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Shape Your Home, Part 6

By Ponegreen
Created: 2022-11-24 22:56:17
Updated: 2024-04-13 19:34:05
Expiry: Never

  1. Prompt: #deca CPU pony wAIfu green, for /mlp/'s /nmp/ (Part Six Ongoing)
  2.  
  3. 145
  4.  
  5. >Day 1, Addendum
  6.  
  7. >Upon gathering with the rest of the squad after your first actual sighting of Lush Field, Sky Squall, Luna, and you learn that several of the other teams have found clues which coincide with yours.
  8. >Even though it was practically apparent at first glance, you as a team are now absolutely certain that the attack on the hamlet was not only deliberate, but also executed with a certain course of action.
  9. >Someone planned to go for the houses here.
  10. >Granted, the approach does not appear to be overly complex or subtle.
  11. >Far from it, actually.
  12. >Though it was undoubtedly still very effective.
  13. >Of course, this is nothing new for you.
  14. >Yet it is a wholly different situation for the ponies around you.
  15. >And not one that they are really happy with either.
  16. >Even more so now than before, in fact, as they now have seen the aftermath of that event with their own eyes.
  17. >And specifically, what their opponent is capable of.
  18. >Which is a highly unsettling notion for most of your squad mates.
  19. >But before any notable uncertainty can spread in the ranks, especially amongst the rookie volunteering Pegasi, both Sky Squall and Princess Luna take action.
  20. >They point out that they can use all the small bits of information to their advantage.
  21. >And the princess, determined to lead by example, does exactly that.
  22. >She meticulously gathers all the intel that the entire squad can provide, and attempts to thoroughly reconstruct the happenings of the attack, based on what your teams have reported.
  23. >Luna looks for recognisable patterns by comparing the conditions of the individual houses, takes a few educated guesses on the possible number of involved attackers, and even tries to retrace the exact order in which the houses were attacked.
  24. >Most of the ponies around her only see the superficial part of Luna's strategy at first, but you understand what she is doing.
  25. >Luna does not simply want to analyse the attack itself.
  26. >She wants to get a first mental grasp on the mindscape of the attackers.
  27. >To get an insight into how they might think and act, even without being able to interact with them directly.
  28. >After all, if there is one pony who can understand the subliminal processes within someone's psyche, it is her.
  29. >And once she has understood this crucial point, she may also be able to predict the next steps of the attackers.
  30. >Provided their perception of the world operates in at least tangentially comparable terms.
  31. >Fortunately for Luna and her approach, #deca.mare and you made sure that ponies and dragons, and most of the other major resident species in Equestria for that matter, can communicate with each other on an even level.
  32. >If they decide to do so, that is.
  33. >So you are not at all surprised that Luna manages to present her first theory in record speed.
  34. >She believes, with a fair degree of certainty, that this attack was merely a test.
  35.  
  36.  
  37.  
  38.  
  39. >A test for the attackers to measure their own strength, and to probe how the ponies would react to this attack.
  40. >And, most importantly, to see if the ponies can defend themselves.
  41. >Princess Luna bases this supposition on the most likely order of the strikes against the houses and fields.
  42. >Because she is convinced that the fields around the hamlet were burned first.
  43. >And when the assailants noticed that there was no measurable pushback, they proceeded to aim for the houses next.
  44. >With ever growing confidence and recklessness.
  45. >Apparently, more to make a statement of power than anything else, as nothing was stolen and no pony attacked directly.
  46. >For now.
  47. >Thus, Luna concludes two things.
  48. >One, the attackers have almost certainly deemed this ambush to be a resounding success.
  49. >And two, they may become even bolder if they decide to attack ponies again.
  50. >Which might mean more severe casualties in the future.
  51. >This is, of course, unacceptable in Luna's eyes.
  52. >So she wants to demonstrate how spiky ponies can be if they need to.
  53. >Preferably to make their opponents think twice before they consider another strike against a pony settlement.
  54. >But in order to achieve this, you have to find them first.
  55. >And Luna comes up with a plan to do just that.
  56. >Taking her own Lush Field test run theory into consideration, Luna is almost certain that the still nebulous attackers tested their abilities in uninhabited regions first.
  57. >Possibly to learn how to control them before they tried to go for more daring targets.
  58. >If that is the case, you may be able to find some further traces in the more remote areas of the adjacent plains or forests.
  59. >Provided that such clues can be found, your group may actually be able to read the movements of your opponents.
  60. >Best case scenario, according to Luna's vision, you might even find, identify, and confront them in the process.
  61. >The rest of the ponies agree to this idea as well, after only a short moment of common contemplation.
  62. >And mere seconds thereafter, most of their former concerns apparently vanish too.
  63. >It seems as if Luna's calm and methodical approach has worked wonders on the mental fortitude of the Pegasi.
  64. >You for your part are sure that the performance of her usually reserved behaviour helped her a lot to pull this off.
  65. >For her demeanour makes Luna appear as a distant and somewhat aloof, yet also unquestionably competent authority figure in the eyes of the ponies.
  66. >With very little additional effort of her own on top of that.
  67. >Anyway, your team prepares to quickly move out again, and informs the other Pegasi plus the backup group about the changes in the plan on short notice.
  68. >Time is an essential factor in Luna's opinion, as no one knows for sure how mobile and fast your targets are.
  69. >Especially since they appear to be airborne as well.
  70. >The holes in the rooftops of Lush Field imply this quite strongly, after all.
  71. >And well, she is right about that.
  72.  
  73.  
  74.  
  75.  
  76. >Yet as it turns out, Princess Luna is also proven to be correct in regard to the other test sites.
  77. >Because some of the scouting Pegasi eventually find a couple of scorched patches in the woods.
  78. >However, you ensure that you are not even close to one of those sites at the time of their discovery.
  79. >Simply to partially leave the spotlight to someone else in this situation.
  80. >It is the best way for you to keep a low profile for a while.
  81. >And upon a brief initial inspection, it is obvious that these places were chosen because they are the complete opposite of Lush Field.
  82. >Remote and isolated locations, with no imminent value to anyone except for the local flora and fauna.
  83. >No one is likely to be around these parts under normal circumstances.
  84. >Princess Luna interprets this as a confirmation of her considerations.
  85. >Once again, she sends your teams out to gather as many hints about the mysterious attackers as possible.
  86. >You follow her instructions, and report back to the princess as soon as you are done.
  87. >Then she wastes no time in turn.
  88. >Princess Luna combines the new insights that your teams brought to light with the ones she is already aware of, and uses her magically apt perception to come up with the most likely scenarios of what might have happened at these places.
  89. >And by consulting the entire Pegasus team at the same time, due to the considerable flight experiences shared amongst its members, you all work together to consider which plausible movement patterns could be derived from these findings.
  90. >After this extensive common effort, your team splits up in smaller groups again to cover a wider area in less time, just as you did in Lush Field.
  91. >With this, the next phase of the scouring for the attackers of the hamlet begins.
  92. >Which will be, by far, the longest phase of them all.
  93. >You can tell this much practically immediately, as the current location of the dragons in question, as well as the direction in which they are heading are known to you.
  94. >So you know already that whilst the group and Luna are on the right path, it will still take a couple of days before an encounter can occur, given the distance between them and you.
  95. >But this does not mean that you can relax at this point in time either.
  96. >Not at all, in fact.
  97. >Because you want to be in the team who makes the first contact with the scaled flamethrowers.
  98. >And for a very specific reason at that.
  99. >A small plan of your very own, discussed and agreed upon with #deca.mare.
  100. >Yet in order to get into this position, you have to subtly nudge the group that you are a part of a couple of times.
  101. >Which means that you have to make a few well-placed remarks and casual suggestions here and there, to sway your course to a small degree every so often.
  102. >And this in turn requires you to maintain a certain level of attention to detail to remain convincing, making it impossible for you to really relax.
  103. >Though you do have a certain indirect advantage.
  104.  
  105.  
  106.  
  107.  
  108. >Given that you are known to be a good friend and former long-time team mate of Sky Squall, the unofficial second leader of the operation, you are somewhat seen as his unspoken right hand in many regards.
  109. >So if you propose an idea, the Pegasi tend to listen to you.
  110. >Even when the golden stallion is not nearby and busy with leading a different group.
  111. >Therefore, you are, for all intents and purposes, accepted as the de facto temporary squad captain at the moment.
  112. >Yet despite your quasi leading role, you still mind to maintain a fair balance and try to keep an even level in the communication between you and your team mates.
  113. >After all, this is a group that consists entirely out of volunteers, experienced veterans included.
  114. >None of them enlisted in any conventional meaning of the word.
  115. >As such, you keep most of your ingrained militaristic mannerisms at bay, and treat this situation more like a common endeavour rather than a military operation.
  116. >Yet, at least.
  117. >You will probably have to assert more authority if things get rough though.
  118. >But that is a worry for another day.
  119.  
  120.  
  121.  
  122.  
  123. >Day 4
  124.  
  125. >After several days of scouting and reading remote cloud signs, one of your group mates spots something in the distance.
  126. >A single lone flier in the air at nine o'clock, several kilometres away.
  127. >At first, the stallion who spotted the outline believes it to be a fellow Pegasus from another squad.
  128. >But even without your input, it swiftly becomes clear to everyone that this is not a Pegasus.
  129. >Or a pony, for that matter.
  130. >Neither the shape nor the size add up, as it is twice the size of an average Pegasus.
  131. >It features no coat or hair on the body, and no feathers on its wings either.
  132. >Instead, it possesses a natural shell of greenish scales.
  133. >Not to mention the elongated tail, or the multiple appendages on each leg.
  134. >And despite the ponies' total lack of any concept regarding dragons up to this point, everyone instinctually understands that this entity needs to be taken seriously.
  135. >The team slows down, cautiously observing the unknown being from afar.
  136. >Unsure whispers and murmurs spread through the ranks.
  137. >This is the moment you realise that you have to grab hold of the proverbial reins, and become the authority figure who is in charge.
  138. >Not for your own ego or personal grandeur, but simply to maintain the general cohesion of the group.
  139. >You waste no time and do precisely that.
  140. >By giving polite, yet determined and assertive orders.
  141. >You tell a pair of Pegasi to form two different cloud signals to inform the others.
  142. >One signal for a crucial finding, and another for a potentially risky situation.
  143. >After all, everypony is fairly certain that you have just found one of the attackers.
  144. >However, whilst you show everyone that you tend to agree with their assessment, you nevertheless insist on a solid confirmation first.
  145. >And the best way to make sure is to confront your target directly.
  146. >Even against your better knowledge, you have to play this role since you cannot outright tell anyone what you know.
  147. >So you plan to show it to them instead.
  148. >You tell the rest of the team to keep their distance, for the time being, as you approach the dragon alone.
  149. >Unsurprisingly, this idea does cause some objections, as you are putting yourself in danger.
  150. >And it is a fair point.
  151. >Though you argue back that this is why you are the best choice for this approach, considering your experience with difficult situations.
  152. >If things go south, and you know that they will, you are the best suited candidate to react accordingly, and without hesitation.
  153. >Besides, you cannot ask anyone else to endanger themselves on your behalf.
  154. >Also, you make absolutely sure that you convey your complete confidence about your decision.
  155. >Indirectly telling the Pegasi that you will not heed any further reservations in this regard.
  156. >The team eventually agrees, albeit begrudgingly.
  157. >And openly so as well.
  158. >But that is good enough for you.
  159. >So you repeat your order to stay put, and watch keenly until you are convinced that everyone will comply.
  160.  
  161.  
  162.  
  163.  
  164. >Then you give them all a confident nod, and fly straight towards the slowly approaching dragon.
  165. >As soon as you are out of earshot, you directly address your eyes above the sky.
  166. "Alright, #deca. I need the tactical input of our friend here. Give me everything."
  167. >"Understood, Anon. Data incoming."
  168. >A flood of information about the dragon in question streams in on the lenses of your augmented goggles.
  169. >Everything ranging from basic things like name, sex, age, and origin, up to highly detailed intel about what he is thinking and planning right now.
  170. >And the latter category is the one which you are going to need the most.
  171. >So you realign the HUD of the goggles, and discard every other piece of information to "make room" for the dragon intel in the periphery of your vision.
  172. >As you have expected, the data tells you that the dragon has spotted you as well.
  173. >He is apparently mildly surprised by the fact that he sees a pony up here.
  174. >Small wonder when he has only seen Earth ponies up to this point.
  175. >For they have not proven to possess any affinity for flight whatsoever.
  176. >Still, considering the overwhelming success of destroying Lush Field, and the absolute helplessness of the locals, your opponent is fairly certain that he can take you.
  177. >After all, he has an obvious advantage in size, strength, and range.
  178. >So he decides to fly towards you as well.
  179. >With the full intent of blasting you out of the sky.
  180. >At the very moment you are in range for a "breath" attack, to be precise.
  181. >Which is exactly the kind of directly violent reaction that you hoped for.
  182. >With this, he will blatantly demonstrate his rather direct stance on diplomacy to everyone in the area.
  183. >And without any overt provocation from your end as well.
  184. >That should suffice to neatly warrant the confirmation about him being one of the attackers.
  185. >You maintain your direct approach whilst the dragon does the same.
  186. >As far as the dragon is concerned, if he were not already willing to fight you, this alone should have been enough to virtually provoke his personal pride to show you what he has in store.
  187. >Simply because you show no fear, and emit an aura of confidence yourself.
  188. >And no dragon worth his salt could tolerate such a display from a pony.
  189. >But he seems to be more than wiling to do all of that work for you right away.
  190. >And you silently thank him for his hostility.
  191. >So knowing that an initial attack is imminent, you keep a keen eye on the exact distance between you two.
  192. >Since you are fully aware of the effective range of a dragon blast, you also know when things are about to get serious.
  193. >And it is as you have expected.
  194. >A couple of seconds before you reach his range of fire, your intel informs you about an energy surge within your opponent.
  195. >He is preparing a full load for you.
  196. >In fact, you can even see a faint, yet foreboding shimmer of light shining through the teeth of his barely opened mouth.
  197. >He thinks that you have no idea what is about to happen.
  198. >Well, too bad.
  199.  
  200.  
  201.  
  202.  
  203. >This will be a less than pleasant surprise for him.
  204. >As the energy builds up inside the dragon, you make sure that the Pegasi are watching from afar, as it is the sole reason why you are doing this in the first place.
  205. >They do.
  206. >Very good.
  207. >With that taken care of, you can now fully focus on the green scaled firestarter in front of you.
  208. >And he really does not mess about, as you are quick to see.
  209. >Because just as you get the warning of entering his range of fire, the surge reaches its fiery climax.
  210. >Literally.
  211. >And as soon as that peak on the charts is reached, the dragon figuratively tears his mouth open for a deep guttural roar.
  212. >Which is followed by a bright and fairly hot beam of searing energy.
  213. >You for your part, fully prepared for this opener, do precisely what you planned to do all along, and dodge the incoming strike of burning nastiness with a sharp sideward turn.
  214. >The "breath" misses you by a wide margin, and spreads out into the vast empty sky behind you, harmlessly dissipating as the flames fail to connect with anything.
  215. >This nullifies the attack completely, whilst also showing to everypony in the distance that this is indeed the perpetrator they are looking for.
  216. >At least one of them.
  217. >Whilst the dragon realises that your proxy has not been turned into a nice pile of dust, you fail to suppress a smile.
  218. >Because if you could, you would congratulate the dragon for showing his cards this blatantly to everyone in the vicinity.
  219. >Therefore confirming the theories of Luna, and proving the clearly malicious intent behind the attack.
  220. >There is no room to misinterpret that.
  221. >In fact, you are sure that the next alerting cloud signals are popping up already.
  222. >The ones which signal the confirmed detection of an attacker.
  223. >The bottle of the genie is now well and truly uncorked.
  224. >And although you are somewhat miffed that the dragon has no idea that you have just given him the middle finger, or rather made him give said proverbial finger to himself, you have no time to fool around.
  225. >For a second attack is soon to follow.
  226. >You dodge again just as easily, relying on your years of professional flight training, as well as subsequent field experience, combined with the tactical intel you get from your goggles.
  227. >The data stream practically tells you when another blast gets prepared, and in what direction it will be fired.
  228. >Armed with that form of considerable prediction, all you have to do is to evade the blasts themselves.
  229. >And as you are busy with dodging dragon attacks, you practically treat the situation like a dogfight in space.
  230. >The only real difference here is that you have no lasers at hand whilst your opponent does.
  231. >Of course, the theoretically viable option of delivering melee strikes instead exists.
  232.  
  233.  
  234.  
  235.  
  236. >Though a Pegasus has not many ways to put any serious pressure on an opponent like a dragon, as their scaled bodies have very few vulnerable spots to target in the first place.
  237. >Juvenile ones included.
  238. >Plus, you would also fare very badly if you got caught by a close combat attack in turn.
  239. >However, you are confident to make do with the tools you have available.
  240. >And you do have a plan as well.
  241. >Since your opponent is in a clearly advantageous position, dodging enemy fire, literally this time, is your first priority.
  242. >So you base your strategy on that necessary axiom.
  243. >You simply keep moving and make him miss one attack after another, slowly eroding the limited patience of your opponent's strong ego with every single foiled shot.
  244. >This frustrates the dragon thoroughly.
  245. >And after only five further failed attacks, he roars again in a fit of anger.
  246. >Good.
  247. >An angry dragon is a sidetracked dragon.
  248. >Which promptly opens a few windows of opportunity for you.
  249. >Your tactical stream informs you about a change in the dragon's attack pattern.
  250. >For his next attack, he will not only fire a blast in your direction.
  251. >He is also going to recklessly throw himself against you.
  252. >And as you read this, you smile.
  253. "Come on, big boy. Do your worst."
  254. >You are not sure whether the dragon has heard you or not.
  255. >And it changes very little anyway.
  256. >Because only a few seconds later, your opponent takes a sharp turn as he inhales deeply.
  257. >Then he quickly plunges towards you at breakneck speed.
  258. >And you let it happen.
  259. >For you wait until the absolute last moment before you get out of harm's way.
  260. >In fact, it is so close that you can even feel the heat of the beam on the proxy's coat as it shoots out into the sky.
  261. >Yet you remain completely unimpressed by this.
  262. >And instead of trying to get further away from the attack, you too take a sharp turn.
  263. >To fly towards the dragon.
  264. >Just barely keeping out of the blast range in the process.
  265. >The dragon is quite surprised by this sudden turn of events.
  266. >And he is even less pleased with what you do next.
  267. >Because shortly after you rush past the dragon's head, almost touching it as you do, you deliver one precisely aimed buck directly to one of the dragon's wing joints.
  268. >Hitting him in the only vulnerable spot where he can truly feel the power of your blow.
  269. >Well, apart from the eyes, maybe.
  270. >But you would not want to go this far.
  271. >After all, you are here to teach this youngling a lesson, and not to cripple him.
  272. >Even when you are currently feeling a slight notion of animosity towards your opponent.
  273. >Either way though, the kick shows an immediate effect.
  274. >The dragon growls in a mix of surprise and sudden moderate pain, as the affected wing jerks erratically.
  275. >Its sheer reflex forces it to.
  276. >Losing control over his limb for a short while, your opponent suddenly plunges a few dozen metres before he can stabilise himself.
  277.  
  278.  
  279.  
  280.  
  281. >This stunt, whilst certainly effective, did not exactly help to calm the dragon's unbridled ire.
  282. >And you can see the raging temper in his eyes as he targets you again from his lower position.
  283. >He is fully homed in on you now.
  284. >You, and only you.
  285. >So he fails to notice that more ponies are closing in on him behind his back.
  286. >Because the Pegasi, inspired by your example, have taken heart from your approach, once they saw how the large scaled flier faltered in the air after a single accurate hit.
  287. >And even though you have told the Pegasi to keep their distance, they have, technically speaking, done exactly what you told them to do.
  288. >After all, you ordered your squad to idle so that you can go ahead and test a theory.
  289. >Now that this theory has been thoroughly confirmed, however, your standing order does no longer apply.
  290. >And the fact that the ponies have their own axe to grind with this dragon was certainly a great motivator to intervene as well.
  291. >The dragon is caught completely off guard by a second strike to his wing.
  292. >The unexpected blow reduces his breath to a faint gasp, preventing his next surge from ever forming properly.
  293. >It amounts to nothing more than a puff of smoke that slips out through his teeth.
  294. >Once again, the dragon loses more altitude as he struggles to keep his limb from twitching like mad.
  295. >Upon another quick recovery, your target spontaneously decides to retaliate.
  296. >He wants to catch the newest "attacker", according to your tactical display.
  297. >So you quickly intervene with another buck to the side of his midsection.
  298. >This hit is far less effective than the one to the dragon's wing joints.
  299. >But you do not intend to hurt him.
  300. >It only needs to be felt.
  301. >So that he redirects his attention back to you.
  302. >And thanks to the highly scattershot nature of your opponent's focus, it works flawlessly.
  303. >You are the main target again.
  304. >That is, until a third pony tries her luck.
  305. >She bucks the other wing joint for a change, causing yet another short plunge.
  306. >And so it goes on, much to the dismay of your target.
  307. >This little game of "whack-a-dragon" lasts for a few more rounds.
  308. >Every time somepony is in danger of getting caught or hurt, another one is ready to cause a distraction.
  309. >Providing both safety and strength in numbers.
  310. >As it turns out, the lone dragon youngling has no real way to counter this swarm tactic effectively.
  311. >Or at all, to be exact.
  312. >As much as he tries to fight you, he has to realise that he cannot win this one.
  313. >And the thoroughly whacked and blown fuse of said dragon does not help him either.
  314. >He eventually manages to stifle enough of his rage to plan a retreat, even whilst his blood is still proverbially boiling inside him.
  315. >The dragon roars again, louder than ever, and proceeds to tilt himself downwards.
  316. >Then he lets himself fall.
  317. >Deliberately.
  318. >No, not just that.
  319. >He also does everything he can to accelerate.
  320.  
  321.  
  322.  
  323.  
  324. >The ponies around you are quick to notice the sudden change in his behaviour as well.
  325. >Since they are not sure what he is doing next, however, they resort to merely keeping an eye on him from afar as he plummets.
  326. >All the way down to the treetops below.
  327. >And they witness how he prevents himself from crashing in the last possible moment.
  328. >Only seconds before your scaled "friend" would have a rather unenviable tête-à-tête experience with the nearest fir trees, he gathers all of his strength and resolution to gradually change the angle of his steep downward trajectory.
  329. >He manages, although just barely, to regain a horizontal flight path above the woods.
  330. >A few centimetres more, and his claws and legs would have brushed up against the needles of the uppermost branches.
  331. >At this point, you notice that it begins to dawn on some of the Pegasi what he just did there.
  332. >The dragon pulled off a hail mary stunt to "slingshot" himself away.
  333. >Apparently in order to escape from the onslaught of hooves against vulnerable spots.
  334. >And some of your squad mates are inclined to pursue him.
  335. >Yet you call them back at once.
  336. "Wait! Don't chase him!"
  337. >They halt indeed.
  338. >Then you elaborate.
  339. "This isn't a good idea. He'll only get desperate and more dangerous if we corner him."
  340. >A pause.
  341. "Besides, I'm sure there are more of those.... things out there. You could run into a trap."
  342. >Perhaps an impolite description from your side, granted.
  343. >But you cannot use the term dragon yet.
  344. >Nopony in Equestria had a mental concept of such a thing at all until now.
  345. >And much less a word for it.
  346. >Additionally, no one in your current company cares about finding a polite term in this situation either.
  347. >For everypony wants to hear what you have in mind, now that you stopped the Pegasi from chasing that dragon.
  348. >The mare who landed the third strike, a Pegasus with a bright magenta coat and light marine mane, speaks up first.
  349. >"What if it reaches more of its kind? It will tell them about us."
  350. >You look at her.
  351. "Unless you plan to run him fully into the ground for good, that will happen regardless. I don't think we can capture him with what we have available here. Alive, that is."
  352. >The mare understands your implications.
  353. >And for all the ill will she is feeling right now, this is an option she does not want to consider.
  354. >You go on.
  355. "They know about ponies in general already. And even if the existence of Pegasi is news to them, they're bound to find this out sooner or later either way. It's not worth it to endanger ourselves in a chase to keep that information secret for, I don't know, a day or two."
  356. >Then you take a breath.
  357. "And maybe this was enough of a lesson. Perhaps they'll leave us alone now."
  358. >Obvious nonsense, as the dragons will not accept such a humbling act of open defiance.
  359. >But never mind.
  360. >You have to play the role of the cautious planner now.
  361. >Though the Pegasus mare seems to understand the dragon mentality fairly well already.
  362.  
  363.  
  364.  
  365.  
  366. >"Or... they return. In larger numbers. To even out the chances."
  367. >Personally, you are inclined to congratulate her for this correct evaluation.
  368. >But you cannot do that right now.
  369. >For you still follow the plan that you have created with #deca.mare.
  370. >So you must come up with a counter-argument.
  371. >As much as you are on her side in this matter.
  372. "Possible. But this is another reason why we shouldn't resort to a wild pursuit. Since we have certainty now, we must prepare ourselves accordingly."
  373. >It is obvious that your speech has not fully convinced her.
  374. >Still, she is willing to listen to what you have to say.
  375. >"Alright, Star. What's your strategy then?"
  376. >Everyone looks at you attentively.
  377. >Which suits you just fine, as it enables you to steer things in the "correct" direction.
  378. >And given that you benefit from Sky Squall's aureate reputation by proxy, your acumen should not be regarded as suspicious by your squad mates.
  379. >Besides, you have also gained a fair deal of respect yourself by charging the dragon as the intrepid spearhead.
  380. >So you take matters into your own hands again.
  381. >With the tacit, yet notable agreement of everyone around you.
  382. "First things first, Luna and the others need to know about this. Has anyone already replied to our signals?"
