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Royal Guard Survival - Part 2

By Lurkernon
Created: 19th December 2020 11:52:52 PM

  1. Originally published January 2015
  2.  
  3. First pastebin and associated archives:
  4.  
  5. Archives in this bin:
  6. 1. archive.moe/mlp/thread/21544633/#21570346 and down.
  7. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  8.  
  9. > Perhaps Silver Linings simply didn't know.
  10. > Perhaps as a colonel, he simply didn't want to tell you.
  11. > But the truth is undeniable.
  12. > The situation in Las Pegasus is a mess.
  13. > Most of the force there are the partial strength remnants of numerous larger guard units that had fallen back in the furious retreat from the Everfree.
  14. > As a result, even after weeks of time to prepare the command structure is a virtual mess.
  15. > Small, mixed units like yours - operating outside of the typical, separate command structures of the Earth, Unicorn, and Pegasus corps - were common.
  16. > Pegasi especially seemed to have fared the worse; virtually entirely forced to the ground by the invaders overwhelming air superiority, they were seemingly thrown into whatever unit had a purpose for them.
  17. > Even if that purpose was digging - or sitting in - trenches all day.
  18. > You aren't assigned a position on the front lines so much as thrown into the nearest dugout and told to await further orders.
  19. > It's still a pleasant change from operating in the field - the food is, at the very least, warm and the sleeping dry - but you can't ignore what else it means.
  20. > The enemy is coming,
  21. > And this time, there will be nowhere to hide.
  22. > It actually takes them a fair while - close to three weeks, during which you are sent out on another mercifully uneventful scouting trip into the nearby hills.
  23. > Five days after you return, however, the news spreads like wildfire through your ranks.
  24. > The invaders have gotten fed up with waiting.
  25. > They're coming for Las Pegasus, from the north and south.
  26. > There will be no way to escape this time.
  27. > Morale is surprisingly high in the trenches.
  28.  
  29. > Perhaps it's a certain sense of fatalism, that this was going to happen sooner or later.
  30. > Perhaps it's because this time - unlike the attack on the Everfree camp - the Guard at least knows what it is fighting.
  31. > Perhaps it's the city, filled with over three million citizens and refugees, at your backs that you knew had to be defended.
  32. > But this time, there's a certain sense of determination - if not to hold the line, to at least make it as hard as possible.
  33. > Certain perks come with the rising danger as well.
  34. > A spare set of armor - some ancient thing that actually looks like it might have seen action against the Griffons - is dug up and issued to you, rank and insignia quickly etched on it.
  35. > As the fighting nears, your entire unit is called in to the supply depot.
  36. > The results are better than expected.
  37. > In addition to sharpening your weapons again, a surly-looking captain hands you two canteen-like bags that make your coat stand on end.
  38. "What are these?"
  39. > "Pre-packaged thundercloud - a little idea courtesy of Princess Sparkle. Pegasi, open the bottle and squeeze out the cloud, then buck it against something - it should give a nice jolt that could damage or stop one of their vehicles."
  40. > Interesting.
  41. > Aside from numerous static traps being prepared along the trenches, this might be the first way you have to actually stop their armored carts.
  42. > Soon after you and your unit are sent to a nearby tent belonging to one of the few solid unicorn contingents still in the area, where another enchantment is applied to your armor.
  43. > The exhausted-looking unicorn applying it gives you the rundown in three quick sentences.
  44. > "Reinforcing charm. Don't rely on it, it's shoddy and fast. Might stop a shot from their weapon or some explosion fragments before fading. Next!"
  45. > You pity the unicorns at work in there, honestly.
  46. > More than a few show signs of magical exhaustion; if they kept it up, they would be burnt out before the battle began.
  47.  
  48. > Returning to your dugout, you find the rest of your unit already suited up in armor and waiting.
  49. > Whispen steps up first.
  50. > "So - what's our plan here?"
  51. "Well - the way I see it, those big armored carts are going to be the biggest threat. We have to eliminate them, or they're just going to roll through our lines."
  52. > Looking out over the field, you point to several cleverly-concealed pitfalls and trenches - each dug quite deep, wide, and steep enough to, the diggers hoped, stop even the largest of their armored vehicles.
  53. "Aside from our packaged thunderclouds, we can try and lure them into those. Even if it doesn't destroy them, they'll have to be dragged back out - can't be easy, even for those things."
  54. > "There's another thing, sir. I found out what the arcane focuses are for. They want to use them against the invaders' flying machines. If we can keep them protected, we might just get some cover from air attack."
  55. "Advantageous. What else?"
  56. > Dusk steps up.
  57. > "It may not help much, but there's another ambush position over there. Behind that rise, see, where all those bushes are? If we get in behind there, we can use our bows or even something else to snipe from and be quite hard to spot."
  58. > You nod, thankful you have the Night Guard's expertise in ambush and surprise on your side this time.
  59. "What do you mean by 'something else?' "
  60. > In response, he takes you to another nearby dugout where a small ballista sits waiting.
  61. > Dusk seems quite proud of himself.
  62. > "I figure this could do something bad to their infantry - maybe even lighter carts if we hit them right."
  63. > Boulder shakes his head in surprise.
  64. > "Who does this even belong to?"
  65. > Chilona chuckles.
  66. > "Earth pony unit left it here. They got assigned one to many, didn't have time to return it. We could use it if we drag it back there now."
  67. > For once, it seems, the chaos in command has come out in your favor.
  68.  
  69. "Whispen - those arcane foci. How effective are they?"
  70. > "Uh, it depends a lot on the operator - they just amplify the user's natural magic. If they get a unicorn up there good with battle magic, maybe a good eight to ten kilometers?"
  71. "Same thing with the rate of fire, I presume."
  72. > "Yes. They're very well concealed, though - even from the air. I hear they've had pegasi up there making sure they can't be seen to easily."
  73. > You shudder at the idea of having to fly up and hover searching for things on the ground while knowing you could be targeted at any moment.
  74. > "That won't last long once the unicorns start using them, though. They'll have to move the foci fast, or be overwhelmed."
  75. > Boulder points to several nearby bunkers.
  76. > "Those should provide cover against most of their bombs that I've seen. Unless one lands right in front, we'll be okay."
  77. "So, in short, we do as much damage as we can, get under cover, stick our muzzles out again and do a bit for, then...?"
  78. > All of them look between each other.
  79. > Only Hot Pot dares answer.
  80. > "Then we run. It's the only choice - we fall back, and if we can we do it again. If we help them move that focus it might have a chance at getting to another position - maybe."
  81. "Okay. Dusk, how good is the cover in that position you picked out?"
  82. > "About as good as it's going to get. There's enough tall scrub the ballista bolts will just go straight through, but we shouldn't be spotted for a little while. If we time it right, we can let them get into bow range before opening up and then pull back. That'd be our best shot, I think."
  83. "Boulder. How sure are we that they will move into those traps."
  84. > The stallion rubs his chin with one hoof.
  85. > "It'd be tricky. They've been deliberately leaving some paths open, without trenches - so they look safe. Those are the trapped ones, of course. The trick will be to make it look like those are the safest passages - we'll have to retreat along them as well."
  86.  
  87. > Dusk snorts softly.
  88. > "They'll figure it out once the first two go in, but it will at least give them pause."
  89. "What I'm hearing is, one way or another... we're going to have to pull back eventually."
  90. > There's an uncomfortable shuffling among the group.
  91. > Hot Pot again speaks the blunt truth.
  92. "Yes. We will. The trenches will give us good cover back to the city itself, but we'll have to know when to go."
  93. > You wince, remembering her experiences in not knowing when to go and how it had cost her two more ponies at the Everfree camp.
  94.  
  95. ACTION:
  96. - Try to protect the nearest arcane focus to gain some air defense.
  97.  
  98. "Those foci may not last long... but maybe if we bring down a couple of their flying machines, we can at least give them pause. We'll do what we can to protect them."
  99. > "Understood. What's our role?"
  100. "Initially? Lookout. We warn them of what's coming, if we can. Pretty quickly we're going to be dodging things faster than trying to dance through a Hydra's heads, so keep a sharp eye out. If enemy soldiers get near, we do our best to slow or stop them, then get safe and move back to a more defensible position."
  101. > "In the city, you mean."
  102. > The city.
  103. > Every bit of training you had as a royal guard told you to keep the fighting outside of the city.
  104. > Away from the civilians.
  105. > But against this....
  106.  
  107. We'll have to fall back inside the city. Use ambush, traps, anything we can to slow them down."
  108. > "Are they trying to evacuate...?"
  109. > Caravan derisively snorts at that question.
  110. > "Evacuate three and a half million ponies? How? Even assuming the ships could get out safely, there's no way the harbor has that many available."
  111. "I'm sure they're doing what they can, but it's likely we'll have to find our own way out. They'll be focused on the city; if retreat is called we will stick to the coast and head north."
  112. > Turning to each of them in turn, you take a deep breath.
  113. "Everypony understand what they need to do?"
  114. > They do.
  115. "Good."
  116. > Looking around, you meet all their eyes in turn and take a deep breath.
  117. "Then get some rest, and double-check your positions."
  118. > Nopony can rest.
  119. > How could they, when battle was so near?
  120. > As the day goes on, clouds of dust and smoke appear in the distance.
  121. > Explosive cracks echo from far away as the invaders' weapons fire at something.
  122. > Shuddering softly, you close your eyes.
  123. > How did it ever come to this?
  124. > A far closer explosion rips through your thoughts.
  125. > "Incoming! Incoming, everypony cover!"
  126. > The next three hours are like living through Tartarus.
  127. > Flying machines and artillery pound friendly lines.
  128. > The explosions come every few minutes, like an out-of-control lightning storm raging against its Pegasi handlers.
  129. > Even in your bunker, the blasts seem terrifyingly near.
  130. > Another guardspony covered in thick dust sticks his head into you dugout.
  131. > "They're almost here! Get into position!"
  132. "Got it!"
  133. > The explosions are coming less rapidly.
  134. > Maybe only flying machines now?
  135. > Their own forces must be close.
  136. "Listen."
  137. > Your voice is soft in the bunker's thick air.
  138. "Some of you, I've known for a little bit now. Some of you, I only recently met. But... it's been an honor to serve with you all, and I'm proud to have lead you."
  139. > There's a brief silence, and then Whispen salutes.
  140.  
  141. > And then Boulder.
  142. > And then Chilona, and Quick Step, and all the others.
  143. > "I... gave you a lot of lip after we escaped from the Everfree that first time. But... you've been okay."
  144. > Whispen smiles, going on.
  145. > "Better than okay, even. We'll stick with you, sir. Through all of this."
  146. > You salute as well, something warm swelling in your chest.
  147. "We all will. I promise."
  148. > "Sir..."
  149. > Whispen seems ready to contradict you - but doesn't.
  150. > Instead she just gives you a curt nod.
  151. > "I'll hold you to that."
  152. "You'd better. Okay, everypony let's go - out in to the trenches, find the focus and get into your holes!"
  153. > The focus' crew are still rolling it out from its own bunker when you get into position.
  154. > All around you, clouds of smoke and dust rise.
  155. > If you peer over the cover, you can see the squad, lumpen shapes of the invaders' vehicles - each occasionally illuminated as they spit death at something.
  156. > A unicorn climbs into the center of the focus; its rising hum sending a ripple through your coat.
  157. > In the distance, pulsing buzzes fill the air as the invaders' flying machines approach low over the ground.
  158. > No way to avoid it now.
  159. > The assault has begun.
  160.  
  161. ACTION:
  162. -  Keep an eye on approaching ground forces; you may be able to slow or distract them from overrunning this position.
  163.  
  164. "Keep your eyes on those ground forces! Make sure none of them get a line of sight on the focus!"
  165. > The armored carts have begun to crest the last distant rise, pausing at the top of the ridge.
  166. > Quick Step frowns, his eyes narrowing.
  167. > "Why did they sto-"
  168. > His question is cut off as distant flashes illuminate the enemy positions.
  169. > Seconds later further explosions tear through several positions apparently not camouflaged sufficiently.
  170. > Yours is not one of them.
  171. > Behind you, the focus' crew have begun pointing out targets - although the unicorn operator does not yet unleash the magic charging in it.
  172. "Chilona! You able to see anything out there?"
  173. > "No - sorry."
  174. > She shakes her head, jaw gritted.
  175. > "Our eyesight is optimized for the night. Everything looks kind of washed out to me right now."
  176. "Damn."
  177. > Somewhere down the line one of the foci finally fires, a bright stream of light erupting skyward to reach out to lash at a passing flying machine.
  178. > It misses, but the machine banks away and retreats while vomiting out a spray of smoke-trailing lights.
  179. > Hot Pot laughs, shaking a hoof skyward.
  180. > "Yeah, you see how it feels to get chased around up there!"
  181. "Easy. They'll be on edge now for sure."
  182. > Further down another foci erupts, this time catching one of the hovering machines.
  183. > It is hard to see in the distance, but you're think something shears straight off the tail, sending the whole contraption into a wild, spinning collision with the ground.
  184. > Whoops and cheers go up across the line - right until the next hail of projectiles come sailing in.
  185. "Artillery! Artillery! How close are those ground troops?"
  186. > Whispen pops her head up to take another look at them.
  187. > "Uh, about two miles out by my estimates."
  188. "Okay - get that focus back under cover, now!"
  189. > The cart the focus was mounted on may have been constructed with the best materials available, but it was still moving over rough, uneven ground.
  190.  
  191. > By the time sixteen ponies manage to shove it into the dugout enemy artillery is falling uncomfortably close.
  192. > It seems they have decided to simply attack the entire line again.
  193. > Bursting from cover as soon as she shelling stops, you emerge from the revetment and climb from the trench to a terrifying sight:
  194. > In the minute or two you were under cover, the ground vehicles have advanced significantly, to well within a mile of your position.
  195. > Once again a stream of magic erupts skyward from the newly-moved focus, lancing out to jab at another pair of flying machines passing nearby.
  196. > One is missed entirely, but the other is struck in a burst of sparks and limps away trailing smoke.
  197. > Unfortunately, it's far to little, to late.
  198. > "Sir! Their ground troops are almost here!"
  199. "I know, Ornithea, I know!"
  200. > Deciding to take a peek yourself, you see at least seven coming straight for your position - three of the larger, crawling kind and four smaller ones on eight wheels each.
  201. > Dashing over to the focus and scrambling up onto the cart carrying it, you're met by an irate guardpony blocking your way.
  202. > "What in Starswirl's name do you think you're doing! That thing is delicate, you can't just-"
  203. "My troops are in danger too. Get out of my way!"
  204. > Spreading your wings and hopping straight over him, you stick your head into the center of the focus and yell to be heard over the roar of machines, explosions, and the general din of battle.
  205. "We've got armored carts coming close - the crawler kind. If we move you out of cover to get a look at them, can you try and stop them?"
  206. > The unicorn operator gives you an annoyed look.
  207. > "What do I look like, a miracle worker? My orders are to keep the sky clear!"
  208.  
  209. ACTION:
  210. - Ask him if he seriously thinks that the "crawling" machines will be slowed down by a few trenches. If it can one-shot helicopters, it would be good to know if it can incapacitate a tank. Tell him to aim for the cannon and if he can get a second shot out, the treads.
  211. - Look you dumb bastard, you wont be able to take out the flyers from Tartarus.
  212.  
  213. "If those things get here, you'll be trying to take out flyers from Tartarus!"
  214. > "Alright, alright! Just get me into position and get me out fast - if I see something coming my way, I'm going to bail."
  215. "You got it!"
  216. > Rounding up your squad, you give them the short and sweet version of it.
  217. "We pull the focus up the slope, just far enough to let the operator peek out and get a good view of the enemy. As soon as he gives it his best shot, we let it run right back down the slope and back under cover."
  218. > "And then?"
  219. "Then, we get out of there. Those things are coming right for us. Read? Okay, get in pulling positions!"
  220. > Your unit takes up positions at the cart's two tow ropes, five to a side and yourself guiding them.
  221. "Okay, ready - ready, and pull!"
  222. > Creaking dangerously, the cart begins to ascend up the slope out of the trench.
  223. > Running before it, you look out just in time to see one of the armored crawlers' tops rotating towards your position.
  224. "There! There's one looking right at us - go for its cannon!"
  225. > "Shut up, I know what I'm doing!"
  226. > The operator rears up on his hind legs, teeth jammed together and lips drawn back as his horn flares with light.
  227. > For a terrifying second you think the enemy crawler is going to fire first, but then the focus operator bellows out a hoarse scream.
  228. > The telltale glow of magic surrounds the cannon's barrel, severely slowing it.
  229. > Coming to a halt, the entire vehicle seems to strain against the magic - still steadily twisting towards your position.
  230. "We can't wait any longer! Do something or let it go!"
  231. > "Shut. UP!"
  232. > A twisting, writhing bolt of magic erupts from the operator's horn, lancing out to whip across the side of the vehicle.
  233.  
  234. > There's nothing to indicate any damage - nothing to show for his efforts.
  235. > But, the cannon's inexorable motion towards you has halted.
  236. > Cheers go up - but only for a moment.
  237. > A second later it is back in motion again, finishing its traverse towards you.
  238. "Shit, shit! Let the cart go, get it back down there!"
  239. > All at once your unit lets go of the tow lines, and immediately gravity reasserts its hold.
  240. > The cart rumbles back down into the trench, coming to a tremendous slamming halt on the far wall.
  241. > Your unit chases after them down - not a moment to soon, as seconds later the spot where you had been standing is peppered by dozens of impacts.
  242. "That's it! It didn't stop; we need to get out of here!"
  243. > The operator doesn't respond.
  244. > Scrambling up onto the cart again, you find him collapsed in the center of the focus with blood running from his nostrils.
  245. > Whispen is quick to realize what is wrong.
  246. > "Severe magic overload. He must've lost control of the focus right as he was channeling through it."
  247. "That can happen?"
  248. > Pressing one ear to the guardspony's chest beneath the frontal plate, she nods.
  249. > "Foci like this are tricky. They're powerful, but dangerous if you lose control."
  250. "Any hope for him?"
  251. > She shakes her head sadly, standing up again and nudging the focus itself.
  252. > For the first time you notice that many of the gems fitted into it are cracked.
  253. > "He's gone. The focus is ruined as well."
  254. > "Sir!"
  255. > Chilona's ecstatic voice draws your attention away again.
  256. > "Sir - I think - I think he stopped it! It's not moving anymore, I think there's something wrong with one of its wheels!"
  257. "Then this is out chance - we need to get out of this trench before another comes up."
  258.  
  259. ACTION:
  260. -  Fall back into Los Pegasus itself, and try to ambush from there.
  261.  
  262. "We need to get out of these trenches. Those flying machines are going to be back sooner or later once they figure out the foci are gone."
  263. > Grabbing the focus operator's tags, you quickly stuff them into a pocket in your armor and dive back down from the cart.
  264. "Come on - we'll stick to the trenches and not stop."
  265. > It's another good half-mile back to the rear of the trenches - but thankfully the invaders seem to be tied up clearing out the fortifications, against other small units or out of habit you don't know.
  266. > But only sporadic fire greets your escape into the outer reaches of Las Pegasus.
  267. > Unfortunately, Las Pegasus is not an old habitation.
  268. > The smaller cloud city that had given the Las Pegasus its name still floated above the newer ground settlements, but it had been adjusted over time to be more welcoming and beautiful to the ground-bound ponies beneath.
  269. > Thoughts of the enemies' flying machines tearing through the cloudhomes above brings shivers to your spine.
  270. > Unlike every other airborne foe Equestria had faced, they did not wield the power to touch and manipulate clouds; their metal would slice through them like the water vapor they were.
  271. > The earth did not offer many options either; Las Pegasus' ground settlements had spread in the peaceful era long after the Princess had come to rule and so lacked a strong outer wall.
  272. > Or any other measures that could be used to funnel the invaders in for ambush.
  273. > Impromptu sandbag walls had been thrown up in the streets, but there was no way that would stop them for more than a minute.
  274. "We'll have to find somewhere good to hide - somewhere we can get out of. The inner city will be safer than out here."
  275. > You motion to all the single-family homes you are currently trotting past.
  276. "If we can't find anything... well, the sewers are an option."
  277. > "What about our armor? It's still enchanted, but it identifies us in an instant..."
  278.  
  279. > Whispen shakes her head vehemently at the suggestion implied in Caravan's statement.
  280. > "If we drop our armor now, they won't know civilian from soldier. They might get nasty. We should at least keep our armor as long as there is a guard presence in the city."
  281. "Well, keep moving for now. Before anything else, we need to find cover."
  282. > Looking around, you see three potential options seek shelter in.
  283.  
  284. [3 choices for hiding spots were offered for choice at this point; number 1 was taken.]
  285. - An unoccupied house. Upside, you can present yourselves as the owners to avoid suspicion. Downside, not to many places to hide if they do come looking.
  286.  
  287. > The houses are closer together here, alleyways between them rather than wide passages.
  288. > Curtains are drawn shut, many doors visibly barred.
  289. > It is a city in hiding.
  290. > But one seems unchanged.
  291. > Untended, in fact - the front lawn unkempt, the inside dark.
  292. "In there. Boulder, Quick - check the door."
  293. > The two make for the entrance as you look back, trying to judge how far the enemies have come.
  294. > They are still in the distance, it seems - not yet ready to pierce into the city proper.
  295. > Awaiting reinforcements, perhaps?
  296. > Either way, you do not care to-
  297. > Wait.
  298. > That dot in the sky...
  299. "Boulder! Flying machine, coming this way! What's the deal with that house?"
  300. > "Nopony's answering!"
  301. "Then break the door! We need cover, now!"
  302. > Turning around, Boulder delivers a single driving blow that shatters the door latch and sends it swinging wide open.
  303. "Everypony in! Now!"
  304. > Not a few moments have passed from the door slamming shut behind the last of your ponies when the machine goes screaming overhead.
  305. > A second later there is a series of shattering explosions that send the pictures on the walls rattling.
  306. > But do not harm any of you.
  307. > Listening to the howling roar fade, you all breath a sigh of relief.
  308. "Nopony hurt?"
  309. > None are.
  310. "Right. We... we can't stop them. Not now. Not here."
  311. > They nod silently.
  312. > "What's the plan, sir?"
  313. "We might not be able to stop them... but we can still fight them. We can make them bleed for it. But that means waiting - if we try and halt them here, they'll just root us out."
  314. > You take a deep breath.
  315. "They'll build a depot here - no doubt. We can fight that. Make them keep troops here, or be at risk."
  316. > "You're talking about... resistance."
  317. "Yes. Resistance."
  318. > Not since the griffonic wars had a major city on Equestrian territory been occupied by hostile forces.
  319. > But now it had happened, and you would have to make do.
  320.  
  321. "First, some of us need to go find the command post - or whatever is left of it. We gather resources - message paper, weapons, anything we can use. We get it back here, in a cart or something."
  322. > "That will be risky, sir."
  323. "Worst comes to worst we can pass ourselves off as looters. Get arrested, tell the police who we are."
  324. > That meets some surprised and unhappy looks.
  325. "...I know, it's not pleasant. But we can't keep thinking of fighting the way we were trained. A few months ago all we knew were pike blocks, pegasi flight wings, and magic duels. That's gone now."
  326. > Slowly Whispen nods.
  327. > "We can't out-fight them. We have to out-think them."
  328. "Right. So... let's say, three to go to the command post and find anything worth finding there."
  329. > Looking around you try to decide who best to take with you.
  330.  
  331. ACTION:
  332. - Send Boulder, Caravan, and Whispen. She'll know what to look for, Boulder will be good at carrying lots of equipment, and Caravan can smooth talk his way to supplies if necessary
  333.  
  334. "Whispen. Boulder. Caravan. Can you make the run to HQ?"
  335. > Their answer is to immediately start stripping their armor.
  336. > "I just hope they don't try and cut the streets off."
  337. "If you have to hide out for a few days as things return to normal, do so. Don't rush things for my sake."
  338. > "Understood."
  339. "And... be safe."
  340. > Whispen exits first, taking a cautious look down the street before cantering out.
  341. > The other two follow quickly after her.
  342. > You take another look back out towards the fields around the city, where a line of armored vehicles has now begun to make its way into the outskirts.
  343. > Smoke rises from the trenches; one particularly stubborn position must still be hanging on, as you can hear a steady tempo of thunderous explosions in the distance.
  344. > Pulling the door shut, you take another deep breath.
  345. "Okay. Sweep the house, try to find some good hiding spots. Find out if there's anything left we can make use of."
  346. > "That's theft, sir."
  347. > You fix Dusk with a sharp look.
  348. "If there's anything left of the government after this is done, I'm sure the princesses will be willing to reimburse the owners. Right now, we need more supplies - food, medicine, anything we can use to make traps."
  349. > A pity Copper had done what he did.
  350. > Surely his skills would have been of use here... but you can't let your thoughts linger on that to much.
  351. > Sweeping through the modest house, you're suddenly struck by the weight of what you are doing.
  352. > Despite the unoccupied look, it seems like a small family lived here.
  353. > A picture, one among many, shows a family with two children - a young colt and an even younger filly.
  354. > Somepony had grown up here, and you had broken in without a second thought.
  355. "How's it going? Any good hiding places?"
  356. > "Not much."
  357. > Chilona is the first to answer, emerging from the basement.
  358. > "There's a good bit of space down there, but it's all open and we can't hide the door. Anyone coming in will check it."
  359. "Damn. Anything else?"
  360.  
  361. > From the kitchen, Hot Pot calls back.
  362. > "Lots of cabinets and a couple of closets, but I couldn't even hide from my mother in those."
  363. > That yields a sorely-needed chuckle from several ponies.
  364. > Finally, Ornithea and Byline descend from the second floor.
  365. > "Just bedrooms up there. I guess we could try and empty out one of the closets, but..."
  366. "No. It's clear, if we get searched we're done for. We'll just have to be doubly sure not to be seen."
  367. > Looking around, you notice nopony ever bothered to draw the curtains.
  368. "Get those shut, now! We can't be seen in here!"
  369. > The curtains close not a moment to soon.
  370. > In the distance you can hear the roaring, creaking noise of the enemy's crawlers, undoubtedly coming right down this street.
  371. "Everypony else stay hidden - away from windows. Byline, get a piece of parchment and a pen. You and I are going to be taking down notes on what we see."
  372. > When the troops finally do come, they certainly don't hold back.
  373. > Two crawlers take the lead down the street, followed by more of the wheeled kind.
  374. > More soldiers - at two dozen, you think - move with them, sprinting from position to position.
  375. > "They think they're going to be attacked..."
  376. "Can you blame them? This... this is where we should have stopped them. At our city."
  377.  
  378. [Roll for success - result; "Forget just (just being noticed by a soldier). One of them breaks in!"
  379.  
  380. "Okay, I see at least three, maybe four of the wheeled kind of cart. Uh, two dozen soldiers -"
  381. > Before you can go any further there's a tremendous crash from the rear of the house, followed by several sharp weapon-cracks and screaming.
  382. > Adrenaline floods your system; who didn't think to put a watch on the rear entrance?
  383. > The answer comes a moment later: You.
  384. > Even as you turn to charge through the hallways to the rear of the home, there are two more cracks followed by a sickening crunch.
  385. > The scene you meet is none to pleasant.
  386. > Quick Step lays on the floor, hooves desperately scrabbling at a hole in his armor that blood already pours from.
  387. > Behind him, Dusk crouches over Spark, who is also bleeding - in his case, from a leg.
  388. > On the opposite side of the room lays a moaning human soldier.
  389. > Whatever hit him must have been spectacular, as there is a small dent in the wall where he slammed into it before sliding down.
  390. "How many soldiers?"
  391. > "Just the one. The other ran."
  392. > And was surely going to be back soon with more.
  393. "What happened?"
  394. > Chilona speaks up.
  395. > "He kicked down the rear door - we didn't see him coming. My mistake, sir I should have been watching."
  396. "Blame later. Story now."
  397. > "Right - uh, he kicked in the door and his hand-cannon fired a lot. Hit my own, Spark, and Quick - my armor's enchantment deflected the first hit, the others..."
  398. > She quickly adds:
  399. > "He seemed as surprised to see us as we were him. I don't think it was expected."
  400. "Then at least we weren't followed."
  401. > Even as you question her, you and Hot Pot have been stripping off Quick's armor, trying to find the wound beneath.
  402. "Stay with me, Quick. You're going to be okay - we'll get you out of here."
  403. > He tries to say something, lips moving furiously, but the only thing that comes out is another moan.
  404. > Speaking of moans...
  405. "Somepony keep that soldier down. Don't let him up again!"
  406.  
  407. > Byline takes the initiative, slamming one hoof into the soldier's chest again.
  408. "Dusk - how's Spark?"
  409. > "Okay - he's just grazed, getting him bandaged up now."
  410. "Okay, good - Chilona, watch the rear. Make sure we don't get snuck up on again. Ornithea, you're on front watch."
  411. > "Got it!"
  412. > You can't afford to stay here now - but moving to quickly could ruin a chance to save a life...
  413. > Hot Pot pulls away Quick's chestplate at last, giving you the first good look at his wound.
  414.  
  415. [Roll for wound seriousness; result:  Lodged in the muscle: Bad, but recoverable with time.]
  416.  
  417. ACTION:
  418. - Run straight away from the street, since they mostly seem to be coming from that direction.
  419.  
  420. > The shot has torn through muscle and skin, but mercifully doesn't seem to have gone deep.
  421. > "Thank Celestia..."
  422. > You, personally, agree with Hot Pot's assessment.
  423. "You're going to be okay, Quick. Hear me? You're going to be fine; it's not gone near anything vital."
  424. > The wounded stallion nods, eyes shimmering with tears.
  425. "No time for a bandage now - Byline! Get over here, and keep something pressed on that wound. Chilona! See anything out back there?"
  426. > Shaker her head, she takes another peek around a corner.
  427. > "No, they haven't come back yet."
  428. "Okay, then we need to move while we have the chance. Can Spark walk?"
  429. > Standing shakily, Spark nods an affirmative.
  430. > "Won't be fast, but faster than carrying me."
  431. "Good. Then let's go - straight away from the street, should be furthest from them."
  432. > Dusk points to the still-groaning soldier.
  433. > "What about him? He's hurt, stunned - maybe a few cracked ribs or something at most."
  434. > Ornithea grimaces.
  435. > "We could take him with us. A prisoner. Maybe get us out of a tight spot to turn him over."
  436. > Her assertion meets with a sharp shake of Dusk's head.
  437. > "No. He's another mouth to feed and might sell us out. We have to kill him."
  438. > "What?! I know it's war, but - he's wounded, can't fight back-"
  439. > "It's us or him, Ornithea - what else should we do? Just let him go?"
  440.  
  441. ACTION:
  442. - Take his stuff and leave. We'v lost this battle anyway, and I don't think they'll be treated the conquered ponies too kindly if they see that we were executing wounded soldiers
  443. - This. Also, killing a single soldier will make no difference. They're too many for it to matter. Not killing him and maybe saving his life might though. Not much, but a little bit. We could even engage a bit in psychological warfare by writing a small note for him saying "Please don't kill the women and children"
  444.  
  445. "We'll leave him here. Spark, help me grab his stuff - we're taking it with us."
  446. > "On it."
  447. > Quickly stripping the soldier of anything that looks remotely useful, Spark opts to tie one leg to a nearby table to keep him from following you.
  448. > There's one more thing you feel you should do before leaving, though.
  449. "Hey."
  450. > You bat none to lightly at the soldier's cheek with one hoof.
  451. "Hey, can you hear me? We're leaving. Don't try to follow us."
  452. > The soldier moans, his head rolling.
  453. > You can't see anything immediately wrong with him, but the blows had caught him straight in the torso.
  454. > Broken ribs weren't an impossibility.
  455. > "Antoni? Gdzie jesteś, Antoni?"
  456. > Everypony freezes as the soldier speaks.
  457. > Finally Chilona speaks.
  458. > "What."
  459. > "Myślę, że został trafiony. Moja pierś ..."
  460. > His eyes finally drift open and settle on you.
  461. > Immediately he clams up, eyes bulging.
  462. > "...is that their home language? Like, what they speak on their world?"
  463. > Something bubbles up from your memories.
  464. "Maybe, Hot Pot. Remember back in that cave? One of them there said there are other nations involved in this. Maybe they speak another language, like some of the Griffons."
  465. > "...yeah."
  466. > Dusk gives him a studious look.
  467. > "I don't think he can understand us."
  468. "Right. Byline - uh, just leave him a note. 'We didn't kill you, please don't hurt us - the city is not your target'. Something like that."
  469. > "On it. Ornithea, take this bandage and keep it pressed on Quick's wound."
  470. > There are several tense moments as the note is scribble out, but at last the parchment is pressed into his hand.
  471. > You think the soldier is going to faint when the magic field touches his skin, but he takes the note regardless.
  472. "Right, that's it - we're out of here! Chilona, Hot Pot - scout ahead, find us somewhere we can better treat Quick."
  473. > "On it!"
  474.  
  475. > With Quick Step slung over Ornithea's back and Byline keeping pressure on his wound, you all cautiously emerge from into the home's back yard.
  476.  
  477. [Roll for escape success; result: They're on to you.]
  478.  
  479. > Not two steps out, another line of bullets whip over your head.
  480. > Hot Pot goes down screaming, one leg clutched beneath her head; sparks also burst from Byline's armor as the enchantment deflects two shots..
  481. "Celestia damn it!"
  482. > Immediately falling to your belly, you squirm forward to come alongside Hot Pot.
  483. > She's twisted around awkwardly, staring at her haunch where blood leaks from two wounds.
  484. > "I... I didn't..."
  485. "Keep it together, Hot Pot."
  486. > Lifting your head a bit, you try to spot the soldiers firing at you - but only get a few glimpses at indistinct shapes and flashes of light from their weapons before you have to duck back down.
  487. "Okay, Hot Pot. I'm going to bandage you up real fast, and then you need to got onto my back. Can you do that?"
  488. > Already you are reaching reaching into the field-aid kit's pouch on your armor and grapping the bandage roll in your mouth.
  489. > A few careful turns and some elaborate juggling later, you at last have the the blood flow staunched.
  490. > It doesn't keep Hot Pot from groaning loudly as she drags herself up onto your back.
  491. "Okay, Byline-"
  492. > No, damn - Byline was keeping Quick Step's wounds from bleeding out.
  493. "-nevermind, Spark! Spark Flash, I need you to get a shield up fast, get us some cover!"
  494. > "Ready when you are!"
  495. > Wounded he may have been, but Spark performs admirably.
  496. > Projectiles glance off his shield and ricochet wildly about, but amazingly there are no further hits.
  497. > At least, not until something significantly larger comes spinning over the fences dividing the homes.
  498. > Though you don't catch what it is, odds say it can't be good.
  499. "Everypony down again! Down, down!"
  500.  
  501. > Again all of them - yourself included - fall to your bellies, Hot Pot pressing herself low across your back.
  502. > Spark's shield flares and collapses, a cry ripped from his throat as his horn sputters out.
  503. "You okay?"
  504. > "Just... just a little feedback. I'll be alright in time."
  505. > He's bought you enough time to get across the yard and to the next house, though.
  506. > Chilona and Dusk both have their bows out and are loosing arrows at the invaders as they can, guarding your rear.
  507. > Nopony bothers with the home's door, everypony galloping as fast as they can.
  508. > Ornithea pulls alongside you, Quick bouncing limply on her back.
  509. > "Sir... where... where are we going?"
  510. > That's a good question.
  511. > Besides 'away from the enemy', you hadn't really thought of a serious plan.
  512.  
  513. [3 choices given for hiding spots; 1st was chosen.]
  514. - The dockyards. Pro: Plenty of hiding spots, and resources will be everywhere. Con: Farthest distance.
  515.  
  516. "We'll head for the docks. Never been here before, but I've been to seaports before - they're always a mess. Plenty of places to hide out."
  517. > "That's a long way, sir."
  518. > Ornithea doesn't look happy at the prospect of having to hike cross-town.
  519. "I know. That's one of the reasons it's safest."
  520. > "If we don't get these wounds looked at, they're not going to get the rest of the way there."
  521. > You want to object, but know she's right.
  522. > Constantly holding that compress to Quick Step's side while keeping up can't be good for Byline's endurance either.
  523. "Right. We'll find somewhere quiet to stop - uh, somewhere we can lay them out and get the wounds looked at."
  524. > "Soon, sir."
  525.  
  526. > Another pony might have mistaken her tone for insubordination, but you recognize the very real fear in her tone.
  527. > Nonetheless, it takes nearly an hour of constant trotting to find a suitable location - a school, now abandoned with classes out and windows shuttered.
  528. > Several blows from Dusk's hoof reveal that the doors are securely locked as well, and the thick wooden panels resistant to his lone battering.
  529. "Chilona, look after Hot Pot for a moment. Dusk, with me."
  530. > As soon as the mare is off your back, you and Dusk launch skyward to land on the roof of the building.
  531. > "What are we looking for up here?"
  532. "Ventilation grate, roof access door - or that. Skylight, ten o'clock."
  533. > The glass shatters quickly under your hooves, allowing you down into the lunch hall below.
  534. > Circling back around inside, you quickly find the door and open it for the rest.
  535. "Okay, lay them out on the tables here - mind the glass on the floor, we had to break it to get in."
  536. > More than a few tables are clear, and the two injured guardponies are quickly laid out to let you examine their wounds.
  537. > Of the three, Quick is by far the worst off - despite Byline's best efforts, his coat is soaked with blood and his breathing is shallow.
  538. "Come on, Quick. Stay with us, you're going to be alright. We're going to patch you up before going any further. Byline, can you come over here and look at this?"
  539. > The unicorn's head comes close to yours, his nostrils flaring at the strench of blood.
  540. > "What am I looking at?"
  541. "I think the shot is still in him - see it, right there?"
  542. > Steeling himself, Byline reaches up with one hoof to press on Quick's shoulder and pulls it back, spreading the wound just enough to let him peer inside.
  543. > Though faint, Quick still lets out a pained moan when he does.
  544. > "...yeah, I can see it."
  545. "Can you pull it out?"
  546. > He grimaces sharply.
  547. > "I can try."
  548.  
  549. [Roll for success; result: Complication; he pulls it out, but further injures Quick in the process.]
  550.  
  551. "Bite down on this, Quick."
  552. > You give him the empty medicine pouch to hold between his teeth.
  553. > Admittedly it's not the cleanest thing, but you've had worse things in your mouth.
  554. > Nodding to Byline, you rear up to hold down Quick with your forelegs.
  555. "Do it."
  556. > Even with the fabric in his mouth Quick Step's cry of pain is loud and clear.
  557. > His muscles clench beneath you as Byline does what he can.
  558. > The unicorn's gaze is focused even as he turns pale at the task before him.
  559. > "It's... kind of lodged in there, I think... it..."
  560. > Quick's groan transitions to a powerful scream.
  561. > "Fuck!"
  562. "Can you get it?"
  563. > "Yes, I just-"
  564. > The bullet emerges, floating in Byline's magic.
  565. > A little pointed pebble, covered in blood.
  566. "How bad is it?"
  567. > "I think I tore something pulling it out."
  568. > Without so much of a thought he tosses the bullet aside, rooting through the contents of the medical bag that had been dumped out on the table.
  569. > "Burn gauze, anti-infection cream... anti-coagulant!"
  570. > Spreading some of the poultice on the wound, he quickly rebinds it in his magic - this time squeezing the wound tight to ensure it is held shut.
  571. > A deep breath heaves from Byline's lungs as he steps away.
  572. > "I'll be okay. Just... give me a moment after that."
  573. > Following him quietly, you lean over to whisper.
  574. "How bad is it really?"
  575. > "I... tore his muscle up pretty bad, I think. I'm not a surgeon, Celestia damn it!"
  576. "Hey, hey - it's okay. It's okay. Is he in danger?"
  577. > "No - not of dying, anyhow. If he doesn't see proper medical attention that leg's never going to function real well again, though."
  578. "...okay. Do you think you can do Hot Pot?"
  579. > Byline looks up, looking around the group.
  580. > Looking to Spark, who is nursing his own horn - still fitfully sparking, the magic refusing to flow properly.
  581. > "...yeah. I can."
  582. "Alright."
  583. > This time, things go much better.
  584.  
  585. > Perhaps her armor's enchantment had still slowed the shots, or perhaps she was simply luck.
  586. > Either way, the projectiles are lodged much more shallowly in Hot Pot's haunch, and there is none of the tearing.
  587. "...right. We'll take ten to rest here. Chilona, with me - we need to see if this school has an infirmary."
  588. > "Right with you, sir."
  589. > The school does, in fact an infirmary - a reasonably well stocked one.
  590. "Looks like our taxes will go to something useful after all."
  591. > If Chilona gets the joke, she doesn't seem to show it.
  592. > Instead she is quiet as the two of you ransack the infirmary, dumping anything remotely useful-looking in your empty aid kit bags.
  593. "...you alright?"
  594. > "Yes, sorry. Just... daylight operations like this for so long are a strain on us. It's tiring."
  595. "I understand. We'll have a place to rest as soon as we're at the docks."
  596. > Five minutes later you carefully nose out of the school.
  597. > No sign of the invaders.
  598. > You're good to go.
  599.  
  600. ACTION:
  601. - Don't stop the whole group for a doctor's visit.
  602. - This. Also check the school's gym or the janitor's room or the groundskeeper's shed or whatever for something like a small cart. It will be quicker and easier than carrying the wounded.
  603.  
  604. "Hold on."
  605. > Turning aside, you think to check the groundskeeper's shed.
  606. > "What are you looking for?"
  607. "Cart of some kind."
  608. > Dusk nods.
  609. > "Let me help you."
  610. > In the end, you have to toss aside an inordinate amount of groundskeeping equipment and supplies before the cart is uncovered.
  611. > But it is a perfectly good cart, with room enough for Quick and Hot Pot to be placed on it comfortably.
  612. > Even better is that it doesn't rattle terribly as you pull it over the streets.
  613. > For another two hours your hike westward towards the docks, through the center of Las Pegasus.
  614. > Surprisingly, there's little in the way of the panic and even riots you might have expected.
  615. > In contrast to the quiet determination on the guard lines, the citizens of Las Pegasus seem to have quietly given up - sealed themselves in their homes to quietly await the city's fate.
  616. > In fact, the streets are all but deserted as you march through them.
  617. > It's uncomfortably close to Easthock, before the riots.
  618. "...well. Anyone else feel something is wrong here?"
  619. > "Aside from the ridiculously empty streets?"
  620. "Yes, aside from those. Where's the rest of the guard - they should have fallen back too, no?"
  621. > Nopony replies.
  622. > The alternative - that all but a handful of the guard was their slaughtered or taken prisoner - isn't one you care to consider.
  623. > Partially because of what it says about your early retreat.
  624. > "...it's possible some of them found their own places to hide, sir."
  625. > "Yeah. We should see if we can pick out any of them... once we find our own spot."
  626. > Despite the upbeat message, silence once again settles over the little group as you continue on.
  627. > Nopony is truly convinced.
  628. > "Sir!"
  629. > Chilona points to a sign posted on a street corner.
  630. > 'Las Pegasus city hospital'; beneath it, an arrow.
  631. > "I'm sure they'd hide Quick Step if we took him there - hide him, and help him."
  632. > Pausing briefly, you consider it.
  633. > There is a possibility...
  634. > But it would be a delay.
  635.  
  636. "...I won't risk you all. Most of us need to go on to the docks - find a place, sit tight. One or two more will go to the hospital with Quick Step and have him seen to."
  637. > "I'll take it."
  638. > Without hesitation Ornithea steps up.
  639. > "I can tow the cart on my own. I'll take it, keep everypony else safe."
  640. > Dusk shakes his head.
  641. > "No. They'll need your strength down at the docks. I can take it in."
  642.  
  643. "Dusk... stay there until night and rest up if you have to, but I want you back safe, understand?"
  644. > He nods sharply.
  645. > "Yes, I do."
  646. "Then good luck - and ask if they can spare us any supplies. I get the feeling we're going to need them."
  647. > You split at the next intersection, Dusk shedding his armor and taking the cart's harness.
  648. > With a mighty grunt he heaves it forward and around the corner, then steadily out of sight.
  649. > Now with Chilona's warning in mind, you can see how exhausted he is as well - in his eyes, in his body, even in his slightly-slower-than-normal responses.
  650. > Ornithea murmurs something long after he is out of earshot.
  651. > "...he's pushing himself."
  652. "I know. Hopefully the rest he gets in the hospital will be for good."
  653. > For some reason this prompts Ornithea to give you a strange look, but she doesn't elaborate.
  654. > The remaining five of you trot along in relative silence, ears swiveling to home in on any remotely abnormal sound.
  655. > Now that you near your destination, nervousness has caught up with you.
  656. > Although the invaders seemed to be taking their time seizing the city, just because they were not seen did not mean they were not there.
  657. > That concern is all to heavily reinforced when you arrive at the docks and quickly spot a pair of flying machines circling out over the water - the fast, lethal kind.
  658. > Hunkered down behind a series of crates, you take a long, hard look at them.
  659. > "...why don't they come any closer?"
  660. > Spark's question is honest, but you simply shake your head in response.
  661. "No way to know. If I had to play a guess, I'd say they aren't actually looking at the city - they're probably waiting for any ships that try to flee."
  662. > "But they are watching the docks."
  663. > Ornithea snorts.
  664. > "For ships. Not for us."
  665. "I think it's safe. Come on."
  666. > Moving through the dockyards, it's pretty clear that you have your choice of hiding spots.
  667.  
  668. > Semi-abandoned work huts, storehouses, even what looks like a home meant for a dockyard supervisor to live at his place of work.
  669. > Must've been a dedicated pony.
  670. "Ornithea, check that home. If it's clear, we're moving in."
  671. > A minute later she emerges, waving you over.
  672. > "We're good. It seems like whoever was living here left a while ago, if the amount of dust on here is to be believed."
  673. "Good. Then let's get settled in, hid our stuff, and see what resources we have."
  674. > The answer, unfortunately, is strikingly few.
  675. > Whoever lived here must have planned leaving, as there's virtually no food left in the pantry, a few Bits, and a full set of what you suspect to be inspection tools left behind.
  676. > Rejoining your squad in the house's small living room, you look around at the four remaining ponies you have to work with.
  677. "Okay. I think we have three things we need to take care of. First, somepony's going to have to head to the HQ and see if they can find Whispen and the others - make sure they come back here."
  678. > Chilona raises a hoof.
  679. > "You or I should do that, sir. We'll be fastest, even if we just fly below the rooftops."
  680. "Good point. Second, it might be good to send a pony to the hospital to check up on Dusk and the others. Last of all, we need supplies. As a Royal Guard, I... it doesn't feel right to suggest theft, but we need to check these warehouses. Some of them are going to have food."
  681.  
  682. ACTION:
  683. - Chilona should go check on Whispen and the others, we can't leave while our second in command isn't even present. And we should wait for morning before someone heads back to the hospital
  684. - Okay, whomever we send, we need to agree on a secondary and maybe even tertiary meeting point, so we don't run into the same trouble as with Whispen's group again.
  685. I mean if we have to abandon the docks before the other groups return.
  686.  
  687. "Chilona, do you feel up to making the trip?"
  688. > "Yes, I can do it."
  689. > She's obviously not feeling entirely up to it.
  690. > Hopefully this isn't pushing her to far.
  691. "Alright. If we're not here when you get back, check the warehouses at the north end of the docks - we'll move there next. If not there - we'll be making best speed to the hospital."
  692. > That seems to catch the attention of Spark Flash.
  693. > "Sir, is it a good idea to get the hospital involved in this? I mean... if they find out there are Royal Guard operating out of a hospital..."
  694. "If we get chased there before Chilona can return, it won't be to operate from. It will be to make sure we don't loose anypony else."
  695. > Slowly he nods.
  696. > "...yeah. Okay, fair point."
  697. "Right. Rest of you, let's get our armor off and take a look into those warehouses."
  698. > There isn't much time left in the day to work in, but it's a better choice than going hungry.
  699. > The first warehouse you break into, unfortunately, is nothing helpful.
  700. > Not unless you were planning to need a colossal amount of lumber any time soon.
  701. > The second is little better - it proves to be nothing but building materials - but the third is far more helpful.
  702. > "Okay, we've got... looks like some fruits, lots of grain, I think there's some vegetables in those crates over there."
