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Will of Steel

By Clarissa
Created: 18th December 2020 09:07:28 PM

  1. >*THWACK*
  2. >The late afternoon sun beats down on the glistening muscles of your back
  3. >*THWACK*
  4. >Sweat, born from a long day of toil, sparkles on your torso and pours from your face
  5. >*THWACK*
  6. >You can feel a stitch coming on in your side, and every muscle in your body burns as only hard work can make them
  7. >*THWACK*
  8. >The rhythmic shudder of the strike shakes you once more, and you pause to take a look at your progress
  9. >You wipe the sweat from your eyes and size up the depth of your cut
  10. >Good, but you still had quite a way to go
  11. >Applewood was tougher than most, and this tree was one of the oldest in the orchard
  12. >Never mind that you had been working on trees like this all day and your axe was probably in dire need of sharpening
  13. >You're lucky the head hasn't come loose yet
  14. >Your gaze returns to the trunk of the tree
  15. >It was about time to start on the back cut, and after that just a little more before you were finished
  16. >You heft the axe, its familiar balance drawing you back in time, through the fog of memories that grew clearer as you thought of everything
  17. >”Anon, just what in tarnation do y'all think you're doing slackin' off? The day ain't done yet!”
  18. >The shout snaps your from your moment of relaxation
  19. >An orange coated mare with a wide cowboy hat storms up to you, her muzzle fixed in a sneer
  20. >”Consarnit, I've put up with enough of your dang restin'. Either keep up or I'm sendin' ya back to Twilight to be 'conditioned' again.”
  21. >You let out a tired huff, but return to felling the tree without any comment
  22. >You knew better at this point
  23. >The mare, Applejack of course, nods firmly and trots off to continue her own work
  24. >You let your anger fuel your swings, working through the ache that you could feel all through your body
  25. >Even after nearly a year of this sort of treatment, it was still galling to you
  26. >You are Anonymous, a slave in all but official paperwork
  27. >Officially, you were an indentured menial servant, working to pay off the reparations Equestria had demanded in return for their gracious cessation of hostilities with Earth
  28. >'Gracious', what a joke
  29. >Half of Central Europe was now a massive demilitarized zone, most of the cities in it turned to dust
  30. >The ruinous tear between worlds had only been responsible for a small bit of that devastation mind you
  31. >The rest had been collaboration between ponies and gryphons and who knows what else
  32. >Of course, on this side of things the portal had just been a mere curiousity that appeared in the Gryphon Lands, doing no damage besides some ecological changes
  33. >But then a group of scientists finally got the clearance to go through the time-space anomaly or 'The Danube Rift' as it had come to be known
  34. >One stumbled back through it a week later, covered in blood and things best left unspoken
  35. >His report was what had finally stirred the governments into action
  36. >And so you were sent through, a full platoon of Pathfinders from a dozen nations, armed to the teeth and ordered into a reconnaissance in force
  37. >In other words, establish a bridgehead, pick a fight
  38. >A long groan from the wood of the tree pulls you from the reverie you found yourself in
  39. >The old apple tree had started to lean a fair bit, but needed just a bit more encouragement
  40. >You heft the axe and turn it about
  41. >Then, with a final mighty heave, you smash the blunt side of the head into the boughs of the once mighty tree
  42. >It makes a colossal noise as it falls to the ground, shaking the earth as it lands
  43. >You stand still for a moment, just breathing deeply and staring at the fallen giant before you
  44. >There's still work to do, cutting the limbs, debarking, maybe even cutting it into more manageable sizes to move
  45. >But for now you take a seat, simply basking in the last rays of the sun, now setting on the horizon
  46. >Even though there was still some work to be done with the tree, you decide you need the rest more than those tasks needed to be finished
  47. >Besides, there was still house chores to be completed before you could even turn in for the night
  48. >”Anon! Get yer butt inside before I give yer dinner to Winona!”
  49. >The holler makes you come alert once again and you begin walking back to the farmhouse as ordered
  50. >After all, Applejack was the element of Honesty, she meant what she said
  51. >And you couldn't afford to go without food with all the work to be done
  52. >Because if you couldn't do your work...
  53. >You shake your head, pausing in the door frame and drawing a deep breath
  54. >Shouldn't think about it, you may lose your appetite, which means no energy for the morning, which means...
  55. >You give yourself a more violent shake, pushing away those thoughts and joining the rest of the Apple family at the dinner table
  56. >With the four of you seated, you begin eating without saying a word
  57. >Light conversation carries on between the three Apples, but they ignore you just as you do to them
  58. >It may have seemed impolite, but it was the simplest way for them to get around the human sitting at their table, and for you to keep your mouth shut
  59. >But even then, it's only Applejack and her little sister talking
  60. >Their grandmother, grandmare, just stares at you
  61. >Just like every night
  62. >She eats a little then spends every dinner time, or any other meal really, staring at you silently
  63. >Of course, you simply ignored it and kept eating, but it had begun to wear on you
  64. >Still, you hold your tongue and carry on as you have
  65. >Manual labour was a fine outlet for any aggression or ill will you held towards the ponies at least
  66. >Besides, you didn't really want to hurt them, they had their orders just like you did
  67. >It doesn't take long for you to finish, and after you do you sit silently with your head down, waiting for the Apples to finish as well
  68. >When they do, you waste no time clearing their dishes and bringing them into the kitchen and plopping them in the sink
  69. >You wash and dry the dishes as Applebloom comes over to stand beside you
  70. >>”Ya know y'all can talk to us, right Anon? We know ya ain't a mute, so why don't ya just talk already?”
  71. >Just like every night
  72. >And just as you had before, you remain silent and continue washing up
  73. >Applebloom smacks her hooves on the hardwood table and her brow knits with frustration
  74. >”Consarnit, everythin' would just be easy if you'd just talk to us! We're supposed to have ya over to make ya understand ponies but y'all spend everyday workin' without sayin' a word in passin'!”
  75. >”Applebloom!”
  76. >Applejack's shout cows her sister and she comes over to pull the filly away
  77. >After sending Applebloom up to her room, Applejack comes back and starts putting the dishes away in the cupboards
  78. >You remain placid the entire time, intent on keeping your mouth shut
  79. >Applejack heaves a loud sigh beside you
  80. >”I'm real sorry about little 'Bloom, she just don't get it. An' I know y'all don't like it here an' frankly I don't want ya here any longer than I have to, but...Heck, I'm probably bein' a softie but the Solstice is in a couple days. I know it's a big time for ya human folk, so I'll give ya the day to do whatever. Gather with your kind an' whatnot.”
  81. >You blink and your eyes widen in surprise, despite your desire to keep a totally neutral expression
  82. >She finishes putting away the dishes and points you towards a broom and dustpan in the corner
  83. >”Once your done, ya can sleep on the couch. It's supposed to be unseasonably cold and the barn would be awful chilly.”
  84. >Without another word, she walks away and you hear her trotting up the steps
  85. >You're left alone in the darkened house, finding yourself completely stunned
  86. >Not to mention suspicious
  87. >Applejack, though not a violent slave master, had a habit of working you to the bone and expecting your perfect compliance
  88. >She'd had no qualms of sending you off to Twilight when you'd acted out, for 'reconditioning'
  89. >The calender on the wall catches your eye, and you connect the dots pretty easily from there
  90. >You continue to think as you sweep the corners of the house, quiet as you can
  91. >Just what would you do with your first taste of real freedom in over a year?
  92. >The next two days almost seem to last a lifetime
  93. >Every ache seems to carry through the days, every night spent waking up a dozen times
  94. >You couldn't wash away your thoughts with hard work, no matter how you tried to
  95. >Memories of the war now passed, dozens of victories, a steady string of defeats, brothers in arms dead and dying, blood drying on your hands, face, legs
  96. >Your old scars ached in sympathy with your body and thoughts, adding another level of discomfort
  97. >A constant, tinny ringing echoed in your ears and half the time you hadn't responded to Applejack hadn't been willful
  98. >You had been considering what you would do when you actually got to meet up with the few humans you knew were around here
  99. >After all, you only actually knew two of them, the rest were people you didn't know and wouldn't get to know
  100. >And what did Applejack even mean about the Solstice being 'important' to humans?
  101. >It wasn't until you'd risen that morning that an explanation had dawned on you with the morning sun
  102. >Tor, it had to be
  103. >Before you had left for town, Applejack had warned you to be back before the dawn tomorrow and to expect a boatload of work to make up for the day
  104. >You'd felt a pulse of pain through your shoulders, but had nodded when she finished
  105. >And with that you were free
  106. >Well free as you could be, stranded in an alien land and surrounded by creatures you'd once fought against
  107. >It was a fair walk into town, and the sun had fully risen once you finally wandered among the thatched rooves of Ponyville
  108. >You spend some time simply watching the bustle of the town, ponies going about their business, a few with humans in tow
  109. >Your lips twitch at the sight, it still rubbed you the wrong way
  110. >But you don't brood for long before a familiar giant makes his way over to you
  111. >Torlund, the giant man in question, wears a broad smile on his thickly bearded face and holds his arms open wide to you
  112. >”Anonymous, my friend, how long has it been?”
  113. >A year, it's been a year since you'd actually seen him
  114. >Longer since you'd talked
  115. >The two of you share a tight embrace and he lets out a thunderous laugh, drawing a few wandering eyes
  116. >He slaps your shoulder and steps back, his grin not faltering a bit
  117. >”What's the matter, young man? Catbird got your tongue?”
  118. >You smile at the joke, but shake your head slowly before rolling a sleeve of your ragged shirt and turning the belly of your arm to face him
  119. >Or more importantly, the jagged, black runes writ on it
  120. >He sucks in a breath through clenched teeth, his smile shrinking into a tight line across his face
  121. >”So you were serious about that, eh? No matter, you'll still be handy. Come on then, boy, we still have preparations to make!”
  122. >He wraps a thick arm around your shoulders and practically drags you along with him, off to who knows where
  123. >Tor had always been a strange fellow, even in the relatively short time you knew him
  124. >A Norwegian Jaeger before, he had been in team sent along to establish the bridgehead in the Gryphon Empire
  125. >He'd been the medic with the Norwegian contribution, and even they thought he was strange
  126. >A devoted pagan, almost neurotically so
  127. >His hands were adorned with twisting, eternal knots and runes that you hadn't been able to read
  128. >Always chanting in a strange tongue, to his weapon, his medical supplies, to anyone who would stick around after a conversation played out
  129. >You hadn't got along with him until...
  130. >Tor's overly loud voice breaks the train of thought before it can carry on towards the fog of memory
  131. >”So is that orange one still working you like a dog? You're so tense my friend, ought to come by the spa sometime!”
  132. >That's right, Tor had somehow been selected for work at the local spa
  133. >Apparently he had been a massage therapist before joining the military
  134. >What a joke life was
  135. >”Ah, but I suppose she wouldn't like you to be away from the farm too often. Just what did you have to do to get today anyhow?”
  136. >He wiggles his eyebrows at you, suggestively
  137. >You laugh and shrug your shoulders
  138. >In all honesty, you're not truly sure why she gave you a day off, even with the promise of catch-up work
  139. >You perk up when you notice you're leaving the town behind, and you give Tor a questioning look
  140. >He shakes his head without answering, his face growing more serious as he stares at the rough path ahead
  141. >The Everfree, he's taking you into the witch wood
  142. >In a low, severe voice, he speaks up while you walk
  143. >”You know, we still must keep our traditions alive here, Anonymous. Even as I did back home, so to must I here. But it's no longer my own soul I must watch, but all of you who stand as I do. It took a great deal of bargaining, badgering, begging to get this one day. These ponies, they don't think as we do, we're barbarians with shiny toys to them. You cannot imagine the lengths to which I went to ensure we would have at least a single day for us and ours.”
