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Royal Guard Survival - Part 1

By Lurkernon
Created: 19th December 2020 11:51:15 PM

  1. Originally published December 2014
  2.  
  3. Rules and info:
  4. - You are a male pegasus Guardspony. You have fairly good stamina, are a capable of mid-speed flight, and can endure some pain.
  5. - You, like all pegasi, can navigate by the stars, touch clouds, and perform some limited weather manipulation.
  6. - Unless otherwise specified, you will walk at a rapid march. This is not the quietest method of walking, and if you want to sneak (or, alternately, charge at a gallop) you will have to say so.
  7. - Your training already encourages you to keep be aware of surroundings.
  8. - I will be ignoring non-serious suggestions or ones that will seriously disrupt the story.
  9.  
  10. Archives:
  11. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  12.  
  13. > You wake up slowly.
  14. > Vision swimming.
  15. > Spitting a few times to clear your mouth of dirt that fills it.
  16. > You must have crashed...
  17. > Muscles ache as you push yourself upright, but it could be a lot worse.
  18. > A crash from that altitude in full armor, you could have broken bones or worse.
  19. > Quickly extending both wings, you give each a few tentative flaps.
  20. > Yep. Aching too, a few feathers out of place, but amazingly not seriously injured.
  21. > You crane your head, eyes turning skyward.
  22. > The whole you made through the dense treelimbs overhead is clearly visible.
  23. > Probably can thank them for still being alive.
  24. > If you'd hit the ground without them breaking your fall-
  25. > A distant rumbling cuts through your thoughts.
  26. > Everything snaps back into focus.
  27. > Your flight!
  28. > The Royal Guard had been dispatched deep into the Everfree following reports of large numbers of unknown creatures emerging near the gates of Tartarus.
  29. > You'd been in formation behind the captain, and then-
  30. > Then...
  31. > Nothing.
  32. > You can't remember anything clearly.
  33. > Just noise, brief flickers of panic and falling, and then waking up.
  34. > Where's the captain?
  35. > Where's your wingpony!
  36. > If you collapsed or blanked out, Cloudy Chance should have come to help you...
  37. > Distant rumbling rolls through the air again and a cold feeling forms in your stomach.
  38. > It may not sound like any fighting you know of, but a battle is unmistakably a battle.
  39. > The urge to flee is strong, but you are still a Guardspony of Equestria.
  40. > What will you do?
  41.  
  42. ACTION:
  43. - head rowards the sounds of battle on foot.
  44. - but be careful not to be spotted and keep an eye on your surroundings.
  45.  
  46. > You begin to walk towards the noises of battle, keeping a careful eye out.
  47. > They sound fairly distant yet, but sometimes something goes screaming overhead with a noise unlike any pegasus or griffon - some kind of low howling.
  48. > You can't see what, unfortunately, and kind of don't want to.
  49. > Despite the Everfree's ill reputation, though, you've yet to see any particularly aggressive wildlife.
  50. > Merely a lot of trees.
  51. > Suddenly your eyes pick up something ahead.
  52. > A glint of metal among the trees.
  53. > Definitely not something normally in the forest.
  54. > Looking up, you can see another hole through the canopy overhead - but far larger than what you had made.
  55.  
  56. ACTION:
  57. -Carefully approach the glint of metal, but look out for tripwires (if it's some sort of mine) etc, and always keep an eye on the sky.
  58. Take a swig from your canteen before you start moving.
  59.  
  60. > Your mouth feels a bit dry after waking up full of dirt, so you take a quick swig to clear it.
  61. > Feels good, and one less thing on your mind.
  62. > Falling flat to your belly, you creep forward towards the metallic glint you saw.
  63. > Unfortunately your armor and white coat isn't exactly stealth either, but there's a good chance you won't be spotted this way.
  64. > Foot by foot you advance, making sure to check for any booby traps.
  65. > Pushing your way beneath a bush, you can see it's not a trap, though
  66. > It's worse.
  67. > An entire guard chariot has crashed, the unicorns who were riding in it strewn across the forest floor.
  68. > Unlike you, the chariot kept its momentum as it fell.
  69. > It's unlikely they're alive, although some of their gear might still be intact.
  70. > Strangely, the entire front of the chariot - where the pegasi pullers ought to have been harnessed - is blackened and shattered, as if something exploded directly in front of it.
  71. > Their absence probably accounts for its crashing.
  72.  
  73. ACTION:
  74. - Check for survivors and collect anyone else's dogtags. Then see if there's anything of use for you. Also see if you can find out more about the cause of the crash by examining the chariot a bit closer.
  75.  
  76. > You advance into the clearing, now fairly sure that whatever did this caught them in mid-air.
  77. > You touch each unicorn in turn, checking for any signs of life.
  78. > Unfortunately, your suspicions about their fates seem to have been right.
  79. > Murmering briefly to each, you pull their dogtags and stuff them in your saddlebags
  80. > Somehow you manage to push down your reaction to their ends, particularly as two - probably the two sitting closest to the front - are badly cut up.
  81. > Strangely, it's not burns, but actual cuts - as if they were sliced by dozens of blades.
  82. > You can see where it tore through their armor in places, even, and the chariot shows similar damage.
  83. > Thinking about what could overwhelm the shields of six trained unicorns and still go through their armor isn't something you care to linger on for to long.
  84. > Or ambush them in mid-air.
  85. > You are about to leave the clearing when a sharp coughing catches your attention.
  86. > One was missed!
  87. > And she's alive!
  88.  
  89. ACTION:
  90. - Give her first aid (use medkits from dead pony's saddlebags) and as soon as she's stable, ask what happened.
  91.  
  92. > Immediately you charge straight to the wounded unicorn's side.
  93. > Getting any kind of coherent words out of her is a lost cause at this point.
  94. > Instead, you move around the crash site - gathering anything useful from their saddlebags.
  95. > Any distaste at what you are having to do is firmly pushed aside by the possibility of saving a life.
  96. > By the time you finish, you've managed to assemble most of a medkit, which you use to treat her injuries.
  97. > Between the broken leg you set and severe bruising, though, she's not going to be going anywhere fast, though.
  98. > She's probably concussed from the crash as well.
  99. > At least you could use some of the painkillers in the medkit to help calm her; she seems to be doing better.
  100. > On a whim you look at her dog tag: 'Whispen', a private.
  101. > Well, it's a name, at least.
  102. > Technically you think you outrank her - airponies are above a unicorn private, from what you remember.
  103. > Whispen moans softly, an eye finally cracking open - and then moans again, louder this time.
  104. > You'd better stop that before it attracts something!
  105. "Shhhh! You're safe now. You're safe. What happened to you?"
  106. > Unfortunately, your only answer is another moan - she's clearly not thinking straight yet.
  107.  
  108. ACTION:
  109. - Give her a minute.
  110. - This. Offer her a sip of water maybe.
  111.  
  112. > Maybe she just needs time for the painkillers to take effect.
  113. > After all, you took some time to get your wits back together, and you weren't even as badly hurt.
  114. > With that in mind, you decide to give her some time to get back on her metaphorical hooves.
  115. > Instead you sweep the edge of the crash area, making sure her noise hadn't attracted anything.
  116. > No signs of any of the Everfree's predators yet.
  117. > "Sk-Sky Light? C-Comander?"
  118. > Oh, she's awake.
  119. > You rush to her side, shushing her again.
  120. "No, no. I'm not Sky Light. He's... not here."
  121. > Sky Light had been the name on one of the dog tags.
  122. > One of the worst cut up.
  123. > Whispen tries to push herself up, but gives a little cry and falls back on her side, looking down at her leg.
  124. "It's broken. I had to set it. We need to get moving."
  125. > At 'moving', her eyes widen.
  126. > "Don't fly! They can see you in the clouds. We tried to hide, but they can see you through the clouds. I don't know how."
  127. > Well, looks like that option is out.
  128.  
  129. ACTION:
  130. - Maybe we should move away from the crash site.
  131. - We better get movin quick pick her up and find somewhere safe
  132.  
  133. > Okay, no flying.
  134. > But getting away from here still seems like a top-notch idea.
  135. > Fighting still rumbles in the distance; on occasion you can see points of colored light moving in the sky.
  136. > Whether they are more guard chariots or something worse, you do not know.
  137. "Come on, Whispen. We need to get somewhere safe."
  138. > With a grunt you lift her up onto your back - no easy feat, considering she is still in her guard armor as well.
  139. > It's doable, though, and you manage to stagger from the crash site without dropping her.
  140. > Following your previous intuition you turn towards the sounds of battle.
  141. > Making your way through the forest, you quickly find yourself sweating heavily.
  142. > Carrying Whispen isn't going to be a long-term solution.
  143. > Fortunately a convenient hollow depression in the ground presents itself; you carefully make your way down into it and gently slide her from your back onto the soft ground.
  144. > All is silent now but for both your breathing and the distant rumbles of battle - at least until it is broken by Whispen's voice.
  145. > Softer now, she seems to have recovered her wits enough to recognize the need for quietness.
  146. > "It's okay... I think I can walk now. My head still hurts, though, I don't know if I'm going to be real good with any magic for a little bit."
  147. > You nod, sticking your head out of the depression to check for any signs of danger.
  148. > Seems you are safe, for the moment.
  149.  
  150. ACTION:
  151. - Scout around and make the hidey hole less conspicuous.
  152.  
  153. "Don't try anything yet. You're hurt, and I don't know any more about what's out there than you."
  154. > You climb out of the depression, again noting that there's nothing particularly worrying nearby.
  155. > Well, flying high is a bad idea, but you figure it's safe enough to hover near the ground and tear some limbs from nearby trees.
  156. > After much grunting and frustration, you finally manage to tear a few free and drag them back over to provide cover.
  157. > It won't deceive anything that comes real close, but certainly will do a great deal to hide you from a distance.
  158. > Unfortunately, between carrying Whispen and dragging tree limbs around you are actually getting a bit tired. Endurance drops to 6/10.
  159. > After catching your breath, you notice the sounds of battle are only growing louder.
  160. > Closer, or merely more furious you aren't sure.
  161. > Well, then...
  162. > Time to do a bit of scouting.
  163. > Dropping down to your belly again, you make a sweep at a fair distance around the hollow.
  164. > Nothing yet - only more forest.
  165. > When you slide back into the hollow Whispen is looking a lot better - sitting up and looking around alertly.
  166. "Well, I have good news and bad news. Good news is, there isn't anything around here that looks particularly threatening. Bad news is, I can't find anything else either. We were supposed to fly north-east from here to meet up with the rest of the guard at the basecamp."
  167. > Whispen nods.
  168. > "We were supposed to do the same. I thought I saw an old path through the forest east of here, though - before we were attacked."
  169. > Hrm. A road.
  170. > It would be faster, but whatever those things are might be out on the road as well.
  171. > Then again, the fighting seems to be getting fiercer anyway...
  172.  
  173. ACTION:
  174. - I'm at a loss. Going near the road would almost certainly mean death while staying here means whatever is out there will eventually reach us. The only thing I can think to do is go off the beaten path and try to meet up with someone.
  175.  
  176. > Hmm.
  177. > A road would be just to plain dangerous.
  178. > But staying here isn't an option either.
  179. "Stay here. I'm going to try and scout a bit closer, see if I can find any other guards that might have gotten through. If you get attacked... just sent up a flare, okay?"
  180. > You're halfway out when Whispen speaks up.
  181. > "I... I should go with you, sir. There's strength in numbers. If you have to come back to get me it will take to long."
  182. > She starts trying to hobble after you, but is very obviously a lot slower than you are.
  183. > Determination is written across her face, though - determination not to be left behind, to be able to pull her own weight.
  184. > It will make you slower, but she does have a point.
  185.  
  186. ACTION:
  187. - Take her with us. Just be extra careful because we won't be able to run from anything.
  188.  
  189. "Okay. Follow close behind me, and be careful."
  190. > It's slow going, unfortunately.
  191. > Whispen has to limp slowly around every obstacle lest she crash over them instead.
  192. > Many a time you scout a bit closer ahead and then fall back to meet up with her again.
  193. > During one such scouting run, something finally begins to distinguish itself from the rising noise of combat.
  194. > Hoofbeats.
  195. > Furious constant hoofbeats, coming in your direction - fast, too.
  196. > Quickly you circle back around to Whispen.
  197. > She perks up when you appear, but you quickly motion her down again.
  198. "Somepony's coming - I think it's somepony, anyhow. Be ready!"
  199.  
  200. ACTION:
  201. - Duck and cover.
  202.  
  203. > Spotting a larger tree surrounded by gnarled roots, you pull Whispen with you behind it and hunker down around the base.
  204. > Despite not having run particularly far, you can feel your heart thudding in your chest as it is pressed against the cold ground.
  205. > Hopefully this will make you hard enough to see; you're really wishing you could have exchanged this golden armor for something more reasonable...
  206. > Nearer come the hoofbeats, until - at last - an equine form bursts from between bushes ahead.
  207. > Your lips begin to curl into a smile - another guardspony!
  208. > The smile lasts until you see take in his bloodied armor, hear his ragged breath, see the wild look in his eyes.
  209. > His gaze locks with yours for just a second, and he skids to a stop.
  210. > "Get forward if you can! Captain Lancet's ahead with what's left of the 12th! If he hasn't been overrun he needs everypony he can get!"
  211. > Before you can ask anything more, he charges past you - back the way you came.
  212. > "I can't stop - I have to get a message back to the princesses. Don't fly, they'll rip you out of the sky!"
  213. > And then he is gone, charging off into the forest...
  214. > You don't know any 'Captain Lancet', but you do remember the 12th Division out of Canterlot had been listed as one taking part in this.
  215. > Ahead battle still rumbles - maybe only a mile away at most now.
  216. > But at least somepony is holding out now - you hope.
  217. > Speed is of the essence now.
  218. > The road might be faster, but it would be riskier still.
  219.  
  220. ACTION:
  221. - We still have to take care of Whispen. So, our priority should be to get her to a medic, who could treat her injury appropriately. But yes, if we can find a medic, he'll be up to his neck in seriously injured ponies. So, let's try to salvage everything a medic could use in an emergency situation like this. Not just to treat Whispen, but anything, especially cut wounds. So, in addition to fallen comrades' medkits, also keep an eye on medical plants and herbs. I guess every little bit helps. If we can deliver the medic some useful supplies, maybe he'll take the moment to treat Whispen, so we can move on faster.
  222. - oh and as for staying on the road: With Whispen's injured leg, we might want to not stay off the road for too long. Maybe if there's a small path running more or less alongside the road, but not directly on the road, that would be ideal. And head into the direction the pony just told you to.
  223.  
  224. > You've already left the crash site far behind, unfortunately, and any chance of going back if you want to reach friendly lines in a reasonable amount of time.
  225. "Come on. We need to get moving - I think we can go faster if we try that road you mentioned."
  226. > Whispen just grits her teeth, nodding and stumbling forward behind you.
  227. > The 'road' proves to be little more than a long-abandoned dirt path, perhaps something from before the Everfree was so dangerous.
  228. > It's still plenty faster than pushing straight through the forest, though - and a lot easier on Whispen's injured leg.
  229. > The closer you come, though, the louder the sounds of battle become.
  230. > And now you are certain of hearing things that no pony would ever make.
  231. > Sharp, staccato pops in the distance along with a heavier thudding, like someone beating against a metal drum.
  232. > And, of course, the explosions.
  233. > Far to many explosions.
  234. > "Halt! Who goes there!"
  235. > Oh, hell! You got distracted listening!
  236.  
  237. ACTION:
  238. - Identify yourself if the voice sounds pony'esque, but try to stay in cover if possible.
  239.  
  240. > Immediately you are scrambling for cover by the side of the road.
  241. > Behind you, scrabbling followed by a small pained gasp confirms that Whispen followed you down.
  242. > That's good, at least.
  243. > In your mind, you run over the call again - searching for any sign of anything that might be wrong.
  244. > It was low, certainly - but that didn't mean anything was wrong.
  245. > Might just be a big stallion.
  246. > Behind you, a soft voice pipes up:
  247. > "I can try to search for any magic. If whatever is out there is using magic - especially dark magic - I can tell."
  248. "...there's a catch, isn't there."
  249. > "If they are good magic users, they can sense it too."
  250. > There's more she isn't saying, too - Whispen's teeth are gritted together and her breath is shallow.
  251. > Clearly the hike has taken a bit out of her, or the painkillers are wearing off.
  252. "Can you manage it safely?"
  253. > "I think so. I will be okay."
  254. > You've got to think fast - the voice is calling out again.
  255. > "Identify yourselves, or we will assume hostile!"
  256.  
  257. ACTION:
  258. - Try to scan.
  259.  
  260. > You give her a nod, and Whispen lifts her head to point her horn upright.
  261. > It pulses with brief light; after a moment, she lowers her head to you and gives a little shake.
  262. > "No magic being used, at least."
  263. > You can hear a few distant voices, but it's impossible to hear what they're saying either.
  264. > But they aren't angry or monstrous cries in response to the scan.
  265.  
  266. ACTION:
  267. - Leave. Just up and leave. Walk away for about 30 minutes, at a steady, quick pace.
  268.  
  269. "Something isn't right. We're leaving, Whispen."
  270. > She looks up at you confused, but nods.
  271. > Turning around, you crawl back away from the direction the voices had come - away from the sounds of battle.
  272. > It's slow going - especially with Whispen's injured leg - and you are still trying to keep down.
  273. >Not a hundred paces had passed by when another voice hisses out at you from the darkness:
  274. > "Get over here, featherbrain, or they'll shoot you!"
  275. > You look around in shock, trying to spot the voices.
  276. > Only when a dirty form shifts can you see the guardsponies - mud and dirt plastered over their once shining armor, all crouched low in ambush.
  277.  
  278. ACTION:
  279. - Get over there I guess.
  280.  
  281. > Quickly you climb over the slight ridge the guardsponies are crouched behind.
  282. "What are you hiding back here for? There's some others ahead - I'm not sure if they're friendly, though."
  283. > "We know."
  284. > The stallion with the growled voice is probably the commander of this little force, though with how caked-over his armor is you can't see any rank insignia.
  285. > "We know. We've been chasing them for the past five ours after they broke past our lines."
  286. > He points to Whispen.
  287. > "Can you cast?"
  288. > "A bit, sir."
  289. > "Then keep your head down and don't cast until we're ready, they might see your horn."
  290. > "Understood."
  291. "They don't use magic themselves."
  292. > You don't know what compelled you to add that, but it immediately brings the commander's eye on you.
  293. > "We know, featherbrain. Or at least, they don't show up on scans for active magic, but I'll lick Celestia's hoof if they're not using some kind of dark magic on us."
  294.  
  295. ACTION:
  296. - Ask him for further intel and roll with his plan.
  297. - This. We cant exactly be expected to go with a plan some random soldier we found thought up. Especially if they never told us said plan.
  298.  
  299. "What are they? We both were knocked out of the sky on our way here."
  300. > "Celestia's teats, I wish I knew. They're nasty, though - we've been skirmishing with them for the past twenty-four hours, and it's only getting worse. I think we had them by surprise at first."
  301. "Okay, so what's the plan now?"
  302. > "Ambush. We can't fight them in open combat, the have some kind of ranged not-spell that tears us up - sometimes explodes."
  303. > That's probably what hit the chariot, then.
  304. "Private Whispen said they can see us in the clouds."
  305. > "Or their magic can, yeah. At night, too, but not at long range. That's why we try to ambush them; it's the only thing that's been working so far. This is about a third of my command; two other groups are out there waiting as well."
  306. "What can I do to help?"
  307. > "For now? Stay down, both of you. That armor of yours will give you away if they see you."
  308. > You slink back around to the rear of the group with whispen, finding a nice spot of soft earth to rub into your armor as well.
  309. > If you ever got out of this alive, your commander was going to have your wings for doing this to your armor.
  310.  
  311. ACTION:
  312. - ask [Whispen] if she needs more pain meds
  313.  
  314. > Your armor at least partly dulled down by careful application of dirt, you glance over towards Whispen.
  315. "Do you need another painkiller?"
  316. > She pauses, taking a deep breath and shaking her head.
  317. > "I'll be okay. Thank you. I shouldn't take them too quickly."
  318. > You are about to respond, but something interrupts you.
  319. > A furious popping, indistinguishable lights flickering in the distance.
  320. > "It's their weapons. They must have hit one of the other groups! Move forward!"
  321. > The entire group of guardsponies rise up from their locations, creeping forward.
  322. > You and Whispen follow near the back.
  323. > "Hit them! Hit them now!"
  324. > Earth ponies and pegasi break forward with a cry, a trio of unicorns throwing up shields to try and cover them as best they can.
  325. > You begin to charge as well, but something grabs your shoulder.
  326. > "No! Stay back, cover your friend!"
  327. > Looking around, you see each of the other unicorns has an earth pony or pegasus covering them as well.
  328. "Okay. I've got it."
  329. > You turn, starting back to Whispen - and something glances hard off your armor, sending your staggering.
  330. > More objects fly by your head with strange whining noises.
  331. > Falling flat, you finally make it back to Whispen.
  332. > Her eyes are wide, head swiveling around as she tries to sustain the shield she had cast.
  333. > "I can't see any of them! What's going on?"
  334. > Her voice is panicky; she might break if you don't reassure her.
  335. > But then what?
  336.  
  337. ACTION:
  338. - Just stay back and cover her.
  339. - Try to calm her down and have her concentrate on the front of her shield. Take her 6
  340.  
  341. > Ignoring the huge divot that was just torn in your armor, you place one hoof on Whispen's back.
  342. "It's okay. Just focus, Whispen. You'll be okay, just-"
  343. > Another burst of whining projectiles flies over your head, forcing you to duck briefly.
  344. "See? We'll be okay."
  345. > You wish you could say the same.
  346. > Between the popping noises and distant screams of combat, you are starting to become seriously nervous.
  347. > "Gah!"
  348. > An explosion goes off nearby; simultaneously, Whispen rocks back, her horn going out.
  349. > "Something just broke through my shield!"
  350. "Can you get it up again?"
  351. > "I'll try, but if this one goes I don't think I can do another!"
  352. > Teeth gritted, her horn lights again.
  353. > Turning back to the battle, you note that the noise is falling off - less of that rapid popping, more screams.
  354. > Are the other guardsponies winning?
  355. > Maybe-
  356. > Another explosion in the distance.
  357. > This time Whispen collapses to her belly, crying out.
  358. > You aren't listening.
  359. > A new noise has pulled your attention - a low, pulsing beat coming from overhead, somewhere in the air above you.
  360. > Like a giant insect, its wings beating the air.
  361. > You could pop up and investigate... but that would leave Whispen unguarded just after her spell failed.
  362. > Then again, not knowing what comes could be just as bad.
  363.  
  364. ACTION:
  365. - Find somewhere you can hide her and investigate the noise. Be quiet and try not to be seen
  366.  
  367. "Whispen! Something's coming, get yourself safe!"
  368. > She doesn't respond, still clutching at her horn.
  369. > Damn, you'd heard blowback from a broken spell could be bad, but this is something else entirely.
  370. > Grabbing Whispen, you pull her behind the largest rock you can find.
  371. > It's not much, but better than nothing.
  372. > The buzzing, droning beat is close now - you've got to see what that is.
  373. > But they can see you in the air... maybe just the tops of the trees would be safe?
  374. > A few careful beats of your wings lifts you just above the top canopies.
  375. > You do not even get a chance to find a branch to perch on, frozen by shock and surprise.
  376. "What in harmony's name..."
  377. > Whatever they are, they are big.
  378. > Two shapes, half-unseen in the night's darkness, fly low and slow over the treetops a fair distance away.
  379. > Lights, some blinking, offer the only suggestion of their outline.
  380. > But you seriously doubt their friendliness.
  381. "WHISPEN!"
  382. > You don't know if she can hear you, but the warning comes almost to late.
  383. > Thin streams of arcing golden light spit out from the hovering things along with a low, throaty buzz.
  384. > They scourge back and forth over the ground below, stream after stream scything through the trees.
  385. > You aren't sure if it is your imagination, but you think the distant screams of guardsponies reach your ears.
  386. > Only when both the flying things swing around to again unleash their arcing, golden streams of death does your frozen body respond to orders.
  387. > Hide or run? They seem to be paying more attention to the other guardsponies for now.
  388.  
  389. ACTION:
  390. - Check on Whispen and, regardless of her status, get the fuck out. Keep her with you if you can.
  391. - Run. They they can't see us and have other targets.
  392.  
  393. > Diving back down, you land on all four hooves with a heavy thud.
  394. > Ow. You're going to feel that later.
  395. > It got you down fast enough, though.
  396. "Whispen! We have to go! There's something up there!"
  397. > She barely responds, groaning heavily.
  398. > But when you throw a wing over her and try to lead her, she at least seems to get the idea.
  399. > Stumbling forward, a sharp breath being taken every other step as weight is put on her broken leg.
  400. > Maybe you will give her one of those painkillers after all.
  401. > In the distance you can hear the angry, pulsing beat - now sounding for all the world like like the purring of some gigantic cat, out to hunt you - rising and falling as the flying things circle back and forth.
  402. > More rarely, there is the lower buzz of their weapon... but it is less and less common.
  403. > Some part of you is sick at knowing that means they are finding fewer and fewer guardsponies to kill.
  404. > But there was no way you could have helped, you tell yourself.
  405. > Even if you'd thrown yourself at them, who knows if it could have helped?
  406. > You might have just ended up sliced to ribbons, like the rest of Whispen's unit.
  407. > Or at least, that's what you tell yourself.
  408. > ...
  409. > You're not actually sure when the sounds of the battle fade.
  410. > Only that at a certain point, they are gone again - except for the far more distant, lower rumbling.
  411. > It seems you've escaped, but exhaustion is catching up with you.
  412. > There might be some other units still out there, still trying to fight... or even survivors from the group you just abandoned.
  413. > But you aren't in good shape after this day, and Whispen - though she walks on her own - is increasingly lagging behind.
  414. > Find them, or find somewhere to rest?
  415.  
  416. ACTION:
  417. - It's the Everfree. Find a cave or something similar. Eat a ration and give Whispen one, as well as some painkillers. Go to sleep and hope that you're not found. No fire. Tomorrow move to get in contact with your superiors. Getting them the information your comrades lost their lives for is top priority.
  418.  
  419. > Got to find somewhere to rest.
  420. > A nice hollow or dip in the ground would be good; a cave, better.
  421. > ...how hard can it be to find a cave in this damn forest?
  422. > Or at least something resembling one.
  423. > Worse yet, you can definitely hear Whispen making small pained noises with each step.
  424. "Whispen... do you have a painkiller in your saddlebags?"
  425. > "I think so, sir.."
  426. "Take one. We need to keep going."
  427. > Nervousness builds in your stomach as you wait for her to take the pill, especially when a burst of rattling pops echoes somewhere in the distance behind you.
  428. > "...I've got it. Keep going, I can keep up."
  429. > Her voice is weak and shaky
  430. > You know it's a lie - this is obviously hurting her a great deal.
  431. "I'm going to scout ahead a bit. While the painkillers kick in."
  432. > Low-level flight has never been easy, especially with as many obstacles as this forest has.
  433. > But it is a lot faster - and quieter - than running.
  434. > And by fluttering from spot to spot, you do eventually find a shallow cave that doesn't smell of recent Manticore inhabitation.
  435. > Another bonus is a good-size tree leaning over near the mouth keeps you from being to visible.
  436. > Getting Whispen back?
  437. > That's a bit harder.
  438. > But you do nonetheless, and soon enough you're both gnawing on dried rations and taking quick drinks from what remains of your canteens.
  439. > "Sir? Should I take first watch?"
  440. "No, Whispen. Go to sleep. We both need our rest - speaking of which, let me see your leg."
  441. > She does, briefly lighting her horn for you to see by.
  442. > It isn't good.
  443.  
  444. > Beneath her legplate, even with the splint her leg has swollen badly - an ugly purple bruise forming that can be seen straight through her coat.
  445. > Pushing her like this isn't good, but what else can you do?
  446. "We need to get you to a proper healer, soon. We'll leave first thing tomorrow morning."
  447. > She nods, extinguishing her horn.
  448. "Yes, sir. I... I'll be okay."
  449. > You emerge from the cave to take one last look around the entrance.
  450. > No monsters, known or otherwise.
  451. > Briefly you glance up towards the moon, peeking in between the treetops.
  452. > You didn't wish for things from the princesses often, but a rescue from Luna right now would be very welcome...
  453. > Turning back, you lay down beside Whispen - trying to find a comfortable spot on the hard dirt floor.
  454. > There isn't one, but sleep comes soon enough anyhow.
  455.  
  456. Your endurance is now 9/10.
  457. Whispen's health is now 8/10.
  458. You are down to 1 ration and Whispen to 2, and her first aid kit now has 4 uses.
  459.  
  460. > Morning.
  461. > Morning comes far to soon for your liking.
  462. > But it's still there.
  463. > Whispen's not yet awake.
  464. > It takes a few moments for you to figure out what woke you, but it comes soon enough.
  465. > A noise.
  466. > Near the cave entrance.
  467. > Something is here.
  468.  
  469. > No use provoking a fight.
  470. > You gather up your spear and snap it back to your armor, crawling to the side of the cave.
  471. > Maybe it won't come in?
  472. > Awfully close, though.
  473. > Close enough you can hear its steps, uneven and rapid.
  474. > Damn, it's still coming this way!
  475. > Before you can react there is a heavy thud from outside, followed by a pained yell.
  476. > "Ow! Augh, damn! Stupid... urgh..."
  477. > The noise of something sliding - or being dragged - reaches your ears, though thankfully it isn't coming into the cave itself.
  478. > Then, nothing but the sound of heavy, ragged breathing.
  479. > Something gently nudges your side - it seems the noise has woken Whispen as well.
  480. > What now?
  481. > It doesn't seem to be coming any closer, but not going any further either...
  482.  
  483. ACTION:
  484. - Poke your head out and try not to get spotted.
  485. - try to get a peek at it
  486.  
  487. "I'm going to try to see what's out there."
  488. > Whispen gives you a worried look, but nods.
  489. > You desperately hope your whispered comment wasn't heard by whatever is out there.
  490. > Creeping forward, you feel your heart already starting to pound.
  491. > The day's barely begun, and you're already dealing with this...
  492. > Fortunately it isn't hard to determine which side the thing is on, though, as it's still breathing quite heavily.
  493. > Pausing briefly near the entrance to allow your eyes to adjust to the daylight filtering down through the trees, you cautiously stick your head beyond the cave's mouth.
  494. > Hopefully it isn't to-
  495. > Your blood freezes.
  496. > It's there.
  497. > Right there.
  498. > Practically next to the cave entrance.
  499. > Definitely not a pony either - long, thin legs are sprawled out on the ground while the majority of its body rests against the stone outcropping your cave is part of.
  500. > Mottled clothes are worn over most of its body, except where a large, wet bloodstain covers its side or where dozens of objects you can't even try to guess at all are strung on or peek out from pockets.
  501. > Thank Celestia it isn't looking your way - or smell you.
  502. > The blood covering its side is overwhelming to your nose.
  503. > You muzzle wrinkles in disgust, until you notice the arrow shaft sticking from its side.
  504. > It's wounded?
  505. > Maybe you could talk to it...
  506. > Maybe.
  507. > They always did say a wounded animal is the most dangerous.
  508. > But this isn't an animal.
  509. > The thing it clutches in its arms sure looks like a weapon, though, even if you can't figure it out.
  510. > It still has the ugly, metal look of a weapon.
  511.  
  512. ACTION:
  513. - I feel like we should try to make contact. Although not right now. If he's still armed with a gun, we couldn't even keep him at bay with a spear.
  514. We should wait until he passes out, then disarm him, take all of his equipment and treat his wound, give him something to drink when he wakes up, while always keeping the tip of a spear near his throat. Then we could interrogate him, although I don't think he'd be willing to tell us much. But let's not slit his throat while he's out.
  515.  
  516. > Very, very slowly you back into the cave.
  517. > Your spear won't be very useful out there - it's good in a straight charge, but swinging it around awkwardly at a target to your side will leave you open.
  518. > Creeping back to Whispen's side, you try and lower your voice as far as possible.
  519. "It's right outside, on the right. Wounded, and maybe armed - I've never seen anything like it."
  520. > She nods slowly.
  521. > "Is it smart? Smart enough to find us?"
  522. "I don't know. The blood is probably covering our scent, but if it gets up it will probably see the cave."
  523. > You pause, mulling the situation over in your head.
  524. "Okay. Keep to the back and stay ready - if it notices us, we'll have to fight it. If not - it's loosing blood. It might-"
  525. > You're interrupted by a noise from the entrance.
  526. > More stumbling steps and half-breathed words.
  527. > "Gotta.. gotta get back... which way... fuck this sun, coming up at wierd hours!"
  528. > One booted limb lands in front of the cave's mouth, then another.
  529. > It walks on only two of its limbs, then?
  530. > You pale slightly as you realize it must be nearly twice as tall as you while standing up straight.
  531. > "Which way is... which waaaaaugh!"
  532. > It falls to its knees, one arm going out to stabilize itself.
  533. > Would it see you?
  534. > It's right next to the cave, but its tiny eyes are shut in pain.
  535. > Moments later it slides back down against the mouth of the cave, clutching its side.
  536. > Amazingly, you still aren't seen.
  537.  
  538. ACTION:
  539. - Slink back a little.
  540.  
  541. > Very, very slowly you retreat.
  542. > The cave doesn't go very deep, but close enough that maybe, just maybe it won't notice you...
  543. > Maybe-
  544. > The slight tingle of magic being cast beside you is the only warning you get.
  545. > A screeching cry tears from Whispen's throat as she telekinetically hurls it at the creature.
  546. > Her aim is true, and the rock slams into its helmet with a hollow thunk.
  547. > Another cry echoes in your ears, this one of pain and surprise as the creature topples over.
  548. > Unfortunately, it doesn't finish it by any means.
  549. > The creature is still quite conscious, and now scrambling for the tool or weapon - you're still not sure which - that has fallen by its side.
  550.  
  551. ACTION:
  552. - Quickly grab it. If Whispen can grab it that's better.
  553. - You should have killed it. Get it's weapon away from it and try to interrogate it. If it looks like the creature won't talk, kill it with a hoofblade. Definitely keep it restrained
  554.  
  555. > Unfortunately you're to far away to quickly grab the weapon, but that doesn't stop you from charging at it.
  556. > Twin clicks sound as your hoofblades snap out, your wings spreading to lift you on the final leap towards it.
  557. > It's just a moment to long.
  558. > Your leap carries you up and down onto it, just like your training.
  559. > Three legs stabilizing you on either side of its body, one hoofblade coming to rest on a strip of bare throat, just beneath a chinstrap for its helmet.
  560. > It grunts in surprise, but so do you as something cold and hard prods into your unprotected stomach.
  561. > Without looking, you know it has its weapon against you as well.
  562. > A stalemate, then.
  563. > The only thing to be heard is both of you breathing, neither daring to speak a word.
  564. > You can see it better now - its bare skin, pale from blood loss; eyes, wide with fear and anger.
  565. > At least it doesn't seem keen on trying to kill you yet.
  566.  
  567. ACTION:
  568. - Tell him to drop his weapon or you both die. If the creature gets you, Whispen gets it.
  569. - This. Add that you he won't die if he drops his weapon now.
  570.  
  571. "Put... put your weapon down... and you won't die. She'll kill you if you kill me, but if you put your weapon down now you can live."
  572. > The only response it gives is a pained bark of laughter.
  573. > "Fuck that, whatever you are. I'm already half-dead. Here's a better one - how about you back off and I won't kill you too, huh? I can shoot both of you before I go down."
  574. > You don't know if it's telling the truth, but there's certainly a lot of things you don't know about it either.
  575. "You get this arrow out of me... I might even let you go, huh? How's that sound to you?"
  576. > Something wet is touching your leg, you realize - blood, from its side.
  577. > Falling over - or your attack - must have reopened its wound.
  578. "Think fast, four-legs."
  579. > Its arm is trembling as it tries to hold the weapon up - clearly weak from the loss of blood.
  580.  
  581. - Quickly shift your weight so that the firearm isn't pressed against you as you slit his throat. If done right your belly will be pressed against his and the rifle will be off to the side.
  582.  
  583. "Okay, I'll do it. Let me just -"
  584. > You kick with both legs on one side, twisting over to land on your side.
  585. > At the same moment you hoofblade drives into his throat, crunching gently as it drives against his spine.
  586. > Thunder pounds at your ears as the creature's weapon fires blindly into the ceiling, projectiles bouncing around the cave.
  587. > You crouch beside the body until the thunder stops, the corpse giving a last few twitches before it goes still.
  588. > A quick nudge with one hoof confirms: It's well and truly dead.
  589.  
  590.  
  591. ACTION:
  592. [Rolled to determine success, roll came up with 'escape unharmed'.]
  593.  
  594. > "S-Sir?"
  595. > You peer over the corpse back into the cave.
  596. > A breath you didn't realize you'd still been holding is released when you look back and see the shimmering field of Whispen's shield.
  597. "You alright, Whispen?"
  598. > "Yes, sir. Is it...?"
  599. "Dead, yes."
  600. > You nudge the corpse again.
  601. "I don't really recognize a lot of this stuff, and I can't carry it all - but I think we should at least take his weapon."
  602. > Fortunately it comes with a helpful carrying strap, and with a bit of fiddling you're able to get it to rest across your back.
  603. > Flying's going to be a lot harder with this thing on you, though.
  604. "Okay. We need to keep moving, get back to the rest of the guard. Are you good to walk?"
  605. > Whispen tests her leg and winces heavily, but nods.
  606. > "It hurts, sir, but I think I can do it."
  607.  
  608. ACTION:
  609. - To friendly lines!
  610.  
  611. > The weapon... well, you've never seen anything quite like it.
  612. > It might be some sort of tiny cannon, though it looks nothing like the field pieces you had seen in the Canterlot armories.
  613. > Two protrusions point downwards, one of which the creature used to carry it.
  614. > You presume it was controlled through a number of small metal switches and levers set into it, including one parallel to the grip-protrusion that it had locked a finger around.
  615. > A shorter tube mounted on the opposite side of the protrusion proved to be some sort of vision device, although all you could see through it was blurs.
  616. > Perhaps that was how they saw through clouds?
  617. > Whispen had paused to collect some things from the body as well, including several of the shiny metallic tubes the weapon had ejected as it fired.
  618. > Maybe they would give a hint as to what this was about.
  619. > "Okay, Whispen. Take another pill and come on."
  620. > Emerging from the cave, you sweep for any more creatures - but thankfully none are in sight.
  621. > Worryingly, the sounds of battle have died away - is that a good thing, or bad?
  622. > You don't really know.
  623. > Maybe the rest of the guard drove the creatures back, and only that wounded one escaped.
  624. > If that's the case, you should probably turn back towards where the fighting was coming from last night.
  625. > Or maybe the guard is gone.
  626. > Then the best option would be to run away.
  627.  
  628. ACTION:
  629. - Hell no. Those things were fucking destroying everyone. Fuck maybe we are the last ones.
  630. Look we need to book it out of there.
  631.  
  632. > No.
  633. > There was to much chaos, to much risk in heading back towards battle.
  634. > Turning west, you start out again - it will be a long day's hike even if you do not encounter any problems.
  635. > Fortune seems to smile on you, as neither enemy nor beast of the Everfree troubles you during your hike.
  636. > It's slow going enough already with Whispen's broken leg.
  637. > What you do find, though, are plenty of signs of battle.
  638. > Bloodstains, thick and iron-scented on the ground.
  639. > Huge blast zones that had shattered trees and torn craters into the earth.
  640. > Discard weapons and armor.
  641. > Most of it that of the royal guard, though occasionally you find a piece of alien equipment.
  642. > Some time around noon you pause with Whispen to eat.
  643. > With your rations dwindling, the obvious choice is to forage.
  644. > It should be enough to keep you going through the rest of the day.
  645. > But what about when nightfall comes?
  646. > Will the creatures attack again?
  647. > You shudders softly; even wounded, one had nearly managed to kill you.
  648. > Could you face more than one?
  649.  
  650. ACTION:
  651. - Honestly, we should probably both lose the armor. Bullets will go through it at close range, it's heavy, ours is still kinda shiny, and it'll probably jingle pretty bad. Traveling light will help stamina, too.
  652.  
  653. "Whispen... take off your armor."
  654. > She looks up at you in surprise at the order.
  655. > "I... is that a good idea?"
  656. "It's weighing both of us down, and this weapon... I don't think it can stop whatever kind of weapon this is."
  657. > You've already begun to strip off your saddlebags and the alien weapon, pulling the straps that hold your own armor together to release its buckles.
  658. > Beside you, Whispen does the same - hissing softly as the plates slide free of her swollen leg.
  659. > "I think it will be somewhat easier to walk like this as well."
  660. "Good. I don't want to run you down, but there's a good chance the other creatures might have heard the weapon being used."
  661. > Whispen blanches and you instantly regret saying that.
  662. > "I... I'm sorry. I attacked it before you were ready, I shouldn't have..."
  663. "We got out alive and unhurt. That's what matters."
  664. > She nods slowly, but her eyes tell a different story.
  665. > Her first real time seeing an actual enemy, and it's definitely gotten to her.
  666. > "We... should keep going. I'm ready."
  667. > It's a fair point. But, how to do so?
  668. > A scouting trip above the treetops might reveal something valuable, but there's always the risk of being spotted.
  669. > In the distance you think you can hear the droning beat of one of the things from last night.
  670. > Encountering another one isn't on your list of priorities for the day.
  671. > On the other hand, a quick glance at the sun tells you which direction is west.
  672. > You could keep pushing straight that way, although it will be slower...
  673.  
  674. ACTION:
  675. - Keep low to the ground only enough to get some basic recon.
  676.  
  677. "Start heading west. I'll catch up - going to do a bit of scouting first."
  678. > A single flap of your wings launches you from the ground.
  679. > With your armor removed everything felt a lot lighter, even considering the alien weapon slung across your back.
  680. > Two more wingbeats bring you to the treetops, where you carefully nestle yourself into the branches and search the skies for any activity.
  681. > Not but a distant speck hovering midair greet your view; at this range, it's difficult to say whether it's a pegasus or another flying creature.
  682. > You desperately hope it's the former.
  683. > Unfortunately, visibility is still far from good at this level - while you can't see anything particularly dangerous off to the west, neither can you see anything particularly helpful.
  684. > A higher flight might reveal more, but only at increased risk.
  685.  
  686. ACTION:
  687. - If they are higher trees to take cover in then fly higher. If no then head on out.
  688.  
  689. > No place higher, unfortunately.
  690. > With a leap you detach from the tree and drop back down to the ground.
  691. "I don't see anything especially alarming. We should be safe to keep moving."
  692. > Whispen wordlessly turns and starts West.
  693. > Trudging along, she manages to avoid showing how badly her leg is hurting her, although you realize it must be terribly painful after walking on it all day long.
  694. > Still, she keeps her silence - except for a few tense moments that leave you both frozen and looking for any sign of the creatures.
  695. > All of them prove to be false alarms, though - a darting bird or distant rumble.
  696. > All of them, until the big one.
  697. > The first warning you get is the echoing roar, a deep bestial sound that leaves you huddled low.
  698. > "That didn't sound like one of those creatures!"
  699. "I know. I've heard something like it before, though; that was a drag-"
  700. > You are cut off by the distant pop-pop-pop of the aliens' weapons, along with barely audible screams.
  701. > It seems to come from ahead of you, and slightly to the left...
  702.  
  703. ACTION:
  704. - Sneak up slowly to the fighting. See if you take some cover in or from behind something.
  705.  
  706. >You can't afford to go charging into battle - especially not after you dumped your armor.
  707. > At least you still have your hoofblades, and Whispen her magic.
  708. "We need to go see what's going on. Stay low, Whispen, and get ready to cast a shield if they start shooting those things at us."
  709. > It isn't hard to keep track of the battle.
  710. > You can hear it - and smell it - long before you see the participants.
  711. > Screams, pops, and periodic roars of a dragon accompanied by the brimstone-scent of dragonfire.
  712. "Down, here!"
  713. > A last clump of scrubby bushes guard the treeline before an open, rocky clearing.
  714. > The rocky outcropping in the center wouldn't have been visible from the low altitude you flew up to before, but now it was obvious what had happened.
  715. "There."
  716. > One hoof points to the red, scaly form half-curled against the outcropping.
  717. > On the other side of the clearing, a dozen or more half-seen shapes skitter back and forth - barely noticeable, except for when their weapons bark with sudden flashes.
  718. > "Looks like a younger dragon, judging by the size."
  719. > Whispen's voice is lowered sharply, as if anything more than a bare whisper might be heard over the cacophony of battle.
  720. "They must have disturbed its lair."
  721. > "Can they kill it?"
  722. > A roar you can feel vibrating in your lungs is the answer, as the dragon's head briefly emerges to spit a jet of flame at the creatures assaulting it.
  723. > It's too short, not reaching its target, and the creatures respond by shooting something that bursts against the dragon's rocky den in small explosions - forcing its head back down, but not wringing any roars of pain from its jaws.
  724. "I don't think so. But I don't think it can get to them without exposing itself either."
  725. > It doesn't seem like the stalemate will hold for long.
  726. > Even as you watch one of the creatures stands up, a thick log or tube balanced on one shoulder.
  727.  
  728. > Two short but inaudible yells, and a burst of smoke erupts from the tube.
  729. > You don't see the projectile, but you definitely feel the effect.
  730. > A powerful blast that forces both yours and Whispen's ears flat against your head.
  731. > "If we don't do something, I think they're going to kill it. We could help it, though! Distract them!"
  732. > Easy for Whispen to say - even firing a few blasts of magic from her horn would grab their attention.
  733. > But you would have to engage the creatures in close combat.
  734. > What will you do?
  735.  
  736. ACTION:
  737. [Various, all basically 'leave while the dragon has their attention.]
  738.  
  739. > You study the skirmish, looking for any way to interfere.
  740. > Any way to succeed.
  741. "...we can't do this."
  742. > "What?"
  743. > Whispen's voice is shocked.
  744. "Look - there's a lot of them. Even if we could figure out a way to distract the one with the big shoulder-tube-cannon-thing, the others aren't going to miss it."
  745. > Another barrage of small explosions burst across the dragon's lair, forcing it back inside once again.
  746. > "But they can-"
  747. "No. Right now our main objective to get back to safety and bring this-"
  748. > You touch the weapon still slung across your back.
  749. "-to our commanders. To the princess."
  750. > Whispen gives the dragon another pained look, her ears flicking to the sound of the continued staccato pops.
  751. > "It's... not right."
  752. "It's what we have to do."
  753. > Turning, you pull yourself low and slink away from the continued skirmish.
  754. > None of the creatures notice you, all quite concerned with the dragon's continued fury.
  755. > Even when the sounds of combat fade, though, Whispen's ears periodically flick back - as if listening for any sign of what had happened.
  756. > It's definitely getting to her - especially after having to leave your comrades behind in the botched ambush.
  757. > You hope she can hold up...
  758. > Another problem makes itself known when you stop for the evening.
  759. > No immediate shelter presents itself; unlike the rocky area where you found a small cave to hide in, this time there's nothing to be found.
  760.  
  761. ACTION:
  762. - I bet there's a lot of undergrowth in the middle of the forest or ferns en mass, so we should have good chances to stay out of sight if we stay low with a shallow hole like that.
  763.  
  764. >The undergrowth makes it hard to tell, but by simply plodding through it you're eventually able to find a small hollow between a heavy tree root and a rise in the earth.
  765. "Here, Whispen. We'll have to wait here overnight..."
  766. > She paws uncomfortably at the leaf-covered earth, but nods.
  767. > You curl up, nosing through through the various edibles you'd manage to forage throughout the day.
  768. > Whispen doesn't touch her saddlebags, still staring back in the direction you had come.
  769. > A sigh escapes your lips, knowing what is on her mind.
  770. "Look... I'm sorry, Whispen. This thing..."
  771. > You nudge the reature's weapon where you'd put it down.
  772. "...understanding this thing is key. We have to figure out what these things are... figure out a way to beat them."
  773. > "It's still not right to leave anypony behind, you know."
  774. "It's not right, but... war... is bad like this."
  775. > She looks up at you.
  776. > "You sound like you've seen fighting before."
