“Is the town supposed to be on fire, General?” I said dryly as Ponyville came into sight. Amid the clear morning sky, I saw stacks of thick black smoke rising from various areas of the idyllic-looking town. Ponies of every color, shape, and size were galloping around the town, some of them clutching buckets of water in their teeth. From my position on the chariot, I could see only a few buildings consumed by flame; but the fire was certainly not natural. It was a strange shade of blackish-green, and seemed content to merely devour the building it had in its grasp, rather than spread wildly.
“No!” Twilight cried from beside me, leaning over the side of the chariot, “The Carousel Boutique is on fire. Rarity could be inside!” She turned to look at General Titus, her eyes wide with panic, “We have to land, General. Hurry!”
The chariot soared over Ponyville, though due to the confines of the streets, was forced to set down near a tall pavilion, just a few blocks away from the boutique. Twilight Sparkle had already leapt from the chariot by the time I got one leg out, and galloped away at a surprising speed. The bookworm could move pretty damn fast when motived, it seemed. I quickly sprinted after her, ignoring the various expressions of terror and surprise I received from the ponies I passed. My boots pounded on the cobblestone street as I ran after Twilight, my long legs allowing me to catch up with her quickly. General Titus flew just beside me, effortlessly keeping pace with both of us.
Twilight Sparkle skidded to a halt just outside the flaming boutique, panting heavily as she looked at the unnatural blaze. A few groups of ponies had formed impromptu bucket brigades, and were hard at work in their attempt to quench the flames. Much to their credit, none of them stopped what they were doing to stare at me in shock. They merely kept at their task with a stoic determination, and I only earned a few concerned glances. General Titus immediately set to work helping one of the groups, leaving me to stand by myself as I debated on how to lend my assistance without scaring the daylights out of the ponies. Hi! Need any help carrying that bucket? Don’t mind me; I only look like something you’d see in a nightmare.
“Twilight!” a feminine, panic-stricken voice called over the din. I turned to see another female unicorn, sporting a white coat and indigo mane, gallop over to Twilight Sparkle and embrace her in a tight hug. Twilight hugged back just as tightly, an obvious indicator that the two were friends. Hey, I’m no psychologist, but it doesn’t take one to figure some things out. I just stood there awkwardly, giving the sky my best thirty-yard gaze as the white unicorn wept into Twilight’s shoulder, completely oblivious to my presence.
“It was horrible, Twilight!” she sobbed, “Absolutely horrible! A group of…of things just dropped from the sky and began setting buildings on fire. I’m lucky I was running errands this morning; I would have still been inside when those monsters showed up.” She clutched Twilight tighter as she spoke, “Oh, Twilight…what am I doing to do? M-my home, my b-business…it’s gone.” The unicorn began crying uncontrollably, at that point. Hell, I didn’t even know her and I still felt a twinge of sympathy for the sobbing pony.
“It’s OK, Rarity,” Twilight Sparkle reassured, trying to keep herself from crying as well, by that point, “Everything’s going to be fine. We’re all here for you.”
I glanced down at the two ponies, opening my mouth in preparation to speak (I was getting a little tired of standing around like a statue), when my HUD suddenly flashed a warning. My eyes snapped towards the boutique, and I set my HUD to x-ray mode as it scanned the building. I silently prayed it had just been a false alarm or a glitch…but that proved not to be the case as the HUD reticule locked onto the unmistakable heartbeat of a living creature. A pony, to be exact, but much smaller than any of the ones I’d seen thus far.
Lifeform Detected, the flowing white letters of my HUD read, Vital Signs: Outside Acceptable Parameters.
“This day just keeps getting better and better,” I mumbled under my breath. I stalked forward, towards the front door of the building. Twilight Sparkle said something from behind me, but I tuned her out as I leaned back and lashed out with a powerful kick. The thick wooden door of the boutique flew off its hinges from the blow, disappearing into the smoke-filled foyer. I strode inside without a moment’s hesitation, my HUD cutting through the cloying smoke easily. All around me, the eerie fire consumed almost everything in its path, and my armor’s internal temperature lowered to compensate for the sudden heat. I didn’t stop to stare, however, and I quickly made my way up the stairs of the boutique, following the navbeacon my HUD had placed on the pony.
