Starlight in a Broken Vessel

by the-pieman

Chapter 172

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Chapter 172

The next morning, Twilight and I decide that just waiting for the sake of waiting doesn’t help anyone, so we go about collecting the others. Clark is bringing Fluttershy and Rarity, Twilight goes out to get Rainbow Dash and Applejack, leaving me with Pinkie.

Once we are all accounted for and seated; Spike off to the side, poised to act as a scribe and relay to Celestia and Luna the discussion, I speak first.

“So, gameplan. Let’s just cover the obvious stuff to get it out of the way.” I begin. “Demons are attacking, and we don’t know exactly why, how they get here, or what they want if anything more than just violence for it’s sake... but it’s clearly too big of an issue to consider it as just another bit of happenstance that Ponyville encounters, especially since it’s been happening elsewhere. We need to figure out what to do about it. As effective as just killing them when they pop up is, we need something a bit more solid. So, we’ll go over what we know, and then come up with a plan. Everyone caught up? Good.” Granted I didn’t exactly give enough time for a response, but everyone seems aware of the gravity of the situation.

“First things first, Spike, you should see about getting a representative who’s in-the-know from Canterlot’s perspective sent by the Princesses.” Clark says, and the little dragon immediately grabs another piece of parchment and scribbles something down. That dragon has quite the writing speed, I have to say. “The other thing is that I’ll be explaining what I know about demons from my time among them. I don’t have quite so many solid facts as I’d like, but what I’ll share has either been seen repeatedly by myself, or are considered ‘common knowledge’ enough on Earth that I picked them up as commonly repeated facts. I’ll denote which each item is as we go, as well as mentioning when something is pure conjecture.”

“Should we include the conjecture at all, Clark?” Twilight asks.

“Yes. They’re based off simple ‘if this, then that’ logic lines. They’re just guesses, but they make sense. Things like fire resistance in demons that have fire-based attacks, or the fact that Wendigos -no, not windigoes, I’ll explain in a sec- retreat from fire, and are therefore likely vulnerable or at least not resistant to it.” Clark clarifies.

“So before we go into more details, probably about the difference between Windigos and Wendigos... is there any questions?” Twilight asks, looking around the table. No responses aside from Fluttershy yawning. “Alright then, onto the Wendigos.”

A quick, streamlined explanation of wendigoes vs windigoes comes to a close, and the other ponies seem to have understood it, though Fluttershy gives another squeaky yawn and blinks owlishly near the end. She must not have gotten any sleep last night.

At about this time, the response message from Canterlot has come back, and we’re informed that a rep will be on their way to stand as the Princesses for the time being. Hopefully, this will mean we’re just as informed on what’s going on elsewhere in Equestria as they are. That brings me to another matter.

“I hear that demons are showing up in other areas of Equestria, but I never hear about it until after the fact, and looking through newspapers doesn’t have any information on them that I can find.”

“Ah, that’s probably because all the papers here in Ponyville are locally-made. A couple ponies here order papers special from Manehattan or Chickago, or Vanhoover to keep abreast of new fashions, business changes, and the like.” Rarity explains. “If you need some, I have the last few weeks stored in case they’re needed. Paper mache needs something as a base, after all.”

“That could be useful, but as it stands, information about this circumstance that supposedly threatens the entire nation or whatever of Equestria, information about the matter should be much easier to access and should be spread more. True this leaves us open to wild mass guessing on civilians’ parts, but fake information is better than no information at all in this situation.” I look around at those present to see if anyone is in agreement with me.

At this time, a knock comes at the door.

I stand up to let in what is most likely the Canterlot rep. Opening the door I see a unicorn in slate-gray armor similar to the stuff Twilight and Cadence were wearing when we went to Wunderland. “Special Agent Starlight, reporting as the Canterlot attache!” The unicorn goes into a salute that’s as perfectly pressed as ironed pants. Even with the exclamation, I can’t tell if this pony is a guy or a girl.

“At ease, buddy. Come on, we can get you up to date and then you can do whatever you need. Come on, your seat is right over there.” I jab my thumb at the chair that’s still open and return to mine, the unicorn following behind.

“The Princesses would like me to share all the information available with you. Sir Anthony, this scroll case is enchanted to destroy its contents if anypony but you opens it.” The guard hoofs over a round tube in dull gray camouflage, virtually invisible when it was against Starlight’s armored side.

Why would they need this kind of precaution? This isn’t a coup or anything, none of the information is secret if it affects everyone. And the demons definitely seem to lack preferred targets.

