My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Warbirds Book One: Out of the Dark
When next the pegasus stranger woke up, Moonbow was prepared. As he slumbered she hid away every pickaxe, knife, fork, shovel, hammer; absolutely everything she could think of that could reasonably be used as a weapon, hidden away in a locked trunk beneath the single bed he lay on. Loose rope had been gathered up and stowed away in a similar fashion. The fire had been turned down and a number of vegetables thrown into the boiling pot to start the makings of a stew, Moonbow knowing from personal experience that few things diminished the want to fight like food freely offered.
Once this was done, Moonbow then spent her time waiting for him to wake up searching through the tattered clothing he'd shown up in, finding the heavy overcoat, boots, and scarves to be of far better quality than anything she'd seen in Yakyakistan. Better even than the clothing worn by the rare pony tourist. A symbol of a shiny, perhaps crystalline heart against a pink background that she found on the coat meant nothing to her beyond a guess that it was some kind of military symbol. Though if so, it had to be the silliest military symbol ever devised.
And then there was the arrow in his side. The origins of that, she could definitely guess at. She didn't like the conclusions her mind went to either.
Before Moonbow could start puzzling over the little spar of crystal stuffed into one of the coat pockets a groan came over from where the pegasus lay, along with the creaking of old wood and shuffling of rumpled sheets. Moonbow hurried over, a hammer raised with her magic to defend herself with if he proved to be violent again. Yet when the pegasus opened his eyes and turned to look at her, he only groaned and pressed a hoof to the bruise forming on his chin. "In all my years of serving in the elite guard, first in Canterlot and then in the Crystal Empire, I have never in my life been hit as hard as that. Did someone get the number on that train that hit me?"
Despite the tension of the moment, Moonbow laughed. She lowered the hammer, before dropping it and grabbing a bowl of the stew and levitating it over to her apparent guest. "It probably won't make you feel any better then if I say that I'd only been meaning to knock you down. A little yak bedside manner. That you didn't get back up from it…"
He groaned again, before taking the offered bowl with both front hooves. He winced and looked down at the leg that had so recently had an arrow in it, finding only clean bandages wrapped tight now. Then he looked at her, looking her over with an open curiosity that Moonbow had long grown used to. It was the way everybody looked at her at first meeting. "What… exactly are—"
"A hippogryph," she said, smile tight. "Half-gryphon and half-pony. A unicorn, in my case. I'm sure we're very rare. At least, I've never seen another one. But really, that's no excuse to stare."
He blushed and dropped his gaze at once, looking instead at the carrots and celery and potatoes drifting in the stew broth. "Sorry, I… you're right. My deepest apologies. Especially since I seem to owe you my life, Miss…?"
She paused before answering. She could not remember the last time anyone had asked for her name, nor the last time she had given it. "I'm Moonbow. Just Moonbow. What's your name? Who are you, and how did you get out here?"
"Flash," he said after a mouthful of the stew. "Flash Sentry. I'm a member of the elite Crystal Empire Guard, serving under Prince-commander Shining Armor. I was…"
"You were what?" Moonbow asked, but a dark look had come over the pegasus' features that made her uneasy. "Is something wrong? Does your leg hurt? I can—”
He set the half-finished bowl aside and hopped out of bed. Or tried to at least, before the injured leg gave out beneath him and sent him tumbling forward. Moonbow caught him and pushed him back into a sitting position. "Hey, hold on! You're going to hurt yourself like that!"
He seemed not to hear her, continuing to struggle to stand as he swept his gaze over the room. “The memory crystal! Where is it, what happened, is it—”
Moonbow didn't punch him again, despite every instinct telling her to, but she did shake him by the shoulders, hard. "Calm down! Stop blathering! The crystal's fine, I left it on the table!"
Hearing this calmed Flash at least enough to make him stop trying to stand up, though the look he gave her then, worried and guarded, she almost hated more. It also roused her curiosity something fierce. "Why are you freaking out over it so, though, now that you've brought it up? I work with rock a lot, don't usually see anything that high a quality 'round here."
