Rainbow Dash slowly made her way amongst rows of dark tents in the Equestrian encampment. The sun was beginning to set, painting the sky a shade of dark crimson and covering the empty alley in sharp shadows. The only sounds reaching her ears were the crackling of campfires hidden from her view by the tents, no doubt surrounded by silent soldiers who had nothing more to converse about, and the clattering of the armor on her chest meeting her shoulder guards with every step forward. She had been invited by the Princess to attend a meeting of the commanding officers of the four armies in the joined camp. They were to discuss the plans for the coming weeks of the march southwards across the continent.
Dash was alone with her thoughts on her way to the hill in the center of the camp. How had it come to this? Each link in the chain of events leading up to this moment had made sense in its own right, and yet the chain as a whole surpassed her. They were joining other countries in an assault on a shared enemy. Ponies were marching to war.
From what little she could remember of her education on her country’s history she knew that the last war ponies had fought in lay centuries in the past. Within her lifetime she had not once even heard of one pony killing another. Given, the enemy was not ponies. They were far from it. Nonetheless she would have never imagined having to kill to defend her country, her home or even her friends. How had it come to this?
Rainbow Dash was a soldier now, a sergeant even, tasked with leading her squad into battle. The basic training had taken few months to complete. Given her already excellent physique she instead focused on learning basic battle tactics, formations and use of various weapons such as the sword at her belt, spears and knives. It was an easy feat to gain the loyalty and respect of her fellow soldiers due to the stories surrounding her and her friends’ encounters with Nightmare Moon and Discord. And Celestia knows, we will test that loyalty before this war is over.
With her popularity amongst the soldiers she could have easily been accepted as a commander, taking control of a whole regiment. Yet she could not bring herself to do so. She was already uncomfortable with the responsibility for the lives of her own, thirty pegasi squad. She had rarely had to care for anyone other than herself; all her friends had always been able to provide for themselves. But now lives were depending on her abilities to command other ponies and being responsible for a few hundred ponies would have been too much for her.
It had been months since she had last seen one of her five best friends. Rainbow Dash, ever loyal to the princesses, had joined the forces upon their call for new recruits to defend Equestria against this new threat. However none of her other friends had followed her. Applejack could not have been persuaded to leave the farm, Rarity had her sister to take care of, Fluttershy would have been no good in battle and Pinkie Pie could not accept that she would eventually have to kill if she did.
The only other one to leave Ponyville was Twilight, asked by Princess Luna to aid her in the negotiations with other countries’ officials. With Celestia being the formal ruler of the country and not being able to abandon her royal duties, the sister of the night had been announced Commander of Equestria’s armed forces.
She passed the last tent and made a turn which brought the marquee into her view. It was little more than a large tarp spanned over a frame resting on four poles at its corners. She made her way up the low hill and the sounds of calm conversations hit her ears. Lanterns were lit inside the tent and a round table offered space for the Commanders, Generals and high ranking leaders and their advisors of the respective armies. Spread across the table were maps of the continent marking the different countries and kingdoms as well as a line across the lands from their current encampment into the territory that was known to be the source of the enemy. At the table she could see the representatives for the different partners in their alliance. Her eyes surveyed the heads of the present officials.
There was Lostril, the equivalent of a General of the deer army. She was one of their magic using kind and commandeered the small-sized contingent their people could spare for the campaign. Her antlers - the conduits for her magic much like the horns of unicorns - were the largest Dash had ever seen of a deer. Even though she was sitting they surpassed everyone else’s and the pegasus’ own head in height and nearly scraped the underside of the lantern hanging above her.
Her coat was a light brown color, her legs long and slim and her eyes black as the night sky. Currently she was talking to one of her fellow deer kin, Dash remembered that one to be of a rank directly under Lostril, however his title escaped her. Deer have such odd names for everything.
Moving on her eyes caught the sight of “One” or “The First” as he preferred to be called. He was of a lizard race from an island off the east coast of Equestria. A very secluded people that responded to visitors and even unannounced ambassadors with rudeness and not rarely violence. Dash would haven barely been able to tell them apart were it not for the markings on their faces.
