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In Silva, Venandi [PM for Invite]

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Vanhoover, the City of Gardens. For Squall the colorfulness of the view outside the window was clashing with grimness of the task he was presented with. Unicorns gaze shifted towards the papers that were laying on the table. Copies of numerous reports made during the last three months. About three dozen cases of missing pets and four missing ponies - all unicorns - around norther Everfree region. No direct witnesses and little evidence was found, but what was discovered was...unsettling.
No wonder that EPIC came to be involved. The circumstances would be enough, but there were also sheer numbers. Whatever was the reason for those events it had to be put to an end. Now.

 

Swift walked away from the window and sat in the armchair, checking the papers once more. Having at least an apartment in every major city had advantages. This way he could proceed with investigation with much fewer worries.

That said, during the last three days he was in Vanhoover the information he collected proved.....inconclusive.

The only thing that remained was to look for this apparent 'beast' directly. Of course noblepony was no fool. During his past as the sell-sword he faced many monsters - and he knew that Everfree was simply thriving with them. Finding the specific one, one that was responsible for this incidents required preparation. And backup.

 

Higher ups apparently agreed with his request. This morning Squall received information that his backup was on the way, and he should expect it the very same day. All that remained was to wait for the other agent that was dispatched for assistance. Wait and....

Was that knocking that he just heard?

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Night Watcher trotted down the streets of Vanhoover, trying to get a sense of her surroundings having never been to this city. It was a nice place, better than the more dangerous locales she was at as a member of EPIC. But even this beautiful and relatively safe city had its dangers there was something shadowy lurking. The jet black Pegasus didn't know exactly what was plaguing the city from the dossier she received other than several pets and even unicorns have disappeared. Was this a coincidence that this "beast" chose unicorns? It was clear from the report that this creature has been established for at least a few months but it has only targeted a few victims. 

 

Well, first she had to meet up with her other agent. She wondered which of the agents she would work with. There were a few she knew, but EPIC was a large organization. Well, there was only one way to know. She approached the apartment door and knocked, wondering who it could be. 

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Squall froze for a moment before knocking resounded again. Yep, somepony was outside alright. Businessespony made a beeline to the door and opened it without delay.

"Quicker then anticipated, good. I hope that we.....Night?" Swift started his welcome, only to realize who exactly Central Command sent as the reinforcements.

 

"........Uhhh I mean. come in." Squall come to his senses after freezing in surprise for a moment, before stepping aside to let Watcher inside.

"You know, in hindsight I should expect this, but what are the odds?" stallion lampshaded while giving Night a moment to study the apartment. The first room was nothing special really. It was essentially a living room combined with kitchen. The dust layers that were in various places made it clear that Squall wasn't using this place often if at all.

"So uhhhh since we didn't had time back there on the island...how are you doing? Do being members of two formations any different then just being a Lunar Guard?" Squall asked while he led the winged mare to the other room.

This one - in compression to other one - was clearly more 'Squall'. The bed stuffed into the corner was the most normal part of it. In the opposite corner was a very large closet that - judging from from half open door - was stuffed with various kind of weaponry. The other, smaller, was was filled as well, this time with some gadgets and potions, their purpose hard to tell. The third one was -predictably - containing pieces of armor. If there was one thing that somepony could describe Swift as, unprepared was clearly not the it.

There was also a large investigation board. Seeing the large amount of notes and written text, Squall was obviously doing some work during his stay. The large table sitting in the middle was littered with papers and documents, also tied to the investigation

"That time back in Canterlot....if I remember I advised you to see more of the world. I guess it's not really how you imagined doing just that, does it Night?" he muttered before falling silent.

".... You know, I didn't really had an occasion to do so back in Neighpon but....I have to apologize to you." Squall said while averting his gaze, as if ashamed of something.

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Night was a pony that acclimated to surprises well. It was her nature as a Lunar Guard and a member of EPIC to see a surprise and react to it without having to stop and process. But when that door opened up, Night could only stare. 

 

"Quicker then anticipated, good. I hope that we.....Night?"

 

"Swift Squall?" she said in shock. The last time that the two saw each other, Night and Squall were in Neighpon trying to track down a WRAITH stronghold where they captured one of EPIC's operatives. Afterwards the stallion simply vanished without a trace. Night didn't anticipate a goodbye, maybe because she assumed he would return. 

 

You know, in hindsight I should expect this, but what are the odds? So uhhhh since we didn't had time back there on the island...how are you doing? Do being members of two formations any different then just being a Lunar Guard? That time back in Canterlot....if I remember I advised you to see more of the world. I guess it's not really how you imagined doing just that, does it Night?"

 

Throughout all his questions, Night could only stand like his statue, his eyes the only thing moving to get into the scope of the apartment. It was clear this place was Squall's, but it hasn't been used in some time. Still the stallion was already preparing for the mission. 

 

".... You know, I didn't really had an occasion to do so back in Neighpon but....I have to apologize to you."

 

"Oh," Night said as if just waking up, "For what?" 

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"About me playing the 'corpse', Night." Swift explained while turning around to gaze outside.