Another moment passed where Flash regarded her with suspicion, lasting only until she rolled her eyes and with a glow of her horn levitated the piece of crystal over to him. He snatched it from her, tucked it under a wing, and only then relaxed. "Sorry, it's just been a real rough day for me. Everything was supposed to be simple. Go up north with some unicorns to find a newfangled magic surveillance thing, get it working again if we could. No sooner did we find the thing then a gang of… strangers…" He paused, gulping, eyes growing wet. "They killed the unicorns, then tried to take the memory crystal from me. It was all I could do to fly, as cowardly as that is."
Moonbow, caught up in the tale, quickly shook her head at this. "I've no patience for self-pity. And there's no cowardice in surviving, which so far at least you've managed."
"Thanks to you," he said, to which she shrugged.
When a minute passed and he said no more, only ate a few more bites of the stew, Moonbow pressed on. "Why did they want the… memory crystal, was it?"
"I don't know," he said, with such frankness she didn't doubt him. "I can only guess the drone recorded an image of something those killers didn't want anypony to see. That's good enough reason for me to get the recording back to the Crystal Empire so that the unicorns there can play it.”
“The Crystal Empire?” Moonbow frowned and scratched the back of her head. “Yeah, that might be a bit of a problem… a long, long problem. See, right now we’re just on the yak side of the Yakyakistan border…”
Flash’s face grew so pale, so fast, Moonbow had to glance down to make sure his leg wound hadn’t sprung a leak. He set the bowl down again, this time turning to look out the window beside the door. “Yakyakistan… I… I flew… that’s nowhere near the direction I needed to go!”
Moonbow nodded. “Were this summer or fall and you uninjured, I figure you could make the southwest trip in a little less than a day. Right now it is winter though, so we’re looking at a storm a day, and you are injured.” She ran the math in her head. “Maybe… three days to make the journey, minimum, assuming everything goes right for you.”
Flash stared at her, eyes wide and haggard, mouth slack, ears folded back, shoulders shuddering as he walked the precipice of hyperventilation. Then he fell back, a groan rising from him as he beat his hooves against his face, the groan turning into a scream. “Aaaauuuugghh! Aaaaaghh! AAAAAAUUUUUUUUGGGGHH!”
“Woah, woah!” Moonbow hurried forward, grabbing the pegasus’ front legs before he could do any real harm to himself. “Calm down! I don’t aim to fix you up any more than I need to! Okay? Calm down. We’ll go to town in the morning, get you what you need to get back home.” Then, even though it pained the gryphon half of her to say it, “I recently came into a sum of gold, I promise, we can afford the supplies.”
“I should be going now,” Flash said, though with Moonbow still holding his front legs in her talons he made no attempt to move. “Waiting until tomorrow could be too long. Every minute that goes by is another minute that gang is looking for me. I should go right away.”
“You wouldn’t make it five miles,” Moonbow said. She let go of his legs and stepped back a pace, jerking her head to the window where, dimly in the darkness, could be made out the ghostly swirls of wind-driven snow. “I don’t know what kind of weather you have in the Crystal Empire, but that’s a Yakyakistan blizzard out there. And trust me, there aren’t any other doors to collapse against out there, ‘side from mine. You’d be stupid to try.”
He said nothing, only folded his legs and looked away, face a scowl. She sighed and scratched the back of her head again. “Right… I’m sorry, it’s the growing up around yaks talking. But I’m serious, there’s really no hope in trying to go anywhere tonight. If it helps any, the people who attacked you wouldn’t be out tonight either, and if they are, they won’t be out looking for you tomorrow.”
“I guess there’s no arguing when a good point’s being made,” Flash said at last. He yawned then and lay back down, before looking at her. “First thing tomorrow though, right? Regardless of what the weather’s like, we go to this town you mentioned?”
“Of course. Then we’ll get whatever supplies you need and—”
But already Flash’s eyes had closed and his breathing slowed to the steady rumble of sleep. Moonbow blinked, before chalking the suddenness to the Pegasus having worn himself out from all the arguing. She found she couldn’t blame him as she let loose a yawn as well, the day with all its ups and downs catching up to her.
“Meh, it was a boring conversation anyway.”
Moonbow put the dishes away and put another log on the fire, before throwing out a blanket on the hearth and curling up to sleep. For a long while she lay watching the snow flurries through the window, the flickering shadows cast upon the cottage walls, and the slow rise and fall of Flash Sentry’s slumbering body, and pondered the problems now come to her.