  703. "Good stuff, Byline Only problem is, how do we move it from the crates."
  704. > "Not an issue, sir."
  705. > Ornithea emerges from a side room, several burlap sacks being dragged along behind her.
  706. > "It'll be messy, but this should hold plenty for us."
  707. "Alright, get those loaded up. Try to get a good variety - it might be a while until we ge-"
  708. > "Hey!"
  709. > Spinning in place, you turn to see a pony - thank Celestia, not an invader - standing in the open doorway.
  710. > "What are you doing here? You can't just take those - I don't care what's going on!"
  711.  
  712. ACTION:
  713. - Calmly tell him you're guards and need the supplies to keep fighting.
  714.  
  715. > Spark ignites his horn, lifting a nearby blank and seeming ready to hurl it like a spear.
  716. > A sharp wave from one hoof halts him, though.
  717. "No, Spark."
  718. > Taking a few steps forward, you try to keep yourself as non-aggressive as possible.
  719. "I'm sorry. We're with the guard - we need the food. We don't know what happened to our own supplies."
  720. > "The guard, eh?"
  721. > The stallion in the doorway turns his head aside and spits on the ground.
  722. > "Didn't even try to stop them, so now you rob from other ponies? That's not the guard I knew - assuming you even are guard!"
  723. "...two of my guardsponies are critically injured, shot by the invaders. One may not walk correctly again. Just this morning I watched a unicorn kill himself out to stop one of their armored carts."
  724. > Starting to feel more confident, you take another step forward.
  725. > One hoof rises to point at Byline.
  726. "I had to watch him try to dig a shot out of a pony's shoulder on a school lunch table. I'm sorry you feel the way you do, but please believe me - what happened here wasn't our choice. We're just trying to survive long enough to keep fighting."
  727. > Maybe it was the things you talked about.
  728. > Or maybe it was something in the tone of your voice, something that hinted at what you'd gone through.
  729. > Or maybe he had seen something in your posture, in your eyes.
  730. > "...you're thinking of still fighting?"
  731. "If we can. Until the Princesses order us to stop - it's our duty."
  732. > He visibly relaxes, now taking a few steps forward
  733. > "Then just don't take to much, okay? If that much disappears I won't be able to explain it."
  734. > Slowly, you nod.
  735. "We can do that."
  736. > The stallion - an older stallion you can see now, well past his prime - steps into the warehouse past you.
  737. > For a moment you go on guard, but then he grabs one of the bags himself and starts to furiously shovel oats into it.
  738. > A moment later, what remains of your unit joins him.
  739. > By the time you are done, eight sacks await you.
  740.  
  741. > Slinging one on either side of your body, you turn back to thank the stallion again.
  742. "You didn't have to do that... but thank you."
  743. > "Heh. If half of what you said is true, then maybe you are still in the same guard I served in."
  744. > For a second you don't see it, but a moment later your tired eyes pick out the little details that give truth to his claim.
  745. > The way he carries himself, the muscles still strong even in his old age... this is indeed a stallion who has seen service.
  746. > Apparently noticing your look, he gives you a grin.
  747. > "Name's Tariff. I run these docks - at least, the trade that goes through them. You need any more help - come find me. I'll see what I can do."
  748. "Many thanks again."
  749. > By the time you return to the supervisor's house the sun is again settling close to the horizon.
  750. > Chilona has not yet returned.
  751.  
  752. ACTION:
  753. - Hunker down and wait.
  754.  
  755. > The dockyard supervisor's house is certainly a welcome change from the trenches and dugouts you had been sleeping in the last few weeks.
  756. > For one, the wind does not seep in and stir your coat in the middle of the night.
  757. > Neither do your ears freeze despite your best efforts to keep the blanket pulled over your head.
  758. > Also, between a stuffed chair, a small sofa and three beds upstairs - one large enough for two ponies - there are plenty of places to sleep.
  759. > There are also plenty of places to hide things - your armor, which you don't imagine will be wanted much anymore, and the recently-stolen sacks of food.
  760. > That does not stop certain things from weighing on your mind, though.
  761. > Like the fact that this home actually belonged to somepony, and desperate or not you were still intruding on his (or their, judging by the family pictures that hung on the walls) residence.
  762. > Or that you had only been brought to this point by an absolute defeat in the fields just beyond Las Pegasus, a defeat that seemingly few guardsponies had been able to escape from.
  763. > Or, worst of all, that one of your ponies could be dying right now and three more walking into a trap... if they even manage to survive a trip to whatever remained of the headquarters.
  764. > All those thoughts ricochet around your head like one of the invaders' bullets as you lay in one of the beds, shattering any attempts to peacefully rest.
  765. > Instead you simply lose consciousness at some point, exhaustion driving your eyes shut and your mind into a fitful sleep.
  766. > The next morning, you can hear the invaders' weapons rumbling in the distance.
  767. > There is one upside - when you slip back downstairs the following morning, Spark quietly points to a sleeping Dusk curled up in another room, the window's curtains drawn against the light.
  768. "When did he show up?"
  769.  
  770. > "A few hours before dawn. He was in real bad shape, nearly falling over right then and there, but still managed to report. The hospital said Byline and Hot Pot are going to live, and they've hidden them among regular patients."
  771. > You nod, relief flooding through you.
  772. "Good. Let him rest for a few more hours at least; he deserves the rest after dragging that cart all that way and then coming back. And, uh, thank you for not waking me when arrived. No sign of Chilona or the others?"
  773. > "No, sir."
  774. > Looking back over at Spark, your still-tired mind finally catches up with how he is using his hooves to awkwardly eat with, not his magic.
  775. "And how are you doing? Your horn back in action?"
  776. > Grimacing, he gives the tender protrusion a gentle touch.
  777. > "I'm still out, I think. I tried to do something right when I got up this morning, and it practically knocked me down with a spitting headache. That shield failing must've hit me harder than I thought."
  778. "Okay, well in that case don't strain yourself to much. The sooner I have you back in full, the better."
  779. > "Understood, sir. Uh, by the way - Ornithea's on watch right now, and Byline's sleeping in one of the upstairs rooms. He had last watch."
  780. "Got it."
  781. > For the moment, it seems your position is safe.
  782. > What to do next?
  783.  
  784. ACTION:
  785. - Try to follow Chilona to the HQ and see if you can find out what happened to her and the others.
  786.  
  787. "Right. Give everyone another couple hours to recuperate - no sense in charging in when we're falling over our own hooves."
  788. > "After that?"
  789. "After that, we're going to see about the headquarters."
  790. > Under normal circumstances you might have been convinced to wait a while longer.
  791. > After all, it had taken you near twelve hours to hike across the city at a fair pace; Chilona had been exhausted and they might be weighed down by supplies.
  792. > These weren't normal circumstances.
  793. "Spark, stay here. If anyone comes to throw you out, you're just a squatter who lost your home. Meet us at the fallback points if you do have to go, understand?"
  794. > He nods sharply.
  795. > "Yes - the northmost warehouse and then the hospital."
  796. "Good. Now, what do we have for breakfast?"
  797. > The answer turns out to be singularly uninspiring.
  798. > Oats and hay alone are not terribly good, even worse than the standard-issue guard rations in your opinion.
  799. > But they would stay edible near forever, so long as nopony let them get wet.
  800. > The answer, therefore, is of course oats and hay.
  801. > At least the former could be crushed mixed with water to create a reasonable porridge.
  802. > By late morning your hunger is sated, and four of you - yourself plus Byline, Ornithea, and Dusk - are well on their way towards the guard headquarters.
  803. > If any ponies were still making a defense in Las Pegasus, that would be where they would do it.
  804. > It had been deliberately set up in the oldest part of the city - well beneath the thickest part of the cloud districts and surrounded by narrow, winding streets.
  805. > While it might not outright stop any flying machines or armored carts, it would hopefully dissuade any easy approaches.
  806. > On the downside, it was far further south than the dockyards you had hidden out in.
  807. > As a result, it wasn't until mid-afternoon that you even got into the right district.
  808.  
  809. > The sights of the trip hadn't been reassuring - ponies still stayed off the streets, all except for a few hurrying figures who all but galloped through the streets on some desperate mission.
  810. > None stop to talk.
  811. > Then again, without your signature armors you begin to imagine how worrisome it looks to see four well-built ponies walking down the street in formation.
  812. > You idly wonder how many of the fleeing ponies are other guard, or the remnants of the city militia, also desperately searching for missing comrades and safe places to hide.
  813. > A strange sort of peacefulness pervades instead of the frantic panic you would have expected.
  814. > Except for the distant rumble and thud of weapons and machinery there is no sound in the streets, none of the looting you would have expected.
  815. > As if ponies were afraid the whole thing might wake up to be a joke tomorrow and they didn't want to be caught stealing.
  816. > A wish you had long since given up on, no matter how tempting it might be to dream it.
  817. > "Sir, up ahead."
  818. > Byline's comment drags your eyes back to the street before you.
  819. > Or more accurately, the blockages across it.
  820. > Not the collapsed buildings, rubble strewn across the road barely wide enough for four ponies to walk side-by-side.
  821. > That was to be expected, in a way.
  822. > What surprised you was the police barriers up in front of them.
  823. > By some strange miracle is seemed the Las Pegasus police still functioned, judging by the officer who stepped forward to raise a warning hoof to your group.
  824. > "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to stop there. The area ahead is is off-limits."
  825.  
  826. ACTION:
  827. - Tell him you are with the guard and need to get in to find comrades.
  828.  
  829. "We're the guard."
  830. > The policepony snorts.
  831. > "And I'm a princess' bodyguard. Keep moving, unless you've actually got family in there."
  832. > For the second time in 24 hours you feel a rant building within you.
  833. > Unlike the previous night in the warehouse, however, you are in a public place and can't afford to make a scene.
  834. > Instead you take a deep breath and force down the anger beginning to boil within you.
  835. "Listen to me. We are the guard. I'm the commander of this unit. Three more of my ponies were sent here; I told another to go look for them and she's gone too. We need to get in."
  836. > The policepony stops, giving you a cautious, uncertain look.
  837. > His eyes rove over yourself and the three ponies following you.
  838. > Perhaps he recognizes something military in you as well, because after a moment he nods and sharply steps back.
  839. > "Alright. Come back out on this streets, just so I know you're safe. And... good luck finding them."
  840. "Thank you. Any tips?"
  841. > A haunted look settles over his eyes.
  842. > "No. It's a mess in there - they dropped a lot of stuff on whatever you had set up in there, everything's pretty chewed up. There's three buildings collapsed around the edges too."
  843. > Now it's your turn to wince sharply.
  844. "Civilians? In the buildings?"
  845. > "At least seventeen. Gone, I mean - I don't know how many more were pulled out."
  846. > Your stomach twists.
  847. "They're all out, though."
  848. > He nods.
  849. > "Yes, they're all out. Though, when you go in, watch out. Apparently there are still some things in there that haven't exploded yet."
  850. > The park the headquarters had been erected in - taking over what had once been a nature center, and a mansion before that - had been thoroughly churned into mud by trampling hooves long before the invaders even began their attack.
  851. > None of that can even remotely compared with what you see now, once you climb over the rubble blocking the street.
  852.  
  853. > Huge craters litter the ground, often overlapping each other.
  854. > Ragged remains of tents wave in the wind, the breeze driving them into an eerie, slow flapping.
  855. > "...reminds me of the spooky stories I read as a foal."
  856. > Ornithea nods at Byline's comment.
  857. > "Yeah, it's... wow. Not even the trenches were hit this bad."
  858. "Not even Canterlot was this bad after the Changelings hit it."
  859. > Dusk gives you a surprised look; he must not have known you were there for that.
  860.  
  861. [Several rolls at this point: One to determine the safety of the supply group, and 3 to determine what they acquired.]
  862. Safety roll; result: One of them is wounded.
  863. Acquisition roll; result: 2x Special weapons or armor, 1x rations.
  864.  
  865. > Picking your way through the wreckage, the first thing you notice is the smell.
  866. > It would probably have hit you a mile away if not for the direction of the wind; you can't even imagine what the downwind blocks must be dealing with.
  867. > The normal smells of a camp - food cooking, ponies sweating, trampled grass and oil torches - have been subsumed by far less welcome scents.
  868. > Blood, of course, although you see remarkably few bodies - whoever had come here before had seemingly cleared out those, at least.
  869. > A sharper, burnt smell that you can't identify - perhaps that of the invaders' explosives.
  870. > Picking through the wreckage, you spot several other ponies also peering through other portions of the HQ.
  871. > Some still wear their guard armor; others carry themselves in the familiar way Royal Guard do.
  872. > But others are obviously civilian; given that they are allowed to freely go about you presume they must have been allowed in.
  873. > Still, your group travels between them - looking for any of your four that might still be about.
  874. > "Sweet Celestia..."
  875. > Ornithea's whispered swear drags your attention off to the side.
  876. > She stares at one of the largest clusters of tents, furthest away from the edge of the park and the actual buildings of the city.
  877. > Unlike everywhere else, bodies have not been collected here - instead left to lay in the open field, on the edges of craters, and wherever else they might have fallen.
  878. > "That... why would they leave them...?"
  879. "I don't know, Dusk. I really don't know... maybe they couldn't... take any more."
  880. > You meant fit any more in the graves wherever they were dumping them.
  881. > But somehow you can't bring yourself to force those words through your lips.
  882. > At least none of them look like your ponies...
  883.  
  884. ACTION:
  885. - Ask one of the other ponies about them.
  886.  
  887. > Deciding to ask what the deal is with that group, you trot over to one of the searching ponies.
  888. > One of the few still wearing his guard armor, actually - an lieutenant in the land forces, by the markings on his armor.
  889. "Sir! I'm looking for two ponies out of my unit. Would you happen to have seen..."
  890. > Giving a brief description of all four missing ponies yields only a sad shake of the pony's head.
  891. > "Sorry, haven't seen 'em. Been to busy trying to make sure there isn't any valuable information left in these tents for them to find..."
  892. "I understand. Is there... a plan at this point?"
  893. > He shakes his head.
  894. "My captain told me to get rid of anything that might be sensitive. I haven't seen him since; he was wounded."
  895. > Pointing to the cratered, scarred, smoking remnants of the headquarters, he grimaces.
  896. > "We thought the cloud districts above would keep them clear, but they just dropped things from up above. They went straight through the cloud and came down on us..."
  897. "Speaking of that... what's the deal with that area? With the bodies?"
  898. > "Something they dropped in the middle of the camp. I heard they split into a bunch of little explosives; not all of them went off and some are still out there."
  899. "Wait, just sitting there?"
  900. > "Yes, hidden in the dirt. We didn't realize until search team stepped on one."
  901. > He grimaces sharply.
  902. > "Another dead, and four badly wounded."
  903. > Memories flicker before your eyes.
  904. > A blurred object, shooting skyward.
  905. > An explosion.
  906. > Screams, your own and Silver Star's.
  907. > Dusk speaks in your stead.
  908. > "It's a good thing we didn't step in, then. Shouldn't it be marked off?"
  909. > The lieutenant snorts.
  910. > "If we had anything to do it with, yeah. We're all to busy. The bodies do a good enough job."
  911. > Finally your own thoughts are wrenched back to the present.
  912. "Well, we have a safe place - down by the docks. We're going to try and hold out and make as much trouble for them as possible."
  913.  
  914. > "Celestia's grace to you. I know someone who will cover for me and a couple others, in the city."
  915. "Same with you, sir."
  916. > Turning away, you're just about to start off again when he suddenly calls out after you.
  917. > "Wait - if you're set on finding your ponies, and you're sure they came through here... try checking over on the east side of the..."
  918. > He pauses, the word 'headquarters' forming on his lips.
  919. > "...of the ruins. Check there - I think that's where they're trying to gather up supplies. They might have gone there."
  920. "Thank you, sir."
  921. > The impromptu supply dump proves to be a mess.
  922. > Any sense of organization have long since vanished, leaving only barely controlled chaos in its wake.
  923. > You do get one tip, though.
  924. > A pony, slouched against a wall and head swathed in bandages while watches the remaining supplies being shifted, speaks up when he hears you describing the group.
  925. > "Yeah, the three with the bat? Yeah, I saw them. One of them had been torn up real bad - caught some bits of one of their falling bombs."
  926. > Fear flares in your gut.
  927. "Do you know which one it was?"
  928. > "Uh... the unicorn, I think? She was looking for something, and got to close while they were still bombing it."
  929. > The growing fear develops from a fire into a furnace.
  930. "Where did they go?"
  931. > "Uh, that-a-way, I think."
  932. > A hoof extends to shakily point to the north-west.
  933. > Towards the docks.
  934. > He says something more, but you're already distant.
  935. > Hooves pounding on the churned, bloody earth, your heart thudding wildly in your chest.
  936. > "Sir!"
  937. > Whispen was hurt; you couldn't stop.
  938. > "Wait - sir!"
  939. > Not for ponies, not for invaders, not for-
  940. > Something snags your leg.
  941. > You fall facefirst into the dirt, spitting some of the grainy particles out.
  942. > Behind you the others pound up - Byline in the lead.
  943.  
  944. > "Sir, you need to stop. You'll lead them right back to us, running like that!"
  945. > Words form on your lips, but something pauses you.
  946. > It's not concern in Byline's eyes, it's anger.
  947. "...did you just trip me, private?"
  948. > "Yes, I did. Because you were going to do something very, very stupid."
  949. "Looking after the ponies under my command?"
  950. > Byline jabs a hoof straight at your chest.
  951. > "You are emotionally compromised, sir. You were ready to charge away without a thought just because Whispen was hurt?"
  952. "And?"
  953. > A snarl grows on your lips.
  954. "Am I not allowed to be concerned for wounded ponies?"
  955. > "This isn't concern. This is something more - or did you forget about that night in Easthock already?"
  956. > Shit, NOW he was going to bring this up?
  957.  
  958. ACTION:
  959. - Acknowledge he has a point, but now is not the time to discuss it.
  960.  
  961. > Your teeth lock together as you force down the anger rising in you.
  962. > Moments pass while your temper is reigned back under control.
  963. "...okay."
  964. > Another breath is sucked into your lungs and forced out again.
  965. "Okay. You're right, Byline. You're right - I probably am compromised."
  966. > He must not have been expecting you to admit he was right, because the look on his face is one of total and utter surprise.
  967. > You take the opportunity to go on.
  968. "But you know what? I would run after each and every one of you if you were wounded. I would not forget about any of you, at all."
  969. > Looking to the others, you see that Dusk and Ornithea are regarding you neutrally.
  970. > Dusk in particular seems to have an inscrutable look of thought on his face.
  971. "...so, I'll ask this: Let me get the rest of my ponies safe. Let me make sure they aren't going to die. Then, once we are safe... I'll address this. Okay?"
  972. > For a moment you're afraid Byline is going to object and dispute your authority right then and there, but his head slips into a slow nod.
  973. > "Once they're safe. Yes."
  974. > You nod your silent thanks to him.
  975. > Given your superior rank, you technically shouldn't have to thank him for accepting your authority.
  976. > Right then, however, words cannot explain how thankful you are that he has chosen not to dispute it right then.
  977. "Okay. Then let's get going."
  978. > The remainder of the trip is made at a fast trot.
  979. > Though you keep a sharp eye out for any of the invaders - or any other trouble - your mind is also split.
  980. > Turning over the situation again and again, you realize that at some point you had come to think of Whispen as more than just a strong soldier in your unit.
  981. > More than just your second-in-command, a pony you could rely on to lead the unit while you were not available or give you good advice.
  982. > When exactly?
  983. > You aren't sure.
  984.  
  985. > Perhaps when she had confided to you how her choices - the very ones she had once castigated you for not making - had cost her so much as well.
  986. > But how much was it affecting your decision making?
  987. > You don't know.
  988. > Certainly you didn't think you'd been deliberately trying to keep her out of danger, but there was no doubt that Byline was right.
  989. > Running off immediately without a thought when you heard she was injured shouldn't have been your first response.
  990. > But what to do then?
  991. > So focused are your thoughts that you barely notice that you've passed through the dockyard gates and are approaching the overseer's house.
  992. > Your house.
  993. > Fear rises unbidden within you as the question of what would be found within.
  994. > Raising a hoof to knock on the door, you're gladdened when it opens before you get there.
  995. > Good.
  996. > Somepony was keeping a tight watch, then.
  997. > Caravan motions you in.
  998. > "Welcome back, boss."
  999. "Good to see you back as well. I heard Whispen was injured?"
  1000. > Wordlessly pointing to one of the back rooms, you enter it to find Spark crouched over Whispen's form and Boulder laying beside him.
  1001. > Bandages swath half her head, and one rear leg is again splinted as well.
  1002. > All of that pales before the consolation of seeing her eye open and alert, settling on you when you enter.
  1003. > "...hello, sir."
  1004. "Hello, Whispen. How bad is it."
  1005. > "One eye feels wierd, and I can't see out of it. A lot of other things hurt too."
  1006. > Boulder helpfully pipes up, the stallion's deep rumble another familiar point of comfort.
  1007. > "She was facing one of the tents when something hit it. She's got injuries all over her neck and shoulders, but I don't think she's going to die."
  1008. > Nodding slowly, you glance to Spark.
  1009. "And your opinion?"
  1010. > He shrugs.
  1011. > "I'm not a doctor - I'm lucky my magic was strong enough for me to sew up the worst of her wounds."
  1012. "How bad is the eye?"
  1013. > "She's not going to lose it, but... might not ever see right again either."
  1014.  
  1015. > "I can still fight, sir."
  1016. > Whispen's voice is laced with determination, and you get the feeling you shouldn't try to stop her...
  1017. > ...or is that just your feelings for her talking?
  1018. "You sure about that, Whispen?"
  1019. > "I can do it. I only need one eye to see them with."
  1020. "...we'll talk on this again when you're up and about. For now - let the rest of your wounds heal."
  1021. > "Got it."
  1022.  
  1023. ACTION:
  1024. - We have to discuss [Our relationship with Whispen]. If we don't then we'll be dealing with all sorts of issues, we may even lose out command.
  1025.  
  1026. "Okay..."
  1027. > Counting your ponies mentally, you realize that nearly a third of your unit is now wounded.
  1028. > Gathering the remaining ponies, you look over them.
  1029. "Where's Chilona?"
  1030. > "Upstairs."
  1031. > Dusk grimaces.
  1032. > "She's completely exhausted - I wouldn't assign her anything even if we could get her up again."
  1033. > After being up for nearly 30 hours straight?
  1034. > You don't blame her.
  1035. > With Whispen injured and Spark still recovering from his magic burnout...
  1036. > That leaves Caravan, Dusk, Boulder, Ornithea, and Byline for you to command.
  1037. "Okay... Boulder, uh, could you see if Whispen can get out here for a moment?"
  1038. > A silent nod, and the huge stallion heads off.
  1039. > Moments later he returns, Whispen leaning her uninjured side heavily against him.
  1040. > "What's going on, sir?"
  1041. > You begin to force words from your lips.
  1042. "I've... been dishonest with a lot of you. I... there... I've not performed as I should have given my position as your commander."
  1043. > Words may be flowing, but they aren't forming coherent thoughts easily.
  1044. "I allowed myself to become..."
  1045. > What was that phrase Byline had used?
  1046. "...emotionally compromised, based on my attachment to... certain members of this unit."
  1047. > Searching out across their eyes, you find a number of emotions.
  1048. > Some are guarded, not revealing allowing their thoughts to show through.
  1049. > Byline is among those, his gaze not telling if he is satisfied with your admission.
  1050. > Dusk seems surprised... and watching you carefully.
  1051. > You can't bring yourself to look at Whispen.
  1052. "I've allowed myself to... care for Whispen. I could offer a lot of excuses - that it was just us, back in the Everfree when this whole thing began, whatever."
  1053. > What comes next is hardest to say of all.
  1054. "I know that my feelings are affecting my decisions. This is, as your commander, unacceptable. If you feel I am no longer fit to lead... I need to know."
  1055. > For several long seconds nothing is heard but the ticking of a clock somepony had found and wound up again.
  1056.  
  1057. > "Well, uh... since I started this, I guess I should speak first."
  1058. > You wince as Byline speaks.
  1059. > "Yeah. It is wrong. And I won't say I approve, ever. But I also know this isn't the time to start infighting. As long as you keep it under control, I won't start anything."
  1060. > Just like that, the tension breaks.
  1061. > "I brought this up, because you weren't controlling it. It was a risk to yourself, and to us."
  1062. > Boulder nods.
  1063. > "You've kept us going this far. I'll back you."
  1064. > Ornithea speaks up next.
  1065. > "I can't say I approve either... but none of us could replace you if we did push something."
  1066. > Caravan, despite his usually wordy nature, speaks three simple words.
  1067. > "I'll follow you."
  1068. > Dusk seems to be struggling with his words; when he speaks, it's with an unusually quiet voice.
  1069. > "This is obviously getting to you... which means you're not just forgetting us. I can respect that."
  1070. > And last of all, Whispen herself.
  1071. > Her mouth opens and closes several times, but no affirmation comes out.
  1072. > Finally she speaks, her voice cracking.
  1073. > "I... I just wanted to say, I'm sorry. If I let it affect how I treated any of you as well."
  1074. > This time the reaction is far more certain.
  1075. > Five heads shake a negative.
  1076. > Breath whooshes out of your lungs.
  1077. "...thank you. All of you. I... I know I screwed up, and I... thank you. For trusting in me still."
  1078. > Again silence falls in the room.
  1079. > As if nopony knows what to say, now that the matter at hand has passed.
  1080. > Thankfully, something bubbles to the surface of your mind.
  1081. "Whispen, Caravan, Boulder - did you manage to retrieve anything from the headquarters?"
  1082. > Caravan points out back.
  1083. > "Yeah, there's a cart out there, though we brought most of the stuff in."
  1084. "What'd you get?"
  1085. > "About another two weeks' prepared rations and a couple more sets of enchanted armor. We, uh.. kind of expected we might need some replacements."
  1086. "Please tell me the armor is brought in?"
  1087.  
  1088. > "Oh, yes. Leaving that out there would not have been a good idea."
  1089. "Well, what is out there, then?"
  1090. > "Well, uh... you remember those arcane foci things?"
  1091. "...you're joking."
  1092. > Boulder shakes his head.
  1093. > "Nope. Bloody thing weighed a ton, but it's out there - well, the components for one, anyway."
  1094. > With a chuckle, Caravan nods.
  1095. > "Yeah, if not for the big rock here I don't think we could have moved it."
  1096. "Okay, we're going to have to find somewhere to stash that. But good job - I'm sure we can find a use for it."
  1097. > "Oh, and one pother thing - I went through the stuff we took from that soldier. Want to see it?"
  1098. > You follow Caravan into the basement, where the soldier's gear lays spread out on the floor.
  1099. > Let's see... his weapon, three metal boxes of spare ammunition for it - you're going to have to figure out how those are replaced - two round canisters with a little lever and a ring hanging from one end, flashlight, some papers and other assorted odds and ends, what you suspect is a communication device of some kind...
  1100. "Hey, is this thing functional?"
  1101. > "I don't think so. It hasn't made any noise since we got it."
  1102. "Good. It wouldn't be good if they could hear us. What about
  1103. > "You might want to see this, though."
  1104. > He passes you a small booklet; the cover is gibberish.
  1105. "What is this?"
  1106. > "Oh, uh - you see these division lines? Yeah, turn to the blue one."
  1107. > You do, finding an exact copy of the cover - only this time, reading 'Allied Force Field Guide for Operations in Equestria'.
  1108. > "It's got like, five different languages in there. Assuming what you told us once about different nations is true, I think they printed them all at once for their entire force."
  1109. > Useful; there might be some good information in there.
  1110.  
  1111. ACTION:
  1112. - Look into the soldier's gear some more.
  1113. - Read the book
  1114.  
  1115. "Caravan, Byline - see if you can figure some of this stuff out. Don't kill yourself, okay?"
  1116. > Settling in, you begin to read through the guide.
  1117. > It seems to be exactly what was printed on the cover - a basic guide for someone who had never been to Equestria.
  1118. > The first few pages are maps - not entirely accurate maps, but maps nonetheless.
  1119. > Then come the descriptions: Of the three pony races, of griffons, dragons...
  1120. > All are included with a small drawing, which surprises you - where had they managed to run into a griffon that would sit still to be drawn for them?
  1121. > Or, for that matter, a changeling?
  1122. > Going on, your eyebrows only rise further.
  1123. "...hey, listen to this. 'At this time three classes of entity have been identified which represent threats to which no direct response has been proven. The first are referred to as 'alicorns'; four members of this class have been positively identified and form the royal class of Equestria, profiles found on page 19.' "
  1124. > "So at least they don't know how to fight the princesses yet. What's the other classes?"
  1125. "Discord, and the Changeling queen."
  1126. > Byline looks up from notes he is taking on one of the other devices.
  1127. > "Speaking of which, has anyone heard anything about where he is? Discord, I mean?"
  1128. > Everypony glances about.
  1129. > "Didn't he live in Ponyville? With one of the elements now?"
  1130. "That's what I heard. But, I've not heard anything about him for a while now."
  1131. > "...that's odd."
  1132. > Boulder stomps one hoof angrily to the floor.
  1133. > "I bet he's responsible for this. It's just like with Tirek again."
  1134. > That draws heavy grumbles from around the room.
  1135. > The incident with the centaur had left a great many sour feelings in the guard towards the supposedly reformed spirit.
  1136. "If he was... he's got a lot to answer for now. Maybe this time they'll finally put him back in stone again."
  1137. > Turning another page in the book, you continue reading.
  1138.  
  1139. "...it's weird. There's a lot of stuff in here they're spot on about - but some of it is completely wrong too. Like, they seem to think the princess' title is hereditary."
  1140. > "Well, that's stupid. Anypony knows they've been here almost since the unification of the tribes."
  1141. "Right, but they really seem to think it's entirely a given title - like, it's almost as if they don't actually believe Celestia's that old."
  1142. > "Well..."
  1143. > Everypony looks over to Dusk.
  1144. > "...look, uh. My kind, we... still had a lot of stories. About Princess Luna - before she came back, I mean. A lot of things passed down that didn't get talked about a lot. But, we remembered her. Outside of our enclaves, though? She was almost entirely forgotten."
  1145. > Ornithea catches on first, nodding.
  1146. > "What you're saying is, if a pony from outside asked... they might be told, but they might not believe or understand."
  1147. > A thought begins to grow in your mind.
  1148. "Whispen, do you remember when Princess Luna had said a guard contingent was cut off on their side of the portal for a while?"
  1149. > "Yes, why?"
  1150. "I think they might have written this based on what those guard told them. Before they came here."
  1151. > Nopony responds; none want to consider the ramifications of what it would have taken to get a Royal Guard to reveal so much on their homeland.
  1152. > Continuing to read, you go through page after page of regulations.
  1153. "Well... the good news is they're really emphasizing not attacking civilians. There's a whole section on how to deal with unicorn civilians and magic in particular - when to be worried, when not to, and a whole bunch of warnings to give before attacking them."
  1154. > "So, they aren't planning on slaughtering us. That's good, I suppose."
  1155. "Slaughtering civilians, anyway. It confirms what we heard in Easthock, though - they want to conquer us, not kill us. Maybe that can help us... somehow."
  1156. > Setting the book down, you get up to see what the others have found.
  1157.  
  1158. "Any luck figuring out that weapon? Or their communication device?"
  1159. > Byline shakes his head.
  1160. > "Not really. We've figured out how to replace the box of ammunition and put a shot into the weapon, but it can't be done really well with hooves - only magic. And I don't want to make it shoot something in here."
  1161. "Good so far. We'll have to find some place to test it. Anything else?"
  1162. > "Well..."
  1163. > He picks up the two canisters next.
  1164. > "Still no idea about these. I figured out how to make the communication device produce some fuzzy white noise - like a record gone scratchy. Nothing more, though."
  1165.  
  1166. ACTION:
  1167. - Spark and Chilona need to stay put and recover, I think leaving Ornithea at the house to keep watch with them would be good, while Bolder, Dusk, and Caravan can definitely help scout as we go.
  1168.  
  1169. "Boulder, Dusk, Caravan - I'm going to need you to go out again with me. We're going to get Whispen to a hospital, and then circle around to try and do some scouting and find out what the situation is in the rest of the city."
  1170. > "Understood. Uh, sir - if you're going to want to use the cart to move Whispen, we're going to have to stash that focus somewhere. Just to get it out of the cart."
  1171. > Damn Caravan and his logic.
  1172. "...well, let's go see what we're dealing with."
  1173. > The focus, as it turns out, is almost entirely disassembled - wood-and-metal armatures laying piled in the bottom of the cart.
  1174. > Worse yet, Whispen was the only one who even seemed remotely familiar with them... maybe Spark would know something?
  1175. > Later, though... for now...
  1176. "Any ideas?"
  1177. > Boulder nudges the cart with one hoof, wringing an ominous creak from somewhere in the undercarriage.
  1178. > "I could haul these downstairs to the house's basement, but we wouldn't be able to assemble it until we took it out again. That's time we might not have if we needed it fast."
  1179. > Dusk nods.
  1180. > "Even with all of us working, that could take time."
  1181. "Caravan, your thoughts?"
  1182. > "Well... I heard you made friends with a dock manager while I was gone - Tariff, I think? Anyway, Spark said he offered his assistance if we needed a favor."
  1183. > That idea doesn't go over well with Dusk.
  1184. > "A favor is hiding one of us, or giving us some food - not hiding an assembled arcane focus. You can bet the humans are going to be looking for these things now, and we're just going to foist it off on this 'Tariff'?"
  1185. > "That's exactly why we're going to ask him. He probably knows the best hiding places in here - and it's a lot more believable that he just had one in storage than that we randomly have one in the basement."
  1186.  
  1187. > Caravan turns to you.
  1188. > "Your call, sir. I think we're only going to have one good shot to use that thing, and we'll need it ready when that opportunity comes."
  1189.  
  1190. ACTION:
  1191. -  Ask Tariff to hide the focus, so you can have it assembled and ready as needed.
  1192.  
  1193. "We'll find Tariff. He said he managed the actual freight coming through the dockyard, so we'll go looking at the offices first - if he isn't there, somepony might be able to tell us where we can find him."
  1194. > In fact, that isn't necessary.
  1195. > Tariff is practically at the front desk, and looks up as soon as you enter the office.
  1196. > Surprisingly, something inscrutable passes over his face for a moment as his eyes settle on you.
  1197. > A word or two is muttered under his breath before he settles on a friendly smile.
  1198. > "...well, look who's back. Didn't expect to see you soon."
  1199. "Didn't expect to find you at work, with... all that's going on."
  1200. > He grimaces.
  1201. > "Most of my staff is hiding, but I want to know just how much I've got in here. I think having an accurate list is about to become very important."
  1202. "Right, well... can we speak in private?"
  1203. > "Of course."
  1204. > You and your ponies are lead into a private back office and the door shut behind you.
  1205. > Tariff settles down at his desk, folding his hooves together - clearly back in his element.
  1206. > "So, what exactly can I do for the Royal Guard?"
  1207. "Do you know what an arcane focus is?"
  1208. > "Not in detail. I've shipped components for them a few times though, and..."
  1209. > His statement peters out as he realizes what you were implying.
  1210. > "...you guard types were using them, for the fight. You've got one of them, don't you?"
  1211. > Slowly you nod.
  1212. "It's disassembled, but we need a place where we can hopefully assemble it and then store it until it's needed again."
  1213. > Tariff frowns slightly.
  1214. > "...that's going to be tricky. Those things aren't small, from what I remember."
  1215.  
  1216. "It isn't - about three pony-lengths tall and two long."
  1217. > "Not easy at all... but I think I know a place. You have it now?"
  1218. "Yes, stored in a cart. Not to press, but speed is of the essence here - the invaders could move in at any moment, and their flying machines are already watching the docks."
  1219.  
  1220. [Roll to see if you could tell what Tariff said; result: You make out a word.]
  1221.  
  1222. > That's strange... it almost sounded like Tariff said 'lover' as you entered.
  1223. > Could he have heard about the business with Whispen?
  1224. > And why would it have surprised him?
  1225. > Dragging your attention back to the matter at hand, you settle your gaze on Tariff.
  1226. "So... can it be done? We'll be ready to move it - thankfully the cart is still covered, so even if their flying machines can see us from here they won't be able to see what it is."
  1227. > "I can... on a condition."
  1228. "That condition being?"
  1229. > "I want to meet the rest of your group."
  1230. > Now it's your turn to frown.
  1231. > What's he playing at?
  1232. > Noting your frown, Tariff raises his hooves defensively.
  1233. > "Hey, hey - nothing special. Doesn't even have to be in that house you're staying in, if you want. I just want to know who I'm helping."
  1234. > Dusk speaks up in your stead, seeming none to pleased about this idea.
  1235. > "I hope you'll understand if we're not exactly all keen about trooping around for a social date while there's a war on - we need to get this thing moved immediately.
  1236. > Somehow you get the feeling he's still upset you're here in the first place.
  1237. "...enough, Airpony."
  1238. > "Sorry, sir."
  1239. "Tariff, he does have a point. I have wounded that need to see a doctor as soon as possible as well, and can't wait for anything not critically important."
  1240.  
  1241. > "Tell you what - I can make a deal. Give me a little bit to finish up here and I will be able to come back with you to see everypony, then show you where to put the focus."
  1242. > Caravan considers the offer for a moment and nods.
  1243. > "I don't think it would be that much slower than if just took us there now, sir. Either way, somepony's going to have to go back and get the focus."
  1244. > Boulder nods as well.
  1245. > "The only thing that would change is if we could get a cart first, and take Whispen with us while the others move the focus... but even so, it's a good deal."
  1246. > Dusk alone seems more uncomfortable with the idea, shaking his head.
  1247. > "I don't see why he needs to meet us all that badly. That isn't relevant to what we need; if the invaders come, it could get him in even more trouble."
  1248. "...nonetheless, it is what he's asked for - and we don't have time to debate the semantics of it."
  1249.  
  1250. ACTION:
  1251. - We've already grabbed the cat's tail, if Tariff wanted to sell us out he's already got that, might as well go with him. Might make the old man trust us more, an ex-guard is undoubtedly a valuable ally.
  1252.  
  1253. "Alright, come with us. You're ready?"
  1254. > "Give me just a couple minutes to finish this up."
  1255. > Those few minutes are spent nervously tapping your hoof on the floor.
  1256. > Every second he wastes is a second you don't have anymore, and Whispen is still waiting.
  1257. > At last Tariff puts the book away and stands.
  1258. > "Okay, let's see what you've got."
  1259. > A soft whistle is drawn from his lips when he peers beneath the cart's cover.
  1260. > "Yeah, that's an arcane focus alright. So, let me meet the rest of you lot and we can get underway."
  1261. > Spark is on watch when you step through the front door, an eyebrow rising when Tariff steps through.
  1262. > "Him again?"
  1263. "Yes. He's helping us hide the focus - everypony, this is Tariff. Tariff - Byline, and Spark Flash."
  1264. > His eyes roving across your group, Tariff nods.
  1265. > "Good to meet you all. I just wanted to know who I'm helping here."
  1266. "Spark, Chilona and Whispen...?"
  1267. > "Resting upstairs and in the back, respectively."
  1268. > "Back here, sir."
  1269. > Whispen's voice comes out of the rear room she had been staying in.
  1270. > You stick your head through the door and find her sitting upright, a book open between her hooves.
  1271. > "Who's there with you?"
  1272. "This is Tariff; he runs the trade through these docks. He's helping us."
  1273. > Her sole uncovered eye settles on Tariff briefly before she nods.
  1274. > "I'm glad to hear some ponies are willing to help... us.. now. Are you okay, Mr. Tariff?"
  1275. > You glance around to find that Tariff has his mouth half-open, eyes glazed over.
  1276. > Instantly he's recovered though - shaking his head as if to clear it.
  1277. > "Sorry. Just... surprised. By your wounds."
  1278. > ...what was that about?
  1279. > "Well, I certainly do look forward to working with you. There was one more member, you said?"
  1280. "Yes, Chilona. But she's resting and shouldn't be disturbed, I'm afraid."
  1281. > "Ah, well - that's okay."
  1282. > Turning around, he takes a cursory walk around the house - pausing to peer down the stairs into the basement.
  1283.  
  1284. > Quickly you step in, not sure how he would react to the soldier's equipment spread around down there.
  1285. "We've got more things stored down there. Nothing special, though."
  1286. > "Can I go see it?"
  1287. > You blink in surprise; why would he want to go downstairs?
  1288. > "Sorry. I was just wondering what else you've got available... maybe I could help more if I knew?
  1289.  
  1290. ACTION:
  1291. - What harm is there in him going to the basement? Besides the flooding because some idiot decided a basement near water was a good idea. Just push him a bit, kinda "Alright, but we're running out of time" but sure let the old bastard see.
  1292.  
  1293. "Okay, just make it snappy. Whispen's getting to the hospital in that cart as soon as we get the focus out of it, "
  1294. > "I'll be fast."
  1295. > He trots down the stairs, stepping into the basement and looking about.
  1296. > You follow him, pointing with one wing to a pile of armor at the side.
  1297. "That's our stuff. Some of it's enchanted for resistance, some not."
  1298. > "And that?"
  1299. > Following Tariff's pointed hoof, you grimace.
  1300. > Of course he'd go straight for that stuff.
  1301. "Some equipment we took from an invader. Half of it we don't know what it does, but we're sure at least most of it is weapons of some kind or another."
  1302. > Continuing around the room, you nudge various sacks.
  1303. "Uh, these are the food you brought with us, and these are some guard rations we got back after that... and these are some medical supplies we brought with us."
  1304. > Strangely, several times when you look back you find Tariff not looking at the goods - not even the human equipment - but at the walls, as if there's something there that he didn't expect.
  1305. > Or something not there that he did.
  1306. "...are you alright?"
  1307. > "Yes, sorry. Just amazed by all this... anyhow, you held up your end of the deal, let me hold up mine."
  1308. > When you step out again - Tariff, Boulder, Dusk and Spark trailing behind you - you're almost immediately driven back inside by the roaring of a flying machine circling low overhead.
  1309. "Anypony see where they went?"
  1310. > "Out of the ocean again."
  1311. > Spark stares at them and shakes his head slightly.
  1312. > "I don't think those were for us. They came from behind the house - no way they could have seen us coming."
  1313. "Then let's get going."
  1314. > Though they might not have meant for your little party in particular, it doesn't keep you from keeping a heady eye on them as they circle a fair ways off the coast.
  1315. > Invisible by merit of their distance but for the occasional glint of sunlight off their metal frames, you wonder what they could be searching for out there.
  1316.  
  1317. > No ships have come or departed from the port since the war drew near, so they couldn't be hunting boats...
  1318. > Other pegasi, then?
  1319. > The matter is put out of mind as Tariff calls a halt.
  1320. > "Here we are. Just let me unlock the door..."
  1321. > The warehouse he has lead you to proves to be filled with all sorts of parts for various machines.
  1322. > You spot more than a few carts and chariots - some of them quite elaborate - several industrial machines, and what you suspect an airship gondola.
  1323. > "Just leave it right in here. There's even a spot by the door, so you can take it out if need be."
  1324. "Got it."
  1325. > Unloading the components takes longer than you would like - even with all five of you working at it.
  1326. > By the time it is done, afternoon is sliding into evening.
  1327. > Looking out at the sinking sun, you grimaces.
  1328. "Well, we'll have to decide what we're doing today.... thank you for the help, Tariff."
  1329. > "Not a problem."
  1330. > He holds out a key on the end of a short length of chain.
  1331. > "This'll unlock the door if you need to get in. Should also answer any questions if anypony catches you in here."
  1332. "Excellent; much appreciated."
  1333. > Soon after he drops out of sight, Dusk speaks up.
  1334. > "Sir, with the time left... well, it's about ninety minutes to the hospital - a little less if we keep a fast trot. That won't leave us much time to do scouting before night."
  1335. "So, either come back immediately or expect to be out for a while at night."
  1336. > "Indeed. I think Chilona should be rested again by evening, so there is that."
  1337.  
  1338. ACTION:
  1339. - Immediately go to the hospital and then scout
  1340.  
  1341. "We'll head out immediately. No time to wait - we need to get to that hospital."
  1342. > Less than ten minutes later you're moving through the city streets, Whispen laying on the cart behind you.
  1343. > "Really, sir, I'm not in that bad shape - my leg was a lot worse off back in the Everfree, and the eye doesn't even hurt that much."
  1344. "If you're not feeling it, I'm even more concerned than if you were."
  1345. > The fighting has moved a lot closer; the larger blasts send shudders through the air and tremors through your hooves now.
  1346. > Every few minutes another flying machine passes over head - both kinds, the fast and the hovering - but as you move deeper into the territory under the cloud districts they start becoming rarer.
  1347. "Dusk, I'm not liking how close things are getting. Move up ahead - say, uh, fifty feet - and signal us if you say anything."
  1348. > "Understood."
  1349. > Las Pegasus Central Hospital is a massive structure, rising well above the surrounding buildings.
  1350. > At some point some thoughtful ponies had draped bedsheets over the sides inscribed with several symbols of medicine, presumably hoping that the invaders would recognize their meaning.
  1351. > Fortunately the fighting doesn't hasn't reached the hospital yet.
  1352. > That doesn't mean its effects haven't, though.
  1353. > Dusk is staring slightly awed at the mess of ponies now packing the entrance lobby and spilling out to the lawn beyond.
  1354. > A harried-looking nurse takes one look at Whispen and motions you through.
  1355. > "Head up to the third door on the left, they're processing severe injuries there."
  1356. > What follows is a twisted bureaucracy that sees you bounced from office to office before finally a doctor has time to see Whispen.
  1357. > The cause isn't hard to judge - despite the invaders' reluctance to simply level Las Pegasus and move on, their actions are still generating casualties.
  1358.  
  1359. > Though you spot a few guardsponies mixed in, some still wearing fragments of armor, though most only identifiable by their tags or their look, the vast majority of the victims appear to be civilians.
  1360. > That draws new, worrying questions to your mind.
  1361. > Were they deliberately targeting civilians now, or were most guards simply not escaping with mere wounds?
  1362. > After forty minutes of hiking between offices - Whispen leaning on alternately Dusk or Boulder, depending on who is more available - you at last step into an examination room.
  1363. > Judging by the dark circles beneath the doctor's eyes, he's been seeing a lot of action as well.
  1364. > "What've we got?"
  1365. > You move to reply, but let Boulder answer - after all, he was there.
  1366. > "Eye injury, some lacerations to the shoulder, neck, and face. We cleaned them and fixed those up as best we can, but she's still..."
  1367. > "Of course it's an eye injury; I'm an eye doctor."
  1368. > Boulder frowns and the doc flinches.
  1369. > "...sorry. It's... been a long day. Let me take a look at this..."
  1370. > The doctor undoes the heavy bandage-work without a second thought, his horn igniting as he pulls Whispen's eyelid up to study the injuries concealed beneath.
  1371. > "What happened to her?"
  1372. "She was facing an explosion. A big one."
  1373. > You don't need to say why.
  1374. > "Alright. She's got some debris still trapped in there. Why don't you wait outside while I work on this - Nurse!"
  1375. > The Guard has taught you to recognize an order disguised as a question when you hear one.
  1376. > This is one of those times.
  1377. > Clustering nearby the door along with Boulder, Dusk, Spark, you all try and make a minimum of a nuisance of yourselves while waiting to hear back from him.
  1378. "...Boulder, Spark - stay here. Go outside and wait by the entrance door if she finishes up. I'm going to go with Dusk and take a look around outside."
  1379. > Both nod, and Dusk quickly forms up behind you in the hallway.
  1380.  
  1381. > A few flights of stairs later and you emerge onto the rooftop - an excellent view of the surrounding blocks greeting you, as expected.
  1382. > Making your way towards the edge to try and take a look, you're caught off guard by a sudden movement in the shadows to your right.
  1383. > Spinning in place, you crouch low ready to fight - but your 'enemy' is nothing but a surprised looking mare in a nurse's coat, raising one hoof defensively.
  1384. > Forcing yourself to relax, you shake your head.
  1385. "Sorry. Just a little keyed-up right now."
  1386. > "No problem."
  1387. > She gives a little grin; her voice is tired and scratchy.
  1388. > "What's got you up here?"
  1389. "Looking for a view of... all that."
