Despite the fact I was soaring high above the ground in a golden chariot, pulled by a team of armored pegasi, I found the ride from Canterlot to Ponyville rather relaxing. Given, there wasn’t a lot of room in said chariot, even with General Titus deigning to fly beside it, but I wasn’t complaining. I’d managed to tuck myself into the corner, with Twilight Sparkle sitting to the left of me. The skies were clear and the breeze pleasantly cool, brushing against my helmetless face as the chariot flew effortlessly onward.
Far below us, a winding river cut through a mixture of rolling green plains and small forests. Something about the natural beauty of Equestria captured my attention, despite my lingering trepidation about my current situation. It almost seemed…untainted, in a way. I’ve visited many a planet, in my time, and many of them had wilderness preserves that held many wonders. But, there was always something within them to remind me of human habitation, that what I was witnessing was allowed to exist, all because EarthGov wanted to appease the environmentalists back home.
Equestria, however, was far different. Its beauty truly was natural, unharmed by any sort of voracious industry. I saw only the occasional cottage or farm flash below, the only sign of habitation for miles around. The air was crisp and clean, carrying with it the smell of fresh pine, a far-cry from the metallic, recycled oxygen I’d breathed on The Sprawl. As I watched the verdant green land roll by, I let my thoughts drift on some pleasant memories. I didn’t completely let my guard down, mind you, but I wasn’t going to let myself be tense and paranoid.
Twilight Sparkle had similar ideas, though her method of relaxation differed from mine. Namely, it involved falling asleep and using my left shoulder as a convenient pillow. Her alarmingly-loud snoring broke me from my reverie, and I glanced down at her slumbering form in slight annoyance. I grimaced as I saw the strand of drool working its way down my arm, but I didn’t have the heart to wake her. Earlier, before we’d departed Canterlot, she mentioned that she’d barely slept the night before, given how excited she was to meet me. It would have been terribly rude of me to wake her up now, despite her…uncouth sleeping habits.
“She’s a deep sleeper, that one,” General Titus beside me, effortlessly flying next to the chariot, “Curious, too. She must have talked your ear off this morning.” He chuckled, and I had a feeling he was familiar with Twilight Sparkle’s rampant curiosity.
“Something like that,” I concurred, smiling slightly. I glanced at the General, before giving him an acknowledging nod, “I’ve been meaning to congratulate you on beating me, General. I don’t recall the last time I lost a brawl like that. The body-slam was…unexpected.” The General smiled, his expression carrying the slightest hint of pride in it.
“To be honest, I was getting rather desperate to dislodge you. That move was sloppy, but it worked, so I guess I can’t complain.” He smiled, and gestured towards the stiches on his face, “You almost had me, at the end. I wasn’t expecting you to put up a fight like that. It’s rather…humbling, to know that I can still be taken by surpri-“ General Titus was interrupted as a silver and black object, moving faster than I could blink, slammed into his back. I shot to my feet as he disappeared from view, though I could hear him scuffling with his attacker. Twilight Sparkle remained stubbornly asleep, despite her face now pressing against the floor of the chariot. I would have been amused at the sight, under different circumstances.
“Keep flying!” I barked at the pegasi pulling the chariot, “Don’t stop until you reach the town. I’ll handle this.” Before they could respond, I leapt nimbly from the chariot, my helmet forming around my head as I fell. My HUD instantly zoomed in on General Titus, who was already fifty feet below the chariot. He was locked in a midair duel with a black griffon, whose armor seemed heavily inspired by the centurions of ancient Rome. His helmet even had one of those silly-looking crests on top of it. Scars ran across his beak in several places, and his grey eyes smoldered with barely-contained rage.
I didn’t allow myself to be too surprised at the sight of the griffon, despite his outfit. My brain had calmly resigned itself to the weird and unexplainable, at that point, and didn’t bother trying to toss up any mental blockades. Instead, my well-honed instincts kicked in, the ones born from years of being a soldier. I narrowed my eyes, blocking out everything until I saw only the griffon, locked in combat with the General. Everything around me seemed to go deathly quiet as I fell, the howling wind rushing past me abruptly stopping. My breathing slowed as I closed my eyes, though my brain was practically whirring with thought. I played out my fight with the griffon in my head, trying to account for every potential variable, every attack and counter I could use against him.
Time itself seemed to stop and watch the unfolding spectacle, interested to see just what I would do.
I let loose a loud war cry as my eyes snapped open, the sound mingling with the roar of my suit’s thrusters as they blazed to life. From exhaust ports set just below my shoulders, twin streams of blue-white fire shot outward, and I rocketed towards the griffon at a breakneck speed, a pillar of roaring flame trailing behind me. Stabilizers on my shoulders and legs kept my armored form straight, and I was quickly closing the distance between my quarry and I.