The upper floor consisted of a single large bedroom, and it was here that the flames seemed most intense, despite the room’s relatively small size. Ignoring the tongues of fire brushing against my armor, I knelt beside the room’s four-poster bed, hunching down low to look beneath it. A small, terrified pony (a ‘filly’, if you want to be technical), shied away from the blue light of my visor as it washed over her. She had yellow coat and a red mane, both of which were stained with soot. A pink bow rested atop her head, seemingly untouched by the grime covering the rest of her. Her eyes were red and puffy, no doubt from a mixture of stinging smoke and fearful crying.
“Hey,” I said gently, reaching out towards her slowly, “It’s alright, kid. I’m gonna get you out of here. But you have trust me, alright?” The filly looked out my outstretched arm, shaking in obvious terror. After a moment of hesitation, she rested her hoof in my hand, and allowed me to carefully pull her from under the bed. Once she was out, I tucked her in the crook of my left arm and hurried to my feet. The creaking wood under me wasn’t assuaging my doubts about the boutique’s structural integrity, and I had no desire to be buried beneath several hundred pounds of burning wood. With that thought firmly in mind, I began making my way to the door of the bedroom.
“Hold, mortal,” a raspy, dry voice said suddenly from behind me, ”It is high time you and I had a talk.” I whirled around, drawing my pistol in one smooth motion. However, rather than a solid, fleshy target I could pump full of pulse rounds, I found myself face-to-face with a green, shadowy apparition. It wasn’t a pony, though…it was a human, dressed in garb similar to Jagged Claw’s. But rather than segmented metal plates the apparition’s breastplate was forged in the shape of a muscular physique, much like the old Greco-Roman commanders used to wear. His face was obscured by a crested Corinthian-style helmet, though I could see a pair of burning orange eyes from behind its visor. He was shorter than I was, but his bare arms were thick with heavy slabs of muscle.
“You were foolish enough to fall into my trap, mortal,” the apparition rasped, chuckling in amusement, “Now, you shall listen to what I have to say.” I arched an eyebrow at his words. Whoever this chump was, he’d gone through a lot of trouble just to talk with me. It must have been important…it’s a shame I didn’t care, though. The filly in my arm buried her face between her hooves, and I could practically feel her trembling in absolute fear.
“Is that right?” I retorted, glancing around the burning bedroom, “And just who might you be?” I took a few steps backwards, ready to leap through the doorway if Raspy decided to attack. I normally would have stood my ground, but I didn’t want to risk putting the little filly in harm’s way. Besides, I had no intention of letting this chump waste more of my time.
“I am Lord Aurelius, peasant,” the apparition sneered, his voice aloof and haughty, “King of Shadows, Master of Fate, and Praetorian of Dest-“ The apparition was interrupted as three, neatly-placed pulse rounds tore through its chest, causing it to shriek in rage (and, surprisingly enough, pain). It disintegrated a moment later, falling to the burning floor in a fine cloud of green dust. That dust soon disappeared as well, leaving behind no trace of the apparition.
“I asked for your name,” I grumbled as I turned and hurried from the bedroom, “not your résumé.”
Rather than take the stairs back down to the ground floor, I merely hopped over the railing, landing nimbly in a crouch. After that, it only took me a few seconds to sprint from the boutique, leaping through the doorway and into the street once more. The filly blinked at the sudden brightness of the sun, before looking up at me blearily. I let my helmet unseal and store itself away, allowing me to give the filly a reassuring smile.
“Are…are you an angel, mister?” she asked me, coughing weakly from the effort. She would need to see a doctor, but I had a good feeling she wouldn’t suffer any long-term damage from smoke inhalation. I’d gotten to her just in time, in that regard. If my HUD hadn’t of picked up her vital signs, well…I didn’t really feel like thinking about that. I don’t make a habit of dwelling on ifs and maybes; I’d saved the kid’s life, and that was good enough for me.
