by That 1 Guy

Chapter 21: Welcome To Zebrica

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While any other seasoned warrior would’ve approached the blood-soaked stranger with caution or even light hostility, Long Shot trotted up to the striped mare and held out a hoof. “The name’s Long Shot, and the ones behind me are my comrades in arms."

Clockwork couldn’t put his hoof exactly on it, but he recognized the look in his commander’s eyes and found it strangely familiar.

Mganga hastily wiped her free hoof on the ground before taking Long Shot‘s and shaking firmly. “My people are in serious danger. Please follow me.” she spun around and started to walk off into the jungle.

“W-wait!” Clockwork stammered, still unnerved by the zebra’s previous actions. “What about the dropship?”

Mganga slowed her pace, but only just. “Nothing is safe until we rid the area surrounding Mji Mkuu of the dogs. Your transport would likely become ash before it reached its destination.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Charger cut in, “but we were lead to believe that this area was secure of any threat caused by the Supremacy or otherwise.” her voice had a slight stammer to it, probably because she was talking to an individual who had fresh bits of dog in her dreadlocks.

“Is that what these abominations call themselves now?” the zebra gestured for her new allies to follow her.

“It’s what they call their alliance with the Griffons and possibly a rogue changeling hive.”

Mganga stopped dead in her tracks, and for a moment, all was silent. “We have yet to see any griffons since the attacks started. However, we have seen many of the fey-kin that have attempted to infiltrate our lands.”

“Fey-kin? What can you tell us about them?” Switcher pressed.

Mganga took note of the disguised changeling’s curiosity. “Very little, for they dissolve like ash when killed. We have yet to take a live specimen, furthermore I do not know yours or any other pony here’s name. Commander, if you would?” she looked to Long Shot.

“You already know me. These are Clockwork, Charger, Switcher-7, Captains Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy, and Machinery Sergeant Applebloom.” the commander pointed to each of his friends in quick succession.

Mganga dipped into a low bow. “It is a pleasure to meet you all, especially the last three. Tribe Queen Zecora has told us much about you.”

“Oh. . . we’re not really that amazing.” Fluttershy cooed.

“Nonsense. From what I have heard, Miss Sparkle stopped a Star-Beast on her own, you befriended a manticore and quelled a dragon's rage, and you both helped to defeat Nightmare Moon and the draconequus. You two are of the greatest warriors we have ever sang of. There has not been a day so far in which she has not told tales of her life in your lands.”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Applebloom jumped up and down. “What ‘bout me? What’s Zecora told ya’ll ‘bout me?”

“Oh, she has told us most of you, young Applebloom. She says that you are the daughter that she never could have.”

“Whadda ya mean by that?”

“You did not know?” Mganga looked utterly baffled. "The Queen is barren.”

“Oh. . .” the rest of the walk through the humid jungle was in near silence, save for the buzzing cicadas, chirping birds, the screaming of unholy carnivores waiting for the ponies to drop dead, and other sounds exclusive to Zebrica.

Suddenly, the eight soldiers stopped when Mganga raised her hoof. She dropped to the ground, as did the others. Mganga motioned for the others to stay still, and she crawled forward to rest underneath the exposed, gnarled roots of a large tree. Past her, the squad could distinguish grey paws against the brown-black muck. After the last one had passed, Mganga stood and trotted behind the last Diamond Dog without so much as a sound. She dropped them all in a manner of seconds, cutting out their throats so they could never once call for help or plead for mercy.

Clockwork stopped at the body of one of the dead dogs and took a closer look at what it carried. The strange, silver hued spear had a blue gem at the tip in between twin blades that glowed faintly as he touched it. He managed to wrench the weapon out of the body’s still warm paw, and it collapsed unto his hoof, much shorter than before. He shoved it into one of his vest pockets and moved on, picking up each spear. After he had finished, he rejoined his fellow soldiers, and they continued onwards.