"When the EPIC was formed just after the Attack In Empire I was one of the first to offer joining, even through I was still in hospital bed. However I realized something...or rather I though I did. I deducted that due to being...well, rich I would be a prime target. And due to this everpony connected to me would be in danger, if my membership in EPIC would become known. So I staged my 'demise'." unicorn said before giving a deep sigh. "I guess you can see where this is going. In the hindsight, a foolish worry, laced with arrogance to boot." he added before turning back to face his friend.

 

"And it is because of this cunning plan of mine...." stallion continued, his words dripping with self-deprecation "...that you and many others had to go through 'pleasure' of attending my 'funeral'. Before you ask, both Fire and my parents were on the plan from the beginning. Despite everything I couldn't make them go through something like this." Squall answered the unspoken question before picking up with his story.

"Mind you Night, I wasn't naive enough to think it would last. And lo and behold, cat was out of the bag just after a year, when I was sent to help with the Plague outbreak in Whitescar. Simply too many pairs of eyes had seen me there....especially after transformed Jarl Sigrun tore my armor apart and made me her punching bag. If the others wouldn't apply her the antidote on time, she would have killed me while I tried to hold her back." swordpony reminisced about events in the far north before dismissing the events with wave of his hoof. "As you can see, all of this was a huge waste of mine and everpony else's time. Everything fine. No one sent assassins after my Father or Butler. I event got engaged." he said while showing the leg sporting an an engagement bracelet. And for a brief while, Night could see how his sour expression turned into one that radiated absolute happiness. It was clear that noblepony loved his Fire very, very much.

 

"Well, I guess we wasted enough time talking about me." Swift quickly said while becoming serious once more "We have work to do. I assume that HQ provided you with files of encapsulated version of events. The local REIN office was 'kind' enough to provide me with full, detailed documentation. I also attached some notes about findings made after reports were made, I hope it will bring you up to speed." Swift explained. After a short beat he added "And yes, that was irony. In reality they treated me as if I burned down their houses. Asinine inter-corps rivalry. Here you go." orange stallion said while levitating the files to the Lunar Guard. "I make some coffee in the meantime. How many sugars you take? Black, white? Oh and Night...." he paused while giving her a worried look. "If you after breakfast, you may wish to skip the catalogue labeled 'Pets' for now. This is something better to be read on empty stomach." Squall explained while making his way to the other room.

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Swift Squall's description of that mission made the memories rush back to Night's mind. She remembered how she succeeded in stopping WRAITH and saving their teammate but at the cost on hearing he was dead. Of all the ponies that she never expected to see die in action it was him. He seemed to have everything prepared for from martial arts skills to several bases of operation. She remembered the funeral with her fellow EPIC team members and the shock she had to go through knowing he was not there. Night was prepared to admonish him for his actions, but then he revealed that he was engaged. 

 

"Well, what matters that you are alright," Night said, "Although next time try to make plans that you are faking you own death, ok? Congratulations on your engagement though."

 

There was no time to dwell on the past, not when she had a mission to do. 

 

"We have work to do. I assume that HQ provided you with files of encapsulated version of events. The local REIN office was 'kind' enough to provide me with full, detailed documentation. I also attached some notes about findings made after reports were made, I hope it will bring you up to speed." 

 

"Yes, HQ did give me a general rundown of everything that has been going on. As for the coffee, I'll take it black with two sugars." 

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"Plans, as in let others know?" Squall reacted with surprise. "Oh Night. 'The secret of two no further will go; the secret of three a hundred will know.' " nobelpony quoted the Mexicolt proverb.

"T-Thanks." unicorn replied while visibly blushing. "I will do my best to make Her the happiest mare in the world." Swift vowed.

 

After a few minutes during which he left Night with the REIN's reports stallion returned. The cup of coffee he made for himself had extremely aroma. Either Squall really needed his caffeine, or he was doing his best to kill his taste buds.

"Quite a messy thing, isn't it?" he asked as he sat down in the tables corner, next to Night.  "So...the locations and timeline...." Squall started as he put down a map of Everfree and surrounding land on the table.

"The first...incident occurred at the very north edge of Everfree. Closer to Saraneighvo then Sveltahorse in straight line when you think of it. Three missing pets. At first nothing special. The locals pinned it out on a really vicious fox. However during the course of the month more situations like these popped out in the small settlements along the forest line. Our culprit moved steadily towards direction of Sveltahorse. It was also then when first pony has gone missing...." Squall said as he reached out towards the file containing the profile of the missing unicorn and begun to read.

"Delilah Drop, from Marelia. Single, no health issues She studied botany in Roam. Was gathering data for her PhD thesis which would explain what was she doing in Everfree. Disappeared three months ago, leaving all her portables in Cloverplain Hill, a small town where she was renting a room." Swift frowned before closing a file.

"Of course, while this was a reason for concern, it wasn't really unexpected. This is Everfree after all, ponies are going missing in it all the time. However thanks to who she was we can check out any dangerous, meat eating plans as a reason for those incidents. A learned botanist would surely recognize a danger of such kind and stay away from it." nobelpony explained his reasoning.

"Moving on...our culprit...or should we better say, a "Beast' - as we shall call it for simplification - moved close to Sveltahorse. Interestingly it stopped here for around ten days at least. Five pets went missing. This time some...remains were found. Most were devoured almost completely, but in two cases the 'Beast' was more picky. We will get to that later if we have to." Squall said while taking a sip of his coffee.

