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Royal Guard Survival - Part 5

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 12:07:49 AM

  1. Originally published May 2015
  2.  
  3. Previous pastebin: ponepaste.org/2305
  4.  
  5. Archives in this pastebin:
  6. 1. archive.moe/mlp/thread/23057060/#q23118203 and below
  7.  
  8. --------
  9.  
  10. MISSION 6: R&R
  11.  
  12. > The trip had taken more our of you than you'd realized.
  13. > Maybe it was keeping yourself in an attentive state for several hours endlessly.
  14. > Or maybe it was something about being in a flying machine.
  15. > Either way, everypony elected to turn in soon after.
  16. > The following day you wake promptly in the morning and get your ponies ready.
  17. > The dining hall is quite close, fortunately, requiring little guidance to reach.
  18. > Unlike that barracks near Las Pegasus, though, this one was not reserved for pony collaborators.
  19. > Instead you quickly realized you were going to have to get into a line with all the other humans, many of whom are giving you uncertain looks.
  20. > Thank Celestia you'd remembered the hoof-bands; their expressions always relaxed somewhat after they saw those.
  21. > Breakfast wasn't much to speak of nonetheless, and unfortunately eating with the humans meant you had to trot past trays of steaming meat they had laid out for themselves.
  22. > It wasn't exactly unexpected - the books made it abundantly clear that they ate meat.
  23. > Neither was that alone enough to turn your stomach; though it wasn't something you cared to think on, that some creatures did so was simply a fact of life in Equestria.
  24. > Besides, there'd been a cooperative effort with some griffons you'd been on once; that had served to harden your stomach against this particular sight.
  25. > But the sheer scale of their civilization, and the sheer volume they must consume...
  26. > Even if it had been made clear that they did not eat sentient creatures, the simple amount of death they caused was something you chose not to dwell on.
  27.  
  28. > So you move past as quickly as you can, selecting food that seemed safe to eat, and found a quiet table to settle down at and eat your breakfast.
  29. > There'd be some time before morning briefing, so you could probably choose to use that as you please.
  30.  
  31. ACTION:
  32. - Go back to your quarters and talk to you ponies - see how they're doing.
  33.  
  34. > After everypony has finished up their meals you bring them back to the bunkroom you'd been assigned to.
  35. > Someone had thoughtfully dropped off the books you'd had back in Las Pegasus while you were out, and a few begin paging through that again.
  36. > But you have other things on your mind.
  37. > It's been a while since you've had a chance to simply talk to your ponies, and now you want to take what you can before things become heated and busy again.
  38. > So you do.
  39. > Whispen is first - not out of any preference, but simply because she is sticking closest by you.
  40. > Pulling her off to the far end of the room, you speak in low tones.
  41. "Whispen... how do you think they're doing? Are they going to be able to stand through all this?"
  42. > Their reaction to your inspirational words the prior day had given you hope, but while it signaled their readiness to follow you now it was less indicative of how they would stand up in the future.
  43. > For that matter...
  44. "How are YOU doing, Whispen?"
  45. > After a great deal of consideration, Whispen gives a hefty sigh.
  46. > "I can't lie to you and say 'well'. I'm not, exactly. It's a great opportunity what we've been given, but... it's also a great weight. And... I do worry sometimes still."
  47. "I don't think you could call yourself a pony if you weren't worried about this, Whispen."
  48. > She flashes you a soft, warm smile.
  49. > "Nice of you to say, but..."
  50. "But it doesn't answer. I know. The truth is, I'm worried too. All that means is we need to try doubly-hard to make sure it's a success."
  51. > Whispen halts a moment, then speaks again - even more softly now.
  52.  
  53. > "They won't admit it, but... I think some of them are really worried about where we would go if this does fall through."
  54. "Which ones?"
  55. > "Spark Flash. Hot Pot and Dusk, of course. Ornithea. Don't mention it to them, though - they're a little embarrassed about it."
  56. > Some of those made sense.
  57. > Spark had never hidden that he felt in over his head at times; Hot Pot and Dusk were understandable as well.
  58. > But Ornithea...?
  59. "I want to speak to them all the same, but I'll not mention it directly. Thank you."
  60. > "You're welcome..."
  61. > Evidently you really are welcome, as she punctuates it with a light kiss to your cheek.
  62. > Among your ponies, some are easy to judge.
  63. > Boulder is his typical calm, collected self - a point of stability in the mess that you'd gotten yourself into.
  64. > His greatest - only, really - complaint was being sorry his pipe had gotten left behind somewhere in Las Pegasus.
  65. > While he might not be the most direct or inventive pony you had under your command, it seemed you could rely on him always be there.
  66. > Unfortunate, that was not something that could be said for many of the others.
  67. > Dusk Shadow and Hot Pot were continuing to take shelter with each other.
  68. > A moment after you finish speaking with them, however, Dusk rises to follow you a short ways.
  69. > "Sir, can I have a word?"
  70. "Of course. What's up?"
  71. > "Hot Pot says you're thinking about taking her off of this thing. Because of her leg."
  72. > Ah.
  73. > This.
  74. > Perhaps seeing your hesitation, Dusk shakes his head.
  75. > "I'm not angry, sir. I just... she might not show it, but she's upset by it. She wants to be a part of this."
  76. "I want her to as well. But I can't rightly put her in harm's way if she's not ready for it - and being here, working with the humans might very well be just as important."
  77. > "That's what I told her..."
  78. > Dusk sighs gently, giving a tiny shake of his head.
  79. > "I'll look out for her, sir."
  80. "Thank you, Dusk."
  81.  
  82. > If Byline had any particular concerns, he did not deign to share them with you.
  83. > Though there was something lurking just out of reach in his words, you didn't think he'd be a problem... not in the short term, anyhow.
  84. > Chilona has taken the extra time to curl up on one of the beds and promptly fall asleep, a pillow held over her head against even the low noise in the room.
  85. > After her ordeal on the flying machine, you simply didn't want to wake her; she could be spoken to another time.
  86. > Ornithea, on the other hand.
  87. > She does not even hide it.
  88. > "It... I'm sorry, sir. I shouldn't... I wasn't the only one in there, I know, and not the only one who hated it. But... it was so... barren. Stark everything was hard, cold, artificial. It just felt wrong."
  89. > It seemed her experience in the cell had been harder on her than she'd initially admitted to Whispen.
  90. > Fortunately your second was helping you with Ornithea, standing beside her with a light hoof on her back.
  91. "Ornithea, I know it wasn't pleasant. It wasn't pleasant for the rest of us either. But, you have to focus on what we can do now, not where we were?"
  92. > "I know, but..."
  93. > The earth pony pulls an unsteady breath.
  94. > "But what if we go back, and they start pushing us for information again? What if I give in? What... what if I tell them..."
  95. "Then you be honest with them, Ornithea. You tell them what we've been telling them now: That we came to work for them because we really were convinced it was right. You tell them how we came to that decision, too."
  96. > "I... I'll try..."
  97. "You'll do fine, Ornithea. Trust me."
  98.  
  99. > Moving on to Spark, you hope to resolve the last of these concerns before they go too far.
  100. > Fortunately much like Chilona, he's more than willing to express them openly.
  101. > "I guess, I'm just not sure where everything is going. I mean - Caravan, he always knows where he stands. He's sure. I envy him - I wish I knew where I stood anymore."
  102. > You notice he pointedly does not use 'knew'.
  103. "I know it might seem like that, Spark, but just because we're standing where we are doesn't mean our goals - our purpose have changed. We protect Equestria - whatever that might turn out to mean."
  104. > "Yeah... Yeah, I get that. I guess..."
  105. > Spark pauses, before speaking more hesitatingly.
  106. > "I guess, I got into the Royal Guard... not quite understanding what I was doing. I know, I know - how does a pony do that? I don't know."
  107. > Another heavy sigh seems to all but pull something from him as he sinks down.
  108. > "I listened to them explaining what it'd mean. I knew the requirements, I got the same talk as everypony else, I read the papers on it. But on some level I guess I thought it was still going to be like the stories. That's what the Royal Guard was, you know? A symbol, a story."
  109. > You're torn between feeling annoyed that he was letting his own mistake affect him at this point, and feeling sorry that the worst conflict in recent Equestrian history had gotten dropped on him as well.
  110. > Certainly, during peacetime he wouldn't have felt this as sharply - or perhaps, not at all.
  111. > After all, in peacetime poorly thought out and rushed plans did not get four in ten ponies killed simply so the officers could say something was being done.
  112.  
  113. "...I get where you're coming from, Spark. I really do. But just because we're not being traditionally heroic guardsponies here, doesn't mean we aren't helping."
  114. > "Yeah. I get that."
  115. > Spark nods slowly, his eyes meeting yours at last.
  116. > "And I'm not going to drop out on you. I know what I have to do. I'm just... confused."
  117. "That's okay, Spark Flash. Just tell me if there's anything that's particularly getting to you."
  118. > Let's see, Spark down and Chilona already asleep.
  119. > That leaves only-
  120. > "I need to eat."
  121. > -Iri.
  122. > Swallowing your own sigh, you turn to face the disguised changeling.
  123. "...you know, when you ask it can be more polite."
  124. > No answer is forthcoming, except for the slight scowl that always seems to be present on 'Spring's' face.
  125. > This time you aren't able to keep the sigh down.
  126. > Patience; this is as much a change for her as well.
  127. "Alright. What do you need to do?"
  128. > "Simply focus on your thoughts of Whispen; that will make it go easier. Is she around?"
  129. > She is, but apparently speaking to Hot Pot on something.
  130. > You won't disrupt her.
  131. "Busy. Is that a problem?"
  132. > "No. But you may feel it a little bit more."
  133. > Well, that's something you'll have to work with.
  134. > Closing your eyes, you try and keep a focus on the best moments between Whispen and yourself.
  135. > The quiet moments when she'd done as much to reassure you as you'd done for her.
  136. > Especially the quiet moments in the darkened barracks room when you had-
  137. > No, let's not think about those.
  138. > Iri needs love, not lust; who knows what that would do to her?
  139. > Only in time do you feel the slight tugging on your mind as Iri feeds; when it finishes you open your eyes again.
  140. > She actually looks slightly surprised it even worked.
  141. "See? Not as bad as you'd thought."
  142. > "I... see."
  143. > No, something else is bothering her still.
  144.  
  145. ACTION:
  146. - Try to convince her further.
  147.  
  148. "Look, Iri. I don't know what it is, but you need to let it go. If you're worried about them hearing, I know ways around it. If you're worried about me knowing... I can't help that. If we're going to be a team, we have to know now-"
  149. > "And what should I say?"
  150. > Her voice is lowered to a hiss.
  151. > "That you are destroying everything my world has come to? At least when we heard of the humans coming, we could rely on what we knew - and now you're turning even that over?"
  152. > There's a slight tremble in her voice, even as it drops to barely above a whisper.
  153. > "Sometimes I am not sure who to be more angry at. The humans broke our world, but you finished it."
  154. "You think you're the only one?"
  155. > Almost unthinkingly you take a step forward, your own tone lowered to a growl.
  156. "Over two years, I could not forget what happened in Canterlot. And then I run into you - all of you. And I have to admit that I was wrong too. I have to admit..."
  157. > You take a shaky breath, not quite sure you're really going to admit this.
  158. "I have to admit that I'm not just carrying you along, but that I need you along. That I have to rely on you just as much as I have to rely on any one of my ponies. So get in the same basket as the rest of us, 'Spring'."
  159. > She seems slightly shocked at your rant - having dropped back a step and eyes gone wide.
  160.  
  161. ACTION:
  162. - Mention Buckleup, but do not go hard on her.
  163. - tell her that buckleup alluded to a problem she had in the past but that he didn't pursue it from him and up until now we had tried to give her space so she could get comfortable with us, but space doesn't seem to be working. assure her that we haven't and do not wish to abuse her privacy, but we'd be happy if she was ever willing to open up to us, person to person.
  164.  
  165. "...listen, 'Spring' - I don't know what your issue is. Buckleup didn't want to tell me even though he mentioned that there was something driving you, and I've tried to give you some space. But apparently that isn't working."
  166. > At the mention of Buckleup's name she freezes, allowing you to go on speaking.
  167. "Now, I don't want to abuse your privacy. But I'd really like it if you were willing to open up to us, pony to pony."
  168. > Iri takes a shuddering breath, apparently having been not at all aware that Buckleup had said anything.
  169. > Interesting, since all the Changelings had forever insisted that they didn't keep secrets from each other.
  170. > "...I can't tell you. You would hate me - probably kill me."
  171. > For once she actually looks away, eyes falling to the ground.
  172. > "You want me to fit in on this team... then let me keep this secret."
  173. "That's not helpful, 'Spring'."
  174. > "I know. But it is to me."
  175. "Is this about what Buckleup said?"
  176. > "Some of it. Some not."
  177.  
  178. ACTION:
  179. - Keep pushing it.
  180.  
  181. "I'm sorry, 'Spring'. I need to know."
  182. > "Fine. You want to know for real?"
  183. > She raises her head.
  184. > "I... served our Queen closely, once. Before Canterlot. I was not to be there. Maybe I should have been - maybe I could have stopped it from failing like it did."
  185. > That was right; Buckleup had said that she wasn't there.
  186. > "I saw what became of her after that. She sank into obsession with your princess, and thought to train her instead of simply defeating her - to take that idiot who almost got you killed as a student! And now she is lost to us."
  187. > Raising one hoof to jab at you, Iridescent Glaze hisses out the next few words.
  188. > "We should not ever think of you as... partners. Students. Anything but food. It is a sickness. It cost us our Queen; I would not let it cost us more.
  189. > Iri leans forward, something between a pained grimace and laugh on her face.
  190. > "So you want to know everything? Fine. Let me tell you straight: I sold you out."
  191. > At least her voice hadn't risen to the point it could be heard by others, but that didn't stop you from all but freezing in shock.
  192. > "I sold all of you out. Back in Las Pegasus, when we were captured. I cut a deal with them on my own... didn't you think it was funny, that we never heard anything more of that idiotic plan with the Parasprites?"
  193. "You told the humans."
  194. > 'Spring' nods sharply, her head held high - proudly, you wonder, or so that you wouldn't see how much pain she was in.
  195. > "I gave everything up... told them I had lost family to the changelings, that I wanted to see everything they knew about us so that I could figure out where the others would be."
  196. "The others, and your queen."
  197. > "And my queen, yes. I told them I would point out what the Royal Guard knew to be true, and what was not. So that they could hunt us... a lie, of course, but a neccessary one."
  198. > Plots within plots.
  199. > It seemed like weaving such complex plans of betrayal and subversion was practically innate to Changeling existence.
  200. "Why the humans?"
  201.  
  202. > "They are predators, like us. Fighters, struggling to survive. I thought... I could understand them."
  203. > As you think longer on it, more things click into place.
  204. > They'd known you were lying, but they kept sending you out - clearly hoping Iri would dig something more valuable up for them.
  205. > The night she'd stopped by your door, you wonder - had she been drawn by your love with Whispen, or already been out on some other clandestine meeting?
  206. > "I sold out your comrades for this... and do you know what it earned me?"
  207. > Letting out a sharp, hissing breath, Iri shakes her head.
  208. > "Nothing. They know nothing. Our Queen, if she is free, is not known to them. Perhaps she is hiding in disguise, perhaps she is still imprisoned wherever your princess took her."
  209. > A slight shaking begins to take hold of Iri as she goes on.
  210. > There's pain in her voice now - a deep, burning agony as she finally lets out what she'd been holding back for so long.
  211. > "And in the meantime... you. I wanted so much to hate you, so that I could rationalize you as an enemy. But no - you could not even be a good enemy, damn you."
  212. > You realize what the shaking is just as the first tear runs down her cheek.
  213. > "At every turn you did nothing less than try to welcome me as one of your own, despite what we did to Canterlot. You've taken our queen, our way of life, our existence... and you could not even leave me to accept what I had done. Why?!"
  214. > There is no good answer.
  215. > At least, not one that you have now.
  216. > So instead you ask a question of your own.
  217. > "Is this everything, Iri?"
  218. "Yes. You wanted everything - well, you got it. Congratulations. Now, leave me to die in shame."
  219. > Well, that was one opportunity.
  220. > Certainly, if you told the humans what Iri was they would... remove her.
  221. > But on the other hand... if she was so unsure of herself, was that even right?
  222.  
  223. > "They are predators, like us. Fighters, struggling to survive. I thought... I could understand them."
  224. > As you think longer on it, more things click into place.
  225. > They'd known you were lying, but they kept sending you out - clearly hoping Iri would dig something more valuable up for them.
  226. > The night she'd stopped by your door, you wonder - had she been drawn by your love with Whispen, or already been out on some other clandestine meeting?
  227. > "I sold out your comrades for this... and do you know what it earned me?"
  228. > Letting out a sharp, hissing breath, Iri shakes her head.
  229. > "Nothing. They know nothing. Our Queen, if she is free, is not known to them. Perhaps she is hiding in disguise, perhaps she is still imprisoned wherever your princess took her."
  230. > A slight shaking begins to take hold of Iri as she goes on.
  231. > There's pain in her voice now - a deep, burning agony as she finally lets out what she'd been holding back for so long.
  232. > "And in the meantime... you. I wanted so much to hate you, so that I could rationalize you as an enemy. But no - you could not even be a good enemy, damn you."
  233. > You realize what the shaking is just as the first tear runs down her cheek.
  234. > "At every turn you did nothing less than try to welcome me as one of your own, despite what we did to Canterlot. You've taken our queen, our way of life, our existence... and you could not even leave me to accept what I had done. Why?!"
  235. > There is no good answer.
  236. > At least, not one that you have now.
  237. > So instead you ask a question of your own.
  238. "Is this everything, 'Spring'?"
  239. > "Yes. You wanted everything - well, you got it. Congratulations. Now, leave me to die in shame."
  240. > Well, that was one possibility.
  241. > Certainly, if you told the humans what Iri was they would... remove her.
  242. > But on the other hand... if she was so unsure of herself, was that even right?
  243.  
  244. > After all, it was that you'd refused to think of her as an enemy that was seemingly tearing her up.
  245. > Might it be best to forgive her, and maybe convince her that there was still hope?
  246.  
  247. ACTION:
  248. - Varying suggestions to forgive her to some degree, and not give her the hatred she wants to get from us.
  249.  
  250. > Your vision is a haze.
  251. > Iri had cost the guard good ponies, no doubt.
  252. > And she'd betrayed your trust as well.
  253. > But...
  254. > Being angry now, that was exactly what she expected.
  255. > Wanted, even.
  256. > It would do nothing but validate exactly why she'd broken your trust in the first place.
  257. > Could you forgive her entirely or what she'd done?
  258. > No.
  259. > Not entirely.
  260. > But neither could you hate her.
  261. > You weren't exactly infallible either.
  262. " 'Spring'."
  263. > Her eyes focus on you again, still bitterly narrowed.
  264. > "What?"
  265.  
  266. "I'm... not enraged at you, 'Spring'. I'm more disappointed you didn't give us that initial trust to try to find information for you-"
  267. > She interrupts, scoffing.
  268. > "Oh, like you're really going to be able to find anything."
  269. > Calmly waiting until she is done, you continue where you'd left off.
  270. "Those guards are going to suffer for what you did, and you still didn't get anything more than our own efforts accomplished. Whats done is done - we can't help them now - but I hope you can at least trust us more now."
  271. > Iri would not have a more surprised look if you'd physically struck her.
  272. > Her mouth works wildly, but soundlessly; eventually one word leaks out.
  273. > "Why...?"
  274. "Because we don't want this to end in meaningless hatred. Because we don't believe in letting that kind of thing fester when it shouldn't."
  275. > You roll your head back, presenting her with your chin.
  276. "You want to hurt me, hit me now."
  277. > "...what?"
  278. "Hit me. Come on - just slug one at me. Don't hesi-"
  279. > Faster than you'd expected, she does.
  280. > One moment, you're speaking; the next, suddenly rocked back on your haunches and rubbing the side of your head.
  281. > Breathing heavily, Iri takes a step back - well aware of the numerous eyes now focused on her.
  282. > Stabilizing yourself, you nod.
  283. "Now get some rest and pull yourself back together. When we go to that briefing, I expect you to come with us - as a team member. Nothing more, nothing less."
  284. > That does it.
  285. > Iri collapses on boneless legs, her mouth again falling open.
  286. > "Why...? Why don't you just... hate me?! I don't want to rely on you, I-"
  287. > Your hoof comes to rest - slightly shakily, but still there - on her shoulder.
  288. "Rest, 'Spring'. We're a team now."
  289. > Dumbly, she does - crawling into the nearest bed and staring at the wall.
  290. > Or perhaps more accurately, at something far distant to the wall.
  291. > Now trotting away, you find all your ponies' eyes on you.
  292. > Moving to intercept you, Whispen pulls alongside and speaks softly.
  293. > "That was risky."
  294.  
  295. "It was necessary. She needs to understand, we're a team now."
  296. > The meeting comes in time; unfortunately, Warren has little new to say.
  297. > He does mention again that you're free to explore the compound, and suggests that you should perhaps join the soldiers in the mess hall outside of mealtimes.
  298. > There's also a recommendation of a small library on the site which you might want to visit.
  299.  
  300. ACTION:
  301. - Let's just wander around a bit.
  302. - Split up in teams of two to cover more ground.
  303. - Tell the squad they're free to explore at their leisure, remind them to wear their bands
  304.  
  305. > As lunch ends, you stand and look around the table your ponies had gathered at.
  306. "...alright, everypony. Honestly, I'm going to say just wander as you please. We're not on duty right now, so feel free to find what you can and get something to just help pass the time. Just, remember to wear your hoof-bands."
  307. > You choose to wander the compound for a while, mapping out more of it.
  308. > The entire complex is merely one of many in the camp.
  309. > While it might have been build originally with some bunks for soldiers - one of which you stay in now - it seems to have been purpose-built for training, not simply staying in.
  310. > Stepping outside, you walk a loop of the compound's fence, trying to map out everything in it.
  311. > The largest building is the one you were staying in, holding several wings of dormitories, the mess hall, a medical wing and what appear to be numerous general-purpose rooms - one of which you had your meeting in that morning.
  312. > Behind it, is a relatively small field with several distinct lanes and what first appears to be some sort of obstacle course of trenches dug into the ground.
  313. > It takes you a moment to realize it must be somewhere for the humans to train with their weapons.
  314. > More confusing, is that someone appears to have put together a few blocks of an Equestrian town on the site - not many, and not nearly enough for even a medium-size village.
  315. > But just enough, to maybe get their soldiers used to working in one before they actually go into a real situation.
  316.  
  317. > Still walking around, you spot several nondescript buildings with guards on the doors; at least from the distance you've spotted them at, you can't quite tell what they are for.
  318. > They don't appear to be prisons, although there would have to have been ponies somewhere on the base to fill in for the false-village.
  319. > Maybe storage?
  320. > All of them - including the one you were staying in - seem to have been rather hurriedly built from some sort of grey block and concrete.
  321. > Either way, the perimeter of the compound is a well-worn hard-pack dirt path; you get the feeling it's seen many, many lines of soldiers marching over it.
  322. > ...well, that and some armored carts.
  323.  
  324. ACTION:
  325. - Or we could keep wandering about and see how stuff works
  326. - keep wandering. we need to find where the park the vehicles and talk to a greasemonkey.
  327.  
  328. > Maybe you won't investigate those mysterious buildings just yet.
  329. > After all, it's your first day.
  330. > Instead you continue trotting on; a ways further, you come to a line of their armored carts - some of them with panels opened up, for maintenance perhaps?
  331. > Unlike with the other buildings, there's little attempt made to store them away from prying eyes.
  332. > Indeed, they seem to be kept under little more than a metal roof supported by a handful of columns at regular spaces; that seems to be an open an invitation as anything you ever saw.
  333. > Heading for the line of vehicles, you're not surprised to find a small crew of humans pouring over one.
  334. > They've actually got it lifted up using some sort of jack, two humans half-vanished beneath the body of the machine.
  335. > That sets your stomach in a slight twist, between a natural pegasus discomfort with being trapped in tight spaces and the idea of one of those massive metal constructs falling on you, it seems like a risky idea.
  336. > Trotting closer, you're still perhaps thirty feet away when one of them spots you.
  337. > An arm is raised in... greeting?
  338. > You extend a wing in return, although a second later you realize they probably won't understand it and wave instead.
  339. > Well, they're not yelling, so may as well.
  340. > Finally one of them speaks up once you're close enough:
  341. > "Hey, you must be one of the new bunch they just brought in."
  342. "Huh? Oh, yeah! They only brought us in yesterday?"
  343. > From beneath the cart, a muffled voice rings out:
  344. > "Wait, there's a new pony out there? And we didn't get to - ah, damn it."
  345. "...what was that about?"
  346. > The first one who'd spoken to you rolls his eyes, lightly kicking at the protruding legs of the soldier below the vehicle.
  347. > "A joke. A dumb one."
  348. > Right.
  349. > You're guessing they wouldn't have actually hurt any of you, but somehow you get the feeling it wasn't exactly... friendly.
  350. > "So, they bring you in for training, or what?"
  351.  
  352. "Uh, sort of. They've brought ponies in for that before?"
  353. > "Yeah."
  354. > One points in the direction of the face Equestrian village.
  355. > "There's a few dozen of you in for some training runs through there sometimes - get the new meat some actual experience in person."
  356. > "Uh-huh. They must've finally found a new bunch to work with that."
  357. "...ah, that's not exactly it. We're supposed to be working with some soldiers directly, learning to work together."
  358. > "Wait, you serious?"
  359. > One of your eyebrows rises.
  360. "Why wouldn't I be?"
  361. > "...so wait - is it true then, that you're actually, like, the princesses' soldiers or something?"
  362. > Your visible wince is noticed.
  363. > "Shut up, Wacko."
  364. > "Hey, I'm just asking-"
  365. "It's alright. Yeah, it's true - but not that simple. We're not fighting against the princesses; there's... something else out there, we're supposed to be going after."
  366.  
  367. ACTION:
  368. - ask about the kind of ponies they've been bringing in, ie: were they academics, just regular everyday ponies, etc.
  369. - Let's ask what sort of rumors they've heard about us. It might be important once we finally interact with our training squad.
  370.  
  371. "...so wait, who else were they bringing in?"
  372. > "Uh, they were mostly just random ponies, as far as we could tell. Brought in from wherever they would sign up."
  373. > "Yeah. I mean, they'd made themselves trustworthy somehow, obviously... but nothing stuck out at me about them."
  374. > Just average ponies, then.
  375. > Looking for some way to survive, or get ahead.
  376. "I... can understand that, yeah."
  377. > "There was a couple of doctors who came in - uh, they were teaching us how to do first aid best."
  378. > "And that one historian dude."
  379. > "Oooh yeah, that asshole."
  380. > All of them promptly look to you, as if wondering if you'd somehow been offendered.
  381. > You aren't sure if they were worried, or hoping you had been.
  382. > As it was, you just shrug.
  383. "What was he up to?"
  384. > "Tried to tell the new meat about history and stuff. I don't think they listened."
  385. > "Stupid. He kept saying how he was trying to tell them what not to do in certain places."
  386. > Hopefully that little bit of indiscretion wouldn't result in anything too bad.
  387. "So, they were mostly teaching lessons in the big building, or...?"
  388. > "Huh? No. They'd move them into the that little town, have them act the part and then judge how good our guys were doing on picking up what they'd read."
  389. "Oooh. Okay. Did you go through it?"
  390. > "Us? Nah, we're just gearheads."
  391. > Wait, gearheads?
  392. > Leaping up, you hover around beneath the overhang to try and peer at the backs of their heads.
  393. > Had the humans even gone so far as to try modifying themselves?!
  394. > It was... maybe possible, considering what else they did.
  395. > "...what're you looking for?"
  396. "Do you actually have metal in your heads, or is that - okay, you don't have to laugh that hard."
  397. > Despite that, they are all nearly doubled over in laughter.
  398. > "S-sorry, man - haha - it's just, that's great. Metal, in our heads!"
  399. > "In seriousness, no - it means we stay back here and do repairs on other units' vehicles."
  400.  
  401. > "Usually it's just the smaller stuff, since we're just responsible for whatever's being trained on in here, and they don't bring in the tanks all that often."
  402. > "Besides, the tankers usually want their own mitts on their stuff - don't trust us."
  403. "...tankers?"
  404. > "Yeah. Tank drivers?"
  405. > Your confused look is evident, as one goes onto explain.
  406. > "You know - big boxy thing, hug gun on the front, runs on treads, burns through more engine parts than a whole air force squadron?"
  407. > Oooh.
  408. > They must mean the heaviest of the armored carts - you hadn't seen much of those since Las Pegasus was taken.
  409. "Yeah, I've seen 'em. Just didn't know that's what they were called."
  410. > "Wait... if you were, uh, with the princess' soldiers... did you see them from the, uh..."
  411. "...from the other side, yeah."
  412. > A grimace slips over your face as you remember the trenches outside Las Pegasus.
  413. > Awkward silence fills the air after your last admission, until you speak up again.
  414.  
  415. ACTION:
  416. - So is anything wrong with what you're working on or is it just maintenance?
  417. - Let's ask what's wrong with the vehicle.
  418. - Ask them if they can tell us the basic principle of how they work? I think we've been wondering about this long enough now. I mean how engines work, not necessarily the entire tank.
  419.  
  420. "So, what exactly is wrong with this one?"
  421. > "Oh, this? Busted steering connection."
  422. > This time the voice comes from one of the soldiers still beneath the vehicle.
  423. > "Idiots driving it nailed a rock just a bit too fast, twisted something... no good on bending it back, so we just tear it out and put a whole new wheel in."
  424. "That a common problem?"
  425. > "Not this in particular, but we do have to do a lot of basic maintenance to keep the whole thing running. I mean... do you have to maintain it when you do your funky cloud-thing?"
  426. "Sort of. Big cities will have some weather machinery to aid in generating enough, and it will have to be looked after... but mostly, we just work on the cloudsthemselves."
  427. > "Dude, if we ever figure out how to do that I'm quitting and joining the air force."
  428. > The soldier in question is promptly heckled down by friendly calls of 'traitor!' and several dirty rags thrown in his direction.
  429. > "But no, there's a lot of work like this that needs to get done. Guys up there, they get all the glory - but us gearheads, we keep them moving."
  430. "I... can imagine. We may not have machinery like this, but we're well aware of how important supply convoys can be."
  431. > "Yeah. Hey, uh - listen, just be careful about touching anything. A lot of this stuff is heavier than it looks, and if you get hurt we're all gonna get roasted."
  432. "Absolutely. You know, you don't seem to be particularly upset about being stuck behind the fighting."
  433. > One of them beneath is again the first to answer.
  434. > "Fuck fighting. I stay here, I get to mess with stuff, and I can ride around in some brass' personal fancy set of wheels if he needs it 'looked at'. Nah, I like this."
  435. > "We're all trained to fight if need be, but it's not something we really think on too hard. 'cept for a couple roles, everyone does their job, the whole thing works."
  436. > It'd be a necessity, you realize, in an army this size of such an already chaotic race.
  437.  
  438. > To some degree the Guard required ponies to give up their individuality, yes - but roles and talents still shined through.
  439. "Do you like... take a test, or something? To figure out what you're good with?"
  440. > "Uh, yeah. During training, there's a selection process for some jobs. Then you get hit with the advanced stuff, if it's relevant in your field."
  441. > Maybe not that different, then.
  442. > "Something similar for you?"
  443. "More or less, yes. But, if you've been trained specifically for this, then there is one thing that I've been wondering a long time."
  444. > "Shoot."
  445. > Your heart skips a beat.
  446. > "It means ask your question, little guy."
  447. > The slight insult isn't even noticed, so thankful are you.
  448. "Well... do you understand exactly how this whole thing works? I mean... you know how to fix it but do you get it?"
  449. > "Hell yeah. You want to see?"
  450. > With a shrug, you hover behind one soldier as he lifts the lid over the front section of one vehicle.
  451. > What is within can only be described as a mess of metal, tubes of maybe rubber or plastic, and wiring.
  452. > Is this what drives it?
  453. > "Should you be showing him that? I mean... he said he's with us, but.."
  454. > "C'mon, man, it's a car engine. Not exactly classified."
  455. > "Dude, prime directive. You never seen Star Trek?"
  456. > "I think the prime directive kind of went out the window when we bombed them."
  457. "You can ask your officers,they'll confirm."
  458. > The confidence in your voice seals it.
  459. > For the next few minutes, you receive rapid education on human engine technology.
  460. > At the core, it is startlingly simple.
  461. > Not a steam engine, but not too dissimilar in concept: Burning a fuel to make a gas push a cylinder to make it go.
  462. > The only difference is where the cylinders is, and how the gas is used.
  463.  
  464. > And yet they practically traveled their entire planet on similar machines, if they were to be believed.
  465. "...so the big wire sticking up on the back... that's nothing to do with it?"
  466. > "What, the radio? No, why."
  467. "...when we first figured out you were using electricity so much, we thought it was meant to catch lightening."
  468. > "Hah! No, they've tried that. Didn't work too well. Not enough energy over time, I think."
  469. > Of course, they hadn't had weather magic to guide their storms either.
  470.  
  471. ACTION:
  472. - Is there anything you'd like to clear up about us?
  473. - or asking what rumours they've heard about us.
  474.  
  475. "...well, as long as we're having a chat - is there anything you'd like to follow up about us?"
  476. > "Well..."
  477. > They look among each other, a few whispers being passed around.
  478. > "Okay, so we got to know... is it really true that you actually let that princess go into your head and stuff? Some of the guys have been saying..."
  479. > This again.
  480. > Well, as it was increasingly looking to be a major part of all this, best to just put it out there and be done with it.
  481. "Yes... we do. She mostly helps foals - our young - to find their way, but she does."
  482. > Again they look among each other, concern and uncertainty written on their faces.
  483. > "Isn't that like... creepy? I mean... what if she's like... changing who you are?"
  484. "I think... look, from what I've read, humans have had a lot of leaders that were indisputably bad for who they were leading, right?"
  485. > "Definitely, yeah."
  486. "Well... look, when one of our rulers goes back like that, we... notice. When you look through our history, it's really, really obvious when one of our rulers go bad. When they aren't, though..."
  487. > You pause again, trying to think how to put it.
  488. "It's hard to explain. We all have a purpose in our life, and a lot of our society runs on trust. That's... it's just how we live. So, when it is the princess' duty to watch over dreams we trust that she is who she is."
  489. > "Still, man, that's... really creepy."
  490. > There's no hiding the tones in the soldiers' voice.
  491. > He's worried.
  492. "I know... it's one of the big differences between our cultures, I think. Accepting things like that - ponies, we basically stick together."
  493. > "Well... she better not do any of that funny stuff to us again."
  494. > For a moment you almost say that you'd met Luna, and severely doubted he would ever do something like that again.
  495.  
  496. ACTION:
  497. - Ask about our reputation in particular.
  498.  
  499. "...well, there is one thing I'm wonder, actually. I mean, you say that you kind of heard some things about us. What was it?"
  500. > "Uh, well you already confirmed that you really were with the guard.. uh..."
  501. > Another bout of whispers pass between a couple of them.
  502. > "What city was it that you said you were from again?"
  503. > Cloudsdale.
  504. > You wince slightly at the thought - who knew how they were doing now...?
  505. > But that wasn't he was asking.
  506.  
  507. "Las Pegasus."
  508. > "You hear about some crazy mare who tried to kill a bunch of people with some-"
  509. > He doesn't even need to finish his statement.
  510. > You'd gone nearly rigid at the mention of it.
  511. > As a few seconds pass, your head bobs in a low nod.
  512. "Yeah. I know about it. I was there for it."
  513. > "...wait, seriously?"
  514. "I actually gave a short speech beforehand. Did you hear a recording of it or anything?"
  515. > All of them shake their heads.
  516. > "We've seen a couple fast clips from right as she started doing her crazy floaty-magic thing, but... damn, man. You were right there?"
  517. > "Oh, shit. Wait, wait - he's the one who talks to her right before she goes nuts!"
  518. > Recognition lights in their eyes.
  519. > "Damn, you're right!"
  520. "Yeah, I - I was trying to tell her not to do it, whatever she was going to do. I could tell it was something, but I thought she was just going to... you know, yell something out, right? Not... that."
  521. > "Yeah, man. Shit, I was really thinking we'd left that kind of thing behind."
  522. > Raising your eyes again, you sigh heavily.
  523. "...I know. It wasn't good for us, or you."
  524. > "Hey, man. Don't give yourself too much shit over it. Way I heard it, you kicked her down long enough for somebody to put some rounds into her - can't help the crazy ones."
  525. "It's not just that. What she used..."
  526. > Halting for a moment, you struggle to find the right words to describe it.
  527. "Okay, so we've read some of your history, and we know that there are some things that even you consider too cruel to be used in war."
  528. > "Wait, you're saying she's a walking WMD?"
  529. "Not... in that she's going to destroy a city or poison everyone, not automatically. But it's the same kind of idea for us - you just don't use magic like that. It's the domain of the greatest tyrants and monsters in our history."
  530. > "...shit, man. You told - who is running your end of things, anyway?"
  531. "Captain Warren is our contact? And yes, we've told him about it."
  532. > "Then, I kinda think you've done what you can, y'know?"
  533.  
  534. ACTION:
  535. - We're not done until this war is over.
  536.  
  537. "Well, we're in it until until this is over now."
  538. > "Good to hear it. No offense, but we've kind of been wondering if any of you would really end up seeing things our way."
  539. "Oh, don't misunderstand - I'll still stand to defend Equestria, and as far as I'm concerned I'm still bound by the duty of the Guard. But..."
  540. > Chewing on your cheek, you consider just how to say this.
  541. "But, that duty is to defend Equestria from anything that threatens it... and right now, you aren't the biggest threat out there. I wasn't there to see this begin, but I'm sure going to see it end."
  542. > "I'm glad to hear that..."
  543. > A new voice butts in.
  544. > "But if you don't mind, would you let me crew get back to work?"
  545. > The new human hadn't even been heard approaching, but from the way the others react you suspect he's their superior.
  546. > Best not to make any enemies this quickly; bowing your head a short distance, you apologize quickly:
  547. "My apologies; I didn't mean to keep them from their duty."
  548. > "That's alright. Better get that work done though, you lot - or you're going to be up all night beating on that."
  549.  
  550. "One last question before I go - the other ponies who where here; are there any of them still left?"
  551. > One of the work crew answers quickly, nodding an affirmative:
  552. > "I think there's a few still left. Uh, check the other barracks wings, they should still be quartered in there."
  553. > Well, that might be interesting.
  554. > As the soldiers return to their work, you start to wander on a ways further.
  555. > The path you're taking now takes you a bit closer to the model Equestrian town.
  556. > Although it is surrounded by clearly-painted lines that you do not cross just yet, you're slightly distraught to notice that some of the 'homes' show obvious signs of recent damage.
  557. > Were they using it to train for attacks, or...?
  558. > Or, more likely, to be used to train for defending against attacks.
  559.  
  560. ACTION:
  561. - Wander a bit further, looking for aircraft in particular.
  562.  
  563. > Deciding to wander on, you continue the wide, circular you'd path you'd been walking on the compound.
  564. > Maybe they would have a few more of their flying machines here...?
  565. > A while later, you'd fairly certain they do not; although there are numerous small buidings spread about- mainly storage, you suspect - none seem meant for flying machines.
  566. > Nor, for that matter, are there any of the long paved roadways that they used to take off from.
  567. > Maybe some of the hovering type are about?
  568. > No, none that you can see so far - not nearby, anyway.
  569. > Beyond the compound walls is another matter, however.
  570. > Unlike the model village which had a thick line of smallish trees transplanted in to form something of a barrier to at least break up lines of sight, the compound only had a woven wire fence surrounding it.
  571. > That left you plenty of chance to look out across the rest of the sprawling camp and take in the activity beyond, including at least one landing and takeoff strip for their flying machines.
  572. > Right now it seems to be servicing more smaller ones, judging by the numerous distant shapes you can see lined up side-by-side.
  573. > Overhead, though, flew a near continuous stream of flying machines.
  574.  
  575. > Though you hadn't noticed it before, it wasn't more than a few seconds that the air was split by the howl or rumble of one.
  576. > How long had you been in their camp already that such noise wasn't even foreign to you?
  577. > The first nights, you remembered, each passing machine had left you cowering in a sleeping-hole.
  578. > And, of course, there was the omnipresent portal itself - reaching skyward far beyond anything the humans had constructed, a monumental rift in reality itself.
  579. > Now, neither seemed to matter to you.
  580. > They were just... accepted.
  581. > You aren't sure whether to be relieved or afraid of how complacent you'd become.
  582.  
  583. ACTION:
  584. - Continue wandering, taking you to the last section of the compound you haven't explored.
  585.  
  586. > Well, you'll probably have time to move along otherwise.
  587. > Moving on, you circle around to the last section of the camp you hadn't seen.
  588. > Closer up, it's clear that there is more to the ranges - as you've realized that's what they must be, ranges to practice with their weapons - than you'd thought.
  589. > Namely, that in addition to the simple ranges for practice there is an obstacle course of sorts set up - in fact, one not too dissimilar from that courses you'd seen at the Guard's training headquarters.
  590. > Except, of course, human-sized.
  591. > ...that, and there's something else strange about it.
  592. > Along one edge, several reinforced boxes have been set up - perhaps mimicking bunkers.
  593. > That is not what is strange, though.
  594. > More confusing is that the 'bunkers' have several small firing slits in them above clear windows.
  595. > But ever human you'd ever seen held their weapons just below the eye-line to fire, not above.
  596. > ...wait.
  597. > The boxes weren't right for a human, but for a unicorn...
  598. > Is this what that was meant to be?
  599. > A place for them to train against unicorns?
  600. > No, the protective boxes didn't seem to be set up in the right place for being assault-training.
  601. > What, then?
  602. > Looking closer, you notice that unlike the town, this particular field shows heavy signs of human weapons use.
  603. > "Hey! Sir!"
  604. > You're interrupted in your thoughts by Chilona's sudden call.
  605. > She'd appeared out of seeming nowhere, winging her way along close to the ground.
  606. > Up close, you could tell that even with rest she still looked a little stressed.
  607. "What is it? Something up?
  608. > "Just wanted to tell you, they just brought Quick Step and Caravan in. Captain Warren says we're clear to visit them in our free time; they've been put up in the medical wing."
  609.  
  610. ACTION:
  611. - Go over and see them immediately.
  612.  
  613. "...well, let's go see them. You know where they are?"
  614. > "Yes, they gave me the number of the room they've been put into."
  615. > As you're both able to take to wing and speed the journey - remembering to keep low, just as you'd been warned - it doesn't take long to get back to the main building.
  616. > Navigating the unfamiliar interior takes a while longer, but soon enough you've reached the medical wing.
  617. > From here, it's a relatively simple matter to find the room - thankfully, someone seems to have seen fit to put them in together.
  618. > The door is unlocked and there's no other indications that you shouldn't be visiting; cautiously you raise one hoof to twist the door's handle and nudge it open.
  619. > Two beds fill most of the space in the room; the furthest is occupied by Quick Step, who immediately brightens up upon seeing you.
  620. > Nearer to the entrance, however, is a more worrying sight.
  621. > Caravan rests on his side, tubes running from several points on his body; a mask still rests over his muzzle, carefully kept in place by a system of bands.
  622. > It's a nerve-wracking sight, seeing him so dependent on the machines that have been connected to his body.
  623. > Ironically, he seems downright peaceful - eyes softly shut, breathing slow and steady.
  624. > If you didn't know better, it'd seem he was just taking a particularly long nap.
  625. > Pushing down the emotions that rise threateningly within, you wrench your gaze back to Quick Step and give him a thin smile.
  626. "Hey... good to see you here with the rest of us."
  627. > "Good to be here, sir."
  628. > Quick Step's voice is still painfully thin; he's obviously still recovering from his ordeal.
  629. > On the other hand, there's new life in it too.
  630. > His eyes, too, are alight once again - lacking even the fear they held in that last battle before Las Pegasus fell.
  631. > With the city left far behind, his nightmare is truly over.
  632. > And seeing that alone makes it worth coming over for.
  633.  
  634. ACTION:
  635. - Ask Quick about his flight and if he's spoken to warren or anyone here. i doubt they expect anything from him beyond bed rest but it never hurts to cross i's and dot t's.
  636. - Ask him about how his flight was, who he talked to, if Americans are being nicer or whatever, and so on. Also asks him where his mind is at, just general questions to get him to be more open with us again and feel like family again. Plus if there is or was a problem, we should report it to Warren now before it gets bad. We can also ask how Caravan has been, and if the humans said anything about him.
  637.  
  638. "Hey... did they fly you over here on one of those machines?"
  639. > "Yeah. It was... different. Nothing like being on a chariot or an airship."
  640. > "Not too rough on you, right?"
  641. > Chilona butts in, tufted ears folding down slightly.
  642. > "They were... rather loud for our trip."
  643. > "Oh, it was loud, but to be away from there..."
  644. > A slight shudder runs through Quick Steps body, and you again wince at the thought of what he's been through.
  645. > "To be away from there and back with you all? Totally worth it."
  646. "Have you talked to anyone here yet? Warren, or one of the others?"
  647. > "A lot of their doctors. They want to start me on a new healing regimen, something of their own."
  648. > There must not be any other pony doctors here.
  649. > Considering what you suspected the last lot had been forced to take part in, that might be a good thing - especially for Quick Step's mind.
  650. > "The Warren one too - yeah, I talked to him a bit. Nothing real heavy. He told me what you're going to be doing..."
  651. > Hrm.
  652. > You'd have preferred to break that to him yourself, but oh well.
  653. > Perhaps seeing your discomfort, Quick Step shakes his head.
  654. > "I'm not going anywhere, boss. Besides... my leg's still wrecked."
  655. > Yes, that too.
  656. "LIsten... Quick Step, if you want to talk about what happened back there, I'm willing to listen. But, I understand if you don't quite yet."
  657. > His gaze falls from you, to the bedsheets just in front of you.
  658. > "I... not just yet, sir?"
  659. "Alright. Whenever you're ready, though, I'm here. We all are."
  660. > A smile touches Quick Step's lips again, but it doesn't reach his eyes.
  661. > They're lost somewhere far away.
  662. > Chilona, thankfully changing the subject, motions towards the comatose stallion in the other bed.