After several minutes of trudging through warm mud, under hot foliage, and over the cold bodies of bodies both zebra and dog, the group finally made their way to a clearing; half-destroyed huts and tired-looking zebras bordered the edges in equal amounts. Despite this being the supposed capital city of Zebrica, it felt and appeared surprisingly minute in comparison to Canterlot.

As the team arrived at the base of the only hut in the settlement that did not appear to be made entirely of organic substances, Mganga spoke. "My apologies, Meteor, but it is here that I must depart."

"Why's that?" Applebloom inquired. "Ya just got here!"

The zebra mare sighed, looking over her spear for any imperfections that might have hindered its performance. "You arrived in the aftermath of a moderate siege. I must look for any possible survivors, rescue those that are striped, and kill those that are not."

Like that, the mare was gone. The squad mused over her possible fate for the scantest of moments before entering what Clockwork realized was the zebra equivalent of a capital building. They were immediately greeted by the somewhat familiar face of Zecora, seated on a single mat in the center of the room. This residence, unlike her own in Equestria, was barren of masks and bottles and instead had maps hanging from wires and spears and antique firearms lining the walls. Around her were seven other zebras, five of which were aged and giving hard glances to the new arrivals, one that seemed almost unrealistically large, and a rather lanky one that stayed close by Zecora’s side. After whispering something to one of them, she stood up and trotted over to the squad.

“Ah, the squad commanded by the stallion who serves the moon, it warms my heart to know that the Federation answered my call for help so soon.” the zebra held out her right forehoof.

Long Shot took her hoof and shook. “It’s good to see you're doing well, ma’am. How’re the tribes holding?”

“I am sorry to say, but not very well, given the last few days. The dogs continue to attack, day and night. They are filling each of my brother and sister soldiers with fright.”

“Not all of us, sis.” the biggest zebra of the seven stood up and trotted over to Zecora’s side. He was huge, almost as though he were an oxen painted black and white. Not only that, but he had an equally massive bo staff slung over his back. “Why won’t you let me go back out there and kill more of the pawed freaks already?”

“Because, Askari, after the dogs started to use the gas in their attacks, we agreed that we would fall back!”

Before the large zebra could respond, an immense BOOM! rocked the structure, causing parchments and weapons to jangle and shift. Despite a few fallen miscellaneous items, the hut remained undamaged.

“I am unfamiliar as to what sort of machine or force can accomplish such an explosion! Stay on guard!” Switcher exclaimed.

“Beware, tan pegasus, you must watch your flank. That sound you heard was the echoing boom of a tank!”

“A what, ma’am?”

Clockwork shook his head to clear away the shock. He stammered the first few times, but eventually got it right. "I-I’m familiar with the idea, but from what I know, only the Consortium has managed to pull it off. It’s kind of like an automated stagecoach with all-terrain capability and an airship cannon at one end.” the pegasus turned to Zecora. “How many of those have you seen?”

“Despite the continuing attacks day and night, there have only been reports of one tank crossing my subjects’ sight.”

Askari started towards the door. “Then let’s get out there and kill that son of a-”

"Hold on!” Long Shot stopped him. “I don't care who or how experienced you are, but you won't survive ten seconds against something with that kind of firepower. My squad will handle it, you keep the city intact. Meteor!"

"Strike hard! Strike fast! Shine bright!"

Clockwork and Charger stayed low to the ground, their stomachs occasionally brushing a piece of loose foliage. Long Shot had ordered them to break up into two teams of two as to avoid detection. Twilight, Fluttershy, and Applebloom had stayed behind at the request of Zecora. Following the tank was easy (just follow the booms), but bearing witness to the extent of its carnage wasn't.

More than once, they would come upon a group of dead zebras utterly ravaged by the doggish weapon. Long Shot always checked the bodies, but he never explained why. However, he would always breathe a small sigh when he had finished the inspection. After killing a few dog patrols and avoiding the rest, the squad finally found what they were looking for.

A short distance away from the team was a massive vessel. Its hull was a color somewhere between alabaster and silver, and large sapphires littered its surface. A massive cannon rested at one end, which occasionally fired a projectile of some unholy material into the jungle with a deafening BOOM! It had only two, though impressively sized, windows located to either side of the cannon.

