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Royal Guard Survival - Part 3

By Lurkernon
Created: 19th December 2020 11:55:00 PM

  1. Originally published March 2015
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  3. Second pastebin and associated archives:
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  5. Archives in this bin:
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  10. "Look. Princess Sparkle... I think she's been hurt by the war. By her friends and hometown be attacked... I'm not entirely sure she's thinking clearly."
  11. > "If I didn't know any better I'd say you're trying to lure me into a trap. What in all the world made you change your mind so quickly?"
  12. > You shrug.
  13. "It's one thing to know that the situation is desperate... it's another to see the kinds of plans your leader is putting to play."
  14. > "Right."
  15. > Buttercup rolls her eyes.
  16. > "Honestly, I really don't care what you princess is doing. What I care is taking about what is mine."
  17. "What - are you planning something too? Because if that's going to end up crossing paths with our-"
  18. > You're interrupted by a sharp bark of laughter.
  19.  
  20. > "Planning something? Is that all you think we do - plot and scheme? Our Queen remains trapped, our race scattered, or individual nests and cells scrabbling to hold on."
  21. > Shaking her head sharply, Buttercup hisses out her words - a remarkably inequine sound, even with her disguise.
  22. > "We have no time to plan. We were barely surviving and recovering!"
  23. "If she screws this up and gets ponies killed, then all you've done is going to go to waste."
  24. > "And if we don't, we may starve anyway. We can't live on the humans alone; they're simply not enough."
  25. "So we only matter to you as food, is that it?"
  26. > The three undisguised Changelings in the room rise to their hooves, hissing softly at you and buzzing their iridescent wings.
  27. > "Calm down, all of you. He's angry too."
  28. > Buttercup waits until the three Changelings back off a little bit before swinging her gaze back to you.
  29. > "In all honesty: No. I don't care about you; you don't like me and I'm not exactly swimming in affection for you."
  30. "Glad we're on the same level."
  31. > "But I am willing to work with you. You think she may screw up, but you recognize the risks if she is right, yes?"
  32. "Yes. We don't yet have enough information."
  33. > "Then get some more information. Find out what she plans, exactly. If it is reasonable in your mind, come and get us and will try to help."
  34. "I understand. I'll do what I can."
  35. > "Good."
  36. > Another shake of her head and Buttercup sighs.
  37. > "What a world it is we live in now..."
  38. > Not knowing how to respond, you wait for her to say something further.
  39.  
  40. ACTION:
  41. - Ask about leaving the city and possibly stealing.
  42. - Ask about what happened to Chrysalis.
  43.  
  44. "What exactly do you mean by your queen is still imprisoned?"
  45. > "...I should not have said that."
  46. > Buttercup makes an angry little noise in the back of her throat.
  47. > "Forget about it. It seems my anger gets the better of me as well."
  48. > You're about to press further, but catch a look at Buttercup's eyes.
  49. > ...yeah, no.
  50. > Forget that.
  51. > There are some things you know you can't push about, and this seems to be one of them.
  52. > From Buttercup, anyway.
  53. "...right, well. If things do go bad, we're planning to leave the city."
  54. > To your surprise, she doesn't challenge you on that.
  55. > But then again, the Changelings would understand having to flee if things got bad - they were a race that could not simply exist once discovered, after all.
  56. > There was one other problem, however..
  57. > You glance over at Whispen.
  58. > She hadn't heard your plan yet; if she did now it might not go well...
  59. > But there's only one way to find out.
  60. "Whispen? Please, just... trust me for a moment."
  61. > "Sir?"
  62. > An uncertain look shot in your direction is responded to with what you hope is a comforting smile.
  63. "Please."
  64. > "..."
  65. > A few moments pass, and she nods.
  66. > "I trust you."
  67. > Your gaze wrenched back to Buttercup, you make your request.
  68. "If we have to do that... if there's no other choice, innocent ponies are being killed because of what the other guardsponies are doing and we can't convince them to stop..."
  69. > You take a deep breath.
  70. > Please, don't let this be a mistake.
  71. "...I want to steal some of the plans of the other guard units, and turn them over to the humans. It would probably get our ponies - and Tariff - out of their prison."
  72.  
  73. > There's a sharp intake of breath beside you, but Whispen holds her silence.
  74. > Buttercup's eyebrows rise.
  75. > "And you want our help on this, how?"
  76. "You can change. Become one of the other guardsponies, get in, take the plans, and get out. We will present them to the humans; they know us."
  77. > She seems to be considering it, but yet uncertain.
  78. > "...and what else can you offer for us?"
  79. "Getting Tariff is not enough?"
  80. > "It would be most welcome... but he is another to feed, and I will not risk losing more lives to save one."
  81. > She gives you a grim look.
  82.  
  83. ACTION:
  84. - Offer to try and take a Changeling with you to another location, based on their earlier comment about contact being lost because of travel restrictions.
  85.  
  86. "You were worried about traveling Changelings running into problems, right? That's where Keel Haul went?"
  87. > Slowly Buttercup nods.
  88. "We could carry a message. Just tell us where and who to give it to, or-"
  89. > "No. I trust you not to do anything here, but not enough to give a message through."
  90. > "What about... what if we brought a Changeling with us?"
  91. > Whispen's question makes you freeze.
  92. > Tolerating a night in the humans' camp with Tariff was one thing; but having one accompanying your group - especially now that there were fewer of you?
  93. > The thought makes you shudder.
  94. > But, at the same time...
  95. > Buttercup is looking thoughtful.
  96. > "It... might be doable."
  97. > Swallowing your revulsion, you speak up again.
  98. "We've slipped back and forth across the lines a few times. The humans can be evaded - you just have to know how."
  99. > In fairness, across the lines might be an overstatement.
  100. > You mostly went around the fighting entirely.
  101. > But if it could be done...
  102. > "...we will have to specify the destination, you understand."
  103. "As long as it's within reason. I'll not be hiking into the badlands for your sake."
  104. > This makes Buttercup break out in laughter.
  105.  
  106. > "Oh, they are not so bad. Definitely survivable - you just have to know how."
  107. > Ignoring that your own words had just been thrown back in your face, you nod.
  108. "Done, then. If you help us escape, we will take one of you with us to another city. If Princess Sparkle's plan works, you help us to save yourselves and Equestria."
  109. > "Done."
  110. > One of the undisguised Changelings hisses at that, bristling - but Buttercup silences him with a look.
  111. > "Now, if you don't mind - get out. We have work to do, mopping up that mess the idiot pony made of the bar. And I doubt you have time to rest either."
  112. > Actually, you had been hoping to let your group rest, but a choice doesn't seem to be available right now.
  113. > "Oh, one last thing... if you haven't already, get some replacement papers and ration cards. I'm guessing you didn't get to take them from your old home."
  114. > Damn, she was right!
  115. > It must have been visible as well, because Buttercup puts up a smirk towards you.
  116. > "You're going to want those, especially if things get rough. And so you, y'know, don't starve."
  117. "...yeah. Thanks."
  118.  
  119. ACTION:
  120. - Go to the library and get new papers/ration cards.
  121. [Bonus action, due to quads: Hit on Whispen]
  122.  
  123. > Helping Whispen back up the stairs proves to be trickier than expected, and you aren't quite ready to accept help from Changelings with that yet.
  124. > In the end, you have to sort of half-carry her up.
  125. > It's a choice that leaves her head resting on the back of your neck, a fact you are very much aware of.
  126. > ...you can sort of feel her coat growing warm.
  127. "You know, if you enjoy this that much I'm sure we can find a more comfortable spot to try it in some time."
  128. > Yeah, now you can definitely feel the warmth as she flushes.
  129. > "Is this... quite the right time for this?"
  130. "If you'd prefer to wait, I can always offer to carry you again a bit later. Could even turn you around lengthwise, so you can get all nuzzle up to my head again."
  131. > "...perhaps that should wait until we aren't under immediate threat of being arrested? Or betraying the Princess and Royal Guard we swore our lives to, sir?"
  132. > Ouch.
  133. > She even used your title.
  134. > Good thing you're not in the open yet.
  135. "...sorry. Just trying to be a little more lighthearted. To... keep myself sane, you know."
  136. > Celestia above that sounds awkward.
  137. > "I'm quite sure you can find ways that don't involve sounding like a pubescent colt and actually treating those issues with some respect."
  138. > Shutting up, then.
  139. > Two steps later, though, something light and soft flicks across your side.
  140. "Uh... Whispen... was that your tail?"
  141. > "...no."
  142. > And there it is again.
  143. > Definitely her tail.
  144. "...right. Sorry then."
  145. > Emerging back into bar's front itself, you find that your group has moved to a table further from the bar itself.
  146. > All the scattered glass from the shattered window all be swept away, though the hole is still there - a light breeze flowing in through it.
  147. > They seem to have stuck to your rule about not-drinking more, though.
  148. > "Hey. Everything go okay down there?"
  149. > You take a look around the club.
  150. > To many ponies, even if most aren't that far.
  151.  
  152. "Good. They're willing to help if our idea isn't completely idiotic."
  153. > "Sounds good. We goin' home, then?"
  154. "One thing first, Caravan. We need to get new travel papers since our old ones were in the home."
  155. > They all wince.
  156. > "Oh. Yeah."
  157. > "Kind of forgot about that."
  158. > "...didn't want to think about it, honestly."
  159. "Well, whatever the reason, we need to move fast before curfew. We'll take turns carrying Whispen; sorry, but we don't have time to move on."
  160. > "It's quite alright. I understand."
  161. > Her demeanor is back to professional, although there's still something in her eyes you can't quite interpret.
  162. > Setting out from the bar, you make it to the library in due time.
  163. > The lines are considerably shorter, and in due time you're back inside.
  164. > A pang of fear runs through you when you see that a line of human soldiers are still making the papers... but there's no other way to do this.
  165. > And besides, you're in the clear, right?
  166. > The answer turns out to be yes.
  167. > The soldiers' eyebrows rise when you put your hoof on the scanning machine, but only provokes a few simple questions.
  168. > "Ah, it says here that you are living in a home within the Las Pegasus dockyards? Is this still true?"
  169.  
  170. ACTION:
  171. - Explain what happened.
  172.  
  173. "We... kind of got kicked out. A plane crashed right nearby, and they wanted to search our home after that. We found a new place, though."
  174. > "But you still want to go back, right?"
  175. "Yes, if we could."
  176. > The soldiers considers for a moment, then shrugs.
  177. > "I will put your new home down as a temporary residence, so they should let you back into the docks. Come back in six weeks whether you move or not, and I will switch it again."
  178. "Got it. Thank you."
  179. > Well, that went better than expected.
  180. > Taking the cue from you, the other four do the same - though when it come to be Whispen's turn, the soldier also produced a small bar wrapped in some kind of paper.
  181. > "Here. Is chocolate - from home. Maybe, it will help you feel a little better?"
  182. > Despite what caused her wounds, Whispen gives a little smile as she takes it in her magic.
  183. > "Thank you..."
  184. > Unwrapping it the moment you emerge from the library, she takes a bite of the chocolate bar and chews it slowly.
  185. > "...it's strange. Sweet. There's something in here I can't recognize..."
  186. > Noticing the barely-disguised looks you are all giving her and the bar, she promptly breaks off four chunks and hands them around.
  187. > True to what she said, it tastes different from what you'd come to expect of chocolate - but not bad.
  188. > Just... different.
  189. > "So, where to next boss."
  190. "Well..."
  191. > You squint, peering up at the descending sun, calculating the approximate time of day.
  192. > The results aren't reassuring.
  193. "If we want to be home without rushing, we should definitely start on the way."
  194. > "Damn. I was hoping to get a few blankets or somethin' for our home."
  195. "I can understand that, Caravan, but I'd rather prefer not to be arrested. Besides, I'm not sure we can afford that now."
  196. > He grimaces, nodding.
  197. > "Fair point. I'd be good to be rested for a change, though."
  198.  
  199. ACTION:
  200. - Head straight back home, deal with being cold.
  201.  
  202. "Sorry, I just don't think we have time today. We'll have to get on that, though, assuming we don't get our old home back any time soon."
  203. > "Alright. It should be soon, though, otherwise one of is going to catch something at night."
  204. "We can sleep close if we need to. We've all done it before."
  205. > They look between each other, and slowly nod.
  206. "I'm sure we can all trust ourselves to keep hooves where they belong."
  207. > By the time you return to the small shanty-town that your new home is among, it's getting close to time for curfew to begin.
  208. > There's still a little bit of time before night, though - enough time for you to buy a little food to augment the simple rations you were given by the other guardsponies at the meeting.
  209. > Though not strictly necessary, it makes the food palatable and actually nourishing beyond just keeping you simply alive.
  210. > Somepony actually takes pity on your situation as well, showing you a few spare logs and sticks he is willing to part with.
  211. > Unfortunately, unlike Hot Pot nopony in your group is more than basically capable of as a chef.
  212. > At least the food is warm.
  213. > Spark had immediately gotten a fire going, his innate skill helping him keep it just strong enough to warm the shed-like structure while preserving what little fuel you had.
  214. > As night sets in, the streets beyond fall silent except for the occasional roaming patrol or lone pony desperately galloping along on some mission of great need.
  215. > After dinner, you settle down and face you group.
  216.  
  217. > There's a great deal to be said, you think, and perhaps now is the time to say it.
  218. > But how will they react to your plan for getting out of the city?
  219. > Whispen took it extraordinarily well, but then you'd all but begged her to trust you.
  220. > And, of course, she was closer with you than anypony else.
  221. > ...maybe now isn't the time to reveal it after all.
  222. > If not, then you should make some plans for tomorrow.
  223.  
  224. ACTION:
  225. - Explain the plan you gave Whispen, for turning over plans if necessary to escape the city.
  226.  
  227. > Sweet Celestia, how are you going to explain this.
  228. > Leaving it be would only set you up for more problems later if you planned to pursue it, though.
  229. > And if you're going to do this, you're going to need to trust these ponies with your life.
  230. > How can you do that if you can't trust them with your plan.
  231. "...right. I mentioned this earlier to Whispen when we were talking to the Changelings, but I think it's fair you all know about it as well."
  232. > Well, now you've got their attention.
  233. > Your voice drops, just in case your words could be heard through the gap-ridden walls of your current residence.
  234. "I talked to you earlier some about what would happen if this plan of Princess Sparkle's started getting innocent ponies killed. I remember your answers from then..."
  235. > Spark, with his scowl - not even wanting to fight in the city.
  236. > Caravan and his comment about risk-benefit analysis - going along on the raid if the plan sounded safe enough.
  237. > Ornithea alone, not saying anything but a sober, almost calm look on her face.
  238. "The thing I am concerned about now, is what we do if they do get that bad. If Las Pegasus itself turns into a warzone."
  239. > That airy, slightly sick feeling you get in your stomach before making risky calls is back - hard.
  240.  
  241. "...and I suggested that, if it comes to that and the rest of the Guard won't give up? Won't stop fighting and getting innocents hurt? Then we take thier plans and... turn them over."
  242. > "To the humans."
  243. > You nod to the stallion.
  244. "Yes, Caravan, to the humans. The Changelings would be able to do the deed - disguise themselves as one of the other guards, to keep suspicion off of us, and take whatever they can get their hooves on."
  245. > "You know what you're suggesting is very much treason."
  246. "I do. Celestia help me, I do."
  247. > The tremble in your voice is not something you've forced in.
  248. > Looking down at the glowing, popping logs you shudder softly.
  249. "And I'm well aware of what would likely happen to those guards if we did... though maybe the humans could take them prisoner instead."
  250. > "No."
  251. > Caravan speaks up strongly, his eyes tight and sharp, almost glaring at you.
  252. > "It's one thing to disagree - leave on our own if we have to, even though that would be deserting. It's quite another do doom fellow guardsponies to death or imprisonment - for what?"
  253. "Noted. Spark?"
  254. > He laughs sharply.
  255. > "I don't even recognize the Royal Guard I joined... yeah, I'm in. If it saves innocent ponies' lives, then it's what the Royal Guard should be doing."
  256. > Ornithea looks uncertain.
  257. > "I'm... not sure. I really don't know."
  258. "Whispen."
  259. > "I remain uncertain as well. You asked me to trust you down there, and I didn't speak up against you, but... we need to be certain there is no other way."
  260.  
  261. ACTION:
  262. - Explain the implications of both options and make sure they understand what they entail.
  263. - Reassure them it's just an idea for now.
  264.  
  265. "We all need to consider the implications of what doing this would mean. Spark, you understand what the punishment for treason is, don't you? And you understand that just maybe, you stopped us from driving the humans back? And if we let the humans capture an alicorn, what do you think they're gonna do with her?"
  266. > You draw a shuddering breath.
  267. "On the other hand, Caravan, you get that the Princess' plan endangers the ponies the guards are meant to protect? Would turning the humans who have otherwise been nice be such a bad idea? When we where imprisoned we where treated better than a POW can expect, right?"
  268. > "They didn't think we were guardsponies, and that doesn't change that it's wrong to condemn ponies to death. We all took oaths before we got our armor; they can't expect us to just stop now."
  269. "...well, this is a last-ditch plan. A holdout in case everything else goes to Tartarus and we can't find any other way to stop the killing."
  270. > Continuing on before any further debate can continue, you don't stop speaking for a moment.
  271. "And yes, I value all your opinions. I'm feeling my way in the dark as much as anypony else here. I just... want to do what is best."
  272. > Nopony answers you.
  273. > It doesn't seem like anypony has a good answer.
  274. > But you can see the gears turning in all their heads, thinking over what you just told them.
  275. > "I think..."
  276. > Whispen's words are soft.
  277. > "I think, before anything else, we need more information. We need to have another meeting with Princess Sparkle and the others."
  278. > Caravan nods.
  279. > "What about Sundew? Maybe go talk to her or Fairweather, see who we're working with and how they feel about all this."
  280.  
  281. > Privately you wonder if he's hoping they'll offer more information to support his position.
  282. > If the other guards are similarly cautious about starting any fighting hear, it could turn Ornithea and Whispen to his position - that they are reasonable still and we shouldn't betray them.
  283. > But then again, for all you know Sundew could turn out to be chomping at the bit to get into the fight again, regardless of the risk to civilians.
  284. > You doubt they would view that positively either.
  285. "Agreed. There's also our new papers - we might want to go see if we can get back into our old home. Maybe our food is still there."
  286. > "And a blanket-"
  287. "I'm not forgetting that either, Caravan. If we're staying here, we're going to need things. Another bed - anything we can find for one, really - a blanket so we don't freeze, more food, all of it."
  288. > A paper would be very helpful right now in organizing your thoughts.
  289. > Strange that even such a simple thing would be considered a luxury.
  290. > "There's one other thing..."
  291. > You glance over to Spark.
  292. "Go ahead?"
  293. > "The... stuff we buried in the dockyards. We should go back and see if they found it. If not... it might be helpful."
  294. > Ornithea frowns.
  295. > "Getting it out is going to be a real good trick."
  296. "Surely we could try it though. Maybe you could round up some seabirds to help watch our backs?"
  297. > "...maybe, yes."
  298. "Okay. I'll keep that in mind too."
  299.  
  300. ACTION:
  301. - Go to the dockyard, see if your home is available and check up on the status of the buried equipment.
  302. - Buy supplies for the short term.
  303.  
  304. "Our safety comes before anything. Tomorrow, I want to start out by heading for the docks. It'll be a huge benefit if we can get anything back from the old house - maybe see if we can even get a cart to go with us. After that, anything we still need we can try buying."
  305. > "What about Sundew? If she comes looking for us, we should have somepony here to meet her."
  306. > Whispen nods a Caravan's comment, then looks to you.
  307. > "If it's okay with you, I think I should stay. It's a long way to the docks, and I'd only slow us down with my bad leg."
  308. "I'll think about it. Any other concerns?"
  309. > "How many bits do we have left? And food?"
  310. "After today? Two days' rations and 105 bits after I bought something to go with dinner tonight."
  311. > Caravan screws up his face, thinking hard.
  312. > "Prices have been shooting up faster than a Wonderbolt going for the Cloudesdale derby, so the sooner the better. I think I could put together another five or six days' food with that. Less if we get anything else."
  313. "Noted. We'll also check in on our buried treasure, but not try and remove it just yet. Any questions?"
  314. > There aren't any - at least, none that you can answer right then.
  315. > You think there are a great many still turning over in their heads from the subject you had begun with.
  316. "Then let's get some sleep. Much as I hate to day it, we're going to have to sleep close quarters tonight - we all need to keep getting good rest."
  317. > Your ponies glance between each other and nod.
  318. "We all did this in basic, everypony. It's not something new."
  319. > Not that it was any less awkward then.
  320.  
  321. > A good way to break any remaining self-consciousness out of new recruits, though.
  322. > Nothing like waking up in the morning with your flight-mates fifth leg jabbing you in the back to get used to the rigors of the field.
  323. "Alright. Spark, let this log burn down then save the last one in case we need more."
  324. > "Got it. It'll probably be another half-hour."
  325. > The time remaining you spend talking with your ponies - not about planning, or the mission, or what might become of Equestria.
  326. > About simple things.
  327. > Who had family, who did not.
  328. > Where you all came from.
  329. > What everypony had done before the war.
  330. > Of course you can't escape the metaphorical Ursa Minor in the room - the ongoing war - and phrases like 'before all this' or 'hope they are okay' come up often enough.
  331. > But rather than ignore it, you all quietly acknowledge the situation while still seeking some comfort in the normalcy of what had once been.
  332. > Caravan, it transpires, had as his name suggests traveled with the huge wagon-trains that criss-crossed the less developed portions of Equestria.
  333. > It was there he had learned the art of business, under the tutelage of a senior tradespony.
  334. > One enlightening thing does come to light amid his story.
  335. > "There was one thing ol' Cooper Hoop drilled into me hard: Once you make a deal with somepony, you never ever back out of it. It's not just wrong, it's logic - nopony trusts a seller who's known for not keeping his world."
  336. > Ornithea had not totally lied about being a forest ranger either.
  337. > In the distant past, she had spent several years in the woods west of Baltimare, watching over those significantly-less-wild forests and the animals within.
  338. > Even Spark, quiet as he is, eventually opens up.
  339. > His stories about of learning to control his firemaking talent leave you laughing for the first time in what feels like forever.
  340.  
  341. > It's a welcome change, a release of tension even if you know that tomorrow and all the difficulties it will bring are still inevitably waiting.
  342. > Whispen is, perhaps, the most enlightening to you personally.
  343. > Though you had been stationed in Canterlot, her tales of growing up there tell of an entirely different side of the city, one you'd never even seen as a Royal Guard.
  344. > And though she'd moved away years back, it is still a point of distinct personal interest for you - on more than one account.
  345. > Eventually you realize the log had long since burned down, and now you were talking solely in the moon- and starlight filtering in to the home.
  346. > Despite how pleasant it is to put the troubles of reality aside for a moment, all good things must come to an end.
  347. > With no ceremony and little awkwardness, you all pile into the sole mattress and squeeze beneath the meager blanket.
  348. > It's tight, and none of you are covered entirely, but it works.
  349.  
  350. ACTION:
  351. - Leave Whispen at home to watch for contact.
  352.  
  353. > You're woken the following morning not by the sun reaching in through the cracks in the walls or the sounds of the refugee camp coming to life around you.
  354. > No, ultimately it's the warm, heavy mass resting on the back of your neck that draws you back to the world of the awake.
  355. > Everypony has shifted somewhat in the night, but a quick glance from the corner of your eye brings a strip of pale-purple mane with red and light-blue streaks it into focus.
  356. > Whispen.
  357. > For several long moments you simply don't care to move, but at last the needs of the day get the better of you.
  358. > Carefully you slide yourself out from beneath her head, using one wing to lower her to the mattress without bumping her awake.
  359. > As you do, for just a fraction of a second you catch her eye open and facing you.
  360. > ...was she awake?
  361. "Whispen?"
  362. > Your low calling of her name doesn't yield any reaction.
  363. > Maybe not, then.
  364. > Instead you go about being a good leader and waking them all up with a loud voice and zero mercy.
  365. > Breakfast is consumed with all due haste, as the day is already passing and time is critical.
  366. "...right, so we'll head out for the dockyards first. If we can't pick up anything, we'll aim for a market and get what we need there instead. Any questions."
  367. > "No."
  368. > "None here."
  369. > "I'm good."
  370. "Right. Whispen, you have a point - stay around and keep an eye open and ear up for any visitors. If you can, try and get to know our neighbors a little bit."
  371. > "I understand."
  372. > Whispen nods, looking perhaps a little relieved that she isn't going to have to hike halfway across the city again.
  373. "Alright. We should definitely be back by sundown, perhaps a little earlier. If there's any problems, fall back to Sundew's location."
  374. > As the others pile out, you pause to walk back over her.
  375. "And, uh... back before I got up, were you-"
  376. > "No."
  377.  
  378. > Her gaze is calm and answer leaves little room for further discussion.
  379. > But there's a flicker across her face you aren't quite sure of.
  380. "...right, then. We'll be back."
  381. > Stepping out, you peer about the shanty-town that has grown up.
  382. > In the distance a human patrol seems to be checking out one of the other buildings.
  383. > All around you ponies go about their business.
  384. > Though they are a varied lot, they all posses one of two things.
  385. > Either a tired, pained look to match what events must have brought them here, or a determined, ready look to face what is to come.
  386. > "Hey, I've got a suggestion."
  387. > Caravan motions to a cart standing in the distance.
  388. > "I think we should try and negotiate with the owner to rent that for a day. It might cost us a bit, but if we do find anything in the dockyard it will be much easier to bring it back with us."
  389.  
  390. ACTION:
  391. - Bargain for the use of a cart for the day.
  392.  
  393. "Looks like a solid move. Go ahead, Caravan."
  394. > Passing him your bag of bits, you hang back with Ornithea and Spark.
  395. > In due time Caravan returns, having hitched himself to the cart and pulling it along.
  396. > "Cost us forty bits, but we can get thirty-five of those back if we bring it back undamaged."
  397. "Sounds good. Let's get a move on."
  398. > Moving through the city's streets, you can't help but peer skyward.
  399. > Despite the recent run of supplies to the cloud districts, they remain as silent and apparently uninhabited as ever.
  400. > It's almost as if they fear emerging would draw the assault that should surely have come.
  401. > By the time you arrive at the dockyards it's late morning; you've switched pulling the cart a couple times, including a stint yourself.
  402. > Fortunately the guards at the dockyard don't seem to particularly care who you are.
  403. > One quick look at your papers, and they're quite happy to let you through - so long as you don't take any more of their time.
  404. > You proceed into the familiar territory, shaking your head slightly at the ease of it all.
  405. > If fighting does start in the city, it'll surely be much harder than it is now to move around...
  406. > For now, though, the dockyards are possessed of almost an eerie quiet.
  407. > Ships groan at their lines in the distance and occasionally you can see humans going about some business - even more rarely, a pony with them.
  408. > But for the most part, it gives the suggestion of a city abandoned.
  409. > Pulling around another workshop, you find yourself approaching your old home.
  410. > Almost immediately it's quite clear that something happened while you were gone.
  411. > A few windows have been smashed, and in at least one location it actually seems like a section of the outer plaster has been completely demolished, revealing the wooden beams beneath.
  412.  
  413. > Approaching the door, you find that two strong boards have been nailed in place over it, and a sheet tacked to them:
  414. > 'Building secured by order of st. chor. Bartosz Kosmatka, 2/13/I-3, see for entry.'
  415. > Beneath it is written a similar message, in a language you do not understand but are coming to recognize as that of the invaders in this area.
  416. > "...looks like we're out of luck here. Unless you care to try and find this guy."
  417. > "Not quite."
  418. > Spark shakes his head at Ornithea's comment, pointing to an upper-floor window that's been completely broken out.
  419. > "He could fly up there, get inside safely. Take a look around."
  420. > "And if we get spotted?"
  421. "We have our papers."
  422. > Caravan returns, having trotted around to the far side of the building.
  423. > "Hey, our cart is still over there. Two of the wheels got taken off, but with a little time I think I can put them back on."
  424.  
  425. [Roll to see if the buried equipment cache is safe; result: Your cache remains unseen and safe.]
  426. [Roll for going unnoticed as you fix the cart; result: You are seen, but they don't make much of it.]
  427.  
  428. ACTION:
  429. - Go ourselves to find the human listed on the note.
  430.  
  431. "Alright. Ornithea, keep an eye out. Spark, Caravan, get that cart back together. I'm going to see about finding this human."
  432. > Trotting off, you head for the most logical place to start.
  433. > The gate you came in through.
  434. > Although they're none to pleased to see you, the soldiers quickly direct you up to where the commander on the note can be found.
  435. > It's a path that sends you up through the burnt-out blocks from the flying machine's crash.
  436. > Indeed, the skeletal, charred wreckage of the machine is still there, despite a swarm of humans crawling over it and using various devices to cut it to pieces.
  437. > You can't help but wonder if the remains of the two dead humans in the machine's control room were still there as well.
  438. > Traveling on from there, you eventually find your way into another residence that has been converted to the humans' HQ on the dockyards.
  439. > Approaching proves to be nerve-wracking, but so far simply acting like you belong has proven to be a good trick.
  440. > It comes through here again - with your papers tucked under one wing and ready for presentation, the soldiers don't seem bothered by you at all.
  441. > "You are, ah, you are looking for someone, yes?"
  442. "Yes, a, uh..."
  443. > What was his name, exactly?
  444. "...st. chor. Bartosz Kosmatka?"
  445. You have to repeat it twice more before they get it - or, judging by the occasional snickers that one issues, they got at once and you're simply mangling the name or title.
  446. > "Starszy chorąży Kosmatka, yes. He run things here, yes. He just inside; we will go look. You, wait."
  447. > The only problem?
  448. > He isn't there.
  449. > A fact you are only informed of some fifteen minutes of waiting later.
  450. "...well, where is he? I'd really like to talk to him if I can - our home is locked up because of him, according to the note on the door."
  451. > "Away. Busy. Not your problem. Come back later, yes?"
  452. > Groaning and trying to keep your temper in check, you nod.
  453. "Look, I just want to talk to him, if you could-"
  454. > "No, not here. Busy-"
  455.  
  456. > Some sort of a commotion breaks out as a new soldier emerges from the building, all three of them switching to a rapid chatter in their native language.
  457. > "...okay, you wait. We have note for you. From American."
  458. > American?
  459. > That was the group Williams was part of, right?
  460. > Did he leave one?
  461. > The answer comes a minute later when the soldier returns with a thick-looking envelope.
  462. > On the side, someone had conveniently thought to draw your cutie mark - and after a moment's comparison, he nods.
  463. > "Yes, is for you. Your house, ah - you open door if you can. But, not our problem if someone break in."
  464. > So they could control who came in and out of the dockyards, but it wasn't there fault if somepony - or someone - broke into your home?
  465. > How responsible.
  466. "Okay, and if anyone asks-"
  467. > "You say sierżant Jedynak say so."
  468. "...right, thank you. Thank you very much."
  469. > You do your best to lay a note of cheer on your voice.
  470. > Can't have them wondering why you're upset.
  471. > "Yes, is good, yes? Go, go then!"
  472. > Well, time's apparently up, then.
  473. > Despite the envelope now ducked beneath the opposite wing, the trip back feels somehow lighter and faster.
  474. > Especially when you get close enough to see that Caravan and Spark have the wagon up on its wheels again, and are just securing the last one in place.
  475. "Hey. Made some progress, I see."
  476. > "Yep."
  477. > Caravan grunts softly as he kicks another pin into place.
  478. > "Didn't get to check anything out but the wagon should be good to go."
  479. "Right. Well, apparently we can open the house if we can get the boards off the door. Not their issue if somepony breaks in, though."
  480.  
  481. ACTION:
  482. - Open the house now.
  483. - Check for flying machines patrolling over the water.
  484.  
  485. > On impulse, you glance out over the water.
  486. > There's no flying machines out over the water immediately beyond dockyards anymore.
  487. > Most likely they no longer think a ship will try to leave with the city firmly under their control.
  488. > Something glints in the air far off to the north, though, so there might still be patrolling flyers somewhere.
  489. > Probably over the big camp that they're constructing.
  490. "Alright, let's see if we can't get these boards off. The door doesn't look busted so we can probably just lock it anyhow, or put back the planks when we're done."
  491. > Getting them off proves to be harder than expected.
  492. > In the end, you just resort to grabbing the lowest plank in your jaws along with Ornithea and yanking, hard.
  493. > After much grunting and more than a little swearing, the plank comes free - and the process is repeated with the second one.
  494. > The wood leaves a foul taste in your mouth, quite unlike the smoky flavored of treating oil you're used to in the Guard.
  495. > Must be something the humans used on it.
  496. "...alright, moment of truth, and..."
  497. > Under your hoof the door slides open.
  498. > Relief that you did not have to break it quickly turns to horror as the interior of the home is revealed.
  499. > "Sweet Celestia, what did they-?"
  500. > Silently you echo Caravan's sentiment.
  501. > A few broken windows are only the start; it looks as though a pair of minotaurs had wrestled inside the home.
  502. > Holes have been bunched in the wall, bookcases moved seemingly at random, and cabinets' contents emptied out.
  503. > Stepping in, you find that they had even taken apart the sofa and chair - leaving cushions stacked in piles.
  504. "...Caravan, Spark, check the basement. Spark, with me. Let's see what's left."
  505. > Starting in the kitchen, you begin by moving among the cabinets.
  506. > Numerous dishes, whether by accident or deliberate rancor, were shattered amid the search.
  507. > Stepping carefully over the shards of broken ceramic, you take stock of what is left.
  508.  
  509. > It doesn't take Caravan and Spark long to return.
  510. > "Basement's flooded. Must've leaked in after the Changelings broke the seal tearing their tunnel down."
  511. > Now that you remember, hadn't Buttercup said something about it not doing so fast enough?
  512. "How deep?"
  513. > "Up to my knee joint now. Might get deeper."
  514. "Maybe. Is our stuff down there at all?"
  515. > Spark shakes his head.
  516. > "Didn't see it. There should've been what, eight sacks of food?
  517. "Yeah, eight. Plus all the medical stuff we got from the HQ."
  518. > "Uh, some of that is over here."
  519. > Ornthea had stuck her head into a side bedroom in the meantime.
  520. > "Looks like all the medical kits and some of the food."
  521. > In the end it turns out to be five sacks of food, two of them half-empty.
  522. > With a low growl and a shake of his head, Caravan glances out the open doorway.
  523. > "Tartarus-spawn took all our fresh vegetables and most of the corn. Left the hay and oats, though."
  524. "Maybe they don't like it? Anyhow, we should get this loaded up in the carts along with anything else we need."
  525. > "...ooor, we could move back here."
  526. > It's a tempting option, admittedly.
  527. > The shack you are currently staying in will never be comfortable, or truly safe.
  528. > This would be better, but further from Fairweather's hideout.
  529.  
  530. ACTION:
  531. - Move back into this house.
  532.  
  533. "You know, it's not to bad in here, aside from the basement. Let's go see what it would take to seal the hole."
  534. > Slogging in knee-deep water that almost reaches your belly is not one bit fun, especially considering the low light.
  535. > You try not to think about what kinds of things might have been brought in with the water.
  536. > Unfortunately, the humans hadn't bothered to figure out how to disable the magic seal that kept the secret doorway shut.
  537. > Instead, it seems like they'd simply smashed the bricks over it straight in.
  538. "Spark, come up here? I need some light."
  539. > The tip of his horn glowing, Spark
  540. > What does help, is what you find just beyond it.
  541. > Most of the... whatever it is that lines the tunnel seems to be intact, presumably up until wherever they actually collapsed the tunnel.
  542. "Well, any ideas?"
  543. > Ornithea gives it a good look.
  544. > "It can't be leaking too fast, otherwise it'd have filled far more up... and probably drowned a human or two. So, if we get this water out we should have a little time to work in."
  545. "Would there be a pump around here we could use?"
  546. > She snorts softly.
  547. > "Who knows. We'd have to look."
  548. "Caravan?"
  549. > A shake of his head is your answer.
  550. > "Wish I knew, but her guess is as good as mine. I knew about over-land trade routes, not docks."
  551. "Hmm. Well, first order of business is to find a pump, then. Probably something we'll have to turn, but better than freezing or starving... and besides, there's probably somepony else who needs that place."
  552. > Spark raises one soaked hoof.
  553. > "If it's a rotary kind, Whispen and I might be able to rig something that makes it run on is own... for a little while, anyhow."
  554. > Well, there's a welcome idea.
  555. > "So, what first?"
  556. "Check around for a pump and some caulking pitch. I can't believe they wouldn't have any at all."
  557. > Emerging form the home - and actually locking it this time - you consider your options for where to look first.
  558.  
  559. > You had passed a workshop on the way here - huge thing, meant for servicing the entire dockyard.
  560. > There would almost certainly be something in there... but it'd probably be also tricky to get out without being noticed.
  561. > On the other hand, there was Tariff's warehouse, where your focus had been stored - with all the things he kept in it, there might be a pump somewhere.
  562. > Of course, it would also be closer to the crash site, and patrols probably thicker.
  563. > Assuming it hadn't burned altogether.
  564. > If all else failed, you'd passed a city maintenance crew station on the way to the dockyard.
  565. > Surely there would be one there, although it would be a farther walk.
  566.  
  567. ACTION:
  568. - Check Tariff's warehouse.
  569.  
  570. "Tariff's place. He had all kinds of things in there; we can almost certainly find something. Caravan, get our cart; we'll use it to more the pump."
  571. > Inevitably, the nearer you come to the crash site the more obvious the signs of occupation become.
  572. > Patrols in the distance, scorched spots on pavement and chunks taken from buildings where debris had fallen.
  573. > It's a small miracle you haven't attracted any further attention, but the security around the shipyard seems to be working in your favor now.
  574. > At least, until you get to the warehouse.
  575. > Some time after you'd made the trip to steal food, somepony had put a padlock on the main door.
  576. > Probably Tariff; knowing how he had been feeding on you simply by being in your presence, he probably wanted to protect his investment.
  577. > Right now, though, it's a problem.
  578. > "...any ideas, boss?"
  579. "I'm thinking. Anyone here good at picking locks? Spark?"
  580. > "Nope. Sorry..."
  581. > The easiest answer would simply be to buck the doors in.
  582. > That would make noise, though, a lot of it, and raise some unpleasant questions.
  583. > More complicated is the option of finding some bolt cutters to snap the lock with.
  584. > Maybe there would be some inside...?
  585. > If not, one of the nearby metalworking shops would surely have a cutter or shears of some kind...
  586.  
  587. ACTION:
  588. - Fly up and try to find an open vent to enter through, look inside for a way to open the doors.
  589.  
  590. "There's gotta be a vent up there somewhere. Stay right here, I'll be right back."
  591. > Launching yourself up, you loft yourself up towards the roof.
  592. > The whining noise hits your ears a second before you come above the roofline, but it doesn't reach your mind until you pass it-
  593. > -and nearly plow straight into the roof out of fright when you breach the top of the warehouse.
  594. > There, hovering not a hundred feed away, is an enemy flying machine.
  595. > How you didn't hear it before is beyond you, but there's no mistaking the hovering blob that fills your vision.
  596. "Shit, shit, shit, shit. Please don't see me, please don't see me, please don't..."
  597. > Your heart beats furiously, thudding against the roofing planks you're pressed down against.
  598. > Not even daring to look up, as if spotting the machine again could somehow attract its attention.
  599.  
  600. [Roll to avoid being seen; result:  It completely fails to see you.]
  601.  
  602. > The whining doesn't get any louder.
  603. > They didn't see you.
  604. > Creeping around the roof, you nervously peek just beyond it to try and see what the machine is doing.
  605. > It takes you a second to comprehend what you're seeing.
  606. > The machine is far to far away for the noise it is making.
  607. > When you flew up you'd swear it couldn't be more than a hundred feet, but it's got to be-
  608. > No, not far.
  609. > Tiny.
  610. > That's why its buzz has a whining tone to it and couldn't be heard until you were closer.
  611. > It's freakishly small, probably smaller than you are.
  612. > There was no way a human could fit aboard that thing.
  613. > Did they have another species working for them as well?
  614. > ...or, more disturbing yet, was the machine operating without anyone controlling it?
  615. > The very idea sends a shudder down your spine.
  616. > Simple machines that operated on their own or under the influence of magic, that was one thing.
  617. > Unicorns had long-since been known to create rudimentary self-propelling and come-to-life enchantments.
  618. > But that thing was quite clearly hovering - flying - without anyone there.
  619. > That meant intelligence, more intelligence than the average young foal.
  620. > Had they built such a thing...?
  621. > Your mind says no, nobody could do that.
  622. > But your experience says with all the humans were capable of, it was not a stretch to do this as well.
  623. > Putting the matter out of your mind for now, you crawl along the rooftop to an air vent.
  624. > Fortunately, massive panel is hinged to allow somepony to crack it further open.
  625. > You do just that, mentally issuing thanks to whoever had thought to oil it last.
  626. > Fluttering down into the warehouse's interior, you start to search about.
  627. > Perhaps most importantly, there is indeed a pump here - its thick, oil-impregnated hose wrapped around the base.
  628. > More surprising is that the components of your arcane focus still sits exactly where you'd left it, under a tarp.
  629.  
  630. > Either the humans hadn't searched here, or hadn't recognized the disassembled focus.
  631. > But the lock...
  632. > Trotting to the door, you find that while the padlock itself cannot be removed from the inside, a smaller panel set into one of the larger hatches has only a deadbolt on the inside to open it.
  633. > Sliding the smaller door open, you motion for the others to come in.
  634. "Hurry. They've got... something patrolling in the air, closer than I realized."
  635.  
  636. ACTION:
  637. - Check around quickly, then focus on getting the pump out.
  638.  
  639. "There's a pump in the third row on the left. Big thing, hose coiled around it, you can't miss it. Go get it."
  640. > "Where are you going?"
  641. "Fast look around. I just want to see if there's anything else of use here."
  642. > The answer is a decided 'maybe'.
  643. > Tariff wasn't kidding; this warehouse holds all sorts of odds and ends.
  644. > Quickly you narrow it down to things that might be useful either for your escape or the burgeoning resistance.
  645. > On that note, several carts - including a few that are covered over and one that looks like it's been specifically made for a unicorn to animate - might be useful.
  646. > An entire stationary steam engine complex sits in one corner, though you've no idea what it might be useful for.
  647. > Unless you deliberately overpressure the boiler and explode it.
  648. > And that-
  649. > Oh.
  650. > You stand still, gawking at the line of gleaming pipework.
  651. > It stood to reason, of course, that Las Pegasus' cloud districts would have their own small weather production plants.
  652. > This far from Cloudsdale and with such a volume of cloud architecture, they would be necessary.
  653. > Both to maintain the district and provide some degree of weather to the city below, without disturbing the aerial homes with larger storms.
  654. > But it simply hadn't occurred to you that they might be getting new equipment shipped in any time soon.
  655. > Yet, before you sits a whole line of brand-new weather formation equipment - storm compressors, chillers and distributors, vortex regulators...
  656. > The city must've budgeted nearly an entire replacement.
  657. > Making an inventory of everything there, you move onto the next isles.
  658. > It does suddenly occur to you that even if none of this is used for its intended purpose, perhaps it could be made to otherwise help as well.
  659. > High pressure pipes, refitted as impromptu cannon, perhaps.
  660. > They'd be slow and tricky to use, and you'd have to find ammunition and powder...
  661.  
  662. > But the humans would never see it coming.
  663. > Turning back around and finding your fellow remaining guards, you join them in extracting the pump.
  664. > Outside the warehouse, thankfully, things proceed as quietly as before.
  665. > Except for one distant patrol who barley glances in your direction, nothing seems to be around.
  666. "Alright, start back towards the home. I'll go get the door locked and come out the roof again."
  667. > Ten minutes later - having discovered that the hovering machine was mercifully gone - you come in for a landing beside them.
  668. "Well, that wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been."
  669. > Spark chuckles softly.
  670. > "Not at all."
  671. "Now, we just get to burn ourselves out trying to pump this thing..."
  672. > It takes the tries, one impromptu patch to the hose, and a lesson from Caravan on how to properly prime this kind of pump, but at last you are ready to begin.
  673. > The pump is meant for a pony to stand on their side, dragging a lever up and down.
  674. > It is, you quickly find, tiring work.
  675. > Yet, the constant stream of gushing water spurting from the appropriately-distant mouth of the exit hose speaks to your success.
  676.  
  677. ACTION:
  678. - Send Caravan and Spark to get Whispen, you and Ornithea pump.
  679.  
  680. "Alright - I think we've got this under control. Caravan, Spark, take the two carts back to the camp. Return the one we rented - pity about that waste - and pick up Whispen in the other."
  681. > "Got it."
  682. "Oh, and notify Sundew that we're moving, we might get assigned to somepony else."
  683. > Another nod from each of the two ponies.
  684. > "Anything else?"
  685. "I think that's it. Oh! If you do find Sundew, also mention to her that we have an update about, uh... well, just say some friends, but that the Princess will want to hear it and they should let us know when is a good time to meet them."
  686. > Watching the two carts retreat into the distance, you shake your head slightly.
  687. "Lucky, really. They're at least trotting free... we're going to be stuck on this pump all damn day."
  688. > Ornithea laughs softly.
  689. > "Afraid of a little hard work?"
  690. "Hah, hah. Laugh it up, you've got all that earth pony strength behind you. I'm sick of being grounded almost all the time."
  691. > Two hours later, despite whatever strength her blood might lend her Ornithea is definitely feeling the strain as well.
  692. > Though, merely feeling the strain compared to dealing with the murderous nexus of pain that your back is right now means little.
  693. > Having to drive the pump's handle up and down over and over has left your muscles aching and tense.
  694. > More than once you've found yourself slipping into a sort of half-trance, your body running on automatic.
  695. > It's not fun whatsoever.
  696. > But it is working.
  697. > When you call a break mid-afternoon and eat what rations you brought with you, there's noticeably less water in the basement than before.
  698. > "Hey, what's this?"
  699. > Ornithea had discovered the note Captain Williams had left for you where you'd dropped it on a table.
  700. "Oh, something they gave to me when I was looking to see if I could get back in here. From Williams, apparently."
  701. > She is visibly discomforted at the thought of him, but nods.
  702. > "Looked at it yet?"
  703. "No... hold on a moment."
  704.  
  705. > Deftly opening the envelope - sealed, unfortunately, requiring you to tear it open - you pull out the folded message within.
  706. "...well, I'll be tossed in a thundercloud. He actually apologized to us for how badly they trashed up the place."
  707. > "Don't suppose he told us how we could get it all fixed, huh?"
  708. "No, unfortunately. There's something else here, though-"
  709. > Slipping it free, you read the second paper - and then break out in a curious mix of laughter and almost crying.
  710. > "...sir?"
  711. > Wordlessly you hand the paper to Ornithea.
  712. > True to his word, Williams had acquired a travel pass back to your fictional hometown.
  713. > For eleven ponies.
  714. > He must've forgotten to alter the request after taking those five in.
  715. > It's surely an innocent mistake, but still a painful one.
  716. > Judging from the look on Ornithea's face, she feels the same.
  717. "Yeah. We... should get back to pumping."
  718.  
  719. [Roll for Caravan and Spark's success; result:  They do so, and deliver their message.]
  720.  
  721. > You and Ornithea work long into the afternoon.
  722. > Fortunately the Guard has inured you to mindless, back-breaking work.
  723. > Caravan and Spark return in due time, Whispen riding in the sole cart they've returned with.
  724. > Taking yet another break from the pump to approach them, you wipe your brow with one wing and nod.
  725. "Hey. It go okay?"
  726. > "Yep."
  727. > Caravan grins sharply.
  728. > "Mail got delivered and we're back safe."
  729. "What happened to the shack?"
  730. > Whispen carefully climbs down from the cart.
  731. > "I spoke to the pony responsible for running - trying to run - that encampment. Apparently there's somepony else already waiting to take it."
  732. > So many without homes...
  733.  
  734. "...right. Okay, we've made a little progress, but this is going to take most of tomorrow at least - before we can even get on building that wall back up."
  735. > "Can't we just, like.... pump it out every few days again?"
  736. > Spark's suggestion yields numerous groans and at least one mumbled 'I wish'.
  737. "Even if it didn't take prohibitively long, the water could lead to some nasty infections. We have to seal it up."
  738. > Glancing back to the pump, you shake your head.
  739. "Not today, though. Today - I'm done with this thing."
  740. > "Spark and I will take a turn on it."
  741. > The former doesn't look to pleased at being volunteered.
  742. "One thing before you do. Spark, you said you could do something to make this run on its own - how serious was that?"
  743. > "Uh... well, I'm not real good at it? But I think I could try, maybe with Whispen's help."
  744. > "I'm willing to give it a shot."
  745. "Okay. Any side-effects we need to worry about?"
  746. > "Uh, it will take a lot out of both of us - but otherwise, not really."
