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Royal Guard Survival - Part 4

By Lurkernon
Created: 19th December 2020 11:56:12 PM

  1. Originally published April 2015
  2.  
  3. Previous pastebin: ponepaste.org/2304
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  5. Archives in this paste:
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  8. --------
  9.  
  10. ACTION:
  11. - Earth ponies on the door, unicorns at range. When everyone is ready, you open it.
  12.  
  13. > You all freeze, staring at the door in moment of confusion and terror.
  14. > That voice... a mare, probably, but not one your recognized.
  15. "Ornithea, Caravan, flank the door!"
  16. > Your orders are snapped out in a desperate, whispered voice.
  17. "Whispen, Spark, hold back and be ready. Everypony else, be ready to pounce."
  18. > There's a desperate scrabble to get everypony into position.
  19. > Only when they are, do you crack the door open.
  20. > A small filly stands there, staring up at you with wide eyes.
  21. > She can't be more than eight or nine.
  22. "Hey.... um... hello?
  23. > "Hi! You live here, right?"
  24. "Well, uh, yeah... you have a name, little one?"
  25. > "Uh-huh! My name is Passeri, bu' everpony calls me Passie, an' I'm supposed to give you a reeeeeally important message!"
  26. > The little filly bounces on her hooves.
  27.  
  28. "...should you be out on your own?"
  29. > "Yeah!
  30. > Passie nods her head furiously - until several locks of hair falls straight across her face, upon which she tries furiously to blow it back into place.
  31. > "I'm a big mare now, and I can go out on my own! Only fast, though, and then I have to go back home."
  32. > She looks slightly downcast at the proclamation, although it only leaves you confused.
  33. "Well... look. Do you want to come inside?"
  34. > "Uh-huh!"
  35. > Tiny wings spread to briefly loft her into the air past you.
  36. > Passie halts in surprise when she sees everypony standing ready to counter a full-on invasion.
  37. > "Wow! You gotta lot of friends here, mister!"
  38. "...yeah, I guess I do."
  39. > Trying to put on your best calming smile despite the confusion swirling in your mind.
  40. "So, um, this message... do you have it?"
  41. > "Oh! Yeah! Lemme get it!"
  42. > Diving into a small sling tucked between her side and her wing, Passie withdraws a small scroll tucked there.
  43. > "Whazzit say? I can' read too well yet, an' besides I'm not supposed to read it 'cause it's a big secret an' stuff, an' I guess tha' means you can't tell me either, huh?"
  44. "...I'm not sure, but let me see-"
  45. > Your stomach falls out as the message unrolls itself before you.
  46. > 'We know you still have Course Layer. Let him go with the filly, or I'll turn you in. You know me. I don't want to turn you over, but I have to protect my ponies did. Just like you said in Easthock once. The filly knows nothing, just expects somepony to go with her.'
  47. > Shit.
  48. > Copper.
  49. > Why did he have to do this...
  50. > Even if he was arrested, this could go very, very badly.
  51. > And more importantly, if he was already zeroing in on you, then this had to be sent before you'd turned over the information.
  52. > "Mister? You alright? You're lookin' kinda sicky..."
  53. > Whispen steps forward.
  54. > "Who is it, sir?"
  55. "An old friend of ours, from... out of town."
  56.  
  57. ACTION:
  58. - Bring Passie to talk to the humans.
  59.  
  60. > You sigh softly.
  61. "I'm sorry, Passie. Somepony is asking you to carry a very, very mean message to us."
  62. > The filly practically deflates in front of you, ears falling and her mouth sinking into a sorry frown.
  63. > "Oh... I'm sorry, I didn't know..."
  64. > Instantly Iri is Hot Pot is hovering at her side, placing a hoof on the smaller pegasus' back.
  65. > "It's okay. We know you didn't mean too; after all, you didn't read the message."
  66. "That's right, Passie. We're not blaming you."
  67. "Um... thanks."
  68. > Her little wings buzz slightly at those proclamations.
  69. "But, you know what would be really nice? If you would help us stop the ponies who were sending those mean messages."
  70. > "I, um... I don't know. I mean, they're daddy's friends, and I don't want them to get hurt... What, um, what would you be doing?"
  71. "Well, we'd want to have you come with us to talk to some of our friends, who will make sure nopony gets hurt when this is done."
  72. > Not more hurt than necessary, anyhow.
  73. > And certainly not as hurt as what would happen if the militia were allowed to roam freely.
  74. > "Um, who's your friend?"
  75. "Well, his name is Kosmatka, and he's the human in charge of this part of the dock. Now, we're not going to tell him to hurt anypony - just warn him that somepony is sending bad messages to the ponies who live here."
  76. > Despite your attempt to calm the expected fears, Passie's eyes go wide.
  77. > "Ooooh. I really, really, reeeeeeaaally shouldn't go near them. Daddy always said they were bad news and I should always stay back from them and look away when they come by."
  78.  
  79. "And that's very good advice... except that now, we have to tell them that somepony was sending us bad messages."
  80. > How to put this in terms she would understand...?
  81. > Fortunately Hot Pot steps in and provides the answer for you.
  82. > "Passie, dear, I know it's frightening, but somepony was mean to you too by making you carry this message."
  83. > "Yeah, but... it was one of daddy's friends that asked me to do this, and mommy said that it was okay, so, um... I don't know..."
  84. "Trust us, Passie. Kosmatka is nice; he's helped us before."
  85. > "I gueeeess... but, um..."
  86. > Her wings buzz again.
  87. > "Promise me they won't hurt any more ponies? They... kinda scare me, and daddy always said they were bad news... they already hurt some ponies I know..."
  88.  
  89. ACTION:
  90. - the humans don't want to hurt good ponies, they want to be friends with the good ponies. but unfortunately some ponies scared the humans really bad and now some bad ponies are trying to hurt the humans while hiding with and tricking the good ponies. your daddies friends might be the bad ponies, trying to trick your father into being a bad pony too. you don't want your dad to be a bad pony do you? thats why we have to tell the humans, so they know you and your family are still good ponies but some bad ponies are trying to get to you.
  91. - Replace the note she gave you with one that doesn't blame you.
  92.  
  93. "Trust me on this - they don't want to hurt ponies. Unfortunately, some bad ponies scared the humans really bad and now some bad ponies are trying to hurt the humans still."
  94. > "But, daddy wouldn't do that! He just says to stay away from them, and-"
  95. > "Passie, dear..."
  96. > Hot Pot shakes her head slightly.
  97. > "Your daddy's friends might be tricking him. They tricked you into carrying this message - they might be trying to trick your daddy into being a bad pony."
  98. > "I... I guess. Alrigh'. But can't be out for too long; mommy's gonna want me to be home soon before the cur-foo thingy."
  99. "It shouldn't take that long."
  100. > You give Hot Pot a gentle smile.
  101. > "Just take her outside for a little while, and then we'll be off."
  102. > She shoots you a questioning look, but with gentle words and a soft voices coaxes Passie back out the front door.
  103. "...right, anyone got some paper plus a quill and ink, or a pencil or something?"
  104. > "What are you doing, sir?"
  105. > Spark passes a quill and inkwell over towards you; you grab them and begin writing.
  106. "A fast message to replace this one. Something that doesn't mention us."
  107. > "Ooooh. That's probably a good idea."
  108. > When the message is suitably rant-ey and threatening without naming any of your acts specifically, you fold it up and tuck it beneath your own wing.
  109. > One thing from the original message you had been certain to include was Copper's statement that 'the filly knows nothing'.
  110. > Hopefully it would
  111. "Alright, Whispen. Come on, let's go see Kosmatka."
  112. > Passie becomes nervous when you near the human command post, shrinking at the sight of the soldiers standing guard around it.
  113. > "Do I hafta go in there?"
  114. "Don't worry, Passie. We've been in and out of there before."
  115. > Kosmatka, unfortunately, is not there.
  116. > Perhaps he's out dealing with Copper just this very minute.
  117. > His second-in-command, however, is - and is quite pleased to see you as well, although he looks questioningly at Passie as you explain the situation.
  118.  
  119. "...so, we just wanted to ask again if anything can't be done about these ponies. We're getting really worried, now that we're being threatened."
  120. > He peers down at the scroll you had handed him, tracing a hand over your messy mouth-writing.
  121. > It wasn't your best work, honestly... hopefully he could read it.
  122. > "We already go to find them, yes? Take them without kill, maybe."
  123. > At this Passie frowns deeply.
  124. > "Do y'have to? My mommy said it's always better to talk with someone who's being mean, not fight them."
  125. > "I wish, talk would help. But, is not time for talk now - maybe talk before, before they hurt us."
  126. "I'm sure they won't hurt your daddy, and only the other ponies if they have to."
  127. > "I guess... I jus' wanna go back to bein' nice an' stuff. Then I coul' go back to my singin' lessons and seeing my friends and daddy wouldn't have to go away so much..."
  128. > The soldier squats down, reaching out with one hand to ruffle Passie's mane.
  129. > "We want to not fight too. We want this war, we want to end soon too. Maybe soon, we all go home, yes?"
  130. > Though she flinches back at the initial touch, Passie puts on a strong face and nods.
  131. > "Yeah. Soon!"
  132. > Stepping out through the door, you smile down at Passie.
  133. "See? That wasn't too hard. They're not mean all the time."
  134. > "Yeah... I guess so. I still don' unnerstan' why they came here and killed ponies if they didn't want too."
  135. "Well... they were scared, honestly. Of us."
  136. > Passie scrunches up her faces adorably.
  137. > "So why didn' they... I dunno, offer to trade lunches or somethin'?"
  138. "...I don't know, Passie. I wish I did."
  139. > "I guess... I'm just worried abou' my daddy too. He's been away a lot lately."
  140. > Whispen smiles softly.
  141. > "What's your daddy's name, Passie?"
  142. > "Course Layer! An' he's the biggest, strongest, bestest daddy ever. He always comes homes an' has the time t'play with me, even when he's tired from workin' hard!"
  143.  
  144. ACTION:
  145. - "Well, Hopefully when this mess is all straightened out, he won't have to be away so much." And quietly to the others; "It figures that piece of shit would do something like this."
  146. - "he sounds like a nice pony. well... you best go home now, curfew is coming up"
  147.  
  148. > You nearly fall flat as a hoofstep misses a beat on the pavement.
  149. > Whispen has turned slightly pale as well; Passie seems utterly oblivious to the reaction her statement has brought on.
  150. "Well, um..."
  151. > Damn, damn, what do you say?
  152. > Your mind is in total turmoil right now, and the first thing that comes up to your lips is blurted out.
  153. "Well, hopefully when this mess is all straightened out, he won't have to be away so much."
  154. > "Yeeeeah. That'd be nice... especially since he's sometimes kinda mad ever since all th' humans came."
  155. "Well, why don't you run on home now. Curfew is coming up..."
  156. > "Okay. Um... I shouldn't tell anyone I did this, right?"
  157. > Damn.
  158. > Foals are never good about secrets; there's a fair bit of what she'd told you that you're pretty certain the 'militia' wouldn't have approved of her talking about.
  159. > But if you tell her not to tell, she'd burst sooner or later, and you really didn't want her to be there when they realized she'd ratted them out.
  160. > That only leaves...
  161. "...well, let me ask you, Passie: What does your mommy think of daddy's friends?"
  162. > "I dunno. I heard her tell daddy she's scared of them, but she thought I was asleep and didn't know I could hear her."
  163. "Then it's probably safe for you to tell her... but you can't tell anyone who might tell daddy's friends, okay? I think they'd be mad you told on them."
  164. > Passie screws up her little face into a scrunched look of thoughtfulness.
  165. > "Yeah, I guess you're right about that."
  166. "Come on, then. We'll walk you back to the gate out of here."
  167. > Come to think of it, how had Passie gotten through the gate in the first place?
  168. > She was so afraid of the soldiers, it seemed like she was ready to flee at the sight of them.
  169.  
  170. > "Um... thanks. One of daddy's friends dropped me off, but I don't know if he's still there."
  171. > Thankfully they are not - or if so, are hiding well enough even your sharp eyes don't spot them.
  172. > As you near the dockyard gates, Whispen leans down to nuzzle Passie lightly.
  173. > A thing, you are sure, that she would not have done were it not for what you had done to the filly's family.
  174. > "Alright, Passie. You sure you'll be safe going back?"
  175. > "Uh-huh. I'm a big filly now, I can do it."
  176. "Hurry along, then."
  177. > Reaching into your saddlebags, you toss her a couple of bits.
  178. "And if there's a candy shop along the way, get yourself a treat. You did good today."
  179. > "Thanks, mister! Sorry I..."
  180. > A sharp, worried glance is thrown towards the soldiers, now well within ear-shot.
  181. > "...bothered you, an' stuff."
  182. "It's okay, Passie. We know you didn't mean it."
  183. > Not until she is nearly out of sight - her little creamy tail bobbing along in the distance - do you allow yourself to speak freely.
  184. > Slamming a hoof to the pavement, you shake your head.
  185. "Fucking Course Layer's foal. Figures that piece of shit Copper would do something like that."
  186. > "Easy..."
  187. > Whispen lays a hoof on your shoulder; you let out a heavy sigh.
  188. "Yeah. Come on, let's go home."
  189. > As you walk, you shake your head.
  190. "I just can't believe he would send us... probably thought Course would hear her voice, call out, and we wouldn't be willing to separate them."
  191. > Looking to the ground, Whispen nods.
  192. > "I'm more worried about that family... if there are militia left, would they go after her?"
  193. "After a foal? I doubt it. Not even Copper is that sick; he made sure to protect her from our questioning, after all."
  194. > The remainder of the night goes quietly, as does the following day.
  195. > Too quietly, in fact.
  196. > There's no word from Kosmatka or the changelings on what might have happened with the militia.
  197. > By the day's end, you make a decision.
  198.  
  199. "Look, we can't stay in here forever. We need to go out and figure out what happened; if the militia is dealt with, or not - and if so, go see about our friends."
  200. > Most of your squad nods in agreement; Caravan speaks up.
  201. > "Only question is, where we go first."
  202.  
  203. ACTION:
  204. - Go see Fairweather. The other guards in hiding would undoubtedly have told him if something happened the prior day.
  205.  
  206. "Let's go to see Fairweather. If anything has happened, the other guards are probably going to have told him about it."
  207. > Whispen nods.
  208. > "Plus, we can ask to leave the city with his permission then."
  209. "That too."
  210. > The walk to his home is quiet and smooth.
  211. > Nopony seems particularly disturbed or worried-looking.
  212. > Perhaps nothing did happen yesterday...
  213. > ...or perhaps ponies were becoming so used to attacks on and raids by the humans they simply didn't care.
  214. > You aren't sure which you would find more worrying.
  215. > Fairweather, when you reach him, listens to your questions and nods silently.
  216. > "Your plans worked, at least to some degree."
  217. "...what do you mean by 'some degree', sir?"
  218. > Leaning forward in his seat, Fairweather places both hooves on his desk.
  219. > "From the version of the story I was told, the humans raided the buildings they were in, alright - earlier this morning. Problem was, the ponies inside fought back."
  220. > Whispen remains silent, but Caravan mutters a quiet curse.
  221. > "Some of the humans were wounded at least, and the building - plus whatever weapons or information they had stored there - burned."
  222. "Fire again. Sounds to me like Copper was involved in that..."
  223. > "I can't speak to that. The pony who told the story to me said the humans herded off twenty-two ponies from inside as prisoners - apart from others who just had to flee the fire."
  224. > Unfortunately, one thing Course Layer had been unclear about - even under Iri's influence - was how many were involved in this.
  225. > His cell, he swore, was no more than twenty, but there were other groups of similarly-minded ponies around the city.
  226. > If they'd taken twenty-two... well, some might be innocent.
  227. "Sounds like they got the most of them, then."
  228.  
  229. > "I'd think so - that number is the one I trust the most."
  230. "There are others?"
  231. > Fairweather snorts softly.
  232. > "Some ponies are apparently swearing the humans killed a hundred, and others that they used a weapon to put everypony to sleep before burning the building themselves."
  233. > Ah.
  234. > Well, rumors are known to spread...
  235. > "Twenty-two came from one of ours, though, who was watching it when they came. So, I trust his numbers. Even so, watch your back out there."
  236. "Actually, sir, that brings me to a question I have for you."
  237. > Well, here goes nothing.
  238. "With your permission, sir, I'd like to leave the city."
  239. > Fairweather's eyebrows shoot up in surprise.
  240. > "To abandon this position? All of us?"
  241. "No, no! Just my unit, sir. It's becoming increasingly unsafe for us in particular to remain here, and... do you remember what I told you about the windigos, sir?"
  242. > "Yes, of course. I've still not heard anything back from the princesses or command about that, though."
  243. "It's starting to worry me a lot more. This entire war could hinge on what that is about."
  244. > For a long time, Fairweather is silent.
  245. > One hoof taps at the table he sits before - a regular rhythm you wish would stop but goes on anyhow.
  246. > "...let me ask you this, Airpony. Do you truly believe that what you can do will help?"
  247.  
  248. [Numerous suggestions on what to say; result cobbled together from several of them.]
  249.  
  250. "Yes, and even if we can't do as much as we think, it's a lot more than we can now. Our orders from the top have not been helpful; at least if we're out there we can learn something, maybe even find a way to settle this peaceably. We've heard their soldiers, and even though they're winning they don't want to be fighting us."
  251. > Fairweather gives no immediate response, but doesn't halt you either - so on you go.
  252. "Now, Princess Sparkle certainly seemed concerned by the humans' impact on Equestria's harmony, and we heard straight from them that the humans are aware of fought windigos in the past."
  253. > Pausing you gather you thoughts before continuing.
  254. "Now I wont pretend that my ponies are the best the Royal Guard could send on this mission - we're guardsponies, not academics or cryptozoologists - but given the state of our command right now, we cannot afford passing this off and having it lost in the background noise."
  255. > You're breaking through, you can tell.
  256. > Fairweather's hoof has stopped, and he's even nodding his head a little.
  257. > Beside you, Caravan steps up.
  258. > "For what it is worth, sir, he's lead us behind enemy lines once and I heard he went back into the Everfree before I joined him too. If anypony can do this, he can."
  259. > Whispen nods as well.
  260. > "I may not always agree with every choice, but he is a capable leader and we are ready."
  261. "And Fiarweather, sir, if we take on this mission at the least we know that ponies are looking into it. If nothing else, leaving the city will allow us to make contact with other changeling units - maybe bring them into the fight."
  262. > At last a huge rush of air escapes as Fairweather sighs.
  263. > "Alright. You've convinced me... or at least, you've convinced your ponies, and they've convinced me you're not mad."
  264. "We can go, then?"
  265. > "I don't have the permission to detach a unit for a major mission like that..."
  266.  
  267. > Your heart sinks-
  268. > "But."
  269. > Again leaning forward in his seat, Fairweather narrows his eyes.
  270. > "I do order you to engage in a six-day scouting mission outside of the city. If you should happen to 'discover' something that you feel cannot be ignored whatsoever and you happen to pursue it beyond that time frame, then that is your choice and it would not be dereliction of your duty to do so."
  271. > Relief floods through you; your jaw nearly drops as you realize what Fairweather is doing for you.
  272. "Sir... if this goes wrong and we gain nothing, they may not understand your choice..."
  273. > Shaking his head, Fairweather snorts.
  274. > "If this goes wrong, you just vanish - then it's an unfortunate disappearance. Nopony can say you were a coward and deserted the city. Besides, if you don't succeed.. in a few months Equestria may not have a guard for me to answer to."
  275. > It's a pointed reminder of the stakes you are fighting for.
  276. > "Besides..."
  277. > Fairweather looks down, shifting uncomfortably.
  278. > "I listened to my head over my heart once, and it go near half the ponies in my command killed. Now my heart says you're right even if it sounds crazy, and I owe you that much for saving me from myself."
  279. > A low smile forms on your own lips.
  280. "Thank you, sir."
  281. > "Just get it done, Airpony. All of you. End this Tartarus-damned war already."
  282. "With your permission, sir, I'll return home and prepare for my mission."
  283. > "Granted. May harmony guide you."
  284. > Except, it seems, harmony is not quite with you yet.
  285. > As you re-enter the dockyard, you realize that there are several human carts pulled in a tight circle around your home.
  286. > Damn, why now?!
  287. > Whispen pulls close to you, her own voice nervous and worried.
  288. > "What do we do, sir?"
  289. > You study the situation as best you can, peering around a corner.
  290. > There doesn't appear to be any fighting in the house, but soldiers are standing guard around it...
  291. > Nopony's been brought out, but they might be inside one of the carts.
  292.  
  293. ACTION:
  294. - Go over to them.
  295.  
  296. "...no way around this. We don't have food, we don't have bits... we can't go anywhere. Caravan, if things go bad I'm relying on you."
  297. > "I'll try to do my best."
  298. > Judging by the worry in his voice he's none too certain either, but he puts on a brave face and follows you forward.
  299. > Yet, when you approach, the soldiers barely react
  300. > One points to you for his comrade, and another motions you closer - but there's none of the shouts, weapons being raised, or general aggression you'd expect if you were being targeted.
  301. > Getting just close enough, you call out:
  302. "Hey... uh... is something going on here?"
  303. > The soldiers quickly reply.
  304. > "Yes, yes - go in, go in. Our commander, Starszy chorąży Kosmatka - he wishes to see you!"
  305. > Kosmatka is here?
  306. > But why did he come to you?
  307. > Wouldn't it be better if he-
  308. > "And, ah - I do not know the word, special-commander, he wishes to speak too."
  309. > Another one?
  310. > Just what is going on?!
  311. > Nodding nervously, you step around the soldiers and head for the front door.
  312. > It is unsurprisingly unlocked, but that doesn't stop you from coming to a total halt in the doorway.
  313. "Boulder? Chilona? Byli-"
  314. > You're interrupted by a happy cry; Dusk waves to you from where she is seated next to Hot Pot.
  315. > They're here, all of them - even Tariff, bandaged but smirking, sits in a corner with Iri hovering over him with the first truly worried look you've seen her give.
  316. "What's going on?"
  317. > "Ah, you are here - is good!"
  318. > Kosmatka is seated as well, but it is the man behind him that draws your attention.
  319. > Tall, thin, with eyes set far back into his head - this human's eyes immediately bore into you; you feel as though you are being peeled apart by the moment.
  320.  
  321. > It's a feeling you've not felt since facing a drill sergeant back in the training fields...
  322. "Hey... uh... what's going on, Kosmatka?"
  323. > "We are very happy, yes! The place you name - soldiers found many partyzant pony there!"
  324. > You don't know exactly what a 'partyzant' is, but odds are it means something like rebel.
  325. "Oh! Um, we're glad to hear it..."
  326. > Gesturing up to the taller man - who you realize now, has not moved an instant since you entered - Kosmatka continues.
  327. > "This is podporucznik - excuse me, is Lieutenant Gwozdek. Is our, ah - is special officer in Las Pegasus here, for working with ponies."
  328. > A special officer?
  329. > Some sort of liason, then...
  330. > "He helps ponies who help us, you see? He is very, very happy with you and me, and he says your friends can be staying here because you work with us."
  331. > Even as you absorb the news, you are keeping are careful eye on Gwozdek.
  332. > His gaze is now on Whispen beside you, and it is easy to see she is all but squirming underneath it as well.
  333. > "Go on, go on! Say hello - he is not so bad, I promise!"
  334.  
  335. ACTION:
  336. - Just say hello; nothing more.
  337.  
  338. "Um... hello..."
  339. > Uncertainly you take a few cautious steps towards the man; when you are close enough, you raise a hoof in greeting.
  340. > For a few moments Gwozdek doesn't move, and you're afraid you might have angered him.
  341. > But then a beatific smile splits his face.
  342. > All of the piercing, searching look he had is gone... which only serves to worry you further.
  343. > "It is very good to meet you as well!"
  344. > Reaching down, he takes your hoof and shakes it lightly.
  345. > "You have been a great, great help to us, and we really do appreciate it."
  346. "Thank you. Your, uh, Equish is very good."
  347. > "Yes, yes - I had to learn Eng - ah, Equish for my duties back home. So many speak it, you know?"
  348. > So Equish, or whatever they called it, was a common language on their planet?
  349. > Strange...
  350. > The 'Americans' seemed to speak it with the least accent; was that what they called it?
  351. "So, um... what has brought you here?"
  352. > "Well - Sergeant Major Kosmatka told you of our raid, of course. We are... well, pleased to see that some ponies in this city can see the value in avoiding further fighting."
  353. > He doesn't know the half of it.
  354. "We just want to be safe. That's all there is to it, really."
  355. > "Regardless of the reason, you've been a great help to us - and we want to show our appreciation."
  356. > They want to bribe you, he means.
  357. > "Your friends - they were arrested, I understand, for trying to steal weapons?"
  358. "Yes... to hide them, I heard."
  359. > "We think... their stories are all the same, and you have not proven to be a worry. As thanks for your assitance, they are being released to you, but..."
  360. "I am responsible for what they do now as well?"
  361. > "Indeed. If they cause a problem again, we will reconsider our agreements with you altogether."
  362. > Well.
  363. > You didn't plan on being in this city long anyhow.
  364.  
  365. "I understand. Trust me, we have no plans to make any kind of trouble."
  366. > "Good, good. Your friends, I think, were not truly angry - merely... misguided."
  367. > Though Gwozdek has gone through the entire conversation with a jovial town and a wide smile, you can't help but feel there's something else lurking just beneath the surface.
  368. > "We of course, will be keeping a watch on you - for your own safety, you understand. We do this with all who provide such helpful information."
  369. > Of course he does.
  370. "Will it be intrusive?"
  371. > "No, no - you will not even see us."
  372. > Even better.
  373. > You're starting to wonder if this trade was only making things worse.
  374. "Do you really think we are at that much risk?"
  375. > A dark look passes over Gwozdek's face for just a second before it turns more somber.
  376. > He shakes his head sadly, sympathetically.
  377. > "After the... raid, this morning, a few of the terrorist-ponies decided to... retaliate."
  378. > Oh, no.
  379. > "They attacked a patrol, and seized two other ponies who were working with us... we seek them even now, but they are not yet found."
  380. > That does not sound good, to say the least.
  381. > And is only more encouragement to leave, ASAP.
  382. > ...but it's probably a better idea not to tell him about those plans, right?
  383. > Then again, sneaking out might need a new plan if they were going to be keeping track of you...
  384.  
  385. ACTION:
  386. - I think it might be better to simply ask, would it be better if we left the city, perhaps to another with less or no fighting?
  387. - ask for his opinion, just a simple 'Would it be safer if we left towards <direction of easthock>' because easthock is probably completely safe, and under human control. Thus they don't think we're running off the guards or anything, we're going back home. We should tell him we lived around that area, and that we just want to return home, because we came when the fighting started. And now want to leave because it's all OGRE now.
  388.  
  389. "Actually... with how rough things were getting around here, would it be safer if we headed back home?"
  390. > "You are from Sunny Fields, and Trotsvale, yes?"
  391. > That Gwozdek knows so much about you already is somewhat unsettling; you shift back and forth on your hooves but nod.
  392. "Yes, to the east of here."
  393. > "I see..."
  394. > Gwozdek and Kosmatka look between each other.
  395. > "We would, of course, prefer you remain here and able to help us. There are so few ponies willing to help us in this city, we value each and every one who is..."
  396. > Of course they would...
  397. "I know, but... it's becoming worrying. We left before the fighting came here - we thought it would be safer. Now that things aren't safe here anymore..."
  398. > "They will be safe, my friend."
  399. > The grin Gwozdek is warm and friendly, but somehow isn't entirely reassuring.
  400. > "That is my job - to make things safe here. The sooner they are safe, the sooner we can all be happy."
  401. "I guess... well, I'll think it about it. It'd be nice if we could stay here..."
  402. > But there's no way it's going to happen now.
  403. > And for that matter, this new human isn't making you any keener to stay.
  404. > "Good! Let tell you, we can be very, very certain we will reward you well for aiding us."
  405.  
  406. "We're... looking forward to it. But really... my friends, having them back is the most I could have hoped for."
  407. > There's truth in that, at least.
  408. > "I am pleased we could come to this agreement, then!"
  409. > Gwozdek pauses, then speaks more softly:
  410. > "Actually, if there is one thing I would very much like to know now... after our raid this morning, there was an attack on our patrols."
  411. "...more militia?"
  412. > "Is that what you call them? Yes, we think - and they attacked patrols with our ponies accompanying them. Their bodies... they were not found."
  413. "Nopony saw where they went?"
  414. > "No, not one."
  415. > Frowning thinly - a far, far colder look than the ones he had been giving you.
  416. > "I do not know if none truly saw, or those who did will not speak... but I ask if you know anything more that we could learn."
  417. "I'm afraid not... we just got back, but everything seemed so... normal I didn't know anything was happening."
  418. > "Unfortunately."
  419. > Kneeling to reach out and bump your hoof again, Gwozdek nods to you again.
  420. > "I will look forward to hearing anything if you do, though. I'm sure Sergeant Major Kosmatka will be most pleased as well."
  421. > For once Kosmatka doesn't look too pleased to have his success commented on.
  422. > "If there is nothing else, I will be going..."
  423. "Okay. We'll, um, see you later, then?"
  424. > "Indeed you shall."
  425. > The armored carts pull away with their signature roaring and rumbling; you keep an eye peering through a windowshade until they are long gone.
  426. "...well."
  427. > Turning back to face them - faces you've not seen in what feels like an absolute eternity - you crack a small smile.
  428. "I'm... I don't know how to even say it, I'm just really glad to have you all back."
  429. > Byline chuckles softly.
  430. > "We're glad to be back as well. It wasn't any fun in there, though from what we heard of the outside you weren't idle either."
  431. "Not at all..."
  432. > Stepping around them all, you head back to Tariff and Iri.
  433. "Tariff. Glad to see you're actually okay."
  434.  
  435. > "Still hurts like you wouldn't believe sometimes, but life's life. Buttercup didn't bite your head off, did she?"
  436. "Buttercup and the rest of you saved our hides more than a couple times. Iri explain to you what's going on?"
  437. > "Yes... I don't think I'll be accompanying you, but the groundwork you've laid, it's good stuff."
  438. "Good. I hate to push you all just after you get back, but you heard that human officer - it's getting bad here, and time to move on."
  439. > "Yeah..."
  440. > Boulder grunts softly.
  441. > "What was that about, anyway? Did they call the militia up in the city-"
  442. "No, no - something else. I don't know who started calling them militias, since they aren't the regular ones called up under the guard regulations. They're just... angry ponies."
  443. > You pause for a moment, then add:
  444. "Copper's with them."
  445. > Chilona hisses a small curse.
  446. "Exactly - and he knows we're here too. I'm not keen to be sticking around for long."
  447. > Byline looks to the others, then to you.
  448. > "I can't speak for everypony, sir, but I think we're ready to march if you call for it."
  449. > Considering Byline's sometimes-hostility before, it's nice to see he's apparently properly thankful for what you'd given for him.
  450. "Then we need to move out, quickly. We have a cart for the extra food and Hot Pot; we can also spend some spare bits to get some saddlebags for you."
  451. > "Weapons?"
  452. "Our hoofblades. We were never able to recover the rest."
  453. > Tariff pushes himself to his hooves and nods to you.
  454. > "If it's agreeable, could you drop me off at Buttercup's? I'd like to get back there."
  455.  
  456. ACTION:
  457. - Spend the ration cards but save our bits.
  458. - Catch our squad up on what's been going on.
  459.  
  460. "...well. Let's get ready - we're going to cash out our ration cards and punch out of here, but in the meantime...
  461. > As you pack, you catch them up everything that's happened.
  462. > The visits to the hospital and the mysterious activity there.
  463. > Princess Twilight's visit and poorly-developed plan.
  464. > The raid and its aftermath.
  465. > Ponies abandoning the cloud districts.
  466. > Copper Cog and Course Layer.
  467. > Iri and the agreement you'd cut involving her.
  468. > Their faces grow grim at times, while at others they grin - Dusk gives you a particularly wide one when you talk about snapping Fairweather out of his depression.
  469. > Yet when you bring up the theory about the windigos they grow grimmest of all.
  470. "...so. That's where things stand. Anypony have questions?"
  471. > "I... think you summed it up fairly well, sir."
  472. > Byline scuffs at the floor with his hoof.
  473. > "And I agree... the sooner we're onto finding out something about this, the better."
  474. "Absolutely."
  475. > Packing the cart down seems strange, somehow.
  476. > Like you'd truly come to regard the house as a home.
  477. > But into it your supplies go - food, medical kits, a few stashed hoofblades, sheets and blankets for sleeping in.
  478. > A couple of pot and metal cups.
  479. > The last of the charcoal cooking blocks.
  480.  
  481. > Suddenly it feels more like a camping trip than a mission critical to the future of Equestria.
  482. "Caravan, what's our finances looking like?"
  483. > "We've got some bits to spare, but if we all went out and got work... well, we'd earn a couple hundred at least between the twelve of us, but we'd probably have to do that tomorrow. Stay another day."
  484. > "That's going to be risky, sir."
  485. > Whispen trots up alongside him.
  486. > "Even aside from the remainder of the militia, the longer we let it be known we're planning on leaving the antsier the humans are going to get."
  487. "Fair points."
  488.  
  489. ACTION:
  490. - Leave immediately.
  491.  
  492. "Let's get out of here. Are you all able to march?"
  493. > A round of nods go out.
  494. "Then let's go. The longer we stay, the longer we're at risk."
  495. > Your cart draws a few questioning looks, as it's considerably more loaded-down than it had been previously.
  496. > Fortunately, however, they'd issued your ponies new identity papers when they were released back to you.
  497. > Your by now common lie that you were going out to do a bit of trading is quickly accepted by the guards at the edge of the dockyard, who allow you past with friendly waves and little question.
  498. > From there, it's a quick walk to Buttercup's bar, where Tariff gingerly hops off and hobbles indoors.
  499. > You follow him in, as does Iridescent Glaze, unbidden behind you.
  500. > The moment you enter, Buttercup is walking over, leading you into the back space.
  501. > She pauses briefly at Tariff, giving him just the slightest brush with one shoulder - a strange thing, since you'd so rarely seen changelings show open affection before.
  502. > Perhaps she truly had been worried about him.
  503. > "So... you're going, huh?"
  504. "Yes. Things are heating up for us; we can't afford to stay any longer."
  505. > "Well..."
  506. > Offering a small smile, Buttercup holds out a hoof to you.
  507. > "For what it's worth, I'm glad I didn't throw you in a cocoon when Tariff first dragged you in. You may not be one of us, but you're helpful."
  508. "...same. Strange to say, but I'll miss having allies I could rely on... or... friends."
  509. > "Heh, don't be pushing your luck now."
  510. > Giving you a vicious smirk, Buttercup seems pleased despite her words.
  511. "Oh... can you do one favor for us?"
  512. > "Depends what you're asking. I don't do anything for free, you know."
  513. "There's a pony - Quick Step - was in my squad, got wounded and captured. When this is all over... or even before it is, if you see him pass something on to him..."
  514. > You halt for several seconds, trying to decide how best to phrase this.
  515.  
  516. "...I'm sorry I couldn't have held up to my promise he was going to be okay. I'm sorry I couldn't come back for him."
  517. > "I can do that."
  518. "Thanks, Buttercup. You've been a huge help. Keep yourselves safe - all of you."
  519. > "Hah, might have to actually do that now that you're not looking after this lug for me."
  520. > Tossing her head towards Tariff - who just gives a pained grin - she goes on.
  521. > "But really... take care of Iri as well."
  522. "We'll do all we can."
  523. > "Good."
  524.  
  525. ACTION:
  526. - Take some of the alchemical potions,but not all. Hallucinogen, growth agent, one other suggested.
  527. - Turn in ration cards before leaving the city.
  528. - Go talk to Fairweather.
  529.  
  530. "...listen, Buttercup, would it be possible for us to have any of the alchemy vials we dropped off here? If you still have them."
  531. > "Of course. You planning something?"
  532. "No, but I like to be prepared."
  533. > "Well, we've still got 'em. Still wrapped up for travel, too."
  534.  
  535. +2 Growth agent added
  536. +2 Wish-bush hallucinogen added
  537. +1 Timberwolf Killer potion added
  538.  
  539. > Buttercup gives you a questioning look.
  540. > "Why the 'wolf one?"
  541. "If our original plan holds, we'll be turning north through the White-Tail. Whether we hit that or the Everfree, it's quite possible the wildlife will have been stirred up by this. I'd prefer not to take chances."
  542. > "Alright, well... look after yourselves out there. When this thing finishes up, if there's an Equestria left I'd prefer to have somepony out there who can vouch for me."
  543. "I'll be sure to if I can."
  544. > Next up is the marketplace.
  545. > This one is a relatively quick stop; especially with all of you back together, the stores can be covered in relatively quick succession.
  546. > Although only about half the group has ration cards, it ends up filling in for around four additional days' worth of food.
  547. > Now the last stop...
  548. > While most of the group waits a short distance away, you and Caravan slip in to Fairweather's residence.
  549. > The guardpony is already quite awake and looks up when you stick your head into what has become his office.
  550. > "Ah, welcome back. You are leaving, then?"
  551. "Yes, sir. We'll be leaving the city right now."
  552. > "Good luck, then."
  553. > Moving around from behind his desk, Fairweather puts a hoof on your shoulder.
  554. > "I trust you won't fall down on this. Honestly, I'm sorry I can't keep you around here - we need more solid guardsponies."
  555. "I'm... honored, sir, but this... this is critical. I was actually wondering: Have you picked up any hints as to where might be a good place to start?"
  556.  
  557. > "Unfortunately relatively little. If you want to head towards friendly lines, north is your best bet; maybe somepony there would know something. If you're aiming to straight for the humans... well, we've heard rumors of a number of supply camps in the east and north-west of here. If they know anything, then one of them there might - and not recognize you as being involved in what happened here."
  558. "Alright. Thank you, sir."
  559. > "There is... one other thing. If you can make it that far, the Crystal Empire and other settlements near the frozen north might know something about Windigos that could help you... but that's potentially weeks of walking, unless you can find a working rail line there."
  560. "...worth keeping in mind, though I doubt the rail line. The way the humans fight, they're probably watching every one from here to Fillydelphia."
  561. > "All the same... Good luck out there. Do us all proud out there, guardspony."
  562. > Fairweather gives a wan smile and claps you on the shoulder again.
  563. > And then you're out.
  564. > When you return to the group, Iri is absent but a bright red earth pony stands her place - a traveller's cloak covering much of her body.
  565. "...that you, Iri?"
  566. > "Of course. Call me 'Spring' until we're out of the city."
  567. > At least Iri can be relied on, it seems - if only to be terse.
  568. > But at least she doesn't seem to have quite the attitude she once did since the night you spoke to her.
  569. "Alright. Come on, let's step it up. It's going to take most of what's left of the day to get out of the city."
  570. > You've covered a fair distance before Byline slips up beside you.
  571. > "We're being followed."
  572. "You're certain?"
  573. > "Hot Pot saw them, pointed them out to me as well."
  574. > Glancing back to where the injured pegasus rides atop the cart keeping a steady eye towards the rear of your procession, you grunt softly.
  575. "Any idea who?"
  576. > "Can't see. At least three of them, though. Might be Copper Cog's friends."
  577. "Keep an eye on it."
  578. > "Understood, sir."
  579.  
  580. > At the edge of the city comes your first big test.
  581. > A human checkpoint is spread out across the road, and while you all have papers 'Spring' has neither had a chance to acquire them nor a good story if she did.
  582. > At least your travel slip already provides for an extra earth pony.
  583.  
  584. ACTION:
  585. - Claim that 'Spring' was a friend of yours in Slav-Pegasus, she used to live inna building in the city, it had all she owned in it, and when she was out getting food, the militia destroyed her home, with her papers in it. She has lived with us for the past 2 days. Then claim, we had the tickets made for us and her, and if shit goes a bit awry, we can try name dropping Kosmatka and the other slav.
  586.  
  587. > The soldiers peer over your paperwork, nodding when everything appears to be in order.
  588. > With the travel slip, at least.
  589. > Your residency papers are also passed off with little more than a glance, though something about Hot Pot's papers gets them passed between several soldiers along with a burst of sudden, rapid-fire chatter in their language.
  590. > In the end, however, there is only one snag.
  591. > Fortunately, however, you'd thought to discuss this on the way over.
  592. > Motioning to 'Spring', you start the introduction.
  593. "This is a friend of ours, from the city. She's lived here a while, but..."
  594. > "Hey..."
  595. > One soldier holds out a hand to you in what you presume to be a 'stop' gesture.
  596. > "She can tell herself, yes?"
  597. > "Well.."
  598. > Part of the planning had been figuring out the persona 'Spring' would have; even though it didn't match with her typical personality, Iri seemed to have this down pat.
  599. > Shrinking and cringing nervously, she starts to talk with a nervous little warble to her voice.
  600. > "I used to live in the central district, over by 49th and Willow streets? But, some ponies took over my home while I was out getting food... they tore most of it down to block the street, and then burned the rest..."
  601. > A few tears leak out and down her cheeks, even as her eyes fall to stare at the ground.
  602. > "I don't have anything left. Everything I owned was in there, but he said I could come with him now and-"
  603. > As you'd found, having a kernel of truth at the center of a lie always helped.
  604. > The building she'd mentioned had existed - and, in fact, had been burned by the militia.
  605.  
  606. > Also as expected, the moment she spoke of also being a victim of the militia the soldiers started to look considerably more sympathetic.
  607. > As her sob story continued with plenty of descriptions of all she had lost, they begin to murmur among each other.
  608. > Their sergeant - or whoever was leading this group - eventually interrupts.
  609. > "You, ah - you get slip to travel, after this?"
  610. "Yes. We talked to, um... I'm sorry, I don't know your ranks, but his name is Kosmatka. Bartosz Kosmatka, I think? He helped us."
  611. > A new round of talks is set off by this - and in the end, their leader sighs.
  612. > "Okay. We know this place, that you live. We hear about fight near there.. You - you are in-o-cent pony, Spring. I will give you, ah - I will put message on your travel paper, to let you and give you new papers there, is okay?"
  613. > "Oh, yes!"
  614. > 'Spring' perks up immediately, smiling widely.
  615. > "That'd be amazing! Thank you so very much!"
  616. > It probably helped that Iri had adjusted her disguise to appear considerably younger - like a filly barely on the cusp of adulthood.
  617. > You weren't sure why, but the humans seemed to react much better to even the hint of childhood in a pony.
  618. > Now, as the soldier scratches out a quick addition to the printing on your travel paper, she stares up at him with wide and expectant eyes.
  619. > As the papers are given back, you do your own part to make sure everything goes smoothly.
  620. "Thank you very, very much! You're very kind, mister!"
  621. > "Is - is good thing to do, yes? We are both, ah, both victim of fighting - I see soldiers die, you not have a home, yes?"
  622. "I... I guess so."
  623. > "Travel safe. Is not easy beyond the city."
  624. "We will. Thank you again!"
  625. > Even with that, you don't let your guard down until the checkpoint is long out of sight on the road.
  626. "...I can't believe that worked."
  627. > 'Spring' coughs softly.
  628.  
  629. > "I hope you don't mind if I do a little nibbling this evening. I was also nudging him as hard as my skills allowed. I don't know if it helped, but it was draining."
  630. > Somehow you get the feeling she would be feeding anyhow.
  631. "Yeah, go ahead. Hot Pot, any sign of our followers?"
  632. > "Lost them slightly before we went through the checkpoint. I don't think they liked the humans."
  633. "Keep an eye out, then. We're going to have to start keeping multiple watches again."
  634. > With relatively few hours of daylight left, it's not long before you have to call a halt to the travel.
  635. > You camp a fair distance off the road, amid some low scrub.
  636. > In the desert air, a chill comes in quickly and you're rapidly thankful for the blankets - especially since a fire doesn't seem possible right now.
  637. > Even more welcome is seeing your ponies come together again.
  638. > A slight worry had wiggled in your mind that they would be split after spending so long apart, but that didn't seem to be the case.
  639. > Except, of course, for Iri.
  640. > Having resumed her typical disguise for the moment, the changeling still remains on the outskirts of the camp - always alert.
  641. > After a second, you push yourself up and wander over to her.
  642.  
  643. ACTION:
  644. - Ask if she thought that she was really influencing the human earlier, since previously Buttercup said they are hard to influence.
  645. - Ask where else she's traveled; hopefully she topic will get her to open up some more.
  646.  
  647. > Pausing beside Iri, you look down at her and tilt you head.
  648. "Hey."
  649. > After a second she looks up, her face carefully calm.
  650. > "Yes?"
  651. > Well, it was an improvement over no answer at all, you suppose.
  652. "So, I was wondering... you said you were 'nudging' that human... how effective do you think it was? Buttercup said they're harder to work with..."
  653. > "I don't know how much it was helping."
  654. > A few moments pass before Iri takes the cue to continue talking.
  655. > "They're... look. Imagine being around ponies... it's like walking through a river. You can feel the current, the flow around you. Humans... they're like thick mud. Something is moving, but it's hard to figure out what and just pressing doesn't get you anywhere."
  656. "I can understand that, yeah."
  657. > "And worse is how little I can sense them. They don't give any hint as to what is happening, I can't fine-tune my magic to respond to their individual reactions to it."
  658. "...wait, you have to do that?"
  659. > Iri is silent a second before looking away.
  660. > "I should not say more."
  661. "Iri, we've been over this... I'm not going to be angry at you."
  662. > Still she looks away, her eyes focused on some far-distant point.
  663. > When she speaks again, it is in a far softer voice.
  664. > "Only fools and hatchlings go in with blunt force. A mind is a delicate thing; you must be careful or you will only hurt... them. Satisfied?"
  665. > Sensing this is about as far as you're going to get from her on this, you nod.
  666. "Yes... thank you."
  667. > Quickly heading off a far more awkward note, you change the topic to something more relatable:
  668.  
  669. "Um, another question though: Buttercup said some changelings travel a lot. Have you...?"
  670. > "Yes. A few times. Las Pegasus was my third home. I lived in smaller villages before that."
  671. "You were ordered to leave then as well...?"
  672. > "I was chased out."
  673. > At last turning to face you again, she gives a cold grin.
  674. > "Small towns became dangerous after Canterlot. I left before they could find me."
  675. "...ah."
  676. > At this point you realize that Iri is still studying you - although her look has changed.
  677. > The grin faded from her face, she looks more thoughtful than anything.
  678. "Sensing something?"
  679. > "No. Pondering."
  680. > You wait a moment for her to go on, but this time she does not.
  681. "...well. I think I'm going to turn in for the night."
  682. > Two steps away have been taken when Iri speaks again.
  683. > "Wait."
  684. "Yes...?"
  685. > Now her look is totally inscrutable, but her words speak for themselves.
  686. > "You convinced Buttercup to halt the infiltration attempt, on the human camp."
  687. "Yes."
  688. > "She told me."
  689. > Iri pauses again, then speaks very quietly.
  690. > "Thank you."
  691. > Bobbing your head in a small nod, you offer her a smile.
  692. "You're welcome."
  693. > Now her head turns away once more, marking the end of the conversation.
  694. > Taking your own cue, you head for your bedroll.
