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Heart of War- Act XX

By ThingPaste
Created: 2024-02-28 03:25:37
Expiry: Never

  1. >…
  2. >You inhale sharply, but then start to cough.
  3. >Definitely cracked ribs.
  4. >You use your good arm to roll yourself over onto your chest.
  5. >The left arm…
  6. >It might be too far gone.
  7. >No feeling whatsoever.
  8. >It is too far gone.
  9. >You reach forward and pull yourself through the grass.
  10. >Left leg needs a splint.
  11. >Right needs patching up, but it’s still-
  12. >You move your right knee up to assist your crawl.
  13. >Coughing more, you roll yourself to your back once more.
  14. >As you lay in agony, you look to the sky.
  15. >And close your eyes.
  16. >This is it…
  17. >You close your eyes and slow your breath.
  18. >…
  19. >This IS it.
  20. >You can feel yourself pulled up.
  21. >After everything, this is how you go.
  22. >To a pack of manticores on the far side of the world.
  23. >Alone.
  24. >Just another footnote in the list of people who went East and never returned.
  25. >You’ve spent the majority of your life killing.
  26. >Now it’s your turn to die.
  27. >Maybe that’s for the best.
  28. >No…
  29. >Flurry.
  30. >She’ll be doomed to rot in a cell for the rest of her life
  31. >You feel yourself back on the ground.
  32. >And inhale sharply.
  33. >Past the pain from your lungs.
  34. >You open your eyes, only to find no tree branches above you.
  35. >A glance each way shows no manticore bodies either.
  36. >You must have got further than you thought.
  37. >Then yo-
  38.  
  39. >”Uncle?”
  40. >Flurry?
  41. >She’s over your body.
  42. >In a blink, she’s gone.
  43. >And over in the distance.
  44. >Standing next to…
  45. >Twilight?
  46. >They’re both looking at you.
  47. >Flurry turns from the clearing you’re in, and starts walking into the woods.
  48. >Twilight lingers a bit longer, looking at you.
  49. >Her horn then lights up as she teleports away.
  50. >You’re half dead…
  51. >But only half.
  52. >Between gasps for breath, you force yourself back onto your chest.
  53. >And start crawling after Flurry.
  54. >You’re dragging your left limbs along.
  55. >Maybe your subconscious, or Harvey, is trying to tell you something.
  56. >But you will not die here.
  57. >Not while you have even an ounce of fight left in you.
  58. >And if you have to drag yourself across this entire damn continent…
  59. >That won’t sto-
  60. >You cough up blood into the grass.
  61. >Won’t stop you.
  62.  
  63. >…
  64. >There it is…
  65. >Vanhoover.
  66. >You’ve never actually been here yourself.
  67. >At the reaches of the horizon lies the larger buildings that make up the city center.
  68. >Downtown, so to speak.
  69. >It lies on the Lunar Lake, an immense freshwater lake that is in the shape of a crescent moon.
  70. >Vanhoover sits almost perfectly center on the circular side of it, the points of the crescent leading further west.
  71. >To the north past the border are a few minor griffon towns.
  72. >In the south are a couple Equestiran towns, Mareattle being the only one of note.
  73. >On the far side of the lake are bison tribes.
  74. >You started this year on the frontier, and now you’re back on one of them.
  75. >Ironic.
  76. >But now you’re passing over the dense forests of the north west, and passing into the rural outskirts of the city.
  77. >You pass over hundreds of farms.
  78. >The Lunar Lake is so large that pegasi farmers can harvest water from the lake directly to water crops without denting the available water source.
  79. >They worked with earth ponies to cultivate the land, making Vanhoover one of the largest agricultural zones outside of the Equestrian core.
  80. >But the farms below are empty.
  81. >Only fields of crops swaying in the wind.
  82. >Devoid of any tenders.
  83. >Abandoned by those who headed the evacuation.
  84. >But how many are fortified in their barns, unwilling to evacuate their homes?
  85. >Thousands of pegasi follow you.
  86. >Cloudsdale boys.
  87.  
  88. >Some of them might not know how to fight.
  89. >But all of them know how to fly.
  90. >The slightest adjustment from your wings will move the entire force.
  91. >You dive down a few yards, letting the men fall in behind you.
  92. >In the distance you can see several pillars of smoke from the city, suburbs, and even-
  93. >Moving quickly over the rural zones, you start to see more than empty fields and barns.
  94. >Just before you reached the more suburban areas of the city, you found an empty field.
  95. >Empty other than the bodies trampling down the crops.
  96. >Instead of swaying grains, you saw hundreds of bodies.
  97. >Thousands.
  98. >You can see the lines.
  99. >The tunnel to Tartarus.
  100. >It’s at a long angle, pointed towards the city proper.
  101. >More creatures can only emerge into one direction, having to turn around to face the flanks and rear.
  102. >Alright.
  103. >You’re going in.
  104.  
  105. >…
  106. >You reach your hand out.
  107. >And your right knee.
  108. >Pulling yourself forward.
  109. >One step at a time.
  110. >You’re not stepping…
  111. >Your left leg is limp.
  112. >And your left arm is dragging by your side.
  113. >If you had a blade with you, you might cut it off and be done with it.
  114. >But you-
  115. >The venom through your veins is only getting worse.
  116. >Your entire body is virtually shaking.
  117. >One…
  118. >More…
  119. >Push…
  120. >You don’t even have the strength to look up from the ground.
  121. >Only a glance up to see your surroundings.
  122. >Everything you know says that this is the end.
  123. >You’re parched.
  124. >Exhausted.
  125. >Hungry.
  126. >Crippled.
  127. >In need of… defecation.
  128. >Numb to the world.
  129. >You can hear your veins pulsating.
  130. >Slowly.
  131. >Steadily.
  132. >Panting from the exertion.
  133. >It’s been…
  134. >You don’t know how long.
  135. >Minutes… hours…
  136. >As you drag yourself along the forest floor, you end u seeing something.
  137. >Your reflection.
  138. >In a pond of water.
  139. >Your face is spattered with blood.
  140. >Your hair and beard are significantly greyed.
  141. >Starting this year, you only had a bit of grey in the ide burns.
  142. >Now at least half of it is.
  143. >But more importantly, a pool of water means something drinkable.
  144. >You reach your good hand up to it.
  145. >And as you try to scoop some water into your mouth it falls back into the pond before you can get it to your lips.
  146. >You need something to drink.
  147. >So you try again.
  148. >But the water falls away before you can get any.
  149. >So you move your head down to drink directly.
  150. >The cool water hits your lips.
  151. >But as you come into contact, the water shoots down your throat.
  152. >And starts to cover your cheeks.
  153. >It spreads over your face, submerging your eyes.
  154. >As it pushes down into your stomach and past your neck on the exterior, you feel yourself being pulled into the pond.
  155. >You were pulled from the land, submerged entirely into the water.
  156. >Unable to breathe, the last moments you could see were in the water.
  157. >The light dying away as you were pulled deeper into it.
  158. >So… this is it…
  159.  
  160. >…
  161. >You pull up from the battlefield, preparing to lead another dive.
  162. >Each time a few more of your men get plucked from the air.
  163. >But the hundreds of swords and spears coming down onto the formation is making a bigger dent.
  164. >As you and the rest of the strike force gain altitude, you fly past the archers.
  165. >Who launch a new volley down at the creatures.
  166. >Ending your vertical climb, you level out and wait for the others to fall in.
  167. >Archers are doing well, and the ground troops moving in at a good pace.
  168. “Alright boys! Another!”
  169. >Settling into a nose dive, you tuck your limbs in to accelerate as quickly as possible.
  170. >The wind beats against your eyes as you line up on the hundreds of creatures still below.
  171. >Three or four more of these dives and you think they’ll be softened enough to risk a more prolonged attack to retake the mouth of the pit.
  172. >But they’re…
  173. >Retreating.
  174. >En mass they start piling into the tunnel.
  175. >What?
  176. >By the time you reach the ground, only some stragglers remain.
  177. >You drive your sword into the skull of the one at the foot of the tunnel, your hooves landing on its back.
  178. >Around you, more pegasi either land or hit the remaining creatures.
  179. >Leaving you to look straight down the tunnel.
  180. >You can see some of them moving down, back to Tartarus.
  181. >This pit though… its slope isn’t that bad.
  182. >Less than a ten degree depression.
  183. >Shallow enough for an army to march down it.
  184. “Ground forces hold this position! 12th Airborne, we’ve got more work in the city.”
  185. >Retreat here might just mean consolidation in other areas.
  186.  
  187. >…
  188. >As it happened, you didn’t have more work in the city.
  189. >You split the division, looking to cover as much ground as possible.
  190. >Everywhere you flew over the creatures they were retreating back into the pits.
  191. >Eventually you ended up at headquarters set up in the city.
  192. >It’s set up in a city park, under a gazebo.
  193. >Getting up to speed with the other officers present.
  194. >Reports were all saying one thing.
  195. >The creatures were in full retreat.
  196. >One or two of the lower ranked men were hopeful.
  197. >But everypony else realized that there’s something more going on.
  198. >As the sun set, General Wave arrived to take command.
  199. >And an equally long talk was necessary to bring him up to speed.
  200. >In the end, he agreed that you haven’t simply won.
  201. >His standing orders were to consolidate ordinance and collapse the tunnels.
  202. >As the officers and messengers leave and go about carrying out their orders, you took Wave aside for a private word.
  203. “General.”
  204. >”What is it Thunder?”
  205. “I know you don’t trust m-“
  206. >”Get to the point.”
  207. >Alright, that’s how we’re going to play this.
  208. “I can’t speak for all of them, but there’s one pit outside of the city. It’s not like other tunnels we’ve seen so far. It’s traversable. They have to lead back to some kind of staging ground. If we can-“
  209. >”We’re not marching blind into Tartarus.”
  210. “Sir, this might be our only surefire shot at striking back.”
  211. >”We’re collapsing the pits, then getting in position to react to a new larger attack. Is that understood?”
  212. “… Yes General.”
  213. >”Firstly, an enemy never leaves an appealing option for counterattack unless they have an ambush planned. And second, the fight for this city was far from over. If they all decided to fall back, we need to be ready to respond wherever they pop up next.”
  214.  
  215. >…
  216. “Ghuaaaaaah!”
  217. >As you gasp for breath, you force yourself into a sitting position.
  218. >You immediately reach to hold your left arm.
  219. >It’s all there.
  220. >The sleeve is torn, but your arm is fully intact.
  221. >Even the skin where you had to flay it off is healed.
  222. >Reaching down to your left knee, you feel it.
  223. >It’s okay.
  224. >The bones feel like they were never broken.
  225. >On your right thigh, even though there are tears through your pants, you don’t feel any wounds.
  226. >You don’t even feel any burning from the venom in your veins.
  227. >It’s then that you were able to observe your surroundings.
  228. >The sun just rose moments ago.
  229. >You’re in a forest, but a clearing.
  230. >And it’s foggy.
  231. >You can barely see forty feet in the distance.
  232. >To your left is a still pond.
  233. >Its banks are a perfect circle.
  234. >At the center, are two stone spirals that stick out of the water.
  235. >They for a double helix, reaching up five feet or so.
  236. >The water…
  237. >It’s still.
  238. >Completely still.
  239. >Not even a ripple in the wind, and there’s a decent breeze hitting your face.
  240. >What.
  241. >The.
  242. >“Hello Anon.”
  243.  
  244. “HARV!”
  245. >”If I wasn’t incorporeal, I think you might be hugging me right now.”
  246. “Am I dead?”
  247. >”Not yet.”
  248. “Where am I? What’s going on!”
  249. >”Calm yourself for just a moment.”
  250. >He appears in front of you, standing in his human form with that same brown pinstripe suit.
  251. >”Let me start from the beginning.”
  252. “Harvey! This can’t be real… The parasite is back, isn’t it?”
  253. >”No, no, no… Just relax for a moment.”
  254. “… Okay.”
  255. >”This all started when the spider bit you. It was the male of the species. It released an incredibly potent neurotoxin into your bloodstream. It would have left you unconscious for a week, but I was able to somewhat fight it.”
  256. “The spider…”
  257. >”Yes, the larger one you woke up to was the female of the species. They cocoon an incapacitated victim before feeding off of them and laying eggs into your body. Now, I was continually fighting the toxin. Each hour that passed, I was getting closer to fully flushing it from your system. But, you just had to keep going.”
  258. “What was I supposed to do!”
  259. >”Just… Okay. So, you then encountered the manticores, and got stung. And that venom was an entirely different story. Unlike the ones you met banc in Equestria, this venom was deadly. If I wasn’t here, it would have killed you within ten minutes or so. With the flood of it into your system, you should have died in a few seconds.”
  260. “What?”
  261. >”Well, maybe your history with manticore venom would have kept you alive, but incapacitated for a few days. Then the flood came, and it was an unavoidable happenstance. And you ended up fighting the manticores. Then, you were mortally wounded, crawling on adrenaline and willpower alone.”
  262. >Before you can ask anything, he continues.
  263.  
  264. >”Now, through most of this I was only able to gather a few bits of information. Mainly through your bodily wounds. And yes, I was keeping alive from most of this. At the end of the day… days. We ended up here.”
  265. >Okay.
  266. >Most of this has been a brief haze.
  267. >Almost dreamlike.
  268. >You can remember certain events, but mainly the past couple days are gone.
  269. “Harvey, yeah. I get that. But what the he- where am I?”
  270. >”Stand up.”
  271. >Vague mothe-
  272. >Okay.
  273. >You lurch forward, placing your elbow onto the ground before you.
  274. >Getting onto your feet, you…
  275. >You take a couple steps.
  276. “Harvey?”
  277. >”Hmm?”
  278. “Why don’t my knees hurt?”
  279. >It’s been a constant pain for years.
  280. >But now you don’t feel a thing.
  281. >Like you-
  282. >”Take a look into the water. But don’t touch.”
  283. >You step up to the waterline then lean forward.
  284. >The water forms an almost perfect reflection.
  285. >You can see yourself.
  286. >Your head and face.
  287. >Your hair and beard.
  288. >It’s…
  289. >The grey is gone.
  290. >And you have far less wrinkles on your forehead.
  291. >What the hell?
  292. “Harvey… am I dead?”
  293. >”No.”
  294. “The WHAT THE-“
  295. >”You see… the water isn’t quite water…”
  296. >That’s-
  297. >You’ll just let him continue.
  298. >”How can I say it in words you’ll understand… It’s alive. Water is normally made of atoms, but this one is made of cells. All combined and communicating forming a colony of sorts. The point is, that they formed this pond and it’s sort of a… fountain of youth.”
  299. “Harv?”
  300. >”It’s been here for centuries, millennia even. The manticores you faced before? They were… guardians of sorts. Well, not necessarily guardians, and more of… opportunists. They’ve lived for almost as long as the pool has held regenerative properties.”
  301.  
  302. >Okay…
  303. >”So, you have… regenerated like them. And…”
  304. >Harv goes silent.
  305. >Wait.
  306. “Harvey… I thought I wasn’t affected by magic.”
  307. >”Because it’s not magic. It’s biological. The water permeated every cell in your body and rejuvenated them. In effect, it took easily replaceable strands of your DNA and replaced them with signals that put your cells into a more reinvigorating path.”
  308. “What does that even mean!”
  309. >”Well to bottom line it, you’ve lost ten or so years. Somewhere between nine and twelve.”
  310. “Fountain of youth… Harvey, am I immortal?”
  311. >”I… don’t know. The state your cells are in, you might keep ‘ageing’ as normal, or they could be stuck in a loop. Honestly I’d need a couple years in your mind to tell if you’re functionally immortal or not. BUT, either way, if you take enough damage then you’ll still die. But, you’re about ten years younger.”
  312. >You start to stretch your limbs, testing your muscles.
  313. >Wait…
  314.  
  315. >You look back into your reflection.
  316. >The scar over your eye is still there.
  317. >Rolling up your right sleeve, you look to other old scars.
  318. >They’re still there.
  319. >The healed wounds are still there, but the ones that were fresh are gone.
  320. >”Anon?”
  321. >Ten years younger.
  322. >Back in your prime…
  323. >Maybe not quite as strong, your muscle mass seems the same.
  324. >A literal rejuvenation.
  325. >A second wind…
  326. >”Anon?”
  327. “What.”
  328. >”I wasn’t aware for some parts… but this area is foreign to me.”
  329. “How so?”
  330. >”I kept my paths away from the… fountain. Because I wasn’t certain how the ‘water’ would interact with an alien anatomy.”
  331. “How far away.”
  332. >”The path you ended up on was the closest, but still at least three days away.”
  333. “I… couldn’t have crawled that far in a night.”
  334. >”Exactly.”
  335. “Harvey… I saw Flurry.”
  336. >”I don’t remember that.”
  337. “And Twilight.”
  338. >”That’s… to be honest, it was most likely a hallucination.”
  339. “That’s what I thought.”
  340. >”Are you sure only a day or two has gone by?”
  341. “I don’t know.”
  342. >”Well, to get back to the battle site, you’ll have to go due south.”
  343. “Sounds vaguely right.”
  344. >One last thing.
  345. “And Harv? I’m serious. You don’t do anything to my body without by go ahead. When you were dealing with everything, I was seriously debilitated.”
  346. >”… Alright. Full cooperation for my influences from here on out.”
  347. >South…
  348. >Let’s see how your younger body deals with a sprint.
  349.  
  350. >You glance back to the pool.
  351. >While you can’t deny the benefits… you have the feeling that something more is going on.
  352. >Because the mountain peaks you came from are much further off than you last remember.
  353. >You didn’t crawl here.
  354. >Leaning over, you take another look at your reflection.
  355. >Not quite at your peak, but pretty damn close.
  356. >Your muscle mass was unchanged though.
  357. >But the stuff you had was rejuvenated.
  358. >You bend your knees, then look back south.
  359. >Taking your first steps, you get a better feel for your fresh body.
  360. >This will do just fine.
  361. >Picking up pace, you move from a brisk job, into a full blown run.
  362. >Wind blows through your tattered clothes as you pass by the trees.
  363. >You were notably slower earlier this year.
  364. >You duck under a low branch, not losing an ounce of speed.
  365. >With a clear path through the forest ahead, you keep on going.
  366. >After quite some time, you stopped.
  367. “Harv?”
  368. >”Tired already?”
  369. “Not a bead of sweat.”