"The monster moved further south, next to two other small settlements. Another unicorn went missing here. Hagane Cog. Clockmaker from Calnais. Was visiting his family in the region. Disappeared along with his dog." businessespony added.

"This is where "Beast' vanishes for over a month. But as you may have noticed, there is a reason for that..." Squall said as he pointed at the map. "...Hasufel Mountains. This makes sens, really. There are no settlements on the Everfree side of the mountain range. And while not as intimidatingly high like Eponnine or Tarpans, even if 'Beast' would posses the wings to pass over it, it would rather not to. Monsters are like normal animals in this regard. Most of the time their logically efficient, aside from those specific instincts that drive them. And besides, if 'Beast' would pass through the mountains, we surely would have some reports coming from Rainbow Falls, which we didn't." Swift explained his train of logic to the winged mare.

"You know Night, I think we make slight break here. To be honest my throat got a little sore, and coffee isn't helping with that, as much as I need it. Give me a second to fetch some juice. I also believe I have some packages of cookies left here. And before you ask, no they are not from the last year or more. I actually bough them on my way from airship port." orange pony said as he disappeared into the next room again.

 

Thankfully Night Watcher didn't have to wait long. No less the five minutes later nobelpony walked in once more, this time with large plate of various cookies and two huge bottles of pineapple juice.

"So..." Squall started as he laid all the goodies down "What do you think so far?" he asked his friend.

 

Spoiler

Today's post was sponsored by letter 'E' fo 'Exposition'. Stay tuned for 'Exposition 2: Electric Boogaloo.

 

 

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As Squall prepared the coffee, Night began to review the notes regarding the event. At first it looked liked a disappearance case, but then her caught upon the remains of the pets. She steeled herself so as not to get sick. It was clear that the creature was hungry enough to attack the pets. The Pegasus wondered if this was the same fate as the ponies that disappeared or if there was something else. She then listened to Swift explain the first victims of The Beast and its path that it moved throughout the forest. 

 

"You know Night, I think we make slight break here. To be honest my throat got a little sore, and coffee isn't helping with that, as much as I need it. Give me a second to fetch some juice. I also believe I have some packages of cookies left here. And before you ask, no they are not from the last year or more. I actually bough them on my way from airship port. So... What do you think so far?"

 

"The incidents do seem similar in the way they disappeared so close to the forest. I wonder though if there is a separate explanation for the pets and the ponies. What if someone foalnapped the ponies and left the pets? Then the unfortunate pets that were left to fend for themselves were eaten by some other creature such as a carnivorous plant or timberwolf. How long had each pony been reported missing by the authorities?" 

 

 

 

 

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"Well there went missing at different periods, so they were gone for different amounts of time. And I agree with you line of thinking, I don't believe in coincidences either. However...neither the numbers or order of events add up." nobelpony pointed out before falling silent.

 

"....Moving on. As the aforementioned month has passed, pony owned animals started to disappear again. This time around region we are now. Also another unicorn had gone missing. Silk Fiber, fashion designer from the city. According to her co-workers she often visited Everfree to 'Find inspiration for her creations.'. The thing is...she wasn't always a fashion designer." Swift said before sliding Miss Fiber folder towards the Night. Upon opening it, black pegasus could immediately see what swordstallion met. Silk Fiber used to be Marine in Equestria navy. For eighth years, and with tons of actual combat experience. According to what was reported she retired due to a 'burnout', and not because of age or any injury.

 

"Now I know Everfree is dangerous place. But nopony would say that this mare wouldn't know how to defend herself. This is when regional authorities took notice and decided to do something. Not fast enough however. Besides few more pets another pony has gone missing." noblepony explained.

Squall then took a pen and circled the hilly area north of Vanhoover.

"Despite what the map shows this area is in fact a forest. On the hills, but forest nevertheless. Those are the Cottonpink Woods, despite begin aligned to Everfee they are not really a part of it. Different magical aura apparently, but creatures from 'free tend to still wander into it. As such it is paroled by forest rangers." with that Squall gave Night the last folder. Upon opening it up Watcher could see a mare with orange coat khaiki colored mane. If one would to guess she would be around Swift's age.

 

"Squish Cover..." swordstalion said with torn expression. It was clear that he found that name somewhat confuisng "Believe it or not she has over ten years of experience in that job. Apparently she begun just after the high school. There's somepony like that would be surprised by anything that could come from Everfree, much less by a common beast." noblepony expressed his opinion before pausing once more.

 

"You know Night, when I was given this assignment I wondered. 'Why EPIC?'. There is apparently some agency - just as secret as ours - that deal exclusively with monsters and that kind of the beasts, so what was the point? But now it's makes sense. There is a pattern here. That all the devoured animal were pets. That missing ponies are unicorns. We just can't see 'Why's' of the logic behind this yet. The higher ups apparently came to the same conclusion. I have suspicions that the orders came from the very top." orange stallion mused to Night. In this case 'very top' could only mean one of the four Princesses (The fifth one being too young to write, much less getting involved in conspiracies.).

"Which is why I requested a backup. A non-unicorn one at that seeing what al;ready has happened. I believe nothing further could be gained by investigating from here. Which is why our destination is Everfree." Squall informed his friend from the Night Guard.