  777. > Your only response is a nod.
  778. "Yes... I have. You?"
  779. > A slight shake of her head.
  780. > "I just got out of training when this happened.. we were barely able to get everything together before heading out."
  781. > She finally settles down, folding her forelimbs over each other.
  782. > "I'd heard the Everfree can be dangerous, but this... I'd never imagined it would be like this."
  783.  
  784. ACTION:
  785. - reassure her that you two are going to help countless ponies if you can get the weapon back to friendly lines.
  786. - We can show her the dog tags we collected in the beginning. If a way can be found to counter these weapons, it could be avoided that more dog tags will have to be collected by other ponies.
  787.  
  788. "Listen, Whispen... "
  789. > You rest your head between your forelegs, allowing your eyes to fall shut.
  790. "I was there, at Canterlot, when the Changelings came."
  791. > Whispen shifts, but doesn't say anything.
  792. "They got us by surprise then too... when the Changelings came and started pinning down the guards on patrol..."
  793. > You pause, taking a deep breath.
  794. "A few of my fellow guards tried to run out and rescue them.... at first. The Changelings, they just lured us to them."
  795. > "What did you do?"
  796. "We... stopped. We holed up inside a building and... waited. I don't know what we would have done in time, but... then, of course, the princess did that love thing."
  797. > Whispen is silent now, but you're sure she's still awake.
  798. "We have to do the same here... if we can do that, we can save this still. Save more lives."
  799. > "I... hope you're right."
  800. > Sleep comes, in time.
  801. > Morning does, too.
  802. > Time to continue.
  803. > What will you do first today?
  804.  
  805. ACTION:
  806. - get some breakfast, and check on her leg
  807.  
  808. > Whispen is already awake when you are up, though she only looks at you silently.
  809. > Pushing yourself upright, you look around.
  810. > At least you were undisturbed in the night.
  811. "I'm going to find some more food, okay? Unwrap your leg if you can, make sure it's okay. If you need help resplinting it, I'll help when I get back."
  812. > Fortunately, if there's one thing the Everfree has in abundance it's various edibles.
  813. > It may not be the breakfast you would prefer - or even a particularly hearty one - but you're able to assemble enough to bring back.
  814. > Whispen is laying with her leg stretched out when you return, looking at it.
  815. > Even a glance makes you wince.
  816. > Her leg is badly swollen, the bruise having spread up and down from the breakpoint.
  817. > It's obvious this walking is none to good for her.
  818. "How many painkillers do we have left?"
  819. > "Not enough. Only one in my pack."
  820. "Three in mine. Do you need bandages?"
  821. > "No, I'm okay."
  822. > She wraps up the leg with her magic, hissing as it tightens up around the swelling.
  823. "Take one now."
  824. > "But that will leave-"
  825. "You can use mine too. I figure we can't be more than another day's walk from the edge of the Everfree."
  826. > "Okay. I'm... sorry about last night."
  827. "It's alright. Can you keep a pace?"
  828. > Whispen tests her leg cautiously.
  829. > "Yes."
  830. "Then let's grab our saddlebags and keep moving."
  831.  
  832. ACTION:
  833. - Scout by air, and maybe experiment with the alien weapon a little.
  834.  
  835. > You start your trip as you had many days in the past - a quick pop above the treeline to check for any immediate threat.
  836. > The fact that the sky is clear of any more alien flying things is a welcome surprise, but neither is there any sign of any other Royal Guards.
  837. > Surely they couldn't have all been pushed back, could they?
  838. > There were more coming behind you, and all it would take was one messenger getting through and the princesses would know...
  839. > Banishing those thoughts, you return back towards the ground and Whispen.
  840. "There's a gap in the trees somewhat to our left - looks like a river."
  841. > "Any sign of the creatures?"
  842. "None. None of their flying things either."
  843. > Your trip resumes in relative silence.
  844. > At a point, though, your back begins to ache from the alien weapon through over it.
  845. > Pausing to twist it around so that it hangs beneath, you decide to give your wings some exercise instead and spend a time hovering low alongside Whispen instead.
  846. > Of course, that leaves the weapon swinging annoyingly from its to-long carrying strap, forcing you to keep an eye on it lest it crash into something.
  847. > Eventually your attention begins to slip further and further onto it, trying to study it for any clues.
  848. > "Do you have any ideas on how it works?"
  849. > Whispen's question comes suddenly, pulling your attention back to the world around you.
  850. "Huh? Oh, well... no, not really. I mean, I still think it's some kind of tiny cannon, but aside from that..."
  851. > "What about these?"
  852. > She retrieves the metal tubes the weapon had spat out from her saddlebags, holding them up in her magic to you.
  853.  
  854. "I don't know. They must have held the shot and powder, but I don't see where they came out from, or how they would put more in."
  855. > "I'm sorry... I don't know much about cannons."
  856. "That's okay. We barely touched on them in training either - the earth pony divisions handle them mostly, and they don't even have that many."
  857. > Turning over the weapon, you study the various levers protruding from it.
  858. > A more thorough examination might reveal more, but you'd have to stop to do that.
  859.  
  860. ACTION:
  861. - take a break with her and fumble around with it. And be sure to point it in a safe direction
  862.  
  863. > Pausing to land again, you pin the weapon against the ground with one hoof and push at one of the levers with another.
  864. > To your surprise, a port opens up on the weapon as the lever is drawn back - another shining brass tube seated within.
  865. "There, look!"
  866. > Whispen nods, looking down into it.
  867. > "I can see, ye- oop!"
  868. > As the lever was drawn back, the metal tube within had come spinning out.
  869. > In your shock your hoof drew back; the lever immediately sprung forward again, closing the port.
  870. "Sorry! Sorry! Are you okay?"
  871. > Yes, I'm fine - oh, look."
  872. > The tube rose in her magic - this one, with a grey, pointed metal projectile still fixed to the front.
  873. > "That's a cannon shot alright it must eject the tubes after each shot and put another one in somehow.
  874. "But that doesn't make any sense."
  875. > "Why?"
  876. > You sling the weapon back beneath you, continuing your low flight.
  877. "Well, all that metal going to waste when it falls out? It would drive the supply pon- er, supply creatures mad, and cost a fortune. They'd have to collect it after every battle."
  878. > Whispen goes silent for a bit, then asks softly:
  879. > "What if they don't need to?"
  880. > You actually freeze for a moment as you consider the implications of what she had just said.
  881. "There's... no way. The number of mines they would have to dig alone... not even the Diamond Dogs could dig up that much ore."
  882. > "But what if they can?"
  883. > You don't answer.
  884. > The idea of creatures with access to so much metal that they could just toss it away...
  885. > ...no, got to focus.
  886. "I'm going to pop up again to the tree levels. See if I can spot anything more useful."
  887.  
  888. ACTION:
  889. [Roll to determine scouting success: Result, critical success.]
  890.  
  891. > The view from the treetops, as expected, doesn't reveal anything particularly useful.
  892. > Maybe you could afford to go just a little bit higher...?
  893. > No sign of the alien flying things, after all...
  894. > Steeling yourself, you push above the treetops - eyes furiously sweeping for any signs of danger.
  895. > Though you find no threats, you do see the river you spotted earlier - and a road, further to the south.
  896. > A big one, this time, with a nice clear divide in the trees.
  897. > You must be getting closer to the edge of the Everfree, a road like that would never last in the wilder portions.
  898. > Sweeping low over the river, you practically fall out of the sky when a creature emerges from the treeline on the opposite side.
  899. > Quickly burying yourself again in the treetops, you watch as another group of them emerge again.
  900. > So focused on them is your attention that you don't hear the buzzing, deadly beat until the flying thing is far, far to close to flee from.
  901. > At least in the air.
  902. > Dropping down to the ground would probably be a good thing right now, but instead you find yourself pinned by a sort of horrified fascination as it approaches the riverbank.
  903. > And, in time, find your assumptions about the flying thing being dashed.
  904. > In the daylight, you can see it clearly for what it is - a metal contraption suspended from a whirling rotor, open sections on the side and a shining glass window to the front.
  905. > You'd seen such things before in Canterlot - some noble's fancy toy.
  906. > But they were assemblies of mostly wood, powered by a pony's furious pedaling or an enchantment.
  907. > They were whimsical, humorous even. A stiff breeze would set them swinging wildly.
  908. > This is anything but - a huge, roaring, howling thing that seems monstrous even though you now know it to be anything but.
  909. > The machine settles into a low hover over the riverbank, some sort of panel being dropped from the side.
  910. > Dropping down to the ground again, you creep forward to keep watching.
  911.  
  912. > To your surprise, several creatures' prone forms are loaded onto the panels and lifted back up into the machine.
  913. > Even with the creatures' differences, you know what you are seeing.
  914. "So, they can travel by air..."
  915. > The idea is worrisome.
  916. > Every day, it seems, holds more unpleasant surprises about these things.
  917. > Waiting until flying machine and creatures are long gone, you turn back to scout along the road. Would there be creatures there as well?
  918. > When the cart comes into view on the road, you nearly dive to the ground again - but in that second, you realize it is being pulled by a pony, another pegasus actually.
  919. > In that second she looks up and spots you as well!
  920.  
  921. ACTION:
  922. - We call out the stranger from the side of the road and ask what the fuck they're doing out here
  923.  
  924. > Immediately you drop to the side of the road.
  925. > Bandits and smugglers weren't exactly common in Equestria, but they weren't unheard of either.
  926. > And exactly what a pony would be doing - with a cart! - in the middle of all this is highly questionable.
  927. > To late now to hide, she's already see you.
  928. "Hey!"
  929. > You trot up to her, tensed and hoofblades out in case she does prove to be hostile.
  930. "Citizen! Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
  931. > Hmm, maybe that was a bit hard.
  932. > But then again, there is a battle going on.
  933. > "Oh!"
  934. > Pegasus and cart roll to a halt, her eyes wide in surprise.
  935. > "You're a royal guard! I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you without your armor."
  936. > Though your coat is still the dyed white of the guard uniform, it's also not an uncommon natural color.
  937. "Citizen, answer the question, please. Who are you, and what is your business in the Everfree."
  938. > Your eyes rove over her, looking for clues as you speak.
  939. > Well-toned, obviously, but any pony who pulled a cart regularly would have at least some bulk on them.
  940. > More worrying is the cloak that hides her cutie mark.
  941. > "My name is Ivy Climber. I'm a botanist - here on a research grant from Cloudesdale University."
  942. > A pegasus with an interest in plants?
  943. > Unusual, but not unique.
  944. > "I can show you my grant papers, if you want?"
  945. > As she turns back to grab for something in her saddlebags, her cloak swings aside for a moment.
  946. > In that second you spot the curved grip of a hoofblade in beneath it, flat against her side.
  947. > It's only there for a moment, but you know what you saw.
  948.  
  949. ACTION:
  950. - leave it to a freaking college student not to notice a war going on around them. Ask what's in the cart.
  951.  
  952. "Forget the papers. What's in the cart?"
  953. > "Samples!"
  954. > The cloth over the cart is drawn back, revealing dozens of glass containers holding various types of earth and plants.
  955. > None of them particularly look like anything you've been told to look out for smuggling - as far as you can tell, they're legitimate scientific samples.
  956. > "I'm trying to get these back to our base camp now. There's something strange going on in here - I've been hearing strange noises and lights at night as well."
  957. > Another look at her, and you can see how worried she is - worried, but not terrified.
  958. "Sounds like you're used to being in here."
  959. > "Oh yes. This is my third trip. I can hold my own - I know how to ward off the monsters, and if all else fails I have a blade."
  960. > Well, she wasn't hiding it.
  961. > Frankly, you're shocked she managed to avoid meeting any of the new creatures
  962. "...okay, look. You probably want to get off the road, now."
  963. > "Why, what's going on?"
  964. "I'm fairly sure Equestria is at war. We're trying to get out of the forest as well."
  965. > Icy Climber gives you a look filled with absolute awestruck horror.
  966. > "A war?! Is it the changelings again? I might be safer in the forest then!"
  967. "No, no - they're coming out of the forest. We were sent to try and deal with it, but-"
  968. > Your jaw slams shut before more words can escape.
  969. > It's not technically classified yet, but that probably fell into the realm of things that you weren't supposed to say.
  970. > Looks like Ivy Climber filled in the blanks, too.
  971.  
  972. ACTION:
  973. - tell her you need the cart to carry Whispen in
  974. - This. Make your way to their base camp. Keep your guard up.
  975.  
  976. > You take a deep breath.
  977. > This is not something you've done before.
  978. "...I'm sorry, Miss Climber, but I'm going to have to ask for your cart."
  979. > "What?!"
  980. "I have a wounded unicorn I need to get back to the guard base camp with me, and she can't walk fast. Unless she can ride in your cart with your samples, I'm going to have to take it."
  981. > To your shock, she doesn't complain.
  982. > "Let me make some room in the cart. I hope you're in good shape; if what you say is true we're going to want to move fast."
  983. "I'll go get Whispen. Remain here."
  984. > You aren't exactly confident with leaving Ivy behind with the cart, but it saves you the trouble of having to drag her through the woods.
  985. > Perhaps a few hours later you emerge again onto the road.
  986. > Whispen limps out behind you, looking about.
  987. > "Where's the cart?"
  988. > For a second your worst fears are realized, but a voice calls from the edge of the woods.
  989. > "Yoo-hoo! In here!"
  990. > Ivy waves from behind a bush off the road.
  991. "If this really is as bad as you say, I thought it would be good to hide it until you came back!"
  992. > Celestia bless her, she actually had an ounce of brains in her head.
  993. > With some of the glass containers shifted to the side the cart's covering is balled up to form a crude bed for Whispen, who lays down without complaint.
  994. "Keep an eye out from up there, Whispen. You see anything, tell us immediately."
  995. > "Of course."
  996. > With that you start down the road again.
  997. > After the initial push, Ivy manages to keep the cart moving at a fair pace.
  998. > "So, where are you two going?"
  999. "There's a guard base camp near the edge of the Everfree. We have to bring them... some things."
  1000. > Whispen had taken the alien weapon up with her on the cart, and you didn't care to show it to Ivy yet.
  1001. > Ivy just nods, though.
  1002. > "I'll try and get you there if I can. You know, I have more rope in the back. I think I could rig a harness, and we might be able to fly this cart between us."
  1003.  
  1004. ACTION:
  1005. - Tell her, that if you do so, you have to stay below the tree tops. Otherwise keep down on the ground. Oh and also say thanks for helping you out, I think that's the least.
  1006. - don't risk it. Ask her about all the weird stuff she's seen in the forest
  1007.  
  1008. "If we do, it's going to have to be low. Below the treetops. Flying is a bad idea right now."
  1009. > "How bad?"
  1010. > You glance back to Whispen, who although looking away has one ear cocked towards your conversation.
  1011. "Lethally bad."
  1012. > Ivy pales again, speeding up her trot.
  1013. > "Let's stay on the ground, then. I think we can keep this cart moving without breaks between the two of us if we change out places while pulling it."
  1014. "Understood."
  1015. > Being ground-bound while attached to a cart isn't exactly your idea of a good idea either - training has hammered into your head that an airpony guard has to remain mobile at all times.
  1016. > But training never accounted for attack by creatures with speedy hand-cannon and flying machines either.
  1017. > "What happens if we see some of them? The... whatever?"
  1018. > "We hide."
  1019. > Whispen answers this time, her voice soft.
  1020. > "We hide, and get as low and still as we can."
  1021. > Ivy doesn't respond to this.
  1022. > You get the feeling she doesn't quite know how to deal with the idea of the vaunted royal guards having to hide from an enemy.
  1023. > Silence builds between the three of you, eventually becoming unbearable.
  1024. "So, Miss Climber, what have you seen so far? In the forest, I mean."
  1025. > "Not a great deal. Um, there were some lights flying overhead at night, making wierd noises-"
  1026. > She pauses to make whooshing and rumbling noises; somehow you're reminded of getting a child to eat breakfast.
  1027. > Noting your look, Ivy flushes lightly.
  1028. > "Sorry. I'm... not very good that."
  1029. "It's alright. Did any of them come near you?"
  1030. > "No, but, some of them sounded like big bugs. You know, when you get a dragonfly right near your head? Except bigger?"
  1031. "Yes, those..."
  1032. > For a second a memory flashes in your eyes - sitting in the top of the tree as the two things hurled arcs of death down at the guardsponies who had been winning moments earlier.
  1033. > It couldn't hurt to warn her about those.
  1034. "They're flying machines. Big ones. Why we can't fly right now."
  1035.  
  1036. > Ivy's eyes go wide again.
  1037. > "Flying machi-"
  1038. > "Something's coming along the road behind us! I see a dust cloud in the distance!"
  1039. > Whispen's warning cry is sharp and sudden.
  1040.  
  1041. ACTION:
  1042. - ditch the cart behind some bushes, and take the girls into the woods on the opposite side of the road you ditched the cart, just far enough back in the trees that we can see what passes by
  1043. - I say this, but cover your tracks as well. Make the cart going off road look like an accident. Also, see if Whispen can't modify the shield spell to be a cloaking one.
  1044.  
  1045. > As you speak the wheel slides free.
  1046. > Amazingly, Whispen manages to get it down relatively softly - no cases breaking.
  1047. > She's breathing heavily, though - that obviously took a bit out of her.
  1048. "Okay. Come on, we need to get over to the other side of the road."
  1049. > "The other side?"
  1050. > Ivy had been hurriedly pulling the cover back over the cart - admittedly not a bad idea, considering that the cloth's brown shade would hide it better among the trees and foliage.
  1051. "Yes. If they have any remotely competent trackers among them, they'll notice the fresh cart tracks veering off."
  1052. > That gets Ivy moving.
  1053. > All three of your dash across the road at once, even Whispen putting on a good burst of speed.
  1054. > Before you vanish into the forest you look back down the road, where a distant but obvious black shape is now approaching with a low rumble.
  1055. > It couldn't be one of their flying machines - the road wasn't anywhere near large enough for one to be that low and fit in.
  1056. > Yet, that sound isn't remotely like anything what the creatures had made.
  1057. > What now?
  1058. > Putting the thought aside for a moment, you drive onwards into the forest - another good seventy paces before you find a suitable dip in the ground.
  1059. "Down here! Now!"
  1060. > Scrunched down to wait, you can only listen as the approaching rumble grows louder...
  1061.  
  1062. ACTION:
  1063. [Roll to determine hide/observation success. Result: Critical fail, spotted and cannot observe.
  1064.  
  1065. "Whispen, are you good to make a shield?"
  1066. > She nods, although shakily.
  1067. > "I don't know how strong it's going to be, but I can."
  1068. "Okay. Ivy?"
  1069. > There's no response.
  1070. > She's breathing heavily, eyes wide and pupils shrunken.
  1071. > Panicking.
  1072. > Damnit, how does someone used to working in the Everfree panic like this?
  1073. "Ivy. Ivy!"
  1074. > Giving her a good shake at least gets her attention back on you.
  1075. "Ivy, you have to keep yourself together. You - we - can't afford to loose control. Understand?"
  1076. > She nods slowly, her breathing still shallow.
  1077. "Okay. Just keep it together, we've done this before."
  1078. > You don't mention that it was never with something large enough to drive up a dust cloud... and you always had a distraction.
  1079. > Hunkering back down, you stare back towards the half-visible road and watch as the creatures come.
  1080. > The distant rumbling only grows, rising roar.
  1081. > With how steady it is, it doesn't sound like any creature.
  1082. > More machines, most likely.
  1083. > Ivy's begun to shake.
  1084. > You gently spread one wing over her, trying to keep her steady.
  1085. > Raising your head, you peek over the embankment and see...
  1086. > Well, not much, actually.
  1087. > You're far enough back the scrub breaks up any chance of seeing much detail.
  1088. > What you do see, though, is bad enough.
  1089. > Three lumpen shapes are making their way down the road, roaring steadily as they do.
  1090. > "Please, Celestia, just keep going..."
  1091. > For a second it seems Whispen's prayer has been answered, but suddenly they pull to a screeching halt.
  1092. > You can't see what is happening, but you have a good idea.
  1093. > Distant voices, barely audible, echo through the forest.
  1094. > "Anyone in the cart, come out now. Come out slowly, or we will open fire."
  1095. > A brief silence holds, and then the pop-pop-popping of the creatures' weapons echo in the forest.
  1096. > Ivy's head shoots up.
  1097. > "My samples!"
  1098. > "Targets in the scrub, three o'clock low!"
  1099. > "You there! Come out now!"
  1100. > "First squad, cover!"
  1101. > "Last warning, come out now!"
  1102.  
  1103. ACTION:
  1104. - Well, shit. since they can see Ivy, maybe we should follow our previous train of thought and take her weapon and have her 'surrender' and declare herself as a non-combatant (human rights traning's gotta stick, right?). Hopefully they'll have some semblance of honor and not shoot her, but it doesn't look like we have any better chances either way, a mercy plea might keep her safe while we sneak further into the forest and hope she'll understand... except Whispen's no good to sneak away right now, shit. Whisper some instructions to Ivy to act scared and ignorant of whats going on and try to give them fake directions and hope to Celestia it works because I can't think of anything else that CAN be done in this situation without getting all three of us killed
  1105. - She crashed and she thought a beast was coming and hid
  1106.  
  1107. > Immediately Ivy slams herself back down, eyes wide and all too aware of what she just did.
  1108. > Your mind is still catching up with what just happened, even as more calls go out into the forest.
  1109. > From the sound of it, they're getting ready to sweep out into the forest.
  1110. > "I... I..."
  1111. > Ivy's eyes are filling with tears.
  1112. > "Sir, we have to do something!"
  1113. > You know, but you're too frozen to respond to Whispen.
  1114. > Can you flee?
  1115. > No, you don't know how big their squads are but three would almost certainly be to many to dodge.
  1116. > You take a deep breath.
  1117. "Ivy. You're a civilian. You're the only one the might listen to. Can you go out and talk to them? Tell them.. tell them you were scared by their flying things and crashed, and don't know what to do now."
  1118. > "Sir!"
  1119. > Whispen's shocked cry is almost loud enough you fear for a moment the creatures might have heard it.
  1120. > "You can't just tell her to-"
  1121. > "I'll do it."
  1122. > Ivy's voice is quiet, but determined - her eyes shut, though you can see the tears in them.
  1123. > "I screwed up. I'll fix this."
  1124. > She pauses, then adds:
  1125. > "If it... doesn't go well... please get a letter back to Cloudsdale U. Professor Crescent. Tell them... what happened."
  1126. > You nod.
  1127. "I'll tell them you were a hero."
  1128. > "Thank you."
  1129. > With that she stands up, calling out.
  1130. > "I'm coming out! I'm coming out slowly! Please don't hurt me!"
  1131. > It doesn't take her long to reach them.
  1132. > To your unpleasant surprise, they're close enough for you to hear the conversation that follows.
  1133. > "Okay, halt! Halt now, we can see you!"
  1134. > "Please don't hurt me! My name is Ivy Climber. I'm a botanist - a scientist. I research plants!"
  1135. > "Is that cart yours, pony?"
  1136. > "Yes, it is. That was my samples. I have papers to-"
  1137. > "Delasquez, Purch. Search her."
  1138. > Ivy gives an unhappy squeak, but not a pained one.
  1139. > "We got a pack, and some kinda knife, sarge."
  1140. > "My hoofblade. You need to have one in this forest."
  1141.  
  1142. > "Right. Okay. These your papers? Cloudesdale University... huh, you got colleges here? Okay. Why were you hiding from us, pony?"
  1143. > "I was scared. I was on the road, and I heard you coming... I thought it was a monster. I crashed..."
  1144. > "She's lying."
  1145. > "You got something to say, private?"
  1146. > "Cart had two wheel tracks when it went off the road. Wheel had to have been taken off after it was pulled off the road, sergeant."
  1147. > "I came down hard and the wheel was loose! I was trying to get it back on, and-"
  1148. > "Shut up, pony. Delasquez, her papers say anything useful?"
  1149. > "Negative, sergeant."
  1150. > "You out here alone, pony?"
  1151. > "Y-Yes..."
  1152. > "Papers say the same, sir."
  1153. > "...right. Going to have to take you in. You cooperate with us, you won't be hurt. We'll drop you off the first town we move into, but until then we can't have you running off and warning anyone."
  1154. > "I-"
  1155. > "Shut up. Purch, get her wings."
  1156. > There's a zipping noise and another unhappy sound from Ivy.
  1157. > "Got her, sarge."
  1158. > "Okay everyone, mount up! First squad, cover us in! Back to your vehicles, everyone!"
  1159.  
  1160. ACTION:
  1161. - let them take her, they already said that they'll drop her off somewhere
  1162.  
  1163. > Whispen stares in a mix of horror and admiration as the creatures lead Ivy away.
  1164. > You can see her trembling a bit; when you catch her eye, it's obvious just how upset she is.
  1165. > Moments later the roaring returns at maximum volume as the machines the creatures had apparently emerged from pull away, down the road.
  1166. > Even though there's barely any chance that they could hear you over that roaring, you wait until the noise has faded away before releasing your breath.
  1167. > You note with some concern that they're heading in the same direction you are eventually going to have to go.
  1168. > "I cannot... believe we just did that."
  1169. "I know."
  1170. > You take another deep breath, hoping it clears your head some.
  1171. "I know, but she volunteered. I didn't order her to. And they said they wouldn't hurt her-"
  1172. > "You believe them?"
  1173. "I don't know what to believe right now."
  1174. > Whispen goes silent a bit before speaking again.
  1175. > "I hate war."
  1176. "So does everyone. Except maybe those creatures. I don't know."
  1177. > Turning over your options in your mind, a thought comes to you.
  1178. "If we take the cart now, we're going to have to hurry - before those things come back. It'll be a lot faster than walking."
  1179. > "Ivy-"
  1180. "Isn't going to need it. This is still the most important thing right now."
  1181. > You pat the weapon still slung across your back.
  1182. > Suddenly it occurs to you just how bad it would probably have been to be found with that still on you.
  1183. > Good thing they didn't.
  1184. > "I can put the wheel back on the cart, I think. If you help, definitely."
  1185.  
  1186. ACTION:
  1187. - get the wheel back on and hit the road
  1188. - See about getting just above the trees and scouting ahead to see if the dust cloud is going the same direction or turned, and for any other events of interest.After that, time to get on the road, but keep your ears alert and check behind you every once in a while.
  1189.  
  1190. "Let's get the wheel back on. If we see them coming again, we'll just abandon it and run."
  1191. > While easily said, the actual process for getting the wheel on is trickier... especially since the cart has been riddled shots from the creatures' weapons.
  1192. > With much puffing and groaning it is eventually done, though - and the cart lifted back out onto the road.
  1193. > Much of the dirt from Ivy's sample containers has spilled out, leaving the cart considerably lighter and easier to pull - you might be able to even lift it into the air, with some straining.
  1194. > Whispen quickly climbs up to her position in the cart, and off you go.
  1195. > The dust cloud in the distance does not return, and eventually you see the vehicles' tracks turn off the road and into the woods.
  1196. > Even though you cannot hear their distant roaring, it is a tense moment as you pass that particular line of trees.
  1197. > "The forest is thinning. I think we must be getting close to the edge."
  1198. > You nod in agreement with Whispen's comment.
  1199. "I hope the camp is still there."
  1200. > She doesn't respond, but you know you've just given voice to the fear you both hold.
  1201. > Afternoon comes to evening, and the sun falls to the horizon.
  1202. > Somewhere distant, you know, Celestia is lowering it... does she even know what has happened here?
  1203. > You had heard a princess was coming to oversee this operation, but no word on which.
  1204. > For all you know, it might be the newest one - who better to handle creatures from Tartarus than the princess who had banished Tirek back to it?
  1205. > If it was, you hoped she knew to leave military matters to the guard and they would let her do her harmony stuff.
  1206.  
  1207. "Whispen, are you good to keep going?"
  1208. > "I can if you can keep pulling."
  1209. > In truth your legs were killing you - pegasi were built to fly, not walk! - and you could feel exhaustion beginning to creep up on you after the past day's hike and moments of terror.
  1210. > But to be this close - maybe you could even reach the base camp before the night was over.
  1211. > The sooner you could bring what you knew, the better.
  1212.  
  1213. ACTION:
  1214. - Eat a full ration each, have Whispen bed down for the night off the road and go scout ahead. Fly if you can, but stealth comes first.
  1215.  
  1216. "I don't want to risk it. We can't afford to be exhausted with all these creatures out there."
  1217. > It doesn't take you to long to find a nice place to pull the cart off the road.
  1218. > This time, you're sure to pull it far away from the road, despite the trouble of getting it over the uneven ground.
  1219. "Okay.. I don't see any caves here, but the cart should be enough cover."
  1220. > Whispen hops down, pulling the cover - although hole-ridden, still fairly intact - and lays it out over the ground.
  1221. > "Understood. How close do you think we are, sir."
  1222. "I don't know. Less than another day's walk, I think. maybe close."
  1223. > She nods again, groaning.as she collapses.
  1224. > "It'll be good to have this leg looked at. It's better after the ride, but still aches bad."
  1225. "That too."
  1226. > You look about, noting where your impromptu camp is.
  1227. "I'm going to do some quick scouting. Make sure we're safe."
  1228. > Whispen nods; you take off into the forest.
  1229. > Considering the night, you forego any flight considering your still-white dyed coat.
  1230. > Instead you pace a slow circle around the camp, finding a total lack of anything dangerous.
  1231. > Except for when you trip over an exposed root and faceplant into the soft earth.
  1232. > Somehow you're thankful Whispen didn't see that; pulling the cart must've taken more out of you than you realized.
  1233. > Still, you're thankful when you manage to crawl back beneath the cart and lay down yourself, Whispen having long since fallen asleep.
  1234. > Your eyes close soon enough as well...
  1235. > ...
  1236. > Darkness.
  1237. > That's the first thing that you notice when your eyes crawl open again.
  1238. > It's still dark.
  1239. > For a moment you wonder what woke you.
  1240. > The second you shift your head, though, you realize exactly what it was.
  1241. > There is a blade pressed into the back of your neck.
  1242.  
  1243. > You stay perfectly still.
  1244. > Beside you, Whispen's breathing remains soft and steady - she is probably still asleep.
  1245. > "Well, then. Two ponies out in the middle of the Everfree, hiding from prying eyes with a weapon of the enemy. What would you be doing here, hmm?"
  1246. > You say nothing, trying to sense something - anything - to give you an advantage.
  1247. > A quick sniff brings the scent of unwashed pony to your nostrils - some your own after so long hiking without a wash, but also that of unfamiliar ponies as well.
  1248. > Not a griffon, though, or anything worse.
  1249. > Whoever they are, they're adept at moving quietly - you can barely discern anything out of the norm.
  1250. > Only a single pair of flapping wings can be heard, which confuses you for a moment.
  1251. > Something about them sounds wrong, yet familiar - sparking a memory you can't just quite reach.
  1252. > For a second images of black, chitinous bodies and iridescent wings flicker though your head, but Changelings would not have bothered to wake you before immobilizing you.
  1253. > Then again, nothing is normal anymore.
  1254. > "Well? What are you, then? A deserter, perhaps - oh, yes; I can see the guard dye in your coat. Maybe you think you can buy your way back in with that weapon - or, perhaps you have decided to fight for the enemy now?"
  1255. > The voice, at least, sounds pony-like.
  1256. "Don't hurt us."
  1257. > You speak slowly - and softly, not wanting to suddenly wake Whispen.
  1258. > If there are at least two of them, surely she is in danger as well.
  1259. > "What we do to you will entirely depend on what you are trying to do."
  1260.  
  1261. ACTION:
  1262. - Well, we might as well tell them that we're trying to bring that weapon to camp. They know we are/were guards, no use denying that. If they're ponies, they might also have an interest in the humans not taking over everything. I guess.
  1263. - Tell him about how your unit got wrecked and how you're trying to get Intel to your superiors
  1264.  
  1265. > You speak very, very slowly, well aware of the danger to Whispen as well as yourself.
  1266. "We're not deserters, but we've both lost our units. We're trying to get back to the base camp, beyond the Everfree."
  1267. > The blade's pressure does not vanish from your neck.
  1268. > "Then why do you weigh yourself down with this weapon? Why do you not signal more guard to
  1269. "Have you been deaf and blind the last few days? The guard is being ripped apart - we never even reached the forward camp near the Gates."
  1270. > "And the weapon?"
  1271. "To bring it back to the guard, to the princesses - maybe we can figure it out, find a way to fight these things!"
  1272. > Now there is a long silence, before the voice returns - more questioning now.
  1273. > "You... were not told what you were to face?"
  1274. > Surprisingly it is Whispen who answers first - the exchange must have woken her at some point.
  1275. > "We were supposed to be briefed at the forward camp before getting further orders. Our chariot was downed before we go there."
  1276. "We were not even told we were to be briefed - just to get ourselves to the forward camp as quickly as possible."
  1277. > Another long silence follows.
  1278. > You get the feeling something is being discussed silently behind your back.
  1279. > "...we do not believe you. Prove you are not simply deserters fleeing with what you can get."
  1280.  
  1281. ACTION:
  1282. -They found us in a cave, they don't know which direction we were going and we can't prove that. We also can't prove we killed that soldier - except for the gun. But we could have stolen that or picked it off the ground. I think it might be the dogtags. We wouldn't collect them and carry them around if we didn't plan on turning them in.
  1283.  
  1284. "In my pack, on the side. I have dog tags, from Whispen's unit. We wouldn't be walking around with those if we were trying to escape."
  1285. > The blade doesn't remove itself from your neck, but you feel something - or more likely somepony - nosing about in your saddlebags.
  1286. > "They're here."
  1287. > Another voice, female, answers the first - and then at last the weight lifts from your neck.
  1288. > You breath deeply, even though it hadn't cut your air off.
  1289. > "It seems we have misjudged you, soldier. Apologies; the situation is far worse than we had understood and we had met other deserters before."
  1290. > Rolling over to face your accusers, you find yourself facing a dark-grey muzzle - above it, two bright yellow eyes boring into yours.
  1291. > Night guard.
  1292. > One armored hoof is offered to you.
  1293. > "Apologies again, soldiers, but if what you say is true we must assist you back to camp immediately."
  1294. "Immediately?"
  1295. > "Yes. We have already been attacked twice tonight, by unseen flying things. The sooner we can bring you to the camp, the better."
  1296. > Pushing yourself upright, you stretch the stiffness from your legs.
  1297. "Cordon?"
  1298. > "Yes. Come quickly, Her Highness Luna will be able to answer more of your questions."
  1299. > "Luna is at the base camp?"
  1300. > The leader of the Night Guard - at least ten of them, you see now - nods.
  1301. > "She arrived this night to take control of this and salvage what we may. You will be taken to her to tell her of what you brought."
  1302. > Privately your stomach twists at that phrase.
  1303. > Salvage what we may.
  1304. "We're ready to go. Do you have a method to get us out of here?"
  1305. > "A chariot. yes. The roads are clear this night as well."
  1306. "Then let's go."
  1307.  
  1308. MISSION 1 COMPLETE:
  1309. Objectives
  1310. Survive and escape: COMPLETE
  1311. Save Whispen: COMPLETE
  1312. Collect enemy equipment: COMPLETE
  1313. Ally yourself with a dragon: FAILED
  1314. Save Ivy: FAILED
  1315.  
  1316. > The camp is much as you left it - a sprawling.mess of tents, cookpits, latrines, and guards all milling about.
  1317. > Yet as the chariot pulls you closer, you find yourself noticing the small differences.
  1318. > A worrying number of tents bearing medical insignia, all well-lit and bustling with activity.
  1319. > Far fewer guardsponies than you would have expected, considering that reinforcements were supposed to have been streaming in after your unit left.
  1320. > The regular lumps of overturned earth on the outskirts of the camp.
  1321. > Your stomach turns slightly when you realize they are fresh graves, the sheer number reinforcing how extremely lucky you must have been to escape unscathed.
  1322. > Other changes are far more welcome.
  1323. > The large, freshly-emplaced tent bearing the royal lunar insignia is especially welcome.
  1324. > Although Luna had taken time to grasp the customs of the modern age, you'd heard through other guards her tactical skill in training maneuvers had quickly grown to be as sharp as any modern commander.
  1325. > Although the chariot draws to a halt by one of the medical tents, Whispen dismisses the matter with a few clipped words.
  1326. > "I am alive. Others were not. If I got this far I can at least honor their sacrifice by standing a little longer."
  1327. > Instead you are ushered on into the royal command tent, brought into an antechamber where your rescuers converse with other of their bat-winged kin.
  1328. > While they proceed in to announce your arrival, you lean against a tentpole - sighing in relief.
  1329. "I still can't quite believe we got through that, Whispen. You did good there... you should be proud."
  1330. > Her only response is total silence, her jaw set.
  1331. > Turning to her and raising one eyebrow, you tilt your head.
  1332. "Are you okay?"
  1333. > Slowly she meets your gaze, something new in her eyes beyond pain and exhaustion.
  1334.  
  1335. > "You saved my life, and for that I will be forever in your debt. But, you also fled. If you had been at risk when I was trapped beneath that chariot, I know you would have left me too."
  1336. > She meets your eyes evenly for a moment, not bothering to hide the dislike in them.
  1337. > "Three times you left others behind. I may be in your debt, but I do not like what you do. Ivy Climber had more bravery than you, and she was a civilian."
  1338. > Your jaw opens to offer a retort, but then shuts again.
  1339. > Though you had your reasons, her complaint holds true.
  1340. > Any further discussion is halted by a Night Guard captain arriving to escort you into the main tent.
  1341. > It's everything you had imagined a command-tent to be - an enormous table, the map of the Everfree magically superimposed over it.
  1342. > Wooden models of guardponies travel back and forth over the map, along with those of various creatures - hydras, manticores, changelings.
  1343. > A lone tent marks the forward camp you had been traveling towards before this all turned so rotten.
  1344. > Your stomach twists as you notice it is well within territory populated by monstrous miniatures.
  1345. > Though all such beasts might be found in the Everfree, you know they are merely being stood in for the new creatures and their creations.
  1346. > Quickly, though, your attention is dragged to the imposing form of the lunar alicorn, her head turned from the table to study you.
  1347. "Your highness!"
  1348. > You fall into a bow, an action echoed by Whispen.
  1349. > "Rise, my guards. You have done well, and We apologize We cannot reward you further at this time."
  1350. "Your approval is enough, Your Highness."
  1351. > A small smile slips onto her lips.
  1352. > "You have brought a weapon of the enemy - please, let Us see it?"
  1353. > Sliding the weapon from your back, you present it to Luna.
  1354. > Surprisingly, she shows no shock or confusion - sliding back the same opening you had found and nodding.
  1355. > A heavy sigh escapes her lips as she sets the weapon down.
  1356. > "As we feared, it is the same ones."
  1357.  
  1358. "You have... seen something like before, Your Highness?"
  1359. > She nods slowly; instantly, two commanders in the room rise in anger.
  1360. > "Your Highness, that information-"
  1361. > "SILENCE! We will not allow Our guards to go to the slaughter without warning!"
  1362. > Both pale, immediately retreating several steps.
  1363. > "In answer - yes. You were to have been told this when you arrived at the forward camp, but as this has not happened..."
  1364. > She sighs again, turning back to the map.
  1365. > "It seems we will have to now."
  1366. "If I may ask, Your Highness... what horrors of Tartarus are they? Are the guards of Tartarus so lax in their duty?"
  1367. > "They are not of Tartarus, My guard."
  1368. > The stillness in the room could cut steel.
  1369. > Whispen speaks first.
  1370. > "What?"
  1371. > "They are not of Tartarus. Perhaps their place of emergence into this plane is because of the proximity to that infernal place, but they are not of it."
  1372. > She settles down onto her haunches, poking at the map.
  1373. > "Six months ago, another contingent of guard located a patrol of these creatures in the Everfree. We do not know who attacked first, but they chased the creatures to what We believe to be a naturally-occurring portal to their home planet."
  1374. > Whispen silently mouths the words 'home planet'; you remain still as the implication sinks in.
  1375. > "Although they sent messengers to us, they took the preemptive action to cross the portal and try to secure the opposite side. In the resulting action, weapons identical to this one were returned to Canterlot for examination. Before more could be done, the creatures counterattacked and cut them off from being able to return."
  1376. "How did we not hear of this?"
  1377. > So shocked are you that the impropriety of interrupting a princess does not occur to you until it has already been done.
  1378. > Yet, Luna does not react in anger - only narrowing her eyes.
  1379.  
  1380. > "The matter was hidden, to avoid panic. Our subjects, although brave, panic easily. Fortunately the creatures seemed disinclined attack, only sending more small patrols into this world - until now."
  1381. > She jabs her hoof at the basecamp.
  1382. > "Recently, with the assistance of Our sister and Princess Twilight, we have developed a ritual which might serve to seal this portal against further incursions. The guard was marshaled to secure the portal so that this ritual may be completed; you were to be briefed on arrival at the forward camp.
  1383. > Typical guard - doesn't tell anypony anything until the last second.
  1384. > "It is Our belief that they interpreted the buildup at the portal as preparation to invade their world. They struck preemptively - and now invade to prevent further attacks on their homeland."
  1385.  
  1386. "Has Princess Twilight been able to figure out anything about them?"
  1387. > Luna shakes her head slightly.
  1388. > "Far too little. They do not appear to wield magic as any of ponykind does, not even the subtle work of earth ponies. Instead they produce machinery that is so complex we could little believe it is not the result of some arcane process."
  1389. > She taps the weapon where it lays on the table.
  1390. > "Such creations as this are only the tip of what they do. If we are to defeat them, I fear the war will be long and bloody."
  1391. "We were able to... observe them taking a civilian prisoner, Your Highness. They did not seem intent on mistreating her, and promised release her when they came upon a village where they could do so."
  1392. > "Truly?"
  1393. > Luna's gaze narrows slightly.
  1394. > "Perhaps there is hope yet for a peaceful ending to this, if they are truthful about this intent. Violent they may be, yet so is griffonkind - and we have managed to remain at peace for them for many long years."
  1395. > You nod, then add, quickly glancing to Whispen:
  1396. "Your Highness... if I may? The civilian in question, she saved our lives by turning herself over to them - to allow us to escape safely."
  1397. > Beside you, Whispen shifts - though for good for for bad, you cannot tell.
  1398. "Without her, we would not be here. Safe or not, I request to pass on a message from her, and that whether she is freed or not she be honored for her bravery."
  1399. > Again Luna nods, her eyes closing in silent respect as she does so.
  1400. > "We shall see to it that this is done. Is there anything else you have to say?"
  1401. > You dig into your pack, producing the unfired shot you had accidentally released from the weapon.
  1402. > Beside you, Whispen does the same with the spent tubes she had carried.
  1403. "Your Highness... we found these with the alien soldier we took the weapon from. I... he did not appear to be intent on recovering them after use. Your Highness, if they can waste metal so easily... how numerous are they?"
  1404.  
  1405. Luna's gaze fixes on you and Whispen once more, and for the first time you realize how pained Luna appears.
  1406. > "To numerous, We fear."
  1407. > Though she does not say more, you catch every meaning in her words.
  1408. > "If that is all, Our aide shall take the message you wish to send. Then, We order you to seek medical attention and rest - while it pains us to do so, we shall soon have to ask you to once again face this foe."
  1409. > Ten minutes later, you step out of the tent with Whispen close on your heels.
  1410. > Turning off to find your assigned bedding, you're halted by a soft call behind you.
  1411. > "Wait!"
  1412. > Pausing mid-stride, you turn back to see Whispen following close behind.
  1413. > "I'm still... not happy with you. But... that was right, what you did there."
  1414. > Nodding fractionally, you turn away.
  1415. "Thank you."
  1416.  
  1417. --------
  1418.  
  1419. > Four days later.
  1420. > You had half expected Luna to send you straight back in within twenty-four hours.
  1421. > Instead, you had faced a succession of officers who had grilled you on everything from the creatures' language to equipment and tactics.
  1422. > Why became abundantly clear on the third day.
  1423. > While the vaunted Royal Guard had been swept aside in virtually every engagement it had attempted, the invaders had now run into a far more significant problem:
  1424. > The Everfree forest itself.
  1425. > Scout reports - paid for in blood - had put them steadily carving a path through the dense tangle of underbrush using enormous metal contraptions, but having to clear every foot of growth had left them moving at a relative crawl.
  1426. > If they could not be stopped before reaching the outskirts of the forest where roads like that you had escaped on existed, it would become far more difficult to stop them at all.
  1427. > The resultant plan was desperate, but theoretically viable.
  1428. > Every drop of storm-wrangling expertise in the guard would be put to use trying to force the Everfree's uncooperative weather into a functional storm system.
  1429.  
  1430. > What information had been discovered on the invaders made it clear their world had no such similar method of managing weather.
  1431. > You did not dwell on the horror of a life where every day could bring a deadly, destructive storm to your doorstep.
  1432. > But you did recognize the strategic truth that they would have no defense against this.
  1433. > If the storm could be created, it would bog them down in mud, wind, and rain that would halt their advance - maybe even turn it back.
  1434. > And the linchpin of the plan - you.
  1435. > Well, you and the relative handful of other guardsponies who had managed to make it out of the initial mess alive.
  1436. > Conscripted as impromptu guides, you were each teamed with a unicorn trained in sending arcane messages and a small force of guards to accompany.
  1437. > Deployed into the Everfree once more, you were to be the cordon against attack by the invaders.
  1438. > The first and only warning the storm-wranglers would have to halt their efforts and escape to the safety of a unicorn shield or elaborate bunker-works being dug even now by dozens of earth ponies.
  1439. > Tens, if not hundreds of lives would depend on you.
  1440. > No pressure, right?
  1441. > Ha, ha.
  1442. > At least somepony - perhaps Luna - had seen fit to place Whispen under your command again.
  1443. > Despite your differences, she had not once shown any sign of disobedience.
  1444. > And a familiar face was welcome.
  1445. > You had not found any more of your original flight at the camp.
  1446. > At a certain point you found you had accepted that they were simply gone.
  1447. > After all you had seen, somehow it was less painful than you expected.
  1448. > But what it did give you was drive to be sure it did not happen again.
  1449. > Not to you, not to the rest of the Guard.
  1450. > You would do your part, and the invaders would be held back!
  1451. > And so now you found yourself deep within the forest once more.
  1452. > Your last day to get into the position marked on the map for you and prepare.
  1453. > Tomorrow, the war's first counteroffensive would begin.
  1454.  
  1455. [A choice of 3 positions to make camp was given here, with the second being unanimously chosen.]
  1456. Option 2: Ridged terrain on a slightly higher position, the ground forms several rows of slight rises and falls covered in tall scrub growth.
  1457. > Excellent ambush territory if you were attacked, with plenty of positions to fall back or circle around to. Foraging looks good. Unfortunately, the clearing formed by the unusual terrain also leaves you open to spotting and attack by air - especially as you would have to clear scrub to have somewhere to sleep - unless you spend a great deal of effort camouflaging your position...
  1458.  
  1459. > As night falls you manage to reach the point marked on the map for your position.
  1460. > The tactical value of the ridged field you had stumbled through was quite apparent - indeed, you had been fearful of an ambush of creatures hiding in the scrub until a daring pass overhead by one of your pegasi had confirmed the field to be clear.
  1461. > Now you had chosen to occupy it, spreading your bedroll on the ground and seeing to it that each of your group had found a spot as well.
  1462. > While you found yourself fairly confident in the success of an ambush should a smaller patrol of the invaders happen upon you, it was a different story from the air.
  1463. > Even hovering a few feet above the ground showed you how exposed the position was - yet, you were all tired from the long hike in already.
  1464. > Taking the time to camouflage it now would cost you precious sleeping hours before the counter-offensive would begin.
  1465. > Once your group's eyes were needed, every second of rest would have to be carefully rationed.
  1466. > How much time to do you care to spend camouflaging your position?
  1467. > Given the availability of resources, it would probably take about 4 hours to cover everything - and you only have eight until dawn.
  1468.  
  1469. ACTION:
  1470. - Take the 4 hours and cover it all up. After we ambush, we're getting the hell out, so they'll be time to rest later I presume
  1471. - use all the time. There's no room for error, and lost sleep is better than lost lives. and dig a personal fox hole that's also large enough for Whispen to bed down in also
  1472.  
  1473. "Hold up."
