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(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
"A Dark Sky" Chapter 7

The days crept by. Magic had sped the healing process considerably, but at least a month of recovery was needed. Each day the bandages became less comfortable. Walking the halls of the Ponyville Hospital wasn't nearly enough exercise. Rainbow Dash longed to do the one thing her broken ribs wouldn't allow. She wanted to fly. She sorely missed the feeling of the wind combing her mane back, her muscles straining as she rocketed forward, the feeling of complete euphoria as she completed anything from a Sonic Rainboom to a slightly intricate trick… It all seemed a world away to her. And this feeling of intense longing only served to fuel her hatred for her assailant. Every day the image of those bright pink eyes was the first thing she saw when she woke up and the last thing she saw before she fell asleep. It was burned into her mind. That face, that insane face, became fuel for the fire in Rainbow Dash's heart. It drove her to recover. Once she recovered she would be able to fly. And once she was able to fly again she'd be able to hunt down Blitz and the rest of the Shadowbolts.

Finally the long awaited day came. All of her friends had come to the hospital just to be there when the bandages came off. Applejack stood close by, a hopeful smile on her face as Nurse Redheart gently unwrapped the bandages binding Rainbow's torso. The thick cloth pooled on the ground, and Rainbow Dash smiled. Slowly, tentatively, she stretched her wings. The smile left her face instantly.

"They feel so weak", she muttered, looking at her wings. Indeed her lean solid back muscles had become softer and flatter. Her taut chest had become spongy. She had only managed to keep a bit of muscle in her legs with daily walks. Everypony's face fell as she flapped hard and fast, struggling to circle the room. As Rainbow Dash landed Twilight stepped forward.

"Rainbow, your muscles have been inactive for some time. Maybe you should take it slow. Try flying low and slow first; my books tell me that it shouldn't take more than a few of weeks of consistent training to get back to your previous state of fitness." Twilight smiled brightly but Rainbow Dash still looked distraught.

"A few weeks? I can't wait 'a few weeks', the Shadowbolts are probably on the move right now! Who knows how far they've gotten?" She quickly turned on the purple unicorn. "Twilight, isn't there any magic you could do to make me stronger instantly?"

Concern crossed Twilight's face. "Rainbow, I don't recommend it. Bodily transfiguration is not only dangerous but rarely permanent. You remember what happened to Rarity in Cloudsdale."

At her name, the elegant white unicorn stepped forward. "Rainbow, darling", she said, "I may not be nearly as knowledgeable as Twilight in matters of magic but I do see her point. That was my only experience with bodily transfiguration and it would have killed me had you not been there to save me. Oh, darling, I know it's not much but I may have some magazines I can lend you. They offer great advice on maintaining a lean sexy figure." She moved closer. "It's the least I could do, dear. I do owe you my life, after all."

Rainbow Dash smiled weakly. "Thanks, Rarity. But I'd rather do it my own way." She flapped her wings hard, holding herself airborne in the center of the room. She threw her chest out, striking a formidable pose. "Aerial boot camp."

Rarity smiled, gently teasing, "You're so rough-and-tumble, darling. But we all support you, and if you need anything, we're all here for you." The others nodded in agreement.

Rainbow Dash landed, sweat beads forming on her brow. "Thanks, guys. I'm gonna go home and rest a bit. I'll catch up with you all later, okay?"

As Twilight, Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Rarity left, Applejack stayed behind. Rainbow Dash was still filling out release forms. As she finished she turned to see the orange earth pony, an uncomfortable look on her face. After a few seconds of silence Applejack spoke. "You really are goin' after the Shadowbolts, aren't ya?"

"AJ, somepony has to stop them. They're obviously dangerous." Her gaze darkened as she continued. "And I've got a personal score to settle."

Applejack stepped forward. "Rainbow, you'd be better off lettin' it go, sugarcube."

Frustrated, Rainbow Dash blurted, "I can't, AJ! Every time I close my eyes, I see her, that blue pony. Those big, wild eyes. I can't sleep well knowing she's still out there somewhere." Her voice softened. "Some nights I can't sleep at all. I need to do this, AJ."

Applejack smiled weakly. "Then Ah'll help ya train up. But for now, you get some rest, ya hear? Come find me down on the farm when you're ready." She turned to leave. Only a few steps up the hall, something stopped her. "Rainbow?"

Rainbow Dash approached her friend. "What's up, AJ?"

