Wild Sky Yonder
Chapter 1: Uphill
Spitfire tumbled through the sky, wings flared out, scrambling to find purchase in the air and stabilize herself. She was in a bad way. She could feel burns and cuts across her back and there was a wrongness to her wing strokes that probably meant she was down a few primary flight feathers. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she might be missing some of her left ear. She tucked her right wing in, letting the drag spin her around to face her attacker.
The thing that was chasing her let out an angry squawk. It was a giant bird of some kind - a white raptor with a wingspan thrice her own and talons that cracked and blazed with tiny lightning bolts. Whatever it was, it wasn’t letting up: it tucked its wings and dove at her. She twisted herself around, narrowly avoiding its talons. Spinning, she snapped a kick at its midsection as it passed, whipped her head back around and snagged several of its tail feathers in her teeth. She spread her wings wide to brake herself, and the force of the bird’s dive pulled the feathers free with a satisfying rip. The bird screamed and flailed, disoriented by the pain and by the sudden loss of balance. As it struggled to regain control, Spitfire looked past it and made a grim discovery.
The treetops were too close. With her feathers in their current state, she didn’t even know if she could still fly -- and the trees weren’t going to give her long enough to find out. She beat her wings in a frantic attempt to slow her fall, curled her legs up under her body and squeezed her eyes shut. The sudden feeling of ice in her belly told her that she was going too fast; there would be no walking away from this one. She heard a sickening crunch and a pained cry as the bird-thing struck a tree. Tears filled her eyes.
Harmony console me, and receive me unto Thy care, in the name of the Sun and of the Moon and of your Eternal Servant, Celestia.
A voice startled Spitfire out of her silent prayer, cutting through the wind whipping by her ears.
“No! Wings in! I need you to pull them in so I can catch you!”
Her eyes snapped open. She folded her wings in close and craned her neck to look for the source of the mysterious voice. Another pegasus was just behind her, but with the sun in her eyes, Spitfire couldn’t make out any details. Within seconds the mystery pegasus had caught up with her. Four legs wrapped around her flanks and two powerful wings beat furiously. Their descent slowed. They began to pull out of the dive. For a moment it even seemed that they’d make it.
It was almost enough, but in the end they had simply run out of altitude. They crashed into the treetops, punching a ragged hole in the evergreen canopy. Spitfire took a pine bough in the chest and was torn from the embrace of her rescuer. She tried to tuck and roll and hit the ground on her back, protecting her feet and belly. She hit her head on a tree trunk and everything went black.
Spitfire lay on the forest floor, slipping in and out of consciousness. She saw a big white blot struggling to stand. she saw two other blots join it; one black, one red. They were upside down, standing on the ceiling. She giggled. They were talking, but she could only make out bits and pieces of it.
“---n’, what were you thin---”
“---led pulling a stunt like th---”
“---d’ve hit the ground ten ti---”
“---ying the hero? Are you al---”
“---d me, is she al---”
“---ack to base?”
It was getting harder and harder to listen to them. She was so tired. Spitfire felt herself floating gently through the air, the way it felt to nap on a fluffy white cloud on a breezy fall afternoon. She nuzzled the soft cloud and let it take her up and away.
Spitfire awoke face down on a bed in a dimly lit room. She tried to sit up but some sort of... something was holding her down. She grew frantic and struggled against her bonds.
“None of that, now. You’re going to need to keep those wings immobilized for at least a few more days while the grafts take.” An older stallion with a light tan coat and an IPSaR uniform came into her field of view. There was a glimmer of good cheer in his eyes and he wore a reassuring smile. “I know it’s bothersome but really, the more you struggle the longer you’ll be grounded. Be a good recruit and follow doctor’s orders.” The stallion, whoever he was, picked up a pen in his mouth and began taking notes.
Recruit? “Then I made it to Camp Solar?”
He raised his eyebrows and grunted, but said nothing.
“Who are you?”
“Who brought me here?”
“WHERE ARE WE!?”
He very calmly and meticulously closed her chart and replaced the pen, then fixed her with a disapproving stare. “Hmm, well before we address that issue I think I’d better ask a few standard questions just to make sure you’re all right.” The officer walked over to the window and drew back the curtain, gentle morning sunlight filled the room. “We’ll have to start at the beginning, I’m afraid. Can you tell me your name?
She groaned. It hurt to talk, it hurt to breathe, it hurt to think, too. And this uniformed ass wasn’t telling her anything. “Spitfire.”
“You’re a long way from Cloudsdale, Miss Spitfire. What brings you all the way out here?”
She gritted her teeth. “I don’t know. Maybe you ought to tell me where ‘here’ is.” She knew she was probably mouthing off at a superior officer. A tiny part of her knew it was a terrible idea but dammit, it hurt to be. She could be forgiven for losing her cool.
The stallion sighed, exasperated. “You have indeed reached Camp Solar, I’d have thought that much was obvious. Would you be so kind as to answer the question, so I can figure out if you’re brain-damaged or just rude?”
“I’m here to join the Corps, sir.”
“Indeed. I’m Captain Firelight -- or Doctor Firelight, if you prefer. I’d welcome you to the Corps but I suspect Captain Aurora will wish to do so personally. She’s giving the rest of your cohort the old tough mare act right now: ’Welcome to SAR, your flanks belong to me now, watch me be gruff and intimidating and say things that’ll terrify you so you know that you’re not in Junior Flight Camp anymore,’ that kind of thing. It’s an Induction Day tradition, she really gets a kick out of it. Especially since most of the recruits have spent the last few days playing grab-flank and cavorting around at the Corps’ expense.”
Spitfire groaned. “I’m missing the first day of basic training? I thought that wasn’t until tomorrow.”
”And just what day is today, little lady?”
“Hmm. Monday, actually. Still, seems you’re thinking clearly enough overall. You’ve been out for about eighteen hours. Based on the somewhat scattered and excited reports I got from your flight team, it seems you had a bit of a tussle with a thunderbird yesterday. You were extraordinarily lucky that they arrived when they did -- that anyone found you was miraculous, that it would be the other cadets assigned to your flight team simply beggars belief. They carried you here, I found your orders in your satchel - technically you reported for training on time. Unfit for duty, but on time nonetheless. Latecomers get turned away, you know, so you really should thank them when you get a chance. Particularly your wingmate; Cadet Soarin’ all but refused to leave your side yesterday, and had to be ordered back to quarters.” Firelight turned, looked at the clock and sighed. “Cadet Spitfire, I’m glad that you’re awake and I’m delighted that you’re not a vegetable but I do have other duties to perform. One of the corpsmen will be along presently to fit you with a smaller, portable wing restraint. I’ll see to it he brings you a meal and I’ll summon a sergeant to see you to your quarters. should you need anything else there is a bell on the night stand. And do remember that the more you move your wings the longer you’ll be grounded.” With that he hurried out of the room.
The door slammed shut
Spitfire was left alone with her thoughts. She wished they’d leave her be. Every time she let her mind wander, she heard her uncle’s voice. His hateful, drunken, slurred voice, saying, “Yer parents’d be ‘shamed, they could see you now. That there on yer rump, it’sh no cutie mark, thems’ for talents: thingsh that adds beauty to the world. Fightin’ ain’t no special talent. Fightin’s an ugly thing t’be good at, so that there’s an ugly mark. Oughta honor the memory of my dear sweet sister ‘n’ cut it offa ya.” She’d left that very instant, gathered up every bit she could sneak off with, spent the night on a lone cloud above town and gone to the recruiting station first thing in the morning.
An orderly arrived with her breakfast and what looked like some sort of bizarre bondage harness. The scent of food highlighted the fact that she hadn’t eaten in more than a day and she fell on the food ravenously, pausing only occasionally to wince or cry out while the medic got her strapped into the restraints. By the end of it her wings hurt so much she could hardly think straight. After a time -- could have been five minutes, could have been an hour, it was hard to tell -- another stallion appeared. This one was charcoal-gray with a white mane, a uniform that identified him as Sergeant Thunderhead, and a smile that identified him as way too friendly to be a sergeant. He was also carrying her satchel.
“Cadet Spitfire! Welcome to the Corps! Ready to show us what you’re made of, soldier?”
Spitfire shrugged, drawing attention to the ridiculous contraption holding her wings up. “Absolutely, sir! Right now I’m made of bruises and pain and I’m wearing some kind of fetish torture suit! Hopefully I’ll be made of something more impressive by next week. Doctor Captain Firelight told me that Captain Aurora would want to see me?”
Thunderhead grinned conspiratorially. “Oh she’s busy leading your classmates on a wild goose chase -- I mean ‘training maneuvers.’ I just pulled the Unlucky Sergeant statue out of storage -- seems there’s a cockatrice on the loose, and it’s gone and turned me to stone!”
Spitfire managed a look of mock alarm. “Oh my heavens! How terrible!” They both laughed, though Spitfire cut off quickly. “Oh Harmony it hurts to laugh. Please, sir, no more funny.”
“Oh, fine. Up with you, then. It’s time we re-settled you into the dorms.”
She crawled off the bed and limped to the door. She summoned up her best have-pity look. “Please, go slow.”
Thunderhead laughed. “Don’t worry kiddo, we’ll get you there in one piece.” His voice became stern, “By the way, kid, I heard you having it out with Firelight. I like your spirit: not many raw recruits have the guts to go hoof to hoof with their officers, but the ones who do need to learn when they can’t. When we’re on duty I’m your superior, not your friend. Give me any lip when I’m giving orders and you will find yourself on the long road home. And I’m miles more lenient than the likes of Firelight. Got it?”
Spitfire hung her head. “Sorry sir.”
He grinned and pitched his voice up in a passable imitation of the doctor. “Cadet Spitfire, even a lack-wit like you should recognize that your response is insufficient to the question.” She grinned back.
“Sir yes sir! I got it sir! Absolutely sir!”
It took nearly twenty minutes for the two of them to exit the infirmary - each step on the three flights of stairs had been an ordeal, but by the end of it she’d become accustomed to the aches, and figured out how to work around the pain. They crossed a green parade ground, hemmed in by ancient military buildings. Beyond them, snow-capped mountains dominated the skyline.
“All right, listen up; this is the condensed version of the welcome speech. Welcome to Camp Solar, welcome to the Corps. Contrary to what you’ve heard, we don’t have delusions that we’re soldiers from the bad old days. This is good for you, because if it was the old days we’d push you ten times as hard and break you inside of a week. Good for me, too: the ancient Corps was a mares-only outfit. But just because we’re Search/Rescue now and not Strike/Recon doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn discipline, so get used to the idea following orders immediately and without question.”
“This base is enormous. It’s a relic from another era when the Corps was a fighting machine ten-thousand strong. All but four of the buildings are off-limits to you: the dormitory, the mess, the infirmary, and the armory.” He pointed them out to her in turn. “Going anywhere else on base, except under orders, is a great way to wash out of IPSaR. Other fun ways to wash out include leaving the base, disobeying a direct order, being miserably incompetent at any one of the four prime disciplines, and getting caught rutting a squadmate. There’ll be plenty of time for your love life after training.” He glanced over and saw that she was blushing fiercely. A wicked smile appeared on his face. “Of course, that last one’s probably the most fun, so if you decide you’ve had it with the Corps and want out, grab somepony to your liking and go for it. Preferably right here on the parade grounds. At noon.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. Her mouth hung open in mortified disbelief. He laughed. “Lesson one: I’m never going to let you stay safe and cozy inside your comfort zone. We’ll be teaching you to get past your personal hang-ups, and weeding out the ones who can’t. You’re already doing a great job overcoming pain, and you held your ground against a thunderbird -- and with Firelight -- so I doubt we have to worry about fear. But there are other distractions. You can’t afford to let any of them get you. More importantly, the people you’re going to be searching for and/or rescuing can’t afford it.”
She shot him a dubious look.
He sighed. “Let me tell you a story, kid. My first rescue, somepony fell into an open vat at a waste-processing center. I had to swim in a tub of fermenting manure to pull her out. It remains the worst thing I’ve ever had to do, but do you know what would have been worse?” He looked her in the eye. She shook her head. “Telling her family that mama drowned in shit because her situation was too icky for me.”
“Y-- yes sir.”
Thunderhead led her into the dormitory. “Anypony give you your squad assignment yet?”
She shook her head. “You’re the second person I’ve spoken too, and Captain Doctor Firelight didn’t tell me.”
“Right. You’re assigned to Northwing Squadron. Because we’re so very creative here, that means your room is in the north wing of the dormitory. You’re Northwing Seven, which means you’ll be in room N2-2 along with Eight. It also means you should be prepared to answer to ‘Seven.’ Chances are good you’ll be called by a nickname or by your number more often than your name. It’s kind of a Corps tradition.” He slowly led her up a flight of stairs to her door and deposited her satchel on the floor. “Five and Six are next door in 2-1, they make up the rest of B Flight. Technically you’ve already met, but you were taking a little nap at the time. Get to know them. Trust them and make sure they can trust you. Tightly knit teams of four are the core of the Corps.”
She ignored the rapid-fire rhyme. “So Eight is my wingmate? Firelight said her name was... Soarin’?”
Thunderhead’s lip twitched, like he was trying to hide a grin. “That’s right.”
“Do you know her?”
“Pretty well, yeah.”
“Is she nice?”
Now he was clearly trying not to laugh. “Oh yeah, she’s a real sweetheart. I’ll see to it that your friends know you’re here. They’ll be along shortly.” The sergeant retreated. She heard him laughing in the stairwell. What did that mean? Maybe Soarin’ was a real bitch. That’d be just her luck.
Spitfire busied herself unpacking and arranging her things, then re-arranging them. Then un-re-arranging them. Anything to keep her too busy to think about home or worry about meeting the rest of B Flight. There wasn’t much. Three new cadet uniforms that had been waiting for her on the bed. She unfolded one to have a look. It was beige with red trim, festooned with pockets, and marked with a big red 7 on the flanks. She’d have to do without these for a while, there was no way to get one on around her restraint. There were goggles to go with the uniform, a small coin purse with about a dozen bits left in it, a few little snacks left over from her travel provisions, a journal she’d kept for as long as she could write.
The last item gave her pause: an ornate canteen with a compass set into the lid. She smiled sadly as she remembered that last birthday when her father had still been around. Opening her presents, hearing Dad say “I can’t say I understand why you like traipsing about on hoof in the forest so much, but it seems to make you happy. Please keep that with you so I’ll know you’re not lost... or thirsty.” A tear fell from her eye as she savored the memory of that last hug, of his deep, musical laugh. She set the canteen in a place of honor on the little desk and for the first time caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She winced.
Have to face myself sooner or later.
The reflection that greeted her was every bit as ugly as the picture painted by her uncle’s tirades. Her wings were a riot of color. A full eight or nine of her primary flight feathers had been replaced with mismatched donors, these were the grafts Firelight had mentioned. She’d been expecting that: even before her tumble through the trees that damned bird had damaged a few of them. Young pegasi molted often, and her wings would be yellow and whole again within three months -- less than half that time with some magical help -- but in the meantime she’d have to be careful. Grafts weren’t quite as durable as her own feathers would be.
There was a cut under one eye, and the medical staff had shaved a small patch of her coat to stitch it shut. She saw several similar bare patches on her flanks. That same eye was bruised and blackened, and the white was blotched with red. Her left ear had been split, and it too was shorn and sewn up. Her forelegs were a mass of bruises from her withers to her fetlocks. Under the wing restraints, a long white bandage ran the entire length of her back. She looked like death warmed over.
She tried to keep her spirits up by counting the positives. Both eyes still work. I still have all of my teeth. I don’t have any broken bones or split hooves. I thought I’d be missing an ear. It hurts bad and it looks bad, but I’m in much better shape than I had any right to expect. The captain had been telling the truth: she was lucky. None of the damage would hold her back for long, and she already had proof that her flightmates would put themselves in harm’s way for her sake. She sighed and smiled at the mare in the mirror. She had really done it. She’d gotten away from Cloudsdale, flown hundreds of miles across a hostile unbound forest, gotten into and out of trouble a dozen times along the way. And she’d made it -- with a little help from three friends she didn’t even know she had. Things weren’t really so bad, and they had to go uphill from here.
Chapter 2 finds Spitfire making friends and facing her own insecurities while her injuries keep her grounded.
Wild Sky Yonder
Chapter 2: Downtime
Spitfire paced around her little room.
Her nerves were fried.
Her self-confidence was evaporating.
That damned clock wasn’t helping. It mocked her, waving its little legs around in jaunty, jerky circles, cheerily reminding her that it’d been over an hour since she’d been told to wait here for B Flight.
An hour ago she’d been excited: a fresh start, new friends, a second chance at being normal. Since then the clock’s malicious magic had turned excitement to anxiety. She wasn’t normal. She never would be.
You’re going to drive them away, the little clock said, just like the others. Tick... tick... tick.
Sooner or later she would get in another fight.
She’d hurt somepony. Again.
It was bound to happen.
They’d see what a dangerous freak she was. They’d shun her, or leave, or send her away. Just like the others.
Gah!! She scrambled onto Soarin’s desk, yanked the clock off of the wall and threw it across the room. It landed on her pillow, which muffled the ticking. She sagged in relief. Then she realized where she was standing.
What was Sergeant Thunderhead laughing about?
She frowned at the desk beneath her. What could possibly make the phrase “she’s a real sweetheart” funny? She’d considered a few possibilities in her head. None of them were appealing. What sort of pony would she be living with for the next twelve weeks? Would they get along? It was enough to inspire an entirely new round of worry.
Maybe just a peek.
In her head, curiosity and fear were locked in a knock-down, drag-out brawl with respect and loyalty. Respect and loyalty got their clocks cleaned. She started rummaging around in the drawers. There wasn’t much: pens and an inkwell, a few pulp novels and a stash of pistachios. At the bottom of the deepest drawer was a flat wedge wrapped in wax paper. It smelled like cherries.
Is that... a slice of pie?
Beneath the pie was a small brown book with a strap securing the cover. Her eyes flickered back toward her own desk; it was nearly identical to the journal she’d brought from home. She paused and the melee in her head threatened to begin again. On one hoof, here was everything she was looking for: if it was Soarin’s journal she’d surely be able to glean something about her wingmate’s personality. On the other, this would be a serious breach of trust. She stood there, chewing her lower lip. Long ago she’d caught a friend reading her journal. They’d stopped being friends. She closed the drawers.
The door burst open and an ice-blue stallion with a ragged navy mane skidded into the room. His chest heaved; he looked like he’d run up the stairs.
“Hey Seven! Red packed a picnic, and the others are gonna come back from their ‘trice hunt soon, and I thought it’d be fun to head up to the roof and watch! C’mon!”
If he thought it was at all strange that she was standing on a desk, he didn’t show it. Spitfire climbed down and headed for the door.
“Sounds like... fun?”
“Yeah!” The excitable blue stallion held the door for her, then followed her to the stairwell. She turned to go upstairs.
“No, Seven, the stairs don’t go to the roof. We gotta go down and then... fly...”
He looked at her immobile wings, then wilted and studied his hooves.
“Oh... right. Sorry, Seven.”
She forced a reassuring smile.
“It’s fine, really. Is there another way up?”
He thought about it, tapping his hooves while the wheels turned in his head.
“I’ll carry you!”
That took her off guard. Still, he looked so earnest and she was desperate to get along with her teammates. She swallowed her pride and followed him down.
“Okay, just this once...”
Spitfire froze. There was a red 8 on the flank of the big blue stallion’s uniform.
Spitfire’s mind raced, icy panic welled up inside her. Was this a joke? Was it a mistake? Should she have known to expect this? After the accident and the fights she hadn’t had the luxury of a normal adolescence. The only stallions she’d ever spent any time alone with were family members.
She didn’t know much about life in the Corps, but she’d always been a fan of the Wonderbolts. She remembered a show she’d seen as a filly, during the duet sequence the announcer said a piece about a flier needing complete trust in her wingmate. They needed to know each other’s abilities, limitations, thoughts, fears... “better than a married couple,” the announcer said. In fact, those two performers had been married.
Suddenly life had dropped this stallion into her path. She needed to live with him. Trust him. Open up to him. Know the ins and outs of Soarin’ as well as she knew herself, and he needed the same from her, for the next twelve weeks and possibly even for years beyond that. It was a tall order for a young mare who’d grown so used to being alone, who’d never even dated. Deep inside, a tiny part of her found the idea of being that close to him -- to anypony -- seductive. The rest of her was thoroughly terrified.
As Soarin’ alighted on the rooftop Spitfire shoved those thoughts aside. She couldn’t deal with them right now, not with two more comrades to meet.
On the bright side, I know what the sergeant was laughing about. Heck, maybe he is a real sweetheart.
That thought was worth a weak smile.
Two other ponies waited on the roof, their uniforms marked with a 5 and a 6. Six’s coat was bright red, her mane a soft peach that darkened with length, like Spitfire’s mane in pastel. Five was a midnight blue stallion with a pale blue mane. Both ponies hopped up to greet them. There was a mischievous gleam in Six’s eyes, though when she got a good look at Spitfire the mischief fled, replaced by concern. Spitfire could almost feel the pity in her stare, starting at the split ear, drifting down to the bloodied eye, over the cuts, bare patches and bruises, and finally to the ugly, awful harness that bound her wings.
“Oh, honey, you’re red as a beet! Are you sure you should be up? Soarin’! You shouldn’t have dragged her out of bed.”
Spitfire tried desperately to keep the anxiety out of her voice. “Oh no, I’ll be fine. It looks a lot worse than it is. I’m glad to be outside.” She turned toward her wingmate. “Thanks for the lift, Soarin’.”
The stallion beamed. Six persisted. “Are you sure, hon? You look flushed.” She touched Spiftire’s forehead, checking for a fever. When she didn’t feel one, her green eyes twinkled with mirth. Her mouth turned up in a lascivious grin and she flicked her eyes at Soarin’ in an unspoken question. Spitfire’s eyes widened. She bit her lip and flushed a deeper shade of red.
“Oh, I see. Lucky Seven didn’t realize she was going to be sharing a room with such a big, beautiful stallion. I have terrible news for you, Seven: camp rules say you can look but you can’t touch.”
Spitfire stammered, “No! it’s... I mean, I knew that already. The sergeant, he said -- but...”
“I know just what you’re thinking: but did he mean don’t do it or don’t get caught?” She batted her eyes at her wingmate and heaved an exaggerated sigh. “I’ve been pondering that one myself”
“No, it’s not anything like that!”
Six flashed her a knowing smile. “Really, hon, there’s no sense denying it. I watched you nuzzle his mane all the way back to base yesterday.”
Spitfire shrank and looked up at her wingmate, forcing a nervous grin. “Sorry about that. I thought you were a cloud.”
The dark blue stallion joined the conversation. “Oh, no need to apologize. Soarin’ enjoyed it. I could tell.”
Six giggled. Soarin’ blushed and turned away.
“Not cool, bro.”
Six gave an unhappy tsk. “Where are my manners? Seven, this is Stargazer, and I suppose I don’t need to introduce you to his brother Soarin’. My name’s Scarlet Sunrise, but please call me Red.”
Spitfire pushed down her embarrassment long enough to introduce herself, then B Flight gathered around the picnic basket.
She took a moment to appreciate the scenery. The dormitory was one of the tallest buildings in the camp, and the view from the roof was spectacular. The base sat atop a small rise in a wide mountain valley, surrounded on three sides by rocky, snow capped peaks extending thousands of feet above the carpet of evergreens that covered the lower slopes and the rest of the valley. To the north a blue-white glacier flowed between two mountains. From the toe of the glacier melting ice mixed with silt to form a slender ribbon of milky blue-green water that twisted and wound its way down a too-wide riverbed and emptied into a placid turquoise lake. On the shore of the lake lay the hamlet of Glimmervale: one of the only pegasus settlements on solid ground and one of the only pony settlements outside of the Bounded Lands, where Harmony’s influence gave ponies complete control over the weather. The bulk of Camp Solar lay to the immediate south, an orderly orchard of blocky stone buildings. Further to the south lay the valley’s entrance, where she’d made her rough landing yesterday.
She took a seat and accepted a sandwich from Red.
“So what is a ‘trice hunt’? And if it’s a training exercise, why aren’t you on it? I mean, I’m glad I’m up here and not having a staring contest with the clock anymore, but shouldn’t you be with the others?”
Stargazer grinned. “Right after the captain finishes her welcome speech, an officer rushes in and announces that somepony’s been turned to stone right here in camp. The sergeants scramble the new recruits to hunt down the cockatrice. It’s an impromptu exercise to evaluate the newbies. In any other recruit class B-Flight would participate in the hunt under the captain’s supervision, but we’re kind of a special case.”
Soarin’ nodded. Around a mouthful of bread and daisies he added, “We were at the dinner table years ago when T-Bone invented this gag. We even saved up our allowance to help him buy the statue.”
Spitfire looked at the statue, tipped onto its side in the middle of the parade ground. She couldn’t make out much detail from here. She frowned in confusion.
“What’s a T-Bone?”
Stargazer chuckled, “Sergeant Thunderhead. When we were little, we called him Thunder-Bonehead. It, ah, seemed a lot funnier when we were kids. Anyway, since we know that lump of stone isn’t our brother, and he doesn’t need the exercise to evaluate our skills, we were allowed to stay behind. Red didn’t really have a good reason to skip, she just got lucky.”
Red nudged her wingmate. “Did not. Camp rules, remember?”
Soarin’ stood and pointed off to the northeast. “Hey, here they come!”
The other three stood and walked to the roof’s edge. A disorganized mass of several dozen pegasi crested a hill and soared low over the village. Soarin’ gingerly tapped Spitfire on the shoulder and pointed behind the armory. Sergeant Thunderhead was there, out of uniform. Another pegasus was helping him coat himself with a fine white powder.
A small green and white creature flew out from the pack of pegasi, stopping abruptly and coming to rest on the head of the statue. Spitfire yelped and hit the deck.
“I didn’t think there’d be a real cockatrice!!”
The rest of B Flight chuckled.
“There isn’t,” said Red.
“That one’s a stuffed animal,” said Soarin’.
Stargazer helped her back to her feet. “It’s something new this year. Our sister‘s quite the little magician: she cast a ‘Come to Life’ spell on it.”
Spitfire wrinkled her brow. “She cast a... Oh, your sister’s a unicorn?”
“Yeah. So’s Dad.”
“And Soarin’s your brother, and so is the sergeant? Big family.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” He pointed back toward the flock of cadets. They were over the camp now. “Shhh.”
The mass of fliers landed at the periphery of the parade ground. Dozens of cadets in their beige uniforms, each with trim and a number in red, green, blue, or gold, crept toward the dreaded cockatrice. None of them dared to open their eyes any wider than a crack --and as a result none of them noticed the training officers breaking off from the group to gather at the other end of the grounds.
Two cadets, fellow members of Northwing by the red numerals 1 and 2 on their flanks, surged ahead, loping off to either side of the statue. When they had the beast successfully flanked, Red Two yelled out, “GET ‘IM, ONE!”
Red One pounced, snatching the stuffed toy off of the statue’s head and pinning it to the ground, his eyes still securely closed. When he felt the give of its soft and squishy body, he opened his eyes. Cocky satisfaction turned to confusion, and then irritation. Around the yard, other cadets cracked an eye and saw the big white stallion astride a child’s toy. A nervous titter spread around the crowd.
At that moment, a ghost-white Thunderhead zoomed in, riding a small black cloud. He circled the pack of cadets at high speed, stomping on the cloud now and then to release a lightning bolt which would discharge harmlessly into a rod atop one of the buildings. When the little cloud’s lightning was spent, he leapt down and landed beside the statue, glaring at the assembled pegasi.
“Cadets! Thy laxity and foolishness have allowed the real cockatrice to escape! I am doomed to an eternity of suffering while my body crumbles in the wind and the rain! KNOW MY VENGEANCE!”
The cadets froze, their faces a group portrait of fear and confusion. A few of the sharper ones wore wry smiles. For a long, frozen moment nopony moved, then the officers started laughing. One of them grabbed the little cloud and made it rain over Thunderhead, washing him clean. He doubled over and began to laugh.
“All right, recruits, exercise over. Break down by flights for a debriefing.” He raised his voice, “And maybe the three active members of B Flight should come explain to me why they were standing on a roof in a lightning storm!” Two of the bolts had discharged into the dormitory's lightning rod during the display, too close for comfort.
Red and Stargazer offered apologetic looks and took off for the parade ground. Soarin’ hesitated. “I should get you down first.”
Spitfire shook her head. “Go on, duty calls. You know where to find me when you’re done -- I promise not to go anywhere.”
He nodded and followed the others.
Spitfire watched from the roof as eleven flights of four cadets, plus her three friends, each met separately with an instructor. Each group was in animated conversation as the instructors deconstructed their students’ actions in the impromptu exercise. Now and then a cadet swelled with pride. Twice as often a cadet withered under criticism. B Flight was getting a dressing-down for putting themselves in harm’s way to watch the show. Things were particularly animated at A Flight, which included the two beast-slaying heroes. Red One was irate, and traded heated words with his training officer.
“Northwing Seven! Who is responsible for stranding you up here?”
Spitfire jumped. She’d been so focused on the goings-on below that she hadn’t noticed anyone approaching. Turning, she saw an iridescent white mare in a captain’s uniform. She snapped to attention.
“C-- Captain Aurora?”
The old mare nodded, waiting expectantly for an answer.
“I suppose... I stranded myself, ma’am.”
Aurora strode up to her, pointedly examining her immobilized wings. She stopped with her scowling face just inches from Spitfire’s. “Do not lie to me, cadet.”
Spitfire shrank, her voice grew frantic. “No, ma’am! It’s true: Soarin’, Eight, he offered to take me down. I told him not to keep the sergeant waiting. That means it’s my fault I’m stuck up here.”
The captain’s scowl softened. She backed up and gave a small sigh of relief. “I worry about those boys, always charging off, never stopping to think...”
Spitfire stared blankly at the captain. That comment was awfully personal for an officer discussing raw recruits. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, I’m really glad they charged in after me yesterday.”
The captain offered the barest hint of a smile. “So am I, cadet. So am I.” She straightened up and her face grew stern once again.
“At any rate, make sure they don’t forget about you.”
“Follow the doctor’s orders. I want you back in the air posthaste.”
Spitfire nodded again, “So do I, ma’am.”
“Tell my sons not to leave any more pretty girls stranded on rooftops.”
Spitfire’s mouth dropped open. The captain spread her wings and took flight. Stargazer’s earlier comment echoed in her head: You don’t know the half of it.
Soarin’ returned before long and carried her back down to the ground. Other recruits whistled and cat-called. Red had a familiar look on her face.
“Seven! What’s that, your third flight on the Soarin’ Express in two days!? I usually make ‘em wait ‘til at least the third date. Well, second... usually. But still! Scandalous.”
Spitfire clambered down and laughed nervously. Her face turned almost as red as Red’s. She scrambled to find a response. Stargazer saved her the trouble.
“Red, she was sitting on his back. If that could possibly be something intimate, I’d like to see how.” By the look in his eyes, he realized as he was speaking that it had come out wrong.
Red turned to him in mock disgust. “Stargazer! You’d like to watch your own brother rut his wingmate? For shame!”
Soarin’ grinned, relieved that the attention had shifted away from him. “Yeah, bro. That’s gross.”
Spitfire faced a decision: she could keep on being mortified, possibly for the rest of training if Red was like this all the time, or she could turn around and fly with the current.
When in Roam, do as the Buffalo do.