  370. >”Yes… I know, I was being-“
  371. “You should be ecstatic. I don’t get to complain about being old anymore.”
  372. >”I’m just a bit worried about what the pool did to you.”
  373. “What, am I not myself?”
  374. >”No, it’s that…”
  375. “Spit it out already.”
  376. >”I just don’t like the possibility that you might be immortal.”
  377. “Well look on the bright side, I’ve still got most of the East to be killed.”
  378. >”Hmmm.”
  379. >With that, you start your run again.
  380.  
  381. >…
  382. “YOU. DID. WHAT?”
  383. >Lancer starts:
  384. >”Wh-“
  385. “How many men did we start this year off with?”
  386. >”What?”
  387. “How. Many.”
  388. >”Fifty thousand.”
  389. “And how many of them did Anon personally choose to serve as his elites?”
  390. >”Five thousand.”
  391. “Less than two thousand remain original Old Guard, after casualties and the explosion in the city. Now I’ll ask one last question. Who did Anon choose to lead the them?”
  392. >”… Thunder. But his actions were-“
  393. “He lost his wife! His pregnant wife! You can’t possibly say that you’d be any different if you lost your family.”
  394. >”I wouldn’t let that-“
  395. “Yes, you would. I know because I’ve actually lost family.”
  396. >Lancer sighs and stares forward for a moment before looking down onto the table.
  397. >”You’re right.”
  398. >He looks back to you with weary eyes.
  399. >”I was too hard on him, but he does need to get himself back into a sound mind.”
  400. “Well you should hope he doesn’t get himself killed in Vanhoover.”
  401. >”The lad probably hates me now…”
  402. “As he should.”
  403. >”Just… look.”
  404. >He motions around the room, towards thousands of papers and files.
  405. “Most of the day I’m sorting out the military, and most of the night I’m sorting out the state. With Brairheart focused on his fleet and even Offense off having escapades in the south… See that folder?”
  406. >He points to one that’s rather large.
  407. >”That’s the casualties we’ve taken this year.”
  408. “What?”
  409. >”I don’t know how he did it… any of it. He always had the answer, and knew what direction to take. Now that I’m in the position… I’m lost.”
  410. “Then retire.”
  411. >”Heh. That’s probably what Anon would say.”
  412. “Go get some sleep. I can take care of things here.”
  413.  
  414. >…
  415. >You stand in front of the collapsed pit on the outskirts of the city.
  416. >The soldiers have all gone now.
  417. >Leaving you as the last pony in the field.
  418. >With the one sliver of a shot in a pile of rubble.
  419. >This isn’t the army you know.
  420. >It isn’t the army that would march far beyond supply lines in the desert to take a strategic fort, then hold it against all odds.
  421. >Not the army that would challenge each of its neighbors at once with a token force and at odds with Canterlot.
  422. >Hold.
  423. >Hold.
  424. >Hold.
  425. >Never advance.
  426. >The drive is gone.
  427. >In a war that can’t be won by defense alone.
  428. >Attrition is not on your side.
  429. >You step forward and place a hoof on the rubble.
  430. >Due to the angle it can’t be collapsed that deep…
  431. >A voice speaks out from behind.
  432. >”Thought I’d find you here.”
  433. “Night.”
  434. >”It was the wrong decision.”
  435. “They were our orders.”
  436. >”Just because they’re orders, doesn’t make it right.”
  437. “Says who?”
  438. >”Me, and a lot of then men I know.”
  439. “You’re not wrong.”
  440. >”Well what can you do?”
  441. >You look over to him.
  442. “Quite a bit actually.”
  443.  
  444. >…
  445. >You ran through most of the day.
  446. >At sunset, you finally reached… the place where you almost died.
  447. >You can tell from the bodies.
  448. >The first one you actually see is the one who got your arm.
  449. >It still has your dagger in its neck.
  450. >You walk over to it.
  451. >Kneeling down, you pat the dead beast on the mane.
  452. “Nice try.”
  453. >You then pull the dagger out of it, wiping as much of the dried blood off of it.
  454. >Sliding it into the sheathe that’s still on your hip, you then stand and walk over to your sword.
  455. >You pick it up.
  456. >Old friend…
  457. >Still a long road ahead.
  458. >Need to wash it clean later.
  459. >You slide it into the sheathe and head to get the rest of your weapons.
  460. >Having thrown your other knife into the canyon, you place this one into your right boot’s sheathe.
  461. >There’s your kukri.
  462. >Now to look for the four bore.
  463. >…
  464. >When you tracked it down, you can see that one of the hammers is bent out of place.
  465. >And the latch that keeps the chamber locked into place is busted too.
  466. >Shouldn’t have tossed it around so much…
  467. >You only had a couple more shots in your pack at least.
  468. >Less weight to carry, but that shouldn’t be as much of an issue now…
  469. >Alright, back to the canyon.
  470. >…
  471. >As the sun set, you were still cleaning off your weapons.
  472. >The moon and stars should be fairly bright though.
  473. >You take a swig of water from the canteen.
  474. >Well, you’re not that tired, but you should get a bit of rest in tonight.
  475. >Make things easier tomorrow.
  476.  
  477. >…
  478. >Your eyes shoot open.
  479. >Then you place a hand onto the grass.
  480. >Yeah.
  481. >The ground is shaking.
  482. >It’s faint, but notable.
  483. “Harvey?”
  484. >”Don’t look at me.”
  485. >You get to your feet and start scanning the area.
  486. >Looks clear enough.
  487. >You then see a pillar of red energy shoot up into the sky, followed by a loud thunder.
  488. >It’s to your… northeast.
  489. “Magic?”
  490. >”Looked like it.”
  491. >You reach down to grab your backpack.
  492. >That’s the only thing you didn’t keep on your body.
  493. >”What are you doing?”
  494. “Looked only half a kilometer off.”
  495. >”Oh so you’re just going to-“
  496. >You’re already running.
  497. >…
  498. >You think you found ground zero.
  499. >The trees for fifty yards are all blasted out of their roots.
  500. >In the starlight, you can see a hole of some kind at the center of the blast.
  501. >You toss your backpack off.
  502. “What the hell is this?”
  503. >”A hole.”
  504. “Thank you Harvey… I’m very much looking forward to our continuing buddy cop adventures.”
  505. >”What do you want from me!”
  506. >Movement.
  507. >Something’s crawling out of the hole.
  508. “Is that…”
  509. >”How?”
  510. >Two more spring up on either side.
  511. >The same animals that boarded the Avalon.
  512. >Creatures that Harvey said were from the deepest reaches of Tartarus.
  513. >Well, there’s one difference from the last time you encountered them.
  514. >This time, you don’t have to put on a show.
  515.  
  516. >You reach down, and draw your sword.
  517. >And charge towards the first beast.
  518. >It holds at the edge of the hole.
  519. >Looking into the alligator/shark/bulldog’s eyes, it rears on its smaller rear legs.
  520. >The flanking beasts run off to their respective side, moving toward the tree line.
  521. >Reaching melee range, the beast prepares to swipe down at you.
  522. >So you lower your sword, and duck under its arms.
  523. >You move your shoulder up t impact the center of mass.
  524. >Pushing with your legs, you force the beast back, and sending it down into the hole it crawled up from.
  525. >You then lean forward, to look down the hole.
  526. >It’s virtually a direct route straight down.
  527. >You hear movement.
  528. >Both flanks.
  529. >You spin on your heel.
  530. >The one to your left is closer.
  531. >As it approaches, an arm extended, you swipe it down, then follow up with a thrust into its exposed area.
  532. >The creature falls to the ground.
  533. >But the other is approaching fast.
  534. >You release the grip on your sword.
  535. >The one to your right is charging.
  536. >Hold.
  537. >It jumps towards you, so you step forward, sliding onto the ground.
  538. >With the beast standing over you, you kick upwards, leveraging your body to flip the creature.
  539. >Into the hole.
  540. >With your back to the ground, you tilt your neck up.
  541. >Enough to see the creature descend against its will back into where it came from.
  542. >Then, you get back to your feet.
  543. >And pull your sword from the beast still on the ground.
  544. >With it back in your hand, you step back to the mouth of the tunnel from blow.
  545. >In the night’s sky, you can see some movement.
  546. >More of the beasts climbing up.
  547. >This is too easy.
  548.  
  549. >…
  550. >Literally to easy.
  551. >At the rate the creatures are climbing up, you have plenty of time to circle the tunnel and slash at their arms.
  552. >Sending them tumbling back down.
  553. >You must have sent a few dozen back to Tartarus.
  554. >Then they stopped.
  555. >Just an empty hole to the center of the world.
  556. >Nothing in sight.
  557. “That it?”
  558. >”Looks like.”
  559. “So as soon as I leave, a couple hundred will come up and chase me down, right?”
  560. >”Likely, but we can’t exactly just stay here watching the tunnel.”
  561. “Yeah…”
  562. >”I’ve got a bad f-“
  563. “Don’t finish that statement. Nothing good ever comes after those words are spoken.”
  564. >”But, I’ve seen enough movies in your head to know that calling it out usually works to negate it’s effect.”
  565. “Shut up Harvey.”
  566. >As you turn to head back to your pack, you pull a rag from a pocket and wipe down your sword.
  567. >Once it’s clean, you toss it back into the sheath.
  568. >You glance back to see if there’s any change from the hole.
  569. >None.
  570. >Just the stillness of the night.
  571. >You reach down to grab your backpack, slinging it over your shoulders.
  572. “East?”
  573. >”East.”
  574. >Walking through the broken clearing, you continue the journey.
  575. >Only an hour or so till morning, so might as well go on.
  576. >Start to cover some ground.
  577. >As you step over the broken branches, you- you catch something in the corner of your eye.
  578. >Coming from the tunnel.
  579. >An arm reaching out, then a second.
  580. >Pulling a body out behind them.
  581. >And it’s not one of the beasts…
  582.  
  583. >You draw your sword, then place your left hand on the grip as well.
  584. >Keeping the blade low, you start to approach.
  585. “Harv.”
  586. >”I…”
  587. >The… thing stands.
  588. >Bipedal.
  589. >It’s got at least two feet on you.
  590. >And broad shoulders.
  591. >”I’ve never seen anything even close to this.”
  592. >The creature is standing tall.
  593. >Legs, arms, a torso, a head.
  594. >Humanoid.
  595. >No horns like minotaurs.
  596. >But its skin, or lack thereof.
  597. >There is no.
  598. >Its entire exterior is made of a dark sinewy material, winding together.
  599. >Muscle.
  600. >It’s like if you took a human, scaled it up, then skinned it.
  601. >But there aren’t any facial features, despite its proper head sitting on a neck to the torso.
  602. >”I mean never. I’ve seen everything this world has to offer, and I don’t recognize it.”
  603. “What’s that even mean?”
  604. >”It means that either this thing isn’t native to this world, it was tucked away so far that I never saw it, or…”
  605. “Or?”
  606. >”Or it’s something new.”
  607. >On the approach, the creature cocks it’s head.
  608. >Almost as if it would raise an eyebrow.
  609. >If it had eyebrows.
  610. >Or eyes.
  611. >You’re about fifteen feet from it.
  612. >But you can see…
  613. >Right where its eyes should be, the muscles split away.
  614. >Eyes start to form.
  615. >Not quite eyes though.
  616. >They’re almost perfectly circular.
  617. >Completely white, or dark grey.
  618. >You can’t really tell due to the low light.
  619. >But the creature takes a couple steps towards you.
  620. >Then it stops…
  621. >As soon as it started, you stopped.
  622. >Then cocked its head to the opposite side.
  623. >Giving you a look at the ends of its limbs.
  624. >Instead of toes and fingers, it has solid masses.
  625. >You whisper:
  626. “Harv?”
  627. >”I don’t know.”
  628. >Alright.
  629. >You test the creature.
  630. >Stepping towards it, it remains at ease.
  631. >Its limbs are at its sides.
  632. >Not even the slightest provocation.
  633. >Despite where it came from.
  634.  
  635. >Then you step over to your left side.
  636. >Other than moving it’s body to fully face you, it remains still.
  637. >And it remains still after another step.
  638. >And another.
  639. >It remains as is.
  640. >Eventually, you move up.
  641. >It came from the same hole that the Tartarus beasts did.
  642. >You’re able to step up to the creature.
  643. >Barely a foot separating you.
  644. >What are you?
  645. >One shot to kill it.
  646. >And you take it.
  647. >While the creature stands upright, you strike up.
  648. >The tip of your sword enters into what should be its gut.
  649. >As it gets a couple inches into the torso, you twist the blade and push it up.
  650. >If it were a human, your sword should end up right between its lungs.
  651. >Your sword ends up reaching so far into the creature that your cross guard is almost reaching the body.
  652. >Then you twist it again.
  653. >The creature moves its head down, as if to look at you.
  654. >And against your breastplate, it hits your upper body with its right hand.
  655. >A backhand blow, with barely a few inches to gain momentum.
  656. >That strike ends up pushing you back.
  657. >Not just pushing you back.
  658. >Your feet are entirely disconnected from the ground.
  659. >Thrown in the air, you end up on your back.
  660. >Your backpack’s placement makes the impact pretty hard.
  661. >As you pull yourself back onto your feet, you look back at the creature.
  662. >It takes a couple steps towards you.
  663. >Then stops.
  664. >Your sword is still firmly implanted into its torso.
  665. >Pointed upwards, straight through its body.
  666. >It reaches a hand onto the grip.
  667. >The ‘hand’ is virtually the same as a mitten made of pure muscle.
  668.  
  669. >But the creature doesn’t remove it cleanly from the wound you inflicted.
  670. >Instead, it pulls it straight out of its torso.
  671. >Your blade cuts through its body.
  672. >By a human’s comparison, it would have cut through the center of the ribcage, reaching parallel to its heart.
  673. >With the sword free from the body, the creature tosses it to the side.
  674. >And you can see the sinew muscles on either side of the cleaving wound reaching back to where it was cut off from.
  675. >The creature then steps towards you.
  676. >At a slow pace.
  677. >Very slow.
  678. >Almost as if it doesn’t quite know how to move on its feet.
  679. >Alright…
  680. >You reach back and draw your kukri.
  681. >When you reach the creature, it strikes out at you.
  682. >A wide swipe from your right.
  683. >You slash back, hitting at the wrist.
  684. >The blade cuts straight through it.
  685. >As it’s hand falls to the ground, you see the creature pause.
  686. >But from the stump, you can see the muscles starting to build out.
  687. >Building an new hand.
  688. >With its offhand, it swipes at your head.
  689. >You duck under it, then run off to its left.
  690. “Harv!”
  691. >”I don’t know!”
  692. >Okay.
  693. >You back pedal, moving further from the creature.
  694. >Its slow.
  695. >Very slow.
  696. >By the time you reach your sword, you’ve had enough time to sheathe your kukri, and pick up your sword.
  697. >And you even would have had enough time to switch weapons…
  698. >Three or four times…
  699. >If you just tossed the weapons on the ground, it’d be far more.
  700. >But with the sword in your hand, you step back a bit.
  701.  
  702. >Okay.
  703. >You let the creature move forward as you think.
  704. >So, you could-
  705. >Above the hole, and even the creature’s head, a sphere of red energy lights up the surroundings.
  706. >From it, a tight beam shoots down, straight down the tunnel.
  707. >The beam lets out a high pitched screech, but you can hear rock moving.
  708. >You don’t feel much other than the shaking of the earth.
  709. >The beam pulsates with a bang, then dissipates.
  710. >The presumably magical shockwave sends the creature off its feet towards you.
  711. >The creature ends up facedown a few feet from you.
  712. >And it was pretty quick to stand.
  713. >You move around it.
  714. >Getting a good look at the mouth of the hole.
  715. >There’s a decline towards it, but it’s completely collapsed.
  716. >Looking back to the creature, you see it on its feet.
  717. >No more beasts.
  718. >Only this thing.
  719. >That, as far as you can tell, can’t be killed.
  720. “Harvey?”
  721. >”Run?”
  722. “Run.”
  723. >You have speed.
  724. >And that might just be your saving grace.
  725. >So, you slid your sword back into its sheathe and retreated from your position.
  726. >When you think you’ve reached a safe distance, you stop to interrogate Harvey.
  727. “What the hell wa-“
  728. >”I don’t know!”
  729. “And I don’t care what you know, I want speculation!”
  730. >”By all measures it should have died when it ripped the sword from its body. But it didn’t.”
  731. “No shit.”
  732. >”You don’t have to be condescending.”
  733. “Yes, I do. Because-“
  734. >You hear a twig snap.
  735. >Looking back, you see the mass of muscle in the early light of the dawn.
  736. >Moving straight towards you.
  737. “Harv?”
  738. >”Yeah?”
  739. “Any nearby active volcanoes?”
  740. >”No.”
  741. “Then I don’t know a sure way to kill it.”
  742. >You can see that the hand you cut off is completely reformed.
  743. >Well, you’ve got a long run ahead of you if you’re to get far enough away from it to sleep.
  744. >No time to waste.
  745.  
  746. >…
  747. >With all of the pits taken care of, Wave called a meeting of senior officers.
  748. >Mainly going over repair plans and movements to better cover or respond to further incidents.
  749. >Eventually, he looked over to you.
  750. >”Thunder, we’ve been recalled to Canterlot. I’ll be remaining in the city for another day or two, then taking the airship back. You’ll set out immediately, brining your division back to Cloudsdale along the way.”
  751. “Understood.”
  752. >He then remains silent, watching you.
  753. >”Immediately.”
  754. >You nod.
  755. “Captain.”
  756. >You give a motion with your head indicating to leave.
  757. >As you walk away from the meeting, Night follows.
  758. “You heard the General, we’re heading out.”
  759. >You wait a good while before speaking again.
  760. “After that we’ll be going separate ways. You know what to do?”
  761. >”I know who and what we need.”
  762. “And keep things quiet. Only ponies who can be trusted. And we all need to know there’s probably no coming back.”
  763. >”But when we do, we’ll all be big damn heroes.”
  764. “Stay serious. One wrong step and at best we’re all court-martialed.”
  765. >”This army only court-martials people that fail.”
  766. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. This is all just plan B.”
  767. >”If Wave was any sign, plan A doesn’t seem that likely.”
  768. “Lancer might be more open. Offense if he’s back.”
  769. >”The Princess?”
  770. “Maybe… I don’t know.”
  771.  
