation had just wound you up even tighter than you'd been at dinner.
  298. > It was so bucking frustrating!
  299. > You were supposed to be here to have a good time.
  300. > And you *liked* Castlerook, damn it!
  301. > He was a good colt, and a good guardspony, and had been a good friend in the past, too.
  302. > Even managed to fill in the empty conversation where you'd been quiet.
  303. > And he hadn't tried to pull any slick moves on you now.
  304. > This invitation to a date had been as casual as it could have been.
  305. > So why are you feeling so cold now that you're out with him?
  306. > Is it just the fact that it is 'a date', and you haven't been on one of those in over a year?
  307. > Or is there something else that's stressing you out?
  308. > Maybe it's how Castlerook is a reflection of what you could have been.
  309. > You could have been a Sergeant by now, or maybe even made Staff.
  310. > Celestia knows you have the brains for it, if you can just squish them into order and actually apply them to the task.
  312. > That'd require you to *want* to be a Sergeant, though.
  313. > Well if you don't want to be a Sergeant, then why does it make you feel bad to see Castlerook as one?
  314. > The Tartarus *do* you want?
  315. > "... Bound? You okay over there?"
  316. > Alex reaches a hoof across the table and rests it gently on your foreleg.
  317. > Buck, how long have you been thinking?
  318. "Sorry... I've..."
  319. > You sigh.
  320. "... It's been a long day."
  321. > Swallowing, you continue.
  322. "... But yeah, let's do this again sometime."
  323. > Buck your apprehensions.
  324. > Commit now, before you have the chance to say 'no'.
  325. > If you want to second-guess yourself into misery, there's always tomorrow.
  326. > "Alright. I'll have to let you know how the schedulin' goes; might pull a night watch or two."
  327. > You lift your head up and narrow your eyes.
  328. "Night watch? Since when do Royal Guard ponies stand for the Canterlot night shift?"
  329. > Alex shrugs.
  330. > "Since we got orders to do it, I suppose."
  331. "Bullshit. That's been the Night Guard's duty almost since Luna came back."
  332. > The Sergeant lifts up his mug and sips the last dregs of his beer.
  333. > "I don't know anything more than what I'm told. And you know the rule on this subject: Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
  334. > You chuckle.
  335. "Heh, yeah. Except I didn't ask, but I got told anyways."
  336. > Alex's eyes narrow.
  337. > "What're you on about?"
  338. > You should probably shut up now.
  339. > But you don't.
  340. "Got a batpony in my quat'. Got the whole deal on their kind from Her Majesty herself. She thinks my VIP's got it in him to be some kind of ambassador. Damned if I don't believe her, too."
  341. > "Yeah?"
  342. > He shrugs.
  343. > "... You know more than me, then. Hope you didn't spill that into the Underground, though."
  344. > You shake your head.
  345. "Come on, Alex. I've got more sense than that."
  346. > The buck are you using his first name for?
  347. > The buck are you still talking for?
  348. > Castlerook pushes his mug around some more.
  349. > "Well, maybe you shouldn't have told me nothin', neither."
  350. > This bucker talking down to you?
  352. > Just because his plot made Sarge without trying, while you stayed stuck at Corporal due to not trying even harder?
  353. > Thinks he can boss you around because he outranks you?
  354. > Invites you on a date, for which you go and get yourself all buckin' tarted up, and he doesn't even have the decency to put a bucking move on you!
  355. > Oh, buck.
  356. > Get a hold of yourself, Honour.
  357. > He's more sober than he sounds.
  358. > And maybe you're drunker than you sound, too.
  359. > You shake your head, squeezing your eyes shut for a moment to try to clear the haze.
  360. "I gotta get to bed. I've got the morning shift tomorrow."
  361. > You try to get to your hooves, but the ground feels distant beneath you, and you have to keep your forelegs hooked onto the cocktail-table like it's the only thing holding the world up.
  362. > "Okay."
  363. > After some struggling, you manage to get one hesitant hoof down on the wooden floor, and then the other.
  364. > Letting go with the other two takes enough of a struggle that you feel yourself sweating from the exertion.
  365. > And, with the stress of that physical challenge combined everything going through your mind right now, you feel not just a bit of sweat collecting at your brow, but a few tears escaping from your eyes.
  366. > You have to sit down on the floor for a second to wipe it all away.
  367. > As you sit there for far longer than you realize, sniffling and catching your breath, you feel a warm foreleg wrap around you.
  368. > "... Hey, hey, hey. Are you okay? C'mon, let me walk you back to the palace."
  369. > His steady, warm embrace -- not that it's much of one, it's just the bare minimum -- has you feeling both attracted and disgusted.
  370. > Won't this colt just come out and buckin'... kiss you or something? Aren't you worth it?
  371. > He'd better get his hooves off of you, the damned dirty colt, sizing you up like a piece of meat. Buck off, buddy!
  372. > The contradicting opinions only serve to intensify your headache.
  373. > It's all you can do but to nod weakly in agreement.
  374. "Yeah, let's go."
  376. > "Alright, just put one hoof in front of t'other, okay? It's called walking."
  377. > Bucking...
  378. > This colt and his lame-plot jokes.
  379. > You can't help but snort in spite of yourself.
  380. > And, as he steadily escorts you out the canteen door, at least he has the decency to chuckle at his own awful attempt at humour.
  381. > "... It's rainin' pretty hard out there. We'll take the long way 'round, if you can manage it. Safer than risking the slippery roads, I think."
  382. "Sure. I'm not... I'm not that bad. I can stand on my own."
  383. > Sure enough, you do, and he withdraws his supporting foreleg.
  384. > Taking a deep breath, you walk alongside Sergeant Castlerook, trying not to look drunk as you pace the barracks hallways on your way to the Palace.
  385. > Ordinarily, this long, winding walk -- the direct route across the garden is at least three times faster -- would give you time to think.
  386. > But frankly, thinking is the last thing you want to do right now.
  387. > You just want to focus on one hoof in front of the other -- it's called walking, or so you've heard.
  388. > And you don't want anything of what was going through your head earlier to show its ugly face again.
  389. > Those are thoughts for sober-time.
  390. > As much as you try not to think about Castlerook, though, your thoughts still turn to tomorrow.
  391. > What's the Royal Engineer going to say when you show up hungover for duty?
  392. > You'll have disappointed him for the third time.
  393. > The first being when you picked the wrong play at Oldstirrup bridge -- what a mess that was.
  394. > The second, when you blew up at him over a minor offence and a slip of the tongue -- should've been shitcanned after that one!
  395. > Except the weird thing was, he didn't think you'd disappointed him very much at all.
  396. > The buck was with that colt?
  397. > Couldn't see a failure for what it was?
  398. > For what *she* was?
  400. > And this colt, too, for that matter!
  401. > Well, if he's got any senses left in him, he'll know now, Honour.
  402. > He'll know why you're still a Corporal, on the slow road to washing out, sticking in the VIP section that most ponies treat as just a quick tourist vacation.
  403. > No makeup or fancy clothes can cover up that.
  404. > Before you can wallow much deeper in your misery, you realize you've already reached your wing of the palace.
  405. > Your room is just the next door down.
  406. > As you approach it, you glance over at Castlerook.
  407. > He looks tired, but determined.
  408. > And he gives you a sympathetic look when he notices you examining him.
  409. > You stop in front of the door, then gulp.
  410. "Well, this is me, here."
  411. > Castlerook looks at the door, then back at you.
  412. > "Okay. You sure you're all right?"
  413. "Nothing some sleep won't cure."
  414. > As you look each other over, the conflicting feels start to whisper in your mind.
  415. > Half of you wants him to lean in for a kiss.
  416. > You'll grope for the door-handle, and pull him in, and lead him over to your bedroom, and then it won't just be Ebonshield who has some company tonight.
  417. > Oh yeah, you can hear something going on in there.
  418. > She's quiet, but whoever she's got with her sure isn't.
  419. > The other half of you wants Castlerook to keep his distance.
  420. > That part is just about ready to slap him if he tries anything.
  421. > He *knows* what your ex did to you.
  422. > He *knows* he should take it slow, and let you ease into this.
  423. > But you want it, you want something, anything, so badly...
  425. > Perhaps seeing the tension and exhaustion in your eyes, Alex just nods.
  426. > "See you around, then, Corporal. I'll be on base for at least the next two weeks."
  427. > You can't let him get away from you like this!
  428. "Send me a note when you know your schedule."
  429. > A warm smile creeps onto his face.
  430. > "I will. Good-night."
  431. > He turns to leave, and you put a hoof on the door-handle, then push your way in.
  432. > Thank Celestia, nopony else is up.
  433. > Besides Eb and tonight's lucky colt.
  434. > You have just enough time to covertly wash the streaky remains of your makeup off and pass out in your bed to still get five or six hours of sleep tonight.
  435. > But you know, you *know*, that if you have any dreams at all tonight, they are going to be bucked up ones.
  436. > You just hope that they don't hit too close to home.
  441. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you swear to Celestia, you'll never drink again.
  442. > At least not while meeting old friends.
  443. > Particularly ones who might become new flames.
  444. > And especially not ones whose career advancement puts yours to shame.
  445. > Thankfully, you've managed to wake up without a hangover.
  446. > You've also managed to put the awful, conflicted feelings you'd felt yesterday behind you.
  447. > But oh, how they tortured your dreams last night.
  448. > Delving far deeper than merely bizarre, you'd imagined things almost impossibly strange.
  449. > You were driving the Royal Engineer's automobile, except it wasn't an automobile, it was a flying carriage, somehow also powered by steam.
  450. > Chasing you was Lieutenant Kilfeather, except he wasn't flying by himself, he was sitting in his own flying carriage, wearing Princess Luna's tiara, and commanding the pegasi pulling him to hurry up and catch you.
  451. > Except one of them was a minotaur, and even Sparkshower was part of his team at first, though later it was just another pony in heavy armour, and she was flying alongside you.
  452. > And Anonymous...
  453. > Well, he started off sitting next to you, simple enough.
  454. > But then he was running in the air, the carriage lashed to his back as he pulled it along the sky.
  455. > Later still, while you'd just turned to glimpse back at your pursuer, he'd become the steam engine itself, pushing the pistons by squatting and standing up again.
  456. > All while telling you how simple it all was, of course.
  457. > And then you joined him, working the other piston, too!
  458. > Castlerook snuck into the mess somehow, as well.
  459. > You had to stop the carriage to pick up more water and fuel, and he was there -- at some kind of roadside motel in the sky -- wearing a Captain's swank uniform and with Glamerspear fawning all over him.
  461. > Guh.
  462. > What nonsense.
  463. > Why do you always remember the really weird ones?
  464. > Having reached the Royal Engineer's chamber doors, you knock and enter when bidden.
  465. "Corporal Bound reporting for duty, sir."
  466. > You're stung with an instant sense of deja-vu as you see Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer, squatting down in front of the mirror beside the door.
  467. > And he's not wearing his usual suit, either.
  468. > "Good morning, Corporal!"
  469. "Good morning, sir..."
  470. > Are those dungaree navy slops?
  471. > You try not to furrow your brow too much, but it's difficult.
  472. "... New outfit?"
  473. > With a chipper smile on his face, your Very Important Pony, who isn't actually a pony, stands up again and adjusts the matching-colour belt attached at the waist.
  474. > It's a set of denim working-pony's overalls.
  475. > For a Lord of Equestria?
  476. > And not just any Lord, but a high-placed member of the Blue Chamber?!
  477. > "Yes! Well, no, actually, I've had them for months -- I just haven't worn them yet. Can you believe I forgot to pull these out yesterday? Why, I ordered them way back when I first started amassing parts to build these steam engines!"
  478. > Wearing thick-soled leather work-shoes, he places his hands on his hips and turns in place, proudly showing off his new outfit.
  479. > You're no fashion snob like Glamerspear, but... seriously?
  480. "Overalls, sir?"
  481. > "Sure! Being a grease-monkey can make things messy, and I don't want to spoil my nice suit."
  482. > A what-monkey now?
  484. > Before you can wonder just what kind of simians existed on your VIP's home planet, you notice the icon on his breast.
  485. > An embroidered red-on-white patch reads 'Royal Engineer' in a cursive font.
  486. > Okay, that's kind of cute.
  487. > Anonymous reaches one hand into a deep side pocket.
  488. > "... Got a hat for it, too!"
  489. > The same 'Royal Engineer' patch is on a visored hat made out of denim, too.
  490. > Stretching out the elastic band with one hand, he slips it onto his head.
  491. > It perfectly completes the ridiculously low-brow outfit.
  492. > He honestly looks ready for a shift at the Fillydelphia docks, unloading a ship in port, or working in the yards building one.
  493. > But then again, isn't that basically what he's doing now?
  494. > Building a new kind of ship?
  495. > And he certainly looks comfy in those warm cozy coveralls.
  496. > All things considered, it was actually an appropriate outfit for his work at present -- provided he didn't run into a Princess or two with it on.
  497. > This must mean it's back to the garage today.
  498. > Before you can open your mouth to ask if that's the case, Anonymous grabs a toolbox full of parts from one of his workbenches, then turns and nods at you.
  499. > "Ready for another day in the Royal Garage, Corporal?"
  500. > You swallow.
  501. > Hopefully it's going to be a working-on-the-automobile kind of day today.
  502. > Rather than a careening dangerously out of control around the palace grounds kind of day.
  503. "Yes, sir."
  504. > "That's good to hear; I greatly appreciated your help yesterday.."
  505. > The Royal Engineer smiles warmly at you, then furrows his brow and puts the toolbox down on the ground.
  506. > "... But I have to apologize. This morning, I realized this probably isn't in your job description. And I remembered what you told me on Friday."
  507. > That was when you reconciled after your outburst.
  508. > During it, you gave him a low-down on what your duties really entailed.
  509. > You have a pretty good idea of where he's going with this.
  511. > "... So, please, before we begin: is this acceptable? Using you as a labourer on this project? And asking you to learn how to drive my automobile?"
  512. > That's a good question.
  513. > You narrow your eyes.
  514. "Strictly speaking, sir... Probably not."
  515. > You sigh.
  516. "... I can't keep watch for your safety if I'm helping you work on your machine. And I definitely can't keep watch if I'm trying to pilot it, either. So, technically, I'm derelict in the performance of my duties."
  517. > He nods.
  518. > "I thought that might be true. I don't suppose there's anything we can do about it?"
  519. > You shrug.
  520. "I don't know, sir. Believe me, I enjoy helping out more than standing around, but shouldn't you have somepony else for this sort of thing? An assistant? Or two?"
  521. > The Royal Engineer sucks on his lips and shoves his hands into his pockets.
  522. > "You'd think so, wouldn't you? I'm going to have to put together a team very soon, that's for sure, if I'm going to get any real kind of work done..."
  523. > After staring reflectively at the wall, he shakes his head.
  524. > "... I just don't know where to begin with that. I really don't know that many ponies here, especially not outside of the palace. I have a sneaking suspicion that Her Majesty assigned me bodyguards in an attempt to change that; she and Purse Strings have always been on my case about getting out more and socializing."
  525. > You start to think about making a suggestion, but he carries on.
  526. > "... Anyways, before I start filing paperwork and interviewing candidates, I really wanted to show off a piece of actual industrial technology. Something to build up some excitement, some real tangible interest. It'll be easier to recruit good ponies that way, I imagine. And, as impressive as it would probably be for me to drive a car around, it's even doubly so if it's a pony who learned it in just a few days."
  528. > Clicking his tongue against his teeth, he pulls his hands back out of his pockets, and rests his chin in one hand, supporting it at the elbow with the other.
  529. > "... To be perfectly frank, the real problem is that I want the next step to be setting up an actual workshop and foundry. It's a big ask on the treasury. I think it's the right move, but Her Majesty has, in the past, expressed a desire to take things slowly."
  530. > He shrugs.
  531. > "... Which I can appreciate, but if I can show off this brass-construction steam automobile in a few days, then maybe it'll convince her enough to let me take the bigger step forwards that I have in mind."
  532. > This is quite a lot to take in at once.
  533. > This isn't just your VIP sharing an immediate concern with you; he's talking about the future of his work.
  534. > Work that will change the face of Equestria.
  535. > As much as meeting Castlerook last night made you feel like an inadequate underachiever, when you're so close to the Royal Engineer's bleeding-edge technological work, you find yourself forgetting about your lowly rank and almost nonexistent plans for the future.
  536. > And anyways, hadn't it been exciting to learn how to operate his automobile?
  537. > Wasn't reading his book interesting, even if a lot of it was over your head?
  538. > Weren't you engaged when you worked alongside your VIP, examining and repairing his machinery?
  539. > It sure was.
  540. > There's only one answer, then.
  541. > You look Anonymous in the eyes.
  542. "If you really want *me* to help you with this, sir, then we can always bring down one of your other guards to be actually on-duty and watching."
  543. > The Royal Engineer lifts his eyebrows.
  544. > "That's allowed? Putting somepony else on-shift just because you're fiddling around with valves and gears with me?"
  545. > You nod.
  546. "Yes, sir. And, as I think I've mentioned in the past, it's usually far more interesting being on-duty than simply waiting upstairs on-call, so I doubt anypony would mind it."
  548. > The warm smile returns to his face.
  549. > "Alright, if you think it's acceptable, then I'm all for it. Perhaps Specialist Sparkshower would be best? She'll have an easier time following us in the car, after all."
  550. > You nod.
  551. "I was just about to suggest her, sir."
  552. > "Excellent! I'll wait for you to get back."
  553. > Saluting, you turn to leave.
  554. > "... And, Corporal, by the way..."
  555. > When your VIP calls out to you, your hoof on the door-handle, you turn your head back to him.
  556. > "... I really do appreciate your help on this. If you couldn't do this, I don't know who else I'd turn to; it'd be hard to do this with anypony else."
  557. > He shrugs, an awkward smile on his face.
  558. > "... We've only known each other for two weeks, but already it feels like we've been through quite a lot. I like to think we have a good working relationship as a result."
  559. > You smile.
  560. "Yes, sir. I think so, too."
  561. > He nods.
  562. > "See you in a few minutes, then."
  563. "I'll be right back, sir."
  564. > As you pull the door shut behind you and trot your way over to the staircase, you have sort of a funny feeling about this.
  565. > It's not that you're wary of veering out of your comfort zone.
  566. > Far from it.
  567. > The funny thing was, you didn't mind giving up your Royal Guard duties one bit.
  568. > And, to be honest, of the four members of your quaternion, were you really the most useful combatant in a fight any more?
  570. > Glamerspear was a hothead, but a war hero with a strange power, if a self-destructive one.
  571. > Sparkshower meanwhile, after having beaten 'Joker', was now an invulnerable, unshakable fortress, who even had the temerity to tell *you* that fighting Kilfeather was the right move.
  572. > Even though she was the one to have been the most terrified of the fight in the first place!
  573. > And Ebonshield, whose combat powers you had yet to see -- but probably very soon bear witness to -- had already proven herself to be more level-headed than you were.
  574. > Plus, who knows what kind of fighter Anonymous himself will prove to be?
  575. > In this crowd, you were the odd pony out.
  576. > Compared to those three ponies and their accomplishments, you were just the reasonably strong, reasonably skilled, reasonably experienced, and reasonably clever earth pony.
  577. > If, perhaps, one with a nasty tendency to second-guess herself...
  578. > It seemed altogether fitting that, for this assignment, with these squad-mates, you should metaphorically ditch your combat armour and don a different outfit instead.
  579. > Not that you were going to let your guard down, of course.
  580. > Kilfeather was still out there, and he had his backup.
  581. > But the next time you met him, that now-flightless bastard, you were going to run him right over with Anonymous' self-powered contraption.
  582. > Now there's a goal worth training for.
  583. > You can already hear the pleasant thump the wheels'll make going over him...
  585. Suggested interlude music: (Johnny Mercer - Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, as featured in 'L.A. Confidential' [1997])
  590. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and it's good to be back at work.
  591. "By the glory of the Morning Dawn, I hereby relieve you at this post."
  592. > Corporal Bound returns your salute.
  593. > "By the peace of the Evening Dusk, I stand relieved."
  594. > Time for your evening shift with your VIP, the Royal Engineer of Equestria.
  595. > How you've missed this.
  596. > It's almost strange that you'd been pining for work duty, because while you were off you got the chance to do all the fun stuff you originally entered the VIP service for.
  597. > Skipping out on the bulk of stupid morning drills.
  598. > Socializing with the upper crust.
  599. > Shopping in Canterlot.
  600. > All the fun outside-of work that, in the VIP service, sometimes came inside-work as well.
  601. > But, wearing a confident smirk on your face, you know the truth of why you're glad to be back at your post.
  602. > You're not really a socialite playmare; that's just your weekend persona.
  603. > Valiant Kilfeather, that sociopath, was actually right about you.
  604. > Deep down, you enlisted in the Royal Guard because you like to fight.
  605. > And even if your assignment right now mostly involves standing around in front of a door, at least there's still the chance of a good battle.
  606. > With Anonymous as your VIP, it was a apparently an unusually good chance, too.
  607. > Especially with the batpony Sergeant Ebonshield's plan to train him in combat, as well.
  608. > Before Honour can step by you and exit the Royal Engineer's chambers, Anonymous speaks out from behind his desk.
  609. > "Just a moment, Corporal, if you please."
  610. > Stopping in her tracks, she steps back inside and shuts the door for privacy.
  611. > "Yes, sir?"
  612. > The Royal Engineer puts down his quill and stands up.
  613. > "I just wanted to greet Specialist Glamerspear..."
  614. > He smiles and steps around from behind his desk, walking over to the chamber doors.
  615. > You snap to attention and salute him.
  617. > "... Specialist, welcome back. It's good to see you on your own four hooves again."
  618. > That's considerate of him.
  619. "Thank you, sir."
  620. > He holds out his hand, and you drop your salute to shake it with your hoof.
  621. > Gosh, he's in a friendly mood this evening.
  622. > Must have had a good day so far, you suppose?
  623. > A quick glance over at stony-faced Honour tells you nothing, though.
  624. > "No, thank *you*, Specialist. It was on my account that you were put in harm's way. I should have said this before, but I'm sorry you took an injury for your troubles."
  625. > You smirk.
  626. "Oh, no, sir, it was no trouble. Anytime you need a fly swatted, I'm your mare."
  627. > Anonymous chuckles and nods.
  628. > "Aha. Which brings me to a thought I was having earlier, actually. If I might bring up your duel with Lieutenant Kilfeather?"
  629. > You cock an eyebrow.
  630. "Yes, sir?"
  631. > Anonymous folds his arms across his chest.
  632. > "You mentioned before that that you normally operate in a battery, with a spotter and other gunners. That, of course, wasn't the case when you duelled the Lieutenant."
  633. > Oh, geez.
  634. > Is he going to chide you for failing to swat Val all by yourself?
  635. > Did Honour or Ebonshield put him up to this?
  636. > It couldn't have been Sparkshower, that's for sure.
  637. > You feel a lump in your throat, and your good cheer from being back at work starts to evaporate.
  638. "No, sir, it wasn't. But-"
  639. > Anonymous continues before you can continue your objections.
  640. > "Well, it seems to me that your main disadvantage as an anti-air gunner is mobility. Would you agree?"
  641. > What is he trying to say?
  642. > That you're a wide-hipped Pony Other than Grunt who, like every POG, just sits on her fat plot all day?
  643. > That if you were a little more nimble on your hooves, maybe 'Icepone' wouldn't have had such an easy time juggling you around from position to position?
  645. > This is just like the armour-strap incident on Friday!
  646. > You and your plot are both perfectly up to Pony Physical Training standards, damn it!
  647. > Unwilling to let yourself quite blow up in your VIP's face, you awkwardly think of how to reply.
  648. "Uhm..."
  649. > Anonymous carries right on in spite of your discomfort.
  650. > "Oh, of course, I forgot also how you can't shoot and shield at the same time. But I assume that's common to every unicorn in the anti-air duties?"
  651. > Now that's just not fair!
  652. > Comparing you to the elite AA gunners who can do both at the same time!
  653. > Yeah, you're a Centurion of the Ram, but you're one of the youngest members on order's rolls, only a few years into the Guard.
  654. > You're not some bearded old unicorn who can shoot, shield, and flip three pancakes at the same time!
  655. > "... And then there's target acquisition, but then again, that's just the state of sensors and optics, correct?"
  656. > 'Sensors and optics'?
  657. > Is he trying to say that not only are you a fat-assed mare, you're blind as a bat, too?
  658. > Just because you can't see a spec two miles away, even with the two-times magnification.
  659. > Damn, you haven't had a dressing-down this bad since...
  660. > Well, not since you got into that argument with Sparkshower over the Gala shift.
  661. > Which was on Tuesday.
  662. > So... not even a week ago.
  663. > Damn.
  664. > The memory of that tantrum, more than anything Anonymous has said so far, and despite it being excusable by the effects of acute manaburn, deflates you even further, and you avert your gaze from the penetrating questions of your imposing VIP.
  665. "Er, it, uh..."
  666. > Honour seems to pick up on your discomfort.
  667. > "Sir, may I ask the reason why you're asking these questions?"
  668. > Thanks for the save, Corporal.
  670. > Swallowing, you try to compose yourself and look your VIP in the eyes again.
  671. > He's still smiling, what the buck?
  672. > That's just psychotic, smiling while he's laying into somepony like-
  673. > "Oh, well, I was just thinking about practical military applications for the steam-car. I was going to ask Specialist Glamerspear if she would be interested in mobile gunnery training; I think she might find it agrees very well with her training and techniques, and it would make for an interesting demonstration when we show off the vehicle."
  674. > ... Like he wasn't doing at all, apparently, buck!
  675. > Way to misread your VIP, Glam.
  676. > Anonymous turns to you with a smile, and waves a finger in the air.
  677. > "... I don't know if you've heard yet, but Corporal Bound is shaping up to be quite the driver."
  678. > Honour clears her throat.
  679. > "I barely avoided that tree this afternoon, sir."
  680. > The Royal Engineer grins.
  681. > "You *did* avoid it, though. But let's not have last week's conversation about wrong decisions and right outcomes again."
  682. > "Yes, sir."
  683. > You look over at Honour, and -- is she tufting a bit out her armour?
  684. > The stoic brown earth pony, who was so down on herself yesterday morning, showing a bit of pride?
  685. > What the heck is going on here?
  686. > Just what has the Royal Engineer been up to while you've been out of it?
  687. "Pardon me, but I'm a little lost here. Steam-car? Tree?"
  688. > Your VIP chuckles.
  689. > "I suppose I did rather get ahead of myself there, didn't I? My apologies. Corporal, perhaps you could best put it in simple terms?"
  690. > He looks at Corporal Bound, folding his arms behind his back, and Honour looks over at you.
  691. > "The Royal Engineer's put together a self-powered carriage based on an ordinary dogcart; it runs on lamp oil and water, with a tiller for steering. We first drove it around yesterday while you and Sparkshower were out on the town."
  692. > What the buck, lamp oil and water can move carriages, now?
  694. > Before you can get any deeper into that, the Royal Engineer speaks up, still in good cheer.
  695. > "Oh, by the way, I hope enjoyed yourself yesterday. Over lunch today, Specialist Sparkshower gushed about what a good time she'd had."
  696. > Well, of course she did!
  697. > When you're out with your marefriends, you always make sure they're having a good time.
  698. "Yes, sir, we got all our shopping done for the gala."
  699. > "Ah, yes, that's right. I suppose it's almost time for me to head over for my first fitting at the Bridle Path Clothiers. Should probably be getting a note from them this week."
  700. > That should be interesting.
  701. > He'd made quite the order there.
  702. > Just then, there's a knock at the door.
  703. > You glance at Honour, but she nods at you.
  704. > She was, after all, technically relieved of duty by you, if not yet quite dismissed by your VIP.
  705. > You pull open one of the doors to greet the visitor.
  706. > A purple pegasus colt with an orange mane is flapping in place in front of the door.
  707. > "Message for the Lord Engineer! Have a good day!"
  708. > Before you can say anything, he presses a card into your hoof and bolts it.
  709. > Sheesh!
  710. > These express-messenger ponies are always in a hurry!
  711. > Closing the door and turning back to your VIP, you hoof him the note.
  712. > Anonymous takes in two hands and holds it up to read it.
  713. > "Hum. It seems bronze is easier to work with than wool..."
  714. > He holds the card up in the air.
  715. > "... Bronzehorn says my armour's ready for a test fitting."
  716. > Corporal Bound nods.
  717. > "Tomorrow morning, sir?"
  718. > The Royal Engineer looks out the window.
  719. > It's a nice, sunny day, and there's still quite a lot of light.
