Cloud Zapper and the Helm of Chaos
The first time his eyes had lain upon the palace Cloud Zapper had stood in awe. The beautiful spires had risen up to graze the sky, and the sound of birds overhead created a beautiful singsong to accompany the beautiful sight. It was breath-taking. But it wasn’t the palace that had struck the colt to his core. It had been the royal guards. Grey uniformed stallions, dressed in golden armour, standing in perfect line. Their manes hidden beneath their helms that sported white tuffs out the back made them all look identical. Their armour seemed purposefully to hide their cutie marks, so neither one was distinguishable from the other. They were majestic, powerful, duty bound and stout against any opponent, and Cloud Zapper wanted to be one. But it wasn’t just the sight of them that had inspired the young colt. It was his father.
His father had been a Pegasus from up north. He was a Royal Guard. He’d met Clouds mother whilst on duty, she had been a gardener at the palace grounds at the time when they’d gotten together, until his father had been killed in the line of duty. Most ponies would shy away from such memories, but not Cloud. He wasn’t sad that his father had passed away, he was simply proud. Proud that his father had given his life for something so valuable, that he had protected something until his last breath, completed his duty, and saved so many lives that Cloud could only feel honoured and humbled, hoping that one day he could be half the stallion his father had been. That’s why he had made the choice to become a royal guard. He’d always known it was his destiny.
When Cloud was younger he’d been picked on a lot by the local foals, they’d always seemed mean to him, but one day they’d dragged him to the edge of the Everfree forest, threatening to feed him to the Timberwolves. It was a childish threat with no actual intention behind it, but it had still struck Cloud with fear at the time. He’d always been so small. It was when a deathly howl rang out that a simple act of bullying had become almost murder. A Timberwolf had charged out, it ram right past Cloud Zapper and headed right for Curly Mane, the leader of the bullies and at the time, the foal that had been the meanest towards Cloud. But it had been in that one instant that nothing else mattered, it was in that instant that the world changed and without even a second thought Cloud was between the Timberwolf and Curly. His body outstretched, ready for a fight. The Timberwolf had charged, and Cloud had stood his ground. Adults came to help before anything truly bad had happened, but Cloud had needed to be fixed up in the hospital, and even Curly had visited him. But Cloudy couldn’t be upset for being hurt, because afterwards, he’d looked in the mirror, and saw that his flank was no longer blank and that there, adorning his rump on either side of his body was the symbol of a blue shield with a yellow heart inside it.He was destined to protect, destined to shield. His father had been very proud of him that day, and it was his father’s pride he held in his heart. After that, being a Royal Guard was all he’d ever wanted to be. The training had been difficult, the work had been tiresome, and still he resolutely worked on. Many a night had been spent researching and studying, working to be the best he could be and in the end he had.
Cloud Zapper stood in line with the rest, smiling boldly and looking up at the bright sun, proud of himself. He was in line with the rest of the recruits, those that had passed training. He was going to be one of them. He was going to be a Royal Guard.
“Listen up.” A voice shouted out. It was strong, full of authority and one that demanded respect. This was the voice of Captain Sunride, a strong leader in his division, and the one chosen to give the introduction to the new recruits. He was large like a shire horse, and his golden armour was offset by the dark red helm that adorned his head. Usually the helm would be golden too but it was said he’d been given special permission as this helm had been given to him recently by his father, who was a fellow Royal Guard who had died in the line of duty. The Captain wore it proudly. Cloud Zapper paid immediate attention when the stallion spoke; he didn’t want to miss a single thing that was said.
“You have all passed training and are on your way to becoming Royal Guards. Congratulations.” He said, but his voice sounded mockingly amused. Something told Cloud that this wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought. Which was fine for him, after all, anything of any value in life was worth the effort to achieve.
“But you aren’t there yet, mares.” The stallion said with an obvious grin inflecting his voice. He called them mares, derogatory names to put them in their place. It was part of the military and one Cloud had already embraced fully. He knew some wouldn’t be able to take it though, but if they couldn’t take a bit of name calling, they shouldn’t be Royal Guards. If you can’t protect your own feelings from a little name calling, then how could you possibly hope to protect the princesses from what may do them harm. Cloud Zapper was stronger than that, his grin simply widened. He felt the presence of the stallion approaching, his face inches from his. But he dared not lower his gaze; he dared not look the other stallion in the eyes. His own eyes were fixed upon a single spot in the sky, listening intently to the breathing of the other pony in front of him.
“Why are you smiling?” Said the voice, it had gone low and deep, and a little threatening. His presence before Cloud was strong, and he couldn’t help but grin a little wider, hoping one day, he could be as strong as this stallion.
“Because today is a good day, Sir.” Cloud Zapper responded rapidly and without hesitation, wanting to impress the Captain.
“Oh? It is, is it?” The stallion asked before humming to himself. “Tell me green colt, what are the four regiments of the Royal Guards?”
Cloud only smiled more and answered without hesitation. “Sir, the Militia, the Aerial, the Mystics, and the Inquisitors, Sir.”
The Stallion hummed in approval. “And which do you wish to be, colt?”
“The Militia, Sir.” He answered instantly. It was the same group his father had belonged to. The Militia were the face of the royal guards, the open protectors. The ones that manned the walls, stood by the Princess’s, and were the first and last line of defence.
“The Militia, well I’m the Captain of the Militia here, Colt. That means if you make it, I’ll be YOUR Captain.” He said firmly, as though it were a threat.
“It would be an honour, Sir.” Cloud answered without missing a beat.
“An honour you say, you might not think that way later on, colt.” He walked away and looked over the rest of the group.
“You will all undergo advanced tests. This is not like your pansy training in the Academy, this will test everything you have, and everything you know. I suspect more than half of you won’t make it.” He chuckled, “dismissed!”
After they were dismissed everyone headed to their new dorms. They slept in the local recruits barracks on the military grounds of the palace. The training field outside was large. It had several areas all sectioned off for specific uses. The first half were for the Militia, area’s to practice combat of all kinds, they had magic training for the unicorns, basic aerial combat for the Pegasi, and weapons combat for all kinds, especially the earth ponies. The next half was the Aerial combat specific area, taught by the Wonderbolts themselves.
The Aerial Guard were the ponies that pulled the Royal Carriages and flanked the carriages during journeys. It was a dangerous job; their jobs were to protect the Princesses when they were out, away from the safety of the palace. The Aerial and Militia Guard were the only ones that trained outside, because Inquisitor’s were chosen from the ranks of each and trained in all areas that they were capable of.
Inquisitors were the detectives of the Palace. Unlike Militia and Aerial who could not leave the Princesses side or the palace grounds, the Inquisitors were known for going off, bringing down criminals and threats against the empire and the Princesses. Their job was to take down threats before they could become even worse and potentially dangerous. Inquisitors dressed like the other Guards, but they were signified by their mane and flanks. The mane of a guards helmet was a fake mane, always in the straight Mohawk fashion, only Captains and higher could have their own mane out the top, instead of tucked inside. But that pony made mane was removed for the Inquisitors, their own mane allowed to be pulled through and flow in any style they personally chose, as well as the flank of their armour modified to allow their cutie-marks to be shown. They were also allowed to wear their coat as its natural colour, without being dyed.
The Mystic guard didn’t really have anything to train with outside. They were not combat hardened and unlike any of the other ranks, they were the only sector of Royal Guard that allowed mares among their ranks. They were designated for spell protection. They were chosen for their skill with shielding spells, they were to research ways of defending the entire city, or just the palace with magic, and when they were not working on this, their primary focus was with prophesies. They pulled predictive texts from the magical energies in the air, texts that would tell of new trials ahead so the crown might be better prepared for the future.
Each guard had their own personal design. The Aerial and Militia guard all wore their golden armour, almost indistinguishable from each other. The Militia allowed for all kinds of ponies, making up the face of the EUP. Cloud had always wondered why they all looked the same, but it didn’t take him long to find out the reason. The ponies were given a coat dye. It was washed off and reapplied each day, their coats were to always be a shade of grey or white, their manes hidden under helmets, and their cutie-marks always covered by their armour. This was all so they would lose a sense of identity and so that they would always feel part of a whole. Brothers in arms, and all with one duty and Cloud felt honoured to be a part of that. Thankfully, his mother had been a grey mare, and he needed no such dye. He’d inherited the grey coat of his mother, and the blue and white main of hers too, but his was inverted. Hers had been white with a blue streak, whilst his was blue with a white streak. The only feature he’d gotten from his father was his eyes which were an emerald green.
The Aerial Guard however was only available for Pegasus of course, as unicorns for mystics. The Inquisitor’s and the Militia were the only groups that were available to all races.
Cloud sighed to himself at the windowpane, looking out across the training grounds. He kept thinking about this, about the training, about the facts, about all he’d learned. He knew it all, memorised it all during his training. But seeing it…truly seeing it.