  747. "Noted. We've got food and a cooking space with a little cleaning. And real beds, too - so you'll at least have a chance to rest."
  748. > "Any plans for tomorrow?"
  749. > Unfortunately, you hadn't really given thought to it.
  750. > Being constantly held waiting to hear from Fairweather or Sundew was none too helpful.
  751. "...well, about that wall in the basement. I think it'll take at least most of tomorrow to get it empty, so no sense trying to pick it all up yet. We might want to find some supplies to help us with that, though."
  752.  
  753. ACTION:
  754. - Have Spark help with automating the pump.
  755. - Go ask the Changelings for help sealing up the tunnel again.
  756.  
  757. "Right, we can see about that pump in a bit. Right now, let's go inside and get some chow."
  758. > "Now?"
  759. > Spark glances at the still-lit sky, raising one eyebrow.
  760. > "So early?"
  761. "Gotta clean everything up in there, remember?"
  762. > On seeing the still-ransacked kitchen, Spark grimaces.
  763. > "Urgh, I'd actually forgotten."
  764. "I wish I could have."
  765. > It ends up taking a fair amount of time - especially because even the unbroken objects and surfaces must be wiped down and clean.
  766. > At least the water is still running.
  767. > But in the end, it yields hot food cooked on a proper cooktop - a welcome change from the past two days.
  768. > And that is a deeply-welcome luxury.
  769. > Even more welcome is the discovery that the water to the bathroom still runs as well.
  770. > Each of you take turns washing the accumulated grime from your coats, manes and tails.
  771. > By the end, you feel considerably better than you have in days.
  772. > Of course, that might also have something to do with accidentally running into Whispen soon after she exits the shower, her mane not even having had time to dry.
  773. > Heh.
  774. > Emerging from your turn in the rejuvenating waters, you find the two unicorns absent from the house.
  775. "Hey, Caravan - they outside?"
  776. > "Yep, messing around with that pump."
  777. > Poking your head out the door, you find a scene that would look strange were it not so serious.
  778. > The two of them stand on opposite sides of the pump, horns lit and straining to complete the magic.
  779. > "Okay, good; now sort of let it loop back around on itself and that ought to do it..."
  780. > "I'm trying... haven't even done something like this before, really..."
  781.  
  782. > Despite her admission, Whipen is clearly pushing herself into it.
  783. > Both are, teeth gritted and muscles straining.
  784. > At last Spark Flash releases his breath with a whoosh.
  785. > "Okay, that should do it!"
  786. > "Letting it go, and-"
  787. > Immediately, with a gurgle and a groan, the pump starts to run - a small glow surrounding the driving handle's fulcrum and the twin pistons.
  788. > Water gurgles from the exiting hose - not a true spray, but a good stream.
  789. "...good job with that, you two."
  790. > Both crack tired smiles, nodding.
  791. > "I never knew automating something could be so exhausting..."
  792. > You chuckle softly at Whispen's comment.
  793. "Neither did I, though for different reasons. Come on in, get some rest."
  794. > Though, admittedly, a part of you misses potentially waking up the way you had that morning, the prospect of your own bed is a powerfully enticing one.
  795. > You're asleep not moments after landing in it.
  796. > Wakefulness comes next with a hoof shaking your shoulder and Spark's nervous voice in one ear.
  797. > "You gotta wake up, right now!"
  798. > Driving yourself from beneath the covers, you twist your head around to face him.
  799. "What's up, Spark?"
  800. > "There's a bunch of humans outside, just standing around!"
  801.  
  802. ACTION:
  803. - Peek outside, then go down and open the front door to see what they want.
  804.  
  805. > Growling, you all but leap for the nearest window and peer down.
  806. > Naturally, the humans haven't bothered with any lighting - instead relying on whatever it was that gave them perfect night-sight.
  807. > You can't see a great deal, only a fraction of moonlight making it this far.
  808. "I can't quite see, but I don't think they're doing anything to the building... maybe trying to see what we did to the door?"
  809. > The windows had been left uncovered for lack of time and energy to deal with them.
  810. > So, they could just climb through those if they wanted to come in.
  811. > Or, more likely, just break down the door.
  812. > But then why not-
  813. "...of course. The pump - they're probably worried about the pump. Magic and all that."
  814. > "Should I come down with you?"
  815. "Yeah, but stay out of sight; I'll call you if I need to."
  816. > "Got it."
  817. > The humans are, as you'd expected, clustered to the left of the door - all around the still-quietly-chugging pump.
  818. "Uh... hey, can I help you...?"
  819. > They don't act surprised, so probably saw the door open.
  820. > One does come over to you, though.
  821. > "Hello, pony. What is - is - what is thing? It - do not know word."
  822. > He beckons over another soldier, who is apparently much better with Equish - or their equivalent of it.
  823. > "Sergeant asks, what is machine doing? No one is using?"
  824. "Uh, it's a pump. Our basement is flooded, so we have to pump it out."
  825. > Another burst of chatter in their language.
  826. > "Can - can make it stop?"
  827. > You wince.
  828. "Do we have to? It's hard to start again when we do."
  829. > "No, no - but, can make it stop, if want to?"
  830. "Oh! Uh, yes. Uh, a unicorn -"
  831. > You motion towards your forhead.
  832. "- one of them could."
  833. > "Is - is common? Many pump like this?"
  834. "No, it's just... uh, just a hoof-pump that was enchanted."
  835. > Anything to keep them from asking where you got it.
  836. > "Where you get enchanted, ah, hoof-pump?"
  837. > Celestia damn it.
  838.  
  839. ACTION:
  840. - Be honest about it.
  841.  
  842. "We, uh, we made it."
  843. > The soldiers blink slightly.
  844. > "You... make thing that... work without pony? Or without human?"
  845. "Uh, well not me - a unicorn. Two, actually."
  846. > "Ah - you have - you make more?"
  847. "Um, not really. Only some unicorns can, and they will be very tired for the next days."
  848. > Now the soldiers are openly talking with each other, more than a couple cautiously nudging the pump as if it might jump out and grab them.
  849. > Strange, that a race so used to making machines work for them would be so surprised by one working on its own.
  850. > Really, though, you are looking at something else.
  851. > Now, even in the bare light from the stars above, you can see something strange about them.
  852. > Every single soldier has a sort of boxy mask over their eyes, culminating in a short tube emerging from the center of it.
  853. > It must be what allows them to see at night... though you don't imagine they can see much of anything else besides what is directly in front of them.
  854. > More of their insane machinery.
  855. "..listen, if you want us to make more pumps, we could see if it would be possible, but, uh... can it please wait until morning?"
  856. > "Yes, yes - until morning. Ah, you have paper, pen?"
  857. > Not a pen, but you do have a pencil and a sheet of paper.
  858. > Unfortunately, you have to get Spark Flash to make a light to see them by - something that alerts the soldiers to his presence.
  859. > "You are - you are the one who make pump work without pony?"
  860. > "Yes-"
  861.  
  862. > Spark yawns unexpectedly, though it fits quite well with his next statement.
  863. > "Yes, I did . It made me very tired though."
  864. > "You can do more, maybe soon?"
  865. > "Uh..."
  866. > He looks to you; you make a 'maybe, kind-of' motion.
  867. > "...not very soon. It really drained b- me."
  868. > Good on him; the soldiers don't seem to have caught the slip.
  869. > "Okay."
  870. > One paper has a message scribbled on it and is stuck to your pump, where it quickly threatens to flutter away until pinned beneath the pump platform..
  871. > "Is warning, for other patrol - that we know, is not problem. Do not put out own-working machine here again without ask first; is area - I do not know the word, is area with many laws now."
  872. "Oh, thank you!"
  873. > It hadn't even occurred to you that you might need permission to set up the pump.
  874. > Just another sign of how different things are now.
  875. > The second paper is handed back to you, several names and an address written on it.
  876. > Pointing to the topmost name, the soldier goes on.
  877. > "Here. Is our commander. He maybe want machine that works - you go ask, show him this paper.
  878. > The next name down is pointed to, and then the first human that had spoken to you.
  879. > "Is Sergeant's name. Tell him we send you, yes?"
  880. "I will, yes."
  881. > "Good, good!"
  882. > He nods.
  883. > "Then, pony go back inside now. Stay, until morning."
  884. "I will. Good night again."
  885. > Only when the door is shut and the soldiers gone do you relax.
  886. "Well... that could have gone a lot, lot worse."
  887. > Spark nods.
  888. > "Should I stop the enchantment?"
  889.  
  890. ACTION:
  891. - Have him leave it in place.
  892.  
  893. "Keep that running as long as it can, Spark. Sooner we can get everything dry down there, the better."
  894. > "Got it. Uh, in that case I'm going back to sleep?"
  895. "Yeah, go ahead."
  896. > You yawn as well, shaking your head.
  897. "I'm sure exhausted from just getting it running."
  898. > The next morning comes bright and early, though Spark and Whispen were both obviously quite exhausted.
  899. > Outside, the pump is still quietly churning away - although noticeably slower than before, having burned through a considerable amount of energy overnight.
  900. > Staring at it, you frown lightly.
  901. "Can't make it go any longer, huh?"
  902. > Spark shakes his head, as does Whispen between yawns.
  903. > "Enchanting isn't easy. On the up-side, it is a lot easier to keep it going than to start it up, but it will keep us pretty drained."
  904. "How badly?"
  905. > They look at each other briefly before answering.
  906. > "We're both pretty tired, and probably can't sustain anything major like a shield any other serious magic. But, I'm still good for minor stuff - just moving things, lights, that sort of thing."
  907. "Got it. Well, just stick to resting up finishing up what you can in the house today - see if you can get some panels up over those windows, maybe."
  908. > "Understood."
  909. > "What about the rest of us?"
  910. > Caravan's question brings up a good point.
  911. "I was going to see if the Changelings would help us, but... well, that human patrol last night got me thinking: There's some serious weather production gear in that warehouse."
  912.  
  913. > "Thinking of giving to the Princess?"
  914. "Thinking of giving it to the humans."
  915. > Quickly cutting off any interruptions, you go on:
  916. "Look, they run this area now. Sooner or later, they're going to notice that stuff and I'm sure they're going to take it. Better that we should get something out of it at the same time."
  917. > Caravan frowns slightly.
  918. > "Doesn't seem right, stealing. But... you have a point there."
  919. > That surprises you.
  920. "You aren't worried about what they'll do with it?"
  921. > "Turning over and getting ponies killed is one thing. That stuff - they'd need a bunch of pegasi to run it anyway, right? Unless you're planning on telling them how to fight with it..."
  922. "To Tartarus with that; I just want to see if they will let the others out if we give them something useful."
  923. > "Then... I can live with it."
  924. "Right. Then the only question is who does what - I think we can afford to split up on this."
  925. > "I can probably sell it either way. We'll need an excuse for why we were in that warehouse, though..."
  926. > Ornithea nudges the pump with one hoof.
  927. > "Didn't Tariff give us permission?"
  928. "Yes, but Tariff is suspect to them. We might be better off admitting we were stealing - they'd probably turn us over to the police, and we could explain ourselves to them."
  929.  
  930. ACTION:
  931. - Tell them we stole the pump.
  932. - Caravan with us, while Ornithea and Spark go to talk to the Changelings.
  933.  
  934. "Caravan, you and I will head to deal with the humans. Spark, Ornithea - I think you can handle the Changelings, yes?"
  935. > "We'll do our best."
  936. "Good. Now, let's see where we are going..."
  937. > The name and address are, surprisingly, familiar to you.
  938. > It appears to be the same one you'd been directed towards to see about getting back into your home.
  939. > Fortunate, then, that you already know where to look.
  940. > Arriving in due time, you are again greeted by the soldiers at the door - though this time, they merely nod at you.
  941. "Hey, uh... we're supposed to see - uh -"
  942. > Forget trying to pronounce this name.
  943. > You take out the sheet of paper, holding it up to the nearer guard.
  944. "...him. We're supposed to see him about some machinery?"
  945. > The two look at each other, then shrug.
  946. > A soldier is called over to escort you in; after a few moments, you're brought before another soldier whom you presume to be the one you are supposed to talk to.
  947. "Hi... are you, uh... Bartosz Kosmatka?"
  948. > He chuckles softly, gently correcting you on the pronunciation.
  949. > How do they ever manage their world with so many languages and confusing names?
  950. > "But yes, I am. You come with a note from one of my sergeants, yes?"
  951. "Yes. We, uh... well, we set up a pump enchanted to run constantly, and I think we weren't supposed to?"
  952. > "Yes; your pump - they confuse us, working without any engine or power. We are not used to these things."
  953. > Is that what it was?
  954. > But what about their little flying machines - those must have had power, but you couldn't-
  955. > Urgh, nevermind.
  956. > You're ready to give up trying to figure out what makes them worried and what they're fine with..
  957. "Should we take it away? We can put it back where we found it if you want, but -"
  958. > "My sergeant, he put a note on this machine, yes?"
  959. "Yes, he did."
  960. > "Then it is not a problem. He tells me, though, that you can make more of these things?"
  961.  
  962. > If only you could have brought another unicorn with you - but somepony needed to watch the house, and the other two to talk to the Changelings.
  963. "...sort of. There are only two of us who can, and it makes them very tired."
  964. > "But you can, yes? Can any of you, with the horns?"
  965. > Oh, so he knew it was unicorns?
  966. > Interesting.
  967. "Yes. It will make them very tired, though."
  968. > "For how long - how long does it run?"
  969. > Not a question for you.
  970. > Caravan is quick to step in, drawing from Whispen's answer earlier.
  971. > "Not very long. Several hours? We started it last night before curfew and it is already stopping."
  972. "And then - you must put more into it. More - more fuel?"
  973. > Considering for a moment, Caravan slowly nods.
  974. > "...magic, as fuel yes. Somepony with a talent for it could do better."
  975. > "I see... maybe, maybe we can use magic-machine. There are others, yes?"
  976. "Yes, but the bigger it is the harder it is to use - so, mostly small things."
  977. > "Hmm..."
  978. > Bartosz rubs his chin thoughtfully.
  979. "...there is something else you might want."
  980. > "Is there?"
  981. "A machine, for making weather. It doesn't run on its own, but takes several ponies to -"
  982. > You'd halted, because at least seven pair of eyes were firmly locked on to you.
  983. > "A machine for controlling the weather, yes? Where is this machine?"
  984. "Uh... in a warehouse. I don't think it was ever used, they were probably supposed to go up to the cloud districts."
  985. > All of the soldiers visibly relax.
  986. > "We are - we are very interested in this, yes. We have been hit by many storms coming here, and I hear many storms more now."
  987. > Cloudsdale must have been working triple shifts, if not more.
  988. > "And now, we think - maybe ponies going to bring more storms come to this city?"
  989. "No, no; they use them to maintain the cloud districts. We just saw it when we were getting the pump for our home."
  990. > "You - you can show us where to find this thing, yes?"
  991. > Clearly something has gotten into him, though what it is you do not know.
  992.  
  993. ACTION:
  994. -  Take him to see the weather-factory machinery, then ask for a written note agreeing to free our comrades, if they take the weather machinery.
  995.  
  996. "We can show you were it is, if you'd like."
  997. > "That would be very good, yes. I will send a squad to go with you."
  998. > Damn, this might be your only chance.
  999. "...I, uh, just have one request. Um... look, a while back, some friends of mine were taken away by you because they took some things."
  1000. > "...what kind of things?"
  1001. > You look down at the floor, knowing well how this would sound.
  1002. "...weapons, I think. I don't know - that's what the american captain said they were, I never saw them."
  1003. > Bartosz gives you a strange look.
  1004. > "And you want... what? You want them free?"
  1005. "If... that would be possible?"
  1006. > He doesn't seem to know what to make of this request.
  1007. > Truthfully, you are only now realizing how ridiculous this sounds.
  1008. "I know it sounds strange - impossible even - but they didn't mean to hurt anyp- anyone! They wanted to keep other ponies from being hurt by them."
  1009. > Bartosz pinches his face just between his eyes - what you presume to be a some sort of self-comforting gesture.
  1010. > "...If you give me weather machine, I can ask about it. You said, the american captain took them?"
  1011. "Yes - they took some things from the crashed flying machine, uh-"
  1012. > What had Williams called it?
  1013. > "You show me the machine, I will ask. Cannot promise - different unit holds them."
  1014. "Thank you. Even if we could just find out how they are... can you at least give us like... a note or something?"
  1015. > "A note? What for?"
  1016. > Well, what for exactly?
  1017. > He had said that he didn't know for certain, but...
  1018. "Maybe... just promising to look in to them."
  1019. > Caravan adds in as well:
  1020. > "We just want to be sure they haven't been forgotten. There's so little trust these days... maybe you could give us something we can put our trust in?"
  1021. > Privately you wonder if that comment about trust was aimed at you.
  1022. > Caravan still didn't seem to have forgotten about your suggestion regarding Princess Sparkle.
  1023.  
  1024. > At last Bartosz nods.
  1025. > "...take my soldiers to this weather machine, and I will give you a note promising this. At the very least, I will tell you how they are."
  1026. "I understand. Thank you. We can go whenever you are ready."
  1027. > 'Whenever you are ready' turns out to mean in a couple of minutes, as a new group of humans is called up to accompany you.
  1028. > Ultimately you find yourself and Caravan leading a little less than twenty soldiers.
  1029. > This time you don't hesitate to break the lock - or, more accurately, have one of the soldiers break it for you.
  1030. > They produce a pair of bolt cutters that quickly shears straight through the building.
  1031. > Noticeably, however, they don't take any chances:
  1032. > Even though you are supposed to be nominally aiding them, they enter with weapons raised and sweep the warehouse in a coordinated fashion, checking every corner.
  1033. > A statement, you think, on how they view you.
  1034. > Once they've judged the warehouse safe, you trot in.
  1035. > There's no fooling around; you head straight for the weather production machinery you'd seen.
  1036. "Here. This is it - all of these machines, from here..."
  1037. > You walk down the line of them, one wing extended to point.
  1038. "...to here."
  1039. > "You are certain of this, pony?"
  1040. > That was the soldier who seemed to be in charge of this.
  1041. "Yes. Very much so. I recognize them, definitely."
  1042. > "Very well. We will get other pony to check this; if it is true - then we give you note from Chorąży Kosmatka."
  1043. > "That's not the deal we made!"
  1044. > Caravan looks upset - judging by his earlier comment about not breaking a deal, it's understandable why.
  1045. > The soldier, though, he just shrugs.
  1046. > "We not certain yet; only have your word. Come back in two days - if true, you have your note then, and maybe word on your friends, yes?"
  1047. > Frustration boils within you, but there's little you can do.
  1048. > They hold all the cards in this now.
  1049. "...come on, Caravan. Let's go."
  1050.  
  1051. > The walk back to your home is undertaken in silence, both of you too quiet to bother speaking.
  1052. > At least the house seems fine - some of the windows covered up.
  1053. > That slightly renewed cheer lasts just until you open the door and find Buttercup and another pony you do not recognize in the house along with a returned Spark and Ornithea.
  1054. > "...eheheh, hey boss."
  1055.  
  1056. ACTION:
  1057. - "I'm guessing this is our foreign exchangeling?"
  1058.  
  1059. "I'm guessing this is our foreign exchangeling?"
  1060. > The joke is not met with gales of laughter.
  1061. > At least in part because your frustration has twisted your tone to a frustrated growl.
  1062. > Buttercup shoots what you are coming to understand is her default 'I-do-not-like-you-and-you-are-wasting-my-time-too' look.
  1063. "...right, okay."
  1064. > Closing the door, you look back around the group.
  1065. "So, what exactly is all this?"
  1066. > "We're willing to help you - despite the fact that you've done nothing but ruin our tunnels and beg things from us-"
  1067. > "And saved Tariff's life."
  1068. > Now Ornithea is on the receiving end of Buttercup's look.
  1069. > "And got Tariff captured while trying to save his life, we're still willing to help you... but not for free."
  1070. "Not for free, huh?"
  1071. > Trotting around to one of the stuffed chairs in the living room, you slump into it.
  1072. "Right. I assume they explained the situation to you?"
  1073. > "Yes. You need to seal up the tunnel we tore down for you."
  1074. > Buttercup's jibes are rapidly building on your foul mood, but you somehow manage to push your temper back down.
  1075. "...what's your cost."
  1076. > "We need to feed. Things have been hectic ever since they came, and we're spending a lot of energy - and now you want us to make major tunnel repairs?"
  1077. > One hoof is lifted to point at the other pony - or disguised Changeling, anyway - who seems to be content to let Buttercup lead.
  1078. > "Buckleup and I are going to feed before that happens."
  1079. "I thought we already agreed we would be open to this."
  1080. > "Yes, but..."
  1081. > The way her tone curves leaves you wincing in preparation for the other hoof to drop.
  1082.  
  1083. > "...there's only two ponies here who can give us what we need anymore: Yourself, and Whispen."
  1084. "...you're joking."
  1085. > If her tone was anything to judge by, you'd be expecting Buttercup to be also wielding an enormous, triumphant smirk right now.
  1086. > As if forcing you into this was some personal victory of hers.
  1087. > But her face retains its trademark glower as she patiently awaits a real answer from you.
  1088. "Okay, you aren't joking. Is this really absolutely necessary?"
  1089. > It's not just the feeding - having your relationship thrown into the open again like that wasn't something you were pleased about either.
  1090. > "Yes. The others - there's affection, yes and some love; but it's not as strong and stale to boot. Yours is... quite powerful. And fresh."
  1091. > What are you, some kind of vegetable at the market?
  1092. > "Buttercup, I can-"
  1093. > "Nu-uh, sweetheart."
  1094. > She gives Whispen a cool look.
  1095. > "If we were to pull from just you, it'd seriously drain you - and I know your commander would have our heads if we did that."
  1096.  
  1097. [Roll for willpower check, result: Allow it, and actually succeed.]
  1098.  
  1099. "...do it."
  1100. > Your eyes slide shut as your teeth all but grind together.
  1101. > Truthfully there's little else you can choose right now.
  1102. > If not, the basement will just keep on flooding.
  1103. > And you have to look out for your ponies.
  1104. > You don't hear anything - not immediately - but after a few seconds a slight tugging sensation makes itself felt like something dragging on your coat.
  1105. > Stomach twisting, your eyes squeeze even more tightly shut - and after a second, the tugging feeling fades.
  1106. "Is that it?"
  1107. > "No."
  1108. > Cautiously opening your eyes yields the image of Buttercup giving you a skeptical look.
  1109. > "You're too tense, putting up armor like you expect to be hurt. It won't work like this; if I pull hard enough to actually get anything, you'll feel it - and not in a good way."
  1110. > The shuddering image of a golden-armored form crumpled in a Canterlot street, laying still as a Changeling drew something from it flows through your mind.
  1111. > It is pushed away with a thought, forced from your mind.
  1112. "Let's try it again."
  1113. > Closing your eyes once more, this time you try and focus on keeping yourself calm.
  1114. > The practice was something you'd had experience with before - the Guard was actually surprisingly good about teaching ponies how to remain calm and steady.
  1115. > But even so, it is an uphill battle.
  1116. > Especially when that tugging feeling resolves itself around your chest again, like somepony was reaching straight in and tugging on your heart to-
  1117. > "This isn't going to work. We'll need to-"
  1118. "No!"
  1119. > Damn it, if you had consented to this much then at least it was going to damn well count for something!
  1120. "I can try again, just-"
  1121.  
  1122. > Something warm and soft presses against your cheek.
  1123. > A leg rises to slip over your withers.
  1124. > Softly, a voice whispers into your ear.
  1125. > "Relax. You're safe. Just relax..."
  1126. > Somehow, against all reasonable logic, it works.
  1127. > As if they keystone had been removed from an arch, your entire effort crumbles away into nothing.
  1128. > In its place comes a sort of pleasant serenity.
  1129. > You find yourself letting go; the pressure on your chest vanishes.
  1130. > Several silent moments pass where you aren't sure if they are still feeding or done already.
  1131. > Or, if so, whether you want it to end anyhow.
  1132. > After what seems like far to long you relinquish the contact - however pleasant it may be - and look to Buttercup.
  1133. > She and - what was his name, Buckleup? - both seem content, maybe even a little surprised.
  1134. > After a second Buckleup burps, at least having the good grace to cover his mouth and look ashamed.
  1135. "...I take it that was enough."
  1136. > "More than. We will help you."
  1137. > The demeaning tone is entirely absent from Buttercup's voice, she clearly had not been expecting that at all.
  1138. "Right. If you could go down there, then - we water is up to a bit over your hoof-joint, last I checked."
  1139. > "...on it."
  1140. > Seeming to sense they aren't welcome anymore, Buttercup and Buckleup turn to head downstairs.
  1141. > That leaves you alone with your ponies.
  1142. > Abruptly you realize that Whispen is still all but reared up and leaning against you.
  1143. > Carefully setting her down, you look between them.
  1144. "If I hear any comments about that, I swear I will put anypony who made them on pump duty. Forever. I will flood the basement again just to make you pump it out."
  1145. > Somehow, now that the strain is passed the mood seems lightened some.
  1146. > All three of them look at each other, and though you see Spark crack a small grin all three say nothing.
  1147. > Whispen keeps her face carefully neutral as well.
  1148. "Good. Now, while they're down there, there's something else we need to figure out."
  1149.  
  1150. > Bringing them up to speed on what had happened in the humans' camp, you see Caravan gritting his teeth as the matter is laid out.
  1151. "...so the question is, what do we do if they don't actually return the others?"
  1152. > The first suggestion, predictably, comes from Caravan.
  1153. > "Leave it. Find another way. They obviously can't be relied on anymore."
  1154. > "Well, um..."
  1155. > Ornithea's hoof scuffs the floor lightly.
  1156. > "What about Williams? He seemed to think we were okay, and if he finds out we've been trying to 'help'... maybe he could push them?"
  1157. > "He is a Captain."
  1158. > Spark tilts his head as he mulls the situation over.
  1159. > "I don't know what all their ranks are, but that sounds high, right?"
  1160. "Maybe. Maybe not. I was also thinking - what if we 'find' that Focus for them? We aren't going to get it past those gate-checkpoints, and surely they'd be interested in that too?"
  1161. > "That's a real risk. Sooner or later we're going to have to start answering questions. What if you pulled together twenty other Pegasi and showed them how to use the weather equipment?"
  1162.  
  1163. ACTION:
  1164. - Go try and see Williams.
  1165. - Try and talk to Buttercup some.
  1166.  
  1167. "We'll go see Williams. He seemed the most willing to stick his neck out for us."
  1168. > "Got it."
  1169. "For now, though? Let's go make sure the Changelings aren't going to drown us all by accident.
  1170. > Even with the water level noticeably down, walking through the basement is still a miserable experience.
  1171. > Hopefully it will be well and truly gone before the rot can set in and start sickening your ponies.
  1172. > Over in the corner near the wrecked tunnels, two Changelings steadily work away.
  1173. > They are undisguised, a fact that sends a shock through your muscles even though you'd seen them like that before.
  1174. > As you watch, one of the Changelings leans over and regurgitates a mass of something slimy and green straight into the water, proceeding to knead it into place with its hole-ridden hooves.
  1175. "That... is disgusting."
  1176. > One twists back around to stare at you before returning to its task.
  1177. > "It's normal. You want our help, we give our help."
  1178. > Even though its voice is twisted to something distinctly inequine, a sort of rasping with a resonating double tone to it, you're pretty sure that is Buttercup.
  1179. "So are you telling me we were walking on bug vomit that whole time in there?"
  1180. > "Ichor. It doesn't come from our stomachs. Different organ; you ponies can't do it."
  1181. "How delightful..."
  1182. > Approaching, you see that they've simply resorted to patched the stuff over the entire surface of the collapsed area - building an entirely new seal, like that the tunnel walls are formed of.
  1183. "...but thank you. It's looking... good."
  1184. > "It's insufficient and will have to be re-done... but it should hold for a while. Long enough for this mess to either finish up to go the rest of the way to Tartarus."
  1185. "Got it... uh, can I ask something else real fast?"
  1186. > "If you're going to insist on bothering us, sure."
  1187. > Well, she didn't say no.
  1188. "When you, uh... feed on us... why doesn't it hurt us? I mean, like it did to... the others."
  1189.  
  1190. > A fanged smile grows on its lips in response.
  1191. > "Because we're not really sucking you dry. Either of us could - it leaves us a lot more filled and we don't need to feed so soon. Maybe even pass off a little for those who can't immediately feed."
  1192. > Pausing to hawk up another greenish glob, she goes on.
  1193. > "But, it's kind of hard to miss the effects, so we usually leave that be until we're ready or things are desperate."
  1194. "So what you're doing to us is... lesser?"
  1195. > "Yes. Not nearly as hard on you; shouldn't leave you feeling more than woozy for a little bit, unless a total rookie is doing it."
  1196. "Well... uh... thank you. I guess. For not taking more."
  1197. > That yields another pause from Buttercup.
  1198. > This one seems to be more on account of being considerably surprised, though.
  1199. > "You said it yourself - we're in this mess together. I'm not going to drain you and risk that. We can't afford mistakes like that."
  1200. "We?"
  1201. > "Changelings. If you've forgotten, we're not exactly rolling in spare energy ourselves right now."
  1202. "Oh..."
  1203. > Never had you ever expected an actual explanation from one of these things.
  1204. "...thank you again, I guess."
  1205. > "Look, why are you even asking all this stuff? You find some good books by some old-timey pony I'm sure they could tell you all of this. You trying to soften us up to agree with you?"
  1206.  
  1207. ACTION:
  1208. - "Maybe I'm allowed to rethink my opinion of you lot?"
  1209. - "That, and I want to know what to be ready for if we become... redundant one day."
  1210.  
  1211. "...honestly? Right now, I'm... rethinking a lot of things. This whole mess has turned a lot of things upside-down and I'm figuring out a lot of stuff all over again."
  1212. > Buttercup snorts softly.
  1213. > "Don't try and lie to me, really. Emotion-sensitive, remember?"
  1214. "Okay, I won't. I'm also wondering what happens if our agreement suddenly stops being beneficial for you."
  1215. > A second's pause, and then you add:
  1216. "But, I wasn't totally off before. I really am rethinking a whole bunch of things, including... you know, us and all that."
  1217. > "I severely doubt you're ready to forgive entirely."
  1218. "Fair enough; I'm not. But I'm willing to consider. Isn't that better than before?"
  1219. > Now it is Buttercup's turn to hesitate, but eventually she nods as well.
  1220. > "I suppose it is."
  1221. "Then, uh, out of curiosity... is telling when somepony is lying something you can really do?"
  1222. > "No."
  1223. > She smirks a toothy grin.
  1224. > "We can tell when you're not being totally open, though. You ponies tend to get a certain mix of emotions when you do."
  1225. "Huh."
  1226. > In the end they work for around an hour further - mostly manipulating what ichor they've already spat out.
  1227. > How, exactly, the changelings managed to control how it seals and detaches, hardens and softens is something you still don't quite get.
  1228. > But there's something morbidly fascinating in watching them do so.
  1229. > Long after the two Changelings have again taken on their selected skins and left, you sit at the stairs just above the waterline and think.
  1230. > The attack on Canterlot wasn't something you could ever really forget or let go of.
  1231. > But could you separate them?
  1232. > Resolving to think about it further at a later date, you get upstairs and decide to spend the last few remaining hours in the day fixing up the house.
  1233. > At the end of it, your new home looks considerably better - both inside and out - and you can actually sit down at the end of the day feeling you made some steps towards something.
  1234.  
  1235. > Maybe not something big, but after the incessant blows that had hit your group one after another it's a welcome change.
  1236. > And even small steps can build up.
  1237. > There's only one real question lingering in your mind.
  1238. > Had that been Whispen's lips on your cheek, calming you from your moment of near-failure earlier?
  1239. > She hadn't made any comment of it afterwards - almost acting as if it had never happened.
  1240. > But that is what it had felt like.
  1241. > You probably shouldn't be carrying on with this, but...
  1242. > Is it really harmful?
  1243. > Questions that had been brought up by Byline seemed to have been put to rest.
  1244. > That, too, remains a mystery through the night and as you start out the following morning.
  1245. > Bright and early, too - the trip to the northern camp is going to be a long one.
  1246.  
  1247. ACTION:
  1248. - Take Spark and Caravan with you; leave the others to monitor the camp.
  1249.  
  1250. > Ultimately it is Caravan and Spark that go with you, leaving Ornithea and Whispen to finish cleaning up the basement.
  1251. > The unicorn stallion has mostly recovered from his experimentation with enchantment, and is able to easily keep pace with the both of you.
  1252. > That is good, as the three of you can make a fairly good pace through the city - you even take to wing a few times to get in some sorely-needed flying time.
  1253. > By the time you arrive at the northern edge of the city it's getting close to mid-day, and you pause for a bite to eat while still several blocks away.
  1254. > Never one to waste an opportunity, it also gives you a chance to observe patrols roll in and out of their camp every few minutes.
  1255. > Even from where you are, it's obvious they've been quite busy in the time since you were released.
  1256. > Amazingly, it seems flying machines are already operating from this camp - more than a few launch into the sky or glide in as you watch.
  1257. > Always with that same powerful howling sound.
  1258. > "Boss. Uh, north-north east - maybe, halfway between dead-up and the horizon. You see something there?"
  1259. > Caravan's question leads your eyes to scan the sky, settling on a hovering object apparently sitting still in mid-air.
  1260. "They've got aerial coverage now, huh? Maybe more of those hovering flying machines - or the ones without anyone in them."
  1261. > The idea of those still sends a low shudder down your spine.
  1262. > On your opposite side, Spark gives a little nod.
  1263. > "I think there are more of them, uh, a little bit south as well."
  1264.  
  1265. > Ultimately, however, the last leg of your journey cannot be put off forever.
  1266. > Approaching a gate at the fenced-in edge, you are halted at a distance by a soldier using a bullhorn.
  1267. > "Attention ponies. Approach side-by-side, slowly. Come any faster and point your horn anywhere but up, and we will open fire."
  1268. > "Well, there's a pleasant thought."
  1269. > Spark grumbles softly as he tilts his head back to aim his horn skyward.
  1270. > "If I really wanted, you know, I could probably light their clothing on fire with one good zap."
  1271. "Easy, Spark. You're nervous, I get it. Don't worry; they don't seem to be especially hostile."
  1272. > Nearing the gate, you're met by a soldier glowering down at you from behind a sandbagged post.
  1273. > "You have business here, ponies?"
  1274. "Yes, uh - we're trying to find a Captain Williams? He's, uh, an american I think he said?"
  1275. > That gets raised eyebrows from several of them; evidently the name of that nation wasn't unknown to you.
  1276. > "You want to talk to the american captain? Does he know you?"
  1277. "...sort of, uh..."
  1278. > Caravan helpfully pipes in here.
  1279. > "We were around when you big flying machine crashed. Williams said we could come back and check on how the pilot was doing - he was very badly hurt when we brought him here."
  1280. > Now recognition enters their eyes - if not for you, then for the incident in question.
  1281. > "We will call him. If he says yes, then you come in. If he says no, he does not know you, then you come in and stay a bit longer."
  1282. > Forcing the sudden burst of worry back down in your throat, you nod.
  1283.  
  1284. ACTION:
  1285. - "Can we just sit down somewhere for a while?"
  1286.  
  1287. "Oh... well, uh... can we just take a seat somewhere while we wait?"
  1288. > The soldier points to the ground in front of the gate.
  1289. > "What do you think this is, hotel? Wait here."
  1290. > Well, that's about what you expected, but even so.
  1291. > "...apparently, he does know you. He asks if this is necessary."
  1292. "Very. We think we found something he would be interested in."
  1293. > Another pause before they respond.
  1294. > "He sends some of his men to bring you in."
  1295. > In due time two soldiers appear in the distance, heading for the gate.
  1296. > Approaching the gate, they talk with the soldiers manning it for a moment - and then at last open it up to allow the three of you in.
  1297. > Before you can advance far one raises a hand to halt you.
  1298.  
  1299. > "Just a few rules before you guys go in, okay? Rule number one, you don't step away from where we guide you. You're following us, not free-range. Two, you do not touch anything without permission. Understand?"
  1300. > He doesn't need to comment on the implications of breaking a rule; the weapons carried by both speak enough to that.
  1301. > You quickly nod your asset, as do Caravan and Spark Flash.
  1302. > "Okay, final rule - you, with the horn."
  1303. > A strap-laden conical object is produced from the soldier's pocket.
  1304. > It takes a second for you realize what it is.
  1305. > "As long as you are on the perimeter, you are going to wear this cap. It will prevent you from using magic, but not hurt you."
  1306. > Spark hesitates for just a moment, but a look from you reinforces his choice.
  1307. > "Uh, okay. Put it on, then."
  1308. > Their movements are fumbling and uncertain; you get the feeling that this is not a procedure these soldiers have dealt with before.
  1309. > "Right, follow close. Jenner, take rear."
  1310. > "Affirmative."
  1311. > With that you are herded into a single-file line, with one soldier at the lead and the second bringing up the rear.
  1312. "So, uh... what's your name?"
  1313. > "I am Specialist Trevors. You're here because you pulled a couple of guys out of that plane that went down, right?"
  1314. > Technically speaking no, not this time - but close enough.
  1315. > At least he doesn't seem to know about the business with the theft.
  1316. "Yeah. We, lived - live, actually - pretty close to where it crashed."
  1317. > The small group lapses into silence except for the sound of boots and hooves on the hard-packed ground.
  1318. "You're, uh... you're 'americans', right?"
  1319. > "Yes. United States of America."
  1320. > United States?
  1321. > How does that work, you wonder - is that something like how the Crystal Empire relates to Equestria as a whole?
  1322. > He points to a patch on his shoulder, a flag with a tri-colored design of stars and bars.
  1323. > "Anything or anyone with this flag, is from the USA."
  1324.  
  1325. ACTION:
  1326. - Look around some as you walk.
  1327. - Ask about human internal politics.
  1328.  
  1329. > As you proceed further into the camp you try and take in all you can.
  1330. > It is fairly clear that you are in a portion of the base that is not considered particularly sensitive.
  1331. > Lines and lines of human trucks and other self-propelled carts - you still aren't sure how to differentiate them - stand waiting, a few with some soldiers working on them.
  1332. > More interesting is that they seem to have logically arranged them so that the heaviest, the kind that drove on continuous tracks, occupied the outermost lines.
  1333. > A show of force and power, or did they expect an assault that the heavily-armored ones would have to repel?
  1334. > What temporary buildings are about have universally had their windows covered over - if they have any at all.
  1335. > There is little you could not see from outside the outermost fence, and even less that is particularly interesting.
  1336. > "Hey! Keep moving, we're not on a scenic tour here."
  1337. > Even so, it seems, your glances about have attracted attention.
  1338. "Sorry, just... there's so many strange machines here. They're really interesting."
  1339. > "Just keep going."
  1340. > Though you pick up your pace, there is still much you can determine.
  1341. > The humans have been working busily, bringing in dozens of structures; some still show axles where wheels had been attached.
  1342. > Pavement replaces hard-packed earth as you proceed in further, with what you suspect are lamp-poles springing up out of the ground to carry wires between buildings.
  1343. > The complexity of the camp - assembled in only a few short days since you were last here - staggers you.
  1344. > Perhaps the rush to build it or the demands of military necessity could explain their apparent love for boxy, squared-off structures as well.
  1345. > Even in the Guard, barracks and training halls showed some level of difference to distinguish between them.
  1346.  
  1347. "So, uh... the, 'USA' you come from... how does that work? Is that like, all your nations put together?"
  1348. > A thought occurs to you even as you speak; maybe their planet was called 'america' and their 'united states' was the multi-country force they had put together?
  1349. > But no, the other soldiers had made it clear they were different than the 'americans'.
  1350. > "All our nations? No, that's just one nation. We, uh - it's like one nation, but each area in it governs itself to some degree."
  1351. > "Yeah, except those assholes in-"
  1352. > "Shut up, Jenner. Not now."
  1353. > Wonder what that was about?
  1354. "Is that like - uh, there's a place in the north called the Crystal Empire. It's kind of it's own place, but the Princess who rules it is related to ours so they're mostly like us."
  1355. > "Sounds more like you've got yourselves a colony, there. That's different - in the United States, all the states have an equal say in electing our leaders... sort of. It's complicated - based on population in each state."
  1356. "Wait... you elect all your leaders? Do all humans do this?"
  1357. > Some Diamond Dog tribes, you knew, operated in a pseudo-democratic form.
  1358. > Although there it often came down to who was liked the most and could round up the most muscle to keep the others in line.
  1359. > "Nah. Most places do, but some other countries, they still have kings and queens or stuff. Or whoever has the most guns is in charge."
  1360. "But... are you all allied, then?"
  1361. > "Hell, no! Well, almost everyone is part of the UN - that's the united nations - but we're also part of NATO and have a bunch of other alliances too."
  1362. > Why did humans have to be so confusing?
  1363. "Sounds complicated."
  1364. > "It is. Messy, too. I dunno how much it's like what you had here. Maybe you guys will have a real election once we finish rolling this up."
  1365. > Did they actually think enough ponies would vote against the princesses?
  1366. > Sure, everypony complained - but they were the princesses.
  1367. > They simply... were.
  1368. > ...that was before the war, though.
  1369.  
  1370. ACTION:
  1371. - Ask the soldiers about politics, disrupting the harmony, and the horn cap.
  1372.  
  1373. "So... you're not all allied, but you sometimes are?"
  1374. > "What do we look like, tour guides?"
  1375. > After a second though, the soldier - 'Trevors'? - goes on.
  1376. > "Yeah, it's kind of... they all get together at the UN and try to talk stuff over instead of fighting. Of course, it don't really do shit, but there you go."
  1377. "So... you argue a lot, then."
  1378. > "And have wars, yeah."
  1379. "Did you ever fight with... what do they call themselves? Polish?"
  1380. > "Poles, yeah. They're part of NATO too - that's the big alliance of countries we're part of. Used to be against us, and then the Soviets fell to bits and Poland switched to our side."
  1381. > "Yeah. Fuckin' commies, good thing we beat 'em."
  1382. > That was the soldier behind you.
  1383. > "Shut up, Jenner. Now's not the time."
  1384. > "What's a commie?"
  1385. > Caravan's question yields a groan from the leading soldier.
  1386. > "Communist. Kind of government. Used to be, we were locked in one big, long, mostly-not-fighting war against a bunch of countries that were communist."
  1387. "Oh... so, is that where all your alliances come from?"
  1388. > "Pretty much. Bunch of us, we got together and made NATO to hold the line against them. They mostly fell apart around thirty years ago, though."
  1389. > Only thirty years past and they had been caught in a conflict that large?
  1390. > No wonder they had become so fearful when the portal opened...
  1391. > Still, you can't say that, so instead you take a different tactic.
  1392. "That sounds sort of like our unification. We used to be three separate tribes, but then we unified to protect ourselves against the Windigoes."
  1393. > Jenner pipes up again.
  1394. > "Wendigoes? Ain't that some Australian shit?"
  1395. > "No, I think that's a native thing. You know, Indian."
  1396. "Wait... you have Windigos too?"
  1397. > "I dunno. I just remember hearing the name. Somebody probably used it for advertising or a sports team or something."
  1398. > Still, it's a startling question.
  1399.  
  1400. > If the human world once had Windigos - and had beaten them off as well, no less - then they might have once had magic.
  1401. > But then why didn't they now...?
  1402. > A horrible thought comes to your mind.
  1403. "We... heard something about you. I... I don't know if it's right, but... some ponies are saying you're disrupting the harmony of the land, breaking the magic."
  1404. > "Doubt that. Your magic seems to work perfectly fine from where we're standing."
  1405. > "Yeah. 'course we don' get half of how it works, so who knows, man."
  1406. "I don't. But, I mean, if you had Windigos then maybe you had magic... and if you don't now, then..."
  1407. > "Hey, we're still here, aren't we? And doin' just fine, despite all this."
  1408. "Guess you have a point... but, a lot of ponies are afraid. They think the magic in Equestria might get twisted by your being here."
  1409. > "Look."
  1410. > Trevors turns his head to look back at you from the corner of his eye.
  1411. > "It's been a hell of a confusing ride getting here. First we hear we're being invaded by aliens, then we're not, then we're invading them, except then you aren't actually evil but you're supposed to be mostly good, except then your princess can mess with our heads any time we can sleep..."
  1412. > He shrugs.
  1413. > "At a certain point we just gotta shut up and follow orders. The brass, they say you're not actually bad and it's just some of you, so we gotta play real nice. The way you pulled some of our guys out of that mess, I'd rather not bomb all of you."
  1414. "But the harmony-"
  1415. > "If us being here is messing with it that bad, then not sure what else can do."
  1416. > Doesn't seem like anything more they can tell you.
  1417. > Instead you turn to Spark.
  1418. "Hey... Spark, is that horn cap alright?"
  1419. > "Yeah, it feels... I can't cast anything and it kind of feels weird, but it doesn't hurt or anything. Just feels wrong."
  1420. > "It's not supposed to. Just cuts off your magic before it can form or something. What do you guys do with unicorns you want to keep from casting, anyhow?"
  1421.  
  1422. "There are magic sealing charms the police use. I guess the Guard would have as well - but that's more magic."
  1423. > "Figures, with you lot. Hold on, we're almost there."
  1424. > Damn, too close for you to really ask Spark the things you wanted to.
  1425. > Like, could he burn it off if he tried?
  1426. > Some magic-sealing charms could be undone with sufficient force.
  1427. > Could this?
  1428. > But, later.
  1429. > You're brought up to the inn you were held in before - now surrounded by dozens of alien structures - and hustled inside.
  1430. > Again directed to a room bare but for a table and several chairs, Trevors and Jenner sweep the room before heading back out the door.
  1431. > "Right, wait here. The captain will be along in a moment."
  1432. > And then, just for a second, you are alone with Caravan and Spark.
  1433.  
  1434. ACTION:
  1435. - Talk about Wendigo/Windigos, and pep talk.
  1436.  
  1437. > You let out a small breath of relief.
  1438. "...well, that went a lot better than it could have."
  1439. > Both nod.
  1440. > "You... you heard that business about them having Windigos, right?"
  1441. "Yeah, Spark. I'm not quite sure what to make of it."
  1442. > "There's something I heard..."
  1443. > Two heads turn to glance at Caravan.
  1444. "What do you mean?"
  1445. > "You hear how he was pronouncing it? Wen-digo? Not Wind-igo? It's subtle, but given how well the speak Equish otherwise..."
  1446. > You frown, shaking your head.
  1447. "It could just be a mistake. They said they only exist in the realm of myths and legends; who knows how the name might have changed?"
  1448. > "In that case, there's something else that's worrisome... humans couldn't possibly have lit their equivalent of the fires of friendship and forced them out. That soldier outright said they were fighting among each other not thirty years ago."
  1449. > Spark nods slowly.
  1450. > "What are you saying, Caravan?"
  1451. > "Well..."
  1452. > Caravan lays down, knitting his brow.
  1453. > "That leaves two logical options in my point of view. One, they outright killed the Windigos with their machines. Or two, their Windigos are still around, and they just don't realize it."
  1454. > Air itself seems to turn heavier in the aftermath of that pronouncement, as you all run through the implications of both possibilities
  1455. "You realize what you're saying, Caravan."
  1456. > He nods sharply, almost painfully quickly.
  1457. > "One the one hand, they might be capable of killing elemental spirits. On the other, they might be bringing them back to Equestria."
  1458. "The latter seems more likely... didn't the Windigos encourage strife and warring between the tribes?"
  1459. > "Feed on the hatred between them, actually. Haven't been to a Hearth's Warming play for a while, have you?"
  1460.  
  1461. "Only as a guard, and I'm usually not watching the stage then."
  1462. > A light grimace passes over Caravan's face.
  1463. > "Not much fun there."
  1464. "Yes - but anyhow, it might explain how warlike and fearful they are. What if the windigos are still influencing them? What if that's why they're disrupting the harmony of Equestria?"
  1465. > Spark shakes his head.
  1466. > "Nothing suggests that, though. They've not brought cold with them, or said anything about Equestria being warmer. They seem to be right at home here, and this is pretty far south."
  1467. "I know, Caravan, but... I don't know. Either way, if we can get another meeting with Princess Sparkle, she needs to know about this."
  1468. > You all go silent again, all weighed down by the conversation that had just occurred.
  1469. "...alright, look. We're doing well enough now. Spark... good job on not freaking out with the horn thing."
  1470. > "Thank you. I wasn't lying before - it feels weird, but not unpleasant."
  1471. "Good. Caravan... I don't think they could even invent something that could keep your magic tongue down. Good job as well."
  1472. > He just nods, looking troubled but not unhappy with you.
  1473. "Let's keep focusing on what we're here for. When he-"
  1474. > At that moment you're cut off by a door opening and Williams stepping in.