  720. > "I don't know... Dusk isn't until seven or so now, isn't it? How about we go tonight?"
  721. > Oh, sweet Celestia.
  722. > First day back on the job, and you're going to have to get stuffed into that Tartarean flying circus again?
  723. > And you haven't even practiced your levitation spells!
  725. > "Is Her Majesty's flying carriage still available to you, sir?"
  726. > Please say no, please say no, please say no...
  727. > "No..."
  728. > PRAISE THE SUN!
  729. > Anonymous grins.
  730. > "... But we don't need it any more. We'll take the steam-car. You need some more time at the helm, after all."
  731. > Now it's Honour's turn to gulp.
  732. > "Yes... sir."
  733. > "You'll be able to handle it, Corporal. I can take over if you get worn out. And the car's plenty tough now after the reinforcements we added this morning."
  734. > "Yes, sir."
  735. > The Royal Engineer checks his pocket-watch, then glances out the window again.
  736. > "Maybe it'd be a good idea to pack a tent and some bedrolls, though... just in case anything goes wrong."
  737. > Your first day officially back on duty, and it's a potentially-overnight field op to smellyforge, nowheresville?
  738. > Well, you can think of worse things.
  739. > Just... not many.
  744. > You are still Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and the one thing you didn't expect to do this afternoon was climb into a carriage powered by water and lamp-oil, *and* piloted by Corporal Bound, to absolutely *gallop* your way to Newcastle-Upon-Mare, with Ebonshield and Sparkshower following above in the sky.
  745. > And you also didn't expect that the trip would be so comfortable that you didn't even get carriage-sick.
  746. > And you *certainly* didn't expect to witness the sight your VIP, Anonymous, stripped down to his skivvies and being strapped into a suit of armour by a towering black minotaur.
  747. > Well, not quite being *strapped* in yet.
  748. > "Let me know if anything feels too tight."
  749. > So far, Gunther Bronzehorn, the smith, was just fitting him with a padded cloth tunic.
  750. > "... Here, the left sleeve's gotten all bunched up, let me unroll it. You don't want it tight or it'll impede motion."
  751. > It's a bit amusing seeing the enormous bipedal cow-person with colossal fingers delicately unfold the fabric, but he manages it with a surprising skill.
  752. > "... Alright, how does that feel? Move around a bit."
  753. > The Royal Engineer twists his torso back and forth, then squats down and stands up.
  754. > "It seems to fit well. A bit stiff, I suppose. And a bit loose."
  755. > Bronzehorn nods, his huge ivory horns catching the evening light streaking in through the window.
  756. > Sparkshower, beside you, doesn't seem to be able to figure out just whom she should stare wide-eyed at -- your nearly-naked VIP, or the big minotaur bull.
  757. > "The looseness will disappear once we strap the armour on you. And stiffness will fade a little with use, though you'll need to replace it when it gets too soft -- the stiff fabric will give you better impact resistance."
  759. > As the smith turns towards a large wooden chest with brass fittings, he continues.
  760. > "... That's not just an ordinary linen weave, it's several layers stiffened up and then glued together. It works well as an underlayment, but for people with less money, it can serve as armour all by itself."
  761. > You scoff.
  762. "Linen *armour*? Why even bother?"
  763. > Looking back at you even as he opens the case, the minotaur shakes his head.
  764. > "Don't laugh, Specialist. Stiffly-glued linen will easily stop an arrow, and blunt a spear or crossbow bolt, too. It doesn't get as hot as metal in the summer heat, either. Diamond Dogs use padded linen armour almost exclusively, for example."
  765. > Is he seriously bringing up dirt-dwelling dogs as an example?
  766. > They live in caves underground, and not entirely by choice!
  767. "Yeah, and look where they are now."
  768. > Bronzehorn narrows his eyes and rolls his jaw over, chewing your words as he points a fat black-furred finger in your direction.
  769. > "Maybe they didn't do so well against Equestria, but next time you're in the Champions' Hall in Canterlot, look up at the frescoes on the ceiling. You'll see armies of ponies in linen armour -- the armies that united the three kinds of ponies and founded this nation."
  770. > You've been in the Champions' Hall before, and seen the artwork, but you don't remember seeing what he's describing.
  771. > But then again, you mostly remember seeing the epic heroes of legend, and those ponies probably were wearing metal armour.
  772. > Meanwhile, the smith hefts open the case -- containing your VIP's actual armour set.
  773. > "... Anyways, there's still pony soldiers wearing *linothorax* armour on an everyday basis. Not everypony has easy access to bronze."
  774. > Huh?
  775. > Who couldn't get their hooves on *bronze* these days?
  776. > Corporal Bound beats you to the question.
  777. > "Who? I've never seen armour like that in the Royal Guard."
  778. > Still rooting around in the case, the bull points a finger back at Ebonshield.
  779. > "Ask her."
  781. > All other eyes in the room -- yours, Sparkshower's, Honour's, and even Anonymous' -- turn towards the batpony, one of only two that you've ever met.
  782. > Compared to her usual nonchalant reactions, this time she seems to feel the attention.
  783. > "This is true, yes. Common soldiers in the Night Guard wear armour made of fabric in this style."
  784. > You narrow your eyes.
  785. "But *you* don't."
  786. > The Sergeant arches her eyebrows.
  787. > "I am not a common soldier."
  788. > Cue an eyeroll from you.
  789. > Sparkshower picks up where you left off, though.
  790. > "What about your brother, Marcos?"
  791. > Your batpony comrade doesn't miss a beat.
  792. > "*He* is not a common soldier, either."
  793. > As Sparkshower furrows her brow in reflection, Honour follows up with the obvious next question.
  794. > "Sergeant, *are* there any 'common' Night Guard soldiers in Equestria?"
  795. > Ebonshield shakes her head.
  796. > "In fact, no. They are all still on the moon. Only a select few Night Guard are here."
  797. > Bronzehorn stands back up, holding your VIP's true bronze armour, while the batpony looks up at him with her slit eyes.
  798. > "... But even these elites may own such armours for training purposes; I suppose this is how the honourable smith knows of them."
  799. > The minotaur grunts noncommittally as he hefts the sizable cuirass of bronze up into the air.
  800. > "Uh-huh."
  801. > Stepping over to Anonymous, he holds it up for everyone to see.
  802. > "... Anyways, here's the real deal. Arms up, please, m'Lord."
  803. > The Royal Engineer stretches his arms up, and Bronzehorn slowly lowers the cylinder of metal down over his torso.
  804. > When it comes to a rest on his shoulders, the minotaur busies himself making minor adjustments and instructing Anonymous in how to secure the cuirass, blocking your view, so you glance over at your heavily-armoured pegasister instead.
  806. > She's still wearing the standard set of an Armoured Corps pony: forty pounds of bronze plate, polished to a shiny gold-red hue.
  807. > Most of that glossy weight was in the form of the horseshoe-shaped croupiere protecting her flanks and plot, with much of the rest allocated to the massive peytral that rendered her chest and shoulders utterly immune to anything short of a scorpion bolt or cannon ball.
  808. > Compared to those massive pieces, the criniere covering her neck, helmet on her head, and greaves on her legs were almost afterthoughts.
  809. > It still boggles your mind that she can fly while loaded down with all that metal, but then again, she was a pretty powerfully-built pegasus.
  810. > So, how would your hairless monkey do while wearing Bronzehorn's creation?
  811. > As you finish your examination of one armoured creature, the smith takes a step back from Anonymous and you get your first glimpse of another.
  812. > Your VIP's chest and shoulders are encased in what appears to be a single solid piece of bronze.
  813. > Except it's not gold-coloured like Sparkshower's -- it's dark; a deep reddish-brown, like bronze for a statue.
  814. > The waist, and shoulder holes are crimped outwards and lined with overlapping strips of thick black leather, each one riveted with another flat piece of the unusual statue-bronze.
  815. > Even the neck piece is similarly crimped and fitted with a leather collar plated with metal.
  816. > But it's not all dark -- there's two spirals on his chest, made out of flattened golden-bronze wire.
  817. > As your VIP turns to look himself over in a free-standing mirror, Sparkshower is the first one to speak up.
  818. > "Um, excuse me, Mister Bronzehorn?"
  819. > The smith keeps his eyes on his customer.
  820. > "Yeah?"
  821. > "What are those swirly lines on the chest? Didn't you say you don't do decorations?"
  822. > Once again, the minotaur rolls around his jaw, chewing on her words for a few moments.
  823. > Or maybe it's just that he doesn't want to prejudice his client's first impressions.
  825. > But as the seconds go on with Anonymous having said nothing, the smith replies.
  826. > "Well, Specialist, first of all -- they're not just decorations."
  827. > The Royal Engineer turns around to face the room, and Bronzehorn points at the golden 'non-decorative' decorations.
  828. > "... Those are reinforcements. The bronze formula I use for the outer facing is very hard but can shatter under heavy blows. The wire helps to keep it together."
  829. > Stepping forward, he bends over and makes a final adjustment, untangling some of the armoured kilt strips that overlapped the wrong way.
  830. > "... Secondly, although I don't decorate my own designs like this, that cuirass isn't one of my own designs. It's an old pattern -- very old, handed down from generation to generation."
  831. > The smith steps back again and stands up tall, putting his massive hands on his hips and nodding austerity at your VIP.
  832. > "... You're wearing armour there that, according to minotaur oral tradition, was originally made in the age of legends, when our kind first emerged from the Divine Labyrinth of Asterion. It's said that back then, there was no land -- only water -- and my people had to fight and topple the ancient titans, creating the earth from their floating corpses. Beginning with the isle of Kaptara, eventually, those epic heroes of old made enough land for all the world's creatures to live on."
  834. > The imposing smith huffs steam from his nostrils and folds his arms.
  835. > "... That's the creation-myth of the minotaurs; you can imagine that for a job like that, slaying mythological beasts big enough to build mountains out of, my ancestors would have needed some serious armour to stand up to the monsters. The story passed down from smith to smith is that, on that ancient first island of Kaptara, after a lot of experimentation and a lot of tragically-killed heroes, one of our kind, Khalkeus, finally figured out the formula by mixing in the blood of one of the newly-fallen titans, creating the Erefloga Panoply, the Black Flame of the Minotaurs. At my wife's suggestion, that's what I've recreated for you."
  836. > Somehow, Bronzehorn's telling of that legend makes the strange dark mail look more heroic than a simple encasement of bronze.
  837. > Instead of your hairless monkey in a tin can, you see instead a stoic noblepony outfitted in armour befitting their stature.
  838. > The kind of colt who would would -- and did! -- refuse to back down from a challenge.
  839. > And the kind of colt you're, to be completely honest, a little eager to see in a fight.
  840. > Anonymous, rubbing his fingers gently over the spiral designs, bows his head slightly.
  841. > "I'm very honoured, sir."
  842. > Bronzehorn uncrosses his arms and grabs the next set from the large trunk.
  843. > "Right, well, if that fits, let's get the rest of it on you. Legs first."
  844. > Clutching a pair of two-piece greaves made of the same metal, the smith bends over and straps them onto your VIP.
  845. > The non-articulated front piece covers the front of his leg up to and just past his knee, while the back piece protects just below it, much like Sparkshower's set.
  847. > "... And here's the bracers."
  848. > These are simpler than the leg armour, being just a single bent piece each that cover just the outside three faces of the Royal Engineer's forearms.
  849. > "... Next, the gauntlets."
  850. > The gloves are of black leather, with a single large piece of the 'Erefloga' bronze on the back of the hand, and smaller pieces covering the first and segments of his fingers.
  851. > You're getting a very 'warrior of the night' kind of vibe from all this dark-tinted equipment.
  852. > Maybe it's fitting that he's going to be trained by a *bat*pony.
  853. > But then again, she doesn't seem to wear much armour at all, while Bronzehorn isn't done loading up Anonymous with gear.
  854. > "... All good? Okay, here's the helmet."
  855. > Now that's a solid-looking piece of metal.
  856. > Besides the hole for his neck, there's only a curved 'T' shape cut into the front to allow him to look out and breathe.
  857. > There's no decorations or ornamentations on it, either, save for a single small plume holder at the top and slightly towards the rear, currently empty.
  858. > And when Anonymous fits it over his head, facing away from the window, the overhead lamp-lights cast deep shadows across his face.
  859. > All you can see are his eyeballs and, when he opens his mouth, his teeth.
  860. > It's a little intimidating.
  861. > But then again, that's the idea, isn't it?
  862. > And it's the same thing with Sparkshower when she lowers her visor, too.
  863. > You glance down the line at your comrades.
  864. > Sparkshower seems to be in awe of the strange dark metal, her eyes darting all over your armoured VIP.
  865. > Ebonshield's irises keep opening wide and then closing up to slits again as she makes what appears to be an approving inspection.
  866. > Honour, at the far end, is her typical inscrutable self.
  867. > Bronzehorn leans over sideways to look your VIP in the eyes, and speaks loudly to get through the helmet now covering his ears.
  868. > "All good? Everything fits?"
  870. > Anonymous rolls his shoulders and jaunts about in place for a moment.
  871. > "Yes, everything fits, I think."
  872. > The smith nods.
  873. > "Good. You'll find the armour can take just about anything sharp with barely a scratch. If you punch somepony with those gloves on, it'll definitely hurt 'em, but let's get you armed properly so you can do some real damage. Here's the shield."
  874. > No case for this one; from a heavy sack, Bronzehorn hauls out another piece of blackened metal, handing over a large, round shield.
  875. > It's got a spiral-engraved golden boss in the middle, and four spiral golden-wire 'reinforcement' embellishments evenly spaced around the perimeter.
  876. > "... Put your forearm in here, then grip this handle with your hand, there you go, you've got it."
  877. > The smith takes a step back and gestures at your VIP.
  878. > "... Wave it around a bit, see how the weight feels. That's Wyrm's Rosewood serving as the body underneath the bronze; it's a very sturdy wood which won't splinter even if pierced."
  879. > Almost like he's done this before, the Royal Engineer spreads his legs slightly fore and aft, and collects his right arm up against his chest, then abruptly starts to bash outwards with the shield in his left arm, grunting energetically with each mock blow.
  880. > "Hurgh! Huah! Huuh!"
  881. > On your left, you see Sergeant Ebonshield raise an interested eyebrow, and an eager smile appears on her face.
  882. > Further to your left, you see Corporal Bound shake her head dismissively.
  883. > You both know where you've recently heard those kinds of sounds before -- and they were slightly higher-pitched and coming from the batpony's bedroom.
  884. > Accompanied by more feminine cries of 'Sí! Sí! Sí!'
  885. > Even Sparkshower, glancing back and forth between you, goes a little rosy-cheeked.
  886. > Celestia!
  887. > Not only do you get saddled with a nymphomaniac batpony sergeant who doesn't have the decency to get a hotel room for her one-night stands, but she's a noisy one who likes to pick noisy colts, too!
  889. > After Anonymous has had his fun swinging around his shielded left arm, Bronzehorn claps his hands.
  890. > "Good! I like the enthusiasm! The last piece, though, you can't swing around in here -- not without probably unintentionally smashing something, anyways."
  891. > Turning around, the minotaur grabs another chest, long and relatively thin, and flips open the latches.
  892. > From it, he produces as strange a weapon as you've ever seen.
  893. > You mean, it's basically a mace, sure -- but nothing like the ones you know.
  894. > Those are all spiked or flanged or, heck, just a rock on the end of a stick.
  895. > This one is a long wooden rod, with a leather-wrapped handle and a generous hand-guard, topped by a bizarre spherical shape.
  896. > The head is some kind of geometric almost-sphere, symmetrical and pointed all over, each flat face in the shape of a little triangle.
  897. > Bronzehorn explains as he hands it over to your VIP.
  898. > "... This is an 'Icosapligi' mace, or 'Twenty Blows' mace. Here, feel the weight -- but keep it steady."
  899. > Anonymous takes the weapon and waves it slightly in his hand, gauging the heft as he slowly extends and flexes his arm.
  900. > The mace seems to agree with him, and he tries to lower it down, before realizing that the handle is far too long for him to simply hold it down at his side.
  901. > Instead, he gently places it against his shoulder, its tip almost touching the ceiling, and smiles from behind the darkness of the helmet.
  902. > "It's fantastic, sir. I'm simply overwhelmed..."
  903. > Shrugging -- a move which is now accompanied by a gentle clattering of the metal plates hanging off his shoulders -- the Royal Engineer shakes his head.
  904. > "... These pieces you've made are so beautiful that I'm almost afraid to wear and wield them in combat lest I mar your work."
  906. > At this, Bronzehorn immediately steps forward and leans over to jab an imposing finger into your VIP's chestplate.
  907. > "No! Don't put it on a pedestal!"
  908. > He prods Anonymous once more, pressing the black bronze up against Anonymous' flesh.
  909. > "... You take these things and go train, and you get 'em *dirty*. Get them scuffed! Clang your weapon into your shield! Knock your greaves into the earth! Bang your helmet against the wall! Punch wood with your gauntlets!"
  910. > The minotaur leans back, huffing out steam and towering over the Royal Engineer -- and everyone else in the room.
  911. > "... The only way this equipment can help you is if you make it part of yourself. And the only way to do *that* is to treat it as if it wasn't there at all."
  912. > That's not too far off from how even the Royal Guard teaches recruits to get used to the simple segmented armour that everypony wears.
  913. > You have to imagine that Sparkshower had that drilled into her even more forcefully.
  914. > Sure enough, she speaks up.
  915. > "He's right, sir! It's just like Drill Sergeant Tandem always told me: you can polish and care for the armour all you want while it's off you, but once it's on, it's nothing."
  916. > Anonymous sighs, nodding.
  917. > "Of course, of course. I suppose I have a lot to learn..."
  918. > He turns to Ebonshield.
  919. > "... Well, Sergeant, when shall we begin? I'm eager to start."
  920. > The batpony gives a polite little bow.
  921. > "We may start tomorrow morning, if the Great Lord wishes it."
  922. > Really?
  923. > Anonymous reads your mind, or else you just think the same as him.
  924. > "Really? Excellent! Let me get changed and then we'll pile into the car for the trip home! Corporal, why don't you fire up the boiler right now?"
  925. > Honour salutes and turns to go.
  926. > "Yes, sir!"
  928. > Huh, she's really taking to that contraption.
  929. > You didn't picture her as being a particularly hooves-on kind of mare, but there you go.
  930. > As Bronzehorn helps Anonymous strip back down, he offers some parting words of advice.
  931. > "Don't push yourself too hard the first training. Don't hold back either, but do give yourself time to get used to the armour. Come back if anything feels off. Come back anyways after you've had a few sessions, so I can make sure it's all holding up."
  932. > "Thank you, sir, I will."
  933. > The smith glances over at you -- at your behind, in particular!
  934. > "I can see your quat' knows how to take instructions, so I've got hopes you'll listen, too."
  935. > Guh!
  936. > Everybody's always going on about your plot!
  941. Suggested background music: (Hironobu Kageyama - 'Cha-La Head-Cha-La' [1989])
  943. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and it's training day today!
  944. > Training day for *Anonymous*, that is!
  945. > And that means *all four* of you get to spend the morning with him!
  946. > Doing exercises, showing off your moves, and maybe even sparring!
  947. > You're so excited, you got up extra early to polish and oil your armour.
  948. > And you made sure to wash your caparison last night -- you'd even starched the collar so that you'd be truly 'parade fresh'!
  949. > But you weren't foolish -- you went to breakfast bare-backed to make sure you didn't spoil anything on your outfit.
  950. > After all, the Royal Engineer has *brand new* sparkling armour from Mister Bronzehorn.
  951. > It was special armour, too!
  952. > A secret, ancient minotaur recipe!
  953. > All cool and black with spirally designs.
  954. > Gosh, what you'd give to be decked out in barding that swank...
  955. > At least you get to try your spear against it, though!
  956. > And it's a freshly-honed and freshly-sharpened spear, at that.
  957. > Ooh, you just can't wait to fly away and begin the day!
  958. > Just as soon as the rest of your quaternion gets up and going, that is!
  959. > What is taking them so long?!
  960. > Glamerspear at least made it out to breakfast with you, though she didn't seem too happy with the way you'd forcefully knocked on her door to get to the chow hall nice and early.
  961. > It paid off, though -- almost nopony was there at 6 AM.
  962. > Instant access to the omelette station, score!
  963. > And Lily got to use the shower before Corporal Bound and Sergeant Ebonshield woke up.
  964. > Honour is off getting some breakfast and should be back any moment, now.
  965. > She went in her armour, too!
  966. > Oh, thundershowers -- hopefully she's careful!
  967. > It wouldn't do at all to show up to the secret special training cave of the batponies with egg on her armour.
  968. > Literally!
  970. > Oooh, what's it going to be like in there?
  971. > Will it be all dark?
  972. > Or extra cold?
  973. > It was a chilly day out today, after all!
  974. > And will the batponies all be asleep on the ceiling?
  975. > Or do they have beds just like your Sergeant?
  976. > You just can't wait to find out!
  977. > "Sparks, for buck's sake, if you keep jumping up and down like that, Anonymous is going to think the sky's falling down on his head."
  978. > Ooh!
  979. > You forgot he was on the ground floor right beneath your room.
  980. "Oops, sorry!"
  981. > As you trade your playful bouncing on the ground for an excited bobbing with your shoulders and knees, flailing your tail and swishing your mane, you glance around.
  982. > The Sergeant's door is still closed.
  983. > She trotted out of the shower almost ten minutes ago!
  984. > How long does it take her to get ready?
  985. > You can have your heavy plate on in five.
  986. > Sitting casually on the sofa beside you reading a magazine, your comrade Lily Glamerspear is arrayed for battle.
  987. > Free of the spellbinders and the lead energy collar cone, she seems ready for an intense training session.
  988. > And she admitted to you over breakfast that she was looking forward to finally popping off a few shots -- even if they were just tracer rounds against target bull's eyes.
  989. > As you continue your excited wobbling, Lily gives you a bit of a look, but it's not so dismissive and tired as you know it would be if she were *really* upset.
  990. > You just smile back at her, and she chuckles amiably, then shakes her head, grinning.
  991. > "A quiet dancer you ain't, sparks -- not with all that plate on you."
  992. > Thundershowers!
  993. > Your armour shouldn't be making much noise, not with all the lubricant you slathered on its joints.
  994. > Is one of your straps loose?
  995. > You immediately sit down and lift up your caparison to look your gear over.
  996. > Glamerspear leans over and places a hoof on your shoulder.
  998. > She raises her eyebrows up at you.
  999. > "... There's nothing *wrong* with your armour, Sparks. Just stop bouncin' off the walls, that's all."
  1000. "Oh... Sorry!"
  1001. > She glances up at the clock.
  1002. > "Take it easy. There's another fifteen minutes before our shift starts. Plenty of time for the elder half of our quaternion to get back or finish getting ready."
  1003. > You lightly stomp the carpeted floor, taking care not to disturb your VIP below.
  1004. "Yeah... I'm just excited, that's all. I want to get to the training and fighting!"
  1005. > She pats you a couple of times, then gets back to her magazine.
  1006. > "Me too, Artemis, me, too. Remember, I've been cooped up almost since last Tuesday!"
  1007. > You nod.
  1008. "I know! But I was actually thinking more about the others..."
  1009. > Glam lifts an eyebrow, and you start bobbing up and down again.
  1010. "... I want to see how the Royal Engineer fights! I bet he's super strong! And that mace Bronzehorn made for him looks like it can smash things real good!"
  1011. > The unicorn scoffs and returns to her magazine.
  1012. > "Sure, sure. I'll believe a fighting hairless monkey when I see it."
  1013. > Rude!
  1014. > Well, *you* know what'll interest her.
  1015. > Leaning over, you cease your fidgety motions and lower your voice.
  1016. "*And* we'll get to see how the *Sergeant* fights, too..."
  1017. > Instantly, you once again have your comrade's full attention.
  1018. "... Don't tell me you aren't interested in that, Lily."
  1019. > Glamerspear shoots you a glare that's half-angry and half-embarrassed, then relaxes.
  1020. > "Okay, yeah, I am -- I want to see the batpony fight."
  1021. > You smile and resume your bobbing.
  1022. "And that's why I'm so excited to get this started!"
  1023. > Just then, the door opens, and Corporal Bound trots in.
  1024. > "Get what started?"
  1026. > You burst out before she's barely inside.
  1027. "Get the Royal Engineer's combat training started! Are you all ready, Corporal?"
  1028. > Honour shuts the door, then blinks as she looks your bouncing form up and down.
  1029. > Then she sighs.
  1030. > "Sit at attention, Specialist."
  1031. > Instantly, your eyes go wide and you snap to parade rest.
  1032. "Yes, Corporal!"
  1033. > Corporal Bound exchanges glances with Glamerspear, who shrugs.
  1034. > Then she looks back at you.
  1035. > "I need you to calm yourself down, Specialist Sparkshower. This isn't going to be a walk in the park."
  1036. > It isn't?
  1037. > What could be easier than showing off a little and doing some light training with your Very Important Pony?
  1038. > Even if they weren't actually a pony!
  1039. > Seeing the confusion on your face, your Corporal steps closer.
  1040. > "... We're going into the batpony rookery today, Sparkshower. Do you know how often Royal Guards venture into that part of Canterlot Mountain?"
  1041. > You shake your head, and Honour continues.
  1042. > "... Not often. I don't think more than a dozen or two non-batponies can claim to have been inside. We'll certainly be the lowest-ranking Royal Guardsponies going in there since the Night Guard took up quarters."
  1043. > So?
  1044. > What does that matter?
  1045. > Aren't the Night Guard supposed to be your allies, even if their presence is a big, unspoken secret?
  1046. > And Sergeant Ebonshield has been so friendly!
  1047. "But, Corporal-"
  1048. > Anticipating your objection, Honour cuts you off before you can continue.
  1049. > "Don't make the mistake of thinking every batpony is going to be friendly and accommodating like Sergeant Ebonshield has been..."
  1051. > She shakes her head in your face.
  1052. > "... She may be the exception. Princess Luna chose her to represent them to us for a *reason*. You told me how aggressively her brother behaved, and that was out here, in the palace. From what I've heard, the Night Guard don't take kindly to interlopers on their turf -- even if they're allies, even if they've got authorization, even if they're Blue Chamber bigwigs, and even if they've got an escort."
  1053. > The Corporal takes a step back and takes her helmet from where she'd left it on the coffee-table, then begins strapping it on.
  1054. > "... And even the Sergeant may act differently in there. You need to keep your wits about you, and do exactly as Ebonshield tells us, or you could undo everything the Princess has worked for, understand?"
  1055. > Your enthusiasm considerably dampened, you nod.
  1056. "Yes, Corporal."
  1057. > Honour takes a deep breath, looking your deflated, bronze-encased form over.
  1058. > "Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I'd still rather have us all be on our guard than to have carelessness turn this into a disaster..."
  1059. > She nods at Lily, on the sofa.
  1060. > "... The same goes for you, Glamerspear."
  1061. > Your unicorn comrade nods.
  1062. > "I got you, Corporal. You won't have any outbursts from me."
  1063. > Honour finishes strapping on her helmet, then looks around.
  1064. > "Good. Where's the Sergeant?"
  1065. > You point at Ebonshield's bedroom door.
  1066. "Still getting ready, Corporal."
  1067. > Just then, the same door opens.
  1068. > A figure in a black cloak backs out of the door, whispering something to somepony inside.
  1069. > "No, no, no -- you can stay as long as you like, mi amore. I must go now, yes? You sleep, chico."
  1070. > Just then, a hooded head rears up and glances over at the clock on the wall.
  1071. > In a flash of black cloth, it's back down again and poking into the room.
  1072. > "... It is only ten minutes to eight, querido; you have almost an hour."
  1074. > With a loud sigh, Glamerspear gets to her hooves and trots over to her bedroom door, pushing it open to get something from inside.
  1075. > Honour takes a step towards her own room as well, then stops to elbow you in the shoulder.
  1076. > "Go get your key and shut your bedroom door, Sparkshower -- for safety's sake."
  1077. > Oh, right.
  1078. > Probably a smart idea to lock up your personal effects with a strange colt being left behind in the quarters.
  1079. > A few seconds and a few keys twisted in locks then placed in pouches, the three of you -- earth pony, unicorn, and pegasus, stand in the shared living room, facing the hooded batpony Sergeant Ebonshield.
  1080. > She's attired almost exactly as her brother Marcos was when he visited last week.
  1081. > Her black cloak stretches almost to the floor, completely covering her from her shoulders to her hind fetlocks.
  1082. > And the immense hood seems to swallow up her crest and poll, hanging menacingly over her brow.