I put my hand on the top of the scroll case and twist, the whole thing glowing blue for a moment as I do. Carefully dumping the included roll of parchment -it’s really heavy for a couple week’s reports- onto my lap, I begin to unroll it. The first thing, at the top of the across as I unroll it, is a note from Celestia asking that if it’s me reading this, to avoid simply blurting the information out. Dumbass, what do you mean ‘if it’s me’? Didn’t you set this thing to blow if it wasn’t me? Below that is a stamp saying ‘Do not read without permission; text is cursed’ on it.

After that, it’s nothing but a litany of places hit, the casualties involved, and suspected locations of ones that have escaped, as well as ‘methods of offense’ used. The first twenty batches of information roll past me, including known abilities and times/places of last contact/confirmed death location. According to a few, additional containment procedures have been erected around some of those last things, as they either left in a manner leaving ‘an aura of death that seeps in like a sickness’ that has symptoms matching perfectly with radiation poisoning, or their blood turned the area into a morass of dangerous terrain and toxic miasmas, or worse. I haven't even gotten a third of the way through the scroll.

I set the scroll back into the case and put it on the table in front of me. “Alright, as informative as that is, it’s not the matter at hand. The matter at hand is not what has happened, but what to do about what will happen so we have a plan in advance. As I said, punching them to death works, but it doesn’t make us any smarter.”

“May I look over the scroll, Anthony?” Clark asks, his hand reaching for, but not quite touching, the scroll.

“Well, I don’t exactly know how good Celestia is in any area of magic, but if this deal of it erasing itself or whatever if I’m not the one reading it works, I don’t think you could read it. I mean, you could try, but... there’s a risk to take.” I hold up the case to him, letting him decide what to do.

He gingerly reaches into the case and pulls out the scroll. He unravels it, and a brief flash blinds him for a moment. What’s weird is that the flash was a bright purple-green, though it doesn’t seem to have actually harmed him, minus making him go into full Heat form. Wait, the chair’s smoking slightly... weird.

“Well... I guess that answers that question. What say we put that away before it decides to explode outright?”

“Text is still here. And it’s not doing anything else. I’ll just scooch away from you guys incase it does, if these figures are accurate, it can help. Prediction of enemy movements can lead to cutting them off when they think they’re safe.” he backs into a corner and starts reading.

“Except so far, there isn’t really a pattern. Look, all of the appearances are totally sporadic. No continuity for method of offense, location, time of drop-in, anything. They’re completely incongruous, it might as well be random.”

“Sure. But where they go once they arrive tells you quite a lot about the individuals. If, for example, they all head towards the same place, then there’s something calling them. If they’re heading for similar locations, they’re trying to coordinate. If they’re going in circles, they’re lost. If they’re all going in different directions, but largely in straight lines, they’re trying to find each other.”

“Alright, first let’s find the location that most of them might be headed towards, based on their point of entry, see if there’s some one place they’re all trying to get to.”

“Can do. You guys need me while you’re planning, just say so, I’ll be paying at least a little attention.” Clark grabs some parchment, a quill, a map and the scroll in his arms and sets up what I can describe as a ‘student’s desk’ set up on a little table he pulls over.

“Alright then. Now while we’re waiting for information on what they are planning, if anything, we need to think about a way to set up a sort of response method. I’d suggest we could have trained soldiers on constant patrol in every major city and town, but that might cause a martial law scare among the public.”

“There’s also only a couple thousand guardsponies right now. The noble houses passed limiting laws based on their own personal guard units, but they won’t let those units go somewhere they aren’t protecting the nobles.” Starlight says, pointing out a problem I hadn’t expected. What kind of nation only has a couple thousand soldiers?

“And since when does a noble get to say where the guards get stationed? That should be illegal!”

All the ponies in the room give me a weird look. “Uhm, Anthony, that’s how it’s been since the founding of Equestria. Since most of the original Guard units were mercenaries hired and maintained by the nobles -and most still are, actually- they are under their control. A tithe of the noble’s units are collected, usually the best, to function as the Royal Guard.”

“Wait... that’s an awful idea for national security! Come on, don’t you have, like, an army or something? Anything?”

“That’s what the Royal Guard is, Anthony.” Twilight tells me. “And besides, the taxes to support a system in which the armed forces are under the sole control of the crown would be exorbitant. Nopony would be able to afford food, let alone actually function in society!”