  144. >Something in the tone of his voice sends goosebumps rising on your arms
  145. >Sure, the ponies didn't treat you the best, but it was easy to understand why
  146. >They probably would have been treated much the same, if they had not had living goddesses and literal magic on their side
  147. >But clearly, Tor wasn't as accepting of the lot he'd been dealt
  148. >Again, you could understand his aversion to essentially being a slave
  149. >But he was a good man, more than evidenced by his efforts with this...whatever it was
  150. >You had a feeling, a little flickering flame of excitement in your gut, about what it could be
  151. >There were only so many things that happened on a Solstice, after all
  152. >And only one really made sense for you, Tor, and the others
  153. >Blót
  154. >As the two of you continue to walk into the Everfree, Tor talks all the while
  155. >The trees thicken as he talks about his job as a masseuse, meeting other humans around town, the general attitude of the ponies, and of course his new found devotion to his faith
  156. >Sure, for the entire length of the war he had proselytized his fellow, successfully in your case not so successful in others
  157. >But this was something new
  158. >This was an almost fanatical level of faith
  159. >Not to mention the near single-minded focus on 'keeping the human within alive' as he had put it
  160. >It sounded dangerously close to sedition
  161. >Even you had walked the thin line between resistance and outright rebellion, but you had been forcibly taught what happens when the line is crossed
  162. >Still, you listen and humour him, no need to let him in on your qualms
  163. >After the better part of an hour of wandering along a rough trail, Tor pushes aside a knot of hanging vines and gestures to the clearing beyond
  164. >”My friend, welcome to the Hof.”
  165. >A chill runs up your spine as you step into the clear grove
  166. >Him calling it a 'temple' sat poorly in your stomach
  167. >It was beautiful to be sure, sun shining from on high, the bright green grasses and colourful flowers, even the massive pile of timber sitting at the center of it all
  168. >Wait, the what?
  169. >You eyes linger at the middle of the grove, staring at the pile of logs easily taller than you or Tor were
  170. >He notices your gaze and gives you a cheeky grin
  171. >”Yes, nary do I sleep at all. All night, chopping wood for this little gathering.”
  172. >You shoot him a sharp look and he lets out a bellowing laugh, slapping you on the shoulder
  173. >”No, of course not. You see, I was simply wandering the woods on a day I had been given free, just me and Samuel. And we found this place! Of course, it was occupied by a beast, like everywhere in this witch forest. You should have seen in, Anon, a wolf made of wood, big as a damn bear it was!”
  174. >You stare at him, not believing a word he's saying, but her hold a hand on his heart
  175. >”I swear, no way would I have been able to do this all myself!”
  176. >You stare at him a moment longer, then turn back to the pile of timber
  177. >Eventually, you decide to believe him, after all you had seen things far stranger since the damn rift opened up
  178. >A bear-sized wood-wolf didn't seem too out there when there were ponies that lifted the sun and moon
  179. >As Tor wanders about the clearing, you take a seat and lean against the trunk of an ancient pine
  180. >Where did it all go wrong?
  181. >Was it when you had volunteered for the so-called 'reconnaissance' mission that had first led you to this world?
  182. >Perhaps earlier, when you had tried and succeeded in your Pathfinder school
  183. >That was one of your fondest memories, standing on parade after a week with near zero sleep in the field, having the torch badge pinned on your chest
  184. >But things had slid from there, first Syria, then the Ukraine, and finally here
  185. >Hell, you shouldn't have joined the army in the first place, maybe that was the mistake at the center of it all
  186. >Sure, you'd be sitting on a farm in the middle of the middle of nowhere, but you wouldn't be a slave to technicolour ponies
  187. >At least you weren't a gryphon slave
  188. >You shudder at the thought of the poor guys sent to the catbird empire
  189. >No real news, just rumours
  190. >Forced labour, constant beatings, starvation, public execution
  191. >Sure, the UN had complained about the treatment of their 'servile repayers', but the gryphons hadn't listened and the ponies had only sent a notice of concern to the gryphons
  192. >So there was that
  193. >Well, maybe your life wasn't too terrible, you ended up working on a farm despite your choices
  194. >With a loud sigh, Tor sits beside you against the tree
  195. >”Fate works in strange ways, eh friend?”
  196. >You give him an odd look as he continues speaking, gesturing grandly
  197. >”Look at this place, it's untouched by the hands of man. The vaettir in these woods have not seen the likes of us, but respond all the same.”
  198. >He turns his head and grins at your questioning gaze
  199. >”The ponies ignore them all the same, worship is a concept that is all new to them. And yet, we are not free men to worship as we please.”
  200. >He rubs the bark of the tree you two share, and it groans as the wind blows thought its boughs
  201. >Sometimes though, you wonder if it truly was just the wind that made the trees moan
  202. >The two of you remain silent for a long while
  203. >After a time, Tor breaks the silence once more, his tone gentle
  204. >”Your vow doesn't stop you from using instruments, yes?”
  205. >You look at him and nod, and he visibly relaxes before standing up
  206. >”Good, come.”
  207. >With too many unvoiced questions, you rise and follow after him
  208. >He leads you to a great oak with a  hollow in its trunk, rubbing the bark when he reaches it
  209. >Without anymore delays, he reaches in and takes out a number of musical instruments, some familiar, others strange
  210. >A few drums, a weird mushroom shaped bit of metal, an odd lyre, and...
  211. >A tagelharpa?
  212. >When and where did he find something like that around here
  213. >Without warning, he tosses the harpa at you and you pluck it from the air with ease
  214. >He smiles and continues to lay out the various instruments as he speaks
  215. >”You play, don't you? I remember you saying that before this mess.”
  216. >You did, but it does nothing to dull your surprise at him remembering that, never mind actually getting one in Equestria
  217. >It wasn't specifically forbidden to have stuff like this, but he would have had to either smuggle it in or make it himself
  218. >You look up at him again, he seems occupied in his own world with the instruments
  219. >All this effort, gods only knew how much time and risk spent getting everything for it
  220. >It's touching, but more than a bit disturbing as well
  221. >Still, you weren't about to look a gift horse in the mouth
  222. >You set the tagelharpa up on your knee, lay your fingers on the strings, pick up the bow, and gently drag it across
  223. >It needs tuning
  224. >You let out a quiet sigh and set about making the instrument sound at least marginally presentable
  225. >At some point, Tor comes over and watches you as you work
  226. >In an answer to the look you shoot him, he shrugs
  227. >”I can do nothing but bang drums, it is interesting to see someone who can actually make music work.”
  228. >Weird, but Tor had always been strange
  229. >Satisfied with how the strings sound, you play the bow across them once more
  230. >It all sounds tuned well enough, and you move into playing a little song that you enjoyed
  231. >Tor taps his foot along with the upbeat sound, his grin growing as you play
  232. >It's infectious, and you find yourself smiling along with him as you run your bow over the strings
  233. >You move keenly from one song to the next, playing more energetically as you go along
  234. >The day drags along, and in ones and twos, more people show up and watch you play
  235. >You hardly notice, but eventually Tor claps his hands once, prompting you to silence
  236. >Finally, you notice the small crowd that's gathered around
  237. >You blush at the audience, but are awed by how many there were
  238. >It may have only been fifteen or so, but that was more than half of the entire human population in Ponyville
  239. >You hadn't been around this many in well over a year
  240. >Not since being brought here, in fact
  241. >Tor greets them all like old friends, hugging some, slapping backs, and shaking hands
  242. >Samuel is among them, of course, and he makes a beeline to sit beside you
  243. >”Anon! It's been way too damn long. That apple horse keeps you bloody busy tending to her orchards, eh?”
  244. >A blush creeps on your cheeks and you shake your head at the implication
  245. >He laughs and punches your shoulder before leaning against the tree trunk
  246. >Samuel had been a member of the SAS that had come along with the expeditionary force, the oldest member by far
  247. >Quick with a dirty joke, and just as quick with a rifle, he had been the real heart of everything in that troop
  248. >And he too had fallen in with Tor after that first battle
  249. >But he hadn't changed all that much for it
  250. >He glances at your bare forearm and clicks his tongue
  251. >”Ah, so you were serious about that. Explains the lack of a comeback, no matter though. You play that instrument well, lad. Good thing too, we'll need it tonight.”
  252. >He looks pointedly back at Tor, who has finished socializing and claps his hands together, silencing the grove
  253. >From the ground, he plucks a lit torch someone had brought in
  254. >The grove has begun to darken as twilight comes on, and the fire casts and eerie light on his bearded face
  255. >”Brothers, sisters, even though we waste under the hooves of our hosts, the fire in our hearts does not die. Tonight has been a long time coming, but at last we can shed the yoke of slavery and be free men and women again. And just what is it we have gathered together for?”
  256. >As he tosses the torch to the base of the stacks of timber, setting a bonfire ablaze, the others shout with once voice as you do in your heart
  257. >”BLÓT!”
  258. >The silence after the shout does not last for much more than a few beats of your heart
  259. >Tor begins chanting in a deep, gravely tone, his rhythmic intonations hypnotizing and having the feeling of a spell
  260. >No, it doesn't have the feeling, it IS a spell
  261. >Though you're not sure how, you can feel magic in the air around the grove
  262. >And judging from how the others scramble to grab drums and the rest of the eclectic mix of instruments, they feel it too
  263. >The drums begin to pound in time with Tor's chant, and you can't help but slap a hand on the soundboard of your tagelharpa along with them
  264. >Even your heart pounds along to the beat of the drums
  265. >The others begin to sing an echoing chorus in seeming response to Tor's vocalizations
  266. >You very nearly break your silence and join in, but you can feel the runes on your wrist burning even as the words build in your throat
  267. >You remain silent, but the music still bewitches you in a way you couldn't begin to tell one who had not felt it
  268. >The grove itself seems to join in, the trees swaying along with the song, the fire cracking and popping in time with the drum beats
  269. >The roar of the flames seemed itself to add another layer to the music
  270. >Though you couldn't explain it, you knew exactly when to begin drawing your bow across the strings of the harpa, and exactly what to play
  271. >A thick haze began to cloud your mind, the music fading to a muddy background of ethereal noise
  272. >Dark fog seems to slither through the grass of the clearing, though none react to it
  273. >Even you merely stare into the gathering wisp, the only response seeming to be the increased frantic pace of the music
  274. >Even the massive fire seems to be subdued by the thick haze
  275. >You open your eyes fully and find yourself standing behind James and Harry, in perfect position to cover them as they advance on the bluff you had seen movement behind
  276. >Your heart thuds in your ears as they wave for you to push forward when they halt
  277. >Without a noise, you rush the bluff and aim your rifle square in the face of the mountain goat that had wandered into your patrol
  278. >You breathe a long sigh of relief and motion an all clear
  279. >From the sparse trees and boulders lining the mountainside, the rest of the patrol emerges from their cover
  280. >You, James, and Harry were just one small group among many in what was being called the Extraterrestrial Expeditionary Force
  281. >Given how quickly the force had been thrown together, it was hardly surprising that you still formed into cliques
  282. >Over there, the German Jaeger force, resting against the trees were a group of Spetsnaz from the Senezh group, and bringing up the rear were a pair of SAS members with Pathfinder training
  283. >There were more that were establishing a temporary base, but even this small patrol between the various operators had nearly a hundred years of training all told
  284. >The three of you from the Canadian contingent weren't near the most experienced, but the terrain was simply what you were best trained for
  285. >So it fell to you three Pathfinders to take point
  286. >You walk over to James and give him a rough smack on the shoulder
  287. “All that fuss over a mountain goat, really man?”
  288. >He laughs and slugs your plate carrier in return
  289. >”Come on, big man, you could use the exercise.”
  290. >Harry comes over and cuffs both of your ears
  291. >”Save the horseplay for home, boys. We've still got to finish up this patrol before you two can tussle in the bedsheets.”