  1083. > What little of her isn't obscured by the black fabric -- her muzzle, really -- is strapped down with a leather chanfron.
  1084. > Clearly, this is the formal attire of the Night Guard.
  1085. > But she didn't wear it when she was first introduced to you, and you can clearly see why: shrouded in darkness like this, there's almost no telling your dark-purple Sergeant apart from her black-coated brother.
  1086. > Only the little lock of indigo-and-lilac mane, pushed down by the hood, and the teeny bit of it poking out from underneath the cloak, really gives her away.
  1087. > The batpony sergeant bows before you three.
  1088. > "I apologize for the unwelcome intrusion into our chambers; if it was not possible to lock your doors then I would have chased him out."
  1090. > As you nod in acknowledgement, she lifts her head, and you catch a stark glimpse of her wide purple eyes.
  1091. > "... Now, are you three prepared to go into the mountain with our VIP, into the rookery of the Night Guard?"
  1092. > Glamerspear and you, glance down the line to where Honour is standing at the right end.
  1093. > The position of honour, funny enough -- the leader of a platoon is always supposed to be at that end.
  1094. > Your Corporal speaks up for the rest of the quaternion.
  1095. > "Yes, Sergeant."
  1096. > Ebonshield nods.
  1098. Suggested background music: (Basil Poledouris - "Drive to Jones' Office", from "Robocop" [1987])
  1100. > "This is not a thing to be done lightly. Before we go, I should like to give a few instructions. Please listen carefully..."
  1101. > Surveying the room to confirm that she has your full attention, she continues.
  1102. > "... In the rookery, you are not to speak to any of the Children of the Stars -- any of the batponies -- unless given an instruction from me. You may also *not* speak freely amongst yourselves until I indicate that it is safe to do so. Do you understand?"
  1103. > The three of you nod, and she takes a step forwards.
  1104. > As her foreleg brushes aside the front of her cloak, you see that she's wearing one of her strange dagger devices on it, the silvery glint of a blade and a few other pieces of metal catching the morning light, against the shadows of the black leather guard and the straps holding it to her cannon and knee.
  1105. > "... Under the mountain, I am not 'Sergeant Ebonshield', and you may *not* address me by my first name. You must address me instead as 'Estelar Ébanoscudo' or 'Estelar Siete', or simply 'Estelar'. Please let us repeat it now, one by one, for good practice."
  1106. > She goes down the line, starting with Corporal Bound, repeating the three appellations one by one, until Honour speaks them back to her satisfaction.
  1108. > As she continues on with Specialist Glamerspear and you wait your turn, you you wonder if she has the same strange dagger-device on her other legs as well.
  1109. > And if so, are they just fancy holsters for daggers to be thrown or wielded in her teeth?
  1110. > And are they all that she has for weapons?
  1111. > She doesn't even seem to wear sabots!
  1112. > Just how exactly does she fight?
  1113. > You're going to find out soon enough...
  1114. > "Specialist Sparkshower, it is now your turn, please. 'Estelar'."
  1115. "Estelar."
  1116. > "Bueno. 'Estelar Ébanoscudo'."
  1117. "Estelar Ébanoscudo."
  1118. > "Bueno. 'Estelar Siete'."
  1119. "Estelar Siete."
  1120. > "Excellent. You catch on to the pronunciation quickly. Do you speak another language?"
  1121. > You nod.
  1122. "I speak Griffonese, Estelar."
  1123. > Sergeant Ebonshield licks her lips as you trill the final letter to her satisfaction.
  1124. > "Good. There are some similarities. This is likely why you can roll the 'r's so well and your comrades cannot."
  1125. > Taking a step back, she addresses the three of you once more.
  1126. > "... Every batpony in the mountain has been trained to speak and understand Equestrian, to varying degrees. Should we become separated for any reason, repeating my rank-name - 'Estelar Ébanoscudo' - or my rank-number, 'Estelar Siete' - should cause us to be reunited without difficulty."
  1127. > She sighs.
  1128. > "... I do not *expect* that we shall become separated, of course. This is merely a precaution."
  1129. > Honour nods.
  1130. > "One worth taking."
  1132. > Ebonshield returns the nod with a short bow.
  1133. > "I am glad that you agree. One more thing -- among the Children, the proper sign of respect is to bow, not to salute. If you see that I bow to anypony under the mountain, then you must bow to them as well, do you understand?"
  1134. > As you all nod in acknowledgement, a thought crosses your mind.
  1135. "What about the Royal Engineer? Shouldn't he be told all this as well?"
  1136. > Ebonshield glances in your direction.
  1137. > "I have already given these instructions to our VIP, although I will go over them again for everypony's sake when we reach the entrance. Now, we may go, yes?"
  1138. > Corporal Bound nods and moves to take point, but the Sergeant cuts her off.
  1139. > "... For today, Caporal, I must take point, you understand?"
  1140. > Honour doesn't look thrilled by it, but she nods in agreement.
  1141. > "All right."
  1142. > The cloaked batpony leads the way to the door.
  1143. > "Bueno. Then let us go and fetch our VIP."
  1144. > Feeling rather considerably more subdued -- though, in truth, no less enthusiastic -- you trot off behind your black-masked Sergeant.
  1145. > It seems indeed like Corporal Bound was right.
  1146. > This won't just be a walk in the park.
  1151. > You are still Specialist Sparkshower, and so far, this has been a walk in the park.
  1152. > Literally.
  1153. > That's because to get to the batpony rookery inside Canterlot Mountain, you had to exit the main Palace building and walk through not just Princess Celestia's Rose Garden, but the Jubilee hedge maze and the Royal Canterlot Apple Conservatory too.
  1154. > Of course, there was an actual road you could have taken around the parks, but according to Sergeant Ebonshield, this was the shortest route by ground.
  1155. > Nopony complained about her choice of directions, especially not with the cold, blustery weather outside.
  1156. > It really felt like a bit of winter's shadow had come back to haunt spring.
  1157. > Just what was the Airborne Weather And Climate Service up to with this weather?
  1158. > Any colder and those AWACS ponies would be ruining flowers!
  1159. > The Royal Engineer had been particularly enthusiastic about getting back indoors quickly, since he didn't have any fur underneath his armour.
  1160. > Before setting off, he'd gathered up a great grey woollen winter-cloak around him as his only real protection from the cold, but every time the wind whipped up his legs were exposed to the chill.
  1161. > It wasn't so bad in the rose-garden, with the neat hedgerow landscaping, and it wasn't an issue at all in the tight maze, but out here in the open among the apple trees, it was clearly rough going for your Very Important Pony who wasn't actually a pony.
  1162. > You tried to help a bit by extending one wing wings to hold his outerwear down in place from behind, but all you were managing was just to hold the fabric against the back of his legs while the wind opened his covering up from the front.
  1163. "Lily, can't you do something?"
  1164. > You unicorn comrade, squinting as another gust comes roaring through Her Royal Majesty's apple orchard, looks over at you.
  1165. > "Huh?"
  1167. > You jerk your head forwards at the Royal Engineer, who leans into the wind to avoid being blown over backwards.
  1168. > And he has to try to hold his cloak with just one hand, since his other is holding his mace, resting on his shoulder.
  1169. "Can't you project a shield against this?"
  1170. > Still squinting, Glamerspear nods her head.
  1171. > "Oh, yeah, sure."
  1172. > In a flash, the chilly blast dies down to nothing more than a light breeze, as the entire group is covered by a broad green translucent dome.
  1173. > Lily's horn is glowing, and she's got a sheepish expression on her face.
  1174. > "... Sorry, sir. I should have done that earlier."
  1175. > Anonymous looks back and shakes some of the dust out of his cloak as you retract your supporting wing.
  1176. > "It's all right, Specialist. I didn't realize that your shield worked against the wind, or I might've asked for it myself."
  1177. > The unicorn nods.
  1178. > "It works against everything, sir -- hooves, spears, rain, cups of water..."
  1179. > She grins awkwardly.
  1180. > "... Even ponies lacking a sense of personal space. And it's at your service any time, sir."
  1181. > From up front, Sergeant Ebonshield looks over her shoulder, adjusting her own cloak from underneath using her wings.
  1182. > "This is a welcome respite, to be sure, but we shall not enjoy the company of your shield for long, Specialist..."
  1183. > She points in front of her at small two-storey building nestled up against the cliff-face, not twenty yards away.
  1184. > "... Here is the entrance to the rookery."
  1185. > No longer inhibited by the wind, the whole group of you hustles towards it at a tidy clip.
  1186. > Corporal Bound nods you towards the doors, and you charge ahead, briefly taking to the air, to pull open one of the double doors for your group.
  1187. > Once everypony is inside, you drop back down to the ground and pull the door shut behind you.
  1188. > Glamerspear's shield fizzles out with a soft 'bzzrrrrt' noise, and you find yourselves in what appears to be a large garden shed with a loft ceiling.
  1190. > Tool racks with rakes, hoes, and all sorts of other farming implements line the left wall.
  1191. > On the other side, nearly-empty apple-barrels await the fall harvest.
  1192. > But you can't think of why an otherwise ordinary orchard shed would have a well-kept office set in the middle and a full squad of Royal Guardsponies on station inside.
  1193. > Unless, of course it wasn't an ordinary orchard shed after all.
  1194. > Directly in front of Sergeant Ebonshield is a Royal Guard lieutenant in his service dress, seated at a desk.
  1195. > Beside him, a young corporal, likewise in his service uniform only, is seated at a typewriter.
  1196. > Another ten guardsponies are all in their armour, spears at the ready.
  1197. > Two of them are flanking the doors by which your group just entered.
  1198. > Two more are guarding a door at the far end of the room, where the back wall is bare mountain face.
  1199. > One of them is on station beside his lieutenant's desk.
  1200. > And the final five appear to have been seated at a low table in front of the apple barrels, playing cards.
  1201. > They must have scrambled for their weapons in a hurry, because one of the chairs is knocked over, and several of the cards are on the floor, too.
  1202. > Every single one of them -- the ten armoured guards and the two desk ponies in service uniform -- is wearing a broad white-painted gorget around their neck, above their ordinary armour.
  1203. > Written in solid black characters is 'MP' in a large print, with 'RUC' in smaller characters underneath.
  1204. > MP.
  1205. > Military Ponice.
  1206. > This was a checkpoint into the rookery, for sure.
  1207. > You didn't recognize the three-letter acronym, however.
  1208. > Despite the apparently sudden interruption, the lieutenant behind the desk -- a youngish-looking unicorn colt -- appears relaxed.
  1209. > With a dismissive glance towards his unprepared soldiers, he looks Sergeant Ebonshield up and down, then opens a logbook in front of him and picks up a quill with his magical telekinesis, dipping it in a small black inkwell.
  1210. > "Name?"
  1212. > Ebonshield answers him as if she'd done this a hundred times already.
  1213. > "Pureza Ébanoscudo."
  1214. > As the Lieutenant scribbles her answer into the book, the Corporal begins tapping away at the typewriter as well.
  1215. > "House?"
  1216. > "Cadena de Vapores"
  1217. > "Caste?"
  1218. > "Estrella"
  1219. > While the Sergeant answers the checkpoint-pony's questions, you look around some more and see that there's two more desks with typewriters at them as well, presently unoccupied.
  1220. > Clearly, your own batpony can't be the only one passing through this entrance.
  1221. > Maybe this is one of the access points for when the Night Guard go on the evening shift at the palace?
  1222. > With extra staff to handle the processing, there's more than enough room in here for thirty or forty ponies to wait in line, to say nothing of how much more space there might be beyond the inner doors for a lineup deeper inside the mountain.
  1223. > "Rank?"
  1224. > "Estelar siete."
  1225. > Having finished noting down the Sergeant's essential details in the logbook, the lieutenant pauses, placing his hooves together on the table, and waits for the slower-typing Corporal to catch up.
  1226. > With a 'ding' as the typewriter reaches the end of the line, his aide-de-camp gives a quick nod, and the Royal Guard officer continues on.
  1227. > "Sergeant Ebonshield, who are these ponies with you, and where are you taking them?"
  1228. > He's obviously familiar with your batpony comrade; she didn't even mention she was a Sergeant, and her black-on-black batpony uniform doesn't have the standard Royal Guard rank insignia either.
  1229. > She's probably *also* the only one who passes by alone, outside of the regular shift changes.
  1230. > "Lieutenant Rapid, I am escorting Anonymous, the Engineer Royal of Equestria, to the Grand Hall of Stars, wherein I shall instruct him in the arts martial."
  1231. > The typewriter resumes its clattering as the Corporal furiously types away.
  1233. > From beneath her cloak, Ebonshield points her wing-tip at Honour, Lily, and you, each in turn.
  1234. > "... Corporal Bound, Specialist Glamerspear, and Specialist Sparkshower are the other three members of his bodyguard quaternion, and are accompanying me."
  1235. > Even in the dim lighting from the high overhead windows, you catch a silvery flash from your Sergeant's wing.
  1236. > Does she wear metal armour there?
  1237. > Even though her head is protected only by leather?
  1238. > Strange.
  1239. > The Lieutenant leans back in his chair and seems to consider her words while his Corporal catches up.
  1240. > When the mechanical clattering stops, he shakes his head.
  1241. > "Sergeant, you know the rules: no unauthorized visitors to the rookery -- especially not Royal Guards."
  1242. > "They are not unauthorized, señor Rápido. I have here with me the papers of authorization."
  1243. > From somewhere underneath her cloak, she pulls out a scroll and hoofs it over.
  1244. > Lieutenant Rapid unrolls it on the table and scrutinizes it closely for several minutes.
  1245. > You glance around the room again, and find the other guardsponies looking your group over with a mix of curiosity and apprehension.
  1246. > It's pretty obvious from their wariness that a unicorn, earth pony, and pegasus do not commonly enter the rookery in the company of a batpony.
  1247. > Especially not after charging in under the cover of a unicorn's shield dome.
  1248. > And certainly not when they have an alien, bipedal, armed and armoured monkey-creature with them.
  1249. > Eventually, the Lieutenant lifts his eyes from the paper and nods to your Sergeant.
  1250. > "This seems to be in order."
  1251. > Rolling up the scroll with his telekinesis, he rises to his hind hooves and salutes the Royal Engineer even as he finishes tying the scroll's ribbon into a bow.
  1252. > "... My Lord, may I have a word?"
  1253. > Sergeant Ebonshield takes back the scroll and steps back as your VIP saunters over to the Lieutenant's little check-in desk.
  1254. > "Yes, Lieutenant?"
  1256. > Placing his forehooves back down on the table, Rapid bows.
  1257. > "My Lord, as the officer of the watch for the Orchard Gate entrance to the Night Guard Rookery, it is my duty to inform you that, after you pass through this checkpoint, you will find yourself beyond the powers of the Royal Guard to assist you, should you require aid."
  1258. > Concealed underneath his helmet, Anonymous' reaction is inscrutable.
  1259. > Perhaps realizing this, he raises one hand and pulls the piece half off, resting the lower tangs of the face-plate against his forehead instead.
  1260. > "That's a bit foreboding, Lieutenant."
  1261. > The Lieutenant licks his lips and swallows.
  1262. > "Yes, my Lord, it is. Has the Sergeant explained to you that your status as a ranking Lord of the Blue Chamber may be considered meaningless amongst her kin?"
  1263. > Anonymous glances down at Ebonshield, then nods.
  1264. > "She has."
  1265. > The young officer clears his throat.
  1266. > "*Ahem*. Then, my Lord, I must ask you to state, for the record, that you enter the rookery of your own free will, with an understanding of the risks involved in such an undertaking."
  1267. > Your VIP furrows his brow, adjusting his grip on the heavy mace still leaning against his shoulder.
  1268. > "Just how many ponies have you lost in there, Lieutenant?"
  1269. > The officer shakes his head.
  1270. > "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say, my Lord."
  1271. > Anonymous inhales sharply.
  1272. > "That's rather cryptic, Lieutenant."
  1273. > "I'm afraid so, sir."
  1274. > That immediate obsequious answer seems to get up your VIP's nose like horseradish up a pony's, but before he can say anything, Sergeant Ebonshield speaks up.
  1275. > "Great Lord, the Lieutenant Rápido is under the same restrictions which apply also to your own quaternion -- they are not permitted to ask questions about 'batponies', and they are not to share what information they do chance to learn, as well."
  1277. > Anonymous glances over at the three other members of his escort, and Corporal Bound speaks up.
  1278. > "She's right, sir; it's called Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell. Until Her Majesty visited us, we couldn't really talk with Sergeant Ebonshield, either."
  1279. > The Royal Engineer nods, turning back to Ebonshield.
  1280. > "But the way he's making this sound-"
  1281. > "This is merely what he has been told to say, Great Lord. The Lieutenant is not permitted to share with you this información of which you inquire. It does not matter that Her Majesty has taken you into her confidence; the Lieutenant Rápido is a most dutiful member of the Royal Guard, and obeys his orders to the letter in this regard."
  1282. > You see her glance at the Lieutenant, who, despite his stalwart expression, appears silently thankful for the explanation that he himself is obviously unable to give.
  1283. > Anonymous ponders what both of them have said for a moment or two, then licks his lips.
  1284. > "Sergeant, *I'm* not bound by DADT, am I?"
  1285. > Ebonshield bows.
  1286. > "No, Great Lord. You are not in the Royal Guard."
  1287. > "And *you're* not bound by DADT with regards to me or the rest of the escort, either?"
  1288. > She bows again.
  1289. > "No, Great Lord. The Princess has relieved us of this burden."
  1290. > The Royal Engineer shifts the mace to the other shoulder and gestures openly with his free hand.
  1291. > "So, how many non-batponies have gotten hurt in the rookery in the past few months?"
  1292. > Sergeant Ebonshield shrugs.
  1293. > "None, as far as I have heard."
  1294. > Cocking her head, she grins.
  1295. > "... But then again, as the Lieutenant's well-kept log books would surely tell, the list of those who have gone in is not long..."
  1296. > She lifts an eyebrow.
  1297. > "... All the señor teniente is trying to tell you, Great Lord, is that the Royal Guard does not have permission to enter the Rookery, and that even if something unfortunate happens within -- to you, or to any of us -- they may still not have this permission. You must not expect a rescue -- we must none of us expect this."
  1299. > That's a little unsettling.
  1300. > But you trust your Sergeant.
  1301. > She's a good pony, and if there was real danger, you think she would have brought it up.
  1302. > Your VIP listens for a moment, then nods and looks back at Lieutenant Rapid.
  1303. > "Alright, then. Lieutenant Rapid, let the record show that I enter Canterlot Mountain of my own free will, with an understanding of the risks involved."
  1304. > With that, the Lieutenant salutes and gives a quick bow.
  1305. > "Yes, m'Lord."
  1306. > He nods towards the guards at the back passage.
  1307. > "... Let them through."
  1308. > As the two guards push open the doors, Anonymous strokes his chin with his free hand and carries on.
  1309. > "Out of curiosity, Lieutenant, if the Sergeant hadn't presented that paper, would you have refused me entrance to the rookery?"
  1310. > Rapid nods.
  1311. > "Yes, m'Lord."
  1312. > "Just who can grant passes to enter, then?"
  1313. > The Lieutenant shakes his head.
  1314. > "I'm not at liberty to say, sir. Although my Lord may of course take it as given that Her Majesty Princess Luna has the authority, given the signature on his papers."
  1315. > Princess Luna signed the Sergeant's paper?
  1316. > When did she go and see the Princess?!
  1317. > Unfortunately for your curiosity, your VIP doesn't press his questions any further, and, after bidding Ebonshield carry on, he pulls down his helmet and faces the watch-officer.
  1318. > "Thank-you, Lieutenant. Good day."
  1319. > "At your service, m'Lord."
  1320. > Sergeant Ebonshield leads the way inwards, but before leaving the orchard-shed-turned-gatepost, she turns and nods at the Lieutenant, now seated at his desk.
  1321. > "Buenos días, teniente."
  1322. > The young colt nods back at her.
  1323. > "Good day, Sergeant."
  1325. > Finally, you pass into a rocky corridor, and the doors shut behind you.
  1326. > Hailshowers, it's dark in here.
  1327. > Dark and damp...
  1328. > There are small red lights attached to the ceiling, but they are so dim and widely-spaced that they provide very little illumination.
  1329. > Plus, they make all of you look far redder than you'd appear in normal daylight.
  1330. > Regardless, Sergeant Ebonshield leads you all onwards.
  1331. > The clattering of three sets of armoured hooves, one set of unarmoured hooves, and one pair of sandalled feet echoes down the quiet tunnel, which descends at a gentle incline.
  1332. > There's a turn somewhere up ahead, too, so that you can't see the end of it.
  1333. > Gosh.
  1334. > This is really triggering your natural pegasus claustrophobia.
  1335. > At least it's a wide tunnel -- you could almost stretch your wings wide open in here.
  1336. > And the ceiling's nice and high up, too.
  1337. > Even your tall VIP doesn't have to duck.
  1338. > As you complete your survey of the corridor, Glamerspear grumbles loud enough to be heard.
  1339. > "Geez, talk about a ball-busting nightclub bouncer; that colt could give the best of them lessons in turning away customers."
  1340. > From up front, Sergeant Ebonshield replies.
  1341. > "On the contrary, Specialist; I have passed through this checkpoint several times, and I have always found the experience quite simple and pleasant."
  1342. > Glamerspear snorts, rolling her eyebrows up.
  1343. > "Are you kidding, Sarge? All that bureaucratic busy-work they made you do? You like that?"
  1344. > "When it is done well, I do not mind. Lieutenant Rapid is one of three officers that I have met coming in and out of the Rookery so far, and they have so far all been diligent and most accommodating."
  1345. > At that, your unicorn scoffs.
  1346. > "*Accommodating*? You call that *accommodating*?"
  1348. > Ebonshield looks over her shoulder.
  1349. > "Within the boundaries of the orders given to them, yes. And the efficient bureaucracy of the R.U.C. is far more preferable to the chaotic experience which awaits us at the far end of this hallway."
  1350. > With your unicorn comrade still shocked by disbelief, you speak up.
  1351. "What's that, Sergeant?"
  1352. > She looks forward again, though you catch a look of disgust on her face before she turns.
  1353. > "A crude imitation of what was behind us, hastily erected in response by creatures with little care for order, organization, or efficiency..."
  1354. > Your night-pony comrade glances back at the group following her, with a hint of anger in her eyes.
  1355. > "... The counterpart checkpoint run by my people."
  1360. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and buck is it dark in here.
  1361. > At least the ground is rough, solid, and dry, so you don't feel like you'll slip.
  1362. > And your batpony leader seems to be able to see just fine.
  1363. > *And* you can see *her*, so that's good enough to keep going, for now.
  1364. > She turns around to glance at the rest of the group, and you can see a reflective shimmer in her pupils, open wider than you've ever seen them before.
  1365. > "We will reach the guard post soon. Please all to be be silent from now on until that I say it is safe to speak again. And leave everything up to me."
  1366. > You nod, and there's a clattering of armour as the rest of the quaternion -- plus your armoured VIP -- nods as well.
  1367. > Sparkshower, on your left, even clangs her hoof into her helmet in salute.
  1368. > Hmm, you thought most pegasi got claustrophobic about dark, enclosed spaces like this?
  1369. > She seems to be holding together well.
  1370. > That's good, because who knows what kind of nonsense is waiting for you at the batpony checkpoint?
  1371. > Eb seems to think it'll be far worse than what you'd been subjected to at the Royal Guard military ponice outpost.
  1372. > That had been bad enough.
  1373. > Okay, to be fair, it hadn't taken *that* long.
  1374. > And they hadn't really hassled your group too much.
  1375. > Whatever Princess Luna had written on the scroll seemed to seal the deal.
  1376. > You sigh.
  1377. > Gotta relax, Lily.
  1378. > Keep your cool.
  1379. > Especially in a place like this -- a mountain full of alien batponies, who only got let out once a night to watch the palace walls.
  1380. > Your own Sergeant's customs and behaviours had been strange enough, and she was probably actually trying really hard to fit in!
  1381. > What would the bats who'd been kept cooped up be like?
  1383. > The answer must be coming soon, because, as you round another corner, the tunnel floor levels off flat, and begins to open up so wide that you lose sight of the walls.
  1384. > There's the noise of water dripping into pools, and you catch shadowy glimpses of stalagmites rising up beside you.
  1385. > This must be one of the natural caverns inside the mountain, as opposed to the artificially dug-out tunnel that brought you here.
  1386. > A blue light off in the distance seems to be your destination; it's bright enough that it silhouettes your quaternion leaders ahead of you -- and even your VIP ahead and beside you -- in its azure rays.
  1387. > You hear the soft fluttering of wings above you, and a shiver runs down your spine.
  1388. > But then you remember -- it's a mountain full of bat-*ponies*.
  1389. > Of course they're gonna have some actual bat-*bats* in here, too.
  1390. > The fluttering grows closer as your party presses on, and something scratches at the back of your mind.
  1391. > Something about bats...
  1392. > Hrm, what was it?
  1393. > There's the ones that eat bugs, which are kinda ugly...
  1394. > And the ones that eat fruits, which are kinda cute...
  1395. > Oh!
  1396. > You remember now!
  1397. > Even though your bat-*pony* Sergeant can see well in the dark, actual bats can't, so they make squeaking noises to 'hear' the world around them.
  1398. > Funny you don't hear any squeaking going on in here.
  1399. > About when you realize you *ought* to be hearing bat echolocation squeaks, Ebonshield comes abruptly to a stop.
  1400. > A second later, and you're blinded by intense light.
  1401. "Guh!"
  1402. > All around you, you can hear the clattering of armour as everypony else seems to also be affected by the sudden illumination.
  1403. > That flash hurt so much, you have to sit down and rub the tears out of your eyes with your hooves.
  1404. > When you finally manage to open them again, the watery, spiked, cave is fully lit, and your quaternion and VIP are no longer alone.
  1406. > Three batponies stand in the pathway ahead, two of them holding spears at the ready, blocking the way forward.
  1407. > You hear a rustle beside you, and realize there are another two beside you, also pointing weapons at you, having silently appeared from behind tall stalagmites.
  1408. > A batpony ambush!
  1409. > You're about to raise a magic shield, when you glance up at your leaders and see that Honour hasn't drawn her spear, and Ebonshield appears to be calm as well.
  1410. > Frowning, you glance around some more to get the situation.
  1411. > Sparkshower is on her hooves and ready.
  1412. > Having her head encased in bronze and shielded by the vision-slits of her visor probably made her less vulnerable to these batponies trick of suddenly turning on the lights.
  1413. > Even your VIP looks to have handled the sudden flash better than you did, with the way his helmet closes in around his eyes.
  1414. > Honour, used to the dim lighting of before, is still trying not to squint.
  1415. > You catch another two batponies on the far side, closing in on her and Sparkshower, and when you hear hoofsteps behind you, you don't doubt that there's another two back there as well.
  1416. > They've got you surrounded, all right!
  1417. > Nothing to do but wait and see how your Sergeant plays this one out...
  1418. > The lead batpony ambusher steps forward, and Ebonshield breaks slightly away from your party to meet her.
  1419. > At least you *think* it's a 'her'.
  1420. > Hard to tell under those dark cloaks and pitch-black leather armour.
  1421. > When the two batponies are almost snout-to-snout, you see the guard grin.
  1422. > "¿Ah, qué tenemos aquí? ¿Una niña díscola con un grupo de prisioneros?"
  1423. > Your Sergeant replies calmly, almost in a whisper.
  1424. > "We are in the presence of Equestrians, València. I remind you of the Edict of the Tongues."
  1426. > That gets her a sharp look from the batpony checkpoint guard, who narrows her eyes and then looks over your group.
  1427. > "Ay see. How inconsiderrate of mi, to speak in a lenguaj they do not underrstand. Jou will accept mi apologias, jes?"
  1428. > Her accent is thick and heavy -- though not quite as bad as Eb's brother.
  1429. > Ebonshield is still as a statue.
  1430. > "Of course."
  1431. > The batpony guard, València, gives the slightest of nods as she carries on.
  1432. > "Gracias. But jou understand, Pureza: this only begs the question. Hwo arre dese Equestrians and ah-where arre jou taking them?"
  1433. > So then this definitely *is* the checkpoint.
  1434. > No tidy office with logbook and typewriter, here.
  1435. > Just an outright ambush by flipping on the lights and dropping down from the ceiling.
  1436. > Sounds like Eb was right about it being less organized than the Royal Guard's MP outpost, at least.
  1437. > Will they be just as unenthusiastic about your VIP & his quaternion coming in here?