The First was the leader of his people and their best and unchallenged fighter. He wore two simple streaks of white ink on his otherwise green cheeks and scales all over his body. A rank in their warrior caste appeared to be displayed by the marking on each lizard’s face. The more elaborate the designs the lower the status. Dash could not recall the specific name of their people, but she had learned that his kind were legendary for their skills in battle. Their society was built around the use of their two swords, one for each claw, and by the gods, could they fight!
She had been wandering past their camp a week prior and observed what she had later been told to have been a ‘small skirmish between friends’. These lizards were able to stand upright on their two hind legs while wielding their long, thin swords. She had watched the two fighters open-mouthed exchange a frenzy of blows, their blades too fast for her eyes, each blow blocked by the other one’s sword, causing the occasional spark to light up between them.
They had been driving each other several paces back and forth as blow after blow rained down on their blurred weapons before one of them had yielded after being nearly knocked unconscious with a lucky hit by the side of the other one’s blade. Dash was not sure whether it was a miracle that none of them had received any injuries or whether it was due to their skills, but she suspected it to be the latter. She had later heard stories of two of their warriors facing an entire army, which she would have judged to be old mares’ tales had she not seen them fight first-hoof.
The First was studying a map on the table in front of him while another of his kind was talking to him in their own language. Dash had not had any contact with The First or even so much as talked to one of his fellow lizard kin, but he was said to be arrogant and condescending in the rare times in which he talked and yet not unreasonable. If he thinks his people cannot face this threat alone then how could we ever hope to win this war?
Taking her gaze off the lizard commander and turning her head she saw Princess Luna sitting opposite the deer representative. Next to her Dash found the reason for her attending this meeting. Twilight Sparkle was sitting beside the Princess, reading to her what appeared to be a list floating in front of the unicorn. Feelings of joy and content she had almost feared to have lost were welling up inside the pegasus at the sight, together with something more, something she had only ever felt a spark of before.
Twilight finished the list and put the paper down on the table, lifting her head to look across the tent. Their eyes locked. Twilight squinted shortly before widening her eyes and offering Dash a wide smile. Gods below, such extraordinary beauty. Dash returned the smile and gave her hoof a small wave. The princess said something towards Twilight, returning the unicorn’s attention to the parchment in front of her.
Still observing the unicorn Dash noticed a difference in her movements and composure. The purple mare seemed calmer, more confident than she had known her. Her friend’s eyes, however, looked tired, worn, older than the unicorn herself. Dash knew she had been travelling to sites of recent attacks together with the princess. Twilight had seen the horrors she herself had only read reports of, and those were enough to cause the pegasus restless nights.
Dash’s military training had changed her and Twilight’s travels had no doubt taken their effects on the unicorn, too. And yet, she regarded her friend with more affectionate eyes than ever. Twilight took her eyes from the parchment and swung her gaze to the pegasus again. Dash saw her blinking towards her. A changed mare. She’s hardly interested in me that way, no, she’s trying to say something else entirely… After a short moment Dash nodded. Twilight sought a private conversation with her after the meeting and she had just accepted the invitation - an invitation that had not needed to be stated.
Rainbow Dash continued her survey of the table, briefly wondering why the meeting had not yet started. She noticed, however, quickly the cause for that. The representative of the fourth army had yet to join the round - Rood, griffon warlord and master tactician. This alliance had been of his design and his troops provided the second largest contribution towards it in terms of numbers of soldiers, followed by the lizards and deer.
Dash saw him approaching the tent from the other side of the hill, followed by his second in command and their standard bearer. His tail swung lazily behind him and his steps were calm. He came to a halt at the table, wearing a neutral expression. The conversations slowly stopped and he regarded everyone present with wakeful eyes, his gaze lingering on Dash slightly longer than the rest.
“Good,” he said after taking count of each representative. “Shall we begin?” A round of murmured agreement followed. “This meeting will be the last before we start our advance towards the enemy territory in two days. The first item is a count of the troops. Are our armies complete and ready to move out?”
“The last mages of our cadre arrived three days ago. We are ready,” Lostril said.
The First gave a silent nod.
“A group of scouts has yet to return,” Princess Luna answered with a look over the parchment. “They are scheduled to return tomorrow, however. Otherwise we are ready.”