  292. >You share a laugh and you take point once again, the others falling in behind you in a staggered line
  293. >The route you're on carries you down the mountainside and into the heavily forested valley below
  294. >Regular UAV flights had, for whatever reason, been unable to see beneath the thick canopy, both optical and infrared photos revealed nothing
  295. >So it was your first destination
  296. >It takes half the day to finally reach the valley floor, and to your great surprise, there's nothing special about it
  297. >Nothing causing some kind of interference, no special properties in the trees, just a small river and the sounds of animals
  298. >On the way back from the short mission, the usual griping about the relatively pointless mission crops up, but it's easy to hear that it's mere venting
  299. >By the time you reach the camp, the sun has already fallen behind the cliffs
  300. >The forest you're in is backlit by the eerie glow of the portal back home, even though it was miles away
  301. >It certainly made sleeping difficult, but keeping watch was a bit easier with the extra light
  302. >The camp has changed radically from when you had departed that morning
  303. >Gone were the single man tents strung haphazardly between trees, and in there place stood a number of larger, 6 man tents
  304. >Around the circumference of the camp, a shallow trench had been dug and a berm risen on the inside of it
  305. >Piles of sandbags marked watch positions, the closest thing to proper cover besides the trees themselves
  306. >A number of those trees had been felled and turns into firewood or obstacles at the single entrance to the camp proper
  307. >A pair of Danes pull the barriers aside to let your troop pass through
  308. >The rest of the patrol splits off from you, leaving James and Harry following you to the command post at the center of it all
  309. >You push aside the flap and knock on a desk set off to the side
  310. “Sir, patrol's back. Reporting as ordered.”
  311. >The two men standing around a small table with various maps spread across it raise their eyes to meet yours, and one breaks into a smile
  312. >”Ah, the canucks are back with their team, excellent. So do tell, what did you find in this mysterious valley that got command so riled up?”
  313. >You shrug at the captain, holding out your open palms helplessly
  314. “Found a lot of trees and a little river. A couple nice picnic spots too. Otherwise, there wasn't really too much down there.”
  315. >The captain sighs and shakes his head at the news
  316. >You clear your throat before continuing
  317. “Well there is some local wildlife, mountain goats for the most part. No settlements spotted though, so we should be safe from whatever got the scientists.”
  318. >That captain pinches the bridge of his nose, and his adjudant speaks up in his place
  319. >”Gents, we're here to find the source of those attacks. The fact that we haven't means we'll need to move base again. As it is, we're uncomfortably far away from any chance of extracting to a safe zone, so going deeper isn't an outcome anybody wants.”
  320. >You shrug, unsure of what exactly to say
  321. >Fortunately, Harry steps up to speak instead
  322. >”We understand, warrant officer. The problem is, whatever attacked them is long gone. Even the guys who have tracker skills haven't found anything on their route but paw prints. If we push further along the path that they travelled--”
  323. >Harry cuts off as somebody slams into him from behind
  324. >A breathless SAS trooper pushes his way into the tent, shoving past the three of you and slapping down a large sheet of paper on the table
  325. >”Sir! New images from a drone overflight!”
  326. >The trooper points at a section on the paper, and you peer over his shoulder as the captain's eyes widen
  327. >You don't have a great view, but what you see chills your spine even as the captain starts shouting orders
  328. >”Full alert, now! Get everyone on the line, loaded up. I want the mortar team ready to fire the second I tell them. Move!”
  329. >Training takes over and, despite how tired you feel from the long patrol, you find yourself with boundless energy
  330. >You run from the tent and throw yourself down, against the berm, looking out into the forest beyond
  331. >Another body hits the little hill beside you, and you hear him curse in a language you don't recognize
  332. >A few minutes with nothing but the sounds of the forest pass, then you hear a gruff voice speaking quietly beside you
  333. >”A false alarm, eh? Ah, too bad, I looked forward to fighting.”
  334. >You glance over and see a veritable mountain of a man, a dark, thick beard covering his face, and a Norwegian flag on his arm
  335. >He looks over at you and gives you a toothy grin
  336. >”Hey, you're one of those Canadians right? Heard you guys called in strikes for Telemark in the sandbox.”
  337. >You blink, it takes a moment to figure out what he's talking about
  338. >You finally recall, faintly, filling the FAC role during a mission in Afghanistan
  339. >Maybe this guy had been part of a troop you had been working with
  340. >He sticks out a hand, keeping the smile on his face as you shake it
  341. >”I'm Torlund Alfsen, Norwegian FSK.”
  342. >A loud crackle of branches pulls you away from any kind of reply, and you return to staring into the trees
  343. >But there's nothing out there, save for the sound of a flock of birds fleeing the coming battle
  344. >Damn, there must be a lot of birds out there to be making that kind of racket
  345. >Weird too, considering you haven't heard a peep out of them
  346. >An idle thought, really just recalling a single sentence from the briefing on what the scientists had been attacked by, makes your eyes wander upwards
  347. >You feel your heart stop for a solid second
  348. >There, beyond the leaves, a mass of black wings and bodies blotted out the night sky
  349. >You poke Torlund and make a gesture to shush any reaction, then point up
  350. >When he notices, his eyes become wide as dinner plates, glistening in the sickly light of the distant portal
  351. >He rolls on his back as you have, aiming his rifle up but is disciplined enough not to fire
  352. >They haven't seen you yet, you think, you hope
  353. >That many, even with just sticks and stones, might be able to crush every last one of you under the weight of their bodies
  354. >You hear whispers and the rustling of cloth as others around the perimeter do as you and Torlund have done
  355. >The relative stillness of the moment is broken in an instant as a single shot from a rifle rings out through the clearing
  356. >And then hell is unleashed upon you
  357. >The creatures descend in a massive, black cloud of fury and violence
  358. >All around you, the staccato cracks of rapid fire shots ring in the clearing, piercing through the relentless beating of wings
  359. >Harsh cries, screams, shouts abound in the chaos, and you find yourself unloading magazine after magazine into the black mass
  360. >But no end is in sight
  361. >Soon it comes to your sidearm, something you had never fired in anger before
  362. >Before long, it too has fired its last shot
  363. >You shield your body with your hands as best you can, throwing your gaze about for something, anything you could fight with
  364. >It feels like an eternity, but merely seconds later you find just what you need
  365. >A woodcutting axe, laid up near a section of the berm reinforced with logs
  366. >You throw wild punches to clear the air around you for just a moment and dive, grasping the wooden pommel of the axe
  367. >With a wild shout of savagery, you begin to lay the blade about the crowded shapes around you
  368. >They fall before your feet in droves, the vile creatures
  369. >Here and there, you catch glimpses of your brothers in arms, fighting with whatever came to hand
  370. >There, one with a bayonet, or another with a shovel
  371. >No more shots rang out, there were only war cries, pained screams, the dull whack of weapons on flesh, and the crack of bone and splitting wood
  372. >As the battle became more pitched, the thudding of your heart seemed almost as a war drum
  373. >In your mind, you could hear a hazy string of words layering over one another in a hypnotic swell of incredible sound
  374. >At a whisper in your ear, you whirl about just in time to catch one of the creatures flying at you
  375. >A simply thing to dispatch with a violent swing of the cutting axe
  376. >You can feel a warm spray on your face, and the sweat pouring from your brow
  377. >Your lungs burn and your body aches, but still you fight on with your voice growing more hoarse with every savage roar
  378. >How quick man was to become a monster
  379. >The pitched battle soon came to resemble butchery more than fighting
  380. >These monsters, though many in number, fell as easily to stick and blade as they did to bullets
  381. >And so butcher you did, losing yourself to the song of the axe, the spray of blood, and the song of death
  382. >But finally, mercifully, it ends
  383. >You're left trembling, sweaty, and totally exhausted in a pile of corpses
  384. >You're too tired to even feel disgusted and you fall to your knees as you breathe deep, greedy breaths
  385. >The war drum of your heart continues to pound on, even with the fighting long over
  386. >And so you kneel there, in the gore drenched grass, for an eternity
  387. >The blood begins to congeal on your face and you begin to become aware of throbbing cuts across your body
  388. >A cool wind blows through the battlefield, stinging your wounds and sending a chill up your spine
  389. >You still can't find the energy to stand, settling instead for looking around the immediate area
  390. >Immediately, you wish you hadn't
  391. >Among the dark bodies of whatever it was that had attacked you, it's all to easy to pick out the men in lighter coloured fatigues
  392. >And there are far too many of them
  393. >You can feel tears well in your eyes when you spot them
  394. >Two men, laying side by side in the same pattern of camouflage you wear
  395. >You don't even need to see their flags to know it's James and Harry
  396. >A flurry of emotions flash over you
  397. >Fury that they had been killed, regret that you hadn't been alongside them fighting, sorrow at their passing
  398. >But above it all, a burning, poisonous hatred of whatever had done this
  399. >As you kneel, covered in drying blood, tears making tracks on your face, you make a vow
  400. >There would be no quarter given to whatever it was that had killed them
  401. >Suddenly, a hand lays itself on your forehead and pushes your gaze up
  402. >You find yourself looking at Torlund, his own face covered in gore, his beard matted and eyes wild
  403. >His voice comes in a dire whisper, holding reverence and kindness in equal measure
  404. >”It's time, Anonymous.”
  405. >You blink your eyes, confused by his words
  406. >The glow of firelight behind him, there hadn't been a fire lit
  407. >His face is clean, though covered in a sheen of sweat that makes the light dance about his forehead
  408. >And then you snap back, to the grove, the ritual
  409. >Yes, that was where you were
  410. >Your fingers throb, and a look shows you a series of weeping welts
  411. >That was right, you had been playing the tagelharpa along with Tor's song, his spell
  412. >It was just a memory, that's it
  413. >He helps you to your feet and you follow him to the slowly dying bonfire
  414. >Everyone else is standing in a circle around it, but they make room for you and Tor to join them
  415. >Tor joins them in the chant they've carried on while he had fetched you
  416. >You simply wait, unable to join in despite your heart longing for it
  417. >After a while, when the fire is dimming to embers, the chanting ceases and Tor begins to speak
  418. >”Brothers, sisters, as the fire wanes, so too does our time together draw close to its end. Before we return to our servitude, we must bring this blót to a closing that will appease the gods. We have no livestock nor harvest to offer them, so instead we must each offer part of ourselves in tribute.”
  419. >He draws a long, black iron knife and lays the edge of the blade on his wrist joint
  420. >”As Odin sacrificed for his knowledge of the world and as he did for his learning of the runes, so must we sacrifice for our own gain. We sacrifice for health, for fertility, for freedom.”