  1438. > "The tall one is my student, Anonymous, and the other three are my battle-sisters. I am taking them all to the Grand Hall for training."
  1439. > València snorts.
  1440. > "Taking this scum to the Grrand Hall? I think that not! Jou know the rrules, Pureza: no Equestrrians in the Rookery!"
  1441. > Yup, they're just as unenthusiastic.
  1442. > Sergeant Ebonshield slowly reaches a forehoof underneath her cloak.
  1443. > "I have a permit allowing them entry, signed by-"
  1444. > Before she can present it or finish her sentence, València swats it away with one hoof, and the scroll ricochets off a stalagmite to land in front of your VIP.
  1445. > "Do not tink jour trrash hwill allow you to get past *me* as jou got past the R.U.C.! Jou no are enterring the Rookery with these peaple, Pureza!"
  1446. > Eb pauses for a moment, then continues just as calmly as she did before.
  1447. > "-signed by the Mother-of-Stars herself."
  1448. > Yeah, that oughtta change the mind of this buckin' bat-
  1449. > "I do not care who signed your permiso maldito!"
  1450. > Or maybe not.
  1452. > "I did not think that you would."
  1453. > There's a flash of anger in the batpony guard's eyes, and if she could shove her snout any closer -- without them touching -- then you get the sense that she would.
  1454. > "Hwat did you say??"
  1455. > Your Sergeant keeps cool.
  1456. > "I said, I did not think that you would care who signed it."
  1457. > Her answer doesn't help the guardpony's mood any.
  1458. > "Jou are right! No me importa! And if it was up to me, jou would not be allowed in alone, either!"
  1459. > Geez, the spittle flying out of the indignant guard's mouth alone would be enough to make you want to put up a shield.
  1460. > Eb just lifts her eyebrows and raises her neck slightly.
  1461. > "Then I am fortunate that it is not 'up to you'."
  1462. > València doesn't seem to have an angry retort to that, and there's a long moment of silence where nobody does anything.
  1463. > Everypony's so still that there's not even the sound of metal armour clanking.
  1464. > Not to mention, the batponies here seem to also be wearing soft leather.
  1465. > The better to sneak around in?
  1466. > Probably.
  1467. > The same drip-drip-drip of stalactites letting water dribble down from the ceiling above is all you can hear for the moment, at least.
  1468. > Finally, after a nearly minute-long stare-down, València nods in the direction of the tunnel.
  1469. > "Go back, trraitorr. Turrn arround and leave this place."
  1470. > Traitor??
  1471. > Huh?
  1472. > Eb just shakes her head.
  1473. > "No."
  1474. > "I tell jou, go back -- jou go back! Me cago en tu permiso! Ay am in charge of this frrontier."
  1475. > Your Sergeant leans forward, until the snouts are almost touching again, and lowers her voice.
  1476. > "You are not 'in charge' of anything, València..."
  1478. > There's a cracking noise as she rolls her neck around to loosen it up, and you hear the shuffling of hooves as the guardponies around you seem to be unsettled by the sound.
  1479. > "... You know what you are? I will tell you what you are, tu coño sombrío lleno de polvo..."
  1480. > Whatever that last bit was, it pissed the living Tartarus out of the guard.
  1481. > She bares her teeth, and the two batponies behind her take a menacing step forwards as if to protect her honour.
  1482. > Ebonshield doesn't seem to care in the slightest, and leans in so far that her snout actually forces València back.
  1483. > "... You are *in my way*."
  1484. > Aw, yeah.
  1485. > You tell 'em, Sarge.
  1486. > Buck these buckers for holding your crew up.
  1487. > And after she went to all the trouble to get a signature from the Princess herself!
  1488. > Don't these bucking batponies worship Princess Luna?
  1489. > Doesn't her signature on a document mean anything to them?
  1490. > You start to grin at having the upper hoof, but then you realize...
  1491. > If this gets ugly, there's *nine* enemies surrounding you.
  1492. > And those are just the ones you can *see*!
  1493. > Who knows how many more of the leather-winged buckers might be concealed behind the rocky outcroppings?
  1494. > None of your group are really armed, either.
  1495. > Honour's two spears are folded in half on her back.
  1496. > Yeah, she can whip 'em out pretty fast, but faster than these bats can get on top of her?
  1497. > Sparkshower's probably safe in her armour, but she'll never be able to screw together her longspear while under attack, not with it disassembled into four pieces.
  1498. > At least she's got heavy sabots on to fight with.
  1499. > Even your VIP, who's got his weapon out, isn't fully equipped -- his shield is slung behind him, underneath his cloak, and his armour doesn't cover the entirety of his body.
  1500. > Is it enough to have faith in your batpony Sergeant?
  1501. > Does *she* have her weapons ready, somehow?
  1502. > She could be putting all of your lives at risk if she doesn't...
  1504. > You're the only one out of the three who doesn't need to reach for a *physical* weapon, but even charging your horn is a visible act that takes second or two -- and those batpony spear-tips are awfully close.
  1505. > It's not so bright in here that nopony would fail to notice the telltale glow from your horn, either.
  1506. > Although...
  1507. > One of the exercises you'd been studying in the 'De Magia Unicornis' book was about establishing and maintaining a secret, low-level draw on magical power.
  1508. > The kind that wouldn't be externally noticeable.
  1509. > With the energy it would let you channel, you'd be one step closer to raising your magical barrier.
  1510. > Maybe it wouldn't be the sturdiest shield ever thrown up to begin with, but it would keep these cloaked Night Guard ponies from striking a first blow.
  1511. > As the two batpony leaders seem to be locked in a stare-down contest, you decide to give it a try.
  1512. > You take a deep breath, slowly, and try to let just the tiniest trickle of mana flow into you...
  1513. > It's tough, resisting the urge to open the floodgates and turn that tiny stream into a torrent...
  1514. > There's a certain casual pleasure most unicorns took in channelling magic, yourself included.
  1515. > For some, it could almost be like a drug.
  1516. > Well, if it was a 'drug', you'd gone cold-turkey for almost a week!
  1517. > You should easily be able to manage a little restraint now.
  1518. > Especially if you follow the example of your batpony Sergeant, who had remained calm and polite until it was clear politeness wasn't going to get her anywhere.
  1519. > Calm...
  1520. > Your shoulder muscles tense up and you stifle a gasp as you have to struggle to keep your mana levels low enough to be unnoticed.
  1521. > The magic *wants* to flow into you.
  1522. > And a big part of you wants it to come in, too.
  1523. > But you can keep it out, for now.
  1524. > It helps that all the attention is on the two batponies in their muzzle-to-muzzle showdown.
  1526. > As you struggle to keep your mana levels under tight control, València seems to be barely keeping her rage from frothing over.
  1527. > "I suggest jou look around jou, Estelar Ébanoscudo: the odds are not in jour fabourr. My twelve hwill easily best jour fibe."
  1528. > So there *were* three more bats in the rafters, somewhere.
  1529. > All the better that you were now partially-charged and one step closer to raising a shield!
  1530. > Unless it was a bluff, of course.
  1531. > There could just be the nine.
  1532. > Or there could be who knows how many more!
  1533. > Sergeant Ebonshield grins.
  1534. > "Do you propose to so casually disregard the Edict of Blood, as you did the Edict of Tongues?"
  1535. > If the 'Edict of Tongues' basically amounted to 'speak Equestrian around Equestrians', you have to imagine the 'Edict of Blood' was something like 'Don't go killing them, either'.
  1536. > "It is jou who-"
  1537. > Your Sarge talks right over the indignant border-guard mare.
  1538. > "Pit one *estelar* against twelve *hachadores*, València..."
  1539. > Ebonshield shakes her head.
  1540. > "... and only the *estelar* will remain to tell of who struck first."
  1541. > She grins again, more widely this time, and with big, wild, eyes.
  1542. > "... Will you trust me to stand over your corpse and tell your side of the story?"
  1543. > València seems to be considering her response, but your Sergeant doesn't allow her the luxury of time, and raises her voice even louder.
  1544. > "... Come, now! Let us dance, you Righteous Hatchets and me! Let us dance, and see upon which group the Mother-of-Stars shall bestow Her favour today!"
  1545. > Still wearing her crazed smile, Ebonshield turns her head left and right to take in the room, then sets her eyes back on the scowling guardsmare.
  1547. > València swallows, then opens her mouth.
  1548. > "Jou will not get away hwit-"
  1549. > Once again, your Sergeant shoves her snout forwards, and it's all the other pony can do but to recoil back, almost stumbling backwards over her hooves until she extends her wings to arrest the fall.
  1550. > "I *am* getting away with this, because you are moving out of my way this very instant! Or else I will add you and your eleven hachadores to the Guest-book in the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance!"
  1551. > You have no idea what that is, but even so you have a pretty good idea what kind of ponies wind up in that 'guest' book.
  1552. > With her final, blatant, threat delivered, your madmare batpony Sergeant, breathing heavily, composes herself, calming down.
  1553. > But underneath that big black cloak, who knows?
  1554. > She might just as easily be ready to leap forward and start the fight.
  1555. > It's a tricky piece of clothing.
  1556. > You can picture it getting in the way, but as far as concealing first-strike intentions, though...
  1557. > Heh, it reminds you of being a kid and wrapping your horn up in cloth to play practical jokes with your friends.
  1558. > It didn't matter that the cover somewhat suppressed your ability to channel magic -- you still had enough juice to telekinetically pinch a pony from across the room.
  1559. > The border guard senses the hidden truth, too, and takes a step back, scowling all the while.
  1560. > With a clenched jaw and fury in her eyes, she moves aside.
  1561. > The two batponies behind her step into the stalagmites as well, leaving the way clear for your group to go on.
  1562. > Phew, that's a relief.
  1563. > You don't dare relax your hold on what little mana you've got ready, though.
  1564. > Anypony who'd pull a trick like that dark-room/bright-room gag could just as easily be letting you by only to stab you all in the back later.
  1566. > Ebonshield takes a step forwards, and Honour, after a concerned glance all around, follows hesitantly after her.
  1567. > Anonymous steps forward as well, stopping only to scoop up Eb's scroll from the ground.
  1568. > Finally, Sparkshower and you bring up the rear, both of you eyeballing the batponies at your flanks.
  1569. > They've raised their spears, at least, though there's still suspicion in their eyes.
  1570. > All this trouble just to get a private place to train Anonymous in fighting!
  1571. > It would have been easier to climb into his car and drive around the countryside, looking for a villa with a nice quad that he could just freaking *buy* for himself.
  1572. > They say bits can't buy happiness, but they sure can buy privacy.
  1573. > As Ebonshield strolls past the furious València, the batpony border-guard gets one last growled remark in.
  1574. > "There hwill be a day of reckoning, Pureza Ébanoscudo, and jou *hwill* pay for jour treachery."
  1575. > The Sergeant just walks right by.
  1576. > "On that day, València Fierropezuña, I will drink a toast in your name with the Guajona."
  1577. > The buck is that?
  1578. > Whatever the meaning of that cryptic Parthian shot, you make sure you're ready to raise your shield in an instant if these blood-suckers should try anything now that your Sergeant is well past them.
  1579. > Step by step, you walk past, leaving them further and further and further behind...
  1580. > You don't hear any fluttering of wings or clopping of hooves...
  1581. > Looks like your Sergeant got you all in, safe and sound.
  1582. > At least, so far.
  1584. > With a sigh, you let the magical energy drop out of you.
  1585. > It's hard work, drawing mana stealthily!
  1586. > You're actually impressed with yourself for having managed it.
  1587. > But now that you're past the checkpoint, there's no sense in wearing yourself out before you've even gotten to the training grounds.
  1588. > And now you definitely see why your batpony Sergeant was so easygoing at the Royal Guard checkpoint.
  1589. > Buck...
  1590. > Are these damned batponies going to hassle you all on the way out, too?
  1591. > Better make sure not to wear yourselves out training your VIP up!
  1592. > Hopefully it's not a long walk to wherever you're going to be doing that.
  1593. > It's a big mountain, after all.
  1598. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and this is not working out how you thought it would.
  1599. > Having to answer questions and getting a stern warning from the Royal Guard Military Ponice -- that, you expected.
  1600. > And provided that the batponies had a checkpoint of their own, you anticipated difficulties there, too.
  1601. > But their antagonism towards your squadmate Ebonshield?
  1602. > Even though she was one of them?
  1603. > That was unexpected.
  1604. > Could it possibly have to do with her present assignment?
  1605. > 'València' even called her 'traitor'.
  1606. > She'd only been in your quaternion for eight days!
  1607. > Did they really think serving as an Equestrian Lord's bodyguard was treasonous?
  1608. > It seemed inconceivable that one job could attract such hatred.
  1609. > Especially one that was ordered by Princess Luna!
  1610. > Or is her posting the result of some previous betrayal?
  1611. > A kind of ostracism?
  1612. > Then how could you explain their refusal to honour the Princess' signature on your authorization papers?
  1613. > From Her Majesty's description of events a thousand years ago, and from the way Eb treated or talked about her 'Mother-of-Stars', it sounded like Batponies almost literally worshipped the Princess of the Moon.
  1614. > How could they disobey their Goddess?
  1615. > And how could they hate one of their own for doing as their Goddess told them?
  1617. > It's not as if she'd been cast out completely -- you knew for a fact that she'd come back to the Rookery several times since taking the posting.
  1618. > She ate most of her meals under here, for certain.
  1619. > Something else must be going on, and you decide to pay close attention to how any other 'Children of the Stars' treat your middle-aged Sergeant First Class.
  1620. > See if you can suss out any clues from their interactions.
  1621. > With the ambush-checkpoint now well behind you in the stalagmite room, the passage narrows down to a red-lit tunnel again, and you find yourselves descending once more.
  1622. > The route spirals down to the left; it's tough to tell, but it seems like it's folding back on itself every fifty or so paces.
  1623. > As you trot down the long ramp, your thoughts turn back to the encounter at the inner frontier.
  1624. > It wasn't just the other batponies' behaviour that had surprised you.
  1625. > What your own squadmate had done was almost as shocking, if not even more.
  1626. > Sergeant First Class Ebonshield literally threatened those border-guards with *death* if they didn't let your group through.
  1627. > Not just death -- death and a cover-up that would put them at fault for throwing the first kick.
  1628. > She'd even laid claim to taking on all twelve at once, and boasted that she'd come out on top!
  1629. > What kind of a pony can take on twelve enemy guardsponies all at the same time?
  1630. > Nopony you knew of, that was for sure.
  1631. > A hotshot MXP tournament champion like Kilfeather would struggle if they got ganged up on by five or six other pegasi who had at least been through 'shoe camp basic training.
  1632. > Maybe more in the open skies where he could put his manoeuvrability to good use.
  1633. > But in a purely physical contest, there's only so much that skill can do.
  1635. > Even a skilled unicorn with a good array of spells could maybe take on ten non-unicorn guards, but in a confined arena it would be close.
  1636. > That was with magic, too -- and you had no reason to believe Ebonshield could channel mana.
  1637. > Besides, if she somehow had magic, then the twelve against her probably did as well.
  1638. > That levelled the playing field out.
  1639. > One pony against twelve *other* creatures was another story; you were walking just in front of a unicorn probably responsible for downing dozens if not hundreds of changelings.
  1640. > But pony-on-pony?
  1641. > On a level playing field?
  1642. > Outside of the Princesses, the Elements of Harmony, the Founders, and Pillar-ponies like Star Swirl, one had to reach into epic fantasy or ancient history to find warriors that powerful -- and a figure like Star Swirl counted as both.
  1643. > It was, therefore, ridiculous for her to claim she could kill them all without even the help of the rest of the quaternion.
  1644. > And yet they believed her!
  1645. > That's what was really outrageous!
  1646. > They got the drop and the surround on you, and seemed to be spoiling for a fight.
  1647. > But your Sergeant said 'I will kill you all unless you move', and they moved!
  1648. > Unbelievable!
  1649. > Of course, it was possible that there weren't really twelve of them.
  1650. > And given that they were on guard duty, it was certainly possible that a few of their number were raw recruits, maybe not even equivalent to a Royal Guardspony out of horseshoe camp.
  1651. > That evened things out.
  1653. > A bigger factor was that if a fight *did* break out, the batponies would have had to assume that the rest of you would jump in as well.
  1654. > You probably would've been tackled before getting your spear out, but didn't doubt that the rest of the group would put up a decent fight.
  1655. > If Glamerspear could just get a shield up, then Sparkshower could probably dispatch several of them once she brought that longspear of hers to bear.
  1656. > Even Anonymous, with zero training but with solid bronze armour and a huge weapon, could probably have carried his own weight.
  1657. > That would leave just two or three for the Sergeant, which was perfectly reasonable if she was as skilled a warrior as you thought she might be.
  1658. > Maybe it wasn't an outrageous bluff on Ebonshield's part after all.
  1660. Suggested background music: (Jerry Goldsmith - 'V'Ger Flyover', from 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' [1979])
  1662. > A light coming from down ahead intrudes upon your exploration of how that most recent encounter could have been played out.
  1663. > There's a noise accompanying it as well...
  1664. > Wind?
  1665. > Or running water?
  1667. > The Sergeant speaks up as she carries on ahead.
  1668. > "We are approaching the Cave of Pillars. Please mind your step; the ground ahead is uneven."
  1669. > One final twist of the brightening spiral passageway, and all thought of fighting ceases as you and everypony else come to an abrupt stop to gape in awe.
  1670. > "Buck me."
  1671. > Glamerspear can't resist a expletive.
  1672. > Even Sergeant Ebonshield, who must have seen this all before, pauses to allow you to take in the scene.
  1673. > You knew there were caves inside Canterlot mountain -- everypony knew that -- but you'd never imagined any of them looked like this.
  1674. > The spiral passage has deposited you at the edge of a narrow fifty-hoof cliff, and from it you look out over a roughly circular cavern that must be two hundred hooves wide.
  1675. > On the right, a triple waterfall cascades down from a narrow crack in the ceiling, pouring water into a river that snakes along the cavern floor and then disappears under a rocky shelf to the left.
  1676. > Above, two huge, spherical iron cages, suspended on black chains from the ceiling, glow with powerful white arcane light.
  1677. > But it's the *structure* of the place that is really stupefying.
  1678. > The whole cave -- the walls, the riverbed, the ceiling, even the floor beneath your hooves -- seems to be made out of thousands upon thousands of small pillars of dark grey stone, each about a hoof or two in diameter, and none of them quite even with their neighbour.
  1679. > Almost as if somepony *built* this place out of foal's toys... or stacks of paving stones.
  1680. > And it makes for a striking effect as the light from above reflects off the water below and sends shadows rippling across the zig-zagging surface.
  1681. > From behind you, you hear the Royal Engineer push his helmet back off of his face.
  1682. > "Hexagonal basalt columns... Canterlot Mountain was once a volcano..."
  1685. > You glance down, and see that the strange columns making up the ground *are* six-sided, mostly.
  1686. > As you look over the cave once more, you realize that the terrain is so bizarre you didn't even notice the pony-made structures dotting the cave floor below.
  1687. > There's a little wooden bridge over the river, just downstream from the waterfall cascade.
  1688. > At the far end, where the water disappears deeper into the mountain, a large metal grate serves to stop anypony from falling in.
  1689. > And there's a *batpony* down there!
  1690. > Three of them, even!
  1691. > You step forward, mindful of the sheer drop ahead of you and the uneven ground beneath your hooves, and look down at them.
  1692. > They're all carrying copper buckets and don't seem the least bit mindful of your presence, fifty hooves above them and almost twice that far away horizontally.
  1693. > One by one, they fill the buckets from the river and then flutter off slowly towards one of the far wall wall's jagged exits.
  1694. > You can't make out any noises they might be making over the roar of the waterfalls, but it seems as if they're chattering amongst themselves.
  1695. > This incredible place -- and it's just the Rookery's communal water-well?
  1696. > What other wonders does the mountain hold underneath its slopes?
  1698. > Sergeant Ebonshield beckons you all along the cliff-face to your right.
  1699. > "Come; we are about to enter the Rookery proper. Please to remain quiet as I have instructed. We shall take the route through the marketplace; it is improbable that it would be busy at this hour."
  1700. > A batpony marketplace?
  1701. > You're almost too busy watching your step to fathom the sight of what that looks like.
  1702. > The edge you're on cuts steeply down towards and behind the waterfall, shielded from above by another cliff that rises out above yours, composed of hundreds of twisting, bent pillars of -- what did the Royal Engineer call it?
  1703. > Basalt?
  1704. > "... Be particularly mindful of your steps here. The water makes the tiles most slippery."
  1705. > Ebonshield, ever the tour guide, stays steadily in front of you, still proceeding downwards on her hooves.
  1706. > You're surprised Sparkshower hasn't taken to the air yet -- managing this uneven terrain must be a Tartarean task in her heavy sabots and confining armour.
  1707. > As you pass the waterfall on your left, its spray washes against you.
  1708. > The columns here are covered in lichen and moss, the exposed rocky areas darkened from the water.
  1709. > Luckily, the hexagonal 'tiles' are each concave at the top, probably from erosion, and that shape compensates a bit for the mist-slick conditions.
  1710. > Finally, you reach the base of the cave floor, though the ground is no different here -- thousands upon thousands of interlocking dark hexagonal columns, of irregular height and diameter.
  1711. > It's almost as tough going picking your way across the flat terrain as it was to navigate the edge-ramp.
  1712. > You look back as the rest of your quaternion, and your VIP, pick their way down as well.
  1713. > Sparkshower is indeed struggling, but she's managed so far.
  1715. > Glamerspear's hooves are glowing with teal energy -- sabot enhancements, probably, to help with the grip.
  1716. > The mark of a good unicorn soldier -- a *really* good one, anyways -- wasn't just their ability to perform their signature spells, but an uncanny knack for having the right utility magic for every situation.
  1717. > You'll have to remind her to share with the rest of the quaternion next time, though.
  1718. > She's clearly too used to being in a 'cornfield' regiment composed entirely of self-sufficient unicorns.
  1719. > With the soles of his feet covered by rough leather sandals, it looks like Anonymous wasn't overly troubled by the climb down, either.
  1720. > He'd probably be better off if he had his hands free, though.
  1721. > Hmmm... If that mace's shaft was too long for a scabbard at his hip, maybe Bronzehorn could make him something to sling it over his back?
  1722. > Or at least something for one of you bodyguard ponies to carry it for him in?
  1723. > It was a little unseemly for a Lord to have to schlep around his own mace everywhere, always having one hand unavailable.
  1724. > Maybe the Royal Engineer will have the same idea as you after navigating the passage on the way back out.
  1725. > As Ebonshield leads the way ahead, you realize you're not headed for the sharp vertical cut on the left where those three water-gathering batponies went, but a larger opening on the right.
  1726. > She said the market wouldn't be busy?
  1727. > Well, if all her kind here in Equestria were nocturnal, owing to having the night shift on the Canterlot Palace walls, then that left passage must probably be to the living-quarters.
  1728. > What with it being almost nine o'clock by now, most of the batponies should be almost asleep, besides the ones on a day shift, like the border-guards.
  1729. > A short, twisty passage leads you out from the Cave of Pillars, and the floor changes back from the uneven hexagonal columns to a more comfortable flattened surface.
  1731. > The walls smooth out as well, arching gently above your heads.
  1732. > It's obvious that you're back to a pony-made passage once again.
  1733. > The hanging lights from the ceiling, miniature versions of the great illuminating balls from the Cave of Pillars, reinforce that truth.
  1734. > Sixty or so hooves later -- plus five or six sharp bends -- and the passage opens up into a wide hall.
  1735. > Supported by what look like natural rock pillars, the ceiling rises up to twenty hooves high -- well-lit once more by the hanging light.
  1736. > But more importantly, *this* cave is filled to the brim with pony constructions.
  1737. > Wooden shop stall after wooden shop stall line the outer wall of what must be a big oval or circular chamber.
  1738. > Each shop is painted in faint pastel colours, too, giving it a chaotic appearance of a Saddle Arabian bazaar.
  1739. > The stalls are clustered around the room's supporting columns, too, leaving little room to pass in-between.
  1740. > There must be a hundred or so shops in here, of sizes varying from 'barely big enough for a pony to stand behind' to 'large enough for a whole platoon to sleep in'.
  1741. > Nearly all of them are closed, though, with tarpaulin or fabric or wood panels covering up whatever is inside.
  1742. > There are signs and banners, too, and the letters are familiar to you, but the words make no sense.
  1743. > 'Gran Rebaja'?
  1744. > Who is 'Rebaja' and why is her being a grandmother important?
  1745. > 'Herrero'?
  1746. > Her rear? Surely not.
  1747. > 'Café'
  1748. > Well, at least that one translates easily enough, unless you're greatly mistaken.
  1749. > Then again, maybe the batponies don't have coffee on the Moon, so they took the Equestrian name -- the Prench name, rather -- for the drink when some entrepreneur opened up a shop in here.
  1750. > 'Horchatería José'
  1751. > Hey, that one's still open!
  1753. > The 'Horchatería José' stall consists of a short counter-top with six stools, two of which are presently occupied.
  1754. > Beside it, there's a little open area with a few tables and chairs as well, all of them empty, with the chairs inverted up on top of the tables.
  1755. > Clearly, this isn't busy hour.
  1756. > Inside, a sleepy-looking old batpony colt in a white cloth cap ladles a thick beige fluid from a large copper canister out into a tall glass cup, then serves it to one of the waiting customers, who picks it up and takes a drink.
  1757. > It looks kind of like a vanilla milkshake.
  1758. > When the strange drink-server hears the cluttering of hooves, feet, and armour heading towards his stall, he glances up, and then his mouth drops open as he stares in wide-eyed astonishment at your group.
  1759. > The customer still waiting for their drink nods at him.
  1760. > "¿Oye, José? ¿Que pasa?"
  1761. > Shaking himself out of his shock, the server stands on his hind hooves, clasps his forehooves together, and bows his head as your group just starts to pass by.
  1762. > The two customers glance over their shoulders, and there's the same reaction in repeat.
  1763. > First, unconcealed surprise at seeing you all in their presence.
  1764. > Then, they both spin around in their seats and give the same forehooves-together bow -- to Ebonshield specifically, you notice.
  1765. > The Sergeant doesn't so much as acknowledge their presence, leading you right past.
  1766. > As you step by the late-morning batpony drink stall, you hear the crackle of a frying pan, and catch the odour of sizzling eggs.
  1767. > Some kind of diner?
  1768. > Maybe that beige drink is alcoholic, like a cream liqueur?
  1769. > Strange thing to be having before bedtime if so.
  1770. > Something to ask about later -- add it to the bottom of the rapidly-accumulating pile of questions you have for your batpony comrade.
  1771. > Unfortunately for your curiosity, no more of the stalls along the way seem to be open, and Sergeant Ebonshield is bee-lining for a passageway out of the shuttered market.
  1773. > You'd love to come back here when things were open, though.
  1774. > It was so strange, and yet so strangely familiar.
  1775. > Going to Manehattan or Los Pegasus or Vanhoover -- they were on opposite sides of the continent, and yet the culture was so similar you could swear you'd barely changed places at all.
  1776. > You should know; you've visited all three with past VIPs.
  1777. > But right here in Canterlot was a colony of ponies who'd been severed from Equestria for a thousand years, transformed into strange hybrid creatures by magical powers, and forced to live on a barren and alien world.
  1778. > Just what had they come up with in all that time?
  1779. > You glance back up at Anonymous, looking to see your VIP's reaction to this strange underground journey.
  1780. > He seems to be just as interested by everything as you are, even looking back at the shocked customers of the 'Horchatería José' stall.
  1781. > When he finally faces forward again, he sees you looking back at him, and he nods inquisitively towards the former subject of his attention, silently asking you if you had any idea of what was going on there.
  1782. > You have to shake your head and shrug your shoulders -- you really don't.
  1783. > Ebonshield leads you into another tunnel, more dimly-lit than the last one, with its lanterns more widely-spaced.
  1784. > It's wide and open, though, easily big enough for five ponies to pass side-by-side.
  1785. > There's junctions, too -- you quickly come to a four-way cross, heading straight through.
  1786. > Up ahead, a T-junction forks off to the left, and again you ignore it.
  1787. > A few dozen yards later, the tunnel takes a bend to the right and you come to another four-way.
  1788. > This time, Ebonshield leads you to the right, and the tunnel narrows down until only two ponies could pass abreast.
  1789. > The materials change, too -- no longer the smooth dark grey seen so far, now everything is brown and pitted -- almost sandy.
  1791. > The long hallway -- it must be a hallway, for there's dozens of passages off to either side, each of them with a cloth curtain covering the entrance, and you can hear faint *snores* coming from one or two of them -- seems to stop up ahead at a brown-coloured dead end.