  1390. > You motion towards the smoke and noise in the distance.
  1391. > "Ah, yeah. What a bloody mess that is, huh?"
  1392. > The obvious retort that she hardly had to tell you is forced down, a simple shake of your head suffices instead.
  1393. "Yeah. I can hardly believe it..."
  1394.  
  1395. ACTION:
  1396. - Talk to the nurse, then take a quick peek around.
  1397. - Yeah, talk to the nurse. We're already on one of the tallest buildings, so no need to draw attention to us by [flying from the rooftop]. I guess while talking we could slowly and carefully approach the the edge, but don't stay there for too long, it just makes us more visible from street level.
  1398. - Talk to the nurse. We should also check up on Hot Pot and Quick Step.
  1399.  
  1400. "You've been seeing a lot of injuries from the fighting there, then?"
  1401. > "Yeah."
  1402. > She snorts unhappily, ears falling.
  1403. > "What's left of the guard is apparently stopping to hold wherever they can, so those things have started to clear every single house and store individually. Lot of civilians getting hurt, if only from all the exploding weapons they seem to use."
  1404. > That twists a knot into your stomach - mainly at the idea of the guard having to fight around the homes, businesses, and lives of innocent bystanding ponies.
  1405. > That is something you'd have expected out of Diamond Dog marauders or Changelings; not of the guard itself.
  1406. > While you are silent, Dusk takes up the questioning:
  1407. > "So, they're cutting off civilians in the areas they take over?"
  1408. > "That's part of the problem, yeah. North Stream hospital is in their territory; nopony wants to go there anymore, so we're getting a lot of traffic."
  1409. > Mentally you divide up the map of Las Pegasus you'd seen in your head, trying to remember where you think North Stream hospital is.
  1410. > The outlook isn't a good one; if you're right, they've already taken nearly a third of the city in the two days since arriving here.
  1411. > If what the nurse told you is right, they're probably moving exceptionally slowly on account of searching every house individually.
  1412. > Speaking of which, that probably means you should make sure everything you have is nicely hidden away.
  1413. > Dragging your attention back to the nurse, you listen in just in time to hear her drop another metaphorical bomb on your plans.
  1414. > "...and with the other half of their army moving in on the south, things are about to get really ugly."
  1415. "They're starting in on the south now?"
  1416. > "If the first patients we're receiving are anything to guess by? Yes; they've got a whole second army crawling into the south of the city now."
  1417.  
  1418. > You try to force your face into an appropriate look of surprise, but in truth the scouts had warned of a second force approaching on the main road along the edge of the San Palomino desert.
  1419. > That it's finally arrived is only another nail on the guard's already-solid coffin.
  1420. > "...funniest thing, though. I was treating this one mare who'd broken her ankle, and she swore that she heard the invaders in the south side speaking something like Prench to each other."
  1421. > Immediately your mind flicks back to the soldier you'd talked to - whatever language he'd been speaking, it was nothing like Prench.
  1422. > Could there be yet another human nation getting in on this?
  1423. > Just how many were involved?
  1424. "Well, neither of us speak it real well, so here's hoping they also can speak something we understand."
  1425. > "You better believe it. Sweet Celestia and Luna above - I never thought I'd actually see the day when Equestria is under assault from aliens."
  1426. > For just a moment you want to tell her that they aren't so different - just scared.
  1427. > But are they anymore?
  1428. > The ones you met in that cave - their story seemed real enough, and it didn't sound like they wished to be fighting any more than you and your guardsponies did.
  1429. > But this far on... would that still be true?
  1430. > Driving the matter from your mind, you wander to the edge of the hospital - taking a long, hard look out at the distant fighting.
  1431. > Your earlier estimation of how much has been taken certainly seems to be spot-on.
  1432. > Judging by a few distant fires and occasional winks and flashes of light, they've completely rolled through the northern outlying boroughs and are somewhere in the business district... though not to far off at all.
  1433. > Perhaps another five miles at most.
  1434. > Unfortunately, the dying light offers relatively few distinct details, leaving you only with a general feeling.
  1435. > Turning back, you motion to Dusk.
  1436. "Come on. Let's go see how Hot Pot and Quick are doing."
  1437.  
  1438. > The nurse shrugs herself to her hooves, groaning.
  1439. > "I should get back on duty as well. So many to treat, I can't take more than a couple of minutes off."
  1440. "Sorry to hear... fortune smile on you."
  1441. > She gives you a thankful look, perhaps recognizing the similar tones of tiredness - mental and physical - in your voice.
  1442. > "Thanks. You as well - stay safe. I don't want to be seeing you again, you understand?"
  1443. "Yeah... I do."
  1444. > Finding Hot Pot and Quick Step is trickier than expected.
  1445. > Mostly because while the former has been simply assigned a room for recovery, Quick had spent many long hours in treatment and then been transferred to an entirely different wing.
  1446. > Moreover, he is still in a half-drugged sleep when you're finally able to peek in - though a nurse, on recognizing Dusk that brought him in, gives you a summary of his state:
  1447. > "He'll probably always have a limp. His shoulder was torn up terribly and we had to practically re-knit his muscles with magic."
  1448. "He will walk, though."
  1449. > "In time, yes. The leg might be stiff, and he'll have to learn to use a different gait - but he will walk."
  1450. > At least there was that, then.
  1451. > Hot Pot, by contrast, is awake and in relatively good spirits when you find her.
  1452. > "Good to see you again, sir."
  1453. > Quickly you glance about, looking to make sure nopony nearby heard.
  1454. > It never hurt to be careful.
  1455. "Drop the title, Hot Pot. We're moving unseen for now."
  1456. > "...ah. Sorry, s- Sorry."
  1457. "No worries. You're feeling better?"
  1458. > She nods.
  1459. > "Considerably. It didn't break anything, so they think I should be out in a few weeks with a cast and walking normally in a couple of months."
  1460. > Only as she talks do you begin to realize there's an element of forced happiness to her speech.
  1461. > She was pleased, yes - but only by contrast to Quick Step.
  1462. > Months of her life would be lost, while you were still out fighting.
  1463.  
  1464. "...well, look. We've found... uh, we've found a place to stay for a while, and we're not planning on going anywhere - so, we'll try and check in from time to time."
  1465. > Evidently she catches the meaning in your words and nods.
  1466. > "I'll look forward to getting back with... the family."
  1467. > Family.
  1468. > Yeah, you nearly were family now.
  1469. > And two of your family had nearly died.
  1470. > Glancing aside, you're surprised to see Dusk staring with honest and very real sadness in his eyes.
  1471. "...you okay, Dusk?"
  1472. > "Ye- No. No, not really. Sorry, I just... I... can I just have a moment with her, sir?"
  1473. > One eyebrow rises, but you step out of the room and allow the door to shut.
  1474. > What was that about...?
  1475. > Dusk emerges shortly thereafter, his eyes slightly reddened - a strange look, considering the batpony's bright yellow eyes.
  1476. "..something I need to know about, Dusk?"
  1477. > "No, sir. I've got it under control."
  1478. > He gives you an odd look when he says that, as if you should understand something about those words.
  1479. "...right. Let's go see about the others.
  1480. > Except, you don't.
  1481. > The eye doctor is quite busy with a screaming young filly when you stick your head in, all but throwing you out.
  1482. > But neither are Boulder, Spark, or Whispen near the entrance where you had told them to wait.
  1483. > You're about to suggest splitting up to find them, but then reconsider.
  1484. > There aren't any enemies here yet... would they really be in danger?
  1485. > This might be a good time to scout the crowd near the entrance for any other guards and get information from them.
  1486.  
  1487. ACTION:
  1488. - we can still scout the crowd after finding everyone. We should always know where everyone is. Maybe we and Dusk should split up after agreeing on a rendevouzpoint to find them quicker. We can still go through the crowd afterwards.
  1489. - Find everyone first.
  1490.  
  1491. "Dusk, we'll split up and find the others."
  1492. > Glancing up at the eight-story building, you make a quick division in your mind.
  1493. "You take the first four floors, I'll take the second four. Come down here and meet in... forty minutes?"
  1494. > "Got it, sir."
  1495. > Four floors, and the hospital is no small complex.
  1496. > Even without peeking into rooms - you're quite sure at least one of them should be waiting outside if Whispen is in treatment - it still takes you quite some time.
  1497. > It is to your great relief, therefore, that when you return to the ground floor and find not only Dusk there, but Boulder and Spark as well.
  1498. > ...and Whispen?
  1499. > Marching up to them, you give each a questioning look in turn.
  1500. "What's the deal with her?"
  1501. > "She's more or less okay. The doc pulled a bunch of stuff out of her eye and bandaged it up again - gave us some ointment to throw on it later, too. There's still a lot of damage to it, though."
  1502. > You briefly glance over at Whispen; she calmly meets your eyes but doesn't respond yet.
  1503. > Instead Spark goes on.
  1504. > "Her leg is better than expected - sprained, plus the lacerations and injuries on the rest of her that they cleaned up and closed."
  1505. > Glancing aside, you see that it looks like her entire lower leg now resides within a swath of bandages and metal splints.
  1506. "So, why's she out here?"
  1507. > Boulder grimaces unhappily.
  1508. > "They don't want to keep her. Technically it's all just recovery from here, and they want to keep every bed free for any new arrivals."
  1509. > While you can't dispute the logic in their action - especially having heard what the nurse told you - it still rubs you wrong to have them simply throw her out again.
  1510. > Not much you can do about it, though.
  1511.  
  1512. "...alright. I'd like to circulate in this crowd a bit - see if we can find any other guard types here, see if they're aware of any other units that made it through safe and are settling down for the long fight, that sort of thing."
  1513. > All four respond affirmatively - even Whispen, who staggers to her hooves.
  1514. > "I can help, sir. It's just talking, I can do that."
  1515. > You're about to let her when you remember the discussion you'd had just that afternoon.
  1516. > Whispen is just another soldier, and you have to be her commander as well as...
  1517. > ...as her what?
  1518. > Nevermind; a question for another time.
  1519. "I can't have you opening your wounds or twisting that leg any further - stay here. If you see anypony worth talking to go ahead and do so, though."
  1520. > For just a moment something flickers over Whispen's face - annoyance or thanks, you can't tell so quickly does it pass.
  1521. > "Thank you, sir."
  1522. "Right. Let's get going."
  1523. > There are more than a few ponies that you suspect to be guard in the line - either awaiting treatment for wounds and injuries only given first aid, or awaiting something else after treatment.
  1524. > Most are relatively minor wounds, but more than a few bear the wounds of the invaders' cannon-shot, some still lodged in their body.
  1525. > Unfortunately, most know even less than you.
  1526. > Some haven't seen another guard unit since the main lines broke, having been helped by thoughtful civilians or dragged themselves here on their own.
  1527. > At last you spot a pony still wearing his tags directing another group of obvious guardsponies.
  1528. > Trotting up to him, you wait until he notices you.
  1529. > "...and who in Tartarus are you?"
  1530.  
  1531. [Roll to determine what he tells you; result: "I can't tell you much, but..."]
  1532.  
  1533. > Quickly you introduce yourself.
  1534. > "Senior Airpony, huh? Alright, I'm Staff Sergeant Fairweather. I've got most of what's let of my air squad together, along with near another one that lost its commander."
  1535. "Good to hear there's some units out there that are still mostly together. I think under the circumstances I'm under your command, sir."
  1536. > "You got somewhere to stay?"
  1537. "Yes sir. We've taken over an abandoned building and.have plenty of supplies."
  1538. > "Then stay there. I don't know how well we're going to be able to operate once they move in, but it's pretty clear that making a stand in one place is death right now."
  1539. "What do you suggest instead?"
  1540. > "Well, there's my ponies, we're holed up in - eh, actually..."
  1541. > Fairhweather rubs his chin with one hoof.
  1542. > "No offense to you, but I probably shouldn't be giving out that much information... just in case. Uh, let's just say if you wander around the intersection of Fifth Street and Honeywell, you'll probably see some ponies keeping lookout. If you need to find us, talk to them."
  1543. "Understood. There's some things I should probably tell you, but not at the same time."
  1544. > "Got it. We'll have to connect another time. There are two other groups out there - I think one is another squad's worth, and around... two squads' worth scattered in another area."
  1545. "So, altogether... what, about fifty ponies?"
  1546. > "Of those? Forty-some. A lot are under-strength. "
  1547. "Well, good luck keeping them safe. We'll try and get in contact when things have calmed down again."
  1548. > "Works for us. Do you have a plan?"
  1549. "Aside from survive? Not really."
  1550. > "Same here."
  1551. > Fairweather grimaces again, shaking his head.
  1552. > "Survive, and keep fighting."
  1553. > When you return to the others, they're already speaking among themselves.
  1554. > Dusk is the first to tell his information.
  1555. > "They're definitely sweeping building-to-building. I spoke to a pony who said he watched them clear families out of a row of houses and check each of them in turn."
  1556.  
  1557. "So, that's something we have to be aware of. Anything else?"
  1558. > "Well, that was the strange thing. He said, after they got done they handed out little chocolates, right? Like they were trying to say sorry or something."
  1559. "Strange. Boulder?"
  1560. > He shakes his head at your request.
  1561. > "Nothing of real use. Sorry."
  1562. > "Well, I did get something."
  1563. "What've you got, Spark?"
  1564. > "Apparently they've started paving over a section of those fields outside the city already. Haven't even finished capturing the city and they're already getting started on building a camp."
  1565. "Really? How big?"
  1566. > "Don't know for sure, but the pony I was talking to seemed to think it was huge."
  1567. "Fair guess that it's not small, then. I wonder what they're really doing... Whispen?"
  1568. > She shakes her head, silent.
  1569. "Right. We can't stick around for to long, especially if we want to make a scouting run. This is good preliminary information - but we should be starting back towards home."
  1570. > "The cart's just around the block, sir. I'll go get it."
  1571. > Just a few minutes later you're moving through the still empty-streets.
  1572. > Now that the sun has gone down, they seem even more deserted.
  1573. > The lamplighters having abandoned their duty for the safety of their homes, leaving the streets swathed in huge patches of darkness.
  1574. > Fortunately a little light still leaks from the numerous drawn and closed windows, and Dusk at least seems to know where he is going.
  1575.  
  1576. ACTION:
  1577. - If we want to confront him about it we should do it back home.
  1578.  
  1579. > Deciding to leave Dusk be until you arrive back at the house, your trip back through the near-empty streets is met with nothing but the silence of the night.
  1580. > Luna's moon eventually comes into view, casting its light through the narrow band of open sky between rooftop and the cloud districts looming far above.
  1581. > Dusk seems to relax a little bit at the sight of it, and you don't find it unwelcome either.
  1582. > With the lamps abandoned by their lighters in the face of the impending invasion, there's little other light available.
  1583. > Despite long being to old to truly be afraid of the dark, you can't deny that the lack of visibility is making your deeply nervous.
  1584. > Especially with the quiet; except for the cart's occasional creaking as it passes down the road, there's little to be heard except the roar and rumble of machinery and fighting.
  1585. > A constant, unwelcome reminder.
  1586. > By the time you reach the house you'd taken over, you're all beginning to feel the exhaustion.
  1587. > Nonetheless the relief when you are able to step through the door gets you right back awake again - as does the dinner that follows, no matter how simple it is.
  1588. > You fill in the others while eating:
  1589. "They sent Whispen home with us to keep a bed open for somepony who'd really need it. Hot Pot and Quick are both recovering, by the way - she faster than he, obviously, but they're both going to live."
  1590. > The obvious boost that sends through the group lifts your spirits as well.
  1591.  
  1592. > You decide not to tell them about the extent of Quick Step's injuries.
  1593. "We do have one new problem, though. They're apparently searching every building they take - probably trying to root out other groups of the guard. We're going to need to find a place to hide the gear - all of it."
  1594. > That leads to a whole new round of grimaces.
  1595. "I was thinking, we're near a dock. We could probably bag it all up, tie it to a rope and toss it off the dock then go get it back later. I think out gear could stand a few days in saltwater."
  1596. > Spark raises a hoof.
  1597. > "What about the human's stuff? We don't think a thing about that, and some of it looks fragile compared to ours."
  1598. "There is that. Any other ideas?"
  1599. > Boulder thumps a hoof softly on the floor.
  1600. > "I could dry to break a hole in the paving nearby - we could bury it and get it back later on. It'll be a lot harder, though."
  1601. > Dusk nods to him.
  1602. > "That's an idea. Chilona and I could also scatter it on several buildings nearby - on the rooftops, that sort of thing. It would be easier to spot individually, but more spread out."
  1603.  
  1604. ACTION:
  1605. - Put our armor in a bag in the bay, bury the human's gear.
  1606.  
  1607. "Alright. I think most of our gear can be safely dropped off a pier without doing to much to it - at most we'll have to give it a good wipe-down and rub with some oil afterward. Leave one hoofblades for one for each of us, though."
  1608. > Spark nods.
  1609. > "Give me a couple ponies to do that, and we'll make sure it won't be found."
  1610. "Good. The rest of us are going to find a good place to dig that hole and stash the rest of the stuff. Boulder, that's on you."
  1611. > Thankfully whoever built this place was helpful enough to leave digging tools - among many other types - in the basement for your use.
  1612. > Along with a pair of lamps, which you are also deeply thankful for.
  1613. > As everyone gathers the necessary tools and drags up the armor and gear from the basement, you happen to notice Dusk heading upstairs.
  1614. > Following closely, you find him dropping another couple things into a saddlebag.
  1615. "Something up, Dusk?"
  1616. > He doesn't jump or act surprised - looking up calmly from his task.
  1617.  
  1618. > Good; if he isn't acting surprised, he probably isn't doing anything you should be worried about.
  1619. > "Nah. Just had a few things stored in the pockets on my armor I'd like to keep up here."
  1620. "Ah... let me ask you something, Dusk."
  1621. > He turns to face you, head tilted.
  1622. > "What is it, sir?"
  1623. "When we were in the hospital, you said you 'had it under control'. That mean what I think it does?"
  1624. > Face holding an inscrutable expression for a moment, Dusk slowly nods.
  1625. > "It does, sir."
  1626. > ...that was it, then.
  1627. > He doesn't seem to upset or look angry at you bringing it up... but there is a guarded reservedness about his eyes.
  1628.  
  1629. ACTION:
  1630. - Offer to listen if he wants to talk, but don't push him.
  1631.  
  1632. "...you want to talk about it?"
  1633. > "Sir?"
  1634. "Just talk. Not... demanding, but if you want to talk to somepony about it - just as a friend..."
  1635. > Dusk pauses, then nods.
  1636. > Quietly shutting the door, you move to sit by one wall - hoping to make this feel less like an interrogation and more like a supportive conversation.
  1637. "I'm listening."
  1638. > He doesn't start immediately, but when Dusk does his words still come haltingly.
  1639. > "It... started after the fire, sir. She was the first one to tend to me, and looked after me until we got into Easthock."
  1640. > Nodding yourself, you wait for him to continue.
  1641. > "Even though I was unconscious a lot, I could tell everypony was scared. You... must have all been running from them, thinking they'd seen the fire. Hot Pot... she never stopped looking after me. Always made sure I was safe."
  1642. "And it just grew from there?"
  1643. > "Yes, sir. I wasn't sure as long as I was in there, but I was able to talk when we got out, and... yeah. It started then."
  1644. > Several things click into place in your head.
  1645. "That's why you offered so quickly to take her and Quick to the hospital when they were wounded, and supported me when I was explaining myself this morning."
  1646. > "I just wanted to see her there... to make sure she would be safe. We were already pretty involved by then; when we weren't on watch in the trenches, we'd find time at night to slip out and..."
  1647. > He doesn't say more, and you don't need to know.
  1648. > Though you do wonder how he managed to hide the smell.
  1649. > For a while neither of you say anything.
  1650. > Dusk ruffles his wings slightly, the leathery webbing between the bony fingers producing a strange noise in the silence.
  1651. "...if you don't want to talk about it..."
  1652. > "No, it's fine."
  1653.  
  1654. > He looks away, head falling.
  1655. > "I... I want to know, though. What will I face because of this?"
  1656. "Well, I'm hardly in a position to punish you for it - even if I still had a superior officer to tell anyhow."
  1657. > His head rises, golden eyes blinking in shock.
  1658. > "You aren't going to...?"
  1659. "Look - frankly, you did a better job of keeping it under control than I did, and didn't jeopardize anypony's safety. We're all still just ponies, with pony emotions, and... yeah, I understand where you're coming from."
  1660. > Flickers of surprise and relief pass over Dusk's face before he finally settles on uncertainty.
  1661. > "Can I ask... was it right, though? What we did...?"
  1662. "Right...?"
  1663. > A deep sigh escapes your lips.
  1664. > What does 'right' mean?
  1665. > It certainly isn't according to regulations.
  1666. > But regulations were not written with this in mind...
  1667. "...I don't honestly know, Dusk. But I don't think it was wrong, either - like I said, you didn't put anypony's life at risk."
  1668. > He seems to let out all the stress he'd been holding.
  1669. > "Thank you, sir."
  1670. "You're welcome."
  1671. > Turning to the door, you look back for one moment.
  1672. "And... next time we go to check up on them, if you'd like to volunteer for that... well, I'm sure you know the best route."
  1673. > The look on his face makes the entire conversation worth it.
  1674. > Returning back downstairs, you see the rest of your group is ready to go.
  1675. "Alright. let's see about that hole..."
  1676.  
  1677. [Roll for success at digging the hole without being noticed; result:  It goes okay.]
  1678.  
  1679. > The digging actually goes better than you'd have expected.
  1680. > Boulder may not have been the most vocal stallion, but clearly he was no fool.
  1681. > A single solid blow from his hooves shatters a section of pavement into manageable chunks, easily small enough for a pony to lever out with a shovel.
  1682. > With six of you working at it, a fair-sized hole soon opens up in the ground.
  1683. > The soldier's gear - tied inside a bag - is lowered into the pit, and soil settled back on top of it.
  1684. > Carefully the sections of pavement are replaced with as little difference as possible - and after that is done, a few buckets of water tossed over to wash away the remaining dirt and sand stains.
  1685. > After circling a few times, the lamp clutched in your jaws, you nod in approval.
  1686. "Looks like it could have happened at any time. Come on, let's go home."
  1687. > Spark and his two assistants have already returned by the time you come back, though Ornithea shivers from within the confines of a blanket.
  1688. "...what happened to her?"
  1689. > Spark chuckles softly.
  1690. > "Fell into the bay by accident. Couldn't catch herself in time."
  1691. > "I-It's not f-funny. That water was c-cold!"
  1692. "Are you actually hurt?"
  1693. > "N-Not really. J-Just cold."
  1694. > "She'll be fine. I checked her for any signs of frostbite."
  1695. "Well, when you're warmed up some, go get some rest. We'll be moving in the morning. Chilona, take first watch; Dusk, take second."
  1696. > Morning comes in due time.
  1697. > And with it, a furious hoof shaking you awake.
  1698. "Mwuizzit?"
  1699. > "You need to get up, sir. They're here."
  1700. > That gets you moving fast.
  1701. > Still rubbing the sleep from your eyes as you tumble down the stairs, you find Spark and Dusk already staring out the windows.
  1702. > Caravan comes down after you, sounding equally annoyed.
  1703. > "They took our city, can't they at least leave us to our sleep?"
  1704.  
  1705. > The comment actually draws a few chuckles, the humor sorely needed given the situation.
  1706. "Dusk, what's going on?"
  1707. > "Eight of their armored carts, wheeled kind, moving down from the north end of the docks. Soldiers moving with them, a lot more."
  1708. > Taking your place at the window, you peer out along the docks.
  1709. > Sure enough, in the distance swarm a number of human soldiers.
  1710. > "Looks like they're searching everything here, too."
  1711. "Then we should expect to be searched as well. Get the hoofblades stashed away and wake everypony up."
  1712. > It takes them time to work their way down the block, but they methodically make their way closer and closer.
  1713.  
  1714. ACTION:
  1715. - Answer the door normally and let them search.
  1716.  
  1717. > Even though you could long see them approaching, when the pounding on your door finally comes it still makes everypony jump.
  1718. "Everypony stay Relaxed... we did this in Easthock, we can do it here."
  1719. > Opening the door, you're greeted by a human soldier - weapon held at the ready.
  1720. > "You own this house?"
  1721. > His accent is strange - foreign, not like anything you've heard.
  1722. "Yes, this is our house."
  1723. > "How many pony here?"
  1724. "Nine."
  1725. > He steps back, revealing several other soldiers surrounding him with their weapons held ready (though not pointed at the door, to your surprise).
  1726. > "All ponies will come out. We will go in and search, then you can go back. Understand?"
  1727. "Yes. We have one injured pony, let us bring her out."
  1728. > "Yes, all ponies come out."
  1729. > There's a fair bit of surprise when Whispen is brought out, the soldiers chattering among each other in their own language.
  1730. > "What happen to her?"
  1731. "One of your exploding things. Fell right in front of her, nearly killed her."
  1732.  
  1733. > You can't keep the accusatory tones out of your voice, even as you try to avoid seeming too confrontational.
  1734. > The soldiers, though - they don't take it well.
  1735. > "Hey! Not us, do not blame us for being near pony-soldier camp."
  1736. > He pauses, then adds:
  1737. > "If pony was there... why here now?"
  1738. > Thankfully this was something you had thought on, and come up with a good answer.
  1739. "She's hurt. She lives alone; we wanted to be able to look after her."
  1740. > After a second's thought the soldiers seems to take it.
  1741. > With a quickly-barked order he and his unit sweep into the house.
  1742. > Other soldiers remain outside, keeping a steady eye on you.
  1743. > It takes far longer than you like, but at last the soldiers emerge again.
  1744. > "House is clear. You will go back inside; stay inside today."
  1745. > Handing you a slip of paper, the soldiers wait until you all return before moving on.
  1746. > Caravan is the first to speak.
  1747. > "...aww. No chocolate."
  1748. > Dusk gives him a strange look.
  1749. > "You'd trust their stuff?"
  1750. > "Hey, if they were going to get us up this early I want to at least get a chocolate out of it."
  1751. "Well, for now I think we should all go back to bed. Much as I'd love to keep eyes on them, I don't think it's a good idea to stay around. Was it just me, or did their weapons look like the one we took?"
  1752. > "Wasn't just you, sir."
  1753. > "Nope, not just you at all."
  1754. > Remembering the paper folded behind one wing, you bring it back out to read the message printed on it.
  1755. "...looks like we're getting a curfew here as well. And they're asking us not to do certain things - approach their soldiers suddenly, point horns at them, that sort of thing."
  1756.  
  1757. > Byline snorts softly.
  1758. > "They do realize we can levitate things that aren't directly in front of us, right? The rock at my side is just as painful as the rock in front of me."
  1759. "Maybe they do, maybe they don't. Maybe it's something about where they come from... eh, the rest of this is pretty basic stuff."
  1760.  
  1761. [Roll to determine if you see anything special; result: See nothing.]
  1762.  
  1763. "Right, the way I see it we're trapped in here until tomorrow whatever happens. They don't want us out now, and even if they don't run the whole city yet I'm not keen on trying to slip by their lines during curfew. So, let's take stock of what we have and then catch up on rest."
  1764. > "A day of rest? In the Guard? Truly the world has ended."
  1765. > This time, nopony seems find Caravan's joke funny.
  1766. "Enjoy it while you can. We're going to get plenty busy once we can go back out again, so I want you all nice and rested when it's time."
  1767. > The opportunity for rest quickly becomes cause for boredom.
  1768. > Despite everypony sleeping several long hours - in beds, on couches and seats, wherever they can find a spot - there's always a few guardsponies up and doing something to brake the tedium.
  1769. > Being trapped inside while the battle rages on outside leaves everypony feeling slightly antsy..
  1770. > The occasional patrols of soldiers now walking the docks make it quite clear that going outside for anything short of an emergency is not a good idea.
  1771. > Partway through the afternoon you descend into the basement, seeking to make another check of the bags of food still stored down there.
  1772. > Your mind is drifting, and in the low light provided by the candle-lit lantern you barely notice what you are touching until it gives a little squeak.
  1773. > Mind dragged back to present, you're surprised when a bag in front of your rises up on its hooves and shakes itself slightly.
  1774. "...sorry, Chilona. Didn't mean to wake you up like that."
  1775.  
  1776. > "It's alright, sir. Didn't expect anypony to come down here."
  1777. > One of your eyebrows rises.
  1778. "...were you sleeping on a bag of oats?"
  1779. > "I think one of these is hay, but yes. The beds were all taken, and the dark is good for me to sleep in."
  1780. > Snorting softly, you shake your head.
  1781. "Well, I'm seeing what else we can move back upstairs to keep away from the damp."
  1782. > "Um, sir. Actually, there's something else I've been meaning to talk to you about."
  1783. "Go ahead?"
  1784. > Chilona hops down, trotting around to the near side of the bags.
  1785. > "It's about this basement, actually. I... don't quite know how to explain it, but something sounds funny down here."
  1786. "...funny?"
  1787. > She nods, tufted ears twitching slightly.
  1788. > "Yeah. I don't know how to explain it, but... some of the sounds, they sound like there's something wrong with the walls."
  1789. "Do you have any ideas, or is this just a general feeling?"
  1790. > "No, sir. Nothing for certain. Just, sometimes thing sound... hollow."
  1791. > You turn to one of the walls, placing a hoof on it.
  1792. > To you it feels like most other walls that you've ever seen - bricks, mortared together, with little in the way of difference between them.
  1793. > Tapping your hoof on the wall to listen to the noise, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it... that you can tell, anyhow.
  1794. "Well, I don't know what it's really looking for..."
  1795. > Wait... Tariff had looked at the walls too, hadn't he?
  1796. "...but if you find something for certain, let me know."
  1797. > "Alright. I will, sir."
  1798. > It takes time, but the next day comes soon enough.
  1799. > With dawn, you carefully step out onto the docks for the first time.
  1800. > The sounds of the invasion have not faded, but merely changed.
  1801. > They now now seem to be coming from everywhere - though thankfully, there's none of the explosions or pop-popping of the invaders' weapons.
  1802. > Ornithea is the first to speak, with Caravan soon following.
  1803. > "They're... all around us now."
  1804. > "I guess it truly is over, then. They've moved in all the way."
  1805.  
  1806. > For once the normally lighthearted stallion is subdued.
  1807. "...it was going to happen, barring a miracle, an intervention by a princess, or the elements of harmony. We all knew it."
  1808. > "What now, sir?"
  1809. "Now..."
  1810. > You grimace.
  1811. "Now, we fihd out what we can to do help. They may think they own the city, but we're still fighting."
  1812. > Your mind flicks back to the conversation two days prior with Fairweather.
  1813. > There's also that focus, still sitting in the warehouse... and of course, you should probably talk with Tariff about what he saw or heard in the basement.
  1814. > But your gear also needs to be recovered as well...
  1815.  
  1816. ACTION:
  1817. - Investigate the basement further.
  1818.  
  1819. "...alright, well, for the rest of today I want to have a look around the basement. Something odd is going on down there, and I want to know what."
  1820. > Unfortunately, nine ponies wandering around the basement - the last two up top on watch - hardly leaves much room to hear anything.
  1821. > In the end you have to throw most of them out, leaving just yourself, Chilona, Boulder and Byline.
  1822. "...alright, Chilona. Do your thing, I guess. The rest of us... I don't know, see if you can spot something odd down here."
  1823. > Unfortunately, there isn't really much to see.
  1824. > The basement is striking only in how unremarkable it is.
  1825. > Shelves of tools, supplies, and logbooks for dockyard activities line the room.
  1826. > Eventually you have to pull all of them out - or at least, shift some of them away to allow Chilona in closer to those sections of wall.
  1827. > You half expect one of them to open a secret hole in the wall, like something out of a Daring Do book.
  1828. > After all, you know for certain Canterlot castle had more than a few secret passageways with varying triggers.
  1829. > But if that's so, whoever built this place either neglected to include a switch... or there isn't a secret passageway after all.
  1830. > "Sir? Something over here."
  1831. > The again...
  1832. > Stepping over alongside Chilona, you peer at the section of wall she has her ear to.
  1833. "What're you hearing?"
  1834. > "Not sure... but I'm almost certain there's something here."
  1835. > Boulder taps the wall a few times and nods.
  1836. > "I could break this down... I don't know what's behind it, though."
  1837. "Anypony have any other ideas?"
  1838. > "Well..."
  1839. > Byline seems almost hesitant.
  1840. > "It... did occur to me that if there is some kind of passageway, the switch might not be down here. It could be anywhere in the house."
  1841. > The thought of having to tear the entire house apart to find a secret switch is not a pleasing one.
  1842. "Chilona, how certain are you?"
  1843. > "Pretty sure. All the walls sound weird down here, though."
  1844. > Boulder snorts.
  1845. > "How weird are you talking?"
  1846.  
  1847. > "Like, everything sounds off when I tap on them weird."
  1848. "But not hollow-weird."
  1849. > "No."
  1850. > Rubbing your chin with one hoof, you take a long consideration.
  1851. > Breaking down the wall would probably help... but it might be better to ask Tariff first.
  1852. > It's only a few hours until sundown, and tomorrow you should be able to go out again...
  1853. > There doesn't seem to be any threat here, after all...
  1854. > And if there wasn't anything, you'd have to either rebuild the wall or have a lot of explaining to do.
  1855. > Of course, there was Byline's idea about another possible switch...
  1856. > Taking apart the whole house apart would certainly take up all the rest of the time you had.
  1857.  
  1858. ACTION:
  1859. - Search a little bit for any levers, if none are found wait to talk to Tariff.
  1860.  
  1861. "Just leave it for now. We'll take a look around upstairs, but after that this can wait until Tariff is reachable."
  1862. > Some of the others have already gone back to sleep, but it doesn't take long to rouse them.
  1863. > Ultimately you put together three teams of two, leaving Ornithea to watch the front door and letting Dusk rest.
  1864. > Each team takes a room and begins to systematically search for it.
  1865. > Cabinets and closets are emptied out, pictures and photos removed from the wall, and Chilona does a round of every room, knocking on the walls to find any other hollows behind them.
  1866. > If only it were so simple.
  1867. > In the end you call a halt to the search, which is starting to reach slightly silly proportions.
  1868. > Instead you settle down to eat dinner together - even Whispen emerging from her room to join you.
  1869. > Thankfully the injuries don't seem to have impacted her magic to heavily.
  1870. > Aside from not being able to see on one side, in fact, she seems largely okay.
  1871. > And just seeing Whispen up and about, however difficult it is for her to walk from her room, raises everypony's spirits.
  1872. > After seeing everyone settled that night, you stick your head back in to check on her.
  1873. "Hey... how're you faring?"
  1874. > Whispen lifts her head to smile at you.
  1875. > "Alright. It hurts a bit, but I'll live."
  1876. > Her eyes tell differently.
  1877. > Something is bugging her.
  1878. "You're not having trouble sleeping again, are you?"
  1879. > "Oh, no."
  1880. > She shakes her head.
  1881. "...then what's up?"
  1882. > "I'm... just worried about that conversation. If... you and I..."
  1883. > With a gentle sigh you shut the door.
  1884. > Laying down facing Whispen, you consider your words for a moment before answering.
  1885. "The problem was with me, Whispen. That I was doing stupid things because I wasn't thinking right... not because of anything you did."
  1886. > "I know, but if I'm still responsible... it's still against regulations..."
  1887.  
  1888. "We're not the first, Whispen. Trust me on that... not the first, and not the last."
  1889. > Though Dusk was not in command.
  1890. "The point is... all I have to do is keep my head clear. Think straight. And that's all you need to do. What we feel otherwise... the guard can't control that."
  1891. > Slowly she nods.
  1892. > "Alright... I guess so."
  1893. "So. Were you honest about being able to sleep well before?"
  1894. > Her hesitation to reply gives you an answer even before she speaks.
  1895. > "...no. I just didn't want to put you in that position again."
  1896. "Don't. I can stay here until you are asleep, but not any longer."
  1897. > Rolling over on her side to allow her injured leg to extend fully, Whispen gives you a small smile.
  1898. > "Thank you, sir."
  1899. > And stay you do.
  1900. > ...
  1901. > The next morning, any sleeping ponies are woken soon after dawn by a tinny voice projected over a loudspeaker.
  1902. > "The curfew is now over. It is oh-six hundred. The curfew is now over. Flight restrictions remain in effect."
  1903. > Time to find Tariff.
  1904. > Leaving Spark behind with Whispen to check the house, the remaining seven of you troop through the streets in two smaller groups.
  1905. > No need to attract the attention of the human patrols, who seem to have decided the docks need regular patrolling.
  1906. > Tariff's office is not open, but you can see him inside.
  1907. > A few hoofbeats on the door grant you entrance.
  1908. > "Well, well. I didn't expect to see you back so soon. Come in, all of you - come on in."
  1909. > Looking up and down the street one last time to make sure you weren't seen, your group files in to the office.
  1910. > Closing the door after the last one, you turn back to face Tariff.
  1911. "So, I wanted to ask - are you okay?"
  1912. > He'd gone a little slack-jawed, mouth half-open and face in an expression of simple happiness.
  1913. > The last time he'd done this, it'd been after seeing Whispen's wounds... but she wasn't here now.
  1914. > Quickly shaking himself out of it, Tariff shudders slightly.
  1915.  
  1916. "Sorry, sorry - I've just been alone for a couple of days while they moved in, and, well, you know - it's good to see some friendly faces again."
  1917. > ...actually, now that you're closer, Tariff doesn't look so good either.
  1918. > He's slightly pale, and his eyes look a little glazed over even after his strange stupor is broken.
  1919. > "So, uh, we've got a couple questions about something... we thought maybe you could help?"
  1920. > "Well, what can I help you with?"
  1921.  
  1922. ACTION:
  1923. - "You don't look to good. Is something wrong?"
  1924. - "Who lived in that house before we got here?"
  1925.  
  1926. "Well, first off... are you alright, Tariff? I mean... you don't look so hot, honestly."
  1927. > He nods.
  1928. > "Yeah, like I said... just, a few days alone caught me by surprise."
  1929. > A second later he adds, more quietly.
  1930. > "I... might have forgotten to put enough... food aside, and run a little short."
  1931. > ...really?
  1932. > He was actually that short on food?
  1933. > You'd have figured a pony responsible for keeping something as complicated as the Las Pegasus docks running smoothly could keep track of his own food supply.
  1934. > ...or was that really what he meant?
  1935. > Had he run short on something else, maybe...?
  1936. "Well, do you still need some?"
  1937. > "No, no - I'll be alright. I've had a good meal now, it's just taking some time to catch up."
  1938. > Something about this whole situation rubs you wrong still...
  1939. "Ah, well. As long as you're better now. So, uh, anyhow - I was wondering, do you know who lived in that house before us?"
  1940. > "Oh... that one? Yeah, his name was Keel Haul. Real old sailor type, spent a lot of time on the seas in his youth. Came back, settled down, started a family... did good work there."
  1941. "You worked with him a lot, then?"
  1942. > "Oh yeah. He got things loaded and unloaded, I figured out where they were supposed to go."
  1943. > You're not getting anywhere here; time to be more direct.
  1944. "Was he ever strike you as... a little odd?"
  1945. > "Odd? Like what?"
  1946. "Nothing, just... we think there's something strange about the house. I was wondering if he ever gave you the feeling there was something wrong about him."
  1947. > Before Tariff can answer, another voice interrupts him.
  1948. > "Sir? You'd better come look at this..."
  1949. > Dusk stands by a window, looking fixedly out of it.
  1950. > Quickly moving to his side, you follow his eyes and see... nothing?
  1951. > His next words are so soft you can barely hear them even though you stand next to him.
  1952.  
  1953. > "Something's wrong about Tariff. I don't know why, but I think he's lying."
  1954. "You're certain that's what they're doing?"
  1955. > Your own response is louder - just loud enough to be heard.
  1956. > Fortunately Dusk gets the idea.
  1957. > "That strange sort of glaze look he gave you, mouth half open? He was doing it to me for a moment too."
  1958. "I don't know - it may look odd, maybe it's just something they do?"
  1959. > "I'm sure of it, sir. He looked so happy... like he was mesmerized by something."
  1960. > Strange...
  1961. > Dusk and yourself... what could Tariff be homing in on?
  1962. "Okay, keep an eye on them. Tell me if you see anything new."
  1963. > Turning back around, you give Tariff an apologetic smile.
  1964. "Sorry about that. We're just trying to keep tabs on the humans - to make sure we don't get snuck up on by them."
  1965. > "Ah, it's quite alright. I remember what it was like from when I was in the Guard."
  1966.  
  1967. ACTION:
  1968. -  "What were your days in the guard like?"
  1969.  
  1970. "What was it like when you were in the guard, anyhow?"
  1971. > Tariff chuckles.
  1972. > "Eh, it was pretty routine."
  1973. > Tariff shrugs lightly.
  1974. > "We were mostly assigned out on the southern border regions. A lot of patrolling along the Macintosh hills - if I never have to hike another mountainside in my life I'll be perfectly happy."
  1975. "That much fun, huh?"
  1976. > "You betcha. Our CO, he was a real riot too. Thought if anyone was happy they weren't trying hard enough."
  1977. "Ah, yeah. I know the type. So, how long ago did you get out?"
  1978. > "Twenty-six years."
  1979. > Tariff gives you a grin.
  1980. > "Came right up here, settled down, and found myself a nice job. Always had a good head for numbers, and put it to good use."
  1981. > Damn, he's really not giving you any good information.
  1982. > Almost as if he doesn't want you to know...
  1983. > Time to move on, then.
  1984. "Alright, last thing, and we'll get out of your mane. When we took you down to see the stuff in the basement, were you looking for something...?"
  1985. > "No, just looking around. It's been a while since I was down there - not since ol' Keel Haul died."
  1986. "...you didn't mention he was dead before."
  1987. > "...really? I was sure I did... ah, well. Yeah. Was real recent as well - I'm sure you saw, not much changed in there since it happened..."
  1988.  
  1989. ACTION:
  1990. - People finally realize Tariff might be a Changeling.
  1991. - Ask about the basement. Maybe say you're thinking of knocking a wall out. Depending on how he acts it may further prove he is a changeling.
  1992. - Try to set a trap that will get a response out of him to prove/disprove.
  1993.  
  1994. "Well, listen. It's already pretty odd to have a house near the docks with a basement - it'd leak unless everything was waterproofed real well, right?"
  1995. > "I guess so, yeah."
  1996. > Tariff nods slightly.
  1997. > "I've seen a few like that before, usually in big cities."
  1998. "Well, one of my ponies is pretty sure she can hear something down there. Like, something strange. If we can't figure it out, we might have to start breaking the wall down."
  1999. > You're keeping a careful watch on Tariff's face for any signs of shock or fear... and see none.
  2000. > None whatsoever.
  2001. > Only a mild surprise.
  2002. "I mean, if he really is dead... well, and with all this going on, he won't mind, will he? Is his family around here somewhere...?"
  2003. > "I... guess not, uh... they might..."
  2004. > A terrible suspicion is starting to grow in your mind, clues falling together.
  2005. > It sets off a deep churning in your gut, one you've not felt since a very special day in Canterlot years ago...
  2006. "You wouldn't like to come back and watch us, would you? I remember you were interested in going down there before."
  2007. > "...I suppose that would be alright."
  2008. > There's an uncertainty there - he isn't quite sure.
  2009. > He's afraid - of being in an enclosed space with you.
  2010. > "Just, uh, let me finish up..."
  2011. > Even as Tariff finishes shuffling around his papers, you keep a careful eye on his actions.
  2012. > His hooves move quickly, efficiently, and without any trembling.
  2013. > But there is a certain nervousness in them nonetheless.
  2014. > While finally out from the offices again, you pause to tap Boulder on the shoulder.
  2015. "If I ask you who our commander is, the answer is Ardent Shield. Pass it on to the others - quietly."
  2016. > Boulder nods, giving you a silent but curious look.
  2017. > Ardent Shield, of course, was the new captain of Canterlot's guard... and there was no chance that he would be your current CO.
  2018. > If you were right, then that question would be the salvation of you wall.
  2019.  
  2020. > Hanging back to match paces with Tariff, you keep a sharp and careful eye on him.
  2021. > Nominally he seems fine, but you aren't sure...
  2022. > Spark answers the door when you arrive, one eyebrow rising when he spots Tariff alongside you.
  2023. > "What's with him?"
  2024. "He's going to help us with the basement."
  2025. > Letting Boulder pull Spark aside to pass on your message, you're about to head downstairs when an idea comes to you.
  2026. "One second, all. I'm going to go check up on Whispen."
  2027. > Under your breath, you add a small wish to Celestia that she will forgive you for what you're about to do.
  2028. > Opening the door to peek into her room, you find her awake and turning to face the door.
  2029. > "Oh... hello, sir. You're back - did you find Tariff?"
  2030. "Yes, we're about to go downstairs. But, I just wanted to see if you're okay first - sleep well?"
  2031. > "Much better, thank you. I feel a lot better today."
  2032. > In that second you spin back around, eyes searching to fall on Tariff.
  2033. > His mouth isn't open and there's a forced lack of emotion on his face, but his head is twisted around to face you.
  2034. > And his eyes...
  2035. > They're unfocused, staring into somewhere beyond.
  2036. "...Tariff."
  2037. > Your voice is hard, a low fury building in you.
  2038. > "Huh?"
  2039. > A little shake of his head brings Tariff back to attention.
  2040. > "Sorry. It's just... sweet. How much you... care for your ponies."
  2041. > Sweet.
  2042. > Just like food.
  2043. > The anger flares to life, growing into a burning fury.
  2044. "Ornithea, Caravan. Restrain hi-"
  2045. > Tariff moves far faster than you'd have expected.
  2046. > You also hadn't been expecting him to straight for the nearest window, hooves outstretched to break it.
  2047.  
  2048. [Roll for success at catching him; result: They manage to catch him.]
  2049.  
  2050. > Fast he may be, but that doesn't solve the fact that there's an appropriately-named mountain of a pony between him and the window.
  2051. > Boulder's hoof catches Tariff full in the stomach, sending the smaller stallion tumbling to the floor.
  2052. > He lays there, wheezing heavily, as Caravan and Ornithea pin him.
  2053. > "Not... not what... you think... please..."
  2054. > His words are coming in short bursts, between painfully-drawn breaths.
  2055. > If you were in a better mood, you might be worried Boulder had injured him.
  2056. > Right now, though - you don't particularly care.
  2057. > Stomping up, you lean down to bring your muzzle level with his.
  2058. "Drop your disguise, bug - or I'll get Whispen out here to tear it from you. I don't think she's going to be happy to find out you were feeding on her."
  2059. > You don't even know if she can do that.
  2060. > Certainly some unicorn guards were trained in anti-Changeling measures, but she'd been only just finished basic when this mess kicked off...
  2061. > "Sir? What's going on?"
  2062. > Chilona's voice cuts through the rushing in your ears, but fails to quench the fury within.
  2063. > "Let me go, please - I didn't hurt anypony!"
  2064. > The frantic pleading only drives a snarl onto your face.
  2065. > Sure he didn't.
  2066. > That's all his kind did.
  2067. "Last chance, Tariff."
  2068. > His eyes lock with yours, and some moment of understanding goes between the two of you.
  2069. > Drawing a shuddering breath, he holds it for a moment - and then erupts into emerald flame, the sudden appearance driving Caravan to leap back slightly with a surprised yelp.
  2070. > When it fades, the thing that is left is not a pony... and all to familiar to you.
  2071. > For a split second you are no longer seeing the house.
  2072. > No longer aware of your squad around you.
  2073. > A different city swims before your eyes.
  2074. > Canterlot.
  2075. > A cloud descends through a failing shield.
  2076. > Ponies scream as jagged, buzzing shapes fall on them.
  2077. > Your hooves, beating against the road.
  2078.  
  2079. > A pair of guardsponies, encased to their necks in green that clung to them like a second skin.
  2080. > More guardsponies charging out to rescue them.
  2081. > Changelings descending on them, four or five on each one.
  2082. > And the noise.
  2083. > Buzzing wings, chittering voices, and black shapes all around you.
  2084.  
  2085. [Roll for willpower check; result: You pull yourself out of it, but can't bring yourself to speak to him calmly.]
  2086.  
  2087. > ...no.
  2088. > That is the past.
  2089. > Not now.