  1475. > He looks considerably better-off than the last time you saw him - not nearly as exhausted, and in far better shape.
  1476. > "Well. Didn't think I've be seeing you all again so soon."
  1477.  
  1478. ACTION:
  1479. - (In order): Say he's looking a lot better, ask about the crew you rescued, ask about your friends.
  1480.  
  1481. "Hello, Captain Williams You're actually looking a lot better."
  1482. > Williams seems slightly taken aback by your familiar tone - as if he was expecting you to be harsher with him, somehow.
  1483. > "Uh... well, thank you. I'm a little bit short on time, though, so if I can ask - what's brought you out here?"
  1484. "We've, uh... actually got a few reasons to be here, actually. Mostly, we came to check on our friends - though, uh, how are those two crew we rescued doing?"
  1485. > A slight smile flickers on Williams' face.
  1486. > "They're both recovering very well. Master Sergeant Delana is constantly awake and doing best."
  1487. > The fact that one is described as 'constantly awake' speaks volumes about how the other is, despite being 'recovering'.
  1488. "Ah... well, I don't suppose there would be a chance we could see them?"
  1489. > Williams frowns slightly, seeming to think.
  1490. > "If... you really wish to, I could look in to it. It might take some time, though..."
  1491. "Ah... I suppose that meeting our friends would similarly be a long shot."
  1492. > Another look passes over Williams' face.
  1493. > Curiously, it's not one of annoyance, but of pain or perhaps frustration.
  1494. > He seems to truly feel for you.
  1495. > "I... probably a long one. A very long one. They're not even in my hands anymore."
  1496. > Your face falls - and not altogether by choice either.
  1497. > Caravan speaks up next - and you keep quiet, allowing him to work his linguistic magic.
  1498. > "It would be really nice if we could even just see them..."
  1499. > "That's a tough one; they're in Polish custody now. If I really pushed I could maybe make something happen, but..."
  1500. "Wait... they're in someone else's custody, but you can still pull them?"
  1501. > Williams grimaces, running a hand through his thin hair.
  1502. > "It's... complicated. Look, you know we aren't exactly running this base, right?"
  1503. "Sort of? Uh, they're called 'poles' right?"
  1504. > "Polish, yeah. Anyway, they're really running things over here - so even if they're our prisoners technically, it's the polish boys who run the show."
  1505.  
  1506. > What a confusing way of running a camp.
  1507. > Williams must see your uncomprehending stare and shrugs lightly.
  1508. > "Sorry. I'd tell you more, but there's a lot of things I just can't say."
  1509. > That's a conversational stone wall if you've ever run into one.
  1510. "If you... if you saw a reason, though... you could still get them released."
  1511. > The confused look Williams gives you is matched only by a Caravan's warning glance in your direction.
  1512. > Seems this is now a match between the two.
  1513. > "I... could put in a request for the brass to review and if the reason is compelling enough..."
  1514. > "And if we could provide that compelling reason?"
  1515. > "Then... I guess so."
  1516. > Williams seems interested, but not quite believing that you have such a thing.
  1517. > "Look, if you want to cooperate there are programs. They even have protection, in case you're worried about other ponies being... hostile towards you. But that alone might not be enough."
  1518. > Caravan laughs softly.
  1519. > "Of course. Our working doesn't ensure they wouldn't do something again... but what if we could give you something bigger?"
  1520. > "How much bigger?"
  1521. > "Okay, so - we were looking around in the warehouses near our house. We found... some interesting stuff. You'd have to ask him-"
  1522. > Here Caravan directs a hoof towards you.
  1523. > "-how they work, but he says it's pegasi weather management gear."
  1524. > Seeing an opening for your own addition, you pipe up.
  1525. "Yeah. It looks like they ordered new ones for the city, but never put them in."
  1526. > "And you would recognize these because..."
  1527. > You just offer a small shrug.
  1528. > "Almost every Pegasus goes and visits the weather factory at some point. It's a point of pride. It's our duty, our role."
  1529. > "Okay."
  1530. > Williams nods, the gears turning in his head.
  1531. > "So, what happened to this equipment?"
  1532. > "We gave it away. To the soldiers you have guarding the dock. Somebody named Kosmatka - but, he wasn't willing to try and get our friends out either."
  1533. > "Then I don't really know-"
  1534.  
  1535. > "What if we could get you something bigger?"
  1536. > Caravan's question yields pause, then a single question from Williams.
  1537. > "How much bigger?"
  1538. > "How much is it worth?"
  1539. > Now Caravan is in full-on salespony mode.
  1540. > "If you're holding something back on us-"
  1541. > "Nothing yet. But I'm fairly certain I know where we can find something you lot would really like. We were right about the weather-creation gear, after all."
  1542. > "...I'm listening."
  1543.  
  1544. ACTION:
  1545. - Tell him about the focus.
  1546.  
  1547. "When we were showing the uh, Polish around that warehouse where the gear is... we saw something else."
  1548. > "Go on."
  1549. "Spark, you were the one who recognized it - what was it again?"
  1550. > Here Spark's nervousness actually comes in handy.
  1551. > It's absolutely fitting for the situation you face.
  1552. > "It's, uh... well, it's an arcane focus. They made a whole bunch of them before you came to the city."
  1553. > Williams folds his arms, his brows knitting and lips pursing in a thoughtful manner.
  1554. > "It's a weapon, you're saying."
  1555. > "Um... sort of? They just boost a unicorn's power. I saw one being used in a laboratory once, for high-energy magic research. But the guard was using them as weapons, yes."
  1556. > "That's interesting, but I'm not sure it could-"
  1557. > Caravan leaps into action again.
  1558. > "No, you don't get it. A focus like that, it's not like the weather machinery. It didn't just get left in a warehouse. They're expensive, rare... worth hiding."
  1559. > Realization dawns in Williams' eyes.
  1560. > "So a pony had to have put it there. Recently."
  1561. > In your head, too, it clicks what Caravan is attempting to do.
  1562. > Actually sell out ponies, he was entirely against.
  1563. > But he had effectively just sold a non-existent unit of guard, a force that would never arrive to collect their weapon.
  1564. "Exactly."
  1565. > After a pause, Williams dips his head in a slow nod.
  1566. > "You realize, of course, that this might be viewed as extremely suspicious. With you records, especially-"
  1567.  
  1568. > "We're not the Guard. There's proof - we were in a town called Easthock a few weeks back, a little trading place. Our homes - Sunny Fields and Trotsvale, they're around there. But things started getting unhappy there too; there was a riot."
  1569. > Watching Caravan string together your disparate stories is truly a thing to behold.
  1570. > "After things got bad there, we came here - maybe things would be better in a bigger city. We just want to live peacefully... we and our friends just want to be left alone."
  1571. > If not for the fact that he'd powerfully expressed views in the total opposite position to you, you'd have bought that speech in a moment.
  1572. > Williams seems to be taking it as well.
  1573. > "Is there proof you were where you said?"
  1574. "Yes. They did the, uh, the little hoof scanner thing. And we have our travel slip from there as well, though, uh... it says we were going home. Decided not to, though."
  1575. > It's a dangerous game Caravan plays, but you have no choice but to take part now.
  1576. > "...is it with you?"
  1577. > You start to nose into your saddlebags, but Williams stops you.
  1578. > "No, it's okay. I just wanted to know... okay, look. I'm not the one you should be talking to here. You just got sent to me the first time 'cause it was our plane that crashed."
  1579. > He leans forward, fingers knitting together.
  1580. > "But, if you pass on this information to that polish commander you mentioned and it's true? I will try and put a recommendation that your friends be released."
  1581. "...thank you."
  1582. > The sigh that rushes from your lungs is entirely unplanned.
  1583. "It's... hard to do this, you know? But... we have to. For our friends."
  1584.  
  1585. ACTION:
  1586. - Ask if you can see the pilot, if not leave.
  1587.  
  1588. "If it would be possible for us to go see Farow? That would be nice, if we could."
  1589. > Williams rubs his head slightly.
  1590. > "...I'll see what I can do, but the odds are no. If this does pull through, though, I'm sure the brass could arrange something. Hell, they'd probably want to make a big public-relations deal out of it."
  1591. > That sets an unwelcome feeling in your stomach.
  1592. > A quite visit is one thing, but a spectacle being made of it?
  1593. > You're all too aware that you are still dancing a narrow path between sufficiently pleasing the humans and remaining loyal to the Royal Guard.
  1594. > And you are not quite yet ready to simply dispose of the oaths that you took.
  1595. "That would be... um..."
  1596. > Williams seems to catch your uncertainty and nods slowly.
  1597. > "I'm sure you're concerned about being seen. We can cover for you there too. Don't worry."
  1598. "Okay. Well, in that case, could we go immediately over to the docks, show them where it is?"
  1599. > "Of course. If you wait here, I will get in contact with the Polish units - they'll take control of it from here."
  1600. > It turns out to be more than 'a few minutes', but you aren't worried.
  1601. > Less than an hour later, you are riding in the back of an armored cart once more as it rumbles through the streets.
  1602. > This time, Spark's horn is uncapped, though several of the human soldiers riding with you still look warily at it.
  1603. > Instead you all wear bright-neon-green cloth bands around one hoof - a signal, they said, so that their fellow soldiers would know you were here.
  1604. > Garish they may be - far more so than even the elaborate armor you had worn before - but they will definitely serve their purpose.
  1605. > Kosmatka is waiting for you when the trucks arrive.
  1606. > "I hear you have new treasure for me to take, yes?"
  1607. > You're about to answer, but something in his voice makes you hesitate.
  1608. > He's not pleased, you realize, that you were holding back on him.
  1609.  
  1610. > Fortunately Williams is the only one who really matters here, but it's still going to be important to step carefully.
  1611. "Caravan, you're on."
  1612. > "Uh, yeah... well, we only spotted it when we took you in there, but.. uh... we needed to check on our friends first."
  1613. > "You want to see your friends again, yes? Then you show us everything, and do not hide."
  1614. "Yes; we really, really want them freed, and if this is going to happen we needed to be sure first."
  1615. > "Then come. You show me."
  1616. > Fortunately the tarp has shifted slightly since you left the focus in the warehouse - by human action or something else you do not know.
  1617. > But it makes it easy enough for you to grab a corner in your mouth and leap into the air, pulling it back.
  1618. > On the opposite side, Spark lights his horn to do the same.
  1619. > "See? My friend says this is one of those things the Guard was using when they were fighting."
  1620. > Disassembled and its pieces stacked in a pile, the focus doesn't look like much.
  1621. > But there is no mistaking the soldiers' looks when you lift one section to reveal the gems set into it.
  1622. > "But you do not know who put it here, yes?"
  1623. > Caravan shakes his head, motioning towards Spark.
  1624. > "Spark Flash just saw it and recognized it. I don't think I would have even known what it was..."
  1625. > Kosmatka looks down to him.
  1626. > A scowl and a grin compete for attention on the human's face, the result being uniquely strange.
  1627. > "If you hold back information, then we have problem - you know, yes?"
  1628. > "Yes, I do... I swear I don't know anything more. But, somepony had to put it there. Somepony who knew what it was."
  1629. > Your ears swivel as something else catches your attention.
  1630. > Hooves, on the warehouse floor.
  1631. > A new set.
  1632. > Twisting, you catch another pegasus - this one wearing a helmet and jacket as well as a band about his hoof - entering.
  1633. > "My friend here, his name is Truenorth. He checked your weather machine, and he check this one."
  1634.  
  1635. ACTION:
  1636. - Ask about where he comes from, and what brought him to work for the humans.
  1637.  
  1638. > Truenorth trots over to the piled components of a focus, staring at it in confusion.
  1639. > "...what exactly is this supposed to be?"
  1640. > Spark pulls up next to him, nudging a section with one hoof.
  1641. > "An arcane focus, I think. You know, the ones the guard was using when the city was, uh-"
  1642. > He glances back to the human soldiers standing about.
  1643. > "When the fighting happened."
  1644. > "Ooooh."
  1645. > Truenorth's eyes grow wide.
  1646. > "Yeah, I can sort of see that - if you align this piece here, and here's the big bit that sticks up in front - yeah, if it isn't a focus it's something that looks a lot like one."
  1647. > Kosmatka grunts softly.
  1648. > "You are certain, yes?"
  1649. > Looking up at him, Truenorth nods more confidently - apparently are more at ease in working with the soldiers than you were.
  1650. > "Absolutely. If you find a unicorn who knows how to use one, I bet they could put it together for you."
  1651. > "Don't look at me."
  1652. > Spark shakes his head nervously, his mane whipping slightly as he does so.
  1653. > "I don't know much about these things - except that they were pulling them through the streets a while back."
  1654. > "Yeah."
  1655. > "Alright. It is not dangerous now, yes?"
  1656. > Truenorth pauses, then looks to Spark.
  1657. > He shrinks slightly, but answers:
  1658. > "Uh, I don't think so. Until it's assembled and somepony actually uses it, it's just a pile of gems, metal, and wood."
  1659. > The glare that Kosmatka shoots in his direction doesn't do anything good for Spark's self-confidence.
  1660. > "Hey, I'm not holding back on anything! This is all I know, okay!"
  1661. > Fortunately Truenorth steps between the two.
  1662. > "He's telling the truth, Major. There's nothing more he would know - these things aren't that commonly used."
  1663. > "He held back once. I wonder, does he do so again?"
  1664. > Caravan plays his part now, stepping up.
  1665.  
  1666. > "Hey, listen - you said you would give us a paper to get our friends free, but you just told us to wait. Can you blame us for wanting to be certain?"
  1667. > "I tell you to wait a day or two. Is this too much for you?"
  1668. > "You didn't give us anything, though - if you could give us something to show you are keeping your word, we would have been willing to wait."
  1669. > Kosmatka fixes Caravan with a glare, but he doesn't back down.
  1670. > "Okay. We get a truck to pull it out. You will wait here."
  1671. > Shuffled off to the side along with Truenorth, you at last speak directly to him - though keeping your voice low.
  1672. "So... you're from around here?"
  1673. > Watching the humans work, he nods.
  1674. > "Rainbow Falls, actually, but I've lived here for several years. Used to do mapping and play guide for traveling groups."
  1675. > He pauses, then adds quietly:
  1676. > "Not much of a business for that anymore..."
  1677. "I can imagine. I'm from Sunny Fields - east of here."
  1678. > Best to keep your story together.
  1679. > "A farming town?"
  1680. "Village, more like. You've been there?"
  1681. > Please, please, please don't let him be.
  1682. > Actually meeting somepony who'd visited Sunny Fields could be the end of you.
  1683. > "No. Heard of the place, though."
  1684. "Yeah, we didn't get out much... until all this hit."
  1685. > "Ah... yeah."
  1686. > Truenorth frowns, then glances over at you.
  1687. > "You know, it's nice to talk to somepony who isn't looking like they're about to bite my head off the whole time."
  1688. > Caravan blinks.
  1689. > "You get that a lot? Because of... your job?"
  1690. > "Yeah. But, what am I going to do? I'm a guide - it's my talent. No business from ponies anymore, but a stallion's got to eat..."
  1691. "...considering why we're here, I don't think we can rightly criticize you."
  1692. > An actual smile appears on Truenorth's muzzle.
  1693. > "That's a good point there. How'd you actually find it, by the way?"
  1694. "Is it that obvious?"
  1695. > Truenorth shrugs.
  1696. > "A hunch."
  1697. "Heh. Our basement flooded, so we broke in to look for a pump."
  1698. > Seeing the look shot at you, you shrug.
  1699.  
  1700. "Like you said, a pony's got to live."
  1701. > "Point there, I guess."
  1702. "Do you really get that much hostility for it? Your job, I mean."
  1703. > "You don't know the half of it. I had to move out of my apartment; somepony threw dung in the window."
  1704. > Urgh.
  1705. > Seeing your grimace, Truenorth nods.
  1706. > "They sleep a bunch of us in barracks now. Maybe, thirty ponies?"
  1707. "I can't imagine that's comfortable."
  1708. > Not if it was anything like the Guard's barracks.
  1709. > "It isn't. But it's a life."
  1710.  
  1711. ACTION:
  1712. - Ask him if the humans might allow the device to be used to heal your injured friend, as a demonstration.
  1713.  
  1714. "Hey, um... listen, do you think they would be interested in a demonstration of that focus?"
  1715. > "A demonstration?"
  1716. "Yeah... okay, so a friend of mine was hurt in the fighting, badly. But, they doctors said that some good healing magic could help her get better. Do you think...?"
  1717. > Truenorth frowns, shaking his head.
  1718. > "I very deeply doubt it. They're incredibly uncertain about magic, and as far as they know this thing is a weapon."
  1719. > Spark starts to say something that he probably shouldn't, but halts himself at the last second.
  1720. > "But... it isn't just a weapon, right?"
  1721. > "You'd have to ask a unicorn who knows about them; I don't."
  1722. "Could that be done? A unicorn doctor at Las Pegasus central hospital, maybe?"
  1723. > "...maybe. I can suggest it, but I don't know if they will listen.
  1724. > Truenorth shrugs.
  1725. > "I just help show them around."
  1726. "Look, if you could..."
  1727. > Another shrug.
  1728. > "I can present it to them. Uh, if you have some paper or something to write down your name?"
  1729. > You're interrupted by the squealing of tires as a truck pulls up to the warehouse, soldiers promptly getting busy carrying pieces of the focus onto the truck.
  1730. "...did they do this for the weather gear too?"
  1731. > "No, just wrapped it in a ton of chains and drove a pin into the floor to keep it there."
  1732. > They must actually be really worried about somepony using this thing.
  1733. > With the components loaded up and the truck pulling away, Kosmatka comes stomping back over.
  1734. > "You, pony. You are still saying where you were before, yes?"
  1735. > A finger is jabbed in your direction; you nod in agreement.
  1736. > "And you, with the horn?"
  1737. "The same. We all are, in the house I came to see you about."
  1738. > "Good. You not move without telling us; if we free your friends, they go back there."
  1739. > An unpleasant grin forms on Kosmatka's face.
  1740. > "If you lying to us, then we go back there."
  1741. > How delightful.
  1742. "We aren't. I promise."
  1743. > "Good. Then you go home; Truenorth come with-"
  1744.  
  1745. > "Ah, actually major sir, I... they suggested an idea I think you might be interested in. If your leaders want a demonstration of what the focus can do, then maybe we could arrange for it to be used to heal somepony? I know there are a lot of casualties-"
  1746. > Kosmatka bursts out laughing, shaking his head.
  1747. > "You think we are fools, maybe? No. Not having that thing anywhere here. Maybe they take it, maybe they use it in place far away. But not here."
  1748. > "But your commanders-"
  1749. > "What do you think they say? 'Hey, let us use strange magic thing in middle of big city?' Not happening."
  1750. > Damn, so much for that idea.
  1751. "Thank you anyhow, Truenorth. You tried."
  1752. > "It's okay. It was good to meet you."
  1753. > He offers all three of you a friendly, if slightly sad smile.
  1754. > "Good to see just another friendly face, trying to keep their heads above the clouds."
  1755. "You can say that again."
  1756. > Internally, you aren't so sure.
  1757. > Yes, Truenorth was probably doing the least-dangerous kind of cooperating he could, and he had every reason to do so.
  1758. > But still...
  1759. > Every instinct as a guardspony screams against working with the enemy for more than immediate gain.
  1760. "...come on, you two. We should go home."
  1761. > Arriving back at the house, you find Ornithea still steadily working away at the pump.
  1762. > Any pleasure in her appearance fades when you see her look, though.
  1763. "What happened?"
  1764. > "We had visitors. We're both okay, but... you should go inside and let Whispen explain it."
  1765. > She does, in fast clipped terms.
  1766. > "A pony was here today. A guard. Apparently we're under somepony named Key Stone now - and he wants us to be ready for another meeting in two days."
  1767. "Any idea why?
  1768. > "No, but I get the feeling they're planning something big."
  1769.  
  1770. ACTION:
  1771. - Go recover Hot Pot from the hospital.
  1772.  
  1773. > Right then and there you make a decision.
  1774. "I want to go get Hot Pot out of the hospital tomorrow."
  1775. > Everypony looks up at you in surprise.
  1776. > "Some reason in particular...?"
  1777. "Well, assuming she is well on her way to healing... frankly, they can't help her leg get better any faster. They're already overwhelmed."
  1778. > "That doesn't mean we should put her at risk."
  1779. > You shake your head at Caravan's comment.
  1780. "Actually, it's her being there that makes me worry she would be at risk. If things are about to heat up, what happens if they do another sweep? What happens if they find out she's a guard after they become mad?"
  1781. > "I..."
  1782. > He looks down, nodding.
  1783. > "I get your point. Okay. Will I be going with you again?"
  1784. "Absolutely. I'd like to take yourself and Ornithea again; it will be better if we always show up with the same group."
  1785. > "I'll go out and tell her."
  1786. > Spark trudges out the door again.
  1787. "And, Spark... you did well back there. It was good to have you along."
  1788. > He nods, seeming uncertain.
  1789. "Something you want to say?"
  1790. > "I'm... worried about things coming to a head. Between us and the humans, us and the rest of the guard... us and ourselves."
  1791. > Looking up at you, he sets his jaw in a grim line.
  1792. "We all are, Spark. Nothing wrong about that. But we're at least going to hear this situation out before making any heavy decisions."
  1793.  
  1794. You are now down to 20 days' food.
  1795.  
  1796. > The following morning is cool and clear.
  1797. > As had become your habit, you start off towards the hospital bright and early.
  1798. > This time somewhat slower, on account of the cart pulled behind you.
  1799. > If Hot Pot was coming with you, carrying her on your backs wasn't going to be an issue.
  1800. "...okay, let's find a spot a couple of blocks away and drop this cart there. Tie it to a lamp-post or something."
  1801. > The curfew had kept Las Pegasus' streetlamps from being regularly lit, but they still made excellent tying-up posts.
  1802.  
  1803. > Getting into the hospital doesn't prove any harder than it had before, although no less nerve-wracking either.
  1804. > In due time you knock on Hot Pot's door and peer in.
  1805. > An excited burst of motion greets your entrance.
  1806. > "Hey! Hey! They're back! Mister Caravan's back!"
  1807. > "Heya, Ruckus!"
  1808. > Caravan quickly takes to calming the hyperactive colt, allowing you proceed over to Hot Pot's bedside.
  1809. "Hey. you're looking a lot better."
  1810. > "Glad to hear it."
  1811. > She smiles, although there's something hidden behind her eyes.
  1812. > "I've started volunteering in the hospital kitchen. Gives me something to do, and Celestia knows they need help with what little they have down there."
  1813. > She's become thinner, you realize.
  1814. > The food looted from Tariff's warehouse had spoiled you; you'd never thought of how the rest of the city might be doing.
  1815. > Though if it had reached as far as the hospital...
  1816. > It doesn't take you long to repeat your trick from before, letting Hot Pot lean on somepony to walk from the room and find a nice, quiet spot to talk discreetly.
  1817. > Caravan had stayed behind to chat with Ruckus, but Ornithea remained to watch your back.
  1818.  
  1819. ACTION:
  1820. - Ask if she has heard anything about Quick Step
  1821.  
  1822. "Well, Hot Pot, honestly we're here because - if possible - I'd like to pull you out of this hospital."
  1823. > That catches her by surprise.
  1824. > "Out of the hospital? Why?"
  1825. > The look you shoot in her direction makes it abundantly clear that certain things simply cannot be discussed here, even if there isn't anypony within hearing range at the moment.
  1826. "Since it doesn't seem like they can't really offer any more assistance with your leg right now, we thought it would be a nice idea to just bring you home."
  1827. > Never mind that Hot Pot had never actually even been to the house that you took over.
  1828. > "Well, you'd have to talk to my doctor, but... I think they should let me out."
  1829. > Not even an invasion from another world could break the iron hoof doctors held over their patients, it seems.
  1830. "That sounds... agreeable. I'm sure Caravan can talk him into something."
  1831. > Waiting for a series of nurses to rush by, you continue on after they are well out or hearing range:
  1832. "Also, have you heard anything more about Quick Step?"
  1833. > Instantly her face darkens.
  1834. > "There's... a rumor going around the hospital. I heard it at the lunch lines."
  1835. "I'm not liking the sound of that."
  1836. > "Well, the rumor is that most of the prisoners in there are just the worst-wounded Royal Guards from the fighting here - the ones they needed our medicine to treat."
  1837. > Ornithea twists her head around, speaking up in a low tone.
  1838. > "Most of? I really don't like the sound of that."
  1839. > "Yeah. Allegedly, some of them... some of them are other prisoners, who are rotated in for no good reason. Sometimes they even come back again."
  1840. "...wait, that doesn't make any sense. Why wouldn't they just keep them in their camp? It's like... a million times harder to get in there."
  1841.  
  1842. > Seeing the strange look Hot Pot shoots in your direction, you shake your head.
  1843. "Long story."
  1844. > "...right. Well, anyway, I don't know why - but it spread like Parasprites at a banquet. Supposedly a doctor who was in there leaked it somehow, but most of the ponies who go in there are moved straight to their camp to treat the wounded they have there."
  1845. > You purse your lips, thinking it over.
  1846. "On the one hand I don't understand why, but on the other... why couldn't they want them in their camp?"
  1847. > "I wish I knew. The only thing I can think of is that ponies are somehow getting terribly hurt in their camp - but if what we went through in Easthock is anything to judge by, how?"
  1848. > It is true, there wasn't much in the way of a chance to get out there.
  1849. > Fences kept everypony in - except for flying.
  1850. > But you hadn't heard of any pegasi shot down by their weapons lately, and in any case you severely doubted those would merely wound.
  1851. "...okay, putting that aside for a moment - anything about Quick in particular?"
  1852. > "I wish... I've not heard anything."
  1853. > Something about this just feels utterly wrong to you.
  1854. > Ponies getting hurt?
  1855. > Ornithea's birds finding more imprisoned guards being forced to treat the wounded in there?
  1856. > It just doesn't add up.
  1857.  
  1858. ACTION:
  1859. - Accompany Ornithea to pick up where she left off last time, scouting with her birds.
  1860.  
  1861. "Alright. Let's get you back to your room, and then Ornithea and I are going to take a quick look around. Uh, if Caravan is there, tell him to go finding your doctor at some point and see about getting you out."
  1862. > Soon enough Ornithea and yourself tread across the grass outside the hotel, warily watching the soldiers on patrol out of the corner of your eye.
  1863. "Okay, Ornithea. Work your magic."
  1864. > It's truly remarkable to see a pony festooned by brightly-colored birds of every variety, but Ornithea is soon exactly that.
  1865. > Despite the feathers adorning your own wings, you do not understand one bit of how she communicates with them.
  1866.  
  1867. > So instead you hang back, taking your time as a watchpony for any dangers.
  1868. "Ornithea, you getting anything?"
  1869. > "They think Quick Step is still here. I asked them last time to keep an eye out for him, and a few say they think they saw him."
  1870. > That certainly brightens your mood; at least Quick Step being alive and knowing where he is would be a good change.
  1871. "Excellent. Can you ask them to be sure?"
  1872. > How she does it you will never know, but Ornithea nods her assent.
  1873. > "They're doing so right now - if they can agree on which room he's in. Birds argue a lot, you know..."
  1874. > No, you hadn't.
  1875. > But soon enough a pair of jays swoop back to land amid Ornithea's mane and twitter in her ear.
  1876. > "...yes, he's in there. Or, somepony who looks like him, anyhow. They say he's tied to the bed, but is not crying or yelling."
  1877. > About what could be expected from a wounded prisoner, really.
  1878. "Okay. I guess that's the best-"
  1879. > "Um... there is... one other thing? I could try and get some of the birds to try and carry a little message up to the window for him..."
  1880. > A message?
  1881. > A message would be welcome.
  1882. > But how would he read it?
  1883. > All the windows had thick covers bound over them, and those on the ground floor bars welded into place to cover them.
  1884. > Even holding up paper to the glass - if it could be done - would not be readable...
  1885. > ...unless you could tear the covering from the window for a moment or two.
  1886. > A unicorn could do that, probably.
  1887. > But where to get one willing to help...
  1888.  
  1889. ACTION:
  1890. - Forget the whole thing for now. Try to get a message through another time.
  1891.  
  1892. > The return to the now-familiar path back to Hot Pot's room is almost welcome.
  1893. > It's bringing you out of danger.
  1894. > If not for the fact that Quick Step was still trapped somewhere not a few hundred feet away from you, it'd be almost pleasant.
  1895.  
  1896. > But that little discovery has soured any potentially happiness.
  1897. > Emerging into the room, you find that Caravan is absent - though Hot Pot looks up when you enter.
  1898. > "He went to go find the doctor."
  1899. "Good."
  1900. > Your clipped tone raises an eyebrow from her, but she seems to take it in stride.
  1901. > "...if we do go, I'll have to lean on you until we get outside."
  1902. "We have a cart to bring you back home."
  1903. > "Actually, uh... if it's not to bad, I'd like to maybe fly a little bit?"
  1904. > She flaps her wings twice, smiling sheepishly.
  1905. > "It's been far too long since I was actually able to do more than hover a few feet...
  1906. > All at once your foul mood is dispelled.
  1907. > Some commander you had been, taking out your emotions on a subordinate.
  1908. "...yeah. Sorry, just... saw something bad down there."
  1909. > Concern knits Hot Pot's brow.
  1910. > "It is...?"
  1911. > You look around at the others inhabiting the room - namely Ruckus.
  1912. > The colt watches you mutely, but with wide eyes.
  1913. "Later, Hot Pot. And yeah, I'll go flying with you. Keep an eye on you."
  1914. > "Thank you!"
  1915. > Caravan, it seems, had worked his linguistic magic again.
  1916. > The doctor, when he arrives, agrees to allow you to take Hot Pot home... with one caveat.
  1917. > She is to stay off the leg at as much as absolutely possible.
  1918. > Her wounds, while nominally healing, might still re-open if strained... to say nothing of what might happen to her still-healing muscles.
  1919. > And just like that, Hot Pot is condemned to further bed rest for least two weeks more - at which point she is to be brought back.
  1920. > Considering how things are going, you wonder if that will be a possibility in two weeks.
  1921. > Trotting out the front door of the hospital, Hot Pot's wings twitch in expectation of taking flight.
  1922. > She still thinks to check with you for clearance, though.
  1923. "As soon as we're away from the hospital."
  1924. > Soon enough both of you are sweeping through the air.
  1925.  
  1926. > Even keeping below the roof tops it is a liberating feeling; you can only imagine how it feels for her.
  1927. > It almost seems like-
  1928. > A low rumbling reaches your ears, backed by a rising dust cloud a few blocks to your right.
  1929. "...that doesn't look good."
  1930.  
  1931. ACTION:
  1932. - Send Caravan and Hot Pot home, take Ornithea and investigate.
  1933.  
  1934. "Ornithea, let's get down now."
  1935. > "On it."
  1936. > Her time spent in the hospital hasn't done anything for her professional tone.
  1937. > Touching down tenderly on the cart, she checks her leg again before laying down to protect it.
  1938. > "What was that?"
  1939. "Wish I knew, Caravan. You take Hot Pot home; Ornithea, come on."
  1940. > Keeping to the ground, the two of you canter over towards the direction.
  1941. > Not three blocks later, you turn a corner - and quickly slam yourself back against the wall, eyes wide.
  1942. > Not quite believing what you just saw.
  1943. > "What is it?"
  1944. "I... I think someone must've just collapsed a building on one of their patrols."
  1945. > Ornithea's eyes widen.
  1946. > "You're joking."
  1947. "I wish. Can you get a bird in there...?"
  1948. > She looks around... then shakes her head.
  1949. > "They've all fled. I can't see any who would listen."
  1950. "Damn."
  1951. > Peering around the corner again - more carefully this time - you estimate that it must've happened about a block and a half down.
  1952. > Rubble fills the street, half covering one of their lighter armored carts - and from the way soldiers swarm around it, probably other humans as well.
  1953. "I don't believe it... an accident, or...?"
  1954. > Ornithea shakes her head.
  1955. > "I don't think so."
  1956. "Neither do I, really."
  1957. > Other ponies are gathering around too, though none particularly close.
  1958. > Yells echo down the street - some of anger, some of pain, most simply of orders.
  1959.  
  1960. ACTION:
  1961. - Leave
  1962.  
  1963. "Come on, Ornithea. I don't think we should be staying around he-"
  1964. > You're interrupted as a series of flying objects sail from a nearby rooftop, exploding into flame as they land among the wreckage.
  1965. > "Firebombs! Firebombs!"
  1966. > Somepony yells out, the crowd scattering around you.
  1967. > The two of you are no exception.
  1968. > Joining the madly-fleeing ponies, you hear a series of pops from behind you as the humans' weapons begin to fire.
  1969. > "Are they-?!"
  1970. "Not at us! I can't hear anything coming this way!"
  1971. > Thank Celestia you hadn't brought Hot Pot into this mess.
  1972. > "What now?"
  1973. "Keep running. We don't want to be part of this."
  1974. > Only five blocks further do you halt, having had to clear the streets to allow a human patrol to rush in the opposite direction.
  1975. > Falling from a gallop to a fast walk, you grimace.
  1976. > Ornithea seems outright uncertain, the sudden fighting having come as a shock after so long without actual battle.
  1977. > "Was that-"
  1978. "Later. Not now."
  1979. > Focusing your breathing to keep yourself steady, you take a breath.
  1980. "...we need to get home. Come on, let's hurry."
  1981. > Double-timing it back to the dockyard, you enter without trouble and soon find yourself closing the front door behind you.
  1982. > "...sir, was that...?"
  1983. > "What happened?"
  1984. > Whispen had seen you arrive, clearly somewhat winded and worried looking.
  1985. "Ambush on a human patrol. They collapsed a building onto the road, then tried to set it all on fire."
  1986. > "Sweet Celestia..."
  1987. "I know."
  1988.  
  1989. > Ornithea turns to face you again, repeating her question.
  1990. > "Do you think that was what the meeting tomorrow was about...?"
  1991. "I heavily doubt it. It sounds like they want us to plan, not to fight - and this is a day early."
  1992. > Caravan nods from his seat on the couch.
  1993. > "Besides, Princess Sparkle's plan was to hit their supply convoys outside of the city, not attack patrols inside it."
  1994. "Not to mention... fighting with fire like that..."
  1995. > You shudder softly.
  1996.  
  1997. [At this point quads triggered a random event.]
  1998. ACTION:
  1999. - Wait an hour, then send Caravan to investigate while we go talk to Fairweather.
  2000.  
  2001. "Okay. Caravan, you're good at talking fast. Go back to that area, you remember roughly where it was?"
  2002. > "About halfway between twenty-third and twenty fourth, yeah?"
  2003. "Yes, a couple of blocks east. You go, just linger around a bit and see what's going on. See if you can find anything."
  2004. > "Got it. Now?"
  2005. "No, wait a little bit. An hour or so. You should still have plenty of time. Whispen, take control of this group here."
  2006. > "Where are you going?"
  2007. "To see Fairweather. I want to know if this was their doing - and if not, let him know about it."
  2008. > Spark frowns slightly.
  2009. > "Could it wait until tomorrow?"
  2010. "I don't think so. If this is what we're getting into, I want to know."
  2011. > The streets, when you finally set out, have an entirely new kind of nervous energy running in them.
  2012. > News of the attack has spread farther than any explosion could, and hit just as hard.
  2013. > Ponies rush by, cringing back from patrols.
  2014. > The humans have changed too.
  2015. > What few foot patrols you do see are obviously far more on edge.
  2016. > Where they had previously all but strolled through the streets, sometimes chatting with ponies, they now move cautiously with weapons held tight.
  2017. > You'd wished you could fly - it would make the journey so much faster - but with the patrols on edge it seems to be a bad idea.
  2018. > Instead you advance to a full gallop any time any are out of sight.
  2019. > Fairweather seems suspicious when you first appear at his door, breathing hard, but quickly lets you in.
  2020. > "Did you hear what happened? It's turned everypony worried."
  2021. "Hear it? I was practically at it!"
  2022. > "Which one?"
  2023. "Between twenty-third and-"
  2024. > Your breath catches, answer coming up short.
  2025. "What do you mean, which one?"
  2026. > "There were four. More or less simultaneous, it had to be planned."
  2027. "Fairweather, was this us?"
  2028.  
  2029. > "If it was, I wasn't told about it. The meeting tomorrow - you can get the early version, it's just to get the plan for the attack laid out."
  2030. > You release a sigh of badly-needed relief.
  2031. "I was worried... you know, with how desperate things were getting, that somepony might have decided we needed to move now."
  2032. > "Absolutely not."
  2033. > Fairweather shakes his head emphatically.
  2034. > "Whoever did this, it wasn't in any of the guard's plans."
  2035. "...thank you. Alright, I'll be at the meeting tomorrow, then."
  2036. > "See you then, and be safe."
  2037. "You as well."
  2038. > Seeing yourself out, your trip back to the dockyards is made at a considerable more reasonable pace.
  2039. > You arrive before Caravan, who comes charging back earlier than expected.
  2040. "...woah, you're early."
  2041. > "Sorry... had to... keep running... couldn't throw him off..."
  2042. > Fear clenches your stomach.
  2043. "Throw them off? Caravan, what in Celestia's name did you do? Do we need to leave now?"
  2044. > "No! No. Not... not human. Not human."
  2045. > That allows the fear to fade a little bit.
  2046. > "What did happen, then?"
  2047. > Whispen had propped herself up on a cushion, eyebrows knitted.
  2048. > "Spotted him... just hanging around a side street. Watching... watching the whole thing real intently."
  2049. > Caravan's story becomes more understandable as he catches his breath.
  2050. > "Didn't think much of it, at first... but then I noticed, he stank of lamp oil. So I thought, lamp oil? In the middle of the day? Maybe he was in on that thing... but I got top close, he recognized me and started following."
  2051. > "...and you came running back here?"
  2052. > "Yeah... didn't want to confront him alone, not a good time."
  2053. > The immediate fear of arrest and imprisonment has been replaced by a far, far colder worry.
  2054. > Even so you keep quiet as Whispen speaks up again.
  2055. > "How far were you followed? To here, or...?"
  2056. > "Just the dockyard gates, I think. He couldn't get past the soldiers."
  2057. > Spark frowns deeply.
  2058. > "That's still very close."
  2059.  
  2060. "Caravan... who is 'he'? Who was this?"
  2061. > "Who?"
  2062. > Caravan laughs aloud - a bitter laugh.
  2063. > "Copper fucking Cog, that's who."
  2064.  
  2065. ACTION:
  2066. - "Get those hoofblades out, nobody goes unarmed anymore, nobody goes alone either. and if you get a good chance. Don't hesitate."
  2067.  
  2068. > The silence in the room becomes crushing.
  2069. > Eventually Whispen manages to splutter out.
  2070. > "Copper Cog?! They let him out?!"
  2071. > Caravan shakes his head.
  2072. > "Or he broke out. Or the humans did, not realizing why he was locked up. I don't know, but it was definitely him."
  2073. > Multiple sets of eyes turn to you.
  2074. > "What now? He probably knows-"
  2075. "Of course he knows. I'm willing to bet him or his buddies are going to be watching us soon as well."
  2076. > "Buddies?"
  2077. > Ornithea gives you a sharp look.
  2078. > "What buddies?"
  2079. "Fairweather said the attack we saw was only one of four. Same thing, all four places - collapsed old buildings on them, then threw firebombs in."
  2080. > Spark shakes his head disbelievingly.
  2081. > "What a colt. Loves fire even more than me, and it's my talent."
  2082. "The bigger problem than the fire, is that more than one pony must have been in on this - at least eight, I would guess; two to each attack."
  2083. > Whispen nods slowly.
  2084. > "One to drop the building, one to throw the firebombs."
  2085. > Somepony mutters a stifled curse.
  2086. "Yeah. So, I don't know if Copper's leading that bunch or just another fighter for them - but it's more than just him alone."
  2087. > "So if he does confront us..."
  2088. "Ornithea, are those hoofblades still around here somewhere?"
  2089. > "Yes, the humans left them behind. I don't know why."
  2090. > Small mercies, you suppose.
  2091. > Hoof-fixed blades of varying types were commonly used for everything from chopping food to forestry; it's possible they simply hadn't recognized them or weapons.
  2092. > Or, more likely, figured they were simply shipworker's tools of some kind, along with the dozens of other somewhat vicious-looking tools stored in the house.
  2093. "Okay, get them out. From this point on, nopony goes out alone and nopony goes out unarmed. Hide them in our saddlebags, to keep them out of sight, but it's possible he will go after us."
  2094. > "So, wait..."
  2095. > Caravan raises a hoof.
  2096.  
  2097. > "Are we certain this wasn't another branch of the Guard hiding? Because if this turns into a fight between us and other Guards, it's going to be ugly..."
  2098. "It might be, it's possible. But, Fairweather didn't seem to know anything about it. We can ask at the meeting tomorrow."
  2099. > That seems to mollify him for now.
  2100. "I'm sure we all realize the bigger implications of this. Somepony just got the jump on us pulling off an attack first, and every pony and human in the city noticed."
  2101. > You look around them, trying to get a judge on how each pony feels as you continue.
  2102. "The long-term risk is that others will pick up these methods - picking fights in the middle of civilian areas - and that the humans will become correspondingly aggressive as well."
  2103. > "If they do..."
  2104. > Spark shudders softly.
  2105. "I know. More immediate, though, is that we are in danger. We need to figure out how to deal with him."
  2106. > "What about the humans?"
  2107. > Caravan points in the direction of the warehouse you'd been in the previous day.
  2108. > "Lure him in, get them to arrest him?"
  2109. > To be honest, you had not seen that coming from Caravan.
  2110. > He notes the surprised looks being thrown in his direction and shrugs.
  2111. > "He's a murderer - or attempted, anyway - of fellow guards. I have no sympathy for him."
  2112. "It's an idea. If nothing else, it would convince the humans that we're no a threat and maybe worth returning the others... but also risky."
  2113. > Whispen nods in agreement.
  2114. > "Even aside from Copper Cog ratting us out if he sees us, we would have to answer questions of how we knew."
  2115. > "What about the Changelings?"
  2116. > Spark Flash's voice is so quiet that you barely hear him.
  2117. > You definitely hear the shriek that comes next.
  2118. > "CHANGELINGS?!"
  2119. > Oh yeah.
  2120. > You'd forgotten to mention that bit to Hot Pot.
  2121. > After a great deal of calming down, she finally accepts what you'd done.
  2122. "They... are an option, but..."
  2123. > You shudder heavily, stomach churning.
  2124.  
  2125. "Even if he is an attempted murderer, and even if ponies have been recovered safely from Changeling captivity... I don't think I can be comfortable doing that to anypony."
  2126. > "He may try to murder us too."
  2127. "I know. I don't like any way forward, though. In the meantime, I need to know who I am taking with me to the meeting tomorrow."
  2128.  
  2129. ACTION:
  2130. - Take Caravan to the meeting tomorrow.
  2131.  
  2132. "Caravan, you'll come with me to the meeting tomorrow. Whispen, you'll be in command here."
  2133. > "Got it."
  2134. "Right."
  2135. > You take a sharp breath.
  2136. "As much as I want to deal with Copper Cog right now, we have bigger issues. If nothing else, we need to be at that meeting to let them know how dangerous Copper is."
  2137. > That nets you several sharp nods of agreement.
  2138. "Then for now, let's go get some food in our stomachs."
  2139. > The following morning sees you head out early.
  2140. > Keeping your eyes sharp and heads turning for any potential pursuers, you find that however far Copper got the previous day he apparently hasn't returned.
  2141. > You're quickly let into Fairweather's residence once you confirm who you are, finding around seven ponies there in total.
  2142. > One of them is Keystone the new pony you are directly under.
  2143. > He turns out to be a curt earth pony who nods sharply to you before turning back to listen to Fairweather.
  2144. > "...Night Watch, Keystone, Summit - okay, looks like we're all here."
  2145. > Fairweather struts back and forth between you.
  2146. > "Princess Sparkle has left the city, but we are still going to try and carry out her plans as best we can in her absence."
  2147. > Taking a small portion of sand from a bag, he begins to sprinkle it on the table - forming the outlines of the city and surrounding territory in the golden powder.
  2148. > "We've got a good position for an ambush on their next convoy through. Scouts have apparently been out to look at it already."
  2149. > Two sticks are laid out - presumably the route the road goes on.
  2150. > "We're going to put about four squads - uh, thirty ponies - on the first ambush wave. You job is just to stop the carts."
  2151. > Several pebbles are laid down.
  2152. > "Once we do that, they'll be hit from the opposite side by another group, probably a little larger."
  2153. "...how are we supposed to get out of the city unseen?"
  2154.  
  2155. > "Some friends are apparently working on a new way to get us in and out safely, but for now -"
  2156. > Fairweather cracks a grin.
  2157. > "-we don't. The humans have been looking for ponies to tend to the land around the city; over the course of three days we will slip out while taking the place of workers."
  2158. > Somepony else raises a hoof.
  2159. > "They'll notice that. They've got to."
  2160. > "I don't doubt that. But I also doubt they can stop their supplies based on a few tens of ponies going missing. If they do, our job is even easier - we've 'won' without lifting a hoof to fight.'
  2161. "...so, some of us are going to be out early and wait a bit. What about back in?"
  2162. > "That's easy. As soon as things get bad, we break - head back to the city, act like panicked farmers who heard the fighting."
  2163. > "What about support? Heavy weapons? I heard the princess promised us something."
  2164. > Fairweather nods.
  2165. > "She did, but there's a lot I can't - or won't - say right now. It's just safer that way."
  2166. > The pronouncement leads to a heavy bit of grumbling, but nopony speaks against him.
  2167. > "Suffice to say, I have seen the details... and I think we have a good chance at success."
  2168. > "They're lax."
  2169. > That's Keystone, speaking up at last with a low, rumbling voice.
  2170. > "They've forgotten that we might fight here. It will cost them."
  2171. > A few heads nod in agreement with him.
  2172.  
  2173. ACTION:
  2174. - Tell them about Copper and warn that the human forces may not be as lax as they seem.
  2175.  
  2176. "If I may add something, Fairweather?"
  2177. > "Go ahead."
  2178. "There's one major issue with all these plans. I'm sure we all heard about the attacks yesterday?"
  2179. > A round of nods from the other ponies present, one speaking up.
  2180. > "Best estimate I heard was twelve humans dead."
  2181. "Right. Twelve dead. I realize it's not much compared to the losses we've taken, but it's a shock to them. They're going to be on alert now."
  2182. > Before anypony else can speak up, you continue:
  2183. "It's not just that. I had one of my ponies investigating one of the attacks yesterday, and he spotted something. Caravan?"
  2184. > Stepping forward, Caravan looks around before beginning to speak.
  2185. > "I was observing the wreckage from the attacks at a distance when I noticed a particular pony smelled strongly of lamp oil. Considering that it was mid-afternoon, I considered this suspicious, and approached to investigate."
  2186. > Now he has all the ponies' attention.
  2187. > "When I got a bit closer, he recognized and began to pursue me. The pony's name is Copper Cog, a former member of my unit."
  2188. "I would add here that Copper Cog was separated and imprisoned prior to Los Pegasus being seized after he tried to burn two my unit's members to death."
  2189. > Visible shock runs around the room.
  2190. > "Can you be sure of what happened?"
  2191. "Absolutely. Two Night Guard were assigned to me on a previous operation; Copper Cog blamed them as an organization and a subspecies for the loss of his former unit."
  2192. > Caravan joins back in as well, continuing:
  2193. > "He admitted to his actions and expressed the belief that we would be better off without the Night Guard, because they had retreated during some of the early battles."
  2194. "The point is, if this attack was not performed by the remnants that we are coordinating with, then there may be another organization in the city - one with views Copper Cog found more agreeable."
  2195.  
  2196. > You fix Fairweather with a heavy look.
  2197. "I don't think I need to elaborate why an organization that is appreciated by a pony who tried to murder his fellow guards for complying with an ordered retreat would be worrisome."
  2198. > "Not to mention, what they did will have already put the humans on alert that there's a coordinated force in the city."
  2199. > The story seems to have severely discomforted several of the other guards present.
  2200. > Fairweather nods slowly, grimacing.
  2201. > "You have a point. I had a suspicion that there was going to be some sort of diversionary action to keep the heat off of us, but after this..."
  2202. > One pony raises a hoof.
  2203. > "What about those tunnels you mentioned?"
  2204. > "The tunnels are taking a while, and aren't going to be ready for this. I wouldn't expect them to be ready for a good while - our friends are not Diamond Dogs."
  2205. > Must be the Changelings, then.
  2206. "Can you pass this up to whoever is running things here?":
  2207. > "Yes. If they do decide to go ahead..."
  2208. > He rubs a hoof along his cheek.
  2209. > "...make contact again in three days. That's when we plan to start moving out. I hope to have an answer by then."
  2210. "Understood."
  2211. > "Understood."
  2212. > "Understood."
  2213.  