After a moment of maddening silence, it happened. All at once, Applejack's lips were pressed against Rainbow's. In that instant time froze for Rainbow Dash, and she found herself unable to form a coherent thought. She was totally lost in the gentle pressure and slight tickle of Applejack's lips brushing against her own. As suddenly as it began the meek tender kiss ended, leaving both ponies blushing furiously. Rainbow sputtered, "AJ, I… I didn't know y-you were-"

"Ah ain't, consarnit! Ah… Ah don't know. Ah'm not a filly-fooler, but…" She sighed. "Ah'm still tryin'a figure it all out. Look, Ah ain't the mushy type, but Rainbow, Ah care about you more than anypony Ah know, and… Tarnation, just take it for what it is!", she finished quickly. As she stomped up the hall, Applejack turned, calling behind her, "And for the love of Equestria, don't TALK about it. Ah don't take too kindly to no drama, neither. Come by the farm whenever you're ready."

Rainbow Dash sat dumbfounded. She touched a gentle hoof to her lips as if to make sure the kiss had actually been there.

Early the next morning Rainbow Dash stood nervously at the edge of the Apple family orchard. She approached Applejack, who lounged near the gate with buckets of apples by her side. Without looking up, Applejack said, "Put on the harness and have a flight around the farm. All the way around, low altitude. Don't go no faster than ya feel comfortable with, cuz ya got a long day ahead o' ya."

Rainbow Dash slipped into the harness, taking note of the rather heavy buckets of apples attached to it. She flapped furiously, managing to get a couple dozen feet off the ground. With a lurch, she began to move forward. Rainbow Dash skirted the orchard slowly and unsteadily, unused to flying with so much weight on her back. Sweat began to drip off her face as she rounded the halfway point. Her wing muscles were weak from disuse, and the sudden burst of activity had set them on fire. As Rainbow Dash glided toward the starting point her side began to ache. She skidded to a stop next to Applejack, breathing hard.

Her gaze firm but caring, Applejack said. "Not bad. Take five, then get ready to do it backwards." Seeing Rainbow Dash's appalled expression, she added tenderly, "With only half the weight, sugar cube."

The training continued in this fashion every morning for the next few weeks. Laps around the farm with varying amounts of weight were the most common exercise. These exercises were perfect for rebuilding Rainbow's free-form flying skill. The lengthy flights rebuilt her endurance, and the extra weight helped her rebuild the lean powerful muscles in her chest and back. In addition to this, Applejack had set up a series of exercises to train Rainbow Dash's agility, reflexes, and speed.

The agility exercise combined a tight slalom with a relay. Applejack would set up a slalom track marked with gold apples, easy to spot amongst the fallen red. Rainbow Dash would slalom through the trees as fast as possible, picking up the gold apples and tossing them into baskets mounted on trees ahead, some higher, some lower. The tracks became increasingly more complex and never followed the same route.

The reflex exercise was the least enjoyable. Rainbow Dash would stand with her rump against a barn door while Applejack bucked hard unripe apples for her to dodge. The starting distance was roughly thirty feet. As Rainbow's reaction time improved, it shrunk as low as ten feet, much to Rainbow Dash's dismay.

The speed exercise made everything worth it. Applejack would have Rainbow Dash wait at the edge of the farm while she launched an apple straight up from a catapult. Rainbow's task would be to try to catch the apple as quickly as possible. The quicker she got, the further she stood. On the day she completed her training, she stood on Twilight's balcony with a pair of binoculars, waiting to see the golden speck over the orchard. Finally, she saw the large apple soaring upward. She launched herself forward, hooves outstretched. Her mane pulled straight back in the wind. Tears streaked from her eyes. Her wings became a blue blur over her back. The apple had reached its apex and was now careening toward the ground.  Rainbow wasn't even at the far edge of the orchard.

Rainbow flashed back to the night she was attacked. She saw Blitz astride the lightning bolt, grinning stupidly.

You're not the only one who's fast, she thought. She accelerated hard. Quite suddenly she felt a new sensation against her hooves, only faintly familiar. But faint as it was, it filled her with euphoria. She knew what was coming. One more push, and it happened; all at once, the sky was torn apart in a blast of color, and Rainbow Dash shot forward like a rocket. The resounding explosion behind her brought every last inhabitant of Ponyville outside just in time to see a rainbow blur splattering an apple mid-flight as a vibrant color wheel rippled through the air.

Exhausted from the Sonic Rainboom, Rainbow Dash used her momentum to circle the farm and land hard in front of Applejack. With a slight smile the earth pony said, "Ah think you're ready, sugar cube."

The sun was hardly up the next morning as Rainbow Dash set off towards Fillydelphia. She had just reached the edge of town when a voice stopped her. She glanced down, reluctant to stop. Applejack. She breathed deeply and landed, facing her concerned friend.

"AJ, I have to go. I have to do this."

Applejack's eyes were full of worry as she said, "And Ah know Ah can't stop ya. Just promise me you'll be careful." She moved closer. "Promise me you'll come back."

Rainbow Dash leaned in. "I promise."