  772. >…
  773. >Alright, after a good night’s sleep, you placed more wood on the fire that was smoldering down.
  774. >To say it was a simple campfire would be drastically underselling it.
  775. >You gathered enough wood for a bonfire.
  776. >Because, you noticed one thing about the creature last night.
  777. >It bleeds.
  778. >And if it bleeds-
  779. >”Anon.”
  780. >Harvey says as you hear it too.
  781. “I know.”
  782. >You turn and are immediately taken off your feet.
  783. >The creature has you by the neck, fingers wrapping around it.
  784. >You’re in its left hand.
  785. “Well look at that, you grew fingers last night.”
  786. >It holds you in the air, and cocks its head.
  787. >The eyes are less round, and slightly recessed into the face.
  788. “You’re gonna need a name. How ‘bout-“
  789. >It starts to choke you.
  790. >With your left hand, you reach down and draw your dagger.
  791. >Then jab it down into its shoulder.
  792. >It continues to cut off your airflow, but a moment later, it drops you.
  793. >With the dagger still firmly in its body, you can see the muscles start to convulse a bit.
  794. >Then it falls onto its back.
  795. “Yeah.”
  796. >You cough.
  797. “Manticore venom has that effect. Thanks Frederick.”
  798. >If it bleeds, you can poison it.
  799. >So once you made camp, you doused your dagger with some of the venom you still had in your pack.
  800. >Frederick’s still helping you even after death.
  801. >You reach back and draw your kukri.
  802. “Don’t know if you can feel pain, but this is going to hurt.”
  803. >Walking around, you kneel beside it’s neck, and chop down.
  804. >Takes two strikes, but you free the head from its body.
  805. >Completely disconnected, you see its eyes still moving.
  806. >And tendrils of muscle are moving out to connect the ends back together.
  807.  
  808. >Setting the blade down, you grab the head.
  809. >Then toss it over into the bonfire you made.
  810. >Still more work to do.
  811. >…
  812. >You chopped up most of the body.
  813. >Hands, forearms, up to the shoulders.
  814. >Feet, legs.
  815. >You even got out the machete to get the torso into its upper and lower parts.
  816. >With your weapons all cleaned off and back in their sheathes, you then picked up your backpack.
  817. >Ready to leave the creature’s remains burning to ash.
  818. “See Harv? There’s nothing that an unhealthy dose of mutilation can’t fix.”
  819. >”Do we really need one-liners?”
  820. “What would our buddy cop adventures be like without one-liners and overused clichés?”
  821. >So, you turn and start to walk away from the-
  822. >Wood crashes behind you.
  823. >”Speaking of clichés.”
  824. >You glance back.
  825. >And, of course, it’s reformed.
  826. >It takes a step out of the fire, flames still cooking it.
  827. “Aww shit.”
  828. >Nothing is ever-
  829. “Hope you got some serious ordinance in one of those boxes.”
  830. >You turn back around, and start running.
  831.  
  832. >…
  833. >You took a quick hour long nap at Cloudsdale before settling some things with Night and a few others.
  834. >Then you set out for Canterlot.
  835. >You left Cloudsdale at dawn, and arrived in the late afternoon.
  836. >Arriving at the meeting room inside the palace, you found Lancer sitting alone over some papers.
  837. >His hoof was to his face, leaning over the table.
  838. >Sleeping.
  839. >You avert your eyes, then close the door with a bit of force.
  840. >And can hear his spring up.
  841. >Looking over to him, he mumbles:
  842. >”Thunder…”
  843. “General. Reporting as ordered.”
  844. >”Yes, yes… Thunder, look…”
  845. >He sighs.
  846. >”I owe you an ap-“
  847. “I don’t want any.”
  848. >”Major-“
  849. “Sir, each minute we sit here wastes valuable time.”
  850. >”What do you mean?”
  851. “All of the pits in Vanhoover were at harsh angles. All but one. On the outskirts of the city, one was shallow enough to march troops down. It’s collapsed now, but nothing a few unicorn engineers couldn’t deal with in a few hours. We can end this right now, a single surgical strike to cripple their staging grounds.”
  852. >”You want to march… into Tartarus?”
  853. “If we don’t take the fight to them, this will never end.”
  854. >”That’s no simple request Major.”
  855. “General Wave responded… similarly.”
  856. >”Look, let’s play your game. We assemble an army and follow the tunnel down. After significant casualties from moving down a single chokepoint for who knows how long, we reach a staging ground. A breeding pit of some kind. What happens then? We blow it up? If that’s the only one, great. But what if there are four of them, or twenty, or a hundred? What happens then?”
  857.  
  858. “I think the benefits far outweigh the costs.”
  859. >”The costs are what? Ten, no. Twenty thousand lives at the very least.”
  860. “This is the only opportunity we’ve had to take the fight to them!”
  861. >”And doesn’t that seem strange to you? I got the initial reports. The creatures retreated in full. What enemy would leave a perfect avenue for counterattack wide open like that?”
  862. “Sir, we-“
  863. >”What happens if that tunnel leads to a winding maze of dead ends, specifically meant to trap anypony who would follow them.”
  864. “General, I’m asking you to trust me! This is the best chance we have to actually make progress in this war.”
  865. >”Did the crystal tell you that? Look, I was too hard on you personally. But you need to take a step back and look at the strategic view. It’s not an opportunity, it’s a deathtrap.”
  866. “Sir I… understood.”
  867. >”Thunder, I’m telling yo-“
  868. >He realizes what you said.
  869. >”Thank you. Now you look tired, take the evening off and get some rest. We’ve got a lot of work to do moving forward.”
  870. “Yes Sir.”
  871. >There goes that shot.
  872.  
  873. >…
  874. >There were reports of an incident at the main gate into the city, so you decided to check it out for yourself.
  875. >After minotaurs and Maretonians, you’re not sure what to expect.
  876. >Yaks?
  877. >Griffons?
  878. >Bison?
  879. >Either way, you decided to add to the suspense and walk the last stretch.
  880. >As you approach the gatehouse, you can see a guard looking down, and speaking to whoever is below.
  881. >”Look Ma’am. Standing orders are clear. No-“
  882. >Then a mare’s voice from below interrupts him.
  883. >”Listen here you cretin! I’ve been waiting out here for well over an hour! Do you honestly expect the four of us to prove an insurmountable security risk? Because if you do, then I have serious doubts about the ability of you ponies!”
  884. >Oh this will be fun.
  885. >You call over to the man on the walls.
  886. “Guardspony.”
  887. >At a loss for words, the best he can do is turn and rush to salute.
  888. >From below, you hear the mare speak:
  889. >”About time!”
  890. “I’ll take it from here.”
  891. >The soldier nods.
  892. >You step up and pop your head between a pair of merlons, looking down through the crenel at your guests.
  893. >At the head of the group is a mare, early thirties.
  894. >Earth pony, pink coat, flowing purple and white mane.
  895. >At her side is a large stallion.
  896. >Standing a few paces behind, a pair of pegasi are waiting.
  897. >They’re all wearing the bright red uniforms of the Royal Navy.
  898. “Last I heard you were all huddled up in Fort Shipbreaker.”
  899. >She seems visibly shocked to see you.
  900. >”Princess… You’re here.”
  901. >Something is wrong.
  902.  
  903. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
  904. >”Last I heard, you were otherwise indisposed…”
  905. >You can see her glance to the stallion beside her.
  906. >”Indefinitely.”
  907. “And when did you hear this?”
  908. >She pauses, thinking very carefully about her next words.
  909. >”The voyage East. With Anonymous.”
  910. >What?
  911. “What? Where is he?”
  912. >”Last I saw, he was setting foot on land. He insisted we leave him there.”
  913. >She reaches into her officer’s coat and procures an envelope.
  914. >”I have a letter from him to General Lancer. His eyes only.”
  915. >You glance over to the soldiers.
  916. “Open the gates.”
  917. >Then you flap your wings and flutter down to the ground.
  918. >As you land before the two lead ponies, each of them eyes you carefully.
  919. “Let me see it.”
  920. >Ready to draw swords.
  921. >They remain still.
  922. >Then she reiterates.
  923. >”Lancer’s eyes only.”
  924. >Indisposed.
  925. >Indefinitely.
  926. >You whisper to her:
  927. “He told you, didn’t he?”
  928. >”We had a lot of conversations, you’ll have to be more specific.”
  929. “The parasite.”
  930. >”All I know is that at any moment you could try to kill us. For the Navy being Canterlot loyalists earlier this year, or for other reasons.”
  931. “Is he still alive?”
  932. >”Last I saw Anon, he was ready and willing.”
  933. “Prove it.”
  934. >”You were the closest thing he had to a daughter. He thought of you as one, even if he didn’t say it that often. And the only reason he went east was to protect you.”
  935. “I’m going to go out on good faith. I’ll take you to the palace, and let you talk to Lancer in private. Along the way, there will be no guards following us. And my back will be to you the entire way.”
  936. >”That’s a lot of faith to place in a stranger, let alone an old enemy.”
  937. “You’ll soon find that old enemies are today’s allies.”
  938. >”Maybe.”
  939. “You look familiar. Who are you?”
  940. >”Diamond Tiara. Lady of the Admiralty and Commander of the Royal Navy.”
  941.  
  942. >…
  943. >You took her and her entourage to the meeting room.
  944. >And you didn’t get a knife in your flank, so things are going… good?
  945. >While she and Lancer talked, you stood in silence with the others from her group.
  946. >After a good twenty minutes, they both exited the room.
  947. >Lancer spoke to you first:
  948. >”Ma’am, she can be trusted. Anon…”
  949. “What?”
  950. >”He appointed her to High Command.”
  951. “You’re sure.”
  952. >”The signature was his, and the right one for the date.”
  953. “What?”
  954. >”He singed all of his orders to each of the generals in a different handwriting, for any one of us he would modify the signature to match the day of the week that he signed the order. It’s genuine.”
  955. “Somehow I doubt she’s sold.”
  956. >”You should take her to see the Princesses.”
  957. >He then adds:
  958. >”Celestia first.”
  959. “A good idea.”
  960. >…
  961. >You walked alone with Diamond Tiara into the dungeons.
  962. >And you left your sword with Lancer, letting Tiara keep her own.
  963. >Not that much of a gesture considering that as far as she knows you have full control of your magic.
  964. >As you moved down the hallways, to the magical cells, you spoke:
  965. “Now, you’ll see Celestia and then Luna. No matter what happens with Celestia, you need to hold on and see what Luna says afterwards.”
  966. >”How do I know this isn’t some elaborate trap?”
  967. “Because if I were controlled by a parasite bent on the destruction of Equestria, your Fort would be a pile of ashes.”
  968. >”Fair enough.”
  969. >…
  970. >Well, after sending the guards out of Celestia’s room, she started pleading with Tiara.
  971. >Trying to tell her that it was all just a coup against…
  972. >It was rather repetitive.
  973. >But by reports, it was the most that she’s said or even moved for months.
  974. >Then you took her to Luna’s cell.
  975. “Guards.”
  976. >The ponies patrolling her magical dampening cell leave the room.
  977. >Luna then looks to you and Tiara.
  978. >She twists her neck a bit.
  979. >”Young Flurry… And Diamond Tiara.”
  980.  
  981. >Tiara starts:
  982. >”Princess! Celestia was rather adamant-“
  983. >”My sister and-“
  984. >She pauses, visibly struggling with the parasite.
  985. >”And I are not ourselves.”
  986. “What about me?”
  987. >Luna continues, looking at Diamond Tiara.
  988. >”I cannot hold back for much longer. You must understand that Flurry Heart was able to overcome the entity residing in the other Princesses through her innate magical prowess from being born as an Ali-“
  989. >Luna looks down.
  990. >And silence overtakes the room.
  991. >Tiara yells out to her:
  992. >”Princess!”
  993. >”You…”
  994. “Luna?”
  995. >”You are all… so pathetic.”
  996. >Her voice is notably deeper.
  997. >It almost echoes with reverb.
  998. >The parasite continues:
  999. >”Any troubles that befall your pitiful land are but a pale comparison to us. We will flood across your pitiful nations, reducing it all to rubble.”
  1000. >She cocks her head.
  1001. >”You are… doomed. Today, or tomorrow. It does not matter. We have existed for eternity. And nothing has ever stopped us.”
  1002. >Tiara is actually the one to respond.
  1003. >”Well we’ll see how eternity fares against Anon.”
  1004. >”He is but a speck of nothingness.”
  1005. >”Keep telling yourself that.”
  1006. >Tiara then turns to you.
  1007. >”I’ve seen enough.”
  1008. >As you take your leave, you realize something.”
  1009. >She called him Anon.
  1010. >Twice now.
  1011. >As you exit the room and the guards return to their patrol it, Tiara speaks to you.
  1012. >”I can’t be honest if I said I don’t still have some doubts. Specifically about you. But when you’re on a ship with somepony- someone. You get to know them. When you enter into life and death scenarios, you get to trust them. I said I would work with Command, and I intend to.”
  1013. “That’s all I can ask Admiral.”
  1014. >”I’m not an admiral.”
  1015. “Then that’s all I can ask, Lady Tiara.”
  1016.  
  1017. >…
  1018. >You and Lancer, mainly Lancer, have been getting Tiara up to speed.
  1019. >When it came to the current war you’re fighting, she stopped you.
  1020. >Right after describing the creatures.
  1021. >”I’ve seen them before.”
  1022. “What?”
  1023. >Lancer spoke in tandem with you.
  1024. >”What?”
  1025. >Tiara answers:
  1026. >”I counted three dozen, Anon counted forty-two. We found a dead whale, adrift in the ocean. Torn to shreds and eaten by smaller creatures. They then attacked the ship, the same creatures you’ve described.”
  1027. “How did you deal with them?”
  1028. >”I didn’t. My crew didn’t. Anon did. The decks were evacuated, and he faced them alone.”
  1029. >”I’m not surprised.”
  1030. >”I watched the fight. With the first one, he got knocked back by its tail. But after that, he cut through them without a single wound other than some splinters he got from the ship. He killed dozens of those monstrosities without so much as a scratch. They were absolutely viscous, but he won the day.”
  1031. >If he had never left, Tartarus wouldn’t be much of a problem…
  1032. >Tiara continues after a pause:
  1033. >”I’ve lived through a lot of magic-based existential threats to Equestria, but I’ve never seen such brutal physical ferocity.”
  1034. >”The creatures are intimidating to be certain, but-“
  1035. >”I wasn’t talking about the creatures.”
  1036. >”Oh.”
  1037. >He’s out there because of you…
  1038. >Wait.
  1039. “When did this happen?”
  1040. >”Before your encounter with them with the minotaurs.”
  1041. >”What?”
  1042.  
  1043. >”It happened long before the first of these ‘pits’ arose on land.”
  1044. “That means they tried to attack Anon first…”
  1045. >Lancer responds:
  1046. >”Maybe they are related to the parasite.”
  1047. “But when we saw Luna earlier, the entity took over. It said that this conflict is insignificant to the one that will come.”
  1048. >Tiara gets a word in:
  1049. >”If Anon fails.”
  1050. >Lancer then offers a thought:
  1051. >”Maybe it was lying through Princess Luna.”
  1052. “I don’t know. Through all of my experiences and the reports, it has always been honest, if cryptic, once the cover was blown.”
  1053. >”Studies on the corpses indicate that they can sense magic, but not use it. Whatever forms the pits can use magic though… What if this isn’t the minotaur apocalypse, and some attempt to destroy Equestira from another force.”
  1054. “Who or what could be magically strong enough to do that?”
  1055. >”With the Princesses under lockdown, and Discord dead-“
  1056. >Tiara interrupts:
  1057. >”Discord is dead?”
  1058. “It’s a long story. Lancer, continue.”
  1059. >”A powerful changeling queen maybe, but all of them have been killed. As far as we know. Other than that… something could have escaped from a cell in Tartarus, but not left.”
  1060. “If it’s strong enough to bore through thousands of feet of solid rock, it would easily be able to deal with Cerberus.”
  1061. >”Not from Tartarus then?”
  1062. “What’s the point in going to it?”
  1063. >”Manpower?”
  1064. “It could level armies if it wanted.”
  1065. >”Maybe a-“
  1066. >Tiara brings you out of the back and forth.
  1067. >”It would help if I knew the entire situation back home.”
  1068. “That’s fair. Any detail on either side could shed light.”
  1069.  
  1070. >…
  1071. >Lancer continued to get Lady Tiara up to speed.
  1072. >Ultimately, nothing helped the collective understanding of the situation.
  1073. >”What about you, what happened after you left Anon off?”
  1074. >”First there was a kraken. Cannon fire was able to scare it off once it lost a few tentacles. After that, believe it or not, a heavily intoxicated dragon lent his wings to provide enough wind to get us out of dangerous waters.”
  1075. “What?”
  1076. >”I can explain in more detail later. But it lines up with other return voyages. Going East is a death sentence, but leaving it is fairly simple. If you know the right passages to take.”
  1077. >You then notice Lancer take out a pocket watch.
  1078. >He then speaks:
  1079. >”It’s just about midnight.”
  1080. “Look, we’ve been at this for hours. Maybe it would be best to sit on things for the night, then look at it freshly in the morning.”
  1081. >Lancer responds first:
  1082. >”Agreed.”
  1083. >Then Tiara:
  1084. >”This is a lot to digest.”
  1085. “Well, it’s settled.”
  1086. >Lancer then speaks to Tiara:
  1087. >”I’ll have my men guide you to quarters.”
  1088. >Lancer then pauses, and looks to you:
  1089. >”Oh, Thunder returned earlier today. With all that’s happened, I forgot to mention it.”
  1090. “How did things go?”
  1091. >”I think it’s best to discuss first thing in the morning.”
  1092. >You could press him, but you are quite tired.
  1093. “Alright.”
  1094.  
  1095. >…
  1096. >Burning cities.
  1097. >Ruins.
  1098. >Desolation.
  1099. >-
  1100. >You awake from the nightmare.
  1101. >It’s been a while since you had any dreams like that.
  1102. >Might be after effects from the parasite.
  1103. >Or maybe just the normal stresses of war.
  1104. >But, you don’t recall any times from before the Tartarus situation that you had nightmares about the war you were fighting.
  1105. >At least you’ve had some time awake in bed thinking about the ramifications of Anon encountering the creatures before you did.
  1106. >Unfortunately, you’re unsure about more than you ‘knew’ before Tiara’s information.