  1474. > The other turn to you as you speak up, having started laying out their own bedrolls and a small fire pit.
  1475. "I know it's late and we're all aching already, but we need to get some kind of camoflage up. We're completely exposed from the air here."
  1476. > For just the briefest second the image of the two flying machines hovering above the last attempted ambush you had been part of flickers through your mind.
  1477. > If you can avoid being seen by those horrors, the exhaustion will be worth it.
  1478. "We need to find some greenery - nice, thick greenery - and cover this all up. Bedrolls, lookout holes, latrine holes, everything."
  1479. > There's a round of soft groans and grumbling, but nobody objects.
  1480. "Trust me, all of you - if they can see us before we see them, it's very bad. If they see us from the air, it's over entirely."
  1481. > Something in the tone of your voice must have hinted at the things you've seen.
  1482. > There's no grumbling after that, except for the occasional muffled swear as somepony stumbles over something in the darkness.
  1483. > You don't slack either - dragging loose branches from trees and lifting them back to the camp.
  1484. > By the time you're certain everything has been dug, covered, and rechecked the moon has slid significantly towards the horizon.
  1485. > Sleep tugs heavily at your eyes, but you are the leader of this little group.
  1486. > You - along with a few others have to take first watch.
  1487. > Come dawn, you're struggling to stay awake.
  1488. > As the sun creeps above the horizon you push yourself down a little further into the hidey-hole, well aware that the period of greatest risk is now.
  1489. > It's the middle of the morning by the time the first rumbles of distant thunder echo out over the treetops.
  1490. > Not the short, cracking thunder of battle but the long, drawn out thunder of a wild storm.
  1491. > The cloud-wranglers have begun their work.
  1492. > In the foxhole beside you, one of the earth ponies looks back towards the edge of the forest.
  1493.  
  1494. > "I hope you featherbrains know what you're doing back there."
  1495. "I'm sure they do, soldier."
  1496. > Privately?
  1497. > The Everfree's weather has never been manageable.
  1498. > But they don't have to manage it - just set it going towards the invaders.
  1499. > You somehow manage to last until noon before handing things off to the next watch.
  1500. > Still no sign of the invaders yet - perhaps they are taking the time as well to cut roads out of the forest, as the briefing said?
  1501. > You do not know.
  1502. > But, you do seem to have time to do something more before they come.
  1503.  
  1504. ACTION:
  1505. - Ask Whispen if she's got any ideas, she knows just as much about the invaders as you do
  1506.  
  1507. > Pausing to grab Tele Type's attention, you motion out towards the woods.
  1508. "Try and get some scouts out there, see if you can figure out where those things are likely to approach from. Don't push out to far, though."
  1509. > "Understood. Anything else?"
  1510. > You pause, then motion to the skies.
  1511. "Just be careful. These things can come out of nowhere."
  1512. > He trots off, barking orders to the two pegasi on his watch.
  1513. > You, for one, don't even wait for him to be out of sight before stripping your armor and collapsing onto your bedroll.
  1514. > Whispen is already laying down on the next roll over.
  1515. > Briefly you wonder if it was somebody's joke to put her in this sleeping hole with you, or if she had...
  1516. > One eye cracks open to watch you as you stretch out before laying down.
  1517. "...been lucky so far, Whispen. Maybe they'll be nice enough to stay away until everything is ready."
  1518. > "If they are, it's probably only because they're focusing everything into making a big push too."
  1519. > You slump onto the bedroll, sighing.
  1520. "Probably. But the Everfree has its own kind of will - and I don't think just cutting through it is going to last long."
  1521. > "Hopefully. Celestia, if the forest itself stops them, I'll never curse it again."
  1522. > You lay your head down, staring into the earthen side of the sleeping hole.
  1523. > After a second you realize she is still watching.
  1524. "Something up, Whispen?"
  1525. > "Just... promise me. If something really goes bad, if they do come... we won't just leave them."
  1526. > You sit up, nodding emphatically.
  1527. "Absolutely. This time... this is my responsibility now. Keeping everpony here safe."
  1528. > Her eyes close at last, and moments later yours do as well.
  1529. > Sleep comes instantly.
  1530.  
  1531. > Unfortunately, it doesn't last nearly as long as you would like.
  1532. > You are shaken awake some time after dusk by urgent hooves.
  1533. "Sir. Sir!"
  1534. > Groggily rising from sleep, you freeze as a new noise meets your ears.
  1535. > A high, whining buzz - like an oversized mosquito hovering somewhere above your head.
  1536.  
  1537. > You hiss softly in anger, glancing up through the leaves and branches covering the sleeping hole.
  1538. "Can you see it?"
  1539. > Tele Type shakes his head, whispering back.
  1540. > "Not very well. I think it's been flying back and forth, though."
  1541. > Pushing yourself out of the sleeping hole, you cautiously peek upwards; unfortunately, even with the light of Luna's moon there's little chance to see much of anything.
  1542. > And this one hasn't been so helpful as to fly with flashing lights strapped to it either.
  1543. > "If we use our horns to light up the sky, we can probably spot it - but it would see us, if it hasn't already."
  1544. "If it hasn't, then just leaving it isn't a very good idea either."
  1545. > You look around as other sleepy, inquisitive faces begin to barely emerge from their covered sleeping holes.
  1546. > "One of the pegasi on the line says she doesn't think it's very high up, though. She wants to try and get up, find it by the noise, and hit it."
  1547. "It might be doable. We do training runs for in-air intercepts in clouds. But, if it can fight back they would be helpless..."
  1548. > Whispen is up as well, behind you.
  1549. > You can feel her eyes boring into the back of your head as you consider your decision.
  1550. > Send a pegasus up to try and intercept, risking them alone - or light up the sky and definitely find it, but give up your position in the process?
  1551. > Or was there a third option you were missing?
  1552.  
  1553. ACTION:
  1554. - I say we just let it fly around for a little more and see if it's still hanging around. If it truly found us, the enemy already knows that we're here, it doesn't matter if we take it out or not
  1555.  
  1556. "No. Nopony do anything."
  1557. > Shocked and surprised looks meet your order.
  1558. > You take a deep breath and continue.
  1559. "We get one good shot at this - one good attempt, and then our cover is blown."
  1560. > Briefly glancing back to Whispen, you then look around to the others under your command now.
  1561. > You responsibility.
  1562. "And I don't want to bring them down on us for nothing, to get anypony hurt without absolute need."
  1563. > The droning whine fades away, and you take the opportunity to scramble from the sleeping pit to one of the prepared ambush positions.
  1564. > Around you the others slide into their holes, buckling their last pieces of armor in place.
  1565. "Everypony, be ready if it comes for us - but nothing yet. Nothing until it does."
  1566. > Now you've got their assurance again, a round of nods greeting your order.
  1567. > Instead, nothing but silence greets you.
  1568. > Complete and total silence.
  1569. > When the flare of light comes from behind you, it makes you practically jump out of your hooves.
  1570. > But it is only Tele Type, crawling up behind you with a scroll.
  1571. > "Message for you."
  1572. > Unrolling it, your eyes scan over the document, reading it by moonlight.
  1573. "Scout post 19 - that's a ways north of here, I think - reports bringing down a small metal flying machine of unknown source. Report no apparently operator of any kind, possibly operated by magic."
  1574. > "Didn't you say that they don't have magic?"
  1575. > You nod in answer to the whispered question.
  1576. "Yes, that's what Princess Luna said. Which direction did that thing go?"
  1577. > "South."
  1578. "Post nineteen is-"
  1579. > You consult a map, helpfully provided by Whispen.
  1580. "-far to far north of here for it to be the same one."
  1581. > The conclusion does not need to be said.
  1582. > There is more than one of those things out there this night.
  1583. "...okay, everypony stay on guard. Be ready, they're probably scouting too."
  1584. > Yet, by an hour later, no other signs of the enemy have come.
  1585. > And you can only keep yourself, let alone your soldiers, awake for so long.
  1586.  
  1587. ACTION:
  1588. - Well, after enemy contact has faded, an hour is usually the maximum time you should keep everyone awake. After that, you go back to 50% security. So pick some ponies to stay awake
  1589.  
  1590. > With a short breath of relief you are finally able to send the off-watch soldiers back to their bedrolls.
  1591. > You find yourself again struggling to keep your eyes open by the time you climb back into the bed.
  1592. > And your own watch is only a couple short hours away.
  1593. > Yet, by the time you crawl from the bedroll to resume your duty the following day, you are relieved to hear nothing more has occurred.
  1594. > No flying machines, no alien creatures, nothing.
  1595. > It's to good to be true.
  1596. > The other shoe drops shortly after dawn.
  1597. > Long, low distant howling rises to the north, followed shortly by the tell-tale sound of explosions.
  1598. > Your stomach twists; there are ponies dying out there.
  1599. "Get everyone up. They're attacking again."
  1600. > Tele Type doesn't take long to arrive, no less than three messages floating beside him.
  1601. "Posts 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 report numerous large flying machines, heading towards base camp. Scout posts 17 and 19 no longer responding. Scout posts 20 and 21 report ambushing elements of hostile ground forces."
  1602. > By the end of it everyone around you has turned pale even through your guard-white coats.
  1603. > So shocked are you that you barely hear the rising howl until is practically on top of you.
  1604. > "Up! Up there, to the east! Two of them, heading this way!"
  1605.  
  1606. ACTION:
  1607. - Get everyone to cover. If they know we're here, we're gonna have to make a quick get away. If not, we either set up the ambush again, or go help other posts
  1608. - well fuck....remember not to leave anyone behind, or Whispen will make you feel like a cowardly piece of shit
  1609.  
  1610. "Everpony to cover! Find a hole, now, now, now!"
  1611. > To their credit, not one of them questions your orders.
  1612. > For a second the camp is chaos as guardsponies dive into the nearest deep hole they can find.
  1613. > You stay up until the last second before leaping blindly into the closest sleeping hole you can spot.
  1614. > A surprised squeak greets your arrival, but you're to busy covering your head and squeezing your eyes shut to care.
  1615. > Time seems to stand still as you wait for the wave of heat and death that you expect to end your life.
  1616. > Your breathing becomes quick and shallow.
  1617. > Except it does not hit.
  1618. > The explosions, when they come, are still painfully loud - but not deafening.
  1619. > And there is no pressure wave, no wall of air to lift you up and smash you into the ground again.
  1620. > After a second, it gets through that not only are you alive, but are completely unharmed.
  1621. > "U-Um... sir?"
  1622. > You crack one eye open, finding it met by a wall of white-dyed coat.
  1623. > ...oh.
  1624. > Quickly you scramble back, withdrawing your muzzle from Whispen's side.
  1625. "Sorry, Whispen. You aren't hurt, are you?"
  1626. > "No, I'm alright."
  1627. "I'm sorry. I... wasn't looking where I was going when I jumped in."
  1628. > She simply nods, pushing herself upright again as well.
  1629. > The awkward moment passes as quickly as it had come.
  1630. > Cautiously you stick your head up from the sleeping hole.
  1631. > This time you can see the flying machines clearly, although they look nothing like what you saw once before.
  1632. > Angular, swept-back things, they almost resemble the paper gliders foals often folded out of boredom during classes.
  1633. > Even as you watch it circles twice more before turning back on east - quickly being joined by two more.
  1634. "...anyone wounded?"
  1635. > "Think I sprained my ankle!"
  1636. "Anyone worse?"
  1637. > No responses; you breathe a sigh of relief.
  1638.  
  1639. ACTION:
  1640. - so they definitely got jets now. If nobody's hurt, we should talk over with Whispen about if we should either go check on other posts or hold up here
  1641.  
  1642. > It doesn't take you long to spot the plume of smoke rising from the south.
  1643. "...that's got to be post 28."
  1644. > Looking around at your small group, you pick out Tele Type.
  1645. "Get a message back, now. Four flying machines, fast moving, heading for the base camp."
  1646. > Spinning again, you look to the other soldiers.
  1647. "I need two to go check post 28. You, and -"
  1648. > "Sir, let me."
  1649. > Whispen has raised one hoof, her eyes narrowed.
  1650. "...okay, and Whispen. Go check the post, fast now. If there are survivors, try to get them back here. If not..."
  1651. > Your breath catches momentarily.
  1652. "...if not, get their tags and come back. We need to be ready to move if those things come back."
  1653. > Whispen gives you a thankful look, and they nod, dashing off into the underbrush.
  1654. "Everyone else - get to your positions. The second those things come back, we need to be ready."
  1655. > Again you find yourselves crouching in the ambush holes, eyes scanning the forest for any movement.
  1656. > Tele Type's horn is flashing regularly now, message scrolls both vanishing and appearing in bursts of cerulean magic.
  1657. "How bad is it?"
  1658. > "Posts 19 and 21 no longer responding. Posts 18 and 22 took casualties. Post 20 had to retreat after half their group was killed; they were attacked by ground forces."
  1659. > He looks up.
  1660. > "It worked, though. All the storm-wranglers got out of the sky in time. They say the flying machines circled for a while before turning away back towards the forest again."
  1661. > You nod, even as your stomach turns.
  1662. > The pegasi building the storm were safe, yes - but at what cost?
  1663. > How much of a blood toll would it cost to pull this off - to merely delay the invaders?
  1664. > And would it even work again?
  1665. > You are still pondering it when the flying machines appear again.
  1666.  
  1667. > This time they do not pause, streaking straight for the deepest part of the Everfree.
  1668. > Back to where the 'portal' to their home is.
  1669. > An hour later, you stand-down the watch to half again.
  1670. > Two hours later, Whispen and her companion return - with no followers.
  1671. > For a moment you fear for the worst, but she shakes her head at your distraught expression.
  1672. "Five dead, two more wounded. But they're holding their position. They wouldn't leave."
  1673. > You let out a soft breath, shaking your head.
  1674. > If anyone got out of this, the brass had better damn mint some medals for it.
  1675. > The sun climbs once more into the sky.
  1676. > You've survived into the second day, but you are well aware how lucky it was.
  1677. > Now the invaders surely know something is up too; you doubt they will fall back to quickly tomorrow.
  1678. > Shuddering softly, you shift again and settle in for your watch.
  1679.  
  1680. > The rest of the night passes peacefully for you.
  1681. > Not so for other posts.
  1682. > All through the night you are repeatedly woken by the distant roar of flying machines followed by the thunderous crack of explosions.
  1683. > Yet you do not dare for a moment abandon your duty.
  1684. > When even two of the flying machines slip past your lines, getting a jump on the pegasi working to hold the monstrous storm they were constructing steady the cost is murderous.
  1685. > Twenty six pegasi and five others dead.
  1686. > Dawn on the third day brings only a little good news.
  1687. > Despite the Everfree's tenacious resistance to being ruled at all, they had managed to assemble a considerable storm system.
  1688. > One that promised to make a truly miserable existence for the invaders if properly loosed in their direction.
  1689. > Right now, though, that is not your concern.
  1690. > Your own scout-pony had scrambled back into the position half an hour ago, reporting a small force of the invaders sweeping closer.
  1691. > Immediately you had woken everyone, quenched the fire and gotten bedded down into the ambush positions.
  1692. > Yet, there was not yet any certain sign of them, and your soldiers were getting antsy.
  1693. > Nopony liked waiting for battle.
  1694. > You could start by sending out a scout to make sure the invaders were coming this way, but that would leave you one down.
  1695. > Not to mention risking the scout...
  1696. > Continuing to wait was also an option - although it was already leaving your ponies nervous and irritable.
  1697. > Or you could abandon your position entirely, but doing so would leave the cloud-workers open to further deadly attacks.
  1698. > And for that matter, if there were teams of the enemy out there fleeing could open yourself up an ambush.
  1699. > Besides, only six had been reported, and Silverbough had a good pair of eyes on him.
  1700.  
  1701. > Ordering everyone into their ambush positions, you find your own hole and crouch low into it.
  1702. > "Do you see them?"
  1703. "No..."
  1704. > You scan the scrub, gaze weaving back and forth for any sign of the creatures.
  1705. > "There! Uh, a little bit off to the right, by the bush with the read leaves!"
  1706. > Following the whispered directions, you still only notice the creature when it shifts slightly - its arms rising to hold something to its shoulders.
  1707. > A weapon, undoubtedly.
  1708. "Everyone, notch your bows and get ready to draw. Unicorns, get ready to shoot a few volleys and bring a shield up."
  1709. > Sliding the bow onto its clasp on one hoof, you carefully bring an arrow to it and prepare to notch it.
  1710. > To your left, somepony rustles nervously.
  1711. "Steady..."
  1712. > Even as you watch, another two creatures appear - creeping forward.
  1713. > Advancing near to the edge of the clearing, they squat down by folding one leg beneath them.
  1714. > Is that how they kneel...?
  1715. > Four more move up after the - including the one you first saw - scramble up past the first two.
  1716. > Instantly you can understand what they are doing.
  1717. > You yourself had seen unicorns practice it dozens of times in training.
  1718. > Of course they would use their projectile-spitting weapon instead of magic, it seems, but still...
  1719. "Wait until there are only two on watch. Then, loose everything at them."
  1720. > The four go to flat, falling on their bellies.
  1721. > Behind them, the two rise up - sprinting forwards.
  1722. "Notch..."
  1723. > There's a slight rustling as arrows are slotted in place.
  1724. "Draw..."
  1725. > Four bows rise.
  1726. > Three horns begin to hum with magic, including Whispen's directly to your right.
  1727. > A shouted call to cover rings out from one of the invaders.
  1728. "Shoot!"
  1729.  
  1730. [Roll for success; Roll = critical failure ("2 ponies wounded")
  1731.  
  1732. > Screams and the crack of alien weapons split the air.
  1733. > Not their screams.
  1734. "Celestia damn it!"
  1735. > You draw another arrow, notching it.
  1736. "I saw one of them go down! Can anypony see if we got it?"
  1737. > "No! It's - it's got back up! There's an arrow stick right out of its chest and it just got right back up!"
  1738. > What does it take to kill these things?
  1739. > The one in the cave died plenty well when you jabbed it neck...
  1740. > "We've got two wounded! Silver Star and Rowanoak!"
  1741. > A unicorn and an earth pony.
  1742. > Another round of cracking echoes across the rise up towards your position, the projectiles whining over your heads.
  1743. "They're onto us! Everyone, back to their second positions - see if we can get them in a bit closer!"
  1744. > Scrambling backwards, you keep your belly firmly pressed to the ground and try to back up to the next set of ambush-holes.
  1745. > Beside you, Whispen does the same - her horn alight as she tries to pull the wounded, sobbing earth pony along with her.
  1746. > You take one look and know she won't give him up.
  1747. > Instead you slip a leg around and pull him with you.
  1748. > Slipping into your hole, she breathes heavily.
  1749. > "What's our next move?"
  1750. "Try and get them closer in. Go for another ambush, see if we can outflank them."
  1751. > In the distance weapons continue to crack and distant alien yells can be heard as well.
  1752.  
  1753. [Roll for next action by soldiers; Roll = 1, "they start to move in".]
  1754.  
  1755. > "They're pushing up!"
  1756. > The whispered warning comes up from the next hole; you risk a peek over the rim to confirm.
  1757. > Indeed they are - leapfrogging up in teams of three, steadily making their way towards your position.
  1758. > In the spot beside you, the wounded earth pony moans as Whispen tighten a bandage that is slowly turning crimson.
  1759. > The creatures stop, gesturing with their forelimbs in silent communication.
  1760. > Helpful skill, that.
  1761. > You wish you had something similar...
  1762. > But for now..
  1763. "Whispen. Get him stable and be ready - I think they're going to try and keep pushing up. We may only get one more shot at this."
  1764. > She nods, tying off the bandage and taking a deep breath as her horn flares again.
  1765. > Around you, the ponies in the remaining holes call out their readiness as well - hopefully not so loud the creatures hear them.
  1766.  
  1767. Action:
  1768. - As soon as they are in range, focus all your ranged attacks on one or two of them then fall back again.
  1769.  
  1770. > Again the earth pony moans, his eyes squeezed shut as his forelegs clamp down over the bloody bandage over his midsection.
  1771. > The creatures pause briefly before continuing to advance straight towards your position.
  1772. > At first you grimace unhappily - but then, realize that this might be another opportunity.
  1773. "Whispen, do you feel up for a shield?"
  1774. > "I can, yes."
  1775. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. We're going to let them come right to us. As soon as they get close, get that shield up immediately."
  1776. > "I understand."
  1777. "Everyone else - let them come up. When they see us - pin them down and start pulling back. Get into your sleeping holes, we'll hit them again from there."
  1778. > Turning to the wounded earth pony in the hole with you, reassurances begin to flow from your lips.
  1779. "Rowanoak, you're going to be okay, do you understand?"
  1780. > The he nods, his teeth gritted.
  1781. > "I-It hurts real bad... hurts to breath..."
  1782. "Just keep yourself steady, keep yourself awake. You'll be fine, we just need to get you back to the camp."
  1783. > "They're coming!"
  1784. > Whispen's hissed warning tenses you.
  1785. > The slight tremor it adds to your voice might actually help the illusion.
  1786. "Don't worry, Rowanoak. You're going to be-"
  1787. > "Ponies!"
  1788. > The creatures harsh voice nearly makes you jump, but you force your nerves back down.
  1789. > "We can hear your wounded. We're coming up over the top. Don't fight, and you'll be allowed to live!"
  1790. > Rowan lets out a little sob, but you suck another breath and hold it until you can hear the crunch of boots on earth.
  1791. > "Poni-"
  1792. "Now, Whispen!"
  1793.  
  1794. [Roll for escape success; Roll = Critical success, take down 2 extra.]
  1795.  
  1796. > Instantly the shimmering field springs to life before you.
  1797. > You can hear the creature's cry of surprise as it is suddenly met by the magical barrier instead of two cowering ponies, but that is quickly eclipsed by the soft twang of bows releasing their deadly cargo.
  1798. > One of the creatures topples with a yell, a shaft seeming to grow straight from its hip.
  1799. > Yet another swings around, trying to bring its weapon to bear on your remaining archers.
  1800. > For its trouble, an arrow slams straight into its chest - quickly followed by another piercing straight through its neck.
  1801. > It falls, gurgling.
  1802. > You do not see more, though, as you have grabbed Rowanoak and are bodily hauling him from the ambush hole across to the next position.
  1803. > Behind you, Whispen grunts audibly as the creatures' weapons crack against her shield.
  1804. > But she holds it just long enough for you to get to cover, though the effort leaves her panting.
  1805. "Everyone alrigh-"
  1806. > Tele Type's horn gives a soft whine as it casts several bolts at the foe, driving everpony to duck again.
  1807. > Though they quickly return the favor with their own weapons, he manages to land safely in a sleeping hole - whooping as he does.
  1808. > "Got two of them, trying to rush up after us as we pulled back! Couldn't see how bad, but both of them hit the dirt hard!"
  1809. "Good job! Any other wounded?"
  1810. > The resounding lack of responses lifts your spirits some; maybe this could be done.
  1811. > A glance back, though reveals another problem:
  1812. > You're almost out of places to hide.
  1813. > After this ambush, you would have to abandon this position entirely - and loose your invaluable scouting post and cover.
  1814. > What to do...?
  1815.  
  1816. ACTION:
  1817. - make a run for it when they start pulling back
  1818. - Then I guess we fall back to either the copse or the overhang. We could make the overhang a trap...
  1819.  
  1820. > In the following seconds, you find yourself struck by two contrasting wishes.
  1821. > For one, you wish you could have brought more ponies with you - this might actually become winnable if you could just flank them!
  1822. > The problem, though, is that more ponies would almost certainly have meant more casualties - especially with what you are about to do.
  1823. "We can't stay here. Even with that, we're just going to get-"
  1824. > You are interrupted a sudden blast off to your left.
  1825. > Amazingly, when it clears there is no screams of shock and pain.
  1826. > Maybe those holes were good for something else than sleeping in.
  1827. "-get pounded to death. Tele Type, Boulder, Scupper - take the lead, and bring Rowanoak and Silver with you. Get around south, to that river we found with the overhang."
  1828. > They nod, Boulder slipping the injured pony over his back.
  1829. "The rest of you, keep throwing everything you can at them. Arrows, bolts, just to keep them down - Whispen, can you manage another shield if we need it?"
  1830. > She nods - shakily, but then again more strongly.
  1831. "Then be ready. Okay, go!"
  1832. > Charging out, the unicorn and two earth ponies break off.
  1833. > Behind them the rest of your group comes, hopping from hole to hole and loosing arrows with impressive regularity, if not accuracy.
  1834. > Leaving behind the remnants of your camp isn't something you approve of, but it can't be helped.
  1835. "We're at the edge! Everyone, go, go! Keep moving! Nopony stop until you're safe!"
  1836. > Charging out, you gallop for all you are worth over the open territory between your camp and the river.
  1837. > Nearly halfway through, the first volleys of crack-whines erupt from behind you.
  1838. > Forcing your wings in, you resist the urge to spread them and present a bigger target to the shooters.
  1839. > Behind you, a scream rings out - and then, with a mighty explosion, another worryingly familiar cry.
  1840. "WHISPEN!"
  1841. > You skid to a halt, twisting back.
  1842. > To your amazement, she is not badly wounded - running still.
  1843.  
  1844. > But you can see the pain in her eyes still.
  1845. "Go!"
  1846. > Turning to put on another burst of speed, you charge to the riverside - practically sliding down the embankment and beneath the rocky overhang.
  1847. > Whispen arrives shortly thereafter, shaking and panting - tears in her eyes.
  1848. > You look about, counting the rest of your group.
  1849. "Where's Buzzy and Downspout?"
  1850. > Silence reigns.
  1851. > Somepony shakes their head.
  1852. > Turning about, you peek above the embankment just long enough to see two white-coated forms laying still on the open ground between your camp and this spot.
  1853. > "I-I couldn't do it..."
  1854. > Whispen's voice is barely audible, cracking slightly as she tries to keep the tears down.
  1855. > "She tripped and I stopped to put up a shield for her, and it was holding and she got up again and then they shot something and it exploded and - and -"
  1856. > Two long steps forward, and you reach out with a hoof to slip around her neck.
  1857. > Several of the others join in, and though it only holds for a moment it does seem to help.
  1858. "..come on. We need to prepare another ambush position. Pay them back for Buzzy and Downspout and everypony else."
  1859. > Even while they all get ready, you can see Whispen is still not completely there yet.
  1860. > Talking to her some more would help, but you can't be seen to favor her to much - at least, not without potentially angering the rest of your unit.
  1861. > Then again, if she wasn't ready, you'd be down to one unicorn when the invaders came again.
  1862.  
  1863. [Roll 1: Determine how injured Whispen is from the shield spell's failure. Result =  woozy. Unable to cast complicated magic for several minutes.]
  1864.  
  1865. [Roll 2: Determine how the squad you just fought reacts. Result = they leave landmines.]
  1866.  
  1867. ACTION:
  1868. - Have Tele Type send a message to command.
  1869.  
  1870. "Tele Type!"
  1871. > His head perks up, looking to you.
  1872. "Your pens make it here?"
  1873. > "Of course!"
  1874. > He almost sounds annoyed you would think he might leave behind the tools of his skill.
  1875. "Then send a message to command - 'forced to leave camp, two wounded and two dead. Still engaging enemy soldiers."
  1876. > While he scribbles out the message, you turn to you remaining ponies.
  1877. "...okay. There's only two places they can come from here and get a line of sight on us - from up or downstream. We're only going to get one real good shot at this, so it's all or nothing."
  1878. > Jabbing a hoof at each of the ponies in turn, you explain your plan:
  1879. "Hot Pot, you and I are going to loose an arrow each - just one. Scupper, Boulder - they're going to have to duck those arrows. You're going to charge them. You'll only have a few seconds, so make it count. Hot Pot and I will follow you right after.
  1880. > A flash heralds the disappearance of Tele Type's message, just in time for you to turn to the remaining unicorns.
  1881. "Tele - you'll fire at first with us, and then I'm going to need a shield to cover the charge, in case they do get up. Silver, Whispen, how are you feeling?"
  1882. > Silver Star pushes herself to her feet, teeth gritted but nodding.
  1883. > "I'm hurting, but I can help. Don't expect me to run, though."
  1884. "Good. Whispen?"
  1885. > Your longtime companion shuts her eyes, shaking her head.
  1886. > "I'm sorry, I - the shield, when it broke, I'm still getting feedback. I don't think i can do a shield."
  1887. "Just keep trying to hit them if you get an opening, then. Or pull one of their weapons away if there's a chance for that."
  1888. > Stepping to Rowanoak's side, you feel your stomach twist.
  1889. > Even being carried, more blood has stained his bandages.
  1890. > Every so often he will moan softly, and even when he does not there's an ugly watery sound to his breathing that makes you shudder.
  1891. "...you're going to be okay, Rowan. Just hold out a little longer, okay?"
  1892.  
  1893. > He doesn't respond, but you know he's heard you.
  1894. > Turning to the rest, you meet all their eyes.
  1895. > And you know they will fight for you.
  1896. "Get yourselves ready. They could come any moment."
  1897. > As the others move about you head to Whispen's side.
  1898. > Though she is standing strong, her eyes give voice to the pain inside.
  1899. "...it's not your fault, Whispen. You didn't make them cause that explosion, or make Downspout trip and stop."
  1900. > "I know, but... after all the trouble I gave you about leaving some behind... I tried, and it didn't help."
  1901. > You're thankful her voice is soft.
  1902. > It wouldn't do to be arguing with her in front of the rest of your unit.
  1903. "That doesn't make it your fault he died, though."
  1904. > Slowly Whispen blinks, but nods her assent.
  1905. > "I just wish I could have been stronger."
  1906. > Turning her gaze to meet yours, you're again struck by her pain.
  1907. "Is this what it was like in Canterlot? When the Changelings came?"
  1908. > You nod slowly.
  1909. > "A lot like this, yeah."
  1910. > Without saying another word, she pushes forward - moving to stand ready with the rest of your guardsponies.
  1911. > What follows is the incomparable task of waiting.
  1912. > Both monotony and terror at once - especially when it occurs to you they might try and use their explosives to bring down the overhang above your heads.
  1913. > But they do not.
  1914. > Nor do they come.
  1915. > And as an hour, then two, then four pass, you start to wonder whether they are even still there.
  1916.  
  1917. ACTION:
  1918. - maybe send a pegasus to carefully scout from the cover of the treetops.
  1919. - If it's been 4 hours, they're almost definitely gone. Have a scout go check
  1920.  
  1921. > The tension is getting to everypony.
  1922. > There's only so long you can keep a being on a hair-trigger for an attack and not drive them insane.
  1923. > The question of whether the invaders feel the same way when they have to wait flickers through your head.
  1924. > It passes quickly, though, as you return to the cold logic of the moment.
  1925. > Creeping out, you barely peek above the creek's bank, searching for any shapes staring back.
  1926. > There are none.
  1927. > If you didn't know better, you would say that the camp looks abandoned.
  1928. "...Hot Pot."
  1929. > Your last pegasus scout aside from yourself looks up, awaiting orders.
  1930. "I need somepony to pop up to the camp. Stick to the water until you reach the treeline and scout just below the treetops."
  1931. > She grimaces at the idea of being out in the open with those creatures' weapons, but goes out.
  1932. > For several tense minutes you wait, expecting to hear the crack of alien weapons and Hot Pot's screaming.
  1933. > Instead your first warning of her return is when she flutters in to a landing right beside your overhang.
  1934. "Celestia's teeth, Hot Pot! We nearly shot you!"
  1935. > "Sorry! Sorry! But they're gone - all of them. I couldn't believe it, so I passed several times - but they're definitely gone. Their tracks go back into the woods. I checked a thousand paces in, and they're well and gone."
  1936. "Okay. Everyone back up to the post, see if they didn't burn anything."
  1937. > With a great deal of caution you make your way back up to the original campsite.
  1938. > Paste the corpses of Buzzy and Downspout.
  1939. > Nopony talks, as if speaking a word would be the signal to bring down a horde of invaders on you.
  1940. > But the camp is surprisingly undisturbed.
  1941. > One by one each of the sleeping and ambush holes are checked for hiding invaders.
  1942. > None.
  1943. > "There's a body up here! One of them!"
  1944. > It's the one who took the arrow through his throat.
  1945. > He's laying face-up, eyes staring sightlessly into the sky.
  1946.  
  1947. ACTION:
  1948. [Various, generally move camp, check the body, and message command.]
  1949.  
  1950. "Tele! Another message. Tell them the enemy have broken away. We are going to find another place to set up camp."
  1951. > You pause, glancing over to Rowanoak.
  1952. "...and see if they can get a chariot or something up here for him, otherwise he's not going to last long."
  1953. > "Understood."
  1954. > "Why the new camp?"
  1955. > Whispen is tending to Rowan, trying to change his bandages while you have a moment.
  1956. > Evidently she still has enough time to talk to you, though.
  1957. "If they know we're here, they could tell those flying machines where to find us. Or come back with more. It's not safe here."
  1958. > She nods in agreement, and you turn to the only available unicorn left.
  1959. "Silver! With me. I want to see if there's anything useful on that body."
  1960. > Some nervousness bubbles in your gut as you emerge from cover out to where the invader's body lays.
  1961. > Even as you approach, you can see the distinct lack of any weapon - his comrades must have taken it.
  1962. > Still, maybe there would be something else useful, or something-
  1963. > The slight nudge on your hoof is the only warning before the tripwire snaps.
  1964. > Out of the corner of your eye there is a blur as something is launched skyward.
  1965.  
  1966. Roll to determine success of escape; result: "Silver injured, you are injured."
  1967.  
  1968. > Your world turns pain.
  1969. > A white-hot scything agony cuts through your ear, wing, and rump on one side.
  1970. > The next thing you know you are on your side, a screaming voice ringing in your ears.
  1971. > Distantly you recognize it to be your own.
  1972. > Words try to form on your lips but nothing comes out - not until a face appears in your swimming vision.
  1973. > Whispen.
  1974. "Ick'ire..."
  1975. > Your lips seem heavy, mind distracted by the burning pain still cutting into your side.
  1976. > In the background you can hear Silver Star screaming for his mother.
  1977. > "Don't try to move! Scupper, bring some bandages! Get some help!"
  1978. > No, no, no, they can't come running.
  1979. "Trick-ire..."
  1980. > Why won't your lips move?!
  1981. > "What did you say?"
  1982. > Again Whispen turns to you.
  1983. > Something in your tone must have conveyed the desperation you feel.
  1984. "Trip... wire..."
  1985. > The blood drains from her face.
  1986. > "Everpony, stop! Stop what you're doing and check your hooves! The invaders' left tripwire-traps!"
  1987. > Though you can't see them, a distant curse reaches your ears.
  1988. > Your warning given, you lay back down on the cold earth and let the fuzzyness at the corners of your vision take your mind.
  1989. > When you awaken next it is night.
  1990. > You can hear the snap-pop of a distant campfire.
  1991. > Trying to roll over reignites the furious pain all along your left side.
  1992. > There's no way you're flying.
  1993. > Soft footfalls herald Whispen's arrival; she peers down at you.
  1994. > Even in the half-light of the fire you can see how tired and scared she is.
  1995. > "You're going to live. Whatever they did, it sprayed little bits of metal all over you. We had..."
  1996. > She looks a little ill.
  1997. > "...we had to pick a lot of them out of you. Your ear is torn up, you've got slashes all over your rump, your feathers are torn up bad, and you had a concussion ."
  1998. "Silver Star?"
  1999. > At least your lips move freely now.
  2000.  
  2001. > Her eyes close, and for a moment you fear the worst.
  2002. > "He's going to loose an eye, I think. Definitely a leg. He caught the worst of the blast."
  2003. > She lays down, facing you and sighs.
  2004. > "We moved camp into the forest north of our original position. The fire... it's a risk, but we're having to boil bandages."
  2005. "...invaders?"
  2006. > "Haven't seen any."
  2007. "Storm?"
  2008. > She looks away.
  2009. "Whispen..."
  2010. > "They lost control of it. Princess Luna summoned up a wind and pushed it into the forest. They're going to try and get a chariot to pull us out before it gets here, but we might have to just ride it out."
  2011. > You go silent, thinking over the idea of having to live through a storm deliberately made to be as nasty as possible in this state.
  2012. > Whispen is staring away as well - something else on her mind.
  2013. > "...they've been looking to me for command. I don't know what to do... I barely got out of training before all this!"
  2014. "Doing... okay so far... I think."
  2015. > "You're just saying that because you're alive."
  2016. > Against the pain, you smile anyhow.
  2017. > She suddenly looks to you again, her eyes pained.
  2018. > "I... if they can't come, if the storm hits first... should we surrender? We don't have tents, Silver and Rowanoak won't last through the storm."
  2019.  
  2020. ACTION:
  2021. - Reassure her that she'll be a fine commander while you're wounded. And what do we have, 2 dead, 3 wounded out of 10? If morning comes and the storm hasn't hit yet, we should try to get ourselves back to the main camp
  2022.  
  2023. "No..."
  2024. > It's starting to hurt to speak, especially around your ear.
  2025. > But it would hurt more to leave Whispen hanging.
  2026. "You're doing okay, Whispen... doing a fine job so far."
  2027. > "Thank you, but what if... what if I can't do it? What if they don't send somepony out for us? What if Rowanoak and Silver-"
  2028. "Whispen. Don't think about that. Just focus on doing your best."
  2029. > She pauses, nods - and then nods again, more strongly that time.
  2030. > "Right. Thank you. Really."
  2031. "Just... just doing what I can to thank you. Promise me... one thing though?"
  2032. > Her head tilts questioningly.
  2033. > "Don't... leave me behind?"
  2034. > Whispen looks about angry enough to start yelling at you until she spots the small grin on your lips.
  2035. > A small, pained laugh bubbles up from within her.
  2036. > "I'm surprised you can joke. But no... I won't. I don't leave ponies behind."
  2037. > You catch the unsaid ending to her words - she does not, unlike you.
  2038. > "Feeling well enough to eat, then?"
  2039. "Got anything warm from that fire?"
  2040. > "We found some stuff while moving over and made a sort of soup from it. It tastes worse than the rations, but at least it will do you some good."
  2041. > She isn't wrong.
  2042. > If not for the fact you ever had a chance to eat during the afternoon, you would have had trouble keeping it down.
  2043. > But having something warm (and more importantly filling) in your belly is more than worth it.
  2044. > You can see the others moving around the camp as well - some giving you small looks of sympathy or encouragement as they do.
  2045. > Whispen notices your watching them and gives a soft 'hmm'.
  2046. > "Your warning saved more lives, you know. About the tripwires, I mean - we found two more of those things in the camp afterward. Tele and I had to destroy them at a distance. One was hidden in a sleeping hole."
  2047. > You shudder at the thought of a pony being shredded by a hail of metal as they lay down to bed.
  2048. "Do you have a plan for moving on from here?"
  2049.  
  2050. > Whispen looks up in surprise.
  2051. > "But, you're awake now; shouldn't you be-"
  2052. "No. I'm awake, but I'm still hurting bad and a little foggy. I might fall unconscious again."
  2053. > She goes silent again, digesting that information.
  2054. > "Well... we can't be caught here and wait out the whole storm. If we wait until the storm is here, though - well, we can start pushing back towards the base camp again."
  2055. "It'll be slow going. Silver and Rowanoak won't be walking, and I don't think I will be either."
  2056. > "It will be better than waiting. They might send a chariot as soon as the storm is passed."
  2057. "Suppose so..."
  2058. > "If we take the bedrollls, we can use them as blankets too. It will be slower, but they will offer some protection while you're being carried."
  2059. "Works. Best get ready for the storm, then."
  2060.  
  2061. ACTION:
  2062. - Lets get some sleeping holes dug, and make sure they can drain properly, maybe put some water proof material over them if we have any. And make sure that all the wounded have sleeping buddy in their hole that can tend to them
  2063. - Is Scupper still alive? Sounds like a job for him
  2064.  
  2065. "How's our camp looking?"
  2066. > Whispen looks around.
  2067. > "We've got some sleeping holes dug. Trying to stick to the higher ground, for when the storm comes - Scupper knows what he's doing."
  2068. "Good."
  2069. > The industrious earth pony would be able to keep your camp dry, you knew.
  2070. > Or at least, as dry as you could get with what was coming.
  2071. > "As for the fire, we're keeping it up. You, Rowanoak and Silver Star are closest - it will keep you warm and dry. We're going to try and keep it going even when the storm comes."
  2072. "Doubt that's going to work... if the storm-wranglers couldn't hang onto it this is going to be a beauty of a storm."
  2073. > "We can try. We've also tried pulling down some branches to cover the sleeping holes. It won't stop the rain, but might keep most of it out."
  2074. "How soon you thinking of trying to head for the base camp?"
  2075. > "Tomorrow morning. If we can."
  2076. "Sounds about as good an idea as any."
  2077. > Whispen rises to her hooves with a tired grunt, starting to head back out to check on the rest of the camp.
  2078. "One last question. The body... did you check the body after getting us here?"
  2079. > She stops, not turning around to face you.
  2080. > "Yes. There was barely anything on it... we took its armor and helmet, but everything else was gone. They must have stripped it before leaving."
  2081. > For some reason, that hurts more than the pain in your side.
  2082. > Death and injury were, of course, an accepted part of the Royal Guard - and by the years you have served, you have seen them come to many a guardspony.
  2083. > But for it to be for nothing is still a bitter pill.
  2084. > "We buried it after that. Buzzy and Downspout too."
  2085. "...was good of you."
  2086. > Silently, Whispen nods once more and trots off into the darkness.
  2087. > Rolling over to face the fire, you hiss as the physical agony makes itself felt again - like hundreds of tiny red-hot needles digging into your side.
  2088. > Staring into the flames, you wonder silently what is going to become of this.
  2089.  
  2090. > Would the guard come marching into the forest after the storm passed, or would they await reinforcements?
  2091. > If they did wait, would invaders try to push out again?
  2092. > The thoughts still clash and swirl in your head until sleep comes again.
  2093. > ...
  2094. > Morning comes unpleasantly early.
  2095. > It also comes with the crash and roar of thunder jerking you from your deep sleep.
  2096. > Someone must have moved you to one of the pits overnight, as your vision is first filled with several thickly-leafed branches hovering close overhead.
  2097. > Despite their best efforts water still trickles down into the sleeping hole - although a cleverly-dug trench carries most of it away to another hole.
  2098. > You probably had Scupper to thank for that.
  2099. > "Ah, you're up."
  2100. > A twist of your aching neck - the bandages having become unavoidably waterlogged overnight - brings Tele Type into your field of view.
  2101. "Storm's 'ere?"
  2102. > Your jaw seems to have stiffened up overnight as well, it seems.
  2103. > "Yes, and you were right - it's a monster. We've already had two trees fall over nearby."
  2104. " 'ow long?"
  2105. > "Has it been doing this? A few hours. Hot Pot says she thinks it will go on for another few at least."
  2106. > It takes you a moment to register the low howling you hear as wind running through the Everfree's branches, though the thunder and pounding of a heavy rain are easier to hear.
  2107. "We supposed to be going?"
  2108. > "If you care to risk it. It's mean out there - slow going through the mud, and nopony wants to get caught by a falling tree."
  2109. > You grunt unhappily; if you were to take the trip, then, it would be a slow one.
  2110. "Any word from the base camp?"
  2111. > "A scroll came in a while back, but I can barely write with the water soaking my paper. Whispen has to make a shield for me to work."
  2112. > Laying your head back down, stare at the hole's muddy wall.
  2113. > A trek through a storm-ridden, dangerous forest with injured being carried... or denying them the care they needed for even long?
  2114.  
  2115. ACTION:
  2116. - Ask to speak to Whispen. Ask her how o]th other wounded are doing.If they're critical, move out, if not, it'd probably be more dangerous to them to try to move them through the storm
  2117. - This, we can't risk an uninformed decision since both have their own severe risks to our injured
  2118.  
  2119. "Where's Whispen?"
  2120. > "Outside, on watch. I'll go get her."
  2121. > While Tele Type scrambles out of the muddy hole you make your best effort to roll over.
  2122. > Doing so brings the pain that had dulled to a background thudding straight to the forefront of your mind.
  2123. > It's barely tolerable though - with your teeth gritted, you fold your legs beneath you and finish rolling.
  2124. > For the first time you get a good look at yourself, and it's not reassuring.
  2125. > Your left-hind leg is bandaged from top to bottom, and you can see a few blotches of blood still clinging to your coat on your foreleg where shallower cuts have begun to heal over.
  2126. > Thicker rags - likely cut from one of the bedrolls - are swathed around your rump and barrel, and another line of bandages over the muscled leading edge of your wing.
  2127. > You can also see the irregular ruffles and breaks in your primary feathers, where the hail of metal fragments carved through the delicate structures.
  2128. > A good preening might fix some, and the rest will fall out in time... but for a while at least, you're going to be severely hampered in the air.
  2129. > "You're awake again. Are you feeling better?"
  2130. > Whispen's question catches you by surprise - you hadn't heard her enter.
  2131. "Yeah. Still hurts bad, but I feel a lot better now. What about the others.
  2132. > Instantly you can tell the news is not good - her ears falling and hooves doing an unhappy little shuffle.
  2133. > "Silver's unconscious most of the time, but he's going to live. It's mostly blood loss."
  2134. "...what about Rowanoak?"
  2135. > She turns silent again, glancing in the direction you guess the badly-wounded pony to be.
  2136. "Whispen, what about Rowanoak?"
  2137. > "He's running a fever, won't wake up, and his breathing is shallow. He needs treatment, badly."
  2138. > You motion to the rain and wind beyond the tent.
  2139. "Any chance of it letting up some?"
  2140.  
  2141. > "It doesn't look like it. Hot Pot says it's the worst storm she's ever seen."
  2142. > You lay your head back down on the bedroll, grimacing.
  2143. "We leave now, it's going to be nearly as rough as staying. Celestia, I wish we had a chariot or cart - it'd be a lot easier on him!"
  2144. > "A cart would just sink in this muck. If we have to go, I think wrapping him in a bedroll and tying him to Boulder Dash would be best."
  2145. "Silver and I?"
  2146. > "We'll all have to trade off carrying. If we go, though, it should be soon - this is wearing on everypony."
  2147. > You turn the question over in your head.
  2148. > To let it go, or not...
  2149.  
  2150. ACTION:
  2151. - If she says no, we've got to move out, or that nigga's dead
  2152. - Yeah, we should leave now.
  2153. - We need to get the hell out, even WE are in a condition that staying in this storm could kill us. Whomever's not carrying we may want to have scout ahead periodically for the rest of us to avoid any other traps.
  2154.  
  2155. "We need to go. Now. This rain isn't good for any of us, and the sooner we're out of it the better."
  2156. > Whispen nods sharply - glad, you suspect, to be taking orders again rather than having to make the decisions herself.
  2157. > "Understood. I'll get the rest together. We'll have to leave some armor and bedrolls behind, but I think we can make it."
  2158. > Thirty minutes later, you are starting to regret your decision.
  2159. > Being slung across another pony's back, hooves lashed to their armor for stability, is deeply uncomfortable.
  2160. > Your injured legs are beginning to hurt badly again, but you know it must be nothing compared to what the pony carrying you is feeling.
  2161. > Between his armor and your weight, you're Tele Type's back has to be nearly breaking.
  2162. > He holds up without a word, though - and you try to keep your head up and on the swivel, searching for any sign of danger.
  2163. > It's not easy - the whipping winds drive rain into your eyes even with your helmet on, and it can't be any easier for the others.
  2164. > Perhaps an hour later, Hot Pot's armored form emerges from the trees ahead.
  2165. > "I've gone a good half mile forward. If there is anything, it's keeping its head down as well."
  2166. > You nods, managing to croak out a response.
  2167. "Any chance to fly?"
  2168. > The pegasus guard shakes her head.
  2169. > "Wouldn't try even if I thought I could."
  2170. "Then circle around once more and come back."
  2171. > She nods, silently vanishing.
  2172. > You take the opportunity to look around again, checking on your small group.
  2173. > Boulder Dash trudges alongside Tele and yourself, the massive stallion's face inscrutable as always.
  2174. > If he feels any discomfort from the lumpen, immobile form lashed to his back, it doesn't show.
  2175. > In the end, they had managed to fit Rowanwood into one of the waterproof bedrolls before loading him onto Boulder.
  2176. > While it kept him dry, it also prevented you from checking up on him without stopping.