Rood nodded. “And my troops have gathered as well.” He lifted a map and splayed it across the center of the table. “Now, are there any reservations about our route?”
“One,” Lostril responded. “Why do we march around the west of the Ashentail Mountains? A direct route would spare us no less than two weeks.”
“We are arranging to collect several buffalo tribes along the way.”
Lostril frowned. “We should have been informed of this.”
Rood shook his head. “Negotiations are still underway. It appears this would be the first time in decades that the heads of their tribes agreed on an issue.”
“Aye,” Rood’s second threw in from behind the Warlord. “Those buffalo have quite the temper.”
A knowing smile passed between Rainbow Dash and Twilight at a shared memory.
“How are the talks coming along?” the Princess inquired.
Rood released a short breath. “Slowly. Many of their leaders have yet to be convinced of the severity of the threat. However, we will not arrive in their lands for several weeks.”
“If you don’t mind my question,” Dash said, drawing the attention of everyone present. “Who or what is the enemy exactly?” She saw Twilight roll her eyes, but the purple lips formed a small smirk nonetheless. Dash was quickly overstepping her boundaries as a soldier with this interruption. She had been invited to observe and listen. Her status as an Element of Harmony, however, granted her enough respect to let it be overlooked.
Rood regarded her through thinned eyes. “Of course we do not mind, Sergeant.” The intonation earned him a warning glare from the Princess. “The simple answer: We do not know.”
“Perhaps,” Luna interrupted him, “now would be a good time to share what information and intelligence our forces have gathered about them.”
After a moment Rood grunted. “Very well. The first reports we received are nearly a year old. They spoke of empty villages, plundered and burnt houses in the south. They appear to leave villages and towns as quickly as they come and take the inhabitants with them. Scouts could not spot any sign of encampments or troop movement around places of recent attacks, suggesting that they move fast and return immediately to their homebase.” He pointed at the center of the blackened area on the map. Capul, a city on top of a cliff at the edge of the continent.
“That place is almost a fortress,” Lostril said. “How do you plan on entering the city?”
“No worries there,” Rood’s commander replied. “Capul has many entrances, most of them secret or hidden. The city had been abandoned for almost a century. It’s new inhabitants doubtfully know all of them.”
“But you do?” the deer mage asked.
“We believe so. After all, it were griffons who built it and lived in it for the longest time. Old records of smuggling routes and architects’ notes have been kept and studied thoroughly. We have made plans for small groups to enter the city and … clear the way.”
Dash saw a small grin form on The First’s face before Rood continued.
“Newer reports of attacks also mentioned corpses they had left behind. The Princess should be able to provide further information in that regard.”
Luna cleared her throat before speaking. “Yes. We ventured to those places that suffered attacks in the not too distant past. Villages and towns at the edge of the now enemy territory. The scouts’ reports are largely correct. Burnt and empty houses, signs of battle in them and on the streets as well as several dead bodies. We were also met by refugees who somehow survived the attacks by hiding or could flee in time. However the state of the survivors was not the most disturbing discovery.”
A moment of silence followed, broken by Lostril. “Then what was?” she asked.
The Princess drew in a breath before answering. “The corpses had … bite marks on them.”
Rood raised a brow. “So they use hounds in their raids?”
“Not hounds, Warlord,” Twilight responded. “Those marks were unlike those of any animal I’ve seen. Some bodies even had limbs and pieces of flesh missing, cleanly cut off after they died. It seems the most plausible explanation is that the bites marks come from the attackers themselves.”
Dash’s eyes widened as she took in this new information. Rood was the one voicing everyone’s thoughts. “By Hood’s balls,” he said, the shock audible in his voice. “Cannibals?”
“What madness is this we’re fighting?” the deer beside Lostril exclaimed.
Twilight’s horn flared up as she levitated a parchment closer to her and began to skim its contents while continuing her account. “I suspect the enemy to be of a religious order. But I have yet to find what or whom they worship.”
Lostril shifted her position and leaned closer over the table. “And what warrants these suspicions?” she asked.