  2214. ACTION:
  2215. - Wait until everyone else leaves and ask Fairweather how he feels about all this.
  2216.  
  2217. > "I realize the plan may seem... risky. Ludicrous, even. But I will also ask you to trust in me that I will not send you out to die meaninglessly after we survived this far."
  2218. > Somepony mutters something quietly:
  2219. > "No, instead we just die with meaning."
  2220. > Sweeping his gaze sharply over the crowd, Fairweather seems unable to determine who spoke it.
  2221. > Truthfully, you aren't sure either.
  2222. > "Well, then. If there are no other questions, we will pass out your designated form-up locations for three days from now."
  2223. > "What about this other bunch of ponies going after them?"
  2224. > Fairweather grimaces.
  2225. > "If any of you do run into them, suggest that they should get back under our command... but do not reveal operational details."
  2226. > "Understood."
  2227. "If I could have a word, sir...?"
  2228. > Nodding, Fairweather waits until the others head out.
  2229. > One pony - a brick-red unicorn, probably his second-in-command, remains in the room behind him.
  2230. "I'm... not doubting that things are desperate. But... with all due respect to the Princess, this plan seems to have more holes in it than a changeling."
  2231. > "I know. And, by the way, your friends have been very helpful. Not the fastest tunnel-diggers in Equestria, but very good work they do."
  2232. > A slight shake of Fairweather's head seems mixed between regret and surprise.
  2233. > "A pity it took this to make them see that working with us is better... regardless, you have a point. This is not the most solid plan."
  2234. "...I don't want to put my ponies' lives at risk for nothing, sir."
  2235. > "Neither do I."
  2236. > Caravan steps up beside you.
  2237. > "Do you mind if I tell him...?"
  2238. > He doesn't need to explain what.
  2239. "Yes. Go ahead."
  2240.  
  2241. > Looking back to Fairweather, Caravan nods.
  2242. > "Sir, there's... there's a great deal of concern among the other guardsponies I've talked to lately. That we're just going to be costing lives and provoking the humans for nothing."
  2243. > Fairweather doesn't interrupt or halt him, but continues listening intently to Caravan.
  2244. > "If it's not wrong to say, sir... morale is low, and the risk of desertion or defection to other groups is very real - especially if something goes wrong here."
  2245. > What is most impressive is that Caravan remains perfectly calm while saying this.
  2246. > There's not a hint of any sign he might be worried or offput by what he has to say.
  2247. > "I, more than any pony, want to uphold the oath I took when I became a guard, and I will stand ready to do my part... but if we fail here, it will cost us more than lives lost in combat."
  2248. > "I'm aware."
  2249. > Moving to settle into the room's sole seat, Fairweather lets out a heavy sigh.
  2250. > "I'm very aware. What hurts me the most is that I can't tell you everything."
  2251. "...please don't say that we were actually related to that incident yesterday, sir."
  2252. > "No. We weren't. But there is another portion of this plan: While we target the convoy, another group will be pulling a diversionary operation to stir up chaos and give us a fair bit of cover. After that, we will have the tunnels to work with."
  2253. "And this wasn't worth mentioning? The value in morale alone-"
  2254. > "How much would it take, Airpony? One of us taken, a building searched at a bad time? I can't take that risk."
  2255. > For the first time you realize how torn Fairweather is - between his desire to treat you and the other ponies he now leads fairly, and to preserve the operation as best he can.
  2256. > The briefest bit of sympathy grows in you.
  2257. "And if it doesn't work?"
  2258. > "Then... I don't know."
  2259.  
  2260. ACTION:
  2261. - Ask Fairweather if he has been pressured into planning the ambush, and mention the windigos/wendigos.
  2262.  
  2263. "Sir... if it's not impertinent to ask, was there a lot of pressure to go ahead with this...?"
  2264. > Fairweather fixes you with a sharp look, nostrils flaring.
  2265. > "I received an order, Airpony. Unless you've forgotten, we are still members of the Royal Guard. We still obey the chain of command."
  2266. "I realize, sir, but in my years of service I have never been asked to do something like this."
  2267. > "Neither have I. It's not going to be easy,even if we had the best conditions..."
  2268. > He pauses, picking his next words carefully.
  2269. > "I do not believe Princess Twilight would have asked us to do this if she believed that it was a hopeless effort. And I don't think she will."
  2270. > Does he mean he expects the attack to be cancelled?
  2271. > You do not ask.
  2272. > "With that said, I would ask you to remember that not all the information is being shared freely with every element of this operation. There may be things going on that we are not privy to yet."
  2273. > Nodding slightly, you swallow your concern.
  2274. "I understand, sir. I will keep that in mind."
  2275. > "Good."
  2276. "There's... one other thing before I go, though. Something important, about the humans."
  2277. > Tilting his head slightly, Fairweather shoots a curious look in your direction.
  2278. > "Go ahead."
  2279. "I've been having my ponies speak with them to keep up our cover, and at one point we were telling them the Hearth's Warming story. Sir, they recognized the windigos."
  2280. > "...what?"
  2281.  
  2282. > He does't seem to quite believe it, but Caravan steps up and adds his own voice.
  2283. > "I was there as well. They pronounced the name slightly differently, but apparently they have some kind of record or story of them as well."
  2284. > "Just a story?"
  2285. "Yes. Nothing recently - one of them commented he thought it might have been reused as the name of a sports team."
  2286. > Fairweather looks slightly slack-jawed, nodding.
  2287. > He, too, must realize the full implications of what this means.
  2288. > "...I can't speak to Princess Sparkle immediately, but there are ponies who can reach her. I will pass that on."
  2289. "Understood, sir."
  2290. > "And... good job."
  2291. > Saluting, you turn to the exit.
  2292.  
  2293. ACTION:
  2294. - Go tell the Changelings about Copper.
  2295.  
  2296. > Departing from the safehouse, you glance around the street.
  2297. > It seems clear for now, no human patrols in sight.
  2298. "...right. I guess we should go pay our favorite barmaid a visit."
  2299. > Caravan pulls up alongside you as you trot along, speaking quietly.
  2300. > "There's something else you should think about as well. Sooner or later, we're going to run out of food and funds. I don't know what everypony else is doing..."
  2301. "...but we need to get ourselves in line. Got it. As soon as we figure out what's going on with... recent events, I'll get on it."
  2302. > "We could grab some more of Tariff's grub - after all, we are keeping that agreement. But I don't know how you feel about going back there."
  2303. > Back to the warehouses, he means.
  2304. > And truthfully, you aren't sure.
  2305. > Sure, there wasn't any specific reason why you couldn't go.
  2306. > But actually being around human soldiers and giving them reason to ask more questions wasn't something you were keen on.
  2307. > Especially if those questions happened to be relating to the 'pony' they currently held prisoner.
  2308. > But if it came to that... you could.
  2309. > Finding Buttercup's bar is easy enough.
  2310. > The problem is that the barmaid isn't there.
  2311. > Another barmaid quickly ushers you into the back, though.
  2312. > Leaving Caravan and Ornithea doesn't please you - being around the Changelings alone, more accurately - but you quiet the discomfort.
  2313. > "So, what is it now? I hear you've been giving Buttercup a lot of trouble lately."
  2314. "...is that how she's casting it, huh? Figures, after I let her feed on me."
  2315. > The Changeling-Barmaid laughs sharply.
  2316. > "You don't understand us. If you were really giving us trouble, you wouldn't be walking out of here."
  2317.  
  2318. > So, is telling you supposed to make you feel better or something?
  2319. "Where is the, then?"
  2320. > "Helping your friends dig tunnels for your ambush."
  2321. "She told you?"
  2322. > The Changeling laughs.
  2323. > "We don't keep operations secret from each other. It's not our way."
  2324. > Perhaps seeing your look, she laughs.
  2325. > "We're not a security risk. We kept ourselves safe from you, didn't we?"
  2326. "Whatever. I'm not here to give you trouble anyhow. Warn you about something, actually."
  2327. > "Oh, this should be good."
  2328. "His name's Copper Cog. Former guardspony, tried to burn other two ponies to death because he didn't like them."
  2329. > "Delightful. Why's he our problem?"
  2330. "That attack yesterday? He was in on it. We weren't. He's likely to get very aggressive - and those ponies he almost burned, it was because they were batponies."
  2331. > She screws her face up.
  2332. > "Queen-dammed, you're killing eacch other in the middle of this? You ponies are all crazy."
  2333.  
  2334.  "Let me tell you about the rest of my unit..."
  2335.  
  2336. > You bark a short, sharp laugh.
  2337. "Let me tell you about the rest of my unit. I've got feelings for my second in command, even though it's entirely against regulations; one of them was practically in open mutiny because I was letting my emotions get the better of me, and two of the others were in a relationship - except one is imprisoned now and I don't know if it's going to affect her."
  2338. > Taking a deep breath, you continue.
  2339. "That second-in-command I mentioned is wounded badly and blind in one eye, but I can't let her go because she's been with me since the beginning of this and knows as much about the humans as I do - and besides, we need every pony we have."
  2340. > Fixing her with a grin, you go on:
  2341. "If that wasn't enough, I did some things I'm really not proud of when I was trying to figure out who was responsible for attacking the two batponies... so yeah. We're all insane, especially in these times, but somehow we make do and I wouldn't take anypony else for what we've been through."
  2342. > To your surprise, the Changeling actually cracks and grin back at you.
  2343. > "Making do with what you can... sounds like us."
  2344. "I doubt that... but yes. That who I have, ."
  2345. > "Except this Copper Cog, presumably."
  2346. "Of course. Copper is nothing like us."
  2347. > "We will keep eyes out for him... or those who must have been cooperating with him."
  2348. "Thank you. Strange as it sounds to say this, I'd prefer not to see you all killed. He's got a sort of greenish coat with a light-brown mane and tail."
  2349. > "The feeling is mutual. Is there anything else?"
  2350. "Do you know when Buttercup will be back?"
  2351. > "Not for a day at least. Your comrades are keeping her very busy."
  2352. > Comrades now, huh?
  2353. > Before they were just your 'friends in the guard'.
  2354. > You wonder what the meaning of that change is.
  2355. "How'd they convince you, anyhow? The Princess didn't come to you after she met with us and-"
  2356.  
  2357. > The Changeling before you freezes.
  2358. > "There is a Princess in Las Pegasus?"
  2359. > Oh, shit; they didn't know?
  2360. "...yes, Princess Twilight Sparkle was."
  2361. > It doesn't seem possible, but the Changeling somehow blanches.
  2362. "Is that going to be a problem? She's aware of our agreement, and doesn't seem to be against it."
  2363. > "She is known to us. We would prefer to not meet with her."
  2364. > Considering what you'd heard of Princess Twilight's involvement with the Changelings - first the incident at the wedding, with her own brother and then some business about a number of foals being taken from her hometown - you don't blame them.
  2365. "Well, whatever she feels about you, she is putting it aside for the sake of winning this. Who did meet with you, then?"
  2366. > "No, an officer of your Royal Guard did. Earth pony - very polite, very respectful;. Too respectful; his mask was ill-fit."
  2367. "Hmm. Somepony else, then. He didn't threaten you?"
  2368. > "No. Merely held us to our word, and we met it."
  2369. "Right, well - if you do hear anything about Copper Cog, I'd like to know."
  2370. > Rejoining Caravan and Ornithea at the bar, you glance out the window.
  2371. > There's a few hours left in the day - enough to look into various jobs.
  2372. > By the end of the day, there are at least three choices you can take up in the near future.
  2373. > Turning back to head home, you take a slow, lazy walk - keeping an eye out for anything interesting.
  2374. > It isn't you who sees something first, though, and it is far from merely 'interesting'.
  2375. > Ornithea leans her head over to whisper into your ear.
  2376. > "Uh, you might not want to look behind us right now, but there are two ponies following us..."
  2377. "Damn, really?"
  2378. > "Yes, a unicorn and an earth pony. I don't know how long they've been there."
  2379. > Catching a glance in the angled glass of a shop doorway, you find the two she mentioned.
  2380.  
  2381. > The unicorn is a low grey with a wild-looking mane; his earth pony companion, smaller than normal but with a deep-red coloration that makes you think of the desert.
  2382. "Everypony still have your hoofblades?"
  2383. > "In my saddlebags, yes."
  2384. > "Same."
  2385.  
  2386. ACTION:
  2387. - Find a nice busy store and have a chat with them.
  2388.  
  2389. "Okay, everypony. Keep moving calmly. I'm going to find us a nice busy store where we can have a chat with them and not worry about anypony starting anything."
  2390. > Neither of them raise any objections.
  2391. > Oh well.
  2392. > You'd had a whole line about how it wasn't really hiding among civilians, since you weren't expecting a fight.
  2393. > Soon enough a viable opportunity presents itself.
  2394. > Few shops are terribly busy since the occupation came, although life is slowly returning to something resembling normal.
  2395. > Or, well, was, anyhow.
  2396. > One of the few stores that had remained reliably busy, though, were flower shops.
  2397. > In fact, you wouldn't be surprised if they were doing extra-well, what with ponies needing pick-me-ups the way things are going.
  2398. > ...you could even go for a snack treat yourself.
  2399. > But that isn't why you are here.
  2400. > And there's plenty of ponies to get mixed up with.
  2401. "...alright. Let's head on in. Caravan, peel off as soon as we head in and wait to see if they follow us. If they do, try to get around behind and close to them."
  2402. > "Got it."
  2403. > Slipping into the mass of ponies near the entrance, you head for the back - make them have to come in, if they want to keep close by.
  2404. > Caravan peels away, heading down a side isle; you let Ornithea take the role of a pony 'looking' for something to buy.
  2405. > Though you follow close behind, one eye is constantly sweeping the entrance.
  2406. > Sure enough, the pair soon enter.
  2407. > Unfortunately, they don't play by the rules either - while the earth pony continues on towards you, the unicorn splits away.
  2408. > Damn, odds were he's doing the same thing as Caravan, and you can't signal for the latter to come help.
  2409. > You still might be able to make it work, though - only needing to 'catch' one of them.
  2410. > It's going to need to be the unicorn, though.
  2411. > You don't like the idea of leaving him out of sight while needing to be focused on another pony.
  2412.  
  2413. ACTION:
  2414. - Go talk to the earth pony closest to you.
  2415.  
  2416. > Well, maybe you could go after the earth pony after all.
  2417. > After all, the unicorn wouldn't interfere in the middle of a store.
  2418. > Right?
  2419. > You wait until the earth pony is close enough to easily hear you without your voice needing to be raised.
  2420. > Suddenly lifting your head and looking him straight in the eyes, you speak just loud enough to be heard.
  2421. "So, is there are particular reason to you've been following us?"
  2422. > Unfortunately, they he doesn't answer, merely locking you with a stare and frowning slightly.
  2423. > Well, at least he isn't going to start the no-I-wasn't-yes-you-were argument.
  2424. "Because really, if you'd like to talk to me, it's perfectly acceptable to just ask. Alternately, of course, if you don't want to talk, then I'd like to ask you to just back off."
  2425. > "...we'll talk."
  2426. > You nod slightly, and he motions with one a spot near the rear of the shop.
  2427. > Moving over, you make a show of looking through a very nice selection of carnations - but, of course, are just waiting for him to talk.
  2428. > "Friend of ours pointed us towards you. Said he knew you from the 'your last outing together'."
  2429. "I'm aware. I also wasn't particularly pleased to see Copper Cog again."
  2430. > The statement doesn't have the intended effect; rather than looking surprised, he just chuckles softly.
  2431. > "He also said you'd say that - but he's willing to look past what you did to him and work together again."
  2432. > What you did to him?
  2433. > Who in Equestria does Copper think he is?
  2434. > Forcing down your instinctual reaction, you continue speaking softly.
  2435. "Work with us on what? Something like yesterday again?"
  2436. > Now the stallion does look annoyed, evidently he didn't realize you knew that.
  2437. > "What do you think, ironflanks? Yes, something like yesterday. We're a mix of ponies - some guard, some militia, some ponies who just want to do something about these... things being in Equestria."
  2438.  
  2439. > Glancing around, you find that you couldn't see the unicorn.
  2440. > Or Caravan, for that matter; hopefully those two were keeping each other busy.
  2441. "And he thought I would actually come along with that?"
  2442. > "He thought we should ask you."
  2443.  
  2444. ACTION:
  2445. - And explain that fighting in the city just gives them reason to fire on civilians.
  2446. - Can we ask what he said 'we did to him'?v\ Then when he obviously gives some bullshit. just be all. "Huh, that's not the story i remember." and tear him a new asshole with how it really went down. Then end off with something like. "Tell copper to take his offer and shove it up his ass."
  2447.  
  2448. "And what exactly did Copper Cog say we 'did to him', anyhow?"
  2449. > "Don't know exactly. Says he tried to cover your flank from being attacked by traitors, and you accused him of trying to murder somepony instead."
  2450. > You snort softly.
  2451. "He did attempt murder. He tried to burn two of my ponies alive because he thought them 'traitors'."
  2452. > Mouth forming into a grim, thin smirk you lock eyes with the stallion.
  2453. "Do you know why they were 'traitors'? Because they had followed their orders when they were given, and it got Copper hurt. That's why they were 'traitors, because they pulled back when told to."
  2454. > One of his eyebrows rises, but he doesn't show any signs of hesitating.
  2455. > "Whatever happened, the offer is open. Somepony needs to do something about these things, and he's doing them with us."
  2456. > Looking sharply around again you conclude it is safe enough to talk and not be heard, provided your voice is kept low enough.
  2457. "And you are not concerned about the implications of attacking them in the middle of the city? Of what it might bring down on uninvolved civilians caught in this?"
  2458. > "There are no uninvolved ponies anymore! We're all in this - we're all together! Better to do something than let us be ruled by conquerers without so much as a kick in our own defense."
  2459. > Lifting a hoof to jab it in his direction, your voice drops to a low, angry growl.
  2460. "Unless you have forgotten, Copper even told you that who we were - and you know what our job is then. We protect ponies, and-"
  2461. > "Do you think it is going to go down so nicely?"
  2462. > Sweeping his hoof around, the stallion motions to the front of the store.
  2463. > "You think they're always going to be this lovey-dovey with us? What happens when they corner a princess? It's going to get bad anyhow. Better to stop them here and now, not sit sucking on our hooves."
  2464. > You shake your head furiously.
  2465.  
  2466. "I'm not going to do something that will encourage them to lash out at innocent ponies - not while there's hope of stopping this."
  2467. > "...Copper said you'd be stubborn, too. Meant it as a compliment, I think."
  2468. "And you aren't in the least worried about what he did? What he might do to you as well?"
  2469. > "The chief has him under control. And besides, he's too useful for us to dump on just a story."
  2470.  
  2471. ACTION:
  2472. - Tell them we won't get in their way if they don't in ours, and we can't risk creating civilian casualties.
  2473.  
  2474. "Look..."
  2475. > You lean in forward, making doubly sure you can'/t be heard.
  2476. "You think you're the only ones around here doing anything? You really do? Because you aren't. Some of us just prefer not to put innocent ponies in harm's way."
  2477. > Now you have the stallion's attention.
  2478. > He locks his gaze with you, both ears turning to focus in on your words.
  2479. "Now, as long as you're so nonchalant about costing civilians lives for the sake of maybe saving others... we can't work with you. But, if you have a change of heart... you found us once. Come and find us again."
  2480. > Fixing him with a sharp look, you straighten up.
  2481. "Unless you have anything else to say, I would very much like to go. We have a ways to walk yet, and I'd prefer not to risk the curfew."
  2482. > "Understood."
  2483. > The word is all but spit from the stallion's mouth.
  2484. > "But until we see some action, as far as I'm concerned you're just blowing smoke. Even the Princess didn't do anything to attack them - just flew around a lot and let them throw everything at her, then toddled off with her all-powerful magic."
  2485. > Turning aside slightly, he looks to the door and then back to you.
  2486. > "When not even the Discord-damned royalty is doing anything anymore let alone your kind, it's time to take things into our own hooves."
  2487. > For a second you desperately want to tell him the point of what Twilight had done.
  2488. > That it had provided food and medicine to let the cloud districts hold out a bit longer against the siege that was still laid against them.
  2489. > That she had stayed to do her best at planning - no matter how frustrating, she had still tried.
  2490. > But no.
  2491. > There's no way you can trust them with that information.
  2492. "...if that's the way you feel. Just watch out for Copper Cog. he's going to be trouble, sooner or later."
  2493. > "Yeah, yeah. He's under control, I told you."
  2494. "Then if you will excuse me-"
  2495.  
  2496. > Turning, you nearly jump out of your skin in shock.
  2497. > Through a gap in the display stands, you can see their unicorn watching you from the next isle over.
  2498. > And more importantly, you can see the knife hovering halfway-out of has bag between them and his body, barely visible from any other angle.
  2499. > Seeing that you aren't going to do anything, he lets the bags close and turns to leave as well.
  2500. > Apparently he'd been their protection, then.
  2501. > Moving on, you suddenly spot Caravan as well - apparently he'd been watching the unicorn.
  2502. > Had things turned bad, he might have been able to pin the unicorn... or not.
  2503. > Shaking your head, you start for home.
  2504. > Time to catch the rest of your ponies up on what happened today.
  2505. > Maybe it's time to start keeping a watch again at night.
  2506.  
  2507. ACTION:
  2508. - Check on Whispen.
  2509. - Caravan and Copper do some work.
  2510. - You and Ornithea go looking for hiding spots.
  2511.  
  2512. > Returning home, you're pleased to see that the others have not been idle in your absence.
  2513. > The basement is nearly dry now, and as you return Whispen is standing outside wringing out towels.
  2514. > She smiles when she spots you, motioning to the pile of towels next to her.
  2515. > "We're just mopping up the last puddles now."
  2516. "Alright. Head inside, you two."
  2517. > Caravan and Ornithea comply, the latter shooting you a questioning look.
  2518. > Once they are gone, you glance back over to Whispen.
  2519. "How are you doing? Is your leg getting any better?"
  2520. > Whispen twists her head around to look at it, nudging the splint with her magic.
  2521. > "It's... healing. I'm not up to one-hundred percent yet, but I can probably walk fine now. I don't know about running, though."
  2522. > That was another upside of reclaiming your old house.
  2523. > You'd found the medicine the doctor had prescribed for her.
  2524. > It certainly was helping with her healing, you thought.
  2525. > Most of the smaller cuts and lacerations seemed to healed over.
  2526. > That left only her leg, and...
  2527. "...how's your head doing?"
  2528. > She looks down, staring at the towel hovering before her.
  2529. > "I... I still can't see out of my eye; everything is blobs and blurriness."
  2530. "Does it hurt?"
  2531. > "A little. My leg still does a bit too. But I can live."
  2532. "Well, I'm sure you're going to be alright in the end. Anything up to eat?"
  2533. > "Yeah, Hot Pot is working her magic again."
  2534.  
  2535. > Inside, you find the injured pegasus is up despite her orders for rest - hovering around at low level to ease the strain on her injured haunch, but still cooking.
  2536. "...you know that's not going to help your healing, Hot Pot."
  2537. > "Yes, but... I was trapped in that hospital for so long, I can't bear to just sit around now that I'm out. It's like torture."
  2538. > You slide off your saddlebags, leaning over to sniff at the pot she is working on.
  2539. > It certainly smells good, much better than anything any of you could make.
  2540. > But if this was curtailing her healing...
  2541.  
  2542. ACTION:
  2543. - Tell her to take it easy, ask Ornithea about how she is feeling, then tell the others.
  2544.  
  2545. "Well..."
  2546. > You move in a bit closer, lowering your voice.
  2547. "I need to know honestly, Hot Pot. How are you holding up?"
  2548. > "Holding up, sir?"
  2549. "Yeah.... I mean, being locked away in the hospital for so long, and what happened to Dusk Shadow..."
  2550. > She pauses, nearly falling to the ground when her wings briefly miss a flap.
  2551. > "I'm... I'll be okay, sir. I'm healing."
  2552. > In more ways than one, evidently.
  2553. > Still, that pause...
  2554. "Well... just make sure you aren't straining yourself too hard. I don't want you hurting yourself, got it?"
  2555. > "I got it."
  2556. > She gives you a small smile and a nod.
  2557. > You return that, turning to head off and find Ornithea.
  2558. > It doesn't take long to locate her - she's retreated to one of the upper rooms, talking quietly with a seagull that seems to have come in on the windowsill.
  2559. > You wait until the bird departs before speaking softly.
  2560. "Hey, Ornithea?"
  2561. > "Oh! Hello, sir."
  2562. > She turns around and shoots you a small smile.
  2563. > "Do you need something?"
  2564. "Yeah, listen... I just wanted to know, how are you holding up?"
  2565. > "Uh... holding up? I guess I'm alright."
  2566. "Okay. Because, I'm just trying to make sure I know where my crew's mind is. If there's something that's bugging you..."
  2567. > Ornithea shakes her head, then pauses.
  2568. > "It's... tough. Being here, but not being able to do anything. I... I want to do something, just something to feel like we're not wasting out time. But... I know that a lot of our options aren't really safe, for us or other ponies."
  2569. "I know. It's getting to everypony here, but we have to be strong and only do what is best."
  2570. > "Yeah. And... I can do that."
  2571. > She gives a little giggle.
  2572. > "I'm not going to be running off to join that bunch that approached us today."
  2573. > That she still has the capacity to joke is a good sign, and brings a small smile to your lips as well.
  2574. "Alright. I'll see you downstairs, then."
  2575.  
  2576. > Dinner comes in time, and allows you to catch up with the others.
  2577. > After bringing them up to date on what you were told at the meeting.
  2578. > Three days, supposedly a second part of the battle that would give you cover, possible cancellation based on the humans' current uneasiness, et cetera.
  2579. > And then you get to the encounter on the way home.
  2580. "...especially now that we have Hot Pot back, we need to start keeping watch again. It will deprive us of some sleep, yes, but there's more than one threat out there now."
  2581. > "And one that has a penchant for throwing burning things."
  2582. > You nod in agreement with Spark's muttered comment.
  2583. "That too. We may have to eventually figure out a way to keep them off our backs permanently."
  2584. > Whispen raises her one uncovered eyebrow.
  2585. > "You have any ideas, sir...?"
  2586. "Sort of... I'm not exactly sure, though. There is one other thing, though... does anyone know, do those bugs eat anything other than us?"
  2587. > "They, uh, don't actually eat us-"
  2588. "I know. I mean, do they eat real food."
  2589. > You look between them, but only see uncertainty.
  2590. "Okay. I was thinking we could try and invite them over for something, and food might be-"
  2591. > "Who are you, and what have you done with our commander?"
  2592. > Whispen's comment yields a spate of eyerolls and grins, but you shake your head.
  2593. "I'm serious. If we're going to be working with them this closely..."
  2594. > "I know. I'm just surprised that you of all ponies would offer to let them in."
  2595. "Desperation makes for strange alliances... but that's why I asked about the food. I'd rather not be fed on all evening."
  2596. > "We'll just have to ask them, I guess."
  2597. "Looks like."
  2598.  
  2599. ACTION:
  2600. - Also bring up if things go to total shit, what do we do? And try to discuss plans to escape the city, etc.
  2601.  
  2602. "...there's one other thing: In the event things do go completely bad, and we have to leave the city - or try and find somewhere new to hide out - what do we do?"
  2603. > Caravan motions to the envelope Williams had sent for you a few days back.
  2604. > "We have our travel papers, right? If it's just leaving the city, why don't we just... go."
  2605. > Ornithea blinks in surprise.
  2606. > "Back to Easthock?"
  2607. > "It's as good a place as any. Travel-able within several days, hopefully not burned to the ground by now... if nothing else, it should be a safe fall-back spot."
  2608. "I have a different idea. Hold on..."
  2609. > Going to drag out a set of maps you found, you start to examine nearby villages and small towns.
  2610. "...here's what I was looking for. Ironshoe Ridge. It's an old mining town, east of here - a lot closer than Easthock, but far enough to be a good place to vanish to."
  2611. > "How long of a walk?"
  2612. "Two, three days at a good pace? One at good speed."
  2613. > There wouldn't be a 'good speed', though, and they all know it.
  2614. > In fact, Whispen and Hot Pot's injuries would probably slow you to three days at least - even if you could acquire a cart.
  2615. "So, if we have to flee - I think we should all head here. Wait... wait a week after arriving."
  2616. > "A week before what?"
  2617. "I'd like to head north, through the Whitetail Woods, and see if we can reach friendly territory. We'd have heard if Canterlot had fallen; Trottingham is up there as well too."
  2618. > Ornithea peers at the map, frowning.
  2619. > "You told me to speak openly, sir, and... I'm not sure we should try to go north. Not immediately."
  2620. "...we'll figure it out if we have to go. As for in the city - well, that's what we're trying to find tomorrow. Ornithea, you and I will be looking for good safe-houses."
  2621. > She nods sharply.
  2622. > "I'll be ready."
  2623.  
  2624. "Caravan, Spark - we're going to need some bits if we're staying any longer. Find us some work, preferably something that lets us keep our ears up for good information. Also, take our ration cards and get some more food."
  2625. > "Anything in particular you want us to grab?"
  2626. "Try for at least some things that keep. I want to keep a supply of food to go if we have to leave the city in a hurry."
  2627. > "Got it. We can do that."
  2628. > Spark nods as well.
  2629. > "I'm sure there are ponies out there who would be happy to have a unicorn to help."
  2630. "Good. We all ready?"
  2631. > The five of them look between each other and nod.
  2632. "Okay. Then, the rest of the evening is free until we turn in. Caravan, you're on first watch. Ornithea, take second and Whispen take third."
  2633. > The following day, both groups set out.
  2634. > You split near the exit from the dockyards, Caravan and Spark heading towards the main market district.
  2635. > Ornithea and yourself...
  2636. > Well, where do you want to start looking?
  2637.  
  2638. [3 choices of locations given.]
  2639. - Tourism district. Pro, lots of unusual hiding spots in closed museums, theaters, etc that would be harder to find. Cons, even investigating there would have to be explained to allay suspicion.
  2640.  
  2641. "You know, I've always wanted to visit Las Pegasus' museums."
  2642. > "Huh?"
  2643. > Ornithea looks at you uncomprehendingly.
  2644. "The tourism district. A lot of things there are going to be closed, but I'm willing to bet we can find some good places to hide."
  2645. > Trotting through the camp, you're caught by surprise when a low peal of thunder rumbles from far above.
  2646. > Not an explosion - not sharp enough.
  2647. > Something in the cloud district...?
  2648. > "...we're running out of time..."
  2649. "Yeah..."
  2650. > Your gaze holds upwards for some time before you continue on.
  2651. > An hour and a half later, you'd started to see the various galleries and shops that would normally have opened their doors to tourists.
  2652. > Most were worthless - there couldn't have been more than five stores that weren't selling junk - but what is beyond does draw your attention.
  2653. > The Las Pegasus museum of history was a huge, sprawling thing - dozens of halls and rooms, filled with artifacts and paintings of important events.
  2654. > Now, though, a single notice pinned to the front doors declared it closed until further notice.
  2655. > But there were other doors, and a minute later you'd slipped into one of the small gardens off to one side and from there up through a window inside.
  2656. > While Ornithea waits outside, you quickly peer about - having apparently landed in some sort of conservatory or restoration office.
  2657. > Fortunately, while the outside doors were locked up tight nopony had thought to throw more than a simple deadbolt on the inside ones.
  2658. > Within a minute you had snuck downstairs to a side door and opened it to allow Ornithea in.
  2659. > Usually the building would have been guarded as well, but those simple watchponies must have had far greater things on their minds.
  2660. > "...where to now, boss?"
  2661. > Well, that's a good question, isn't it?
  2662. > A building like this would have to have a huge basement; plenty of good spots in there.
  2663.  
  2664. > But a basement would also be equally hard to get out of if somepony - or a human - was in the building.
  2665. > There hadn't been any windows on the outside, so stairs were probably the only way in or out.
  2666. > Alternately, looking at the doors you trot past, this wing seemed to have dozens of storage rooms, conservation halls, and offices.
  2667. > Any of them could fit a few ponies comfortably.
  2668. > But as the oldest part, it was also the nearest the street; leaving during the day and night without being seen both could be... tricky.
  2669. > Of course, there was always the halls themselves, and-
  2670. > "Wait."
  2671. > You come to a sudden halt at Ornithea's whispered command.
  2672. > A second later you hear what she had heard - distant hoofsteps on the stone-tiled floor.
  2673. > Damn, there was somepony else here!
  2674. > Quickly looking around, you try to assess your options.
  2675.  
  2676. ACTION:
  2677. - Dive through the nearest door and hide in whatever lays beyond.
  2678.  
  2679. > Going for the nearest door, you grab the handle in your jaws and twist.
  2680. > Thank Celestia it's unlocked.
  2681. > Sticking your head in, you glance around - barely taking in the contents of the room, just making sure there are no ponies in this one too.
  2682. "In here. Now!"
  2683. > Ornithea doesn't question your orders, charging through the door and allowing you to close it just behind her.
  2684. > The deadbolt turns under your jaws, and you retreat - slipping out the hoofblade you had brought in your pack.
  2685. > Doing the same, Ornithea looks to you.
  2686. > "...do you think we'll need to...?"
  2687. > You shake your head in an equally low voice.
  2688. "I hope not. But if they come here, I want to be ready."
  2689. > She doesn't respond immediately - and when she does, it's in a low, nervous tone.
  2690. > "Um... sir..."
  2691. > Slowly turning around, you find her pointing to another door, in the back of the room.
  2692. > A door with a moving shadow prominently displayed in the center, and a nameplate directly beneath.
  2693. > 'Dr Strata Depth, Director, Foreign History and Artifacts'
  2694. > Looking about, you realize the entire room is covered in preserved pieces - some thick with dust, others sparkling and fresh.
  2695. > Griffon, Zebra, Buffalo... numerous cultures are represented here.
  2696. > Of course the director wouldn't be able to leave his precious museum.
  2697. > What were the odds you would have to enter into the room directly next to his office, though?
  2698. > ...and for that matter, how had he not heard you enter?
  2699. > You raise a hoof to your lips to quiet Ornithea, then - walking carefully to minimize the impact of your hoof-falls on the floor - make for the windows.
  2700. > If you could open them, then possible there would be a chance to get out.
  2701. > Even if you were heard... well, a museum director wasn't going to be a fighter, right?
  2702. > He would probably back off at the sight of your hoofblades.
  2703. > To bad you don't have a cloak to hide your cutie mark or mask or something.
  2704. > And every moment those hoof-steps are getting closer...
  2705.  
  2706. [Roll for silence; result: you remain totally unheard by the guard.]
  2707.  
  2708. > Amazingly the curator doesn't hear you opening the window..
  2709. > Peering out beyond, you find a nice view on the side street - and an easy way out.
  2710. > On the first floor, it's a jump both Ornithea and yourself could make; thanks to the museum's older construction, the windows are oversized monstrosities that can easily be fit through.
  2711. > Now you turn back to face the door out to the hallway, waiting to see if the passing pony comes through.
  2712. > They do not, amazingly - perhaps because of the director's presence, they expected the sound of hooves in this wing.
  2713. > Instead, humming softly, they quietly step past.
  2714. > Not even pausing.
  2715. > Probably a security guard or something.
  2716. > The hoofsteps fade into nothingness and Ornithea lets out a shuddering, soft breath.
  2717. > You're in the clear at last.
  2718. > Probably best to move on.
  2719. "Ornithea, put your hoofblade away, then get the door. We're leaving."
  2720. > That guard might be back any moment, after all - and the trip had already proved the building seemed to be accessible.
  2721. > Why wouldn't they-
  2722. > Distraction strikes with deadly precision just as you'd grabbed the hoofblade and turned to put it into your bag.
  2723. > The saddlebags had pinned your wings to your side; you'd been trying to lift one in order to open the flap.
  2724. > Trying a bit too hard, it seems; slipping from your mouth, the blade clatters to the floor.
  2725. > And of course it falls in just the wrong way, the spring-loaded folding mechanism being triggered by the sudden jolt.
  2726. > Snapping open, the blade flings itself for another loop around.
  2727. > You leap back, pulling away from the wildly flicking blade.
  2728. > Between the clattering of the blade and your sudden hooves on the floor, it's a racket that can't be ignored.
  2729. > " 'ey! Who's out there?! I told you, don't touch my artifacts, damn you! The staff can figure them out when they get back here!"
  2730. > You freeze, turning to look towards the director's door.
  2731.  
  2732. > "If you broke anything, I swear by all the alicorns I will make sure you never owrk here again...!"
  2733. > He sounds aged - probably not a huge threat.
  2734. > Except, of course, for his voice.
  2735. > At least the guard wasn't about anymore; that would have been an utter disaster.
  2736. > "Well?!"
  2737.  
  2738. ACTION:
  2739. - "Sorry, sorry! Nothing is damaged!"
  2740.  
  2741. "Sorry, sorry! Nothing is damaged!"
  2742. > "Nothing - there's nothing out there that can't break! Hold on, I'm coming out to see what you ruined this time!"
  2743. > With not a second to spare you sweep the hoofblade from the floor and jam it inot your saddlebag, just as the door opens.
  2744. > The pony who emerges is truly ancient - whiskers drooping fro, both sides of his muzzle and a thick pair of eyeglasses all but screwed onto his face.
  2745. > Probably half - or more - deaf, if he didn't hear you until the blade fell to the floor.
  2746. > Even more surprising is that he completely ignores you in favor of puttering about the room, checking on each displayed artifact in turn.
  2747. > "This one, and this... yes, you're still here... and you... right where I left you..."
  2748. > After a minute or two of this - during which you repeatedly glance to Ornithea, unsure of whether to leave or not - he raises his head and nods appreciatively.
  2749. > "Well, you were telling the truth after all. For once they can hire someone with a good head on their necks-"
  2750. > He peers in closer, eyes squinting.
  2751. > Your nose twitches; this pony even smells like a museum.
  2752. > "-I assume you are to this department, yes? I don't recognize you."
  2753. > Oh, shit... what to say, what to say...
  2754. > Ornithea pipes up first.
  2755. > "Yes, we are. We're sorry we didn't get to introduce ourselves; they hired us to help keep things steady here now that all the other staff have gone."
  2756. > "Ah! Well! In that case, let me see what I have for you to do. There's not much getting done here, with everypony running away."
  2757. > ...when did Ornithea get so good at speaking like that?
  2758. > Caravan you'd expect it from, not her.
  2759.  
  2760. "...uh, actually we were about to, uh, go and get some other things-"
  2761. > "Nonsense! And if anypony gives you trouble, tell them I sent you."
  2762. > Strata Depth is now rooting about in a cabinet, pulling something out to give to you.
  2763. > "Let me just get a cart to put this on and I'll send you on your way... ah, here we go. Take this up to storage on the second floor."
  2764. > You are presented with a cart carrying a small, well-worn case - obviously foreign in design, but not unlike a saddlebag.
  2765. "Uh... okay, let me -"
  2766. > "And be careful! This is a zebra war-alchemist's pouch. They sent it up to me to identify, but the great fools forgot to empty it out first."
  2767. > Eyes practically bugging out of their sockets, you look down at the pouch case.
  2768. "You mean, there's still... things in there?"
  2769. > "Oh, yes! And if you break one of those vials - who knows what it might do!"
  2770. > A pause, and then he adds smugly:
  2771. > "Well, I do know actually. And it wouldn't be pleasant, let me tell you that much."
  2772. > As if you could forget the lessons on zebra war alchemy.
  2773. > The same alchemical magic that they used to aid themselves could be turned to detrimental effect in combat.
  2774. > Combat...
  2775. "...is there any way to know what they would do?"
  2776. > "Hmm? Oh! Yes! Thank you for reminding me!"
  2777. > Returning to his office, Strata Depth returns with a slip of paper.
  2778. > "You give this to Doctor Trowel up there, and you tell him if he keeps sending me dangerous things I'm going to start assuming he's trying to get me fired!"
  2779. > As if he needed help.
  2780. > Handing a dangerous case over to an unknown pony - this curator was practically senile!
  2781. "...we'll get right on it."
  2782. > The second you're out from the room - the cart paused before you - you stop to look at the paper he had given you.
  2783. > Yep, a list of the tubes, their probable effects, and where they were in the case.
  2784. > It's all but fallen into your hooves.
  2785.  
  2786. ACTION:
  2787. - Take the vials out, make a note of what they are, and then deliver the empty case to keep suspicion off of yourself.
  2788.  
  2789. > You pause a moment to read the letter you were given.
  2790. > The first is simply a note from Strata Depth, again repeating the question of whether the intended recipient of the note - 'Doctor Trowel' - is attempting to get him fired.
  2791. > After that, however, comes the interesting bits.
  2792. > 'The object is a zebra war-alchemist's bag; I cannot comment on the age; however, preservation is extraordinarily good and the object is not in any immediate danger of damage provided proper handling. Be advised that the vials themselves should be always be held in something like the interior of the case, to assure the do not break.'
  2793. > Immediately following this is a sketch of the inside of the bag, showing how it was filled with multiple fabric straps, each having several pockets set into them to hold and cushion the vials within.
  2794. > A quick glance into the bag confirms this; any sort of good rag tied around the vials should work just as well, you think.
  2795. > You continue reading onwards:
  2796. > 'I have translated the writing on each strap to determine what the vial within contains. You should be able to find listings for proper handling of each such reagents in your records, unless you care to let your ineptitude get in the way again.'
  2797. > Now this is the good stuff.
  2798. > 'Row one - 'Wish-bush' seed product; potent hallucinogen when in contact with skin. Seven vials. Growth reagent, used to promote rapid and aggressive growth of plant life. One vial.'
  2799. > 'Row two - 'Growth reagent, eight vials.'
  2800. > 'Row three - Poison Joke extract; highly variable and unknown effects. Toxic in large quantities. Four vials. Love poison variant 4-B, causes victims to become infatuated with first object they lay eyes on. Four vials.'
  2801.  
  2802. "We need to find a lab or something. There's got to be one here."
  2803. > "Um..."
  2804. > Ornithea looks up at you, uncertain.
  2805. > "What exactly are we looking to do?"
  2806. "We're going to switch these vials around. Wrap them in some cloth, write on them what each one is."
  2807. > "Do you think-"
  2808. "No, I'm not certain it's the best idea. But we need to."
  2809. > Trotting down the hall and peering through the windows in doors, it doesn't take long to find a proper facility.
  2810. > Fortunately this one is deserted as well.
  2811. > "Come on. Let's see what we can get."
  2812. > The easiest to find is a pen with which to quickly scrawl the contents of each vial in proper Equestrian on the outside.
  2813. > Next comes a number of small glass vials approximately the same size as those in the bag - most likely meant for use with chemically preserving certain artifacts.
  2814. > Instead of whatever cocktails are used in that role, you fill each with tap water; somepony will notice the difference eventually, but it will work well enough for now.
  2815. > Somewhat harder to find are something to wrap the vials in.
  2816. > In the end, a small stack of polishing cloths in a cabinet proves to be the best your can find; carefully tying off each after it has been bundled up, you slip the nearly-forty vials into Ornithea's and your own saddlebags.
  2817. > Now the case is wheeled back out into the hall on the small cart Strata Depth had given you.
  2818. > It is quietly left outside Doctor Trowel's door - surely he will notice it again - and Ornithea and yourself make a quick escape from the museum altogether.
  2819. > Perhaps not the safest place to stay in the long-term, but it will work as a spot to just stop for a little while.
  2820. > When the dockyard gates come into sight, you lean over and murmur quietly to Ornithea:
  2821.  
  2822. "If they ask, it's medicine for Whispen. They've seen us with her, they know she's hurt."
  2823. > They do ask - and accept your answer, after a nerve-wracking moment as one lifts a vial to sniff at it.
  2824. > Evidently the growth reagent has not effect on a human's nose-hair as he corks it back up and inserts it back into your saddlebags.
  2825. > "Smells like medicine too."
  2826. > Caravan and Spark do not return until somewhat later, both looking bone-tired.
  2827. "...what happened to you?"
  2828. > "Work."
  2829. > The former gives a wry grin.
  2830. > "Even earned us a few bits. We've got jobs for us tomorrow if we're up for it - all four of us."
  2831. > You hadn't been planning on it, but that sounds good.
  2832. "Alright. Whispen, Hot Pot - I want you to make us up some travel packs. If we need to leave the city fast, I want us to be ready in a moment."
  2833. > Both nod in agreement.
  2834.  
  2835. ACTION:
  2836. - Do some work first, then go work at the bar.
  2837.  
  2838. "We'll go see the Changelings first. Hot Pot, after we pack up some travel bags, is there any chance we would have enough food left to feed a few extra mouths?"
  2839. > "Absolutely. Still thinking of having them over?"
  2840. "Much as I get jittery at the idea... yes."
  2841. > She looks as if she's about to grin, but pushes it down.
  2842. > "We should have plenty of food, yes. Especially if we buy some more."
  2843. "Good. Then, all four of us will head out to see what Caravan's lined up for us; when we get done, we'll head back and check in with the bugs."
  2844. > The job turns out to be a none-too-pleasant one.
  2845. > A whole new line of settlements was rising on the eastern side of Las Pegasus.
  2846. > Ramshackle things, they nonetheless were necessary to house the thousands of refugees who had suddenly streamed into the city and were otherwise not quite ready to leave.
  2847. > And somepony had to build them, fast.
  2848. > While the refugees - mostly rural inhabitants, an industrious lot unafraid of hard work - were willing to build them on their won, materials had to be supplied.
  2849. > That was where you came in.
  2850. > The construction yard was a maze of ponies and supplies.
  2851. > Your job?
  2852. > Drag the supplies out of their huge piles to the waiting carts that would come around, load up the carts, make sure they are stable, and see them off again.
  2853. > After the first hour of labor you are coming to understand why Caravan and Spark had seemed to exhausted the previous day.
  2854. > At least the former was still with you, close enough you could chat as you worked.
  2855. > "Hey, boss... look at all this lumber. Anything seem strange about it to you?"
  2856. > Glancing down at the long two-by-four held between your forelegs, you shrug.
  2857. "Hadn't really noticed anything. Why do you ask?"
  2858. > "...it's weird. I've seen a lot of wood, but this stuff is really smooth. High quality. I don't think it's from around here."
  2859. "What, so they finally got trade opened up to farther out."
  2860. > "No, not that."
  2861.  
  2862. > Caravan shakes his head.
  2863. > "I mean, it's really not from around here."
  2864. "I got tha - oh. Ooooh."
  2865. > The meaning of Caravan's words finally clicks in your head.
  2866. > But why would the humans be providing building supplies?
  2867. > Another matter to file away in your head as you work.
  2868. > Mostly, you've just been trying to listen to the chatter of surrounding ponies.
  2869. > And you've heard them say...
  2870.  
  2871. ACTION:
  2872. - One of them talks about chatter he overheard the humans saying.
  2873.  
  2874. > "So, you know how my cousin lives over in the southern district?"
  2875. > "Yeah, what of it?"
  2876. > You hadn't thought much of that particular bit of chatter - not until you hear what comes next.
  2877. > "So, you know how some of the humans down there actually speak Prench to each other? Well, he knows a little bit, and was able to hear them..."
  2878. > Now your ears perk up; sidling over, you try to remain in hearing range of the two ponies as they talk to each other.
  2879. > "Oh? So, what are they saying? Talking about how we're all going to be their slaves or something?"
  2880. > "Hah, hah. No, in all seriousness - I think they're kind of upset at their own other soldiers."
  2881. > What?
  2882. > "What do you mean? Why would they be angry at their own?"
  2883. > "I'm serious. He said they were talking about how some of these other humans, fighting somehere else, were going to screw everything up by being too happy to fight."
  2884. > "Happy to fight? I don't think anyone is happy to fight, even them. I mean, have you seen them?"
  2885. > "Yeah, but - look. They were pretty certain this other bunch of humans were fighting more than they should be. They actually seemed worried it was going to lead to more things like what happened the other day."
  2886. > "I think your cousin is hearing things again."
  2887. > "Very funny. I'm serious."
  2888. > "I know, but - why would they be afraid of that?"
  2889. > "How would I know? Just be glad we aren't around Dodge City; it's apparently real bad down there."
  2890. > So the humans weren't all working together?
  2891. > That's... interesting.
  2892. > Something to keep track of.
  2893. > Some time around five PM you are finally let off the job.
  2894. > It's still plenty early enough to head over to Buttercup's bar, so you round up the other three and head that way.
  2895. "How much did we earn altogether today anyhow?"
  2896. > "Around one-hundred twenty bits total, I think."
  2897. "Caravan, how much can you get for that?"
  2898. > "That's at least a good cart - or several days' worth of food. Or both."
  2899. "Sounds good to me."
  2900.  
  2901. > The bar, when you arrive, is surprisingly busy.
  2902. > Perhaps the city was getting something back to normal?
  2903. > When she spots you, Buttercup quickly motions you into the back.
  2904. > "You lot back again? What is it this time?"