  695. > With morning comes an important choice.
  696. > Gathering your ponies around the morning cookfire, you take a deep breath.
  697. "Right. I think we need to make a choice about what - exactly - is going on. Iri, I know you're looking to meet your kin and I'll hear you out in a moment, but we need a plan on our larger objective."
  698. > Spreading out a map of Equestria you had acquired on the ground, you motion a hoof around the area.
  699. "These are the last known human positions, but they're several weeks old. It stands to reason they've advanced a bit further now. The question is, where do we want to go to investigate this windigo issue."
  700.  
  701. ACTION:
  702. - Suggest: Going to Ponyville, then further on northwards if rail lines are available.
  703. - Suggest: Going south-east to Appleloosa.
  704.  
  705. "...the way I see it, we have two choices: Either swing north through the white-tail woods and then east into Ponyville, or head straight east through here and cut straight through the Everfree."
  706. > Soft murmurs surround you as everypony shifts to move over to view the map from the same position.
  707. "Last we heard, Celestia herself was holding the lines at Ponyville; there's a fair chance it will still be holding strong."
  708. > Moving your hoof, you point to the dark, relatively unmarked mass that is the Everfree.
  709. "Option two, is to approach from the south. It will be longer, but the everfree itself might offer some cover, and they'll be watching those lines in the eastern approach like hawks."
  710. > "What about going straight through, sir?"
  711. "...what do you mean, Caravan?"
  712. > "Straight through the Everfree, not run north. Skirt the edge, maybe. We could head for Appleloosa, maybe.
  713. > You glance down at the marking of the frontier town, a small frown growing on your lips.
  714. "It's possible, and the buffalo are there... but I'm not sure how much help they'd be in learning about this Windigo threat. And there's something else..."
  715. > Pointing to the next town east, you go on:
  716. "Back in Las Pegasus, I heard somepony saying the humans were playing much more roughly in Dodge City - not being anywhere near as nice as they were in Las Pegasus. If that's true, it means they may have staged a second breakout from the Everfree and are pushing east from there as well."
  717.  
  718. > That quiets everypony; the idea of going straight into an active warzone pleased nopony.
  719. > "Point taken. South might be unsafe. North and then east, or straight into the Everfree and north, then?"
  720. "Neither way is going to be terribly safe. If the humans can't keep eyes on the ground in the Everfree, they'll have ones in the air."
  721. > Dusk grunts softly.
  722. > "Scaling the mountains in the east won't be easy either, if we have to go around their lines. Or safe."
  723. "If they're shooting anypony near their lines."
  724. > "If."
  725. "Gah, stars above! I wish we had more information - being cut off like this is... argh!"
  726. > Iri gives a short chortle.
  727. > "Now you know how we feel. And no, I cannot offer assistance - we live where ponies do; there are not likely to be any more changelings particularly able to help you on either path."
  728. > "Um..."
  729. > Ornithea speaks up softly.
  730. > "Maybe this is dumb and stuff, but... why not ask a human? Their next patrol who comes through... say we want to get north - don't say we're going to ponyville - and just ask which way would be safer?"
  731.  
  732. ACTION:
  733. - Ask the next human patrol.
  734.  
  735. "That's... not actually a bad idea, Ornithea. We'll stop one as soon as one comes past, ask them before we can find out anything else."
  736. > "What about the rest of us, sir?"
  737. "Get some food in you, pack it up. We'll need to head a little way east on our own anyhow; we're bound to run into something on the roa-"
  738. > The arrow makes an angry buzzing noise as it lodges itself in the middle of the map, burying its head deep in the dirt.
  739. > "Shit!"
  740. > Spark panicks, immediately throwing a shield up.
  741. > A second later Byline joins him, his horn igniting to buoy Spark's shield with his own magic.
  742. "Everypony down - you too, Iri! What is this, bandits?!"
  743. > Your answer comes a moment later when a wide beam of angry, frothing magic crashes into the shield; within a second, both unicorns give simultaneous sharp yells and allow the shield to collapse.
  744. "Sweet Celestia - are you two okay?!"
  745. > "Fine... sir... ow... maybe a little hard on the horn..."
  746. "What the hell was that? Some kind of-"
  747. > "Uh, sir... you'd better look at this..."
  748. > Rolling over the nearest low rise towards you is the unmistakable form of an arcane focus.
  749. > Perhaps somewhat cruder-looking than the ones the guard had deployed, but a focus nonetheless.
  750. > And standing right in the middle of it is Copper Cog, his green coat standing in stark contrast to the wood structure he is caged within.
  751. > Behind him creep along two other ponies - two pegasi, you think - who seem to be pushing the cart along.
  752. > Not for a few moments have you had your head up when he unleashes another gout of raging magic, amplified through the focus to scorch through the grass around you.
  753. "Shit! Anypony injured?"
  754. > "Negative!"
  755. > "I'm good!"
  756. > "We're safe."
  757. > Ducking back down, you look around.
  758. > The next rise is relative far off; it's unlikely everypony could make it there in time.
  759. > Here, you will have relatively little cover once you stand up.
  760. "...Whispen, Byline, Spark - how long can you keep a shield up?"
  761.  
  762. > "Only a few seconds, even for all three of us."
  763. > Spark gasps sharply between words.
  764. > "He's mad, and he's strong."
  765. > As if to emphasize the stallion's point, Copper's voice echoes across the flat land.
  766. > "You like that, you traitors?! You aren't the only ones with a focus now; I'm going to burn you all out for selling us out!"
  767. > Shit, how did he know about the focus you had?!
  768. > And for that matter, how did he-
  769. > Another beam of magic lashes the air just above your heads, singing a couple manes.
  770. > Yeah, you could think about that later.
  771.  
  772. ACTION:
  773. - Throw the growth agents in front of the focus, stopping it's advance, and hopefully locking it in place, preventing it from turning. Split the group, and flank from both sides. Quickly gather rocks/sticks/anything, pour timberwolf poison over them, and have unicorns use them as weapons to cut and kill them.
  774. - He's already pissed, we just need him to get so mad he puts too much power in a spell and overloads it. Capable pegasi make short, low flights to goad a poor shot from him, unicorns give whatever suppression they can manage from cover, and we and the earth ponies slowly make our way up from two sides, taunting him all the while. Have Iri disguise as us and taunt him too.
  775.  
  776. > Digging into your pack, you seek - and quickly find - the alchemical vials, rolled up in their rags for safety.
  777. > Unwrapping them, you quickly hand them out to Spark and Byline.
  778. "Get one of these as close to that cart as you can - Spark, you first. We need to stop that thing from moving. Iri..."
  779. > You pause, thinking of how to make the most use of her.
  780. "...become me. The confusion will keep him off-balance."
  781. > For once she doesn't question or snark at you; the depth of the situation seems to get to her.
  782. > A flash of green, and a grim-faced duplicate of yourself stares back.
  783. > Forcing the instinctive shock down, you growl out your next orders:
  784. "As soon as that vial is out, we're going to split up and flank him. He's dangerous, but there's still only one of him. Dusk, Chilona, Iri - take to the air, make fast passes on him and keep his eyes up if you can, drop these on him."
  785. > The two hallucinogen vials are quickly handed to Dusk and Iri each, who look at them curiously - the former more than the latter.
  786. > Both of them - and then the rest of your ponies - produce a round of soft snaps echo as each unfolds their hoofblades.
  787. "Whispen, Byline, Spark - direct magic shots. I want his attention as divided as possible. He knows how to shield, but it'll keep him moving. If he starts moving again, get that second growth agent out."
  788. > "What about the rest of us, sir?"
  789. "We'll put the Timberwolf killer on sticks."
  790. > There aren't many about, but a nearby scrubby bush provides a few hardy branches that can be quickly cut to somewhat sharper points.
  791. > Although it also leaves you checking the top of your head when Spark launches another beam of lethal magic at you.
  792.  
  793. "Get it on the sharpest bit you can find; Caravan, with me. Boulder, Ornithea, flank him from the other side. Stab him or his buddies behind the cart; no hesitation."
  794. > The vial is uncorked and the purple fluid within liberally spread over the ends of the sticks.
  795. > "Got it."
  796. > "Yes, sir."
  797. > They don't seem to be hesitating at your order to kill the one-time comrade either.
  798. > It seems everypony has had about all they can take with Copper Cog.
  799. "Go! Now!"
  800. > The first vials is flung out a second later.
  801. > Results are immediately audible as Copper's ranting turns even angrier.
  802. > "What in Tartarus did you - I don't - aaargh!"
  803. > Right now, however, nopony is running.
  804. > Each and everypony is staring in shock as the sticks you had cut had begun to spontaneously bud and grow, bush-limbs and spiky leaves appearing before your eyes.
  805. > At a certain point it finally comes through that you are holding something rather dangerous; with a yelp; you toss away your stick.
  806. > The others follow suit, watching in awe over as - over a course of seconds - the sticks extend runners to each other and pull themselves together into a familiar lupine form.
  807. > Caravan finally speaks softly as the plant-beast lifts its head from the ground and opens yellow-glowing eyes.
  808. > "OOoooh. Not 'timberwolf killer'. It's 'killer timberwolf'. It makes a timberwolf."
  809. > And evidently an obedient one, too.
  810. > Taking one look at you, the timberwolf bursts from the cover and charges straight at Copper's focus - only to be blown to bits a moment later.
  811. > As creatures of the type are known to do, it promptly begins to reassemble itself despite Copper's continued yells.
  812. "...okay, same plan. Just no pointy sticks. Go!"
  813. > Copper, it seems, has taken the simple expedient of ripping the growth produced by the first thrown vial out by its roots; two huge masses of plant and dirt now hang over his head in a cloud of magic.
  814.  
  815. [Roll for safety; result: Pegasi complete their attack successfully and hit Copper or one of his allies with a hallucinogen vial.]
  816.  
  817. [Roll for being seen; result: Copper sees you and fires, but is unable to get more than a quick blast off. Trigger roll for safety, bonus to success.]
  818.  
  819. [Secondary roll for safety; result: He misses entirely.]
  820.  
  821. > Your hooves beat against the dried-out ground as you gallop as hard as you ever have.
  822. > Low, ragged bushes slide along past you as you circle wide around the focus.
  823. > "Get over here, you fucking traitors!"
  824. > Another ragged scream from Copper is punctuated by both clods of dirt and plant being thrown skyward as the passing pegasi and batponies buzz low over the him.
  825. > "Come down here and face me, damn you! I'm going to - augh! What is this stuff?!"
  826. > Evidently one of them must have landed a direct hit with their vial.
  827. > Nervously you wonder what a hallucinating pony might do with a powered arcane focus.
  828. > It does suddenly occur to you that if he doesn't loose control of it entirely or burn himself out, Copper might become very dangerous to everypony around him - lashing out at images only he can see.
  829. > But that is a thought for later.
  830. > The timberwolf has pulled itself back together and is now charging back at Copper again.
  831. > This time he takes the far more permanent solution of igniting it directly.
  832. > Howling in agony, the timberwolf's cries send a shiver down your spine as well.
  833. > Were it not for the fact that it is merely a magical construct...
  834. > Death by flame is a fate you wouldn't wish on anypony.
  835. > But the timberwolf has served its purpose, giving another moment or two of distraction.
  836. > Again the flyers come in for a buzz low over your attackers; this time, one of Copper's allies leaps skyward to grapple with Chilona even as the unicorns continue to hurl bolt after bolt of magic into Copper's shield.
  837. > The two wrestling forms go tumbling to the ground, but you have no time for them.
  838. > Now charging directly at the focus - wings spread, blood rushing in your head and breath cold in your chest - you match paces with Caravan beside you and bare your teeth in a snarl.
  839.  
  840. > The look Copper's face as he realizes you are on the ground and fast approaching even though 'you' had flown over seconds prior is one you relish.
  841. > Pure shock and surprise flow over his features; he throws a bolt of roiling magic in your direction, but it is panicky and far off-target.
  842. > With a primal, furious scream you beat your wings once to leap from the ground to land on the side of the focus.
  843. > Copper's second lackey tries to lunge for you, a ragged blade in her grasp as well, but is intercepted by Caravan; the two descend in a furious ball of flashing blades and tangled limbs.
  844. > This leaves you face-to-face with Copper Cog.
  845. > Las Pegasus has not been kind to him, you can see.
  846. > There is a furious, crazed light in his eyes - and even as you jam your blade through the framework of the focus to skate off his horn, Copper Cog continues trying to fight.
  847. > "Screw you! Screw you! Screw yo-"
  848. > Unable to effectively jab through the focus, you'd taken the simple expedient of simply grabbing Copper's head and slamming it against the nearest wooden rib.
  849. > Reeling back, Copper collapses to his side - staring at some point over your shoulder.
  850. > "...True?"
  851. > His voice is suddenly small and afraid, giving you pause.
  852. > Pupils have shrunk to pinpricks and his legs curl against himself; Copper shakes his head violently.
  853. > "No, no - I'm sorry. We had to, we had to! We had to know! I'm sorry, Truenorth, don't - no! No! I'm sorry, I shouldn't have hurt you!"
  854. > Truenorth?
  855. > The name sparks a distant memory, even as you yank the door at the rear of the focus open to allow yourself in.
  856. > Rushing back all at once, you remember.
  857. > Truenorth, the pony who'd accompanied the soldiers when you turned over the focus.
  858. > Gwozdek's mention of some of the collaborators being seized by the remnants of the militia.
  859. > Copper's sudden knowledge of the arcane focus you'd kept.
  860. > "I'm sorry! We had to - you had to tell us, we had to know who'd done it!"
  861.  
  862. > All but openly sobbing now, Copper is shaking his head violently.
  863. > "We needed to... It wasn't you... you weren't... no! Nononono! Get back, True! Get back!"
  864. > Stepping in, you raise your hoofblade to aim is straight at the cowering unicorn.
  865. > You could end this right here.
  866. > A single jab, and Copper Cog would bleed out.
  867. > For what he'd done to Dusk, Chilona, yourself, Truenorth, and all the ponies...
  868.  
  869. ACTION:
  870. - Keep Copper alive, but make very sure he cannot run or use magic.
  871.  
  872. > Copper's own words echo in your ears.
  873. > Truenorth might still be somewhere out there, and the others he had taken.
  874. > And despite all that had happened, you are still a Royal Guard and your duty is still to protect all ponies of Equestria.
  875. > Though what you will have to do to Copper instead is none to pleasant either.
  876. > Your hoof wraps around his head, slamming it against the nearest support rib of the focus.
  877. > Screams turning to pained moans, Copper's eyes roll in his head.
  878. > Again, again, again; a streak of blood is painted against the wood as his skin breaks.
  879. > Twice more, and - with a resounding pop - a sharp crack runs the length of Copper's horn.
  880. > Throwing him to the floor, you deliver a quick, rapid stomp that yields another pop at your hoof connects with his hind leg.
  881. > The same is done to the other, although it takes two blows.
  882. > They're broken, you're sure; between his shattered legs, cracked horn, and what visions must lurk in his eyes Copper has been reduced to simple whimpers.
  883. > Turning around with your body half into the focus proves to be impossible; you carefully extricate yourself and then turn to take stock of what is left.
  884. > Ornithea and Boulder have diverted to deal with the pony who had tackled Chilona to the ground.
  885. > Given the blood matting his light-yellow coat, his struggles seem to have come to an end.
  886. > Caravan, however, is still struggling with the last pony; even as lay eyes on them they tumble about in a furious, confusing ball of yells, grunts, blows and flashing blades.
  887. > You spread your wings to leap from the focus-cart to help him, but before you can two seperate hues of magic surround both of them and drag the mare from his form.
  888. > She howls and flails her wings to try and get airborne, but no less than four bolts of magic slam into her.
  889. > Limbs twitch a few times, and then she is still too.
  890. "Caravan! Are you alright?!"
  891.  
  892. > "I'm ... augh, I'll be okay. See to the others."
  893. > He doesn't look okay; both him and the mare he had been fighting are covered in cuts that ooze blood.
  894. > Catching your gaze, he shakes his head.
  895. > "I'll live! Honest! Go!"
  896. > Thundering hooves greet your ears as the trio of unicorns arrive as well while the remaining flyers come in for a low glide.
  897. > All except for Hot Pot, who has remained in place as ordered.
  898. > Pulling up beside you, Whispen looks around.
  899. > "Sir?"
  900. "I'm okay. Injuries... go see to Chilona. And send somepony back to our cart; we might need some of those medical kits!"
  901. > She takes one glance at Copper's ruined body and does so, grabbing Dusk and running off to bring back what was needed.
  902. > That, you reflect, as an amazingly lucky fight.
  903. > Anypony could have been hurt far, far worse.
  904. > Stomping up to the pony who had instigated it all, you grab Copper's mane with the crook of one leg and haul him upright.
  905. "Start talking, Copper. What the hell did you do to Truenorth?!"
  906. > His eyes still roll, staring somewhere far off and distant.
  907. "Damn you, Copper! Talk to me! Is he okay?"
  908. > Shaking the stallion allows him to focus on you at last... but is immediately rewarded with a loud, piercing scream.
  909. > "Sir! Sir! Your wings! Your wings are on fire! Your wings are on fiiiiire!"
  910. > It seems the potion hadn't quite worn off.
  911. "And so will you be if you don't tell me what you did-"
  912. > "We had to know... had to know if it was you. We knew he'd been working in the docks... had to ask him... he didn't want to tell, so we made him..."
  913. "Where is he now?!"
  914. > "He's gone.... gone, gone, far away, where all the glory's found; don't cry for me, mama, we're marching northern bound..."
  915. > Again Copper's eyes roll back as he continues singing the old marching song under his breath, punctuated by sharp, sudden cries.
  916. > "We... we going to Canterlot, sir..? My head... it don't feel too good..."
  917. > "Um, sir?"
  918.  
  919. > Caravan's voice from behind you is laden with rather more uncertain tones.
  920. > "Uh... actually, sir, I might need some help after all..."
  921. > He's curled over, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from the inside of his haunch.
  922. > Even as you watch he keels over - still fumbling at the wound.
  923. > "Yeah... um... help, sir?"
  924. > One of the cuts must've gone deeper - nicked an artery, perhaps.
  925. "Oh, stars! Whispen! Get over here; Caravan needs help! Byline, you too!"
  926. > And come they do, eyes widening as they see the pool of blood the stallion lays in.
  927. > Not hesitating for a moment, Whispen cracks the kit's container open and grabs the spool of bandages.
  928.  
  929. [Roll for Caravan's safety; result: They stop the bleeding, but he slips into a coma as a result of loss.]
  930.  
  931. > "Come on, come on, come on..."
  932. > Whispen's voice is laden with urgency and even a bit of terror.
  933. > Caravan helpfully rolls onto his back and lifts the injured leg to help them and hopefully slow the bleeding somewhat.
  934. > Thankfully everypony seems to remember their first-aid training.
  935. > Even so, it's barely enough.
  936. > More than once the bandages - slick with blood - slide from their place.
  937. > "No, no, no...!"
  938. > True panic is entering Whispen's voice now as she is forced to tear a new section of bandage and try again.
  939. > Caravan's looking poor; he's gone pale under his coat and his eyes are becoming unfocused as well.
  940. > Leaping down, you gallop to his head and cradle it in your forehooves.
  941. "Hey! Caravan! Keep talking to me; you're going to be okay!"
  942. > "M'feelin' kind o'numb, sir... don' know.."
  943. "Caravan!"
  944. > "Sir! You need to see this!"
  945. > The call goes ignored as you shake Caravan's head sharply, taking one forehoof in your own.
  946. "Keep talking to me. Keep yourself awake!"
  947. > "I'm... uh..."
  948. > Eyes finally rolling all the way back, Caravan's leg goes limp against your own.
  949. "Damn it! Whispen!"
  950. > "Trying, trying!"
  951.  
  952. > She's pulling the bandage tight as Byline holds it in place, after a few moments, the flow of blood seems to have slowed considerably.
  953. "No, no, come on..."
  954. > Leaning down to lay your ear to his ribs, unimaginable relief flows through you as the steady if faint thudding of Caravan's heart can be heard.
  955. > "Sir...?"
  956. "He's alive. Barely. Unconscious."
  957. > Only after you speak do you realize that it wasn't Byline or Whispen questioning you.
  958. > Dusk points to a black speck against the blue sky.
  959. > And rapidly approaching.
  960. > "We've been spotted, sir."
  961.  
  962. > Quads event triggered: Big brother was watching you.
  963.  
  964. > Maybe they'd been attracted by the magic.
  965. > Or maybe they'd always been watching.
  966. > Who knows what one of the distant flying machines might have seen.
  967. > Stepping up opposite you, Boulder turns his eyes skyward as well.
  968. > "We running?"
  969. > You look about - at the cart, hidden over the next rise.
  970. > At Byline and Whispen, with their bloody hooves with Caravan's limp form between them.
  971. > Chilona, sporting a swelling jaw and leaning heavily against Ornithea.
  972. > To the even more ruined body still slumped amid the focus.
  973. "No. It's faster than we are, and we'd leave a trail a blind Ursa could track. We stand in the open, away from the focus. Show we don't mean harm."
  974. > Repeating the order a bit more loudly, you're pleased to see they all follow your command.
  975. > Even when the single black dot resolves itself into two, then into the distinct forms of the hovering, puttering flying machines they stand calm.
  976. > It can't be easy.
  977. > Not when one moves to set down close by, a door on the side sliding open to disgorge a squad of soldiers - weapons held at the ready.
  978. "We don't want trouble. We are not your enemies."
  979. > Over the roar of the machines your voice can barely be heard, and you are forced to repeat it twice more.
  980. > But the soldiers seem to get it - moving in cautiously, barking orders but not harming anypony.
  981.  
  982. > When ordered, you lay on your bellies.
  983. > Your ears finally rise from how they'd clamped down as the flying machine takes off again to circle at range - a soldiers still peering cautiously from the doorway.
  984. > Yet, the greatest shock of all comes when one of the soldiers pulls down the cloth mask covering his features, revealing a startlingly familiar face.
  985. "Ah - Gwozdek."
  986. > "You have most interesting friends, yes?"
  987. > He motions to where two soldiers are already climbing onto the focus, seeking to recover the crippled stallion within.
  988. > "We think - we think, whoever we do not find from them, they come to find you. They are very interested in you, yes? But we did not think you would leave so soon, but - is all good, yes?"
  989. > You'd been used, then.
  990. > As bait.
  991. > Resisting the urge to tell him exactly what you think of that plan takes considerable mental strength; as it is, you can't help but grit your teeth.
  992. "You allowed innocent ponies to be attacked to draw them out?"
  993. > "We allow, yes - but then, I wonder, what farming ponies fight so well together?"
  994. > Again you get the feeling that his eyes are peeling you apart to reveal everything.
  995. > And this is going to be no easy question to answer.
  996. > Obviously they'd been watching the whole thing - which, of course, means they also allowed you to do the dirty work before moving in.
  997.  
  998. ACTION:
  999. -  Truth: Admit you are Royal Guard who fled when the city fell, but insist you have no interest in fighting further and just want to live peacefully.
  1000.  
  1001. > You shuffle nervously, thoughts running through your head.
  1002. > How to explain this, how to explain this...
  1003. > For that matter, how much does he know?
  1004. > Even as your mind churns at maximum speed, you can see Gwozdek's eyes narrowing.
  1005. > There's only one way out of this that won't get you called out - and might get Caravan the medical help he desperately needs.
  1006. > Only one way.
  1007. "...trust me on this, everypony. Please."
  1008. > You look between your ponies, waiting for each to nod.
  1009. > Thankfully, Iri had the good sense to shift back to 'Spring' before the soldiers had arrived.
  1010. > And then, at last, you lock eyes with Gwozdek's frigid gaze.
  1011. "...we're Royal Guards. Equestrian military. Officially, anyway - we can't follow these orders anymore - we're leaving. Or... were trying to leave."
  1012. > Gesturing to the limp form within the focus and the two corpses laying about it, you go on.
  1013. "We're done with fighting. Done with this stupid war. But they weren't too keen on letting us leave; we couldn't openly defect."
  1014.  
  1015. > Gwozdek's mouth has fallen into a thin, flat line and from the way the other soldiers have again tightened their grips on weapons and raised more than a few towards you, it's clear they understand you as well.
  1016. "You have to believe us; we didn't want to fight... I just wanted to get all my friends together and leave."
  1017. > "You fight like soldiers, yes. It is all of you who are soldiers?"
  1018. "Yes."
  1019. > Best to include Iri.
  1020. > No need to answer the questions about where she'd come from if she was just another guardspony who knew you.
  1021. > And if they were going to imprison you, she was probably going to be taken along anyhow.
  1022. "Yes, all twelve of us are guards. Listen, my friend is hurt badly - he needs a doctor. Will you-"
  1023. > Gwozdek calmly overrides your voice, his eyes growing even colder.
  1024. > "If what you say is true, I wonder then - your friends, they were captured for stealing weapons. You said you are just ponies then, but now you say you are not. What else did you not tell then, I wonder?"
  1025.  
  1026. ACTION:
  1027. - Admit you were collecting weapons, but only because you thought they could be destroyed.
  1028. - Add that you think your commanders are becoming overly aggressive and obeyed orders out of fear of both them and the humans; when you realized they weren't as bad as they were made out to be.
  1029. - Note that you think the Princess Twilight in particular are becoming overly concerned about disruptions of harmony in equestria, but add that you fear they might be unintentionally causing it themselves.
  1030. - Repeat the comment about the windigo/wendigo connection you were investigating.
  1031.  
  1032. > Letting yourself visibly sag, you nod.
  1033. "Yes, we were collecting weapons... weapons in particular. We thought they would be..."
  1034. > You nod towards the weapons they hold in their hands.
  1035. "Something like that. Something we could just smash up. Instead we ended up with... explosives, I guess. I didn't really understand most of them."
  1036. > "Then why do you do this? Why do you not attack us?"
  1037. > "Because you aren't as bad as we thought you'd be!"
  1038. > It's Boulder Dash who speaks up; the huge stallion's voice rumbles low as he answers.
  1039. > "We heard you were torturing prisoners - killing them if you couldn't get anything. If we'd wanted to hurt you... when you came for us we had the weapons."
  1040. > He shrugs lightly.
  1041. > "Obviously you weren't as bad as we'd heard, though. We realized that when we saw how much you were trying to avoid hurting ponies. It was almost funny - like you were half-fighting."
  1042. > Chilona joins in as well, her voice slightly distorted on account of her swollen jaw.
  1043. > "We'd been told you were monsters. But we started to realize that was wrong... our commanders, they didn't, though. They just wanted us to fight."
  1044. "We took the weapons so we could say we were doing something, but we didn't want to fight - even then! We even risked our lives to get the pilots out of that crashed flying machine!"
  1045. > "So I have heard."
  1046.  
  1047. > Gwozdek's voice is still icily calm, but he seems to be thinking over your words.
  1048. > If it weren't for the dire situation, you'd be pleased to keep him talking.
  1049. "Look, take us as prisoners if you have to, but our friend needs help - badly. He's lost a lot of blood."
  1050. > Cold eyes flick to Caravan's red-stained body, his sides barely rising with each shallow breath.
  1051. > "This pony will receive treatment when you answer our questions. We must determine if you are a threat."
  1052. > "A threat?!"
  1053. > Whispen's cry is laden with equal parts anger and fear.
  1054. > "He's bleeding out right now! We already admitted who we are; what more do you want?!"
  1055. > You have an idea of what they will want.
  1056. "Look - you want proof that we didn't mean you harm? There's another cache of stolen weapons - on the docks. I can show you where. If we still meant to fight, we'd have taken them."
  1057. > That gets Gwozdek's attention.
  1058. > "I will... consider this."
  1059. "Please... we just wanted to leave. Our commanders - even our princess - they've gone crazy!"
  1060. > When nothing is replied, you go on:
  1061. "Princess Sparkle - she kept talking about how something was disrupting the harmony in Equestria. She thought it was you, but... I think we might have accidentally been doing it ourselves, by forcing the fighting to continue."
  1062. > "And so you try to flee."
  1063. "Flee, yes - and... we wanted to find an, uh, american soldier. Or soldiers. There was something we needed to ask them."
  1064. > "What is this - tell me now."
  1065. > Damn it, how much was Gwozdek going to demand?!
  1066. > Caravan needed help!
  1067. "Something called Windigos - they're monsters from our own past. One of the americans, he said there was something similar they had. We're... we're afraid they're responsible for this. That they're pushing the war."
  1068.  
  1069. > Gwozdek doesn't seem impressed, and you add a note of fear - or urgency - to your tone.
  1070. "You can look it up in our books - or ask them. Or ask Williams! We're scared - we want this to be over, and this was the only way to know."
  1071. > "I will see to your friend. But, you must tell me something in return. Your other soldier-ponies, they have been most problematic to us. We need to know who they are. You said your commander wanted to keep you fighting - who is he? Where is he?"
  1072.  
  1073. ACTION:
  1074. - Tell him you don't know any longer; they all moved in the aftermath of the raid on 'Chief'. You were hoping to leave the city before they could get organized again.
  1075. - You never had a clear connection with your superior since the city's fall; all communication was done via dead drop.
  1076.  
  1077. "We don't know. Ever since the city fell, we've barely seen them - it's mostly been dead drops and meetings in a new place every time."
  1078. > Gwozdek doesn't look particularly pleased with that answer, so you go on:
  1079. "Look, we expected you to torture anypony you caught. They didn't want to risk anything.. the only one time we saw everypony gathered together was when Princess Twilight was here, and her plan..."
  1080. > You shake your head, letting the very real frustration with her antics slip into your voice.
  1081. "She was so insistent you were doing something, but her plan was ridiculous - and I hear it got a lot of ponies killed too. That's when we started to realize something was wrong with our commanders, and we had to leave."
  1082. > "Your princess was in the city?! When was this?"
  1083. "A while back. After she pulled that big show right above your camp to the north; we haven't seen her since, though... we haven't exactly been on the best terms with our former commanders since then."
  1084. > That seems to satisfy him.
  1085. > "Your friend, he will be put on a helicopter and moved to the hospital for treatment. He will be staying with us, you understand?"
  1086. "I do."
  1087. > "You will be coming with us directly - to show us the weapons you say you still have. If this is true... then maybe, maybe I believe you."
  1088. > Rather than put you on their flying machines - surrendering or not, you apparently aren't trusted near them - all except for Caravan are made to wait until a number of carts come rumbling down the road to collect you.
  1089. > Far more annoying is the strap they insist on binding about your wings.
  1090. > With the exception of a few times during specific training exercises, you'd not had your wings bound before and quickly found it to be a most unpleasant feeling.
  1091.  
  1092. > That paled in comparison to the discomfort the unicorns among you must have felt as caps were placed over their horns and secured in place.
  1093. > As you wait, something finally comes bubbling back to the forefront of your mind.
  1094. "Listen, there's one other thing you should know - that pony, the injured one-"
  1095. > Here you point to Copper's form; he was still apparently under the effects of the vial and barely able to communicate.
  1096. "He said something about one of the ponies that I recognized as working with you. I think he's responsible for their disappearance."
  1097. > Nodding sharply, Gwozdek agrees.
  1098. > "We will... we do look after ponies who work for us, yes?"
  1099. > Was he hinting that you should consider doing the same?
  1100. > It'd be helpful - and perhaps your only way of avoiding seeing the inside of a prison cell for the remainder of the war.
  1101. > After all, you'd done it before...
  1102. > But on the other hand - who would trust a traitor now?
  1103. > Opting to take the middle ground, you nod.
  1104. "We know. We gave you all that information - the focus, the weather machinery - and you brought back my friends."
  1105. > "Then maybe, I wonder, why you do not offer to help us from the beginning?"
  1106. "We were scared. We didn't realize how wrong we were about you - I mean, humans altogether - until too late."
  1107. > "And now - tell me, why do you leave with such... purpose. You have a lot of food in your cart; you did not intend to stay close."
  1108.  
  1109. ACTION:
  1110. - Go with what you said before; say you intended to try and reach someone (human or pony) who would know about the windigo/wendigo connection.
  1111.  
  1112. "Our leaders... they said that you coming here was disrupting the harmony. Harmony - it's very important to us, you have to understand. It's... it's what holds the land together. It's not just peace, there's real power in it."
  1113. > "Magic power."
  1114. > The way Gwozdek says it suggests he would prefer to remain far, far away from any indescribable magic powers - or doesn't quite believe it in the first place.
  1115. "Yes, real power. The elements of harmony, the fires of friendship - these are things that have actually defended us in the past."
  1116. > Shrugging, you go on.
  1117. "And then... then the other soldier, the american, he mentioned the windigos. That... they're a race that we fought once before, and they nearly destroyed our civilization. So, when we heard that they might be coming back with you..."
  1118. > "You are certain of this - windigo creature?"
  1119. "You can look it up in our history books. They're not just myths or legends - they were very real, and if they were back now."
  1120. > Or, at least no more a myth and legend than Discord, Nightmare Moon, or a million other things had been.
  1121.  
  1122. > How much more was actually waiting out there in the wings, you wonder...?
  1123. "The point is... when you didn't burn the city to the ground, we began to wonder. If you weren't as bad, was something destroying the land's harmony? Was there anything actually happening?"
  1124. > "So you steal weapons to test this?"
  1125. "We stole weapons to stop the fighting!"
  1126. > Damn, how you wish Caravan was here to help with this.
  1127. "We stole them because we thought, if we could destroy them we could stop the fighting... stop the disharmony from spreading. The same with helping you. If we helped, not hurt..."
  1128. > This sounds ridiculous even to you - much less what it must sound like to them.
  1129. "...but it wasn't going to stop - not here. We had to go, to find out for sure: If the fighting was causing this, if it was you, if it was the windigos.
  1130. > "Hmm."
  1131. > Despite your thoughts, Gwozdek does seem thoughtful.
  1132. > "We have heard this - something like your words from others. Because of this... we will consider it."
  1133. > Another frigid look is fixed in your direction.
  1134. > "Tell me, then - if these, Windigos, if they are doing this... what will happen then?"
  1135. > Well, that's a very good question, isn't it?
  1136. > You don't know the answer, but you do know what he will want to hear.
  1137. "If it is true, and they are the cause... then maybe the princesses would be more willing to listen to you. Right now they think you are pushing this, but if the windigos are..."
  1138. > Unfortunately, his face reveals nothing of his thoughts on the topic.
  1139. > "First, you will show us these weapons you have hidden. Then, we will talk further."
  1140. > The carts, when they come, prove to be a less-armored, open-backed type.
  1141. > That doesn't keep you from being deeply intimidated as you are loaded up into the backs and driven back into the city.
  1142.  
  1143. > How strange; not hours ago you'd thought that you'd been done with Las Pegasus altogether.
  1144. > Arriving on the docks again takes only a little more than an hour for what had been half a day of walking.
  1145. > The ride is taken in silence, the only communication between yourself and what few of your ponies are in this truck the nervous glances you pass between each other.
  1146. > Well, nervous and furious.
  1147. > Iri looks about ready to tear your wings from their roots.
  1148. > Fair enough, you suppose.
  1149. > You'd only cost the changelings another lost.
  1150. > Arriving on the dock, you quickly direct them to the cracked section of pavement.
  1151. "They're. It's beneath there - you can dig it all up; it's in a bag."
  1152. > And so they do, after extracting a description of the bag's contents from you.
  1153. > Proceeding with considerable caution, they allow you to watch from a distance as the pit is dug up and a human in a huge, bulky suit - their equivalent of full plate armor, you suppose - recovers and opens the bag.
  1154. > Eventually Gwozdek turns to you and nods.
  1155. > "It seems what you have said is the truth after all."
  1156. "I promised."
  1157. > "You have promised many things before, I have been told."
  1158. > He has a point there, you suppose.
  1159. "Now what?"
  1160. > "You will be taken to our facility. We will ask about more there."
  1161. > Well.
  1162. > This was it, then.
  1163. > You feel slightly numb as you're loaded back up into the open-backed trucks again.
  1164. > The war is over.
  1165. > Equally silent in departure as in arrival, you stare off hollowly as the trucks roll out again.
  1166. > Unexpectedly, the carts pull to a halt; though you can only see out the back, Gwozdek seems unhappy with the pause.
  1167. > The carts' horns honk furiously; at last they start moving.
  1168. > Just as they do, you look out the back again -
  1169. > And lock eyes with Buttercup.
  1170. > She stands, eyes narrow and ready.
  1171. > Oh stars above, she's going to try something.
  1172. > You could warn her off.
  1173. > There will be casualties.
  1174.  
  1175. > But in the tight press of buildings, with the more lightly-armored trucks, they might just have an advantage...
  1176. > They do still have the rest of the potions, after all.
  1177. > And there's only... what, twenty soldiers?
  1178. > How many had she gathered together?
  1179.  
  1180. ACTION:
  1181. - Warn her as hard as you can not to attack.
  1182.  
  1183. > You can't let her do this.
  1184. > Even if the changelings could somehow succeed, the casualties they would take would be sickening.
  1185. > And you promised yourself.
  1186. > No more suicide missions.
  1187. > Shaking your head sharply, you make sure that the she sees your eyes still on her.
  1188. > Don't do it; please, for the love of all - don't do it.
  1189. > "What are you doing?"
  1190. "I saw a friend. They looked worried - I was trying to tell them it's okay, they don't need to worry."
  1191. > Immediately your mane is tugged around to pull your eyes onto one of the soldiers.
  1192. > "Soldier-friends, pony?"
  1193. "No. Just a friend. We can have friends too, you know."
  1194. > Even though doing so makes your stomach churn, you hold the soldiers gaze.
  1195. > Eventually he grunts and lets you go.
  1196. > All of them had gone ready, you realize.
  1197. > Every single soldier had been ready for an ambush.
  1198. > Good that you didn't... though it had only been your warning that tipped them off, in retrospect.
  1199. > The human camp somehow seems a lot different when you are being brought into it as a prisoner.
  1200. > More threatening.
  1201. > Each building you pass is another barrier to your exit.
  1202. > At last they pull up to a perfectly square, uniformly-grey brick structure.
  1203. > It has an ugliness to it that hints at its purpose; you are quickly handed over to other soldiers who herd you within.
  1204. > The cells are, to your surprise, almost completely open; most of the walls seem to be formed of networks of metal bars and mesh rather than anything solid.
  1205. > Then again, doing anything within the cells will be all but impossible to hide.
  1206. > Divided up, you're pushed into one cell with Dusk and Byline; Whispen, Ornithea, and Spark are shoved into the next.
  1207. > And then, at last, you're alone.
  1208. > Glancing about, you find more than a few curious eyes resting on you - no ponies you recognize, but more than a few who hold themselves with a pride and strength that suggests 'guardspony'.
  1209. > "Sir...?"
  1210.  
  1211. > Whispen's voice is small and uncertain.
  1212. > Trotting to the edge of the cell, you reach out to place a hoof flat against the mesh separating you from him.
  1213. > She does the same, obvious worry glimmering in her eye.
  1214. "It's going to be okay, Whispen. This is probably a holding pen; they're just sticking us in here until they can interrogate us some more."
  1215. > "I know, sir... but... if they do take us to ask, what do we say? Do we...?"
  1216. > She sucks a sharp breath.
  1217. > "If they... torture us... what can we give? To make them stop?"
  1218. "I don't think they would do that. They've been so... pleasant so far."
  1219. > "The ones before, maybe... but what about this lot?"
  1220. > Shuddering softly, Whispen shakes her head.
  1221. > "Gwozdek would, I think."
  1222.  
  1223. ACTION:
  1224. - everything to do with pre-las pegasus, everything our group did solo in las pegasus, nothing about the changelings, nothing about fairweather, nothing about our involvement in the ambush.
  1225. - Tell them about Copper 'Let's Get This Shoah on the Road' Cog and the guard in general. Fairweather doesn't exist
  1226. - Just... I don't know. Anything we say about the current situation will endanger buttercup or Fairweather. They will want to know what we were going in the city. Nothing we know is trivial. Almost anything will get some pony hurt. Just tell Whispen... Try her best. If she's tortured, just try your best to resist. We can't blame her for breaking. The fact we're being recorded makes everything a lot harder. Answering this question will ensure they know we are holding information back, which will cause them to go harder on us.
  1227.  
  1228. "Tell them..."
  1229. > Might the humans be listening?
  1230. > There didn't appear to be any in sight, but then again the humans certainly seemed to have plenty of techniques for observing from a distance.
  1231. > It was a fair guess they might be listening, too.
  1232. "...tell them everything."
  1233. > Your next words are slow and specific.
  1234. "About what we did before here; Everfree, Easthock and the rest of it. About what we did here too - fleeing from the battlefield, finding the home on the docks, Tariff offering us food, and the plane..."
  1235. > Tariff.
  1236. > You wonder briefly if they'll go pick him up too.
  1237. > If the changeling had any sense left in him, he'd have long since pulled on a new identity.
  1238. "About our fight with Copper, too. Why he was angry with us, how we decided to turn over what we knew on him... all of that."
  1239. > Whispen nods slowly, her eyes flashing.
  1240. > Good.
  1241. > You think she might actually get it.
  1242. > Nothing about Fairweather, nothing about the Changelings.
  1243. "Tell the others, as well. All of that. Make sure they understand. If they ask about our leaders... we can tell them about Princess Sparkle, too. When she was here."
  1244. > "And... if they do torture us?"
  1245. > Pausing again on that, you consider for a moment.
  1246. > Would it have been best to hold something in reserve...?
  1247. > No; you were trying to appear helpful.
  1248. "If they do... you'll have already told them everything. With any favor, they would listen to us, but..."
  1249. > The shudder that runs through you is not faked.
  1250. > Though you'd seen no hints of true cruelty from the humans yet, that didn't mean they weren't capable of it.
  1251. > Especially towards captured enemy soldiers.
  1252. > Leaning, you press your cheek against the wire mesh.
  1253. > On the opposite side, Whispen does the same - her coat brushing against yours where it connects between the wires.
  1254.  
  1255. "It won't be your fault, if you break."
  1256. > The words are barely breathed out.
  1257. "Try to resist them if they do, but... it won't be your fault."
  1258. > "Thank you..."
  1259. > Her voice is soft and tremulous, and you hold that position a little longer.
  1260. "Now, go tell the others, please?"
  1261. > "Of course, sir..."
  1262. > Circling around again, you find a spot on the floor that seems slightly cleaner than the rest and settle down on it, resting your head on the floor.
  1263. > The humans had neglected to provide beds in these cells, further suggesting you were only meant to be here in the very short term.
  1264. > "Sir?"
  1265. > Whispen had reappeared at the wall.
  1266. > "There's a problem, sir. Hot Pot wasn't left with us."
  1267. > Beside you, Dusk goes tense.
  1268. "Easy, Dusk... they're probably taking her to check her wounds. I'm sure they noticed she was having trouble walking."
  1269. > "I hope so."
  1270. > Looking down, Dusk frowns lightly.
  1271. > "Only just got to say hello again... don't want to think about losing her again."
  1272. "I know, Dusk. I know."
  1273. > Truth be told, you're feeling something of the same way.
  1274. > "Sir?"
  1275. "What is it?"
  1276. > "I just wanted to say... if they split us up and we don't see each other again."
  1277. > Dusk hangs his head slightly.
  1278. > "...thank you. For working to get us out. Been an honor serving with you."
  1279. > Raising your head a bit, you look about.
  1280. > They're all looking at you now, you realize.
  1281. > Byline in this cell, the three in the next.
  1282. > Beyond them, you can make out Iri, Chilona, Ornithea and Boulder watching you carefully as well.
  1283. > What you say here, it won't just be for Dusk.
  1284.  
  1285. [Numerous suggestions as to final words.]
  1286.  
  1287. > You consider your words for what seems like an eternity before opening your mouth again.
  1288. "Listen... if we don't manage to get back together..."
  1289. > Again your voice halts, the words hard to come by
  1290. > Never had the situation seemed so bleak.
  1291. > But in the end, your voice halting at moments, you give your answer.
  1292. "I couldn't have asked for better, Better soldiers, better friends, better...family - and even if I could have, I wouldn't trade any of you. I'm sorry I couldn't have been a better commander to you all."
  1293. > After a moment, Whispen raises one hoof in a shaky salute.
  1294. > Spark joins her a moment later; then Dusk and .
  1295. > Over in the next cell beyond you can see Boulder Dash, Chilona, and the others.
  1296. > Even Byline rises to his hooves to salute as well.
  1297. > Abruptly you realize it's gone rather quiet in the line of cells; looking around, you realize that despite your quiet words the line of salutes had drawn a fair amount of attention from the other prisoners.
  1298. > Some seem confused, others, a little sad.
  1299. > Yet more shoot proud grins in your direction; at least one - also a guard, you presume - goes to parade attention and salutes you back.
  1300. > A sudden flush works its way to your cheeks; that moment hadn't been meant to be so public.
  1301. > Yes, you'd saluted and gone through ceremony before, but this, somehow...
  1302. > It was more personal.
  1303. > They weren't merely comrades, but true family - seeing you through the first war Equestria had seen in years (and possibly the worst one it had seen, ever).
  1304. > Abruptly the moment is broken as Dusk gives you a friendly cuff on the shoulder.
  1305. > "Don't look so unhappy, sir. We feel the exact same way you do."
  1306. "Not the point, Dusk."
  1307. > He chuckles softly.
  1308. > "I know. I guess we were just the ones smart enough to keep our mouths shut about it first."
  1309. > That draws a small grin and a roll of your eyes.
  1310. > And all at once, everything seems a little bit calmer.
  1311. > One more thing you need to do, though.
  1312.  
  1313. > Walking back to the edge of the cell, you call out softly.
  1314. "Whispen?"
  1315. > "What is it, sir?"
  1316. "Pass a message to Iri for me: Tell her..."
  1317. > How to put this in a way that wouldn't reveal her secret...
  1318. "Tell her - if things did get bad again, I couldn't go back to living in ignorance like I used to. It's the answer to something she asked me once."
  1319. > The latter part being in response to a questioning look Whispen had shot you; after a moment, she crosses her cell to deliver the message.
  1320. > Iri stiffens, her eyes locking on to you - and then nods slowly.
  1321. > You can't quite tell whether it is a look of judgement, approval, or disdain.
  1322. > Perhaps all three at once.
  1323. > Nonetheless, it puts your mind at ease - even when, several hours later, soldiers arrive to remove you from the cells.
  1324. > First, oddly enough, they treat your wounds.
  1325. > What follows is a questioning that, as you'd come to expect from humans, is all at once strange and brutally practical.
  1326. > The cell you are moved to lacks a window; your only guess as to how time passes comes from the activation of a flameless, magicless lamp set into the ceiling.
  1327. > And then they begin to question you.
  1328. > Is it torture?
  1329. > No, not exactly.
  1330. > There is a definite lack of hot irons, whips, and beatings.
  1331. > But neither are they gentle.
  1332. > Interrogations happen often, sometimes with familiar faces and sometimes with new ones.
  1333. > A few you begin to identify; a mustachiod man who speaks softly but grows fond of slamming a hand on the table set between you to interrupt your line of thinking.
  1334. > Two who always work together; one talks, the other simply watches you from beady eyes.
  1335. > One who you think is american, by the way he speaks, but you don't dare ask.