“Commander," Clockwork whispered into his radio. "How do you suppose we deal with this thing?”

“Well-” the nocturni was cut off as tank launched another volley. “We'd need high explosives to blow through that armor, let alone those sapphires."

"Something we severely lack, sir," Switcher added. "I do not believe your rifle carries enough force to achieve the same effect."

“I know that.” Annoyed sarcasm clearly detectable in Long Shot’s voice. "Trying to think here!”

A full ten seconds passed, though given the circumstances it felt much more like ten hours. "They'll likely fire on anything that isn't part of their alliance, but how can they check for identities from in there?"

"Commander, are you suggesting. . ." Switcher trailed off.

"Do it."


Before Clockwork or Charger could question the suddenly determined new strategy, their eyes fell upon an odd sight.

A changeling stumbled out from the foliage, clutching at its side and grimacing in pain. Despite realizing that it was Switcher in another alternate form, both ponies still felt disturbed.

Switcher's new disguise was completely alien. In place of forehooves, there were claws akin to that of a crab. His horn and already prominent fangs and had extended and darkened in color. His eyes practically glowed a dark orange, a stark contrast to his now pitch-black coat. He didn't look like a hostile subspecies of changeling, more like an inmate of Tartarus.

A previously unseen hatch popped open, revealing a lightly armored dog, a iron plate on his breast and elbow and arm guards that looked like they were of cloth. He crawled out of the tank, made his way over to Switcher, and the hatch shut once more.

Long Shot signaled for Clockwork and Charger to move. Staying low to the ground, the two ponies managed to creep a good distance towards the tank. The plan would’ve gone off without a hitch, were it not for Clockwork stepping on a miraculously dry branch.


Clockwork instinctively flared out his wings and pulled Charger to the ground with him. The two were literally out in the open, the only thing keeping them hidden was Switcher continuous distraction of the dog tank pilot.

“What was that?!” the red-brown dog shouted, rapidly sniffing the air. “I smell hooved freaks.”

“The sstriped basstardss are everywhere,” Switcher replied between gritted fangs.

“No, not the stupid striped ones,” the dog replied, taking a deep breath through his nose. “Ponies. One with wings, and a disgusting normal one,” the dog cursed as he looked around. He spotted something glimmering a ways away. He started towards it, and it was only in his last moments of life that he realized it was a wing.

Switcher changed back to his original form and bolted forward, gripping the dog's arms and head into a full nelson. Moments later, the beast's head turned to red mush as a bullet from Long Shot's rifle entered it.

Before anypony could react, a shrill, high-pitched sound blasted over some unseen speaker located on the tank. It didn’t take a genius intellect to know that it was a call to arms. The tank’s cannon swerved to focus on Switcher, the changeling cursed as he rolled to the side, serpentining away from the vehicle.

Clockwork and Charger made a mad dash for the tank. The duo made it about halfway before its cannon finally gave up its chase and instead focused on the more immediate threat, them. Charger froze in terror when she found herself staring down the tank’s barrel. Clockwork hesitated for a moment, but when he saw the tank’s shield spark for a moment, he pushed Charger out of the way and flared out his artificial wing, taking the entire cannon blast in one fluid motion. The force of the round sent Clockwork spiraling backwards into a tree, turning it to splinters as he continued to sail through the air. He hit a rock a good distance farther away and fell to the ground, slumped over and barely conscious. He could taste iron in his mouth among other unpleasant things, and could hear next to nothing, save for a high pitched ringing that drowned out everything else. His vision had blurred, but he could still make out Long Shot and Charger running towards him.

“Ki... we gotta ge... ving! Now!” he half-heard Long Shot yell. He swung his head to his right, and was suddenly staring into Charger’s eyes. He heard her mutter something. “Sorr. . . work. . . but thi. . . as to b. . . one.”

The pegasus suddenly rocketed into the air as he felt a bolt of lightning course through him, when he came back to earth he noticed that his vision and hearing had improved dramatically. Shaking his head vigorously, he looked towards Charger and found her gloves sparking. The pegasus flashed her a grin and started towards the tank once more, but stumbled and fell when a sharp pain lanced through his left shoulder.