  383. >The mare points northwards.
  384. >You spot several distant confirmation signs, telling you that they have seen your alert.
  385. >A quick long-range sensor sweep of the area reveals no less than four different teams already coming your way.
  386. >Luna and Sky included.
  387. >So you are perfectly covered on that front.
  388. "Good. Listen up, we do the following."
  389. >You take a breath.
  390. "Two of us will stay here and inform the others about everything when they arrive."
  391. >A pause.
  392. "The rest of us will follow this... whatever he is. But this won't be a chase."
  393. >You take another breath.
  394. "Instead, we'll keep our distance to scout and observe. A long distance. And we won't engage."
  395. >You look at each of the other members in your team.
  396. "I bet he's returning to his friends after this beating. And I would like to know how many of them are around in total."
  397. >You get some seriously concerned expressions in response.
  398. >And one of the rookie stallions chimes in.
  399. >"Waiting for them to regroup? This sounds dangerous. What if they gang up and chase us instead?"
  400. >You nod.
  401. "That's why I want to keep a long distance between us. To reduce the chances of being seen at all."
  402. >The next question is as predictable as it is inevitable.
  403. >"But what if we are? And what if they catch up with us?"
  404. >A valid concern from the perspective of an inexperienced Pegasus.
  405. >And you do your best to mitigate it.
  406. "If they're all as big as our 'friend' down there, that's unlikely. He isn't as fast or agile as we are."
  407. >A fact which you have proven quite convincingly, just a couple of minutes earlier.
  408. "You've got a point though. So I suggest two of the slower fliers stay here for the briefing whilst the rest scouts ahead."
  409.  
  410.  
  411.  
  412.  
  413. >You look at the stallion who just asked the question.
  414. >And the magenta mare right next to him.
  415. "That's nothing personal against you. It's just an idea to minimise the risks."
  416. >The stallion agrees without much additional consideration.
  417. >However, the mare is not really happy with that suggestion.
  418. >"I want to go with you! You could need a strong pair of hooves!"
  419. >Well, you have to acknowledge that her argument has a certain merit.
  420. >She may not be the fastest flier, but she is determined, agile, and can buck hard.
  421. >And since the few dragons on Equestria are all fairly young, and therefore small for their species, a well placed buck can still stagger them and disrupt their actions for a short time.
  422. >Though you honestly have no intention to get into bucking range during this scouting run.
  423. >So you carefully ask her again.
  424. "Are you sure?"
  425. >She nods.
  426. >And you can read in her eyes that she is keen to join, no matter what happens.
  427. >A no is not an answer for her.
  428. >As you consider what to say in response though, another Pegasus volunteers to stay behind, rendering any further discussion moot.
  429. >With the pair of ponies now chosen, you drop the subject and go on with the mission.
  430. "Fine. Looks like everything is settled. Any further questions?"
  431. >Shaking heads all around.
  432. "Very well. Then let's see where our 'friend' is going."
  433. >You look at the ponies who volunteered to stay behind.
  434. "We'll keep in touch via cloud messages."
  435. >They nod.
  436. >Though one more important thing comes to your mind.
  437. "Oh, and we won't follow him beyond the reaches of our communications either. If he travels to farther places, we'll come back."
  438. >Then you wave at them politely.
  439. "See you soon."
  440. >As you turn around and fly off, you hear how one of them mutters a quiet 'good luck'.
  441. >You appreciate that, even though you are not likely to need it.
  442. >The other Pegasi fall into formation behind you.
  443. >And you pick up the pace soon thereafter, aiming for a level of speed that is both comparatively swift, yet still manageable by your weaker fliers.
  444. >#deca.mare is quick to help you in this endeavour as well.
  445. >She wordlessly projects a suggested speed onto the HUD of your goggles.
  446. >You heed that recommendation, with no further questions asked.
  447. >And thanks to your radar, you can see how well the team responds to that suggestion, even without turning your head around.
  448. >Only a few moments later, #deca.mare also contacts you directly.
  449. >Though she is not planning to discuss matters of speed with you.
  450. >"Anon, do you have a minute to talk?"
  451. >Of course.
  452. >At least as long as you do not say anything out loud.
  453.  
  454.  
  455.  
  456.  
  457. >So you communicate merely via non-verbal means.
  458. >What is on your mind?
  459. >"I just wanted to remind you to, well, stay impartial in this matter."
  460. >You blink.
  461. >You think I am getting too emotionally invested in the incident?
  462. >#deca.mare sighs loudly over the comm.
  463. >It sounds like she tries to find a polite way to tell you what she thinks.
  464. >"I believe it is fair to say, on an objective level, that you have developed a certain... perception of the situation which is... heavily based on a singular perspective."
  465. >She pauses.
  466. >"Caused by a growing emotional sympathy and fondness for the ponies with whom we are living and working together on a daily basis. Analytically speaking."
  467. >Another pause.
  468. >"Do you agree with my assessment?"
  469. >You think about that for a moment before you reply in your mind.
  470. >Well, maybe.
  471. >Probably.
  472. >Yes.
  473. >But this is not a bad thing.
  474. >Of course we form friendships with the ponies we meet virtually every day.
  475. >This is completely natural, and it happened to you too.
  476. >You smile, even though no one can see it.
  477. >But #deca.mare knows that you do it anyway, so this is good enough for you.
  478. >You go on.
  479. >Consider your own friend list, #deca.
  480. >I could name hundreds of ponies on it in a breeze.
  481. >Granted, this would also include "merely" good acquaintances of hers.
  482. >But you think that you got your point across anyway.
  483. >And if you could, you would teasingly poke her side right now.
  484. >Do not try to tell me that you have not formed a close attachment to them as well.
  485. >Because then I am controlling a drunken zebra proxy with horizontal stripes of purple and green.
  486. >You notice a certain delay in her answer.
  487. >Probably thanks to your bizarre mental image.
  488. >"This is true. But it seems that, in your case, the situation has made you... susceptible for certain notions which are... not necessarily positive."
  489. >It is obvious that she refers to the dragon.
  490. >So you cut some steps in the conversation and get straight to the point.
  491. >Put bluntly, you believe I am picking sides.
  492. >"Nothing so overly drastic yet. And generally speaking, you are right. Developing a certain bond with the ponies around you is a good thing. I would never object to that."
  493. >She takes a breath.
  494. >"But consider the proverbial flip side. If you are not careful, then your own personal emotions might cloud your judgement."
  495. >You think about that for a moment.
  496. >Do you think my actions were too harsh?
  497. >"In this particular encounter? No. You did the right thing, and your actions were within reason. It was correct to call the Pegasi back."
  498. >You feel there is still something coming.
  499. >A small caveat of some kind.
  500. >"Though I noticed a slight notion of, well... not directly enmity, but faint anger within you. A subliminal thought which lingered in your mind since you have seen the ruins of Lush Field. And it erupted when you struck the dragon. You took the attack somewhat personally."
  501. >You get what she is saying.
  502.  
  503.  
  504.  
  505.  
  506. >And you have to admit that her analysis of the situation is not wrong.
  507. >Though you did not think much of it after you have left the abandoned hamlet.
  508. >It was just a brief thought in your mind.
  509. >Or so you believe, at least.
  510. >#deca, did I allow myself to get carried away by the general mood about the attack?
  511. >"In my opinion? Not yet. But you were close to it. Hence my remark."
  512. >You blink, but say nothing.
  513. >"I know where that feeling comes from, Anon. Finding friends amongst ponies and taking part in their lives is all well and good. But you need to keep in mind that we have to consider the wellbeing of all sides in this situation. The two of us cannot develop animosities to either of them. You must not lose sight of that. Even when you assume the role of a Pegasus squad captain."
  514. >You take a breath.
  515. >Right.
  516. >I guess that seeing the ruined hamlet struck a nerve in me though.
  517. >#deca.mare inhales loudly.
  518. >"Because seeing something in ruins that you or some of your companions have built up rubbed you the wrong way."
  519. >A brief pause.
  520. >"Believe me. I know far too well how deeply this can get under your skin. I have been where you are now."
  521. >You have no idea how to reply to that.
  522. >And #deca.mare understands this too.
  523. >So she goes on instead.
  524. >"Remember, we are helping to bring this conflict to a satisfactory conclusion for everyone involved. This has been our goal right from the start."
  525. >Another pause.
  526. >"But I need you to maintain your professional focus, Anon. We are on the right track. And you only have to play your part now. Can you do that?"
  527. >You let that sink in for a brief moment before you give her an answer.
  528. >Yes.
  529. >I think I can.
  530. >#deca.mare breathes audibly, yet softly.
  531. >You think she just chuckled.
  532. >"We celebrate afterwards. Equestrian post-crisis party style. How about that?"
  533. >You can practically picture #deca.mare's beaming smile just by hearing her voice.
  534. >She is trying to raise the general mood, as it seems.
  535. >And it is actually enough to lift most of the clouds in your mind.
  536. >You begin to smile as well.
  537. >Sounds lovely.
  538. >Private party, or with guests?
  539. >Now you really hear her chuckling.
  540. >"Whatever we prefer when the time comes. Or both. After one another."
  541. >Sounds like a deal.
  542. >And so you continue your observation of the retreating dragon with a smile on your face.
  543. >You suddenly feel much calmer.
  544. >In virtually every regard.
  545. >It helps you a lot to improve your objective focus.
  546. >And you will need it too.
  547. >Probably, at least.
  548. >For things are going to become a bit wilder before you are done.
  549.  
  550.  
  551.  
  552.  
  553. >Day 6
  554.  
  555. >Four dragons are firmly on your six, chasing you through the air.
  556. >It is the result of a rather unfortunate development.
  557. >After all, this is a mess that you did not want to find yourself in.
  558. >A prime example of things not going according to your original plan.
  559. >Caused by one slight slip-up.
  560. >And although you would have preferred to avoid it altogether, you are forced to deal with its consequences now.
  561. >For the sake of the entire team under your command.
  562. >You have no idea who bungled your strategy by arousing the attention of the dragons in the first place.
  563. >But even if you had the time to find out, it would have changed very little in the grand scheme of things.
  564. >Because once the tactical screen alerted you that the sneaking jig was up, you acted without hesitation.
  565. >You ordered the rest of the team to scatter, regroup somewhere else, and rally the others.
  566. >Whilst you barrelled straight into the small gathering of the dragons at the same time.
  567. >Within seconds, you had the attention of all eight slitted eyes.
  568. >And the others disappeared in the nearest clouds, turning effectively invisible as far as the dragons are concerned.
  569. >It was the easiest and swiftest way to get everyone to safety.
  570. >However, the consequences for you were a somewhat different matter, as you have suddenly turned yourself into the only huntable target on the dragons' radar.
  571. >And with dragons doing what they do best, you quickly found yourself dodging lots and lots of energy blasts.
  572. >Unfortunately for your hunters though, their attempts to pulverise your proxy were not as successful as they hoped.
  573. >Because #deca.mare warned you in advance that this might happen, and provided your team with a backup plan to rely on whilst you play the distracting decoy.
  574. >Her expert guidance leads you right through the inferno, as it shows you precisely how you have to fly to evade any and all incoming attacks.
  575. >This alone is already a tremendous help, which saves your proxy's hide more than once, yet it does not eliminate the main source of the problem.
  576. >Even as you ascend during your evasive manoeuvres and gain some speed, the dragons do not give up.
  577. >They keep following you.
  578. >Obsessed with the urge to dish out some payback for the "humiliation" of one of their own.
  579. >The possibility that this little "beating" was a reaction to them razing a pony hamlet first is a thought that has, unsurprisingly, never crossed their minds.
  580. >Oh well.
  581. >You are not going to discuss that topic with these firestarters now.
  582. >You have to keep dodging ranged attacks as you rush through the skies anyway.
  583. >The dragons show no signs of relenting this time, no matter how often they miss.
  584. >So you proceed to follow the backup plan step by step, and head for a certain direction.
  585. >Because unbeknownst to your pursuers, your small team was not the main force in the area.
  586. >A fact which soon becomes apparent to the dragons, as the outlines of very familiar fliers appear on the horizon.
  587.  
  588.  
  589.  
  590.  
  591. >You do not waste any time by looking at their reactions as you move.
  592. >But you imagine that the dragons are unpleasantly surprised by that particular revelation.
  593. >Especially since the newly arriving group of ponies is six times larger than their own team.
  594. >The newcomers also include a certain dark blue Alicorn princess.
  595. >A princess who is very eager to meet the individuals that are responsible for the chaos at Lush Field.
  596. >Oh boy, this will be something.
  597. >You head directly towards your peers, and the dragons have no means to really stop you from doing so.
  598. >But this does not mean that they are not trying to.
  599. >A few more stray blasts are sent your way every now and then.
  600. >Though you dodge these attacks with relative ease and eventually join the squad of the princess.
  601. >In some ways, things are becoming a bit easier for you from now on, whilst other factors are bound to become more difficult.
  602. >Because the team is going to engage the four adolescent dragons in a direct encounter.
  603. >Equipped with the knowledge of your previous engagement, the Pegasi know precisely what they are facing, and could prepare accordingly.
  604. >And whilst you personally will face fewer attacks in total from here on out, given that you are no longer the sole target in the air, you have to rely heavily on your tactical management skills instead.
  605. >Just like the last time, you are now going to step in if someone is in danger of getting seriously hurt.
  606. >Or worse.
  607. >In theory, this does apply for both sides.
  608. >But since only one of the two is frequently hurling around considerable amounts of firepower, that metric is somewhat skewed in reality.
  609. >And you get a reminder of this right from the start.
  610. >Your opponents do not shy away at the sight of a larger group, and target random ponies to fire at.
  611. >The Pegasi, expecting such an opener, scatter in all directions to surround the dragons.
  612. >This is where the tricky part begins.
  613. >Because whilst this turns all individual Pegasi into more difficult targets, this strategy also means that you have to eye the development of the fight in its entirety.
  614. >And it really is a handful to deal with.
  615. >Within mere moments, an absolute ruckus erupts almost everywhere.
  616. >Dragons fire at ponies.
  617. >Ponies dodge and try to buck the dragons' weaker body parts in response.
  618. >The dragons try to cover each other in turn to get the ponies off their backs.
  619. >Then the Pegasi fly above and below the dragons, to use all three dimensions of aerial combat to their advantage.
  620. >They attack from several different angles simultaneously, until a hoof finally finds its target.
  621. >And so it goes on and on and on.
  622. >Both your radar and your HUD are filled to the brim with everything you can think of.
  623. >Small green coloured blips dancing around larger red ones.
  624. >Warning signs depicting imminent attacks.
  625. >Hazard signs showing already fired blasts.
  626. >And the occasional highlight spot at which you have to intervene personally.
  627.  
  628.  
  629.  
  630.  
  631. >Everything is always on the move.
  632. >Ever shifting and changing.
  633. >With every passing second.
  634. >If you had to compare this scene to something, you would envision a space battle, in which several squads of fighters ambush a handful of larger ships, mixed with a bar brawl.
  635. >It is well and truly nothing short of a pure mess full of mixed signals.
  636. >Comically, yet dangerous.
  637. >Serious and surreal at the same time.
  638. >Though also something you must absolutely deal with like a professional.
  639. >No matter what you may personally think of it.
  640. >But despite your ability to keep track of everything with the help of #deca.mare, your proxy can still only be in one position at a time.
  641. >Which poses quite the challenge when almost thirty individual combatants are involved.
  642. >And you constantly have to rush from one close call to the other.
  643. >Bucking one dragon here, pushing a Pegasus out of harm's way there, or warning someone about something else over yonder.
  644. >For each problem you solve, a new one springs up just as quickly.
  645. >Only a couple of minutes later, and with already a dozen or so solved problems under your belt, the confrontation gradually starts to feel like an attempt of trying to keep water inside a barrel with three holes whilst using only your hands.
  646. >A singular operative is simply insufficient in the long run.
  647. >Fortunately though, you are not completely alone in this endeavour.
  648. >Princess Luna follows a similar strategy, albeit independently from you and your actions.
  649. >She uses her unique insights to monitor the whole scenery, your actions included, as she calmly hovers in the air, only a few metres away from the fighting.
  650. >And the princess intervenes as well whenever necessary.
  651. >In her own special way, that is.
  652. >Unlike your rather "personal" approach, she does not touch anyone directly.
  653. >Neither dragons, nor ponies.
  654. >No, she simply keeps floating in place.
  655. >Her eyes are closed, the focus of her mind seemingly turned inwards.
  656. >But she is keenly watching, and remains fully aware of everything that happens.
  657. >So when Princess Luna spots a pony in peril, she quickly lashes out with her horn.
  658. >She shoots a bolt of concentrated "magic" at the dragon who threatens said pony.
  659. >Without even looking, yet with frightening accuracy.
  660. >And those bolts are much more potent than conventional Pegasus strikes too.
  661. >Her attacks inflict some notable damage on her targets, no matter what spot she aims at.
  662. >The energy blasts hammer against the hard hides of the dragons, and actually shatter some of their scales upon impact.
  663. >Said scales then either fall or flake off, drawing a bit of blood in the process.
  664. >Granted, these are rather minor injuries, even for a small dragon, as the damage is limited to the spot of the direct impact.
  665. >But it is more power than any of the dragons were expecting.
  666. >Especially since they have never seen a pony who can shoot back from a distance.
  667.  
  668.  
  669.  
  670.  
  671. >And so your large opponents, caught off guard by the prospect of getting notably hurt in this endeavour, initially shy away as they are suddenly hit by Luna's beams.
  672. >In many ways, this does remind you a lot of Luna's strategy when she deals with the product of ponies' nightmares.
  673. >Constantly on the lookout, always there, and helping out when she is needed the most.
  674. >The only real difference is that these actions have far more lasting implications here, in the real world, than they have in a dream.
  675. >But you also notice something else in her behaviour.
  676. >And it becomes ever more evident with every shot she delivers.
  677. >Princess Luna apparently only saves those cases in which you fail to do something in time first.
  678. >You do not have the leeway to discuss your suspicions with #deca.mare in your chaotic situation, but you are sure that you are not mistaken in this regard.
  679. >If you had to guess, you would assume that Princess Luna has monitored and studied your movements, just like she does with everything else in the whole perimeter.
  680. >She must have understood your strategy and pattern.
  681. >And now she has decided to act as your backup option.
  682. >A Plan B in the form of an Alicorn, basically.
  683. >The more cautious and planning part of you would normally ask yourself whether Luna might deem your sharp perception of the situation to be suspicious.
  684. >And whether or not she might associate that ability with any form of latent "Windigo magic" or something.
  685. >Right now though, you are just happy to have her on your side.
  686. >Because she actually makes your task bearable for you.
  687. >The dragons, however, do not share your happiness about Luna's laser show in the slightest.
  688. >Quite the opposite, in fact.
  689. >As soon as they have recovered from the first shock of getting their hides battered and bruised, they redirect their anger accordingly.
  690. >Towards the source of this new form of assault.
  691. >And the reaction follows promptly.
  692. >Two of the four dragons retaliate with blast attacks of their own.
  693. >Luna, fully aware of the twin attack that is coming her way, shows no visible reaction to this danger whatsoever though.
  694. >Or so it appears to the naked eye.
  695. >But the illusion of her being defenceless or exposed to the enemy fire is shattered quickly by the sudden appearance of a deep blue sphere of light.
  696. >It seemingly forms around the Alicorn mare as the flames come in contact with it.
  697. >The barrier partially absorbs, and partially deflects the incoming energy, leaving the mare inside it completely unharmed.
  698. >Luna has just used her abilities to turn some of her augments into a temporary dynamic shield generator.
  699. >The shield flickers and crackles lightly as the beams pass by on all sides, but it remains intact.
  700. >Even after the onslaught is over.
  701. >It is impossible for you to tell how straining this defensive measure was for Luna, as it depends to a very large degree on how effectively she manages her own capacities.
  702.  
  703.  
  704.  
  705.  
  706. >Though you would not count on her repeating that trick all that often.
  707. >Especially when she tries to support your cause.
  708. >Nevertheless, her feat did two very important things.
  709. >One, it stunned the dragons yet again, as they did not expect to see Luna still being in one piece after straight up taking that double shot.
  710. >Without an attempt to get away from it at that.
  711. >Luna even grins as the dragons watch her in confusion, just to make a statement.
  712. >The sheer display of defiance in that gesture cannot be more obvious to them.
  713. >And two, watching their princess getting besieged by two strikes riled the Pegasi to completely new levels.
  714. >After all, a good number of them serve as her guard for a considerable while already.
  715. >So you are not surprised that they do not take such a move lightly.
  716. >Though it is not only them.
  717. >The ponies who are merely volunteering for this mission show a similar notion.
  718. >Luna is almost like the embodiment of a living icon to them as well.
  719. >And icons do not get attacked.
  720. >Which is a fact that the Pegasi clearly demonstrate to the dragons.
  721. >By increasing their mutual efforts to fight them off.
  722. >Virtually from one moment to the next, all ponies around you speed up, hit harder, and strike more often.
  723. >As if it happens right on cue.
  724. >You find this particularly fascinating, as neither #deca.mare nor you did anything to trigger that reaction.
  725. >This is purely done by the ponies themselves.
  726. >By them, and their fierce determination to keep their princess and friends safe.
  727. >Your four opponents, on the other hand, struggle to process that they are on the receiving end of this rapid improvement in the ponies' performance.
  728. >And they find themselves suddenly overwhelmed by the swarming Pegasi around them.
  729. >You notice this very clearly too, as the number of alarms you have to tend to decreases significantly.
  730. >So much so that Luna feels able to play a more active role in the engagement.
  731. >She applies yet more pressure on the dragons by occasionally sniping a random target with another beam.
  732. >Just like the previous attacks, the blasts themselves only cause negligible wounds to the hardened dragons.
  733. >But you bet that these lesions, light as they may be, must begin to sting eventually as they pile up.
  734. >Which should then cause the exact effect that you are hoping for.
  735. >And they do indeed.
  736. >After another couple of renewed attacks from Princess Luna, the dam finally breaks.
  737. >Similar to the dragon you have encountered two days earlier, these four roar loudly in irate frustration, and try to break out of the encirclement to retreat.
  738. >The Pegasi, despite their keen urge to buck and batter, simply let them pass.
  739. >In fact, they have waited for this reaction as well, and prepared one last knack to conclude the engagement properly.
  740. >It is a trick the princess has thought of yesterday.
  741. >Or rather, during the previous night, whilst she was meditating remotely with her sister.
  742. >And both of them agreed upon it.
  743.  
  744.  
  745.  
  746.  
  747. >Princess Luna instructed the Pegasi accordingly.
  748. >To ensure they all know what they are supposed to do.
  749. >So as they are sensing the capitulation of their opponents, the Pegasi subtly assume a formation which offers a small, yet notable weak point at its southern end.
  750. >The whole thing shall appear as if it were a slight oversight on the part on the ponies.
  751. >Instead of letting the dragons randomly choose where they force their way out, Luna hopes that they will notice this opportunity and seize it.
  752. >To break free at that potential opening, heading southwards by doing so.
  753. >And in their frantic search for a way out of this pinch, the dragons fall for the ploy remarkably easily.
  754. >They all head for the apparent weak spot in the formation at once.
  755. >The Pegasi carefully back off to a degree, granting the dragons enough space to barrel through without any collisions.
  756. >Then, once they have freed themselves from the encirclement, the dragons make a run for it.
  757. >It is an attempt to gain some distance to you.
  758. >And no pony is showing any signs of trying to follow them.
  759. >For now.
  760. >Instead, Sky Squall tells all the Pegasi to gather for a quick roll call.
  761. >Mostly to see who is in what shape after the de facto brawl with the young dragons.
  762. >You give him a quick salute as the stallion happens to glance over to you, signalling him that you are fine.
  763. >He gets the signal and tends to the rest of the team next.
  764. >And as the Pegasi come together, you watch how Sky Squall unleashes his full potential as a leader while you hover in the air nearby.
  765. >He finds the time to eye every individual pony as he listens to their reports.
  766. >Even when several Pegasi appear to talk to him simultaneously.
  767. >However, as you witness this spectacle, you fail to notice that Princess Luna is soundlessly approaching you from the side.
  768. >At least until she is hovering right next to you.
  769. >And even then, you only register her presence by spotting the flapping outlines of a large blue wing in the periphery of your vision.
  770. >How did you fail to see that on your radar?
  771. >Regardless of the reason for that literal oversight though, you turn your head to the side.
  772. >Princess Luna observes you again, just like she did back on the square.
  773. >It is hard for you to believe that this is almost a week ago already.
  774. >Yet despite the relatively long time that you have spent in the Alicorn's proximity, you still do not feel comfortable when she examines you like this.
  775. >Particularly now.
  776. >The mare is surely processing what she has seen.
  777. >Your whole performance, and your role in this clash, were laid bare right in front of her.
  778. >Plus, she has seen the entire affair through her "magic lens".
  779. >So she must have sensed that you were aware many things.
  780. >Far more than what might appear to be plausible under these circumstances.
  781. >Which includes the "magic" you were exposed to while doing so.
  782.  
  783.  
  784.  
  785.  
  786. >Once again, you wonder what is going on in Luna's head as she watches you.
  787. >And you ask yourself whether she may interpret your actions as being affected by "Windigo magic" or not.
  788. >So you try to read her expression.
  789. >Maybe you can decipher what she could be thinking.
  790. >However, it is still difficult for you to grasp her attitude.
  791. >As far as you can tell, she shows no strong emotions in regard to you.
  792. >That is about it though.
  793. >Everything else would be too much of a projection on your part, based entirely on Luna's equivalent of a poker face.
  794. >But if your assumption is correct, that result is, probably, neither a good nor a bad thing on its own.
  795. >Still, you can only guess what she is about to do next.
  796. >Yet even this turns out to be a tad more awkward than you have first expected.