  1107. >She was too specific about Anon.
  1108. >You’re certain it wasn’t a lie.
  1109. >Even if you can’t trust her, Anon did.
  1110. >And that’s enough.
  1111. >More importantly though, Thunder is back.
  1112. >Anon trusted him.
  1113. >He set him on a fast track for command.
  1114. >Of the thousands of ponies, and hundreds of officers he could have chosen to set towards being a general, it was Thunder.
  1115. >Right now he’s been through hell.
  1116. >Then he lost his pregnant wife…
  1117. >A lot of ponies would have just quit.
  1118. >But he went on to Vanhoover as ordered.
  1119. >In a way, you were lucky.
  1120. >You lost your father at young age.
  1121. >At the time you didn’t even comprehend it properly.
  1122. >Twilight and Anon were the real ‘parents’ in your youth.
  1123. >But Twilight left at a still early age.
  1124. >Anon was the only true parent you know.
  1125. >You can’t change that, but you also can’t imagine yourself without him.
  1126. >But now, it’s morning.
  1127. >The view from your window is bright.
  1128. >You have a job to do.
  1129. >First, you should see Thunder.
  1130.  
  1131. >…
  1132. >You knock on the door.
  1133. >A muffled voice responds:
  1134. >”Come in.”
  1135. >With magic, you turn the handle and push open the door.
  1136. >Getting basic magic back under your control has been astounding.
  1137. >You enter into Thunder’s quarters.
  1138. >On the far side of the room, you see that the doors to the balcony are open.
  1139. >He’s standing on the balcony, watching the horizon overlooking the cliff that the palace is built on.
  1140. >”What is it?”
  1141. “Thunder?”
  1142. >He glances back at you.
  1143. >Then while seeing you, he turns to face you.
  1144. >”Princess.”
  1145. >His eyes are a bit wide.
  1146. >”I didn’t expect you to be here.”
  1147. “That can be taken in a few ways.”
  1148. >”I thought you would still be in Baltimare.”
  1149. “Baltimare is under control, as far as I know.”
  1150. >”I’m not objecting, it’s just…”
  1151. “What?”
  1152. >”Have you heard about Vanhoover?”
  1153. “The creatures retreated and the pits were supposed to be dealt with.”
  1154. >”Is that it?”
  1155. “Virtually, yes.”
  1156. >He approaches.
  1157. >”Ma’am. You need to know, one of the pits was at a very shallow depression. Enough to march an army down.”
  1158.  
  1159. “Just one pit?”
  1160. >”Yes. On the outskirts of the city, the rural areas, the pit was incredibly shallow. On orders, it was collapsed. But, with a decent effort, it could be cleared within a day. If we were to march down with sufficient ordinance, we could strike right at their heart.”
  1161. >Going into Tartarus with an army.
  1162. >It’s unprecedented.
  1163. >But a lot of military actions have been unprecedented in the last decades.
  1164. >It would be good to end the indefinite defense.
  1165. >But the pits aren’t big.
  1166. >Only so many ponies would be able to move forward at a time.
  1167. >And any wounded would be virtually stuck down there.
  1168. >The supply lines alone would be…
  1169. >But it’s the only opportunity.
  1170. >Noticing your pause, Thunder continues:
  1171. >”Wave and Lancer both turned the idea down. And I know it might not be the right strategic choice, there could be dozens of more staging grounds, even if this one isn’t a trap of some kind. But I can just feel that it’s our only course of action.”
  1172. “Look. I didn’t expect to hear this. And honestly… I’m not sure about it. But, I’ll bring it up to the others.”
  1173. >”Thank you, just… let me make the case properly.”
  1174. “I will.”
  1175. >”Thank you.”
  1176. “But why I came here…”
  1177. >Thunder waits for you to continue.
  1178. “Look, why don’t you take seat.”
  1179. >You nod over to his bed.
  1180. >As he walks towards it, you move over to the chair in front of his desk.
  1181. >You point it to where he sat, then take a seat in it.
  1182.  
  1183. >…
  1184. >At the Princess’s word, you step back and sit down.
  1185. >You tried your best to sell the idea of heading down the pit, but-
  1186. >She starts:
  1187. >”Thunder. I heard what went down between you, Lancer, and Wave. And I chewed out Lancer immediately. Wave’s getting the same when he’s back. But they aren’t here.”
  1188. >This topic…
  1189. “Ma’am, I know what needs-“
  1190. >”Thunder, look. I don’t know you personally as well as I should with what’s happened this year. Now, there’s no easy way around this, so I’ll just put it out there. The others haven’t lost family. And I really am sorry about what happened to you. I don’t know what it’s like to lose somepony who you’ve chosen to live the rest of your life with. But I have lost my father, my aunt, and in many ways my mother. Just ignore rank and ‘Princess-hood’ for a second. How are you?”
  1191. >Winter.
  1192. >Your son…
  1193. “Princess, I’m at… It’s not easy. Whenever I close my eyes, I can see her face. But it’s more. When I was in tune with the crystal, I could feel her. Her essence. Our son’s essence. I could… understand what she and our child were. But I’ve lost that. And it isn’t easy. It’s something that will stay with me for my life. What could be. What was supposed to be….”
  1194. >”And I can somewhat understand what you’re going through. But if Lancer had one good point, it’s that you need to be in a good sense of mind.”
  1195. “Ma’am, at this point, I can’t separate that from the crystal. I could just… feel everyone. But what I’ve sensed, it still keeps me at a certain distance. I can feel what needs to be done. And as far as I know, This is our best shot… I’m sorry that I can’t explain it. But I just know that if there was one opportunity, this is it.”
  1196.  
  1197. >…
  1198. >”It’s a lot of risk but…”
  1199. >Well, Thunder is certainly sure that what he’s saying is right.
  1200. >At least from his perspective.
  1201. “Thunder, I believe you. But please just level with me. How long is that tunnel?”
  1202. >”I don’t know.”
  1203. “We will speak about this topic to the others. But in the worst case scenario, I need one of two things. Either a proper path towards any staging grounds or breeding pits. We don’t know if the tunnel leads directly into one, or if it’s a complete maze down there. Or, I need a strike force ready to go for miles on end without reinforcement against firm resistance. If you want to sell it to the others, you need just a bit more to go on.”
  1204. >”I… understand that…”
  1205. >You can see motions going through his head.
  1206. >”Will we talk with the others before or after those things?”
  1207. >He cut straight to the center of the statement.
  1208. >He knows exactly what the vagueness was about.
  1209. “No. If you want to bring it up to the others, you can do it whenever you want. I’m just saying, it’d be an easier sale with the others if there was something more concrete in their eyes. For what it’s worth…”
  1210. >He notices the pause.
  1211. >”For what it’s worth?”
  1212. >Better choose your next words carefully.
  1213. “I’ve known you slightly longer than the others. And on some level, I can connect with what you’ve been through. On both sides. I’ve lost family and had to live with it, not somepony I’ve decided to live my live with, but parents and close family. On the magic side, I’ve had to deal with the parasite. You know that. And you’ve had the crystal.”
  1214. >You’re unsure how to continue.
  1215. >In a lower voice, he speaks.
  1216.  
  1217. >”Princess… Ma’am…”
  1218. “Flurry.”
  1219. >”… Flurry.”
  1220. >He then continues:
  1221. >”My dad died fighting the yaks. Defending Griffonstone back when we were allies for a year or two. I’ve been thinking about the moment I heard about it. And that’s helped a bit. But through that, I’ve been… rattled?”
  1222. >You decide to wait for Thunder to take the next step.
  1223. >The moment sits for a bit too long.
  1224. “How I’ve dealt with it?”
  1225. >After a moment he nods.
  1226. >You sigh and stand, thinking of the words.
  1227. >Looking to the window, you pause.
  1228. >Then look over to Thunder.
  1229. “At first, it’s overwhelming. You know to some extent what’s happened to you. So you take the situation around you, and go into it. Work as hard as you can. But every single morning, you wake up with the same question. Even if it’s brushed by quickly enough to forget, you ask yourself if you’re really free from whatever was in your mind.”
  1230. >You pause.
  1231. “I don’t know what it was like with the crystal. But for me, it changed something deep down. And it leaves you disconnected, but also far more aware about where you are moving forward. But that question is always there… somewhere.”
  1232. >”That’s not very hopeful.”
  1233. “No, it isn’t. And it still isn’t. But with every day that comes up, after that event- the awareness, it can redefine you in the ever so slightest of ways so that as the days and weeks pass… it provides a… clarity of sorts. What matters and what doesn’t. The questions about it will never go away, the only thing that stays is your answers to them.”
  1234.  
  1235. >”I think that’s…”
  1236. >He pauses, properly thinking about the situation.
  1237. >”Accurate.”
  1238. “Look, let’s get you a meeting with Starlight. She’s an old friend, and far more knowledgeable about magic than I am. If anypony can shed light on the crystals and how it affected you, it’s her.”
  1239. >”I’ll… I think that’s right.”
  1240. “I’ll go find her. If Lancer says anything that goes too far, tell him that he’ll have to answer to me about it. Also, we have a new addition to High Command. It looks like the Royal Navy is working with us now.”
  1241. >He looks like he’s about to speak, then pauses a moment.
  1242. >It looks like he’s lost focus.
  1243. >Then he says his bit:
  1244. >”Diamond Tiara.”
  1245. “Yes…”
  1246. >”She means well, but her loyalties are untested. Her trust was in what she knew… but what she knew was turned upside down.”
  1247. “Thunder?”
  1248. >”Stuck between preconceptions and…”
  1249. >He stops.
  1250. “Thunder?”
  1251. >”I’m sorry… that happens sometimes. Occasionally I can remember flashes from what the crystal… felt.”
  1252. “You need to get checked out.”
  1253. >”You’re right… I should”
  1254. “I’ll head straight to Starlight.”
  1255. >”I understand…”
  1256. >As you walk towards the door, he stops you.
  1257. >”Flurry?”
  1258. “Yes?”
  1259. >”… Thank you… for everything.”
  1260. >The best you can offer is a nod.
  1261. >He knows that the road isn’t easy.
  1262. >As Thunder nods back to you, you exit the room.
  1263.  
  1264. >…
  1265. >You ran through the night, pausing for an hour or two to rest your legs.
  1266. >Then kept going.
  1267. >A week earlier, you’d be reaching the limit soon.
  1268. >Full sprint with a full pack.
  1269. >But, you feel like you could go another day and a half or two at this pace.
  1270. >Maybe that’s why your knees gave you so many problems…
  1271. >But in the midday, it was time for another break.
  1272. >Setting your pack down, you took a drink from the canteen.
  1273. >At your guess, the manticores in the area kept the other dangerous wildlife in check.
  1274. >But soon you’ll get out of their territory.
  1275. >Then a full sprint will be too risky.
  1276. >But you need to keep a good pace, or else your friend will show up for round three.
  1277. >You reach up to swipe a bit of sweat from your forehead.
  1278. >Alright think.
  1279. >When faced with overwhelming odds, and no possibility to escape, you have to whittle down the foe until the tables can turn.
  1280. >But that’s with armies.
  1281. >In single or small unit battles, it’s all about finding the key weaknesses in the opponent.
  1282. >It’s much stronger than you, but not near as quick.
  1283. >But you’ve never faced anything that can regenerate.
  1284. >If you knew what drove it, then you could think of a way to fight it.
  1285. >If it heals from a brain or heart, if it even has them, then doing enough damage to that might just kill it.
  1286. >But, if each piece of the body is interconnected and able to reassert itself, you’d need to utterly destroy it.
  1287. “Harv?”
  1288. >”Hmm?”
  1289. “If I went back into the mountains, how long till I could find any of your supplies?”
  1290. >”Three or four days.”
  1291. “And if we stay out of them?”
  1292. >”With your newer body, two weeks or so. Then I’ll be able to point a path out for you.”
  1293. >Only thing is, you’re not sure how the mountains will slow it down.
  1294. >You could lose the lead you’ve gotten.
  1295. “How much longer would be spent in the mountains?”
  1296. >”A week.”
  1297.  
  1298. >You were mostly fine in the mountains, other than the spider venom.
  1299. >”I could…”
  1300. “What?”
  1301. >”Well… you know. Help.”
  1302. >That’s… tempting.
  1303. >You’re currently about as capable as you were with Harvey’s tinkering with your body chemistry.
  1304. >Aside from the general knee pain.
  1305. >”In this state and without having to compensate for wounds…”
  1306. >You could be…
  1307. >Complacent.
  1308. “No.”
  1309. >”But-“
  1310. “I need to be on my toes. If I do need something, I’ll say it. You can do a hell of a lot, but you’re still in my head. I’m alone out here, and I can’t let myself forget that. If I do, this is over.”
  1311. >”Anon-“
  1312. “Pride comes before fall.”
  1313. >”Don’t just-“
  1314. “Harvey. No.”
  1315. >”Okay.”
  1316. >Two ways to go.
  1317. >Forward or the mountains.
  1318. “We’re heading back, taking the path. Our good buddy back there might catch up, but if I have problems with the locals, so will he. Some of the things I went by would be easy to just evade, leaving them to stay in the area.”
  1319. >”Look, I have no idea what ‘our buddy’ back there is, so sure. Wait!”
  1320. “What!”
  1321. >You place a hand on your sword’s grip, scanning the surroundings.
  1322. >”This is just disgusting… I’m falling into your patterns of speech. I need to get my other half back.”
  1323. “Damnit Harv!”
  1324.  
  1325. >…
  1326. >You twitch your head.
  1327. >”Stay still.”
  1328. “It’s not-“
  1329. >You jump back a bit.
  1330. “That’s just wrong. Have you ever been on the other end of this?”
  1331. >”Yes. It’s a very simple magical-”
  1332. “Simple my-“
  1333. >The middle-aged mare stops you.
  1334. >”Hold on… if you’re getting so much agitation at something like this, then…
  1335. >She runs over to a table, and flips through notes and books.
  1336. >You came out to her laboratory here, and-
  1337. >No.
  1338. “Then what?”
  1339. >She flips through another book, while levitating another in front of her face.
  1340. “Hey!”
  1341. >”Yes, and then… maybe…”
  1342. “STARLIGHT!”
  1343. >While a few more books and notepads start to levitate over, she speaks:
  1344. >”What?”
  1345. “I’m standing right here.”
  1346. >”Right!”
  1347. >The books and notes all fall to the desk.
  1348. >”I’m sorry.”
  1349. >She runs back to you.
  1350. >”At a quick glance, you seem to have an acute debilitation in terms of arcane-“
  1351. “What?”
  1352. >”You’re very sensitive to magic being used on you.”
  1353. “Why didn’t you just say so?”
  1354. >”I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
  1355. >That wasn’t an answer.
  1356. >Patience.
  1357. “So what does that mean?”
  1358. >”I don’t know. Like I’ve said, this is new to me, and I don’t think that anything similar has been recorded.”
  1359. >Son of…
  1360. “You need to scan more, don’t you?”
  1361.  
  1362. >”Yes, but if it’s that uncomfortable to you, I won’t for-“
  1363. “It’s not uncomfortable. After a couple seconds it was painful.”
  1364. >”Why didn’t you just say?”
  1365. >You did.
  1366. >Kind of.
  1367. >Not explicitly.
  1368. >You walk over to a chair, and sit.
  1369. “Just get it over with. Give me a second.”
  1370. >You inhale, then exhale sharply.
  1371. “Do it. I can take it.”
  1372. >”That’s… are you sure?”
  1373. “Do it.”
  1374. >”This is unethical. I can’t ju-“
  1375. “Now!”
  1376. >You hear silence for a moment.
  1377. >She’s uncertain.
  1378. “I’ve been through worse pain.”
  1379. >A few moments later, you feel it returning.
  1380. >At first, every bit of your body is shivering.
  1381. >But not cold.
  1382. >Then, you start to feel the uneasiness.
  1383. >Every fiber of your being is just… wrong.
  1384. >And then, it hits.
  1385. >The pain.
  1386. >You clench your teeth, anticipating it.
  1387. >The disorientation.
  1388. >The needles on every inch of your body.
  1389. >And the burning you feel inside of you.
  1390. >Hold…
  1391. >Just…
  1392. >Hold…
  1393. >You can’t-
  1394. >It’s more than anything you’ve-
  1395. >Felt.
  1396. >It’s not just physical, it is a curse on your…
  1397. >Soul.
  1398. >No screams, and no gasps.
  1399. >That will just giver her cause to stop.
  1400. >You need to know what happened.
  1401. >But it’s…
  1402. >Winter.
  1403. >Your son.
  1404. >They’re gone.
  1405. >If you can have just one answer, no matter how slight… it’s worth it.
  1406.  
  1407. >…
  1408. >You have a meeting to get to, but you’re hungry.
  1409. >Stopping by the kitchens, you grab a nice big blueberry muffin.
  1410. >A lunch of champions.
  1411. >Finishing the last bite, you bump into Blunt Force as he opens the doors to the kitchen.
  1412. “Ambassador.”
  1413. >”Princess.”
  1414. “Still raiding the kitchen?”
  1415. >”Better than waiting for servers to give their ‘honors’ to my position and…”
  1416. “Oh yeah, I get it.”
  1417. >”Now if you’ll excuse me…”
  1418. >You stop him.
  1419. “So how have things back in your homeland?”
  1420. >”Oh… yes. Well. My people have been training. The first shipments of armor from Equestira have reached the border. Despite initial… reservations at using foreign equipment have fallen to practicality. If anything, the scale needs to be slightly higher. Even a whelp by your comparisons is ready to fight on the front lines. They have weapons, but full armor is more intensive. Also, we had plenty of weapons beforehand…”
  1421. “How many are ready to fight?”
  1422. >”Ready? Two hundred thousand. Experienced? Forty or fifty.”
  1423. “How did you manage to get two hundred thousand? The most we’ve estimated from your people have been around one hundred.”
  1424. >”That was in a time of peace. The Sundering is a complete call to arms. Give us another month, and fifty thousand will be trained. A month after that, another hundred thousand.”
  1425. “And after that?”
  1426. >”Enough to reinforce. If things get notably worse, the call will be heard.”
  1427. “Remember to keep us informed. We’re all on one side here… don’t forget it.”
  1428. >”I do not. And my people do not. Rest assured, if there is something of key importance to the effort, we will inform you.”
  1429. >You just nod to the Ambassador.
  1430. “Now, I have a meeting to attend.”