In retrospect, I was lucky that I’d chosen to wear that particular suit, when I'd deployed to The Sprawl. Its experimental thrusters were far better suited for flight than other models, which were supposed to be used in zero gravity. They weren’t the most subtle devices, true, but I didn’t mind at all. Shock and awe was their purpose, to fill the skies with a sound barely indistinguishable from thunder. They invoked thoughts of cavalry charges and marching legions, an unstoppable force that Fate itself could not hope to hinder, let alone stop.
The griffon looked up from his attack on the General, just in time to see me approach. I saw his eyes widen fearfully beneath his helmet, and he flapped his wings frantically, trying to put distance between us. His action was in vain, however, for I was far too close for him to escape. I struck him in the ribs, just below his left wing, and the force of the impact was sufficient enough to send him cartwheeling off the General’s back. I must have broken something, since the griffon let out a leonine roar of pain as he fought to steady himself, wings pumping furiously.
I didn’t relent in my assault, however. Before he could recover, I delivered a stiff uppercut to his beak, followed quickly by a powerful haymaker that left a sizeable dent in his helmet. The griffon’s steel-shod talons raked at my chest and shoulders, but were unable to pierce the reinforced plates of my suit. He snarled in frustrated pain, and I knew he was starting to get desperate. I continued to rain powerful blows on his chest, his armor beginning to noticeably buckle under the strain.
“Foolish human,” the griffon spat, shoving me away with his hind legs, “You would dare trifle with Jagged Claw? I shall pick the flesh from your bones and devour your sou-“ His dastardly monologue was interrupted as I headbutted him, sparks flying as our helmets connected. I have a very firm policy about talking during a fight; I don’t. Stopping to deliver a witty one-liner might win you the ladies, but it sure as Hell doesn’t stop a bullet. Or, in the griffon’s case, a skull-rattling headbutt.
Jagged Claw hissed in pain, drunkenly spinning away from me. He veered towards the ground, swiftly heading towards a clearing in the small forest below us. I gave chase, though my thrusters weren’t exactly built for high-speed chases. The griffon had me beat, in that regard, though only just. We landed in the clearing a few moments later, my impact causing fallen leaves around me to flutter into the air. Jagged Claw faced me from the other side of the clearing, rising to his full height…which wasn’t that tall at all, really. He only came up to my chest, though that stupid crest on his helm made him seem slightly taller than he really was.
“Just walk away, pal,” I said to him, hardly even winded from the fight, “I don’t want to make you uglier than you already are.” I smiled as Jagged Claw bristled at the insult. I wasn’t an expert at psychological warfare, but when it came to making my opponents angry, I had a lot of practice.
With a roar of anger, Jagged Claw leapt at me, easily crossing the distance between us. I sidestepped him smoothly, his talons digging furrows into the ground, rather than me. Before he could pull them free, I lashed out with a kick that struck him in the ribs, right in the area I’d previously injured. He hissed in pain, though he managed to dodge my second kick, before seizing a rock and bashing me upside the head. I grunted, stumbling back a few paces from the force of the blow. He tackled me around the waist before I could recover, but I managed to keep my feet and prevent myself from tumbling to the ground.
I wrapped my arms around the griffon’s neck, and with a grunt, hefted him off the ground. I slammed him back down with bone-shaking force, before picking him up again, spinning around, and tossing him into a nearby tree. Jagged Claw struck with enough force to crack the trunk, and he tumbled limply to the ground. I calmly strode over to him and gripped his throat tightly with my right hand. I lifted him up, pulled him back, and smashed his head against the tree.
I pulled him back again and bashed his head once more, before tossing him contemptuously back into the clearing. Jagged Claw tried to rise, but collapsed back to the ground in a battered, broken heap. He was having trouble focusing his eyes, and he blinked them rapidly as he tried clearing his vision. I walked over slowly, kneeling down next to him as I wrapped my right arm around his throat, immobilizing him in a tight chokehold. He struggled against the vise, but his attempts were laughably feeble in his weakened state.
“I gave you a chance to leave,” I told him quietly, tightening my hold on him, “But you didn’t.” My voice was unyielding, lacking anything remotely close to mercy or pity. “Who’s the foolish one now, hm?” Jagged Claw merely rasped in response, talons gripping my arm as he tried to pry it loose from his throat. I felt my lips peel back into a snarl beneath my helmet as I watched the pitiful sight. The bastard just didn’t know when to quit. I adjusted my grip slightly, preparing to snap his neck and finally put an end to things.
