This heat sucked. Normally the summers of Equestria were merciful to its capitol but this year the season simply wasn't having it. The trees did not move; they did not sway nor bend as the mellow breeze so commonly felt through-out the mountain side city of Canterlot had been nowhere to be found for weeks. If not for the occasional trembling twig or shaking leaf one would be fooled into thinking the parks of the city were a work of still life art. Pretty, but frozen and not easy to enjoy under the oppressive radiating heat infesting the still air. It didn't do many favors for the populace that the city happened to have its own lake and waterfall running almost its entire length either - just outside of the walls mind you - making things wet and sticky for everyone without the free time to take a dip.
You know what isn't fun to wear when everything when the heavens are set to broil? Armor. Especially a set you're required to wear for the entire day, much like the required dress of the Royal Guard posted around the city. It was interesting how quickly many of the guards had broken into their own little factions while under the oppression of Celestia's sun. The guards out in the market square roasting in the oven that was a heavily populated area envied the ones on the walls since they occasionally felt the air move. The ones on the walls hated the ones inside the castle, what with their shade and cold stone walls and junk. And the ones in the castle? They hated their lives since they were the ones that had to listen to everyone complaining about the heat, but also because the "cold stone walls" did nothing for the sweat they had dripping from their brows. However, there were a few who found themselves hating their lives just that little bit more than the others as they'd fallen victim to a unicorn that had been walking through the castle and been very displeased by what he'd seen. A unicorn who demanded perfection from all he came across and didn't hesitate to say so. A unicorn whom two guardsmen wondered if anyone would miss as he berated them for every little thing.
"Straighten up. No slouching pony is going to wear that uniform and get away with it on my watch."
This unicorn was an elderly pony, one with wrinkles and a grayed yet disciplined mane kept carefully cut to set an example.
"You're glistening. Wipe yourselves down else a dignitary will slip on the puddles you're leaving and use the accident for leverage."
His silvery coat was doing better than his mane but was not immune to the age he'd experienced. It was fading a bit in color, but it's base color was still obvious enough.
"Why can't I see myself in your armor? You call this polished? You somehow guard the castle of our illustrious leaders and expect visitors to be impressed by a smudgy breastplate? This isn't a nightclub, kiddo, and you aren't some shady bouncer kicking out rowdy patrons after they vomit on your hooves. Clean yourself up!"
His voice was raspy in that way only age could make it. Well, age and a lifetime of yelling at others.
"Don't you roll your eyes! Such disrespect! From a guardsman! I should have you stripped of your responsibilities and forced to clean latrines on the frontier! Or better yet, teleport you to the bottom of the ocean with a fresh set of gills and see how that plays out!"
This unicorn's name was Gleam. "Head Instructor Gleam" he would be quick to correct. He didn't deal with unruly and sometimes unstable unicorn colts and fillies day to day to be referred to like any old pony. He had no authority over the guard - not anymore at least - but that hadn't stopped him from laying into the two posted outside a set of massive and beautifully carved doors leading into one of the castle's meeting halls. Believe it or not, it wasn't even because of the heat that was making the guards next to him consider crimes against his property as this was just common behavior from him. A hair out of place, a horse shoe left rusty, a spear that did not stab to his exact standards, any of these examples and more were enough to incur his wrath and force one to suffer through a session of lectures and "back in my days".
"Your mane is supposed to be trimmed in a perfect yet subtle curve, colt," Gleam scolded, jabbing a hoof at the plume of the guard to the door's left, "This wavy irregular crap is why no one takes you seriously anymore. How can we say this is Equestria's elite when you look like you just rolled out of bed?
"And you!" his attention creaked towards the pony to the right, "You're off center. Tilted! One of your shoes isn't even with the rest. With a glance, I'd think a stiff wind could blow you over and I'm not an assassin waiting for just the right time to fall on one of the countless targets that frequent these halls. Get that fixed by tomorrow, and you better believe me when I say that I WILL come check to see if it was done. I know your face now. You can't escape."
If everything these guards had done to help others in their lives could be repaid with one act, they'd settle for two individual pony sized meteors landing on them right about now. One wicked away some sweat from his forehead with a quick flick of magic, Gleam opening his mouth to object in some way when the holiest of sounds rang out through the hall.
The doors opened. A shifting of heavy wood and mild woosh of moving air displaced by the weight.
The guards nearly wept with joy as a yellow earth pony stepped out.
"Head Instructor Gleam?' she asked to which Gleam nodded impatiently, "Thank you for coming. The mayors have all arrived and are ready for you."
"It's about time," Gleam grumbled, "any longer and I'd have been forced to reform the royal guard into a proper legion the sisters could be proud of."