Rainbow Dash made the first move this time. She brought her mouth to Applejack's, only a little nervous. There was no hesitation, no fear, only warmth as Applejack tenderly returned the genuine display of affection. The two parted, smiling. This moment together had brought them each some peace. Rainbow Dash turned and began to fly away, calling back, "See ya later, AJ."

There were only a few towns to stop at between Ponyville and Fillydelphia. Rainbow Dash knew that she would need to learn more about the Shadowbolts if she was going to take them on, so she decided to stop at each of them. The first town was but a short flight away, just a few miles out. It was a small town, more of a trading and community hub than a town. The ponies in it all came from outlying farm land. They were a gruff bunch, hardened by farm work like Macintosh, but less kind. One directed her with an extended hoof and a grunt to the town hall, so much so as it was. The building also doubled as the sheriff's office and a court when needed. Rainbow Dash approached the sheriff, a stock earth pony with a thick walrus mustache. It turned out he knew of the Shadowbolts, but only by reputation.

"Fierce nasty lot," he drawled. "Not to be trifled with. They supposedly run crime rings across Equestria. I heard from a lieutenant peacekeeper that they've set up firm footholds in Manehatten, Clopton, Fillydelphia, and Detrot. Last I heard they was headed for Fillydelphia. Course that was a couple months back. You head straight there you may find somepony who knows something."

Rainbow Dash rocketed towards Fillydelphia, passing the second town altogether. At the third town she had to stop and rest. The town was a dump. It mirrored the first in many ways but it had all the friendliness and charm of an outhouse. Instead of bothering with the law she went straight to the place any and every criminal would go in a town like this: the local bar.

Ponyville doesn't even have a bar, Rainbow Dash thought. She approached the bar, ignoring the stares from the patrons. The females regarded her with indifference at best. At worst, their eyes oozed suspicion if not outright aggression. The males looked at her in a far more menacing way; she felt their hungry eyes on her lips, her firm flank, her lean body. In an effort to look tough she leaned a foreleg on the bar, grunting at the bartender with indifference, "shot o' whiskey."

He obliged. She downed her shot and scarcely managed to stifle a grimace and a gag. Rainbow Dash never could get used to hard liquor. Continuing her tough act by channeling a bit of Gilda, she said, "So, I'm looking for a group of chumps called the Shadowbolts."

The bartender gave a harsh laugh. "You poor filly, you musta lost your mind. That group a' savages would shred you."

Hiding her nervousness she retorted, "I've faced 'em before."

The bartender poured Dash another shot, which she politely declined. He added, "Not recently you haven't; they've supposedly dropped off the radar between Fillydelphia and Manehatten after beheading that dealer."

Rainbow Dash fought to keep the fear out of her voice as she walked towards the door. "Well then I better stop them before they hurt anypony else."

No sooner than she had left she heard a voice behind her. "Hey kid, wait."

At first she thought it might have been Gilda, but she turned to see a pegasus, a few years older than herself. Her appearance was ghastly. Her indigo coat contrasted sharply with her eyes, a glassy shade of red. Her long thick mane, dyed black, hung down over one side of her face, obscuring it completely. The other side of her face was bathed in moonlight. A thick scar ran from her right ear to the bridge of her muzzle. She stepped forward, her lips twisted into a scowl. Her words were less scary than her appearance.

"You really lookin' for the Shadowbolts?"

Rainbow Dash held her ground. "Yeah, you know 'em?"

The other pony's face drifted downward. "You could say that. Why are you after 'em?"

Rainbow's voice seethed hatred. "I've got a score to settle with one of them."

The older pegasus tossed her head back, revealing both sides of her face. The left side caused Rainbow to gasp. Her face and neck were horribly burnt. The fur was gone, leaving taut warped skin in its place. The exposed flesh was hideously discolored. The effect caused the left eye to look wild and panicked and twisted the left side of the pony's mouth into a hideous permanent scowl.

"So do I", she growled. "Blueshift Blaze. If you're gonna take on the Shadowbolts, you'll need help. I know them better than anyone else. Well, anyone who can help you, that is. Every other pony they've come in contact with is too scared to talk or dead. But I can take you to them. All I ask is that you let me pick which one I kill."

"Name's Dash, and if you can take me to them, you can have whichever one you want."

Blaze tossed her mane forward, hiding her mangled face. "We're going to the Wonderbolt's Mansion in Manehatten. The Shadowbolts are planning a mass assassination. If we're lucky, we'll kill them before they kill the Wonderbolts. But that's secondary."

Rainbow's temper flared. "No it isn't! The Wonderbolts?! They're my idols, I'm not letting that bunch of psychos kill them!"

Blaze smiled darkly. "You've got fire in you, kid. It'll come in handy. Let's get going."



"A Dark Sky" Chapter 8

"Go!"