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"A Clockmaker, a Botanist, a former Marine now a fashion disaster, a forest ranger," the black mare said as if taking a mental note, "You're right, the ponies all are different save for that they are unicorns. It seems as this Beast bounces around from area to area. Hmm... My only question is: was there anything left of the ponies that disappeared, like a book, camera, etc." 

 

"You know Night, when I was given this assignment I wondered. 'Why EPIC?'. There is apparently some agency - just as secret as ours - that deal exclusively with monsters and that kind of the beasts, so what was the point? But now it's makes. There is a pattern here. That all the devoured animal were pets. That missing ponies are unicorns. We just can't see 'Why's' of the logic behind this yet. The higher ups apparently came to the same conclusion. I have suspicions that the orders came from the very top." orange stallion mused to Night. In this case 'very top' could only mean one of the four Princesses (The fifth one being too young to write, much less getting involved in conspiracies.).

"Which is why I requested a backup. A non-unicorn one at that seeing what already has happened. I believe nothing further could be gained by investigating from here. Which is why our destination is Everfree."

 

"Well, I would agree that since there are so many ponies disappearing this goes beyond simply a creature who is unknown. I wonder if this is maybe two things happening at once. What if there is indeed a creature eating wayward pets, but then you have something or somepony that is capturing unicorns? I agree that nothing else can be discovered here, so the Everfree it is. We should go to the freshest area of a pony captured. Maybe there won't be this Beast but we can at least see the area. What do you think?" 

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"Besides what was left in their houses, apartments etc. ? No. Which is suspicious on itself. Good call Night. Hmm...." Swift mused while rubbing his chin.

 

"I guess we should leave theories aside. If we come defined expectations, we can be blindsided by the reality." unicorn pointed out. "Well enough dillydallying. We should do necessary preparations and embark to Cottonpink Woods post-haste. The more we wait, the more potential trail goes cold."

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The fact that Squall had another hidden armory in Vanhoover was certainly no surprise for Night Watcher. Neither was the revelation that he had a device that could track aether signature of the latest missing pony was more impressive, but after a long-distance communication device under Canterlot it was downright tame. The way that were going to enter the Woods was also something expected from him - a jump from the airship was exactly something that Swift wold do. It's the revelation that it was to be a HALO jump - except without a parachute - that pushed the line even further then swordpony usual crazy ideas. 'Too many flying beasts in proximity' he said.

 

"....Still few minutes before we be over the drop zone...." Squall mused while looking through the window at the ground below. The unicorn chose to wear only the light protection, a chestplate under his long coat with vambraces and shoulder guards over it being the extent of his physical defensive measures. As if to compensate nobelpony armed himself to the teeth. Four viable swords, few dozens of throwing daggers, pair of small axes on his hips - hidden beneath the long coat - an exotic weapon from Far East consisting of of two sickles joined by the chain, two chakrams ...and all of that was only what Night could see Squall pick up. The orange stallion also took a number of enchanted amulets, various elixirs and other small gadget's stuffed in the pockets. Nobelpony also insisted on carrying some basic provisions. It seems that he wasn't expecting for them to be out of 'Free before nightfall.

 

"So....how often have you been in Everfree Night? Only on duty, I assume?" Swift asked the black mare in an effort to kill the remaining time.

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In no time Night and Swift were airborne over the Everfree Forest. She knew thee group had to get there soon, but jumping from the ship was a little... extreme. Granted she had as a Lunar Guard deployed from an airship before when going to a dangerous area. It may not be the most inconspicuous way to get somewhere, but it worked. In this case, however, there were going to the site of a disappearance. But she guessed the potential excessive predators was a reason to deploy in such a way. 

 

Night was dressed in her typical stealth uniform. It was similar to her Lunar Guard armor, only black and without the crescent moon symbols. It made her look like she had no armor on, albeit a little bulkier than her normal self. As for weapons, she had her wing blades, shoes with spikes around them, and two sickles attached to her hips. Definitely not as much as what Swift had, but knowing little of the severity of the situation it would have to do. Then again the orange unicorn seemed to have enough for both of them. 

 

"....Still few minutes before we be over the drop zone...." 

 

Night nodded as she watched the lights of Vanhoover give way to the darkness of the Everfree Forest. Even with her knowledge of the place it was still a mystery how for so long it remained wild and unable to be populated. 

 

"So....how often have you been in Everfree Night? Only on duty, I assume?"

 

"Oh I wouldn't think somepony would be that foolish to enter that forest unless they absolutely needed to. Although, I did hear once of three fillies entering there, something about trying to get their cutie marks? They were ok thought thanks to their caretaker. But I digress, I have been to the Everfree Forest a few times to investigate a monster sighting or, in rarer cases, a pony disappearing. Leave no stone unturned was the idea for going there. I assume you have been in the forest more times than I have." 

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Squall nodded in response to Night's words.

"I did. The first time, back during the Honor Guard training. The group is an elite formation, so of course  we had to have field training in the place. Before I left I was there about seven times. After that? I didn't really ran any countdowns. When you a criminal with bounty on your head in Equestria you have three places to go. Aboard, Badlands or Everfree. And bounty hunters go wherever the bounties are. So yeah, I been in the place a few times. When In Everfree there are two things one should be always wary of. First, always respect it. The Forest may kill you, but if you know your boundaries you can travel unscathed. Second, never take it for granted, no matter how many times you visited. I saw - and fought - in Everfree creatures and plans that by all means shouldn't be here, like beasts from Saddle Arabia, or meat eating plants from Polyneighsia. How they got here is anypony guess." Swift said with a shrug. "I guess Everfree has to be somewhat chaotic by nature. Perhaps Discord's influence has poured to the woods, through the plunderseeds that he planted? Now they are no more, but if you think about it, they were present in Everfree for so long that they may have permanently altered it." noblepony speculated.