  2090. > Your eyes squeeze shut, and when they are open you see your ponies - alive and safe, even Whispen - staring at you with concern.
  2091. > Your ponies, plus a set of pupil-less aquamarine... it didn't seem right to call them eyes somehow.
  2092. > Eyes were supposed to give you a sense of where they were looking.
  2093. "So, bug. Care to tell us what's actually in that basement?"
  2094. > The thing that was Tariff just hisses angrily at you.
  2095. "And what about feeding on us - how are we supposed to react to that?"
  2096. > "Feeding on us?!"
  2097. > Spark's cry is one of disgust and surprise.
  2098. "Oh, yes - and where are is Keel Haul anyhow? Is he somewhere down there?"
  2099. > To your shock, the changeling gives a pause before answering more quietly.
  2100. > "...he's dead."
  2101. "So you're a murderer as well."
  2102. > "No! It was recent - he was here..."
  2103. > It takes a shuddering breath, its language sounding strange and hissing around its fangs.
  2104. > "Look. I can still help you. This war is affecting all of us -"
  2105. "No."
  2106. > Even as you speak, the question of what exactly you are going to do with the changeling runs through your head.
  2107. > The obvious answer 'put it in the basement' is quite out of the question, of course.
  2108. > Meanwhile, it slams one twisted hoof to the floor - snarling angrily.
  2109.  
  2110. > "Will you just listen to me a moment? I'm trying to offer you something!"
  2111. "You're still an enemy of Equestria. We've nothing to gain from you."
  2112. > "Sir..."
  2113. > Boulder's voice is, as normal, quiet... but it carries a heavy weight with it as well.
  2114. > "We should at least interrogate... it."
  2115.  
  2116. ACTION:
  2117. - Listen to Boulder.
  2118.  
  2119. "...alright. Talk fast, Changeling."
  2120. > "Keel Haul was one of us. Always ways - or at least, as long as I've been here."
  2121. "So where is he now, then?"
  2122. > "I told you - dead. The humans got him."
  2123. > When nopony says anything for a moment after that, the Changeling laughs - a hissing, croaking noise that leaves your coat standing on end.
  2124. > "What you, thought you were the only ones dying? He went to try and reach the others, and a flying machine got him. Five we sent, only two came back."
  2125. "...so instead you turned to feeding on us."
  2126. > "I didn't have a choice! The invaders have cut off-"
  2127. "Enough."
  2128. > You force several deep breaths into your lungs, trying to force down the fire inside.
  2129. > It isn't easy; with every blink, a vision of Canterlot under siege passes before your eyes.
  2130. > Time to try a different line of questions, then.
  2131. "So, what is downstairs, then? Do you bugs have a hive here?"
  2132. > There's a slight wince at the venom in your voice, but it answers quickly:
  2133. > "Not a full hive. Tunnels, between the buildings. Some storage."
  2134. "And if we knock down that wall...?"
  2135. > For a creature that eats emotions, a surprising variety pass over its face.
  2136. > "...you have to promise not to attack them. I can't let them get hurt."
  2137. "I don't make promises like that."
  2138. > "Tariff" narrows its eyes, glaring back at you.
  2139. > "Then you get nothing. I can't let you hurt them."
  2140. "You're telling me I should break my oath as a Royal Guard of Equestria for your sake?"
  2141. > "Do you think I want to let you all into our home? After all the time you've spent hunting us?"
  2142. "If you wanted us out, why not tell us that first night when we met?"
  2143. > It snorts softly - a surprisingly emotional reaction again.
  2144. > "Because you were already there, and I can't summon up another family to live there. To many questions. It was a risk, and my mistake."
  2145.  
  2146. > A second later, it again speaks in a softer tone.
  2147. > "...Keel Haul wouldn't ever have allowed it."
  2148.  
  2149. ACTION:
  2150. - Make the promise and take the Changeling with you when investigating the basement.
  2151.  
  2152. "...Caravan, see what else you can get out of him. I need some room to think."
  2153. > Stalking from the room, your hooves thudding heavily on the floorboards beneath them, you seek a room where you can - at least for a moment - put the Changeling out of mind.
  2154. > Unfortunately, it's not far enough.
  2155. > Its rough, scratchy voice carries through the empty house, still reaching your ears despite the distance you've put between yourself and it.
  2156. > "...what's his issue?"
  2157. > "He was at Canterlot."
  2158. > Whispen's voice is quieter, but still clearly audible.
  2159. > "He saw other ponies in his guard unit get taken. He didn't say, but I don't think they all got back okay."
  2160. > "...oh..."
  2161. > "Yes, oh. So for once, just count yourself lucky and be thankful he didn't just skewer you."
  2162. > You clench at the idea of her being anywhere near that thing, but force logic over the instinctual emotional response again.
  2163. > Its got two ponies holding it down, and many more surrounding it; it can't hurt her, can't feed on her without being noticed.
  2164. > This is not your problem to solve.
  2165. > Turning your thoughts back inward, you suppress a shudder again at the thought of actually holding treaty with a Changeling.
  2166. > But then again... this invasion was far more brutal and successful than anything the bugs had done.
  2167. > "Sir?"
  2168. > That doesn't mean it's easy to dismiss from your mind the images of your fellow guardsponies, injured and trapped where they lay.
  2169. > Searching for any sign of help, and not finding it.
  2170. > Looking to you, as you fled to keep what remaining guards you could safe.
  2171. > "Sir..."
  2172. > Leaving them.
  2173. > Those things made you leave them.
  2174. > "Sir!"
  2175. > The touch of a hoof one your withers drags you back to reality again.
  2176. > Dusk Shadow stares at you, concern obvious in his eyes even as it mingles with tiredness.
  2177. "...what is it, Dusk?"
  2178. > "...are you okay, sir?"
  2179. "Not... entirely certain."
  2180.  
  2181. > You can certainly admit that much.
  2182. "I... really don't like the idea of letting one of those things run around free. Not after Canterlot."
  2183. > "Neither do I... especially after knowing what it was doing to me. But, I don't see a way around it."
  2184. > You snort sharply.
  2185. "The day I ally myself with those things is the day-"
  2186. > "Can I be honest with you, sir?"
  2187. > That surprises you.
  2188. "...of course. Go ahead."
  2189. > "You sound like Copper Cog."
  2190. > Train of thought, meet solid wall.
  2191. "What."
  2192. > "You don't like it. I don't like it. None of us like it. But right now... we don't have a choice."
  2193. > A moment's pause, and then he goes on.
  2194. > "I don't know if Copper's unit was one of the ones I left behind when we pulled back with the Princess. I won't ever know. But he wasn't even willing to grit his teeth and work."
  2195. "...following your orders to protect a Princess is a bit different from attacking a city of innocents, Dusk."
  2196. > "I know. And I'm not trying to rationalize what they did - any other time, and I would throw the chains on it myself. But right now."
  2197. > Your muzzle twists as you force your eyes shut again.
  2198. > "And I say that as a pony it fed on as well. We have to."
  2199. > Again, images pass before your eyes.
  2200. > And again, you push them down.
  2201. "...alright. I'll work with it. Did Caravan get anything else good?"
  2202. > "A bit. If it's to be believed, the tunnels were used to hide Changelings who would be snuck on to ships as crew for hire, then vanish at the next port."
  2203. "A distribution network."
  2204. > "And transport, yes. They replaced the yard operators so they would always know which ships could be used."
  2205. "Figures... so, where are the tunnels?"
  2206. > "He listed a whole bunch of places, but it sounds like mostly under the docks. A few went into the city - and the sewers, of course."
  2207. "Delightful."
  2208.  
  2209. ACTION:
  2210. - We should try to work out a truce. Ask Tariff if there's anyone here who's "in charge", unless they're controlled by Chrysalis herself.
  2211. - Find out what they know of humans.
  2212.  
  2213. "...I need to talk to it."
  2214. > Your stomach twists at the thought, but you have to.
  2215. > It is your duty.
  2216. > Stepping back into the front room, you find the Changeling still pinned under Ornithea and Boulder.
  2217. > Its head turns slightly as you appear in its vision, though - twisted snout twitching slightly at something.
  2218. "...right. First off, do you have a name?"
  2219. > The Changeling shifts slightly, its eyes narrowing.
  2220. > "...if it's all the same to you, I'll keep that to myself. You can call me Tariff, though - that's been my face for a long time now."
  2221. > A thought occurs to you.
  2222. "And where is the real Tariff?"
  2223. > "Long gone. Don't ask about getting him back - it can't happen now. Not with the invaders here."
  2224. > Deciding not to pursue that particular line of conversation - as much because of the effect it may have on you as anything else - you decide not to pursue it.
  2225. "Alright, Tariff. We're willing to not attack you - or the other Changelings - if they don't attack us. But!"
  2226. > The last word is snapped out as you see it perk up.
  2227. "But - the moment we see anything remotely suspicious, it's over. If I see any of my ponies get copied, any of you feeding on them, any thing that makes me the least bit worried - understand?"
  2228. > It nods slowly.
  2229. > "By the same point, if you make any moves against us, I can't be held responsible for what the others will do."
  2230. "I suppose that's equal. Next - who's the head Changeling around here?"
  2231. > "Now?"
  2232. > Its face screws up in a look of thought.
  2233. > "...that's probably Buttercup over in the north district."
  2234. > The incongruity of the name grinds on you for some reason.
  2235. "You aren't certain?"
  2236. > "A lot of our commanders are gone, missing or dead when they went - actually, that's not important. The point is, we've lost a lot. Keel Haul ran things here, but he's gone too."
  2237. "Can you take us to see this 'Buttercup'?"
  2238. > "She won't like it... but yes."
  2239. "Alright. Last question - we're fairly certain the humans know about you."
  2240.  
  2241. > Seeing the look of terror on his face is absolutely delicious, but you're quick to correct the mistake.
  2242. "Not you in particular - Changelings in general. We... saw some things, in the gear we captured."
  2243. > "Oh... well, that does explain a few things."
  2244. "From what I remember of that book, the phrase 'assume actively hostile unless specifically notified otherwise and respond according to situational demands' was involved. So yes, they're not fans of yours either."
  2245. > An impressive stream of curses emerge from the Changeling's mouth, many of which you don't recognize.
  2246. > "...that's just like any other creature."
  2247. "What do you mean by that?"
  2248. > "Not important. Right, we don't know to much - probably not more than you, but here's what I do have..."
  2249. > It turns out that, unfortunately, 'Tariff' is very much correct.
  2250. > The Changelings seem to know little more than you, except to confirm that the humans are just a deadly to them.
  2251. > In a way you're glad they don't have any legs up on you, though you're also disappointed your alliance with the creature hasn't yielded anything more.
  2252. > "...there is one thing, though. You know how we can, uh... well, we can sort of mind control thing, right?"
  2253. "I'm quite aware, yes."
  2254. > "Well, I've not gotten a chance to try it, but I've heard they're just about as hard as a well-trained pony to influence. Most of us aren't that powerful with it - just enough to slightly nudge a pony into feeling a certain way, or be more likely to overlook us."
  2255. "So in theory, you could still influence them."
  2256. > "Well, it's harder with ponies who have a sharp mind - and the humans, they're all soldiers in a hostile land. They tend to be aware, which makes it really tricky."
  2257. > Ideas flow through your head.
  2258. > As much as you hate the idea of using the Changeling's magic, the idea of influencing a human soldier is also tempting...
  2259. > But would that be right?
  2260. > After all, you were ready to condemn it for doing the same thing to ponies.
  2261.  
  2262. > And the humans are many things, but irredeemably evil is not one of them.
  2263. "That can be discussed later. For now... let's go downstairs and take a look."
  2264. > Hoofblades - long since hidden when the humans came to search - are distributed to each of your squad.
  2265. "Ornithea, Byline - stay here and keep a watch. If we're not back by sundown, expect trouble."
  2266. > The answer to the mystery of the wall turns out to be deceptively simple, from a certain point of view.
  2267. > "Don't break it down - here, I'll open it."
  2268. > 'Tariff' steps forward, pressing his horn against the wall.
  2269. > A flash of green, and the wall shifts imperceptibly; when he next presses on it, the entire section twists inward easily.
  2270. > Beyond it lays a tunnel lined with the Changelings' strange green ichor, presumably to hold off the water.
  2271. > Lit at intervals by bulbous, glowing protrusions from the wall, merely the sight of it makes your ears lay flat and wings twitch restlessly.
  2272. > Pegasi were always a little nervous in tight, enclosed spaces to begin with, and this was offputting even before your first hoof came down in the slimy, rubbery ichor that formed the floor.
  2273.  
  2274. [Roll for success at travelling safely; result: You manage to make the trip safely.]
  2275.  
  2276. > In the end, the tunnels prove to be more worrying than actually dangerous.
  2277. > That doesn't stop you from being very welcome for the weight of the hoofblade on your leg, though.
  2278. > Even just walking behind the Changeling - no matter what deals you had made with it - leaves your wings twitching with nervousness.
  2279. > Knowing the hoofblade is there is just enough reassurance to keep you calm.
  2280. > "...so, is anypony else having trouble seeing down here?"
  2281. > Caravan's voice breaks the silence you had been walking in.
  2282. > Chilona's answer comes with a note of amusement.
  2283. > "Nope, not me."
  2284. > "That's because you're good in the dark. I've hit my head on the ceiling a dozen times now."
  2285. > 'Tariff' gives a small laugh at Boulder's predicament.
  2286. > "The tunnels aren't lit well exactly because you ponies can't see so well in them. It's enough for us, though."
  2287. "Expecting an attack?"
  2288. > "Being prepared for an attack. We aren't a race that can afford to leave things to chance."
  2289. > An opportunity to dig for information, perhaps?
  2290. "What do you mean by that, then?"
  2291. > "Well, you know how we live... we can't really avoid you, but just by being near you it's dangerous."
  2292. "Trust me, I'm fully aware of how you're-"
  2293. > You bite your tongue, keeping the word 'parasites' from slipping out.
  2294. > Not that you felt any differently, but angering the Changelings while trapped in their tunnels probably wasn't a good idea.
  2295. "-you're living."
  2296. > It snorts.
  2297. > "I don't think you really are."
  2298. > That kills the conversation until you arrive at the other end of a tunnel.
  2299. > This time, you get to see opening from the opposite side, and it certainly is enlightening.
  2300. > A thick layer of ichor has been built up over the back of the wall, with tendrils that 'Tariff' hooks his twisted legs onto and pulls.
  2301.  
  2302. > The wall, supported by the ichor on the back, swings out - leaving another basement visible beyond.
  2303. > Peering around from the entrance at the huge barrels set on their sides, Caravan raises an eyebrow.
  2304. > "Is this the basement of a bar?"
  2305. > "Hey, do you have any idea how free ponies are with their emotions in a bar?"
  2306. "We don't need to hear it."
  2307. > The idea of hearing a Changeling brag about stealing from ponies is just a bit to much for you.
  2308. > "Right - let me go in first. Buttercup is a little nervous as it is; I don't think a bunch of strange ponies suddenly intruding would go over well with her."
  2309. "As long as you let us."
  2310. > A flash of green to restore his pony form, and Tariff heads upstairs.
  2311. > His return can be heard long before he appears, mostly from another voice chewing him out vocally.
  2312. > "...an't believe you would actually take them into the tunnels!"
  2313. > "They were going to break down the entrance - I couldn't keep them out of Keel Haul's home!"
  2314. > "You could have at least told me what was going on!"
  2315. > "I've been busy just keeping myself alive - finding food hasn't exactly been easy, you know!"
  2316. > "Don't remind me - nopony's been coming in!"
  2317. > He reappears on the stairs, closely followed by a bright yellow mare in a barmaid's outfit.
  2318. > She gives you a sharp look.
  2319. > "So, you're the ponies that screwed all this up, huh?"
  2320. "And you're the bugs that've been stealing our life."
  2321. > 'Buttercup' marches over, jabbing a hoof in your chest.
  2322. > "Hey, we had a nice, clean operation here until you let those things just overrun everything."
  2323.  
  2324. ACTION:
  2325. - "let those things just overrun everything?! Bitch have you looked outside? Those things can kill us by pointing at us with a piece of metal! Whatever they use goes through our armor like a hot knife through butter. They can bomb us and we don't even know where they are! I have 4 ponies with injuries RIGHT NOW! Don't blame us, equestria is losing this war bad."
  2326.  
  2327. "We didn't 'let them' overrun everything. Those things - their weapons can kill us just from being pointed at us, and the mount them on everything! Our armor is only useful when enchanted and we can't do that without exhausting our unicorns, so we're being pushed back any time we make a stand. And that's before we even get into their flying machines-"
  2328. > "Oh, we know all about those things, trust me."
  2329. "Then you understand where we are right now. I've got four ponies wounded, two of them severely, and I don't know what's going to happen to us all next - so don't blame us, okay?"
  2330. > For a moment you and Buttercup stand nose-to-nose, each ready to snap at the other any second.
  2331. > As if to illustrate your point, a distant explosion rumbles through the ground, sending small plumes of dust falling from the ceiling above.
  2332. > It breaks the tension, though - Buttercup sits back on her haunches, her teeth gritted.
  2333. > "Alright, you've got a point. What are you offering?"
  2334. "It sounds like these things are as big a problem for you as it is for us, so-"
  2335. > "You can say that again. We've had no communication from the Queen since this started; we rely on being able to move freely in your society, and those things are locking down everything..."
  2336. > Tariff steps in, nodding as he speaks.
  2337.  
  2338. > "Keel Haul took four others and went out to try and get through. He was one of our best; if any of us could, it would have been him."
  2339. "He didn't, though."
  2340. > "Yes. Their flying machines got him all the same."
  2341. > Buttercup gives you a cold, cold smile.
  2342. > "So yes, we're suffering. No idea if our Queen or the others are still alive even, the war limiting our... food supply when we were already short, those things cutting off travel even in here..."
  2343. "Even in here? What do you mean?"
  2344. > She snorts softy.
  2345. > "What, you didn't hear? Some guards you are... they've cut off all travel to the cloud districts until they surrender up there. It's the one place those two-legs can't go, so they're just settling in to wait them out."
  2346. > There's an assortment of shocked noises from your ponies.
  2347. > You can't deny the feeling yourself - certainly, you suppose, it was better than their flying machines simply blasting the cloud districts apart.
  2348. > But slow starvation was not a good way to go either.
  2349. > Caravan speaks up first:
  2350. > "Is there any chance to move at night? To get up when they aren't looking?"
  2351. > "Hey, you were the ponies who were telling us how they're defeating you at every turn. Do you think we care to try running their blockade?"
  2352. "If they want to cut off the cloud districts, then nothing is getting through... unless we can do something about their air defenses."
  2353. > "If you want to commit suicide, you're welcome to it. Maybe they'll stop shooting anything that flies, then."
  2354. "...right. Look - the reason we came here is we want a truce. These things are obviously as bad for you as they are for us."
  2355. > Buttercup snorts.
  2356. > "After what you brought down on us, you want us to trust you?"
  2357. "After I saw what you did to Canterlot, you think I want to trust you?"
  2358. > The look of surprise in Buttercup's eyes is, as best you can tell, genuine.
  2359. > "...okay. What exactly do you want?"
  2360.  
  2361. ACTION:
  2362. - "We want to use your tunnels to move unseen. Maybe you can even add some more to help us move around unseen."
  2363. - "We have some supplies that need to be hidden. Can it go in your tunnels?"
  2364.  
  2365. "Those tunnels of yours are useful. Tariff said they run through the whole city?"
  2366. > Buttercup gives Tariff a look that leaves him cringing.
  2367. > "...up to a point. Las Pegasus is a big place and they were mostly around the docks, but some go further in."
  2368. "Right. If we can use them to ambush the humans and store our gear in, that would be extremely helpful."
  2369. > "I'll think about it. What else?"
  2370. > Time to see how far you could push this.
  2371. "A map of the tunnels would help. No offense, but I don't want to rely on anypony else when we might have to escape at a moment's notice."
  2372. > Buttercup's eyes narrow.
  2373. > "You're asking us to reveal our entire defenses to you, who just days ago were hunting us ruthlessly."
  2374. "That was then. Don't help us, and there won't be an Equestria left for either of us."
  2375. > "...alright, alright. Anything more?"
  2376. "I hope Tariff's offer for food from the warehouse stores remains open?"
  2377. > Buttercup glances to Tariff, who nods.
  2378. > "I wasn't lying when I said I want them out of here too. If feeding you helps, I'll take the loss."
  2379. "Good. Lastly, tell any other Changelings about us, so we don't get jumped by mistake. Better yet, give us a way to recognize each other."
  2380. > "If we agree, that will happen."
  2381. "If?"
  2382. > "You've asked for a lot. What can we expect back for putting ourselves at risk?"
  2383. "Besides standing up to the invaders? What exactly are you looking for?"
  2384. > Tariff rubs his hooves together.
  2385. > "Well... uh... you're kind of..."
  2386. > "Delicious."
  2387. > He gives Buttercup a surprised look, who stares straight back.
  2388. > "What, I'm being honest? He obviously cares for somepony very much, and it's fresh, too..."
  2389. "No way. I'm not letting you things feed on me. That's to far."
  2390. > Caravan speaks up nervously.
  2391. > "Uh... boss... we might have to..."
  2392.  
  2393. "No. I'm willing to negotiate, I'm willing to put aside the fact that you killed some of my comrades. But I draw the line at being fed on."
  2394. > "Come on - it's not that bad. We can do it without turning you into an empty husk, you know - I was doing it to you before, and it didn't hurt you."
  2395. > He does have a point there.
  2396. > If not for the strange look on his face you wouldn't have guessed you were being fed on.
  2397. > But still - your stomach does more than a few turns at the thought of letting a Changeling take something that was a part of you.
  2398. > "Can... it be somepony else?"
  2399. > Everypony turns to look at Dusk.
  2400. "...you aren't seriously thinking of-"
  2401. > "If I have to, yes."
  2402. > Caravan steps up beside him.
  2403. > "I'm not seeing anypony lately, but... if I can help..."
  2404. > Spark joins them, just nodding silently.
  2405. "I don't believe this."
  2406. > Dusk meets your eyes evenly.
  2407. > "Sir, if you don't want to... that's your prerogative. But I'm willing, so long as it doesn't effect me."
  2408. > Tariff nods.
  2409. > "It won't. We won't get as much out of it, but you won't feel any weaker."
  2410. > The logical part of you insists that Dusk does have a point.
  2411. > But some other part still can't shake the suspicion that there is something terribly, terribly wrong about this.
  2412.  
  2413. ACTION:
  2414. - Let them allow the Changelings to feed on your ponies.
  2415.  
  2416. > You turn away, trying to suppress the rising gorge in your throat.
  2417. "...go ahead."
  2418. > Even with your eyes shut, the struggle to control the urge to gag in the following moments is real.
  2419. > A few seconds pass and Tariff speaks again.
  2420. > "...it's done. It won't last us forever, but... it will help."
  2421. > You still feel slightly sick.
  2422. "So do we have a deal, then?"
  2423. > The words are practically spit from your lips.
  2424. > Buttercup nods.
  2425. > "We do. I'll have Tariff give you a map soon enough. The weapons... you can store them in the tunnel from Keel Haul's own place."
  2426. "And a way to recognize each other?"
  2427. > "We'll set a password. It'll take some getting used to, but we can deal with it."
  2428. > You're just beginning to nod when Buttercup speaks again:
  2429. > "But: Some conditions. One, we're not telling you a speck of what goes on beyond this city. We agreed to work with you, not sell out the rest of our kind or the Queen."
  2430. "Done. By the same merit, we only tell you anything regarding the Guard that you actually need to know."
  2431. > "Good enough for us."
  2432. > There's a strange sort of satisfaction in Buttercup's face.
  2433. > You aren't sure if it's because of a deal sealed, or because it was the Royal Guard that had to come begging to them and not the other way around.
  2434. > "Tariff, take them back to Keel's place. We'll clear the tunnels for them and get everything set up."
  2435. "Right. Time to go, everypony."
  2436. > Tariff doesn't join you, turning back down the tunnel when you arrive back at the house.
  2437. > You quickly head upstairs, claiming one of the beds and slumping down into it.
  2438. > Stomach still churning at what had happened, you squeeze your eyes shut and again try to force the images of Canterlot under assault from your head.
  2439. > "Sir...?"
  2440.  
  2441. > Cracking open one eye, you find Whispen standing in the doorway.
  2442. "How did you get up here with that leg of yours?"
  2443. > "Slowly and painfully, sir. I heard you were in bad shape."
  2444. > You push yourself upright into a seated position to face her.
  2445. "Thank you. For coming up here anyhow, I mean. I... do appreciate the concern."
  2446. > "I heard what happened, sir..."
  2447. "...and your thoughts?
  2448. > "You... did what you had to, sir. It wasn't wrong."
  2449. "I just wish I could believe that."
  2450. > You take a deep breath.
  2451. "What time is it?"
  2452. > "A little bit before Two, sir."
  2453. > Plenty of time left in the day.
  2454. > Maybe getting something else done will take your mind off that matter.
  2455.  
  2456. ACTION:
  2457. - Scout the city; send some to the hospital and some to the south of the city.
  2458.  
  2459. "...we need to figure out what's going on in the city. I don't want to be operating blind here."
  2460. > Running the times in your head quickly, you come to a conclusion.
  2461. "If the curfew here is anything like what it was in Easthock, we should have plenty of time to make another trip to the hospital and get back in time - even take a look around along the way."
  2462. > "If you go, sir - I'm capable of standing watch here."
  2463. > Your vision jerks up, settling on Whispen's still-bandaged form.
  2464. "Whispen, you need to recover. Don't push-"
  2465. > "I can do it, sir. I don't have to walk far, I don't have to use heavy-duty magic, and I can still see."
  2466. > There's a determination in her voice - a determination not to be a blind, useless weight.
  2467. > You want to give her that much, but there's no denying she is nowhere near 100%.
  2468. "...I'll take it under consideration."
  2469. > Whispen's head bobs appreciatively.
  2470. > "Thank you, sir. I'll get the others started on getting fed before they go."
  2471. "Good. Have them get the hoofblades stored away as well - we won't be needing those anymore."
  2472. > You remain a while still, getting your breathing under control.
  2473. > By the time you join them, all eight of your ponies are eating - a final plate left out for you.
  2474. > Only when your plate is clean as well do you speak.
  2475. "Okay. I'm going to need a team to go scouting - two, in fact. One will head for the hospital and see what has happened there, the other I want to sweep south and just see what is going on there."
  2476. > Glancing around the group, you begin to consider who you will send with each team.
  2477. "We heard a rumor that there was another group of humans coming in from the south that spoke yet another language - something that supposedly sounded like Prench. Pay special attention to them."
  2478.  
  2479. > Byline raises a hoof.
  2480. > "I know a little Prench. Good thing to know a bit of when you're in the news business."
  2481. "Good. For now we are going to avoid contact with the other guard units under Fairweather until we know what is happening. The last thing we want is to attract attention to either of our groups."
  2482.  
  2483. ACTION:
  2484. - Send yourself, Caravan, and Byline to the south.
  2485. - Send Dusk, Ornithea, and Boulder to the hospital.
  2486.  
  2487. "Byline, Caravan - you're with me. Dusk, Ornithea, Boulder - head south. Spark, Chilona - keep watch here."
  2488. > Out of your eye you see Whispen wince.
  2489. > But no, you couldn't put her on duty yet.
  2490. > Not when she was still in such rough shape.
  2491. > Unfortunately, the first problem makes itself apparent before you even have the chance to split up.
  2492. > A squad of soldiers stands guard at the dockyard entrance, chattering among each other in their language.
  2493. > Taking a lesson from Easthock, you approach them with just the right degree of nervousness to appear submissive, but not so much you seem suspicious.
  2494. > The chatter stops as you near them, hands coming to rest on weapons.
  2495. > Your step hesitates for just the briefest moment, but they motion you closer.
  2496. "Can we go out? We want to go into the rest of the city."
  2497. > "Where did you come from? We did not let you in."
  2498. "We live here, in the house back there."
  2499. > One hoof is raised to point in the direction of your home.
  2500. > "You have not come out before?"
  2501. "Not since you came here."
  2502. > "Porządku. Okay. You will go to central library - we will give you address - and get travel papers."
  2503. > One of them pulls out a sheet of paper, scrawling down a quick message.
  2504. > The paper is handed to their leader and in turn to you; it quickly finds a place in a pair of saddlebags you'd found in the home.
  2505. "Travel papers?"
  2506. > "Yes - they give you papers to go in and out of city, to come in here without problems. They give you ration paper too - for food and oil."
  2507. > Rationing?
  2508. > That they were rationing didn't bode well.
  2509. > Then again, given the farmers taking refuge in Easthock and the sudden influx of human mouths to feed as well, it was entirely reasonable to think that there would be food shortages coming soon...
  2510. "Okay, we'll go straight there. Thank you."
  2511. > "And no flying. Flying is not allowed right now."
  2512. > As soon as you are out of earshot of them, you let out your breath.
  2513. > Caravan snorts softly.
  2514.  
  2515. > "Well, so much for getting a move on."
  2516. "We've still got time. I looked at the address on the paper, it isn't to far."
  2517. > Dusk nods slightly.
  2518. > "Good. I'd still really like to actually make the trip we set out to make."
  2519. > Walking through the streets, you can't help but feel the city is stuck between two worlds.
  2520. > On the one hand, ponies are once again out and about; the invaders had come and the world had not ended, ponies were not being murdered in the streets.
  2521. > Yet, the signs of the change were everywhere.
  2522. > Brightly-colored flyers had been stuck to the sides of buildings, each listing numerous rules under the new government.
  2523. > No flying above the rooftops.
  2524. > Curfew from 8 PM to 6 AM
  2525. > Flying the Equestrian flag is strictly forbidden.
  2526. > Soldiers are a common sight as well, both on foot and riding in their rumbling carts.
  2527. > Although you never see any of them directly harm anypony, there's a wall of exclusion around each and every one that nopony dares violate.
  2528. > The question of whether violence will break out here as it did in Easthock flickers through your mind.
  2529. > You spot the lines in front of the library long before the library itself.
  2530. > Settling in at the rear of one, you slide up to the side of the mare ahead of you - a bored-looking foal at her side - and speak quietly.
  2531. "Is this the line for getting travel and ration papers?"
  2532. > She glances at you before nodding.
  2533. > "Uh-huh. Don't worry, it moves faster than it looks."
  2534.  
  2535. [2 rolls to see what you hear; result:]
  2536. Roll 1 = Hear something about prisoners.
  2537. Roll 2 = Hear something about what the humans are building.
  2538.  
  2539. > As you stand waiting in line, you try to keep your ears on the swivel - listening for any snippets of conversation that might be useful.
  2540. > There isn't much - most of the chatter is about who is safe, who is injured, who needs a new home, and what is coming next.
  2541. > The word 'prisoner' still jumps out at you, though.
  2542. > Instantly your head turns, eyes narrowing as you try to catch who is talking.
  2543. > It's an older-looking stallion, his face creased and wrinkled - a mark of a quill on an open book adorning his flank.
  2544. > "...just wish they hadn't broken out of my building! What if the humans blame me - what if they take me away?"
  2545. > The mare beside him gently rests her neck against his.
  2546. > "I'm sure they'll be reasonable, dear. They had to know it wasn't your fault - you weren't even there!"
  2547. > A snort heralds his response.
  2548. > "Oh yes, I'm sure they will - right after they finish tearing the whole bloody building down trying to figure out how they did it."
  2549. > "We both know that they put to may guards in there without enough to watch them all - honestly, Pa. I don't know why you're so upset. If I didn't think it would get me in trouble I'd be whooping for joy from the rooftops!"
  2550. > "Oh, sure you would - you're not the one who has to worry what's going to happen to his livelyhood!"
  2551. > The mare pulls back with a frown.
  2552. > "Really, Pa, I don't think ponies are going to be going to be getting pets any time soon anyhow - not with how it looks like food is going to be getting scarce."
  2553. > He sighs gently, shaking his head.
  2554. > "I know, I know... I guess I'm upset that MY place got used. I know it's war, and we have dungeons and prisons... but they were still the guard, and it wasn't right to just toss them all into dog pens on top of each other."
  2555. > "Well, then you should be happy they got out!"
  2556. > "I would if I weren't so..."
  2557. > You tune the following words out as the line shuffles forwardly.
  2558.  
  2559. > Inwardly, you turn the situation over in your head.
  2560. "I take it we all heard that?"
  2561. > "We all did. Do you think we're going to have guests soon?"
  2562. > Boulder's voice is even lower and quieter than normal.
  2563. "Maybe. I think we should at least prepare for some mouths showing up."
  2564. > Hopefully they'll not be too upset when the situation with the Changelings inevitably comes to light....
  2565. > The line creeps forward, eventually allowing you through into the library itself.
  2566. > Inside, reading desks and bookshelves have been transformed to allow a team of humans to rapidly work, machines with glowing screens resting in front of each.
  2567. > Immediately, however, your attention is more drawn by a happy screech practically at your feet.
  2568. > The bored-looking colt you had been with in line had spotted two of his friends and was waving furiously.
  2569. > After some inaudible conversation among them, the two trot over to join the first - all three quickly stepping out of line to form their own little bundle of conversation in between the streams of ponies.
  2570. > "Hey! Hey 'nimbus - did you hear? Treacle here was crazy enough to touch one of their big armored carts!"
  2571. > "No way - really?"
  2572. > "Uh-huh! It was really, really big and noise, but I ran out and give it a really big kick, and then they came out and yelled-"
  2573. > "And you ran away!"
  2574. > "Did not, Kernel!"
  2575. > "Did too!"
  2576. > "Did not!"
  2577. > "Hey, hey - that's nothing. Listen, my big brother? He just came back from sneaking up to the cloud districts!"
  2578. > "That's load of crabapples, 'nimbus. Nopony's going up there now."
  2579. > "Well he did! He says everypony's really scared up there, but the princess herself came and told them to be strong."
  2580. > "Now I know you're lying! If the princess was here, she'd zap them all and make them all go away."
  2581. > "He did too go up there!"
  2582.  
  2583. > "Well, that's nothing - my mama was out on the north side of town, and she says they're doing something big out there - making big, wide strips of road all over the place, but not goin' anywhere."
  2584. > All of sudden, your attention swings back to the three foals' discussion.
  2585. > "That's silly, Kernel. There are already roads there, and-"
  2586. > "No, no - I heard Thunderstruck talkin' with Pa, an' he was sayin' the same thing!"
  2587. > "Really?"
  2588. > "Yeah! He also says that they're doin' something weird with their flying machines there!"
  2589. > Flying machines... but they wouldn't need roads to land on.
  2590. > Unless...
  2591. > You'd seen the hovering kind land in place before, but never the fast, angular kind.
  2592. > What if they needed a road?
  2593. > But why here...?
  2594. > You'd have to go see this for yourself.
  2595. > So focused are you that you practically float through the rest of your time at the library.
  2596. > Even when the human soldier prints out sheets of paper with only a few simple questions after seeing your slip, you barely acknowledge it.
  2597. > This was... important news.
  2598.  
  2599. ACTION:
  2600. - Keep doing what you were already planning to do.
  2601.  
  2602. > "Sir... we all heard that. Are we still...?"
  2603. "We're still doing exactly what we planned to, Dusk. Take your team tot he hospital and check up on everypony there. We'll be heading south."
  2604. > He nods sharply.
  2605. "Nothing we can do for our friends now. It'd be like finding a needle in a hay stack. If you see anypony needing shelter, though - help them."
  2606. > "Got it, sir. Anything else?"
  2607. "Don't forget to ask them at the hospital about... the thing in the warehouse. If they want it."
  2608. > "Of course."
  2609. "Alright then... good luck, Dusk."
  2610. > "You as well."
  2611. > Turning south from the library, you quickly move along - Caravan and Byline trotting along behind you.
  2612. > Although you focus is on the soldiers in the streets, you can't help but steal a few glances skyward towards the cloud district.
  2613. > Distant colored blobs occasionally peek out from the puffy white that forms the homes and skyways, but you would be forgiven for thinking the districts were abandoned.
  2614. > Maybe they soon would be.
  2615. > In time you realize you're nearing the position of the old guard HQ.
  2616. > Although there's probably nothing left of it, it's a fair bet that the humans will be swarming all over the place.
  2617. > A good chance to take a listen, if you can be inconspicuous.
  2618. > Then again, maybe it would be better to just keep sweeping the streets and seeing what you could - getting to close to their operations could be just as problematic for you.
  2619. "Byline, Caravan - I'm thinking of trying to make a check-up on the old guard HQ location. If that's no good we can sweep the streets. Any other ideas from you two?"
  2620. > After a moment Byline speaks up.
  2621. > "Well, they seem to like housing their troops and machines outside the city rather than taking over buildings within it. So if we go far enough south..."
  2622. "...we might run into their main camp on the southern side. Got you."
  2623. > Caravan frowns.
  2624. > "I wish I had something to 'sell'. I bet I could talk my way pretty close to their camp if I did."
  2625.  
  2626. ACTION:
  2627. - Try to get Caravan something to sell, while you and Byline scout the old HQ.
  2628.  
  2629. "Caravan. You feel capable of working alone?"
  2630. > He raises one eyebrow, turning to give you a look.
  2631. > "Certainly think so, sir, as long as you're not telling me to charge their base single-hoofedly."
  2632. "Nothing of the sort. See if you can find some smokeweed - or liquor."
  2633. > Caravan pulls out his own ration sheet, taking a look at it.
  2634. > "Doesn't show either on here, sir. What am I supposed to be trading? Don't exactly have a lot of bits on me."
  2635. > You grimace, fishing around in your own pack for the first-aid kit buried at the bottom.
  2636. "Here. See if anypony wants this - we got the spare ones from the HQ. And... trade the sheet itself if you have to. We've got the spare food."
  2637. > "Got it, sir."
  2638. "Alright. Byline and I will be heading for the old HQ, see what we can. Meet us back here at, oh... an hour and a half."
  2639. > After seeing Caravan off, you and Byline head in towards the HQ.
  2640. > Much of the rubble from the initial attack has been cleared, even from the adjacent buildings that had collapsed.
  2641. > Instead, a small formation of metal-walled huts and such has sprung up in the one-time park - all populated by humans, of course.
  2642. > Their armored carts squat between the buildings like some kind of oversized insects, metal poles of weapons and less identifiable components poking out at random angles.
  2643. > Of course, this is only visible to you when you leap up to the second storey of a nearby building, because they've also put up a wall of wooden slats leaning against sandbags that blocks everything being seen from the ground.
  2644. > "So, what exactly are we doing, sir?"
  2645. "Well..."
  2646. > Studying the humans guarding the entrance - now gated as well - you get the feeling that even getting close would be tricky.
  2647. > Unless...
  2648. "One of these damaged buildings. We could see if we get up inside of it, look out from the inside."
  2649. > "I don't know, sir. They're almost certainly watching those."
  2650. > Turning to Byline, you raise one eyebrow.
  2651. "Any better ideas, then?"
  2652.  
  2653. > "They've got to let soldiers in and out of there some time. We'll keep close alongside them when a group comes in or out, take a long look through the gate. I can listen in, too."
  2654.  
  2655. ACTION:
  2656. - Let's [wait for a patrol], but until the patrol shows up let's try to get a higher angle.
  2657.  
  2658. "Fair point. I'm going to sit on a roof for a while - see if I can spot anything from their."
  2659. > "Got it, sir."
  2660. > The rooftop you choose is, fortunately, nice and flat - you don't need to worry about sliding off the side.
  2661. > There is one downside.
  2662. > You can't see to much from where you are currently sitting.
  2663. > Getting closer would be possible, but most of those buildings are damaged... and you'd definitely be seen from there.
  2664. > Instead you stay in place, crouched down against the rooftop to minimize the chance of being seen from the ground.
  2665. > The humans have definitely built their camp right on top of the old HQ.
  2666. > Unfortunately they've also taken the quite reasonable measure of surrounding some buildings - you suspect the most valuable ones - with further walls inside the camp.
  2667. > What you still can see, though, is quite informative.
  2668. > For instance, there is no way this is all of the invaders' camp.
  2669. > There must be tens, if not hundreds of thousands of them in the city - and this camp couldn't hold more than a couple thousand if they packed in tight, probably more like hundreds.
  2670. > Meaning, they must still have another camp somewhere else.
  2671. > The other interesting thing is that while the ruins of the old Royal Guard HQ tents have vanished without so much as a trace, the buildings the guard had been using are quite intact.
  2672. > There's a fair chance that any information in those buildings was taken too.
  2673. > Interestingly, they don't fear the zone that was closed to you before on account of the un-exploded bombs they had dropped.
  2674. > Clearly they must have a means of picking up their own messes.
  2675. > What interests you the most, however, is a line of smaller flying machines - the hovering kind, their top-rotors still and unmoving for now.
  2676. > Staring at them, you can't help but feel there's something... off about them.
  2677. > Different, compared to the ones you had seen before.
  2678.  
  2679. [Roll for success at observing the difference; result: Cannot see.]
  2680.  
  2681. > Before you can get a really good look at them, a rumbling from down the street draws your attention.
  2682. > Armored carts turn the corner, heading in for the camp.
  2683. > Quickly descending from the rooftop, you fall in beside Byline.
  2684. "Remember, just look unobtrusive and don't meet their eyes. We're just ponies watching them go past."
  2685. > Byline nods uncertainly.
  2686. > As the carts roll closer, you can begin to hear snatches of language from the troops within them.
  2687. > They're riding with the windows on the sides rolled down, with an occasional limb or weapon emerging from the portals.
  2688. > Glancing quietly to Byline, you hope he's hearing something.
  2689. > You can't make heads nor tails of the it, although it definitely sounds like Prench.
  2690. > Instead you busy yourself trying to make out anything you can see of interest.
  2691. > Given that these humans clutch yet a third variety of weapon - vaguely similar, but definitely not identical - you have to wonder how the humans are managing their supply lines.
  2692. > Do all their weapons use the same shots and machines the same parts, or is there something different involved for each?
  2693. > Glancing down the line of carts as they drive past, whatever propels them growling like an angered manticore, you're suddenly met by a sight that makes you take a sharp breath of surprise.
  2694. > No.
  2695. > It couldn't be happening already.
  2696. > On some level you'd always expected it, but. to see this yourself was different...
  2697. > Judging by the sudden intake of breath beside you, Byline has seen it too.
  2698. > In the second-to-last cart, a pegasus rides along with the humans.
  2699. > Not in chains, nor with a blindfold over her eyes, nor any other signs of imprisonment.
  2700. > The helmet awkwardly perched on her head speaks to the exact opposite, in fact.
  2701. > "Traitor..."
  2702. > Byline's breath comes out in a low hiss.
  2703. "Easy, Byline..."
  2704. > There were a few collaborators in every war, so it only stood to reason that some ponies aid the invaders here.
  2705. > But to see it in a freshly-taken city...
  2706.  
  2707. > By some strange twist of fate the cart pulls to a halt practically in front of you.
  2708. > Almost immediately the mare's gaze settles on Byline and yourself.
  2709. > You carefully force your face into total neutrality.
  2710. > Judging by the mare's flinch, that appearance holds the same meaning to her as open hostility.
  2711. > After a moment, one of the humans in the cart turns to her and speaks in heavily-accented Equestrian.
  2712. > "Is something wrong, Cherry Blossom?"
  2713. > She turns back to... him, you suppose, and shakes her head.
  2714. > "No, it's okay."
  2715. > "Are you - hey, you two out there."
  2716. > The human's head emerges through the window - although thankfully only his head, not a weapon.
  2717. > "Yes, you two. Go on, get away."
  2718. > "It's okay, Caporal."
  2719. > 'Cherry Blossom' turns to him, concern flickering in her eyes.
  2720. > "They're not bothering me. Really."
  2721. > Any further discussion is cut off by the cart pulling away with a low rumble, leaving the two of you standing there.
  2722. "...come on, Byline. We should go."
  2723. > Trotting away from the entrance, you turn the situation over in your head.
  2724. > The mare hadn't looked angry, or even scared at the look you had given her.
  2725. > More... sad.
  2726. > But why sad?
  2727.  
  2728. [Roll to see how Caravan did; result: He found some booze.]
  2729.  
  2730. > Turning the appearance of the collaborating pegasus over in your mind, you question what could have lead her to appear so sad when looking at you.
  2731. > Was it that she was upset with you in particular for being angry with her, or was the whole war what was weighing on her mind?
  2732. > Certainly the look in those eyes was not one of a mare who thought herself better than you.
  2733. > And despite her words to the human soldier, she'd clearly been upset by the look you'd given her.
  2734. "Byline, did you understand anything those soldiers were saying to each other?"
  2735. > "A little bit. Their accents are strange, not like what I'm used to - and there were some words I just didn't recognize."
  2736. > You gives a soft snort.
  2737. "Probably something exclusive to their world, or whatever."
  2738.  
  2739. > "Probably. But, I did get a fair bit out of it. They're surprised by how quickly the city fell - I think they were expecting us to fight inside Las Pegasus itself."
  2740. > You grimace at the thought.
  2741. > It would've been a stronger position than the open fields - right up until the invaders used their machines to simply level everything they saw.
  2742. > And that would've meant even more dead ponies.
  2743. "So, you don't think there was any fighting in the city?"
  2744. > "A little - they said 'more', not at all. Probably individual guard units that fell back and picked spots to make a stand."
  2745. > Like you had almost done.
  2746. "So, what're your estimations of the situation?"
  2747. > Byline gives considerable thought to that before answering.
  2748. > "They're either going to let their guard down because we fell back so fast they'll think we're broken entirely... or they're going to be suspicious and clamp down doubly hard."
  2749. > You desperately hope it is the former.
  2750. > Trotting back to the corner you'd agreed to meet Caravan on, you find he is already present - and his saddlebags bulge with several bottles each.
  2751. "You got something, then?"
  2752. > He nods, grinning.
  2753. > "A few beers, a couple of whiskeys, and some bottles of cider. That should give us plenty of options."
  2754. "Not bad. What'd you have to give up for it?"
  2755. > "Some of the ration sheet, and a few oat bars from our own stores. They were nice about it, though."
  2756. "Not to bad at all. If it pays off, it'll be well worth it. How long until curfew?"
  2757. > Caravan squints up at the sun.
  2758. > "About four hours, I'd say."
  2759. "And we should probably spare at least two for getting home... going to be tight if we want to do any more looking around here."
  2760.  
  2761. ACTION:
  2762. - Let's continue to the main camp to sell the booze, maybe we can learn more once we get there.
  2763.  
  2764. "Let's see if we can reach the camp in the time we have left."
  2765. > It's not going to be easy, and you pick you pace up to a quick trot in order to keep the time from slipping by.
  2766. > Soon enough you've again reached an area of single homes - idyllic little places, each with their own lawn and mailbox.
  2767. > Yet even here there are signs of the war.
  2768. > Deep tracks dug into earth and road by the invaders' vehicles, occasional patrols on foot or wheel, and more than a few damaged structures.
  2769. > At one point you pass a quarter of plots - three on one side of the road, one on the other - that have burned recently.
  2770. > Little is left but charred timbers and scorched grass.
  2771. > After an hour of trotting, you're starting to become concerned.
  2772. > Surely, if the main camp was down here, you'd have spotted it already...?
  2773. > "Sir. On the right... "
  2774. > Twisting your head at Byline's comment, you see what he's spotted - a cloud of dust in the distance.
  2775. > Far to large for a single patrol.
  2776. "Good eyes, Byline. We'll head that way."
  2777. > It takes a good fifteen minutes further of hiking, but you do eventually arrive at the camp.
  2778. > Unlike the one built around the former guard HQ, this has a far more temporary look to it.
  2779. > Instead of metal-walled buildings and barrier fences around the camp, they've done little more here than throw up some tents surrounded by barriers of coiled wire lined with wicked-looking spikes.
  2780. > Eyeing the coils, Caravan shakes his head slightly.
  2781. > "Well, it'll discourage a straight-up charge, that's for sure."
  2782. "But we're not charging. We're walking, nice and slow. Just walking on by..."
  2783. > Even with your gaze on the road you can study the base out of the corner of your eye.
  2784. > Yes, this one definitely looks far more temporary... almost as if they weren't really planning on staying here long.
  2785. > Where, then...?
  2786. > "Boss, we ain't got long..."
  2787. "I know, Caravan. Just taking a look around..."
  2788.  