“We found several markings and symbols inside of homes that have sustained the least amount of damage. It would not appear that these had been there before, given their rather obscure design. Besides, most of them were … drawn in blood.”
“A religious order,” Lostril repeated quietly. “Some other things begin to make sense as well.”
“What do you mean?” the Princess inquired.
“Shortly before the first rumors of raided villages arrived some of our mages sensed a burst of sorcery in the south. A disturbance, if you will.”
“You already told us of this,” Luna reminded her.
Lostril nodded. “Yes. But since then we have detected a powerful magical presence and several of our mage cadres have been … probing in that direction. All of them agree that it is of one single source rather than a group of mages as we had expected. We believed it to be an artifact of an elder god, but if what you say is true and we are indeed fighting religious fanatics of sorts, then it might as well be their leader.”
“So,” Rood said, “their leader is a powerful mage?”
“Not just that, Warlord.” Lostril exchanged a few words with her fellow deer in their own language before elaborating. “After careful studies of the presence our mages have determined its kind - Omtose.”
Blankness swept over the lizards’ and griffons’ faces as well as Dash’s own. Luna’s expression, however, hardened and Twilight furrowed her brows. “Omtose,” she repeated. “That was ice, yes? I thought that magic was inaccessible. Sealed off.”
“Not sealed, Twilight,” Luna responded. “The historical records might have undergone a translation error. Omtose is one of the oldest and strongest forms of magic, indigenous to a long died-out people. It was simply believed that none were still alive.”
“A powerful mage in control of a long lost form of elder magic commanding a horde of fanatical cannibals,” Rood recollected, the trouble now visible on everyone’s faces. “That almost sounds ridiculous.” The other griffon behind him snorted. Dash saw the Princess shoot a glance towards the sun, now merely a thin stripe at the horizon. Rood must have seen it, too. “I believe it may be best to end this meeting and start preparations for breaking camp in two days. We will have enough time to revise strategies on the march.”
Another round of nods and murmured agreement followed. The representatives stood up from the table and started heading back to their own camps. Rainbow Dash strode over to Twilight and Luna already standing. Twilight appeared to be busy sorting her various scrolls on the table while the alicorn turned to face her. The pegasus performed a small bow upon arrival. “Princess Luna,” she greeted.
The Princess returned a warm smile. “Rainbow Dash,” she said. “It is good to meet you again. I only wish it were under different circumstances.”
“We cannot all choose our fate, Princess.”
“Yet you appear to have done just so. Joining the military when Equestria needed you, despite leaving your friends behind. That is truly admirable loyalty.” Luna turned her head, seeing Twilight put the last of the scrolls into her bags. “You probably wish to speak with your friend. I shall not hold you any longer, but I do hope we can talk soon.”
“So do I,” Dash said. “But I think we will have enough time in the two months of our campaign.”
The Princess nodded and turned to Twilight. “I will await you in my tent for the final preparations.”
The purple mare returned a smile and Luna strode off into the Equestrian camp. She then turned towards Dash and the two exchanged bright smiles before stepping closer to each other. “Rainbow Dash,” she said.
“Twilight,” the cyan pegasus responded. Both took one step forward and rested their necks against each other, closing their eyes as they breathed in the other pony’s scent. Although Dash would never admit it, she had been beginning to miss the intimacy of even a friendly embrace.
The former librarian sighed deeply, sending a gush of air through Dash’s mane. “I’ve been looking forward to this. It’s so good to see you again.”
“How long has it been? Six months?”
“Too long in any case.” Twilight stepped back and motioned for Dash to take a seat at the table. She did so, followed by the unicorn. “How has the military treated you?”
“It could be worse. The sleep rolls are killing my back, but at least the food is better than whatever I could have made on my own. Still no match for Applejack’s or Pinkie Pie’s cooking, though.”
“And how do you like being a sergeant?”
Dash let out a short breath. “I can’t say I like all this new responsibility, but somepony has to do it. Some of them are even looking up to me.”
“Now you cannot tell me you dislike that.”
Dash chuckled. “You know me too well, Twilight.” She turned her head to the side and saw the Princess sitting on the ground in a clearing of tents, head slightly lowered with closed eyes and her horn glowing. A few ponies had gathered around her, half watching her and half the rising moon on the horizon. “Is she still making a show out of this?” Dash asked.