  421. >With that, he draws the knife easily over the skin
  422. >He holds his wrist out, over the embers of the bonfire, and holds it there as he passes the knife to the next in the circle
  423. >The woman who takes it from him mirrors his movements before passing it along
  424. >As does the man beside her, and the man beside him, and so it carries around the fire till you hold it in your hand
  425. >You lay the wet edge on your wrist and lick your lips, feeling sweat prickling your scalp
  426. >A glance to your right tells you that Tor is watching you, and a look around reveals that everyone has their gazes locked on you as well
  427. >You grit your teeth and hurriedly draw the knife over your wrist, wincing at the sudden pain
  428. >As Tor and the others have done, you hold your wrist over the remains of the fire
  429. >The moment the first drops of your blood touch the smouldering charcoal, a rush of blazing flame leaps from the center and dazzles you
  430. >Tor immediately begins singing in at a frenetic pace and the others join in
  431. >Another spell, you can feel the air around you humming with magic
  432. >The fire itself seems to dance with the music, and your heart becomes a drumbeat in time with the magical sound
  433. >Your wrist begins to itch fiercely, and it takes an immense amount of concentration to not dig your nails into it and make it stop
  434. >After a long while, the chant ceases all at once
  435. >The grove is plunged into darkness once again, though in the dim moonlight you see all that is left of the fire is merely scorched grass
  436. >Everything else has vanished, all the logs and branches that had once stood tall seemingly vaporized
  437. >Real magic, you shiver at the thought of it
  438. >As the others leave the circle and sit down in ones and twos, you realize the throbbing from your wrist has all but vanished
  439. >Turning it towards yourself, you brush against it gingerly, expecting a flare of pain
  440. >But there's nothing there
  441. >You feel nothing but a slight indentation of a scar, not even a scab over it
  442. >You flex your wrist back and forth, letting the moonlight catch in the new found scar
  443. >There was no sign, but for a thin line, that you had ever spilled your own blood in sacrifice
  444. >A look around tells you only a few others are doing the same, most seeming to have taken the strange phenomena in stride
  445. >Tor has already disappeared from the clearing, and the instruments with him
  446. >You stare up at the moon, wondering at everything that had occurred that night
  447. >The magic in the air, the dark fog that had brought you back to the first battle, the cutting and subsequent healing of your wrist
  448. >You wonder if it was wise to come here
  449. >Slowly, you shake the thoughts from your mind and begin to follow the winding game trail back from the Everfree to Ponyville
  450. >You try to focus your thoughts on the day to come, on what chores you would need to do on the farm, on catching at least a few hours of sleep
  451. >But your memories keep drawing you back, pressing against your mind, demanding your attention
  452. >You don't indulge them, and after a while you find yourself back at Sweet Apple Acres
  453. >As quiet as you can, you push open the front door and take off your shoes before tiptoeing into the living room
  454. >Applejack is asleep in a lounge chair there, presumably waiting for you to return
  455. >A small smile touches your face, and you take a blanket from the couch you had been sleeping on and drape it over her
  456. >You're unsure what made you do that, she was your owner at this point
  457. >Something about the way she looked reminded you...
  458. >With a quick shake, you clear your mind
  459. >No, no introspection tonight, it had been strange enough as it was
  460. >Instead, you lay down on the couch and close your eyes
  461. >A long day was still coming
  462. --
  463. >The next several months passed in a blur
  464. >You'd be hard pressed to describe much of it, it all seemed lost in a slew of hard work and torturous memories
  465. >The harvest came and went, working you to the bone
  466. >But it was bountiful, even by Equestrian standards, and Applejack had been becoming more lenient with you
  467. >Nothing grand such as petitioning the princess on your behalf, but little things like an extra helping at dinner, or not sending you for reconditioning if you were acting out a bit
  468. >Of course you didn't abuse her sudden good will either, in fact you did your best to work harder to keep it going
  469. >Though you still refused to speak, you still manned the selling booth with Applejack when the season came to sell her goods
  470. >For the most part, you simply worked on delivering orders or carrying bushels of fruit home for ponies
  471. >But in the down time, a few of your friends would come and talk
  472. >Just meaningless small talk of course, no one mentioned that night nor anything that had happened since
  473. >And here you were at the last market day before the snow fell, waiting for the last orders of apple preserves to be picked up
  474. >It's been slow, which has left you cold despite the jacket that you had been issued
  475. >It wasn't thick enough, you're sure, but it was what you had so you simply heaped layers on under it
  476. >”Well, I'm gonna go see Twilight about some of them preservin' spells she was going on about. Y'all good to man the booth by yourself?”
  477. >You give her a thumbs up and she smiles
  478. >Yes, she certainly had been far more trusting as of late
  479. >Just a few moments later, Samuel approaches the booth with a large grin on his face
  480. >”Hey, Anonymous! How are you doing today?”
  481. >You shrug and gesture at him and he leans on the counter
  482. >”I'm alright thank you. I'm here to pick up an order for Roseluck, ten cases of preserves I believe.”
  483. >Ah yes, he belonged to that botanist
  484. >What strange skills so many of these soldiers had taken on aside from fighting
  485. >Well, besides you of course
  486. >You nod, but something about the way he is feels...off
  487. >As you finish gathering the cases of apple preserves you look a bit closer at his smiling face
  488. >Yes, something was indeed wrong with the way he spoke, it was far too proper and stiff
  489. >His eyes told the entire story
  490. >The pupils had a slightly ragged look to them, and his gaze was distant and empty
  491. >Reconditioning
  492. >Samuel had never been a troublemaker, so why had he been sent off?
  493. >These troubling thoughts remain as you lay the cases out and count out his payment
  494. >It was all there, of course, and Samuel takes the cases and says his goodbyes before leaving the market
  495. >Even when Applejack returns, you continue to worry about what it meant that he had gone and been reconditioned
  496. >He wasn't one to break under pressure, so you don't think he'd have revealed anything incriminating
  497. >However, you had felt the effects of whatever magic that Twilight used
  498. >Perhaps even he might break
  499. >You can feel your nerves fray as the day goes on, but Applejack doesn't say a word as you finally begin to close up the stand
  500. >The two of you take up opposite ends of the cart and begin the trip back to the farm
  501. >It's a long and silent trip, the wind has picked up and cuts through your clothing
  502. >Applejack leaves you to stow the cart in the barn, presumably to go help Applebloom with dinner
  503. >The labour leaves you some time to think
  504. >How would you avoid questions about what Twilight had surely told her?
  505. >More importantly, how would you avoid going back to be reconditioned
  506. >A shiver runs up your spine, but it has nothing to do with the steadily dropping temperature
  507. >Dying would be preferable to going through that again
  508. >You knew what Samuel, the real Samuel, was going through
  509. >Trapped inside your own mind, screaming answers that would never reach your lips
  510. >Compared to that, even total nothingness was a mercy
  511. >You shake the morose thoughts from your mind as you climb the cellar steps, having stored the last preserves from the cart
  512. >It was about time to eat, and you wouldn't be so dour on a full stomach probably
  513. >You push open the door to find Applejack seated at the dinner table, alone
  514. >Applebloom and Granny Smith were nowhere to be seen, nor was there even a scrap of food on the table
  515. >As you mutely approach, Applejack simply gestures for you to take a seat beside her
  516. >Beside her, not across as it so usually was
  517. >You feel sweat prickling your back, nerves coming to the fore once again
  518. >She stays quiet for a while, the only sounds are the creaking of the house as the cold wind blows outside
  519. >Finally, she speaks up in a grave tone
  520. >”Granny and Applebloom are visitin' our family in Appleloosa, they ain't been out there for a while.”
  521. >You didn't know they had extended family, or that there was even a place called Appleloosa
  522. >What a strange world
  523. >”Now then, Twi was talkin' to your friend Samuel there. You remember that big Solstice festival I let you go to?”
  524. >You nod, becoming more uncomfortable with where this was going
  525. >”Well, Samuel mentioned somethin' about magic in the air. What's more, Twi noticed them beasts in the Everfree were getting agitated around the same time.”
  526. >Your teeth clench tightly, and you can feel your body tense up
  527. >Applejack must notice because she holds out her hooves to try and placate you
  528. >”Look, I ain't sendin' y'all off for reconditioning. You ain't done anythin' that bad in ages, and if I'm real honest I didn't like how it turned you out the first time. It just weren't...you.”
  529. >She trails off, a slight blush colouring her cheeks
  530. >But just as quick as it appears, she shakes her head and it's gone
  531. >”So I want to hear it right from you. Were y'all using magic at whatever party you had?”
  532. >She stays silent and you stay still
  533. >The impasse lasts for a minute, then two, but she holds out longer than you can
  534. >Your shoulders slump and you nod slowly
  535. >Applejack lets out a quiet sigh and seems to relax a bit
  536. >Thank ya, Anon. Now listen, I know y'all don't have magic where you come from but it ain't all the same. Unicorns use a very specific kind, it's safe and stable. But that kind in the Everfree? It's wild, dangerous stuff that makes good folks into crazy beasts.”
  537. >She reaches over and places a hoof on your hand
  538. >”You didn't know you were doing anythin' dangerous, so like I said you don't need to worry about any reconditioning. Just spread the word around, alright? None of us wanna make things around here any harder on y'all, but we expect the same.”
  539. >You nod in agreement
  540. >You're not really sure how you could spread the word, but you can understand the sentiment of live and let live
  541. >Besides, that ritual had left you with a poor taste in your mouth and a pit in your stomach
  542. >Nothing about it had sat well with you at all
  543. >The memories had been far too real to brush them off, and you had felt as though the blood had truly been coating your face
  544. >It was a grisly reminder of the hell that had brought you here
  545. >”Alrighty, let's hit the hay then. Still got some work to do before the snow hits, I've got to head into town tomorrow, you'll be stayin' behind and doin' some maintenance in the tool shed. I'll show ya before I go.”
  546. >You nod again, and without another word Applejack heads upstairs
  547. >It's a while before you turn in on the couch that had become your bed
  548. >The nerves that had plagued you before the conversation have gone, but in their place came different worries
  549. >Just what had this magic done to you?
  550. >Had Tor known about all this before before the ritual, had he even cared?
  551. >What about everyone else, did they have experiences like you did?
  552. >You doubt that answers for that will ever come, and there's a part of you that hopes they never do
  553. >At long last, sleep claims you in blessed silence
  554. --
  555. >The shed is musty, it stinks of earth and rust
  556. >Applejack had left you with oil, a rag, and a steel brush
  557. >Everything had to be cleaned of dirt and rust, then polished so they'd keep through the winter months
  558. >It was going well though, Applejack had even given you an old, woolen blanket to keep you warm in the late autumn chill
  559. >This work was almost like meditation, similar to how you would maintain your rifle
  560. >It allowed you to calm your fears that had arisen the night before
  561. >Ultimately, it didn't matter what Tor knew or didn't know, nor what others had experienced
  562. >What mattered was what happened to you, and it was nothing you couldn't deal with
  563. >Thus, the problem became the new impact this was having on all of you
  564. >Samuel had been reconditioned, even though he'd held no part in the ritual over any of the rest of you
  565. >Of course, you didn't know just what had led to his reconditioning
  566. >He didn't seem like the kind to act out, but people changed and conditions like this changed them faster
  567. >Why would he act out though?
  568. >His work was simple enough, not too strenuous, and Roseluck seemed to allow him a great degree of freedom
  569. >Samuel even seemed to enjoy his work, he'd never once complained about his lot in life despite being a slave in all but name
  570. >Maybe that was what Applejack had meant about the wild magic turning things bad
  571. >You didn't feel any effects from the magic, but maybe you had a natural resistance
  572. >Your mind jumps to asking Twilight, but even thinking about it makes the runes on your arm burn
  573. >That had been happening more often, every time you so much as had a stray thought about speaking
  574. >At least it could be ignored, and didn't seem to have an effect on your work
  575. >Still, best to not forget about it totally
  576. >Certainly not with the examinations coming up
  577. >Ah, the annual medical and psychological evaluation, the only contact with Earth that you would be allowed
  578. >It was the only insurance that your people could hold over the ponies
  579. >There was an unstated threat of horrific violence erupting again, should the visits be denied
  580. >The terms of your 'engagement' had specified no maltreatment, and these were to be sure you were still of sound mind and body before allowing you to stay any longer
  581. >And of course, were you to be found unable to carry on for whatever reason, you would be replaced
  582. >They even offered you a choice as to whether you wanted to stay any longer or be replaced, though it felt more symbolic than actually impactful
  583. >You wonder what the response would be to the second time of a totally silent review
  584. >Last time you had been marked down as a 'rebellion risk' and the ponies had presumably been informed
  585. >But who could say what would happen now?