She tried to calm her shaky nerves. In a small voice, she said, “What he really wants to do is join in. Sorry, boys: look but don’t touch. Camp rules.”
As one the other three turned to look at her, mouths hanging open. For a moment she thought she’d made a terrible mistake -- then they all burst into laughter. Red actually fell over. The laughter soothed away some of her anxiety. Not all of it, but enough.
The cadets were ordered back into the dormitory, where they assembled in the first floor classrooms for instruction. Monday’s session was an introduction to surviving in an unbound environment: how to find safe water to drink, how to harvest the inner bark of a pine tree for food, how to identify and avoid the nests of dangerous predators.
Spitfire had never been a particularly good student, but she was delighted to find herself engaged and interested. Her mother had loved to take her camping in Whitetail Wood and they had always enjoyed spotting animal dens together. The instructor was talking about manticore lairs and cockatrice nests rather than beaver dams, but it was the same in principle.
When class ended the cadets in the other eleven flights dashed off to the mess for dinner. Red took one look at Spitfire and sent her to bed, promising that she and Stargazer would bring dinner and they’d repeat their picnic in her room. Soarin’ accompanied her upstairs.
In the room, Spitfire flopped onto her bed. She landed on the clock and winced. She sheepishly picked it up, clambered up onto Soarin’s desk, and put it back on the wall where it belonged. As before, if Soarin’ found any of this strange he didn’t let on. He stood by his bed and peeled off his uniform.
Thunderhead’s face appeared in the doorway. He held a letter in his teeth.
“Feven. ‘Nfirmry firf fing t’mrrow. Dctr’s rdrs.”
Spitfire took the paper from him and set it on her desk. She looked it over.
“Got it. Infirmary every morning ‘til I’m not grounded anymore.”
The sergeant loitered in the doorway, an impish smirk creeping onto his face. He nodded at his little brother.
“Getting along with your wingmate, Seven?”
Spitfire tensed, remembering the anxiety, shock, and embarrassment she’d suffered as a result of his little joke. She glared at him. She tried to think of a biting comeback.
She couldn’t come up with anything. “Yes... sir.”
“Told you she was nice.” He laughed and turned to leave.
Soarin’ joined her by the door. “I know that smile.” There was a sympathetic, long-suffering tone in his voice. “What’d he do?”
Spitfire slumped. “Oh... the doctor mentioned your name. I assumed room assignments would be by gender.” She turned her face aside to hide her embarrassment. “When the sergeant said I’d be sharing this room with Eight I asked, ‘is she nice?’”
He chuckled. “Bet he had fun with that.”
“His exact words were ‘she’s a real sweetheart.’ Then he took off, laughing all the way down the stairs... I spent the next hour trying to figure out why that was funny. And arguing with the clock.”
“I wondered about that. Didn’t want to say anything. ‘Sides, looked like you won the argument.”
“Soarin’... it is weird, right? To mix up the sexes like this? It’s not just me with a goofy hang-up?”
He shrugged. “T-Bone says there’s a rule from all the way back when the Corps started allowing stallions that we can’t get any special treatment: we have to pass the same fitness tests, and we had to live, train, and fight alongside our sisters. Separate rooms would be special treatment or something.”
Put that way it almost made sense. She relaxed just a bit. She turned back toward him. What she saw startled her: Soarin’s legs and chest were almost as badly bruised as her own. She paled.
“I’m so sorry, that’s all my fault.”
He examined himself in the mirror. “Nah. I chose to dive in after you, then I steered us into the trees. These are my fault.”
An awkward silence ensued. Spitfire’s mind was abuzz with questions, thoughts, ways to say thank you. None of them seemed sufficient. She trudged back to her bed. In a soft voice she asked, “Why’d you do it?”
He shrugged. “Because I had to. You needed help. Nopony else was there, and I’m stronger than Red or Stargazer.”
“That’s it? ‘She needs help, so here I go? Even if it kills me?’”
“Well... yeah. Guess I didn’t think of it that way at the time. Didn’t think much at all, really”
She hung her head and her eyes filled with tears.
Always charging off, never stopping to think...
Every one of those bruises should be on me, not you. I should be dead, alone in the forest, nopony knowing whether I ran off or chickened out or didn’t make it...
Before Soarin’ could respond Red blew in like a whirlwind, talking and laughing and handing out plates. Sptifire wrinkled her nose. She’d always hated dandelion salad. Red laughed until she couldn’t breathe when Spitfire passed Aurora’s message along to the boys. Soarin’ and Stargazer told stories about growing up with Thunderhead and Red talked about her family back in Bitsburgh. Spitfire mainly listened. Lonely though she was, she wasn’t ready to open up and risk being hurt again.
The four ponies talked and laughed until lights out. Soarin’ was asleep the instant his head hit his pillow, and Spitfire felt a little bit silly for worrying about sharing his room. She still felt that knot of panic, deep down, but it was getting easier to ignore by the hour. She laid down, cursing the uncomfortable harness on her back, and fell asleep.
The next morning Spitfire arrived at the infirmary in a foul mood. Forty-seven recruits flipped, hovered, and darted across the sky above her and she longed to join them. When she arrived in the examination room she headed straight to the window and sulked, trying to spot B Flight in the aerial chaos.
“Onto the examination table if you please Miss Spitfire.”
Firelight entered, his eyes projecting irritation and impatience. When she had done as directed he approached and examined her wings. He prodded at some of her bruises and at her grafted feathers. She let out a wince or a gasp each time. Through it all she continued to give her attention to the window.
“You were instructed not to remove or adjust this harness Why did you do so?”
“I did not remove it, sir.” Her frown deepened. She hadn’t touched it. What was this about?
“I am quite certain that it is loose right now. I am equally confident that my assistant put it on correctly yesterday. I can only conclude that you removed or loosened it. Do not do so again.” He pulled the straps tighter. She bit back a cry.
“But I-” she stopped herself. She’d snapped at him yesterday, and Sergeant Thunderhead had described him as not lenient. She couldn’t let it happen again. “Yes sir.”
“Hmph. You remain grounded. Return tomorrow.”
With that, the sum total of her duties for Tuesday morning were over. She returned to the parade ground. When she could no longer stand to watch her comrades carry on without her, she retreated to her room. She borrowed a pen from Soarin’s desk to write in her journal.
Things didn’t get any better when morning exercises ended. The trainers had run the cadets ragged, and B Flight was too tired for merriment. Even the afternoon’s classroom session seemed less interesting, though Spitfire admitted to herself that her own attitude was probably to blame. A late dinner followed by an early turn-in ended a boring, dreary day.
If anything, Wednesday was worse. It was an exact repeat of Tuesday except the harness was already tight when Firelight yanked it tighter, she had nothing new to write about, and she was already bored. As she watched the recruits practice, she realized that they were already working on basic formation flying. When she finally rejoined them she’d be significantly behind.
That night after lights out she laid awake in bed; too much downtime and not enough exercise left her plenty of energy for worrying. She was falling behind the other cadets. She decided there must be a point where she was too far behind and they’d wash her out. Each day grounded took her closer to that point and if she got there she’d have to go home, or find somewhere else. Her fate was in the doctor’s hooves and he was suddenly hostile. Sleep did not come easily that night, and in the darkness and silence she imagined herself stripped of her uniform and marched off the base, again and again and again.
Thursday brought yet another unjust accusation and rough handling at the infirmary. Spitfire had no idea how or when she’d so offended Firelight, but the mercurial doctor had made it clear that he did not like her. Her wings felt fine, apart from the aching and stiffness of being locked into the harness. She feared that he was intentionally keeping her grounded to be rid of her.
As she returned across the parade ground, she made a decision: if she returned to her room she’d worry herself sick. She couldn’t go back there just yet. She looked around. The mess was closed outside of meal times. The dormitory and infirmary were enemy territory. Staying on the parade ground meant watching the other cadets train without her. Technically the armory wasn’t off-limits to her. It might just be a boring, empty building but at least it was something new.
It was dim inside the armory. She fumbled around for a light switch. The one she found didn’t work. The doors on the first floor were all closed and locked. In the stairwell a gate blocked access to the basement. It was sealed shut with a massive padlock. Up she went.
What she found on the second floor took her off guard.
Most of the floor was a single, open space filled with rows of display cases holding ancient weapons and armor, portraits of leaders and heroes long dead, dioramas of ancient battles, books on display stands opened to significant passages, all accompanied by placards describing their significance. She’d stumbled into a museum.
She wandered the aisles, puzzling over the artifacts, gawking at the battle scenes, occasionally even glancing at the histories. The early battles pitted armored pegasi against other ponies, later ones involved griffons, hordes of beasts, once or twice pegasus had fought pegasus. Invariably the pegasi wore dark armor and carried a straight blade strapped to each front hoof.
One diorama in particular drew her attention, though she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It seemed to be upside down: the bottom of the display was lined with clouds in a variety of strange colors. At the top floated a small chunk of grass-covered land. Amidst it all, armored pegasi floated at odd angles, few facing in the same direction as those around them. Some had extra wings. One appeared to be wearing lobsters instead of armor. In the center floated a giant pie, upon which a strange creature lounged on a sofa surrounded by dancing buffalo. The placard read “REIGN OF CHAOS”.
From the museum’s entrance a song began to play on a scratchy phonograph. Spitfire turned. Doctor Firelight stood near the machine’s horn, eyes closed, listening to the music -- an old-timey instrumental march of some kind.
“Stirring, isn’t it?”
Spitfire tensed and looked around. Unfortunately there wasn’t anyone else he could be talking to. Her only chance was to appease the old goat. She paid attention to the music for a moment; it wasn’t bad for a stuffy old march.
“It’s the old battle march of the Corps. I’ve not been able to find a recording with lyrics intact, and even if I had one I’m afraid the words are simply too... brutal for these enlightened times. Still, a shame that it is lost. So much is lost.”
The old stallion chuckled. “Best not to let me go down that road, we’d be here for weeks. Tell me, cadet. Are you a student of history?”
Spitfire squirmed under the attention of the prissy, short-tempered officer. “Not especially, sir. I - I recognize that name from the Hearth’s Warming legend.” She pointed to a portrait at the end of the aisle.
“Yes, don’t we all. Commander Hurricane, last of the Weather Lords of Pegasoniki. Last duly appointed Supreme Commander of the Corps before our present sovereign. You surprise me, cadet. You seem to be enjoying my little museum. You claim only a modest knowledge of history? Perhaps this is so, but you show an appreciation for it that few young ponies can muster. Lack of knowledge is often easily remedied. Lack of respect rarely so.”
“Your museum, sir?”
“Indeed. Not long ago these texts and artifacts were below ground, in the armory vaults. Some of them were beginning to decay quite badly. Note the rust on the suit of armor to your left -- Hurricane’s own armor, if the old records are accurate. I asked, and received, permission to remove items of historical significance to this space, which was vacant at the time. Everything you see here was arranged by these hooves.” He preened a bit. Spitfire thought he sort of deserved to.
“It’s very impressive, sir. Is it the whole history of the Corps?”
The smile she received was patronizing rather than warm. “Not entirely, my dear. I believe I was just saying that everything here was retrieved quite recently from the vaults. This means of course that all of it dates to the time Strike and Reconnaissance was dismantled and Search and Rescue was born. I’ve not yet attempted to cover the six centuries since that time. No, this museum is dedicated to the days when we were soldiers. From the time we began as little better than thugs and enforcers for the Weather Lords, through the Interregnum at the founding of Equestria, the Reign of Chaos, when the Corps re-formed as an insurgent group -- perhaps our finest hour, that -- to the day when the princess declared that peace and Harmony were eternal, and soldiers were... obsolete.”
Spitfire turned back to the REIGN OF CHAOS display. “This? This was our ‘finest hour?’”
“Believe it or not, yes. Perhaps that is a story for another time. For now, come here.”
She approached, trying to keep the nervousness out of her eyes. He grasped one of her grafted feathers and wiggled it a bit. She did her best not to flinch. A thoughtful look crossed his face. He removed her wing restraints.
“You are not to attempt even short flights until tomorrow. Saturday would be better. You are still unfit for strenuous flight: no training exercises for another week, I’m afraid. Stretch every few hours or so, meal times will do nicely. As you have no duties to attend to tomorrow, you may assist me here if you wish. I presume this would be preferable to wasting away in your quarters. You may report here tomorrow morning at seven. That will be all, cadet.”
Stunned, Spitfire tried to piece together what had just happened. “Th-thank you, sir.”
She turned to leave. Firelight made an exasperated noise. She cringed.
“Miss Spitfire, do take this back to the infirmary. It is not an artifact of this museum and I am not your valet.”
“Of course, sir. Sorry, sir.”
As she lugged the hated device back to the infirmary her thoughts turned bleak. She was out of the harness but still grounded. She’d fall behind another week. She’d miss all of basic and intermediate formations and introductory weather. There was no way she’d be able to catch up.
She was about to wash out, and she hadn’t even tried her uniform on.
Spitfire realizes that she can’t just wait for her wings to heal. A run in with a rival re-ignites old, unwelcome feelings.
Wild Sky Yonder
Chapter 3: When the Beast Wakes Up
“...legend of Hearth’s Warming is surprisingly faithful to the histories I’ve found in the vaults, though certain accepted beliefs must be challenged. Then, as now, all of ponykind depended upon earth pony agriculture for food. A typical history will assert an equal balance of power: cultivation was the province of the earth clans, but the all-important sunlight and rainfall were regulated by the other races. In this case the conventional wisdom falls far short of the truth. You see, bargaining power in this context depended upon one’s ability to threaten the food supply. For the unicorns, denial of sunlight was a simple matter of inaction. The earth clans owned the means of production and distribution: inaction sufficed for them as well.
“Our situation was less desirable: the skies were wild in those days and a water blockade was no easy feat. A campaign of water denial required active dispersal of wild clouds, sabotage of wells and irrigation systems, diversion of rivers -- it was an expensive endeavor, in labor and lives. It stands to reason therefore that in times of peace the denizens of Pegasoniki stood at a clear disadvantage: what their rivals could accomplish through inaction they could accomplish only through sweat and sacrifice.
“Consider that for a moment. From the standpoint of the Weather Lords, the pursuit of peace involved voluntarily accepting the lowest place at the table. Is it any wonder they turned to conquest? Enter the Corps...”
Spitfire paused at the workbench and rubbed her temples. It was Friday morning and she’d reported to the museum as requested. It certainly hadn’t been an exciting morning, but it kept her mind off of the sickening, ice-cold worry that she’d contended with for the last few days. The old stallion had been right about one thing: this was better than staring at the wall in her room. Barely.
The doctor had been speaking without interruption for hours. Spitfire tuned him out and turned her attention back to the deadly device on the bench. The museum’s display cases contained at least a dozen old gravity blades and Firelight had wanted them all cleaned, honed and oiled. It wasn’t a difficult task but even the slightest mistake brought the fickle stallion’s wrath to bear.
Captain Firelight put her on edge: nothing about the old stallion made any sense. When he was angry, he was an absolute terror. For a time last week Spitfire had convinced herself that the old goat was intentionally hurting her and sabotaging her chance to recover and rejoin her training squadron. Now that he was being nice...
No, not nice. Solicitous and patronizing. I don’t think he can do ‘nice.’
If anything his new attitude made her even more uneasy. He shifted from topic to topic, which made her jumpy. He made cryptic comments, then watched her reactions to them. He’d invited her to help out at the museum, then hovered over her to make sure she didn’t harm his precious artifacts. Everything he did or said was a test, and if last week was a fair indication she could fail without knowing why and he’d be a nightmare again.
Worst of all, the mercurial doctor was the only pony who could declare her fit to fly. She was already far behind the other cadets, and every day grounded was torment. She was determined to stay on his good side -- but she’d already blundered out of his good graces and then blundered back into them, and she still wasn’t sure why.
She reassembled the blade and strapped it around her foreleg. This part had been kind of exciting, the first four or five times. She flicked her hoof and a latch released, letting eight inches of sharpened steel slide out of the boxy sheath. Another flick locked the blade in place. She waved it about experimentally and tapped it against the table to make sure it was locked before working the latch again to re-sheathe the blade. Eleven down, one to go: that was worth a sigh of relief. She loosened the straps on the ancient weapon and went to replace it and grab the last one.
“By then the Corps was a professional, finely tuned strike force which answered only to the Weather Lord. Their masters sent them on deep raids into unicorn territory to gather intelligence, steal supplies, et cetera. Without their pride and discipline they’d have been little better than pirates and murderesses. During the migration, when the three lieutenants usurped power from their leaders and founded Equestria -- I see in your expression that you take exception to that description. I’m afraid it’s quite accurate. The duly appointed leaders of the three nations valued autonomy over unity. Their subordinates seized power while the leaders were incapacitated, brokered a deal, and presented it to their superiors as a fait accompli. We may believe that they were justified, that it was necessary, or that we are all better off for it; this is no excuse for white-washing it. We must call a coup a coup. Dissimulation serves no good purpose.” He stared at her expectantly until she nodded her assent.
“Where was I? Ah. Given our history and purpose, it’s not surprising that the other nations had, shall we say, hard feelings towards the Corps. The unicorns flat-out refused to ratify the Unity Charter until the Corps had been decommissioned. Thus began the Interregnum. During this period the Corps existed only as pockets of bandits, holdouts and malcontents. It is here that the histories become spotty and we...”
Spitfire tuned him out again. She rolled her eyes when she was sure he wasn’t looking. As she finished honing the final blade she wondered if he’d actually let her go when morning exercises ended or if he’d drone on all the way to Monday.
“Oh but I’m sure this is quite enough to absorb in one morning. Any questions, cadet?”
She tensed. Her mind raced, groping for something she could say to prove she’d been listening.
“Yes... sir. Back then, the Corps was mares-only? Why? Was the whole military that way?”
He chuckled. “Many stallions served the Weather Lords with distinction, but they did so in the artillery. You may know it by its modern descendant: the Weather Patrol.”
“The Patrol? But that’s just... a utility company! Not a military force!”
“Yes, they have largely abandoned their legacy, as have the remnants of the Earth and Unicorn forces. It falls to us and to the Royal Guard to remember.” He trailed off and his eyes glazed over a bit, lost in thought. After several long moments he shook himself out of it and continued, “So, the artillery: at that time males were more likely to have a strong affinity for weather control but unlikely to be as fast and agile as females. We still see a shadow of this trend today but back then the difference was much more pronounced. Your Sergeant Thunderhead is in many ways a throwback: whatever his faults, he is a virtuoso cloud sculptor. The Patrol lost a superstar the day he followed his mother into the Corps. The Weather Lords saw the value in efficient division of labor: they decreed that male combatants were to focus on weaponized wind and lightning, and females on stealth and hoof-to-hoof combat.”
He looked at the clock. “Make that your last piece, cadet. Thank you kindly for your assistance; I do enjoy having an attentive audience. Now perhaps you should tell me what’s bothering you.”
Spitfire gave a start. Another abrupt change of tone from the unpredictable stallion. She set aside her work and silently weighed whether or not to voice the worries that threatened to consume her. His steely gaze told her she’d better ‘fess up.
She took a deep breath. “I’m not flying. I won’t be for another week. That’s a total of twelve daily exercises missed and I don’t see how I’ll be able to make them up -- I’m too far behind and I’m going to wash out.”
The doctor said nothing for a long moment; his expression was unreadable.
“Yes, that is a problem. Quite insurmountable if your plan of attack is to mope about and feel sorry for yourself.”
Her nostrils flared and fire blazed in her eyes. How dare he? She didn’t mope. She was better than that. When the going got tough, she fought. Even after that thunderbird had damaged her wings -- had effectively killed her, she fought and bit and tore and took it down with her. The small, suppressed corner of her soul that delighted in her special talent took a grim, perverse satisfaction in the memory. The monster inside of her savored the rip of the thing’s feathers giving way, the look on its face when it couldn't regain control, when she’d done to it just what it had done to her...
But somepony had saved her; the bird hadn’t been so lucky. She remembered the piteous cry the poor creature had made when it hit and a wave of repulsion washed over her, pushing down the beast.
“Good! Be angry! Let it light a fire in you and live up to your name! Show a little initiative, a little fire. If you recognize the problem then I can promise you that Sergeant Thunderhead and Captain Aurora are well aware of it. They may even be waiting for you to bring it to their attention.”
She stiffened as a humiliating realization struck her: he was right. She’d been thinking of her condition as an affliction to be endured, not a problem to be solved. She hadn’t done anything -- not a single damned thing -- to address the problem except wait it out and sulk. If the doctor was right about Aurora then her downtime was a test, and she was failing. Time to pony up, face the challenge head-on, and change that.
“I see you’ve finally realized you’re at war and I’m sure you have battle plans to draw up. That will be all, cadet. ”
“Thank you, sir.”
An hour later Spitfire stood outside of the officer’s mess. Her stomach growled: she’d sacrificed lunch for a chance to catch Captain Aurora before afternoon studies stole the rest of the day.
She smoothed out her uniform. She’d rarely worn anything her entire life, and the garment was baggy and uncomfortable. Uniforms were only required when in flight or off-base, but most of the cadets were still wearing them all day. The uniform marked them as SaR ponies, and they took pride in that. She did, too. She felt the reassuring weight of her canteen in a side pocket: the uniform also let her keep Dad close, and that calmed her nerves considerably.
Presently the captain exited the mess.
“Ma’am! Cadet Spitfire. Northwing Squadron. May I have a word?”
“What’s this about, cadet?”
“Ma’am, I’m falling behind. I won’t be flying until week three. I’d like permission to use my mornings to get ahead in any subject I don’t need wings for, and permission to double my flight time once I’m cleared. I’m confident I can be completely up to speed in two weeks.”
A hint of a smile flickered across the captain’s face. “About time, cadet. Walk with me.”
Spitfire fell into step with the captain.
“Your plan involves missing most or all of navigation and trailblazing. You are exceptionally lucky to be in B Flight: Northwing Five is a born navigator and knows it well enough to be the instructor-specialist. Have any previous experience?”
“I used to go camping, Mom liked orienteering games.”
“Then you likely have as good a foundation as any recruit typically comes in with. Good. Next week you will trade wingmates with Northwing Six. Six and Eight will participate in exercises together, and Five will teach you navigation. If by this time next week you have mastered navigation to my satisfaction then you will be excused from afternoon lessons for the following week, during which time your flight sergeant will bring you up to speed on formation flying. Tomorrow you will find me in my office when exercises begin; we have an important item to discuss. Technically your Sundays are your own, so I cannot make this next bit an order: I strongly encourage you to spend your next two Sundays in the company of your wingmate and your sergeant. Ninety percent of the formation training you’ve missed is mental: learning the forms and the timing, keeping them all straight, and reacting instinctively. A good head start on the mental portion will make the physical element easier. Now hop to it, cadet: you’re due for instruction in ten minutes.”
“What’s this I hear about you borrowing my toys?”
B Flight was sitting together in the mess at dinner. It was Spitfire’s first trip to the mess: she’d insisted that she didn’t need food delivery anymore. She wrinkled her brow at Red’s question.
“You’re borrowing my Stargazer next week. I expect you to return him in the same condition you found him.”
Spitfire stifled a laugh. “And if he’s going to get kicked out the fun way it’d better be with you, right?”
“Exactly.” Red mock-scowled and pointed a hoof first at her eyes, then at Spitfire.
The toy in question rolled his eyes. “Soarin’, are you going to be able to handle her?”
The ice-blue stallion shrugged. “If you can do it, it can’t be that hard.”
Red turned on him. “Was that a challenge? I think that was a challenge.”
“Whoa there, Red. No fair breaking mine if I can’t break yours.”
Soarin’ ignored the girls and asked his brother, “When did we become property?”
Stargazer shrugged. “About five minutes after they arrived, I’d say. It’s a mare’s world, and we’re just so much baggage. But now that I think about it the lower number in a pair is traditionally the leader: you might belong to Seven, but technically Six belongs to me.” He shot his wingmate a smug grin. “Not vice-versa.”
Red rubbed up against him and purred, “I’m OK with that.”
Stargazer hung his head, a wry smile on his face. Spitfire and Soarin’ laughed.
“Five, never play innuendo chicken with Red. She’s shameless.”
“Yep. Had my shame removed years ago.” Red straightened up and plucked a roll off of Stargazer’s plate.
Stargazer gave an exaggerated sigh, admitting defeat. He turned his attention away from Red. “So, Seven, how much do you know about maps and navigating? I guess I have a lesson plan to make for Monday.” He made a face at the words “lesson plan”.
“Oh, my mother and I would go camping all the time. She loved orienteering and scavenger hunts. I picked up a lot of it for a little filly, but that was a long time ago.” She absent-mindedly patted the pocket where she kept her keepsake. “”I mean, I know which end of the compass points north.”
Red perked up. “I do believe that’s the first thing you’ve said about life before camp, to any of us. Is it story time now? I think it’s story time.”
Spitfire shrank back and stared at her food. “No... no, it’s not story time. I-” Her voice caught in her throat. Red placed a hoof on hers, and there was a silent apology in her eyes.
“Some other time, maybe. Hon, we are your friends. If you want to talk about it...”
“Thanks, Red. Really though, I’m fine.”
The gleam reappeared Red’s eyes. “Are you sure? ‘Cause I could set up a therapist’s couch, charge you fifty bits an hour. Whatever ails you I’ll prescribe a roll in the hay as the cure. Soarin’, I’ll need you to help her fill that prescription.”
The pale stallion flushed. Spitfire giggled, “Red, you’re incorrigible.”
“If you ever catch me being corrigible, you’ll know that something is very wrong.”
The conversation lulled as B Flight returned to their meal. Presently Soarin’ groaned. “Heads up, A-holes at 12 o’clock. Pointing and whispering.”
Spitfire frowned. “What’s this?”
Stargazer answered, “A Flight. Real charming bunch. We’d ignore ‘em but they’re the lead element in our squadron.”
Red placed a hoof on Spitfire’s shoulder. “They haven’t had the nicest things to say about you this week.”
Spitfire arched her eyebrows in an unspoken question.
“They’ve been suggesting... creative nicknames for you. They really get into it. The Hermit, because you’re hiding away in the room all the time; Patches, because of the cuts and stitches; Queen Bee because you’re all black and yellow and the rest of the B’s bring you things; other things about your colorful wing grafts. A few lewd comments about you and Eight, and how you might be rewarding him for saving you... that kind of thing. I’m sorry.”
Spitfire took a deep breath.
Get determined, not angry. Be aggressive but not confrontational. Don’t ever get mad where others can see.
Keep the beast on a leash
“Don’t be sorry, Red. I’d rather know about it than not. And since when do you back down from passing along a lewd comment?”
“Mine are fun and innocent and usually about me. This is different. Please, just try to keep your cool if they come over here.” She turned to point an accusatory hoof at Eight. “That goes for you too, Soarin’!”
He frowned and looked up. “What’d I do?”
“Wednesday? Red One called Seven ‘Rainbow Cripple’ and asked if you put those bruises on her in the bedroom? Your brother had to hold you back, does any of this ring a bell? I swear you were about to bite him.”
Soarin’ half-stood and snapped, "Maybe if I had, he'd keep his filthy mouth shut!"
Spitfire laid her hoof on his. "Soarin', that's very sweet of you but I have a rule: I do all of my own biting. You're my partner, not my protector."
He blushed and sat down. "Sorry, Seven."
Red made a face. "Ugh. Bogey inbound. Quick: somepony say something interesting. Don't give them an opening."
Stargazer took up the challenge. "So, today’s session mentioned thunderbirds. They’re territorial and usually won’t attack unless provoked? I don't think you've told us yet, Seven: how'd you wind up fighting that one anyway?"
Red slapped him on the shoulder. "What a thing to ask!"
Spitfire rolled her eyes. "Red? I'm injured, not traumatized. You know, it's a strange story: I woke up on a cloud, I guess it was Sunday afternoon by then, and this big ugly bird was pecking at my bag. I was groggy and mistook it for a wyvern, so I kicked it in the face. I couldn’t just let it tear the bag, all of my supplies were in there. It, ah... it took exception to that." She offered a self-effacing grin.
The other three ponies stared in disbelief. Stargazer recovered first.
"Wait a second: you kicked it in the face because you thought it was a wyvern?”
"Yeah. Give a wyvern a good swift kick -- just a firm tap on the nose, really -- and it'll leave you alone, go look for some easier prey. Discovered that... lets see, Tuesday? No, must have been Wednesday. Worked three out of four times.”
The navy stallion sputtered, “What happened to the fourth wyvern?”
“Oh, there were only three. The third one was bigger, I had to kick it twice.” She shrugged. “I had to do something about 'em. Can’t outrun a wyvern like you can a manticore.”
Stargazer had his head in his hooves, a shell-shocked expression on his face. "A manticore?"
"Yeah... I spent most of Saturday night running away from a manticore. They aren't fast but they are persistent: it was almost dawn by the time I lost him. I was exhausted, so I picked a little cloud that looked like it was headed north-ish and went to sleep.”
“And then you woke up with a thunderbird in your face.” He shook his head. “What were you doing out there in the first place?”
“I had to get to camp somehow.”
Red found her voice. “Honey, most of us took the train.”
“I had enough bits for food or a train ticket. Not both.”
Stargazer’s eyes were distant, like he was doing calculations in his head. “Where did you say you were from?”
“Cloudsdale, outside the capital.”
“Monday before last.”
“You left from outside Canterlot, flew across the plains and over almost five hundred miles of the Trackless Pines, all the way to the Whitecrowns, in seven days?”
Spitfire tried to be nonchalant about it. “Yep.”
Stargazer glanced over at the others. “I say we call her 'Lunatic.'”
An unfamiliar voice joined the conversation. “Really? How about ‘Liar.’ Or ‘Anchor,’ as in 'anchor around Red Squadron’s neck,' pulling us all down. How about ‘Stain,’ as in something that needs to be washed out?”
Spitfire wheeled on the new voice. Red One towered over her, sneering. Red Two stood behind him wearing an insufferable smirk. The verbal assault had damaged her calm; she hung on to her temper for dear life.
“Get bucked, One.”
“Watch your mouth, Five. Don’t say something I’ll make you regret.”
Stargazer gave a derisive snort. “You're all style and no substance, One. All flash and no thunder. Why don’t you take your little sidekick and go find somepony else to bully? B Flight’s too much for you.”
Red One shot back a mocking smile. “Ooh, I thought SaR brat number two was Stain's knight in shining armor. You guys going tag-team now?”
“How about it, Stain? If I pretend you’re a real member of my squad, can I have a ride?”
She closed her eyes as the beast slipped its chain. She smoothed her expression until it was entirely placid. She slowly stood and turned until she was looking the tall, arrogant stallion in the eye. She ran a hoof through his mane.
“Nice dye job. The color’s just about perfect. Kinda sad that you go through this much trouble just to look like a Royal Guard - there are plenty of cheaper and easier ways to let the world know you’re a wannabe. Still, complements to your stylist.”
Her mouth turned up in a vicious, feral smile. “As for the rest of you --what little there is -- you’re welcome to test me any time you like. I will outrun you, I will outsmart you, and by next week I will outfly you. And if you want to make this a physical thing?”
She laughed and snapped her hoof down hard on the floor. Her eyes blazed.
“Just try it, hotshot. I will break every bone in your body. I will pluck your feathers one by one. I will grind you into paste, and when I’m done the only thing left of you will be a stain on my uniform.” With every word, she leaned forward just a bit farther, her smile got just a bit bigger, and her wings unfurled just a bit more. By the end of it, her nose was a hair’s breadth from his.