At Nightshade's command, Blitz shot forward like a bullet. The straw pony stood helpless before her. Blitz's field of vision narrowed until her focus was fixed on the torso of the target. She grinned with excitement and rotated her hooves, facing her blades outward in front of her. With perfect timing, she swept her legs outward, cutting the target in half lengthwise and scattering straw everywhere. The legs of the straw pony toppled out from under the shredded top half. The rest of the Shadowbolts stood with eyes wide.

While Rainbow Dash had been recovering in Ponyville, the Shadowbolts had been holding these training sessions in a hot windowless warehouse just south of Manehatten. The abandoned building had a great deal of floor space and the high ceiling made it a suitable building for some aerial training as well. Nightshade had taken the liberty of setting up cardboard and straw ponies for target and combat practice. The Shadowbolts had been subjected to daily exercise like Rainbow Dash. They had also studied the more technical aspects of their mission each night. Combat theory, bomb assembly, and stealth infiltration classes filled their evenings. Stratus fell back on his Royal Guard days to teach combat. Nightshade and Charger combined knowledge from their days in gangs to teach explosives. And Starry Skies taught stealth infiltration from her own personal experience. During the day, however, the Shadowbolts made as much use of the warehouse as possible.

Nightshade raised her eyebrows, indicating the shredded target with a hoof. "Not bad. I suppose if you don't mind being covered in blood and gore, that'll work as well as the quick kill." She crossed the warehouse, turning to a second target. "But this is what we're going for."

Nightshade drew her front half low, stretching her front legs. She paced a few steps side to side, concentrating on the weight of the blades.

Perfection is the only way, rang a voice in her head.

She started at a gallop and then took flight, gliding in low and fast. In a flash she threw her left hoof across the back of the target's neck, sailing past it and skidding to a smooth, quiet stop a few yards past. Everypony turned to the target. Its straw head hung limp, attached by a layer of cloth representing flesh at the front of the neck.

"Silent, quick, and completely effective and efficient. One swift movement." Nightshade walked over to Blitz's target. "Effective, but inefficient. That strike took a bit out of you. It took a great deal more out of him, but that's beside the point. It definitely got the job done, but it was loud, flashy, and messy. Overkill."

She walked back to her own target. "This. Perfection. Quick, refined, and clean. One swift cut, instant kill. No wasted energy, minimal noise, and I was able to keep going afterwards. Had there been more guards I wouldn't have been too winded to make short work of them, too." She turned to Starry Skies. "Star, you're up next."

The elegant pink pony gracefully pawed at the air. Her swipes were made no less intimidating by her approach. She made her way to the far wall and turned, breathing deeply. Quite suddenly she rocketed forward. As she approached the target, she swiped outward. Her perfect swipe was hindered by her low speed; the target was knocked over from impact, but the head remained attached.

"Damn", she hissed.

As Nightshade approached Starry Skies, Blitz voiced the thought every one else was having. "Uh-oh", she giggled. She materialized on top of a high stack of crates to get a better view of the action.

Nightshade looked from the target to Starry Skies. "What was that?"

Starry Skies sighed. "I missed, Nightshade, I'm sor-"

"It was failure", Nightshade growled. "Pure failure! We don't need failure, we need success!"

Nightshade spoke, but her voice was not the one she heard in her head.

***
"We need success, damn it! Do you think you're ever going to get anywhere in life like this?"

Nightshade cringed, pressing her rump into the leather chair. Her mother's office had always been a place of great discomfort for her. Everything about it was formidable. The walls were so white that the glare sometimes hurt her eyes. The furniture was all masterfully crafted mahogany. Despite her wealth, Cloudy Night was not one for elegance. Her blunt aggressive demeanor was able to manifest itself in things as mundane as her furniture choice. The tall shelves packed with thick heavy books seemed to lean inward, creating the sensation that they would crush somepony at any moment, much like Cloudy Night would in a courtroom.

Cloudy Night, ever the workaholic, was buried in work. Somehow the fact that she never looked her daughter in the eye when criticizing her made it hurt even worse. The many piles of paper on her desk were hastily organized in a way that left a small patch of work space which was now occupied by a school report card. The little leaflet was riddled with D's and C's.

"Explain."

The command hit Nightshade like a slap across the face. Only ten years old, she looked up at her mother, unable to find words. "I… Mommy, it-"

Writing with one hoof while flipping through files with another, Cloudy Night coaxed, "Come on, out with it. Surely you know why you're doing poorly in school."

Finally Nightshade blurted, "I'm not good at school!"

Cloudy Night paused her work for a moment. She looked at Nightshade with a fierce incredulity. Another intangible slap. "Well then try harder! You think I was good at being a lawyer when I was a filly? I put some effort into it, now I'm here, problem solved."

Nightshade remained in her seat, confused and hurt.

Her mother looked up again, clearly angry. "I've gone and solved your damn problem for you, now you go fix it!"

***

Nightshade glared at Starry Skies. "Did you hear me? Go again, fix it!"