“Jack!” a panicked voice suddenly called from above me, “Jack, stop!” I looked up, just as General Titus and the chariot landed in the clearing. Twilight Sparkle immediately jumped from the back of the chariot and galloped over to where I was kneeling. She skidded to a halt front of me, her eyes wide and pleading. She put her hooves on my arm, trying to remove it from Jagged Claw’s throat. I merely stared at her, more than a little confused at her actions. Jagged Claw had attacked and tried to kill me…but she wanted me to let him go?
“Please, Jack.” She pleaded, eyes brimming with desperate tears, “I know he’s a bad griffon, but you don’t have to kill him! Just…please, let him go. Please!” She tugged at my arm harder, even as Jagged Claw’s eyes began to droop close. I looked at her, before glancing down at the griffon I held in my grip. All it would take was a mere twist of my shoulder, and Jagged Claw would never draw breath again. Just a twist, and I could extinguish the life of a foe that would most certainly hold a grudge against me, if I let him live.
Let him go, Jack, a voice in my head whispered, Don’t scar Twilight Sparkle. You're not a bad person.
“I’m not a hero, either,” I murmured in reply, too quiet for Twilight to hear.
With a final glance at the tears spilling down Twilight Sparkle’s face, I let Jagged Claw go. My HUD readouts told me his heart was still beating, but he’d be out for a long while. I sat back, though I didn’t feel any sort of remorse at what I’d almost done. If you were expecting me to, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t make it a habit of letting my enemies live. Jagged Claw was a lucky bastard, indeed. If Twilight hadn’t of shown up when she did, he’d be a dead man…or dead griffon, rather.
I’m not a bad person, yet I’ve never claimed to be a hero. I’ve walked the fine line between saint and sinner every day for over a decade…but don’t ask me which one I am. I’m still trying to figure that out, myself.
“Thank you,” Twilight Sparkle said, wrapping her forelegs around me in a tight hug, “You aren’t injured, are you?” I shook my head, gently removing her hooves from my neck as I stood up. I walked over to General Titus, who eyed Jagged Claw’s limp form with something akin to satisfaction. At least the General approved of my actions. I briefly wondered if he would have done the same, in my position. I refrained from asking that question aloud, though.
“That’s the other human’s second-in-command,” he said, nodding towards the griffon, “He’s earned a fearsome reputation, these past few months.” He gave me an apologetic glance, “Sorry for not helping, once you landed. I needed to make sure the chariot wasn’t under attack by anything else. Jagged Claw usually flies with a pack of rogue pegasi. He looked back at Jagged Claw, “From the looks of it, though…you really didn’t need my assistance.”
“He was an ass,” I replied, chuckling slightly, “Honestly, you put up a better fight than that clown, General.” I hopped onto the chariot, settling back down in my previous spot, “Unless you intend on bringing him with us, I suggest we get moving.” General Titus nodded, gesturing for Twilight Sparkle to get onboard. She did so reluctantly, glancing back at Jagged Claw as she sat down next to me.
“Don’t worry about him,” I told her, “He’ll be awake soon enough. Besides, I want him to report back to his boss.” I smiled slightly beneath my helmet, “Consider him a…warning, so to speak. The other human will be less inclined to fight me, once Jagged Claw tells him about our scuffle. At least, I hope that’s what happens.” Twilight Sparkle still seemed troubled, and I doubted my words did anything to alleviate her conscience, but she didn’t try arguing
Things are going to get worse, Twilight Sparkle, I thought to myself, as the chariot took off, Depend on it.
Author’s Note: Hello, everyone! I hope you enjoyed this most recent installment of ‘When Death Knocks’. I wanted to keep this chapter action oriented, to make up for the smaller pace of Chapter Three. It was an absolute blast to write this, especially since Jack got to utilize some of his technology. I always loved the sections of Dead Space 2 when Isaac utilized his suit’s thrusters, especially when he was escaping that orbital relay. One of the best parts of the game, in my opinion.
Also, I want to give a massively ginormous thanks to Invictus, the amazing pre-reader I recruited to help with my story. His input helped me stamp out the errors in this chapter and forge it into the creation you just read. Do him a favor, and check out his story ‘Magic and Mayhem and…Murder? Oh my…’ It completely blows mine out of the water. That man can write like an absolute boss. Check it out here!
March is going to be a really busy month for me, so there could be a lengthy delay between chapters. Still, I’ll work as hard as I can to deliver Chapter Five ASAP.
Thanks for reading!