He looked towards it and saw nothing wrong (even his prosthetic was intact, though severely disfigured), but the pain clearly indicated otherwise. He stood up again, albeit with some difficulty and assistance from his female teammate. He looked towards Long Shot, who was yelling at Switcher, who was now trying to draw the tank’s attention.

“Switcher!” the commander screamed. “Get a smokescreen on that thing! We’re sitting ducks out here!”

“Right away!” the now redisguised changeling took a small vial from his vest and threw it towards the tank. It impacted the vessel’s shield, shattering the vial and smothering the tank in a thick grey smoke. Clockwork continued to stumble towards it with some help from Charger, the two managing to get within a few meters before blue light flickered across their vision and they slammed face first into a wall of energy. Wincing and rubbing at the spot on his head, the pegasus teetered back. How were they supposed to get through this thing?

No sooner had this thought entered his brain that a flash of genius shot through him like the electricity from Charger’s gauntlets. The shield had sparked just before the cannon fired, perhaps it had. . . a tiny light bulb lit up in the pegasus’ head.

“It makes sense!” he shouted. “The shield has to drop to let the cannon round through, then closes back up! Charger,” he looked towards the mare on his right, “Let me go.”


“Get ready to jump on that tank. I draw its fire, you get on it while its shields are down. Those gloves of yours should be more than enough to bust the hatch open.”

“I won’t do that, there are still dogs in there and I'm not leaving you in your state!”

“Well I don’t see any other way to bring this thing down without one of us getting hurt more than we already are, and I'd highly prefer it be me.”

Charger was silent for a moment. “Fine.” she let go of the pegasus and sprinted to the side of the vehicle, where the occupants couldn't see, crouching low to the ground, ready to jump. She gave Clockwork a small nod.

Clockwork nodded back, and fired a few rounds at the tank. As planned, its attention turned from Switcher to the pegasus, and Clockwork found himself staring down the massive vehicle’s cannon. He ducked as low as he possibly could, but still found himself gazing into the gaping hole of death.

He closed his eyes, knowing that his end was imminent. However, he never felt the life ebb away. Instead, he opened his eyes and found that Long Shot had fired a sniper round straight down the barrel. The tank eventually did fire, but not without serious consequence. It’s barrel expanded unevenly in several different places, and the tip of it simply exploded outwards, turning a charred black as it did. Clockwork’s hearing disappeared as he realized that the cannon had only been a few meters from his face. He looked up. Charger had jumped, landing square on the top of the enemy vehicle, and her gloves were crackling. She slammed her forehooves into the top of the tank in several places until she managed to hit the the perfect spot. The hatch swung open and Charger jumped inside. Clockwork couldn’t hear it, but knew that whoever was inside that tank was getting the literal shock of a lifetime.

After another few seconds, Clockwork’s hearing returned, but whatever was going on inside of the vessel had died down. The pegasus stumbled around the tank, shoulder screaming in protest as he tried to climb it. After a moment of struggling, he realized that his fellow squad mates were helping him up. He thanked them with a silent nod before drawing his LeMane and checking its cylinder. There was one unfired round left, and Clockwork had no time to reload. He didn’t want to wait to find out if the dog inside had killed the mare he loved. He edged towards the tank’s hatch, peering over its edge, and saw nothing. With a deep breath, he jumped inside and raised his pistol, wanting to know what happened, and not wanting to at the same time.

The pegasus blinked, he’d had no idea what to expect but whatever it had been, it wasn’t. . . this. Charger was sitting in a large, leather chair pressing buttons and mumbling something to herself. A short distance away were three singed diamond dogs stacked one atop the other, the smell of burning hair from the smoking hoof prints on their sides suffusing the cabin.

Tucking his weapon away, Clockwork moved over to the pile and poked the top one with a hoof. The creature groaned but otherwise made no move. The tanks pilots were alive, and for some reason that relieved the pegasus.