“Well then what’s your bright idea? How do we make sure that there’s a way to react instantly to a demonic threat, regardless of location? If there’s no able fighters around to at least slow the monsters down, people will die, guaranteed, no two ways about it.”

“Avengers.” Clark says, not looking up from his notes.

“Dude, this is serious. As funny as that is, it’s not-”

“And so am I. Consider how many people have been sent here. From this list, at least a hundred, probably significantly more. All of them with powers, and only a few with descriptions that match any demons I know of. I think we could easily set up a central place for them, and find some form of easy teleportation to get a team of well-trained, hardened veterans to anywhere we can think of. We just need to recruit a few of the ones on this list who survived and had relatively low casualty rates.” The ponies in the room all look startled at his suggestion.

“Yeah, we could find heroes, or shellshocked animals. No offense, but you are still jumpy as hell after a few months of ‘downtime’. Approaching some tweaked out superhuman and telling them we want them to help fight demons isn’t going to always go well.”

Clark stops for a moment. “You’d be surprised. Considering the disproportionate number of demons I’ve met who were geeks, nerds, and other social outcasts with penchants for fan-boy-or-girling there are, I think telling them we’re making a super-hero group to redeem them would make most cream their pants. Assuming they have pants and don’t just put someone’s eye out by mistake instead.”

“Dude, I think you are overestimating. When I found you, you were hiding under a fucking bed. And you only stopped recently. Sure a few would jump at the chance, but I’m saying that they won’t all be so easy to recruit. Assuming they are still sane, and that we can even find them at this point. I think we need a better plan than that.”

“Well, most are heading for high ground, moving towards mountains, cliffs, and dense forests. They’re trying to hide. A few head for population centers. They need to be ended if that kind are found.” he sets aside a small stack of notes. “And if I have to, I’ll go recruit them myself. If they don’t take the offer, I’ll put ‘em in a coffin. Or an ashtray.”

“Look, I get that you want to start up the JLA here, but there are too many variables, and if you haven’t noticed, we don’t have that kind of luck. I suggest we come up with a plan that involves more details than ‘let’s find a bunch of super-powered people to walk around and punch the problem.’ I already stated that that method did us no favors.” I turn to the group of ponies. “So, any ideas that could work that are allowed by your culture? Or are we just going to stick with the Whack-A-Mole option?”

Spike stands up on his chair. “I vote for the super-heroes plan!” I see Dash and Pinkie both looking like they agree.

“Fine! Let’s go out looking for people we don’t know, who supposedly just want to be left alone while they come to terms with having actually gotten out of Hell, and walk up to them assuming they instantly know we’re peaceful and won’t hit them.”

“Well, none of this would be able to be implemented for a while anyways, sir. We don’t have the resources at this point, because the Guard has been mobilizing almost nonstop for most of the last year. And there’s been... many losses.” for a moment, I hear a note of sadness in the guard’s voice.

“Gee, it’s almost like we’re dealing with hyped-up psychopaths! Who you guys are assured some of which are one-hundred-percent friendly and totally mentally stable, enough to form a super-hero team with. This isn’t comic books people! While we sit here discussing the validity of such a notion, more and more people could be getting killed, because there’s no way to spread information about demon attacks fast enough to those who actually can deal with the problem. We don’t need more heroes, we need an alert network for the heroes we already have!”

“With what, Anthony?” Twilight asks. “The only system that fast would be either dragonfire messages or a Sending spell, but sending requires the sender to know the recipient. Even then, assuming we get a network of unicorns able to cast it, with at least two at each station, all it would take is one of them to get injured or sick, and the network falls apart!”

“Well I don’t see you coming up with any solutions, Sparkle! What’s your ingenious plan?”

“How about we find somewhere in between the two, dears? Perhaps small, well-trained forces would be better, but have them be pony or minotaur forces. Maybe even griffon mercenaries.” Rarity says. Twilight and I turn to look at Rarity. “What? It’s something I read about in one of my novels. The princess uses small teams of griffon mercenaries to secure her kingdom, and-”

I interrupt her. “We’d need a bit more specifics on how to do that for real, but having paid mercenaries trained for combat is a lot more likely to work than a bunch of humans who just got their powers and might not have ever been in a fight in their lives. The problem I see would be getting the funds for that many. Remember, this is across all of Equestria. That’s a lot of griffons, and I’m willing to bet none of them worth hiring sell themselves for cheap.”

All the ponies put their heads down sadly, Fluttershy looking more like she’s less disappointed and just nodding off.