  663. > "What about...?"
  664. > "Caravan? They say he's stable. A nurse comes in and turns him over every few hours. They're taking good care of him, too... but, I don't think they know what to do about it either."
  665. > Unfortunately.
  666.  
  667. > Not even the humans' incredible technology had an answer to his, it seems.
  668. > "He... talks sometimes, you know."
  669. "Wait, really?"
  670. > Quick Step quickly backs off, wincing.
  671. > "Well, not really talks. More like twitches and makes little moans. But he is in there somewhere, I think."
  672. > You sigh softly.
  673. > Unlike Quick Step, there wasn't even anything you could really do for Caravan - except just be there and visit when you could.
  674. > But hadn't you read somewhere that coma patients could sometimes tell when somepony was with them?
  675. > Maybe - just maybe - he could tell when you were.
  676. > Or...
  677. "...alright. Well, Quick Step, if you're able - I need you to do something."
  678. > "Sir?"
  679. "Caravan's going to need somepony. Not just to to watch out for him while he... isn't here, but to be there in case he wakes up - so he doesn't just find himself in some place completely unfamiliar, without anypony he knows there."
  680. > The order had a twofold purpose.
  681. > Not only would it mean there would be somepony to be there for Caravan, but hopefully it would ease Quick back into feeling useful.
  682. > Into being a part of your team again.
  683. > A slight smile spreads on Quick Step's lips, and relief floods through you.
  684. > "I can do that, sir."
  685.  
  686. ACTION:
  687. - Let's go and find the others and tell them about Quick and Caravan, they might wanna visit them, too. Especially Spark I guess.
  688.  
  689. "Alright. Listen, we're going to tell the others how you're doing and see if any of them want to visit, alright?"
  690. > "Yeah... thanks for coming in, sir. It's... good to be back with you."
  691. > It takes a little while to gather everypony up, as they are not at all together in the room when you get back.
  692. > Their reaction, on the other hand, is universal.
  693. > Exultation, especially that Quick Step seems to be doing somewhat better.
  694. > Boulder, ever the silent one, only lets a small smile show on his face - but the relief in his eyes is obvious, and nothing truly needs to be said to drive home what he is feeling.
  695. > Spark, similarly, seems quite good - whispering something in Chilona's ear.
  696. > Though you can't be sure, knowing that your actions had again brought something objectively good was probably helping with his feelings of being uncertain where he stood.
  697. > Tangible results often did.
  698. > Others are less restrained in their relief.
  699. > Hot Pot gives a little whoop and quickly zooms out of the door, quickly followed by Dusk.
  700. > Whispen leaps into the air, doing a little dance before following them at a more sedate pace; Byline shakes his head as the watches them go, but is smiling all the same.
  701. > Even Iri perks up slightly, having mostly kept to herself since your confrontation with her.
  702. > Part of you wonders whether they need this, to take their minds off of Caravan's condition.
  703. > If so, you're lucky to have this.
  704. > Between finally being out of danger and this, their morale has definitely risen.
  705. > As the days begin to pass, relations begin to warm up between yourself and the rest of the humans on the base as well.
  706. > While at first you'd been somewhat ostracized - it was clear to all that you were new, and your past probably hadn't particularly helped - with time the differences are starting to fade.
  707. > Insisting your ponies join what human troops are on the base for exercise drills probably helped with that.
  708.  
  709. > A bit of competition quickly grew up, and it was certainly doing well to get your ponies back into shape after spending to long hiding in one spot.
  710. > Until, finally, one night as you're filing out of the dinner hall, something comes whizzing at your head.
  711. > "Hey, catch!"
  712. > Barely raising a wing in time to snag the flying objects in mid-air, you still duck in surprise.
  713. > Examination of the proves to be a number of thin plastic boxes, fantastic art printed on the front.
  714. > Are these... some kind of human entertainment?
  715. > Wandering over to join you is a soldier with a wide grin.
  716. > "Dukey got himself on extra duty, so he's missing on what to watch for movie night. You wanna choose?"
  717. > ...wait, they want you to choose?
  718. > But you don't know any of these-
  719.  
  720. ACTION:
  721. [Gave a choice of movies to watch: Result; Star Wars]
  722.  
  723. > Well...
  724. > One of these is titled 'Star Wars'.
  725. > You've no idea what that is about - but the history books you'd read suggested they'd flown into space as a result of conflict between two of their major nations.
  726. > Maybe it would help you learn something about their world from, in addition to having a bit of fun.
  727. "How about this one?"
  728. > "Oooh, eye for the old-and-good ones, huh? Alright, well come around to room 309 in a little bit; we've got one of the projectors set up."
  729. > Everypony agrees to come along, considering not just the possibility to learn something about the humans' world but also help develop bonds with the others in the compound.
  730. > Fortunately the chairs are tall enough that, sitting in one, your head comes up to just about the same height as a human's.
  731. > The difference, of course, is that your hooves are a fair distance from the ground; their feet are not.
  732. > But, hey - it works, in the end.
  733. > Perhaps a hundred other soldiers file into the room - typically used, you suspect, for far more serious purposes - before the lights go down.
  734. > One of them rises up in the front; you think he might be the soldier who spoke to you originally.
  735. > "Alright! Looks like Star Wars is up for tonight-"
  736. > Someone a few rows forward from you yells out a question:
  737. > "Bikini Leia?"
  738. > "Hell no, the first one."
  739. > This is met with equal parts jeers and cheers.
  740. > "Anyway, was new guys' choice, so give 'em all your thanks."
  741. > Again both cheers and boos echo through the space - though judging by how relaxed they all seem, you doubt they're actually upset with you.
  742. > Then it begins.
  743. > And...
  744. > Well, it isn't historical - not if the text crawling across the screen is any indication.
  745. > And then...
  746.  
  747. > What comes next is nothing like what you'd been expecting.
  748. > But, at the same time, it has an undeniable appeal of its own.
  749. > A certain element that fires a thrill and a slight touch of fearfulness.
  750. > Quickly you realize certain things must not be exactly what they seem - the humans were obviously very skilled with illusions, but some things weren't so easy to hide.
  751. > Even so...
  752. > Compared to anything you'd seen - even the guard's most skilled illusionists, who occasionally had contests with each other - it has a certain grand scale to it.
  753. > The characters, you begin to recognize, even if they are alien; they are something familiar to you even if you've never seen anything quite like it before.
  754. > Your heart soared, sank, and trembled just as well as the rest of the soldiers in the room.
  755. > It was enlightening, in a way.
  756. > They seemed to have an idea of magic, yet considered it to be both good and evil.
  757. > Violence was used by both heroes and villains - sometimes callously - but cruelty was solely the domain of the antagonists.
  758. > A pity something like this hadn't come through the portal first.
  759. > It was striking - even a little fearful at times - but all at once, left you knowing they dreamed dreams not too different from that of ponies.
  760. > At last the movie ends and the lights flicker back on; soldiers begin to rise and wander out - presumably heading back to their barracks.
  761. > Again, the one who'd given you the choice originally wanders over.
  762. > "Well, what'd you think?"
  763.  
  764. ACTION:
  765. - "what's a "bikini" and can out squad have some?"
  766. - Tell him that the movie was wonderful and that we had fun. Thank him for letting us watch a film with them. Also mention that human use of illusion is kinda interesting, but don't focus on it. Most importantly we should mention that humans and ponies will be able to form the same cross-species friendships as seen in the movie.
  767. - You said this was old? What do your newer movies look like?
  768.  
  769. "Well..."
  770. > You take a steady breath.
  771. > Somepony else gets there first, though.
  772. > "That... was awesome!"
  773. > Human and pony laugh at Spark's exclamation; his face is still split with a wide grin.
  774. > Dusk pulls a hoof around him and smirks as well.
  775. > "Have to admit, it really was something."
  776. "Yeah. You're pretty good at using illusions - I've never seen anything that complicated, and that long."
  777. > "Thanks. You'll probably get a chuckle out of this, but the company that did all that was called 'Industrial Light and Magic'."
  778. > There is a certain irony in it, you have to admit.
  779. "...so, you said this was an older on? What do your newer ones look like?"
  780. > "Well... fancier. Bigger. Not always better, though - we use..."
  781. > He pauses for a moment in thought.
  782. > "...we have these machines that help us work - almost like machine artists. We tell them what we want in a scene, and they just... make the scene."
  783. "All on their own?"
  784. > The lot of you start to walk - back to the room you'd been staying in.
  785. > "Well, no; there's a lot more to it then that. But... the scene just exists inside the machine. This one, they used a lot of paintings, little models and visual tricks to make things appear the way they do."
  786. > It made sense, in a way.
  787. "Well... honestly, in a way, there was one other thing that was... kind of nice to see there."
  788. > "Whazzat?"
  789. > Now it's your own turn to put in some thought as to how is best to explain your thought.
  790. "Well... the other creatures, honestly. I mean, there were some good, some bad - but that didn't stop them from being friends with the human characters."
  791. > "...hadn't thought of it like that. But then, nobody was thinking of it like that back then."
  792. > Nodding his head, the soldier gives you another grin - warmer and softer this time.
  793. > "Yeah, I can see why you'd think that way."
  794.  
  795. "I mean.. the characters who were machines. Even they were... understandable. If you can think of machines that way... I hope you can think of us as friends one day."
  796. > "Don't see why we couldn't."
  797. > That's certainly reassuring.
  798. > Arriving at the door to your room, you pause to give him one last smile.
  799. > "So. Up at the normal time tomorrow, then."
  800. "Uh-huh."
  801. > Unexpectedly, Chilona pipes up from somewhere further back.
  802. > "Um... one other question."
  803. > "Go ahead?"
  804. > "What's a bikini?"
  805. > When he is done explaining, laughs have been had, and Chilona - and several of the stallions - aren't blushing quite so heavily anymore, you turn in at last.
  806. > It seems, for a change, that things really are turning up again.
  807.  
  808. ACTION:
  809. - Go for Equipment training: Going to have to get used to working with their gear some time.
  810.  
  811. > The following day sees you assembled out on the field beyond the main building.
  812. > Warren was there, conversing quietly with another soldier, but that wasn't what really grabbed your attention.
  813. > No, what you were completely focused on was the two enormous flying machines parked a fair distance back, their side doors wide open and several crew scattered about.
  814. > You couldn't be sure, but it was a fair guess they weren't here just for show.
  815. > "Alright, listen up!"
  816. > At last Warren finishes up his talk, turning to you.
  817. > "Things have been somewhat slow for now, but we're going to get you started on becoming familiar with the equipment you will be using with us. We're starting with these..."
  818. > Somehow, despite all logic saying otherwise, you'd somehow expected that you would be going for another ride in one of the machines.
  819. > The truth is, of course, nothing like that.
  820. > Much like your original training - when you were getting your first hooves-on experience with war chariots or the guard's small supply of cannon - it seems you're first expected to learn the equipment inside-out before even so much getting on to it.
  821. > You have to admire, in a way, their dedication to safety.
  822. > With a machine as complex as this, there's something definitely be said of paying attention to every detail.
  823. > From what you're being taught, this includes everything from the most dangerous places to stand up to where it is safe - or not - to rest your weight on the inside of the vehicle.
  824. > By the third day, they at last allow you to take a short flight aboard the helicopters.
  825. > Fortunately, at least this time someone had thought to modify helmets for you and your ponies.
  826. > The noise was, if anything even more profound than on your first flight.
  827. > While you find the experience almost boring - nothing soaring freely on your own wings - Boulder is decidedly less enthralled.
  828.  
  829. > Even minutes after touching ground again, he seems quite pale and uncertain.
  830. > Spark ribs him relentlessly about it... except for that he is looking none to steady himself, only handling it better.
  831. > One of the human crew calls after them:
  832. > "Hey, you'd better get used to doing this. They'll be teaching you to jump out of these at a few thousand up in about a week!"
  833. > Boulder goes white as snow.
  834. > "...tell me he's joking. No way. Uh-uh. I can take riding in one - barely - but Earth ponies were not meant to be jumping out of flying things."
  835.  
  836. ACTION:
  837. - Keep the joke going.
  838.  
  839. "...yeah. I hate tell you, Boulder, but Warren was telling me this would come up eventually. They're going to teach us how to glide down on..."
  840. > You don't get to finish your statement, because right then Boulder takes off with a speed that is belied by his huge size.
  841. > Tearing straight through the nearest entrance, the only thing you can hear echoing out behind him is a long, drawn out cry.
  842. > "Nope! Nope, nope, nooooooooooope!"
  843. > Your eyebrows shoot up; that wasn't the reaction you'd been expecting.
  844. > By the time you amble up to the bunkroom, Hot Pot is waiting at the door.
  845. > "What did you tell him?!"
  846. "...that they were going to train us to jump out of their flying machines. What did he do?"
  847. > Hot Pot fixes you with a sharp eye.
  848. > "That's not funny! You shouldn't tease him like that; he's terrified..."
  849. > She trails off, struggling to keep the smile from her face.
  850. > It doesn't hold; Hot Pot can't help but break down into a fit of snickers.
  851. > "O-Okay, that's... okay, kind of funny. Still not fair, but kind of funny still."
  852. "I know."
  853. > You let out a couple chuckles yourself."
  854. "I know; what's he done exactly?"
  855. > "He's gone and... well, why don't you go see for yourself?"
  856. > It was, all things considered, fairly impressive.
  857. > Boulder had managed to squeeze himself into one of the lower bunks and not only slip firmly beneath the sheets, but wedge a hoof to each of the corner supports to try and hinder any attempts at removing him.
  858. "...Boulder?"
  859. > There's a shuddering from beneath the sheets.
  860. > "Not moving. Sorry, sir. I know this is insubordination, but... no way I'm jumping out of something in the air. No matter what they've got."
  861. "Boulder-"
  862. > "You'll have to get one of their big armored carts to drag me out before I go out to do that. No way."
  863.  
  864. > The image was rather amusing, but you still had to put an end to this.
  865. > Forcing any tone of merriment from your voice, you raise it lightly to speak over him.
  866. "Boulder, I was joking."
  867. > He doesn't do anything immediately; when his head does pop up from beneath the sheets, it is to fix you with an unreadable expression.
  868. > For a moment you're ready to be punched for the second time since you arrived here, but at last he simply shakes his head and sighs.
  869. > "Alright. You got me... just, don't do that again. Please. The idea of falling all the way..."
  870. > He shudders heavily once more.
  871. > "Don't. Please."
  872. "Fair enough. Sorry."
  873. > "Forgiven."
  874. > You take a few steps back before giving him a questioning look.
  875. "...are you going to let go of the bed?"
  876. > Boulder's face colors slightly, and at last he releases his hooves from the corner posts.
  877. > "Oh. Yeah. I was going to..."
  878. > Yet perhaps the greatest surprise of all comes when you relate the story to Warren.
  879. > He just grins, shaking his head.
  880. > "Nah, we don't have the time to send you to jump school."
  881. "Wait, you mean you actually do that? That soldier, he wasn't joking?"
  882. > "Not really."
  883. > Now that is slightly insane.
  884. > But then, par for the course for humans.
  885.  
  886. ACTION:
  887. - find new recruits
  888.  
  889. > If the first few days had been about equipment, what followed was the interpersonal side of it.
  890. > ...well, to be fair, there was a lot of equipment involved too.
  891. > For one, they'd finally cobbled together helmets that seemed roughly fit for ponies.
  892. > They were surprisingly light compared to what you were used to - but then again, they also lacked the long tongue of metal that protected the back of your neck.
  893. > It felt strange - and slightly wrong - to be wearing a helmet without that protection for your neck; the soldiers seemed to immediately realize they had a problem as well.
  894. > Warren shakes his head, eyes narrowed.
  895. > "God-damn contractors... alright, these will do for now. Ordinarily our vests would have a collar that would come up to help close that gap, but we're still working on those, so, they'll just do for now."
  896. "For now it's fine. What's on the docket for today?"
  897. > "New troops. You're going to introduce them to... well, yourselves."
  898. > "Yeeeeah..."
  899. > Ornithea winces slightly.
  900. > "They've like... seen ponies before, right?"
  901. > "They've read out booklets and instructional videos, and probably seen some news footage... but you will be the first ones they will directly be meeting."
  902. > She winces heavily, and you have to somewhat echo the sentiment.
  903. > Sure, you were probably the best choice for who they might see on first arriving in Equestria, but...
  904. "How soon?"
  905. > "Ten hundred, barring any serious delays."
  906. > Glancing at the nearest clock, you nod; a couple of hours yet to prepare.
  907. > That said, when the appropriate time comes you still feel a slight nervousness swirling in you stomach.
  908.  
  909. ACTION:
  910. - We should take Whispen with us.
  911.  
  912. > If there was one pony you could always rely on, it was Whispen.
  913. > Selfish as it might seem, you were glad to have her there.
  914. > Besides - there was good reason to have her there too.
  915. > It'd be good to present two of he tribes, and she'd proven a solid pony in the past.
  916. > Taking a step up to face the group, you try to (again) ignore the fact that you had to stand on a fairly high stage just to match the humans' height, let alone stand over them.
  917. > It was, you had to admit, slightly humiliating; it at least gave room for a few props to be used in demonstrations later on.
  918. > Nonetheless, you step forward and clear your throat.
  919. > Silence instantly falls over them, allowing your next words to be easily heard.
  920. "Okay - listen up. I've been assigned to help acclimate you to Equestria, ourselves, and our culture. We are, both of us, strictly speaking in the services of the Equestrian military; we've been brought here for the sole purpose of making sure you have to use the absolute minimum of violence you absolutely have to."
  921. > Pausing, you gather your thoughts and look down at the note you'd made beforehand and go on.
  922. "I am a Senior Airpony, which makes me the equivalent of a corporal or specialist in your soldiers. This-"
  923. > You motion to Whispen here, whose single eye has been sweeping out across the crowd.
  924. > At least she looks like she's holding up fairly well.
  925. "-is Private Whispen; she is my effective second in command."
  926. > Unfortunately in the leadup for the attack on Las Pegasus there had never been a chance to properly put her in for the promotion for which she sorely deserved by this point.
  927. > Or any of your other ponies, for that matter.
  928. > And certainly afterwards there hadn't been any hope of it.
  929. > Simply promoting yourself was, despite not being under the Guard's direct command anymore, something you were not willing to do.
  930.  
  931. "We'll start with something simple. I've been informed you've read up on a booklet that gave you the basics of Equestria; doubtless this means you've heard a great deal about the magic we use by this point. The first thing I'm going to try and teach you, is not to be afraid of this magic."
  932. > You try to ignore the slight snort one of them gives.
  933. > With a nod from you, Whispen steps forward; her horn flickers to life, a pinpoint of light forming at the tip to radiate out on a pool on the floor.
  934. "I've had the chance to read up on your world, and what life is like there. I understand you've never seen anything like it, and that you've probably been taught to be wary of magic at the least. This is understandable. You have every right to be wary of it, but you should not fear it."
  935. > Stepping to the side, you raise a hoof to rest against her horn; Whispen grimaces lightly as the magic sputters and dies.
  936. > Turning back to the soldiers present, let her begin to speak:
  937. > "Most unicorns, like me, are capable of the most obvious feats of magic in your eyes. Telekinesis, making a light, and making a simple bolt of magic are things all unicorns are capable; only the last is inherently dangerous to you."
  938. "Pegasi, like myself, are capable of a more indirect form of magic. We have an inherent affinity for and the ability to control weather to a limited degree; doubtless you've heard a great deal, but the truth is rather less impressive."
  939. > While obtaining a true cloud hadn't been possible on such short notice, you had managed to assemble a passable one using the showers.
  940. > Keeping it together was trickier, but it'd stuck around long enough.
  941. > Leaping skyward, you settle down on the cloud - folding your wings and sitting on your haunches.
  942. > It sags beneath your weight but holds, yielding some surprised murmurs from the crowd.
  943. > Evidently they hadn't been told just how natural it was for some pegasi.
  944.  
  945. "This ability, again, is not a weapon. It is... something we do, no more different than one of you driving your vehicles around. Many of us live in clouds."
  946. > Until they were forced out, anyway.
  947. > You were trying not to think too hard on what might be happening to Cloudsdale as the time passed here.
  948. "While it can be used aggressively, a pegasus doing this alone should not be seen as hostile."
  949. > A few kicks bursts the cloud apart.
  950. "At this point, we will open things up to some initial questions from you."
  951. > Immediately a hand shoots up in the back.
  952. "Go ahead."
  953. > "What about the funkier stuff? Like... the book said only your princesses can do the funky dream thing, but what about some of the other wierd stuff that some of you can do?"
  954.  
  955. ACTION:
  956. - Explain about cutie marks and how they influence ponies.
  957. - Explain dark magic.
  958.  
  959. "...so, you've probably heard about our cutie marks."
  960. > You briefly extend one wing back to touch your own, just in case.
  961. "In brief, when a pony finds their talent or calling in life, their mark will appear - something relating to their talent in some way."
  962. > Pausing, you take several seconds to consider how to explain this.
  963. > Fortunately, Whispen steps up and takes over in your stead.
  964. > "A cutie mark alone isn't always a good judge of a pony - you will have to learn a bit about them as well."
  965. > Yeah, that was a good way to start.
  966. "For instance, Whispen's mark indicates her proficiency in using magic with relatively little light or noise; for other unicorns, it's also harder for them to feel as well. But, it doesn't tell anything about what she might be doing."
  967. > "Right. But, mixed with other things, it might help you figure something out. Like, if you see a pony with a mark somehow related to medicine, and they're mixing something up - it's probably medicine. But if you see one with a flame or a fireworks for a mark... that might be something to look into."
  968. "It's also worth noting at this point, that you will very rarely come across a mark representing a pony with skill in fighting. Most of them are already enlisted in the Royal Guard, at the higher ranks - so you'll not have to worry about being surprised."
  969. > More than a few soldiers have pulled out little pads of paper and are scratching down what you've written.
  970. > Good; actual interest in your words.
  971. > It helped with the feeling that you were selling out somehow, if there was more evidence they actually meant to hold on to what you were trying to communicate.
  972. "Also, the Guard itself does not rely particularly heavily in talents. Ponies will, to some degree, always excel in roles their talents help them with, but the guard does not promote solely based on that."
  973.  
  974. > "Unfortunately, some of the irregular militias - or simply angry ponies - that you might encounter will, so you should still pay attention to them. Also-"
  975. > Whispen gives a little grin.
  976. > "-it's not a bad thing to look at a pony's cutie mark. Staring is different, but just quickly looking at a mark is something we do all the time and will not be perceived as rude."
  977. > That, at least, draws a round of grins from the crowd.
  978. > Relaxation, another good sign.
  979. > And, it seemed to help that they weren't seeing how nervous you are.
  980. "There is one other thing we need to mention: Dark magic. You may have heard of it, as a pony tried to attack one of your leaders with it recently."
  981. > There's several nods, which you both find reassuring and worrisome.
  982. > The former, because they'd undoubtedly heard of your actions there as well (if not that it was you personally).
  983. > The latter, because ever more reason was leaking back into their world to be afraid of magic.
  984. "The best way to compare the idea of dark magic, is that it's something like the worst weapons you've built - they exist, but nopony - er, nobody - really wants to use them. Also like those weapons, while it is terrifically destructive it is also exceedingly difficult to control - a pony trying to use it will almost certainly destroy themselves as well."
  985. > "So... it's like a suicide bomb?"
  986. > Your eyes travel over the crowd to the soldier who'd asked that.
  987. "It... might be thought of it that way. Only a bare few ponies have ever been able to control it in our history. If you see one using it - and you will see it, the effects are very distinctive - then they are incredibly desperate. And, yes, quite possibly suicidal."
  988. > Privately, you have to admit that the mare back in Las Pegasus couldn't have been hoping to actually escape their camp.
  989. > Sooner or later, they'd just have thrown something bigger at her until she cracked.
  990. "Next question - yes, you there."
  991.  
  992. > "So, uh... when ponies... um..."
  993. > He seems quite uncertain.
  994. "No dumb questions. There's a lot to learn here, obviously, and if you need to ask-"
  995. > "Okay, so do you ponies like... rub... on our legs and stuff...? Or... is it like... bad if we kind of... forget... and try to pet you...?"
  996. > His head ducks down in shame as several of his fellows rib him good-naturedly.
  997. > Somehow you get the feeling there's a story behind this.
  998.  
  999. ACTION:
  1000. - Well some ponies are still scared of humans and quite a few probably thin they're monsters from tartarus so unnecessary contact should be avoided.
  1001. - Try not to make a habit out of it. Foals may not mind so much, but adults and teenagers would prefer to be treated as such.
  1002. - "We are not cats or dogs. Although I suppose, well, considering the relative size difference, you might... Look, nevermind. Just apologize if it happens, and if they get, uh, flustered and ask you to keep going, probably don't."
  1003. - It would be demeaning and probably not something you would want to be known for, an accessible and positive relationship with the civilians of equestria is the goal here and as you humans have said, discretion is the better part of valour.
  1004.  
  1005. "We are not cats or dogs. Although I suppose considering the relative size difference, you might... nevermind. Try not to make a habit about it; a lot of ponies may still be scared of you, and even among those who aren't - well, foals may not mind so much, but most adults probably wouldn't want to be treated like that."
  1006. > Now, you realize, there is a point to be made here.
  1007. "In general, remember that even if we look... strange, we're not actually that different from you in the way we think. Something like that would probably be seen as demeaning, and I don't think that's what you're aiming for - and certainly shouldn't be aiming for - right now."
  1008. > "And... uh... if what if one of us does by mistake?"
  1009. "Just apologize if it happens, and if they get, uh, flustered and ask you to keep going, probably don't."
  1010. > There's another round of low 'oooohs' and looks shot in the direction of the soldier, until another - the senior one present - clears his throat.
  1011. "Thank you. At this point, I should ask - who was it?"
  1012. > He looks up - expectant, uncertain.
  1013. > "Uh... red coat, yellow hair..."
  1014. > Iri.
  1015. > You let out a small groan - quickly quieting it before it can be heard.
  1016. "...alright. Strictly speaking, she is not under my command. I can't tell her not to. But I will warn you, she's... not exactly the best example of what you're going to encounter out there. Most ponies won't react too well to that, I think."
  1017. > Another hand rises in the back.
  1018. > "Serious question: If we have to restrain a pony, are there any things we definitely shouldn't do? The book showed a couple of basic ways, but if there's things we should avoid..."
  1019. > Ah.
  1020. > A useful question.
  1021. "Alright - Whispen, grab that pointer stick, would you?"
  1022. > As it hovers over towards you, a single wing extends partially - letting them see the joints in the limb.
  1023.  
  1024. "I'll start here. For pegasi, there's two major things you need to look out for: One, putting a ton of weight on any point further than the second joint down is asking for broken bones. Those can heal, though. What you really need to watch out for are the new feathers or pinfeathers..."
  1025. > The pointer moves up, resting on the appropriate spot on the leading edge of the wing.
  1026. "...particularly among the smaller feathers here, since they're replaced more rapidly. Really damaging a pinfeather can cause us to bleed out, fast. If you see that happen, get first aid on, fast."
  1027. > Now you and Whispen trade places, the pointer stick held in one of your folded-over legs.
  1028. > "For unicorns, the horn is obvious. Don't touch unless you need to, though - touching it will disrupt magic, which is a very unpleasant feeling for a unicorn. That said, it doesn't hurt if you rap it a bit to stop somepony from doing something stupid. Just, don't pull."
  1029. "Speaking of pulling... no matter how tempting it is, don't grab the ears unless you're already in a fight. Just, don't. Not only will it keep you down, but it will help if you leave them free since we signal a lot of our emotions with them."
  1030. > "Yeah, one of our booklets has these little diagrams for judging your emotions."
  1031. "Good. Pay attention to them; I think it's worth repeating that the ears and tail can give you some warning signs about when a pony potentially hiding something or feeling aggressive. Next question?"
  1032. > This one proves to be one you'd been hoping to avoid.
  1033. > "What about your princesses?"
  1034. > Fortunately, this time you have an answer prepared.
  1035. > It's a question you'd been expecting, however much you'd hoped it wouldn't have been asked.
  1036. > Quickly you explain the four alicorns, their roles, and how ponies thought about them.
  1037. > At the end of it, the soldier who'd asked the question shakes his head.
  1038. > "Uh, thank you.. but I guess I more meant - what do we do if we run into one of them?"
  1039.  
  1040. ACTION:
  1041. - [Princesses seem to be acting defensively, but] if you encounter a princess, consider retreat. I would be shocked to my core if any of them would kill you out of spite and i cannot imagine your personal weapons accomplishing much where entire armies of yours have failed.
  1042. - In summary trust your commanders to do the right thing and, if necessary, don't be afraid to spend your life to buy the final victory but do not waste it to win the battle of today.
  1043. - Before we tell them to follow their orders, we might want to remind them that we've run away from (comparatively) far less dangerous things. Remind them that their commanders wouldn't put them in harms way without a plan if they can help it.
  1044. - Follow your orders. If that's not an option, run.
  1045.  
  1046. > The honest answer is, you suppose, simply 'run'.
  1047. > But to outright say that... well, how many would actually listen to you?
  1048. > How many would think of it as pointless grandstanding for a princess they expected to have to face down at some point - if not individually, then nationally?
  1049. "...to my knowledge, only Celestia and Luna have directly involved themselves so far, and only defensively. That said... "
  1050. > You swallow again, struggling with the words.
  1051. "You are all soldiers, as much as I. You've taken oaths, as did I. We both went into this knowing it might cost us dearly. I would not treat her any differently than anything else you would... encounter. She's dangerous, yes... exceedingly so. But danger doesn't allow you to quit your orders."
  1052. > Swallowing, your voice picks up again.
  1053. > Now that the worst of it is over, the words again begin to flow more naturally.
  1054. "That said, if there is not chance for you to complete your missions - which with Celestia or Luna there is a fair chance of - saving yourself then becomes priority."
  1055. > You look each of them in the eye, making sure they know exactly how serious you are.
  1056. "If you can't do what you were supposed to... there is no shame in running from them. We've run from your machines when we knew we could not face them."
  1057. > One soldier opens his mouth to speak, but receives an elbow in the gut from his fellow followed by a quiet head-shake.
  1058. > Whatever was about to be said, it was probably not particularly pleasant.
  1059. > Fortunately, the one who stopped him - along with most of the other soldiers - seem to have figured out just how hard that was for you to say.
  1060.  
  1061. > And many seem to have the slightest glint of respect in their eyes, from soldier to soldier recognizing the difficulties faced in duty.
  1062. > Forcing another swallow down, you look around again.
  1063. "Any last questions?"
  1064. > One hand rises in the back.
  1065. > "Again, we've all read the booklets, and just personally I don't think most of them are going to be a serious issue... but what about those changelings? You know anything more recent about them?"
  1066. > Well.
  1067. > Offically, of course, the changelings were still enemies of Equestria.
  1068. > If Princess Sparkle had ever come back to Las Pegasus, there would have been some awkward questions there...
  1069. > But what do you tell them now?
  1070. > Lying and giving the official line would be easiest, but would it be fair after all they've done for you?
  1071. > Then again, telling the truth would open up some risky questions if word got out...
  1072.  
  1073. ACTION:
  1074. - just say that, like the griffons, buffalo and minotaurs the changelings are their own people. Recent Equestrian history makes ponies not the best judge of their character or intentions.
  1075. - This, and maybe emphasize that ponies inability to be very accepting of physical differences let alone the differences in their own society didn't help the problem.
  1076. - This but mention that Changelings hide because if they didn't then they would be locked in a dungeon for a very long time. Ponies are still very afraid of the bugs and may actively try to attack them. You should prevent this as much as you would anything else. It may also be best to remove changelings for their own protection.
  1077.  
  1078. "Okay, so first off I should tell you that changelings were responsible for an attack on our capital a few years back. In fact, in general our relationship has not been the most positive, so my perspective may be biased. That said... we've obviously got some... issues with things that are different from us, issues we're having to face up to now."
  1079. > A quick breath to gather your thoughts, and you go on.
  1080. "A lot like the Griffons, Buffalo and Minotaurs, Changelings are their own creatures. Their own culture. We know very little about it, and our past encounters haven't been fertile ground for exchanging ideas."
  1081. > It's kind of reaching and you can tell, but none of them are speaking up to question what you're saying.
  1082. > Good, because you'd really rather not explain.
  1083. "I will say this: If there are Changelings in Equestria, they will be staying disguised. They - rightly - expect to be locked up, and ponies are still terrified of them to the point of attack. So, if you do see one... it may be best to separate it out and let it become comfortable with you. They'll still be afraid of you, but there won't be the already-existing certainty about what you will do to them."
  1084.  
  1085. > And if the humans could control their own disharmony and chaos within their society - even flourish with it the way they have - then maybe they would be able to teach the Changelings a thing or two about it as well.
  1086. > Maybe they could learn to control their hunger, and accept that needing to feed like they did wasn't a requirement to fit in.
  1087. > Maybe.
  1088. "...any other questions?"
  1089. > This time there are none.
  1090. "Okay. I think that wraps things up."
  1091. > After their officer dismisses them, Whispen lays a hoof across your back.
  1092. > "You said a lot of hard things back there."
  1093. > Wordlessly, you nod; with the audience gone the strength you'd found to say those words had suddenly fled you.
  1094. > Seeming to understand, Whispen rubs gently.
  1095. > "You're doing well. It's not an easy place we've been put in, and a truly painful one you have."
  1096. "Thank you..."
  1097. > Turning your head about, you nuzzle her gently - drinking in her scent and the familiar warmth that comes with it.
  1098. > Not for too long, though.
  1099. "We should go see how the others are doing."
  1100. > The answer is, fortunately, 'well'.
  1101. > Several of the other rooms are already empty; as you approach the last one, Dusk and 'Spring' emerge from it - a rolled-up paper tucked under the night-guard's webbed wing.
  1102. > Hmm...
  1103. > A touch of a grin works its way onto your face; now might be a good time to talk to Iri, as long as more of the others weren't around.
  1104. > Then again, she might not appreciate the teasing - especially after her recent revelation.
  1105. > But if she had found out something - some way to feed from them - wouldn't it be best to talk to her about it...?
  1106.  
  1107. ACTION:
  1108. - We've committed to treating Iri like one of our own, so we need to tease her like we did Boulder. Hoepfully she's learned something useful.
  1109. - Tease her, maybe about having some interspecies fraternization...
  1110. - tease her. part of being a team and bonding is getting over the need to walk on eggshells around people.
  1111. - Ask her how it was, and when she asks what we're talking about gently tap our hooves together suggestively and say"you know, with the human, how was 'it'..."
  1112.  
  1113. "Hey, 'Spring'..."
  1114. > Something in your voice must've caught her attention.
  1115. > The moment she turns to lay eyes on you, Iri quickly detects that something is, well, different.
  1116. > "Something up, sir?"
  1117. "No, just wondering how it was."
  1118. > "...it? The presentation went well enough, I suppose, though-"
  1119. "No, no. How was..."
  1120. > Settling back on your haunches, you clop your hooves together rapidly.
  1121. "...it. You know, with the human."
  1122. > Surprisingly, 'Spring's' cheeks flush rather red; it seems that even Iri cannot avoid the embarrassment of what she was caught doing.
  1123. > Beside her, Dusk struggles to suppress his own grin.
  1124. > Had he known about this?
  1125. > You'd have to ask later on.
  1126. "I'm not upset, you know. I'm actually glad that you've been making inroads in terms of... interspecies fraternization."
  1127. > Fortunately, while moderately flustered Iri doesn't seem particularly angry about it.
  1128. > You've seen her angry, and this isn't it.
  1129. > "You... great lout. You don't know what I was doing, and you suggest-"
  1130. > "As I remember, your words were something along the lines of, 'please don't ever stop that' when he was slipping his fingers inside your-"
  1131. > Iri fixes Dusk with a look that could freeze the sun.
  1132. > "Finish those words incorrectly, and I will geld you while you sleep."
  1133. > "-ear. While he was rubbing the inside of your ear. What did you think I was going to say?"
  1134. > "With blockhead like you, flown into a wall a few to man times, I don't really know."
  1135. > Chortling softly, Dusk walks off to leave you with her.
  1136. "So... was it good?"
  1137. > "For the record, it was amazing. Not even using magic to massage them feels quite as... good."
  1138. > Slowly a worrying-looking smirk spreads on her face.
  1139. > "If you're so insistent on 'finding harmony' with them, why don't you try it? I'd certainly be interested in seeing a big, strong stallion like you reduced to a cooing, happy mess."
  1140. > Evidently you weren't the only one who could fight with double entendres.
  1141.  
  1142. ACTION:
  1143. - "oh, a voyeur huh?, maybe I will just so you can watch this 'big, strong stallion' get a rub down, nothing wrong with a little 'colt on colt' action after all, maybe Whispen should join me, make it a real show for you"
  1144. - "oh my, i don't think thats what buttercup meant when she asked me to 'take care of you'"
  1145. - This would be a good time to ask if she's found out anything more about feeding on them.
  1146.  
  1147. "Oh, my..."
  1148. > Your grin spreads even more widely.
  1149. "You know, I don't think that's what buttercup meant when she asked me to 'take care of you'."
  1150. > 'Spring' splutters wordlessly, shaking her head.
  1151. > "That's wasn't - augh! With them, you great oaf!"
  1152. "Oooh, a voyeur huh? Maybe I will - just so you can watch this 'big, strong stallion' get a rub down. Nothing wrong with a little 'colt on colt' action after all.
  1153. > Glancing at the mare beside you, your mouth keeps running before your brain catches up.
  1154. "Maybe Whispen should join me, make it a real show for you."
  1155. > The unicorn in question makes a strangled-sounding noise, raising a hoof to cover her remaining good eye.
  1156. > Her own cheeks are quite flushed now as well, showing through despite the dark color of her coat.
  1157. > Dusk can barely keep his snickers from breaking out into full-blown laughter, and in the middle of it all Iri just sets her jaw and shoots a killing look at you.
  1158. > "You.. are all completely ridiculous."
  1159. > That does it.
  1160. > She's the one who was letting them pet her like a dog, and you're ridiculous?
  1161. > You can't help it anymore; your own composure cracks and laughter begins to flow out.
  1162. > Dusk Shadow is quickly caught in the current of laughter and breaks down himself.
  1163. > Iri and Whispen share an exasperated look, and while you suspect there are going to be repercussions later on you're quite pleased to see that as well.
  1164. > If they can sympathize with each other, then Iri is one step closer to feeling as a part of your group.
  1165. "But, in all seriousness... is there any hope on-"
  1166. > You glance about to check that there aren't any humans close enough to hear.
  1167. "-you know, finding anything good to eat?"
  1168. > "It is... possible, but difficult. Moreso with these, than the ones as we saw before."
  1169. > It's also difficult to be specific when you have to talk around the issue.
  1170.  
  1171. > But, you think she means that these humans are easier to feed from - probably since they haven't come to view ponies as an enemies yet.
  1172. > Another good sign.
  1173. "Well, I won't tell you no - but the offer I made before still holds up."
  1174. > "I know. I am keeping it in mind. Thank you."
  1175.  
  1176. ACTION:
  1177. - Time to get moving on the mission.
  1178.  
  1179. "Well, look 'Spring'. I don't care what you do as long as it doesn't become a problem, and I hope you don't mind if we... give you a bit of a hard time about it."
  1180. > "I..."
  1181. > Iri looks down, her cheeks still flushed.
  1182. > "I understand you're just trying to treat me like one of your own. Thank you."
  1183. > There's still a bit of hesitation in her voice, but you understand that it's not from the teasing.
  1184. > She's still struggling - crushed between the weight of isolation and the empty feeling of being forced to give up everything she once knew.
  1185. > It's not a pleasant feeling.
  1186. > You would know.
  1187. > For a second, your stomach twists as you think of Canterlot.
  1188. > No.
  1189. > If you were going to ask Iri to give up her way of life, you could give up your memories.
  1190. "Come on. Let's go see how everyone else is doing."
  1191. > The next four days are spent similarly, but the routine doesn't last long.
  1192. > Just as you'd settled into the routine, Warren delivers a new twist at the next meeting the following morning meeting:
  1193. > "The team you'll be working with has arrived on the base. You'll have a little over a week to train with them."
  1194. "Only a week?"
  1195. > "Only."
  1196. > Taking off his cap, Warren runs a hand through his close-cropped hair.
  1197. > "I wish it could be longer,but command is starting to get concerned. I've also been authorized to tell you - we've been keeping an eye up north now. There are some... weather anomalies."
  1198. "Weather anomalies?"
  1199. > Warren nods.
  1200. > "We don't know if it's ponies trying to keep us blind, or the creatures you told us about. But on the chance it isn't, they want us to find out."
  1201. > That's it?
  1202. > Why the sudden interest?
  1203. > What's pushing them-
  1204. > Pushing.
  1205. > "You're going to push north soon, aren't you?"
  1206. > Evidently Whispen had thought the same.
  1207. > Warren's jaw sets, muscles flexing.
  1208. > "...I'm not authorized to comment on upcoming operations."
  1209. > Your own jaw grits together.
  1210. > Of course that's what it was.
  1211.  
  1212. > You were being shoved out in front of their forces, to find out if they were going to walk into a snow-driven trap or not.
  1213. > And as soon as your job was done, their war machine would come next.
  1214. > Could you stand to be part of this?
  1215. > Hunting Windigos for the sake of preserving Equestria was one thing, but to effectively be scouts for their military too.
  1216. "I won't be part of your military operations, you understand? We won't scout for you."
  1217. > "I understand. This is about the windigos only. I can't comment about the brass, but I can't expect you to do any more than what you did in Las Pegasus: Saving lives."
  1218.  
  1219. ACTION:
  1220. - We trust YOU, warren. will the team we work with have the same mission as us, or do they answer to someone else?
  1221. - Fine we'll do it as long as we aren't spying on Equestrian forces.....
  1222. - We're doing this because we trust Warren. We still know very little about human governments and definitely not enough to trust them. Actually, are we still going to be under his command? He's the only real human we trust and can call a true ally. We understand if he can't but our willingness and morale will no doubt drop.
  1223.  
  1224. "We trust you, Warren. I can't say we have complete trust of everyone in your military right now, for a number of reasons."
  1225. > "That's fair, I suppose - considering what happened to your pony."
  1226. "So, what I want to know is one, are we going to be under your command, and two, is the team we're going to be working with going to have the same mission as us?"
  1227. > "The same mission?"
  1228. "Are they going to have the same orders as us? No extra ones?"
  1229. > "Ah."
  1230. > This time, Warren nods rather more confidently.
  1231. > "No, I can definitely confirm that. Your job - your only job - is to find the Windigos if they're there, determine if they are a growing threat, and handle them if they are."
  1232. "Understood."
  1233. > You let out a little breath of relief, and can feel the tension that had built int the room draining away.
  1234. > "As for being under my command: Yes, you will be operating under my authority. I will not be accompanying you into the field - that will fall to the unit lieutenant. I will be directly overseeing the operation, though, and your orders will only ever come from me."
  1235. > That sounds fair enough.
  1236. > Looking around to your ponies, you find that they all seem to be reassured as well - or at least, not showing how worried they are.
  1237. "There won't be a problem, then."
  1238. > "Excellent. Follow me, and we'll introduce you to the unit you'll be working with."
  1239. > As you trot behind Warren, it occurs to you how incredibly lucky you are to have found this human.
  1240.  
  1241. > After so long fighting them, you'd finally had your case taken up by the one human who actually seemed to give a damn about you.
  1242. > Briefly you wonder about Kamil, back in Las Pegasus.
  1243. > Unfortunately, if human names were anything to judge by, it'd be almost impossible to track him down now.
  1244. > All you could do is hope he was safe and well.
  1245. > Leading you outside, you find perhaps... a little under twenty soldiers waiting for you.
  1246. > That raises your eyebrows; that few?
  1247. > You'd expected more somehow.
  1248. > It seemed they truly were expecting this to be a small operation.
  1249. > Warren stops before them, fold hands behind his back.
  1250. > "Right. This is the reconnaissance platoon you'll be operating alongside. Lieutenant Eran-"
  1251. > He motions to one in particular, who gives you a very slight nod.
  1252. > "-leads them. You will be splitting yourself into three groups to work with three squads that will operate together on this mission."
  1253. > Now that you've had a chance to look them over, you can see there are nineteen of them - and three distinct groups already formed.
  1254. "We'll be working closely together? These three units?"
  1255. > "Absolutely. You won't be that far apart."
  1256.  
  1257. ACTION:
  1258. - Suggest keeping the squad together. Split up for training only.
  1259.  
  1260. "...actually, Captain..."
  1261. > Pausing, you consider how best to put this best.
  1262. "Considering the short time to train, I'm not sure that splitting us up will be best."
  1263. > Warren looks down at you with a frown but doesn't say anything, so you go on.
  1264. "I realize that your commanders probably want this quite badly, but... after we've been together for so long and with so little time to train together, I think it might do more harm than good."
  1265. > With a sigh, Warren reaches up to rub his forehead.
  1266. > "Yeah. Yeah, you have a point."
  1267. "I'm sorry; I know this will create problems for you... but if there's even a chance you could possibly contact your commanders and find out if this is necessary..."
  1268. > "I'll look into it. Since you're not strictly speaking under our command, I can't order you - but for now, it'd be good if you could break up just to begin training."
  1269. > The subtext of what he was saying was easy enough to catch.
  1270. > Please give me this, so I can say that you aren't balking completely.
  1271. > Nodding sharply, you glance across your group and mentally divide them up.
  1272.  
  1273. "Whispen, take Chilona and Ornithea. Boulder - you take Dusk Shadow, Hot Pot, and Byline. 'Spring', Spark - you're with me."
  1274. > "Got it."
  1275. > "Understood, sir."
  1276. > Quickly splitting off with your two ponies close behind, you approach the center of the three groups.
  1277. > One of them rises as you approach, holding out a hand half-curled over.
  1278. > "Staff Sergeant Gerber. You're going to be training with us?"
  1279. "Yes."
  1280. > Lifting a hoof, you bump the hand lightly - it seemed to be the expected greeting.
  1281. > "Alright. We'll be running through some basic exercises with the two other groups, just to get you the fundamentals of operating with us."
  1282. "Understood. My two and I-"
  1283. > You motion with a wing to indicate 'Spring' and Spark.
  1284. "-will be following your lead, but I hope you don't mind if we offer suggestions from time to time as well."