He quailed at the hungry fire in her eyes. Shaking ever so slightly, he poked her in the chest with his hoof.
“Dead weight with a sharp tongue is still dead weight. You wanna do these three a favor? Leave. Save us all the trouble of waiting for you to wash out.”
She snarled and lunged at him, a feint that caused the big stallion to flinch. He snorted angrily and stormed off. Red Two shot her a dirty look and turned to follow.
Spitfire slumped and began to tremble. She’d come here to get away from the beast. She’d hoped that she could just leave it behind in Cloudsdale. Not only had it followed her, she’d just let it out right in front of her companions. She turned a fearful eye back toward B Flight, expecting a row of three scared, disgusted faces.
Instead, Stargazer looked impressed. Red was positively giddy.
“That was amazing! Nopony’s shut him up all week! Honey I figured you were tough -- I mean, I knew that: you never complain about how much all that hurts -- but that was... wow.”
Stargazer chuckled. “Careful, Seven. I think you just made yourself an enemy.”
Her relief was palpable. She shook her head. “This mess? This is on his head. Not mine.”
After that, B Flight’s dinner went back to normal -- except for one thing: Spitfire thought Soarin’ was quieter than usual, and he never quite made eye contact with her.
Spitfire has some catching up to do if she’s going to stay in the Corps. Step one: get lost in the woods.
Wild Sky Yonder
Chapter 4: Downstream
Sunday afternoon found Spitfire alone in a crowd at Aurora’s home in Glimmervale. As the captain had “strongly recommended,” she’d spent much of her day off with T-Bone discussing the training she’d missed. That had segued into dinner with the family, an intimidating prospect for a pony so used to quiet and solitude.
In one corner a blue unicorn filly hopped up and down excitedly and told her father about her latest magic trick. The elder unicorn was Aurora’s husband, Bastion. The filly... Spitfire didn’t remember her name, but this was the little sister whom Stargazer had described as “quite the little magician.” Across the room, Red regaled T-Bone with the tale of Friday’s excitement in the mess. Red kept beckoning Spitfire to join them, but Spitfire wanted none of that conversation.
The smell of roasting squash and toasted nuts filled the house: Stargazer was in the kitchen making dinner, his mother assisting. When Red had found out that Stargazer enjoyed cooking, she’d marched right over to Aurora and demanded permission to marry her son.
Aurora had cast a discriminating eye at the red mare, then said, “Ask again after you graduate.”
Soarin’ flopped around like a fish in the middle of the floor, pretending that his little niece had wrestled him to the ground with her magic. T-Bone’s daughter was a darling little periwinkle unicorn foal, just old enough to talk. The family called her “Little Dee,” and she had each of the family’s stallions wrapped around her little horn.
Spitfire turned to study the pictures on the walls. They confirmed a suspicion she’d had since meeting the captain seven days ago: Captain Aurora was indeed the Aurora Borealis, longtime lead soloist for the Wonderbolts. Spitfire had begged and cajoled and pleaded every time they’d come to Cloudsdale, “Please can we see the show? Please? If we don’t I’ll die!” She’d seen Aurora perform half a dozen times. She wondered how many other Bolt-heads could claim that they’d been chewed out by a legend.
Yesterday Spitfire had been called into the captain’s office. It seemed that her uncle had finally reported her missing, along with the thirty or so bits she’d absconded with and a “valuable family heirloom.”
Spitfire laughed bitterly at that. The ‘heirloom’ was her canteen: a silly keepsake, not much resale value, not even much good as either a compass or a water bottle. Its very inefficacy was what endeared it to her; it reminded her of her goofy dad, not quite knowing how to be a part of her world but trying anyway. The bits were no more than a fraction of her meager inheritance, which her uncle had spent behind her back. When she’d explained this to Aurora -- after Aurora had shouted her ears off about runaways being bad for the Corps, and the Corps being none-too-kind to runaways -- the captain had relaxed slightly. Ultimately Spitfire had been able to persuade her that she had enlisted for the right reasons.
In addition to the standard family portraits and wedding pictures an entire wall seemed to be dedicated to two other Wonderbolts, a cream-colored stallion and a deep blue mare: the two of them on a double date with Aurora and Bastion, the two of them flying together, their wedding, the two of them holding a newborn navy-blue foal, each kissing one of his cheeks. If they were Aurora’s teammates then Spitfire had probably seen them, too. She contemplated asking after them, but worried that it would be impolite. The pictures were all in black frames, some ponies used that to signify lost loved ones.
Spitfire turned back to the center of the room and watched Soarin’ turn the tables, flipping over and planting a raspberry on Little Dee’s back. She smiled.
“He’s very good with foals. They all are.”
Spitfire jumped. If she had a bit for every time somepony had snuck up on her this week... she turned. This time the sneaky speaker was T-Bone’s wife. “Big Dee” was a gray pegasus mare with a sweet disposition, and according to Soarin’ and Stargazer a pretty sharp wit if you gave her cause to unsheathe it.
Spitfire nodded and turned back to her big, sweet oaf of a wingmate. “T-Bone was right about one thing, he certainly is a sweetheart.”
“My husband said that?”
“Don’t worry, he was in the process of playing a nasty trick on me at the time.”
Dee drew a hoof across her brow. “Oh, thank Harmony. Don’t you worry me like that!”
“Your daughter is beautiful. Were you two surprised to have a unicorn?”
“Oh, both of her grandfathers are unicorns. It wasn’t terribly surprising.” She looked over at Thunderhead. “ I think Stormy was a little disappointed when the doctor told us. I know in his head the thing he looked forward to most was teaching his sons to fly. But that was all before she was born. Since then he’s just the proudest papa, and she’s daddy’s little girl.”
Soarin’ trotted over to them, Little Dee clinging to his neck.
“Seven! Help! this little sorceress has me in a DEATH CHOKE!”
Spitfire hunkered down, as if preparing to pounce. “Unhoof him, you nasty sorceress!”
The little girl giggled and scampered up onto Soarin’s head. He smiled, wincing just a bit each time she hopped up and down on his cranium. “Unca Soarin! Who’s your friend?”
“Little Dee, this is Spitfire. She’s my wingmate at the SAR camp.”
Little Dee gasped. “Daddy was Mommy’s wingmake at camp!”
“That’s right. He was.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Little Dee.”
“Why do your wings look funny?”
Big Dee began to scold her daughter for asking such an impolite question. Spitfire waved her concern away. “I ran into a tree and hurt my wings, your Unca Soarin’ saved me.”
The little filly’s eyes went wide. “Daddy saved Mommy at camp too!”
Her mother sighed. “That’s right, he did.”
“Are you gonna get married, too?”
All three of the adults flushed beet red.
“Muffin, that’s not an appropriate question to...”
“Gosh, that’s... I mean... we’re not...”
Spitfire’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. This last comment had come from Soarin’, who looked profoundly embarrassed that it had slipped out. Thankfully Stargazer saved both of them from the conversation by announcing that dinner was ready.
Over dinner -- acorn squash stuffed with mushrooms and pine nuts, with a salad and pine bark fries right out of the survival manual -- Red renewed her campaign to secure Stargazer’s cooking services permanently.
“Captain, permission to marry your son, right now. Vigorously.”
The rest of the table burst into laughter. In that moment Spitfire once again envied Stargazer’s dark coat: his cheeks were too dark to tell if he was embarrassed.
That night, lying in her bed, Spitfire thought about her wingmate. He hadn’t said a word to her from Friday night until he’d come to introduce his niece. He was distant. He seemed to be... sulking. Then, just as quickly, he’d changed. She wondered what was different.
“Your niece is adorable.”
“Isn’t she? Hard to believe something so cute came from T-Bone.
They both chuckled. “I know, right? Where does he hide that side of him?”
“You know, the side that’s sweet, and kind, and generous, and just generally... like... you...” She trailed off, mentally kicking herself for having said it that way.
Soarin’ sighed. “Yeah, I know. Sweet, harmless, dumb ol’ Soarin’: that’s me.” The room stayed quiet for a long time.
“I didn’t mean it that way. I would never... and whatever I did that made you mad, I’m sorry.”
“What? No! Don’t say that, you didn’t do anything.” He flipped over, grumbling to himself.
Spitfire stared into the darkness, wondering what in Harmony was going on with him. She wished friendship wasn’t so complicated. She wished she was more like Red, who always seemed to know how to handle social things. She wished she knew what was wrong.
“Hurry up Seven, we’re wasting moonlight!”
Spitfire moaned and opened her eyes. Her room door was open and Stargazer stood silhouetted by the hall light. She rolled out of bed and stretched, groaning at the stiffness she felt all over.
“Five? What time is it?”
“Time to get out and go navigating. Come on.”
She pulled on a uniform and stumbled out the door. When they stepped out on the parade ground it was still pitch black outside.
“You maniac, there isn’t even any moonlight to be wasting.”
“First lesson then: what does that mean?”
“It means you lied to me.”
“I dunno, it’s cloudy?”
“Or foggy. And we’d see a glow unless the cloud cover was really thick. Or it could just be a new moon.”
“Which means you’re an even bigger liar.”
“There’s something better. You’ll see. I know you can’t dive and loop and roll and all that, but do you think you’re up for a short flight up to the clouds?”
She stretched her wings experimentally. They still ached a bit but they moved just fine.
“I think so. Assuming I don’t fall back asleep in midair.”
“Don’t be such a grump, Seven. This is the very best time of day! C’mon!”
He launched himself into the air.
Moments later Spitfire landed beside him on a cloud, sore and winded. She decided she’d better take as many short flights as she could the next seven days to get her strength back.
“Isn’t this great?” Stargazer spread his hooves out wide and fell backwards into the cloud, glorying in the field of stars above.
She chuckled. “Your name certainly fits.”
Spitfire turned around and looked up. She was quiet for a long moment, drinking in the view. In a soft voice she said, “I’d never seen so many stars before I came up here.”
“That’s why I woke you up. I know how bad the city lights are in Canterlot, I imagine they’re almost as bad in Cloudsdale. I bet you’ve never really seen the night sky.”
Spitfire snorted. “Except every night on my whole flight up here, you mean?”
By his silence, he hadn’t thought of that. He recovered quickly, snatching her rear hoof and spilling her onto the clouds next to him. “Well yeah, but this time you’re not picking a fight with seven different monsters so you actually have time to enjoy it.”
Spitfire was about to protest when a third pegasus announced his presence with an exaggerated yawn. “It’s too early for this shit, Wedge.”
Stargazer groaned. “T-Bone, don’t call me that.”
The older stallion snorted. “I’m your big brother and your superior officer. Plus, I’m tired and grumpy. I’ll call you whatever I damn well please.”
Stargazer made a frustrated noise. The sergeant turned his attention to Spitfire. “Mornin’ Seven.”
“Good morning, sir... whatcha doin’ here?”
“Babysitting you two. Can’t just let you two go off-base unsupervised: that’s how cadets wind up injured, dead, or foaling. Alright, I’m done bellyaching. Get on with the plan, Wedge.”
“There’s not much to the plan. We’ll drift away from camp for an hour or so, the sun’ll come up, we’ll go to ground, then Seven will lead us back, without getting an aerial view of the valley.”
Spitfire frowned. “That’s it? Get lost, get un-lost? Wander off then wander back? No pressure, just get us back or we’ll be lost for days.”
Stargazer chuckled. “We’ll be fine. If I get a good look at the sky before we start I’ll know exactly where we are, and If you get us hopelessly lost, we’ll just head up and fly back. If we run into any wyverns, you’ll protect us with that vicious left hook.”
She rolled her eyes. “What about the next hour?”
Stargazer fumbled over his answer, “Well, ah... any questions about maps and stuff before we get started?”
“Just one. What gives you the right to be so infuriatingly cheerful this early?”
“What do you mean? This is the best time to be awake! Besides, all of this? This is who I am. My mark is the constellation sextans, the sextant. I don’t just know about navigation: I am a navigator. I look at the stars, and I know where I am.” He took a deep breath, savoring the cool night air. “This time of day, I can just bask in the satisfaction of living my vocation. I’m sure you know that feeling, too.”
She knew that feeling, all right. She knew it all too well: she called it ‘the beast.’ The satisfaction it brought was wild and terrifying.
Must be nice to have a harmless, serene talent.
Spitfire let the silence drag on, moment after moment.
Presently, Stargazer said, “So... if you have no other questions I guess we just relax and enjoy the view.”
She snorted. “I’m going to enjoy the view on the insides of my eyelids. Wake me up if you need anything.”
As she bedded down on the cloud, she heard T-Bone echo her sentiment. She tucked her head under her wing and fell asleep, leaving Stargazer to enjoy his birthright.
Spitfire loped and bounded amidst a forest of fire-scarred spikes. Around her feet flowed a sea of delicate pink flowers. Here and there shoulder-high pine saplings poked up through the blanket of fireweed, striving to replace their burned ancestors. She darted up and down the rolling hills with alacrity as her athletic grace slowly returned after days of pain, stiffness, and inaction. Three days of navigation training, any number of embarrassing blunders, and finally she was about to win Stargazer’s little game.
Her first attempts had been... less than impressive. On Monday she hadn’t even thought to consult a map. They’d started by a cloudy little stream and she made a snap judgment to follow it downstream, figuring it would lead to the lake. If not for Stargazer’s Harmony-gifted sense of direction, they might still be lost. Yesterday she’d remembered to use the map and compass... but she had incorrectly assumed that they’d started in the same valley they’d departed from. A map’s no help when you’re looking at the wrong part of it.
Today, though? Today was different.
Just over the next hill. Camp is just over the next hill.
She looked back: the boys were more than a hundred yards behind her. She stopped for a breather while they caught up. She relaxed a moment, basking in the anticipated victory, and allowed herself to appreciate the scenery. When the boys arrived she nodded a greeting then inspected a scaly black tree trunk.
“What the hell happened here, anyway?”
“Six years ago, this was the heart of the worst wildfire the Vale has ever seen,” T-Bone said. “It started just about the time my training class was supposed to run the gauntlet -- they cancelled our SAAR and had us frantically building firebreaks and calling rains to try and save the town.”
Stargazer playfully shoved his brother into a tree trunk as he came to a stop. “Try and save the town? Since when are you modest, big brother? T-Bone here called the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever seen, then darted under it and above the fire, corralling lightning bolts so they wouldn’t ignite new fires, flying through smoke so thick it’d choke a griffon, and somehow found time to rescue Auntie Dee in the middle of it. You should see the medal they gave him.”
His older brother scowled. “So I stirred up a big raincloud, big deal. It was the firebreaks that saved the town. Couple of cadets died digging those. They were the heroes, not me.”
“Still, hell of a way to graduate. I promise you Little Dee’s going to love that story as she gets older; I’ll make sure of it.” T-Bone rolled his eyes. Stargazer unfolded a map. “Care to show me where we are, Seven?”
Spitfire took the map from him, uncapped her canteen and got to work. As she sat down to read the map a loud, high-pitched roar split the air. Spitfire jumped, spilling water all over the map.
Stargazer hunkered down. “What was it? Timberwolf? Hydra?”
Spitfire set aside the ruined map. Beast tracking was her best subject, she was finally in her element. “Not a chance, only one voice. Plus, hydra? This far north? Don’t be ridiculous.”
The scream rent the air again, this time joined by others. T-Bone barked a grim laugh. “Only one? Ha. We should be so lucky.”
Spitfire lowered her head and strained her ears. She could just here the rumbling, shuffling, snapping sound of many feet running across the forest floor. “We need to get out of here.” She looked around. The burn zone offered very little cover, and the nearest patch of healthy forest lie in the direction of the noisy, angry pack.
Stargazer took to the air, pointing out a boulder about a hundred yards away. The three pegasi alighted atop it, eyes locked on the edge of the forest. Minutes dragged by, nothing happened. Spitfire closed her eyes, straining to hear if the pack was moving away.
The piercing scream sounded a third time, this time right behind them. The two younger ponies yelped and leaped off of the boulder. T-Bone started laughing.
“Comet, you old rascal! I though that was you.”
Stargazer and Spitfire turned to see an enormous winged deer, smiling mischievously and shaking hooves with T-Bone. Four or five other reindeer bucks hovered behind him.
“Storm-bringer! I am relieved that you are well.”
“It’s been too long, old friend. What brings you through? Is it that time of year already?”
The buck gave a sly smile in reply and nodded at Stargazer. “The sun rises in the Young Buck’s Wedge. The time of the Rut approaches.”
“I still scarcely believe that you only see your wives once a year.”
Comet and the other bucks gave a loud, braying laugh. “Our harems keep us too busy to eat! If we spent all our days with them we would surely starve!”
Comet turned to greet the two younger pegasi, his eyes twinking with mirth. “My sincerest apologies for having our fun at your expense. I trust we did not startle the stripling soldiers too badly?”
Spitfire floated up to look him in the eye, wearing a playful grin of her own. “Not at all. Though you should be glad I didn’t choose to attack at the first sign of trouble.”
“Oho! A spirited young lady! Young Wedge, have you finally come of age? Or is it you, Storm-bringer, who have finally seen reason and taken a second?”
T-Bone doubled over laughing. “This one doesn’t ‘belong’ to either of us, Comet. She’s Soarin’s wingmate. We’re just out practicing a little map-work.”
“Hmph. The other brother. Young miss, I entreat you to choose one of these two. The other is the least of three. He’ll not fight for you.”
Spitfire flew up into his face, her grin replaced with a scowl. “Listen, bucko. First, who I choose -- if and when I choose anyone -- is none of your business. Second, watch who you’re calling ‘least.’ He’s my wingmate and for your information he’s already faced down certain death for me.”
Comet’s eyes narrowed. “He has done what?”
Spitfire shrugged, turning away slightly. “I was falling. He caught me. We hit the trees pretty hard.” She waggled her sewn-up ear towards him to emphasize the point.
The buck’s eyes flared in an unspoken challenge. “Then he has fairly won you. You dishonor him by denying him his prize. Were you a doe and he a buck I would strike you and drag you to him myself.”
The beast pleaded with Spitfire, begging her to let it out so she could beat the stupid out of him. It was a tempting proposal. Luckily for Comet, T-Bone interposed himself.
“Whoa there, Comet. You know we don’t do things that way. Let’s just... let’s just change the subject away from comparative sexual politics.”
Comet lowered his gaze. “We have seen things in the valley. Ominous things. We worried that your mother’s camp was no more.”
Thunderhead stiffened. “What do you mean? Why would anything be wrong at the camp?”
“The valley hides many who should not be here. We have not seen them, but we see the signs of their passing. Ashes. Blood. Carrion. I had feared that their presence meant your absence: your mother would not suffer them willingly.”
The sergeant cursed. “Apparently she suffers them unwittingly. You’re sure about this?”
“I have seen it in the colors for which you have no name”
“Bucking hell. Thanks for telling me, I’ll pass it along.”
The buck nodded. “We will be at the mouth of the valley until winter sets in. Call upon us if you need us.” He turned to Spitfire. “Our ways are not yours. I apologize for... forgetting myself.”
“I am prepared to make amends. Is there anything you require of me?”
Spitfire thought about that for a moment. “Just one thing: Why do you call him ‘Wedge?’ And why does it bother him so much?”
The assembled bucks lapsed into their braying laugh. “The stars upon his haunch, which he calls a sextant, that constellation we call the Buck’s Wedge. It is a potent symbol of virility, for when the sun occults it, the Rut begins. As for why he wishes to be known for his sense of direction rather than his masculinity... this I cannot fathom.”
Spitfire’s eyes lit up. She shot Wedge a smile that said, just wait ‘til Red hears about this.
Training continues and Spitfire is finally able to stretch her wings! New obstacles make it difficult to fit in.
Wild Sky Yonder
Once again Spitfire clung to Soarin’ as the two of them tumbled into a thick cloud bank. Once again she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and offered him a hoof.
“Sorry. I’m getting there, it’s just... slow going.”
Soarin’ offered the same muttered encouragement and brittle smile as before, “Don’t worry about it. You're doing fine.”
She snorted as she took back to the skies. Not long ago she’d been worried about opening up to him, now he was shut like an oyster.
An irritatingly perky voice shouted encouragement from above them, “Okay! Great! This time keep your eyes on him like we talked about.”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. I wish T-Bone was here.
Comet’s warning had the officers completely spooked. T-Bone had called off their navigation exercise right after the warning had been delivered (though Spitfire had noted to her satisfaction that camp had indeed been right over the next hill) and every afternoon since then he had been off-base with A Flight’s Sergeant Coriolis trying to verify the reindeer’s information. Wedge and Soarin’ had decided that the warning must mean griffons, but T-Bone glared them into silence whenever they asked him.
In his place, Spitfire and Soarin’s remedial formation drills were supervised by Sergeant Moonglow. She was something of an oddity: much more chipper and cheerful than any of the other officers, seemingly more innocent and naive than most of the cadets. At first blush she just didn’t seem the SAR type: where other sergeants teased and taunted, she always had a word of encouragement. Every attempt was “great,” even if it was abysmal. It was getting on Spitfire’s nerves.
Moonglow was a sort of trainer-at-large since her own F Flight had been the first casualty of washout reduction: three of her cadets had intentionally gotten themselves caught in flagrante delicto -- announcing that they wanted out of camp “the fun way” and all at once. Spitfire laughed at the memory: Red had nearly gotten herself into trouble for marching over and heckling their technique. The rest of B Flight had gone to bat for her to save her a reprimand, pointing out that she’d really stolen their thunder, and that the experience would have a chilling effect on any future attempts to “go out with a bang.”
Spitfire lined up behind Soarin’ as they began the routine again. The series of turns and rolls and loops was designed to test their reactions, their discipline and their physical strength. The force of the wind tugged at her grafted feathers and her split ear. The rest of her injuries were healing nicely, those would persist a while. The g-forces involved in the sharper turns threatened to squeeze the air right out of her lungs and it was absolutely unnatural for her to watch Soarin’s ears instead of looking into the next turn. Every instinct from the day she’d learned to fly said look where you’re going! A comparatively uncertain and quiet voice, the voice of training, said look for the signal. Soarin’s ear twitched, pointing to the sharp right once, twice, three times. As one they banked into the turn. Spitfire gave a triumphant whoop at having made the turn that had ruined her each of the previous four attempts, and in her exultation completely missed the one after it. Luckily this time Soarin’ was turning away and she lost him instead of hitting him.
“That’s great, Spitfire! Best yet! You’re really getting the hang of it! This time, just like we talked about, I want you to keep your eyes on Soarin’!”
Spitfire followed her wingmate back up to their room.
“Hey, Soarin’, think you could help me out with my ear-sign some more? I think I’m reading yours OK but I’ll be out front sooner or later and it’ll be my turn to call the shots.”
“Oh, um... sure thing, Seven. You want me to start?”
From the hunch of his shoulders and the way his eyes darted around the room, she could tell he wanted to do anything but. Was she really so repulsive that he couldn’t even sit still to talk shop with her? She sat in front of the mirror and met eyes with his reflection.
“No, let me try. You call the maneuver, I’ll signal it.”
“Okay... hard right!”
She pointed her right ear straight off to the side, twitched it two times and counted down from three by bouncing her left ear. She bit her lip at the sting from the still-healing cut.
“Good. Flat scissors.”
She thought for a moment, then pointed both ears inward then forward.
“Perfect. Rolling scissors”
That was the same motion, reversed.
“Split S... no, that’s roll-off-the-top. Turn it around... good.”
While she was glad for the practice, it wasn’t quite enough to hold all of her attention. Her mind wandered back to the weekend. Another relaxing Sunday at the Aurora household had been somewhat marred by a loud, wild-maned stallion preaching conspiracy theories in the town square.
“Hey Soarin’? Remember that guy in town Sunday? What was his deal?”
Soarin’ snorted. “Just some kinda nutjob. We get ‘em up here sometimes. Snap roll right.”
She frowned. “Yeah, but... what was he saying? About the sky? And about Harmony?”
He made an exasperated noise. “Look, they’re just some kinda crazy cult, OK? They’re like pests up here. Come up to Glimmervale now and then because it’s under the ‘wild sky.’ Say that’s where pegasi belong. They think everything, and I mean everything about Equestria is a unicorn conspiracy. Barrel roll left.”
He fixed her reflection with a tired stare. “We had one last spring? Said Hearth’s Warming was invented by unicorns to keep the pegasi down, Celestia’s really Princess Platinum, and Nightmare Moon was cooked up to make people afraid of Hurricane. No joke.”
Spitfire barked an incredulous laugh. “That’s hilarious!”
“Less funny when the wild-eyed jackass who says it is shouting slurs at your mother for marrying a unicorn.”
“Oh, Soarin’... I’m, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have...” She trailed off, frowning apologetically into the mirror.
He waved away her apology. “You didn’t know. Anyway that’s why they’re a sore subject. Every now and then there’s some trouble with these ‘Wild Sky’ kooks and then they fall off the map again. He’ll get bored and leave once he realizes no one’s listening. Show me barrel roll again?”
“No, no. That’s the same thing you did for snap roll. Barrel’s more like... come here.” He hopped up and took her ears in his hooves, re-arranging them slightly. Then he tsked. “Spit, you opened your ear again! Why didn’t you stop me? Hang on, let me get a bandage.”
She squirmed away from him. “No need, it’s fine.”
In a flash he was up at his desk and back with a strip of gauze. She hopped up.
“No! It’s fine! Looks like it’s stopped.” She backed away from him warily.
“Yeah right. Stopped so good there’s a bead of blood running down your cheek. C’mere.”
He pounced. She scrambled away. She saw the corners of his mouth turn up, the start of the big, playful grin she hadn’t seen in a week. He grabbed. She ducked.
She favored him with a warm smile. She didn’t know what changed, but it was good to have him back. He feinted left, then swung right. She giggled and vaulted up over his hooves and onto his back. He tilted his head up backwards and she looked down into his eyes.
“I don’t need it!”
Just after she said it a drop of blood fell from her ear and splattered on his cheek. She flushed.
“Oh. Umm... oops?”
He stared at her for a long moment, an enigmatic grin on his face. Then quicker than she could react he had her flipped over and pinned her down.
“Good move. Sorry about that.”
He bandaged her ear. “Nothing to be sorry for.”
She snorted and drummed a hoof on the floor. “Oh really? Not for insisting on practicing when I thought this might happen? Not for bleeding on you?”
She felt him shrug. She rolled her eyes. “Soarin’, how come it’s always your fault? Any time we have the least little disagreement, you apologize. Even when you didn’t do anything wrong. I half-expect you to do it even when you’re not even involved in the argument!”
He didn’t respond. She sighed, propped her head up on her hoof and looked up at him. “Sometimes I make mistakes, you know. I’m only a pony. And sometimes? When I do something stupid and I feel bad about it? I like to be able to apologize. Makes me feel better.”
He flashed her a brittle, uncomfortable smile. “Apology accepted, then?”
“Thanks. Now repeat after me: ‘It’s not always my fault.”’
He scowled at her. “I don’t always think it’s my fault.”
“Close enough. OK, now say ‘I’m actually a pretty great guy most of the time, when I’m not sulking.’”
He snorted. “I don’t sulk.”
Spitfire gave an exasperated sigh. “We’ll work on that one later.” Her voice fell to a deadpan, “So, were you gonna let me up any time soon or did you have some big plans for while I’m still pinned down?”
He scrambled off her, red in the face. They resumed their lesson, albeit more carefully this time. Presently a rumble from downstairs let them know the rest of the cadets were out of the classrooms. In no time at all the balance of B Flight was in the doorway.
“Hey Seven, just wanted to say thanks for the opportunity to work on my teaching last week. With T-Bone and Cori off hunting griffons they’ve got me teaching base nav. Can you believe it?”
Spitfire saw Soarin’s face fall slightly at his brother’s interruption. His shoulders slumped and his lips threatened to revert to his favorite scowl. She tried to pour a subtle ‘go away’ vibe into her words. “That’s nice, Five. I’m sure you’re doing great.”
Oblivious, Stargazer wandered into the room. Red tried to beckon him back out; she always was more sensitive to these things.
“Oh, hey? Are you guys working on the signs?”
Red tapped him on the flank. “Stargazer?’
“Let me guess: ascending helix, right? Always the hardest for newbies.”
Red drummed her hoof on the floor. “Stargazer...”
The navy stallion strode right up to Spitfire and made as if to adjust her ears. “See, what you gotta do is...”
Spitfire and the brothers turned toward the door. Red had a stern look on her face. She glared at her wingmate, then jerked her head toward their door and stormed off.
“Oh... um, sorry guys. Guess I need to go see what that’s about.”
Wedge retreated in Red’s wake. Spitfire let out a deep breath.
“Thank Harmony for Red: she always knows.”
“Hmph.” Soarin’ still looked sullen.
“What’s wrong, big guy?”
He shrugged. “I’m hungry. Let’s get some dinner.”
And with that, sulky Soarin’ was back and happy Soarin’ was gone again.
B Flight split into pairs, executing a textbook double rolling scissors before snap-rolling into a spin, plummeting out of the sky, steepening their dive, and recovering barely twenty feet over the safety clouds. Then they broke, each heading in a different direction, turning about and landing softly in front of their sergeant.
T-Bone let out a whoop. “That was fantastic, guys! Six: little wobbly there coming out of the spin. Seven: work on that angle in the break, a little too close to Eight. On balance, I’d say you guys are ready to move on up to search patterns.
As one, Spitfire and her compatriots groaned. Team aerobatics was the most fun part of aerial exercises. Moving on to search patterns meant trading exhilarating fun for exhausting grind.
T-Bone offered his signature impish grin, “That’s right, kids: no more fun and games. Time to learn how to do your jobs.”
Wedge stepped forward. “Speaking of, how’s the griffon hunt coming? It’s been nearly two weeks: if they’re out there you must have found them”
“I’m glad you asked, Wedge. It’s going quite ‘you don’t need to know, so shut the buck up.’”
The younger stallion persisted. “If there’s danger in the valley, this is exactly the time we need to know. We’re going to be doing low-altitude passes out of sight of camp. If something’s out there, you’re endangering us by not telling us.”
T-Bone stared down his little brother. “We’re trimming back multi-flight ops in favor of self defense. That’s everything you need to know. If I hear the word ‘griffon’ come out of your mouth again I’ll have you confined to quarters on weekends.”
Wedge paled. “There really is something out there, isn’t there?”
T-Bone said nothing. Presently A Flight arrived to break up the conversation. The insufferable Red One and friends circled B Flight while their sergeant Coriolis landed to talk to Thunderhead.
“Big news, T-Bone: Cap’n says we’re starting night ops this weekend. You know what that means.”
T-Bone brightened. “It means my bees are about to run the tables in the air games.” He turned back to his flight, “I lied again, gang: fun and games aren’t going away, they’re just moving to Saturdays. What’s first, boss?”
A Flight’s sergeant shot him a cool smile. “I’m afraid I had to cancel orienteering: we can’t have our ersatz instructor competing in that. This week’s going to be a good old-fashioned Corps Relay.”
A Corps Relay, T-Bone explained, was a game that tested all four of the Corps’ primary disciplines: first a cadet would be dropped off a mile or so out in the woods with a simulated injury. Then one of her remaining flight mates would have to find her. Upon finding her, a third flightmate would perform an extraction, carrying her out of the woods and back to camp. The last flight member would demonstrate the necessary first aid to treat the injury. Finally, the original lost cadet would spar with their counterpart from another flight.
Wedge and Red shared a merry look. The two of them were thinking more and more alike each day.
“I nominate the mighty wyvern hunter as B Flight’s lost lamb and combatant,” Wedge said.