“So... let me get this straightened out.” Clark says. “We need a lot of soldiers that can be reproduced quickly, and don’t need much in the way of supply-”

I turn to him. “If you suggest clones, no. No clones, that’s just a headache and you know it.”

“I wasn’t suggesting anything, Anthony, I’m trying to get all of our needs listed down. It’s easier to solve a problem when it’s clear what the problem is. I’m writing this down. We need lots of troops, and we need to be able to get more in a hurry if they die. We need troops that are effective and versatile enough to deal with a changing battlefield, and don’t require a ton of resources dedicated to keeping them active. I mean, if this was a game, I’d say something like the Zerg hives would be perfect. They practically live on the love of their queen, and the whole thing supports itself as long as there’s some local control.”

“Changelings?” Twilight and the Starlight pony ask, simultaneously.

I think for a minute. “Ren says the Everfree hive is severely overpopulated... but she’s not really much of a war leader. On the other hand, if we can get some other hives who are able and willing, that could work.”

“Hmm... well, if overpopulation is an issue, then they would just need to have somewhere with more love to go around - say, a city that’s benefitting from them helping out and defending them?” Twilight suggests.

Pinkie interjects, “Yeah, and they’d just need another queen or two! The Mantid cluster talked a bunch with me before I hired them.”

“Do you know where they are, or how to locate other hives that would be willing to help? Keep in mind, they are likely to see the demon attacks as a ‘pony’ problem and not want a part of any of this, since they seem untouched so far. If someone was being attacked and you knew they were as good as dead, and you were safe... would you risk your life for a bunch of people you don’t even care to know?”

“Anthony, that’s racist!” Twilight exclaims. “Changelings, while they are terrifying bug-faced creatures that give me nightmares-”

“It’s not a view of racism, that line of thinking comes from-”

“As I was saying,” Twilight says as my voice cuts out, “they may scare me, but they need ponies. Without us, they have no food. This doesn’t need to be spun as ‘help your neighbors’, but rather, ‘defend your farm’.” Twilight shudders as she makes the comparison of cities to farms for changelings.

Except that not all changelings are guaranteed to see it that way. Some people don’t know what’s best for them in the long run, when participating severely decreases the individual’s chances at continuing to live. This isn’t about racism, it’s about self-preservation.”

“Well, fine then Anthony! If none of our ideas work or count, and none of yours do either, then stop contributing!” Twilight yells at me, startling Pinkie and Fluttershy.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad plan, I’m saying it’s not a perfect plan. I agree we should ask the changelings for help, but in the event that they won’t help, we should have another plan set up to fall back on, otherwise one failure is all it takes for this whole discussion to be pointless.”

“So we’re all foals, then?” Twilight asks, looking upset. “We don’t need you to explain that we need a backup. We’re trying to figure one thing out at a time, Anthony. We understand there might be problems. We’re not stupid.”

“I agree. Not everyone here is stupid. Now let’s move on. Assuming the changelings won’t help us, what is available in the way of troops?”

“About two thousand or so Guard members, all of them trained well but with very little combat experience. About two hundred special operatives in Princess Luna’s employ, about half of which are assigned on duties already. The local militia forces, which have been the current method for stalling the demons until a Guard unit can arrive. Less bits to the Guard’s name than most ponies carry for groceries. And the humans in this town, assuming they’re willing to help.” Starlight finishes and looks around. “I think that’s everything presently available.”

“Well, there has to be some way to... hey Twilight, how plausible would it be, assuming near-infinite magical potential of the caster, to summon an army of constructs or elementals? Using magic to make an army, if only a temporary one?”

“Well, golem construction is pretty much a lost art. There’s rumors of a few noble houses holding on to the rituals required, but I’ve never been able to find any texts talking about the specifics required. I know a Come to Life spell could make a very rudimentary golem, but only if the body is pre-built and fairly articulate. As for elementals, well... we’d need to find an adept enough summoner to get any number of them into the area, and it’s nearly impossible to actually command elementals, just point them at tasks you want done, and be ready to unsummon them if they don’t feel like it.”

“Well there needs to be some way to make an army or something. The Changelings are good, but once you get through their exoskeleton, they’re practically made of jelly, obviously. Sufficient enough force in a wide enough area negates numbers. Also, their bodies don’t react well to electricity. Enough of it and they kinda... pop.” A collective ‘ewww’ goes around the room. “Tell me about it, I had to order another plate because it got in my food.”