  586. >It went without saying that you wouldn't speak, but you'd try to be as compliant as you could
  587. >You begin scrub at a resilient spot of rust on the blade of a shovel, but you're interrupted by a tapping at the window
  588. >Glancing up, your eyes widen at the figure standing at the plate glass
  589. >Tor
  590. >You drop the shovel to the floor and throw open the door as he comes around to it
  591. >Without preamble he pushes his way inside
  592. >You shut the door behind you and turn to him, totally baffled by his sudden appearance
  593. >”Hei, brother. Got to talk quick here, don't want to bring any trouble early to you.”
  594. >Trouble, what the hell was he going on about?
  595. >And early, so he meant to bring trouble at some point
  596. >”Yes, yes I'll get to your questions in a minute. Look, we're getting out of here. See I found something in that witch wood, something that stops unicorn magic dead.”
  597. >He takes a twisted, ugly pendant from his pocket and gives you a thin smile
  598. >”Now, they don't know I got this yet but I'm sure they'll find out soon enough. I've got a plan cooking, and I want you to be a part of it. Don't know why, but you weren't taken to that purple bitch like Sam was so I figure they got some trust in you yeah? So take this...”
  599. >He reaches into his waistband and takes out an extremely crude, but unmistakable, handgun
  600. >You can already feel your palms becoming clammy as you stare at it
  601. >This was beyond anything you had thought this was about
  602. >He was planning on restarting the damned war
  603. >”Look, I know you don't want to get back into fighting. Hell, it's not something I want either; but men cannot live under the yolk of another in peace, not for long anyway. I don't want you to have to use it, but it's there.”
  604. >He unrolls a scroll and lays it on the floor of the barn
  605. >You couldn't fault him on his work, the plan was immaculately detailed with a mapped route to your destination and various supplies and expected resources
  606. >He wanted to bring you and everyone else all the way to the Gryphon Empire, across the Northern Narrows, to the single portal between Equestria and home
  607. >Home...
  608. >It all became clear at once
  609. >The artifact, his sudden plan, and the desperation with which he came to you
  610. >If the people back home could figure out the properties of that trinket, they'd finally have a bargaining chip over the princesses here
  611. >Maybe they could even close the portal for good
  612. >”You may have your doubts in me sometimes, but I have faith in you brother. Just hang onto it would you? And keep it out of sight, we don't need the damn horses stumbling on a firearm.”
  613. >Oh right, the gun
  614. >Just where did he get the stuff to build that thing?
  615. >You look at him and he answers as though he's already read your mind
  616. >”Don't worry about the how, by the gods, it's not going to bite you. Now, are you in?”
  617. >You look from him, to the map, to the gun, and back
  618. >Your pulse pounds in your ears
  619. >This was a real chance to get home and to stop the pony threat once and for all
  620. >You'd be heroes, immortalized as the rebels that did everything to ensure the victory of mankind
  621. >Or you'd die trying
  622. >You grit your teeth and finally nod your heavy head
  623. >Tor claps a hand on your shoulder and grins from ear to ear
  624. >”I knew you were the right one. I'll come back when it's time to leave, until then keep quiet eh?”
  625. >You offer a weak smile at the joke
  626. >He grabs the scroll and steals out of the shed, off to wherever he was hiding now
  627. >You stare back down at the crude pistol, feeling the weight of your decision pressing down on you
  628. >Something in you snaps and you stuff it under a loose sackcloth bag
  629. >You had to get the thing both hidden, more for your own sanity than anything else
  630. >What the hell was he thinking with that?
  631. >Doubts were already beginning to rise in your head, but you dispel them with a vicious shake
  632. >No, you were committed now
  633. >And you were going home
  634. --
  635. >A few more days pass without you seeing hide or hair of Tor
  636. >Actually it's been so quiet as to be rather worrisome
  637. >Not a soul has so much as passed by the farm, and a stifling isolation has been building as of late
  638. >Even Applejack seemed on edge, staying mostly silent as the two of you worked on the final tasks to prepare the farm for the coming winter
  639. >Applebloom and Granny would be back in a couple days, so at least it wouldn't be so tense then
  640. >Until that though, it was just the two of you
  641. >There was nothing to do today until the sun rose, so you were laying on the couch and having a late lie in
  642. >But of course, relaxation simply isn't allowed here
  643. >A sharp rapping at the door has you snap your eyes wide and nearly fall off the couch in surprise
  644. >You rub the sleep from your eyes and trudge to the door
  645. >Opening it finds you staring at none other than Twilight Sparkle and her little pet dragon
  646. >All three of you blink in surprise but after a moment Twilight clears her throat and speaks up
  647. >”Um, good morning Anonymous. Is Applejack around? There's something really important I have to speak with her about.”
  648. >You eye her suspiciously, but gesture for the two of them to come inside
  649. >You get them seated at the kitchen table and go upstairs to fetch Applejack
  650. >She had been up later than usual and was still sleeping
  651. >What a strange day for her to sleep in, the day her friend decides to visit
  652. >Her door is open so you walk right in and beside her bed
  653. >You stare down at her, not moving for a long moment
  654. >The tension you usually see in her body, the subtle fear that had been clouding her sidelong glances lately
  655. >The faint traces of hate that had touched her voice and shone faintly in her eyes
  656. >None of it marred her while she slept
  657. >She was at peace and here you were about to break it
  658. >The barest trace of the cold morning sunlight begins to creep across the still room, snapping you from your reverie
  659. >You give her a gentle tap on the hoof and she starts awake
  660. >”Wha- c'mon Mac gimme five minutes.”
  661. >Mac? Must have been a lover or something
  662. >You prod her hoof again and she stretches out in the bed
  663. >”Alright I'm comin' just hang on a sec and I'll--”
  664. >She cuts off as her gaze falls on you towering above her
  665. >”Oh, Anon. That's right, Anon, why the hay are you wakin' me up at this Celestia forsaken hour?”
  666. >You point downstairs and make a gesture for two
  667. >Hopefully she'd understand
  668. >”Someponies are here to see me? Well why didn't ya say so, I'll be down in a jiffy.”
  669. >You nod and head downstairs, joining Twilight and the dragon at the kitchen table
  670. >Both of them give you uncomfortable stares, though Twilight at least tries to hide it better than her little friend
  671. >You avoid looking at them, opting instead to stare at the last empty seat
  672. >Before long Applejack joins you at the table, clearly still groggy from her quick awakening
  673. >”How's it goin' Twi? Ain't seen you in a while, what brings y'all out here today?”
  674. >The princess looks at you, shifting uncomfortably
  675. >”Can we talk with the human around? He really shouldn't be in on this.”
  676. >Applejack looks at you and looks back at Twilight with a scowl on her face
  677. >”It'll be fine Twi, now come on. Anon and I still got work to do gettin' ready for winter.”
  678. >Twilight's face grows stern and her voice is chilly when she replies
  679. >”I mean it Applejack, I don't want him around for this.”
  680. >You see Applejack open her mouth to keep arguing, but you preempt it by simply leaving the room before she speaks up
  681. >It simply wasn't worth the trouble
  682. >Probably just some pony or mare thing, it wouldn't involve you anyway
  683. >You head outside and take a seat on the porch
  684. >The morning was chilly, but not uncomfortably so and the early sun already has started to warm you up
  685. >Soon after sitting down, you hear muffled voice picking up volume from inside
  686. >Seems things weren't going too well
  687. >Oh well, none of your concern
  688. >Suddenly, the front door slams open, making you jump at the abrupt noise
  689. >Twilight storms out, evidently seething at whatever she and Applejack had talked about
  690. >Her little dragon follows out, glancing at you with clear fear in his eyes
  691. >Applejack soon joins you on the porch, though long after Twilight has left for Ponyville
  692. >A glance tells you that she's shaken, but she doesn't speak up
  693. >You're more than happy to silently enjoy the early winter sun, probably the last before the snows come
  694. >”Yer friend's gone missin'.”
  695. >You snap your head to face her, immediately on guard
  696. >She doesn't react, staring towards the sun still slowly rising on the horizon
  697. >You know immediately who she means though
  698. >Who else could it be but Tor?
  699. >She looks over at you, her gaze tired and seemingly aged
  700. >”I don't suppose y'all know anythin' about this do ya?”
  701. >You shake your head
  702. >Sure you'd never admit to actually knowing something if you did, but in this case you were totally in the dark
  703. >It was only a few more days until the planned trip North, why would he jump ahead like this?
  704. >All of it reeks of something gone terribly wrong
  705. >Applejack stares at you, her face stony and still
  706. >It's hard to tell whether or not she believes you, but eventually she returns her gaze to the lightening sky
  707. >”I guess it don't matter, you wouldn't say if ya did anyhow.”
  708. >She taps her hoof rhythmically on the porch
  709. >”Listen, I get that y'all want to take care of your own but I don't think none of us want anymore fightin'. I've seen those days you're starin' off at nothin'. Y'all can put on this tough quiet guy look all ya want, it don't change how ya feel inside.”
  710. >Her voice cracks and she grinds her teeth
  711. >”You may think we won the war, but you're wrong. Ain't nobody who won that war, we all lost. We all...”
  712. >She trails off, staring at the horizon for a moment longer before letting out a shuddering breath and going inside
  713. >As you stare off at the new dawn, a single thought occupies your mind
  714. >She was right
  715. >The cold evening finds you sitting in the barn, having just finished mucking the stables
  716. >For whatever reason, ponies kept cattle
  717. >This in itself wouldn't be too odd, except that they could talk and seemed just as sapient as the ponies were
  718. >They were pleasant enough as well, even if they didn't quite understand your continued silence
  719. >But with their stalls cleaned, they once again went back to conversing with each other or grazing quietly
  720. >It left you alone to think about the news earlier
  721. >Tor missing, and after just announcing his intent to do something that could very well ignite the war again
  722. >You were doubting your commitment to him before, and the more you thought about it the less confidence you had
  723. >It was doubtful you'd ever make it to the portal, much less make it through
  724. >But you had promised, and you were no oathbreaker
  725. >You were still jittery, tapping your foot as you thought over and over about the plan
  726. >In theory it was quite simple, just walking away from the farm when the time came
  727. >But since you had come to Equestria the first day, nothing had gone as planned
  728. >You stare up at the walls, as though you might find solace in the old knots and whorls of the oak planks
  729. >Your eyes are drawn to a a hat hanging on a nail high up on the back wall
  730. >Curious that you couldn't remember seeing it before
  731. >The thick coat of dust on the felt brim is testament to how long it's been hanging in the barn
  732. >You take it daintily from the wall, brushing the dust and examining it closely
  733. >It's just an ordinary stetson, a bit small for a human but rather large for the average pony
  734. >A bit larger than Applejack's, it seemed
  735. >You turn it over and look inside the brim, wondering just it belonged to
  736. >Inside the hat, the word 'Mac' was embroidered in fine threadwork
  737. >Wasn't that the name AJ had muttered in her sleep not too long ago?
  738. >Maybe he had been a farmhand or something, or a cousin?
  739. >He must have just left it here when he left, maybe as a memento or something
  740. >Whatever the reason, it was just about the right size for you
  741. >You'd bring it in to AJ and see if you could use it instead, if it was just sitting lonely in this barn
  742. >Would be great for keeping the sun off your neck come the summertime
  743. >It was strange, even now you were thinking about still being here despite your commitment to leaving
  744. >Why was it you were so far removed from everyone else?
  745. >The others all spoke of home in reverent tones, as though it was the most perfect place imaginable
  746. >Sure you wanted to go home just as much as anyone else, but you didn't hold it in particularly high regard
  747. >Everyone back there seemed to acquiesce to the terms of surrender so easily, as though the enslavement of anyone but themselves was a tiny price to pay
  748. >As long as they weren't in any danger themselves, they'd okay anything
  749. >You could understand it, but it disgusted you
  750. >Even if the ponies accepted what happened, most weren't quite comfortable with the ideas it represented
  751. >Be it slavery or just having humans around, there was more than one petition to have you all sent home
  752. >But the gryphons were a major obstacle there, they were unlikely to allow any kind of human exodus, they had been reluctant to even allow the annual check ups
  753. >Despite that, the ponies seemed to push more for your freedom than your own kind
  754. >You wonder what the reaction would be to your little group showing up on Earth
  755. >Would you be received as heroes, like the POWs that escaped the Germans in the second world war?