  2789. > Up ahead, a gate, guarded by several soldiers.
  2790. > Possibly a way in, if you want to try to sell the booze.
  2791. > But even if you leave now it'll be a tight thing getting back home on time...
  2792.  
  2793. ACTION:
  2794. - Head to the gate and mention what you have, but say you can only sell it tomorrow.
  2795.  
  2796. "Caravan, you're up. Try to sell a bottle or two to those guys at the gate, but make it clear we have to get back soon and can't wait around and can only come back tomorrow.
  2797. > "On it."
  2798. > You and Byline hang back as Caravan approaches the gate, waving a hoof excitedly.
  2799. > Almost immediately things go wrong.
  2800. > The moment he gets within a good fifty paces of the gate the soldiers go from watchful alertness to outright aggression, several weapons being leveled in Caravan's direction.
  2801. > He immediately freezes, the panic on his face not a mask but very true fear.
  2802. > "Pony! Stop there, pony!"
  2803. > Caravan doesn't wait, dropping down to his belly as you'd been once ordered to do before in Easthock.
  2804. > After considerable discussion in whatever mangled version of Prench the soldiers are speaking, one of them calls out:
  2805. > "Okay, pony - open the bags, and slowly take it all out!"
  2806. "Byline, are you getting anything they're saying?"
  2807. > The stallion shakes his head.
  2808. > "I can't hear a thing - to far away."
  2809. "Damn..."
  2810. > Caravan is following their orders already, steadily pulling bottles from the bags to show them that nothing is hidden within.
  2811. > What they think you might have been carrying, you aren't sure - did they expect you'd found one of their bombs or something?
  2812. > Or, perhaps, made your own?
  2813. > Two of the soldiers creep forward now, keeping their weapons trained on Caravan.
  2814. > "What do want, pony?"
  2815. > Now Caravan is in his element - quickly explaining that he managed to acquire the bottles, and thought surely they would be thirsty after standing around outside?
  2816. > As he does his bit, you and Byline cautiously approach - but it seems this is something they're used to, or at least not surprised by.
  2817. > Thus it's to your considerable surprise that the soldier shakes his head.
  2818. > "No. Sorry. Not allowed to have, ah, alcohol."
  2819. > "Well, not now, but surely later you can..."
  2820. > "No. Not at all. Go now."
  2821.  
  2822. > A grimace starts to tug at your lips; after all that trouble, they weren't even allowed to have any booze?
  2823. > ...okay, sure, the Royal Guard wasn't supposed to drink while on duty either, but even later...?
  2824. "It's okay, Caravan. If they don't want it, I'm sure another bunch will."
  2825. > "Wait, wait - did not say we did not want it, just cannot buy it now..."
  2826. > This sets off a whole new round of discussion between them.
  2827. "...Byline...?
  2828. > His response is practically whispered straight into you ear.
  2829. > "One is telling the other that his, uh - I don't know the word, it must be a rank - but his superior is going to get him thrown in prison if he sees that. The other one says that no, the superior will be okay if they give him some... I think they're going to go for it."
  2830. > "Okay, pony - we cannot take now. But tomorrow, come to... uh, not here. Hold on, will give you place... come there and we will give something for it."
  2831. > Your face again enters a look of forced neutrality.
  2832. > Hopefully, hopefully this would be worth it...
  2833. > Caravan nods happily.
  2834. > "That's fine by us. We need to get home anyways."
  2835. > "Okay, okay. Go on then, go!"
  2836. > As soon as you are out of sight Caravan lets out a whoosh of breath.
  2837. > "Celestia above, I thought I was dead there for a moment."
  2838. "Hey, they took it in the end. You did good, Caravan."
  2839. > Byline nods.
  2840. > "Yes... it's just, one strange thing. As we were leaving... one of them said to another 'I told you we shouldn't be afraid of them. They want to sell us things now.'"
  2841. "...afraid?"
  2842. > His head bobbing an affirmative, Byline continues.
  2843. > "Yeah. And then, the second one goes 'Hey, if we anger them they could kill us all.' I... I think they're actually afraid of us, sir."
  2844. > You try and fit that into your mind - why would they possibly be afraid of ponies?
  2845. > Yes, you had magic... but they were so much more powerful in battle, as much as you hated to admit it.
  2846.  
  2847. ACTION:
  2848. - You think you have an idea of where the bar Tariff took you to is; it should be a bit closer. Try to find it and take the tunnels.
  2849.  
  2850. > "Sir, turn right here."
  2851. "This isn't the way home."
  2852. > "I know. Worst comes to worst we can hide somewhere for the night, but I have another idea."
  2853. > You give Caravan a strange look.
  2854. "Expecting something?"
  2855. > "Sort of. Remember that bar we ended up the basement of?"
  2856. > "Yeah, what about... Oh.
  2857. > The idea of actually accepting help from the Changelings is not one that fills you with joy, but why else did you negotiate with them.
  2858. "Yeah. Okay. I just hope you know where you're going."
  2859. > "I've an idea. We'll probably have to check a few bars, though."
  2860. > The first location you hit up isn't the right one, nor the second or third.
  2861. > In fact, it's only at the sixth bar that you hit a stroke of luck... and it's not even the right location.
  2862. > Trotting in, Caravan goes about a now well-established routine:
  2863. > Glance about quickly, looking for any sign of Buttercup - and when he doesn't see one, trotting up to the bartender and asking him.
  2864. > The Barpony gives him a strange look, eyes dropping to focus on the bottle-laden saddlebags Caravan wears.
  2865. > "...expecting a part tonight?"
  2866. > Caravan shakes his head.
  2867. > "Hardly anything to part about now, friend. No, she just owes myself and my two friends back there a favor."
  2868. > A sudden look of realization hits the bartender.
  2869. > "Oh... you're him. Tariff's... partner. Okay. Just go wait in the back. I'll be closing up soon, I can help you after that."
  2870. > The wait doesn't turn out to be long, as sooner or later all the patrons leave on their own - all but one drunk mare who very much needs to be carried out.
  2871. > Locking the door, the bartender takes a look back and forth down the street and closes the shades.
  2872. "...so, do you th- run all the bars here or something?"
  2873. > You'd been about to say 'things'.
  2874. > That was a close call.
  2875. > "No. And we can talk downstairs."
  2876. > In fact the Changeling doesn't speak again until you're safely within the tunnels.
  2877.  
  2878. > "...right, new rule. Don't talk about us in the open. I don't care who's supposedly around or not."
  2879. > You give a dry snort at being corrected by one of them, to which the changeling gives a little snicker in response.
  2880. > "Hey, measures like that kept us safe from you for years. In answer to your question - not all of them. A fair few, though. Nopony really watches what goes on in a bar, and the love is free."
  2881. "Better hope you can feed on humans, the way things are going."
  2882. > "Har, har. We don't know if we can yet. You're needing to get to Keel Haul's old house, right?"
  2883. "Yes."
  2884. > "Turn left here, then."
  2885. > The trip is carried on in relative silence, although at one point Caravan strikes up a conversation regarding bartering for further liquor if the plan held out.
  2886. > You don't care to speak, particularly.
  2887. > Just working with the parasites and actually liking them were two different things.
  2888. > There is one slight benefit, though:
  2889. > Emerging from the basement of your home, the three of you - the Changeling had not followed in - manage to truly shock Chilona.
  2890. > She'd been sitting watch near the door, and your sudden appearance behind her sent her eyes widening and wings half-spread.
  2891. > "Sir! You - oh, the tunnels. Oh. I thought I'd fallen asleep a moment there or something."
  2892. "It's alright. Are the others back?"
  2893.  
  2894. [Roll for success of Dusk's scouting trip; result: They didn't get any good information.]
  2895.  
  2896. > "Yeah, they got here a while back. They're eating now."
  2897. > Good; they were okay here.
  2898. > Stepping into the kitchen, you find the others sitting around a table.with half-finished plates in front of them.
  2899. > " 'lo, sir. Your trip went well?"
  2900. "About as good to be expected. We think we have a way to get in to one of their camps?"
  2901. > "Caravan going to sell them that filth?"
  2902. > Several eyebrows rise.
  2903. "When did you become an aficionado of liquor, Spark?"
  2904. > "Hey, I had a social life too, you know - and that stuff's junk."
  2905. > "What can I say?"
  2906. > Caravan shrugs.
  2907. > "I didn't have much to go on."
  2908. > At this point you notice that Dusk has risen to approach you.
  2909. > One look at his face tells you exactly how bad things are going to be.
  2910. "...what happened, Dusk?"
  2911. > "It's Quick Step, sir..."
  2912. > The pit falls out of your stomach.
  2913. "How bad is it?"
  2914. > "He's been taken away. The soldiers - apparently the first thing they did was sweep the hospital and take anypony they thought was a Royal Guard..."
  2915. > You hiss softly; Dusk goes on.
  2916. > "The humans have segregated the ones that can't be moved in one of the hospital wings. Our doctors aren't allowed to see them; nopony knows what's going on in there."
  2917. "Sweet Celestia... we don't know if he's even..."
  2918. > Dusk shakes his head, something twisting in his face.
  2919. > "Hot Pot is fine. I don't know why just him, I..."
  2920. > You realize what he can't say.
  2921. > He's relieved it wasn't her... but can't admit as much.
  2922.  
  2923. [Roll to see how much warning you get; result: You get ~10 seconds warning.]
  2924.  
  2925. > Boulder stands up.
  2926. > "Chilona, come get something to eat."
  2927. > "Thanks, I was starving. Barely got anything for lunch, and-"
  2928. > Her approaching hoofsteps halt.
  2929. > "Sir, do you hear that...?"
  2930. > After a second, you do.
  2931. > A rising howl, low and angry, reaches your ears.
  2932. > That of a flying machine, far louder and closer than any you'd heard before.
  2933. "Everpony out! Out of the house, now, now, now!"
  2934. > Barely have you had a chance to scramble through the front door when you look up.
  2935. > What you see halts your breath.
  2936. > A colossal flying machine hangs directly overhead, two pods sprung beneath each wing.
  2937. > Even as you watch the machine begins to fall into a slow roll, over and over until one wing happens to plow through an unfortunate building in the way.
  2938. > The entire wing shreds itself and erupts into a roiling ball of flame with a suddenness that makes your own feathers twinge.
  2939. > Immediately, the rest of the aircraft falls fail-first to the ground.
  2940. > Even as the last of your ponies rush from the building, the rear half rears free and slams into a warehouse.
  2941. > Something falls out from inside the machine - your mind instantly has the vision of some kind of mechanical guts spilling free.
  2942. > The last segment rolls forward, coasting perhaps another eighty paces before it, too, joins the first wing in fiery doom.
  2943. > Everypony is silent for several seconds.
  2944. > Finally Ornithea speaks.
  2945. > "...sweet Celestia..."
  2946. "We... we should go check it out... they might... let's go!"
  2947. > Charging towards the burning ruins, you're interrupted by Dusk's voice.
  2948. > "Sir... that warehouse... that was Tariff's place."
  2949. > Your stomach twists as you realize he was right.
  2950.  
  2951. ACTION:
  2952. - We should check on the humans but send three to check on tarrif, and perhaps one other to check on the wreck itself. We don't know how flammable this thing might be or how fast it might spread.
  2953.  
  2954. "Dusk, Byline, Boulder - get in that warehouse and see if Tariff's alright."
  2955. > The three gallop away at top speed, heading straight for the warehouse - all except for Dusk.
  2956. > He stays locked in place, eyes staring straight at the roaring fire that still spreads through the wreckage.
  2957. > What's got him so...
  2958. > ...oh.
  2959. "Dusk! Dusk snap out of it, damn it - it's not you! You're safe! You're not burning!"
  2960. > He draws a shuddering breath and wrenches his gaze from the flame.
  2961. > "I... I'm sorry, sir, I..."
  2962. "No time - get over there and help those two!"
  2963. > Twisting to Whispen, you eye her leg.
  2964. > No way she was going anywhere near that conflagration.
  2965. "Stay back here. Send up a flare if you see something bad. Chilona, slip around back and see if you can figure out what fell from the back of this thing."
  2966. > Turning to the last of them, you take a breath.
  2967. "...everypony else, with me."
  2968. > Charging off into the wreckage, you dodge spots of flame seeming to erupt straight from the ground, jagged scraps of twisted metal, and wafting clouds of thick, noxious smoke.
  2969. "Spark, what can you tell me about this fire?"
  2970. > He glances around, taking it all in.
  2971. > "Fed by something liquid. I don't know what, maybe whatever they're burning to power these things. Probably won't go out easily if so - not with just the four of us here."
  2972. "Great. Any good news?"
  2973. > He waits, breath held, as you all pass through another cloud of foul-smelling smoke.
  2974. > "Good news, it probably all spilled out when this thing broke up. There shouldn't be any unexpected explosions, and it will only spread on buildings after this."
  2975. > As if to deliberately contradict him, something goes off like a firecracker nearby.
  2976.  
  2977. > "...okay, that was something different. I don't know what. Didn't sound liquid, though - to sharp. Sir, where the hell are we going?"
  2978. "I want to see where the front of that thing went down. If I had to guess, that's where the humans controlling it are."
  2979. > Spark's eyes are searching the conflagration, eyeing where the worst is.
  2980. > "This way, then. We have to circle around - the worst of it is over there."
  2981. > The nose section of the massive machine had encountered a sturdy pile of shipbuilding lumber that had halted its progress.
  2982. > Unfortunately, that same lumber was already beginning to smolder as a few drops of burning liquid had sprayed out on it.
  2983. "Spark, how long do we have until this all goes up?"
  2984. > "Um, maybe ten minutes? It's stacked tightly, so it will take some time to spread - no airflow."
  2985. "Good enough."
  2986. > Ascending the sloping edge of the wood pile - the side that is not burning - you struggle to reach the front of the flying machine.
  2987. > As you'd half-expected, a completely-shattered window dominates the top of it.
  2988. > Not until you get close do you see the slumped forms of humans strapped in two-side-by-side seats amid the ruins of what must have been its control stations.
  2989.  
  2990. ACTION:
  2991. - First call in, and then fly through one of the shattered windows yourself.
  2992.  
  2993. "Is anyone alive in there? You need to get out, your machine is on fire!"
  2994. > If any of them are, they don't respond - though you think you see one's head roll slightly, that could just be your imagination.
  2995. "Okay, stay back a second."
  2996. > Spreading your wings, you lift off the pile of wood - hovering in place and carefully edging in closer to the window.
  2997. > Jagged fragments of glass still erupt upwards from the edge of the opening, and you're careful not to step on any of them.
  2998. > Thoughts of such a sliver plunging into the underside of your hoof sends a shudder down your spine.
  2999. > The inside of the machine's control room is littered with fragments as well, along with the coppery tang of blood and a smoky scent you don't recognize but suspect to be the result of something burning.
  3000. "Hello? Is are any of you alive, I don't-"
  3001. > You rise to your forehooves, pushing the first human's helmeted head back.
  3002. > It sags limply, and you quickly realize he is not breathing.
  3003. > The second is even more obvious - though you've had little chance to study the humans up close, you know a broken neck when you see one.
  3004. "Celestia damn it!"
  3005. > An agonized groan issues from somewhere to the rear of the cabin; peering around the first two chairs, you find another two humans strapped into yet another pair of identical seats.
  3006. > Climbing over the ruined and warped controls, you manage to get back to them.
  3007. "Hello? Can you hear me? You need to get out, right now!"
  3008. > The human's eyes flutter open, rolling forward and settling on you.
  3009. > A moment later they bug out as his brain catches on to what he is seeing.
  3010. "Can you hear me? Your plane crashed and it's burning, you have to get out!"
  3011. > His lips work, but the sounds coming from them are jumbled and meaningless.
  3012. > Growling, you begin to prod at the harness that straps him to the seat.
  3013. "How do you get this thing off?!"
  3014.  
  3015. > Arms reach up, but they only succeed at nervelessly flopping about.
  3016. > Fortunately his mouth finally starts to work again.
  3017. > "Latch... silver buckle... you have to pull up..."
  3018. > It takes a few moments to spot the buckles he means, and quite a bit longer to find a good means of pulling them open.
  3019. > In the end you resort to grasping them in your teeth and twisting.
  3020. > A crude measure, but one that works - even if it leaves you with a foul, metallic taste in your mouth.
  3021. > "Can't... can't see straight.... head hurts. Concussion... Where's Mitchell?"
  3022. "I don't know; the two in the front are dead. Can you get yourself out?"
  3023. > There's a great deal of fumbling, but he does manage to get the next buckle open on his own.
  3024. > While he finishes, you hop over to the last human.
  3025. > What you see isn't heartening.
  3026. > While the first one alive was protected to some degree from the crash, debris had carved its way through this human's body.
  3027. > Blood pools from several deep wounds; you've no idea what moving him might do.
  3028. > But an unsteady breath shudders from his lips, and move him you must.
  3029. "Is there another way out of here? I came in through the window."
  3030. > The first human you'd woken shakes his head
  3031. > "Back door... twist the red lever... should open."
  3032.  
  3033. ACTION:
  3034. - Try and get them to crawl over the front chairs and through the front windows.
  3035.  
  3036. > A couple of twists on the door's lever proves that it's either been jammed by the crash, or requires considerably more force than your body can provide.
  3037. > Climbing back to the front, you stick your head out the shattered window and call out.
  3038. "Can you hear me?"
  3039. > Caravan's anxious replies:
  3040. > "Yes - what's going on in there? The fire's starting to spread out here!"
  3041. "There's two alive. Get some lumber and push it over the gap; we'll have to carry them out on it."
  3042. > Every bit of first aid training you have is screaming at you not to move a severely wounded victim, but the fire overrides that concern.
  3043. "Hey, you back there - you have a name?"
  3044. > The human's voice is still slurred and groggy.
  3045. > "I.. name's Farow. I don't think you're allowed in here..."
  3046. "Oh, for the love - I'm trying to save your life!"
  3047. > He doesn't answer, his eyes unfocused and staring somewhere over your shoulder.
  3048. > Your groan of frustration is cut off by the first of three stout beams being slid across from the wood pile.
  3049. > Spark's legs are spread wide and he's obviously straining a big to move the pieces of wood, but they each swing into place under his magic and with some guidance from Ornithea and Caravan.
  3050. "Spark! Get in here, I need your help!"
  3051. > The unicorn comes scrambling across the impromptu bridge a few moments later, squeezing himself flat against the wood to push through the window.
  3052. > Even so, he hisses softly as a jagged edge leaves a line of red in his back.
  3053. > "What's the job?"
  3054. "Get the one in the back on the right out of his seat - twist the metal sections of the black buckles. Careful, he's wounded."
  3055. > With Spark freeing the second human, you start nudging the first one up towards the front.
  3056. "Come on... it's just an easy thing. Just go through the window and then climb out on the wood..."
  3057. > Farow tries to push himself through the window - but promptly falls back, clutching his head.
  3058. > Damn, he isn't going to be able to do it on his own.
  3059.  
  3060. ACTION:
  3061. - Have Ornithea or Caravan come and grab his sleeve and use that to steady him as he goes through the window.
  3062. - Get behind and push him out onto the bridge.
  3063.  
  3064. "Ornithea!"
  3065. > You stick your head through an adjacent window-hole and call loudly.
  3066. "Ornithea, come over here and help him out!"
  3067. > She scuttles along the impromptu bridge, glancing down nervously at the ruined mass of twisted metal beneath where the machine's side had crumple against the wood-pile.
  3068. > "What do you want me to do?"
  3069. "When he puts his arm through, grab and pull. Just get him out of this thing - okay, Farow! Get out on that wood!"
  3070. > Again Farow tries to (unsteadily) climb through the window, and again he completely fails to do so.
  3071. > This time, however, Ornithea's jaw locks around his sleeve and sharply pulls when he threatens to pull back; a moment later, you join her in keeping him moving.
  3072. > Firmly planting your hooves on the human's backside, you push sharply - keeping him going over the ruined controls and out the window.
  3073. > It's rough going; you don't have the raw strength of an earth pony nor the magical finesse of a unicorn.
  3074. > But after several long, grunting, sweaty moments the human is through but for his legs, clutching the wooden bridge and moaning about his head.
  3075. "Ornithea, as soon as he's up get him moving off that bridge! Caravan, soon as it's clear get in here to help with the second one!"
  3076. > Turning back, you find Spark struggling with the far-worse-off human.
  3077. "Any luck?"
  3078. > His straps have been removed, but the unconscious human still slumps about like a bag of potatoes.
  3079. > "This... stupid... ape... is to... damn.. heavy!"
  3080. > At long last Spark manages to pull the human away from his chair - only to catch him at the last second as he nearly falls to the floor.
  3081. > "Shit! I'm going to tear him apart!"
  3082. > Spark's concern isn't unfounded; already fresh blood stains the human's clothing where motion has further wrenched existing wounds.
  3083.  
  3084. > Getting him to the front seats and over his deceased comrades will be all but impossible alone.
  3085. > Fortunately, at that moment Caravan sticks his head through the window.
  3086. > "Need some help in there, boss?"
  3087. "Oh, thank Celestia - Spark! Go back out on the bridge, you'll use your magic to help him through. Caravan, get in here!"
  3088. > Casting a wary eye at the two corpses occupying the front seats, the earth pony moves in to allow the unicorn to pass.
  3089. > "How are we doing this, sir?"
  3090. "Get in back and lift. I can't really fly in here, but I might be able go get enough lift to help him up over and over the front seats."
  3091. > A minute later you are deeply regretting that decision.
  3092. > Your right wing aches where it had slammed against the cabin's ceiling, and your jaw from grasping the collar of the human's clothing to try and lift him.
  3093. "Okay... Caravan, I'm going to start pulling him through the window. You push. Spark, be ready to grab him as soon as you can see him!"
  3094. > "Got it. Sir, you're going to want to get moving - the fire's spreading out here!"
  3095.  
  3096. [Roll for success; result: You get everyone out safely and successfully.]
  3097.  
  3098. > By some miracle of luck or fortune you manage to get the human across the bridge more or less intact.
  3099. > And not a moment to soon, either - in the minutes you've spent inside the machine, the stack of lumber has gone from smoldering to at least a quarter burning openly.
  3100. > The heat makes your coat prickle.
  3101. > Now free to move together, it is mercifully easy to allow Caravan, Ornithea and Spark to carry the more injured human from the woodpile while you guide Farow with one arm clasped in your forehooves.
  3102. > It feels strange, feeling his hand close around your leg.
  3103. > Had your armor been on they would surely have done their best to kill you, but now he hangs on for dear life as you do your best to get down safely.
  3104. > A distant voice calls, and for a moment you're confused - it doesn't sound like any of your ponies.
  3105. > Then your eyes follow it to the source and your breath catches in your throat.
  3106. > It's not a pony at all.
  3107. > Two of the big armored carts have stopped at a fair distance away, soldiers piling out of them.
  3108. > One gestures furiously, seeming to wave you off.
  3109. > Glancing back, your eyes settle on Caravan.
  3110. "Ornithea, take over pulling him along. Drag him if you have to. Caravan, turn back and find Whispen and the others. Tell them we're safe and should be back after not to long, but stay out of trouble until then."
  3111. > For a second you lock eyes with him and think he is going to refuse.
  3112. > But then he gives a sharp nod and a salute.
  3113. > "Good luck. Celestia's luck with you."
  3114. > After giving him a few moments to flee, you grab Farow's arm again and pull him down the last few steps.
  3115. > At last the humans in the distance seem to realize what - or perhaps more accurately, who - you are helping along.
  3116. > Several break forward to charge, weapons held ready but not aimed at you.
  3117. > Your coat is soaked with sweat, and the fire's smoke has long since turned your eyes to blurry messes.
  3118. > But still you go on, until your ears alert you to the close beating of boots against the dockyard's pavement.
  3119.  
  3120. ACTION:
  3121. - Keep moving them anyway - you need to get as far away from the fire as possible.
  3122. - Tell one of your ponies to shout that you're trying to help.
  3123.  
  3124. "Don't stop. Nopony stop, we have to get away from that fire."
  3125. > Behind you, more sharp pops and cracks are beginning to issue as the machine's body continues to burn.
  3126. > At last the charging soldiers reach you, surrounding you.
  3127. > Some chatter rapidly to each other in their own language, but two make to grab you.
  3128. "Don't hurt us! Don't hurt us, we're trying to help!"
  3129. > You are not seized.
  3130. > Nor are Ornithea and Spark.
  3131. > In fact the humans do little more than grab their injured comrades, slinging an arm over each of their shoulders and carrying them along.
  3132. > "Cholera, są Amerykanie. Mówiłem ci, że to jeden z ich samolotów. Ponies - come, come!"
  3133. > You do come, galloping alongside the group of struggling humans as they pull the injured pair over to their armored carts, another soldier having already cracked open a first-aid kit.
  3134. > "You, pony - what happen? What - where did they - did they come from?"
  3135. > The question is directed at Spark, but he just wordlessly points to you.
  3136. "We saw the, uh thing crash. We came running to see if our friend was safe, we saw the machine burning."
  3137. > "You - you go in?"
  3138. > He gestures wildly, making a motion with one hand to suggest jumping.
  3139. "I flew. We put wood in through a window and pulled them out."
  3140. > "Okay - ponies stay here. We get... not know word, pogotowia. For carrying hurt. Bartosz, gdzie jest cholernie pogotowia?"
  3141. > "Nadchodzi, nadchodzi!"
  3142. > You get none of it, but their tones make it clear enough.
  3143. > Something isn't happening fast enough.
  3144. > Turning back to the burning machine, you again marvel at its size - could four humans even control such a thing?
  3145. > Complete, it must have been at least the size of a moderately-large ship...
  3146. > If there were any more crew aboard the flying machine, you didn't know.
  3147. > Your attention is drawn by the arrival of at least a half-dozen roaring self-propelled carts, flashing lights and occasionally honking grating horns as they pull in all around the burning ruins.
  3148.  
  3149. > The next few minutes are a blur of noise and sights.
  3150. > You're bundled into an armored cart; while you certainly don't seem to be prisoners, you're certainly not free to leave either.
  3151. > No weapons are pointed at you; the humans themselves still seem to be a state of mild shock.
  3152. > Unfortunately, the windowless nature of the vehicle prevents you from knowing exactly where you are headed, but given how long your trip is stretching on you've a fair guess.
  3153. > At last you're allowed out again, Caravan and Spark leaping free behind you.
  3154. > As you'd expected, you're within the human camp.
  3155. > Unwelcome, but they still don't seem to be treating you as enemies.
  3156. > That doesn't keep them from pushing you into a relatively stark, empty room with only a table and several chairs - meant for humans, of course - centered around a table.
  3157. > The door slams shut, a single soldier left in the room to apparently watch over the three of you.
  3158. > Damn, that precluded any chance to talk with the other two...
  3159.  
  3160. ACTION:
  3161. - Try to talk to the soldier.
  3162.  
  3163. > There's only so long you can wait before you start to get a little antsy.
  3164. > Unfortunately, the barren room offers remarkably little in the way of options for alleviating anxiety.
  3165. > Except, of course, the guard standing watch near the door.
  3166. > He's done little but shift from foot to foot occasionally, though his eyes have never left you.
  3167. > Stealing a quick glances at his face, you're unfortunately unable to read his face.
  3168. > A gentle nudge grabs Caravan's attention, and a subtle nod of your head directs him towards the soldier.
  3169. > You mouth out the words 'try to talk'; hopefully the human won't be able to see you.
  3170. > Caravan raises one eyebrow, but wanders over to the soldier.
  3171. > "Hey... um... do you know how long we are going to be here?"
  3172. > The soldier just shrugs.
  3173. > "Do not know. They talk to you about what happened, then maybe go away. Maybe stay longer."
  3174. > "So... what, a few hours, or...?"
  3175. > "Maybe longer. American plane crashed, so Americans want to come and talk. Maybe take hours, maybe days."
  3176. > Caravan tilts his head.
  3177. > " 'American plane'? Is that what that thing is called?"
  3178. > This actually provokes a laugh from the soldier, a small grin beginning to creep onto his face.
  3179. > "You ponies silly. Airplane is... Airplane. What we fly in. American is who flies plane that explode. Is their country."
  3180. > "Ah... well.. uh, will we be staying here, then?"
  3181. > Another shrug.
  3182. > "Maybe. Do not know. Hope so - want to go to sleep soon."
  3183. > It was getting late, you realize.
  3184. > When you'd crawled back into the home from the Changeling tunnels, it must've been after eight... and you'd never gotten a chance to eat.
  3185. "Um... excuse me? If you could... could we get some food?"
  3186. > "Food?"
  3187. > What else could you mean?
  3188. > You give what you hope is an apologetic grin.
  3189. "Yes, food. We were eating when the, uh, airplane exploded. We never got a chance to finish..."
  3190. > The door is opened and a brief conversation held with someone on the other side.
  3191. > "Okay, food coming. Hope you can eat."
  3192.  
  3193. "Thank you. We do appreciate it..."
  3194. > The soldier gives a little shake of his head.
  3195. > "You are not enemy. We are not fighting you - why not give food?"
  3196. > 'Because you are fighting us', you want to yell out.
  3197. > 'Your very objective is to break everything Equestria stands behind!'
  3198. > But you aren't here to argue, so instead you just tilt your head questioningly and ask:
  3199. "If you aren't fighting us... why are you here?"
  3200. > "You... do not know?"
  3201. > Caravan steps in as well, adding his voice.
  3202. > "No, we don't. We just... heard you were coming one day, that we were at war with no idea why."
  3203. > It isn't far from the truth, honestly.
  3204. > "We... your soldiers, they come through hole. They attack us - we stop them, but more come. We come back, later - but your princess, she does something and stops us. So we send more, many countries."
  3205. > He pauses, then frowns a little.
  3206. > "I do not like your princess. But I do not know why she attacks us. Would rather be at home."
  3207. "I think we'd all prefer we were still at home..."
  3208. > "Is truth. This planet, your ponies - is too strange for me. Sun is wrong, Princess does things with minds..."
  3209. > Another laugh, along with a shake of his head.
  3210. > "Wish we had not found you."
  3211.  
  3212. ACTION:
  3213. - "Why don't your leaders just ask for peace, then?"
  3214. - "I think this is just a mistake. She comes into our dreams all the time, she didn't know it was wrong to do it to you."
  3215.  
  3216. "So, uh, do you have a name...?"
  3217. > "Kamil."
  3218. "Okay, Kamil. If you don't want to be fighting here, why don't your leaders ask for peace?
  3219. > "Your soldiers attack us first! We want peace yes, but must keep our homes safe. If your princess comes to our home - what will she do? Will she go in our heads again?"
  3220. > That again.
  3221. > You wonder if they still didn't know about the night princess' duty, or if they were simply so upset by it they didn't care about her mistake.
  3222. > There's only one way to find out.
  3223. "She... does that sometimes, yeah. To us, I mean - I don't think she knew doing that was wrong, and-"
  3224.  
  3225. > "No! You are stupid - she know. She gave terrible pictures in their dreams - none could sleep for many nights. They finally push her out - is great success!"
  3226. > There's a fair bit of anger in his words, but for the first time you hear something else as well.
  3227. > Fear.
  3228. > "I hear about it - we all did. She make them see so much, death all around. Everyone dying. Pain. Is not choice of someone who makes mistake."
  3229. > Despite all evidence to the contrary, this soldier - having never personally seen Luna or her dream-walking - is terrified of her.
  3230. > You wonder if he sees the rational failure in his argument; if Luna could do that, why has she not done so again?
  3231. > Is the fear he feels truly that strong?
  3232. > Certainly, what he says does not sound like what you know of her - and not at all like the worried Princess you last saw in the tent by the Everfree.
  3233. "I'm sure she didn't mean to. Luna wouldn't do that; she knows what would happen if she tried to hurt somep- someone."
  3234. > The soldier shakes his head, gripping his weapon a little tighter.
  3235. > "I do not think so. I do not like this place - do not like strange magic, do not like the jednorożec with their magic, and do not like princesses who can see into my head."
  3236.  
  3237. ACTION:
  3238. - "Has something like this ever happened before?"
  3239. - "So, do you know how this started originally, then?"
  3240.  
  3241. "So, it doesn't sound like anything like this has ever happened before?"
  3242. > "War? Yes, many times."
  3243. > He gives you a strange look.
  3244. > "You must have war too, no?"
  3245. "Yes, we do - I meant, like, magic. Serious magic."
  3246. > "With magic? No. Never. Stories, yes - but never. Have many stories, old stories of things with magic that hunt and fight us. But never seen it."
  3247. > They had stories of magic, but never seen it...?
  3248. > How strange.
  3249. > "We first think - must be trick, must be mistake. But then, is real. You send big storm to attack us, and then princess goes into our heads..."
  3250. > There's that slight hint of fear again - not a visceral, immediate terror but a deeper worry.
  3251. > A fear of the unknown.
  3252. > "Some say, they still saw such things. Life, from other planet - we call them crazy."
  3253. > Kamil shrugs.
  3254. > "No, I am not sure. Maybe lie, maybe they really see something."
  3255. > Slowly pieces start to come together in your head:
  3256. > They didn't know what to expect from magic, but when they saw the magic ponies held - and then saw it used against them - they had gone back to their stories.
  3257. > And from there, only assumed the worst...
  3258. "Do you know how this started then? We just heard about it when you came..."
  3259. > Time to see if this story matches what you were told...
  3260. > "I was told, many of your soldiers come through hole - they say we in hell."
  3261. > He laughs, shaking his head.
  3262. > "Home can be bad, hard - but not hell. But, they attack us - so we fight. Take some prisoner - they say princesses will stop us, I hear. We say not, but..."
  3263. > A slight shake of his head - almost a look of slight sadness.
  3264. > "We remember being ruled by enemies, my country. Not so long ago for us. We hear more of your soldiers come - we ready to stop them."
  3265. > A great deal is falling into place.
  3266. > Unfortunately, it seems the chance to talk is long, long since lost...
  3267. > Any further questioning is interrupted by the arrival of a tray of food.
  3268.  
  3269. > Kamil holds a rapid conversation in his language with the soldier bringing it and groans, turning back to you.
  3270. > "Eat. We will find beds for you - cannot talk now, everyone is too busy to talk."
  3271. > It proves to be greasier than you had expected - some kind of fried vegetables and rice.
  3272. > Not the most appetizing, but it fills you enough.
  3273. > "Come, this way."
  3274. > Two more soldiers fall in behind you as the little group moves through the building you are in.
  3275. > After watching the humans duck through a doorway for the fourth time, it finally clicks in your head that this is not a building they built.
  3276. > But if not that, then what is it...?
  3277. > Turning into another room, you find a trio of what you presume to be human-size bedrolls waiting for you on the floor.
  3278. > Judging by the soldiers' reactions, it's no better or worse than they expected.
  3279. > Kamil gestures to them.
  3280. > "Sleep. They will come to talk in morning. Knock on door if you need something."
  3281. > And then, abruptly, you're alone once again.
  3282. > For the first time, able to talk to Caravan and Ornithea.
  3283.  
  3284. ACTION:
  3285. - Things we would talk about are " how long will they actually keep us here? do you think they were telling the truth? How do you think they're treating the ponies they've captured? Like they're treating us now? What is their world like?"
  3286.  
  3287. > After several long moments of silence, you let out a small sigh.
  3288. "Looks like we're not going home any time soon, then. I hope everypony else is okay."
  3289. > Caravan gives a small smile.
  3290. > "I'm sure they'll be okay. The sooner we get out of here the better, though."
  3291. > Ornithea is looking a bit glum, but she nods.
  3292. > "I just hope none of them were... hurt."
  3293. > Good.
  3294. > They both get it, then.
  3295. > No chance of speaking - even if the humans hadn't done something to the room, there's a fair chance you might be heard through the door.
  3296. "So... what he said. Do you think it's true?"
  3297. > Caravan nods slightly.
  3298. > "I've heard ponies try to brag or bluff before... there are certain patterns, you know?"
  3299. > Ornithea turns to look at him as well, tilting her head slightly to indicate he should go on.
  3300. > "And him... he didn't sound like he was lying. Or holding much back - that was real emotion in his voice."
  3301. "I think you're right... but there was something else that worries me. So much of what he was saying was things he'd heard... not that he'd seen."
  3302. > Both of your ponies nod in understanding.
  3303. > "Rumors and stories..."
  3304. "Yeah. I think that whatever the princess did, it's gone through so many versions they don't know what's the truth anymore."
  3305. > You don't add that you much, much more believe the version of events you heard from Whispen.
  3306. > Especially since she had been so much closer to the princess when it happened.
  3307. > "One other thing, That business about them having stories... do you think... somepony in the past...?"
  3308. "Went to their world and messed with them?"
  3309. > Ornithea nods quietly.
  3310. "Maybe. Maybe not. I don't pretend to understand half the things unicorns can do - let alone alicorns like the princesses. But I could believe something like this happened before..."
  3311. > Caravan growls out a few choice words beneath his breath.
  3312. > "If I ever run into the plothole that made them to hate us, I'm going to give them a good beating."
  3313.  
  3314. "Easy, Caravan. Anger isn't going to help us here... besides, he also said his nation remembers being ruled by another enemy before."
  3315. > "Maybe they live a really, really long time?"
  3316. > Caravans snarkiness actually brings a small smile to your lips - some much-needed levity.
  3317. > Ornithea is far more direct.
  3318. > "So... even if they don't have other creatures with magic like us... they must fight among each other?"
  3319. > "Sounds like it. We forget, it's been so long since any part of Equestria was occupied by one of the other races... but if it's fresh wounds for them..."
  3320. "...it makes a lot more sense why they would react so badly, yes."
  3321. > Privately, you wonder.
  3322. > What kind of species would develop from a world like that?
  3323. > "Do you think they're treating the others like they are us? The... prisoners?"
  3324. "I really don't know... they've been awfully nice to us, really. But... we did help them, so..."
  3325. > You sigh softly.
  3326. "No sense worrying over it all. We should all get some sleep - I've got a suspicion tomorrow will be quite busy for us as well."
  3327. > The bedrolls prove to be large and baggy around your smaller frame, but surprisingly warm nonetheless.
  3328. > It makes sense, in a way - they had no coat to cover themselves with; of course their bedding would be warmer.
  3329. > Laying down in one seems to bring all the day's events catching back up with you.
  3330. > Moments later, you are dead asleep.
  3331. > ...
  3332. > The next morning you are woken bright and early by rapping on the door.
  3333. > A stern-faced and unspeaking soldiers leads you from the room, after a quick break again down the hallway and into yet a third room.
  3334. > This one is occupied by several humans in what you suspect are their equivalent of a casual dress uniform.
  3335. > A table has again been provided, with chairs set out for the three of you.
  3336. > This, for the first time, is confirmation of what you suspected:
  3337. > They don't think of you as hostile prisoners.
  3338.  
  3339. > If they had suspected for a moment that you were Royal Guards, you seriously doubt you'd be interrogated all together.
  3340. > After seating yourself, the center human leans forward and offers you a smile.
  3341. > "Good morning, all of you. My name is Captain Williams; I'm here to ask you some questions about the crash you were involved in."
  3342. > He speaks without an accent - or at least, no discernable one you can tell.
  3343. > Is he one of the 'americans' Kamil referred to last night...?
  3344. "Well, we'll certainly do all we can to help."
  3345. > The first few questions are, unfortunately, utterly boring.
  3346. > It's little more than a repetition of what you had done - when you first noticed the crashing flying machine, what you saw when entering it, how you got the two crew out...
  3347.  
  3348. ACTION:
  3349. - Take the lead yourself, and only have Ornithea and Caravan add things as needed, so you can get the details straight.
  3350.  
  3351. > Damn, you'd never had a chance to get your story straight - never a time you could talk to Ornithea and Caravan without being heard.
  3352. > You'll have to take the lead here.
  3353. > Interrupted repeatedly by Captain Williams to parse out various details, you do your best to put together a coherent narrative while carefully editing out certain details.
  3354. > Spark's presence, you don't even mention; they had never brought it up, and you weren't about to do so.
  3355. > You do mention that there were other ponies in your home, and that they were helping a friend out of a damaged building.
  3356. > If they decided to do any investigation whatsoever, that you did not live alone would surely come up.
  3357. > Hopefully your two co-conspirators will follow your lead.
  3358. > After a while, it's getting pretty clear that they're aware you're leading the conversation on your side.
  3359. > More than once you can see Williams' eyes flick across to Caravan or Ornithea, resting on them for a moment before settling back on you.
  3360. > Hopefully this wraps up before they can get too suspicious...
  3361. > "...so then, uh, Caravan -"
  3362. > Here it comes; he's going to demand answers from one of the others you haven't thought of yet.
  3363. > "-I'm just wondering, what drove you to run for the cockpit of the aircraft?"
  3364. > Caravan blinks slightly, tilting his head and raising one hoof towards you.
  3365. > "Ah, I didn't choose actually. I just followed him."
  3366. > And that's one dodged blow.
  3367. > Williams' eyes again settle on you again; immediately you shift uncomfortably and try to not appear too satisfied that the question came to nothing.
  3368. > "I did the same, too. I he just took off running, and it seemed like he would need help..."
  3369. > Ornithea helpfully adds in her own answer; unfortunately, it also attracts Williams' attention to her.
  3370. > "And, Miss, if I may ask then - given that our nations are technically at war, what drove you to risk your own life in what must have surely been a terrifying situation to save that of a human?"
  3371.  
  3372. [Roll for how solid an answer Ornithea gives; result: Her answer is strong, but leaves her open to more questioning.]
  3373.  
  3374. > "I... saw a pony get trapped in a fire once. Nopo- nobody deserves to die like that."
  3375. > Ornithea shutters softly.
  3376. > "We all have a duty to do something if we see something like that."
  3377. > Williams raises an eyebrow.
  3378. > "Duty, hmm? Interesting choice of words there..."
  3379. > Ornithea jams her lips shut and seems to sink into her chair even further.
  3380. > "We... I used to have... a job..."
  3381. > Shitshitshitshit
  3382. > If she screws this up, you're all sunk.
  3383. > "...a job, Miss Ornithea? Or a duty?"
  3384. > She nods fractionally, timidly - and then again, stronger.
  3385. > "A job. I was a forest warden."
  3386. > Suddenly Ornithea stands, turning around and lifting one leg to point at her mark.
  3387. > If the humans were surprised by the forwardness of the gesture, none showed it.
  3388. > "My marks if for birds, but I got a job watching after the forests. Keeping track of travelers."
  3389. > Sitting back down, Ornithea hangs her head.
  3390. > "There was a forest fire. A camper was trapped in his sleeping pit... he was hurt really badly..."
  3391. > You've heard that the best kind of lie is the one based in truth.
  3392. > If that's so, Ornithea's doing an admirable job.
  3393. > The emotions she is dredging up, and the glint in her eyes when her gaze again rises to meet that of Captain Williams is strong.
  3394. > "Nobody deserves to die like that. I don't really want you here, but I'm not just going to let somebody burn."
  3395. > You try to force the relief from your face, but you don't think you're entirely successful.
  3396. > "Well, I think I can understand that."
  3397. > Captain Williams glances over you to and Caravan.
  3398. > "And what about the two of you? Why did you come to help?"
  3399.  
  3400. ACTION:
  3401. - "I was there with Ornithea. I agree with her."
  3402.  
  3403. "I was there with Ornithea at that camping trip. I saw it too... you don't ever forget seeing something like that."
  3404. > "I would imagine not..."
  3405. > Williams gives you a warm smile.
  3406. > "It is good to know that there are still those who can see past the war. I understand that Sergeant Delana is recovering well, and asked that I pass on his thanks as well."
  3407. > Master Sergeant Delana?
  3408. "Is that... Farow?"
  3409. > Williams' eyebrows rise.
  3410. "He told us his name as we were pulling him out."
  3411. > You almost add that you were trying anything to keep him awake, but then, that's not something a scared civilian would say.
  3412. > "Ah, well - yes. And, from the United States Air Force - thank you as well. We are prepared to reward you for your assistance."
  3413. > Reward you?
  3414. > Is this some kind of trap - do they want you to become collaborators too?
  3415. > Damn, you need to stall for time while you think this over.
  3416. "Is the other one okay too? I never got his name."
  3417. > Captain Williams' face falls, and for a second you are worried.
  3418. > "He'll be alright in the end, I think."
  3419. > But not now, is the unspoken addition.
  3420. > It suddenly strikes you how similar Williams' situation is to your own.
  3421. > Not days earlier you'd delivered almost the same news to your ponies, on Quick Step and Hot Pot's fates.
  3422. > Quick Step...
  3423. > They were prepared to 'reward you' - maybe you could ask for a favor...?
  3424.  
  3425. ACTION:
  3426. - Ask for some ration cards or basic supplies.
  3427. - Ask for a travel slip back to Easthock (covers our bases, could come in handy for leaving the city eventually)
  3428.  
  3429. "Well..."
  3430. > You desperately hope this isn't to much of a risk.
  3431. "A few weeks ago we were visiting a town called Easthock - us three, and a few other ponies. It's east and a little north of here - we came here hoping for, um, safety, but..."
  3432. > There's a slight flicker in Captain Williams' eyes; damn!
  3433. > Does he know about the riots in Easthock?
  3434. > Think you're involved somehow?
  3435. > Backing down now would be even worse, though; no innocent would do that.
  3436. "...if it isn't to much trouble for all of you, could we get a permission slip to go back here?"
  3437. > After a moment, the captain sits back in his seat.
  3438. > "I think that could be arranged. Did you live around there?"
  3439. > If he knows, then it's a fair bet he knows about your cover from when you were in Easthock as well.
  3440. > Fortunately, Caravan steps in to smoothly add to your story.
  3441. > "We were from smaller outlying villages. Farming places, mostly, but we couldn't stay when, well, all this started - you know, have to think of the family and all."
  3442. > Thank Celestia for his silver tongue; you can see a small but warm smile appear on Williams' face.
  3443. > "I can certainly understand wanting to look out for another. I'm sorry you had to be uprooted - how many of you would be going?"
  3444.  
  3445. ACTION:
  3446. - "Ten, I think would be going." (Just mention Hot Pot)
  3447.  
  3448. "Ten of us."
  3449. > WIlliams gives you a warm smile.
  3450. > "I'll certainly look in to getting you that. Unfortunately, we are going to have to ask that you remain in the city for at least a little while longer while we investigate the crash, but after that you'll be free to go."
  3451. > Caravan seizes on the opportunity to change the conversation.
  3452. > "So, is that why you're here? I mean... you seem to speak to a different language, but, uh, Farow sounded kind of like you... so, are the two of your from the same town? Was he your friend?"
  3453. > A smile - almost patronizing, but still friendly - grows on Williams' face.
  3454. > "No, not the same town, just the same country. This my job, though - when there's an accident like this, I come in and find out what happened."
  3455. "Oh, so you're... not actually a soldier? You're like, an investigator of some kind?"
  3456. > An investigator who might be out to hunt you?
  3457. > "No, I'm a soldier. This is just my job as a soldier."
  3458. > So, he isn't looking for hiding Royal Guard, then... you hope.
  3459. > There hasn't been anything to indicate he's telling the truth.
  3460. "Do you know what happened to it? I mean... that thing was huge."
  3461. > "Not yet. It seems like an accident, but it's my job to get to the bottom of all this and figure out exactly what happened."
  3462. > Williams leans forwards, eyes locking with you.
  3463. > "Which is why I need to know right now if there's anything you are hiding."
  3464. > Shit, he knows something.
  3465. > What was it?
  3466. > You cast your mind back to the conversation searching
  3467. > "So, I'll ask you - is there anything you want to add? You won't be hurt if you tell us something; you aren't going to be punished for telling the truth."
  3468. > The fact is, you have no idea how much he knows.
  3469. > Had they traced you back to the others - to Quick Step?
  3470. > Or was he just acting on a hunch?
  3471.  
  3472. > "Are... we in trouble now? If we don't tell you something?"
  3473. > Damn, Ornithea - why'd you have to say that; it makes you sound guilty?
  3474. > Williams just tilts his head slightly.
  3475. > "Why would you think you would be in trouble?"
  3476. > "You're keeping us here. And want us to stay. It feels like we are... and you want us to just admit something."
  3477. > Ornithea seems to realize she's made a mistake, and is covering for it as fast as she can.
  3478. > "I... I don't hate you all. But I feel like you're trying to get me to give up somepony else to save myself, but I don't have anypony who I can turn in, and..."