  1792. > But when you finally reach that end, you realize the passage simply splits to go around a single large slab of lighter-coloured rock.
  1793. > And *on* that slab is painted a great white symbol which needs no translation.
  1794. > An upwards-facing crescent moon -- practically the same as Princess Luna's cutie mark -- is supported from beneath by seven small eight-pointed stars, while embracing a single large bulbous-tipped eight-pointed star within what would be the shadowed part of the moon.
  1795. > And your Sergeant is a 'Stellar Seven', out of eight ranks, so that makes things pretty obvious...
  1796. > Ebonshield leads you around the wall to the right, and the passage chicanes back to the left, joining up with the other side just as you thought.
  1797. > Just a few steps later, and you find yourself about to enter yet another one of the Rookery's majestic rooms.
  1798. > Your batpony guide stops just at the threshold.
  1799. > "We have reached our destination..."
  1800. > She turns her head.
  1801. > "... Welcome to the Grand Hall of Stars."
  1806. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and Lieutenant Violetta was absolutely right, the other day.
  1807. > The Royal Guard had no indoor facility in Canterlot anything like this.
  1808. > After passing around a beautifully-painted white moon-and-stars symbol, the uncomfortably tight corridor you'd just been in opens up into an enormous circular hall with a colossal peaked dome ceiling towering above.
  1809. > Hurricanes, even *you* had enough room to fly around in here!
  1810. > Heavy armour and all!
  1811. > The centrepiece of the room is a huge round sand pit on a raised platform, easily a hundred hooves in diameter.
  1812. > That *must* be the actual combat arena.
  1813. > There's a small lip at the edge to hold the sand in, and then about a ten-hoof wide rim, before the floor drops into a trench or moat that's a good twenty hooves wide and maybe four or five hooves deep.
  1814. > After that, an thirty-hoof-wide outer ring encompasses the trench, rising slightly higher up than the arena floor.
  1815. > Then it's just the oblong domed roof, painted in a darkish blue but covered in white specs and with a broad grey band.
  1816. > It's the night sky -- appropriate, for the Night Guard.
  1817. > But despite the darkish roof, it's still very bright in here.
  1818. > There's magical lamps in the ceiling, around the outer walls, and even mounted on small braziers at the inner edge of the outer ring.
  1819. > You, your quaternion, and your VIP, are all standing at what appears to be the only entrance to this arena, at the outer edge, with a staircase descending down into the trench just ahead.
  1820. > After just a brief pause to introduce the room, Ebonshield immediately heads towards the steps, and the rest of the group follows.
  1821. > Down in the pit ahead, two batponies in black tunics are flapping their way slowly back and forth across the sand pit, dragging wicker rugs behind them with rope, using them to groom the soft surface.
  1823. > Beyond them, up on the outer ring, there's a dozen more batponies, dressed in colourful vests and conical caps, sitting amongst a collection of large, equally colourful cushions resting on a carpeted floor, with a bold red cloth canopy framing a small raised platform at the back of their section, and a covered wooden stand -- sort of like a tall gazebo -- at the inner rim, off on the left side.
  1824. > Their little relaxation area isn't exclusive -- most of the outer, upper ring boasts an assortment of cushions, chairs, benches, and the like, with rugs scattered and layered to make a more comfortable surface over the stony floor.
  1825. > That raised gazebo is unique to the room, though, and only the section at the far end around it was actually occupied.
  1826. > As Ebonshield leads you into the trench, you can see that it's not empty down there, either.
  1827. > Curved wooden benches line much of the outer trench wall.
  1828. > Seating for spectators?
  1829. > Or maybe just for the next soldiers in line for the pit, if this really is normally a Night Guard training facility.
  1830. > There are weapons-racks, too, boasting all kinds of spears and other polearms, as well as some things you don't recognize.
  1831. > Over on the right, a covered storage area has been cut out from underneath a portion the outer ring, supported by pillars, and you can see a number of wicker and burlap figures, some of them criss-crossed with stitches.
  1832. > Training dummies!
  1833. > Once you step into the trench proper, you can see two more staircases leading back up to the outer ring, evenly spaced around the pit.
  1834. > And there's a small alcove next to each of them -- yours, too -- with a small faucet, showerhead, and drain.
  1835. > For rinsing the sand off after training, you suppose.
  1836. > One of the sand-grooming batponies notices your arrival, and hisses sharply at their comrade to get their attention.
  1837. > Both then immediately flutter their way over to the storage-room, landing and unhitching the wicker-carpet 'rakes' from themselves.
  1839. > Ebonshield leads you all in their direction, but before you can reach the storage room, the two batponies hustle towards you and then throw themselves down on their forelegs before Sergeant Ebonshield, kowtowing to her as they face the ground.
  1840. > Your batpony Sergeant comes to a halt and looks over the prostrated figures.
  1841. > "All is prepared?"
  1842. > The groomer on the right -- a purplish-brown mare with a black mane, who looks like she's just a teenager -- immediately replies, her face still buried against the stone floor.
  1843. > "Sí, Siete. All is prepared."
  1844. > The Sergeant nods, though you doubt if the two servant-ponies can even see.
  1845. > "Good. Bring out one of the targets for the stabbing and one for the hitting."
  1846. > This time, both of them pop up and then bow down again, answering in unison.
  1847. > "As you ordain, Siete!"
  1848. > "As you ordain, Siete!"
  1849. > With a nod from the Sergeant, the two attendants scurry off towards the storage-room, hustling their way to colt-handle a pair of dummies out and then up into the sandpit.
  1850. > Ebonshield shakes her head to throw back her hood, her back-combed mane almost instantly popping out and up, then turns to face the rest of you.
  1851. > "We are private here now, and you may speak freely among yourselves or with me. You may rest yourselves on the bench for a moment while I speak with the director before we begin."
  1852. > The director?
  1853. > She must mean one of the ponies in that group at the back, up on the outer ring.
  1854. > A master of ceremonies, maybe?
  1855. > Or some kind of Night Guard drill-sergeant?
  1856. > As Ebonshield walks upstairs and your VIP undoes his wool cloak, Glamerspear steps over and leans in towards you, whispering.
  1857. > "What do you make of this crazy trip so far, Sparks?"
  1858. > You glance up at the painted star-scape ceiling and shake your head.
  1859. "I don't know, Lily. It's a lot to take in at once."
  1861. > Her helmet rattles as she nods while adjusting the strap.
  1862. > "No kidding. I've got a bunch of questions, and I'm sure I'm not the only one."
  1863. > Swallowing, you sit down and grab the other three pieces of spear off of your back and start to screw them together.
  1864. "I suppose they'll have to wait until after we get back to Canterlot."
  1865. > Glamerspear squints at you.
  1866. > "Back to Canterlot? We're still *in* Canterlot. We left the Royal Engineer's office at eight and it can't even be nine o'clock yet."
  1867. > You nod.
  1868. "I know. It just that it doesn't *feel* like Canterlot any more."
  1869. > Glamerspear finishes adjusting her gear and puts her hooves back down on the floor.
  1870. > "Yeah, you can say that again."
  1871. > With the top two pieces put together and the locking screw engaged, you start to attach the final heavy base of your long bronze pole-arm.
  1872. > A few hooves away, the Royal Engineer has folded his cloak up and set it down on one of the benches, sitting down next to it to re-lace his sandals.
  1873. > Corporal Bound has one of her javelins out already -- hers just snap together, instead of screwing -- and is carefully watching as the two sandpit-attendants hoist a wicker pony up onto the training field.
  1874. > By the time they get it and the canvas-wrapped one up as well, Ebonshield has returned from her visit to the 'director' and your VIP has strapped on his shield.
  1875. > Well, this is it.
  1876. > The Sergeant smiles as she looks over the four of you.
  1877. > "Everypony is ready to begin? Excellent; let us ascend to the stage."
  1878. > From underneath her cloak, which for some strange reason she still hasn't removed, she beats her wings and leaps up to the sandpit in a single swift bound.
  1879. > Is that the only way up there...?
  1880. > It's only a five-hoof wall, but that's still quite a task for a unicorn or earth pony.
  1881. > You extend your wings and look hesitantly over at Honour and Glamerspear.
  1883. > Anonymous has already stepped up to the edge, and he places his shield and weapon up on the rim before shoving himself up on his arms and throwing his legs up and to the side with a loud grunt.
  1884. > Moments later, he's up there too, patting sand off of his hands and picking up his equipment.
  1885. > Frowning, Corporal Bound heads towards the edge as well, folding her javelin back up and placing it on her back.
  1886. > Crouching a few hooves away, she hunches her shoulders down and then, with a shout, surges up, kicking herself into the air like a goat on a mountaintop, landing awkwardly with three hooves on the dais -- the fourth one kicks at air, and she almost slips back off before righting herself.
  1887. > With a quick shake of her head, Glamerspear steps over as well.
  1888. > "What, no stairs? Okay, fine, make me work for it."
  1889. > 'Working for it' consists of her conjuring four of her shimmering teal spears in front of her -- two of them at knee height, and the other two at head-height.
  1890. > Using these floating incorporeal weapons as stairs, she quickly clambers up to the arena as well.
  1891. > So much for a five-hoof climb being difficult to manage!
  1892. > You're the only other one who can fly, and you're still down in the pit!
  1893. > With a quick jog around the edge to gain some speed, you spread your wings and flap to get up to height, then bank over to land in a line with the rest of your group on the brown rocky outer rim.
  1894. > Sergeant Ebonshield is standing in the sandpit, facing the Royal Engineer -- Honour and Glamerspear sitting on his left and you sitting on his right.
  1895. > With the two sandpit attendants standing behind her, each one beside a test dummy, she nods and looks around the room.
  1896. > "Great Lord, I welcome you to the arena of the Grand Hall of Stars..."
  1898. > Returning her gaze to your VIP, she continues.
  1899. > "... To learn how to defend yourself against a pony combatant, it would help, I think, if you first saw the manner actual of their fighting. Therefore I propose that we begin with having the members of your quaternion demonstrate their skills here before you."
  1900. > Anonymous nods.
  1901. > "Seems reasonable. Although I did catch some of their moves during the fight at Newstirrup Bridge."
  1902. > Ebonshield grins.
  1903. > "True. But with three fights at once, the opportunities for viewing must have been most limited. And these duels were, shall we say, out of the ordinary, yes?"
  1904. > Yours certainly was -- you spent almost all of it just trying to fly away.
  1905. > And Honour's was, too -- she asked to fight without equipment and armour.
  1906. > Only Glamerspear's duel could be called ordinary, although how it ended was anything but.
  1907. > The Royal Engineer nods, smiling.
  1908. > "Fair enough. Who's first?"
  1909. > Ebonshield looks over at you.
  1910. > "Let us begin with the soldier the most junior -- Specialist Sparkshower, if you would please to take to the air, and perform the famous lancing charge against the target of wicker?"
  1911. > You nod sharply, clanging your bascinet helmet shut.
  1912. "Yes, Sergeant!"
  1913. > "One moment before you begin, Specialist..."
  1914. > Ebonshield turns around and looks over at the occupied section of the outer rim, where the dozen colourfully-dressed batponies have now appeared.
  1915. > And they're carrying musical instruments!
  1917. > "... Among the Children, it is traditional for such trainings to be accompanied by the music, to invigorate the spirit. Director! Some music, if you please?"
  1918. > One of the batpony musicians, sitting around a large circular wooden drum, cranes his neck up and squints down at her.
  1919. > "¿Qué?"
  1920. > Ebonshield sighs, then shouts back at him.
  1921. > "¡La música, maestro, por favor!"
  1922. > "Ah, sí."
  1923. > Apparently, the music-director doesn't have a very good grasp of Equestrian.
  1924. > Turning to his comrades in the ensemble, he gives a quick nod.
  1925. > "... Uno, dos, tres."
  1926. > After what appears to have been a count-in, he leads them into a processional piece centring around a slow drum-beat.
  1927. > When a few bars go by and it still keeps to its leisurely tempo, Sergeant Ebonshield sighs and shakes her head.
  1928. > "No, no, no..."
  1929. > The music jerks haltingly to a stop, until the music-director ends his drumming.
  1930. > "... We need music with the energy and the vigour!"
  1931. > Once again, the lead drummer arches his eyebrows in confusion.
  1932. > "¿Qué?"
  1933. > Frustrated at having to speak in the batpony language with the monosyllabic conductor, or perhaps taking out the frustrations of the journey so far on him, Ebonshield sits down and you see her gesture energetically with her forehooves at the orchestra.
  1934. > "¡Una composición 'vivace', por favor!"
  1935. > "¿Qué?"
  1936. > "¡Animada, viva, rápida!"
  1937. > "Ah. Sí."
  1938. > With a friendly smile as if he understood her perfectly, the music-director gestures a hoof at his comrades, mentions a few words you can't make out, and counts them in once more.
  1940. > This time, the beat is much quicker and energetic, opening with two guitars and a fast snare-drum beat, and quickly joined by some horns as well as a number of other assorted percussion instruments.
  1942. Recommended background music: (Bill Elm & Woody Jackson - 'Triggernometry', from 'Red Dead Redemption' [2010])
  1944. > The Sergeant was right -- it *is* invigorating.
  1945. > With a smile, Ebonshield bows to the musical ensemble and nods at the two batpony attendants, who quickly hustle the wicker target into the centre of the arena, then retire back down to the trench floor.
  1946. > After a brief check of your equipment, you take two steps and then leap into the air, flapping your wings to gain height as you circle counter-clockwise above the arena.
  1947. > There's enough room in the cave for you to circle around easily enough, but it's not quite big enough to allow you to reach your maximum dive speed in here -- not with the sharp turn you'll need to make to begin the attack run.
  1948. > That's all right, though; it should still be fast enough to be impressive.
  1949. > When you reach an altitude of about fifty hooves up, and the conical ceiling starts to cramp your manoeuvring, you glance left and wait until your final turn will show your right side -- your weapon-side -- to the spectators.
  1950. > Then it's into a dive, hooking your spear against your rear hooves, gripping it tightly with your right hoof, and tucking your wings in a bit to gain speed while still having control.
  1951. > The sand pit hurtles towards you, and when you gauge that the dive is half done, you extend your wings once again to convert that downward speed into forward momentum.
  1952. > You pull off the the classical dive-bomb armoured charge without a hitch -- a manoeuvre you've practiced hundreds of times before -- and in the blink of an eye, you hurtle past the crowd and your spear slams into the wicker dummy.
  1954. > The bronze weapon pierces straight through, and the harpooned target slams against your peytral, thudding into you with far more considerable force than you expected.
  1955. > As the momentum of your armoured body picks the heavy object up off the ground, you flap your wings and tip your spear down, taking to the sky again even as you drop the target down into the trench.
  1956. > One simple banked turn later, and you land right back where you started.
  1957. > Anonymous, having put down his equipment, is giving you a polite golf-clap, and you lift your bascinet-cover up again, panting a bit from the exertion, to smile at your VIP.
  1958. > While the two sandpit attendants fetch the target from where you'd deposited it in the trench, Ebonshield nods at you.
  1959. > "Excellent form, Specialist. Did you observe it carefully, Great Lord?"
  1960. > The Royal Engineer stops clapping, placing his hands on the crimped hips of his blackened bronze armour.
  1961. > "I think I had a good look, yes."
  1962. > "And you observed the force with which the Specialist impacted upon the target, yes?"
  1963. > Your VIP grins in your direction.
  1964. > "Heh, I certainly did. I'm not looking forward to being on the receiving end of that."
  1965. > "Indeed no, Great Lord. Although made of wicker, these targets are weighted to simulate an average pony's weight. With the velocity that the Specialist Sparkshower gathered during her charge, you can see she was able to not just pierce straight through it, but also to lift it up into the sky."
  1966. > So these are weighted targets, after all?
  1967. > That explains why the attendants seemed to struggle to move them around, and why it seemed to really slow your charge your chest when you slammed into it.
  1968. > The Royal Engineer nods.
  1969. > "I saw. I'm guessing that to withstand an attack like that, I'm going to need to use my shield and not just trust in my armour."
  1971. > Ebonshield grins.
  1972. > "Precisely. We shall conduct exercises in defending against such attacks later. But I note also that the Specialist Sparkshower is distinct from the ordinary pegasus soldier in the weight and the size of her weapon, and the heaviness of her armour, and the fact that she has been trained not to break away but to fly straight into her target, the better to allow her great inertia to damage it also."
  1973. > Everything she said was absolutely true.
  1974. > Any pegasus short of a lightly-armed Air Superiority flyer carried a spear and knew how to charge with it just as you did -- but they were trained to veer off at the last second, leaving the weapon stuck in the enemy and grabbing another one from their back, or switching to hooves if they ran out.
  1975. > With all the plating you had on, it was easier to just bowl right through -- and on a pony-sized enemy, the collision with your bronze-plated body was almost as damaging as the tip of your pole-arm.
  1976. > The Sergeant turns towards Glamerspear.
  1977. > "And now, Specialist Glamerspear, will you demonstrate for us the properties remarkable of your attack?"
  1978. > Lily confidently steps up into the sand pit.
  1979. > "Sure, Sergeant."
  1980. > As she trots off to the left edge of the circle, the two attendants manoeuvre the wicker target back into the centre.
  1981. > It's not long before your unicorn comrade is in position and the batponies have retreated back down to the safety of the trench.
  1982. > You see Glamerspear's horn light up, and she plants herself securely in the ground.
  1983. > A second later, a pair of shimmering green spears above her head.
  1984. > "... All right! One pony in the open! DPICM - two rounds! Shot!"
  1986. > With a sharp double-crack, the two shimmering weapons -- Dual-Purpose Improved Conjured Munition rounds -- scream forwards with blinding speed, slamming into the upper torso of the wicker target and sending it tumbling sideways over itself.
  1987. > "... Splash!"
  1988. > After three careening spins, the wicker pony hurtles right out of the ring, teeters at the edge, and then falls into the trench.
  1989. > The Royal Engineer begins to clap politely, and you follow along, as does Sergeant Ebonshield.
  1990. > Despite the success, Glamerspear looks a bit embarrassed, and calls over to your group of spectators with a shrug.
  1991. > "... Honestly, it's a lot more impressive against a *moving* target. Shooting at static dummies is filly's play."
  1992. > Ebonshield nods and beckons her back over.
  1993. > "Of course, Specialist. We understand that your training focuses on the enemies which fly rapidly. But the Royal Engineer is not such a target, of course."
  1994. > Anonymous clears his throat and speaks up.
  1995. > "I have a question, actually."
  1996. > The Sergeant turns back to him.
  1997. > "Certainly, Great Lord?"
  1998. > The Royal Engineer glances over at you.
  1999. > "Who wins in a contest between Glamerspear's telekinetic spears and Sparkshower's heavy armour?"
  2000. > Turning to address himself to Lily as well, he continues.
  2001. > "... Does your magical spear penetrate her bronze, or would it be deflected?"
  2002. > That's a good question.
  2003. > But, you think, Glamerspear is such an accomplished Anti-Air unicorn that she would surely be able to shoot you down if it came to that.
  2005. > Lily shrugs.
  2006. > "Honestly? I don't think I can do much more than scratch her armour."
  2007. > Tornadoes!
  2008. "What! Lily, how can you say that! I've never even heard of anypony doing anything like what you did to Lieutenant Kilfeather!"
  2009. > She grins.
  2010. > "Yeah, and look what it cost me..."
  2011. > Turning back to the Royal Engineer, she continues.
  2012. > "... But volume of fire isn't what counts against an armoured foe. I'm a *conjurer*, sir. The spears I shoot emulate real ones, and just as bronze plate is pretty much immune to piercing weapons, so Sparkshower's heavy armour is immune to my spears, as well."
  2013. > Gesturing with a hoof, she summons up one of her DPICM rounds.
  2014. > "... Conjuring isn't the *only* way to shoot; there are other unicorns who can bring down armoured warriors more easily. Illusionists use weightless force-field bullets that aren't based on reality and can pierce through armour, but each of their rounds is tiny and comparatively much less powerful -- they need to put a lot more ammo into a target to actually injure and wound."
  2015. > Sitting down, Glamerspear plucks the glittering weapon out of the air with her forehooves and waves it around as if it was actually real.
  2016. > "... Elementalists don't really send up anything like traditional projectiles at all -- unless you think a moving ball of fire or electricity is a 'traditional projectile'. That kind of stuff doesn't care much about armour, unless maybe if the target's wearing an insulating suit, but they fly a lot slower than anything else and cost a *lot* more mana than even an illusionist's bullets or a conjurer's spears, so there's drawbacks whichever school you go with."
  2017. > Planting the shaft in the ground, Glamerspear curls a foreleg around it like she's standing on guard, and the spear appears to become slightly more solid and less transparent.
  2018. > "... Conjuring was what I excelled in at the 'Schola', so that's what I do. It takes a lot of study of real-world physical weapons to make a good conjuration."
  2020. > The Royal Engineer narrows his eyes and holds out his hand.
  2021. > "I see... May I take a closer look at one of your spears?"
  2022. > Glamerspear nods.
  2023. > "Sure. Be careful, though -- the edge is *sharp*."
  2024. > Seizing the weapon in two hands, Anonymous carefully inspects the tip, rotating the shaft to get a good look at the 'business end' of the spear.
  2025. > Even from over here, you can tell that it's almost impossibly-well honed.
  2026. > *Almost*.
  2027. > "Specialist, let me understand this correctly -- if you studied a different weapon, you could produce that one instead on demand?"
  2028. > Lily nods.
  2029. > "Sure, sir. I have a couple of different designs I can conjure up already -- a few smaller dart-like weapons for when speed is more important than mass. And of course I have lightweight blunt rounds for training, too."
  2030. > As she speaks, an assortment of different spear-like objects start to semi-materialize above her head, including one with what looks like a bag of sand tied at the front, then wink out as she keeps her focus on the single weapon in the Royal Engineer's hands.
  2031. > "What determines the muzzle velocity -- how fast each spear leaves your grasp, I mean?"
  2032. > Glamerspear shrugs.
  2033. > "Practice and power, really. We're not trained to hold anything back."
  2034. > The Royal Engineer dips the spear-tip in the sand and traces a line, then licks his lips.
  2035. > "This is indeed a sharp spear, Specialist. But sharpness isn't what will get you through thick armour. What you need is *density* to penetrate, and soft material to support the tip so the round doesn't deflect."
  2036. > Your unicorn seems taken aback by his declaration at first, then looks genuinely interested as he continues on.
  2037. > "... Equestria doesn't have capability to work steel or tungsten yet, and we're ages away from doing anything with uranium, so I'm not sure how to get you an example to study, but I can certainly describe it and sketch it out, and then maybe you could try imagining it yourself."
  2039. > With a friendly smile, he hands back her shimmering green spear.
  2040. > "... Just some food for thought. After all, if I'm going to be keeping bodyguards around me, I might as well make sure they're the best they can be, right?"
  2041. > Still a bit in disbelief at her VIP's apparent knowledge about weaponry, Glamerspear takes the spear and starts to tuck it under her foreleg, then realizes that she doesn't need it any more at all.
  2042. > It vanishes in a puff of green glitter, then Anonymous looks over in your direction.
  2043. > "... Anyways, that's all I was curious about. And if I can make case-hardened steel, Specialist, you'll be first on the order list for a new set of plates."
  2044. > Better armour than what you have now?
  2045. > Is such a thing even possible?
  2046. > You *already* feel pretty invulnerable, but then again, if Glamerspear starts tossing around spears made of 'tungsten' -- whatever that was -- maybe you'll *need* an upgrade!
  2047. > Glamerspear takes her place back in the line, and Ebonshield waves a forehoof to the batpony attendants, ordering them to bring both targets out.
  2048. > "Bueno. Now, the Corporal Bound will demonstrate the attacks of the regular infantry of Equestria: the spear thrown, the spear thrusted, and the attacks with the hooves. Corporal, please to use the target of wicker for the javelin and spear, and the other for the sabots."
  2049. > With a deep breath, Honour Bound steps up into the sandpit and snaps together one of her javelin-spears.
  2050. > Rearing up on her hind legs, Corporal Bound raises up a javelin, takes two quick steps forward, then chucks her weapon up at an angle towards the target with a cry of exertion.
  2051. > "Hurh!"
  2053. > After sailing a moment through the air, it lands neatly in the flank of the wicker pony, knocking it over sideways.
  2054. > Honour steps up as the batpony attendant pulls the weapon out, scurries over to the place the weapon just in front of the target, and then raises the wicker creature once more.
  2055. > Picking up the same javelin and checking that it's still intact, Honour sits down and couches the base against one of her forelegs while using the other to direct the motion, and stabs several times up into the wicker pony's face and chest.
  2056. > "... Hup! Hup! Hup!"
  2057. > Each time, the target rears back from the blow, but then is pushed down again from behind by the batpony attendant.
  2058. > Stepping back, your quaternion's leader rears up on her hind legs again, holding the javelin above her head, and thrusts down from above right into the target's head, drilling the spear down right through the neck and out the chest.
  2059. > "... Hurgh!"
  2060. > Her chest heaving from the exertion, she receives a polite applause for the performance.
  2061. > Ebonshield continues to clap her forehooves together even as Honour gathers up her weapon and folds it back up onto her back.
  2062. > "Bueno, and now the kicking if you please? Bring the target close so that the Great Lord may see -- this is the demonstration most critical."
  2063. > While the attendants drag the burlap target right in front of you all, Ebonshield looks over her shoulder at the Royal Engineer.
  2064. > "... *Most* ponies fight with the hooves. Even in the infantería, holding the spear can be awkward so the hooves are the weapons more common."
  2065. > Corporal Bound, looking a bit glum as she trots over, nods.
  2066. > "Sir, a spear-thrust is a lot more damaging when it's a whole platoon of us doing it in a line or square. Same thing with the javelin throw -- it's supposed to be a mass attack."
  2068. > That's strange, she almost sounds embarrassed.
  2069. > What's to be embarrassed about?
  2070. > Did she do something wrong?
  2071. > Not that you could see.
  2072. > Even though she failed to knock the target out of the ring as you and Glamerspear did, they were still mighty blows!
  2073. > You definitely wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that overhead thrust -- not without your armour on, certainly!
  2074. > "I understand, Corporal."
  2075. > The two batpony attendants stand just beside the target, holding it with their forehooves to keep it in place, and your quaternion-leader steps up to face the static foe.
  2076. > After getting the measure of the target -- and catching her breath a bit -- Honour quickly spins around in a small leap and brings her hind legs to bear, kicking outwards with a harsh whinny and a spray of sand.
  2077. > "Brrhnn!"
  2078. > The burlap target takes the twin bronze sabots right in the flank, and bucks upwards, only to be brought down again by the sandpit batponies.
  2079. > After demonstrating her rear kick, Honour turns around again, facing the target and raising herself up on her hind legs, then delivers a quick one-two punch with her forehoof sabots.
  2080. > "... Hup! Hup!"
  2081. > Each hit jostles the target, though it once again stays upright.
  2082. > Honour collapses back down onto all fours, then turns around to face the group.
  2083. > "... Well... that's it, I guess."
  2084. > Gosh, she doesn't seem enthusiastic about this at all.
  2085. > You'd thought she was completely on-board with the Sergeant's idea for training the Royal Engineer?
  2086. > Was she having second thoughts about this as well?
  2087. > Maybe she needs some cheering up, afterwards...
  2088. > Regardless, everypony gives her a brief applause as she rejoins the line.
  2090. > Ebonshield steps out into the sandpit and addresses the group once more.
  2091. > "Excellent. Now, Great Lord, that you have seen to your satisfaction the attacks standard of ponies, we may begin your training regimen. Please to step up with your shield and weapon."
  2092. > Before the Royal Engineer can even bend down to grab his equipment, Glamerspear takes a step forward and bursts out with a frown on her face.
  2093. > "Hey! What's the big idea claiming the show's over, Sarge?"
  2094. > What does she mean by that?
  2095. > Your batpony Sergeant raises a quizzical eyebrow and looks over at the unicorn, who points an accusing hoof.
  2096. > "... We ain't seen *you* fight, yet!"
  2097. > Oh!
  2098. > That's right!
  2099. > And that was something you'd really been looking forward, to, as well!
  2100. > Surely Sergeant Ebonshield wasn't planning on skipping over herself, was she?
  2105. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and if this batpony Sergeant of yours was going to drag your quaternion *and* your VIP all the way down into this cave under the mountain, past a Royal Guard Military Ponice checkpoint *and* a group of vile shadow-stalking Night Guards, then by Celestia you were going to get a show out of it!