“An angel?” I replied, chuckling as I rested my hand atop her head, “Nah. I’m just a soldier, kid.”
By the time I’d taken the young filly (whose name I learned was Applebloom) and helped General Titus put out the remainder of the town fires, morning had given away to midafternoon. After being thanked by a dozen or so ponies for my efforts, I eventually found a quiet, shaded spot near the communal pavilion to rest. I sipped water from my suit’s in-built CamelPack, the ice-cold liquid a welcome relief for my parched throat. The cool autumn air brushed against my face, and for the first time in a long while, I couldn’t help but feel…at peace. It was a rare day in the Special Forces when I could simply relax and enjoy the crisp weather of a beautiful day. Besides, I found Ponyville to be a rather calming place. Maybe it was the clean streets, the rustic houses, or the simple country charm the whole place seemed to have; whatever the case, I had a feeling the little town would start to grow on me, in the coming weeks.
Besides, thanks to my timely rescue of Applebloom, many of the townsfolk no longer gave me sideways glances of fear. After I’d dropped Applebloom off at the local clinic, a whole group of ponies practically swamped me. They'd shaken my hand, greeting me like an old neighbor and not like a towering human clad in powered armor. Admittedly, I was caught off guard by the sudden rush of gratitude. Seeing as how the majority of my work in the Special Forces fell under ‘Highly Classified’, being thanked for a job well-done just felt…strange. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, of course. It was just another mental speed bump I had to get over that day.
I let the flexible plastic tube of my CamelPack retract into my armor as I took out my journal. Flipping it open to a blank page, I began sketching out a picture of ‘Lord Aurelius’, as the apparition called himself. I put everything I could properly recall into the picture: his armor, his burning orange eyes, the thick muscles of his arms, the design of his helmet. Strangely enough, I was the first person to actually see Aurelius (in a manner of speaking), according to General Titus. He only ever spoke through his minions (whom the General called ‘Legionaries’), and even then, only to ponies he dubbed ‘worthy’. I know that makes him sound like some ominous villain, but in reality, it just made me want to beat him to death with his own damn helmet. Trust me; I’ve met more than a few dastardly fiends who enjoyed working behind proxies and cats-paws. In the end, though, their complex wall of secrets couldn’t protect them from a bullet to the head…or a drop from a skyscraper, in one case.
After I told him about my brief conversation with Aurelius, the General and I theorized that Jagged Claw’s attack hadn’t been as random as we’d previously thought. Indeed, judging from what Aurelius had said, everything from Jagged Claw’s attack to Applebloom being in the boutique had been orchestrated intentionally. That may seem like a bit of a stretch, and I was having a difficult time connecting the dots, but I had a gut feeling Aurelius’ was the one responsible. General Titus told me he would question the filly once she was checked out of the clinic, and discover why she’d been in the boutique to begin with. He shared my suspicions, though, and I knew that the General suspected Aurelius had been manipulating today’s events, as well. What his exact motives were, however, eluded either of us.
Despite the strong resentment I was starting to develop towards Aurelius and his puppeteer ways, I wouldn’t allow myself to underestimate him. From what I was told by General Titus, he was an experienced sorcerer, and not a foe to be taken lightly. While I didn’t think Aurelius could simply disintegrate me with a wave of his hand, I was still wary of just what he could throw at me. Princess Celestia told me that combat magic had fallen out of use centuries ago, but she described it as being a deadly ability when wielded properly. I might’ve had a gun, but Aurelius had his knowledge of magic at his disposal. I wasn’t sure which us had the advantage, in that regard, but I was hoping my trigger finger was faster than his spell-slinging abilities.
“Jack?” a familiar voice called, pulling me from my thoughts. I turned to see Twilight Sparkle approaching, her expression one of weary fatigue. Her legs were stained with soot, and her mane was sticking out in several places. She plopped down next to me in the shade with a quiet sigh of relief, rolling onto her back to gaze up at the clear blue sky.
“Hey, Twilight,” I said, stowing away my journal, “Looks like you’ve had a long day.” I smiled down at her, “Though, I guess we’ve both had one, eh?”