  1431.  
  1432. >…
  1433. >On your way to the meeting room, you-
  1434. >You can hear yelling behind the door.
  1435. >”Given the situation, we need to-“
  1436. >Lancer cuts Tiara off.
  1437. >”It’s a waste of assets!”
  1438. >Yeah, you should stop this.
  1439. >Opening the door, they stop bickering.
  1440. “Well children, are you playing nice?”
  1441. >At the same time, they start:
  1442. >”She wanted…”
  1443. >”Well he thinks…”
  1444. “Stop. What’s wrong?”
  1445. >”She-“
  1446. >”He-“
  1447. “One at a time! Lancer?”
  1448. >”Out… guest has-“
  1449. “She’s a member of High Command. Not a guest.”
  1450. >”Yes, Admiral Tiara-“
  1451. “Lady Tiara, are you an admiral?”
  1452. >She speaks:
  1453. >”Lady of the Admiralty.”
  1454. >”A position that is now defunct.”
  1455. “Really, I haven’t heard that.”
  1456. >”Well it hasn’t exactly been taken off the books, but-“
  1457. “Then it seems that the position isn’t defunct. Now what is the issue here?”
  1458. >”Lady Tiara wants resources to build more naval ships. At this point, it would retract from the air fleet’s production.”
  1459. >You speak as you walk over to your chair:
  1460. “Seems like a reasonable request and counter. Why is this an issue?”
  1461. >”Because those resources need to go to the air fleet, or else quick response will be stunted in the long run.”
  1462. “Tiara?”
  1463. >She starts her side:
  1464. >”If several of these ‘pits’ arose with the minotaurs or Saddle Arabians, and they weren’t able to control the situation, we would have to send supplies and maybe manpower. Either way, we would need more supply ships to be able to properly ferry those troops and supplies. Airships don’t have the cargo capacity to fuel a front. You’ve been using the supply ships that didn’t get scuttled to help win the civil war in Saddle Arabia. But if a Tartarus situation comes up, it won’t be enough.”
  1465.  
  1466. “Lancer?”
  1467. >”Well, the minotaurs are close enough that railways and land convoys could deal with any supply issues. Overall, a naval convoy would only be marginally more effective to the further half of their lands. Saddle Arabia is still militarized, as the Mushir deals with the stragglers in the war. If they’ll be destroyed without our help, then there’s not much we can do for our own nation. Also, the creatures seem to be semi-aquatic, so a dry terrain might fight them off more than any army could.”
  1468. “Both are valid points. In the end, it boils down to better protecting Equestira itself, or our allies. So far Equestria has faced the brunt of the attacks, but this is or at least has the potential to be a global issue. So, for the time being, until production can be increased, Tiara will get a portion of the materials required, say twenty-five percent?”
  1469. >She responds:
  1470. >”we’ll need more in the long term. Timber is the issue right now, and we’ll need a lot more to maintain naval and airborne production.”
  1471. “We have plenty of space to expand. I’ll reach out to Ambassador Force. If we’re sending them steel , some lumber seems like a fair trade.”
  1472. >Lancer then speaks up:
  1473. >”That might actually work. Lighter pine wood could service many non-structural necessities on airships, even lower the weight and increase speed a bit. While thicker Equestrian lumber could go towards naval warships.”
  1474. >Then Tiara offers some words:
  1475.  
  1476. >”Lighter timber could serve a lot of purposes on supply ships too. They don’t have to worry about having the thickest hulls after all.”
  1477. >”Brairheart is a better expert on this than I am, so we’ll have to wait until he’s back. But I think with some careful planning, we might be able to seriously improve the efficiency of out-“
  1478. “See what comes from the lack of screeching at one another?”
  1479. >Lancer responds:
  1480. >”Without yelling, we’d still be bogged down in the First Coast War… it’s a long story.”
  1481. >Then Tiara:
  1482. >”We are on the same side… for now.”
  1483. >You’re not sure if that was a joke.
  1484. >You’d hope that it was.
  1485. “So, when we adjourned last night, we wanted to bring up the timeline of Tartarus attacks. It’s clear that there’s something more going on, but do either of you have anything to add?”
  1486. >Tiara starts:
  1487. >”No. And unless either of you have anything to add, I’d guess that whatever is behind this has taken great care to disguise itself.”
  1488. >You look to Lancer.
  1489. >”With the information I have, it’s not enough to go off of. It raises questions, but so has everything else about this entire conflict.”
  1490. “Lancer, do you think that the crystal Thunder encountered could be part of this?”
  1491. >Tiara interrupts:
  1492. >”I’m sorry?”
  1493. “Long story, we’ll get you up to speed later. Lancer?”
  1494. >He responds:
  1495. >”Taking every report about the crystals at face value, no. But, looking at it with a raised eyebrow. Ma’am, it appears to be a very powerful magical force. As far as we know, it might actually be what’s behind this.”
  1496. “If the crystal was hostile, I don’t think Thunder is in on it. If that is the case, I think he’s just as in the dark as we are.”
  1497.  
  1498. >”What makes you say that?”
  1499. “I don’t know the parasite’s intentions even though it was in my head. From a talk with him, I think he’s gone .”
  1500. >”How similar?”
  1501. “I’ve sent him over to Starlight. Hopefully she’ll be able to shed some light on it.”
  1502. >”Some hard information on it would be-“
  1503. >He stops as the door opens.
  1504. >You glance over to the door.
  1505. >General Wave has entered the room.
  1506. >Lancer speaks to him:
  1507. >”Red, good to see-“
  1508. >Wave speaks, without moving from the doorway:
  1509. >”Who is this?”
  1510. >He’s looking at Tiara.
  1511. >And she’s quick to respond:
  1512. >”I’d ask the same of-“
  1513. “Wave, take a seat. You have a lot to get caught up with.”
  1514.  
  1515. >…
  1516. >Just great.
  1517. >You sit down on your bed.
  1518. >Lancer has his reservations, and that’s to be expected.
  1519. >But as far as you were able to tell from Wave, and it’s hard to read him, he’s even worse in terms of cooperation with Tiara.
  1520. >You doubt even she was able to pick up on it, with how nuanced he is.
  1521. >But you could see it.
  1522. >The way he glared at her whenever she spoke.
  1523. >If you’re not careful, things will-
  1524. >You hear a pop, accompanied by a flash of light.
  1525. >Starlight teleports into your-
  1526. >”No time!”
  1527. >Then-
  1528. >-
  1529. >You feel-
  1530. >You fall onto the ground, because you’ve lost your seat.
  1531. >The impact shook off the dizziness.
  1532. >Looking around, you’re in a lab of some kind.
  1533. >Getting to your hooves, you bark over to her:
  1534. “What the…”
  1535. >Patience.
  1536. “What is going on!”
  1537. >”So.”
  1538. >She starts, as you see Thunder.
  1539. >He’s on his back.
  1540. >Laying on a table.
  1541. >Books and papers are around the sides, as if somepony threw them aside.
  1542. >”His heart may have stopped for a few seconds. Or a minute.”
  1543. “What.”
  1544. >”The tests- I may have ‘killed’ him. But only for a minute!”
  1545. “What!”
  1546. >”Okay, for two minutes! But I can explain.”
  1547.  
  1548. >…
  1549. >Darkness…
  1550. >Peace.
  1551. >Then…
  1552. >”Bottom line it for me. What did you learn?”
  1553. >”Not… much.”
  1554. >You shoot up to a sitting position, gasping for breath.
  1555. >As you inhale and exhale sharply, two ponies rush over to you.
  1556. “Wha… what happened?”
  1557. >Your mouth is dry.
  1558. >One of them, Starlight, starts:
  1559. >”Calm down, just breathe. The tests stopped your heart for a-“
  1560. “What?”
  1561. >”For two minutes, your hear-“
  1562. >She…
  1563. “I was dead?”
  1564. >”… Maybe.”
  1565. “Well you better have gotten some damn good answers!”
  1566. >”Not now, you need to res-“
  1567. “What. Did. You. Learn.”
  1568. >”Well, the arcan-“
  1569. “Plain terms.”
  1570. >”A magical residue is still in your body. The aura is still inside of you, dying down slowly. It leaves your senses extremely vulnerable to magical influence and agitation. It’s decaying slowly, but what’s most interesting is that… there are different forms of magic, types if you will. Just like a sword is different than a spear, they’re bot still weapons. The aura that’s still around you seems to be made up of all forms of magic I’ve seen.”
  1571. >She glances over to the other pony.
  1572. >”Other than what I sensed in you and the other Princesses.”
  1573. >Still dazed, you look to who Starlight is speaking to.
  1574. “Princess.”
  1575. >She responds to Starlight:
  1576. >”So it’s unrelated to the parasite?”
  1577. >”It looks that way.”
  1578. >”That’s something at least.”
  1579. >”What I gathered will effect magical theory, but in terms of actual practice, that’s about it.”
  1580. “So you killed me, and didn’t learn anything.”
  1581. >That’s just f-
  1582. >You think as you move off of the table.
  1583. >But when you get to your hooves and take a step, your limbs feel uneasy.
  1584. >And your head is spinning.
  1585. >Falling to the ground, you hear them each say ‘Thunder’ before falling unconscious.
  1586.  
  1587. >…
  1588. >As you run through the forest, you come to a crashing stop.
  1589. >A manticore fell down from the canopy.
  1590. >You’re barely a foot from its face.
  1591. >As it stares up at you, your hand shoot back to the grip of your kukri.
  1592. >It’s young.
  1593. >A male, you think.
  1594. >But still barely sprouting a mane.
  1595. >It looks up at you, showing teeth.
  1596. >Tail ready to strike.
  1597. >Just try it.
  1598. >It takes a slow step towards you.
  1599. >Then takes a sniff up to your face.
  1600. >Before backing off.
  1601. >You don’t relax until it flaps its wings, and departs.
  1602. >That was…
  1603. >Interesting.
  1604. >You watch as if flies off, back further into the forest.
  1605. “Well Harv, isn’t that somethi-“
  1606. >-
  1607. >You rise form the chair and straighten out your uniform.
  1608. “On screen.”
  1609. >You watch as the starry view screen overlays the bridge of the unidentified vessel.
  1610. “I’m Captain Anonymous of the Federation Starship Enterpri…”
  1611. >Wait.
  1612. >You look to your bridge crew, who look at you confused of the pause.
  1613. “Harvey…”
  1614. >They disappear in a flash of light, leaving Harvey to replace them.
  1615. >He stands next to you, wearing an identical red command uniform with four pips on his collar.
  1616. >”Hello Jean-Luc.”
  1617. “So you’ve finally gotten around to the ‘Q’ thing, huh?”
  1618. >”… This isn’t you?”
  1619. “Shit.”
  1620. >Each of you look over to the view screen, to see a humanoid figure comprised of a pitch black, yet swirling liquid.
  1621. >From its unity comes a familiar man in a black suit.
  1622. >”Anonymous.”
  1623. “Steve, long time no see.”
  1624.  
  1625. >He- it is back.
  1626. >The parasite…
  1627. >But the host bug died and fell from your ear.
  1628. >Somewhere you’ve been infected again.
  1629. >Maybe the pool that healed you, but the bug itself left your body.
  1630. >And direct contact seems to hurt the pure magic of the parasite.
  1631. >No, you’ve definitely got another bug inside of you.
  1632. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
  1633. >Instead of answering, Steve steps forward.
  1634. >He crosses the threshold of the screen, and moves straight through it.
  1635. >Harvey then speaks to you:
  1636. >”Hold on.”
  1637. >-
  1638. >You find yourself back in the forest.
  1639. >The real world.
  1640. >Harvey is directly in front of you.
  1641. “What the hell is going on?”
  1642. >”Anon, I’m just know sensing it inside of your mind.”
  1643. “Wait, is this even real?”
  1644. >”Yes.”
  1645. >You launch a right hook to his face, which goes straight through his incorporeal form.
  1646. “I believe you.”
  1647. >”You didn’t even hesitate…”
  1648. “When did we pick it up?”
  1649. >”I don’t know, it could have been at any time in the past weeks.”
  1650. “No…”
  1651. >”What?”
  1652. “It wants me out of the picture, right? Then why didn’t it try this when I was barely alive the other day? If it did it then, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
  1653. >”You think the pool rebuilt it somehow? I detected no foreign cells in your brain after the first encounter. It can’t have survived.”
  1654. “It’s a new bug, very new.”
  1655. >”Anon, I can’t really help you with this.”
  1656. “What?”
  1657. >”I was able to shunt you out of the hallucination temporarily, but without my body backing me up magically… there is only so much I can do.”
  1658. “You’re saying I’m on my own?”
  1659. >”Effectively.”
  1660. “How do you want to play this?”
  1661. >”Hold on… You’re right.”
  1662. “About what?”
  1663. >”It is new… the synapse links have barely been formed.”
  1664.  
  1665. >You reach back and toss your backpack to the ground.
  1666. >Then you sit down, and lay on the ground.
  1667. >”What are you doing?”
  1668. “Going back in. If it hasn’t spread that far, we need to hit it hard.”
  1669. >”Anon, I can barely help in this fight.”
  1670. “And what is this fight?”
  1671. >Harvey lifts an eyebrow.
  1672. “It’s all about my conscious and subconscious, right?”
  1673. >”To put it simply, yes.”
  1674. “Well I learned from the best.”
  1675. >-
  1676. >You’re standing in a blank void, looking at Harvey.
  1677. “You.”
  1678. >”Anon, thank you. But-“
  1679. “Fortune favors the bold.”
  1680. >”You’re going to get me killed.”
  1681. “That there is quitter talk.”
  1682. >”What are you even going to do?”
  1683. “Right now, wait. Eventually he’ll show his-“
  1684. >”Anonymous.”
  1685. >You hear Steve speak to you.
  1686. “Speak of the devil.”
  1687. >You turn around, to see his familiar suit.
  1688. “Can I help you?”
  1689. >”You certainly are an… anomaly. However, that does not change the fact of inevitability. This has already been decided far before your birth. Within three years, this world will be engulfed in our oneness.”
  1690. “Spare me the monologue, Steve.”
  1691. >”Even if you could cross the hundreds of your ‘miles’ required to find us, dealing with a primitive like yourself would be no different than you swatting away a flea.”
  1692. >You shrug.
  1693. “Swat away.”
  1694. >Steve takes a few quick steps towards you, reaching his hand out to place it on your face or neck.
  1695.  
  1696. >No.
  1697. >He’s stopped a few inches from being able to touch you.
  1698. >Jabbing out with his other hand, you stop it as well.
  1699. >You focus on controlling the dreamlike state.
  1700. >His arms are thrust back.
  1701. >You take a slow step forward, and place your right hand around his neck.
  1702. “This is my mind.”
  1703. >”You cannot stop-“
  1704. >You tighten your grip.
  1705. “Can’t I?”
  1706. >The parasite feed on anger, and other negative emotions.
  1707. >At least when it’s infecting those bugs it does.
  1708. >So you don’t focus on rage or anger.
  1709. >Steve is just an embodiment.
  1710. >The bug he’s inside of is the real problem.
  1711. >You focus on your friends.
  1712. >Drinking and playing poker or darts with Lancer, Wave, and the others.
  1713. >You see ‘Steve’ start to morph into a humanoid form of the swirling black liquid.
  1714. >It’s spotty, and each inch of his body starts fluctuating between it and the suited Steve.
  1715. >You focus on the calmness of rest between wars and battles.
  1716. >The liquid starts to boil, melting away from its form.
  1717. >You focus on Flurry, her young face listening with wide eyes at your stories.
  1718. >Her eyes looking all the way up to you when she was a kid, barely a foot or two off the ground.
  1719. >On her-
  1720. >The decaying form in front of you bursts apart in a dry smoke.
  1721. >You then hear Harvey speak to you:
  1722. >”The bug is leaving your body.”
  1723. >You can feel a squirming…
  1724. “I know.”
  1725.  
  1726. >-
  1727. >You open your eyes to the bright sky overhead.
  1728. >In your right ear, you can feel something wet start to emerge.
  1729. >As you sit upright, you reach up to it.
  1730. >Grabbing at the tiny parasite, tendrils coming off of the body, you hold it between your pointer finger and thumb.
  1731. “See you soon Steve.”
  1732. >You drop it into your palm and clench your fist.
  1733. >Feeling it burst under the pressure, you open your hand and look to the palm.
  1734. >The black liquid is oozing out of the crushed insect.
  1735. >As it makes contact with your skin, it starts to burn away.
  1736. >Bringing you other hand up to it, you wipe the remains between your palms.
  1737. >More of the liquid evaporates away.
  1738. >When you stop rubbing, you open your hands.
  1739. >Only the insect’s remains are left.
  1740. >You wipe them into the grass.
  1741. “Harvey?”
  1742. >You start to stand.
  1743. “You said you didn’t notice it.”
  1744. >”No, not until it made itself known.”
  1745. >You reach down to your backpack.
  1746. “Think you’ll be able to look for them now?”
  1747. >”I can try a few things, but I’m not sure. With my body, I was able to see it’s magical aura. But your senses aren’t exactly attuned to magic.”
  1748. “Well the first time, the bug had years to build up. As long as we don’t dawdle, infections shouldn’t be a real issue.”
  1749. >”Should being the operative word.”
  1750. “What did it mean by ‘if I reached it’ anyway?”
  1751. >”At a guess, yes you’re immune to pure magic. But if it used magic to throw a large boulder at you…”
  1752. “I get the picture. We’ll just have to cross that bridge, cliché… cliché.”
  1753.  
  1754. >…
  1755. >In the hallways, you were talking to Lancer about troop movements and resource allocation.
  1756. >Then a call came to take you towards the front gate of the palace.
  1757. >You both headed towards it.
  1758. >When you arrived, you saw…
  1759. >Offense.
  1760. >He was laying back, a cigar in his mouth, and sitting on a great pile of gems.
  1761. >The gems were being pulled in a cart by one of the soldiers he took with him.
  1762. >And that cart was leading a convoy of several carts.
  1763. >Each of them brimming with gems or unrefined gold.
  1764. >Offense saw you and Lancer, then decided to speak:
  1765. >”Princess! May I present the next three years of the budget!”
  1766. “I didn’t know that you smoked.”
  1767. >”Only under special circumstances. And may I say that the dogs make cigars almost as good as the Arabians. It’s close, but a good substitute.”