  2106. > And that means seeing what this 'Seventh Rank of the School of the Shining Stellar Dance' can do!
  2107. "... So, come on, let's see what you've got, 'Estelar'!"
  2108. > Yeah, you're picking up on their language a bit.
  2109. > It ain't so tough.
  2110. > The middle-aged batpony mare looks dismissively at you.
  2111. > "It is extremely unlikely that the Royal Engineer should ever have to fight against someone from my school. It would perhaps be more useful to have an ordinary Night Guard soldier demonstrate their techniques, but sadly, none is available at this time."
  2112. > What a cop-out!
  2113. > The Royal Engineer shuffles his feet slightly, agitating the mini-kilt around his armour.
  2114. > "'Extremely unlikely', Sergeant, but not impossible?"
  2115. > Heh, of course the VIP who's dressed much as you are -- although your skirt is more for comfort than for protection -- backs you up.
  2116. > 'Same clothes, same foes', as the saying goes.
  2117. > Eb puts on the charm for Anonymous.
  2118. > "*Almost* impossible, Great Lord. In fact, I think improbable in general that any Child of the Stars should wish to challenge the Royal Engineer, particularly in his current position. We do not have the same rules about duelling as the nobility of Equestria does. It is far more likely that you should face one of their number in combat, as you almost did with the Lieutenant Kilfeather."
  2120. > You have no way of knowing if her assertions about these cave-dwellers are true, but since she's trying to deflect the demonstration this way, you can think of another way to get her to step up.
  2121. "Sure, Sarge -- but if that creep comes trotting around for more trouble, we're gonna clobber him as a *team*, ain't we?"
  2122. > You look down the line and get an enthusiastic head-shaking from Sparkshower as well as a single nod of acknowledgement by Honour.
  2123. > Turning back to the batpony, you continue.
  2124. "... Which means we've *all* got to know how *you* fight."
  2125. > Lifting up a forehoof and nonchalantly examining it, you drill the point in a bit further.
  2126. "... And, since you didn't have to follow through on your threat to take out those 'hatch-a-door' bats back in the tunnels, not that some of us weren't ready to jump right into battle with you, where better to arrange a demonstration than right here in the Night Guard training pit?"
  2127. > You nod in the direction of the two servile batpony attendants.
  2128. "... I bet they've got at least twelve target dummies stashed away down in that trench for you to 'dance' with."
  2129. > Sparkshower pipes up helpfully.
  2130. > "I counted sixteen!"
  2131. > Of course she did, that sweet little armoured-scout pegasister of yours.
  2132. > The Sergeant takes a moment to reflect on -- or maybe to recover from -- your verbal assault.
  2133. > Finally, she sighs.
  2134. > "If the Great Lord wishes it, it will be done."
  2135. > Anonymous rolls his shoulders around, frowning slightly.
  2136. > "I'd like to see what you can do, Sergeant. But you make it sound like you're not exactly in the mood for a demonstration."
  2137. > Ebonshield sighs a second time.
  2138. > "Eh! I came prepared to demonstrate as the others did, of course. The reception provided by my people has given me 'mala leche' -- a bad mood."
  2139. > Stretching out her hind legs, you hear her crack one of her knees.
  2140. > "... But, in my school there is the expression: 'I fight when I must fight, no import my mood.'"
  2142. > She takes a deep breath and stretches the other leg.
  2143. > "... To properly demonstrate the technique of the Shining Stellar Dance requires great exertion, and I admit I was hoping to avoid a work-out this morning. Of course, this was pure selfishness on my part."
  2144. > Your batpony Sergeant raises one forehoof and, in a single swift motion, throws off the black cloak that has concealed her ever since she emerged from her room this morning.
  2145. > A room that she left still *occupied*, too!
  2146. > Visions flash through your head of Ebonshield's latest one-night-stand breaking into your bedrooms and rifling through your stuff.
  2147. > There's a lot of fine jewellery, nice makeup, and sweet fashions in your dresser!
  2148. > Well, at least the single most valuable and important thing you own -- your Silver Ram -- is here, safely around your neck.
  2149. > "... I shall impose my selfishness upon you no more. I will demonstrate. Director!"
  2150. > You snap out of imagining returning to a ransacked room as one of the pit attendants scurries forward to gather up Ebonshield's cloak, carefully bundling it up and hustling it out of the ring, while the now-uncovered batpony herself canters away towards the outer edge closest to the musicians.
  2151. > Seeing her approach, they lower their instruments.
  2152. > "... Where is the Balladeer of Gh-"
  2153. > The music-director squints at her, but before he can utter that same 'kay' thing he kept repeating before, Ebonshield cuts herself off with an dismissive snort and switches to the batpony tongue.
  2154. > "... ¿Dónde está el Baladista de Fantasmas?"
  2155. > The musicians all glance up at the funny raised wooden... gazebo?
  2156. > Watch-tower?
  2157. > Litter-on-stilts?
  2158. > You're not quite sure what to call the small black wooden structure with the red curtains, but before you can make any more guesses, a loud coltish voice with a sharp batpony accent crackles out from inside it.
  2159. > "He is RIGHT HERE! And he is also trying to SLEEP!"
  2161. > A withered old hoof appears from behind one of the curtains, hooking a grey foreleg onto the edge of the gazebo-tower's wall.
  2162. > "... Puta mierda, do jou have any idea of what time it is?"
  2163. > A second hoof appears, and then they raise to part the red curtains of the raised box barely larger than your own single-pony bed back in the barracks.
  2164. > Finally, the speaker's dark grey head appears.
  2165. > It's an ancient-looking batpony colt, with white whiskers and a beard, and a short white mane to match, framing a face covered by a large black sleeping-mask fringed with long red strips that sway and bounce as he speaks.
  2166. > Ebonshield calls up to him, bowing her head.
  2167. > "It is just after nine o'clock, oh Balladeer of Ghosts."
  2168. > Still keeping his mask on, the old colt's upper lip twitches and he sneers down at her, baring his teeth.
  2169. > "After nine! Joder, what is the meaning for all this racket jou are making at such a late hour, then? It is the time for the good batponies to be sleeping, damn the shadows!"
  2170. > Your Sergeant takes the torrent of abuse in stride, keeping her head held low.
  2171. > "I am training with Children of the Sun, and we have need of your music."
  2172. > After a long delay, the old colt in the gazebo shouts back down to her.
  2173. > "¿Qué? ¿Qué?"
  2174. > He thrusts one of his hooves in her general direction.
  2175. > "... Lift your damned head when jou speak to me, or else speak up! It is difficult to hear things all the way up here, cabrón!"
  2176. > Doing both, the Sergeant exits her bow and hollers up at the 'balladeer' in his little pulpit.
  2177. > "We have need of your music!"
  2178. > The old colt's upper lip and whiskers twitch for a few moments while he processes what she's said, then he sniffs deeply, before spitting what appears to be a loogie down into the trench.
  2179. > Gross!
  2180. > "You need music? I will give jou music, gilipollas!"
  2182. > With a hesitant step -- probably owing to his refusal to remove the damned sleeping-mask, he moves over to the side of his balcony that looks down on the musicians, then leans over to harangue them.
  2183. > "... Stop with all this horrible shit jou have been playing until now! It burns my ears! The 'estrela' says that she wants music, so I will give her music!"
  2184. > Baring his teeth, he barely avoids clonking his head into one of the pillars that holds the little roof above his head as he turns back to Sergeant Ebonshield.
  2185. > "... Prepare yourself, Estrela Siete! I will give you music worth dancing to, you mequetrefe!"
  2186. > Before he can get to it, she calls back up to him, with a somewhat angry tone to her voice.
  2187. > No surprise, given how he's been cussing her out!
  2188. > "Just play something standard, if you please!"
  2189. > Shouting back down at her, he lowers his forehooves to pick something up from the floor of his pulpit.
  2190. > "Hah! Standard, jou say? Standard!? What would jour Old Colt of the Mountain say to jour 'standard'?"
  2191. > Before she can reply, he leans out over the trench.
  2192. > "... ¡Que te folle un pez! Do not wake me up at such a profane hour of the day and then pretend also to give me orders!"
  2193. > Turning away, you see him place something small in his mouth -- a small pipe, perhaps? -- as he fusses over something larger with his hooves, muttering away to himself.
  2194. > "... I will give jou 'standard', all right."
  2195. > Frowning, Ebonshield retires to the centre of the arena.
  2196. > Now that her exchange with the strange old colt in the little pulpit is done, you glance around.
  2197. > Hey -- those damned pit-attendants haven't brought out any more of the target dummies!
  2198. > As a matter of fact, they've put *away* the two that were out previously!
  2199. > Now what the buck is this?
  2200. > You didn't come all the way down into the Tartarean depths of Canterlot Mountain just for an abstract ballet show!
  2202. > Scanning the 'Grand Hall of Stars', you finally catch sight of the two sandpit-workers.
  2203. > They've pushed one of the benches up against the inner wall of the trench, and are standing on it, their forelegs and faces just peeking over onto the inner rim.
  2204. > You poke Honour in the shoulder and point them out.
  2205. "Look at those two goons hiding over there!"
  2206. > She nods.
  2207. > "Hmmm... Maybe we ought to climb down as well."
  2208. > You look around the room once more.
  2209. > Eb is posed like a statue in the middle of the arena floor, waiting, presumably, for her 'standard' music to begin.
  2210. > The musicians themselves, after a brief scurry to grab other instruments, are now perched at the edge of their ring, looking rather less relaxed and rather more formally composed than previously.
  2211. > Something's going to happen for sure.
  2212. "Yeah, let's take cover."
  2213. > Without waiting for an order either way, you materialize a whole triple-bundle of blunted spears to form steps.
  2214. > Honour gives you a nod as she trots down them, but your VIP just jumps right down into the pit, landing easily on his feet.
  2215. > Sparkshower, of course, floats down on her wings.
  2216. > It's just you left to use your makeshift magical staircase.
  2217. > By the time you reach the floor, Anonymous has already laid down his equipment and grabbed one of the wooden benches in his arms, hauling it over to the inner rim.
  2218. > Geez...
  2219. > You could have easily telekinesis'd it over, but still.
  2220. > The muscles on this colt...
  2221. > As you move to perch yourself on your hind legs on top of the bench, resting your forelegs on the outer ring of the arena, your mind wanders a bit to the manaburn-induced fever dream you had in the coltswear store.
  2222. > No question now that your VIP would be able to scoop you up in his arms if he ever wanted to.
  2223. > Unf, you feel a bit of a buzz in your horn as you momentarily imagine him hauling you around, one arm under your barrel, the other arm holding his shield.
  2225. > What a team you'd make!
  2226. > Buff hairless monkey-colt doing all the exhausting legwork and protecting you with his colossal minotaur aegis.
  2227. > Sexy young unicorn mare blasting everything in sight, giggling as you gun down foe after foe, almost breathless from the excitement of battle and from his tantalizingly firm grip.
  2228. > Mmmf.
  2229. > "Look, he's got something in his mouth."
  2230. > Oh, he'll have something in his mouth, all right.
  2231. > Your hor-wait, what did Sparkshower say?
  2232. > The old grey colt -- *still* wearing that stupid fringed blindfold-mask of his -- reappears at the arena-facing window of his raised gazebo, clutching a small wooden flute-looking instrument in his forehooves.
  2233. > "... That looks kind of like an oboe, but with less holes and a bigger opening at the bottom."
  2234. > How the buck does this pegasus pick out details at a hundred hooves away?
  2235. > Then you remember -- two can play that game.
  2236. > Giving a sharp triple-tap to your helmet's optics button, you drop down your magnifying viewfinder.
  2237. > Sure enough, zoomed in, you can make out the 'Balladeer's' apparent instrument of choice, and it does look a bit oboe-ish.
  2238. > He waves his left hoof in the air -- with the other musicians watching him carefully from below -- and then, with a final jerk of his foreleg, a great low drone from one of the ordinary musician's horns fills the hall, accompanied by the occasional thrub of a great drum.
  2240. Strongly recommended background music: (Paul Ruskay - 'Swarmer Battle Music', from 'Homeworld' [2000])
  2242. > It's a little creepy how the atmospheric droning echoes around the room, but this sure doesn't sound like dance music to you.
  2243. > That's when the music-director batpony joins in, stoically tapping away on a pair of bongo drums.
  2244. > Okay, it's a pretty slow and sensuous rhythm, but at least now there's a beat.
  2246. > You start nodding your head along, staring at Ebonshield and wondering when the show's going to start.
  2247. > Against the backdrop of the droning horns, the soft patter of the bongos, and the occasional thud of a massive kettle-drum somewhere further back, you hear a low, guttural singing voice join.
  2248. > It's that old colt, up in the pulpit!
  2249. > Bizarre.
  2250. > There's another sound, too...
  2251. > Sounds like... moving sand?
  2252. > Glancing left and right, you see little dust-storms kick up here and there across the pit.
  2253. > Strange; you don't feel any wind down here.
  2254. > Quickly folding up your optics, you barely have the time to get a good look at the closest miniature cyclone before a powerful, sharp higher-pitched sound pierces the air.
  2255. > You look up, and see the 'Balladeer' has his oboe-thing held up to his lips.
  2256. > Crazy sound that thing makes!
  2257. > But when you look down, that's when your eyes really go wide.
  2258. > As the music plays, dark black spots appear in the sandpit, enveloping and enlarging the miniature sandstorms, pulling them up out of the ground!
  2259. > You hear a gasp from Sparkshower at the other end of the bench, and the rising black sand starts to form itself into shadowy forms ringed with red auras.
  2260. > Within moments, they coalesce into the shapes of strange ponies who appear to be made of charcoal.
  2261. > And not just any charcoal-ponies -- charcoal-ponies in ebony-black Royal Guard uniforms!
  2262. > The Balladeer of Ghosts lowers his instrument and begins to chant once more, and the shadow-sand ponies start to *move*, circling menacingly around the lone Sergeant in the centre.
  2263. > Gaping, you see *weapons* materialize out of the sand and into their hooves.
  2264. > It's a whole buckin' conjured-sand army!
  2265. > Scanning left and right, you count a unicorn, four pegasi, and four earth ponies -- nine opponents in all!
  2266. > That's when you realize that Ebonshield isn't sitting still any longer -- she's stepping towards a gap between the approaching groups of shadow-ponies.
  2268. > As she darts towards the safe open space, you catch a glimpse of her equipment, and realize this is the first time you've seen her fully decked out.
  2269. > She's not wearing much.
  2270. > Besides the simple leather chanfron that you could see earlier, she's got a small leather peytral -- little more than a pectoral boss, really -- and four short leather greaves, one on each leg.
  2271. > And that's it!
  2272. > Protection rating: practically zilch!
  2273. > But as the batpony hustles towards the rim, trying to keep the musically summoned opponents to one side of her, you catch a shiny silver glimpse of the daggers attached to the greaves, on the insides of her legs.
  2274. > How is she going to hit anything with them tucked in like that?
  2275. > Unless...
  2276. > Gears turn in your head, and just as quickly as they struggle to crank out the solution, Ebonshield turns around and flaps her wings, leaping towards the closest shadow-figure, an earth pony struggling to bring its short javelin to bear on her flank.
  2277. > Passing clear over the weapon, she thrusts her left forehoof forward, and with a 'snick-snack' noise just barely loud enough to hear, the dagger strapped to that limb slices forward, neatly jabbing right into the creature's throat.
  2278. > While the momentum of your Sergeant's jump pushes the target over backwards, she withdraws her foreleg and you hear another 'snick-snack' noise as the blade snaps back into its previous position.
  2279. > She lands on the ground and ducks into a roll just as one of the other earth-pony simulacrums stabs its spear down at where she landed, while the target she'd stabbed collapses in a heap then melts back into the sand.
  2280. > What the buck is this?!
  2282. > More incredulous at the mechanical magic powering the batpony's daggers than the actual sorcery fuelling her targets, you follow her roll and watch her flip around to crash into the spear-wielding pony's upper torso, stabbing her right-hoof's spring-activated dagger repeatedly into the base of its neck, where the main armour connects with the neck-guard.
  2283. > With an ethereal moan, this one, too, collapses down into the pit, the shadow-stuff evaporating as the sand regains its usual brown colour.
  2284. > Now it's the pegasi's turn to charge in, and two of them take to the air, setting the batpony up for a quick one-two perpendicular crossover charge.
  2285. > All the while, the remaining two earth ponies wave their spears menacingly, trying to herd your Sergeant into the trap.
  2286. > The charcoal-figure unicorn, meanwhile, looks to be charging up a spell of some kind -- and he's flanked by the other two pegasi, floating in the air beside him.
  2287. > Ebonshield extends her wings, and that's when you catch another flash of silvery metal.
  2288. > Sparkshower blurts it out before you can.
  2289. > "She's got *blades* on her *wing-arms*!"
  2290. > Smashing one wing forward, she uses the metal wing-blade to knock one earth pony's weapon up just enough for her to duck underneath, and in a blink of an eye, administers another quick 'snick-snack' dagger-plunge up the black-sand creature's throat and into its snarling head.
  2291. > Quickly, as the first pegasus just comes roaring in with his companion close beside him, Ebonshield grasps the dying creature's neck and rolls onto her back, flipping the disintegrating sand-creature into the path of her first flying foe.
  2292. > The spray of sand sends the black-winged pony off-course, though he pulls up with more than enough time to avoid any counter-stroke.
  2293. > She's back on her hooves again, and the second pegasus has her flank dead to rights, his spear lined up in a charge just like Sparkshower demonstrated moments ago.
  2295. > But at the last second, she flutters to one side with unbelievable agility, narrowly avoiding being harpooned straight through as your pegasister did to her own target.
  2296. > That second pegasus joins its temporarily-blinded comrade for another pass around, while the earth pony retreats slowly towards the mage.
  2297. > Say -- just how realistic are these sand-creatures, anyways?
  2298. > If she got stabbed, would it even hurt?
  2299. > As if to answer your question, the unicorn's horn suddenly glows with a red arcane light, and an enormous conjured harpoon hurtles towards the recovering batpony.
  2300. > She raises her wing-blades and her forehoof-blades to block it, and there's a tremendous *clong* as the harpoon dissipates against her weapons, but nonetheless the sheer force of the impact sends her tumbling back almost to the edge of the ring.
  2301. > It takes her a second to struggle back to her hooves, panting heavily, but she manages it just as the unicorn's horn glows again.
  2302. > This time, there's no chance of blocking, so she takes to the air, sinuously wiggling up like a snake.
  2303. > One of the airborne pegasi passes by and raises its weapon to slash at her, but she aerially tumbles out of the way even as the second black magic harpoon crashes into the ceiling, exploding in a fury of black sand and crushed stone.
  2304. > Holy Celestia!
  2305. > There's a damn hole in the painted ceiling where it hit!
  2306. > That answers your question about realism.
  2307. > And it's definitely a good thing you all took cover in the pit.
  2308. > You surreptitiously pull your forelegs off the edge and lower yourself down so that your eyes are just peeking over the top, and you're not surprised to see the rest of your group doing the same.
  2310. > Back up in the air, Ebonshield has somehow manoeuvred herself around above one of the pegasi, and wraps her forelegs around his neck before slashing down and forward with her wing-blades, slicing off his means of flight.
  2311. > She kicks herself off of the falling target, who flails his limbs in a panic before slamming into the arena floor with an explosion of sand.
  2312. > The two pegasi floating by the unicorn tip up their spears, and even the earth pony hurls a conjured javelin as the acrobatic batpony comes fluttering down towards the dangerous unicorn, the remaining airborne pegasus still struggling to match her tight turns and get on top of her.
  2313. > Ebonshield lands short, dodging the thrown projectile and rolling forwards into a slide before kicking herself up off her back and right into the last earth pony, her left forehoof-blade slicing open yet another charcoal neck.
  2314. > At close range, the pegasi slash awkwardly with their long spears, while the unicorn abandons its attack for a hastily-erected shield.
  2315. > Yet the batpony just canters away, satisfied for the moment with eliminating the last earth pony.
  2316. > Five down, four to go.
  2317. > The high-altitude pegasus comes sheering down across the battlefield, spear held well out, but your middle-aged acrobatic batpony ducks down early, then springs up above into a backflip when the shadow-creature lowers his aim.
  2318. > This time, there's no way for her to bring her foreleg weapons to bear, so she kicks out with a hind leg, and the same 'snick-snack' blade cuts through the open face of the pegasus' helmet.
  2319. > By the time she's landed on her hooves again, gasping for breath, her target has collapsed behind her into a pile of sand.
  2320. > Just three left.
  2321. > The unicorn's dropped its shield and decided to trade power for rate of fire, and sends black dart after black dart crackling forward towards the batpony, who zig-zags towards the gunner.
  2323. > Puffs of sand fly up into the air as shots go short, while darts that go long clatter noisily against the raised wall of the outer rim.
  2324. > Geez, if that thing aims any higher then the musicians might be in danger, too!
  2325. > Unless maybe there's some magical shielding at work to keep that outer ring safe...
  2326. > As Ebonshield works her way closer, one of the pegasi guards breaks to the left, while the other sticks with the unicorn, who takes a second to reload the next magical-volley.
  2327. > Before the flanking pegasus can make a move, the batpony bolts straight up into the air, and the unicorn desperately drops the fresh spell to try to raise a shield.
  2328. > It's all too late, though, because she comes powering down on top of it, crashing hooves-first through the half-raised protective dome right onto the surprised spellcaster, only to lash out sideways with a wing, slicing open the pegasus bodyguard's neck.
  2329. > Then she raises her forehooves up and brings them sharply down again, and you hear a double 'snick-snack' as the two blades do their work.
  2330. > Just the one target left -- a lone shadowy pegasus keeping to the air, hoarding its kinetic energy against a target clearly more manoeuvrable than it is.
  2331. > For the moment, the batpony just follows it with her gaze, probably glad for the respite -- she's panting heavily, and flapping her wings gently to cool herself off.
  2332. > Her rest is cut short when immediately beside her, however, a black sand-pile rises up into a towering figure.
  2333. > The 'Balladeer of Ghosts' has other plans, it would seem.
  2334. > Ebonshield retreats as the shape coalesces into an enormous minotaur wielding a great maul.
  2335. > That thing's almost as big as Bronzehorn!
  2336. > Your batpony Sergeant cries out towards the musicians.
  2337. > "I said *standard*, Ignacio!"
  2338. > Another black shape forms just behind her, and she has to change her direction of retreat.
  2340. > 'Ignacio', the balladeer in the pulpit, lowers his instrument and hollers down to the sandpit.
  2341. > "There is no 'standard' in war! The only standard in war is *death*!"
  2342. > Snarling, he raises his instrument back up, but bellows out before returning to his melody.
  2343. > "... If jou have not yet learned this, then I shall gladly supply the lesson!"
  2344. > With another haunting reprise of the strange melody, the second newcomer takes shape -- and it's a dragon, down on all fours!
  2345. > Barely has Ebonshield trotted away from it that it inhales and then lances out a stream of shadowy red-hot flame!
  2346. > The blazing jet flies right by your group, prompting everypony to duck, and pours against the back wall of the trench.
  2347. > Holy buck!
  2348. > You can feel the heat even ten hooves away!
  2349. > Horrified by the attack, but desperate to see the end of the fight, you raise your head up once more, and so does everypony else.
  2350. > The shadow-minotaur has Ebonshield up against the outer rim with the two-handed hammer raised above its head.
  2351. > She dodges away at the last instant as the maul slams down into the sand, thudding angrily and raising a plume of yellow dust.
  2352. > Before she can dart in and administer the usual treatment, however, the minotaur quickly steps right and swings the weapon left, clotheslining her chest with the handle.
  2353. > With a loud 'Oof!', Eb drops to the ground, then rolls sideways to avoid another hammer blow.
  2354. > Meanwhile, the dragon is circling the ring, moving closer for a larger target.
  2355. > That pegasus is still up in the ceiling, too, waiting for a moment to strike.
  2356. > Dodging yet another overhead slam from the minotaur by rolling away, the batpony finally spins herself up onto her hooves and launches onto its back, stabbing again and again with one forehoof-blade and one hindhoof-blade as she climbs up towards its neck.
  2358. > The conjured minotaur roars in pain, and drops its weapon to try to grab her off, but all it manages to do is stagger forward as she continues her relentless assault, now shouting with every half-desperate strike.
  2359. > "Hrah! Hyah! Hiyah!"
  2360. > Finally, she reaches his neck, and jams both of her foreleg blades down into his collar-region.
  2361. > There's another roar of pain, but it's once again not fatal, and the confused cow-beast stumbles further forward still.
  2362. > ... Right towards the dragon, you note, who opens its mouth and sends a streak of flame right at the minotaur's head and shoulders.
  2363. > Ebonshield dodges back down to the ground as the two-legged cow's head melts right off, then she bursts through the collapsing sand-creature's torso to strike the dragon head-on with a forehoof blade already extended.
  2364. > Slicing sideways, she catches it in the jaw, and as it tumbles over, she sweeps her hind legs forward to stab it through the chest.
  2365. > An abortive puff of flame is the final gasp of the dragon-creature, and now it's back down to the single pegasus in the sky again.
  2366. > Standing on level ground, Ebonshield looks up, almost collapsing onto her forelegs, gasping for air.
  2367. > Curiously, the pegasus comes gently floating down on the opposite side of the arena, and drops its spear to the ground.
  2368. > Even your batpony Sergeant appears confused, and then from the pulpit you hear another moaning chant.
  2369. > The black shadowy pegasus bends forward, its body wracked with convulsions, and seems to quadruple in size as its shape twists and re-forms itself.
  2370. > Then it rears up on its hind legs, and you see hands -- hands! -- in place of forehooves.
  2371. > A black disk materializes in in its left arm, and as the pegasus' shadow-spear disappears into the ground, a great mace with a geometric head forms itself in the creature's right hand.
  2372. > Anonymous gasps.
  2373. > "Good grief, that's *me*!"
  2375. > Retreating before it, your Sergeant shakes her head, stumbling towards the musicians.
  2376. > "No! No, you must not do this! Ignacio! Please, stop now!"
  2377. > The thing's helmet finally takes its proper shape, and from behind the thin 'T' cut into the face, you see two burning red eyes and glowing-white teeth.
  2378. > Heedless to Ebonshield's cries, the band plays on -- and the towering conjured shadow-human spreads its legs and clangs its weapon into its shield.
  2379. > Then it opens its mouth, and a roar emerges that sounds like Cerberus itself is tearing its way out of the Tartarean depths.
  2380. > Sparkshower gasps, ducking down, and even Honour whispers out loud.
  2381. > "What the buck *is* that thing?"
  2382. > That is a good bucking question.
  2383. > But for now, it's all you can do to watch as the brimstone apparition of your VIP closes in, shield first, on your exhausted batpony Sergeant.
  2384. > Still panting, and stepping weakly, she circles around away from it, keeping space.
  2385. > His creation fully-formed, Ignacio lowers his instrument and bellows out from the tower.
  2386. > "Since when does an estellar refuse to kill? Jou have been given a target -- dispose of it! This is the way of jour college!"
  2387. > Almost stumbling, Ebonshield hollers back.
  2388. > "I tell you I am done, Ignacio! Send it back to the pit!"
  2389. > "Pah! You are done when I *say* jou are done! Does this one have some special meaning to jou?"
  2390. > Without waiting for an answer, he grins his old withered teeth and gums at her.
  2391. > "... Good! For I send him against thee wickedly! Haha!"
  2392. > Punctuating his statement with a cackle, he returns to his instrument, directing the fight to continue.
  2393. > Ebonshield takes one final deep breath, and then appears to resolve to end the combat quickly, charging forwards and leaping up into the air towards the simulacrum's head -- only to crash into the shield which he raised to his shoulder just in time.
  2395. > Thrown back against the floor by the force of his push, it's all she can do but to roll out of the way as the heavy mace crashes into the ground where she lay, showering everything with sand.
  2396. > This time, she avoids darting in again on the weapon-side, remembering the minotaur's earlier trick -- and, indeed, the shadow-Anonymous recovers from the missed attack just as quickly as that other combatant did, if not faster.
  2397. > You almost hold your breath as the black figure hunches over, shield firmly in front, closing in on your escaping Sergeant.
  2398. > She just *wasted* eight ponies, a minotaur, and a young dragon!
  2399. > Surely she can take on a lone armoured monkey, too?
  2400. > As your Sergeant darts to the far side of the arena, the shadow stands upright again, aggressively clanging its weapon into the its shield.
  2401. > In the other corner, the batpony swallows and then hunches down on her forelegs.