  2177.  
  2178. > Further back, Silver rode on Scupper's back as, and Whispen kept herself mobile around the group.
  2179. > The problem, you realize, is that your progress is far to slow.
  2180. > Getting out of this far into the Everfree would be a good two-days' hike in good weather.
  2181. > In this, it would stretch to three or four if the storm didn't pass faster.
  2182. > And that might be to late.
  2183.  
  2184. ACTION:
  2185. [Numerous, generally "ask command for air evacuation and/or look for shelter soon."]
  2186.  
  2187. "Tele."
  2188. > Your voice is slightl ragged when you finally speak up again.
  2189. "You feeling up to sending one more message?"
  2190. > "If Whispen... can shield me.. from the rain... I can get... one out."
  2191. > You hadn't quite realized how tired he is, if that panting is anything to judge by.
  2192. > But if he says he's up for it...
  2193. "Whispen!"
  2194. > She quickly trots to your side.
  2195. "Get a shield up for Tele's message. Tele, make it clear we're desperate. This will save a pony's life."
  2196. > The scratching of his pen is inaudible over the wind and rain, but you can see the message playing out on the paper.
  2197. > "Okay, here goes."
  2198. > It vanishes in a flash of magic, close enough to him as you are, you can feel your coat buzz slightly as the excess energy bleeds off.
  2199. > "What now?"
  2200. > You grunt in answer to Whispen's question.
  2201. "We have to keep going, answer or not."
  2202. > Again you all resume the trudge.
  2203. > To your shock the letter returns fairly quickly.
  2204. > Tele manages to catch it before it falls to the muddy ground and unrolls it.
  2205. > He sucks in a breath, surprised.
  2206. "They agree?"
  2207. > "If we can get out of the storm. They will send something if we can get out of the storm."
  2208. "How far's that going to be."
  2209. > "About another day's hike."
  2210. > You hadn't even heard Hot Pot emerge from the forest again, but there she is.
  2211. > "Another day's hike, and all but the worst should be past."
  2212. "Can you all keep going?"
  2213. > Their nods are not at all confident, but they are nods.
  2214. > Three hours later, Hot Pot returns again - much faster this time.
  2215. "What've you got? Ambush?"
  2216. > "No. Cave, nice and deep. Nice and solid. No sign of any inhabitation. If we divert to it, it'll take longer, but we can pass the night."
  2217.  
  2218. ACTION:
  2219. - Bunk down in the cave, no use over exerting everyone
  2220. - Go to the cave. Though there is the very minute chance those things will find it as well.
  2221.  
  2222. "Okay. Lead us on."
  2223. > The hike is not any easier, especially when you begin to crawl up the side of a ridge.
  2224. > Halfway up, you are all forced to pause as the ponies being carried trade off.
  2225. > Scupper ends up carrying you the rest of the way, while Hot Pot takes Silver.
  2226. > Boulder alone carries Rowan the entire way.
  2227. > By the time you reach the hill's summit, steam has begun to rise from his sides.
  2228. > Sliding back down the far side is perilous, especially as everpony is exhausted.
  2229. > But you make it without anyone tumbling, a mistake that would surely have cost a broken limb or worse.
  2230. > The cave, as promised, is deep - and even better, slopes slightly upward from the mouth.
  2231. > Exhaustion drags all your hooves as you clamber in, but you still have the sense to sniff the air.
  2232. "Smells clean. Drop me near the entrance, or I'll crack my head on the roof."
  2233. > Scupper obligingly slides you off; you manage to land on your feet, sending a jolt of pain up your leg.
  2234. > You grimace, but manage to remain upright.
  2235. > Whispen gives your a look.
  2236. > "Now you know how I felt."
  2237. > The look you give her could stop a Cockatrice, but she meets it evenly.
  2238. "Guess I do."
  2239. > "Scupper. Come on. we'll go and get something up across the entrance."
  2240. > Whispen trots out into the rain again with the earth pony while Tele helps Boulder set down Rowanoak.
  2241. > As soon as he is safely on the ground, Boulder collapses as well.
  2242. > Your start making your way further back into the cave, one halting step at a time.
  2243. "...hey, it evens out into a nice open area back here. You should come up."
  2244. > "On our way!"
  2245. > Something crinkles beneath your hoof, and you look down.
  2246. > Your blood freezes.
  2247. > "Huh, it do-"
  2248. "Shhhhh!"
  2249. > Tele's voice drops.
  2250. > "What, what is i-"
  2251. > You point down.
  2252. > Down to the form of the invader, sleeping in his own bedroll, hidden in the darkness almost directly beneath you.
  2253.  
  2254. ACTION:
  2255. - They must have patrols/guards coming in and out. We should leave before they stumble upon us
  2256. - We get the hell out silently, but before we clear the area completely, we see about taking their weapons/supplies if there are any we can see with the pony not injured or carrying anyone, and when out side we see if there's a fissure we could use to collapse the cave in a way they won't get out for a long time (Long time= not storming out five minutes later and murdering us)
  2257.  
  2258. "...okay. Get down there, get everyone back up quiet as you can. We have to keep going."
  2259. > He starts to turn away, and you add before he can go:
  2260. "But get Boulder up here first."
  2261. > Looking back down to the form sleeping beneath you - one hoof comes to rest near its head, ready to crush it should the creature wake up.
  2262. > "What's the issue?"
  2263. > For a stallion of his size, it's surprising how quietly Boulder can move.
  2264. "Boulder. You're good with rocks - splitting them and stuff, right?"
  2265. > The outline of his enormous head bobs once.
  2266. "This cave - can you tell me how and where to buck it to bring it down?"
  2267. > Boulder's only response is to quietly step further into the opening, softly tapping one hoof on the wall.
  2268. > You wait, hoof hovering over the creature's head - but finally he pauses and points to a specific spot.
  2269. "There?"
  2270. > Boulder makes his way back to your side, only speaking when he is close enough to do so quietly.
  2271. > "Don't even have to hit it that hard. There's already a fault there; it'll start everything fracturing."
  2272. > His hoof motions to the back area.
  2273. > "The whole ceiling back here is going to come crumbling about twenty or thirty seconds after it starts."
  2274. "Good. Go get Scupper back here, he can make the kick. I'll need you to carry Rowan again."
  2275. > Boulder doesn't respond, though - something has frozen him stock-still.
  2276. > You turn around again, following his gaze - and your blood freezes.
  2277. > Kneeling at the entrance to the cave are the unmistakable forms of Whispen and Scupper - and behind them two of the invaders, muzzles of their hand-cannons pressed to the backs of your ponies' heads.
  2278. > Tele Type and - amazingly - Silver already have their horns lit, and you think Hot Pot has her hoofblades out.
  2279. > Neither party dares to move, though.
  2280.  
  2281. > Your heart thunders in your chest, breath coming
  2282. > "Hey up there!"
  2283. > They aren't afraid to yell - they don't have to worry about waking up their sleeping comrades.
  2284. > In fact, it even benefits them to do so.
  2285. > "Hey - we know you guys understand English. Put down your weapons and shut down those freaking horns down."
  2286. > With a click the hoofblade on your remaining good foreleg extends; you place it to the throat of the invader sleeping beneath you.
  2287. "Boulder, back up. Get back to where that fissure was."
  2288. > Two quick steps back, and he is - you think - out of sight of the two at the front.
  2289. > Now it is your turn to call down:
  2290. "We don't want to fight you here. If you start killing us, that big stallion who was with me is going to bring down the whole cave. He can do that - so how about we both remain calm and not do anything stupid?"
  2291. > "What - so you freaks can keep us freezing out here until we die? We know this fuckin' storm is your fault - you gonna turn it to ice and freeze us in?"
  2292. > They don't have any idea how weather manipulation works, you realize.
  2293. > Or that there is a chariot going to be looking for you the moment the storm passes.
  2294. > If, that is, you can get a message out.
  2295. > Can they do the same, you wonder?
  2296. "If I let you in, will you believe I don't want a fight?"
  2297. > "No, but it would help."
  2298. > You lick your lips nervously.
  2299. "Tele! Silver! Let them come in."
  2300. > Very cautiously they back off to one side.
  2301. > After a moment of conversation you cannot hear, Whispen and Scupper rise to their hooves and enter the cave - the two invaders following closely behind them, weapons still at the ready.
  2302. > They slide down into what you presume to be a seated position near the side of the cave.
  2303. > After a moment Whispen and Scupper do the same, laying down on their bellies.
  2304. > "Good of you to let us in here, pony."
  2305.  
  2306. > You can hear a note of relief in his voice - more than simple relief to be out of the rain.
  2307. > These soldiers are scared, you realize.
  2308. > Scared of you, and what you can do.
  2309. > Whispen and Scupper are scared too; they look up at you with obvious fear on their faces.
  2310. "I don't want any of my soldiers to die either."
  2311. > "You going to surrender, then?"
  2312. "No!"
  2313. > Remembering where you are a second later, you quickly add:
  2314. "But I'm willing to talk. Talking is good. Better than killing."
  2315. > "Take this blade off my throat and I'll think about talking too."
  2316. > The creature beneath you had woken up - but not attacked.
  2317. > Taking a step back might defuse some of the tension... but you would lose some leverage, though not all.
  2318. > Boulder Dash still held at a safe distance, near the fissure.
  2319. > For that matter, how much do you tell them?
  2320. > How much information do you give, in the interests of keeping things calm?
  2321.  
  2322. ACTION:
  2323. [Numerous, "put your weapons down and talk IF they are willing to do the same."
  2324.  
  2325. "I'll take my blade away if you put down your weapons."
  2326. > The only response is silence from the invader beneath your hoof and a mocking laugh from one of the two sitting near the entrance.
  2327. > "Hey, you think you can just invade Earth, get thrown back, drop a fuckin' storm on our heads, and tell us to back off? Fuck you, four-legs. Fuck y-"
  2328. > "That's enough, soldier!"
  2329. > For the first time the one at your hooves speaks up - his growling voice rising to echo in the cave.
  2330. > Silence follows - and privately, you are thankful for his defusing the situation before it got worse.
  2331. "Look - I don't know what happened to your world. I really don't. We didn't even know what was going on when we first met you - we thought you were invading!"
  2332. > Glancing out, you see that Rowanoak and Silver are well in view of the two that are sitting near the entrance, and decide there's no harm in telling a bit more.
  2333. "We've got wounded, and I'm willing to bet you do as well. We're just trying to get to safety - not to hunt you. Sounds like you want to be out of this storm just as much as us, correct?"
  2334. > After a second, the invader beneath you nods.
  2335. > "We got wounded too."
  2336. "The way I see it, there's no point in fighting this. We'd just both end up with a lot of dead. Maybe my guards would take down yours, maybe the other way around."
  2337. > "We're not going to surrender."
  2338. "Then how about a mutual standoff."
  2339. > "Tell you what, pony."
  2340. > He motions behind you with one arm.
  2341. > "Take that blade off my throat, and I'll tell the man in the back their with a rifle on you to put it down."
  2342. "That still doesn't keep my guards down there safe. You have two more of them at..."
  2343. > What had he called it?
  2344. "...rifle-point."
  2345. > "And your big friend can bring down this cave, so you say. Take it or leave it."
  2346.  
  2347. ACTION:
  2348. - Take your blade away.
  2349. - We should also ask what happened and let them know that as far as we knew, they invaded us (In a gentle and calm manner). The situation is sticky, but let them know that killing anyone at this point is moot until we can both figure out what's going on, for all we know they might have a changeling invasion too.
  2350.  
  2351. > Slowly, you nod.
  2352. "Okay. We're all putting our weapons down now..."
  2353. > All to aware of the burning in your side from your wounds, you cautiously withdraw your hoofblade.
  2354. > If this turned bad, there likely wouldn't be a chance to put it back.
  2355. > Thankfully, it doesn't - as you take another cautious step back the invader only signals to someone behind you.
  2356. > Turning, you see another putting his weapon aside - he must have grabbed and aimed it without even sitting up.
  2357. > You take another few steps back, putting yourself out of its reach, you hope.
  2358. > It may be showing reason now, but no reason to be overly trusting.
  2359. > The invader just pushes itself upright, sitting with its back to the cave wall and observing you neutrally.
  2360. > "Mind if I pop a light?"
  2361. "...go ahead, but if it blinds me things are going to go bad fast."
  2362. > There is no verbal response; instead it merely reaches into its pack and produces a short, cylindrical lamp of some kind.
  2363. > Activating it with a press of a button, it sets it on the floor facing up to the ceiling.
  2364. > Now able to see in the meager light, you note the obvious signs of exhaustion on the creature's face.
  2365. > "You know, for the ones who brought on this storm, you lot are looking in a pretty sad state yourselves."
  2366. "...we weren't exactly expecting to be caught in it."
  2367. > Even as the sarcastic response leaves your lips you realize what an error it was to speak.
  2368. > Its eyebrows rise, a slight smirk gracing its lips.
  2369. > "Looks like we all kinda got screwed by this one, huh?"
  2370. > Its language is coarser than what you would expect of a soldier of the guard - but then again, you wonder.
  2371. > Perhaps this creature is part of their equivalent of the general guard, rather than the Royal Guard?
  2372. "War tends to do that."
  2373. > "Why'd you start it, then?"
  2374. "I told you - as far as I know, we didn't. We didn't even know about you until the fighting started here."
  2375.  
  2376. > "Can't say I believe that. We all saw the TV shots - your kind came through that portal first. Hell, might've made it for all we know."
  2377. "We definitely didn't. We wouldn't do that - we have enough problems. Changelings, manticores, hydras, dragons..."
  2378.  
  2379. ACTION:
  2380. - We need to start talking. Even if we do end up giving a tiny scrap of info that we shouldn't, we need to sort this shit out and figure out what's going on. Something invaded them, ergo they invaded us and we can't go on without knowing what it was, and if it really was royal guard that invaded, we need to survive to ask our princesses what the fuck they were thinking.
  2381.  
  2382. > "Well, as far as we can tell you damn well attacked us."
  2383. "...look, there's no sense arguing in this. I don't suppose you're able to speak for your leaders?"
  2384. > For the first time you hear something new from them - laughter.
  2385. > "Hell, no! You?"
  2386. "...no."
  2387. > "Well, ain't that a shame. You know, they could've tried a little thing called diplomacy."
  2388. > Anger begins to bubble up through your exhaustion.
  2389. "I told you, we didn't deliberately attack you! Do you really think I would be out here, hiding in a cave, soaking wet, not having slept well in days, with guards under my command dying if I had a choice?"
  2390. > Silence rings in the cave in the aftermath of your outburst.
  2391. > "Jesus Christ, you're serious, ain't you?"
  2392. "You'd better bet your wings I am!"
  2393. > "Don't have wings to bet, but I'll still take it."
  2394. > He reaches into a pocket; for a moment fear runs through you like a cold shiver, but he only withdraws a small paper box from which an even smaller paper tube is produced.
  2395. > Lighting it with another small metal box, he sucks deeply - and moments later, the cave is filled with a pungent odor of something burning.
  2396. > "I can't speak for my leaders, but I can make a guess at what they're going to say."
  2397. "Which is?"
  2398. > "You might not have meant to attack, but you did - and the public, well, I don't think the public is going to settle for anything less than making this side safe."
  2399. > His words aside, it's fairly impressive that he can speak while holding the tube in his lips.
  2400. > "You're ruled by princesses right?"
  2401. "Yes, Celestia and Luna. Luna-"
  2402. > You almost say that Luna is in command nearby, but that's going a bit far.
  2403. "-is more easily reachable. She would be the one to hear any message first."
  2404. > "Don't really see the point of not having a Queen, but whatever - point is, you tell 'em if they want this to stop, they're going to be giving something up. Good place to start the negotiations."
  2405. > You are about to respond when another voice speaks up.
  2406.  
  2407. > "How're we supposed to take a message back if you aren't going to be letting us go?"
  2408. > Tele Type's question is so unexpected - he had been silent for so long you'd almost forgotten everything except the invader in front of you.
  2409. > He just takes another long draw on his burning paper tube.
  2410. > "Well, way I see it... we all get through the night alright, we might just go our separate ways in the morning."
  2411. "That... would be very agreeable."
  2412. > "You got food?"
  2413. "Rations, yes. I don't know if they'll be edible to you, but they are there."
  2414. > "We got heater packs. Can't light a fire in here without choking us all, but the heater packs will keep us warm and dry."
  2415.  
  2416. ACTION:
  2417. [Numerous; get some sleep, but organize a watch in the night before you do. Talk to the invaders, see about asking them about their world and telling them a bit about yours.]
  2418.  
  2419. "Tele! Check my saddlebags, there's rations in there."
  2420. > Looking back down towards the entrance to the cave, you realize there's something else you've forgotten.
  2421. "...and, really, I would appreciate it if you could have your troops take their weapons away from my guards' heads."
  2422. > Their leader studies you for a moment before calling out:
  2423. > "Reebeck! Durson! Let 'em be."
  2424. > The two soldiers are slow to lower their weapons, at least until another further in the cave calls out as well.
  2425. > "Put them down, guys. They try anything, I've got a couple of frags that'll kill everything in here."
  2426. > Finally their weapons fall to point at the floor.
  2427. > Whispen lays her head down on the floor in silent thanks.
  2428. "Thank you."
  2429. > Their leader shrugs lightly.
  2430. > "You heard him. We go down, you're all going to hell with us."
  2431. > 'Heat packs' turn out to be shiny, foil-like packages that rapidly grow hot once something inside is snapped.
  2432. > After spending a great deal of time picking over what from among your rations they could eat - for some reason they found the dried hay wafers highly amusing - they manage to settle out enough to feed the five of them.
  2433. > Passingly, you find the fact that your enemies are now eating rations that had once been meant for Buzzy and Downspout to be a painful irony.
  2434. > Exhaustion keeps it from showing, though.
  2435. > As time passes the tension begins to thin out, although it never vanishes entirely.
  2436. > There's always one or another of them with a weapon in their hands, and Boulder never leaves his spot by the fissure.
  2437. > But by the time night comes, you're reasonably certain they're serious about their desire to survive the night.
  2438. > Organizing watches for the night turns out to be a rather simpler affair.
  2439. > One pony and one invader - 'humans', they called themselves - would keep watch.
  2440.  
  2441. > Sleep, it seemed, was desperately needed by all.
  2442. > Even so, you cannot quite shake a nervous worry as you lay down to sleep.
  2443. > So lost in your thoughts are you that you barely notice when Whispen lays down beside you.
  2444. > Eventually you do look over, her gaze having triggered some sixth sense that you were being watched.
  2445. > One look at her tells you that she is just as worried.
  2446. > You do your best, though - offering her a small, hopefully reassuring smile.
  2447. > She nods fractionally before closing her eyes.
  2448. > Shortly afterwards, sleep claims you as well.
  2449. > ...
  2450. > Morning.
  2451. > Morning brings mixed emotions.
  2452. > On the one side, there is a certain elation to not be awoken by the sound of weapons, screams, or cries of anger.
  2453. > Both sides, it seems, have kept their promise through the night.
  2454. > On the other side, the storm is not yet passed - though, after extending your one good wing to feel the wind in your feathers, you do think it is a great deal lighter and will probably end soon.
  2455. > "Weather still sucks."
  2456. > One of the humans sat at the entrance to the cave, looking out.
  2457. "It'll be passing soon enough."
  2458. > He makes a neutral-sounding grunt.
  2459. > A moment later, though, he asks something odd:
  2460. > "Hey, you... you have two princesses leading your nation, right?"
  2461. "Yes - well, there are actually four, but Celestia and Luna have been around... a long time."
  2462. > "How come they aren't queens?"
  2463. > That wasn't the question you were expecting.
  2464. > It takes you a moment to reach back to long-forgotten history classes you'd barely passed in your youth.
  2465. "...that title carries a lot of weight. Bad weight. Most of those who've claimed it - King Sombra, the various Changeling Queens - they've been tyrants of varying power. Nopony wants those titles anymore."
  2466. > "Huh. We don't have a king or queen either. Kinda similar reason - well, in our country anyway."
  2467. > For a second you are about to ask what they do have, but then something occurs to you.
  2468. "...what do you mean by your country?"
  2469.  
  2470. > "Well, there's a couple-hundred countries out there - hell a couple dozen putting soldiers into this operation."
  2471. > Your brain races as you consider his words.
  2472. "So... last night, your commander... he said if we wanted the invasion to stop, we would probably have to give something up. What would they all want?"
  2473. > He just shakes his head.
  2474. > "How the hell do I know? I'm just a grunt. Some of 'em might be happy with a border zone of some kind, something to give us some breathing room."
  2475. "And the others?"
  2476. > "Some of them are going to want reparations. Some of them - not gonna lie, some of them are going to want us to take over here."
  2477. > Your stomach drops out.
  2478. "What?! Why? It was - we didn't-"
  2479. > The soldier just laughs.
  2480. > "You don't get it, do you? We've been scared of an alien invasion for centuries, and then - boom, pow, you guys pop out of that portal doing your freaky magic thing and whatever. You scared a lot of people real, real bad."
  2481.  
  2482. ACTION:
  2483. - We could tell him that we assume - since we don't have the authority to speak for our leaders - that a border zone sounds like something that everyone could agree upon.
  2484. And maybe that we hope that all of this is over soon and that instead of killing each other, our peoples could learn a lot from each other.
  2485.  
  2486. "Yeah... guess I can understand that too."
  2487. > You turn your head slightly, watching him out of the corner of your eye.
  2488. > It's much harder to guess where they are looking, their eyes are so much smaller than yours.
  2489. > "Trust me, I'd fuckin' love it if you could make all this shit just stop tomorrow. Some o'the guys, though, they ain't feeling the same. Most of 'em, I'd say they'd be happy to see some kinda disarmament, your army shut down."
  2490. > They would want Equestria to give up the Royal Guard?
  2491. > That would never stand, you are sure - the Pegasi alone would insist on retaining the same semi-autonomy they had been allowed under the unification.
  2492. > Never mind how communities living near the Badlands, Everfree, or Frozen North would feel.
  2493. "...I'll pass on the message to the princesses. That there is still a hope for peace."
  2494. > "Good of you."
  2495. > Silence falls again, until a barked order draws the soldier back inside and another one takes his place.
  2496. > One glance at the new soldier tells you that he will not be so talkative.
  2497. > Again you tentative extend your wing into the gusting winds, this time feeling a definite distance.
  2498. > Time, it seems, there is a definite difference - the storm is nearly passed.
  2499. > Turning to walk back at inside the cave, you are promptly met by an unexpected sight.
  2500. > You'd known Boulder carried a small, simply-carved wooden pipe with him in the field; considering the massive Stallion's bulk, it wasn't hard for him to fit a few extra pouches on his saddlebags.
  2501. > What you hadn't expected was to see him with one of the invaders' white tubes merging from his muzzle, the end faintly glowing - and beside him, a human cautiously puffing on Boulder's pipe.
  2502. > The image brings a slight smile to your lips - if those two could find it in them to trade, there may be hope yet.
  2503. > There's little time to pause, though, as you quickly lean down to whisper a message to Tele Type.
  2504.  
  2505. "Get ready to send a message. We're probably going to be heading out soon."
  2506. > Next, a quick check on Rowanoak that brings a little comfort to your mind.
  2507. > While his breathing is still shallow and fever still racks his body, the dry and warmth from one of the invaders' heat packs seems to have done him good.
  2508. > A pity you'll have to take him out into the rain again.
  2509. > Limping further back into the cave, you're suddenly overcome with a slight of nausea.
  2510. > It passes as quickly as it comes and you proceed towards the human leader in the back, where he sits conversing with one of his soldiers.
  2511. "Can I have a word with you?"
  2512. > "Go ahead, pony."
  2513. "The storm is going to be passing soon - maybe another hour or two. We're going to start heading out when it does."
  2514. > He nods silently, waiting for you to continue.
  2515. "I hope we can expect you to not shoot us as soon as our backs are turned?"
  2516. > "As much as we can believe you won't call a tornado down on us the second you're safely out."
  2517. > The fact that it would take dozens of pegasi to call up a tornado that quickly is something you decide not to share.
  2518. "Then we shouldn't have a problem. We both have messages to bring back, and killing helps neither of us."
  2519. > "Alright. You go first and we wait - what, another hour or two?"
  2520. "You're going to bring one of your flying machines in?"
  2521. > He nods after a second.
  2522. > "Yeah, we'll call for helo extraction."
  2523. "Call for it once the storm clears. We should be gone by then."
  2524. > With luck, Tele's message will have resulted in a chariot having long since been dispatched by then.
  2525. "Agreed?"
  2526. > "Agreed."
  2527.  
  2528. ACTION:
  2529. - A handshake seals a deal. You could hoofbump him due to the lack of hands.
  2530.  
  2531. > "Shake on it?"
  2532. > He holds out one hand, offering it to you.
  2533. "Afraid I'm wounded and can't really shake, but..."
  2534. > You hold out one hoof briefly, bumping it against his hand and dropping it to the ground before the pain in your wounded limbs becomes to much.
  2535. "...hope that works."
  2536. > He nods.
  2537. > "Works just fine for me."
  2538. > Thankfully, you do not think you showed any sign of the wave of nausea that again rolled through you as your weight rested on the injured legs.
  2539. > With that you set about the business of getting your group ready to move again.
  2540. > Your last rations are eaten, Rowan is with a bit of trouble loaded onto Boulder, and the others are readied as well.
  2541. > This time, it seems, you are to be carried by Hot Pot while Silver rides atop Scupper.
  2542. > As you're ready to depart, you glance to Tele.
  2543. "Message got sent?"
  2544. > "Yes. No response yet, but we can hope."
  2545. > By the time you step out of the cave, the rain has become little more than a drizzle and the wind barely noticeable unless you extend your good wing.
  2546. > As you hike away, you take one look back to the cave and the unusual invaders you had met there.
  2547. > Two of them stand at the entrance, weapons held loosely at their sides pointing away from you.
  2548. > In time, they fade out of distance as well.
  2549. > You're actually sort of glad that they cannot see when a message scroll appears out of thin air in front of Tele.
  2550. > "They're sending a chariot! I'll tell them roughly where we are; they ask we start sending up magic flares when they get close!"
  2551. > Thank Celestia the storm had kept their flying machines down!
  2552. > Even with the benefit of flight, it takes the chariot until later afternoon to fly in.
  2553. > By that time, you are all to aware of the growing nausea in your belly.
  2554. > Fortunately there's plenty of room on board to lay the wounded - yourself included - down.
  2555. > Even as you take off, though, your vision begins to wobble in line with the rolling horizon.
  2556. > Wobbling...
  2557. > Twisting...
  2558. > Black.
  2559. > ...
  2560.  
  2561. MISSION 2 COMPLETE:
  2562. Objectives
  2563. > Survive: COMPLETE
  2564. > Keep your group alive: PARTIALLY COMPLETE, 8/10 ALIVE, 3 WOUNDED
  2565. > Provide warning to the Pegasi building the storm: COMPLETE
  2566. > Ward off the infantry attack on your position: PARTIAL SUCCESS
  2567. > Regain some of Whispen's trust: COMPLETE
  2568.  
  2569. > Light.
  2570. > Darkness.
  2571. > Noise.
  2572. > Yelling.
  2573. > Crying.
  2574. > Screams of pain.
  2575. > Not yours.
  2576. > Burning in your side.
  2577. > Your wing, immobilized.
  2578. > Motion again.
  2579. > You are moving.
  2580. > Moving where?
  2581. > More light.
  2582. > Silence.
  2583. > Silent, but for the slow, repetitive beeping of something beside the bed you are laying in.
  2584. > The room takes time to resolve itself, swimming in your vision.
  2585. > "Ah, you're awake."
  2586. > Slowly your vision is dragged off to the side, where a tired-looking pony in a nurse's uniform.
  2587. > "You are exceedingly lucky, sir. It seems you forgot to change your bandages in the field, and your wounds had become infected."
  2588. > Infected.
  2589. > The nausea.
  2590. > You were infected?
  2591. > Your wounds...
  2592. > Peering down at your limb, you see little but bandages wrapped around your leg now.
  2593. > "They healed up quite nicely once you were treated, but you've been in and out of consciousness for thee weeks."
  2594. > Two weeks?!
  2595. "Where's... where's m'guards? They 'kay?"
  2596. > "I'm afraid I don't know the status of the guards who brought you in. They were sent back out to duty when the attack began."
  2597. > Attack?!
  2598. > All at once, everything comes crashing together.
  2599. > The well-appointed hospital room you are laying in, the elaborate machinery, the nurse not in a guard uniform - none of this would be at the base camp.
  2600. "...where am I? What happened?"
  2601. > "You're near the outskirts of Las Pegasus, sir. Please try to stand up?"
  2602. > With some effort your roll from the bed.
  2603. "What happened? Did we push them ba-"
  2604. > To late you realize that wouldn't be something a civilian nurse could - or probably should - know.
  2605. > Her flinch, though, tells you enough.
  2606. > "...do you feel capable of walking, sir?"
  2607. > A few cautious steps gives you a solid answer of yes.
  2608. > "Very good then. I've been told to give you three messages when you wake up: First, you are to report to a Colonel Silver Linings."
  2609. > The name is familiar to you - he directed your unit back before this all started.
  2610. > What is he doing here, though?
  2611.  
  2612. ACTION:
  2613. - Go see the dude in charge
  2614. - Do it in the order the nurse said.
  2615. - He is most likely to give us a detailed sitrep, so yeah, that first.
  2616.  
  2617. > With the nurse following close behind, you manage to take a few cautious steps from the bed.
  2618. "Where's the Colonel?"
  2619. > "Room two-twenty-seven, down the hall. I'll walk with you there."
  2620. > Weeks of bed have done nothing good for your fitness, but you manage to find your pace soon enough.
  2621. > The longer you walk, though, the more worried you become.
  2622. > Each and every room is filled, and there are stretchers - some still showing signs of recent use - scattered in the halls.
  2623. > Eventually you speed to a trot, desperate to escape the sounds more than anything.
  2624. > The unmistakable sounds of the wounded.
  2625. > 227 is not hard to find, and you breath a sign of relief when the door finally closes behind you.
  2626. > It might have been a staff rec room or something once, but now it's been taken over by several desks manned by Royal Guards.
  2627. > The familiar face of the colonel is a welcome sight.
  2628. > Trotting to his desk, you raise a leg in salute.
  2629. "Sir. Reporting as ordered, sir."
  2630. > Silver Linings looks up, and with a shock you note the dark rings beneath his eyes.
  2631. > "Well. Some good news, for once."
  2632. "Has it been bad, sir?"
  2633. > In response, Silver Linings opens a file - your medical file, you realize.
  2634. > "Out for three weeks, fighting infected shrapnel wounds... yes, it has been. Very, very bad."
  2635. > It's the lack of emotion in his voice that worries you the most.
  2636. > It speaks of a pony that has become so used to the worst that they are not even shocked by it anymore.
  2637. > "The storm pushed them back for a while. About, all of three days. When we started trying to whip up another storm... they must have figured out where the base camp was. They hit it with some kind of suicide-flying machine, tore straight through the shields the unicorns had put up."
  2638. > Already an icy pit is forming in your stomach, but still he goes on.
  2639.  
  2640. > "Don't know what happened after that, but... they just kept coming. Rain hadn't even dried when they pushed out of the Everfree using armored carts on treads backed by artillery from Tartarus itself. Just brushed aside the defense lines we'd managed to get up."
  2641. "Sir... my squad. What happened to them?"
  2642. > "They're here, mostly. You'll be put back in command once you're cleared for duty. Normally that'd be weeks, but... we're desperate right now. We're fighting on multiple fronts now, and they're hitting us with all kinds of Discord-spawn stuff."
  2643. "...but what about the princess? She was at-"
  2644. > "Her Highness Luna held them back for three days continuously, almost always alone. Something... something happened, and she left. Marshal Shining Armor is in command now, though he's not here. Brigadier Valiant Charge is holding things here."
  2645. "Is she... safe? The princess?"
  2646. > "As far as I know. Now, if would report to physical testing. If the say you're good, I'm afraid I'm going to have to send you back out again."
  2647. "Can I return to my old unit, Sir?"
  2648. > "Yes, I can arrange that."
  2649. "Thank you, sir."
  2650.  
  2651. ACTION:
  2652. - Let's go get our physical exam so we can meet up with Whispen and the others
  2653.  
  2654. > Physical testing turns out to be a flashback to boot camp.
  2655. > Except, you think, the drill sergeants at boot camp had at least a modicum of mercy about them.
  2656. > The physical examiners have nothing like that, and three weeks in bed have done nothing good for your fitness.
  2657. > Nonetheless, they grudgingly render you fit for duty.
  2658. > Though not without a note to pass to your commanding officer insisting on regular exercise until you were back up to shape.
  2659. > The only thing remaining to do is to pick up your personal affects.
  2660. > To your surprise, much of your armor is there - along with refilled saddlebags and a note.
  2661. > Unfolding the note to read it, your eyebrows rise in surprise.
  2662. > 'Sir - I'm sorry I won't be there for you when you wake up again. We got out safely, but things have gotten bad since then. I'm in command now; we're being sent out behind enemy lines to try and scout their movements.'
  2663. > There's several scratched out lines here, before the writing resumes.
  2664. > 'I really wish you were here. I was angry at you for leaving them behind, but you seemed to know best what to do. I'm still not sure, and I only hope to Celestia I'm doing the right things. I don't know when we'll meet again, but it was good to serve with you.
  2665. > Whispen
  2666. > PS: Rowanoak woke up before we were sent out again. He sends his thanks for keeping him alive. Apparently the shot nearly pierced his lung.'
  2667. > Despite the bleakness of the situation, you find yourself smiling slightly.
  2668. > At least you could say you were going back to your unit.
  2669. > Quickly returning to Silver Linings again, you are given the rest of your orders and sent on your way.
  2670. > The warning that comes with the orders is chilling, though:
  2671. > "If you have to fly, stay low. Their flying machines are ranging farther and farther every day."
  2672. > Even flying low as you are, the signs of the war - yes, a real war now - are obvious.
  2673.  
  2674. > Craters litter the main roads, along with the burnt-out wreckage of carts and chariots.
  2675. > Your orders direct you to a town east of Las Pegasus, a small place with a history of mining and smithing.
  2676. > The trenches start nearly three miles behind the town.
  2677. > A few faces - guardpony and civilian alike - turn up to watch your passing, but even they quickly return to their work.
  2678. > Landing in the main camp some half a mile east of the town, you quickly manage to acquire directions to your unit.
  2679. > At first you don't even recognize them - their armor has been scuffed and patched haphazardly, the white dye in their coats is beginning to fade, and they all look exhausted.
  2680. "...hey."
  2681. > Faces turn up to look at you - some exhausted, some happy, some you do not recognize.
  2682. > There are new faces here, and some missing.
  2683. > "Sir!"
  2684. > That voice, though, you know.
  2685. "Hey, Whispen. Good to be back."
  2686. > She gives you a look, one full of exhaustion and relief.
  2687. > "Good to have you back. Are you taking over again?"
  2688. "You bet your horn I am."
  2689. > Whispen lifts one hoof in a relieved salute.
  2690. > "Glad to turn over command."
  2691. > A quick tour of the camp - such as it is - leaves you with the feeling things are better here than they seemed to be at first.
  2692. > Still, you wait until you are out of hearing range of most before asking Whispen the question eating at your mind.
  2693. "How bad is it really? I was told they broke out and Princess Luna tried to hold them off, but nothing more..."
  2694. > Whispen grimaces as your hooves squelch in the freshly-turned earth around the trenches.
  2695. > "...it's supposed to be a secret, but... we passed on what the invader said. About negotiating and all that. Luna tried to look into their dreams for more information."
  2696. "Wait, this was before or after the attack on the base camp?"
  2697. > "After, on the third day she was holding them off. She was looking for a way to stop them without more bloodshed."
  2698. > Whispen stops, looking around and lowering her voice.
  2699.  
  2700. > "I don't know exactly what happened, but apparently it went badly. A few days later they started dropping little papers on our lines."
  2701. "Papers?"
  2702. > In response Whispen pulls a slip of paper from her armor and hands it out to you.
  2703. > Your eyes widen, shock racing through your mind as you read it, phrases jumping out at you.
  2704. "They want her to step down and be tried as a criminal for invading their minds?!"
  2705. > Whispen nods, her expression grim.
  2706. > "Apparently the reason doesn't matter to them - going into their dreams made them very, very angry and as far as they're concerned Luna meant to."
  2707. "That's why she left?!"
  2708. > "Yes. Apparently it tapped into some memory of Nightmare Moon really badly for her."
  2709. > Distant orders drift from the distance as you talk.
  2710. "...nopony will agree to those terms."
  2711. > Another grim nod from Whispen.
  2712. > "We know. It's... gone very, very wrong, hasn't it?"
  2713. > You can only nod in agreement.
  2714. "So... what's happening here?"
  2715. > "Well, they've mostly swung north - skirting the Everfree, we think trying to push for Canterlot. The general guard and militias have been called up, but... it's not helping so far."
  2716. "And we're only safe because they aren't paying attention to us."
  2717. > Whispen nods glumly.
  2718. > "We've been trying not to say to much to preserve morale, but... yeah, it's bad."
  2719. "Well... what are our orders?"
  2720. > "My - your unit has been tasked with operating behind their lines. We're supposed to slip in, gather what information we can, maybe stage a couple ambushes, and get out."
  2721. "Has it been working?"
  2722. > "Better than anything else."
  2723. "Then, I suppose, I should go meet the others."
  2724.  
  2725. > Fortunately you aren't given orders immediately.
  2726. > Mostly, it seems, because command is in a state of utter chaos.
  2727. > If the camp scuttlebutt is to believed, the only thing that is slowing down the invaders is their own cautiousness...
  2728. > And a strange insistence on not simply destroying any cities they came across to the ground, instead pausing and garrisoning them with their own forces.
  2729. > As much as you were thankful they hadn't simply burnt everything to the ground, it only left you more confused.
  2730. > Did they honestly think that ponies would accept their rule if they sought to imprison Princess Luna?
  2731. > Or were they hoping that they could convince ponies they weren't monsters by taking a softer touch?
  2732. > Neither option boded well for the future.
  2733. > If they could not be stopped now, it was a fair guess that inevitably things would turn ugly in time.
  2734. > Forcing such thoughts out of your mind, you instead focus on getting yourself back in shape and meeting your new unit.
  2735. > The hardest part there was finding that of the eight you had returned with, only four remained.
  2736. > Silver Star and Scupper had been killed during the fighting near the base camp.
  2737. > It was strange; both had been quite alive and, in Scupper's case, well the last time you saw them.
  2738. > Now they were simply... gone.
  2739. > Rowanoak, of course, had to be sent back for treatment, and Tele Type had been moved to somewhere his talent was needed.
  2740. > The only benefit you had was that Whispen, despite her fears of failing at leading, had brought the new guards up to speed on what to expect from the invaders.
  2741. > It had cost her, though.
  2742. > On the fifth day back, Boulder Dash pulled aside as you were out on a morning run.
  2743. > "She had nightmares, you know."
  2744. > You look aside, answer puffing out between heavy breaths.
  2745. "Whispen...? What ... about ...?"
  2746.  
  2747. > "The fighting near the base camp. When those metal crawlers started coming out of the Everfree. Scupper an' another we'd just got assigned... we couldn't go back to see what happened to them."
  2748. "She didn't want to leave them behind?"
  2749. > "Never. Lead us back in twice again t'find them, that's when we lost another an' nearly Hot Pot too. She ordered us to fall back then, but... she really didn't want to."
  2750. "I'll... talk to her about it."
  2751. > You never get the chance.
  2752. > Later that night, a new face appears near your unit's sleeping hole.
  2753. > Three of them, in fact - your immediate superior and two of the bat-wing night guard.
  2754. "Lieutenant Strongarm! Are we receiving new orders?"
  2755. > "Yes. First of all, for your outstanding service in the guard in this time of great peril, you are hereby promoted to Senior Airpony. Congratulations, you'll have to get your rank markings later. Now-"
  2756. > The lieutenant reaches into his saddlebags.
  2757. > "-your orders. You are to proceed towards the town of Easthock; we've reports they may have established a forward base there. You're to observe, report, and if possible disrupt their operations there."
  2758. "Understood, Lieutenant."
  2759. > Tossing his head back to indicate the two night guard behind him, Strongarm continues.
  2760. > "These two have been attached to your unit; considering the need for stealth and night operations in this, I'm sure they will be helpful."
  2761. "I don't doubt it, sir."
  2762. > "Very well then. You're to depart by first light. Due to the need for secrecy and hostile air activity, you will not be able to get a chariot-flight in or out."
  2763. > Turning to you again, the leiutenant locks gazes with you - and for the first time you see how truly worried he is.
  2764. > "Celestia and Luna's good graces go with you. We need a success right now, even if just to slow them down while the general guard and militia forms up."
  2765.  
  2766. > You strike out just before dawn.
  2767. > The light isn't even creeping over the horizon yet when you crawl out of the trenches and cautiously start making your way east towards the town of Easthock.
  2768. > Birds are definitely awake, though - you can see Ornithea's ears swivelling at each call and trill.
  2769. > Better birds than the buzzing, whining hum of the flying machines that had heralded the invaders' attack the last time.
  2770. > It's at least a good three days' march to Easthock, though - a prospect which leaves you none to happy, considering that your still-rebuilding muscles will be aching and tired by the time you even reach your objective.
  2771. > At least Chilona and Dusk seem pleased to be moving at night - even if, like you, they are obviously irritable at being forcibly grounded by the enemy's unexpected aerial dominance.
  2772. > Speaking of them...
  2773. > You fall back to trot alongside them.
  2774. "I didn't ask this earlier, but I need to know now - is there going to be an issue with your sleeping schedules?"
  2775. > Dusk gives you a look from the corner of one golden, slitted eye.
  2776.  
  2777. > "It will not be our normal sleeping hours, but we will live."
  2778. "Good to hear. Sorry about... you know, having to ask."
  2779. > "We are not offended. The Night Guard has always been traditionally nocturnal; it is only natural you should ask."
  2780. "Glad to hear."
  2781. > Pushing back up to the head of the line, you're just in time to hear somepony mutter.
  2782. > "...freaks..."
  2783. > Immediately your head swivels around, trying to spot which of your ponies said that - but they are all staring ahead, or only looking aside to watch for threats.
  2784. > Frowning, you turn back to your own march as well.
  2785.  
  2786. ACTION:
  2787. - Go for dawn and dusk travel
  2788. - Might as well take the roads at night to cover some ground. If they're using thermal imaging or night vision, they'd spot us either way. When it dawns, we can still switch to the weeds. Weeds at night would also either mean using light or walking very carefully in order not to trip.
  2789.  
  2790. > Keeping your travel limited to directly during the dawn and dusk hours, you manage to keep up your pace by sticking (mostly) to the roads.
  2791. > Breaking up your sleep schedules does nopony good, but you manage to get a good few hours of sleep in each night (or in Dusk and Chilona's case, day) and nap when not on otherwise marching or on guard.
  2792. > Still, it's not hard to notice the tiredness tugging at your eyes as you crest a hill on the third day of marching.
  2793. > The sun had only just set, but now you were plenty close.
  2794. > In fact, if the map you had was any good, Easthock should be visible from just over this ridge.
  2795. > A trading town, it was situated where five major roads came together - most separated from each other by a line of rocky ridges and hills along the southern edge of the town that offered excellent vision.
  2796. > East of it is flatter, lightly forested territory - the outskirts of the Whitetail woods.
  2797. > Carefully climbing the hilly terrain, you nearly jump out of your skin when a voice from somewhere up ahead.
  2798. > Immediately all your squad flatten themselves to the ground - an intuition that proves to be the right one, as the voice soon resolves itself to be one of the invaders.
  2799. > "..coming up on the summit of hill two-two-seven, no contact, over."
  2800. > A brief silence holds before the voice speaks up again:
  2801. > "Copy that, heading to hill two-two-eight. Will report in when arriving, over and out."
  2802. > Damn, they had patrols out!
  2803. > Listening to the crunching of distancing footfalls on earth, it sounds like they must be heading off down away from you.
  2804. > If you circled around fast enough, you might be able to catch the patrol by surprise as they descended the far side of the hill.
  2805. > The thin scrub would afford neither side cover; the advantage would go to whoever could strike first.
  2806. > Then again, starting something this early might not be a good idea...
  2807.  
  2808. ACTION:
  2809. - We'll get blown the fuck out if we try to ambush, considering how badly the one went we we were dug in and ready. Send Dusk to see what's in the area
  2810.  
  2811. "Dusk. Get up there and see what's going on."
  2812. > The batpony squirms past you, traveling further up the slope.
  2813. > Incredibly, at a certain point he simply seems to vanish behind a rock and not reappear.
  2814. > After a few moments you turn to Chilona.
  2815. "...he is still going, right?"
  2816. > "Definitely."
  2817. > She nods firmly.
  2818. > "I can hear him."
  2819. > Sure enough, perhaps twenty minutes later Dusk returns - carefully making his way back down the slope.
  2820. > "Nine of them, moving together. I'd swear one looked right at me, but they didn't react. No others, but... you'd better see the town."
  2821. "Are they heading away?"
  2822. > "Yes. They seem to be heading up the next-east hill."
  2823. "Then let's move up to this one and take a look."
  2824. > Cresting the top of the hill fills you with no small amount of nervousness, in part because of how exposed you feel.
  2825. > All of that vanishes when you come over the top, and look down at Easthock.
  2826. > "Woah."
  2827. > You have to agree with Whispen's assessment.
  2828. > The original town itself was still there, but in the fields to the north an entirely new camp had sprung up - tents, poles that washed the ground in light, and dozens upon dozens of the invaders' metal carts.
  2829. "That's... something."
  2830. > "They must be using it to distribute supplies."
  2831. > Thinking back on the thought of the metal casings you had found in the invader's weapon, you nod.
  2832. "Probably have to move a huge amount of supplies to keep their army moving, especially since they can't eat hay or grass like us."
  2833. > Copper gives a low whistle.
  2834. > "Lookit all that metal. What I'd pay to get a look at it..."
  2835. "Later. Our mission is to observe and report. If we get an opportunity, we'll get in - but I'm sure they're not lax on security."
  2836. > "Bet I can make a distraction."
  2837. > You throw a look at the responsible unicorn.
  2838. "Spark, I said later. For now, we need to find somewhere to set up."
  2839.  
  2840. ACTION:
  2841. [3 choices given for where to set up camp. Option 2 chosen.]
  2842. - Sneak around to the lightly forested area north of the town. Harder to view, but better camoflage.
  2843.  
  2844. "We can't stay out here; if they have half a brain another patrol will be on its way soon enough."
  2845. > Another quick check of your map yields an alternate option.
  2846. "Looks like there's some trees just north of the city. Should still be far enough beyond their camp to keep from being spotted. Let's go."
  2847. > Circling around the backside of the hill, you manage to not encounter any further patrols as you reach the treeline.
  2848. > Although not nearly as heavy and thick as the Everfree, it is quite sufficient to keep you safe... so long as none of the invaders come looking.
  2849. "Right. Let's get bedded down and maybe some camouflage up. Dusk, Chilona - can you take first watch?"
  2850. > The two nod an affirmative, even though their exhaustion from the evening's travel is plain to see.
  2851. "Good. Whispen, Quick Step, take the next. We'll decide what to do in the morning."
  2852. > Morning, unfortunately, comes far to quickly.
  2853. > It also comes in the form of Byline shaking you awake.
  2854. > "You need to wake up. Something big is happening down there."
  2855. > Pulling yourself over a slight rise separating your little camp from the far larger invader one, your eyes widen as you see what is happening.
  2856. > Even from here, it is obvious to see - at least four, maybe five dozen more big, multi-axle carts have rolled in and even now are disgorging tens of 'humans' each.
  2857. > Beside you, Whispen and Quick Step crawl up.
  2858. > "They started coming in about ten minutes ago, and they just don't stop."
  2859. "What about those crawler things? The ones you said lead the attack from the Everfree?"
  2860. > "None of those yet. Some things that look like them, but just on wheels."
  2861. > "Sir... you don't think they saw us...?"
  2862. > You shake your head, wishing for all the world somepony had thought to send an extra-powerful pair of binoculars or a telescope with you.
  2863. "You ever fought these things, Byline?"
  2864. > "No, I was only involved in the retreat from the camp near the Everfree."