  1336. > Him, you always hated talking to; he questions you so quickly it is hard to keep your thoughts straight.
  1337. > In the end, however, you don't believe you've given up anything especially important.
  1338.  
  1339. > After all, you'd already admitted there were other guard in the city but clung to the line that you had no way to contact or reveal them.
  1340. > It was the one you'd given Gwozdek, and you were sticking to it.
  1341. > That, and repeating constantly that the Windigos were a very real, very worrisome threat.
  1342. > And then, one day, it all changes.
  1343. > The door slides open, but instead of being lead out as was normal you are surprised when a familiar face enters.
  1344. "...Gwozdek."
  1345. > He smiles thinly, although you suspect there is something less pleasant bubbling directly beneath.
  1346. > "My friend, I am sorry to see you in this state. They have made a bit of a mistake, and you have suffered for it. May I?"
  1347. > A hand is motioned towards your bed in the cell; you nod - how could you deny him?
  1348. > Sitting on the edge, Gwozdek continues.
  1349. > "I had told them that you were willing to cooperate, that you had done so before - but it seems, they made a grievous error and treated you differently as I had hoped."
  1350. "I hope you understand if I don't quite believe that."
  1351. > "You are welcome to believe what you wish; I would think that it would be obvious enough that to treat someone s helpful as a... common thug, is not what I had planned."
  1352. "You had a plan?"
  1353. > "Yes, of course. I wish for you to work with us."
  1354. > He wants to recruit you.
  1355. "What for?"
  1356. > "You have... successfully convinced someone that these 'windigos', they are an actual threat."
  1357. > Despite his apparently-honest anger in how you had been treated, you get the feeling Kosmatka still doesn't quite believe in the windigos.
  1358. "And you want us to investigate that?"
  1359. > "I have been authorized to offer you this, yes."
  1360. > Well.
  1361. > That was a fairly serious offer, but...
  1362. "I don't know how much help I can be alone."
  1363. > "You will be working with us to find more of them."
  1364. "I'll want my ponies. My team, back together. We were close; I can't work without them."
  1365. > A flicker of emotion - worry? annoyance? - passes over Gwozdek's face.
  1366.  
  1367. > "I will ask about this. Except for your injured comrade... I believe it will be possible."
  1368. > He pulls through, in the end.
  1369. > What feels like a day later, you are pulled out and into a common cell.
  1370. > There, the others wait for you.
  1371. > On entrance, you're almost immediately drowned in ponies attempting their best to smother you with hugs.
  1372. > It's worth it, though.
  1373. > Not even Iri can avoid leaping in.
  1374. > A minute later, you sit in a small circle - Whispen on one side, Boulder on the other.
  1375. > Truly, it is a struggle to resist the urge to spread a wing out across her back.
  1376. "...so if we work together to turn in the militia, they're willing to give us some leeway to investigate the possibility of the windigos."
  1377. > All eyes are on you.
  1378. "We'd be under pretty heavy restrictions - a very short leash. But, it'd be doing what we already were - protecting ponies."
  1379. > There's a long silence, and then Ornithea nods.
  1380. > "I'm in."
  1381. > "Me as well."
  1382. > "Same."
  1383. > Shooting a look of thanks to Hot Pot - evidently returned while you were separated - and Dusk, you look to the others.
  1384. "Boulder? Whispen?"
  1385. > "You know I trust your judgement, sir."
  1386. > After a second, Boulder grunts softly as well.
  1387. > "Never thought I'd see this day all those weeks back in the Everfree... but yeah, I trust you too."
  1388. "Lot of things we never thought we'd see now. The question is, how in Tartarus do we find a windigo?"
  1389. > That brings silence.
  1390. > Nopony knows, of course; they've not been seen in months.
  1391. > Eventually Byline speaks up.
  1392. > "If there's one thing I've learned, it's that hard numbers never lie. The humans must have reports from where there armies go - innocuous stuff, weather reports and the like."
  1393. > That yields him several strange looks, to which he shrugs.
  1394. > "We can examine their records, compare them to ours. See if anything hints to possible windigo activity."
  1395. "Good. Any other ideas?"
  1396.  
  1397. > "I disagree; we need to go straight to the source.
  1398. > In typical fashion, Ornithea is as blunt as possible.
  1399. > "Their world is a complete unknown; we need to gather all the information we can about their version of the windigo, and think about clues there."
  1400. > "Also, sir..."
  1401. > Whispen's voice is uncertain, but after a supportive glance she goes on.
  1402. > "I remember, from when I was in Canterlot... some ponies mentioning that in the north, they can tell when the windigos are roaming again."
  1403. "You think we should go up there?"
  1404. > "If possible."
  1405.  
  1406. ACTION:
  1407. - Straight to the source: Focus on information from the humans' homeworld, focus on any signs of windigo activity there.
  1408.  
  1409. "...I think Ornithea has a point. Windigos alone - at least, that which we know - couldn't have started this. But we know nothing about what it's like on the other side. We need to look into that first."
  1410. > When Gwozdek returns, you present the matter to him.
  1411. "We first got into this because we heard a soldier talking about windigos - or, wendigos, I think he called them. We need to find out more, before anything else."
  1412. > Grunting softly, Gwozdek scratches his chin.
  1413. > "You wish to see our history? Our knowledge?"
  1414.  
  1415. "Yes. I understand if you don't want us seeing some things, but..."
  1416. > "I will ask my superiors. You will be handed off to another, anyhow - until, perhaps, you identify something worth chasing again."
  1417. > Relief floods through you at that.
  1418. > Despite the jovial appearance Gwozdek had put on and that he seemed to be legitimately interested in seeing you unharmed, Gwozdek left you with an unpleasant feeling.
  1419. "Do you know who it will be?"
  1420. > A dark look crosses his face once more.
  1421. > "Americans."
  1422. > You get the distinct feeling that there was an unspoken curse before that answer.
  1423. > "For now, though - we have made quarters available for you. You will remain there until they arrive to oversee your operations, understand?"
  1424. "Yes, of course."
  1425. > The quarters in question prove to be a building meant or housing the other pony collaborators in the human camp.
  1426. > Escorted in, you're split between two rooms.
  1427. > Barracks-like, each holds six beds, a small table, and several cabinets that prove to be empty.
  1428. > Short on comfort, perhaps, yet infinitely better than the cell you had been in.
  1429. > At least they actually gave you control over the strange, magicless and flameless lamps that lit the room, and allowed you to walk freely between the two.
  1430. > On account of that latter fact, the rest of your ponies soon rejoin you in the main room.
  1431. > Moving between them, you offer small words of comfort to each.
  1432. > None look particularly well after your shared imprisonment, but none are particularly bad either.
  1433. > Except for Iri.
  1434. > She rests on her side atop one of the beds, staring into the nearest wall.
  1435. "...Iri, are you okay?"
  1436. > Her reaction is a frustrated-sounding snort.
  1437. > "I do not believe I will see my kin again - at least not until your princesses fall. No, I am not okay."
  1438. > Oh.
  1439. > Yeah.
  1440. > That.
  1441.  
  1442. ACTION:
  1443. - "None of us want to be here, but you got shafted the hardest. I'm sorry. I made the decision a long time ago not to kill that fucker and we've been getting screwed over ever since. But... At this point, I'd consider you my kin. I think I'm honestly more loyal to our friendship than I ever have been to the Princesses."
  1444. - "Hey, don't worry, I'm not going to forget my promise, to you or her, besides. With access to the Humans information maybe we can find your, family, Maybe even fix the issues between them. Besides, I'd rather have you guys then the princesses at this point."
  1445. - Apologize, but say that for what little it counts for, you're happy to have her as a sister in this band of brothers.
  1446.  
  1447. " 'Spring'..."
  1448. > Damn, she wasn't ever going to be able to go back to being Iridescent Glaze at this point.
  1449. > Might as well get used to calling her 'Spring'.
  1450. "Look... none of us want to be here, but.. yeah, you got shafted the hardest. I'm sorry; I should've simply finished off Copper when he tried to kill two of my own."
  1451. > 'Spring' looks about ready to snap something out, but you keep going before she can.
  1452. "But, at this point... For what little it counts, I'm happy to have you part of this strange little family we've built."
  1453. > Strangest of all, the words weren't false.
  1454. > Changeling or not, abrasive or not, Iri had risked her life and been captured with the rest of you.
  1455. > It was the closest thing to an induction ritual you had.
  1456. > Her eyes lock with yours a moment, and then 'Spring' rolls away again.
  1457. > "Thank you. For those words, and what you said before we were split up."
  1458. "You're welcome."
  1459. > The remainder of the evening is spent checking in on your ponies.
  1460. > Dusk and Hot Pot have given up any pretense of hiding their relationship; they rest together on one of the beds, each with a wing extended across the other.
  1461. > After what you'd all gone through, you can't blame them.
  1462. > Hell, you'd relished when they removed the hobble from your wings as well.
  1463. > And after those two were separated for so long, thinking they had lost the pony you cared about the most...
  1464. > On that note, you glance over to Whispen.
  1465. > Her mane has grown out over the weeks you've been trapped in the city.
  1466. > You'd have to do something about that at some point, for all of them.
  1467. > But for now... you can afford to enjoy it a little bit.
  1468. > Perhaps it would help clear your mind of certain other topics.
  1469. > Wandering over to her, you lean over to rest your head on the surface of a table nearby.
  1470. > It feels good against your coat - nice and cool, if a bit strangely smooth compared to the tables you were used to.
  1471. > "Are you alright?"
  1472.  
  1473. > Chuckling softly, you turn one eye to glance over at Whispen's nervous-looking face.
  1474. "Just tired."
  1475. > You shoot her a nervous grin.
  1476. "Going through that... took a lot out of me."
  1477. > Whispen looks down, and you realize how tired she looks as well.
  1478. > You'd been sleeping so well while in the city - especially when you hadn't kept a watch up - that you'd gotten used to seeing your unit well-rested.
  1479. > "I... yeah, it did a lot of the same to me as well."
  1480. > Moving over, Whispen takes a seat next to you.
  1481. "I'm just glad they didn't torture us."
  1482. > "Well, perhaps not truly torture..."
  1483. > Lifting your head, you give her an uncertain look.
  1484. "Whispen, did they do something...?"
  1485. > "Not... not really. They got hung up over my injuries, wanted to know how they happened - if it was from fighting one of their patrols in the city."
  1486. "They didn't..."
  1487. > "Hurt me? No. But they just kept pushing, pushing, pushing... it felt bad. Even if it wasn't."
  1488. > But, you presume, she hadn't given anything up.
  1489. > She'd have said if she did.
  1490. "What happened in the end?"
  1491. > "I... don't know. They looked at my wounds a bunch of times, did something to my shoulder that made it ache a lot.."
  1492. > She shrugs.
  1493. > "Eventually, I guess they just figured I was actually telling the truth... or maybe they found my record in the hospital, I don't know."
  1494. "Heh, I didn't really have much to show except a few burns from Copper's show, and the old scars... they were interested in those, too."
  1495. > "I guess..."
  1496. > Whispen shifts nervously, looking around several times to make sure nobody is in earshot.
  1497. > It's a laborious process, with only one eye.
  1498. > Eventually, though, she twists to bring her muzzle to one of your ears.
  1499. > "Could I... um... could you... would you want to stay with me tonight?"
  1500. > Well.
  1501. > Where had that come from?
  1502. > Whispen lets out an awkward nervous titter.
  1503. > "I swear I'm not drunk this time..."
  1504. "I didn't think... but... there's not much privacy..."
  1505. > "I didn't mean... just... staying together?"
  1506.  
  1507. > You're about to say something about it still not being quite appropriate, but Whispen preempts you.
  1508. > "I mean.. the rule is, not between a subordinate and superior in the Royal Guard... but... we're not really in the Royal Guard anymore, are we?"
  1509. > Ah.
  1510. > So that's what this is all about.
  1511. "Whispen, we're..."
  1512.  
  1513. ACTION:
  1514. - Admit you're not with the guard. Yes you allow her to join you. There's really no other explanation other then you both want this right?
  1515. - The guard doesn't effectively exist, all you have now is each other (your squad) and your ideals. Time for maximum snuggles.
  1516. - "Well, We might not be Guard anymore, but that doesn't mean we can't do our best to help protect Equestria's peoples right? But, yeah, you know what scoot over."
  1517.  
  1518. "...honestly... I don't think we are the Royal Guard anymore. Not officially - we have no solid orders, what we have received is suicidal..."
  1519. > You pause, making sure of your words before you speak them.
  1520. "But that doesn't mean we have any less of a duty. The organization may be broken, but we're still together. We still have each other, and we can still do our best to protect Equestria's subjects."
  1521. > Her nod is halting and uncertain, but you words seem to be getting through to Whispen.
  1522. > "I..."
  1523. > She looks down at the table's surface, then raises one hoof to rub at it lightly.
  1524. > "Nevermind..."
  1525. > Now you do give in to the urge you'd felt earlier, extending a wing across Whispen's back.
  1526. "That question wasn't the only one on your mind, was it? Or the one you meant to really ask?"
  1527. > "Not... not really."
  1528. "Then go ahead. I'm available to listen."
  1529. > "It's just..."
  1530. > Whispen chews on the corner of her cheek for a moment before going on.
  1531. > "There's not many places in the world for a unicorn with a talent like mine. I mean, some high-magic research places, sure - but I was never smart enough to get into those."
  1532. "Here I'd have thought that your talent would have given you some flexibility. Plenty of places where you could find a spot..."
  1533. > "Yes, but... in so many of them, there were ponies who were better at it. Ponies with talents at those jobs. So I joined the guard."
  1534. > One of your eyebrows starts to rise, and Whispen cuts you off before you can make the obvious comment:
  1535. > "Yes, I'm aware of the irony that my talent is in not being noticed, and I ended up wearing the white-and-gold."
  1536.  
  1537. "I was going to say, yes."
  1538. > "But, I could actually help, for real. I was doing something..."
  1539. > At last Whispen looks up again, allowing her to see the very real worry in her eye.
  1540. > "If we're not the guard now... who are we? What am I doing?"
  1541. > Ah.
  1542. > So that's what this was all about.
  1543. > And, you suppose, why she'd resisted their interrogations so well.
  1544. > So that she could tell herself that she was still a Royal Guard.
  1545. "Whispen, just because the guard itself is broken here, doesn't mean that you are useless. We're none of us perfect here - nopony has a talent to... I don't know, winning a fight or anything. The point is, though, that we can still do good. Even if we're not wearing the armor anymore, we can still play the part."
  1546. > "I... suppose so. Thank you, sir..."
  1547. "...now come on. Let's go find a bed: Even if the armor's gone, I still look after my ponies and I'm certainly not going to leave one of them hanging when they need something."
  1548. > It has to wait a little longer, of course.
  1549. > Discipline needs to be maintained as well, and you're quick to call lights-out before too late.
  1550. "Come on, everypony. Get some shut-eye; we've been through a lot and I suspect we're about to get busy again."
  1551. > The lamp goes out, leaving nothing but an unnatural, yellow glow fading in through the two shade-covered windows.
  1552. > Your vision adjusts, and after a moment you find your own bed.
  1553. > The mattresses were probably meant for humans originally, and so are huge - enough for two ponies to rest comfortably together.
  1554. > It is a fact you take full advantage of, sliding in next to Whispen in the cool night air.
  1555. > She promptly shifts over, allowing you to once again spread a wing over her.
  1556. > It's unfortunate the room is so quiet that even a whisper would be heard.
  1557. > There's still plenty you wish you could say to her.
  1558. > Instead you settle down, laying your head on the overly-soft pillow provided.
  1559. > A few seconds later, something flicks over your rear legs - Whispen's tail.
  1560.  
  1561. > Well.
  1562. > That was a... suggestion if you'd ever seen one.
  1563. > Tilting your head, you nuzzle into her cheek a little; and something grows warm and pleasant within you as she shifts over to further press herself against you.
  1564. > It's a minute later when her lips gently brush over your muzzle, nudging you back slightly.
  1565. > Curiously, you away - but Whispen is moving with you, rolling into the hollow under your chest, her back pressed flat to your belly.
  1566. > Again a wing extends, folding flat over her side like a blanket, and at last she relaxes.
  1567. > Settling your head on her mane, you allow the tension to flow out of you as well.
  1568. > You just hope you won't regret this in the morning.
  1569. > ...
  1570. > You regret it.
  1571. > Sleeping like the rock had left you in the same position you'd fallen asleep in the previous night.
  1572. > Which, of course, meant that the truly incredible morning wood you were currently sporting was jabbing straight into Whispen's back.
  1573.  
  1574. > Or, more accurately, was folded tight between the smooth coat of her back and the soft fuzz of your own stomach.
  1575. > Great.
  1576. > What was the tip for making those go away again - preferable without enraging the mare who'd finally just opened up to you last night?
  1577. > Trying to squirm back, your eye meets hers and -
  1578. > Oh.
  1579. > Shit.
  1580. > She's already awake.
  1581. > And flushed, hard.
  1582. > Not an angry look, though... or upset.
  1583. > And a moment later, to your eternal thankfulness, her tail flicks up to cover hide your shaft from the others.
  1584. > Then you can-
  1585. > Did Whispen just grind herself against you?
  1586. > Judging by the slight smirk on her face, she did.
  1587. > You shoot her a flat look - and then slide a hoof over her flank, her flush growing.
  1588. > Neither of you dare try anything more, though.
  1589. > ...great, now it's going to take you forever to get that down.
  1590. > Eventually, though, you can wait no more.
  1591. "Alright, everypony - rise and shine, let's get up and ready. Time to rise; let's get ourselves cleaned up and in some semblance of shape."
  1592.  
  1593. ACTION: [Solicited things to ask the humans.]
  1594. - If they rescued the others ok would be a good one,
  1595. - Ask for as much info on human Windigo myths as possible. Also ask if we can maybe have a history book or something, to look for possible windigo involvement. Has their world ever been frozen, or extremely cold? What did they do to warm it up if so?
  1596. - Ask about Caravan, if he's ok or not. Then we could ask them whatever we're allowed. We could also run the idea of weather patterns, north ponies and so on.
  1597.  
  1598. > It doesn't take long for you to get everypony organized.
  1599. > Nopony really has much in the way of belongings anymore, after all.
  1600. > What ever happens next, you will be ready for it.
  1601. > And face it standing tall despite what you had gone through.
  1602.  
  1603. MISSION 4 COMPLETE:
  1604.  
  1605. Primary Objectives:
  1606. > Survive: COMPLETE
  1607. > Keep your unit alive: PARTIAL SUCCESS (10/12 fine, 2 wounded, +1 bonus for acquiring new member)
  1608. > Aid in attempting to halt a human convoy: FAILED
  1609. > Escape the city: FAILED
  1610.  
  1611. Secondary objectives: There were so many possible objectives here, I will only be listing the ones you actually came in contact with.
  1612. > Find the changeling cell in Las Pegasus: COMPLETE
  1613. > Recruit an ally from among the Las Pegasus population: COMPLETE, Changeling allies acquired.
  1614. > Loot armament from a crashed human transport: PARTIAL SUCCESS (armament acquired, but taken before it could be used)
  1615. > Set yourself up as a booze provider for the human forces: FAILED
  1616. > Prevent your superior from committing suicide: COMPLETE
  1617. > Discover the secret of the hospital's blocked-off wing: FAILED
  1618. > Protect and shelter the escaped Royal Guard prisoners: FAILED
  1619.  
  1620. --------
  1621.  
  1622. MISSION 5: To the heart of the matter
  1623.  
  1624. > A human soldier comes to collect you soon enough.
  1625. > Questioning him yields relatively little result; instead, you're hurried through being allowed to shower - a welcome gift after days spent in a cell with no real chances to clean yourself up and bound wings preventing a good preening.
  1626. > ...too bad Whispen couldn't be the one to do it for you now.
  1627. > All the same, you're equally pleased when they lead you down to what appears to be a communal dining area.
  1628. > Notable, some of the furniture is actually meant for ponies.
  1629. > They've either begun to settle in for the long term or looted them from some part of the city; you aren't sure which.
  1630. > Encouraged to quickly scarf down the meager food provided, you're then herded down further halls into what appears to be a meeting room of some sort.
  1631. > A soldier is already waiting there; however, you recognize the patch on his arm as being the symbol the 'american' soldiers displayed.
  1632. > "Good morning; my name is Captain Mitch Warren. I am the liason for the APEF forces working with you."
  1633. > Mitch, it turns out, is not merely responsible for you, but is some sort of liason for special projects in the entire area.
  1634. > At least, that's the impression you get.
  1635. > More worrying is what he suggests about your expected duties for the project:
  1636. > "We understand you've been cooperating with local forces in the area for some time. I and my staff will be assisting you in locating the windigos that you mentioned; however, you will be taking part in other duties as well."
  1637.  
  1638. --------
  1639.  
  1640. MISSION 5: To the heart of the matter
  1641.  
  1642. > A human soldier comes to collect you soon enough.
  1643. > Questioning him yields relatively little result; instead, you're hurried through being allowed to shower - a welcome gift after days spent in a cell with no real chances to clean yourself up and bound wings preventing a good preening.
  1644. > ...too bad Whispen couldn't be the one to do it for you now.
  1645. > All the same, you're equally pleased when they lead you down to what appears to be a communal dining area.
  1646. > Notable, some of the furniture is actually meant for ponies.
  1647. > They've either begun to settle in for the long term or looted them from some part of the city; you aren't sure which.
  1648. > Encouraged to quickly scarf down the meager food provided, you're then herded down further halls into what appears to be a meeting room of some sort.
  1649. > A soldier is already waiting there; however, you recognize the patch on his arm as being the symbol the 'american' soldiers displayed.
  1650. > "Good morning; my name is Captain Mitch Warren. I am the liason for the APEF forces working with you."
  1651. > Mitch, it turns out, is not merely responsible for you, but is some sort of liason for special projects in the entire area.
  1652. > At least, that's the impression you get.
  1653. > More worrying is what he suggests about your expected duties for the project:
  1654. > "We understand you've been cooperating with local forces in the area for some time. I and my staff will be assisting you in locating the windigos that you mentioned; however, you will be taking part in other duties as well."
  1655.  
  1656. > It is not a question, you notice.
  1657. > "The Polish forces in the area have specifically requested that - as you area former members of the Equestrian military - you will assist in identifying and negotiating with other pockets of resistance still located in the city."
  1658. > He wants you to what?
  1659. > "While I realize that this may seem... difficult, I can assure you it is meant to save their lives by convincing them to surrender or small raids be taken against them before they can cost more lives - human and pony alike."
  1660. "Before we go any further - we have a couple of requests for you. Not... major things, but things we need to be certain of."
  1661. > "Go ahead."
  1662. "First, two of our number were separated. One was badly wounded as we were captured; the other was taken prisoner while recovering from his wounds when the city was first taken. I'd like to know what happened to them, and if possible have them returned to me."
  1663. > "I will... look into that. If they were taken separately from your group, they may be hard to locate, but write down their names and try to give a drawing of their, uh, cutie mark as well."
  1664. "Thank you. The second is something we were wondering about - another pony who'd been working with the humans. He was kidnapped by one of-"
  1665. > "Oh, hold on. They gave me a note about this..."
  1666. > Sorting through a folder he carries with him, Mitch produces a small slip of paper.
  1667. > "...ah, yeah. Okay, so Truenorth - that was him, yeah?"
  1668. "Yes."
  1669. > "I'm sorry to tell you the ponies who kidnapped him killed him. They had, uh, interrogated him first. Roughly."
  1670. > The slip of paper is passed to you.
  1671. > Your heart sinks as you read the text.
  1672. > 'Thrown from window with noose; unable to be retrieved before death'.
  1673. > In an almost physically painful addition, they even included a picture with the note.
  1674. > It's definitely Truenorth - his eyes staring lifelessly and a large signboard hung from his body.
  1675. > 'I worked with invaders'.
  1676.  
  1677. > The curse you mutter under your breath is quickly echoed by your ponies.
  1678. > "I take it you were close?"
  1679. "We only met once, but... he was kidnapped because they wanted to know if we were aiding you. Or, the other humans here."
  1680. > "I see..."
  1681. "They're gone now, though."
  1682. > "Well. You will be aiding us in locating other such groups. I hope this won't be a problem?"
  1683. > You give him a grim smile, knowing the rest of your ponies will accept your answer.
  1684. "Not one bit."
  1685. > "Good."
  1686. "If I can suggest something, Captain? We've been thinking on how to locate the Windigos."
  1687. > Pulling a small, blocky machine from a pocket, Captain Warren nods.
  1688. > "Go ahead."
  1689. "We want to look in to resources about your world. About the legends you have of them - looking for matches with our own."
  1690. > "...well, that explains why they sent these with me."
  1691. > Warren pats a heavy stack of thick-looking books beside him.
  1692. > "These are apparently the bulk of our knowledge on them; additionally, based on what we found of your descriptions of them, we included a number of other resources on legends associated with chill or cold. You're to be allowed to work your way through them - here, or they can be taken back to your rooms if you wish."
  1693. "That... works."
  1694. > "Good. Further questions will go through me. We will meet approximately once every two days unless there is a major change. Any further questions?"
  1695.  
  1696. ACTION:
  1697. - Ask about the 'blocky machine' he has.
  1698. - Ask about Copper's state, and inform him that we're very angry about what he did.
  1699. - Ask about how civilians are responding in general, and where the humans have gotten.
  1700.  
  1701. "...well. Especially after seeing that..."
  1702. > You motion to the picture you had been given.
  1703. "...I don't think any of us are going to question helping you rot out anypony left from the militias."
  1704. > Whispen nods as well, her sole eye narrow and flashing.
  1705. > "He wasn't helping you fight. There was no reason to do this to him... they're not even militia now. They're just murderers."
  1706. > No doubt the picture had been given to you to provoke this exact reaction.
  1707. > You don't care.
  1708. > It made its point well enough.
  1709. "Will Copper - the pony who we turned over when we were captured - be charged with anything? He ought to be tried under Equestrian law."
  1710. > "I'll look in to this as well."
  1711. "Good..."
  1712. > You let out a small breath.
  1713. "He was already making things worse by attacking you - your soldiers in the city, I mean, but killing Truenorth..."
  1714. > 'Spring' finally speaks up as well.
  1715. > "It got a lot worse out there after he started pulling off attacks. Ponies started getting scared, when they were just... well, just getting used to you."
  1716. > "From what I've heard, it's a lot better here than in some places still. A little fear can't be helped, but..."
  1717. > Warren shrugs again.
  1718. > "For the most part things are peaceful out there still. There are some issues, but I think we're proving we're not to here to oppress you or anything..."
  1719. > "Trust us, we had to learn that too."
  1720. > Several of your ponies nod at Chilona's comment.
  1721.  
  1722. "We'd much prefer that this not have happened... but since it is, we hope to avoid the most killing possible."
  1723. > "We agree; that's why you've been recruited. Anything else?"
  1724. > "Uh..."
  1725. > Spark raises a hoof.
  1726. > "It's not real important, but... what's that thing you have in your hand?"
  1727. > "This?"
  1728. > Warren lift the black, rectangular object.
  1729. > "It's called a tablet computer. It's... well, I can't explain the fundamentals of it exactly, but it's a machine that... imagine a library, and you have the information in that library plus you can send out a runner to other libraries to get more information."
  1730. "...it does that?"
  1731. > "And more. Before you ask, no we can't give you one quite yet. We're still trying to make them for you."
  1732. "Is that - we saw a machine once, a little flying machine that couldn't have had a human or even a pony in it. Is that how you do it?"
  1733. > "Other kinds of computers, yes."
  1734. > Well.
  1735. > That's an unnerving thought.
  1736. > Confirmation that they could construct machines as capable of flying as at least a pegasus foal... who knew what else they could do?
  1737. "...I think that'll be it for now."
  1738. > Much of what's left of the day is spent pouring over the books.
  1739. > Initially you all crowd around a few books, but fairly quickly you realize that to cover them all you were going to need to split up.
  1740. > It's a strange sight - guardsponies spread about the room, open books before each of them.
  1741. > What you find is...
  1742. > Disturbing.
  1743. > The human legends about their 'wendigos' is only the start.
  1744. "...it's strange. This... it feels like it could have been something. Maybe even some sort of windigo-changeling hybrid-"
  1745. > You glance over at 'Spring', but she hasn't heard you.
  1746. "-since they talk about it hiding as a normal-looking human."
  1747. > "Maybe."
  1748. > Beside you, Whispen frowns at the page before you.
  1749.  
  1750. > "It's not exactly like us, but... all this talk about never being able to have enough. Think about what the windigos were like: They wanted to spread, consume, feed on more of our hatred..."
  1751. "...and they're talking about spreading, consuming - well, each other."
  1752. > Your gorge rises slightly at the thought.
  1753. > Never, ever had any pony ever been known to eat another pony.
  1754. > Yet, this book seemed to suggest the humans had invented a legend to stop each other from eating their own kin.
  1755. > Or, thought they had invented, anyhow.
  1756. "The problem is, all of this is legendary... no actually solid sightings."
  1757. > "In fairness, we've held the windigos at bay for a thousand years. Who knows what they could do?"
  1758. > She has a point.
  1759. > Considering the powers the humans wielded...
  1760. > Could they have driven their windigos out?
  1761. > Or even, destroyed them?
  1762.  
  1763. ACTION:
  1764. - We didn't drive them out nor destroy them. We consumed them, and took their strength, their ferocity into ourselves. We added their biological distinctiveness to our own.
  1765. - We need more of their history. Who knows, maybe we're not giving them enough credit. Maybe they had to make those machines because there's all sorts of crazy fucking monsters back on Earth.
  1766. - What if... Humans ARE the Windegos? After getting thrown out of Equestria, we evolved on our own. The Wendigo storys being there to discourage cannibalism was due to the fact that we were alone, and thus ended up eating each other until we evolved out of that.
  1767.  
  1768. > When you explain your theory, Whispen shakes her head.
  1769. > "When you chase something out - something that massive - it gets noticed. Look at us - Discord, the Windigos, all of that was centuries ago. But we remember it. They just... have stories about these things existing."
  1770. "Fair point. You don't think they did that, then?"
  1771. > "Well..."
  1772. > Whispen looks up again.
  1773. > "What... what if the windigos never really went away? What if they're hiding among the humans, like..."
  1774. > "Like we do?"
  1775. > 'Spring' had snuck up behind you barely heard; both of you jump at her sudden question.
  1776. > Whispen flushes slightly, but nods.
  1777. > "Yes. Like Changelings... I mean, a lot of these stories tell of them being able to disguise themselves as humans."
  1778. > "Perhaps."
  1779. > 'Spring' takes a few cautious steps forward, leering down at the book laid open between you.
  1780. > "But we have a long memory, as a race. We remember the long cold. The way the windigos behaved... they do not hide. They remake the world in their image."
  1781. "But there's nothing to indicate the humans have any kind of memory of the kind of assault the windogs bring. They have no record of a cold freeze-"
  1782. > "Actually, sir..."
  1783. > Boulder's low rumble catches your attention.
  1784. > "One of these has a bit of history about their world... and there was. About, uh... ten thousand years back, if this book is right."
  1785. > That gives you a start.
  1786. > The humans had records that far back?
  1787. "Boulder, any idea what exactly we're looking at here?"
  1788.  
  1789. > "Well, sir... the catch seems to be, that there were already humans around by that time - or at least, they think there were. I don't get the feeling they have actual histories from that era."
  1790. > Confusions on top of confusions.
  1791. "...there's something else I think we're overlooking. These machines, all of them - nothing could imagine and build them in a day, not even humans. They were ready to fight something..."
  1792. > "...you think they have other monsters on their world?"
  1793. > Spark gives a soft 'hmm' and looks down at the book set in front of him.
  1794. > "It's a possibility. They've so many stories relating to creatures of ice and winter alone... We'll have to look in to it tomorrow."
  1795. > At the end of the following day, you're all staring in a sort of dull shock at the open books strewn about the room.
  1796. > In all honesty, it wasn't the similarity to Equestrian life, dragons, griffons, minotaurs, hydras and more, that was the worst shock.
  1797. > Magic did as magic would do, and by this point you'd become to used to the insane that you wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't the first time your worlds had connected.
  1798. > No, it was what the stories told of the humans.
  1799. > Or more accurately, what they did to the monsters.
  1800. > Slaughter, pursuit, hunt, destruction.
  1801. > The humans, it seemed, were lethally resistant to any force assaulting their kin.
  1802. > Those that would not come to serve or bargain with them, were almost inevitably struck down.
  1803. > Were it not for the fact that all of the stories were just that - stories - you would have said it was a perfect explanation for the their incredibly-sized military.
  1804. > And yet, these stories were... dismissed.
  1805. > Fiction.
  1806. > Something was missing.
  1807. "I can't help shake the feeling that we're missing something about their world. Something that should be obvious, but we aren't quite getting it."
  1808. > "Perhaps they fight among each other?"
  1809. > Boulder Dash snort softly, the huge stallion's voice rumbling low.
  1810.  
  1811. > "Impossible. With these weapons? They would tear each other to ribbons; smash two boulders together, you're left with only pebbles."
  1812. "Maybe. Maybe something else, then."
  1813. > It seems like it would have to wait.
  1814. > Gwozdek enters, his jaw set into a firm frown.
  1815. > "Ponies - come with me. We have found something we wish for you to investigate for us."
  1816. "More militia ponies?"
  1817. > "Possibly. Come, come."
  1818. > Fitted with helmets and hoof-straps in their bright-lime green colors to identify yourselves, you are loaded into a cart and driven back into the heart of the city.
  1819. "What exactly are we looking at?"
  1820. > "We see - we see ponies that are acting very suspiciously. Carrying around many, many covered cart, moving in formations... we think they are preparing something."
  1821. "And you want us to flush them out for you?"
  1822. > "We want you to see if we are right. If you know them."
  1823. > Well.
  1824. > At least they weren't asking you to fight fellow ponies.
  1825. "Okay, how is this going to work?"
  1826. > "We are going to drop you off. You, and three other. Anyone else, stays with us. You go in and confirm or say no. If there is trouble, we come in anyway."
  1827. > Sounds simple enough.
  1828. > But how to do this...
  1829.  
  1830. ACTION:
  1831. [Several long suggestions on how to proceed combined.]
  1832.  
  1833. "...bring us around the block a couple of times first, let me take a good look at what's going on there."
  1834. > They do so, and you keep your head low - just barely peeking up through the window.
  1835. > High enough you can see, but not so high your features are easily visible.
  1836. > Sure enough, it's definitely something shady.
  1837. > Even if the carts are innocuous enough, you can recognize the several watchponies keeping a wary eye out.
  1838. > Loose but ready stances, eyes always tracking, ears swiveling.
  1839. > It's an appearance you've held often enough.
  1840. "...okay, yeah. I don't know if they're former guard like us, but they're definitely up to something."
  1841. > Pulling off to the side of the street a few blocks away, you are allowed out.
  1842. > "So, you go to talk to them, then?"
  1843. "Easy, Gwozdek. I'll go. Uh, 'Spring', Byline, myself."
  1844. > You glance down at the band about your hoof.
  1845. "We're going to need to take these off. Is that okay with you?"
  1846. > A formidable scowl rapidly develops on Gwozdek's face, and you shrug.
  1847. "We walk up in your gear and they really are militia, at best they're going to run off and we loose them. At worse, they kill us. We're willing to help you..."
  1848. > "Yes, yes... go ahead."
  1849. "Alright. Boulder, you drop the helmet and band too. Here's how it's going to work: We're going to go in, talk to them. If there's any trouble, Byline sends a magic flare up. You see that, you pass it down the street - uh, Chilona, you're after him. You can leave your helmet on."
  1850. > "Got it."
  1851. "Separate by about, uh, a couple of blocks each. Rest of you will be back here, around the corner. You too, Gwozdek. You see that signal, you bring these carts over and come in."
  1852. > "...understood."
  1853. > Surprisingly, he doesn't show too much unhappiness at being ordered about by a pony.
  1854. > You're not certain if it's because of the soundness of your plan, or because he's been ordered himself to play along.
  1855. "...alright. Then let's go say hello."
  1856.  
  1857. > The band has just been slipped off when a heavy hand descends on your withers.
  1858. > "You understand, pony, that if you vanish - your others, the deal is off for them."
  1859. > If you vanish; not, if you flee.
  1860. "...I understand. We won't."
  1861. > "Good."
  1862. > It's about three blocks - one, then a corner turn, then two more - down to the location you'd passed.
  1863. > By the time you're close enough - 'Spring' and Byline close behind you - the cart you saw is gone, but the ponies watching outside are still quite there.
  1864. > Good.
  1865. > Maybe they'd be a little less nervous if their precious goods were secure.
  1866. > You stride straight up to the first one and look him straight in the eye.
  1867. "I need to talk to your boss."
  1868. > Not a guardspony, you can tell - a guardspony wouldn't flinch like he does.
  1869. > But the young stallion hardens up after a moment.
  1870. > "Who in Celestia's sweet mane are you?"
  1871. > After making your own check down the street - and spotting Boulder's enormous form, leaning calmly against a building a fair distance away - you lean in and answer.
  1872. "I'm the Royal Guard, as are the two behind me. We need to talk to your boss; we weren't told about what you were doing."
  1873. > That gets his attention.
  1874. > "How the hell do you-"
  1875. > "Shaddup, Wicker."
  1876. > His partner on watch, a sharp-looking mare, eyes you up and down.
  1877. > "I wasn't a gold-back, but they are. I can tell."
  1878. "EUP guard?"
  1879. > "Nah, but my brother is so I spent a lot of time around guard stallions. Lemme go in and tell the boss you're coming."
  1880. > She splits wide grin and flings her mane towards the alleyway she watches.
  1881. > Moments later she is trotting down it.
  1882. > You glance back to the first pony, who is staring after her with more than a small amount of admiration.
  1883. "...you want her to like you, kid, you should stare less."
  1884. > "...shut up."
  1885. > A minute later the mare is back, her grin even wider.
  1886. > "Boss says he wants to know what unit you were part of."
  1887.  
  1888. "...fourth legion, out of Canterlot. I was under Silver Linings. Organization was all screwed up, though - we had ponies from just about everywhere."
  1889. > "And where were you when the city was hit?"
  1890. > Byline can take it no longer, and steps forward to answer her hotly.
  1891. > "In a trench north-east of this city, getting our sorry flanks nearly killed to try and just slow them. Where do you think we were?"
  1892. > That seems to gain you entrance.
  1893. > When the mare next returns, she flicks her tail down the alleyway.
  1894. > "Door's on the left."
  1895. > Well.
  1896. > That works.
  1897. > Cautiously trotting forward, you open the door to find a well-built earth pony stallion waiting for you.
  1898. > After eyeing you for a moment, he nods.
  1899. > "Good to finally see another guard in here. We've just been trying to keep our heads down."
  1900. > You allow a cautious grin on to your face as well.
  1901. "Same, though we've had a bit of contact - we were a ways south of here; I think more got to ground safely."
  1902. > "Hah! I was fourth legion too."
  1903. "No way? You have to deal with quartermaster Ringrose too?"
  1904. > "That old mule? Deal with him is about all we could do; he stuck his muzzle into everything!"
  1905. > And just like that, the tension is broken.
  1906. > A moment of recognition between the two of you.
  1907. > "So, since I've finally got some welcome company - what's the word?"
  1908.  
  1909. ACTION:
  1910. - We couldn't help but notice your operation going on here, which makes us wonder whether our alien 'friends' have seen it too. Just what are you up to?
  1911. - I'm sure you've heard, but in the south a small militia group took it upon themselves to attack the humans and murder the ponies seen with them, i'm sure you also heard that the humans brought down all of tartarus when they found that group. So when i see a bunch of ponies behaving suspiciously i thought that we had better check in and make sure you guys aren't about to get yourselves all killed'.
  1912.  
  1913. > Stepping into the small room, you can't help but take a glance around to make sure you aren't going to be jumped.
  1914. > Except for a bored-looking mare in the corner who barely glances up at your entrance, there aren't any others there.
  1915. > Well, that and several small clay pots in carefully-constructed wooden holding cases over in the corner.
  1916. > Perhaps that was what they were unloading from the cart?
  1917. "...well, we were coming down the street and couldn't help but notice your watchponies outside."
  1918. > The guardspony grimaces.
  1919. > "That obvious, huh? I'm trying to whip them into shape, but only so much you can do with what are essentially new recruits in a hooffull of weeks..."
  1920. "Isn't there a risk of the humans seeing?"
  1921. > "Them?"
  1922. > He laughs sharply.
  1923. > "Those two-legs either freak out at the slightest thing, or don't notice anything. Not fifteen minutes ago we had a whole bunch of them go right past, didn't even stop."
  1924. > So he had noticed you.
  1925. > Or more accurately, the armored carts you were riding in.
  1926. > But, it seems, not you as a pony.
  1927. > "I'd much rather unload at night or something, but with summer coming and the curfew on so early, I don't have that choice."
  1928. "...ah. Because, what with the militia groups dropping buildings on them a little ways south, they're getting kind of antsy now. Antsy and angry - they brought down all of Tartarus on them."
  1929. > "They finally wrap those suckers up?"
  1930. > Turning his head to make a spitting gesture, the guardspony shakes his head.
  1931.  
  1932. > "No respect for them - no discipline, no logic. Just angry ponies lashing out at everyone they could. I even heard they through some poor sap off a building with a noose around his neck."
  1933. "They did. He'd been working with the humans; they were... not pleased an ally of their had been killed like that."
  1934. > "Idiots. Look, if you're worried about us doing something similar... no. We're trying something a bit different; you'll understand if I don't want to explain it, I hope. What you don't know, they can't beat out of you and all that..."
  1935. > You nod, allowing yourself to relax a little - both to put him at ease, and because it truly did relieve you to hear that.
  1936. "That, and that you'd just give up your lives for no reason. I don't know if you were on that convoy attack, but we were. It was bad."
  1937. > "Wasn't, but I heard the results. No, trust me - we know what we're doing."
  1938.  
  1939. ACTION:
  1940. - Further question him about what his plans are; risks raising suspicion.
  1941. - Straight up admit who you are and what you are doing.
  1942. - Also, if they accuse us of being traitors, tell them that we were given a deal; Police and other emergency work for a bit of freedom, try and convince they this is for the best.
  1943.  
  1944. "...those pots. You were unloading them from the cart?"
  1945. > Nodding sharply, the stallion chuckles.
  1946. > "Something command shipped in to us. They weren't happy about the convoy raid going so badly; they're having us try other things now."
  1947. "...other things?"
  1948. > "Yeah. You haven't gotten them yet?"
  1949. "I wish. Between loosing four in ten ponies to that damned convoy and the militia screwing things up, we've mostly been keeping our heads down and wings in."
  1950. > "Figures. C'mere, take a look at this."
  1951. > Moving to the side, he shows you one of the clay pots.
  1952. > "Put your ear down to it and listen hard."
  1953. > Doing so, you quickly realize the pot is actually humming softly from the inside.
  1954. > "Parasprites. They were quiet when we brought them in, but they're getting hungrier now."
  1955. "...aren't they going to eat their way out of the pots eventually?"
  1956. > "Oh, sure. In a couple days they'll be frustrated enough to go through the clay - but they're going to be landing in the middle of the human camp first."
  1957. > Well.
  1958. > That would be something to see.
  1959. > If nothing else they might deprive the humans of some food, but...
  1960. "How are you getting them in - magic?"
  1961. > "Good ol' earth pony engineering. Got a couple of catapults - okay, they're more like big levers - but they only need to throw a few before we abandon them."
  1962. > Damn!
  1963. > If you blew this open, the humans would catch on to the whole plan.
  1964. "It's... impressive. If nothing else they'll spend some time fighting them."
  1965.  
  1966. > "It'll be enough. Right now, throwing the worst beasties we have at them seems to be the only thing we can do that's working - and this way, we don't have to risk ponies or get civilians in trouble."
  1967. "You don't think they'll retaliate anyhow?"
  1968. > "You think they won't eventually?"
  1969. > For the first time a note of anger creeps into the stallion's voice.
  1970. > "Now, I'm not so stupid - or ruthless - as to attack them in the middle of the city and get civilians involved. But, really - they come here, empty out the cloud district and cart them off, ban the flag and the anthem, start throwing anypony in prison they like-"
  1971. > Cutting off, he shakes his head.
  1972. > "Just because they're not playing rough now, doesn't mean they won't in the future. You know as well as I do."
  1973. "Wait, wait, wait. Go back - what about the cloud district?"
  1974. > "You looked up lately, featherbrain? Thought a pegasus of all ponies would have noticed - they've kept the cloud district emptied out."
  1975. > You hadn't actually; there'd been so little time since you'd been brought back into the city that you'd never bothered to take a look up.
  1976. "We saw them moving all the pegasi out, but - you're saying they didn't allow them back?"
  1977. > "Yeah, and nopony knows where most of them went. Rumor is they're building a new town somewhere up north where they've all been moved to - keep the skies clear around here for all their flying machines. Some got dropped off in the city, but only a few..."
  1978. > The look on your face says enough.
  1979. > There'd been no hint of this, not at all.
  1980. > "...say, who're you under anyhow?"
  1981. "...okay, time to come clean."
  1982. > You let out a heavy sigh.
  1983. "It's too late for all this. The humans are already onto you; your watchponies were too obvious or something, I don't know."
  1984. > Letting out a long line of highly inventive cursing, the stallion eyes you nervously.
  1985. > "How in Tartarus do you know?"
  1986. "Because we were captured."
  1987.  
  1988. > Surprise flashes across the face of both the stallion and the mare on the bed, but before either can make a move you go on.
  1989. "It was a fight with the militia, and they swooped in on both of us. Humans gave me a deal: I try and keep other ponies safe, keep them from getting killed - and trust me, they will kill all of you if they come in here - and we don't get thrown in prison as well."
  1990. > "...shit. You Discord-damned traitor!"
  1991. > There's no real anger in his voice, though.
  1992. > More despair.
  1993. > And you don't mirror it with any anger either.
  1994. "I know. I'm not happy about it either, but... if it can save more lives pointlessly lost..."
  1995. > "...I can't give these up. I do that, they'll go looking for everypony else. They checked the carts on the way in - didn't know what was in them, but checked them. They'll find them too!"
  1996. "Getting rid of the parasprites-"
  1997. > "We crack those jars, they'll wake up. It'll be manageable for now, but once they start eating..."
  1998. > There was, of course, another option.
  1999. > To go out and try to convince Gwozdek you'd been wrong all the way.
  2000. > That there wasn't anything suspicious here.
  2001. > But that would be risky as well.
  2002.  
  2003. ACTION:
  2004. - Give him time to get rid of the parasprites
  2005. - do the humans care about equestrian law much? we could say they were smuggling exotic pets, since in the show they were basically treated as pets before they got hungry. it's not really a 'human' problem and we could claim that it's only dubiously legal, then if they're caught drowning the parasprites they could just claim they panicked when we came around and nosed into their affairs. the only problem i can think of is the rest of the guard still using there's, but we could maybe pass it off as them fooling us with the pet smuggler cover?
  2006.  
  2007. > No, no chance to tricking Gwozdek here.
  2008. > You glance back at the two who'd come with you.
  2009. > Was there a chance...
  2010. > ...it'd take time...