  2402. > With a loud grunt, she kicks her hind legs in the air, the blades snapping out -- and *staying* out, too, as she brings the legs back down and stands in the sand on the dagger-tips.
  2403. > She repeats the same motion with her forelegs, and now she's standing on sharp metal stilts, raised up higher than before.
  2404. > A quick flap of her wings, and the blades on *those* snap out to an extended length as well.
  2405. > Get the buck outta here!
  2406. > Every single one of her friggin' weapons is spring-loaded?!
  2407. > Having traded surprise for reach, and a surer footing for height, Ebonshield closes back in.
  2408. > The shadow-human hunches back down, shield out front and weapon held level at the side, ready to deliver a forceful thrust.
  2409. > The batpony has an almost spider-like gait as she scurries in, more easily able to dart sideways with the higher centre of gravity, throwing up sand as she slices her weapon-hooves around.
  2410. > In moments, they're just in front of each other, and Ebonshield begins to strike at the shield with her forelegs and wings.
  2412. > It's all pointless, though -- the shield easily deflects her slashes, and each attack puts her off balance.
  2413. > Why is she even bothering??
  2414. > Your answer comes when the shadow-Anonymous swings his weapon overhead in a great arc -- you can see it clearly from where you are, but somehow she knew it was coming, too, and ducks towards his weapon arm only to slice upwards with her blades at his wrist.
  2415. > With a cry of pain, the weapon leaves his grasp and tumbles to the ground, and the creature retreats, holding his wounded hand against his flank.
  2416. > Must be pretty bucking sharp blades to cut through Bronzehorn's gloves -- but then again, it *was* just leather padding in that spot.
  2417. > Now that her opponent has been disarmed, Ebonshield takes the offensive, leaping up once more for the killing blow.
  2418. > But the shadow-human just leans back and raises its shield -- she lands on top of it and tries to slash down, catching only the sides of his helmet before he shoves the shield forwards and hurls her off again.
  2419. > The exhausted batpony tumbles to the ground, and takes a moment too long to recover, giving the creature enough time to raise and then slam the edge of his shield down at her exposed right leg.
  2421. > That genuine shriek of pain is enough to absolutely confirm that what happens in the pit is horribly real.
  2422. > Before he can bring it down again, she lifts her left leg and reaches down with one forehoof.
  2423. > In what surely must be a desperation measure, she slaps her hoof against her raised leg, and the spring-loaded dagger flies out, burying itself in the shadow-human's exposed thigh.
  2424. > This time, there's no marely scream, but another Tartarean roar as the shield-slam misses its mark from the sudden injury.
  2425. > With her neck covered in white sweat-foam, Ebonshield spins around onto her chest and pushes herself up with her three good legs, grimacing in pain as she limps away.
  2427. > The shadow-creature limps, too -- but *towards* her, crouched behind his shield, eager to finish the fight.
  2428. > Trotting as fast as she can, she tries to circle around to his exposed right side, but having only three legs to work with, it's far more difficult than it was before.
  2429. > She has him almost spinning in place, then suddenly she flaps her wings and reverses direction.
  2430. > The abrupt need to twist the other way forces the shadow-creature to unintentionally put weight on its bad leg, and it roars again, almost toppling over sideways from the excruciating pain.
  2431. > That's her moment to strike, and she leaps in, latching onto his shield and punching forward again and again with her foreleg-daggers.
  2432. > They clank and clatter against his helmet as he bobs and weaves, and then there's a terrifying moment when that injured right hand reappears from below -- holding her own launched dagger in a fist!
  2433. > He thrusts it around towards his shield, and she barely flaps herself away in time to avoid it.
  2434. > Damn, now he's got a weapon again!
  2435. > That's probably what she's thinking, too.
  2436. > The shadow-human's right hand is still injured, but it can hold a dagger -- and that short, swift weapon is a far better tool against the lightly-armoured agile batpony.
  2437. > What to do?
  2438. > You can see Ebonshield floating in the air before her target, spittle dripping from her open mouth and an exhausted look in her eyes.
  2439. > In her place, you'd probably go for broke.
  2440. > Apparently, the batpony has the same thought, and she darts to the right -- towards the shadow-creature's shield-arm instead of the menacing dagger -- juking low then turning away, only to slash at his eyes with her left wing-blade.
  2441. > This time, she either punctures through the bronze or manages to find the gap, and, with another horrifying roar of pain, the shadow creature tumbles over sideways.
  2443. > Ebonshield lands, her right leg tucked up tight against her torso, panting heavily and apparently relieved to be done with the fight.
  2444. > Except it's not over, because the charcoal figure, rather than collapsing down into the sand, lifts itself up onto its knees and tries to stagger back up to its feet.
  2445. > Hearing the clattering of metal instead of the expected pouring of sand, the batpony hustles over.
  2446. > "¡Sombra maldita! ¡¡¿Por qué no mueres?!!"
  2447. > With a toothy snarl, she launches herself onto its back, and then stabs down at its neck again and again, snarling and shrieking with every blow.
  2448. > The Grand Hall of Stars, in the Rookery of the Night Guard under Canterlot Mountain, is filled with a terrifying otherworldly howl as the shadow-creature collapses first to its knees, then onto its chest... and then finally, as the howl is reduced to echoes, it melts back into the sand.
  2449. > Purity Ebonshield, having defeated the final foe, topples over sideways and sprawls out on the sand, utterly exhausted, her chest heaving so hard that her ribcage ripples against her fur.
  2450. > As the arcane composition finally ends, the musicians lower their instruments, and you feel at last able to lift your head up past eye-level -- but then you spot 'Ignacio', the ornery colt in the parapet, flip a ramp down behind his perch and start to trot down it.
  2451. > "Step aside, miscreants! Put out the plank! I want to get down to the arena!"
  2452. > Hurling insults at the other musicians, the 'Balladeer of Ghosts' ambles back towards the edge of the outer ring as four of the chastened batpony orchestra-members bring forward what looks like another ramp -- one long enough to bridge the trench between the sandpit and the elevated observation area.
  2453. > Your blood instantly boils.
  2454. > This bucking colt, after trying to kill your squadmate with magic apparitions, thinks he can just trot down and finish her off in person?
  2455. > Not the buck on your watch!
  2456. "Hey!"
  2458. > With a cry, you leap up onto the fighting stage and gallop towards your fallen comrade, reaching her and raising a magical shield over her crumpled body just as the old colt hobbles his way down the plank towards you.
  2459. > *Literally* hobbles -- he's got a crutch under his left foreleg.
  2460. > And he's *still* wearing that bucking black night-mask blindfold with the red fringe!
  2461. > How the buck did he even see where he was going!
  2462. > You hear hoofsteps and footsteps hustling towards you from behind, but it's all up to you to stop this batpony mage before he does what those bastards at the checkpoint tried to do.
  2463. "That's far enough, buster! Stand the buck back!"
  2464. > Craning his head sideways, the old dark-grey colt bares his teeth and speaks in a raspy tone.
  2465. > "Oho? Who is this, then? Jou have a stalwart defender to come to jour rescue, estelar?"
  2466. > Nothing but a pained groan from your comrade on the floor, in-between weak breaths.
  2467. > "Uhnnnn..."
  2468. > The colt takes a step forward, but you threateningly expand the shield-bubble.
  2469. "I said that's close enough!"
  2470. > Ignacio snarls angrily at you.
  2471. > "Step aside! I will inspect my subject!"
  2472. > Pfft, as if!
  2473. "Yeah? You wanna see what you did to her? You don't gotta get close! Just take off that blindfold and look with your eyes, you jerk!"
  2474. > From below, you hear another weak moan -- it almost sounds like words.
  2475. > "... Glamerspear... do not..."
  2476. > But it's drowned out by a loud cackling from in front of you.
  2477. > "Oho! Ohohohoho! Ahah! Jou want I should take off my blindfold, jes? Ahaha!"
  2478. > Still giggling, you see him sit down and reach his forehooves up behind his head, leaning on his crutch.
  2479. > "... And if I should do this, *unicornio*, what... exactly... do jou think..."
  2480. > He unties the blindfold, and allows it to fall lazily to the sandy floor.
  2481. > "... I will see?"
  2483. > Just above two rows of withered teeth clenched in an amused grimace, two utterly featureless milky-white orbs stare back at you.
  2484. > What the buck!
  2485. > He's *blind*!
  2486. > This son-of-a-bitch performed all that magic... *blind*?!
  2491. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and getting into a fight with a batpony sorcerer was *not* in your plan of action for this morning.
  2492. > As you skid to a stop with the Royal Engineer not two hooves behind your heels, Sparkshower lands on the other side of Glamerspear's protective dome.
  2493. > Now that the four of you are all here, and since nopony's started an actual fight, you have a brief moment to size up the situation.
  2494. > Before you, the old batpony colt is still cackling with amusement, his blind eyes looking aimlessly forwards.
  2495. > Glamerspear has a look of utter incomprehension on her face as she maintains her protective shield.
  2496. > And sprawled out on the sand under Glamerspear's dome, still completely exhausted and out of breath, Sergeant Ebonshield struggles to maintain consciousness.
  2497. > There's a dark stain on the sand near her wounded leg, too, although you can't see the injury itself.
  2498. > The 'Balladeer of Ghosts' adjusts the crutch underneath his left shoulder, his laughter slowly drawing to a close.
  2499. > "Oho..."
  2500. > Looking slightly off to one side, he licks his lips, before speaking in a raspy voice.
  2501. > "... Jour camaraderie is commendable, unicorn, but ill-founded. I did not charge blindly - hah! hehe! - down from the minbar just to assault my dancer. And besides, what do jou imagine I can possibly do to her?"
  2502. > Punctuating his point, he re-shoulders the crutch, then flexes his wings slightly open.
  2503. > They're disgusting, gaunt, shrivelled things, and you can't imagine they're the slightest bit useful for flying.
  2504. > Glamerspear is still too shocked by the magician's blindness to do more than gape, but on the ground, you see Ebonshield swallow and whisper between pained breaths.
  2505. > "Specialist.... it is alright..."
  2507. > The unicorn specialist glances down at her comrade, then over to you.
  2508. > You give her a nod, and the shield fades out.
  2509. > But, critically, her horn stays lit -- the sign of an active draw of mana.
  2510. > She's staying alert to possible treachery; probably a good idea.
  2511. > The moment her barrier winks out of existence, the withered old musician-mage stands up on all fours and hobbles towards the Sergeant, sitting down again just in front of her.
  2512. > Her face damp with tears from the pain and exhaustion, all she manages to do is whimper out his name.
  2513. > "... Ignacio ..."
  2514. > Laying down his crutch, the batpony sorcerer bends over and appears to delicately inspect your comrade.
  2515. > "Tut-tut-tut-tut, shhhh, quiet now... Ah, mi angelita de la muerte, what have jou done to jourself?"
  2516. > He reaches out a probing hoof, and after a few seconds spent blindly searching, lays it gently on her injured leg -- but not gently enough that it doesn't aggravate the wound.
  2517. > "EEEEEEHH!"
  2518. > After that painful cry, Ebonshield shuts her eyes and her breathing becomes panicked.
  2519. > Ignacio leans in close to her snout, still keeping one hoof delicately on the site of the injury.
  2520. > "Shhh-shh-shhh.... Listen, listen..."
  2521. > Placing his lips almost right up to her ear, he begins to sing.
  2522. > "... Estrellita, ¿donde estás? Me pregunto qué serás..."
  2523. > The soothing, simple melody has the tempo of a lullaby, and your Sergeant begins to calm down.
  2524. > "... En el cielo y en el mar, un diamante de verdad..."
  2525. > You can tell that it's more than just a simple song, though, and even Glamerspear's eyes go wide as you all stare down at the Balladeer's hoof -- a hoof which is now *glowing* with a pure-white light.
  2526. > "... Estrellita, ¿donde estás? Cuando nada brilla más..."
  2527. > The glow intensifies and spreads, covering Ebonshield's injured leg.
  2529. > "... Tu nos nuestras tu brillar..."
  2530. > Almost as quickly as it spreads, it dissipates, and the sorcerer withdraws his healing touch, slowing the melody and bringing the song to an end.
  2531. > "... brillas brillas sin parar."
  2532. > On the ground, the Sergeant's breathing returns to a normal rate, and she opens her eyes, flexing the now-restored leg.
  2533. > Ignacio says nothing as he gathers his crutch and sits up straight.
  2534. > Without further aid, Sergeant Ebonshield slowly gets up onto her four hooves.
  2535. > You see Glamerspear silently mouth 'No way!' beside you.
  2536. > After dusting the sand off of herself, your batpony comrade turns and bows to the strange old mystic.
  2537. > "Gracias, Ignacio."
  2538. > The Balladeer just sits there for a moment, facing slightly the wrong way to be looking at her.
  2539. > Then he shakes his head, speaking slowly and softly.
  2540. > "Mmmm... Have I ever tol' jou how *beautiful* jou are, Pureza?"
  2541. > Ebonshield rises out of her bow.
  2542. > Her cheeks aren't rosy, but something about her eyes tells you she's a little embarrassed by that comment.
  2543. > But her reply is playfully friendly.
  2544. > "Only every time we meet."
  2545. > He nods, looking off to one side.
  2546. > "Ah! ..."
  2547. > The nod changes into another shake.
  2548. > "... Not often enough."
  2549. > *Now* there's a tiny bit of redness on her face.
  2550. > The old colt grins, as if realizing his success at having unsettled her.
  2551. > But before she can say anything, he continues on.
  2552. > "... Now, who are these friends of jours, eh? Why jou take so long to introduce me? Come on!"
  2553. > With a sigh, Ebonshield glances back at the four of you.
  2554. > "Umbrío, these are-"
  2555. > Before she can continue, he cuts her off.
  2556. > "Tut-tut-tut-tut! I have descended down from here as *Ignacio*, not as a *title*..."
  2557. > He curls his wrinkled lips up, exposing his withered teeth.
  2558. > "... A *title* would have left jou in the circle to make jour own way out."
  2560. > Ebonshield stares at him, then swallows and continues.
  2561. > "Ignacio, there are first the members of my cuaternio: Corporal Bound, Specialist Glamerspear, and Specialist Sparkshower."
  2562. > Again he interrupts, his head darting left and right as if he were trying to follow the meanderings of a housefly.
  2563. > "Which of them is the unicorn?"
  2564. > "That is Specialist Glamerspear."
  2565. > Ignacio nods.
  2566. > "Ah!"
  2567. > Then his head swivels to point straight at the unicorn in question.
  2568. > "... Jou can see that we are all friends now, jes? There is no need to continue to channel in this way."
  2569. > You look over at Glamerspear, and she's just as startled -- again -- that he knew her horn was still lit up.
  2570. > As her horn dims, she leans over towards Ebonshield.
  2571. > "How'd he know that?"
  2572. > Before she can answer, Ignacio barks out.
  2573. > "I am blind, not deaf! And I could hear that ridiculous buzzing noise jou were making."
  2574. > Now it's Sparkshower's turn to scrunch up her snoot in confusion.
  2575. > "I didn't hear anything!"
  2576. > Ignacio turns to the newest source of sound.
  2577. > "Jou are the pegasus, jes? Jou have not the ears to hear the noise of which I speak."
  2578. > Glamerspear squints and shakes her head.
  2579. > "But *I* didn't hear anything either."
  2580. > Ignacio turns back towards her, arching his eyebrows.
  2581. > "Then that is a shame, as jou *do* have the capacity, if not the skill."
  2582. > Clearly, 'ears' was a metaphor for some aspect of magical abilities.
  2583. > Can this withered old batpony mage somehow sense magic in a way that unicorns like Glamerspear couldn't?
  2584. > Licking his lips and twitching his nose, the Balladeer resettles himself on his crutch.
  2585. > "... I understand jour defensiveness, of course. But I am surprised at jour eagnerness to escalate. Are we viewed so disfavourably on the surface?"
  2586. > Ebonshield answers.
  2587. > "I think it is not so much the attitude of the surface as it was the reception we received outside the Cave of Pillars."
  2589. > The old colt arches his bushy white eyebrows, nodding.
  2590. > "Ahh... Of course, it is the morning shift -- València, I think?"
  2591. > "Yes."
  2592. > "Hmm... A poor hostess indeed. In this case then, I welcome jou, señoras, into the Rookery of the Canterlot Mountain. Nuestra casa es su casa -- our home is jour home. Figuratively -- and literally also, given its location."
  2593. > Leaning on his crutch, he gives a crude approximation of a bow.
  2594. > Ebonshield just stares at him in utter disbelief.
  2595. > Ignacio collects himself, waiting for her to continue.
  2596. > When he realizes the silent gap, he turns his head towards her.
  2597. > "... What?"
  2598. > The Sergeant just shakes her head.
  2599. > "Nothing... I just thought... Never mind."
  2600. > The Balladeer furrows his brow, drawing himself up.
  2601. > "What?"
  2602. > Ebonshield shakes her head.
  2603. > "I thought you were in a bad mood."
  2604. > Ignacio purses his lips as if wounded by an insult.
  2605. > "No, no. Why would jou think this?"
  2606. > Nodding towards the musicians' perch, she replies.
  2607. > "The way you treated the poor director and his musicians, for one."
  2608. > Sneering, Ignacio shakes his head.
  2609. > "That banda de rocas? Jou are going to judge me in a bad mood because I do not enjoy being waken up rudely to their loud música moderna? Come now, Pureza -- be serious."
  2610. > Laughing out of a sense of sheer incredulity, Ebonshield rolls her eyes.
  2611. > "Bof! Even in a good mood, I also did not expect you to act *polite* with the visitors."
  2612. > Ignacio indignantly taps his crutch on the ground.
  2613. > "What! I can be polite!"
  2614. > "I have never *seen* you be polite, Ignacio."
  2615. > At this, the old batpony grins.
  2616. > "It is because jou have never brought me anypony worth being polite to! Haha!"
  2617. > After a brief chuckle to himself, he squints his blind eyes, sniffing the air.
  2618. > "... Jou are upset with me, Pureza. Why? What have I done?"
  2619. > The Sergeant swallows.
  2620. > "You made me fight the one I am supposed to be protecting."
  2622. > Ignacio nods.
  2623. > "Ah! Ahh... So there *was* something unusual about that one, eh? He put up quite a fight."
  2624. > Ebonshield continues sardonically.
  2625. > "*And* he is here in person..."
  2626. > As the Balladeer frowns, she points a hoof at your VIP.
  2627. > "... I present to you the other member of my group, Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties the Princess Celestia and the Princess Luna, the Engineer Royal of Equestria."
  2628. > Still frowning, Ignacio turns his head left and right.
  2629. > "¡Caramba! I *thought* I heard somepony else over the clatter of the armour of the pegasus and the buzzing of the horn -- but this Be-Ay-Pee, he is not a pony?"
  2630. > Anonymous speaks up for himself.
  2631. > "No, I'm not."
  2632. > Frowning and squinting, Ignacio tries to orient his head towards the source of that sound.
  2633. > "Are you floating in the air? How high up are you?"
  2634. > Ebonshield answers for your VIP, stepping closer.
  2635. > "He is approximately six hooves tall, Ignacio. A biped -- a distant relative to the monkey."
  2636. > "Ah... I have never heard of such a creature. Strange."
  2637. > Ebonshield steps over to the confused-looking mage.
  2638. > "You made me execute him, Ignacio."
  2639. > The old colt's confusion is almost instantly replaced with a wry grin.
  2640. > "Did I? Oh, well, there is no need to thank me for this service, señor."
  2641. > This *service*?
  2642. > "... Now jou will know what to do if the Madre-de-Estrellas ever decides that jou have outlived jour usefulness, haha! And although I was of course focused on the music, I am sure that the 'dancing' was quite entertaining also, hehe."
  2643. > Glamerspear can't take any more, and bursts out.
  2644. > "Just how the Tartarus did you direct a fight you weren't even paying attention to? What the heck kind of magic *was* that?"
  2645. > Ignacio turns his head towards Glamerspear.
  2646. > "Ahhh... We have only been introduced for a few minutes, and already the unicorn wishes to know my secrets, hehe..."
  2648. > You shoot a disapproving glance at the loud-mouthed Specialist
  2649. > She *had* promised to keep her mouth shut under here.
  2650. > Glamerspear lowers her head slightly, looking sheepish.
  2651. > "Sorry, Corporal."
  2652. > Ignacio turns to you and waves a hoof in the air.
  2653. > "No, no, caporal Honoria -- it is alright. The curiosity about such things, she is only natural..."
  2654. > Collecting himself again, he faces Glamerspear with a grin.
  2655. > "... I will indulge jour questions, unicorn..."
  2656. > That same grin turns remarkably sinister.
  2657. > "... if jou will indulge *me*."
  2658. > You do *not* like the sound of that.
  2659. > If Glamerspear says 'yes', just what will she be getting herself into?
  2661. Suggested interlude music: (Eric Serra - 'Akta', from 'The Fifth Element' [1997])
  2666. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this is seriously bucked up.
  2667. > Everypony knew that when it came to ponies, a *horn* was an absolutely essential requirement for casting spells.
  2668. > Other creatures could channel raw mana without one -- dragons, for example -- but there'd never been a pegasus sorcerer, or an earth pony wizard.
  2669. > Magic was pervasive, and practically every creature had some connection to that source of power, but for whatever reason, those two pony species didn't get the direct hot-line to mana that unicorns did.
  2670. > They had other abilities, sure, and only a few, crackpot scholars doubted that a pegasus' ability to walk on clouds, or an earth pony's ability to accomplish tremendous feats of endurance, were anything less than magical.
  2671. > But when it came to spellcasting, the horn-less races were shut out.
  2672. > Even those vile, verminous pony-knock-offs, the Changelings, had a spellcasting leader with a horn!
  2673. > So if batponies were merely a moon-dwelling mutated blending of all three Equestrian species, how in the world was this creature before you capable of casting spells without the typical focusing equipment sticking out of his head?
  2674. > And they *were* spells he had cast, you were certain of it -- a healing-touch lullaby and a sand-creature-conjuring ritual song were far too unrelated to be natural expressions of magical power.
  2675. > Neither of them was unimpressive, either.
  2676. > You weren't a medic, but from her scream of pain it was pretty obvious that Ebonshield had suffered a broken leg.
  2677. > Ignacio, the batpony 'Balladeer of Ghosts', had effortlessly healed it in a matter of seconds, which would be a considerable task for even a journeypone mage with a reasonable background in restorative spells.
  2679. > He looked plenty old enough to be beyond that level of experience, sure, and a master wizard could do it easily, but again -- *no horn*!
  2680. > The shadowy, sand-creature battle opponents were a whole other story, on a whole other level, and what was *really* eating you up.
  2681. > Just... how!?
  2682. > All the ways you can think of would be tough even for an archmage.
  2683. > But as curious and as eager to learn as you are, you *did* come down here for a specific purpose.
  2684. > And that purpose was *not* to learn the secrets of batpony magic.
  2685. > Ignacio is still staring blindly through you with a grin on his face.
  2686. "Er... I'd like to, but maybe some other time?"
  2687. > You glance over at Honour, and then up at your VIP.
  2688. "... We came here train the Royal Engineer, after all."
  2689. > The Corporal gives you a perfunctory nod of approval.
  2690. > But Anonymous just lifts his eyebrows.
  2691. > "I don't mind a diversion, if it's brief..."
  2692. > Folding his arms, he lifts one hand up and scratches at his chin.
  2693. > "... To be honest, I feel like I've learned a considerable amount just from watching everything up until now. I have a lot of questions, and I could use a few moments to turn my thoughts over."
  2694. > Yeah, he's not the only one who could use a time-out from all this weirdness.
  2695. > To say nothing of Ebonshield!
  2696. > She's got a lot of questions to answer once you all get out of here!
  2697. > The Balladeer of Ghosts nods his head, then picks up his crutch and points vaguely in the direction of the Royal Engineer.
  2698. > "Ahhh... I like this one, Pureza. I can see - ehehe! - why the Madre-de-Estrellas requested for him a guardia de corps..."
  2699. > Replacing his crutch, he twitches his lips and smacks his mouth.
  2700. > "... It is a pity that her request for a volunteer was met with such little enthusiasm."
  2701. > Wait, what?
  2702. > Princess Luna had had *trouble* finding a Night Guard member to serve as the fourth member of the quaternion?
  2704. > What did that make Sergeant Ebonshield, then?
  2705. > The dregs of the batponies, a last-choice candidate?
  2706. > Hell of a 'last choice', though, considering how well she fought just now!
  2707. > You glance at the other surface-dwelling members of your quaternion and find them looking equally concerned.
  2708. > Heedless to the confusion he's sown, the old batpony colt continues.
  2709. > "... And on that subject, Pureza, I should mention also jour brother, Marcos."
  2710. > Ignacio shakes his head and grits his teeth.
  2711. > "... He has been spreading the most vile calumnies about jou through the rookery, claiming that jou are bringing the shame most immense to jour family, to jour house, to jour temple, to jour race, that jou are abasing jourself, performing all sorts of grotesque and malevolent deeds with Equestrians, and revealing also the most sacred and forbidden secrets..."
  2712. > Sneering, pounds his crutch repeatedly into the sand.
  2713. > "... Jou must *do* something about him, Pureza."
  2714. > Sergeant Ebonshield sighs and paws a forehoof at the ground.
  2715. > "I know. He made these accusations to me in person last week..."
  2716. > She flexes her wings, and as the folding metal blades mounted on them 'shnink' softly against themselves, the meaning of her previous threat to 'feed' Marcos her wings suddenly becomes quite obvious.
  2717. > "... I made my displeasure at his vulgarity quite clear then. But it seems I did not make the point forcefully enough."
  2718. > The balladeer just fixes her in his sightless gaze.
  2719. > "There is no reaching a pony like Marcos with reason or threats..."
  2720. > He leans in closer, lowering his voice.
  2721. > "... Jou will have to *kill* him, Pureza..."
  2722. > That's the *third* batpony death-threat you've heard, and although it's still shocking -- you hear Sparkshower gasp, too -- it's starting to seem like that's all these cave-dwellers do!
  2723. > They may not actually suck blood, but they sure seem to love threatening to spill it.
  2725. > Sergeant Ebonshield doesn't have anything to say in response to that pronouncement, and Ignacio continues, leaning in even further.
  2726. > "... He is a Crusader to the bone, Pureza. For him, the Reconquista is not cancelled -- only postponed. He will never accept the way that things are now."
  2727. > Purity swallows.
  2728. > "He should have stayed on the moon."
  2729. > Ignacio leans back.
  2730. > "Another would have taken his place. There is no shortage of Crusader *conquistadors* willing and able to ignore the reality which faces them."
  2731. > Your batpony Sergeant nods, dejected.
  2732. > "I know. But at least it would not be my brother..."
  2733. > "Brother or no, this is the work for an estelar, and there will be more to come before matters in the Rookery -- to say nothing of the Moon! -- are finally settled."
  2734. > Ebonshield says nothing, and there's a long pause where the only noises echoing in this 'Grand Hall of Stars' are the soft shuffling of the musicians in their seats.
  2735. > You're not quite sure you understood everything that was exchanged just now.
  2736. > What was it exactly that Marcos didn't accept?
  2737. > That Princess Luna had reconciled with her sister, Princess Celestia?
  2738. > That there would be peace between the batponies and Equestria?
  2739. > Maybe even that Princess Luna was no longer Nightmare Moon?
  2740. > The thought of the last one makes shudder inadvertently, and Ignacio swivels his head towards you.
  2741. > "Hmm... I have darkened the mood with my words. Allow me then to chase away the shadows that I have brought into this hall. Unicorn: jou wish to understand my techniques, jes?"
  2742. > You nod your head, forgetting his blindness.
  2743. "I'd like to. It was very impressive, sir."
  2744. > At this, he gives you a slight bow.
  2745. > "The unicorn thinks that my magic is impressive! And she addresses me as with the term of respect! Ahh, I am most flattered, hehe!"
  2747. > Licking his lips, he turns his head sideways.
  2748. > "... Answer my little questions and perform my little tasks and perhaps jou will be enlightened. And the first task is this: retrieve for me my mask using jour magic only, and replace it on my head!"
  2749. > Weird idea of an apprentice's job.
  2750. > Then again, some of those professors in the Schola Magia did have some weird requests...
  2751. > He's standing not two hooves away from where he dropped his mask, but obviously, being blind, he would have to scratch around to pick it up.
  2752. > With barely any effort at all, you light up your horn, lift the mask up, shake the sand off of it, and then float it over in front of his eyes.
  2753. > The batpony mage feels the red tassels brush up against his snout.
  2754. > "... Jes... now tie the ribbons in the back, also using jour magic."