  797. >Because both of you keep staring wordlessly at one another for a while, whilst Sky Squall is busy with checking on the team.
  798. >You feel the urge to speak.
  799. >To utter anything to break the silence.
  800. >But whenever you get an idea of what you might say or comment on, the subconscious part of you quickly finds a reason not to ask it.
  801. >Then you discard the thought altogether and get back to square one.
  802. >Fortunately though, this strange stalemate ends fairly soon.
  803. >Shortly after you have found your fourth rejected opening for a conversation, to be exact.
  804. >And what a turn of events it is.
  805. >Luna gives you a slow, yet graceful nod.
  806. >Just like that, seemingly out of the blue.
  807. >You forget immediately what you wanted to say.
  808. >Instead, you wait until she is done, and mirror her gesture to return the favour.
  809. >Probably with less elegance, but never mind.
  810. >Though it is her next action which genuinely confuses you.
  811. >Because you have expected this to be an opening for something.
  812. >A conversation.
  813. >Maybe a questioning.
  814. >Or anything else of a similar nature.
  815. >And Luna, certainly with no ill intention of her own, shatters all of your expectations at once.
  816. >By simply flying away.
  817. >She approaches the larger group to personally check on the state of the ponies whilst they are all gathered in one spot.
  818. >Which leaves you behind with a lot of unanswered questions.
  819. >Well, if Luna does not give you any answers, you can still consult #deca.mare.
  820. >I swear she wanted to say something to me for a moment, #deca.
  821. >There was something in her eyes that gave her away.
  822. >And #deca.mare is quick to confirm your assessment.
  823. >"You are right. Luna initially wanted to comment on your performance. To examine your reactions."
  824. >And to probe if I would show some unusual signs?
  825. >"In a way, yes."
  826. >Windigo magic related?
  827. >"It was one of the possibilities she considered."
  828. >You blink as you observe the dark blue Alicorn mare.
  829. >She tends to the needs of the ponies around her, and listens to Sky Squall's report.
  830. >#deca.mare helps you out by displaying a list of what the princess is facing.
  831.  
  832.  
  833.  
  834.  
  835. >Because even though all of the Pegasi made it through the engagement without critical injuries, a couple of blemishes were unavoidable nevertheless.
  836. >You have six ponies with a few ruffled and clipped feathers.
  837. >Five Pegasi got their manes or tails singed.
  838. >And two recorded cases of first degree burns.
  839. >Indirectly caused by being a tad too close to the dragons' breath attacks when they lashed out and shot forth.
  840. >All in all, a list of mild injuries, considering the situation.
  841. >And nothing to be overly worried about either, as even the Pegasi with the burn marks are willing to proceed as usual.
  842. >So far, so good.
  843. >You take this information in and resume your previous conversation with #deca.mare.
  844. >Then why did she decide against it?
  845. >#deca.mare takes an audible breath.
  846. >"A... change of plans has... taken place."
  847. >You tilt your head.
  848. >#deca, I do not like what you are saying.
  849. >Because of the way how you are saying it.
  850. >It takes her a few seconds before she responds.
  851. >"And I would be lying if I told you that I... expect you to like what said change entails."
  852. >Not foreboding at all.
  853. >Not in the slightest.
  854. >Yet you take heart and ask her to go on.
  855. >Alright, what happened here?
  856. >"You see, Luna was communing with her sister whilst you were exchanging glances."
  857. >And?
  858. >There must be more to it.
  859. >"There was. Listening to the conversation between Luna and Celestia gave Harmony an idea for a suggestion. It entails a strategy which can end the conflict quickly. In a manner that enables both sides to come to an acceptable agreement without any losses. And to, mostly, save face at the same time."
  860. >You are not exactly happy with #deca.mare's explanation, as it creates more questions than it answers.
  861. >Though she is aware of that fact and carries on without being asked to.
  862. >"I agreed to that suggestion."
  863. >Hold on, what?
  864. >You said yes without even telling me about it first?
  865. >#deca.mare retains her calm voice.
  866. >She is not at all surprised by your displeasure of being excluded in this case.
  867. >After all, she knew in advance that you are not going to like what you are about to hear.
  868. >And so she tries to justify her decision with a rational argument.
  869. >"There was no time to contact you. I was forced to act quickly because Harmony had to take the first steps immediately."
  870. >A pause.
  871. >"The communicative sphere of the Royal Sisters played a significant part in this phase. They had to be connected to one another in their mental communion for it to work. So the time frame was limited."
  872. >Again some answers, combined with yet more questions.
  873. >But since #deca.mare has at least expressed the urgency behind her actions, you trust in her assessment regarding her making the decision without you.
  874. >However, you still know precious little about the plan itself.
  875. >What did Harmony do?
  876.  
  877.  
  878.  
  879.  
  880. >"Harmony, for the lack of a better term, 'whispered' some suggestions to the two."
  881. >In their own magical bubble?
  882. >"Yes. And before you ask, they have not registered it as such. As an input from a third source I mean."
  883. >A pause.
  884. >"As far as they are concerned, it was... an idea. Swirling around in their 'magical ether', and picked up by the two. You might compare it to some form of mental inspiration that comes from within."
  885. >So similar to how they acquire other insights?
  886. >"Essentially, yes."
  887. >And no Windigo nonsense this time?
  888. >"No, none. And no worries, you have not upended a certain amber stallion's place in history either."
  889. >Well, at least no new problems on these fronts.
  890. >Yet just as you thought that, you suddenly get the instinctual feeling that you will regret thinking this very quickly.
  891. >Because you know none of the details yet.
  892. >And #deca.mare has not said anything that could give you a reason to fully calm down either.
  893. >A part of you might not be fond of asking, but you do it anyway.
  894. >No matter what the two have come up with, you need to see what is going on.
  895. >Especially since it involves an initiative from Harmony.
  896. >You just hope that it does not involve any dreadnoughts this time.
  897. >So here it comes.
  898. >You ask both #deca.mare and Harmony directly.
  899. >Alright, what is your plan then?
  900.  
  901.  
  902.  
  903.  
  904. >Day 8
  905.  
  906. "This was a shit idea."
  907. >You spontaneously say this out loud to a certain duo who is listening, despite neither of them being physically present in the vicinity.
  908. >However, about three dozen Pegasi, and an Alicorn mare, are with you instead.
  909. >And all of them are well within earshot too.
  910. >But not a single pony reacts to your sudden and unexpected outburst.
  911. >In fact, it is likely that they have not even registered your comment in any way whatsoever.
  912. >Because your entire group is standing still on the peak of a small grassy hill.
  913. >Deathly still, almost.
  914. >If it were not for the fact that you know they are still alive and healthy, you could have mistaken them for petrified statues.
  915. >Statues which were perfectly aligned to look in the same direction at that.
  916. >Yet this is not the case.
  917. >The Pegasi are merely stunned.
  918. >Frozen by the sight of fifteen incoming dragons with violent intentions.
  919. >And your opponents are pretty riled up, to put it mildly.
  920. >Because Luna and the team have pushed them a bit too hard towards the south recently.
  921. >Poking into a hornets' nest and all that it entails.
  922. >So the dragons have finally agreed to gather for a massive united storm as a result.
  923. >It is their goal to absolutely solidify their position as the apex force in Equestria.
  924. >And from a purely physical perspective, the dragons are absolutely correct.
  925. >Your group has no conceivable options to counter such a superior force.
  926. >The imbalance is simply too great.
  927. >Which in turn allows the dragons to move with great confidence and surety.
  928. >And they do.
  929. >Their forms may only be small specks on the horizon now, but they are approaching gradually.
  930. >Growing a little bit with every passing second.
  931. >Even Luna, who easily shrugged a direct attack off as if it were seemingly nothing, does not move a single muscle as she witnesses that baneful procession.
  932. >Though she is not quite as paralysed as the rest, as your HUD tells you.
  933. >The Alicorn is immersed in her own little world, communicating with her sister.
  934. >For Celestia is nearby and on the move, rushing to arrive in time.
  935. >She has to join your ranks before the dragons are close enough to attack.
  936. >And despite your advantage of knowing exactly what the two are planning, and how Harmony expects it to play out, you are beginning to have second thoughts about the whole ordeal.
  937. >This is going to become a hot affair, no matter what.
  938. >Something which is, to put it carefully, not quite to your liking.
  939. >Besides, you are not sure whether you would have agreed to it, if the two had given you the chance to consider it.
  940. >But that is irrelevant now.
  941. >#deca.mare and Harmony sealed the deal, and you cannot change that fact.
  942. >The best you can do is to help them in their effort to reach the best possible outcome.
  943. >Oh well.
  944. >You look to the side.
  945. >Sky Squall is standing right next to you.
  946. >Just like the others, he remains motionless for the time being.
  947. >You can read in his expression that he is fully aware of their situation.
  948.  
  949.  
  950.  
  951.  
  952. >Without a wonder, your squad is most likely going to get screwed in many creative ways very soon.
  953. >Plus, to make the situation even worse, your team cannot just scatter or flee either.
  954. >Because if you do, the dragons might spot the nearby ground team.
  955. >And these ponies do not have the boon of flight to get out of harm's way.
  956. >Yet, even with this knowledge in mind, Sky Squall shows no fear.
  957. >He has a grim expression on his face, but he does not falter.
  958. >You bet that, if he would be pressed to do so, he would eagerly charge those dragons on his own as well.
  959. >Straight up.
  960. >And alone, if necessary.
  961. >But you hope that it will not come to this suicidal scenario.
  962. >The "wonder" is already on its way, after all.
  963. >You check the radar on your HUD.
  964. >Celestia is still a couple kilometres away, flying with everything that her wings have to offer.
  965. >Your system uses the available data to calculate her estimated time of arrival.
  966. >Yet the result is not really encouraging.
  967. >With some luck on her side, she may be able to make it in time.
  968. >But even if she does, it is only going to be a handful of minutes before the dragons will open fire.
  969. >At that point, though, it is already too late.
  970. >However, the Royal Sisters have another trick up their sleeves.
  971. >And since it is far less of a gamble than the alternative, they apparently have decided to use said trick in this critical situation.
  972. >The readings of a very familiar pattern appear on your sensors.
  973. >Exactly at the spot where the light Alicorn mare is right now.
  974. >It is faint at first, but rapidly increasing in its potency.
  975. >Princess Celestia focuses her magical energies to form a corridor around herself.
  976. >Using the eyes of her sister as a means to home in on a vacant spot in the local area, she prepares herself for an impromptu jump to the target location.
  977. >And the curious part of you wishes to watch how it happens.
  978. >So you quickly instruct your HUD to establish a connection to the nearest satellite.
  979. >Then you realign its devices to focus on the area in question for a live video feed.
  980. >You get what you desire within two seconds: A high resolution real-time depiction of Princess Celestia.
  981. >Already, at about twenty percent of the required energy threshold to transfer herself, you can see the first visual distortions and faint flashes of light appearing around her.
  982. >It is a clear reminder of the sheer amounts of energy that she is dealing with here.
  983. >And with how much control and willpower she must keep its flow evenly and stable.
  984. >You can only imagine what it may feel like to have this tremendous power coursing through the own body.
  985. >But judging from your personal experience of piloting smaller crafts, and feeling how vividly they can rattle when a corridor is formed, you believe you have at least a vague understanding of Celestia's condition.
  986. >And on a related note, you certainly do not envy future Twilight's penchant for casual teleportation.
  987.  
  988.  
  989.  
  990.  
  991. >In the next few seconds, you witness how the light gradually increases around the mare's body.
  992. >Until she is almost virtually surrounded by it.
  993. >Then you notice something peculiar.
  994. >Unlike the bright and sometimes dazzling flashes of a regular ship corridor transit, the light around Celestia matches the warmly aureate hue of her usual "magic" aura and spells.
  995. >It is only a minor detail on a purely objective basis, but you are astonished to see for yourself how much effort #deca.mare has put into the little details of the augments.
  996. >On top of making sure that they are compatible with largely organic beings in the first place.
  997. >And without boiling the ponies' innards due to excessive heat accumulation or similar issues.
  998. >Though you assume it might be possible for spellcasters to literally cause their horns to glow if they really pushed their limits.
  999. >But at that point, they would be close to subject themselves to a "magical cramp" of overexertion, which would require a prolonged time of recovery afterwards.
  1000. >Regardless of the theoretical potential of seeing Celestia with a shining horn, you have to focus on more important things now.
  1001. >Celestia's preparations reach the critical level close to the jump.
  1002. >She is faster in getting there than any of your vessels,
  1003. >And she does not need quite the same amount of raw power to move herself.
  1004. >Thanks to her, at least in comparison to space ships, fairly small body size and total mass.
  1005. >Still, the almost literal sphere of golden light around her remains a sight to be seen.
  1006. >Then, at the whim of a single thought, Celestia releases it all.
  1007. >And you get the opportunity to witness her instant translocation from two different perspectives simultaneously.
  1008. >The video feed on your HUD is suddenly completely filled with rapidly flickering rays of warm golden light.
  1009. >A telltale sign of an emerging corridor, right in the centre of the sphere.
  1010. >Only the very edges of the video screen allow for an occasional peek through the dancing beams.
  1011. >It is the singular hint which gives away that the feed is still running properly.
  1012. >And whilst Celestia's current position is flooded with light, you also spot a visual disturbance in the area directly in front of you.
  1013. >At the very peak of the hill, a tiny flickering orb is floating in the air, barely a metre above the ground.
  1014. >Seemingly appearing out of nowhere, the orb distorts the very air around it as it wavers in its place.
  1015. >The ponies, barring Luna, take an instinctual step back.
  1016. >And although you know that they are already in a safe distance, the princesses ensured that via Luna's input before Celestia even began to charge herself up, you understand that backing off must seem like the correct decision for the surrounding Pegasi.
  1017. >Especially as the little spot of energy expands without any further warning, forming the other end of the corridor.
  1018.  
  1019.  
  1020.  
  1021.  
  1022. >The anomaly sends a notable gush of wind in all directions.
  1023. >You can only imagine how the ponies might interpret this spectacle.
  1024. >But even without any beliefs in sorcery or other arcane concepts, it still has a staggering effect which you cannot deny.
  1025. >Mere moments thereafter, the corridor ceases to expand, and remains in its current form for a short while.
  1026. >No one can see what is happening within.
  1027. >Not even you.
  1028. >For the emanating light is far too intense to see anything clearly with the naked eye.
  1029. >But since you have gone through the exact same procedure many times yourself, you need no further readings or scans to comprehend what is happening there.
  1030. >So you are not surprised in the slightest when the corridor starts to collapse and recede just as quickly as it has grown.
  1031. >The entire phenomenon vanishes without a trace.
  1032. >But it leaves a hale and hearty Alicorn mare standing right where the little orb has been.
  1033. >Princess Celestia has, in the literal meaning of the word, turned her back on the group.
  1034. >And she immediately begins to examine both the sky and the incoming attackers in front of her.
  1035. >There is no time to lose, after all.
  1036. >She studies the situation for a few seconds before she turns to Luna.
  1037. >The two give each other a silent nod.
  1038. >Celestia then turns around and addresses the group directly.
  1039. >"Step back. Now."
  1040. >Her voice is clear, calm, but nevertheless demanding.
  1041. >And also a hint foreboding.
  1042. >She makes it more than obvious that she is serious about this.
  1043. >Which is quite unusual for her, given that she has earned a reputation of being the more soft-spoken Alicorn.
  1044. >And without further ado, Princess Luna takes the lead again.
  1045. >By motioning everyone to follow her.
  1046. >Away from the scene.
  1047. >Just like that.
  1048. >No comment.
  1049. >No remark.
  1050. >Several ponies are quick to question this decision, as it de facto means that they are leaving Celestia alone at the front.
  1051. >Yet Luna's statement is almost as scant as that of her sister.
  1052. >"There is no time! We will explain everything later!"
  1053. >She trots away from the peak as fast as she can without stumbling or flying.
  1054. >The latter part seems to confuse many Pegasi, as they could easily lift off to get away.
  1055. >Still, they follow Luna's example.
  1056. >Although with considerable doubts.
  1057. >Absolutely no one is happy to turn away from Celestia like this, even with her explicitly telling them to do so.
  1058. >And the most obvious example of that is Sky Squall.
  1059. >During the descent, you can see in his expression that he is wholeheartedly disagreeing with this course of action.
  1060. >Apart from his burning desire to stay rather than run away, he is also far too worried about the wellbeing of the princesses.
  1061. >Leaving Celestia's side is fundamentally wrong as far as he is concerned.
  1062. >You can imagine what he must be thinking right now, and you feel tempted to tell the stallion something to make him feel better.
  1063.  
  1064.  
  1065.  
  1066.  
  1067. >Though you can think of no feasible argument which does not rely on "insider knowledge".
  1068. >Other than that, you could only offer him some shallow platitudes.
  1069. >Yet those will not work on someone like him.
  1070. >That much is clear to you.
  1071. >So you keep quiet instead and follow the others.
  1072. >Luna's chosen destination reveals itself fairy soon too.
  1073. >It is a modest rocky recess, surrounded by grass and small bushes.
  1074. >Near the two-thirds mark on the way down.
  1075. >The spot is not overly spacious, but offers just about enough room for your group to get some cover, if everyone keeps close.
  1076. >And Princess Luna does not waste any time on courtesy.
  1077. >Once you are getting close to it, she gets straight to the point.
  1078. >"Everypony! Gather here!"
  1079. >Her order creates more puzzled looks from all sides.
  1080. >If you had to interpret the reactions you see, you would define them as mild disbelief.
  1081. >As if Luna's last instructions were nigh inconceivable to the Pegasi.
  1082. >And this notion is not all that hard to comprehend.
  1083. >After all, Princess Luna has essentially ordered the princess' guards to abandon her sister during a critical situation.
  1084. >In favour of hiding within a rocky hole.
  1085. >This is not an action which is worthy of a guard team.
  1086. >Even when it is done with Celestia's apparent approval.
  1087. >And whilst the group hesitates, they notice that Celestia is doing something peculiar at the top of the hill.
  1088. >She still stands exactly where she did when she arrived, facing the incoming dragons once more.
  1089. >But now she strikes a challenging pose with a wide stance and spread wings.
  1090. >Celestia tries to make herself appear as big and physically imposing as possible.
  1091. >To show the dragons a display of strength.
  1092. >Of course, you know right from the start that this singular gesture is not going to stop them from attacking the princess.
  1093. >Especially since even a "fluffed up" Alicorn mare does not quite match the size of her opponents.
  1094. >Fortunately though, it is not the only trick in Celestia's tool box.
  1095. >Oh no, this is only the first step.
  1096. >The second follows promptly.
  1097. >Celestia inhales deeply before she shouts at the dragons.
  1098. >And she chooses the highest level of her "Royal Canterlot Voice Amplifier" to do so.
  1099. >Or what will become known as the famous Canterlot voice in the future.
  1100. >Once said city is a reality, at least.
  1101. >"ENOUGH!"
  1102. >The booming volume of Celestia's spoken word breaks all records of what you have previously expected to be possible from a pony.
  1103. >It is nigh painful to listen to, even from this distance.
  1104. >And the sound also creates a reverberating echo which repeats itself several times in the following seconds.
  1105. >Everyone within a radius of several kilometres must have heard it clearly.
  1106. >Unmistakably so, even.
  1107. >So the dragons must have heard and understood her.
  1108. >There is virtually no way around it.
  1109. >And Celestia expertly waits for the echo to ebb away.
  1110. >To maximise its dramatic effect before she goes on.
  1111.  
  1112.  
  1113.  
  1114.  
  1115. >This intimidation move might have worked on almost everyone on this planet.
  1116. >The dragons, however, are one of the few exceptions to that category.
  1117. >Interestingly enough though, you have the impression that Celestia's unusually blunt rhetoric tools are actually helping Luna instead.
  1118. >Because it seems to you as if her outburst "motivates" the ponies to seek cover.
  1119. >You bet that they have never seen the usually well-mannered, polite, and exceptionally understanding Princess blowing a fuse like this.
  1120. >Not to mention her uncharacteristically hawkish and fiery demeanour, plus her apparent attempts of reaching ever new heights on the decibel scale.
  1121. >Well, the trick with the angry Alicorn apparently worked in some way, after all.
  1122. >So much so that most of the Pegasi voluntarily try to back off and get out of sight now.
  1123. >One might even get the suspicion that the two planned it that way.
  1124. >Regardless of whether that was an intentional and calculated side effect of the strategy or not, you follow their example and head for the recess.
  1125. >But unlike the Pegasi, you still have the tools to see what is happening on the peak via your visual feed.
  1126. >So you instruct the satellite to realign its focus again.
  1127. >And after some minor adjustments, it quickly gives you a clear depiction of the current situation on the top of the hill.
  1128. >Celestia is still standing tall like a warding statue.
  1129. >Unflinching and steadfast.
  1130. >She goes on.
  1131. >"You have attacked us without provocation. You came to our realm, destroyed our homes, distressed our ponies. You deny any contact and attack on sight."
  1132. >A pause.
  1133. >"No more. We will not endure this treatment any longer. Today we draw the line."
  1134. >Another pause.
  1135. >"This is our home. And we will protect it."
  1136. >Celestia pounds the grass beneath her with a forehoof.
  1137. >And she somehow manages to use her amplifier to intensify the sound of her kick.
  1138. >It booms across the landscape like thunder.
  1139. >"We implore you to leave. Now. For your own sake."
  1140. >You try not to chuckle.
  1141. >Good luck with that advice.
  1142. >As if the dragons would listen to what a pony princess has to say.
  1143. >Bombastic solo performance or not, it will require more than some fancy words and theatrical tricks to impress this lot.
  1144. >Of course, the princesses expected this as well.
  1145. >Yet the symbolic gesture was made regardless.
  1146. >Just in case.
  1147. >The unexpected might always happen, after all.
  1148. >And perhaps it was also meant to demonstrate to the Pegasi that the third step will be a justifiable measure.
  1149. >Should the more likely result occur, that is.
  1150. >So you closely observe what happens next.
  1151. >Celestia waits for a minute.
  1152. >To see if there is any reaction at all.
  1153. >However, fortune favours the predictable outcome today.
  1154. >The dragons show no sign of even considering Celestia's "recommendation".
  1155. >As far as they are concerned, they believe to have the unbeatable upper hand.
  1156. >Which means they see no reason to back down in any way.
  1157. >So on to phase three it is.
  1158. >"Very well then. You made your choice."
  1159.  
  1160.  
  1161.  
  1162.  
  1163. >The Pegasi around you look at each other as they hear that.
  1164. >They have no idea what is coming.
  1165. >And neither of the two Alicorns was inclined to inform the ponies about anything in advance.
  1166. >Oh well, this is their decision.
  1167. >Though you personally do not agree with them on that stance.
  1168. >In your opinion, the ponies should be aware of what the princesses are up to.
  1169. >After all, it is not like the Pegasi are going to warn their opponents or something like that.
  1170. >Then again, you can imagine that some might possibly lose their nerves if they knew more.
  1171. >Which would make it much harder to organise the group effectively and quickly.
  1172. >And since time is a critical factor for a successful conclusion of the operation, you assume that the princesses preferred to go for the less transparent option.
  1173. >However, the downsides of this strategy quickly go a bit further than exchanging mere confused glances.
  1174. >A fact which is going to make itself apparent right now.
  1175. >Luna stands right in front of the whole group, near the "entrance" of the minor recess, blocking a good portion of the exit solely with her body.
  1176. >With this, she is somewhat "shielding" the ponies inside.
  1177. >Her eyes are closed yet again, and her head is slightly bowed towards the crowd.
  1178. >Unfortunately, things are going a tiny bit awry at this point.
  1179. >Because some of the ponies appear to grasp the gist of the strategy.
  1180. >And there are several contributing factors for this.
  1181. >For one, Luna's horn begins to glow.
  1182. >Its light grows stronger than usual, indicating that she is obviously preparing herself for a potent spell.
  1183. >And two, her gestures reveal a bit more than she probably intended.
  1184. >Princess Luna would not act like this if she targeted the dragons or something in the environment.
  1185. >Which leads to the only logical conclusion.
  1186. >The princess is aiming at the ponies.
  1187. >And why would Luna cast something on the squad?
  1188. >The group which she meticulously and deliberately gathered in a small, relatively confined area?
  1189. >Well, the answer to this question is fairly self-evident.
  1190. >And you notice that the magenta Pegasus mare is raising her voice.
  1191. >She must be one of those who understood it.
  1192. >And, more importantly, she also has the guts to point it out.
  1193. >"Princess, you want us to... camp in this place?"
  1194. >Her words betray a notable degree of tentative disapproval.
  1195. >Something which is almost unheard of in the presence of the Royal Sisters.
  1196. >And Princess Luna hesitates for a second before she replies.
  1197. >She must feel the undertones in that mare's voice as well.
  1198. >But unlike her sister, Luna is not really all that well-versed in the art of diffusing conflicts.
  1199. >Deeply subconscious spheres of pony dreams are one thing.
  1200. >Debating with a group of disapproving Pegasi though?
  1201. >That presents some problems to her.
  1202. >Additionally, her mind is currently shifting a considerable portion of her attention towards the next spell.
  1203. >Which means Luna simply has not the time she would need to think of any elegant wording anyway.
  1204.  
  1205.  
  1206.  
  1207.  
  1208. >So she is careful and reserved in her response.
  1209. >"If you... wish to call it that way."
  1210. >A short, but stiff pause follows.
  1211. >"We... care about your wellbeing."
  1212. >You for your part are aware that Princess Luna is telling the truth here.
  1213. >Her delivery of the truth, however, is pretty lacking.
  1214. >She sounds very cold, and almost emotionally detached.
  1215. >Whilst her own sister is the sole target of more than a dozen dangerous opponents.
  1216. >Not exactly the best way to present her point.
  1217. >And this particular shortcoming has a rather unfortunate consequence.