  2011. "...how do you contact the rest of your group?"
  2012. > "Hey, buck off. I'll agree not to cost any more lives, but I'm not selling anypony out."
  2013. "No-"
  2014. > You rise a hoof to rub your forhead and hopefully suppress the building headache there.
  2015. "-look. You're right, if they get searched they're going to get noticed. But you can't be the one to signal them - the humans are watching you closely. I'm going to try and give you a chance to save the rest. You understand?"
  2016. > "Why should I trust you?"
  2017. > Well, that's a pretty good question, actually.
  2018. > Why should he?
  2019. "...because there's nothing to lose. You refuse, they search, they find everypony. You tell me, worst that can happen is they search anyway."
  2020. > "...okay."
  2021. > A heavy breath is released in a deep, whooshing sigh as the stallion visibly sags.
  2022. > "Okay, you've got me. What are you going to do?"
  2023. "I need to get a message out to them. Warn them they're about to be searched - give them time to let the parasprites be moved."
  2024. > "And then?"
  2025. "Then, I lie like mad. While we're waiting for that message to go through, you and I are going to put together a story of how you're involved in the illegal pet trade..."
  2026. > Understanding lights the stallion's eyes.
  2027. > "...and I just get arrested for some illegal trading."
  2028. "Right. They might even turn you over to the city police once their searches go down."
  2029. > "Alright, how's this message going to work."
  2030. "Spring, can you do this?"
  2031. > "Absolutely."
  2032. > The disguised changeling nods sharply, her mouth set in a grim line.
  2033. "Go back to Gwozdek. Tell him it's going well, but we need a little more time. Then go on to - uh - what's your name?"
  2034. > "Caprock. My CO's Sirocco, his address..."
  2035. > As Caprock talks, your mind races.
  2036.  
  2037. > The story would have to be foolproof - including a reason as to why Caprock would be bringing in such ravenous creatures while rationing was on.
  2038. > Not exactly an easy thing to explain.
  2039. > "...you get all that?"
  2040. > 'Spring' nods again, her eyes narrow and determined.
  2041. > "Absolutely."
  2042. "Okay - go on, 'Spring'. Make sure they know to swap the contents of the jars and pass the message on. When you're done, get a good perch across the street where you can be seen and we'll get moving."
  2043. > Without hesitation, 'Spring' turns and slips from the room.
  2044. > "...I'm trusting you on this. You better not burn me."
  2045. > Again you lock eyes with Caprock, letting him see all of your own pain and frustration.
  2046. "I won't burn you."
  2047. > "Alright. You sure she can convince them?"
  2048. "Oh, yes. Spring can be very convincing when she wants."
  2049. > "What now, then?"
  2050. "Well..."
  2051. > You sit down, suddenly feeling rather tired despite the day being not too late yet.
  2052. "Now we get a story put together. Big question is, why would you be smuggling in parapsprites when the city's under rationing? Humans may not know about them now, but it's a fair bet they're going to read up on them, fast."
  2053. > A sudden thought passes through your head, leaving your heart heavy and eyes slightly damp.
  2054. > "...you alright?"
  2055. "Yeah, sorry... just thinking, had a pony under my command at one point; Buzzy. She knew all about insects; she'd know something."
  2056. > "Where is she?"
  2057. "Dead. In the Everfree - humans got her."
  2058. > "Oh... well, may she fly ever on."
  2059. "May she fly ever on."
  2060. > You softly echo the saying before shaking your head.
  2061. "But we've got to focus. 'Spring' isn't slow, she'll be back soon enough."
  2062.  
  2063. ACTION:
  2064. - "Hey, I'm just the trader. There's a pony who gives me requests, and I get him what he asks for. Celestia only knows why he'd want the damned things."
  2065.  
  2066. "...alright. We're going to have to set something up. You ever busted an exotic animals trading ring before?"
  2067. > "No; have you?"
  2068. > You give a sharp laugh.
  2069. "In Canterlot? No, everypony made sure things were squeaky-clean there. Anyhow - the point is, we're going to set you up as somepony who just brings them in. No need to know the purpose or the destination, just the middlepony."
  2070. > Caprock nods slowly.
  2071. > "You think they're going to believe that?"
  2072. "Everypony's got good reason to be extra careful these days - even the ones on the wrong side of the law."
  2073. > From there, you sit down and hash the details out.
  2074. > At a certain point Caprock even brings in the mare who - although they remains tight-lipped and narrow-eyed - takes her part in the role.
  2075. > A careful narrative is constructed - a dead drop location, tightly watched, where a nonexistant contact would have placed the order from.
  2076. > A story about how Caprock and his mare partner had gone out of the city to pick them up from a hunter - who would, of course, never be seen again.
  2077. > That part, at least, wasn't inaccurate.
  2078. > And it also said some interesting things about how far widespread the Guards' network really was.
  2079. > Byline even proves helpeful; though he hadn't been a fiction writer, he had a brain for putting together the proper narrative of a story.
  2080. > At the end of it, you're just about ready when Caprock's marefriend suddenly bursts into the room.
  2081. > She'd left to spread the story to his other two - Caprock's cell was only six ponies, two of whom were currently absent - but now looked considerably more worried.
  2082. > "Sir, we've got a pony wandering outside here. Looking on us - big earth stallion, huge, brown coat and orange mane..."
  2083. "...damn, that's one of mine."
  2084. > What was Boulder doing out there?
  2085. > Was he checking to see if you were alright?
  2086. "Probably means we're out of time."
  2087.  
  2088. > "...we were out of time the moment you stepped in here."
  2089. > Caprock stands, looking around the small room.
  2090. > "Wasn't much, but... was our home. Didn't expect to be seeing it go this way..."
  2091. "You never do."
  2092. > You pause a moment, trying to think of what to say to him.
  2093. "It's... they're not cruel. They don't torture you, nothing really painful anyhow. Just... try and tire you out, so you're too tired to keep anything from them."
  2094. > "...did you?"
  2095. "Not as much as I'd wanted to."
  2096. > The admission is a heavy one.
  2097. "A lot of that couldn't be helped, since they caught us using trained tactics to fight the militia, but... whatever we didn't have to give, we didn't."
  2098. > "So instead you just gave in to helping them?"
  2099. > Immediately Caprock waves a hoof dismissively.
  2100. > "Sorry, sorry. Came out harder than I meant it."
  2101. "It's okay. We - I, anyway - expected it. It wasn't our first choice, but if it saves lives..."
  2102. > "Yeah, yeah. I understand... well. Guess we should go out, then."
  2103. "Yeah. Uh, Byline, go back and tell Gwozdek he's clear to come in - calmly. There's no trouble."
  2104. > "On it, sir."
  2105. > As you emerge from the alley into the street, you glance about to the opposing line of buildings.
  2106. > Had Iri returned yet?
  2107. > Perhaps thirty second later she appears from behind a passing group of ponies; there's no hint to how she did it.
  2108. > Even Caprock looks a little surprised.
  2109. "You get the message thorugh?"
  2110. > "And they listened, too."
  2111. > Soon enough a low rumbling heralds the arrival of Gwozdek and his troops.
  2112. > They spill out of their carts, weapons ready but calm.
  2113. > Immediately what ponies are about disperse, some casting fearful glances in your direction.
  2114. > To his credit, Caprock faces them calmly - no angrily, but not cringing away either.
  2115. > Hrm.
  2116. > Perhaps he'd have been better off not doing that.
  2117. > Gwozdek stomps up to you, hands on his weapon, as Caprock and his allies are lead off.
  2118. > "We were beginning to become concerned, when you did not return so quickly."
  2119.  
  2120. "I never said it'd happen instantly. Besides, we had to figure out what was really going on."
  2121. > As expected, Gwozdek gives you a curious look.
  2122. "They're not guard. They're criminals - animal smugglers. Uh, do your troops know how to handle dangerous creatures?"
  2123. > "...how dangerous? More of the worms?"
  2124. "No. They're called Parasprites - little insects, about as big as my hoof. They will eat near anything, though, and when they do - they multiply, fast."
  2125. > From the look on his face, it sounds like you've somehow described a nightmare scenario to them.
  2126. > "What - what are they - do they eat ponies?"
  2127. > Oh.
  2128. > So that's what it was.
  2129. "No, no - nothing like that, no ponies or other animals. But they will chew their way through just about anything else if hungry enough."
  2130. > "So - why then?"
  2131. "He doesn't know, from what he told us. I'm sure you'll work him over as well, but he was working for somepony else. Tight security, no idea who."
  2132. > "Is - maybe a pony soldier, asking for these things?"
  2133. "Maybe. Maybe not."
  2134. > If push came to shove, you knew who you could place blame on, though.
  2135. > Though you only had the vaguest memory of him, a pony you'd heard complaining of once about the use of his pet-shop by the humans to house prisoners.
  2136. > Thankfully Byline hadn't recognized the description you'd carefully fed to Caprock.
  2137. > If all else failed, Caprock would turn over the 'fake' buyer.
  2138. > When he was found, of course, it would prove false.
  2139. > But it would buy Caprock some relief.
  2140. "...listen, I don't know in this case, but back before the war - we used to see these things getting sold all over the place. Someponies would pay our salary for a bite of the damn things, and some who burn them and snort the ashes for a day in heaven. It's never good if they get out of their pots, though."
  2141. > "...right. I will call - I will get others to come, take these things."
  2142.  
  2143. ACTION:
  2144. - Ask if Caprock will be turned over to the (pony) police for prosecution once his story is confirmed.
  2145.  
  2146. "So, once you've... you know, confirmed his story, what's going to happen to them?"
  2147. > "The prisoner?"
  2148. > Gwozdek gives you an inscrutable look.
  2149. > "You are most concerned about these ponies; is there anything else you wish to tell us?"
  2150. "...look, I agreed to this because I thought I would be helping ponies. Because I could convince myself that I was still fulfilling my duty as a guardspony to protect Equestria's subjects. That means I have to look after them too."
  2151. > Muttering something beneath his breath that you very heavily suspect to be a none-to-pleasant comment on your mind, Gwozdek shakes his head.
  2152. > "If - if this is true, he has not broken any of our rules, then yes. Then he will be given over for your courts to do whatever with."
  2153. > Well, that's a relief.
  2154. > With any luck, Caprock might only end up in an Equestrian prison.
  2155. > Of course no prison was pleasant, but it'd be better than the slow, ginding monotony and misery you'd experienced in that prison.
  2156. > Depending on whether he decided to reveal himself to his jailers, they might make it downright luxurious.
  2157. > No way of know, but you'd bet that Diarchy-loyalist sentiment ran strong in the justice system still.
  2158. > After all, most of them had found their talent and their job in serving that state.
  2159. "That's probably for the best. This sort of thing - it's not a big deal for you, I'm sure, but they're going to want to look into it. It might even make relations with the rest of the city flow a little easier."
  2160. > Gwozdek starts off towards the carts, motioning you to follow.
  2161. > "You think this is the truth?"
  2162. "Yes. Look - a lot of what's making ponies angry is that you sweep in and arrest anypony you like. You turn him over to be tried under our laws, you show that you're respecting our laws."
  2163. > Something that would be sorely needed after what they'd inflicted so far.
  2164. > Laughing softly, Gwozdek shakes his had.
  2165.  
  2166. > "I will - I will report what you say, yes. But, this is not my concern. I do not make rules, make decisions. I follow my orders."
  2167. "I understand. Just... pass it up. I'm sure it will help."
  2168. > And maybe even just spare Caprock even more unpleasantness.
  2169. > It'd be far, far better for him if he weren't in a human prison when the other guard cells started throwing their parasprite-jars.
  2170. > There'd be a lot of very, very sharp questions then.
  2171. > Loaded back into the carts and driven back on to the human base, you are quickly returned to the quarters you'd been staying in.
  2172. > First heading up to your room, you wait until everypony has arrived and your human handlers have left before speaking.
  2173. "If anypony has something to say about what we did back there, say it now. I'd like things to be in the open, not festering behind our backs."
  2174. > There's silence for a moment before Byline speaks up.
  2175. > Surprisingly, it isn't to question you for once.
  2176. > "Actually, sir, I think you did the best you could there. You didn't completely sell out and still gave Caprock something to work with. But, you didn't do anything too stupid either. I can't say I'm pleased by it either, but... that's not too bad."
  2177. > Coming from him, you suspect that's the equivalent of glowing praise.
  2178. > Chilona joins in a moment later.
  2179. > "You also seem to be able to manage Gwozdek. I think that's a point in your favor."
  2180. > You aren't sure exactly how much you 'manage' him as you simply try and avoid the worst of his attentions, but you don't argue as the others nod in agreement.
  2181. "...thank you, everypony. I don't like it one bit, but, it seems like this is what we're going to have to do."
  2182. > The following day, you're pleasantly surprised to see Warren waiting for you in what you'd already come to think of as the 'reading room'.
  2183. > "Hey, you're back. Good; I'm supposed to check up on your progress on this Wendigo matter."
  2184.  
  2185. "...hey. So, there's definitely a fair chance they're similar to what you have, if not the exact same creatures."
  2186. > "How certain are you of that?"
  2187. > Warren tilts his head, obviously interested.
  2188. "Not enormously. What we'd like next, is if we could see a history of your world - especially the areas the legends are from. We... think we're missing some kind of context, something we don't understand about your history."
  2189. > "That's... going to be a tall order. Leaks of what might be valuable information, and all that. In the meantime, is there anything in particular you could ask me?"
  2190.  
  2191. ACTION:
  2192. - Let's ask why they have all these terrible weapons, are there some kinds of nightmarish monsters all over their world of something?
  2193. - Let's say at some point "We cannot fathom what horrific monsters you may have had in your world to create weapons so devastating as to rip any being to shreds within seconds from afar", just to give him something to think about. Still, we should ask about cultural items like how prone humans are to storytelling, if they can create fiction like ponies, ancient human history and evolution, things like that can hopefully allow one of our squadmates to come up with a solution as well as ourselves.
  2194.  
  2195. "...well, honestly - after looking over your stories, I think it's fair to say that we were... surprised by how many of your legends about such creatures involved hunting or killing them."
  2196. > After a moment Warren chuckles softly.
  2197. > "Yeah, I guess you could say that. We, uh, do tend to have a lot of stories like that."
  2198. "So... humans have a lot of stories like this? You have a lot of stories in general?"
  2199. > "Uh-huh. It's strange, we've dreamed about stuff like this - unicorns, dragons, magic, other worlds - for so long. And then when we get there... we end up fighting them."
  2200. "...you're fighting the dragons?"
  2201. > Instantly the room chills by several degrees.
  2202. > "...that information is not something I can give at this time."
  2203. > You're about to object, but bring yourself to a halt.
  2204. "...right. Okay, sorry."
  2205. > A heavy, chilly silence drowns the room for several long moments before you change the topic.
  2206. "So, um... look. I guess the best way to say what we're saying..."
  2207. > Fortunately Dusk steps in for you - blunting dropping the issue without any sneaking about it.
  2208.  
  2209. > "We're wondering, if these are the kind of things you told empty stories about - what kind of monsters you must have to deal with to need weapons like you have."
  2210. > "Uh..."
  2211. > Now it's Warren's turn to look awkward.
  2212. > "..well, some of us do use our weapons hunt the more dangerous animals on the world... but by and large, there aren't any. Not monsters like you're reading about."
  2213. > The silence that falls immediately afterward can only be described as ponderous.
  2214. "Are you saying that all of these... these machines, they're meant for fighting against... other humans?"
  2215. > A single nod.
  2216. "And, if I'm remembering something a soldier told me once, this... what happened to start this war, united a bunch of your nations that wouldn't normally unite?"
  2217. > Another nod.
  2218. > It seems that your ponies have even stopped breathing.
  2219. > "I don't think it's a serious breach of security that we've fought several major and innumerable minor wars in the past hundred years."
  2220. > Perhaps their hearts have even stopped breathing now.
  2221. > "That's why, when this started, we hit you with everything we had - we were afraid it'd turn out to be a war like we'd had, except with an alien force as powerful if not more so than us..."
  2222. > He hesitates slightly, and then adds:
  2223. > "And why we're being so... gentle now. We've seen what war turns into when it turns into total war. Now that we've realized that most of you aren't fanatics intent on conquering us."
  2224. > Again you shudder softly.
  2225. > The idea of these weapons being used against civilian populations...
  2226. > "I think... that maybe we'd better see about getting you some history books. If you windigo-things are affecting us, you need to understand what they're playing with."
  2227. > The books arrive two days later.
  2228. > After consulting them for a considerable period of time, the only phrase that can describe what you and your ponies are feeling is utter shock.
  2229.  
  2230. > A sort of layer of numbness that only comes from seeing something that so shatters what you thought you knew, your brain just takes a step back to put itself back together.
  2231. > Which considering what you've already gone through, is saying something.
  2232. > Even Iri has lost her carefully-kept calm, her eyes wide and staring into something far distant.
  2233. > Eventually Whispen speaks, her voice shaky.
  2234. > "I think... we've been thinking about this the wrong way."
  2235. "What do you mean?"
  2236. > "I don't... we kept assuming the windigos had influenced the humans, or driven them to being aggressive."
  2237. > Looking down at the book, she shakes her head again.
  2238. > "But... a thousand years... if this is true, a thousand years ago, they were already building their civilization and fighting their wars..."
  2239. > Byline grunts, his teeth gritted - as if he could resist the conclusions that were being thrown in his face.
  2240. > "Maybe... maybe the fires sent them back in time? Or connections between worlds work differently?"
  2241. > "No... I think we're thinking about it wrong. I think... they are windigos. Or something like them."
  2242.  
  2243. ACTION:
  2244. - Or maybe they're what happens when you just murder windigos instead of finding harmony. We know about the ice age at this point, right? So we know that, for a few thousand years, basically EVERYTHING ON THE PLANET was trying its hardest to kill humans. And they come out the other side, still alive. But not harmonious. They can't be windigos. They show reason. They make works of great beauty. They're something arguably more terrifying: beings that can be completely evil and completely good at the same goddamn time.
  2245.  
  2246. "What?"
  2247. > Your voice is flat - unable to muster up more emotion to deal with what he has just suggested.
  2248. > "Or something similar - I mean, look at them. They never stop... pushing for more. They're always trying to go bigger, further, stronger..."
  2249. > "She's right."
  2250. > For the first time, Hot Pot has spoken up.
  2251. > "I don't think I've ever seen something so... ravenous. They just... eat up everything in sight to build more. They'll eat us up too, if we let them!"
  2252. > You shake your head as Dusk moves to calm her, placing a hoof over her neck.
  2253. "No. They're not mindlessly eating everything, though. Windigos were creatures of pure hatred and disharmony, but..."
  2254. > Gaze falling to the pages and all the awful, incredible knowledge contained within, you go on.
  2255. "Say what you want about them - they may be violent, warlike and wield truly awful power against each other, but... art, songs, love - these are things Windigos can't even feel. Humans have them... if they wanted to just eat us up, none of us would be alive right now."
  2256. > Whispen bobs her head, sole eye still focused on the page below.
  2257. > "I didn't mean that they literally are windigos. But... it's that same hunger. They have that same hunger, but at the same time they've somehow learned to control it."
  2258. > "They're like us."
  2259. > All eyes turn to Iri, who had suddenly spoken up after a long quiet period.
  2260. > "It's the same - I can't explain it. You can't feel it the way we can - a hunger for more. We have to keep it under control, otherwise we just drain others dry. But when we do, and we work together... we can take on anything."
  2261. > Chilona shakes her head, rising to approach Iri.
  2262.  
  2263. > "Careful, Spring - they might be listening."
  2264. > That seems to finally drag her out of the daze she'd been in; Iri's jaw slams shut with a click.
  2265. "...if they are, then... I think they're something this world has never seen before. They're disharmony and harmony all in one."
  2266. > "That's not exactly unique to them, sir. Every pony has a bit of darkness in their hearts."
  2267. > Spark chuckles, nudging Byline.
  2268. > "Didn't take you to be a poet like that."
  2269. > Byline shrugs lightly.
  2270. > "Comes with being a writer."
  2271. "...okay, so, maybe not that exactly - but, most ponies, they're understand of who they are. If they let that darkness take hold of them, they're devoted to it entirely."
  2272. > "Like Princess Luna."
  2273. "I wasn't going to use that example, but yes. But the humans... they're violent, destructive one moment and joyful the next. They're friendly to those they'd once fought, and will create as quickly as they destroy."
  2274. > "What're you getting at, sir?"
  2275. "I'm saying, we've been wrong about this entire war. The entire thing was based on the assumption that they were entirely disharmonious - that giving in would be to accept that dominance over us. But this..."
  2276. > "It could be a lie."
  2277. "I don't think so, Spark. This... this is too big to put together just for us."
  2278. > "So..."
  2279. > Whispen takes a deep, shuddering breath.
  2280. > "What now, sir? Do you think anypony would listen if we told them? Would the princesses?"
  2281. > "For that matter..."
  2282. > Dusk gets up, padding over to the books to stare at them again.
  2283. > "If you are right about this, and they are inherently disharmony and harmony at once... could Princess Sparkle be right? Is letting them stay here too much of a risk?"
  2284.  
  2285. ACTION:
  2286. [Numerous suggestions as to what to say, indicating that it is a risk we will have to take.]
  2287.  
  2288. "...It's a risk, but without risk you don't gain anything either. Think about it the other way too - if they're bringing disharmony here, maybe we can bring harmony to their world."
  2289. > "...you actually think that's possible, sir?"
  2290. "I don't know for sure. I'm no Starswirl or Princess - but they're already dancing on the edge between destruction and peace. I mean, that bit about nearly bringing their world to total destruction - as a deliberate tactic! - but stopping? To me that says that they know they can't slip and fall... so maybe we can hold them further up a little more."
  2291. > Whispen nods fractionally.
  2292. > "I didn't know if we can do that while this war is going on, though..."
  2293. "Neither do I. As insane as it may sound, if something so... contradictory built a society this great, we may have something to learn from them. But nopony ever learned anything in the middle of a fight."
  2294. > "You actually think we can learn something from them, sir?"
  2295. > You hesitate for just a moment before answering Spark's question.
  2296. "Look. The griffons... when we used to war with them, I don't think anypony thought they were anything more than cruel, violent savages fighting us for pride and pleasure. But we've made our peace with them, even if it's not always cordial."
  2297. > Slowly the others nod in agreement.
  2298. > "I guess... you have a fair point there, sir. But what do we do, then?"
  2299. "Well, honestly-"
  2300. > Before you can finish, the door to the room suddenly opens and Warren strides in.
  2301. > "Hey - okay, listen up. You remember how you were all involved in that incident with the aircraft crashing near your home?"
  2302. "...yes?"
  2303. > The nervousness in your voice must have been evident, as Warren waves a hand dismissively.
  2304. > "It's not actually more trouble. The opposite, in fact. It's... okay, look. You must have had publicity stunts before, right?"
  2305. "You want us to be a publicity stunt?"
  2306.  
  2307. "...It's a risk, but without risk you don't gain anything either. Think about it the other way too - if they're bringing disharmony here, maybe we can bring harmony to their world."
  2308. > "...you actually think that's possible, sir?"
  2309. "I don't know for sure. I'm no Starswirl or Princess - but they're already dancing on the edge between destruction and peace. I mean, that bit about nearly bringing their world to total destruction - as a deliberate tactic! - but stopping? To me that says that they know they can't slip and fall... so maybe we can hold them further up a little more."
  2310. > Whispen nods fractionally.
  2311. > "I didn't know if we can do that while this war is going on, though..."
  2312. "Neither do I. As insane as it may sound, if something so... contradictory built a society this great, we may have something to learn from them. But nopony ever learned anything in the middle of a fight."
  2313. > "You actually think we can learn something from them, sir?"
  2314. > You hesitate for just a moment before answering Spark's question.
  2315. "Look. The griffons... when we used to war with them, I don't think anypony thought they were anything more than cruel, violent savages fighting us for pride and pleasure. But we've made our peace with them, even if it's not always cordial."
  2316. > Slowly the others nod in agreement.
  2317. > "I guess... you have a fair point there, sir. But what do we do, then?"
  2318. "Well, honestly-"
  2319. > Before you can finish, the door to the room suddenly opens and Warren strides in.
  2320. > "Hey - okay, listen up. You remember how you were all involved in that incident with the aircraft crashing near your home?"
  2321. "...yes?"
  2322. > The nervousness in your voice must have been evident, as Warren waves a hand dismissively.
  2323. > "It's not actually more trouble. The opposite, in fact. It's... okay, look. You must have had publicity stunts before, right?"
  2324. "You want us to be a publicity stunt?"
  2325.  
  2326. > "Sort of. It's... awkward now, since you're prisoners of war still, but some suit from our combined command board has decided we need to recognize ponies willing to aid the human forces. Your involvement in that was one of the events selected to be recognized."
  2327. > You shift from side to side on your hooves, nodding as you think that over.
  2328. "What exactly are we talking about here?"
  2329. > "In practice? You'll met some of our leaders - under tight, tight security of course - and pose for some photos. Maybe get some quotes for the newspapers. "
  2330. > Well.
  2331. > It's an interesting idea... and possible a time to get the ear of a human who would be able to help you move forward with your theories.
  2332. > But at the same time...
  2333. "...would these be distributed in Equestria? Because - I'm sure you understand - we wouldn't exactly want them to be appearing where they might be a risk to our families, friends..."
  2334. > "I do not believe so, but we can make sure they aren't if it would make you more likely to agree."
  2335. "That would probably be best."
  2336. > You turn to look at your ponies, trying to judge their opinions.
  2337. > Some have mixed looks on their faces, but in the end none seem particularly opposed.
  2338. "...okay, we're at least willing to give it a chance. But, we'd like some help too."
  2339. > Warren grimaces, but quickly hides it.
  2340. > "Okay, what exactly are you talking about?"
  2341.  
  2342. ACTION:
  2343. - Ask what the publicity stunt will involve, exactly.
  2344. - Ask for a chance to talk to the human leader you meet - really talk, that is.
  2345.  
  2346. "So, for starters, when is this going to happen?"
  2347. > "Tomorrow. The short warning... wasn't planned for."
  2348. > You glance between each other; what kind of project were they planning exactly?
  2349. > Warren chuckles softly.
  2350. > "It's every bit as crazy for us, trust us."
  2351. "That's fine. Our request, though - we'd like to have a chance to speak to your leader. Or, whichever one was coming - I know you have many. But, look - when I say talk, I mean... really talk. Actually have a chance to sit down and have a real conversation."
  2352.  
  2353. > Warren tilts his head slightly, his brows knitting.
  2354. > "Something in particular that brought this on?"
  2355. > "We've been looking through your history books."
  2356. > Byline nudges one with a hoof, shaking his head.
  2357. > "Even allowing for some embellishment... we may have completely misunderstood you. Your civilization, the way you think..."
  2358. > "Uh..."
  2359. > Warren doesn't seem to quite know how to deal with this revelation.
  2360. "Look, it's... hard to explain, but the way you behave... it's completely different to how we do. You overturn things so quickly, alliances building and falling... most ponies, I think, were expecting you to have considerably longer-lasting effects on Equestria."
  2361. > "That's the message you want to pass on to the senators coming?"
  2362. > Your ears droop slightly; only now do you realize just how silly that might have sounded to somepony - someone - who hadn't just gone through it.
  2363. "...it's not just that. This... this whole war, it's based on just... not even understanding you. And you not understanding us."
  2364. > Rubbing his head slightly, Warren shrugs.
  2365. > "Well, I can ask. There's a good chance it will go through, at least. Has there been anything about the, uh, windigos?"
  2366. "...windigos..."
  2367. > You'd almost forgotten about them in them in the numbness that followed your discovery.
  2368. > The truth was, now, you weren't sure.
  2369. > Humans were so far removed from what Equestria was that you weren't sure how the windigos fit in the narrative anymore.
  2370. > Certainly the humans seemed to posses some of their traits, but not all of them by any means.
  2371. > And they obviously had many more... equine traits as well.
  2372. > But to admit you simply didn't know would be admitting defeat.
  2373. > And to be able to produce some results might be vital to your continued freedom; after all, if the experiment that you were failed, why keep you free?
  2374. > Then again - to be caught lying now could be catastrophic later.
  2375.  
  2376. ACTION:
  2377. - so we could tell him that we're leaning away from windigo's being tied to earth on a long term basis, and that they still represent a threat in their ability to prey on equestria even if earth might be free of their influence now. we could tell the humans to shift their focus to keeping equestria free of windigo's so that they never have to find out what happens if one gets through the portal. [since we can assume the humans cant close the portal]
  2378. - "By our definition you guys have about half the traits of windigos. But you can't be—you're too... beautiful, for that. In a cosmic sense."
  2379. - "If they existed in your world it's looking more and more like they were probably killed off by Humans, But even so, It's still a very real threat here, and one we don't want to have added to this mess."
  2380.  
  2381. "Honestly, we're leaning against the them being active in your homeworld in the long term - or influencing you, really. By definition you have some of their traits, but... you're also too beautiful, if that makes sense."
  2382. > A strange look passes over Warren's face, but he nods.
  2383. "If they were ever there, it's looking more and more like you might have just... killed them at some point."
  2384. > "Wouldn't be the first time..."
  2385. > The implications of the muttered response only reinforce what you'd learned from your hours of study so far, but you don't allow that to show.
  2386. > "Well, that's a good thing, then? The windigos not being involved, I mean."
  2387. "Sort of. If they're not influencing you, that's a good thing... but they're still a very real threat here."
  2388. > Again motioning back to the book, you go on:
  2389. "This war - there is a possibility it could draw them back in. After all, they're creatures that feed on hatred, and I've seen plenty of that in the last few months."
  2390. > "You sound like you speak from experience."
  2391. > Dusk snorts softly, raising one leathery wing to show the irregular patterns in his coat where some scarring had developed from the healed-over burns.
  2392. > "See these? Another pony tried to burn me - another guardspony. That'd never have happened before."
  2393. > "...point taken. Is this something that you, as soldiers, would have had experience with? Fighting these, I mean?"
  2394. "No. They've been held at bay by our unity, but now we may have to find a way to do so."
  2395. > Warren grunts softly, frowning as he thinks over your words.
  2396. "There's another risk, though: If one of them gets through the portal somehow - and I'm sure you have it tightly guarded, but if one did - then it might influence you. Turn you against each other."
  2397. > Now your words do have a visible effect on him.
  2398. > "And because we can't wield magic, we might not be able to defend against it."
  2399.  
  2400. > Buttercup's words come floating back to you - about humans being harder to influence.
  2401. > Would Windigos face the same problems?
  2402. "Maybe. We don't know... but they nearly brought us to extinction. I don't want to think about what they might do to you."
  2403. > Warren departs a while later, apparently satisfied that you are telling the truth.
  2404. > From some of his answers, you get the distinct feeling that he's been reading up on Equestria's history as much as you have on his.
  2405. > At least it suggests you have their ear still.
  2406. > Several hours later finds you staring out one of the thick windows in your sleeping quarters.
  2407. > Thoughts circle in your mind - desires and loyalties weighed against each other.
  2408. > A hissing sigh escapes your lips as you lean forward to rest your forehead against the window.
  2409. > "Rough moment?"
  2410. > Your ear flicks back at Whispen's comment, and you grin softly.
  2411. "It's almost worse than when we were in the field. I was trained to fight, even in a situation this bad. All this talking and negotiating... they need a diplomat for this, not me."
  2412. > Sitting down beside you, she leans softly against your side.
  2413. > "If it makes you feel better, I think you're doing an excellent job."
  2414. "...now you're just sucking up to me."
  2415. > "No, sir. Absolutely not, sir."
  2416. > Even before you look you know there's a cheeky grin on her face.
  2417. > It quickly fades, though, as worry reasserts itself on her face.
  2418. > "Seriously, though - I think you've still got the support of the others. You've certainly got mine."
  2419. "I know. I just keep wondering what will happen to them if all this falls through."
  2420. > There's a moment before Whispen responds, her voice soft.
  2421. > "That's a long way from the stallion I met in the Everfree who always thought of himself first."
  2422. "...they do say war changes you."
  2423. > "It... it really does."
  2424. > There's something else behind her words, you can tell.
  2425. > Before you can ask, though, she leans into whisper to you:
  2426. > "At lights-out tonight, follow me. Please - just trust me."
  2427.  
  2428. > Strictly speaking, of course, you shouldn't.
  2429. > If she goes too far, getting caught could be quite bad.
  2430. > Ponies weren't supposed to be out of the dorm halls after certain hours.
  2431. > But there's a slight desperation, a distinct need in her voice.
  2432. > The last time you heard that, Whispen asked you to stay with her overnight...
  2433.  
  2434. ACTION:
  2435. - Agree with her.
  2436.  
  2437. "...yeah. Uh, just outside the door here?"
  2438. > "That'd be fine."
  2439. > Strictly speaking the hallways between the barracks - if they could even be called that - rooms weren't exactly off limits.
  2440. > But sneaking about any further than that might raise some questions.
  2441. > Slipping out into the hall, you walk until you find one of the human soldiers standing at a major doorway between sections of the building.
  2442. > No way to know how they would respond to this, but it couldn't hurt to ask...
  2443. > "Can I help you?"
  2444. "I know you probably can't tell, but the mare Wispen in our squad is extremely physically attractive. She wants me to 'follow her' at 'lights out.' I will be out of my room and I think it is entirely reasonable."
  2445. > Staring dully at you, the soldier regards you as though you'd just happily declared that you were going to grow an extra set of eyes some time in the next few seconds.
  2446. > An awkward sort of silence builds in the hallway as he and his companion glance between each other.
  2447. > Sweat begins to form on your brow; maybe this hadn't been such a good idea...
  2448. > "...will you, ah, you need to leave the sleep-halls?"
  2449. > The barracks?
  2450. "...no?"
  2451. > Not that you'd admit, anyway.
  2452. > "Is med- is this medical problem?"
  2453. "No."
  2454. > Except possibly with your head for thinking this was a good idea.
  2455. > "I do not understand why I should care - is problem for us?"
  2456. "...no. You know what, nevermind. We'll take care of it."
  2457. > As you turn and flee from the encounter as fast as you can without breaking into an open gallop, you can still hear the annoyed-sounding comment uttered by one of the soldiers:
  2458. > "Te Cholerne konie są szalone."
  2459. > Nonetheless, come lights-out you make sure everypony in your room is quietly asleep before slipping through the door as quietly as you can.
  2460. > Whispen was already waiting, having made sure the other room's occupants were also turned in.
  2461.  
  2462. > Allegedly both of you were checking on the other room; though somepony might put two and two together the coming morning, for now you are probably safe.
  2463. "So... where are we going...?"
  2464. > "This way..."
  2465. > Turning to follow her down the hallway, you can't help but find yourself trying to silence your hooves against the tiled floor.
  2466. > Even if there's nothing particularly wrong about being out here at this hour, you can't help but feel that you are doing something highly risky and worrisome.
  2467. > It probably isn't helped by how the hallway is only lit by highly intermittent lamp - perhaps only one in every five - that leave deep pools of darkness in between.
  2468. > "Here we go... let me just..."
  2469. > Whispen has halted in front of a seemingly-random door, seemingly identical to the ones your rooms had.
  2470. > Lighting her horn with a low, soft glow, Whispen concentrates for a second before the door issues a thunk-click and slides open.
  2471. > It couldn't have been that loud, but in the gloomy hallway it seems to be thunderous.
  2472. > Beyond lays another barracks room entirely like yours - except, of course, that it is entirely uninhabited.
  2473. "How did you...?"
  2474. > "All of their security here is around the doors to different wings. These 'locks' are just simple twist-latches, probably so they can get in if they need to."
  2475. "I actually meant how you knew it would be empty..."
  2476. > "Oh..."
  2477. > Grinning gently, she spins to face you.
  2478. > "That was simple, actually. I just overheard some other ponies here talking about how they were going to be moved out of this room."
  2479. > Well.
  2480. > That worked.
  2481. > Shutting the door behind you tosses the entire room into deep, heavy darkness.
  2482. > None of the humans' strange lamps are lit, leaving only a pallid glow to seep in from the covered windows.
  2483. > Even with that, it takes several long moments before you can make out anything more than indistinct blobs.
  2484. "So, why come here...?"
  2485.  
  2486. > "Because... it's just us two. We haven't had a chance for it to be that way for a while, and... I wanted that."
  2487. > Padding alongside, you notice that somepony had already made up the beds after the previous occupants left.
  2488. "Well.. I won't deny that it's most welcome. I don't know if we're going to be able to stay long enough, though..."
  2489. > "Oh..."
  2490. > Suddenly Whispen is at your side, nudging you towards one of the beds.
  2491. > "We'll have plenty of time, trust me... even if we can't stay the whole night, every moment we can have will be worth it."
  2492.  
  2493. > ...wow.
  2494. > Did Whispen really just say that?
  2495. > You'd never heard her talk like that before.
  2496. > ...actually, you really never had.
  2497. "Whispen."
  2498. > She halts at your suddenly calm voice.
  2499. "What's going on, Whispen? Why this... suddenly?"
  2500. > "I... just.. I want this, and we may not ever have another chance..."
  2501. > The hesitance in her voice betrays her emotions.
  2502. > Moving up behind her to rest a leg across her back fails to yield a response, so you pull her into a tight hug.
  2503. "Talk to me, Whispen."
  2504. > "I... everything's on the edge now. They could pull us apart at any time, throw us all back into those cells... if they don't like something we say, or they find out something we didn't tell them."
  2505. > Sitting down on your rear legs, you wrap both forelegs around Whispen's neck and hold her as she talks.
  2506. > "Before, when we were hiding, it was one thing... but now, we don't even have any control anymore. It could be one day, it could be never... so please..."
  2507. > Her sole good eye opens again, staring up at you.
  2508. > "I... want us to be together. We might be split up tomorrow... so, please..."
  2509. > You hesitate a moment, then reach out to rub her cheek softly.
  2510. > Whispen's eye slides shut at the touch, a slight shudder running down her body.
  2511. "...okay."
  2512. > Leaning over, you plant a soft kiss on her lips - and then another, deeper when she doesn't object.
  2513. > In fact, Whispen seems to do the opposite - pressing her head back.
  2514. > Even if it holds the bandages still covering part of her to your coat, it's a welcome feeling - something you'd not felt in a long, long time.
  2515. > As you hold the last kiss, something else filters into your nostrils - a musky, heavy odor that stirs something within you as well.
  2516. > Breaking the contact just long enough, you whisper into her ear:
  2517. "Let's... find a bed..."
  2518.  
  2519. > Silently Whispen agrees, slipping a leg through yours and tugging you towards one of the unused mattresses.
  2520. > Briefly the thought flickers through your head that whoever took care of these rooms is going to hate you.
  2521. > But that thought quickly is quickly shoved aside by far, far more important and immediate thoughts.
  2522. > Like the mare now straddling you as you rest on your back, one hoof brushing lightly at your mane.
  2523. > Wordlessly you smile up to her, and Whispen responds by leaning back down to press herself belly-to-belly with you.
  2524. > A shudder runs through your body as the fine, silken hairs of your bellies' coats mix; your heart thuds powerfully in your chest, and we were it not for how strongly it is beating you are sure you would feel the same from her.
  2525.  
  2526. > Raising your head slightly, you run a line of kisses back along her cheek to nibble lightly on one ear.
  2527. > Whispen makes a teensy little squeaking noise; even in the near-total blackness, you can feel her face radiating heat.
  2528. > Of course, that's hardly the only sign.
  2529. > Her breath has started to come rapid and shallow, and the musky odor you scented earlier has grown even stronger.
  2530. > And then there is the fact that every few moments her hips shift, leaving a damp patch against your thighs as it does.
  2531. > As your lips trail further down, nibbling lightly along her neck as you go, those shifts come ever more regularly - until she is practically grinding against you.
  2532. > So, too, does Whispen become more aggressive - a low, purring growl rising in her throat as you explore the curve of her neck.
  2533. > Her hooves slip about your shoulders, pulling her tight against you; the gesture is somewhat hampered by the fact that your wings have quite unintentionally opened to their full spread.
  2534. > Each time she shifts against you it sends slight jolts down both wings - the delicate nerves meant to sense every change in the wind firing wildly.
  2535. > Something cool and soft cups around your sack, accelerating the fact that you are steadily unsheathing - the shaft growing firm between your closely-pressed bodies.
  2536. > This is a side of her you'd not seen in a long, long while.
  2537. > The war had ground heavily on her it seems, and now she was finally allowing herself free reign again.
  2538. > That wasn't to say you didn't have your own ideas, of course.
  2539. > One push with your muscled wing rolls the both of you over; another excited squeak issues from Whispen's lips as you are suddenly crouched atop her.
  2540. > She giggles softly, her face bathed in the light-blue gow of her horn.
  2541. > "Getting excited, are we?"
  2542. "Absolutely..."
  2543. > The force around your sack gives a little squeeze - not nearly hard enough to hurt, but more than enough to remind you it is there.
  2544.  
  2545. > Surprise ripples across your face as you gasp slightly, yielding another giggle from Whispen.
  2546. > "Don't worry... just because I've one eye covered doesn't mean I can't find my way around."
  2547. "...I never doubted it..."
  2548. > Before she can reply you are kissing again - your lips feeling their way down her chest from the neck, passing over the steady, rapid thudding of her heart to the softer warmth of her belly.
  2549. > Now it is Whispen's turn to gasp as your lips find their way around her teats, teasing gently at each nub before moving even further back.
  2550. > The scent has grown overpowering, and your lips find her entrance slick and waiting for you.
  2551. > Tongue darting in, it doesn't take long to being driving quick, stifled moans from Whispen.
  2552. > Though the door to the room is locked, there's no telling who else might be about in the hall; you can tell she is doing her very best to keep the little noises the makes under control.
  2553. > Not that you are having any easier of a job; her magic is now flowing over your entire shaft; the only way to compare it is like a constant flow of some thick liquid over the sensitive flesh.
  2554. > Nevermind that the pressure is doing an excellent job of keeping your shaft entirely, totally, and completely solid, even as Whispen's head falls back onto the bed under the effects of your ministrations.
  2555. > Your tongue is buried quite deeply in her now; every few moments, you can feel one of her legs - upraised and spread to allow you access - kick slightly.
  2556. > And even in the dark, your lips can find her winking nub when it emerges.
  2557. > The very first touch of your skin to it drives an audible gasp from her lips.
  2558. "Now now, Whispen... you wouldn't want them to hear us..."
  2559. > Of course, then, you promptly return your attentions to that ever-so-sensitive bud - letting your tongue flick over it and wring more pleasured noises from her.
  2560.  
  2561. > A second later, though, she strikes back - her magic coalescing into something that teases and flows about the tip of your shaft and earning her a grunt of surprise from you as well.
  2562. "Keep doing that, and I might go off even before we really have a chance..."
  2563. > "Then what are you waiting for?"
  2564. > Nothing, Apparently.
  2565. > Again your lips find their way up her belly; Whispen rolls to one side, keeping one leg raised to allow you to slip in beneath it.
  2566. > No need to aim in the pitch-dark room - her magic guides you straight to her waiting lips and even eases you in.
  2567.  
  2568. > Your head rocks back as you steadily hilt yourself within Whispen.
  2569. > Whispen shudders beneath you as well, not protesting when your muzzle - still slick with her juices - comes to rest in the hollow of her neck.
  2570. > For just a second the two of you lay there, waiting for some sort of signal that the other is ready.
  2571. > No words are spoken, but at some unspoken signal your hips begin to thrust - slowly at first, as the fit is quite snug and you definitely do not want to accidentally hurt her.
  2572. > But when Whispen's reaction is only a few muted gasps of pleasure, you drive your tempo higher - as high as you dare, without also causing the bed to creak too heavily.
  2573. > There's no doubt that Whispen is enjoying it; her head has rolled back to rest on the bed as her own hips rock to meet yours.
  2574. > Again her horn is encased in that gentle blue glow and again you feel her magic coalesce around your balls - cupping, fondling, gently squeezing.
  2575. > Feeding back equal pleasure for what you are delivering her.
  2576. > Nor are you neglecting her, either.
  2577. > Though you cannot hold the kisses, your own lips have returned to Whispen's - kissing, nipping, running over her muzzle when you cannot get to her mouth.
  2578. > Some of her aggressive personality has returned as well; for every kiss you deliver, another is planted somewhere on your muzzle.
  2579. > No words are spoken in this moment - none are needed.
  2580. > Your chests are pressed together again, hearts thudding equally as sweat builds in both your coats.
  2581. > Without a clock it is impossible to tell exactly how long you go on.
  2582. > Certainly it is not over too fast; both of you slow when the edge is near, allowing it to fade some before you fall back to the familiar rhythm.
  2583. > But at last the need can be denied no longer; every few thrusts draws a mewl of pleasure from Whispen's lips, and you can feel a familiar pressure building in your shaft.
  2584. "Whispen... I..."
  2585. > "It's okay... in me. Not... not my time. Go."
  2586.  
  2587. > Lifting her head, she presses her lips to your ear and whispers a few last words:
  2588. > "Fill me up."
  2589. > You don't need to be told twice.
  2590. > Driving yourself up to the fastest pace you can, it's a surprise when Whispen reaches her own climax first.
  2591. > Horn sparking slightly as her magic reacts to the waves of pleasure flowing through her body, she twitches as the climax tears through her.
  2592. > Despite the need for quiet a low, gutteral moan issues from her; you can feel her coat prickling as you still continue your thrusting.
  2593. > The climax also clamps her passage tight against your shaft, and not a few seconds later a shiver is running through your own body as the climax hits.
  2594. > Wings twitch wildly as burst after burst of hot seed erupts from you; though you bring your hips to a halt, Whispen rocks hers several times more - milking the last from your shaft.
  2595. > Collapsing onto the sheets - sweaty and short of breath - you still somehow manage to find the strength to lean over and place one final kiss straight on Whispen's nose.
  2596. "Everything you wanted?"
  2597. > "And more."
  2598. > Her voice is shaky, as though the climax had truly taken something from her, and both of you keep them low so as not to be heard.
  2599. > "It's been... a long, long time since I had that..."
  2600. "Well, you're certainly skilled with that magic of yours."
  2601. > Laughing softly, Whispen's voice tells of the grin you cannot quite see in the darkness.
  2602. > "Liked that, did you?"
  2603. "Not something I've had before either..."
  2604. > The heat is rapidly beginning to fade, escaping into the chill air seeping in from the desert night.
  2605. > Scooting over, you slip one leg about Whispen; she quickly joins you, curling her head into the hollow between your head and shoulder.
  2606. > "Thank you..."
  2607. "You don't need to, Whispen. I didn't do this just for the sheer physical pleasure of it... I did it for you."
  2608. > "Well, thank you all the same."
  2609.  
  2610. > At that silence falls; you simply listen to the her gentle breathing and the distant, barely-audible sounds of activity from the human base around you.
  2611. > Humans...
  2612. > The thought is an unwelcome intrusion into your quiet moment, yet you cannot banish it entirely.
  2613. > And it dredges up something else you had pushed aside as well.
  2614. "Whispen... when you said you were worried about us being split up. That wasn't just about... before we could be together, was it?"
  2615. > There's a long stretch of silence before she answers.