Twilight followed her gaze. “We have to keep up appearances, Dash.” Oh, ‘Dash’ is it now? “Ponies need stability, something to believe in.”
“Aye. Now more than ever, I imagine.”
Twilight’s head swung around again. “How have our friends fared? Have you had any contact?”
“No,” Dash answered, sadness in her tone. “I’ve had no means to for the past four months. We’ve been on the move since I took command of my squad.”
“I had no way of sending letters either.” The unicorn sighed. “I do so miss them. However, to be honest I’m glad that none of them followed you. Only you had to join the military.”
“You know me, Twilight. The Princess needed me.”
“Yes, I know. And I hope you know that you are more than just a sergeant now. Ponies respect you and follow you with good reason. Nightmare Moon and Discord were no easy enemies to defeat. You became a beacon of … loyalty, if you will. Inspiring confidence in your fellow soldiers.”
“That thought had crossed my mind, yes.”
Princess Luna had apparently finished her procession as she stood up from the ground, her hair exhibiting an otherworldly glow in the darkness and flowing in the air despite the lack of wind. The ponies gathered around her bowed their heads and she regarded them with a small smile before slowly walking back towards her tent. After she had disappeared her audience dissolved as well, resuming their patrols between the rows of tents or settling around campfires.
Dash turned her head southward beyond the camp in the direction they would march in two days. Now she only saw darkness there, topped by the faint points of light in the sky, but she knew that their path would take them over wide and mostly uninhabited plains until the Ashentail Mountains. From there on their journey would lead them through a somewhat familiar desert, the homeland of the buffalo clans, wide plains and forests again before finally arriving at the mountain ridge housing the city of Capul.
“This meeting,” she said, slowly returning her attention to the mare beside her, “has brought some disturbing truths forward. I think I was better off not knowing about the cannibal part.”
“I imagine that bit will receive no better reaction among the soldiers. And the more we uncover the more questions arise. But you of all ponies should need to learn that ignorance can be deadly. Only with the best information can you reliably form good strategies.”
“Yes, yes,” Dash groaned. “I know. But why was the kind of magic their leader uses so important?”
Twilight scowled in thought. “As the Princess said in the meeting, Omtose is very old and only one known race has ever been able to access it. Their civilization died out long ago after a war with another people, which means that this one mage has either found a way into that warren or is of that race and somehow survived all this time without anyone knowing.”
“And how long would that be?”
“About one or two hundred thousand years.” She nodded sadly at Dash’s stunned expression. “I know. Such a long time alone would drive anyone mad. But Omtose is a warren of ice and ice is very patient. In the last decades of the war their people covered half the continent in ice to keep their enemies away. It worked, but they were far too few to survive as a civilization and so they slowly went extinct. If this leader has in fact access to this warren then he or she commands its whole power alone. It could even rival that of Princess Celestia.”
The unicorn blinked. “Yes?”
“Please, no more bad news today.”
Twilight chuckled, followed by Dash. “Very well. Besides, I’m a bit tired already. I think I will discuss the recent developments with the Princess and then call it a night. As you said, we will have the whole time of the campaign.”
Both ponies rose from the table. “The last scouts will give their reports tomorrow evening,” Dash said. “Will you be there?”
“Of course.” Twilight shot her a smile and drew Dash into a light hug, unknowingly increasing the pegasus’ heartbeat. “This I’ve missed, too.” They separated. “And I must say that this armor suits you quite well.”
Another chuckle escaped Dash. “Good night, Twilight.”
Twilight lifted her saddlebags and set off in the direction the Princess had taken. Dash stayed for a moment and watched her leave. The lavender mare had changed more ways than Dash would have expected. In some ways for the better, Dash thought with a smile. She gave her friend one last glance and began trotting back towards the tents of her own company.
Rainbow Dash stepped out of the Equestrian command tent, stood gazing up at the sweep of stars overhead. It had been a long time since she had felt so weary. The last of the scouts had returned and their reports of the enemy’s advances were gruesome at best. The stuff of nightmares. Luna knows I’ve had enough of them.