  1285.  
  1286. > "Not at all.Just keep up."
  1287. > What follows is, you imagine, a greatly-condensed version of the training they had gone through.
  1288. > Some portions, you rather suspect were not part of the original training - field tips, so to speak.
  1289. > The first thing you realized was how much these soldiers rely on each other; while the Guard trained heavily in field formations, lines, and - for Pegasi - flight formations, this was an entirely different beast.
  1290. > Their actions were more loose, almost reminding you more of a pegasus flight's aerial maneuvers in their fluidity than a strict, heavy line.
  1291. > It made sense, of course, but being part of it offered an entirely new perspective.
  1292. > Of course, you'd barely gotten to do much of anything that first day.
  1293. > Most of that was spent on learning the lingo - the terms they used, hollered in the midst of the fake-combat.
  1294. > One the second day, they at last break out the weapons - weaving through the obstacle course you'd noticed on the first days at the camp while using them.
  1295. > That was the strangest bit of all, honestly.
  1296. > You still couldn't help but feel apprehensive about them; those weapons had killed many ponies - including those under your command.
  1297. > But you'd have to know them now.
  1298.  
  1299. ACTION:
  1300. - I think learning about their communication gear is one of our top priorities; it's going to be our lifeline on this mission. Ask them how well they can keep in contact with command, whether communication interruptions are a thing, and if they can be rectified.
  1301. - Any vest or anything that we'll be carrying? We could probably haul ammo and first aid or whatever else they will need.
  1302. - We should also ask the humans, if their vehicles and equipment can function under extreme cold. Even though Windigos don't seem to attack anyone directly, the cold they seem capable of producing is no joke.
  1303.  
  1304. > As you continued working with them, it also became abundantly clear that they relied heavily on their communication devices to act together.
  1305. > For several long moments you consider the implications of what were to happen if somepony could cut off their communications.
  1306. > It takes a forceful reminder that you weren't fighting them anymore to put that out of your head.
  1307. > Asking if you were going to be receiving one of the devices yields a thoughtful 'hmmm' from Gerber.
  1308. > "I don't think there's too much you could learn from them... at least, not that you haven't picked up already. The problem is going to be, I don't see how any but your unicorns could manage to use them."
  1309. > He has a point.
  1310. > The surface of the 'radio' is covered in tiny buttons, nearly impossible to manipulate with hoof, mouth, or wing.
  1311. > It'd be unfortunate if less than one in three of your ponies could carry them, but that at least seemed to validate your decision to put one unicorn with each group for training.
  1312. "That will have to do. I just hope they can handle the cold; it's going to be unpleasant where we're going."
  1313. > "Yeah, we heard."
  1314. > Gerber gives a small snort.
  1315. > "Better than that desert hell-hole we just got back from, I'd say. Anyway, there are weatherized versions of all this gear. We'll probably be receiving it right before we go."
  1316. "Not sooner? Get used to it?"
  1317. > That yields another, rather more impressive snort.
  1318. > "I've never known those mover-boys to get anything done on time. No, probably not."
  1319. > Warren is able to provide rather more accurate information.
  1320. > "So, there will be cold-resistant equipment and clothing arriving. We also have some equipment for you as well."
  1321. "Equipment?"
  1322. > "To deal with the cold, mostly. We also managed to get proper packs for all you; those will be coming soon enough, so you'll have a chance to get used to them. And...?"
  1323. "And...?"
  1324.  
  1325. > Lowering his device again, Warren fixes you with a neutral look.
  1326. > "We've got... recovered equipment from your forces. Armor, mostly. We've been trying to put together body armor for you from our materials, but not enough sets will arrive in time. Since this is mostly a reconnaissance mission, I'll let you decide if you want to take your old plate."
  1327. > Ah.
  1328. > 'Recovered' armor.
  1329. > The original owners almost certainly no longer with the Guard, for whatever reason.
  1330. > At this point, though, you can't even be bothered to be angry.
  1331. > The war had long since numbed you to such things.
  1332. > Now, setting this right was all that mattered.
  1333.  
  1334. ACTION:
  1335. - Take the human-built sets, and fill out the rest with Guard plate.
  1336. - Make sure to train with the plate on.
  1337. - Prepare to camouflage ourselves in the field.
  1338.  
  1339. "We'll take whatever you've got - guard plate or otherwise."
  1340. > "Good. That, at least, is here already. If you'll follow me?"
  1341. > With several soldiers accompanying you, you're taken out to the mysterious, windowless buildings you'd noticed on your earlier exploration of the compound.
  1342. > This time there's no hesitation:
  1343. > Doors are promptly unlocked, and you are ushered in.
  1344. > What you'd said before, about being beyond the thoughts of what had happened to the armors' original owners?
  1345. > You'd been lying to yourself.
  1346. > Shelves and piles of neatly-stacked Guard armor lay within, attestation to the sheer number of guardsponies who had been unable to carry on fighting.
  1347. > Sure, some might have abandoned their armor to flee, but others...
  1348. > Swallowing, you try and force down the heavy feeling building in your chest.
  1349. > At least the sections of armor they had recovered were intact and apparently cleaned.
  1350. > You'd already seen once what their weapons could do to Guard plate - a neat hole punched in the plate covering Hot Pot's haunch.
  1351. > Presently you become aware that your ponies had stopped behind you as well.
  1352. > Whether stunned by the sight as well or just waiting for your go-ahead, you don't know.
  1353. > Forcing your hooves forward, you step further in to the morbid testament to the Royal Guard's failure.
  1354. "...okay. Spread out, everyone pull together a full set of plate and mail. Put it on, get it fit. If you need help, call it out."
  1355. > Your orders override whatever emotions they'd been feeling, as unit efficiently spreads throughout the racks to selecting their pieces.
  1356. > As with everything, the humans had worked with impressive efficiency; armor had already been divided up where neccessary by whether it was meant for earth, pegasus, or unicorn ponies.
  1357.  
  1358. > Despite your focus, you catch yourself staring at one section of golden plate.
  1359. > Though no longer polished to a mirror sheen, the metal still showed its luster - seeming barely used.
  1360. > "Sir! We've got armor maintenance kits over here."
  1361. > Spark's words drag you out of the daydream.
  1362. "Do they have grease bags in them?"
  1363. > "Yeah, why?"
  1364. "Grab a few extra. We may need them."
  1365. > Spark shoots you a questioning look but does so.
  1366. > Trotting back to the entrance with your suit fully on, your appearance causes Warren's eyebrows to rise.
  1367. > "That armor definitely seems to fit you."
  1368. "It's... a welcome feel. To wear this again is to have purpose again, really."
  1369. > Warren gives a knowing look in response to your admission.
  1370. "One other thing, though - we took some extra maintenance grease to dirty down the armor with if we need to, but do you have anything temporary to paint it over?"
  1371. > "...I'll have to go find a quartermaster and see, but I think we could find something suitable."
  1372. "Good. I'd rather not have anypony shot by accident."
  1373. > When you march out onto the field to continue your training the next day, your armor only shows the barest hint of the typical gold.
  1374. > Instead it's been painted over with a mottled green-black-brown coloration seemingly similar to what their armor was covered in.
  1375. > Sergeant Gerber gives you a look as he studies the rapidly-applied paint.
  1376. > "You planning to go to the north like that?"
  1377. "Not if I can help it. I was thinking something more white-grey would work best; this stuff will come off with enough soap."
  1378. > "Good. You'd look kind of ridiculous otherwise."
  1379. > Another one of the soldiers in his squad has a rather less erudite opinion:
  1380. > "Jesus christ, pony thinks he's fuckin' Rambo or something?"
  1381. > You don't know what a Rambo is, but it doesn't take Starswirl to know it isn't a complement.
  1382.  
  1383. ACTION:
  1384. - Don't be mad or defensive.
  1385. - It's more to keep you from shooting us than anything, coloured camouflage isn't particularly effective for ponies unless you're lucky enough to have a matching coat.
  1386. - "Did Rambo get shot by his training partners? because thats largely what we were trying to avoid"
  1387.  
  1388. > You open your mouth to respond; Spark gets there first, though.
  1389. > "Did Rambo get shot by his training partners? 'Cause that's kinda what we we're trying to avoid."
  1390. "Spark."
  1391. > He wilts slightly under the look you give him.
  1392. "It is more to keep you from shooting us than anything else. Colored camouflage isn't particularly effective for us unless you're lucky enough to have a matching coat."
  1393. > Or want to paint over your entire coat, but you don't have time for that right now.
  1394. > "Sounds solid to me. Guess they couldn't get you proper gear."
  1395. "Warren said they're still trying to put a few sets together, but they won't arrive for a little while."
  1396. > "Sounds like the usual shit. Alright, let's get moving, then. A bit later we'll show you something else we use to avoid friendly fire."
  1397. > 'Friendly fire'?
  1398. > Now there's an oxymoron if you've ever heard one.
  1399. > Soon enough, however, you discover an entirely unforseen problem with the armor.
  1400. > It comes to you while you're crouched in the back of an armored cart as it rumbles over rough ground, trying to keep yourself steady.
  1401. > Simply put, the armor isn't intended for somepony wearing it to be crouching over for so long.
  1402. > As a pegasus, you'd rarely had to ride in chariots - and even those didn't require you to curl up like this one does!
  1403. > The armor's flanged edge has begun to seriously dig in to your shoulders.
  1404. > When it comes time to leap out at speed, you stumble lightly as your hooves make contact with the ground.
  1405. > "You alright?"
  1406. > Glancing back at Gerber, you nod.
  1407. "Fine. We might have a problem if we have to ride in those when we're actually out there; the armor simply wasn't made for being hunched over like that."
  1408. > "Good to go now?"
  1409. "Absolutely."
  1410. > Rather more welcome is the addition of the new identification device Gerber had mentioned.
  1411. > A small box, it doesn't seem particularly remarkable - at least not until he explains it.
  1412.  
  1413. > "Infrared light. Invisible to the normal eye, but stands out to our gear. We also have reflective plates for the same - we'll have to see about gluing those to your armor or something."
  1414. > It doesn't look like much, glowing faintly to your eyes.
  1415. > One look through the black tube Gerber holds up changes that.
  1416. "Woah.."
  1417. > "Yeah. Good for night-work. In the day - your idea about the armor is a good one."
  1418. "If there's a pattern you use, telling us now would be good. Others out there may have thought of this too, and again - we'd rather not have any confusion."
  1419. > "Agreed."
  1420. > More good news comes back with Warren the following evening.
  1421. > "The higher-ups have agreed to your request not to split up the team. We'll still be inserting all three teams, but you'll only have one attached."
  1422. "Sounds workable to me."
  1423.  
  1424. ACTION:
  1425. - Ask how the supply situation is going to work.
  1426.  
  1427. "Alright. How are supplies going to be up there? I doubt we'll even be able to forage enough to keep us going, and your soldiers will have even less."
  1428. > "Yeah. We're going to load you down pretty heavily - especially since you're going to have to take cold-weather gear with you."
  1429. > Though you'd never been to the frozen north, you'd been to the Crystal Empire once.
  1430. > It had been summer there, and you could still feel the cooler air nipping at your wings; you could only imagine what you'd have to drag along to be safe even further north than that.
  1431. > "We've got some lighter-weight gear relative to what you're used to, but the honest truth of it is that you're going to be carrying a lot."
  1432. "How long are you expecting us to be on the ground for?"
  1433. > "Depends on what you find. That area isn't under our control, so unless there's an immediate need we aren't going to be able to pull you out quickly."
  1434. > That was both reassuring and worrying.
  1435. > The former, because you were glad there was at least some area that was still out of the humans' reach.
  1436. > The latter, because you weren't sure what would happen if you did happen to run into any Windigos.
  1437. > It wasn't likely they'd intrude that far down, even into the frozen north - but if their affects were being felt already...
  1438. "So, food?"
  1439. > "You'll carry a few days' worth with you. We're not expecting you to be out there for more than a few at a time - but if there is for some reason you'll be in full contact with us and we can arrange for a resupply."
  1440. "One of your flying machines?"
  1441. > Warren gives a slight grin.
  1442. > "Probably an unmanned one. A Snowgoose or something. Also has the upside that if you're wanting to not be noticed, it will be rather easier to slip in than something full-size."
  1443. > Considering how shocked you were the first time you ran into one of them - hovering with only the barest whine to be heard at the distance you had been - it seems reasonable enough.
  1444.  
  1445. "One other thing: If possible, we'd like to carry in some of our own supplies. If we run into a settlement, it will be good to have something of our own to trade."
  1446. > "That... could be done. Not much, though."
  1447. "Not much will be enough."
  1448. > A sour grin slips onto your face.
  1449. "We've been forced to lie before. We can make something up."
  1450. > Soon enough, the evening's passage finds you back in your barracks room.
  1451. > While you were ready to see the end of a long day, a quiet voice behind you heralds the arrival of a new issue.
  1452. > "I need to ask you about something."
  1453. > Turning around, you tilt your head at 'Spring'; her voice was unusually quiet and she'd failed to meet your eyes.
  1454. "...sure. What's up?"
  1455. > "Not here. Somewhere private."
  1456. > With a nod, you slip out of the barracks and into the showers - first checking to see that nopony is using them.
  1457. > Turning back to face 'Spring', you note that she still seemed quite distracted - distraught, even.
  1458. > Something was clearly eating at her.
  1459. "So, seriously. What is it? Do you need to... you know..."
  1460. > "No, I..."
  1461. > She swallows hard, and goes on.
  1462. > "I've been thinking. At some point, on this path - what if I have to use my... talent? If I have to show them... myself?"
  1463. > Hrm.
  1464. > She'd fit in so well so far you hadn't considered that.
  1465. > "I... it's... we don't reveal ourselves. It just... doesn't happen. But then, like you said... everything about the old ways is gone."
  1466. > The hiss Iri makes sounds like an infuriated cat, and you can feel the frustration rolling off of her now.
  1467. > "I've been... wondering. If I should- should-"
  1468. > Again she swallows, then spits out a last few words.
  1469. > "If I should tell them what I am now, so it is not a surprise later on."
  1470. "Do you really think there's that big of a chance?"
  1471. > "What if I have to fly again, like we did before? Or use magic to save one of you? If the humans see me, if they attack-"
  1472. > Ah, now you're beginning to see it.
  1473. > Iri has found herself beset by unique form of vulnerability:
  1474.  
  1475. > If she reveals herself now and they take her off the mission, perhaps even imprison her, she will find out nothing more.
  1476. > If she does not but is forced to shift by circumstances, then she risks loosing everything.
  1477. > But to give up her last vestige of what made her... herself.
  1478. "Why ask me? Isn't this something you need to choose?"
  1479. > "I... cannot. My mind rebels against it. I need your... advice."
  1480.  
  1481. ACTION:
  1482. - Talk to Warren and/or random soldiers about what they'd do if they run into a Changeling.
  1483. - Wait until necessary/mission has begun, to let her prove herself to them first before revealing anything.
  1484.  
  1485. > It takes you a considerable amount of time to decide on an answer.
  1486. > Iri becomes increasingly nervous as you do, shifting from hoof to hoof.
  1487. "...alright."
  1488. > Air escapes your lungs in a heavy sigh; you feel yourself sink a bit.
  1489. "Here's my initial recommendation, Iri. Don't show it immediately - wait until we've started to work with this new group. If they've seen you're a friend, they're less likely to attack you immediately."
  1490. > "And if they do still want to?"
  1491. > It's obvious this is eating at her badly.
  1492. "If they do - we will stand by you. You're part of our group now, and that means we will look after you. If they attack..."
  1493. > You pause again, thinking.
  1494. "We may have to pin you. If we don't... go head-down, like we did before. Show you don't plan on fighting or fleeing. We'll protect you."
  1495. > "I... thank you."
  1496. > Bobbing her head once, Iri motions towards the door with her head.
  1497. > "You should go back before they think you're cheating in your marefriend."
  1498. > A grin cracks your lips; humor - that was a good sign.
  1499. "Thanks, 'Spring'. You're going to be fine, trust me."
  1500. > It does occur to you that it might be a good idea to pull your group together hand have a discussion with them about what to do if she has to reveal herself.
  1501. > Or, for that matter, ask some of the humans.
  1502. > Maybe not tip them off just yet, but get their opinions on how they feel about Changelings.
  1503. > The question is, who?
  1504. > Just one of the soldiers you'd be working with - Gerber, maybe?
  1505. > Or Warren, who'd have the authority to give orders if you could get him on your side?
  1506. > And if so, how much do you tell?
  1507.  
  1508. ACTION:
  1509. - Go to Warren, ask in general. Talk to your soldiers as you can.
  1510.  
  1511. > Probably best to talk to Warren first, you decide, and then tell your ponies to talk to the soldiers they're working with as they can.
  1512. > But not today.
  1513. > Today, you're going to get some sleep after a long days spent training.
  1514. > Putting the lights out and drawing the curtains, you collapse into your bed; unfortunately, as you do an unpleasant twinge makes itself felt in your wing.
  1515. > Bah, you'd been without armor for so long you'd forgotten how it would inevitably ruin your feathers to some degree.
  1516. > A good preening after a day spent in armor was a ritual among most pegasus guards, and one that you'd gone for too long without.
  1517. > Twisting your head about, you extend one wing and begin nosing along it, trying to find the out-of-place feathers and nudge them back into place.
  1518. > Partway through you're surprised when something else brushes against your other wing; again twisting to face the opposite side, you're met with the sight of Whispen peering up at you.
  1519. > It's hard to see - you can only even really get her outline - but her scent is true enough and besides, there's only one unicorn who'd be willing to do that.
  1520. > As you hesitate, Whispen nudges your wing again questioningly.
  1521. > It would take a while to show her how to do this properly, to be sure.
  1522. > But then again, when would you get a chance to do something like this again?
  1523. > Certainly not once you were in the field.
  1524. > And harmony knows - you could use contact.
  1525. > Being pushed back into this role again had left you needing some way to relax.
  1526. > And even if there wasn't going to be a chance for you to really enjoy yourselves in the common bunk room, it'd be something.
  1527.  
  1528. ACTION:
  1529. - Let her do it.
  1530.  
  1531. > Gently you extend the other wing out as well, letting Whispen nuzzle along its length.
  1532. > It quickly becomes evident that she has no real idea of how to do this.
  1533. > That's okay, actually.
  1534. > You lean in, nuzzling close against her cheek and showing her exactly how to go through the task - finding the patterns in the rows of feathers, checking for any out of place, straightening them if they are.
  1535. > She gets the hang of it quickly, allowing you to back off a bit and let her work.
  1536. > While she's certainly not expert by any means, there's a different kind of delightful joy in being able to lay your head down, close your eyes, and allow another to work away at the wing.
  1537. > Aches seem to drain away and tension fade into thin air as she works her way through the rows of coverts and on to your primaries.
  1538. > Occasionally her horn will flicker a barely-visible low blue as her magic straightens a particularly stubborn feather.
  1539. > After a while you get the feeling she's doing more than simply settling your wing, waves of tingling magic slipping across the feathers in an almost massaging manner.
  1540. > Unfortunately, it's something that you can't allow to go on forever; after a while you're forced to shift to the side and allow her access to your first wing again.
  1541. > This time Whispen has the hang of it, and the process proceeds much more efficiently.
  1542. > Though it doesn't stop her from paying a little extra attention to the spots that make shivers run through your coat.
  1543. > At last, though, it's done; rolling back on your belly, you're none too surprised when she curls up beside you on the massively oversized bed.
  1544. > Her head coming to rest across your withers in an echo of how she'd slept in those cold nights in the shack back in Las Pegasus.
  1545.  
  1546. > This time, though, your wing stretches out to slip across Whispen's back as well; in response, she seems to curl in closer.
  1547. > As things go, for a last night to be able to spend like this - it's just about all you could have asked for.
  1548. > ...
  1549. > Morning.
  1550. > And time to speak to Warren.
  1551. > Knocking on the door to his office, you're quickly called in.
  1552. > Looking up from amid the clutter - if humans are anything like ponies, you suspect he still hasn't quite finished getting set up there - surprise flickers across his face.
  1553. > "Good morning. What's the matter?"
  1554. "...I needed to ask you something about Changelings. I know you don't have an official connection with them as of yet, but - is there a policy for how your soldiers should act if they were to run into one?"
  1555. > "You mean, while they're working with you. Otherwise, they would be simply treated as a possible threat and detained."
  1556. "Yes, with us."
  1557. > "Well..."
  1558. > Putting the papers he was holding down, Warren purses his lips as he thinks it over - one hand running through his short-cut hair.
  1559. > "From what I understand, your last experiences with them weren't exactly positive? Is there any particular reason you think we should treat them any differently?"
  1560.  
  1561. ACTION:
  1562. > If there's anything we've learned from the war, it's that we can't afford to stick to old grudges. We've had plenty of negative experiences with your people, but it says nothing about an individual's character. Given the nature of our mission, any changelings we happen to encounter are a potential asset, and should be given consideration in how we deal with them.
  1563.  
  1564. "If there's anything we've learned from the war, it's that we can't afford to stick to old grudges. We've had plenty of negative experiences with your people, but it says nothing about an individual's character."
  1565. > "Most of our intelligence suggested the Changelings are monolithic. Do you have reason to think otherwise?"
  1566. > You hesitate before you can stop yourself.
  1567. > Damn, now Warren's seen it too.
  1568. "...we ran into one, since this started. I was... not happy to begin with, but they're just as scared by what is going on as we are."
  1569.  
  1570. > Warren's eyebrows dip, but he seems to be listening rather than dismissing you out of hand.
  1571. "I'm not saying I think they're all good... but if one could diverge from the rest, others might as well. Given the nature of our mission, any changelings we happen to encounter are a potential asset, and should be given consideration in how we deal with them."
  1572. > "...okay, you have a fair point."
  1573. > Leaning forward onto his desk, Warren folds his hands together.
  1574. > "I have to maintain the policy regarding Changelings - or any other groups out there. You, however, are effectively a local guide and not under my command. Once you are out of our base, your judgement will be a heavy factor in how these things are addressed, understand?"
  1575. "...yes."
  1576. > Your head bobs in a slow nod as you digest what he has just told you.
  1577. > It's more authority than you thought you were going to get, and you say as much.
  1578. "This kind of... suggestion, won't cause any problems for you with your superiors?"
  1579. > "So long as you don't use it to do anything particularly stupid? No. You've talked a lot about trusting me; now I'm trusting you to be realistic about these situations and not ruin what we have built here."
  1580. > This time, the nod is more certain.
  1581. "You can rely on that, Captain."
  1582. > "Good. I've briefed my soldiers; they know to rely on your knowledge - within reason."
  1583. > Well, that's an upside.
  1584. > Hopefully when you speak to them they'll already be willing to listen, then.
  1585. > It's a hope that pans out to be true, as Sergeant Gerber listens to your question and immediately nods.
  1586.  
  1587. > "My orders come first; if you tell me to violate an immediate order, odds are I'm going to say no. After that comes the safety of my guys. If that's not an issue, though? Yeah, I'll give an ear to what you say."
  1588. "I wouldn't expect anything less. I think it's fair to say we're pretty much standing in the same position."
  1589. > "Good."
  1590. > The last few days of training pass quickly - a haze of exercises and unfamiliar equipment.
  1591. > Gerber and his men teach you basic hand signals; when you ask if that isn't a breach in security, he just laughs.
  1592. > "Of course it is. You planning on telling?"
  1593.  
  1594. ACTION:
  1595. - Show him how to replicate the signals with your wings.
  1596.  
  1597. "Telling? Not at all. Actually..."
  1598. > It takes you a while to figure out exactly how to replicate the gestures with your wing.
  1599. > The trickiest part is effectively inventing a gesture to indicate you're sending a message, and not just flapping your wings.
  1600. > Spark, by contrast, has it easy.
  1601. > Someone just passes him a glove, which he quickly learns to manipulate for gestures involving individual fingers.
  1602. > That leaves 'Spring' and you to figure out what few gestures can be easily replicated with hooves.
  1603. > Unfortunately few seems to be the answer.
  1604. > But it will have to be enough.
  1605. > Later that day your gear finally shows up, delivered at the last moment by helicopter.
  1606. > The suits are quite unlike the armor you're used to; for starters, rather than the plates being mounted to the outside, finding them inserted between two layers feels quite different.
  1607. > Then there's the pockets; whoever built this had obviously seen a pair of saddlebags and recreated them as a row of pockets just beneath and forward of your wings.
  1608. > A few experiments finds them well-placed for flying, but somewhat unbalancing when entirely filled; you hope you're not going to have to fly too far with them all filled up.
  1609. > Better is the network of straps - 'webbing', they called it - use to secure other pouches and equipment as needed.
  1610. > This certainly would carry more than you were used to.
  1611. > Less fortunate is who had the smart idea of trying to fit a protective plate beneath your belly.
  1612. > While you could understand the urge - belly strikes were always bad - the feeling was a strange one, and downright uncomfortable to rest on.
  1613. > And it wasn't might lighter than the armor you were used to.
  1614. > Well, another thing to get used to, you suppose.
  1615. > No real time to send it back with the mission coming soon.
  1616. > The only catch:
  1617. > Only four complete sets have been distributed so far.
  1618. > For everypony else, it seemed, you'd have to rely on the old Guard armor.
  1619.  
  1620. ACTION:
  1621. - by vote: Spark, Iri, Whispen, tie. Last one is going to Boulder, on account of someone giving a good reason why he should get it.
  1622.  
  1623. "Spark! 'Spring'! Whispen! Boulder! Get this fit on. We're going to need it."
  1624. > The results are... mixed.
  1625. > 'Spring' seems unused to the heft of the armor, but is quickly learning to deal with it.
  1626. > Boulder as... a bit of a different problem.
  1627. > The armor simply hadn't been made for a pony his size, and it takes quite a bit of adjusting to get it to a size that works for you.
  1628. > Once it is on, though, Gerber kneels down to show you one last trick.
  1629. > "Okay, you see this loop here?"
  1630. > His fingers hook around a loop tucked in on the chest, just beneath the collar.
  1631. > "If you ever fall in water, or your armor is snagged on something and you can't get it free - you just pull this, pull it all the way out. The armor will just fall to pieces and let you go."
  1632. > Huh.
  1633. > That is useful.
  1634. > Except for one thing...
  1635. > "Uh... what do we pull it with?"
  1636. > 'Spring's question pauses everyone for a moment; the loop is too far up for you to grab it with your mouth.
  1637. > Then Gerber just shakes his head with a grin.
  1638. > "Fucking figures; they're always forgetting things like that. Alright, well - it's there, if you can get it with your magic or a buddy gets it for you."
  1639. > Loading up takes a bit longer.
  1640. > The pockets were myriad, as were the things they had gotten for you to go in them.
  1641. > Packets of high-calorie food, tablets that were supposed to be for purifying water, additional packets of paint for repainting your armor in proper colors for the north...
  1642. > You're surprised to see they've extensively modified your new helmets; a mount now sits on it that proves to be for the equipment they use to see at night.
  1643. > Inevitably you end up carrying some spare ammunition for their weapons.
  1644. > And then there's Boulder.
  1645. > Having apparently taken to heart the human habit of carrying things all over their bodies, he is literally festooned in extra backs and pockets.
  1646.  
  1647. > The weight is borne easily, though yo suspect he's going to want to be dropping some of those if it comes to a fight at any point.
  1648. > Well, if he can take it you aren't complaining.
  1649. > The last evening before, Warren gathers you all together.
  1650. > "Alright, first things first. Your idea for a smaller team has worked; you'll be working with Staff Sergeant Gerber's team. The other two will be deployed in proximity or on close standbye in case you have trouble."
  1651. "Got it. Where are we going?"
  1652. > A map is rolled out for you to crowd around, and a tiny dot pointed out.
  1653. > 'Eyrie Rock'.
  1654. > This time you remember the name.
  1655. "It's an old mountain pass. Back in the days of the three tribes, there were two citadels there - one for the pegasi, the Eyrie, and one for the Earth ponies - the Rock. Each trying to deny the pass to the other; I think the first is abandoned now."
  1656. > "And it's seeing some unusual weather activity now. Your objective is to go in, find out if any windigos are active, and then pull back. Leave fighting them to us."
  1657.  
  1658. ACTION:
  1659. - Do you have any modicum of an idea on how you would actually kill one?
  1660.  
  1661. "...so, here's the real question I have. If we get there and the Windigos are there, and we're not supposed to fight, I presume you are. So... do you have any remote idea of how to stop them?"
  1662. > "We... do not. We're not sure if conventional weapons will have an effect on them - that's why we're investing so much in this. If this turns out to be true, it will be a significant issue we had not forseen so far."
  1663. > Warren hesitates a moment, then goes on - his voice dropped low.
  1664. > "We've read up extensively on your legends. Heat, flame - these things might hold them back, but there might be a magical element to it as well."
  1665. "...so in short, if we do find one..."
  1666. > "You keep far, far away from it. This is a reconnaissance mission, pure and simple. You observe and take note; you do not approach or engage."
  1667. > That wasn't exactly reassuring.
  1668. > Warren can see it, too.
  1669. > "I know it's not the most reassuring. If it makes you feel better, we don't think they can push very far south yet and we'll have an unit on standbye to pull you out of there if things get bad."
  1670. "I understand. Flying mac- er, helicopters?"
  1671. > "Yes. And, just in case it's actually effective, some thermal-weapon armed strike aircraft."
  1672. "Okay."
  1673. > "And..."
  1674. > Again Warren hesitates, his voice dropping low once more.
  1675.  
  1676. > "And, if this is real... entirely off-the-record, I think it'd be enough to get our leaders to push for a possible re-negotiation."
  1677. "If it would... that would be most welcome."
  1678. > A recognition that there are things you can both face together?
  1679. > It's all you could have hoped for.
  1680. "Alright. With your permission we'll turn in for tonight and get read to move out tomorrow."
  1681. > Back in the bunkroom, you're preparing for bed when a new problem presents itself.
  1682. > Hot Pot.
  1683. > "Sir, I'm good to go. My leg is mostly good, I can keep up. I won't be a weight on anypony else."
  1684. > Her tone is desperate, needing.
  1685. > But was it the truth?
  1686. "Hot Pot, are you really able to keep yourself going?"
  1687. > "Absolutely, sir!"
  1688. > Behind her, you catch Dusk's catlike, slitted eye.
  1689. > He subtly shakes his head - but then nods as well.
  1690. > No and yes?
  1691. > So-so, then.
  1692. > Well, she wasn't showing serious signs of injury anymore...
  1693. > But even one stumble at the wrong moment, or a few less miles' hike every day - that could be bad.
  1694. > Telling her to stay, though... it'd be hard, on both of them.
  1695.  
  1696. ACTION:
  1697. - Test her.
  1698.  
  1699. "...tomorrow, I'm sending you to the medical wing to get looked at. If they say you're able to run, and if you are able to go through a morning workout with us afterwards - then I'll be okay."
  1700. > You can see the fear glint in her eyes.
  1701. > She's terrified of failing your test.
  1702. "Hot Pot..."
  1703. > Clapping a hoof to her shoulder, you sigh.
  1704. "This is for your safety too. I can't have you out there if there's a risk to you. If something happens and we can't come back or slow down for you... I don't want to have to leave you behind."
  1705. > She looks down, guilt flickering across her face.
  1706. > Probably hadn't been thinking about that aspect of it, had she?
  1707. > "Yeah, you... you have a point."
  1708. > The results, when they come, are decidedly mixed.
  1709. > While Hot Pot had been able to run the exercise at only slightly slower pace than normal, she'd also managed to avoid any serious slip-ups.
  1710. > And the medical report offers a worrying version of what might happen should she do so:
  1711. > 'Some residual weakness in injured limb, instability under stress. Muscle still healing; spasms may occur.'
  1712. > None of those would be good; it sounded like a single bad move could set her all the way back.
  1713. > But she seemed to be handle the course well enough, and a sprain or break could be just as bad for any of you.
  1714. > And her wings were undoubtedly in top condition.
  1715. > You didn't have long to decide; it'd be time to pack up and leave soon enough.
  1716.  
  1717. ACTION:
  1718. - Take her with us.
  1719.  
  1720. "...alright, Hot Pot. You're on. Just do-"
  1721. > Your statement is abruptly terminated by Hot Pot leaping up across your back to embrace you mightily.
  1722. > Weeks of work to rebuild the injured muscles had left her quite strong; you let out a little wheeze as her legs squeeze your sides.
  1723. "Hot Pot... too much!"
  1724. > "Oh. Um, sorry..."
  1725. > Giving a bashful look she hops back down and scuffs at the ground with one hoof.
  1726. > "But, thank you, sir. I... I'm really glad to be with you."
  1727. "I know. You're doing well, Hot Pot."
  1728. > Well, that leaves only one thing left to do.
  1729. > Quick Step.
  1730. > And Caravan, you suppose.
  1731. > Neither was going to be able to go with you, at all.
  1732. "...hey, I'm going to go see Quick and Caravan. Anypony else coming?"
  1733. > Their chorus of affirmatives brings a smile to your lips and makes you wonder why you bothered asking.
  1734. > As soon as you step into his room, Quick Step can tell.
  1735. > Maybe it's your somber, serious looks.
  1736. > Or he'd just figured out the times; you'd not hidden from him where you were eventually going, after all.
  1737. > "H-Hey, boss."
  1738. "Hey, Quick Step."
  1739. > He was looking better; a regular diet, rest, and therapy was doing wonders for his condition.
  1740. > Except, of course, for his leg; at one point the humans had actually had to operate on it to ensure the muscles fully developed normally.
  1741. > Caravan...
  1742. > The comatose stallion still rested in his bed, his chest gently rising and falling with hisses from the breathing mask.
  1743. > He probably couldn't hear anything you said, but...
  1744. > It couldn't hurt, right?
  1745.  
  1746. > Forcing a deep breath down, you swallow the sudden concern that had risen within you.
  1747. "So, uh..."
  1748. > "Guess it's time for you to go, huh?"
  1749. "Yeah... We're going north. I'm sorry we can't have everypony with us, but..."
  1750. > "It's okay."
  1751. > His voice is still thin, but there's a gleam in his eyes now - determination.
  1752. > "I understand. I'll be okay here; I can look after Caravan."
  1753. "Okay. And... again, I'm promising we'll be back for you guys when you return."
  1754. > When you return.
  1755. > Not if.
  1756. > You weren't sure how much of that certainty was truth.
  1757. > "Got it. I know you won't abandon me."
  1758. > Surprisingly, his mouth curls into a small grin.
  1759. > "Just, uh... try and be a little faster about it this time if you can, huh?"
  1760. > The noise that escapes your throat might have been a laugh, or it might have been a squelched cry.
  1761. "Yeah. We'll do that, Quick Step."
  1762. > A few brings you within range of the bed, letting you reach out with one hoof.
  1763. > Quick Step shakily raises a leg to meet it, bumping hooves with you.
  1764. > "Good luck then, sir."
  1765. "Same with you."
  1766. > Turning to leave, you spot something that truly surprises you.
  1767. > Byline was resting his forehooves on the side of the bed, speaking softly to Caravan.
  1768. > Even as you step back - allowing the others to file in and each speak a few words to Quick Step - he stays there.
  1769. > Listening closely, you eventually realize that he's telling Caravan about everything that had happened to you since the attempted escape from Las Pegasus.
  1770. > And you can't entirely be certain.
  1771. > But you think you saw his eyes twitch beneath their lids.
  1772. > At last Byline finishes up, moving to talk briefly with Quick Step too.
  1773. > As he steps out of the room, you fall in beside him.
  1774. "That was good of you."
  1775. > His answer is initially nothing more than an angry grunt, but after a moment he gives a proper answer.
  1776. > "Didn't seem fair not to talk to Caravan. Like, we're not expecting him to come back or something."
  1777. > Hmm.
  1778. > You hadn't thought of it like that.
  1779.  
  1780. > Unfortunately, there's little time to think on it.
  1781. > Warren is waiting in your barracks-room when you get back.
  1782. "It's time?"
  1783. > He nods sharply.
  1784. > "The aircraft that will take you north is ready. Grab your gear, we're moving in twenty."
  1785. > Well.
  1786. > That's that, then.
  1787. > The north awaits.
  1788.  
  1789. MISSION 6 COMPLETE
  1790.  
  1791. Primary Objectives:
  1792. > Survive: COMPLETE
  1793. > Keep your unit alive: COMPLETE; ALL SAFE
  1794. > Relax a bit: COMPLETE
  1795. > Meet the humans that you will be working alongside and train with them: COMPLETE
  1796.  
  1797. Secondary objectives:
  1798. > Have some fun discovering human culture: COMPLETE
  1799. > Find the information leak in your unit: COMPLETE
  1800. > Your help Iri overcome her inhibitions on working with you: COMPLETE
  1801.  
  1802. > You can say this for the human 'aircraft'.
  1803. > Not all are as noisy or as the one you flew on that first time.
  1804. > You're flown to their northernmost outposts - just east of Tall Tale, from what you can tell - a glance out the window as you descended through the clouds gave an excellent view of the forest flanking Galloping Gorge in the distance.
  1805. > The ride the rest of the way north, after you'd switched to one of their helicopters, was decidedly less pleasant.
  1806.  
  1807. > Even with the doors closed, a chill breeze flowed through the machine's cabin and your ears were filled with the incessant thunder of its engines.
  1808. > The ride isn't a short one either, and by the time you approach the ridge of mountains that Eyrie Rock passes through the vibrations have set our wings aching.
  1809. > None of your ponies are faring much better - the experience is a decidedly unpleasant one - but Chilona is decidedly having the worst of it.
  1810. > The mare has spent the entire flight with her helmet pulled down as far as it will go, a helpfully-provided pair of earmuffs squeezed tight over her tufted ears to halt as much of the noise as she can.
  1811. > You can only imagine how Boulder must be taking it - especially as they swing the doors open when you get close to the ridges.
  1812. > Most of the flight had been spent in quiet thought; apparently no one human or pony felt particularly chatty going into this.
  1813. > Not that you could blame them; they were effectively going into uncharted territory and even you weren't fantastically familiar with the area.
  1814. > At least you'd had maps to look at beforehand.
  1815. > "So... how many are we expecting to be there again?"
  1816. > That was Sergeant Gerber, who was buckled in directly next to you.
  1817. > "In terms of your soldiers, I mean."
  1818. "Thirty, maybe fifty at the most. Mostly for search, rescue, and protecting trade wagons coming through. They might have been pulled off on account of the war, but the town will probably have raised an additional militia if so."
  1819. > "How well trained are your militia?"
  1820. "Peacekeepers. Police, more than soldiers."
  1821. > "So, not likely to be a problem."
  1822. "No."
  1823.  
  1824. > Land on the slopes of the ridge that Eyrie Rock straddles.
  1825.  
  1826. > At last you approach the ridge - your first warning being when the doors are abruptly slid open.
  1827. > One outlying peak is passing beneath you, a dividing river snaking around alongside it.
  1828. > "Four minutes!"
  1829. > The soldier's voice - audible over the machine's roar, sends all of you doing one last check of your equipment.
  1830. > The flowing wind has also set your wings twitching - eager and ready to be out of the machine's confines.
  1831. > It's an urge you retrain, though - it'd been made quite apparent that a pegasus trying to fly amid the currents caused by the beating blades would have a very bad day.
  1832. > A glance out the door reveals the open land has been replaced by a thick band of coniferous trees - their tops dotted with patches of snow.
  1833. > And then the ground is open again - truly open, bare earth and rocks exposed in many places.
  1834. > Patches of struggling grass and small plants peek up through the rocks, but for the most part it is little me than grey stone and dirt.
  1835. > Clouds of which rise into the air as the machines come in close; on account of the slope, they do not come completely down but hover perhaps a few feet off the ground.
  1836. > "Go - go, now!"
  1837. > You don't need to be told twice.
  1838. > Forcing your wings to tuck by your sides, you leap into the free air - and are immediately struck by the powerful downdraft coming from the machine's blades.
  1839. > Yes, flying wouldn't have been good at all.
  1840. > Taking a few steps as you'd been taught before you spin about, you quickly check to make sure that all you ponies are out safely.
  1841. > They are - Spark helping a still-teetering Chilona from the machine - as are the ponies and soldiers departing the second helicopter.
  1842. > Within seconds they are rising back up again; your own ears tuck down as their engine-noise returns at full force before the two contraptions retreat up into the sky.
  1843. > "...okay, word from the door boys is that they didn't see anyone watching us come in."
  1844.  
  1845. > Gerber stomps over from his group, weapon out and cradled in his arms.
  1846. > "You're the lead on this: Where are we going now?"
  1847.  
  1848. ACTION:
  1849. - Split off some ponies in guard armor and have them approach.
  1850. - If we have ponies going inside the city, we'll need a good excuse for them. We could have our bat ponies claim the night guard sent them north to investigate wendigos to gauge their reaction.
  1851.  
  1852. "Alright. We'll make an approach to the city with a few of us, make a check there. Sergeant Gerber, can your soldiers find good spots to observe and support us from in the event something goes wrong?"
  1853. > "Got it. You'll probably want to leave your bedding and some supplies with us as well. We'll get them tucked away."
  1854. "Okay."
  1855. > Less pleasant is the hike to the city; though the ground was open, it was also uneven and rocky.
  1856. > Human and pony alike have to watch their footing; a twisted ankle here - or worse - would be unbelievably risky.
  1857. > And despite the thick woolen drape you'd acquired to wear beneath the armor, the chill was rapidly getting to you; the humans had bundled up significantly more heavily, but they also didn't have the benefit of your coat either.
  1858. > By the time you round the last hillside and Eyrie Rock peeks into view, it's already the late afternoon and the temperature has begun to drop noticeably.
  1859. "You sure you're going to be alright out here, Sergeant?"
  1860. > "Yes. Won't be pleasant, but we have our thermal blankets and some flameless heaters to keep us going."
  1861. "Alright. Dusk, Chilona - you two drop your supplies as well, we're going to head into town together and see what we can find."
  1862. > "Understood."
  1863. > With all of your human supplies dumped, the weight you've been carrying feels significantly more tolerable.
  1864. > Especially wearing your old armor again, you practically feel like your old self.
  1865. > "One thing: Do you want to take one of our radios in? In case there's an emergency?"
  1866. > He has a point.
  1867. > This wasn't Easthock; you couldn't rely on things remaining steady outside the town.
  1868. > If something did pop up...
  1869. > On the other hand a simple search of your bags could ruin your whole day.
  1870. > Being taken prisoner again wasn't something you were looking forward to.
  1871.  
  1872. ACTION:
  1873. - Do not take a radio with you.
  1874.  
  1875. "...we should be good. If there's any problems before we cross the outer wall we'll signal with our wings; if there's a problem afterwards, we'll have to try and fly out."
  1876. > "Understood. We'll hold our fire until we're certain you're being attacked."
  1877. "Probably for the best. Whispen, you're lead on this end."
  1878. > "Got it."
  1879. > She scuffs lightly at the ground before adding:
  1880. > "Be safe, sir."
  1881. "I will. Come on, you two."
  1882. > Approaching the city, you have to resist the urge to glance back and see where they'd taken up positions.
  1883. > Odds were it couldn't be too far out, but they wouldn't let themselves be seen, right?
  1884. > After all, the humans had pulled on new clothes patterned for this region and you'd re-painted the armors for just this as well.
  1885. > To distract yourself from the question, you go over the story you'd constructed with Dusk and Chilona again.
  1886. > A kernel of truth at the heart of it again - that they had been sent to look for Windigos - but built on top of that a fortress of lies.
  1887. > For one, you would of course be claiming that you'd been sent by the Royal Guard; you would be the Night Guard's liaison to work with them.
  1888. > Then, you would be without more supplies because of being forced to travel light on account of the human presence.
  1889. > Surely even this far north they couldn't be ignorant of the war.
  1890. > Trudging onwards, your worries about being noticed fall away as a spear-wielding pony atop Eyrie Rock's outer wall gives you a friendly wave.
  1891. > You lift a hoof to wave a return; by the time you've closed enough for his yell to be heard, three others have joined him.
  1892. > "Hey down there! You guys actual Guard?"
  1893. "Yes! We've been sent here!"
  1894. > "About damn time they sent somepony back!"
  1895. > Leaping from the wall, one of the ponies glides down to meet you.
  1896. > The closer he comes, the more you realize he is not as solid as you'd originally thought.
  1897.  
  1898. > His armor, while Guard-standard, is pitted with evidence of rust and fits poorly; the stallion is similarly rather older than you'd originally pegged him to be.
  1899. > "About feathering time they sent somepony up here - it's good to see Canterlot hasn't entirely forgotten we exist!"
  1900. "Trust me, we're as happy to see you as well. It'll be good to have a decent spot to rest in."
  1901. > "Yes, come on in!"
  1902. > If he thinks poorly of the two batponies accompanying you, he doesn't show it.
  1903. > Passing through the thick, wooden gate and through the wall, the stallion leads you to where the other three you'd seen are waiting.
  1904. > With a start you realize one of them is equally wizened, while the other two look to have barely received their cutie marks.
  1905. > Moreover only one of the youngsters has actual armor; the other two are simply wearing thick cloth with a few metal plates hastily stitched into place over it.
  1906. > Militia, then, not actual guard.
  1907. > Catching your look, the stallion who'd greeted you shakes his head.
  1908. > "Not much to look at, I know. But they do well enough keeping us safe and our ponies in-line. I'm Snowslip - leader of what's left of the guard here, and effective mayor since the last one quit."
  1909.  
  1910. ACTION:
  1911. - ask about 'keeping ponies in line', ask why the mayor quit
  1912. - Then we should ask about the condition of the town right now, food, resources, why the mayor quit, if there's lots of trouble, etc. Ask about the town recent history, when the guard was pulled out, any attacks here anything big happen here, etc.
  1913. - Any strange going on? Ponies fighting, weird weather, reports of ghost, anything?
  1914.  
  1915. "Good to meet you, Snowslip."
  1916. > You introduce the three of you - first yourself, and then two Night Guard still flanking you.
  1917. > While you are firmly focused on the four townsponies in front of you, they are taking the town in - ears and eyes roving over it in turn.
  1918. > Beyond the wall, it seems to be a perfectly normal small, hardscrabble town.
  1919. > Rows of houses, well-built from stone and sharply-peaked roofs to handle snow line the roads; the main roads are cobblestone while smaller ones appear to be little more than hard-packed dirt.