  2616. > "I... no. No, not really. I... I shouldn't let it bother me. I'm... I had the training. I'm supposed to be able to focus, to not worry about that kind of thing. But... it does. Get to me, I mean."
  2617. "We all have to face that - the idea that the next moment might be the last together. It's... part of being guardsponies."
  2618. > "I know..."
  2619. > She takes a shaky breath, holds it a second, and then releases it far more calmly.
  2620. > "I know. But it's different on the battlefield. The danger... it was more real there, somehow. I could... understand it. Face it. Here... one moment we're just reading, and then... what?"
  2621.  
  2622. ACTION:
  2623. - "We can't lose hope, we have a real chance to make things better, not just fix them, but make things actually better, and not just for ponies either, Besides, you made me promise not to leave anyone behind again, and I'm going to do my best to live up to that."
  2624. -  I think it would be best to tell remind her how everything has been a stream of unknowns after unknowns in this war. From the everfree crash where we didn't even know what we're fighting. The storm mission, where we had no idea what to expect. Easthock, no one expected what copper did. Slav-Pegasus has been one unknown after another, and now we're stuck here with no idea what we're really looking for. Every time one unknown is satisfied, another 3 reveal themselves, we haven't had even a good understanding of anything, or a solid answer for any question.
  2625.  
  2626. "...we've been facing that kind of uncertainty for a long time, Whispen. Back in the Everfree, we didn't even know what we were dealing with. When they sent us back in, and we still didn't even really know what we were fighting. But you know what? We got through it. We came out okay."
  2627. > "I... I suppose that's true. But every time we solved one unknown, another three reveal themselves..."
  2628. > You nod, stroking back her mane as you think of a response.
  2629. "That's true, Whispen. That's true. But we can't lose hope - we have a real chance to make things better. Not just fix them, but actually make them better... we can't give that up."
  2630. > "Hope... I'm wondering how much of that there is now. Even if the war ended today, Equestria's been hurt-"
  2631. "Then we hope we can make it better."
  2632. > The fine fuzz on her ears tickles your nose slightly as one flicks against your muzzle.
  2633. "We hope we can make it better, and we remind ourselves that for now - we're here together. However long that is, it doesn't matter; what matters is that we have each other here, now, and we should spend our times enjoying each other rather than worrying ourselves sick."
  2634. > "Yeah... yeah, you have a point."
  2635. "Besides."
  2636. > You prop yourself up on one foreleg, using the other to lightly tap her nose.
  2637. "You made me promise not to leave anypony behind, remember? I'm not about to break that now."
  2638. > Her head shifts in the low, pale light filtering in from the screened windows, and you suspect - though are not sure for certain - that you see a touch of a smile come to Whispen's lips.
  2639. > "Yeah, I did push that on you pretty heavily, didn't I?"
  2640. "And I've not forgotten it. I was ready to go charging through the city as it was being attacked when I heard you were injured. I'd do it again, too - go through an army to retrieve with you, or even just be with you a moment longer."
  2641. > Now you are sure Whispen is smiling; the small laugh she gives is a dead giveaway.
  2642.  
  2643. > "Okay, now you're just bragging."
  2644. "...yeah, I am. But I'm also serious: I would do a lot just to be with you."
  2645. > At that you both lay your heads down again, silence once more falling to the barracks room.
  2646. > Well, near silence, anyhow.
  2647. > From somewhere beyond you can hear the distant reminders of the human base all around you.
  2648. > Roaring of their armored carts' engines, the thudding buzz and occasional passing roar-shriek of flying machines, every once in a while an indistinguishable voice raised to yell orders.
  2649. > It's an intrusive force - an invader into the bubble of love, care, and peacefulness you'd built around the two of you.
  2650. > A pity the shades could not block out the sounds as well as they blocked out light.
  2651. > And even more a pity that you would not be able to stay within that fortress of silent safety forever.
  2652. "Whispen?"
  2653. > Your whispered call yields no response, nor does the second.
  2654. > Only after that repetition of her name to you realize she's fallen asleep against you, her breathing slow and (for once) seemingly at peace.
  2655. > Heh.
  2656. > Seemed your words had done more than you realized.
  2657. > You could stay overnight here - certainly it would be good for her - but you'd have to remember to wake up early and sneak back into the rooms with the rest of your unit.
  2658. > Being caught here might be awkward.
  2659. > Well, except for Dusk Shadow and Hot Pot.
  2660.  
  2661. ACTION:
  2662. - Go get cleaned up now, don't risk waiting until morning.
  2663.  
  2664. "...Whispen. Hey, Whispen."
  2665. > On the third nudge she finally stirs, groaning.
  2666. > "What...? Oh... hey..."
  2667. > She rolls onto her back and stretches hard, all four legs reaching up into the air.
  2668. > "Sorry... didn't mean to fall asleep on top of you."
  2669. "No, that's okay. Actually, uh... I kind of enjoyed that. But, we need to go clean up and get back to our rooms."
  2670. > Thinking for a moment before her sleep-clouded mind catches up, Whispen suddenly hisses softly.
  2671. > "Oh, damn! The meeting tomorrow, I totally forgot."
  2672. "Yeah... sorry."
  2673. > "Mmmm not your fault."
  2674. > Turning her head, she nuzzles her neck for a moment before pushing off the bed and forcing herself upright.
  2675. > "Though I admit I do wish we could have stayed together all night."
  2676. "So do I - so do I."
  2677. > You drop to the floor soft as you can, careful not to let your hooves sound too loudly against the tiling.
  2678. > Immediately you are gifted with an unpleasant reminder of the room's dropping temperature; the cold desert night air has seemingly begun to seep in.
  2679. "...come on. Let's go get ourselves washed up real fa-"
  2680. > Some sub-conscious warning brings you to a halt.
  2681. > "What? What is it?"
  2682. > As Whispen's words die off you can again hear what you'd thought had sounded from just outside the door.
  2683. > Rapid hoofbeats, fading into the distance.
  2684. > Without a word you both make for the door, unlatching it and sticking your heads out into the hallway beyond.
  2685. > But nopony is to be seen.
  2686. > Somewhere down the hall, a door closes - but you cannot see which one.
  2687. > "Was that...?"
  2688. > Whispen's voice is almost inaudible even to you.
  2689. > Silently you nod.
  2690. > Somepony had been close by.
  2691. > Listening, perhaps.
  2692. > At least they hadn't been... enjoying themselves, listening to you.
  2693. > You'd have been able to smell that.
  2694. "...forget about it. Let's take care of ourselves."
  2695. > Fortunately whoever runs the lighting had been thoughtful enough to keep them on in the bathrooms.
  2696.  
  2697. > Unfortunately, they were still separate rooms for mares and stallions, and somepony else stumbling in to find the two of you showering together wasn't a welcome idea.
  2698. > So, no joint showers, unfortunately.
  2699. > Instead you simply focus on washing up as quick as you can.
  2700. > Whispen's waiting when you emerge from the bathroom, her coat fluffed up as it dries out.
  2701. > A quick nuzzle is all you can spare before retreating to your rooms.
  2702. > On entering, you close the door behind you - and then quickly glance around, looking to see if anypony is awake who might have been observing you.
  2703.  
  2704. ACTION:
  2705. - Some of them might have been up, but you can't be sure. You'll have to ask them later.
  2706.  
  2707. > Of the five occupied beds in the room, four of them might have been up recently.
  2708. > Boulder doesn't seem capable of sneaking, though, which only leaves Ornithea, Iri, and Spark.
  2709. > Hrm.
  2710. > Well, you'll have to ask about it in the morning.
  2711. > That night's rest is the best rest you've had in weeks.
  2712. > And although you cannot particularly remember your dreams the following morning, you're left with the distinct feeling that they were quite pleasant.
  2713. > Marshaling your ponies in one of the rooms, you sit down facing them and take a begin to speak.
  2714. "Right... I don't think I can understate how important today is. If all goes right, we will be getting a chance to speak directly to a member of the human leadership. Even if it's only one member, this is critical. So, everypony on their best behavior."
  2715. > All nod; honestly, despite the current situation you feel that this is the closest you've come to an actual military briefing in weeks.
  2716. "Whispen, you're still in command if I am not around. If anypony gets separated, keep on the ball and try to see if you're allowed back to us. I'd prefer if we stayed together, just so that we can all be there if anything unfortunate does happen."
  2717. > You spend a few more minutes working out some basic responses to certain questions.
  2718. > How you view the war so far, why you chose to help the humans, what the greatest risks are, and responses to questions about the militias.
  2719. > Once that is done everypony washes up and ensures they are in top shape for the day that is coming.
  2720. > While you join them in part to avoid any awkward questions, you also keep a careful eye out for anypony staring or shooting you looks.
  2721. > Unfortunately, if any of the stallions were the ones lurking outside that door the prior night, they don't give it away.
  2722. > That's helpful, at least; you suspect that if it had been one of them, they'd have outright confronted you on it - or weren't going to at all.
  2723.  
  2724. > Drying yourself and giving your wings a good preening - they were still somewhat ruffled from the prior night, and despite how odd it seemed you wished to present yourself and your ponies properly to the humans - you grab a quick breakfast and assemble in the 'reading room' to wait for Warren.
  2725. > He doesn't arrive immediately, so you have a few minutes extra to talk over with your ponies.
  2726. > Perhaps a good time to mention last nights' events and bring them into the open before they turned into a festering issue.
  2727. > Or bring up anything else you had forgotten prior.
  2728.  
  2729. ACTION:
  2730. - Why not just hold a team meeting before the political thing? We could just do a quick check in with our group where any of their concers can be answered, even if they have nothing to do with us and Whispen.
  2731. - we didn't get a chance to talk to whispen to see if she's okay with us being open about everything. so open the floor up to the team, ask if anyone has any concerns they feel needs addressing.
  2732. - Not about the stalker but what if the guy we're meeting asks if we killed any humans, what should we say?
  2733.  
  2734. > "Sir?"
  2735. > Hot Pot raises a hoof.
  2736. > "What do we say if they ask us if we killed any humans?"
  2737. > Well.
  2738. > That would be an important question to answer.
  2739. "...we say that we fought as we were ordered, before we understood that humans were not aggressive and trying to conquer and oppress Equestria. If they push it..."
  2740. > You hesitate, trying to think of a good way to say this.
  2741. > The truth was, you potentially had quite a bit of human blood on your hooves.
  2742. > It was hard to know exactly how many had died to pony causes during the convoy ambush - let alone to you or your ponies directly - but surely some had.
  2743. > And that wasn't counting the two you'd killed in the Everfree.
  2744. "...we answer them honestly. Don't lie. When we were in the field, we had to kill - but point out that surely some of the human soldiers there will have killed guardsponies. We don't hate them for it, though."
  2745. > "You're thinking of something in particular, sir?"
  2746. > Your head bobs once, then again in an affirmative nod.
  2747. "Back in the Everfree, when this was just getting started and we still didn't know what was going on... it was just Whispen and I, in a cave. One of their soldiers came along and collapsed outside the cave entrance - somepony had put an arrow in his side already."
  2748. > Everypony reacts differently; some wince, a couple give pained hisses, and a few simply don't show any reaction.
  2749. "He might've heard us inside or something, but he started coming in..."
  2750. > Whispen picks up your story when you don't immediately go on.
  2751. > "I knocked him down - distracted him - and the commander finished him off."
  2752. > Wordlessly you raise one hoof to look at it, remembering the crunching jerk as your hoofblade had reached the human's spine.
  2753. > It had been easier then; the human was just a thing, a monster, a threat to Equestria.
  2754. > Now, you wondered - had those pained, hateful eyes once looked with love on his own family as well?
  2755. > His own comrades?
  2756.  
  2757. > His home?
  2758. "We... had to. I think he might have been slightly delerious from blood loss. We tried to get him to put down his weapon, but..."
  2759. > Your voice trails off until you pull back with a sharp shake of your head and ruffling of your wings.
  2760. "Anyhow, if they push it - we be honest. We tell them we wish we'd known then that they weren't evil, but we didn't and we fought."
  2761. > "Thank you, sir."
  2762. > Hot Pot bobs her head once.
  2763. > Whether she is thanking you for answering her question or admitting your experience, you are not sure.
  2764. "Does anypony else have anything they want to bring up?"
  2765. > Sweeping your gaze over the group, you briefly lock eyes with Whispen.
  2766. > The message is clear enough, you hope.
  2767. > 'Anything they want to bring up' - she did not have to; you were not demanding.
  2768. > But now was the time to do so if she did.
  2769. > Whispen does not speak, though, and your gaze moves on.
  2770.  
  2771. ACTION:
  2772. - Don't bring up anything about Whispen.
  2773. - A reasonable fear is why exactly the humans want us, if we're talking to politicians, we're gonna say something that will be used against us, or for the his agenda. If we're talking to a military man, that's less likely to happen, but it is still a reasonable thing. Basically, why exactly do the humans want us? We should ask Warren. Speaking of /pol/itics, when asked questions, do we say what they want to hear, or are we honest?
  2774.  
  2775. > Warren arrives soon enough, along with another squad of soldiers.
  2776. > You can't be certain, but there definitely seems to be some tension between them and the ones who typically watch over these quarters - a split between the humans along the lines of their nations, perhaps?
  2777. > "Alright, you are all ready?"
  2778. "Yes. Though we have some more questions."
  2779. > "You can ask it as we go. We're on some tight time limitations."
  2780. > You wonder what that says about how they were running this.
  2781. > Security, it seemed, was going to be incredibly tight.
  2782. > Lead out to some waiting carts - heavily armored, you notice - you begin talking as you go.
  2783. "Okay, so first of all. Who exactly are we meting? We know one of your leaders, but..."
  2784. > "I can tell you of three of them. One: Senator Ted Salino, from - nevermind, you wouldn't recognize that. He's one of a... council, of sorts, that makes our laws. Or, they're supposed to."
  2785. > There's a slight hint of bitterness in his voice.
  2786. > Were the humans that displeased with their own leadership?
  2787. > "Others are Takehiko Tsukino, secretary for a humani- well, general aid organization now. They're here to see that ponies aren't being mistreated. Last one is a representative for the United Nations - they're the closest thing we have to a combined government, though it doesn't really govern."
  2788. > So, three.
  2789. > None of them particularly sound like military figures.
  2790. > Two lawmakers, and some sort of medical aid supervisor?
  2791. > It's that last one that interests you the most.
  2792. > Perhaps this might be a good time to ask about Quick Step, if you can get a moment free to talk with him.
  2793. "Why exactly us?"
  2794. > "We've... figured out that by and large, most ponies don't want to fight. But there are a lot of humans, and public opinion is slow to move. They'e hoping this will earn them some more appreciation from the folks back home - maybe get them reelected, in the Senator's case."
  2795.  
  2796. >That had been one of the strangest revelations in the books you had read.
  2797. > How the human nations managed to get anything done without someone in charge to actually force certain decisions through was a mystery to you.
  2798. > Perhaps something to be asked another time.
  2799. "Okay. So, I need to ask something honest of you."
  2800. > Warren looks down, suddenly seeming quite concerned.
  2801. > "Were you not being honest before?"
  2802. "...no, I was. That was rhetorical. Do humans not do that?"
  2803. > "We do, but - sorry. My job to be tight about security."
  2804. "So, I need to really know: If we get asked something sensitive, is it better for us to make up something that will make them happy, or be honest?"
  2805. > Warren actually skips a step in surprise.
  2806. > "Well... that wasn't what I was thinking of, but..."
  2807. > He considers a moment, then shakes his head.
  2808. > "They're going to want to hear certain things. You'll be able to figure it out, I'm sure. But, if you want to tell certain things - you need to make that decision. You won't be hurt for answering differently."
  2809. > Perhaps not by these humans, but you had questions about the ones that held you before.
  2810. > After all, something about that sealed wing on the hospital still rubbed your coat wrong.
  2811.  
  2812. > Being driven across the human camp is by now something you are quite familiar with.
  2813. > That doesn't keep you from peering out the windows as you do so, though.
  2814. > No soldiers try and stop you - because you were an ally, you wonder, or some other reason?
  2815. > Either way, you search for any signs of the upcoming event.
  2816. > Surely, if the human leaders were coming they would be putting on some kind of show of force or display of pride?
  2817. > Yet, there isn't anything to be seen so far.
  2818. > In fact, the entire base seems entirely unchanged.
  2819. > Which brings you back to thinking about your own situation.
  2820. > The humans had tapped you so suddenly to be present.
  2821. > Was this planned that far in advance?
  2822. > Or were they trying to keep it a secret?
  2823. > As the small convoy you ride in stops in front of a huge, blocky structure you increasingly get the feeling that this event was not being advertised.
  2824. > No banners have been raised, and no elaborately-dressed honor guard like you had seen in some of the books hold the doors.
  2825. > A sudden thought occurs to you; they knew alicorns and some unicorns could teleport.
  2826. > Secrecy might be their best - perhaps only - defense against an angry princess appearing amid their leaders.
  2827. > It's a paradoxical thought; surely they must rule a third of Equestria by now, and yet they were still forced to skulk about like thieves.
  2828. > From that perspective, their fear of magic is somewhat more understandable.
  2829. > The moment you step inside, however, everything changes.
  2830. > Inside the structure is a single, cavernous hall.
  2831. > Though rows of seats have been set up - including some meant to fit ponies - they all look temporary, and the entire structure exudes a feeling of utilitarian purpose.
  2832. > Glaring, blue-white lights hang overhead amid a ceiling made of a confusing network of metal bars.
  2833. > Perhaps this was originally meant as a parade hall, or a maintenance facility for their machines?
  2834. > It's certainly large enough to fit all but the largest.
  2835.  
  2836. > "This way. Follow me."
  2837. > Off to the side, perhaps thirty seventeen chairs wait.
  2838. > Some are presumably meant for you, while others are filled with unknown ponies.
  2839. > Presumably others who'd aided the humans.
  2840. > "Alright. Here's how it's going to work. They're going to come up and make some speeches first, then take a few questions from the reporters. After that, you'll go up. There will be an officer selecting questions for you to answer, understand?"
  2841. > Glancing to the others to make sure they understand before replying, you jerk your head in a small nod.
  2842. "We understand."
  2843. > "Good. When you go up, if you have a formation you prefer to march in, you may do so. When the time comes, you'll be allowed to ask two or three questions of your own in front of the cameras; think of some now."
  2844. > Taking your seats - yourself on one end, Whispen keeping the far - you watch as numerous humans begin to enter and find their own seats.
  2845. > Most appear to be in uniform; some are not.
  2846. > Some carry devices slung over their shoulders or held in front of them.
  2847. > Weapons?
  2848. > No; they look nothing like what the armed soldiers at the perimeter of the room carry.
  2849. > And there are a lot of soldiers about.
  2850. > "Sir.."
  2851. > Leaning over from his seat next to you, Byline whispers softly.
  2852. > "Magic's gone."
  2853. "...what do you mean?"
  2854. > "They must've found some unicorns they really trust. We all got hit with a magic disabling spell on the way in here."
  2855. > Well.
  2856. > That explained why they hadn't capped over your horns.
  2857.  
  2858. [Solicited suggestions on what to ask the humans here; numerous replies.]
  2859.  
  2860. > At last four humans file in, three of them dressed in surprisingly recognizable business suits.
  2861. > If not for the fact that there had been similarly-dressed humans in the books you'd been sent, you'd have wondered if the humans had been adapting ideas for pony dress.
  2862. > Instead it merely seemed to see the humans shared an alarming degree of dress habits with ponies.
  2863. > All three delegates take their seats; the first you presume is the 'senator' Warren mentioned, based on the small american flag held in front of him.
  2864. > The second must be the 'aid' delegate Warren had mentioned - his flag actually has a symbol you recognize, the red cross of a hospital.
  2865. > If any would know about that sealed-off wing, it would be him.
  2866. > Third is an unknown human female - the first, you realize, that you had seen directly aside from images in their books.
  2867. > The flag in front of her seat you recognize as being from their 'united nations'.
  2868. > Last is a man in military uniform; his flag you do not recognize and Warren had not mentioned him either.
  2869. > Perhaps a leader of their military - or of the forces holding this camp.
  2870. > Their opening words are, however, disappointing.
  2871. > The humans seem to be clinging to their narrative of 'an unprovoked attack on our world' by 'forces loyal to the Equestrian diarchs'.
  2872. > And yet, at the same time they are taking absolute pains to distinguish between ponies in general and 'the diarchy'.
  2873. > You wonder if they realize how futile that distinction is.
  2874. > For so many ponies, he diarchy simply was Equestria.
  2875. > Even after their mistakes in this war, separating the two would not be easy.
  2876. > It quickly becomes clear that the humans are primarily speaking to their own audiences - trying to spin the conflict as a noble conquest to rid Equestria of a war-mongering rulership.
  2877.  
  2878. > That in particular is worrisome to you; it suggests you might be called on to denounce the princesses.
  2879. > And while you were not particularly pleased with Sparkle (to put it lightly) and deeply worried about why Celestia and Luna had seen fit to put her in command, neither were you ready to outright speak up against them.
  2880. > Especially to an audience that would transmit your words back to the human world.
  2881. > Tuning out the pointless droning, you glance down the line at the other ponies present.
  2882. > Most you suspect are civilians - they seem nervous, fidgety even, none holding themselves like guardsponies.
  2883. > Catching the eyes of one mare, you try and give her a reassuring smile; after a moment, she returns it.
  2884. > Now the humans have begun to answer questions from their audience.
  2885. > Some hold little interest to you, or are about names you don't recognize.
  2886. > Probably human leaders or nations - given how the mostly seem to be about how former rivals are getting along.
  2887. > But others, others are quite interesting to you.
  2888. > When one raises the question of allegations that 'banned weapons' had been used against Equestrian forces, your head pops up.
  2889. > Had they actually been fighting you with means that they wouldn't use on each other?
  2890. > That seemed strange... but they had thought you intended to invade and conquer their world.
  2891. > Another raises the question of attacks on civilian populations.
  2892. > It seemed that even if you weren't going to be allowed to truly talk back to them - at least not until you meeting later on - the humans were not so limited with each other.
  2893. > Watching the humans squirm under a barrage of questions about such is an almost slightly relieving feeling for you.
  2894. > Perhaps their fractured nature could be turned to Equestria's benefit, if attention could be drawn to humans who were more problematic.
  2895. > Unfortunately, the answers are almost universally - in your opinion, at least - dodging the actual questions.
  2896.  
  2897. > When asked about the 'abuse' of Equestrian prisoners - a question that promptly perks up your ears - the only answer was that the 'claims were being investigated' and would be 'prosecuted to the highest degree if found to be true'.
  2898. > You've heard that kind of language before, when you served in Canterlot.
  2899. > It meant that nothing would ever be found.
  2900. > The next question, however, promptly drags your thoughts straight back to the matter at hand.
  2901. > "Can you comment on the ongoing negotiations to ensure this conflict does not spread?"
  2902. > Negotiations?
  2903. > Were they finally going to try and ask for peace - real peace - after all this time?
  2904. > The delegate from their 'united nations' answers first, leaning in to the machine that seemed to project his voice out across the room.
  2905. > "Ah, as you know, we have become involved in long-term negotiations involving the other nations and populations of this planet... while we cannot speak to specifics at this time, we can also confirm that there have been significant advances made in ensuring that the war need not grow larger than it must be to bring those who started it to justice."
  2906. > Reading between the lines, the meaning is all too clear to you.
  2907. > Equestria's allies have abandoned it; the Griffon kingdoms will not be coming to your aid.
  2908. > You cannot blame them; this is not their war, and no griffon would willingly enter a fight against a force like this.
  2909. > But it is also a painful thing to hear.
  2910. > Without the threat of other nations coming to war against them, the humans will not be feeling any pressure to take more equal terms.
  2911. > Again the questions take a turn to the esoteric - although one puts a value to the amount of aid sent to 'liberated' Equestria, the value is given in a term you do not understand.
  2912. > And then, at last, they turn to you.
  2913. > "...and now, we've gathered here eighteen ponies who will be providing their perspective on conflict. Would the first group please approach the stage?"
  2914.  
  2915. > Beside you, Warren stands.
  2916. > "Your turn. Get yourselves up there."
  2917. > Rising, you glance to the others and murmur to them.
  2918. "Two ranks, five each. Form up after me."
  2919. > Despite not being on the parade ground for months, they do fine - even 'Spring' getting the hang of when and where she should follow.
  2920. > For that matter, after a few steps they actually fall into a proper marching beat, even if it's only a short trip from your seats on the side up to the stage.
  2921. > One of their voice-enhancing machines has been set up at the proper height for a pony, and to that you step up.
  2922. > For the first time you look out of the crowd - there have to be a hundred humans here, perhaps even two hundred.
  2923. > And all of them are now looking straight at you.
  2924. > Your stomach suddenly twists.
  2925. > This wasn't something you'd done before.
  2926. > Sure, as a Royal Guard in Canterlot you'd managed crowds before.
  2927. > But that was different than speaking to one.
  2928. > Especially a crowd of aliens, some of whom would be recording your words to transmit them even further one.
  2929.  
  2930. [Roll to determine success at talking; result: After some initial stumbling, you manage to pull yourself together.]
  2931.  
  2932. > Warren leans over and murmurs into your ear.
  2933. > "Just tell them how you got here. Everything that's happened so far, from your side."
  2934. > Nodding, you proceed to the device - standing with it just in front of your lips.
  2935. > You open your mouth, but the only thing that comes out is a sort of choked noise.
  2936. > Closing it and swallowing, you try again.
  2937. "I... I'm..."
  2938. > Why didn't you think of something to say ahead of time?!
  2939. > Because you thought you knew what you were going to say, idiot!
  2940. > Damn!
  2941. > Hundreds of expectant eyes are still set directly on you.
  2942. "Thank you for, uh..."
  2943. > Why didn't they give you a glass of water or something?
  2944. > Your stomach is starting to churn again.
  2945. > You haven't given real speeches in front of a crowd since you were a little colt!
  2946. > Why did you agree to do this?!
  2947. > Sure, you'd given speeches for your unit, to your ponies, but that was different - way different!
  2948. > ...your ponies...
  2949. > They were relying on you for this as well.
  2950. > Focus on them.
  2951. > You weren't just doing this for Equestria as a whole, you were doing it for them as well.
  2952. > Focus.
  2953. > Another deep breath.
  2954. "I'm... sorry. I'm still getting used to all this; the last few days have held... a number of deep shocks for me."
  2955. > Breathe, again.
  2956. "You see, I am officially a Royal Guard of Equestria, commissioned in service to defend it from all enemies. When I was called out to the Everfree forest a few months ago..."
  2957. > Stars above, had it really been that long?
  2958. "...I truly had no idea what to expect. We had only heard of a portal near the gates to Tartarus - a place from which only monsters emerged. But, since then... well, monsters have hardly been what I've encountered."
  2959. > From there you launch into a brief summary of your experiences so far.
  2960.  
  2961. > The first few nights with Whispen, hunted by machines you barely understood.
  2962. > The stalemate with the human soldiers in the cave.
  2963. > Easthock, the first time you saw a town under human occupation.
  2964. > The fighting retreat into Las Pegasus, when in your uncertainty about what was right you had injured the soldier but left him be.
  2965. > Rescuing the pilots from the crashed flying machine.
  2966. > Being captured, and discovering the terrifying and promising nature of human society.
  2967. > Some things you leave out.
  2968. > You'd told your interrogators you'd merely heard about the disastrous raid on the convoy, not been part of it and that is repeated here.
  2969. > Similarly, you never once mention the audiences you'd had with either princess; revealing that might lead to only more interrogations.
  2970. > Others, you are far more direct about.
  2971. > Copper Cog serves as a highlight of how ponies can be as dark as anything the humans have done.
  2972. > But in the end, you think you actually pulled together a fairly good speech.
  2973. > Not perfect - some points are repeated overly often.
  2974. > But good.
  2975. > A solid explanation for why you - a Royal Guard - now find yourself aiding the humans.
  2976. > Some of the things you said definitely caused a stir among the audience.
  2977. > "Thank you. With that said, is there anything you would like to ask of our leaders?"
  2978. > Thankfully, this you had thought about in advance.
  2979. "Yes, actually... since we've had a chance to read about your history, we've seen that the way you treat conquered nations can be... very different, from our history. If... if we can find a way to end this war, to make peace - what will you do? Will you allow us to govern ourselves?"
  2980. > That certainly earns a look of surprise from the delegates.
  2981. > Well, nopony said you had be nice with your questions.
  2982. > The senator leans in first, speaking into his device.
  2983.  
  2984. > "Well... I would say that depends on the state of affairs when any ceasefire is signed. Optimally we would like to eventually return you to a state of self-governance, but we also have to be sure of our own security - and that would mean a great deal of limitations in place until we can be sure of your intent."
  2985. > Hmm.
  2986. > Perhaps another angle, then...
  2987. "Ah - if you do intend to control Equestrian land, how will we be integrated into your society? Will we be given the same rights as humans, or...?"
  2988. > This time it is the female delegate, the one from their united nations who leans forward to answer.
  2989. > "There are, at this time, several debates underway both within the United Nations and several national governments, to recognize ponies as having the same rights and responsibilities as humans. A few have been passed, others are still underway."
  2990. "What about on a national level? I think - Equestria is suffering under this war, despite your efforts to try and avoid doing more damage than you have to. Are there any plans to help us recover from this?"
  2991. > "There are. Aid is already reaching some areas, although continued fighting with terrorists and militias has slowed some deliveries."
  2992. > At this, the human officer - you really needed a name for him - leans in to answer as well:
  2993. > "You must understand, to us keeping our armies fed and marching is first priority now. If we must choose between two shipments, our armies will come first."
  2994. > Of course they would.
  2995. > You can't blame him for that; the Royal Guard would make the same choice if placed in that position.
  2996. "One last thing, then... do you see a future in which Equestria and the human nations can come together in friendship? Will we be ever allowed to join your united nations, or enter your countries?"
  2997. > Again, the delegate for their united nations answer first - the senator adding his own addition to her words:
  2998.  
  2999. > "The most popular proposal at this time, is the creation of a separate entity with combined human and pony governance which will be recognized by the United Nations. Recognition of the historical kingdom of Equestria is dependent on the conditions when the conflict comes to an end. We cannot recognize as acceptable a government that attacks us."
  3000. > In other words, unless a surrender that preserved Equestria could be negotiated before the humans simply overran everything... it wasn't likely.
  3001.  
  3002. ACTION:
  3003. - What happened to the guards that went through the porthole?
  3004. - "How did this even start? We've been told many different stories, but the one constant is that guards went through the portal to your world. What did they do?" + "What did Luna do to you? She acts as a protector for us—often helping Fillies and Colts with personal and friendship issues via their dreams. We know there's darkness in her, from the Nightmare Moon incident, but what exactly did she do?"
  3005.  
  3006. "Um, two things... one, we would like to know... How did this even start? We've been told many different stories, but the one constant is that guards went through the portal to your world. What happened there, exactly?"
  3007. > There's a brief discussion among the delegates you cannot hear; you suspect they are debating exactly how much you can afford to be told.
  3008. > After all, cooperating or not there were certain things they would surely want to hold on their own.
  3009. > In the end, it is the solder who answers you; like Gwozdek, though he speaks with an accent his Equish is quite good.
  3010. > "In truth, we entered your world first. Uh, a small team - around fifty - from many countries were sent through to try and perform some preliminary exploration and surveying; at that time we did not know of your civilization. At that time they fought many creatures - they may have been from your'Tartarus', we are not sure. We are also not absolutely certain what happened next, but six days after insertion they came under attack from Equestrian forces heavily outnumbering them."
  3011. > The soldier pauses to take a drink before going on.
  3012. > "We do not know what happened, because they are dead. Although the exploration team retreated back through the portal, the Equestrian guard followed them through and seized the base camp near the portal on Earth. We understand now they believed they were preventing another attack on your world, that they feared us as much as we feared them. At the time, though... when we responded, we cut them off from the portal first and then closed in. Most... did not surrender. They believed they would be taken prisoner by the denizens of Tartarus..."
  3013. > Well, you can understand why they would want to go down fighting.
  3014. > You wouldn't want to be taken by the things in that hellish place either.
  3015. "Those... that did survive, what happened to them?"
  3016.  
  3017. > "They were interrogated about your world. Learning anything was slow - we did not understand so much, and it took so long to even convince them that we were not monsters. Before we could achieve a solid plan to go forward, we saw forces gathering on your side and believed the next attack was imminent..."
  3018. > He trails off, and you nod dumbly.
  3019. > That would have been about when the princesses were meant to arrive with their reinforcements, and the war began in earnest.
  3020. > You knew that the princesses had never actually made it to the portal in time - had the guard who did come even bothered to try communication?
  3021. > Or did they dismiss it in the same way the first unit of guards had?
  3022. > After all the last guards who had come were seemingly swallowed up by the portal; fear was understandable.
  3023. "One... one last question. One of our princesses, Princess Luna - we know she tried to reach out to you in your dreams, to tell you to stop fighting us. It didn't work..?"
  3024. > At this there is a significant chill in the room - and so you continue talking, to try and head off anything before it can get any worse.
  3025. "She act as a protector to us, you understand; helping young fillies and colts with personal issues via their dreams. It's hard for us to believe she would use that power to deliberately hurt your people... what exactly did she do?"
  3026. > "The message, if that is even what she meant to send, was not well delivered. Do you know what sleep paralysis is?"
  3027. > You dumbly shake your head.
  3028. > "It is a medical condition - when you are asleep and cannot move, cannot wake up or defend yourself, but are deeply aware of something terrible, evil, and dangerous near you. That is what our men experienced - a terrible awareness that something was coming for them, something vicious and powerful. Some heard words, or saw things... We did not link it too your princess immediately, but the effect lingered for some time even after she retreated."
  3029. > That leaves you standing in a state of shock.
  3030.  
  3031. > "It lingered... and then it spread. We do not know how the effect came back to Earth - was it carried like a disease, or did she send it? But either way, it spread to our homes and lingered there too. I do not call that a message for peace."
  3032. > It did not seem possible that Princess Luna - the one who would know the most what it felt like to be seized by evil and unable to wake up - would inflict that upon another.
  3033. > But at the same time, this had been meant to be a moment for openness.
  3034. > You doubted they were lying to you.
  3035. > Had she made a mistake, somehow applied to much force in trying to deliver her message?
  3036. > Or was it the very fractious nature of the humans themselves - always expecting an attack, rather than the way ponies were welcoming?
  3037. > Pushing those thoughts off to the side, you bow your head slightly.
  3038. "It seems the fault here lays as much with us as with anypony now. We... we did not want this war, and we very much wish for it to end... and for a time when we can be united, instead of opposed. We've seen how much you love each other, even if you fight with each other too. Even though we're so different, I still think there's hope for us to work together."
  3039. > Turning from the stage, you walk back - meeting the eyes of each of your ponies in turn.
  3040. > There's pride in them.
  3041. > Some uncertainty, some questions, but definitely pride.
  3042. > A single barked orders sets them returning to their seats; you follow them back as the next two ponies rise to approach the podium.
  3043. > As they pass you, your eyes meet on of their gazes for just a second.
  3044. > And what you see nearly sends you reeling.
  3045. > Deep, undisguised hatred rolls out at you - a kind of intense fury that almost has enough power to physically push you back.
  3046.  
  3047. > Random event triggered: Green on Blue
  3048.  
  3049. ACTION:
  3050. - Stand in their way and calmly tell them that nothing they do will stop this, or even help the war. The most they can do is make the humans angrier.
  3051.  
  3052. > Quickly turning about, you shove yourself in front of the advancing ponies.
  3053. > All three of them stop in surprise, and there is no more of that vicious, angry look that you saw.
  3054. > But something still prickles powerfully in the back of your mind, something that says this is very, very wrong.
  3055. > The unicorn whose eyes you had met tilts her head, eyes wide and a confused look across her face.
  3056. > "Is something wrong?"
  3057. > Your voice is low - low enough to not be heard by the other humans about.
  3058. "...listen. Whatever you're going to do... don't do it. Don't. It won't help... even if you manage to kill them, you won't stop them. It will only make them angrier... please, understand that."
  3059. > And then, you step aside - moving past them on the way back to your seat, but keeping a wary eye out for anything they might do.
  3060. > At first, it seems nothing is quite wrong.
  3061. > Then you see it - barely at first, almost invisible.
  3062. > A slight wavering at the edges of the unicorn mare's eyes.
  3063. > Like a haze, or a fog...
  3064. > Fog...
  3065. > No.
  3066. > She couldn't be-
  3067. > In a second it all flashes together.
  3068. > The strange unsettling feeling.
  3069. > The hatred and viciousness contained in her gaze.
  3070. > Twilight had even warned some ponies might sink to this, but you'd never thought it would be a civilian!
  3071. "Stop he-"
  3072. > Whatever anti-magic spell had been laid on you all upon entering is torn to shreds as she rears up, horn blazing with a murky, red light.
  3073. > The dark magic has taken full effect now, a similarly unpleasant crimson haze seeming to flow from her eyes.
  3074. > No words are spoken, only a glance that sends you flailing through the air.
  3075.  
  3076. [Roll for recovery; result: You recover, landing on your hooves a fair distance away ready to act but too far to counterattack.]
  3077.  
  3078. ACTION:
  3079. - WHISPEN SHIELD THE HOOMANS, EVERY OTHER UNCIORN BE READY TO SHIELD WHISPEN/OUR PONIES IN CASE OF AN ATTACK ON US. BATS, PEGASI, DIRT PONIES, GET ON THOSE CUNTS.
  3080.  
  3081. > The only mercy there is in this situation is that whoever this pony is, they clearly aren't trained in fighting with their magic.
  3082. > A proper attack wouldn't have given you time to recover; you'd have landed hard.
  3083. > As it is, your training instinctively snaps your wings open mid-air and lands you solidly on your hooves a fair distance away.
  3084. > In that moment, though, the room collapses into chaos.
  3085. > Screams - humans primarily, although the other ponies who had been there to speak are cowering as well - fill the room.
  3086. > Moments later comes the cracks.
  3087. > Your ears slam down as the room's acoustics instantly fill the air with echoing, roaring snaps of human weaponry as they unhesitatingly unload into the screaming mare.
  3088. > Hisses soon follow as the human soldiers toss canisters in, smoke pouring from them.
  3089. > To your horror, though, the bullets come to a halt a short distance from her - the mare's two-toned mane seeming to flow wildly in the middle of nothing.
  3090. > "YOU LIARS! YOU KILLED THEM ALL! YOU KILLED THEM!"
  3091. > Even over the cacophony her voice is clearly audible... and it snaps you back into action as well.
  3092. "Byline! Spark! Shield, now!"
  3093. > They must have felt the anti-magic spell dissipate as well, as the unhesitatingly flare their horns - magic pooling to form a shimmering barrier between yourself and the writhing tendrils of magic the pony has extended.
  3094. > She's given up on you for now, thankfully - though only to seize one of the human delegates by the throat, his legs kicking and flailing as her magic lifts in him into midair.
  3095. > Warren has vanished; you're not sure if he was tossed aside as well, fled, or is marshaling more assistance.
  3096. > Your mouth opens to bark new orders, but a new series of thunderous cracks cuts you off - significantly louder than the first ones, enough to set your head aching.
  3097.  
  3098. > This time she feels the impacts - shuddering as the bullets slam into her shield.
  3099. > Unfortunately it still fails to halt her rampage; instead, she turns to the apparently offending humans - two soldiers a fair distance up, huge weapons clutched in their arms.
  3100. > There's no noise, no screams or evidence of what she does; they simply collapse.
  3101. > One manages to get another single shot off before he, too, bonelessly falls to the ground.
  3102. > At last you spot the other delegates; they're being hurried away by soldiers, but are coughing heavily amid the smoke being expelled by the canisters the humans had thrown.
  3103. "Whispen! Shield those humans, now!"
  3104. > A pointed hoof signals the intended target of your intentions; her single eye gritted, Whispen too joins the fight - her horn growing to cast a shield over the fleeing humans.
  3105. > If they notice it, they don't stop - moving quickly towards the nearest exit.
  3106.  
  3107. ACTION:
  3108. - Focus on distracting the attacking pony. If you can keep her distracted and off-balance, the humans might be able to put her down at last.
  3109. - have whispen and spark running shields, byline can harass. i imagine book pony is our weakest caster, but i doubt whispen could even break through her shield so we might aswell spend the weak caster on drawing aggro. from cover of course. have the earth ponies buck shit at her. pegasi and bats go in the air and buzz her, attacking the shield when her back is turned. she had to look at the guards to instagib them. our unicorns will shield whoever shes looking at.
  3110.  
  3111. > Hooves scrabbling, you finally manage to get near your group.
  3112. > The smoke is spreading now, becoming thick and heavy in the air.
  3113. > Finally reaching your ponies, you have to all be scream to be heard over the still-cracking humans weapons:
  3114. "We need to stop her! Whispen, Spark - keep us covered. Byline, harass! Chilona, Dusk, you're in the air with me - keep her busy! The rest of you - toss anything you can at her, I don't care what!"
  3115. > There's the briefest second of hesitation, and then they all move.
  3116. > Even Iri jumps in without hesitation.
  3117. > With the briefest glance to make sure you're in place, you hurl yourself into the air with a few strong beats of your wings.
  3118. > Flying straight at her seems like a terrible idea.
  3119. > But that doesn't mean you don't have other ideas.
  3120. > Taking a deep breath, you scoop one of the humans' canisters - still spitting and hissing as it vomits smoke out - and leap towards the ceiling.
  3121. > Following quickly after you, Chilona and Dusk also grab debris and climb after you.
  3122. > Below, your ponies have already begun to fight.
  3123. > First a chair goes flying through the air, propelled by a solid buck from Iri.
  3124. > It's quickly followed by some unidentifiable bit of twisted debris accompanied with a sharp cry from Hot Pot.
  3125. > Although none come close to going through the mare's shield, they do pull her attention.
  3126. > A bubbling, boiling stream of magic erupts from her horn; you can see Spark and Whispen visibly struggling to halt it.
  3127. "Throw!"
  3128.  
  3129. > The canister is flung from your hooves, spiraling through the air towards the mare.
  3130. > Although it does not reach her, the smoke it still spits begins to envelope her.
  3131. > With a yell she tried to force it away, but even in that moment more human weapon-fire ripples against her shield.
  3132. > "How dare you!"
  3133. > Her shrill scream cuts across the room, magically amplified.
  3134. > "Don't you know what you're doing?! Do you have any idea what they've done?"
  3135. > Now it's your turn to dodge sharply; fortunately again the mare's lack of training keeps her from effectively aiming her magic at you.
  3136. > A small part of your mind wonders why she hadn't simply done to you what she had to the human soldiers - she hadn't needed to aim then, why was she taking the time to try and swat you down now?
  3137. > That's not critical right now.
  3138. "I know exactly what they can do! But you won't help! You don't stop them! This will only make it worse!"
  3139. > "I don't care!"
  3140. > Her voice has become shrieking.
  3141. > "I just want-"
  3142. > An entire metal table crashes against her shield.
  3143. > Even as it falls away, Boulder Dash kicks another straight at her.
  3144. > This time, though, she finally catches on to the tactic.
  3145. > Halting in midair, the table is rapidly returned straight back at Boulder.
  3146. > You can't spare a second to wait and see what happens to him.
  3147. > Diving down, you grab another chair and begin dragging it up again.
  3148. > Her gaze falls on you, and for a second, you fear she might attack you.
  3149. > Then another line of bullets slam into her shield.
  3150. "Throw!"
  3151. > Chilona and Dusk had lofted a chair between them; it quickly slams down into her shield, shortly followed by yours a moment later.
  3152. > "NO!"
  3153. > Another line of magic is sent your way.
  3154. > You need a new plan.
  3155. > She's being worn down, but not nearly fast enough.
  3156.  
  3157. ACTION:
  3158. - Have all three unicorns shield you, then get in close and drag all of her attention onto you.
  3159.  
  3160. > Hooves scrabbling, you finally manage to get near your group.
  3161. > The smoke is spreading now, becoming thick and heavy in the air.
  3162. > Finally reaching your ponies, you have to all be scream to be heard over the still-cracking humans weapons:
  3163. "We need to stop her! Whispen, Spark - keep us covered. Byline, harass! Chilona, Dusk, you're in the air with me - keep her busy! The rest of you - toss anything you can at her, I don't care what!"
  3164. > There's the briefest second of hesitation, and then they all move.
  3165.  
  3166. > Even Iri jumps in without hesitation.
  3167. > With the briefest glance to make sure you're in place, you hurl yourself into the air with a few strong beats of your wings.
  3168. > Flying straight at her seems like a terrible idea.
  3169. > But that doesn't mean you don't have other ideas.
  3170. > Taking a deep breath, you scoop one of the humans' canisters - still spitting and hissing as it vomits smoke out - and leap towards the ceiling.
  3171. > Following quickly after you, Chilona and Dusk also grab debris and climb after you.
  3172. > Below, your ponies have already begun to fight.
  3173. > First a chair goes flying through the air, propelled by a solid buck from Iri.
  3174. > It's quickly followed by some unidentifiable bit of twisted debris accompanied with a sharp cry from Hot Pot.
  3175. > Although none come close to going through the mare's shield, they do pull her attention.
  3176. > A bubbling, boiling stream of magic erupts from her horn; you can see Spark and Whispen visibly struggling to halt it.
  3177. "Throw!"
  3178. > The canister is flung from your hooves, spiraling through the air towards the mare.
  3179. > Although it does not reach her, the smoke it still spits begins to envelope her.
  3180. > With a yell she tried to force it away, but even in that moment more human weapon-fire ripples against her shield.
  3181. > "How dare you!"
  3182. > Her shrill scream cuts across the room, magically amplified.
  3183. > "Don't you know what you're doing?! Do you have any idea what they've done?"
  3184. > Now it's your turn to dodge sharply; fortunately again the mare's lack of training keeps her from effectively aiming her magic at you.
  3185. > A small part of your mind wonders why she hadn't simply done to you what she had to the human soldiers - she hadn't needed to aim then, why was she taking the time to try and swat you down now?
  3186. > That's not critical right now.
  3187. "I know exactly what they can do! But you won't help! You don't stop them! This will only make it worse!"
  3188. > "I don't care!"
  3189. > Her voice has become shrieking.
  3190. > "I just want-"
  3191.  
  3192. > An entire metal table crashes against her shield.
  3193. > Even as it falls away, Boulder Dash kicks another straight at her.
  3194. > This time, though, she finally catches on to the tactic.
  3195. > Halting in midair, the table is rapidly returned straight back at Boulder.
  3196. > You can't spare a second to wait and see what happens to him.
  3197. > Diving down, you grab another chair and begin dragging it up again.
  3198. > Her gaze falls on you, and for a second, you fear she might attack you.
  3199. > Then another line of bullets slam into her shield.
  3200. "Throw!"
  3201. > Chilona and Dusk had lofted a chair between them; it quickly slams down into her shield, shortly followed by yours a moment later.
  3202. > "NO!"
  3203. > Another line of magic is sent your way.
  3204. > You need a new plan.
  3205. > She's being worn down, but not nearly fast enough.
  3206. > Diving, you take cover with your ponies behind a pile of wreckage while the humans continue to draw the mare's attention.