He shook his head and trotted forward past the doors. The guard he'd most recently criticized, now believing himself free of the unicorn and lacking in witnesses, looked to his counterpart and conjured an illusion of a rope with which he pretended to hang himself.
"… You call that a noose!?" Gleams voice rang from beyond the doors, "I wouldn't hang my worst enemy with that!" The doors shut with a slam, almost to punctuate Gleams sheer disapproval of the guard's existence. The guard to the left chuckled while the one on the right dropped the illusion and groaned.
"That was a conspiracy to run my name through the mud and you know it!" a mare angrily exclaimed as Gleam entered the meeting hall.
Things were already lively in here. Gleam took note of and recognized the ponies waiting for him to arrive while the yellow pony that let him in wandered off towards a corner of the room. There were six on the other side of those magnificent doors he'd passed just moments before. All were standing around a large table with plenty of space between them with the only exception Gleam could see being one fully equipped unicorn that seemed to be serving as a silent bodyguard for another. None of the rest were willing to get near any of the others for fear of them somehow smelling a secret, and their personal bubbles – as far as they were concerned – encompassed half of the country. A large and no doubt expensive rug was laid out beneath the wide circular table before them and light shone in from one of the many carefully organized windows spaced between several larger windows that held stained glass. Celestia help anyone who spilled a drink in here.
"Never once did I even visit that dust swept hole in the ground let alone sell Cautious any lewd photos of anyone! I would never bring myself so low as to partake in such frivolous and degenerate activities just to strike at you," the mare continued, a smirk creeping across her face, "besides, I'd never drop myself so low as to make them suffer seeing such pictures in the first place. None should live with the memory of having such a horrid thing burned into their memory."
Gleam recognized the voice before he'd even looked in the mare's direction. Diligence, an orange Pegasus mare that was probably guilty of whatever she was being accused of. She had a reputation for digging up dirt and seeding rumors amongst the various governors, mayors and so forth across Equestria. Gleam had no patience for such things and was always annoyed when having to deal with her. She had this look about her that always made it feel like she knew something about you that you'd rather she didn't, some creepy sensation that something private was about to be made public should she feel so inclined. Worst part was how much she enjoyed it.
"How dare you imply that my mother is not a sight to behold!" a stallion shouted back from across the table, pausing for a second before catching himself and stuttering with, "Y-y-you know what I mean!"
That was Merger, a light blue earth pony that thought shaving parts of his head would become a popular fashion trend. He was an idiot, pure and simple, and Diligence was playing him like a fiddle. Not once would he pause to think before speaking and Gleam considered him a worthy subject for someone to do a character study. He wouldn't do it, but it would be worth having someone try to figure out how Merger managed to get to his position without being stamped out early on in his career.
"Oh, they're going to have a field day with that one," another pony chimed in, this time a unicorn of a dark green hue, "you sure you don't want to try that sentence again?"
Gleam needed a second to place this one's name. Dull green earth pony… He didn't think he'd met him before but he'd had to deal with most of Equestria's leaders at some point or another so he was sure he'd at least heard his name onc-
"Go to Hell, Matrix," Merger yelled, solving the mystery, "just skip the line and tell them I sent you!"
Matrix only laughed while the fourth pony at the table - another Pegasus of a mild yellow hue - rubbed the bridge of her snout with a hoof.
"I could have been organizing a banquet today," she complained, "This is not how I wanted this weekend to go…"
Vision? Gleam, thought her name had something to do with vision. Or seeing. Something like that. It was probably Vision. Either way, he was growing impatient with this nonsense as he neared the table. This constant fighting and fanning of rivalries between the mayors of the various cities and their respective territories only ever tired Gleam. It was just so very petty how they'd invent rumors and conspiracies to throw mud and argue for hours over nothing. Politics was never something Gleam thought on fondly. He'd and understood it's importance of course, but the ones involved always came off as… well… they came off as these kinds of people.
"That's enough!" the fifth and final pony, a sizeable dark red stallion of the unicorn race, slammed his hoof into the table in a show of anger, "Diligence, stop drumming up drama! Merger, drop it! Matrix, shut up and Visionary, stop complaining!" Visionary! That's what it was. Gleam didn't think it suited her.
"This isn't what we're here for and there's far more important matters to attend to than you two trying to screw each other over! Put it on ice and focus for Celestia's sake!" This stallion was named Lion Heart and Gleam was rather familiar with him, though it wasn't for reasons that Lion would appreciate. He was an example of governance that had yet to embarrass himself in some easy to avoid way. Scandals involving guard captains, embezzlement, altered documents and even rumors of smuggling had plagued all the other mayors present, but not Lion Heart. Somehow, he'd avoided the drama, and according to the higher ups he was an example to strive towards. Gleam had yet to be impressed.