  756. >Or would it be colder and secretive, the people thrusting you into hiding out of fear of another magical war?
  757. >Perhaps they'd even try to turn you back, what then?
  758. >You leave the barn, hat in hand, but the doubts stay whirling around your mind
  759. >The dying daylight holds no answers, and you find yourself wandering through the yard aimlessly
  760. >Suddenly a muffled shriek echoes through the farmyard
  761. >The noise chills your blood and sends a flood of adrenaline through your veins
  762. >It was clearly Applejack
  763. >What's more, it wasn't a sound of pain as though she had burned herself while cooking dinner
  764. >No, that was a cry of fear
  765. >You start to run towards the homestead but pause in front of the tool shed beside it
  766. >It takes you a long moment of reflection before running inside the shed and digging through the sackcloth bag
  767. >With the improvised pistol in hand, you start off once more towards the house
  768. >AJ's reaction to you being armed be damned, if she was in danger you would deal with her objections after stopping the problem
  769. >Slave owner she may be, but she was a decent person, horse, whatever
  770. >You peer through the windows, nothing seems amiss to you
  771. >No signs of forced entry through the front, or items out of place
  772. >Still, that was no reason not to be cautious
  773. >Slowly, carefully, you open the front door, the well oiled hinges smoothly sliding without a sound
  774. >The only noise is a slight scraping on tile and a muffled noise of exertion
  775. >You move towards the source slowly, the training you had neglected coming back easily, your mind slipping back to that of a fighter, an infiltrator
  776. >With speed and silence you enter the kitchen, pistol raised, and find the origin of the noise
  777. >Applejack was struggling against her assailant, who had a thick arm wrapped around her throat and was clearly fighting hard to keep his grip
  778. >They both look up at you simultaneously, AJ with fear and her attacker with glee
  779. >As for you, you can only imagine the look of horror on your face as shards of ice pierce your heart
  780. >”Evening, brother.”
  781. >Tor's voice cuts to your bone, more easily than the knife glinting in his fist
  782. >You lower the improvised flintlock, gesturing at the two of them with a look of confusion
  783. >What in the hell was he doing here now, and why was he attacking Applejack?
  784. >His grin grows and he shrugs
  785. >”I guess you weren't expecting me for a bit, eh? Well don't worry about it too much, I'm here to throw off your shackles early.”
  786. >Applejack has stopped struggling, simply staring up at you with wide eyes
  787. >Tor twirls the knife and smiles
  788. >”So then, I'll just finish this mule off and we'll be on our way.”
  789. >AJ struggles weakly, trying to pull away from the ever approaching knife
  790. >But out of nowhere, he pauses
  791. >He turns his gaze on you again, a wicked smile spreading over his face
  792. >”Actually, she's your owner right?”
  793. >It's rhetorical, but you nod despite yourself
  794. >Where was he going with this?
  795. >His smile widens and he spins the knife again before pointing it at the pony
  796. >”Then she's all yours brother, I wouldn't dare get in the way of vengeance like that.”
  797. >He tosses her to the ground, gives her stomach a vicious kick, and steps away from the shivering ball of orange fur
  798. >You recall the long nights and longer days, worked till you broke, the reconditioning, screaming at the walls built in your mind
  799. >She had treated you like dirt
  800. >But that wasn't all...
  801. >You raise the pistol and aim in a single fluid motion
  802. >The pan sizzles and flashes, a loud crack echoes through the small homestead and into the cold night
  803. >Everything is still, silent, the room filled with the stench of black powder
  804. >You sigh into the sudden and smokey stillness, the energy suddenly sapped from your bones
  805. >Applejack heaves on the ground, shuddering and sobbing quietly
  806. >Tor's body crumples to the ground, and he lets out a pained, gurgling gasp
  807. >You drop the pistol from you shaking hands, walking over and kneeling down next to him
  808. >His breath comes in short, difficult bursts, but his eyes follow your every move
  809. >His mouth moves, forming the question you know you'll be asking yourself for years to come
  810. >”Why?”
  811. >His breaths become more shallow, gasps really, and his hand reaches out to grasp at nothing
  812. >You take hold of his hand and gently press it back to his chest, your eyes never leaving his
  813. >It takes a long time for the light to leave his eyes
  814. >Long enough for blood to pool on the floor and start to thicken
  815. >Long enough for your hands to be dyed red
  816. >And long after it does, you're still resting your hand on his
  817. >At some point, Applejack leaves you alone with him, slamming the door shut behind her and galloping into the night
  818. >She was probably going to fetch the guards to take you away
  819. >You deserved it really
  820. >You had come within spitting distance of doing something that would have reignited the war
  821. >And though you hadn't attacked AJ, you'd still committed what was essentially murder
  822. >Back on Earth you may have gotten away with it, but in Equestria?
  823. >No, you'd likely be hanged or worse
  824. >You didn't actually know what ponies did for capital punishment, was drawing and quartering something that they'd do?
  825. >Maybe that was too barbaric, but given what they had done to Earth nothing seemed beyond the pale
  826. >Long after the sun has gone down, you finally rise from Tor's side
  827. >You numbly begin putting the kitchen in order, extinguishing the stove, cleaning dishes, even beginning to mop the blood that was staining the wooden floor
  828. >It was barely conscious behavior, your mind was far away
  829. >You'd never see your home again, most likely, but you didn't deserve to either
  830. >The plan to escape was now impossible, and you were set for reconditioning at the best, prison at the least, and death at the worst
  831. >You gaze off into the black trees of the Everfree, easily within running distance
  832. >It wouldn't be particularly difficult to live there for a short time, surviving from whatever you could scavenge or hunt while evading capture
  833. >But you couldn't run from this
  834. >From the ponies, sure, but Tor would haunt you just as much as your own mind
  835. >You clean your hands as best you can and go to the living room to await the gavel that would surely be falling soon
  836. >No matter how much blood on your hands and fear in your heart, you would face judgment for it as a man, not a mouse
  837. >You don't have to wait long
  838. >The door flies open and you feel the familiar tingle of magic as it restrains your limbs and throws you to the floor
  839. >The sound of several sets of hooves pounding on the wood floor echoes behind you, and you hear the sound of a pony trying not to be sick
  840. >Twilight's voice comes from behind you in a disgusted, but still commanding tone
  841. >”Anonymous, you're under arrest for the charge of murder. Do not resist us or we'll do whatever is necessary to stop you.”
  842. >Why would you?
  843. >It wasn't like you had been particularly rebellious before, your communication with Tor notwithstanding of course
  844. >A frantic shout comes from the kitchen
  845. >”Princess, I think we found it!”
  846. >The magical aura disappears from your body, but is swiftly replaced by a pair of hooves digging into your spine
  847. >Her hoofsteps clop into the kitchen and she gasps in shock
  848. >”Cosmic Mother...that's it alright.”
  849. >Her voice is full of a fear you've never heard from any pony
  850. >”Get this thing to the palace immediately. I'll send a missive to Princess Celestia that it's been secured and not to worry.”
  851. >You hear and awkward coughing and Twilight lets out a tired sigh
  852. >”That's right...”
  853. >He hoofsteps approach you again, and this time she lowers herself so you are looking into her violet eyes
  854. >It's...different from the last time, when she was reconditioning you
  855. >She seems older, more tired
  856. >Her mane appears, in the faint lamplight, to have streaks of grey coming in at the roots, and faint crows feet have appeared around her eyes
  857. >You don't recall her looking like this at all
  858. >Her tone is harsh, but she sounds utterly exhausted when she speaks
  859. >”You'll be taken to the holding cells in the Castle of Friendship. We'll get to the bottom of what you did here.”
  860. >What you did, not what happened
  861. >It wouldn't be fun, however they intended to get the explanation from you
  862. >Probably that insidious magic of Twilight's, digging around in your brain until it was just a scrambled mess of nothing
  863. >Twilight pulls away and AJ takes her place in your view
  864. >Her eyes are red and her face fearful
  865. >She sniffles and her voice cracks when she finally manages to talk
  866. >”I don't rightly know where y'all got that gun, or why ya had it. I don't know why ya did...what ya did instead of bein' free. Buck, I don't even know if any of this was the right thing. But thank ya, Anon.”
  867. >And then she's gone and you're whisked away
  868. >The guards toss you into an iron cage on the back of a carriage and gallop the whole way to the dark spires of the castle
  869. >They waste little time throwing you into a black cell somewhere deep in its walls
  870. >You'd been left with a blanket that did hardly a thing to ward off the biting cold that seemed to seep from the very stones
  871. >So you shudder and shake under the rough wool of the cloth, exhausted and alone
  872. >Truly alone now, most ponies would likely be afraid of you and most humans would call you a traitor
  873. >With those pleasant ruminations echoing in your mind, you close your eyes and drift into fitful, nightmare filled sleep
  874. --
  875. >You feel your eyes open, but you wonder if they really have
  876. >Presented with total darkness, you panic and flail your arms around for something, anything to tell you where you are
  877. >Disturbingly, and despite not changing colour in the slightest, it seems to ripple about as you move
  878. >You clutch your knees to your chest, unwilling to even twitch
  879. >All around you, the eerie black seems to pulse and swirl with an incomprehensible rhythm
  880. >The only time stillness appears is when you shut your eyes, and every time you open them you're treated to the writhing motion again
  881. >From the roiling void, you hear a footstep echo out, then more in a slow cadence
  882. >Footsteps...not hoofbeats like it should have been
  883. >Against all logic, a silhouette appears against the inky, twisting black
  884. >It's human, there's no doubting that, but its appearance was odd
  885. >Two protrusions jutted from either side of a too-round head, odd angles were present all over its torso
  886. >But the reason soon makes itself known
  887. >Barely perceptible over the echoing footsteps was dull clanking, like some kind of metal armour
  888. >What the hell was coming for you?
  889. >At last, it comes fully into view, illuminated by some bizarre unlight that cast no shadows and made no reflections in its deep turquoise eyes
  890. >A valkyrie, of all things it could have been that was certainly not what you were thinking
  891. >She smiles at you, her look sweet, kind, ferocious
  892. >”I am Mani, and I will be your guide.”
  893. >Ah, so that was it then
  894. >Strange, you had thought there would be more feast and celebration in the halls of the gods
  895. >Though if she was here to guide you, perhaps you just hadn't arrived yet
  896. >She sits in front of you and giggles in a lilting tone, sweet as the spring
  897. >”I can already see your mind racing, but before I answer your questions, you must give me the same kindness.”
  898. >Well that was certainly a reasonable request, so you open your mouth to affirm your willingness
  899. >The moment you do, a searing pain races up and down your forearm, making your clamp your mouth shut and grind your teeth
  900. >That shouldn't have been happening...unless the magic was tied to you even far beyond
  901. >Mani frowns and with a soft hand, grips your arm and examines the faintly glowing runes
  902. >”How strange this magic. But no matter, I can solve this simply.”
  903. >She snaps her fingers and leans back, her warm smile gracing her lips again
  904. >You knit your brows in confusion, your arm was still aching so just what had she done?
  905. >Suddenly, the roiling black turns a deep, mysterious indigo
  906. >You recoil at the sudden change, alarmed by the unprovoked change
  907. >The colour becomes an electric purple, pulsing in time with your heartbeat
  908. >Mani raises her hand and shushes you gently
  909. >”Be calm, I have merely allowed this place to reflect your feelings. Through this I can interpret your response to any questions I have.”