  3207. "...we need a new plan. Whispen, Spark, Byline - if you pump everything into me, can you protect me long enough for me to fly in close to her, grab her full attention?"
  3208. > "Until you do, yeah - but keeping you safe after you have it might not be possible."
  3209. > That's okay.
  3210. > You'd only have to keep it just long enough for one of the humans' weapons to get through her shield.
  3211. > "What about the humans' weapons, sir? Could we grab them?"
  3212. > Two of the human soldiers she'd killed lay nearby, their weapons still beneath the slumped corpses.
  3213. > If you could retrieve one of those, bring it to the unicorns, maybe it would be enough...?
  3214. > A tiny voice pops into the back of your head, telling you that there is a third option.
  3215. > Iri might be able to work her magic regardless of the unicorn's shield - seizing control of her mind.
  3216. > But that would raise questions about what she could do - questions you'd have to answer.
  3217. > If she even had enough strength to take a such a deranged mind.
  3218.  
  3219. ACTION:
  3220. - Let's do it
  3221. - Distract her more try to talk her down, really hit her emotions, like 'what would the princess think?' or bring up whoever she lost.
  3222.  
  3223. "...do your best to shield me. Iri, if you can do something to her... do it."
  3224. > "I will. I've a fair bit of power to spend."
  3225. > You don't have time to ponder the meaning of that particular statement, turning to face the howling mare again.
  3226. "...then do what you can. The rest of you, protect them by any means."
  3227. > With that, your beating wings once again drag you into the air.
  3228. > This time there is no waiting about - as soon as you see the shield form about you, turning your vision slightly hazy and colored, feathered limbs again beat to hurl you forward.
  3229. > Unfortunately, even with her attention turned away from you her shield still holds - though you get in far, far closer than you might have otherwise.
  3230. > This close, it's apparent just how much the fight is already affecting her.
  3231. > The mare's eyes have turned to bloodshot pin-points; even through her coat you almost think you can see her veins standing out.
  3232. > In response you only beat your wings harder; even if you couldn't get in close enough to touch her, even just pulling her attention...
  3233. > At last her head wrenches about, fixing both eyes and a vicious grin on you.
  3234. > "You! You, scum! You're helping them! You should-"
  3235. "SHUT UP!"
  3236. > Even over the noise of the ongoing fight around you, the scream seems deafening.
  3237. "What do you think you are doing?! Is this really what we should become?"
  3238. > "Powerful?! You ask if we should seize the power to throw them out-"
  3239. "Is power worth having if it makes you a monster? Will striking them here even stop them, or just make them lash back even harder?!"
  3240. > "I don't care!"
  3241. > Tears are flowing from her eyes now as thickly as the smoke that slipped from their rims.
  3242.  
  3243. > "I'm going to die here, I know it! I just want to see some of them pay for what they've done before I do!"
  3244. > Crabapples, it was worse than you'd thought.
  3245. > She wasn't just some kind of a zealot, she was downright suicidal.
  3246. "Giving up your life to inflict pain? Is this what we are supposed to be? Is this what Hearth's Warming tells us - that vengeance is worth the cost?"
  3247. > "Don't give me that myth!"
  3248. > Another line of bullets ripple against her shield - the defensive field rippling rather more sharply now
  3249. > It's getting close to breaking.
  3250. > With another hoarse yell she spins about - bludgeoning down the human responsible with her magic.
  3251. > "These things won't go away if we just decide to be friendly!"
  3252. > You aren't going to be able to stop this with words.
  3253. > Not peacefully, anyhow.
  3254.  
  3255. ACTION:
  3256. - Attempt to break through when she next attacks and disable her horn.
  3257.  
  3258. > Breaking away briefly, you peel around - circling high as you dare, until your wings are all but brushing the metal trusswork beneath the cavernous building's roof.
  3259. > Looking down, you can see your ponies looking up in surprise and shock, wondering what you are planning.
  3260. > The human senator, unconscious - or worse - on the floor where the mare had dropped him.
  3261. > One furious, raging pony.
  3262. > Your target.
  3263. > Wait...
  3264. > Wait for it...
  3265. > A soldier emerges from behind cover, firing repeatedly into her shield.
  3266. > There!
  3267. > Tucking your wings in, you pull off a perfect rolling dive as her horn again flares.
  3268. > The magic she is channeling has become increasingly unstable, unfocused as the fight had drawn on.
  3269. > Even though it seems like hours had slipped by, it surely couldn't have been more than a few minutes.
  3270. > Regardless of perception, the fact is she is wavering.
  3271. > And you'd noticed her shield always seemed to thin as she was focusing on returning fire with her magic.
  3272.  
  3273. > So when you roll about again at the last moment and extend all four hooves to slam into her shield without halting your dive - slam into her with your weight, shield backed by three trained unicorns, and determination to see this done - it's just enough to tunnel a path through her shield.
  3274. > Just enough to slam you into her.
  3275. > Dimly you're aware of somepony screaming; whether it is her, yourself, or one of your ponies you aren't sure.
  3276. > But that doesn't change what you have to do.
  3277. > The only way to halt this - short of killing her outright - was to stop that magic.
  3278. > And the only way to do that was to break her horn.
  3279.  
  3280. [Roll for success at disabling her; result: Perfect hit - she is badly disrupted. +2 bonus to safety roll.]
  3281.  
  3282. [Roll for safety while disabling her; result: Nopony is hurt worse than a migrane.]
  3283.  
  3284. > It is fortunate that her back is turned to you.
  3285. > Not because she doesn't hear you approaching; he almost certainly does.
  3286. > But because as her shield crumbles at last - your limbs sliding through it like suddenly-shattering ice - she performs an about-face to confront her attacker.
  3287. > A maneuver that brings her horn swinging about to perfectly meet your descending hooves.
  3288. > The sound that fills the air can be best described as the noise you get when knocking two stones together, and one of them decides to shatter.
  3289. > And while her horn does not break, the keening scream the mare gives tells you just how much pain she is in.
  3290. > Breaking away instinctively, you turn about again just in time to see her body shudder under multiple impacts from human weapons.
  3291. > Staring at the corpse as it nervelessly slumps to the floor, you freeze for just a moment.
  3292. > What had you been expecting?
  3293. > A long, drawn out death?
  3294. > For her to beg you for release, break down crying, or reveal why she'd done all of this?
  3295. > No, none of that had happened.
  3296. > She'd simply been alive one moment, then cut down the next.
  3297. > One eye - the other a bloody ruin, along with that entire side of her head - stares sightlessly at the ceiling.
  3298. > Her mouth is still open, frozen with the last screams that had signaled the end of her life.
  3299. > Had you not been able to see the side of her head the humans' weapons had turned to wreckage, she'd almost have a pleading look about her.
  3300. > As if she'd been begging for there to be some meaning in her actions.
  3301. > You wish somepony could tell you the answer to that too.
  3302. > Slowly you become aware of a clamor of voices all about you - barking orders in harsh, no-nonsense terms.
  3303.  
  3304. > Again instinct drives your actions - ducking your head down into the submissive position the humans had taught you indicated no desire for violence.
  3305. > To your surprise, though, no hobble slips over your wings and no blows reach your head.
  3306. > Instead a gloved hand - firm, but not harsh - pats you on the side.
  3307. > "Hey! You wounded?"
  3308. > Again raising your eyes, you find a soldier in their full armor - weapon still clutched in his other hand - looking at you with concern.
  3309. > "You wounded? Can you understand me?"
  3310. "...No. I mean yes - I can understand you, I'm not wounded. I'm good, I'm good."
  3311. > Too late you halt your babbling lips.
  3312. > He seems to understand, though, and gives you another slap on the back.
  3313. > "Okay! Get your buddies together and follow me out."
  3314. > Had they seen what you'd done, then?
  3315. > They must have, otherwise you suspect they'd have shot you too without a second thought.
  3316. > Forcing your limbs to work again, you gallop to the side of your ponies.
  3317. "Are you all okay?"
  3318. > Whispen, Byline, and Spark - the three you'd been most concerned about - all nod.
  3319. > Hot Pot lays a short distance away, but she nods her head too as you shoot her a questioning look.
  3320. > And you cannot see any fresh blood on her injures, she's probably fine.
  3321. "...okay. Form up behind me, and watch everypony tight. They're going to be moving us again, I think."
  3322. > What follows is a deeply confusing period of time in which you are handed from soldier to soldier in a process to reunite you with Warren.
  3323. > He looks better than you'd expect, eyes still sharp and quickly moving to meet you when you're brought into the building he'd moved too.
  3324. > "They're telling me you helped put down... whatever that was."
  3325. "Dark magic. Bad business."
  3326. > "Whatever it was... look, we're going to have to put your private meeting off for a little while, at least until we can come down off of alert."
  3327. "Understood."
  3328. > Standing again, Warren, starts towards the building's rear.
  3329.  
  3330. > "I'm sure we can get a meeting eventually, though. After that display... you said you knew what that is?"
  3331. > Here Whispen pulls a bit closer to be heard.
  3332. > "It's dark magic. Very powerful, but also difficult to control - there's not been a single example that has ended well. It makes anypony who uses it... well, completely insane."
  3333. > Warren takes her words unflinchingly, nodding.
  3334. > "That's not all, though. A pony can't just... use dark magic like that, all at once without warning. it has to come from somewhere... a magic trinket or focus, or... somepony training them."
  3335. > That does bring Warren to a halt.
  3336. > "You're saying there's someone out there training more like that?"
  3337. > He was right.
  3338. > There hadn't been any trinkets or anything on her that you had seen.
  3339. > Whispen flinches, then unsteadily nods.
  3340. > "Yes. Even with my talent, I couldn't hide dark magic like that forever."
  3341. > You'd have to ask her about what she meant later on.
  3342. > "Right. I'll pass that up to command, they'll look in to it... as it is, we're just thankful that all the delegates are alive and well.
  3343. "...that is a relief to hear."
  3344. > You wouldn't want to think about what could have happened if one of them had been killed.
  3345. > Certainly it would not have boded well for Equestria.
  3346.  
  3347. > For the moment, at least, you are returned to your quarters.
  3348. > There's a subdued tone in the air, everypony having come down off the adrenaline rush of suddenly being through into combat.
  3349. > At last Dusks speaks, his voice slightly trembling.
  3350. > "Well... that was a first. I don't think I've ever seen dark magic directly before..."
  3351. "I don't think anypony here has, Dusk... and it's something I'd prefer never to see again."
  3352. > "Agreed..."
  3353. > "Sir?"
  3354. > Whispen steps up, concern written all over her face.
  3355. > "I wanted to ask, sir... do you think, whoever taught her to do that... was it..."
  3356. > She doesn't speak the name, as if mentioning it could even summon the princess who might be responsible for this.
  3357. > But you all know who she means.
  3358. "I... don't think... not even she could be foalish enough to try that. It's..."
  3359. > Shaking your head, you repeat the line you'd yelled to the insane mare:
  3360. "Is it worth the cost if it makes us the monsters?"
  3361. > Nopony answers.
  3362. > They don't need to; you can tell their thoughts are clear enough.
  3363. > And if Princess Sparkle had...
  3364. > Surely Celestia would not tolerate such a misuse of power?
  3365. > War or not, dark magic was not something to be trifled with.
  3366. > Case in point, what ought to have been your best chance at perhaps steering towards an end to the conflict...
  3367. > How many humans lay dead in that hall now?
  3368. > You weren't sure - at least a few.
  3369. > Your stomach turns, anger building in you.
  3370. > Anger...
  3371. "Spring?"
  3372. > Looking up from her spot, 'Spring' grunts softly.
  3373. > "Yes?"
  3374. "When we were all waiting for our turn up there... did you... you didn't feel anything from that mare, did you?"
  3375. > There's a pause, and you can all but see the thoughts swirling about in Iri's head.
  3376. > "No, I... that's... that's strange."
  3377. > Hot Pot tilts her head slightly, frowning.
  3378. > "Is that... unusual? For ponies to be able to do that?"
  3379. > "It is - not rare. But not easy either. They need a strong - poker face, so to speak."
  3380. > Interesting.
  3381.  
  3382. "I can't help but worry if this attack wasn't being driven by something else than logical thought."
  3383. > Chilona snorts heavily.
  3384. > "No, sir, I'm sure trying to murder everypony at a peaceful conference to solve things is perfectly normal."
  3385. "Not what I meant... it's... look. Did she sound rational to you? Or slightly... crazed? Beyond normal?"
  3386. > There's a long pause before Boulder speaks softly.
  3387. > "You think the Windigos might have gotten to her?"
  3388. "If they're stirring? Absolutely. Look, ponies don't just pick up dark magic on a whim every day."
  3389. > The remainder of your day is spent trapped in the room.
  3390. > Much of the humans' camp remains tightly locked down; your dinner is taken in your room, rather than in the larger cafeteria.
  3391. > The pony who delivers it has soldiers escorting him.
  3392. > In the evening, Warren at last returns - the days' events at last seeming to have gotten to him; he looks rather more haggard than the last time you saw him.
  3393. > "Well, the good news is all the delegates aren't badly harmed. Also, you're on for the meeting you asked for still - they're really interested in talking to you now."
  3394. > Well, that's a relief at least.
  3395. "I'm hearing some bad, though."
  3396. > "We're up to eleven dead. Two of them were news reporters."
  3397. > Your stomach plunges slightly.
  3398. > Warren nods at the look on your face, running a hand through his hair.
  3399. > "It's not going to be good back home. We really did think that with that magic-cancelling spell in place we could keep things under control... this is only going to fuel paranoia about magic."
  3400.  
  3401. > "So, when do you think we'll be getting this talk?"
  3402. > "Probably tomorrow. Obviously they're keen to wrap things up here and see them home safely, but after that display they're more than wiling to have a talk with you."
  3403. "We've already thought on what we're going to say, so that wont be an issue."
  3404. > "Good."
  3405. > The remainder of the evening is spent quietly reviewing what you knew of their world.
  3406. > At least they'd been agreeable enough to allow you out and free to move around the collaborators' barracks again, freeing you up to return to the reading room and collect the books again.
  3407. > When lights-out is called, Whispen appears at the side of your bed.
  3408. > There's no question, no request this time - you simply scoot over and make room for her.
  3409. > Her body language said plenty enough.
  3410. > A short while after curling up beside you, though, Whispen does speak - murmering softly:
  3411. > "Thank you..."
  3412. "I could tell you needed it. I think we all did, after today."
  3413. > "Yeah, I..."
  3414. > She shifts slightly, sighing.
  3415. > "I was afraid again. That I was going to lose you when you did that... ridiculous stunt."
  3416. "But I'm here, aren't I?"
  3417. > "You are... but... we were close to collapse, feeding all that magic into you to protect you. What if one of us had collapsed...?"
  3418. "Then we would still have done what is right."
  3419. > "Right doesn't keep you here."
  3420. "Right is what we still have to do, though... but, I do promise to not take any unnecessary risks in the future, okay?"
  3421. > Whispen doesn't respond immediately, no doubt thinking over the same point that you are:
  3422. > That there would be a great many more necessary risks before this war is over.
  3423. > But in the end she nods, leaning her head back to rest it over the back of your neck.
  3424. > Again, no words need to be spoken - her actions say plenty enough.
  3425. > No doubt Iri was having a feast right now...
  3426. > Iri..
  3427. > You suddenly are awake again, realizing that you hadn't accounted for her goals in tomorrow's meeting.
  3428.  
  3429. > To question them about the changelings would no doubt raise questions, but you had promised Iri.
  3430. > And if she was going to see you ignoring her objectives, would she stick with you?
  3431. > There wasn't much of a choice now, but who knew what other goals she might start to pursue if she felt like you'd abandoned your side of the deal?
  3432.  
  3433. ACTION:
  3434. - let's ask about changelings but skirt around any recent involvement with them.
  3435. - Before we get anywhere, do we agree that Iri revealing herself to the humans, unless necessary for combat, should be entirely her decision to make?
  3436.  
  3437. > No.
  3438. > That would be Iri's choice if it ever came to it.
  3439. > But that didn't mean you couldn't make some roundabout inquiries.
  3440. > After all, what was the point of this meeting if not to get things done?
  3441. > Curling up against Whispen, you drift off to sleep at last.
  3442. > The following morning is another hectic moment of getting everypony together and in proper shape for the meeting.
  3443. > This time, as you are shepherded out of the building you notice considerably more security up and about the camp.
  3444. > It seems the humans have given up their idea of security through secrecy, and are just going with plain old security now.
  3445. > Ushered into a well-lit if windowless room, you find several several tableclothes with an early lunch already laid out.
  3446. > Interestingly, at least some of it is cooked for ponies - they must have found, among other things, a chef they trusted.
  3447. > A few minutes later, the delegates file in.
  3448. > Three of them, anyhow.
  3449. > The one from their united nations is absent, presumably still recovering from his closer encounter with the crazed mare the previous day.
  3450. > Quickly you find out that one thing is common between worlds.
  3451. > Every important meeting starts off with ponies - or people - spouting niceties before you get down to business.
  3452. > It is good to hear all three recognize you for what you'd done in that hall, though.
  3453. > They do seem honestly grateful for your actions, a fact you hope will translate to listening more openly to what you have to say.
  3454.  
  3455. > Once you do, however, you're broken up into smaller groups - a few ponies with each delegate.
  3456. > At random you find yourself with Boulder, Byline and 'Spring'.
  3457. > Good thing you'd already talk to the others on what to say.
  3458. > Setting into a spot at your table - the american senator - Ted, you thought they said his name was? - shoots you a smile.
  3459. > "Well, now that we've gotten the introductions out of the way, we were told you had some specific things you wanted to talk to us about."
  3460.  
  3461. ACTION:
  3462. - 'So Mr.Ted, where are you from? What's 'home' like?'
  3463. - Ask him how he is fairing after the incident if we haven't already. Ask him about how the humans are handling Changlings. Mention that we were at Canterlot but don't mention our feelings towards Changlings.
  3464.  
  3465. "Well... first and foremost, we wanted to get through our... concerns about something we didn't mention yesterday."
  3466. > He raises an eyebrow, nodding.
  3467. "It's... I'm not sure how much you're familiar with our world, but a long time ago we fought something called Windigos."
  3468. > "We've been briefed on your history, yes."
  3469. "Then you understand how worried we are when we say that we think they may be influencing what's going on here."
  3470. > You're quite sure to make your voice a serious as possible to convey how important this is.
  3471. > The senator leans back in his seat, meeting your eyes evenly.
  3472. > "You're sure of this?"
  3473. "Absolutely? No. But we'd like the chance to find out for sure. The kind of thing that happened yesterday... that isn't normal. At all."
  3474. > Evidently your voice sufficiently conveys how disturbed you'd been to see a pony wielding dark magic like that, as the senator nods.
  3475. > "And we heard there are ponies fighting each other in the city..."
  3476. > Byline nods.
  3477. > "It's worse than just attacks. We had one of our own go rogue and attack a fellow guardspony over racial differences. It's... just wrong. We stopped fighting over those differences centuries ago."
  3478. > That seems to surprise him.
  3479. > "You have problems like that?"
  3480. "Yes, do you?"
  3481. > "Sort of... we'd figured with some of you being so different - horns, wings and all - you seemed to be working together pretty well."
  3482. > Nodding slightly, you offer a small smile.
  3483. "We actually have a holiday for when we stopped fighting over our differences and came together... I guess we sort of assumed since humans mostly look all the same, you'd already be working together."
  3484. > "I wish."
  3485. > Laughing as well, the senator shakes his head.
  3486. > "We still don't always get along - even when we're speaking the same language."
  3487. > Again you're reminded of just how different the humans are.
  3488. > And that brings you back to the matter at hand.
  3489.  
  3490. "Anyhow... honestly at first, we thought you were the windigos, or something close to them. But then we saw your history, and... no. It doesn't fit."
  3491. > "You talk like you've seen one of them before."
  3492. "Not directly - nopony has in recent times, as best we know. But they're creatures of pure hatred... you aren't."
  3493. > Grinning at that, the senator nods in agreement.
  3494. > "We're the most glad that you at least see that. Mistakes have already cost far, far too much."
  3495. "Agreed... even recently. You've heard of the changelings?"
  3496. > "Been briefed, again."
  3497. "It was only recently we realized they aren't a monolithic, entirely evil force. Trust me, it wasn't easy for me to stomach at first - I fought against them once before."
  3498. > "But you did, in the end."
  3499. "We did. Not unlike what you've been able to do when you fight with each other... but it's not something we can do if the Windigos are waking up, and there's a very big risk that they're becoming active now. We'd like to be certain."
  3500. > "...what exactly are you suggesting?"
  3501.  
  3502. ACTION:
  3503. - Suggest hunting windigos, possibly with you and your ponies along.
  3504.  
  3505. > You pause to consider your options.
  3506. > What were you actually suggesting?
  3507. > That the Windigos were a real threat, certainly.
  3508. > But what to do about them...?
  3509. > Could they even be fought with weapons - human or pony?
  3510. > But there's no doubt that something has to be done.
  3511. "We... it would probably be best if you put together a force to look in to the Windigos. To hunt them if you can. If that's with us... then we'd go on that. If it isn't... they're too much of a threat; just that you're facing them will be enough."
  3512. > The senator eyes you for several long moments.
  3513.  
  3514. > "That's a big request. You're asking us to put significant resources towards something that might not even be real."
  3515. > You're about to protest that the Windigos are very real, but Boulder speaks up first.
  3516. > "Thank about it from your end. You do this, and we're wrong it will be resources used - but that's not really critical to you? You can put some soldiers towards this and still fight. But if you don't do it, and we're right..."
  3517. > Boulder pauses, then shrugs.
  3518. > "The Windigos will drive ponies to fight. They made us fight each other once before; if they make us fight you, it will make this bloodier for everypony and every human. You've fought wars like that before, you know how it is."
  3519. > "That... is a fair point. I'll see what we can do when I get back home. I don't have direct control of our military, but I can bring it up..."
  3520. "That's all we can ask. We know where we stand... it's not too much to ask."
  3521. > Of course, your ponies would be relaying that same message to the other two humans as well.
  3522. > Maybe, just maybe this would actually go somewhere...
  3523. > "Can I ask you something in return?"
  3524. "Of course!"
  3525. > You give him a warm smile.
  3526. "This isn't just about us asking you for favors."
  3527. > "What do you think of your leader - Celestia, right? Why is she keeping the fighting going?"
  3528. > You freeze.
  3529. > That wasn't what you had been expecting.
  3530. > It's possibly the most awkward one he could have asked.
  3531. > As you think it over, other questions begin to prickle up as well.
  3532. > Why had he only mentioned Celestia?
  3533. > Why not Luna too - or Cadance and Twilight?
  3534. > Was it because they intended to depose Luna?
  3535.  
  3536. ACTION:
  3537. [Numerous long suggestions as to what to say - mostly indicating that Celestia feels it is her duty to protect Equestria from a 'threat' and may be hindered by the other ponies around her.]
  3538.  
  3539. > You have to think long and hard on how to explain this.
  3540. > Again your thoughts drift back to what you'd asked Warren earlier.
  3541. > Be honest, or butter them up?
  3542. > Of course, he'd been no help - telling you that was 'your decision'.
  3543. > But, this entire thing is meant to be about opening doors towards cooperation.
  3544. > So you need to be honest.
  3545. "I've... never had a chance to speak to her directly, but I think she's doing what she thinks is best for our nation."
  3546. > You made sure to put the emphasis on 'think'.
  3547. "Even in just the past several years, we've had a whole lot of tyrants attack Equestria - Nightmare Moon, Chrysalis, Tirek... I don't think she is getting much information from out here - don't have easy long-range communication - about how things are going where you're in control. That, and some of her advisers are definitely biased."
  3548. > That yields a nod of agreement from the senator, along with a comment.
  3549. > "Understandable."
  3550. "For a long time, she effectively was the sole protector of Equestria. It was her duty, and she's seeing her sister as part of that protection now... she has no reason to trust that you mean to give Luna a fair hearing, you understand? The others who've come here don't have a good record in that, and so far there hasn't been much trust period between us..."
  3551. > "Hence what you're doing here."
  3552. > Byline nods, speaking up.
  3553. > "Exactly. I was a newspony before I was in the guard. I know how rumors spread - how stories get passed around. If we can do things here to open up the first lines of trust, then maybe someone on either side will realize..."
  3554. > "One last thing, then... you said her advisors are biased?"
  3555. "Well... one of the newer princesses, Princess Twilight - she is close with Celestia. But, according to what we've heard, Princess Twilight's personally lost friends to an attack by your flying machines on her hometown. I doubt she has peace on her mind now."
  3556.  
  3557. > That wrings a sharp, pained grimace from the senator's face.
  3558. > "Yes, that business. Even we heard about that. We were... not pleased, to say the least. The ones who undertook that raid..."
  3559. > Shaking his head sharply, he clams up.
  3560. > "No, nevermind."
  3561. > Well, that's interesting.
  3562. > Another hint at some divide between the human forces...
  3563. > If not for the fact you weren't trying to exploit them anymore, this information could be truly valuable.
  3564. "Well, that's going to be a factor for her. Plus... I know you've not asked for all our leaders to be turned over, but the nobles are not going to be pleased by the waves they are making."
  3565. > "That, and their families are all going to be safely away from the fighting..."
  3566. > There's a sudden degree of bitterness in Boulder's voice, one that leaves you with one eyebrow raised.
  3567. > "...understandable. We have a saying where we come from, though - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If she doesn't surrender, we will have to fight."
  3568. "We understand, but we'd still rather you not have to. That's why we're here."
  3569. > The remainder of the meeting is spent on considerably lighter topics.
  3570. > Though you can never quite put the heaviest matters out of your mind, it's interesting to compare notes of the senator's life and yours.
  3571. > Strange, and yet all at once familiar.
  3572. > What an odd dichotomy these humans seem to live in...
  3573. > As you troop back to your barracks, Warren pulls alongside you.
  3574. > "I didn't get to mention it earlier, but... the two ponies you mentioned, your wounded and the other one - Quick Step?"
  3575. > Your heart quickens.
  3576. > Maybe you could finally see them!
  3577. "Yes, what about them?"
  3578. > "I... do not believe 'Caravan' will be returning to any time soon. He's... not waking up."
  3579. > You miss a step, stumbling slightly.
  3580. "He's not-"
  3581. > "Not dead, no. But in a coma. We're keeping him stable and normal for now, but the blood loss may have done severe damage to him."
  3582. > Everything seems to fade out into a rush.
  3583.  
  3584. > You'd been so close!
  3585. > Why - why did Copper Cog have to do that?!
  3586. "What... what about Quick Step?"
  3587. > Now it's Warren's turn to look uncomfortable.
  3588. > "We... can't find him."
  3589. > Now you do halt suddenly, staring upwards in dull shock.
  3590. > But it's Hot Pot, not you who yells out in shock.
  3591. > "You what?!"
  3592.  
  3593. ACTION:
  3594. [Numerous suggestions to tell him to find the damn pony!]
  3595.  
  3596. "You.. can't find him?"
  3597. > You don't exactly no how to respond.
  3598. > Warren nods slowly, rubbing his head awkwardly.
  3599. > "There's record of his being taken in - we're sure it's him. Wounds, mark, and name match. But... there's no indication he was ever in the hospital where you described him. He was moved to the prison facility as soon as he was found... except he isn't there."
  3600. > "That's impossible!"
  3601. > Hot Pot is surprisingly infuriated by this - and her sudden outburst shows it.
  3602. > Warren shakes his head.
  3603. > "I know, I know - it's not normal. But... if we can-"
  3604. "No... she's right. We did a bit of snooping around the wing of the hospital he was kept in. We're sure he's there."
  3605. > Now you suddenly have Warren's attention.
  3606. > "...how sure?"
  3607. > Hot Pot winces, maybe thinking that she accidentally gave up to much.
  3608. > You're beyond that point, though - they know you're Royal Guard now, why hide anything?
  3609. "We managed to get a peek inside from a range. We saw him - or a pony that looked very, very much like him in there."
  3610. > "How soon after he was taken?"
  3611. "A while. A couple of weeks."
  3612. > Warren's brows knit, shaking his head.
  3613. > "That can't be right. The transfer record was certain. They have to do this - we have organizations that keep track of prisoners, to make sure they're not being mistreated."
  3614. > "Then maybe you'd better start talking to one of those organizations, because we're certain we saw him."
  3615. > Nodding in agreement with Hot Pot, your voice grows hard and angry.
  3616. "I'm willing to do a lot of things. I'm willing to work with you, even to try and bring in other guardsponies without bloodshed - but I want to know what happened to my ponies. I want to make sure they are okay."
  3617. > "Easy."
  3618. > Warren holds his hands up defensively.
  3619.  
  3620. > "Easy. I can understand that. I'm just... I thought this was just a paperwork error, that got moved out to another medical unit and it wasn't listed or something. But if you say you saw him in the hospital..."
  3621. "Absolutely."
  3622. > "Then we're definitely going to look in to this."
  3623. > Deposited in your quarters, the mood of the group is decidedly subdued.
  3624. > Nopony wants to admit what you are all thinking:
  3625. > That there might be a very good reason Quick Step had gone missing.
  3626. > It was something you didn't want to accept - after all, the humans had been so welcome to work with so far.
  3627. > It's Byline who finally speaks his mind first.
  3628. > "We shouldn't let him go. It wouldn't be right."
  3629. > Chilona snorts softly.
  3630. > "Agreeing with you, but what do you suggest we do about it? What can we offer them?"
  3631. > Hot Pot shakes her head at that.
  3632. > "We don't offer. They want our help - we shouldn't do anything for them until they answer this."
  3633. > Whispen stands up, her one eye narrowed.
  3634. > "You think they'll react well to threats? You saw him - he was upset by it too. We should offer to help in the investigation, any way we can."
  3635. > Inevitably, their eyes turn to you.
  3636. > "Sir... what do we do?"
  3637. > That's a good question, isn't it?
  3638.  
  3639. ACTION:
  3640. - hot pot is right. We've given them everything, we've helped at every turn and gotten little to nothing in return, the humans need to prove that we're right when we say that they're good people who don't want to hurt ponies. because if they keep shaking that faith one day it just won't be there any more. The humans need to come down on this quickstep issue and ideally, we need to be actively involved in it.
  3641. - you ain't doing shit till quickstep is found. end of story.
  3642. -  We shouldn't do shit until they solve our problem and make sure our guy is OK. It's their problem as much as it's ours if they're fucking shit up, we need to convince them that.
  3643.  
  3644. "...we don't have to threaten them, exactly, but I'm going to make it absolutely clear our first and only priority is finding out what happened to Quick Step. Everything else is irrelevant until we do."
  3645. > Several heads bob in agreement - some more than others.
  3646. > You look about to try and meet your ponies eyes - trying to judge how they feel.
  3647. > They're shaken, for sure.
  3648. > Somehow you'd kind of expected Quick Step would be...
  3649. > Well, not safe exactly.
  3650. > But not harmed.
  3651. > As testing as your own interrogations had been, they hadn't been as bad as they could be.
  3652. > But this...
  3653. > Another reminder that humans could not all be relied on to act the same.
  3654. "...don't worry. We're not leaving him be. One way or another, we're going to see Quick Step safe."
  3655. > They disperse over the rest of the day, and while most are subdued the news seems to have hit Hot Pot especially hard.
  3656. > She spends much of her time curled on the bed, injured leg extended.
  3657. > Not even Dusk tends to her side, having apparently gotten the point that she seemed to wish to be alone.
  3658. > That's not something you can afford to do, though.
  3659. > You're the commander, you have to look after your ponies.
  3660. > And so you find yourself stood by the side of her bed, leaning to murmur softly.
  3661. "Hot Pot? Are you okay?"
  3662.  
  3663. "Look...you're not the only one, Hot Pot. I was the one who told him everything was going to be okay, and I've been breaking that promise ever since."
  3664. > Hot Pot slowly bobs her head.
  3665. > "I... guess so."
  3666. "...so, don't assume we're not going to see him again just yet."
  3667. > The following morning finds you left to your own devices again.
  3668. > Surprisingly, they don't seem to have much of a use for you.
  3669. > Or maybe they were letting you have a bit of a breather after that incident...
  3670. > Either way, when Warren next appears he has a considerably more upset look about him.
  3671. > "Alright, here's the deal. We did some more looking into things, and there's definitely something going on - I tried to get someone in to check that hospital over and see if he was accidentally left there."
  3672. "...judging from how you look, it didn't work."
  3673. > "Stonewalled, entirely. I mean, we don't normally work that closely together, but typically putting the right kind of force behind these requests you at least get something."
  3674. "...there's something going on in there."
  3675. > Warren grunts, slipping into a seat.
  3676. > "I know. And for starters, I'm going to need to know exactly what you found out."
  3677. > And so you tell him.
  3678. > About the initial visits, your 'reconnaissance' runs, what you'd heard about prisoners being switched out.
  3679. > "So, wait - you can control birds?"
  3680. > Ornithea shifts uncomfortably under Warren's gaze.
  3681. > "Not, um, control. I can ask them to do things, though..."
  3682. > "...we're going to have to adjust for this. I'm not sure how..."
  3683. "Later. Right now... finding Quick Step is our first and only priority. First before anything else."
  3684. > "...anything?"
  3685. > Eyeing you, Warren's frown deepens.
  3686. > "And what am I supposed to say - that you just decided to stop working?"
  3687.  
  3688. "Say that we're needing some sign of trust. Something to show that we're being listened to, and that Quick Step is going to be safe."
  3689. > "I'm trying to do that, but these things take time - we can't just go busting in and demand things."
  3690. "Quick Step may not have time!"
  3691. > Rising again, Warren folds his arms.
  3692. > "This isn't a job you can just quit."
  3693. "And neither is being a commander to my ponies! I took on responsibility for them - first and foremost; I can't drop that!"
  3694. > "Then you understand why you need to keep working, even if I can't provide your friend right now!"
  3695.  
  3696. ACTION:
  3697. - We're more than willing to work with him in getting to the bottom of the issue, but not with the people who are doing God-knows-what with one of our boys.
  3698. - "It's really, really obvious they're doing medical experiments. A sealed wing, nobody stays in it for long? Don't act like we're stupid. You know, they mostly had unicorns in there. If they're not telling you what they're doing.... Well, hey, maybe we'll be in the same slave unit when they figure out how to combine your death machines with our magic! That'll be fun, won't it?"
  3699. - "What's the point of us working to keep ponies safe, when you're just gonna hurt them behind the curtains? We do this, because we have a duty to the citizens of equestria, and we work to keep them safe. I have doubts that you have their safety in minds, and when we get reassurance that you do believe in keeping non-combatants safe, then we'll gladly get back to work.
  3700.  
  3701. "Look... we're willing to work with you because we're willing to believe you have the best interests of ponies at heart. Because we think that there's hope for us coexisting. But if ponies just... vanish like this..."
  3702. > You shake your head angrily.
  3703. "Look, it's obvious bad things are going on in there - I don't know exactly what, but we both know they're hiding something. Torture, medical experiments, I don't know. If this is swept under the rug, what will ponies think then?"
  3704. > "...I'm not denying that's true. What I'm saying is, your friend is trapped in an entirely different command structure. Pushing through that is going to take time; if you just up and refuse to work in the meantime how am I supposed to explain that pushing to pull this open is going to help?"
  3705. > You stomp a hoof angrily, wings half-spreading in a display of anger.
  3706. "It shouldn't be about just 'if it will help'! It should be about whether it's right or not!"
  3707. > "I know! But that doesn't change what I can or can't do!"
  3708. > "Enough!"
  3709. > Boulders roar drowns out any further argument; he so rarely speaks up - let alone raises his voice whatsoever.
  3710. > Your gaze is dragged to the enormous pony - and your other guards.
  3711. > They're all looking at you with varying degrees of consternation and even fear; you realize with a sudden start that more had been riding on this argument than their principles.
  3712. > Their freedom was at stake too; if this fell apart...
  3713. > Stepping between the two of you, Boulder Dash gives Warren and yourself sharp looks.
  3714. > "Neither of you are helping this. Sir, we were part of the guard - we know that these things take time. How bureaucracy is. We can't expect him to work miracles."
  3715. > Rounding on Warren, the stallion lifts a hoof to jab towards his chest.
  3716. > For the first time the captain actually backs up slightly; Boulder is the only pony present who comes anywhere close to his size.
  3717.  
  3718. > "And you - you aren't helping one bit. Haven't you ever lost someone? Think about what you're saying to us - that we can't have any idea what or when we might see Quick Step again? After what we found out to? That does not tell us to trust you."
  3719. > Again silence holds for a moment, and then you bob your head quietly.
  3720. "...okay. Yeah. Yeah... look. At the very least, we're willing to do any work with you that can help get to the bottom of this. Whatever that ends up meaning. If you can give us updates - good, real updates - on searching for him, then... we can keep working. But only if they come."
  3721. > "...I'll do the best I can in that respect. And see what we can do towards getting you to take part in this as well."
  3722.  
  3723. ACTION:
  3724. - Accept his terms, understanding that things may not come immediately.
  3725. - Option one, but tell him that if he wants us to trust him he's gonna find our squad mate.
  3726. - Plant the seed that the Polish might be working to try to fuck him over in his head, though. Mention something like "I just hope for your sake you're actually working together. Who knows what they could be doing with magic in that hospital wing?"
  3727.  
  3728. > Your head bobs in accession of his terms.
  3729. "...alright. We can do that. We'll keep working as long as we keep getting updates... but if you want us to trust you, you need to find him. I mean, trust all of you."
  3730. > Nodding sharply again, Warren holds out one hand.
  3731. > "We will. We take care of our allies."
  3732. > Your hoof rises to touch his palm, both of you shaking on the promise.
  3733. "...I just hope for your sake you're actually working on the same side as them. Who knows what they could be doing with magic in that hospital wing?"
  3734. > That, surprisingly, draws a sharp laugh from Warren.
  3735. > "I don't think they could be doing too much. We tried playing around with magic, and it just... doesn't work for us. Oh, a unicorn can cast it on us, but we're... missing something to be able to manipulate it ourselves."
  3736. "You don't think they might be trying to figure that our in there? What is missing?"
  3737. > Shaking his head, Warren turns for the door.
  3738. > "Trust me, we have plenty of other places to put some place looking for that. Better places than the middle of an inhabited city."
  3739. > Warren comes through on his word.
  3740. > Every couple of days you're passed updates - sometimes on a little slip of paper, sometimes by the man himself - on the search for Quick Step.
  3741. > Unfortunately, it's far from a successful search.
  3742. > A search ultimately had eventually been allowed into the sealed wing of the hospital.
  3743. > What they found was nothing out of the ordinary, however - merely a facility for treating the worst-wounded Royal Guard and other prisoners.
  3744. > Except for one thing.
  3745. > There was no record of he mysterious transfers in and out of the sealed wing.
  3746. > Without any way of proving they were happening, though, you're left with no option to let the gears grind on.
  3747. > In the meantime, you're rapidly finding yourself with another duty.
  3748.  
  3749. > Besides being sent in as first-line negotiators when pockets of resistance, militia, or guard were uncovered, that is.
  3750. > Four times you'd done that, and four times you'd come out more-or-less successful.
  3751. > One had turned out to be nothing more than some unusually secretive ponies, while another had left you with ringing ears and a bloodied muzzle after the negotiations had turned sour.
  3752. > But nothing worse than that.
  3753. > And in the meantime, you suddenly find yourself being called on by legions of human reporters, all suddenly very interested in meeting the ponies who had risked their lives to save the delegates in public.
  3754. > Days pass, and somewhere in the distance you know the fighting to go on.
  3755. > Yet, everything seems to be in sort of a dream-state.
  3756. > The war, somewhere far away.
  3757. > Even the guard's plan to use the parasprites seems to have faded into nothingness.
  3758. > You even beginning to learn the names and faces of the soldiers who watch over the barracks you stay in.
  3759. > And then one day everything comes roaring back.
  3760. > The first warning you get is when Byline comes charging around the corner, his breath short and panting.
  3761. "...easy, Byline. What's up? What's going on?"
  3762. > "They... they caught... they caught up to Cloudsdale, sir."
  3763. > Six words.
  3764. > Six words was all it took to make your stomach twist and flip.
  3765. > Cloudsdale.
  3766. > Your family.
  3767. > Your life.
  3768. > "I heard it... heard it on one of their talking boxes. They're pushing in... pushing in for a siege. Don't want to attack it, so going to cut them off like here."
  3769. > You barely hear him.
  3770. > Somehow you'd expected Cloudsdale to be safe.
  3771. > Surely the princesses would defend it?
  3772. > Or help to break the siege?
  3773. > ...but what if they didn't?
  3774. > How long could the ponies there last?
  3775. > How long could your sister last?
  3776. > A low, dull roaring fills your ears.
  3777. > "Sir...?"
  3778. "I... my family is there... oh, please Celestia, let them have left..."
  3779. > An unexpected look of sympathy passes of Byline's face.
  3780.  
  3781. > "I'm sure they'll be fine, sir. It sounded like the humans really don't want to attack the city directly."
  3782. > Poor comfort, really.
  3783. > But comfort all the same.
  3784. "...thank you, Byline..."
  3785. > Slumping down in one of the beds, you stare glumly out the nearest window.
  3786. > How could you have neglected the idea of the war?
  3787. > It was still happening, even if you could not see it!
  3788. > "Sir?"
  3789. > Unbidden, Whispen had appeared at your side.
  3790. > "I heard the news. Is there anything I can do...?"
  3791.  
  3792. ACTION:
  3793. - Ask if she knows if any of the others are from Cloudsdale - and if so, where they are.
  3794.  
  3795. "Whispen... go find out if any of the others have family in Cloudsdale too. They should hear it from me before some random pony."
  3796. > "On it, sir."
  3797. > Ultimately only Chilona returns with her.
  3798. > She stops before you, consternation already written across her face.
  3799. > "I don't have family, exactly, but I stayed there a while... a lot of good friends."
  3800. "Then I think it's fair to let you know first... the humans finally caught up to the city. They're laying siege to it, apparently."
  3801. > "Oh, uh..."
  3802. > Chilona awkwardly glances away.
  3803. > "I... kind of heard already..."
  3804. "How - oh, nevermind."
  3805. > Her talent, of course; Byline's yell must have been loud enough to be audible from the other room.
  3806. > "You got some there, sir?"
  3807. "Parents and sister, yeah."
  3808. > Chilona spits out an impressively long and varied line of curses.
  3809. "...about my thoughts on it too. Good news is, they're apparently trying to just wait them out rather than attacking the city directly."
  3810. > If that could be called good news.
  3811. > Think about them having to go on emergency rations as everything ran down was something nopony wanted to contemplate.
  3812. > But surely the princesses would protect the city?
  3813. > Cloudsdale was a major fixture - an important part of Equestria.
  3814. > They couldn't let it just fall to the enemy, could they?
  3815. > Unexpectedly, Chilona steps up - raising one hoof to touch yours.
  3816. > "Hey, sir... we've got your tail on this. You bailed us out twice already; no way we're not going to catch you falling now."
  3817. > That actually does bring a slight smile to your face, despite the painfulness of the situation.
  3818. "Thanks, Chilona. I do actually appreciate it - from everypony."
  3819. > After that is done, you gather up the others to tell them.
  3820. > They take it about as well as you'd expected - but at least you can rely on each other for support.
  3821.  
  3822. > Nonetheless, it was also a reminder you couldn't afford to let yourself think about the fighting as far away.
  3823. > That even if the humans here were staying relatively peaceful, the same could not be said elsewhere.
  3824. > When they come to collect you for your next job aiding the humans, there's a definite chill compared to what had once been.
  3825. > But that doesn't stop you from holding up your end of the deal.
  3826. > Nor,it seems, does it stop Warren from doing his; when you return at the end of that day, another message is waiting for you.
  3827. > 'They've found him; trying to get him turned over now.'
  3828. > That's a small relief, at least.
  3829. > And enough to keep you working a while longer.
  3830.  
  3831. > At least the news of Quick Step's imminent return seems to balance out the sobering effect of Cloudsdale's fate.
  3832. > It takes several more days, but at last Warren turns up in your quarters one day.
  3833. > Instantly, however, you can tell the news is not entirely good.
  3834. "...tell me he's alive, at least."
  3835. > "He's alive."
  3836. > Warren runs a hand through his hair, his mouth set in a grim line.
  3837. > "Quick Step's alive, and in our care. The problem is... he's not doing so well."
  3838. "...how bad?"
  3839. > "They didn't treat his leg. Not really - it's all closed up, but he needs a lot of therapy and maybe some more surgery before he's going anywhere."
  3840. > Well, it could certainly be wor-
  3841. > "And... they were interrogating him fairly heavily. And none too gently either."
  3842. > Your stomach does a flip; from the looks on everypony elses' faces, they're feeling something similar.
  3843. "...is he...?"
  3844. > "Oh, he's not been permanently injured... but I don't think he's in any shape to be going with you right now."
  3845. > That isn't a reassuring idea.
  3846. > Aside from the obvious, more than a few creatures in history had become... inventive about ways to use varying types of magic to extract information.
  3847. > Permanent injury was not by any means a measure of safety.
  3848. > Hot Pot gives a little, choked cry.
  3849. > "Why...?"
  3850. > "They knew that there were some of you hiding in the city. Since they found him hiding in the hospital, they might have thought he would know where others were hiding..."
  3851. > You hang your head, nodding.
  3852. > It's an understandable assumption, to be sure.
  3853. > But Quick Step truly hadn't known anything.
  3854. > And if they'd interpreted that as him just holding out on them...
  3855. "Can we see him?"
  3856. > "I was actually going to offer that now. We've moved him to safer treatment area - the one for ponies working with us. He won't be vanishing from there."
  3857. > The infirmary turns out to be quite close to the barracks wing.
  3858. > There's a strange smell to it all - perhaps the smell of new human construction.
  3859.  
  3860. > It's certainly not what you'd think of a hospital as smelling like.
  3861. > A very much un-living smell.
  3862. > Warren quickly leads you through the halls to one particular room.
  3863. > The sight within wrenches at your heart.
  3864. > Quick Step is doesn't immediately show any signs of injury beyond the wounds that originally alnded him in the hospital, no.
  3865. > But there are plenty of other signs.
  3866. > The fact that his coat is mane is haggard and unkempt, for instance, clearly not having seen anything resembling a brush in some time.
  3867. > Or that his ribs quite clearly show in a way they hadn't before.
  3868. > But all that pales in comparison with his eyes.
  3869. > They're dull, defeated - lacking even the nervous energy you'd seen in them before.
  3870. > One thing's for certain: This colt has been through a lot.
  3871.  
  3872. ACTION:
  3873. - Address him by full name and rank and then salute.
  3874. - "I made a promise to you, soldier. No matter what happened, I would be back."
  3875. - I'm sorry Quick, I should have gotten to you sooner. I should have found a way. You're a strong pony Quick, one of the strongest i've had the pleasure to serve with and you've fought a war harder than any pony should ever have to. I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that you didn't fight for nothing. It's my turn to fight for you now, so rest now and heal. I can only hope that I can do you justice and I promise you that as long as i draw breath i will fight for you and the rest of our ponies. We're all okay quick, every one of us is still alive, hopefully they'll be by to see you soon. We'll make sure you're not alone unless you want to be.
  3876.  