Moving slowly, he made his way over to his now frustratedly groaning friend, glancing around the cabin as he did. The room was fairly small, only about ten or eleven feet in diameter and filled with all manner of complicated machinery. What looked like a launching tube for the cannon filled up one wall, opposite what appeared to be a radio, the entire area softly lit by orange-white sunstone crystals.

“So, uh,” Clockwork mumbled, poking his head around what he assumed was the pilot’s chair to watch Charger work, “having any trouble?”

The mare looked up at him for a moment before returning her attention to the console before her. “This machine's level of technological complexity makes the Federation seem like it's still in the stone age. Do you have possibly even the most remote idea as to what half of these buttons do?”

“Lemme take a look at this.” Clockwork knelt down, staring at the seemingly featureless panel that sat underneath the primary controls. “Charger, I need a good shock along this seam right here.” the pegasus lightly etched a square into the metal with his prosthetic before moving out of the way.

“Of course.” Charger pressed her gloved hooves to the line in two places, causing sparks to coat the plate in a split second wave of white-blue light. She pulled back and let Clockwork return to his work.

“Much appreciated.” the pegasus thanked his friend as he fitted his metal wing behind the weakened plate similar to a crowbar. “Now if I can just get this to move I can-” the stallion was abruptly cut off when he heaved with more force than expected, sending him rolling backwards. He quickly found himself staring up at Charger from a very. . . compromising position. He felt his cheeks grow hot as he righted himself and knelt back down, leaning in towards where the sheet of alabaster-white steel (at least it seemed like steel) had just been. Clockwork was shocked, for the interior of the tank wall was composed of some sort of blackish-grey, clay-like substance; there were gems of all sorts embedded within it.

“Huh, that’s unexpected,” Clockwork mused.

“What is?” Charger asked, kneeling down to look.

“The way this entire tank is set up. Look here, there are sapphires, emeralds, and even a few topaz. No physical connections between the two, unless this black stuff is some sort of dual substance. That would provide both a physical connection for any energy running through this vehicle as well as offering a last line of defense and insulation.” The pegasus broke a piece of the black material off, stood up, and poked his head and forehoof out of the hatch. “Switcher!”

“Sir!” the now redisguised changeling exclaimed. He was still standing at the base of the tank, a vial of a some sort of neon green substance ready to be thrown.

“I need you to take a look at this stuff.” Clockwork tossed the material to his companion. “I don't know what it is, but I get the sense it doesn't belong to the Consortium.”

The changeling caught the black chunk with one hoof and turned it over a few times. “I have an idea as to what this may be, but I must run tests when we return to Mji Mkuu in order to prove my suspicions.”

“Thanks.” the pegasus looked around his immediate vicinity. “Where'd Long Shot go?”

“Currently maintaining a perimeter around the vehicle. The commander is making sure that no dogs get through to here. He also said that he would return within the hour at maximum. Are you alright?”

“A little shaken, my shoulder hurts, my ears are ringing, and my wing is jacked up but other than that I'm fine.” with that, Clockwork slipped back inside of the tank. He looked towards Charger. “Long Shot is out but he'll be back before the hour's past. Plenty of time for us to figure out how this thing works, don't ya think?”

By now, Clockwork had practically torn the tank apart and still had yet to make any noticeable progress. Aside from the exterior, the whole vehicle contained next to no moving parts. The cannon was the only thing that was definitively broken, everything else simply inactive due to the pilots being unconscious. Clockwork had discovered that the cannon was powered by a myriad of different gems, and used polished quartz crystals (nearly the size of his head) somehow enhanced to almost a supernatural degree of hardness for ammunition. The pegasus had shuddered several times at the fact that something so beautiful could be converted into a weapon of war. After a bit more time, the pegasus decided that he would learn how the vehicle worked in detail back at the capital, but for now, he had to actually get to the city.