  1920. > In the distance, the citadel's walls - ancient, pitted and dark with moss - rise above the individuals homes.
  1921. "...and we've been sent north to look in to some... issues here."
  1922. > "Hah! Like I said, about time they remembered us. Pulled off our assigned guard contingent, plus the recruitment for the war... it's been no good. We're down to colts and old mares here, and the town's worried."
  1923. "About?"
  1924. > "Everything. The war - thank Celestia, the humans haven't gotten up this far yet - the lack of travellers what with everything else going on, the howlers acting up again..."
  1925. > He shrugs heavily.
  1926. > "It's been no good. We're a travel-stop town, Airpony. We don't have no travelers right now. Folk are getting worried about what's going to become of us."
  1927. "...ah. So, there's been trouble? You mentioned keeping ponies in line?"
  1928. > "Don't need saying. Folk are restless - worried. Fighting's bound to break out. Least it ain't the war - we can handle a few scuffles."
  1929. > He starts to walk, and out of instinct you follow.
  1930. "What are they fighting over?"
  1931. > "Whether to stay, mainly. It ain't an easy life up here, and without the travellers... some area saying that we should just pack our things and leave. Head somewhere safer. Old mayor wanted that, but not enough followers, so he quit."
  1932.  
  1933. ACTION:
  1934. - Are Howlers some sort of wolf?
  1935. - Ignoring the psychological conditions. How's the towns resources? Are they hurting for food or medicine or what? Then ask them the recent history, when the guard was pulled out and such, when the militia was needed.
  1936. - Howlers as in animals or howlers as in wind? This may be evidence of Windigo activity. Don't let him know that though.
  1937.  
  1938. "How are you holding up here? Are you short on food, or medicine?"
  1939. > "Short? We're always short - but we're not starving, if that's what you mean. Less mouths to feed, after all. Same for medicine; we're safe for now."
  1940. > "But not for too much longer."
  1941. > Dusk's comment had come unbidden, and Snowslip looks back to nod in agreement.
  1942. > "It's always been the travelers that kept us going here. No travelers, no goods."
  1943. "Been this way for a while, huh?"
  1944. > "Three months since they pulled our guard unit. Two since they took our colts and fillies."
  1945. > Snowslip huffs heavily.
  1946. > "I get that it's for a cause, for Equestria's defense, but by the stars! Can they not take all of them?!"
  1947. > Two months...
  1948. "And travellers have been gone for just as long?"
  1949. > "Longer, even. Since those damned flying things came overhead, nopony's been wanting to travel. Especially this far north. We've been making do, though. We're used to things being short."
  1950. > He gives a sharp bark of pained laughter, shaking his head.
  1951. > "Give us another few months, then I'll be really worried."
  1952. "And the howlers? What about them?"
  1953. > "Oh, yes - they've always been here. We know 'em, and we keep a wary wing out for them. But they've been noisy as of late - tryin' to spook us, I think."
  1954. "...what, exactly, is a Howler?"
  1955. > "Yknow..."
  1956. > Snowslip glances about, making sure you're close enough.
  1957. > "Howlers. The old ones. Oldie coldies."
  1958. "Windi-"
  1959. > "Don't. Say it."
  1960. > Shaking his head furiously.
  1961. > "We're not going to be starting a panic."
  1962.  
  1963. ACTION:
  1964. - So windigoes are a standard thing around here? Well shieet, i thought they where rumors. We should probably ask for a safe place to talk, somewhere where we can't start a panic or whatever, then we should explain our mission. With lies of course, can't be revealing that humans are involved.
  1965. - I think it should be safe to tell him we're looking into the windigos because of concerns the war might be feeding them or that they might be escalating the conflict.
  1966. - We need to talk, like, right now. We need to go over the mission and gather all the info that we can acquire.
  1967.  
  1968. "...is there someplace quiet we can talk?"
  1969. > "Yeah. Just this way."
  1970. > Trudging through the streets, you lapse into silence as thoughts swirl in your head.
  1971. > You'd come here thinking that you'd have to search high and low for any evidence, but this - this was something different.
  1972. > It made your task easier, yes - but there was plenty of concern to be had if the Windigos are already out and about here.
  1973. > What if they'd seen you?
  1974. > If they knew the humans were here?
  1975. > What if-
  1976. > "Sir... look around us."
  1977. > Chilona's voice snaps you out of the spiral of fear, prompting you to glance about.
  1978. > You hadn't seen it at first, but the townsponies have definitely seen you.
  1979. > Along either side of the road they've stopped, pausing in their daily actions to look at you.
  1980. > As Snowslip has said, they're none of them in their primes - mares and stallions alike.
  1981. > Yet, under the hard and weathered look they all bear, there's something else.
  1982. > Thankfulness.
  1983. > Pride.
  1984. > Warmth.
  1985. > "They're happy, sir. Rejoicing even - because of us."
  1986. > So they are - quietly, in a reserved way, but you can see the new shine in their eyes.
  1987. > Nevermind that your armor is painted over, or that all three of you show signs of the wear and tear of fighting.
  1988. > You are Royal Guards, a sign to them that Canterlot has not forgiven their little fortress even as the war rages on.
  1989. > If only they knew what you really were.
  1990. > It twists at your heart, that you won't be able to tell them that their young will be coming back.
  1991. > But at the same time - if you could given them any reassurance at all, maybe they could hold this place a little longer.
  1992. > Ahead of you, Snowslip points to a thickly-built wooden building abutting the old citadel's walls.
  1993. > "In here. This was the guard's building; we rarely use the citadel itself anymore."
  1994.  
  1995. > Walking thorugh the entrance, you're struck by how empty the building is.
  1996. > It was meant to house guardsponies on deployment - separate from the town.
  1997. > Now the only guards in the city are militia who will trot home to their own families each night.
  1998. > Leading you into a side room, Snowslip shuts the door behind you.
  1999. > "So, you're here about them, then?"
  2000. > He doesn't need to say who he refers to.
  2001. "Yes. We;ve been sent up north to investigate the possibility that they're influencing the war. Pushing it, to make the fighting worse."
  2002. > "I... see."
  2003. "Why didn't you want us to mention them outside?"
  2004. > Snowslip sighs heavily, and as he sinks down slightly you can suddenly see how hard his task must weigh on him.
  2005. > "Folk are already afraid. Worried about their young, about the war coming here. Somepony comes in to town, yelling about Windigos - I don't know what will happen."
  2006. "They're here, though?"
  2007. > Now the old stallion abruptly laughs, leaving you mildly befuddled.
  2008. > "You've never really been this far north, have you? Beyond these mountains, where the snow never melts - well, I don't think they ever left. They've been howling as long as we've been here."
  2009. > Given how far back these fortifications went...
  2010. "But they can't get down here?"
  2011. > "No. Fires of friendship, warmer winds, whatever it is - they can't get near these mountains. Eyrie Rock has always been safe. Doesn't stop us hearing them howling from the further peaks, though."
  2012. > But that hasn't stopped the townsponies from being afraid.
  2013. "You said they've been restless, though."
  2014. > "Aye. Getting noisier, louder. Snow's not melting where it should. They're ain't here, but they're nipping all around the edges - we sent word to Canterlot, but who knows if it got through?"
  2015.  
  2016. ACTION:
  2017. - Continue questioning him.
  2018. - Use our mission as cover.
  2019.  
  2020. "How long has this been going on? Them... coming back, and all that?"
  2021. > "Two, three months? About when our young left. That's why everyone's scared - there's word going around, that they can smell our fear."
  2022. > Fear?
  2023. > That wasn't Windigo's typical method from the stories.
  2024. > But fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred.
  2025. "Anything else? Anything to suggest they're pushing things here?"
  2026. > "Not that I've seen. Not anything that couldn't just be simple fear and short tempers, anyway."
  2027. > A bitter chuckle escapes Snowslip's lips.
  2028. > "Nopony's been trying to murder each other, if that's what you're asking."
  2029. "So they're around... just not here."
  2030. > "Yes. Past this ridge, past the next one - maybe up there, if you're crazy enough to go. Canterlot would have to be mad to send just three ponies up there, though."
  2031. > Well, that would be a point, wouldn't it?
  2032. "We're... not actually from Canterlot. We were sent by a Staff Sergeant named Fairweather - I don't know who he got his orders from, the war has ruined all our communications lines."
  2033. > "We've heard, yeah. Messengers are too scared to fly with all those machines zipping about. You're lucky you got here safe - we heard a few of them buzzing around south of here just this morning."
  2034. > That had to be your group.
  2035. > Thankfully he didn't seem to be aware you had come from them.
  2036. > "But, urgh. We'd hoped that Canterlot had gotten our message, but... sometimes I think all those fancy nobles there like to sit in their posh city and forget we exist."
  2037. > Huffing quietly, Snowslip shakes his head.
  2038. "Listen, is there anywhere good, where you might think we could be able to gather hard evidence of this?"
  2039. > "...alright, alright."
  2040. > A map is dragged out and spread out the on the table for you.
  2041.  
  2042. > "Look. You go up past this pass, follow the road north-east from here when it splits. You'll pass one abandoned little town - some fool's vision, been gone for ages - and then come to another trail going up a peak. It'll be marked, 'Silvershod's Spring'. You go up there... might find something. Might not."
  2043. "There's a spring in the mountains?"
  2044. > "Was. Some damn fool ruined it - poisoned it. Messy business. Ponies turning on each other."
  2045. "...ah."
  2046. > Well, that would explain why he was sending you there.
  2047. > But it also presented another problem:
  2048. > Going though Eyrie Rock's pass with the humans in full view would blow your cover wide open.
  2049.  
  2050. ACTION:
  2051. - are we on a timetable? could we spend the night here, watching their guard rotations and looking for blatant holes and then abuse them tommorow night? we can send Dusk out to contact the rest of our squad since he's sam fisher pony and then if we see, say, 1 pony watching the wall at 3am-4am, we could go out tomorrow and distract him while the squad uses the pass, then we go ourselves the next morning
  2052. - I think this is the best idea, we send dusk to tell the humans what we're up to, while We and Chili look around town.
  2053.  
  2054. "Alright, look. I hate to impose on you, but could you put us up for a few nights? I realize you're low on supplies already, but..."
  2055. > "Hah! For a member of the Guard, not a problem at all. I hope you don't mind barracks."
  2056. > It'd be a step down from the relative luxury of the human barracks you'd gotten used to, but not the worst thing you could imagine.
  2057. > Certainly no worse than how your ponies and human allies were faring outside the city.
  2058. > And besides, a pony getting up to step out - perhaps to relieve themselves - wouldn't go amiss, perfect for what you're planning.
  2059. "Not at all. We're good; in fact, if you don't mind we'll take the time to look around here a bit as well?"
  2060. > "Not at all! I hope you don't mind if some of the folk are a bit terse with you; we're a hard bunch for a hard bit of land."
  2061. > You shoot him a reassuring smile.
  2062. "We're used to it. Don't worry too much."
  2063. > Snowslip shows you to a few free beds before heading back out to continue his own business.
  2064. > Now alone, Dusk turns to you with a questioning eye.
  2065. > "What're you thinking here, sir?"
  2066. "First, get some rest. You're going to be doing a bit of flying tonight."
  2067. > His eyebrows rise as you go on:
  2068. "Chilona and I are going to be doing a bit of looking around town. We need to get some idea of how many ponies they have on watch during the night."
  2069. > "To get the others through the pass."
  2070. "If possible, yes. You'll need to get the others up to speed on what we're doing, and possibly bring word back to them on whether we're go to do this."
  2071. > "Alright. I'll get a nap in during the evening, then - so I'll be up to go by near midnight."
  2072. "Sounds good. Chilona, you and I are going to be scouting right now."
  2073. > Stepping back out from the barracks you glance around Eyrie Rock - trying to figure out what would be best to do next.
  2074. > It's already getting into evening, towards night.
  2075. > Not more than a few hours until the best time to make your move.
  2076.  
  2077. ACTION:
  2078. -  Go to the wall, try and talk to the ponies on guard there. Maybe find some who'd be willing to talk about the town's defenses.
  2079.  
  2080. "...alright. Come on, Chilona. I want to get a look at the wall, see what we can use."
  2081. > As a defensive fortification, the wall was strikingly poor.
  2082. > The more you look at it, the more you think it was simply meant to make Eyrie Rock too much of a pain for simple beasts to bother with than to hold off an actual attack.
  2083. > The actual wall it little more than a wooden stockade, hundreds of upright logs jammed into the ground.
  2084. > Behind them earth has been mounded and packed in to form a platform for ponies to walk on, actual stone stairs to climb up having been dug in at regular intervals.
  2085. > It's a most rudimentary fortification - but a functional one.
  2086. > Climbing one set of those steps, you're immediately noticed by a pair of young fillies huddled up around a guttering fire.
  2087. > They scramble to their hooves saluting sloppily but enthusiastically.
  2088. > Giving them a quiet nod, you start to walk along the wall; Chilona follows close behind.
  2089. > The one time you glance back her ear are swiveling and eyes pupils widening in the fading evening light.
  2090. > Good, shes doing her job.
  2091. > Falling back to walk alongside her, you murmur softly:
  2092. "Thoughts on this lot?"
  2093. > "These ponies want to do good, but they're not going to stop us. They've got fires lit - that will kill their night-vision. And these parapets... they're low. An earth pony could probably leap them and land safely, we can fly, the unicorns are the only ones who might have trouble."
  2094. "So, if we need to sneak out..."
  2095. > "It can be done. They militia - they're all hanging out near the fires, not walking the walls. We could slip between them."
  2096. > Nodding, you move on - heading towards the next group of huddled ponies.
  2097.  
  2098. ACTION:
  2099. - Talk to them
  2100.  
  2101. > As before, the militia scrabble to their hooves as you approach.
  2102. > There's three here - two more young ones, and an older-looking earth pony stallion with a bit of roughness around him.
  2103. > He might have actually been a guard
  2104. > "Sweet Celestia, I didn't think I'd ever see a Royal Guard here! Uh, no offense - it is really good to see somepony like you."
  2105. "None taken."
  2106. > You return their salutes when they don't break them immediately; most likely they didn't even know saluting you wasn't required.
  2107. "I'm sure you're doing the best you can, under the circumstances."
  2108. > "As best we can."
  2109. > The stallion pauses, glancing to the other two who have already gone back to their little fire.
  2110. > "Not much good with how few we've been able to put together."
  2111. "How many ponies do you have?"
  2112. > "Altogether? Thirty, forty at most. Maybe sixty more that we've shown how not to stab themselves, but they can't be pulled off other duties - town's gotta live."
  2113. > A quick calculation suggest that probably meant no more than nine or ten ponies on watch at any given time.
  2114. > Enough to sound the alarm of an attack, but not nearly enough to keep a sharp eye out for everything.
  2115. > Something must've tipped him off that you weren't impressed; the stallion gives a little huff.
  2116. > "It's not much. But it's what we have."
  2117.  
  2118. ACTION:
  2119. - "Have you heard anything about 'Silvershod's Spring'?"
  2120.  
  2121. "I understand. Actually..."
  2122. > Maybe the older one could help you - he'd been around for a while.
  2123. "There was something mentioned to us earlier - 'Silvershod's Spring'. Have you heard of it...?"
  2124. > The stallion winces, nodding - a knowing look in his eyes.
  2125. > "Everypony here know about that place, yeah."
  2126. > He hesitates, then adds more quietly:
  2127. > "Bad business that. Beautiful place, though."
  2128. "You've been there?"
  2129. > "Been there? I was there when it happened!"
  2130. > For some reason you'd assumed that the poisoning Snowslip had mentioned was ages ago.
  2131. > Evidently that was not the case.
  2132. "How many years ago was this, then?"
  2133. > "Years? It wasn't five weeks ago! Why do you think folk are so worried?"
  2134. > And Snowslip hadn't bothered to mention this to you?
  2135. > Seeing your surprise, he goes on:
  2136. > "That spring, that was some good mining territory. Kept us nice and safe in a cave, fresh water and all. Then it all goes bad - ponies start arguing, then they start fighting, then the poison. Lotta folk sayin' its the howlers' doing."
  2137. "How long did this take?"
  2138. > "For it to all go bad? Oh, good two-and-a-half weeks, at least."
  2139. > It fit - worryingly well.
  2140.  
  2141. ACTION:
  2142. - "Has anything else strange happened lately?"
  2143.  
  2144. > "Aside from the whole town cowering in fear?"
  2145. > Giving a sharp laugh, the stallion shakes his head.
  2146. > "If you don't count the howlers being noisy and the snow not melting, not really. Well, and the north emptying out. There were always a few mining parties up there, trying to work something out of the mountains. But between the war and the story of what happened at the spring - well, they're packed up and left."
  2147. > He pauses, then adds more softly:
  2148. > "Not to hear it said, but we're lucky the howlers have been sticking to just up there. Celestia knows, they could probably make life miserable for us."
  2149. > So the Windigos weren't coming south yet, apparently.
  2150. > Or couldn't - you weren't sure.
  2151. "...anyone here who'd still know how to get there?"
  2152. > A sharp, curious look is shot in your direction.
  2153. > "You really are determined to see what's up there, aren't you?"
  2154. "It's not us, exactly. We're supposed to be looking into the W- uh, howler activity around here."
  2155. > "...well, at least somepony's taking us serious now."
  2156. > With a little huff, the stallion shakes his head - then turns to one of his two partners.
  2157. > "Mainspring, take them around to see Gauze Remedy. She'll probably be able to answer more of their questions."
  2158. "She was there too?"
  2159. > "Uh-huh. Barely lived - poison got to her, while she was trying to save everyone else."
  2160. > Well, that might be useful to talk to.
  2161. "I'm just surprise Snowslip didn't mention any of this to us..."
  2162. > "Snowslip! Hah. Poor Snowslip - he's doing the best he can, but sometimes he doesn't realize that you can't go whispering about the things you fear and not keep fearing them."
  2163.  
  2164. ACTION:
  2165. - What does Snowslip fear besides the Howlers? Does he have anypony close fighting in the war?
  2166.  
  2167. "What does Snowslip have to fear besides the howlers?"
  2168. > "Folk here going mad, of course!"
  2169. > Laughing bitterly, the stallion shakes his head.
  2170. > "Y'gotta understand - this a small town, and folk are already afraid and testy. If things go bad here, it's going to be worse than Silvershod's Spring. Neighbor on neighbor..."
  2171. > "Don't talk like that! Everypony here's going to be fine!"
  2172. > One of the two younger ponies on duty with him can hold it back no longer.
  2173. > Clutching her spear tightly, the filly stares at him with determined eyes.
  2174. > "We're a not just a town! We're friends! And we're not going to hurt each other."
  2175. > "Easy there, young one."
  2176. > Chilona steps forward, her tone unexpectedly soft compared to its normal dry self.
  2177. > "He isn't saying that is actually going to happen - but that's what Snowslip is afraid of."
  2178. "...I can understand that, too. Being a leader... if ponies are hurt on his watch, he feels responsible."
  2179. > "I... guess I can understand that..."
  2180. > The old stallion ruffles his younger compatriot's mane, shaking his head at her worried look.
  2181. > "Don't you worry about that. With ponies like you watching us, I'm sure everypony here will be fine."
  2182. > Her reaction makes both you and Chilona smile warmly... at least until another question comes to mind.
  2183. "Does Snowslip have anypony close fighting in the war?"
  2184. > "Who doesn't? They took anypony who was of age and didn't have a reason not to go."
  2185. > "They what?!"
  2186. "Are you serious?"
  2187. > Neither you and Chilona can keep your responses down.
  2188. > You knew the war had been going badly, but conscription...?
  2189. > Conscription hadn't been heard of in Equestria in... ages!
  2190. > Just how much - how many - had fallen to bring the Guard to that point?
  2191. > Seeing your shock, the stallion's eyebrows rise.
  2192. > "You're honestly saying you didn't know?"
  2193.  
  2194. ACTION:
  2195. - the truth is fine. we stayed in las pegasus after the city fell and worked with the guard resistance, we saw civilian militias spring up but no evidence of official recruitment because we had largely been cut off. travelling here we kept away from settlements to not appear to be ponies running information out of the human controlled areas.
  2196. - We've been out of touch.
  2197. - Not much news cones into occupied territory. We didn't have a chance to talk to anybody in the towns we visited either.
  2198.  
  2199. "The last major city we were in was Las Pegasus... and that fell weeks ago. As we were traveling here we stayed out of populated areas to avoid trouble."
  2200. > "...you were in the fighting?"
  2201. > "Oh, yes."
  2202. > Chilona nods sharply - knowingly.
  2203. > "We've faced them repeatedly, both fighting and trying to avoid being captured after the city fell."
  2204. > "Are they... as bad as we've heard?"
  2205. "Honestly? Probably not. They're not overly vicious or cruel, but they're unhesitating when it comes to fighting - not afraid to use weapons that I still don't entirely understand."
  2206. > The stallion shudders softly.
  2207. > "I'm not sure I want to think about our colts and fillies mixed up in that."
  2208. > You're not sure quite what to say about that, so you settle for putting a hoof on his shoulder and giving what you hope is a reassuring pat.
  2209. "I know it can't be easy, but understand this: They aren't vicious butchers. They don't slaughter ponies mindlessly... and we survived. I was at the opening in the Everfree, and Chilona jointed me not long after. We've both survived; they can too."
  2210. > It's a lie.
  2211. > You know it, he knows it.
  2212. > For every pony who does live, how many do not?
  2213. > But after a moment the stallion gives a small nod - not of agreement, but of thanks.
  2214. > For what your words were meant to do, even if they could not.
  2215. > "Thank you. Sometimes there's a habit to think of you fancy Royal Guard as all flash and meaning. But - you're good ponies, I figure."
  2216. "...appreciate it."
  2217.  
  2218. ACTION:
  2219. - I think going out the same night as the gang would just make more ponies look over the wall, better to have them wait up the pass and meet them the next morning, while on the other hand us leaving in the morning might make ponies lax because they want to stay up and see us off.
  2220. - We should move on i think, i can't think of anything to ask him. And we should probably get more information before moving on.
  2221. - Since we're doing the Scooby Doo thing, let's go interview Gauze Remedy Gang!
  2222.  
  2223. "Well. I'm sure you're going to do quite well - all of you. Before we go - where can we find Gauze Remedy?"
  2224. > "Oh, that's easy.."
  2225. > Taking in the instructions, you give one last smile.
  2226. "Thank you very much for the information."
  2227. > "Glad to serve."
  2228. > You can honestly say he truly means it.
  2229. > With a nod to all three of the militia, you turn from the wall and start down the street.
  2230. > Chilona pulls up beside you, her ears still twisting and turning.
  2231. > "Your thoughts?"
  2232. "We'll stay the whole night tonight, move along tomorrow. The others can make through the pass tonight."
  2233. > "Got it. No connection, nothing to make them focus on the wall tonight."
  2234. "Right."
  2235. > "Are you seriously thinking of going all the way up to this Silvershod's Spring place?"
  2236. "Hopefully not all the way. Why?"
  2237. > You shoot her a small smirk.
  2238. "Afraid."
  2239. > "Yes."
  2240. > Chilona meets your gaze with an absolute calmness.
  2241. > "I could face the humans, but something that messes with your mind? Something that could turn ponies that close on each other? I'm rutting terrified."
  2242.  
  2243. ACTION:
  2244. - Let's wait 'till we talk to Gauze before we get too terrified of these things. We've put our lives on the line for each other plenty of times, those things won't have it easy breaking us apart; we won't be staying long, I doubt that something like that happened overnight.
  2245. - "Celestia willing, we won't have to get close and personal with a windigo, but if it happens, no matter what they try to poison your mind with, know that your team is going to stand beside you. No matter what they say or do, you have ponies at your side and we won't leave you or anyone to be preyed upon. Fear is what they want, its wise to respect the danger that they represent but remember that our bonds trumped their fear before and will do so again"
  2246.  
  2247. "Let's wait until we've had a chance to talk with Gauze before we really start to panic."
  2248. > You glance over - your eyes meeting her slitted pupils.
  2249. "Besides, if it's that bad we shouldn't have to get that close and personal with them - Celestia willing, I'm not looking forward to this any more than you are. If we do, though..."
  2250. > A wing extends out to touch her lightly.
  2251. "Just remember, no matter how you say or feel, we're at your side. All of us - we won't leave you behind to be preyed on. That much should be obvious now - we don't leave ponies behind. Remember that, and remember that bonds between ponies trumped their fear once before - and will do so again."
  2252. > Chilona nods, giving a tiny, uncertain smile.
  2253. > A moment later a determined look grows on her face and her gaze returns to the street.
  2254. > "Let's go see Gauze."
  2255. > The house in question is barely distinguishable from the others, but it is undeniably a warm place.
  2256. > Despite the hard location, flowers line the windows.
  2257. > Given that you doubted the pony within was a florist, odds were somepony else had put them there.
  2258. > A hoof tap on the floor yields some movement from within.
  2259. > "One moment, sis!"
  2260. > When the door opens, a light-yellow earth pony sticks her head out the door, staring questioningly up at you.
  2261. > Her eyes grow wide as she takes in your armor.
  2262. > "Oh... oh my! You must be here for Gauze. Gauze! Some Guardsponies here to see you!"
  2263. > From further within comes more movement - heavier thunks and clunking.
  2264. > Just what was this mare doing?
  2265. > The answer becomes apparent as she comes into view - a unicorn with a healthy-pink tone to her coat.
  2266. > ...oh.
  2267. > She's missing a leg - or at least, most of one of her hind ones; instead, her rear hips have been locked into a wheeled apparatus to support them
  2268. > Part of an ear appears to be missing as well; in fact, Gauze seems to have taken quite a lot.
  2269. > "Can I help you?"
  2270.  
  2271. ACTION:
  2272. - "We found the bodies, do you have anything you want to say before we take you in?"
  2273. - Before we start talking, we might want to reassure her that she isn't getting arrested for any of her actions at Silvershod Spring. We don't need her trying to obscure the truth because she did something particularly horrible.
  2274. - We should just get to the point, tell her we're the guard sent to investigate 'howler' activity, and that we learned that she may have information that may help us. Tell her she's not under legal obligation to share this information -unless EQ has some fascist laws that state that you have to tell everything a guard asks- but anything might help.
  2275.  
  2276. "We found the bodies; do you have anything you want to say before we take you in?"
  2277. > Gauze stares at you with a mix of horror and disgust.
  2278. > "What?! Of course you found them - we buried them respectfully! What do you mean-"
  2279. > You quickly cut her off on her hysterics before they get any worse.
  2280. "Sorry! Sorry. No - I meant - nevermind."
  2281. > The last bit is accompanied by a groan.
  2282. > Chilona's response is perhaps more distinctive; she simply raises a hoof and rubs her face at your attempt to lighten the situation.
  2283. "...sorry. You're not actually in trouble - it was... my mistake."
  2284. > "You... aren't here to arrest me?"
  2285. > Gauze had scooted slightly backwards during your outburst; now she cautiously wheels herself forward again - peering outward through the half-open door.
  2286. "No. Not at all. We do need to talk to you about what happened at Silvershod's Spring, though."
  2287. > "Oh."
  2288. > She looks down.
  2289. > "Sis, let them in. I, um. I can talk to them."
  2290. > The first mare gives you a very sharp look, but opens the door for you.
  2291. > Inside the home is about as cramped as you'd expect for such a small building; what you hadn't expected was the sheer amount of stuff in there.
  2292. > It seems, on account of her disability, Gauze had transformed the inside of her home into a private medical office.
  2293. > Racks of supplies, a small table for patients - all have been moved into the open space at the center of home's largest room; any more typical chairs have been moved aside.
  2294. > You move to take a seat on the floor opposite the maimed mare, who has wheeled herself around to face you.
  2295. > "I suppose you want to know exactly what went on there."
  2296. > "Among other things. We've been sent to find the truth of exactly what went on there - to deal with the, uh, howlers."
  2297. > Gauze's gaze hardens at Chilona's question.
  2298. > "The Windigos. That's what they were; you should call them that."
  2299. > Well, each to their own opinion, you suppose.
  2300. "Yes. We heard you have information on what happened."
  2301.  
  2302. > "Well, I suppose I should start at the beginning. There were about seventy of us, all working on mining out a cave. I was the doctor, of course - some ponies will get hurt mining."
  2303. > She pauses, thinking.
  2304. > "I don't know when it started. I didn't notice it until later, but ponies just started being... short with each other. He was slacking off, she had stolen my tools - that sort of thing."
  2305. "But it didn't stop there."
  2306. > "No. And then we started running out of wood - the cave had always been kind of warm, but it stopped being that way, and we had to light more fires. So, we started running low on wood."
  2307. > "How long did this take overall?"
  2308. > "A few weeks. Like I said, I can't know how long it took."
  2309. > If the poisoning was five weeks ago, as the stallion had said, then a few weeks before that would be as the humans were driving north still.
  2310. > Had they woken something, as Twilight had feared?
  2311. "So, it just kept getting worse and worse."
  2312. > "Yeah. And then ponies started getting sick - we didn't realize it at first, but one of the foreponies, he'd gotten thinking that somepony was stealing our results and dumped, uh... his waste into the spring."
  2313. > Urgh.
  2314. > Your stomach turns slightly at that idea.
  2315. > Gauze nods.
  2316. > "That was when things got really bad. All the anger just boiled over, and... yeah. Ponies started fighting - really fighting."
  2317. "They started killing."
  2318. > "Gauze, dear, you don't have to say anything more to-"
  2319. > A hoof is raised to halt her sister.
  2320. > "No, sis. I understand."
  2321. "She is right. You don't have tell us anything unless you want to. Unless you feel up to it."
  2322. > "Yeah... I know."
  2323. > Drawing a deep, shaky breath, Gauze nods.
  2324. > "I know."
  2325.  
  2326. ACTION:
  2327. - I guess we can ask what other signs there where, weather changes? We know the caves cooled down and shit, but anything else? Was this just a random forpone or was it someone who was especially short or especially in a bad or good mood? Was he the average joe or different? Tell us about the stream, how does it run? and the poison, if we used water upriver from the poisoning site, we should be fine, yes? What exactly was the poison, shit water isn't too bad, and filtering it is generally easy.
  2328.  
  2329. "Was this just a random pony that did this?"
  2330. > "No - that was Planar Cleavage. He was always a little more upset that some of the others."
  2331. > So, it picked up on ponies who were already angry, then?
  2332. > Good to know.
  2333. "Let's talk about some simpler stuff... how does the spring run?"
  2334. > "Oh, it starts further back in the cave and runs out as a channel. Some of the others thought it dug the caves to run out from; we made a channel so the path in would be dry."
  2335. "And he poisoned it where?"
  2336. > "Just a little bit down from the source. The cave runs further back in, mostly one big passage. Here, I'll draw it..."
  2337. > And draw it she does; quickly you realize the spring couldn't have been more than a few large passages - mostly burrowing straight in.
  2338. > "...and the water came up back here, almost at the end. We didn't go down there a lot, so we didn't know for a while."
  2339. "So, you noticed it, and..."
  2340. > "Well, we got him tied down and away. Uh, it was after that things got really bad. I don't think anypony realized how bad until we heard the howling."
  2341. "And then?"
  2342. > "We tried to leave. Couldn't - the weather had turned bad. We were all weak, some of them were dying. The second poisoning happened then. That killed fast; we never figured out what it was."
  2343. > Again she halts, steadying herself before going on.
  2344. > "When we tried to leave the second time a few days later, the largest group... I think that's when we realized how bad it was. Another storm hit us almost immediately, and the few pegasi we had just couldn't clear it. I had to set three broken wings that day."
  2345. "You were still walking?"
  2346. > "Yes."
  2347. "If you don't mind my asking, what happened to your leg?"
  2348. > "Frostbite. We had lost the road, and my hoof went through a frozen pool I couldn't even see."
  2349. > You wince, slightly.
  2350. > Definitely staying on the roads, then.
  2351. "So, they got you back here..."
  2352.  
  2353. > "And left me, yes. I think... right about then, that was when it started sinking in for everypony. What had happened - nineteen dead, by our own hooves. They still split up, but I think more out of shame and terror than hatred."
  2354. "One last thing, then... do you remember being short-tempered?"
  2355. > Gauze's eyes widen and her sister puts a hoof to her side, but Gauze shakes her head.
  2356. > "I remember being angry. Furious, that I was being overworked by all the sick and hurt ponies. Stupid ponies, why couldn't they just stop fighting? They were all bucking idiots, and I shouldn't have had to deal with what they did! They-"
  2357. > Her voice had been rising, but now Gauze stops with a sudden start and stares off into space a moment.
  2358. > "I... I'm sorry. It... still gets to me sometimes. Yes, I remember. I didn't think anything of it until later either. It just seemed... right. They were idiots, and I was right."
  2359. > Tilting her head back, she looks to her sister.
  2360. > "Can you, please...?"
  2361. > "Of course, Gauze. I think... I think it took them longer to hurt her. Gauze has always been a kindhearted thing - never one for hate. But even then, they found a way into her eventually."
  2362.  
  2363. ACTION:
  2364. - the ponies who initially turned on each other, what would you say their relationships were? ie: were they distant, did they have pre-existing strains, were they merely aquintensces, or did ponies from all forms of relationships like family, lovers, good friends, etc all turn on each other at more or less the same time?
  2365. - Move along.
  2366.  
  2367. "One last question: Was there anything that seemed to link all the ponies who became angriest with each other? Or those who stayed together longest."
  2368. > "Oh, yes."
  2369. > Gauze Remedy nods with great certainty.
  2370. > "It was obvious. Ponies who were already angry or frustrated got the worst of it. Then most of the others... eventually it got to all of us, even the ones who were close. We were barely able to agree we should leave together."
  2371. "Alright. Well, look... we really do appreciate you talking with us. I realize it's not too easy..."
  2372. > "Just, tell me one thing."
  2373. > Her eyes rise to you again - wide and pleading.
  2374. > "Is there a chance it will be safe to go further south any time soon? I... I don't know if I want to stay here. The hills aren't exactly easy for somepony with wheels, you know..."
  2375. > A nervous titter escapes her lips, but you can tell the hills have nothing to do with it.
  2376.  
  2377. ACTION:
  2378. - I cant tell you that the war will end soon because i don't know that, but last i heard the princesses were holding a line around canterlot and from what we've seen and heard, the humans have not been attacking the civilian population. Infact they seem to tend towards handing out supplies, i assume part of their strategy involves winning over the ponies that live in the city they occupy.
  2379. - Depends on how far south she's talking. Anything south of pone vill is human, anything east of poneville is human, anything west is probably human cos Dodge city.
  2380.  
  2381. "Last we heard, Canterlot was still holding. I don't know what things are like there, but... I'll be honest, the humans don't seem to be interested in harming civilians. Keep out of their way, and they will probably leave you be."
  2382. > "Really? The stories-"
  2383. > "Were in large part wrong."
  2384. > Chilona grunts softly, her eyes growing narrow.
  2385. > "They're not killing ponies for no reason. Even the Guard - they fight, yes. But they're not bloodthirsty. I don't entirely understand it myself..."
  2386. "Look, if you really want to go - anything north of Canterlot is probably safe. Vanhoover, the Crystal Empire - we've not heard word of them being anywhere near there."
  2387. > Of course, you hadn't heard word of much at all lately.
  2388. > But odds were the Crystal Empire, at least, would be relevant enough that rumors would have come through if it had been attacked.
  2389. "And if you do want to go... I wouldn't wait. I don't know what's going to happen next."
  2390. > "Alright... thank you."
  2391. "Thank you, again, for telling us."
  2392. > By the time you step out into the streets again, the sun has fallen beneath the horizon.
  2393. > The few ponies who had been out and about are mostly gone, having presumably turned in for the night already.
  2394. > A few guttering torches have been lit to keep the streets visible, but they are rare and far between - best to get back to the barracks now.
  2395. > The second you turn into the street, though, Chilona freezes mid-step.
  2396. > "You hear that, sir?"
  2397. "...what?"
  2398. > "Howling."
  2399. > Taking a few more steps down the street, away from the hiss of the nearest torch, you strain your hearing.
  2400. > When the sound finally reaches your ears, it's enough to make your coat stand on end.
  2401. > A distant, keening howl floats on the air.
  2402. > Not a wolf's howl, but that of a powerful wind scraping across rock and ice.
  2403. "...sweet Celestia. Now I understand."
  2404. > The trip back to the barracks is made at a rapid trot.
  2405. > Even in the less than ten minutes it takes you to make your way there, the howling grows.
  2406.  
  2407. > By the time you close the barracks door behind you, it's audible without having to strain your ears.
  2408. > More has become discernable as well; despite the seemingly unnatural tones, there was a decided pattern to the noise.
  2409. > Too regular to be just wind alone.
  2410. > Chilona looks slightly shaken.
  2411. > "Stars and spirits, that's what they've had to live with?!"
  2412. > "Nice little song, ain't it?"
  2413. > Snowslip peers out of his office, grinning a sour grin.
  2414. > "Used to be we could only hear them real loud on winter nights. Now they're always here."
  2415.  
  2416. ACTION:
  2417. - Shit. Well at least have useful information for Dusk to carry.
  2418. - Well, shit. Let's send Dusk out then we should leave first thing tomorrow. We will need an excuse if Dusk is missing in the morning though.
  2419.  
  2420. "Dusk. Hey, Dusk."
  2421. > The Night Guard had left his armor in a pile at the foot of the bed and promptly curled up into as tight a ball as possible.
  2422. > Nonetheless, he awakens quickly when you nudge him - a testament to how lightly he is sleeping.
  2423. > "Huh? Izzit time already?"
  2424. "Yeah. Getting later on now, I think about time for you to move."
  2425. > In fact you'd let him sleep a while longer - until the sun was long since down and the moon peering through from between scattered clouds.
  2426. > It seemed best to wait until he would be able to use his talents to the best of his abilities, after all.
  2427. "Grab some food and get ready. It's going to be a long night."
  2428. > As he shoves down a quick dinner - or breakfast, considering his preferred sleeping pattern - you give him the quick version of things.
  2429. > The expedition to the north that had gone bad, the directions there, the news of the conscription, and the poor state of the militia.
  2430. > Dusk takes it calmly, though you can see something shifting just below the surface.
  2431. "...so you're to tell them to make a move through the pass when they judge their chances are best overnight. Even if they're spotted, I honestly don't think the militia will bother trying to get them close."
  2432. > "Got it. And I'm supposed to come back after that?"
  2433. "Yes. If you are caught somehow, tell them who you are - I'll deal with it."
  2434. > "Understood. One question: Are they supposed to make it just through the pass and then wait for us, or then continue on to one of the little abandoned outposts that you mentioned being a bit further up?"
  2435. > That's a good question.
  2436. > An outpost could mean shelter, but also that help would be less at hand.
  2437. > Then again, you weren't expecting trouble here.
  2438.  
  2439. ACTION:
  2440. - Go to the outpost, there's no reason for there to be trouble tonight.
  2441.  
  2442. "Tell them to make for the outpost if they can. Leave a marker for us - or have them keep a watch."
  2443. > "Understood."
  2444. > Rising, Dusk slips from the room.
  2445. > It's been a while since you've been able to see him really work in his element, and a surprising reminder of just how quiet the stallion can be when he wants.
  2446. > A moment later, a barely-audible wingbeat from outside signals his departure.
  2447. > Glancing aside, you catch Chilona shooting a worried look out a window after him.
  2448. "He'll be alright. I don't think they're going to kill him just for flying the wall."
  2449. > Chilona nods, then turns to meet your gaze.
  2450. > "And if they don't? If they're being... changed too?"
  2451. "Then I'm sure we'd have seen it earlier. Gauze said this would take a while."
  2452. > This time her nod is slightly stronger.
  2453. > "Alright. If you want to rest, sir... I think I'm going to stay up a little longer, keep watch."
  2454. > It's evident from her still-twitching ears that a desire to stand watch is not the sole reason for her sleeplessness.
  2455. > Nonetheless, you nod in agreement.
  2456. "Okay. Get some sleep when you can, though. If Dusk comes back and needs to see me, go ahead and wake me up."
  2457. > "Understood."
  2458. > Given that the next thing you remember after collapsing onto the bed is awakening to sun beginning to creep through the windows, it's a fair bet Dusk did not.
  2459. > He has returned, though - sitting in the corner as Chilona, asleep at last, snoozes away on one of the beds.
  2460. > "Morning, Sir."
  2461. "You look exhausted, Dusk."
  2462. > "It was a long night."
  2463. > Stifling a yawn, the batpony shakes his head.
  2464. > "Only slept around five, six hours. Getting them through the pass was hard."
  2465. "You made it, then?"
  2466. > "Yeah. You were right - nopony saw a thing. It helped that the h- uh, they had those night-vision things for the others."
  2467. > Well, that's a relief.
  2468.  
  2469. > Something still looks to be troubling him, though.
  2470. "...everypony is alright, Dusk?"
  2471. > "Yeah. Yeah, they are."
  2472. "Alright. Something else wrong, then?"
  2473. > "I'll explain later. It can wait until we're done here."
  2474. > Strange, that.
  2475.  
  2476. ACTION:
  2477. - Trust Dusk; go tell Snowslip you're leaving.
  2478.  
  2479. "I understand, Dusk. Come on, let's wake Chilona up and get moving again."
  2480. > Quickly going through a shortened set of exercises, grabbing another small-and-fast breakfast, and reapplying your armor you proceed out onto the streets beyond.
  2481. > With the sun rising and injecting some modicum of warmth to the air again, the ghoulish howling has abated for now.
  2482. > The streets are again filling - ponies rising with Celestia's star to begin another day of work in their lives.
  2483. > Again they greet you with warm smiles, as if their hearts had been warmed and strengthened merely by the sight of you.
  2484. > Perhaps they had; either way, you hope it will give them a better chance of standing against whatever was lurking out there.
  2485. > Snowslip is quickly found, overseeing the changing of the guard for the morning.
  2486. > He has applied his own rough armor, and salutes with a hoof bearing an aged hoofblade.
  2487. > "Good morning again!"
  2488. "Good morning, Snowslip. I wanted to see you before we headed out."
  2489. > "Ah, so you're done here, then?"
  2490. "Yes. We're hearing north to the... you know."
  2491. > "Yes."
  2492. > A sudden dark look crosses his face, though it's quickly replaced by one of neutral determination.
  2493. > "You really want to see this through, then?"
  2494. "We have to be sure. It's our duty - if this is as big as we are hearing, it could change a lot of things."
  2495. > "A fair point, a fair point."
  2496. > A heavy, weary sigh escapes Snowslip's lips.
  2497. > "Going up out there has always been dangerous. They always touched a few poor ponies, but something like this... I suppose I should tell you, we've found warmth can hold them at bay. It doesn't stop them, though. If you're in trouble, try and make the biggest fire you can; it'll buy you some time."
  2498. "We'll keep it in mind. Thank you again."
  2499. > It suddenly occurs to you that, if things do go bad - especially if the humans get involved - it could be very bad for the ponies of Eyrie Rock.
  2500.  
  2501. > But how to explain that to them...?
  2502. > You certainly can't explain your allies, or that they might try to pick a fight with Windigos.
  2503. > After all, you'd told him that you were merely investigating - which was true.
  2504. > But the humans, you knew, would never stand idle once they realized the threat the Windigos posed.
  2505. > Truly, they were everything that the humans had feared.
  2506. > And if those two forces came to clash...
  2507.  
  2508. ACTION:
  2509. - Warn them to leave (or at least prepare to leave)
  2510. - Do not tell them about the humans
  2511.  
  2512. "Look, Snowslip - I realize you don't want to leave, and that's something I can understand. We saw a lot of land lost, even though we didn't want to leave it... but with things this bad, I don't know how long you can stay here."
  2513. > His face tightens angrily.
  2514. > "We can't just abandon land-"
  2515. "Snowslip, they're growing stronger. You know it, I know it."
  2516. > You lean in close, lowering your voice to a bare whisper.
  2517.  
  2518. "And I'll be honest: I don't know if the Guard will be able to spare anypony to help you if they do come. We're hurting bad in the war; we didn't even know about your request when we came."
  2519. > "You can't just say that! You could go back, bring more-"
  2520. "No."
  2521. > Now you let a hint of firmness into your voice.
  2522. "No, Snowslip, we can't. More are not likely to come soon, and I don't want to see any civilians hurt because of what we have to do... and if we die up there, somepony has to bring word to the rest of Equestria."
  2523. > For a second the briefest glimmer of fear flickers over Snowslip's face as he realizes just what you are expecting.
  2524. > Perhaps understanding for the first time the kind of danger you believe you will be walking into out there.
  2525. > "I... I understand. I..."
  2526. "You don't have to run now. But you should be ready - pack up some supplies, make preparations."
  2527. > "Alright... thank you. May the Fire protect you."
  2528. "And you."
  2529. > And then you're gone, both yourself and the two Night Guard with you taking to wing.
  2530. > It's a pleasant feeling, after walking for so long or being cooped up in the base - your first time in far too long when you could truly fly.
  2531. > Even so, you have to stick low.
  2532. > If things truly are as bad as they seem a sudden downdraft could send you tumbling, and you'd rather not be too far up if that does happen.
  2533. > "Hey, boss."
  2534. > Dusk pulls up aside you, his wingbeats quiet in the cold air.
  2535. > "Can I talk a sec?"
  2536. "This about what you were talking about before?"
  2537. > "Yeah, listen..."
  2538. > He turns away briefly, staring at the passing ground.
  2539. > It isn't because he saw something.
  2540. > "I overheard a couple of the humans talking while I was over there. Cloudsdale surrendered, sir."
  2541.  
  2542. [Roll for willpower; result: You're shaken, but are able to continue flying]
  2543.  
  2544. > Your wings nearly miss a beat.
  2545. "What?!"
  2546. > Dusk nods slowly.
  2547. > "It apparently happened a couple days before we left. Judging by their chatter, I think they were worried you'd refuse the mission if you heard..."
  2548. > You can't deny the news had badly shaken you.
  2549. "They didn't say anything about it...?"
  2550. > "No. Just that it had surrendered and was being moved further back into their territory."
  2551. > You want to close your eyes - to focus on something else, some memory of your family in better times.
  2552. > But your wingbeats are still shaky and you dare not risk a crash up here.
  2553. > "You gonna be okay, sir?"
  2554. > Chilona had pulled in close opposite you, her voice soft and eyes worried.
  2555. "I... don't know. My family... if it was like Las Pegasus, then maybe..."