A Flight landed beside them. Red One’s eyes gleamed with mirth and malice. “I’m so glad you feel that way. A Flight: I nominate myself. All in favor?”
Three “Ayes” rang out behind him.
He fixed Spitfire with a malevolent smile. “Looks like I’ll see you in the ring, Stain.”
Spitfire didn’t respond. Her eyes were as big as saucers.
Red One saw the fear in her eyes and snickered. If he knew what it was she feared, he might not have been so inclined to laugh.
That’s it, she thought. I’m done. I’ll accidentally kill him, and they’ll kick me out.
The remainder of the week evaporated in the blink of an eye. Friday night found a restless Spitfire half-heartedly preparing to take her bedding and uniforms down to the laundry. A multitude of worries assailed her.
Gonna kill One. Why won’t Soarin’ talk to me? Shouldn’t have told my story; Red and Wedge will want me to fight every time. They don’t know what it does to me. He knows. That’s why he won’t talk to me.
She gritted her teeth. If she didn’t work off some of this frustration she’d tear her sheets in half on the way downstairs. Her mind made up, she stalked off to the armory. There was a gym on the first floor that had been locked the day she discovered the museum. A little exercise might do her some good.
Spitfire danced on her hind legs, fluttering her wings to enhance her balance. She jabbed her forehooves at invisible opponents, boxing with shadows to relieve her tension.
Hmph. If he wants to be that way, it’s his business.
She wanted to believe that, but it wasn’t true: the quality of their team flying depended on him opening up. In the two short weeks she’d been catching up on maneuvers with him, the difference between flying with friendly Soarin’ and flying with standoffish Soarin’ was extreme. She had to figure him out. She owed it to herself, to the team, and even to him. Maybe especially to him. Still...
Jab, duck, swing. A part of her resented the situation. A part of her thought he owed it to the team to get over whatever it was.
Turn, jab, jab, spin, buck. Why should it be her problem?
Because he’s your wingmate and your friend and that’s what friends do.
She slumped, panting.
“Hey, tiger! You look like you need a real target. Come over here and hoof those jabs! Or whatever.”
Spitfire jumped. Red was peeking out from behind one of the hanging heavy punching bags, offering to hold it steady for her to pummel.
She put on a reluctant smile. Her natural inclination was to work out her frustrations alone, but maybe she’d been doing a bit too much of that lately.
“Hi, Red. Didn’t expect to run into anyone here.”
Her friend shot her a knowing smirk. “That’s a funny way to say ‘I wanted to be alone.’ Well, tough noogies, hon. I saw you storming across the parade ground and I decided you needed company.”
“How is it that you always know what everypony’s thinking?”
Her friend chuckled. “It’s just what I do, honey. I can’t help it. For instance, you’re worried over Soarin’, I can read it all over your face. That’s not all you’re worried about, either. Care to talk about it?”
Spitfire sighed. She did, but at the same time she didn’t. Sure, Red. The problem is I’m a violent freak and I’m gonna lose my cool and kill somepony. Then I’ll be alone again.
“It’s the competition, isn’t it?”
“Sometimes I swear you’re psychic.”
“Not at all. It isn’t my fault Harmony saw fit to make me so good at reading body language.” Red motioned at the bag. Somewhat reluctantly, Spitfire took a few experimental jabs at it.
“So that’s your talent? Do you... feel anything when you do it?”
Red blinked. “Well sure. When I use it to help people I feel pretty good. I can tell you, when I first came into it I was a little too eager: I learned the hard way that not everypony likes the idea that their emotions are an open book to me.” She nodded at Spitfire. “You’re not too keen on the idea yourself. And yet, you’re jealous... and sad. Talk to me, honey.”
Spitfire threw a few firmer punches at the bag, causing Red to grunt at the impacts. “It’s not so easy for me. What if your talent wasn’t for something wholesome? What if it was something... bad?”
“Honey, my mama raised me right. If you’re marked for something, it’s a gift from Harmony. That means it’s good, whether you can see it or not.”
Spitfire spun some kicks and a wild haymaker into her routine. This felt good. She started breathing harder. “But... what good is fighting?”
Red took a half-step back under the onslaught being poured into the sandbag. It may have been the first time Spitfire had seen her genuinely surprised. “Fighting? Are you serious?”
Spitfire jerked her head toward her flank “This appeared when I smacked a bully who wouldn’t leave me alone. When I get into a conflict I get... excited. I lose control. That satisfaction your special gift is supposed to give you? I’m terrified of it. I think of it as a wild beast and I’m terrified that it’ll take over and I’ll hurt someone.”
“Still, you’re fighting A Flight’s very own Diamond Dust tomorrow.” She made a face. “Can’t think of a more deserving pony.”
Spitfire slumped against the bag. “Red! It’s not funny! What if I really hurt him? I don’t want that on my conscience, even if he is a prick!”
“I’m sorry, hon. I was kidding. Bad decision. See? Knowing what somepony’s feeling doesn’t always mean I know what do do with it.” She regarded Spitfire for a long moment. “Suddenly some things make a bit more sense. You were worried that we’d be scared of you, if we knew.”
“Or disgusted. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?”
“Is this why you’re all worked up over Soarin’?”
Spitfire resumed her assault, falling into a more measured and persistent rhythm this time. “Hmph. I’m not worked up over anypony. If he wants to be a big jerk that’s his prerogative.”
Red shot her a serious look. “Hon, you’ve got him all wrong.”
She shook her head. “I’ve seen it before. More times than I can count.”
“No, you’re just so scared that people are scared of you that you see it when it isn’t there.”
“Really? Then why does he act like he can’t stand the sight of me, half the time?”
For a long moment, the rhythmic thump of Spitfire’s hooves against the canvas was the only sound. Red sighed. “Honey, I can’t just go around using my special talent to be a gossip and a meddler. It isn’t right. If you want me to tell you what he’s feeling when he looks at you, I’ll need you to give me permission to tell him the same thing, if and when I see fit.”
Spitfire’s eyes widened at the offer. She jabbed the bag a bit harder and stammered, “J-just what is it I’m feeling when I look at him, then?”
A sad expression washed over Red’s face. “Fear. I wondered why until just now. You’re afraid you’ll hurt him. You’re afraid to lose him if you don’t open up but you’re afraid to open up because that would make the inevitable hurt unbearable. Same thing you feel when you look at me, or at Wedge. Only moreso. And you think you’ve already lost him.”
A hint of anguish crept into her voice. “Well haven’t I? Ever since I told that stupid story about kicking the wyverns he’s been different. I’m a freak and he can see it.”
Red only arched an eyebrow at her.
“Ugh. OK, fine. If you absolutely have to tell him, go ahead. Now tell me!”
Red gave a gentle laugh. “Honey, he’s sulking because you don’t need him anymore.”
“That boy just wants somepony to need him. He’s smaller than his brothers. Gentler, too. I’d imagine he’s spent his whole life in their shadow, not quite measuring up to them in the ways he wanted to.” A touch of playful mischief crept into her face. “Then, one day, there was this precious yellow flower falling from the skies. Only he could save her. Only he could protect her. He was her knight in shining armor and she was his damsel in distress. Suddenly he had a purpose! He was a new stallion! Oh, you should have seen him on exercises the days you were down. He looked like he felt ten feet tall.” Her eyes twinkled. “You already heard how he almost came to blows defending your honor. Like a knight out of a storybo-oof!” Spitfire betrayed her reaction to Red’s words by kicking the bag a bit too hard.
Red shrugged. “Then, things changed. It turned out that you were anything but a distressed damsel: if anything you’re tougher than he is. He felt like a fool. To make matters worse, his brothers took you off for special instruction that next week. Suddenly you needed help, and Wedge could help you but he couldn’t. He burned so hot with jealousy and resentment I’m surprised I didn’t get a sunburn flying next to him on exercises. Honey, he’s carrying one hell of a torch for you. In a way it’s good this happened when it did: if he’d gone on with his little fantasy for too long you might both have been burned by it.”
“I... I had no idea...”
Red cast a knowing glance. “Really? Not much experience with boys, I take it?”
She shook her head, embarrassed.
“Soarin’s hardly unique in this respect: most of ‘em love to be needed. Make ‘em feel necessary and they’ll do anything for you. The good ones, anyway.” She caught Spitfire’s eyes. “This one’s better’n most. I wouldn’t let him get away if I were you.”
Spitfire offered a wry grin. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t. But I’m not... and I don’t know what I want.”
“In all seriousness, hon, you ought to decide soon. He deserves to be let down easy, if it comes to that.”
Spitfire paused and considered that. “You’re right. I will.”
She smiled at her friend. “You’ve been a big help, Red. What say we call it a night before I punch a hole in this poor sandbag?”
Red gave an exaggerated sigh of relief. “You don’t have to ask me twice!”
“Oh, and Spitfire?”
“The game tomorrow. Diamond Dust. You really think you might hurt him?”
Hesitating, she nodded again.
“In that case? Don’t fight. It’s just a game. We wouldn’t want to force you into something you don’t want to do. You do what you need to do and we’ll support you one hundred percent.”
Spitfire pulled a towel off the rack by the door as the two of them headed back to the dorm. “Thanks, Red.”
Red and Spitfire laughed their way back to the dormitory.
“I am not mooning over Soarin’. Leastaways not half as much as you are over Stargazer.”
Red giggled. “I admit, I’ve got it bad.” She looked up and smiled. “I think he does, too.”
“You mean you don’t know? Don’t tell me he’s immune to your senses.”
“No, I can read him just fine. Would you believe he doesn’t think he’s good enough for me?” She laughed. “A born leader, the son of a celebrity, got the world on a string, and he doesn’t think he’s good enough for a working-class tramp from Bitsburgh. The captain raised a pair of good, honest boys but they sure are hard on themselves.” She shot Spitfire a sly wink. “They both grew up on romanticized versions of T-Bone’s tale of finding love at SAR camp, too. Lucky us...” Red trailed off. She turned to Spitfire, her eyes shining with some mix of humor and disbelief. Silently she pointed at the nearest window.
Spitfire crept over and peeked inside. In the laundry room their wingmates stood with their backs to the window, chatting and laughing as they went about washing uniforms. Soarin’ held one up, deftly hanging it on a line to dry.
The way he’d hung it, it was hard to miss the number 7 emblazoned upon it. By the looks of things Stargazer had also washed Red’s uniforms. Spitfire turned back to Red, agape. “They’re doing our laundry for us?”
Red nodded, struggling to contain a laugh. “Aren’t they just adorable?”
Spitfire could only nod. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
Together the two girls crept upstairs. When they reached Red’s room they collapsed inside, laughing until tears streamed down their faces.
Spitfire felt as though a weight had lifted off of her back. She still had to figure out how to mend fences with Soarin’, and how to avoid killing Red One... but now she had options. Tomorrow would take care of itself. In the meantime she had one friend who knew what she was and didn’t care. For the time being, that was enough.
(Sneaky ninja author has moved the interlude from the 5-6 gap to the 6-7 gap, where it really belongs)
Tragedy strikes, interrupting the big Corps relay -- but not before Spitfire finds herself in the ring with a certain arrogant big shot.
Mysecsha here. I wrote this little prequel to Wild Sky Yonder on a whim when chapter five had me well and truly stumped. Well, I feel bad that chapter 5 took me so long and I liked this so much I couldn’t not share it, so I had an idea: every 5 chapters I’ll do an interlude in the form of a short flashback story. Look for “Finest Hour” after chapter 10, a short piece about the ancient Corps.
Wild Sky Yonder
6 years ago
Thunderhead weaved between black cloud and blacker smoke. His feathers were singed, his eyes burned, his head throbbed. A cough racked his body, and he dropped a few dozen feet.
Undeterred, he whipped himself up on one wing and curled up into the storm. In and out he dove, sensing the strongest concentrations of static, imposing his will upon the lightning, guiding it into trees already ablaze. If the storm started new fires then the whole effort would be for naught.
Tucked in behind him, his wingmate followed his every twist and turn. The gray-coated mare’s mane was slick with rain, her face tight with pain, determination and focus. He and Dee had been together through thick and thin these last twelve weeks. They were best friends and great partners... and Thunderhead thought they could be much more. He’d promised her their first date would be this weekend. That had been before the fire.
While he herded the lightning, she drove the rain. It poured in icy sheets out of the black sky, droplets shining red and orange in the reflected light of the forest fire. Though she looked as tired as he felt, Dee flashed him a smile, shouting against the wind “You said... you would... take me... dancing!”
He grinned. “Sorry! Have to... get a... raincheck!”
“That pun... terrible!”
Flying through that churning black hell, Thunderhead decided there was no place he’d rather be. The rest of Gold squad had a tornado going over the lake, pushing water into the sky to feed the storm clouds. Red and Blue were building firebreaks to keep the fire away from the camp and the town. Green was running interference, keeping the smoke away from the diggers -- two close friends in Blue had succumbed to smoke inhalation yesterday. Only he and Dee were deep in the storm, testing themselves against the elements, herding the storm together, exulting in the gifts that made them pegasi.
The seconds seemed like minutes, the minutes like hours. Camp Solar’s cadre of training officers began to appear in the storm: they must have finished the evacuation of Glimmervale. Slowly, painfully, though it drained every ounce of energy they had, they began to force the fire back. Afternoon turned to evening unnoticed in the chaotic darkness of the storm.
They’d spent days fighting this fire. The simulated emergency exercise that usually concluded training had been cancelled in favor of the genuine emergency. The fire had claimed three trainees, two officers and nearly a dozen of the townsfolk. Now, finally, the SAR ponies had the upper hoof and this wildfire was about to go out with a whimper. A thrill rushed through him as he shot another lightning bolt at a burning pine. The tree exploded, flaming shrapnel raining down into the smoldering muck below.
Behind him, Dee gave a strangled cry. He turned to see her dodge flying debris, pass right through a thick band of smoke and emerge flailing and fluttering, her eyes closed. He dove in pursuit. Another bolt of lightning caught him unawares, the flash momentarily blinding him. In the ensuing darkness he lost track of her. Panicked, he listened for her but all he could hear was the roaring fire and the rolling thunder.
Trembling, he climbed up into the storm and set about dispersing it with a vengeance. An old chestnut stallion interposed himself angrily.
“Just what do you think you’re doing, cadet?”
“Captain, Dee’s down there! She took a face full of smoke and tumbled down! The fire’s dying, we’ve beaten it, but I’ll never find her in this storm.”
Thunderhead watched the stern edge soften in Firelight’s eyes. The doctor didn’t like him much but he detested the thought of losing another young cadet. He rested a hoof on Thunderhead’s withers.
“Go. We mustn’t let the fire claim another pegasus. I’ll rally the troops and clear the skies.”
Thunderhead saluted. “Thank you sir!”
Evening became night. The skies gradually cleared, illuminating the valley in the soft glow of the full moon. Thunderhead and the rest of his flight spread out amidst the wet, smoldering desolation in search of their fallen comrade.
“Dee, answer me!”
“We’re coming, Two! Hold on!”
The night dragged on, bringing a chill that should have been a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Instead it matched the icy dread that gripped his heart. He passed over a low ridge. A weak voice pleaded in the darkness.
Dee lay trapped under a fallen log. One of her forelegs was bent at an unnatural angle and her wings were badly burned. Thunderhead blinked back tears. He rose a few feet into the air.
“THREE! FOUR! I found her! Bring a stretcher!”
When he saw the other two ponies bolt back toward camp he settled down into the mud beside his wingmate.
“Hey there, rainy-face. You missed dinner! I was worried about you.”
Dee offered a pained chuckle. “I hope you brought me something, I’m starving.”
He forced a smile. “Sure did! Let’s see, we’ve got toasted pine nuts, flame-broiled pine bark, roasted pine cones and a delightful pine-ash pudding. What can I get you?”
She lay her head across his legs and groaned. “I think I’ll pass.”
“Don’t worry, Dee. Three and Four are on their way. We’ll have you back home in no time.”
“Shucks, I was just starting to get comfortable.”
He kissed her forehead. “We did it, Dee. Fire’s out. We’re heroes.”
She nestled her head against his chest. “Maybe we are, but you never did take me dancing.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, Dee. I promise.”
“You’d better, this is the worst date I’ve ever been on.”
Tragedy strikes, interrupting the big Corps relay -- but not before Spitfire finds herself in the ring with a certain arrogant big shot.
Wild Sky Yonder
This is humiliating.
Spitfire was hog-tied and hanging from the top of a lodgepole pine. This was her part in phase one of the relay. She’d be stuck here like this until Wedge found her and Soarin’ carried her back to camp. After that, Red would poke, prod, splint, and wrap all six of her appendages, after which it would finally be her turn to participate in the game as something other than baggage.
By that time she’d be just itching to tear Diamond a new one.
She looked over to the next hilltop, where she could see him hanging like a Hearth’s Warming ornament just as she was. No, she wasn’t itching to fight him. In fact, she was dreading it. Not because she thought she’d be hurt -- she had complete confidence in her abilities. She was afraid she’d lose control, and then she’d be picking little bits of Red One out of her teeth for weeks.
She let herself fall slack against the ropes. Somewhere, presumably not far away, Red Twelve was in a similar predicament. The rules of the game dictated that the last flight to return from each squad lost the race: there was always the hope that either A or B flight would be the last red flight to return, and then she’d either fight Twelve or not fight at all.
Slim chance of not fighting: Wedge was the best tracker in camp. She thought back to this morning, wishing she’d had the courage to say something. Red knew her worries and had offered her support, but she hadn’t been able to tell the boys about it. They’d both been so excited for the game -- Soarin’ in particular seemed energized and eager. If she backed out now, she’d let him down.
Worse, she’d be showing weakness to a bully. He would be worse than ever after that.
She glared at T-Bone, who perched a few feet away.
“Why are we playing this game, anyway? We haven’t even started first aid or self defense!”
T-Bone turned and flashed his most insufferable grin. “That’s it exactly! Everypony who’s been in a schoolyard scrap thinks she knows how to fight. And everypony who thinks that is dead wrong. But why try to tell you that you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing when we can just let you prove it?”
She groaned. “Is there any good reason I have to be tied up for this part?”
T-Bone winked at her. “Don’t underestimate the value of practicing your knots.”
Spitfire made a frustrated noise. He was the king of infuriating non-answers.
“Aw, look on the bright side, Seven: you’ve got me to talk to. I’m a brilliant conversationalist.”
“If you do say so yourself”
“And I do! Know what else I say? I say you’re the last of my little worker bees without a nickname. What say we rectify that?”
“Last one? What about Soarin’?”
“Short for somethin’.”
In his eyes flashed the impish gleam that Spitfire was coming to recognize as if you do what I say next, you’re asking for it. “Ask him. He’d be delighted to tell you.”
Perplexed, she dropped the topic. “What if I don’t want a nickname?”
“Then we can talk about your love life.”
“My love life?”
“Sit in silence, then?”
“Fine... your love life?”
She glared at him.
“Calm down, Buttercup. Only kidding.”
“Buttercup?” She scowled and poured incredulity into her voice.
“Daffodil? Goldenrod? Dandelion?”
With each suggestion, her scowl deepened.
He chuckled. “No flowers, then. How about... Fireball? Hot Stuff? Fireflier? Flames?”
She slumped. “I’m tired of this game.”
T-Bone snorted. “What, already? No fun, Seven. No fun at all.” He sighed and scanned the skies. “Buck up, kiddo: I think I see your extraction team coming over the next hill.”
Spitfire swung to look in the direction he was facing. In the distance two large specks slowly resolved themselves into stallions. It certainly appeared to be Wedge and Soarin’, but they were headed in the wrong direction. She watched, confused, as the two stopped to chat over by Diamond Dust and Coriolis.
It was another fifteen agonizing minutes before they approached. Happy as she would otherwise be to see her wingmate in such high spirits, Spitfire was in no mood for their cheerful grins.
“Hey, Spit! Fancy meeting you out here!” said Wedge.
“Yeah, what’s up? Just hangin’ out?” said Soarin’.
“What was that all about?” she demanded, jerking her head towards the two ponies in the distance.
The two brothers grinned at one another. “Oh, Cori’s got a sister on the Glim High hockey team. We both played on it, so we thought we’d catch up.”
Spitfire began to protest. T-Bone cut her off. “Oh really? How’s my Chargers this season?”
Soarin’s face fell into a mock frown. “Not good. Looks like this isn’t our year, T-Bone.”
“Really? Damn. I thought they looked pretty good this year.”
“They did... but their starting goalie’s down for the count,” said Wedge. He smiled and gave Soarin’ a brotherly slug on the shoulder. “Looks like your save record is safe another year.”
Spitfire steamed as the brothers pointedly ignored her.
T-Bone chuckled. “Aw, ‘bout time somepony broke that record, if you ask me. All right, give me the worse news: if it’s not our year, whose is it?”
Wedge grimaced. “Guess.”
“Oh no, not them? Not again?”
His younger brothers nodded solemnly. He groaned.
“Seven, you didn’t go to Nimbus Academy, did you?”
Spitfire only glared at him.
“Did you play?”
“Anything to add? Anything at all?”
Spitfire’s eye began to twitch.
“Well, aren’t you just a ray of sunshine today? All right, boys. Looks like the patient requires immediate evac. Get ‘er down, Soarin’.”
With a smile and an uncharacteristic wink, Soarin’ deftly untied the bindings on her legs and eased her off of the tree and onto his back. T-Bone gathered up the excess rope as he and Wedge prepared for their own, separate departure.
“Okay, see you kids back at camp. Good talk, Sunshine!”
Spitfire sulked on the flight back to camp. Or rather, she tried to sulk. Her wingmate was doing a surprisingly good job of preventing her.
“You know I usually charge twenty bits for a ride back to camp, but you seem like a real nice girl, so how’s about I let you ride for free?”
She smiled in spite of herself. “Bet you say that to all the girls.”
“No, just... just you.”
As the words left his mouth he tensed up, embarrassed. They flew on in silence for a moment. She gave his shoulders a light squeeze. I’m not upset. Don’t go away again.
To her relief she felt him relax. “So... ‘Sunshine,’ huh?”
She buried her face in his back. “UGH.”
“I like it. Sunshine and Soarin’, Soarin’ and Sunshine. The bold hero and the mysterious amazon, out saving the world.”
She snorted. “Not so fast, mister. We can save the world when I’m talking to you again. Which I’m not right now. Not after that stupid hockey stunt back there.”
He craned his neck to scowl at her. “Hey! Hockey’s not stupid.”
“It’s not! It’s fast and strategic and you gotta have real quick reflexes, and...”
“You know that’s not what I meant. You left me hanging for like twenty minutes! What was that about, anyway?”
“That was about you being a part of the family. You know we all tease. It’s what we do. It’s tradition. Besides, it’s not any different than you guys giving me trouble for my singing last week, or you and Red laughing at us last night when we did your laundry out of the goodness of our big, generous hearts.”
“Well... that was all in good fun!”
“So was this!”
She gave an indignant harrumph. After a moment’s pause, she asked, “So... are you really the best goalie they ever had?”
His ears perked up; she could hear the pride in his voice. “Nopony better!”
“That’s... really cool, Soarin’.”
“So, did you play?”
“No... Dad wanted me to play lacrosse, Mom convinced me to stick with track and field instead. And gymnastics. Dancing...”
He really perked up at that. “Dancing? What kind?”
Her face colored; she was glad he couldn’t see her. “Hey! I thought I wasn’t talking to you!”
“Yeah, you said that. Funny thing, though: you’re not very good at sticking to it. Must be on account of how I’m so charming.”
Spitfire couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh you are, are you?”
“Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. Thing is, it must be true. Why else are you having such a hard time keeping your hooves off of me?” At that moment Soarin’ fluttered his wings, dropping abruptly into a steep turn. Spitfire gave a yelp and wrapped herself more tightly around him. “See?”
“You did that on purpose!”
“What’re you talkin’ about, Spit?”
She snatched the strap of his goggles in her teeth and snapped it against his head. “Don’t you play dumb with me! What’s the big idea?”
She could feel him chuckle. “Maybe I just wanted a hug.”
She laid her head along his mane. “Well, you got one. Thanks, Soarin’.”
“Keeping my mind off this sparring match. I’m not looking forward to it. Any chance C Flight beats us back?”
He shook his head. “We saw ‘em heading in on our way out. Apples freaked out and called it off. The C’s are D-Q’d. Pears is pissed.”
She swore. Red Twelve, Apogee, was the youngest cadet: a sweet, small stallion whose timidity left Spitfire unsurprised that he’d reacted poorly to playing the payload in today’s game. She wondered why they would have chosen him as their fighter. Spitfire had known of his older cousin Perigee back home; she’d been undisputed champion of a half-dozen track and field events, Spitfire’s personal bests had never touched Pears’ records. At camp Pears doted on Apples like a big sister, and sometimes bullied him like one, too. It would have made much more sense for her to be C Flight’s brawler.
Now that there was no doubt she’d have to face Diamond Dust in the ring she could think of little else.She grew quiet as the camp came into view. Presently T-Bone waved them in to the parade ground, where Red was waiting with a big roll of gauze.
Spitfire tugged and squirmed her way out of the gauze wrappings, looking for all the world like a freshly unearthed mummy. Red helped, deftly cutting through the bandages when she could get Spitfire to stay still enough.
“Full marks, Red. Color me impressed”
Red shrugged. “My mama’s an ER nurse. I looked after her when she got sick, plus lots of rambunctious little tykes in the old neighborhood always showin’ up with some manner of minor catastrophe... guess I just picked up a few things.”
She smiled at her friend. “Red, you’re being modest. Is something wrong?”
Red returned a thin-lipped, worried smile and gestured to the left.
Spitfire looked over and groaned. A Flight’s extraction team was just returning with their loathsome package. Diamond Dust’s petty grudge had caused problems for his team: he was the biggest member of the flight and by all rights should have the payload carrier rather than the payload itself. A Flight had shuffled all of its roles just to back him up in his desire to fight Spitfire. Red Two, Shifty, was an able tracker but she was also petite: unlikely to be able to help carry a big stallion like Diamond Dust. Three and Four -- whose nicknames, for reasons known only to A Flight, were Buff and Wax -- were stronger and had therefore drawn the unenviable task of finding One and lugging him back to base. The two mares looked exhausted.
Shifty set about poking, prodding, and bandaging her wingmate with what seemed to Spitfire to be a bit too much alacrity. She certainly went at it with much more enthusiasm than skill.
Hmph. Maybe somepony oughta check up on those two after lights out.
That was probably just wishful thinking: if Wedge and Red could keep themselves out of trouble, the arrogant big shot and his little sidekick could surely do the same.
Throughout the display Cori hovered and corrected, teased and cajoled. It seemed that despite their shuffling of duty assignments, A Flight was about to pass through the third stage with flying colors.
Spitfire sighed as Red peeled away the last of the bandages. She trudged over to the center of the parade ground, where T-Bone waited beside a painted ring in the grass. Diamond Dust and Coriolis joined them, a savage smile on the stallion’s face.
T-Bone cleared his throat and drew their attention to the ring. “OK, you two. You’ve made it this far. Time for your first official sparring match. The rules are simple. No blows to the face or wings. The field of play is the airspace above the parade ground. If you exceed the height of the barracks, you are out of bounds. If you leave the parade ground laterally, you are out of bounds. For round one, if you touch the ground outside of this ring, you are out of bounds. Win by forcing your opponent out of bounds. For rounds two and three, I will select one of you as the aggressor. The aggressor has two minutes to touch the flagstone in the center of the ring. Failure to do so awards the round to the defender -- though the judges may deny points to the defender if the aggressor spends a significant amount of time inside the ring even if he or she fails to touch the flagstone.”
Diamond Dust snorted. “That doesn’t sound much like combat at all.”
T-Bone fixed him with an unamused stare. “No, it isn’t much like combat. Should you find yourself in the protector role in an honest-to-goodness rescue situation, the goal -- the only priority -- will be to keep any and all predators away from your charge. By any means necessary. Doing harm to any creature, no matter how vile, is an unfortunate side effect of this goal. Is that clear?”
Diamond Dust mumbled acquiescence. Spitfire paid very little attention. Something in the rules had set her mind ablaze with possibilities. She could win two rounds out of three without laying a hoof on him! She’d have to keep her anger in check: if she didn’t, she wouldn’t want to keep her hooves to herself.
The two combatants squared off on either side of the ring. At T-Bone’s signal, the match began. Neither combatant made the first move, each daring the other.
After a long moment, Diamond Dust laughed. “Please, I insist. Ladies first.”
“What’s the matter, big shot? Too timid to lead this dance?” Spitfire immediately regretted saying anything: keeping her mouth shut was the surest way to keep her temper in check. Still, the comment had had the desired effect: Red One took to the air and circled, watching her for an opportunity to strike. She eschewed the use of her wings, dancing lightly on her hooves precariously close to the paint of the ring.
C’mon, big shot. Look, I’m right on the edge. All it takes is a little shove. C’mon! She hopped to and fro, trying to maintain a careless, casual mien.
One took the bait. He swooped down, hooves cocked to deliver a staggering blow. Spitfire fell to her knees and shielded her body with her wings. One veered away at the last second.
“Time! Seven, if you intentionally draw a wing strike he won’t be penalized!”
One swept up into his lazy orbit, laughing. “Nice try, Stain. Won’t work next time. Still, you found my tender, compassionate side. I’d never hit a lady where she’s wounded -- even if she’s a conniving, freeloading waste of space who’s long overdue for a washout.”
Spitfire let the comment wash over her. If she put her mind to it, it wasn’t terribly difficult to ignore his insults. In truth he wasn’t very good at them. Now, Uncle Sprite: there was an insult artist. She imagined the despicable old drunk and the cocky young cadet trading barbs with one another. In her head, Diamond was reduced to tears almost instantly. She chuckled.
One set up another dive. She held her ground until the last moment, then vaulted over his head. She spun in the air and landed with a dancer’s grace several feet behind him. Frustration crept onto his face. She smiled. He snorted.
“Don’t wanna fight, don’t wanna fly? Guess I’ll have to get my hooves dirty.”
He landed in the ring and reared back on his hind legs. His boxer’s stance looked unpracticed and amateurish even to her untrained eyes. He waded in and made a few experimental jabs with his hooves. As it had every time since adolescence, instinct took over: she didn’t know quite how she did it, but wherever his hooves were, she wasn’t. Effortlessly flowing between his blows, leaving his hooves to strike at empty air, she turned all of her focus on the herculean task of resisting the urge to hit back.
Around and around the ring they went, dancers to a savage silent tune. Each missed blow brought Red One closer and closer to losing control of his temper entirely. Eventually, breathing heavily, One abandoned close combat in favor of more swooping dives and ringing blows. When he did so, Spitfire knew she had him. She improvised, pretending to be a bit more tired and sluggish with each pass. She dodged dive after dive until after one prodigious leap she slumped down, panting, just inside the painted edge of the ring.
Winded himself, One gave a triumphant Whoop and threw caution to the wind, diving at full speed lest she recover before he had the opportunity to tip her out of the ring. She spared a split-second to shoot him a malicious grin, then hopped to the side. He barreled straight into the turf, undeniably outside of the ring.
T-Bone laughed. “Point, Seven. Nice try, big shot. Why don’t we take a two-minute breather, then you’ll be the first aggressor.”
Moments later a commotion at the camp gate caught his attention. A look of fear and confusion washed over his face. “Never mind, round two cancelled. B Flight wins,” he muttered, and he dashed off.