The next day came with a peaceful air that Moonbow in no way felt; nor did Flash Sentry, from the look of him. A thick layer of snow covered the land as far as the eye could see as the pair flew for the Yakyakistan border town, a blinding white in opposition to the clear, cloudless blue of the sky.
"Is it always this peaceful after a storm?" asked Flash as, a hundred feet below them, the high-walled town came into view, the smokes of many cooking fires and blacksmith shops hanging over it and spreading out before a brisk northeastern wind.
"Not always," said Moonbow from where she flew a pace ahead as guide. "But often enough. Come on, the yak-folk are uncomfortable with flyers. We'll land here and continue on hoof."
Flash grumbled, but relented. Soon, but long enough for Moonbow to tire of her companion's grumbles, they reached the main gates of the city. Moonbow nodded to the pair of yaks guarding it, then jerked her head to Flash. "This new guy, gonna show around."
The yak on the left nodded and turned to pound on the wood and steel gates. With a creak that echoed across the snowfields and made Flash flinch and cover his ears, the gates opened. Moonbow signaled for him to follow before walking through.
It was interesting to watch Flash as they made their way through the town. Though he tried to hide it with an air of cool disinterest, there was no hiding the quick turns of the head, the craning up to see the surprisingly intricate carvings and statues adorning the tops of the many towering buildings they passed, nor the pausing to watch an especially-large or well-dressed yak pass them by. The third time this happened Moonbow rolled her eyes and batted his head with a wing. "Cut that out, pony. Yaks are big, brutish, and blunt, but they appreciate being treated as an oddity to gape at as I'm sure your people do. Show some respect."
"Sorry," he said, and for some reason Moonbow felt he truly meant it. But then, as they turned a corner and started their way through a crowded intersection loaded with stalls selling various odds and ends, he looked at her with a look she wasn't sure she liked. "You said, 'your people'. Do you mean ponies? Don't you mean our people? Or well, including gryphons, I guess?"
Moonbow shrugged, waving away a yak that tried approaching them with a dazzlingly-colored rug. "Meh, I guess. I've never been to the Crystal Empire, Equestria, or Gryphonstone. Or at least not since I was too young to remember, and I don't think that counts."
Flash Sentry stopped walking, forcing her to do the same. "You've never been… you grew up here, then? But why the cottage way out in the middle of nowhere? And where are your parents? Did they have their own cottage, or do they live in town, or-"
"You talk too much," she said, talons digging into the mud of the road. From the sack of gold hanging off her belt she grabbed six coins and threw them at him, letting him struggle to grasp them with his wings. "Go find something pretty for yourself to remember this lovely vacation to bizarre and exotic Yakyakistan. I'll go find your supplies for the trip home."
She turned and started down the road again, making it six steps before he called out for her. "Wait, did I say something wrong? I'm sorry, really!"
"Sorry?" She looked back at him. "Is that the best word you can find? Really? You… you southerners are so weird."
Now it was his turn to look at her. "Weird? I was just… apologizing?"
"Exactly!" She marched back up to him, making him step backward, until they had slipped away from the main thoroughfare into a side alley. That was good, as Moonbow hated scenes. "You're just… apologizing! Just like that! You probably don't even know what you did or said! I mean, how's that even work? Up here yaks don't just say sorry, they fight! They tussle 'til they find out who was in the right and what went wrong! You don't just… you have to at least make a promise that you understand what you did was wrong!"
"Okay," Flash said once she stopped to take a breath. "I understand that whatever I did was wrong. It's something I'll try to not do in the future. If that's how friendships are handled up here, I'll do my best to respect that. Friends?”
“…friends?” An unfamiliar feeling rose in Moonbow’s chest, warm and hopeful. She quashed it at once and frowned. “Whatever floats your boat. Come on, we’re burning daylight. You take that gold to the Trading Station, two streets down from here, and handle whatever gear you need. I’ll go and get you food. We’ll meet back at the gates in a half-hour. You got that?”
He nodded, looking relieved that they’d gotten passed that. She let him leave the alleyway first, watching him go until she saw him make the right turn for the Trading Station, before sighing and going the opposite way down the street. Her path took her from the main shopping area of the town to the inn district, where travelers both mundane and illicit made their way.