After helping Charger weld next to all removed panels back into place, Clockwork snuck a few glances at the pile of dogs nearby while he worked. They had regained full consciousness a long time ago, but didn’t move out of fear of being shocked into submission once again. He laughed as he knelt down, pressing the last panel back into place. With a simple nod, Charger walked over and pressed her hooves to the panel, emitting a shower of sparks from her gloves that burnt the metal back into place.

Clockwork began pressing the various buttons located in front of the pilot’s chair while Charger went to check on the dogs. They were still in a pile, but they now appeared more like they were asleep, at which Charger gave a little hum. Charger looked back at Clockwork, and with only a silent nod, Clockwork smacked his hoof against one last button.

Nothing happened, and after a few seconds of awkward silence, Clockwork kicked out a hoof, smacking the underside of the controls. Suddenly, a shrill ring emanated from the tank, and Clockwork realized that the sound from earlier wasn’t a call to arms, but the tank starting up. Clockwork began to reach upward to open the tank hatch and tell Switcher, but the changeling beat him to it. “Sir! The call to arms rang out once more! We must prepare for hostile combatants!”

“Don’t worry Switcher. It’s just the tank turning on.”

“That does not mean that nearby enemies will not have heard it.”

“Actually,” to the surprise of the three equines, one of the dogs, a great shaggy one with a single floppy ear, half-drowsily stood from the literal dog pile he was a member of and continued to speak in broken Equestrian with a voice that sounded like two stones rubbing together. “does. Tank designed so troop’s ears won’t hurt when turned on. Your friend hunting ghosts."

“So you’re telling me that I just spent the last hour guarding against an enemy that wasn’t actually coming?” the nocturni suddenly appeared, nudged Switcher aside, and poked his head inside the hatch.

“Y-yes.” the dog was visibly shaking, absolutely horrified of the situation he had gotten himself into.

“For Luna’s sake, calm down. We’re not going to kill you ‘cause you’re a prisoner of war. It doesn’t matter who you are, mostly. How many people can this thing hold?”

“Tank only has room for six,” the dog explained.

“Switcher and I will ride on top and I’ll radio ahead to let Zecora know we’re inbound. Clockwork, Charger, you two seem to know how to work this thing well enough, so you and the dogs can stay in here and pilot it back to the capital. Got it?”

“We have names,” the dog replied.

“Well you’ll have to wait before we learn them.” the commander turned a very dangerous-looking glare on the captives. “But let me just say this: if you even try to hurt these two ponies, I will personally hoof-mail you to Tartarus or whatever your Consortium’s equivalent is. Got it?” He didn’t stick around for an answer.

Clockwork and Charger stayed behind the dogs after they motioned them to take their seats. They immediately set to work, flipping switches, pressing buttons, and a dozen other tasks that no one engineer could perform all at one time. Clockwork studied them intently, taking in as much of their procedures as possible. If he ever had the chance to drive one of these things with a working cannon, he wanted to make sure that he could use it to the best of his abilities. He looked at Charger and noticed that her gloves were sparking. With a few barely noticeable gestures, she got the message and the sparks faded. After a few moments of quiet, the head dog spoke again.

“Clockwork, right? Don’t know what you did, but all power from cannon equally diverted to other places. How?” he asked the last part with a growl.

“Special talent.” Clockwork boasted a minute smirk on his face as he answered. “Since the cannon’s useless now, I figured I might as well put the power somewhere else where it’ll matter.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen, I think. Why?”

The dog performed a double take at the stallion’s answer. “Ponies are sending young to fight war!” with a bitter laugh, he added “I thought griffons were crazy.”

“Umm. . . sorry?” Clockwork couldn’t decide if he heard sorrow or amazement in the dog’s voice.

“Meant as compliment, pony.” a smile crept over the dog’s snout.


“Name is Diesel. These are Sod and Grumbler, don’t talk much.” the dog extended a shaggy paw.

Clockwork extended his hoof and the two soldiers shook. “Nice to meet you. Sorry about your friend. . .”

Diesel gave a snort and spoke. “Granite? Nah, always pain in ass. Think everyone in Consortium will be glad he gone. Probably sent here so lucky dog in Stontarioa get his desk. Polished redwood, very pretty to look at.”