Blitz held a hoof over her mouth as she giggled with excitement.

Visibly flustered, Starry Skies huffed and walked to the other end of the warehouse. With more force than necessary she ran the exercise again, this time cleaving right through the neck of the target.

Examining the target, Nightshade nodded. "Acceptable. I guess this just isn't what you're best at."

Starry Skies became indignant. "Nightshade, that's absurd, I did exactly what you did!"

"And I did it better", Nightshade snapped back. "You've got to be the best at SOMETHING, or you're useless!"

***

"It doesn't matter what you do, just do it better than everyone else!"

Nightshade stood in her mother's home office. The home office was considerably less terrifying than the corporate office in Manehatten. It was less cluttered, less busy. The heavy mahogany furniture was gone, leaving in its place warm, homey oak pieces. The piles of extraneous papers and stacks of case files were all neatly put away, with the exception of a few cases which Cloudy Night planned on working on during her break. There was even a small photograph of Nightshade with her father, taken about two years before his death when she was eight. About the only thing in the room that lacked warmth or peace was Nightshade's mother.

Nightshade's mother sighed, pushing away her largest stack of papers. "I can tell this is gonna be a family moment. Can we make it quick? I'm off break in twenty."

Nightshade shuffled her hooves. "Mom, you don't have to be anywhere today, you can put it aside until whenever."

Without looking up from her papers, Cloudy Night answered, "Yeah, just like your father did with getting his cutie mark." Seeing the affect her words had on her daughter, she continued, "Nightshade, he was nice, but he was a loser. He had no ambition. The only thing he ever did well was spending time with you, and even then, he only put in eight years at that until he gave up on the only thing he did consistently, which was being alive."

Holding back the tears, Nightshade deflected, "Mom, Dad had cancer…" Recovering from her pause, she continued forcefully, "Mom, I'm not going to law school. I'm an athlete, not a lawyer."

Cloudy Skies seemed to look right through her daughter as she said, "Okay. Be the best damn athlete on the circuit. Follow your dreams, whatever, but be the best. Because if you fuck it up and fall flat, you have nopony to blame but yourself."

"I don't have to be the best to be successful, Mom."

Cloudy Skies stood. "That's bullshit, Nightshade! Why would anypony settle for any less than the best? You can't get by on doing what makes you happy! You have to get by on winning! If you aren't the best, you don't matter!"

Visibly hurt, Nightshade poured venom into her voice as she stammered, "Especially not to you, right?"

Cloudy Night was immune. Without looking up, she retorted apathetically, "Damn right. If you aren't the best you don't matter to anypony."

***

"If you weren't the best at something, I wouldn't even have you around. At least this is all you've fucked up today."

Nightshade's words struck Starry Skies like knives; this was the first time Nightshade had ever really yelled at anypony. Her serious and aggressive demeanor had always been enough to keep everypony in check. Tirades of this sort had never been necessary, nor had Nightshade ever used them before.

"Whoa, hey, cool it," Charger warned.

Stratus stepped forward, taking Nightshade by the ear. Through gritted teeth he spat, "We need to talk."

Outside the warehouse, Stratus pressed Nightshade into the adjacent wall.

"What the hell's wrong with you?", she growled.

"What's wrong with YOU? Tearing into your own team? That's not only unnecessary, that's childish. You've worked awfully hard to earn their respect to lose it with temper tantrums."

"I'm scared, Stratus!", Nightshade blurted. Her voice became quiet. "I'm terrified."

His voiced considerably more gentle, Stratus inquired, "Of what?"

"Of fucking it all up. I've poured years of my life into this, and now that it's here and we're actually staring it in the face, I'm terrified. We only get one shot. I'm realizing now, I have no idea what the hell I'm doing. But it's too late to turn back. I'm in way over my head. I'm scared, I'm confused, Strat."

Stratus sat down next to Nightshade, motioning for her to do the same.

"You've come a very long way, kid."

Nightshade wiped the tears of frustration from her eyes. "I guess."

Stratus gazed off into the woods and did something he rarely did: he smiled. "You remember the very first crime we committed together?"

"Which one?"

"The mugging, that very first one?"

Nightshade put a hoof over her face, remembering the story very well. "Yes. Yes I do."

Stratus chuckled as he reminisced, "You told the punk to give you all his money. And he did. And then you smiled and thanked him and apologized for inconveniencing him."

Nightshade laughed, and Stratus laughed with her. He continued, "You're gonna be alright, kid."

Nightshade felt better after hearing these words, but she was still unconvinced. "We only have one shot at this. If anything goes wrong, the whole operation could go down the drain."

Stratus gave her a firm pat on the back, nearly knocking her over. "Trust me, kid. I've never lied to you before. I've got your back. We all do. We're gonna make this thing happen. Now get back in there, apologize to Star, and lead your team. Tomorrow night's gonna be the biggest night of their lives. It'd be comforting to know that their leader hasn't gone off the deep end."