At the first well-to-do tavern she came to she purchased hardy food for a long journey, mostly cheese and hardened loaves of bread, as well as a flask of spiced Glogg. It took half an hour of hard bargaining, but at last she also managed to procure five dried turnips, something of a luxury among the yaks.
“Don’t normally see you getting this much food,” said the yak behind the tavern counter as she wrapped the items in paper and set them on the counter. “You traveling?”
Moonbow started to say no, before pausing as the question and its importance hit her. The day before Henrik had said she should leave, and now here she was helping a pony, a real pony, do just that. It’d be the most natural thing in the world for her to pack up her meager belongings and go with him.
“I… no, I’m only getting all this for a fri… acquaintance. New around here, needed help.”
The tavern keeper looked disappointed. Moonbow ignored this with a frown as she stuffed the food items into a pair of saddlebags and paid, turning to leave the moment the change was in her talons. Silently, she made a note to start taking her business to other taverns from that day on.
Moonbow almost didn’t see the Wanted poster. A yak moved away from the notice board on the wall beside the tavern entrance, some unknowable impulse drawing her eyes over. She stopped as her eyes locked onto a familiar orange and blue visage, a Flash Sentry dressed in gold armor staring out at her with the look of a trained soldier.
“WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. 500 GOLD COINS FOR HIM, 500 MORE FOR BELONGINGS, 100 COINS FOR NEWS OF HIM, COURTESY OF THE FEATHER HEGEMONY.”
Moonbow stared aghast at the obscene amount of gold being offered, a shiver running through her and a touch of drool dripping from her beak. She couldn't even imagine that much gold. "What in blazes could that pegasus have done?"
"That good question." The tavern keeper had come out from behind the counter and joined Moonbow in front of the notice board. "I ask same question when gryphon come in to post paper. You know those Hegemony types though, no answer but glare and growl to mind own business. Hmph! With attitude like that, I bet deserter from decadence."
Moonbow thought this over, not sure if it made more sense than what she knew from Flash. That memory crystal looked real enough at least. "Still, most anyone'd be hard-pressed to ignore that kind of money…"
"Sure," the tavern keeper said, huffing again and stomping a hoof. "If that something conscience can handle."
"Right…" Moonbow turned and regarded the wanted poster for a moment longer, contemplating all she could do with so much gold, the comfortable life she could make for herself. Then she thought of Flash Sentry, his trust in a stranger, his friendliness despite everything, his straight-faced offer to BE friends. Holding that last thought in place, Moonbow reached out and dragged her talons over the poster until it was nothing but a shredded mess. "I know my conscience can't handle it."
"I figure as much," said the tavern keeper. "You better find friend now, before trouble. Hegemony act fast."
Moonbow ran. Out of the tavern, down the street until she reached a crossroads relatively free of pressing yaks going about their business, trying to figure as she went whether the pegasus had had time to finish his business at the Trading Station. Once at the crossroads she threw yak custom to the wayside and took to the air, eliciting several shouts of outrage and annoyance. She ignored them and flew 15 feet up before stopping and casting her gaze downward. She scanned the crowds below, looking for a flash of orange and blue amid the white and brown of snow and yaks. "Come on, come on, come on… stupid Moonbow! A stallion shows up at your door injured and hunted and you take him into town? Stupid, stu-"
The vaguest hint of movement in her peripheral vision made Moonbow look up from the town below to the horizon. Against the blue of the sky she saw six, seven, eight dark shapes, maybe more, flying in from the northeast. At their speed she guessed they would be there in less than five minutes.
"Moonbow! Hey, Bowie!"
At the sound of her name Moonbow snapped her gaze down and saw Flash Sentry standing in front of the door for the Trading Station, saddlebags packed, waving up at her and smiling with the dumbest, most infuriatingly naive smile she had ever seen. After a moment of staring back at him in slack-jawed horror she tucked her wings in and dove, barreling into him before he had a chance to react and sending them both tumbling through the door into the Trading Station.