"Now, maybe if we're done seeing who can piss further and on who's face, we can focus?" Lion Heart finished before noticing Gleam.
"Head Instructor," Lion nodded, Gleam did not, "Thank you for coming. I understand it was short notice and I'd like to apologize for that right away before we get into things."
"Last I checked both Luna and Celestia were both still breathing," Gleam growled and took a seat near the table away from the rest of the ponies for fear that he'd slap one of them the next time they spoke and rack up another favor on behalf of the country, "so unless the Elements have been kidnapped or turned into gelatinous cubes I don't see why you needed to drag me away from my duties to witness you all bicker like school aged colts and fillies. I see enough of that already."
He noticed only now that the table had a map scrolled across it of Equestria's western countryside. There were several points marked with flags and a few notes had been scribbled and laid out over spots that Gleam could only assume were points of someone's interest.
"Trust me," Lion continued, shooting Merger a brief glare to keep him from speaking out of turn, "I wouldn't ask you to abandon your students if the situation weren't dire. We need your help."
Lion glanced back at the sixth pony present, a unicorn fully equipped in armor that had yet to say a word amd seemed to be serving as both bodyguard and assistant to Lion. The unicorn's horn lit up with a glow of magic as he levitated a scroll over to Gleam.
"We seem to be under attack," Lion claimed while Gleam rolled the scroll out in front him, "over the last few months there have been several occurrences of unusual and sudden appearances of various kinds of wildlife."
"Animals have been showing up seemingly out of nowhere," Diligence spoke up, Gleam listening as he scanned the contents of the scroll, frowning the further into it he got, "So far we've counted four separate occasions, and they've been increasing in severi-"
"It started in Greenswill," the voice of Merger, cutting off Diligence in another display of short term petty self fulfilment, "some… animals materialized out of thin air. The guard looked into it but found no evidence of any criminal activity."
"That's your city, isn't it?" Gleam asked without looking up from his scroll, "what was the variety. Of wildlife, I mean."
"… It doesn't matter-"
"Bunnies!" Diligence interrupted, pausing only to catch her breath after a fit of laughter, "his market was flooded with bunny rabbits and it was the silliest thing anyone ever-"
"Yes! They were bunny rabbits!" Merger retook control of the conversation, speaking loud enough to drown out Diligence whom had refused to stop laughing over the nature of his crisis, "Rabbits appeared at noon in the center of the market square during the height of business hours, or so the patrons had reported. None of my guards had seen it happen, but according to witnesses the rabbits just suddenly appeared out of nowhere like they had teleported into the area with no warning. Like I said, I had my guards look into it but they found nothing beyond a few traces of magic. We'd assumed it was a prank some up and coming mage had played on us for laughs and disregarded it as such."
"Then a pack of dogs appeared in Noble's market," Visionary adopted the narrative, Gleam halfway through the scroll that detailed what he was being told though done so with more magical technicality and insight, "They showed up at noon during a grand opening for a new resturaunt. Most were run off by the guards that were watching over the event but some managed to get a few bites in on the attending ponies before being scared off. We still get the occasional report of feral hounds harassing people after dark. I would have chalked it up as a prank similarly to how Merger had done so with his… uh… 'bunny situation'," another fit of laughter from Diligence, "but ours was different. When we investigated, I got reports from my guards that detailed how some of the dogs appeared to be… Inside the walls of the buildings around the market. Half of the dogs were melded into the building while the other half were, well… you know. This made us assume someone had used magic to teleport the dogs but had been off target."
The conversation stalled long enough for Diligence to catch her breath, Gleam finishing the scroll and setting it aside and impatiently clearing his throat. Diligence paid no mind.
"Hahaha! Aha! Ah… Hah… Oh… Okay… So… After they dealt with their dumb harmless nonsense," Diligence finally managed to form words, much to the chagrin of Merger and Visionary, "I was hit with timber wolves."
Diligence's voice dropped to a sudden grave tone that Gleam hadn't expected from the previously laughing mare.
"They appeared closer to Perticity's castle than in Greenswill and Noble, I might add, managed to do more damage than their stupid bunnies and dogs. Several ponies were mauled before my guards were able to get things under control, so maybe you two should stop friggin complain about the inconvenience of having mild woodland creatures show up to momentarily interrupt otherwise normal events!"