Feeling considerably more confident, Nightshade strode back into the warehouse. She first took a minute with Starry Skies, explaining her outburst. Next she stood in front of the group, addressing them all. "Alright everypony, listen up. We've got a big day tomorrow."

The group assembled in front of their leader. Stratus cracked a hint of a smile.

Nightshade turned to Starry Skies. "Star, you're the first to split from the group. You're setting up the bomb in the main living quarters. If you somehow fail, Blitz is your backup. Otherwise, Blitz, you'll be covering the rear as cleanup. Anything gets up and tries to follow us, kill it."

She turned to Charger. "Charger, you get to pursue vengeance. You clean up anypony else in the mansion and then head to the manager's office. I'm sure you'll enjoy that. If you fall short, I'll send in Stratus. Otherwise, Stratus is with me, taking out any Wonderbolts running about. Any questions?"

A resounding "No ma'am!"

"Good. Everyone get some rest."



"A Dark Sky" Chapter 9

Stratus had just gotten into his room when a blue blur slammed into his bed, throwing the blankets to the ceiling.

Stratus sighed. "Blitz. Why are you in my bed?"

Blitz rolled over in Stratus's bed, facing him. "I wanna talk to you."

Stratus was intrigued. Blitz rarely wanted to talk to anypony. "And why is that, Blitz?"

Blitz gazed into Stratus's eyes, her face filled with longing. "Because I'm in love with you."

Stratus was caught completely off guard. He couldn't think of anything specific he had done to earn the filly's favor. He wasn't particularly fond of her, either. But he wasn't about to create emotional tension before a big mission. Finally he managed to stammer out, "Really?"

Blitz rolled off the bed, roaring with laughter. "Of course not! You're not a filly!" She finally regained some control over herself and said, "Nightshade wanted me to ask you if you'd be able to kill ponies tomorrow."

Stratus scoffed. "She knows I won't."

Blitz rolled over on the floor, facing Stratus belly-up. "Why?"

Stratus responded, "I don't kill."

"Why?"

"It's a vow I made back when I was an enforcer."

"Why?"

Stratus put a hoof to his forehead, sighing. "I never told you about my days as an enforcer?"

Blitz shook her head, causing a massive static buildup on the carpet.

Stratus breathed deeply. "Alright then. Here goes…"

***

Stratus was on top of the world. The young, strong pegasus had achieved his dream. He had been accepted as a trainee for the enforcer program in Manehatten. The training alone was near deadly. Most applicants quit. Stratus was not one of these. The colt excelled at training and quickly worked his way up. While some of his graduating class mates were still grunts, answering petty calls like disorderly drunks, Stratus had gained the rank of responder, second division. The only ponies he answered to were first division responders and the district director. When assignments called for it he would have to answer to peacekeepers, the roaming bounty hunters of Equestria.

Stratus's parents were jubilant at his success. The night he made the rank of sergeant second division they took him to a local restaurant to celebrate. His favorite cousin decided to tag along. As the family sat around the table, Stratus noticed his younger cousin seemed distant.

"Hey, Spacey, what's up?"

The young colt, only fifteen years of age, pushed his food around on his plate. He didn't look up.

Stratus's mother gently nudged him. "Astro, dear, Stratus is talking to you."

The thin pony looked up. He was scrawny. Not exactly frail, but definitely not built like Stratus. He was a shut in and a daydreamer, more concerned with the stars in the sky than the world beneath his hooves. This earned him his cutie mark, a telescope, as well as his nickname, Spacey. Spacey turned to Stratus. "What'd ya say, cuz?"

Stratus laughed as he answered, "I was asking if you're alright, airhead. You don't seem to be on this planet tonight", he teased gently.

Spacey smiled. "Oh, yeah. There's supposed to be a killer meteor shower in a few nights." Spacey turned to his aunt. "Hey, I'll be back, I gotta go." With this, he left the table.

As Spacey left the room, Stratus's mother moved closer to her son. "Stratus, there's something wrong with Astro. His mother tells me he's been hanging out with the wrong crowd lately."

Stratus was suddenly intrigued. "That's not like him at all. Does she know anything about them, the ponies he's hanging around with?"

"Apparently he's been made an errand boy for one of them. The ring leader of the little group is… Handsaw? No, Hammer, I believe. Astro's mother thinks they have him delivering drugs for their gang. She wants you to talk to him about it. You're closer to him than any of us have managed to get, she thinks maybe he'll open up to you."

Stratus nodded. "I'll see what I can do."

Outside, Stratus caught his cousin buy surprise.

"Hammer? Really? You're running around with Hammer now?"

Spacey was cornered. "Cuz, it's not like that!"