  2556. > Thoughts swirl in your mind - had they managed to escape, as you'd asked the Changelings to send a message suggesting?
  2557. > If not, was the city assaulted somehow or merely waited out as the cloud district had been?
  2558. > If not, had they been able to find shelter?
  2559. > Could there be shelter against the humans' weapons?
  2560. > "Sir?"
  2561. > If they were drafting ponies now, had your mother or father been called up?
  2562. > Could the princesses have evacuated ponies from the city?
  2563. > "Sir!"
  2564. > Chilona's shout breaks you out of the spiral of questions.
  2565. "...sorry. I'm... this is still getting to me bad, isn't it?"
  2566. > "Yeah. You're not flying to well, sir."
  2567. > A long, deep breath and your eyes refocus on the land ahead.
  2568. "I'll be alright. Let's get on to the outpost."
  2569. > There's no mistaking the right one.
  2570. > You reach it after perhaps an hour of flight, Whispen emerging the humans' armor to wave steadily to you.
  2571. > Settling in for a landing, you can't help but stumble a few steps as you do - evidently your mind was still distracted.
  2572. > Whispen furrows her brows, head tilted.
  2573. > "Are you alright, sir?"
  2574. "Yes. Long story..."
  2575.  
  2576. ACTION:
  2577. - Confront the humans now.
  2578.  
  2579. "Gerber! Sergeant Gerber, I need to talk to you!"
  2580. > The human in question comes scrambling up from a half-collapsed shack.
  2581. > "We got trouble?"
  2582. "No. What's this I've been told about Cloudsdale having surrendered?"
  2583. > Gerber's face immediately falls to a carefully-kept neutral look.
  2584. > "Word of that got up, huh?"
  2585. "Did you think it wouldn't?"
  2586. > You shrug your helmet off, one hoof rising to rub your forehead.
  2587. "My family was there, you know!"
  2588. > "Yeah... we did."
  2589. > Gerber at least has the good sense to look embarrassed, his gaze falling to the cold ground between the two of you.
  2590. "Stars above... do you know what happened at least? If there was a battle?"
  2591. > "Sort of. They tried one last desperate breakout push right before the surrender, trying to push us off. It didn't go too well - but most of the fighting was away from the city itself."
  2592. > Your jaw tightens, heart beginning to beat faster again.
  2593. "Most of the fighting?"
  2594. > "Almost all. I didn't see casualty reports, but they were really trying not to just carve up the city."
  2595. > Now you can let your eyes close - images of your family flitting before you.
  2596. > Surprisingly, when it ends you don't feel any more anger.
  2597. > More like apathy.
  2598. > This was war and the shock was a bad one, yes, but on some level you'd always been expecting it.
  2599. "Okay, look. These things that we're hunting, they live by driving divisions between ponies who have no good reason to be divided. We can't fall victim to that. We can't let ourselves be divided. If we have anything more that needs to be said, we have to get it out there now."
  2600. > "Noted. I will say it was my decision not to tell you - not Captain Warren or anyone else."
  2601. > Your respect for Gerber rises back just a tinge; at least he was willing to take responsibility for what he'd done.
  2602. "No other information about the city?"
  2603.  
  2604. > "Uh, rumor was that a bunch of your big fliers - 'wonderbolts' or something? - they'd been involved in the breakout attempt. No word on casualties."
  2605. > Strangely it doesn't hit you as hard as you'd been expecting.
  2606. > That the Wonderbolts were involved in the fighting was no great surprise; perhaps their skill would have lent them enough of an edge to escape.
  2607. "Okay. Let's get everyone up; that wasn't the only thing I learned while out there..."
  2608. > Quickly you fill the others in on what you'd leaned.
  2609. > As you go, one of the soldiers nods in agreement.
  2610. > "That howlin' thing last night - that was creepy. It's gonna do that every night?"
  2611. "It sounds like it. Keep an ear on it - if it gets really loud, we're in trouble."
  2612. > Gerber nods, albeit with a frown.
  2613. > "Noted. We're also carrying some flares and a couple of illumination rounds that might - maybe - help with that heat thing. I don't know exactly how much will hold them back."
  2614. "Probably better off trying to build a bonfire."
  2615. > Spark gives a knowing nod at that.
  2616. > "I'll be ready."
  2617. "Good. The next question is, how do we want to approach this spring?"
  2618.  
  2619. ACTION:
  2620. - Knowing ahead is being prepared. Have the pegasi hold a wide perimeter patrol and the others travel together.
  2621.  
  2622. "...alright, we're going to make use of ourselves. Chilona, Dusk, Hot Pot - we're going to be taking turns in the air, three up and circling at any given time. Do NOT stray out of visual range - if one of us is hurt, the others need to know fast."
  2623. > "What about the rest of us?"
  2624. "I'd suggest-"
  2625. > You glance to Gerber, making it clear this is his decision as well.
  2626. "-that we move together. No sense in splitting us up; if we're attacked, being together will help give support and we can make use of one fire."
  2627. > "Good to me. My men will stay close."
  2628. "Got it. Whispen, you're on lead down here."
  2629. > It doesn't take them long to pack up the camp - most items had already been stowed away with the sun's rising, and soon you're on the move again.
  2630. > The road has gotten rougher and rougher as you depart the pass and move into the hilly terrain beyond - turning from a proper gravelled road into something like a well-pounded path.
  2631. > Even the stubborn grasses that poked up through the patches of snow all about failed to grow up through it, as if years of tried-and-failed efforts had broken its morale.
  2632. > In fact, except for said grasses, the occasional bush, and a few patches of thin evergreens the entire area was terribly bare - exposed earth and rock more visible than any green.
  2633. > If not for the riches in those mountains, it's not a stretch to say nopony would ever have bothered with this place.
  2634. "Hot Pot, Dusk - we're up first. In an hour Hot Pot will cycle out and Chilona take her place. Then Dusk, then me, and so on. Everyone understand?"
  2635. > Signalling they do, you spread your wings and take to the skies again.
  2636. > Each pull of your lungs brings a sharp but surprisingly refreshing burst of air into them - and as you rise, a sort of wild beauty becomes apparent in the land.
  2637. > It might be wondrous, except for what lurks among those peaks.
  2638.  
  2639. > Minutes turn to hours in the air; your wings begin to tiredly ache.
  2640. > Too long you'd been without practice.
  2641. > So focused on them are you that you almost don't hear the howling as it picks up again.
  2642. > This early?
  2643. > It wasn't anywhere near evening yet...
  2644. > The howling doesn't sound particularly close, nor can you feel or see any signs of nearby winds.
  2645. > But it's a reminder of what's out there - and, you suspect, what you were noticed by.
  2646.  
  2647. ACTION:
  2648. - If we're noticed, we need to hurry for the springs and the shelter they offer. Move to doubled pace.
  2649.  
  2650. > There's no choice; you need to make for shelter - and the spring - at the best pace you can.
  2651. > Rolling hard, you begin a downward spiral to the group travelling below.
  2652. > Soon you catch sight of Chilona descending in a similar fashion - she'd probably heard it long before you did - and Hot Pot rising to take your place.
  2653. > You give her a brief nod as you swoop past each other.
  2654. > Gerber looks up as your hooves contact the ground.
  2655. > "We've got a problem, haven't we?"
  2656. "The noise?"
  2657. > "Uh-huh."
  2658. > Chilona trots up to your side, eyes expectantly on you - awaiting orders.
  2659. "I recommend pushing a faster pace; we can get to the shelter the town and the spring will provide and take cover there. Can your soldier take it?"
  2660. > A quick glance around, and he nods.
  2661. > "I'm more concerned about yours. Our weapons will still fire if we're tired; can you keep going."
  2662. > Now it's your turn to investigate your squad.
  2663. > They're tired, no doubt - having to move in the middle of the night will do that - but not exhausted.
  2664. "We can make it."
  2665. > "Good. Let's pick it up, guys - Coretta, Haagensen, keep rear watch."
  2666. > Even at a faster pace, you only arrive by the very late afternoon.
  2667. > Had you kept our current pace, it'd almost certainly have been evening by the time you arrived; clearly this wasn't a trip normally made in one day.
  2668. > And while no one has collapsed from exhaustion yet, it may not be too far off for several; Hot Pot, Whispen, and Spark in particular seem to be suffering from the effects of the forced march.
  2669. > Currently you are all perched on the top of a low hill abutting the small town that had sprung up surrounding the spring and the mine it supported.
  2670. > Most of your group is scattered on the ground behind the hill's summit; you, along with Gerber and a couple other humans.
  2671.  
  2672. > The binoculars they had provided were lighter than the metal-shelled sets you were used to, although somewhat close together for your eyes.
  2673. > Still, it gives you an excellent view of the abandoned buildings beyond.
  2674. > Their more recent date of abandonment has left them considerably more upright than the half-collapsed outpost you'd departed from this morning.
  2675. > A few showed signs of damage - broken windows, a door hanging open - but none were falling apart.
  2676. > Several would offer good shelter, although the yawning mouth of the cave itself was also inviting.
  2677.  
  2678. ACTION:
  2679. - Sweep the town.
  2680. - honestly, if we're only sweeping one location and its still the afternoon, we should sweep in shifts. have two quarters of the group move through the town while the other half rests and is ready to respond to any problems the sweep teams encounter.
  2681.  
  2682. > "So... that town going to be sufficient shelter if those things come around?"
  2683. "It will have to do. Recommend we sweep through it together."
  2684. > Turning back to your ponies - many of whom are still getting their bellies firmly reacquainted with the ground after the march - you pick out four of the worst-looking ones.
  2685. > "Alright; Spark, Chilona, Boulder and Ornithea; I want you to stay back and keep an eye on us."
  2686. > "Understood, sir."
  2687. > And then, with the rest of your ponies, you trot down cautiously from the hill towards the first line of buildings.
  2688. > There weren't many - perhaps a dozen in total - and while it was unlikely that anything would be living in them, it was still a risk.
  2689. > The closer you get, the more you begin to see subtle signs of past struggle.
  2690. > Deep gouges, the unweathered wood beneath testifying to their freshness.
  2691. > Tools and other assorted items, scattered randomly on the ground.
  2692. > A few darker stains you don't care to think about too much.
  2693. > As you pass the first buildings, though, 'Spring' suddenly freezes back - her breath coming short and eyes wide.
  2694. "Hey, you okay?"
  2695. > "You can't smell it?"
  2696. "No."
  2697. > "This place is... bitter."
  2698. > A sick feeling begins to develop in your gut.
  2699. > "It's not recent. But a lot of ponies were very angry here."
  2700. > With slightly shaky hooves, she pushes on further in.
  2701. > "...what was that about?"
  2702. > You glance over to Gerber, frowning.
  2703. "Smell. Your noses can't sense it; not even all of us can."
  2704. > "Smells like old wood and dirty snow to me. Not that different from home - that was just car exhaust and old snow."
  2705. > At least he seemed to have bought your half-truth.
  2706. > The sweep proceeds smoothly; the first buildings you break open prove to be nothing more than storage - one for tools, and one for food long since spoiled.
  2707. > Moving onward, you start to make your way through multiple buildings at once - a dining hall, and a shed for something Boulder identifies as a rock-sorting machine.
  2708.  
  2709. > Just as you are finishing up there, the first yell goes out.
  2710. > "We got a body!"
  2711. > It's a earth pony, slumped against a wall and curled up.
  2712. > Even given his severely-decomposed state - little more than skin pulled over bones - it's also quite obvious that he'd died violently, given the way his head had been bludgeoned.
  2713. > Four more soon turn up, all quite obviously victims of violence.
  2714. > In a way, you're slightly relieved; you'd been afraid of finding corpses with no signs of cause - or worse yet, preserved by unnaturally icy chill.
  2715. > Your stomach turns slightly at that thought, although whether because of the sight of the corpses or disgust at your relief on finding simply murdered ponies instead you can't tell.
  2716. > Either way, it's clear the town is - apparently, at least - safe.
  2717.  
  2718. ACTION:
  2719. - Stay in the town overnight.
  2720. - Someone points out, Gauze Remedy said the bodies were buried.
  2721.  
  2722. "...Chilona, didn't Gauze say they buried the bodies?"
  2723. > "Yes, sir, she did."
  2724. > You nudge one with a hoof.
  2725. > For a moment a vision of some kind of Nightmare Night tale had flickered before your eyes - the corpses of murdered miners rising in the night to wreak some bloody vengance.
  2726. > But that's quite impossible; even to your untrained eyes, their muscles are obviously decayed away into little more than dust and brittle remnants.
  2727. > These bodies couldn't rise if they wanted to.
  2728. > Yet still...
  2729. "Okay, Gerber - when we were in the town we spoke to a pony who'd said they buried their bodies before leaving."
  2730. > "Somebody must've been killing after they left, then."
  2731. "Most likely. Even so, I think we're safest staying out here rather than the cave - we can get a fire started, maybe in the dining hall, and it will keep us safe.
  2732. > You hope.
  2733. > "What about the bodies?"
  2734. "If we have time, we'll do something about them. I'd rather make sure no more get added, though, For now,just cover them up."
  2735. > "Got it. We'll sweep the buildings again as well, just to make sure no one is hiding there."
  2736. "Good. Boulder, Byline, Ornithea! Help them clear this out."
  2737. > The temperature is already rapidly dropping as the sun starts towards the horizon; Windigos or not, it's clear the night is going to be quite chilly.
  2738. > As the searchers find no more bodies - alive or otherwise - it seems safe to assume the town itself is safe.
  2739.  
  2740. ACTION:
  2741. - Hot Pot / Dusk take first watch in the Storage building. Anonpone / Chilona take second. Everyone else in the sleeping quarters.
  2742.  
  2743. "Alright, I want somepony up in that storage building, along the top catwalks; those should give us a good view of the surrounding approaches. Dusk, Hot Pot - can you take first watch?"
  2744. > The two look at each other before nodding simultaneously.
  2745. > "We can."
  2746. "Good. Chilona, you and I will take second."
  2747. > "I'll get two of my men up there as well. There are stairways we can get up with."
  2748. > You glance over at Gerber, nodding.
  2749. > Did he not trust you, or simply want to have his own watch out of habit?
  2750. > Catching your glance, the Staff Sergeant just shrugs.
  2751. > "We have night-vision devices that actually fit us. We'll do our part."
  2752. "Seems fair enough."
  2753. > The beds in the sleeping quarters prove to be surprisingly comfortable - if a bit short for the humans.
  2754. > Presumably the ponies who had once worked here were just as interested in getting a good rest.
  2755. > And firewood proves to not be a problem; a hefty supply had apparently been dragged up and stored at some point by the building's previous occupants.
  2756. > It should be more than enough to last you a few nights - as long as you were likely to be staying, if nothing happened.
  2757. > And while you're inclined to turn in, there's apparently somepony who wants to talk to you first.
  2758. > She corners you the moment the humans are out of sight.
  2759. > "This place is bad."
  2760. "Trust me, I know."
  2761. > "No, you do not."
  2762. "Are you saying they're close by?"
  2763. > "Not that I can tell. But..."
  2764. > She pauses, wincing.
  2765. > "The air is sour. I... will do what I can to assist you. If the others become affected, I will try and... drain it away."
  2766. "You can do that?"
  2767. > "It is not pleasant. Like eating a particularly foul meal - but, yes."
  2768.  
  2769. ACTION:
  2770. - Ask her to instead focus on trying to warn you if she feels it getting worse. Only do it if she is feeling necessary.
  2771.  
  2772. "...honestly, Iri - I appreciate it. But more than anything, if you feel something wrong - something really wrong - I need to know, immediately. So - hold off on trying to keep us up until you absolutely have to."
  2773. > "And what, exactly, is absolutely having to?"
  2774. > You let a wry grin slip onto your lips.
  2775. "If one of us is trying to kill another or something - go ahead and stop it. Otherwise, you may very well be the best lookout we've got."
  2776. > "I'll do the best I can. This place is... unpleasant."
  2777. > Turning and heading for your own bed, you catch Byline staring at you.
  2778. "...something up?"
  2779. > "I'm just wondering, whether it's right to be... encouraging that kind of relationship, with things as tense as they are."
  2780. "...huh?"
  2781. > "Hot Pot and Dusk."
  2782. > Ah.
  2783. > This again.
  2784. "...whatever you may think of it, the honest truth is that the bonds we have with each other are our best defense up here, Byline. If sending them out together will save us, then I'm not going to say no."
  2785. > Byline seems about ready to say something, but then shakes his head and turns away leaving you wondering.
  2786. > He'd always been somewhat more... abrasive.
  2787. > Was he already being affected by the 'sourness' of this place?
  2788. > Or was it just how he was, and you were imagining things?
  2789. > Impossible to tell... but you'd know for sure if he was.
  2790. > Climbing into a bed, you're about ready to close your eyes when Whispen settles into the next bunk in front of you.
  2791. > There was no way you could be together - not here - but even so, she lays down to face you, giving a gentle reassuring smile.
  2792.  
  2793. > You do your best to return it, feeling your heart beat a little faster and your mind a little more at ease knowing that the bonds between your ponies were still strong.
  2794. > Only then do your eyes slide shut and you fall into a comfortable sleep.
  2795. > The next thing you know, a hand - definitely a hand, not a hoof - is shaking you awake.
  2796. > "Hey. Hey, wake up."
  2797. "...izzit time f'watch already?"
  2798. > Your voice comes out in a muffled, muddied groan; your head certainly doesn't feel like enough rest had been had.
  2799. > "No. You need to see this."
  2800. > That sends you right awake, adrenaline flooding through your veins.
  2801. > The human's voice - not Gerber, but one of his subordinates - had been laden with concern.
  2802. > Dragging yourself from the bed and into the icy night air, you follow the human to a frost-covered window.
  2803. > At some point during the night, a wind had sprung up outside; it is not howling yet, but you can hear gusts rattling loose windows and doors.
  2804. > Stranger yet, no lights - not even from the tiny ones the humans carried - had been lit, leaving the room dark but for the moonlight streaming in from outside.
  2805. "What am I looking for?"
  2806. > You squint out into the night, until a bulky goggle-like device is held out in front of you.
  2807. > "Here. Try with this."
  2808. "...I can't see a thing."
  2809. > "Augh, fuck - okay, hold on."
  2810. > Much grumbling is issued from the soldier as he fiddles with the device - ultimately resorting to banging on it angrily until he finally hands it back to you.
  2811. > "Try now."
  2812. > This time, the night is thrown into stark display through the device - the rocky ground, fluttering scraps of paper attached to some of the buildings, and hunched equine form cloaked in rags staggering from building to building.
  2813. "That's not one of mine."
  2814. > "We know. Did a headcount after the guys in the lookout position spotted them."
  2815. "Them?"
  2816. > "There's another in one of the storage buildings."
  2817.  
  2818. ACTION:
  2819. - Wake the others, but do not advance outside yet.
  2820.  
  2821. "Hey - do you have any of those heat-vision devices?"
  2822. > "A thermal sight? Yeah, hold on - keep an eye on that one."
  2823. > Cautiously keeping the night-vision device pinned between your forehooves, you try to keep the stumbling form in your sight.
  2824. > At last the soldier slides back into place beside you, fiddling with another far bulkier device in his hands.
  2825. > "Okay, just let it get started up - there we go. Okay, what am I looking for?"
  2826. "The one moving around out there. Is it hot?"
  2827. > "Hot? I dunno about hot. Warm, though. Probably insulated with all that it's got wrapped around it - hold on. Yeah, head just went up; it's warm."
  2828. > A worry - a completely ridiculous one, but a worry all the same - is dismissed from the back of your mind.
  2829. > At least it wasn't a windigo disguised as a pony, or anything like that.
  2830. > Setting the night-vision device down, you look back up to the human.
  2831. "Okay, I'm going to - Haagensen, right?"
  2832. > "Yeah, Corporal Haagensen."
  2833. "Haagensen, I'm going to get mine up - quietly. I don't know what the deal is with these two, but I don't like it."
  2834. > Raising them quietly proves to be easy; evidently the tense state of things had set everypony's nerves on a hair-trigger.
  2835. > At least the rising wind serves to keep the noise of armor being buckled into place muffled.
  2836. > As you return to the window, Haagensen is still peering down the road bisecting the little settlement.
  2837. "Anything new?"
  2838. > "Second one is back again. I don't think they're friends - definitely avoiding each other. They're just moving down the road, checking each building in turn."
  2839.  
  2840. ACTION:
  2841. - Wait until one or both reach your door, then ambush as they attempt to open it.
  2842.  
  2843. > You hadn't seen any horns before - though with the indistinct shapes, it's hard to be certain.
  2844. "...alright, keep quiet and out of the front windows. They might just be looking for supplies or somewhere to stay."
  2845. > Abruptly you look up as you realize you'd issued the order not to one of your ponies but to a human.
  2846. > He seems to caught up in the situation to care, though.
  2847. "...here's what I'm going to reccomend: Let them come here. Let them open the door, and come in; we can immobilize and get a jump on them. We'll pin and immobilize - they might know more."
  2848. > "Got it."
  2849. "Contact the ones up in the storage building - tell them, if the second looks like they're about to flee, let us know. If they do flee... stop them."
  2850. > "Affirmative."
  2851. > Gerber is up now, checking his weapon and crawling to peer from the corner of a window.
  2852. > "You're thinking they're from around here?"
  2853. "Unless there are any other settlements nearby we weren't told about - yes."
  2854. > What follows is several long minutes of tense waiting - particularly when one of the arrivals knocks something over in the dining hall next door with a powerful crash.
  2855. > Yet, eventually, there's the quiet sound of hoofsteps outside - and heavy breathing, as though whoever owned them had been running quite hard.
  2856. > Gerber signals his men to hang back at he rear door, ready to burst out and flank if things went bad, while your ponies encircle the entrance.
  2857. > And then, without any hesitation, the door cracks open.
  2858. > Immediately there's a panicked gasp, and you realize there's one critical mistake you made:
  2859. > The room is still warm from the fire you'd lit.
  2860. "Go! Pin them!"
  2861.  
  2862. [Roll for success at tackling; result: Critical fail; You are unable to pin, and two of your ponies collide in the chaos.]
  2863.  
  2864. > At your call, everypony leaps into action at once.
  2865. > Unfortunately, in this case it's a bad thing.
  2866. > The doorway becomes a jumbled mass of wings, horns, and hooves that spills out into the street in messy format.
  2867. > Judging by the startled yelp, it doesn't sound good.
  2868. > From its spot beside you, the radio pops with the sound of Dusk's voice:
  2869. > "I think the other one - yeah, the other one definitely heard that. We might have to go out there and stop them."
  2870. "Be careful, Dusk!"
  2871. > Grabbing the radio and slipping it into your pouch, you dive for the doorway as well - leaping over Spark's groaning form - and spread your wings.
  2872. > Which makes it all the more surprising when the ragged, cloaked figure spins about to scream out:
  2873. > "Get away from me, you wretched plotholes! I - I'll rip you apart, I'll tear you in half!"
  2874. > What's most shocking is not the words, but the voice.
  2875. > They don't sound angry, but worried - desperate, even.
  2876. > And though you can't really see any better outside, the pony's stance doesn't seem terribly aggressive - more scared than anything else.
  2877. > "I swear - I swear to Celestia, you come any closer I'll bite your head off!"
  2878.  
  2879. ACTION:
  2880. - Leave this one to the humans and some of your ponies; split off to find the other.
  2881.  
  2882. > You can't deal with this right now.
  2883. "Whispen. Calm him-"
  2884. > You were fairly sure it was a him now.
  2885. "-and keep him safe if you can. If not..."
  2886. > You glance to the humans - who've circled around, weapons raised and ready - and nod once.
  2887. "Let them."
  2888. > There's no question of what letting them 'handle it' would entail.
  2889. > "Boulder, 'Spring', Chilona. With me!"
  2890. > Your hooves dig into the icy ground as you take off at a gallop past the pony.
  2891. > The humans' radio - heavy, but undeniably useful - bangs at your chest plate.
  2892. "Okay, Dusk - where am I going to cut this other one off?"
  2893. > "Turn right, duck around that smaller building - he's taken off running!"
  2894. > Wings spread, you hurl yourself into the air.
  2895. > Chilona rises beside you; along with two other darting forms you quickly descend on the fleeing figure.
  2896. > You're nearly at them when they spin about - crooked horn glittering in the moon-lit night as it glows a sickly green.
  2897. > A fanged maw splits wide open with a vicious hiss; your wings suddenly feel as though you were trying to flap them through water.
  2898. > You slam into the ground with a tumbling thud, but the impact is nothing compared to the sudden arrival of the form as it leaps for you.
  2899. > Time seems to slow into a sudden crawl as the its outline fills the sky above, blue eyes boring down at you.
  2900. > Despite the immediate emergency, your brain has time to lazily arrive at a terrifying conclusion:
  2901. > Changeling.
  2902.  
  2903. [Willpower check; result: You fail at resisting entirely. Flashback event begins]
  2904.  
  2905. > The shadowed outline descends; your vision flickers into a multihued starburst as something connects hard with your head.
  2906. > Agony - agony rips through your body turning your hearing into nothing but a roaring rush, like the world's largest hoofball stadium cheering straight into your ear.
  2907. > When it fades, however, you've forgotten entirely where you are.
  2908. > The ground is cold for some reason, which is strange because it's bright and sunny, with not a hint of cloud or winter in the sky.
  2909. > Leveraging yourself upright, you somehow manage not to vomit - despite feeling as though you were ready to purge your stomach, intestines, and a number of other internal organs whole.
  2910. > Again your eyes open, and you find yourself standing on a wide-open roar bracketed by elaborate structures on either side.
  2911. > And dozens - possibly hundreds - of ponies fleeing, the air choked with their screams.
  2912. > Strange, you hadn't heard their screams until you'd seen them.
  2913. > Why are they-
  2914. > Oh.
  2915. > The answer comes as a mare is bodily lifted and slammed to a wall by an angular, twisted buzzing object.
  2916. > The city!
  2917. > The city was under attack - your comrades were under attack!
  2918. > Knowledge floods your mind - wedding, princess, changelings, danger - and the terror rises again.
  2919. > You do not question how and why you came by this knowledge.
  2920. > Glancing around, your stricken mind tries to put together a plan.
  2921. > As much as it pains you - you cannot stop for these ponies.
  2922. > To fight alone is death.
  2923. > You have to find your fellow guards.
  2924.  
  2925. ACTION:
  2926. - Circle around through a side alley. It will be longer, but you can probably get there without trouble, right?
  2927.  
  2928. > You can't break through that crowd - somepony, quite possibly yourself, could be hurt quite badly.
  2929. > Your only choice it to take a detour through a side alley, back up towards the palace.
  2930. > Hooves clack loudly against the cobble road; for what seems like the tenth time you wonder why the air is so cold.
  2931. > Everything seems like a blur; the screams are practically in your ear, though not a pony is in sight.
  2932. > Strange, since the street was so full.
  2933. > Turning a corner, you nearly run head-long into another guardspony - for some reason they don't seem to have been expecting you despite the noise your hooves were making.
  2934. > As you stagger back, your vision blurs briefly - and the pony's face has changed.
  2935. > You know this guardspony now; she's in the same squad as you.
  2936. "Star... Star Lily?"
  2937. > Something nags at the back of your mind about her; Star Lily, manwhile, seems to be able to do nothing but stare in shock at your appearance.
  2938. "Star Lily, we have to get to the palace. The city's under attack - they're going to go after the wedding!"
  2939. > "What...? What the hell is wrong with you?"
  2940.  
  2941. ACTION:
  2942. - "Follow me, closely. We might run in to more of them."
  2943.  
  2944. "Follow me, closely. We might run in to more of them."
  2945. > "Affirmative!"
  2946. > Hooves, strangely muffled on the hard ground, beat just behind you.
  2947. > "How - how many are we looking at?"
  2948. "I don't know; have you looked around lately?"
  2949. > "Uh, okay - Staff Sergeant, listen. We may have more contacts. Due, uh, southwest, following one of the ponies down right now, over."
  2950. > It briefly occurs to you Star Lily sounds to have suddenly acquired a stallion's voice, which is a strange thing because you're pretty certain she's a mare.
  2951. > But you can't think about that right now.
  2952. > Ponies are in danger!
  2953. > Skidding to a halt, you peek out beyond a building.
  2954. > What you see stops your heart cold.
  2955. > Several changelings - you're sure that's what they are now, changelings - some of them disguised as ponies, have surrounded a guard pony and are quietly wrapping him in clingy, green webbing.
  2956. > The poor stallion struggles wildly, but is no match for the half-dozen working against him, and within moments they've nearly cocooned him entirely.
  2957. > Your heart wrenches - both in pity and fear; if you're not careful, that could be you.
  2958.  
  2959. ACTION:
  2960. - Unable to resist interceding.
  2961.  
  2962. > No. You can't let this stand by!
  2963. > You have to leave a fellow guard to fall!
  2964. > Fortunately you have the advantage of surprise, this time - they don't seem to be expecting more guards.
  2965. "Alright. Listen up; we can't just go charging straight in - they'll just pin us and wrap us up too."
  2966. > When you look back, a second guardspony has appeared at your back.
  2967. > For some absurd reason it's your commander, Valiant Reign.
  2968. > Why is he hanging back so far - is he hurt?
  2969. > Isn't he willing to take orders?
  2970. "Here's what I want to do - see how two of them are hanging back? I want to grab those two and take them out. That will make it four-on-three, and I think we can take those odds."
  2971. > They're staring at you - hanging on your words.
  2972. > Their eyes, though - Star Lily's eyes are filled with confusion, while Valiant Reign just seems to look sad.
  2973. > Poor thing, he must not have seen real battle before.
  2974. > He isn't objecting to your leading, though.
  2975. "So, here's what we're going to do..."
  2976.  
  2977. ACTION:
  2978. - Stick to the shadows, crawling forward until you're within attack range.
  2979.  
  2980. "...okay, we're going to slip in as close as we can - grab those two and finish them off. You understand, private?"
  2981. > "I'm a corporal..."
  2982. "Not a time for joking, Star Lily. Now come on."
  2983. > It's dark for some reason when you slip out onto the streets - the streets of Canterlot lit only by the moonlight above.
  2984. > Even the lamps lining the streets have gone out.
  2985. > Ordinarily you would be thankful - the lack of light offered many a hiding place - but this was not normal.
  2986. > Instead it only contributes to the sheer wrongness of the situation.
  2987. > This was wrong, all wrong - you couldn't help but feel, even if you couldn't put a hoof on why.
  2988. > It wasn't the distant screams echoing through the streets, or the buzzing filling your ears like a million dragonflies crowding your head.
  2989. > You're sure you can hear those.
  2990. > No, it was something else.
  2991. > ...they must be trying to mess with your head too!
  2992. > You have to stop this before it gets any further.
  2993. > Slinking out into the streets, you come perhaps within twenty paces of the targets when you glance back to make sure the other two are following.
  2994. > Star Lily is, a confused and worried look on her face.
  2995. > Valiant Reign, however, walks openly in the streets - nothing but a look of sadness on his face.
  2996. > What in Celestia's mane is he doing?!
  2997. > You're about to furiously signal him to get back behind you when somepony - something - whispers your name.
  2998. > "What are you doing?"
  2999. > Ice freezes in your blood as you twist about.
  3000. > The changelings had spotted you.
  3001. > And even as the question is repeated -
  3002. > "Sir, what are you doing?"
  3003. > - their mouths open wide, fanged maws dripping with green ichor.
  3004. > One's teeth are stained not green but red, a testament to past violence.
  3005. > "Sir-!"
  3006. > "He's not right, stop him!"
  3007. > "Wait, don't-"
  3008. > Something snags one of your hind legs, dragging you to the ground.
  3009. > You can't see what it is, but odds are it's another changeling.
  3010.  
  3011. ACTION:
  3012. - Stick to the shadows, crawling forward until you're within attack range.
  3013.  
  3014. "...okay, we're going to slip in as close as we can - grab those two and finish them off. You understand, private?"
  3015. > "I'm a corporal..."
  3016. "Not a time for joking, Star Lily. Now come on."
  3017. > It's dark for some reason when you slip out onto the streets - the streets of Canterlot lit only by the moonlight above.
  3018. > Even the lamps lining the streets have gone out.
  3019. > Ordinarily you would be thankful - the lack of light offered many a hiding place - but this was not normal.
  3020.  
  3021. > Instead it only contributes to the sheer wrongness of the situation.
  3022. > This was wrong, all wrong - you couldn't help but feel, even if you couldn't put a hoof on why.
  3023. > It wasn't the distant screams echoing through the streets, or the buzzing filling your ears like a million dragonflies crowding your head.
  3024. > You're sure you can hear those.
  3025. > No, it was something else.
  3026. > ...they must be trying to mess with your head too!
  3027. > You have to stop this before it gets any further.
  3028. > Slinking out into the streets, you come perhaps within twenty paces of the targets when you glance back to make sure the other two are following.
  3029. > Star Lily is, a confused and worried look on her face.
  3030. > Valiant Reign, however, walks openly in the streets - nothing but a look of sadness on his face.
  3031. > What in Celestia's mane is he doing?!
  3032. > You're about to furiously signal him to get back behind you when somepony - something - whispers your name.
  3033. > "What are you doing?"
  3034. > Ice freezes in your blood as you twist about.
  3035. > The changelings had spotted you.
  3036. > And even as the question is repeated -
  3037. > "Sir, what are you doing?"
  3038. > - their mouths open wide, fanged maws dripping with green ichor.
  3039. > One's teeth are stained not green but red, a testament to past violence.
  3040. > "Sir-!"
  3041. > "He's not right, stop him!"
  3042. > "Wait, don't-"
  3043. > Something snags one of your hind legs, dragging you to the ground.
  3044. > You can't see what it is, but odds are it's another changeling.
  3045.  
  3046. ACTION:
  3047. - Option 2: Break and flee, seeing if you can outrun them.
  3048.  
  3049. > They may have a solid hold on you, but you have your training.
  3050. > Two quick beats of your wings toss a sharp burst of air at them, bits of free debris carried with it.
  3051. > Not enough to make them let go, but enough to distract them when your free leg kicks.
  3052. > Your captured limb is released with a sudden cry; the next wingbeat carries you up and forward -
  3053. > -and straight into Valiant Reign.
  3054. > Colliding with him is surprisingly gentle, considering that he wears his guard armor.
  3055. "Sir! Sir, you have to get out of here. They - if they catch you, they'll kill you!"
  3056. > You don't know how you're certain of this.
  3057. > But you are.
  3058. > If he does not escape, he will die.
  3059. > He-
  3060. > "Stop."
  3061. "Sir?"
  3062. > "It's over. You need to stop."
  3063. > You can't stop!
  3064. > If you stop, Canterlot - your guards - they'll all-
  3065. > "You don't have to fight this battle anymore. It's over now. Just stop, and look around."
  3066. "Sir-"
  3067. > "That's an order!"
  3068. > Your muscles freeze.
  3069. > It's pure instinct, even as your mind is screaming at you not to.
  3070. > But it is enough.
  3071. "You - you can't tell me not to defend the city!"
  3072. > Words are spluttered out, nearly incomprehensible.
  3073. > "Why can't I, airpony?"
  3074. "Because-"
  3075. > Your brain struggles.
  3076. > The light - what little there is - seems blinding; your head pounds in pain.
  3077. "Because you-"
  3078. > Words catch in your throat, unable to escape.
  3079. > Your lungs burn, nearly feeling like bursting - as though you were choking, even through your breath is coming short and shallow.
  3080. > "Why. Can't. I."
  3081. "Because - because you're fucking dead!"
  3082. > Eyes are squeezed shut, and when you reopen them, the first tear makes its way down your cheek.
  3083. "Because you're dead... they broke in to your building, sir. After you told us not to go out and try to save any more."
  3084. > "Stop. Look around."
  3085. > Again your eyes scrunch closed.
  3086.  
  3087. > When they reopen the neat, straight streets of Canterlot are gone.
  3088. > Nothing but dirt and stone greets your gaze.
  3089. > Again you blink, and Star Lily is gone.
  3090. > A strange creature - the name comes after a moment; human - is staring at you.
  3091. > But still Valiant Reign remains, although his armor has changed to a mottled grey-white-black design you don't recognize.
  3092. > "Focus, airpony. This isn't your fight anymore. You aren't to blame for me. You didn't kill me."
  3093. "You... you were right there. So close. I could have..."
  3094. > "No. It's not your fault."
  3095. > His voice is odd - a mare's voice, not a stallion's.
  3096. > "It's not your fault. This battle is over. You need to let this go and focus."
  3097. > One last blink, and he's gone as well.
  3098. "...Iridescent...?"
  3099. > 'Spring' nods, her eyes inscrutable.
  3100. > "I came when I felt it. You're okay now, Sir. You're safe."
  3101. > Panic suddenly surges through you.
  3102. > You know what hides beneath that skin.
  3103. > Buzzing wings, fangs, warped limbs.
  3104. > A hoof rises to strike - but halts.
  3105. > No.
  3106. > This battle was over.
  3107. > You need to let it end.
  3108. > It all comes crashing down at once, like an avalanche collapsing on you from above.
  3109. > You suck in a deep breath, hoping it will be enough to keep you going.
  3110.  
  3111. [Roll for stability; result: You stagger, but are okay.]
  3112.  
  3113. > The air is cold in your lungs, and you stagger a bit as the last of the visions fade.
  3114. > But you catch yourself - hooves planting firmly in the dirt, and preventing you from falling over.
  3115. > When you look up again, it's not just 'Spring' there - several of the others have gathered around as well.
  3116. > Without hesitation, though, you take a step forward and wrap a hoof around the disguised changeling in a hug.
  3117. > Now it is her turn to take a sudden, sharp breath, obviously not having expected that.
  3118. > Yet after a moment, she raises a leg to return the gesture.
  3119. "Thank you. I... I don't know how I would have..."
  3120. > "You wouldn't hate me despite all I did. Despite what we did."
  3121. > Her voice is low, barely above a whisper.
  3122. > "It's the least I could do to get you to stop hating yourself."
  3123. "...thank you still."
  3124. > Looking around, you focus back on what needs to be done.
  3125. > And one critically important thing jumps straight to the forefront of your mind.
  3126. "The Changeling, and the other pony - did we get them?"
  3127. > Boulder nods.
  3128. > "After you... got them, the others took it down. It's alive."
  3129. "And the other pony?"
  3130. > Gerber raises a hand to gesture back behind you.
  3131. > "Safe, if scared out of his mind."
  3132. "...okay. Okay, let's get them back inside, and-"
  3133. > "First - I really need to know here - what the hell was that?"
  3134. > Well.
  3135. > That's a tough question, isn't it.
  3136. > Revealing what had happened, you might be seen as-
  3137. > "Changeling mental attack. They use it to disorient and distract any prey."
  3138. > ...did Iri just cover for you - again?
  3139. > "It probably forced him to see something else, something that it thought would give it a chance at getting away."
  3140. > "And how the hell would you know about that?"
  3141. > Iri shoots a glance in your direction, and you realize - she's going to reveal herself.
  3142. > That might be too much to fast, though.
  3143. > You have a second to step in and cover her.
  3144.  
  3145. ACTION:
  3146. - Let Iri reveal herself.
  3147.  
  3148. > ...no.
  3149. > If this was going to happen, then it was best to let it happen now.
  3150. > After all, you were together now.
  3151. > You give a subtle nod, a quiet go-ahead for her to do what she is going to.
  3152. > "...I know, because I am a changeling."
  3153. > There's no hesitation, no questioning, no quip about not a good time for jokes.
  3154. > All of the humans have their weapons up and trained on her in an instant.
  3155. > Fear bolts through you, as for a second you think they are about to shoot her right then and there.
  3156. > But none do.
  3157. > Instead, Gerber fixes you with a dark look.
  3158. > "Did you know about this?"
  3159. "...yes. How did you know?"
  3160. > "You're close with your men - ponies - and I'd have noticed if one of mine got flipped around. Figured you couldn't have missed it either."
  3161. "...you're right there. Yeah, she's with us. Has been with us since before we were captured - we have an agreement."
  3162. > "Hey."
  3163. > One of the other soldiers pipes up, giving you an inquiring look.
  3164. > "That why you kept asking, back in training, what we'd do if we ran into one?"
  3165. "Yes."
  3166. > Your gaze flicks back to Gerber.
  3167. "We trust her. I trust her, even after fighting them before."
  3168. > Assorted noises of agreement come from your ponies, lead by Whispen.
  3169. > For that, you're intensely thankful.
  3170. > One pony might be hypnotized; that many probably weren't.
  3171. > "Jesus fuck - I thought we were done with secrets? Anything else you'd like to mention now? Any of you a princess in hidiing?"
  3172. > A sharp wince crosses your face at his anger.
  3173. > He was right, of course.
  3174. > You had said that you didn't have any more secrets.
  3175. > And now...
  3176. > "Look."
  3177. > Iri steps up between the two of you - the humans' weapons still tracking her.
  3178. > "I'm pretty sure you've got a lot of questions to be asked, and I get that. And, I'm willing to stand down until you're satisfied - but can we do this inside?"
  3179. > "...yeah. Yeah, okay, let's get inside. Someone go grab those other two and get them in as well."
  3180.  
  3181. > Once you're back inside, a soft hoof taps you on the shoulder.
  3182. > Turning, you see Spark Flash behind you.
  3183. > "I'll take second watch, sir."
  3184. > His offer is made simply, without any explanation.
  3185. > None is needed; they all know what you really just went through.
  3186. "...thank you. Chilona is the other one up there for that time; go see her."
  3187. > "Understood."
  3188. > And then..
  3189. > Well, then you sit down and have a long talk with Gerber and Iri.
  3190. "...so, in the end - she's fought with us, saved our lives, and I think she can be trusted."
  3191. > "Alright."
  3192. > Gerber runs a hand through his hair, having dropped his helmet to the floor.
  3193. > "Alright, I'll keep her in. I'm going to have to get on the radio with the Captain about this, though."
  3194. "I understand. I trust Warren to make the right call."
  3195. > "What about those other two?"
  3196. > Yes, what to do with them...
  3197. > The pony was still awake, his eyes jittery and darting from spot to spot as you spoke.
  3198. > In contrast, the changeling was still quite unconscious - a nice swelling beginning to develop on its head where Dusk had apparently bludgeoned it down with his hooves.
  3199. "...keep a watch on them until morning, I'd recommend. We can pick their minds over when we're not all sleep-deprived and in a better state of mind."
  3200.  
  3201. ACTION:
  3202. - We could interrogate them separately and use the radios to cross-examine their story. Have the humans+Iri focus on the changeling while a pony-only group focuses on the mare.
  3203.  
  3204. "We'll split them up. Spr- Iri, can you speak to the changeling?"
  3205. > "Yes. Yes, I can."
  3206. > "Hey... uh..."
  3207. > Gerber just glances between the two of you.
  3208. > "She got another name or something?"
  3209. > "Yes. You may call me Iridescent Glaze, or Spring. Either one will work."
  3210. "Alright. Come on, let's get some rest. We'll see to these two in the morning."
  3211. > The groups split up again, returning to their beds (except for one human, who remain on first watch looking after the two.
  3212. > As Iri passes you, a question bubbles up from the depths of your mind.
  3213. "Hey... you said that was a mental attack. That isn't a real thing, is it?"
  3214. > "No."
  3215. > Her voice is just as low as yours, eyes glancing about.
  3216. > "No, we need a little time to... establish control, and it would leave you weaker at first - not like that."
  3217. > So she really had covered for you.
  3218. > Offering one last quiet smile, you turn in once more.
  3219. > The next morning sees your two new arrivals both quite asleep.
  3220. > Seems the night's events had caught up with them as well.
  3221. > After a quick sweep of the town to ensure that nothing more unpleasant had shown up overnight, you get down to work.
  3222. > Fortunately the sleeping quarters have alternate rooms for you to work in - a way to keep them apart from each other.
  3223. > While Iri had gone with two of the humans to interrogate the changeling, you sat down with Hot Pot, Boulder and the pony in question.
  3224. > With the rags removed to compensate for the warmer indoors, they had been revealed to be a sickly-looking earth pony mare.
  3225. > Ribs stand out against her coat, and even now somewhat rested her gaze seems jumpy - as if you expected her to lash out at you any moment now.
  3226. > While Hot Pot had fussed over the mare - granting her a bowl of soup which, after a cautious taste, she had quickly devoured - you simply sat back and waited.
  3227. > Her name, it turns out, is Mountain Orchid; she has no difficulty telling you that.
  3228.  
  3229. ACTION:
  3230. - "Where did you come from?"
  3231.  
  3232. "...look, we're sorry for jumping on you last night. We need you to answer some of our questions, though."
  3233. > "I'll... tell you what I can..."
  3234. > Her voice is thin - almost as if she was afraid it something would break if she put more than a whisper of force into it.
  3235. > "I don't know a lot, though..."
  3236. "Well, for starters - where did you come from?"
  3237. > "Oh! We are up in the cave."
  3238. "...the cave?"
  3239. > "Uh-huh. We came down from..."
  3240. > She pauses, face scrunching up.
  3241. > "...from further west of here."
  3242. > You get the feeling she doesn't actually know where she came from, and is just staying that to deflect further questioning.
  3243. > "The cave was nice. We could stay there, and it wouldn't get cold; we're safe up there. My brother's friends are sick, though."
  3244. > Her brother?
  3245. "So you came out of the cave?"
  3246. > "Uh-huh. We had to come out. Sometimes, it gets really really cold - and when it's cold, we all get mad. So, we have to come and find somewhere else to hide."
  3247. > That's odd.
  3248. > The night's air had been chill, yes - as would be expected this far north.
  3249. > But it hadn't seemed unusually or strikingly cold to you.
  3250.  
  3251. ACTION:
  3252. - "Can you tell me more about where you came from?"
  3253.  
  3254. "...well, can you tell me more about where you came from?"
  3255. > "I said - we were up in the cave, but-"
  3256. "No - before that. Where you came from before you were in the cave."
  3257. > "I..."
  3258. > Mountain Orchid seems to shrink back into the bed she is laying on.
  3259. > Her eyes slide off of you, unfocusing as they seem to stare off into something distant.
  3260. > "I don't... my brother..."
  3261. > All of a sudden she seems to focus on you again.
  3262. > "Hey! You - you're one of the bad ponies, aren't you? My brother always said there would be bad ponies who'd do this! Well, I'm not gonna tell you anything!"
  3263. "No..."