  1218. >Because #deca.mare hastily sends you a brief warning message, and simultaneously talks to you directly over the comm.
  1219. >"Anon! Keep Sky Squall in check! He is about to make a mistake!"
  1220. >Judging from her voice, #deca.mare is dead serious about this.
  1221. >So you do not ask any questions.
  1222. >Instead, you look around and scan the place to see where Sky Squall is located.
  1223. >You spot him near the "entrance" of the recess, indicating that he was one of the last ponies to get inside.
  1224. >Not much of a surprise, really.
  1225. >But it is also a considerable predicament for you now, as you see him rising up again to face Princess Luna.
  1226. >And being the staunch stallion that he is, he openly gives both Luna and the crowd a piece of his mind.
  1227. >Sky Squall remains polite and collected, but does not pull his punches.
  1228. >"Princess, with all due respect, but hiding in a hole? When... they are out there, threatening your sister? We cannot do this! We are your guards! We are responsible for your wellbeing! No matter what stands against us!"
  1229. >Oh shit.
  1230. >If Sky Squall is really going to pull off what he implies here, then you have a problem.
  1231. >A big one.
  1232. >You cannot let him do that.
  1233. >So you get up as well and try to reach the stallion.
  1234. >But given the highly limited space and the tight crowd of ponies in said room, your progress is very slow.
  1235. >You literally have to shove your way free.
  1236. >And Princess Luna is quick to interrupt Sky Squall once he begins to mention the virtues of a loyal guard.
  1237. >Which is kind of a shame from a tactical perspective.
  1238. >Because if she had given him the chance to bluster, it would have bought you more time.
  1239. >Especially since Luna is not doing a particularly good job at calming him down.
  1240. >She switches over to her own Royal Voice to make a point.
  1241. >But it clashes quite badly with her somewhat hesitant and still far too emotionally detached response.
  1242. >"Esteemed Sky Squall... we know of... and understand your... concerns. But worrying about our sister is not... expedient."
  1243. >Expedience.
  1244. >Truly the way to go when you are talking about the life of your own sister.
  1245. >Alright.
  1246.  
  1247.  
  1248.  
  1249.  
  1250. >Though you cannot really blame Luna.
  1251. >She is earnestly trying hard to give her best.
  1252. >But this mare is far, far outside her element, and also considerably sidetracked by a complicated and crucial procedure.
  1253. >Rhetoric niceties are the last thing on her mind at the moment.
  1254. >If anything, you should be kicking yourself for not being closer to the entrance.
  1255. >Because you should have seen this coming.
  1256. >"Not... 'expedient'?"
  1257. >Sky Squall sounds as if that response dumbfounds him.
  1258. >And Luna's silence does not help to improve the situation either.
  1259. >Not one bit whatsoever.
  1260. >"Princess? Are you feeling well?"
  1261. >Judging solely from the strained expression on her absent-looking face, Sky Squall seems to conclude that she is apparently not feeling well at all.
  1262. >Perhaps he might even think that something is clouding her judgement.
  1263. >And what value could be found in her instructions if this were the case?
  1264. >Very little, to put it politely.
  1265. >Yet whilst your own tools tell you that Luna is doing great in her priority work, the ponies under her command have no way of knowing this.
  1266. >And you do not think that she can just ask Celestia for advice on how to solve this problem.
  1267. >Not in her current state.
  1268. >Both mares have far more pressing matters in their mind at the moment.
  1269. >So Sky Squall takes the initiative, just as he has done countless times before.
  1270. >"We have to help Celestia!"
  1271. >Not good.
  1272. >"I won't let these things hurt the princess!"
  1273. >At this point you earnestly wish that the princesses had spilled the beans on what they are doing.
  1274. >Because Sky Squall would not even think of leaving this place if he knew.
  1275. >Wish or no wish though, that is outside your sphere of influence.
  1276. >And, in a way, you feel just like him.
  1277. >He is chasing something because no one told him about the plan.
  1278. >Similarly, you have to chase him in turn because #deca.mare and Harmony had no time to inform you about the changes in their respective plan.
  1279. >But you discard that notion immediately, as it would be nothing more than a petty blame game with nothing to gain.
  1280. >You simply have to play with the cards that you were given.
  1281. >That being said though, you can only watch as the stallion turns towards a part of the opening which is not occupied by Luna.
  1282. >With the obvious intent to leave.
  1283. >And the princess tries to stop him with words, as she is unable to catch the stallion in her magic aura.
  1284. >All of her power is required elsewhere, after all.
  1285. >"Sky Squall! Halt!"
  1286. >Unfortunately, the golden Pegasus does not listen.
  1287. >He slips past Luna and bolts.
  1288. "Shit!"
  1289. >You almost barrel the rest of your way to the opening and ignore the reactions of the Pegasi you bump into.
  1290. >Curiously though, you think you hear a familiar mare's voice saying something nearby.
  1291. >Yet you simply assume it is a complaint of some sort about you crashing into her side.
  1292. >Anyway, moving on.
  1293. >Apologies can be made later.
  1294.  
  1295.  
  1296.  
  1297.  
  1298. >Once you are standing right next to Luna, the princess addresses you as well.
  1299. >"Star?"
  1300. >You keep it brief and concise as you toss any form of decorum straight out of the proverbial window.
  1301. "Don't stop! Keep your focus on your spell! I'll bring him back!"
  1302. >You cannot afford to consider whether your words may have sounded irreverent towards the princess.
  1303. >And you do not wait for an answer either.
  1304. >Because every wasted second only widens the head start of Sky Squall a bit further.
  1305. >So you leave the small hole in the hill behind and look at the peak.
  1306. >After all, it is the only logical point of interest for Sky Squall.
  1307. >And sure enough, you do spot him on his way there.
  1308. >The stallion is running uphill again.
  1309. >You thank your lucky stars that he is not flying yet.
  1310. >For that would make everything much more complicated.
  1311. >So you grasp that small advantage without hesitation and lift off to intercept Sky Squall from above.
  1312. >Then you disable all of your proxy's limiters and go straight for your top speed at a hell-for-leather acceleration rate.
  1313. >You take everything that your augments can provide.
  1314. >Going well and truly beyond any critical thresholds and safety parameters while doing so.
  1315. >You have no idea how long the augments can take that punishment before they burn out, possibly literally, so you can only hope for the best.
  1316. >And you are quickly reminded that the best is exactly what you need.
  1317. >Because as soon as you are in the air and gradually make up ground, you see how Celestia is charging her horn.
  1318. >The entire length of her, well, organ of sorts, is bathed in a warmly golden light.
  1319. >Then, from one second to the next, the charge releases itself.
  1320. >A bright beam of gleaming light shoots into the sky, apparently directly into the sun above the world.
  1321. >However, you know better.
  1322. >For you are very well aware that there is something between the planet surface and the star which bears the same name as the princess on the hill.
  1323. >And you realise that you run out of time.
  1324. >You have to stop Sky Squall at once.
  1325.  
  1326.  
  1327.  
  1328.  
  1329. >You do not pay any further attention to the imposing beam for the time being.
  1330. >Instead, you focus on Sky Squall.
  1331. >And, more specifically, your approach at an alarming speed.
  1332. >After all, you are almost treating your proxy like a fired projectile.
  1333. >So you have to make damn sure that you get this stunt just right.
  1334. >Luckily, the stallion does not notice your approach.
  1335. >For he is completely and utterly hell-bent on reaching Celestia.
  1336. >Even the skywards beam does not make him flinch in any way whatsoever either.
  1337. >You have got to hand it to him, this horse is stalwart and loyal.
  1338. >Which makes the next thing all the harder to pull off.
  1339. >On virtually every level you can think of.
  1340. >You just hope that you are not about to ruin your friendship.
  1341. >Good intentions or not, this will not be pretty.
  1342. >You aim a forelimb at the back of Sky Squall's head, going straight for a stealthy sucker punch.
  1343. >Then you whisper a single word, shortly before you hit him.
  1344. "Sorry."
  1345. >Despite the close proximity, it seems unlikely that Sky Squall has heard it.
  1346. >And even if he did, he will not be able to spend much time on processing that sound either way.
  1347. >Because the hard and ironshod hoof of your proxy collides violently with the helmeted back of Sky Squall's skull.
  1348. >The sound of metal clashing against metal is almost disturbing to listen to.
  1349. >Especially since you know whose head is inside said abused helmet.
  1350. >Of course, you are aware that you cannot actually kill Sky Squall, even if you were to accidentally smash his head in its entirety.
  1351. >But in spite of this knowledge, you are not at all fond of hurting him nevertheless.
  1352. >However, the situation gives you precious little time for qualms.
  1353. >As much as you may hate it.
  1354. >The power of the impact, combined with the kinetic force of both your speeding proxy and Sky Squall's running body, causes both of you to bump off each other, shoot forward, and hit the ground.
  1355. >Neither of you has any real control over your mutual fall.
  1356. >Which means that both of you ram yourselves unceremoniously into the grassy dirt ground, front first.
  1357. >It is the worst proxy flight crash since your first failed attempt to land in the simulation.
  1358. >But taking place in reality this time around, whilst dragging someone else with you.
  1359. >Another reminder why this is not a deed to be proud of.
  1360. >Though, again, having the time to dwell on this thought is a luxury which you do not possess at the moment.
  1361. >You still need to act.
  1362. >No matter how tricky the situation may already be.
  1363. >Or how difficult it could still become.
  1364. >Sky Squall and you tumble quite a bit as you roll downwards again, adding further to the general confusion and disorientation.
  1365. >Eventually though, you come to a stop.
  1366. >Sky Squall does the same, a bit further down.
  1367. >Although not due to any intentional doing of his own.
  1368.  
  1369.  
  1370.  
  1371.  
  1372. >The stallion lies on his side, motionless.
  1373. >Even from a certain distance, one nasty dent is visible on the surface of his helmet.
  1374. >A dent in a masterfully crafted piece of armour, caused by your singular strike.
  1375. >Truly a testament of how much force you applied during your stunt.
  1376. >And upon seeing this damage on his gear, a freezing shiver runs down your back and spine.
  1377. >Could you have hit Sky Squall with too much force?
  1378. >Judging from the looks alone, the now malformed metal must press uncomfortably against some parts of his head.
  1379. >If not worse.
  1380. >You try to stand up and run to the downed Pegasus.
  1381. >Yet before you are fully on your own legs again, you notice that Sky Squall is stirring as well.
  1382. >At first, you feel relieved to see him moving, and send a silent mental thank you to the able smith who made Sky Squall's gear.
  1383. >But that cheery notion is quickly fading, as he too starts to rise.
  1384. >Once again, he is just as apt in getting back up as you are.
  1385. >Well, shit.
  1386. >You waste not even a single moment, and instantly pounce him a second time.
  1387. >The irony of worrying that you might have critically wounded one of your closest friends in one moment, only to physically tackle him in the next, is not wholly lost on you.
  1388. >However, if there will ever be a time in which you can appreciate said irony, then it must be a very distant one.
  1389. >You land on Sky Squall's back and get a grip around his neck with your forelimbs.
  1390. >This impact and the sudden surprise force him to stagger again.
  1391. >However, he has somehow managed to regain enough of his wits to keep standing.
  1392. >Bad.
  1393. >Very, very bad.
  1394. >You wanted Sky Squall to be prone and hamstrung by now.
  1395. >Because you hoped that you could carry him back to the safety of the recess.
  1396. >In reality though, the stallion is still able to pick up a fight.
  1397. >And he absolutely makes use of this option.
  1398. >With no questions asked.
  1399. >Sky Squall is a fighter, and he does not back down.
  1400. >A fact that you have known all along.
  1401. >Which is why you tried to avoid this very situation to begin with.
  1402. >He struggles like a savage, ferociously bucks the air behind you, and jumps around with you on his back.
  1403. >The Pegasus is trying to shake you off with every move.
  1404. >And if it were not for your enhanced control over the augmentations of the proxy, then he would have a pretty good chance of actually succeeding with this strategy.
  1405. >"Get off, you foal of a ratite! We must help the princess!"
  1406. >You refuse.
  1407. >Rather unsurprisingly.
  1408. >And you are not afraid to let him know that too.
  1409. "No, you idiot! You must get back into the cave!"
  1410. >Hearing your voice seems to surprise Sky Squall.
  1411. >The stallion relents for a brief moment as he realises who has attacked him.
  1412. >"Star? You?"
  1413.  
  1414.  
  1415.  
  1416.  
  1417. >You nod.
  1418. "Yes! And I tell you the truth! Do what Luna says! You must get back!"
  1419. >Another buck is your answer.
  1420. >"No! I don't know what's gotten into you and the princess, but this is madness!"
  1421. >That it is.
  1422. >Though not for the reasons that Sky Squall sees on the horizon.
  1423. >He is lacking the necessary perspective.
  1424. >For better, and for worse.
  1425. "It's not safe for us out here! Believe me!"
  1426. >Sky Squall rears up.
  1427. >Then he tries to get you off by wildly flapping his wings.
  1428. >"Of course it isn't! Have you forgotten why we're here?"
  1429. >Alright, you did not exactly come up with the best argument.
  1430. >Regardless of that though, you still have to get Sky Squall to safety.
  1431. >Somehow.
  1432. >But you apparently have to involve yet more physical means to make that happen.
  1433. >Since he is currently standing on only two legs, you yank at the stallion's shoulders to disturb his balance.
  1434. >Yet that alone is not enough.
  1435. >So you use the wings of your proxy to bolster your attempt with a couple of brisk flapping movements of your own.
  1436. >And this time, it works.
  1437. >Though not quite in the way you have expected.
  1438. >You planned to force Sky Squall back onto his four legs.
  1439. >But he fights against your pushing attempts with even more ferocity, causing him to tip backwards as a result.
  1440. >At this point in time, the stallion is still able to salvage the situation without an uncontrolled plunge.
  1441. >However, he would need to relent at least to some degree in order to achieve this.
  1442. >And the mere thought of seeing Sky Squall relent in a genuine fight, well, is a quaint fantasy at best.
  1443. >So the inevitable outcome follows swiftly.
  1444. >The golden Pegasus keels over and lands right on top of you, pinning you on the floor whilst his legs dangle wildly in the air.
  1445. >You keep your grip around him.
  1446. >"Clouds and skies! Let go!"
  1447. >Sky Squall violently rocks himself to the side, dragging you with him.
  1448. >And you cannot stop him from doing so.
  1449. >Again, he fights his way to a proper footing, struggling against you at every step on the way.
  1450. >But eventually, he stands once more.
  1451. >In spite of your best efforts, and with you still clinging to his back.
  1452. >Even with your augmentations running above their usual performance, you have a hard time to keep Sky Squall in check.
  1453. >He simply is the stronger brawler.
  1454. >Plus, the fact that he is also fighting the effects of a moderate concussion at the same time does not seem to hinder him much.
  1455. >Oh boy.
  1456. >You are in for a real treat.
  1457. >Looking at your proxy creation in hindsight, maybe you should have chosen the Big Macintosh build in terms of physique for cases like this.
  1458. >Then again, you would have never thought that you might have to incapacitate one of your best friends in a legitimate tussle one day.
  1459. >Either way though, there is one thing you have in common.
  1460. >After all, you cannot give in either.
  1461. >And for the exact same reason why Sky Squall is so adamant in defying your warnings.
  1462.  
  1463.  
  1464.  
  1465.  
  1466. >In a way, you have a perfect triangular cascade of irony.
  1467. >You want to save Sky Squall, who in turn wishes to protect the princess that defends the ponies, you included as far as the princess is concerned, from the danger of the hostile dragons.
  1468. >Which subsequently forces you to fight the Pegasus you wish to save whilst he has the urge to fight for the princess he wants to rescue, not knowing that said princess has the means to save the day on her own without any further fighting.
  1469. >If it were not for the simple truth that Harmony has no personal sense for pranks and horseplay, yet, you might have gotten the suspicion that all of this is just the punch line of a cosmic joke.
  1470. >As you try to find a way to capitalise on your current position, however, Sky Squall acts already.
  1471. >He deliberately throws himself to the side again, with as much force as possible this time, causing you to slam against the ground like the head of a swung hammer.
  1472. >And, much to your surprise, the force of the impact is actually strong enough to make you lose your grip on the stallion's neck.
  1473. >The augmentations of your proxy, straining themselves past any reasonable limit as they already do, falter for a brief moment.
  1474. >As far as you can tell from the information you see on the HUD, the augmentations have not suffered from any lasting damage so far.
  1475. >But with nearly all of their values shooting up into the critical range, their steady performance is no longer guaranteed.
  1476. >As seen right now.
  1477. >Though that short moment of weakness is all that Sky Squall needs to turn the tables.
  1478. >He jerks around like mad and threshes you repeatedly with his wings, successfully forcing you to back off and roll onto your back.
  1479. >Which is exactly the reaction that the stallion was hoping for.
  1480. >He expertly rolls himself back onto his hooves with one swift move, gallops straight to you whilst you are still trying to get up yourself, and puts a forehoof squarely on your chest.
  1481. >Then he presses you down into the grass again.
  1482. >The stallion stares right at your face.
  1483. >And his eyes almost radiate the heat of a dancing flame as far as you are concerned.
  1484. >If you have ever seen the fire of a burning determination within someone, it is this very moment.
  1485. >And you realise that he would do anything that is necessary to reach his goal.
  1486. >No matter who or what might stand in his way.
  1487. >Nevertheless, he does not allow himself to lose control.
  1488. >Even in this mode, below the nigh zealous drive to guard the Royal Sisters, come hell or high water, he somehow remains the old collected self that he has always been.
  1489. >And so, he does not do anything to you, he does not threaten you in any way, and he has no obvious intention to hurt you either.
  1490. >He simply stares you down as he towers over you.
  1491. >And he prevents you from standing up.
  1492. >Always with just as much force as you make him use.
  1493. >When you struggle harder, he pushes harder.
  1494. >When you relent, so does he.
  1495. >Deadlock.
  1496.  
  1497.  
  1498.  
  1499.  
  1500. >"Star. Have you gone mad?"
  1501. >You shake your head, still looking for a way to salvage the situation.
  1502. >Less than a second later, you receive another message from #deca.mare.
  1503. >Text only.
  1504. >It contains a strategy to get out of this predicament in time with "mundane" means.
  1505. >However, it does also entail a move which is, well, uncultured.
  1506. >But in the lack of a viable alternative, you see no other way.
  1507. >Sky Squall prods you further as he catches a glimpse of Celestia and the dragons.
  1508. >The princess is entirely engrossed in her own thoughts while casting her pillar of light.
  1509. >She has absolutely no idea that the two of you are duking it out behind her back.
  1510. >And the dragons are not all that far away any more too.
  1511. >It will still be a while until they are in firing range, but the margin of time has already become much smaller.
  1512. >While Sky Squall is looking elsewhere for a second, you use the opportunity to check something else instead.
  1513. >And indeed, #deca.mare's proposed window of opportunity is a viable one.
  1514. >Then you look at Sky Squall's face again.
  1515. >And he looks back, not aware of your little peek.
  1516. >"Why did you attack me? What is going on?"
  1517. >You take a breath.
  1518. "Sky, listen. We don't have..."
  1519. >No chance.
  1520. >He wants an answer.
  1521. >"What are you doing here?"
  1522. >You sigh and look him in the eyes as you ready yourself.
  1523. >Fine, he will get the answer he craves.
  1524. >And you really hope that you can smooth this over later on.
  1525. "Being a reliable friend."
  1526. >Which is the full truth.
  1527. >Once you have said that though, you promptly position a rear hoof directly between Sky Squall's hind legs, and let it shoot upwards.
  1528. >You pull this stunt off with as much speed as you can muster.
  1529. >Just as #deca.mare recommended.
  1530. >She even justified this action by stating that it is the only way to make sure he cannot react in time.
  1531. >You ask yourself whether a lower speed might have been enough as well.
  1532. >And it probably would.
  1533. >But you assume #deca.mare did not want to rely on rolling the dice in this matter.
  1534. >Uncouth and blunt as her suggestion was, the effects prove her right.
  1535. >Because the stallion reacts predictably to the stealthy strike against his softer parts.
  1536. >Sky Squall wheezes briskly and jerks up instinctually as the pain hits him seemingly out of the blue.
  1537. >Yet he manages to keep himself from shouting out loud.
  1538. >Albeit barely.
  1539. >And you see a genuine notion of unpleasant surprise and disbelief in his stunned expression.
  1540. >You assume he absolutely did not expect you to stoop this low, even in this situation.
  1541. >But no matter what the Pegasus' perception of you and your actions may have been, it does not change the inevitable result of your strike.
  1542. >You positively paralysed the Pegasus, in spite of his stubborn attempts to weather the searing shock with his sheer willpower.
  1543. >Sky Squall's rear legs quake and struggle to keep him upright.
  1544.  
  1545.  
  1546.  
  1547.  
  1548. >Both his body and armour have suddenly become uncomfortably heavy for him.
  1549. >Too heavy, in fact.
  1550. >Even his strong sense of self-discipline is unable to overcome that considerable impairment.
  1551. >Sky Squall's muscles tremble wildly, still refusing to give in, until they eventually fail the stallion completely.
  1552. >He loses the practically impossible fight to remain on his hooves, and slumps down right on top of you, saying nothing.
  1553. >All you hear from him is a single gasp escaping his lungs.
  1554. >It turns into a weak groan as he collapses.
  1555. >A sound which you have never heard from him before.
  1556. >This is an alien and uncomfortable thing to witness, since you are directly responsible for it.
  1557. >And for a brief moment, you are tempted to apologise right on the spot for what you have done.
  1558. >But considering the crippling pain he is enduring at the moment because of your kick, you highly doubt that he is susceptible to what you have to say.
  1559. >Besides, the clock is ticking.
  1560. >A new message appears on your HUD.
  1561. >Sent neither by Harmony nor #deca.mare, but an automated system.
  1562. >And the automaton tells you everything you need to know.
  1563. >Signal confirmed.
  1564. >Surface marker located.
  1565. >Area mapped.
  1566. >Turret control master override sequence complete.
  1567. >Manual targeting system initiated.
  1568. >Awaiting input.
  1569. >Oh yes, the manure is flying rapidly towards the fan.
  1570. >Celestia is working fast up there.
  1571. >Really frighteningly damn fast.
  1572. >Especially for someone who does not even know what a space ship is.
  1573. >Well, you and Sky Squall will clearly not make it back to Luna in time.
  1574. >The alternative it is then.
  1575. >Bad as it may be in comparison.
  1576. >Both tactically speaking, and from the perspective of Sky Squall's already dented pride.
  1577. >But a bruised pride is better than what he would be facing up here.
  1578. >So you get to work and scan the grassy hillside beneath you.
  1579. >An at least passable hideout must be somewhere nearby, according to #deca.mare.
  1580. >And indeed, the HUD indicates the presence of a comparatively sizable notch in the grassland, about fifteen metres further down.
  1581. >A fairly narrow, yet steep muddy pit.
  1582. >Which offers ample room for two ponies.
  1583. >Not the shelter of your choice by any stretch of the imagination, yet certainly more agreeable than being incinerated wholesale by terraformer weaponry.
  1584. >You take a sharp breath and raise your voice.
  1585. "Please do both of us a favour and don't throw up."
  1586. >Sky Squall does not respond, despite being fully conscious.
  1587. >You are sure that he can hear you.
  1588. >However, whether he currently possesses the mental faculties to process your remark is a different question.
  1589. >Anyway, you have to move, and you must do it now.
  1590. >So you mark the ditch as a priority target on your HUD.
  1591. >Then you go for the fastest strategy you can think of to get there with Sky Squall in tow.
  1592. >An idea which is partially inspired by your first personal encounter with #deca.mare and Harmony.
  1593.  
  1594.  
  1595.  
  1596.  
  1597. >You grab the downed stallion with all four limbs, hold on to him with every available bit of your power, and simply let the two of you roll downwards.
  1598. >Equestria's gravity does the rest for you.
  1599. >Sky Squall and you spin around each other as you "merrily" tumble down the hillside.
  1600. >A simple and admittedly somewhat crude method, but it works just fine.
  1601. >You even manage to reach a decent speed.
  1602. >And as the two of you, quite literally, roll to relative safety, you use your HUD to spot and avoid any potentially dangerous objects on your way.
  1603. >Things like sharp stones or other obstacles that could hurt one of you if you roll over it.
  1604. >Though you focus especially on those hazards that may affect Sky Squall.
  1605. >After all, you do not want to add deep cuts or more nasty bruises to the list.
  1606. >The Pegasus is going through enough crud today as it is.
  1607. >Fortunately for you, the short trip turns out to have barely any obstacles to speak of, resulting in a fairly short and thankfully uneventful trek.
  1608. >During the last few metres, you deliberately slow your descent to a manageable pace, in spite of being in a hurry.
  1609. >That way you can stop your rolling adventure right on the edge of the hole.
  1610. >Then you proceed to carefully drop the stallion into the pit, rather than letting him fall freely.
  1611. >This is not exactly an elegant affair though.
  1612. >Sky Squall is notably heavier than your proxy, even without the armour.
  1613. >But given that you lack the time to remove the damn thing, you are forced to transport him with his full gear.
  1614. >Yet you are nevertheless able to deliver a relatively decent job, as you push your augments for another brief moment to handle the extra weight.
  1615. >You rather damage your own proxy a bit more due to extensive strain before you risk injuring Sky Squall in an uncontrollable free fall.
  1616. >Once you are done, he lies back first in the soft, yet cold mud.
  1617. >He even sinks a little bit into the sludge beneath him, as his heavy armour drags him down.
  1618. >Sky Squall will not look pretty when he gets out of this hole again.
  1619. >Not pretty at all.
  1620. >But at the very least he will still have a body to call his own when he does.
  1621. >Which is all that counts at the end of the day.
  1622. >Now that he is in position, you take a few seconds to scan the stallion and check his condition.