A fire ignited in Diamond’s eyes. “What? Bullshit! You cannot be serious. This isn’t...” the remainder of his protest died in his throat as he turned and saw the bloodied, wild-eyed newcomer at the edge of the parade grounds.
One of Comet’s reindeer had stumbled into camp, bleeding and pale as death.
Spitfire gawked about as seemingly every pegasus in Camp Solar flew in formation toward the mouth of the valley. Comet’s son Aster had brought word that a pack of winter wolves had come down from the mountains and set upon his father and brothers and their harems. What should have been a time of life and celebration had become a slaughter.
Despite his protestations, Aster had been in no condition to make the return journey. While every cadet and sergeant had scrambled on the rescue mission, Aster had stayed behind in the care of Doctor Firelight.
The cadets had been briefed, but much had been left unsaid. Two words circled about the assembly in hushed tones. Those two words brought a shudder to even the most experienced SAR officer: recovery operation. Those words meant there would be no rescue. Those words meant they expected to find corpses, not survivors.
None of the officers said the words. None of them had to. The doctor had stayed behind. Thunderhead was grieving. After an initial scramble, presumably while T-Bone and Aurora had spoken to Aster, Coriolis had taken her time making sure the cadets knew their parts in this assignment. In short, the urgency had dissipated.
So it was a grim, quiet formation that made the short trip to the mouth of the valley. Out in front a flight of four training officers coursed ahead: Northwing Squadron’s three sergeants plus Moonglow, dressed in their garish red and yellow duty fatigues instead of their tan training uniforms. That left the twelve Red cadets under Aurora’s direct command.
Every officer in the formation wore an ugly black blade on his or her right forehoof. A cross between a large garden trowel and a machete, with a hinge that allowed it to fold up flush against the leg, the slingspades were the modern descendants of the gravity blades Spitfire had seen in the museum - though they were intended more for digging, cutting, and clearing vegetation, they had clearly been brought along on this mission in case the wolves were still about.
The formation cleared a low ridge and were greeted by a white patch in the forest, frozen despite the early autumn weather. Soft rime coated the trees and a thick white fog hung low over the forest floor. In twos and threes the cadets and their chaperones landed at the edge of the frosted patch, each squad taking its compass point as they’d been instructed.
In other circumstances the borders of the frosty thicket might have been described as a winter wonderland. Delicate, hoary ice crystals grew from every branch and needle. The ground was smooth as glass and fit for skating. Everywhere the crystals caught the sun and the scene shone and twinkled with a clean, friendly light. It looked like a Hearth’s Warming card brought to life.
The four officers in the vanguard plunged in. In those first, silent moments the cadets and remaining officers exchanged glances. No sound. Not so much as a whimper. A single, choked sob was heard: T-Bone’s voice. Recovery Op.
Then the air shattered in a crystalline roar. More than a dozen lupine throats chilled the air with their howl. The fog danced and scattered as wolf after wolf burst forth, their icy paws freezing the ground beneath with each stride.
Aurora leapt into the air, shouting to be heard over the din.
“Cadets! Up and at ‘em! Minimum height twenty feet! Green, let’s clear that fog! Gold, hit the ceiling! Get me some eyes in the sky! Blue, perimeter, eyes out! Watch another pack doesn’t join the party! Sergeants D through L, box ‘em in! Vanguard, hunt ‘em down! Red, you’re in reserve. On me! Flight leaders, if any one of your peers is below the deck it’s your flank!”
A mad scramble ensued as fifty ponies tried to be in a hundred places at once. Soarin’ doggedly tried to stay with his mother and Spitfire doggedly tried to stay with him. As they whirled through the maelstrom of fliers she saw Wedge and Red rise into place beside her. Then the fog lifted.
If the rim of the frozen glade was a serene holiday scene, the center of the thicket was a twisted nightmare. There, the ice was red. There, hunks of frozen, gnawed reindeer carcass lay strewn about like so much refuse. There, amidst the frozen ichor, stood the vanguard: three mares in a defensive circle around Thunderhead, who knelt in the snow beside the corpse of an old friend.
Thunderhead touched his hoof to Comet’s cheek. The sign of affection, so unthinkable in life, seemed perfectly natural in death.
“You always said you’d go out fighting, pal. I laughed. I didn’t believe you.”
He looked around. “I bet you took a few of them with you, you tough old bastard.”
Tucked in among the ruined corpses of his dear friend’s family he counted one, two, three, perhaps as many as nine or ten misshapen, vaguely sinister hunks of ice.
“Hah. Buck yeah, you took some with you.” Thunderhead straightened, flared his wings and flicked his slingspade to full extension. “What say I send you the rest as a going away present?”
A single, wing-assisted leap brought him alonside Coriolis. “How many?”
She shrugged. “Call it fourteen? What’s the plan?”
“You’re the boss.”
“Yeah, but you’ve done this before.”
He leapt a half-dozen feet in the air, scanning his surroundings. The pack had re-formed, their sinuous, looping paths of frost converging to the northeast and turning back on the only four targets they could still reach.
They were still hungry. Good.
He smiled. “Two by two. Carve one off and carve it up.” He turned to look at the gentle violet and yellow mare behind him. “Moonglow, look at me. These are not your uncle Archie’s cute little beagles, OK? These are demons. They only look like dogs. If we could talk to ‘em we wouldn’t be out here, right?”
She nodded. A hint of determination crept into her eyes. He hoped it’d be enough.
“Right. Go.” He was off like a shot, leaving Coriolis cursing in his wake. Hoof extended, he took the lead wolf at full speed, driving the thick black blade up into its mouth and out the back of its head, which burst apart in a spray of ice. The decapitated alpha wolf tumbled and pranced, insensate but not incapacitated. He twisted and cut into another wolf, and another, slashing one across the neck and stabbing deep into what would have been the other’s ribcage, if it had one. As the metal sank into the ice monster’s core he felt it warp and sing, the bitter cold reaching as far back as the bracket that secured it to his leg.
Those would be his last easy strikes. The baying pack responded, curbing its charge and wheeling around to face the aggressor in their midst. Behind him one of the beasts loosed an unearthly howl as it pounced at him. He spun, flailing wildly with his blade. He sheared the monster’s paw off at the wrist, shoulder-checked it out of his way and set his hooves for the next challenger.
That was his first mistake. Full body contact with the winter wolf chilled him to the bone, sapping his strength and his concentration. Another wolf pounced. He drove his hoof up under its chin and the cold-brittle blade shattered. The blue-white light in the wolf-beast’s empty eye sockets went out in a puff of smoke as its momentum carried it past, the majority of his slingspade still lodged in its head.
Seizing a half-second’s respite, he saw Cori dispatching the wolves he’d wounded, and Moonglow and Cloudburst carefully isolating another member of the pack. Turning, he found himself hemmed in by four more of the creatures. The beast at the fore towered over the others; where they were sleek and featureless it was a hulking mass with a shaggy coat of hoary ice crystals. It bared its teeth at him, its white, frosty breath swirling out around its translucent fangs.
An alpha. Same as the first he’d killed.
Two alphas? That doesn’t...
He never had time to finish that thought. The alpha snarled and leapt at him, its massive paws upraised. He jammed the remaining shard of his blade deep into one of its eye sockets, tearing through the straps as he turned. The second wolf landed full upon his back, as did the third, and the fourth. So quickly did his temperature drop that he didn’t feel the bite upon his flank.
The one on his neck, though, that one he did feel.
Spitfire whipped her head around at Wedge’s startled cry. She didn’t see her sergeant, just a pile of three snarling, writhing ice-monsters. She turned a frightened face to Aurora.
Aurora was already in motion. Seeing her son’s blade fail, she discarded her own.
“Sergeants: targets of opportunity! Cadets: Stay! Up!”
In the span of an eyeblink Aurora crossed the distance to her son. Spitfire would later swear she’d seen just a glimpse of green and pink light around the captain as she moved: the “Northern Lights” that had been her signature trick as a Wonderbolt. The force of her impact incapacitated all three of the wolves, each forehoof taking one in the head and both hind legs dashing another in half at the waist. She made a terse hoof gesture for Cori to see to Thunderhead and set off after the rest of the pack.
All around the glade the sergeants had the remaining wolves on the run. Quickly, methodically, as dispassionately as a gardener trimming a hedge, she chased down and ended each in turn: a green flash, a savage blow, one less winter wolf, until there were no more.
One by one the sergeants folded their spades. Cadets and officers alike exchanged looks. Those who had seen combat before silently reassuring those who hadn’t, yes, that just happened. That was real. An hour ago, training had been all fun and games. Now they’d all seen five of their officers slay fourteen beasts in a matter of moments, before a backdrop of frozen gore, and for all they knew they may have seen one of those officers die.
Aurora spread her wings and dashed over to where Cori was tending to her son. In a voice that sounded decades older and more brittle than it had mere moments before, she said, “Good work, everypony. B Flight, your sergeant needs a medevac. Everyone else... Coriolis has command of the recovery from here.”
Gingerly, Spitfire and Stargazer loaded Thunderhead’s shivering form onto Soarin’s back. Moonglow accompanied them in silence as they took their stricken sergeant back to camp. Spitfire took one last long look at the scene. Aurora stood in the midst of the frost. The captain appeared to be intoning a last rite, though she couldn’t say what kind. Cadets and officers wandered grimly through the thicket, gathering the frozen bodies for identification and burial. Here and there a cadet retched. Spitfire blinked in surprise: Shifty appeared to be weeping bitterly, and Diamond Dust was comforting her. His own face was grim and serious. He met her eyes and looked away; she saw none of the challenge she expected. A thoughtful frown crossed her face, and she turned to rejoin her friends as they bore Thunderhead to the infirmary.
(The interlude previously appeared between 5 and 6. For storytelling reasons, it should be clear that 1-6 constitutes “Act I” of the story, and that this is the better place for a side story)
Have a bonus chapter! You don’t have to take Stargazer’s word for it: find out what really happened when T-Bone’s training class graduated.
Or maybe super amazing bonus chapters aren’t your style. That’s cool. I guess I could live with that. I suppose I could let you go straight to Act II:
A sergeant wounded. A rematch demanded. Memories. Perhaps most important of all, a new officer whose impact on cadet morale cannot be overestimated.
Wild Sky Yonder
Four ponies paced around the infirmary’s cramped waiting room. Nervous glances took in the clock, the door, the windows, each other. There was no reassurance to be had. Red sat down and snorted.
“I hate this. Last time I was in a hospital waiting room, my mama’d collapsed on the job.” She looked around. “I’m almost glad they’re so shorthooved here. Nothing worse than a room full of doctors and nurses, and nopony who’ll give you the time of day.”
Wedge sat down next to her and put a wing around her withers. “Last time I was here, T-Bone was the one pacing around like a nervous lunatic. Little Dee was on the way. Remember, Soarin’? He was a wreck!”
Soarin’ wrapped his wing around Spitfire and guided her over to the other two. “I sure do and he sure was. But you’re wrong. The last time we were here, Seven was the one on the wrong side of the door, and we were all pacing around worried about her.”
As they reached Wedge and Red, Spitfire put a wing around Red and the brothers completed the circle. Spitfire gave her wingman a little nudge. “None more than you, big guy. Doc Firelight said you were so intent on sticking with me you had to be ordered outa here.”
Soarin’ blushed, then he smiled. “Yeah. I guess I did.”
Spitfire looked at the floor. Each of her friends had shared something deeply personal. Was it her turn now? They trusted her, and still she held them at hoof’s length. She closed her eyes and just let her mind drift.
Let them in! Don’t let them in! Trust them! Can’t trust anypony!
She felt her wings intertwined with theirs, felt the warmth they gave off, the familiar glow of their friendship and the desire to pay it back in kind. The hole in her heart overrode reason and fear, and memories swept over her like a flood.
“The last time... the last time I was in a place like this, a police officer came to get me after school. When Officer Friendly took me down to Eastdale Memorial Hospital, I figured maybe Grandma had passed on, she was sick for a long time. Didn’t make much sense they’d send for me that way, but... when you’re a kid, you don’t always think of things like that. The waiting room was full of scared ponies: grown ups, teens, colts and fillies. I recognized a lot of them. I remember there wasn’t a free seat so I hopped up on a windowsill and waited my turn. Pony after pony got their name called, and they walked in scared and walked out crying. I started to get worried. I wanted to leave. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run off to the restaurant where Mom and Dad were going to go for their date night and ask them to take me for ice cream. Then the nurse called my name.
“In the office there was a big wooden desk with a wrinkly old doctor behind it. He had a kind smile and sad eyes. He asked me my name. He asked me if Alpine Frost and Zephyr were my parents’ names. He said there had been a terrible accident at the weather factory... he told me they were gone.”
Red and Soarin’ closed up the circle, squeezing her tighter. For the first time in years she began to feel whole. Through teary eyes she offered her friends a grateful smile. “Thanks, guys. Red... was your mom alright? What happened?”
Red flashed a tiny grin. “Meningitis. Nasty piece of work. Fortunately, my mama’s an even nastier piece of work. Took a month of bed rest in the dark and an awful lot of frankly underappreciated tender lovin’ care from yours truly, but she made it through. She’s a fighter. I get the feeling she’d like you a whole awful lot, Sunshine.”
A fresh set of hoofbeats brought B Flight’s eyes to the door as Dee barged in.
“Where’s my big ugly idiot?”
Wedge disengaged from the circle and went to greet his sister-in-law. “Hi, Auntie Dee. Firelight’s got him. We’ll know more soon. We got him here pretty quick, I think he’s gonna be alright.”
Dee paced around the room. “Ugh. This place brings me back. I hate it in here. Hate it, hate it, hate it!”
Soarin’ shrugged. “We’re all passing the time sharing sad stories. Want a turn?”
She sighed and sat down. “Sure, why not?”
Turning a meaningful glance to Wedge, she said, “You know, the last time I did the waiting room thing... gosh, I think it was all the way back to Jag and Zene.”
Spitfire blinked and looked up. “Who?”
Dee offered a sad smile. “My big sister Zenith and her husband Jagged Peak. You were looking at their pictures at the house a week or three ago? Horrible training accident. That may have been the worst day I can remember. One minute I’m on cloud nine because my block-headed wingmate finally popped the question, next minute I’m in a room like this one, scared stiff, thinking I’m gonna lose my sister, and then I’m gonna have to raise this rambunctious knucklehead,” she jerked her head toward Wedge before continuing, “and then Stormy’s not going to be so gung ho about marrying me if there’s already kids in the picture, and...”
Red’s eyes snapped open. “Wait. Wait. What? What was that about this rambunctious knucklehead?”
Dee shot Wedge a bemused look. “You didn’t tell them?”
Soarin’ cocked his head quizzically. “We didn’t tell them?”
Spitfire looked around the circle. “Guys? If you don’t tell us what, I think Red’s gonna blow a fuse.”
Wedge turned to his wingmate. “I’m sorry, Red. I really am. It just... there was... it was a long time ago, and I’m as over it as you could expect me to be, and it never seemed like the right time to bring it up.”
“Bring what up?”
Wedge cringed, not quite meeting her eyes. When the words did come out, they tumbled out all at once. “My mom and dad died in a training accident and my best friend’s parents adopted me so that my mom’s baby sister and my friend’s big brother wouldn’t have to raise me when they were just starting out together?”
Red slugged him in the shoulder. Then she pounced on him and buried her face in his mane. “You should have said something!”
Rubbing his neck, he said, “Red, c’mon. It’s OK. I mean... it’s ancient history. I miss ‘em, Dee does too. But I couldn’t ask for a better family, all things considered... it’s OK...”
Spitfire turned to the gray mare. “So... that’s why he calls you ‘Auntie Dee’?”
“Where’s the little one?”
“Moonglow’s got her. Mommy needs to make sure Daddy’s not a horror show before the little one can come say hello.” Dee lowered her head, a determined look in her eyes. “It’s been fun, gang, but I have a husband to chew out. So if you’ll excuse me...” She marched through the double doors.
Moments later she returned through them in reverse, with Doctor Firelight at her breast.
“Absolutely not, madam! Your husband is twenty percent icicle right now! We are at a very delicate stage in his treatment -- he could thaw, or he could melt, and we do not want it to be the latter, do we?”
Dee snorted in frustration. “Unless my eyes or voice are giving off deadly husband-melting rays, I don’t see why five minutes in the room with him is going to cause so much trouble!”
Firelight reared up. Spitfire had never seen him so indignant. Ever one to wade into trouble, Red entered the conversation. “Captain?”
He wheeled on her, eyes aflame. “Yes, cadet?”
She smiled at him, batting her eyes. “Terribly sorry, Captain. I understand if it’s too dangerous for the patient. You’re the attending and that’s your call to make. But I was thinking: this may be my only chance to see a real case of thaumic frostbite in a controlled setting, and as my flight’s medical specialist I feel it would be irresponsible to not at least ask if we could observe. Briefly.”
Firelight sighed. “Very well. Two minutes. Keep talking to a minimum.”
Dee stepped up, wearing a devious smile. “The captain has called me up from reserve, so if you don’t mind, I’ll be attending my cadets.”
The doctor glared, but said nothing
Dee and Red gasped as they entered the room. T-Bone’s lower jaw was transparent, as if made of the finest crystal. Splashing back across his neck and down one side, the facetted ice replaced his coat and musculature all the way back to the flank. His stormcloud cutie mark hovered in the crystal like smoke trapped in the ice. Beneath the ice, stark white bone and angry red tissue caught the light, fascinating and nauseating the cadets.
Firelight took the floor. “Here we are, then: a severe case of thaumic frostbite. As you can see, as much as twenty percent of the patient’s body mass is now ice of roughly the same type as that which constitutes the elemental beasts which bit him. The patient is exceedingly lucky to have received only shallow wounds, I shouldn’t have to say that vital organs stop functioning when they crystallize. Still, the loss of this much tissue could easily be fatal. Therefore the patient remains in an ice bath until such time as the thaumic effect wears off and the limbs thaw. To allow them to return to normal temperature before then would cause them to melt away.”
He singled out Soarin’. “You did everything right when you brought him here, whether by luck or by skill I do not know. Had he been placed upon your back wounded side down, the ice would have bonded to your uniform and your coat, and the two of you would be in a much less pleasant condition. Now then, Miss... Sunrise, is it? If you would like to look over my observations I can allow the family a very brief visit.”
As one, four ponies shot Red a grateful grin for running interference. Soarin’ placed a hoof on the side of the tub. “Not gonna lie, Bro. You’ve looked better.”
Thunderhead rolled his eyes. There was pain in his expression, but also the indomitable upbeat spirit that he wouldn’t be T-Bone without.
Dee reached down and tenderly brushed his mane out of his eyes. “I dunno. The quiet’s an improvement. Think I can talk him into letting your tongue melt?”
His eyes twinkled and he puckered his icy lips for a kiss.
“Nice try. I remember when you froze your tongue to the flagpole. Not gonna fall for it.”
Dee stepped back so Wedge could pay his respects. “You really gave ‘em hell out there, T-Bone. Wherever he is, I suspect Comet’s smiling.”
Spitfire didn’t know what to say, and she could hear Firelight coming back to kick them out, so she settled on a simple, “Hey, Sarge. Get better, OK?”
He raised a hoof in salute as the visitors were hustled back out of the infirmary.
B Flight decided it was as good a time as any to grab a meal. At lunch, Spitfire recalled a curious development just before visiting with T-Bone.
“Dee? Are you really our sergeant now? Did the captain really call you up?”
She smiled. “Not... as such, no. Moonglow came to get me after you got back to base. She told me what happened. She also told me she twisted an ankle real good out there and that she intended to ask Aurora to reactivate me so I could help, at least until she’s back to a hundred percent. So it probably will be true in an hour or two.”
B Flight brightened at the news.
“That’s great,” said Wedge.
“Yeah,” said Soarin’, “not that Moonglow isn’t great, but if we can’t have T-Bone it’ll be fun...”
Dee snarled. “Fun? Nothing about this is going to be fun! I run a tight ship! Things will not be the loosey-goosey joyride you’ve gotten used to under that good-for-nothing sack of bones you call a sergeant!”
She scowled at Red and Wedge. “Most of all, no lovey-dovey kissey face antics will be tolerated! I’ve got my eye on you two!”
Spitfire started to laugh, until Dee wheeled on her and Soarin’. “What’s funny? I’m watching you two even closer! It’s the quiet ones you really have to worry about.”
Soarin’ cocked his head to one side. “It is?”
“Oh sure. You watch the ones who titter and tease and play grab-flank in the hallways and next thing you know the quiet, mousy little mare’s pulling a train in the gym and you’ve gotta expel all the stallions in two squadrons!”
Red whispered in Wedge’s ear, loud enough for the entire table to hear “Don’t worry, honey bunny. I’m a screamer.”
For the first time in four weeks of training, Wedge blushed fiercely enough for the others to see. The table erupted with laughter. Dee said, “You know what? This is going to be fun. This is going to be so much fun.”
It felt good to laugh, to release some of the nervous energy built up after the day’s events. As the afternoon gave way to evening and Aurora wrapped up the post-op debriefing, the day proved to have one more surprise in store.
“As some of you may be aware, injuries to Sergeant Thunderhead leave him unable to perform his duties. Furthermore, injuries to Sergeant Moonglow leave her at a reduced state of readiness. Because of this, B Flight is left without adequate instruction. Therefore I have recalled Reserve Lieutenant (j.g.) Ditzy Doo to active duty, effective immediately. B Flight will report to her from now on.”
Wearing a crisp new training officer’s uniform, Dee joined her mother-in-law beside the podium.
“Furthermore, as is my prerogative, I have decided to give a field commission to-”
“Mommy! Mommy! Look what Moonglow made for me!”
A gentle titter ran through the auditorium as Little Dee galloped down the aisle. She bounded onto the stage, wearing a tiny little training uniform with red trim.
Aurora cracked a smile. “This is Sergeant Dinky Doo. B Flight will be expected to follow her orders as well.”
The tiny filly leapt up onto the podium and fixed her cadets with an imposing stare. “Exspecially you, unca Soarin’!”
The captain had to shout “Dismissed!” to be heard over the resulting laughter.
Life at Camp Solar slowly returned to normal. The entire camp quickly adopted “Sergeant Dinky” as an unofficial mascot, with off-duty cadets seeking her out to be given some simple, nonsensical task, such as “Eat five cookies! Now! Gimme any lips and I’ll make it six!”
The next week finally brought with it formal training in first aid, and with it an in-depth case study in Thunderhead’s frostbite. Red was in her element, and Spitfire was glad to see her friend enjoying herself. The following week would introduce the first martial arts training, and after that, B Flight would be seeing a lot less of each other as the cadets split up for advanced training in their primary and backup specialties.
Around mid-week, Spitfire found herself preoccupied with thoughts of the impending split as she crossed the parade grounds before class. The split was some ten days away, and as she’d chosen aid as her backup specialty she needed to focus on the task at hoof... but she couldn’t shake the feeling that things just weren’t going her way.
A familiar and unwelcome voice beside her confirmed that feeling.
“Heya, Stain! Bigs wants a word with ya.”
Spitfire gritted her teeth. Since she’d called Diamond Dust ‘Big Shot’ the other day, the name had stuck. “That’s nice, Shifty. Why don’t you tell him I’d be happy to have a little chat just as soon as he pulls his head out of his ass?”
The diminutive mare’s smile turned sour. “He wants a rematch, Seven. That’s all. Just a fair contest. Here in the ring. That is, if you’re up to it.”
Spitfire wheeled on her with a frustrated snort. “Any time, any place. I’d have even spotted him a few points if he’d asked me himself.”
Shifty offered a thin smile. “Good. I’ll tell him.”
As she turned to leave, Spitfire called over her shoulder, “Sure you don’t just wanna have the rematch now? I mean, if you’re asking for him, I figure you’re fighting for him, too!”
When Shifty didn’t react, Spitfire stormed off to her room.
By Wednesday evening B Flight had received word that T-Bone had thawed successfully and was able to see visitors. As they came through the door one by one they winced sympathetically at the hairless mass of purple and blue that had replaced the ice - thawing had left him one giant contusion from stem to stern. His cheery grin belied the pain he must be in.
“Hey! Come on in, guys! Make yourselves at home! Say hi to Aster.”
The cadets waved to T-Bone’s roommate as he resumed his hours-long attempt to raise the reindeer’s spirits.
“As I was saying, your dad used to bring me the weirdest shit. Every year a different gift and it never made any sense.”
Aster offered a reluctant smile. T-Bone’s grin was infectious. “Yes. There was a method to his madness, you know. To bring a gift for a friend’s children, this is a sign of respect.”
Thunderhead smirked. “Yeah, yeah. And the more exotic the gift the more honor given. Blah blah blah. Except he didn’t stop when I reached adulthood.”
“It’s true. Even after I enrolled in camp. The very year I saved the vale, he brought me some carved trinket from way out east. You know what he said to me? He said, ‘Not wed, not grown. Until that day, a fawn’s gift for a fine fawn.’”
The young buck relented, offering a full belly laugh in his father’s memory. Presently the laughter gave way to a melancholy smile.
“He was very fond of your family. You knew him well. Better even than I did, perhaps. When he...”
T-Bone picked up where Aster trailed off, “If Comet approved of you, then he thought it was critically important that you should set about making more of you. When I married Dee, he only let up for a year or two before he threatened me with more kids’ trinkets unless I set about adding foals or extra wives.” His own expression grew wistful. “I suspect he had something for the little one this year. Guess I’ll never know.”
Aster met his eye. “I know for a fact that he did. Throughout the year he spoke of his regret that your daughter’s birth took him unawares last Fall.”
Spitfire patted the rail on Aster’s bed. “I’m... sorry for your loss, Aster. Your dad seemed like a formidable stag. I’m sorry I fought with him the only time I met him.”
The reindeer smiled. “Don’t be. That’s exactly how he wanted it. He approved of you very much.”
Seeing that Spitfire didn’t know quite what to make of that, T-Bone seized the reins of the conversation. “You know, old Comet was a funny guy. He took laughter very seriously. We’ve seen that firsthoof, haven’t we, Wedge?”
Stargazer chuckled, a far-off glint in his eyes. “Yeah. Mom and Dad’s service. You tell it, T.”
Aster sat up, grunting as he did so. “A tale of Aurora and Bastion? Father spoke of them often. Belike I know this one already.”
T-Bone shook his head. “No, this one’s about the funeral service for Jagged Peak and Zenith, Mom’s two best friends in the world apart from Dad.” He nodded at his little brother. “Loved ‘em so much she adopted their boy. He turned out alright. Largely thanks to me. Right, Wedge?”
He rolled his eyes. “Right. The way Dee tells it, she adopted me to save me from having you for a dad.”
Everypony laughed. T-Bone said, “That, too. So Comet comes to the ceremony. Everyone was just honored as hell that he made the trip - it was in Canterlot, hell of a long way down from the Whitecrowns. We’re having the wake and Comet climbs up right next to the casket and, in his big booming voice, he tells this horribly offensive, off-color joke about a zebra and a Harmonizer. Then he looks down at Zene’s coffin and says, ‘Laugh. You love that joke. Laugh.’ Then he looks back up and in that same big voice he tells this raunchy joke about a chambermaid and a crew of bellfounders. Then he taps his foot against Jag’s casket. ‘Now, come on, you bastard. I know for a fact that was your favorite joke. Laugh, damn you! Laugh!’
“By now you could hear a pin drop in that place. Everyone’s staring at him. This big damn deer with antlers sticking out so far you’d think he’d tip over. And he climbs up onto the casket and looks out at the assembled mourners, and he says, ‘Friends! Jagged and Zenith were quite dear to me. I know that they are laughing now. Unfortunately, where they have gone we can no longer hear them. Therefore if we are to honor them properly we must laugh with them, and laugh so long and so loud that where they have gone, they can hear us!’ He proceeds to tell what might be every joke he knows. Funny or not. Polite or rude. Doesn’t matter. Inside of a few minutes, Dee’s laughing. A few minutes later, Mom’s laughing. Not long after that, even little Wedge is laughing. By this time the mourners see the bereaved laughing and they figure it must be okay. Before long the whole place is rocking. When he finally runs out of jokes half the congregation has tears of laughter in their eyes, and for the first time your old dad cracks a smile. He says, ‘I thank you. Jagged and Zenith thank you.’ And he walks out.” T-Bone smiled at Aster. “That was your dad in a nutshell. When somebody needed him, there he was. Then he did what needed doing and off he went.”
“Hey Stain! Any time? How ‘bout now!”
Spitfire turned. Big Shot was barreling down at her out of the sky, his eyes ablaze behind his customary sneer. She pushed Soarin’ and jerked out of the way as he passed.
“You jackass! What the hell are you doing?”
The big white stallion pulled into a high, lazy circle above her. “You said it: rematch, any time I choose now!” He dove again. She flattened herself against the turf and he whipped right over her.
“You should be flattered, Stain. Last week you weren’t even worth putting in your place.”
He dove, she dodged.
“Nice move. Shoulda taught that one to your sergeant!”
Spitfire snarled as he dove again. At the last second, he turned and whipped his tail in her face.
“See? I knew you were lying. Wyverns and manticores my eye. You’re about as bold as that milquetoast wingmate of yours, and as full of it as that slut Six.”
He squared up for one more pass. “C’mon, Stain. All I want’s a little taste. Show me something.”
She closed her eyes. As he dove in she stood her ground. He braced, expecting his hooves to take her in the withers. She rolled backward, grabbing one of his hooves as he passed over head. He cartwheeled into the ground and she somersaulted over him. She grabbed him by the mane, slammed his face into the ground, and dragged him to the flagstone at the center of the parade ground. There she stood him up on his hind legs and stepped back.
“Go ahead. One free shot. I won’t move.”
He eyed her warily.
“Take it. Go on. Take it, Big Shot. Then we’ll dance.”
His eyes narrowed. He drew back a hoof and clocked her in the chin.
She turned with the punch, then turned back and smiled. “My turn.”
Quicker than he could react, she spun and planted a powerful two-legged buck in his center of mass, doubling him over and sending him flying. She extended her wings and was on him the moment he landed, grinding his face into the dirt.
She let out a feral howl and then screamed at him, “How’s that taste, huh? How’s that, Big Shot? How funny’s it gonna be when I force feed you this entire field? Maybe I’ll just bash your skull in, sound good? Maybe I’ll rip a few feathers out. Split an ear. Bloody an eye. Maybe we’ll see how you do with the same set of bruises I’ve got! Think you can handle that, Big Shot? You and your big talk and your big head and your bucking bullying bullshit! What’s it got you? I’ll tell you, Big Shot: it got you your flank handed to you by a little wounded filly, it-”
At that moment a pale blue blur tackled her, knocking her down and pinning her to the grass.
Soarin’ watched, aghast, as his wingmate pummeled Red One. All around the parade ground other recruits rushed to the sound of the commotion. there were no officers among them yet, but it was only a matter of time.
He stood, frozen. Paralyzed by indecision as his feelings of duty and doubt argued in his head.
Get in there! Protect her!
She doesn’t need protecting. I was a fool to think she did.
She needs help!
More like he needs help.
He shook his head. If somepony didn’t stop her, she could wind up doing some serious damage to another cadet -- and that could get her kicked out. He lowered his head and charged.
He tackled her as gently as he could, trying to cushion her impact even as he held her down.
“No. No, Seven. No. Sunshine, stop. You can’t do this. You’ll kill him”
She struggled against him, pushing her head up over his shoulder to find her prey. “Wanna kill him. Deserves it. Gonna stomp on him ‘til he stops hurting me.”
He grabbed her head in his hooves and pulled her face to his. “Seven! Stop it! You got him, he’s done. You don’t want to hurt him.”