It was breath-taking to be here, humbling to be part of this grand army, and exciting to know what was going to come next. He decided to explore. The barracks were large and grand and had several levels. The upper levels were for the higher ranks, and the new recruits were not allowed up there unattended. Cloud exited his room and headed down the corridor; the scent of dye hung in the air from the amount that was used and needed to change the coats of the guards, and everywhere he looked he saw closed doors and deserted corridors. He was pretty sure they were allowed to walk around, no one had really said otherwise. Cloud Zapper turned a corner and heard a voice. He headed towards it, turning left and then right only to find a set of stairs. At the top of the stairs was a stallion talking to himself, by the sight of that red helm Cloud instantly recognised him as Captain Sunride, the Captain that had done the introductory an hour before.
“Captain Sunride.” Cloud exclaimed happily, looking up at the stallion. He remained at the bottom of the stairs, not wanting to approach without permission, but the young stallion soon found himself waiting for a response that didn’t come. The Captain remained at the top of the stairs, apparently unaware of Clouds presence, and unable to hear him. The Captains voice drifted down; eerily clear to the stallion below as he watched.
“No, I don’t want to.” His voice was shaky as though he were afraid before he suddenly burst out into a fit of laughter. “Yeah, I suppose that’s right. Utterly pathetic.” He chortled; the sound of the venomous mirth in the Captains voice had a shiver running down Cloud’s spine as he listened.
“Captain, are you alright, sir?” He asked feeling concerned that something was wrong. He started to approach, forgetting the rules and heading up towards the Captain, hoping he could help in some way.
“No, it’s too soon, the mice aren’t ready yet, it’s not happening!” The Captain screeched to himself in a hushed stressed tone. Cloud reached out and his hoof gently lay on the captain’s shoulder.
“Captain?” He beseeched, yelping when the shire stallion suddenly spun round, for an instant his eyes looked discoloured and grey before he shook his head.
“W-what?” He looked around as though confused.
“Are you okay, sir? You were-” He stopped, not really sure how to explain it.
“What?” He asked curiously before something seemed to click in his eyes. “Wait a minute; you’re one of the recruits from this morning. What are you doing up here, you know you aren’t supposed to be here.” He barked, suddenly seeming ill tempered with Cloud.
“I’m sorry, sir.” He apologised rapidly. “I was just hoping you were okay-“
“Worry less about me, colt, and more about yourself if I catch you in a restricted section again. Now back to your dorm, go!” The stallion’s voice seemed serious and Cloud found himself hurrying away. He wasn’t really sure what he’d saw, but maybe he’d just caught the Captain on a bad day. After all, being a Captain had to be stressful.
The next day Cloud Zapper got up at the crack of dawn. He was excited. He headed for his closet, opened the doors, and there it stood. The guard armour he’d been waiting to wear, the armour he’d been born to wear, the armour of a Royal Guard. Pulling on the outfit took longer than he’d thought it would, tightening the straps with his teeth was difficult, and slicking back his mane so it wasn’t showing underneath his helm proved difficult. The inside of the helm was made for it though, with some nice comfortable places to tuck the mane out of the way. Soon he was ready, closing the closet and stepping in front of the mirror. He was a little small for his age, but he couldn’t deny that he looked more like a stallion than he’d ever looked in his life. Being short he’d always been able to pass for far younger than what he was, but now…now he looked the part. He grinned, unable to stop himself and tried very hard not to whoop with glee.
“Calmly Cloud, a Royal Guard does not squeal.” He said in an attempt to school his emotions into check and his face into less of a stupid grin. When he felt satisfied, he headed out of the room and down the corridor to the main doors. He opened them, and at his flank he was joined by other recruits, also wearing their armour. Despite his previous attempts, looking out over the grounds had him grinning all over again and suddenly he squealed, “yahoo!”
He breathed heavily when he was done only to look up and meeped in shock as he came almost nose to nose with a red helmed Captain Sunride, Cloud’s face switching to an innocent grin.
“You look like you have a lot of energy today. Well in that case, I think we’ll start with laps. Get running.”
His legs burned and he gasped for air as he and the other recruits ran round the track for the fifth time.
“Thanks a lot, Cloud.” Said the one on his right closest to him, he was a red maned stallion that was similar to Cloud in build, he was a Pegasus as well and despite the dress code his mane hung freely down from under the helmet, but only because it had come free during the running. His name was Fire Breeze, and he was glaring at Cloud with distain, his gratitude mocking and filled with distaste for the running. Surrounding him on all sides, on different lanes of the track, the other nine recruits ran with him, All out of breath. He looked at them as he ran, noting how almost all of them glared at him and obviously blamed him. Though he had to admit, having to run laps kinda was his fault, the captain obviously didn’t like his overenthusiastic behaviour. He made a mental note to himself to find out the names of all the other recruits, and information about them. Not all the recruits would last in the training, but he hoped some of them did. Once running was over, they stood in a line, panting and trying to stand up straight as Captain Sunride looked them over.
“Seven laps, not bad. Not bad…for a bunch of mares.” He moved down the line to Cloud who was trying his best to maintain his composure. “So tell me colt, did you work off your enthusiasm yet?”
“Yes, Sir.” Cloud said firmly, staring at a spot in the sky as he stood before the captain.
“Good. Now the real training session can begin.” He grinned. “Follow me.” He led them round a building to one of the obstacle courses. “Each of the three tests these next few weeks will have a different theme. They will be grading your intelligence and/or skill, your speed, and your stamina.” He said firmly. “Today is about speed.” He stomped down on a button and suddenly flames erupted on several parts of the obstacle course…flames that by the look of their position, would be needed to jump through. “Every test must be completed before you may pass onto the next one. So you must pass every single test within the time you have.” He seemed especially mirthful about this. “If you have not completed all tests by the end of these three weeks, then you will not become a Royal Guard. Now, with that said, you are welcome to back out and leave at any time. I’m sure some of you will.” His eyes went to Cloud Zapper, who for once didn’t raise his gaze, or lower it. He stared the Captain in the eyes, a challenge between them both. A statement. Cloud would not walk away.
“Sir, if the challenge is speed, does that mean there is a time limit?” Said one of the other recruits; He was a medium sized stallion, his coat was dyed white but Cloud remembered it being a vibrant orange during the introductory.
Captain Sunride nodded at the question. “Indeed there is.” He grinned. “The time limit is thirty seconds.” He smirked, everyone’s eyes widening and jaws dropping. “Enjoy.” The Captain chuckled and went off to a corner and sat down, watching lazily as though he were simply going to enjoy the show.
The starting mark of the course had a timer next to it, and Fire Breeze was the first one to approach. One of the recruits turned to the Captain. “But all ponies have their strengths and weaknesses, how is it fair to judge everyone by the same standards and expect everyone to pass?” He asked. Cloud looked his fellow Pegasus over, the stallion was slightly on the small side, and his armour didn’t seem to fit him properly. He originally had a yellow coat of Cloud remembered correctly, but right now it was dyed a nice white. He had green eyes.
The Captain turned to him and smirked before getting up and approaching. “What’s your name?”
“S-Star Blazer, Sir.” The small Pegasus stuttered, obviously intimidated.
“You’re meant to be the same.” The Captain said firmly, his face inches from the other stallions. “You are here for the Aerial and Militia Guard sets, not the Mystic or the Inquisitors, though I know some of you want to try and go that far. But tell me, when was the last time you saw a Royal Guard that was different from another?” He asked softly, waiting for a response that never came. “Exactly, you are supposed to be unified, and all capable of the same feats. You can have your specialties, but there are base levels you must all reach, and it is these base levels you must prove you can manage.” The Captain raised himself and looked the small Pegasus over. “How did you finish the academy?” Cloud had to admit, he was wondering the same thing. Star Blazer was small and meek; he looked like he was frail and nervous all the time. How had he managed to get through the academy and become recommended to be a recruit?
“I…erm-” He seemed unable to really answer so the Captain just shook his head and turned away. “Begin!”
At his command, Fire Breeze hit the clock and set off the timer. He shot off like a bullet. He was through the first set of obstacles in moments, moving through the flames as if they weren’t there, under the mesh and through the tunnels and suddenly he erupted from the other end and hit the second clock at the end, stopping the timer on only twenty-three seconds. Cloud was stuck to the spot. The course looked hard, but Fire Breeze had just made it look easy.
“Nicely done, that’s what I like to see.” Captain Sunride chuckled. “Next!”
The next pony to stand up to the mark was the white dyed Earth Pony that had an originally orange coat. His grey eyes flashed with determination, he bore his hunches and prepared himself.
“Begin!” The Captain shouted and the recruit punched the clock. He dashed off, slower than Fire Breeze but certainly good. He dodged, spinning in the air over the fire, his form as graceful as any Pegasus before dashing into the tunnel and bursting out of the other end. His hoof struck the clock and his time stopped at twenty-eight seconds. He looked at the time, turned to the Captain and smiled broadly, as though waiting for some kind of praise.
“Next.” Captain Sunride shouted, not bothering to look at the Earth Pony.