  1768. >Lancer then yells to him:
  1769. >”What happened!”
  1770. “Did you really have a soldier pull you as well as the cargo?”
  1771. >Offense responds:
  1772. >”He volunteered! Anyway-“
  1773. >He tosses the remainder of the cigar away.
  1774. >Then he flaps his wings and approaches you.
  1775. >”The mission down south couldn’t have gone better. A few strong stallions, and they were practically begging to secure the land routes to Saddle Arabia. They even swore to man the outposts. And, they offered a generous amount of gems and minerals to compensate for any shortages of trade from when they abandoned the land routes.”
  1776. >As the carts filter in, Lancer starts:
  1777. >”That’s a lot of gems…”
  1778. >”Like I said, money won’t be an issue anytime soon.”
  1779.  
  1780. “Well done Brigadier!”
  1781. >Offense responds:
  1782. >”Sorry if I took a bit, but they needed an example or two.”
  1783. “They’re even manning the roads to Saddle Arabia?”
  1784. >”Not even that, they’re repairing the roads that fell into rubble.”
  1785. >”What?”
  1786. “What?”
  1787. >Offense responds to the two of you:
  1788. >”Well, the dogs are certainly creatures of how the winds are blowing. I reminded them that a few thousand troops were ready to march, and that Tartarus is sending assaults landward… And that Equestira would be able to send troops to save them from utter destruction, and that was it. Mostly.”
  1789. >The Brigadier pauses:
  1790. >”That was about it. What did I miss?”
  1791. >Lancer starts:
  1792. >”Well, we have two new additions to High Command. We promoted Arrow to a Brigadier General-“
  1793. >”I’m not the only Brigadier?”
  1794. “No, he’s just a general, you’re still the Brigadier.”
  1795. >Offense responds:
  1796. >”Good. What’s the other thing?”
  1797. >”The head of the naval Admiralty returned. Anon wrote a letter that granted her a position on High Command.”
  1798. >”Did he?”
  1799. >”The signature matches with the date.”
  1800. >”If he said so, okay.”
  1801. “Also, Thunder is back.”
  1802. >Offense immediately responds:
  1803. >”Thunder? Our Thunder?”
  1804. “Yes.”
  1805. >”Ma’am, I’d like to speak to him.”
  1806. “Go right ahead. It looks like we have plenty to deal with.”
  1807.  
  1808. >…
  1809. >You sit in the gardens.
  1810. >One particular oak has its leaves changing colors.
  1811. >Browns and yellows and reds.
  1812. >Even a few lasting greens.
  1813. >You might not have the same internal connection to the living things that are ‘below’ you focus, but…
  1814. >You can still respect the… purity of natural order.
  1815. >Autumn is here.
  1816. >In full force.
  1817. >Within weeks, winter will arrive.
  1818. >That is when the true resolve of Equestria, and the other nations will become apparent.
  1819. >Yes, ponies and minotaurs might ally in hard times.
  1820. >But hard times during the winter?
  1821. >You can only hope that the alliance remains while each side realizes the hardships.
  1822. >”Thunder?”
  1823. >That’s a voice you didn’t expect to hear.
  1824. >You turn to face the Brigadier.
  1825. “Offense.”
  1826. >He moves forward.
  1827. >Approaching you, and pulling you into an embrace.
  1828. >To your ear, he whispers:
  1829. >”Son, I’m sorry. I heard about Winter.”
  1830. >He then pulls back slightly, a hoof still on your shoulder.
  1831. >”My wife and son died in childbirth. That’s tragedy enough. Yours were taken…”
  1832. >With a tear swelling in his eye, he pulls you back into a hug.
  1833. >This time, you reciprocate.
  1834. “It’s… how? How do I go on?”
  1835. >”I don’t know.”
  1836. >He pulls back a bit, keeping each hoof on your shoulders.
  1837. >”I still had a daughter to look after. But you?”
  1838. >He pauses.
  1839. >”You lost everything you had. I can’t feel that. More than the others, but I still don’t know. With me, it’s a constant war in my heart. And it’s still with me, just as strong.”
  1840. “How do you…”
  1841. >”That’s for you to find out. Nopony can help you there. No matter what the others or any counselors tell you. You need to figure it out, and only you. But, you’re not alone.”
  1842. “I feels like I am.”
  1843.  
  1844. >”And it won’t stop. Ever.”
  1845. “Then how do I…”
  1846. >You can’t find the words.
  1847. >”Thunder, I lost my son. And I won’t have another- I can’t marry again… I owe it to her…”
  1848. >He stops, then takes his hooves away from you.
  1849. >As he paces to the side, he looks back to you.
  1850. >”Thunder… You’re old enough to be my brother. But when I look at you, I can only see what my son could have been. What he should have been.”
  1851. >He steps back towards you.
  1852. >Eye to eye, he speaks again:
  1853. >“We might not share blood, but that doesn’t matter. You are my family. Nothing can change that.”
  1854. “I…”
  1855. >You can… remember that he’s honest.
  1856. “Why me?”
  1857. >”Do you remember those training sessions? Atop the towers of the palace.”
  1858. “I remember losing my balance.”
  1859. >”And that there! I threw everything at you, and you took it in striding steps. Thunder…”
  1860. >He places a hoof on your shoulder.
  1861. >”Through everything, you’ve exceeded my expectations. Yes, you’re able bodied. But more importantly, you have more potential then I have ever had. I know the people under my command, and how to lead them. But you understand the bigger picture better than I could ever. I can lead ponies to a win, but you can lead them to a victory! In you, I see the best of myself, and my wife.”
  1862. >He pulls back his hoof.
  1863. >Then takes a few steps away.
  1864. >”I haven’t visited her grave in three years…”
  1865. “How long did you spend there after she passed?”
  1866. >”Two months.”
  1867. “More than I spared Winter.”
  1868. >He rushes over to you.
  1869. >”Thunder, you can’t-“
  1870. “I didn’t mean to- I mean that… Lightning.”
  1871. >You refer to him by his first name, the first time you’ve called him that in… ever.
  1872. “I…”
  1873. >There aren’t words.
  1874. >You instead thrust your front legs over his shoulders.
  1875. >In a tight embrace, you whisper to him:
  1876. “Thank you.”
  1877.  
  1878. >…
  1879. >”Come on.”
  1880. >Offense starts to rack up the billiards balls.
  1881. “There’s a war to fight.”
  1882. >”This again? You’ve been fighting nonstop. Just take one hour to properly relax.”
  1883. >He tosses the cue ball to you.
  1884. >”I’ll make it an order if I have to.”
  1885. “Alright… though I do prefer card games.”
  1886. >”I’ll round up a few ponies later tonight.”
  1887. >He whistles over to the pony behind the bar.
  1888. >”Let’s get some beer over here. Ale, none of that pale garbage.”
  1889. “We’re on the job…”
  1890. >”And?”
  1891. >A very familiar voice then sounds from the door to the lounge:
  1892. >”Oi!”
  1893. >You glance over.
  1894. >Call.
  1895. “…Hey.”
  1896. >He starts over towards you.
  1897. >”Why wasn’t I invited to this?”
  1898. >When he reaches you, he places a leg around your neck.
  1899. >You place one around his.
  1900. >”It’s good to see you, mate.”
  1901. >Still in the embrace, you respond:
  1902. “Yeah… you too.”
  1903. >He pulls back to look at you.
  1904. >”Hey, come on. None of that-“
  1905. >He whispers the next bit so nopony else hears:
  1906. >”I see those tears swelling.”
  1907. >You blink a few times to keep them away.
  1908. “What are you talking about? I’m fine.”
  1909. >He keeps the whisper:
  1910. >”No, you’re not. But that’s a talk for later.”
  1911. >And he’s back to a speaking tone:
  1912. >”So what’s the game?”
  1913. >Offense responds:
  1914. >”Pool. Unless you’ve brought a friend, we’re at capacity.”
  1915.  
  1916. >The off duty soldier who’s working as a barkeep brings over two large beer steins filled with dark bubbling liquid.
  1917. >Offense speaks to him as he sets the glasses on the nearest table:
  1918. >”Good man.”
  1919. >Then Call speaks to him:
  1920. >”We still have any Billowing Boulder?”
  1921. >The barkeep responds:
  1922. >”A few cases. I think.”
  1923. >”Good enough for me, send one over.”
  1924. >”One bottle coming right up.”
  1925. >”No, one case.”
  1926. >”Glad to see you back Call. We still on for midnight darts?”
  1927. >”If you’ve still got bits to lose.”
  1928. >This…
  1929. >In some ways.
  1930. >A lot of ways…
  1931. >This is like a family.
  1932. >Offense then gets your attention:
  1933. >”You want to break?”
  1934. “I’m a bit rusty and would rather not embarrass myself.”
  1935. >He finishes a longs swig from his ale.
  1936. >You take a decent sip from yours.
  1937. >”Alright, I’ll take it.”
  1938. >A voice then yells over to you:
  1939. >”It’s ten in the morning!”
  1940. >You glance over to the doorway.
  1941. >Admiral Brairheart is here.
  1942. >Offense yells over to the barkeep:
  1943. >”Hey, let’s get a bottle of scotch for the Admiral!”
  1944. >Brairheart then yells to Offense:
  1945. >”What are you even doing here?”
  1946. >”Playing pool! We’ve got enough for teams now. You and me against the kids here, what’d ya say?”
  1947. >”Last I heard, you were in the badlands.”
  1948. >”Yes, and the dogs were even more pitiful than expected. Long story short, they’ll keep the roads to Arabia clear and maintained, and they even gave very generous sums of gems for protection against Tartarus. But more importantly, last I heard- you were in your precious ship over in Baltimare.”
  1949. >”After the situation was contained, we returned to Canterlot. The more central position makes it-“
  1950. >”So are you in or out?”
  1951. >”We have jobs to do.”
  1952.  
  1953. >”And everypony here has been working their flank off for weeks.”
  1954. >Offense tosses a pool cue over to Brairheart, then continues:
  1955. >”Let’s just take one damn day to relax.”
  1956. >”… Who has break?”
  1957. >”We do, why don’t you take it.”
  1958. >As Brairheart levitates the cue over to the table, the barkeep brings the new drinks.
  1959. >Call gets a few bottles of his pale lager, and Brairheart has an old bottle of scotch.
  1960. >Offense, looking at the Call’s beer of choice, speaks to him:
  1961. >”I’ve never though less of you than I do right now.”
  1962. >Brairheart strikes the cue ball, then speaks:
  1963. >”We’re stripes.”
  1964. >You hear a ball impact another.
  1965. >”Sorry, they’re up.”
  1966. >Call then steps up to Offense:
  1967. >”We win, you down six of these in a row.”
  1968. >Offense then retaliates:
  1969. >”And when we win?”
  1970. >”Name your price.”
  1971. >”You were an actor, right?”
  1972. >”Yes Sir.”
  1973. >”When we win, you dress as a mare and propose to Wave- no, he’ll see through it. You propose to Lancer.”
  1974. >”Done.”
  1975. >Call and Offense shake hooves.
  1976. >You then take Call aside:
  1977. “You do know that I’m terrible at this game. Right?”
  1978. >”I’m not.”
  1979. >You can’t forget.
  1980. >But maybe for just a while…
  1981. >…
  1982. >Lancer continues:
  1983. >”Now, with the proposed integration with minotaur soldiers, we’ll have to-“
  1984. >He stops as a messenger steps into the room.
  1985. >”What is it soldier?”
  1986. >The stallion responds:
  1987. >”The Prydwen has arrived and has settled outside of the city.”
  1988. >”How long ago?”
  1989. >”She arrived on the horizons a half hour ago.”
  1990. >”Then where’s Brairheart?”
  1991. >”He was seen departing the ship…”
  1992. >”Go see if you can find him.”
  1993. >The soldier leaves.
  1994. “Now once Wave arrives, we’ll all be back together.”
  1995. >Tiara then responds:
  1996. >”Not all of us.”
  1997. >That missing person being Anon.
  1998. “Well, the Admiral might be able to provide a fresh look on our situation. Speaking of that, where’s Offense?”
  1999.  
  2000. >…
  2001. >Well, you’ve reached the canyon.
  2002. >Glancing down the trench, you see that the water in the ravine has died down.
  2003. >It’s still visibly higher than the normal stream, but it’s not as massively flooded as when the storm hit.
  2004. >Based on the sun’s position, you’ve still got plenty of daylight.
  2005. >It’ll probably be prudent to rest tonight.
  2006. >You are actually getting a bit winded.
  2007. >Noting the closest arch that leads across the canyon, you turn left and start walking along the cliff.
  2008. >The skies look clear of any manticores.
  2009. >That’s something.
  2010. >But something’s been eating at you…
  2011. >You stop.
  2012. >Then focus on waking up.
  2013. >On changing anything about your surroundings.
  2014. >The parasite was kicked out to easily.
  2015. >But as far as you can tell, you’re back to your own mind.
  2016. >Maybe you did just get it early on…
  2017. >Or you could be properly losing your marbles.
  2018. >”Anon?”
  2019. “How’s my head look?”
  2020. >”Look in a mirror.”
  2021. “Harv!”
  2022. >”As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong… No foreign elements in your head. Other than me.”
  2023. >You start back up, moving forward.
  2024. “Now look. Discord wasn’t all there, and you’ve only got about half of him.”
  2025. >”Are you insulting my sanity?”
  2026. “Denying it.”
  2027. >”Anon, if everything we’ve been through has taught you one thing: it’s that I’m relatively sane.”
  2028. “Wait…”
  2029. >”What?”
  2030. “Was that Steve just some training session?”
  2031. >”That’s clever, but no. As far as I can tell, the entity re-infected you in the past few days. At the most, it was a week old.”
  2032. “Harv…”
  2033. >”Hmm?”
  2034. “The distance from where I fought the manticores to the pool was far more than I could have crawled… is it possible that Steve- the entity- kept me alive for some reason?”
  2035.  
  2036. >”Anon, based on everything I know about it: I have no idea why it would save you. From what I’ve seen, it would be happier with you out of the picture.”
  2037. >You turn onto the arch.
  2038. “Look Harv, I have had no idea what’s been happening the past… few… days…”
  2039. >You stop in place.
  2040. >And look forward.
  2041. >”You see it too?”
  2042. “Yeah…”
  2043. >At the other end of the archway, the-
  2044. >You haven’t named it.
  2045. >The humanoid shaped mass of muscles.
  2046. >Since your last meeting, you can see a few changes.
  2047. >On its feet, you can see a distinct sets of toes.
  2048. >The hands have fingers, with two to three inch claws coming out of the tips.
  2049. >Towards its head, the nose and eye are getting more defined.
  2050. >And the mouth.
  2051. >A jaw very similar to your own, and…
  2052. >Unlike the claws on its fingers, you think you can see flat teeth.
  2053. >You whisper to Harvey:
  2054. “How did it get so far ahead of me?”
  2055. >”I don’t know.”
  2056. >Stepping towards the… creature… you let your hand fall back onto the grip of your kukri.
  2057. >Then you address it:
  2058. “What the hell are you?”
  2059. >Then…
  2060. >It responds…
  2061. >Well, not necessarily an answer, but it speaks:
  2062.  
  2063. >”A…”
  2064. >What in the-
  2065. >”non.”
  2066. >Anon.
  2067. >It knows your name.
  2068. >How does it know your name?
  2069. >As you each approach one another, you end up pulling the blade from its sheathe.
  2070. >When you finally get within range, it stops.
  2071. >Then punches at you with its left fist.
  2072. >You swing the kukri out, at a perpendicular angle to the arm.
  2073. >But unlike other times you’ve encountered it, the blade stops after barely cutting through the outermost muscle.
  2074. >To compare it to a biped, the blade got as far as the bone.
  2075. >As the strike is stopped, the creature puts its right arm between your bodies, and swipes out.
  2076. >You’re tossed off your feet again.
  2077. >And, your quick response time had to be from Harvey’s influence.
  2078. >Because you can feel your body off of the ground, being pushed down into the canyon below.
  2079. >It’s arm is outwards, pointing almost straight towards your torso.
  2080. >Spinning the grip of the kukri in your palm, you prepare it.
  2081. >Then thrust down through the right hand of your ‘friend’.
  2082. >You manage to brace your boots against the side of the arch.
  2083. >The blade doesn’t cut through the rest of the palm.
  2084. >For a moment, your back is completely parallel to the ground below.
  2085. >You’re suspended over a ravine, with only your legs and a blade to keep you in-
  2086. >The creature kicks up into your arm: making you release grip of the blade.
  2087. >Sending you tumbling down.
  2088. >You try to take control of your fall as best as possible.
  2089. >Even if you’re over the river below, this is still going to be a good impact.
  2090. >Right now, you can just hope that the water is deep enough so that you won’t hit the ground below.
  2091.  
  2092. >…
  2093. >Pulling yourself onto the river bank, you let your head fall into the mud.
  2094. >With all the gear you have, you damn near downed.
  2095. >That bastard threw you off a cliff.
  2096. >You’re alive though.
  2097. >If you’re remembering right, you hit the water with some control in a dive.
  2098. >Most of your body hurts like hell though…
  2099. >Pulling your face from the muck, you look up to the archway high above.
  2100. >And you can see the… thing that knocked you down here.
  2101. >It’s standing there, looking straight down onto you.
  2102. >You’re a hundred feet below it, so-
  2103. >It starts to walk to its side.
  2104. >After it walks over most of the archway, it turns back to you.
  2105. >Then steps forward.
  2106. >It’s not over the water.
  2107. >Just a hard ground of gravel is under its falling body.
  2108. >As it impacts the ground, it ends up taking a knee.
  2109. >Twenty or so feet from you, the creature then stands upright.
  2110. >It just stepped off of a hundred foot drop, and seems no worse for wear.
  2111. >Harvey takes the moment to spark to you:
  2112. >”Anon, I would run.”
  2113. >You toss your backpack onto the ground.
  2114. “Enough running.”
  2115.  
  2116. >The creature takes a step towards you.
  2117. >You respond by reaching down to draw your sword: pulling it from the sheathe wide, ending with the tip pointing back to you right.
  2118. >In response, the creature places it’s right hand straight to the ground.
  2119. >It’s fingers are kept close together.
  2120. >So much so that they start to intertwine.
  2121. >As the digits become one, the short claws merge into one.
  2122. >Then, those claws start to extend down.
  2123. >It goes almost forty inches down; forming a blade slightly longer than your own sword.