  1623. >As you have expected, you did quite a number on him.
  1624. >But, and this is one of the most important things to you, you have inflicted no grievous damage on the golden Pegasus.
  1625. >The effects of the concussion will probably only last for a few hours.
  1626. >Or roughly half a day at worst.
  1627. >And whilst he is probably going to walk wonkily for a day or two, he will be as good as new eventually.
  1628. >He does not require any additional regenerative treatment for either of his conditions.
  1629.  
  1630.  
  1631.  
  1632.  
  1633. >Of course, this does precious little to alleviate Sky Squall's current discomfort.
  1634. >Yet it is still good to know.
  1635. >Plus, it means you do not have to drag him down to one of your subterranean facilities to patch him up.
  1636. >Which is good news, since you would not be happy to risk that whilst both Royal Sisters are in the area.
  1637. >A warning appears on your HUD.
  1638. >Targets locked.
  1639. >Weapons charged.
  1640. >Commencing attack in thirty seconds.
  1641. >This text is quickly replaced by a counter and an exclamation mark.
  1642. >Alright, this is it.
  1643. >No time to waste.
  1644. >You immediately climb into the narrow pit as well, pinning Sky Squall beneath you in the process.
  1645. >That way you can stop him from trying to crawl out.
  1646. >Provided he somehow manages to muster the strength to do so.
  1647. >And he actually does something akin to what you have expected.
  1648. >Once he notices that you are de facto lying on top of him, Sky Squall tries to twist and wriggle himself free.
  1649. "Calm down, I'm on your side."
  1650. >Your words have no effect.
  1651. >Small wonder, really.
  1652. >Even if he listens to what you are saying, it must sound highly disingenuous to him at the moment.
  1653. >But his efforts are, fortunately, more instinctually driven than deliberately coordinated, and also fairly weak from a physical perspective as well.
  1654. >So you can easily stop Sky Squall from going anywhere.
  1655. >However, he does occasionally crane his neck in disadvantageous angles, with notable consequences.
  1656. >For whilst you try to keep his head steady with your forelimbs, you cannot always prevent the Pegasus from accidentally dipping his nostrils into the mud.
  1657. >Which leads to him inhaling a portion of it every time.
  1658. >Only to snort and cough it out again out of sheer reflex.
  1659. >It is not a pleasant sight to behold.
  1660. >And the situation is going to become a tad more uncomfortable soon enough.
  1661. >The counter reaches zero and gets replaced by a new line of text.
  1662. >Turrets firing.
  1663. >Everything around you appears to have gone dead silent for a second.
  1664. >You hear absolutely nothing except for your proxy's own breath.
  1665. >And you inhale deeply as you look at the video feed, still showing Celestia and her skywards pillar of seemingly aureate light.
  1666. >Then, from one moment to the next, without any previous warning or signal, a second pillar of blazing light appears on the screen.
  1667. >A beam as wide as a house, and cast downwards instead of up.
  1668. >It hits a patch of ground between Celestia and the dragons, instantly incinerating the affected soil and nearby vegetation.
  1669. >But that is not all.
  1670. >Your video feed gets distorted by excessive amounts of thermal energy just as quickly.
  1671. >The beam heats the area around it to an unbearable degree, causing the air to waft almost instantaneously.
  1672. >It is turning the vicinity around the impact site into a torrid zone of certain death.
  1673. >Then you hear it too.
  1674.  
  1675.  
  1676.  
  1677.  
  1678. >A deep, persistent, highly unnatural, and completely unnerving droning echoes through the air.
  1679. >Like a baleful herald, it proclaims the message of unmistakable and insurmountable destruction.
  1680. >It feels like the very essence of this sound is trying to drill itself into your head to drive you to insanity.
  1681. >In spite of your better knowledge that you are not even present in person.
  1682. >Sky Squall is not exactly thrilled by the experience either.
  1683. >He doubles his efforts to break free, having no idea what is happening around him.
  1684. >But you cannot allow him to go, no matter how much he squirms.
  1685. >Not now.
  1686. >Only a few moments later, the air above you begins to heat up notably as well.
  1687. >The radius of the affected area around the impact site is simply gargantuan.
  1688. >You can only guess what is happening on the top of the hill right now.
  1689. >Judging from the glowing sphere that appeared around the body of the princess, the only thing which you can see more or less clearly in the abstruse chaos that your video feed has become, Celestia's prepared energy shield is keeping her perfectly safe inside.
  1690. >Even whilst the attack is creating a sea of flames right in front of her.
  1691. >And you know for a fact that a similar shield is protecting Luna and the rest of the group inside the recess.
  1692. >Sky Squall and you are the only ones who face the side effects of the attack without any meaningful protection.
  1693. >Well, that cannot be changed anymore.
  1694. >Now you have to endure until the whole thing is over.
  1695. >Whatever it takes to do so, and no matter how uncomfortable it will be.
  1696. >And it is going to become a lot worse yet.
  1697. >Because Celestia does not settle for a single turret.
  1698. >Oh no, she is going for a full broadside strike.
  1699. >The second turret begins to fire on the next spot, whilst the first one continues its barrage.
  1700. >Another searing pillar of light is created, only a few hundred metres beside the first.
  1701. >Then turret number three springs into action, aiming for a spot on the opposite side.
  1702. >The three beams now form a veritable wall of blazing ruin between Princess Celestia and her opponents.
  1703. >You change the satellite's focus to look at the other side of said wall.
  1704. >As expected, the dragons shy away from this kind of attack, despite their inherent enhanced resistance to high temperatures.
  1705. >Because from their point of view, it appears as if Celestia has just summoned these rays directly from the sun.
  1706. >By channelling the star's raw power somehow with her magical focus.
  1707. >And considering that you derive most of your energy from solar power, this take on the situation is fairly close to the truth.
  1708. >They understand, just by looking at it, that this energy is more than capable of piercing even their durable hides as if they were paper.
  1709. >And just to really hammer home her display of strength, Celestia activates the other five turrets as well.
  1710. >Though you are not surprised by this particular revelation.
  1711. >After all, you know exactly how many turrets are mounted on that side of your ship.
  1712.  
  1713.  
  1714.  
  1715.  
  1716. >But you are also aware that you are within the immediate danger zone of the secondary thermal energy.
  1717. >It is going to become hot in here soon.
  1718. >So you address Sky Squall in a hurry.
  1719. >You shout as loudly as your proxy's lungs allow you to, hoping he will hear your voice through the chaos that is happening around you.
  1720. "Sky! Listen! I'll get us through this! But I need you to keep still now and trust me, alright?"
  1721. >You have no time to wait for an answer which may or may not come, so you immediately press Sky Squall a little bit deeper into the cooling mud.
  1722. >But you mind to still keep his face and nostrils clear.
  1723. >Then you press yourself tightly against the Pegasus beneath you and spread the wings of your proxy as far as you can within the restraints of the narrow pit.
  1724. >You plan to block as much space with your proxy as possible, to form a "living shield" above Sky Squall.
  1725. >Then you observe what is happening above you.
  1726. >The combined might of the eight powered beams ruins or strains the surface vegetation in a radius of several kilometres.
  1727. >And as a crowning touch, Celestia sways the turrets slightly, letting the beams wander up and down across the whole length of the "wall".
  1728. >Like deadly dancers on a linear stage, they draw a literal line in the ground that absolutely nobody can ignore.
  1729. >What is not either vaporised or incinerated within seconds, dries up and withers in the consecutively increasing heat, partially catching fire after a while as well.
  1730. >Princess Celestia kept her promise indeed.
  1731. >It is a damn good thing that you have driven the dragons this far to the south.
  1732. >No one lives in the vicinity, and the animals were fairly easy to evacuate in advance behind the scenes.
  1733. >It is a real shame about the plants though.
  1734. >But right now, you have no time to mind the botanical losses in the area overly much.
  1735. >Because within minutes of continuous fire, the temperature inside the hole has risen to sixty degrees Celsius.
  1736. >And still gradually rising.
  1737. >Normally, that would not be much of a problem, since a temperature like this would be akin to a trip to a low level sauna.
  1738. >Under these circumstances though, in stress, donned in full metal armour, whilst trying to keep the heat above you at bay, and the still somewhat fidgeting stallion beneath you as still as possible?
  1739. >That is a workout, alright.
  1740. >Especially since the armour is slowly heating up as well, making the experience yet more uncomfortable.
  1741. >Granted, you could disable all of the sensory input of your proxy to make the situation more bearable for yourself.
  1742. >But you deliberately decide against it.
  1743. >After all, Sky Squall and the others do not have the luxury of simply opting out and hiding in orbit.
  1744.  
  1745.  
  1746.  
  1747.  
  1748. >As such, it may be helpful for you to personally experience and comprehend what the situation is like on the ground.
  1749. >And what it must feel like for someone like Sky Squall to be in said situation.
  1750. >Well, maybe minus one particular physical discomfort.
  1751. >But never mind.
  1752. >This is, objectively speaking, only a minor matter that can be put aside for now.
  1753. >Even when Sky Squall might think differently about this in his current condition.
  1754. >The HUD informs you that you are close to the seventy degrees mark now.
  1755. >If the increase continues at this rate, you will have about ten to fifteen minutes before the situation is reaching the boiling point.
  1756. >Literally.
  1757. >However, you notice that your actions have an effect.
  1758. >The dirt at the bottom of the hole is not heating up as quickly as the rest of the environment, thanks to your shielding.
  1759. >And the air that the two of you are breathing may be stuffy, but it retains a bearable temperature as well.
  1760. >At around seventy-five degrees, though, you start to worry.
  1761. >And at the eighty degrees mark, below your shielding, that is, your worries feel even more justified.
  1762. >Eighty-five.
  1763. >Breathing becomes increasingly more difficult as the hot air is unpleasant to inhale, and the skin beneath the proxy's coat starts to hurt.
  1764. >Especially at the wings and back.
  1765. >Sky Squall gets much more tricky to handle as well.
  1766. >And the health monitoring systems of your proxy flash up some other warnings soon thereafter, telling you what you more or less expected already.
  1767. >It informs you that the prolonged exposure to the heat is starting to mar the tissue on your proxy's wings.
  1768. >And the coat beneath the armour is reaching the critical level as well.
  1769. >You really are on your proverbial last leg now.
  1770. >But then, closely to the ninety degrees Celsius mark, Celestia finally deactivates the turrets.
  1771. >The mighty beams weaken and fade almost at once, taking their unnerving constant droning with them.
  1772. >Total silence reigns once more, as the temperature peaks at about ninety degrees.
  1773. >It will take a while for the environment to cool down to normal levels again, but the worst is over now.
  1774. >You even notice that Sky Squall starts to calm down, once he realises that the noise has left his skull.
  1775. >And just as you pull him up a little bit, you hear a familiar mare's voice dominating the landscape yet again.
  1776. >"I am sure we can come to an agreement now. Send one of your own as a negotiator. Only one."
  1777. >You set the focus of your video feed back to Celestia.
  1778.  
  1779.  
  1780.  
  1781.  
  1782. >She still stands tall inside her protective sphere, with a green patch of untainted grass at her hooves, as the currents of blistering air dance all around her, and a newly formed wide trench of molten rock glows brightly in the distance.
  1783. >Celestia really is playing to the gallery with every trick in the book here to impress her opponents.
  1784. >And it seems to have worked.
  1785. >Because the dragons, now a great deal further away again, send one of their own ahead.
  1786. >He ventures out alone, whilst the others stay where they are.
  1787. >You receive a short notification from #deca.mare.
  1788. >Mission accomplished.
  1789. >Finally.
  1790. >You sigh in relief as you take one glance at the scorched surface all around you via the video feed.
  1791. >The now thoroughly ruined area will take a considerable time to recover from this shock.
  1792. >It will eventually though.
  1793. >Yet as you take in the details of this momentarily barren land, it reminds you of another place that met a similar fate.
  1794. >Albeit in a more lasting fashion.
  1795. >You mumble to yourself.
  1796. "Fuck me. The worst form of ancestry research I've ever witnessed, I swear to God."
  1797. >Sky Squall coughs loudly and raises his voice.
  1798. >He only manages to speak between laboured breaths of air, but it is something at least.
  1799. >"Star? What in Equestria. Happened?"
  1800. >You look at him.
  1801. "I saved your rump from getting roasted."
  1802. >Sky Squall blinks through a mask of mud covering one half of his face, obviously missing the double entendre in your words.
  1803. >But you do not care to explain it to him.
  1804. >In fact, you would not even know what to say to explain that sort of thing to a herbivore.
  1805. >Instead, you catch yourself wondering what a Pegasus' roasted rump might taste like.
  1806. >You slowly shake your head and banish this thought.
  1807. >And you interpret it as a clear sign that your mind is tired to the point of slipping into the realm of mental nonsense.
  1808. >So you do something about it.
  1809. >By calling it a day.
  1810. >You meet Sky Squall's confused gaze again.
  1811. "You're welcome."
  1812. >Then you cut your connection to the proxy, and simply let it go limp.
  1813. >Sky Squall is hale and hearty, relatively speaking, so he can take it from here on out.
  1814. >You need a break.
  1815. >At once.
  1816.  
  1817.  
  1818.  
  1819.  
  1820. 146
  1821.  
  1822. >As you rise from your chair, you see on your screen how Sky Squall tries to speak to your now rather unresponsive proxy.
  1823. >It is the last thing you register of the happenings on the surface.
  1824. >You stand in the middle of the command deck with closed eyes and stretch your arms.
  1825. >Despite being inside the simulation, your limbs feel as if you have worked for a week without pause.
  1826. >Which is not completely off, all things considered.
  1827. >And you quickly realise something else.
  1828. >You are far too tired to shuffle up the ramp to get to the bed-chamber in the good old fashioned way.
  1829. >So you simply let yourself fall right where you are.
  1830. >Though you do not hit the hard floor of the deck.
  1831. >Instead, you land directly on your familiar Canterlot bed.
  1832. >The digital sounds of the command deck's instruments make way for the distant chirping of birds.
  1833. >And a cool breeze at the dusk of a summer day blows into the room through an open window.
  1834. >Much better for your tired mind.
  1835. >Only one little detail is still missing.
  1836. >But you know it must be somewhere nearby.
  1837. >Because you want it to be there.
  1838. >So you feel around.
  1839. >Without opening your eyes.
  1840. >And indeed, you are quick to touch a familiar warm coat, located close to your head.
  1841. >You smile wordlessly.
  1842. >"Uhm, Anon? What is going on?"
  1843. >#deca.mare is overtly surprised that you summoned her without prior notification.
  1844. >After all, she is extraordinarily busy at the moment.
  1845. >She and Harmony are still doing everything they can behind the scenes to allow the "negotiations" between Celestia and the representative of the dragons to go smoothly.
  1846. >It is a tall order to be sure, yet it has a very good chance of working out as intended.
  1847. >Besides, the two would never let Celestia scorch a considerable swathe into the landscape with "sunfire" as a warning shot if they were sceptical about the results.
  1848. >And you for your part hope the effort will be worth it as well.
  1849. >But it also means that #deca.mare cannot take a nap with you now.
  1850. >She has to handle far too many things to even consider taking a break.
  1851. >And she knows that you are fully aware of this as well.
  1852. >So you do not beat around the bush either.
  1853. "Nothing urgent. Please carry on."
  1854. >You hear #deca.mare shifting her body lightly on the sheets.
  1855. >"Then why did you..."
  1856. >You answer her question by slowly laying your head on the exposed side of her barrel.
  1857. "Because we didn't spend nearly as much time together as we should have. You know, figuratively speaking."
  1858. >You cover your body with a blanket and make yourself comfortable.
  1859. >And #deca.mare agrees with a sigh.
  1860. >"You are right. It was a busy week."
  1861. >She shifts herself a bit more to lay fully sideways on the bed, exposing yet more of her barrel and chest for you to use.
  1862. >Then you hear her materialising a couple of consoles.
  1863. >Sounds like she wants to keep working from here.
  1864.  
  1865.  
  1866.  
  1867.  
  1868. >You nuzzle her side and caress her chest and neck with your hands as a grin grows on your face.
  1869. "And... because you're a better pillow than Sky Squall."
  1870. >#deca.mare snorts shortly, but quickly returns to her former calm demeanour.
  1871. "He's going to spend a while down there in the hole anyway, at least until things cool down a bit. So I thought I could use the opportunity to 'pass out', and spend the time here. With you."
  1872. >She chuckles.
  1873. >"I am glad to hear that. I was afraid you might prefer his company instead."
  1874. >You keep stroking #deca.mare's neck, showing no overt reaction to her lightly facetious comment.
  1875. "No."
  1876. >A pause.
  1877. "He fidgets too much, you know?"
  1878. >"Do not judge him so harshly for that. You would do the same in his position."
  1879. >You clear your throat.
  1880. "Maybe."
  1881. >A second brief pause.
  1882. "I have no... plans to test this theory out though."
  1883. >You pause again.
  1884. "But all jokes aside, do you think he'll hold a grudge against me from now on? I wasn't exactly gentle to him."
  1885. >To say the least.
  1886. >"No, I do not think he will, Anon. You may have hurt his ego, amongst other things, but Sky Squall is no fool. He will eventually understand what you did for him. At the very latest when he sees for himself what Celestia has done to the area. Your... uninhibited performance is not going to strain your friendship. Not in the long run."
  1887. >You exhale slowly.
  1888. "That's a relief. It would have been a real shame if that had been the end of things, you know?"
  1889. >"This is a fear I can rebut. Wholeheartedly."
  1890. >She chuckles lightly.
  1891. >"Though I should mention that he might be tempted to challenge you a bit more often in the near future."
  1892. "How so? Because I brought him low?"
  1893. >"In a way, yes. You have done something that no one has done before, and that... left a mark on him. Beyond the physical blemish, that is."
  1894. >You stop stroking #deca.mare's coat as you remember what Sky Squall said about you upstaging him.
  1895. >Back then, it was a mere joke.
  1896. >A form of friendly banter, but nothing more.
  1897. >In the end though, justified or not, you sent him to the floor.
  1898. >Decisively so.
  1899. >Even with the alleged strength of a colt.
  1900. >And by using a pretty dirty, yet also fairly obvious trick.
  1901. >Which, by extension, does not cast a positive light on Sky Squall's skills in general.
  1902. >Something like this should not happen to an aureate leader.
  1903. "Sky thinks I might have undermined his reputation as the alpha stud? Is that it?"
  1904. >"Let me put it like this: In spite of knowing that you went into an imminent danger zone to save his life, Sky Squall is about to return to his squad after being proven wrong, covered in mud, and... being in pain. No one has ever seen him beaten like this. It is an atypical situation for everypony. And a bit of a shock for Sky Squall in particular."
  1905.  
  1906.  
  1907.  
  1908.  
  1909. >She pauses.
  1910. >"Please do not misunderstand me, no one will consider your actions in this case to be unjustified, given the circumstances. Not even Sky himself. But they do diminish his radiant image to a degree."
  1911. >A pause.
  1912. "For Sky is no longer the unreachable captain, hm? So he'll feel the urge to reinstate his reputation as the top brass."
  1913. >"That is one way of putting it."
  1914. "And how far will he go?"
  1915. >"Not much farther than previously. It will all be limited to usual Pegasus show tussles. Just... expect more regular challenges to one if you are near him."
  1916. >#deca.mare stops working on her consoles for a moment to hold your still outstretched hand with her forehooves.
  1917. >"Rest assured that he does not harbour any ill will though. He will merely feel compelled to prove to others, and to himself, that he is still a suitable candidate for the role at the top."
  1918. >She pauses.
  1919. >"If anything, he is now perceiving you as a more... noteworthy competitor, rather than a pony that he needs to uplift. A friendly rival, if you will. With emphasis on friendly."
  1920. >You shrug.
  1921. "I think I can live with that."
  1922. >#deca.mare sighs lightly.
  1923. >"One more thing though. It would help Sky immensely if you have a little constructive conversation with him when you meet again. To lift his spirit a little."
  1924. >#deca.mare clears her throat.
  1925. >"I would prefer to do it myself if I could, and apologise for being the one who made the suggestion to knock him out like this. But..."
  1926. "But that's not possible without giving everything away."
  1927. >#deca.mare sighs.
  1928. >"Yes, unfortunately. As far as he knows, it was all your idea. So only you can do it."
  1929. >A pause.
  1930. "Alright, fair enough. Anything I should take note of in particular?"
  1931. >"Just be tactful about it. You know how he is."
  1932. >You nod.
  1933. "Yeah, I do."
  1934. >A moment later, you open your eyes to see what #deca.mare is working on.
  1935. >And you immediately recognise the strategic outline of the scorched area.
  1936. "How is the situation on the surface?"
  1937. >#deca.mare slowly releases your hand and looks at the consoles again.
  1938. >"It looks promising. Celestia's 'demonstration of strength' has worked. The dragons hold their position. And their envoy listens to what the princess has to say."
  1939. >You nod lightly.
  1940. "That's great."
  1941. >#deca.mare alters the map and zooms in on the area around the hill.
  1942. >"I have also activated the hibernation mode of your proxy, shortly after you cut the connection. It makes the semblance of you passing out due to the burn wounds more plausible."
  1943. >She chuckles once.
  1944. >"Departing without any instructions caused the proxy to act as if it had just been struck by a sudden catatonic spell. And that would not have been very believable."
  1945. >She takes a breath.
  1946. >"So I took the liberty to make it look like a case of unconsciousness instead. Everyone will think it was the exhaustion and the strains of the heat that knocked you out."
  1947. "Ah, sorry. I forgot about that."
  1948. >#deca.mare smiles.
  1949.  
  1950.  
  1951.  
  1952.  
  1953. >"No problem. But you might want to take control again shortly after the proxy and Sky Squall were retrieved by your squad. Unless you want them to think that you are in a deeply comatose state."
  1954. >You get the hint.
  1955. "Don't worry, I'll be there."
  1956. >"If you are feeling too exhausted though, then I could operate the proxy for you too."
  1957. >You shake your head.
  1958. "No, it's fine. I'm not that comatose yet."
  1959. >You yawn.
  1960. "A little nap in the interim would be welcome though."
  1961. >"Of course. Take a rest, Anon. It is well-deserved."
  1962. >She inhales once.
  1963. >"I will notify you when the time comes."
  1964. >You briefly stroke her neck and back again before you close your eyes.
  1965. "Thank you. See you then, #deca."
  1966. >#deca.mare tries to give you a kiss in response, but finds herself unable to do so without shoving your head off her barrel in the process.
  1967. >So she decides against it.
  1968. >She is more than happy to act as your pillow.
  1969. >"Sleep well, Anon."
  1970. >That you will for sure.
  1971. >Because between #deca.mare's warm coat, the blanket, and the hushed sounds of a few consoles, set to a deliberately toned down volume in order to not disturb your rest, it takes you less than a minute to doze off.
  1972.  
  1973.  
  1974.  
  1975.  
  1976. 147
  1977.  
  1978. >Day 8, Addendum
  1979.  
  1980. >You "wake up" on a provisional bed inside a tent, lying there on your proxy's belly.
  1981. >And the first thing you notice is that your gear got fully stripped off by someone.
  1982. >Every piece you wore is gone.
  1983. >Goggles included.
  1984. >A pretty inconvenient realisation to wake up to, as far as you are concerned.
  1985. >However, there is something else about the proxy which feels slightly off as well, and it is more worthy of your attention than some missing pieces of equipment.
  1986. >Because the wings of your proxy do not work properly.
  1987. >Their range of movement is unusually limited for some reason.
  1988. >It seems as if you can still move them in theory, and they apparently still obey your orders too.
  1989. >Yet you only manage to bend them in minuscule manners regardless.
  1990. >No matter how hard you try, a few degrees in each direction is all you can get out of them.
  1991. >Besides, the sensual input you perceive whilst moving them is strangely dull.
  1992. >If you had to put it into words, you would describe the experience as somewhat muffled.
  1993. >So you quietly assess the sensation with the scarce insight that you have at the moment.
  1994. >Was the injury harsher than you thought?
  1995. >Did the heat break some of the hardware?
  1996. >Or do the augments defy your commands at a certain point for another reason?
  1997. >As far as you can recall, the system merely detected some injuries at the uppermost layers of the organic tissue before you clocked out.
  1998. >Nothing hinted at a more serious condition.
  1999. >Plus, if there had been something more to it, then #deca.mare would have told you so in advance.
  2000. >What is going on then?
  2001. >You would check that out thoroughly if you had access to your goggles.
  2002. >But without them, you are limited to what your naked eyes can see.
  2003. >So you do the next best thing.
  2004. >You slowly turn your head around.
  2005. >And the reason for the strange feeling reveals itself at once.
  2006. >Someone, presumably the same pony who brought you here and got rid of your armour, bandaged up both of your proxy's wings.
  2007. >And not just parts of them either.
  2008. >Oh no, they are completely coated from the sockets to the tips.
  2009. >Which is keeping them in their current pose as a result.
  2010. >Judging from the general feeling of the limbs, though, you also assume that the wounds were treated beforehand.
  2011. >Probably with a substance which has a certain localised pain-relieving effect.
  2012. >Well, that would explain the partial numbness.
  2013. >Similar patches of clean cloth cover several smaller spots on your back.
  2014. >You expect burn marks beneath the patches, indirectly caused by the same heat that injured your wings.
  2015. >For the hot metal of your own armour must have had a searing effect on these spots.
  2016. >Yet despite the rather nasty origin of these wounds, they do not ache either.
  2017. >It is very likely that they have been treated with the same soothing substance to eliminate the pain.
  2018. >Any pain whatsoever, as it seems.
  2019.  
  2020.  
  2021.  
  2022.  
  2023. >Indeed, for someone who was seemingly close to being cooked alive, you feel comparatively well.
  2024. >Even with the pain receptors of your proxy still being fully operational and active.
  2025. >You will certainly not complain about a lack of discomfort though.