Next was the Unicorn Cloud Zapper knew was named Silver Hoof. He was a little like Cloud himself, he followed orders, focused on his sense of right and wrong, and Cloud admired that. Silver Hoof stepped up to the mark, and when the captain shouted for a start he dashed forward, his horn began to glow and suddenly the flames couldn’t touch him, as though he were in a protective bubble. He moved through the obstacle course at a fast rate, nothing seeming to slow him down. He reached the end and punched the clock. Twenty-five seconds.
The obstacle course ran on like this for a while. Each recruit rushing through as fast as they could.
The largest recruit, Stonewall, who even dwarfed Captain Sunride in bulk, surprised everyone with his speed, managing a full twenty-three second run.
When it came to Cloud Zapper, there were only three left. Cloud Zapper, Bright Blade, and the mysterious Meteor. He looked over at the Pegasus mare for a moment. She was the only mare in the group. This group specifically were to be chosen for Militia or Aerial Guard, neither of which accepted mares into their ranks. So why she was here, or accepted, he wasn’t really sure. She also seemed a little entitled. Whilst she wore the same armour, the flank coverings and the fake-maned helm; unlike everyone else she didn’t seem required to wear the coat dye, or the Captain hadn’t opposed it in anyway; her purple coat showing through in all its splendour. A few of the other recruits had tried attempting some light conversation with her, but it was increasingly evident she didn’t desire to become friendly with anyone.
When Captain Sunride called for the next recruit, she was the one that stepped up to the mark. She crouched, prepared herself, and the moment she was told to go, she shot off. He barely noticed her punch the clock, but it ticked away so he simply must have missed it. He turned to see where she’d gotten to and his eyes widened when she was already arriving at the end, landing with perfect poise and standing up straight. She punched the clock on the other side and he saw the time read twelve seconds.
Cloud felt his heart jump into his throat and he had to gulp it back down and shake his head. Yes, she was skilled, but that wasn’t everything, and certainly nothing to be distracted about. Cloud headed up to the mark, not wanting to be the very last one there. He waited and the moment the Captain shouted he bellowed off, almost forgetting the punch the clock. He moved forward, diving with his wings spread as he flew right through the tube most would have crawled through. He landed on the other side, jumped and flipped, the fire scorching the tips of his wings before he landed on the ground. He lowered himself down, crawling under the net that blocked his way only to dive up afterwards and over a log, into a hole below. He crawled through, jumped out the other end and punched the clock as fast as he could. He checked his time. Twenty-seven seconds. Cloud found himself sighing with relief. He hadn’t been the slowest, and now he simply waited for the final recruit.
Bright Blade was a meek small thing, much like Silver Hoof. He was a unicorn and his coat was naturally green but had been dyed a medium grey. He approached the mark and looked nervous. The moment the Captain shouted to go, he ran off only to meep, run back and punch the clock before running off again. He ran, jumped through the tube with ease only to try diving through the flames and yelping as his hoof got scorched. He tried going under the net but got himself tangled and before he could free himself the buzzer went off. He’d run out of time. Captain Sunride approached and the nervous stallion pulled himself from under the net, limping slightly on his burned hoof.
“S-sorry.” He said softly.
“Apologise to yourself. The next test is in two days, you have that long to be able to complete this course or you’re out.” He turned to the rest. “Nine of you pass the first test, one retakes. Dismissed.” He said and turned away, his red helm gleaming in the light of the setting sun.
Cloud Zapper ran over to Bright Blade. “Are you alright?” He asked in concern.
The unicorn nodded. “Y-yeah, I’ll be fine.” He said before turning away, looking a little depressed as he limped away with his hoof looking a little swollen.
That evening Cloud made a particular effort to learn everypony’s names. There were four Pegasus in the group – including himself – and only two unicorns. The rest were Earth Ponies. The Pegasus were himself:
Fire Breeze – a red maned and yellow eyed stallion with a blue coat that had a habit of thinking he was better than the other recruits. Her cutie-mark seemed to be a burning feather.
Star Blazer – a hyperactive stallion about as tall as Cloud Zapper. He had green eyes and a yellow coat, with a rather startlingly green mane. His cutie-mark was five red stars.
Hailstone Clash – a strange Pegasus with a guitar cutie-mark. His coat was blue, his mane was red and green, and he had a habit of grinning in a way he probably thought was cool. It wasn’t.
And Meteor – a supple Pegasus mare with a purple coat, multi-coloured blue orange and brown mane with a stylised Calibri bird cutie-mark who seemed determined not to talk to anypony. From what Cloud could gather, this wasn’t out of dislike for anyone, but seeming to be a conscious choice. He barely ever saw her without a book in her hooves, and all of them seemed to be about history and military tactics, as though she were devoted all her time and energy into this. He almost admired that, but he’d still prefer it if she were at least a little sociable. The two unicorns were Bright Blade and Silver Hoof. Both were small and meek. Silver had a naturally white mane, so he didn’t need to dye it when he was training. He sported red eyes and a silver mane, with a cutie-mark of five horseshoes. Bright Blade was just as small, and extremely timid. He seemed rather awkward around other ponies but very polite. He sported a lime green coat with a deep black mane with green eyes. His cutie-mark was a black sword with black wings. What Cloud found most curious about him, was that he constantly had a sword at his side. Swords were not traditionally pony weapons, they were originally created and forged in the Griffon Kingdom and adopted by a few other types around like Minotaur. A few had been modified slightly for pony use, made lighter, and sporting a round pommel at the end that could be held in the teeth. The technique of using a sword was very different for a pony than it was for other species. It required gripping the pommel and using momentum and swinging circular motions. The result was that a master would be extremely fast and hard to predict, but the downside was that it almost always lacked any capability of power. Also thrusting the weapon was almost always impossible to accomplish from the mouth. But despite its great difficulty of use, Bright Blade seemed to never let the sword out of his sight. Cloud had learned the four three Ponies were Stonewall, Attrition, and Diamond Armour. He hadn’t yet managed to get to know them though.
They were currently in the common room. It was a nice gathering place that they were allowed to hang out in. He’d intended to spend the time helping out Bright Blade as the poor guy was feeling rather down about failing the course the first time, but he’d been beaten to it by Star Blazer and Silver Hoof, both of which were already there talking to Bright, trying to make him feel better.
So rather than crowd the poor lad, Cloud headed to a different quarry. Attrition was an Earth Pony only slightly bigger than Cloud Zapper. He bore a deep orange coat and grey eyes, his dusty orange two-toned mane seemed to have been slicked back and kept under perfect control. His Cutie-mark seemed to be a stitched heart. Cloud approached and sat down next to the earth pony, looking around and feeling a little bit awkward at first. “So,” he began, trying to think up a decent conversation starter.
“You were pretty good on the course back there.” He said, smiling at the other pony. Attrition looked to him, something disturbing seemed to flash in his eyes before it vanished and a kind smile replaced it.
“You think so? You weren’t too bad yourself.” He said a little chirpily. “So, do you think the captain noticed me?” He asked in a slightly hushed tone, his eyes wide. Cloud sighed; he could instantly tell the kind of pony Attrition was. He was an idealist with a complex.
Attrition was the kind of pony that would do anything to get noticed and stand out, Cloud felt a little down about this, because that kind of pony only ever managed for so long before the real world crept in and cracked their outer shell. This pony was in for some major disappointment.
“Erm, I don’t think that’s the point of all this.” He said, trying to be gentle about it.
“Of course that’s the point. I’m gonna be a high ranking member of the Militia, I’m gonna one day make the captain proud and then maybe he’ll be the one saluting me.” Attrition grinned, his eyes almost wistful at the idea of such a dream. Cloud nodded and got up, walking away with a sigh. He looked around for someone else to talk to before his eyes fell on Meteor. Approaching the mare he stopped about a meter away.
“I know you don’t like talking to anypony, but as we’re training together, I’d really like to know a bit more about you.” He said softly.
The mare glanced over the book she was reading. A book entitled ‘Training Regimes: The Best of the Best’. Her eyes met his briefly before she sighed. “If I talk to you a little bit, will it stop you and the others from pestering me all the time?”
Cloud blushed and shuffled his front hooves slightly. “Sorry, I don’t mean to pester. There are just so many questions...for starters, you’re a mare. How were you accepted?”
She sighed. “Mares can only be accepted into the Mystic Guard; I am not a Unicorn and therefore am not qualified. As such, I sought to become something I consider far better. An Inquisitor.” She returned to her book as though that was all that needed to be said.
“Inquisitor?” He said baffled.
“You do know what Inquisitors are, correct?” She asked dryly, looking at him as though he were mad if he didn’t.
“Well yeah, I know what they are, but they’re hoof picked, you don’t get to opt for them.” He smiled.
“I am aware of that.”
He cocked his head. “So?”
She looked up, her eyes flashing a look of annoyance in his direction. She sighed and looked straight at him. “So they’ll hoof pick me.” She said with her voice filled with determination.
Cloud’s eyes widened. “Oh...you…” His brain pieced it together. “So you’re here to train with us, in the hopes that you’ll be hoof picked to become an Inquisitor. But if you don’t get picked then-”
“-Then I won’t become a Royal Guard.” She said, finishing his sentence for him. She picked her book up again and Cloud could only chuckle.