 

By the time that he finished, the red light above their heads switched to the green one.

"Huh,I guess it's time already." he mused as he stood from his seat. Noblepony confidently walked to the rear loading ramp, before pressing the button that opened it.

 

"Normally I would say ladies first!" Squall cried, trying to outyell howling of the wind. "But juuuust in case things go south I want somepony with wings to have eyes on me." he explained.

 

Not a second later Swift flashed Night an audacious smirk along with a salute....

And then he jumped.

 

Although their way of entry was dictated by a logical analysis, Swift couldn't help but be somewhat exited. While this was not a combat situation unicorn still felt the rush of adrenaline, now that he danced along this thin line yet again. Squall played  dice with death hundreds of times, and yet this feeling never got old. Only being alonside the Fire made his blood biol in the same way. One coquettish gaze from her was better then dozens of swords, aiming at his heart. It's for her sake that he toned his risque tendencies.

Still, that didn't meant that he couldn't enjoy himself when circumstances dictated his actions.

 

Where was he? Oh yes, freefall from the height of several miles. Swift could already recognize the single trees underneath himself. Well....it's seems thoughts about his Sweetheart distracted him a little too much - judging from the Watcher urgent yells.

 

Using his magic Squall turned himself mid-air, so now he was falling hooves first. A second later the feather-fall spell was cast, saving Squall from fate of becoming unicorn mostly resembling a pancake.

Swift gently glided the remaining distance down, before raising his gaze upwards as his hooves touched the soil and leaves. Judging from the Night's expression he must've gave her quite a scare....

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"Mhmm... those rules are good to follow. Always be prepared I say. And yes, I have seen strange things there like pony eating plants or flowers that if you breathe in their pollen will change you just to prank you."

 

"Huh,I guess it's time already. Normally I would say ladies first! But juuuust in case things go south I want somepony with wings to have eyes on me."

 

"GOT IT, I'LL FOLLOW BEHIND YOU!!!" 

 

She watched as Swift jumped out from the ship before she sailed out the back, folding her wings to her sides as a quick dive. She normally would do this from a high place like a building or a high tree, something that she would do to get to the ground as quickly as possible. This was a little different as the ship was still moving ever so slightly and she was way higher in the air. But the same techniques would work here as they did with base jumping. Strangely, Swift fell without the aid of a parachute, but she chalked it up to him having some kind of spell to heave him slow his descent. Suddenly, the stallion was tumbling uncontrollably! 

 

"Swift!" Night Watcher exclaimed as she tried to fall faster to catch him. Luckily the stallion righted himself and landed in the forest. Now it was her turn as she opened her wings and flapped them to slow her descent, coming to rest on the top of a tree. Then she did another controlled dive, coming to rest near where Swift landed. 

 

"You know, we could have done a tandem dive just to be sure," Night said, "but we made it in. How far are we from the last attack?" 

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"We could, but wise pony does not put all the eggs in the one basket." Swift answered. "Regardless, I am sorry. I spaced out for a moment. This will not happen again today." noblepony promised.

 

After Night gave her question Swift looked around for a second, judging their position by the place the Sun was taking on the sky. "We drifted away a little, but still close enough. No further then 300 meters I say." stallion informed, using Prench unit of measurement. Nobles...

 

Squall lead the way, using a machete he apparently packed to ease their walk through the thickets that were in the way of their destination. Made sense. Unlike their last joint mission in Neighpon this wasn't a stealth operation, and they were in the homeland. Finally after some minutes of silent walking the two made it to the clearing....

 

"Well....we can surely say that Miss Cover resisted whoever ambushed her....." swordpony mused. One of the visible trees was clearly broken in half. Other was uprooted and thrown to the other side of the lea. All over the soil was turned upside down, with grass and weeds uprooted. Squall pulled out the strange device that he presented earlier in his safe-house. After staring at it's screen for a moment businessespony nodded his head in affirmation.

"Indeed, Miss Squish Cover was certainly was here, there is a very distinctive reading of her aether signature. No later then last 36 hours at that. It's good that REA didn't got here before us, otherwise I am sure they would mess with a possible clues. No offense Night. Lunar Guard isn't nearly as sloppy as the regular formations." Swift said. While unicorn's opinion on the Army was somewhat elevated recently, he still couldn't call their methods or conduct 'subtle'.

 

"Let's split and see what we can find....." Squall proposed. Moment later he pulled two cameras, and hoofed one of them to Watcher.

"We not sure how long we will stay in 'Free. It's possible that we may need to retreat and review the possible evidence later back in Vanhoover. Let's capture anything that can be potentially destroyed by clumsy investigators or forest creatures." he explained before making his way to the broken tree.

"Hackberry..." he mused, recognizing the tree species while taking a picture. "It's one of the trees that has one of the harder woods on this latitude. Yet that one was broken like if it was a mere twig....." Squall mused to himself while looking around.