  2865.  
  2866. "They don't need that many to hunt us. If they saw us, they'd just come with what they had. I think this is a supply depot, and they're stopping for supplies."
  2867. > "That's... only one supply convoy?"
  2868. "Probably. If I had to guess, those are their basic infantry. They just ride from place to place on those carts."
  2869. > Indeed, perhaps an hour later the carts are re-loading with soldiers and pulling away.
  2870. > As you watch them go, a frown appears on your lips.
  2871. > "We need to get in closer> See what's happening."
  2872. "Agreed, Whispen. Any ideas on how, though?"
  2873. > "I could probably talk my way into town, if I take my armor off."
  2874. > You're not sure when Caravan had appeared beside you, but there he is.
  2875. > Eyeing him, you realize that with his coat half-washed of the Royal Guard-standard dye, he presents a patchwork but decidedly nonmilitary appearance without his armor.
  2876. > Then again, so do you all.
  2877. "I'll consider it. Other options?"
  2878. > "Wait until night, send the night guards? There's also a little creek running through town according to the map. If we're careful, we could try to creep up it and use it for cover."
  2879. > Byline shakes his head at Whispen's idea.
  2880. > "You get caught doing that, they'll never believe it was by accident."
  2881.  
  2882. ACTION:
  2883. - If we send Caravan in, we should send him in with a justification to come back out. Like, say he wants to check on his family / sell something (we'd have to provide him with something non-military he could present as "stuff he wants to sell"). But yeah, I'd rather send in Caravan (only with a good exit-strategy though) than the bat ponies.
  2884.  
  2885. "Caravan, if you screw this up, I swear to Celestia..."
  2886. > "Relax. I can do this. I'm going to need something to sell, though."
  2887. > Hot Pot comes to your rescue.
  2888. > "I don't know much about plants and such, but I can put together some edibles. Maybe he could pass them off as rare herbs or something?"
  2889. "Sounds as good as anything. Caravan, find a stream and get as much of that dye out of your coat as you can."
  2890. > "Understood."
  2891. > With his armor shed and saddlebags filled with plants and herbs, Caravan heads out.
  2892. > With any luck, he should be able to circle around to approach by one of the roads... less
  2893. > You watch him go, unable to erase the frown from your face.
  2894. > "Still worrying about him?"
  2895. > Glancing aside to Whispen, you nod.
  2896. "Don't like sending him in alone like that, but nobody else would fit. We all look to military to pass easily."
  2897. > She turns back towards the invaders' camp.
  2898. > "I know. but better that than nothing."
  2899. "Still - I think we should try and make an approach tonight. Get a little closer, see if we can't get a little bit more information."
  2900. > "Say, about three or four ponies?"
  2901. "Sounds about right. We'll make an approach from the east, just as the sun is rising - make it harder to be seen."
  2902.  
  2903. ACTION:
  2904. - Picked Dusk, Chilona and Copper for team members.
  2905.  
  2906. > The remainder of the day passes slowly
  2907. > You spend your time observing the humans' larger camp.
  2908. > Though it is to far to make you much in the way of details, you begin to get a general idea of what is where.
  2909. > The one big building, their carts seem to roll in and out of all the time - perhaps a place to fix them?
  2910. > The numerous tents, presumably housing for their soldiers who were stationed at this camp.
  2911. > Others are more mystifying - one building is particularly heavily guarded, but rarely do you see more than a few of the invaders entering or exiting it.
  2912. > A store for their weapons, perhaps?
  2913. > Night falls in due time.
  2914. > You take early night watch with Boulder Dash.
  2915. > Huddled in your armor, your thoughts drift to the larger war.
  2916. > It seemed Luna could hold the invaders off - at least until she made the mistake of stepping into their dreams...
  2917. > But if she had returned to Canterlot, would Celestia be coming to stop them instead?
  2918. > Surely either of the princesses - let alone both - could quickly bring them to a halt!
  2919. > ...unless Celestia feared making them more angry if she attacked?
  2920. > So lost in your thoughts are you that you almost jump out of your armor the first time you hear the whimpering.
  2921. > Quickly scanning to try and determine where it is coming from, you turn about - and realize it is coming from one of the sleeping pits in your own camp.
  2922. > Whispen..
  2923. > Glancing aside to Boulder, the giant stallion nods and speaks softly.
  2924. > "Go. I'll keep the watch up."
  2925. > Trotting down from your lookout spot as quietly as possible, you step down into the sleeping hole.
  2926. > Sure enough, it is Whispen - the unicorn has rolled onto her back, legs in the air and occasionally twitching awkwardly.
  2927. > Aside from the soft whimpers escaping from her, you can also see her eyes rolling in her sleep.
  2928. > She's dreaming, clearly - and not a good one.
  2929.  
  2930. ACTION:
  2931. - Wake her up. Cuddling a sleeping person we don't have the best relations with would just be weird.
  2932. - Just wake her up, no nonsense, don't pry further if she looks annoyed
  2933.  
  2934. "Whispen?"
  2935. > One hoof is cautiously placed against her, nudging her hopefully awake without to much of a start.
  2936. "Whispen - wake up?"
  2937. > Another nudge and she finally flies awake - teal eyes rolling wildly for a moment before they settle on you.
  2938. "Hey... you were... having a dream."
  2939. > "I'm sorry, sir."
  2940. > She takes a deep breath, rolling back over onto her belly and half-sitting up on her haunches.
  2941. > "You... shoudln't have had to do that. Especially not while on watch, I..."
  2942. "Whispen..."
  2943. > "No, don't - my problems, I should keep them-"
  2944. "Hold on a second and just listen to me, okay?"
  2945. > You touch a hoof to her withers - and then leave it there, when she shows no discomfort.
  2946. "Boulder told me what happened... there's no shame in it, Whispen. You didn't do wrong."
  2947. > "Yes I did!"
  2948. > The cry is louder than she anticipated, and for a moment you both peer around the camp to see if any of the others were woken by it.
  2949. > Mercifully the answer appears to be not.
  2950. > "Yes, I did do wrong. I took them back into that... that disaster because I didn't want to leave them behind. Because I couldn't bear the thought of.. of..."
  2951. "Of being like me?"
  2952. > Snapping her head up, Whispen gives you an angry look - and then softens when she realizes you didn't mean it sarcastically.
  2953. > "Yes... of being like that. Of just giving up... I got ponies killed because I didn't want to give up."
  2954. "Whispen, did you kill them?"
  2955. > "I... I ordered them-"
  2956. "Did you order them to make a suicidal move? No. I know you didn't, so stop acting like you did. You didn't force them to die, no more than I did Buzzy and Downspout."
  2957. > She nods shakily.
  2958. > "I... I suppose..."
  2959. "Now, get some rest, if you can. Actual rest."
  2960. > Without being troubled by nightmares, with Luna's grace.
  2961. > "I... I don't think I can really go to sleep right now. Do you mind if I join you on watch for a little while?"
  2962. "Don't see why not. Come on."
  2963. > A minute later Whispen joins you on the ridge, studying the camp.
  2964.  
  2965. > Breathing in the chill night air, you glance up at the stars above.
  2966. > "Do... you think they're up there? Looking down at us? Buzzy, Downspout, Silver, and all of the others?"
  2967. "Wherever they are, I'm sure they're proud of you for being strong and carrying on."
  2968. > Whispen throws a sharp look in your direction.
  2969. > "That wasn't what I asked... but thank you."
  2970. "You're welcome."
  2971. > A few minutes later, Whispen rises and turns back to her sleeping hole.
  2972. > "I think I'm going to go try and get some more rest."
  2973. "Before you do - one more thing."
  2974. > "Yes?"
  2975. "If I leave you in command when I go scouting this morning - is that going to be okay?"
  2976. > There's no hesitation before Whispen's affirmative nod.
  2977. > Her eyes - so shortly ago wild with fear and pain - are calm and steady.
  2978. > "I'll be okay. Thank you again."
  2979. > You offer her a smile in return.
  2980. > Across the camp, you catch Boulder giving you the slightest look of approval.
  2981. > Again your gaze swings out across the open field, looking for any sign of intruders.
  2982. > But your mind is now more at peace as well.
  2983. > If you knew what was going to happen the next day, you wouldn't have been so calm.
  2984.  
  2985. > It's just before dawn when you slip out of the camp.
  2986. > For now, at least, Ornithea moves with you - her expertise with birds hopefully letting you avoid stumbling onto any ground-nests or spot anyone hiding in the brush by their absence.
  2987. > About two thousand feet from the edge of the tall grasses, she points to one spot and murmers to you.
  2988. > "There might be a nest or something there - I hear some strange noises from the ground. But, if you keep a good distance from there you should be safe."
  2989. "Alright. Head on back to our lines, Ornithea. We'll try and make it back by nightfall tonight."
  2990. > "Understood. Good luck."
  2991. > The last of the crawl is, of course, the most nerve-wracking.
  2992. > You certainly think you're in thick enough cover to avoid being seen, but...
  2993. > What about those lights?
  2994. > What about how they seemed to be able to see in the dark?
  2995. > What if they had put down more of those exploding-tripwire traps they had laid after your last ambush?
  2996. > Each possibility weighs on your mind; as you close the last few hundred feet, you can tell even Dusk is feeling the pressure.
  2997. > You take another step forward, and -
  2998. > Damn!
  2999. "Everypony stop. They've cut the grass back around their base; this is as far as we can go."
  3000. > "Awww, no getting into their base?"
  3001. "Quiet, Cog. I'm trying to figure out if they can see us from here."
  3002. > A few minutes of quiet observation leads you to suspect they can't.
  3003. > But then again, if they did...
  3004.  
  3005. [2 rolls taken:
  3006. Roll 1 to decide what you see; result: You manage to spot a hint as to the mysterious, heavily-guarded building in the base.
  3007. Roll 2 to determine what goes wron; result: A helicopter comes in and may spot you.]
  3008.  
  3009. > Dawn comes.
  3010. > Just as you had expected, the soldiers all begin to turn away to keep the sun from their eyes - even though they all don sunglasses, they look every way but directly at the sun.
  3011. > Which, of course, means every way but directly at you.
  3012. "Come on. Let's move up a bit closer, I figure we have half an hour of safety before the sun gets to high, at most."
  3013. > Proceeding nearly to the edge of the thick grass, you set up your telescope again and proceed to check the base for anything of note.
  3014. "Copper, see anything in there you recognize?"
  3015. > "Eh... let's see, lots and lots of equipment... some of the boxes are marked, I'll try and remember what they say. Wish we'd brought Byline, he'd be able to write it all down."
  3016. > Panning the telescope about, he continues talking.
  3017. > "Lots of hoses, some of them running to and from their carts... hey, I wonder if that's water? Maybe that's how they do it, some kind of micro-steam engine. Hmm... why not just dam the creek, then?"
  3018. "Anything we can use laying out?"
  3019. > "Nah. Everything out there is all crated up; we'd have to pull a whole crate out, I think."
  3020. > Dusk Shadow snorts.
  3021. > "I don't think even I could move unseen while dragging a crate with me. A weapon or two, perhaps, but not a crate."
  3022. "Yeah, we'd probably have to get Boulder to help if we wanted to get anywhere fast with it."
  3023. > Why did these humans - and everything they built - have to be so damn huge?
  3024. > Meanwhile, Copper - truly in his element - has just gone on talking.
  3025. > "What I don't get, is what all these cables are strung between their buildings are. They're to thin to be hoses... and you said they can communicate through thin air?"
  3026. "Definitely. You know that patrol we nearly ran into on the hill on the way here? They were just talking to someone commanding them."
  3027. > "I don't get it, then. Electricity, maybe? But how could they encapsulate the stormclouds in the generators without magic?"
  3028. > Dusk speaks softly.
  3029.  
  3030. > "What about all those metal poles sticking up? Even their vehicles have them - perhaps they are to catch lightning like a lightning rod?"
  3031. > A snort comes from Copper, still holding the telescope steady.
  3032. > "Awful risky way of doing it. And not regular without weather control either. I still don't get it."
  3033. "That's okay. Anything else?"
  3034. > "Well, not that I can see without getting in real close, and - oh. Oh, boss - you're gonna want to see this. You know that building with all the guards?"
  3035. "Yeah?"
  3036. > Copper adjusts the telescope again and leans aside to let you peer down it.
  3037. > "Take a look at this."
  3038. > You peer down it and immediately know what he had seen.
  3039. > Escorted by two of the human soldiers, a pair of ponies - unicorn and earth, both with white coats - were being escorted towards the grey brick structure.
  3040. > Both wear hobbles around their forehooves, and even more worryingly some sort of conical cap had been fitted to the unicorn's horn.
  3041. "It's a prison..."
  3042. > You don't even need to see the rest to know what will happen.
  3043. > Under intense supervision, the building's door is opened and the ponies sent in.
  3044. > A few minutes later, the soldiers emerge again - alone.
  3045. "Okay, they're definitely keeping prisoners in there."
  3046. > "Well, least it won't be a long walk if we screw up."
  3047. > Pulling away from the telescope, you strike Chilona with a sharp glare.
  3048. > She winces heavily, ears flattening.
  3049. > "Sorry! Sorry - I... make jokes like that when I'm stressed."
  3050. "Try to keep capture and death off the roster of topics, please?"
  3051. > "Will do, sir."
  3052. > "Hey boss, I don't get something though. Who keeps prisoners next to their repair yard? I mean, I wouldn't let a prisoner anywhere near my workshop."
  3053. "Don't know."
  3054. > Returning to your telescope, you resume watching the soldiers patrolling around the brick prison.
  3055. > It's an ugly, squat thing, formed of uniform grey blocks and bare slit windows.
  3056. > Very appropriate as a prison, actually.
  3057.  
  3058. "If I had to guess, they move the prisoners away when their carts come back entry from supply deliver."
  3059. > "But why-"
  3060. > "Guys! Flying machine, coming this way! One of their hovering kind!"
  3061. > Blood freezes in your veins at Chilona's urgent call.
  3062. "Copper, pack that telescope up. Chilona, where is it?"
  3063. > "Uh, north... north-east, coming right at us though."
  3064. "We need to move. Dusk, you're last out - keep an eye for any of them spotting us."
  3065. > Not a moment to soon you slink back into the tall grass; you've covered perhaps a thousand feet when the distant buzz becomes an overhead roar.
  3066. > True to Chilona's warning, the machine passes nearly directly over you, it's fan-top whirling wildly.
  3067. > Pressing yourselves flat, you can only hope to Celestia it doesn't spot you - there would be no escape from it if you were discovered.
  3068. > Copper is muttering under his breath.
  3069. > "Come on, you ugly lout... go away..."
  3070.  
  3071. [Roll taken to determine if they see you; result:  They see you, and come back looking (need to make a distraction).]
  3072.  
  3073. > Watching the hovering contraption drift past, you're surprised when it doesn't set itself down over their camp but instead drifts into a slow, arcing turn.
  3074. > For a few moments you don't understand what it is doing, but then you realize.
  3075. "It's coming back around again! They must've spotted us!"
  3076. > Even as your eyes lock on the returning machine, your mind races for some way - any way - to convince the creatures inside they most definitely had not seen a group of ponies laying among the grass.
  3077. > But with only a minute or two at most before it returned, how...?
  3078. > All you'd need is for them to look away for a few moments and you could get back to the thicker cover of the forest...
  3079. > "Let me go to that nest Ornithea mentioned. I'll put the birds to flight, that'll probably draw their attention."
  3080. > Turning to Dusk, you shake your head.
  3081. "That's ridiculous. I know you're good at sneaking, but that's really reaching. You'll have to crawl out."
  3082. > He meets your eyes evenly, his own perfectly calm despite being clearly out of his element with the sun already up.
  3083. > "It's that or leave some of our armor up here and hope they believe it was just left there. It's certainly darkened and scuffed enough; probably won't get it back, though."
  3084.  
  3085. ACTION:
  3086. - I personally would just leave the armor. It's not bullet- or shrapnel-proof anyways.
  3087. - We're probably better off leaving the armor, given it's proven to be useless so far
  3088.  
  3089. > Without a second thought you pull your helmet off.
  3090. "Copper, your armor - everything off, now."
  3091. > Even as starts to undo his own armor, you start sliding off the plates covering your rump and back.
  3092. > "Does it gotta be everything, boss? Even the helmet?"
  3093. "Makes it look planned. Like somepony left their stuff here and was expecting to come back and get it, not that they had dumped it in a rush."
  3094. > Carefully laying your armor out in a relatively neat pile, you use your wings to fan some dirt over it and quickly turn to see that Copper's caught on and is doing the same.
  3095. "Okay, now come on - we need to move. Don't forget to brush over your tracks!"
  3096. > The dash towards the edge of the forest is one of the most nerve-wracking thing you've ever experienced.
  3097. > At every second you expect to hear the chattering cracks of their cannons, to hear the shots whipping over you.
  3098. > A voice in your mind screams, warning that the way your wings were dragging to erase some of your tracks would surely brush up to much dust.
  3099. > But death never comes.
  3100. > The roaring of the flying machine does, though.
  3101. > "Everyone down, now!"
  3102. > Nopony questions Chilona's demand, all of you falling to your bellies.
  3103. > Breathing heavily, you squirm the last few feet to a few scrubby bushes and turn back.
  3104. > Sure enough, the flying machine was settling down - hovering low over where you had left your armor.
  3105. > Even as you watch, three invaders hop from the side of the machine.
  3106. > Some squat, raising their weapons seemingly at random and surveying the area.
  3107. > Instinctively your head drops as their gaze passes over you.
  3108.  
  3109. > Dusk is murmering a prayer under his breath, yellow eyes squeezed shut.
  3110. > Chilona's ears are flattened to the side of her head, forced down by the howling roar the thing gave.
  3111. > Copper alone keeps his eyes open and head up, unable to look away from the machine.
  3112. > Whoever Dusk was praying to must have been listening, though.
  3113. > After a moment they load your armor onto the machine and climb back up inside, pulling away.
  3114. > Not until it has re-landed nearer their base and the fan atop it ceased spinning do you feel safe enough to rise up again.
  3115. "Come on. Let's get back to the camp."
  3116. > The mood, when you arrive, is practically celebratory.
  3117. > "We thought you were dead when that thing landed!"
  3118. > Sliding into a sleeping hole with a grunt, you let out a soft chuckle at Whispen's excitement.
  3119. "We thought we were as well. Got lucky, though - fooled them by dropping our armor."
  3120. > "So what happens now?"
  3121. "Well.."
  3122. > Your message about the prison is met as expected:
  3123. > Discussion promptly turning on how to free those within.
  3124. "...I just don't think it's possible. There are twelve of us, dozens if not hundreds of them, and it's inside a fortified position. Maybe we could organize a strike on it, but I don't think it's safe on our own."
  3125. > "What else can we do, though?"
  3126.  
  3127. ACTION:
  3128. - Wait for Caravan, there's no need to rush
  3129.  
  3130. "Okay everyone, hunker down and wait for night. We've got a lot of time to burn; Caravan should be back tonight.
  3131. > Sure enough, come nightfall Caravan can be heard returning to your camp.
  3132. > From a good ways, actually; the earth pony doesn't quite seem to get the idea of 'stealth'.
  3133. > Most of the camp is up and waiting for him when he blunders out of the dark... and are not pleased.
  3134. > Looking around, he seems almost surprised to see your unit setting down their weapons again and extinguishing horns.
  3135. > "...something happen while I was gone?"
  3136. > You jab him in the chest with one hoof - not armored anymore, but still quite hard.
  3137. "No, only you stumbling around like a drunken idiot. Please tell me you checked to see if you were being followed?"
  3138. > "Relax - I'm not an idiot. I circled around two of the hills without being seen before heading into the forest."
  3139. "Good. We nearly had another close call today, so we're the tiniest bit on edge. So, what'd you find?"
  3140. > "Well, first of all..."
  3141. > Caravan cranes his head around, searching through his saddlebags to pull something out.
  3142. > "...first of all, I can't go back any time soon. The invaders running this place, they're making travelers take these little sheets of paper. It says where you're heading, and you turn it in when you get there."
  3143. > "Huh..."
  3144. > Byline takes the paper slip, examining it.
  3145. > "This paper quality is amazing. I don't think I can forge a duplicate of this, not without some serious equipment. Sorry."
  3146. "That's okay. We're going to have to think up a new plan - myself, Dusk, Chilona and Copper tried sneaking over to the fence, but one of their flying machines nearly spotted us. Tomorrow I may send a couple more groups in to town, take a look at that creek and see if it gets us anywhere useful."
  3147. > Moving back to your haunches, you turn to your remaining rations.
  3148.  
  3149. > Although your remaining stored rations were few, Hot Pot had been doing an admirable job of keeping you fed on forage.
  3150. "...get some food in your stomaches, and get rest. Tomorrow, we're getting busy again."
  3151. > A fire would have been welcome.
  3152. > Although the nights were not freezing, a spring chill still lingered in the air.
  3153. > Plus, frankly, cold food for five days since you left friendly lines was pretty miserable.
  3154. > Soon after dinner, everyone crawls back to their sleeping holes.
  3155. > You, for one, are out almost immediately - you have, after all, been up almost the entire day since early morning.
  3156. > And so you don't hear the yelling or feel the heat until it has been going on for quite some time.
  3157. > "Put those flames out - get dirt on them! Somepony get in there and see if they're okay!"
  3158. > Scrambling from your hole, you emerge to the camoflage covering another sleeping hole fully aflame.
  3159.  
  3160. ACTION:
  3161. - The fire is the least of our worries. It's what started it. Get everybody up quick.
  3162.  
  3163. "I want a defense line up, now! If that was an attack we need to be ready to cover a retreat!"
  3164. > Aready ponies are emerging from the other sleeping holes and falling in to their pre-designated positions.
  3165. "Three on getting that fire out! Everyone else, on defense!"
  3166. > It doesn't take long for three ponies working in unison to extinguish the blaze.
  3167. > You barely notice it, though - so focused are you on the inevitable followup to that opening attack.
  3168. > Except, that followup never comes.
  3169. > The only approaching invaders you see are nothing but shadows thrown into terrifying form by the mixture of fading sleep and rushing adrenaline in your mind.
  3170. > The attack, if it came from the invaders, seems to have been at random.
  3171. > Breaking away from the defense line, you turn to the three of your guards now half-inside the sleeping hole, carefully pulling a heavily-coughing form from it.
  3172. > Looking around at who is present - or rather, who is not - you realize with a sinking feeling you already know who was in that particular hole.
  3173. "Who was on watch?"
  3174. > "I was, sir."
  3175. > Ornithea calls out softly from her position.
  3176. > "Myself and Spark Flash. We were standing together looking at the edge of the invaders' camp when we felt the heat and turned around. The fire was already spreading by then."
  3177. > Glancing to Spark, you note the obvious fear on the quiet unicorn's face.
  3178. > Evidently Ornithea picks it up as well, as she adds:
  3179. > "No way it was him. We've both been on watch for a while now."
  3180. > Who, then?
  3181. "Right - later. Whispen, how are they?"
  3182. > "Alive, but beyond that I can't tell."
  3183. > Looking back to the now merely smoldering sleeping pit, you see the forms of two ponies laying beside it - bodies heaving as they take in breaths of fresh, oxygen-rich air.
  3184. > As you'd feared - Chilona and Dusk.
  3185.  
  3186. ACTION:
  3187. - Move out. We can ask questions later because we might be compromised.
  3188. - [Various suggestions on how to gather information.]
  3189.  
  3190. "Right. We need to get clear, if they had anyone looking in this direction that will have been spotted. Grab your packs and be ready to move. Get those two on someponies' backs and safe to go. Byline, take lead. Everyone else, fall in - staggered formation."
  3191. > The camp is torn down in a staggeringly fast amount of time.
  3192. > The hike through the woods is rather longer, though - no less than an hour, taking every chance to throw off any potential pursuers.
  3193. > Five times, you personally take assorted ponies with you to circle back and check for any followers.
  3194. > There isn't any signs of it, although on the third trip back you see lights in the distance, bobbing about near your camp.
  3195. > Yes, the invaders definitely saw.
  3196. > After another hour's hike, you finally feel safe.enough to stop them.
  3197. > Anger had begun to burn in your heart during the march.
  3198. > There's been no chatter during the flight, everypony - guilty or not - apparently feeling the pressure to avoid any attention from the invaders.
  3199. > When you stop, you look around to the group - eleven pairs of eyes filled with varying degrees of exhaustion, anger, and concern.
  3200. > Who...?
  3201. > Thinking back to your march, you try to remember the muttered comment that had first drawn your attention.
  3202. > 'Freak'... it sounded like a stallion's voice.
  3203. > That leaves Copper Cog, Spark Flash, Byline, Boulder Dash, Caravan, and Quick Step.
  3204. > Six ponies...
  3205. "Right. I think we all know what happened back there, and I don't think I need to say how utterly disgusting I am about what that was. Whoever did that, did you even think to stop for a second about what you did?"
  3206. > As you speak the anger within you slowly begins to flow out, until you find yourself struggling to keep your voice down.
  3207. "Did you think for a second about what is going on? That we are fighting an enemy that demands we all stick together, regardless of what race we are or be crushed beneath them?"
  3208.  
  3209. > Even as you continue the verbal lashing, you find yourself studying each face - looking for any sign that the pony involved might be feeling some guilt.
  3210. "I shouldn't even have to make this speech - if you, any of you, have a problem with one of your squadmates you tell me or you tell Whispen. You do not try to burn your squadmates in their sleep. Now, you're going to get exactly one chance to turn yourself in before I use every power afforded to me as the senior member of this unit to handle you."
  3211. > Not one pony steps forward.
  3212. > Your teeth grind together.
  3213. "...alright. Whispen. With me for a moment?"
  3214. > Walking a short distance away, you lower your voice to speak with her.
  3215. "Back on the march to Easthock, I heard somepony call Chilona and Dusk freaks. I should've stopped it right then, but I didn't... and now it's gotten to this."
  3216. > "Don't be upset, sir. You didn't know the Tirek-spawn who did this would turn to murder."
  3217. "Still... anyhow. The voice back there sounded male. I want you to take Copper Cog, Spark Flash, Ornithea and Boulder. I'll take Byline, Caravan, Quick Step, and Hot Pot - talk to each of them individually. Find out anything they know - anything they might have heard to suggest somepony had a problem with batponies."
  3218. > Whispen nods, something dangerous glinting her eyes.
  3219. > "I'll be sure to get to whoever did this."
  3220. > Unfortunately, questioning proves harder than in the books.
  3221. > With each pony in turn you try to pick aside their stories, pry at anything that sounded false... but lack of sleep is getting to you as well.
  3222. > In the end, you're merely left with more questions and a fuzzy mind.
  3223. > Whispen looks much the same.
  3224. "Any luck?"
  3225. > "Well, Ornithea and Spark's stories both match. They were on watch and paying attention to the enemy camp when they realized they were feeling heat at their backs and turned to see the fire. They didn't see who started it; also, Ornithea swears she could see his horn the entire time and is was silent."
  3226.  
  3227. "Your estimation?"
  3228. > "My magic is quieter than normal, and a pony sitting next to me would still notice it. I don't think it was him."
  3229. "Okay, what about the others?"
  3230. > "Boulder and Copper both say they were asleep - Boulder was dead asleep like normal; he said Byline nearly had to kick him awake."
  3231. "Yes, Byline said the same thing. That's good. Copper?"
  3232. > "Woke up with the yelling and came running to join."
  3233. "Matches with what Hot Pot said. Caravan was apparently playing a quiet game of shells with Quick Step. I asked Boulder about that later, he said he saw them gathering up the shells in their sleeping pit later on."
  3234. > "So everyone has an alibi."
  3235. > Whispen falls back to her haunches, rubbing her muzzle with one hoof.
  3236. > "Celestia above, and I thought fighting the enemy was bad. I know some ponies are a bit uncomfortable around the Night Guard, but really - attempted murder?"
  3237. "That's what I'd like to know."
  3238. > A brief silence hangs between the two of you.
  3239. "What about that comment while back on the march?"
  3240. > "Boulder and Copper were closest. Boulder says it might have been Copper, Byline, or Caravan, but Copper says he thinks it was Byline or Caravan. I also checked with Chilona to be sure - you know how her hearing is - and I think she said Copper or Caravan. It was... hard to tell with her throat so sore."
  3241. > A frown pushes itself even deeper on your face.
  3242. > Down to three, but...
  3243. "Okay. Some of the others said Byline sometimes mentioned being uncomfortable around the Night Guard, but never acted on it and he swears up and down it was just a feeling and he was getting over it anyhow. Caravan... I think he might have talked his way into the Royal Guard. Very smooth talker, but there's something beneath there I can't quite get at. What about Copper?"
  3244. > "Admitted he had a problem in his last few postings with officers - disagreements over disrespect for authority figures. Says he never hurt anypony though and wouldn't even strike a fellow Royal Guard."
  3245.  
  3246. > "How do they let these ponies get into the Royal Guard anyhow...? Disrespect for authority figures... we serve authority figures by definition!"
  3247. "I don't know..."
  3248. > "There's one other thing. I... couldn't sleep again, so I was awake right before this started. I couldn't feel any magic being used - nothing powerful enough to light a fire remotely anyway. A direct bolt would have been heard too. If Copper or Byline did it, they did it with something else, or magic weak enough to not be felt."
  3249. > Who, then...?
  3250.  
  3251. ACTION:
  3252. - [Various suggestions on how to discover the killer.]
  3253.  
  3254. "...right. Go find Quick Step, ask him if there was anything remotely strange about what Caravan was up to. If he left for anything whatsoever."
  3255. > "On it."
  3256. > With that done, you return to the side of the two batponies - currently being tended to by Hot Pot.
  3257. "How are they?"
  3258. > She looks up at you, obvious concern in her eyes.
  3259. > "Both inhaled a lot of smoke. Chilona's in better shape; I'm worried for Dusk; he's been burned pretty bad as well.."
  3260. "Can you help him?"
  3261. > "Our first aid kits don't carry anything for this. The most I can do is give him something for the swelling and pain."
  3262. > Damn... and you can't even do anything about that until you deal with whoever did this first.
  3263. "Do your best."
  3264. > Somepony taps you lightly on your withers - Spark Flash.
  3265. > The quiet unicorn has an unusually hard look in his eyes, as if his earlier fear at being accused had hardened into anger at whoever put him in this place.
  3266. > "Something I thought I should mention - those leave and sticks that were covering the hole, those were fresh. They wouldn't have just list up at once, unless they used tinder. Or some kind of mechanical firestarter - "
  3267. "Mechanical firestarter?"
  3268. > He nods.
  3269. > "I've seen ones that are meant for earth ponies and pegasi to use with their mouths. Very simple, just a metal stick on a spring mounted next to a flint. Just push in and out, and presto - sparks."
  3270. "Thank you, Spark."
  3271. > "My pleasure, sir."
  3272. > Turning over the information, you wonder briefly if Ornithea could be of help... but no, all of this had taken place long after any birds around had gone to sleep, and dawn was not yet approaching.
  3273. Copper! I need to talk to you again."
  3274. > The unicorn trots over to you, his jaw set into a frown and eyes flinty.
  3275. > "Reporting, boss."
  3276. > He's certainly taking the situation seriously - far more than his usual relaxed manner.
  3277. > Moving away from the others, you return to your lowered voice.
  3278.  
  3279. "I'm worried about Caravan. Spark Flash says that he thinks a mechanical firestarter might have been used to light the fire, something an earth pony or pegasus might us."
  3280. > "...and Caravan was out in that town all day. Who knows what he might have picked up."
  3281. "I hadn't thought of that, but yes."
  3282. > "What can I do? Can we take him down?"
  3283.  
  3284. ACTION:
  3285. - Ask to search the suspects bags. Do all of them at once so they won't have time to hide something.
  3286.  
  3287. "Come back with me. I just want to check for something to be sure."
  3288. > Returning to the others, you look around.
  3289. > Whispen and Quick are in the back; she steps forward, but you raise a hoof - wanting to get this done first.
  3290. "Caravan, Copper, Byline - start opening up your saddlebags. Lay it out on the ground, I want to make sure of something."
  3291. > Surprised looks all around - and more then a few glares.
  3292. > But all three comply, and despite your best efforts you can't see any signs of hesitation or fear.
  3293. > Which, it turns out, is because the search turns up exactly nothing.
  3294. > Oh, Byline turns up an extra sheaf of paper and quills, but you're more pleased than anything that he thought to bring that.
  3295. > They even have all their standard-issue flint and steel accounted for.
  3296. > And now there are three more angry looks, all focused on you.
  3297. > Ponies are short on sleep, and tempers are beginning to fray.
  3298. > Yours included.
  3299. "Whispen, what'd you turn up?"
  3300. > She steps close enough to be heard by you alone.
  3301. > "He stepped out once apparently, to relieve himself. Quick Step said he didn't take anything with him, but you never know..."
  3302. "Copper thinks he might have brought back something from in the town - a mechanical striker he could use in his mouth to light the fire quickly."
  3303. > Confusion knits Whispen's face.
  3304. > "That's impossible. He emptied out his saddlebags to refill them with his gear when he got back, and there wasn't anything in there. I watched."
  3305. "And he wasn't wearing armor when he went in or out, so nowhere to hide it..."
  3306.  
  3307. ACTION:
  3308. - Give them one more chance to come clean. If they don't tell them that we will leave them all tied up and left for the humans to find. Hopefully they will be loyal enough to their kin that they will choose to spare their friends from torture.
  3309.  
  3310. > Taking a deep breath, you force your voice down from the volume it was headed towards.
  3311. "...okay. Whispen, I need you to trust me. I'm going to do something very, very wrong, and I need you to trust me that I'm not actually doing what it looks like I am, okay?"
  3312. > Her eyes narrow in confusion, but she cautiously nods.
  3313. > "I'll try. If it will help stop whoever did this."
  3314. > Turning back to the rest of the group, you again look at the three suspects.
  3315. "Right. I'm giving whoever did this one final chance to step forward. After that, I'm going to bind all three of you and leave you here for the invaders to find."
  3316. > Jaws drop all around; beside you, Whispen's head whips over to face you, shock and horror written across her face.
  3317. > "You can't just leave-"
  3318. > Silencing her with a single withering look, you take two steps towards the three suspects.
  3319. "If whoever of you did this still has any loyalty to your comrades - any whatsoever - you will step up now and spare them from capture as well."
  3320. > None of them do, though.
  3321. > All just stare at you wordlessly.
  3322. "...very well. Whispen, get some straps from their saddlebags. We'll use those."
  3323. > Byline is done first; he is in such a state of shock that he barely reacts.
  3324. > You have to gag Caravan, not because his desperate, fearful pleading might give you away but because it is so pitiful that you struggle to continue while he goes on.
  3325. > Copper, though?
  3326. > Copper stares at you with undisguised fury.
  3327. > Although he doesn't resist being bound, he does not make it easy either - and even once he lays on the ground, hobbled and immobile, you can feel his eyes boring into you.
  3328. "...the rest of you, move out. We need to keep moving."
  3329. > The remainder of your unit looks at each other as if unsure what to do.
  3330. > In truth, you find it hard to blame them; if your commander had just ordered you to leave two innocent ponies to an unclear but decidedly unpleasant fate you would be questioning them as well.
  3331. > But this cannot fail.
  3332.  
  3333. "I said move out, unless you want to be captured!"
  3334. > Chilona and Dusk once again secured for travel, you all turn to leave.
  3335. > Stopping by Whispen, you lean over to murmur to her.
  3336. "We'll get to a safe distance and make camp again, then send somepony to watch them in case one admits."
  3337. > Her eyes go wide, but she nods.
  3338. > "I understand."
  3339. > You'd not gone twenty paces away, though, before a voice calls out from behind you.
  3340. > "You are disgusting, do you know that?"
  3341. > Pausing, you look back and raise an eyebrow.
  3342. > Copper had pushed himself up again, the look in his eyes having shifted from mere anger to true hatred.
  3343. > "You're disgusting. Just like them - leaving ponies behind to die."
  3344. > Spitting on the ground before him, Copper goes on.
  3345. > "Want to know what? I lit that damn fire. Wish I'd done it better, too. Then I might've paid them back for leaving my whole damn unit to die while they ran away with their princess to Canterlot!"
  3346. > Turning around completely, you slowly walk back towards the three - two of whom are now staring at Copper now instead of you.
  3347. "Do you think for a second that gives you the right to try and take their lives?"
  3348. > Copper just laughs.
  3349. > "You don't get it, do you? They all just up and bucking left us to die back there - and you, you should have put those two freaks right in front so they could at least get themselves killed fighting the invaders. But no, you were just treating them like they were actually helpful."
  3350. > Spitting on the ground before him, Copper shakes his head.
  3351. > "I tell you, if you'd kept doing that they'd have just run off like before and left us, too. And you - now, you were going to just leave two innocent ponies behind because you couldn't handle what needed to be done to those two trai-"
  3352. > A hoof collides with the side of his muzzle, whipping it about.
  3353. > Surprisingly, it is not yours - though the look of shock and pain on his face is gratifying.
  3354. "Stand down, Whispen!"
  3355. > She looks up, breathing heavily.
  3356.  
  3357. > "...sorry, sir."
  3358. > Again stepping forward, you lean down until you are nearly muzzle-to-muzzle with Copper.
  3359. "Let me tell you something, Copper. I had to leave ponies behind as well - and I will tell you, that is nothing you ever, ever want to do. It is nothing you ever forget. And even so, it is no reason at all to do what you did."
  3360. > Copper doesn't back down, though he at least seems to know it would be best to shut up.
  3361. "Whispen there - she made it clear to me just how bad it is to do that. So believe me, I know what it feels like to have to do that - and if you think it is bad to be left behind, you have absolute no idea how it feels to have to do that to somepony else."
  3362. > Standing up again, you take a deep breath and calm the twitching in your hoof that demands you add another blow to Copper's muzzle.
  3363. "...Whispen. Untie the others."
  3364.  
  3365. ACTION:
  3366. - Fuck. I would say follow protocol but we are kind of stranded. We can't leave him here because if the humans find him he'll rat us out. We also can't risk taking him any further into the mission as he now has reason to betray us. How many enchanted peices of parchment do we have and is the other side able to respond? We should probably warn HQ.
  3367. - Just keep him tied and continue on the mission with someone guarding him. We're only scouting, so as soon as the mission is complete, we'll just carry him back to base
  3368.  
  3369. "Keep him bound and gagged, untie the others. Looks like we're going to have to keep him under watch..."
  3370. > Turning to the other two, you take a deep breath.
  3371. > Time to pay the price for what you did.
  3372. "Caravan, Byline, I... I wish to apologize. I... I had planned to send someone to watch you, to not really abandon you... but I know how empty that can sound after the fact."
  3373. > Bowing your head slightly, you go on.
  3374. "I'll just ask your forgiveness for doing that to you. I know it was... not right. I admit I was desperate."
  3375. > "Sir?"
  3376. > Nervousness is evident in Caravan's voice, but he stands up after rubbing his forelegs together and faces you.
  3377. > "You... did what you had to. I won't deny I'm very upset about that happening, but... I'll still follow you, if you keep fighting."
  3378. > Beside him, Byline gives an agreeing nod.
  3379. "Thank you - both of you. Byline - I'm going to need a message sent to command over this. Mention the prison, the enemy troop movements, and... this."
  3380. > You give Copper another disgusted look.
  3381. > "Can I have my saddlebags back?"
  3382. "Absolutely. We'll have to find another camp as well - preferably somewhere far away. We can move back in tomorrow."
  3383. > Staggering off a ways, it doesn't take you long to find a small clearing in which to set up camp for the night.
  3384. > You don't even bother digging sleeping holes - everypony is too exhausted, both physically and emotional.
  3385. > Setting three sentries instead of the normal two and taking one of the positions yourself, you also see that Copper is securely tied to one of the trees and left there.
  3386. > Dawn comes far, far to soon for your liking.
  3387. > And with it, new problems.
  3388. > Hot Pot brings it to your and Whispen's attention soon after she rises in the morning.
  3389. > "Dusk is in bad shape. Chilona will recover so long as she doesn't strain herself, probably in another couple days. But, I'm worried about Dusk. He needs a stable environment, or he could get sick."
  3390.  
  3391. "Only stable environment for miles around is Easthock. You want us to get him into that city?"
  3392. > "It's that or risk leaving him out here. Even if we get him in a well-insulated sleeping hole, it's still a risky thing."
  3393. "I'll take it under consideration. For today, we need to figure out where we're going: They saw that fire last night, and it's a good bet they'll connect the guard armor to the hidden camp they found. I'm sure they'll be searching for us here."
  3394.  
  3395. ACTION:
  3396. - [Several, basically 'sneak in some town in small groups, having given Caravan some cover for returning.]
  3397.  
  3398. "Caravan! Come over here."
  3399. > The earth pony trots up, downing the last of his morning rations as he does.
  3400. > "What can I do for you?"
  3401. "Getting into the town.. assuming get all this dye out of our coats and split up, would it tip them off if we all dropped in with groups?"
  3402. > He gives you a thoughtful look, sitting down on his haunches.
  3403. > "What exactly are you thinking to do?"
  3404. "Dusk needs treatment. I'm thinking, what if we send him in to Easthock with Chilona and somepony else - say he was in an accident and needs help."
  3405. > "Wish I could be there to sell that, but they'll notice me. What about the rest of us?"
  3406. "We'd have to filter in over the course of a day or two. How many came in were you there?"
  3407. > Frowning heavily, Caravan gives a small 'hmm'.
  3408. > "Might work, if you approach from the west. With their advance going that way; it'd be easier to believe you're refugees coming in from that direction. That's if they buy it about the two wounded..."
  3409. "You think they wouldn't?"
  3410. > "Eh, no offense to them, but..."
  3411. > Caravan winces, glancing about.
  3412. > "...well, bat-ponies, they aren't exactly common and are pretty heavily associated with the Night Guard. I wouldn't be surprised if the invaders have only seen them as Night Guard - might even think they're a specific kind of magic or something."
  3413. "So they might just lock those two up anyhow. You're the one with the fast mouth - what do you recommend we tell them about how they got burned?"
  3414. > Letting out an easy little laugh, Caravan grins.
  3415. > "Oh, that's simple. There's a war on - say something fell out of the sky and exploded near their home, and it caught fire."
  3416. "That... works. What else about the city - will the ponies there shelter us?"
  3417. > "Maybe. They're... not happy, but the invaders aren't being to rough with them. As long as we don't openly cause trouble, we should be safe."
  3418. "So, no sabotage. Got it."
  3419.  
  3420. > When you explain the plan to the rest of your unit, though, the results are less than enthusiastic.
  3421. > "You want us to try and sneak in without armor on? Wouldn't that make us... like, spies?"
  3422. > Quick Step in particular was not pleased, and quite vocally so.
  3423. > "Do you even know what the griffons did to spies they caught? And these things are even more wierd!"
  3424. > Boulder gives him a light smack around the ears.
  3425. > "We haven't fought griffons in centuries, and these things can be reasonable at times. We follow the commander."
  3426. > Hot Pot steps up, having stowed away the last of her foraging.
  3427. > "What's the rest of the plan, sir?"
  3428. "Well, first things first - we need to find a stream or something and get this dye out of our coats. After that, we find a nice spot to bury our armor and supplies so we can get it back if we need to. Then, Caravan and I have figured out which groups will approach from where, and what their stories will be."
  3429. > This goes over rather better.
  3430. > That you would put obvious faith and trust in a pony that you had been accusing of murder the day before had healed some of the anger at you.
  3431. > "One other question..."
  3432. > This time it was Whispen who spoke up.
  3433. > "What do you want to do with... him."
  3434. > A flick of her horn gestured back towards where Copper lay hobbled and tied to a tree.
  3435. > Thankfully you'd thought at least to move far enough away he couldn't easily hear your planning.
  3436.  
  3437. ACTION:
  3438. - I guess a couple ponies can stay behind with him. They can keep watch over the entire town that way too
  3439. - It would actually be wise to leave behind one or two ponies in addition to Copper. In case we all get captured, they could at least report that to HQ. Plus I don't think we should execute Copper even though attempted malicious murder in two cases would be a good reason to, but he will be put to court when we return, we will make sure of that. And two ponies would be better than one in case he can free himself. And I guess someone will have to give Copper at least a cup of water every now and then. He's an asshole, but we're not the kind of pony who'd let a criminal die miserably because of thirst.
  3440. - Thank Whispen for trusting us.
  3441. - Leave Boulder and Hot Pot.
  3442.  
  3443. "Leave two with him... Boulder, Hot Pot - I hate to do this to you, but can you keep an eye out here?"
  3444. > Both nod.
  3445. "Good. If things get to rough, they catch on to you or something, make a break for friendly lines. When we get out we'll try and circle around to pick you up, but if we're not back in a week I would say start heading for friendly lines anyhow. We'll leave you some of our spare rations - I'm sure we can get something in Easthock."
  3446. > Washing off proves to be far, far less pleasant than you had hoped.
  3447. > The creek you found is still largely fed by winter meltwater, and combined with the low chill at night the water is so cold it almost burns.
  3448. > Buy the time you've scrubbed the dye from your coats, you are all thoroughly sore and shivering.
  3449. > There is absolutely no shame in how you cluster up together for warmth while covering the final details of the plan.
  3450. "...so, there's one other thing I'm thinking of doing. Caravan, how suspicious would you say they were when you came in?"
  3451. > He pauses, then shrugs. "Not very. They seem to have bought it that we travel a lot, and ponies are fleeing their homes. Why?"
  3452. "Okay, the biggest risk here is that they would recognize you - but, what if we just let them do that? You go with Chilona and Dusk, say you were on your way from Easthock when you saw the smoke and pulled them out. Play on the fact that you were here before. How will that work?"
  3453. > He pauses before nodding slowly, a tentative smile appearing on his face.
  3454. > "That... might just work. It'd make it harder for me to talk to you without spreading suspicion, though."
  3455. > You grimace.
  3456. "We'll have to deal with it. I'd rather keep you safe."
  3457. > Turning to the others, you begin to outline the rest of the plan details.
  3458. "...and after Caravan's group goes in I will come in from the south-west with Ornithea and Byline. Whispen, take Spark and Quick Step, come in from the northwest."
  3459. > Quick shifts uncomfortably.
  3460.  
  3461. > "Are you sure about this? I mean... what if they do find out about us? What do we do then?"
  3462. "That's a risk we have to take. As much as I hate to say it... don't try to be brave. Acting scared is to our benefit here; any civilian would be scared too. Now, let's move it out - the longer we wait, the more danger we are in.
  3463. > And danger it is.
  3464. > As you near Easthock again, you end up having to dodge not one, but two of their patrols moving in the woods.
  3465. > Judging by how far you have traveled already and where they are walking, you aren't concerned for Hot Pot and Boulder, at least.
  3466. > It's mid afternoon when you emerge from the forest to the northmost of the western roads.
  3467. "Chilona, Caravan... good luck. Keep him well."
  3468. > Chilona just nods quietly, leaning against a tree.
  3469. > While she had been able to walk on her own without to much trouble, it had left her heaving and short of breath.
  3470. > You only hoped she would be able to rest while in the city.
  3471. > As you wait for some time to pass before the remaining two groups start off, you spot Whispen staring down the road towards the town.
  3472. > Trotting over to her side, you speak softly.
  3473. "Hey..."
  3474. > She looks over, nodding once.
  3475. > "Sorry. Just... nervous."
  3476. "I understand. I wanted to say... thank you. For not arguing with me last night. I know... what I did wasn't really right, and it must have taken a lot of faith to not speak up."
  3477. > Whispen is silent for a moment before responding.
  3478. > "You remember, back in that cave, when the two guards had captured Scupper and I, and had their weapons against our heads?"
  3479. "Yes."
  3480. > "Well... you stood up for us, then. You could've done... I dunno. You could've tried to just negotiate a way out for yourself. Only one pony to take that message, after all. But you got all of us out, even Rowanoak."
  3481. > She looks up, smiling a pained smile.
  3482. > "It wasn't right, threatening what you did. But, I trust you did it for the right reasons."
  3483.  
  3484. > Before you can reply, a frantic call goes up from behind you.
  3485. > "Whispen! Sir!"
  3486. > Turning, you see a panicky Ornithea, charging towards you with two birds resting on her withers.
  3487. "Steady - what's the matter?"
  3488. > "We have to get off this road - there's a convoy coming!"