  2905. "Just chatting. Got a few minutes?"
  2906. > "Yeah, just let me finish up serving everypony else."
  2907. > It doesn't take long for her to return, slump down onto a seat opposite you.
  2908. > "So, what've you come to bug me about this time?"
  2909. "...not bug you. Look... tomorrow, things are supposed to happen. You know?"
  2910. > She nods sharply.
  2911. > "The tunnels are almost ready for you. Not quite for tomorrow, but if you get in closer to the city on the way back, you could use them."
  2912. > Well, there's a relief.
  2913. "It might be called off. With the humans on alert after those attacks..."
  2914. > "Really?"
  2915. > Buttercup raises one eyebrow.
  2916. > "Huh. And thank you for notifying us about that... other bunch, by the way. We've got eyes open for them."
  2917. "Good. The last thing we need is for things to get really bad because of them."
  2918.  
  2919. ACTION:
  2920. - Ask about the pot-luck first, then zebra alchemical stuff, then their plans to leave the city.
  2921.  
  2922. "Hey, listen - do you all... y'know, eat normal foods?"
  2923. > Buttercup gives you a sharp look.
  2924. > "What we eat is normal - for us. But since you obviously mean physical food - yes, we do. We can, anyhow. It is not necessary,but that does not mean we cannot eat."
  2925. "I wasn't sure. Well, look... if we are going to be allies in this... I thought it would be good if we all got together and had a dinner some time... you know, get to know each other...?"
  2926. > Buttercup's face remains stuck in its perpetual, unamused scowl.
  2927. > Like you'd just suggested getting together and taking turns applying blunt-force trauma to each others' forheads.
  2928. > "...I am unsure if you this is a terribly-disguised attempt at a trap, or if you actually believe that a single night may make up for centuries of enmity between our kinds."
  2929. "Hey, if you don't want to-"
  2930. > "We accept, of course."
  2931. > A sly grin is shot in your direction; you get the feeling she rather enjoys simply riling you up.
  2932. > "Your efforts make sense - from a pony's perspective - and so I will choose to accept them at face value. Say... four guests?"
  2933. "...That works."
  2934. > "I hope, of course, you do not mind if we... sample of other dishes while we are there?"
  2935. > Ignoring the shudder that ripples through your coat, you nod.
  2936. "We did agree. So long as you don't overdo it."
  2937. > "Good. Is there anything else?"
  2938. "Yes, actually."
  2939. > You pause, unsure if this is such a good idea.
  2940. > They could run rampant with what you are about to offer... but then again, Changelings have their own variety of magic they are more familiar with.
  2941. "We found a zebra war-alchemist's pouch - long story - and it has about forty various cocktails in there. Some straight poisons, but a lot of other things: hallucinogens, irritants, growth agents... lots of weird stuff."
  2942. > "You want us to hide it?"
  2943. > You shake your head.
  2944.  
  2945. "I was wondering if you had any use for them."
  2946. > Buttercup pauses for a moment.
  2947. > And then, a grin starts to spread across her face.
  2948. > A vicious, unpleasant grin - one that reminds you that Changelings are, in the end, predators.
  2949. > "I think I know just the thing. Are they safe to transport?"
  2950. > Another shudder runs down your spine as Buttercup practically purrs out her response.
  2951. "Yes, if you're careful. Mind if I ask what you are planning?"
  2952. > "If it becomes a possibility, you will be brought in. It may be helpful to you."
  2953. "That sounds... good?"
  2954. > "It sounds excellent. When will this dinner you propose be?"
  2955. "...if we live through tomorrow? Say..."
  2956. > You run through Fairweather's plan in your head.
  2957. "...four days from now?"
  2958. > "Acceptable; we will recover them then as well. There is one thing I must ask, however: As part of our agreement, you would take one of us with you - out of the city."
  2959. "Yes. Our current plan is to head east a ways, then turn north. Is this good."
  2960. > "...close enough. Our envoy will arrive early tomorrow and remain in your home. If you leave, you must take her with you."
  2961. > This could be awkward.
  2962. > But you did agree.
  2963. "Okay. We'll be waiting."
  2964. > It's a thought that lingers with you the entire evening.
  2965. > Even after you return home, your thoughts remain locked on the following day.
  2966. > One way or another, it's pretty clear that everything is going to be turned on its head.
  2967. > "Sir...?"
  2968. > You jerk up in surprise, having become lost in your thoughts again.
  2969. > Whispen stands in your doorway, her head tilted slightly.
  2970. "...oh. Hey. Sorry. I was... thinking about tomorrow."
  2971. > "I understand..."
  2972. > She gives a sympathetic smile.
  2973. "I still don't, though. Understand, I mean... is what we're going to do, even if we accomplish it, really worth the cost...?"
  2974. > "I can't say... but I'm sure you'll make the right choice."
  2975. > You chuckle softly.
  2976. "Sucking up to your commander isn't very professional, Whispen."
  2977. > "I know. But it's my honest thought, sir."
  2978.  
  2979. > She pauses, taking a few steps closer.
  2980. > Her leg must be considerably healed; she only moderately limps now.
  2981. > "And... there's something else I have to say."
  2982. "I'm listening."
  2983. > "...I'm going tomorrow."
  2984. "Whispen, you're still injured."
  2985. > "I know. But I can hold my own."
  2986. "You can't gallop."
  2987. > "I won't be that much slower."
  2988. "You're half-blind, for Celestia's sake!"
  2989. > "I know!"
  2990. > The exclamation practically explodes from her.
  2991. > "I know, but my horn is still good and you're going to need every unicorn you can get out there - I'll stay back, I'll keep out of direct fighting, but I have to go."
  2992. > Her one good eye is burning furiously, and her jaw is set.
  2993. > This is something she obviously feels strongly on.
  2994. > Yet...
  2995. > Could you put her in that?
  2996. > Would you be the one 'putting her' there, since she volunteered?
  2997. "I don't want to see you hurt because you pushed yourself too hard, Whispen."
  2998. > For a second she looks like she's about to explode again.
  2999. > But her voice is small and quiet when she does speak.
  3000. > "Sir... I won't disobey you, but please, please let me do this. I... I don't want to be useless. I don't want to sit around while you run out into battle again. I still want to do my part. Let me go with you, please."
  3001. > Useless...
  3002. > Yeah, she hadn't been getting out much, had she?
  3003. > Maybe you should have let her out more... but then, there was a difference working in the city and being out in battle!
  3004.  
  3005. ACTION:
  3006. - Have Whispen watch the house, take the vials of alchemy potions and leave the others.
  3007.  
  3008. "...no. I'm sorry."
  3009. > Whispen looks down, but your raise a hoof and gently rest it on her shoulder.
  3010. "Remember back in the Everfree, when that exploding trap nearly killed me? I couldn't stay up, I couldn't move, I was the acting captain, and yet i was useless. I know what you're going through, it hurts to feel like you're a burden."
  3011. > Slowly she nods.
  3012. "But, pushing yourself when you're clearly not in the position to is worse than feeling bad for a while. Those humans aren't going to leave their supplies unguarded, and you and i both know what they're capable of."
  3013. > "That's exactly what I'm worried about! I don't to see you going out there when I could be, I-"
  3014. "Whispen, we might need to run at a moments notice. There's no telling what's gonna happen. And I'm going to need someone to look after Hot Pot and this home; we might have to bring wounded back here and it would be nice to come back to a house that isn't burned down and ransacked by Copper's bunch."
  3015. > Still the flickers of concern - and disbelief - flicker across her face.
  3016. "I'm serious, Whispen. You aren't useless for me. You aren't not helping. But I don't think I could live with myself if I got you killed out there - as a guardspony as well as... you know..."
  3017. > "...I understand."
  3018. > She gives a small, uncertain smile.
  3019. > "I still want to go, but I understand."
  3020. "Good."
  3021. > The rest of the night is spent in final preparations.
  3022. > Though neither of you are particularly good at sewing, strips of cloth are cut up and crudely repurposed as masks.
  3023. > As he tries to pull one over his head, Caravan glances to you.
  3024. > "Shouldn't we have something for our cutie marks too? I know the humans don't seem to pay much attention to them, but..."
  3025. "We will: Mud. We can't apply anything longer-lasting; it might not come out when we get out there."
  3026.  
  3027. > "Just like being back in 'uniform' with the dyes and everything, huh?"
  3028. "I wish we could go back to those times..."
  3029. > The following morning sees you slip out of the dockyard bright and early.
  3030. > Buttercup's representative hasn't shown up yet, but that can't be helped.
  3031. > Before you leave though, you do take one thing and give it to Whispen.
  3032. > Two things, actually - two of the growth reagent samples.
  3033. "Take these... if you get in trouble, break one and use it as a distraction. It might be enough to get Hot Pot and you to safety."
  3034. > The remainder are slipped into your saddlebags, concealed beneath layers of food and carefully cushioned to prevent accidental damage.
  3035. > At the gates, the soldiers barely give you a cursory look as you trot through.
  3036. > Four of you - yourself, Spark Flash, Caravan and Ornithea - leaving has become such a common sight they've come to accept it.
  3037. > Even at a fast canter it's some time until you cross the city to Fairweather's meet-up spot.
  3038. > Perhaps three dozen other ponies have arrived as well, slipping through a network of alleys to arrive in a long-dry swimming pool.
  3039. > You're thankful for the roof over your heads as you gather; the idea of being spotted by one of the flying machines had been one that was lingering in the back of your head.
  3040. > Key Stone is there as well - you report to him first, but quickly trot over to Fairweather.
  3041. "You have a moment, sir?"
  3042. > "Yes, what is it?"
  3043. "Look.. I know you said to trust you on this, but I'm not certain. Even aside from the danger, they're bringing in supplies for the refugees into the city-"
  3044. > "I know. This one... isn't that. If what we've been told is true, then this is nothing that could be remotely interpreted as civilian aid."
  3045. "Can't you tell us anything?"
  3046. > "As soon as it is safe. Until then - it's going to be worth it."
  3047. > Turning back to the crowd, Fairweather raises his voice so that it echoes through the empty hall.
  3048.  
  3049. > "Alright, listen up! Word from on high is we're still doing this. It's apparently a huge convoy, quite critical for their continued success here."
  3050. > A round of nervous mutters runs through the room.
  3051. > "We don't have long to go over this before we leave, but there will be plenty of time once we are out of the city. I'll ask you to trust me just until then, and you'll receive details once we get out there."
  3052. > "Is this all of us?!"
  3053. > You don't recognize the voice, but it sounds angry.
  3054. > "No, just everypony I have to get out there. There will be several other groups meeting up with us once we're beyond the city. To answer the next questions I know will be asked, we have some supplies and weapons in place. We will pick them up."
  3055. > There's muttering in the crowd.
  3056. > Everypony is nervous.
  3057. > "I know you're all worried about this. I can tell you, as I have seen the plans - we are not marching to our deaths. This will not be a simple massacre. There is a plan, everypony."
  3058. > But will it be plan enough.
  3059. > "Here's how this is going to work: Outside are several carts filled with farming tools and supplies. Today, we're all going to be good little farmer ponies, and accompany them out of the city. We'll split off and make for our ambush location in time."
  3060. > Strutting back and forth, Fairweather continues:
  3061. > "Our guide already has the necessary paperwork to get us out there, so we are clear there."
  3062. > Marching is, in some ways, comforting.
  3063. > It's familiar, known.
  3064. > No guardspony could ever say they didn't know how to march.
  3065. > And the soldiers let you out the city with a quick look at the papers presented.
  3066. > Beyond the city, it's another several hours of marching.
  3067. > By mid-afternoon, you're aching and tired... but the sight that you are brought up to is a beautifully welcome one.
  3068. > Supplies had been dropped off in the fields - perhaps by previous groups of 'farmers'? - and left for you.
  3069.  
  3070. ACTION:
  3071. - Take bows + gauntlets for all but Spark: Gives you some ranged offensive capability.
  3072.  
  3073. "...grab some bows, everypony. Spark, grab a set for me. I'm going to have a chat with Fairweather.
  3074. > The second he sees you approaching, Fairweather's expression darkens.
  3075. "You know why I'm here."
  3076. > "Yes. Let me get everypony geared up, and I'll fill you all in."
  3077. > Finding a spot by your three comrades, you await the information you so desperately need.
  3078. > It's tough, and every few minutes you look back towards Las Pegasus, stretching out in the distance.
  3079. > You've got to be what... twenty, thirty miles distant?
  3080. > "Okay, unit leaders form up on me for briefing."
  3081. > Out of the maybe three dozen ponies present, six approach - yourself included.
  3082. > "...alright. I'm sorry for keeping you out of the loop, but I was under orders not to say anything until we were out of the city.
  3083. "Fair enough, but I want to know everything now - and I don't think it's a stretch to say that everypony here does."
  3084. > Five heads nod in assent with you.
  3085. > "...right. A lot of this is based on message being carried around between other groups in hiding. One of them reported this convoy moving out from a last town east of here."
  3086. > "What exactly is it? What we're attacking?"
  3087. > "We're pretty sure, it's fuel. Oil, in other words."
  3088. > Oil...?
  3089. > Well, that would be a bit heavy to try to fly in....
  3090. > "Their equipment eats it - all of it. Their carts, what they use to light up their camp, their communications - everything comes down to oil. And this convoy is carrying a lot of it."
  3091. "...so how are we going to keep from getting ourselves killed? That new camp has a lot of flying machines in it..."
  3092. > For once, Fairweather lets out a small, amused grin.
  3093.  
  3094. "...grab some bows, everypony. Spark, grab a set for me. I'm going to have a chat with Fairweather.
  3095. > The second he sees you approaching, Fairweather's expression darkens.
  3096. "You know why I'm here."
  3097. > "Yes. Let me get everypony geared up, and I'll fill you all in."
  3098. > Finding a spot by your three comrades, you await the information you so desperately need.
  3099. > It's tough, and every few minutes you look back towards Las Pegasus, stretching out in the distance.
  3100. > You've got to be what... twenty, thirty miles distant?
  3101. > "Okay, unit leaders form up on me for briefing."
  3102. > Out of the maybe three dozen ponies present, six approach - yourself included.
  3103. > "...alright. I'm sorry for keeping you out of the loop, but I was under orders not to say anything until we were out of the city.
  3104. "Fair enough, but I want to know everything now - and I don't think it's a stretch to say that everypony here does."
  3105. > Five heads nod in assent with you.
  3106. > "...right. A lot of this is based on message being carried around between other groups in hiding. One of them reported this convoy moving out from a last town east of here."
  3107. > "What exactly is it? What we're attacking?"
  3108. > "We're pretty sure, it's fuel. Oil, in other words."
  3109. > Oil...?
  3110. > Well, that would be a bit heavy to try to fly in....
  3111. > "Their equipment eats it - all of it. Their carts, what they use to light up their camp, their communications - everything comes down to oil. And this convoy is carrying a lot of it."
  3112. "...so how are we going to keep from getting ourselves killed? That new camp has a lot of flying machines in it..."
  3113. > For once, Fairweather lets out a small, amused grin.
  3114.  
  3115. > "...when we see the convoy coming, we will send a signal to another guard unit. When that happens, other branches are going to make two major moves that will, in total, prevent them from launching any sort of counter-attack from their camp."
  3116. "That doesn't exactly answer the question, sir."
  3117. > "It was Twilight's idea originally. Something they've never seen before, and-"
  3118. "Fairweather. What's. Going. To happen."
  3119. > All eyes are on you now.
  3120. > Despite the pressure, you keep your gaze locked with his.
  3121. "I've trusted you this long, sir. But you promised to tell me everything, and I need to know."
  3122. > For a moment you're afraid he might attack you.
  3123. > It's a mental game of chicken, two strong personalities racing at each other like a jousting contest.
  3124. > He flinches first.
  3125. > "...it's a two-parter. First, they're going to collapse part of the cloud district and deluge their camp. If everypony here hasn't seen what a collapsing cloud structure is like... it's something else. All of their flying machines close enough to help will be grounded."
  3126. > There's a stifled curse from somewhere behind you.
  3127. > Understandable; you have seen accidental cloud-home collapses.
  3128. > They're never pretty.
  3129. > "The situation up there was getting critical anyhow. They couldn't hold out more than a few days more; this way, they can at least do something for good before they leave."
  3130. "You said it's a two-parter. What's the second?"
  3131. > "Somepony found a Tatzlworm nest. Two of the buggers, full grown. Probably two-hundred feet at least. Somepony with a talent for big ugly creatures has been shepherding them in beneath their camp for at least a week. Today we set them loose."
  3132. > Well.
  3133. > That's different.
  3134. > "Those things can go straight through solid rock like a foal playing in the sand; they'll make a mess of things in there. It will keep the humans busy long enough for us to make our point."
  3135. "There are prisoners in that camp, sir."
  3136.  
  3137. > "We know. The worms are going to be guided away from them; we're aiming to make a mess of things."
  3138. > "Guide them?!"
  3139. > One of the other unit commanders splutters out a curse.
  3140. > "Can we do that now? I mean, those things-"
  3141. > Fairweather shrugs.
  3142. > "Apparently they can. I was told this with pretty high certainty."
  3143. "So, if we have tatzlwoms, why are we even using them on the base? Why not just hit the convoy with them?"
  3144. > "If I had to guess - they want to maximize damage. Hit multiple things at once. Make it count for as much as possible - all of their flying machines already up will be too busy with the giant worm tearing through their camp to bother with a few ponies."
  3145. > Well.
  3146. > It certainly is a more sound plan than blunder into nothing.
  3147.  
  3148. ACTION:
  3149. - Ask if that is absolutely all, and then then agree to go.
  3150.  
  3151. "...and that's everything, Sir? Absolutely everything?"
  3152. > "Yes. Absolutely everything."
  3153. > Fairweather nods sharply.
  3154. > "We move in, we destroy as many of their carts as possible, and we pull back. This is not an extended fight. We do what we can, and we get out."
  3155. "...okay. What after that?"
  3156. > "Pull back to here and make for the city as fast as we can. The tunnels aren't terribly far out of the city, so we'll have to get close enough before we can get them open and down inside."
  3157. > "Where do we enter?"
  3158. > Fairweather unfolds a map and begins pointing so several general locations on the edge of Las Pegasus' developed area.
  3159. > "Here, here, here and here. Four so far. Look for white X'es painted on the ground, they'll be recognizable. If thee's a pony there, tell them I sent you - they will let you in."
  3160. > Somepony growls softly.
  3161. > "And just who were those ponies helping us dig those tunnels? I'd like to know that, too."
  3162. > They don't know, you realize, and quickly step in.
  3163. "They'll follow through on their end of things. I'm certain."
  3164. > You aren't, but there's enough uncertainty going around right now.
  3165. > "Are there any other immediate question?"
  3166. > None seem to be forthcoming.
  3167. > "Then let's move up. Ambush point is still another hour's walk away."
  3168. > It's a long walk.
  3169. > At least, it feels that way.
  3170. > Despite his reassurance you can't help but be nervous about the upcoming combat.
  3171. > Four covered carts travel with you; on arrival to the ambush site.
  3172. > A well-covered line of low ridges and dips run parallel to the road, bushes planted in rows between each.
  3173. "...what is this place even?"
  3174. > Next to you, another pony chuckles.
  3175. > "Drainage passageways. For funneling off floodwater. Sometimes the weather teams have to drain off storms a bit before they come close to the city."
  3176. "...wait, so when the cloud district goes-"
  3177. > "No. We're too far out for that."
  3178.  
  3179. > The first thing to be dug is, of course, several trenches that are then well-covered from above, both with camoflage and actual protection.
  3180. > From the back side of the ridges, they remain obvious - but from between them or above, they are incredibly hard to see.
  3181. > Next come the actual elements of the ambush itself.
  3182. > The carts prove to contain - in addition to numerous digging tools - several thick metal plates that can be joined together with pins inserted through loops mounted on one face..
  3183. > Their purpose become clear as more groups of ponies show up over the remaining course of the day.
  3184. > Two entire sections of roadway are dug up - deep pits opened beneath them - and the metal plates inserted over in place.
  3185. > Watching several ponies cover them up with dirt again, you shake your head.
  3186. "Where did they even find those? And couldn't they find a better use for the plates?"
  3187. > Caravan shrugs.
  3188. > "For taking down one of their armored carts? It almost might be worth it."
  3189. > Three huge boulders are dug up from their spot on where previous storms had washed them into the drainage pathways.
  3190. > With much grunting and sweating, they are dragged to the top of the ridge and left in place.
  3191. > The most amazing thing is that the humans don't even seem to care.
  3192. > For all the nervousness you went through leaving the city, multiple times human flying machines pass overhead and do not even pause to look at you.
  3193. > The one time a patrol of four armored carts stop to talk to you - though your heart skips a beat as they roll over the carefully-covered metal plates - the humans take one look at the dozens of ponies slaving to dig lines of trenches and moving boulders, and accept the given excuse that you are merely enlarging the drainage channels.
  3194. > You shake your head in shock as they pull away, raising a trail of dust behind them.
  3195. "...how oblivious can you get?"
  3196. > Ornithea quickly disagrees.
  3197.  
  3198. > "It's like... some birds, they manage to camouflage themselves by hiding in plain site, because they know their predators are looking for something specific."
  3199. "And a bunch of ponies suddenly deciding to show up and dig a bunch of trenches isn't suspicious?"
  3200. > "Well, what do you think they are looking for? They were probably looking for weapons - but they just see ponies with digging tools and some rocks. That doesn't look like soldiers to them."
  3201. > It is true, on reflection.
  3202. > All of the actual weapons had been carefully concealed until they were needed.
  3203. > And in honestly, enlarging the trenches probably wouldn't look that different...
  3204. > But thank Celestia they hadn't seen the.... modifications to the roadway.
  3205. > When the next patrol drives through, several ponies raise legs to wave.
  3206. > The humans wave back.
  3207. > That night proves to be the worst of it.
  3208. > Waiting, waiting constantly.
  3209. > Tomorrow, unless you missed your guess, you'd get your first taste of action since Las Pegasus had fallen.
  3210. > And... then what?
  3211. > An answer, you decide, that will have to be found later.
  3212. > Caravan, however, does bring up another important point:
  3213. > "If this all goes to Tartarus and we have to scatter... what should we do?"
  3214.  
  3215. ACTION:
  3216. - "Make for the city and the tunnels as fast as you can. Don't wait for anypony."
  3217.  
  3218. "...if it comes to being that bad, get back into the city as fast as you can. Don't wait for any of us. Find safety - the dockyards, the bugs, anypony willing to hide you that you can trust. It's going to be ugly for a few days.
  3219. > The waiting is the worst part.
  3220. > By far.
  3221. > Fairweather and the others keep you plenty busy.
  3222. > Auxiliary trenches and cover spots are dug and camouflaged, and two more boulders dragged up from a distance away.
  3223. > There's a certain surreal nature to the entire exercise.
  3224. > You're effectively marching to battle against an enemy force with no armor and few weapons.
  3225. > The very idea of a hit-and-run ambush runs contrary to everything you've ever seen or heard of the Royal Guard doing.
  3226. > Few ponies get sleep that night.
  3227. > Some of it is the terrain - sleeping in trenches nearly entirely covered over to prevent flying machines spotting you is not the most pleasant sleeping position.
  3228. > Mostly, though, it's nervousness.
  3229. > Come the following morning, though, adrenaline pushes everypony up to a state of full alertness.
  3230. > The first patrol comes through a few hours after dawn.
  3231. > As before, you wave to them.
  3232. > They do not wave back, pulling through at a steady pace.
  3233. > Not a half an hour later, something catches your attention.
  3234. > A light, glinting from somewhere in the east.
  3235. > A signal, by mirror most likely.
  3236. > In the absence of a unicorn or their message papers, likely the best that could be done.
  3237. > The mirror's signal brings everypony to full alert.
  3238. > You were not the only ones to have scavenged up unusual weapons in the interim time, you see.
  3239. > Many don various kinds of masks - a few darkened armor - while you several unicorns slip various amulets on.
  3240. > More surprising is the two teams of ponies carrying glass globes that you deeply suspect to be contained dragonfire.
  3241.  
  3242. > Last of all, the use of the metal panels placed over the pits dug into the road the previous day become apparent as chains are attached to the pins holding each of the sections together.
  3243. > Run back and covered over with dirt, one ends up being dumped at your hooves.
  3244. > "Just pull hard. You don't even need to be in view of them, just yank as soon as they are close and they'll tip right in."
  3245. > Frankly, you wonder if the panels aren't going to collapse the first time one of those heavily-armored carts runs over it.
  3246. > Finally, the convoy comes into view.
  3247. > At first you can't quite believe that is what it is, so long is it.
  3248. > Like a massive, growling train snaking away into the distance, it seems to never end.
  3249. > Beside you, Caravan boggles at the approaching line of vehicles just as hard.
  3250. > "...stars above. And I thought I'd seen a big convoy."
  3251. "Yeah. I just hope we can handle what they throw at us."
  3252. > Yet, as the convoy comes closer, nothing happens in Las Pegasus.
  3253. > Had the ponies in the city screwed up?
  3254. > Or been found out?
  3255. "...someone find Key Stone. Find out what we do if they start passing by before things get started on the diversion."
  3256. > Ornithea goes to find out - soon galloping back with her answer:
  3257. > "Fairweather says wait. Not until they make the move in the city."
  3258. > And so the convoy comes.
  3259. > Up overhead, four of their flying machines - the buzzing, hovering kind - hang high in the sky, circling lazily around the convoy like oversized vultures.
  3260. "...I hope they have a way to deal with those, or this is going to end in a real hurry."
  3261. > In the front are several armored carts - fortunately not the treaded kind, though some of them bear large cannon the way those would.
  3262. > Each takes its sweet time driving over the concealed pits.
  3263.  
  3264. > After them comes two open-topped trucks filled with troops - and behind that, the first of what you presume to be the oil carriers, huge trucks with massive tanks on their backs.
  3265. > Just as the first troop-carrier is reaching the ambush point, a huge rumble rolls out over the plains.
  3266. > Turning to face it, your jaw drops at what meets your eyes.
  3267. > An entire section of the cloud district has broken away and is steadily collapsing as it sinks to lower altitudes.
  3268. > Like a landslide two-thousand feet up, the imploding aetherial architecture seems to roll over itself - lighting lacing the inside of the cloud formations.
  3269. > "...now, now!"
  3270. > And then it begins.
  3271.  
  3272. ACTION:
  3273. - Wait to pull the chain until a fuel truck is in position to be trapped.
  3274.  
  3275. > The convoy doesn't stop immediately.
  3276. > Much like with what happened before, you suspect they don't quite realize it's an attack.
  3277. > Not until you - ducking down slightly behind the ridge - uncover your end of the chain and yell to your ponies.
  3278. "Pull it! Pull it now!"
  3279. > The first two axles had passed over the pit already, but by the time the second two strike it there is nothing holding the plates up.
  3280. > Slamming to the ground with a thud and slightly lifting the front wheels from the ground, the truck grinds to a halt.
  3281. > Brakes squeal with a volume that makes your ears slam down on your head as the truck behind it immediately grinds to a halt.
  3282. > Somewhere further down the line a bolt of magic - thick and bright, to bright to be produced by an unaided unicorn - claws its way up into the sky to jab at the side of one flying machine.
  3283. > It doesn't die, but retreats trailing smoke.
  3284. > Chaos has overcome every semblance of a coherent plan now as ponies simply pour everything they can at the trucks while avoiding the return fire.
  3285. > A glinting object arcs through the air, slamming into the third fuel truck in the line.
  3286. > Instantly emerald flame erupts with a bass roar, the arcane dragonfire burning with a furious strength that no normal fire can match.
  3287. > You catch a glimpse of a human leaping from the front of the truck as the flames begin to run up the midsection.
  3288. > The humans are quick to respond, turning to engage you quickly.
  3289. > You're forced back down behind cover, but the fire starts to slack off as they are attacked from the far ridge as well.
  3290. > When you next dare to peek up, most of the humans have taken shelter within their vehicles.
  3291. > Those vehicles, however, are still quite, quite dangerous.
  3292. > The heaviest-armored ones have turned off the road and are sweeping the ridges with their heavy, rapid-firing cannon.
  3293. > Screams rise in the distance, but you are focused on doing all you can to do something to those fuel trucks.
  3294.  
  3295. "Spark, is there anything you can do about that fi-"
  3296. > You're cut off at the dragonfire finally eats its way through the truck's skin, oil disgorging in a flaming tide that sends a gout of thick, black smoke into the sky.
  3297. "...ire. Spark?"
  3298. > He grimaces.
  3299. > "It will be hard, but I think I can spread it to another truck."
  3300. > Peeking up, you notch and arrow and loose it at a human trying to climb into his vehicle again.
  3301. > It misses.
  3302. > "Boss."
  3303. > Ornithea is beside you now, motioning to her saddlebags.
  3304. > "The growth serum. If we land it right, the the growth might burn..."
  3305.  
  3306. ACTION:
  3307. - Try to throw a growth serum.
  3308.  
  3309. "Okay, Spark. Give me a shield for just a couple seconds and I will-"
  3310. > "Sir..."
  3311. "-toss one of these growth serums, maybe two-"
  3312. > "SIr!"
  3313. > You're practically thrown to the ground as a hailstorm of explosions erupts across the top of the ridge.
  3314. > One of the flying machines had come in low, spinning rotor buzzing angrily as it flew down the length of the ridge, firing as it went.
  3315. > Another lance of magic ripples out from whoever is using the focus, and the machine veers wildly under the impact.
  3316. > Too wildly; it comes to a smoky, explosive halt against the ground some four hundred yards out.
  3317. > A second later the mid-air projectile - probably launched from the third flying machine - slams into the point the magic bolt had been coming from.
  3318. > You don't wait to see what will happen, knowing it is all too likely whatever brave pony was operating the focus is long gone.
  3319. "Spark! Shield, now!"
  3320. > Instead you leap to the top of the ridge, not even waiting for the magic barrier to rise up around you.
  3321. > Cupping the vial in your feathers, you whip you wing out - sending the tiny glass container spinning through the air.
  3322. > It lands off-target, but second vial tossed a moment later comes in far closer.
  3323. > The effect is dramatic; like watching an illusionist's show about plants and nature.
  3324. > Vines, grasses, and a few bushes spring from the ground, the handful of stubborn tufts of sand-grass that had been growing near the road growing into something far larger.
  3325. > In seconds the fire has already begun to spread to them.
  3326. > It might not quite reach the first truck, but you can't toss third.
  3327. > Already Spark is panting when you drop back behind cover, his face pale.
  3328. > "I... don't think... we should be trying that again."
  3329. "Agreed. It's getting to be time to leave, we've done what we can."
  3330. > You wouldn't be the first ponies to break.
  3331. > Already others have started to split and run.
  3332.  
  3333. > The last two flying machines are circling, spraying out streams of fire as they avenge the destroyed fuel.
  3334. "Come on, come on! We're leaving - go, go!"
  3335.  
  3336. > Random event trigger!
  3337.  
  3338. > Charging down away from the first ridge, you desperately pray the armored carts won't be following you.
  3339. > So focused on fleeing are you that the rising howl barely registers to you.
  3340. > When the angular, dagger-like flying machines comes screeching overhead, though, you notice.
  3341. > And when it disgorges a line of falling objects in its wake, you instantly throw yourself to the ground and cover your head.
  3342. "Get down! Everypony get down!"
  3343. > And then the world turns to chaos.
  3344.  
  3345. [Roll for success; result: It's a miracle! You're unscathed!]
  3346.  
  3347. > The explosion picks you up and hurls you through the air.
  3348. > Struggling to resist the instinctive urge to spread your wings and ride out the shockwave, you instead slam back down to the ground and tumble several times.
  3349. > Spitting the dirt from your mouth, you push yourself up on aching legs.
  3350. "Is... is everypony okay? Check... check off."
  3351. > "Ornithea, I'm good."
  3352. > "Caravan, good."
  3353. > "Spark, shaken but good."
  3354. "Okay, we need - oh. Oh, sweet Celestia."
  3355. > You'd look back towards the ridge, expecting to see armored carts crawling over it and opening fire on the fleeing ponies.
  3356. > That you don't is only moderately reassuring.
  3357. > Dead and dying ponies lay scattered across the ridge, where at least two of the falling bombs had slammed into the 'sheltered' side of the slope.
  3358. > But they had not been the only victims.
  3359. > A huge pall of smoke is rising... from beyond the ridge.
  3360. > Even as you watch a fireball rises from somewhere further back, adding yet more oily smoke to the already-choked sky.
  3361. > Spark follows your gaze, his jaw dropping.
  3362. > "...did they..."
  3363. "...hit their own convoy by mistake. Yes. Yes they did."
  3364. > Somehow you doubt that you'll have to worry about major pursuit from the convoy itself.
  3365. "We need to go. Take advantage of this. They'll recover and be out for vengeance."
  3366. > Aching all over from the blows you had taken, you look around at the wounded.
  3367. > Some might be transportable... but at the cost of slowing you down.
  3368. > It would be riskier..
  3369. > But could you leave them to die?
  3370.  
  3371. ACTION:
  3372. - We can't slow ourselves with them.
  3373.  
  3374. "...we can't. If we don't get back to safety, we're going to be captured - or worse; they're not going to be happy. Come on, we need to move!"
  3375. > Taking to your hooves again, you break out in the fastest gallop you can.
  3376. > Two of their flying machines are still out there somewhere.
  3377. > You don't care to stick around and wait for them to make another pass overhead.
  3378. > ...strange.
  3379. > For you entire time as a Royal Guard, the pegasi division was the undisputed king of the skies above Equestria, capable of facing even rampaging dragons in a pinch.
  3380. > Now you know how some of the ponies and creatures you'd faced had felt - running as hard as they could, just waiting for the next blow to fall from above.
  3381. > It's a bit of knowledge you could have lived without.
  3382. > The sounds of battle still ring in your ears in the distance.
  3383. > Whether insane, over-zealous, or simply encircled and determined to do what they can some ponies still see to be fighting.
  3384. > You don't know what to think of them, except to be painfully thankful they seem to be drawing most of the remaining humans' attention.
  3385. > The hike back towards Las Pegasus is long and painful.
  3386. > Deep aches had long since settled into your legs, but you date not halt for any reason.
  3387. > Sometimes you see other ponies running in the distance.
  3388. > They, like you, don't stop for anything.
  3389. > This is simple survival now.
  3390. > Like being back in the Everfree all over again.
  3391. > Every time you hear the distant noise of a flying machine, you look up in fear.
  3392. > But they do not come for you.
  3393. > Perhaps they were focused on protecting what was left of the convoy, or the worms had done their job in ruining the camp thoroughly enough to prevent further flights from it.
  3394. > By late afternoon you're finally approaching the outskirts of the city.
  3395.  
  3396. > The map had remained somehow undamaged amid the carnage of battle, and you pull it open to try and get a judge on where you are using fading late-afternoon sunlight.
  3397. "...come on. I don't think we have further to go."
  3398. > Exhaustion dragged at your hooves, and you could tell the others were feeling it as well.
  3399. > Especially Spark; the sole unicorn struggles to keep his head up as you go.
  3400. "Okay, the tunnel should be somewhere in the fields just over this next-"
  3401. > Something reaches out and grabs for you hoof.
  3402. > In an instant your hoofblade is snapped out and at the ready, but it's only another pony - a guardspony, by the look of them.
  3403. "...what's going on?"
  3404. > "Humans. About twelve of them, two carts. Right on top of the tunnel. They're waiting for us."
  3405. > No!
  3406. > You'd gotten all this way, just to run in to this?!
  3407. > It wasn't fair!
  3408. "How mamy more of you?"
  3409. > "Nine. Maybe more coming. They haven't seen us yet, but stay down."
  3410. > Sliding into the tall grass, you grimace at the situation at hoof.
  3411. > Ornithea quickly finds a bird, sending it over to take a look.
  3412. > Unfortunately it can add little - eleven humans, two of them in the armored carts.
  3413. > At least the carts are the lightest kind - only on four wheels.
  3414. > And you did hold a slight numerical advantage...
  3415. > But still...
  3416.  
  3417. ACTION:
  3418. - Wait a little while longer to see if more ponies show up, make for one of the other tunnel entrances and hope it is clear.
  3419.  
  3420. > There's no doubt that time is running short.
  3421. > It seems that with each passing minute the sun droops lower and the beginning of curfew comes even closer.
  3422. > Even though it's only a few minutes, the wait seems to be an eternity.
  3423. > A few more ponies straggle in - being caught well before they would blunder into the group of humans.
  3424. > But in the end, it is nowhere close to enough ponies to face down their armored carts.
  3425. "...come on. We need to move. We'll find another tunnel entrance."
  3426. > "And if they're watching that one too?"
  3427. > The other guardspony - a unicorn corporal, by the rank insignia crudely painted over his cutie mark - has venom in his voice, even though it never rises beyond a whisper.
  3428. "Then we figure out something else. You can stay, if you want, but I'm getting my ponies to safety."
  3429. > "You can't do that! Who in Celestia's name is even senio-"
  3430. "You honestly think chain of command matters right this moment? My standing orders are to get everypony I can back to safety, and I'm going to carry them out."
  3431. > And so you go.
  3432. > A minute later you look back, and see they have chosen to follow.
  3433. > Good.
  3434. > Despite his utter idiocy - how someone like that thought to retreat early on from the 'ambush' in the first place is beyond you - you really didn't want to get in a command dispute with another guardspony.
  3435. > It's another good forty minutes travel south to the next tunnel.
  3436. > Probably only twenty minutes good walk, but you're forced to keep low and call a halt at the sign of any movement.
  3437.  
  3438. > Never do they prove to be more than shadows - or wildlife - but even so, you can't let go of the edge you keep yourself on.
  3439. > At last the next entrance comes into view.
  3440. > This time, there are no more humans.
  3441. > What there is, is a head that abruptly pops up from seemingly nothing and glares at you.
  3442. > "Took your time getting back. You got wounded?"
  3443. > You don't, but some of others do.
  3444. > Getting them in through the tiny cleft between two rocks proves to be rather trickier, but possible.
  3445. > Crawling through the tunnel is just as unpleasant a task as the ones around your home had been.
  3446. > Emerging into a disused store - or, at least, one that hasn't seen much business since the invasion - you help the remaining guardsponies and a few changelings up out of the tunnel.
  3447. > A glance outside confirms your worst fears.
  3448. > It is already quite late, and the curfew looms.
  3449.  
  3450. ACTION:
  3451. - Head for home immediately.
  3452.  
  3453. "Come on. We can't afford to stay here, and I'd like to be home before curfew."
  3454. > Stepping out from the store, you take a look up and down the street.
  3455. > There don't appear to be any ponies about to rat you out.
  3456. > But then again, there don't appear to be any ponies about at all.
  3457. > No humans either, though.
  3458. > Setting out at a fast trot, Ornithea nearly slams into your rear when you suddenly halt.
  3459. > It is fortunate that the fast convoy of human carts that pulls past doesn't seem to care for you.
  3460. > Maybe it's the obvious fear that you can't help but show.
  3461. > "What is going on, boss? I don't think I've seen the streets this empty since..."
  3462. "...they moved in, yeah."
  3463. > You look around, frowning but having to agree with Caravan's suspicions.
  3464. > "I don't like it either."
  3465. "I know, Spark. Everypony and the humans are both spooked. We just need to keep moving."
  3466. > "And if they stop us?"
  3467. > You pat your saddlebags.
  3468. "Medicine, for our injured friend."
  3469. > Thank Celestia you'd ditched the rags you used to cover your head before entering the city.
  3470. > Another few streets up, though, you run into something entirely unexpected.
  3471. > A line of human armored carts sit scattered in the street.
  3472. > Further down, the charred wreckage of a lighter, smaller one blazes merrily away.
  3473. > This had not been part of the plan.
  3474. "...I think our action may have provoked some others to do something stupid."
  3475. > "You said it, boss. Now I really want to be home; if Copper's bunch are out and about in this, it could be ugly."
  3476.  
  3477. [Roll for safe travel; result:  You travel without running into anyone.]
  3478.  
  3479. > The pace you set is nearly a gallop.
  3480. > No sane pony would be out on a slow stroll right now.
  3481. > But neither do you rush along at a full dash, definitely wanting not to appear suspicious.
  3482. > Your luck appears to hold, as the few human patrols that drive past seem not to care about you.
  3483. > Perhaps it is that they have greater things on their minds - judging by the hard, watchful looks on their faces, the wreckage you saw probably isn't the only place.
  3484. > Or maybe it is the obvious fear that you display, yet not fleeing - not acting guilty.
  3485. > Or maybe you're just too far away from anything happening immediately to be suspicious.
  3486. > It isn't something you care to think on too heavily.
  3487. > Ponies, on the other hand?
  3488. > Aside from numerous faces peeking cautiously from behind drawn curtains they are few and far between.
  3489. > Occasionally another form, running along in the distance, can be seen.
  3490. > But rarely.
  3491. > Overhead, the torn and ruined remnants of the remaining cloud district hang still in the sky.
  3492. > From time to time a small flying machine - one of the ones with no one controlling them, you think - comes buzzing overhead.
  3493. > By the time you arrive at the dockyard gate, it is entirely possible that curfew has already fallen.
  3494. > Without a good clock to tell time by, it's a risk you'll have to just take as you approach the soldiers on duty.
  3495. > They don't seem pleased to see you initially, weapons rising at the ready until they realize who you are.
  3496. > Only then do they fall, one waving to you.
  3497. > "Is a bad time to be out, pony. You need to be through?"
  3498. "...yes, if you could. We'd like to be home - we all got caught out at work when this started."
  3499. > "Yes, I know."
  3500. > He motions to your bags.
  3501. > "We will need to see this, though."
  3502. > Nothing but the carefully-wrapped alchemy vials remains... which they recognize as your medicine this time.
  3503. > "You should stay inside. Maybe one day, maybe two."
  3504. "That bad...?"
  3505. > "You do not see?"
  3506.  
  3507. > He motions skyward to what remains of the cloud district.
  3508. > "Is very, very bad. Big thing attack, and many other ponies."
  3509. > A pause, and the soldier leans in.
  3510. > "You do not know these ponies, yes?"
  3511. "Not at all!"
  3512. > Caravan speaks up as well, nodding his head furiously.
  3513. > "I don't think whoever did this would be happy we gave you those things. The machinery, and the focus."
  3514. > "Yes, is true. You are helpful pony."
  3515. > Even with the somewhat flattering terms the statement is placed in, there's a degree of honest relief in his voice.
  3516. > "We do not want to fight good pony. Is not good, for us or for pony."
  3517. > Arriving at the house, something immediately sets you on edge.
  3518. > You're not sure what, but something seems... wrong.
  3519. "Caravan, do you..."
  3520. > "Yeah. Something ain't right."
  3521.  
  3522. ACTION:
  3523. - Have Spark scan for magic use inside the home, then split into two teams. One will enter through the window, one through the front door.
  3524.  
  3525. "Spark, any magic being used in there?"
  3526. > The unicorn glances back to make sure there aren't any humans in sight before his horn pulses once.
  3527. > "...yeah, some low-level stuff. Nothing that feels too powerful, just simple things. There's... some lingering things, though. Somepony was using more powerful magic here before we arrived."
  3528. > Well.
  3529. > That isn't reassuring.
  3530. "Any idea where? Rough idea?"
  3531. > "Not... not really. Sorry, I can only get a rough feeling for what might have been used."
  3532. > In truth, you had't expected more.
  3533. > Only those unicorns truly talented in tracking or locating spells could naturally get any more specific.
  3534. "That's alright. Caravan, if things go badly, go back to the gate and get the humans here. Let them do the fighting for us."
  3535. > "Got it."
  3536. "Ornithea, you're with me. We'll take a back window in. Caravan, Spark, take the door."
  3537. > "Understood. Spark, can you give me a shield?"
  3538. > "It won't be strong, but yes."
  3539. "Alright. Quiet now, move up."
  3540. > There's only so softly hooves can fall on pavement, but you think you generally do a good of quieting your steps.
  3541. > At a few paces out nopony has reacted yet... which you don't take to be a good sign.
  3542. > If they had a watch up, you would have been seen by now.
  3543. "Go!"
  3544. > At the whispered command you leap up, a single beat of your wings carrying you up to a window.
  3545. > Hurling it open, you tumble through.
  3546. > Before you can rise to your hooves the door slams open, immediately followed by a hoarse yell.
  3547. > You are still turning to face it when something slams into yours side, hooves driving into your ribs.
  3548. > Later you would be thankful that at least your wings were still half-spread; that saved them from taking a potentially injurious blow.
  3549.  
  3550. > Right then, however, it isn't much comfort; pain has bloomed all along your side, and it feels like a whole clan of Diamond Dogs decided to play drums with your skull.
  3551. > "No! Iri, don't, he's my commander!"
  3552. > Abruptly the pummeling halts.
  3553. > "...he will live."
  3554. > The voice is not familiar to you, but the next one is deeply welcome.
  3555. > "Oh, sweet Celestia - I'm sorry, she didn't know it was you."
  3556. "S'okay, Whispen. I don't think anything's broken; you stopped her in time."
  3557. > "Good thing, too."
  3558. > Ornithea sounds shaken.
  3559. > "I was about a second away from bucking her into the next room."
  3560. > Whispen helps you to your feet, allowing you to get your first look at your attacker.
  3561. > No wonder you didn't see her; charcoal-grey pegasus is nearly invisible in the dim, early-evening light.
  3562. "...who're you?"
  3563. > "Iridescent Glaze. I've been sent to accompany you."
  3564. > Her tone is clipped, business-like, coldly professional.
  3565. "Oh. You're Buttercup's envoy."
  3566. > Wincing again, you shake your head to clear the last of the fog from it.
  3567. "...you've got a mean pair of hoofs there, you know that?"
  3568. > "Yes."
  3569. "...riiiight. Okay, Whispen, report - what happened? Is everypony okay?"
  3570. > She nods sharply.
  3571. > "Hot Pot is upstairs. I wanted her to be safe, if they came back."
  3572. "Let me guess. Copper's bunch?"
  3573. > "Yes. Him and one other, an earth pony I didn't recognize. They broke in - I think they were going to hurt us - but they weren't expecting Iri."
  3574. > Figures he would run the moment he was outnumbered.
  3575. "Didn't you set a watch?"
  3576. > Whispen flushes.
  3577. > "I was supposed to be on watch, sir. I was pulled away for just a moment, and right then..."
  3578. "...we got back. Got it."
  3579. > "Um, there's one other thing. The earth pony who came with him... we managed to catch him. I'm sorry, sir, I was checking on him with Iri when you came back."
  3580. > Oooh, dear.
  3581. > You are in no situation to be handling prisoners of your own.
  3582. "Right, let's take a look."
  3583.  
  3584. > The moment you lay eyes on the earth pony - bound on all four hooves and gagged - you recognize him.
  3585. "...I know this pony. He tried to follow Caravan, Ornithea and I one day."
  3586. > You fix the scrawny stallion, clay-red with a sharp look.
  3587. "And I thought I told you we didn't want to cross paths with you anymore."
  3588. > He can't respond aloud, of course, but his eyes say plenty.
  3589.  
  3590. ACTION:
  3591. - Interrogate him here.
  3592.  
  3593. "Okay..."
  3594. > Slipping out of the basement for a moment, you locate your remaining ponies and begin issuing orders.
  3595. "Caravan, make sure our escape packs are ready to go. The more we can carry, the better."
  3596. > "On it."
  3597. "Ornithea, go see to Hot Pot. Make sure she's okay. Once that's done, see about getting us some food. Spark, you're on watch."
  3598. > "What about you, sir?"
  3599. "Whispen and I are going to have a talk with this pony."
  3600. > He is just as furious when you return, the bright-red stallion glaring up at you through narrowed eyes.
  3601. > You reach down, tearing the gag from where it had been bound around his head.
  3602. > A soft grunt issues as the cloth tugs on his mane as it pulls away, but he seems unfazed.
  3603. "So. My second here says you tried to break in while we were out and hurt the ponies there were here."
  3604. > No response is given.
  3605. "I think you can imagine I don't take to well to allowing you to just trot on out after that, so first we're going to have a bit of a talk."
  3606. > "Oh, so now you're into torture as well? Who the fuck do you think you are, the Griffons?"
  3607. "I'm in to keeping them safe. I'm sure you understand that Copper has an issue with me - I need to know, how big is he going to make this?"
  3608. > "As big as he needs to."
  3609. > The sneer on his face is starting to annoy you.
  3610. > "We're trying to get stuff done, and you're a risk. You know who we are, what we're doing. You wouldn't join us, so-"
  3611. "I told you back in the market, you keep out of our way and we'd keep out of yours."
  3612. > "Y'know, you say that - but from what we've been hearing, you went after Copper even after he bailed your sorry flanks out of trouble in some other town."
  3613. > "So, you think that gives you reason to kill ponies?"
  3614. > His eyes actually bug out in surprise.