Merger and Visionary went on to start shouting some pointless defense that Gleam didn't care about. He ignored the brewing argument while he went over in his head what the scroll had informed him one more time. Several occurrences of seemingly random teleportation that involved animals of increasing threat classifications. First bunnies, then dogs and timber wolves. The report mentioned manticores coming next which Gleam assumed one of the mayors present would go into detail over soon enough, but he rolled the idea around regardless in hopes of ideas coming to him before this train wreck of a briefing was through.
"Stop!" Lion again attempted to regain control of the conversation, his tone making it clear that his tolerance of these ponies and their rivalries was wearing extremely thin, "Your people are being attacked by wild animals and monsters from the Everfree, and you think this the time to argue and fight amongst ourselves? Reign it in! This is serious!" Lion took a second to let loose another sigh and shake his head at the others.
"My city was next," He turned his attention to Gleam, shooting the others quick stabbing glances as he spoke to keep them quiet, "and I think it's fair to say that mine was the worst. Gleam, I noticed you rolled up the scroll I gave you, so I assume you read about the manticores? They hit Corona, right in the center of my castle's square, and they did quite a bit of damage before my Cortoza were able to put them down."
Ah, yes, the Cortoza. Gleam almost rolled his eyes at the mention of Lion Heart's pet project. A corps of battle mages intended to outperform and possibly replace the royal guard? He'd found the idea amusing a few decades ago when he'd had the honor of helping to found its original incarnation, but now it seemed like a rather desperate attempt to impress the royal sisters and make a name for himself. He didn't bother hiding his distaste for Lion's mentioning of the Cortoza as he never felt a need to and thought Lion's defending of the resurrection of his retired corps to be sad.
"They took control of the situation," Lion continued with emphasis placed on the Cortoza's efforts, "after putting them down and calming the civilians they cleaned up the mess. Immediately after I set them to investigate the situation I contacted the others here and learned of their experiences."
"what did Captain Willows find?" Gleam asked, speaking for the first time in what he felt was forever.
"Willows wasn't consult-"
"What did Captain Willows find?" Gleam repeated, his tone demanding in his desire to know what the captain of Corona's guard had discovered.
"Willows. Was. Not. Consulted," Lion repeated with a blunt stop and start cadence, "My Cortoza were assigned to investigate the phenomena and found little to go on."
"You're toy soldiers failed to pick up on any leads then?" Gleam chuckled, directing his attention to the table in front of him as Lion huffed from his corner, "I'm shocked. Truly. What's this all about then? This map has markers over several towns and cities that none of you mentioned. What's their significance?"
"We've been trying to discern a pattern," Visionary spoke up to explain, "There's no concrete rhythm to the appearances that we've been able to decipher, but we've noted several possible targets that might be hit next according to the locations that have already fell victim to these attacks."
"Attacks!?" Diligence nearly fell over, clutching at her sides as she howled with laughter, "'Attacks' she says! Dogs and bunnies! Ahahahaha!"
"… These are the most likely targets according to our estimations," Visionary tried to ignore the raucous cackling of Diligence, "We can't tell for sure where it might happen next, of course, but we're pretty confident that it will be in one of these two locations."
"Berylsburg," Gleam named off one of the marked locations, a sizeable city some distance away. He shot Matrix a glance at the mention as he realized why the pony had been present this whole time.
"And… what is that… Weaver? Why is Weaver marked on here?"
"Weaver is going to be holding a festival within the next few days," Matrix mentioned while scrutinizing his left hoof's most recent manicure, "Some locally run square dance or whatever they do out in the boonies. Lion think's that might make it a target but I don't get why. It's just some backwater where everyone sleeps all day, I think."
"It's the nap capitol of the world, actually," Diligence tapped near Weaver's position on the map and whispered as if letting everyone in on a secret, "They make blankets."
"Every attack has happened either in a center of a congregation of ponies or near the cities administration," Lion stepped in again, "and a festival falls in line with the former. However, I agree that it's an unlikely target. Berylsburg is a much stronger candidate what with its upcoming gem exchange."
"Yeah," Matrix, "we get tons of tourism this time of year since a bunch of collectors show up and show off their rare gems. It does wonders for the economy, I tell you what. Those nerds love to flaunt their shiny rocks."
Gleam looked over the map and weighed the options. He'd heard of Weaver but never been there personally. The festival coming up was unknown to him, and as such he could only assume it was more of a local event than Berylsburg's well known gem exchange that reliably attracted thousands of ponies every year. As a "nerd" – according to Matrix at least – he found himself in agreement with the arrogant mayor. Especially when considering that, in this heatwave, most of the exchange would probably be taking place indoors to get out of the sun. More concentrated targets. More potential for damage.
There was, however, one question that had been bothering Gleam ever since he'd received that scroll from Lion Heart.