"And what's this?" orange stallion noticed a pattern on the ground. The grass and other uprooted plans prevented the creation of possible prints of paws or claws...but what little part of exposed solid Swift could observe showed the impression of....

"A tail perhaps? Seems like it." he theorized while taking another picture. "No signs of fur or feathers, but something that is probably scales. Reptile, or part-reptile. A dragon?" noblepony asked himself while kneeling before the print to take a closer look.

"An adult one would certainly have enough strength to snap hackberry like toothpick and nonchalantly uproot any other tree.....but...." Swift rose up and looked around the meadow they were on.

"This clearing is a little smaller then two tennis courts. An adult dragon would surely leave more then just two trees laying down just by landing.....a juvenile perhaps? Then again there are no signs of flames...." Squall further mused. Unicorn stopped his train of though and searched for Night on the other side of the Lea.

"Anything on your side, Watcher?" he asked the black pegasus.

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No sooner had they landed in the forest, Swift deduced that they had landed a short distance away. What they saw was clearly a scene of a scuffle. 

 

"Indeed, Miss Squish Cover was certainly was here, there is a very distinctive reading of her aether signature. No later then last 36 hours at that. It's good that REA didn't got here before us, otherwise I am sure they would mess with a possible clues. No offense Night. Lunar Guard isn't nearly as sloppy as the regular formations." 

 

"None taken," Night said, "Defenders of the kingdom they might be, but you're right they're no detectives. Anyway, you're right, let's get started. I'd like to leave this forest sooner rather than later." 

 

She set to work looking around her area of the crime scene. She heard Swift mentioning something about a Hackberry tree and a tail. Hopefully she could find something. Squish Cover, being a forest ranger, should be carrying something while on her patrols. Something like a knapsack. It was then that she some dirt kicked up like something rolled and came to a stop. She followed the path, taking a few pictures as she went, until she saw up against a tree the torn remains of a canvas backpack laying in a pile. The straps and parts of the bag were shredded, and the contents strewn about, clearly indicating that the bag was pulled off the pony during the struggle. There sitting among the debris was a damaged field journal. 

 

"Swift, I found her backpack and field journal." 

 

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"What?!" Squall exclaimed when Night announced what she found. The next moment he teleported next to her before carefully lifting the journal with his magic.

"This is a invaluable find. Perhaps it will shone some light on recent events." Swift said before moving closer to Night so she could read along with him.

".....Feathers?" he said, surprised after journal revealed that Squish Cover was tracking the 'Beast' using found plumage. Until the moment the 'Beat' started to chase her. And Squish was aware of that. It appears that this lea was the place when it finally cornered her after a long game of cat and mouse. It would explain why the report of her going missing arrived a few days ago while the clues were still fresh. Squish simply eluded approaching danger until she could run no more.

 

Squall slowly closed the journal while stared into space.

"......I know five creatures that are this big to do this....." he waved his hoof at the meadow and broken trees laying on it. "....while also sporting both scales and plumage. The possibility of running into any of them is....not exactly an exiting prospect. But none of them are clever enough to take away evidence from the crime scene. Cover clearly wrote that she had some of the feathers in her home, while she kept rest at her person. And yet not a singlet down, not a pinion is found in her backpack or close vicinity to it. A simple hungry creature, however dangerous wouldn't be able to do this. Whatever this 'Beast' is....it's on somepony's leash." noblepony said in a gravely tone. Swift turned silent for a second, apparently weighting their options that came with this revelation.

 

".....What we have over any of the disappeared unicorns is the fact we are not on our lonesome like them. Of course to maintain this advantage we have to make a choice." swordpony mused while turning his gaze to Night "We can visit Squish Cover office/cottage and see the feathers she collected. I am fairly sure we can identify what kind of creature the 'Beast' based on that. At that point it's pretty clear we will have to face that creature and put it down - it's simply too dangerous to do otherwise, even if it's controlled by somepony's will. Knowing what we will face would give us time to compose strategy and make additional preparations...... But at the same time Cover's aeather signature is still fresh enough that we can follow it. Everfree has chaotic leylines, it's doubtful that this trail will remain if we return here after we examine the cottage. Seeing that there are signs of blood in sight, Squish is probably unharmed. Unless she was devoured whole, but I doubt that. After all, 'Beast' proved to be messy eater previously. It's possible that's it's mysterious handler needs her alive...at least for now." Squall laid probable pros and cons of both choices before falling silent once more, clearly waiting for Watcher's input and thoughts. They were a team after all.

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Night Watcher examined the journal with Swift, examining the feathers. They weren't any Pegesai feathers but something else. Swift mentioned certain creatures that had such plumage but none of them are from intelligent creatures that could strike at a pony and be able to leave without making a scene. Hearing that somepony was controlling this Beast made Night shiver. Come animals were more tamable than others, but this Beast seemed like this wasn't one so easy to calm and then control. 