  3877. > You force your legs to propel you further into the room.
  3878. > One after another - soft hoofbeats on the tiled floor.
  3879. > Just as you're rounding the bed, he finally seems to notice you're there - looking up.
  3880. > Initially he seems to cringe away, but then he sees - really sees - who you are.
  3881. > Instantly his eyes grow wide, jaw falling open.
  3882. "Private Quick Step..."
  3883. > Your hoof rises in a salute - unprompted, undemanded but neccessary.
  3884. "I made a promise that I would come back for you. That no matter what happened, I would be back. I'm... I'm sorry it took this long."
  3885. > Shakily, as if he couldn't quite believe it was happening, Quick Step raises a hoof to return the salute.
  3886. > "M'not u..."
  3887. > He pauses, licking his lips before trying again to speak.
  3888. > "I"m not upset... did your best."
  3889. > His voice is scratchy and raw too - from what, you don't want to think.
  3890. "...no. I'm sorry - I should've gotten in to you sooner. I should've found a way. I promised you things were going to be okay, and now..."
  3891. > Quick Step makes a sort of choked noise - like he meant to laugh, you realize, but couldn't quite bring himself to.
  3892. > "Y'would have been proud... didn't give them anything. Not much I could give, but didn't give one bit... just name, rank, talent. Didn't give them anything."
  3893. > You lift a hoof to hook with his on the bed.
  3894. > His coat isn't just ragged, you realize, but matted in some places.
  3895. "That's... thank you, Quick. For holding out for us, even after we couldn't save you..."
  3896. > "Others... they're safe...?"
  3897. "Caravan's badly wounded, but they're all here. They're safe."
  3898. > "Then, I think I did good."
  3899. > A small, pained smile cracks your lips.
  3900. "Yeah... you did good, Quick. You're a stronger guardspony than either of us thought. But your war is done now - it's my turn to fight, for you. We're going to do everything in our power to make sure that you didn't fight for nothing."
  3901. > Quick slowly nods - squeezing your leg with his.
  3902.  
  3903. > "They grabbed you too...?"
  3904. "Yeah. You remember Copper Cog? He... came back. Picked a fight with us at a bad moment. We got noticed."
  3905. > "How.d you get to me...? I didn't think they were ever going to move me out of there..."
  3906. > You open your mouth, but halt before an answer can spill out.
  3907. > Previously you'd have said that you were working for the humans - that they weren't all interested in conquering.
  3908. > But to Quick Step...?
  3909. > Could he even accept an answer like that...?
  3910.  
  3911. ACTION:
  3912. - Tell him the truth; you're working with the humans because there are some who are better than the assholes who put him through this.
  3913.  
  3914. > No; you owed it to him.
  3915. > No lies, no hiding.
  3916. > He had a right to know.
  3917. > And so you tell him - everything from the flying machine crashing near your home to what you'd gone through to get your ponies back.
  3918. > About militia, and how you'd tried to leave the city peacefully but been chased by Copper.
  3919. > About the windigos, and the deals you'd made to get him back.
  3920. > All through it, Quick Step listens quietly.
  3921. "...but even so - I'm sorry. We knew you were in there, but we thought they were just treating you. I don't know why... I don't understand why they would go after you."
  3922. > Meeting his eyes again, you shake your head violently - as if it could somehow break free of the numbness this had brought on you.
  3923. "If we'd know... oh, stars above, Quick - I hope you can understand why we're working with them..."
  3924. > "Don't know why me either... but... you didn't forget about me, and... I trust you."
  3925. > Leaning over, you can't help but grab Quick in a tight hug.
  3926. "Just glad you're back now. I'm sure the others will come and see you too..."
  3927. > "Yeah... yeah, just... don't let them pull me out anywhere again - please..."
  3928. "Of course. Right now... right now, just rest up, Quick Step. You've earned a rest - leave the fighting to us now. We'll look after you."
  3929. > Leaving him isn't easy, but you have to.
  3930.  
  3931. > Walking back with Warren, you begin to feel a low anger building in you.
  3932. > After all of this...
  3933. "...we need to talk."
  3934. > Warren doesn't reply; instead, he seems to be glancing aside to rooms on either side of the hallway.
  3935. "Captain, I need to talk to you now."
  3936. > There's still no reaction - and you feel the frustration growing.
  3937. "Captain-"
  3938. > "Quiet. Later."
  3939. > You're ready to snap back at him, but something halts you - an element of irritation in his voice.
  3940. > And not, you think, at you.
  3941. > So you hold your peace - at least, until he walks you outside to a waiting armored cart, rather than walking straight back to the barracks.
  3942. > Climbing in the back, Warren turns to you over the noise of the engine.
  3943. > "Okay, look. You're pissed, I get it-"
  3944. "It's not just that! What am I supposed to tell the rest of them - we're just going to go on like nothing happened? After this?!"
  3945. > "Just going on?! Do you have any idea what you just blew open?"
  3946. > That brings you to a sudden halt.
  3947. > "I don't think you're an idiot - did you just assume we did this all the time? That this was something that would just... happen?"
  3948. "Honestly, I don't know what to think anymore! So if you think something is going to come of this - then tell me!"
  3949. > "Alright. You want me to spell it out? Here's the deal: We do not do this. We're not supposed to, anyhow - and there's a lot of other people who are going to be very, very upset about this. In fact, there are people whose job is nothing but to make sure this doesn't happen, and they're smelling blood right now."
  3950. "Smelling blood? What does that even mea-"
  3951. > "It means they just caught the scent of something worth hunting. I don't know how far up the chain what happened to your buddy goes, but it's going to be big news back home."
  3952. > For the first time it occurs to you how the humans - with their instant-communication devices - might react to news of this, if what he says is true.
  3953.  
  3954. > In Equestria, some prisoners being roughed up had simply been a fact of war.
  3955. > Punished, but inevitable.
  3956. > But to a force that relied on everyone being in communication all the time...
  3957. > Seeing the look on your face, Warren nods.
  3958. > "Now you're getting it. This is going to be an international incident - one of those delegates you spoke to, his job is to watch out for things like this."
  3959. "Then why don't you do anything?"
  3960. > "Because it's not my job. I handle you, and a couple other teams of collaborators in the city. If I start stepping outside my boundaries, then I'm the one who is in trouble."
  3961. > He raises one finger, halting your interruption again.
  3962. > "But. That doesn't mean nothing is going to happen. I'm going to push - push heavily - for you to be turned over to my total control. You'd be working for me directly."
  3963. > Well.
  3964. > So far, Warren had seemed to be trustworthy.
  3965. > He'd pulled through on getting Quick Step to safety, after all...
  3966. "...what about Quick Step? Is he going to be safe?"
  3967. > Warren nods fractionally.
  3968. > "I've already sent a report up the chain. There are going to people looking to talk to him now."
  3969.  
  3970. ACTION:
  3971. [Multiple long suggestions on what to say.]
  3972.  
  3973. "First things first. Are the other soldiers going to try and punish us for this - the, uh, polish, you said they were?"
  3974. > "It isn't likely. Anyone with an ounce of brains in their head in Polish command is going to realize just how bad it would be if their would-be heroes suddenly get hurt... but all the same, keep a wary eye out. I'll do what I can some of my men moved in with you... for training purposes, or something like that."
  3975. > It would have to do, you suppose.
  3976. > His words are the closest thing you've had to a promise of real protection since you got here.
  3977. "We'll hold out. And we're more than willing to keep working on your watch, under two conditions. One: We're not dealing with this lot again."
  3978. > "I can't promise that for certain, but I can tell you this isn't going to just be buried down and left to rot. What's the other?"
  3979. > Looking up, you meet Warren's eyes for the first time - letting him see the anger still simmering in your own.
  3980. "Don't make me lie to my ponies when I say you will deal with this. For both our sakes, give us a reason to trust you. Show us you can be better than this."
  3981. > "That, I can promise."
  3982. "Good. Then... yeah, we're on board for working with you."
  3983. > A bitter snort is shot from your nostrils.
  3984. "Not like we have much of a choice, seeing as it's between you or staying here with this lot who are going to be angry at us."
  3985. > Warren's only reply is a sharp, jerking nod - and then to lean forward, grabbing a device mounted to the cart's wall and using it to tell the operator to turn it around and bring both of you back.
  3986. > Most of that trip is made in silence; although you've secured the safety of your ponies once more, you're still deeply unsettled by it.
  3987. > Warren can tell it, too.
  3988. > "There something else I'm going to be needing to know about?"
  3989. "I'm just..."
  3990. > Another violent shake of your head, and suddenly you let it all out.
  3991.  
  3992. "Damn it, Captain! I just want to know - why? Why him? He was barely a stallion - we put him in that hospital to keep him safe! Why'd they go after some private they just happened to find - why not me?!"
  3993. > Unexpected anger creeps back in to your voice.
  3994. "At least I was commanding a unit, even if I was just a senior airpony. Him - he's a private, nopony."
  3995. > "Hell if I know... that's why we keep a careful eye out about these things. Why we have people to look out for this..."
  3996. "I don't understand, though. You said this isn't a thing that happens. Why do you even need that, then?"
  3997. > "Because... because fighting brings out the worst in us, just like with you. Yeah, sometimes the best too - but mostly the worst. So, even if we have to fight, we make sure we don't go crazy."
  3998. > He pauses, then adds:
  3999. > "You remember how you said we're kind of like those monsters? Windigos? Well, we know it - but we want to make sure we're not going to become total monsters."
  4000. > There's another pause before he adds, more softly:
  4001. > "Guess we kind of fucked that up here, huh...?"
  4002. > You don't have an immediately reply, so instead go similarly quiet until another question occurs to you.
  4003. "Do you think... if the fighting is waking up the windigos, could they be influencing things here...?"
  4004. > "Don't ask me; you're the magic creature expert here."
  4005. > He has a fair point in that.
  4006. "Well.. look, if you can get a hold of any temperature or weather readings, look for unusually cold spikes. Maybe..."
  4007. > "We'll get on that - also because there's a chance you're going to be hunting windigos with us too."
  4008. > At long last, you're dropped off in front of the barracks again and allowed back in.
  4009. > Only now you have to think of exactly how you're going to explain this to your squad.
  4010. > More than a few of them - Byline's acid tongue comes to mind - will not be pleased with this development, not one bit.
  4011.  
  4012. > Well, telling the truth worked with Quick Step.
  4013. > Hopefully it will work with the others as well.
  4014. > Ten pairs of expectant eyes meet you when you return from the room.
  4015. > Hot Pot is the first to speak up, a nervous tremble in her voice.
  4016. > "How is he...?"
  4017. "Well... I won't lie. He's not in the greatest shape; they definitely were pretty rough on him. But, he'll be recovering - and most of all, he's still thinking straight. He didn't get broken down by it."
  4018. > That yields an audible sigh of relief from several.
  4019. > "What's going to happen to him now?"
  4020. "Warren's looking after him. After all of us - he wants to get us out of here."
  4021. > Now a hubbub of voices bursts up, everypony wanting to yell something out at once.
  4022. > Raising your own voice, you reassert command - turning your tone sharp.
  4023. "Listen first! Then you can question. Here's the deal: What they did, they apparently weren't supposed to be doing. When we asked Warren to look into Quick Step, we revealed all of what they were doing - and now some of the other humans are going to want to go after them for it."
  4024. > Fortunately they'd all gone quiet - training reasserting itself as they listened to their commander speak.
  4025. "Now, Warren says they're going to be looking in to this - making sure it doesn't happen any more. But he also wants to bring us under his direct control, rather than just having us along some of the time. I think it'll be better than this - he's the first human we've dealt with who's actually come through on his promises."
  4026. > Looking around them, you can clearly see they're not all convinced.
  4027. > Letting out a sigh, you hang your head.
  4028. "Look. I know it's... not hard to be trusting of them after this. But Warren's come through for us twice now, and I'm willing to believe him when he says he'll look after us."
  4029. > Seeming to realize that now is the time to talk, Hot Pot stands first.
  4030.  
  4031. > "I'm... I've not been happy about this. It isn't right, what they did to him - not at all. But you've lead us well; I'll follow you if you say so."
  4032. > Beside her Dusk stands in agreement.
  4033. > Spark sighs, shaking his head.
  4034. > "I don't even know what to think anymore... but yeah, I'm in."
  4035. > You nod, turning to the one who you suspect would be the most problematic.
  4036. "Byline?"
  4037. > The stallion thinks long before replying.
  4038. > "You know what? I could give you a lot of guff right now... but I'm not going to. Yeah, I'm not really liking this right now... but I don't figure you're seeing much of a choice either. We haven't really had one since we got locked up."
  4039. > A small grin forms on your lips.
  4040. "Well - whatever the reason, thank you."
  4041. > "One question..."
  4042. > Chilona raises a hoof.
  4043. > "We ain't leaving Caravan behind, are we?"
  4044. "Not in a thousand years. I've had it with leaving ponies behind, for whatever reason."
  4045. > That yields a number of small cheers, and a warm smile from Whispen.
  4046.  
  4047. > In the following few days, it's obvious that there's been a shift in attitudes around the camp.
  4048. > For starters, you are no longer called out on missions with the humans.
  4049. > Despite your success - and more than a few of hem recognizing you for what you'd done in aiding the delegates - it seems your services are no longer wanted.
  4050. > Everything is also being cleaned up - not that the barracks reserved for collaborating ponies were that bad to begin with, but extra effort seems to be put in to making everything look as new.
  4051. > Though no soldiers tell you why, it's not hard to understand why.
  4052. > Barracks inspections were nothing new to you, after all.
  4053. > In the meantime, you and your ponies keep up a steady stream of visits to Quick Step - both for his sake, and to ensure you'll be absolutely sure if he happens to go anywhere.
  4054. > At last, eight days later a team of human inspectors arrive to descend on the camp.
  4055. > It's hard to judge how many there are, but they seem every bit as regimented as the soldiers they are looking into.
  4056. > They move through the barracks steadily; you can see that they are also interviewing all the other collaborating ponies.
  4057. > Your turn comes in time as well.
  4058. > Volunteering to go first, you're taken into a drab room with little more than a table, seats for both human and pony, and some cups of water.
  4059.  
  4060. > The questions start out about what you would expect.
  4061. > Assurances that there is not going to be any repercussions for anything you might say.
  4062. > Questions about how you'd been treated - about the interrogation you'd gone through, whether there had been any coercion involved in aiding the humans, if you were being allowed what they considered basic rights.
  4063. > You hide nothing; Warren had promised you would be safe, and so had this human.
  4064. > So your answers flow openly and honestly: About the hospital, about what had been done to Quick Step, and even Gwozdek's comments about whether Caravan would see treatment or not.
  4065. > That definitely gets a result; you're fairly certain that your answers are hitting all the points necessary to ensure the humans will reap what they have sown.
  4066. > Other parts confuse you, though - what military force in their right minds would bother allowing prisoners to communicate with relatives at home?
  4067. > Even the mere act of carrying mail across battle lines would be insane!
  4068. > But then again... humans.
  4069. > What an infuriatingly strange species; they seemed almost obsessed with keeping in communication, even for their prisoners...
  4070. > Other parts seem just as confusing to the humans.
  4071. > They simply don't seem to understand why it is so unusual that weather patrols had all but ceased - or, they simply don't care.
  4072. > Or why you made such a deal out of the use of dark magic.
  4073. > They mostly seem concerned with how widespread it might be - and if it presented a greater risk of striking random innocents when used.
  4074. > You can't honestly say yes, except that it tended to go with vicious, hateful intent to begin with.
  4075. > And that doesn't seem to impress on the human how dangerous it truly is.
  4076. > Eventually you give up trying to push that, and turn to your own experiences working with the humans.
  4077. > It quickly becomes apparent that you've stumbled onto another field of pitfalls:
  4078.  
  4079. > Human laws and customs regarding working with former enemies seem to be needlessly complex, if the dozens of questions he asks of you are anything to guess by.
  4080. > For a moment you fear you might have accidentally implicated Warren in something he would be punished for, but it becomes apparent that whatever you'd done, it wasn't something they were going to be concerned about.
  4081. > And then comes the true surprise.
  4082. > "Uh, next question: Are you aware that we consider the use of weather modification and weather control for the purposes of war to be a crime?"
  4083. > They did what?
  4084. > Could humans even do that - as far as you'd known they were entirely without magic, including weather magic.
  4085. "Uh... no. No, actually."
  4086. > Though it certainly made sense, considering how they'd reacted to the storm you'd thrown at them in the Everfree.
  4087. > Then again, use of a storm system that large wasn't exactly common in Equestria's history either.
  4088. > Smaller storms for attacking specific locations, covering or halting advance, yes - but not a massive storm on that scale.
  4089. > "It is, for us. I am obliged to ask if you are or were aware of instances in which this was done."
  4090. > But you are not obliged to answer.
  4091. > Would they blame Princess Luna for this as well?
  4092. > It was under her command that first storm had been formed, after all.
  4093.  
  4094. ACTION:
  4095. - Admit you used weather control, but stress this is a standard tactic in Equestria where weather control is nearly ubiquitous.
  4096.  
  4097. "We were aware of it, yes. Uh, first back in the Everfree, when were trying to stop you - we got caught in the path of that one, too. Also, apparently some of the resistance in the city collapsed some of the cloud districts to create a storm."
  4098. > The tick-tapping of the human's fingers on the typing pad of his machine was mildly distracting, but you tried to ignore it.
  4099. "I know it's happened elsewhere, but we've been off the front lines for so long that's all we saw."
  4100. > "I see. Well-"
  4101. "You have to understand, though - that's not a special case. Using the weather to break up formations, aid our troops' movement, cover our advances or retreats - that's normal for us."
  4102. > "Yes, we've been told.. you use your magic for a remarkable range of things."
  4103. "I mean, if you get to look at one of our history books - or our training textbooks, somehow - you'll see it's not something we thought of as... especially significant."
  4104. > Of course, they would also find no pony had generated a storm that large for centuries - let alone dozens of them, the way you'd been told were now.
  4105. > Or, had been until Cloudsdale had come under siege.
  4106. "I realize it's something dangerous and even scary to you, but... look, you're dropping explosives on our cities from miles away. Think for a second about that shocked us before assuming it's a crime."
  4107. > A slight smile quirks the interviewer's face.
  4108. > "Naturally; the list of questions are... not always up to date with the nature of this conflict."
  4109. "Then why are you even using them?"
  4110. > "Because it's standard. And because when someone inevitably starts screaming that we're biased and out to pin everything on someone or another from the start, we can honestly say we looked in to both sides of this - even if half the questions aren't actually meaningful."
  4111.  
  4112. > You shake your head slightly; humans never ceased to confuse you.
  4113. > Of course, if they were so fractious it made sense one group might object to the findings of another.
  4114. > But at the same time...
  4115. "Aren't you supposed to be universally recognized or something?"
  4116. > "Yes. That doesn't stop people from taking issue with our findings if it benefits them."
  4117. "Then tell me, please - because I want to know - will anything come of this? Will something happen to the ones who tortured Quick Step?"
  4118. > He hesitates - not long, but long enough.
  4119. > "Not immediately. There's going to be a lot of arguing - they will want their own investigations done, then argue over their legitimacy a while... but in the end? Considering how high-profile this is? Yeah, I can honestly say something probably will come of it. Especially for these people."
  4120. "Why them in particular?"
  4121. > "They're taking a larger role among the neighboring countries in military affairs. They want to be recognized. If they don't punish something this big, that will become a lot harder."
  4122.  
  4123. ACTION:
  4124. - "I didn't think justice hinged on political aspirations but i suppose we should be glad to take what we can get"
  4125. - We should try to steer the conversation to how Warren's country has been treating other ponies, and what we can expect from working with him.
  4126. - I guess we could ask about the countries, what they're doing. Also ask why they want recognition, and if every country is doing it for recognition. Also, what does neighboring countries mean? Are all the countries nearby.
  4127.  
  4128. "The other countries around them? Are most of them fighting here as well?"
  4129. > Now he truly does hesitate.
  4130. > "...a large number of them are, yes. I can't comment on exact numbers for several reasons, but they're part of a coalition of a number of nations on the same continent come together to operate under one banner. Uh, before this conflict started, I mean."
  4131. > More competition and infighting among the humans, it seems.
  4132. "Are the americans also part of this group?"
  4133. > "No, they're not - though they are heavily allied."
  4134. > Perhaps that explained Warren's reaction to this discovery, though.
  4135. > He wished to ensure his nation would not be allied with one that had done this... or saw that alliance as a means to place pressure on them.
  4136. "So, are the other countries in this all in it for recognition as well?"
  4137. > "No, no - I don't think any country is in this just for the pride of it. It's costing some of them dearly - to much for just pride."
  4138. > He pauses a moment, then goes on:
  4139. > "Most of the allied force was put together when we expected this to be a life-or-death war for us. At that point, I don't think anyone was considering pride. But now... now that it isn't, some nations and alliances are starting to compete with others again."
  4140. > Now there was a scary thought.
  4141. > Equestria becoming a battlefield for various human nations to duke it out with each other...
  4142. "Is there a risk they might start fighting?"
  4143. > "Not likely. Only one of those alliances happens to control the portal, and all traffic through it."
  4144. > Well, there's a relief.
  4145. > If fighting did spring up, odds are it would mostly be centered about the Everfree, then - away from most ponies.
  4146. "Well. I can't say I'm pleased that justice for what happened to Quick Step should hinge on political aspirations... but it's something I can deal with."
  4147.  
  4148. > "I'd rather prefer it didn't as well, but that's what we're here for: To make sure things are set right now, not when it is convenient."
  4149. "Heh. That's good, at least - I've seen too much 'when it's convenient' for one life. Like, the ponies who were pulled from the cloud district - when are they even going to be allowed back."
  4150. > The question wrings a grimace from the interviewer.
  4151. > "We're going to be looking into that in the coming weeks as well. From what I've seen, I can say that they're safe - but I can't say we're pleased about the idea of forcibly relocating that many ponies either."
  4152. "I can see why they would not want ponies up there near this camp... but I don't understand why they had to move them so far away."
  4153. > "That would be one of the things we aim to find out... among other things."
  4154. > Returned to your barracks, the remainder of the day is spent waiting as they work their way through interviewing all of your ponies.
  4155. > The last, Ornithea, only returns towards mid-evening.
  4156. > That night finds you again at the window, staring out to the seemingly-innumerable lights of the humans' camp beyond.
  4157. > Something about the interview had left you unsettled, even if it had been promising overall.
  4158. > It was the reminder of just how odd the humans were, you thought.
  4159. > Even as they insisted that it was Equestria which had to surrender, they were already beginning to compete among themselves.
  4160. > 'Compete', like a sport - there was a barely-contained viciousness there, you could tell.
  4161. > They might not be turning their weapons on each other any time soon, but that didn't mean they liked each other.
  4162. > Was this what Equestria was fated to become?
  4163. > Another playground for the humans to settle their differences on, one way or another?
  4164. >Would there be more cases like Quick Step?
  4165. > "Hey..."
  4166. > So wrapped up in your thoughts were you that you didn't even hear Whispen appear beside you.
  4167. "Hey."
  4168. > "You've got something stuck in your head again, I can tell."
  4169.  
  4170. "Guilty as charged."
  4171. > A slight grin breaks your lips.
  4172. > "What is it? Something you heard today? Or Quick Step?"
  4173. "Well..."
  4174.  
  4175. ACTION:
  4176. - You know, there is a kind of absurd beauty to how humans operate. Human society is chaotic, yet it is that very chaos that is used to regulate and balance itselves. Rather than trying to make neat boxes to contain the chaos, they shape the rivers so the chaos natural goes in ways that will be best. The momentum of chaos used to stablize order, almost like a gyroscope. It'd be a slap in the face of discord, seeing chaos used to control chaos. Greed, envy, even pride being used in synergy with virtue rather than against.
  4177.  
  4178. "I'm just thinking... you know, there's an absurd beauty to how humans operate. They're chaotic, but they use that very chaotic nature to balance and regulate themselves."
  4179. > You shake your head slightly.
  4180. "If Discord was around, he would have a hoot seeing all this. Chaos used to control chaos - they use greed, envy, even pride in synergy with virtue rather than against."
  4181. > Pausing for a moment, you chuckle and shake your head.
  4182. "Sorry. I'm rambling. Just... got a lot on my mind to think about after today, you know."
  4183. > Slipping up beside you, Whispen leans in against your side and nods.
  4184. > "I understand. You must've had an interesting time with the one who was interviewing you."
  4185. "Absolutely. You?"
  4186. > "Well..."
  4187. > Whispen gives a heavy sigh, a slight frown touching her lips.
  4188. > "I tried to dig some information out of them regarding what is going to happen to the city now. If they're going to sweep in, or what."
  4189. > Hmm.
  4190. > There's something you hadn't thought to discuss.
  4191. "Any luck?"
  4192. > "Sort of. They said if evidence of a real, significant abuse against civilians is found, they might put some other soldiers in the city as well - to have them watch over the ones who are here."
  4193. > A slight smile touches your lips; as you'd said - pride used as a method of control.
  4194. "I'd say that's fairly important, though."
  4195. > "It is. Except - I'm just wondering if anything will change if they do."
  4196. "I don't know for certain, but I do know this: They're trying. In their own strange, chaotic, way they're trying."
  4197. > A slow nod is Whispen's reaction, her ear tickling against your cheek and neck as she does.
  4198. > "I guess that's... really more than we were expecting initially, and we should be happy with that, huh?"
  4199. "I believe so. Especially if the worst of this is tied to the Windigos."
  4200. > "There is that, yes."
  4201.  
  4202. > For a long while you remain there together - quiet and simply taking small comfort in each others' presence.
  4203. > Whispen is calmer than when she came over, you can tell, and a part of you wonders if you should have told her about the fears you had.
  4204. > Of Equestria becoming a playground to the humans' egos.
  4205. > But no.
  4206. > Looking after her - and all your ponies - is your duty as a leader.
  4207. > You can hold your own worries a while longer.
  4208. > "Hey."
  4209. > Whispen tilts her head up beside you, so that her muzzle resides just by your ear.
  4210. > "That room down the hall is still open, you know..."
  4211. "Is it now?"
  4212. > "Uh-huh. So, if you wanted to..."
  4213. "I won't be saying no."
  4214. > Turning about, you nearly leap out of your hooves as you find that Iri had crept up directly behind you.
  4215. > "Hello."
  4216. > Her typically flat tone has only gotten flatter, and she regards you with a hooded eyes.
  4217. "How long have you been there?!"
  4218. > "Long enough."
  4219. > Her statement trips an earlier memory in your mind - something she's said during the fight the the dark-magic-addled mare.
  4220.  
  4221. ACTION:
  4222. - Just find out what she wants to talk about now.
  4223. - Ask if that was her watching us.
  4224. - We should ask her to be less, creepy if she wants to talk or needs something. It's kinda weird. But otherwise, let her talk.
  4225.  
  4226. > You let out a heavy sigh.
  4227. " 'Spring', in the future - please, please don't sneak up on us like that. It's... nerve wracking."
  4228. > And that's one thing you definitely get enough of.
  4229. "Really. You're still part of the team, but... please don't do that. Anyhow, was there something you needed?"
  4230. > "Yes. To speak with you."
  4231. > When you don't immediately elaborate, Iri does so on her own.
  4232. > "We are wondering if you were able to locate any information relevant to us yet. I am... becoming concerned that we may not be able to fulfill the goals of our agreement."
  4233. "Spring..."
  4234. > Bringing a hoof up to press at the side of your head, you rub softly to try and ward off the oncoming headache.
  4235. "We've not been on our own for weeks. We've not had time to find out about our own families, let alone yours."
  4236. > Not even normal ponies, let alone the entire race that survived on hiding.
  4237. > "Well. I, fortunately, was able too."
  4238. > Figures, the species that survived on misdirection would be able to lead a conversation.
  4239. > "They knew nothing. These humans, at least - they had no knowledge of my family."
  4240. "Ah. So, what now for you?"
  4241. > "I will... stay by your side a while longer. Your help is still of use to me."
  4242. > Well, there's a little worrying thought:
  4243. > What if she did eventually find you superfluous?
  4244. "We're glad to hear that, 'Spring'."
  4245. > Standing up beside you, Whispen nods as well.
  4246. > "We'll be happy to have you along as long as you want to be."
  4247. > 'Spring' grimaces, her face turning dark.
  4248. > "I am not. Every day I go without hearing from them is another I worry - and now I do not even have word of my sisters in this city."
  4249. > You hadn't thought of it that way; she did have a point.
  4250.  
  4251. > "And - for that matter - while you may be free to pursue your windigos, I wonder if I will hear of my kin while working for the humans. Your goals and mine remain together for now."
  4252. "...I'm sorry, 'Spring'. I should've thought to ask them, but - I was more focused on what'd happened to Quick Step, and I didn't think of anything else."
  4253. > That seems to get through to her, and she looks down.
  4254. > "You consider your kin - or what is close to your kin. This... I can understand."
  4255. > "We're not giving up on your, 'Spring'. Please, just stay with us a while longer, and we'll do what we can."
  4256. > "I... will remain."
  4257. "Thank you. Um, just one thing, though. The other night, in the hall. Was that you...?"
  4258. > "Yes."
  4259. > It's stated simply, calmly - no hesitation, no question.
  4260. > A simple statement of fact.
  4261.  
  4262. ACTION:
  4263. - Ask her if she needs to watch in order to feed.
  4264. - Please don't sit right outside the door this time. You can feed but just don't be RIGHT there. Maybe go into the room next door or something if you can.
  4265. - suggest that being distant and aloof while sneaking around to feed could be problematic for squad trust and for her ability to form bonds with the squad. remind her that our squad are all ponies with all the emotional fallibilities that come with that and that there are several ponies who would be happy to help feed her
  4266.  
  4267. "Do you.. uh... have to watch to be able to do that? I mean... I can deal with it now, I guess-"
  4268. > Though you can't hide the shiver that runs down your spine at the idea of being fed on; the less you think of it in the middle of any intimate moments, the better.
  4269. "-but is it necessary to lurk in the hallway right there?"
  4270. > "I... could remain a short distance away. The effect is less potent, but I can manage."
  4271. "Thank you. It's just... hanging right at the door is strange."
  4272. > Whispen nods as well.
  4273. > "You know, I know he did offer to let you... do it if you needed to - you just had to ask."
  4274. "There's that too. Really - snooping around isn't going to help us trust you. We want to - I want to - be able to trust you. Maybe specific times would be better?"
  4275. > "I come then because there is a greatest amount of... resources available then."
  4276. > Talking indirectly is becoming frustrating, but who knew if the humans were listening in..?
  4277. "I understand. Maybe the next room over, if it's available."
  4278. > "I will look into it. Requesting... still is not something I am comfortable with. It is not our way."
  4279. > This again...
  4280. "I understand, 'Spring'. But, if it's a choice between traditions and surviving here..."
  4281. > "We don't wish to see you caught and hurt either, 'Spring'. You're one of us now, remember."
  4282. > Nodding in agreement with Whispen's statement, you give her a warm smile.
  4283. "Really. Try it once. Please."
  4284. > "I.. will try."
  4285. > And with that uncertain answer, 'Spring' turns and departs.
  4286. > Looking after her, you give a sigh and shake your head slightly.
  4287. > "Worrying about her? I can see how it would feel strange..."
  4288. "Mostly about what trouble she might get in, but... just a bit about her as well."
  4289. > "Well, stop."
  4290. > Trailing by you, Whispen flicks her tail against you.
  4291. > "Besides, I'm fairly sure I can take your mind off of things for a while."
  4292. > It's a bet she very easily wins.
  4293.  
  4294. > The following days leave you still without any work to do for the occupying soldiers.
  4295. > Instead, however, something new comes in.
  4296. > A dozen scrolls containing maps of regions of Equestria, mostly the north, have been dropped in.
  4297. > Confusingly, they have been written over with lines you don't recognize - patches of tiny lines, stars, triangles; long, wiggling lines stretched out across Equestria, some with points or little semi-circles on them.
  4298. > Even more strangely, sections of the territory appear to have been colored in with a color scale.
  4299. > It takes a great deal of staring before a smaller paper tucked into one of the scrolls is found with a map key printed on it.
  4300. > The answer is simple, but obvious:
  4301. > Weather.
  4302. > Without any way to control it, the humans would of course want to find a way to map it; their communication technology would aid in that as well.
  4303. > And so they had delivered a snapshot of the entire weather state of Equestria to you, presumably in case you could identify any signs of Windigo activity.
  4304. > Unfortunately, even with the key the paper provided, there was only one solid conclusion you could quickly come to.
  4305. > Equestria was a mess.
  4306. > Judging by where Cloudsdale was, it was easy to see a clear path of turbulent, violent colliding weather patterns moving south where they had presumably been sending storms off towards the human forces' supply lines.
  4307. > Even beyond that, it seemed that weather stability was falling apart across Equestria.
  4308. > How much of that was due to weather pegasi being grounded for fear of attacks by human flying machines and how much might be the actual work of windigos is unclear.
  4309. > But, there doesn't appear to be a tremendous amount of cold-front activity - at least, not aside from where you would have expected it for spring.
  4310. > Perhaps you can see something else if you look closer...?
  4311.  
  4312. ACTION:
  4313. [Roll for perception check; result: Fail to notice anything useful at all.]
  4314.  
  4315. > Unfortunately, even with the key it's impossible to really discern anything from the maps.
  4316. > With how much weather across Equestria has been disrupted, any of this could been caused by simple neglect.
  4317. > Odds are, you'll have to be on the ground to find out if anything is wrong.
  4318. > When Warren arrives the following day, he listens calmly as you explain this and then nods.
  4319. > "Well, I suppose having an instinctive understanding of something you've never read before is too much to hope for. We're still having some of the same problems... anyhow."
  4320. > He takes a seat, rubbing his head.
  4321. > "You certainly set of an avalanche, though from what I'm hearing they're digging up it was only a matter of time. Already the accusations are flying around."
  4322. "That's... good news?"
  4323. > "Sort of. It means that there's a bigger case for having you transferred to our control, which is the good part of it."
  4324. > That certainly is - anything that would get you (and Quick Step especially) away from these soldiers was.
  4325. "We're still more than willing to work with you to hunt the Windigos. But, if that's the good, what's the bad?"
  4326. > "...someone leaked it. I don't know who - probably one of those UN fucks."
  4327. "How bad is it?"
  4328. > "No blood flowing yet. That's why I say it's likely they're going to bring a new force in and rotate these out if possible - or something. They're definitely moving to avoid this turning into a bloodbath, though."
  4329. "I just hope they can."
  4330. > "As do I. We should get confirmation one way or another in the next few days whether you're going to be transferred to my command."
  4331. "Alright. Uh, listen, one other thing - would it be possible for us to send some letters to our families?"
  4332.  
  4333. > "With all the red cross and UN crawling all over the place? Absolutely. Getting them across the lines might be tricky, but you can send them. Of course, our censors will have to look over them..."
  4334. "That's fine. I think we'd all just like to let them know we're alive."
  4335. > That was, if the mail was even carried anymore.
  4336. > With the rail lines surely cut and most pegasi grounded, who knew...?
  4337. > "Alright. We'll get some paper and pencils for you. Anything else?"
  4338.  
  4339. ACTION:
  4340. - See if we can get into contact with a pegasus that knows more than us about the weather.
  4341. - Ask if sometime soon we could have lunch at one of our favorite bars. It could help with human-pony/collaborator-civilian relations and may assuage some worries the ponies have regarding what the humans are doing with their collaborators. The bar we want to go to is also popular with the Poles so it's safe.
  4342.  
  4343. "Uh, two major things we'd like... if there's a chance. One, these maps you sent us are nice and detailed but if you can find a cooperating weather pegasus, they would be able to tell you more from them than any of us can."
  4344. > "We'll look into that."
  4345. > In the back, Chilona raises a hoof.
  4346. > "Can't say for certain, but there's a good bet at least some of the pegasi who came down from the cloud district would know their way around that sort of thing. Might want to ask them."
  4347. > Warren gives a small nod, noting that down on his device that he carries with him.
  4348. > "Anything else?"
  4349. "Yeah. Just..."
  4350. > You glance over to 'Spring'.
  4351. "There's a bar in the city. We used to live close enough to go often... uh, if we could just stop in before we leave...?"
  4352. > "That's... a tall request. But I'll see what I can do."
  4353. "Thank you. It should be safe - some of the other soldiers used to go there as well."
  4354. > After he is gone, you find Iri waiting for you.
  4355. > "That..."
  4356. > She breathes out softly, and then snaps an angry glare at you.
  4357. > "That was incredibly dumb. What if they should notice something now? My family..."
  4358. > Growling low under her breath, you're suddenly reminded very sharply of the hard, fanged creature that lived under that coat.
  4359. > "If my family are hurt because of this, I will blame you."
  4360. > With a flick of her tail she turns her back on you - and then just as quickly halts again.
  4361. > Her voice is unexpectedly quiet, having lost the sharp edge it had a second earlier.
  4362. > "But... thank you. As well."
  4363. > Only then does she trot off, leaving a very confused you and Whispen behind.
  4364. > "Sometimes I think there actually is more than one pony in there."
  4365. "You're telling me."
  4366.  
  4367. "...probably best to let her be for now. I can't imagine pushing her in this state will do any good."
  4368. > "Probably right about that. I might have a talk with her later anyhow, though."
  4369. > Without much to do, boredom is definitely beginning to take its toll on your ponies.
  4370. > Aside from the daily meals and some time outside for exercise, there isn't a great deal for you to do.
  4371. > Fortunately they'd at least left the books of human history for you to read, and you spend more time than you'd prefer with your nose buried in one of them.
  4372. > At least Warren comes through with the letters - or, rather, a member of the aid organization does, arriving with paper and pencils for all of you.
  4373. > But what to write...?
  4374. > It'd be fine line to play, between saying too much and too little.
  4375. > And Warren had said it would go through the human military's censors as well...
  4376. > In the end, you settle for a message that - you hoped - would do the most to settle their minds and maybe even keep them safe.
  4377.  
  4378. Text:
  4379.  
  4380. "Dear mom, Dad and lil' anonymiss.
  4381.  
  4382. First thing i want you to know is that I'm okay; although this war has been long for me I've made it through in one piece so far.
  4383.  
  4384. After the everfree I wound up in the trenches of las pegasus, strange place for a pegasus but with how the humans have been dealing with our sky chariots it's probably the safest place you can be. I've been in charge of a small group of ponies for some time now (imagine that, i was just another airpony not so long ago) and we've been staying here in las pegasus after the city had fell.
  4385.  
  4386. I've seen lots of strange things in my time here and made some friends that you wouldn't believe, i think it's good that some small bit of harmony can persist and grow even in the most terrible of circumstances, it shows that there is still hope for all of us. I've even met someone, although in truth I met her back in the everfree and we've been saving each other ever since. She's a wonderful unicorn named Whispen and i hope that you get to meet her one day soon.
  4387.  
  4388. Mom, dad: I won't mince words. The things I've seen these humans do, the weapons I've seen them fight with, I don't think cloudsdale can fight them and their weapons are not always precise. I implore you to leave the city peaceably if the opportunity presents itself. Being in las pegasus all this time, I've seen humans put themselves at risk to avoid civilian casualties but I've also seen the potential for consequence when fighting occurs in or around a city. If the humans give civilians a window to leave the city peaceably, please take it, for lil'misses sake and for my peace of mind. the humans should not hurt you, they are not the monsters from tartarus i thought them to be all those month ago in the everfree but they are dangerous if crossed. please don't be there for the fighting.
  4389.  
  4390. Please stay safe, their weapons are strange and unforgiving, please do not fight. Tell my sis that I love her and watch over her for me.
  4391.  
  4392. love,
  4393. anonpone."
  4394.  
  4395. > Was it too much?
  4396. > Did you sound too scared, telling them to flee the fighting?
  4397. > Was it that bad if you did sound scared, if it kept them safe?
  4398. > Were you saying too much about the humans, and would they suspect you'd been forced to write the letter?
  4399. > With a shake of your head and a sigh you fold the letter up and tuck it beneath one wing, heading for the table where the completed letters were to be placed.
  4400. > Looking about, you see all your other ponies writing as well - even 'Spring', though you wonder if the address she was sending it too was even real.
  4401. > Byline in particular looks rather glum.
  4402. > Surprising; you'd have thought that the chance to maybe reach his marefriend would have been a welcome one for him.
  4403. > Either way - for you, the greatest boon is to simply let your family know that you are alive and safe.
  4404. > That is all that matters.
  4405.  
  4406. > Just the thought of that - the news of your survival being on its way - makes the following days more tolerable.
  4407. > And then, one morning, Warren again shows up - with a real, true smile on his face.
  4408. > "Alright, I've got news."
  4409.  
  4410. [Roll to see if the weatherpony was able to identify anything useful; result: They identify a few areas that might be worth checking out.]
  4411.  
  4412. > "Apparently we're messing up your weather situation really badly - though it already looks pretty messed up to me - and they can't tell anything for certain."
  4413. > Again the maps are unrolled and placed on a table; Warren points to several locations on them - all deep in the far, frozen north.
  4414. > "But he did say that there's some unusual cold fronts moving in from here. He can't pinpoint if they're truly anomalous or just weather shifting in to occupy a vacuum, but it's definitely odd."
  4415. "So, that's where we're going, then?"
  4416. > "Yes. We'll be stopping in at our main headquarters while the team you are going to be attached to is recalled from field operations, and you will have a short while to familiarize yourself with them."
  4417. > One finger taps a point in the middle of the Everfree Forest, and with a start you realize that you are going to be seeing their first camp - and possibly the portal as well.
  4418. "That... certainly promises to be interesting. After that?"
  4419. > "After that we'll deploy to the north immediately."
  4420. > He draws a long path upwards along Equestria - notably making a significant detour around Canterlot and Galloping Gorge.
  4421. > "Exact location is not certain yet; we'll also get an update on that while we are in transit."
  4422. "Understood."
  4423. > "As for now... there's a vehicle waiting outside. We've decided we can spare a little time for your request, but we need to be heading out before the end of the day."
  4424. > End of the day... that gives you what, four or five hours?
  4425. > Should be plenty of time to say what you want to say.
  4426. "Okay. We don't have much of anything to be gathered up, so we should be ready fairly quickly."
  4427. > True to your word, shortly thereafter you're rumbling down the city streets on the back of a human truck.
  4428. > The change in them isn't terrifically obvious, but as you continue watching it's clear enough.
  4429.  
  4430. > An old fearfulness has returned to the ponies walking them, one you hadn't seen since the humans first overran the city.
  4431. > Fearfulness tinged with anger, now.
  4432. > There's much work to be done here, you think - and fortunately they seem to be more than willing to do it.
  4433. > At last the small convoy of vehicles rolls up outside Buttercup's bar.
  4434. > Already the windows smashed the last time you were here have been replaced; additionally, the sign depicting the bar's eponymous flower appears to have been completely redone at some point.
  4435. > But inside it's just the same place - except for the eyes, wondering and slightly afraid, that rise to meet you when you enter.
  4436. > Or rather, rise to see the human soldiers entering after your ponies.
  4437. > Urgh, you hadn't thought about that when you suggested this.
  4438. > Still, more than a few faces light up in recognition - some of them hiding it - and Buttercup rushes over.
  4439. > "Hey! You're okay!"
  4440.  
  4441. ACTION:
  4442. - I can't think of anything we can't tell her. So long as it doesn't contradict anything we've told the humans, which are bound to be listening. Maybe we also should tell her about that untapped market in providing liquor to soldiers that we almost got in to.
  4443. - We're all safe and are just coming to have some food and maybe some drinks. However, we can't stay long as we have a long journey ahead of us. Just don't do anything stupid while we're gone.
  4444. - Respond friendly-ly and continue like friends. Let Spring have a chat with us, and maybe we can speak in code or something. Also, we could actually ask Buttercup what she knows about windigoes and shit.
  4445.  
  4446. "Hey... we just wanted to stop in and let you know we're all safe. All of us."
  4447. > She nods, glancing questioningly to 'Spring'.
  4448. > You give a subtle nod, and continue talking.
  4449. "We can't really stay long, as we're going to have a bit of a journey ahead of us, but we thought you'd want to know that we're okay."
  4450. > Unfortunately, telling her what you really want to say - that she should pass this one to Fairweather - can't be said in earshot of the humans.
  4451. > But she's a smart mare... changeling.
  4452. > She can figure it out.
  4453. > "Yeah. There have been some crazy rumors flying around about what was going on in there; we were kind of worried for you."
  4454. > Glancing about, you see that your ponies have spread out and found partners to talk with.
  4455. > Some of the other guests are obviously more nervous than others - understandably.
  4456. > But they seem to have mostly relaxed once the humans remained near the door, talking quietly among each other instead of imposing themselves.
  4457. > After getting a drink, you begin to catch Buttercup up on everything that'd happened since you last saw her.
  4458. "...so, yeah, it's not all been easy. We finally got back one of our ponies and... yeah, they'd been pretty hard on him."
  4459. > "Is it true that they're going to be punishing the soldiers responsible?"
  4460. "They're mad as a stung manticore, I'll tell you that much. Apparently they're really not supposed to be doing that sort of thing."
  4461. > Buttercup shakes her head.
  4462. > "I can't imagine what it must be like to do that without magic..."
  4463. > Instinctively you take a step back and Buttercup waves a hoof to stop you.
  4464. > "Sorry, sorry - I didn't think about that. Look, uh... keep yourselves safe, alright? Any chance you can tell me where you're going?"
  4465. > Well, it probably couldn't hurt to say.
  4466. "Far north, probably. We're going after Windigos. They're apparently allowing some mail through, so we'll try and stay in contact."
  4467.  
  4468. > We'll try and tell you if we should run into more changelings.
  4469. > Buttercup raises an eyebrow.
  4470. > "That's going to be interesting."
  4471. "Do you know anything about them, out of curiosity?"
  4472. > "Not much more than you. Maybe even less - all I know of are tales, nothing for certain."
  4473. "Ah, well. Worth asking, I suppose..."
  4474. > "I will say that I did hear a story once... there's a town up there, Eyrie Rock or something like that. I've heard some say you can still hear the Windigos howling on bad nights around there."
  4475. > Eyrie Rock, huh?
  4476. "...that name is familiar, but I can't remember why..."
  4477. > "Something historical, maybe."
  4478. "Wel, I'll keep it in mind. Thank you."
  4479. > Buttercup nods.
  4480. > "If it helps at all... speaking of helping, she's not been any trouble, has she?"
  4481. > A quick gesture of her head indicates 'Spring'.
  4482. "Not... not really."
  4483. > A glance to Iri finds her chatting warmly with the bartender - presumably another changeling.
  4484. "She's still a little sharp-tongued sometimes, and doesn't quite seem to get that she can just ask us for... certain things."
  4485. > Buttercup nods.
  4486. > "You want me to go have a talk to her? We can do it quietly, if it's going to be an issue for you later."
  4487.  
  4488. ACTION:
  4489. - Yes, talk to her now.
  4490.  
  4491. "If you don't mind?"
  4492. > "I don't mind at all. She's going to be traveling with you, she may as well."
  4493. > The two of you quickly head for Iri, Whispen giving you a questioning look as the two of you go past.
  4494. "Just having a little talk."
  4495. > She doesn't reply, but does follow you over.