  3489.  
  3490. ACTION:
  3491. - At this point, they may already see us with equipment, and if we flee and get spotted they'll likely note our colors and report back to base about it. However, let's do a quick 10-second look around to better understand where we are on the road and everything surrounding it.
  3492.  
  3493. > You stand on the just northern edge of the road leading into Easthock.
  3494. > A low drainage ditch runs beside the road, although not deep enough to truly hide in.
  3495. > Further north, there are several miles of scrubby fields before you hit the edges of the forest you had been hiding in.
  3496. > Although the fields rise and fall gently, there is little in the way of ridges and rises that would give you short-range cover.
  3497. > To the east, you can see the beginnings of the line of low hills that circle Easthock to the south - one just to the south of this road, and more stretching on in the distance.
  3498. > You know there are more roads to the south of your current position, running in the passes between those roads to and from the town.
  3499. > The immediate south, however, is only more open land - this dominated by tall grasses, barely enough to hide most of your head while kneeling.
  3500. > A few scraggly trees have pushed up here and there, but no great number.
  3501. > Looking to the west, besides the road itself stretching into the distance there is little more to see - except for a steadily growing black dot.
  3502. > There is maybe a minute before they get here.
  3503. > And with not a single cloud in the sky, it's very likely they've seen you in the open sunlight already.
  3504.  
  3505. ACTION:
  3506. - Yeah, no, we're not getting out of this one. As soon as the distance is reasonable, wave and yell out for help. Look scared of course, but don't forget a cute and shy smile to sell it. If you see humans of different variations, begin to commemorate them on getting past their differences and whine about the villainous bastard who tried to burn your friends alive, everybody loves a sob story.
  3507. - Several similar.
  3508.  
  3509. > Taking a deep breath, you steel yourself.
  3510. > This moment was going to come sooner or later, best to just face it.
  3511. "Everyone come up to the road. If we hide and are spotted, it'd only make them suspicious. We stand in the open and let them see us."
  3512. > Slowly the remaining three join yourself, Whispen and Ornithea - sticking to the northern side of the road to keep the ditch as an option for cover if everything went bad.
  3513. > Even you feel the pressure rising as their armored carts approach - and if you are feeling it, then it is crushing Quick Step.
  3514. > The poor foal is quaking in his hooves, looking ready to break and run at any moment.
  3515. "Easy, Quick. They've not been murdering everyone yet."
  3516. > "I-I"ll try..."
  3517. > By the time the first of the armored carts roll up, though, you're about ready to break yourself.
  3518. > Seeing them up close, you're reminded again how huge the things the 'humans' build are.
  3519. > These vehicles, they have to be nearly three times your height.
  3520. > The wheels alone are nearly as tall as you are.
  3521. > And each one carries a bulbous protrusion on the top, a host to what you suspect is only a larger - and deadlier - version of the miniature cannon their troops carried.
  3522. > For just a moment a vision of Ivy Climber being lead away into one flickers through your mind, but you push it out soon enough.
  3523. > Three rumble past you without stopping, but the fourth pulls off and comes to a squealing halt.
  3524. > Thankfully the others seem to have remembered your advice not to appear brave and defiant... or can't help it.
  3525. > Either way, when the back door opens and two soldiers deftly swinging out to land on their feet there's no sign of immediate hostility.
  3526. > Both have their hands on their weapons, but neither fire.
  3527. > "You six going somewhere?"
  3528. "Yes, we're heading for Easthock. Are you heading the same way?"
  3529.  
  3530. > "Affirmative. It's about another six miles in, past that hill."
  3531. > He gives you group a once-over, seeming to pay special attention to the unicorns among you.
  3532. > "Where are you lot coming from, then?"
  3533. "We're from Sunny Fields, and they're from Trotsvale. We're heading to Easthock as well - hoping there's safety there."
  3534. > Motioning in turn to your own group and Whispen's; the towns were small farming communities less than a day's walk from Easthock.
  3535. > Hopefully 'farming work' was a reasonable excuse for the fact that all of you were in excellent physical condition.
  3536. > The soldiers look at each other, their expressions hidden by helmets, chinstraps, and the darkened eyewear so many seemed to prefer.
  3537. > "Safety? You afraid of something?"
  3538. > Whispen detaches herself from Spark's side, putting just a touch of anger in her voice.
  3539. > "What do you think we are afraid of? Things howling overhead day and night, those big machines... they're scaring all the foals! If Easthock is safe, we're moving everyone out until this is over."
  3540. > One soldier raises a hand in a placating gesture, softening his voice.
  3541. > "Easy, easy. We're not going to hurt you. I don't think Easthock will be what you're looking for, but, eh - you're close enough, may as well go the rest of the way. There's shelter and food there."
  3542. "Really? Well at least we can bring some back! Shipments of salt have all but stopped since this began."
  3543. > For some reason both soldiers seem to find this quite funny, grinning between each other.
  3544. > "Yeah, salt we definitely have in Easthock. Sorry we can't give you a ride, I'm sure your legs have gotta be aching. Uh, listen, though..."
  3545. > Reaching into the vehicle, he scribbles out something on a piece of paper and hands it to you.
  3546. > "Stick together the rest of the way. When you get there, hand this to the watch when you enter the city; it says when and where we met you and how many you were."
  3547. > Taking it in your mouth, you stow it in your saddlebags.
  3548. "Thank you very much!"
  3549.  
  3550. > It's not false joy in your voice.
  3551. > You can read what it says, and to have a free pass through the guards...
  3552. > That would be excellent!
  3553. > "Alright. Kapowski, mount up."
  3554. > Both soldiers disappear back inside their vehicle; with a foul-smelling roar it pulls away towards Easthock.
  3555. > Stunned silence holds until it is out of sight.
  3556. > Finally Quick Step speaks.
  3557. > "I cannot believe we just did that."
  3558. "Neither can I. But come on - we should head on in."
  3559. > Whispen pulls alongside as you start walking towards the city.
  3560. > "Maybe we shouldn't put that slip in. I mean, it might just say what he says, but who knows what he's telling the guards. It might be better to just give them the story again."
  3561.  
  3562. ACTION:
  3563. - Give them the slip, there's no reason not to, they seemed genuine enough
  3564.  
  3565. The message reads:
  3566. 1/2/B/1-27IN
  3567. MET ON RD23N 24:19Z 3/14/17
  3568. 1P/3U/2E
  3569. DEST EASTHOCK
  3570.  
  3571. "I think it's safe. If they wanted to take us in, they'd have done it right there - only six of us, and probably a couple dozen of them."
  3572. > Trotting towards town, you're again met by the incongruous sight of the older, traditional town seated astride the small river dividing it, and the new, metallic, angular invaders' camp beside it.
  3573. > As you near the entrance, two you note the group of bored-looking soldiers standing about the entrance to town with a boxy machine set next to them.
  3574. "Right... everyone, be calm but apprehensive. We can all do that, right?"
  3575. > Your joke apparently misses the mark.
  3576. > As you approach, though, they barely look up until you're a few feet away.
  3577. > They fan out, one stepping forward to speak to you.
  3578. > Stopping a few feet away, you swallow heavily and speak up.
  3579. "We're looking to get in to Easthock. Is that going to be a problem?"
  3580. > "Shouldn't be. Where are you coming from?"
  3581. "We're from Sunny Fields, they're from Trotsvale. We have, uh, a paper one of the other soldiers gave us..."
  3582. > Nuzzling into your saddlebags, you pull the slip out and pass it to the soldier.
  3583. > The incromprehensible jumble of letters and numbers apparently means something to him, as he checks his wristwatch and nods.
  3584. > "Looks about right. Alright, here's how this is going to work. You put your front-right hoof on this scanner bed here, and it'll take a picture of it. Won't hurt or anything, just something we need to check."
  3585. > Nodding, you step forward - there's no reason why they should have gotten a good look at your hooves before, or that of anyone in your group.
  3586. > It seems safe.
  3587. "Do I press down, or...?"
  3588. > "No, just lay it down and hold steady..."
  3589. > There's a beep, a low flash, and a few keystrokes as he types something onto a typewriter-like keyboard.
  3590. > "Okay, you're all good. Next?"
  3591.  
  3592. > It doesn't take long to get all of you 'scanned', nor for them to check your saddlebags.
  3593. > "Alright. If you leave, check in with us again to get another travel slip - it will save you questions at your next destination. Curfew is from 10 PM to 6 AM local unless you notify us first; if you are out during these times you are so at your own risk; there are signposts around town for curfew changes and other important information. Please don't create trouble, it makes as many problems for the rest of you guys as it does for us, thank you."
  3594. > The soldier's speech has the feeling of something that's been said again and again, to the point it is practically muscle memory by now.
  3595. "We'd really prefer to stay out of trouble as well, thank you."
  3596. > Trotting into the city, you're struck by how normal it seems.
  3597. > Sure, there's a subdued tone around everypony.
  3598. > But the strangest thing is how all of them go on as if barely anything had changed.
  3599. > As if they were trying to ignore the fact that an alien force had come in and swept the guard and princesses' rule aside in a matter of weeks.
  3600. > Even at the corner guarded by two slightly smaller human carts and eight soldiers, most ponies seem to be pointedly not reacting to them.
  3601. > "What first, s-"
  3602. > Whispen cuts herself off.
  3603. > "What first?"
  3604. "First, we find somewhere to bed down. Then, we see if we can find Caravan."
  3605. > Easthock, being a trading town, had an abundance of hotels.
  3606. > It wasn't hard to find one with open rooms.
  3607. > Harder was what to do about the proprietor.
  3608. > You didn't have a lot of bits on you, so paying for rooms would be hard...
  3609.  
  3610. ACTION:
  3611. - Pay for one room. The difference between an alley and the forest is that there are other ponies around.
  3612. - Pay for a room. If all these ponies look indifferent to the humans, then there's definitely gonna be a few among them who would rat out spies for money. If you go around asking for someone to take you in, some ponies might get suspicious. And sleeping in an alleyway looks kind of sketchy as well
  3613.  
  3614. "We'll have to pay up. Let's pool what we've got, see if we can get a room from one of the hotels."
  3615. > Slipping in to the one that looks like it would cost the least, you step up to the proprietor - a sad-looking unicorn resting his head on the front desk.
  3616. "Hello. We're looking for a room, if you have one.."
  3617. > "A room?"
  3618. > He sighs softly.
  3619. > "Oh, do we ever have rooms. Not many travelers around these parts now, except for refugees."
  3620. "We have forty-one bits, if that helps?"
  3621. > That gets his attention.
  3622. > "You do? You're willing to pay?"
  3623. > The innkeep's name turns out to be 'Creature Comforts', and the name of his hotel is the same.
  3624. > It turns out the place is almost entirely abandoned.
  3625. > The fee for one night is fifteen bits, but he's quite willing let you stay for a third, minus the four-bit difference.
  3626. > In fact, he's willing to give you a lot - glad, it seems, for any customers.
  3627. > But his strangest response is when you ask him about the invaders.
  3628. > "Oh, them? They're a strange bunch for sure. Very odd, no magic to speak of - can you believe that? Even the Zebras and Gryphons have their own brands of magic."
  3629. "Isn't it disruptive, having all of them here?"
  3630. > "Oh of course it's disruptive! But they've mostly kept to themselves, not hurt anypony, and they allow us to bring food for the poor guardsponies they have on that base."
  3631. > He turns another corner, leading the six of you to your rooms.
  3632. "They don't worry you whatsoever?"
  3633. > "Naturally! But, oh! Have you heard of those Elements of Harmony? Amazing mares - I'm sure they'll get on it right and fast if there's a problem, and that'll be the end of them. We're happy to wait for it to come."
  3634. > You didn't comment on that, but it did leave you to wonder - every pony in the guard had heard the rumors about the elements of harmony and their feats.
  3635. > Why hadn't they all just banished the invaders back yet?
  3636.  
  3637. > "Well, here you are - Four beds, should be enough."
  3638. > Four beds there are, two bunks of two levels each.
  3639. > Stepping in, you glance about and nod in approval.
  3640. "Thank you, Mr. Comfort. We should be fine. Have a good evening."
  3641. > "Just come downstairs to the front if you need anything!"
  3642. > With him gone you close the door, lock it, and breath out a sigh of relief.
  3643. > Around you, all five of the others visibly relax as well.
  3644. "Well... we're in. I don't quite believe it, but we're in."
  3645. > "It's a good start. We'll have to be careful, though - most of the townsponies may not be sympathetic if we ask the wrong questions."
  3646. > Ornithea nods in agreement with Whispen's comment.
  3647. > "Yeah, I don't get that. I mean... who just sits around waiting. It's still an invasion!"
  3648. "Honestly? I don't think they show it, but... they're scared. They're afraid of what would happen if they acknowledged that it's really a war."
  3649. > Whispen frowns a little.
  3650. > "Maybe."
  3651. "I think so. They're just waiting for other ponies to solve the problem, not facing it themselves. There's one advantage in that, though."
  3652. > Byline looks uncertain.
  3653. > "What's that?"
  3654. "If there's fear, that will turn to anger. Angry ponies will help us; we just have to find them."
  3655. > In the back, you can see Spark quietly tending to shaky-looking Quick Step.
  3656. > Breaking off from the others, you pause next to the two.
  3657. "He okay?"
  3658. > Spark looks up, nodding.
  3659. > "Just a little shaken."
  3660. > "S-Shaken. Haha. Honestly, I... I think I almost wet myself back there when the soldiers had me put my hoof on that thing."
  3661. "You did good, Quick Step. You'll be fine, just keep doing good like that."
  3662.  
  3663. ACTION:
  3664. - I say we wait till tomorrow to look for the others.
  3665. - Make connections, find the others tomorrow
  3666. - We should try to gather as much info as we can from the locals, and about the locals so we know who we can trust, due to how close to curfew it is
  3667.  
  3668. "Let's go see if we can barter some of our medical gear for food."
  3669. > "That is rather against regulation, sir. These are guard supplies."
  3670. "So is a lot of this, Byline. But the regulations never anticipated anything like this, and we're no good starved."
  3671. > Easthock's town market proves to be subdued, but still populated.
  3672. > While the traders that would normally have passed through from places as far as Tall Tale, Appleloosa, and Canterlot had quickly dried up, the town's citizens still needed basic necessities.
  3673. > Unfortunately, trade was still mostly done by bits - driven by the townsponies' unwillingess to believe that the conflict would not be resolved shortly.
  3674. > Meeting in a small alleyway with the rest of your group, you keep one eye on the crowd - and the occasional group of human soldiers patrolling through the marketplace - as your talk to them.
  3675. "It's not looking to good. The only ones who are willing to barter are the small-time farmers, the lone families from around this area who have been driven to sell here by the war."
  3676. > "Why's that a problem?"
  3677. > Ornithea grunts softly.
  3678. > "You must be a city colt, Quick. A small town like that? Everypony knows everypony else. We've been saying we were coming from those towns - but they'd know we're no actually about."
  3679. > Realization grows in Quick Step's eyes.
  3680. > "Ooooh. And they'd know we're trying to hide too."
  3681. "Probably, yes. Now, I'd bet a fair number of bits one doctor or another will be willing to buy our medical supplies for bits, but..."
  3682. > Whipen picks up where you were left off.
  3683. > "But the doctor would want to know why we're selling such valuable things in the middle of a war."
  3684. "And that would cast suspicion too."
  3685. > Quick speaks up nervously.
  3686. > "Well, um... there is a third option."
  3687. > Raising one eyebrow, you look over.
  3688. "Go ahead?"
  3689.  
  3690. > "Okay, so before I straightened my life out and got into the guard I was... kind of a screwup, right? Well, trust me on this: any place that has trade going through it has... other trade, too."
  3691. "Black marketeers."
  3692. > Quick Step nods fractionally.
  3693. > "It'll be a hard sell that we aren't just going to turn them over once this ends... but if we can sell it, they won't turn us in."
  3694. > Whispen makes a sour look.
  3695. > "I'm not sure I want to sell to ponies that will only turn around and pass those supplies on for their own profit either."
  3696.  
  3697. [Roll for action; result: Try to barter with a farmer.]
  3698.  
  3699. "We'll try talking to a farmer. If he asks.. I don't know. We might have to tell him. Maybe we could lie. Either way, let's get going before we start looking suspicious, all standing around in this alley.
  3700. > Returning back to the market, you begin to search for farmers who look willing to barter.
  3701. > Walking through the streets, you're again struck by the strange duality of the town's mood.
  3702. > Foals run in the street, playing in the late afternoon sun.
  3703. > A few even crowd around the invaders' armored carts, marveling at their size - mercifully to young to recognize the full weight of what they signify.
  3704. > Ponies of all ages and roles.
  3705. > Their chatter is remarkable only in how mundane it is.
  3706. > You catch discussion of cutiecenaras, the recent winter wrap-up, how the foals are doing in school.
  3707. > Everything but the fact that Easthock was effectively occupied by a conquering army.
  3708. > The closest anypony gets is complaining about the noise 'those horrid carts make at night when everypony ought to be sleeping.'
  3709. > Shaking your head, you turn another corner - the others following behind you in groups of two.
  3710. > By your side, Whispen nods in agreement with you and speaks in a low voice.
  3711. > "It's amazing how ignorant ponies can force themselves to be, isn't it?
  3712. "Yes. I'm not expecting them to rise up and put themselves at risk, but to actually ignore it..."
  3713. > A pony wanders a little to close to hearing range for your liking.
  3714. "Later. After we're back in the hotel."
  3715. > It isn't hard to spot the ones up for bartering.
  3716. > The stacks of varied goods behind their tables make amply apparent.
  3717. > Sidling up to one, you lean over - making a show of examining the foods laid out.
  3718. > Vegetables and such for the most, a few varieties of dried hay... it would work.
  3719. "You're willing to trade for this?"
  3720. > "If y'got somethin' t'trade for."
  3721. > The farmer's voice is rough and scratch, and distorted by a straw hanging from his lips.
  3722.  
  3723. "How does medical supplies sound to you - painkillers, bandages, antiseptics, dressings and medication..."
  3724. > The farmer's eyes light up, but then narrow.
  3725. > "An' where would a colt like you be gettin' all those things, hmm? I'm not wantin' any police or guard comin' after me for any fishy business."
  3726. > You put on your best convincing smile.
  3727. "We're not going to bring the guard down on you, I promise."
  3728. > "Good! It's hard enough with all these new things stirrin' everyone up an' closin' th'roads t'trade; I don' need more trouble."
  3729. "Well, they're..."
  3730.  
  3731. ACTION:
  3732. - Numerous; generally, tell the farmer the medical supplies were gathered beforehand and since you arrived safely, they can now be sold.
  3733.  
  3734. "We started packing up when this first getting started. Especially medical supplies, because... you know, it seemed like a war was happening."
  3735. > You motion around, to the otherwise normal town.
  3736. "But, it's still relatively calm - and, we all got here fine, thank Celestia. So, we kind of need food more than anything else."
  3737. > The farmer relaxes, perhaps recognizing a familiar element in your story.
  3738. > "Well, I don't blame y'for wantin' t'be careful. Good of you t'be lookin' after other folk a'well."
  3739. > He motions to a series of wicker baskets sitting by the side of his table.
  3740. > "Y'give me two o'those packs, y'can fill up one o'those baskets. You'll 'ave t'carry it y'self, though."
  3741. "Seems fair."
  3742. > You begin to load up a basket, focusing on high-energy foods and things that will keep you going for a long time.
  3743. > Stretched, it might hold the six of you out another three days.
  3744. "So, things have been the same with you? No real damage to your crops?"
  3745. > "Eh, f'th'mos' part. Righ' when this go' started, eh, there was some bad business in m'fields, bu' we got out of it alrigh'."
  3746. > He pauses, then lowers his voice.
  3747. > "An', eh, there was some problems 'ere, I heard. Somethin' abou' when they firs' came in an' took th' sun-an'-moon flag down, some colts didn' like tha' very much."
  3748. "Truly?"
  3749. > "Yeup. They shut tha' down real fas'."
  3750.  
  3751. ACTION:
  3752. - I want to hear about how they shut it down, then we can go
  3753. - I wanna hear about the flag incident as well
  3754.  
  3755. "Shut them down? What happened?"
  3756. > "Well, firs' th'colts tried runnin' at them when they were pullin' th'old flag down - tha' didn' do much real good, they started wavin' their cannon-sticks 'round an' scared 'em all off. Next nigh', though, somepony put another flag righ' back up there."
  3757. > Your look of surprise isn't forced - compared to the rest of the town's behavior, such an act seems downright daring.
  3758. "How'd they react to that?"
  3759. > "Jus' came an' took it away again, I 'ear. They must've left somethin' there hidden t'be watchin', though, 'cause when them colts came back th'next nigh', they dropped righ' in on 'em."
  3760. "There was a fight?"
  3761. > "Absolutely. Some of 'em tried to run, but a couple colts tried to buck them things straigh'. Got 'imself hit wi' a shot from one o'those cannon-sticks for his trouble."
  3762. > Several of your group rear back in shock, though only Whispen speaks up.
  3763. > "They're just killing civilians?"
  3764. > "Killin'? No, not killin'."
  3765. > The farmer pauses, then leans in.
  3766. > "Actually, tha' was th'funnies' thing 'bout it all. Way I heard it, th'boss o'them things was angier than an' Ursa Minor woke up in winter tha' colt got hurt. Spen' an hour jus' yellin' at the others, righ' then an' there."
  3767. > Again shock flitters across all your faces, though this time for different reasons.
  3768. "Well, what happened to all those colts?"
  3769. > "Well - an' I heard some say there was some young mares there as well - they all got rounded up an' tossed in' th'town jail for a nigh', then let ou' a day later after some talkin'-tos by th' ol' judge. Th'colts who tried to attack them things, they got taken over t'their base for a few nights, but good ol' Mayor Domo, he talked 'em in to letting them ou' after a few days."
  3770. > Whispen breaks in to ask the question you were about to:
  3771. > "And the one who was hurt?"
  3772. > Another uncertain shrug is elicited from the farmer.
  3773.  
  3774. > "Released too, an' recoverin' - or so these ol' ears hear. Certainly didn' die or anythin' like tha'."
  3775. "So, they were willing to just let them go?"
  3776. > "Seems like. They don' wan' anyone messin' wi' their stuff either, I figure."
  3777. > An easy, amused, and entirely false grin is hopefully pasted on to your face.
  3778. "Well, we're certainly not planning on that - just getting some things and heading home as soon as possible."
  3779. > "Good luck wi' tha'. Jus' don' go 'round screamin' your suppor' for th'princesses, an' you shoul' be alrigh'."
  3780. "I'll be sure to keep that in mind."
  3781. > Stepping away, you continue to cautiously work your way through the market.
  3782. > With the farmer's words in mind, the townponies' way of deliberately ignoring the obvious occupying force takes on something of a new light.
  3783. > "Sir... should we be finding Caravan and the others now?"
  3784. "If we can... and don't call me that."
  3785. > Quick winces at your sharp admonition; thankfully he hadn't been to loud about it.
  3786. > "Sorry, s... sorry. I'm just worried about them."
  3787. "So am I, but we're running on limited time here."
  3788. > You pause, thinking over your options.
  3789. "If we split up and just walk around, we could cover more area and potentially spot Caravan."
  3790. > Whispen nods.
  3791. > "Meet back here?"
  3792. > Glancing to where the sun was already slipping towards the horizon, you nod.
  3793. "Say, another hour or so. That should still give us plenty of time to get back to the hotel."
  3794. > Unfortunately, between pacing from common area to common area - market to town square to a small park where a few foals play under the watchful gaze of cautious parents - an hour passes quickly.
  3795. > When the alarm sounds, echoing noisily through the streets, you nearly jump out of your hooves.
  3796. > Ornithea and Byline freeze as well, and you can be sure that Whispen's group - wherever they are - are just as terrified.
  3797. > How had they caught on to you?
  3798. > Had they left something to watch you, like the story the farmer had told?
  3799.  
  3800. > Or maybe they dragged Hot Pot, Boulder, and Copper out of the woods?
  3801. > Or-
  3802. > You become aware of friendly laughter from nearby.
  3803. > "First night in town, eh?"
  3804. > A young, relaxed-looking stallion grins at you from a nearby bench.
  3805. "Yes, only arrived today. What does it mean?"
  3806. > "Curfew in an hour, time to head home. You got somewhere to stay?"
  3807. "Creature Comfort's hotel."
  3808. > "Ah. Be good to him - poor fellow's nearly out of a business."
  3809. "We heard - actually, we'll be heading back now as well. Thank you for the explanation."
  3810. > "We've all got to stick together in times like this."
  3811. > Despite your best efforts, fear still hurries your pace on the walk back to the hotel.
  3812. > Being caught past curfew was the last thing you want.
  3813. > Arriving with plenty of time to spare, you find Whispen and her group already back in the room.
  3814. > "Any luck, sir?"
  3815. "No, unfortunately. Awfully convenient of them to warn us about the curfew like that, though."
  3816. > She nods, frowning a little.
  3817. > "It's odd, They don't mince words that the town is under occupation - it's on the notice boards they put up - but it really seems like they're going out of their way to avoid stepping on anypony's tail."
  3818.  
  3819. ACTION:
  3820. - Pop in on the doctors, say you're looking for some friends that may have got hurt
  3821. - Maybe we should ask, if they had treaded someone with smoke poisoning/fire related injuries recently. If they haven't at all, we at least don't make ourselves suspicious by directly asking for bat ponies all over the place from the get go. If a doctor has (if there are multiple), we can still ask if it were bat ponies.
  3822.  
  3823. "Tomorrow, we'll start hitting all the clinics - seeing if the doctors have treated anypony with Chilona and Dusk's injuries."
  3824. > Whispen nods.
  3825. > "Same groups as before, sir?"
  3826. > Now in private, she's quickly dropped any pretense of the 'scared farmer-wife' personality.
  3827. > Oh, the fear is certainly there still - as it is for you as well.
  3828. > But it's covered by a good layer of determination as well.
  3829. "Going to have to be the same groups as long as we're here, I think. Changing that would change our story."
  3830. > Again glancing to the four beds, you start to consider how to arrange sleeping for the night.
  3831. > A second room wouldn't be a possibility - not unless you wanted to bankrupt yourself in a day.
  3832. "I hope we don't mind doubling up on the beds, 'cause that's what it's looking like it's going to be."
  3833. > "Agreed. I think we should set a watch as well."
  3834. "Probably a good idea. Even if they don't seem to be on to us quite yet."
  3835. > With sleeping and watch arrangements ironed out, you settle down to eat.
  3836. > Fresh goods first, of course; the rations would stay edible until Celestia's mane went grey.
  3837. > "You know..."
  3838. > Ornithea speaks up around a mouthful of hay and vegetables.
  3839. > "I almost feel kind of guilty. I mean, Hot Pot and Boulder are still stuck out there eating whatever they can grab, and here we are in a room eating fresh stuff..."
  3840. > Byline just snorts softly.
  3841. > "With the way that mare can cook? I'd not be surprised if they're eating better than we are..."
  3842. > "What about Copper? He's out there too..."
  3843. > Everypony pauses and looks at Ornithea strangely.
  3844. > She squirms a little and goes on hesitatingly.
  3845. > "I mean, I'm not sorry for him... but we can't just forget about him, right? He's still a pony."
  3846. > There are a couple of affirmative nods... but only a couple.
  3847. "We may not like him, but we can't just leave him to die. That's one of the reasons I left those two out there to watch-"
  3848.  
  3849. > Again the siren cuts through the air followed by a tinny, metallic voice only slightly muffled by the walls between yourself and the source.
  3850. > "It is now 10 PM. Curfew is now in effect. Anyone on the streets after this time is subject to detainment and search. Curfew will be lifted at 6 AM."
  3851. > Nopony speaks for several moments after the voice fades.
  3852. "...well. That's a reminder for us as well, I think. Finish your meals and then lights-out; we all need the rest."
  3853. > ...
  3854. > Sleep is, mercifully, uninterrupted.
  3855. > By seven in the morning you are all out on the streets again - splitting up into two teams to find the doctors.
  3856. > Careful searching turns up one main clinic, run by Easthock's most well-known doctor, and the residences of two others.
  3857. > The clinic is the obvious place to start, and you are about to trot through the front door when it swings open to allow another mare to leave.
  3858. > In the second the door is open, you catch sight of two human soldiers standing in the entrance area.
  3859. > Nearly freezing in place, you casually turn your trot aside at the last moment and make your way down the block instead.
  3860. > Pausing at a safe distance, you let out a low breath.
  3861. "You all see them too?"
  3862. > Nods all around.
  3863.  
  3864. ACTION:
  3865. - Isn't the hospital public? We're looking for our SO DEAR CIVILIAN FRIENDS THAT GOT HURT RITE GUISE
  3866. - If we enter, we probably would draw less attention to ourselves, if we entered with one or two ponies only.
  3867.  
  3868. "I think we can do it if we act calm... Whispen, try to keep an eye out here, but don't be to conspicuous. Ornithea, stick with me. Byline, can you keep yourself busy for a couple hours?"
  3869. > "Of course. I should really see if this town has a paper - I'm sure I could step in and acquire some juicy gossip."
  3870. "Just don't be to obvious about it."
  3871. > Byline looks almost offended, but before he can respond you turn back towards the clinic and trot off.
  3872. > After a short second you hear Ornithea's hoofsteps behind you as well.
  3873. > You manage to control your breathing while you get through the door, but even your training can't keep you from sweating nervously as you step in front of the four soldiers who turn out to be in the lobby.
  3874. > Some of it is, of course, is their weapons and the prospect of capture - but another part is how inscrutable and strange they still look to you.
  3875. > Especially with their eyes covered in reflective eyewear that keeps you from seeing where they're actually looking.
  3876. > The other ponies in the lobby - two who look to be waiting for treatment, a bored-seeming janitor lazily mopping away the floor, and a receptionist behind the desk - barely seem to notice them.
  3877. > But then again, the other ponies aren't effectively fugitives at this point.
  3878. > Quick Step's words float unbidden through your head.
  3879. > 'Do you even know what the griffons did to ponies they caught spying? And these things are even more strange!'
  3880. > Still, you resolve to keep your eyes down and focus on the floor and just keep walking and you'll be safe and-
  3881. > "Hey!"
  3882. > A voice calls out to you.
  3883. > A soldier's voice.
  3884. > It has to be, it's coming from right where they're standing.
  3885.  
  3886. ACTION:
  3887. - Not quite. Answer him calmly, but adequately timidly in accordance to your cover.
  3888.  
  3889. > With great personal discipline you lift your eyes to settle on the soldiers again.
  3890. "Is something wrong, sir?"
  3891. > Amazingly, you've somehow managed to keep the fear out of your voice.
  3892. > "Yeah."
  3893. > Your blood freezes.
  3894. > He just grins and holds out a hand, palm open and unthreatening.
  3895. > "You don't have to be so scared! We're not going to shoot you; we're just here to keep anyone from stealing things."
  3896. > Relief floods through your body as you nod shakily.
  3897. "I'll keep that in mind. Thank you, sir."
  3898. > When no further comments come, you resume your walk to the receptionist's desk.
  3899. > Somehow it seems easier, as if the fear had come, gone, and could not come back so easily.
  3900. "Excuse me? I'm looking for a couple of friends of mine I'd heard were hurt - they were in a fire. Did any two ponies come in for treatment for something like that?"
  3901. > The receptionist begins pouring through her notes.
  3902. > "Fire, fire... Oh, yes! What were their names?"
  3903. "Chilona and Dusk Shadow. We're from out of town."
  3904. > "Ah, yes! They're both recovering nicely, although he may be in for a little bit longer than she. Would you like to go see them?"
  3905. > Relief continues to flow through you; Dusk and Chilona were both fine.
  3906. "That would be very nice, yes."
  3907. > A nurse is summoned, within moments she appears at the inner door to hold it open for you.
  3908. > "This is Nurse Caduceus; she will accompany you to their room."
  3909. > For just the briefest second something flickers in the nurse's eyes as she looks you over, but then it is gone.
  3910. > Thanking the receptionist once again, you follow Nurse Caduceus in, Ornithea following you.
  3911. > "Let's see... you're here for Dusk Shadow and Chilona, yes?"
  3912. "Yes; how are they doing?"
  3913. > Caduceus floats a sheaf of papers alongside her, flicking through them as she walks.
  3914. > "Recovering. Chilona will be safe to release in days with a prescription; Dusk's recovery will probably take a little bit longer. He must have inhaled quite a bit of smoke."
  3915.  
  3916. > You're about to confirm her suspicion when you remember that, for now, you are 'just a friend'.
  3917. > Fortunately Ornithea takes over.
  3918. > "Oh, what a pity! I'm sure he'll be heartbroken when he learns his home burned that badly too..."
  3919. > "A home fire, was it? Such a pity, that - especially in these times. Well, they're right in here."
  3920. > Stopping at a room, Nurse Caduceus unlocks the door and holds it open for you.
  3921. > Stepping in, you're met by the world-standard smell of alcohol and dressings.
  3922. > Two beds stations fill the room, thick curtains drawn around them against the daylight.
  3923. > Caduceus follows the two of you in, closing the door behind her.
  3924. > Nudging through a gap in the curtains, you speak softly in case they are sleeping.
  3925. "Dusk, Chilona, are you-"
  3926. > You freeze.
  3927. > Both beds are empty and untouched.
  3928.  
  3929. ACTION:
  3930. - Be startled. Keep up your facade, but be ready for everything.
  3931. Ask the nurse what the meaning of this is.
  3932. - Quickly turn around and make sure the nurse is still there, and if she's not betraying us or tricking us we should ask her what the hell happened, they... might 'still be spooked from the fire'. After we should try to search the room.
  3933.  
  3934. > Quickly you draw your head back, sweeping the room for any new threats.
  3935. > Well, there aren't any new ones.
  3936. > The nurse is there, though.
  3937. > And oh, look - she's locked the door and got her horn lit.
  3938. > Judging by the look on her face, this isn't a mistake either.
  3939. > Unfortunately you'd neglected to bring a unicorn with you, leaving you at a severe range disadvantage if she decided to attack.
  3940. > Maybe you could dodge her opening blow... or maybe you couldn't.
  3941. "...look, I don't know what you did to cause this, but I really don't think-"
  3942. > "You're Royal Guards, the two of you."
  3943. > Nurses across Equestria have a tone that they use for interrupting ponies that do not want to be interrupted.
  3944. > A tone that says they've already figured it out, and you'd best just play along before things get worse.
  3945. > Right now, she is laying it on thick.
  3946. "...how did you find out?"
  3947. > "We had to sedate Dusk Shadow to treat him; he talked when he was waking up but before it wore off."
  3948. > Of course that's what it would be.
  3949. "Is he safe?"
  3950. > "Yes. He is recovering. I didn't lie about that."
  3951. "Then why have you locked us in here?"
  3952. > Ornithea had been moving slowly around from behind you, her eyes narrow in anger as she tried to outflank Caduceus in the small room.
  3953. > The good nurse was having none of it, though - a point amply demonstrated when she flicked head to point her horn at your companion.
  3954. > "Because I need to know what you're doing here. Your safety - his safety - depends on your answer."
  3955. "You can't restrain both of us."
  3956. > "I can scream."
  3957. > She does have a point there.
  3958.  
  3959. ACTION:
  3960. - 'We're here to investigate enemy activity and possibly free the prisoners that the invaders have taken. The Batpones getting in a fire was an accident during our trip'
  3961. - Infiltration. You may not like it, I may not like it, but it's something I've been chosen to do.
  3962.  
  3963. > If she was going to outright betray you from the start, it would probably have happened already.
  3964. > Time to feed her a line and see what happens.
  3965. "Ornithea, stand down. Hurting her isn't going to help."
  3966. > She doesn't relax, but Ornithea does stop trying to trap the nurse between the two of you.
  3967. "We're scouting. Investigating what is going on here, observing their movements and reporting. The fire... was an accident."
  3968. > Nurse Caduceus's eyes narrow, and you quickly continue.
  3969. "Honestly. We had a camouflaged position and some of the branches we were using unexpectedly caught fire. That's all."
  3970. > She seems to be turning this over in her head, and finally nods slowly.
  3971. > "Are you going to attack them? I can't let you do that - I won't stop you from leaving, but I can't let you start a battle here."
  3972. "We weren't planning on fighting, no. Is that what you are worried about?"
  3973. > A sharp nod is your reply.
  3974. > "When you're the one treating the injuries you tend to get upset at anyone who would start a fight in your home."
  3975. "Understandable."
  3976. > Now that you know what is on her mind, you find the nurse a lot easier to work with.
  3977. "We have no interest in starting anything that will get the ponies of Easthock killed or injured. We came into the town just to make sure they are safe, that's all."
  3978. > "Then... I won't do anything."
  3979. > Her horn finally extinguishes.
  3980. > "I'm sorry. I just couldn't let any more get hurt... Rock Steady was one colt to many."
  3981. "He was the one who got hurt trying to put a flag back up?"
  3982. > "Heard that story, did you? He's going to be fine in time as well, but... it was just one too many."
  3983. "Well, we aren't going to try anything. Can we go see Dusk and Chilona, though?"
  3984. > "Yes. I'll take you to their actual room."
  3985. > Despite her reassurance that she isn't going to try anything, you can't help but be a little on edge as you again follow Nurse Caduceus through the clinic's halls.
  3986.  
  3987. > All of that fades, though, when you open the door and see the familiar faces - and only those faces - within.
  3988. > Chilona has a book propped up on her belly as she lays there, while Dusk is asleep - a tube running into one leg and bandages still wrapping the worst of his burns.
  3989. > When Chilona sees you, though, her face is ht by the conflicting emotions of surprise and concern.
  3990. > "Sir! You managed to get in..?"
  3991. "Yes, we did. We're safe, too - how are you recovering?"
  3992. > Her voice is still scratchy, but Chilona is considerably better than you last saw her.
  3993. > Dusk, on the other hand, is clearly still recovering.
  3994. > "He sleeps a lot, and I can see it still hurts him when they change his bandages."
  3995. > It's a worried look Chilona casts to him as she talks.
  3996. > "But, I think he is healing... it might be to long, though."
  3997. "We aren't going to leave without you two. You're a value to us, really."
  3998. > "It could be a week... can they wait that long...?"
  3999. "I can send them back if need be, but I'm not leaving you behind here. We can hold out a little longer, keep observing..."
  4000. > She smiles warmly, nodding.
  4001. > "Thank you, sir, I... I do appreciate this."
  4002. > When you step out at last, you are promptly surprised by a firm hoof to your chest.
  4003. > Nurse Caduceus gives you a sharp glare.
  4004. > "I'm going to hold you to that, you know. About not causing problems. I won't hesitate to tell them if you do."
  4005.  
  4006. ACTION:
  4007. - What part of recon don't you fucking understand?
  4008. - Why in gods name would we cause an issue on purpose? Especially after all this? We just wanna get our friends healed up and we'll get on our merry way.
  4009.  
  4010. > Gently pushing her hoof down, you meet the nurse's eyes easily and fix her with your own gaze.
  4011. "We are not interested in fighting here. We were not ordered to fight here, only scout. That is what we'll do."
  4012. > She gives a little huff, but her hoof falls back to the floor.
  4013. "We've not exactly been having it easy ourselves, you know. We're lost a lot of ponies, so we're not ignorant of what it would mean to fight them here."
  4014. > This seems to give her pause, and at last she sighs softly and nods.
  4015. > "Sorry. It's just... we saw the Guard retreating past here, not even trying to fight - just pulling back. And then they moved in without so much as a peep... I... I guess I was angry the fighting might happen here, more than any other place."
  4016. "I understand. Trust me - we're trying to do all we can."
  4017. > "I... thank you."
  4018. > She doesn't speak again as she leads you up to the entrance again.
  4019. > When she opens the door to the reception area again - the soldiers still waiting in their small group, still completely uninterested in you - she only gives you the briefest of glances.
  4020. > If nothing else, you can say this about the nurse:
  4021. > She is good at controlling what emotions she shows.
  4022. > Minutes later, you stand on the streetcorner - the entire town once again open to you.
  4023. "Right, we've got some time to burn until we meet with the others again. Let's see about finding a good spot to watch things from - if we're going to be stuck here, we may as well at least take some notes."
  4024. > 'Finding' and 'keeping' turn out to be two entirely different things.
  4025. > While rooftops were available to you, Easthock was an old town - many buildings still had traditional peaked, tiled roofs.
  4026. > After the first time you were chased off a roof by an angry occupant, you gave up on simply landing on roofs.
  4027. > A higher observation point, it seems, would have to be negotiated.
  4028. > Fortunately there are still many streets that open on towards the field the invaders' camp lay in.
  4029.  
  4030. > The humans were no fools, though, and these streets saw regular patrols - mostly by small groups of soldiers, but occasionally by two of their smaller wheeled carts.
  4031. > Clearly sticking around there without any kind of business was a risky endeavor as well.
  4032. > Perhaps somepony could give you a cover - or even grant you the use of their rooftop?
  4033. > Looking down, you notice that a few of the oldest cobblestone roads have been badly torn up by the weight of the invaders' armored carts.
  4034. > Maybe that would be helpful somehow?
  4035.  
  4036. ACTION:
  4037. - Get actual work, allowing us to be near the camp to watch it.
  4038.  
  4039. "Maybe... we could do both. I'm sure somepony around here needs roof repairs, or would be willing to let us camp out on the roof for a little while if we paid... I'm sure the town needs somepony to-"
  4040. > Turning you find instead that Ornithea has, instead of listening, got a pigeon resting on one raised hoof - the bird cooing gently as she nuzzles it.
  4041. "...where did you find that thing?"
  4042. > "It just landed here. I'm fairly sure it's tame."
  4043. "What makes you say that?"
  4044. > She holds the bird closer, and you finally notice the tag banded around one leg - a small address written on it.
  4045. "You know, Ornithea, I'm not sure right now is the time for your hobbies..."
  4046. > "No - this bird can help us!"
  4047. "What, can you talk to them or something?"
  4048. > A wry grin is your answer, along with a shake of her head.
  4049. > "I'd have to be a truly special pony to be able to actually have a conversation with an animal and be understood... but that doesn't mean they can't help us."
  4050. "What do you mean?"
  4051. > "Well, somepony who keeps birds and lets them out is probably going to live a bit off the ground..."
  4052. > It clicks in your head.
  4053. "...like a rooftop. I take back what I said about hobbies."
  4054. > Ornithea nods before giving the pigeon one last nuzzle.
  4055. > "Go. Home."
  4056. > The phrase is enunciated slowly and clearly, apparently enough so for the bird to get the meaning.
  4057. > It launches itself from her hoof, fluttering down the street.
  4058. > You hurl yourself into the air as well - quickly having realized there was no way you could keep up with it on the ground.
  4059. > Fortunately the pigeon doesn't go far, coming to rest on a ledge atop a reasonably tall four-storyy structure.
  4060. > With what seems like about a hundred other pigeons, all similarly tagged.
  4061. > Settling back down to the ground again, you glance over as Ornithea comes charging up the street, panting.
  4062. > "Y... y'follow it?"
  4063. > Wordlessly you point up; her head follows your hoof and Ornithea's eyes grow wide.
  4064. > "Woah."
  4065.  
  4066. ACTION:
  4067. - Investigate who keeps the birds, and if they would be willing to help you.
  4068.  
  4069. "You take the lead on this, Ornithea. You know about this sort of thing."
  4070. > She strides up to the door in confidence, knocking rapidly with one hoof.
  4071. > It takes several moments, but the door finally opens to reveal a young, nervous-looking mare.
  4072. > "Can I help you?"
  4073. > "Hello - can I ask, is somepony in here keeping birds...?"
  4074. > The mare pales, then calls upstairs:
  4075. > "Pinfeather! Get down here right now! Your birds have upset somepony again!"
  4076. > There is a great deal of thudding and crashing down several flights of stairs before a foal appears in the doorway.
  4077. > Well, okay - not really a foal, but a young mare just beyond being a foal, still in that awkward lanky phase where her legs are to long and wings not quite large enough for her body.
  4078. > "Oh, no, no, no!"
  4079. > Ornithea shakes her head furiously.
  4080. > "We're not upset - actually, I was surprised to see such a well-behaved bird!"
  4081. > The mare - a mother, you've decided - looks quite relieved.
  4082. > "Oh, well, that is most welcome new-"
  4083. > "Really?!"
  4084. > Again the Pinfeather pokes her head around the door, grinning wildly.
  4085. > " 'cause not a lot of ponies actually like my pigeons, always say they make to much of a mess, but I really..."
  4086. > Her chattering is giving you a headache already, but it turns out to be quite worth it.
  4087. > Pinfeather, it turns out, has had an affinity for training the birds since she was young, but had long since been relegated to the attic to avoid their mess.
  4088. > Earning her mark while tending to her birds had been all but guaranteed even before it happened, and her mothers was supportive (if sometimes frustrated) by her habits.
  4089. > While Ornithea and Pinfeather rapidly descend into some babble about various sub-species that would be barely comprehensible even with a textbook, you slip up to one of the windows.
  4090.  
  4091. > It isn't the best view - there are a few buildings between yourself and the humans' camp that will give you better line-of-site, and the stench of pigeon dung is something else - but nothing that should prevent you from seeing most of the camp.
  4092. > After a few minutes Ornithea joins you at the window.
  4093. > "Pinfeather's gone to get dinner now. She says I can come over from time to time if I want."
  4094. "That may not be often enough."
  4095. > Ornithea sighs, but nods.
  4096. > "I know. I don't think we should impose on her, though - her mother already has a hard enough time supporting her daughter's work with the birds."
  4097. "Can't send her away to work somewhere, hmm?"
  4098. > Ornithea shakes her head.
  4099. > "They aren't exactly wealthy, even before this all started..."
  4100. "...and with the war there's no chance. I understand.... but we still need the view."
  4101. > "I'll talk to her. Maybe I can convince her mother I'll teach Pinfeather some cleaner habits I can stay?"
  4102. "Don't forget I need to be here - and maybe Byline as well."
  4103. > Ornithea nods, but frowns.
  4104. > "I'll try-"
  4105. > "What're you two talking about? Who's Byline?"
  4106. > Damn, you hadn't even heard Pinfeather return!
  4107.  
  4108. ACTION:
  4109. - 'He's a friend of ours, we're just wondering what he's up to now, haven't seen him this morning.'
  4110. - This. But we can make it a useful lie. Say that Byline would like to watch the camp of the humans, because he's fascinated by their techonology and think it's amazing. But ask her to please not tell a single soul, not even her mother, because Byline knows, that some ponies might think that means he likes the invaders or even wants to side with them. Which isn't the case of course, but as a refugee in town, he really wants to avoid being suspected of possibly being a traitor or anything.
  4111.  
  4112. "Well, I was just interested in the view out of your window. Byline's a friend of ours - we came to town together and haven't seen him all morning."
  4113. > "Oh, really?"
  4114. > She wanders over the window and sticks her head out.
  4115. > "I think it's a pretty good view, but sometimes I have to close the windows now when those big flying things come around. They always scare my birds really bad."
  4116. "I can understand why. I haven't been flying a lot lately because of them - I don't even want to think about what would happen if I accidentally crashed into one."
  4117. > Or what would happen if one of them decided to attack you.
  4118. > "Well, usually my birds know when one is coming. I so just wait until they get all unhappy, and then I land too. Of course, they don't want anypony from town flying above the rooftops, which I think is silly. What's the fun of flying if you can't fly up with your birds?"
  4119. "Well, our friend Byline writes for a paper, and I think he might appreciate the view. He's very interested in their machines, but afraid some ponies would get upset if they knew that he was."
  4120. > Pinfeather wrinkles her nose.
  4121. > "Why would anypony be interested in them? They're noisy, stinky, and just to big."
  4122. > Ironic, considering the not-inconsiderable stench of pigeon dung from the ledges they are roostiing on.
  4123. > Ornithea, thankfully, steps up and takes over.
  4124. > "Well, I'm sure you can understand how a pony would be interested in something that other ponies think is strange?"
  4125. > Nodding cautiously, Pinfeather agrees.
  4126. > "I guess. I think mother would be okay with him coming by, as long as he doesn't cause any problems."
  4127. "I'm sure he won't - he's afraid that because he's a refugee from out of town and interested in their technology, some ponies might think he's siding with the invaders."
  4128. > "Well, that's not very nice. Why would anyone want to side with them?"