"Why haven't you told the royal sisters?" Gleam was blunt, staring Lion in the eye as he asked this.
Lion was hesitant to answer, but Diligence started to snicker as had become common behavior for her when it came to the other mayors' missteps.
"Well?" she asked halfway through a breath, "Why haven't you told the princess? Please, enlighten us."
Lion avoided eye contact with the others. He glanced back at his bodyguard, Gleam only now noticing the insignia on the guards' armor and scoffing while Lion turned back to finally answer.
"The Cortoza can handle this," He claimed, the other mayors either groaning or chuckling at the idea, "All they need is to be told where to go and we can stop it. One lead and this problem is solved."
"You want me to trust your toy soldiers with what could potentially be a burgeoning crisis?" Gleam's words cut like a knife, Lion flinching slightly while the other mayors only took pleasure in it, "Have you gone insane? This needs to be brought to Celestia or Luna immediately."
"No!" Lion pleaded, Diligence cackling away in the background, "Gleam, I know you don't think much of me, but I implore you, give my Cortoza this chance! I've already gone through the trouble to organize this meeting, Corona is far closer to both of the next potential targets than Canterlot and I have a number of prepped teams on stand-by just waiting for me to say the word-"
"Sorry, you're going to have to repeat that," Gleam said after loudly shushing Lion down, "You'll have to forgive me, I'm getting up there in years so it's getting a tad difficult to be sure, but it sounded like the words that just came out of your mouth weren't: 'Yes, Head Instructor, I apologize for being a selfish child that values his project over the security of my people and will alert both Celestia and Luna immediately'. Am I wrong? Someone correct me because I swear it sounded like something completely different!"
Lion was silent then straightened himself out and looked Gleam in the eye.
"I've done my research, Head Instructor. I know about the Cortoza. Their past, their history, what they did and what they were capable of. I also know that you've doubted my reincarnation of the corps since its inception. But please, just give them a chance. I have overseen their training, taken great pains to ensure that they are the best of the best, all so I can prove that their corps not only is needed but has a place in today's military that none can deny.
"I grew up with stories of what you and your friends managed to do," Lion continued, his gaze dropping to the floor beneath him, "My library is one of the few to still have surviving evidence of these events. Gigatrax, The Cloven March, Surmount…"
Lion sighed, the stallion sitting down where he was and focusing on the map in front of him as he ran a hoof across his forehead to wipe away a few beads of sweat.
"I know that the Cortoza are exactly what we need in this day and age. All they need is one opportunity to prove themselves. This is that opportunity, I'm sure of it."
There was silence.
Then Matrix spoke up.
"I say let it blow up in his face," Diligence loved this idea and expressed it in a way that I'm sure you can assume, "I mean, his joke of a guard reformation guided by a selfish desire to be at the head is primed to become a hilarious disaster already. Why not go full throttle?"
Lion glared daggers at Matrix while Merger contributed with:
"I honestly don't care either way. Whatever shows up will be an issue for you all to deal with anyway so I don't really give a flying fudge what you decide. I don't even know why I'm here. Did I mention that my city only had to deal with a sudden explosion in it's rabbit population? Can I leave now? I don't think I'm really relevant to this discussion."
"Sit down!" Lion barked, bringing Merger's butt back to the ground.
"So long as someone looks into it, I'm happy," Visionary sounded urgently, "Just so long as maybe it happens right now? We've spent all this time talking but we've decide on almost nothing. Can we get a move on?"
The group looked in Diligence's direction but were left with no insight as she just slapped on a smirk and shrugged.
Gleam passed his gaze between each of the ponies. He gave each a full scan before moving on, focusing on the eyes and body language before moving on to the next. Eventually he reached Lion and narrowed his own watery gray eyes. After a few seconds, he looked back down at the map scrawled out in front of him.
"… I'll see what I can do to send a few guards over to Berylsburg," Gleam assured the congregation after heaving a deep breath, "I can call in some favors and pull some people. They can show up under cover and keep an eye on things. If anything suspicious comes up they can send word to Corona then Canterlot and we can decide what to do from there.
"but know this, Lion," Gleam growled, leaning over the table and appearing somehow larger than he had before, "If these wannabes that you've scrounged together fail to provide results, they're finished. I will personally come to Corona and fire each pony one by one and turn their little headquarters into a bakery."
Lion didn't flinch, but Gleam felt he'd gotten the message.
"What of Weaver?" Visionary asked, thrusting a hoof in the town's respective position on the map.
Gleam backed off the table and looked towards Weaver on the map. After some thought, he waved a dismissive hoof at the town.
"I know a couple of ponies that can look into Weaver..."