  3479. > She's certainly doing a good job of turning on the emotion.
  3480. > Hopefully it isn't overdone.
  3481.  
  3482. ACTION:
  3483. - Maintain your innocence.
  3484.  
  3485. "No... we've told you all we know. We were about to sit down to dinner, and it just... happened. We ran... pulled them out... the soldiers came and found us."
  3486. > "I see. So, the three of you are staying together?"
  3487. "Nine, actually - I don't know what the others did; once I took off I was just so... focused."
  3488. > Williams nods, leaning back in his chair slightly.
  3489. > "These are some of the ten that you traveled with?"
  3490. > Caravan gives a nod.
  3491. > "Yes; it's tight accommodations in a single home, but right now we can't afford to be picky."
  3492. > "...I see. Then, why did you lie to us about there being a unicorn with you?"
  3493. > The room is, for just a moment, utterly silent.
  3494. > No one - not human or pony knows what to say.
  3495. > Finally Caravan manages to sputter out a word.
  3496. > "...what?"
  3497. > "Master Sergeant Delana is awake. I spoke to him before anyone else; he was badly hurt, but was quite certain there was a unicorn with you in the aircraft."
  3498. > Your mind is racing at a million miles an hour.
  3499. > Damn, how had you missed it?!
  3500. > He'd even said that Farow was recovering and asked to pass on his thanks - of course Williams must have spoken to him!
  3501. > "...now, you're still not in trouble yet, but we really do need to know: Who was that, and why did he run?"
  3502. > Quickly taking stock of the situation, you come to a couple points you're certain on.
  3503.  
  3504. > One, the soldiers must not have seen Spark with you on the dock - otherwise, he would have mentioned that too.
  3505. > Two, he clearly hadn't followed Spark back to your home - otherwise there would be no question.
  3506. > You'd clearly said you were associated with them, and if any of the others were interrogated they'd have no doubt mentioned the same.
  3507. "He..."
  3508. > Not even Caravan has a good answer, though you can hear him thinking so hard steam practically rises from his head.
  3509. > Williams knits his fingers together, eyes resting evenly on you.
  3510. > "I really need to know this, I'm afraid. You see, there's a lot aboard that aircraft that we need to account for... your unicorn friend might easily have taken some, even if you didn't see him. I will have to speak to him."
  3511. > Now you're suspected of being part of a theft?
  3512. > Just when this couldn't get any worse...
  3513.  
  3514. ACTION:
  3515. - Let's be psedo-honest- We kept him out because we didn't want him to be brought in for questioning like us since we weren't sure if we ourselves would be safe if if we were being brought here to be killed, or something like that. Surely they'll understand if we were still untrusting even after staying here safe for a bit, we can even bring up 'rumors we've heard' about atrocious acts like using ponies as target practice or some shit.
  3516. - tell him that we'd heard rumours of humans being uncomfortable around unicorns and the unicorn was afraid of how the rescuer would react to his presence, also that the unicorn only entered the craft to save the more injured human, maybe Farow can back us up on this. maybe tell them that there are rumours of unicorn prisoners of the humans losing their magic and he didn't want his horn sawed off.
  3517.  
  3518. "He..."
  3519. > You look down.
  3520. > No way to avoid this.
  3521. "I didn't mention him because we weren't sure what was going on here. I don't know about you two-"
  3522. > You glance to Caravan and Ornithea.
  3523. "-but I didn't know what was going to happen to us, and I didn't want to get him into trouble."
  3524. > Williams frowns slightly.
  3525. > "So you expect to be in trouble?"
  3526. > Caravan gives a little snort.
  3527. > "We just got pulled away in one of your armored carts, tossed in what amounted to a cell overnight - a nice one, but a cell - and then pulled out for questioning. Can you blame us for being worried?"
  3528. "Plus, we know... you're not exactly comfortable around unicorns. One of the rules in the city is not to point a horn at a human now, and he was afraid of what might happen to him..."
  3529. > Again Caravan nods.
  3530. > "Yeah - what, with the stories going around and all now, he was afraid of being picked up..."
  3531. > "Wait, wait - stories?"
  3532. > He nods at Williams' question.
  3533. > "Yeah. Unicorns being taken in and having their magic - or their horns entirely - taken away. How would you feel if you thought someone was going to saw your fingers off if you got caught?"
  3534. > The captain actually looks a little sick, glancing down at his folded hands.
  3535. > "...I don't know where stories like that are coming from. We definitely do not cut off unicorn horns, though."
  3536. > For a moment you think to mention the unicorn prisoner you'd seen near Easthock, with the cap on his horn - but that idea is quickly squelched.
  3537. > No matter how useful it might have been to find out something about those caps, it wasn't worth the risk of letting them know you'd been watching the base there.
  3538.  
  3539. "Well, he was afraid - he just wanted to help, and get away before anything else could happen to him."
  3540. > "...I see."
  3541. > A frown again crosses Williams' face.
  3542. > "Much as I understand that fear, I unfortunately do have to speak with him - and possibly search his home, if you know where he lives. Assuming you are telling the truth and he did not take anything, there won't be any problems."
  3543. > And therein lies the problem.
  3544. > While Spark hadn't taken anything, Celestia only knew what the others had possibly grabbed from the burning wreck.
  3545. > You'd even sent Chilona to look into what had fallen from the crashing machine...
  3546. > If you refused, you'd probably be detained.
  3547. > If you agreed, there was a very real risk they would find something.
  3548. "If... he had picked up something. Not stolen deliberately, just something shiny caught his eye... what would happen?"
  3549. > Williams gives a little frown.
  3550. > "I can't say for certain. He would be question, probably detained for a few days. If we're certain it really was just innocently picking something up, he would probably be released."
  3551. > Probably.
  3552. > That's a shifty word.
  3553. > You might be able to trick him.
  3554. > Farow was pretty badly concussed and it was at night; it's not certain he remembered any details about Spark's appearance.
  3555. > But you can't be sure.
  3556. > And if they had taken anything...
  3557. > You issue a brief wish to Celestia that they had been smart enough to use the Changelings' tunnels to hide it all.
  3558.  
  3559. ACTION:
  3560. - Bring him to meet Spark.
  3561.  
  3562. "I know where he is yeah. If you want, we can take you to him - and to our home, too."
  3563. > "That would be good. We don't want to cause any trouble, but this needs to be resolved."
  3564. > Neither Caravan nor Ornithea speak.
  3565. > Their looks, though, say plenty enough:
  3566. > 'I hope you know what you're doing.'
  3567. "So, how does this work... we describe the house to you, or...?"
  3568. > "No, you'll be coming with us."
  3569. > Williams stands.
  3570. > "I've three trucks I requisitioned for this kind of thing specifically; you'll guide us to the location, and, if necessary, ensure everything goes smoothly."
  3571. > Rather than what you'd ridden on in Easthock, these trucks turn out to be a variety of four-wheeled armored cart, into the back of which you are quickly brought.
  3572. > Far more interesting, however, is the walk out to them.
  3573. > Glancing back to the building as you exit it, you find that you've been held in an old inn - quite a large structure, built on the outskirts of Las Pegasus.
  3574. > The humans must have occupied the area for quite some time; you'd never have guessed from the interior.
  3575. > Yet, it's when you wing your head around that your jaw truly drops.
  3576. > In the distance not to far you can see dozens of wheeled machines of all shapes and sizes going about work.
  3577. > Most seeming to be busily constructing long pathways of flat, grey or black paving where once scrubby fields had remained.
  3578. > This must be the base you'd heard being built on the north side.
  3579. > Just from what you can see in the few moments before you're hustled into the armored cart, it is enormous by any standards... they are constructing a major facility here.
  3580. > Even as the armored cart's doors close behind you, your mind is still turning over what you've seen.
  3581. > If they are building such permanent installations, they do not merely intend to take the Princesses and leave... the humans are planning to stay here for quite a long time.
  3582.  
  3583. > You're jerked from your thoughts by the armored cart starting off towards the city.
  3584. > Six fully-equipped soldiers ride with you, all of them giving you looks of disdain, curiosity, or simply quietly studying you.
  3585. > Captain Williams sits opposite you, having acquired a helmet and what you suspect to be armor of some kind over his torso.
  3586. > "So, where exactly are we going?"
  3587. "To the dockyards - uh, middle section, running north-south. Maybe, a good thousand feet south of where the crash happened?"
  3588. > Williams begins relaying your information to whoever is controlling the truck.
  3589. > "What building?"
  3590. "There's a white and brown house there - wood and plaster construction, I'll point it out. That's where we've all been staying."
  3591. > Unlike the ride from the crash site, these vehicles have windows - albeit ones covered by a thick plate of some sort of glass - allowing you to watch the city go by.
  3592. > It's a poor site.
  3593. > Though the day is only just begun, you see few ponies out on the streets.
  3594. > Those who are out, quickly scurry from the approaching convoy of vehicles.
  3595. > You suddenly think of the pony you'd seen riding with the humans the day prior.
  3596. > Could the ponies out there see you?
  3597. > Did they think of you the same way you'd thought of that one mare?
  3598. > Had she been there of her own choice in the first place?
  3599. > So many questions, and so few answers.
  3600. > Even so, you slink back down from the window - suddenly feeling guilty for reasons you aren't entirely sure on.
  3601. > Ornithea and Caravan are presumably in the other 'trucks'; do they feel the same?
  3602. > ...
  3603. > "That it?"
  3604. > You nod through the open door, eyes settled on your house in the distance..
  3605. "Yes. I think it'd probably be best to approach without your armor carts, though."
  3606. > "Don't want to spook your friends, huh?"
  3607. "Not if it can be helped."
  3608. > Williams nods.
  3609.  
  3610. > "Alright. My men will walk you up and sweep the building. I'll have to bring your unicorn friend back here, though, and speak to him - alone."
  3611. > No chance to step in and help Spark with his story, then.
  3612. > You try not to let the sudden pang of worry show on your face.
  3613.  
  3614. ACTION:
  3615. - See if you can be allowed to go in alone and bring Spark out, while the soldiers hang back to be less threatening.
  3616. - Only approach from the outside and call in first.
  3617.  
  3618. > You halt a good distance from the house and all file out from the truck again.
  3619. > Looking around, you spot Ornthea and Caravan being unloaded as well - and realize that there have to be at least a twenty soldiers here now.
  3620. > About half seem to be holding weapons; the others are unloading a variety of machinery you don't recognize.
  3621. > At least two dogs - some sort of pointed, somewhat wolflike breed - are held in waiting as well, tails wagging.
  3622. > They aren't playing around.
  3623. "I... think maybe I should go in and talk to him first, if that's okay? Make sure he isn't spooked, or..."
  3624. > WIlliams shakes his head.
  3625. > "Can't do that, sorry. Not alone, anyhow."
  3626. "Are you sure? Like I said, he's a little worried about being taken by you. If I can calm him first..."
  3627. > "You're welcome to try. But, I can't just let you go unwatched - not yet."
  3628. "Can I go inside if one of your soldiers comes with me, then?"
  3629. > "Two. And your friends remain out here."
  3630. > Take what you can get, you suppose.
  3631. "That's fine."
  3632. > "Vasquez! Rico! You're point, follow this one in."
  3633. > The two soldiers form up behind you as you start towards the door.
  3634. > Both grip their weapons loosely, but seem ready if anything should go bad.
  3635. > At this point, your ability to worry further has simply run out.
  3636. > If they've retained any sense whatsoever, your ponies will have kept a watch and noticed the second you got out of the trucks.
  3637. > Undoubtedly, they're scrambling to cover any remaining evidence that might have been left out.
  3638. > But what will be, will be.
  3639. > Panicking over it further won't help you.
  3640. > About twenty feet our, you call out:
  3641. "Whispen? Spark? Are you there? Is anypony there? Boulder?"
  3642. > Something shifts in one of the window shades - no doubt one of them looking out at the sight of all the soldiers behind you.
  3643. "It's okay, everypony. We're not in trouble. Open up, please?"
  3644.  
  3645. > Surprisingly it's Chilona who appears at the door; you can feel both soldiers stir at the sight of her.
  3646. > She isn't exactly perfectly calm either, eyeing them warily.
  3647. > "Hey... you're back."
  3648. "Yeah."
  3649. > You force another breath into your lungs.
  3650. "Is Spark there? They want to talk to him, and do a search of the place."
  3651. > "Yeah, he's up... uh, should I go get him, or...?"
  3652. > One of the soldiers speaks up.
  3653. > "Actually, you need to come out if you can. We're going to need to sweep the building."
  3654. "They want to know if Spark might've taken anything from the crash after he helped us."
  3655. > "Oh... um... hold on..."
  3656. > Chilona turns back inside and calls in.
  3657. > "Hey, uh, Byline? Yeah, go find everypony else and get them out here - have somepony help Whispen and Tariff out. Yeah, they want to search again."
  3658. > Well, Tariff was alive.
  3659. > That's good news.
  3660. > A second later you realize with a shock that you'd just thought of a changeling having lived as 'good news'.
  3661. > How... unexpected.
  3662. > It takes a while, but eventually they do get everypony out and into the street.
  3663. > You sit, huddled in the early morning air, as a nervous-looking Spark is lead off to speak with Williams and soldiers stream into your home.
  3664.  
  3665. At this point several rolls were made:
  3666. [Roll to determine what state Tariff is in; result:  Debris landed on him. He has several broken... bones. You think; it's hard to tell with Changelings.]
  3667. [Roll to determine how much stuff Chilona and any others managed to retrieve from the wreckage; result: She managed to get a couple good loads in.]
  3668. [Roll to determine how Spark's story holds up; result: He's good, but he's still panicky and unprepared... some suspicion remains, and they insist on doing an extremely thorough search of the home.]
  3669. [2 rolls to determine who showered after the previous night's events; result: Spark washed.]
  3670.  
  3671. > Tariff, it turns out, is alive but not in terribly good shape.
  3672. > Bandages swath several of his limbs and barrel; he, like Whispen, needs another pony to help him out of house.
  3673. "...what happened to you?"
  3674. > "Office collapsed on me. I've heard of working yourself to death, but I never though I'd have my workplace try to kill me."
  3675. > Even given the stark situation, he seems to have enough levity left in him to crack jokes.
  3676. "Well, you're alive. So that's an up."
  3677. > "Is that a pleasant thought about me? From you? I'm shocked."
  3678. "Har, har."
  3679. > Your attention swings back to the rest of the group; scooting over to Chilona, you lean over to murmer into her ear.
  3680. "Keep an ear open towards the house, if you can."
  3681. > She nods slightly, despite the obvious exhaustion in her eyes.
  3682. > It's entirely possible you'd interrupted her intending to begin her sleep cycle by appearing at this time in the morning.
  3683. > "What exactly going on? Why do they want to search our place so badly...?"
  3684. > You grimaces.
  3685. "We managed to get two of them out alive from the wreckage. The other two were already dead... they wanted to question us about it, though."
  3686. > Byline gives a little snort.
  3687. > "So you risk your life saving to of theirs, and they barge into our home?"
  3688. "That's... sort of my fault. I didn't tell them about Spark, since he was so worried about being caught by them. One of the humans we saved saw him, though, so they think we're lying."
  3689. > "Ooooh."
  3690. "Yeah."
  3691. > You watch as the two dogs - tails swinging, straining at their leashes - are lead into your home.
  3692. > They're followed by several of the unarmed soldiers, all carrying various devices at their sides or held out in front of them.
  3693. > Though you don't recognize any of them, you've little doubt about their purpose.
  3694.  
  3695. > And that's what truly worries you.
  3696. > Could they have some means of finding their equipment.
  3697. > Doubtful, otherwise they'd have dug up the stuff you buried beneath the paving ages ago...
  3698. > But there's little question that they intend to use them for some kind of searching...
  3699. > You aren't the only one to be looking nervous either.
  3700. > All of them display varying degrees of concern.
  3701. > Even the normally-placed Boulder has his pipe out, the wooden tube locked between his jaws even though it is quite clearly not lit or even, you suspect, filled.
  3702. > The handful of soldiers left to watch you don't seem to be paying terribly close attention - and they're far enough away you could probably get some whispers in without them knowing.
  3703.  
  3704. ACTION:
  3705. - Try to plan an escape or distraction in case things go bad.
  3706.  
  3707. "Well..."
  3708. > You glance around at the soldiers guarding you.
  3709. > There are seven about - only three of whom seem to be truly paying attention to you.
  3710. > The others seem to be focused on keeping a perimeter up around the home.
  3711. > You think two more are still inside the home and at least a couple more with Williams and Spark... and that's not counting the unarmed ones doing most of the searching.
  3712. > Fortunately, even the ones watching you are standing at a distance.
  3713. > Whether it means they aren't worried enough to be keeping a close eye on you or so worried they're staying well out of hoof-kick range, you aren't sure.
  3714. > Their weapons are kept at the ready, but not pointed at you directly.
  3715. > Either way, though, they're far enough you can still whisper safely.
  3716. > Leaning in next to Chilona, you murmur into her ear.
  3717. "Tell me if things are about to go to Tartarus. Or if they're saying anything else interesting."
  3718. > "Got it."
  3719. > Her own voice is equally soft, nearly inaudible.
  3720. > Shifting over to Boulder, you start to talk him next.
  3721. "If we need to go... what are your thoughts?"
  3722. > Boulder looks around, first at your group and then at the humans.
  3723. > "No big weapons, except those carts you came in. If we have to go, keep a building between us and them."
  3724. > You nod, still listening.
  3725. > "Not even a stone for me to kick, but if Whispen can add to the shield as well we have a good chance of lasting for a few minutes."
  3726. "Into the house, or..."
  3727. > "Wouldn't advise it. Somewhere else."
  3728. "Getting past those guards at the dockyard gates isn't going to be easy."
  3729. > "I know. And more will come running to the sounds of fighting."
  3730. "Well, get the message passed on to Byline and Whispen to pop a shield when ready..."
  3731. > You're about to add more when you spot Captain Williams returning with Spark in tow.
  3732. > Spark is walking free, so things couldn't have gone to badly... but he's looking kind of glum as well.
  3733.  
  3734. > As he rejoins your group, Williams stops to speak with one of the soldiers busy scouring your home.
  3735. > He's to far away for you to hear, although Chilona might be able to.
  3736. > Instead you turn back to Spark.
  3737. "How'd it go?"
  3738. > "Think I screwed up. I guess you told him you went in because of the fire back around Easthock?"
  3739. > Thankfully Spark has the sense to keep his voice down as well.
  3740. "Yeah, and Ornithea's job as a forest ranger."
  3741. > "I didn't know to mention it at first, but I think I must've gotten the details at least mostly right. He seemed satisfied..."
  3742. "I'm going to guess he asked you why you ran. What'd you say?"
  3743. > "Told him I was afraid, of course."
  3744. "Good... we might just have a chance here..."
  3745. > Even as you talk the one of the dog-handlers emerges, his charge straining at the leash.
  3746. > Heading right towards you, he stops by one of the armed soldiers.
  3747. > "All of you, line up and let the dog sniff you."
  3748. > It isn't a request.
  3749. > Forming up into a ragged line - a carefully ragged on, no need to look military - you let him walk down the line.
  3750. > Pause, sniff, a sort of a pointing gesture with leg and tail out, move on, pause, sniff, move on, pause, sniff...
  3751. > Those who are pointed at are pulled out of the line.
  3752. > You cringe back as the dog - nearly as large as you are - appears in your vision and jams its nose into your side.
  3753. > It passes on without making the pointing gesture towards you.
  3754.  
  3755. > As the dog reaches the end of the line, Williams emerges again.
  3756. > He stops directly before you group - well, two groups now - frowning unhappily.
  3757. > "One of you took something from the crash."
  3758. > His voice is soft, but you can tell just how angry he is.
  3759. > "I don't know what, but there's a very big chance that it is something dangerous. Don't tell me it didn't happen - both our sniffer devices and the dogs picked it out on some of you. They just can't figure out where you put in the house."
  3760. > Sniffing machines?
  3761. > They have those too?
  3762. > Both could be screwed up; the entire dock - and several of your ponies - still reek of charred wood and whatever liquid it was that was burning the previous night.
  3763. > "...now, the first thing you're going to ask is are you in trouble. I know, because I've had to deal with this before back on Earth, and it's what everyone asks. The answer is, yes."
  3764. > Your stomach plummets.
  3765. > With Williams out here, the soldiers are all paying considerably more attention to you as well.
  3766. > If you do end up having to pull an escape, you're going to need a distraction...
  3767. > One of Williams' eyebrows rises when he notices that Spark has been grouped in what is apparently the 'safe' category, along with yourself, Ornithea and Caravan.
  3768. > "Yes, you are in trouble. But, since Mr. Spark Flash is apparently not one of the ones who smells of it, I think he nor you three have lied to me, so am going to give the rest of you the benefit of the doubt and say that you took it without knowing what it was."
  3769. > He starts to pace, ticking off options on his fingers.
  3770.  
  3771. > "So, this can end in one of three ways. One, you can give back whatever you took. We'll put your home under watch for a while, until this mess is done. But, there won't be any lasting repercussions to you. Two, we can detain you while we tear the house down to find it."
  3772. > Halting, he turns to face you again.
  3773. > "But above all, remember that I am doing this to help you. What you took is potentially dangerous to you as well. So, please give it back."
  3774. > Varying levels of fear have returned to all your ponies faces.
  3775. > They all know how close you are dancing to the edge.
  3776.  
  3777. ACTION:
  3778. - Admit you took something, but deny knowing what it is.
  3779. - Specific statements suggested
  3780.  
  3781. "Are you sure those are working right? I can't imagine otherwise. I mean.. I can't speak for all of us, but I don't know why anypony would take something.."
  3782. > You glance around to the others, keeping your most innocent and worried face up.
  3783. "I mean - were you all even around the plane, or did you just go get Tariff out?
  3784. > Williams stands there with his arms folded still.
  3785. > You don't think he's buying the 'not working right' line.
  3786. "Really... Did anypony take something? If you have did, just give it back - it's not worth it. I'm not going to be pissed with you for taking something."
  3787. > Eyes are cast towards the ground and at the surrounding soldiers alike - not in guilt, but in fear.
  3788. "Come on... I know you want to get back home just as much as I do. We've all got families waiting for us in Sunny Fields or Trotsvale -would keeping some stuff that might hurt you be worth risking that?"
  3789. > They shift unhappily.
  3790. > Chilona - looking especially worse for wear, considering her lack of sleep, lays her head down on the ground and begins to cry softly.
  3791. > Boulder closes his eyes and gives a heavy sigh, his nostrils flaring.
  3792. > Byline looks nervous, his jaw twitching as he he was chewing on something.
  3793. > Whispen simply locks her one good eye on you.
  3794. > But silence holds.
  3795. > "Alright! Someone get some engineering crews in here, start tearing it apart-"
  3796.  
  3797. [Roll to see if Tariff breaks; result: Tariff keeps it together.]
  3798. [Roll to see if anypony comes up with a smart plan to take the blame; result: None do.]
  3799.  
  3800. > Williams looks back to the rest of you.
  3801. > Surprisingly, he looks more saddened than angry, although there's a fair amount of frustration in his look as well.
  3802. > "You're all detained until further notice. Except for the four I checked already, you will be transported to a detention center until we locate what you took and an appropriate result is decided upon."
  3803. > His voice drops a little bit as his eyes turn back to you.
  3804. > "You four, replacement housing will be provided. I'm sorry about this. You saved the lives of two men; I wish it hasn't come to this."
  3805. > With a wave of his hand, the soldiers begin herding the lot of you back towards the trucks.
  3806. > Williams is talking into his communication device, calling another truck to pick you up.
  3807. > You barely take it in.
  3808. > More than being captured, even, you're worried about being split up.
  3809. > There's no way you can know what will happen to the others.
  3810. > You want to trust them, but there's no way to know what will happen.
  3811. > And it is your duty as their superior to look after them.
  3812. > To many unknowns - what might Quick Step say?
  3813. > Shit, Quick Step; you told him everything was going to be okay.
  3814. > How can you bail him out with only four ponies...?
  3815. > But any rescue would be beyond dangerous.
  3816. > So would leaving them.
  3817. > Glancing around, you see some of the soldiers are walking closer now.
  3818. > Close enough to reach, maybe...
  3819. > As your head turns you catch Whispen's eye.
  3820. > It's wide with fear.
  3821. > She's looking to you to make a decision - do something.
  3822. > Ask them to give in, ask them to fight...
  3823.  
  3824. ACTION:
  3825. - Don't resist. They won't execute anyone for this, but some ponies of our squad might go into detention for a while
  3826. - Ask why Whsispen and Tariff are suspects.
  3827. - Ask to have a moment with Whispen to talk with her.
  3828.  
  3829. > "Wait!"
  3830. > Surprisingly, it's Dusk who speaks up, motioning to Tariff, who is draped across has back.
  3831. > "He's hurt, for Celestia's sake - he's got three bad legs. He couldn't have taken everything. We had to pull him out of a burning building, for Celestia's sake!"
  3832. > His hoof swings to point to Whispen.
  3833. > "Her too. They couldn't have taken anything!"
  3834. > "No."
  3835. > Williams shakes his head.
  3836. > "I'll make sure they see medical treatment, but I can't take your word on anything. I don't know when they got hurt, or how. They're coming."
  3837. > "With broken legs-"
  3838. > He rounds on Dusk suddenly, voice rising.
  3839. > "What do you want me to do? Let two of you go because you say it happened that way? Because I am supposed to believe it didn't happen as you were stealing something from the crash? No. This is my duty."
  3840. "Captain Williams? If you could -"
  3841. > You gulp down your nervousness.
  3842. "- if they have to go, could I have just a moment with Whispen? We're... close."
  3843. > He turns, and you can tell he is going to deny you.
  3844. "Please. I just want a minute."
  3845. > "...okay. You bailed out two of my men, I can give you that. Rico, keep an eye on them."
  3846. > A soldiers breaks off and follows you over as you approach Whispen.
  3847. > The gentle nuzzle you give her is part act, but definitely part legitimate concern.
  3848. > "I... you..."
  3849. "I know. I promised, never leaving anypony behind... but..."
  3850. > You take a shuddering breath.
  3851. "I'm sorry. This is my fault. Ornithea and I had a memory of the fire Dusk as in, and we just couldn't watch them burn... ran in without thinking. Caravan and Spark just followed, I guess, they were just there with us..."
  3852. > The look of confusion in her face is there for only just a fraction of a second.
  3853. > Then it settles into understanding.
  3854. > "It's okay... and I understand now. Sometimes... there isn't a choice to begin with."
  3855. > You nod slightly.
  3856. "Tell the others. What happened, that I'm sorry."
  3857. > "I will."
  3858.  
  3859. ACTION:
  3860. - Ask to go along.
  3861.  
  3862. > A thought comes to you.
  3863. "Captain Williams... I know I've asked a lot of you, but... would it be possible to accompany this group until this is over and dealt with?"
  3864. > Williams stares long and hard at you in answer to your question.
  3865. > "You realize you will be treated as a suspect as well, detained until this is resolved."
  3866. "If I have to be."
  3867. > "And if we do find anything in the house, I will have to separate you."
  3868. "I understand."
  3869. > Williams scratches his head.
  3870. > "I guess, then. You will have to remain separate until initial interrogation is complete, but after that we can get into you the same area."
  3871. "...thank you. You've been... very accommodating."
  3872. > "I know. Don't make me regret it."
  3873. > The trucks arrive in due time - an open-backed type much like, though not identical, to the ones you rode in back in Easthock.
  3874. > If anything, these are even more rough a ride.
  3875. > You are split to ride with Caravan, Spark, and Ornithea.
  3876. > For the third time in less than twelve hours you are driven through the city.
  3877. > By now the city has woken up some; there are far more ponies out on the streets now.
  3878. > The looks they give you as you ride in the back of the truck is an equal mix of confusion, sadness, worry, and in some cases anger.
  3879. > You certainly don't look like collaborators - the soldiers travelling with you definitely guarding, not escorting - so it's hard to know if the anger is at you or your captors.
  3880.  
  3881. > The trucks halt near the edge of the city, allowing a sentry to peer inside and check you before they proceed onto the rapidly-growing camp.
  3882. > Again, it seems, you are being brought to base they are constructing on the northern edge of the city - the machinery and pavement stretching out seemingly forever.
  3883. > At last you pull up in front of the one-time inn you had been held in the previous night.
  3884. > A soldier comes around and motions for you to get out of the truck.
  3885. > "Come on. Time to join your friends."
  3886. > You turn to give Caravan, Spark, and Ornithea a smile.
  3887. > It's supposed to be reassuring, but you're fairly certain there's some fear and sadness in your look as well.
  3888. "Take care of each other, okay? We'll be out of this soon, I promise."
  3889. > Caravan nods.
  3890. > "We'll be looking out for you as well."
  3891. > You bump hooves together in lieu of being able to salute, and leap down from the truck.
  3892. > At the last second, a thought comes to you - turning back, you yell up to them.
  3893. "Go say hello to that barmaid for me - Buttercup? Tell her I'll have to miss her lovely face from now on. Fairweather ahead, friends."
  3894. > There's a pause and then Spark raises a hoof to wave, a knowing smile on his face.
  3895. > "Fair weather to you as well, featherbrain."
  3896. > There, they have it.
  3897. > Buttercup and Fairweather - the two last chances you have.
  3898. > If anyone can save you from this, it's them.
  3899.  
  3900. > Turning, you step back into the inn again.
  3901. > Somehow, even though you know what the place is, it seems even more menacing now.
  3902. > The first time, after all, you weren't suspected of theft.
  3903. > Lead to a side room by a soldier, you're surprised when a familiar face greets you.
  3904. "Kamil?"
  3905. > "You are back?"
  3906. > He tilts his head, looking between you and the soldier escorting you in confusion.
  3907. "Yeah, it's... a long story."
  3908. > The soldier speaks up for you.
  3909. > "He's not a problem, but still going into a holding room until the others who came in with him can be interrogated. Captain Williams' orders."
  3910. > Kamil frowns, but nods and motions for you to follow.
  3911. > "Come, come. Will get a room."
  3912. > In fact, they give you one of the old inn rooms.
  3913. > Although the beds have been stripped out and replaced with bedrolls on the floor, it's still more than you were expecting.
  3914. > The window, though, has had some sort of heavy sheet spread over the outside - preventing you from seeing out.
  3915. > Kamil stands at the door.
  3916. > "Ah, I have to say to all new ponies who come - do not try to run. Can break walls, can break doors - but if you seen outside without us? You will be dead."
  3917. "...I understand."
  3918. > Presumably they didn't think you as wanting to escape the first time.
  3919. > "So, ah, what happen?"
  3920.  
  3921. ACTION:
  3922. - Guess there's nothing else to do but tell him what's going on. Ask him how they treat ponies.
  3923.  
  3924. "Well, when Captain Williams was talking to me, I... didn't mention that there was another pony with us. When the, uh, airplane crashed. He ran away, didn't come with us the first time."
  3925. > "Okay, so - you go find him?"
  3926. "Well, sort of - there are a whole bunch of us living in the same house. Captain Williams... he thinks some of them stole something from the wreck while we were pulling someone from the cockpit."
  3927. > "Ah..."
  3928. > Kamil frowns, leaning on the doorframe.
  3929. > "Did you?"
  3930. "No! At least, not that I know of."
  3931. > "Then why do you worry?"
  3932. "Williams had some dogs and machines sniff the house. He seems sure."
  3933. > He studies you, frowning at that bit of information.
  3934. "Do you know... what will happen to my friends, if they did take something?"
  3935. > "I do not know; what did they take?"
  3936. "I don't know either... or if they did, even. Two are hurt - what will happen to them?"
  3937. > Hopefully you can redirect the conversation back to a topic you're more comfortable with.
  3938. > "We have hospital-prison. For hurt ponies, who we take prisoner. Some of our doctor, some of yours - is hospital, so not let them stay hurt."
  3939. > Before you can reply, he also adds:
  3940. > "But, is still prison too - doors locked, and sometimes they put chain on them - to stop them from running off, hurting themself."
  3941. "So, uh, this place - would it be on this camp? Because I'm really hoping I can stay near one of them, I... I kind of like her."
  3942. > Kamil gives you a strange look, as if it should have been clear.
  3943. > "No, not here - in city. When do you think we have time to make a hospital for ponies here - do not even have a propery hospital for us yet!"
  3944. > ...in the city.
  3945. > That's probably where they'd taken Quick Step as well.
  3946.  
  3947. > If Williams decided Whispen and Tariff had to be held for some reason, at least there was a chance they could meet up with him and let him know you hadn't forgotten him.
  3948. "And the others?"
  3949. > "Put on truck, sent back to other base. Or maybe here - I do not know everything they build here. So many things being built now - is like whole new city!"
  3950. > Kamil laughs softly at his own little joke, and you can't disagree.
  3951. > The size of the thing they were building here was at least like another large town, if not a small city.
  3952. "Yeah, they're really building a lot here - do you think they expect to stay now?"
  3953. > "Of course - we have to stop war. Make sure no more fighting can happen. Then..."
  3954. > He shrugs.
  3955. > "Then we go home, maybe. I do not know - why do your soldiers fight? Have to teach them so they know, we do not want fight either. Maybe take years."
  3956. > You want to scream, because we don't want to fight either!
  3957. > Because as far as we knew, you were about to unleash Tartarus on us!
  3958. > But you can't.
  3959. > Only let the idea that they expect to be here for years, if not more.
  3960. "Can't you just close the portal? Or block it?"
  3961. > "Hole in the world is magic. Your magic - we do not know how to stop it. To big for wall, too, and your princess..."
  3962. > Kamil gives a little shudder, shaking his head.
  3963. > "Your princess would make a wall silly. If wall would work, I would grab a shovel first!"
  3964. > There's that fear again...
  3965. > They can't do anything about the magic, so they go straight for the source.
  3966. > The princesses, and by extension all of Equestria.
  3967. > If only you could explain...
  3968. > The conversation only peters out, though.
  3969. > Eventually Kamil pushes off the doorframe.
  3970. > "I must go - but, maybe come back and talk later. Goodbye!'
  3971. > Despite the situation, you offer him a small smile.
  3972. "It was good talking to you again too. Goodbye."
  3973. > And then you are alone.
  3974. > Without anything else to do, you curl up on one of the bedrolls and await the return of the rest of your ponies.
  3975.  
  3976. > It takes some time, but eventually they file in - all looking glum.
  3977. > After the door closes, you speak up.
  3978. "...how'd it go?"
  3979. > "Don't know. I think we mostly got our stories right, but..."
  3980. > Boulder grimaces.
  3981. > "...not sure. Might've messed up some things."
  3982. "Did they hurt anypony?"
  3983. > Chilona shakes her head.
  3984. > "None of us. Some of their doctors taking a look at Whispen and Tariff now."
  3985. > The last two arrive in due time as well, wheeled in on what you suspect are repurposed luggage carts.
  3986. > Their bandages have been changed and injured legs re-splinted.
  3987. > Tariff actually looks considerably better now, though whether that's due to the treatment or your public display of affection towards Whispen back on the docks, you aren't sure.
  3988. > Despite the help he's been, you can't keep yourself from hoping it was the former; the idea of being fed on does not sit well.
  3989. > Whispen, however, doesn't look so good.
  3990. "...you alright, Whispen."
  3991. > She pauses, then shakes her head slowly.
  3992. > "There's... apparently some lingering damage to my eye. It might not heal correctly, ever..."
  3993. > Everyone winces.
  3994. > "The doctors did tell him though, my injuries.are old. He agrees I probably wasn't out there that night."
  3995. > Well, there's a mild relief.
  3996. > "Hey, what am I? A houseplant?"
  3997. "You're a changeling, Tariff. I don't even know if those injuries are real."
  3998. > He nose wrinkles unhappily.
  3999. > "For your information, they are... and Williams knows they're fresh, too. I told him where to find my office, though - if there's anything left, there should enough evidence to clear me."
  4000.  
  4001. [Roll to determine how badly Tariff's office burned; result: It burned entirely. There's no good evidence.]
  4002.  
  4003. "Well, for once I'm hoping something of yours actually goes right, Tariff."
  4004. > "Hah, hah."
  4005. > He flops down on his side amid one bedroll, staring into the distance.
  4006. > "Augh, this hurts..."
  4007. "Does it heal if you... you know..."
  4008. > "No, just becomes... different. It's a long story."
  4009. > Fair enough; you don't really care to hear more.
  4010. "...Chilona, can you.."
  4011. > You put one ear to the wall, and then mimic someone on the other side listening back.
  4012. > She nods, squashing a yawn.
  4013. > "I'll give it a shot."
  4014. > The batpony is clearly exhausted; especially given the daytime hour but covered sheet over the room's only window, the draw of sleep on her must be strong.
  4015. "Just tell me that, and I'll leave you and Dusk be."
  4016. > Luna knew, those two probably needed their rest.
  4017. > While she moves in a slow circle around the room, one ear laid flat against any surface she can, you look to the others.
  4018. > They're none of them in great shape, but all seem ready if you asked them to do something.
  4019. > ...at least none had been tortured.
  4020. > You were quite aware that this kind of treatment during a war with the griffons or changelings - you instinctively glance to Tariff - was by no means guaranteed.
  4021. > But you aren't about to question what luck still trots with you.
  4022. > "If there's anypony, or anyone, there, I can't hear them."
  4023. "Thanks, Chilona."
  4024. > The night guard promptly collapses into one bed, shuffling her leathery wings and curling her dark tail beneath herself.
  4025.  
  4026. ACTION:
  4027. - Ask what they took that ticked the humans off so badly.
  4028. - Check for listening devices.
  4029.  
  4030. > There isn't much in the room - only some bedrolls laid out on the floor, not even enough for all of you, and a few left-over dressers from before the inn was occupied by the humans.
  4031. > Nonetheless, you make a careful search of each, even the bedroll Chilona occupies.
  4032. > She barely stirs when you poke in it, checking for any machines that might be listening.
  4033. > The others catch on soon enough, checking their own bedrolls and the sparse furniture.
  4034. > If your captors have hidden anything it's too well done for you to find it.
  4035. "...okay. What exactly did you actually take, and who-"
  4036. > Oh.
  4037. > That's right, you'd ordered Chilona to investigate what had spilled from the falling flying machine.
  4038. > Fortunately, Byline raises his hoof before you have to wake her.
  4039. > "I only went after getting Tariff out safely, so she might know more... but, in short, weapons."
  4040. > Your jaw drops; despite the room being ostensibly clear, you still speak in a whisper.
  4041. "Weapons?!"
  4042. > "Yes. They were transporting them in huge cargo pallets, but a bunch had broken open when they hit the ground. We made two good trips - even brought our saddlebags."
  4043. "Okay. Tell me what, exactly, you took."
  4044. > "Their weapons were broken up into components, but I think we had enough for at least two or three. Uh, one thing that looked like a bigger version of the same thing, its muzzle was maybe eight or ten times the size of the little ones. That looked valuable."
  4045. "Right, so weapons. What else."
  4046. > "A lot of those pre-prepared shots for them, and I mean a lot - some I didn't recognize. Plus some thing that looked similar to those things we took from the other soldier - the little balls with the handle on one end? Uh, some bricks of some sort of a slightly squishy stuff, those were actually stamped explosive -"
  4047. > You're starting to get the idea.
  4048. "And this is all hidden."
  4049. > "A ways back from the entrance, yes."
  4050. > You rub your forehead.
  4051.  
  4052. > Now you understand why neither of them had spoken up; to be caught having carrying off weapons alone would have been damning as well.
  4053. > And of course because it had all been hidden in the tunnels, they couldn't have just given up one thing and pretended they didn't know what it was...
  4054. > "I'm... sorry, sir. I guess this was sort of my fault. We just took whatever we thought would actually be helpful to us..."
  4055. "You know, I'm not actually that upset with you, Byline. You thought on the go, made a good plan, took what you recognized and escaped alive that night..."
  4056. > A thought comes up to your mind, and you shake your head.
  4057. "Considering how much of this stuff explodes somehow, we're lucky it didn't just blow the whole dock up and kill us all."
  4058. > "Uh..."
  4059. > Dusk chuckles.
  4060. > "Actually, some of it did. Further back. I think those two were picking over the stuff that had fallen away from the worst of the fires."
  4061. "Celestia above..."
  4062. > As if to answer your prayer, a siren begins to wail in the distance.
  4063. > And then another, and another until you are surrounded on all sides by howling alarms.
  4064.  
  4065. ACTION:
  4066. - Check to see if there are loose floorboards you can pull up.
  4067.  
  4068. > "Boss? What is that?"
  4069. > Even Chilona - poor Chilona - has been woken again by the hellish, shrieking sirens.
  4070. "I have no idea."
  4071. > In the distance a powerful explosion echoes.
  4072. > You glance to the window, still covered by the sheet.
  4073. > Odds are you could probably remove part of it, but there's no way to know exactly how any of the soldiers would react if they spotted you peering through.
  4074. > It probably wouldn't be good, though.
  4075. > Maybe just a little peek?
  4076. > You're interrupted by a thudding from the hallways beyond the door.
  4077. > Boots, pounding on the wooden floor.
  4078. > The floor...
  4079. "Byline, get over there and watch the door. Tell me if it sounds like they're about to come this way."
  4080. > Turning to the rest of the group, you point towards the floor.
  4081. "Boulder, I need to know if this floor is loose. There might be a basement we could get into if need be."
  4082. > Dusk frowns.
  4083. > "Wouldn't that be risky, if-"
  4084. "If they come in we can say we panicked at the noise."
  4085. > Another explosion sounds from outside, quickly followed by a third.
  4086. > Panic wouldn't entirely be inaccurate for what you're feeling right now, honestly.
  4087. > Whatever is going on out there, it isn't friendly-sounding.
  4088. > Then again, if you stay in here sooner or later they're going find that hidden doorway...
  4089. > "Ponies!"
  4090. > You all jump as a voice calls through the door - not Kamil, you don't think.
  4091. > "Ponies, you stay, yes? Stay until siren is stop! Or, dead!"
  4092. > As boots pound away, you grit your teeth.
  4093. > Neither option, was good, but there aren't any easy choices here...
  4094. "Boulder, any luck?"
  4095. > He's currently working with Whispen to lift floorboards in a specific spot and peer beneath.
  4096. > "There's something down there. I can't quite see inside, though..."
  4097. "Dusk, get ov-"
  4098. > "Already on it."
  4099. > The batpony doesn't need to look for long.
  4100.  
  4101. > "It's a crawlspace. Not enough to really stand up in... you and I might barely make it on our bellies, but there's no way Boulder or Byline can fit - unless we tip them on their sides."
  4102. > That's going to be awkward and slow.
  4103. > "If you want us to open up enough to get down there, we're going to have to pull up more floorboards. No way we can hide that quickly, boss."
  4104.  
  4105. ACTION:
  4106. -  Try to take off the sheet covering the window (partially or entirely) and peek outside.
  4107.  
  4108. "We need to know what's going on out there."
  4109. > Eyeing the cloth covering the window, you trot over to investigate it.
  4110. > The glass was still there, so you didn't realize until you'd slid one panel pup that the sheet in fact appeared to have been nailed on around the edge of the windowframe.
  4111. > They obviously wouldn't have left any tools laying around, so...
  4112. "...hey, Byline - come over here and see if you can tear a hole in this with your horn."
  4113. > After a few false starts, he actually manages to.
  4114. > Unfortunately he stumbles as the bony protrusion finally slips through the cloth, leaving a several-inches-long rent in the fabric rather than the small.
  4115. > Damn, too far.
  4116. "See anything?"
  4117. > "Not really, let me twist around, and... oh, wow."
  4118. > He moves aside, letting you peer through the tear.
  4119. > "On the left, if she hasn't teleported again."
  4120. > 'She' hasn't gone far.
  4121. > A distant purple dot, twisting and darting through the air, is desperately evading the streams of fire and columns of smoke rising to meet it.
  4122. > Every few seconds it would flicker out of existence, popping back into reality a fair distance away.
  4123. > The columns of smoke and arcing streams of fire twist to reach for it, but it's pretty clear they were never meant for something like this.
  4124. > Of course, you realize.
  4125. > They had no magic; they would have never invented tactics to fight a teleporting unicorn.
  4126. > Or, in this case...
  4127. "...I'm pretty sure that's Princess Sparkle out there."
  4128. > You don't even need to turn an ear back towards the room to hear all of them shuffle in surprise.
  4129. "But I'm not sure what she's doing... she keeps teleporting away from their attacks, but she isn't attacking..."
  4130. > Indeed, the streams of fire and smoke circle closer and closer to the evading princess.
  4131. > She can't keep this up forever, but there's no logical reason why she couldn't simply leave...
  4132. > Why...?
  4133.  
  4134. > Even as you watch, more trails of smoke emerge from the distance - undoubtedly launched from one of their flying machines.
  4135. > These, too, are dodged about - the alicorn simply appearing to vanish and then reemerge behind the projectiles' flight path.
  4136. > Though she hasn't been hit yet, you're certain of one thing.
  4137. > You don't have long.
  4138. > If you're going to take advantage of this, you need to make a move now.
  4139.  
  4140. ACTION:
  4141. - 'hold still' and 'explore the crawlspace but don't rip it open just yet'.
  4142.  
  4143. "Dusk, get down into that crawlspace and see if you can figure out where it goes. Everypony else, stay steady."
  4144. > You keep watching the princess flickering back and forth in the sky.
  4145. > Behind you - and slightly below - you can hear Dusk squirming about.
  4146. > Eventually the noise dies down; unfortunately, Twilight at some point simply vanishes.
  4147. > Whether she had finally decided to simply blink away or actually been hurt (or worse) you don't know.
  4148. > You presume the former, as there's no sounds of jubilation or laughter that you would have expected from the worse results.
  4149. > That, and it's quite a few minutes before a new alarm sounds, presumably their equivalent of 'all clear'.
  4150. > It's kind of hard to tell, considering that it is announced in another language.
  4151. "Dusk, you might want to get back here."
  4152. > Hopefully the message you call into the hole isn't too loud.
  4153. > Being caught because from yelling to loud would be quite bad for you as well.
  4154. > Fortunately, Dusk's head emerges soon enough; he pulls himself halfway through the hole and shakes free the dust that had built up on his coat.
  4155. > The boards are quickly replaced and nails re-seated with magic.
  4156. > It's not as fast as a hammer, but it works.
  4157. "Anything down there?"
  4158. > Dusk snorts.
  4159. > "Lost and lots of dust. Some pipes. I think there's an access door on one of the outside walls."
  4160. "Can we make it out?"
  4161. > "It will be slow."
  4162. > He eyes Whispen and Tariff.
  4163. > "Both of them will probably have to be pulled through, and Boulder... I don't know if he can fit at all."
  4164. "So, our options are -"
  4165. > You're interrupted as the door opens and a soldiers sticks his head into the room.
  4166. > Quickly counting - or at least, that's what you think he's doing - in his own language, he nods affirmatively.
  4167. > "Good pony. Pony stay here, yes."
  4168.  
  4169. > And with that the door is closed again.
  4170. "...well. Thank Celestia he didn't notice the tear in the window-covering."
  4171. > Nods all around the room.
  4172. "Anyhow, our best chance is probably to make a break this night. Dusk especially will have a fair chance; if we wait any longer, it's a fair chance that they'll find the tunnels."
  4173. > Night can't come fast enough.
  4174. > Except, perhaps for Chilona and Dusk, who quietly sleep the day away.
  4175. > Meals are delivered twice, a strangely-flavored mix of unidentifiable grains you suspect is human food but can't be certain on.
  4176. > More importantly, however, is that you're certain the humans only do their counts every so often.
  4177. > Not to long - if you want to move, you'll have to move fast - but enough to give you a shot at escape.
  4178. > Around evening, you start to take peeks through the tear in the window covering again.
  4179. > If one good thing can be said to come from the sheer size of the facility the humans are building, is that they seemingly can't afford to light it all.
  4180. > Judging from the peeks you take, there are occasional pools of darkness where somepony could reasonably hide - if they got clear of the initial building.
  4181. > Dodging from one to another would be tricky... and then there's the question of whether you can get through the fence on the edge.
  4182. > But if you can...
  4183. > "If we're going to go, I think now is the best time..."
  4184. > You nod at Dusk's comment.
  4185. "I know..."
  4186.  
  4187. ACTION:
  4188. - Stay in place.
  4189.  
  4190. "...no."