  3615. > "Kill you? Sweet Celestia, what the hell do you think we are? We weren't going to kill anypony - just leave you a message not to get in our way."
  3616.  
  3617. "A message by beating up two injured ponies. I'm sure you must be proud of yourself. Is Copper going to come back?"
  3618. > Jaw slamming shut again, the only response you get is the pony's defiant stare.
  3619. "...right, let's try something simpler. You have a name?"
  3620. > "Course Layer."
  3621. > Glancing at the stallion's mark, you're met by a trowel matched with a dark-brown brick.
  3622. "...brickworker, huh?"
  3623. > "Nopony get 'em as smooth and even as I do!"
  3624. > For just a moment, there's a flash of pride in the stallion's face as he uttered the declaration - but it soon fades.
  3625. > "...not like I'll be doing much brick-laying so long as those damn things are in our city."
  3626.  
  3627. [Numerous responses; melded together to produce resulting posts.]
  3628.  
  3629. "You honestly think that Copper is the good pony here? You really do? After he sent you to beat up on a pair of mares?"
  3630. > "If you had just agreed to work with us-"
  3631. "Did you miss what went on out there earlier today? Did you miss the fighting outside the city? Do you think you're the only ones doing anything?"
  3632. > "Hey, just because some big worms decided to take some bites out of their camp-"
  3633. "We were dying out there, Course. We hit a convoy as well; it... didn't go the best. But we are fighting back too - just not while putting civilians in direct risk."
  3634. > This seems to give him pause - perhaps because you're still dirty, scuffed, and bruised from the day's adventures.
  3635. "I understand you're upset, and more than likely scared. You want to react somehow to this threat, and attacking every human seems like a viable solution. - It's not. With that said..."
  3636. > You lean in, until you are practically nose-to-nose with him.
  3637. "...I need to know how your resistance force works. Now, you're going to tell me who is your Commanding Officer - 'chief', I think you called him - and where are they located. While I'd prefer not having to beat it out of you, I'm perfectly willing to use force if need be."
  3638. > Whispen shuffles uncomfortably next to you.
  3639. > Truthfully, it's not a choice you'd be particularly comfortable with either, especially since he seemed willing to listen at least somewhat.
  3640. > "Oh, so now you're taking the high ground while trying to threaten a pony-"
  3641. "I'm protecting my ponies. You've stalked us once and tried to hurt us. That's not something I can tolerate."
  3642. > "Well you know what?"
  3643. > Course Layer gives you sharp look.
  3644. > "Just like you don't want to give up your friends, I don't want to give up mine. I don't care what Copper did to you - the others, I ain't giving them up."
  3645. "That's too bad. I'd hate it if you weren't able to lay bricks to nicely again..."
  3646. > "Sir..."
  3647.  
  3648. > You shoot Whispen a sharp glare.
  3649. > She goes quiet, but you can still see how resistant she is.
  3650. > It doesn't surprise you.
  3651. > Fighting other ponies is something you'd even tried to keep to a minimum.
  3652. > And the fact was that if you did beat Course Layer you wouldn't be really able to let him free without having a talk with his CO.
  3653. > Not without being fairly certain they would come back.
  3654. > "I can make him tell."
  3655. > Iri's voice is soft in the darkness, and that somehow makes it seem even more menacing.
  3656. > Well, with what you know, anyhow.
  3657. > The Changeling could probably mesmerize him right there... but.
  3658. > But.
  3659. > Could you do that?
  3660. > Would it be any worse than beating him?
  3661.  
  3662. ACTION:
  3663. - Keep trying to talk to Course Layer.
  3664. - In addition to the good pone/bad pone stuff, we should take Iri aside first and find out exactly how she's going to go about getting this 'mesmerizing'.
  3665.  
  3666. "I don't want to hurt your friends, Course. But I can't let Copper just come back over and over again - what will happen next time? Will he just try and set the house on fire?"
  3667. > "Shove off."
  3668. > Frowning, you shake your head.
  3669. "I can't do that, Course. It's not even a choice anymore. I just want to talk to your chief."
  3670. > "I can send a message."
  3671. "We asked you to do that this time, Course. It didn't work out too well."
  3672. > Course seems about to stay something, but immediately clams up again.
  3673. "...what were you going to say, Course."
  3674. > He shakes his head sharply.
  3675. > "You let me go, I'll take a message. Not more."
  3676. "...Whispen, see if you can get something out of him. Iri, I need a word with you."
  3677. > Retreating back up the stairs, you wait for the door to close before turning to face the changeling.
  3678. "What exactly were you going to do?"
  3679. > "We can influence minds. Buttercup told you this."
  3680. > Her tone is dismissive, as if that you were questioning her at all was a point of annoyance.
  3681. > Were all Changelings so abrasive?
  3682. > Tariff had been nice enough.
  3683. "...okay, but what does that mean? Will he know?"
  3684. > "No. I will not have to change out... he will not remember anything. It will take some time, though."
  3685. "How long?"
  3686. > She gives you a grin that leaves a shiver running down your spine.
  3687. > "Or you could just let him see what I am."
  3688. "...let's not do that just yet."
  3689. > Opening the door again, you call down for Whispen.
  3690. > She comes back up, her face knitted in a small, sad frown.
  3691. "Any luck?"
  3692. > "He seems sympathetic... understanding. Especially once I told him what you went through today."
  3693. "But..."
  3694. > She sighs softy.
  3695. > "He's very determined. He doesn't want to give up their names or locations."
  3696.  
  3697. ACTION:
  3698. - Allow Iridescent Glaze to control him.
  3699. - 3, with no warning. If he learns we are using magic against him, or changelings, it could get bad quickly, and certainly making future interactions with the chief much more difficult. Blindfold him again, and let the Changeling stay in the room overnight with him. Check in tomorrow morning when he is ready, and question him. After we're done, we'll know if setting him free is a good option or not.
  3700.  
  3701. "Iri, would you still be able to... do your thing on him, if we were to drug him with something?"
  3702. > "What kind of something?"
  3703. "Hallucinogen. Some kind of zebra alchemy; we don't exactly know how powerful yet. Stands to reason it'd probably be strong, though."
  3704. > Iri gives a small snort.
  3705. > "If you want my help, don't even think about it; it's like trying to grab something that's too slippery to hold on to. Same problem as too much alcohol: Easy to feed, hard to control."
  3706. "How long?
  3707. > "You'd have to wait a day for the stuff to be completely flushed out of his system."
  3708. > Great.
  3709. > Whispen lifts a hoof towards you, looking surpremely uncomfortably with this turn of affairs.
  3710. > "Sir, we shouldn't hurt him. Even if he won't talk now - maybe not now, but if we torture him or force him he definitely won't ever forgive us!"
  3711. "I don't want his forgiveness, Whispen. I want us to be safe."
  3712. > "I can do it without permanently harming him. He will not remember."
  3713. > Iri is starting to sound annoyed that this decision is taking so long.
  3714. > She'd rather you just set her loose from the start, you imagine, but Whispen still shakes her head.
  3715. > "Is this what you signed up to do when you became a guard?"
  3716. > The answer, of course, is no.
  3717. > And if you did - even if none of the others knew - you'd have crossed a line that not even this invasion could truly justify.
  3718. > But simply waiting for Course to have a change of mind isn't any better either.
  3719. > At any point tomorrow Copper could return.
  3720.  
  3721. ACTION:
  3722. - Allow Iridescent Glaze to control him and get the information.
  3723.  
  3724. "...Iri, as long as he doesn't remember anything, you'll be good."
  3725. > "Only what he sees before I gain control over him."
  3726. "Then we'll go blindfold him."
  3727. > "Got it."
  3728. > Retreating to the basement. you're met again by an angry look from Course Layer.
  3729. > "Come down to to do the dirty work on your own, huh-"
  3730. "Oh for Celestia's sake, stop trying to make us out to be the bad ponies here. Copper Cog tried to burn two of mine alive because they followed orders; that's not something any sane pony does."
  3731. > "You were the one who was threatening to force me to give up where-"
  3732. "Yeah, well, we're not going to beat you. Unlike Copper, I actually have some sense of morals left in me."
  3733. > Whispen gives you a look at that, but doesn't say anything.
  3734. > Once the blindfold is in place and secured, you put a hoof on his withers.
  3735. "Look. For now, just stay down here and be quiet, and you'll be alright, okay? We'll see about getting some food down here for you later."
  3736. > "...alright."
  3737. > He doesn't sound too certain, and you aren't quite sure if 'alright' qualifies when you're about to set on a Changeling on him.
  3738. > For that matter, you aren't too sure about it yourself.
  3739. > Ever since you gave Iri the go-ahead, your stomach has been churning and you can smell sweat beginning to gather on your coat again.
  3740. > Even if it wasn't likely that she would lie to you about the effects of her control, the fact was you'd just condemned a stallion to the same fate you'd had nightmares about ever since the wedding in Canterlot.
  3741. > And it wasn't doing you any good.
  3742. > Stomping back up the stairs, you give Iri a sharp look and nod.
  3743. "I'll make sure you aren't bothered for a while."
  3744.  
  3745. > "Good. I will return with... results."
  3746. > Retreating before she can say any more, you flee upstairs.
  3747. > Breathing suddenly seems difficult, as though something were clogging your lungs.
  3748. > Staggering into the room you'd claimed as yours, you all but collapse against the bed - each breath coming sharp and shallow.
  3749.  
  3750. [Roll for self-control; result: You pull yourself together completely.]
  3751.  
  3752. > Gritting your teeth, you marshal your willpower and force the rising gorge back down.
  3753. > No.
  3754. > This isn't Canterlot.
  3755. > Iri isn't going to kill him.
  3756. > You did not condemn him to a life of being fed on, and he had brought it on himself by attacking you.
  3757. > This wasn't-
  3758. > "Sir...?"
  3759. > Your head shoots up, twisting for the door.
  3760. > Whispen stands there, concern stamped on her face.
  3761. "Hey... uh..."
  3762. > Damn, you hadn't even heard her coming up the stairs, even with her still-stiff leg.
  3763. > "Are you... going to be alright?"
  3764. "Yeah. Just a bit of... some bad thoughts."
  3765. > "About sending her down there."
  3766. > You nod, your breath still coming slightly shakily.
  3767. > Whispen looks back down hall, then steps in through the door.
  3768. > "Is this a bad time...?"
  3769. "No, go ahead."
  3770. > Closing it behind her with a kick, Whispen begins to talk.
  3771. > "Thank you. I... followed you up here when you ran off. It was pretty obvious that you were upset."
  3772. > A grimace crosses your face.
  3773. "That bad, huh? Do you think the others noticed?"
  3774. > "I don't think so. But, that's not what I wanted to say."
  3775. > Her sole good eye falls to the floor, and when she speaks again it's in a smaller voice.
  3776. > "I... was ready to be angry at you. Because of what you did, sending Iridescent Glaze down there."
  3777. > Tilting your head fractionally in surprise, you knit your brows; Whispen, seeing that you do not object, goes on.
  3778. > "But... if this is what it's doing to you... I don't think I really have a right to be angry. You're beating yourself up badly enough already without me helping."
  3779. "I... thank you, I guess."
  3780.  
  3781. ACTION:
  3782. - Tell her it's okay, you can understand why a pony would be upset with you for doing that.
  3783. - Hug her and tell her you're glad she still came to look out for you.
  3784.  
  3785. "...I can understand why a pony would be upset with me for doing that."
  3786. > Whispen gives you a little smile.
  3787. > "You look like you're pretty upset with yourself, so I can certainly believe that."
  3788. "Yeah."
  3789. > A laugh bubbles up from within you - like some pressure being released, now that the moment is passed and you aren't nearly caught in your memories anymore.
  3790. "I certainly did that, didn't I... speaking of which, thank you as well."
  3791. > You reach out and pull her into a gentle hug.
  3792. > Whispen makes a surprised little noise, but soon relaxes into it.
  3793. "For coming up in to look out for me even though you were upset."
  3794. > She nods, her own voice quiet as well.
  3795. > "...you try and look after us all the time, but somepony has to look out for you as well. Make sure you aren't hurting yourself by being so focused on keeping us safe."
  3796. "That why you object to my plans so often?"
  3797. > Even with the joking tone obvious in your voice, you can feel Whispen flush slightly.
  3798. > "Yes. I try and be the opposing voice in these matters... making sure you don't loose what makes you right just by trying to do right for us."
  3799. > It's a bit of twisting logic, but you understand where she is going.
  3800. > She's trying to be your conscience, in a way - and somepony who would point out the downsides to your plan, just to make sure you understood them.
  3801. > "Besides, I don't think you'd like it if I just constantly praised you no matter what."
  3802. "...what makes you say that?"
  3803. > "Well... you listen when I point things out. You make yourself better. And, I don't want to see you lose that..."
  3804. > Lose that merely as a superior officer, you wonder, or as a pony?
  3805. "Well... thank you. It is good to know somepony is thinking of me personally as well."
  3806. > Oh, yes.
  3807. > She definitely flushed there.
  3808. > "...well. Yes. I'm... glad you're liking it."
  3809. > Patting her briefly on the head, you pull back.
  3810. "Come on. We should-"
  3811.  
  3812. > Before you can say anything further Whispen very quickly and suddenly pecks you on the cheek, then whispers:
  3813. > "And, I'm glad you came back safely. I was worried, too."
  3814. > Without allowing you to so much as say a word in reply, she turns and all but flees from the room, leaving you to curiously raise a hoof to your cheek.
  3815. > What had that been about...?
  3816. > Deciding to think on it later, you wander downstairs to see what is happening there.
  3817. > Caravan is the first to report, motioning to several sets of saddlebags in the corner.
  3818. > "They're all ready to go if we need to leave. Three days' food for each of us, plus a first-aid kit and some spare things. We might want to think about picking up some spare food, though."
  3819. "Alright. A cart is probably going to be needed for travel as well; Hot Pot can't stay in the air all the time."
  3820. > The pegasus in question was fluttering about the kitchen again, directing Spark in aiding with dinner.
  3821. > Despite the indirect setup, the meal proves to be just as good as she typically did - albeit a bit repetitive by this point, although you weren't going to complain.
  3822. > Iri does not join you, though - in fact, she does not emerge at all until the following morning.
  3823. > When she does, though, she seems quite content with herself.
  3824. > Very pleased indeed - something about the content smirk on her face puts you on edge.
  3825. > "I have the name of their group, their leader, and where they can be found."
  3826. "Great. We might have to go have a chat with them today."
  3827.  
  3828. ACTION:
  3829. - "Do you need to bring anything with you if we were going to leave suddenly?"
  3830. - Shower before heading out.
  3831.  
  3832. > A sudden, critical question pops into your head.
  3833. "If we were to have to suddenly leave, would there be anything you would have to take with you? We have our saddlebags ready to go, but there's anything you need..."
  3834. > She shakes her head.
  3835. > "I will bring a few of my tools as cover for my job. But, nothing truly significant - and they are already prepared."
  3836. "...tools?"
  3837. > "Pottery-making tools. This identity - Iridescent Glaze - she is a potter, specializing in glazing."
  3838. "Ah. I admit, I was wondering."
  3839. > You motion towards her dull, charcoal-grey main over an only barely-lighter coat.
  3840. > "It seemed to fit - and glazing is a simple process, requiring little talent to be passable. I would never be famous, but I do not intend to be."
  3841. > Though you might be less unnerved by their presence, never would you get used to the Changelings' mindset.
  3842. > Slipping on an identity, choosing a skill they would only be 'passable' at... how odd.
  3843. "...right. Well, just a warning - if things from yesterday continue to spiral out of control, we may be leaving on short notice. Hopefully not before we get to share a dinner with your friends tomorrow night, but still."
  3844. > The declaration yields only a noncommittal grunt from Iri.
  3845. > Leaving the otherwise uncommunicative changeling behind, you decide to take a shower to clear away any hints of the previous day's activities.
  3846. > No point in taking a risk.
  3847. > The problem comes with when you emerge.
  3848. > Caravan, Spark and Ornithea seem to have cornered Iri, whose lips are drawn back in an angry snarl.
  3849. > If you didn't know better, you'd say she looks like she's about to drop her disguise and grow back a Changeling's normal fangs.
  3850. > Hot Pot is hanging back, a worried look on her face, while Whispen is desperately trying to regain control of the situation.
  3851. > "...and we shouldn't do anything until we know exactly what happened!"
  3852.  
  3853. "...yes, what exactly is going on here?"
  3854. > All of them spin to face you.
  3855. > Caravan reacts first, raising a hoof to point at Iri.
  3856. > "Sir! She did something to Course Layer. He's not waking up."
  3857. > "He is! He's just... there's something wrong with him!"
  3858. Okay, Hot Pot - tell me exactly what is going on, then."
  3859. > "Caravan and I went downstairs to give him some food, but - Course layer just wouldn't respond real well. He's just groaning but not speaking coherently, and his eyes are unfocused don't open entirely."
  3860. "Is he eating?"
  3861. > "Yes, but slowly. I'm not sure it's helping. And he won't get up and move, so if he keeps eating and drinking..."
  3862. > What goes in, must come out.
  3863. > Yeah, that could be a problem.
  3864.  
  3865. ACTION:
  3866. -  Get them to back off, take Iri to a side room with another and talk to her more quietly there.
  3867.  
  3868. "...alright, everpony back off. Yes, Caravan, everypony. I'm not in the mood for this."
  3869. > You raise a hoof, pointing at Iri and Hot Pot in turn.
  3870. "Okay, you and you - come with me. Now."
  3871. > Apparently your tone brooks no arguments, as both follow without any question.
  3872. > Sliding into a side room, you slam the door shut behind you and turn to face the two ponies.
  3873. > Well, one pony and a changeling.
  3874. "...okay, Iri. One chance to explain this all. What in Tartarus happened to him?"
  3875. > "I had to feed on him."
  3876. > The way she says it, it's almost as if the statement were the most harmless thing in the world - a calm declaration of fact, rather than an admission that she had gone far beyond your orders.
  3877. "You had to - sweet Celestia, Iri! I didn't say you should-"
  3878. > "You said I should extract the name of his associates, their leader, and where they are living. I retrieved all those things."
  3879. > Her eyes narrow, lips beginning to draw back again.
  3880. "I gave your permission to use whatever mesmerizing, bedazzling thing it is you do! Not to drain him dry!"
  3881. > "Feeding lowers their resistance to control, and ensure I am at my most powerful. It was necessary to ensure I would be successful."
  3882. "And you didn't think this was a good idea to tell me?"
  3883. > "You didn't ask."
  3884. > If not for how furious you already are you think she would be heavily smirking as well.
  3885. > Almost like it was some big joke that she had worked out a way around your orders.
  3886. "...is he going to recover?"
  3887. > "Yes. In one day, maybe two. I fed rapidly, but not very deeply; he will regain his senses in time."
  3888. > Well, at least you had that going for you.
  3889. "...okay. Hot Pot, how bad is he?"
  3890. > "Um, I didn't get a really good look at him - not able to land and all - but he was moving sluggishly. I don't think he exactly knew where he was, but once we encouraged him he was able to eat."
  3891.  
  3892. > At this Iri butts in again:
  3893. > "He will not kill himself, if that is what you ask. We are not so foolish as to put our food in a place where it might starve itself."
  3894. > As if you needed a reminder of what this was used for.
  3895. "But, if we had to show Course Layer to his buddies, they'd still probably be upset."
  3896. > Iri chuckles.
  3897. > "Unless they are less perturbed by the idea of you drugging him... no, I would not show him to them. Not until he is recovered."
  3898. "Great."
  3899. > Groaning, you think over your response for a moment.
  3900. "...okay, Iri. Next time you're going to be able to do something like that, tell me. I don't care how bad it sounds, I don't care if it's some big secret."
  3901. > "I understand. I will tell you all of the effects next time."
  3902. "Good. We're a team here; we don't keep secrets from each other, alright?"
  3903. > "Oh, and I suppose you are being totally open with your subordinates about how you feel for that mare?"
  3904.  
  3905. ACTION:
  3906. - Tell her that you have been open, but you are trying to remain a professional leader despite your feelings.
  3907. - Ask if the relationships between ponies in this unit are going to be an issue for her.
  3908.  
  3909. "I have been open with them, yes. But, I am trying to do my actual duty and remain a professional leader despite my feelings."
  3910. > Taking a step forward, you allow just the slightest hint of your anger at her continued attitude leak out.
  3911. "Is this going to be a problem? Because if the fact that there are ponies in this unit who happen to be in relationships is going to be an issue, I need to know about that too."
  3912. > For just a second there is a contest of wills between yourself and Iridescent.
  3913. > She flinches first.
  3914. > "...no. It will not."
  3915. "Good. If that's done, then would you mind stepping out? I need to figure out what I am doing about the disaster the last few days have been."
  3916. > Iri seems to take the hint that she isn't particularly wanted at this moment and departs, turning aside to make her way to one of the other back rooms.
  3917. > You follow her out, Hot Pot fluttering along worriedly behind you.
  3918. > The rest of your ponies are still gathered around in the living room; as you enter, four sets of eyes rise to settle on you; Spark is the first to speak.
  3919. > "What's the word, boss?"
  3920. "...he'll be fine in a day or two, and it won't happen again."
  3921. > "What was it?"
  3922. "Apparently she fed on him as part of the whole process."
  3923. > That leads to another round of unhappy murmurs that you quickly silence by raising one hoof.
  3924. "I know, I'm none too pleased with it either and I made that abundantly. Right now, though, there are bigger problems: Copper's bunch, and the rest of the guard as well. We need to check in on them."
  3925.  
  3926. > Caravan nods.
  3927. > "We're down to about a week's worth of food - less if we feed the other Changelings - and the cart we took from the school won't be real good if we end up traveling. We've got a couple-hundred bits; that should cover food for at least a week or two more and the cart."
  3928. "We'll also be able to forage if we leave the city, but you have a point. Noted."
  3929.  
  3930. [Numerous suggestions; ultimately we go to check on Fairweather while Caravan and Spark go to the market and Ornithea sends her birds to try and scout the human camp.]
  3931.  
  3932. "...okay. Whispen and I are going to see Fairweather; Spark, Caravan, go get us some supplies - especially things that will keep under travel."
  3933. > "Understood, sir."
  3934. "Ornithea, I want you out and about around the docks. See if any of your friends in the sky can give us some information - what things are like in the humans' camp, or if they can keep some extra eyes out for Copper. I still don't know how he got past the humans at the gate, and that's making me nervous."
  3935. > "I'll do my best, sir."
  3936. "Good. Try to stay close to the home or some of the humans, just in case he comes back. Hot Pot, you're holding things down here with Iri and Ornithea when she returns."
  3937. > "On it."
  3938. "Alright. Whispen, give me just a moment to do one thing first."
  3939. > Slipping into the back room Iri had vanished into, you find her curled up on a matress - staring calmly out the window.
  3940. "Hey..."
  3941. > "Yes?"
  3942. > She doesn't even look over towards you.
  3943. > Was she angry with you, or was this just carry-over of her earlier attitude?
  3944. "...hey. Look, I realize you did what you had to. We're still learning too... this whole war, it's been a pretty sharp learning curve for us all. So... in the future, if you need to feed, ask one of us, okay?"
  3945. > At last she actually turns to meet your gaze, nodding fractionally.
  3946. > "I will."
  3947. > Stars above, did Buttercup saddle you with the most frustrating Changeling in existence?
  3948. > This is going to get old, very very fast.
  3949. "...right. Look, we're going out for while. Hot Pot will be here, and Ornithea will be back sooner than the rest of us."
  3950. > "I understand."
  3951. > Though those two words were ones you commonly heard from your guardsponies, somehow they sounded more dismissive coming from the disguised changeling.
  3952. "...okay, then."
  3953. > As you depart, you stop at the gatehouse.
  3954.  
  3955. > The humans there are more than willing to listen to your tale about Copper Cog, especially without how on edge they are following the previous days' attacks.
  3956. > It's strange, how helpful they've suddenly become.
  3957. > Even though they nearly imprisoned you once before, by now you've become a familiar face - and one who, apparently, wanted nothing more than to move on with life and continue living without trouble.
  3958. > In return, they are more than willing to lend an ear to your story, one even producing a pad of paper to quickly write down your description of Copper Cog.
  3959. > If the once-guardspony decides to return, he'll find it a fair bit harder to simply walk on in... if that's what he even did in the first place.
  3960. > Trotting on further out, you set a moderate pace - not too fast for Whispen's still-healing leg, but still fast enough neithr of you are crawling along.
  3961. > In fact, Whispen seems downright pleased to be out and about again.
  3962. "Enjoying stretching your legs again?"
  3963. > "Absolutely. Being cooped up for too long isn't good for anypony."
  3964. "I agree with you, but stick close to me. I've still got a bad feeling about all this."
  3965. > You are not, in fact, accosted on the way to Fairweather's residence.
  3966. > That doesn't keep you from having a careful roving eye that picks up many significant points.
  3967. > Off to the north, for instance, a heavy black smoke still hangs in the sky - the last burning remnants of whatever havoc the worms had wreaked on their camp.
  3968. > More directly up above, the cloud districts were not faring well.
  3969. > Ragged tears remained where the sections used in the attack had broken away, huge gaps that would normally have been quickly mended over by any able-bodied pegasus.
  3970. > That they had not spoke of how weak they were... or how terrified to emerge for fear of vengeance.
  3971. > Even the remaining stable sections were completely devoid of any activity.
  3972. > Most pegasi still up there, you imagined, were hiding as deep within the clouds as they could.
  3973.  
  3974. > As though they could provide some additional measure of protection should the humans turn violent.
  3975. > Just as normal, two ponies stand a short distance outside Fairweather's residence, watching the street - although you notice only one familiar face, and he seems particularly glum.
  3976. > It's a fair bet you know why his partner is not here.
  3977. > Directed past them, you slip around the back of the building and into the home that had become the impromptu headquarters of the guard in this area.
  3978. > You are not the first to arrive.
  3979. > A dozen ponies or more stand inside, including Key Stone.
  3980. > He looks surprised when you trot in, moving over to whisper quietly to you.
  3981. > "Glad you showed up; I didn't get a chance to give you your new orders yesterday."
  3982. "Well, I'm here. What's going on?"
  3983. > "Ponies want answers."
  3984. > Even as he speaks, another pony's voice rises above the hubbub.
  3985. > "Everypony quiet down. I know all of you want information, but we need quiet to begin."
  3986. > It is not Fairweather, though he present.
  3987. > The pegasus guardspony remains staring at figures scratched out on several sheets of paper before him, barely even looking up when his second-in-command begins to speak.
  3988. > "Our eyes on the outskirts of town are still bringing us word of exactly how many trucks we took out on that convoy, but from preliminary estimates we believe at least five were totally destroyed, with another two possible. We don't know how many might have been destroyed when the humans bombed their own convoy-"
  3989. > An angry voice cuts her off.
  3990. > "Seven, out of how many?"
  3991. > She doesn't answer immediately, glancing to Fairweather for directions.
  3992. > He doesn't reply either.
  3993. > "...forty-eight."
  3994. > Less than a fifth, even counting "possibly" destroyed.
  3995. > "And how many of us, huh? How bad did we get it?"
  3996. > Fairweather's officer hangs her head, taking a heavy breath before answering.
  3997.  
  3998. > "...we don't have all the numbers so far, but it seems like casualties are going to be around four of every ten ponies."
  3999. > That number ripples through the group like a swarm of angry bees.
  4000. > "Four of ten? And with most of us getting away because we were lucky and humans tripped up? What kind of idiot plan was this?! I thought those worms were supposed to stop their flying machines-"
  4001.  
  4002. ACTION:
  4003. - "make it clear that Fairweather was not at fault, but the plan was retarded and we won't be trying Twilight's ideas again. Also, get as much information as possible about all aspects of the plan."
  4004.  
  4005. "Everypony calm down. Yes, this went badly - very, very badly. But no, we should not blame Fairweather. He didn't come up with this plan - he just followed the orders he was given, just like the rest of us."
  4006. > There's a bit more grumbling, but less than before.
  4007. "...that said, I'm sure we all want answers. For starters..."
  4008. > You turn to lock eyes with Fairweather's assistant, since the pony himself still seems to be in no condition to answer questions.
  4009. "...how did the whole attack with the worms go? What happened to their camp?"
  4010. > "There, at least, there is some good news. The worms badly tore up a good deal of their camp; apparently they damaged a large number of parked flying machines and further tore up their landing strips."
  4011. > Grabbing a sheet of paper off the table, she continues to scan.
  4012. > "Uh, as of curfew last night, we had three major fires and two small ones still burning in their camp - probably from spilled oil. One of them hit a big tank that lit up like a big torch."
  4013. > Somepony else gives a pained little laugh.
  4014. > "Well, that's some good news. What about the worms themselves?"
  4015. > She winces, and your stomach drops.
  4016. > "The humans got their act together and had whatever flying machines they had in the air plus some of their heavier armored carts tear them up. One is dead - spread all over their camp - one was badly wounded and fled. Tunneled away underground, no sign of it now."
  4017. > "So, that was a one-show trick, huh?"
  4018. > "Sounds like."
  4019. > "So we ended up being the diversion for all that, or what?!"
  4020. > Amid the hubbub, you walk up to Fairweather.
  4021. > Speaking quietly, you almost have to lean down to be heard over the noise.
  4022.  
  4023. > He looks absolutely terrible - while he had always expressed some concern about the attack, he now looks as though his heart has been ripped out.
  4024. > The light is gone from his eyes, and he stares unseeingly down at the papers in front of him.
  4025. > Nonetheless, you have to ask.
  4026. "Fairweather, Sir... I want to know. Where did the intelligence on this come from? Was it complete? Did we know-"
  4027. > "I..."
  4028. > He speaks haltingly, as though he didn't trust his own lips to form the proper words.
  4029. > "I don't know who. Someone up the chain; I'm under Major Stonewall and he seemed to think it was other guard contingents who'd also been cut off... maybe they had a unicorn or something..."
  4030. > A slight shudder runs through his body.
  4031. > "We knew... we knew how heavily it was guarded. They said it was a risk, but that we had to hit it..."
  4032. > He looks up, a broken soul looking out through his eyes.
  4033. > "I tried to tell them it was going to be too costly, that it might be for nothing..."
  4034. > Looking back down again, a new note enters his voice - anger.
  4035. > "...but whoever was pushing this, they were just going to push it anyhow. At least, I thought... at least I could look out for you guys."
  4036. > A bitter laugh bubbles up from his throat.
  4037. > "If the humans hadn't screwed up, we'd all be dead too. I tried to help you guys, and I nearly got you all killed..."
  4038.  
  4039. ACTION:
  4040. - Tell him that it might be time to stop listening to dumb orders, even if they are orders.
  4041.  
  4042. "Fairweather, sir... I realize you were trying to keep us safe, but..."
  4043. > You pause, trying to find the right way to phrase what is coming next.
  4044. > To direct, and it could be seen as promoting insubordination in a room full of guard who you aren't entirely sure will support open disobedience yet.
  4045. > To oblique, and Fairweather might not be as decisive as he needs to be.
  4046. "...sir, I know command believes that these risks are acceptable, but... if we keep going forward with these operations, we're going to be wiped out - and then there won't be anypony left to take risks for us."
  4047. > He nods slowly, seeming to latch on to the idea.
  4048. > "I wish I could have said no... but what other options do we have...?"
  4049. > Your reply is careful to couch your words in what to do, rather than what not to do.
  4050. "We wait. We make our move when we can, when there is an actual chance. No big displays like this."
  4051. > Fairweather's gaze rises to lock on to yours.
  4052. > "You know what you are suggesting..."
  4053. > Gently nodding your head in reply, you nod slowly.
  4054. "I do. I don't like it,but if this is what whatever is left of command is proposing... we can't go on like this."
  4055. > "Whatever is left of command..."
  4056. > Another bitter chuckle rises from Fairweather.
  4057. > "There's barely anything left of command. They were extraordinarily efficient at hunting down officers, even before the city was taken. That's probably why Princess Twilight was leading, instead of a pony with more experience."
  4058. "Especially in that case, we need to stick with listening to ponies who have experience with this. With all due to respect to Princess Twilight, her knowledge doesn't seem to cover situation like these."
  4059. > Without realizing it, your voice had risen - but the other ponies present, many of whom had lost their charges while you had not, are nodding in agreement.
  4060.  
  4061. > "Yeah... and I don't even know if her highness is even coming back."
  4062. > Fairweather takes another, shuddering breath.
  4063. '> "Okay. Orders... I should give you orders. Right. Keep your heads down f a few days, until the humans calm down. Wait for further orders. Check in four days from now, unless notified first. I... I want to have a long talk with the major."
  4064. > He looks around at the other ponies, emotions finally beginning to break through.
  4065. > "I... I cocked up. I lead you all into that, and... I don't know. I'm sorry isn't enough, but I don't know what else to do."
  4066. > "Sir, just keep us alive and safe and actually doing some real good."
  4067. > You don't recognize the pony who said that, but you agree with him.
  4068. "We can't be playing the 'big game' anymore. It's over. We have to think differently now. If we fight, we fight in the shadows - and speaking of which, I think we may have another problem.'
  4069. > Glancing to Fairweather for approval, you go on.
  4070. "I'm sure we all heard by now of the other attacks inside the city? Mounted by a sort of militia or vigilante group? They're going to be a problem; not only might the provoke the humans to more drastic action, but I happen to know they have at least one former guardspony in their ranks who was imprisoned for attempted murder when the city fell."
  4071. > That raises a lot of eyebrows, and you nod understandingly.
  4072. "The implications for what kind of pony they're gathering are clear. Already two of my injured were attacked while were out hitting the convoy by said former guardspony looking to settle scores. We need to keep a sharp eye out for this group."
  4073. > "What happens if they do show up?"
  4074. > Your mouth opens to respond, but that would be giving an order - so instead you look to Fairweather again.
  4075. > "...do not engage them. Not unless they're an immediate threat. Try and talk them out of doing something rash, but do not attack first. We need to get ourselves back together before we try anything more. Any other questions?"
  4076.  
  4077. > None come up.
  4078. > "Dismissed. Keep yourselves safe."
  4079. > Only you are close enough to hear his mumbled statement that follows:
  4080. > "I sure couldn't..."
  4081. > While the others file out from the stuffy house at random intervals, Fairweather halts you before you leave.
  4082. > "Stay a moment. I'd like to talk."
  4083. > To reprimand you for what you were doing, you wonder?
  4084. > Seeming to sense your worry, Fairweather shakes his head.
  4085. > "No, you are not in trouble - not like I could reprimand you for speaking out of turn after the order I gave."
  4086. > Following him into the room he had apparently taken over as his won, you find it an absolute mess - cloth, a half-finished plate of food, numerous documents and even a couple pieces of armor lay strewn about.
  4087. > Eyeing the mess, you shake your head.
  4088. "Sir, isn't this... a huge risk? If a human - or even somepony not on our side - saw this, they might-"
  4089. > "Turn me over?"
  4090. > Fairweather snorts.
  4091. > "For the past twelve hours, I'm not sure I cared if they would."
  4092. > Flopping into a seat, Fairweather grimaces.
  4093. > "But in seriousness. What you were suggesting; what exactly did you think I should do now?"
  4094. "...well, sir, I'm not sure I-"
  4095. > Your leg catches on something, nearly tripping you flat.
  4096. > Looking down, your breath catches in your throat - the following question hissed out between your teeth.
  4097. "Fairweather, is this a noose?!"
  4098. > "...yes. I..."
  4099. > He looks down, staring into the floor.
  4100. > "I should have died out there. Tried to keep you all safe, just got ponies killed. I should've died."
  4101.  
  4102. [Numerous suggestions on what to tell Fairweather]
  4103.  
  4104. "Killing yourself isn't going to change that now, Fairweather. Even if you spent the rest of your life just carrying wounded off the battlefield you would be accomplishing more."
  4105. > He nods slowly, his own wings shuffling softly.
  4106. > "I know. It's just... I was so certain. I knew it was risky, but I was certain all we had to do was push one major attack to show that could still, and it would get ponies moving again and turn thing around here."
  4107. > Finally his head is wrenched back up again to lock gazes with you.
  4108. > "Always the optimist, that's me. My mother used to say that wasn't just my talent, but that I brought good changes. 'Fair weather ahead for you', she'd say. Not so much anymore, I guess..."
  4109. "...whatever happened, happened in the past now. You're alive along with the rest of us, and you're responsible for keeping us that way. You can still bring us a change for good - but you need to be strong."
  4110. > "I guess... I guess so."
  4111. > He pushes himself upright again, nodding once.
  4112. > "I'll not give up yet. Heh, should have just burnt that stupid thing when I realized I wasn't going anywhere... can I ask a question, though? That mare who came in with you - what happened to her?"
  4113. > What he is asking, you realize, is if Whispen was injured in the attack on the convoy.
  4114. "She was wounded while trying to salvage what she could from the guard's old headquarters as the city fell. She's been recovering, although her eye made further treatment."
  4115. > Visibly relaxing, Fairweather lets out an audible sigh of relief and nods.
  4116. > "I am glad to hear it. I do have a serious question for you, though."
  4117. "Yes, sir?"
  4118. > "When you suggested I stop listening to stupid orders... what exactly were you suggesting?"
  4119. > You freeze.
  4120. > That was a supremely awkward question.
  4121. "...shouldn't you be talking to your sergeants about that? Planning the next course of events?"
  4122.  
  4123. > "I should, and I will. But if I'm going to take care of you, I need to know what all my ponies are thinking - or the next best thing, anyhow."
  4124. "Sir... I don't think I should..."
  4125. > "Please."
  4126. > Fairweather's haunted eyes again meet yours.
  4127. > "Please, just let me know I'm doing the right thing. You won't be punished for what you suggest."
  4128. "Well, sir..."
  4129.  
  4130. [Numerous suggestions; combined to make the post.]
  4131.  
  4132. > You take a deep breath, thinking your words over and then again before allowing them to spill forth.
  4133. "We can't keep openly fighting like this. It's just going to get us massacred - any further attacks need to be hit-and-run, maybe more of a focus on sabotage. No long-distance runs outside the city - just a single, swift attack and then we're gone."
  4134. > Taking a quick breath, you go on.
  4135. "But honestly, sir, even that... we need to think very carefully about our targets. Not just because it will cost us ponies, but because swift attacks like that are going to draw attention to the civilian population as well. We have to be sure each and every target we hit is absolutely necessary to strike... and if the other 'militia' keeps fire-bombing buildings and human patrols inside the city, we may need to do something about that as well."
  4136. > Slowly Fairweather nods.
  4137. > "That... yeah."
  4138. "And if all else fails... it may be time for us to figure out a plan to leave the city. Did the humans discover all of the tunnels out of the city?"
  4139. > "Two of the four, and they're still looking. We don't know for sure what they'll find, but that's out of my command."
  4140. > You issue a brief thought of prayer that the isolation of each individual cell would hold up if they did find ponies in the others.
  4141. "There's something else I should have mentioned, sir, but it slipped my mind in the preparation for the raid... I was keeping tabs on one of my wounded ponies who was hospitalized, and while we were at Las Pegasus Central hospital, we heard some rather worrying rumors about the wing the humans have sealed off..."
  4142.  
  4143. > Giving a quick run down - although it is slowed somewhat when, partway through, Fairweather pauses you to find and inkwell and paper to write down what you are saying - you try to make sure not to leave out any details.
  4144. > The mysterious prisoners being used to treat patients, the constant stream of prisoners being transferred out, the repeat patients...
  4145. > By the end of it, Fairweather is frowning as well.
  4146. > "I don't have the slightest clue about it either, but I have a bad feeling about this too. If we hit a single target going forward, that might be it."
  4147. "It won't be easy. There are soldiers all over the place, inside and out - usually two of their armored carts parked near the main entrance. We'd have to find a way to disable them."
  4148. > "I'll send that note up the chain of command as well..Even if it is guarded, it should be a fair bit easier than that convoy."
  4149. "I hope. So far they haven't had to really fight in the city - I'd hate to start something, especially in a hospital."
  4150. > Nodding sharply, Fairweather agrees.
  4151. > "Neither do I, so they'll probably want to do a bit more watching first."
  4152. "Understood. Anything else, sir...?"
  4153. > "No, I... thank you. For everything."
  4154. "Just doing my duty, sir."
  4155. > "Well, I appreciate it."
  4156. > Stepping out, you find Whispen waiting calmly for you.
  4157. > The questions are obviously in her one good eye, but she doesn't speak - waiting for you to do so first.
  4158. "You aren't going to object to the points I raised?"
  4159. > "...I've not been a part of this, sir, so I can't really comment. But... honestly, it sounded like you had a point. If the raid you were on was planned that badly..."
  4160. "Yeah. It was. We had Celestia's grace with us, and that was the only grace we had."
  4161. > "Then, all due respect to Princess Sparkle, you would be in your right to object to anything like that being proposed again."
  4162.  
  4163. ACTION:
  4164. - Check on Kosmatka, then the Changelings.
  4165.  
  4166. "Come on, Whispen. I'd like to see if we an see about getting the others back - or if they're even okay."
  4167. > At first, Kosmatka seems downright pleased to see you.
  4168. > You're quickly ushered in through the various layers of defense in his headquarters - though not without a thorough search of your bags - and brought into his office.
  4169. > His face splitting into a tired grin, you notice that Kosmatka is obviously tired as well - dark circles prominent under his eyes.
  4170. > "Ah, is my favorite pony! Is too much to hope that you maybe bring another thing to trade to us?"
  4171. "No, sorry."
  4172. > You allow a small, pained chuckle to bubble forth, and Kosmatka shakes his head -
  4173. > "Ah, I knew it - I wish for too much. But, if you do have something - you come to me, yes? You have been very, very helpful to me."
  4174. > Well, at least he hadn't forgotten about you.
  4175. "We were actually wondering - did you hear anything about our friends? We heard that your camp was attacked and we were really worried that something might have happened to them..."
  4176. > This sets off a line of rapid-fire chatter in their language; though you understand little, it isn't hard to figure out that they may not actually know what happened to the prisoners.
  4177. > Eventually Kosmatka turns back to you, a small frown on his face.
  4178. > "We, we think prison was not damaged; but, my chorąży - my first sergeant - he is going to look it up. We find out about your friends..."
  4179. > Leaning forward, he brings his head closer to you.
  4180. > "...but, if you know anything hear anything about who do this - we must know. This - this is not good. This attack, they make many of us angry - now they say they give trucks more cover, but is too late. Many angry soldiers now."
  4181. > It isn't that they feel that way that surprises you.
  4182. > It's that Kosmatka actually looks worried at the prospect of continued fighting.
  4183. "Do you think there will be more fighting? In the city? Do we need to leave...?"
  4184.  
  4185. > "I... I do not know. Is not for us to choose - if we come hunting in city, we do it with infantry first, with soldiers - not with bombs and tanks."
  4186. > Slumping back in his chair, Kosmatka shakes his head.
  4187. > "Ta przeklęty wojna... this stupid war, has been easy so far. Except for your damned princesses, has been easy... if it gets bad, then it gets bad."
  4188. "We don't want fighting in the city either..."
  4189. > Not if there were other options anyway.
  4190. > But other options were rapidly running out, especially with regards to the hospital...
  4191. > "...if you hear anything, please tell as soon as you do. Let us stop the bad ponies before they bring fighting in the city."
  4192.  
  4193. ACTION:
  4194. - Tell them about Copper Cog and friends, but not about Course Layer.
  4195.  
  4196. "Well... there is one thing. Um, we already told some of the soldiers at the gate, but... somepony came after us. I don't know if they heard we were helping you or what."
  4197. > Kosmatka's worried look rapidly develops into an all-out frown.
  4198. > "Here? In docks?"
  4199. "Yes, they came right up to our home, but we were able to chase them all off. Actually..."
  4200. > You motion towards Whispen, who had remained behind you up until this point.
  4201. > Unless she wasn't listening, she should definitely have caught the fact that you said they were all chased off.
  4202. > Mentioning Course Layer probably wouldn't be helpful right now...
  4203. "...this is Whispen. She was home when they came for us."
  4204. > "She is hurt by these ponies?"
  4205. > "No."
  4206. > Whispen shakes her head.
  4207. > "I was hurt when you came in to the city. Something exploded, and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital..."
  4208. > Not entirely true, but close enough; Kosmatka shakes his head sadly.
  4209. > "Is great shame... but please, tell your story, yes?"
  4210. > "I, um... it was myself and one other home, Hot Pot. She was hurt too; neither of us can really work. We were..."
  4211. > Her account of the attack is, you suspect, somewhat altered to be more suitable for what you want to present to Kosmatka.
  4212. > But the main points are all there.
  4213. > Copper Cog, your 'old friend' who had become increasingly bitter after arriving in Las Pegasus with you.
  4214. > How he had broken away to 'find his own work' - and then suddenly returned with friends.
  4215. > His sudden appearance at the docks, and a demand that you help him oppose the human occupation.
  4216. > How he had turned violent and eventually returned with far less pleasant intentions, and had to be driven off when Whispen and Hot Pot returned.
  4217. > Notably absent from that last bit of the narrative is Iridescent Glaze.
  4218. > You'll have to ask her later if she wants to tell her version of the 'story'.
  4219.  
  4220. > Even if Iri doesn't, Kosmatka is looking quite angry by the time Whispen is done.
  4221. > Mostly, you suspect, because Copper's attack had taken place on 'Kosmatka's territory'.
  4222. > It didn't take a genius to realize Kosmatka was deeply interested in promotion, and had welcomed your 'gifts' for the benefits the might bring him... and was also annoyed that things had nearly gone sour on his watch.
  4223. > "If this pony, 'Copper Cog' - if he returns, we will have a long chat with him."
  4224. "Thank you. We'll be very grateful..."
  4225. > "...and if we find him, and find his friends - if they are bad ponies, then maybe, they go to prison and your friends go back to you, hmm? Maybe more, if you can help us find him."
  4226. > Well.
  4227. > That's a direct offer if you've ever heard one.
  4228. > And while you doubt any of the others would object to selling out Copper, there's no guarantee it would be easy.
  4229. "...I'd have to ask my friends. It wouldn't be fair for me to answer for them."
  4230. > "Yes, yes."
  4231. > Kosmatka waves a hand dismissively.
  4232. > "You may ask - but, would be very good to hear soon, yes?"
  4233. "Of course!"
  4234. > Well.
  4235. > That should give you plenty of time to talk to Iri and the others.
  4236. "If there's nothing else... could we go now?"
  4237. > "Yes - be safe, and if 'Copper Cog' comes back - come to us, fast."
  4238. "We will."
  4239. > Well, that went about as well as could have been expected.
  4240.  
  4241. ACTION:
  4242. - Go looking for Caravan and Spark in the marketplace.
  4243.  
  4244. > In the end, you have to wait only a few minutes before Kosmatka's sergeant returns.
  4245. > "Prison, is not damaged, Your friends are safe, yes?"
  4246. "Oh, very good! We will definitely think on your offer regarding our... help, then."
  4247. > Exiting from the headquarters, you at last allow the tension to flow out of you with a breath.
  4248. "...come on, Whispen. We should head for the marketplace, make sure Caravan and Spark Flash haven't gotten themselves in trouble."
  4249. > This proves to be harder than expected.
  4250. > Not because it is bustling with ponies, but in fact because of the exact opposite.
  4251. > The market is practically empty in comparison to what it seems to be meant to handle.
  4252. > Most purchases seem to be taking place within the various stalls, as if ponies were afraid to be seen outside.
  4253. > Afraid of a reprisal from the humans, or from another attack from the so-called 'militia'.
  4254. > "Over there."
  4255. > Whispen nudges you in the side and points with a hoof; there sits Spark, standing guard besides a two-wheeled cart.
  4256. > Far more rugged than the one you had stolen, it is also considerably more worn... but it will do.
  4257. > Trotting up, you not quietly to Spark.
  4258. "Hey, Spark. Where's Caravan?"
  4259. > "Getting the last of our food. He's been able to get a couple deals; barely anypony is out and some of the sellers are worried about what little they can bring going bad."
  4260. "Hmm. Good to know. When he's ready, then-"
  4261. > Before you can go further, a low rumble of thunder issues from above.
  4262. > Another attack?
  4263. > No; when you look up, it's to find that another section of the cloud district - far smaller than the one previously used, but still significant - has broken away.
  4264. > Drifting westerly out over the ocean, a fine sheet, of heavy raindrops begins to fall from the collapsing clouds.
  4265. > This time, though, it was clearly not planned.
  4266.  
  4267. > Several dozen brightly-colored shapes burst from the rapidly-depleting cloud structure and flee back to what remains of the main district.
  4268. > Fortunately, the humans do not attack them... though already you can see a fast, angular flying machine twisting to engage in on them.
  4269. "That... is not good."
  4270. > A few screams begin to rise from the crowd.
  4271. > Above them all, a mare's voice.
  4272. > "You see? You see! The humans are going to destroy all of Equestria! They're going to kill us all!"