“Okay, that answers every question I had.” He smiled before walking away. It did kinda make sense. The Inquisitors were chosen from all areas, including the Mystic Guard and recruits. As Mystic guard could be chosen mares were allowed in the Inquisitors. Inquisitors didn’t have to cover their coats, so she’d never need to get used to wearing the dye, which was why it was never required of her and she’d always been allowed to go without. And her constant focus on her studies and attempts to be better than the other recruits was entirely because she wanted to stand out and be chosen. Cloud hadn’t heard of anypony doing this before, but it did make sense. He kind of admired her for that. Cloud stood back and surveyed the room. The bustling sounds of the ponies around him made him smile, the soft clatter of hooves on the floor and the dull tones of conversation cave the place an easy feeling. Less than a week here and they were already becoming friends…most of them.
The next two days Cloud was supposed to have spent doing laps and training, it was part of his personal regime. But instead he found himself by the first obstacle course on both days, chanting with the other recruits as Bright Blade ran the course for the fourth time that day and the seventh time overall. He managed to get through the fire unscathed, he got through the net and jumped, his hoof getting coat in the last part of the net, falling muzzle first into the sand and groaning. The cheers died down and everyone approached to help him up.
“You were much faster than your previous times; you’d have beaten the course if your hoof didn’t get stuck.” Silver Hoof said kindly, trying to make him feel better. Cloud knew he was lying though, it had almost taken Bright Blade ten seconds to even reach the net. The stallion was really quite slow, but he had noticed that a lot of it was his lack of coordination. He needed to think of a way of boosting the stallion’s confidence. Cloud was a firm believer in strength of will. If you thought you were gonna fail, you likely would. Confidence was key. He thought for a moment, eyed the sword on the stallions hip before coming up with a plan. Cloud reached for the sword and slipped it from his sheath, stepping back.
“This is a nice sword.” He said wistfully. Silence dimmed among the crowd and Bright Blade turned to look at him.
“Give that back,” he said softly. “Please.”
Cloud shrugged. “I dunno, I kinda like it. I’ve always enjoyed swordplay.” He jested, gripping the blade in his teeth, swinging it stylishly around. He’d had a few lessons and self-taught himself with the sword, knowing it wasn’t often used it was always a weapon ponies underestimated, and he figured that in itself made it very useful.
“Give it back!” Bright Blade shouted, suddenly angry, he stomped over. “It’s important to me.” He said as a fire lit in his eyes that wasn’t there before. Cloud smirked and walked to the side, opening up a small armoury stall for the training area’s and pulling out a second sword. This one was a blunted thing designed for training. It wasn’t like the sword Cloud had taken from Bright, which was sharp and gleaming. He tossed the blunt sword at Bright’s hooves and smiled.
“Take it back.”
He had no idea if the other recruits understood what he was doing, or if they simply wanted to see how this played out. But either way, none of them interfered, and they backed off.
Bright Blade glared. “You don’t want to do this.”
Cloud just chuckled mirthfully. “Please, you can’t even finish the course, like you could use a sword. With your coordination you’ll hack your own legs off.” He mocked. His mocking had the desired result and Bright picked up the sword with his magic and then fitted it into his mouth. Weapons like this were easy for a unicorn to use, but Cloud was impressed that Bright would use his mouth rather than magic. Cloud Zapper smiled before moving forward, he arched the blade and slashed downward. He aimed purposely that even if he wasn’t blocked, he’d miss the unicorn by inches. But he needn’t have worried, the moment his blade was in range the opposing blade slashed up, deflecting the blow, slicing through the air and stopping an inch from Cloud’s throat, a light gleam in Bright’s eyes.
“You were shaying?” He said carefully, his muzzle filled with the pommel of the blade slurring his speech. Cloud jumped back and smiled, his slow grin spreading across his muzzle in amusement.
“You’ve had training.”
“My dad taught he.” He said with his mouth still full.
“Show me.” Cloud said firmly before dashing forward.
The blade in Cloud Zappers muzzle almost sang as it sliced through the air, but despite being stronger and sharper than the training weapon Bright wielded, every blow that sliced down at the unicorn was easily deflected and retaliated with. Cloud found himself dodging and weaving, slashing up and down, and instead of holding back, he began to press forward with actual dangerous blows. The blades sparked eagerly in the clashes, as though thirsty for each other, desperate the slice and cut. Cloud made sure to monitor the other stallion’s hoof-work, the way he positioned, and the way his body arched and bowed with each motion, making sure to track his motions so as to predict his attacks. Cloud watched as his form arched as he stepped forward, Bright blade slicing up. Cloud, taking advantage of the opening, stepped past the blade and sliced down at Bright’s flank. Bright Blade reacted faster than he anticipated, bucking up, his hind legs passing either side of the blade then wrapping around Clouds neck before he could react. Bright twisted, his weight tipped Cloud over and suddenly he was on his back the breath knocked from his lungs and the sharp blade spinning from his muzzle only to be caught in Bright’s magic. Clouds opponent span, lowered and ended swiftly with both blades rested at Cloud’s throat. Both were panting, sweat dripping from their brows as they stared at each other. But rather than the anger that had been present in the beginning, there was now a mutual amusement, a rush of adrenalin and joy in the fight, joy that made Cloud grin.
“So you do have some coordination and confidence.” He said, looking up at him. “Now do the course.”
The blades lowered, Bright Blades expression softened. He dropped the blades, the one that actually belonged to him sticking in the ground almost regally before he dived at the course; he hit the buzzer and dived through the tube. He rolled on the ground, leapt through the flames and burrowed under the net. He almost got caught but this time wriggled free, dove through the hoops, under the tunnel and over the log, struck the buzzer and looked at the time. Twenty-nine seconds. He was panting and couldn’t help but grin as a round of applause was given to him. Cloud padded over and gave him a kind smile. Their eyes met and Cloud nodded in respect, Bright Blade simply smiled.
“Thank you.” He said softly, understanding why Cloud had done what he did.
“That was great!” Star Blazer chirped happily. “Now all you need to do is do it again in front of the Captain!” The mention of having to do a repeat performance had Bright Blades ears lowered and a light whimper escaping, the adrenaline of the course and fight wearing off now.
“No need.” Said a strong voice from nearby, the recruits looked to see Captain Sunride approaching, his red helm gleaming in the light of the sun. He looked between Cloud and Bright Blade before saying, “I saw everything. Congratulations recruit, you passed.” He turned away. “The next test is tomorrow. Get some rest.” He said, his words accompanying the resounding cheers for Bright Blade.
“Oh, and Cloud Zapper?” He said, his words halting the cheering almost instantly. “Come with me please.”
Cloud had no idea if he was in trouble but he followed the Captain anyway. They walked in silence up into the barracks, up a flight of stairs round the corner and into an office. The office was surprisingly comfortable; it had deep burgundy walls and comfortable looking chairs. He sat down in one on one side of a hardwood desk that was strewn with paperwork. Captain Sunride took the other side and relaxed back. The walls behind the Captain were filled with a map of the palace, and medals in frames alongside it.
“Why did you start a fight?” He asked softly. The question should have made Cloud afraid that he was in trouble, but it wasn’t asked in an accusatory way, it was asked in a curious one. He decided honesty was probably the best here.
“I wanted to help him. He wasn’t able to do the course because he was afraid, he wasn’t confident enough.”
“And you wanted to aid that confidence by attacking him?” The Captain asked curiously.
Cloud Zapper sighed before he continued. “A stallion doesn’t carry around a blade like that unless he knew how to use it. It was obviously important to him. There are blades in the armoury; he’d only bring one from home if it had significance. And when a sword is something significant, to do it justice you learn how to wield it.”
The Captain seemed to smile at that. “So you knew he’d fight back?”
Cloud nodded. “I knew he was probably better than me, and even if he wasn’t, I’d have thrown the fight anyway. He needed the win, it gave him confidence. That’s what he needed.”
The Captain leaned back and looked thoughtful for a moment. His gaze shifted outside and Cloud followed it. The soft blue sky above was filled with fluffy white clouds, and nearby on one of the roofs some birds had made a nest where the mother now fed her babies.
“How did you know that was what he needed?” The Captains question threw Cloud Zapper off for a moment. He cocked his head, thought but couldn’t actually come up with an answer.
“I…I don’t know, Sir. I guess…It was obvious.” He said softly, hoping the answer was a good one.
The Captain nodded. “Obvious. Of course.” He sat up on the chair and picked up a pen in his teeth. “You may go.” Cloud Zapper nodded, saluted, and walked out, heading back to the barracks.
The next day was the start of the next trial and they were all up early. The sky above had barely begun to get light, the Princesses still in the process of slowly lowering the moon and raising the sun. Captain Sunride was late. He was often here before any of them were each day, but today he was nowhere to be found. Still they waited, standing there to attention, trying to be as disciplined as possible. Fire Breeze was the first to crack.