Stratus shot him a look. "He's a criminal, Spacey!"

Spacey sighed. "I know. And I'm not proud of it. But it's just small stuff. They pay me well. And they're not so bad. They're nice to me."

Stratus gave his cousin a swift bonk on the head as he answered, "Because you run drugs for them, you dope! Dealers like ponies who keep them in business!" He softened his voice. "Look, just get out of all that nonsense. Stay away from Hammer and his crew. They're bad news. I don't care how you do it, get away from those ponies."

Spacey's face fell. "Okay cuz. I'll tell him I'm out."  

The next week of Stratus's life was uneventful. As a favor, Stratus had the captain of first division keep an eye on his cousin whenever he could. As the week went by, he had nothing to report. Stratus forgot the whole affair until his cousin showed up at the door of his apartment. Stratus opened the door, gesturing for his cousin to enter. "What's up, Spacey?"

Spacey smiled brightly. "I talked to Hammer. He says it's cool that I wanna leave."

Stratus beamed. "Great! I'm glad to hear you're out of that business, cuz. You have a bright future, you don't need to screw it up."

Spacey sat down on the couch, nodding. "Yeah, he was really cool about it, too. I told him you set me straight. He thought that was really cool of you."

Hearing this, Stratus tensed. "Spacey, did you mention that I'm a cop?"

Spacey shook his head. "Uh, I don't think so. He wants to meet you. He should be here soon."

Stratus felt his stomach drop. "What the fuck, Spacey?! Did you tell him where I live?"

At that moment, there was a knock at the door. From behind the solid wood, a voice called, "Open up, Space-Boy. I wanna shake your cop cousin's hoof!" The sound of other ponies laughing could be heard.

Stratus jerked Spacey up off the couch. "Out the window, up the fire escape to the roof, I'll be along in just a minute. Don't question me, go! Keep quiet and stay out of sight!" As Spacey scaled the ladder, Stratus looked for an alternate exit. Something hit the door hard, and the wood bent inward, cracking. There were no other exits. Stratus looked out the window; Spacey was well on his way to the roof. He began to follow, pulling his bulky frame through the open window.

The door exploded inwards and a bulky earth pony stormed in, followed by two pegasi. The sand colored earth pony had a hammer cutie mark. He rushed into the room, pushing past the furniture. Spotting Stratus, he shouted to his partners, "He went up the ladder, get him!"

The two pegasi blasted out the window, sending Stratus tumbling to the ground. He righted himself and flew up after them, only to be passed by a faster pegasus. Stratus recognized him as Magnum, the captain of the responders' first division.

"Mag!"

The speedy pegasus called back, "I followed them here! You take the goons, I'll take Hammer!"

As Stratus ascended, he called ahead of him, "Thank Celestia! You go find my cousin, keep him safe!"

Atop the roof, Stratus saw Spacey sprint over the high ridge of the building, followed closely by Hammer and Magnum. The two pegasi charged Stratus directly. The lead one slashed at him with a knife in his mouth. Stratus sidestepped  and slammed his forehead into the joint of the attacker's jaw, sending the knife flying. He retreated, setting up another attack. Stratus turned to the other pegasus, who was still armed. The young colt rushed Stratus with his knife. Stratus flapped his wings hard and spun around, bringing the edge of a back hoof across the attacker's face. He sprawled out on the ground, unconscious.

Stratus looked to the other thug. The young pegasus shook his head, saying, "He ain't payin me enough for this shit!" He turned and galloped off the edge of the roof, flying away.

Having dealt with the goons, Stratus sprinted over the curve of the roof in time to see Magnum squaring off with Hammer on the second roof. Spacey stood against the door of a roof exit, trying to stay out of sight. As Spacey and Stratus watched the action, neither noticed the tall grey pegasus rising like a specter over the side of the building. He silently landed behind Spacey, a knife in his mouth. Stratus noticed the newcomer too late to keep him from slashing his long blade across Spacey's neck and down his side.

"SPACEY!"

All three other ponies looked to the fallen colt. In the break in the action, Hammer sprinted away. Magnum shouted to Stratus, "Strat, that's Rain! Get him!"

Stratus started after the criminal, but looked back to his cousin, gasping and wheezing on the roof. "Mag, take care of my cousin! Get him help! Please!", he sobbed.

Mag looked from Spacey to Hammer. "Will do, Strat, just go!"

Stratus rocketed over rooftops, chasing the grey blur. The tiny speck on the horizon grew smaller and smaller. Finally, Stratus gave up the chase. He turned and frantically flew back to his cousin. Upon landing on the roof, Magnum was nowhere to be found. Spacey was still wheezing, blood pooling around him. Stratus knelt beside his cousin.

"Spacey! It's okay, cuz", he lied, "You're gonna get help. You'll be alright, I promise. Stay with me, cuz!"