 

".....What we have over any of the disappeared unicorns is the fact we are not on our lonesome like them. Of course to maintain this advantage we have to make a choice."swordpony mused while turning his gaze to Night "We can visit Squish Cover office/cottage and see the feathers she collected. I am fairly sure we can identify what kind of creature the 'Beast' based on that. At that point it's pretty clear we will have to face that creature and put it down - it's simply too dangerous to do otherwise, even if it's controlled by somepony's will. Knowing what we will face would give us time to compose strategy and make additional preparations...... But at the same time Cover's aeather signature is still fresh enough that we can follow it. Everfree has chaotic leylines, it's doubtful that this trail will remain if we return here after we examine the cottage. Seeing that there are signs of blood in sight, Squish is probably unharmed. Unless she was devoured whole, but I doubt that. After all, 'Beast' proved to be messy eater previously. It's possible that's it's mysterious handler needs her alive...at least for now." 

 

"Hmm...tricky. If we explore Squish Cover's cottage, we can confirm what that Beast is, but we may lose where Squish went to. On the other hoof, if we just track the signature, then we are going in blind. Normally, I'd like to be prepared, but clearly we have a case where this Beast is being controlled and whoever is doing so is ponynapping the unicorns rather than simply having their creature kill them. Perhaps this pony is using their magic to do something."

 

She paused for a few moments to think about the matter before saying, "I think we should track this Beast and it's owner down. You're decision, too, of course." 

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Squall was quiet for another moment, digesting Night's words. He himself was thinking along the same lines, but it was when it came from her mouth that he could visualize their choices properly.

".....Let's do just that." he mused, agreeing with pegasus mare opinion. "We were going in half blind already so it doesn't make much of a difference. And while we could gather information on the side-trip, we likely wouldn't have enough time to act on it and prepare accordingly. That and leaving a hard working mare to her potential doom.

We will stick to the trail we  already have. There is no say if such opportunity will arise ever again if we abandon it." Swift pointed out before leading the way forward.

 

The two walked for hours, guided by the readings on the device Squall was holding. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue Squall stopped to gaze into the sky.

"......It's five P.M. It's as far as we can go today." he deduced before looking at his companion. "We have to think about ourselves and make a camp. Walking through deep Everfree after dusk is like advertising 'I want to be eaten!'. And this is not the worst of fates you can meet here..." noblepony warned.

 

Still, the two had enough of experience to know what they were doing. Soon enough they found a massive tree. Tall and wide, with massive roots that protruded from the ground high enough to serve as the walls for the makeshift shelter.

"This will do. It will serve as the good basis for wicki-up."  unicorn judged while pulling out the two axes that he was carrying. While envisioned as the weapons, they were good enough to serve a the hatchets as well. "Now we need to get the resources and materials. I get the wood Night and do the building. You get the stones and chestnut leaves. Try to get bay leaves, lavender or wild mint while you at it." orange stallion asked, splitting the necessary

 

Soon enough they had enough fuel for the campfire, with Squall providing the steel wool to serve as the tinder and Watcher gathering all other necessary materials. And while they had only the leaves and sticks to work with, noblepony telekinesis made building the shelter a much quicker endeavor. It was clear that he was doing that a numerous times and had much practice at it.

Their work happened to be done just in time. Almost too quick it seemed, the twilight fell over the Everfree and it brought the cold drizzle along with it. Luckily the duo were already in the teepee-like shelter, with flames providing the light and heat that kept the wetness and low temperature at bay.

"You did well. These will repel the bugs and other crawlies from us for the night." Squall explained while he was incorporating the plants Watcher gathered into their bough bed. "While soldiers are expected to endure discomfort, I say prevention is even better solution." swordpony mused. With their 'beds' done Swift proceeded to take care of his numerous weapons using oils and small grindstone. Seeing that he payed barely any attention to the process - his movements almost automatic - made it clear that he did it innumerable amount of times.

"By the way Night...." Squall started, suddenly. "We know each other for a while now, but I never got to ask and I am simply curious. What spurned you to enlist into military in the first place?" unicorn asked his friend.

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The duo decided that it was best to continue on with finding Squish Cover and the unicorns. They quickly set up camp, courtesy of a tree with large roots. It was a perfect shelter, one that could at the least guard them from the cold or some of the smaller creatures. 

 

"This will do. It will serve as the good basis for wicki-up. Now we need to get the resources and materials. I get the wood Night and do the building. You get the stones and chestnut leaves. Try to get bay leaves, lavender or wild mint while you at it." 

 

"Got it," Night said as she searched the area for certain herbs. While she is not an herbalist, being a soldier offered her some experience with survival skills like constructing huts, starting a fire, or gathering edible or useful plants. It didn't take long for her to find the herbs as well as some aloe just in case one of them would get hurt. 

 

"You did well. These will repel the bugs and other crawlies from us for the night. While soldiers are expected to endure discomfort, I say prevention is even better solution."

 

"I agree. We have to endure the elements and harsh conditions, but that doesn't mean that all encounters have to be uncomfortable. 

 

She was amazed at the fact that the unicorn was very well prepared, bringing with him a grindstone and several tools. 

 

"By the way Night.... We know each other for a while now, but I never got to ask and I am simply curious. What spurned you to enlist into military in the first place?"