"Ow ow ow! Get off, ah, my leg's still heal-"
Moonbow jumped off him and ran to slam the door shut, hesitating a moment before leaving it unlocked, figuring a locked door might draw unwanted attention. Then she rounded on Flash, quieting him with a glare. "You! I admit that bringing someone getting hunted to a public place was a bad idea, but you didn't need to go drawing attention to us like that! Do you ponies not have a lick of survival instinct in you? And why in blazes did you not tell me it was the sun-darned Hegemony after you?! I found a wanted poster at the tavern for obscene amounts of money! Just now I saw flyers coming in less than five minutes away! The Hegemony, Flash!"
Flash, for his part, flinched but did not cower away from her at this tirade. "Well how was I supposed to know any of that? Yakyakistan is allied with Equestria, I thought it'd be safe here! And I'd never even heard of the Hege-whatsits until those killers attacked me. I just figured they were some vile gang trying to sound big and important!"
That caught Moonbow off-guard. She wracked her brains for any time in their previous conversations when the Hegemony might have been mentioned, but could think of nothing. "What? How… I thought the ponies of Equestria and the Crystal Empire were always on top of things."
"Me too," said Flash, struggling to his hooves. A red spot had appeared in the middle of his leg bandages. "I guess not, though. What's everything I need to know about these people?"
Before Moonbow could answer the question henrik, who up to this point had remained silent behind the far counter, spoke up in a voice far graver than she had ever heard from the elder yak before. "Hegemony big, big empire, rules old pony homelands, cruel and evil. Think flying creatures best of all, why yaks dislike flying around here. Why you in trouble with Hegemony?"
"I've got something they don't want me to have." With a wing flashed the memory crystal out of his saddlebags for them all to see, before returning it and glancing out the narrow window set in the wall beside the Trading Station's door. Outside the yaks going about their business could be seen to have stopped, many hurrying indoors and others staring northward, presumably toward the approaching flyers. "I don't understand how they can think flyers are superior, though. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. No unicorn could hope to manage the weather as well as a pegasus and no pegasus could hope to manage land as well as an earth pony. It's crazy."
"It not about making sense," said Henrik, coming to join them by the window. "It about power, like always. Power and feeling better about self."
As the others talked, Moonbow kept watch through the window. Pegasi and gryphons in stark grey armor landed in twos and threes in the streets and on rooftops, totaling far more than the eight or so she had guessed at from a distance. The gryphons armed themselves with axes and crossbows, while the pegasi mounted feather-shaped blades onto their wings. One gryphon, a hulking brute a head taller than the rest and armored in heavy steel plate, carried what looked like a wizard's staff, tipped with a triangle of crystal whose surface danced with electricity. "Right, guys? These people look like they mean business. Maybe escape to safety first, then have this discussion?"
Flash nodded. “Right, yeah. Hey, old man, you have any back ways out of this place?”
"This Trading Station! Use hidden tunnel out of root cellar, once moved contraband through it in younger, bolder years. Take you all the way to River Mareas. Don't know if still-"
Moonbow watched it happen as if in slow-motion. A younger yak, not yet grown to bulkiness, drew close to one of the Hegemony soldiers, snorting and yelling for them to leave. A pegasus mare, dressed in a black flight suit, slammed into the yak from above and pinned him to the ground beneath a hoof. His bleats and kicking legs were stopped by another hoof striking his face.
"Quiet!" Screamed the mare, but the rumblings of the surrounding yaks grew louder, angrier. Two stomped toward her only to be driven back by arrows from the gryphons landing at their hooves. With a wing the mare bat away a stone thrown at her, before stomping again on the young yak's face. "I said quiet! Lives are at stake here!"
Moonbow dug her talons into the window's wood frame, looking from the pegasus to the crowds as they slowly, so slowly, did as commanded. To her right she felt Flash moving in place, heard the clunk of hooves stomping nervously at the floor. “This is bad…”
Outside the mare, once the onlookers were sufficiently quelled, grinned and nodded to one of the gryphons with her. He nodded back and threw a bulging sack to the ground, the sack almost disappearing into the snow from the weight. "I am Captain Lightning Dust of the Feather Hegemony, and that," pointing to the sack with a hoof, "is the gold owed to whichever brave soul among you alerted us to the presence of the pegasus we're looking for. He has stolen important Hegemony information and we owe a great deal to those who aid in his capture, so please, step on up! Bring him forth!"