Spacey looked up at Stratus, tears in his eyes. "Hey cuz", he asked weakly, "Do you think those old pony tales are true? That when a pony dies he becomes one of the stars in the sky?"

Stratus let the tears flow freely as he held his cousin's head, replying, "Yeah cuz. I know they are."

Spacey smiled faintly as blood trickled from his mouth. "I'm gonna be a star, cuz…" As the words left his lips, the young colt's body went limp.

Stratus felt himself shaking. A strange, horrible sound filled his ears. It was a wretched scream of agony. Stratus eventually realized that these screams were coming from himself. His long sorrowful sobs shattered the peace of the night. He only stopped when he felt a hoof on his shoulder. Magnum. Stratus reared up and turned on the captain.

"Magnum, he's dead! You let my cousin die! You left him here, you son of a bitch!" Sobbing, Stratus shook the captain by his shoulders, fighting the urge to hit him.

Magnum felt tears welling up in his own eyes when he saw the colt's body. "Stratus, I'm so sorry. Protocol dictated that I had to pursue the crimin-"

Stratus exploded, "FUCK PROTOCOL! You soulless fuck, you let him die because of protocol?!"

Magnum was silent for a moment. Finally, he indicated a bound and gagged figure on the roof next to him. "If it's any consolation, I caught Hammer. He won't be hurting anypony else."

A darkness fell across Stratus's face as he replied, "No. He won't." With this he lifted the earth pony by the neck with his teeth and flung him from the roof. A loud splat told Stratus that Hammer had fallen the full ten stories and landed on the cold pavement.

***

Blitz rolled over. "How come you can't kill anymore after you killed Hammer?"

Looking up at the ceiling, Stratus replied, "It was later at Spacey's funeral that I realized the pain that killing brings. I felt it there. It's not like physical pain. It stays with you. I wouldn't wish that pain on anypony. From that day forward, I never could bring myself to kill a criminal; every time I tried, I saw my cousin, smiling up at me from a pool of his own blood."

Blitz shrugged. "I've never had that problem. Not since the fire."

Stratus sat up. There was something on his mind. "Blitz, you talk about that fire a lot. What happened?"

Blitz absentmindedly pawed at Stratus's sheets as she responded, "I forgot Mom, Dad, and Sissy were in the house when I set it on fire. I didn't remember until they started screaming. They stopped after a while", she finished casually.

Stratus reeled back in shock. "You seriously immolated your whole family… on accident?"

Blitz nodded. Through a yawn she added, "I'm sleepy, Strat. Your bed's too small for me so I'm going back to my room. Or maybe Nightshade's!"

Stratus raised an eyebrow. "Blitz, all the beds are the same size."

"I know", she crooned with a wink. With this she hopped out of the room, giggling.

Stratus laid back down. Sleep wouldn't come. For some reason all he could think about was death. He muttered to himself, "Everypony's gotta die someday." This thought didn't help distract him from wondering who would die tomorrow. And how many of those deaths would be his fault.
Part 3! A bit of a filler chapter, more of a bridge to the end. Also, if anyone can art good and wouldn't mind doing some stuff for free, please contact me.
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:icontheath2k:
theath2k Oct 31, 2011  Student General Artist
Did you model Blueball after like a crazy Pinkie Pie? Im kinda seeing an "elements of DISharmony" in this setup. I like how you've really given everyone a thorough backstory :icondashishappyplz:
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:iconmetalhooves:
Yeah, I really wanted to make sure they weren't just names on a page. I wanted to develop them and make them real that way the reader felt something when they felt something, you know?
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:iconthedevo32:
i shed a legit man tear
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:iconmetalhooves:
Wait till the end. ;)
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:icondeathnight78:
Stratus, a criminal with a conscious.
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:iconmetalhooves:
That's certainly one way to put it.
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:iconpatriotdash:
PatriotDash Aug 17, 2011  Student Traditional Artist
I love it when someone can come up with an actually interesting OC pony and not a generic out of town pony who has problems. This is an amazing piece of work here and i'm glad i've been able to read it so far. Thanks in advance for the rest of this story. =)
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:iconmetalhooves:
Which OC struck you as so interesting?
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:iconpatriotdash:
PatriotDash Aug 18, 2011  Student Traditional Artist
Blueball is my favorite just because she's a psycho ^-^, but most interesting i'd have to give to Stratus. His inability to kill may have just been because he knew the feeling of loss. But instead of going the opposite direction in which he turns into a blind murderer holding his hate towards Rain which would have been much easier to play out. Simple yes, but I was more than surprised that someone actually took that turn and I instantly wanted to know more about him. Even clinging to his pledge when he despised them for using simple justice instead of morals was a jump.
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:iconmetalhooves:
Er, thanks? I'm not quite sure I follow.
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