  910. >That didn't make too much sense, but you were dealing with something beyond human understanding
  911. >So you decide to accept the answer, and to your relief the realm fades to its deep black once again
  912. >She nods and leans forward, her expression turning serious
  913. >”Now then, you were an indentured servant in this land of Equestria, were you not?”
  914. >Of course you were, didn't she already know this?
  915. >The void glows a dull green momentarily before returning to black
  916. >”Good, and you were captured during a war with the ponies and gryphons?”
  917. >Again, it flashes green, pulsing this time as if it feels your annoyance
  918. >And again, the valkyrie nods
  919. >”Did you resist them, struggle against the unjust servitude?”
  920. >Of course you had, and the strong green glow reflects that sentiment
  921. >But only for a moment
  922. >It flickers and fades into a deep orange, the wave-like motion increasing
  923. >You had resisted as well as you could, hadn't you?
  924. >It wasn't like you had gone along with absolutely everything with no questions asked, you wouldn't have been reconditioned if you had
  925. >Still, had you broken so easily after just one session?
  926. >A warm touch caresses your cheek and the world once more darkens
  927. >”Let your worries flow away, I would not be here without good reason, dear soldier.”
  928. >You exhale deeply, calming yourself as much as you could
  929. >Yes, a valkyrie wouldn't come for you unless you had been selected already, this was merely a final test of sorts to prove your mettle further
  930. >”Now then, you were the one that killed Torlund were you not?”
  931. >You feel your heart jump in your chest and your throat restricts
  932. >But there was no running from it, she knew, you knew, and it was something you had to face
  933. >The world glows a shameful green, dark as winter evergreens
  934. >”Was it in self-defense?”
  935. >A burning red takes over the green, as though a fire ripping through a forest
  936. >”Of another?”
  937. >The green returns like new shoots over the ashes of that destroyed landscape
  938. >”Of your slaver?”
  939. >The green deepens again before the void once more fades to black
  940. >The valkyrie stands and moves closer, her face filling your gaze
  941. >”It was good of you to be honest, soldier. Now open your eyes, I will return to you shortly.”
  942. >She disappears along with the writhing nothingness, driving your eyes open to be greeted by the blackness of your cell
  943. >A dream, it was just a dream
  944.  
  945. >Hoofsteps echoed down the empty halls, lit only by the light of the dawn streaming through stained glass windows
  946. >They're approaching with a rapid, military cadence and authority that tells you exactly who it is
  947. >You are Celestia, waiting for your sister to make her surely grand entrance
  948. >The great doors of the throne room are practically thrown apart with a thunderous crash
  949. >She strides in, her face dark with a  thunderous expression
  950. “The interrogation went well then, dear sister?”
  951. >She huffs and takes a seat in the throne beside your own, her brows furrowed
  952. >”Sister, have I ever been wrong about what I've learned in a dream before?”
  953. >You think back to the many times she had done this before
  954. >Luna was by no means infallible, nopony was, but in the case of dreams you could not recall a single instance of her being wrong
  955. “Not in my memory, Luna. Why do you ask?”
  956. >She sighs and lowers her head
  957. >”Then he's innocent of murder, by both ours and the humans reckoning. That said, it's clear he does not feel the same way.”
  958. >You offer her an understanding smile
  959. >It was strange to you as well, so few killings had ever occurred in recent Equestrian history that your entire legal staff had to plumb pre-Lunar Rebellion texts to find fitting examples
  960. >The entire ordeal, taxing as it was, had given you an odd feeling of excitement
  961. >After all, though it involved tragedy, it had brought about a diplomatic and legal challenge
  962. >These were situations that you had actually enjoyed in your long tenure, sifting through volumes of arcane legalism for little details that could make or break cases
  963. >Perhaps Twilight took after you more than you realized
  964. >”I don't understand it sister, why would a human act like this? Even in ponies, outside the Elements themselves, these actions would be considered out of place.”
  965. >You brush a wing across her back, your smile tinged now with a hint of sorrow
  966. >The war had broken the land, and with it everypony had broken in their own way
  967. >Luna had developed a paranoia that bordered on the mania that was a precursor to her fall, though it was at least directed to the outside rather than at you and your subjects
  968. >Just the same, you had far too many a sleepless night since the end of that terrible war
  969. “Indeed dear sister, but I trust your abilities. If the human truly did no wrong, then how would it be justified to prosecute him?”
  970. >Luna huffs and tosses her mane to the side
  971. >”I would not go so far as to say he did no wrong, dear sister. After all, do not forget that he was a soldier. As far as I'm concerned they have all sinned against our kind and deserve punishment.”
  972. >You nod and rest your chin on an upraised hoof
  973. “I cannot disagree that they ought to be punished. However, we cannot simply mete out vengeance as we see fit. We are not the monsters their propaganda made us out to be, nor should we ever fall so low as to become them.”
  974. >Another huff, Luna's feelings on the matter were all too clear
  975. >But taking absolute revenge wasn't in your blood, and you certainly wouldn't order reprisals for a war that ultimately the humans lost
  976. >The servitude of their fellows was a demand of the gryphons when it came to peace negotiations, the only reason Equestria had taken some on was giving those ghastly creatures no reason to believe that you would enter accord with the humans behind their back
  977. >A sharp knock on the door draws you from your thoughts of the past
  978. >You sit up straighter in your throne, as does your sister
  979. >This was the true trial of the day
  980. >The doors swing wide and the captain of the guard enters, clearing his throat
  981. >”Presenting his honour, the Right and Honourable Prime Minister Desjardins.”
  982. >A tall, thin human dressed in a silk suit strides through the doors behind the captain, offering you a bow
  983. >You rack your memory for a moment to recall which nation the small red and white flag on his lapel represented
  984. >”Your majesties, I offer humble greetings from the nation of Canada. May your reigns be filled with peace and abundant harvests.”
  985. >Ah that was right, you remember this one from the negotiating table during the peace talks
  986. >Fawning and sycophantic as his words seemed, he was more sly than the meanest of merchants
  987. >Of course the empty praise had to be returned, such was the nature of these sorts of exchanges
  988. “And the same to all your peoples, prime minister. May I ask what it is you seek to petition us for today?”
  989. >His wide smile shrinks by a few molars and you just catch the slight sound of his teeth grinding
  990. >”We received word of an...incident that occurred between two of the indentured servants that were asked of us. Though doubtless you have dealt with it with the wisdom and grace all ponies carry with them, I must ask that you involve us in the process as well.”
  991. >This time it is Luna who speaks up
  992. >”And why, pray tell, would we be interested in such an arrangement. The being you speak of is in our custody and beholden to our laws. For all intents and purposes, he is an Equestrian subject.”
  993. >His smile all but disappears and he clears his throat quietly
  994. >”While that may be, I believe these to be quiet extreme circumstances. Surely he ought to be brought back to Earth and be made to stand trial before a jury of his peers. Though I do not doubt the wisdom and fairness with which your justice is conducted, I believe it in both our interests to avoid anything that would stain our reputations.”
  995. >Luna's mouth snaps open but you raise a hoof to forestall any complaint from her
  996. >Though you were nominally equals, Luna's temper did make things awkward sometimes
  997. “I would not worry about such actions, we are not as hasty in our decisions as you may think. He will be tried in Equestria as our subject, just as the treaty dictates.”
  998. >Any trace of the smile is long gone, his lips now stiff and pursed
  999. >”Then I invoke section three of the second article of the Imperial, Equestrian, and United Nations Peace Accords. The human you have arrested is to be extradited to Earth to stand trial for the crime of murder in the second degree.”
  1000. >Luna sneers at the man and you scoff at the ridiculous demand
  1001. “Section three applies only to convicted criminals or criminals that committed their crime on Earth and somehow escaped through the portal. You would be hard pressed to make a case that Anonymous falls into either of those categories.”
  1002. >Luna's voice booms out as yours quiets, a hammer blow to close the conversation
  1003. >”What's more, you would take the idea of innocence before guilt and stamp it underfoot simply to try one of your own? Utter foolishness.”
  1004. >Desjardins' icy blue eyes flit over to lock with Luna's
  1005. >”In extreme circumstances, the right to innocence before guilt can be suspended. I have already argued that this is such a time before my own people and they agreed. This man will be extradited and stand trial, your majesties.”
  1006. >If looks could kill, you're quite certain Luna would be on trial herself
  1007. >However, you manage to preempt whatever scathing retort she had prepared
  1008. “Then you will, of course, submit the proper documentation to do so. Once that is done, we can take this argument before a tribunal and present our legal debate before them. I certain you haven't forgotten the eighth clause of the section you invoked. With all that, we should be able to bring this forward in...a year or so, perhaps eighteen months depending on the court backlogs.”
  1009. >The prime minister grinds his teeth again
  1010. >”I don't believe the UN will agree to such clearly overreaching tactics like this you--!”
  1011. “I believe, prime minister, that you will follow due process in order to avoid any sort of misunderstandings that could be mistaken as the rumblings of battle. The system is in place to avoid such conflicts, so let us use it, lest misfortune befalls the people of Earth once again.”
  1012. >He swallows heavily, as though suddenly realizing just how far he was taking the argument
  1013. >”Very well, your majesties. Please do expect a missive from the United Nations soon, we shall not delay in our diligence.”
  1014. >You nod, turning your snout up at the human who once more had a smile on his face
  1015. >To your satisfaction, it was noticeably emptier than it had been when he entered
  1016. “Then you may go, prime minister. Again, give my regards to the people of Earth. We wish them well in the face of all obstinance.”
  1017. >His jaw tightens but he merely bows and exits the throne room swiftly, the doors shutting behind him with a muffled boom
  1018. >Luna immediately brings an imperious hoof down on the marble steps with a crash
  1019. >”That simpering mutt dares to threaten us? These humans forget their recent history far too quick.”
  1020. >You brush a wing over her back, taking several deep breaths to calm yourself
  1021. “Peace, Luna. That is the goal of these things, maddening as they may be. I'm quite certain that this is more emotionally trying for him than for us.”
  1022. >Luna snorts, not satisfied with your defense of the man
  1023. >”So then, what do we do? We cannot simply sit and wait for their demand to arrive formally. The humans have the death penalty, Celestia! We cannot give this one back, even if he did kill.”
  1024. >You nod, if you gave the man up there was no doubt he would be tried and executed, no matter how airtight the case of defense of another was
  1025. >Resentment of ponies and gryphons had knit the humans closer than ever in their fractious history, and someone stepping outside that on the behalf of a perceived enemy would be hammered down
  1026. >You tap a hoof against your chin, humming thoughtfully
  1027. >There was perhaps a way around this, bits a pieces of obscure laws begin to dance through your mind as you ponder
  1028. >”What do we do? Surely you wouldn't go into this without some kind of plan, right? You know the laws better than anypony alive or dead, you must have something!”
  1029. >From the maelstrom of arcane legal passages and ancient court proceedings, a pattern begins to glimmer
  1030. “I just might, Luna. I just might.”
  1031. >It's been three days that you've been locked in the cell
  1032. >No more visits from the valkyrie, no dreams at all in fact
  1033. >Just four stone walls, the thin straw mattress, and your own thoughts to torment you
  1034. >At the very least it had given you the time to come to terms with what you had done
  1035. >Whether you were considered a murderer by human or pony law wasn't much of an issue, your actions were right
  1036. >Though you considered him your brother even now, Tor wasn't a righteous man
  1037. >He tried sometimes, but more often than not he had acted in immoral or simply foolish ways
  1038. >The forest ritual was a fine example, though you had gone along with the stupidity of it
  1039. >And now, even though you desperately wished to speak up in your defense, you were totally incapable
  1040. >You idly scratch at the runes on your arm, thinking of just how foolish that must make you
  1041. >After all, more foolish is the man that follows an idiot thinking him a prophet
  1042. >The lock in the door rattles and the hinges whine quietly as it opens
  1043. >It must be noon already, time for a plain meal of boiled oats and a turnip if they felt kind
  1044. >You wonder just how long it would be before they dragged you before a court and demanded your testimony
  1045. >Just what would you say?