“Oh forget this.” He stepped out of rank and began walking away.
“You shouldn’t leave.” Cloud tried to warn him. The fellow Pegasus halted and turned. His eyes narrowing into a soft glare before he approached Cloud.
“Shouldn’t do this?” He asked curiously. “The Captain shouldn’t be late. And hey, I think I deserve to step out of line for once, you’re the one that made us do five hours of running the other day because you just had to show your enthusiasm.”
“That has nothing to do with this. “Cloud Zapper responded simply. “If we leave before Captain Sunride gets here, we could all be kicked out. Now get back in line.”
“You aren’t the Captain, Zappy.” He turned around and began walking away, only for a hoof to block his path. Fire Breeze turned to glare at the other recruit that had stopped him, only to face the thick neck of Stonewall. Stonewall was from a family of shire horses. He was large and thick muscled, almost twice as big as most other stallions. His coat was usually blue but he chose to dye it a dark grey. His steely blue eyes looked down at Fire Breeze. His expression wasn’t angry, simply dominating.
“Get back in line.” He said, his deep voice sending a shiver through Clouds spine. He made a mental note not to get on Stonewall’s bad side. Fire Breeze didn’t argue this, showing some semblance of self-preservation in that cocky demeanour. It was lucky too, because less than a minute later Captain Sunride walked up. He looked a little worse for wear, but no one dared say anything about it.
“Today’s test is about Stamina.” He said firmly, looking around. “For the Pegasus among you, if you look up, hoops have been placed in the sky in a large ring. Your aim is to fly through those as fast as possible.” He looked at everyone else. “Earth Ponies and Unicorns, you’re running. But this isn’t a race, this is stamina after all.” He went over to a timer. “You have three grades, Bronze, Silver and Gold. Each grade is set by how long you last. To pass, you MUST at least make Bronze.” He hit the timer to set it. It was set for three hours. Cloud’s eyes widened at that amount of time, looking to the Captain again who simply grinned.
“Those of you that can fly or run without stopping for three hours will pass and achieve bronze. The silver mark is at five hours, and the gold is at seven. I’ll be interested to see who lasts the longest.” He hit the timer and it set off. “Well…get moving!” He shouted and everyone either ran, or flew off. The track was the same track he’d made them run on before, but even then they’d had to stop and start again to catch their breaths, this time, it was all about lasting as long as possible. Cloud Zapper decided to simply do a basic air jog. This was similar to a standard jog when running, but it was done whilst flying. It involved some decent speed, but lazy flying, saving as much energy as possible. Many of the other recruits took this same approach, all except Fire Breeze.
Fire Breeze seemed to consider it a race of speed as well, and did a job much faster than the other Pegasus. Cloud shook his head at the stupidity, and kept his own personal speed, which was rivalled by Meteor and Star Blazer. The flying got quite boring after that. Fire Breeze seemed determined to fly at a faster pace than everpony else, and even when told that he should slow it down to a job, he simply replied that this speed WAS his job. Which Cloud Zapper knew wasn’t true, he was just trying to show off and prove himself better. It wasn’t working; he was just proving himself stupider. After what seemed like ages, a buzzer went off and a light on the timer turned an orange colour. They had all passed, they were at Bronze. Everything after this was just trying to see how good they could do. Cloud was particularly thankful for this. The first test had been failed by Bright Blade, but it seemed everyone was up for this test, and it was nice to see them all succeed.
The hours wore on and Star Blazer beside him seemed to be tiring. He was panting heavily and trying to continue but he was starting to fall behind. Suddenly he yelped and began to fall, one of his wings were a little crooked. Cloud was about to dash down after him but he was suddenly caught by a Pegasus in full armour, obviously one of the actual guards. Around the grounds a few where hanging around, and this one had thankfully come to the rescue. When Star Blazer was on the ground the Guard looked him over.
“It’s a wing cramp, go rest.” He said before he walked away. Star looked down, sitting beside the buzzer.
Cloud looked below him and noticed several of the Earth Ponies and Unicorns tiring. Within the next hour Stonewall tired out before the buzzer went off again. When it did the colour of the light was white. They were on the silver run, it had been five hours. Cloud knew his wings were tired and his ribs were starting to cramp up and hurt, but he didn’t stop. He had started to wonder why the secondary grades were close together. It had taken three hours just to reach bronze, but only two to reach silver and another two to reach gold. But it was very obvious at this point. His wings were tiring out faster and he was panting heavily. Within the next hour Silver Hoof and Diamond Armour both had to stop and rest with a grade of silver, they were quickly joined by Silver Hoof who had almost reached Gold before he’d had to stop. With only twenty minutes for gold left only Cloud himself, Attrition, Meteor, Fire Breeze and Bright Blade were still in the run. Cloud was surprised that to many had made it this far, but he was also surprised he had too. He tried to slow down a bit, to gain some kind of energy back, but he realised he was giving in to tiredness and closed his eyes, forcing himself top push on. The ache in his wings by this point was agonising, gritting his teeth as he moved. There were less than five minutes until gold left before a yell sounded out and Fire Breeze was falling.
“N-No!” Fire Breeze shouted, falling down only to be caught by a guard. Both his wings were crooked with cramps and he looked to be in a great deal of pain. Cloud had been impressed, he hadn’t expected the hot head to last this long, and considering his speed he was going, if he’d only been less stubborn and smarter about his flying, Cloud was sure he’d have lasted far longer.
The moment the Gold buzzer sounded and the light went yellow, Bright Blade stopped and collapsed, panting heavily. He was in the Gold grade for stamina, and he was happy with that. It was just Meteor, Cloud and Attrition left. Cloud’s eyes darted between them, and their eyes met together with a silent acknowledgement. They weren’t doing this for grades now, this was a competition. They simply wanted to see who had it better. Cloud hadn’t been anywhere near the fastest on the first trial, but his stamina was something he wanted to show off. Biting back the pain of his flying he kicked up his speed slightly. Beside him, Meteor followed suit and Attrition on the ground sped up as well. Captain Sunride came out around this time and watched them going round, a small crowd had gathered to watch them run and fly.
He glanced at Meteor; her usual blank expression was contorted in pain at this point, and her breathing laboured as the Pegasus mare tried her best to keep up. They had flown for almost another full hour before Meteor gasped and stopped, flying down slowly and landing on the ground, panting. She had lasted eight hours in flight, reached a grade gold and had proven herself to have at least the third best stamina in class. But still she audibly chastised herself and stalked off, turning and sitting behind everyone else.
It was Cloud and Attrition now. Cloud didn’t know much about the Earth Pony, but it was obvious that Attrition saw him as something of a rival. They kept with perfect pace of each other. In the previous trial Attrition had been a full minute slower than Cloud Zapper, and it looked like he was trying to prove himself to be better this time. Cloud Zapper himself was worried the Earth Pony might manage to do just that, his own wings were starting to ache and throb, his panting was laboured and he had to admit…the ground was looking mightily inviting.
They’d gone for a full hour after, nine hours moving around their respective tracks, by this point they had slowed even further than a jog, barely trotting around the tracks, or a flying trot as the Pegasus case may be. Cloud Zapper was shaking, his eyes dimming but he tried to push on. He glanced at Attrition and saw the Earth Pony stumble slightly, catch himself and keep going, not yet actually stopping, but he looked close to passing out. Cloud grinned, thinking he might actually have this before a violent streak of pain lanced through his right wing and down his side. He yelped and suddenly he was falling, the ground rushing up to meet him. He gasped, trying to flap more, the wind rushing by him before suddenly it stopped and a weight held him up, the embrace of a guard aiding him slowly to the ground. He was taken to the ground and his wing was looked at.
“His blood vessels are swollen, it’s pretty bad.” He heard the guard say. “Guy shouldn’t have pushed himself so hard.”
Captain Sunride approached and looked down at him. “Impressive Cloud Zapper, go and take a day’s rest.” Cloud wanted to speak, but he wasn’t quite able to. The next thing he knew he was being carried back to the barracks and a soft bed met his aching body. He curled up beneath the sheets and let the comforting darkness take him.
It was the dead of night when he woke again. The loud snoring of his roommate met his ears and the high moon told him it was extremely late, or very early. Everyone was asleep and there were no sounds that could have disturbed him from his rest, though more likely instead of sound it was the grating soreness of his throat that he needed to quench. Climbing out of his bed, Cloud left the room as quietly as he could, heading left to go to the cafeteria. As he took a few steps, a soft sound met his ears. It wasn’t necessarily quiet, in fact it was the sound of someone shouting, but they were obviously quite far away. He turned around and began seeking out the source of the shouting. As he neared it got louder and louder, he noticed it was coming from the upper floors where he wasn’t allowed to go unattended. He hesitated, bit his bottom lip and began to climb the stairs. Clouds movements were quiet and stealthy; he turned another corner and found a corridor to his right. The shouting seemed to be coming from one of the nearby rooms and as he approached it, he quickly recognised it as the Captains office. He glanced through the window of the door, looking in curiously. Captain Sunride was inside, he wasn’t wearing his full armour, but his head was adorned in that bright red helm of his. The Captain seemed to be shouting into a mirror for some reason.