She heard movement behind her, then a soft, purple hoof settled on her shoulder, the touch sending waves through her. “It would be nice,” Twilight murmured, “to hear good news for a change.”
“You know, it’s times like these in which a pony can appreciate what she has in life.”
Dash turned her head towards the other mare. “I’m not sure I follow.”
Twilight sighed loudly. “These past few months made me realize how blessed of a life I’ve lead. I have a family that I love dearly, I have friends who I could not imagine loosing and I have a home to go back to when all this is over. I’ve met others, often not even ponies, who have none of that. They lost their family, their friends and had to abandon their homes.”
“Aye,” Dash said grimly, returning her gaze to the night sky. “We are truly blessed.”
A long moment of silence followed before Twilight spoke again. “What I said yesterday, about missing our friends … was not the entire truth, Dash.” The pegasus turned her head and listened intently. Twilight took a breath before continuing. “I suppose I learned how sudden and devastating losses can be. Lost opportunities are no exception. And I’ve had many of those. What I mean to say is, as much as I’ve missed our friends, you are the one I’ve found to have missed the most. Every memory of you put a smile to my face, often even unnoticed by me.”
Dash’s eyes widened in surprise. A changed mare indeed.
Twilight searched the pegasus’ eyes. “Did you … miss me as well?”
Dash nodded. “More than you know.”
Her hoof was still on the pegasus’ shoulder. “Come with me back to my tent, Dash.”
Dash’s brows rose, then she smiled and her voice assumed a dry tone. “Not a night to be alone-”
“Don’t be a fool!” Twilight snapped. “I did not ask for company - I asked for you. Not a faceless need that must be answered and anyone will do. Not that. Am I understood?”
The cyan mare blinked, startled. “Not entirely.”
“I wish us to become lovers, Dash. Beginning tonight. I wish to fall asleep in your arms and awaken next to you … I would know if you have feelings for me.”
The pegasus was silent for a long moment, then she said, “I’d be a fool not to, Twilight. But I had also considered it even more foolish to attempt any advance. I assumed you would not feel anything for me that way.”
“I cannot claim not to have assumed the same for a long time. I’ve kept myself awake many nights with my worries for you that-”
Dash set a hoof to her lips. “I am honored to accept you, Twilight. More than you will ever realize. And I will seek to be worthy of your gift.”
The unicorn shook her head, eyes dropping. “It is a scant gift. Seek my heart and you may be disappointed in what you find.”
Dash’s hoof went to the lavender chin, lifting her head so their eyes would meet. She stared into the deep, purple eyes and felt them staring back into her own. With a smile she told Twilight that disappointment would not follow. Mimicking her expression the unicorn stepped beside Dash, leaning into her, and led her down the first row of tents.
Twilight rolled off of Dash. Both ponies were breathing heavily, the efforts of their lovemaking having left their distinct scent inside the tent. The scholar’s bed and makeshift residence were more than generously sized, courtesy of traveling with the Princess. A lantern was lit, filling the room with warm, orange light and dancing shadows. Dash’s sword and uniform lay in a heap at the bottom of the bed. To not be disturbed they had sealed the tent hide, however Dash had had trouble suppressing her moans as she discovered that her friend had changed in one more way than she had thought before. She could feel the heat from Twilight’s body as she lay next to her, their sides pressing into each other.
After their breathing calmed down Dash felt Twilight shift her position and gently pull the pegasus’ head around, locking lips with her. Dash returned the kiss, feeling Twilight’s warm breath on her face. They separated and began studying each other’s eyes.
Smiling, Twilight took Dash’s hoof and turned her body around, pressing her backside against the cyan chest and wrapping the leg around herself, locking it in place with her own. Having often fantasized about holding another pony this way, Dash would have never expected it to be one of her best friends. She tightened her grip of the unicorn, placed her head on top of Twilight’s and closed her eyes.
They held this position for a long while. How long, Dash did not know and could impossibly have cared less. She was alone with her thoughts again. Her mind drifted back to her friends in Ponyville who were most likely sick with worry for Twilight and her. She could not have blamed them. The more she had learned about their enemy the more terrified she became of them.