“Well. . .” Clockwork glanced over Diesel’s shoulder to find both Sod and Grumbler nodding at their leader’s statement. The pegasus was a bit shocked to see that these dogs took the death of a fellow soldier as a positive thing.

The stallion was cut off from his train of thought as the tank finally began to move. He looked back towards Diesel, who now had both paws working the controls. He turned to look at the pegasus for a split second before going back to his work. “Clockwork, consider this official surrender, tank is collateral.”

The journey back to the city of Mji Mkuu felt surprisingly short. Even more surprising, however, was how quickly the sun had descended below the horizon. As the tank rolled into the village, Clockwork popped his head out of the hatch only to find that the sky had turned an inky blue-black, and a large number of stars had filled it. However, the most surprising thing of all was the fact that the zebras seemed rather calm about an enemy tank rolling into their village. The tank stopped a healthy distance from the hut that Zecora stood in front of, and the three dogs crawled out, placing their paws behind their heads when they reached the ground. After they were led away by a small team of zebras, Askari brought Meteor Squad inside, the members being immediately approached by Zecora after the door had shut behind them.

“I see that you brought us a vehicle of the dogs’ military might, is this why you have returned so late this night?”

“That is correct, ma’am,” Long Shot replied. “How goes the round up of survivors?”

“Better than I had hoped. When it comes to war, these dogs, they do not joke.”

“How many?” Long Shot asked as Zecora led the squad into the main hut.

“Many we have gathered here, the young, the old, and loved ones dear.” the zebra sat down on a mat next to the fire in the center of the hut and motioned for the squad to do the same.

“I was led to believe that there had been a multitude of attacks?” Charger cocked her head to one side in confusion.

“That is correct, pony of yellow, but the dogs make for curious fellows. There are many villages with great advantages than ours, some not so near, so why would they attack here?”

“I see one reason.” the squad didn’t even need to think to know that Long Shot was talking about Zecora.

“Why kill the leader of the zebras first? Surely they could kill us more effectively with hunger or thirst.”

“The situation does contain a level or merit.” Switcher readjusted his hat and spoke up as a previously unseen zebra passed each of the warriors a wooden bowl filled to the brim with some sort of thick green liquid. Clockwork tried to stay still (and not grunt in pain) as the same zebra began bandaging his shoulder with some roughness. He set his bowl on the ground in front of him for now as he brought his artificial wing around and began struggling to realign it properly. He sighed as he pondered how much time the activity would consume.

“Kill the leader of the enemy faction first, and the lower ranks will descend into chaos for some time until they find a new leader." the changeling continued. "Depending on several factors, the enemy may very well destroy all opposition before they can retaliate with any significant effect.”

“Zebrica is in no short supply of possible leaders, mister strategist.” Askari looked up from his bowl. “Every clan has a leader, and each one of those clans can survive without help from the main city. No, the dogs want to get the best warriors out of their way first. That’s how a coward fights. I would assume that, like the leaders of your country, they think Zecora is some incredibly powerful fighter or somesuch. She's a damned good shaman though.”

“I agree.” Long Shot gulped down a spoonful of the soup. “I like your way of thinking. . . err. . .”

“The name’s Askari, I don’t suppose we’ve really had time for proper introductions, have we?”

The nocturni shrugged. “I guess not.”

“Well,” Askari continued as he downed the last of his meal. “now’s a better time than in the field. You already know me, I’m Zecora’s big brother and personal bodyguard.” the massive warrior pointed a hoof in the general direction of the zebra finishing up his treatment of Clockwork’s most serious injuries (luckily, there were few to speak of). Where there should have been white, his stripes were instead a strong cyan, as though they had been freshly dyed. “That there is Samibe. He’ll help you guys get settled in.”

“Charmed.” Samibe didn’t even look up from his work, and his urban-sounding voice was almost smug as he placed a warm rag on a cut Clockwork didn't even realize he had obtained.

“The little one over next to Zecora is Penyelamat. If, creators forbid, Zecora’s killed in action, then she’ll be taking over.”