“No, you don’t understand! It’s not time yet! They haven’t sung yet!” He bellowed. “You can’t make me!” He demanded, his back was to Cloud Zapper, but he had a perfect view of the Captains reflection in the mirror.
“I can make you and you will do it! You will spread it and plant it and let the seed grow! Let it sing!” He seemed to laugh mirthfully to himself, shaking his head suddenly. “This is wrong, I cannot be part of this. “He demanded. “You already are.” He replied to his own words. “Once the seed is planted it will spread and Chaos will come!” Cloud watched as the Captain turned away from the mirror and stood, shaking as he looked out the window. His gaze drifted back to the mirror and the Pegasus froze. His eyes widened in horror as the Captains reflection still stood in the mirror, and it was turned to him, looking right at him with mad mirthful eyes. A shiver ran of terror ran down Cloud Zapper’s spine before he turned and galloped away. The dorm room had never felt more welcome, but Cloud had never been more afraid. Something was wrong with the Captain and Cloud had no idea how to approach it. He needed help!
The next morning Cloud woke up early and made sure to gather the rest of the recruits in the leisure room.
“Okay, I have something to talk to you all about, and this is gonna sound weird, but I swear it’s the truth.” He said softly. They were all rapt to attention. He took a deep breath, and began to recount the events. He told them what happened when he first saw the Captain acting weird on the top of the stairs, and what happened the night before and what he saw in the office, in the mirror.
“Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?” Fire Breeze said dryly, looking at Cloud dubiously.
“No, I wasn’t dreaming.” He said firmly. “I need help, I think the Captain’s in trouble.”
“You think who’s in trouble?” Said a stern voice behind them belong to Captain Sunride as he strolled into the room, his gaze running over each and every one of them, and lingering particularly on Cloud Zapper. Cloud straightened and stood himself to attention.
“No one, sir, I was just making conversation.”
The Captain nodded. “Well, in two days’ time is the test of Skill. If any of you have any particular talents you feel would be useful as a Guard, you will need to practice them and hone them. If you don’t have any particular talents, I suggest you find one and get good in two days.” He turned his back and walked to the door. “Everpony outside, I want you all sweating by the end of the day. Those of you that cramped up yesterday, Pegasus, don’t use your wings, everypony else, if your legs cramped, take it easy. I’d rather you not bust your muscles or I’d have to fail you outright.” Cloud watched him leave the leisure room and one by one everyone walked past him and out. All but three. Cloud turned and looked over Bright Blade, Attrition and Meteor. Attrition was the first one to approach Cloud.
“Yesterday, after you were taken from the pitch, I approached the Captain. I wanted to know what I could improve, what I could do to be better. He shouted at me, he said I was likely gonna fail anyway. Then he said the words ‘none of you will sing’. You said he mentioned something about singing in his office. I think you’re right, I think something’s wrong with him.” Cloud nodded to him in respect before turning to Meteor Sparkle.
“I’m good at telling liars, you weren’t lying.” She said simply, her gaze was firm and Cloud smiled a little. He turned to Bright Blade and the small unicorn just shrugged.
“I just don’t think you’d fib about something like this.” He smiled. Cloud found himself very thankful to have these friends. He stopped for a moment and couldn’t help but feel a slight grin form on his muzzle as he looked over them. He had friends. Friends were not easy to come by in his life, but here he stood, comrades in arms, a mystery to be solved, and companions at his flank. He had friends. Cloud turned away and all four of them walked out. They’d solve this mystery together.
The next day Cloud and Bright practiced against each other with swords, Meteor hovered overhead using a particular technique that was incredibly difficult for Pegasus. It was a levitation technique that involved flapping slowly to remain fixed in a singular position. Most Pegasus had to move a bit back and forth; very few could remain almost motionless in the air. As a technique, it showed how strong her wings were and how skilled she was in using them. All the while they practiced; they also kept a watchful eye on the Captain. When he seemed less interested in the recruits and walked off, they stopped their practice and followed him as stealthily as they could.
The Captain turned a corner round one of the buildings and rubbed the side of his helm as though in pain. He removed it from his head, his mane flowing free as he shook himself, obviously trying to rid himself of whatever he was feeling.
“He doesn’t look well.” Bright Blade said with concern. The Captain placed his helm on the ground and seemed to sway on the spot slightly. Bright was about to move to see if the Captain was alright when Cloud stopped him.
“Look at his helmet.” The helmet was shaking slightly on the ground and suddenly roots and thorns began to grow around it. The Captain looked down at it and yanked it up. “Not yet!” He demanded “The song is not ready to sing. The recruits must be broken first. They must be swallowed by their darkness.” He said firmly, the words sending a shiver down Cloud’s spine. The Captain turned around, slipping the crimson helm back on his head. As fast as they could Cloud, Meteor and Bright dived behind a bush. Captain Sunride walked past them to go continue watching the other recruits train.
“That helm is not normal. And I don’t much like the sound of what he has planned for us recruits.” Meteor said softly. “We need to get him away from it.” Cloud agreed heartily and together they huddled and began to formulate a plan!
The next day during training Bright Blade approached Captain Sunride hesitantly.
“Sir, I’d, erm, like you to come with me, if that’s okay?” He was obviously nervous, and as Cloud watched he felt like he should have been the one to lead the Captain away.
“Bright Blade shouldn’t be doing this.” He grunted. He began to move but a hoof stopped him.
“Trust is something that is earned, but it can only be earned when faith is given freely.” Meteor stood in front of him, her eyes turned to gaze at Bright as he walked away. “You cannot fight all his battles. You must have faith in him for this task.” She turned back to him and Cloud found himself nodding. She was right; he had to have faith in those around him. That’s what friends did. Bright lead the Captain away from the training area, babbling about some sword techniques he wasn’t familiar with while he ignored the Captain’s annoyed glare. Cloud Zapper and Attrition were tailing him while Meteor flew up ahead, watching from above for the perfect time to strike.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this.” Attrition scoffed. Cloud cocked his head and looked to the Earth Pony curiously.
“Why are you suddenly so sour?” He asked in a concerned tone. “When we first started you were all chipper and bouncy, and now you’re just…grumpy.” He grumbled. Attrition turned away and his eyes lowered to the ground.
“I contacted the Guard Regent about the Captain.” He answered solemnly. Cloud Zapper’s eyes widened at the news. The Guard Regent was the manager of the Guard forces and how they related diplomatically to the Equestrian Army. It seems obvious to have contacted them about all this, and he was happy that Attrition had attempted this. But his sullen face told Cloud that it hadn’t gone very well at all.
“What happened?” Cloud asked softly.
A soft mirthless chuckle came from Attrition. “They won’t help is what happened. They say that the job comes with stress, and that I shouldn’t be spying on the Captain, and that no other reports have come in. They said that if I spied or contacted them again with such absurd allegations then I could be kicked out.” He turned away. Cloud’s heart sank at the news, though even he had to admit, the idea that the Captain was being controlled by a cursed helmet was a little much, especially when the news only came from a recruit.
“Are you okay?” Cloud asked softly, feeling concerned for his friend. Attrition just shrugged in reply, but something in his eyes had changed. Like he was almost disgusted with what he saw around him. By this point Bright Blade had managed to lead Captain Sunride to the side of the compound near one of the gates. He was obviously rather annoyed by Bright by this point, staring at him with a glare, which was what they needed. Meteor landed softly, light on her hooves behind the Captain a few paces away. Bright blade began talking faster and louder, and more erratically, trying to keep the Captain’s focus on him. Meteor got close and reached out for the helm before the Captain turned and looked right at her fangs where his teeth should be and glowing white eyes where his pupils should be, a loud hiss erupting from his throat. Meteor’s heart almost stopped as she jumped back. Cloud Zapper was by her side in a flash, the Captain’s posture giving off an aura of danger. The Captain straightened up, the hiss died down and suddenly he seemed normal.
“What is the meaning of this?” He asked, looking between the four of them. Cloud Zapper stepped forward and cleared his throat, staring at the Captain firmly and defiantly.
“That helm.” He said firmly, looking over its Crimson surface. “It’s affecting you.”
He chuckled. “Affecting me? And how is it doing that?” He asked with an amused grin.
“You’ve been speaking to yourself.” Meteor chimed in, approaching forward a step.
“I’ve been muttering to myself for some years, little filly.” He said with a glare. “It comes from not being a sociable pony; you tend to talk to yourself.”
“This is different.” Cloud said, shaking his head. “You were shouting to yourself, saying something about songs and singing, and seed’s yet to be sown.” He said firmly. “And when you were in your office, you were screaming at somepony and when I looked in the mirror, your reflection acted on its own and looked right at me!”