  4273. > Idiot.
  4274. > This was likely nothing more than the unbalanced and untended clouds beginning to naturally unravel after a section had been broken away.
  4275. > It doesn't stop the fear from slithering through the crowd, though.
  4276. > Dragging your eyes back to the ground, you spot Caravan a short ways away.
  4277. "On second thought, let's not wait any longer.Time for us to head home."
  4278. > Forcing your way through panicking ponies - how you would love to just say you are Royal Guard now and order them to stand aside! - you met the earth pony halfway.
  4279. "Caravan! We need to go before this turns into a full-blown panic!"
  4280. > Extracting yourself from the market isn't easy, but with four of you working together it is done.
  4281. > Not without couple bruises; as you retreat from the rapidly-emptying market, Caravan looks back and shakes his head.
  4282. > "Good thing you showed up, boss."
  4283. "I know. But that ponies are panicking at that... it's not good."
  4284. > "They're on edge. With the attacks and all... anything could be another burst of fighting."
  4285. > Returning to the house, you find that Ornithea is back as well.
  4286. "Any luck with the birds."
  4287. > She gives a little pleased smile.
  4288. > "They're working on making a map for us. Of where things are in their camp. I had to explain it to them, but the're actually really good artists, you know."
  4289. "...artist birds. Well, I've heard stranger. Good work, though."
  4290. > "Um, sir... there is one problem, though."
  4291. "Explain, then?"
  4292. > "You'd... better go downstairs."
  4293. > The second you lay eyes on Course Layer, you understand the problem.
  4294. > Though he is awake now, the stallion practically radiates fury.
  4295. > Iri stands some distance behind you, having silently joined you at some point.
  4296. > You notice she periodically wipes her forhead, as if the intense anger Course Layer felt was actually heating her.
  4297. "Cour-"
  4298. > Not even have you finished his name when Course Layer interrupts, his voice low and rumbling with unspent anger.
  4299. > "What in Luna and Celestia's name did you do to me? I heard somepony come in, and then everything goes fuzzy... then I wake up feeling all strange, and all my thoughts are slow. What did you do to me?"
  4300.  
  4301. ACTION:
  4302. -  Tell him he must be mistaken; you did nothing. Maybe he is sick?
  4303.  
  4304. "You're fine... except for the mold, maybe. This place flooded down here; we cleaned most of it out, but who knows what is left?"
  4305. > "Yeah..."
  4306. > Whispen looks around, frowning.
  4307. > "It's still pretty damp down here. I can see that there might still be something in the air. I certainly wasn't in good shape when we finished cleaning it up."
  4308. "Yeah. Can't you smell it in the air, Course? It's pretty musty down here."
  4309. > "You left me in a flooded basement?!"
  4310. > While Course Layer seems to buy your story, it doesn't have the intended effect of calming him.
  4311. > Course struggles against his bindings, snarly furiously.
  4312. > "Are you trying to kill me, you crazy pony? What if it had flooded again? I could have drowned? That's no good way to go-"
  4313. "Then stop struggling. We don 't want to hurt you further, but we're not exactly in a good mood right now. If you behave, we might actually let you out; keep it up, and you're definitely staying down here."
  4314. > That silences him again.
  4315. > Trotting up to Course Layers side, you sit down with a heavy sigh.
  4316.  
  4317. "Look. I'm sorry we had to meet like this... I don't want to hurt you, really. But I have to keep my ponies safe, and if that means keeping you down here..."
  4318. > You shrug lightly before realizing Course can't see it with the blindfold still in place.
  4319. "...then, as cold as it sounds, their safety comes before your health."
  4320. > Course Layer says nothing, but grunts angrily.
  4321. > Sensing you aren't going to get anything more out of him, you stand.
  4322. > As you're heading for the doorway, Course Layer's voice rings out one last time.
  4323. > "You... if it actually flooded down here again, you'd come get me, right?"
  4324. > For the first time you actually hear a new element in his voice.
  4325. > Fear.
  4326. > "That's not a way anypony should go. You'd come help me out of here, right? Please?"
  4327. > Interesting.
  4328. "...yes, Course, we would."
  4329. > His worries once more pacified, you leave Course Layer in the basement.
  4330. > The remainder of the evening is spent packing away Caravan's purchased food.
  4331. > Although he had spent nearly all of your bits - all but eight - you'd gained another three weeks' food at least and a cart to a carry it in.
  4332. > The following day is spent preparing for the upcoming pot-luck and awaiting any word from either the humans or Fairweather.
  4333. > None comes.
  4334. > What does instead is far worse.
  4335. > About mid-afternoon, Spark - holding watch near the front of the house - suddenly calls out.
  4336. > "Hey, boss... something's happening up the cloud district. You better see this."
  4337. > Trotting quickly to his side, you're just in time to see a small stream of pegasi leap from the ragged, broken edge of the cloud architecture.
  4338. > As you watch they glide towards the ground in wide, slow formations.
  4339. > Amazingly, no humans seem to intervene.
  4340. > At least, not until you realize the whole procession is being circled by their flying machines.
  4341. > Fewer than in previous days, though.
  4342. "...they're flying slow. Really slow, and no formation... I don't think they're mounting any kind of attack."
  4343.  
  4344. ACTION:
  4345. - Go investigate from a nearby rooftop, but do not go far up.
  4346.  
  4347. "...wait here, Spark. I'm going to see if I can get a better view."
  4348. > Launching yourself skyward, you pause on a nearby rooftop before beginning to wing yourself lower over the roofs towards the steam of pegasi.
  4349. > As you fly, another stream and then a third emerges - all moving in that same, slow, formationless stream.
  4350. > You are not the only one to be wondering either; several other pegasi - and at least one batpony, though you do not recognize them - rise above the rooftops to join your slow progression towards the nearest stream.
  4351. > Unfortunately, you have to leave them to go on; there's no telling who else might be watching this or what their intentions might be.
  4352. > For that matter you don't feel like getting into an aerial chase with the 'militia' if they get involved.
  4353. > Right now, though, the ponies seem to be content to watch.
  4354. > And the building you've chosen to perch atop offers you a good view of where the nearest stream of descending pegasi is heading.
  4355. > A small park - not nearly as large as the one the guard headquarters had been built on, but not terribly small either - is rapidly being filled with landing pegasi.
  4356.  
  4357. > Further on, you think another stream might be landing amid the large open square in front of town hall.
  4358. > It doesn't matter that you can't see exactly what is happening down there.
  4359. > Your suspicions have already been confirmed and then reconfirmed as another series of trucks filled with human soldiers makes their way towards the nearest park.
  4360. > The cloud districts have fallen.
  4361. > Those who remained, have surrendered.
  4362. > The last holdout in Las Pegasus has fallen.
  4363. > Even though the city had been effectively under human control for weeks now, you can't help but feel a slight pang of sorrow.
  4364. > The pegasi's refusal to give in had been a powerful point of passive resistance, a tail flicked in the face of the human occupiers.
  4365. > And now it was over.
  4366. > Even as you watch, the humans' flying machines fly in slow, lazy circles around the last of the pegasi - almost seeming to herd them in.
  4367. > Or provide a powerful warning should any pegasus try and make a break for freedom.
  4368. > Now the last pegasi are coming in to land, the park and even the trees within it filled with ponies milling about.
  4369. > It might be helpful to see what is going on, if you dare to get closer...
  4370.  
  4371. ACTION:
  4372. - I think it's important we watch how they capture these ponies? Are they treated well? Poorly? Where do they take them? Do they restrain wings? Does anyone try to run or fight? There is a lot of information here that we would miss by watching this. It's critical we understand how the humans deal with captured ponies. Will they be treated as combatants since they actively resisted capture, and aided in the attack?
  4373. - Can we scan to get closer? Like can we look around, maybe find a taller building or a better view and get closer if it's safe?
  4374.  
  4375. > You decide to launch yourself into the air once more, slipping low across each individual rooftops.
  4376. > Going right up to the edge of the park wouldn't be really safe, but maybe you could get close enough to peer in from a distance.
  4377. > With each building you pass over, you sneak a glance skyward.
  4378. > Their flying machines are still hovering low, rotors pushing a harsh wash of air downward.
  4379. > Not only is it deeply intimidating, you realize, but a pegasus attempting to flee from the park now would have to be careful not to run into one of those vicious downdrafts.
  4380. > Trying to climb through one would be like running straight into an out-of-control storm wall.
  4381. > Settling on a rooftop at an angle from the park, you try and peer down the street towards the edge - looking at the lines of human soldiers bustling about the edges of the park.
  4382. > What you see is not reassuring.
  4383. > Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of pegasi are milling about randomly.
  4384. > A low hubbub spawned of so many voices speaking together drifts down the street, along with the occasional howl of a foal.
  4385. > The humans seem to be aware that keeping the pegasi penned up in the park permanently would be a disastrous move on several accounts.
  4386. > Even so, they do not seem to be releasing them immediately.
  4387. > Instead the pegasi are being filtered through several lines.
  4388. > Most are formed up into several waiting groups, which when at a certain size are marched off under the watchful gaze of several human carts.
  4389. > How many at a time... one hundred? Two?
  4390. > Any of the pegasi could break and flee, but they are probably weak and dispirited from holding out so long on tight rations.
  4391. > Not to mention they have been effectively threatened with death should they try and escape the cloud district thus far.
  4392. > Those Pegasi being marched away are surely quite understanding of what might happen if they tried to flee now.
  4393.  
  4394. > Turning your gaze further on, you note that some pegasi are being split off into other lines.
  4395. > Some are obvious.
  4396. > Those pegasi too weak to walk are helped down one path and into trucks.
  4397. > Notably, they are not accompanied by the ponies who help them that far; those unfortunate figures are sent back into the larger crowd.
  4398. > Far more worrisome are some of the other lines.
  4399. > Some Pegasi are seemingly separated out at random.
  4400. > The humans do something to them - binding their wings, you realize - and none too gently move them off at weapon-point to a tightly-guarded cluster of ponies.
  4401. > Who are they - fellow guardsponies?
  4402. > How would the humans know for certain?
  4403. > Important figures in the city?
  4404. > If so, why are the humans seizing them?
  4405. > Were they simply angry at how the cloud district had held out?
  4406. > Tearing your eyes away from that line, you find your gaze landing on other small shapes moving among the crowd.
  4407. > The humans have brought out several collaborators - or at least, that's what you assume the equine shapes moving freely among the human lines are.
  4408. > Yet, for every time they stop beside a pony, pointing them out be walked away and have their wings bound, they seem to help a pony through the process towards freedom.
  4409. > At least, that's where you assume the ponies on hoof are being marched off to.
  4410. > Perhaps the collaborators are simply there to make the entire process go more smoothly, then...
  4411. > A while longer, and you suspect you've seen all that there is going to be to see.
  4412. > Lifting your head, you glance about to see if you can spot that sole batpony you saw earlier.
  4413. > No luck; whoever they are, they're apparently absent now.
  4414. > Oh well.
  4415. > Hopefully they already knew to avoid Copper Cog's group.
  4416. > Time to go, you think.
  4417. > Arriving back at the home, you trot in and glumly inform your ponies of the development.
  4418. > Their reactions are varied.
  4419. > Caravan and Spark take it best, you think - those two were rapidly becoming close, and supported each other.
  4420.  
  4421. > Hot Pot by far reacts the worst, turning glum and seeming to almost move more slowly afterwards.
  4422. > Any investigation of that situation, however, is preempted by Ornithea pulling you aside.
  4423. > "Sir, I've been thinking... maybe we could allow Course Layer out of the basement tonight? He hasn't caused any trouble yet, and it might do some good to show him what we are really like."
  4424. "...after how angry he was yesterday? Are you sure that's a good idea?"
  4425. > "I can keep a close eye on him, and he's an earth pony - not going to fly or teleport away. At might calm him to show that we do think of him too."
  4426. "He might go straight through the walls, though. I'll keep it in mind, though."
  4427.  
  4428. ACTION:
  4429. - Keep him in the basement.
  4430.  
  4431. > The rest of the afternoon is spent preparing for the pot-luck dinner.
  4432. > Aside from the actual cooking, the house itself has to be cleaned and fixed up some.
  4433. > Despite your very best efforts, a certain amount of mess has built up - to say nothing of the remaining damage from when the humans raided it.
  4434. > Not that it's unique among those.
  4435. > The entire city has acquired a rather worn look, though not yet truly ruined.
  4436. > By necessity the dinner has to be early; the changelings, after all, will need time to return home before curfew.
  4437. > Around four you send Caravan and Ornithea out to wait for their arrival.
  4438. > Although they serve a very practical purpose - ensuring the Changelings are not denied entry at the dockyard gate - you issue a second set of orders as well.
  4439. > As they wait, both Caravan and Ornithea will be walking different parts of the dockyard fence, searching for any holes in it.
  4440. > If one of them could figure out how Copper Cog and Course Layer had gotten int the dockyard, you would feel considerably safer.
  4441. > Unfortunately, when they return with three 'ponies' trailing them, Caravan is quick to find a quiet moment to murmur into your ear.
  4442. > "No holes, sorry."
  4443. > Damn.
  4444. > Well in any case tonight would be a poor time for Copper to make his move.
  4445. > Instead you turn to Buttercup, who was currently unloading her saddlebags onto the dining table.
  4446. "Well, thank you for what you've brought, Buttercuo. We do appreciate it."
  4447. > "You're welcome; thank you for inviting us."
  4448. > In addition to what you had frankly expected - alcohol, of several varieties - they have brought a few containers of food, some of them still hot.
  4449. > She gives you a wry smirk.
  4450.  
  4451. > "We may not strictly speaking need to consume to live, but that does not mean some of us do not have the skill for it."
  4452. > The other two she'd brought turn out to be Buckleup - a changeling you'd encountered once before, and suspect to be something akin to her officer - and Smithy, a 'metalworker'.
  4453. > As you troop about, checking that everything is in place, you briefly catch sight of Buttercup and Iri in a side hallway.
  4454. > Both are standing practically nose-to-nose, eyes half open.
  4455. > Neither seems to be particularly paying attention - but, you can see, Iri seems far more relaxed than anything you'd seen before.
  4456. > Even as you watch she makes a sort of low chittering noise and nuzzles Buttercup softly.
  4457. > You quickly slip away before anything else can happen.
  4458. > Whatever was going on there, it clearly wasn't your business.
  4459. > Soon enough all of you are gathered in the dining room, circled around the table.
  4460. "...well, there's just two things that I would like to say. Uh, first of all, I understand that you're going to be... feeding, while you're here tonight. That's okay, and we aren't going to object."
  4461. > It's not easy to say it, but you force the words out with a minimum of halting tones.
  4462. > Several of the changelings nod, as do your ponies.
  4463. > This was something you had discussed with them before, and all had agreed it was a cost worth paying.
  4464. "The other is - to emphasize that we are all among friends tonight - if, uh, any of you would like to drop your disguises... you're welcome to."
  4465. > This leads to several surprised looks from among the changelings; they glance between each other.
  4466. > Is it some form of non-spoken communication, or are they merely thinking it for themselves.
  4467. > At last Iridescent Glaze and Buckleup allow themselves to be consumed by the emerald flame, leaving their true forms behind.
  4468. > Your stomach lurches, but you force it down.
  4469. > Already knowing what they were, and that they did not mean to harm you, helped a lot.
  4470.  
  4471. "...okay, let's eat!"
  4472. > And eat they do.
  4473. > Whether out of politeness or an actual interest in the food, the Changelings do partake - even those in their true forms.
  4474. > It's an interesting thing, seeing how they eat despite the fangs permanently protruding from their jaw.
  4475. > And, of course, you talk as well.
  4476.  
  4477. ACTION:
  4478. -  Avoid the topic of the war altogether; focus on asking about their experiences, society, etc.
  4479.  
  4480. "So, did you all... travel a lot before all this?"
  4481. > Your question is met by cautious looks, prompting a further comment.
  4482. "I'm not probing for anything... really. If we're going to be allies we need to be open... us as well."
  4483. > Buttercup takes the lead, a smile rising to her face.
  4484. > If it is not an honest one, then it is certainly well-trained.
  4485. > "Some of us travel, as according to our needs. Others, find one location and remain there - learning the single place until they can guide and aid any others who come their way."
  4486. > Presumably Buttercup is the latter, as she seems to be the de facto leader in Las Pegasus now.
  4487. > The changeling that was Buckleup raises a hoof.
  4488. > "I traveled some, though, uh... with a different form. 'Buckleup' is just a taxi driver in this city."
  4489. > There's a little smirk at the delivery of that last line.
  4490. "So, what decides it? Whether you travel or not, I mean?"
  4491. > "The role we are given. Each changeling is granted a place and a job to do; we fulfill that role."
  4492. "Ah... the Royal Guard is sort of similar. Usually we're garrisoned somewhere important, but our missions can take us anywhere in Equestria..."
  4493. > Buckleup tilts his head.
  4494. > "You... fly there?"
  4495. "Sometimes. Sky-carts are usually used..."
  4496. > Here Whispen gives a little shiver, as if remembering something; instinctively, you allow one wing to extend and touch her shoulder.
  4497. "...but other times we march - or if there is time, a train might be chartered for us."
  4498. > Caravan chuckles softly.
  4499. > "When I used to run the trade runs between the big cities, we always had a few ponies who'd show up wanting to just come along. I wonder how many now...?"
  4500. > "Were changelings?"
  4501. > Buttercup shrugs.
  4502. > "Some, certainly. Many, possibly. I cannot say; I don't know."
  4503. > Now Buckleup points a hoof at you.
  4504. > "You have been to many places as a guardspony, yes?"
  4505.  
  4506. "Well, not that many places - but a fair few, yes. I'd never been here before."
  4507. > You chuckle softly.
  4508. "Wish I could have come under better circumstances, but this is a bit far, even for us -"
  4509. > Words halt unspoken in your throat.
  4510. > 'since we are based in canterlot', you had been about to say.
  4511. > But was that such a good thing to bring up now?
  4512. > It would surely be a sore point for both sides...
  4513. > On the other hand, simply getting it out and in the open might be better.
  4514.  
  4515. ACTION:
  4516. - Tell them, but don't make a big deal out of it.
  4517.  
  4518. "- since we were based at Canterlot."
  4519. > If any of the changelings care to bring up the topic, they still refrain from doing so.
  4520. > A fact that you are deeply thankful for.
  4521. > While it might have been good to clear the air between you, the topic wasn't one you cared to dwell on tonight.
  4522. > "We have heard that ponies who fight together are... often very close, yes? Like family?"
  4523. > Caravan chuckles at this.
  4524. > "It's not just ponies who fight in the same units. Spend enough time together doing anything, and ponies will become close."
  4525. > Smiling softly, Ornithea nods her head in agreement.
  4526. > "Though... I will admit, when you have to learn to trust another pony with your life, it does help you come closer with them."
  4527. > Buttercup chuckles while Smithy nods in quiet assent as well.
  4528. > "It is like that for us as well."
  4529. "Pardon me for asking, but... how does family work with you? Do you stay with your parents as well, or...?"
  4530. > "We all remember our parents, but... they are not so close as it is for ponies."
  4531. > Joining in here, Buttercup offers more:
  4532. > "We leave at an early age to learn - to work together, to find and take roles and identities. The groups that we join with - they are far closer for us. Closest to your family."
  4533. "Ah... so, you don't often stay solitary, then."
  4534. > "Rarely."
  4535. > A wry grin spreads across Buttercup's face as 'Buckleup' adds to her answer:
  4536. > "We sometimes do, but never for long. It is not so good for us to be away for so long; contrary to a rumor I have heard, we do not all share one mind."
  4537. > Spark's eyebrows rise.
  4538. > "Wait, you don't? Damn, there's a bet I lost with an old friend."
  4539.  
  4540. > His remark - light and smoothly delivered - provokes a round of laughter from all.
  4541. "Truthfully, I'd heard that, but never given it much thought, honestly."
  4542. > "It is... an illusion. Not one made with magic, but of training: When you become as close as we are, you recognize little signs. Little hints. We work so closely, it may seem as we are all thinking the same thoughts."
  4543. > And so the chatter continues on.
  4544. > At a certain point, the Changelings break out the booze they'd brought along.
  4545. > Spark reaches for one, but then looks questioningly to you.
  4546. > It's a good question.
  4547. > Somepony would have to stand watch, and a hangover tomorrow wouldn't be pleasant...
  4548. > But this is a night for relaxation, and all of you desperately need it.
  4549.  
  4550. ACTION:
  4551. - Allow them to drink but you and one other stay dry.
  4552.  
  4553. "Yeah, go ahead. I'll not be joining you - somepony's going to have to stand watch tonight, and I think myself and one other-"
  4554. > "I'll do it."
  4555. > Spark's hoof shoots up faster than you realized he could move.
  4556. "...okay, Spark Flash. Everypony else... yeah, relax a bit. Just remember not to be too loud; Course Layer is still downstairs, and I'd rather not tip him off."
  4557. > Their selection proves to be fine, and after some convincing you are even manage to get Buttercup to part with a smaller bottle of liquor for you to have a bit later.
  4558. > When there won't be any pressing need to stay sober... if any such time exists.
  4559. > Instead you sit and listen as the others chatter.
  4560. > Even the changelings drink some, though not much.
  4561. "...out of curiosity, is it hard to keep up your disguise if you're drunk?"
  4562. > Buttercup laughs.
  4563. > "Only if we pass out cold, then it's a risk. Anything short of that... no, we're pretty resistant. Doesn't stop us from being careful with it, though."
  4564. "I can imagine. We've had to be careful with everything going on in this city... what we say, how we act even."
  4565. > "Heh, now you know how we feel."
  4566. > Many topics are passed over, and amazingly you can begin to feel the ice melting.
  4567. > No longer are you merely unwilling partners, forced together by the threat of a greater force.
  4568. > Now there is actual enjoyment - perhaps even actual friendship growing there.
  4569. > Would it be the same if you'd been certain some of them had been at Canterlot?
  4570. > Probably not.
  4571. > After a while, almost all of them have loosened up.
  4572. > Even Whispen, who had been relatively quiet the whole evening, had begun to be more expressive.
  4573. > As another round of laughter dies down, you glance over to Spark Flash.
  4574. You don't drink, Spark?"
  4575. > He shoots you a flat look.
  4576. > "Fire talent, unicorn magic, and alcohol. You do the math, sir."
  4577. > Buttercup cackles uproariously.
  4578. > "I sense a story there!"
  4579.  
  4580. > "Well, it was the night after graduation at boot camp and we had the evening free..."
  4581. "Hey, Buttercup - you like stories?"
  4582. > She nods sharply.
  4583. > "We all do - it's a changeling thing. We can't exactly keep massive written records, and especially not carry them with us. So, spoken stories are very important to us - until they can be brought back home and written down."
  4584. "Huh. I'd... never thought of that."
  4585. > The only anomaly that evening is Iri.
  4586. > She does not drink, and barely speaks.
  4587. > Although she is still noticeably calmer and perhaps even happier than normal, she still seems tightly wound-up.
  4588. > Eventually the table begins to break up.
  4589. > It's getting towards evening, and time is running down.
  4590. > Unexpectedly, you catch sight of Buckleup quietly sitting beside a window, staring out towards the ships still floating at the piers.
  4591. > He'd at least been sober enough to resume his disguise before doing so.
  4592. "Hey... something wrong?"
  4593. > "Huh? Oh... eh..."
  4594. > He turns back towards the window, having glanced over when you approached.
  4595. > "...y'remember what Butty was saying about us having stories a lot?"
  4596. "Of course."
  4597. > "Yeah, well, we kind of rely on lines of communication to know what is going on with the others... but ever since this started, we've had nothing. Nothing at all."
  4598. "I heard. The one who this house belong to..."
  4599. > "Keel Haul, yeah. Poor sucker probably went and got himself killed trying to bring word. He was a good leader, though. Looked out for us well."
  4600. "Surely he knew the risk."
  4601. > "He did. But it's important to us... imagine if your princesses just up and stopped talking to you one day. That's how we feel when we're cut off."
  4602. > You decide not to mention that the princesses going spontaneously missing is an alarmingly common occurrence in Canterlot, and the bane of every Royal Guard stationed there.
  4603. "...well, we'll be taking Iri with us if we go, so hopefully we'll all be safe together."
  4604.  
  4605. ACTION:
  4606. - ask if Iri is okay, but don't probe; ask about Buckleup
  4607. - The only other thing I could think of asking was if he thinks ponies deserve this for being arrogant racist pricks.
  4608.  
  4609. "Hey... um, actually... a question about Iridescent. I know she hasn't been here long,, but... is she always that... cold?"
  4610. > Buckleup opens his mouth to respond, then closes it again and finally opens it once more.
  4611. > "She's... uh..."
  4612.  
  4613. > You can see the gears turning in his head, logic struggling against the alcohol.
  4614. > "...I probably shouldn't tell you that. Not a secret, but... her business."
  4615. "Fair enough. We all have our personal things going on."
  4616. > Buckleup gives a little nod, then turns his head to look at you.
  4617. > "You were at Canterlot, right? When the attack happened?"
  4618. "...Buttercup told you?"
  4619. > "We do not hide secrets from each other."
  4620. "Hmm."
  4621. > You hold your own silence before responding.
  4622. "Yeah. I was there."
  4623. > An awkward silence before the two following words spill out of your lips before you can halt them.
  4624. "Were you?"
  4625. > "No. Most of the swarm was, but not me."
  4626. "Ah - wait, was Iri-"
  4627. > "No, she wasn't either. Her issue is... different."
  4628. > For a long time the two of you just sit and stare out the window.
  4629. > Despite what you said, Buckleup seems to be in no hurry to leave.
  4630. > As for you, a great many thoughts are churning through your head.
  4631. > In the end, they all come down to one thing.
  4632. "You know... after all of this, considering I'm sitting next to somepony I'd have been willing to fight and kill without a second thought, I have to sort of wonder... do you think we deserved it?"
  4633. > "What?"
  4634. > Twisting his head to lock eyes with you again, Buckleup tilts his head.
  4635. "Did we deserve all of this? Did we somehow bring it down on ourselves?"
  4636. > "What, for fearing us, opposing us?"
  4637. > Laughing softly, he shakes his head.
  4638. > "Our nature is not like yours. We cannot help but feed, and in doing so always risk harm. We are not born with the same nature you ponies are. It is who we are."
  4639. > Turning back to the window, he shakes his head.
  4640. > "You cannot understand how it is to need to take something from another living being to survive. If you dwell on it, you go mad. You simply accept that some must take, and some must give. Some will die for the hive, so that others may enjoy life."
  4641.  
  4642. > "In answer, no, I do not think you 'deserved' these things to come to this world. But I do not think we deserve punishment for feeding as nature has demanded we must, either."
  4643. > That is one way to look at it, you suppose.
  4644. "...either way, there's going to be a lot of changes when this is over. One way or another."
  4645.  
  4646. ACTION:
  4647. - Ask how the changelings fared in the aftermath of the attack on Canterlot.
  4648.  
  4649. "...how'd you fare in the aftermath of all that?"
  4650. > "Well, I can't speak for myself since I wasn't there, but... we lost many. Do you remember how I said I was worried because we had no word from the other cells?"
  4651. "Yes."
  4652. > "It was like that then. So many went in on the attack, and when we were ejected many were badly hurt or killed... and even those who landed separately but lived did not always know where to go."
  4653. > Huh.
  4654. > You wonder how much of that unintended disorganization was to blame for the Royal Guard's limited luck in finding the changelings in the aftermath of the Canterlot debacle.
  4655. > Most common theories blamed it on the changelings simply being thrown too far away to be found, and the absence of their queen seemed to support that issue.
  4656. > "But yes, we lost a great many in that mess."
  4657. "The same. I think we can agree it was not the proudest moment for either of us."
  4658. > "Indeed..."
  4659. > At that, a moment of awkward silence falls between you, which you quickly move to squelch.
  4660. "Well. Hopefully we will not find ourselves fighting again in the future."
  4661. > "Perhaps."
  4662. > The dinner is winding down, as is the day - curfew rapidly approaches.
  4663. > Soon enough the changelings are preparing to leave; before they can, you corner Buttercup to take care of a couple last bits of business.
  4664. "Listen, I just wanted to say... thank you for everything."
  4665. > "Hah! Just take Iridescent with you if you have to leave, and you will have our thanks."
  4666. "We'll do that. One other thing, though - you said you wanted that zebra war alchemy kit we found?"
  4667. > "Oh, yes - you still have it?"
  4668. "Right over there, in the medicine closet."
  4669. > You point to the appropriate door with one wing.
  4670. "I have to ask, though - what are you planning on doing with it?"
  4671. > Buttercup gives you one of her more worrisome, predatory grins; it's not helped by the fact that she has not been skimping on the alcohol.
  4672.  
  4673. > "One of ours has managed to become close with a pony working for the humans. We intend to exploit this."
  4674. > A happy little giggle bubbles up from within her.
  4675. > "Being able to get into a human camp will be most worth the cost..."
  4676. "I hope you know what you're doing."
  4677. > "We will; we know how not to be caught. It will not be blamed on you... though if you wished to plan something simultaneously with it."
  4678. "Alright, then. Goodnight."
  4679. > "Goodnight!"
  4680. > Watching the three of them slip out and off towards the gate, you shake your head.
  4681. > Even aside from the strangeness of being wished goodnight by a changeling, the alcohol certainly had turned Buttercup... bubbly.
  4682. > "...hey, boss. We doing anything else for the evening?"
  4683. "You know what? No, I don't think we are. Let's take a moment to relax for once; we're going to wear ourselves out if we don't."
  4684. > Caravan smirks widely.
  4685. > "I absolutely agree with that."
  4686. > The rest of the evening is spent quietly talking with your ponies.
  4687. > Even Iri silently appears at some point, though she remains quiet.
  4688. > Moods vary; many sobering topics come up.
  4689. > Whispen raises a glass in the memory of Downspout, Buzzy, Silver Star and Scupper at one point; breaking your own rule, you join her with a small amount of liquor.
  4690. > For them, it's worth the 'do as I say, not as I do' jokes you'll get.
  4691. > Yet, in the end, it's not until far later that you get the greatest shock of the evening.
  4692. > Retreating upstairs - Spark having agreed to take first watch - you're unexpectedly met by the sight of another pony inhabiting your own bed.
  4693. > Rolling onto her side to face you, Whispen offers you a lopsided grin.
  4694. > "Hey there."
  4695. "...that's my bed, Whispen."
  4696. > She laughs gently, real mirth glittering in her good eye.
  4697. > "I know. It's roomy enough for two."
  4698. > Taking a couple of hoofsteps closer, you quickly begin to smell the alcohol on her breath.
  4699. "...you're drunk, Whispen. I told you not to drink too much."
  4700. > "I'm not thaaaaat drunky."
  4701.  
  4702. > Now that you know what to look for, you realize she really is.
  4703. > Not anywhere close to sick, but still quite under the influence.
  4704. > "C'mere, commander."
  4705. > She giggles again, beckoning you with one hoof.
  4706. > "You wouldn't drink, but it's not fair for you to go the night without any fun at all..."
  4707. > This is... odd.
  4708. > Whispen hadn't seemed like the one to proposition you so suddenly.
  4709. > But then, they call it liquid courage for a reason...
  4710.  
  4711. ACTION:
  4712. - Gently refuse her, ask what is wrong.
  4713.  
  4714. "...Whispen, no."
  4715. > You sit at the edge of the bed, staring calmly at her.
  4716. "You're drunk. Way, way too drunk for this."
  4717. > "C'mon..."
  4718. > She twists her neck around to lean in, her muzzle brushing lightly against your ear.
  4719. > Oh Celestia, is her tail starting to rise?
  4720. > "I know you've been thinking about me too..."
  4721. > It'd be a lie to say no.
  4722. > It'd also be a lie to say that you weren't feeling something between your hind legs.
  4723. > But that's not the point.
  4724. "Whispen."
  4725. > You push her back slightly one hoof hooked around her neck.
  4726. "This isn't like you. You're not right at the moment."
  4727. > She stares at you silently - her face blank and uncertain.
  4728. > Sighing softly, you retreat to kick the door shut before returning back to climb up onto the bed beside her.
  4729. > Tucking your legs beneath yourself, you turn to face Whispen again.
  4730. "...talk to me, Whispen. We've been through a lot together, and I've never known you to be like this."
  4731. > "Maybe... maybe I just finally changed my mind, huh? What do you think about that, huh?"
  4732. > She jabs out a hoof at your chest - not hard enough to hurt, but enough for you to feel it.
  4733. > "Maybe I finally decided I want to, you... you stupid featherhead!"
  4734. "...not a week ago you wouldn't even admit you were sleeping resting against me, and now you want me to fuck you?"
  4735. > That finally seems to get through to her, and she looks down - her gaze falling to the floor beyond the bed.
  4736. > Some sort of switch has been through in her, you can tell - like you'd finally pierced through a barrier she hadn't even realized she'd been putting up.
  4737. > When she speaks at last, her voice no longer has the alluring tones she'd been layering it with before.
  4738. > If anything, it is shaky and broken.
  4739. > "I'm... I'm sorry sir, I shouldn't have... you didn't want that... it wasn't professional of me to-"
  4740.  
  4741. "You know what, forget about professional for a second."
  4742. > Extending one wing to slip beneath her chin, you carefully raise her head to face you again.
  4743. "I'm worried about you, Whispen, You, as a pony - not as my subordinate. What was that?"
  4744. > "I..."
  4745. > She pulls her head away, gaze falling back to the bed.
  4746. > "I just wanted... I wanted to do something before anything more happens."
  4747. "Because we might have to leave the city?"
  4748. > "Because.. I'm... scared. I didn't realize how bad it was, on the raid... I thought... maybe it wans't that bad. But then, at the meeting..."
  4749. > Finally lifting her head on her own, you realize that Whispen's one eye was filling with tears - and the patch over the other one was showing signs of dampness as well.
  4750. > "You could have died out there. I wanted to go so badly, but you ordered me not to... and then you nearly didn't come back..."
  4751. "Why didn't you say anything?!"
  4752. > "I... I'm not going to let myself be a burden. I'm injured, I know... but I'm not going to dump my problems on you."
  4753. > She sniffs softly.
  4754. > "You've got enough problems weighing on your wings already."
  4755.  
  4756. ACTION:
  4757. - Further ask about her worries, and if they are going to be a problem.
  4758. - Tell her you're still interested in her, but throwing herself at you because she's scared isn't the right way to go about it.
  4759.  
  4760. "You're far from a burden, Whispen. You've been with me since the beginning - telling me when I'm in the wrong, but backing it when I need it."
  4761. > She shifts slightly, still uncertain.
  4762. "There's nothing wrong with telling me your worries; it's not a burden to let me know if there's something weighing on you."
  4763. > "I... I guess so."
  4764. > Leaning over gently, you place your head against her neck.
  4765. > One ear twitches, brushing against your own throat.
  4766. "So seriously. I don't mind listening. Even no - but, don't throw yourself at me because you're not feeling right."
  4767. > "I..."
  4768. > Extending a wing across her back, you wait for her to start speaking.
  4769. > "It's what I talked to you about once before. In Easthock. Being... alone. It was going away, but..."
  4770. > She pauses.
  4771. > "You went out there, though... alone. Without me. And four in ten were killed - what if one of those four was you! I... I admit, I thought... this city was safe. Nopony has been killed..."
  4772. > Another shuddering breath is drawn before Whispen goes on.
  4773. > "Nopony would even have been able to tell me what happened to you."
  4774. "I know, Whispen. But it's a risk. We're at war-"
  4775. > "I know! I know. I'm not... that's not it. I can handle being out there, but... you just vanishing, before I could tell you-"
  4776. > Sometimes it's easy to forget Whispen hadn't seen action before this.
  4777. > You had, on more than one occasion.
  4778. > She'd never seen ponies 'just vanish' in the thick of combat before this began.
  4779. > Except...
  4780. "You're thinking about what happened to your old unit, aren't you?"
  4781. > "Yes... one second they were there, we were all together... and then the next..."
  4782.  
  4783. > A ripple runs trough her coat as Whispen shivers.
  4784. > "I'd have died if you hadn't found me. But then you almost died out there, and I'd have been the one supposed to lead..."
  4785. "I understand."
  4786. > Turning to nuzzle your cheek against hers.
  4787. "And... I'm not against you. Or, against us being together..."
  4788. > "You still.. want me?"
  4789. > Pausing for a second, you cautiously nod.
  4790. "Yes. I do. But not when you're being torn up by your emotions and alcohol is messing with your head."
  4791. > At last you can feel her relaxing for real.
  4792. > "...thank you. I... I guess I should be grateful you didn't..."
  4793.  
  4794. [Numerous suggestions as to what to say, merged together to make the next post.]
  4795.  
  4796. "I should be the one thanking you for all the things you have pulled out for me, Whispen. We will go through this... together."
  4797. > "Thank you... for, putting up with me as well. When I... do stupid things."
  4798. "It's fine. Now... scoot over a bit?"
  4799.  
  4800. > You nudge her over gently on the bed; Whispen shoots you a questioning look, but does so.
  4801. > Fortunately the bed is enough for two ponies to lay side-by-side, although it will be tight quarters.
  4802. > Laying down beside her, you give her a gentle smile.
  4803. "If you actually want to stay here tonight, I wouldn't have any problems with that."
  4804. > "Are... you sure, sir? I mean... with the others..."
  4805. "Their complaint was that it was effecting my judgement while the battle was on. That's fair... but this isn't battle."
  4806. > She considers for a moment, then nods, rolling over onto her side to lay against you.
  4807. > You can feel her pressing into you - the lines of her muscles, the bandages still wrapped around her shoulder, even the subtle places on her coat where old, healed-over wounds hand disrupted the hair.
  4808. > Extending a wing across her, you lay your head down as well.
  4809. "I'll have to go keep the watch for a little while, but... for now, this is nice."
  4810. > "I won't disagree."
  4811. > Her voice is low - calm, for a change.
  4812. > Much better than the trembling tones it had held before.
  4813. "You know, though... it's entirely possible we will have to fight again. Or leave the city, and risk a run back to friendly lines.
  4814. > "I know. I'm... not afraid to fight, or to see you fighting. Just..."
  4815. > She shifts a little, tail flicking over to rest on top of one of your legs.
  4816. > "Just, let me know what you're going into."
  4817. "That, I can definitely do."
  4818. > On a whim, you lift your head to place a soft kiss on her cheek - mimicking what she had done earlier.
  4819. > To your surprise, a moment later Whispen twists her own head; her lips meet yours before you can pull your head back.
  4820. > The kiss is held for just a second before you break it.
  4821. > Whispen looks slightly flushed; whether that is because of her emotions or the alcohol in her you don't know.
  4822. > Probably best to cut this off before it goes any further, though.
  4823. "...get some rest. You'll want to sleep the alcohol off and be ready for tomorrow."
  4824. > "Alright. Goodnight..."
  4825.  
  4826. "Goodnight, Whispen."
  4827. > While she may be clear to sleep overnight, your rest is not so permanent.
  4828. > Woken at some ungodly hour to take your watch, you make one final check on Whispen before you go.
  4829. > She'd roll over a bit further when you left the bed, all four legs now curled tightly beneath her.
  4830. > It was a sleeping position you'd seen before, but this time there didn't seem to be any of the associated nightmares.
  4831. > For once, she seemed to be at peace.
  4832. "...sleep well."
  4833. > One of her ears flicks in response to your whispered order, but nothing more.
  4834. > As you wait for the hours to pass, you think on what to do in the following days.
  4835. > There was the matter of whatever Buttercup had mentioned.
  4836. > Making sure she wasn't going to ruin your chances of recovering the others would be one good thing to do.
  4837. > But Copper Cog and his 'militia' couldn't be ignored either.
  4838. > And, of course, there was still the matter of Course Layer.
  4839. > He'd been let upstairs long after the party, and his snores now sounded softly from the room he'd been locked in.
  4840. > You would have to figure out something to do about him, too.
  4841.  
  4842. ACTION:
  4843. - Have a talk with the squad about what to do.
  4844.  
  4845. > Perhaps it would be good to talk it over with the rest of your unit, you decide.
  4846. > You know what you'll suggest.
  4847. > The changelings can't be ignored - especially if they are supposed to be your allies.
  4848. > And maybe checking in on Fairweather couldn't hurt either.
  4849. > He certainly could use someone looking out for him, and not merely looking up to him.
  4850. > Eventually Caravan comes down - mildly hung-over and grumpy, but ready to take his place at the third watch.
  4851. > Relieved of your duty, you return to your room to find Whispen sprawled out on the bed in your absence.
  4852. > You have to nudge her a few times before she consents - still asleep - to return your half of the mattress to you.
  4853. > Actual morning comes far, far too quickly for you.
  4854. > Nonetheless, you couldn't afford to risk sleeping in.
  4855. > Despite what you'd said to her last night, you didn't want to give anypony an excuse to say your actions were affecting your duty.
  4856. > That didn't mean you weren't going to make sure Whispen was okay first, though.
  4857. > When you emerge from the shower she is awake as well, her one good eye half-open and staring at the wall.
  4858. "...hey. You alright?"
  4859. > "Sir! I'm... fine, sir."
  4860. > Considering the slight flush she is developing, 'fine' doesn't seem entirely accurate.
  4861. > You simply hold her gaze for a second until she breaks down - her one eye falling to the floor and ears flopping to the sides
  4862. > "We... I didn't.. do anything, um... untoward last night, did I sir?"
  4863. > ...it'd probably be rather noticeable if you had taken things further; she's probably searching for reassurance more than an actual answer.
  4864. "No."
  4865. > Moving to the side of the bed, you give her what you hope is a supportive smile.
  4866. "You were a little drunk, and you didn't express your concerns to me properly at first..."
  4867. > "I... remember that much. I was afraid I might have done something more and... not remembered it..."
  4868.  
  4869. > There is no way she was nearly drunk enough for that.
  4870. "It's fine, Whispen. I'm more concerned that you didn't tell me about your worries earlier than because of anything you did last night."
  4871. > "Thank you..."
  4872. > Slipping from the bed to stretch of each of her legs - even her injured one - she gives you a light smile.
  4873. > "For looking after me, as well.
  4874. "You don't have to thank me, Whispen. It's what ponies do."
  4875. > "Um, yes... and, um... is what you said about... maybe another time... were you saying that to calm me, or-"
  4876. "No, I meant it."
  4877. > She nods once before heading for the bathroom to shower herself.
  4878. > The slightest hint of a smile playing around her lips.
  4879. > Around breakfast, you wait until everypony has eaten before speaking up.
  4880. "Okay. It was nice to take a day off from everything else, but we've got to get back on the trail now. We've got three major issues right now; the first is Buttercup. I don't know if all of you heard it, but..."
  4881. > A quick rundown of Buttercup's comment is given before you move on to the other matters: Fairweather and the mysterious movements, and Copper's militia.
  4882. > Caravan raises one hoof.
  4883. > "We're also down to only 80 bits. The food will last a while, but if we want to have a buffer to travel with, we should see about finding more work."
  4884. "Alright. Caravan, take Spark and Ornithea; get us some bits and find out about some work. Whispen, you're with me. Hot Pot, hold the house; if there's any trouble at all, fly straight for the humans."
  4885. > "I understand."
  4886. "Speaking of the house, where's Iridescent Glaze?"
  4887. > "Asleep."
  4888. > Spark grimaces slightly.
  4889. > "I checked in on her and she... hissed at me. Things that look like ponies shouldn't make noises like that."
  4890. > Hmm, that's another thing to figure out at some point.
  4891. > Find out exactly what kind of a stick Iri has up her rear.
  4892. > "What about Course Layer?"
  4893.  
  4894. "Leave him up here as long as he doesn't cause any trouble. I'd like to get rid of him soon, but there are a couple things I need to check first."
  4895. > Setting out, Whispen actually manages to keep pace with you fairly well.
  4896. > You arrive at Buttercup's bar not too long later; fortunately, it is amid the quiet moment in the morning before the lunch-time rush begins.
  4897. "Hey, Buttercup."
  4898. > An annoyed grunt is your only response.
  4899. > Allowing yourself a small grin, you continue to pester the obviously-hung-over changeling.
  4900. "Hey, listen. If you can spare a few minutes, can we have a talk?"
  4901. > A minute later she'd dragged you behind into the basement.
  4902. > "Yeah, what is it?"
  4903.  
  4904. ACTION:
  4905. - Ask about her plans for the use of the alchemy potions.
  4906.  
  4907. "Buttercup, something you mentioned last night - about your plans for using those potions."
  4908. > "Oh yeah, those."
  4909. > She grins sharply, a sudden contrast to her previously-foul mood.
  4910. > "So, I mentioned we have a friend on the inside, right? One of the ponies that's been working for them?"
  4911. "...yes, you did."
  4912. > "We've already managed to slip a replacement into the camp once. Let me ask you a question: Where do you think all those humans are getting their water from?"
  4913. > No way they could be shipping it in.
  4914. > Maybe that's why they were so insistent on setting up near Las Pegasus.
  4915. "You know where they're getting it from."
  4916. > "Uh-huh. Get this, they don't even trust our own water lines from the reservoir - so they put their own line in, with some big crazy filtering machine to run it. But, after it is filtered, they put it to sit in a couple big metal tanks..."
  4917. > Oh sweet Celestia.
  4918. "There's no way that's going to work. They wouldn't let something like that sit unguarded. And what if they can detect the potions in the water; they'd just-"
  4919. > "Don't be stupid."
  4920.  
  4921. > Buttercup giggles.
  4922. > "We're not going to put the potions in the water; they'd start killing ponies immediately."
  4923. "What, then?"
  4924. > "We're going to make a bunch of little holes in the tanks. And in the pipes. And in the machine, if we can reach it. Maybe do enough them bring in a whole new one."
  4925. "...then what are the potions for?"
  4926. > "Causing even more chaos. Those growth potions - throw them down in the middle of a road. Make them have to hack everything apart to get their carts out. The wish-bush will be used on the gate guards - what do you think it will do to them when the alarms start?"
  4927. "...they'll not be able to open the gates. Or might even start firing on each other - Buttercup, do you know what this will start?"
  4928. > "What're you so concerned about all of a sudden?"
  4929. "I have ponies imprisoned in that camp. We're close to getting them out... the worms alone were enough of a risk - but if what you're planning happens..."
  4930. > Buttercup gives a little pout.
  4931. > "You're no fun..."
  4932. "And when did you suddenly get so keen to fight? Weren't you just interested in making sure your changelings were safe?"
  4933. > At this she pauses - something obviously not being said.
  4934. "Buttercup, what are you actually doing? What's this really about? Your big plan isn't just to make some confusion."
  4935. > "We... we've been experimenting with how many changelings it takes to control a human. It's a lot, and will need nearly all of us to control enough. But... we want to try and control one of their officers."
  4936. > She looks you straight in the eye, and for once you see real concern in them.
  4937. > "We need to find out what has happened to the other cells. If our brothers and sisters are still out there. If they're alive. Their officers might know... or would know who does have that information."
  4938. > It all slides in to place.
  4939. > Neutralizing the gate-guards.
  4940. > Making sure their carts couldn't go anywhere.
  4941.  
  4942. "Buttercup, if they think we can mind-control them - look at how they reacted when Luna went into their dreams!"
  4943. > "I know! But we have to know, and it's a fair trade; we'll give you whatever other information we can find, and we - we know if they are hunting us. If they freed the Queen. We have to know. In the middle of all that chaos they won't notice if a bunch of their loyal pony allies are suddenly in two places at once."
  4944. > Sweet Celestia.
  4945. > You didn't realize their need to know was this bad.
  4946. > "We can get out. We're experts at this."
  4947. "Fairweather said the same thing, Buttercup. That cost us four in ten ponies, and we were lucky!
  4948. > "I knew you'd say this. I didn't want to tell your at first."
  4949. "And what about Iri-"
  4950. > Another point clicks.
  4951. "That's what you were doing the other night. With Iri, in our home... nuzzling her, or whatever. That was about this."
  4952. > Buttercup doesn't even seem phased by the idea you were spying on her private moment.
  4953. > "I was saying goodbye, yes."
  4954.  
  4955. ACTION:
  4956. - [Varying degrees of 'tell her this is dumb']
  4957.  
  4958. > Your mouth opens to rebut her argument.
  4959. > To explain, in lurid detail, exactly how dumb it is.
  4960. > But just as you're about to say something. a heavy, meaty thud echoes across the room.
  4961. > Buttercup lands on her side, her eyes wide with shock.
  4962. > "What... you... you kicked me!"
  4963. > Whispen turns back around to face Buttercup again, glaring sharply.
  4964. > "Yes. I did. And I will do it again if you keep doing this."
  4965. > Pushing herself to her feet again, Buttercup meet Whispen's glare just as hard.
  4966. > The unicorn doesn't stop talking, though - her tone sharp and furious.