She writhed and snapped. Her lips curled up into a cruel smile. “Yes I do. Hurt him like he hurts me. Go for the throat, bite ‘til he bleeds. Won’t have to hear his voice anymore.”
“That’s not a good idea, Spit! I’m sure he tastes terrible. Maybe we should calm down a bit, huh? Re-think that plan? Maybe don’t bite him?”
Spitfire’s eyes snapped open. He could lose himself in those eyes.
“You’re absolutely right, Soarin’!”
“I am? Of course I am. Let’s just-”
She laughed. “I’ll hold him down, you bite his throat out! It’ll be fun!”
Not knowing what to do, he slapped her. “Spitfire! Snap out of it!”
She blinked. “Soarin’?” Her voice was a hoarse whisper.
He pulled her closer. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s me, Spit. It’s me. I’m sorry.”
“I’m s-sorry. I d-didn’t want... I hoped you wouldn’t s-see me like this.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. Behind him he could hear shouting. He recognized his mother’s voice. He pressed himself down against her and murmured, “It’s okay, Spit. It’s okay. This isn’t you. Come back, Spit. Just come back.”
He felt her begin to tremble. “This is me, Soarin’. It always was.”
He held her tight as she began to weep.
Spitfire must face the music for her part in the unsanctioned dust-up. When camp staff begins to investigate the brutal attack on Comet’s herd, they make a grim discovery.
Wild Sky Yonder
Captain Aurora Borealis relished the quality time she was spending with her family now that Thunderhead was in the infirmary. She wasn’t glad he was injured, not exactly, but she was delighted to have her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter on base every day. This afternoon she was in Thunderhead’s room, sharing a meal with her son, her granddaughter, and the reindeer who was now more like a nephew than ever before.
She allowed herself a contented sigh before Aster chuckled and made an observation that promised to ruin the rest of her afternoon.
“Oh, my. Yon Spitfire appears to be having spirited words with a young stallion. Is this... courtship?”
Aurora hastened to the window. Spitfire’s disagreement with Diamond Dust appeared to be over whether or not he should be forced to eat the parade grounds. She swore. “No. That’s a fight. And a problem.”
She wrenched open the window, then paused and turned to her granddaughter. “Sergeant Dinky! You stay here with Sergeant Daddy and Uncle Aster! I’ll be back soon, and if I’m not, Sergeant Mommy or Sergeant Moonglow will be, OK? And don’t use bad words like I just did!”
The filly saluted. “Aye aye, Captain Gramma!”
Aurora pushed herself through the window and alighted on the parade ground. A Flight was helping Diamond Dust to his feet. Soarin’ had Spitfire pinned to the ground, and she was sobbing uncontrollably into his shoulder. Stargazer and Red stood guard over their comrades, eyeing A Flight suspiciously, daring them to start something.
She marched over to her sons.
“What happened here, Stargazer?”
“Wish I knew, Mom. Just got here.”
She snorted and pushed through to where Soarin’ and Spitfire lay.
“Northwing Seven, report.”
She heard Soarin’ whisper something to his wingmate. The young stallion released his grip and turned to face his mother. There was a challenge in his eyes.
“Nothing to report, ma’am. Bit of a tumble. Everything’s fine.”
She shook her head, disappointed. “Bullshit. Step aside, Soarin’.”
Soarin’ set his hooves. “No, ma’am.”
“You want to be the first member of this family kicked out for insubordination?”
“No, Soarin’. No.” The voice was a hoarse whisper, barely audible over the buzz of the crowd. Slowly, shakily, Spitfire clambered up off of the ground. She made no attempt to stand at attention; she kept her head and her ears down. She trembled slightly.
“Fighting, Spitfire? I thought you were better than this.”
“Captain, he said he wanted a rematch. I guess I shouldn’t’a provoked him. He came at me, and I got angry, and... I lost my temper. Ma’am.”
Aurora rubbed her forehead. “Why don’t you be a bit more specific, cadet?”
“H-he was angry about last Saturday. I mouthed off, said we could do a rematch any time. He said he picked now.”
Aurora grimaced. “Northwing One, Northwing Seven, get cleaned up and meet me in my office. Ten minutes.”
Spitfire stood on the outside of Aurora’s office door, listening to half of Big Shot’s dressing-down. The stallion’s voice came through as a low, unintelligible rumble through the door but the whip-crack of the captain’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Are you aware, Cadet, what the difference is between an unofficial sparring match and an illegal fight?”
“That’s because there isn’t one!”
“Given the gravity of the situation that cancelled the Corps Relay, don’t you think it’s a bit soon for a rematch?”
“I don’t think you fully appreciate the gravity of the job you’ve signed up for. Why the hell are you here, kid?”
“Is that so? Why don’t I believe you? Is it the hair? It’s probably the hair.”
“No, no. Getting your flank handed to you is punishment enough. But, if I hear word one that you’ve taken it upon yourself to decide who is and isn’t fit to be wearing that uniform you’ll find yourself on a train to Canterlot before you can even utter the word ‘stain’! Now get the buck out of my office and send the other reprobate in after you!”
Big Shot stormed out of the captain’s office, sucking on his split lip. He glared at Spitfire and jerked his head back into the room before disappearing down the stairs.
Slowly, silently, Spitfire crept into the office. Her memory flipped through the multitude of times she’d been in just this situation: called into the principal’s office for fighting. Called a menace and a freak, a bully and a problem. This wasn’t school, though; this was the Corps. Beating the tar out of another cadet wasn’t going to land her in detention.
Spitfire straightened to attention and fixed her gaze on the wall above the captain’s head.
“Turn around, cadet. Any fresh bruises on you?”
Spitfire did as instructed. “No ma’am.”
“Did he lay a hoof on you?”
“Only when I let him.”
“And did you know ahead of time that he’d be unable to touch you unless you let him?”
Spitfire gave the captain a startled look.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised. I saw you toying with him last weekend. Were you, or were you not, confident in your ability to evade his every attack?”
“Yes, ma’am, I was.”
“And were you confident in your ability to subdue him in whatever manner you saw fit?”
“So. You knew that you were the superior combatant. You knew that by offering this re-match you were only offering him the opportunity to get his ass kicked, you knew that it was not a fair fight, and that he would be completely at your mercy -- and you offered it anyway?”
Spitfire shrank and lowered her head. “Yes, ma’am.”
Aurora’s voice took an icy edge. “Why?”
“Because... he... I...” Spitfire sighed. “No excuse, ma’am.”
The captain snorted. “I’m glad you recognize that. Explain anyway.”
“He’s been picking on me and bullying me since day one, and I’m sick of it! When Shifty came and offered the challenge, I guess I... I couldn’t believe he was thinking of that at a time like this! I agreed before I even knew what I was doing! Then, when he called me out, I was still gonna just dance around him, show him he couldn’t touch me, just like last time! Then he said some things... some things about my friends and about my sergeant, and I just couldn’t take it any more!”
“So you decided to dish out a little frontier justice.”
The captain rubbed a hoof against her temple. “Help me understand. On Saturday, you deliberately chose not to strike him. Today you struck him. Repeatedly. With no small amount of alacrity, from what I saw.”
“Last time I ignored him better.”
“What was different?”
“This time, he said I should teach T-Bone how to dodge.”
Aurora arched an eyebrow. “And that’s when you decided to rip his throat out?”
Spitfire lowered her gaze. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Why do I think that if you’d really wanted to do that, he’d be dead?”
“Soarin’ stopped me.”
“Hmph. You should thank him for that.”
After an uncomfortable pause, Aurora continued. “I can’t allow you to participate in standard self-defense drills. I think you know that.”
Spitfire only nodded.
“Of course, you can’t be a SAR pony without combat training.”
She nodded again.
“This leaves me with only one alternative.”
Spitfire cringed against the dismissal she knew was coming.
“I’ll have to teach you myself.”
Spitfire locked up from head to toe. What??
Aurora cracked a small smile and heaved a sigh of relief. “Cadet, you don’t know how happy I am to have finally found you.”
“There aren’t many of us, you know: Harmony’s warriors.”
The older mare fixed her with a penetrating stare. “Fighting excites you, doesn’t it?”
Spitfire’s eyes widened, she shook her head in fear.
“Sure it does. It thrills you. It completes you. You can’t live without it and you’re terrified that you’re some sort of hideous monster.”
“No!” The word was a whisper, more an exclamation of disbelief than of denial.
Aurora smiled. “Nonsense! I can see it written all over your face! Reminds me of myself at your age!”
Spitfire sat down lest she fall over from shock. “You?”
The captain’s smile softened. “Cadet, you didn’t think you were the only one, did you? There are many farmers in Equestria, many street sweepers. Many surgeons. It stands to reason there would be many soldiers, as well.”
Spitfire stared. Truth be told, she had thought she was the only one. It had been drilled into her, by teachers, coaches, family members, friends, that fighting wasn’t cute and being marked for it was not and could not be normal. If there were others...
If there were others, then there was hope. She eyed the captain suspiciously. “How do you handle the beast?”
Aurora laughed. “‘The Beast’? Is that what you call it? My dear, that’s the natural desire to be yourself and use your talents! Find another outlet for it! Compete. Wrestle. Race. Win. I’d wager you’ve been so scared of it for so long you’ve never tried indulging it in a non-destructive way! For my part... well. For my part, I’d leap on Bastion’s back and shout, ‘Tame me!’ And wouldn’t you know it? He always would.” Her eyes twinkled. “I wouldn’t suggest you try that with my Soarin’, at least not until after training. He’s always been such a good, obedient boy. Though he did stand up to me for your sake out there. Don’t think I didn’t notice, young lady.” The twinkle turned mischievous. “At any rate, if you do try, be sure not to tell the captain about it, hey?”
“I’ll, ah... I’ll keep that in mind?”
“Good! Walk with me, kid. And bear in mind that out on the parade ground you’re still in big trouble, so be a dear and act suitably subdued.”
On the way back to the infirmary, Aurora filled her in on the real business of the week: investigating the cause of the winter wolf attack. Thunderhead had reported personally slaying two alpha wolves. Aster claimed that his father had dispatched another. As they entered the infirmary, Aurora turned her questions on Spitfire.
“Tell me, cadet: what does all of this say to you?”
Spitfire took a deep breath. “Well, ma’am, I don’t know much about winter wolves, just what I’ve looked up since the attack. From what I saw and what you’ve said, they should never have come down from the icefields at all, for starters. And two or three packs should never have been in the same place at the same time. And they didn’t leave a trail back to where they came from, and they attacked like they were in a frenzy...”
She shook her head as they came through the door to Thunderhead’s room. “Captain, none of it makes any sense at all!”
Aurora gave her a thin smile. “None of it makes sense as a random event, you mean. Try again.”
Spitfire just shook her head, unable to come up with an explanation.
Aster offered the opinion that Aurora was waiting for. “An attack, miss. An attack.”
“How is that even possible?”
Thunderhead passed his daughter off to the captain. “Our best guess is that someone, and boy, would we love to know who, went up to the icefields, and either drove the packs down into the rutting herd, or somehow tamed them, transported them there, and sicced them on the herd.”
Thunderhead nodded. “Exactly. And which why, because I can think of at least two: why attack the reindeer in the first place, and why use winter wolves to do it?”
Spitfire thought a moment, then cast an apologetic glance toward Aster. “What if you hadn’t got away? What would we have found? And when?”
Aurora whistled. “Even odds on an icy red patch -- we’d have known it was winter wolves but not why or how many -- or just a wet patch of chopped corpses... in which case we’d only have a mystery.”
“So,” said the reindeer, “if they let me go, they want you exploring the icefields for clues. And if I escaped, they merely wanted my family to die.”
Aurora mused on that. “Hmm... want us in the icefields... keep that in mind, son: I’m putting you in charge of the investigation. Let me know what you need, delegate, and for Harmony’s sake be careful.” She turned a glowing smile to her granddaughter. “Sergeant Dinky, do you think you can take this cadet back to her quarters for me?”
As they arrived back at quarters, the unmistakable sound of Soarin’s singing voice drifted into the halls of the north wing. Spitfire winced; Sergeant Dinky perked up. “Unca Soarin’s home,” she whispered, “follow me!”
Sergeant Dinky charged into the room and pounced on her uncle. “Unca Soarin’! I order you to submit to tickles and share your snacks!”
Soarin’ wheeled around, mock-panic on his face. “Ambush! Spitfire, help!”
“Do not help him, Spitfire! Help your sergeant and tickle him!”
Spitfire laughed and deployed her wingtips menacingly. “Sorry, big guy. Orders are orders.”
Outnumbered, outgunned, and betrayed by his own wingmate, Soarin’ quickly succumbed to the ruthless assault. Between howls of laughter, he said, “Okay! I surrender! I’ll share, I promise!”
Spitfire looked to her sergeant for guidance. “Well, ma’am? Should I accept his surrender?”
Dinky considered him thoughtfully. “Nope. He doesn’t look surrendered enough.”
Soarin’s torment resumed until his pleas for mercy tugged at his captors’ hearts.
“Sarge, I think he’s had enough.”
The gleeful little unicorn nodded. “I think he has. Now kiss.”
“You heard me. Kiss. That’s an order.”
“It is, huh? I’m not so sure you can...”
“Hey! Don’t gimme no lips! Give him the lips! Right now! Go!”
With a shake of her head and a roll of her eyes, Spitfire planted a light peck on Soarin’s forehead. A chorus of boos rang out from the doorway. Startled, Spitfire tripped over Soarin’ and spun to see Wedge, Red, and Dee all crowded at the door.
Red looked positively scandalized by how un-scandalous the kiss had been. She shook her head. “Oh, Sunshine. You’ve gotta do better than that. Here, like this, hon.” She took Wedge in a sudden tackle and lip-locked him against the door frame. Wedge’s eyes snapped open, then fluttered closed.
Spitfire’s and Soarin’s jaws hung open. Dinky only nodded approvingly. “Yeah. Like that.”
Dee swept into the room and snatched up her little sergeant. “I think that’s enough orders for today, Muffin. What do you say to some nice dinner, and then a nice bedtime?”
The sergeants left the room to the smaller one’s protests of “but Mom! When Daddy tickles you, it ends in kissing! They weren’t playing right!”
Several long moments passed. Spitfire and Soarin’ shared an uncomfortable glance. When Red finally came up for air, Soarin’ rolled his eyes and said, ‘I’d tell you two to get a room, but you already have one. And it’s next door.”
Red flashed an impish grin. “Plenty of time for that later.” Her expression turned serious as she turned her eyes to Spitfire. “Honey, we came up to check on you. That was some episode earlier. I gather from tickle time there that things didn’t go too poorly in the captain’s office; care to share?”
Spitfire flopped over on her side. “Well, no... things didn’t go too poorly. Bad news first: I’m not allowed to participate in self defense on account of I’m too dangerous.”
“Yup. Too dangerous. Don’t know my own strength and all that. Need to have private combat lessons with the captain herself.”
As one, the brothers threw their heads back and laughed.
“After all these years, Mom finally found her fighter,” said Wedge. “Suddenly, everything makes a lot more sense.”
“We’re idiots,” said Soarin’, “especially me.”
Spitfire rolled over to glare at both of them. “There a problem, boys?”
Soarin’ chuckled. “Just that if we’d known about this weeks ago we could have saved you a lot of trouble, that’s all.
Spitfire made a frustrated sound. “Why is it everyone in the whole world thinks this is entirely normal after I spent my whole life thinking I was a deviant freak?”
Soarin’ patted her knee. “We grew up with Mom, and surrounded by Guards. Of course it seems normal to us. Heck, we were all kinda shocked when none of us got it.”
Wedge nodded. “She kinda freaked, actually. Years praying her kids wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden, then when they didn’t, she worried she’d miss out on finding her successor or some such. She must be thrilled to finally find you.”
Spitfire gave a disconcerted nod. “Yeah... she said as much. I... can’t say I understood why.”
Soarin’ laughed. “Now you do. Did she say anything else?
“Well, we walked over to the infirmary and talked about the wolf attack. She and T-Bone think it must have been deliberately instigated by someone.”
The brothers fell silent. “This is big,” said Wedge.
“Huge,” said Soarin’.
“Yeah, I mean, does this mean Comet was assassinated? Or...”
Soarin’ waved her off. “No, not that. That’s big too. Bigger really. But what we mean is... Mom invited you into one of her planning sessions? Do you know what that means?”
She blinked and shook her head.
“It means she likes you. And it means she trusts you. And while that’s great news, it also means she’s gonna push you as hard as she’d push herself.”
Spitfire gave a solemn nod. Wedge turned to Red. “And, since Mom knew she’d tell us everything that happened and she’s usually super secretive about camp business, it means she trusts you, too, Red.”
Red pumped a hoof in triumph. “Yes! I’m in!”
Thursday morning, a knock at the door startled Spitfire out of bed hours before roll call.
“Seven. Eight. Infirmary. Five minutes.”
Aurora was already down the hall, delivering the same message to the top half of B Flight.
A grim-faced, half-awake group gathered in Thunderhead’s infirmary room. A single candle struggled in vain to light the room; dawn was still hours away. In addition to B Flight and Thunderhead, Aurora, Dee, Firelight and Coriolis were in attendance. Aster’s bed was empty. Firelight cleared his throat.
“Some time during the night, Aster was poisoned. I’ve moved him to intensive care, where the entire night shift is monitoring his vital signs. Having studied the evidence, I am prepared to offer the following hypothesis: one of our cadets is responsible.”
Murmurs of disbelief ran through the room. T-Bone waved an irritated hoof. “Tell ‘em what you told me, Doc.”
Firelight nodded. “Here’s what we know. Somepony gained access to the pharmacy, assembled a cocktail of pharmaceuticals in precise doses sufficient to kill a pegasus, and added them to Aster’s IV drip. The young reindeer may thank his lucky stars that he’s more resilient than we are.
“So. Why conclude a cadet? First, he or she knew enough about medicine and the infirmary to gain access to the pharmacy and choose these medications in these doses. I can rule out my orderlies because -- forgive me for saying so -- whomever it was, they botched the job. My people would have known the proper doses for a reindeer and would have disposed of the evidence.”
He straightened up and began counting off the possibilities. “So. An orderly? Too amateurish an attempt. An officer? More likely than an orderly to botch the job, but still unlikely to do so. An outsider? How would an outsider get in?”
Aurora shook her head. “And that leaves one of my cadets. Bucking hell.”
“This all but confirms somepony had it in for the herd,” T-Bone said. “That makes it imperative we investigate the icefields. But there’s nopony we can spare.”
Aurora shook her head again. “Firelight, Thunderhead, you two can split the day-to-day running of the camp between you. We can spare me for a week or two.”
“But who can we spare to send with you? Moonglow? Dee?”
“Nopony. You’ll be stuck in this room -- you’ll need them to be your eyes, ears, and hooves.”
T-Bone rose halfway out of his hospital bed. “No. Absolutely not, Mom. You are not going up there alone.” Wedge and Soarin’ joined him in his protest.
Spitfire stepped up before the captain. “Whatever happens, I’m going with you.”
Aurora fixed her with a withering glare. “Is that so, kid?”
She shrugged. “Combat drills next week. Drills I’m not allowed to be in, remember? If I don’t go with you, I’m on my ass in my bedroom again. I’ve had just about enough of that, ma’am.”
Her friends stepped up beside her. “Mom, it’s a good idea,” said Wedge. “If somepony on base is connected to this, we don’t know who to trust. You gotta figure we’re okay, but who else?”
Soarin’ lowered his head. “Besides, if you leave without us, we’ll follow you anyway.”
Aurora looked at Thunderhead, who shrugged. “It’s as good an idea as any. We can’t spare the officers, we can’t trust the cadets, they might not quite be up to Corps veteran standards... but you know they’re a cut above the average cadets. And if you leave without them, I will send them after you with orders to drag you back.
She nodded her assent and turned to Firelight. “Captain, we saw firsthoof that the slingspades aren’t rated for cold duty, and we need to go loaded for ice monster. Got anything in the vaults for us?”
“I suspect I do. Check back this afternoon?”
“Make it evening. We’ll plan this little excursion to kick off tomorrow morning. B Flight? Take the day off. Go to town. Get us all some cold weather gear. In white, preferably. Corps-issue gear’s a little too high-visibility for this. And boys? Bring me receipts, please?”
Soarin’ rolled his eyes. “Yes, mother.”
Their chores done for the day, B Flight followed Soarin’ back down the mountain to Glimmervale. The Whitecrowns’ unpredictable Autumn weather had brought in a thunderstorm. Rain poured out of the sky in sheets, filling the air with white mist that shrouded the forest past the nearest trees. The gutters beside the cobblestone path ran like twin rapids, twisting and shooting muddy brown water down the hillside.
Spitfire shouted to be heard over the downpour. “So, big guy, what’s the big secret? Where we going, out in this mess?”
Soarin’ laughed. “It’s a surprise, Spit. You’ll see.”
Wedge cinched his raincloak tighter. “This isn’t like you at all, little brother. What gives?”
Soarin’ skipped ahead and turned, spreading his wings, revelling in the rain. “Not telling, and I’m six weeks older than you!”
As he turned back, Red shouted, “Tell us or I’ll tell everypony the lyrics to that song you were working on the other day!”
Soarin’ whipped around and turned pleading eyes to Red. “You heard that?”
He hung his head. “I may have made dinner reservations for four at the Chateau tonight.”
Red clapped her forehooves together with glee. “Date night! Whee!”
Wedge laughed. “Straight-laced Soarin’s putting a double date on the critical mission supplies bill? What’s gotten into you?”
Soarin’ shrugged and turned around. “I guess I just... I just... hang on, guys.”
Seven cloaked ponies appeared out of the mist. They stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the path at its narrowest point.
As B Flight approached, Soarin’ stepped up to the pony in the center of the group. “Something I can do for you, gentlecolts?”
The pony ignored him and put back his hood. Spitfire realized with a start that he was the
‘Wild Sky’ street preacher from before. “Sorry for the inconvenience, ladies. We’ll be taking these two half-breeds down to the lake for a long walk off a short pier. You can go on back to camp; we have no quarrel with true pegasi.”
Soarin’ shook his head and flared his wings at the wild-maned stallion. His voice dripped with incredulity. “Look, pal! Wings! Me, pegasus! Him, pegasus! I don’t know if maybe you found some of the funny mushrooms in the forest, but maybe you oughta go lie down for a while.”
He turned to roll his eyes at his friends and the preacher reached up and cuffed him in the face.
“Shut up, hornspawn! Come along with dignity, so your mares don’t have to see you scream.”
As Soarin’ took a step back, Wedge stepped up beside his brother. “Seems you’re misinformed, boys. I’m only a quarter-breed on my mother’s side.”
As Spitfire and Red joined their wingmates, B Flight cast aside their raincoats. Spitfire said, “And as it turns out, we’re rather fond of these mongrels. Guess you’ll have to go through us, first.”
In one fluid motion, the six largest assailants threw back their cloaks and brandished Corps-issue swingspades.
Red burst into laughter. She paced in front of the bandits. “What, did you practice that? Is this an ambush or a stage show? You should try again, the little one on the end didn’t get the memo. Go ahead, put your cloaks back on. We’ll let you start again. Maybe fumblehooves can get it right this time, and you can begin your musical number properly.”
Spitfire looked down the line. Sure enough, the smallest attacker hadn’t brandished a blade and was instead inching toward the treeline. Good catch, Red.
“Now, if you wanna talk surprises, you should ask my boy Stargazer, here. He’s the best. Why...”
Spitfire scanned the bandits. Each and every one of them had his eyes fixed on Red and her distracting rant. Idiots. She faded back a step behind the rest of B Flight and crouched, spreading her wings.
“... in fact, he’s so good at surprises, he’s not even the pony I was talking about!”
Whoop! That’s my cue!
A manic grin crossed Spitfire’s face as she leapt into the rain and dashed at the assailant at the end of the line. Just what is it we weren’t supposed to see you do, buddy?
Spitfire took the small bandit in the head with both forehooves, sending him crashing into a tree. A quick glance told her that he was in fact a she, and she looked an awful lot like one of the cadets in Blue squad. Her heart sank.
It sank farther when she saw the rain-slick museum piece weapon in the grass that she’d been going for.
The sound of battle tore her away from the unconscious traitor. Spitfire wheeled around to see Soarin’ and Wedge engaged with three armed assailants apiece, Red trying in vain to peel off one of Wedge’s attackers. She hesitated for a half-second and shifted left, looking for a better angle.
Both brothers danced on the defensive, barely staying ahead of three blades apiece. Soarin’ took a hoof to the gut, and the victorious attacker laughed.
Spitfire smiled and let the beast off the chain. She flew in a fluid, spiraling arc, snapping a vicious kick into first one knife leg, then another. As each knee shattered under her hoof, she let out a joyous whoop. Her arc carried her forward, and she smashed her forehead right into the teeth of the laughing stallion.
Blood, teeth, and rain sprayed out of his mouth. He stopped laughing.
“Nice kick! My turn!” She twisted and drove him to the ground under all four hooves, putting his soft midsection between them and the hard cobblestone path. As he screamed, she turned a wild glance to Soarin’ to make certain he was alright. The two broken-leg assailants were still doggedly attacking him with their good legs, but he was acquitting himself much better now.
Satisfied that the odds were even, she looked to Wedge and Red. She saw Red dancing with a single partner and Wedge flanked by two. She charged.
She swivelled in midair and took one from above with both rear hooves. His chin slammed on the paving stones and he was out. She bent her knees and sprang back into the air, taking Red’s assailant in the knife leg. She grabbed the blade and yanked it free, dislocating the limb in the process and flinging the blade into the back of one of Soarin’s attackers. That one staggered and the other turned to flee.
She took a split second to get her bearings, and she saw that Wedge’s partner was the preacher. She tapped him on the flank. “Dibs on this one. Help Red.”
Wedge flicked his eyes at her, and bowed out.
The wild-maned preacher sized her up. “Should have stayed out of this, little lady. Viceroy had big plans for you. Was gonna give you the pick of all the stallions in the land to breed up the next generation of warriors for the Return.”
“Charming. This ‘Viceroy’ got a name?”
He sneered and lunged. Spitfire snarled and licked her lips. In a flash she brought up her hooves and caught his bulky blade between them. She smiled at him.
“Whatcha got there beneath that cloak, little stallion? A fruit tree? A cloud? What were you before you became a bandit? A sculptor? I wasn’t; I was born to fight. I live for it. Do you really think you can touch me with this thing?”
The preacher’s eyes filled with fury. “Neither my slave-brand nor yours is relevant! I have the might and right of the Storm on my side!” He struggled and pulled, trying to free his blade from her vice grip.
She smiled and released it. His knife leg swung back wildly and he staggered right, suddenly off-balance.
Quick as lightning, Spitfire’s right hoof took him in the throat. The fury in his eyes faded, replaced by fear and surprise. He fell to the ground, unable to breathe.
The thrill of the hunt faded from her own eyes as she watched him thrash. Still flush with victory, a part of her felt he deserved it. He’d spoken of drowning her friends for their ancestry. He’d left a deep cut in Wedge’s face. Those thoughts offered very little comfort as she watched him die.
She looked up, too numb to speak. Four assailants lay on the ground, some writhing, some still. Wedge and Soarin’ had the last one cornered, and Wedge dealt him a blow to the ear that laid him in the mud beside his cohorts. To her great surprise, the escaped attacker was trudging back up the hill with Bigs and Shifty at his back.
“Hey! B Flight! You lose somethin’?”
Wedge tensed at the sight of the big white stallion. “Hey A-holes. What brings you out here?”
“Aww, Five, is that any way to treat your brother-and-sister-in-arms? We saw you having your little scrap and we were just about to lend a hoof when this one made a break for it. We figured we’d save you the trouble of running him down.”
Soarin’ eyed them suspiciously. “That’s uncharacteristically kind of you. What gives?”
Bigs dropped his customary sneer and glared at Soarin’. “I may not like you guys, I may especially dislike your bugfuck crazy little madmare over there, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let these buckin’ townies attack a fellow member of the Corps. You’re welcome. Asshole.”
From the side of the trail, Shifty cursed. “Oh holy buckin’ hell, Bigs! It’s Blue Two!”
Bigs’ eyes bugged out of his head. “What? Okay, are the other six all down for the count? Five you’re bleedin’ real good there. Go get that looked at. We can take these in.”
“Right... Thanks, One. So, team: what say we get cleaned up and make another attempt at dinner?”
Spitfire found her voice at last. “We can’t.”
“Why not, Spit?”
“‘Cause mine’s dead.”
Spitfire must deal with the fact that she’s a killer, and the mission to the icefields must proceed
Wild Sky Yonder
Aurora looked up to see Dr. Firelight enter her office. “Yes, Doctor?”
“Come with me, please, Captain. B Flight’s had another incident.”
She sagged. “What is it this time?”
“They were attacked by six civilians... and one cadet.”
“I’ve instructed Coriolis to take them to an old enlisted barracks at the west end of camp where I’d set aside equipment for your mission. She is debriefing them. I suggest we head there now. I’ll tell you what I know on the way, Coriolis will fill in the blanks. One of the civilians is being prepped for emergency surgery and I’ll be needed back at the infirmary posthaste.”
Stepping out into the rain, Firelight recited the litany of injuries sustained by B-Flight’s assailants. “Thus far I’ve observed two shattered radii, a dislocated shoulder, at least four concussions, a broken jaw with several dislodged teeth, a deep flesh wound that appears to have been inflicted by a slingspade, a broken scapula and severe internal bleeding accompanying a shattered pelvis -- and a collapsed trachea. Captain, that last pony is dead.”
Aurora stopped dead in her tracks. “Not the cadet, I hope?”
“No. Southwing Two is unconscious, but I expect her to make a full recovery. I’m certain we’ll both have a number of unpleasant questions to ask her in good time, but right now, she’s in no condition to answer them.”
Hesitating, Firelight continued. “Captain, the injuries I’ve just listed; Northwing Seven is responsible for inflicting almost all of them. Cori reports that she’s... unresponsive, right now. I recommend she be grounded pending psych eval.”
Aurora scowled. “I’ll consider it. After I’ve spoken with her.”
The two officers resumed their trek to the far corners of the base. “The deceased appears to be a transient troublemaker from town. A ‘Wild Sky’ fanatic, or some such? He has scars that are consistent with old winter wolf bites and frostburns.” He turned his head and narrowed his eyes. “Unusual, isn’t it? What use has a rabble-rouser for a place with no rabble to rouse?”
Aurora cursed. “There go any thoughts of scrubbing the mission. If I’m gone by the time Blue Two wakes up, just don’t do anything I wouldn’t. While I’m gone, I’d like you to take the lead on this Wild Sky menace and let T-Bone handle the routine training business. After all, our six best leads are your patients.”
Firelight smiled. “Very well. Captain, I recommend we put the base on lockdown. No more leave in town, no more trips in or out.”
Firelight stopped as they arrived at the squat, long building where he’d ordered B Flight. “Furthermore, I recommend we keep this matter strictly internal.”
Aurora’s eyes flared. “Absolutely not, contact the sheriff immediately! If those ponies are residents of Glimmervale, she can help you. More importantly, they have rights!”
His smile thinned at the reprimand. “Very well, ma’am. With your permission, I’ve a patient to attend to.”