  4191. > You shake your head, releasing a nervous breath.
  4192. "I'm sorry, everypony - it wouldn't work. They've got to be on alert after Princess Twilight's appearance - they'll have the base under guard. No way they would ever miss us."
  4193. > Slumping down onto your belly, you finally allow your eyes to fall shut.
  4194. > This was it, then.
  4195. > Sooner or later, they were going to dig out that tunnel and find your cache.
  4196. > And then, that was it.
  4197. > Game over, man.
  4198. > No way you could hide what you'd been doing then.
  4199. > "...what now?"
  4200. > Dusk's question drags you back to reality.
  4201. "Cover over that hole in the floor. And... get some rest. We're all going to want to be awake in the morning."
  4202. > "Is there a plan...?"
  4203. "Williams still thinks Whipen and I are clear... I hope. If he allows us out, we'll have to make something of it."
  4204. > "And what happened to not leaving anypony huh?"
  4205. > Surprisingly it isn't Whispen who speaks up, but Byline.
  4206. > He finally seems to have snapped, raising a trembling hoof to point in your direction.
  4207. > "What about us, huh? Or do you only care about coming along as long as your little lover is in danger?"
  4208. > "That's enough, Byline."
  4209. > He utterly ignores Boulder's warning, continuing on.
  4210. > "Are you seriously going to just leave us here just because we aren't special enough to you? Because that's what it's sounding like here."
  4211. > Boulder rises to his hooves again, jaw gritted.
  4212. > "Byline, you should stop now."
  4213. > "Why? Because I'm the only one who can see that we're being abandone-"
  4214. > "Oh, shut up."
  4215. > The sheer venom in Tariff's voice is surprising enough to halt any further argument.
  4216. > "You ponies are all the same; for all your talk of friendship, you turn on each other the second anything goes wrong."
  4217. > He lets out a sharp, barking laugh.
  4218.  
  4219. > "Let me tell you, we never had that chance. We had to put our issues aside or starve. Now I don't need any special skills to tell that he really, really doesn't like me-"
  4220. > A nod in your direction.
  4221. > "-but when that thing came down, he told you to risk your lives looking after me anyhow. Just from the talk I've been hearing, it sounds like he doesn't let any of you go until he doesn't have a choice either."
  4222. > You don't know which you're more surprised by, that he has actually managed to halt Byline's tirade or the praise coming from a Changeling.
  4223. > "So if I can see that gives a damn of about me of all creatures, you all should recognize exactly how he feels about having to leave you."
  4224. > Byline pauses, tears beginning to glimmer in his eyes.
  4225. > "I-I'm sorry, s-sir. I just... I don't want to... I want to live, damn it! I want to go home, and see my own marefriend again, and-"
  4226. > Whispen pushes herself upright and hobbles over, lifting one bandaged leg to wrap it around his withers.
  4227. > Nopony corrects Byline for referring to you as 'sir'.
  4228. > He leans against Whispen, tears beginning to freely stream down his face.
  4229. > "I'm s-scared... I shouldn't be, but I am... what are they going to do with us?"
  4230. > Making quiet Shushing noises, Whispen starts to gently rub his neck and let him quiet.
  4231. > "It's okay, Byline. We're all scared; it's normal. I'm not angry with you."
  4232. > Several seconds of silence tick by before Tariff turns to look at you again.
  4233. > Grudgingly, you give him a respectful nod.
  4234. "...thank you."
  4235. > A toothy grin splits his face.
  4236. > "Don't change your opinion of me too quickly. We're still on opposite sides when this war is done."
  4237. > As if you could forget.
  4238. "...right. Well, I think we need to take this time to get all our stories straight. When they find that cache, they're going to ask us a lot of questions, and we need to be crystal-clear about certain things."
  4239. > And so you do, spending a couple hours ironing out 'your' version of events that night.
  4240.  
  4241. > It may not hold up perfectly, but it will do a lot better than before.
  4242. > At the end, though, it all comes back down to a question repeated by Dusk.
  4243. > "What's the plan, then?"
  4244. "Depending on who he lets go, we may be able to meet up with some of our friends."
  4245. > Your eyes flick to Tariff again.
  4246. "Assuming they don't find those tunnels, we'll also have our... other friends."
  4247. > Hopefully.
  4248. "Whatever you do, though, don't let them know you're Royal Guard. Civilians stealing some weapons is one thing; letting them know there's still organized guard in the city is another matter entirely."
  4249. > They all nod, slowly.
  4250. "Then let's all get some rest, at least."
  4251. > In the end, rest turns out to be a good idea.
  4252. > Barely have you been giving breakfast the next day when the door to your impromptu cell opens and soldiers flood in.
  4253. > You recognize them - Williams' escort - and behind them comes the captain himself.
  4254. > From the look on his face and the way the soldiers quickly push you all prone to the floor, barking and yelling orders, you're pretty certain he's found the cache.
  4255. > He points to yourself and Whispen.
  4256. > "You, and you. Come over here. The rest of you... have exactly one chance to tell me what you were planning to do with what you stole. Because right now, I'm assuming you were planning on killing someone."
  4257.  
  4258. ACTION:
  4259. - We have all lost friends and family in this war. We weren't planning on inflicting this on anyone else (not even the humans), but every piece of "exploding stuff" less in the human hands means one more pony that doesn't have to die. We would have let the stuff there to rot, not to use it.
  4260. - try to make it sound like we were planning on destroying the stuff
  4261.  
  4262. [Roll to determine if we were observed by Changelings as we were arrested; result: We were seen.]
  4263.  
  4264. > None of them answer immediately, but eventually Chilona does speak up.
  4265. > "We.. we didn't want to kill you. Or anyone. We've all lost friends - and some of us family - in this. We just want it to end!"
  4266. > Boulder nods, his voice low.
  4267. > "That stuff, it's all weapons, right? If we took that stuff... you couldn't use it. No more explosions, no more fires, no more death..."
  4268. > "We didn't even want it. It was going to get thrown in the ocean as soon as we could, but there wasn't any chance."
  4269. > Just as you'd discussed; your startled response is also a carefully prepared fabrication.
  4270. "You did what?! You idiots, you actually took their weapons?!"
  4271. > "Don't give me that!"
  4272. > Chilona's yell is shrill and angry; she's a surprisingly good actress when it comes to it.
  4273. > "You ran off into that burning mess without telling any of us what you were doing; what was I supposed to do?"
  4274. "I was saving lives!"
  4275. > "You save lives, we make sure their weapons can't be used again! It's the same thing - no more fighting!"
  4276. > "Chilona, you didn't say you were going to steal their weapons - sweet Celestia, is that why you were being all secretive about those tunnels you found?!"
  4277. > Even Whispen is getting in on the act, despite that the position she's been forced to lay in is obviously painful.
  4278. > Byline's all-too-real terror is even put to use as he raises his voice.
  4279. > "What were you thinking! That stuff could have killed us all, and now we're going to die, and-"
  4280. > "Enough."
  4281. > Captain Williams is rubbing his forhead again, eyes closed.
  4282. > "You're all obviously aware that you are in quite a bit of trouble. What I would like to know is, why did you not simply give it up when we came? Was it worth all of this over?"
  4283. > Chilona's voice drops again to a lower tone as her 'angry outburst' subsides.
  4284.  
  4285. > "...we didn't know about your machines, or your dogs. Even I could barely find those tunnels, and my talent is hearing things. If not for Boulder knowing just where to hit, I don't think I could have gotten them open safely either."
  4286. > Another point you'd gone over the night before:
  4287. > In previous interrogations, they all reported being asked about their talents.
  4288. > Presumably it was to try and detect any fabrications in the rest of their stories, but now you had put it to use.
  4289. > One last piece was still to come...
  4290. > Sharp, pained laughter echoes Tariff before he descends into a coughing fit.
  4291. > "You... you idiots. You actually found the smugglers' tunnels and hid their weapons in there? Those things are so unstable a pony just walking around could cave one in, never mind if something exploded! You could have been buried alive!"
  4292. > There.
  4293. > "Is that what they are? Smugglers' tunnels?"
  4294. > Tariff looks up at Williams' question and nods, only speaking after he's caught his breath.
  4295. > "Yeah. Booze is - was - brought off the ships and straight into paying bars through those tunnels - no taxes paid."
  4296. > "And you know this, because..."
  4297. > Tariff shrugs, as much as he is able to with a soldier still pinning him to the floor.
  4298. > "I told you, I worked in one of those warehouses before your machine nearly killed me. You hear things around the docks."
  4299. > "Well, they're definitely unstable. A good section just beyond where you'd hidden the stolen materiel had caved in entirely - good amount of water seeping in too."
  4300. > What?
  4301. > You hadn't done that, and by the looks on what faces you can see, neither had anypony else.
  4302. > Unless...
  4303. > Could the other Changelings have seen what happened and cut your tunnels off?
  4304. > If so, they might still be safe!
  4305.  
  4306. > "...right. Well, we'll get the story from each of you in turn. Unfortunately, we can't release any of you at this time, except for these two -"
  4307. > Here he motions to yourself and Whispen.
  4308. > "- as they were not part of this."
  4309. > Williams pauses, then looks at you.
  4310. > "...if you have anything you'd like to say to them, now is the time. I can't guarantee when - or if at all - you will be able to speak to them again."
  4311.  
  4312. ACTION:
  4313. - tell them that you'll meet up with your friends and try to keep the group together, tell them that when they get out they're still welcome with you because you know that they're good ponies, tell them to get your new living address from your friends at the bar and ask them to tell Kamil you said goodbye.
  4314.  
  4315. "Well, all... I'll, uh... I'll keep the others together. When this is all fixed and you're out, you're welcome back... all of you."
  4316. > Chilona nods slowly, giving a pained by steady smile.
  4317. > "...thanks. I think I speak for everypony here when I say we're looking forward to seeing you all again."
  4318. > Each of them nods in sequence as well.
  4319. > You offer what you hope is a sincere smile in return.
  4320. "Alright. When you get out, find our new address from our friends at the bar. If we're not there, we've probably headed back home. Boulder, look after them, would you?"
  4321. > "As best I can."
  4322. > Turning, you look up to Williams.
  4323. "I'm done... thank you."
  4324. > "This way, then."
  4325. > As you move out, Captain Williams and one other soldier come with you.
  4326. "What will happen with them?"
  4327. > "They'll be interrogated again to make sure we've wrapped up all the loose ends. Then..."
  4328. > The captain shrugs.
  4329.  
  4330. > "I don't know for certain. Passed over to the Poles running this show, held in detainment for as long as necessary. Probably until this is all over."
  4331. > He lumps into a chair at the end of the hall, rubbing his forhead again.
  4332. > You get the feeling somehow that this entire process has been giving him a massive, continuous headache.
  4333. "Will we be able to see them?"
  4334. > "Very unlikely. What they did was very serious."
  4335. "Ah..."
  4336. > You go quiet before suddenly thinking of one last thing.
  4337. > If nothing else, maybe he would be able to help...
  4338. "Um, I'm sorry to trouble you, but... one last favor? There's a soldier here, Kamil - he looked after us when we first came in. Uh, if you can... please tell him thank you, and goodbye."
  4339. > "...I can probably do that."
  4340. > And that's the end of that.
  4341. > Some time later a truck arrives to ferry you from the base.
  4342. > You're dropped off just outside the fence, with an address for replacement housing where your allies could be found.
  4343. > It seemed that once you were no longer a problem, the humans wanted no part of you.
  4344. > Though the day is only begun, already you feel tired - but can't give in to those feelings just yet.
  4345. > You've got a lot to do, and it's going to be a long walk to any of them.
  4346.  
  4347. ACTION:
  4348. - Go for Spark & co see whats up. Char with whisoen along the way
  4349.  
  4350. "We should go check in on Spark, Caravan, and Ornithea first."
  4351. > Whispen gives a slight nod, and the two of you start off towards the listed address.
  4352. > Unfortunately, you'd forgotten just how rough shape Whispen was in; she hobbles along at a significantly slower pace than you, and well below anything considered a trot.
  4353. > It's not easy on her, either - you can hear a slight grunt of pain from her with every step she takes on her injured leg.
  4354. "...Whispen, are you going to be okay?"
  4355. > "I..."
  4356. > She pauses, grunting softly as she relieves the weight on her bad leg.
  4357. > "...I'm not sure."
  4358. > Looking around, you seek a cart you could use to move her.
  4359. > Unfortunately, the neighborhood you're currently in - at the very northern edge of the city - is one of small, individual homes and you don't see anything you could really use.
  4360. "Looks like I might have to carry you again, at least until we find somepony who can help us."
  4361. > A slight flush appears on her cheeks.
  4362. > "Maybe. Or... I could... you could just go on ahead..."
  4363. > You resist the urge to roll your eyes slightly.
  4364. "It'll be fine, Whispen. Now come on, get on up there."
  4365. > Truth be told, you're rather more aware of her presence on your back as well this time, especially as you're forced to spread your wings slightly and wrap them around her legs to steady her.
  4366. > And you're quite sure she's aware of it as well.
  4367. > It's nothing you've not done before, though.
  4368. "...just like back in the Everfree, huh?"
  4369. > "Yeah... this whole mess of a war really seems to have it in for my legs."
  4370. > An actual smile creeps to your face at that comment.
  4371. > If Whispen is cracking jokes - however dark they may be - she can't be feeling too badly.
  4372. "...yeah, well. If it upsets you that much I can put you down when we get close enough to the place."
  4373. > "That... might be appreciated."
  4374. > Then she goes silent, though not for long.
  4375. > "Do you... think they're going to be alright?"
  4376.  
  4377. "...I don't think they're going to be hurt, if that's what you mean. Everything we've seen so far... they're strange. They take such a light touch to things, like they're only half-fighting."
  4378. > You glance up towards the cloud districts.
  4379. > Despite the continued blockade the ponies hiding among those aerial structures had not yet given up, though they must have surely been running low on supplies by now.
  4380. "I don't know why they haven't just... rolled over everything."
  4381. > "Neither do I... but I'm glad they haven't."
  4382. "Mmm... Still, that doesn't mean that I'm going to stop planning."
  4383. > "Nor that I will stop following your lead."
  4384. > A slight smile finds its way to your lips, and not just because of the presence of the mare slung across your back.
  4385. > It takes a few hours to reach the listed address, in part because you pause repeatedly to rest while carrying Whispen.
  4386. > But in the end, it's only mid-afternoon by the time you stand in front of the door.
  4387. "...looks like this is it."
  4388. > You'd somehow expected it to be something like your last residence, a home stolen from the previous inhabitants.
  4389. > Possibly when they had met an abrupt end.
  4390. > But the building is new, if not particularly well-constructed:
  4391. > A hastily-assembled amalgamation of wood, it - like the ones around it - appears to have been thrown up in a matter of days in any open space available.
  4392. "...well, let's take a knock."
  4393. > "Uh, can you..."
  4394. "Oh, yeah. Sorry."
  4395. > You kneel to allow Whispen to slide from your back; she stretches and gives you a warm smile.
  4396. > "Thank you again."
  4397. > Spark Flash answers the door, his eyes lighting up when he spots the two of you.
  4398. > "Hey! You're back! Uh, come on in - Caravan's asleep, but Ornithea's up."
  4399. > Inside, there turns out to be only two 'rooms' - if they can even be called that.
  4400. > A rough brick fireplace in one side also seems to be serving as a stove, while a single mattress - currently occupied by the sleeping earth pony - rests in the back area.
  4401.  
  4402. ACTION:
  4403. - Head to the hospital to talk with Hot Pot, explaining along the way.
  4404.  
  4405. "Yeah. Get Caravan up, if he can - we're going to see Hot Pot, and I'd like him to be along. I'll fill you in as we go."
  4406. > "Actually, if it's okay... why don't I stay here?"
  4407. > You glance at Whispen and slowly nod, realizing you still don't have a good way of moving her.
  4408. "...okay, yeah. Fair point there."
  4409. > Once Caravan is roused, you quickly set out towards the hospital.
  4410. > As you go, you speak in a low voice - cutting off any time a potential listener gets too close for your liking, pony and occasional human soldier alike.
  4411. > The story unfolds in due time, all three of your companions' faces settling in grim scowls as they hear that some had to be left behind.
  4412. > "...don't beat yourself up over it. You did the best considering the circumstances."
  4413. > You nod at Ornithea's comment, but your heart isn't in it.
  4414. "I know. It just... feels wrong. To leave them there. I'd still like to see if we can figure out something to do about it, but that's going to take time..."
  4415. > A breath escapes your chest, and you shake your head - as if you could dislodge the lingering fears clinging there.
  4416. "...speaking of which, what's the deal with that shack we're staying in?"
  4417. > "They're put together from anything that can be found - spare materials, rubble of buildings damaged in the attacks, even a few old Guard tents that could be stitched back together."
  4418. > "Yeah. Just as somewhere for ponies who lost their homes to stay. The humans have been sending anypony without a place to there as well."
  4419. "Great. So, it's a bare step up from tents in the field."
  4420. > "Worse, really. At least those didn't leak too badly."
  4421. > Caravan chuckles softly.
  4422. > "Hey, don't be too hard on them, Spark. Trust me, I stayed in worse back in my old trading days."
  4423.  
  4424. > "Yeah, well, I didn't. It's a good thing I know how to start a fire safely, or it might have burned down again on its own."
  4425. > "Hah, yeah - I was half expecting it to just fall over when Princess Sparkle showed up, and-"
  4426. "Oh, you saw that too?"
  4427. > Caravan chuckles, shaking his head.
  4428. > "Saw it? Practically everyone came out to watch. They almost cheered, but there was a human patrol around and I don't think they'd have taken it well..."
  4429. "What do you think? She going to be a help?"
  4430. > "Well..."
  4431. > Spark pulls up beside you, glancing around to make sure you're well and distant from any potential listeners before going on.
  4432. > "We made contact with Fairweather's group like you told us too, and I think they knew ahead of time somehow."
  4433. > You nearly stop right then and there in surprise.
  4434. "You're certain?"
  4435. > "Yes. He didn't seem to know what, but he knew that something big was going to happen."
  4436. "Damn, I wish we'd known. We almost tried to break out of their base while they were going after her... what happened to the Princess in the end? Did she get away?"
  4437. > All three of them shrug, with Ornithea answering.
  4438. > "Didn't see. She just popped out and didn't reappear; I don't think they got her. I asked a bird to go look for her, but it was already too late by then."
  4439. "Still worth following up on. What about the... others?"
  4440. > Caravan nods.
  4441. > "I went to talk to them. They saw us get taken away; apparently they were going to collapse some of the tunnels to try to flood the humans out."
  4442. "They did. It didn't flood fast enough, but they aren't going to go following those tunnels any time soon."
  4443. > "That's a relief. Buttercup will be happy to know."
  4444. "Long as she doesn't kill us for getting Tariff taken."
  4445. > A look is shot in your direction.
  4446. > "She knows we saved his life. I know you don't like her, but I don't think she'll be violent."
  4447. > In due time you arrive at the hospital.
  4448.  
  4449. > It's somewhat quieter since the mad rush of wounded that flooded its halls during the invasion.
  4450. > That doesn't mean it is empty by any means, however; patients still rest in every available spot, even in the halls.
  4451.  
  4452. ACTION:
  4453. - The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you Celestia. Send Ornithea to scout the locked-off wing.
  4454.  
  4455. "Ornithea, see if you can find out anything about that wing of the hospital the humans have got locked down. Don't do anything too risky if you can avoid it."
  4456. > "So, walk into the part of the hospital they don't want anypony going into, but don't do risky. Got it."
  4457. > Fortunately the slight grin on her face lets you know she's more joking than anything else.
  4458. > Though, even you can't deny the inherent paradox in your orders.
  4459. "Just do the best you can. First order of business is to find out if Quick Step is somewhere in there still; second is to gather any other information."
  4460. > "Got it."
  4461. "Caravan, Spark - you're with me. We're going to find Hot Pot."
  4462. > Actually entering the hospital is somewhat more nerve-wracking.
  4463. > Like in Easthock, soldiers have been stationed at the entrance.
  4464. > Unlike there, where perhaps four seemed content to lounge loosely around the waiting room, at least two dozen have to be scattered around the entrance area.
  4465. > Two armored carts - trucks? - squat on the lawn before the main entrance, and a subtle nudge from Caravan draws your eye to yet more soldiers on the roof.
  4466. "They really aren't fooling around. Be steady; it's not wrong to be afraid, but make sure not to draw attention."
  4467. > In some ways having already passed through the gauntlet now and escaped unharmed leaves you more comfortable than before.
  4468. > If any of them question you, there is a very legitimate reason for you to be here.
  4469. > Ornithea peels off from you at the reception desk, vanishing down a hallway to begin her task.
  4470. > You quietly request Hot Pot's room number and head up to see her.
  4471. > Unfortunately, you find that the practicalities of hospital operations have taken over in your absence; she now shares the two-bed hospital room with four other ponies.
  4472. > A mare and a colt - related, if their coat colors are anything to go on - rest in the opposite bed, while another bandage-swathed mare occupies one of the larger chairs.
  4473.  
  4474. > The last one, a stallion, snoozes in the corner - his hooves wrapped around himself to give some semblance of comfort.
  4475. > Hot Pot, however, is definitely awake; her face lights up as soon as you enter.
  4476. > "Hey! You're back, I... is everything alright?"
  4477. > A quick glance to the others in the room and a questioning look shot in Hot Pot's direction yields a nod from her.
  4478. "It's... complicated. Can we come in, or...?"
  4479. > "Yeah."
  4480. > You head for the bedside, quite aware of the three new sets of eyes now settled on you.
  4481. > Bringing her up to speed faces the additional difficult that you can't be explicit, and are forced to dance around many an issue.
  4482. > But, in the end you think the message has gotten across.
  4483. > She has a slightly haunted look in her face when you add that Dusk was among those imprisoned.
  4484. > Their affair had not been mentioned, as despite the situation Dusk has still requested it remain private and you were still prepared to follow through on his request.
  4485. > You get the feeling Hot Pot knows you are aware, though.
  4486. "...but, we're still looking to see what can be done about them. How are you doing?"
  4487. > "I'm... alright. The leg is healing; they say I should regain full use. But, they can't spare anypony to help me get used to it again after being here so long, and the wheelchairs are all used up by ponies that need them more."
  4488. > Caravan nods slightly, an understanding look on his face.
  4489. > "So, you're stuck in here pretty much the whole time, huh?"
  4490. > She nods, motioning to the other ponies.
  4491. > "The company is great, really - you should meet them all while you're here - but I can't help but worry about you out there."
  4492. "It's okay, Hot Pot; that's understandable. We're all fine now..."
  4493. > Is there some way you can ask about Quick Step?
  4494. > Or what the humans are doing here?
  4495. > If only you could get her out and into privacy somehow...
  4496.  
  4497. ACTION:
  4498. - Just let her lean on one of you as she walks.
  4499.  
  4500. "Come on, Hot Pot. Why don't we come on out and let you stretch your legs a bit? You can lean on one of us as you go."
  4501. > The ultimate organization is rather complicated, involving her throwing a leg over one of you to allow her injured limb to hang loosely.
  4502. > Another follows close behind, ready to catch her if she slips.
  4503. > Treading down the hallways, your little group has to maneuver to avoid the thickly-interspersed obstacles now in the hall, both living and inanimate.
  4504. > It's slow going, but ultimately you do reach what was meant to be a lounge for visitors, with large glass panes and an excellent view of the city.
  4505. > The view is soured by the soldiers milling about distantly below, though.
  4506. > What was once a wide-open space is now occupied by many ponies, injured and uninjured, asleep and awake, resting on any space available.
  4507. > Still, you're able to find a reasonably wide spot to stand in, though - close to the window, where the sunlight slants in to turn things uncomfortably warm in the long term.
  4508. > "...how bad is it really out there?"
  4509. > Hot Pot's voice is soft, and pain showing noticeably now that she no longer has to hide what she feels.
  4510. "It's mixed. We were just unlucky, that thing coming down so close and their sniffing things finding us so easily."
  4511. > She sighs softly.
  4512. > "I would've been out of here in a few weeks, except for coming back in to get the muscles built up again... but because of how few staff they have, it could be months."
  4513. > Caravan shakes his head slightly, looking out at the mess of ponies passing the time in an ostensibly public place.
  4514. > "They're really short, huh...?"
  4515. > "Yes. Even beyond all the wounded coming in, the humans took some of the doctors somewhere else."
  4516. > Somewhere else...
  4517. "Have you heard anything about the locked-off wing of the hospital? When we were in the camp we heard that they had established a prison-hospital - or something."
  4518. > "Or something?"
  4519. > Hot Pot cocks an eye at you.
  4520.  
  4521. "The soldier who was telling us didn't speak very good Equish."
  4522. > "I've not seen much, but that colt - he's said some things. I think they're only bringing some cases here - there's no way all those doctors are working in the space they've got set aside."
  4523. > So there must be another facility...
  4524. > Caravan snorts softly.
  4525. > "I wish we hadn't lost all of our stuff..."
  4526. "Not sure how that would've been able to help us here."
  4527. > "Trading. Especially the food..."
  4528.  
  4529. ACTION:
  4530. - Ask her if she have made any new contacts while bedridden or if she suspects anyone to be sympathetic to our cause. We need to build a network of people willing to fight. For all intents and purposes the guard is gone in Las Pegas, we need to make our own substitute and fast. We might be able to disrupt the siege of the cloud district if we make haste.
  4531.  
  4532. > Glancing over to Hot Pot again, you murmur softly:
  4533. "Have you found anypony here sympathetic to us? Willing to help us?"
  4534. > "I don't know..."
  4535. > She screws her face up, looking out the window and continuing in a low voice.
  4536. > "A lot of ponies are upset - those others in my room? That a mother and her colt, both wounded when an explosive landed in their home. The other one is new, but I suspect the same thing."
  4537. "Would they be willing to actually give aid, though."
  4538. > "That's what I'm not sure about. A lot of them... they're more scared than angry."
  4539. > A pause, then she adds:
  4540. > "At least until yesterday, anyhow. Knowing there was a princess here.. that raised everypony's hopes."
  4541. > Caravan glances about.
  4542. > "If you let me, I could stay around here too. Say I'm visiting Hot Pot, but see if I can make any contacts myself."
  4543. "That'd be good, Caravan. I'll take it under consideration."
  4544. > "There is one thing."
  4545. > Hot Pot suddenly speaks up again, head turning to settle her eyes on you.
  4546. > "Every once in a while, there's a doctor who comes in and out of the locked-off area of the hospital. I think he's responsible for keeping supplies moving."
  4547. > Interesting...
  4548. "Do you know his name?"
  4549. > "Poultice, I think. I've never seen him myself, caught up in the room all the time - but I heard one of the nurses talking about him."
  4550. > Hrm.
  4551. > Who would be listening to that...
  4552. > "Did you say that colt was talking some before?"
  4553. > Hot Pot nods at Caravan's question.
  4554. > "He can walk, so he spends most of the day exploring the hospital while his mother stays here."
  4555. > "If we can convince his mother to let us talk to him, I bet he could tell us some interesting things..."
  4556. > "Boss?"
  4557. > Spark had gone quiet again; the sound of his voice catches you by surprise.
  4558.  
  4559. > "If we have time, there's something else I'd like to investigate here. If we can't get anypony to give us something, maybe we could find what we need..."
  4560.  
  4561. ACTION:
  4562. - I say we split up, get Hot Pot and Caravan to try and talk to the colt. Caravan has a silver tongue and Hot Pot knows the people, at least to a degree. Make sure not to push the kid, and just try to get him to talk about it, not like an interrogation, more of a friendly conversation. Then, We go and ask the receptionist or something for Dr Poultice, and see where that takes us. If we find the Doc, we shouldn't push him and just try to get bits of information, nothing major. Tell him we're working for a news paper or something and asking about the condition of the hospital. Too bad Byline isn't here.
  4563.  
  4564. "Caravan, you're good with words. See if you can find convince that colt's mother to let you give him a quick chat - and try not to spook the poor thing, okay? He's probably already terrified."
  4565. > "On it. Do I have permission to tell him who we are?"
  4566. > You frown slightly at that.
  4567. "What in Luna's mane would give you the idea that's a good idea?"
  4568. > Caravan shrugs lightly.
  4569. > "I don't know. Colts love secret missions and all that kind of stuff, right?"
  4570. > Spark gives him a flat look.
  4571. > "This isn't a game or Daring Do novel, Caravan."
  4572. > "I know, but... hear me out. That colt, he was torn up by a human weapon. He probably hates them more than any of us - we knew what we were getting into. We give him a reason to open up to us, I think he'll keep out secret safe."
  4573. > It's not bad reasoning.
  4574. > But...
  4575. > Being outed would be the end of the story.
  4576. "I'll think about it. Spark, you're with me - we're going see if we can find this 'Dr. Poultice'."
  4577. > The unicorn nods.
  4578. > "Should we go find Ornithea? See if she's noticed anything going in or out of that area - the doctor, for instance?"
  4579. "It's an idea. The other thing I was thinking is, we could find somepony in charge and say we need to talk to him immediately. It'd be more likely to get us an answer, if we can come up with a good enough story."
  4580. > Caravan raises a hoof.
  4581. > "There's another possibility. I was thinking, if I was going to come along on that, I'd just lurk around near the central supply store. Poultice is bound to show up there if he really is getting supplies for that wing."
  4582. "Fair idea as well. I don't know if we can do it without raising suspicion, though - you're just good at talking ponies into accepting you."
  4583. > "Less suspicious than having Ornithea wander around the sealed-off wing?"
  4584. > You grimace softly at Caravan's comment, but he has a point there.
  4585.  
  4586. ACTION:
  4587. - Do not tell the colt you are guards.
  4588. - Check with Ornithea before anything else.
  4589.  
  4590. "Caravan, leave who we are out of this for now."
  4591. > He looks crestfallen, but nods.
  4592. > "I understand. I'll do my best."
  4593. "Alright. Spark, let's go find Ornithea."
  4594. > Trotting down to the sealed-off wing, you glance back and forth curiously - searching for any hint of the mare.
  4595. > Unfortunately, only a handful of halls link to the wing - all of them with a pair of humans, armed, standing in your path - and you rapidly run out of interior options.
  4596. > The next choice is exterior, and that is rather more productive.
  4597. > Windows have, inexplicably, not been covered opaque sheets to prevent passers-by from entering.
  4598. > Whether that speaks to a confidence that those within are not suicidal enough to jump from the upper floors or that those within have been physically restrained, you aren't sure.
  4599. > And while the outside is also guarded by soldiers, they are can't stop ponies from watching at a distance.
  4600. > For instance, one particular earth pony sitting halfway behind a bush as she eats a meal.
  4601. > She glances up, nodding when you approach.
  4602. > "You get to see her?"
  4603. "Yes. She's well; we got her out of her room to talk for a bit."
  4604. > "Good to hear. Where's Caravan?"
  4605. > Spark snorts softly.
  4606. > "Following up on a colt's words."
  4607. > Evidently he doesn't think very highly of that plan.
  4608. "Working on another lead, yes. How've you been doing?"
  4609. > "Well..."
  4610.  
  4611. [Roll for success; result: she was able to get some pretty good information.]
  4612.  
  4613. > "I wasn't able to get in from the inside, but the soldiers don't know to look for birds - so they see everything."
  4614. > You crack a small grin, glancing at the nearest patrolling human - perhaps a good seventy feet away, well outside of hearing range.
  4615. "Good job, Ornithea. What've you got?"
  4616. > "They bring in ponies all wrapped up in bandages and on carts. The birds said they look less hurt when they are taken back out, so I'm guessing they are the worst wounded."
  4617. "Good. What else?"
  4618. > "I had one of them fly up to a window and peek inside; they say the ponies in the beds are 'trapped in', so I think they must be restrained somehow."
  4619. > Spark frowns, but nods.
  4620. > "Makes sense, with only the covers over windows."
  4621. > "And it's not just for the wounded ponies. Apparently there's some rooms where the doctors are sleeping - they aren't letting some of them out either."
  4622. "They're imprisoning the doctors?"
  4623. > Your jaw drops slightly.
  4624. > "No... I'm not sure. The birds, they don't know what a doctor is, really - just that some ponies wear white coats and masks."
  4625. > Strange...
  4626. > "I think we've have heard if they were actually imprisoning doctors in there."
  4627. > Nodding at Spark's comment, a sudden idea clicks in your head.
  4628. "What about guard medics?"
  4629. > Spark snorts.
  4630. > "No way. They wouldn't put guard prisoners right in the middle of a hospital full of sympathetic ponies."
  4631. "Maybe. Maybe not - remember, they're from an entirely different world. They may not know a lot of our medicine - so they need somepony to help them."
  4632. > Ornithea nods. "They pull some doctors from the hospital, but also bring in some prisoners with medical knowledge who can be there around the clock. Maybe."
  4633. "I need your birds to find out as much as they can about this. We've been trying to find a doctor by the name of Poultice - he's apparently responsible for getting the right supplies into the cut-off wing of the hospital."
  4634.  
  4635. > Again a small frown from Ornithea.
  4636. > "I'll do what I can. I've mostly been on the outside, and the birds don't learn pony names fast - unless you want me to just come inside with you and help you search?"
  4637. > "There's two of us already. We should be okay if you stay here."
  4638. "Easy, Spark. There might be some more information we can get out of her birds..."
  4639.  
  4640. ACTION:
  4641. - I say we and Caravan ask around for the doctor, while Ornithea keeps talking to birds. Caravan has a silver tongue so he'll help us out, taking Ornithea is a waste of time. Besides, her birds seem pretty useful.
  4642.  
  4643. "Alright. Ornithea, see if your birds can get some more information - maybe we can find something out. About what's going on in there. I think we have about an hour and a half more before we need to head back... home."
  4644. > "Understood."
  4645. "Spark, with me."
  4646. > Retreating back inside, you start to head up towards Hot Pot's room.
  4647. > "What exactly are we going to do?"
  4648. "Find Caravan. If nothing else, maybe he can work some information on this 'Poultice' out of somepony."
  4649. > As you near the doorway, you can hear some voices from inside.
  4650. > "...big things, three of them! You wouldn't believe how big and loud they were! I was scared, but I kept watching, 'cause that's what Daring Do would do, and-"
  4651. > It's the colt.
  4652. > Caravan must have worked his magic with the mother.
  4653. > Sticking your head into the room, you find Caravan resting on the bed beside him, talking animatedly with the colt.
  4654. > Hot Pot has returned to her own bed, shifted over to one side to make room for the colt's mother - both of them watching closely.
  4655. > "So, you did this on several days?"
  4656. > "Uh-huh! And they always do the same thing."
  4657. > Lowering his voice slightly, the colt goes on.
  4658. > "Don't tell anypony, because they would probably think I'm a bad pony, but... I think those big machines are kind of cool. I'd love to get inside one, but..."
  4659. > Oh, for the innocence of youth.
  4660. > Even wounded, it's all a big story to him...
  4661. "Hey, Caravan?"
  4662. > His head rises, twisting around to settle on you.
  4663. "We're getting ready to go. Can you finish up?"
  4664. > "Yeah, sure. Sorry, Ruckus - I've got to be going back to my own home now."
  4665. > "Awww - can you come back soon? Most ponies here don't seem to want to talk so much."
  4666.  
  4667. > "Well, I can certainly try. We'll want to make sure Hot Pot is doing okay, so we may be back."
  4668. > "Alright. Byebye!"
  4669. > "Bye, Ruckus. Hot Pot, stay safe - and everypony else as well."
  4670. > A chores of soft thankyous meets your request.
  4671. > Only once he is far from the room does Caravan let out a breath.
  4672. > "That poor kid. Doesn't know how lucky he is."
  4673. "I heard..."
  4674. > "Still he did tell us some important things: The humans take some doctors and nurses away in a truck every morning; he thinks each group comes back a day or two later."
  4675. "Always the same ones?"
  4676. > "No. They rotate which ones they take in - why, he isn't sure. Just that there was a doctor who was looking after him who got pulled off suddenly; that's why he started looking."
  4677. > Well, that's interesting information... so a new 'doctor' might not be noticed immediately.
  4678. "We don't have long, but we'd still like to find Poultice, if we can. Ornithea's doing some good work outside; we've got maybe an hour before we need to leave."
  4679. > Caravan grimaces.
  4680. > "Don't make it easy, do you? I'll see what I can do - try and keep yourself and Spark out of sight; we don't want to be intimidating."
  4681. "Understood. Anything else?"
  4682. > "...if I think I'm talking to a friendly face, can I tell them who we are?"
  4683.  
  4684. ACTION:
  4685. - >No telling
  4686.  
  4687. "No. Sorry, Caravan, we need to play this quiet for now. Leave it be."
  4688. > He grimaces.
  4689. > "You really love making my job hard, don't you?"
  4690. "Sorry, Caravan."
  4691. > "Your call to make."
  4692. > He glances at a map, then starts up a flight of stairs.
  4693. > "The ward director should be up here somewhere."
  4694. > Two flights later, you arrive amid a hallway of what mostly seems to be offices.
  4695. > As soon as you turn the corner, however, you freeze.
  4696. > Yes, the ward director's office is there - but as are a pair of human soldiers.
  4697. > Quickly you pull back around the corner, whispering to the two others.
  4698. "Two of them, standing watch on the office. No idea what they're doing there."
  4699. > Caravan grimaces.
  4700. > "Damn, they have to be... figures, with our luck."
  4701. > Spark speaks up at last.
  4702. > "We shouldn't leave. We've got a good reason to be here. There's nothing wrong with walking down a hall."
  4703. "If it weren't for what happened the last couple days, I would agree..."
  4704.  
  4705. ACTION:
  4706. - Walk past quickly, see if you can hear what is going on.
  4707.  
  4708. "...okay, we're going to just walk calmly in front of them, like we know exactly where we're going. The hallways curves at the end so we can just disappear out of sight. If they tell us to stop, we leave. But for now, everypony remain calm. Got it?"
  4709. > Caravan nods; Spark seems uncertain, but nods as well.
  4710. "Then let's go."
  4711. > There's no denying it's a nerve-wracking walk to take.
  4712. > You almost feel like a condemned pony walking to the scaffold.
  4713. > Instead of letting the fear run rampant, you focus inward on making all the proper steps to appear innocent.
  4714. > Peer up at the names on the doors, as if checking to see if each is the one you want? Check.
  4715. > Nervous peek but not staring at the soldiers? Check.
  4716. > Glance back to make sure the others are still following? Check.
  4717. > The soldiers seem content to watch you closely, eyeing you but never stepping out so long as you just proceed down the hallway.
  4718. > Inside the office, however, you can hear raised voices.
  4719.  
  4720. > Though you can't quite make out what they are saying - and don't dare stop to find out - it's a fair guess that things are not as calm here as you'd believed.
  4721. > Not until you're long past the turn in the hallways do you dare to stop and let out a breath of relief.
  4722. > Spark nods in agreement.
  4723. > "That was not fun."
  4724. "Not at all. Doesn't sound like we're up for that talk any time soon."
  4725. > "I dunno. I think we could stay a little bit."
  4726. > You cock one ear at Caravan's suggestion.
  4727. > "Hear me out: We can just wait here, say we're waiting for a doctor to come up. We give - I dunno, some random name."
  4728. "And if they don't leave?"
  4729. > "Then the doctor we're 'waiting' for doesn't show up and we leave."
  4730. "You're liking to play things risky, Caravan."
  4731. > "Just like business, boss: Don't risk anything, don't win anything."
  4732.  
  4733. ACTION:
  4734. - I think we should wait.
  4735.  
  4736. "We'll stay."
  4737. > Glancing down the hall, you spot a pair of benches in the familiar style of all hospital seating around Equestria.
  4738. > Lumpen, uncomfortable, but there when you needed it.
  4739. "Come on. Let's go grab a seat."
  4740. > And grab a seat you do, staring disinterestedly at the opposite wall.
  4741. > Unfortunately, the soldiers seem disinclined to move.
  4742. > After a while, Caravan leans over and whispers into your ear.
  4743. > "...how long are we going to wait on this?"
  4744. "A little longer. We're waiting to meet Ornithea anyhow."
  4745. > At last the sound of boots comes from down the halls.
  4746. > They do not come your way - a small mercy - and when you next peer around the corner all are absent from the hallway altogether.
  4747. "Excllent. Caravan, do your thing."
  4748. > "Got it. How long do I have?"
  4749. > You frown at the time wasted waiting.
  4750. "Not enough - no more than twenty minutes, at the most."
  4751. > "Got it. Wait outside, tell me if somep- someone is coming."
  4752. > Without further ado he saunters up to the door, knocking briefly before being let in.
  4753. > Somehow, you don't get the idea he waited to be asked in.
  4754. "...alright, Spark. You take that end of the hallway, I'll take this end."
  4755. > "Got it."
  4756. > It's a minor relief that at least you hear no further raised voices coming from within the office.
  4757. > When Caravan emerges, however, the look on his face doesn't seem terribly promising.
  4758. "Didn't so well, huh?"
  4759. > He shakes his head.
  4760. > "He clammed right up when I wanted to know about that sealed-off wing. Whatever's going on with that place, they've got it sealed up tight."
  4761. "Nothing at all?"
  4762. > "Offered to leave a note telling Poultice I was looking for him, but said he needed my name and how I knew Poultice to do that."
  4763. "Damn. Okay, we need to go collect Ornithea anyhow."
  4764. > Caravan nods, though he seems to have something on his mind.
  4765.  
  4766. "...I can tell you want to say something Caravan."
  4767. > "It's just - if I'd been able to tell him, I think we could've gotten the director on our side. He isn't any happier about this than we are."
  4768. > "He's also afraid, though."
  4769. > You nod at Spark's comment.
  4770. > "And afraid can be just as dangerous to us as actually hostile."
  4771. > Your stomach again twists as you step in front of the soldiers standing watch at the hospital's entrance, but no cries of alarm or orders to halt are called out.
  4772. > Ornithea awaits you just outside, on the front lawn.
  4773. > The first thing you notice is how pale she looks.
  4774. "...are you alright?"
  4775. > "Not here. Walk."
  4776. > And so you do, waiting until you've covered the first several blocks from the hospital before you speak again.
  4777. "Alright, Ornithea. What'd you find?"
  4778.  
  4779. [Roll for success; result: They weren't terribly successful, only getting a little more information.]
  4780.  
  4781. > "Well, I didn't find out much more - not initially, anyhow, but..."
  4782. > She takes a deep breath.
  4783. > "They said there are ponies in there... crying. Or screaming. I'm not sure much, but they could hear it through the closed window..."
  4784. > Your stomach twists.
  4785. > So far they invaders had been so calm.
  4786. > Had they finally turned violent now...?
  4787. > Caravan speaks softly beside you.
  4788. > "Remember - that colt was pretty sure they're bringing in injured and sending doctors to somewhere else. If they've got any brains in them, they would keep any messy business there."
  4789. "If they do... but angry ponies have been known to do dumb things. And if they're bringing the worst-hurt here..."
  4790. > You shake your head.
  4791. "We don't know what's going on out there. Especially after the princess' delay, they have plenty of reason to think we are suspicious."
  4792. > Spreading your wings, you push yourself skyward - reflecting that it's been far, far to long since you were actually able to truly fly.
  4793. "Keep heading home. I'm going to stretch my wings a little bit."
  4794. > "Got it."
  4795. > Ornithea nods sympathetically, probably knowing full well what it feels like to be a bird that cannot fly.
  4796. > "Just remember to stay low."
  4797. "I will."
  4798. > Sailing through the air, even at low level, gives you time to think and organize the ongoing problems in your head.
  4799. > It's a welcome respite - for the first time in days, your mind can be clear of worries, focusing on the immediate problems of simply not colliding with obstacles.
  4800. > By the time you set back down at the front door of your ramshackle residence, you feel considerably better.
  4801. > Seeing Whipen safe and sound when you return is only the icing on the cake.
  4802. > She's managed to acquire some simple stew in your absence, which is now cooking over the brick fireplace.
  4803. > Even though you are hardly starving, the scent is somehow relaxing.
  4804.  
  4805. > After eating and filling her in on what you discovered that day, you settle down to plan the next day's activities.
  4806. "...so, we've still got the Changelings and Fairweather's group to check in on."
  4807. > Whispen nods.
  4808. > "With respect to that, sir - a pony came by today. I think it must have been one of Fairweather's had a guard look about him. Anyhow - asked for Caravan; told me he was wanted again."
  4809. > That's right, they didn't know you were free yet.
  4810. "Any idea about what?"
  4811. > "Wouldn't say. Just said that Caravan was wanted, and he'd know where to find them."
  4812. > At least somepony knew how to keep proper security together.
  4813. "Caravan?"
  4814. > "No idea. Sounds like something they'd do, anyhow.
  4815.  
  4816. ACTION:
  4817. - Check in with Fairweather's guards in hiding.
  4818.  
  4819. "We'll go see what Fairweather's group wants. The changelings seem to have things under control on their end."
  4820. > That, and you will be quite happy if you never have to step into their lair again.
  4821. "For now, get some rest again."
  4822. > Five heads turn simultaneously to the single mattress in the tiny 'house' and she sparse bedding on it.
  4823. > It's barely large enough to fit two ponies, if they don't mind close quarters.
  4824. "...somepony else can have it. I'm used to roughing it."
  4825. > Caravan nods.
  4826. > "Same. Ground's an old friend to me; it won't be too bad to get reacquainted."
  4827. > Spark, Whispen, and Ornithea look between each other.
  4828. > "...flip a bit?"
  4829. > In the end they work out a system for sharing the bed over the course of the night, aided by Whispen and Ornithea agreeing to fit together on it.
  4830. > You find your way to a corner with slightly less in the way of a draft and curl up there as the fire burns down.
  4831. > One wing is circled over your legs to try and keep in a little more warmth.
  4832. > At some point in the night you awaken to find another pony has also fallen asleep quite close by.
  4833. > The fuzzy outline of a horn lit in the trickles of light seeping in through cracks in the walls at first makes you think it is Whispen, but the pony has a stallion's build on closer examination.
  4834. > Spark, then, curled up into himself.
  4835. > Briefly you wonder how the young, quiet pony - barely grown beyond a colt - is handling all this.
  4836. > But then the need for sleep overrides everything again.
  4837. > Come morning, you scarf down the last, cold remnants of the previous night's food and get underway.
  4838. > Though you are far from your previous residence, the city is still the same - and with some guesswork and circumspect questions to passers-by you are able to find your way back again.
  4839. > A pair of stallions sit at the entrance, bouncing a hoofball between them.
  4840.  
  4841. > Despite their apparent relaxed posture, their eyes flick over everything that goes on in the streets.
  4842. > "Let me handle this, boss."
  4843. > Caravan takes the lead, trotting up to them.
  4844. > "I'm supposed to come and see about the weather?"
  4845. > One nods, then looks to yourself and Whispen.
  4846. > "Who's your friends? Weatherponies don't like hangars-on bothering them."
  4847. > The other stallion puts a hoof on the withers of the first, shaking his head.
  4848. > "Relax, I recognize one of them - he showed up at the hospital - when we were last there together."
  4849. > Though you don't know either of them, that was most likely when you'd gone to get Whispen treatment, then.
  4850. > That was when you'd met Fairweather's group the first time.
  4851. "Good to see you again too. It's a pity the old gang doesn't get together anymore, huh?"
  4852. > Both nod.
  4853. > "Yeah. Yeah, it is. Look, you want to go see a pony about the weather, this isn't the place. Half a block down, door one-oh-two. Tell 'em Skyline sent you."
  4854. "Got it. C'mon, Caravan."
  4855. > As you pull away, Caravan shakes his head - but grins.
  4856. > "That was the worst bit of 'secret talk' I've ever heard."
  4857. "Sorry, never read the book on that. You know those two?"
  4858. > "Yeah. They were here when we came the last time - when you were prisoner. Never mentioned anything about the new place, though."
  4859.  
  4860. ACTION:
  4861. - Trust them and go to the location they gave you.
  4862.  
  4863. > Trotting down the street, you find the door he mentioned.
  4864. > A knock on the door results in it being cracked open and a fearful-looking mare peeks out.
  4865. > Instinctively you wonder if this is the wrong place, but even so you ask.
  4866. "...we're here to see a weatherpony. Skyline sent us."
  4867. > Immediately her demeanor changes.
  4868. > "Come in. All of you?"
  4869. "Yes."