The Captain’s eyes narrowed. “While I usually wouldn’t entertain the fanciful dreams of a recruit, I have to ask, if this was indeed real and you were not dreaming, then what right do you have on that floor without permission and what right do you have to spy on me? I should fail you, all of you.” He said firmly, looking between them, Bright Blade himself looking uncomfortable at the concept of being failed, but Cloud Zapper stepped forward.
“Then fail us.” He said softly, a shocked look passing over the Captain’s face. “Or at least fail me and let the others go. I’m the one that put all this together.” He said, gesturing to them all.” It was my plan to confront you, to get the helm from you. But I truly believe that something is wrong with that helm, and I believe it is affecting you. And a Royal Guard’s job is to protect no matter the cost.” He stood proudly before the Captain. “So even if it costs me my place in the ranks, I will protect you, Sir.” The Captain looked between them as Meteor then stood beside Cloud Zapper, showing unity. Attrition stood on Cloud’s other side and glared at the Captain. Bright Blade hung back, hesitated, and then finally he too stepped up and looked at the Captain. The Captain backed off a step before he sighed. “Oh drat.” He said in a voice that wasn’t his.
“And here I was thinking I could keep this up at least a little while longer.” The Captain’s eyes returned to a pure white, and a rather manic smile pressed upon his lips. “It’s a shame, I didn’t really want to expend so much energy controlling this little pony, but what can ya do, when little rustlings like you come along and mess up all my big plans.”
“Who are you?” Cloud asked softly, looking at the Captain in wonder.
“Why I’m a helmet of course.” He chuckled. “I thought that at least would be obvious.” Captain Sunride, or at least, the Helmet controlling him, sighed. “Well, I guess I’ll have to just try this again sometime.” Captain Sunride turned and jumped over the gate as though it were simply a race hurdle. He stopped on the other side and grinned before he ran off into the streets of Canterlot.
“I don’t get this, what plans? What’s going on?” Bright Blade asked; he seemed to be panicking a bit.
“I don’t know.” Cloud replied, narrowing his eyes. “But I get the feeling it’s not going to give up on its plans just yet. We need to catch it, and we need to stop it.” They all darted through or over the gate by flying; they ran out into the streets. Captain Sunride was fast, he darted down a second street and then into an alleyway. Cloud Zapper tried to follow with Meteor by his side, but the Captain had seemingly disappeared.
“We need to split up.” Meteor said firmly, dashing in one direction. The others ran in their respective directions ran while Bright Blade decided to stick with Cloud.
“You did good work, Bright.” Cloud said softly with a smile, Bright Blade blushing slightly and nodding in affirmation. They searched for almost an hour before Cloud decided to try something. “We’re going into that bar.” He said with a smirk. Before them was the ‘Hoof and Tall-Tale’ It was a lower end bar down in one of the greasier districts of Canterlot. It didn’t have the best reputation.
“W-we are?” Bright Blade asked; his eyes widening as Cloud approached. The Pegasus stallion gave him a glance and chuckled.
“Have faith in me.” He said and walked into the pub. The first thing he did was trip over his own feet and fell over, much to the laughter of everypony inside the pub. The place was a little greasy like all places in this end of Canterlot. It was made out of heavy wood and the air smelled of warm apple cider. He laughed with the rest of them and his approached the bar, his face showing a goofy grin.
“Hey. I’m trying to find somepony.” He grinned. The mare behind the bar looked him up and down. She had a coat of yellow and wore a simple jacket over her shoulders. Her hooves were grasping a cloth that she ran over the counter. She had a southern air about her and a cutie-mark of a pint of cider.
“You seem a bit young to be a Guard.” She said curiously.
Cloud blushed. “W-well...I’m just a recruit…and...erm…it’s part of a training exercise.” She looked around. “I’m not really supposed to be asking for help but…”
The mare just chuckled and nodded. “A little cheater is ya.” She grinned. “What ya lookin’ for sweetness?” She asked in a kindly tone.
“I’m supposed to find my Captain. He’s hiding. He wear’s armour like me, but you’ll know him because he has a red helm.” He smiled excitedly, hoping she had some answers. The barmare thought for a minute and chuckled. “As it happens I may know of who ya mean. It was some talk a little while ago that some pony was seen runnin’ around in a red helm back on the east quarter. Does that help sugar?”
Cloud nodded. “Thank you so much!” He ran out, almost trippi9ng over again. The moment he reached outside his face turned a little sombre and the grin faded. Bright Blade looked at him weirdly. “You were acting…weird.” Cloud shrugged in response.
“I was acting.” He said simply, heading in the direction of the east quarter.
“Acting? You tripped over.” He said incredulously.
“I meant to.” He shrugged. “Most ponies don’t like talking to guards. Almost everypony’s done a little something wrong here and there, or they feel like they might have when a guard talks to them. I had to seem younger than I was, and I needed to seem really new to it. Just because I say I’m a recruit, doesn’t mean they’ll believe it. And if I didn’t make them laugh and think of me as a little pathetic then they would have been too afraid to talk.” He said simply.
“Oh.” Bright Blade looked Cloud over and nodded. Cloud had always been very good at theatre, he was glad such skills would come in handy as a Guard. The way he saw it, the more ponies that saw him as pathetic, the more would underestimate him if it ever came down to something serious like a fight. That could be an advantage he could use. The East Quarter was the middle of the lower districts of Canterlot. The place was a little quaint and had plenty of places to hide. He walked through them and sighed.
“You’re a unicorn; can’t you do anything like a tracking spell?” He asked Bright Blade who shrugged.
“I wasn’t really very good with magic. I can do levitation and stuff, but, otherwise. It’s not really my thing. Sorry.” He said, sounding dejected.
“It’s okay. Sorry, guess I’m just worried.” He sighed, looking around. “Don’t worry about it Bright, the moment we’re done here we can-” He froze at a sound to his left. “Captain?” Cloud called out, approaching the mouth of an alleyway. There was a shadowy movement inside, so Cloud began to approach, it was at a time like this he wished he’d had the foresight to grab a weapon before doing this plan. Something rushed out of the darkness and knocked Cloud back, he gasped as he hit a wall and a hoof almost struck him before he dodged out of the way, ducking low and thrusting forward with his shoulder, driving the attacker back. He landed on top of them, the light shining on golden armour and a purple coat. Green eyes stared up at him before he stepped back.
“Meteor!” He growled, panting and rubbing his back.
“Sorry, I thought you were Captain Sunride.” She apologised. “But you’re reactions are very impressive.” She smiled, hoping the compliment would fix the situation.
“My, my, you are persistent. And childish.” Said a voice behind them, They turned a red helm gleamed at the mouth of the alley, Captain Sunride silhouetted against the light. He approached them, all three of them standing their ground as he walked towards them, his eyes glowing in the darkness. They all took a step back, not knowing the extent of how much power that helm had. Captain Sunride approached them heavily, a dark grin menacing his face. Suddenly from behind, quick as a flash, his helmet was thrust off his body and his eyes returned to normal. The helmet glinted as it flew up, gripped in the hooves of a jumping Attrition who landed securely. With the helm in hoof Attrition looked down at it and placed it down on the ground. He turned to the Captain and watched the stallion sway before he fell to the ground. Captain Sunride slowly opened his eyes, dazed briefly as he looked up at the four Royal Guard recruits.
“Are you okay, sir?” Cloud asked softly. The Captain rubbed his head.
“The voice…in my head…” He groaned, holding his temples.
“The helm was controlling you.” Bright Blade said hesitantly, looking at the red helm in the corner. “Do you know what it wanted?”
The Captain thought for a moment before nodding. “Yes, I think I know.”
Back at the office they stood before the Captain as he stood there. “Headaches and blackouts have been a thing lately; I never thought it was the helmet. I began to get a voice in my head.” He sighed as he sat in his chair. “When it took me over completely, I understood everything it wanted.” Cloud, Bright, Meteor and Attrition all stood quietly, waiting for the answers they felt they deserved. The Captain sighed softly before he continued.
“The helm was a part of chaos. It used to be a normal golden helm, but back in the old days of Discord, my ancestor was hexed by Discord, the helm turned on him. Something of a funny joke apparently. It was hoofed down through the generations, but only I was the one stupid enough to wear it as part of my regular armour.” He sighed.
“Sir,” Cloud Zapper began, “the Helm spoke of a song?”
Captain Sunride nodded. “Yes, it was a song of Entropy.” He said softly. “It planned to work you recruits until you hated myself, and the Royal Guard life. This discord in the ranks would fuel its power for a song of Entropy, a song that would send the power of that discord to Discord himself.” The Captain sighed. “It would have freed him.”
“And what’s to become of the helm now?” Attrition asked stoically.
“I’ll lock it away in a vault.” The Captain said softly. “It’s probably not safe to have it left out.” He sighed and looked away. Captain Sunride gazed over them and smiled softly.
“Go back and rest. You have a final test tomorrow.” He said softly. They nodded to him and walked off back to their dorms.
The next test was different to the other two tests. This one had to be completed in full the first time. If a recruit failed, then they failed entirely. Stress levels were high, but so was excitement. The test began early and was judged by Captain Sunride and two generals that were visiting as judges from the Equestrian Forces.