Aurora dismissed him with a salute and entered the building. To her left, Wedge sat and squirmed while Red appeared to kiss him rhythmically on the cheek. Only when she moved further into the room could she see the cut on her son’s face that his wingmate was stitching closed. To her right, Soarin’ argued with Coriolis, the two exchanging heated words over whether or not Spitfire needed to give her statement on the evening’s excitement. The yellow mare in question sat in the far corner, staring at the wall.
Coriolis disengaged from Soarin’ and saluted the captain. Aurora nodded to the younger mare. “Sergeant. Report?”
“If the doctor filled you in on the injuries to the other side, then the only thing to add is that it seems to have been racially motivated.” The last two words sounded like they felt foreign in Cori’s mouth. “B Flight seems to be okay, though I can’t get Seven to say a word. Would you like a summary of my debriefing?”
Aurora shook her head. “I’ll do my own, thank you. That’ll be all.”
Cori nodded. “One and Two saw some of the excitement as well, I’ll get you my report on their debriefing ASAP.”
The captain nodded, and the younger mare left the building. Aurora sagged with relief and wrapped her wings around Soarin’, kissing him on the forehead. “What happened out there, son?”
Red and Soarin’ talked over one another, recounting the tale from start to finish. Stargazer tried to contribute, but every time he did, Red shut his mouth so he wouldn’t reopen his cut. Honest Soarin’ even disclosed that he’d intended to sneak dinner for four onto the mission expenses.
As the story ended, Aurora blinked back tears and offered her son a tremulous smile. “See? That’s what happens when you disobey your mother. Are you ok?”
Soarin’ squirmed. “Aw, Mom. Nothing we couldn’t handle. Just some guys like last spring, only with knives this time.”
She shook her head. “No, no, no! Nothing like this happened last year! Stand back, let me look at you. Are you alright?”
He tilted his head to the side and rolled his eyes at her. “I’m fine, Mom! The Ponyville Prowlers worked me over better’n this!”
Wedge laughed. “Now that was a hell of a game; that big red colt was out for blood! What a nut!”
Red bopped him on the chin. Through clenched teeth, she said, “No talking!”
Aurora offered Soarin’ a hesitant smile and turned to her other son and his wingmate. “Looks like a fine cut you’ve got there, Stargazer. I don’t recall the Prowlers doing that.” She trotted over and laid a hoof on Red’s withers. “Well, Cadet: you look no worse for wear, so what’s the prognosis on this one?”
Red smiled around the needle in her mouth as she tied off the final suture. “He,” she said, “is going to have an absolutely gorgeous scar.”
Aurora laughed. “Is that so?”
Red kissed Wedge on the cheek. “Mmhmm. I suspect I’ll have to chase away all the other mares with a shovel. Maybe a few stallions, too.”
The captain shook her head and smiled. “Atagirl.” She patted the young mare on the back and sauntered over to her final challenge of the evening.
She sat down next to Spitfire and said nothing for a long moment. “You know, Sunshine, that wall over there? The one you’ve been staring at since I came in and probably a lot longer? It’s really not that interesting.”
Spitfire glanced at her with haunted eyes, then looked down. “Evening, captain.”
Aurora leaned forward, trying to make eye contact. “You know, my wingmates in the ‘Bolts used to call me ‘Lightshow.’”
Spitfire’s voice came back more brittle than she’d ever heard it. “Maybe someday I’ll deserve to call you that.”
The old mare sighed and seized the cadet with both hooves, forcing eye contact. “Maybe you deserve it right now. Maybe I owe you a great big ‘thank you.’ Maybe it’s because of you that my sons are still alive, Sunshine!”
Spitfire shrugged and looked away. “Maybe. ‘N’ maybe I’m a murderess. Maybe that crazy stallion didn’t hafta die. Maybe the others didn’t have to be all maimed ‘n’ screaming...”
Aurora gave a frustrated huff. “Cadet? Look at me.”
Spitfire looked up. She stared right through the captain and into whatever private hell she was keeping herself in.
“I’m not going to lie, and pretend I know what you’re going through. I’ve never had to do what you had to do tonight, and I thank Harmony for that. But I’ve had to kill my fair share of creatures, some big, some small, some terribly intelligent. And I’ve had to watch ponies die, knowing the whole time that I was responsible.
“That comes with the job, Spitfire. Sometimes, rescues go bad. I lost my first wingmate and the stranded hiker she was carrying. It was my fault, too: I was the one leading us out of the storm.
“You’ve heard about the forest fire, years back? I lost five ponies under my command, and a dozen civilians. Damn near lost Dee, too. Worst loss of life on a Corps op in eighty years. Not a day goes by I don’t wonder if my orders got them killed. Just days ago I was sure my orders had killed Thunderhead.
“It’s hard, what we do. And sometimes, the only comfort is that somewhere, someday, somepony we’ll never meet won’t have to suffer because we suffered for her.
“I can only imagine what it must be like to kill another pony. It’s not a pleasant thought. But what you did tonight, Spitfire, was this: you saved two lives, and those two lives are very dear to me. Is it possible that you might have saved those lives without taking one? Yes. But let me tell you something, kid: the way I see it, there’s exactly one person in this valley who had even a snowball’s chance in hell of doing a better job out there tonight than you did, and that’s me. And I’ve got thirty years of training and career on ya, kid. Dial it back to when I was a half-trained cadet, I doubt I could’ve done nearly as good.”
She wrapped Spitfire in a bear-hug. “Look at ‘em, Cadet: look at my boys. If it happened all over again, would you do it again?”
Spitfire’s voice came out in a whisper. “In a heartbeat.”
“I know you would, Sunshine. I know you would. I’m proud of you, kid. Hang in there.”
Aurora released the cadet and stood, blinking away a tear. “Right. To business, then. Doc found some evidence your friends came from up north, so the mission’s still a go. We’ll be circling out and around to the northwest to the deepest search area first, then working our way back to the upper icefields and down the Glimmerfang Glacier into town, and it’ll take us as long as it takes us. We’ll pack up first thing, and head out. I think it’s best if we all stay here tonight: mission gear’s here, and you four have already been attacked by a fellow cadet. Blue Two might not have acted alone. I’m not sure I want you sleeping in the dorms until we have this ‘Wild Sky’ nonsense straightened out.” She gave one of the matresses an optimistic pat. A cloud of dust flew free.
The boys groaned.
“It’s disgusting and freezing in here!” said Soarin’.
“Then huddle up!”
Red brightened considerably at that suggestion. “Really?”
Aurora nodded. “Sure, it’ll be good practice for the mission, anyway. Cold up on the ice!”
Red latched onto Wedge. “I am liking this mission more and more and more.”
The captain hit the lights and four ponies settled down with their newly-purchased sleeping bags and ancient, musty mattresses for what sleep they could find. The fifth pony, Spitfire, just sat with her head hung low and her eyes closed. Shuffling hooves approached. After so many days together, she could tell it was Soarin’ just from the sound.
Softly, so the others couldn’t hear, he whispered, “Hey, Spit. Brought you a bag.”
She knew she should turn around, acknowledge him. She didn’t. “Thanks.”
“Wanted- wanted to say thank you. For before. That one guy, he had me doubled over. He... he had me, Spit. He only needed another second or two. You saved me.”
“You save me lots of times, Soarin’. From trees, from bullies, from myself...”
She heard him grasp for words a few times, taking in a breath, then letting it out in a frustrated sigh as he couldn’t decide what to say. Finally he asked, “Does that mean I can’t say thank you?”
She half-turned and looked at his hooves. “It made me so mad when he hit you. I lost it, just like I did with Bigs. Only worse.”
He reached toward her, but pulled his hoof back. “I think Mom’s right, Spit. I don’t think anypony coulda done better. What say we get you settled down, huh? Get some sleep before tomorrow?”
Spitfire turned back to the wall. “Can’t”
Soarin’ gave a frustrated snort. She heard him tromp off a bit, then heard a metallic squeal, horribly loud in the silence of the hut. She turned her head to an even louder crash: Soarin’ had picked up the neighboring cot and deposited it adjacent to the one she was sitting on.
All of his pretense at stealth was gone. “Okay, Sunshine. Time for bed.” He snatched her up with one hoof, lay the sleeping bag he’d brought across the mattress with another, and set her back down.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
He flashed her an innocent grin, barely visible in the soft moonlight. “I’m making sure my wingmate gets enough sleep. C’mon, Sunshine. It’s night time. Sun’s all done. Bedtime for sun.”
She scowled at him. “No!”
“Fine. Does it matter to you if I get any sleep?”
She snorted in frustration. “Yes.”
“Good. I’m not laying down ‘til you do.”
“Fine!” She glared at him and moved to lay down on the sleeping bag. On the adjacent bed, Soarin’ did the same. To her chagrin, he watched her very closely. If she tried to move back up, he did, too.
She sighed and settled onto the mattress. “Okay, you win.”
He chuckled and in a tired voice said, “The important thing is that I win.”
Spitfire listened to his breathing for a few moments, until she was confident he’d fallen asleep. Then she tried to sit back up.
Strong blue hooves wrapped her up, keeping her from her pensive reverie.
“I’ll hold you all night, if I have to.”
As she melted back down into his embrace, she decided that was the sweetest, most reassuring thing she’d ever heard.
Light. Voices. Warmth. Spitfire began to stir.
“Oh, they’re like angels! Let’s not wake them!”
“Red, if you and I woke up like that, we’d be on the next train outta here.”
“Yes. You would.”
Spitfire began to recognize the voices, and where she was. She was in one of the old barracks buildings. Wrapped up in Soarin’s hooves. And that was Soarin’s mother’s voice. Her eyes snapped open.
Aurora shot Spitfire a wide, predatory smile. “Good morning, Sunshine! Seems like just recently we had a little talk about this kind of thing, don’t you remember? I recall telling you that this” -she waved a hoof to indicate the way Spitfire was tangled up with her wingmate- “was a perfectly valid way to deal with your aggression issues, but I put a condition or two on that. Didn’t I?”
Spitfire shook her head. “But I-”
The captain held out a hoof to forestall further protest. “Ah, ah!”
Spitfire slumped in defeat. “You said not to tell you about it.”
Aurora shook her head, disappointed. “When I said ‘don’t tell the captain,’ showing me instead isn’t what I had in mind. Do we need to go over it again?”
Spitfire and Soarin’ flushed beet red and began stammering their protests, but Aurora waved them off.
“Oh, never mind. Up and at ‘em, you two. Roll up those bedrolls, pick a blade, and we’ll be packed and ready.”
Soarin’ stood up and groaned. “Ready? What about all the other mission prep?”
“Done. It’s nearly nine.”
Red gave him a mock-scowl. “We all decided Spitfire deserved a few extra hours. You only got off the hook because we couldn’t figure out how to untangle you without waking her up.
Spitfire gave her sleeping bag a perplexed tug. Packing these things up had always been Mom’s job. Soarin’ laughed at her. “Tell you what, Spit: you pick out the rest of the gear, I’ll handle these. Okay?”
She nodded and abandoned the bedding for the other gear. She perked up when she saw the pile of slender metal boxes. Gravity blades, like the ones she’d worked on before.
She strapped one to each foreleg and flicked her hooves to let them slide free. Standing on her hind legs, she brought them up and struck an experimental fighting pose. Satisfied, she set those two aside for Soarin’ and grabbed two more for herself.
Aurora chuckled. “Familiar, are we?”
Spitfire shrugged as she continued inspecting the weapons. “I oughta be. Spent my first Friday cleaning twelve of these damn things while the doctor droned on and on and on about history in his museum. Still, beat the tar outta sitting in my room another day.”
“Excellent, you just volunteered to familiarize these three. I’m off to grab Firelight for one last check-in. You four: there’s a flagpole about a hundred yards southeast of here, be under it in half an hour. We’re leaving.
Four ponies and five packs awaited the captain beneath the old flagpole. Wedge busied himself fussing over the packs, Soarin’ by fussing over the line on the flagpole, trying unsuccessfully to get it to stop slapping against the pole in the wind. Red, meanwhile, fussed over Spitfire, doggedly trying to engage her forlorn friend in conversation -- mainly on the subject of whether she’d really gotten Aurora’s permission to bend the rules.
Presently, Red held up a hoof to silence the other three. Softly but distinctly they heard the captains’ voices in the distance.
“... and under normal circumstances I’d agree with you, but grounding her now means taking her away from her support network, leaving her alone for weeks. So unless you’ve got hours each day to play counsellor, I have to conclude it’s better for her mental state to be with her friends and keeping busy, instead of alone. End of discussion.”
“Very well, on your head be it.”
As Aurora and Firelight rounded the corner Spitfire saw to her surprise that all three of her sergeants were with them. Thunderhead rolled alongside Dee and Dinky under his own power, in a wheelchair.
A broad grin crept onto his face. “My little worker bees, all grown up! You take care up there. Watch yourselves and one another. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Soarin’ abandoned the flagpole and bumped hooves with his brother. “Don’t do anything T-Bone wouldn’t do. So, no listening to Mom, no being responsible, and no staying out of trouble?”
Wedge laughed. “Yep, that sounds about right!”
As Aurora turned to give her final instructions to Thunderhead and Firelight, Spitfire felt a tap on her knee. Little Dinky looked up at her with pleading eyes.
“Miss Spitfire? You’re my favoritest cadet. You’ll take care of Unca Soarin’, won’t you?”
Spitfire smiled and tousled the little filly’s hair. “Of course I will, Sarge! You can count on me!”
Dinky gave her a quick hug and scampered over to Red. Spitfire heard her say, “Miss Red? You’re my favoritest cadet. You’ll take care of Unca Stargazer, won’t you?”
With a twinkle in her eyes, Red shared an isn’t-she-precious look with Spitfire before answering, “Don’t you worry, hon. I’ll take good care of him.”
Dinky smiled and scrambled back to her mother’s side. “Did I do good, Mom?”
Dee chuckled. “Of course you did, Muffin. Of course you did.”
Goodbyes were said. Gear was checked and rechecked. Red, Wedge, and Soarin’ demonstrated to Firelight’s satisfaction that they’d be able to handle the heirloom blades without much risk to themselves or the artifacts. Before long, it was time to go. Aurora took wing, and B Flight followed.
Spitfire settled into formation with Soarin’. Even with the goggles covering his face, she could see he was excited about the mission.
“Hey, this is your first time heading west over the mountains, right?”
He smiled at her. “There’s so much great stuff out that way, I can’t wait to show you! There’s this marbled canyon by the edge of the burn zone, paint vents where hot springs turn the mud a bunch of colors you won’t believe, a stone bridge where a waterfall ate away under the hard rock, a moose settlement where they have really good coffee...”
As they glided over mile after mile of hills and pines, Soarin’ regaled her with all of the places he wanted to take her. As they neared the ridge separating Glimmervale from the next valley, Aurora flared her wings and dropped back in the formation, coming up right between the two ponies and ending Soarin’s litany. “Son, we’re on a recon mission. I doubt we’ll have time for sightseeing.”
Soarin’s face fell. “Yes ma’am.”
“Speaking of, we could use some eyes up high. Why not show off your talents for a while, son?”
Soarin’ sighed and shot Spitfire a wry grin. He beat his wings and ascended to a height none of the others could match.
The captain laughed. “Sorry to spoil the moment, there, Sunshine, but we’ve got work to do.”
Spitfire furrowed her brow. “We do? Ma’am?”
“As I recall, you’re scheduled for some one-on-one combat training this week. You didn’t think you were off the hook just because we’re on a mission, did you?”
“Drop the ‘yes, ma’am, no, ma’am’ crap, kid. You sound like a kiss-ass. Now. Think back to your little scuffle with the thunderbird. You made one critical mistake, and got yourself killed for it. What was that mistake?”
She scowled at the question. “I, uh... starting the fight in the first place?”
The look on Aurora’s face told her that wasn’t the right answer.
“But I did start the fight, and I probably didn’t need to!”
“Fine. When to fight and when not to fight’s an important lesson, and we’ll cover it before long. Now assume I meant what did you do wrong during the fight?”
As they soared high over the unbroken carpet of pines, Spitfire relived those tense moments in her head. She’d not known what the thunderbird was capable of. She’d been stunned by its first bolt of lightning. Once she’d won, she’d plummeted towards the ground...
That must be it. “I didn’t protect my wings?”
Aurora smiled. “I knew you had good instincts. Your wings are your most powerful asset. If you’re in the air, a few lost feathers can mean death -- messy, awful, painful death with a nice long fall to think about it. Now: what’s the most important bit of what I just said?”
Spitfire chewed her lip for a moment. “Um, ‘if you’re in the air’?”
“Well, if you’re on the ground, you should probably be a bit more worried about your head and neck, right?”
That got her a nod. “And your belly. Think about it like this, Sunshine: you can still be a fine SAR pony with three legs, or no tail, or a cropped ear. Not so with a crippled wing or a damaged brain. Back to the bird: when you administered the coup de grace, you destroyed the bird’s flight surfaces. What does that say to you?”
“Go for the feathers?”
Aurora shook her head. “No. Okay, maybe I can’t expect you to stumble into every single fundamental on your own. You grabbed it by the tail, right?”
“If it’d had a shorter tail, you’d have missed, right?”
“The bird had no choice in the matter: it needs that long tail to fly. But there’s a lesson there, isn’t there?”
Spitfire cringed. “I’m gonna need a haircut, aren’t I?”
“Ha! Excellent! Why?”
“Because long hair is something an opponent can get ahold of and use against me.”
“It’s not so bad, Sunshine: a nice, tight braid solves most of the problem... still, you could stand to shorten that mess just a bit, don’tcha think?”
As morning gave way to early afternoon, they dissected every hop, twist, and kick of each of the first three fights she’d had since joining the Corps. By the end of it, her cheeks were red with embarrassment and she felt the only fight she’d really handled well was that first one with Bigs, when she hadn’t attacked at all.
Then she said as much, and Aurora disabused her of even that notion. “Not so fast, kid: the very first thing you did there was try to let him hit you in the wings. I know you were trying to exploit the rules, but that was a truly boneheaded move. Speaking of ‘boneheaded,’ I want to talk about headbutting, and why it’s almost always a bad-”
A blue streak from the heavens forestalled any further commentary on her performance. Soarin’ dove down at a speed Spitfire hadn’t known he was capable of.
“Mom! Willowbrook! It’s... it’s bad!”
“Slow down, son. What’s up?”
“There’s a patch and it’s round and black and I don’t think we’ll be getting that coffee. Ever again.” If not for the panic in his voice, the jumble of words might have been comical.
Aurora patted him on the withers. “Ok, Soarin’, let’s go have a look.”
As they approached, Soarin’s shock and panic proved contagious. Spitfire had gathered that Willowbrook was the moose community with Soarin’s favorite coffee shop. When they reached it, it became clear that Soarin’ should have said, ‘Willowbrook is gone.” The town and the brush around it had been burned to the ground. Perhaps even more disturbingly, the forest around the burn site was still intact, a nearly perfect ring around the former townsite.
Aurora put a hoof to her forehead, trembling slightly. “Take a look, kids. What do you see?”
Soarin’ spoke first. “This wasn’t an accident; somepony did this.”
“Think carefully about what you just said. ‘Somepony’?”
Wedge backed up his brother, saying, “Some pegasus did this, Mom. And they used weathercraft to cover it up. Look at that ring. Think about this: we’re close enough to home that someone in Glimmervale would have seen the smoke - unless it was intentionally dispersed.”
His mother gave a grim nod. “You’re right. Sunshine? Blades out. Boys? Look for survivors. Red, I want you trailing the boys with your aid kit ready, though I’m afraid you’ll only be needing it if one of us takes a fall.”
Stargazer led his teammates through a thorough search of the destroyed town that lasted deep into evening. The ash and coals were cool to the touch, though telltale signs of flowing water suggested that had been accomplished by a surreptitious rain. The burning might have happened weeks ago, or it might have happened hours ago. When they found no sign of moose remains on the surface, the five ponies struggled to find and enter the town’s cellars, in search of survivors. They found none. The lack of any sign the town’s inhabitants had been present for the fire comforted them even as it deepened the mystery.
Aurora chose to search the town’s perimeter alone, leaving B Flight to investigate the town square. Spitfire and Soarin’ lapsed into an argument about the source of the fire.
“Salamanders. Gotta be. Look how completely burned it is, it must have been a magic fire.”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. “Soarin’, does this look like a volcano to you? There’s no salamanders anywhere near the Whitecrowns! How in the hell do you propose they got a fire elemental up here?”
The ice-blue stallion shot her a hurt expression. “Fine then, phoenixes. Or even phoenix eggs; those’ll go up like a torch if you break ‘em hard enough.”
“Right, and it’d only take a few dozen to torch the town like this. And a few dozen phoenix eggs costs more than this entire valley is worth.”
Soarin’ leaned in close and scowled at her. “Okay Sunshine, if you’re so smart, how’d they do it?”
Stargazer leaned back and watched the fireworks. He nudged Red and said, “Trouble in paradise? They’re really going at it.”
His wingmate grinned and shook her head. “Look at the corner of her mouth. Look at his eyes. There’s a smile behind both of those glares. No, this is a play-fight. The kind where one thing leads to another and the combatants wind up ‘going at it’ in an entirely different way.”
An outburst from Soarin’ preempted Stargazer’s response. “Oh, so a fire elemental’s completely ridiculous, but gallons and gallons and gallons of fuel? That’s easy to bring in. They wouldn’t have to buy that in town or anything. And nopony’d be suspicious about some newcomer buying a barrel of lantern oil. And you said my idea was stupid?”
Stargazer flinched as he saw Spitfire’s eyes ignite. He leaned over and murmured in Red’s ear, “This is getting out of hand. Soarin’ never gets sarcastic, and Sunshine’s about to pop. Maybe we oughta...”
Red winked at him. “I’m on it, honey bunny.”
She trotted in between the two arguing ponies. “Hang on, there, team. I think you might be getting just a touch ahead of yourselves. Don’t you think there might be a simpler explanation?”
Spitfire and Soarin’ wheeled around, scowling at her. She took an involuntary step back. “All I mean is, if you wanted to start a fire, how would you do it?”
Something clicked in Stargazer’s head. He zipped over to Red and planted a kiss on her surprised lips. “Red, you’re brilliant.”
Her eyes fluttered and a slow grin spread across her face. “Whatever that was about, it’s about time!” She leaned in to kiss him again but he’d already dashed off.
Stargazer darted about, looking frantically around the townsite. There? No. There? Maybe... he spotted the charred remains of a tree stump that looked to have been split down to the ground. Aha.
He dove down and began digging at the base of the stump.
Before long, Red arrived at his side. She flopped down beside him and kneaded his withers with her hooves. “Watcha doin’, hon?”
Gotcha. Wedge saw what he was looking for a few inches down and set about unearthing it. “Testing a thought. An idea you gave me. Thanks, Red.”
He pulled a sandy, glassy tube out of the ground and presented it to her.
Red gasped. “For me? I’ll treasure it forever! What is it?”
“It’s proof that I’m right. Lightning glass. Like you said, they’re overthinking things: we already suspect pegasi because they probably used weather to disperse the smoke. So, if you’ve already got a weather team in place, what’s the easiest way to start a fire?”
Red fixed him with a seductive smile. “Your eyes.” She giggled at his confused response. “They always set me ablaze, honey bunny.”
She laughed as he rolled his eyes, and he kissed her on the cheek. “Fine, then. Assuming I didn’t seduce the town into flames, they used lightning. That’s the proof.”
“Wonderful. Now let’s talk about what you just did twice in the last minute or two. What I’ve been waiting for you to do all my life. Let’s talk about how I can make sure you get around to it a lot more often, mister.”
“What’d I do?”
“This,” she said, and she kissed him.
“Oh! That.” Stargazer fumbled his hooves, looking anywhere but into her eyes. “I just... I thought- that is, I wanted...”
Red’s eyes welled with tears, and she smiled at him. “I love you too, Wedge. We’ll talk more later. In the meantime, just keep it up, okay?” She snatched up the glass tube and beckoned him back to present his discovery to the quarrelsome half of the team.
If anything, discovering that they’d both been wrong improved Spitfire’s and Soarin’s mood tremendously. Before long, Aurora summoned them to the north side of the town’s perimeter. The transition from burned to unburned was startling. Black ash led right up to healthy green pines. No more than a few yards into the treeline, another sight startled Spitfire so badly she leapt into the air and flicked out her blades. An alpha frostwolf lay forlorn on a tiny patch of snow. It had been chained to a tree. The elemental’s delicate icy coat was melting, and she could see the tree through its midsection. Its paws, ears, tail, and lower jaw - everywhere a slender body part protruded from it - were withered and stunted. It whimpered piteously at them.
“Hold off, Sunshine,” said Aurora. “That one’s not hurting anypony. There are chains like this every twenty feet or so around the whole town. This is the only one with anything in the chains.”
Wedge whistled. “We know how they kept the fire from spreading.”
“Exactly. What else?”
Spitfire frowned and sheathed her blades. “Do we know how long it takes one of these things to thaw? We might be able to timestamp the blaze this way.” She approached the beast, which shrank back and cowered.
Aurora leaned against a tree trunk. “Can’t say I know off the top of my head. Thought you were the bestiary expert, kid.”
Red ran her wingtips through Wedge’s mane, lost in thought. “Doc said it would’ve taken two, maybe three days for T-Bone to melt if he’d been treated improperly. Figure there’s more of the same kind of ice here... he started melting four or five days ago? Maybe?”
The captain smiled at the red mare. “Good. Not quite enough to hang our hat on, but very good nonetheless. Sunshine, put it out of its misery, please?”
Spitfire turned a shocked expression to Aurora.
“Don’t worry, kid. It’s an elemental. Take it out and we’ll see a puff of blue smoke make its way back to the mountaintops. You’ll be doing it a favor, not killing it.
Reluctantly, Spitfire shrugged and approached the ice wolf. It raised what was left of its coat and growled, hopping back and forth to avoid her blade. “Captain, if it’s really a mercy shouldn’t he want me to send him home?” The wolf stared at her with empty eyes and chewed at its chains, breaking off several weakened teeth in the process. “I think... I think it wants me to cut it free. What should I do?”
Aurora stalked over to her side. “Stand back a step and cover me if it tries anything.” She jammed a blade into one of the links of the chain, and the cold-brittle link shattered. The wolf wriggled free of its confinement and bounded off to the east. It turned and looked back at them, flicking its head in a gesture that could only mean follow.
The perplexed ponies followed it to the stream that ran through the town. It bounded down onto the surface of the stream, where the water froze beneath its paws. It loped upstream to keep itself from travelling down with the current. It looked at them, growling softly, and pointed its nose upstream.
Aurora sounded shaken. “He’s showing us how they moved him here. They used the stream so the trail would melt more quickly. Follow the stream back to its glacier and straight up to the icefields. That’s where we’ll find them?”
The alpha wolf turned to her and stopped running. The current carried it several yards downstream. It gave a howl and a puff of blue light left it and raced up the water toward the mountains. Its lifeless body sank into the water and drifted down through the town.
B Flight camped for the night at the edge of the destroyed town. Wedge and Red volunteered to scrounge up some dinner from the forest, saving their precious supplies for the icefields -- and giving them time to talk. Spitfire had questions she wanted to ask, but the captain seemed distracted by the intelligence the wolf had shown. The corps was supposed to make every attempt to reason with creatures before terminating them, but they’d never suspected that the ice elementals were intelligent.
Over dinner, the captain announced her decisions: they would try to send a message to camp, calling a team to look for more survivors, and then they would heed the winter wolf’s message, following the stream up to its source rather than spending days going around the mountains to enter the far side of the icefield.
As Spitfire prepared to bed down for the night, her thoughts turned again to the pony she’d killed. This time she also thought about the pony she’d saved; the one who even now was set on protecting her from herself. She watched Soarin’ construct their tent and unroll their sleeping bags. She closed her eyes, and instead of a panicked, dying thug she saw smiling green eyes. I saved him. Maybe she could live with who she was, after all.
The journey northward runs into some obstacles
Wild Sky Yonder
Spitfire double-checked the straps on the five packs at the center of the former campsite. It had taken her far longer than expected, but she had finally managed to break camp. The captain, noting her troubling ineptitude with the tents and bedrolls the previous day, had ordered her to do so unassisted while Soarin’ scared up some breakfast and Wedge planned the day’s route, with Red’s help. Aurora herself was using her legendary speed to deliver news of Willowbrook back to Camp Solar personally.
Having secured and re-secured the packs, Spitfire sat back and enjoyed the satisfaction of a job well done. Sure, she’d put a tent hook through her uniform not once, but twice (she’d then removed it, lest she damage it further). And yes, she had accidentally put a gravity blade through a bedroll, but she’d taken the blades off after that and swapped the damaged roll with her own. No harm, no foul.
She heard somepony approaching and knew it was Soarin’ without looking. Her senses were sharp, and his hoofbeats distinctive. He ambled up alongside her and set down a large canvas bag filled to bursting with oblong blue berries. “Brought you somethin’!”
She gave him a playful jab in the shoulder. “Yeah, the sack that our tent goes in! I needed that, you know!”
Soarin’ chuckled. “Yup, brought you a tent sack for breakfast. Berries for everyone else, tent sack for you. Only the best for my wingmate.”
She pouted at him.
“Nope. You hit me. My feelings are hurt, and so’s my shoulder. No berries for you.”
She added a slight tremble to her lip. He laughed.
“Been getting lessons from Red?”
Spitfire struggled to keep from grinning. “Don’t make me bat my eyes at you. I’ll do it! Don’t think I won’t!”
He gestured that she was welcome to hit him with her best shot. She pursed her lips and gave him the saddest eyes she could manage, then fluttered her eyelashes at him.
He fell to the ground laughing. “Okay, you win. Have some.”
“Hurray!” She really was hungry, and she fell on the meal with enthusiasm. The berries were plump, with a thin blue skin and a deep violet-red interior, like blueberries, but the wrong shape and flavor.
“Say, these are pretty good. What are they?”
Soarin’ rolled over and stood. “They’re- well, they’re- that is, they’re... blue?” He shrugged.
Spitfire’s eyes widened. “Oh great, so I’m stuffing my face with something and neither of us knows whether it’s safe to eat.”
“Oh relax, I had a few. They’re fine.”
She spied the juice stains all over his face and grinned. “A few, huh?”
“Yeah. You know. Three or four. To make sure they were OK.”
She snorted. “More like three or four full-sized berry bushes, leaves and all!”
“Soarin’, your face is covered with juice!”
“That doesn’t prove anything!” He shot her a wicked smile and grabbed a berry. “After all, so’s yours!” With that, he smeared the berry across her forehead
“Why you- C’mere! I think you’d look good with some purple blush on those cheeks!” She dove at him, taking a berry in each forehoof. Before long, she had his face made up like a mare on Hearts and Hooves day.
“Hey, watch the uniform!”
“You started it!” Spitfire rolled over and stamped a hoof down on one of his side pockets. She was rewarded by a spreading purple stain and an unhappy grunt from her wingmate.
“Besides, what you really mean is, ‘watch out for the secret stash of extras in your uni-’”
“Northwing Seven! Report!”
Spitfire and Soarin’ rolled to a stop, red-faced from more than just the pulpy juice.
Aurora shot the cadets a bemused smirk. Spitfire recovered first. “Captain! Camp’s broken!”
“Breakfast’s ready,” continued Soarin’.
“And we were... just waiting for Five and Six.”
Aurora sauntered over to the packs and the berries. “Hmph. Son, did you pick twice as many as you needed to because you were planning on slathering yourself with honeyberry juice and wrestling with your wingmate? Or was that just a happy accident?”
Soarin’ withered. “Happy accident, I guess?”
The captain idly examined the equipment and munched a few berries. “No word from the other two?”