  3264. > You rub your forhead with a hoof, shaking it softly.
  3265. "We're not bad ponies. We're the Royal Guard, miss. We're trying to help you - to save a lot of other ponies."
  3266. > "No! You're just - just trying to trick me."
  3267. > Setting her jaw, Mountain Orchid hunkers down and glares at you.
  3268. > "I'm not going to say anything about home!"
  3269. > This was going nowhere.
  3270. > Best to try and take another tact.
  3271.  
  3272. ACTION:
  3273. - Step outside to let Hot Pot talk a bit, "Who are your brother's friends who are sick?"
  3274.  
  3275. "Hot Pot, can you make sure she's alright? I just need to step outside for a moment."
  3276. > "Of course."
  3277. > As you brush past her, you lean over to whisper into the pegasus' ear:
  3278. "If you can, see if you can find out anything about who her 'brother's' other friends are."
  3279. > Hot Pot doesn't respond, simply going over and fussing about the mare - making sure her blanket is pulled up properly.
  3280. > That's fine with you.
  3281. > The door closes behind you, and promptly you lay an ear to it; fortunately, the rooms were not designed for absolute privacy and it's still quite possible to hear what is being said within.
  3282. > "Mountain, dear, what about your brother's friends? Aren't you worried about them?"
  3283. > "Well..."
  3284. > "I mean... they're still up in that cave, aren't they? And you said it got cold - aren't you worried about them?"
  3285. > "Nah... my brother always said that when they were sleeping it was safe to be around them, even when things are cold."
  3286. > "Sleeping...?"
  3287. > "Uh-huh. They haven't really been up in... uh, a while, I think."
  3288. > "I, um..."
  3289. > Hot Pot pauses - clearly searching for words.
  3290. > "Are you sure they're... really alright up in there?"
  3291. > Mountain Orchid's response is to laugh - a surprisingly soft, tingling laugh, as if this was the one thing she could truly be happy about.
  3292. > "I know what death is. No, they're not dead. They're just asleep."
  3293. > "Is something wrong with them?"
  3294. > "I..."
  3295. > Just like that, the happiness is gone from her voice.
  3296. > Again Orchid halts - and there's a sudden sharp intake of breath.
  3297. > Hot Pot?
  3298. > "Are... you alright?"
  3299. > No, that was her voice - must have been Mountain then.
  3300. > "I'm fine. I... I don't re... I don't know what's wrong with them. They're sick. The cold came and made them sick, just like it made the others - but they just sleep, so it's safe to be around them. That's what my big bro said."
  3301.  
  3302. > The last phrase is tacked on almost haltingly - as if she needed to reassure herself that it was the right thing to say.
  3303. > As if she were relying on her big brother saying it was right to believe it was right herself.
  3304. > Strange, since she's a grown mare - not anywhere near a filly who'd be tagging along with family.
  3305. > But then, that wasn't really her family, was it?
  3306.  
  3307. ACTION:
  3308. - Wait a bit longer for Hot Pot to question her some more.
  3309.  
  3310. > You decide to wait outside a little while longer, letting Hot Pot work her magic.
  3311. > "Listen, dear... we want to help you. Maybe we could go up and see your brother's friends?"
  3312. > "I... don't know if that would be good. Big bro always said we shouldn't tell others about them, but..."
  3313. > She pauses, as then very calmly adds something that sends your stomach for a flip.
  3314. > "But you're all going to die now anyway, so I don't think it matters."
  3315. > What?!
  3316. > "What?"
  3317. > Hot Pot sounds just as surprised as you.
  3318. > "Mountain, dear, I don't think-"
  3319. > "There's too many of you. We have to stay apart when it's cold. That's the rule. Have to stay apart..."
  3320. > She begins to repeat the last phrase - as if it were mantra that would somehow keep her safe.
  3321. > ...maybe it was.
  3322. > You suddenly think back to the bodies you'd found - had they something to do with this lot?
  3323. > She did say 'the cold' had 'made the others sick'.
  3324. > From somewhere down the hall comes a heavy thunk followed by a yelp.
  3325. > Cautiously you take a few steps down towards the next door.
  3326. "..Iri? Are you okay in there?"
  3327. > "Yeah, I'm fine. He's under control."
  3328.  
  3329. ACTION:
  3330. - "Do yo know anything about the bodies we found here? Did they not stay apart?"
  3331.  
  3332. > Well, it doesn't sound like anything else is happening down the hall.
  3333. > Probably safe to go back in now.
  3334. > All three ponies look back up as you enter.
  3335. > You shoot each of them a reassuring smile - as much for your own as for Mountain Orchid.
  3336. "...hey, Mountain. Look - one last thing we really need to know. When we came here, there were some bodies in some of the buildings. Are they...?"
  3337. > "The... the others."
  3338. > The effect is immediate.
  3339. > Mountain Orchid curls her legs into herself, again staring off into the distance.
  3340. > It's quite a while before she says anything again, even with Hot Pot's entreaties, and only when you're just about to ask again does she speak up:
  3341. > "We didn't know then, to be afraid of the cold. We were living in the town then - all the other ponies had gone - and it got all cold."
  3342. > Another pause, thankfully shorter, and she goes on:
  3343. > "They all.. started... fighting. Normally big bro's friends would make them stop, but they were sick already and sleeping up in the cave. Big bro couldn't stop them, so he told me to just stay away from all of them..."
  3344. > Shudders ripple through her coat as her eyes close.
  3345. > "Big bro couldn't stop them at all. I could... hear them..."
  3346. > Well.
  3347. > That was curious...
  3348. > Why were a group of ponies and changelings travelling together?
  3349. > You'd ask Mountain Orchid, but she doesn't look to be in the shape for more questioning.
  3350. > It'd probably take being a bit forceful with her to get any answers out.
  3351.  
  3352. ACTION:
  3353. - Leave her for now.
  3354.  
  3355. > You take a step forward to press her further, but something comes to rest on your shoulder.
  3356. > Hot Pot's hoof.
  3357. > She gives a subtle shake of her head; she's right, you realize - this is too much.
  3358. > The poor mare is already quite
  3359. "Alright. It's okay now, Orchid, you're good now."
  3360. > Lowering your voice to where it is hopefully a more calming tone, you look over to the other pegasus present.
  3361. "Can you keep an eye on her? Make her okay?"
  3362. > "Of course, sir."
  3363. > Popping the door open, you glance back once - and catch Hot Pot giving you a very pleased look.
  3364. > Evidently that had been the right thing to do, in her opinion.
  3365. > It's a few more minutes before Iri emerges from her room along with one of the humans.
  3366. > The soldier is following at a wary distance, and you can't help but jerk a little as you realize why - Iri is un-transformed, in her natural shape.
  3367. > Spotting you, she dips her head slightly in something between a small bow and a simple nod.
  3368. > "Hello, sir. Anything useful on your end?"
  3369. > Her voice has a strange rasping quality to it that isn't present when she is disguised.
  3370. "...not tremendously."
  3371. > By the time you're finished catching Iri up to speed, she's frowning slightly.
  3372. > "Spheci - the Changeling - he wouldn't tell me much even after I revealed myself. I don't think he liked the humans."
  3373. "Was that what the bang was about?"
  3374. > "Yes. He got a little angry, but it's under control."
  3375. > She pauses, then adds:
  3376. > "He's afraid, though. Afraid of us."
  3377. "Wait. Mountain Orchid said we were all going to die, because there's too many of us together - staying apart was the key to surviving."
  3378. > "You think he's afraid - that we'll all be driven insane and attack each other?"
  3379. "It's likely. I'm still wondering what's up in that cave - or what forced them out last nigh-"
  3380. > One of the soldiers comes around the corner, halting as he spots you.
  3381. > "Hey - you got your radio on?"
  3382. "No, why?"
  3383. > "Follow me. We've got some activity south of here."
  3384.  
  3385. > Maybe two minutes later you're crouched on the top of the building, a pair of binoculars clutched in your hooves.
  3386. > Sure enough a few forms are circling in mid-air south of you - cautious, as if they weren't sure it was safe to approach.
  3387. > They don't seem large, certainly not Windigo sized.
  3388. > And they seem to be more worried than aggressive.
  3389.  
  3390. ACTION:
  3391. - Send Dusk Shadow and Chilona, watch from a distance.
  3392.  
  3393. > Great.
  3394. > More ponies, judging by the way they're coming from.
  3395. > Normally you'd be happy to see them in this harmony-forsaken territory, but right now with the way things are...
  3396. > Who knew if they'd be any good.
  3397. "...right, can somepony find Dusk and Chilona? I'm going to need them."
  3398. > The night guard appears in due time, hiding a yawn as he trots up and fixes the last of his armor in place.
  3399. > "What is it, sir?"
  3400. "Three ponies, south of here. Circling low, landing sometimes. Almost like they don't know what they're looking for."
  3401. > "Need me to go check it out?"
  3402. "Yes. Sergeant Gerber, can you get some of your soldiers into high-up positions? Keep a watch out, protect them with your weapons if it comes to that?"
  3403. > "Absolutely. Coretta, Dully - get up top there with Mui, you're covering."
  3404. > Sticking close to the ground, the two night guards set out across the sloping, hilly terrain towards the unknown figures.
  3405. > Even with their skill, it's day; they'll only get so close without being seen.
  3406. > Fortunately this seems not to be an issue.
  3407. > A short distance from the figures, both pop up and join them in the slow, steady circles.
  3408. > Raising your binoculars, you don't see anything wrong - and shortly thereafter, Dusk swings about to motion to you.
  3409. > Steadily a frown spreads across your face as you check his gestures.
  3410. "Friendly - safe - military - wait, civilian? Military and not - a mixed group?
  3411. > "Militia."
  3412. > Byline had crawled up beside you, another pair of binoculars held in his magic before his eyes.
  3413. > "That'd be my guess anyway."
  3414. "I don't know why, but let's get it from the pony's mouth."
  3415. > Launching yourself skyward, you signal for Chilona to return.
  3416. > She does soon enough, landing somewhat more heavily.
  3417. > "They're militia, sir. Three, out of Eyrie Rock. They say they've come looking for us."
  3418.  
  3419. "Any reason why?"
  3420. > "None given, sir. One of them I recognize though, so it's a safe bet they're telling the truth."
  3421. > Great.
  3422. > Some more ponies might be more helpful, but for one big problem.
  3423. > Who knew how they would react to the humans?
  3424. > Then again... maybe you could make other use of them.
  3425. > A signal line?
  3426. > Bonfires lit here might be visible in that other dilapidated outpost you'd passed, and from there to Eyrie Rock.
  3427. > It might be the best chance of an early warning method you'd have.
  3428. > Then again, someone needed to look after Mountain Orchid, and you couldn't be saddled with her if things went sour.
  3429. > ...and the Changeling. A cap over his horn ought to keep him passive.
  3430. > Hopefully Iri wouldn't object too much.
  3431.  
  3432. ACTION:
  3433. - We should go and talk to them, ask them why they're here. We really don't want militia ponies honestly, maybe they can take mountain flower to the village, but not the changeling and we gotta be sneaky on that note. Plus they don't know that we had a full guard attachment, aka other members ignoring the humans. Militia ponies aren't as well trained as guards and hauling a bunch of civvies around is gonna be a pain. Unless they have a useful skill like navigation and in this place or something, they're just gonna be a dead weight.
  3434. - not only this, but act like we're grateful they're here and were in need of sending a message back to the town. the message could just be 'tell the mayor that what we discussed is now a real concern and we strongly recommend our earlier advice'
  3435.  
  3436. "Alright, great."
  3437. > The sarcasm in your voice runs thicker than the worry that's starting to build up here."
  3438. "We'll have to go out and turn them back. The more that gather here, the more danger we're in - especially with ponies who aren't close like we are."
  3439. > Grunting, you set down the binoculars and turn to Chilona.
  3440. > "Right, go find Mountain Orchid. Tell whoever's watching her that I've cleared her to be sent out of here - uh, is that good with you, Gerber?"
  3441. > "If you think you've dug everything out of her you can, yeah."
  3442. > Unfortunately, she didn't seem inclined to give anything more.
  3443. "We'll have to. She's a risk, not to mention a drain on our supplies. We've only got a few days' more as it is."
  3444. > "Then go ahead. Just keep her blindfolded on the way out."
  3445. > "Understood."
  3446. > Chilona nods sharply before turning and trotting of - unable to hide the slight lag to her movements.
  3447. "Alright, I'm going to go see what the deal is with these three."
  3448. > Dropping your binoculars, you begin to wing your way out to where Dusk and the three militia ponies await.
  3449. > If the two night guard had looked tired, these seemed downright exhausted.
  3450. > All young, clearly not in shape after flying this far.
  3451. > As Chilona had said, you recognize one - one of the two you'd spoken to on the wall that evening - but the other two are unfamiliar.
  3452. > The trio clumsily salute as you come in for a landing, the apparent leader taking a step towards you.
  3453. > "Hello again."
  3454. "Hello. I'm to assume you were looking for us?"
  3455. > "Uh-huh. We're looking to see if you could use the help."
  3456. > Eager, despite their tiredness.
  3457. > Could be a good thing.
  3458. "...honestly, the best thing you can do right now - not for us, but for Eyrie Rock - is to go back and tell Snowslip that things are getting bad up here, and that what we talked about before is really likely a threat."
  3459. > "Go back?"
  3460. > The effect on them is immediate.
  3461.  
  3462. > And not what you'd been hoping for.
  3463. > "But... we could help, we could-"
  3464. "No... look. You know what we're doing up here, right?"
  3465. > "Yeah. You're hunting the ho- Windigos."
  3466. "Yeah. Well, look, we've already found evidence that they're turning ponies -"
  3467. > And changelings.
  3468. "-against each other. Now, I can't rightly put you in danger from that, but..."
  3469. > You pause, glancing back in time to see one small, dark shape leading another out from the little mining town.
  3470. "But there is one thing you could do for us."
  3471.  
  3472. - she's in shock from watching the townsfolk beat each other to death. we think she hid in the mines and has been surviving by looting the town, thats how we found her. she saw everyone she trusted hurting each other so it seems she might have invented some imaginary companions since she could trust her imaginations not to betray her. That said, she's been alone in windigo town. she might have lastest so long because there was no one the windigos could turn her against but now that there are ponies around she's saying some pretty inflammatory things, poor filly cant help herself.
  3473.  
  3474. "We're bringing a pony over. She... the townsponies turned violent after the miners left. We think she might have hid in the mines to survive, but she saw a lot of ugly violence before that. She's... a little out of it."
  3475. > "Wait..."
  3476. > The lead pony tilts his head slightly, giving you a confused look.
  3477. > "What townsfolk? When the miners left, everypony did."
  3478. "Wait, you're sure?"
  3479. > "Everypony alive, anyway. They didn't want anypony alive being left behind out here, for whatever it was. They split up into smaller groups, to try and keep the risk of fights down."
  3480. > Then where had Mountain Orchid and her 'friends' come from?
  3481. "...okay, well somehow we found her here. She's been messed up pretty bad - talks about her big brother a lot, so... I don't know. If you could get her back to Eyrie Rock safely, that'd probably be good."
  3482. > "Um..."
  3483. > One of the militia ponies scuffs his hoof lightly on the ground, all three of them looking rather embarrassed.
  3484. > "We... kind of... uh..."
  3485. > "...might have..."
  3486. > "...left without telling them..."
  3487. > Your first reaction is an overwhelming, furious anger.
  3488. > They had deserted their posts - at a time of danger?
  3489. > To run out into the unknown?!
  3490. > It's ridiculous - they should be -
  3491. > Should be -
  3492. > You force the rage down.
  3493. > No, you had no right to be that angry.
  3494. > Yes, what they'd done was wrong, but in truth they were little more than a pair of fillies and a colt taught how not to stab themselves and basic ranks.
  3495. > And while what they'd done was wrong, they probably hadn't received a tenth of the training even the general Guard got, let alone the Royal Guard.
  3496. > Was it that surprising they'd run off...?
  3497. > No, but that doesn't mean you'd excuse it either.
  3498.  
  3499. ACTION:
  3500. - lay on the guilt trip. remind them what even if they dont believe there's a risk of attack, think of their families. what happens if their filly sister gets sick or hurt and you arent at your post when they go looking for you? what happens if there's a fire and the militia is needed to fight it? what happens if they have an accident and nobody knows where to look once they're noticed missing? very irresponsible, they can make up for it by being responsible for the care and wellbeing of this poor disturbed mare.
  3501.  
  3502. "...you still need to go back. Running off like this is not how you should be behaving as members of Eyrie Rock's militia."
  3503. > "But... we thought we could-"
  3504. "No."
  3505. > A growl had crept into your voice, and all three shrink back lightly.
  3506. > Again you force down the frustration before continuing.
  3507. "Look - what happens if Eyrie Rock does come under attack? Or if there's a fire or something, and they need you to fight it?"
  3508. > All three of them look among each other, one filly rubbing the back of her head awkwardly.
  3509. "Or - what if you got hurt running around out here, and nopony knew where to look for you? What then?"
  3510. > "We left a note!"
  3511. "Trust me - as somepony who's had experience trying to find other ponies, that doesn't guarantee anything."
  3512. > "Oh..."
  3513. > All three are badly deflated, obviously not having expected to be simply pushed off.
  3514. "But - look, as long as you are here, if you could bring Mountain Orchid back to Eyrie Rock, that'd be good way to make up for doing this."
  3515. > Immediately three pairs of eyes lock on you, revitalized and focused.
  3516. > "Really?!"
  3517. "Yes. I still want you to go and tell Snowslip what you did, but doing this will at least help."
  3518. > "Alright..."
  3519. > The lead filly gives a small sigh, then suddenly looks up at you again.
  3520. > "Are you mad at us?"
  3521. "...a bit. What you did was very, very wrong - it's a first rule we learn in the Guard that you never abandon your post without good reason. But, I'm not going to be that upset with you. Understand?"
  3522. > "Thanks.... I think?"
  3523. > It takes a bit of convincing to get Mountain Orchid to go with them, but within a few minutes you're watching the four departing figures trot off against the rolling hills.
  3524. > With any luck, they'd be able to make Eyrie Rock before nightfall.
  3525. > You didn't want to think of what would happen to them if they were caught in the open..
  3526. > On returning to the camp, you're faced with a choice.
  3527. > It's quite obvious that the Windigos are active again.
  3528. > But what exactly was up in that mine?
  3529.  
  3530. > Why had Spheci and Mountain Orchid been driven from the cave the prior night?
  3531. > Was it something to do with you, or another factor?
  3532.  
  3533. ACTION:
  3534. - Go press the changeling further.
  3535.  
  3536. "...okay - Iri, anypony know where Iri is?"
  3537. > "Right here, boss."
  3538. > Iri had taken on her old disguise - that of the unicorn Iridescent Glaze.
  3539. > She seems a little haggard as well, though not by far.
  3540. "Going to see your friend again. I want to ask him a few things."
  3541. > Her eyes widen slightly, as if detecting something.
  3542. > "...I'll go with you."
  3543. "Good by me."
  3544. > The Changeling in question is still being guarded by a human - Haagenson - bound by all four hooves with his horn capped.
  3545. > Even without pupils, he manages to glare at you the second you pass through the door.
  3546. "Easy there. We're just looking to talk to you."
  3547. > Iri grunts in frustration.
  3548. > "I tried telling him the Royal Guard wasn't just going to throw him in a dungeon, but he wasn't listening."
  3549. "...right, Spheci - that's your name?"
  3550. > A slow blink suggests a possible yes.
  3551. "Well, she was telling the truth. We're not hunting you here - but, I need to know what happened last night."
  3552.  
  3553. ACTION:
  3554. - "The Windigos are the real threats. We can't be facing them alone - Iri's been helping us already, and we might be able to do the same for you."
  3555.  
  3556. "Look..."
  3557. > Settling on your haunches in front of the changeling.
  3558. "I'm not saying this was easy - I was at Canterlot-"
  3559. > His eyes widen, obviously understanding what you mean.
  3560. "-and despite that, there are bigger things we need to focus on here."
  3561. > Glancing to Haagenson again, you gesture towards him.
  3562. "First the humans, now the Windigos moving again - a lot of things are changing fast. And now the Windigos are becoming a serious threat, so - despite all I've gone through, I want to help."
  3563. > "...you're sincere."
  3564. > One eyebrow rises.
  3565. "You believed otherwise?"
  3566. > "I trust no one but my own kin. I could taste your anger when your mentioned Canterlot."
  3567. > Iri snorts gently.
  3568. > "...and sometimes not even them. But - you are stepping out of the cocoon of both your own anger, and the cold ones..."
  3569. "We have to stand together."
  3570. > At last Spheci sinks down, a heavy breath seeming to escape him.
  3571. > "Fine. What do you wish to know."
  3572. "The cave... what's up in there?"
  3573. > "Two of my brothers. They are cocooned - it slows the cold ones' influence without food."
  3574. "And the ponies we found here?"
  3575. > "Our thralls."
  3576. > He says it without much emotion, a simple statement of fact.
  3577. > Even so, you can't help but feel a small tendril of fury reach out from within you.
  3578. > "When we abandoned the safe-hive and fled the cold, they were... touched. It re-emerged when they drove us out of the cave again. They killed each other in hatred."
  3579. "So they weren't miners here?"
  3580. > "Not one. We brought them."
  3581. > Meals on hooves, how delightful.
  3582. "...and then you cocooned up the second you didn't have food anymore."
  3583. > "It is what we must do."
  3584. > It takes several long breaths to force down the anger.
  3585. > They'd not had the chance Iri, Buttercup and the others had, you remind yourself.
  3586. > Even so...
  3587.  
  3588. "Okay, look. We've already sent Mountain Orchid away, so it's rely on us to feed you now or nothing."
  3589. > "He'll do it."
  3590. > Iri pipes up.
  3591. > "They all will. I've been feeding from them."
  3592. > "You act like there is a choice. Starvation is not a choice."
  3593.  
  3594. ACTION:
  3595. - why did you stay awake? were your brothers already being influenced by the windigos? are changelings directly effected or are the emotions they eat tainted and that's what gets them? what can you tell us about the windigos activity? have you encounter any directly?
  3596. - Let's ask him how long it took for his thralls to go crazy, and what his relationship with that mare was.
  3597.  
  3598. "Any reason you in particular stayed awake?"
  3599. > "Someone had to look after my brothers. That pony was our last thrall; she had to be looked after too."
  3600. > You might feel slightly better if not for the fact that he speaks it the same way someone would talk about looking after a garden.
  3601. "Looking after them... were they being influenced by the Windigos?"
  3602. > This Spheci does not answer, but Iridescent steps in for him.
  3603. > "It is not pleasant in the long term. We can survive, feeding on these emotions, but... it will eventually affect us. They may have been."
  3604. "...right."
  3605. > Rubbing your head with one wing, you try to think something other to ask.
  3606. "Have you run into any directly?"
  3607. > "Directly? Seen them at a range? Yes. And, of course, when they would drive us on - play with us for their amusement. Or to provoke a greater response from us, I do not know."
  3608. > Spheci hisses angrily.
  3609. > "They would drive us out of whatever place we had found to stay, to see us blunder about. Probably to see if they could get us to kill each other."
  3610. > He pauses, then adds:
  3611. > "This town would have been a gift from the Queen to us - we could have hidden apart from each other this time, waited for the cold to pass."
  3612. > So, is that what they were doing?
  3613. > Trying to find a safe place to hide?
  3614. > You ask the question frankly, and he laughs in response.
  3615. > "A place to stay where we would not be killed by the cold - or each other. I did not know if the other thralls were yet dead."
  3616. "Better us than them."
  3617. > "So you say. I thought myself dead when I saw a Royal Guard of all ponies."
  3618. > No wonder he'd been willing to leap at you like that.
  3619. "And Orchid?"
  3620. > "She was my strongest bond. I took her brother's body."
  3621.  
  3622. ACTION:
  3623. - this changeling aint very bright. I mean, how can an emotivore say this shit without expecting it to go poorly for him.
  3624. - What happened to her brother?
  3625.  
  3626. "What happened to her brother?"
  3627. > Spheci gives a sharp laugh.
  3628. > "What do I know - what do I care? He left one day. I came back to take his place. Maybe he is dead, maybe he found a life somewhere else. Maybe he even came back and found his sister had run off. With a mysterious pony."
  3629. > "He's telling the truth. We don't - usually - murder those we replace."
  3630. > You nod in response to Iri's comment, the worry that had been building in the back of your head fading away.
  3631. "You're being awfully calm about what you are doing to us. It'd probably be easier about it if you stopped being so flippant."
  3632. > "I'm already dead."
  3633. > That brings your train of thought to a screeching halt.
  3634. "What?"
  3635. > "I'm going to die anyway."
  3636. > Spheci bares his fangs in a macabre smile.
  3637. > "You probably are too, you know."
  3638. > Haagensen has sat up too, suddenly alert as well.
  3639. > Even Iri seems surprised.
  3640. "What are you talking about?"
  3641. > "I've been pushing myself for too long - looking after my kin, eating poisoned 'food'. It's going to get to me sooner or later, and now you've sent away my best chance at surviving."
  3642. "I told you, we can feed you-"
  3643. > "And to top it all off, you went and showed yourself to the cold ones. We just needed a place to stay the night, but like idiots you all ran outside together and showed them that you're working with the humans. Ponies - you've never had any sense of stealth or subtlety!"
  3644. > Your mind is now galloping full out as you fit together what he means.
  3645. "Wait, you're saying-"
  3646. > "Do you think they're dumb? They drove us out right into you."
  3647. > Spheci gives a little snarling laugh.
  3648. > "They're not stupid. They're wily, cunning. They know about you now."
  3649. "And you think they're going to come for us."
  3650. > "They came for us, and we weren't a threat. You -"
  3651. > Spheci's head twists to glance at Haagensen.
  3652. > "If half the things I've heard about humans are true, you are a threat."
  3653. "...Iri, stay with him. I'm going to find Gerber."
  3654.  
  3655. > When the sergeant arrives, he listens to Speci's story with an increasingly grim look.
  3656. > "Well, we really went and fucked it up, didn't we? I thought you said it was safe out there that night!"
  3657. "I did - I didn't see anything. Maybe they were hiding, I don't know. But we're in danger now."
  3658. > "...okay, look. I can ask for a helicopter ride out of here, but if the winds come up real high again or we get a storm of some kind, they might not be able to come in for us."
  3659. "Do we have any other options?"
  3660. > "Could try and make for Eyrie Rock early tomorrow. I'm understanding its sheltered from these things now, right?"
  3661. "Both in terms of actual shelter and ruins. But that's a rough hike, and some of my ponies are exhausted already."
  3662. > "So are my men!"
  3663. > Silence holds for a moment as both ponies and humans pause at the snap in Gerber's words.
  3664. > "...sorry. But we're none of us doing our best; this has been rough on all of us."
  3665. "No - you've a right. We need a plan of some kind."
  3666. > "If you stay..."
  3667. > Speci looks back and forth between the two of you.
  3668. > "If you stay, wake up my kin. We'll stand beside you."
  3669. "And here I thought you preferred to sneak about."
  3670. > Again Speci shoots you a fanged grin, gossamer wings rattling.
  3671. > "That does not mean we will roll over and die immediately."
  3672. > Gerber suddenly shifts.
  3673. > "...okay, what about a third option. I can get a plane in here for a supply drop fairly quickly. Faster than a helicopter, anyhow. If we had food, water, and heat, how long could we hold out?"
  3674. "I don't know. As long as our supplies last, in theory - or until they get into our heads."
  3675. > "Which could be a while."
  3676. "Yes."
  3677. > "Well, if we stay put and don't play their game - do the Windigos get angry, assume we're dead and move on?"
  3678. "If they know Spechi was hiding-"
  3679. > "They knew because we still had to go out and steal supplies from here. Mountain Orchid had to eat too."
  3680. "Then if we don't - just hunker down and don't come out no matter what?"
  3681. > No one answers.
  3682.  
  3683. ACTION:
  3684. - LET'S GO GET SPHECI'S FRIENDS
  3685. - Request supplies, hunker down for a while and wait for the Windigos to move on.
  3686.  
  3687. "...if they're as smart as Spheci is saying, then they're not going to look kindly on us trying to escape - by either method. If worst comes to worst, can your forces get one of your armored vehicles in here?"
  3688. > "Yes. Probably. Someone will be able to - God knows some of the European guys, Norwegians and whatever, they'll have experience working in conditions like this."
  3689. "Good. If the Windigos don't move on, they might very well have to."
  3690. > "Got it. I'll see if we can get some additional supplies in."
  3691. > A thought occurs to you as Gerber turns to depart.
  3692. "If you can... see if you can get them to drop something... I don't know. One of your music-playing machines, preferably with something... with a strong tune, if that makes sense?"
  3693. > At first he only gives you only a sarcastic look - and then knits his eyebrows.
  3694. > "You're serious."
  3695. "Yes. After warmth, being able to stick together and keep our spirits up is literally going to be our best defense."
  3696. > "Our weapons..."
  3697. "Might work. Might not. And those music machines are pretty small, right?"
  3698. > "Sure are. Alright, I'll get on the horn with Captain Warren, see what we can get."
  3699. > Then he does depart, Haagensen following him.
  3700. "Right. Now, you-"
  3701. > You turn to face Spheci again.
  3702. "If I go and wake your brothers up, we aren't going to have any problems, are we?"
  3703. > He hesitates a moment.
  3704. > "They... the humans, what will they do to us?"
  3705. "I don't know for certain. But I'll tell you this - their immediate commander took care of us, and I don't think they're going to just going to turn on you."
  3706. > Iri pipes up again as well:
  3707. > "He's telling the truth. It's not... pleasurable, but these ones, they won't torture or execute us. Or just throw us in a cell to rot forever."
  3708. > "...alright."
  3709. > Spheci gives a hissing sigh.
  3710. > "You got us into this mess, may as well let you get us out. I'll tell them to work with you."
  3711.  
  3712. ACTION:
  3713. - Trust him, but be a little cautious. Also, we should keep in mind the option of heading for Eyrie Rock later on
  3714.  
  3715. "Okay."
  3716. > Reaching down, you grip the right loops of rope in your teeth and yank; within seconds, the knots have fallen free and Spheci stands.
  3717. "Come on. Let's go get your 'family' out."
  3718. > In the end you take two humans and Boulder with you, in addtion to Iri and Spheci.
  3719. > The cave in question is surprisingly neatly kept; as Gauze Remedy had said, a small canal-like trough had been dug to the side of the main passage to allow the spring's water to flow out.
  3720. > That kept the majority of the path dry and smooth, though you could see small ruts where carts laden with the mountain's bounty had pressed into the earth.
  3721. "I should warn you, we've been told the water was... uh, polluted by somepony under the Windigos' influence."
  3722. > "We smelt it when we arrived."
  3723. > Spheci's nose wrinkles in a surprisingly pony-like gesture.
  3724. > "Had to clear it out for the thralls. The water ought to be clean now."
  3725. > Well, that's good to know.
  3726. > At least you wouldn't have to worry about water until the Windigos froze the stream solid.
  3727. > By a short ways in, you're thankful for the human accompaniment; their hand-carried lights are a welcome addition.
  3728. > Following Spheci in further, you're suddenly aware of a new source of light up ahead - veins of crystal, running through the walls, that seem to exude a soft glow of their own.
  3729. > And then, just beyond them - two luminescent green cocoons, anchored to the walls with strings of hardened ichor.
  3730. > Within each floats an angular form, their limbs curled in an almost fetal position and eyes shut.
  3731. > Even so vulnerable and defenseless, you can't help but feel a slight chord of worry slip through yourself at the sight of them.
  3732. > With a hissing sigh, Spheci looks back towards you.
  3733. > "It might be good if it was just us two-"
  3734. > Motioning to Iri with one hoof.
  3735. > "-here when they wake."
  3736. "Understood. We'll be waiting just past the next turn in the cave."
  3737. > What goes on in that chamber you can't exactly hear.
  3738.  
  3739. > The sound of the pods being torn open is obvious enough, but what is said after that is too soft to make itself known over the distant noise of running water, magnified in the cave's confines.
  3740. > In time, however, they emerge - first Iri, still wearing her disguise, then three other changelings; even with your time spent talking to him, Spheci is nearly indistinguishable from his two fellows.
  3741. > They still come up short when they spot you - or is it when the spot the humans? - but force themselves on.
  3742. > "It is our understanding that you wish for a truce."
  3743. "Yes. Until we can escape from the Windigos' watch."
  3744. > "He says you are willing to feed us."
  3745. "Yes."
  3746. > "Then we will honor his word."
  3747. > Quietly you wonder if there was an implicit disagreement with Spheci's promise in that statement, but it's nothing you can argue now.
  3748. > Returning to the camp, you gather your ponies together with the humans - the two new arrivals sitting in the back, nearly out of sight.
  3749. > Gerber speaks first:
  3750. > "There's a supply drone on the way. It's actually slower than a helicopter, but it should be here by nightfall - and the Windigos probably won't recognize what it is, so we should be good."
  3751. "First good news in a while. Any chance of us getting out?"
  3752. > "That's the bad news. If the weather turns bad, we're well outside of the range of our operations up here. Presuming no hostile contact, it'd be several days more before they can get an armored convoy up here."
  3753. "...delightful. Well."
  3754. > You look around to the others there.
  3755. "I think it's a fair statement to say we're ready to stick it out if you are."
  3756. > Gerber does the same, and then nods to you.
  3757. > "If the supplies arrive, we'll hold."
  3758. "Good. I want to suggest something else - we're going to need a buddy system. Strong bonds hold out longer; everypony - everyone - should find one or two they're closest with and keep an eye out. We'll be anchors for each other."
  3759. > The suggestion is universally agreed upon.
  3760.  
  3761. > And it's little surprise later on when, as you move supplies, a gentle magic field moves to aid you.
  3762. "...hello, Whispen."
  3763. > "Hello, sir."
  3764. > Though she sounds solid and dutiful, you've been around Whispen long enough to recognize the tremor in her voice.
  3765. "You're worried."
  3766. > "Facing down Windigos, trapped far from any rescue, changelings we've only the word of to go on... I can't see why."
  3767. > Her tone - teasing, to hide the worry - brings a smile to your lips as you work.
  3768. "Been taking snark lessons from Chilona, have you?"
  3769. > Now Whispen laughs as well, shaking her head.
  3770. > "But yes. I am worried. Scared. I'm... we're going to lose somepony. Something like this..."
  3771.  
  3772. ACTION:
  3773. - We will do everything we can to protect every one we can and given that we currently represent the combined capabilities of three species, that is no small thing. The humans know about the windigos now, if we fall here they will move to stop them. if we hold here, we give the ponies of the rock time to flee and warn the ponies of equestria of the windigo threat. No matter what happens, we've done something good here.
  3774. - This sounds good, but make it less about martyrdom, seeing as ponies don't exactly like that concept, and more about that first time in a thousand or whatever years, 3 enemies are coming together to fight the windigoes again, that's how windigoes where defeated last time, with Unicorn Pegasus and Earthponies fighting together, so maybe our alliance will win again.
  3775.  
  3776. "Whispen..."
  3777. > You lean over, nuzzling her neck.
  3778. "We will do everything we can to protect every one we can. And remember - we're currently representing the three tribes combined. That is no small thing - the first time in a thousand-and-however-many years."
  3779. > Pulling back, you look her straight in the eye and go on:
  3780. "That's how Windigos where defeated last time, with Unicorn, Pegasus, and Earth ponies fighting together. Our alliance will win again... and we have the humans too. If the Windigos attack them, they won't stand still."
  3781. > "I know.... but what if-"
  3782.  
  3783. "Whispen - the last time ponies come together it was from three warring tribes. We defeated the Windigos then; this time, it will be from two species that had been fighting. We formed the fire then - we can do it now."
  3784. > She nods slowly.
  3785. > "I know. I'm just... if one of us goes, what will it do to the rest of us? It'd be like... like dominos, or-"
  3786. "Then we won't. We'll all stand together, and not let anypony fall. And if somepony does - we'll remember them, hold our heads high, and never forget what they gave for us."
  3787. > Silence reigns for a few moments before the first hint of a smile touches Whispen's lips.
  3788. > "You're right, sir. I - I shouldn't have..."
  3789. "No. Don't beat yourself up over it. We're afraid, and we're worried. Right now, just stick to preparing. You want to not be afraid, then make sure we're ready."
  3790. > "Alright. And..."
  3791. > Leaning in, she whispers into your ear.
  3792. > "...if there's time, before they come... one of these buildings should be private enough for us to build a bit more intimate of a fire than friendship."
  3793. > You blink slightly, certainly not having expected that.
  3794. > Pulling back her head, Whispen gives you a little smile, then turns to go - something of a spring in her step.
  3795. > Stepping out a moment later, thoughts of her still in your head, it occurs to you that there's something you should do right now.
  3796. > Finding the Changelings isn't that hard; they'd formed their own little knot to work within.
  3797. > All look up in worry or confusion when you approach.
  3798. > Steeling yourself, you take a deep breath and speak.
  3799. "Feed. I know... I'm dripping with it right now. It shouldn't be too hard on me, and you're going to need it too."
  3800. > After a moment's hesitation, they do.
  3801. > When it is done you're a little short on breath and slightly wobbly-legged, but Iri moves quickly to prop you up.
  3802. "I'll be fine... just let me catch my breath and I'll be good."
  3803. > "Thank you."
  3804.  
  3805. > One of the two you'd woken up - you didn't even know their names, you realize - moves in to support you from the opposite side.
  3806. > "I did not believe..."
  3807. "...yeah, I know. Can't believe it myself. Just don't make me regret it."
  3808. > They nod, waiting with you until you're ready to stand again.
  3809.  
  3810. ACTION:
  3811. - Daily reminder that we still didn't have Iri check the other buildings for us for bad/better vibes.
  3812. - Thank them for helping steady you, then get some names. then ask for an info dump on signs of windigo influence. did they notice changes in their thralls before the murderizing, can they actively taste windigo influence, can they sense windigo's themselves, etc.
  3813.  
  3814. "Thank you. Sorry I didn't ask this earlier, but - do you have names?"
  3815. > "I'm Choreb. He's Bracon."
  3816. > What is it with their names?
  3817. > Maybe humans and Changelings have similar naming concepts; they seemed to make just as little sense.
  3818. "Here's the deal: Iri seemed to suggest that you can... sense the Windigos, to some degree?"
  3819. > "Yes. The wind is sour when they are near."
  3820. > Nodding to Spheci as thanks for his confirmation, you go on:
  3821. "Okay. I think you're our best chance of getting a warning - especially since I couldn't see them that first night."
  3822. > "If we can sense anything - we will tell you."
  3823. "Good. Next-"
  3824. > It's a little tougher to speak about this bit.
  3825. "When you were... looking after the ponies, Spheci, did you see a change in them before they attacked each other?"
  3826. > "Yes. They became irritable, sour, angry with each other at the slightest thing."
  3827. > One of the others - Choreb - pipes up to add:
  3828. > "Thralls are never angry, not unless we direct them to."
  3829. > Wincing at the term, you nod.
  3830. "Well - what I need to know is, if one of us is at risk of becoming like that, I need to know. If we have to tie them up, lock them away for now..."
  3831. > "The cocoon is not harmful - not in the long term. A pony can be safely placed in there and emerge."
  3832. "Safe, in body and mind?"
  3833. > Iri nods sharply.
  3834. > "We use the cocoons for ourselves as well, remember. They can be safe."
  3835. "I'll keep that in mind - as a measure of last resort. One last thing: Can you sweep the camp and see if any of the buildings are any less tainted?"
  3836. > The answer, unfortunately, turns out to be not.
  3837. > If anything, the buildings you had occupied were 'warmer' than others.
  3838. > Only a few of them had been built for comfortable habitation, though.
  3839. > The dining hall, sleeping quarters, forepony's quarters and medical ward would be really comfortable to stay in.
  3840. > The ore storage barn - although a good lookout post - would turn to a windy, miserable perch if a blizzard came.
  3841.  
  3842. ACTION:
  3843. - We should keep the dining hall in mind as option to retreat to. Because when there's a blizzard, we might have to light a fire. And the dining hall will most likely have a kitchen. And a kitchen will have a fire place. Because dying in a fire that got out of control during a blizzard would be a very ironic death. Plus it's close by if we have to get there quickly. There was a lot of firewood ready to be used, right? We might need that.
  3844.  
  3845. > The dining hall is relatively close to the sleeping quarters, and will have some place to keep a fire going.
  3846. > Even more fortunate is that there are more than enough beds to move over to the dining hall and still have plenty in the sleeping quarters.
  3847. > With that in mind, everyone turns to ransacking what's left in the town for anything useful and dividing them between the two structures.
  3848. > Food, fortunately, is not hard to find - and probably safe, given that the crates it is stored in appear to still have been unopened.
  3849. > A considerable stock of wood and coal had been accrued as well - enough to last quite a while, if you were careful - and a fair amount of medical supplies, though the humans had brought some with as well.
  3850. > Other measures of preparation are made as well.
  3851. > One of the humans had the bright idea to drive stakes into the ground and connect them with rope to serve as guides between the two buildings.
  3852. > Should a true blizzard arrive, they would prevent anyone from becoming lost while trying to move between them.
  3853. > The first you hear of your resupply comes near dusk, when a loud buzzing fills the valley.
  3854. > By that time, most of the supplies were in place; ponies, changelings, and humans who had been taking a rest gather outside as the noise grows.
  3855. > Soon enough you could see the machines making their way down the valley towards you - too small to be carrying humans, but evidently enough for supplies.
  3856. > Standing beside you, Gerber nods.
  3857. > "Snowgooses, with supplies. Captain came through for us again."
  3858. "Do we need to signal them down?"
  3859. > "No, I told him where to find us. They see somewhere to land, they'll come down."
  3860. > It takes a few times circling, but the machines do - rotors spinning to a halt.
  3861. > Once brought inside, the soldiers work quickly to unpack them.
  3862. > While most appear to be simply enough for survival - a great deal of what look like additional cold-weather clothes for ponies and humans alike.- others are more confusing.
  3863.  
  3864. > One you don't recognize until one of the soldiers identifies them as a portable heating units.
  3865. > Yet, it's the stubby, flanged tubes that produce the greatest laugh from one of the soldiers.
  3866. > "I guess someone took our advice about fire hurting the Windigos to heart."
  3867. "...what do you mean? What are those?"
  3868. > "A special kind of rocket for our weapons - it's called a thermobaric warhead. It makes a very, very hot explosion and then a powerful... well, wind."
  3869. "So - it literally blows them away?"
  3870. > For some reason they find that exceedingly funny.
  3871. > You don't; somehow, you don't feel it will end well if it comes to fighting the Windigos like that.
  3872. "...I don't know. I mean - I'm not doubting the power of your weapons, but if they come after us - it's not going to be that easy."
  3873. > "Easy, no. Make them think twice before coming for us, probably."
  3874. > By the time nightfall comes, the camp is as ready as it ever will be.
  3875. > As things are winding down, you catch Whispen giving you a meaningful look before trotting off.
  3876. > Slipping off to follow, she heads up into the forepony's quarters - probably the most comfortable place outside of the ones you are inhabiting.
  3877. > She gives a small sigh as you shut the door behind her.
  3878. "Still worried?"
  3879. > "No. You were right. This was the best way - working on being prepared."
  3880. > Leaping onto her head, Whispen gives a little giggle.
  3881. > "Fortunately it didn't tire me out too much..."
  3882. "You know, if we do this... we're either going to have to wash off in that stream, or accept that the others are going to smell us."
  3883. > "I... yeah. But... I'd still like to. I can take the cold; they've got the heaters up in there."
  3884.  
  3885. ACTION:
  3886. > Join her
  3887.  
  3888. "...you know, Whispen, right now - right now, I don't think the cold is going to bother me one bit."
  3889. > Joining her on the bed, you slip a wing across her back and lean your head in - lips brushing against hers.
  3890. "After all, with all that preparation I think I can handle a little dip in a stream."
  3891. > Whispen gives a small giggle, her own lips meeting yours.
  3892. > "I think we'll be just fine."
  3893. > And indeed you are.
  3894. > It would later occur to you that there were a great many things which could have gone wrong in that time.
  3895. > One of the Changelings could have called an alarm, a pony could have stumbled out looking for more supplies, somepony could have have needed to speak with you...
  3896. > Fortunately, however, they do not.
  3897. > And by the time you stumble a bit later, Whispen leaning close against you with her mane messily sprawled out over her eyes, you're fairly sure that things have gotten plenty warm enough anyhow.
  3898. > The stream is, fortunately, not yet frozen over.
  3899. > However, 'icy' is not a poor way to describe it; not wanting to waste any time, you all but collapse face-first straight into it.
  3900. > It takes all the self-control you have not to leap straight back out, as an almost painfully burning cold takes hold of you.
  3901. "C-C-Come on in, Whispen! Water's f-fine!"
  3902. > She rolls her eyes, but hops - her horn as she scrubs both herself and you down with her magic.
  3903. > ...and teasing you a bit as well, it seems, as her touch happens to linger in some places.
  3904. "Hey!"
  3905. > Your tail slaps against her side with a wet thawk, drawing another small laugh from her.
  3906. > "Sorry. Taking every moment to enjoy myself before things get busy."
  3907. "Yeah. Sorry."
  3908. > Finishing off, you quickly hurry into the dining hall - not caring who might see you entering together; at this point, the warmth within demands it.
  3909. > And warm it is - Spark Flash is tending decent fire in one of the stoves, while the others are clustered around a human machine.
  3910. "...what exactly are you all doing?"
  3911.  
  3912. > Dusk Shadow lifts himself above the crowd with a couple flaps of his wings, a huge grin plastered across his face.
  3913. > "Hey boss! Remember how you said you wanted some music?"
  3914. "You're joking..."
  3915. > "Nope! They sent some kind of machine along, and I'm going to hear a few of them before I fall asleep."
  3916. "...well, what kind of things did they send?"
  3917.  
  3918. Requested suggestions for music; results:
  3919. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBxsDYOAKok (Best Cycling songs 2015)
  3920. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOM64qMGtCs (Alestorm - Magnetic North)
  3921. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2VCwBzGdPM (Louis Armstrong - What a Wonderful World)
  3922. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lK4cX5xGiQ (Tenacious D - Tribute)
  3923. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9eWbrc_ynw (Sabaton - Gott Mit Uns)
  3924. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ98qac2UIM (The Beatles - All You Need is Love)
  3925. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPL_SV3n7IU (Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here)
  3926. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOMBVer5beA (Pink Floyd - A Great Day for Freedom)
  3927.  