  1046. >What would they say to your enforced silence?
  1047. >Your train of thought grinds to a halt as the figure behind the door makes herself known
  1048. >”Hello Anonymous, do come with us.”
  1049. >Princess Luna turns her back and begins to walk down the halls of the dungeon
  1050. >You poke your head out after her, wondering if it was some kind of trap
  1051. >But the guard merely huffs and gives you a gentle push towards the waiting princess
  1052. >Well then, this was it
  1053. >You hold your head high and step from your cell, following behind the lunar monarch
  1054. >She takes you up through the castle, down twisting and turning corridors in a seemingly random pattern
  1055. >You briefly wonder if she's just trying to find somewhere secluded to kill you
  1056. >Everyone knew about her magical prowess on the battlefield, the killing fields of the Dnieper
  1057. >But after a few minutes, you arrive at your apparent destination
  1058. >It was a small meeting room filled mostly by a round, oak table
  1059. >Seated at the table are two ponies you certainly hadn't expected to see until you went before a judge
  1060. >At the far end of the table sits Princess Celestia, and to her right Twilight Sparkle
  1061. >Luna sits and gestures for you to do the same
  1062. >You follow her order, wondering just why you were in such “honoured” company
  1063. >They don't wait too long to enlighten you
  1064. >”Anonymous, it has come to our attention that you are unable to speak.”
  1065. >Celestia's tone is warm, maternal almost, as she talks to you
  1066. >You're surprised to be addressed so kindly, surely they knew who you were and what you had done
  1067. >As if reading your mind, Twilight speaks up
  1068. >”Relax, would you? What happened in the war happened. We all need to move past it if we're ever going to find some kind of lasting peace. Besides, it's harder to examine an antsy patient.”
  1069. >Luna clears her throat and glares at Twilight, a look that is returned with a hint more annoyance
  1070. >”What? That's what he's here for right? We can't just have a mute nodding along dumbly with all of this!”
  1071. >All of what? And what examination?
  1072. >”Twilight, I understand your frustration but do not lash out at my sister like that. We must all keep a level head if this endeavour is to be successful.”
  1073. >What were these crazy horses talking about?
  1074. >Luna keeps her mouth shut, affecting a bored expression at all of this
  1075. >You couldn't be more confused
  1076. >”Fine, fine. Anonymous, extend your right arm would you?”
  1077. >Well you could either do it willingly or have it pulled forward with magic, and given your other experiences...
  1078. >Hesitantly, you put the requested arm on the table in front of you
  1079. >As Twilight's horn lights up, you eye her warily, weighing the odds of you actually being able to do anything about this situation
  1080. >Again, the honeyed tones of Celestia pipe up
  1081. >”Peace, peace, it is merely an examination. Nothing will be done to violate you like the wild magic has done.”
  1082. >Wait, was magic the reason you weren't able to speak?
  1083. >Your arms buzzes as though with static as your fingers twitch
  1084. >Humans weren't able to use magic though, so had some crazy unicorn put a spell or curse on you when you were sleeping?
  1085. >Sure there were plenty of ponies that held grudges, but why something so specific?
  1086. >Your thoughts continue to race until the sensation on your arm disappears and Twilight lets out a quiet sigh
  1087. >”As I suspected from Luna's report. Through some means, those runes on Anonymous' arm have enchanted him to muteness. And I bet I know what.”
  1088. >She glares pointedly at you, her brow furrowing
  1089. >”Just what was that ritual you performed in the Everfree, hm? Some kind of mass hex on ponykind?”
  1090. >Luna suddenly perks up from her feigned boredom
  1091. >”What ritual, Twilight?”
  1092. >Twilight rolls her eyes and makes a noncommittal gesture with her hoof
  1093. >”Some weird thing a group of humans did in the forest on the solstice. Nothing seemed to come of it so I didn't think I'd have to consider it a factor. However...”
  1094. >Your arm tingles again and Twilight leans over the table to examine the runes more closely
  1095. >As she does, you look more closely and see a faint, golden haze surrounding them
  1096. >”I believe that, whatever they intended to do, made the natural wild magic of the Everfree channel through them. It could have something to do with why the other human suddenly decided to rebel. Meanwhile, since Anonymous already had some kind of spellword carved in his arm, it merely reinforced it.”
  1097. >She scratches her chin with a hoof and the runes suddenly feel as though they're burning
  1098. >Your fist clenches and you pull your arm close to your chest, heaving great gasps as the pain gradually recedes
  1099. >Twilight doesn't jump at the outburst, merely returning to her seat with a sigh
  1100. >”I can't do anything about it now, princesses. This isn't some clean kind of spell, or even a complex but formulaic hex. I would have to dedicate hours to studying just how this spell was acting in order to make any progress in terminating it.”
  1101. >You hope at least that, if she was going to do that, it wouldn't all feel like that did
  1102. >Celestia nods and closes her eyes
  1103. >”Very well, then we'll have to do this another way.”
  1104. >The solar princess nods to a guard, who knocks on the door three times
  1105. >It opens and a rather confused and totally exhausted looking Applejack walks through
  1106. >”Uh, beggin' your pardon princesses, but how can I help y'all?”
  1107. >Applejack takes a seat beside you, her brow etched with concern
  1108. >Celestia speaks up again, her tone harder than granite
  1109. >”Anonymous, you were from a country called Canada, yes?”
  1110. >You nod your head, confused by the sudden change of tack
  1111. >”Three days ago, a diplomat from your country had an audience with us. He demanded your immediate extradition to face murder charges on Earth.”
  1112. >Your heart sinks
  1113. >Of course the incident with Tor would have been reported immediately, it concerned the wellbeing of humans after all
  1114. >These were consequences you hadn't expected, humans wanting to prosecute you for what you'd done
  1115. >Ponies certainly, it was proof to them that you were a violent human and nothing more
  1116. >But to have your own people turn on you like this?
  1117. >Better to be tried and executed here, you would never be welcome home again
  1118. >”Yesterday we received an official missive from your United Nations for the extradition of the Canadian citizen in Equestrian detention on the charge of second degree murder.”
  1119. >You hang your head, this was it
  1120. >Applejack must be here to sign the release papers, considering you were technically under her command
  1121. >”Of course, we are all certain of what fate awaits you, should you be returned to Earth.”
  1122. >Death, no doubt
  1123. >Possibly a lynching before the trial date, if you were considerably unlucky
  1124. >And given all this, you no doubt were
  1125. >”However, given these extreme circumstances, we have qualms about simply giving you back.”
  1126. >You raise your head, wondering what was coming next
  1127. >Luna sighs heavily and taps her hoof on the table
  1128. >”Do not drag this out any longer, sister. We have duties to attend to besides this.”
  1129. >Twilight rolls her eyes and Celestia clears her throat as she unravels a scroll
  1130. >”We cannot protect you as it stands right now. However, on the testimony of Applejack and my dear sister, you have been exonerated pending a judicial ruling.”
  1131. >Your eyes widen, this wasn't something you expected to hear in a million years
  1132. >She raises a hoof to forestall anything from the others
  1133. >”In light of this, we would like to make an offering under which we can protect you against these charges.”
  1134. >She slides the scroll across to you and you squint at the Ponish runes drawn on it
  1135. >You could barely read half of the letters, so you glance up at Celestia for an explanation
  1136. >Twilight is the one who speaks up, to your surprise
  1137. >”Basically we're going to give you the status of 'extraordinary migrant'. It both will allow the court ruling here to stick, and pave the way to possible Equestrian citizenship. Obviously that means we could veto the extradition, as the crime committed by an Equestrian citizen was committed in Equestria and tried in our courts.”
  1138. >Your look of confusion must match the one on Applejack's face when Luna chimes in
  1139. >”Make no mistake, you won't be popular here. However after considering the circumstances, we decided this was the right course to take.”
  1140. >You stare down at the parchment, totally taken aback by the very idea they were suggesting
  1141. >Citizenship? After everything that had happened
  1142. >Applejack's timid voice speaks up into the quiet
  1143. >”If y'all don't mind me asking, why am I here exactly? It looks like this is all sorted.”
  1144. >Celestia offers AJ a warm smile
  1145. >”All migrants need a sponsor, Applejack. Since you were his caretaker already, you seemed to be the obvious choice. Of course any sponsorship fees would be covered by the crown, this is merely a requirement of the law.”
  1146. >Applejack looks at you, then the parchment, and finally at Celestia
  1147. >”Y'all are serious?”
  1148. >The princesses nod as one, leaving the farmer to sigh and look up at you
  1149. >You meet her jade coloured eyes with a heavy gaze
  1150. >This was it, where it all fell through
  1151. >”Look, you know I ain't on good terms with humans. Heck, when you came to my farm I thought Dash had come by with a real bad joke. I don't know that I'll ever like y'all whatsoever, no matter how many years go by.”
  1152. >She removes her hat and brushes a bit of dust from the brim
  1153. >It was a valiant try, but it seemed you would be going home after all
  1154. >”Still, even when ya weren't following the rules too good, you never tried to hurt no one; heck, I've had more pushback from 'Bloom. And maybe it's because I ain't had much sleep lately or someone slipped some cider in me this mornin'...”
  1155. >She gives a rattling sigh and rubs a hoof under her eyes
  1156. >”Dangit, Mac's gonna give me an earful when we meet up again. Shoot, and 'Bloom ain't forgivin' this one. But I can't let y'all just go back and die.”
  1157. >Applejack turns back to Celestia and puts her hat back on
  1158. >”I'll do it.”
  1159. >You're stunned
  1160. >There's no doubt your eyes are comically wide, and your mouth is open in shock
  1161. >Twilight and Luna seem to share your feelings, but Celestia smiles and slides a quill and inkwell across the table
  1162. >”I'm delighted to hear that Applejack. After all that you've been through, it blesses me to see that it has not sapped the kindness from you.”
  1163. >She scrawls her signature and turns to you, her expression grim
  1164. >”We're square now, don't you go tryin' to call in no favours on me. And you'd better be behavin' well or I'll tan your hide worse than granny ever did to me.”
  1165. >She huffs and stares back at the parchment, as though wishing it would burst into flame
  1166. >Celestia catches your gaze and her smile becomes more tenuous
  1167. >”Now then, it is up to you. Ultimately we cannot force you into this, and we cannot know if this is an offense to humankind or not. But please consider, though you may be received coldly in Equestria, we may yet forgive. I believe it no exaggeration when I say Earth will not welcome you home. However, it is up to you, Anonymous.”
  1168. >You meet the gazes of the three princesses
  1169. >Luna was grim faced, betraying nothing of her own feelings on the matter
  1170. >Celestia's face has calmed and she looks regal and serene
  1171. >Twilight is staring at you with no small amount of frustration, but her eyes hold a glimmer of hope
  1172. >Hope for what, you cannot say
  1173. >Finally, you look down at Applejack
  1174. >The princess' words seem to have softened her expression, and she seems almost frightened
  1175. >But as with Twilight, you're not sure what answer she is anticipating
  1176. >Briefly, her eyes catch yours and you realize the answer that troubles her more
  1177. >You feel your throat constricting, your heart pounding in your chest
  1178. >Your eyes burn with tears, as does your arm from the arcane curse as you meet Celestia's even gaze
  1179. >Fire races up and down your arm, making you grit your teeth in agony
  1180. >But you had to answer
  1181. >You force your mouth open and the answer croaks out
slave pony general anonymous in equestria safe aj

Anon von Bismarck: The War Within

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