  4129. "I really don't know - but Byline just wants to watch, and that should be enough."
  4130.  
  4131. > In the end, you stay for a little longer - just into the early evening, and just long enough for your stomach to start reminding you that it is long since past time to get some food.
  4132. > Only eating twice a day isn't going to be easy, but unless you care to trade away more of your medical supplies you'll have to make do.
  4133. "Let's head back to the hotel for now, see what the others got into."
  4134. > Byline, it turns out, has had an extremely productive day himself.
  4135. > "So, I managed to make friends with the local paper editor and picked up some more information about that incident a while back."
  4136. > You listen to his story between bites, almost sorry you'll have to pull him away from his newfound friendship.
  4137. > "The colts who got in trouble - six of them, and two mares - got put up to community service for doing that, so they shouldn't be hard to find. Except for the one who got hurt, of course - he's still in the clinic."
  4138. "Might they be willing to help us?"
  4139. > "I don't actually know. It'd be risky - from what it sounds, they were hotheads even before the invaders came."
  4140. "So a definite risk, then. Anything else?"
  4141. > Whispen shakes her head.
  4142. > "We couldn't find much, so we just walked the city most of the day. Made a few close passes on the camp - Byline has most of our notes already."
  4143. > "Yes, I've got just about enough to send away another scroll back to base."
  4144.  
  4145. ACTION:
  4146. - Maybe one or two of us should leave town, saying we want to gather some herbs and food we can sell/trade on the market or eat ourselves. Then leave the town, circle around, make sure nobody follows him, check on Boulder/Hot Pot/Copper? Maybe expand the one-week-limit a bit if they're doing well, hear if they have any news, tell them what's going on, that they don't have to worry too much etc.
  4147. - Maybe we should split up. Us and Whispen go for option three and the other two go back to pigeon hut and take advantage of the view. It's not like Byline could take notes while we work anyways.
  4148.  
  4149. "Okay, so here's what I'm thinking: It's actually a lot safer in here than I thought it would be, and we might have to wait for Dusk to recover anyhow. So, tomorrow - Spark and Quick Step, can you head back out of town and circle back to check on the others?"
  4150. > Quick Step grimaces at the idea of heading out from town, but nods.
  4151. "We'll send the last of our fresh food with you - if this all goes according to plan, we can get some more.
  4152. > Whispen is the first to pipe up with the obvious question:
  4153. > "What about the rest of us?"
  4154. "Ornithea and Byline, you'll go back to Pinfeather's house - Byline, we think we've got a decent viewing spot, and you're to take full advantage of it. We should send at least one scroll a day of intelligence; that should have us run out just as Dusk recovers."
  4155. > Turning again to Whispen, you continue.
  4156. "Whispen, you and I are going to see about getting some work here - hopefully it won't just cover some more food, but give us reason to work near their camp."
  4157. > "Understood."
  4158. > Much like the previous night, everypony turns in to bed early - none wanting to risk being sleep-deprived for the following day's events.
  4159. > Quick Step and Spark depart early the next day, taking slips of paper from the soldiers as they leave.
  4160. > It is a risk, but hopefully 'Trotsvale' is such a small village that they will not have garrisoned it.
  4161. > To refuse the slips, you think, would be far worse.
  4162. "...well. Let's go see about work."
  4163. > If finding Pinfeather's home had been a stroke of luck, finding work seemed to be compensating with frustration.
  4164. > The single clerk left at the city hall was obviously overwhelmed between her normal duties and handling the invaders.
  4165. > Even so, after confirming that no, in fact, neither of your talents was in road-building for the eight time, you are starting to get frustrated as well.
  4166.  
  4167. > Bounced from office to office, you finally meet the town's chief engineer - a tired, haggard-looking earth pony who promptly delivers more bad news.
  4168. > "Look, I can't promise you a ton of pay - no offense, but you're not trained or talented and their carts do such damage it'll all have to be re-done in weeks anyhow. It'll be enough to live on, though."
  4169. "That's good enough for us - we're just staying until a friend of ours recovers in the clinic."
  4170. > "In that case, there are a couple of carts.outside with spare cobblestones and sand in them. Go take care of the sections of street here, here, and here..."
  4171. > By mid-afternoon you're starting to regret the choice.
  4172. > Digging out the existing, torn-up road and replacing the cobblestones strains even your guard-trained muscles - neither Whispen nor yourself are earth ponies, after all.
  4173. > But at the end of the day, there's a few more bits in your pocket and you've managed to study a few of the invaders' patrols as they moved on by.
  4174. > When you collapse into bed, it is with true exhaustion this time.
  4175. > Unlike the previous night, though, it is hardly a peaceful rest.
  4176. > You're jolted from sleep while the sky is still dark by a discordant, atonal howling.
  4177. > The others have been quickly roused as well, pulling themselves sleepily from their beds.
  4178. "Who's on watch?"
  4179. > Ornithea's voice answers in the blackness.
  4180. > "I am! I don't know what's happening - it just started, and-"
  4181. > Light flares from the windows as climbs skyward with a distant roar; seconds later twin steams of red fire arc skyward with a noise like a giant, angry dragonfly.
  4182. "Everpony down, down! Something's going on with the invaders!"
  4183. > The explosions continue, the arcs of red bursting in white flashes that remind you of innocent fireworks of Cloudesdale.
  4184. > "I wonder what poor souls are caught in that..."
  4185. > Whispen speaks what all of you are thinking.
  4186. > At least they don't seem to be shooting in the direction Hot Pot and Boulder's camp...
  4187.  
  4188. ACTION:
  4189. - We can't risk being caught now.
  4190. - This. Nothing much we can do about it now and we will be able to ask ponies about "what the hell that was" tomorrow. If this was unusual, they will certainly not think badly of us for asking.
  4191.  
  4192. "Everypony stay calm. They're not here for us."
  4193. > It's hard to remain calm when a war is being fought less than half a mile from where you sleep.
  4194. > Especially when it goes on for another fifteen minutes, and the sirens continue to sound for at least another fifteen after that.
  4195. > Fortunately, the next morning the previous night's activities is all anypony is speaking of, so it raises little suspicion to ask further about them.
  4196. > Still, solid information is scarce - you hear stories of everything from a dragon attach to a civil war within the invaders' forces to one panicked pony who swears they had killed Princess Celestia - until a policepony steps in.
  4197. > "There's nothing special about it, folkls. Just some Royal Guard tried to slip in on chariots and rustle up a quick storm to hit them with. I was on the early patrol, when they were still bringing bodies in."
  4198. > That announcement brings a whole new round of questions from the townsponies - one that you are careful to keep out of.
  4199. > No sense in drawing more attention to yourself, after all.
  4200. > Fortunately, the answers more than cover the questions you were going to ask - from what you are hearing, it had not gone well.
  4201. > The policepony said he had seen at least forty bodies and another ten prisoners brought in.
  4202. > You and Whispen glance between each other, each asking the same silent question.
  4203. > Had you gone out the previous night, would any of them been savable?
  4204. > Would that have been even doable - already you were struggling to just feed your small group.
  4205. > But to late now.
  4206. > There's another immediate affect visible as well; while the two of you repave another section of road, you count at least fifteen patrols moving through Easthock.
  4207. > Spotting a random townspony, you wander on over and nod to a passing patrol of two lighter carts.
  4208. "What's got them all riled up? Is it still that business from last night?"
  4209. > He nods, grumbling.
  4210.  
  4211. > "Someone tipped them off that some of the Guard pegasi had holed up in a house somewhere, so they've been searching homes all day."
  4212. > For a second you are afraid the fear on your face must have been obvious, but if the townspony notices he doesn't react.
  4213. "Well, I hope they don't go tearing up where I'm staying. They might find my girlfriend!"
  4214. > The joke is lame, but it manages to defuse some of the tension.
  4215. > That doesn't keep you from glancing over your shoulder the entire rest of the day.. or from staying grounded again.
  4216. > Being kept from flying for so long is starting to seriously grind on you, but this isn't reassuring - and the last thing you want now is to attract more attention.
  4217. > When you slip back in to the hotel room that night - some of your newly-earned Bits spent and fresh food once again acquired - Ornithea and Byline's haunted looks tell you they heard as well.
  4218. "How bad is it?"
  4219. > "They didn't find anypony hiding, so I think they're giving up... but they're not happy. The rumor is they told the mayor they want to expand patrols around Easthock again, to prevent any hiding Guards from slipping away."
  4220.  
  4221. ACTION:
  4222. - That's someething we should let our forest-detachment know somehow.
  4223. - Option one. If all of a sudden we stopped showing up at town hall for work and Creature Comfort realizes that we don't leave anymore that will draw some attention, perhaps a vist from the polices or even the humans.
  4224. - theres no reason to not keep going. i mean. anything else would be... suspicious.
  4225.  
  4226. "I wish we could let the others know about those patrols, but... I think we just have to keep going. Anything else would raise suspicion."
  4227. > The others nod in agreement.
  4228. > There are no more attacks, that night.
  4229. > You can only be thankful that it would not cost more lives to prove to whoever ordered that insane action yesterday that more would not help.
  4230. > But, that does not mean everything is peaceful either.
  4231. > Halfway through your watch, your ears perk at a slight whimpering coming from one of the beds.
  4232. > It isn't hard to guess whom.
  4233. "Whispen?"
  4234. > She's on her side, all four hooves curled tight against her stomach.
  4235. "Whispen, you're dreaming again. Wake up."
  4236. > It takes a fair amount of shaking before her eyes finally fly open with a jerk.
  4237. > "...I'm sorry, sir. I.. I think I was... dreaming about what happened last night..."
  4238. "It's alright... you going to be okay?"
  4239. > "I... think I need to get up for a little bit. Until my heart slows down a little bit."
  4240. > Nodding, you return to your spot at one of the two windows in the room - looking out on the street below for any sign of a problem.
  4241. > After a moment, realize Whispen's come and sat beside you as well.
  4242. "...not able to calm down, huh?"
  4243. > "Yeah..."
  4244. > She nods, her eyes downcast.
  4245. > "I... kept dreaming it was us up there. Like when I was in the chariot with the rest of my old unit - being attacked, not even knowing where it was coming from or how to escape it..."
  4246.  
  4247. ACTION:
  4248. - Remind her that she survived then and she will survive now. Tell her that we will protect her no matter what, just like when we first meet. We're friends and friends protect eachother. Most importantly remind her that we're here, not out there and as long as we keep our heads on straight we'll be fine.
  4249.  
  4250. "Whispen..."
  4251. > You glance around to make sure none of the others are awake.
  4252. > Fortunately they all seem to be sound asleep, bundled up beneath the covers.
  4253. "Whispen, you're going to be fine. Honestly - you've survived this long. You kept yourself alive - though two trips into the Everfree, a trip most ponies would be afraid to make even without a war happening. You are going to live."
  4254. > She is silent for a moment before speaking again.
  4255. > "I'm not afraid of dying..."
  4256. "It's nothing to be afraid of, Whispen - we're all afraid when we fight. I was back in Canterlot, too."
  4257. > "I'm not afraid of dying!"
  4258. > Her rebuttal is louder this time - almost loud enough to wake the others.
  4259. > There's a tense moment as Byline turns over in his sleep, but thankfully doesn't wake up.
  4260. > Looking up and out the window towards the moon hanging in the sky above, Whispen sighs gently.
  4261. > "I'm not afraid of getting hurt... I'm afraid the rest of you would. That's what I was dreaming about... we were all up there again, and you were all being killed and I couldn't stop it..."
  4262. > That pushes you back to silence again.
  4263. > Whispen notes your lack of response and draws the wrong conclusion from it.
  4264. > "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have dropped my problems on you. I'll..."
  4265. "No."
  4266. > Very gently you put a hoof across her withers, drawing her close.
  4267. "It's not wrong. I'll look out for you out there, Whispen. I'll look out for you - but you have to remember, we aren't up there. We aren't going to die without warning. I'll watch out for you - we're more than just soldiers; we're friends, and friends watch out for each other."
  4268. > "I was looking out for Buzzy and Downspout while they ran... and... they're both dead..."
  4269. > Turning, you can see moonlight glittering off the tears collecting in her eyes.
  4270.  
  4271. "I told you, Whispen. That wasn't your fault - not any more than it was mine for ordering us in to that. But we won't forget them, and we know now - as long as we keep our heads on straight and our wings spread, we can come back okay."
  4272. > "...I don't have wings."
  4273. > You wince.
  4274. "...yeah. My mistake. That was something my instructor used to say back in airpony basic training."
  4275. > "It's okay. I understand what it means."
  4276. > You lapse back into silence.
  4277. > "Um.. I just wanted to say... um.. your hoof..."
  4278. > Immediately you begin to draw it back.
  4279. "I'm sorry, should I not have? I was just trying to-"
  4280. > "No... I... appreciate it."
  4281. > After a second's pause you put it back.
  4282. > Whispen doesn't protest.
  4283. > Instead the two of you just sit there, watching the street below and occasionally the moon drifting by in the sky above.
  4284. > At some point, you realize, Whispen had begun to nod off beside you.
  4285. > Nudging her gently again, you whisper.
  4286. "Come on. You seem calmer now, why don't you get back to bed?"
  4287. > Walking with her back to the bed, she slips in - and then, surprisingly, pushes herself up again.
  4288. > "Can you, just..."
  4289. "Just...?"
  4290. > Even in the darkness you can see her flush.
  4291. > "Can you just stay here for a little while? Until I fall asleep?"
  4292. "Yes, I suppose I could."
  4293.  
  4294. ACTION
  4295. - Stay with her again after your watch ends.
  4296.  
  4297. > After a moment you lay down beside Whispen, giving her a calm smile.
  4298. > Whispen smiles back, laying her head down and closing her eyes once more.
  4299. > Soon enough her breathing quiets and grows slower.
  4300. > You quickly rise, returning to the window to resume your own watch.
  4301. > Fortunately Whispen does not have further nightmares.
  4302. > In time you finish your watch and Ornithea rises to take your place.
  4303. > She gives you a questioning look when you go to Whispen's bed rather than your own; you whisper just loud enough for Ornithea to here.
  4304. "She's having a bad night. Will explain more in the morning."
  4305. > Fortunately, Ornithea doesn't contest your reasoning - just nodding and going to her watch.
  4306. > Pushing down the slight awkwardness involved in sleeping in such close quarters to a subordinate, you slip beneath the covers beside Whispen and allow your own eyes to close.
  4307. > She shifts fractionally as your weight is added to the bed, but - thankfully - doesn't get any closer.
  4308. > As much as female contact would be - on some level - welcome now, the problems that could develop if you got that close are numerous.
  4309. > Putting aside such thoughts for later, you allow sleep to come over you as well.
  4310. > ...
  4311. > Morning.
  4312. > It comes far, far to soon.
  4313. > Nonetheless, you force yourself up and out of bed and off to another day of working yourself ragged to earn a few bits and some intelligence.
  4314. > Ornithea and Byline give you questioning looks over breakfast; while Whispen wanders off to wash up, you take the opportunity to enlighten them.
  4315. "...so she asked me to stay until she was asleep again. I'd... appreciate it if no one teased her or anything about it. She's been through a lot."
  4316. > Ornithea nods understandingly.
  4317. > "She's had quite a few ponies die around her, hasn't she?"
  4318. "Yes; this has all been... hard on her."
  4319. > Byline's only response is to give a soft 'hrmm' and continue to regard you coolly.
  4320.  
  4321. > Emerging out into the streets, you set out with your newest work order for the day.
  4322. > It's suitably close to their camp for some observation - just close enough, in fact, that you can be scared stiff when the sirens in the base begin to wail again.
  4323. > Instantly you are lifting yourself to a rooftop, peering out to see who - or what - is the issue now.
  4324. > Surprisingly, there is no chattering, growling, or roar of weapons from the camp, though that does not stop them from scrambling about like an upturned anthill.
  4325. > Armored carts are being driven from the camp en masse, while soldiers spread out to what you suspect are defensive positions.
  4326. > Clearly something has spooked them - something or someone.
  4327. "Whispen - come on, I want to see if anypony knows what this is about."
  4328. > Although you are heading to the market, you only get halfway there before a widely-grinning townspony meets you going the opposite direction.
  4329. "Hey! Do you know what this is all about?"
  4330. > "You didn't hear yet?"
  4331. "No - what is it?"
  4332. "Celestia attacked the invaders! She stopped them cold while the Wonderbolts and the Cloudesdale corps put together a whopper of a storm to hit them with!"
  4333.  
  4334. ACTION:
  4335. - We should ask more from the townspony first to get as much news as we can. Then, focus on watching the base. Surely there must be more we can learn, even through mere observation. More so, If the base is emptied out to bare bones, and we can confirm, that's critical info for both our own unit's original scouting mission and our superiors to know about.
  4336. - After that, keep on working while keeping an eye on the base. With that uproar, nobody would be too suspicious about some curious pony. But we shouldn't overdo it. We're on a recon mission after all. We can't really do anything to stop them, so gathering more intel is the best way we can help.
  4337.  
  4338. "Really? Did it work?"
  4339. > He nods.
  4340. > "Yeah! Threw a huge thunderstorm at them, and then led a counterattack while they were under the weather!"
  4341. > Whispen glances to you and you meet her gaze asking the same silent question:
  4342. > While Princess Celestia was undoubtedly safe, had she been able to protect the other ponies involved?
  4343. > "Oh, I wish I could have seen it - they say the entire Weather Factory in Cloudesdale was put to the task of building it for a whole day!"
  4344. "Where'd it hit?"
  4345. > "Somewhere around the northwest edge of the Whitetail Wood - or, so I hear. Celestia apparently drove them back through the railroad pass."
  4346. "Do you think it'll stop them entirely?"
  4347. > "I don't know - but it sounds like their advance towards Canterlot has halted cold!"
  4348. > In the distance, you can hear a few muted cheers - it seems this news has broken through even Easthock's reluctance to do anything that might provoke the wrath of the occupying invaders.
  4349. > "And now - well, you heard their sirens! They're scared even here - afraid of the Princess! I told them we shouldn't be afraid!"
  4350. > With another joyful whoop the pony canters off into the distance, humming Equestria's national anthem under his breath.
  4351. > As he goes, Whispen speaks softly to you.
  4352. > "...they're desperate for any good news."
  4353. > You nod, speaking back just as quietly.
  4354. "I would be too, if I wasn't so worried about the cost that action had on the Guard..."
  4355. > Her eyebrows rise in shock as Whispen looks back to you.
  4356. > "You don't think Princess Celestia can hold out against them?"
  4357. "I don't think she can be everywhere at once. Come on - let's do our part, and see if we can spot anything worth seeing in their camp."
  4358.  
  4359. > By the time you return to the street you had been working on, the base is nearly entirely emptied out.
  4360. > You flutter up to a nearby rooftop - damn the inhabitants, this was important! - and peer out at the base.
  4361. > "See anything good up there?"
  4362. > Whispen's call echoes in the empty street; thankfully her question is too generic to truly be suspicious.
  4363. "Uh, looks like they're all moving everything out... hold on, flying machines taking off."
  4364. > Three of them, in fact - rising up with their signature popping rumble to vanish somewhere over the eastern horizon.
  4365. "I don't believe it..."
  4366. > Gliding back down to street level, you shake your head.
  4367. "I think they're actually fleeing - or at least, pulling everything unnecessary out."
  4368. > Whispen, her eyes still locked on the now-still camp, nods.
  4369. > "I think they're actually turning off the lights now. Why are they doing that?"
  4370. "Make them harder to see, maybe? I don't know."
  4371. > Even as you watch, rank after rank of buildings go dark.
  4372. > It almost looks as the camp is being made to seem abandoned, but you can still see a few armored carts and soldiers in defensive positions.
  4373. > Seem abandoned...
  4374. "They're setting an ambush. For any Guard who come this way."
  4375. > "But the place he mentioned... it's far away. The Whitetail Wood goes on for hundreds of miles."
  4376. "Yes, but Las Pegasus is not, and they surely know there's guard still holding out there. They ignored them this far, but if that attack the other night came from Las Pegasus..."
  4377. > Whispen nods, a light clicking on in her eyes as she finishes your sentence.
  4378. > "Then they would have reason to think they might come again."
  4379.  
  4380. ACTION:
  4381. - Well, I hope they don't pull out the bigger guns to retaliate against Celestia. I don't mean nukes, but there's a whole lot of stuff in the conventional arsenal they could use. Let's hope this doesn't escalate any further. Let's stick to doing our thing and keep clear of the base.
  4382. - No if anyone needs to hear from anyone, it' command. This needs to be sent in our report.
  4383.  
  4384. "Whispen, do you still have your paper on you?"
  4385. > She nods shakily.
  4386. "Send a message - now."
  4387. > "What about Byline? Shouldn't we wait to hear from him, if he wants to add anything?"
  4388. "No time - an attack could come any moment. We have to warn them before they try anything."
  4389. > Whispen dives into an alley before beginning to scratch out her message; you opt to keep an eye out for any problems from a nearby roof while she scratches out the message.
  4390. > After what seems like an eternity she incinerates the scroll with a flare of her horn and trots out of the alleyway.
  4391. > You dive down to land beside her; Whispen jumps slightly as you touch down.
  4392. > "Oh! Sorry, sorry - I got a nervous being in there doing that, and you surprised me..."
  4393. "It's fine. What'd you send?"
  4394. > "A warning that the enemy has prepared defensive positions and seems ready for any attack, and that making an assault on Easthock right now is not advisable."
  4395. "Sounds good. What about the carts all being driven out of their camp?"
  4396. > "I mentioned that too."
  4397. > As you go back to 'working' on the road - with one eye permanently fixed on the road - something else comes to your mind.
  4398. "Uh, Whispen... I... actually wanted to apologize for something."
  4399. > "Huh?"
  4400. > She actually seems surprised, her head turning to settle on you.
  4401. > "Apologize?"
  4402. "I, um... well, you know how I stayed with you the whole night?"
  4403. > She nods, flushing a little; her ears droop slightly
  4404. > "Yes... I, uh, still appreciate that you were willing to stay with me."
  4405. "Yes, but... well, you didn't ask me to stay the whole night, and... it wasn't right of me to do that."
  4406. > "Oh, um... well, you aren't saying... you didn't, uh, squeeze my flank or anything while I was asleep, did you?"
  4407. > She's actually coloring a bit more, one hoof nervously scuffing the ground.
  4408. > The question earns her a very, very shocked look from you.
  4409. "Whispen, I would never - ever - do that to a mare, especially a mare under my command."
  4410. > "Oh."
  4411.  
  4412. > The relief in her voice is obvious.
  4413. > Strangely, her obvious consolation at the fact that you hadn't touched her sends a small pang of sadness through you.
  4414. > A moment later, your proper mind reasserts itself.
  4415. > This sort of thing is why, you think, what you say next is important.
  4416. "...but even so, it wasn't right of me to stay there without you asking. Both as an individual, and as your commander."
  4417. > She nods slowly, her muzzle twitching slightly as a number of emotions flicker back and forth over her face.
  4418. "If you... need help falling asleep again, I'll still stay long enough for you to get some rest. But I won't stay longer."
  4419. > "I... understand. Thank you, for being honest. I... appreciated it."
  4420. > You aren't sure whether she means that you stayed in her bed, or the honest in admitting it was wrong.
  4421.  
  4422. ACTION:
  4423. - Ask Whispen what she thinks about all this. After that we might want to check in on Byline and Ornithea to see how they're holding up and if they have anything to report. After we're done with our work for today of course.
  4424.  
  4425. "Right, well..."
  4426. > You cough, trying to drain some of the awkwardness from the situation.
  4427. "When Quick Step and Spark Flash get back, we may want to consider moving back out together again - maybe even picking up shot. We've already passed how long they thought we would be out here to start..."
  4428. > Whispen frowns, but nods.
  4429. > "I guess we've really done all we can..."
  4430. > The rest of the day goes without a great deal of trouble.
  4431. > After collecting your pay for the day's work, you proceed with Whispen to the market.
  4432. > Unfortunately prices of food are rapidly rising as the war continues to cut off much traffic, but you have enough to buy some spare food for the rest of the group.
  4433. > Still, your guard is up - among several places that the invaders had been 'flushed' out to is Easthock itself, and patrols appear to have been nearly doubled since you emerged that morning.
  4434. > Thus, you are on something of an edge - two seperate patrols visible near the edges of the marketplace - when a hoof descends on your back.
  4435. > Spinning rapidly, you find yourself face-to-face with Caravan.
  4436. > " 'lo there, sir. Hope you didn't mind, I didn't want to be yelling across the market with them all out and about."
  4437. > You sigh in relief, visions of an invader having somehow appearing behind you and seizing your wings dancing through your mind.
  4438. "While it's good to see you again, you could at the very least warn us next time."
  4439. > "Indeed. I very nearly blasted you across the market."
  4440. > Caravan glances to Whispen with a smirk.
  4441. > "It won't happen again."
  4442. "You've been staying here this whole time?"
  4443. > "Oh yeah. Managed to ingratiate myself with a family - did a few favors for them - and they've been putting up with me. Good folks, them."
  4444. "Good to hear. Found anything useful?"
  4445. > "Nah. Spent my scroll a couple days ago after making the best observations I could. I don't know how useful it will be, but..."
  4446. > He shrugs.
  4447.  
  4448. > "Somehow I hadn't run into you before, or I'd have reported sooner."
  4449. "We got a hotel room and some cover as refugees doing a bit of work around town while we... watch things."
  4450. > You glance around again, mindful of the fact that you are still in the middle of the market crowd.
  4451. > Caravan follows your eyes and nods.
  4452. > "Your place, or mine?"
  4453.  
  4454. ACTION:
  4455. -  Caravan returns to the hotel room with you (have to give him some cover)
  4456.  
  4457. "Alright. Come back with us, we need to sort this all out."
  4458. > Ornithea and Byline are already back when you return to the hotel room.
  4459. > Both stand as you enter, a look of wide relief washing over Ornithea's face as she sees you enter.
  4460. > "Oh! You're back, and - Caravan! You're safe!"
  4461. > "Quite safe, yes."
  4462. > Looking around, Caravan chuckles.
  4463. > "Comfy place you've got here."
  4464. "It is enough. Byline, did either of you spot anything useful today?"
  4465. > "Only the activity in their base. I got a count of the carts driving out, though - and noticed one thing else. When they were emptying everything out, they didn't bother to take the prisoners. They're still in there."
  4466. "You think they mean to use them for hostages?"
  4467. > "I... don't think so. They were so desperate to get everything out that I think they didn't bother to pull them. They consider their equipment more valuable than prisoners, I think."
  4468. "That's... interesting indeed - if true. Whispen and I already used one scroll, so we can include that tomorrow unless something else critical comes up."
  4469. > "Understood."
  4470. "What about you, Caravan - any good information you've picked up?"
  4471. > The earth pony gives a distinct shrug.
  4472. > "Not much to say, unfortunately. After I got the other two in for treatment, I needed a place to say... so, I talked my way into helping a family in return for a bed, and spent my days shootin' the breeze with the locals."
  4473. > He pauses, then adds more softly:
  4474. > "These ponies in this town... it's sad. They're so afraid, they're setting themselves up for some serious hurt later on."
  4475. > Whispen nods, a moment of sadness passing over her face.
  4476. > "We've noticed. Did you see how they reacted when the news of the attack came out this afternoon?"
  4477. > Caravan nods.
  4478. > "Oh, yes. And that's just the first time."
  4479.  
  4480. ACTION:
  4481. - Why not [send] Whispen? I'd send Ornithea, but Ornithea is the reason why Byline can do his work observing the camp from Pinfeather's place. If he'd come without Ornithea, Pinfeather's mother might get suspicious. And we still need to clear any suspicions for any favoritism, so send Whispen. She's actually a good candidate for the job.
  4482.  
  4483. "Whispen, tomorrow I'm going to need you to go out of town and bring the others up to date on what is happening. We're likely going to move out within a day or two."
  4484. > "Understood."
  4485. > She nods calmly, showing no signs of any concern or fear at the weight of the task.
  4486. "The rest of us - I want to know if we can pry any more information out of this town before we go. Ornithea, Byline - take up your normal position again. Caravan, you and I are going to walk the streets - we have enough supplies for now."
  4487. > This night is thankfully undisturbed; after Caravan departs early to return to the home he had been staying in before the curfew begins, you and the rest of your unit all slip into bed.
  4488. > Your own beds.
  4489. > Byline, thankfully, seems to have resigned himself to throwing slight looks in your direction every once in a while, but doesn't seem likely to try anything.
  4490. > At least, that is how things hold until morning.
  4491. > Barely have you seen your two soldiers off to their rooftop observation post when you are met by a most unwelcome sight.
  4492. > Whispen is back, and the others are trailing her.
  4493. > Even Copper, who unexpectedly walks free.
  4494. > Turning to meet her in the midst of the marketplace, you can see that she is none to happy either - and the others seem equally nervous.
  4495. > Whispen speaks first, as soon as you are close enough to do so and not be easily overhead.
  4496. > "I'm sorry, sir. The patrols were getting thick in the forest - they'd had to move out onto the fields west of the town. I made the choice to bring them in."
  4497. > Sighing softly, you nod.
  4498. "It's probably for the best. We're still not going to be here long, and this will give us a better estimate of how we are on supplies."
  4499. > "Not terrible, though not great. Hot Pot's been doing the best she can, to-"
  4500. "It's fine, Whispen."
  4501. > You jab a hoof towards Copper.
  4502. "What about him?"
  4503. > "I'll not make trouble."
  4504. > His voice is bitter, and his eyes narrowed.
  4505.  
  4506. > "I still think you're all sick for tolerating them after what they did. But I'm not going to try and get the rest of you killed. Unlike those freaks, I don't get my units killed."
  4507. "Enough. Hot Pot, Boulder, Whispen - take him back to the hotel room and stay there. Whispen, I'm going to need you back here when that's done."
  4508. > "I'll be here."
  4509. > As those four go, you turn to the others and take a deep breath.
  4510. "Here's where things stand: Yesterday, news got into Easthock that Princess Celestia lead a successful attack on the bulk of the enemy's forces. I want to know how that information got into Easthock."
  4511. > Turning a corner, you go silent as a human patrol passes - not speaking again until you are good and far from them.
  4512. "It was to fast for a letter, and I don't know any ponies crazy enough to deliver mail in this. That suggests something else - "
  4513. > "What about another pony like Tele Type? Who could send a message a long distance?"
  4514. > "Or someone with papers, like us?"
  4515. "Yes - and be careful what you say, all of you. The townsponies are scared of anyone creating trouble; we could get turned in if not careful."
  4516. > Caravan speaks up now, his voice low - as if he'd taken your warning to be immediate.
  4517. > "We should also get ready to leave the town. Make sure we have enough supplies and all that."
  4518. > Barely have the words left his mouth when bird lands on Ornithea's back, a message-tube tied to its leg.
  4519. > Blinking in surprise, she reaches around and extracts the message.
  4520. > "It's from Pinfeather. She says something big is happening in the camp, and wants to know if Byline would be interested in watching."
  4521. "Damn, that's something else we need to look in to..."
  4522. > "Actually..."
  4523. > Byline is watching the bird carefully as Ornithea lovingly nuzzles it.
  4524. > "We should look into those birds as well. I can't believe I've been surrounded by them for days, and I never thought they might be the way messages were getting around."
  4525. "It's a fair point."
  4526.  
  4527. ACTION:
  4528. - Byline and Ornithea, BIRDS. Caravan and Whispen and Quickstep, GET SUPPLIES. Spark and you, FIND SOME INFO BUT YOU REALLY SHOULD GO TO BIRDS IF YOU HAVE A HARD TIME FINDING OUT ANYTHIG
  4529.  
  4530. "Byline, Ornithea - keep your routine up. Make sure you are in place to see the camp, and if you can investigate the birds.
  4531. > "Got it."
  4532. > "Understood."
  4533. > Both trot off, conversing as they go.
  4534. > Turning to the remainder of your group, you next motion to Caravan, Quick Step - go get any supplies we're going to need for our trip back. Caravan, you have the list of what we need?"
  4535. > He nods sharply - and although you're sure he's heard your order, he's also obviously distracted.
  4536. "Something wrong?"
  4537. > "Just... got an itchy feeling about this. Like we're about to have something go very wrong."
  4538. > Quick Step gives him a strange look, but you shake your head.
  4539. "Nothing wrong with that. I'm relying on your intuitions - all of you. You've been good soldiers, not mindless changeling drones thus far - and that will keep us alive. Caravan, you really think something bad is up?"
  4540. > "I dunno. Can't pinpoint anything, but..."
  4541. "Don't worry about it. I'll send Whispen over to join you when she gets back. Spark, you're with me - we're going to check in on the local mail office and newspaper, see if we can figure out how news is getting in."
  4542. > Unfortunately you have to wait a bit longer before Whispen returns, leaving you and Spark alone.
  4543. > The introverted unicorn is typically quiet - his eyes scanning the crowd, but giving little insight as to what he is thinking and why.
  4544. "You holding up alright, Spark?"
  4545. > "Yes."
  4546. > His answer is simple, quiet, and to the point - and leaves you worrying.
  4547. "Spark, if there's an issue-"
  4548. > "No. There isn't. I'm sorry, I'm... not as talkative as some of the others. But I'll be okay. Just... thinking about things."
  4549. "Okay. I need you on the ball, though."
  4550. > He looks to you again, and this time seems a little bit more attentive - even cracking a little smile.
  4551. > "I'll not let you down."
  4552.  
  4553. > That is the end of that conversation, leaving the two of you in silence until Whispen arrives.
  4554. > Once she is directed to join the two other guardsponies in the marketplace, you lead Spark off towards Easthock's newspaper and post office.
  4555. > Fortunately those two establishments are close to each other, allowing you to pick either one to visit - or watch both from the same spot on the street.
  4556.  
  4557. ACTION:
  4558. - I'd say, one of us can go check with the newspaper (can't be that suspicious if a pony asks the newspaper about news on an ongoing war) while the other hangs back and keeps watch over both.
  4559. - We could start with "any news from [insert small town here]?" and work our way up to "so, have you heard about that thing with Celestia? I'm surprised the invaders let the newspapers write about this so openly" (feign ignorance), so maybe they'll tell you "oh, it wasn't the newspapers, I heard it was [something else]". Maybe that works.
  4560.  
  4561. "Spark, keep a watch out here. If you see an issue, come and get me."
  4562. > "Got it."
  4563. > Trotting forward, you head for the newspaper office first.
  4564. > A bell jingles gently on the door when you step in; while the front of the store is a typical newspaper shot, behind a rear door you can hear the rumble and thud of running presses.
  4565. > "Hey there!"
  4566. > The pony at the front desk waves enthusiastically as you enter.
  4567. > "What can I do for you?"
  4568. "Well, I was looking for some information on one of the nearby villages...? I just want to see if they're okay."
  4569. > "Oh? That so? Well, whereabouts you from?"
  4570. "Sunny Fields."
  4571. > "Hmmm, hmm... Sunny Fields. Well, I've not heard anything from around there - you might want to try Barley Hops down at the Bottom of the Barrel pub, I think he has a lot of patrons from around there. Maybe they'd have heard something?"
  4572. > Probably best to stay away from there - your lie being picked apart wouldn't be good.
  4573. "Really? I'd have figured you'd know all the gossip around here."
  4574. > "Do yah?"
  4575. > He chuckles heavily.
  4576. > "Well, we have some tips of the trade, but we don't just reveal them to anyone."
  4577. > Tapping the side of his muzzle knowingly, the newspony gives you a knowing wink.
  4578. > "Have to admit, though, there's a lot of interesting ponies in town lately. Just a day or two ago I had an interesting fellow by the name of Byline come through."
  4579.  
  4580. ACTION:
  4581. - >trusting someone who works for a paper
  4582. - Hm.. I think 1. might be safe, if we play it smart. Bribing him would probably not be a great idea, despite the fact we barely have anything to offer. Still gotta be careful.
  4583.  
  4584. > "Oh! Byline! You know him?"
  4585. > After a moment, the newspony frowns slightly.
  4586. > "I'm not sure... he said he came to town with another pony, but he didn't mention you."
  4587. > A momentary panic flashes through you, before you remember who else Byline had entered the town with.
  4588. "Oh, that must have been Ornithea?"
  4589. > "Ornithea! Yes, that was her!"
  4590. > The pounds his hoof on the desk counter, the divots left from previous impacts suggesting this is a common reaction.
  4591. > "Yeah! Sounded like a real nice gal from the way he was talking about her! Name's Edit Torial."
  4592. > The front desk's door swings open, the newspony coming out with a wide grin on his face.
  4593. > "Byline - great fellow, him. Come on in the back!"
  4594. > Once the backroom door closes behind you, you actually relax slightly - between the newspony's unguarded friendliness and the running presses' rumble making it near impossible for your conversation to be overheard, the risk seems to have gone significantly down.
  4595. > "So, what did y'want to know?"
  4596. > You slide into a seat, trying to put him at ease.
  4597. "Well, mostly just about if anything is going on in Sunny Fields, but now you've got me curious. What're you being all secretive about?"
  4598. > "Ooooh, that you really want to know? Well, let me show you my secret..."
  4599. > Reaching beneath his desk, Edit produces a large bottle with a golden liquid sloshing about within.
  4600. > "This, my dear friend, is genuine Sweet Apple Acres apple cider. Good vintage, too - opens lips, and other things, when I need it."
  4601. > He chuckles, and winks again.
  4602. > "And earns me favors."
  4603. "Favors, eh? Like being able to run your headline with a nice account of Celestia's entering that battle?"
  4604. > "Oh, that?"
  4605. > Edit Tory grins, leaning in.
  4606. > "Well, that was a masterful little stroke. Didn't actually get that information myself, you see, but a good friend of mine..."
  4607. "A good friend, hmm?"
  4608. > "Yep! And not a word more. I, for one, don't sell out my friends to just anyone."
  4609.  
  4610. ACTION:
  4611. - He may seem nice but I'm not trusting anyone with any of our own info.
  4612. - I don't think we ought to push him further, he's got an informer, stop the fucking presses!, even if we knew who he was then what?
  4613.  
  4614. "Well, I'll leave you to your secrets. But really... if you hear anything about Sunny Fields, keep us in mind!"
  4615. > "Definitely will, friend! See you at the ol' Bottom for a mug or two some time!"
  4616. > Stepping out of the office, you spend a spare bit to purchase a paper.
  4617. > Never hurts to keep up friendly appearances, and hopefully it will keep Edit Torial from thinking to hard about your questions.
  4618. > Or asking any of his own until you were long since gone.
  4619. > Spark is waiting for you on the opposite side of the street.
  4620. "Anything happen while I was in there?"
  4621. > "No. One patrol, and nothing more."
  4622. "Good. I'm going to give you the address of a clinic; Chilona and Dusk are there. Go and check on them."
  4623. > After a second thought, you add:
  4624. "If they give you Nurse Caduceus, tell her you're a friend of the ponies who came to see them before. She'll understand."
  4625. > Hopefully she'd also be less inclined to lock him in another room without warning.
  4626. > Unlike you or Ornithea, Spark was a unicorn - pulling that on him could easily lead to a fight or injuries if he reacted aggressively.
  4627. > With that business done, you trot off to check in on the two at Pinfeather's home.
  4628. > The closer you get, the more a sense of alarm starts to grow in you.
  4629. > Not until you pass the town hall and see four of the invaders' armored carts parked outside do you become truly worried.
  4630. > Had one of your groups been captured?
  4631. > Breaking out into a trot, you cover the rest of the way rapidly.
  4632. > Yet, when you knock on the front door, it is a face of surprise that greets you.
  4633. > "Oh! Are you looking for your friends?"
  4634. > Nodding to Pinfeather's mother, you answer between heavy breaths.
  4635. "Yes... wanted to see... if I could...."
  4636. > "Well, you'll have to find them - they just left. Strange, they were in quite the hurry to find somepony as well. I hope nothing is wrong..."
  4637. > They were looking for you?
  4638. > That worried feeling grows, tendrils of concern spreading.
  4639.  
  4640. "Thank you very much. Did you see where they went?"
  4641. > "No, I'm afraid not - they galloped out fast, I barely had a chance to see them go!"
  4642. "Well, thank you anyhow, miss?"
  4643. > Damn! Where would they have gone?
  4644. > And why?
  4645.  
  4646. ACTION:
  4647. - The hotel would be the first place I'd go look. Would be the most logical to meet each other there instead of chasing each other around town. If someone else (the invaders for example) is looking for us, it would also mean spending less time exposed in public.
  4648. - try the hotel, it they're not there, then go searching for them
  4649.  
  4650. > Turning back, you resist the urge to gallop straight for the hotel.
  4651. > No sense in making yourself even more blatantly obvious.
  4652. > Even that self-control can't keep you from adding some degree of haste to your hooves, though.
  4653. > By the time you reach the hotel, it's obvious that something is very, very wrong.
  4654. > The streets have all but emptied out, leaving them shockingly silent and with more than a few stores shuttered.
  4655. > The one human patrol you passed was displaying a level of caution you'd never seen before - weapons held ready to their chests, rather than loosely at their sides as they had before.
  4656. > A distant rumbling suggests that another column of vehicles has just pulled into the invaders' camp.
  4657. > Even more concerning is the fact that Creature Comfort was not at the hotel's front desk when you enter the hotel.
  4658. > After a moment's thought, you step back out onto the street and back up far enough to see where your room's window is.
  4659. > A second later you are aloft, hovering just below the glass.
  4660. > Cautiously peering over the windowsill, you are relieved to see no signs of the invaders - just Hot Pot's surprised face looking back at you.
  4661. "Oooof!"
  4662. > Climbing through the window had been less than optimal; you landed unequally and staggered a few steps into the room.
  4663. > On the up side, Ornithea and Byline were there already.
  4664. > "Sir! We have a problem; we might want to start considering getting out of here."
  4665. "So I saw. There are four of their carts pulled up around the city hall. What happened?"
  4666. > Byline grimaces.
  4667. > "I don't know if I was so focused on their camp that I didn't see it before, but I was a fool. The townsponies - they're using light-signals between tall buldings to send messages within Easthock. Can't be seen from street level, but plenty visible from that rooftop."
  4668. "Could you understand the message?"
  4669. > "Oh, yes. I could. Old dot-dash code."
  4670. > The look on Byline's face when he says that sends your stomach roiling again.
  4671.  
  4672. > Ultimately it is Ornithea who steps up, her own face just as pale.
  4673. > "They've bombed Ponyville, sir."
  4674. "How?! Ponyville is hundreds of miles from even the worst estimations of their front lines-"
  4675. > "I don't know. But that's definitely what the message said: They tried to hit Princess Twilight, probably in retaliation for Princess Celestia entering the battle against them."
  4676. "Is she hurt? Princess Twilight?"
  4677. > "No, they missed. She wasn't in her castle - or Ponyville altogether - right thene..."
  4678. > Probably the only reason they could pull something like that off.
  4679. > "...but, sir - two of the other bearers of harmony are reported severely injured, and there were other casualties in Ponyville as well."
  4680. > Innocents.
  4681. > They had bombed a town just because the princess happened to have a home there.
  4682. > You have to resist the urge to buck the nearest wall in anger.
  4683. > Hot Pot catches your look and nods.
  4684. > "You're not the only one. I think Easthock is about to catch fire."
  4685. > Catch fire...
  4686. > Spark Flash.
  4687. > Spark was still out there - Whispen's group at least was close by and able to get safe, but he was on the other side of town...
  4688.  
  4689. ACTION:
  4690. - Take all our (important) stuff with us and move in small groups, not more than 2 in order to not draw too much attention to us. We need a rendevouz point and if possible a backup outside of town if the first one is compromised or we have to get out of town without regrouping.
  4691. As soon as we're all gathered together, should leave town. Probably consider this mission over. We should report the new situation to HQ and say that we're gonna pull out.
  4692. - We have to go looking for spark and the others before things really get rough
  4693.  
  4694. "We need to find Spark - now."
  4695. > Looking around, you count up who you have available.
  4696. "Right - we split up. Hot Pot, Boulder - you two take Copper and head for the post office. If we aren't there, move outside of town and form up..."
  4697. > Damn, how would you know where to go?
  4698. > Fortunately Hot Pot speaks up.
  4699. > "We buried our armor before coming here, in the fields east of town. We'll go there; Whispen, Quick Step, and Spark know where it is as well."
  4700. "Understood. Byline, you're with Spark. Ornithea, with me. We head for the clinic quietly and on separate routes."
  4701. > Nods of understanding all around.
  4702. "If we aren't at the post office by sundown, move out. Wait until sunrise at the fallback position, then leave."
  4703. > There's more than a few looks of surprise as you give that order.
  4704. > Boulder in particular looks uncomfortable with it.
  4705. "...I know it's not a pleasant thing - but we can't stay waiting forever. The more we linger around - especially outside of the city - the more suspicious ponies and invaders both are going to get."
  4706. > With orders given, packing commences quickly.
  4707. > Given how much has been traded away or left outside the city, there isn't much to take - a fact for which you are thankful.
  4708. > Travelling heavy might attract attention as well.
  4709. > Just as you're about to leave, the hotel room's door flies open.
  4710. > Whispen all but leaps through, Caravan and Quick Step following close behind her.
  4711. > Judging by the looks on their faces, the news has reached them by now as well.
  4712. "Good. You're back; we're splitting up, finding Spark, Chilona and Dusk, and getting out of here."
  4713. > For just a moment there's a look of approval in Whispen's eyes.
  4714. > Knowing her, it isn't hard to interpret - thankfulness, that you don't intend to leave the wounded behind even though they are in a clinic already.
  4715.  
  4716. "Whispen, take Quick Step. Caravan, with me. If we can't make it, we're forming up at the post office and then the spot outside the city where the armor's been buried, regardless of what happens."
  4717. > "Got it."
  4718. > Thankfully she doesn't argue - even though the implications of 'what happens' couldn't be more clear.
  4719. > Trotting out into the street, the various groups depart at brief intervals.
  4720. > Finally only you and Caravan are left, striking out into the streets with no small amount of apprehension.
  4721. > "Well, I really wish I'd know what I was suspecting this morning."
  4722. "You did good to warn me of it anyhow, Caravan. Kept us all on guard."
  4723. > The rest of the trip is made in silence; the odd townspony still out on the streets barely makes eye contact and definitely doesn't speak.
  4724. > At least you don't run into any patrols.
  4725. > Arriving at the clinic, you immediately realize there's a problem you forgot about.
  4726. > Four soldiers still stand in the lobby, though now they look considerably more tense than before.
  4727. > Steeling yourself, you look to Caravan to see how he is doing.
  4728. > He catches your gaze.
  4729. > "I'll be fine. Let's go in."
  4730. > Walking through the front door, you do your best to present a facade of only mild concern - not the nearly-quaking fearfulness that had attracted a soldier's attention the previous time.
  4731. "Excuse me? We're here to see-"
  4732. > The receptionist looks up and you realize with a start that it is not her but Nurse Caduceus.
  4733. > And she is annoyed; very, very annoyed.
  4734. > "Ah, yes. Right this way."
  4735. > Allowing you back through the door, she promptly spins on you once you are out of earshot of the soldiers in the lobby.
  4736. > "What did you do?! I thought you said you weren't going to try anything, but we're damn close to a riot! What could possibly make you think leaking news like that would do good here?!"
  4737.  
  4738. ACTION:
  4739. - Tell her that she can probably thank Edit Tory's mysterious contact for that, but it wasn't us. Thanks for assuming the worst of the people who are trying to help, Miss Caduceus.
  4740. Ask if Chilona and especially Dusk can be discharged.
  4741. - Lady, we didn't do shit
  4742.  
  4743. "We didn't do anything, so you can quit it with the assumptions! You want to blame anyone, blame that gossip who's running the newspaper."
  4744. > She stares at you for several long, angry moments before relenting with a sigh.
  4745. > "What do you want? The others are already here."
  4746. "We're here to get our fri- our comrades out of here. We're leaving - I don't know who started this, but it's just as bad for us as it is for you."
  4747. > That seems to resonate with Caduceus some, and she nods again.
  4748. > "One of them - Chilona - she's just about ready to go. The other one... how far are you going?"
  4749. "Back to Las Pegasus. Or nearly all the way there."
  4750. > Caduceus gives you a look that suggests she thinks you ought to be given some time in a clinic.