  3928. > Their music is... a varied selection, to say the least.
  3929. > Some of the references you are certain you are missing; words or ideas unique to their culture
  3930. > But others are easily understandable.
  3931. > And judging by the way the soldiers' react, they have varied tastes as well.
  3932. > Some cheer along with the heaviest beats - playing imaginary instruments held against them, thrashing their heads in ways that make even your own ache slightly.
  3933. > It's understandable, you suppose, that some of them would enjoy - relish, even - songs that honored victory in war and combat.
  3934. > Yet others are more confusing; one makes little sense, until Gerber explains that it is from another of their 'movies' - the story of a sports player who was able to struggle his way up past a low beginning.
  3935. > Best of all, however, is to see your ponies getting into the spirit of things as well.
  3936. > They may not always be able to sing along, but the mood in the room is infectious; soon enough they are hoof-stomping and enjoying themselves as well.
  3937. > On and on go the choices; a song about defeating a demon with music yields a great deal of laughter, considering where you are now.
  3938. > And then it finishes; the next is in a completely different tone.
  3939. > Perhaps the most surprising of all that night - a slow, crooning song telling of simple pleasure in life, with a refrain that seems to speak to everyone there regardless of species.
  3940. > Yet despite the tone of it all, the soldiers don't object - in fact, one sings along in fairly good tone, the others going silent to let him.
  3941. > When it's done, no one speaks for a moment; even the changelings have gone still.
  3942. > The music seems to have touched everyone far more deeply than expected.
  3943. > Dusk Shadow is the first to speak:
  3944. > "I think... that it can't be said enough, how much of your culture is getting lost in all this mess."
  3945.  
  3946. > After that, the mood is changed.
  3947. > Not broken, not dampened or sad - but a calm sort of understanding rather than the energized mood it had been.
  3948. > And then, comes the moment you'd been expecting but hoping would never come.
  3949. > "Sir? You'd better come see this."
  3950. > Byline had taken up watch along with one of the humans as everyone else prepared to bed down.
  3951. > Now, as you arrive beside him, he holds a set of the humans' night-vision devices out for you, pointing with one hoof.
  3952. > "Up there. On the top of ridge. Check out the clouds too - I'm no pegasus, but I don't think that's normal."
  3953. > What you see makes your stomach fall.
  3954. > There, in plain view, stood three translucent forms peering down with icy blue eyes.
  3955. > Their manes - if they could be called that - seemed to almost flow like the princesses', bits breaking away to evaporate in the night air like fog.
  3956. > And even as you watch, one seems to meet your eyes straight through the device, drawing back its lips in a snarling challenge.
  3957. > Lowering the goggles in trembling hooves, you look about and realize the others had gathered about you as well.
  3958. > Watching.
  3959. > Waiting for a hint of what to do next.
  3960.  
  3961. ACTION:
  3962. - Remain quiet so as not to provoke them just yet.
  3963.  
  3964. "Well..."
  3965. > You raise the goggles again - almost as though you were hoping against all odds they wouldn't be there if you looked again.
  3966. > No such luck, the three ethereal forms remain firmly planted in place.
  3967. "...it's a fair bet they're looking to see if they can provoke us out. Same thing they did the other night - flush us out, play around."
  3968. > "Then we don't go."
  3969. > You nod in agreement with Gerber's whispered suggestion.
  3970. "We keep calm. We keep quiet. We don't provoke them, but we don't cower either. This is a head-game more than a straight-up fight."
  3971. > "Nothing new for us. Just like Afghanistan, sitting and waiting for the nightly mortars to come in. You know it's going to happen, just not when."
  3972. > It's something you'd experienced, too; you're vaguely reminded of your second trip into the Everfree, when you'd hid from the humans' flying machines seeking overhead.
  3973. "Then we stick together. We stay calm. If any of you have any prayers you'd like to say, then now's the time."
  3974. > And they do - offering a short prayer for protection, while you give a murmured thought to the Princesses, the sun, moon, and stars, even harmony itself to give you the slightest edge against the Windigos.
  3975. > Thus it's with considerable shock that when you check outside again, all of the Windigos have vanished.
  3976. "...anyone see anything out there?"
  3977. > Nopony does; neither do the humans - even with their temperature-sensing device.
  3978. > One quick glance up, however, tells you exactly where they'd gone.
  3979. > Thick, heavy clouds scuttle across the sky with more force than you'd seen even Cloudsdale marshal at once.
  3980. > The WIndigos are on the move.
  3981. > "...where do you think they're going?"
  3982. > You give a thoughtful grunt first in response to Whispen's question, and then actually answer it:
  3983.  
  3984. "Not sure; Eyrie Rock, maybe, trying to cut us off. Clouds are going more south than that, though, and at a good clip... could be another settlement, just the other side of the ridge?"
  3985. > Lowering the binoculars, you retreat from the window and look about.
  3986. "Okay, we're not in any immediate danger as best as I can tell. Those are stormclouds, but they're moving past - not breaking here. Spheci, Iri - can you feel anything?"
  3987. > "...they are nearby. Nearby, but not too close yet."
  3988. > Glancing to Gerber, you give him the chance to set the next orders:
  3989. > "If we're not in danger, I think we should all try and get some sleep; we'll see what happens tomorrow."
  3990. "Understood."
  3991. > And sleep you do, a small team of humans, ponies, and an occasional changeling keeping watch.
  3992. > The Windigos' first assault comes with dawn.
  3993. > It starts with a sudden blast of wind that rattles windows and wakes everyone; the snow soon follows.
  3994. > By the time it is truly light outside, swirling clouds of snow have dropped visibility sharply - perhaps twenty feet, no more.
  3995. "...Gerber, can your flying machines get through this?"
  3996. > "Not likely. We'll be on foot - hoof, or whatever - or waiting for a convoy."
  3997. > By mid-day it is apparent that the storm isn't going to simply blow over.
  3998. > Strangely, the Changelings have yet to be truly disturbed; all reported 'sourness', but nothing like a truly determined assault on the unity of your mixed group.
  3999.  
  4000. ACTION:
  4001. - There's no need to risk exposure. Remain hunkered down and waiting - but make sure to shovel out some of the snow so that we can get outside. Don't want to be snowed in.
  4002. - Hunker down and wait. And maybe prepare some fire weapons, get some lamp oil and make Molotov or something.
  4003.  
  4004.  > Staring out into the swirling snow, you shake your head.
  4005. > No way you were going out into that before you absolutely had to; it's a total mess.
  4006. > The furthest you go is opening the door to shovel a bit of the snow away from the front and rear doors; it wouldn't be good to be trapped inside, after all.
  4007. > By dinner, however, cabin fever was beginning to build up.
  4008. > Most ponies had slept a great deal - Chilona and Dusk especially, catching up on days of rest they'd had to skip.
  4009. > Now, however, the early enthusiasm for holding out had begun to fade and the tedium set in.
  4010. > It's a fertile easy environment for little things to blow up into huge arguments, and you're careful to watch for any sign of hostilities before they begin.
  4011. > Fortunately no one, human, pony, or changeling had shown obvious signs yet - but as the first day turns to night again, it's easy to see that frustration has been building up.
  4012. > A distraction is provided in the form of a fair supply of bottles - some empty, some needing to be dumped - and a healthy amount of lamp oil that had been brought in.
  4013. > Working together, humans and ponies alike begin filling them; the soldiers show your unicorns how to tie the top off to ensure the fuse will not slip out.
  4014. > The activity is as much to keep everyone feeling useful as anything else.
  4015. > If it comes down to throwing these, somehow you doubt the situation will end well anyhow.
  4016. > As the sun drops down and the sky turns black, winds only seem to rise and howl more loudly.
  4017. > It's a low moaning sound that puts everypony's teeth on edge, especially because of the rather more hostile howling you'd heard prior nights.
  4018. > If the Windigos were doing that now, the wind at least seemed to push it out, and-
  4019. > The crunching rumble cuts through the ambient noise, a slight tremor seeming to run through the floor of the dining hall itself.
  4020.  
  4021. > Immediately you lock eyes with Whispen, then Berger who grimaces.
  4022. > "Do I even want to know what that was?"
  4023. "I doubt it. Let's go see."
  4024. > Unfortunately, the windows had long since been covered by a mix of snow and frost that makes it exceedingly difficult to see anything through them - and nothing in detail, even aside from the still-driving snow.
  4025. "I don't like it, but... if we want to know what that was, we're going to have to go out there."
  4026. > "At night? I don't like that."
  4027. "Me either. We have enough rope to make a sort of leash, though - a good hundred feet or so, I think."
  4028.  
  4029. ACTION:
  4030. - Send our bats- since they can see in the dark, and us at the front. Have some humans spaced along the rope's length in twos for covering fire. A unicorn or two close to the back to provide shields. Tie the end of the rope to something sturdy and have Boulder on watch at the end if it needs to be pulled back quickly.
  4031. - i agree with this. tie a bat to a rope and do not allow them to leave the rope, have boulder holding the line and a unicorn ready. also, give the bat a radio and flares if we have them, redundancy, redundancy, redundancy.
  4032.  
  4033. > "...alright. I'll go get some of my guys, you get a couple of yours. We'll go out on that rope, not any further."
  4034. "Understood."
  4035. > Halfway through getting the line set up, another low crunch forces everyone to freeze for just moment.
  4036. > When you resume it's with a new burst of haste.
  4037. > The first to step out is Dusk, followed by yourself.
  4038. > For both of your, the rope has been looped beneath your armor to ensure there's no chance of being carried off.
  4039. > Directly behind you follow two of the humans - weapons held at the ready for all the good they will do in this sort of weather and rope looped through their belts as well.
  4040. > With the very first hoof you put outside the door, the storm seems to try and seize you to carry you off.
  4041. > Even with the snow on the ground, easily deep enough for each hoofstep to sink in, the wind seems to claw and tug at you.
  4042. > Considerable amounts of mental force are required to keep your wings shut and avoid letting them catch the icy gusts.
  4043. > And icy they are - while you'd wrapped up considerably over your armor, each burst of air seems to suck the heat from you.
  4044. > Glancing back, you see the two humans - bundled up until they were barely recognizable, even near the light coming from the dining hall - taking cautious steps out into the snow as well.
  4045. > Behind them, Whispen and Spark plus two more humans standing in the doorway - Boulder beside them, the rope looped around his barrel.
  4046. > Taking a heavy breath, you speak into the radio crudely bound to the side of your head.
  4047. "Alright - can you still hear me?"
  4048. > "Barely."
  4049. > Gerber's voice responds, also difficult to hear over the wind rushing around you.
  4050. > "I've got you through, though."
  4051. "Alright. We're starting to head out. Dusk, can you see anything?"
  4052. > The night guard shakes his head, then responds more accurately:
  4053. > "In this weather? We're better at seeing, sir, but this is ridiculous."
  4054. "Okay. It sounded like that came from the south, so let's keep moving."
  4055.  
  4056. > And move you do - step by step, foot by foot, the rope spooling out behind you.
  4057. > The snow nearly comes up to your belly; moving is as much a process of plowing it out of the way as stepping over it.
  4058. > Between the snow and wind, you're soon feeling as though there's no warmth left in the world at all - but still you go on.
  4059. > It's nearly at the end of the rope when you finally see the source of the noise.
  4060. > Dusk nudges you with one hoof, pointing into the night sky.
  4061. > At first you don't even recognize the ore storage barn - and then, you realize, it's because the entire building had lost itself.
  4062. > The peaked roof and upper catwalks had simply collapsed inwards.
  4063. "...that's not good. Okay, uh, Haagensen, can you come up here?"
  4064. > It takes him a few moments, but the solder appears behind you.
  4065. "That building - yeah, where it fell in - can you light that up somehow?"
  4066. > His weapon-mounted lamp proves utterly insufficient; instead he draws something from a pocket with gloved fingers, takes two steps back, and holds it out.
  4067. > Swinging his other hand forward, he seems to slap them together; there's a sharp pop, and something rockets away into the sky - bursting into light a moment later.
  4068.  
  4069. [Roll for Perception; result: You aren't able to see exactly what happened, but know what didn't.]
  4070.  
  4071. > In the light of the slowly-descending flare, the building slowly comes into resolution.
  4072. > While most of the roof has entirely caved in, you can see much of what remains is covered in the thick snow - the cold air keeping it from sliding off too easily.
  4073. > This must have been a far, far worse storm than the builders were ever predicting - or they'd normally have kept the roofs swept clean.
  4074. > Looking around, you can see that some of the other buildings are struggling under the weight of the snow as well.
  4075. > If you didn't do something about them, its a fair bet some more might go.
  4076. > Thank Celestia you only have to deal with one or two.
  4077. > If there were any more, it could be-
  4078. > "Contact, fifty yards, west, down low!"
  4079. > Spinning about, you're just in time to see two translucent blue shapes detach themselves from the side of a building and come screaming out across the road towards you.
  4080. > The humans' weapons clatter in the night time air, unleashing a hail of bullets towards the spirits - but to your horror, the projectiles simply whip straight through them.
  4081. > Not even slowed by the attack, the Windigos split up to circle you like stalking wolves; the one soldier who'd come up to help you backing in against yourself and Dusk.
  4082. > "Well, shit. I wasn't expecting that."
  4083. > Neither had you.
  4084. > Even at this distance - perhaps still twenty or thirty feet away - the Windigos seem to practically exude cold.
  4085. > Not merely chilliness, but a deeper, more penetrating cold that seems to try and wrap itself around your muzzle to force its way down your lungs with every breath you take.
  4086. > Baleful blue eyes never leave you; with a start you realize that for something as large as they are, they seem to barely leave impressions in the snow where their hooves touch.
  4087.  
  4088. ACTION:
  4089. -  "Physically pull us back to you, ignoring focused fire. Our best defense is in numbers."
  4090.  
  4091. "Boulder! Pull us! Pull us now!"
  4092. > You don't know if he can hear you, but even if he can't Warren or one of the others can.
  4093. > Soon enough, in a few seconds there's a heavy tug on the rope.
  4094. > For the first few moments you try and keep pace with it, but soon enough you stumble and find yourself being dragged along.
  4095. > Even so, you keep your eyes on the ethereal blue shapes - ready to do whatever could, however pointless it might seem, if they charged.
  4096. > And charge they do, despite bullets still rippling through them.
  4097. > Straining back against the rope, you bellow out a wordless scream of challenge.
  4098. > Challenge for them to dare try anything, to even think about coming and trying to take you from your ponies - from Whispen.
  4099. > To your utter shock, both of them break away.
  4100. > Quickly they circle around to approach you again.
  4101. > This time, though, it is not one voice that scream out a dare to come to you, but four - yourself, Dusk, and the soldiers Luka and Haagensen.
  4102. > And again the Windigos turn aside, flowing past you but not at you before falling back.
  4103. > Were they afraid?
  4104. > Or just testing the waters?
  4105. > Or-
  4106. > Something whips over your head, flame glowing against the night's darkness.
  4107. > When the explosive lands at the hooves of a Windigo though, you realize you'd made one critical mistake:
  4108. > They didn't break against the soft snow.
  4109. > Instead it sat there, flickering but refusing to go out, as the Windigos look at it with an almost bemused expression.
  4110. > Hopefully whoever through that would know to -
  4111. > "Heads down, grenade out!"
  4112. > Something else whips over your head; ducking without question, the explosion still manages to rattle you - as does the screech that comes after it.
  4113. > Raising your eyes again, you see that the explosive had burst the bottle of oil as well, leaving a merrily flaming patch between yourself and the nearest Windigo.
  4114. > Both had retreated away, seeming to reevaluate attacking so quickly.
  4115.  
  4116. > It's a sentiment that's redoubled as another bottle goes arcing through the air, immediately followed by several bolts of magic.
  4117. > One of them is evidently close enough to catch it where it lands, as another greasy fireball rises into the air.
  4118. > This time, the Windigos evade more calmly - but so to have you reached the safety of the dining hall.
  4119. > Spark Flash stands beside the door, another bottle ready in his magic; Whispen's horn is lit as well, providing a shield which covers the others.
  4120. > Pushing yourself upright, you take one last glance back at the distant forms - now half-cloaked in the wind.
  4121. > Between pants of breath that no longer seems quite so icy cold, you manage to eke out a sentence:
  4122. "Well. Even if we didn't get them, looks like fire certainly makes them take take a second look at us."
  4123. > Pushing past you, one of the soldiers raises a tube to his shoulder - grasping the two handles beneath and levelling it at the distant forms.
  4124. > They're still pacing, but don't seem inclined to try another approach just yet.
  4125.  
  4126. ACTION:
  4127. - Don't fire unless they seem to be attacking again.
  4128.  
  4129. "No!'
  4130. > You nearly leap in front of him.
  4131. "Don't shoot yet!"
  4132. > The soldier glances between yourself and Gerber, seeming unsure about what to do.
  4133. > Quickly you take advantage to warn him more completely:
  4134. "They're already backing off, thinking twice. I don't think they were expecting us to fight at all. Save your weapons - we can keep using our magic, but you only have so many rockets."
  4135. > Gerber does nod now, holding out a palm.
  4136. > "Those things move, you let it go. Not before."
  4137. > "Affirmative."
  4138. > A tense few seconds of waiting follows - humans, ponies, and Windigos staring at each other across the length of the little mining outpost.
  4139. > And then, to your shock, they turn and depart.
  4140. > Surprise turns to horror as an additional half-dozen transparent forms emerge from alleys and the tops of buildings, joining the initial two in departing.
  4141. > In their departure, the storm seems to immediately drop - as if they had acknowledged that it was no longer a use, now that you were aware of their presence.
  4142. > "It was an ambush..."
  4143. > Dusk's uttered statement can barely be heard over the wind.
  4144. "...so why didn't they spring it?"
  4145. > Gerber takes one last sweep around, and grunts.
  4146. > "Don't question luck. We're alive because they didn't; let's get back inside."
  4147. > Turning, you nod.
  4148. > And as you do, Whispen lets out a startled curse.
  4149. > "Sir, the top of the ridge..."
  4150. > Following her instructions, your gaze sweeps over them - and stomach turns to ice.
  4151. > An uncountable number of forms seemed to be swarming along the ridge-top, launching themselves into the night sky.
  4152. > With the immediate storm's winds having quieted, it's now possible to again here that distant, atonal howl - enough to raise hackles along your back, so close are they.
  4153. > Yet, none circle down to attack you.
  4154. > Instead they fly - it seems the wrong word; their actions more like fish swimming or acrobats dancing through the air.
  4155.  
  4156. > "That's a lot of things..."
  4157. "I can't see where they're going... somewhere south?"
  4158. > "Maybe. Let's get inside."
  4159. > Following Gerber's advice, you slip back in and barricade the door.
  4160. > Yet, the matter doesn't easily leave your mind.
  4161. > Why hadn't they come for you?
  4162. > Had the fire truly spooked them that badly, or were they going somewhere else?
  4163. > For that matter, you couldn't forget about the snow-laden roofs, either...
  4164.  
  4165. ACTION:
  4166. - They were studying us. They had a group of humans and ponies wander in. They used our presence here to test the human and their weapons. They were probably also curious as to why ponies were working with humans. They watched and toyed with us and saw our weapons fail to hurt them and saw that we were not confident to bring the fight to them, so they're going south to start shit. clear off the roof while the humans attempt to contact warren, then rest up for the night.
  4167. - Talk to Dusk and the two soldiers about what they were thinking when the wendigoes charged and see if there's anything we can glean from that. We need to report whatever information we have over the radio: their aversion to fire, their ability to plan and coordinate, the uselessness of conventional rounds, and- above all- the urgent need to get into contact with the Equestrian government about the shitstorm that's about to come their way. They can't afford to let the Equestrian's get blindsighted by this. If they need any help convincing the Equestrians of their sincerity, let them drop our name to Princess Luna.
  4168.  
  4169. > Were they... toying with you?
  4170. > Maybe they knew what the humans were - that they could be used to generate conflict the Windigos could feed on - but not truly how they worked.
  4171. > If that was the case, then holding back with that weapon had been the right thing to do.
  4172. > Fire alone had seemed to give them second thoughts, and the soldier had seemed convinced that rocket they had been sent would do a lot more...
  4173. > But even so...
  4174. > Finding Dusk is easy; finding the two humans who'd ventured outside with you on the rope is somewhat harder.
  4175. > Still, in the end you gather them in a corner and take a deep breath before beginning:
  4176. "Alright. This is going to sound strange, but I need you to think closely on what exactly you were thinking about when they came right at us. I don't know if the fire stopped them, or something else -"
  4177. > Something the humans would never quite believe in without seeing it first-hoof.
  4178. "-but I need to know."
  4179. > Dusk is the first to speak up.
  4180. > "That's easy enough. I, uh... well, this is going to sound stupid, sir, but I was thinking if I could get in the air and pull you back with me, that maybe we could get back a little faster..."
  4181. > It is stupid - one wrong gust in the air, and even with the rope he could have twisted a wing, been slammed back into the ground...
  4182. > "I know. But - all I could think of was that I had to get back to everypony else. Everyone."
  4183.  
  4184. > Correcting himself, Dusk glances to the two humans.
  4185. > In turn, Haagensen raises a hand to rub at the back of his head awkwardly.
  4186. > "Not going to lie, I was thinking I was about to die. Not every day something eats a dozen rounds and doesn't even flinch. Christ, you know - when we kept saying we were worried about magic? This is why."
  4187. "If it makes you feel better - they're just as terrifying to us."
  4188. > "I know. So yeah - thinking about that, about not seeing my little girl again-"
  4189. "You have family?"
  4190. > "Yeah, why?"
  4191. "That may have actually helped.
  4192. > "Yeah. Guess it does. You, Luka?"
  4193. > The soldier who'd been beside you winces.
  4194. > "I wasn't thinking. I was trying to get out another slap flare to put it into one of them, see if that would stop them all. Dropped it when we all got pulled, it's probably somewhere out there still."
  4195. "Think it have worked?"
  4196. > "Probably not. I just remembered that fire thing, thought a flare would work - forgot that it'd probably just go straight through them too."
  4197. "Alright. Now I just need to find Gerber..."
  4198. > Finding him is easy enough - as is convincing him that this is something which needs to be reported.
  4199. > Unfortunately, getting a message through proves somewhat more tricky.
  4200. > Despite a great deal of fiddling with the radio, it takes some time to raise Warren - and when you do, he sounds rather harried.
  4201. > "Goood to hear from you - listen, we've got anomalous weather practically all across the north, you're in the middle of it."
  4202. "We know. There are definitely Windigos up here, and they're on the move."
  4203. > "How bad is it?"
  4204. "Lots of snow and wind, we're safe for now..."
  4205. > Briefly you catch him up on your encounter, with Gerber adding in his own thoughts:
  4206. > "Based on what we've seen, captain, it's possible nothing short of a HEAT, incendiary, or fuel air will touch these things. Maybe heavier artillery, I'm not sure."
  4207.  
  4208. > "Copy that. Listen up, I can try and push the vehicles up to you a bit harder, but if what's coming is as bad as you say it is-"
  4209. "Captain - I understand this will sound ridiculous, but - you need to contact the Equestrian government. Forge... I don't know. A temporary truce, even just warning them what's coming."
  4210. > "...you're asking me to stick my head out pretty damn far, you know that? Hell, I don't know if I can push that up-"
  4211. "Try. Please."
  4212. > "You think your leaders will listen? That it will help?"
  4213.  
  4214. ACTION:
  4215. - We've heard it from the princess's mouths that their resurgence has been a concern for some time. The citizens of the Eyrie had even sent reports of increased wendigo activity to Canterlot, but the state of the war prevented any action. If they require confirmation, request that Luna look into the dreams of two ponies she will find familiar. We appreciated her honesty and forthright nature and mean to pay her back in full- that they may do their utmost in duty as we did ours.
  4216. - [Heavy, complex analysis of how the princesses would react: See >>23912234
  4217.  
  4218. "Captain, we know the princesses have been concerned about the Windigos for some time. Eyrie Rock apparently sent a messenger to them warning about it already; if they haven't received that, they will soon. And... whatever you may think of them, you have to acknowledge they care for the protection of us. Luna fell back because she was afraid of turning into something that would make the war even worse, and Celestia was there for the first time the Windigos attacked too. Both of them will listen if you make it clear what you want is a truce."
  4219. > "And the other two Princesses?"
  4220.  
  4221. "Princess Cadance... I've not ever had a chance to really meet her. But she's the princess of love and loves her ponies enough to see the cost in refusing to stand together with you. She's also not seen any of the fighting, so it will probably be easier to convince her. Princess Sparkle..."
  4222. > You pause, and are quite sure Warren is noting the silence.
  4223. "...I'm not going to lie, Princess Sparkle will be the most difficult to convince. After the attack on her home town - but she's outnumbered three to one, and the others should be able to keep her in check."
  4224. > "Copy that."
  4225. "One last thing... tell them, if we really need convincing, tell Luna to walk in our dreams. Uh, the guardsponies who came out of the Everfree and first brought her evidence of who the humans were - tell her to look for us."
  4226. > You can see Warren stiffen beside you, but he doesn't speak for now.
  4227. > Good; he clearly trusts you well enough to wait until you are done.
  4228. > Warren doesn't answer immediately - probably considering how much of a security risk that would be.
  4229. > After all, you'd been inside some of their most significant bases...
  4230. > "...noted. We've got a possible way to get this through in short order."
  4231. "Good. Again, I honestly believe this is your best chance. Not to demean your soldiers, but right now magic is the best chance you have."
  4232. > "None taken. Staff Sergeant Gerber, are you there?"
  4233. > "Yes, captain."
  4234. > "Okay, conserve your batteries. Unless it's an emergency, contact me again at ten-hundred tomorrow - understand?"
  4235. > "Yes, sir. Copy that."
  4236. > And with that, the conversation comes to an end.
  4237. > Gerber seems slightly shaken by something as he packs away the machine.
  4238. "...you're thinking about something."
  4239. > "Yeah - look, the batteries on this thing? They're supposed to be good for forty-eight hours continuous use. We've got three of them. If he's telling us to conserve battery power..."
  4240. > Quickly you run through the calculations in your head.
  4241.  
  4242. "So, possibly over a week. And we've got... what, eight days' food?"
  4243. > "Yeah. It's going to be close."
  4244. "Okay. We can cut our rations. It won't be anything new to us."
  4245. > The mood in the dining hall remains subdued throughout the night.
  4246. > In fact, not much of anything happens - at least, not until the following morning, when you're roughly woken by Ornithea shaking your shoulder.
  4247. > "Sir! You need to get up - the changelings aren't happy."
  4248. > Those words are enough to send you tumbling from the bed.
  4249. > As she'd said, all four of the Changelings have all gone stock-still - staring into nothing, but with their eyes wide open regardless of disguised or not.
  4250. "Damn it!"
  4251. > "What's that mean?"
  4252. > Gerber was already beside you, pulling on his gear.
  4253. "It means the Windigos are probably coming back."
  4254.  
  4255. ACTION:
  4256. - Wait for the changelings to report before pushing out.
  4257.  
  4258. "Iri, are you alright?"
  4259. > All but galloping to the side of the frozen changeling, you put a hoof to her shoulder when she doesn't immediately respond.
  4260. > The touch is like an electric jolt to her - Iri jumps straight into the air, twisting to blink at you as she lands.
  4261. > "I.. I'm sorry. They... were close."
  4262. "Were?"
  4263. > "Yes... gone. Going now, rather. Like... a burst of smoke on the wind, from a bad fire."
  4264. > She shudders gently, narrowing her eyes.
  4265. > "You can't understand what it's like being around those things... we feed on emotions, yes, but their hatred is so strong and so deep... it is like sticking your head into the Neighagra Falls to get a drink."
  4266. "I can... understand how that would be unpleasant, yes. But you're sure they're gone now?"
  4267. > "No."
  4268. > This time it's Spheci who speaks up - having apparently broken from his reverie as well.
  4269. > "No, they aren't. But they're not as close. Probing us, maybe?"
  4270. "Maybe..."
  4271. > Glancing over, you note that Gerber has been listening in on the entire conversation.
  4272. > If he thinks anything of it, he doesn't say - simply going on pulling his gear together.
  4273. > Evidently he still doesn't feel comfortable enough to ignore their presence.
  4274. "Okay. If they come back at all, I really need to know."
  4275. > "They're... lurking."
  4276. > Iri scrunches her muzzle up, disguised horn emitting a few small sparks.
  4277. > "Hanging just out of reach. Not near here, but not too far either."
  4278. > Trying to exert their presence on you, or something else...?
  4279. > Maybe if you could go outside and see what they're doing, it'd be possible to figure out a bit more.
  4280. > But a scouting expedition would have its own risks.
  4281. > At least you wouldn't be surprised like you had been last night.
  4282.  
  4283. ACTION:
  4284. - Bunker down and wait it out.
  4285. - Interrogate our changelings a bit to figure out how they and the squad are doing.
  4286.  
  4287. "Sergeant, in all honesty I'm not sure it's a good idea to go out there in this. It seems more like they're probing our resistance - maybe trying to flush us out again, now that we might have driven them back once."
  4288. > "If your friends are right about their head-thing, agreed."
  4289. > He glances outside, where the falling snow has decreased from record-blizzard levels to merely lifting great clouds of the fine, powdery flakes on periodic gusts.
  4290. > "I still don't like it though. I've been trapped up in FOBs before waiting for the shit to start, and I've never liked it."
  4291. "Neither do I. But, tiring ourselves out going and chasing every shadow isn't going to stop her."
  4292. > "...trust me, I know."
  4293. > Gerber pulls out one of the chairs at the remaining tables, slumping into it.
  4294. > Given that it was meant for a creature half his size, the end result looks quite humorous - if not for how worrying it was.
  4295. > It wasn't exactly hatred or anger, but there was no doubt that being cooped up in here was definitely getting to him - and he wasn't the only one.
  4296. > You could see the tension in your ponies as well; the longer it built up, the greater a chance there was for it to snap spectacularly.
  4297. > In the meantime, though...
  4298. "Iri, is there a risk from you sensing this around you? That it would... get to you?"
  4299. > "Is there a risk for you sensing heat when near an oven? Yes, we may be 'burned' by it if we are not careful - but it is not something we can choose to stop."
  4300. > Hrm.
  4301. > Probably safe to say that it's not affecting them any more than your ponies - after all, Spheci kept himself sane when his... prisoners went mad.
  4302. > Speaking of your ponies...
  4303. "Are you sensing anything among our group? Anything that makes you worried?"
  4304. > "A hint of discord, do you mean?"
  4305. > Whether she means the actual spirit of chaos or merely the concept, you don't know.
  4306.  
  4307. "Yes. I'd like to know before something gets blown wide open."
  4308. > "Tension is thick in the air - tension, a little anger, perhaps even some fear."
  4309. > It's not surprising.
  4310. > A good bit of that fear might have been coming from you yourself.
  4311. > "You may wish to keep an eye on Ornithea and Spark Flash."
  4312. "Spark?"
  4313. > Damn - he'd been a key point in your plans.
  4314. > Evidently Iri sees your worry and shakes her head.
  4315. > "Not ready to fight yet, not either of them. But - something off. Sourness."
  4316. > Sourness - like what they'd tasted after the others had killed each other.
  4317. > You'll definitely have to keep an eye open.
  4318. > Or maybe even confront them now - dig this out before it becomes an issue.
  4319. > Then again, they might not appreciate that you've been probing.
  4320.  
  4321. ACTION:
  4322. - We need to get people out and about at some point, even if its just pacing back and forth right outside the entrance. To hold off stir fever. I imagine Orinthea is having a tough time without birds about. Ask her about how she got into birds in the first place (you know, something to keep her talking and engaged). As for Spark... I dunno, just ask him whats up?
  4323. - Like other have suggested, lets just keep busy doing stupid shit.
  4324. - Talk to Ornithea first.
  4325.  
  4326. > It's probably best to deal with Ornithea first.
  4327. > You have a suspicion that you already know what's wrong with her.
  4328. > The mare in question is found calmly seated in front of a boiling pot of what's to be the day's lunch; Hot Pot had already begun making good use of the dining hall's facilities.
  4329. "...y'know, they say a watched pot never boils."
  4330. > Ornithea shoots you a small smile, but there's something else still hidden behind there.
  4331. > "Sorry, sir. Not much else for me to do around here, so I figured I'd at least keep the pot from burning."
  4332. "Not much else?"
  4333. > "Just - long as we're in here, there isn't much I can do. My talent's not terribly helpful inside, and maybe even outside after that storm."
  4334. > She gives a little tail-flick, turning back to the pot.
  4335. > "Boulder Dash's a fair bit more useful for his strength than I am."
  4336. "...you're still a fair bit stronger than myself, or most of us."
  4337. > "Not in here, I'm not. There's barely even enough room to get any good exercise in."
  4338. "Tell me about it..."
  4339. > Your mutter is accompanied by a brief ruffling of your wings; despite how tired they'd been on arriving to the little town you'd rapidly come to miss the feeling of air beneath them.
  4340. > But that's neither here nor there, and you've a duty to your ponies still.
  4341. "...how'd you find your talent with birds, anyhow?"
  4342. > "When I was young - well, my father had this silly idea that we could try and do a bit of farming right in the middle of the town. Fruit, mostly. It didn't work real well, but when he gave it up he just left the trees..."
  4343. > Pausing to grab a ladle in her jaws and stir the pot over, Ornithea goes on:
  4344. > "So, there are all these trees going up, and one by one they all go down - except this last one, that just kept on growing until it was coming up right outside my bedroom window."
  4345. > She's becoming more animated as she speaks, a far contrast to her previous state.
  4346.  
  4347. > "So, one day I wake up - and there are a bunch of these little birds hanging around right in front of my window! So I watch them - and bigger and bigger birds came, and I kept on watching them. I guess I just... learned, eventually. To see things most other ponies didn't, from watching all their little families grow up."
  4348. "...huh..."
  4349. > "That tree kept growing, and growing... I put feeders and houses out for them, of course."
  4350. > A smile touches her lips at a memory:
  4351. > "It was... interesting getting up and down to refill and fix them without any wings of my own, but I did it."
  4352. "If I can ask, then... why the Guard?"
  4353. > "I guess... I thought, if I could do this for the birds, that was good... by who did this for ponies? Who watched out for them?"
  4354. "I guess that makes sense."
  4355. > "Does it? I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world."
  4356. "It isn't. But trust me - you're still really helpful here, even if we're not able to move out there quite so freely."
  4357.  
  4358. ACTION:
  4359. - Let's get her a pair of binoculars and ask if she can do the same with the wendigoes. I'd be great if we could find out how they communicated, if different groups were present, or if there was any infighting. We don't know a thing about how they work.
  4360.  
  4361. "If we got you a pair of binoculars, could you keep an eye out for the Windigos as well?"
  4362. > "Huh?"
  4363. "Well - if you learned so much from watching your birds - maybe you could learn something about what they're doing as well?"
  4364. > She pauses, clearly not having thought of it like that.
  4365. > "I... I guess I could. Maybe - I don't know if I'd be that good at it..."
  4366. "Trust me, Ornithea. You're a good mare - don't beat yourself up; you'll do fine."
  4367. > "Alright."
  4368. > Another warmer smile is shot in your direction.
  4369. > "Thank you."
  4370. "I've got to see a couple of the others, but then I'll see about getting you some binoculars and a good vantage point."
  4371. > Spark Flash is somewhat harder to find.
  4372. > You finally track him down hidden away in a small storeroom in the back of the dining hall, emptying more bottles into a drain.
  4373. "...what are those?"
  4374. > "Vinegar. They were probably using it to preserve food long-term."
  4375. "And you're using the bottles?"
  4376. > "Yeah. I think there's some oil I can mix up to make more firebombs."
  4377. > He barely seems to look up at you - absolutely determined to keep on working.
  4378. "...you okay, Spark? You're seeming a bit... off."
  4379. > "Am I okay?"
  4380. > He chuckles softly, still not looking up.
  4381. > "No, I guess I'm not really okay. Kind of pissed."
  4382. "...yeah, I can tell."
  4383. > You sit down on your haunches next to him, frowning.
  4384. "There's a lot that's been going on, so I'm sorry if I missed it, but - what exactly made you angry?"
  4385. > He pauses, lowering the last bottle to the floor in his field.
  4386. > "Look - you know the other night, when you were out there - and we were pulling you back in?"
  4387. > You shudder gently.
  4388. "I can't easily forget."
  4389. > "...we should've gone after them."
  4390. > That catches you by surprise.
  4391. > Of all the things he might have said, that was the last you were expecting.
  4392. "Gone after them? In that weather?"
  4393. > "The weather was bad, but - look, sir - we were winning. Against Windigos. They couldn't touch us, even though they had numbers. The fire was hurting them."
  4394.  
  4395. > Again the bottle rises up - this time coming back down a little harder.
  4396. > "If we'd kept pushing - if we'd stopped them - maybe they wouldn't be moving on now."
  4397. "You think we could have actually stopped them?"
  4398. > "Stopped... yeah, you're probably right. Maybe not stopped, but at least done something to slow them down. Done something to keep them off of other ponies for a while."
  4399. "I'm not sure getting us involved in a real fight with them would have helped with that."
  4400. > "Maybe not. But sitting here, doing nothing... it's not like Las Pegasus, sir. We could have really fought here. We had a chance."
  4401.  
  4402. ACTION:
  4403. - Numerous responses: Point out that the firebomb nearly didn't work, that we might not have been so lucky, and that detaining even a small Windigo force here might help other ponies.
  4404.  
  4405. "Spark... I get that it's an awful feeling, not being able to take the fight to them. But it's not that simple. That firebomb - it didn't just burst right at first, not until one of the humans used their own explosives to burst it."
  4406. > This causes Spark to tightly knit his brows, but he doesn't say anything - not yet.
  4407. "For that matter - between you and me, we don't have the firepower, knowledge, or freedom of movement to attack them head-on, even with the humans' weaponry. We need to play it cautiously here."
  4408. > "I understand that, but-"
  4409. "But nothing, Spark."
  4410. > Now you do stand again, circling around to face him.
  4411. "They're here because we're here. Because we didn't run out into that mess and get ourselves attacked, some of them are still waiting here. Because we showed them that a force of prisoners of war and aliens can walk into their territory and flick our tails at their efforts - that's why they're still out there."
  4412. > "But... I thought you said you'd been able to hold them back out there."
  4413. > At last Spark's eyes rise to meet you, and you realize it's not anger or some mis-placed sense of pride driving him.
  4414. > It's fear - and an understandable one at that: fear of being ground down bit by bit, of being slowly eroded until you couldn't even fight back.
  4415. > Fear that you hadn't leveraged every chance you had to drive the Windigos away when there might have been a chance.
  4416. "...I did. Maybe I was right - maybe not. There were a lot of them up there, and I don't know if we could have held against all of them. But, Spark - as long as we're here, there are Windigos who aren't preying on innocent ponies or pushing whatever plans they're moving towards."
  4417. > Spark looks like he's about to say something, but you cut him off first:
  4418. "Keep your mind focused on that, Spark. Every second we're up here is doing some good. We can get through this together, and it'll be a damn bit better than just going out for some hopeless 'glory'."
  4419.  
  4420. > "...yeah. Yeah, I guess. I just... I hate this. I really, really hate this."
  4421. "I know. None of us like it, but hang in there Spark."
  4422. > Leaving him to his work, you go to search out Gerber.
  4423. > He's found crouched over a table, going over a map that you suspect he's already all but memorized.
  4424. > As you approach, he looks up - eyes slightly haggard.
  4425. "...didn't sleep well?"
  4426. > "No. Look - I think we need to get to doing something. Some of my guys are getting antsy."
  4427. "Agreed. It's not just them - we all are."
  4428. > Nodding - almost looking relieved that you were on the same wavelength - Gerber points to the door.
  4429. > "I was thinking - those other buildings aren't much use to us now. Especially the one that's collapsed in - I bet we could tear apart some of them and build a few pyres. Dig some pathways to walk in. They don't seem to be on us right now."
  4430. "No - though we shouldn't be outside for too long. There's plenty to do in here, though."
  4431. > "Yeah. Like, try to get us some better visibility out those windows - or bulk up the damn roof. Its clear now, but I don't know how long it'd have held up if they hadn't backed off."
  4432.  
  4433. ACTION:
  4434. - Build several large pyres outside, ready to be lit.
  4435. - Reinforce the roof of the structure against further snow and board over most of the windows.
  4436. - Scavenge further supplies you might have missed, alleviating some food concerns (bonus to morale).
  4437.  
  4438. "Alright. Boulder, Spark - see about some pyres. Tear some of the other buildings apart if you have to - just make sure they won't fall apart in the wind and can be lit fairly easily."
  4439. > "I can do that."
  4440. "Good. Whispen - take Ornithea up to the top of one of the buildings. Keep an eye on her - make sure she's safe. If there's any trouble whatsoever, send up a flare with your horn and we'll pull in."
  4441. > "I will, sir."
  4442. > Good; if love and comradeship was the best defense, then those two should be more than able to look after Ornithea.
  4443. "Byline, Hot Pot, Dusk - if you can, try and shore up this building with whatever timber we can find. Board over windows, seal up any gaps you think you can feel. We're going to need to be able to resist them for real, if they come back."
  4444. > To your surprise, the three changelings who you'd brought back step up as well.
  4445. > "We can help with this. We are not architects, exactly - but we know how to build. Our ichor can work as a sealant."
  4446. > You hadn't actually thought of that; perhaps some portion of your mind unconsciously ignored the idea.
  4447. > But it's an undeniably good one.
  4448. "We'd be happy to have your help. Iri, Chilona - you're going to be with me. We're going to need to sweep this buildings for anything we can find that we can burn for light, eat, or use at all."
  4449. > Pausing, you add one thing more:
  4450. "Just because we're not pushing out into them - not assaulting them - don't think we've somehow lost. We've still got work to do.
  4451. > In short order the humans join in - half of them joining the efforts to reinforce the building, while two work on the pyres as well.
  4452. > Gerber follows you in, working through buildings in search of any last nooks and crannies where something may be hidden.
  4453.  
  4454. > At one point, as he does, he speaks up quietly:
  4455. > "Good work. I think some of my guys would've lost it, just sitting around."
  4456. "Well, we're not out of this yet. If they're not back tonight, I'm going to teach you guys how to play some of our games - and maybe the opposite as well."
  4457. > "You do that, watch out for Dully. The guy's some kind of poker god; he'll gamble you out of everything you own."
  4458. > That gets a good laugh from yourself as well as Chilona and Iri - if for no other reason than the absurdity of it.
  4459. > After all, none of you have much to gamble that you can afford to lose.
  4460. > By early evening, all parties have made progress.
  4461. > A dozen huge bonfires have been prepared, in a crude circle around the dining hall and sleeping quarters - although the ruins of the storage shed and a few other buildings had suffered for it.
  4462. > Inside the dining hall, you're pleased to see a number of new beams and joists crudely, if effectively pushed up against the ceiling; moreover, a combination of plywood, cloth, and changeling ichor has been spread over some of the windows to keep them stable.
  4463. > And to your surprise, more supplies had turned up - including perhaps another day or two's worth of food.
  4464. > Not the most, but a welcome amount.
  4465. > Enough to ease fears about rationing, if not exactly provide for a feast.
  4466.  
  4467. [Roll to determine if Ornithea can discern what the Windigos are doing and why; result: She was able to discern what they are doing, but not why.]
  4468.  
  4469. > Ornithea, however, seems only somewhat more worried as she comes down from the rooftop she'd been stationed on.
  4470. > Pulling up beside her, you speak softly:
  4471. "Hey. See anything interesting up there?"
  4472. > "...yeah. I didn't want to make any of the others worried, but - they're definitely watching us. A couple dozen, at least."
  4473. > You glance at Whispen in shock; she nods her head.
  4474. > That many Windigos?
  4475. > Must've made them angry or something...
  4476. "Do you think they're going to come for us?"
  4477. > "I'm... not sure. They're just watching us - I'm not sure why, but they don't seem to be looking for weaknesses or hunting. Trust me, I saw enough birds hunting... I know what it looks like."
  4478. "What are they doing, then?"
  4479. > "I don't know."
  4480. > This time the emotion is more raw in her voice - disappointment, as if she'd somehow let you down.
  4481. > "They're just circling around, watching us but not really doing anything..."
  4482. > Strange.
  4483. "Well, you did good, Ornithea. You let us work around outside there today, and we got a lot done. We couldn't have done that without you."
  4484. > She gives you a small smile, and you move on to head for the others.
  4485. > That night proves to be quite entertaining; true to Ornithea's expectation, the Windigos do not return.
  4486. > Unfortunately, much of that merriment fades the following morning, when your daily call with Warren comes around.
  4487. > His voice is fainter, as though the message was having trouble getting through.
  4488. > "Listen - we've moved south to avoid the weather patterns. It's getting bad out here, though."
  4489. > "How bad is bad, captain?"
  4490. > "We've had to pull out nearly everyone north of latitude five-five north. Beyond that, we've got anomalous weather reaching down to five-one north in some areas."
  4491. > Looking at the map, your stomach sinks - already the Windigos' affects were reaching heavily populated areas.
  4492. "What about our plan?"
  4493. > "We've reached out via third party and gotten some tentative responses."
  4494. > Third party?
  4495.  
  4496. > Who would be a third party between the humans and the Princesses?
  4497. > Nevermind; it's not important now.
  4498. "How fast can that work? If they're moving that fast..."
  4499. > "We expect an answer inside of twenty four hours, but there are some rising issues we're concerned about - specific points of conflict."
  4500. > It doesn't take a much guesswork to figure out what he means.
  4501. > Ponies - or humans - driven to worse fighting by the Windigos.
  4502.  
  4503. ACTION:
  4504. Ask Warren who the third party is.
  4505.  
  4506. "Captain Warren, if you can tell us... who exactly is this third party?"
  4507. > There's a period of some silence, followed by the sound of what you think is papers being shuffled - and finally, a response:
  4508. > "The, uh, Griffons kingdoms have confirmed their neutrality in the conflict and are currently acting as third parties to negotiations. This has been agreed to by your government as well, so they're on steady ground here."
  4509. > The griffons?
  4510. > You hadn't been honestly expecting that answer; most griffons were neutral, if not outright friendly towards Equestria.