  2124. >Harvey speaks in an urgency you haven’t heard from him:
  2125. >”Anon, it’s matching you. Really matching you.”
  2126. >You bring your sword up to line up parallel with your nose, the blade pointing outwards.
  2127. >And with its bone-like wrist blade, the creature mirrors your stance as best as possible.
  2128. >Ignoring Harv, and looking to the duel, you let your sword fall into a more natural stance, laying to your right.
  2129. >Instead, you rapidly close the distance, slashing up to the left into the torso of the-
  2130. >Your sword is stopped as it twists its arm/blade to catch your strike.
  2131. >After it uses brute force to push your strike back, it brings its arm back and punches towards you with its bone-like blade jutting from its arm.
  2132. >You doge towards your left, if you were any slower the enemy strike would have either skewered you, or seriously cut your neck.
  2133. >With your luck, you swing your sword back against the extended arm.
  2134. >The steel glides through the air, and starts to cut through the skin, muscle, and bone.
  2135. >But it does stop.
  2136. >Before a full cut through the limb.
  2137. >Earlier you could cut straight through the limbs…
  2138.  
  2139. >As you stay still, the creature punches over towards your face with its other arm.
  2140. >In order to avoid the punch, you have to throw yourself to the ground.
  2141. >Then, as you look up to the creature, it brings a leg up, preparing to bring it down into your center chest.
  2142. >You have to roll away, narrowly avoiding the stomp.
  2143. >With the momentum, you’re able to get back on your feet.
  2144. “Harv.”
  2145. >”Run!”
  2146. >You think of the blank room.
  2147. >-
  2148. >And you’re there.
  2149. “When I say, I want you to flood my body with as much adrenaline and similar compounds as you can.”
  2150. >”Anon, you need to-“
  2151. “Wait for the signal!”
  2152. >-
  2153. >Back in the real world, you reach your left hand down to your dagger.
  2154. >Holding it in a reverse grip, you draw the blade.
  2155. >Then, you speak to the creature:
  2156. “Alright buddy, you’re gonna need a name. How ‘bout Charlie?”
  2157.  
  2158. >…
  2159. >After more than a fair amount of waiting, the three of you went to find the others.
  2160. >And they’re at the lounge.
  2161. >Which is a bar, but more eloquently stated.
  2162. >Offense, Brairheart, Thunder, and Corporal Call were sitting around a table playing poker.
  2163. >Lancer yells over to them:
  2164. >”What kind of bull-honkey is this?”
  2165. >Seeing your group, they start to stand from their table.
  2166. >Offense responds, setting down a cigar:
  2167. >”Sir, we just thought-“
  2168. >”Why wasn’t I invited?”
  2169. >He approaches the table as Brariheart nods towards an open chair.
  2170. >Both you and Tiara sigh.
  2171. >She then glances to you:
  2172. >”Boys.”
  2173. >You chuckle.
  2174. >Then she approaches the table and yells over to the bartender:
  2175. >”Let’s get some gin over here. No tonic.”
  2176. >Lancer then speaks to Tiara:
  2177. >”You sure you’re up for this kind of competition? The others aren’t slouches.”
  2178. >As you walk over to the table, Tiara responds to Lancer:
  2179. >”Afraid General?”
  2180. >Offense then starts to laugh:
  2181. >”I like her already.”
  2182. “So, room for one more?”
  2183. >Then Brairheart speaks to you:
  2184. >”Of course. Do you know the game?”
  2185. >They’re playing a standard Hold ‘em as far as you can tell.
  2186. “I think.”
  2187. >You settle into the last open chair, between Tiara and Offense.
  2188. >The bartender brings over a small glass to Tiara.
  2189. >Prompting a response:
  2190. >”Where’s the bottle?”
  2191. >She then downs the shot glass.
  2192. >”No, something a bit rougher.”
  2193. >The bartender responds:
  2194. >”Of course.”
  2195. >Then he looks over to you:
  2196. >”Anything for your majest-“
  2197. “Don’t bother with titles. And no, I don’t drink.”
  2198. >”Of course.”
  2199. >So…
  2200. >Time to play.
  2201. >You could use a break.
  2202.  
  2203. >…
  2204. “Call.”
  2205. >Lancer then speaks:
  2206. >”Call.”
  2207. >And Call, after folding quite some time before, speaks:
  2208. >”Sir?”
  2209. “Never used that one before, have you?”
  2210. >You’ve got two kings.
  2211. >That’s a full house, kings and aces on the table.
  2212. >The Princess then offers her bet:
  2213. >”All in.”
  2214. >Lancer’s turn.
  2215. >”Fold.”
  2216. >You’ve got more chips than she does.
  2217. >The last few rounds haven’t been good to her.
  2218. >You look to her face.
  2219. >She blinks a few times, quicker than usual.
  2220. “I’ll match that.”
  2221. >Brairheart, the dealer this round, speaks:
  2222. >”Let’s see.”
  2223. “Full house, kings and aces.”
  2224. >The Princess then frowns:
  2225. >”Oh…”
  2226. >Then flips.
  2227. >”Four of a kind, aces.”
  2228. >What?
  2229. >As you realize the hustle, Offense then speaks:
  2230. >”Looks like Anon taught you cards too.”
  2231. >As she pulls the chips over, the Princess responds:
  2232. >”Something like that.”
  2233. >That was a grade-A hustle.
  2234. >You couldn’t have done better with a group of strangers.
  2235. >It was so simple too.
  2236. >But you fell for it.
  2237. >That was so…
  2238. >The Princess then speaks to you:
  2239. >”Thunder, are you okay?”
  2240. >There’s an honestly in her voice.
  2241. “Yeah… I just didn’t expect that.”
  2242. >Call then butts in:
  2243. >”I’ve ‘eard that one before.”
  2244. “Hey, I’ve still got more chips than you do.”
  2245.  
  2246. >…
  2247. >While your sword is locked with Charlie’s bone sword, it strikes into your torso with the free arm.
  2248. >Being knocked back a few paces, you get back into a fighting stance.
  2249. >You’ve been going at this for… hours.
  2250. >Every strike you get in does no real damage.
  2251. >”Anon!”
  2252. >Harvey yells to you.
  2253. “No.”
  2254. >You can do this.
  2255. >It’s adapting to you.
  2256. >Molding itself to imitate you in certain ways.
  2257. >You jump back to avoid it’s bone sword from slashing into your side.
  2258. >Taking a few steps back, you slide your sword into its sheathe.
  2259. >As you wipe sweat off of your forehead, the creature stands at ease for a moment.
  2260. >Letting it’s arm fall into a neutral pose.
  2261. >You left it far behind last time, but it somehow managed to get in front of you.
  2262. >Everything about its movement is pretty damn slow.
  2263. >It has to be able to teleport in some function.
  2264. >Or fly, but you don’t see wings.
  2265. >Which leads to the question of how it knew exactly where you were…
  2266. >But Charlie over there doesn’t seem that smart.
  2267. >Well, other than mimicking, but that doesn’t indicate actual intelligence.
  2268. “Who’s behind you?”
  2269. >Charlie cocks its head to the side.
  2270. “I’m not talking to you… Is that you Steve? No, the parasite was too uneasy. You’ve got someone else leading you around on a string. A local maybe…”
  2271. >You can see the creature’s head twitch.
  2272. >Interesting, like something is prompting it to-
  2273. >You can feel the ground below tremble slightly.
  2274. >The creature starts to approach.
  2275.  
  2276. >You shoot your hand back down to the grip of your sword.
  2277. >Hold just a moment longer; be ready to use the momentum of the draw.
  2278. >Just one more step towar-
  2279. >Within a split second, the creature is impaled from below.
  2280. >From the ground, impacting the groin and exiting on the left side of its neck, a purple crystal slightly emanating with light has run Charlie through.
  2281. >The beast then tries to jab its bone arm sword out to you, the tip being a few inches short.
  2282. >What in the name of-
  2283. >Dozens of smaller crystalline tendrils shoot out of Charlie’s body, jagged and covered in its blood.
  2284. >And then you see its head start to convulse.
  2285. >As it does, the arm falls limp.
  2286. >First to its right, then the left, back, and finally facing you directly.
  2287. >Its eyes are…
  2288. >A light blue with a tiny tint of green.
  2289. >You’ve lost it.
  2290. >Charlie is just a figment of your imagination, isn’t it?
  2291. >Then the creature starts to…
  2292. >You’d like to say ‘speak’ but it’s little more than a snarl.
  2293. >But still far more cohesive than its previous word spoken.
  2294. >”I… c’n… hold itt… assss lonnng as I caaan. Anon.”
  2295. >Anon was eerily coherent… and…
  2296. “What are you?”
  2297. >”Keep… mooving.”
  2298. >You watch as the eyes fade into a pitch black.
  2299. >Then the creature reasserts itself.
  2300. >And attempts to stab you once again.
  2301. >While the arm is out, another small tendril of crystal shoots from the ground to impale the creature at the elbow.
  2302. >You…
  2303. >Won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
  2304. >As you move over to your pack, you speak to Harvey.
  2305. “What the hell was that?”
  2306. >”I don’t know.”
  2307. “Like hell you do, you’re Discord?”
  2308. >”Well I’m sure my body would know exactly what that was. I don’t have any idea what that was.”
  2309. >With your backpack firmly set, you look down the canyon.
  2310. “Harvy?”
  2311. >”What?”
  2312. “Keep me going.”
  2313. >With that, you start jogging further east.
  2314.  
  2315. >…
  2316. >Corporal Call, who’s rather drunk, asks Lancer, who’s only slightly drunk, for further explanation:
  2317. >”So how’s it that you an’ Offense killed a bugbear all on your own.”
  2318. >Offense leans forward:
  2319. >”Grapeshot out of a nine pounder. At point blank.”
  2320. >”That… makes sense.”
  2321. >As you start to deal a new round of cards, the door gets kicked open.
  2322. >And the Ambassador is in the doorway.
  2323. >Blunt Force yells over to the table:
  2324. >”Drinking and gambling and you didn’t invite me…”
  2325. “Come take a seat.”
  2326. >He walks over to the bar while responding:
  2327. >”Just a moment Princess.”
  2328. >After grabbing four bottles, he makes his way to the table.
  2329. >”Hold ‘em?”
  2330. >Lancer then responds:
  2331. >”Yeah, no special rules.”
  2332. >”Excellent.”
  2333. “You enjoy Equestrian card games?”
  2334. >”Losing fingers tends to be somewhat common with minotaur bets. And I’m already missing enough of mine.”
  2335. >As you deal Force in, Tiara takes a moment to comment:
  2336. >”Half the palace is in on this now.”
  2337. >And Brairheart counters:
  2338. >”We need a bigger table.”
  2339. >Then Offense yells over to the pony tending the bar:
  2340. >”Barkeep, you want in?”
  2341. >And Thunder then gets a word in, prompting the ponies who know about his situation to listen carefully.
  2342. >”It’s good that with everything happening… we can just relax a bit.”
  2343. >Offense then responds:
  2344. >”Yeah, it is.”
  2345. >And Call breaks the moment:
  2346. >”Well not now! Ya bloody jinxed it! One of those pits’ll pop up next to us, and I bet those monsters are better card sharks then the Princess!”
  2347. >As the ponies around the table laugh, everything about this entire ‘apocalypse’ is forgotten.
  2348. >Even if just for an afternoon.
  2349.  
  2350. >…
  2351. >As word spread and the lounge became more packed with officers, the air fleet and army boys started to separate.
  2352. >With your game over, you ended up sitting to the side with Blunt Force and Tiara.
  2353. >Watching as the branches gloated.
  2354. >As alcohol levels rose, they ended up singing (shouting) their favorite songs to the other side.
  2355. >Brairheart, Call, and the fly boys were finishing:
  2356. >”Rule Equestr’a. Equestr’a rules the skies. ‘Questr’ans never, never, never shall be slaves! Rule Equestr’a! Equestr’a rules the skies! ‘Questr’ans never, never, never shall be slaves!”
  2357. >As they end, the army then starts their counter.
  2358. >Lancer and Offense are quite loud with the opening:
  2359. >”March along, sing out song, with the Army of the free. Count the brave, count the true, who have fought to victory. We’re the Army and proud of our name. We’re the Army and proudly proclaim!”
  2360. >And the rest of the army officers join:
  2361. >”First to fight for the right, and to build the Nation’s right, and the Army goes marching along. Proud of all we have done, fighting till the battle’s won, and the Army goes marching along. Then it’s Hi! Hi! Hey! The Army’s on its way. Count off the cadence loud and strong. For where e’er we go, you will always know that the Army goes marching along!”
  2362.  
  2363. >They then prepare for the next part:
  2364. >”Manechester, Anon’s ranks, Griffonstone and on the coast, and the Army went marching along! Volunteers from the start, always fighting from the heart, and the Army keeps marching along! Then it’s Hi! Hi! Hey! The Army’s on its way. Count of the cadence loud and strong. For where e’er we go, you will always know that the Army goes marching along!”
  2365. >Then it surprises you that Thunder takes the slower bit:
  2366. >”Men in rags, men who froze, still that army met its foes. And the Army went marching along. Faith in friends, then we’re right. And we’ll fight with all our might, as the Army keeps marching along.”
  2367. >Then everypony else is back in, and it’s ear shaking:
  2368. >”THEN IT’S HI! HI! HEY! THE ARMY’S ON ITS WAY. COUNT OFF THE CADENCE LOUD AND SRONG. TWO! THREE! FOR WHERE E’ER WE GO, YOU WILL ALWAYS KNOW, THAT THE ARMY GOES MARCHING ALONG!”
  2369. >And they yell:
  2370. >”KEEP IT ROLLING!”
  2371. >And back to the singing:
  2372. >”AND THE ARMY GOES MARCHING ALONG…”
  2373. >The army lads take a moment to cheer and gloat in their greater numbers.
  2374. >It almost looks like some fights are going to break out.
  2375. “Alright ponies!”
  2376. >They quickly quiet down.
  2377. >Even if they’re mostly drunk, they still know that you’re here.
  2378. “I’ve got one that I don’t think any of you’ve heard.”
  2379. >Think of one of Anon’s old songs…
  2380. >Got it.
  2381. “Here’s the story of Equest’ra a land both fair and great. For millennia and up today, and independent state! This is much against the wishes of certain governments. Whose leaders try to break us down and make us all repent. But we’re all Equest’rans and we’ll fight through thick and thin! We’ll keep our land a free land, stop the enemy coming in!”
  2382. >Fast Flurry, make the lyrics make sense to ponies.
  2383. “We’ll keep them out of all our heartland, till all our blood’s run dry. And this mighty land will prosper, for Equest’rans never die!”
  2384. >That should work.
  2385.  
  2386. “They can send their men to murder, they can shout their words of hate. But the cost of keeping this land free can never be too great! For our men and boys are fighting for the things that they hold dear, and this land and all its people will never disappear.”
  2387. >Yeah.
  2388. “Cause we’re all Equest’rans and we’ll fight through thick and thin! We’ll keep our land a free land, stop the enemy coming in! We’ll keep them out of all our heartland, till all our blood’s run dry. And this mighty land will prosper, for Equest’rans never die!”
  2389. >Good so far.
  2390. “We’ll preserve this good old nation for our children’s children too. Once you’re an Equest’ran, no other land will do! We will stand tall in the sunshine, with the truth upon our side. And if we have to go alone, we’ll go alone with pride! ‘Cause we’re all Equest’rans, and we’ll fight through thick and thin! We’ll keep our land a free land, stop the enemy coming in! We’ll keep them out of all our heartland, till all our blood’s run dry. And this mighty land will prosper, for Equest’rans never die!”
  2391. >Last stretch.
  2392. “Yes, we’re all Equest’rans, and we’ll fight through thick and thin! We’ll keep our land a free land, stop the enemy coming in. We’ll keep them out of all our heartland, till all our blood’s run dry. And this mighty land will prosper for Equest’rans never die!”
  2393. >Okay…
  2394. “Because we’re all Equest’rans, and we’ll fight through thick and thin! We’ll keep our land a free land, stop the enemy coming in. We’ll keep them out of all our heartland, till all our blood’s run dry. And this mighty land will prosper for Equest’rans never die!”
  2395. >And that’s it.
  2396. “Got it?”
  2397. >You yell to the crowd.
  2398. “Then go on with it!”
  2399. >Several of the lounge patrons start it up again.
  2400. >Most of them have it by the next time around.
  2401. >And all of them have it the time after that.
  2402.  
  2403. >…
  2404. >Call and lancer are currently arm wrestling.
  2405. >It’s a pretty even match so far.
  2406. >”Come on ya ole’ codger!”
  2407. >”All talk Corporal. You’re all talk.”
  2408. >An unexpected voice then speaks to you:
  2409. >”Uhh… Ma’am?”
  2410. >You look over.
  2411. “Captain Crop. Here to place bets?”
  2412. >“No, it’s just that- you’re sober, right?”
  2413. “Unlike most ponies here, yes. I am.”
  2414. >Lancer glances over to Crop.
  2415. >”Captain-“
  2416. >He has to look back at his match while Call gains ground.
  2417. >Crop speaks to you:
  2418. >”Maybe it’s better to speak outside.”
  2419. “After you.”
  2420. >…
  2421. >Leaving the packed lounge, you step out into the hallway.
  2422. >An officer is slumped against the wall, passed out.
  2423. “What is it?”
  2424. >”Ma’am, a griffon diplomat is here. She’s requesting an audience.”
  2425. “Last we heard, they were having issues with their child king. What do they want?”
  2426. >”She wouldn’t say, but did indicate that it was urgent for you or a general to hear.”
  2427. >The door or the lounge opens:
  2428. >”What’s happening out here?”
  2429. >Ambassador Force emerges.
  2430. >He’s finished a couple bottles of harder stuff.
  2431. “Nothing important. Just some ‘pressing’ issues about a sewage backup that-“
  2432. >”I’m a minotaur: I’ve only got a slight buzz. You don’t have to lie to me.”
  2433. >To be fair, he’s probably the most sober person from the room other than the barkeep.
  2434. “The griffons want to talk.”
  2435. >”Then let’s go. Someone has to meet them, and if you show up without any high ranked ponies it’ll be seen as an insult.”
  2436. “Alright, just don’t make a scene.”
  2437. >”Would I ever?”
  2438. >He jokes.
  2439. >At least you hope it’s a joke.