  2755. > Stepping forward to get a better look, you telekinetically seize the two fabric straps, wrap them around the back of his crest, then tie them into a neat ribbon.
  2756. "Okay, done."
  2757. > Ignacio lifts a hoof and inspects your work, adjusting the blindfold slightly.
  2758. > "Good. This is the mark of my station, after all..."
  2759. > Seriously?
  2760. > His uniform is a black sleeping-mask with red leather tassels?
  2761. > Weird.
  2762. > "... Now, tell me, unicorn, could jou not have done with the sand as jou did just now with my mask, and thereby reproduce the effects 'impressive' which I performed?"
  2763. > You'd thought about this one already, and the answer comes quickly.
  2764. "I *could* use my telekinesis to shape blobs of sand, yeah, and colouring them black would be a simple illusion on top of that. But to make them move like actual soldiers, all at the same time?"
  2765. > You shake your head.
  2766. "... I couldn't keep my concentration on them like that. At best, I could move maybe one or two, and it'd be pretty janky motions, too, like an amateur marionette-show. Things like wings flapping or legs pushing won't correlate with actual movement."
  2768. > Ignacio nods his head, agreeing with you.
  2769. > "Mm-hmm, but surely jou could get better at this, no? Perhaps I am merely an expert at the puppeteering?"
  2770. > That's no explanation, and you furrow your brow.
  2771. "But... you can't even *see* what you're doing! How could you sculpt those creatures to look like things you'd never seen before? And how could you make those creatures react so realistically to what Ebonshield did? Their motions were so fluid, it can't possibly have been simple telekinesis."
  2772. > Once again, the batpony mage hums in agreement, grinning.
  2773. > "Very well, then, unicorn, if it was not the telekinesis, then what was it?"
  2774. > You shake your head again.
  2775. "I don't know."
  2776. > Ignacio's grin widens.
  2777. > "Bueno. To admit ignorance is the beginning of knowledge. For today, I will say that jou are correct and that this was not the method which I used. Jour task for the next lesson is to do research and propose some other way or two..."
  2778. > Guh!
  2779. > So much for getting answers!
  2780. > And is this strange old colt seriously giving you *homework*?!
  2781. > Well...
  2782. > Maybe if you take a stroll through some of the books in the library, you can think of some alternatives.
  2783. > Even the 'De Magia Unicornis' might give you some ideas.
  2784. > It's worth a shot if it gets you some more insight into this batpony's magic.
  2785. > Ignacio turns towards where Ebonshield is standing.
  2786. > "... For when jou are done here today, jou all *will* be back again, no? One does not learn to be a warrior in a single day, after all."
  2787. > The Sergeant nods.
  2788. > "We will be back, if we are allowed."
  2789. > Yawning, Ignacio grumbles.
  2790. > "If the Mother-of-Stars will it, it will be so. Only, come during the night instead, when we are all awake! Or at least the evening, when we are just waking up."
  2791. > Ebonshield bows to him.
  2792. > "I will see if this is possible, Ignacio."
  2793. > "Very well. Now, is there anything else, or shall I return to what passes for slumber in this hall of the cacophonic noises?"
  2795. > The Royal Engineer speaks up, glancing at the Sergeant.
  2796. > "I have a question, actually, although I'm worried it may give offence."
  2797. > From beneath his mask, you see a curious eyebrow rise up on Ignacio's face.
  2798. > "Ah? Yet these are often the questions the most interesting. I insist that jou ask this question, 'Ingeniero Real', although I make no promises that I shall not be offended, ehehehe."
  2799. > Anonymous clears his throat.
  2800. > "It's about etiquette. Estelar Ebanoscudo bows to you, and shows you considerable respect."
  2801. > Before he can continue, Ignacio interrupts, glancing over at the Sergeant with a smile.
  2802. > "She does, does she? Surprising. I would have expected an estelar to profit from my blindness; it is in their schooling to seek such advantages. Perhaps I should not have been so rude, earlier..."
  2803. > With Ebonshield looking a bit embarrassed by his comment, he turns back to the Royal Engineer.
  2804. > "... And jour question is what, then?"
  2805. > "Are you simply a higher-raking Star-caste to her, or are you a Lunar-caste?"
  2806. > Star-caste? Lunar-caste?
  2807. > You're at a loss.
  2808. > Clearly, Ebonshield told Anonymous more than she told you.
  2809. > The Balladeer of Ghosts turns back towards the Sergeant, who looks mortified.
  2810. > "Aaaaahhhhh... Jou have indeed been sharing the secrets, Pureza..."
  2811. > Grinning, he waggles his crutch in her direction.
  2812. > "... But I am not offended by this; the Mother-of-Stars would approve, I am sure. And jour brother is still in the wrong..."
  2813. > Replacing his stick, he tamps it on the sandy ground.
  2814. > "... What *does* offend me is that jou have told him of the Five Phases of the Moon, but failed to teach him of the Hidden Sixth!"
  2815. > What the buck, how can there be a secret phase of the moon?
  2816. > It's right there in the sky!
  2817. > Ebonshield swallows, no longer quite so horrified, but still looking quite concerned.
  2818. > "My Lord was inquisitive as to the social customs of the people in whose territory he was going to tread, so I informed him of the basics."
  2820. > "Ehe! A curious Lord, and a bold one, also, to have asked *me* this question instead of saving it for jou!"
  2821. > Anonymous speaks up in his own defence.
  2822. > "I apologize, sir. I just felt as if you hadn't been properly introduced."
  2823. > Ignacio licks his lips and then loudly smacks them together.
  2824. > "Jou are correct: I have not been properly introduced. Let us rectify this immediately..."
  2825. > Pausing a moment, he sits up.
  2826. > "... I am the Balladeer of Ghosts Ignacio Blazon, of the House Rima de Serenidad, and I wear the symbol of my Phase, which all Children of the Stars know, and which all pregnant mothers-to-be fear -- the halo of red around the centre of shadow..."
  2827. > Leaning on his crutch, the batpony raises up his forehooves to his red-fringed black face-mask, then spreads them up and outwards in a sweeping mystical gesture.
  2828. > "... the Eclipse."
  2830. Suggested interlude music: (Paul Ruskay - 'The Gaalsi Arrive', from 'Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak' [2016])
  2835. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you're not sure *what* you should be doing right now.
  2836. > For a place without any weather at all, things sure are complicated underneath Canterlot Mountain!
  2837. > It seems like there are an awful lot of rules to follow down here, and Sergeant Ebonshield really only gave you the tiniest sunshower of briefings about them.
  2838. > For example: this magical musician batpony to whom you've just been introduced.
  2839. > Sergeant Ebonshield bowed to him a little bit; does that mean you should, too, now that he's introduced himself?
  2840. > Before you can glance over at Honour for what you hope will be a reassuring look, Ignacio barks out a loud order.
  2841. > "... Now: prostrate yourselves before me, Equestrian dust! Jou are in the presence of an Eclipse, one of the Red Umbras of the Children of the Stars! Show me the respect which I am due!"
  2842. > You instinctively start to lower your neck, but you glance left and right and see nopony else doing it.
  2843. > *Then* you see Ebonshield give a very quick dismissive head-shake.
  2844. > The Balladeer of Ghosts stands there, his forehooves still spread out, his upper lip twitching, his ears flicking -- and you get the impression that he was squinting underneath his mask, too.
  2845. > A few awkward moments pass in silence, before the crippled batpony colt twists his head towards Ebonshield.
  2846. > "... I heard nothing. I should at least have heard the pegasus in all that noisy armour. Are they bowing?"
  2847. > Hey, your bronze plate is extremely well-lubricated this morning!
  2848. > It doesn't get any quieter than this!
  2849. > The Sergeant sighs before replying.
  2850. > "They are not bowing to you, Ignacio."
  2851. > With a snort, he lowers his forelegs and settles himself back on his crutch.
  2852. > "Hmph! Jou should have told them that down here, they must bow to anypony to whom jou also bowed."
  2853. > "I did."
  2854. > Ignacio perks up.
  2855. > "Ah? Then if jou did truly bow to me, why do they not do so now?"
  2857. > Ebonshield sighs again, a smile creeping onto her face.
  2858. > "Because I told them not to..."
  2859. > At this, he starts to sneer and grumble, but she continues.
  2860. > "... And also because they can tell the difference between somepony to whom I bow out of necessity, and somepony to whom I bow out of courtesy and respect."
  2861. > That statement seems to soften the grouchy old magical musician's attitude a bit.
  2862. > "Hrmm..."
  2863. > He huffs outwards from his nose, then brushes it with a forehoof.
  2864. > "... Very well, then. I suppose that will be sufficient for me."
  2865. > Scrunching up his lip once more, he lifts his crutch and quickly pokes it in Ebonshield's direction.
  2866. > "... But jou, Pureza! Jou hav' some 'splainin' to do! It will do jour comrades and jour B-I-P no good to know only half-truths and the informacion incompleto! They will all too easily get into the trouble down here otherwise."
  2867. > Replacing the crutch once more, he grumbles incoherently, facing down at the sand.
  2868. > Sergeant Ebonshield gives him a polite head-bow.
  2869. > "I will try to rectify the deficiencies in their knowledge, Ignacio."
  2870. > Uh...
  2871. > As much as you'd like to know a bit more about what's going on, you're not sure if that's a good idea.
  2872. > Frowning, you clear your throat, raise one hoof to lift your visor, and speak up.
  2873. "But... won't that make your brother even more upset with you? If he's already complaining about what you've told us? You don't have to keep going if it's going to cause trouble."
  2874. > You catch a rueful look from Ebonshield before Ignacio pipes up again.
  2875. > "The pegasus speaks! She makes the noises other than the flutterings of the wings and the clatterings of the metal!"
  2876. > He grins and continues.
  2877. > "... Ehehe, I was beginning to think that perhaps jou were a mute. But to answer jour question, it is precisely *trouble* which Marcos intends to cause. It does not matter to him if the accusations he speaks are true..."
  2879. > Ignacio shakes his head, and the red tassels bounce and flutter.
  2880. > "... He knows that Pureza has the permission to share this information. And it is no great secret; whatever she has shared with jou, I am sure, is known to all Children, and should be freely given to those whom we have taken into our confidence."
  2881. > Ebonshield nods and looks you in the eyes.
  2882. > "Please understand, Specialist Sparkshower: Marcos does not speak against *me*, his elder sister. He speaks against the whole entirety of this situation. I am merely the symbol that he can point to as he tries to deny the truth."
  2883. > Almost at the same time, all four non-batponies -- including the one non-*pony*! -- say the exact same thing.
  2884. "What truth?"
  2885. > "What truth?"
  2886. > "What truth?"
  2887. > "What truth?"
  2888. > There's a moment of reflection and exchanged glances at the sudden quadruple-outburst, and Ignacio has time to chortle.
  2889. > "¡Jaja! Jou have brought an entire chorus with jou, Pureza."
  2890. > Ebonshield sighs, then collects herself before answering.
  2891. > "The truth which Princess Luna has already shared with you: That the Children of the Stars have spent the last *thousand* years preparing to conquer Equestria. And that this is a conquest which now will come *never*..."
  2892. > She sighs again, slumping at the shoulders.
  2893. > "... This is not a simple transition, even for the most open-minded of us. And the Mother-of-Stars, for all her holy intentions and all her divine strength, struggles greatly to bring the Children to embrace this new state of affairs. Ponies like my brother, Marcos, refuse to abandon the Crusader ideology -- an ideology which until two years ago was orthodoxy."
  2894. > The Balladeer of Ghosts curls his lip up and grunts out an interjection.
  2895. > "*And* he is not alone. Jou have already met València, and she is but the least of his allies..."
  2896. > He trails off, and neither of the two batponies seems to know just what to say next.
  2898. > That's when Corporal Bound speaks up.
  2899. > "Okay, then. Sergeant, let's get some quick basics down so there's no more surprises, then we can do some training, leave, and talk about the rest back 'upstairs' -- where it's safer."
  2900. > Ebonshield nods.
  2901. > "A wise suggestion, Corporal. Let me begin with social rules--Just a moment..."
  2902. > Realizing she's still standing on stilts from the three daggers extended from their mounts on her legs, she reaches down her left forehoof and gives a quick tug on her left hind leg to retract its blade.
  2903. > With her hind hooves now evenly planted in the sand, she rears up and in a quick motion pulls back her twin forehoof-blade springs as well, the silvery metal appliances returning to their loaded positions with a satisfying 'click'.
  2904. > Then she lifts her head and calls out to the two arena-attendants, who are still perched at the edge of the raised pit, watching the proceedings.
  2905. > "... ¡Carto! ¡Águila! ..."
  2906. > The instant she barks out their names, they scramble up and hustle over towards your group.
  2907. > Once they are close enough she doesn't have to shout, the Sergeant continues.
  2908. > "... Find the blade I launched and return it to me, then groom the sand and bring up two of each kind of target."
  2909. > The young colt & mare waste no time and give her a hasty bow, before taking to the air and scrambling off to work.
  2910. > "¡Sí, Siete!"
  2911. > "¡Sí, Siete!"
  2912. > You hear the clinking of armour which isn't your own, and find the Royal Engineer twisting his head to watch the two young ponies go.
  2913. > "Sergeant, I think I've got everyone here sorted into their 'phase' except those two. How about you tell me who they are, and then I'll see if I can regurgitate what you told me about your society."
  2914. > So she really *did* tell him more than she told you!
  2915. > Well, he *is* the Very Important Pony, after all.
  2916. > And there hadn't been very much time to prepare, what with you and Lily having been out on the town.
  2918. > Ebonshield smiles warmly at Anonymous.
  2919. > "Certainly, Great Lord. Carto and Águila are initiates under my tutelage in the School of the Shining Stellar Dance."
  2920. > Anonymous pulls the helmet up off his head.
  2921. > "So they're members of the 'Star' Phase, then?"
  2922. > The Sergeant coyly turns her head sideways and looks off.
  2923. > "Not quite; children do not have a Phase. Assuming that they successfully complete their initiation and are apprenticed, then they will be Stars."
  2924. > You're really not sure you understood any of that, but you look hopefully up at your VIP, waiting for the explanation.
  2925. > Anonymous nods.
  2926. > "Makes sense..."
  2927. > Holding up one hand with five fingers, he starts to count them off.
  2928. > "...OK, so the gist of it is that batpony society has five classes, or Phases. At the top are the priests, merchants, and diplomats, the Lunars. Next are the warriors like Sergeant Ebonshield, the Stars. After that are skilled tradespeople and artists, like the other musicians in the outer ring, the Rocks."
  2929. > He's temporarily interrupted by an irate grumble from Ignacio.
  2930. > "Skilled! Pah!"
  2931. > Without missing a beat, the Royal Engineer continues.
  2932. > "Below them are common labourers, the dust. Finally there are the outcasts and those who work in ritually unclean professions, the Shadows..."
  2933. > Lowering his hand, he glances between you four ponies of his bodyguard quaternion.
  2934. > "... The whole 'Phase' system exists across the feudal Houses of the moon, but you're not *born* into a Phase as you would be here in Equestria, you're *bid on* by representatives from each phase within your House, based on your performance in a public school. So your parentage doesn't matter -- or at least, if things are done impartially, it *shouldn't*."
  2935. > Okay...
  2936. > That's a lot to take in at once, but it's not so dissimilar from Equestrian society -- from *ancient* Equestrian society, in particular -- that it's completely incomprehensible.
  2938. > And the batponies had been split off from Equestria in ancient times, so it made sense.
  2939. > It sure explains the Sergeant's insistence on bowing to anyone she had to bow to -- those would be the batpony priests who outranked her!
  2940. > Ignacio grins and chuckles, leaning over towards Ebonshield.
  2941. > "Oho! Jes, I like this one very much. He sees even through the lies that jou did not tell, jes?"
  2942. > Lies?
  2943. > Before she can reply, Anonymous stares quizzically at the Balladeer.
  2944. > "And then there's you, O Balladeer of Ghosts..."
  2945. > All eyes turn to the blind batpony, who grins widely.
  2946. > "Ah, jes, there is me, ehehe."
  2947. > Holding one finger up, Anonymous narrows his eyes and licks his lips.
  2948. > "I don't know how one gets to *be* an Eclipse, but if I had to guess what you *are* -- you're the *sorcerers*."
  2949. > The crooked-tooth smile gets even bigger.
  2950. > "Ohohohoho!"
  2951. > Ignacio gives a small bow.
  2952. > "... Jou are correct, and I will share with jou now the circumstances of our existence..."
  2954. Suggested background music: (Justin Bell - 'Conquest', from 'Tyranny' [2016])
  2956. > Inhaling deeply and suddenly becoming grim-faced, he turns his head up to a nonexistent sky.
  2957. > Well, nonexistent unless you count the painted one on the ceiling.
  2958. > And it's got a couple of holes in it.
  2959. > "... All these things that jou have said are true, but there is an exception singular. When a child of the stars is born while the moon is bathed in the red light of the eclipse, this child will never be Shadow, Dust, Rock, Star, or Lunar. Such a child is inevitably... *malformed*..."
  2961. > Licking his lips, a wry smile creeps back onto his face, and he emits a dry cackle.
  2962. > "... ehe -- or at least, *malformed* for any purpose other than the one which is now open to them -- the learning of the magic. A child of the eclipse may be born blind, mute, deaf, wingless, with warped limbs or a deformed body, with teeth that cannot chew or a jaw that cannot close, with a nose that cannot breathe or a tongue that cannot taste..."
  2963. > Morose, he shakes his head.
  2964. > "... Or some combination of all -- and always, *always*, without the ability to have children of their own."
  2965. > Gosh, that's awful!
  2966. > Even Lily seems to think so, and she blurts out.
  2967. > "You mean batponies can only cast spells if they give up... give up *all* *that*?"
  2968. > With a sinister grin, Ignacio turns to face her direction.
  2969. > "Jes, exactly this! And jou, unicorn? What have jou given up for jour magic?"
  2970. > What a bizarre question!
  2971. > Glamerspear scrunches up her nose.
  2972. > "Whaddya mean? I haven't given up anything!"
  2973. > Chuckling, Ignacio nods.
  2974. > "Ooohohoho, jes you have. One thing I have learned with certainty, unicorn, is this: we all give up something to be what we are. For the price of my magic, it is true that I have paid in many ways. But to be a unicorn, jou have also paid a price..."
  2975. > He gestures a forehoof vaguely in your direction, then at Honour and Anonymous.
  2976. > "... Jou do not have the wings of a pegasus, or the physique of an earth pony, or the... I don't know what he has, but whatever it is that makes the tall one what he is. All these things are denied to jou just as many things are denied to me."
  2977. > That's...
  2978. > It *almost* makes sense, but you still exchange weird glances with Lily, who tries to rebut him.
  2979. > "But... I mean, it would be great to have all three, sure, but compared to what *you* had to give up, I barely paid anything at all!"
  2981. > That elicits another chuckle from the old mage.
  2982. > "Ehehe. No, no, unicorn -- jou have paid just as much as I have. Where jou have been given natural strength in magic from jour horn, which is far beyond my own, by the way, jou have also been held back by it, for it blinds jou to things which cannot be accomplished by raw power alone..."
  2983. > Grinning, he adjusts himself on his crutch.
  2984. > "... Which is not to say that every price once paid, cannot sometimes be traded for other things. Perhaps jou may find the skill to learn my technique -- I am curious to find out -- and so jou will overcome this weakness of jours, in exchange for something else -- such as the suspicions of jour comrades for jour strange magic, ehehe! But for me, I must content myself with my crutch to lessen the burden of my crippled limbs."
  2985. > Did he...
  2986. > Did he just basically say that Lily's horn makes it so easy for her to cast simple spells, she'll find it difficult to learn complicated ones?
  2987. > You can almost understand that.
  2988. > Although you've trained hard to wear this heavy armour, your training in manoeuvrability has suffered, and even without your plate on, you're not as agile as many pegasi.
  2989. > And if you were to take the time to train back up in that, what would you be giving up from not continuing to work in armour instead?
  2990. > It's still a strange philosophy that this Balladeer of Ghosts is proposing.
  2991. > And, hey -- isn't there another counterexample?
  2992. "But what about an alicorn, like the Princesses?"
  2993. > Ignacio turns towards you, grinning out of the corner of his mouth.
  2994. > "Ah, jes, the immortal alicornios, sister-goddesses of the Madre-de-Estrellas..."
  2995. > He shakes his head.
  2996. > "... It is not for me to know what they sacrificed to become what they are, or what they still sacrifice, but I think that this must be a heavy price indeed..."
  2998. > He sniffs the air aimlessly.
  2999. > "... I have not the eyes to see, but I have *felt* the burden which lies on the Great Mother while in her presence."
  3000. > Ignacio's dark, strangely sincere words dig deep into you, and you can tell from the morose looks on your companions' faces that they've wormed their way into them, as well.
  3001. > He almost makes you believe that the Princesses are somehow *suffering* for what they are, and you don't like to think of Princess Luna -- or Princess Celestia and Princess Cadenza either -- being discomforted in any way.
  3002. > They're the best ponies in Equestria!
  3003. > The kindest, the most generous, the strongest and the smartest!
  3004. > And they *help* everypony!
  3005. > It just wouldn't be right if they had to somehow suffer for all the good they do.
  3006. > While you, Honour, and Lily think on the strange magician's odd wisdom, Anonymous speaks up again.
  3007. > "Getting back to society, though... Ebonshield paid you respect, but on a personal level. And it doesn't appear that you're obligated to treat her as a superior, either."
  3008. > Ignacio grits his crooked yellow teeth.
  3009. > "To be an Eclipse is not to be at the top of the mountain, nor the bottom of the mountain, nor anywhere inside it or on its slopes, but to float beside it..."
  3010. > Licking his lips, he settles himself again on his wooden crutch.
  3011. > "... No House can mistreat their sorcerers and expect to thrive, or even to survive. The moon, she is a harsh mistress, and she can be tamed only with the aid of magic..."
  3013. > Shrugging his shoulders, he continues.
  3014. > "... But this strength without the authority is not unique only to the Red Umbras. All of the phases must grovel to their betters, jes, but the Stars cannot wage war if the Dust refuse them food or the Rocks refuse them armaments. One cannot fight on an empty belly and with empty hooves, after all, ehehe! Always there is an amount uncertain of the tension between the Phases of a House, and sometimes even *across* the Houses, when a guild feels its members have been maltreated by their superiors..."
  3015. > He cocks his head sideways, smirking.
  3016. > "... Jou see now how things are not so simple, and how the Estelar has done jou a disservice by allowing jou to come in here with a picture incomplete?"
  3017. > Ignacio grins blindly towards Ebonshield.
  3018. > "... But I do not begrudge Pureza; it is difficult to explain things to outsiders when jou have been on the inside for all jour life. I have the advantage that the Eclipse have *always* been a little more outside than the rest."
  3019. > One of the batpony initiates -- Carto, the colt -- comes scurrying up towards your group, Ebonshield's shiny silvery-metal dagger in his mouth.
  3020. > He reverently places it down on the sand before her.
  3021. > "Your blade, mistress!"
  3022. > Ebonshield seizes it and begins to re-attach it to her hind leg launcher.
  3023. > Sure is a funny gimmick!
  3024. > "Bueno, Carto."
  3025. > As the young colt scurries off, you hear the movement of plate armour again, and Anonymous takes a half-step forwards.
  3026. > "Would you mind if I had a look at that before you put it away, Sergeant?"
  3027. > She looks up, a quizzical look on her face, and he smiles in reply.
  3028. > "... I'm a little curious about the blade which did in my black-sand doppelgänger earlier."
  3029. > Removing it from the device, she lifts it up towards him.
  3030. > "Certainly, Great Lord. Only, please to be most careful -- the cutting edges and the tip will still be *very* sharp."
  3031. > "Of course."
  3033. > The Royal Engineer takes the blade from her forehoof and steps back to look it over, then Ignacio shuffles his hooves and grumbles.
  3034. > "We have wasted much time with all this talking. And jour brother will know jou are here -- València will have send him word as soon as you passed her outpost."
  3035. > Ebonshield turns to the old mage, frowning.
  3036. > "It is almost ten in the morning; nearly everypony is asleep now. And even if he knows, what would Marcos do about it? Attacking me or confronting me now would not suit his purposes."
  3037. > The Balladeer of Ghosts raises his head up, and seems to crane his head to hear something off in the distance.
  3038. > "It is not what *Marcos* would do that worries me..."
  3039. > He swivels his head again, and you see his ears perk up and then twitch.
  3040. > Ebonshield starts to look concerned, and then you pick out a noise as well...
  3041. > Slow hoofsteps, echoing in from the entrance hallway...
  3042. > A lot of them!
  3043. > The Balladeer of Ghosts groans out what sounds like a curse.
  3044. > "... ¡Ay-ay-ay, bastarda madre de sombras! It is *her*, that snake!"
  3045. > Your Sergeant's face goes pale, and she hisses out loud, staring up at the entranceway.
  3046. > "Everyone, make ready! The pony to whom we all must bow -- this is her arrival!"
  3047. > Quickly fixing each of you -- and the two initiates -- in her gaze, she is about to continue, when she's interrupted by a loud cry coming from just beyond the Grand Hall of Stars' entrance.
  3048. > "Make way! Make way for the Reverend Mother Superior!"
  3053. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and just when things were starting to settle down here under Canterlot Mountain, they went and got dangerous again.
  3054. > If the old mage's curse and Sergeant Ebonshield's sudden panicked demeanour hadn't made it abundantly clear already, the herald's loud proclamation -- made from somewhere out in the hallway -- confirmed that this visitor was not to be trifled with.
  3055. > Your batpony guide quickly trots out in front of your group.
  3056. > "Sheathe or drop your weapons and line up, here, behind me, flanking the Royal Engineer, facing the entrance. Quickly, now, we must be in position before her retinue enters!"
  3057. > It doesn't take more than a few seconds to sort the positioning out: Anonymous in the middle, with Glamerspear on his left, you on his right, and Sparkshower on the outside beside you.
  3058. > That's the traditional ordering for a quaternion retinue: the most experienced soldiers adjacent the VIP and the juniors further out.
  3059. > You notice that the two attendants, 'Carto' and 'Águila', have already dropped what they were doing and scurried over to line up behind you, instantly prostrating themselves towards the entrance.
  3060. > Behind you, even the musicians appear to have put away their instruments and bowed themselves in advance of the Reverend Mother Superior's arrival.
  3061. > Once assembled, Ebonshield fixes her gaze at the moon-and-stars decorated opening, whispering over her shoulder.
  3062. > "... You must all be silent unless specifically bidden to speak. You must also bow when I bow, and do not rise until commanded to."
  3063. > Not really a big deal for you considering what VIP duty normally involves.
  3064. > Except that her tone gives you some very bad vibes.
  3066. > After a quick, worried-looking double-check to make sure that you were all in place, with hoofsteps sounding just outside the chamber, the Sergeant concludes:
  3067. > "... Treat the Reverend Mother Superior as if she was the Princess Luna herself, because in her mind, she *is*."
  3068. > That's quite a claim.
  3069. > Just then, the hoofstep noises stop, and Ebonshield snaps her head back forwards.
  3070. > "... She's here! Everyone, down!"
  3071. > In the blink of an eye, she's hunched down low on her forelegs, and you all get down as well, with the Royal Engineer dropping to his knees and bending over forwards, his hands on the ground -- though not hunched over so far, you notice, that he can't look up and see what's going on.
  3072. > Strange that the hoofsteps stopped, though...
  3073. > What are they waiting for?
  3074. > As if to answer you, a tremendous chant echoes into the room from the hallway.
  3076. Strongly recommended background music: (Elliot Goldenthal - 'Victorius Titus', from 'Titus' [1999])
  3078. > Dressed in white robes with great pointed white hoods and carrying candles in their forehooves, two columns of batponies flutter slowly into the Grand Hall of Stars, singing as they come.
  3079. > They scarcely reach the main staircase when the percussion section following them picks up as well: more batponies, hovering in the air, banging cymbals and beating huge drums like a parade band.
  3080. > And then the horns further back join in, blaring out an anthem that would wake the dead, to say nothing of the sleeping ponies whose rooms have entrance off that hallway.
  3081. > From underneath your helmet's short brow-visor, you watch the majestic procession of white-clad ponies proceed inwards, the singers floating down the stairs while the band splits off to the left and right, the horn-players, cymbalists, and drummers taking up positions around the inside edge of the outer ring.
  3083. > There must be almost eighty of them in all, and it seems like more of the robed figures are still coming after them, clad from head to hoof in what appears to be just a white-coloured version of the Night Guard uniform, but with a much taller peak to its hood.