  2026. >So far, so good.
  2027. >You take a look around.
  2028. >If the absence of medical ponies and healers in the vicinity is any indication, the ponies in charge of the mobile ward must have deemed the status of your proxy to be stable, after the healers were done with their work.
  2029. >They are probably tending to someone else at the moment.
  2030. >You keep looking.
  2031. >The equipment inside the tent is what you would expect from a camp like this.
  2032. >Bags, crates, and saddlebags, presumably filled with all manners of medical equipment and remedies, are placed in almost every corner of the small room.
  2033. >Most of these items are labelled in one way or another, making it easier for the healers to know which piece of the inventory is stored in each individual container.
  2034. >However, you are not interested in studying the composition of the available medical stockpile at the moment.
  2035. >You have other things to think about.
  2036. >So you go on.
  2037. >Apart from the containers, there is the makeshift bed you are lying on, a simple wooden table plus an appropriately wide stool on one side of the tent, and a crude desk with papers regarding the inventory on the other.
  2038. >Everything that can be quickly assembled and bundled up again for a nigh seamless and timely transport, if necessary.
  2039. >You also spot your gear.
  2040. >It was placed squarely on the ground, and shoved all the way to the back end of the tent.
  2041. >The most remote place of the whole room.
  2042. >Where it could be stored for the time being without impeding the work of the healers.
  2043. >Not exactly a venerable way to treat a finely crafted collection of gear, that much is certain.
  2044. >But healers will be healers.
  2045. >They are first and foremost primed to tend to the needs of the living, rather than the proper treatment of inanimate equipment and the like.
  2046. >That sphere calls for the blacksmiths and craftsponies, after all.
  2047. >And of course, the term remote is relative in this case as well.
  2048. >It is just a handful of metres at best.
  2049. >Still, you barely noticed your personal equipment, as it is lying, almost hidden, behind a subtle veneer of medical kits and unremarkable crates.
  2050. >The set appears, as far as you can tell from this distance, to be complete and intact though.
  2051. >Unfortunately, it is also well out of reach.
  2052. >And you are not sure whether you should just stand up already.
  2053. >Because you do not wish to unintentionally mess with the treatment of your proxy's wounds.
  2054. >Then you hear something.
  2055. >The sound of shifting fabric, coming from the entrance of the tent, right in front of you.
  2056. >Someone is pulling one of the flaps aside to peek inside.
  2057. >"Ah, awake again?"
  2058.  
  2059.  
  2060.  
  2061.  
  2062. >The corresponding face to Sky Squall's voice appears in the opening, looking at you directly.
  2063. >"I knew I heard something. Hello there."
  2064. >You give him a nod.
  2065. "Hey, Sky."
  2066. >You try to salute, but it does not quite work whilst lying on the bed.
  2067. >Though you are sure that Sky Squall understands the intention behind your gesture regardless.
  2068. >The stallion shoves his head a tad further into the tent without saying anything.
  2069. >And you quickly notice that he is hesitant to step inside.
  2070. >You can only see his head and a small portion of his neck.
  2071. >Everything else remains hidden behind the cover.
  2072. >Plus, he is quick to cut to the chase.
  2073. >"You were out for several hours, Star. The team brought you here after they found us. How are you?"
  2074. >Something tells you that he plans to steer the conversation in certain ways right from the start.
  2075. >And it would not surprise you at all if he is trying to dance around a few topics.
  2076. >Probably to ensure that they do not come up in the first place.
  2077. >Nevertheless, his question sounds genuine.
  2078. >He is earnestly interested in your wellbeing.
  2079. >And no traces of imminent hard feelings so far.
  2080. >Which is, considering the events of your last encounter, a fairly good sign.
  2081. >So you play along and give him a reasonable answer.
  2082. "A tad numb and tired. But otherwise fine."
  2083. >The stallion points at your bandaged limbs.
  2084. >"No problems with those?"
  2085. "Not really, no. I think."
  2086. >Okay, that reply is somewhat vague.
  2087. >So you take a breath and say a bit more about your condition.
  2088. "The wings aren't aching or anything. The bandages aren't too tight either. But..."
  2089. >His ears perk up and he chimes in as soon as you say that word.
  2090. >"But? Is something wrong?"
  2091. >Alright.
  2092. >You have his full attention.
  2093. >That much is obvious.
  2094. >And whilst he may very well be eager to focus on any trace of malaise you may have, no matter how small, to keep the conversation revolving around you instead of him, he still does not do it only out of tactical reasons.
  2095. >Sky Squall simply goes for a strategy which serves both his and your interests at once.
  2096. "Well, I'm not sure. I... can't really tell much more. At least as long as they're tied like that."
  2097. >You sigh.
  2098. "I'd have to see for myself. Or better yet, test how they feel when I move them."
  2099. >Sky Squall shakes his head.
  2100. >"You don't have to do any of those things. In fact, doing them could be downright detrimental."
  2101. >You blink and emulate a lightly confused expression.
  2102. "What do you mean?"
  2103. >"I talked to the Unicorn who treated you. She said your burns look nastier than they are. You won't need any additional active treatment once the bandages are off."
  2104. >A brief pause.
  2105. >"If you stay on the ground for a week or two, that is. No flight or extensive wing training of any kind."
  2106.  
  2107.  
  2108.  
  2109.  
  2110. >You groan.
  2111. "Not again."
  2112. >Sky Squall reacts quickly as he registers your light disgruntlement.
  2113. >"You're as good as new afterwards though. She assured me of that."
  2114. >You give him another nod, trying to appear relieved.
  2115. "Thanks, Sky. That's good to hear."
  2116. >Then you cough subtly.
  2117. "And... what about you?"
  2118. >Sky Squall does not answer directly.
  2119. >Yep, this is one of those touchy subjects that he does not want to talk about.
  2120. >Rather unsurprisingly.
  2121. >It requires him to show a weakness, after all.
  2122. >But Sky Squall takes heart and trots into the tent anyway.
  2123. >Visibly uneasy, but still.
  2124. >And he lets your first impression of him do his work for him.
  2125. >You notice his unusual gait immediately.
  2126. >The stallion's hind legs are limping a tad whenever he takes a step.
  2127. >Walking around is not a comfortable exercise for him at the moment.
  2128. >Once again, you are lacking the goggles to check on the specifics of his current condition.
  2129. >And you sure as hell are not going to take a closer look with conventional means.
  2130. >For more than one reason.
  2131. >Nevertheless, it is not exactly hard to figure out what is going on.
  2132. >The aftermath of your surprise assault still ail him.
  2133. >And you sigh as you take this in.
  2134. "Sorry about... that. I didn't mean to hurt you."
  2135. >Sky Squall's expression remains neutral.
  2136. >"I figured this much... later on."
  2137. >He stops as soon as the flap closes behind him.
  2138. >"And I know what you're thinking now. Don't fret."
  2139. >A short pause.
  2140. >"I got checked as well."
  2141. >You blink.
  2142. "And?"
  2143. >He takes a long and deep breath.
  2144. >"The healer said the bruise and the swelling will heal on their own too. It's only a matter of time."
  2145. "So... all fine down there?"
  2146. >"Yes. Nothing critical."
  2147. >You exhale audibly, even though you already knew the second half.
  2148. >Your reaction still has to look convincing, after all.
  2149. "That's good news."
  2150. >You examine Sky Squall again while he stands.
  2151. >And you see that his idle posture is not quite normal either.
  2152. >It is somewhat tense.
  2153. "Didn't you get any pain-relievers though?"
  2154. >He shrugs.
  2155. >"I... refused the offer."
  2156. "But why?"
  2157. >Sky Squall looks you directly in the eyes.
  2158. >"As a reminder. That I lost control... and let my guard down when I thought to have the upper hoof."
  2159. >You do not like where this conversation is going.
  2160. "Sky, I..."
  2161. >The stallion shakes his head a second time.
  2162. >"Don't waste your breath, Star. You had your reasons. And I won't deny that the alternative... the sunfire... would've been less pleasant. There is nothing you have to justify."
  2163. >He takes a breath.
  2164. >"But this..."
  2165. >A sigh.
  2166. >"It's a matter of principle. You bested me because I didn't see it coming."
  2167. >Sky Squall closes his eyes.
  2168.  
  2169.  
  2170.  
  2171.  
  2172. >"And it wasn't the only lack of foresight I had today."
  2173. "You mean going out solo?"
  2174. >Another sigh.
  2175. >"Of course I do."
  2176. >The stallion pauses.
  2177. >"That decision was substandard. No, not even that. It was foolish."
  2178. >You blink as you consider what to say in response.
  2179. "Sky, don't judge yourself too harshly. You tried to protect the princess. And with the limited intel you had at the time, it was what you thought to be the right course of action. I'm sure no one will blame you for that."
  2180. >Sky Squall tries to say something, but you go on before he has a chance to interrupt you.
  2181. >Because you see what he wants to address next.
  2182. >And you wish to cover that before he can.
  2183. "You're probably telling yourself now that you should have listened to Luna. But I understand why you didn't."
  2184. >You pause.
  2185. >Sky Squall is watching you with keen eyes, eager to hear more.
  2186. "I think it was a strategically questionable decision of the princesses to conceal this much of their plans. I mean, who would have expected a spell of this destructive magnitude?"
  2187. >Sky Squall shakes his head.
  2188. >"This is too simple, Star. I'm supposed to expect situations like these to react correctly. Because when I make a decision, the fate of our whole team may depend on it."
  2189. >A pause.
  2190. >"Mistakes are dangerous for somepony in my position. And not only for me personally. Just imagine what would have happened if the others had listened to me. If everypony was out there on the field earlier today. What then?"
  2191. >Windigo magic, you assume.
  2192. >Still, Sky Squall's concerns are understandable from his point of view.
  2193. >As far as he is concerned, he could have led everyone into a burning demise.
  2194. >Admittedly not an engaging scenario to envision.
  2195. >"The point is, we were lucky. I was lucky... because no one followed me today."
  2196. >He clears his throat.
  2197. >"Well, except for you, of course."
  2198. >You take a breath.
  2199. "You can't be perfect all the time, Sky. No one can be. Regardless of the talent or learned skills, there's always a chance of something going wrong. The unexpected may simply happen sometimes and get us anyway. Even the best of us."
  2200. >You wait for a second to let him think about that for a moment.
  2201. "But this is not a weakness. Much less a flaw of your own."
  2202. >You give Sky Squall a comradely grin.
  2203. "You've dealt with this fact for years now. And given what I've heard from others, and seen with my own eyes, you are good at what you're doing."
  2204. >The golden Pegasus looks to the side.
  2205. >"I'm... not sure if the others will agree with your confidence in me. Not after... this."
  2206. >This is your chance to poke him in the right direction.
  2207. "Oh yeah?"
  2208. >Your grin widens.
  2209. "Would you bet on it?"
  2210. >"A bet?"
  2211. "Yes. Because I bet that they still believe in you. Do you too?"
  2212. >He blinks.
  2213. >"Star, there can't be a bet if we both bet on the same outcome. And I won't bet on my own failings either."
  2214. >You shrug.
  2215. "It's the spirit that counts. And I know on which side I would stand."
  2216. >You keep your grin.
  2217. "Don't you want to find out that I'm right?"
  2218.  
  2219.  
  2220.  
  2221.  
  2222. >He raises an eyebrow.
  2223. >"You're convinced you know the result already, hm?"
  2224. >You nod with a smile.
  2225. "As good as. Believe in the Pegasi, Sky. They believe in you too."
  2226. >Sky Squall hesitates for a moment.
  2227. >Eventually, however, he nods.
  2228. >Hesitantly, granted, but it is a first step.
  2229. >And now that you have achieved a somewhat reserved agreement, you begin to relax a bit.
  2230. >Seeing the ponies' respect for Sky Squall, regardless of today's events, should do the trick to get him back on track again.
  2231. >Unfortunately for you, the stallion still has one more question.
  2232. >And it reveals itself, right from the start, to be a more tricky subject matter than the previous one.
  2233. >"Star?"
  2234. "Hm?"
  2235. >"Did you know something about the sunfire in advance? Were you aware of what was coming?"
  2236. >Oh boy.
  2237. >You try to look puzzled.
  2238. "What do you mean?"
  2239. >"I mean the way you acted. You behaved as if you knew exactly what you'd have to do to get both of us out there alive."
  2240. >And then he elaborates.
  2241. >"The hole to shield us from the brunt of the heat, for instance. How did you find it this quickly? While we were rolling at that?"
  2242. >Damn.
  2243. >"Also, why did you pick it in the first place? It seems like a bit much for a pure coincidence, you know? In hindsight, it only makes sense if you were aware of what was coming."
  2244. >Bad.
  2245. >Very bad.
  2246. >Cover story, now.
  2247. >Perhaps you should dig out the Windigo explanation again.
  2248. >As a cheap excuse or something.
  2249. >No, wait.
  2250. >There is something even better.
  2251. >You can use the proverbial Alicorn in the room as a basis for a forged story.
  2252. >With a pinch of truth in between.
  2253. "Well, I..."
  2254. >You clear your throat.
  2255. "...I'm not really sure myself."
  2256. >This was not the answer he expected.
  2257. >Sky Squall tilts his head.
  2258. >"What?"
  2259. "I know this sounds strange now, but something simply... happened."
  2260. >You know you have to offer him a bit more.
  2261. >So you do.
  2262. "When I saw you storming out of the recess, I followed you immediately. To... talk to you."
  2263. >"Talk, you say?"
  2264. >He lightly shakes his head in an implicative manner.
  2265. >And you think you see his hindquarters twitching faintly too.
  2266. >A sudden reflex, you presume.
  2267. >"That's... not even close to what I remember."
  2268. >You nod.
  2269. "I know. Because that's when the aforementioned thing comes into play."
  2270. >"Go on."
  2271. "As I passed the princess, Luna talked to me. I promised her to bring you back. And... that's when it happened."
  2272. >The stallion wants more details.
  2273. >"When what happened?"
  2274. "I can best describe it as.. as a premonition, flashing up right before my eyes. A warning to bring you back as quickly as possible because you were making a critical mistake. That's when I... somehow knew what the two were planning. And that the surface wasn't safe."
  2275. >"And this is the reason why you fought me?"
  2276. "There was no time for discussions. My time was limited, as you now know."
  2277. >A pause.
  2278. "Besides, would you have believed me? When the safety of Celestia was on the line?"
  2279. >He earnestly thinks about your question for a moment.
  2280. >"Maybe."
  2281.  
  2282.  
  2283.  
  2284.  
  2285. >You give him a second nod.
  2286. "See? That was my problem. A 'maybe' wasn't good enough. I swore to bring you back in one piece, no matter what."
  2287. >Sky Squall says nothing.
  2288. >You can read in his expression that he still appreciates what you did.
  2289. >But he does not say that out loud.
  2290. >It is not hard to guess why either.
  2291. >After all, thanking someone for getting beaten up, even with good intentions in mind, would sound pretty strange.
  2292. >Either way though, the golden stallion does mull over everything you have told him.
  2293. >And his expression changes into a stoic one.
  2294. >"You know what, Star, Luna is definitively right. There's something unusual about you. I'm convinced of that now."
  2295. >A pause.
  2296. >"I don't know what it is. Windigo magic, or something else... I have no idea. But it's clearly there, it has a strangely undefined feel to it, and it is always strong when you are near the princesses."
  2297. >Then he cracks a faint smile.
  2298. >"After the happenings of today though, it's reassuring to know that your strange little quirks are on our side."
  2299. >You mirror his smile.
  2300. "I take that as a compliment, I guess."
  2301. >Sky Squall takes a careful step closer to your bed, minding not to shift his body too much.
  2302. >"We'll get to the bottom of this one day. To find out what is behind your unusual hidden talent. And we should talk to Luna about this soon. You know, once both of us are more... presentable."
  2303. >The sound of stepping hooves can be heard in the distance.
  2304. >And the steps are coming closer.
  2305. >Fast.
  2306. >Somepony is heading your way in a full gallop.
  2307. >Even without your goggles, or any other tool for that matter, you are fairly sure to know who this pony might be.
  2308. >You have to suppress a snicker.
  2309. "Maybe we don't have to. Some answers reveal themselves on their own."
  2310. >Sky Squall tries to reply to your comment, but he does not get any chance to do so.
  2311. >Because just as he is raising his voice, the entrance flaps behind him are suddenly pushed aside by the incoming galloping pony.
  2312. >#deca.mare bolts into the tent.
  2313. >She promptly collides with the stallion and shoves him to the side, just like the flaps of the tent.
  2314. >Sky Squall staggers as he struggles to keep his balance.
  2315. >He is forced to take a few swift sideways steps to remain on his hooves.
  2316. >And the reaction of the Pegasus suggests quite clearly that it makes him feel pretty queasy.
  2317. >However, #deca.mare pretends not to notice this particular detail.
  2318. >She is playing the role of the concerned wife, so she only has an eye for you at the moment.
  2319. >"There you are!"
  2320. >She rushes to your side.
  2321. >"I came as quickly as I could when I heard that you were brought here! How are you?"
  2322. >You nuzzle her cheek before you respond.
  2323. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. The healer said I'll be grounded for a week or so though."
  2324. >And #deca.mare feigns to be relieved.
  2325. >"Thank your lucky stars! I was worried sick!"
  2326. "I'm sorry. But there was something I had to do, you know?"
  2327. >"So I heard. But how did it come to this... mess?"
  2328.  
  2329.  
  2330.  
  2331.  
  2332. >You look at the stallion who tries to catch his breath after being forcefully shunted to the side by #deca.mare's energetic entrance.
  2333. "Somepony needed... the help of a friend. When... the sky came crashing down upon us."
  2334. >Without saying another word, #deca.mare turns her head towards Sky Squall and carefully hugs you at the same time.
  2335. >And whilst she looks at the Pegasus, now free from her previous acted tunnel vision, she quickly "notices" that he is not exactly close to his peak condition either.
  2336. >Which is, in all due honesty, not really a difficult feat to achieve though.
  2337. >Despite him trying to look tough, the stallion is not quite able to camouflage the malaise which was caused by #deca.mare as she shoved him away.
  2338. >The heavy breathing and stiff pose are less than subtle hints that something is not entirely as it should be.
  2339. >"Help, hm?"
  2340. >She blinks.
  2341. >"It... must have been a wild day."
  2342. >And given that #deca.mare is seemingly unaware of the details yet, as far as Sky Squall knows, at least, she decides to outright ask him what this is about.
  2343. >Like any concerned friend would do.
  2344. >"Sky? Are you feeling well?"
  2345. >He snorts in a light fit of irritation before he tries to speak more or less normally.
  2346. >"Tackling me... from behind. What... is it... with you two today?"
  2347. >#deca.mare gives him a puzzled expression.
  2348. >"Pardon?"
  2349. >Sky Squall struggles to find an elegant wording for his situation, so you chime in to take over for him.
  2350. "You have... rocked his boat a little bit too hard when you ran into him."
  2351. >#deca.mare looks over to you for a moment, maintaining her act of confusion.
  2352. >"I 'rocked his boat'?"
  2353. >Then she turns back to Sky Squall again.
  2354. >She examines him a bit more thoroughly from her current distance.
  2355. >You can imagine that Sky Squall is not all too happy with this.
  2356. >Yet he remains still and says nothing.
  2357. >And #deca.mare does not want to needle the stallion too much either.
  2358. >Which is probably why she refrains from approaching him.
  2359. >But she knows what is going on of course, and she eventually looks for a somewhat elegant way to address this as well.
  2360. >After a few seconds of eyeing the stallion's front and sides, #deca.mare crouches to examine his barrel, still keeping a respectful distance between the two of them.
  2361. >Then she gasps.
  2362. >"Oh... oh. I see."
  2363. >#deca.mare clears her throat.
  2364. >"How did this happen?"
  2365. >No response.
  2366. >You too have to swallow a spicy comment regarding that question.
  2367. >And if Sky Squall knew the full truth, he would certainly be a tad disgruntled now.
  2368. >Well, a tad more disgruntled than he already is.
  2369. >So you choose a more diplomatic answer to #deca.mare's exceedingly rhetorical question.
  2370. "Suboptimal happenstances... happened."
  2371.  
  2372.  
  2373.  
  2374.  
  2375. >"I am sorry, Sky. Barging in like this was... inconsiderate of me."
  2376. >Judging from her tone, you are certain that #deca.mare's first sentence was a genuine apology for hurting him via proxy.
  2377. >It was merely shrouded in a different context.
  2378. >And this gets an uptight nod out of the stallion too.
  2379. >"Apology accepted."
  2380. >But #deca.mare is not quite done yet.
  2381. >She offers some cordial gestures, just to be friendly to the Pegasus.
  2382. >Even though she knows the answers to all of her questions already.
  2383. >"Shall I take a look? I have experience in treating wounded Pegasi."
  2384. >#deca.mare gives you a brief sideways glance.
  2385. >But the Pegasus shakes his head regardless.
  2386. >"No, thank you. I was checked already."
  2387. >As you have expected, she drills some more.
  2388. >"And you got no treatment?"
  2389. >A second shake.
  2390. >"No. It will heal on its own just fine."
  2391. >#deca.mare goes in for round three.
  2392. >"Even then, we do have options available here. Spells to muffle the pain and soothing ointments that aid the natural regene..."
  2393. >Sky Squall interrupts her.
  2394. >"I'm aware. I got all of those offers already. Thank you for trying, but the answer is still no."
  2395. >This is probably the best time to rein #deca.mare in.
  2396. >You understand that she had to try to apologise with a friendly gesture or two, regardless of the slim chances.
  2397. >But this is enough prodding.
  2398. >So you pat her side.
  2399. "It's alright, Deca. It's his decision."
  2400. >#deca.mare deliberates on your comment for a moment.
  2401. >Then she shrugs.
  2402. >"As you wish. If you change your mind though, just let me know. I am always happy to help out."
  2403. >Sky Squall nods, and leaves it at that.
  2404. >No one says anything for a couple of seconds.
  2405. >A welcome opportunity for you to gracefully change the subject.
  2406. "By the way, what's the situation out there? I think I overslept a bit."
  2407. >#deca.mare wants to answer, but Sky Squall is faster.
  2408. >"Princess Celestia has actually talked to... one of those things. Believe it or not, but they apparently can talk like ponies. And they call themselves 'dragons'."
  2409. >The next question is rather obvious.
  2410. "How did it go?"
  2411. >"Well, remarkably if nothing else. The one who came claimed to be the leader of their band. I think it was a male, judging by the voice. They lack other distinctive features, as far as I can tell."
  2412. >Then he sneers.
  2413. >"Though I wouldn't be surprised if their females speak like that too."
  2414. >Sounds like he is holding quite a grudge against the dragons, despite the ceasefire.
  2415. >Though you cannot really blame Sky Squall for his distaste, considering that he has followed their destructive trail and fought them constantly for over a week at this point.
  2416. >And this handful of days contained more open and unbridled hostility than everything that the ponies have done to each other before the Unification.
  2417. >Admittedly not the best track record for a first contact.
  2418. >"Anyway, he was pretty well-behaved when he landed. I guess that's what the load of sunfire did to him."
  2419.  
  2420.  
  2421.  
  2422.  
  2423. >Sky Squall laughs briefly.
  2424. >"Oh, and he called himself Torch. Clever name, I know."
  2425. >He clears his throat, and #deca.mare uses the chance to take over.
  2426. >"I heard Celestia has offered him an arrangement. The dragons return to their homelands and abstain from forming future assault groups against ponies. In turn, we will not push them any further for razing Lush Field, and consider the whole affair as a fair fight."
  2427. >Sky Squall nods to confirm #deca.mare's account.
  2428. >"That's the deal, yes."
  2429. "How did Torch react?"
  2430. >#deca.mare replies again.
  2431. >"It seems as if he agreed. Torch has returned to his followers and they departed. The first reports say that they are flying southwards, so it appears as if they honour their part of the deal. The scout teams are careful though, and they stay far away from the dragons to prevent any new provocations."
  2432. >You are convinced that she and Harmony could give you a far more detailed report already.
  2433. >But this is the wrong time and place to address that.
  2434. >So you take the account for what it is and exhale audibly.
  2435. "Let's hope for the best then."
  2436. >Sky Squall nods and raises his voice.
  2437. >"Star, Deca? It's time for me to go. There's something else I need to tend to. And... I'm sure you want some time for yourselves as well."
  2438. >#deca.mare smiles widely.
  2439. >A reaction you have seen many times.
  2440. >But rarely directed towards anyone other than you.
  2441. >For she is about to deliver a bantering quip.
  2442. >"I think you mean 'somepony', right?"
  2443. >Sky Squall blinks.
  2444. >And you see him... blushing?
  2445. >What the hell has happened in these few hours?
  2446. >You only took a nap.
  2447. >"How do you know?"
  2448. >#deca.mare snickers.
  2449. >"I am not blind, Sky. A mare sees these things. The signs are all there."
  2450. >A pause.
  2451. >"Though I do not understand why you are in a hurry now. From what I have heard, you were extracted hours ago. Have you not met up yet?"
  2452. >Sky Squall looks like he could transform into a puddle of water and float out of the tent.
  2453. >"No. I... had a few things to think about first."
  2454. >You look at both #deca.mare and Sky Squall in turn.
  2455. "Can someone please let me in on the news?"
  2456. >The stallion sighs.
  2457. >"Remember when you asked me whether I have... an eye for somepony? Well, yes."
  2458. >He hesitates briefly.
  2459. "Yes, I do."
  2460. >You blink.
  2461. "And she's here?"
  2462. >#deca.mare laughs again.
  2463. >"She has been here all the time. In fact, she is a member of your team."
  2464. >Oh.
  2465. >So that was a key part of Sky Squall's sorrows too.
  2466. >Appearing weak in front of the team is one thing.
  2467. >And that is bad enough for someone with his strong sense of personal pride.