  4870. > As soon as you step inside, you realize that no less than four unicorns had been waiting just out of sight from the street, horns lit and ready for trouble.
  4871. "...woah. We're all friends here. Is Fairweather here?"
  4872. > "Yes, I am."
  4873. > Fairweather appears from another doorway; like you, he's lost his armor at some point but appears considerably better for wear.
  4874. > "Good to see you're back. Is all of your group here, or..?"
  4875. "No. Just the five of us; the others are still..."
  4876. > He simply nods.
  4877. > "Caravan told me. I'm sorry to hear."
  4878. > You force down a sudden weight in your throat.
  4879. "It... happens. Mostly bad luck, that thing coming down."
  4880. > "I know. We may have a solution, though..."
  4881. > You blink.
  4882. "...a solution?"
  4883. > He nods.
  4884. > "Yes. There's a reason only some ponies were invited here. We're still extremely nervous; if they humans find out they'd probably just blow up the whole block rather than even come here..."
  4885. > Caravan frowns heavily.
  4886. > "Just what did you pull us into? We've lost half our unit; we're possibly under suspicion still ourselves."
  4887. > "I know, I know..."
  4888. > Fairweather sighs.
  4889. > "Look, ponies higher in rank than me are in on this. We're trying to get organized, and they told me to pull in everypony I knew."
  4890. "They want us to fight?"
  4891. > He nods.
  4892. > "She does."
  4893. "...right, Staff Sergeant - what is going on? Who is 'she'?"
  4894.  
  4895. > Fairweather pauses, then shakes his head.
  4896. > "Sorry, I forget you weren't told. Princess Twilight Sparkle, of course."
  4897. > He cracks a small grin.
  4898. > "They want us organized, so they sent a specialist in being organized."
  4899. "...you're joking."
  4900. > "No. Let me see if she has time to see you."
  4901. > You're still partially in shock, digesting that particular bit of information as Fairweather turns around again.
  4902. > A princess is here?
  4903. > She hadn't left?
  4904. > "...oh, another is here? Yes, let me see him."
  4905. > You're quietly ushered into a small back room, the sole window heavily covered over.
  4906. > It's hot and stuffy, but that doesn't detract from the fact that you are in the presence of royalty.
  4907. > Sinking into a bow, you're immediately met by an almost shocked voice.
  4908. > "Oh, no no no no! You don't have to, I... I just wanted to talk to you."
  4909. > Raising yourself up again, you instead settle for a salute to the lavender alicorn before you.
  4910. "I may not be in uniform, but I am still a guardspony, Your Highness."
  4911. > "This is true. It is in the regulations..."
  4912. > She sighs gently, and in the low lamplight you realize that she still looks exhausted.
  4913. > Not physically tired - though there is that as well - but mentally drained.
  4914. > This fighting has to be twice as hard on her, you realize.
  4915. > She is supposed to be in command.
  4916. > She is failing.
  4917. > "...well, um, if you could give your report I would be able to figure out where you fit into this all."
  4918. > Immediately, though, you realize there is one issue you might not want to tell her about...
  4919.  
  4920. ACTION:
  4921. - Tell her about the Changelings.
  4922.  
  4923. > Again you instinctively salute.
  4924. "Your Highness, I was in command of a mixed unit of eleven ponies at the beginning of their assault on Las Pegasus. After the lines broke we were able to make an organized retreat with our wounded and find shelter; unfortunately, by now only five of us remain."
  4925. > She winces at that.
  4926. > "You've suffered many losses."
  4927. "One wounded, currently at Las Pegasus central hospital as a civilian. Six held prisoner; suspicion fell on us after one of their flying machines crashed near where we were staying."
  4928. > "Wait... that's twelve. You said there were only seven?"
  4929. > You shift uncomfortably.
  4930. "Yes, Your Highness. One more joined us after our arrival here..."
  4931. > No.
  4932. > You have to tell her.
  4933. "...we found we had accidentally taken shelter in a building being used by Changelings."
  4934.  
  4935. > Several sharp breaths are taken around the room; Twilight raises a hoof and looks straight at you.
  4936. > "Before we go on, you understand that I will have to check you and all ponies you have brought here?"
  4937. "Yes, Your highness."
  4938. > The scan goes off without a hitch, though, and soon it is Twilight shaking her head apologetically.
  4939. > "I'm sorry; so many things have changed now..."
  4940. > You aren't quite sure what to say; a scan is standard procedure, and nothing new since the beginning of this war.
  4941. > Privately you suspect that she simply wasn't aware of how intrusive military procedures could be prior to being called to this role.
  4942. "...as I was saying, we found that we had accidentally occupied a residence used by Changelings. Against my... intuition, we were able to forge an agreement with them - a ceasefire with benefits.
  4943. > Again Twilight tenses, her horn lighting.
  4944. > Your hoof rises.
  4945. "Your Highness, please - I was at Canterlot too; at the wedding. I still don't like them, but both sides were starving and desperate."
  4946. > "Do you.. think they can be trusted?"
  4947. "No. I expect them to look out for themselves and only themselves; right now, our interests simply happen to align."
  4948. > "Confluent."
  4949. > She mutters the word beneath her breath, as if it would somehow offer her some comfort.
  4950. > "Where do you stand now?"
  4951. "Five of us remain; we found new shelter, but lost any equipment and weapons we were able to salvage, and are lacking basic supplies."
  4952. > Somehow, you hadn't realized how desperate your situation was.
  4953. "We're willing, but... right now, just getting ourselves safe and alive will be difficult."
  4954. > "I... I see."
  4955. > You realize she'd been writing the details of your group down on a sheet before her - one point of many on a massive web, presumably of other surviving guard units.
  4956. > The first thought you have is that she is obviously planning something big; the second is that the document before you is a massive security risk.
  4957.  
  4958. > But then again, there's a princess in enemy territory, so the risk is pretty high to begin with.
  4959.  
  4960. ACTION:
  4961. - Ask her how the war is going elsewhere.
  4962. - Ask her what she is hoping you could accomplish.
  4963.  
  4964. "Your Highness... if it's not too forward of me to ask, how are things out there?"
  4965. > Again you catch a glimpse of that tired look in Princess Twilight's eyes.
  4966. > That tells you plenty, even before she speaks - the first phrase muttered beneath her breath:
  4967. > "Can't lie... honesty is an element, after all; if we loose that we loose who we are."
  4968. > Then her voice rises to answer you.
  4969. > "It is bad. We're only directly defending key points where we hold all the advantages we can. Instead, we're trying to focus on their supplies."
  4970. > She nods her head towards the north, in the direction of the massive camp under construction.
  4971. > "This is like fighting a Hydra: You can't go for the heads, so you go for the belly. I'm sure you've noticed, they have to carry a tremendous amount of resources in with them."
  4972. "Even that must be risky."
  4973. > She nods, a flicker of pain passing over her face.
  4974. > "They're... unusually able to find ponies. At night, through smoke... and their aircraft hunt us at every opportunity."
  4975. "We had some minor success when the lines broke here - with arcane foci. I should note that 'minor' is the important word there."
  4976. > "I'd heard. We've also begun to throw storms at them as fast as the Pegasi corps can pull them together."
  4977. > She looks down, not even bothering to hide the pain in her eyes now.
  4978. > "The land is... suffering. So many storms in such a short time saturates the earth, preventing plants' roots from gaining proper-"
  4979. > Teeth gritted, Twilight shakes her head.
  4980. > "My apologies. I was lecturing again, I.. I sometimes do that."
  4981. > Fairweather steps forward.
  4982. > "It is quite alright, Your Highness. Please, continue?"
  4983. > "Well, yes. The storms. We've been having Cloudsdale churn out the storms as fast as they can to disrupt their supply lines; Luna has been defending the city against counter-attack."
  4984. > So Luna was back in the war?
  4985. > That is good news to hear.
  4986.  
  4987. "I'm sure that news will raise ponies' hopes."
  4988. > "It may, but... the storms are ruining the land. Even if we can halt the invasion, food will be very, very short."
  4989. > Famine.
  4990. > Another thing you'd never even considered at the start of this.
  4991. "Can it be done, though? Stop them, starve them out?"
  4992. > "We don't have to starve them, just their weapons."
  4993. > She looks back at the sheaf of papers.
  4994. > "Everything they use needs to be brought in, nothing can be made in Equestria. Even their machines run on oil that has to be brought in."
  4995. "Is that what we're to accomplish here?"
  4996. > She nods sharply.
  4997. > "Yes. That camp they're building, it will almost certainly be used to ship supplies into Equestria."
  4998.  
  4999. ACTION:
  5000. - "But Princess, won't that direct attention towards the innocent ponies in the city?"
  5001. - "What about our own starving - they've still got the cloud districts cut off."
  5002.  
  5003. "What about our own starving, Your Highness? The cloud districts have been cut off for some time now; they can't hold out forever."
  5004. > At that, several ponies around the room crack small smiles.
  5005. > Did you accidentally make some joke?
  5006. > "Well... I'm sure you saw that display I put on over their base two days ago?"
  5007. "Yes."
  5008. > You decide not to mention that you were in the base at the time; the questions that result could be... awkward.
  5009. > "They just can't help themselves but go after an alicorn whenever one shows up. I don't blame them, really, it's a very logical choice - but as long as they are focusing on me they aren't shooting at anypony else."
  5010. > It clicks.
  5011. "Some supplies got up to the cloud districts while you were out there."
  5012. > She nods, a faint smile around her lips.
  5013. > "And because I didn't attack, they likely thought I would unless they could keep me constantly teleporting."
  5014. > It's not a major victory; the siege was still fully in place and you rather doubted the newly-delivered supplies would last for long.
  5015. > But even small victories are worth something in this.
  5016. > Fairweather gives a small snort.
  5017. > "I don't suppose we can expect a repeat performance when the time comes to make our move?"
  5018. > Immediately Twilight's face turns downcast once again.
  5019. > "I... I don't think so. Even doing that took a lot out of me; I mostly spent yesterday sleeping off the exhaustion."
  5020. > ...damn.
  5021. > You'd never thought an alicorn could get tired, especially not from magic use... but it seemed she was just as hit by this as all of you.
  5022. "Your Highness, I have just one further concern?"
  5023. > "Go ahead, of course."
  5024. "I'm sure you've noticed the humans have been... remarkably passive towards most ponies, especially civilians. Isn't there a risk attacking them here might make them become even more aggressive?"
  5025. > Twilight looks down, then nods slightly.
  5026.  
  5027. > "There is. But... I don't know what else to do. We can't give up - they want Luna's head for her mistake. A simple mistake!"
  5028. > Her voice is starting to rise, the frustration within her boiling over.
  5029. > "And it's not like they aren't hurting ponies now - two of my best friends were nearly killed in Ponyville; none of them were guards! And-"
  5030. > At last Twilight halts herself, eyes closing and horn flickering as she regains her composure.
  5031. > "...I'm sorry. You shouldn't have had to see that."
  5032. > Perhaps so, but it's a statement on how deeply this is affecting her.
  5033. > Then again, she was not even royalty until a few years ago - and almost certainly never expected to be a leader in war.
  5034. > Fortunately one of the other guardsponies in the room - a face you do not recognize - speaks the words that you don't know how to say.
  5035. > "My old C.O., Captain Flow - he used to say, he didn't trust a soldier until he'd seen them break down once. It's alright, Your Highness. We don't think less of you for it."
  5036. > There's a round of affirmative noises from several in the room, yourself included.
  5037. > "Thank you... thank you, all of you."
  5038. > Another deep breath, and she goes on.
  5039. > "To answer the original question, yes - it is possible they would. However, the risks of just giving up are even worse. Putting aside what they intend to do to Luna, it is our harmony that has kept us safe for so long. The Fires of Friendship, the elements, the Crystal Heart - all of them rely on the support ponies lend to each other."
  5040. > Numerous heads are nodding in agreement.
  5041. > "I'm sure you've all realized they do not intend to leave when this is done. This is not just about Luna now - they intend to conquer us. If they do that, there is a very real risk that harmony that has protected Ponykind for so long... will begin to fall apart."
  5042. > You hadn't even thought about that.
  5043. > But there is a logic in that statement; already they had forbidden pegasi flying and showing the Equestrian flag in Las Pegasus.
  5044.  
  5045. > Distrusting of magic as they were, how long until they began to eat away at the other subtle, inherent magics that kept all of the land safe?
  5046. > "So yes... I know it is deeply unfair of me to keep you fighting, but right now... there is no other way. Unless they can be convinced to give up their conquest, we must stay united."
  5047.  
  5048. ACTION:
  5049. - "What do you want us to do here, exactly?"
  5050. - "If they do begin to attack civilians, is that any worse? Should we stop fighting then?"
  5051.  
  5052. "What if they do begin to attack civilians, is that any worse? Should we stop fighting then?"
  5053. > Your question gets more than a few sharp looks shot in your direction, but Twilight shakes her head before any of them can speak up.
  5054. > "No, don't be angry at him. It's a good question. The answer is two-fold:"
  5055. > She begins to sketch out a flowchart on the board.
  5056. > Of course there's a flowchart.
  5057. > You don't know whether to be thankful a good planner is on board with this, or annoyed that you are getting a flowchart when you need is a miracle.
  5058. > "First, we will be doing everything we can to make sure that the attacks are not associated with a civilian population. I've laid out guidelines to work under."
  5059. > ...sweet Celestia, she wants you to fight under MORE restrictions?
  5060. > "Second, we plan to leave messages for their soldiers making it clear that civilians are not responsible for this, and if they are hurt there will be consequences."
  5061. > Somepony else in the room growls softly.
  5062. > "Pardon me for saying, Your Highness, but are we really in a position to be offering threats."
  5063. > "They fear our magic. This is intended to exploit that. However, the threat is not an entirely empty one..."
  5064. > She looks around at all of you.
  5065. > "...there are certain kinds of magic we have not dared use yet - because they are so malevolent, so corruptive that the effects on the user cannot be predicted. If things do become desperate, though..."
  5066. > You can hardly believe what you are hearing.
  5067. > The Princess of Friendship is suggesting using dark magic?
  5068. > How desperate things have become.
  5069. > "...so, yes, if they attack civilians - we will retaliate. If things are simply become too bad here, though - you should stop. It does not save Equestria if everypony is dead."
  5070.  
  5071. > There's a bitterness in her last few words, and you wonder if she is referring to her friends.
  5072. > "In terms of what you are to do: Their supply convoys are well-escorted, but not invincible. A well-conceived ambush in a prepared location could halt or destroy one."
  5073. "...do you honestly think stopping a few convoys will help?"
  5074. > "A few? No. But if every group stops a few, then they add up..."
  5075. > And then what?
  5076. > The humans will not be happy, you are sure.
  5077. > Perhaps not angry enough to indiscriminately slaughter civilians, but still...
  5078. > "And how, Your Highness, are we supposed to stop these convoys?"
  5079. > "As I said, a prepared ambush. Particularly, targeting their un-armored transports with heavy weapons or channeled magic has proven highly effective."
  5080. "And what when they counter-attack."
  5081. > "You flee. The time to hold lines no matter the cost is gone; even I can see that. We just want to stop them, bleed them dry now."
  5082. > "That's going to require us getting in and out of the city."
  5083. "Actually... I may be able to help with that?"
  5084. > Twilight looks over at you, expectantly.
  5085. "The Changelings have a network of tunnels beneath the city. It's a fair bet that at least one of them goes outside of the city boundary; if not, they could probably be expanded to do so."
  5086. > There's a quiet in the room , and then somepony you don't recognize nods.
  5087. > "That's the smartest idea I've heard so far. Let's go with that."
  5088. > Twilight nods hesitatingly as well.
  5089. > "If you believe they can be relied on not to turn you in, I will give my support to this idea."
  5090. "Thank you, Your Highness."
  5091. > She gives a shuddering sigh, looking down at the documents and planning maps spread across the table that dominates the room.
  5092. > "...is it normal to be afraid you're doing the wrong thing?"
  5093. > The question is unexpected and her voice so soft that nopony answers for a moment.
  5094. "...afraid, Your Highness?"
  5095. > A very slight nod of her head.
  5096.  
  5097. > "Of doing the wrong thing. I want to know that I'm doing right. I can see that these plans will work, that there's logic in them - but what I'm asking you to do... is it right?"
  5098. > Another shudder, and she goes on.
  5099. > "I'm afraid.. if we let them rule, that the harmony will truly die. But asking you to do this... I'm afraid I'm the one killing harmony by sending you out again."
  5100. > For a moment you see through her.
  5101. > To the scared filly with a princess' wings and horn.
  5102. > "...don't figure any of us rightly know if it's right, Princess. But, soldiers don't often know."
  5103. > Another guardspony nods.
  5104. > "Yeah. For what it's worth, we don't want to give up either, but... is there truly no negotiating with these things? Do they really want to break us?"
  5105. > "They... they're very insistent that Princess Luna be taken to 'face justice'. But even if we did... like I said: Every available point of data suggests a war of continued conquest, not merely hunting down Princess Luna."
  5106.  
  5107. ACTION:
  5108. - Tell her the humans seem more disturbed and scared about what we did than anything else.
  5109. - Ask if negotiations are open.
  5110. - Ask about Discord.
  5111.  
  5112. "If it's not to much to ask... have there been any tries to reach out to them? Anything to give an idea of what they want?"
  5113. > "We tried, in the beginning. We really did - that was what Luna was doing, trying to ask their soldiers to stop fighting. It was the best way to talk to them all at once..."
  5114. "They seem to think she was attacking them. Harming them, so they couldn't sleep."
  5115. > You shrug.
  5116. "Or at least, that's what they've been saying around here."
  5117. > Another stallion raises his hoof in response.
  5118. > "I've heard the same. They're downright terrified of her, more than any other pony. To them, she's like..."
  5119. > Nopony wants to say it.
  5120. > But Twilight understands what was not spoke anyhow.
  5121. > "She retreated because of their reactions... the feedback from their reactions, the way the responded... she feared becoming the Nightmare again."
  5122. > By then, the unspoken statement is, it was too late.
  5123. "Is it only her they want? Only Princess Luna?"
  5124. > "Then? Yes. Now? I do not know. We have not had any high-level contact from them, aside from propaganda demanding our complete and total surrender now."
  5125. > How did this get so far wrong...?
  5126. > "Your Highness?"
  5127. > A guardspony speaks softly.
  5128. > "Your Highness, if we fight them here... they will fear us too. They will attack the city itself."
  5129. > "There are already innocent ponies in their sights anyhow."
  5130. > Twilight twists her head, staring at a map.
  5131. > "The way they are driving north now, they must be heading for Cloudsdale. Without the weather factory, Equestria will begin to fall apart. From there-"
  5132. > "But it's already falling apart! You said so yourself - the storms are destroying the land!"
  5133. "Your Highness, what we are concerned about is that continuing to fight behind their lines will only encourage them to become more vicious in their fighting."
  5134. > "I know."
  5135.  
  5136. > Twilight seems uncertain, but nods.
  5137. > "I know, and I'm afraid too. But they're bombing cities in the east - destroying anything that might be of use. They've already killed so many in Ponyville-"
  5138. > "And more will be killed here - even before we risk using whatever magic you are thinking about!"
  5139. > "So then tell me what to do!"
  5140. > Twilight slams a hoof into the floor, cracking it.
  5141. > "Tell me what choice I am supposed to make - to ask you to risk your lives and the lives of innocent ponies, or take over the land and let them destroy the harmony that has kept Equestria alive?"
  5142. "What about Discord?"
  5143. > The question had come bubbling up from the memories of looking through the soldier's manual.
  5144. "They know about him - probably from hearing from ponies - and regard him as a very serious threat. So why can't he just..."
  5145. > You leave it unsaid, thoughts of the two recent times the creature hand run out of control across Equestria.
  5146. > Twilight's answer is almost impossible to hear, even in the silence that follow.
  5147. > "I can't tell you that."
  5148.  
  5149. ACTION:
  5150. - Demand to know what the situation is with Discord.
  5151. - Ask what she means by disrupting the harmony.
  5152.  
  5153. > You are about to do something stupid.
  5154. > Very, very stupid.
  5155. > To ask a question of a princess is one thing; to question a princess is quite another.
  5156. > But you have to know...
  5157. "Princess, I understand I am in no place to make demands, but I still wish you would trust us enough to tell us about Discord. He's the only wild card we have left in this."
  5158. > Twilight looks at the floor, her brow knitting.
  5159. > "I... I don't know."
  5160. "Please. We need to have some certainty in this..."
  5161. > "No, I mean... I honestly don't know. Nopony does. He's vanished."
  5162. > There's silence in the room before it erupts in a clamor.
  5163. > A second later and a flash of magic, the room goes still again.
  5164. > "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that!"
  5165.  
  5166. > Familiar horror has begun to grow in your stomach.
  5167. "...is he helping them, Your Highness?"
  5168. > "No. Um, at least, I don't think so. He's just been... absent. Gone. Completely vanished... since before this started."
  5169. > All the ponies in the room glance between each other.
  5170. > That didn't mean he hadn't done something, but...
  5171. "I don't think he is, at all. We took a book a soldiers was carrying, a sort of guidebook for fighting in Equestria. They were still worried about Discord too - didn't know what to expect from him."
  5172. > "Really?"
  5173. > Twilight looks up, a familiar spark lighting in her eyes.
  5174. > "Do you still have this book?"
  5175. "Unfortunately no. It was lost when our home was taken."
  5176. > "Oh..."
  5177. "What about - you said they're disrupting the harmony of Equestria - is it them, or...?"
  5178. > "No, no - it isn't Discord. That, I'm sure of."
  5179. > Twilight shakes her head furiously.
  5180. > "It's not magic - not like that. It's just... wherever they go, the humans bring disharmony and chaos with them. This isn't the first city under their rule I've been to, but it's the same everywhere."
  5181. > Pausing, she takes a moment to consolidate her thoughts before going on.
  5182. > "It starts slowly, but... ponies begin to turn against each other. Sometimes it's over small things, sometimes about whether to fight the humans. But it goes in the same direction: Friendships break, trust disappears, ponies begin to hate each other..."
  5183. > She looks around the room at all of you.
  5184. > "The elements of harmony aren't just relics or powers my friends and I wield. They're the concepts on which pony society exists; when the humans take that from us, they take what has sustained Equestria: The magic of friendship. When they turn us against each other... they take the very magic from Equestria itself."
  5185. > Once more the room falls silent as everypony digests this information.
  5186.  
  5187. > "Are you saying... if they keep taking over, the land itself will begin to fall apart?"
  5188. > Again Twilight nods.
  5189. > "We rely on harmony to do so much... even to change the seasons. If that harmony goes - well, I don't think I need to lecture on the consequences of what will happen."
  5190. "...and there's no way to convince them of it?"
  5191. > "No. I've tried - dear Celestia, I've tried - but they come from a world so devoid of magic they can't even see the harm they are doing."
  5192. > You find yourself agreeing; certainly, the humans you had met didn't seem like they were out to crush the harmony in the land.
  5193. > But then, how much had you found yourself having to argue with your team since they came?
  5194. > As Twilight said, trust had disappeared and ponies begun to hate each other - Copper Cog suddenly comes to mind.
  5195. > Was she saying that a continued human presence might create more Copper Cogs across Equestria?
  5196.  
  5197. ACTION:
  5198. - Leave ASAP
  5199.  
  5200. > You aren't sure what to make of Twilight's explanation, but it's clear that nothing more is going to come of this.
  5201. > The only thing you can do anymore is listen to her plan and hopefully allow you to be dismissed.
  5202. > For the next hour or two you listen to her outline her plan.
  5203. > Maps are presented - and carefully hidden, of course - showing optimal locations outside the city to try and ambush human convoys.
  5204. > If there's one thing you can say about Twilight, it is this.
  5205. > She doesn't hold back on the planning.
  5206. > Every little detail, every possible consideration is accounted for - even their flying machines and apparent ability to see perfectly at night.
  5207. > Several times you are called upon to provide information of your new Changeling 'allies', and how their tunnel-building skills might be of help.
  5208. > On paper, the plan is impressively thought out.
  5209. > But you've heard that no plan survives contact with reality, and can't help but wonder about what will be going on when this is put into play.
  5210. > If you draw their troops away from the city with ambushes on convoys, how soon will they grow tired of simply waiting out the ponies in the cloud districts?
  5211. > Might they retaliate against the city itself?
  5212. > Somewhat more sensible is her plan for organizing command of the remaining guardsponies in the city.
  5213. > Any semblance of the original chain of command is gone; instead, you watch as she restructures the entire chain of command on the fly.
  5214. > Individual ranking ponies are given command of sections of the city based on where they are hiding out.
  5215. > Though the existing ranks of ponies in hiding are considered, their effective level of command also has as much to do with how many are hiding in their area.
  5216. > Each district-leader in turn commands a number of block-leaders, who in turn control squad-sized groups in arranged by hiding spots.
  5217. > The levels maintain minimal contact, except when organizing operations together.
  5218.  
  5219. > You note with a hint of bitterness that had your group survived intact, you would probably have qualified for at least a block-leader position.
  5220. > As is, you find yourself under another pony - Sundew, a unicorn you do not recognize - who in turn reports to Fairweather.
  5221. > With the details being hashed out, the meeting finally begins to wrap up.
  5222. > A brief meeting with Sundew and Fairweather lets you know where and how to contact them, while a quiet word to another pony nets you a set of spare saddlebags filled with two days' rations.
  5223. > Twilight looks around the room again, her eyes briefly resting on each of you.
  5224. > "Thank you all again for coming here. I know things have been... well, hard doesn't even begin to describe it. But, if we stick together... we can pull through this."
  5225. > You salute with the others, keeping your face carefully neutral.
  5226. > "I'll only be in the city for a few days more, and will be moving to a new location every day. Approach a pony in the same spot you did to get here today, and you will be informed of where I am."
  5227. > Hmm.
  5228. > Seems she wasn't to stay long, then.
  5229. > The guardsponies depart in small groups, one or two at a time, never too often.
  5230. > It doesn't feel like long at all before your turn comes up, though.
  5231. > Stepping out onto the day-lit street, you fill your lungs with fresh air after being trapped in the warm, stale room for far too long..
  5232.  
  5233. ACTION:
  5234. -  Find somewhere private to sit down with the others and talk over what you just heard.
  5235.  
  5236. > Walking quickly through the late-morning streets, you keep your head down and eyes alert for anywhere you could go to gain a modicum of privacy.
  5237. > It finally comes in the form of a built-up alleyway, no windows close enough to the ground to be heard.
  5238. "In here, everypony. Fast."
  5239. > You proceed considerably further in, until you are well back and away from the street and out of range of any potential unwanted listeners.
  5240. > Glancing back and forth, you find more than a few worried gazes staring back at you.
  5241. > You must have seemed frantic, you realize.
  5242. > Panicky and uncaring.
  5243. "...right. This couldn't wait for to long, but... we need to talk. About what I was told in there - who else could hear it?"
  5244. > Two hooves go up, Caravan and Spark.
  5245. "Okay, for those who didn't - Princess Sparkle wants us to try and keep fighting, especially focusing on their supply convoys."
  5246. > "How?"
  5247. "I don't know for sure. She showed us lots of maps of good ambush positions just outside the city, and promised some kind of heavy-hitters."
  5248. > "Well, that's helpful."
  5249. > The sarcasm dripping from Ornithea's voice isn't missed.
  5250. "I know. I brought up that they might start going after civilians... she thinks she can intimidate them into not doing it."
  5251. > "...intimidate them."
  5252. "Yes."
  5253. > Spark throws his eyes skyward.
  5254. > "Please, Celestia, tell me she has a good reason for asking this of us?"
  5255. "She did say something about that they were disrupting the harmony of Equestria - turning ponies against each other, and that having an actual effect on the land."
  5256. > At that a small frown crosses Ornithea's face.
  5257. > "What, like in the Hearth's Warming story? Are we talking return-of-the-Windingos here if the humans stay?"
  5258. "I... don't know. I'd questioned a lot by then and there was only so much good grace I could get."
  5259.  
  5260. > "So, it might be just everypony being short tempered and angry. Or it might be our whole land freezing over again. And we don't know."
  5261. > "What about the others?"
  5262. > Whispen had been so quiet thus far that she'd practically faded into the wall.
  5263. > "What happens if we attack - do they get hurt?"
  5264. > Truthfully you hadn't even thought of that.
  5265. "It's possible. It's also possible that they will be hurt anyhow, if this... dis-harmony Princess Sparkle was talking about really does spread here."
  5266. > Spark shakes his head.
  5267. > "We can consider that later. What about.the Princess - did she give any ideas on how to pull off these attacks?"
  5268. "We, uh... well, I volunteered information about the Changelings. She wants to know if they can be used to dig some tunnels out of the city, so ponies could slip out unseen."
  5269. > "That's... not a bad idea."
  5270. > Spark and Caravan nod in agreement with Ornithea.
  5271. > Whispen looks unhappy, though.
  5272. > "They're going to be very upset you told a princess about them."
  5273. "I know. I'll deal with it; if they push it, I'll ask them if they could refuse an order from their queen."
  5274.  
  5275. ACTION:
  5276. - If any of them think maybe we should split from the current command and find our own way to fight.
  5277.  
  5278. "...if we do this, and it does start to turn bad..."
  5279. > You glance back towards the alley's opening, as if somepony might have snug up in the minute or so you've been standing there.
  5280. "If these orders do just get civilians hurt... what then?"
  5281. > Head turning to each of your remaining ponies in turn, you hope they can see just how deeply the question tears at you.
  5282. > How uncertain you are of what to do yourself.
  5283. > You are supposed to be a leader to these ponies, but now you have to ask.
  5284. "At what point do we just... stop obeying orders? If they are just getting ponies killed?"
  5285. > Whispen's sole remaining eye stares sadly back at you, though you aren't sure if it is because she recognizes what might happen or because she is shaken that you would even consider that option.
  5286. > Caravan keeps his face the picture of perfect neutrality, his carefully-schooled mask keeping you from gaining any hint of how he feels.
  5287. > Ornithea looks at you soberly.
  5288. > And Spark...
  5289. > Spark alone shows her emotions openly - a dark scowl on his face.
  5290. "I mean... if we are just getting more ponies killed, are we even saving lives in the end? Or are we just contributing to the... Disharmony of it all?"
  5291. > "I don't even think we should to begin with."
  5292. > You blink at Spark's comment.
  5293. > "If they actually want us to fight inside the city, I mean. No. We fought and died in those trenches outside the city so that the fighting wouldn't happen here, among innocent ponies."
  5294. > Cautiously Whispen nods.
  5295. > "We shouldn't endanger them... but neither should we leave the rest of the guard to fight and die alone."
  5296. "So, you want to fight... just not in the city."
  5297. > "It's... worth a try."
  5298. > Worth a try.
  5299. > Never had you thought you'd hear those words come from a guardspony's mouth regarding orders from a princess.
  5300. "Caravan?"
  5301. > He shrugs.
  5302.  
  5303. > "Simple risk of investment. If we think the risk is low enough, we invest ourselves... if Princess Twilight can pull through and get us a way to bring the civilians out of danger and plan a good ambush, the we go."
  5304. "...but if she can't..."
  5305. > "Then we do what the Royal Guard has always done."
  5306. > Whispen's voice is hard - pained, as if it hurt to force them past her lips.
  5307. > "We protect ponies. We get those at risk to safety. Hide them. Save lives. If the humans turn violent against innocents, we fight them too. But we do not provoke."
  5308. > Slowly you nod.
  5309. "Alright. Okay. So, we see what the princess can pull through on and make our choice them."
  5310. > Caravan nods, as does Spark - although he adds his own comment.
  5311. > "Sun and stars above, how did they ever let her in command of something like this?"
  5312. > Caravan laughs.
  5313. > "You'll learn, Spark - it's not that she's the smartest at it, it's that she's the only one who could get in here fast enough - and probably escape again."
  5314.  
  5315. ACTION:
  5316. - Discuss what Dark Magic is.
  5317. - Continue on to talk to the Changelings
  5318.  
  5319. "There's... one other thing she mentioned. Princess Sparkle, I mean."
  5320. > Immediately you have their attention again.
  5321. "She said, if this all fails and they do go on to continue attacking - especially attacking civilians - she might have to use 'dark magic'. Whispen, Spark, do either of you know what that means?"
  5322. > Judging by the looks on their faces, they do.
  5323. "I mean, I've heard the stories about Sombra and Nightmare Moon, but..."
  5324. > "It's..."
  5325. > Spark pauses.
  5326. > "It's like a shortcut. A lot of power, for much less effort. I've read about it, but never seen anything close to it personally."
  5327. > "Yeah; most unicorns are told to stay far away from dark magic - it has a tendency to alter the user. There's some schools of thought that think dark magic itself is itself aware to some degree."
  5328. > Again Spark nods in agreement with Whispen's comment.
  5329. "...so in short, if she's thinking about using it in warfare, then she's either incredibly desperate... or, ah, emotionally compromised already."
  5330. > Both nod, well aware of the weight loaded on that one single phrase.
  5331. "I'll trust you to let me know if you start seeing anything that looks like that. If I do, I think we're all getting out of here."
  5332. > "I don't think anypony out here is going to argue with that."
  5333. "Good. Then there's some more damage I need to clean up; I doubt the Changelings are going to be happy to see us."
  5334. > Unfortunately, the trip to the Buttercup's bar is long and tiring.
  5335. > By the time you do arrive it is getting towards early afternoon.
  5336. > Any thoughts of tiredness or even of purchasing something to eat at the bar vanish when you turn the corner onto the street it is on.
  5337. > Immediately you grind to a halt, eyes wide.
  5338. > There's a line of human armored carts parked just in front of the bar, soldiers scattered all around them.
  5339.  
  5340. > For a second you fear that they have happened upon the tunnel in the basement - but then you brain begins to catch up to your fear.
  5341. > No, they don't seem to be especially alert.
  5342. > In fact, they seem downright lax - several holding some sort of small trays up to their face-
  5343. > The irony of it almost makes you chuckle.
  5344. > They're eating lunch too.
  5345. > Probably their own stuff, but judging by the cups many hold they've found a use for the bar nonetheless.
  5346. > Beside you, Caravan frowns.
  5347. > "So much for them not drinking alcohol."
  5348. "We don't actually know what's in those cups, Caravan."
  5349. > "Yeah, but who goes to a bar and orders anything else?"
  5350. > On your opposite side, Whispen - perhaps the most tired of you all, on account of her leg - gives them an annoyed look.
  5351. > As if the inconvenience of stopping you all from getting food and rest as well was the worst thing they had done.
  5352. > "The real question is, are we just going to go in and ignore them?"
  5353. "It'd probably be safe. I don't think any of them are going to expect us."
  5354.  
  5355. ACTION:
  5356. - Go in through the front, act like you belong.
  5357.  
  5358. "You know the drill by now, everypony. Just act like we belong."
  5359. > Striding on in through the front door proves to be perfectly easy.
  5360. > Instead of worrying, you take the time to study the soldiers as they eat.
  5361. > Their food certainly doesn't seem to be anything pony-made - held in containers of a material you can't quite identify - but they're definitely drinking something from the bar.
  5362. > Unfortunately it is too far to be able to smell alcohol, and though they talk freely it is in their own language.
  5363. > What you do see, though, is a stark dichotomy in how other ponies react to the soldiers.
  5364. > A few talk freely with them, including a pair of foals who are currently poking at the side of one truck under close supervision by one soldiers.
  5365. > Most ponies, however, quickly hurry by without so much as a glance in the direction of the humans; those who do look, do so with varying degrees of apprehension.
  5366. > And one small group stands at a distance, barely-concealed anger in their eyes.
  5367. > You're surprised the humans haven't noticed yet - at least, until you see one look up and in the direction of the hostile group.
  5368. > They're aware, you realize.
  5369. > The soldiers either simply don't care, or are deliberately trying not to start a fight.
  5370. > Inside the bar, several more soldiers - their leaders, perhaps - are seated around a couple of tables.
  5371. > Quickly you move past them, looking around for Buttercup.
  5372. > She appears at your side from seemingly nowhere, though; you feel a small flare of annoyance that she managed to outmaneuver you.
  5373. > "You're alive. Good to see you again."
  5374. "Glad to still be alive myself. We need to talk."
  5375. > "That's for damn sure. Grab seats and wait for this lot to get out of here; they're keeping us busy."
  5376. > Her eyes flick to Whispen, and for a second Buttercup's pupils dilate.
  5377. > Only a second, though.
  5378.  
  5379. ACTION:
  5380. - Sit at the bar.
  5381.  
  5382. > Fishing around in your saddlebags, you find that whoever had included the gift of food had also helpfully thought to toss a few bits in.
  5383. > Not enough for a great deal, but still...
  5384. "Everypone who wants, get yourselves a drink. Nothing too strong, just enough to fit in."
  5385. > Alcohol on duty is highly against regulations.
  5386. > But this whole situation is well outside anything covered in regulations, and not fitting in would be even worse.
  5387. "One thing, though. If any of you - any at all - get anything with alcohol...
  5388. > You lower your voice.
  5389. "...for the love of Celestia, don't use my rank. Or boss. Or anything like that; we're all just friends in here."
  5390. > The bartender, a harried-looking stallion, is more than happy to supply you with drinks.
  5391. > There you sit, slowly nursing along your drink while keeping a quiet eye on the goings-on in the bar.
  5392. > Based on how calm they continue to be despite downing mugs, you've come to two possible conclusions about the humans.
  5393. > Either are not in fact drinking alcohol, or they have a frightening tolerance for the stuff.
  5394. > All around them, a sort of enforced bubble of isolation and silence exists; the few other ponies in the bar sit farther from them.
  5395. > Not out of anger or hatred - at least not that you can see - but simply not being comfortable enough to share drinks with the invaders yet.
  5396. > Glancing to Whispen, you notice that she's downed her entire glass fairly quickly.
  5397. > Raising an eyebrow, you murmur softly to her.
  5398. "Hope you weren't planning on getting any more at that rate."
  5399. > "No... it helps with the pain, though."
  5400. > Twisting in your seat, you fix her with a concerned gaze.
  5401. "You never said that you were in pain."
  5402. > "It's... not that bad. I can manage; it's just rough after walking so far."
  5403. "...well, I think you're getting a ride home. No, don't object -- you need i-"
  5404. > The explosive shattering of glass from the front of the shop drags your attention away.
  5405.  
  5406. > A rock clatters to the floor as the soldiers in the bar make for the entrance, followed closely by the bartender and several other ponies.
  5407. > A few ponies are screaming.
  5408. > Indistinct shouting can be heard from outside, some of it in broken equish and and some in the invaders' own language.
  5409. "...anyone catch what that was?"
  5410. > "Somepony threw some rocks at them. One must've bounced off a cart's armor and hit the window."
  5411. > You grimace at Spark's quiet explanation.
  5412. > At least they hadn't been aiming for the bar...
  5413.  
  5414. ACTION:
  5415. - Stay here. Best not to do anything to draw attention.
  5416.  
  5417. "Keep calm, everypony. This isn't our mess."
  5418. > Your quiet order receives a line of small nods from the others.
  5419. > Listening to the yelling from outside, it seems as if two seperate arguments are developing.
  5420. > One, most distant, you cannot hear well enough.
  5421. > The closer, however, is clearly audible.
  5422. > "What am I supposed to do now? Just put a piece of wood over the hole? It'd look terrible - nopony will come here now!"
  5423. > "Do not ask us - we did not throw stone!"
  5424. > "I know, I know. But this is bad, really bad. I'm going to loose all my business!"
  5425. > "Hey, do not worry - will tell others, and they will come here too!"
  5426. > "Really? That will-"
  5427. > The conversation is broken off as another soldier approaches, one hand gripping the mane of a young stallion walking beside him.
  5428. > A conversation is quickly held between the two, the result of which is that the stallion - along with two others that are soon brought over as well, another stallion and a mare - are unceremoniously hobbled and lifted up into one of the carts.
  5429. > Where the soldiers were once calm - if not exactly perfectly happy - they are all now on guard, weapons cradled and held at the ready.
  5430. > When you feel the hoof tap you lightly on your shoulder, you nearly jump off the barstool in surprise.
  5431. > Buttercup eyes you, then shakes her head.
  5432. > "Come on in back. Nothing more you can do here."
  5433. "Got it. Whispen, with me; the rest of you, keep an eye out in case trouble starts."
  5434. > "Got it."
  5435. > Despite the drink, Spark seems alert enough to nod, but not salute or anything equally stupid.
  5436. > Buttercup leads the two of you into the basement again; another barmare follows you down as well.
  5437. > To your (none to pleasant) surprise another three Changelings wait in the basement, not even hidden.
  5438. > Their monocolored eyes turn towards you as you descend the last few steps, and suddenly you are very aware of Buttercup the other barmare behind you.
  5439. > Whispen whispers softly in your ear.
  5440. > "Easy, sir..."
  5441. "I know."
  5442.  
  5443. > "So, you're alive. That's good; we saw you get taken away after that big crash."
  5444. "We figured. Heard that you'd collapsed some of the tunnels."
  5445. > Buttercup hisses softly.
  5446. > "We did - and were lucky that the water came in slowly enough for us to seal it up again. Where's Tariff?"
  5447. "Still in the human base, last I saw him, along with four ponies of my unit. We couldn't get them released."
  5448. > A distinctly in-equine chittering issues from one of the other Changelings, although it is quickly silenced by a look from Buttercup.
  5449. "They're treating his wounds, though, and didn't figure out what he is. So you've got that going for you."
  5450. > Buttercup gives a satisfied 'hmmmph' and nods.
  5451. > "He's experienced. He will survive."
  5452. "There's... another problem, though."
  5453. > Tones of nervousness had not been entirely forced from your voice, and all the Changelings take note.
  5454. > "Well, what is it now?"
  5455. > They say jumping in is better than foal steps...
  5456. "...I had to reveal your presence here."
  5457. > All five Changelings simultaneously round on you, teeth (or fangs) bared and insectile wings buzzing.
  5458. > "You did WHAT?"
  5459.  
  5460. ACTION:
  5461. - we ran into a princess and had to preform our duty, unfortunately the princess is crazy.
  5462.  
  5463. [Roll to see what you told Twilight; result: They pressured you, and you gave up additional information: Where the Changelings' cover location was and one or two contacts.]
  5464.  
  5465. "Waitwaitwait! We didn't say muc, just-"
  5466. > "You... lying... auuugh! Why did he trust you?!"
  5467. > The other Changelings have begun to stalk in a circle, low snarls emanating from their throats.
  5468. "Oh, we're lying? That's rich, coming from you."
  5469. > "Not helping, sir."
  5470. > You practically shove a hoof in your face in frustration, but nod at Whispen's comment.
  5471. "I know... sorry. Look, Buttercup - we didn't tell them much. Just about this front location, Tariff, and yourself. And, uh, the tunnels."
  5472. > "That's not a small amount, oath-breaker."
  5473. > This time you manage to force down the first comment that comes to mind.
  5474. "Buttercup, I know."
  5475. > You pause before dropping the biggest secret.
  5476. "...Princess Twilight Sparkle is in the city, and-"
  5477. > "YOU TOLD A PRINCESS ABOUT US?!"
  5478. > Your ears slam down to try and dampen the sound of her scream.
  5479. > For a moment ponies and Changelings alike go silent, all afraid the yell had been heard.
  5480. "...yes, we did. She demanded to know, and we answered. But look, we're not trying to attack you-"
  5481. > "You might not be, but the princesses? Especially that one? She hates us!"
  5482. > For very good reason, you think to yourself.
  5483. "She wants your help."
  5484. > That drives another heavy silence into the room, while all of them take in that comment and all the implications it has.
  5485. > Now that you think about it, the fact that Twilight was willing to work with the Changelings -- despite having every reason to hate them, perhaps even more than you - also speaks to her desperation.
  5486. > Buttercup, meanwhile, is rubbing her nose with one hoof.
  5487. > "...urgh, my skin itches and I can't shift right now..."
  5488. > Your mouth opens to say something, but halts before anything can come out.
  5489. > "...okay, look. You screwed up. Bad. Tariff's gone, you sold us out, and right now I'm not feeling cooperative."
  5490. "We saved his life, you know."
  5491. > "Yes, I do. Which is why I'm not ordering you cocooned and stored away to trade with the humans later on."
  5492.  
  5493. > A soft hiss escapes Buttercup's lips, but she nods.
  5494. > "Alright. What exactly does she think we would want to help her with?"
  5495. "Are you not going to kidnap us, then?"
  5496. > "I'm thinking about it. Start talking."
  5497.  
  5498. ACTION:
  5499. -  Tell them everything about Twilight.
  5500.  
  5501. "...right. Look, I'm not going to hide anything from you - I've had enough of that. Princess Sparkle is desperate; she wants us to ambush the humans to try and sever their supply lines."
  5502. > That brings a halt to the pacing Changelings, their attention now firmly on you.
  5503. > A slightly sick feeling settles in your stomach; for revealing this, you are quite sure any military court in the Guard would convict you of treason.
  5504. > The Changelings are, after all, strictly speaking enemies until they agree to help.
  5505. > But the courts aren't here, and the Changelings are.
  5506. "She's looking for anything - talking about the humans disrupting the harmony in Equestria, and saying that means we have to do anything we can to halt them, no matter the cost."
  5507. > "Disrupting the harmony?"
  5508. > A frown crosses your face as you give the explanation Twilight had given you.
  5509. "...and I'm not sure whether it's just the strain of the war, or something more serious."
  5510. > "We do not know either; we are not told such things. But, we have felt it too - a disruption. Starvation is becoming a very real threat to us."
  5511. > Fortunately they seem to be restraining themselves from actively feeding on Whispen and yourself.
  5512. "Even if it is, the lengths Princess Twilight is going... they honestly worry me. Innocent ponies are going to die, and she's talking about using Dark Magic."
  5513. > Buttercup gives you a strange look.
  5514. > "You are not lying."
  5515. > It is not a question, but a statement.
  5516.  
  5517. "No. Why would you think I was."
  5518. > "Your dislike for us is not hidden, even now. Yet you tell us all the same - it is a statement on your desperation."
  5519. > She has a point there, you must admit.
  5520. > If Buttercup is even a 'she'.
  5521. > "And yet, your Princess thinks the outcome of not fighting would be worse. A cold calculation... very much like us."
  5522. "Or an emotional one. I'm sure you heard, her friends were injured..."
  5523. > A nod.
  5524. > "We have. It is true, then?"
  5525. "She said as much, anyhow."
  5526. > "Then we presume it is true. Even if she wished, she will cling to her tenets of harmony for so long as she can - including honesty."
  5527. "...and you think this is a bad thing?"
  5528. > Buttercup shoots a grin in your direction, a distinctly toothy one that you feel would give you an excellent view of her fangs were she not disguised.
  5529. > "We have never had the choice to choose which tenets to follow."
  5530. > Sitting amid the casks and kegs in the basement, Butter tilts her head - thinking over the matter.
  5531.  
  5532. ACTION:
  5533. - Before we decide anything, I think we need to know whether they can feed off of humans or not. If the only way to prevent starvation is to stick with us, we need to help them.
  5534.  
  5535. "Have you even been able to figure out if you can... feed on humans?"
  5536. > Buttercup gives you a sharp look.
  5537. "Hey, I gave you a lot by telling you that. Can you at least answer that question and show you trust us?"
  5538. > "I'm not sure I should... but you have a point, yes. It is possible, but harder than with ponies. And, they taste... strange."
  5539. "But you can survive."
  5540. > "Barely. It's like drinking from a straw when you're used to a fountain you can plunge your head into. If things go bad, we're still going to be very short."
  5541. > She pauses, then adds.
  5542. > "It's easier when they're drunk."
  5543. "Is that why you were..."
  5544. > You motion up the stairs, towards the front of the bar.
  5545. > "Hah! No, they actually refused all but a little alcohol. Who does that - goes to a bar and asks for almost nothing but non-alcoholic drinks?"
  5546. "Humans, apparently."
  5547. > "Well, whatever. No, that lot isn't drunk - but apparently they took over another bar recently and drank themselves silly."
  5548. "How'd it end?"
  5549. > "Bunch of other humans came and hauled them off, though not before they'd wrecked the place. Now are you going to let me think or what?"
  5550.  
  5551. ACTION:
  5552. - Encourage her to be cautious and not reveal themselves entirely until details of the plan are available.
hie royal guard rgs

Fire's Heart [F&S] (Complete)

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