  4751. > Quickly you amend your statement.
  4752. "We'll be carrying him, if he needs it. If we had a cart we could use that, but we don't."
  4753. > "You'd better. His burns may be healing up, but he's still going to be hurting, and in no shape for strenuous activity for another week or two yet."
  4754. "Okay. Can you give us some medicine for him?"
  4755. > "Yes, I should be able t-"
  4756. > A distant rumble rolls through the building, racks of medical equipment shuddering with the tickety-tap of glass on glass and glass on metal.
  4757. > Caduceus' eyes go wide, a look of slow horror creeping on her face to match the one that passed down your spine.
  4758. > "That was an explosion..."
  4759. > You nod, not sure what to say.
  4760. > "I... there'll be casualties, wounded.. the surgery room will have to be prepped, I..."
  4761. "Nurse."
  4762. > "...I need to go call in all the other nurses, call in everyone - oh, sweet Celestia, what did-"
  4763. "Nurse!"
  4764. > "-we do to call this down on us? They're going to be innocent, damn-"
  4765. "NURSE!"
  4766. > You don't like raising your voice, but it's all you can do to snap Caduceus out of her slow spiral into panic.
  4767. > Unfortunately, it focuses her anger and horror back on you.
  4768. > "What? What do you want - haven't you done enough?"
  4769. > Meeting her gaze evenly, you speak softly.
  4770.  
  4771. > "Let us take our comrades. If nothing else, it will give you to more free beds."
  4772. > Slowly, she agrees.
  4773. > "Okay.. okay, yes. You can do that. This way."
  4774. > Turning back around, she leads you down a side hall.
  4775. > Before you can reach a room, though, you hear the approaching thud of boots on the floor.
  4776. > Boots, not hooves.
  4777.  
  4778. ACTION:
  4779. [Roll for action; result: Hide in a side room from the soldiers, just let them pass.]
  4780.  
  4781. "In here. Quick."
  4782. > You drag the nurse through the nearest door, Caravan slipping through just before it closes.
  4783. > Thank Celestia it didn't slam; that would definitely have attracted their attention.
  4784. > "What are you doing?! I can't be trapped in here-"
  4785. "Nurse, please - things have just changed. As far as we know they attacked civilians; for now we just need to stay out of their way and be quiet."
  4786. > "And whose fault is that? I need to be out there-"
  4787. "Caravan, take care of her?"
  4788. > He nods, throwing a hoof over the nurse's withers and leading her from the door.
  4789. > You move to take up his position, one ear pressed upright against the door.
  4790. > The other flops down, trying to cut down the noise of Caravan's smooth voice calming the nurse's panic.
  4791. > Even as the thudding of boots come closer, you begin to hear voices as well - low and stressed.
  4792. > On a whim, you grab the deadbolt in your mouth and twist it, locking the door.
  4793. > "...ians! Who the hell authorized them to throw cruise missiles at a whole fucking town like that? Left clear!"
  4794. > "Right locked. Don't know, but they sure left us in the shit now didn't they?"
  4795. > "Demarko, on point. Vichi, cover rear."
  4796. > "Affirmative. You ever seen anything like this, Corporal?"
  4797. > The thudding steps pass directly opposite the door you are leaning against.
  4798. > Despite the fact that the only window through it is covered by an opaque shade, you still shrink back slightly.
  4799. > Fortunately they are loud enough to be heard anyhow.
  4800. > "From those assholes? Read a history book, private; say what you want about the Air Force pukes, but at least our guys actually know how to drop bombs on the fucking target."
  4801. > The doorknob rattles as something twists it on the other side.
  4802. > "Left locked."
  4803. > Heavy silence reigns in the room; you feel sweat prickling on your back between your wings.
  4804. > At last the boots move on.
  4805. > "Right clear; stairway ahead. Meant seen some place this pissed, Corporal."
  4806.  
  4807. > Something nudges your side; you push it away with a swat from one hoof.
  4808. > "Demarko, check it. Never seen this myself, but my staff sergeant on the first tour had. Told us about some shit he'd seen back in Iraq."
  4809. > "It gonna be bad, Corporal?"
  4810. > You don't get to hear the answer, because another nudge on your side drags your attention back to the room again.
  4811. > Caravan wordlessly points the leg he had been poking you with back towards Nurse Caduceus.
  4812. > Anger has given way to fear - but there is still a spark behind those eyes, ready to burn if you weren't careful.
  4813. > Nodding and mouthing 'one moment', you go back to listening - but by this time they are already to far away to hear anything but distant calls.
  4814. > You hadn't even realized you were holding your breath, but releasing it and drawing in a fresh one spreads a cool, refreshing feeling through your whole body.
  4815. "...they're passed."
  4816. > Caravan and Caduceus visibly relax as well, the nurse all but staggering as she untenses.
  4817. "I think they're just as worried as we are, too... but we need to get moving."
  4818.  
  4819. ACTION:
  4820. - Again, maybe we should split, so we can cover options 2 and 3 and regroup somewhere in the hospital in xx minutes.
  4821. - we're already here, might as well get the bat ponies
  4822.  
  4823. "Caravan, go with Nurse Caudceus. Get Chilona and Dusk. I'm going to get the rest of the group together."
  4824. > "I put them in room eighty-seven. Eight of them, right?"
  4825. > You do some quick math in your head and nod.
  4826. "Yes, that sounds right. Caravan, go there when you get them... and, Nurse? Thank you again."
  4827. > She nods slowly.
  4828. > "Just get out of here before you lot make it any worse."
  4829. > Trotting through the halls, your ears flick back and forth at every little noise.
  4830. > Each one, in your mind the distant thud of returning boots.
  4831. > Eight-five, eight-six... eight-seven.
  4832. > You try the door, and find it locked.
  4833. > There is, however, a noise from within.
  4834. "...Whispen, it's me. Let me in."
  4835. > A second later the deadbolt turns, the door sliding open to reveal a nervous eye peering out.
  4836. > Meeting your own look, Quick Step steps back and opens the door the rest of the way.
  4837. > "Warn us first, sir! We nearly blew down the door when you did that."
  4838. > Looking around the room, you see Whipen and Spark, both half-hidden behind the a bed for cover and horns lit.
  4839. "Sorry. I'm in a hurry - those soldiers are on the move in the building."
  4840. > "Where's Caravan?"
  4841. > Whispen, always the first to worry about another pony.
  4842. "Getting Chilona and Dusk. We're moving out as soon as we can."
  4843. > "Good; we're all read-"
  4844. > Another explosion shudders the building, significantly closer this time.
  4845. > As the echoes fade, your ears swivel towards the tell-tale pops of the invaders' weapons in the distance.
  4846. > The others hear it too.
  4847. > "If somepony gets hurt.. this whole town is about to go mad.."
  4848. > "We should go now!"
  4849. > That's Quick - fear beginning to show on his face as the noise of distant conflict continues.
  4850. "No. We wait for Caravan and the Night Guards, and that's final."
  4851. > "You have got to be kidding me!"
  4852. > Copper all but explodes, leaping up onto the bed to put himself above everypony else.
  4853.  
  4854. > "You're going to get us stuck here waiting while everything goes to Tartarus outside because of those freaks again?!"
  4855. > His voice has lowered to a snarl, eyes squeezed to furious slits.
  4856. > "They're just going to get us killed - just like they did when they ran before! We can't keep trying to support them - just leave them for those things to find!"
  4857. > "Copper Cog, that is enough!"
  4858. > It's unusual that Whispen raises her voice, but when she does the effect is stark.
  4859. > She is not a large pony to begin with, and with Copper up on the bed she has to crane her neck back to look him in the eye.
  4860. > But meet his eyes she does, her voice dropping back to normal tones.
  4861. > "If we leave ponies behind then we're just as bad."
  4862. > For a moment you are about to step in, but Caravan's voice interrupts you.
  4863. > "They're both here, sir... am I interrupting something?"
  4864.  
  4865. ACTION:
  4866. - We have to leave first. Once we are outside city limits then we resolve the issue and try to find something for Dusk.
  4867. - Let copper know his actions (Which compromised our scouting position, injured our key scouts, and led to us being here) were far worse than their history of abandonment, and ask for both parties to put this behind them for now while we get the fuck out of here while keeping a close eye on what's happening- Our attempt to leave ASAP won't be instant by any means.
  4868.  
  4869. "No, we're done. How are they?"
  4870. > Caravan steps in, Chilona following close behind him.
  4871. > "I'm ready to go. Been ready for the past couple days - staying cooped up in that one room has been driving me crazy."
  4872. > You nod, glancing to the third party entering the room.
  4873. > Dusk, while awake, still leans heavily on his smaller partner.
  4874. > While his eyes are sharp and alert, every few moments he winces - a hint at the lingering pain from the burns still healing beneath poultices covering him.
  4875. > "I'll... I can walk, sir. Slowly, but I can move."
  4876. > Flying is clearly out of the question; one wing is still bound tightly to his side while the thin, delicate webbing strung beneath heals.
  4877. > Caravan steps up, adding more.
  4878. > "Nurse Caduceus gave us some medicine for both of them - pills, and a couple replacement poultices for Dusk."
  4879. > You nod sharply, glancing about the rest of your group.
  4880. "Boulder, I hate to this to you... but can you carry Dusk for us?"
  4881. > He nods, his expression calm.
  4882. > "Will do my best."
  4883. "That's all I can ask."
  4884. > Sooner or later you were going to have to put him in for a commendation.
  4885. > Repeatedly carrying his comrades over long distances couldn't have been easy, even for him.
  4886. "Right. We're heading straight out of the city, as fast as possible. We run into any patrols, we act as calm as possible and let them search us. We're still under cover at this point; we don't break it until absolutely necessary."
  4887. > "What about a roadblock, sir?"
  4888. "Go around it, if possible. Play the scared farmers role and try to get through. We can't stay here, though."
  4889. > You squad begins to file out.
  4890. > Just as a few are left, you grab Copper as he walks past.
  4891. > Well, less grab and more shove-to-wall with one leg pressing into his throat.
  4892. "Listen up, Copper. You keep your mouth shut, you understand? Your little vendetta's caused us more problems than they ever did; if we stay here any longer, you're liable to get us all killed. Got it?"
  4893.  
  4894. > "Yes, sir."
  4895. > There's no certainty in his voice.
  4896. > Only disdain.
  4897. > "I just didn't want to risk my hide for a traitor, sir."
  4898. > You resist the urge to point out how painfully hypocritical that is, coming from him.
  4899. > No point in provoking him further.
  4900. "Let's go, then."
  4901. > The soldiers - if they are still in the clinic at all - have abandoned their front lobby position.
  4902. > Why becomes abundantly clear the second you step out into the street.
  4903. > What seems to be damn near half the road is being turned into an impromptu field triage location.
  4904. > A human one.
  4905. > Soldiers dash about like a swarm of disturbed bees, lugging equipment and crates full of supplies.
  4906. > Only to your familiar eyes does the seeming-chaos have any order.
  4907. > Before you can turn around and find a back exit, one of the squads of soldiers keeping order on the street notices you.
  4908. > "Hey! You lot - yeah, you. You got wounded, ponies?"
  4909. > Time to play your role.
  4910. "No, we're-"
  4911. > Wait, you can't lie!
  4912. "...yes, we do. But not fresh! We're clearing out of the clinic, giving them more beds."
  4913. > The soldiers nod, apparently not caring to even bother checking out your bags.
  4914. > "Then get clear from here. This place is about to get busy, and we don't need you underfoot."
  4915. "We'll be sure to!"
  4916. > It occurs to you to make a little use of this before you leave.
  4917. "Do you know what's going on? Where a safe place to be is?"
  4918. > He pauses, shaking his head.
  4919. > "Some of you are getting ready to attack us, I think. Civvies, I mean. As for a safe place..."
  4920. > Shaking his head, the soldier gives an unhappy little grunt.
  4921. > "Can't help you there, sorry. Just stay indoors and away from windows until we signal the all-clear."
  4922. "Okay. Thank you!"
  4923. > Turning to trot away you consider your options for leaving the city.
  4924. > In the distance, another explosion, human weapons, and other unidentifiable noises echo.
  4925.  
  4926. ACTION:
  4927. - How about we go through the outer ring of the heart of the city. It will be faster and we can avoid the mobs.
  4928. - The humans expect to be attacked by ponies in town or maybe at their base, not somewhere else outside of town.
  4929. We're in a hurry to get out of town, not in a hurry to get to our buried equipment primarily.
  4930. Maybe we can even find a small cart for Dusk. Ideally with a small white flag with a red cross on it that we can put on the cart.
  4931. Wouldn't be perfidy until we re-arm ourselves.
  4932.  
  4933. "We'll circle through the outside of the city. Away from everypony else. Let's see if we "
  4934. > "Understood."
  4935. > Trotting through the still-empty streets, you pass through several blocks without seeing any other ponies.
  4936. > Directly, anyhow.
  4937. > You see plenty of terrified, half-hidden faces behind vanishing behind curtains and beneath windowsills.
  4938. > Considering the look of your group, you don't doubt that it could seem a bit...
  4939. > Threatening.
  4940. "Hot Pot, check that street up ahead?"
  4941. > She trots to the edge of the corner, peering down it.
  4942. > "Looks clear!"
  4943. > The next street is clear too.
  4944. > The one after that, you run into a trio of ponies standing in a little cluster by one of the stores.
  4945. > Whether they are looters, would-be rioters, or just ponies protecting their shop or home you don't know.
  4946. > And frankly, don't have time to find out.
  4947. > Your party gives them wary looks as you cross the street.
  4948. > Halfway to the next intersection, though, trouble comes in the form of a blaring siren.
  4949. > You know it - and the tinny metallic voice that follows.
  4950. > "Warning, warning. The city is now under lockdown. Return to your homes and remain there until the all-clear is sounded. Anyone on the streets risks detainment and risk of injury."
  4951. > Several looks are passed around the group.
  4952. > So much for leaving easily.
  4953. > At least you were already near the edge of the city.
  4954. > You're a short distance from the last few blocks of the town - thank Celestia Easthock didn't have a wall - when a voice rings out behind you.
  4955. > What awaits you at the edge is, unfortunately, just as bad.
  4956. > A roadblock on one of the roads entering Easthock, manned by eighteen soldiers and at least two of what you think to be some kind of fixed-weapon emplacement.
  4957. > You could go around them, but the nearby streets are likely to be well-within view - and weapons-range - of them...
  4958.  
  4959. > Going farther would be a possibility, but every minute you stayed within city limits was another minute at severe risk.
  4960. > Maybe stage a diversion?
  4961. > Or just go up and plead to be let out; after all, you did still have your travel slips from when you entered the city.
  4962.  
  4963. ACTION:
  4964. - Why sneak? Pass them in a distance, not trying to hide anything (don't move in a military formation), if they ask, we just got two of our friends out of hospital and wanted to leave town to get out of harm's way and now instead we're returning to our home. We will have to think of something that's kinda in that direction. Creature Comfort, the family where Caravan was staying, Pinfeather's house.. just something in the general direction so they will let us go.
  4965.  
  4966. "Okay, let's circle around at a distance - hop through somepony's back yard. We shouldn't be seen to easily that way."
  4967. > Turning back, your mixed group trots back through the empty streets.
  4968. "Everypony spread out. No formation - keep it loose. We're civilians fleeing the whole mess, remember."
  4969. > It's not easy for them to convince yourself to avoid hanging back - everything about your training is fighting against it.
  4970. > Every instinct telling you to keep close to your wingpony.
  4971. > Unfortunately, you don't get far before another patrol appears - nine of them, moving on foot.
  4972. "Keep in view, everypony. Walk slowly."
  4973. > They definitely notice you - a couple raising hands to point at your group.
  4974. > When you get within what seems like three hundred feet of them, the patrol drops to one knee all at once and raises their weapons.
  4975. "Stop. Stop! Everypony stop. Stay calm; Whispen, Spark, be ready to throw up shields if this goes bad. Whispen, you're in charge."
  4976. > "I'm in - what are you going to do?!"
  4977. "Talk to them."
  4978. > Cautiously taking a few more steps forward the soldiers, you try to judge how nervous they are.
  4979. > Less nervous, you think, and more annoyed.
  4980. > After a few moments, two of them stand and begin to approach as well - their weapons still held at the ready.
  4981. > "That's close enough, pony."
  4982. > Your hooves scuff to a halt on the cobblestone road as you struggle to keep your face calm.
  4983. > Then again, maybe it wouldn't be bad to show a little fear.
  4984. > "Didn't you hear the announcement, pony? Town's on lockdown; you got a reason to be out here?"
  4985. "We're refugees from another town. We're trying to leave - to get back home. We don't want to be trapped in here while this is happening."
  4986. > "Where are you from? And going?"
  4987. "Some of us are from Sunny Fields, and some from Trotsvale. We're going back home.
  4988.  
  4989. > Their words may be directed towards you, but their attention is split - a brief glance up shows their eyes searching the nearby rooftops and windows.
  4990. > "Town's still locked down. No one going in or out - not of your kind, anyhow."
  4991. > There's a tone in the way he says 'your kind' that sets you on edge.
  4992. "But we're stuck - look, we still have our travel slips from when we got into town."
  4993. > "Tough. You got someplace to stay?"
  4994. "We were in a hotel, but we're out of money."
  4995. > His eyes make another sweep of the rooftops before he grunts.
  4996. > "Okay, let us check your bags."
  4997. > You nod, twisting your head around to open your saddlebags while he speaks into a device mounted just below his neck.
  4998. > "We got, uh, looks like a dozen claimed refugees here, with travel slips. Checking their bags, over. ... Copy that."
  4999. > Apparently having confirmed something, he nods.
  5000. > "Alright, let's go."
  5001. > It feels somewhat odd to have him sorting through your bag, but you're quite sure there's nothing in there, but a few bits, food, and your medical kit...
  5002. > "You planning on lighting any fires, pony?"
  5003. > ...and that.
  5004. "Only to keep us warm at night."
  5005. > "Well, we've got a lot of ponies lighting fires down near the market. Don't get why you'd burn down your own town.."
  5006. > Inwardly you wince.
  5007. > If they were already burning, there was no way this was going to end well.
  5008. > "Okay, we'll check the next ones - keep those horns pointed away from us, got it?"
  5009. "Yes, I-"
  5010. > "Everyone, get to cover! Hostiles, twenty at least, coming this way!"
  5011. > The cry had come from another soldier, but it quickly ripples through all of them.
  5012. > "Shit."
  5013. > The soldiers with you look at each other before the superior one charges a nearby door.
  5014. > On his second impact the lock fails, door flying open to reveal a darkened flower shop beyond.
  5015. > "All of you, get in there. You come out while we're fighting, you're going to get shot, understand?"
  5016. "Yes."
  5017.  
  5018. > The slam of the door closing behind you is shortly followed by two sets of running footsteps fading into the distance... and then the sound of their weapons.
  5019. > Ornihea speaks up, her voice soft.
  5020. > "Those poor townsponies... what do they think they're doing?"
  5021. > Boulder snorts softly, a heavy huff that flares his nostrils wide.
  5022. > "Being fools. This isn't something they should be trying."
  5023. > "At least they're trying to fight. Puts them well above certain other so-called 'guardponies'."
  5024. "Copper, for the last time, shut up."
  5025.  
  5026. ACTION:
  5027. - Try to sneak out of the town while the squad of soldiers is distracted.
  5028.  
  5029. "They've made their choice. We can't help without getting ourselves town up as well. Quick Step, check for rear door."
  5030. > "On it."
  5031. > While he charges off into the back of the shop, the rest of you huddle back behind cover.
  5032. > The idea of a sudden hail of projectiles pouring through the windows and striking random ponies is welcome to no one.
  5033. > Finally Quick reappears, motioning towards the back of the shop.
  5034. > "Back door's unlocked and rear yard clear."
  5035. "Let's go."
  5036. > There's no talk as you all filter out the door into the yard beyond.
  5037. > It's well-kept, rows of various flower bushes.planted at regular intervals.
  5038. > Convenient cover for you and your ponies.
  5039. > "Fence at the back. To high."
  5040. "Knock it down. We can't go around."
  5041. > Caravan and Whispen turn around, shattering several fence slats with four rapid bucks.
  5042. > Beyond lays your objective - a wide open field, and beyond it the hills that encircle Easthock's southern edge.
  5043. "Move. Keep low and spread out - we're not going to have much cover here."
  5044. > Haste speeds your hooves, all of you well aware that at any moment the field could be filled with deadly fire.
  5045. > As you pass between the foothills, though, the fear finally begins to fade from your minds.
  5046. "Turn west from here. We'll circle around and pick up our stuff. Ornithea, Hot Pot - take lead."
  5047. > Trotting along, you all start to relax at last.
  5048. > That, of course, is when things go wrong.
  5049. > "Sir! Two of their carts, the lighter ones - coming in from the east!"
  5050. > Twisting around, air hisses between your teeth as you see the two vehicles already closing on you.
  5051. > They've seen you, no doubt - and don't seem to be particularly happy.
  5052. > "Ponies!"
  5053. > The voice is amplified again, though from where you can't tell.
  5054. > "Ponies, halt immediately. I repeat, halt immediately."
  5055. > The carts pull up, soldiers immediately spilling out.
  5056.  
  5057. > So close are they that you can hear the chatter between them.
  5058. > "Okay, four unicorns, for normals, two wings and two bats, one carried. Yeah, this is the bunch that was reported. Ponies! You've left the city without proper authorization; you are being detained until the situation in Easthock calms."
  5059. > Worriedly, your unit begins to glance among each other; they weren't shooting yet, but the situation wasn't much better...
  5060. > "You will be shot if you try to flee. We will be taking you back to our camp, where you will remain until we can ascertain your actual destination and intentions. Do you understand?"
  5061. > Damn, damn, damn!
  5062. > Quickly you do a count of the soldiers - five on their feet, it looks like, with one more on the further back of the two vehicles operating some sort of heavier weapon.
  5063. > Fortunately Whispen speaks up for you.
  5064. > "Yes, we do."
  5065. > "Okay! Stay laying on your stomachs, and keep horns pointed away from us - understand?"
  5066. "Got it."
  5067. > Your belly presses down to the ground; you can feel your heart beating hard against the cool earth.
  5068.  
  5069. ACTION:
  5070. - Go with them. You suspect you will be detained for a good while.
  5071.  
  5072. > Taking a deep breath, you speak softly.
  5073. "Go with them, all of you. We're safe. We're not carrying anything suspicious. They can't keep us for to long."
  5074. > Your gaze roves over each of them in turn, fixing each of your subordinates with a look to make sure they understand.
  5075. > Quick Step... does not look calm.
  5076. > To say the least.
  5077. > In fact, he looks downright terrified.
  5078. "Quick, we're going to be okay. They're not killing us."
  5079. > "I'll t-try..."
  5080. > Celestia above, you hope they all remember their cover stories.
  5081. > Continuing on your look, you almost start to think there might be some hope in this.
  5082. > And then you spot Copper.
  5083. > His eyes are not on you, but on Chilona - and the look on his face is none to reassuring.
  5084. "Copper. Do you understand?"
  5085. > Briefly his eyes meet yours, and for just a second what you see makes your stomach turn.
  5086. > "Yes, I understand."
  5087. > No, he doesn't.
  5088. > He's going to do something stupid, you just know it - tell on Dusk and Chilona, or something like that.
  5089. > Could he have slipped something into their bags?
  5090. > Or, what about-
  5091. > "Okay, ponies. Truck's on the way. You'll get in the back and we're going to take you in to our camp for processing. Any trouble, we will fire - got it?"
  5092. > Your time is running short.
  5093. > You have to do something.
  5094.  
  5095. ACTION:
  5096. - Yell at/threaten Copper.
  5097.  
  5098. "Copper, I can see that look in your eyes."
  5099. > Your voice is low to keep the soldiers from hearing you, but that doesn't keep the anger from your voice.
  5100. "Copper, you've already gotten us in far more danger than they ever did. If you don't drop this petty grudge, the fate of this unit will have been the fault of the choices you made for it.
  5101. > The others' ears perk up,
  5102. "You will result in getting this entire unit killed if you can't put this behind you, but petty hate has no place in a real guardponies heart, and you are capable of rising to the task and help to carry YOUR team. Do I make myself clear, Guardspony Cog?"
  5103. > There's a fractional pause, and for a moment you fear that he might yell out and alert the soldiers.
  5104. > Then he grits his teeth and nods.
  5105. > "I understand."
  5106. "Good."
  5107. > The rest of your time waiting is spent in silence.
  5108. > Eventually a 'truck' rolls up the road, proving to be larger variant of one of those self-propelled carts with a large open back area.
  5109. > Herded into the open back area, you're met by four more soldiers.
  5110. > One of them addresses you as you climb in, his tone suggesting something more like weariness than anger.
  5111. > "Right, we're taking you back into our camp. City's gone nuts right now, so we're under some tighter security. Just stay calm, and you'll be alright."
  5112. > Cautious nods all around... except from Quick, who is sweating at the prospect of climbing into the invader's vehicle.
  5113. "Caravan, can you see to him?"
  5114. > "Yeah."
  5115. > While he coaxes Quick up into the vehicle, you climb on first.
  5116. > Inside you find two more soldiers waiting at the far end of the rear section - weapons held loosely but ready.
  5117. > Riding in the truck is nothing like what you'd expected.
  5118. > Somehow, you expected it would be like being on a train - smooth, with nothing heard but the constant chugging of the locomotive while in motion.
  5119. > Nothing could be further from the truth.
  5120.  
  5121. > The truck bounces along over the cobblestone road, its presumed engine constantly rising and lowering the pitch of its roaring.
  5122. > You can feel a low vibration in the vehicle's body, almost as though the engine were some barely-constrained power that constantly threatened to tear the whole thing apart.
  5123. > After a while you start to think it sounds as if there were some great beast trapped in the vehicle, taking long breaths and roaring them out.
  5124. > You are forced to stop several times - at least twice to pass through roadblocks, but also to circle around the ongoing fighting.
  5125. > Despite the best efforts of the soldiers, it seems the riot is still going - in the distance you spot pillars of smoke several times.
  5126. > At last the truck reaches their camp, stopping for one final roadblock before pulling in.
  5127. > Despite not wanting to attract attention, you can't help but peer out of the back of the truck as it rolls through the camp.
  5128. > This is, after all, the first time you've had to view it from truly close up.
  5129. > Not even when you approached the camp with Copper, Chilona, and Dusk did you get a look this good.
  5130. > At last the truck pulls up next to an enclosure surrounded by what seems to be a metal wire fence, within which numerous other ponies mill about.
  5131. > Soon enough you find yourselves passing into the enclosure as well, subjected to a basic 'processing' procedure that involves several questions and them again using a machine that seems to take an image of your hoof.
  5132. > Vaguely remembering a similar device being used when you entered Easthock, you presume it must be somehow used to compare hoofprints.
  5133. > But how did they seem to be able to get their answer in moments, without consulting a record of any kind?
  5134. > Mysteries on mysteries.
  5135. > Apparently they find nothing particularly suspicious, as you are quickly released into a larger enclosure.
  5136. > The only sour note, a stark warning against flying.
  5137.  
  5138. > "Any of you try to wing it out of here, our C-RAMs will engage. You can't outfly them, and they don't take prisoners - they're programmed to hit anything over this camp that isn't friendly. Don't try it."
  5139. > Presumably these are whatever attacked the Royal Guard pegasi those few nights back, though how a goat could possibly hit anything in midair is beyond you.
  5140. > Perhaps they are only named after them?
  5141. > Filing away another question for later, you turn to figuring out what this enclosure is meant to be.
  5142. > It is not covered, so you assume they don't mean to keep anypony here long...
  5143. > Or they don't care what happens to the ponies in here anymore.
  5144. > Several clusters of ponies linger about various spots in the enclosure, talking among each other.
  5145.  
  5146. Action:
  5147. - Focus on watching the camp around you, and seeing if you can learn anything from it.
  5148. - Talk to the other ponies in the enclosure.
  5149.  
  5150. "Okay. Let's keep calm, and not act out. Stick to the edges here, let's see if we can seen anything valuable."
  5151. > Moving yourself to the far side of the enclosure, you let your eyes rove across the camp.
  5152. > Unfortunately, they'd decided to place the enclosure right in the most unremarkable part of it - probably deliberately.
  5153. > What you could see, was striking only in its normality.
  5154. > If not for the fact that it was entirely populated by creatures you had never heard of two months ago, you could picture it as a scene out of just about any Royal Guard base.
  5155. > Here, buildings you were almost certain were barracks; there, a larger structure that - if the smells that met your nose when the wind turned from it were any indication - was a mess hall.
  5156. > Instead you turn your study to the structures themselves, which slowly begin to give up their secrets.
  5157. > Unlike the prison structure, they did not appear to be built of brick, but some sort of shiny, flat material.
  5158. > Trying to understand the details on them, you realize with a start that some appear to have axle mountings built into the very structures themselves.
  5159. > Is that how they were doing it?
  5160.  
  5161. > Looking back to find Copper, you wave him over to join you.
  5162. > Copper, still glowering, does.
  5163. > Hopefully this will take his mind off the two night guard for a while.
  5164. "Copper - check out those buildings. Do those look like axle mounts to you?"
  5165. > His eyes turn to the ones you indicate, widening slightly.
  5166. > "Yeah. yeah, they do."
  5167. > A quick warning glance tells him not to say any more, leaving you both to your quiet observations.
  5168. > After a bit you glance to him again, speaking softly.
  5169. "I'm going to see to the others."
  5170. > Copper nods sharply.
  5171. > Evidently his duty wasn't quite enough to quench his anger towards you.
  5172. > The rest of your group is doing about as well as could be expected.
  5173. > All seemed to be holding up, except for Quick Step who is being tended to by Whispen and Caravan.
  5174. > Maybe some of other ponies here would have some information.
  5175. > Sidling up to a friendlier-looking earth pony mare, you speak softly.
  5176. "So, uh... they keep us here forever, or what?"
  5177. > "Nah."
  5178. > She points to another nearby building - lacking any windows you could see.
  5179. > "They get worried about you, they put you in there."
  5180. > Not in the other prison building you had spotted?
  5181. > "But, out here? Out here they mostly keep you around for a few hours while they get your story together. Like, they grabbed me 'cause some idiots were hiding in my shop while trying to fight them."
  5182. "Not a flower shop, I hope?"
  5183. > She gives you a strange look.
  5184. > "No, why?"
  5185. "We, uh... kind of had to sneak out the back of one while trying to get away from the fighting."
  5186. > Laughing, the mare shakes her head.
  5187. > "Nah. You're not from around here, huh?"
  5188. "No, we're refugees from a few villages around here."
  5189. > "Me too."
  5190.  
  5191. ACTION:
  5192. - Don't think there's much else we can know from the mare, so just continue the pleasent conversation if we want to, then go tell the others the good news about our situation
  5193.  
  5194. "Well, I'm just glad we won't be here long. We'd really like to get home before this gets any worse."
  5195. > "You and me both, friend. Where are you from?"
  5196. "Sunny Fields, originally. But we've got some friends here from Trotsvale as well."
  5197. > "I'm from Vanhoover originally, but I've been living in Greenwood for the past few years. Got caught out on the roads when this happened, haven't been able to get home since."
  5198. "You've been staying here? In Easthock?"
  5199. > "Yes, I've been growing food in some of the fields outside town. It's been good work, actually. I just wish I knew how my home was doing - my neighbors and all that."
  5200. "Yeah, same."
  5201. > Truth be told, you hadn't thought of 'home' for a long time.
  5202. > Duty in the Royal Guard tended to keep you away from Cloudsdale anyhow, although there were still a few chances to stop by and say hello.
  5203. > Now, though...
  5204. > To ever see them again would be a blessing.
  5205. > "Hey, you drifting off there?"
  5206. "Huh? Oh, sorry. I've, uh... been away a long while. From home, I mean - I was actually hoping to visit soon, but with this... I don't know."
  5207. > "Ah, yeah. You got family?"
  5208. "Parents, and a little sister in Cloudsdale."
  5209. > The mare nods slowly, giving you a small smile.
  5210. > "Well, that's a long way away from here. Hopefully this will all be over long before there's any trouble there."
  5211. "Same to you. Good luck getting home."
  5212. > "You too."
  5213. > Trotting through the crowd, you try to look for someone who seems like they might have an interesting story.
  5214. > Spotting a morose-looking stallion resting on his side and staring into the distance, you decide to head for him.
  5215. "You alright there?"
  5216. > "Huh?"
  5217. > He lifts his head just enough to see you.
  5218. > "Oh... hello."
  5219. "Are you alright?"
  5220. > "No."
  5221. > His head drops back down, eyes again settling on a building in the distance, and does not elaborate further.
  5222.  
  5223. "Well, uh... want to talk about it some, or...?"
  5224. > "Not much to say. I didn't mean to start this, but I don't think they're going to listen to that."
  5225. "Start this?"
  5226. > "Yeah. Look, I... I know how to do things, right? Send letters long distances, if I know the right pony. I've been passing messages to a nice mare I know up in Canterlot, right? Thing is, I don't read them - lately, they've all been coming in some kind of code..."
  5227. > He looks around again, searching for anyone - human or invader - close enough to hear.
  5228. > "Well, uh... I think the last one I received, was about that attack on Ponyville, right?"
  5229. "Oh..."
  5230. > If only you'd found him earlier - meeting this unicorn could have saved you so much trouble!
  5231. > "Yeah. Well, I think they're going to blame me for setting all this off.. the riots, I mean."
  5232. "Well... do you stll have the message?"
  5233. > "No, I gave it to... a friend."
  5234. "Oh..."
  5235. > "Sorry. I, uh... shouldn't tell you more."
  5236. > Shouldn't, you wonder, or won't.
  5237. > Before you can ask anything more, you hear a voice calling your name.
  5238. > Not a pony voice.
  5239. > Ushered out of the holding pen, you give the rest of your group a reassuring look; you'd seen other ponies taken out at seeming random and presumed this was normal.
  5240. > Or, as normal as things got in here.
  5241. > Ushered into a small room in one of the nearby buildings, you're met with a dour-looking soldier who proceeds to interrogate you on the details of your story.
  5242. > Repeating them as best you remembered, you were soon dropped out into the yard again.
  5243. > The rest of your group is there, minus Ornithea and Chilona.
  5244. > "Hey! How was it?"
  5245. "Simple enough. Just going over things that we'd told them before."
  5246. > You hope Chilona thought to ask one of the others about an appropriate story; Dusk, at least, could pass off his injuries as being making him unable to talk.
  5247. "But, I did find out - if nothing else goes wrong we should be out of here soon."
  5248.  
  5249. ACTION:
  5250. - Lets get back to the unicorn and use any time remaining after to rest, and see if anyone else in our unit found any ponies of interest
  5251.  
  5252. "Anypony else find out anything interesting?"
  5253. > They all shake their heads, but there's something in their eyes that suggest this isn't the entire truth - just one they don't feel comfortable speaking in public.
  5254. > Or at least not this public.
  5255. > You just give another nod, turning to the rest of them.
  5256. "Just be steady, everypony. We'll be okay."
  5257. > Again meandering through the pen, you find yourself searching for the unicorn stallion you'd spoken to before.
  5258. > Quietly cursing yourself for not thinking to get his name, you find that he seems to have vanished.
  5259. > Another pair of mares - sisters, by the looks of them - lay close together where he had been, quietly talking between each other.
  5260. > Speaking softly once you are in range you motion to the spot with one hoof.
  5261. "Excuse me, but... neither of you would happen to know where the unicorn who was here before went, would you? Brown coat, sort of blackish mane and tail?"
  5262. > Your description definitely gets their attention.
  5263. > "Yes, we saw him. They took him over to the other building a little while back."
  5264. > A sinking feeling fills your stomach.
  5265. "Other building?"
  5266. > Wordlessly one of the two points to the windowless structure nearby.
  5267. > "Means he's not going to be coming back for a little while. That's where they're taking ponies who were part of the riots."
  5268. > Not back for a little while might be an understatement, then.
  5269. "He was part of it, then?"
  5270. > They shrug in unison.
  5271. > "Don't know. Guess so."
  5272. > "They certainly think so."
  5273. "Well... thank you then."
  5274. > Deciding to strike up a conversation with the two, you find little more useful information.
  5275. > Both are from the town, and have little in the way of knowledge about anything relevant - at least that they care to tell you.
  5276. > But after a good talk that - for once - doesn't have to do with probing for information or searching for hidden dangers, you actually find yourself somewhat more relaxed.
  5277.  
  5278. > Returning to the rest of your group, a rush of relief flows through you as you see Chilona has returned safe and sound as well.
  5279. "You get through it okay, then?"
  5280. > She nods, tried relief obvious in her own catlike eyes.
  5281. > "I managed to pick up the details from the rest of you, and I don't think I messed up anything to badly."
  5282. "Good."
  5283. > You give her a comforting smile.
  5284. "Seems like we'll all be okay after all. Everypony, get some rest in. When they let us go, I want start back for home as quickly as possible."
  5285. > Release, unfortunately, does not come nearly as fast as you would like.
  5286. > In fact, they make you wait all afternoon and well through evening.
  5287. > The reasoning quickly becomes clear once the sun sets:
  5288. > While the camp's activity had drowned out much of the noise coming from the city, night revealed the glow of flames in the distance.
  5289. > Of course the smoke had been visible during the day, but this only reinforced just how widespread - and ongoing - the riots were.
  5290. > Sleep only comes to you for so long, and soon boredom sets in.
  5291. > Your instincts as a guardspony drive you to exercise simply to keep your mind busy as well as body in shape, but in the enclosure there is little room.
  5292. > The rest of your unit shows signs of the same boredom, you can tell.
  5293. > Not until nearly midnight is your name finally called again.
  5294. > Brought back into the same room you had been questioned in, you are again sat opposite a soldier.
  5295. > This time, you can see a the tiredness on his face as well.
  5296. > "Right, you've been cleared of, uh, any specific actions. We lifted lockdown in the city a little while ago, so you're all being allowed back in now."
  5297. > At night?
  5298. > During the curfew?
  5299. > Noting you questioning look, the soldier nods.
  5300. > "Because of the number of personnel inside the city right now, curfew has temporarily been lifted for this night only. It won't be kept that way. If you don't have somewhere to stay, find somewhere."
  5301.  
  5302. > Saying nothing, the question of whether Creature Comfort's hotel still stands flashes through your mind.
  5303. > "Uh, just don't come back here again and we should be all good. Got it?"
  5304. "Yes. I do."
  5305. > "Right. Exit down the hall, three doors left. A truck is waiting. When it's full, you'll be driven into the city and allowed off."
  5306. > By dawn, you and your unit stand in the fields to the west of Easthock, digging your buried armor from the shallow pit it had been left in.
  5307. > A certain part of your mind still stands in disbelief that you actually managed to succeed.
  5308. > Being captured and taken into an enemy's base usually signaled the end of a guardspony's career in that particular conflict, after all.
  5309. > Sometimes the end altogether.
  5310. > For once, it seemed, the invaders' alien nature worked against them.
  5311. > No Griffon or Changeling would have mistaken any of your ponies for civilians, you are sure.
  5312. > But you had not merely managed to escape unharmed, but observe their camp from the inside.
  5313. > Your observations had been written onto the second-to-last sheet of message paper and sent off.
  5314. > And now?
  5315. > For once, all your ponies were alive.
  5316. > They were definitely closer than when you'd stepped out from Las Pegasus, bound together by their combined experiences.
  5317. > And closer in friendship for-
  5318. > A hoof bumps roughly into your chest.
  5319. > Dragged from your thoughts, you lift your head to find Copper Cog regarding you coolly.
  5320. > "You owe me so damn much for not turning those sickos in. I could've told them they were holding us hostage, or that I overheard something and you were all clean. But I didn't, and you owe me. Got it?"
  5321. > Giving you a gentle shove, he turns and struts away.
  5322. > ...oh well.
  5323. > It was a nice thought, about that friendship and camaraderie.
  5324. > And maybe still true.
  5325. > But that didn't mean you could forget about him, either.
  5326. > One of the message-scrolls had been sent with information on what he'd done, but if you didn't follow up it might be forgotten or lost...
  5327.  
  5328. ACTION:
  5329. -  No matter what he's done now, he tried to murder two of his fellow guardsponies. Make him face justice.
  5330.  
  5331. > Watching Copper go, you shake your head.
  5332. > There wasn't any hope for him; hopefully you could at least keep him from doing anything dangerous until you got back to Las Pegasus.
  5333. > Then...
  5334. > Well, you'd never been involved in a field court-martial before.
  5335. > Sure, you'd seen guardsponies be subjected to courts-martial before - only once a Royal Guard, though.
  5336. > There was certain level of dedication and self-control required to be admitted to that branch of the guard.
  5337. > Never once had you seen it done for double attempted murder, though, and never once during a war.
  5338. > Briefly searching your memories of training, you try to remember any legal precedents for the last time Equestria was at war.
  5339. > Unfortunately, nothing comes to you.
  5340. > Copper could face anything from assignment to a penal battalion to the gallows.
  5341. > Moving to murmur into Whispen's ear, you speak softly.
  5342. "Make sure somepony's watching him at all times. Keep him hobbled at night too; I think there's going to be a scene when we get back to base."
  5343. > She doesn't look up, keeping her eyes on Copper.
  5344. > "Got it."
  5345. > In fact, you don't even have to wait until you get back to Las Pegasus.
  5346. > When you find a small, well-covered clearing to set up camp in for the night it doesn't take long for an outburst to flare up.
  5347. > "You want to do what to me?"
  5348. > Copper is not pleased about being hobbled, it seems.
  5349. > Hot Pot, however, is having none of it.
  5350. > "Orders are orders - and after seeing what your hotheadedness did, you're lucky he didn't order us to fit something over your horn as well."
  5351. > Copper's glare swings around to settle on you.
  5352. > "Seriously, I do you a favor and this is what I get in return? Fuck you."
  5353. "Doing the duty that you swore an oath to perform is not 'doing me a favor', Copper. This will go easier for you if you don't fight it."
  5354. > Copper presents his hooves, allowing Hot Pot to twist the saddlebag straps around them.
  5355. > His eyes never leave you through the whole process.
  5356.  
  5357. > Behind you, Byline mutters something.
  5358. > "If looks could kill, you'd be deader than Sombra right now..."
  5359. > Ornithea's response is a little bit louder.
  5360. > "Fortunately they can't, or we'd be down two guardsponies right now?"
  5361. > "Two? Who else?"
  5362. > "Copper, when I would be done with him."
  5363. > The remainder of the night passes in merciful quiet.
  5364. > Except for watching a few of the invaders' flying machines soaring far above, there's little you can do on your watch.
  5365. > Whispen, perhaps on account of the pressure no longer being quite as immediate, does not have any more nightmares that you can tell.
  5366. > Or maybe the exhaustion of a day spent marching had simply left her to tired to dream.
  5367. > While you did not have your armor anymore after using it as a decoy, you could see the others were adjusting to marching under the metal's weight again.
  5368. > The next day is just as boring - a fact for which you are immeasurably thankful.
  5369. > Keeping to the south, near the mountains flanking Las Pegasus, has so far kept you outside of the invaders' watch - so focused were they on merely holding lines of supply open.
  5370. > But as you approached Las Pegasus, every step became more hazardous.
  5371. > Even if they had not attacked the city yet, surely they would be watching - and probing - the defensive lines.
  5372. > And you looked every bit the scouting party you were.
  5373.  
  5374. ACTION:
  5375. - Turn south for a bit and approach Las Pegasus from the southeast as opposed to the northeast, hopefully avoiding enemy lines.
  5376.  
  5377. "We'll turn south here, move along the edge of the mountain. If the lines are anywhere near where they were when we left, we should avoid running into any hostiles.
  5378. > The route, unfortunately, is far, far less pleasant than you had hoped.
  5379. > Turning south means skirting the foothills of the mountains east of Las Pegasus, a mess of ravines and valleys that you often have to hike along the edge of.
  5380. > More than once you find yourself making quick, darting trips on wing across a valley to see if the other side was passable.
  5381. > Dangerous, yes, but hopefully the enemy could not track a target that was only visible for less than a minute.
  5382. > Plus, frankly, it felt good to be getting some real flying in - something more than gliding from rooftops or hovering at ground level.
  5383. > To long this war had kept you grounded; stretching the disused muscles was an immensely welcome feeling.
  5384. > Unfortunately, while you almost feel a bit better and the other pegasi are faring well - even Chilona, who had finally taken to wing again as well - the others are not.
  5385. > Your unicorn contingent in particular was feeling the strain of constantly climbing from one hill only to descend towards the next.
  5386. > By the end the day, your progress has been severely slowed - it will take at least an extra day to reach Las Pegasus if you push them.
  5387. > But push on you do, rising at next dawn and making the rest of the trip.
  5388. > The distant clouds covering the city are a deeply welcome site.
  5389. > Especially as they are merely clouds, not a pall of smoke from a hundred raging fires.
  5390. > Memories of the burning Easthock had, no matter how much you refused to let it bother you, refused to let you go as you made the return trip.
  5391. "Stand tall. We're almost there."
  5392. > Shock and surprise had met your return when you finally reach the first friendly trenches.
  5393. > The breather from attack had not been unused by the Guard defending Las Pegasus, it seemed.
  5394.  
  5395. > Trench after trench, some large enough to require temporary bridges, have been dug on the approach to the city.
  5396. > Well-protected dugouts are in abundance, as are craters where insufficiently camouflaged bunkers has once stood.
  5397. > At one point you pass a complex, gem-ridden contraption atop a cart, hidden beneath an overhang.
  5398. > Whispen is the only one who recognizes it.
  5399. > "It's an arcane amplification focus - we used to have them back in Manehatten university, although a lot smaller. Very complex, very delicate."
  5400. "Any good in a pinch?"
  5401. > "Supposedly the Unicorn Kingdom used them a lot before the unification of the tribes, but they're tricky to operate correctly. I don't know what they're planning to do with them here."
  5402. > Finding the rest of your unit proves to be an easier task - weeks spent preparing has given everypony a solid chance to know who is posted where.
  5403. > Even more fortunately, your battalion has been shifted to the south - the rest of the walk only takes another half-day.
  5404. > Colonel Silver linings seems to be the pony to report to still.
  5405. > His words, however, are none to reassuring.
  5406. > "Good to see you back. Your ponies alright?"
  5407. "One injured but recovering; I've sent him to medical. One... sir, we had an incident while on our mission."
  5408. > His eyes narrow.
  5409. > "An incident? What kind of incident, Airpony?"
  5410. "Sir, one of my unit - Guardspony Copper Cog - attempted to murder the two Night Guard attached to us. He was apparently driven by the loss of the remainder of his old unit when the Night Guard pulled back from the Everfree."
  5411. > "The injured pony - one of them?"
  5412. > Silver Linings hadn't made colonel by being dumb.
  5413. "Yes, Sir. Dusk Shadow - burned, Sir. He set the dugout they were sleeping in on fire."
  5414. > A stream of impressive cursing leaves the colonel's mouth.
  5415. > "Well, we'll get him handed over. I don't know what will happen to Guardspony Cog. Things are... delicate here right now. We're expecting an attack any moment now; everypony is on edge."
  5416.  
  5417. > You hadn't been called on to respond, and so remain quiet.
  5418. > After a second, Silver Linings seems to realize you are still waiting.
  5419. > "Right! New orders - well, you'll wait here for at least a day or two while we figure out what to do with you next.
  5420. "Yes, Sir. We'll have to give depositions on the matter with Cog, Sir?"
  5421. > "Yes, probably soon. Besides that - get your unit some rest. You did good, but I'm afraid we'll have to send you out again soon. Good ponies are in short supply right now, and we're going to need everything we can get soon."
  5422. "I understand, sir."
  5423. > For now, it seemed, you were safe.
  5424. > For now.
  5425. MISSION 3 COMPLETE
  5426.  
  5427. Primary objectives:
  5428. > Survive: COMPLETE
  5429. > Keep your unit alive: COMPLETE, 12/12 ALIVE
  5430. > Obtain information on enemy activity near Easthock: COMPLETE
  5431.  
  5432. Optional objectives:
  5433. > Open communication with command and set up a partisan unit in Easthock: FAILED
  5434. > Use a riot in Easthock as cover to raid the invaders' base: FAILED
  5435. > Discover and root out the traitor in your ranks: COMPLETE
hie RGS Royal Guard

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