  4496. > As soon as you're close, 'Spring' twists her head - the small smile that had been on it fading to something more neutral.
  4497. > "Yes?"
  4498. > You'd been about to start by saying how this was just something you were concerned about, you didn't want to make it a huge deal.
  4499. > But Buttercup gets there first.
  4500. > Jabbing a hoof into 'Spring's' chest, she adopts a no-nonsense tone in her voice and quickly starts lecturing without any hesitation.
  4501. > "You. I told you, if you're going to hang along with these ponies, then you're going to have to be nice. I don't want to hear anything more in the letters about you not asking something you might need, understand?"
  4502. > 'Spring' actually looks shocked for a moment that Buttercup would lecture her so openly.
  4503. > "I am doing nothing but behaving the way I should-"
  4504. > "You are being rude and a fool for not accepting what is offered to you."
  4505. > For a moment Iri looks like she's about to retort with something truly unfortunate right then and there.
  4506. > But she slams her mouth shut with a look like she'd eaten a sour apple whole and nods.
  4507. > "Fine."
  4508. "...look, I'm sorry - but, if you wanted, I told you to just ask instead of hanging around just out of sight..."
  4509. > "I do not ask."
  4510. > 'Spring' fixes you with a sharp look.
  4511. > "We do not ask."
  4512. > "Something going on over here, ladies?"
  4513. > You'd not even heard the soldier coming up behind you, but one did - his helmeted head tilted at an inquisitive angle.
  4514. "...not really. Just some going-aways before we head out. I'm sure you know how it is."
  4515.  
  4516. > "Absolutely. Just, there isn't going to be any trouble, right?"
  4517. > All present look to 'Spring'.
  4518. > She gives an exceedingly unhappy sigh, but shakes her head.
  4519. > "No. There will not be."
  4520. > Once the soldier is out of earshot, you continue in a lower voice.
  4521.  
  4522. ACTION:
  4523. - "Trust is key Spring."
  4524. - "You're the odd mare out here. If you have an issue with us beyond our species, I'd like to hear it."
  4525. - things change, I'd have figured adapting to change would be somewhat of their forte. how many other have the opportunities she has with us, how many others have ponies freely offering up their love and companionship. how many changelings starve or are hunted and would greatly benefit from even the slightest change in attitude that co-operation could bring.
  4526.  
  4527. "Look, 'Spring'... you're the odd mare out here. If you've an issue with us besides... you know, the obvious, I'd like to hear it. Either way - trust is key. I need that from you, 'Spring'. I really do."
  4528. > "Trust.."
  4529. > She seems to roll the world around in her mouth a few times, as if some new definition might turn up - one she found more palatable.
  4530. "Things change.. I figured adapting to that would be your forte."
  4531. > Damn the humans still close enough that talking openly was a risk.
  4532. > This would be so much easier if you didn't have to edge around the topic.
  4533. "How much better would all of this be if we could work together? Even after the war is over - how much benefit would there be from the slightest change in attitude that cooperation could bring?"
  4534. > "You presume there will be any change."
  4535. > Her retort is growled out, and accompanied by a shake of her head.
  4536. > "You presume there will not be... nevermind. I agree. I'll play your game. But only because I've been told to."
  4537. > Her eyes flick to Buttercup for a moment, and you understand that it isn't your orders or requests that are pushing her to do this.
  4538. > She bows to one authority and one authority only - her own kin.
  4539. > Unfortunate.
  4540. "Also... one other question before I leave. If you do eat well enough, just how strong can you get."
  4541. > "Impressively so... if given enough power. But that is rare, exceedingly so."
  4542. > One heck of a stomach they must have - or whatever Changelings eat love with.
  4543. "We'll try and keep you topped off as much as we can. Buttercup, if find very good news out there, is it okay if we send a message to this address?"
  4544. > "I don't see why no-"
  4545. > Your eyes flick to one of the soldiers near the entrance to the bar as you mouth the words, 'they read everything'.
  4546. > "...but maybe it'd be better if it was sent to my home instead! Here, let me write this down for you."
  4547.  
  4548. > The note, when completed, is tucked beneath your wing.
  4549. "Thank you again."
  4550. > "Just bring her back safe... and do the best you can. We're counting on you as much as anypony else."
  4551. "I know it, Buttercup."
  4552. > "And..."
  4553. > Buttercup hesitates, for a moment, before proceeding haltingly.
  4554. > "If you see our ruler... tell her she should come to us. Come to see we've not been turned by you or anything like that."
  4555. > Our ruler.
  4556. > If you happened across the changeling queen, who knew if you'd even have the chance to speak a word to her on your own.
  4557. > Would Iri defend you?
  4558. > Perhaps.
  4559. > Maybe your bond with Whispen would be strong enough to protect you?
  4560. > Who knew.
  4561. > But you did know this.
  4562. > Your time here was rapidly coming to an end.
  4563. > Sooner or later you'd have to go and step on a human truck or whatever and be driven off into who-knows-what.
  4564. > All of a sudden your stomach does a small flip at the idea of it.
  4565. > Strange, you hadn't been nervous up until now.
  4566. > But you'd already set yourself into it.
  4567. > And after what you'd uncovered, remaining here wasn't a choice.
  4568. > Time for some final words, then.
  4569.  
  4570. ACTION:
  4571. - "We probably should go now, less than X hours until we move out. Thanks for ignoring, you know, and still helping us out. Take care of yourself."
  4572. - tell buttercup that the humans are running a mail system for equestrians, maybe they could use that to try to contact other changeling operations. ie: create a new cover to send the mail and word the letter as if they're family contacting the other changeling operation telling them they're okay and asking how they're doing.
  4573.  
  4574. "Listen, uh... just... thank you. For everything. The humans seem to be trying to run a new mail system; we'll definitely try and stay in contact, and maybe you can use it to reach the rest of your... family."
  4575. > "Maybe. That'd be good for us, for sure.
  4576. > You lower your voice for just a moment, speaking softly.
  4577. "Also.. we saw what you were willing to do for us before - when we were captured. Despite all that's happened... you've been good allies. Friends, even."
  4578. > "Uh... thanks. Just trying to stay alive here, but... yeah."
  4579. > For once Buttercup actually looks a little flustered, but she smiles.
  4580. > "We'll keep an eye out for any of you, or any news from you."
  4581. "Good to hear. They're pulling us out pretty soon, but... stay safe, Buttercup."
  4582. > "You too."
  4583. > Turning to head for the door, you're surprised when Iri unexpected steps forward and leans her head forward to rest nose-to-nose with Buttercup.
  4584. > Both hold that pose for a moment, ears twitching and eyes half-closed.
  4585. > There's a muffled 'aww' from one of the human soldiers; he quickly receives an elbow in the ribs from one of his fellows.
  4586. > Eventually, though, they break.
  4587. > Each speaks a few words to the other - so soft not even you can hear - and then 'Spring' turns to you and nods.
  4588. > "I'm ready to go."
  4589. > Everything after that is something of a blur.
  4590. > You're aware of being driven back to the human camp, brought into a building to wait for a transport.
  4591. > But there's a certain degree of shock that this is finally happening.
  4592. > Only when Warren leads you out onto the pavement do you realize just how you're going to be travelling:
  4593.  
  4594. > A seemingly-huge flying machine is waiting for you, four huge propellers waiting to drag it forward as it sits in the midst of the long, paved strip.
  4595. "...you got that just for us?"
  4596. > "Not just for us, but we're a fair part of it."
  4597. > Stepping up to it, you're suddenly reminded of an even-larger one that had dropped from the skies near your then-home.
  4598. > "This thing is safe, right?"
  4599. > Evidently Ornithea feels the same way.
  4600. > Chilona gives her a friendly bump in the side.
  4601. > "And here I'd thought that you'd be happy to be flying like a bird."
  4602. > "I'd love too. Just..."
  4603. > "It's safe."
  4604. > Warren pats the side of the machine, shaking his head.
  4605. > "Things like what happened that time are... exceedingly rare."
  4606. "There are chariot accidents too, everypony. He says it's safe, I'm going to believe it is."
  4607. > "It had better be. I'm flying with you too."
  4608. > The inside is considerably less spacious than you'd expected.
  4609. > It's also distinctly practical; the seats are bare cloth strips, a handful seeming to have been hastily rebuild to accommodate a pony.
  4610. > "We're going to have to strap you in on here. It's not a security thing, so much as a safety one."
  4611. "That's fine. Just show us how."
  4612. > What follows is, you imagine, a very abbreviated version of their typical safety training version.
  4613. > Soon after, a number of other human soldiers file in and strap themselves into the seats as well.
  4614. > Nopony - or nobody - chat, barely speaking aside from orders being tossed about and check-offs being called out.
  4615. > More than a few toss glances - subtle or otherwise, some outright staring - in your direction though.
  4616. > And then the machine's engines start, and you realize there was one thing they'd simply failed to mention.
  4617. > The noise.
  4618. > You'd been fitted with earplugs as part of the safety lesson - strange things that felt strange in your ears, probably not meant for ponies - but even so the roar is deafening.
  4619.  
  4620. > It sounds like a dozen dragons howling at their loudest right next to you; the entire machine seems to be near shaking itself apart.> A sudden terror settles into your gut; subtly glancing aside, you check to see if any of the humans are panicking.
  4621. > No, they seem to be taking this quite calmly; it must be normal.
  4622. > That doesn't keep a low nervousness from building in your gut, especially when the roar seems to double up again as the machine makes its ascent into the sky.
  4623. > It's a strange feeling - though you've ridden in chariots, they always seemed to slip skyward as gracefully as the pegasi harnessed to them.
  4624. > Airships simply didn't rise fast enough to be felt, either.
  4625. > This machine, by contrast, seemed to be clawing its way into the air - as if it could slip and come crashing down at any moment.
  4626. > It's an unnerving sensation, to be sure.
  4627. > "Urp..."
  4628. > And apparently you aren't the only one feeling it; across from you, Boulder Dash looks quite pale all of a sudden.
  4629. "...you going to be alright?"
  4630. > You have to raise your voice to be heard over the machine's roar; Boulder just shakes his head.
  4631. > "Earth ponies weren't meant to fly..."
  4632. "What's wrong? Are you-"
  4633. > He suddenly jerks forward, straining against the webbing - a sharp retching heard even over the ceaseless roar.
  4634. > Similarly, Hot Pot jerks to the side next to him.
  4635. > "Oh, Boulder! Are you-"
  4636. > Fortunately someone had seen and produced a small bag of some sort which is placed beneath Boulder Dash's open mouth.
  4637. > It's just in time; fortunately you can't hear the vomiting quite as fully.
  4638. > Looking around, Spark and Ornithea aren't looking too certain either - but they're definitely better off than Boulder was.
  4639. > From further down the line, there's a whistle from one of the soldiers.
  4640. > "Lookit that, little pony can't keep his lunch down!"
  4641. > You can tell they are laughing, but it doesn't seem to be malicious somehow - especially since some of them seem to be holding back something unpleasant as well.
  4642.  
  4643. > And it does seem to have broken the ice somewhat - any tension that was building between the two group is gone now.
  4644. > "So, what'd you lot get tossed on this ride for?"
  4645. > Evidently one of the soldiers nearest you had taken an interest too.
  4646. "We're, uh, going to be helping you with something. But they're taking us to your main camp first - let us meet some other soldiers we're supposed to work with first."
  4647. > "Oh yeah? They sending you back home-side for training as well?"
  4648. > "Huh?"
  4649. > Dusk leans over as well now, having taken notice of the conversation.
  4650. > "What do you mean?"
  4651. > "Oh, they're sending some of you back home to help with training - get us ready for what to experience when we come here."
  4652. > So there were ponies on the human world now?
  4653. > Maybe that would be something you could offer yourselves for as well - if it didn't involve teaching them how to fight.
  4654. "No, not really. We're supposed to be helping you hunt something - a kind of creature that lives here."
  4655. > "No shit? What're you, some guards that turned to us?"
  4656. > Several of your ponies awkwardly shuffle, and the soldier gives you all a surprised look.
  4657. > "You're kidding. Well, how about that."
  4658.  
  4659. ACTION:
  4660. - S-so what are you going for?
  4661. - Ask him why he's heading "home." We could also tell him about our squad and how we saved some delegates and pilots.
  4662. - Ask them the same thing they asked us. Why they're being sent to their main base.
  4663. - "we're all or we were anyway, royal guardponies. but suffice to say our part in the war has taken a series of very strange turns ever since you guys dropped one of these things on our house. Since then we've had a lot of time to get to know a lot of humans and we've come to think most of you have equestrias best interest at heart."
  4664.  
  4665. > Glancing about, you decide it's best to try and be open with them.
  4666. "We actually were with the Royal Guard-"
  4667. > Instantly every soldier's head in the truck is turned to look at you.
  4668. > You wince under the force of their gazes, but keep talking.
  4669. "-but suffice to say our part in the war has taken a lot of strange turns. Especially since one of these things dropped nearly on our home... we've ended up talking to you a lot, and realized most of you have Equestria's interests at heart."
  4670. > "So, what, we dropped a bomb on you and you just turned over?"
  4671. > They don't seem impressed, to say the least.
  4672. "No, a whole machine crashed."
  4673. > Dusk leans over and answers along with you.
  4674. > "Also that we've seen a lot of bad things happen - to us - and we didn't think anyone deserved to die like that."
  4675. > He would know, and evidently something in his tone rings true to them.
  4676. "We tried to pull the crew out of the flying machine, but some of the other soldiers there wanted to speak to us... and we ended up here."
  4677. > "Well. What do you know; that's the first time I think I've heard of any of you actually popping over on our side because you believed in it."
  4678. "Wait, really?"
  4679. > "Damn straight."
  4680. > Another soldier laugh, nodding before going on.
  4681. > "Mostly seems to be a 'gets me going somewhere' kind of thing."
  4682. > For a moment you flash back to what Truenorth had told you.
  4683. > His reasoning, to be fair, had been an interest in the rewards - but then, he had no other choice either.
  4684. "We've seen some of that too. For us, though.. we're afraid this war is doing more damage than it's worth. That it might be bringing worse things - that's why we're working with you."
  4685. > "Well, I'll be damned. So, where they sending you now anyway?"
  4686. "Your big camp, apparently. The one near the, uh, portal. What about you? What're you on here for?"
  4687. > "Retraining. We're going to back to learn a bunch of social stuff from some of you - we didn't have much to work with beforehand."
  4688.  
  4689. > Another soldier leans over, nodding.
  4690. > "They bring a few of you - probably the ones who've worked the longest - back to train with us, then we go back to our units and pass on what we learned."
  4691. > "Wait, for like fighting, or-"
  4692. > "No - more so that we don't accidentally piss you off. Or, we know if there's something we can do but hadn't because we'd been assuming it'd get us kicked or something."
  4693. "Wait, seriously?"
  4694. > "Let's just say, walking up behind your closest relative species back home without announcing ourselves is a good way to get some bones broken. Not so much an issue for you."
  4695. > Dusk snorts softly.
  4696. > "I'm hearing a story there."
  4697. > One of them points to another soldier down the line, who makes a gesture you don't recognize with one finger but suspect to be a rather rude one.
  4698. > "Wilkins kept walking in circles around you. We couldn't figure out why, turns out he was afraid of getting kicked by accident."
  4699. > "I didn't want to get one of them in trouble, okay?"
  4700. > You suppress a quiet snort.
  4701. "We're not always violent, you know."
  4702. > "Yeah, yeah..."
  4703. > The soldier in question - 'wilkins' tries pulling his helmet down over his face some; some of the others laugh and give him good-natured slaps and jabs.
  4704.  
  4705. ACTION:
  4706. - Try to get everyone familiar with each other, not necessarily life stories but maybe what things were like before, stuff like names,home, stories, experiences during their occupation.
  4707. - ask them what the think the weirdest part/thing in equestria is.
  4708. - introduce ourselves, ask what group of humans they're from/what they do, and what we can expect from the portal base.
  4709.  
  4710. "So, you're still getting used to being around us, huh?"
  4711. > "Just a bit."
  4712. > "Tell me about it... some of the stuff over here..."
  4713. "I can barely imagine what it must've been to come to an entirely different world... out of curiosity, what's the wierdest part about being here?"
  4714.  
  4715. > Their answer is immediate and brings unanimous agreement from the other soldiers.
  4716. > "The damn sun and moon, man. I mean, I've seen some freaky weather back home, stuff seemingly out of nowhere, and aliens - whatever, I can deal with aliens. But the sun and moon doing that freaky thing every morning?"
  4717. "Wait - your sun, it doesn't - what does your sun do?"
  4718. > "Just... goes. Rises in the east, sets in the west. Smooth as silk, every day in and out."
  4719. > None of their books had bothered mentioning that.
  4720. > Probably because it wasn't notable - it simply was a fact of their life.
  4721. > You vaguely remembered one of them saying something about a human scientist having a theory that their world went around the sun, but hadn't realized the implications of it.
  4722. > "You okay? Looking kind of shell-shocked there."
  4723. "Sorry, I... I hadn't realized. We learned some things about your world, but... wow."
  4724. > "Tell me about it. It's been messing with us, having it pop up every damn morning."
  4725. > "The moon too. It's freakin' huge! How do you guys sleep with that big thing up there?"
  4726. "...we just... do. What, is it not so big on your world?"
  4727. > "I dunno how actually big it might be, but it looks like... what do you think, Rico, three or four times the size?"
  4728. > "Yeah, four at least."
  4729. > Their moon must seem tiny... how would they ever manage to see anything by it?
  4730. > A moment later you remember the pictures you'd seen of their homeworld - every town and city seeming to be dotted by lights.
  4731. > Of course... no wonder they'd become so reliant on technology to aid them.
  4732. > "So, do you guys get conscripted, or what?"
  4733. "Conscripted? We've not done that for a very, very long time - not for regular service.. Of course, most ponies who find their talent relating to the guard end up with us, but it's volunteer after that."
  4734. > Of course, Celestia only knew if that was still the case now.
  4735. > There hadn't been any word that you'd heard, but it was entirely possible that conscription had begun again.
  4736.  
  4737. > You certainly hoped not.
  4738. > "So what'd you do before... all this? Or, is your butt mark related to this?"
  4739. > Snorting softly, you roll your eyes.
  4740. > "Hah, hah. I have actually been with the guard for a while."
  4741. > Dusk nods as well.
  4742. > "Same with me."
  4743. > Byline, the next one down, finally speaks up.
  4744. > "I used to write for newspapers. What about all of you?"
  4745. > One of the soldiers laughs, shaking his head.
  4746. > "Got pulled into this while in college. 'course, back then I figured I'd be doing a few tours mopping up our own messes, not... this."
  4747. > Opposite him, another soldier nods - holding out a hand.
  4748. > "Name's Vince. Got suckered in by all the slick videos, showing all the cool stuff I'd get to do."
  4749. > Stretching out one leg, you place your hoof in his hand and lightly bump.
  4750. "Liked the armor, ended up doing PT all the time?"
  4751. > Your question garners several laughs.
  4752. > "You must not be a sergeant."
  4753. "One below that, in our system. They must be the same for you, huh?"
  4754. > "Hah."
  4755. > A gesture is made to a dour-looking soldier a ways down the line.
  4756. > "Don't let the sarge hear that."
  4757. > "Shut up. Don't listen to him - sarge's good, as they go."
  4758. > Shaking your head at their good-natured ribbing, you feel yourself relaxing for the first time.
  4759. > They didn't seem intent on treating you as enemies, and you certainly weren't intent on treating them as such.
  4760.  
  4761. ACTION:
  4762. - Let's do BCT stories!
  4763.  
  4764. "So..."
  4765. > You glance down the line of soldiers.
  4766. "If all our sergeants are all the same... is your boot camp just as bad?"
  4767. > This produces groans of disgust and annoyance.
  4768. > "Don't remind them."
  4769. > One leans out, grinning at you.
  4770. > "Nobody forgets that stuff. Nobody."
  4771. "Let me guess - being woken up at all hours of the night, made to run a full hiking course...?"
  4772. > "...DIs deciding to give you shit for no particular reason."
  4773. > There's knowing looks all around.
  4774. > "You guys get sorted by type?"
  4775. "For basic training, yeah."
  4776. > Boulder grunts, shaking his head.
  4777. > "There was this one instructor... decided he needed he could do his job better if he was higher up. Of course, I was the tallest pony there, so he rode me around."
  4778. > "Wait, he rode on you? Like... on your back?"
  4779. > "Uh-huh."
  4780. > Boulder actually looks upset.
  4781. > "Gave me a lot of shit about my accent too. Decided that if I was going to be 'high-class', he would make me a simple pack-pony."
  4782. > That yields a line of grins from the humans.
  4783. > "Messing with your head? Yeah, they do that. Break you down, build you up..."
  4784. > "Hey, at least you just had to carry one pony."
  4785. > Dusk leans out, giving a toothy grin.
  4786. > "They had us out in full armor pulling chariots in the middle of the day - which, without some time for us to adjust, is a headache and a half."
  4787.  
  4788. > One of the soldiers shoots him a strange look.
  4789. > "Isn't that... kind of easy? Just keep following the path? I mean, I remember from basic - after the tenth damn time they got us up to run a hike at four in the morning, you kind of learned to just run while asleep. And chanting. Or singing."
  4790. > "No, no-"
  4791. > Dusk shakes his head.
  4792. > "Pulling chariots in the air."
  4793. > "Oh. Oooooh. I forgot you guys can do that."
  4794. > "Yeah."
  4795. > Dusk groans.
  4796. > "It was not fun. Supposed to get us used to operating in unexpected environments, but..."
  4797. > "Could have been worse. Could have been Jackson."
  4798. > "Fucking Fort Jackoff, man. Never want to see that place again."
  4799. > "Damn straight."
  4800. "...is it that bad?"
  4801. > "Okay, imagine a swamp. Then imagine that swamp is filled with the biggest, nastiest, most unpleasant creatures you've ever run into that want nothing more than to keep you up at night while sucking your blood."
  4802. > The soldier gives you a sour grin.
  4803. > "And that's just the camp staff. Don't even ask me about the animals that live there."
  4804. "Urgh. At least basic camp wasn't that bad."
  4805. > "Uh, sir?"
  4806. > Next to you, Hot Pot nudges you.
  4807. "Yes?"
  4808. > "...may have a problem here, sir."
  4809. > Leaning out and looking the opposite way down the flying machine's cabin, you see Chilona curled over in her seat - both forehooves pressed over her ears.
  4810. "Did she lose her earplugs...?"
  4811. > "No, she's still got them. It's... just that bad for her."
  4812. > Oooh.
  4813. > That may be an issue.
  4814.  
  4815. ACTION:
  4816. - Ask if any of the humans can get something to help her with the noise.
  4817.  
  4818. > Damn, you hadn't considered just how much the noise would get to her.
  4819. > It was loud for you, to be sure - but not painfully so.
  4820. "Hey, is there any chance you could get her something about the noise?"
  4821. > "Aww, is the little pony scared of the big noisy plane?"
  4822. > You shoot the soldier responsible a very, very sharp look.
  4823. "No, I'm serious - her hearing's delicate, that's her talent. She's in pain."
  4824. > Evidently your concern is obvious enough, as one of them - dressed differently than the others, you notice; maybe part of a different unit? - rises and makes his way over to you.
  4825. > "Is this a common issue? Like, for a lot of you?"
  4826. "No! It's just her; her talent is her sensitive hearing - it's hitting her a lot harder than it is for the rest of us."
  4827. > Pointing one hoof up to the bulky helmet he wore that seemed to cover over most of his head - including his ears.
  4828. "Does that keep out more of the sound?"
  4829. > "Uh, yeah, but I don't know if it will come anywhere near fitting..."
  4830. > He has a point.
  4831. > For one, their helmets are meant to cover a human's ears - off to the sides of his head, not on top like a pony's are.
  4832. > "Let me get out a spare and see if it might fit, though."
  4833. > The answer is, it doesn't.
  4834. > Even after adjusting the helmet, it simply isn't designed to fit a pony's head.
  4835.  
  4836. > Ornithea, sitting next to her, has a sympathetic hoof on the back of Chilona's neck and is saying something to her you can't quite hear.
  4837. > In the end, he retrieves a strap and circled it around the helmet and beneath Chilona's jaw several times, actually tying the helmet down onto her head.
  4838. > The result is undeniably strange looking, almost certainly uncomfortable, and probably not an approved use of either piece of equipment.
  4839. > But the relief in Chilona's eyes is undeniable; she shoots a shy smile up at the soldier, who grins back before returning to his seat.
  4840. > "So, is that a thing for a lot of you? Like, your talent-things actually... change your bodies?"
  4841. > Dusk shakes his head.
  4842. > "Ponies are born however they are born. She's probably always had sensitive hearing, but would have only found it as her talent when she figured out how to best make use of it."
  4843. > "So, wait..."
  4844. > One of the soldiers leans in, a half-confused, half-suggestive look on his face.
  4845. > "Is getting your butt-mark, like, a puberty thing? Like, do your women get it is when they're ready to have their first... time or something?"
  4846. > Women?
  4847. > Oh, right - human females.
  4848. > It takes everypony a few seconds to realize what he means.
  4849. "No! No, no - most ponies find their talent when they're still young. It's nothing like that."
  4850. > "...damn it, I owe Kowalski fifty bucks now."
  4851. > Now it's your turn to give him a confused look.
  4852. > "You punch each other as a result of bets?"
  4853. > Given how they all burst out laughing, you guess not.
  4854. > "It's slang for our money. No, I dunno why - it just is."
  4855. "...and I'm guessing fifty is a lot."
  4856. > "Not... a ton, but not small change either."
  4857. "On whether cutie marks were, basically, virginity marks."
  4858. > "It was dumb, okay?"
  4859. > You roll your eyes, not sure how to respond to that.
  4860. "Don't you have some way to know your talents?"
  4861. > "Yeah - Rico's talented at making stupid bets!"
  4862. > The soldier who'd questioned you makes another unknown but presumably rude gesture to the one who'd yelled that out.
  4863.  
  4864. ACTION:
  4865. - "But seriously. Is there a way for you to know about your talent?"
  4866.  
  4867. "But, seriously - if you don't have training, do you know when you've found your special talent?"
  4868. > They look among each other, seeming unsure of what you refer to.
  4869. > "We, uh... well, we don't actually know for sure."
  4870. "So, wait - all those famous scientists we were reading about - how did they...?"
  4871. > "Well, we kind of know. I mean, we know what... feels right."
  4872. "But no way to know for sure."
  4873. > Again they glance between each other, and then all shrug in sequence.
  4874. > "Not really, no."
  4875. > "Except if you're a politician. Then you know exactly what you're good for-"
  4876. > There's a pause for the punchline.
  4877. > "Nothing!"
  4878. > They all laugh and a few of your ponies even chuckle, but you're more surprised than anything else.
  4879. > Do they really think so little of their own leaders?
  4880. "So, if you don't know for sure... how do you find out? Just... experimenting?"
  4881. > "Pretty much. Y'find something you like doing, try and do something good with it."
  4882. > "It's pretty much - you were talking about our scientists and stuff, right? Well, they figure out what feels right for them, and they just... start working on it."
  4883. "But... you can't all be doing that."
  4884. > "Well, no. But we - well, we're supposed to have that in our schools. A chance for everyone to figure out what they're doing."
  4885. > Wouldn't that take...?
  4886. "Just how long do you go to school, anyhow?"
  4887. > "Uh, supposed to be between ten and twelve years - at least."
  4888. > Ten and twelve-
  4889. > "...woah."
  4890. > Even Byline seems surprised.
  4891. > "What, does, uh, Equestria have a unified school system?"
  4892. "Not... exactly. There are certain minimum requirements, but because there's so much variation place to place... well, yeah, the schooling system varies too.
  4893.  
  4894. ACTION:
  4895. - So what's home like? Do you miss it?
  4896. - 'What's it like over there, what's home like?'
  4897.  
  4898. "So, wait - are you all from different places, then?"
  4899. > "Well, for the most part we get sent to the closest training camp... but that can still be a long way from home. So yeah, we're from a bunch of different places."
  4900. > "What're your homes all like, then?"
  4901. > "Well..."
  4902. > They look between each other, as if having trouble deciding which to go first.
  4903. > At last the nearest one speaks up, a small grin on his lips.
  4904. > "...I'm from way up north - about as far north as you can get on our country's east coast, anyway. It's..."
  4905. > "Miserable?"
  4906. > "Shut up, Joshua."
  4907. > The admonition is delivered in a light tone, though.
  4908. > "Anyway, it's cold, yeah, I'll give him that. But aw, man - you've never, ever had real good cooking until you've had Maine cooking."
  4909. "...that good, huh?"
  4910. > "Awww, yeah..."
  4911. > "Hey, you keep your lobster, man. I just want some of that fresh corn from back home."
  4912. "Ah! Now that, I can understand. Fresh on the cob?"
  4913. > The soldier who'd spoken up gives you a knowing grin.
  4914. > "Fresh on the cob, damn right. Only thing better is when they roast it."
  4915. "...now that, I've not had."
  4916. > "Man, we are going to rock your world. Too bad everything is freeze-packed junk, if I could get you some nice corn and roast it up..."
  4917. > "You'd burn it, Rico. You burn everything."
  4918. > "Hah, hah. It's best a little seared anyway - besides, what'd you give them, some of that deep-fried junk?"
  4919. > "...woah, woah. Hold up."
  4920. > Leaning out of her seat, Hot Pot has suddenly acquired a wicked grin.
  4921. > "Any of you ever had apple fritters?"
  4922. > Most of the soldiers shake their heads.
  4923. > "...when this is done, I'm finding you some. Juiciest, most delightful thing you'll ever have."
  4924. > "Sounds good to me."
  4925. > "Damn straight."
  4926. > "Anyway... you were asking what home's like? Well, it can vary a lot. Like, uh, I'm from Boston - it's a huge city, relatively old, big seaport. Nice place. But, uh, Dillinger down there - he's from Detroit."
  4927.  
  4928. > "Biggest favor the government ever did, got me into the army and out of that hole."
  4929. "Wait... you wanted to leave your home?"
  4930. > "Not everywhere's... as good as the rest. Some places, downright bad."
  4931. "So you go and become soldiers instead? That isn't exactly... fair. Just because you were born in a bad place..."
  4932. > "Life ain't fair in a lot of ways. Army gave me something to do. Ain't fun, ain't the best, but it's a job and I can honestly say I'm doing something good compared to the screw-ups still back there."
  4933. "Have to admit, it's... hard to imagine living somewhere like that."
  4934. > "What, you seriously saying there's no such thing as ponies who don't like where they grew up?"
  4935. "No, just - there definitely are. Equestria isn't perfect, by any means and yeah - some foals slip through the net. But... it sounds like you're talking about a whole city. Not just a few cases, but a whole city like that... and I can't quite imagine it."
  4936.  
  4937. ACTION:
  4938. - Ask some of the others where they came from.
  4939. - Notice naming similarities, Detroit - Detrot, Maine - Mane, Philadelphia - Fillydelhpia, Manhattan - Manehattan, Las Vegas - Las Pegasus
  4940.  
  4941. "What about the rest of you? Are you also from larger cities?"
  4942. > "Aw, hell no. Louisisana Bayou, born and raised man - though we did go in to the big O for Mardi Gras a few times. You ain't seen a party until you've seen that, man."
  4943. > Shaking his head at his fellow's exclamation, another soldier glances back to you.
  4944. > "Guilty as charged here. Grew up in the Bronx - had a nice view out across the river to Manhattan all my life."
  4945. > "They ain't gonna know what that means, man."
  4946. > "...ah, damn it. Okay, so there's this big city, right? And the oldest part of it, is on this island - well I lived on the river across from that island. Woke up to the sun bouncing off skyscrapers every morning and going right in my window."
  4947. "Well, actually..."
  4948. > The name had set your mind churning again - something familiar coming to the forefront.
  4949. > While you were thinking, the soldiers go on chatting among themselves.
  4950. > "Hey, Stuna - you gonna tell them about your fun times out west?"
  4951. > "What, you mean dodging the fuckin' cactus out in Arizona? Screw that, I don't want them to think we're that crazy. Good thing that Sarge - what was his name, Fusi? Good thing he ain't on this plane, he'd be telling everyone about how bad Baltimore was."
  4952. > Then it clicks in your head, what you had been thinking about.
  4953. "Actually - a question for you. Did any of your superiors ever explain to you anything about the names of cities here? Like, do they know why they're so similar?"
  4954. > Conversation falls as their eyes turn to you again.
  4955. > "What, do you mean how everything's horse-ified here?"
  4956. "...horse-ified?"
  4957.  
  4958. > "Yeah, horse-ified. Like, everything here's some kind of variation on some place back home. Or maybe the other way around, I dunno."
  4959. "Wait - is it just your nation, or...?"
  4960. > "Not at all. Your capital - uh, Canterlot? Yeah, well there's a mythical city for us called Camelot."
  4961. > "I think that was a castle."
  4962. > "Whatever. Anyway - uh, so your city of Trottingham? Let me ask you something, you ever know of a pony named something like Robin Hood that lived around there?"
  4963. "Not... that I can think of? Why?"
  4964. > "'cause there was a human named that around a place called Nottingham."
  4965. "Oh... well, I was thinking about what you were saying, about the city and the river? And I realized - that... kind of matches Manehatten."
  4966. > There's a long, long silence after that as everyone - human and pony alike - digest that bit of information.
  4967. > "Okay, let's be sure on this - so, the center island is called Manehattan, right?"
  4968. "Right. And there's a couple of rivers that go around both sides, with bridges running in over each."
  4969. > "And the city kind of spreads out to the east of the island itself into a few more boroughs."
  4970. > The shocked look on your face is all the response he needs.
  4971. > "...okay, what the hell man? Names, maybe it's the freaky translation thing that left you speaking the same language as us. But our cities look exactly alike?"
  4972. "I... I really don't know. I mean - we can't have been the first ones to figure this out, but why hasn't anyone said anything, on either side?"
  4973. > A glance back reveals all of your ponies looking just as unsettled as the humans are.
  4974. > Perhaps now is as good a time as any to mention some other things...
  4975. "Look, the reason we're working for you now - we had a suspicion that some monsters from our world might have crossed over to yours at some point in the past."
  4976. > "No shit?"
  4977.  
  4978. "Well, uh... actually, originally we thought you were the monsters. We were wrong about that, obviously, but... now I'm wondering if it was just the one time they crossed over."
  4979. > "You're saying we got invaded by something from here before?"
  4980. "Invaded - I don't know about. At this point... I don't know what to think at all."
  4981.  
  4982. ACTION:
  4983. - I think we should get an opinion on what the soldiers think, the skeptics the guys who buy it, the guys who don't give a shit. and so on.
  4984.  
  4985. > "You're pullin' our legs, right? No way we got that city stuff."
  4986. "No. Not one bit."
  4987. > "He's right."
  4988. > Boulder speaks up again - twice now the usually-silent stallion has made himself heard.
  4989. > "About Trottingham, at least. And what you described matches what I've heard of Manehattan."
  4990. "Honestly... do you have a thought on it? I mean... we're lost at this point."
  4991. > Their response is a long time coming.
  4992. > One soldier finally bursts out with an exclamation that leaves several other heads nodding:
  4993. > "Fuckin' magic, man."
  4994. > "Yeah. Seriously... so much shit going on here, we don't even know anymore. This... I mean, it's freaky. But stuff here..."
  4995. > "It's like, we've gotten used to things being strange. Strange is the new normal, man."
  4996. > Strange is the new normal.
  4997. > It occurs to you that while their society seemed chaotic, even self-destructive to you, they must view Equestria in much the same light.
  4998. > Without magic, things would seem to be equally confusing.
  4999. > You could certainly imagine yourself giving up and simply accepting the strangeness of it all.
  5000. "So... you don't know, but you just acknowledge it's there?"
  5001. > "Yep. I dunno, maybe there's some bald guy in a lab coat back home who gets how that magic stuff works. We don't, though. It just... is."
  5002. > "And hey, we ran our civilization on myths and legends for how long? We came out mostly alright in the end."
  5003. > 'Mostly alright' is not the term you'd have described, having read a considerable amount of human history.
  5004. > 'Barely survived' is a bit more accurate, and the idea of humans not only comprehending but wielding magic is in no bit slightly scary to you.
  5005. > But that's not something you say.
  5006. > "I tell you what, though - man, if your monsters have been messin' with us, there's gonna be a lot of angry people."
  5007. "Angry at us?"
  5008. > One of the soldiers laughs, shaking his head.
  5009. > "Angry we didn't deal with it earlier."
  5010.  
  5011. > The rest of the trip is spent in relative silence.
  5012. > That particular revelation had doused the levity from earlier, everyone's minds turned back to the mysteries surrounding your worlds and what had suddenly brought them in contact.
  5013. > Considering the similarities, you wonder, was it inevitable that your worlds would come in contact?
  5014. > Was something already connecting them for thousands of years now?
  5015. > Left to ponder those questions amid the dull, continuous background roar of the flying machine, you barely notice that it has landed until it shudders in contact with the ground.
  5016. > A spike of fear runs through your stomach - was this machine about to crash too?
  5017. > But no, the soldiers don't see to be worried.
  5018. > And soon enough you can feel it slowing down sharply as well.
  5019. > Your first time aboard a human flying machine.
  5020. > For a second you wonder how many ponies have had this chance?
  5021. > How many fewer have done so willingly?
  5022. > Such questions are put out of your mind as the humans begin to unbuckle themselves from their seats and stand.
  5023. > Your unicorns light their horns trying to do the same - but quickly quench them as soldiers come to undo the straps holding you in place as well.
  5024. > It's slightly embarrassing, but tolerable.
  5025.  
  5026. > Stepping down the ramp from the rear of the machine, you're at first unimpressed by what you see.
  5027. > It seems like little more than what you departed from at Las Pegasus.
  5028. > Then you start to look about.
  5029. > And look.
  5030. > And look.
  5031. > If Las Pegasus had seemed to have a large camp built next to it, it was the equivalent of a country town in comparison to Canterlot.
  5032. > An entire city seems to have sprung up out of the remnants of the Everfree; staring into the distance seems to yield no end to the network of roads, buildings, and lines upon lines of machines in neat, orderly rows.
  5033. > Flying machines, some easily twice as large as the one you arrived on, are surrounded by humans rigorously working on them.
  5034. > Lines of motorized carts seem to stretch out into infinity - stars above, this was what they hadn't even committed to the war yet?
  5035. > "Sir...?"
  5036. > Every few moments the air is split by another roar of a flying machine going to or from somewhere - low howls and high shrieks.
  5037. > How did they even manage to avoid each other - Pegasi did fine, for the most part, but these machines flew so much faster, the humans would barely have time to avoid!
  5038. > "Sir."
  5039. > And for that matter - how were they supplying all this?
  5040. > The sheer volume of supplies that must pass though this camp every day - that would be consumed by this camp every day!
  5041. > "Sir, you'd better see this."
  5042. > At last Whispen's voice comes breaks through your daze, and you turn to follow the direction she pointed towards.
  5043. > This time it is not out, but up that you look.
  5044. > Though you've never seen anything like it, there's no doubt on what you're seeing.
  5045. > The portal stretches a far distance into the sky - easily half a mile and then some, a perfect half-circle carved into reality itself.
  5046. > Its edge is fuzzy and indistinct; you can't pinpoint exactly where Equestria's sky stops and becomes an alien one.
  5047. > But an alien one it very definitely is - cloudy and grey, while Celestia's sun shines clear above you.
  5048.  
  5049. > In time you become aware of something else as well, a subtle tug on body that can't be attributed to any breeze or weather pattern.
  5050. > It's the portal itself, you realize; whatever magic that spawned this thing is still present, and powerful enough for even you to feel it at this distance.
  5051. > Whispen must have been able to feel it even before she could feel the thing.
  5052. "I..."
  5053. > "Hell of a sight, isn't it?"
  5054. > Warren had appeared from somewhere behind you as well.
  5055. > "Strangest thing is, you can't even see it until you get within a couple of miles. We think it's some sort of cloaking magic - someone trying to hide what they were doing with this thing."
  5056. > You look up sharply, surprise running through you.
  5057. "No one ever told us that before."
  5058. > It did explain why you'd not seen the portal that first night, though.
  5059. "Is it always like this?"
  5060. > "Yeah. It's pretty much unchanging."
  5061. > Seeing that all of your ponies are ready, he motions you to follow.
  5062. > "Come on. I'll show you where you're staying."
  5063. > This proves to entail another ride in a human truck.
  5064. > Practically the entire ride is spent peering at the human camp.
  5065. > Quite a few humans stare back; you get the feeling that ponies are not a common sight in this camp.
  5066. > At least not ones riding openly in human carts.
  5067. > The barracks proves to be considerably more worn-in than what you'd been in last time.
  5068. > Everything's definitely been in use for a long time, and in this case the beds don't seem to have been meant for ponies originally.
  5069. > The Pegasi will have to take the top ones, it seems.
  5070. > "Alright, you're free to take some time to settle in, but before we do I need to go over some things."
  5071. > Warren takes a position in front of the door and begins ticking off things on his fingers.
  5072.  
  5073. > "One: You are free to wander in this compound; in fact, we encourage you to do so as it will help acclimate the soldiers here to your presence. However, you will need to wear identifying bands on a hoof at all times outside of the dormitory wings, and anything outside this compound will require permission and an escort."
  5074. > Another finger is ticked off.
  5075. > "Two: Things are going to be low-key for a little while as we pull people in for you to train with. However, there will be meetings at 09:00 and 16:00 every day. Copies of your full schedules will be provided."
  5076. > You bob your head, and behind you your ponies do so as well.
  5077. > Something in his tone is familiar - Warren was not speaking to you as prisoners, although functionally you will were.
  5078. > He was briefing subordinates, a no-nonsense element in his voice conveying that he simply expected you to agree and follow orders as if you were one of his own.
  5079. > "Uh, unofficial three and four... I wouldn't fly above twenty feet or so, and we're aware the food is awful. It's just as bad for us."
  5080. > That draws a slight grin from you, one that Warren returns.
  5081. > Another commonality, it seemed.
  5082. > Military rations were never good.
  5083. > "Last of all.. I don't think it needs saying, we're both in this together now. You have a problem with anyone, bring it to our attention. At the same time, if you make any issues - I can't save you here."
  5084. "I don't think that's going to be an issue, Captain. We're invested in this too."
  5085. > "Good. In that case, I'll see you for dinner at 18:00."
  5086. "Uh, one thing before you go?"
  5087. > "Yes?"
  5088. "Caravan and Quick Step... what are happening to them?"
  5089. > "They're being brought on a separate medical flight. Once they're settled into our hospital here, you'll be allowed to visit them."
  5090. "Understood. Thank you."
  5091. > With that, you're left alone in the barracks room again.
  5092. > At least they'd kept everyone together this time.
  5093.  
  5094. > Looking around at your ponies, you take a deep, shuddering breath.
  5095. > Before the depth of where you are and what you are doing can get to you, you refocus on your checking in on your ponies.
  5096. > Chilona is the first you go too; she's collapsed out on a bed with her eyes half closed in what appears to be a look of utter relief.
  5097. "...how are you doing? Alright?"
  5098. > "Peachy."
  5099. > Her tone could probably melt the metal frame of the bed she lay on.
  5100. > "Head still feels like a dozen minotaurs wrestling in it. Getting better, though - used to be a hundred."
  5101. "...sorry about that. I didn't realize it'd be that bad for you."
  5102. > "Don't blame you. I will next time, though."
  5103. > If she's well enough to make comments like that, it can't be all that bad.
  5104. > Next is Hot Pot; you need to see what her leg is doing.
  5105. > She and Dusk Shadow had laid down beside each other, one wing unabashedly stretched out across her.
  5106. > If there were any reservations among your ponies about their relationship, they had evaporated as your very situation changed continuously.
  5107. "Hey, Hot Pot... how's your leg doing?"
  5108. > "It's... I can put more weight on it, but running is still out of the question, I think."
  5109. > Breath hisses out between your teeth.
  5110. > You didn't want to, but if she wasn't healed in time...
  5111. > Catching the look on your face, Hot Pot looks down.
  5112. > "If you have to leave me when you go out again, I can deal with it."
  5113. > Besides her, Dusk tightens his wing comfortingly around her.
  5114. "Don't say that - not yet. We'll see how you're doing first - I'm sure they have people able to help with this as well."
  5115. > Hot Pot nods, but you can see she's still worried about it.
  5116. > Another thing to ask about in the future, then.
  5117. > Last to check in on is Whispen.
  5118. > Her leg is considerably better than it'd been when you'd first been captured.
  5119. > Though the wounds had left some scarring - subtle paths in her coat, where the skin hadn't quite healed right beneath them - it was closed up.
  5120.  
  5121. "How's it feel? You can walk on it okay now?"
  5122. > "Yeah. It still gives me twinges sometimes, but I think keeping it in shape did well."
  5123. > A check under her other bandages reveals much the same thing - except, of course, for one.
  5124. > Examining the damage to her eye beneath the patch still makes you wince.
  5125. > Whispen catches it despite her limited vision and looks down.
  5126. > "It's that bad, huh?"
  5127. "It's not pretty. I can definitely see some damage here. But, you'll definitely keep the eye - and with some more healing, who knows?"
  5128. > Nodding, Whispen suddenly leans forward and rests her cheek against yours in an unexpected hug.
  5129. > "Thank you..."
  5130.  
  5131. "Alright, listen up everypony!"
  5132. > You gather them up in rank.
  5133. "Okay, ponies - the game has changed a bit, but I think we all know what is expected of us. we have a unique opportunity represent ourselves to these humans. So: Handle yourselves with the same distinction and honor that you've always used and we can put a good hoof forward for the Equestria."
  5134. > Starting to pace back and forth, you try and not show the nervousness that you know they all feel just as much as you are.
  5135. "We may not be in the guard's direct command anymore, but that doesn't free us from the responsibilities that carries. This is our chance to keep Equestria safe by coloring their first interactions with us - to stop this before it goes further. I expect you to do us all proud. Understood?"
  5136. > If there was any hesitation about how they might feel, it's cancelled out as a chorus of yes-sirs is given in response to your question.
  5137. > No, there is no doubt.
  5138. > They're still ready to follow you, despite the turns this has taken.
  5139. > And one way or another, you are all going to see it to the end.
  5140.  
  5141. MISSION 5 COMPLETE:
  5142.  
  5143. Primary Objectives:
  5144. > Survive: COMPLETE
  5145. > Keep you unit alive: COMPLETE, ALL ALIVE
  5146. > Convince the humans the windigos are a serious threat, and you are willing to work against them: COMPLETE
  5147. > Aid them in preventing further Royal Guard deaths: COMPLETE
  5148.  
  5149. Secondary objectives:
  5150. > Recover Quick Step and get him to safety: COMPLETE
  5151. > Get justice for what was done to him: COMPLETE
  5152. > Forge a closer relationship with your human handler: COMPLETE
  5153. > Protect the delegates from the unexpected dark magic attack: COMPLETE, ALL SURVIVED
  5154. > Score with Whispen: COMPLETE
  5155.  
  5156. Secret objective:
  5157. > Discover and pinpoint the information leak in your squad: FAILED
royal guard hie rgs

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