The lanky creature’s only response was her eyes widening and a squeak escaping her lips. Askari only laughed. Clockwork looked at the her a bit more closely and noticed that she only had stripes running from her shoulders to her head. The rest of her body was covered in dusty brown hair, except for her legs, which were an off-white. He’d ask her about that later.

“Hah! Forgot that she doesn’t talk much, but she’s really nice once she gets to know you.” the large zebra sat back down and took another bowl of soup that was sitting by the fire.

The allies ate in silence for a few minutes. Samibe finished wrapping the final bandages around Clockwork’s shoulder and sat down next to Askari, while Penyelamat glanced at Charger, an action she returned them in kind. Clockwork fiddled with his wing for some time after that, eventually managing to get it in order. He tested the prosthetic's dexterity as he ate, and figured that it would have to be enough for now. It wasn’t much longer before Long Shot questioned an absence that the pegasus was surprised he hadn't even thought of before now.

“So, anyone seen Mganga recently?”

Greystone gulped nervously and shared a nervous glance with Empress Carapace, the queen of the Corrupted Changeling hive who currently sat at his right. As powerful as she was, her intimidating presence did little to comfort the leader of the Diamond Dog Consortium. Although not possessing sweat glands, nor any visible skin tissue, the old dog could tell she was as nervous as he was by the way her luminescent red-orange eyes flickered continuously to their host.

Across from them, at the far end of the immense gilded table, the Emperor of all Griffon-kind sat half in shadow, his talons interlaced before him and his eyes cold beneath his mask. The formidable warrior had not spoken since his fellow rulers had entered the council chamber, a spacious room decorated with oversized weapons, banners of defeated foes, and the taxidermied corpses of hundreds of different creatures. Greystone had received the summons a week and a day after he had begun his offensive into zebra territory and had departed for the griffon capitol immediately. He had hoped that by now his soldiers would have taken Zebrica, but the reports trickling in were far from satisfactory; the zebras were holding fast, even with Battlefright’s continued use.

The diamond dog gulped as quietly as he could, well aware of what would happen if his unauthorized attack did not produce the results he’d hoped it would. The memory of the terrible zealot the Emperor kept on a leash sending a shiver down his spine, he prayed to whatever gods who were currently listening that the crimson warrior would never turn his eye toward the dogs.

“You seem nervous, Greystone,” the Emperor’s cold voice cut through the air like a knife. “I can smell your fear even at this distance.”

The Consortium leader made a visible effort to still his beating heart, before plastering his most charming smile on his lips.

“Apologies, Emperor,” he said, his politician’s voice coming out smooth despite the constant licking of his lips. “I am merely concerned about being away from my people for too long, itching to ensure their wellbeing, you see.”

The Emperor nodded as if accepting this, though fully aware that it was a blatant lie. He turned and spoke to the Empress.

“And what do you, dear Carapace, think of the war so far?”

Caught off guard by the sudden address, the bug creature visibly flinched and started stammering.

“Truthfully, I am unsure though no less confident. Despite my subject’s limited deployment on the front, Appleloosa fell and I believe that the zebras will follow suit within the week.”

“Of course,” the griffon did not stop nodding, “the zebras are pitifully ill-prepared in terms of armaments. Divided and weak. It is surely a matter of time before the guillotine falls.”

As if on cue, a harsh scream echoed throughout the chamber, followed by a sickening thud and the sound of metal cleaving through flesh. The Emperor’s council chambers were situated next to the prison tower, and overlooked the execution fields, where the punishment of the failed regiments from the attempted assassination were still ongoing.

“It is surely. . .”

The Emperor’s eyes bored into his fellow monarchs’ souls with a quiet fury,

“a matter. . .”

A series of cracks issued through the air as a firing squad let loose.

“of time. . .”

Greystone felt something warm begin to trickle down his leg at this point, matting his fur and staining his robes.

“. . . before the guillotine falls.”

Next Chapter: Stars & Stripes Estimated time remaining: 6 Hours, 20 Minutes
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