“Well, maybe we could summon scientific elementals, instead?” Clark suggests. “After all, if you just summon a Radium Elemental, and then unsummon it a moment later, it’s enough to be lethal to everything in a dozen or so meters of it, depending on the size.”

“What’s radium?” Twilight asks.

“The problem with that is it’s likely a local or public area with lots of civilians and bystanders. That’s why we don’t want people who aren’t trained with their powers. A misfire of a heat ray and someone gets killed. The worst-case scenario we’re aiming for is maximum collateral damage to the surrounding area, but no casualties. Can we all agree on that as our bare minimum goal?” Everyone agrees. “The catch is... I can’t think of any group aside from the changelings that’s numerous, powerful, cheap and careful enough to do that. What has Equestria done in other times of war, like, main strategies?”

“Put up giant force-bubbles around the major cities and bombarded the hell out of anywhere else with Celestia’s help. Before Celestia, they usually fought with much larger armies, and usually against each other.” Clark supplies. “Celestia and Luna came into power about three thousand years ago, Discord took power from them sometime in there, about a thousand years-”

Discord! What about him? Considering the range of his powers, he could get rid of a demon in a second!”

“Well, I’m glad you finally gave me a reason to say something.” the draconequus slowly peels off the beams holding up the ceiling, then regains his natural, non-wooden texture. “How can you stand it in here? So nearly orderly, but without any real change. As for getting rid of a demon... well, they’re still living creatures, right?”

“Well yeah, but I’ve seen you do a temporary localized gravitational inverse. If you could pull one off that’s not so temporary...”

“Absolutely not! I don’t want to kill anyone, you know.” Discord says looking entirely insulted. “I’ll have you know, any and all deaths attributed to me were either purely accidental or done for the solemn sake of entertainment of the masses.”

I sigh. “Well, Discord’s gone all vegetarian on us, so he’s useless. What else do we have?”

“I am not useless! I just won’t kill them I said. To quote an old acquaintance of mine, it’s amazing what you can live through.”

“And demons have proven to live through substantially more than what you usually mess with. So what would you be willing to do? What’s your extent? Is it just outright killing, or is severe debilitation still on the table?” 

“Well, I can at least distract them. For all my machismo and grace, I can’t be in two places at once. I can also try getting them places they won’t be dangerous. But pain is only funny if it’s slapstick or a friend, I’ve learned that much.”

“This isn’t about fun, this is about monsters killing innocents and the need to stop them as quickly and as effectively as possible. If you aren’t willing to do do more than just distract them, then it won’t help, we need a way to stop them for good.”

“I’ll have you know, I’m a master of distractions! I’m so distracting, you didn’t notice our little relocation.” he gestures around, and sure enough we’re at the bottom of the ocean, vast figures of some kind swimming in the dark just beyond the lit bubble of air we’re in. “Why, I snapped my claws twenty-some times to get us somewhere truly hard to escape, and you didn’t even comment.” Fluttershy leans over towards Discord, and puts her head on his hip. Everybody watches as she snores softly. “See, Fluttershy here even slept through it all!”

“Okay... well, this isn’t helping. We need to know what you are willing to do and at which point you draw the line between justifiable severity and cruelty. What is the worst thing you can imagine that you would do?”

“Hmm... I suppose it’d depend on who it is and who’s watching. I’ll be honest here, the only thing I have much investment in is your survival, Anthony. You’re my friend! I’m only willing to help at all because I have the feeling that you’d be upset if I didn’t.”

My attention is briefly grabbed by a quick-moving figure outside the bubble. “As great as that is to hear, Discord... it doesn’t help. Couldn’t you, like... idunno.” I think for a moment. “Summon a bunch of ninjabread men to beat the shit out of the demons or something?”

“Hmm... could, but it’d only be funny the once. Here, squeak this twice if you need a shower of shuriken cookies.” he drops a rubber duck wearing a



t-shirt into my hands. “Now, I’m extremely bored, so I’m going to see if there’s anything I can entertain myself with that won’t lead to being repetrified.”

Thankfully he returns us to the library with a  clap of his hands before going away for good. “So currently the resident deity is too much of a pussy to help in a fight, and our only plan is the changelings assuming each hive we ask can spare them and is willing to help knowing each one is likely to be smashed...”

“Well, we also have the super-heroes plan as well!” Spike says with a big grin.

I yell and thrust my face into the table space in front of me. Next Chapter: Chapter 173 Estimated time remaining: 7 Hours, 47 Minutes

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