The first up to show his test of intelligence and skill, was Stonewall. His was a demonstration of strength and skill with the gauntlets. The gauntlets were a hoof wielded weapon that covered the front hooves. They were metal and heavy, and very devastating when used right. Stonewall demonstrated how fast he could be despite their weight, and how skilled he was. He got 7/10 in his marks, barely a pass.
Next was Fire Breeze. The Pegasus grinned and thought that speed would be his friend. He flew through flaming hoops and nosedived through others, pulling up rapidly at the last moment. But he did it a little too late, the tip of one wing getting burnt, he yelped and suddenly he was tumbling along the grass. He only received a 5/10. He’d failed.
Cloud gulped at the results. He’d hoped everyone would make it, but that didn’t seem to be the case. One passed, one failed. The next pony up was Meteor. She approached and looked at the judges, a few glances down at her file had them talking before they watched her with what seemed to be mild interest. She would have to impress them greatly. A spear was thrown to her and she caught it in her maw, one of the guards came up to her. Spear was one of the hardest weapons for a non-unicorn to wield for pony-kind. It involved spiral movements, flipping it around the body via momentum of the blade on the end. It required extreme precision. The guard attacked and like a flash she ducked below he blow, the spear flipping around her neck, sweeping his legs and suddenly she was on him, blade at his throat. The movement took less than three seconds; the judge’s eyes were wide. She walked off the pitch without a word, not even looking at her score of 9/10. An obvious pass.
Silver Hoof was up next. The Pegasus looked around, obviously nervous about how he was going to do. The young white unicorn was given permission to start, so he concentrated and his horn began to glow. His shield erupted behind him and guards from around threw blades at him. The shield deflected them all, he jumped and weaved, expressing great speed as he avoided the blades and deflected others. He danced low, letting them go overhead before he jumped over some others, his hoof getting a small cut as he landed, panting. The judges gave him a 7/10. A passing grade.
Star Blazer was up next. His attempts at fast flying like Fire Breeze were met with the same fate. A failing grade of 4/10. Three ponies passed, two ponies failed.
Diamond Amour got up, and attempted a demonstration of extreme strength, but his lack of speed meant he also had a failing grade of only 3/10.
The following Pony was Young Bright Blade. Cloud Zapper found himself worried but a hoof on his shoulder made him look up into Meteor’s green eyes.
“He will be fine.” She said simply as she watched, for once a slight smile touching her lips.
Bright Blade pulled out his blade and much to the judges surprise, began to wield it in his maw like he had against Cloud during their spar, they hadn’t expected this of a unicorn. A few flourishes were done a show of overall skill before a combatant went against him. The combatant slashed down at him, a unicorn using magic to levitate the blade as he attacked Bright Blade. Bright ducked and rolled under every blow, fluid and never in the place the guard was attacking. He managed to get close, trip up his opponent and end the fight in less than twenty seconds, his blade at the guard’s throat. He was given a passing grade of 9/10.
Hailstone Clash was a Pegasus recruit that Cloud had never bothered speaking to. He watched him curiously, wondering what skill he would exhibit. He had three guards face him, and he seemed unarmed. The approached him and he just sat there, grinning broadly before he suddenly pulled out a guitar and strummed it hard. The notes were rhythmic and powerful and melodic, the guards began to sway before they fell unconscious. He grinned. “Slumber music.” He said stylishly, winking at the judges who seemed shocked and a little offended, while a few of the recruits sniggered. Cloud smiled a little, it was certainly an…interesting talent. He only received a grade of 6/10 though, but it was still a pass. So far three ponies had failed, and five had passed. There were only two recruits left.
Attrition was brought up; his eyes seemed a little dark as he stood before the judges.
“I quit.” He said softly, everyone watching with shocked expressions. “Our Captain was overtaken by something and no pony but me, Cloud Zapper and Meteor noticed. He planned to use us, to break us, to pretty much torture us and use what resulted to free Discord.” Everyone listened in silence.
“I warned you. I called the regent and I explained everything, but you wouldn’t listen. ‘Not without multiple corroboration’ was the message. Nothing would be done unless I could get a superior officer to agree and report it with me. Somepony more trustworthy…because who trusts a recruit. We’re young and stupid.” He said with a glare. “I thought you were all shining, I thought the Royal Guard meant something. But you don’t care about us. We had to save you.” He scoffed in disgust. “If this is what being a Royal Guard is…controlled by rules and regulations and bound by red tape while other ponies suffer...then I want no part in it.”
He pulled off his helmet and laid it on the ground and walked to the gate, exiting the grounds without another word. The silence was then broke by Cloud’s name being called. He walked over to the centre of the demonstration ring; his head still filled with Attritions words. He could tell what Attrition meant. He didn’t want to be bound by rules when ponies were in trouble. But Cloud truly believed in the Royal Guard. The system had its flaws, but all systems do. He wanted to be the best he could be, and do the best he could do for everypony around him. And this was the best place he could do it. Cloud drew his sword in his teeth, took to the air, and when a stallion joined him, also wielding a blade. Cloud was the first to attack, ducking, blocking and deflecting every blow from his opponent he ducked under the blade, struck his opponent with his goof and then slashed up hard. The stallion was knocked to the ground. 8/10. He had passed.
That night ceremonies took place for the six that passed. The three that didn’t had already left, and Attrition was nowhere to be seen. Cloud Zapper looked up at the twinkling stars in the night sky as Captain Sunride stood on stage. “I would like to congratulate you all for passing and officially becoming a member of the Royal Guards, I will now read out your assignments.” He cleared his throat as he began. “For the Militia Guard: Stonewall, Hailstone Clash and Silver Hoof.” The three ponies cheered for themselves, but Cloud Zappers, Meteor’s and Bright’s names had not been called.
“No pony achieved entry into the Aerial Guard.” The Captain continued, the words shocking Cloud to his core. These tests had been for Aerial and Militia Guard only, they’d had passing scores, had their defiance against orders to try and save the Captain backfired and got them kicked out.
“For the Inquisitor Guard.” The Captain began; a low hush ran out through the recruits. Very few ever made it into the Inquisitors, and even less got there from being chosen from the recruit ranks. “Meteor Sparkle.” He said firmly. “Bright Blade.” He continued. “And Cloud Zapper.”
Cloud’s heart stopped. He’d aimed for Militia, and been chosen for Inquisitor.
“You have been chosen for outstanding bravery, your strong sense of protection, and your skills in the field above and beyond your duty.” The Captain said as a soft smile spread on his muzzle. The got up onto the stage to receive their honours, their helms were taken and their fake manes taken out, and the backs of their armour were removed to reveal their flanks and cutie-marks. Their helmets were replaced and their real manes allowed to flow through. The Captain looked to Cloud and smiled as he sorted out his helm for him.
“Your cutie-mark.” He gestured to the blue shield with a golden heart in the centre. “I never noticed it before.” He smiled gently. “You earned this Mister Zapper. You report for the 45th Inquisitor Squadron tomorrow.”
‘A few years later’
Cloud Zapper arrived at the palace, panting as he walked back into the main prep room. He growled and slammed his hoof against one of the lockers. He ran his hoof through his mane before running to the side, grabbing up some files he read through them. He couldn’t let this one escape. He was dangerous. He needed special permission. Cloud Zapper filed for an audience with the Princesses and received his summons a few hours later. Cloud began walking towards the throne room. For days now he’d been tracking, trying to trap this stallion and he would not let him get away so easily. But he’d only had permission to track him within Cloudsdale; he needed permission for a broader approach. He needed to hunt.
“Enter.” Said the regal voice at the other end of the hall as he walked in, the doors closing behind him. Cloud Zapper walked forward and kneeled before the throne room, Celestia and Luna sat before him.
“My quarry has escaped, Your Highness.” He said firmly. “I cannot pursue outside of Cloudsdale and with his resourcefulness, the villain known as Shadow will indeed elude us longer if he is not caught. He will become a great threat.” The Princesses looked between each other and looked down at him.
“How did he escape?” Princess Luna asked curiously.
Cloud Zapper gritted his teeth. “He was…faster than me, Your Highness.” He said grumpily. “He has stolen a great many things, hurt a great many ponies and I believe he will not stop.” He looked up at the Princesses, staring directly at Celestia with an imploring gaze. “My Princess, I MUST be allowed to go in pursuit. Crimes have been committed and will continue to be committed until he is brought in for justice.” The Princesses looked at each other, Celestia’s gaze looking behind him for a moment before she nodded.
"You may go then, and bring him to justice by whatever means you see fit, so that he may answer for his crimes.” She said with a hard look in her eyes. Cloud thanked her silently in his head, bowed to them in respect and turned. His eyes landed briefly on a mare that passed him. Her red eyes touched his and he caught a glimpse of a grey-scale mane and a pith helmet, which he deemed hardly the attire that any pony should be wearing when seeing royalty. He turned away and continued walking out, the door closing behind him. Cloud Zapper had work to do, and a criminal to bring to justice.