  2468. >But he also did not want to embarrass himself in the eyes of his marefriend.
  2469. >A notion you can understand fairly easily as well.
  2470. >Keeping these two factors in mind, it is hardly a surprise that Sky Squall preferred to stay below the public radar.
  2471. >Apart from the initial field extraction and subsequent medical examination, that is.
  2472.  
  2473.  
  2474.  
  2475.  
  2476. >Now that your friendly words have motivated him to reach out to someone, however, he needs a pony to go to.
  2477. >So reuniting with his mare is an obvious first choice.
  2478. >For she is the one he will trust the most.
  2479. >Whoever that may be.
  2480. "And... the mare? What's her name?"
  2481. >#deca.mare snickers politely, and Sky Squall has a hard time to stop his golden face from turning orange.
  2482. >"It is a... now quite poetic name, I assure you."
  2483. >Sky Squall covers his face with a forehoof.
  2484. >And #deca.mare boldly grins at him.
  2485. >"Tell him. I promise he will not laugh."
  2486. >You feel the urge to protest against #deca.mare's assurance in regard to actions that you will supposedly do, according to her assessment.
  2487. >Or rather, which you are not going to do in this particular case.
  2488. >But you do not wish to make this conversation any more touchy than it already is.
  2489. >Besides, if neither of them tells you the name of the mare, you will only end up wracking your own brain until you have figured it out.
  2490. >And Sky Squall relents with another heavy sigh.
  2491. >"Fine."
  2492. >A pause.
  2493. >"It's... Firefly."
  2494. >You groan loudly as you hear that name.
  2495. >Was this a practical joke by Harmony or something?
  2496. >If so, then someone failed to inform you that Harmony has developed a fondness for irony.
  2497. "These coincidences... and you think I have Windigo roots in my family tree? What about yours?"
  2498. >Sky Squall glares fiercely at #deca.mare, but she simply shrugs in turn.
  2499. >"I told you he would not laugh."
  2500. >He grumbles.
  2501. >"I'm sorry, but I didn't consider the possibility of being threatened by aerial sunfire in the future when I met my marefriend for the first time. My fault."
  2502. >You pull yourself together and get serious again before you tilt Sky Squall's mood.
  2503. "No, seriously now. Good on you, Sky. I've seen her in action, and I'm sure you'll get along nicely."
  2504. >He nods appreciatively, but leaves it at that.
  2505. >A comparatively lukewarm reply to your earnest remark, given that he was much more cordial prior to your little "incident".
  2506. >And despite #deca.mare briefing you about this reaction in advance, the momentary distance between Sky Squall and you becomes all the more palpable now.
  2507. >It is an inconvenient thing to behold.
  2508. >Still, you take solace in the knowledge that this little rocky bump in your friendship will pass eventually.
  2509. >Because #deca.mare is right.
  2510. >Sky Squall only needs some time to come to terms with everything and sort himself out.
  2511. >A respite to lick his wounds and recover.
  2512. >The stallion speaks up.
  2513. >"I'll be on my way then. See you two tomorrow."
  2514. "Tomorrow?"
  2515. >"It's almost dusk, sleepyhead."
  2516. "Oh. I didn't notice. Good night, Sky."
  2517. >"Night."
  2518.  
  2519.  
  2520.  
  2521.  
  2522. >Sky Squall carefully turns around to limp out of the tent.
  2523. >But you address him one last time, shortly before he is gone.
  2524. "Hey Sky, no chest bump to call it a day?"
  2525. >Once more, you are forced to ignore your urge to snicker as you try to envision Sky Squall rearing up for a show tussle with his shaky hind legs.
  2526. >He would probably fold at once.
  2527. >Plus, you bet he is not keen on exposing his barrel a second time in your presence.
  2528. >Especially since he is still feeling the aftermath of the first.
  2529. >And indeed, he gives you a stiff look as he turns his head towards you.
  2530. >"No. Not today."
  2531. >He grunts once.
  2532. >"You're injured."
  2533. >Then he limps out, leaving #deca.mare and you alone for the time being.
  2534. >You exhale and relax.
  2535. >After that, you wait for roughly fifteen seconds before you talk to #deca.mare in a hushed volume.
  2536. "Hm. He sounded more confident and witty at the end. Was my help constructive enough?"
  2537. >"That it was, Anon. He is going straight to her."
  2538. "Well, that's great. She'll help him to get back up again."
  2539. >You smile.
  2540. "I heard the presence of a mare can brighten up even the darkest of days."
  2541. >And #deca.mare mirrors your grin.
  2542. >"I am inclined to agree."
  2543. >#deca.mare subtly nudges your proxy, implying that she wishes to lie on the makeshift bed as well.
  2544. >And you shift to the side, as far as you can.
  2545. >Though it is not much in total.
  2546. >This thing was simply never meant to carry two ponies at the same time.
  2547. >So the available space is comparatively sparse.
  2548. >Eventually, the two of you manage to get it done.
  2549. >Yet your arrangement leaves very little space on either end.
  2550. >You cannot do much now, other than lying side by side.
  2551. >Without knocking the other off the bed, at least.
  2552. >And you believe it is rather unlikely that the healers of your backup team would condone this practice at all.
  2553. >Especially when wounded ponies are involved.
  2554. >So you just lie there for a moment and enjoy the peace.
  2555. >It may not be much, it may not be overly luxurious, and it may not be exciting.
  2556. >And it does not have to be.
  2557. >For the first time in over a week, both #deca.mare and you have nothing pressing to do.
  2558. >The perfect opportunity to have a relaxing evening together.
  2559. >There is only one little thing in your mind which you wish to address before you can fully let go though.
  2560. >Then you can, hopefully, file this operation away as a complete success.
  2561. "Now, off the records, what about Torch? Was the orbital strike enough to really convince him?"
  2562. >"Hmhm. He will uphold his part of the bargain. No dragon under his command will form another attack group to plague the pony lands. This vow will carry over to his future title of Lord as well, once he ascends to it."
  2563. >She takes a breath.
  2564. >"In regard to the 'border' between the Dragonlands and the realm of Equestria, the newly created gorge will eventually establish itself as a landmark to separate the two."
  2565. "Thank goodness. That means no more scorched landscapes or other catastrophes, right?"
  2566. >#deca.mare nods, much to your relief.
  2567.  
  2568.  
  2569.  
  2570.  
  2571. >"Most likely. There will of course be a few outliers who venture out on their own, but they too will not form any organised ambushes. Smaller local incidents are possible though."
  2572. "To cut it short, you mean 'Dragonshy'-level incidents, yes?"
  2573. >"Precisely. Smaller clashes like these. Nothing on a major scale."
  2574. "Sounds good enough. Shall we shelve that mission now?"
  2575. >"Agreed, Anon."
  2576. >And with that, the dragon incident is over.
  2577. >Concluded by a single overwhelming intervention of Celestia, who is now celebrated and praised as the hero of the day.
  2578. >Another moment of contemplative silence follows.
  2579. >"So, what do we do now? You are well rested and the deed of the day is done."
  2580. >You consider your options.
  2581. "Not much down here with the hurt proxy, that much is clear."
  2582. >But then, you suddenly get an idea.
  2583. >A topic to talk about.
  2584. >Though you can only introduce it with a wry smirk.
  2585. >And a very blatant wording.
  2586. "Hey #deca, do you think the two will make a foal today?"
  2587. >She coughs once.
  2588. >"Pardon?"
  2589. >You laugh.
  2590. "Don't say you weren't asking yourself the same question."
  2591. >#deca.mare tilts her head.
  2592. >"Anon, are you implying..."
  2593. >Another fit of laughter follows.
  2594. "Aw, come on. Sky Squall and Firefly meeting at dusk? After almost losing one another?"
  2595. >You look upwards as you sum up your thoughts.
  2596. "I'd bet good money that their survival instincts kick into high gear when they're together again."
  2597. >You try to envision the scene.
  2598. >And you end up with a mental image of the two falling, albeit very carefully, into each other's forelimbs, nuzzling intensely on the spot.
  2599. >Which quickly escalates into something more explicit.
  2600. "Yeah, they'll find a quiet corner for a rodeo."
  2601. >#deca.mare, probably already aware of your daydream, shows no overt reaction to your lively projection.
  2602. >"What makes you so sure that it happens now, Anon? Sky can barely walk properly."
  2603. >You grin.
  2604. "That won't stop them. They're both too headstrong to let that little obstacle get in their way. And don't underestimate the power of natural instincts. The two think they had a brief, but genuine brush with death. Believe me, that's firing up their spirits like nothing else."
  2605. >And you come up with another argument.
  2606. "Besides, it's giving Sky another good boost to his mood and confidence."
  2607. >You pause as you spin your peculiar mental image a bit further.
  2608. "Though I guess they'll tread very carefully tonight. You know... since Sky is a bit vulnerable to vibrations at the moment."
  2609. >You strike a thinking pose on the makeshift bed.
  2610. "It's hard to say who could be the dominant one, however. Normally I'd say Sky, but he's got a bit of a critical handicap."
  2611. >You try your best to feign a neutral tone and shrug.
  2612. "He should have accepted the treatment."
  2613. >#deca.mare still manages to maintain a poker face, despite your thinly veiled attempts to present your overtly suggestive ponderings like a reasonable strategic discussion.
  2614. >"Maybe, maybe not."
  2615.  
  2616.  
  2617.  
  2618.  
  2619. >She clears her throat.
  2620. >"But either way, this is their personal affair."
  2621. >Her hint is unmistakable.
  2622. >You nod.
  2623. "Yes, I know. No spying in private spaces."
  2624. >You blink and force yourself to suppress a laugh, again.
  2625. "But it would be interesting to observe how they do it. Just from a... theoretical standpoint."
  2626. >Once more, #deca.mare shrugs the suggestion off.
  2627. >"I think I just understood something."
  2628. >Really?
  2629. "And what?"
  2630. >"Your fixation on their sexual bond means that I have neglected my responsibilities during the last week. So your thoughts wandered elsewhere to compensate for that."
  2631. >You want to comment on her remark, but #deca.mare does not give you the chance to do so.
  2632. >"This is my oversight. I will rectify it at once."
  2633. >You feel how your control over the proxy is suddenly slipping.
  2634. >Rapidly.
  2635. >Within seconds, and without any doing of your own, you lose the connection to the surface entirely.
  2636. >Then, in the very next moment, you find yourself lying on your back in your Canterlot bed.
  2637. >#deca.mare stands above you, pinning your arms with her forehooves.
  2638. >"There. Much better, right?"
  2639. >You raise your voice.
  2640. >Or you try, at least.
  2641. >But just as you open your mouth, #deca.mare's muzzle is quick to block you with a swift, but intense kiss.
  2642. >"No more comments. No more questions. Until your mind is clear again."
  2643. >Again, you wish to speak out.
  2644. >Though it is a futile attempt.
  2645. >#deca.mare simply silences you with another peck.
  2646. >Looks like you have given her the perfect excuse to tease you like this.
  2647. >Oh well, you will not complain about that.
  2648. >After this hectic week, her rather straightforward advances are a welcome change for you too.
  2649. >Perhaps she is right.
  2650. >Maybe you are a bit too silly indeed and need some quality time to cool down again.
  2651. >Too much heat is not good for people's brains, after all.
  2652. >And you know you had far too much of it recently.
  2653. >Though one could say that you are merely exchanging one type of heat for another at the end of the day.
  2654.  
  2655.  
  2656.  
  2657.  
  2658. 148
  2659.  
  2660. >Day 9
  2661.  
  2662. >An envoy is heading for your tent, shortly after the break of dawn.
  2663. >You know in advance that it is a singular pony, sent by the princesses.
  2664. >And you can thank #deca.mare for that intel.
  2665. >She woke you up, about half an hour ago, in order to give you a brief prediction of what is about to happen next, and to allow you to resume control over your proxy in due time.
  2666. >So when the first distant steps become audible within the tent, you are already wide awake and ready to act.
  2667. >The envoy trots up to the flaps at the entrance, and deliberately chooses a noisy gait whilst doing so.
  2668. >Based on the sound of the hooves and the rhythm of the pony, you assume that this is probably a mare.
  2669. >And your guess quickly turns out to be accurate.
  2670. >The mare clears her throat in a similar loud volume, making absolutely sure that all the inhabitants of the tent are aware of her presence.
  2671. >She clearly does not know what is going on inside the tent, and she presumably does not want to catch anyone by surprise with a sudden entrance either.
  2672. >Which comes across as a reasonable approach, all things considered.
  2673. >But to be absolutely certain that everything is well and good, the mare announces her arrival verbally too.
  2674. >And she chooses to speak in a volume which no one inside the tent would be able to miss.
  2675. >"Is this the tent of Star Plotter and Enigmatic Decanter?"
  2676. >Well, that question is easy enough to answer.
  2677. >You reply with a not quite so high, yet still decent sound level.
  2678. "Yes, it is."
  2679. >The reaction to your answer is obvious.
  2680. >And thankfully delivered with a more reasonably chosen intensity as well.
  2681. >"Quillmare Ink here. May I come in?"
  2682. >Alright.
  2683. >Even if you had never seen that pony before, you would now have a very good vision of what the mare in front of the tent may look like.
  2684. >And more specifically, what appendages protrude from her body.
  2685. >You quickly look at #deca.mare, who has been sitting quietly on a cushion at the side the whole time.
  2686. >She nods.
  2687. >So here you go.
  2688. >You get off the bed and take a breath.
  2689. "Sure. Come."
  2690. >The flaps of the tent begin to glow in a bright, near colourless sheen.
  2691. >Then they are dragged to the sides.
  2692. >Revealing the shape of a sleek and comparatively tall Unicorn mare in the process.
  2693. >Quillmare Ink does not quite reach the size of an adult Alicorn, but her height is notably above average.
  2694. >The same applies to her long horn as well, which glows vividly in an equally intense light as the flaps.
  2695. >In spite of what Ink's name suggests, however, her body is not as dark as one might expect.
  2696. >Not at all, in fact.
  2697. >The hair of her warmly cream-coloured coat is smooth, almost shiny even.
  2698. >And the radiant glow of her own magic aura makes her body look vaguely reminiscent of well preserved parchment.
  2699. >Her light chestnut mane reaches all the way down to the knees of her forelegs.
  2700. >It too reflects faint glints of the emanating magic shimmer of her horn.
  2701.  
  2702.  
  2703.  
  2704.  
  2705. >But the most striking features of the Unicorn mare are her sharp and keen eyes.
  2706. >Nearly matching the hue of her aura, the irises shine in the light of her horn as if they were made out of pure silver.
  2707. >A keen observer might spot a slight pinch of green in them as well.
  2708. >In reality though, this is not happening very often, as most ponies are mesmerised by her fairly rare eye colour right away, causing them to miss the more nuanced details of her appearance.
  2709. >Especially so under the light conditions of her strong magical aura.
  2710. >And in her position as one of the princesses' closest aides when it comes to logistics and spells, not putting her horn to use in one capacity or another is something that happens exceedingly rarely.
  2711. >There are only a few select ponies, apart from family members and early friends of course, who have seen the light green touch of her eyes in their natural hue.
  2712. >Plus, she does seem to enjoy the fact that she can deliberately use this effect to impress others.
  2713. >At least to a certain degree.
  2714. >For Quillmare Ink has mastered the art of gazing inquisitively at the ponies around her.
  2715. >So much so that even you need a moment to mentally adjust your thoughts in her presence.
  2716. >She comes fairly close to invoking the same feeling that you had when Princess Luna studied you for the first time.
  2717. >Merely by looking at you.
  2718. >But despite her appearance, and the admittedly considerable magic potential within her, she is no Alicorn.
  2719. >So you can overcome her charm relatively easily.
  2720. >This mare is not a pony you need to worry about.
  2721. >Unless you do something blatantly stupid.
  2722. >"Star Plotter."
  2723. "Good morning."
  2724. >Quillmare Ink steps inside the tent, trotting comparatively swift, but also with a fairly accentuated grace.
  2725. >A trick that she has overtly copied from Princess Platinum, probably to further emphasise the effect she has on some impressionable minds.
  2726. >And given her notable size, you would not be surprised if her moves actually manage to turn the heads of a few ponies here and there.
  2727. >Stallions in particular.
  2728. >Well, she is not going to have any luck with you though, that much is certain.
  2729. >As she comes closer, you get a chance to look at the gear she is wearing.
  2730. >It is a custom-tailored pair of saddlebags, made of fine silver and light grey cloth.
  2731. >Both the bags and the straps are adjusted to fit her larger frame, and the entirety of the piece is embroidered with insignia of the Unicorn court.
  2732. >You recognise a couple of those right on the spot.
  2733. >Amongst them are the regal Unicorn head on a badge, made famous by the banner of the Unicorn tribe, and an emblem which depicts Platinum's official crown.
  2734. >It is clear as day that this piece was made to be worn by a reputable member of the court, prior to the Unification.
  2735. >And in a way, it still is a status symbol, especially amongst Unicorns.
  2736. >After all, these pieces were never handed out liberally.
  2737.  
  2738.  
  2739.  
  2740.  
  2741. >Which is probably one of the reasons why Ink has decided to keep using them, even in her service of Celestia and Luna.
  2742. >The items inside the saddlebags are equally telling.
  2743. >As far as you can see from the outside, the bags are filled to the brim with various scrolls and documents.
  2744. >Some of them even peek out of the bags, albeit just barely.
  2745. >And just as Quillmare Ink has reached you, you get to witness her nimble magic skills in action.
  2746. >She lets go of the tent flaps, and immediately opens her saddlebag with her aura to reach for an item.
  2747. >Not interrupting her light show for even a second.
  2748. >You do not need any additional information to realise that she must have practiced this sort of thing extensively over the course of her career.
  2749. >Of that there is no doubt, considering how routinely she is doing this.
  2750. >The Unicorn pulls out a scroll, and looks over to #deca.mare to give her a polite nod.
  2751. >"Enigmatic."
  2752. >#deca.mare does the same.
  2753. >"Hello, Ink."
  2754. >Both #deca.mare and Quillmare Ink address each other in a notably formal tone.
  2755. >A style you would associate with close colleagues who are working well with one another on a factual and professional level.
  2756. >But nothing more.
  2757. >You have no idea how many mutual interactions the two had over the course of the last eight days, or how close that cooperation could have been for that matter, but it appears to have been a purely functional acquaintance.
  2758. >Their time in the logistical backup team did not turn into a cordial friendship.
  2759. >This poses no problem though.
  2760. >Because as you can see right now, their mutual respect is all they need to get along with each other.
  2761. >Well, you never expected #deca.mare to get into any real trouble with another pony to begin with, so there is that.
  2762. >While you are busy with your own thoughts, Quillmare Ink unfolds the scroll to tell you what is written inside.
  2763. >"Princess Luna requests your presence in her tent. She wishes to talk to you. Within the hour, if your condition permits it."
  2764. >Well, that alone does not exactly necessitate the usage of a scroll.
  2765. >And you know there is more to it.
  2766. >Still, you play the game as Quillmare Ink would expect you to, and ask questions.
  2767. "Alright. No problem. Did the princess tell you what she wishes to discuss?"
  2768. >The mare checks her notes.
  2769. >"She stated, quoting, 'Matters related to the recent incident'."
  2770. >The obvious it is then.
  2771. >You take a breath.
  2772. "That... in itself isn't much to work with."
  2773. >She merely blinks at that.
  2774. >"Curious. Princess Luna claimed you would understand."
  2775. >Oh.
  2776. >Interesting.
  2777. "Did she?"
  2778. >The unicorn mare nods slowly.
  2779. >"Her exact wording is right here."
  2780. >Quillmare Ink pushes the scroll a few centimetres closer to you, still keeping it in her magic grasp.
  2781. >"You can read it for yourself if you wish."
  2782. >You shake your head.
  2783. "No, thanks. It's fine."
  2784. >#deca.mare chimes in at that point, much to your surprise.
  2785.  
  2786.  
  2787.  
  2788.  
  2789. >"Ink? Does the request only mention Star?"
  2790. >The Unicorn looks to the side to face #deca.mare.
  2791. >"It is addressed to Star Plotter, yes. Why do you ask?"
  2792. >And the answer confuses you.
  2793. >"Because I would like to join as well, if that is possible."
  2794. >Quillmare Ink studies the scroll again.
  2795. >"Well, the message only mentions him explicitly. However,..."
  2796. >A pause.
  2797. >"... I see nothing which implies that Star Plotter shall not bring somepony along."
  2798. >She gazes at #deca.mare again, with the same examining look that she has given you.
  2799. >"So I suggest you meet the princess as well and ask her yourself."
  2800. >#deca.mare nods again.
  2801. >"Thanks. I will."
  2802. >You still cannot fully process this.
  2803. >Princess Luna, #deca.mare, and you?
  2804. >In the same tent?
  2805. >This is asking for trouble.
  2806. >Unless #deca.mare is planning something specific.
  2807. >Something you know nothing of yet.
  2808. >And if that is the case, she will have her reasons for this decision.
  2809. >But as you have seen for yourself, her recent track record is not exactly stellar in this regard.
  2810. >After all, you are still dealing with the aftermath of #deca.mare's last great plan.
  2811. >The Unicorn mare focuses on you once more.
  2812. >"One more thing, off the records. The princess recommends you to forego the practice of donning any apparel."
  2813. >Uhm.
  2814. >If it were not for the very loose standard of clothing in Equestria's society, this would sound like a glaring red flag to you.
  2815. >And Quillmare Ink notices your silent confusion as well.
  2816. >Somehow.
  2817. >So she is quick to elaborate.
  2818. >Though as it turns out, she may misinterpret the origin of your thoughts a little bit.
  2819. >"Princess Luna is aware of the custom to pick one's best dress for a personal audience with her."
  2820. >She looks at your wings.
  2821. >"But in your current condition, that may not be a sound idea. The princess wants you to know that your regeneration takes precedence over formality."
  2822. >Unusually considerate of her.
  2823. >But alright.
  2824. >It is an honest reason you can get behind.
  2825. "I see. Well then,..."
  2826. >#deca.mare and you exchange glances.
  2827. >And you understand each other wordlessly.
  2828. >Here goes nothing.
  2829. "... we're ready to go."
  2830. >This gets another neutral nod out of Quillmare Ink.
  2831. >"Splendid. Follow me."
  2832. >The scroll disappears inside her saddlebag in one swift move.
  2833. >And even before the bag is fully closed by Quillmare Ink's magic grip again, the flaps of the tent are illuminated by her silver aura.
  2834. >Once again, You do not register a single moment of respite in between.
  2835. >She opens up the flaps and turns around to leave simultaneously.
  2836. >"Come with me."
  2837. >That is easy enough.
  2838. >Quillmare Ink steps out.
  2839. >Both #deca.mare and you follow her accordingly.
  2840. >Once you are all outside the tent, the tall Unicorn lets go of the flaps and starts trotting.
  2841. >She picks a relatively casual pace that is easy to maintain, yet slightly faster than a regular pony stroll.
  2842. >The two of you match the Unicorn's speed and let her lead you to the tent of the Royal Sisters.
  2843. >Quillmare Ink addresses you without looking back.
  2844. >"Can you keep up?"
  2845. >And you respond without hesitation.
  2846. "We're fine. Don't worry."
  2847. >You believe you see her nodding briefly.
  2848. >Then, true to her style and reputation, Quillmare Ink opens up the other saddlebag to pick a different document.
  2849.  
  2850.  
  2851.  
  2852.  
  2853. >She starts reading it on the way, without slowing down or showing any indication that she might be worried about bumping into someone or something.
  2854. >Yet you had to guess what the piece might be about.
  2855. >And since the Unicorn mare is holding the text right in front of her face the whole time, her body is effectively blocking the document from your sight.
  2856. >However, the content of the document is, in all due likelihood, not going to be something which may concern you.
  2857. >It is probably either some kind of spell formula, or yet more instructions, written down by the princesses.
  2858. >So no pieces of information which would warrant to keep staring at the mare's rear for a virtually futile attempt to peek briefly at the text in front of her.
  2859. >Your merry troupe of three trots on.
  2860. >And as you are walking closely behind the aide, you look around and inspect the camp from up close.
  2861. >Up to this point, you have only seen some satellite photos of the perimeter.
  2862. >These gave you a general idea of what you are dealing with, but that was it.
  2863. >Seeing the erected camp personally is a different and much more tangible experience.
  2864. >And from the perspective of your alias, it does make sense to act intrigued too.
  2865. >Because everyone knows that you were "unconscious" and wounded at the time of your extraction.
  2866. >So no one is likely to bat an eye at your behaviour.
  2867. >Critical minds like Sky Squall and Luna included.
  2868. >Though the camp is pretty much what you have expected.
  2869. >A handful of relatively small tents, similar in size to yours, which are loosely spread on a mostly grassy field near the edge of the now burned zone.
  2870. >In fact, the "border line" at which the plants began to visibly suffer from the orbital strike is only a stone's throw from here.
  2871. >Still, despite the relative proximity to that area, you understand why the ponies were not keen on camping on the other side of that border.
  2872. >After all, this place was cooked less than a full day ago.
  2873. >A fact which quickly led to some negative connotations, even when the area is very unlikely of being attacked a second time.
  2874. >And it does not take an expert to see that this temporary settlement was not placed with any larger strategic outline or efficiency in mind, as the average distance between most of the tents spans roughly a dozen metres or so.
  2875. >From what you can tell, you assume the ponies simply looked for places where they could erect their structures, and then picked the first vacant spot that they found.
  2876. >This is a poster child example of an impromptu site.
  2877. >The consequence, however, is that you have to traverse a comparatively long distance from one end of the site to the other.
  2878. >Right about now.
  2879. >So you are closely following Quillmare Ink's steps for the better part of about one hundred metres.
  2880. >Perhaps a bit more.
  2881. >Not a huge trek, and much less so for pony standards, granted, but it still takes a couple of minutes.