Fanaticism was one of the hardest enemies to fight. Its followers would often know no fear, gladly fight to death and never question their orders. This new cult, however, could not have been formed to last. They were taking over cities, expanding their territory, but leaving farms and crops to die. Once they had reached the end of the continent they would have had nowhere to go. This mysterious leader must have had other, personal plans. Plans that did not include his followers.
Dash moved her head slightly. “Twilight?” she said quietly.
Twilight’s voice was tired, sounding as if she had been short of falling asleep, and she kept her eyes closed. “Yes, Rainbow?”
“So now it’s ‘Rainbow’ again?”
“I like the name,” Twilight said casually, smiling, and began to stroke Dash’s leg that was wrapped around her. When the pegasus gave no response for a while she asked, “what is it?”
Dash took in a deep breath and slowly released it through her nose, but remained silent for a moment longer. Eventually she simply said, “I’m scared.”
Twilight opened her eyes and slowly turned around in Dash’s arms, now facing the pegasus. She closed her own arms around the cyan body. “I know,” she said. “So am I. And we have good reason to.”
“What if none of us survive this? If we are all marching to our deaths?”
“We still have to try. I don’t want to think of what would happen if we didn’t.”
“I know we have to. And I’m glad you won’t have to see any battle.”
“I can take care of myself. Don’t think that you’ll have to protect me and abandon your company.”
“You know I would never do that.”
Twilight gave her a light kiss. “I have no illusions that we might both not return home. But I could have never forgiven myself if I had let you go alone. I will always be here for you if you need me.”
“Right at my side?” Dash asked.
The purple mare answered with a nod and put her muzzle below Dash’s chin. Her horn flared up, covering Dash and her with the blanket and extinguishing the lantern. In the darkness both ponies held each other close. The only sound in the tent was their breathing as they slowly fell asleep.
Rainbow Dash awoke from another dream. She had been cornered by a dark, looming shadow, glowing red eyes and fangs rivaling those of small dragons. She had lost her sword and the creature was about to sink its teeth into her when she opened her eyes. She found herself in an empty bed, lying on her back. The room was dimly lit, sunlight entering the tent through the half-opened hide.
“Good, you’re awake,” she heard a soft voice say. Turning her head she saw that it was Twilight. The young mage was busy sorting scrolls and books from a foldable, wooden desk into a large trunk. She stopped her packing, the glow of her horn fading, and walked over to Dash, nudging her muzzle softly into the pegasus’ shoulder. “Get up. I need to fold the bed.”
Yawning, Dash moved into a sitting position and rolled off onto the ground. “Why didn’t you wake me?” she asked.
Twilight resumed her packing. “There was no haste. I only wish to avoid procrastinating. Our delegation is at the front of the Equestrian train, meaning my tent must be amongst the earliest to be ready for the march. Besides,” she gave Dash a smile, “you looked so beautiful and peaceful. I did not want to interrupt your sleep.”
“I wish you had,” Dash mumbled and began putting on her uniform. Sword belt, chest and shoulder guards and leather boots. “How long do we have left?”
“You? Plenty. I, however, must have this tent disassembled in two hours.”
Dash stepped to the unicorn’s side and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I won’t hinder you then,” she said and made for the tent entrance, the other mare following in her wake. The sun had just begun its daily journey and the paths between the tents were mostly empty. She spotted two patrols at the opposite ends of the row Twilight’s was in. In the distance she could see that the marquee on the low hill set out for meetings of the armies’ commanders was already gone.
A few paces outside she heard Twilight behind her say, “I’ve been thinking …” Dash stopped and turned around. “We might not need separate tents anymore,” the purple mare continued.
Dash gave it a moment’s thought. “I think we do,” she said.
“Oh? And why is that?”
Dash’s lips formed a smile. “We need to keep up appearances, Twilight. Give ponies a sense of stability and order.”
Twilight chuckled. “I see you’ve learned something after all. Very well. I will see you tonight?”
“Nothing could stop me.”
The purple mare nodded and disappeared back inside. Dash resumed her walk towards her own tent. Keeping an eye on the center hill for orientation she navigated the labyrinth of tents.