  4511. > A few training operations with Griffons had taught you that.
  4512. > Then again, they lacked the magic that had given you even the slightest chance of fighting.
  4513. > Perhaps they'd been afraid - probably rightly - of what attacking the humans would have brought.
  4514. > And if the Princesses had accepted this, then they obviously understood it as well.
  4515. > Still - it's good to know that you aren't the only ones looking for a hope for peace.
  4516. "Good to know. It'd have been awkward to run in to any without knowing."
  4517. > "If any were operating in your area, you'd have been told."
  4518. > ...just how long had this been going on?
  4519. "Okay, well - it's honestly good to hear that peace is coming."
  4520. > Gerber takes the radio back then, speaking into it:
  4521. > "Uh, so far supplies of food are our biggest problem. We've not expended much ammunition, and no medical supplies so far."
  4522. > "Understood. One last thing: I'm authorized to tell you that between eight-hundred and ten-hundred tomorrow, you'll want to keep yourselves buttoned down and eyes open."
  4523. "...convoy arriving?"
  4524. > "No. Just, be ready when it does."
  4525. > Well, that you find worrisome.
  4526. > The day passes without incident; as before, both ponies and humans are kept busy through work - in this case, shoveling out paths between the buildings.
  4527. > Night comes, and also passes easily.
  4528. > The following morning, however, you're awoken to the sound of distant thunder.
  4529.  
  4530. > It takes you a few moments to realize why that sound had woken you, but when it hits you sit up with a start.
  4531. > That wasn't thunder, but the sound of human bombs exploding - and a lot of them by the sound of it.
  4532. > Running to one of the few windows you hadn't covered over, you arrive just in time to see an aircraft scream low across the valley - several ethereal forms in close pursuit.
  4533. "...what's going on?!"
  4534. > "They're early!"
  4535. > Gerber's yelled response elicits a growl of frustration; of course that's what it was.
  4536. > Before you can respond, another aircraft sweeps through - this one trailing a pair of pods that erupt into thick, dense roiling clouds in mid-air.
  4537. > Moments later the clouds erupt into powerful explosions; even from this distance, you can feel the shockwave resonate in your chest.
  4538. > "Christ! Air force is trying to bomb them out or something!"
  4539.  
  4540. ACTION:
  4541. -  Remain where you are. Presumably they've been told not to attack your position.
  4542. - Light one of the fires just in case, to signal where you are.
  4543.  
  4544. "Gerber! Will they have been told about us?"
  4545. > "Almost certainly."
  4546. > No point in risking that certainty.
  4547. "Spark! Light up one of those pyres, make sure they see us!"
  4548. > "On it!"
  4549. > Spark doesn't hesitate; in a few moments he's grabbed a crude torch from a pile and lit it in one of the stoves you'd been using for heat.
  4550. > Dashing for the door with the flaming brand held in his magic, Spark heads straight for the nearest pyre.
  4551. > Even though some snow had settled on it since it'd been propped up,Spark had known what he was doing when he built it.
  4552. > The torch is jammed into a hollow near the center and soon the entire thing is blazing - sending up a thick pall of black smoke to boot.
  4553. > All the while, the explosions have continued in the distance - now accompanied by the off-tune wind-like howling you'd come to recognize as a sign of Windigos on the move.
  4554. "I think they stirred them up!"
  4555. > "They definitely did - activity, on the northern ridge!"
  4556. > Sure enough, a good twenty blue forms were waving back and forth - as if unsure of what to do.
  4557. > They're still doing that when an aircraft comes in low over the next line of mountains; in seconds, it's baring down close enough to attack.
  4558. > Yet, at the last second it peels off - circling around.
  4559. > Given how close the top of the ridge is - had they been worried about an attack injuring you?
  4560. > It seems to be the case, as the aircraft rolls from side to side.
  4561. > No less than three of the humans promptly emerge to wave back furiously.
  4562. > Circling about once more, the machine turns to depart - screaming back south, presumably towards safety.
  4563. "...that was a signal, I take it?"
  4564. > "Yeah. God damn, I wish they'd told us what frequency they were on - could have given them a bit of coordination!"
  4565. > It's a question that clings in your mind as well.
  4566. > The answer you come to is one that you don't like:
  4567. > While Warren might trust you, whoever had planned this attack obviously did not.
  4568. > Unfortunate.
  4569.  
  4570. > You'd gotten used to thinking-
  4571. > "Incoming! From the north, eight of them!"
  4572. > ...great.
  4573. > With he aircraft gone, the Windigos are apparently feeling free to move again.
  4574. > Just what you didn't need.
  4575.  
  4576. ACTION:
  4577. - Make a stand here; try and force them back with a combination of magic and you weapons.
  4578.  
  4579. "Gerber? I think we can hold them back - but hitting them back wouldn't go amiss either."
  4580. > "Buckowski! Tully! Get the SMAW!"
  4581. > Two soldiers all but dive for the building.
  4582. > Even as you wait for their return, you're already doing your own part:
  4583. > Voiced raised, you gallop back and forth - rounding up your ponies into a steady line.
  4584. "Earth ponies and pegasi, in the front! Unicorns, in the back - buddy up and watch their flanks. Be ready to light those fires if they get close. Guardsponies! This is it - this is what we've signed up for. This is what the Royal Guard does. We stand between Equestria and threats that would destroy it!"
  4585. > Even though they're probably still a good couple thousand feet out, you can already feel the chill racing ahead of the spirits like an oncoming tide - a forewarning of what they would bring.
  4586. > It only reinforces the need to bring your ponies' spirits up:
  4587. "So stand steady - and remember what you're fighting for. Remember your family, friends. Remember-"
  4588. > "Backblast area clear! Rocket!"
  4589. > It's hard to tell who is more surprised by the sudden blast of noise - you and your ponies, or the Windigos.
  4590. > But everyone's attention is drawn to the projectile that hurtles across the open field in under a second before erupting in an explosion that rattles your teeth even at this distance.
  4591. > Huge clouds of white smoke - no, snow stirred up by the explosion - rise into the air, taking a while to clear.
  4592. > As they fade, you're finally able to see again; the picture is not reassuring.
  4593. > While the Windigos are no longer charge, neither have they suffered the casualties a flesh-and-blood enemy would have taken from an explosion like that.
  4594. > Yet, neither are they unscathed.
  4595. > It's hard to tell at range, but some appear to be wavering, shimmering - as though still distorted by waves of rising heat.
  4596. > Wounded, perhaps - or the equivalent of?
  4597. > "Shot long, reload!"
  4598.  
  4599. > With that cry from Gerber, the battle seems to snap into focus again.
  4600. > Once more the Windigos resume their charge, minus two of their number.
  4601. > And again you plant your hooves into the snow and lower your head, as if ready to charge them right back.
  4602. "When they get near - if the unicorns' shields don't stop them - beat your wings with everything you have. We've got magic to move the weather too, and-"
  4603. > "Here they come!"
  4604. > Quickly they close - the cold becoming so sharp it is nearly burning.
  4605. "Shields, now!"
  4606. > Four fields of magical energy spring into existence, covered by your mixed group - or trying to, anyhow.
  4607.  
  4608. [Roll for effect trigger; result: Ice creeps; you're strong, but so are they; you manage to hold them off, but take casualties.]
  4609.  
  4610. > By the time they arrive, the cold is incredible.
  4611. > It practically seems like ice is forming on your coat, in between your feathers.
  4612. > Yet, as the Windigos enter the town - swarming over buildings and leaving them frost-covered in their wake - you feel something else building within you.
  4613. > A strength - a knowledge that this was not the end.
  4614. > Somehow, all the points in the past had been worse - facing the human armies outside of Las Pegasus, huddling in the Everfree as unknown things hunted you from above.
  4615. > This... this is not quite the same.
  4616. > This, you know you can win.
  4617. > Even as they bear down on you, the humans' weapons firing, perhaps out of fear or a desire to do something, you draw in a deep breath no matter the pain in your lungs -
  4618. > - and you scream.
  4619. "FOR EQUESTRIA!"
  4620. > It seems like something more than air rushes from your lips - something powerful, energetic.
  4621. > And as the scream is picked up by other ponies, even the Changelings' voices, the air itself almost seems to shimmer with energy.
  4622. > ...wait.
  4623. > To your shock, the air is actually shimmering - field utterly unrelated to the unicorns' magic, but absolutely present nonetheless.
  4624. > Before your eyes, the Windigos' charge grinds to a halt.
  4625. > Ethereal hooves scrap through snow and leave trails of shining ice, nostrils snort clouds of impossibly-cold vapor.
  4626. > But still they stop, eyes glaring at you in unimagineable hatred.
  4627. > You know what you have to do.
  4628. > "Pegasi - beat - beat with all your might. Everypony else, keep us steady and in place!"
  4629. > Even as you spread your wings, hooves wrap around your legs - Iri and Boulder seizing you to hold you down as the icy wind is caught in your wings.
  4630. > Despite the unimaginable struggle to do so, despite the burning pain in your muscles that it brings, you beat them once.
  4631. > Yet the effect is more than you'd imagined; subtle, slowly, the wind turns.
  4632.  
  4633. > A second beat, and it is definitely slowed; a third, and the Windigos realize what you are doing.
  4634. > Their struggles intensify - runners of ice seeming to skitter out along the snow-covered ground towards you.
  4635. > Yet even as they do, you find yourself beating harder, harder -
  4636. > A scream cuts through your focus; the ice had reached Byline and begun to crawl up one leg.
  4637. > Seconds later another joins it, one of the humans desperately bats at his own clothing, trying to clear the rapidly-forming ice from it.
  4638. > No, no - you've almost got this, almost pushed them back!
  4639. > You can't fail now - but neither can you stop the ice reaching along the ground, and-
  4640. > "Molotov, out!"
  4641. > Something goes arcing overhead, landing nearly at the Windigos' hooves.
  4642. > The firebombs don't explode immediately - but the bullets that slam into them moments later cause gouts of fire to reach into the air.
  4643. > Just as the ice had broken your concentration, so does the fire to the Windigos.
  4644. > Immediately their resistance falters; in moments your wingbeats are bringing air - not just warm air, but inexplicably warm air.
  4645. > Finally, with a frustrated, shrieking howl, the Windigos break - turning and departing, raising curtains of obscuring snow behind them as they race back up the hill.
  4646.  
  4647. ACTION:
  4648. - get hot pot and spark on bylines leg, be real careful with it, make sure of the difference between it being merely covered in ice or frozen in place. if its frozen have spark help melt it free and see if the human medic is around. if its just covered in ice, carefully free it. we also should be there for him, as commander.
  4649. - Bring the wounded inside and give them some Hot Pot soup. And whoever threw that molotov could use a pat on the back.
  4650. - Tending to the wounded and a small celebration seems in order. If there's enough food, maybe bump up everyones rations a little tonight.
  4651.  
  4652. > You watch the retreating cloud for a few seconds until it's fairly sure that they aren't coming back.
  4653. > All around you ponies are cheering and whooping, screaming out their victory.
  4654. > Several are patting yourself, Chilona, Dusk and Hot Pot on the back - well aware of the difficulty of what had been done.
  4655. > It's an exuberance you can only afford for so long; eventually you have to turn to your wounded.
  4656. > Several ponies are already crouched around him, judging by their low voices, you can't tell exactly what happened - but it doesn't sound good.
  4657. > When you force your way in, though, your heart leaps into your throat.
  4658. > The ice was already melting away under the unusually warm air, rivulets of water running down to the ground - but even now, it was already clear there is something wrong."
  4659. "Boulder, Hot Pot - what happened to him?"
  4660. > "It climbed up and just seemed to - cling to him. I think..."
  4661. > Hot Pot turns to you, worry in her eyes.
  4662. > "I think it went deep."
  4663. > Frostbite - you'd been trained how to avoid it, although Pegasi and their bat-wing cousins were somewhat more resistant to it.
  4664. > But this had seemed to go straight through the protective layers Byline had been wrapped in; worse yet, the ice appeared to have climbed to his chest before the Windigos were forced to retreat.
  4665. > If it went bad there...
  4666. "...get him inside, get him warmed up. Byline, can you hear me?"
  4667. > The stallion's gaze is unfocused and definitely not on you, but he manages to nod slightly.
  4668. "Okay. Listen, you're going to be okay - we're going to take care of you."
  4669. > Glancing around, you motion to Spark and Hot Pot.
  4670. "Look after him. Keep him warm, and tell me when he gets up again."
  4671. > "Understood, sir."
  4672. "Dusk, Whispen. Keep watch."
  4673. > With that you take one last look at the retreating cloud before following the others back into the reinforced dining hall.
  4674.  
  4675. > The humans have laid out their wounded on a table as well, and are scavenging blankets together to cover him with.
  4676. > Gerber is sat a fair distance away, checking his weapon over.
  4677. "...is he going to be okay?"
  4678. > "I don't know. That freeze went pretty deep on both legs. It might depend on how fast we can get him out of here."
  4679. > The way he's saying it, you rather suspect he already knows the answer - and it's not one he wants to face.
  4680. > "Was that the fires of friendship you were talking about? Whatever that was?"
  4681. "No. Not - not exactly, anyway. According to the story anyway, the fire consumed them totally... That was something close, I think; it definitely wasn't normal for us."
  4682. > "Well, I'll still take it. Threw them back well enough. Can you do it again?"
  4683. "I can't say for certain. It's not a machine - but, I definitely think we can."
  4684. > Shooting you a tired grin, Gerber nods.
  4685. > "I'd be more worried if you'd said yes instantly."
  4686. > The tone of the remaining evening is mixed - a battle had been one, but not without cost.
  4687. > Midway through dinner, Ornithea comes to your side and leans in.
  4688. > "Sir, I think I need to talk to you for just a moment."
  4689. "Go ahead?"
  4690. > "About how the Windigos reacted today - there's something I've been thinking about."
  4691. > She draws a breath before speaking rapidly all at once:
  4692. > "I don't think they were angry at us. There must have been - twenty, maybe thirty of them up there? But only eight came after us."
  4693. > Truthfully, you'd forgotten about that.
  4694. "A break-off raiding party or something?"
  4695. > "No, sir. I think - I think they were reevaluating us. They were content to wait us out before, but now..."
  4696. "Testing us?"
  4697. > "Maybe. I think they believe we called in the aircraft this morning, to come after them."
  4698. > It makes a certain amount of sense - without knowledge of how the humans worked.
  4699. > "The problem is, sir - now? Now they think we might be a threat."
  4700.  
  4701. ACTION:
  4702. - This is good and bad. Good, because it means the bombs did some damage, damage they did not expect. Bad because if we don't GTFO ASAP, we're gonna end up [dead and frozen]. We instead should be preparing for another assault, making Molotovs, maybe bullet bombs, scavenge things, prepare more fires and maybe request some CAS. Also find out an ETA on the convoy and see if byline and the human are OK. Study them, find out exactly what happened.
  4703. - This. Also, do we know if the Equestrian government can get a rescue team in any faster than the convoy? Even if it's just a chariot for the wounded, that would help a ton. Maybe just a small team or a princess that could be spared >(*cough cough*Cadance*cough cough*)
  4704.  
  4705. > Well.
  4706. > You aren't sure if you ought to be pleased that they're apparently taking you seriously, since it evidently meant you were making progress against them.
  4707. > Or annoyed that you aren't going to be able to simply wait out for the convoy's arrival.
  4708. > By the time you can get over to bring it to Gerber's attention, though, he's already doing what you'd have recommended first:
  4709. > The radio is already pulled out and set up - Gerber speaking through it:
  4710. > "Yes, I understand operational security, but isn't an air raid kind of an important thing to - well no, they didn't bomb close to us, but it certainly pissed off the Windigos, sir!"
  4711. > You're frowning; he'd never quite spoken like that before - and as the conversation goes on, a sneaking suspicion grows in your mind.
  4712. > By the time Gerber slams down the radio, it's grown into a near certainty:
  4713. "That wasn't Captain Warren, was it?"
  4714. > "No, it was not."
  4715. > Running a hand through his hair, Gerber slumps down again.
  4716. > "Some fucker I've never heard of, thought I didn't understand what operational security meant."
  4717. > Damn.
  4718. > You'd really wanted to speak to him.
  4719. "...okay, look. I don't know exactly how safe it is do go out there again, but we need to do something - it's quite likely that they'll come for us again soon enough."
  4720. > "Fucking great. Okay, what are you thinking?"
  4721. "More pyres. See if there's anything else we can burn - just something that might even slow them down. Fire definitely seems to distracted them, if not outright harm them."
  4722. > "Noted. I'll have to leave a guy to look after Coretta."
  4723. "I can get Hot Pot to do her part for him and Byline both. How bad is he?"
  4724. > "Same as yours, I think. That ice did something - went deep."
  4725. "Damn..."
  4726. > Gerber hesitates a moment, then looks down at you.
  4727. > "You're sounding a bit down."
  4728.  
  4729. "Just... in the legends, the fires of friendship saved ponies from the Windigos' cold. I know, legends - but they're pretty unanimous. Once the fires were lit, even ponies that had been consumed by it were protected."
  4730. > "You're feeling like you didn't do enough."
  4731. > Somehow, you hadn't wanted to use those words exactly, but...
  4732. "Yes."
  4733. > It hurts to even speak that one.
  4734. > "Not the only one who's feeling that way, trust me. We threw just about everything at them, and... nothing. Barely injured them, from a rocket that will take a building down."
  4735.  
  4736. ACTION:
  4737. - "Hey, if this was going to be easy they wouldnt have sent us. The first time we fought these guys we lost our homeland before we figured out how to beat them. Just by being able to bring the fight to them before they made their move on equestria is us already winning in my book. Now we have you humans and we even have some changelings, the fighting won't be easy but it will not be the same war that cost us our home. We were just attacked by a group of 8 windigo's and drove them off with only two cases of bad frostbite, if you had told me that was possible a month ago i would never have believed you. This probably isn't the type of war your people is used to fighting, so take it from me when i say we certainly accomplished something, even if it wasn't everything.
  4738.  
  4739. "...well, I guess if they expected this to be easy they wouldn't have sent us."
  4740. > "Got that right - one drone, in and out. No, they sent you guys along just because it was probably going to be hard."
  4741. "Yeah... and, honestly - I don't mean to say we're going to lose more, but this is a massive success compared to the last time we fought them."
  4742. > Gerber looks down at you in surprise.
  4743. > "You're serious?"
  4744. "Well, we lost our homeland,before we figured out how to stop them then. This time - even though it cost us - we turned them back. And, I mean, look at us..."
  4745. > He does - head turning to look out over the group gathered in the hall.
  4746. > Two bundled forms, one human one pony - and also being treated by the same; Hot Pot darts through the air while Luka circles the table they're laid out on.
  4747. > Even one of the changelings is hovering about.
  4748. > Feeding off their feelings for their wounded comrades, or honestly caring?
  4749. > It's hard for you to tell.
  4750. "Look at this. We've come together faster than they did, and it shows. Look at it this way: We took on eight of them, and came away with two wounded. If you'd told me that a month or two ago, I'd have said you're crazy."
  4751. > "...I'd have been crazy, too. A month ago I'd never even seen a Windigo, much less thought about how to kill one."
  4752. > Neither had you, to be honest.
  4753. > You'd sort of assumed that once they were recognized as a threat, they'd just sort of be... driven back.
  4754. > Never had you imagined having to face them down.
  4755. "...yeah. Well, look - point is, we're doing. It's not what you're used to in war, and it really isn't for us either. But we're fighting still, and we're not losing."
  4756. > "Suppose so."
  4757. > The night proves to be unpleasant.
  4758. > As soon as you try and lay your head down, as if on a switch the Windigos spring up their howling.
  4759. > At first all prepare for another assault - but the Changelings report nothing abnormal.
  4760. > They aren't preparing for an assault, merely trying to wear all of you down.
  4761.  
  4762. > Ouside, the wind rises - blowing snow into clouds that again reduce vision to nearly nothing.
  4763. > Though the building shudders and groans, the reinforcing you'd added holds.
  4764. > It's just enough reassurance to eventually lay your head down.
  4765. > Come the following morning, the weather is no less irritable; despite that it has clearly risen, the sun's meager light seems significantly dimmed.
  4766. > Fortunately, however, this day does come with one benefit:
  4767. > You're able to reach Warren.
  4768. > His voice is scratchy and even more tinny than before, but he's able to get through to you:
  4769. > "We're pushing that convoy as hard as we can, but you aren't the only ones being hit by this weather. They're mad about the air raids, too - we tried another one last night and they brought two of the aircraft down."
  4770. > "Copy that, sir. We'll hold on as long as possible."
  4771. > Gerber pauses, then adds in a quieter voice:
  4772. > "Our wounded's chances may entirely depend on our ability to get out of here, though."
  4773. > "I understand, Staff Sergeant. And I'm pushing for anything I can send your way, but... there are other problems."
  4774. "What kind of other problems?"
  4775. > "The Windigos - they're not just moving south anymore. We think they're trying to cut off one or two of your cities now."
  4776. > It makes sense:
  4777. > If they could subsume significant numbers of ponies in hatred, it would feed back and empower them.
  4778. > An unfortunate degree of strategic thinking from the Windigos.
  4779. > "We do have some good news. Uh, your suggestion is definitely moving along - we're now in discussions regarding a ceasefire to allow the Princesses and Royal Guard to conduct an operation against the Windigos. It will probably take place within twenty-four to forty-eight hours,"
  4780. "Any chance they could come to pick us up?"
  4781. > "I don't believe that will be authorized at this time."
  4782.  
  4783. ACTION:
  4784. - Did those aircraft crash nearby? Any chance for survivors?
  4785. - Tell him to remind the guys in charge that your entire fucking team will die before the convoy is within 50 miles. The windigos will just keep repeating attacks like that until no one can fight anymore. If there will be ponies who can help getting close enough, it might just save your squad, and THEIR precious recon team. Getting them the care they need as quickly as possible might just save some lives (Plus, extra harmony points) the convoy could always head back, or be given another objective or place to help out. Humans and pones getting along will determine the fate of Equestria (maybe even Earth, too)
  4786.  
  4787. "...Captain, I don't mean to question your judgement, but - if it's a choice between dying and meeting up with them, isn't the choice obvious?"
  4788. > "Trust me, I understand - the problem is it's not an end to the war. This is coming down from above me - you're to be recovered by our forces."
  4789. > It's hard to believe what you're hearing.
  4790. > Even Gerber seems to be rather surprised by the decision.
  4791. > "Sir, if we can't pull out of here - it's going to get bad. We're pretty far beyond their territory here - what if the relief unit can't arrive in time?"
  4792. > There's a long silence before Warren responds:
  4793. > "...okay, listen. Here's the deal: Whatever those things do to your mind, it's not just affecting ponies anymore."
  4794. > A pall descends over both of you as he goes on:
  4795. > "We've got the equivalent of a battalion-sized unit making unplanned maneuvers, and are heavily concerned that any unit able to reach you in time would be... affected by the time they do."
  4796. "Then wouldn't it make sense to let the Princesses come for us? They could resist more than anypony-"
  4797. > "I believe you. Command does not trust them, however."
  4798. > You let out a low, furious growl - enough to be heard, evidently, as Warren sighs.
  4799. > "Trust me, I understand you. Current plan is to launch an aerial recovery as soon as the princess' operation begins. They believe the fast response time will allow you to be pulled out before they are affected, and the operation will divert most force away from you."
  4800. > That plan worries you - for a number of reasons - but it's evidently not something you can fight for.
  4801. "...alright. If you can send anything - anything at all - our way, it would be heavily appreciated."
  4802. > "Understood."
  4803. > "Ah, Captain. Those jets that went down - were they nearby us at all?"
  4804.  
  4805. > "Uh, negative - looks like, around six-four miles. Too far for attempts on foot; we're try for SAR now, but bad weather is extremely hampering."
  4806. > "Copy that, Captain. We'll hold out as long as we can."
  4807.  
  4808. ACTION:
  4809. - those pilots are probably dead anyway, its not like the windigos would just ignore them after they eject. beauracracy is hampering things, but having a princess recover a joint pony/human squad and turn them back over would go a long way to ending tensions. is there any way we can circumvent this nonsense and make the decision ourselves?
  4810. - Do we still not have an eta for the convoy or have I been missing something?
  4811.  
  4812. "...Captain, can we assume that convoy you were sending is no longer coming?"
  4813. > "They are currently holding just beyond the worst of the weather. As soon as there's any chance, I'll try and push them up towards you."
  4814. "Please. Because, if your attack-aircraft are being taken down - well, honestly, I don't think our 'rescue' is getting through."
  4815. > "I'll do what I can."
  4816. > This time, the sound is just clear enough for you to hear something else.
  4817. > Pain - maybe even a hint of desperation - in Warren's voice.
  4818. > He's not liking this any more than you are... and it's probably unfair to yell at him about it.
  4819. > But still...
  4820. "Please. If we can't do anything else, we'll -have- to try and reach the princesses. I think I can keep your soldiers safe if it comes to that - especially if there's a ceasefire, as you say."
  4821. > It's a few moments of silence before Warren responds:
  4822. > "Alright. I'll trust you on that... you'd better keep them safe."
  4823. "You kept me and my ponies safe, Captain. I'll do everything I can to repay that favor."
  4824. > "Got it. Staff Sergeant, if there's no other way and you feel it's a reasonable choice - you have my permission to go with them."
  4825. > "...understood, sir."
  4826. > After the call ends, silence holds between the two of you for a few moments.
  4827. > In the end, Gerber gives a heavy sigh.
  4828. > "I hope you know what you're doing."
  4829. "I do. Warren fought for our safety - pulled us out of a situation that would have ended badly for us."
  4830. > "I hear you."
  4831. > Standing, you turn and head for the wounded.
  4832. > They'd been moved to proper beds the previous night, though Hot Pot was still watching closely over both of them.
  4833. > She looks up as you arrive, nodding.
  4834. "How are they?"
  4835. > Byline is running a fever. Some sort of infection, I think."
  4836. > Frowning heavily, you move to Byline's side.
  4837. > As she'd said, the stallion is heated - his horn occasionally sparking fitfully as he breathes shallowly.
  4838. "...Byline. Are you okay?"
  4839. > "I've... been better."
  4840.  
  4841. > His voice is pained; clearly breathing too deeply is troublesome.
  4842. > "Any... news?"
  4843. "Hey. I just got done talking to Warren. He says there's going to be a ceasefire."
  4844. > Eyes painfully sliding open, Byline gives you a look - though it's somewhat disrupted by the fact that his eyes are unfocused and hazy.
  4845. > "Coming... to get us?"
  4846.  
  4847. ACTION:
  4848. - We'll all be getting out of here. He only needs to rest and think of happy times.
  4849. - "Long story short, yes." If he pushes further, explain everything. Also ask about the injured human, hows he doing?
  4850. - Ask the Changeling about using a pod [to protect the injured]
  4851.  
  4852. "We'll all be getting out of here. You just need to rest, be strong, and focus on keeping your strength up."
  4853. > "Not... what I asked."
  4854. > So much for trying to slip something by him.
  4855. > Even if he was in the throes of fever, his mind was still sharp enough to notice a dodged answer.
  4856. "...the humans are planning to send in an aircraft while a ceasefire is called with Equestria. They're going to try and both focus on driving back the Windigos."
  4857. > Byline seems to attempt an answer, but instead goes into a coughing fit.
  4858. > It's a heavy, watery sound you don't like one bit.
  4859. "We're also seeing if we can bring the princesses themselves here. It might be our only hope, if they can reach us."
  4860. > That does give Byline pause for thought - his unfocused eyes stare into nothing, but you can hear the thoughts bouncing around in his head.
  4861. > "...ma'flar...
  4862. "...huh?"
  4863. > "Magic... flare. Use... use our horns. Have to get us up high... can be seen farther."
  4864. > A magic signal flare?
  4865. > Normally they wouldn't show up too well in this terrain, but if you were moved higher and all worked together, pooling your power...
  4866. > Maybe you'd have a chance.
  4867. "Alright. Rest now, Byline... it's okay."
  4868. > "Would rest better... if this bed wasn't so hard."
  4869. > Despite the apparent flippancy of his comment, you're actually pleased:
  4870. > He couldn't be feeling that awful if there was enough left in him to complain about that.
  4871. > Moving down to the next bed, you check on the human - Coretta?
  4872. > Apparently in rather better shape that Byline, he still looks quite shaken - his face somewhat pale and arms wrapped tightly around himself, as if still chilled.
  4873. "Hey. You doing alright?"
  4874. > "Well - I can't feel too much of my God-damn legs. I know, you're not supposed to move them to much... but it feels wrong. I keep having to check everything's still there."
  4875. > Nodding sympathetically, you grimace.
  4876.  
  4877. "Well, just hang in there. There's a plan to try and recover us in the next few days."
  4878. > "Seriously? What happened to waiting?"
  4879. > Hesitation halts you for just long enough for him to notice.
  4880. "It's getting bad out there, apparently. They're going to do a big offensive, and we're going to be picked up in it."
  4881. > "Well, how about that. Brass actually cares for once - maybe I'll get to keep my legs after all."
  4882. > There's a bitter, sarcastic note that even manages to make you wince.
  4883. "Just... hang on. We'll all be safe soon."
  4884. > Turning away, you head back to the others.
  4885. > For some reasons, Byline's last comment keeps ringing in your head - a better bed, he'd wanted.
  4886. > A better bed...
  4887. > Gaze drifting off into oblivion, you suddenly find yourself looking at one of the changelings.
  4888. > ...a bed!
  4889. "Iri! Spheci!"
  4890. > "Yes, sir?"
  4891. > "What is it?"
  4892. "Your cocoons - I know you can keep a pony alive in there. But, does it actually treat injuries, infections?"
  4893. > Their eyes go wide as they realize what you meant.
  4894. > "This... could work. They do not heal, no - not like a doctor. But they do nourish and protect. It may help, yes."
  4895. "Can you do it, Iri?"
  4896. > "It will cost us, magically and physically. We will be diminished, for a day or so - but we can make two cocoons, yes."
  4897.  
  4898. ACTION:
  4899. - Ask Byline and Corrette. If they agree, then cocoon them up. Otherwise, let them stay.
  4900.  
  4901. "...alright. Let me see if they're okay with it."
  4902. > It turns out that both - after considerable consideration - are okay with it.
  4903. > Byline actually takes rather longer to take that course of decision, which surprises you.
  4904. > When asked, Coretta just laughs:
  4905. > "I've seen plenty of strange things since coming here. I trust you, though - you say it works, I believe it."
  4906. > Byline, however, manages to shudder softly even in his weakened state:
  4907. > "I've heard to many things about ponies going in there..."
  4908. > By the time both are ready, the changelings have been quite busy.
  4909. > You aren't quite sure what constructing a cocoon involves, but judging from the noises - noises which sound distinctly like vomiting - coming from the back room, you aren't sure you want to know.
  4910. > Bringing the two injured in proves to be difficult without jostling their injuries, but in time they're moved back to the storeroom - well out of any of the entrances, and hopefully more protected if it comes to another fight.
  4911. > Moving them into the cocoons is more difficult.
  4912. > Not in the least for you because, despite all the trust that had been built, your stomach still does a small flip at the sight of them.
  4913. > But it is done too, and the changelings begin working together to seal them up inside.
  4914. > "We'll be sure to check on you - to make sure things aren't getting too bad."
  4915. > "Better not..."
  4916. > Byline barely rasps out the words.
  4917. > Just as the cocoon was to be closed over his head, however, the stallion's eyes suddenly snap to you.
  4918. > "Got.. to say something... before."
  4919. "I'm listening."
  4920. > Again his mouth opens, but this time only a harsh coughing fit is expelled.
  4921. > When it is done, you lean in closer so that he doesn't need to raise his voice so much.
  4922. > It's necessary; with the incessant background howling of the wind, his scratchy voice is barely audible to even you.
  4923.  
  4924. > "Got to tell someone, if I can't later. Back... going to Easthock. On... on the road. Called... called Dusk and Chilona..."
  4925. > He tries to speak the word, but it doesn't come out.
  4926. > You well remember the incident, though.
  4927. > Freaks, someone had called them.
  4928. "I remember, Byline."
  4929. > "...wrong. Should have said... it was wrong. Knew... was just angry. Maybe... if I'd said... said it was, Copper wouldn't have felt he could..."
  4930. "Byline, he was... insane. He was going to-"
  4931. > "I.. spoke first. Thought... he was with others who felt.. same. Should have said not... should have said something."
  4932. "...it's not your fault, Byline."
  4933. > You put a hoof on the edge of the cocoon, since you can't do the same for him.
  4934. > "...you say. I don't... tell them. You, tell them. Sorry..."
  4935. > And then Byline lays back, his eyes closed but still breathing steadily - evidently having said his piece.
  4936. > Stepping back, you nod to the changelings wordlessly; they move in and finish closing the cocoon.
  4937. > Leaving you with a conundrum.
  4938. > Do you pass on the story, as he'd asked?
  4939.  
  4940. ACTION:
  4941. - Consult Whispen.
  4942.  
  4943. > ...probably best to talk to Whispen about this.
  4944. > She's found in a corner, carefully keeping an eye out one of the few window sections you hadn't covered over.
  4945. > Not her time on watch, but everypony needs to be doing something to keep themselves busy - and this seems to be the best of it.
  4946. >
  4947. "Hey. Can I talk for a bit?"
  4948. > Evidently something in your tone of voice was worrisome, as Whispen immediately drags her eye away from the scene outside to focus on you.
  4949. > "What is it?"
  4950. "Byline just told me something. I wanted to get your opinion on it before I go telling anypony."
  4951. > By the time you're done explaining the situation, Whispen's face has gone from grim to dark.
  4952. > "Argh - that idiot! He should have told them himself long ago..."
  4953. > Taking a moment to compose herself, Whispen considers before speaking softly:
  4954. > "But, even though you didn't... I think you should. Byline was obviously feeling pretty bad about this - Celestia knows how he managed to keep it bottled up like that - and he obviously knew better. It's not something they should hate him for."
  4955. "I suppose. But even a little bit of anger, right now..."
  4956. > "Sir..."
  4957. > Turning to face you fully, Whispen gives a small smile.
  4958. > "I know you like to think about that - but Dusk and Chilona are big ponies. Byline was just as disgusted with Copper Cog as the rest of us, and he looked after them when they were hurt too. They'll understand."
  4959. > With that bit of advice in mind, you gather the two Night Guard up.
  4960. > The kitchen is relatively quiet, allowing you to sit and face them.
  4961. "...okay, look, there's no real easy way to say this, so I'm going to be blunt about it: Byline asked me to pass on something to you before, uh... cocooned him."
  4962. > Both sit silently - ears forward, attentive, listening to your words.
  4963. "Back when we were heading into Easthock, there was an... incident on the road. For a l was thinking it was Copper, but... Byline says that he was responsible for that little thing. Now - "
  4964.  
  4965. > Quickly you raise your voice, as both had started to respond.
  4966. "-before anypony says anything, let me make something clear: I don't think this was anything he was proud of. In fact, I think he was going to beat himself up over it for a fair bit longer, if he let himself. He thought that Copper Cog might have attacked you because he assumed he would be backed up by other ponies. Byline felt he should have spoken up sooner and admitted he was... wrong."
  4967. > "Sir, uh... we knew."
  4968. > Your mind comes to a screeching halt.
  4969. "...huh?"
  4970. > Yep, that's you.
  4971. > Eloquence incarnate.
  4972. > Chilona just gives a little, low grin.
  4973. > "Hello? Talent for hearing things, here? I knew it was him. I told Dusk later on."
  4974. "...I hope there isn't any-"
  4975. > "Look - after what we've been though - both been through - we know the difference between somepony just saying a few words, and somepony meaning it. Byline wasn't a bad pony - ego the size of Manehattan, but not a bad pony."
  4976. > Dusk nods, adding:
  4977. > "Yeah. And, to be honest - if you knew what to look for, it was pretty obvious he was kicking himself over it."
  4978. "So, no hard feelings?"
  4979. > Chilona snorts softly.
  4980. > "Still going to buck him if he gets out of this alive. But for being too dumb to tell us, not for saying it in the first place."
  4981. > There's a certain familiar caring in her words, the kind of fondness that builds up between ponies who've been through that much together.
  4982. > You nod, knowing there won't really be a problem.
  4983. "Alright. Then let's get back on watch, and be careful. Celestia knows, the WIndigos aren't going to be any easier on us for being down two."
  4984. > That day proves to be nothing more than sheer tedium.
  4985. > Nopony, human, or changeling dares to venture outside after the last encounter.
  4986. > Instead you're left keep to careful eyes out.
  4987.  
  4988. > At some point, someone suggests breaking out a pack of cards.
  4989. > It seems strange to be playing a game when there pressure is on so hard from outside, but the need to relieve it somehow is becoming an overwhelming urge.
  4990. > The choice proves to be a good one.
  4991. > By midway through the day, you're the one teaching them Equestrian card-games.
  4992. > And by evening, you gain an unexpectedly welcome update:
  4993. > Warren's voice comes through with a low hiss, but it actually sounds better than it had in previous conversations.
  4994. > Perhaps he's closer now?
  4995. > "Listen up. The princesses are going to begin their offensive within thirty-six hours. We expect it to begin some time around dawn two days from now - uh, call that oh-six-hundred or so."
  4996. "We hear you, Captain."
  4997. > "Good. I've been cleared to transmit a whole bunch of new information, so hold on..."
  4998. > A few moments of tenuous silence pass before he continues:
  4999. > "Got it. Listen up, here's the deal: We now have the equivalent of roughly two battalions moving on the Crystal Empire, in poor weather and intermittent radio contact."
  5000. > Gerber looks up from his map, a confused look on his face.
  5001. > "Why the Crystal Empire, Captain? That's well beyond our front lines."
  5002. > "What contact we have suggests they're cut off by the worst of the weather and believe it will offer safe haven."
  5003. "They're trying to drive them into the Crystal Empire. It's... a beacon, that affects all of Equestria - spreading warmth and love. The Windigos would have trouble quashing it themselves, but your troops..."
  5004. > "Copy that - we've come to the same conclusion. We expect there will be some excuse to begin an assault as soon as they arrive."
  5005. > The idea sends a shudder through your body.
  5006. > While you'd not seen the Crystal Empire personally, you'd heard enough tales - and the idea of what their weapons would do, shattering the crystals and turning the shards into further deadly shrapnel...
  5007.  
  5008. > "For that reason, we've agreed to allow the Princesses to begin their counter-attack from the Crystal Empire. They claim that by reinforcing its effects, they can drive back the Windigos. Simultaneously, there will be a push to contact our units and halt their advance, alongside an air and artillery campaign to break up what Windigo concentrations we can."
  5009. > Gerber whistles softly, shaking his head - and you have to agree.
  5010. > Their deadliest weapons so far had barely managed to disrupt the Windigos - perhaps injure some, but not inflict anything close to the slaughter they had on the Royal Guard.
  5011. > And this...
  5012. "So, we'll be pulled out during this?"
  5013. > "Affirmative. Air extraction will take place during this. If that is not possible, the Crystal Empire should be within visual range at altitude, and the Equestrian government has confirmed they will be pursuing the Windigos into the north."
  5014. > The unspoken suggestion - the words he cannot say - are evident enough.
  5015. > If they do come north, and you cannot be pulled out by other means - go.
  5016.  
  5017. ACTION:
  5018. - And if the rogue troops don't stop? What if the counter offensive fails all together?
  5019.  
  5020. "Captain... I don't mean to suggest the worst, but - what happens if things don't go according to plan? What if your troops don't stop?"
  5021. > When Warren does respond, it's with a heavy voice.
  5022. > "Then - I don't think it's a stretch to say that things are going to get very, very ugly. Our forces will be disobeying a stated order, and the princesses will be in the Crystal Empire."
  5023. > It's a kind of pained resignation, and you understood.
  5024. > The feeling was one you'd known in this conflict as well:
  5025. > Not a chosen sacrifice, but a feeling that he simply wouldn't be able to do anything - even if he could give orders - that would save those lives.
  5026. "...I understand."
  5027. > "I will do my absolute best to see you out of there safely, though. When the attack begins, we will be in immediate contact throughout the operation."
  5028. "We'll be looking forward to hearing from you."
  5029. > You can honestly say it without reservation.
  5030. > At this point, contact from Warren ranked somewhere just beneath having Princess Celestia descend on you in all her glory to protect you.
  5031. > If he was promising you an extraction, you were fairly certain he'd be able to come through on it.
  5032. > After all, he'd pulled you out of Las Pegasus, hadn't he?
  5033. "Okay... two nights more. I think we can hold out on that."
  5034. > "Understood. I will contact you when the operation begins."
  5035. > Two nights.
  5036. > The first passes in relative peace - or what counts as such up here.
  5037. > By the second day, however, it's clear the Windigos are on the move once again.
  5038. > Of the twelve pyres you'd put together all around the camp, you're forced to light three to keep the Windigos at bay.
  5039. > A testament to Spark's skill and ingenuity, all burn bright and hot despite the snow that had come to lightly cover them - the interior kept dry and ready for the torch lodged in each.
  5040. > But with nine pyres left and a night left to go, you're faced with a dilemma.
  5041.  
  5042. > Lighting them now would certainly keep any Windigo intrusions at bay for now... but also leave you at risk of a new assault when the operation begins.
  5043. > And it's a sure bet the Windigos won't sit still once they realize what's happening; having a defense then might be to your advantage.
  5044. > Neither would being up all night to watch for intruders - or facing them in the pitch-black - be good for you, though.
  5045.  
  5046. ACTION:
  5047. - Keep the pyres lit throughout the night, allowing you to rest up.
  5048.  
  5049. > It's decided that being rested is more important than anything else.
  5050. > After all, you still have the majority of the firebombs and a few of the humans' rockets left for tomorrow.
  5051. > When you light the first two, an anguished, furious howl rises from the surrounding peaks.
  5052. > Evidently the Windigos were less than pleased that you'd held back a way to keep them out.
  5053. > In apparent response, they settle for sending bursts of icy air down along the slopes and through the town.
  5054. > As they rise the dining hall groans and creaks - but the reinforcements you'd built in hold steady against the wind.
  5055. > Not so for the other structures in the town; at one point in the night you would awaken to the crashing noise of another building imploding under the combined weight of unremoved snow and fierce winds.
  5056. > While you'd worried about the state of the pyres, keeping them lit proves to be no problem at all.
  5057. > Indeed, the winds only seem to stoke the fires to even greater temperatures.
  5058. > Safely back indoors, you cock an ear to listen incessant noise before looking around and offering a grin to the mixed group before you.
  5059. "Well. Tomorrow, we get to have a fair bit of fun. Tomorrow we'll stand and fight them back - and one way or another, we'll be going home."
  5060. > "We got you, little man."
  5061. > Haagensen raises a hand in a loose salute.
  5062. > "Backing you every step there."
  5063. "You know we may very well have to end up going to the princesses..."
  5064. > Spheci stirs after a moment, speaking quietly:
  5065. > "Way I see it - if they are going to be fighting these things with love and friendship against hatred? It's probably a safe bet for us to go to them. They can't hurt us - not without hurting themselves."
  5066. > There's a certain cold logic there, you have to admit.
  5067. > Gerber offers a far simpler, more reassuring response:
  5068. > "There are more of you than there are of us. And while I don't know about the princesses, I expect you'll stand up for us if it comes to that."
  5069.  
  5070. > Chilona gives a toothy smile.
  5071. > "We will. Your Captain stood up for us. We will do the same for you. Their highenesses are not blind or dumb."
  5072. "Agreed. We'll repay what you gave us."
  5073. > Hot Pot is unexpectedly the next to speak up:
  5074. > "I... have to admit, I've sort of been holding out on you all. I found something, when we were all searching. I wanted to save it for when we got home, but since tomorrow will be tough..."
  5075. > Slipping away, she returns with no less than five heavy glass balanced across her back.
  5076. > Inside sits a golden-orange sauce; when the tops are unsealed and removed, the room quickly fills with a sweet, yet slightly spicy scent.
  5077. > "These are genuine Apple family jam preserves. I guarantee you won't ever taste anything that can compare."
  5078. > When bowls have been procured and the plunder divided out, one of the soldiers whistles softly at the first taste.
  5079. > "And where did you find these, exactly?"
  5080. > "Tucked away in the corner of the basement of one of the buildings that we searched. Probably someone's private store."
  5081. > "I don't suppose there are any more..."
  5082. > "Unfortunately not, so enjoy it while you can."
  5083. "Well, then..."
  5084. > Pausing, you hook a hoof around a heavy spoonful of the sauce and lift it into the air.
  5085. "...to whoever left these for us to buoy our spirits. If you are still out there somewhere - we owe you a big one. If not - you won't go unforgotten."
  5086. > A hefty degree of cheers meets your proclamation, even from the changelings.
  5087. > Evidently the product is so good even they have found enjoyment in it.
  5088. > Later, when the lights have been dimmed to a handful of low glows from where a soldier and three ponies stand watch, you lay in bed quietly and listen to the gusts of wind pounding against the walls and roof.
  5089. > No longer did you fear them - the building would hold.
  5090. > In fact, the repetitive, regular sound had become even comforting.
  5091. > Each blast was one less until you could leave - like ticking of a clock, counting down.
  5092.  
  5093. > Unexpectedly the bed shifts beside you, a warm form coming to rest against your side.
  5094. > Nostrils flaring, you take in her familiar, comforting scent.
  5095. > Any other night you'd be upset with Whispen for doing this in the open, but tonight...
  5096. "Hoping to eke out a bit more of our 'harmony', hmmm?"
  5097. > A muffled giggle issues from directly beside your ear in response to your whispered question.
  5098. > "Or just hoping for a little bit more warmth."
  5099. "Shut up. There's a stove lit if that's all you're looking for."
  5100. > Another stifled laugh at your teasing suggestion, and Whispen lays her head across the back of your neck.
  5101. > "Oh, alright. I'm sorry. Requesting permission to stay in place, 'sir'?"
  5102. "As if I could deny."
  5103. > At that, you allow your eyes to slide shut.
  5104. > Yet, something troubling still flickers through your mind.
  5105. > Tomorrow...
  5106. > It was... entirely possible not everypony would make it.
  5107. > And if - you can barely stand to imagine this, but - if she did not, would you not want to take that next step?
  5108. > There was no doubt in your mind that this was the mare you would want to stay with.
  5109. > But - how to say it?
  5110. > Is this even the right time?
hie royal guard rgs

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