  4967. > "You haven't been watching what he's been putting himself through for your sake. We've been through hell out there in the Everfree - he got himself torn up by a human bomb - and still it wasn't as hard on him when he pushed himself to let you take what you needed from him."
  4968. > Stalking forward one step at a time until she is nose-to-nose with Buttercup, Whispen growls:
  4969. > "And you are not just going to let that go to waste for some stupid plan that is just going to get you all killed. I nearly lost him once already to that sort of thing."
  4970. > Despite the fact that she knew very, very well that the two of you were together, Buttercup seems downright surprised that Whispen would react to strongly.
  4971. > She just stands there in shock as the unicorn continues to snap at her.
  4972. > "I've had enough of ponies - or changelings, or whatever - just throwing themselves at them for a hope - a hope! - of something. I'm sick of-"
  4973. "Whispen, enough."
  4974. > Your command isn't spoken loudly, but it breaks through to her.
  4975. > "My apologies,sir."
  4976. "She's right, though, Buttercup. You're risking the lives of who knows how many changelings on a wild hope. This isn't a risky mission, this is suicide."
  4977.  
  4978. > "You really don't understand, do you? You're so used to a world with your princesses watching over you, you can't comprehend how bad it would be if everything your society had just fell apart. Well, that's what's happened to us."
  4979. > Her eyes close, body shuddering.
  4980. > "Our queen gone - not dead, but gone. Most of our kin missing-"
  4981. "Wait, what? What happened?"
  4982. > "She didn't tell you?"
  4983. > Buttercup laughs, shaking her head.
  4984. > "Oh, that's rich. I forget how many secrets you ponies keep from one another. Our queen - after the wedding, she had some plan regarding your Princess Sparkle and the other elements - she wasn't a princess then, but whatever."
  4985. > A light shrug before she goes on.
  4986. > "It was Something went wrong. We just... stopped hearing from them. The queen and the others with her, I mean - we don't know where she is. Maybe your Princess Twilight locked her away somewhere. Maybe not. We're certain she isn't dead."
  4987. "...how certain?"
  4988. > "We... know. Don't ask how; it's been that way since we started keeping records. She's out there somewhere."
  4989. "And you thought the humans would know."
  4990. > "Well, they're running over just about everything, and even if she will work with us I do not think Princess Twilight would shake hooves with our Queen. It was our best hope."
  4991. "Buttercup, they probably don't know. They... don't work like that. It's a bunch of small nations all working together; each one keeps their own command structure."
  4992. > She looks at you like you've just spouted another head.
  4993. > "How... does that even work? I understood the languages, but entirely separate command structures... it would be madness."
  4994. "I don't know. I think maybe they are insane. But that's what it is - they all but told us as much when we were in their camp."
  4995. > "Urgh... you... you're right. We shouldn't do this."
  4996.  
  4997. ACTION:
  4998. - Offer to try and make subtle inquiries of your own into Chrysalis' whereabouts.
  4999. - Suggest that given how disruptive it sounds like Chrysalis' return might be, maybe it is safer that she remains 'away' wherever she is until this is over.
  5000. - Comfort her somewhat.
  5001.  
  5002. > You pause, then raise a hoof to place it on Buttercup's shoulder.
  5003. "I'm sorry. I know it... it feels hard to just give up on that hope, but it's the right thing to do."
  5004. > "Don't think of it as giving up on hope."
  5005. > Whispen steps up beside you, adding her voice in as well.
  5006. > "Think of it as holding out on the hope that you can learn what you need without the cost in lives."
  5007. "We're holding out on the same thing, Buttercup. We've heard nothing about what state Princesses Celestia, Luna, or the Crystal Empire are in; all we do know is that Princess Sparkle is overwhelmed by all this."
  5008. > Buttercup slowly nods.
  5009. > "We can't stop searching, though. We... there's no way to describe it, we need to know what happened to the Queen."
  5010. > Almost certainly they were searching before the beginning of the war, you think.
  5011. "So are we. But all we can do right now is make sure all our friends - yourself included - are safe... and there's something else you should consider as well: Maybe it's better off if your queen stays away "
  5012. > Buttercup stiffens, preparing to snap out a reply, but you quickly cut her off:
  5013. "Look, right now the humans are hurting us bad, and they already think you're a threat - remember that little booklet?"
  5014. > Joining in again, Whispen agrees:
  5015. > "And especially if you do attack - you, or another cell - what do you think they will do then? If they figure out you can control their minds?"
  5016. "Exactly. At this point, being somewhere hidden might be the safest place for your queen to be."
  5017.  
  5018. > Now Buttercup does respond, laughing aloud.
  5019. > "Our queen does not believe in being safe if there is opportunity to be had."
  5020. "Point remains. Our princesses can barely hold them back briefly; will your queen do any better?"
  5021. > "Your point... is taken."
  5022. "Look..."
  5023. > Backing off a bit, you spread your wings slightly.
  5024. "We're going to be taking things a little more passive and handling that other militia if we can. That affects you too. Why don't you work with us permanently? It will benefit both of us now."
  5025. > She seems to be thinking it over; Whispen again backs you up.
  5026. > "We have to stick together. It's be together, or be wiped out now."
  5027. "And if we do, maybe we can try and get word around in the guard - see if anypony knows what happened to your queen."
  5028. > "I... accept."
  5029. "Then we should-"
  5030. > The sound of pounding hooves drags your attention to the basement door.
  5031. > A pony - probably a changeling, since he came down here - bursts in, eyes wide.
  5032. > "Buttercup! Get up there. Somepony just smashed our windows."
  5033. > Indeed they had; the bar floor is littered with fragments of glass and several apple-sized stones.
  5034. > For a second you fear somepony might have somehow discovered Buttercup's secret, or perhaps had lashed out at them after you came in.
  5035. > But then Whispen noticed a letter wrapped around one stone; lifting it with her magic, her face grows dark as she turns it to let you read.
  5036. "Buttercup, you know how those humans came by a while back?"
  5037. > "Yes. Not the first, or last."
  5038. "I think somepony noticed."
  5039. > The note is passed to Buttercup, whose eyes grow wide.
  5040.  
  5041. ACTION:
  5042. -  Take her with you when visiting Fairweather.
  5043.  
  5044. > "AGAIN?!"
  5045. > Buttercup's screech rips through the store.
  5046. > "We just finished covering over the last one! What do they have against our windows?!"
  5047. > Snarling angrily, she examines the damages.
  5048. > Of the four windows at the front of the bar, three were now thoroughly shattered and the sole remaining solid one badly cracked.
  5049. > "Aaauuugh! This stupid-"
  5050. > Slamming her jaws together, Buttercup seems to force herself to some modicum of calm.
  5051. > Though she's obviously still furious inside, at least her yelling has stopped.
  5052. "Buttercup - come with us. We'll see if we can't do something about this, maybe get you some... help."
  5053. > For a second she fixes you with a sharp glare, but your gaze halts her.
  5054. > The knowledge of what the word 'help' actually means trickling into her brain.
  5055. > "...alright. You got me. Yeah, everypony else stay here and clean up. I'll see what we can do."
  5056. > Trotting from the store, you assume a small formation - often checking behind to make sure there isn't anyone following you.
  5057. "So, I don't suppose anypony there saw who did that?"
  5058. > "I wish. It was lofted around the corner by magic, apparently."
  5059. > "Really? What color?"
  5060. > "Purple."
  5061. > You frown slightly.
  5062. > Not Copper Cog, then.
  5063. > "So, where are you going?"
  5064. "Going to see our boss. You might have met him once already."
  5065. > Buttercup nods.
  5066. > "I think I did. Not the fastest, but a fair pony."
  5067. > An unfortunately accurate description, really.
  5068. > But he'd been picking himself up again since then.
  5069. "Well, we think he might be able to help. We were already looking to do something about this... group, and this makes it all the more immediate."
  5070. > A curious look passes over Buttercup's face.
  5071. > "What, because they went after me?"
  5072. > "Because they're attacking ponies now."
  5073. > Whispen takes a position on the other side of Buttercup, still talking.
  5074.  
  5075. > "Even the humans was bad, but how long until they're tossing fire-bombs into pony shops instead of rocks?"
  5076. > Fairweather, after viewing the note that had been attached to the rock, seems to agree.
  5077. > "We have to do something now. It's only a matter of time before they kill a pony - maybe even an innocent."
  5078. "I agree, sir; the question is how?"
  5079. > "What about Course Layer?"
  5080. > Fairweather shoots you a questioning look in response to Whispen's comment.
  5081. > "Course Layer?"
  5082. "One of their group. Tried to break into our home with Copper Cog; we've been keeping him for a few days while we figure out our next step."
  5083. > "I.. see."
  5084. "We'd considered releasing him to bring back word that we - that is, the actual Guard - were taking actions but wanted them to stop the random attacks. And, to correct some things Copper Cog has been saying about my unit in particular."
  5085. > "Risky. What about other options."
  5086. "Turn him over to the humans, sir."
  5087. > Buttercup twists around in actual surprise, but Whispen doesn't bat an eye.
  5088. "They take the militia down, we earn good will, and it all works out."
  5089. > "And what about you, miss Buttercup?"
  5090. > "We don't really have a plan. I just want to know my brothers and sisters will be safe... though, if you needed us to keep some ponies out of sight for a few days - willing or not..."
  5091.  
  5092. ACTION:
  5093. - Take Course Layer and/or the information on the militia group to the humans.
  5094.  
  5095. "If I can suggest something, sir.. we could turn him over and pass on the information about their group at the same time. But, honestly, my opinion of Course Layer is that he isn't really a bad pony - just listening to the wrong ones."
  5096. > Whispen nods in agreement.
  5097. > "For what it's worth, sir, I agree. He's not vicious, just frustrated."
  5098. > "...what are you suggesting?"
  5099. "We let him go... and deal with the militia separately. Maybe we don't let him go until we do. If he keeps going after us, we deal with him separately; the real issue, though, is the rest of the 'militia'."
  5100. > Fairweather narrows his eyes.
  5101. > "Go on."
  5102. "Copper's got it in for us. If we lure the militia out with a way to get us, they might make a rash move. Walk into a trap."
  5103. > "We don't have the pony-power to make a trap."
  5104. > "I can contribute some changelings, but we don't know how big this militia is... or how huge their operations are."
  5105. "That's okay, because we won't be running the trap... the humans will. They already know the 'militia' is out looking for me and my ponies to settle a grudge."
  5106. > "...and with all these new attacks, they'll want the militia too."
  5107. > Nodding, the gears turning in his head, Fairweather purses his lips strangely as he does.
  5108. > "A risky move, but it would save you some unwelcome questions."
  5109. "Yeah. Any claims about us being Royal Guard would hold a lot less water if they just seem to be out for a grudge."
  5110. > "...I'll leave this one up to you."
  5111. > Fairweather shakes his head.
  5112. > "It would be less risky, but the actual confrontation might be rough - and we couldn't support you. You'd be on your own."
  5113. "...I understand."
  5114.  
  5115. ACTION:
  5116. - Turn over Course Layer and answer some unwelcome questions.
  5117.  
  5118. "...we can't afford starting a fight. The humans might even shoot at us. We'll have to get our stories straight and turn him over."
  5119. > "Good luck with that, Airpony."
  5120. > You give Fairweather a grin.
  5121. "Thank you, sir."
  5122. > On your opposite side, Buttercup leans over and nudges your shoulder.
  5123. > "If you need some extra 'witnesses', we can provide."
  5124. "...that would be quite welcome, yes. I'm actually thinking, we might not turn Course Layer over at all."
  5125. > "Sir?"
  5126. > Whispen gives you a questioning look.
  5127. "Hear me out: We get Course out, move him to the bar. Somepony will chuck some more rocks in, but Course will be 'caught' while fleeing. Buttercup, you'll recognize him from previous times when they came in and threatened you."
  5128.  
  5129. > Slowly nodding, Buttercup starts to fill in the details as well.
  5130. > "He tries to accuse us of being Guard, well, we and all our 'witnesses' have been living here for years already and are known not to be..."
  5131. "...and if he points a hoof at us, he looks like he's just trying to fill out the grudge we already told the humans about, yes."
  5132. > Slowly nodding, Whispen purses her lips.
  5133. > "It might just work. If he starts giving them information on us?"
  5134. "We'll need alibis. All of us, and certain ones. Buttercup, can you...?"
  5135. > "Absolutely. If he goes for you, you'll be 'somewhere else'."
  5136. "I'll be sure to have all my ponies get their stories straight. The only down-side is that it links you to us in the militia's eyes; they can't have missed that Fairweather went missing while going after us."
  5137. > Shooting a sour grin in your direction, Buttercup shakes her head.
  5138. > "They're already after us, all of them. I can deal with a little more attention."
  5139. > Fairweather leans forward.
  5140. > "Speaking of the rest of the group, you said this 'Course Layer' had told you where abouts their group was hiding out, though?"
  5141. > "Yes, what about the information that Iri gave us? How do we explain that?"
  5142. > Your train of thought comes to a halt at Whispen's question.
  5143. > Hrm.
  5144. > You would have to explain that....
  5145. > ...or, not.
  5146. > It could always be 'found' on Course Layer when he was turned over.
  5147. > But would that look suspicious...?
  5148. > Or even, give them a chance to escape...?
  5149.  
  5150. ACTION:
  5151. - Devise a story to allow you to turn over the info immediately, before any of the militia can escape.
  5152.  
  5153. "...Buttercup, I hate to do this to you, but could you take that information as well? Say they approached you and offered you a choice, then came after you when you refused?"
  5154. > "Yeah, don't see why not. You'll want to keep out of this all, though."
  5155. "Don't worry, we'll be at home getting our stories straight as can be this time."
  5156. > "Sounds fine on my end."
  5157. > Fairweather nods.
  5158. > "I've also followed up some on the information you gave about the hospital. You weren't the only one who noticed - something strange is definitely going on there."
  5159. "Glad to hear, sir. Anything we can do?"
  5160. > "Not yet. We're considering trying to slip our way in there, but it will take time."
  5161. "Understood. With permission, sir, we'll be heading out to get this plan into motion."
  5162. > "Granted. Keep yourself safe."
  5163. > Buttercup turns to you, tilting her head.
  5164. > "Any more questions you have before you go?"
  5165. "I think we're good."
  5166. > "We'll see you as soon as you get Course over, then. Bring him around back, as quiet as you can."
  5167. "Understood."
  5168. > A sudden question rises in your head.
  5169. "...wait, how are we getting him over? He's probably not going to be happy once he realizes he's going to be turned over."
  5170. > "Well, where are you keeping him now?"
  5171. "...tied to a bed."
  5172. > Fairweather looks at you questioningly.
  5173. "It seemed better than the basement, sir."
  5174.  
  5175. ACTION:
  5176. - Knock him out, possibly supply some more alcohol, and put in the cart.
  5177.  
  5178. "...we'll just have to knock him out. I feel bad about it, but we can't afford to be seen. We'll just put him in the back of the cart and move him that way."
  5179. > "Alright. We'll see you then."
  5180. "Same."
  5181. > At home, you quickly lay out the plan.
  5182. "...and as much as I hate to say it, we can't simply let Course Layer go. He knows to much about us, and they might press him for information... or hurt him, if he turns against them for information."
  5183. > The pony in question had been temporarily moved back downstairs.
  5184. > It helped to not have to speak in a whisper about important topics.
  5185. > Caravan, surprisingly, doesn't look too upset about the idea.
  5186. > "I wish I could talk to him about it, but even if he's not a fundamentally hateful pony, he's simply in too deep."
  5187. > Spark Flash nods as well.
  5188. > "I've seen so many things now I never thought I would... somehow, this doesn't even seem the worst."
  5189. "Hmm. Too bad that alchemy thing didn't come with a sleeping potion; it'd be useful now."
  5190. > Glancing at Hot Pot, you raise one eyebrow.
  5191. "I don't suppose you'd know anything?"
  5192. > She flushes slightly, shaking her head in the negative.
  5193. > "Except for being sleepy after a big, full meal... I don't know anything, no."
  5194. "Blast. Well, we still have that alcohol left over from the pot-luck. I was hoping to have a little, but oh well."
  5195. > Stepping downstairs, you find Course Layer curled up in the corner.
  5196. > The lanky stallion had been provided with a blanket and something to lay on this time, and wasn't blindfolded or gagged.
  5197.  
  5198. > Though he doesn't look so intensely angry anymore.
  5199. > More resigned to the fact that he was in the company of ponies who weren't going to slip up and allow him an easy out.
  5200. "Hello again, Course."
  5201. > His eyes raise to lock with yours briefly,
  5202. > "Hey."
  5203. "We're going to get you out of here. We can't keep you anymore."
  5204. > Relief actually breaks over Course's face.
  5205. > "Really? Damn - it'll be good to be out.
  5206. > A pang of sadness runs through you at the thought of what you are actually going to do to him.
  5207. "...but, there's one thing. We need you to do one last thing before we can let you go.
  5208. > "What's that?"
  5209. "Strange as it may sound, start drinking."
  5210. > You set the first bottle of liquor in front of him - a reasonably good scotch.
  5211. > Another bottle comes after it - a canteen of water, in case the liquor proves a bit too much.
  5212. > Course Layer sniffs at the bottle, then looks at you questioningly.
  5213. > "...what's this for?"
  5214.  
  5215. ACTION:
  5216. - How about we suggest that we need him to look drunk so that we can get past the gate guards... Unless he knows another way.
  5217.  
  5218. "We're going to tell the gate guards you stayed after the party last night, are still drunk and we're taking you home."
  5219. > Screwing up his face, Couirse looks displeased with this suggestion.
  5220. > "Can't I just pretend? I mean, it's not that hard once you get the slurring down right, and..."
  5221. > Think fast!
  5222. "They, uh... they have a machine that can find alcohol. To make sure their soldiers aren't drinking it. They'll want to test you - they always test us."
  5223. > "Ooh..."
  5224. > Course Layer nods in understanding, then hooks one hoof around the first bottle and holds it up.
  5225. > "Well, then... don't think I ever expected this, but... bottoms up."
  5226. > He swigs a fair amount; your eyebrows rise at how easily he downs it.
  5227. > Maybe you'd need more liquor.
  5228. > Catching your eye, Course Layer cracks a grin.
  5229. > "What can I say, after a bad day laying bricks I like to toss a few back. Not usually as good as this stuff, though."
  5230. "...ah. Well, we don't really get to drink that much. On duty, and all."
  5231. > "...so, you really are Royal Guards, then?"
  5232. > Oh, damn!
  5233. > Did he not actually know?
  5234. > "I mean, Copper told me, but... I was actually starting to wonder. You don't seem nearly as uptight as the few I've seen."
  5235. "Parade or watch-duty is a lot different, yeah."
  5236. > "Heh, well, either way... you ain't so bad. Despite what Copper Cog said."
  5237. > That actually gives you pause.
  5238. "...coming from somepony who tried to break in and hurt one of my ponies... yeah..."
  5239. > "I mean, back when you were threatening to beat the information out of me, that was one thing... but, I guess you've still got some decency left in you, huh?"
  5240. > You aren't sure whether that's a complement or an insult.
  5241. > Best to take it as neither.
  5242. "...well, I like to think I do, anyhow."
  5243. > For a log time, you sit with Course - watching him drink, but also talking.
  5244. > Better to keep him pleased as the alcohol floods his system.
  5245. > Topics are wide and ranging.
  5246.  
  5247. > For instance, what you both might do when the war is over - though Course Layer seems absolutely certain that the humans will eventually be driven back, or sealed in stone.
  5248. > You, are not so sure.
  5249. > But you don't say anything.
  5250. > Course, it seems, had always wanted to try and move out of Las Pegasus.
  5251. > "...and when they do finally get pushed back - well, from what I've heard, a few cities will be needing some skilled bricklayers to help re-build."
  5252. "Planning to leave your mark, huh?"
  5253. > "No doubt. Plus, it'll prob'ly pay well - put 'side a little extra f'the little one, y'know?"
  5254. > You look up sharply in surprise.
  5255. "You have a child?"
  5256. > "Uh-huh?"
  5257. > A dopey smile, enlarged by the alcohol's effect, splits his face.
  5258. > "Uh-huh. The missus and a little colt, not yet found his cutie mark. He'll find his way soon enough, though."
  5259. "His name... it isn't Ruckus, is it?"
  5260. > "No, Ballast. Why?"
  5261. "Oh..."
  5262. > You shake your head slightly.
  5263. "Injured colt I met in the hospital when one of my ponies was there. Lively little thing, considering how he'd been hurt."
  5264. > "Oh... well, no. He's fine, last I saw. Be good to see him 'gain soon, y'know... y'got family?"
  5265. "No, no - well, not aside from my parents, and a sister. But, my ponies - after all this, I'd consider them family."
  5266. > "I can b'lieve that. My grandpa, he fough' in th'las' griffon war. Couldn' believe some o'th'things he said."
  5267. > Course Layer drags the bottle up to his mouth again, sucking down a bit more before speaking again.
  5268. > "Hey, s'jus' one thing m'wonderin'. When Copper said all 'is friends in 'is ol' unit w'killed, because o'th' Princess Luna... 'e said sh'got scared. Ran 'way, wi'out warning any o'you, an' all her guards followed t'protect 'er. Bu'... bu', th'humans, they're sayin' she's messin' wi' their 'eads... S'tha'... s'tha' true a'all?"
  5269.  
  5270. ACTION:
  5271. - Tell him the truth; Luna departed because she accidentally enraged the humans by entering their dreams leading to dramatically negative effects on the princess herself and the night guard aided in supporting the retreat.
  5272.  
  5273. "No, no entirely true. Princess Luna did leave, but only because she... did something, and it didn't work quite right."
  5274. > "Wha'... whaddaya mean?"
  5275. "She tried to reach into their dreams - to tell them that we didn't want to fight. This was back when this all had only just begun..."
  5276. > Would this be considered secret information?
  5277. > Probably not, considering how the humans have been broadcasting it all over the place.
  5278. "Something went wrong. I don't know what, or if what she was doing did give them nightmares... but they didn't react well at all. They doubled down on their efforts to attack, and somehow it... I don't know, fed back onto Luna as well."
  5279. > Course Layer gives you a strange look.
  5280. > "Fed ba' on?"
  5281. "Yes. I don't know how, but... she left to prevent herself from becoming the Nightmare again, as I understand it."
  5282. > Nightmare, with a capital.
  5283. > A word with more specific meaning than just a bad dream.
  5284. > Sometimes you wondered if the humans understood what memories and tales they dredged up when they proclaimed Luna the bringer of Nightmares.
  5285. "Regardless - her night guard fought in the retreat, like all of us. What happened to Copper's unit is sad... but it didn't give him the right to do what he did."
  5286. > Slowly Course forces his head into a nod.
  5287. > His eyes are glassy and stare far away.
  5288. > "Y'give me... y'give me y'word tha's 'ow it was?"
  5289. "Absolutely. My oath as a Royal Guard of Equestria."
  5290. > For whatever that was worth now.
  5291. > You'd stolen, lied, and were about to condemn a pony to imprisonment by the humans.
  5292. > Course Layer still buys it, though how much that was due to the alcohol is up for debate.
  5293. > "Well... I trus' yah. S'we... we abou' t'go yeh'?"
  5294. "Well, why don't you get up and we'll see?"
  5295.  
  5296. > Pushing himself up, Course promptly staggers forward and nearly falls on his muzzle.
  5297. > You quickly catch him, fling low overhead to help him up.
  5298. "Woah, there, Course - easy. One step at a time."
  5299. > "I... I am takin' one step atatime!"
  5300. > That he nearly stumbles into a wall kind of invalidates that idea.
  5301. > With Ornithea's help you manage to get him up the stairs and amazingly out the front door without too many problems.
  5302. > The brick-red pony is deposited in the back of the cart Caravan had purchased, a number of other good stacked around him.
  5303. > On top of that goes a whole sheet, draped over to only leave his hind legs visible.
  5304. > With Caravan and Ornithea helping with the cart you start off towards the dockyard gates.
  5305. > By now the soldiers there were well and used to seeing you.
  5306. > While they check your travel papers, they do little about the cart itself - accepting that the goods were for trade, and the pair of hooves protruding from among them belong to a friend of yours who was sleeping off the alcohol.
  5307. > One lifts the sheet to check, but quickly retracts his head - beak-like nose wrinkling in disgust - when the scent of liquor proves to be quite rampant beneath the sheet.
  5308. "...alright, let's go."
  5309. > A few blocks away, you finally let out a breath of relief.
  5310. "We're through, Course. Just stay quiet down there and we'll get you to safety."
  5311. > When he does not respond, you peer beneath the sheet yourself - and find the stallion gently snoring away.
  5312. > Heh.
  5313. > Well, that worked out alright.
  5314. > Finding Buttercup's bar is easy enough; getting him out proves to be less easy.
  5315. > The 'back area' she had mentioned is a narrow alley between buildings, barely large enough for the cart to fit.
  5316. > Even then, it is a trial to get Course Layer out and into the rear door a disguised changeling opens for you.
  5317. > Of course he wakes up, eyes shifting around groggily.
  5318. > " 'ey... where are we? Wuzgoinon?"
  5319.  
  5320. "You're almost there, Course. We're just getting you inside, and then you can lay down for a while."
  5321. > "Heh... tha'sounds'ood."
  5322. > Again you have to take a position beside him, throwing a wing over his withers to guide the stallion in through the door and down the first few steps towards the basement.
  5323. "You'll be staying here for just a little while with our friends, okay? And then you'll be safe."
  5324. > "Yeah, s'okay... jus' gonna sleep i'off, yeah? Hehe... be seein' y'some time, then...
  5325. > Collapsing onto his side, Course looks up at you.
  5326. > "Hey, listen. You... some time I oughta buy y'a beer or somethin' t'make up f'this... y'aren' all tha' ba'... find some time 'way from work an' th'wifey an' jus' go drinkin' fer a bi'."
  5327.  
  5328. ACTION:
  5329. - Tell him when they question him to just say he was only moving stuff, and didn't know what, just moving what they told him too, and throwing some rocks but nothing else, if he does that everything will work out fine.
  5330. - that'd be nice course, maybe when all this is over.
  5331. - "Don't hate us." Just say that.
  5332. - We should just whisper a sorry...
  5333.  
  5334. "That'd be nice, Course. Maybe when this is over."
  5335. > "Alrigh'... m'hopin' we don' run into each other soon 'gain. Or, if we do, s'not for fightin'."
  5336. > You're about to turn and learn, but something in Course Layer's voice catches your attention.
  5337. > Immediately your logical mind starts to scream not to.
  5338. > But your emotional side is made up.
  5339. "...Course. WHen they ask - you were just throwing stones, understand?"
  5340. > He gives you a strange, strange look.
  5341. > "Wha'?"
  5342. "You have to tell them that. You just threw stones. Nothing more."
  5343. > "Bu'... I didn' throw any stones a'you. An' Copper will know I did more than tha'-"
  5344. "Please, Course. Just tell them that."
  5345. > "...alright'. I don' unnerstan' why, but alrigh'."
  5346. "...thank you."
  5347. > Moving back to his side, you lift a hoof to rest on his shoulder and smile sadly.
  5348. "I'm sorry. Please don't hate us."
  5349. > Your voice is quiet, nearly inaudible even in the quiet basement.
  5350. > To this he doesn't have a reply; Course just looks at you with confused, unfocused eyes.
  5351. > Turning away again, you retreat back up the stairs.
  5352. > Buttercup is waiting with Ornithea and Caravan when you arrive.
  5353. > "We'll make the 'attack' happen the day after tomorrow. He's safely down there?"
  5354. "Yeah. Doesn't have any idea where he is. How are you going to get him to do his part?"
  5355. > "What do you think?"
  5356. > They're going to mesmerize him, you realize.
  5357. > Well, it's ironically probably the safest option.
  5358. "Just... be easy on him, okay?"
  5359. > Buttercup gives you a strange look.
  5360. > "I thought he was trying to kill two of your ponies."
  5361. "Hurt. And yes, but I still don't hate him... just think him confused. We've learned the cost of hate."
  5362. > The trip back home is made in silence.
  5363. > Indeed, the rest of the day - what little remains of it - is done in the same.
  5364. > At last Whispen corners you in a side room.
  5365. > "Sir, can I have a word?"
  5366. "Of course, Whispen. What is it?"
  5367. > "Are you alright? You've seemed... off all day long."
  5368.  
  5369. > A slow grin forms between your lips.
  5370. "Good to know somepony is looking out for me... yeah, I'm a little off. Turning Course Layer over to be given in to the humans... it doesn't sit right with me."
  5371. > You'd expected her to be upset, but instead she just nods.
  5372. > "I understand... but I think you're doing the right thing."
  5373. "Really? I mean, after he attacked you..."
  5374. > "Because Copper was egging him on. He wasn't hateful - I could see that much."
  5375. "Yeah... well, thank you."
  5376. > With dinner comes further questions.
  5377. > Mainly, those relating to planning.
  5378. > With only two days until the 'attack' on Buttercup's bar - and when both you and Buttercup will simultaneously deliver the information on the 'militia' - things are rapidly going to be coming to a head fairly soon.
  5379. > Time to focus down on your objectives.
  5380. > Waiting a little while after Course Layer was taken to allow the militia to be arrested would be good... and to see if the rest of your ponies could be released.
  5381. > But after that, then what?
  5382. > Even as time passed, the line the human had given - about windigos - had stuck with you.
  5383. > That, and Princess Sparkle's claims they were disrupting the harmony...
  5384. > How much truth would there be in that?
  5385.  
  5386. ACTION:
  5387. - Wait 1 or 2 days to see if they're releasing the rest of your ponies, then leave.
  5388. - Try to convince Fairweather, but if he says no go anyway.
  5389.  
  5390. "...I think we should wait one or two days to see if they release everypony, but after that... we need to be moving on. There's only a limited amount we can do here, and it's not going to help."
  5391. > Looking around, you see mixed emotions on their faces.
  5392. "There's also that business about the Windigos. We have to find out what that is about - the entire war could hinge on whether they're influencing the humans."
  5393. > That gets their attention.
  5394. > The comment hadn't slipped their minds either, it seems.
  5395. "One thing, however... while I think we should request permission to take on that task, if we have to... well, we may have to leave whatever he says."
  5396. > Caravan frowns, but nods understandingly.
  5397. > "I told you I'd be ready to leave if we had a good reason to... and I'll hold to my word."
  5398. "You aren't pleased, though."
  5399. > "I'd prefer not to have to disobey orders, but I think you're on to something."
  5400. "Alright. Any other concerns?"
  5401. > Iri, for once, had attended your little meeting and now steps forward.
  5402. > "Please tell me you have a plan to actually leave the city."
  5403. "We've been making trips to the edge of the city to work on the refugee camp that is being built. Slipping away might be a possibility, though they will be watching that after the raid on the convoy. There's also the two remaining tunnels."
  5404. > Spark raises a hoof.
  5405. > "What about taking one of the ships? A smaller one, maybe?"
  5406. "Unlikely. Aside from the fact that they haven't been allowing ships to sail since they took the city, the winds are turning random without the weather teams up to work on them."
  5407.  
  5408. > He ducks his head, looking ashamed.
  5409. "Don't feel bad, Spark. No dumb suggestions here; we might hit on something nopony else has thought of."
  5410. > "What about other tunnels? The ones the changelings already had made up."
  5411. > Ornithea's question was directed at you, but it is Iri who responds.
  5412. > "There is another that leads out of the city... but in the wrong direction."
  5413. "How much in the wrong direction?"
  5414. > "Further up the coast - between their camp and the water; it opens up at the bottom of a cliff. If you leave through there, you will have a better chance to slip out unseen."
  5415. "What's the down-side?"
  5416. > "Rough rocks. You intend to take that cart? It would have to be carried."
  5417. "That would be problematic. It'd set us going in the right direction to go north, though. We could travel west around the edge of the Whitetail Woods instead of cutting through their eastern edge."
  5418. > Whispen nods.
  5419. > "Also, if we take that side, our travel papers won't help - they're to travel eastwards."
  5420.  
  5421. ACTION:
  5422. - Use your papers to just leave the city openly.
  5423.  
  5424. "You know what? I don't think we're going to be coming back here any time soon, and if we are - we'll have plenty of time to explain our actions. We'll just take the road. We have our travel papers; the humans won't give us any trouble."
  5425. > Eyebrows rise, but after thinking it over they all nod.
  5426. > Caravan chuckles softly.
  5427. > "I just hope we can give a good reason for wanting to go."
  5428. "Our favorite bar got trashed and we're hoping to leave?"
  5429. > Iri gives a heavy snort.
  5430. "Hey, it fits. We're not feeling welcome anymore, even if the ones allegedly responsible were arrested. Fighting's moved on, we're going home."
  5431. > "It will work."
  5432. > Caravan nods sharply.
  5433. > "I can sell it."
  5434. "Sounds good. I'm relying on you here, Caravan.:
  5435. > Glancing around to the others, you move on to the last major matter at hand.
  5436. > The big one.
  5437. "...so, there's one very, very important thing we have to be absolutely sure of: When we go in two days from now to pass on the information about Copper's militia, we need to all have our stories straight. Absolutely straight."
  5438. > Leaning forward, you set both your forehooves on the table to emphasize the point.
  5439. "Here's how it's going to work: So far we've told them that Copper Cog, a former friend of ours who came to the city with us, turned bitter when the city was overrun and wanted to start fighting back."
  5440. > "And we said no, so he came after us."
  5441. "Exactly. What we're going to add now is that after the attack, we went out to try and find his friends, to ask them not to come after us - but they weren't listening, and we only just got away."
  5442. > Whispen frowns slightly.
  5443. > "That's going to take a pretty complex narrative. We can't all be Caravan here, sir."
  5444. "I know. That's why it's important we're all sure on the details when we pass them on. We can't have any slip-ups. So, here's what I'm thinking..."
  5445. > Except for a brief pause with dinner, the remainder of the evening is spent focusing on this task.
  5446. > By lights-out you have a solid story cobbled together.
  5447.  
  5448. > Tomorrow you'll quiz them on it again.
  5449. > Until then, however, you have plenty else to do tonight.
  5450. > Whispen, unfortunately, has returned to her own bed.
  5451. > But, just as you are about to turn in, you spot something else quite interesting.
  5452. > Iri has unexpectedly emerged from her room, sitting by one of the windows facing the outside.
  5453. > Ornithea has not yet arrived to take the first watch, so it is only the two of you.
  5454. > Peering over, you see she appears to be reading a book of some kind... which is strange, since you hadn't ever seen her read before.
  5455. > The words aren't legible from this distance, unfortunately.
  5456. > Now might be a good moment to speak to her privately, though.
  5457. > Then again, the prickly changeling wasn't amenable to conversation at the best of times.
  5458. > Being interrupted in a quiet moment might not be a good place to attempt conversation...
  5459. > But when else would there be a chance?
  5460.  
  5461. ACTION:
  5462. - Go over and talk to her.
  5463.  
  5464. > Deciding to seize the moment, you quietly step over to her side.
  5465. > Iridescent Glaze does not acknowledge you, continuing to stare silently through the window.
  5466. "Hey, um, listen..."
  5467. > There's no response, almost as if she could not hear you.
  5468. "Iri, I realize.... this isn't optimal. Being pulled away from you..."
  5469. > What was the term Buttercup had used?
  5470. "...brothers and sisters here, but, listen: We're going to be there for you. We've all had some rough moments here - and yeah, a lot of us lost friends and family. Whispen and I, we both lost our entire teams as soon as this began."
  5471. > You're rambling, and with that realization drag yourself back to the point.
  5472. "Look, what I'm trying to say is, if there's something bothering you -"
  5473. > Don't say bugging; that could come off... badly.
  5474. "- we're willing to listen. I don't care what happened in the past, but we have to trust each other now."
  5475. > Iri gives a little, sneering snort in response.
  5476. > "You really don't get it, do you? No matter how much you talk, you cannot change who we are. That we will have to hunt again."
  5477. "We can keep you-"
  5478. > "Me? I care not about me. I am thinking about my kin. We will all have to feed."
  5479. > Sitting down beside her, you allow a small frown to show on your face.
  5480. "Are you trying to tell me you are-"
  5481. > In a second there is a flash, and another Whispen stares back at you - both her eyes glittering.
  5482. > Instinctively your jerk back, heart jumping into your throat.
  5483. > Another flash, and Iridescent's normal grey coat and lightened green eyes have returned.
  5484. "...could you not do that again, please?"
  5485. > "Exactly."
  5486. "Exactly what?"
  5487. > "We have to feed. We have to take the skins of others. It is not a choice, it is what we are. And you cannot help your reaction."
  5488.  
  5489. > At that Iri turns away again, resuming her long watch out the window.
  5490. > What was that about?
  5491. > Did she think nothing was going to change?
  5492. > Or fear that their queen would-
  5493. "This is about your Queen, isn't it? Are you afraid she would punish you for working with us?"
  5494. > Iri does not answer, but very subtly her eye shifts to settle on you again.
  5495. > Glaring in to you, as if she could open you up and peel apart your mind to climb around inside.
  5496. > ...which, strictly speaking, she probably could.
  5497. > At last her gaze flicks back to the window.
  5498. > "You are annoyingly persistent."
  5499. "If you want me to go, I will-"
  5500. > "Our Queen will not punish me. Not deliberately. But she will call us out to war again, in time - war against you. When that time comes, I cannot hesitate in my actions. I must devote myself to my kin and my queen."
  5501. "You seem quite certain we will be fighting again. How can you know we won't?"
  5502. > "Even if you allow us to feed, you do not enjoy it. Or, do I need to take your lover's form again?"
  5503. > You grimace, remembering your own reaction.
  5504. "Point taken. And she's not my lover."
  5505. > Not yet, anyway.
  5506. > "Not even this war will end our conflict. If the humans destroy Equestria, our queen will call us to seize the moment. If they are driven back, nothing shall change; ponies will still fear us. Perhaps even more than before."
  5507. > It's a bleak assessment, and from what little you know of the changeling queen you didn't particularly disagree.
  5508. > But yet...
  5509. > Your own gaze travels out the window as well.
  5510. > Somewhere in the distance a light flickers between buildings - a human patrol perhaps?
  5511. > Further on, Las Pegasus itself rests dark against the tattered, moon-lit cloud-structres in the sky.
  5512. > As if somepony had through a dense, heavy blanket over the city.
  5513. "Then why go with us? Why not another?"
  5514. > "Buttercup has ordered me to. She has her reasons."
  5515. > Ones that will not be shared with you, evidently.
  5516.  
  5517. ACTION:
  5518. - Suggest that the arrival of the humans is more unbalancing than she believes; if the changelings are feared because they are strange or alien, then now they are no longer the most alien things around and might have a chance for integration.
  5519.  
  5520. "You want me to be honest with you, Iridescent, I think you're underestimating how much this war is going to turn everything on its head."
  5521. > Another sharp snort is her only response, but you keep going.
  5522. "I'm not joking. It's true you have to feed, but not that you have to hide who you are."
  5523. > "Your reaction-"
  5524. "I was at Canterlot, in the invasion... and while I don't hate you, I am still... dealing with the effects of it."
  5525. > "And you think you are alone in this?"
  5526. > Another of emerald flame, and this time the changeling's true form stands before you.
  5527. > Her grin now sporting a pair of prominent fangs, her mane replaced by a ragged, fin-like protrusion, and her legs twisted by huge holes and gaps.
  5528. > This time you response is better contained, but no doubt Iri has felt it.
  5529. > "Your reaction is not unique. Ponies find us hideous and always have. We do not blame you for it; it is simply... how it is."
  5530. "And the harmony of the three tribes was not formed in a single night either. It will take time, Iri - I don't doubt that. But if we don't try, then it truly won't ever change."
  5531. > Her solid-blue eyes narrow, perhaps trying to determine how serious you are.
  5532. "We've been able to put aside our worries and feed you - even knowing what you were. It doesn't have to be war between us, Iridescent."
  5533. > Sudden inspiration strikes you on how to possibly convince her.
  5534. "Look, you can sense emotions, right?"
  5535. > "Taste."
  5536. "Taste, yes. So, taste mine. You'll feel my hesitance, and my worry - but you'll also know that I do intend to look out for you. I feel concern for you as well, even looking like this."
  5537. > That does keep her quiet along while.
  5538. > At a certain point Iri seems to realize that she is in front of a window and re-assumes her disguise.
  5539. > Yet, her words do not come for a while longer still.
  5540. > And when they do, it is in a much more cautious, softer tone.
  5541.  
  5542. > "And when my queen calls for a war to be resumed, what will you tell me to do then? Betray the one who keeps my kin together, or turn on my 'friends'?"
  5543. > For a second you are ready to tell her to disobey the order, but your jaws slam shut around the words.
  5544. > No.
  5545. > She would see that as you trying to force your opinions on her.
  5546. > Not a good choice.
  5547. > Instead you remain silent as well, staring out the window.
  5548. > In time, Ornithea slips downstairs to take her watch and you depart.
  5549. "One last thing, Iri... Buttercup called off the attempt on the human camp. They're going to find a better way."
  5550. > Iri remains at the window: Silent, still, and eyes distant.
  5551. > You turn away, heading for bed.
  5552. > The following day is about as routine as it gets.
  5553. > Morning is spent rehearsing your stories again - and, on occasion, improving,
  5554. > The bulk of the day is sent at work, Caravan again pulling through to find you a simple (if low-paying) job.
  5555. > While it earns you some bits to travel with, all day the upcoming turn-over remains on your mind.
  5556. > With night, you force your ponies - including Iri - to go over the story again.
  5557. > This has to be entirely watertight, with not a single detail left to chance.
  5558. > Even the topics of conversation.
  5559. > Finally the day of comes.
  5560. > Gathering them all around the breakfast table, you lay out the plan for the day.
  5561. "Alright. I think we should wait until mid-day to allow the 'attack' to happen at Buttercup's bar, then go deliver our part of the information."
  5562. > Whispen raises a hoof.
  5563. > "All together, or just a few, sir?"
  5564.  
  5565. ACTION:
  5566. -  Take Caravan, Whispen, and Iridescent Glaze.
  5567.  
  5568. "Caravan, Whispen, Iri - with me. Ornithea, you take Spark and go out to 'work' - make sure you come back by early afternoon, when word of the attack gets around."
  5569. > "Understood."
  5570. "Good. Hot Pot, cover the house. We won't be far or gone for long, so you shouldn't have to worry about anything."
  5571. > The trip to the human command post somehow seems more nerve-wracking than it was previously.
  5572. > After all, you're about to try and lie straight to their faces.
  5573. > And despite the practice, the costs of failure might be high.
  5574. > Before you turn the last corner, you halt and glance over at Iri.
  5575. "Listen, Iri... while we're in there, please, please keep the attitude down. We can't afford to anger them right now."
  5576. > "I know. I can put on more than one mask."
  5577. "Good. Thank you."
  5578. > The soldiers at the door don't immediately recognize you, forcing you to a halt while you are searched.
  5579. > They do, however, immediately recognize what you are referring to when you mention turning over the weather gear.
  5580. > All it takes is a mention of more 'useful information' and you're quickly ushered in to see Kosmatka.
  5581. > He is beaming again, utterly pleased to see you.
  5582. > "Ah, my good, good friends! You are most welcome here!"
  5583. "Good to see you again, Kosmatka. We're actually here because - well, we think we can give you something that will help us as well."
  5584. > "Truly?"
  5585. > Kosmatka leans in, grinning widely.
  5586. > "I have been given citation for good duty thanks to you and your help!"
  5587. > Ah, so is that why he was always so pleased to see you?
  5588. > Because your efforts had been a boon for him as well.
  5589. > Well, hopefully he would be willing to listen quickly, then...
  5590. "Okay, so you know how we had some ponies coming to try and hurt us?"
  5591.  
  5592. > "Of course, yes. They are back?"
  5593. "No, not really."
  5594. > With one hoof you indicate Caravan.
  5595. "My friend here, though - he went out looking for them..."
  5596. > For the next fifteen minutes Caravan regales Kosmatka with his tale of how he had met a pony who - unrelated to Copper Cog - knew his way around the militia.
  5597. > How Caravan had taken yourself and Whispen to try and talk them out of attacking you, and how they had refused to call off Copper.
  5598. > How you had fled entirely, with Iridescent Glaze taking pity on you and allowing you to hide in her shop.
  5599. > And how they had threatened her shop in revenge for helping you escape.
  5600. > By the end of it, Kosmatka looks none too pleased.
  5601. > But when you drop seven specific words, he suddenly becomes pinpoint-focused on you.
  5602. "...and I know where to find them."
  5603. > "How? Where you went - they are still there?"
  5604. "Oh, I doubt it... but I saw a bunch of them going into another home yesterday. That's why I'm coming to you now - I don't know how long they will be there, but I think if you go now they might still be there."
  5605. > Kosmatka's assistant - a younger-looking human who had been writing down the details of your story - promptly produces a small communication device.
  5606. > "You are absolutely certain of this, yes? Is not a trick?"
  5607. "Have we ever lied to you before? Look - we heard about the attacks on your big camp, and in the city - we don't want the war to come here. If you go get them, it keeps you safe and us."
  5608. > "Is true, yes."
  5609. > There is some rapid-fire chatter between Kosmatka and several of his sub-commanders; when it is all done, you get the feeling orders have been issued
  5610. > Or at least, a tip sent to someone who can do something about it.
  5611. > "But tell me then, pony - you say, you go out and see these ponies going other home. But, they see you before, yes? So, you think it is safe to go out when they see you?"
  5612.  
  5613. ACTION:
  5614. - Some combo of [other answers] isn't bad, and say that copper has a grudge against us, he came at us once, and he damn will do it again, if this get our friends out so we can fuck off somewhere safe that would be great, and if something unfortunate were to happen to Cog (Like a failed escape attempt), that would be real shiny.
  5615.  
  5616. "Of course it wasn't safe. But, if I could find their location, I could stop it from getting any worse - stop them before they came for me, for anypony else, or for you again."
  5617. > You pause, and add with a small, carefully-timed sigh:
  5618. "And maybe then I could see my friends again. I don't know what else to do to get them back, but if there was any hope of it all... then yeah, going out and finding out where they are, that was worth it."
  5619. > "You are afraid for them, yes? For your friends?"
  5620. > Caravan steps in now, his face a distraught mask.
  5621. > "We're worried about them, yes. Especially if ponies keep attacking your camp - we couldn't let them do that."
  5622. > He takes another step forward, tilting his head back further to peer up towards Kosmatka.
  5623. > "We're willing to do a lot to see them back and safe... even if it means doing risky things ourselves."
  5624. > At this, Kosmatka frowns.
  5625. > "I am hoping you are not planning on doing more, no?"
  5626. "If we have to. Nopony else seems to be, and if it helps our friends..."
  5627. > Sighing heavily, Kosmatka rubs his forhead.
  5628. > "I ask them again, if they can release friends. I do not know if they say yes, but I hope..."
  5629. > "Please, if you could..."
  5630. > Caravan's plaintive face is on again.
  5631. > "We'd really, really appreciate it... being out of contact for so long has left us really, really worried."
  5632. > Kosmatka nods, giving you a sad smile.
  5633. > He seems to be understanding, at least, of your situation.
  5634. > "You go home now, ponies. We go to the place you gave us - if they are there, then we see. Then, maybe, you see your friends again."
  5635. "Thank you so much, Kosmatka."
  5636. > Stepping outside lifts a weight from your back.
  5637. > It was done; the 'militia' would be contained, and maybe you would even see your captured ponies again.
  5638. > Without being imprisoned yourself, anyhow.
  5639. > On return to your house, you find Spark and Ornithea already back, though.
  5640.  
  5641. > Both have a grimly satisfied look to them, although Ornithea looks a little more shaken as well.
  5642. "You saw the 'attack', I take it?"
  5643. > "Yeah. Course Layer got picked up, as they expected. They had a couple other changelings 'dress up' as other ponies to help with the throwing of the rocks."
  5644. "Did he seem... okay?"
  5645. > "They hadn't messed with his head too badly; he was definitely aware."
  5646. > Spark pauses, seeming not to be sure whether he should say what he was about to.
  5647. "What is it, Spark?"
  5648. > "He... he was upset. Very upset. He knew we had given him over... didn't say it, but he had that look.'
  5649. "He didn't see you did he?"
  5650. > "No. We were hidden. But I could see his face."
  5651. > You nod sharply.
  5652. "I'm not... pleased we had to do that. But it was the best option. If we ever do come back here when this is done... I'll ask for his apology then."
  5653. > A slow chorus of nods from around the room answers you.
  5654. "Well. There's a good chance we might be seeing the others soon; we sent Kosmatka after the militia. If they move fast enough, they'll be able to catch them before word of Course Layer being arrested gets around."
  5655. > Caravan snorts softly.
  5656. > "With how keen that human seems to be to get attention? They'll move fast."
  5657. > There's a sudden knock at the door.
  5658. > "Is anyone there?"
  5659. > It's not a voice your recognize calling from outside.
hie rgs royal guard

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