Over the past months she had often questioned why she had actually joined the military, what was keeping her from simply returning home. Of course, there was her loyalty to the Princesses and her country, but she had felt it fading under the constant stream of new and ever more ghastly information about their enemy. So what was making her put on her armor every morning and step before her squad?
There were very few things in life Rainbow Dash valued more than freedom. And by assuming her role as a soldier she had given up a large part of her own freedom so that other ponies could continue enjoying theirs. It was as if something had been missing in her life, something that needed to be replaced.
She found that for her fellow soldiers it was mostly faith. Faith in their commanders, faith in their own abilities. She remembered one of her superiors during her training say that every soldier knew he was as good as dead when he put on his uniform. Only the faith that they can’t be killed was what kept armies upright and marching. That might have been enough for other ponies, but she had not wanted to give into such delusions. She needed something else.
Now, however, Dash had found it - her friend Twilight. In the lavender mare she had someone to turn to who would listen, someone to give her confidence, someone to hold on to as a beacon of sanity in this sea of madness that was now her life. She had been questioning who she was fighting for. Her friends? The Princesses? All of Equestria? Now she had an answer, a simple one, that but sufficed. She was fighting for Twilight - that she knew for certain. The young mage would be right by her side the whole time.
Dash arrived at the area set out for the tents of her squad. Turning around a corner she saw her three corporals sitting around a small campfire with a cooking pot hanging over it and having bowls filled with soup on the ground before them. None of the other ponies in her squad were to be seen and Dash assumed them all still asleep. Among her corporals there was Blaze - a stallion, younger than herself even, but inspiring confidence in whomever he talked to. Next to him sat Storm, the giant stallion more resembling a bear than a pony and only speaking when he saw no way around it. The third was Blend, a mare roughly Dash’s age but very quiet when the topic of herself came up in conversation.
She was stirring in the pot when she noticed Dash approaching. Nodding a greeting to her sergeant she drew closer another bowl and poured some of the soup into it. After putting it on the ground at the free place at the fire she sat back and lifted her own bowl to her mouth.
Dash had reached the group and Blaze looked up from the fire. “Morning, sergeant,” he said.
“Morning, Blaze,” Dash responded, “and Storm.”
The stallion grunted in response.
“Been spending the night somewhere else, have we?” Blend asked.
“That’s none of your business, Blend.”
The other mare smirked. “Sure.”
Dash sat down and took the bowl in her hooves. Carrot soup, still hot. She sniffed it and took a sip. Not half bad. She took another mouthful and put the bowl on the ground again. Each pony was quiet. Dash saw in their faces the same indifference that had been staring back at her for the past four months. She noticed, however, that their gazes every so often swung southwards, towards the Ashentail Mountains in the distance. They only covered the actual target of their interest, she suspected - Capul. No doubt the revelations brought forward during the meeting two days ago had been spreading throughout the camp.
They sat there for a long while in silence. They had nothing to talk about. Each of them knew as little as the next one. The only sounds were coming from the campfire and the infrequent slurping of soup. The occasional patrol passed them and Dash saw other soldiers crawling out of their tents further down the camp.
The sun had made it above the tents to their east when Storm cleared his throat. “We should pack up,” he grumbled.
“Hood take me,” Blend said. “It talks.”
Storm only growled in response.
“He’s right, though,” Blaze said. “It’s about time we get moving.”
Dash stretched her forelegs in her sitting position. “Wake them up then,” she said. The four ponies emptied their bowls and stood up, the corporals walking back towards the tents of their squad. Dash’s gaze lingered for a while longer on the mountains in the south. Their several months long journey across the continent was beginning now. Day by day they would be getting closer to the enemy, each day coming closer to the thing threatening their lives. But now she had something to look forward to on each day of their campaign. With a small smile Dash regarded the still sleepy pegasi of her squad crawling out of their tents and she began walking towards her own tent at the end of the row, passing the ponies now under her command.
He rises bloodless from dust,
with dead eyes that are pits,
twin reaches to eternal pain.
The standard a rotten hide,
the throne a bone cage, the king
a ghost from dark fields of battle.
And now the horn moans
on his gray-clad dawn,
drawing the disparate host
To war, to war,
and the charging frenzy
of unbidden memories of ice.