  2440.  
  2441. >…
  2442. >You enter into the throne room and make for your seat.
  2443. >The griffon is already at the foot of the throne.
  2444. >As Crop and Force set themselves to either side of you, you’re able to look at the diplomat.
  2445. >Fairly young, maybe about your age.
  2446. >White and light brown feathers.
  2447. >Settling into the throne, you speak down to her:
  2448. “Sorry for the wait.”
  2449. >”That is your right, your majesty.”
  2450. “So why are you here?”
  2451. >”With respect, your majesty, my king and his-“
  2452. “Yes, yes. Pleasantries. Why are you here?”
  2453. >”… We’re under attack.”
  2454. >You lean forward.
  2455. >”By creatures that seem to be the same as your envoys have warned about.”
  2456. >Then Blunt Force speaks up before you can respond:
  2457. >”So now you listen to it! We haven’t had a response for weeks!”
  2458. >That’s fair.
  2459. >”I’m just a messenger-“
  2460. >”You’ve seen the fight! And your people were warned!”
  2461. >”I’ve seen the fighting! Hundreds are dead! Thousands! The walls are all that’s separating Griffonstone from those things. I’m here because the griffons as a people are calling for help!”
  2462. >Her words echo for a moment through the mostly empty hall.
  2463. “It’s been a generation since the griffons offered aid to us.”
  2464. >The diplomat then speaks back to you:
  2465. >”And isn’t it the same with the minotaurs?”
  2466. >You glance over to Force.
  2467. >”That… was before the Sundering. Your people have no obligation nor call to arms in this fight.”
  2468. >”But this fight is ours just as it’s yours! I have two brothers and a sister on the frontlines right now. How can you say that this isn’t out fight?”
  2469. >He glances over to you.
  2470. >Then you look down to the griffon.
  2471. “If the griffons call for aid…”
  2472. >She looks to you, away from Force.
  2473. “Then Equestria will answer.”
  2474.  
  2475. >The griffon responds:
  2476. >”That simply?”
  2477. “What’s your name?”
  2478. >”Gertrude, your highness.”
  2479. “That simply, Gertrude.”
  2480. >”I- Thank you.”
  2481. “Don’t thank me yet. You’ll fly back to Griffonstone as fast as your wings can take you. Tell your Command that you’ll have thirty thousand ponies within a week. Seventy more in two.”
  2482. >Then Force speaks to her:
  2483. >”And a thousand minotaurs within five days from now.”
  2484. >”But you-“
  2485. >”I was testing you, kid.”
  2486. “Griffonstone will not fall, you have my word. Just hold out a bit longer.”
  2487. >”T-thank you.”
  2488. “Now get moving.”
  2489. >”I will.”
  2490. “It doesn’t look like it…”
  2491. >She rises and starts to jog away.
  2492.  
  2493. >As she does you look over to the Ambassador:
  2494. “Was that true about your troops?”
  2495. >”With the men ready on your border, with your rail system we can have them there in five days. Four if you can prioritize their movement.”
  2496. “You’ll have it.”
  2497. >”I can also promise another five thousand within two weeks. Should I send for them?”
  2498. “Yes. Even if we can contain them up north, they’ll work well to be quick response units elsewhere in Equestria.”
  2499. >”I’d be able to deal with the intricacies back home. Think you can manage without me for a week or so?”
  2500. “As if you have to ask.”
  2501. >”Then I’ll be going.”
  2502. >He bashes his right fist against his chest.
  2503. >”Fight well.”
  2504. “Sorry if we take all of your glory.”
  2505. >Force chuckles before turning to leave.
  2506. >Leaving you to speak to Crop.
  2507. “Until the others are properly sober, I’m leaving you in charge.”
  2508. >”Ma’am, I’m only a-“
  2509. “You’ll do fine Captain.”
  2510. >You then look to the closest guards and yell to them:
  2511. “Hear that! If the Generals are still drunk or hungover, Crop here is in charge.”
  2512. >One of them gets the courage to respond:
  2513. >”Aye Princess!”
  2514. “Good man.”
  2515. >You then look back to Crop:
  2516. “Now, I’ve got to get to the border troops. They probably won’t be expecting to help the griffons, but they’ll have to adapt. You have Command, Captain.”
  2517. >”I won’t fail you.”
  2518. “I should hope so.”
  2519.  
  2520. >…
  2521. >Oh, your head…
  2522. >Where are you?
  2523. >You rise up to a sitting position.
  2524. “What day is it?”
  2525. >You’re in the lounge.
  2526. >On the bar itself.
  2527. >”Day after last.”
  2528. >You look over to the barkeep, who’s currently cleaning a glass.
  2529. “Do you even sleep?”
  2530. >”You wanna get down?”
  2531. “Not really.”
  2532. >”Too bad.”
  2533. >You then are pushed off of the bar.
  2534. >Face down on the ground, you dryly respond:
  2535. “Ouch.”
  2536. >”You’ll live.”
  2537. >…
  2538. >Eventually, you wandered into the throne room on your way to the meeting room.
  2539. >Thankfully, Lancer was already here.
  2540. >He’s yelling at Crop.
  2541. >”I don’t care who told you to…”
  2542. >He trails off, obviously still drunk.
  2543. >”Sir, it’s the Princesses orders.”
  2544. >”Celeshtia is locked up.”
  2545. >”Princess Flurry…”
  2546. >”She’s only ten!”
  2547. >You rub your forehead as you approach.
  2548. >Crop then speaks to you:
  2549. >”Are you as bad?”
  2550. “What?”
  2551. >”Him.”
  2552. >”What is it Sergeant Snow? You can speak to me directly.”
  2553. >You’re not sure if Lancer was talking to you or Crop…
  2554. “Lancer, good I found you… you’re needed over this way.”
  2555. >”Whell why didn’t you say.”
  2556. >Crop nods in thanks as you start to think of a way to occupy Lancer.
  2557.  
  2558. >…
  2559. >On your own, you flew through the night.
  2560. >It was quicker that way, you could fly faster and longer than any guards you could bring.
  2561. >You’re poor at magic, but great at flight.
  2562. >And by pushing yourself to the limit, you were able to make it to the border.
  2563. >Exhausted, but you got there.
  2564. >On the border with the griffons and yaks, you have elements of the 3rd Army.
  2565. >Two divisions, ready to march east or west.
  2566. >In addition to other elements kept nearby.
  2567. >As you set down into the camp, the soldiers rushed to salute.
  2568. “Enough! Where’s your CO? And get ready to march!”
  2569. >The nearby soldiers hold still.
  2570. “Are you, or are you not members of the 3rd ‘Shock’ Army!”
  2571. >Then they spring into action and a Lieutenant offers the way to their commanding officer.
  2572. >…
  2573. >From a large tent, a unicorn in an officer’s uniform exits as you approach.
  2574. >He’s got the silver horseshoe of a Lieutenant Colonel.
  2575. >As the teal and cyan stallion sees you, he stops and stands at attention with a salute.
  2576. >”Lieutenant Colonel Seaside Tide, at your service Princess!”
  2577. >He seems to have a natural enthusiasm.
  2578. >You return the salute.
  2579. “At ease Colonel!”
  2580. >”To what do we owe the pleasure?”
  2581. “No pleasure, only work. Are your men ready to march?”
  2582. >”Give us two hours.”
  2583. “You have one.”
  2584. >”Understood! Are we fighting the yaks or griffons?”
  2585.  
  2586. “Tartarus. They’ve attacked the griffons.”
  2587. >”Then it’s up to us to bail their flanks out.”
  2588. “Will that be a problem?”
  2589. >”Not from any of my colts. In fact, the gloating rights will be more than enough pay.”
  2590. “I intend to be at Griffonstone within twenty-four hours, will that be an issue?”
  2591. >”We’ll do it in twenty!”
  2592. “That’s what I like to hear.”
  2593. >”Now to not waste any time, will you excuse me Princess?”
  2594. “Dismissed.”
  2595. >Tide turns immediately to his aides:
  2596. >”Major, get the unicorns to help packing up camp! Captain, get our guns ready to roll out! Master Sergeant, I expect an honor guard ready to accompany the Princess assembled by the time we start the march.”
  2597. >Long ago, Anon helped to defend Griffonstone from the yaks.
  2598. >Now it’s your turn.
  2599. >You promised your assistance, and you have no plans to disappoint.
  2600. >And it’s nice to meet an officer who is enthusiastic and completely on your side.
  2601. >No…
  2602. “And Colonel!”
  2603. >Tide turns to walk back to you.
  2604. >”Yes, your Highness?”
  2605. “And if ever you have a tactical or strategic plan that’s contrary to mine, I fully expect you to state it.”
  2606. >As he speaks, he salutes:
  2607. >”Ab-sol-utley your Highness!”
  2608. “Now you have work to do. I trust that I can use your command tent to get a bit of rest before the march?”
  2609. >”Yes Ma’am.”
  2610.  
  2611. >…
  2612. >Eventually you got Lancer to fall asleep on one of the benches in the gardens.
  2613. >A voice then speaks over to you.
  2614. >It’s Wave.
  2615. >”Are all of you line this?”
  2616. >You look over to see a chariot flying back off in the distance.
  2617. “What?”
  2618. >The general approaches and responds:
  2619. >”Drunk. I can smell it on you from here.”
  2620. “Not the Princess or Crop.”
  2621. >”I’m surrounded by children.”
  2622. “Crop is seeing to things. If the others are sober enough they’ll be-“
  2623. >”Just come with me.”
  2624. >…
  2625. >He takes you to the meeting room.
  2626. >Once you enter into it, you see Offense signing some papers.
  2627. >He looks no worse for wear.
  2628. >Brariheart is slouched over a cup of coffee.
  2629. >The brigadier then stands and speask to Wave:
  2630. >”Sir, you’re ranking officer right now.”
  2631. >”What happened?”
  2632. >”Well we started in the lounge, and it went well into the night.”
  2633. >”I mean with the troop movements I’ve seen around the palace.”
  2634. >”Attack on the griffons. Crop is seeing to the movements and sending orders out to nearby divisions. The Ambassador has left to go get a minotaur taskforce.
  2635. >”She’s… already left. On her own.”
  2636. >Wave’s sigh is rather palpable.
  2637. >Offense then tries to cover:
  2638. >”At a guess, she’s probably gone to meet up with the elements of the 3rd army that are near the border.”
  2639. >”I’m surrounded by children.”
  2640.  
  2641. >…
  2642. >It’ll be sunset soon.
  2643. “We can rest here. Five hours.”
  2644. >Colonel Tide nods.
  2645. >”Hold!”
  2646. >He looks up to a raised boulder near the front of the column, then teleports up to it.
  2647. >”Alright, listen up!”
  2648. >He waits a second to let the men settle.
  2649. >”You’ve got five hours, and then we’re marching to Grffonstone! No stops! This’ll be the fifth time these monsters crawled up from their pits, and the fourth time the Army’ll have to fight them in great numbers! Now we’ve all read the reports and seen casualty numbers.”
  2650. >He scans the ranks.
  2651. >”But before now, they’ve mainly had to fight local garrisons and home guard divisions. Let’s show these bastards what real soldiers can do! This is NOT going to be an easy assignment, but since when has the 3rd ever gotten anything easy? We’ve survived the Arabian beaches, we’ve survived Baltimare! Now what do they call this Army?”
  2652. >”THE THIRD SHOCK ARMY!”
  2653. >”And what’s our doctrine?”
  2654. >”NEVER RETREAT! NEVER GIVE UP! NEVER SURRENDER!”
  2655. >”Funnily enough, we’re actually fighting against Tartarus. And if you’re going through Tartarus?”
  2656. >”Keep going!”
  2657.  
  2658. >…
  2659. >After taking a moment to get out of view and ‘set’ the sun, you ended up finding Tide again.
  2660. >”Princess. You should get some rest.”
  2661. “That speech sure was… something.”
  2662. >”When the Armies were first organized, General Wave led the 3rd. We’ve been through the worst, and without the Field Marshal to take the frontlines. Not a lot of room for weakness or lack of determination. Most of the survivors of Baltimare were veterans of the 3rd, and most of the ponies here have seen their fair share of serious fights.”
  2663. “Trust me when I say that you haven’t seen anything like this.”
  2664. >”Have we not won every encounter with these things so far?”
  2665. “So far.”
  2666. >”Well let’s make sure not to ruin our record.”
  2667. “It won’t be-“
  2668. >You stop as you hear some commotion.
  2669. >”Quiet! You will take me to your commanding officer.”
  2670. >Tide then glances at you:
  2671. >”I’ll see what’s going on.”
  2672. >He walks into the crowd, and you follow close behind.
  2673. >Tide speaks out to the commotion:
  2674. >”Alright, what’s going on here.”
  2675. >You can see a group of griffons, five of them.
  2676. >All in full armor, ornate steel gilded with gold.
  2677. >The lead one has black feathers and white fur.
  2678. >He speaks to Tide:
  2679. >”Are you in command?”
  2680. >”Depends who’s asking.”
  2681.  
  2682. >The griffon has more than a few inches on the Colonel.
  2683. >”Don’t play coy with me.”
  2684. “Well how about I play coy instead?”
  2685. >You step forward to the griffon.
  2686. >”Princess…”
  2687. “Is there a problem?”
  2688. >They look like an honor guard.
  2689. >”I bring word from his Majesty, the King. Your… assistance with these creatures will not be needed. The Griffon Kingdom is more than capable of dealing with this attack.”
  2690. “Then why did a messenger say otherwise?”
  2691. >”Sent by a renegade group of officers who were plotting against the King. They’re being dealt with.”
  2692. “As I understand, the creatures have inflicted significant casualties already.”
  2693. >”Then allow me to make sure understand this: if even a single Equestiran soldier sets hoof on Griffon soil, it will be seen as a direct act of war.”
  2694. >You’re still a few hours from the border.
  2695. “Well… I wouldn’t want to rustle any feathers.”
  2696. >”I’d recommend that you remove your troops from the area at daybreak.”
  2697. “And I’d recommend that if you don’t get off of Equestrian land post haste, it’ll be seen as a direct act of war.”
  2698. >The griffon grunts before the entourage takes off.
  2699. “Not a scratch.”
  2700. >Tide inquires:
  2701. >”What?”
  2702. “Their armor was pristine.”
  2703. >”You don’t intend to follow the demands, do you?”
  2704. “Of course not. The beasts can’t be allowed to build staging grounds on the surface. It sounds like the kid on the throne has some issues with his military… Colonel?”
  2705. >”Yes?”
  2706. “Find me three dozen pegasi to go on ahead with me after resting.”
  2707. >”Are you sure you’ll be fine on your own?”
  2708. “He said not to set hoof on their soil. Didn’t say anything about their airspace.”
  2709.  
  2710. >…
  2711. “Harv.”
  2712. >You rub your right palm.
  2713. >”Hmm?”
  2714. “How long will this go on for?”
  2715. >”What?”
  2716. “All of it.”
  2717. >”Is there… something you need to talk about?”
  2718. “No.”
  2719. >You rub your eyes with your palms.
  2720. “No… How much longer in this ravine?”
  2721. >”I don’t know!”
  2722. “Harv!”
  2723. >”Alright, alright! If you were away from the mountains this long, and the river is curving fairly north, then…”
  2724. >You continue walking along the river.
  2725. >”Head due north once the ravine ends, if it stops around the same place where the worst of the mountains end, you should be out of it in a day or two if you run.”
  2726. “Why north?”
  2727. >”The path I had you on will be merging with the one next one to the north in a hundred miles or so. It will be much easier to head for that one rather than heading back into the mountains.”
  2728. “What should I expect moving north?”
  2729. >”If this river leads out into the plains that I think they are, then… nothing that bad. Wolves, fairly large ones. Some large birds of prey from the mountains, they could be an issue now that you don’t have any ranged weapons. Hordes of carnivorous jack rabbits rushing out of their burrows at the slightest vibrations aboveground.”
  2730. “That’s not a joke, is it?”
  2731. >”Hundreds of them.”
  2732. “That doesn’t even make sense, how wouldn’t other predators be able to-“
  2733. >”Well they breed-”
  2734. “Don’t say it.”
  2735. >”Like…”
  2736. “Harvey!”
  2737. >“Rabbits.”
  2738.  
  2739. “Words can’t describe my utter hatred for you.”
  2740. >”Oh just have some fun with it!”
  2741. “Yes, because being mauled to the brink of death, crawling through the forest with my legs broken and an arm barely attached, being revived from a fountain of youth, getting thrown off a cliff, and being otherwise chased by an immortal abomination is everyone’s definition of fun!”
  2742. >”If you could have stood it would just dangle there like a pendulum.”
  2743. “Yes, if I wasn’t crippled from venom and broken knees, it would have been quite the sight gag.”
  2744. >”You were never this upset over a loss before…”
  2745. “I’ve had my fair share of knocking on Death’s door, but I’ve never...”
  2746. >You can’t properly find the word to describe it.
  2747. >”That’s not what’s gotten your panties in a bunch!”
  2748. “Then what, pray tell, is?”
  2749. >”Your just upset that after being brought back into your prime, Chuckie-boy back there still slapped you silly.”
  2750. “Well how am I supposed to kill it?”
  2751.  
  2752. >”The issue, is that you’re asking that question. Usually it’s your enemies that ask that question.”
  2753. “That’s… actually pretty funny.”
  2754. >”And did you see its face when the crystal impaled it?”
  2755. “I don’t think it was smart enough to fully comprehend it.”
  2756. >”Grrr, why non not die now?”
  2757. “Really, it seems like something out of a horror movie.”
  2758. >”Or those video games you were so fond of.”
  2759. “Clichés and all.”
  2760. >”Anon. The beast growls in a low tone.”
  2761. “That’s how I know it isn’t the parasite. Steve isn’t that stereotypical.”
  2762. >”Maybe some of your mind rubbed off on him.”
  2763. “I only employ clichés to make a serious point.”
  2764. >”Well that’s the best joke you’ve ever told.”
  2765. “Bite me.”
  2766. >”I’ll remember that when I get my body back.”
  2767. “Alright… you said a day or two in the ravine?”
  2768. >”At a guess, maybe more.”
  2769. “Well, no time to lose. And Harv?”
  2770. >”Hmm?”
  2771. “Let’s see what you can do to this body…”

Heart of War- Prologue

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act I

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act II

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act III

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act IV

by ThingPaste