 

"Well, at first I didn't want to be a soldier. My father was a soldier, a captain, but now he's retired. I as a filly was a little of a rebel, not wanting to do what my father or anypony told me to do. Then one day there was a colt who was being bullied by two older colts. I had to stop them, to protect him. Nopony should be bullied like that. So I stood up against them, and I got beat up for it. It wasn't bad, but it still hurt. The bullies, however, backed off after I faced them. When I returned home, I was sore, but the colt was saved and I had my cutie mark. But it was then I realized that sometimes defending others meant having to listen to authority. So after that I listened to my dad and mom, but then I realized that the best way to use my talent was to join the military. It was tough, but my dad prepared me for it. The rest, they say, is history." 

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"....I remember now, you mentioned your father back then, during the auction. Stormwing is his name, correct?" noblepony recalled.

"Heh, I guess it's to be expected, children, revolting against their parents." Squall mused while adding more fuel to the fire before pausing. The awkward silence fell over the camp, broken only by cracking of the flames.

"...I just can't help but wonder...do it always have to boil down to...this?" Swift finally spoke while glancing at his own flank.

"Don't get me wrong Night, I understand that those are part of what we are...but...." unicorn paused again. Clearly the topic seemed to be somewhat uncomfortable for him. It was strange, seeing usually confident stallion unnerved about something.

"....I don't like the implication that each of us could end up with that one Cutie Mark only, that and that is only one correct interpretation of them...the though is....unpleasant. That it was fate, destiny who worked it's hoof. I reject such notions. They make my skin crawl." Squall added quietly. "If they would exist, life itself would be purposeless, all struggle meaningless...."

Noblepony stopped suddenly. Seeding doubt in the mind of his companion would not amount anything right now, nor later. They had another long day before themselves tomorrow, so such unpleasant discussions should be avoided.

"....Enough with the fatalism. We have to get up early if we are to keep up with 'The Beast'. I keep the first watch. You try to get as much sleep as you can before your turn comes up." Squall said before standing up and walking out of the shelter.

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"That's right, he is Stormwing," Night Watcher said, "Yeah, I guess that it's true. I mean, we get to a point where we think we know what we want and we don't want to listen to what others." 

 

The Pegasus listened to Swift as she pondered her own path towards her cutie mark. She too looked at her flank at the kite shield cutie mark. 

 

"You know, I wonder something similar. If I didn't rebel, if I didn't defend that colt, would I get this cutie mark or something else? I'm fishing with the What Ifs, but I don't think that it's fate but more of a compass telling you what talent you have. I mean, I could have been a bouncer at a club with my mark rather than a Lunar Guard. That would be kind of odd I admit." 

 

She shook off the notion as Swift agreed that they stop the fatalism, and that Night Watcher should go first to sleep before her shift. 

 

"Alright. Let me know if anything appears." 

 

With that she retired to the lean to and settled down with her one eye open. It was a trick she learned while in the military to keep alert and served her well, although it did tend to freak out a few ponies not accustomed to the military. 

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"Heh...been a while since I saw this." Squall mused to himself under his breath, after coming back inside after a few minutes - only to see Night sleeping with open eye.

"Open trick work best I guess. But you have to be rested. And old tricks tends to have countermeasures." he added in a whisper before taking off his duster and hanging it from the ceiling, obscuring Night's vision. Squall knew that with lack of visual stimuli, Watcher could only fall into a deeper sleep......

 

Sleep....

 

                                    Sleeep......

                                                                                  Sleeee......

                                                                                                                            Sl........

                                                                                                                                                                         .........

                                                                                                                                                                                                                ........Ni.......

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  ....Night.....

"Wake up Night!" Swift words and shaking of her shoulder rudely brought the black mare back from the dream-world. It was clear that many hours passed, much more than usually arranged for a guard shift. And yet he didn't looked tired - opposite in fact. Somehow Squall looked fresher then he appeared when she hit the bed.

Before Watcher could process the situation the stallion was back at shelter's entrance, his duster back on his back and listen intently.

 

Cue the howling.

 

But not the howling of the coyote in the dry deserts of the Painted Pinto, or that of fox from Whitewood Woods.

It resembled the call of the wolves from the cold forests of the Equestria's Frontier or those living within The Coil in Aquelia.

 

But there was something wrong with it. Like it was a second hoof imitation. Like a cover of the song, played on mistuned instruments. As if it came from the throat not made of flesh...

"Timberwolves..." Squall answered unsaid question. "They are night hunting, just like the real wolves do." he explained added before howling resounded across the forest once again, this time closer.

"....And I believe they are hunting us."  swordstallion added before turning around and throwing more wood into the fire. Soon the flames shoot up hire, and it was burning brighter and warmer.

"Get ready Night. They will not retreat without a fight, for they not think like a real animal. We will have to cull them first." Squall mused grimly as he drew two of his swords.

"Do not hesitate or hold back. You shouldn't pity them more then the weed that you found in the flowerpot on your window sill. Ultimately that's what they are." he advised as the howling was heard once again, this time even closer then before.

"Stick close to the fire. That's one of Timberwolves key weaknesses and something they fear the most. Don't allow yourself to be lead away from it!" he added, and moment's later the forest fell deadly quiet. Even cicadas halted in their singing, the cracking of fire being the only audible sound. The duo was just seconds from being attacked....

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(Sorry about the delay.) 

 

"Huh?" Night said as she sat bolt upright. Shaking the sleep from her mind, she was told by Swift that there were Timberwolves nearby. 

 

"Right, I'm ready." She said grabbing a flaming branch from the fire and holding it aloft in her mouth. 

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