  2882. >Eventually though, you spot one particular tent.
  2883.  
  2884.  
  2885.  
  2886.  
  2887. >It is a little bit larger than the others on the field, but at the same time nothing which anyone would really be writing home about.
  2888. >Luxury is different.
  2889. >Its slightly larger size is not the feature which makes the tent stand out though.
  2890. >The pair of armoured guards and the Equestrian banner right at the entrance, however, are.
  2891. >Quillmare Ink is merrily heading straight towards this place.
  2892. >And she shows a casual demeanour which you find almost remarkable.
  2893. >Because the mare simply does not look up from the document.
  2894. >Not even once.
  2895. >For her, it is as if the guards were not present at all.
  2896. >And to be fair, the armoured ponies are not supposed to ward off visitors.
  2897. >They rather act as an honour guard and quick reaction team.
  2898. >A small band that is meant to remain on standby, for the unlikely case of something going wrong.
  2899. >So they do not emanate any real aura of intimidation as far as the ponies are concerned.
  2900. >Much less so for a mare who deals with the princesses on a daily basis.
  2901. >But still, it does strike you as somewhat unusual.
  2902. >If you were in her situation, you would at least take a look to check how the guards react to your presence.
  2903. >Just in case.
  2904. >Well, this Unicorn knows what she is doing, you suppose.
  2905. >On the last fifteen to twenty metres of your walk, you notice someone else moving in the periphery of your vision.
  2906. >Also, you believe you have seen a very familiar colour on top of that.
  2907. >So you look to the side to check it out.
  2908. >And indeed, you spot a certain golden Pegasus nearby.
  2909. >He too is approaching the tent, as it seems.
  2910. >His movements are still not entirely fluent, yet they have become notably better over the course of the night.
  2911. >So much so that Sky Squall is actually able to trot, albeit in a somewhat stilted manner.
  2912. >Whether the involvement of another certain Pegasus may or may not have had any influence on that development is hard to say, however.
  2913. >And you probably should not ask.
  2914. >But either way, his gait is not the only thing that has improved.
  2915. >The stallion greets you with a slight grin, and you slow down for a moment to wave to him once.
  2916. >Quillmare Ink does not seem to notice any of that though.
  2917. >She keeps her graceful pace, and with her trusty document still seemingly glued to her face.
  2918. >This mare really sends some oddly mixed signals.
  2919. >Trying to maintain the noble appearance of the traditional Unicorns on the one hand, but acting like a complete bookworm on the other.
  2920. >Eventually though, she lowers the object and comes to a stop, just a couple of steps away from the pair of armoured guards.
  2921. >The Earth pony mare and the Unicorn Stallion, both sporting a respectable physique, muster Quillmare Ink briefly.
  2922. >And she quickly looks at both of them in turn too, fairly unimpressed by their little examination.
  2923. >The mare then wordlessly signals her to move into the tent, and the Unicorn stallion takes a step to the side to let her pass.
  2924. >Quillmare Ink turns her head to look at #deca.mare and you.
  2925.  
  2926.  
  2927.  
  2928.  
  2929. >"Wait here for a moment. I will inform the princess of your arrival."
  2930. >With that said, she enters the tent, and her document floats right behind her.
  2931. >The guards proceed to study you next whilst you are standing still, just as Quillmare Ink said.
  2932. >You know of course that this action in itself is nothing special, yet it nevertheless feels slightly uncomfortable for a moment.
  2933. >But this moment is fleeting, as both the mare and the stallion respectfully salute you shortly thereafter.
  2934. >A gesture in recognition of what you have done yesterday, you assume.
  2935. >After all, the news of deeds like yours circulate fast.
  2936. >Especially in such a small circle of ponies.
  2937. >And you, in a reflex which you inherited from your past life, salute in turn.
  2938. >Good thing that the customs regarding salutes are not as strictly codified in Equestria as they are on Earth.
  2939. >For you are certainly not adhering to any kind of uniform dress code with your current collection of applied bandages, patches, and, well, lack of basically everything else.
  2940. >Once you lower your forelimb again, only a few seconds later, you get a quick reminder that you have temporarily forgotten something else.
  2941. >A forehoof pokes your shoulder a few times from the side.
  2942. >You spot the offending limb with a golden coat.
  2943. >Then you let your gaze wander upwards until you look Sky Squall directly in the eyes.
  2944. >"Hey there."
  2945. "Morning, Sky. Gotten better, hm? How are you?"
  2946. >He shrugs.
  2947. >"Good enough for a little stroll. So it could be worse."
  2948. >He sounds friendly and honest, but you nevertheless think that you register a certain notion of subtle hesitance in his demeanour.
  2949. >But well, it is not hard to figure out why.
  2950. >You are in public now, and no longer within the confines of a relatively private tent.
  2951. >Sky Squall is not going to be as open to you about certain topics as he was there.
  2952. >Which is fair enough.
  2953. >And the Pegasus is quick to pass the ball back to you.
  2954. >"The princess called for you, eh?"
  2955. >You nod.
  2956. "Yep. Quill brought us here."
  2957. >He stares at the entrance of the tent.
  2958. >"I think I shouldn't be surprised."
  2959. >Oh?
  2960. >You get a suspicion.
  2961. "Let me guess. You were summoned too?"
  2962. >And he confirms your theory.
  2963. >"Right. Inky here came to our tent a short while ago. Told me I was expected and moved on."
  2964. >A pause.
  2965. >"Now I know why she left so quickly though. I initially thought this would be a personal audience."
  2966. >You shrug.
  2967. "Looks like Princess Luna planned on having a group discussion instead."
  2968. >The Pegasus turns his head to focus #deca.mare.
  2969. >"But, to tell you the truth, I'm surprised to see you here. Did Luna ask for your presence to talk about the sunfire incident too?"
  2970. >#deca.mare shakes her head.
  2971. >"No, she did not. I asked if I could tag along."
  2972. >Sky Squall lightly tilts his head.
  2973. >"Hm, alright. Not sure if I see the point in that though. You aren't an eye witness."
  2974. >Oh boy.
  2975. >If he only knew.
  2976. >You try to change the topic.
  2977. "Speaking of ponies who aren't present, how's Firefly?"
  2978.  
  2979.  
  2980.  
  2981.  
  2982. >Sky Squall clears his throat.
  2983. >"She's fine, thanks for asking."
  2984. >A pause.
  2985. >"Although..."
  2986. >You raise an eyebrow.
  2987. "Although what?"
  2988. >"She's got a, well, how do I put it, split... opinion on you at the moment."
  2989. >Oh dear.
  2990. >You think you can guess what he means.
  2991. >Yet you still have to ask.
  2992. >Just to be certain.
  2993. "How so?"
  2994. >The stallion lowers his voice.
  2995. >Presumably in order to keep this part of the conversation between the three of you.
  2996. >"You see, she's of course grateful for what you've done. And she'd thank you for it."
  2997. >No surprise so far.
  2998. "But?"
  2999. >"But she's also, shall we say, less enthused about the... condition in which you brought me back."
  3000. >Of course she is.
  3001. >And you understand her notion all too well.
  3002. >If someone were to do to you what you did to Sky Squall, #deca.mare would be furious beyond description.
  3003. >Even if she were to understand why it was done on a rational level.
  3004. >And on top of that, you also upstaged and humiliated Firefly's mate in public.
  3005. >That thought must bother her just as much as it burdened Sky Squall yesterday.
  3006. "She's that mad, isn't she?"
  3007. >"No, not directly mad. She couldn't be mad at my... ahem, saviour."
  3008. >Sky Squall audibly struggled to speak that last word out loud.
  3009. >"But she's also... upset. In a way. It gnaws at her."
  3010. >Right.
  3011. >And at her pride in particular, you assume.
  3012. >"If I were you, I wouldn't pick a show fight with her any time soon. She could be tempted to... settle the score... in the heat of the moment."
  3013. >You are fairly certain that you should take his remark literally.
  3014. >"Though she'd thank you afterwards for saving me."
  3015. >How diplomatic of her.
  3016. "Are you... sure about that?"
  3017. >Sky Squall blinks.
  3018. >"Well, she... promised me to be fair to you."
  3019. >By doing both things in one go, as it seems.
  3020. >Alright.
  3021. >And with that, Luna is now officially demoted to number two on the list of ponies you should be careful around.
  3022. >Because even a perceptive Alicorn princess cannot match the grudge of a determined mate, and likely future wife.
  3023. >Especially one who is willingly throwing herself against literal dragons.
  3024. >Nay, who insists on throwing herself against them in order to protect the ponies and places she cares about, come hell or high water.
  3025. >Oh well.
  3026. >This is not a confrontation you are keen on dealing with.
  3027. >To put it mildly.
  3028. >But if Sky Squall is right, you should have nothing to worry about in your everyday activities.
  3029. >As long as you refuse to face Firefly in a match, you should be fine.
  3030. >Because it would be beneath her and Sky Squall's pride to take you by surprise.
  3031. >However, you can picture her challenging you frequently in the future.
  3032. >Probably every time you meet each other, until you agree to at least one match.
  3033. >Not really an ideal outcome.
  3034. >Or alternatively, you could deliberately let her floor you at the first occasion and be done with it.
  3035. >Which is an equally unattractive scenario to look forward to.
  3036. >For you have seen how unbridled her fighting style can be.
  3037.  
  3038.  
  3039.  
  3040.  
  3041. >You shake your head and banish the thought for the moment.
  3042. >This is not the time to think about Firefly.
  3043. >Luna still requires your attention right now.
  3044. >Even as number two on your personal risk list.
  3045. >Whatever may or may not happen though, one thing has become clear to you.
  3046. >These two are a couple for life.
  3047. >There can be no doubt about that anymore.
  3048. >Perhaps, it even was this incident that sealed the deal for good.
  3049. >You take all of this in and nod.
  3050. "Noted, thanks. We'll sort this situation out eventually."
  3051. >A pause.
  3052. "Somehow."
  3053. >Mere seconds after saying this, Quillmare Ink reappears from within the tent.
  3054. >"The princess is ready to greet you now."
  3055. >She looks at #deca.mare.
  3056. >"You included."
  3057. >The tall mare steps out of the entrance and motions you to enter, gracefully pointing at the opening with a forehoof.
  3058. >So here you go.
  3059. >#deca.mare, Sky Squall, and you react accordingly.
  3060. >Your personal conversation ends immediately as you walk inside.
  3061. >But you notice how Sky Squall moves his head closer to yours to whisper something into your ear, shortly before you reach the guards.
  3062. >"Between the two of us, do you think Princess Luna will criticise me harshly? Because... you know."
  3063. >Right.
  3064. >Because he squarely doubted her competence in the presence of dozens of ponies, flat out ignored all warnings, and got his rear end handed to him as a result.
  3065. >You can see why he is concerned that the princess might be displeased with his performance.
  3066. >And it is almost amusingly ironic to behold that you are not the only one who feels a form of mild trepidation whilst paying a visit to the princess.
  3067. >However, you doubt that Sky Squall will be her main person of interest in this discussion.
  3068. >Not when both #deca.mare and you are with him.
  3069. >Besides, you do not want him to feel bad about this.
  3070. >So whisper an honest answer back to him.
  3071. "Don't worry about that. It's going to be fine."
  3072. >The Pegasus does not seem to be fully convinced of your reassurance.
  3073. >Yet he refrains from saying more, as the guards draw ever closer.
  3074. >And the armoured pair lets you pass without any further comment or examining look.
  3075. >Once you are inside, you quickly start to study the interior.
  3076. >The equipment and general decoration is comparable to the inventory of the other tents.
  3077. >A spartan baseline collection of makeshift furniture, with very little in the way of luxury.
  3078. >The only notable exceptions are two unusually large cushions at the end of the tent.
  3079. >One features a soothing dark blue hue, and its counterpart sports a radiant pearl white cover.
  3080. >The former is occupied, whereas the latter is empty.
  3081. >Princess Luna lies sprawled on her cushion, eyeing your little band with a subtle curiosity as you walk in.
  3082. >And the tent flaps close themselves behind you as the silver aura around them fades.
  3083. >Treading hooves can be heard outside.
  3084. >It is the same rhythm that you heard earlier today.
  3085. >And you think you also registered the characteristic build-up sound of a basic Unicorn levitation spell.
  3086.  
  3087.  
  3088.  
  3089.  
  3090. >Quillmare Ink is already tending to her next assignment, and she has probably picked up another text to read whilst she trots around the place.
  3091. >She is not attending this gathering of yours.
  3092. >Fine.
  3093. >Four it is then.
  3094. >The three of you walk towards the blue cushion.
  3095. >Slowly and respectfully.
  3096. >You form the spearhead, with #deca.mare and Sky Squall following you closely on either side.
  3097. >And Luna greets you formally as you do.
  3098. >"Greetings, dear ponies. Welcome to our humble abode."
  3099. >You keep walking, knowing perfectly well that Luna's speech is not over.
  3100. >"As you are surely aware, we have called for a gathering of great significance."
  3101. >Yes, the typical introductory theatrics.
  3102. >Moving on.
  3103. >You stop about one and a half metres away from the cushion and bow once.
  3104. "Princess."
  3105. >#deca.mare and Sky Squall follow your example.
  3106. >Princess Luna observes your behaviour with a growing notion of interest.
  3107. >"Yet we think to remember that we tasked our envoy with bringing two ponies to us."
  3108. >The Alicorn looks at #deca.mare.
  3109. >"Tell us, little one. What is the meaning of this peculiarity?"
  3110. >#deca.mare remains calm as she replies.
  3111. >"I wished to be here, dear princess."
  3112. >Luna keeps her eyes on #deca.mare.
  3113. >"And for what purpose?"
  3114. >Something you really would like to know as well.
  3115. >"Apart from accompanying my husband? Curiosity, first and foremost. But I also had the feeling that I should be here."
  3116. >Oh goodness.
  3117. >That nebulous last part of her answer flings her right in the "strange magic" corner too.
  3118. >You would not be surprised if Luna claims how this whole tent is now steeped in Windigo scent or something.
  3119. >#deca, what on Earth are you thinking?
  3120. >Much to your surprise, she responds immediately to your mental outcry on your internal comm channel.
  3121. >Do not worry, Anon.
  3122. >I know precisely what I am doing.
  3123. >You must force yourself to not show any accidental reactions with the proxy as you comment on that.
  3124. >Well, I sure hope so, #deca.
  3125. >I do not want to wallop my close friend a second time.
  3126. >You hear a sigh.
  3127. >Yes, I know.
  3128. >This will not happen again.
  3129. >Trust me.
  3130. >In the meantime, Princess Luna takes #deca.mare's response for what it is.
  3131. >And she draws the obvious conclusion.
  3132. >"A feeling, you say? This... faculty seems to manifest itself frequently in your... companionship."
  3133. >Companionship, eh?
  3134. >So reluctant in her wording.
  3135. >Princess Luna takes a breath.
  3136. >"We suppose you cannot describe this feeling to us in detail, correct?"
  3137. >#deca.mare lightly shakes her head.
  3138. >"Unfortunately, no. I cannot."
  3139. >Once again, Luna manages to keep her emotional reaction to #deca.mare's reply at a minimum.
  3140. >You can tell that the gears in her head are grinding, but that is about it.
  3141. >It is not obvious to you what her personal stance on this matter is.
  3142. >Though you personally cannot imagine her being satisfied with getting one vague answer after another.
  3143. >Especially now, since #deca.mare deliberately expanded the circle of "suspicious ponies" to the best of her abilities.
  3144. >You will have to discuss this with her in private later.
  3145. >Princess Luna seems to be willing to play the game, however.
  3146. >At least for the moment.
  3147. >"Very well. Then we suggest you stay and listen to what we have to say."
  3148.  
  3149.  
  3150.  
  3151.  
  3152. >What we have to say?
  3153. >You are not sure which "we" Luna is using in this context.
  3154. >Does she only talk for herself?
  3155. >Or does she speak for her sister as well?
  3156. >You cannot shake the feeling that the latter is more likely.
  3157. >But either way, something unusual is coming up.
  3158. >You can positively feel that much.
  3159. >And it starts with three smaller seating cushions which are suddenly floating over to you, surrounded by a blue magical aura.
  3160. >Princess Luna places these three cushions in a line on the ground, right in front of her own bigger variant.
  3161. >"Take a seat."
  3162. >So you do.
  3163. >And following the pattern in which you approached the princess just a few moments ago, you pick the one in the middle, whereas #deca.mare and Sky Squall pick those on the sides.
  3164. >The princess waits patiently until all three of you are comfortably seated before she starts properly.
  3165. >But once this is done, she gets to the point, and swiftly at that.
  3166. >"Esteemed ponies. We think it is undeniable that the last eight days have been exceptional in more ways than any of us could have realised."
  3167. >She looks at each of you in turn whilst saying this.
  3168. >And she does not hear a single objection.
  3169. >"Not only has it been a looming disaster which could, fortunately, be averted, it also taught us more about the world beyond our horizon."
  3170. >Well, #deca.mare and you could technically object to the second part.
  3171. >Yet neither of you does.
  3172. >Unsurprisingly.
  3173. >"As we have seen, we are not alone in the vast lands we call our home. And as it was made painstakingly clear to us, the others are not necessarily attributing the same value to cordial relationships as we do."
  3174. >Her gaze keeps wandering from one listener to the other.
  3175. >"Whereas the Unification was an event which brought us together, this has been an incident that embodies the opposite. It drove us and the ones who call themselves 'the dragons' apart."
  3176. >A pause.
  3177. >"From what little we know about the dragons though, this is a favourable outcome. We do not see any means to pave the way for a mutual relationship in the foreseeable future."
  3178. >You bet she struggles very hard not to add "if ever" at the end.
  3179. >"Unfortunately, this leaves us with a twofold problem."
  3180. >Luna pauses for a moment to allow everyone to mentally process what she said.
  3181. >"The first part of the problem is obvious. We are now aware of one confirmed outside force. A faction of beings who act upon their own convictions, in lands that are far beyond the borders of our drawn maps. And if there is one faction we knew nothing about until now, there could be more."
  3182.  
  3183.  
  3184.  
  3185.  
  3186. >She blinks.
  3187. >"It would be unwise to ignore that possibility."
  3188. >Considering that you know the list of living species on Equestria, you tend to agree with her.
  3189. >"The second part of the problem is related to the first. And we aptly sum it up in one word. Crises."
  3190. >Princess Luna sighs.
  3191. >"Our realm has faced two major incidents within a generation. Both posed a profound threat, and in both we were lucky to avert tragedy with great effort."
  3192. >The Alicorn mare looks at you directly.
  3193. >"Yet in spite of exceptional deeds in the face of great danger, this is a reason for concern. Tensions can rise anew. And they are likely to, given enough time."
  3194. >Her expression becomes more serious.
  3195. >"But we cannot afford to rely on sheer luck in our defence. Because if we do, we will eventually face a danger that will overcome us. It is the inevitability of chance."
  3196. >Once more, you would agree under different circumstances.
  3197. >#deca.mare chimes in, interrupting the princess.
  3198. >"So you are working on a plan?"
  3199. >Princess Luna turns her head to #deca.mare.
  3200. >"Us and our dear sister discussed the subject earlier. And we came to an agreement."
  3201. >A pause.
  3202. >"To prevent future incidents from catching us unprepared, we intend to do two things."
  3203. >She takes a breath.
  3204. >"One, we will make attempts to gradually fill the blanks in our records and expand our maps. But this endeavour requires more extensive planning. And time."
  3205. >And leads to a lot of future expeditions, as you think to yourself.
  3206. >"Number two is more straightforward and immediate. This is where you come into play, my esteemed ponies."
  3207. >Luna pauses a second time and examines your reactions.
  3208. >"We hasten to establish a specialised band of ponies for future crises like these. A permanent group that is on call when they are needed, and who can respond to reports without delay."
  3209. >You think you can see where this is going.
  3210. >But Sky Squall is the one who speaks it out loud first.
  3211. >"And you want us to join this team?"
  3212. >The Alicorn mare nods faintly.
  3213. >"Precisely. We originally considered to offer this position to the two of you..."
  3214. >Luna points at Sky Squall and you.
  3215. >"... but since you feel so inexplicably drawn to this event..."
  3216. >She turns to #deca.mare.
  3217. >"... we extend this offer to you as well, Enigmatic Decanter."
  3218. >So that was her plan.
  3219. >#deca.mare brought herself into the picture deliberately.
  3220. >Simply to receive this offer.
  3221. >And she is ready to seize this opportunity at once.
  3222. >"What would this position entail?"
  3223. >Princess Luna seems to be pleased with #deca.mare's reaction.
  3224. >If the princess has any suspicions about #deca.mare lingering in her mind, she is hiding this notion thoroughly.
  3225. >"As we said, it is envisioned to become a long-lasting unit, albeit one with a very situational task."
  3226. >A pause.
  3227. >"In essence, you would pledge to provide your services to us and the realm at all times, and react to our summons as quickly as possible."
  3228.  
  3229.  
  3230.  
  3231.  
  3232. >Luna's gaze wanders again.
  3233. >"Yet we will only call upon your aid when it is indeed needed."
  3234. >Sky Squall raises his voice.
  3235. >"You mean when we're needed to investigate reports that are similar to those of Lush Field?"
  3236. >A second faint nod.
  3237. >"This is the idea. We are not talking about everyday errands. You would only be responsible for those incidents which are undoubtedly out of the ordinary. Outside of that role, your vows will not bind you in any way."
  3238. >In other words, Luna wants you to become a part of her personal emergency task force.
  3239. >Sure.
  3240. >What could possibly go wrong?
  3241. >The princess waits for a second before she goes on.
  3242. >"However, we cannot ask you to do this unless you feel fully committed to our idea. It must be your own voluntary decision to join in."
  3243. >She sighs.
  3244. >"It probably does not need to be mentioned because of how obvious it is, but we must stress again that these ventures might also involve more dangerous work. Dangers we do not know of yet."
  3245. >You glance over to Sky Squall to see how he reacts to this proposal so far.
  3246. >And the stallion seems to be relatively calm at the moment, despite the fact that he suffered the most during the conclusion of the final act in your last mission.
  3247. >Well, he technically endured a bit less suffering than you, as far as official records go, but still.
  3248. >It would have been understandable if he were a tad more reluctant.
  3249. >However, you do spot a hint of confusion in his eyes.
  3250. >And as you ponder what this confusion could be, you get an idea.
  3251. >You are going to confront Luna.
  3252. >Indirectly, at least.
  3253. >After all, #deca.mare poked the bear already.
  3254. >So you might as well give it a shot too.
  3255. "Why us, princess?"
  3256. >This shifts Luna's attention straight to you.
  3257. >"Because your performance has proven your proficiency. Ponies with such excelling talents would be a tremendous boon for our endeavour."
  3258. >So the basic run-of-the-mill response.
  3259. >No mentions of Windigo magic or anything else.
  3260. >Well, you did not expect her to really go all out, of course.
  3261. >But you thought she would at least try to tease you a tad, in an attempt to pry some form of reaction out of you.
  3262. >"And, what is just as important, you two form an effective team."
  3263. >Well, if you are not beating the hell out of one another.
  3264. >You keep that thought to yourself though.
  3265. >"You could become exemplars of camaraderie."
  3266. >Right.
  3267. >And you have a hunch that certain parts of Sky Squall are feeling the urge to protest against this statement.
  3268. >Not to mention the issue of Sky Squall's considerable miscalculation.
  3269. >Granted, it was an act of loyalty first and foremost, but it led to a highly critical situation.
  3270. >You would not expect Princess Luna to gloss over that fact when she considers to offer such a position to the two of you.
  3271. >And neither does Sky Squall.
  3272.  
  3273.  
  3274.  
  3275.  
  3276. >The Pegasus coughs once and raises his voice.
  3277. >"Princess, may I speak openly?"
  3278. >Luna casually turns her head, showing no change in her general attitude.
  3279. >"Of course, little one. Speak your mind."
  3280. >Sky Squall sighs.
  3281. >"To be absolutely honest, my princess, I'm confused. When I came here, I was prepared to... face criticism and... reprimands for... what I did. My... failings. You have every right to be angry with me."
  3282. >He shakes his head.
  3283. >"But all I hear are praises. And you offer me a new position with even more responsibilities. This... I don't understand. It doesn't make sense to me."
  3284. >The princess listens to Sky Squall's legitimate objections, yet says nothing at first.
  3285. >But once he has said his part, she musters the stallion thoroughly from her cushion.
  3286. >Looking up and down.
  3287. >She studies him from his mane to his hooves, and then the same in reverse.
  3288. >Several times.
  3289. >In complete silence.
  3290. >It is a strange thing to behold.
  3291. >Especially since there is no way for Luna not to know what had happened to him.
  3292. >She has undoubtedly consulted every single report made by every pony who was involved in the mission.
  3293. >And virtually everyone knows exactly what happened on that hill.
  3294. >Either through hearsay, or because they witnessed your extraction.
  3295. >There is no further need for this examination.
  3296. >All of you know that.
  3297. >Sky Squall included.
  3298. >Luna is doing this purely to achieve a psychological effect.
  3299. >And it works, in a way.
  3300. >Because being fully aware of the circumstances actually adds a somewhat unnerving notion to the situation.
  3301. >So much so that you feel the proxy's equivalent of goose bumps crawling up.
  3302. >But Sky Squall's posture remains steadfast.
  3303. >He sits there like an unflinching gargoyle.
  3304. >Or maybe he is paralysed.
  3305. >Difficult to say.
  3306. >But either way, Princess Luna has the grace to break the tension eventually.
  3307. >"Do you acknowledge that your actions, as noble as your intentions may have been, were unwise? That you acted directly against our warnings and appeals?"
  3308. >Sky Squall hesitates for a second.
  3309. >But he gives in.
  3310. >"Yes."
  3311. >And Luna goes on.