Moonbow glanced around at the watching yaks, knowing none of them actually had the pegasus sitting beside her, wondering and fearing what might happen next. After a minute of waiting had passed a yak, the same one that had tried to sell them a rug earlier, Moonbow realized with a start, shuffled out of the crowds and stood before Lightning Dust. "I, er, I see pony you want. He go through here no more than hour ago, wanting supplies for journey. Should still… still be here?"
"Still here?" Lightning Dust's smile dropped. A feeling of doom swept through Moonbow as the pegasus stepped off the downed yak and toward the rug seller, those bladed wings twitching at her sides. "You mean to say you don't actually have him in your possession for us to take?"
Those wings flared. For a moment Moonbow thought Lightning Dust was going to slash at the yak in anger, but instead the pegasus turned to the hulking gryphon with the staff. "Bruno! An example! Now!"
A grunt of acknowledgment, and then the now-named gryphon reared back to stand on his hind legs and jab his staff at a nearby building. A flash of lightning, a boom of thunder, and the top floor of the building exploded. Yaks ran for cover from the flames and rain of wood shrapnel, while cries of jubilation rose from the Hegemony soldiers. Moonbow stared, terrified she'd see bits of yak in the wreckage, while Flash Sentry cursed up a storm beside her.
When next Lightning Dust spoke, her gaze leaving the damaged building to sweep over the crowd, all good cheer had left her voice. "Where is he?! Where is that fool?! Bring him out! Or, if he can hear me, show yourself, you coward! Before I destroy another building, before I set my soldiers loose upon these filthy mongrels, before you have the blood of this town on your hooves!"
Even before she finished speaking, Flash Sentry stood from where he had sat. Moonbow stood up with him, talons clenching at the mess of a situation. Before she could find words for her anger or offer the condolences at the tip of her beak he held a hoof up to stop her, before holding a wing out. Resting on it sat the memory crystal. "It's okay, really, better me than them. But please, this still needs to get to the Crystal Empire. You're the best hope I have."
A moment passed where Moonbow looked at the crystal, feeling the weight of that statement and that responsibility settle on her back like a lead cape. Every fear she felt of leaving the harsh but familiar home her parents had left her to passed through her head before, talons shaking, she took the crystal and slipped it into a belt pocket. She met his eyes then and tried to smile. "I'll do my best. I promise. I'm so sorry this happened."
"Yeah," Flash Sentry said, smiling as he shrugged off his saddlebags. "Me too. See ya later, friend."
"You brave pony," said Henrik.
Moonbow watched him go to and then through the door, before turning back to the window. Outside a fresh snowfall had begun as Flash Sentry hobbled toward the Hegemony troops, playing up his injured leg for all it was worth. "Captain Lightning Dust! Here I am, just like you wanted!"
She turned to him, her grin returning. "Good. You can always rely on Equestrian sentimentality. And the memory crystal?"
"Shattered," Flash Sentry said, tossing a sprinkling of shards at Lightning Dust's hooves. Guessing them to be gathered from her cottage, Moonbow grinned at the deception. "Cracked against a rock when I crash-landed. So I guess all my running was pointless."
"Completely," said Lightning Dust. She strode over to Flash Sentry and, faster than Moonbow could follow, hit him with a right hook that sent him to the ground. Before he could begin to rise up she reared back and slammed both front hooves into him. A crack of breaking bone rang through the air and he screamed, before being cut off by another right hook to the head. Then he slumped there, silent and motionless.
"Nobody makes a fool of me in front of anyone." Lightning dust gave her hitting hoof a shake and regarded the downed pegasus, before shaking her head and motioning to a pair of gryphons. "Grab him and let's get out of this filth hole. The Imperator will want to see this loser himself."
In another time, another world, Moonbow might have flown through the door while they were distracted by the order, fought them off or died trying, saved her first friend in forever or fallen beside him. That time, that world, she stayed frozen there at the window and watched, feeling sick at them and at herself. Only once the Hegemony soldiers had grabbed up Flash Sentry and taken to the skies, loosing a few parting arrows at the yaks below and laughing, did she feel able to move again. She stumbled out the door into the street, paying the panicked and gossiping yaks around her no mind as she watched the departing flyers until they disappeared into the falling veil of snow. Alone, cold, she clasped the crystal close. "I'll get this to the Crystal Empire, Flash. I promise."