“Think fast!” Aurora flipped a berry into the air with each wingtip and batted them at each cadet’s face. Spitfire dove into Soarin’, pushing him out of the way and sweeping aside his berry with her tail. The two younger ponies leapt and stumbled into the forest.
Aurora called after them, “These are the rules of engagement: hard ceiling, treetop level! No running skyward! If you can throw it, it’s legal ammunition! If I hit either of you, anywhere but the tail, you both lose! And?”
Already winded from pulling Soarin’ along, Spitfire threw her head back over her shoulder. “And... you’re faster! So... attacking... smarter than running!”
Aurora glided to a stop, and nodded. “Good! What else?”
Spitfire skidded to a stop behind a toppled tree. She clamped a hoof over Soarin’s mouth. She wasn’t sure what else there was to say, but she was sure saying it would give them away.
Soarin’ prodded her to answer. She gave a stern shake of her head. Eventually they heard the captain laugh.
“Very good! You’re a quick study, kid!”
Spitfire closed her eyes and listened for the Captain’s movements. Soarin’ ended any hope of that by whispering, loud enough to wake the dead, “What now, Spit?”
She shushed him with a hoof. He made an exasperated gesture. She heard movement nearby. She signaled follow; fly low with her ears and set off skimming the forest floor.
Flying in close tandem, they snap-rolled over honeysuckle, banked low under the evergreen canopy, circled back to check for pursuit, and raced ahead. Spitfire couldn’t help but recall that other patch of forest, weeks ago. She stole a glance backward, catching Soarin’s determined grin between her own motley wings. The cuts and bruises were all healed, and only four of the grafted feathers remained to regrow.
Tumbling through the sky that day, she’d regretted ever leaving home. Looking back now, even accounting for the lows--and if she was honest with herself, training had had some pretty nasty lows--she wouldn’t trade a moment of it.
After a few minutes of tense terrain-following flying, Spitfire and Soarin’ stopped to take stock behind a rock formation. They considered their meager stock of ammunition: the half-dozen berries from Soarin’s secret stash that Spitfire hadn’t destroyed.
“For pony’s sake, Spit! Why’d you hafta go and do that, anyway?
“Excuse me for not realizing we’d need ammunition for a food fight with your mother!”
Spitfire waved away his next retort before he could make it. “Okay okay! I’m sorry! Listen: does goalie-ing translate to blocking incoming fire?”
He cocked his head and shot her a quizzical look.
“Can you use your goalie magic to block your mom’s attacks?”
He frowned. “Doubt it. Tail won’t stop a puck.”
“Fine. You’re not on defense. How’s your aim?”
He hefted one of the berries experimentally and nodded at a nearby tree trunk. “See that bird’s nest about ten feet up?”
Spitfire nodded. The berry sailed about ten feet wide.
“Great. Any bright ideas?”
Soarin’ grinned. “I could throw you at her.”
She snorted. “Be serious.”
“I am! One, I’m strong enough to throw you, and you could guide yourself all the way in, so I wouldn’t have to be precise; two, ‘if I can throw it, it’s legal ammunition,’ remember?”
Spitfire grinned. “That’s... actually pretty clever, Soarin’. We’ll call that one ‘Plan B.’ She is faster than me, so we’d still have to come up with a way to get the drop on her.”
“Oh, that’s easy! We’ll use me as bait.”
He scowled at her. “Yes we will. It’s a good plan! We split up, she chases me, I lead her to you!”
She shook her head. “Or she gets you while we’re separated. And as an added bonus, she only likes me because I saved her sons from armed madponies! Using her son as bait is not the way to impress the boss! We’ll do it, but I’m the bait.”
He pointed a hoof at her chest, no longer looking amused. “Let’s get a few things straight, Spit. This isn’t you versus her, and I’m just your baggage. This is us versus her. Second, this plan relies on the ambusher actually hitting her.” He gestured at the bird’s nest. “That means I’m not throwing bark or berries. Third, as somepony I’m very fond of told me not too long ago, you're my partner, not my protector.”
Spitfire touched his shoulder. “Very fond of?”
His cheeks colored and he opened his mouth to respond. Then a hail of berries impacted the rock wall. The two ponies dashed out into the forest.
Spitfire called back over her shoulder, hoping she wasn’t loud enough for Aurora to hear, “New plan! Split up--not too far apart--and whoever she follows is bait. Fair enough?”
She signalled left with her ears and then turned right, weaving between trees as fast as she dared. She fell into a progression: change direction every first, second, or third tree at random, circle back to look for Aurora every fifth turn. In short order the captain was following her, either failing to notice Soarin’ or correctly guessing their strategy and pursuing the more dangerous target.
Spitfire sped up, made her path more erratic. She dove through pine needles, hooked her hoof on branches to execute quick turns and looped and climbed to the limits of the forest ceiling to make full use of the arena. Her partner never attacked. When she finally looked back to see if she was still being pursued, the captain was nowhere to be seen.
Soarin’s voice. Trouble. Spitfire vaulted into the air and zipped up above the treetops. That hadn’t sounded like a matter of fun and games. She heard him again.
“Spit! Mom! Bro!”
This time she knew where it was coming from. She tucked her wings in a power dive and crashed through the forest, landing with a thump. A few yards away, Soarin’ was hanging upside down, tangled in thick milk-white cords.
She chuckled. “This looks familiar. What’s up, Soarin’? Just hangin’ out?”
Soarin’ looked well and truly panicked. “Not funny, Spit! Not funny! This is a-”
“Spider web, I know.” She gave him a reassuring pat on the head. “Great big tangle web. Fresh, too: bet that’s sticky. Looks like probably a Great Nor-”
“I don’t care what it is, I just don’t want to be spiderbait!”
Spitfire gave a wistful smile and shook her head. “First he wants to be bait, then he doesn’t. Just won’t make up your mind, huh? Relax. I don’t see, hear, or feel anything. Nothing’s coming, and I’m going to get you down. Just stop struggling.”
Soarin’ whipped his head around in all directions. “Where is it? How far away is it? How fast do they move?”
She put a hoof on either side of his face. “Soarin’? Stop. Struggling. Spiders can barely see. It’s vibration in the web that tells them when supper’s ready. The less you move, the longer I have. Okay?”
He nodded. Then the web started thrumming.
“Oh great! Your uniform’s stuck fast, best bet’s just to get you out of it. Try to... I don't know, try to twist yourself so I can get at the zipper!”
Soarin’ writhed around until she could get her teeth on the zipper of his flight suit. The zipper snagged on a strand of spider silk before it was half-open. “It won’t come undone!”
“Then get outta here, Spit!”
The thrumming grew wilder, more insistent. Spitfire lost her hold on Soarin’s flight suit and tangled her mane in a nearby strand. “I’m stuck! And I wouldn’t even if I could!”
“That’s sweet, but I really - hey! Can you reach my back legs? My blades are back there!”
“You do realize that’s not the right way to wear those, right?”
“Yeah, yeah... makes berry picking easier, though. Can you get ‘em or not?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Spitfire saw a glossy black shape heave around a tree trunk and throw itself to the forest floor. She strained for Soarin’s blades.
“Almost! Couldja gimme a boost?”
Soarin’ shoved his neck between her hind legs and pushed her up the rest of the way.
“Hey! Watch it, mister!”
“Didn’t have many options, partner!”
Spitfire pulled the blades free, strapped them on, and sliced ragged chunks from her mane where it was stuck in the web. She dropped to the ground, wings and blades out, balancing on her hind legs. “Soarin’? Hold tight. I’ll be right back.”
She flung herself into the air, rising to twice treetop level in a flash. She spotted the spider on the forest floor below her.
Yup. Great Northern Widow. Legs twice as long as me. Nasty venom. Thick carapace. Fast sucker, too.
Not much chance of scaring it off. No chance of getting Soarin’ out in time. Great, big abdomen meant she should strike from the front. Sever something important on the first pass. She lined herself up carefully and waited for her moment. The Widow lumbered forward, its every step making Soarin’ squirm. Spitfire steeled herself. The best chance for both of them depended on picking exactly the right moment.
“Any time now, Spit!”
Not yet. Sorry, big guy. Hang in there.
She waited until the spider reared up to bite Soarin’, then swooped down in an arc, flipping as she passed under her wingmate, delivering a two-hoofed flying buck to the monster’s sternum and taking off its fangs in a double stroke. As it rocked back, she flipped down and attacked its hind legs, crushing one with her hooves and slashing at the other. The spider toppled over onto its back, chittering and screeching. Spitfire dashed left, leapt up and slid down its abdomen, opening it from one end to the other in one long cut with one blade before driving the other into its sternum.
The beast flailed as it died. One of its legs caught her tail in its bristly comb and threw her into the web beside Soarin. She hung there, stuck fast and upside down, and surveyed her handiwork with mixed emotions.
Might have scared it into playing dead, if more of us had been here. Might have cut Soarin’ out of his uniform and run for it, if I’d been wearing mine. Might, if. Might, if. Either way: one more save, one more kill. How does it feel?
As the spasms and the clicking faded, Soarin’ turned to her. “That’s... twice in three days. Thanks.”
She shrugged. Or rather, she tried to. “So what’s that mean, two more and we’re even?”
He snorted. “Eh, who’s counting, right?” The two hanging ponies laughed, swaying gently in the morning breeze.
They were quiet for a long moment. Spitfire felt the blood rush to her head. She started to get dizzy. Beside her, Soarin’ grunted and twisted, forcing one of his forelegs up into the body of his uniform, then the other. He pushed against the jammed zipper until it broke, then spilled out onto the forest floor.
“Lucky you landed on your head. Might have hurt yourself otherwise.”
He smirked up at her. “I wouldn’t be making jokes just yet. Danger’s passed and now who’s hanging around helpless?”
Spitfire’s eyes widened. “What? Not fair! Totally not fair! The danger is passed because I passed it!”
Soarin’ tapped a thoughtful hoof on his chin. “True. On the other hoof, you did turn on me in favor of Dinky the other day.”
“I had orders! I regret nothing!”
He flipped out his wingtips. “Oh, you will.”
She did. He was as merciless as she’d been, all those days ago, and didn’t relent until he realized he had an audience.
“What did li’l Dinky say next? ‘Now kiss!’”
Spitfire groaned as the rest of their little expedition landed around her. “Hi, Red. What took you?”
Aurora stepped in front of Red as Wedge deposited Spitfire’s equipment beside her. “I was half a heartbeat behind you, but when I saw you annihilate the poor beast and then get yourself stuck, I thought another set of fighting hooves would be less useful than your team and your equipment. Now, Sunshine, how about a report?” The captain couldn’t keep a chuckle out of her words.
“Right. Well, during our game, I guess Eight got himself a tiny bit stuck, woke up the Widow there, um... I gave myself a manecut... Cut up the spider a bit too... I’m sorry, captain. I’ve been upside down for a while. My head hurts.”
Aurora gave a small sigh. “Right. Soarin’, get over here. Get the canteen and the soap. If you can’t dissolve the glue in the web, you’ll have to give her an even closer trim to get her out of there.” As her son complied she hefted a berry in her wingtip and held it back. “Oh, and Sunshine? About the game...” She wound up and prepared to pitch it at her student.
From beside her, at his equipment pack, Soarin’ shot out a hoof and smooshed a berry against his mother’s leg before she had a chance to throw. “We win.”
Spitfire thrust out her hooves as far as the web allowed. “Yes! Go team!”
B Flight cruised north for the remainder of the day, pushing themselves higher and faster than training had prepared them to fly. Spitfire’s mane was now as short as freshly grazed grass, her two-tone hair revealing a whorling, rippling effect at the roots even she hadn’t realized it had. One other product of the morning, her pack now contained several coils of dragline silk, which might prove valuable on the mission ahead.
As they soared over the blue-green ribbon of water the winter wolf had told them to follow, they blazed past soaring peaks, deep marbled canyons, caves, lakes, mysterious rock formations - and Soarin’ tried to stop and point out all of them to her, until his mother was forced to send him up for high point duty again. Spitfire smiled at his reluctantly retreating form.
As they screamed up the valley, the air grew colder. The sky ahead darkened. Visibility dropped and they found themselves flying into a fierce headwind. At the pace they’d been going, they’d have made the base of the glaciers by sundown. At the pace they’d been reduced to, it could take a week.
Then the rain began. An icy, torrential downpour soaked the ponies and their gear, rendering their packs nearly twice as heavy. In a single, shared look they all realized they’d have to land.
Soarin’ dove down to rejoin the others as soon as he recognized he might lose sight of them. He led them under an overhanging rock by the river.
Soaked to the bone, Red grumped. “Why didn’t we take shelter up there, above this mess?”
Soarin’ shouted back to be heard over the gale, “We can’t! Somepony else is up there! And they’re doing this!”
Aurora leaned in, ice-cold rain dripping from her face. “Did you see ‘em, son?”
Red fired back. “How do you know there’s anypony up there, then?”
“You never lived with wild weather! I have! Wild storms form over water and then blow east. This one: too fast, wrong place, wrong heading! We got somepony pinning us down for sure!”
Aurora gestured sharply to get the cadets’ attention. “Whatever’s going on, we need to find more suitable shelter! Follow me!”
Ten minutes later--ten minutes that had felt like an eternity--B Flight found themselves holed up in a small cave on a mountainside. The entrance was a crack that ran far up the mountainside and let the rain in, and the floor was a mess of slick wet mud. On the other hoof, it was out of the wind, so it would have to do.
Aurora scraped some mud away and lay down, frustrated and fatigued. “Right. Options?”
Spitfire offered one first. “We could attack.”
Aurora shot her a skeptical glance. “Upside: resolves the situation quickly if we succeed. Downside: we don’t know where they are, we don’t know how many there are, and we don’t know how well-equipped they are.”
Spitfire persisted. “Another upside: if we catch one, we get some answers!”
“Kid, if we catch one we have to get a prisoner all the way back to camp, somehow. Or let her go. Or just kill her. Any of those sound good to you?”
Spitfire wilted. Red tried the next idea. “We’re pegasi, too. We could just disperse it.”
“If we knew we outnumbered them, that’d be a fine idea. As things stand, that looks like more than a typical four-pony storm.”
Wedge stepped up. “We wait till nightfall, then we go over them, hit the icefields when they can’t see us.”
The captain shook her head. “Too dangerous. Puts hostile ice elementals on one side and hostile ponies on the other, forces us to make camp in the dark. Awfully cold up there, too. Then there’s the risk one of us gets lost.”
Red slumped into the mud, then grimaced. “So, what? We either turn back or wait them out?”
Aurora closed her eyes. “Something like that, yes.”
Soarin’ exploded. “That plan sucks! What’re they doing? Either they’re stalling us or they’re attacking. In the one case, we need to get up there before they want us there, or else the whole mission’s a big waste, and in the other case, we gotta get out of here ‘cause they’ll be hunting!”
“Son, I do believe it’s been five years since I’ve seen you this fired up. They come looking for us, your marefriend and I cut them to confetti. Just like you four did all by yourselves a few nights ago. They delay us, we just trust they’re the idiots and amateurs we know they are and we find what we need anyway. The fact remains that you four aren’t rated to fly in that soup, and I won’t risk you!”
He persisted. “You should at least let me sneak up to max altitude and keep an eye out for ‘em. If we can get an idea how many there are or where they’re staging out of, we might be able to do something about it.”
His brother backed him up. “My night vision’s pretty solid. With my dark coat and a manecut like Seven’s, I’ll be pretty hard to spot. I can go up scouting after dark, too.”
Aurora sighed. “And I can scout from the underside. It’s better than doing nothing. All right. Girls: you’re on housekeeping, groceries, and home security. Why not tidy up the place while we’re out?”
Two dreary days dragged past. Spitfire gathered a small stockpile of palatable greens and wildflowers. Red scraped away the muck and laid down a floor of evergreen needles. The two of them partially erected the tents in a way that blocked the falling rain and diverted it deeper into the cave. The boys and their mother spent half their time out and the other half sleeping. If they’d discovered anything even remotely interesting, they hadn’t bothered to tell the girls. By the second afternoon, Spitfire was itching for someone to come try to invade their little den.
Late on the third morning, while Aurora and Soarin’ explored and Wedge slept off his night mission, the girls sat and stared forlornly out of their little home away from home.
“Sittin’ in the mornin’ rain,” sang Red.
“I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’... came?” continued Spitfire.
“Watching the clouds roll in”
“And then I watch ‘em roll away again, yeah”
Sittin’ in the mouth of the cave,”
“Watchin’ the sky just a’rainin’ away,”
“Sittin’ in the mouth of the cave...”
Spitfire sprang to her hooves and began to pace. “Wasting time! Ugh! Sorry, Red. I’m just... so... bored!”
Red chuckled at her. “Okay, let’s play a game.”
Spitfire wheeled on her. “We can’t play ‘I Spy’ anymore because the only things we can see are rocks, trees, rain, and each other!”
“Right. So let’s play ‘I can make Spitfire turn red, shut up, and sit down in under fifteen words.’ I’ll go first: So, tell me how much you enjoyed being bound, secured, and tickled by Soarin’.
Spitfire blushed and sat down. She didn’t say anything for a long moment.
Red laughed. “I win! I’m good at this game.”
Spitfire regained her composure and grumped, “Not a fair game. I couldn’t make you do that in five thousand words.”
“Yep. Sounds about right.”
For a while, only the rain and thunder punctuated the silence.
“So, honey... how’s things?”
Spitfire scowled. “Oh, you know. Last two months, pretty great, ‘cept for a few really spectacularly bad bits. Past few years before that, lousy. All good before, though.”
Red rolled her eyes at her.
“Nothin’, honey. Nothin’. I can take a hint: Action Mare doesn’t wanna chat.”
Spitfire groaned. “I’m sorry, Red. Really, I am. I know you’re probably bored out of your skull, too, and I’m not helping, am I?”
Red gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry about it. Just find something to do. Before you drive us both crazy.”
Spitfire stamped her hooves on the stones a few times, thinking. She brightened. “Hey! Let’s grab some flashlights and explore the cave!”
Red nodded. “That’s a great idea. You grab a flashlight and explore the cave. I’ll wake Wedge and make him entertain me.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“Honey, we’re responsible for the camp. I have a feeling if it were Soarin’ sleeping alone in here, with extremist lunatics out there, you’d think twice about leaving him to go exploring.”
Spitfire sighed. “Good point. I promise I’ll be back soon.”
Spitfire ducked around the tarpaulin that separated their camp from the rest of the cave. The sound and spray of rushing water filled the air. The weak circle of illumination from her flashlight reflected back off of the spray as much as it illuminated the slick, smooth rocks. She edged forward into the torrent. The way they’d blocked the water from entering their camp had created an ersatz stream in the cave with a strong current, and every other step threatened to plunge her into the water and carry her down into the cave.
She looked up. Low clearance. Still, flying might be better. Then she saw a narrow point ahead, where she’d have to go through the rushing water. She’d need some rope.
Should have thought of that to begin with, genius.
She carefully slid back to the tarp and slipped back into camp to retrieve her spider silk rope. Red was nowhere to be seen. As she reached her pack, she heard a loud cry from one of the tents. A jolt ran up her spine. There was another cry. And another. Red’s voice. Spitfire’s eyes shot open and her cheeks burned. They wouldn’t! But they were. She flipped the coil of silk over her neck, squeezed her eyes shut and headed back for the exit. Not listening! Not listening! Not listening! Oh Harmony, she is a screamer.
She ducked back into the safety of the cave, where the rushing water drowned out the sound of her teammates earning a washout the fun way. She found a stalagmite that looked like it’d hold her rope and kicked it to make sure it was sturdy. She tied herself off and began to let out the line. In short order she reached the bottleneck between teeth of stone that she’d seen earlier. She took a deep breath, gripped the line tightly and submerged herself in the cold water to slip through the gap.
She shot through the opening. A falling sensation greeted her on the other side, and she found herself hanging in a large chamber with the water shooting out above her. At that moment she realized she hadn’t actually known her flashlight was waterproof and thanked Harmony for small mercies. She turned and planted her back hooves against the wall, slowly letting out more line until her tail touched water. She looked around. The chamber was roughly cylindrical, nearly as wide as their campsite, and no visible ceiling. The water didn’t seem to be rising, but she couldn’t see or hear any place where it was leaving the chamber. The inky darkness swallowed the light mere yards from her face; she’d have to get a close look at the walls to see if there was another way out of this room apart from the way she’d come in.
She spread her wings and hovered beneath the waterfall, letting the line go slack. Tiny crystalline flecks in the granite walls caught the light as she searched the room, creating strange patterns with the shadows cast by cracks and bumps. She circled the room slowly, ascending as she went. From the waterline to her point of entry, she found nothing but slick walls and narrow cracks, but high above there was a ledge - and on the ledge, a sledge hammer.
With a start, she bolted for the stream, winding up the slack in the rope and hiding under the waterfall. Tools meant somepony had been here. How recently? She crept back up until she was under the ledge and turned her light off. Nothing, not even a glow. No sound but the falling water. She pulled herself up and turned her light back on. She set the light down to examine the hammer. The tool looked entirely unremarkable: well worn but not old, caked with a bit of mud but not dusty. It might have sat here disused for several months, or have been set here an hour ago. She couldn’t tell. Either way it wasn’t some decades-old refuse from an abandoned mine. She looked around. The ledge led back to a tunnel, with a bend several yards beyond, where--
A reflection. There was a light coming around the bend. Spitfire looked around wildly. She needed them to not know she’d been there. She set the hammer down clumsily, tripping on her own safety line and kicking her flashlight backward into the water below. The wavering light grew brighter. She could just hear the faint sounds of two voices behind the roar of the water. She hopped backward into the air, hovering beyond the ledge. Her white silk line nearly glowed in the reflected lantern light. She hastily tossed it off her shoulders and into the water. It’d be waiting for her beneath the waterfall. She scrambled to find a hoof hold above the ledge and waited.
No, Spitfire thought sarcastically, take your time. Whoever was down there, they’d taken five minutes to walk twenty paces. She held herself in place with her head just above the opening by jamming her hooves hard against cracks in the wall, and her legs were starting to burn.
Minute after agonizing minute, the lantern light swayed and grew brighter. Finally two silhouettes poked out and surveyed the cavern.
“I don’t see why we don’t just bust through that wall, go in after ‘em.”
“Not your job to see why. But since you’re curious, main reason’s a little thing called orders. Heard of ‘em? Observe and report. Keep ‘em busy. Do not engage. You read the dispatches? Try it sometime. Viceroy goes on and on about his plans for the yellow one. And his vengeance on the traitor. You really got the balls to try anything to threaten that?”
“Ha! Lady’d thank me, though. She’s jealous.”
“Can you blame her though? Guy won’t shut up about his new project.”
“Alright, whatever. Back to it.”
The senior guard pony explained the new guard’s duties, in excruciating detail. For a good half-hour. If every moment of it hadn’t been torment, Spitfire might have marvelled at his ability to spend so many words without really saying anything.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I sit here, I watch the pretty waterfall, and nothing happens because you’d have to be a moron to try and get through that hole from either side. What happens if they do, and they start drownin’ in the pool because coming through is suicide?”
Spitfire’s face burned at the implied insult. The other pony was quiet for a long minute. “Hell... I guess if that happens... you save ‘em. Then... hell if I know. You figure it out. All we know is, Vice wants ‘em home safe so he can do ‘em his way.”
“Hell of a thing, isn’t it? Welp, I haven’t got killing you on my schedule for another few weeks, so I guess I’ll just have to save you today!”
“Ha! Yeah. I gotta get back. Relief in six hours.”
Spitfire’s joints ached, and her muscles screamed in agony. As the senior pony’s hoofbeats retreated, she decided the water must be loud enough to cover the sound of her wings and allow her to hover. Slowly, carefully, she pushed away from the wall, careful to stay in the deepest shadows above the ledge where the remaining guard sat. Her legs thanked her, but even that was a temporary solution: even if she could hover for six hours, her team would come looking for her before then.
She looked at the waterfall. Fighting the rush of water might well be suicidal. Would the guards’ tunnel be a better option? It obviously led to the surface, but where? For all she knew, it let out into a Wild Sky camp. The rope. The rope gave her a fighting chance of getting back through the opening, and then she’d be yards from her friends. Even if the tunnel let out somewhere secluded and safe, she’d have to find her way back to B Flight, flying through a valley that was obviously being watched by the enemy, with her bright yellow coat.
If I can get below the ledge, I can drop in the water. From there, just get under the waterfall, grab the rope, and start climbing.
She just had to get below the ledge unseen. Two seconds. If she could be absolutely certain he was looking the wrong way for two seconds, she could drop beneath him, and she’d be home free. She prodded at her pockets with her hooves to take stock and see what she had to work with. She had her sopping wet uniform, her blades, a lucky bit that Soarin’ had snuck in her pocket, a maple syrup candy he’d also snuck in there...
Thanks, big guy. That’s another save I owe you.
Spitfire extended a blade and stuck the sticky, partly dissolved candy to the end of it. The bit was new and shiny--shiny enough to see reflections in. She stuck it to the candy on the end of the black blade. Mirror on a stick. Sometimes I amaze even myself. She angled her makeshift mirror to give her a view of the guard pony. He looked bored. He hardly moved. His eyes darted back and forth erratically. Not good.
She watched him for several long minutes. He never budged. She noticed that her mirror made a little bright patch on the floor behind him. She moved that patch to the left corner of the ledge and made it dance about, drawing his attention.
“Where in the hay is that coming from?” The guardpony stepped to the lip and looked up and to the left, and by then Spitfire had gone out around to the right and slipped into the water.
Spitfire fumbled blindly for her rope. Every time she thought she had it around her hoof, it jerked away from her. She grew frustrated with it until the terrible realization dawned on her that it was dancing because someone was pulling it in. Terrified, she lunged about underwater until she seized it with her teeth and scrambled to wrap the very end of it around her midsection as powerful pulses pulled her out of the water. Above, she could see that the guard was still looking up for the source of the dancing reflections. Keep looking, buddy. You’ll spot it. Keep it up. Whatever you do, don’t look down! Then the tension on the line tugged her into the torrent. She thought she heard a surprised grunt from the guard as she went headfirst into the waterfall.
Like a pony possessed, Soarin’ pulled the dragline silk hoof over hoof, faster and faster. He hit a snag that almost knocked him over, beat his wings and resumed pulling. Moments later he pulled up a soaking wet Spitfire with the end of the rope in her teeth.
The rest of B Flight let out a sigh of relief. Soarin’ gathered her up into his hooves. Aurora laughed.
“That’s a big catch, son. You gonna keep her, or toss her back?”
He glowered at Spitfire, worry making his voice sound angry. “I just might throw her back after a stunt like that. What were you thinking?”
Spitfire stared back, a challenge in her eyes. “I think you’d better listen to what I’ve just heard! We need to get out of here!”
Spitfire gathered the team back inside their camp and told the full story of her exploration, steamrolling over objections and questions until she got to the bit where the Wild Sky guards appeared. The others grew quiet.
She finished her story. “Let’s recap. Viceroy: again with the big plans for me. Big plans that make the lady jealous. No thanks. Wants you dead, but not yet? Wants us tied up for a long time. Watching us right now. Not hunting us, orders not to hurt us, orders to keep us busy. We need them to not see us, and we need to get back.”
Aurora patted the yellow mare on the shoulder. “Hold your horses, kid. We’re not done here. We still need to get what we came for: preferably, the names of whomever these jokers have turned in my Corps. You’re right, though; we do need to get around them unnoticed. If they’re using one tunnel, they’re probably using more. Sorry, kids. I know I’ve been trying to let this be your mission but I think it’s time I lead from in front for a bit. Get things here as ready to move as you can without striking the tents. Wait for me.” The captain ducked out into the evening rain and was gone.
B Flight tooled around the cave, packing up equipment and food, chatting half-heartedly. Soarin’ was distressed to hear that Spitfire had lost her lucky bit until she explained she’d used it to save herself.
At one point, after night had fallen and things had calmed down a bit, Spitfire pulled Red aside.
“So, Red, when I left camp before... I had to come back a few minutes later for my rope.”
“Is that so? Good thing you came back for it, honey. Otherwise you still might be stuck out there.”
“Right. Right. Anyway, let’s... let’s play a game.”
Red’s eyes twinkled. “Oh good, I like games.”
“It’s called ‘What Did I Hear When I Came Back to Camp?’”
Red batted her eyes innocently. “Was it the dulcet tones of my singing voice?”
Spitfire gave her a flat stare. “Not exactly.”
“Was it Wedge working on his bear call?”
“Red, be serious.”
The scarlet mare’s face broke into a broad smile. “Was it the two of us doing some exploring of our own?”
Spitfire glared. “I don’t know. You tell me.”
Red suppressed a delighted squeal. “It was! So help me, it was!”
“Red! This isn’t something to celebrate! This is big trouble! How long has this been going on?”
“Relax, honey. Only since the mission. We’re out here on official Corps business, we might as well be graduated. We’re not cadets anymore.”
Spitfire leaned in, concern etched on her face. “I just hope his mother agrees with you if she finds out, Red. You three are the only friends I’ve got. I don’t wanna lose two of you just ‘cause you got impatient.”
“Oh, honey. Don’t you worry your pretty little head. I’m not going anywhere. Besides,” Red finally showed a flicker of uncertainty, “I’m... I’m sure she doesn’t know.”
Always one to make an entrance, the captain appeared. “She does know, soldier. And you should thank your lucky stars she’s willing to see it your way out here. Just remember, she might not have the freedom to do so when we get back to Glimmervale.”
Red paled. Spitfire worried that she’d shrink right down into a crack in the floor. “Y-yes. ma’am!”
Aurora fixed her with a cruel smile. “I’m glad we have an understanding. If you make me expel my son, I will make your life a living hell. Got it?”
Words escaped Red, and she could only nod.
“Right. Boys! Front and center!” Aurora tossed a pile of black ponchos onto the floor. “Winter coats, weapons, and food. No bedrolls. No packs. No tents. Put one of these on over it all and follow me.”
Aurora led them out of the cave and across the ridge, up the mountainside to where the rain turned to snow. Another cave opened up in the mountain, and it quickly became clear that this one had been carved by hooves and tools, not time and water. Silently they crept along, sometimes on hoof, sometimes flying just above the tunnel floor. They could hear the hoofbeats of other ponies in the tunnels. Their light-starved eyes occasionally caught a glimmer of something bright around a corner. Aurora always led them away from the light.
The night dragged on. They emerged well above the tree line, where only rocks and snow greeted them under the soft moonlight. The storm raged to their left, the sky lay calm to their right. Aurora took them up the ridge and through another opening in the mountain. This passage seemed an endless twisting passage of stairs. Up they went, until it seemed they must have gone higher than the peak of the mountain they thought they were inside.
Finally an opening appeared, and through it glowed the first faint rays of sunrise. The five adventurers crowded around that doorway. The young ones were unprepared for what they saw.
The peaks formed a natural bowl high in the mountains, and as the bowl filled with snow every year, the ice became thicker. Many of the region’s glaciers, including the Glimmerfang Glacier that fed the lake just outside of town, flowed out of the Icefields, and they’d been up on it countless times. They thought they knew what to expect: a vast expanse of flat, white waste punctuated by the occasional blue crevasse. None was ready for the reality: fields of crystalline, translucent grasses, dotted by glassy trees, tended and grazed by herds of animals all made of ice. Just like the great alpha winter wolf that waited to greet them with an angry howl.
“Welcome,” said Aurora, “to the Icefields”