“You can say that again,” she said, blowing a loose strand of mane from her face, “General Titus said he’d meet up with us later, once he and his squadron are done patrolling the area. I guess he wants to make sure those Legionnaires really did leave.”
“Smart thinking,” I grunted, leaning my head against the pavilion, “I should probably go help him. With the way things have gone today, he’ll probably end up fighting a rampant hydra or something.” I reached into a pouch on my belt as I spoke and pulled out a Tuscan-style cigar, followed closely by a small box of waterproof matches. While I didn’t smoke by necessity, I did enjoy the occasional cigar, whenever I had a rare moment to relax. Besides, after a long day of fighting bloodthirsty griffons and putting out fires, I think I deserved one. I stuck the cigar in my mouth and lit it with well-practiced ease, flicking away the spent match when I was done.
“Uhm, Jack?” Twilight Sparkle said after a moment, wrinkling her nose at the cigar’s pungent smell, “What is that?”
“Something that used to kill people,” I replied casually, blowing out a small cloud of smoke, “until some brilliant man came along and cured cancer. Now it just makes your clothes smell like the ass-end of a donkey.” I chuckled at Twilight’s confused expression, “I take it Equestria doesn’t have tobacco, then?”
“No, we don’t,” Twilight Sparkle said, blowing away a lingering puff of smoke near her, “And after smelling it, I’m kind of glad.”
“Fair enough,” I chuckled, looking up at the sky as I smoked. The silence between us stretched for several moments, before I finally decided to ask, “How’s Rarity holding up?”
“She’s still in shock,” Twilight replied, sighing quietly, “I’ve never seen her like this before, Jack. She’s usually so dramatic, but this...” She shook her head sadly, “I don’t think anything could have prepared her for losing her business and her home. She’s barely said a word to anyone, since the fires were put out. I…I don’t know what to say to her, Jack. What can I say?” Twilight Sparkle bit her lip, glancing up at me pleadingly.
They’ve never experienced this before, I thought to myself, my gaze lingering on my cigar, They’ve never been attacked by someone who doesn’t care whether they live or die. Aurelius is stripping away their damn innocence day by day.
“I’m not one to give advice, Twilight,” I said, resting my hand on the unicorn’s head, “Never really had anyone to give it to, either.” I flicked away the ashes on my cigar as I spoke, “But I suppose the best thing you can do for Rarity now, is be there for her. Give her your shoulder to cry on when she needs it, or pick her up when she stumbles. Rarity will come around soon enough. She just needs some time, is all.” I gave Twilight a reassuring smile as I looked down at her.
“I…you’re right,” Twilight said, resting one of her hooves atop my hand, “It’s hard seeing her like that…but you’re right.” She was silent for a moment before speaking again, “This is going to get worse, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I replied, making no effort to hide the truth, “It sure as Hell is, kid.”
As if to emphasize my point, my cigar suddenly exploded as something incredibly fast struck it. I jerked my hand back with a grunt of surprise, immediately jumping to my feet as I drew my pistol, my helmet forming around my head. Barely a moment later, a red-hot sledgehammer of force hit me in the chest, driving me to my knees. Tendrils of pain stabbed through my lungs as I struggled to catch my breath, and when I glanced down to look at my chest, I saw a thin metal bolt jutting from my armor.
I looked up in time to see a familiar holographic-blue dot settle directly on my forehead.
Author's Note: Whoops! I forgot to add my note to this chapter. How derpy of me.
Not that there's much to say about this chapter, anyway. It took me longer than anticipated to release it, due to the bout of writer's block I went through. Still, all things considered, I think it turned out pretty well. Of course, that's mostly due to my amazing pre-reader, Invictus. Seriously, that guy is like a wizard when it comes to pointing out mistakes and giving me much-needed suggestions. I would give him a bajillion dollars, if I could.
Aaaand that's about it, really. I hope you enjoy the new chapter! With luck, I'll be able to complete Chapter Six soon.
Until next time, my most beloved readers!