For the second time that week, I knew I was a dead man. That was blatantly apparent as I watched that blue dot settle on my head. My thoughts flashed back to my battle on The Sprawl, that desperate last stand where I was more than certain that my end had finally come, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. That same sense of inevitability settled over me as I closed my eyes, waiting for the moment when the bolt would pierce my helmet and finally put an end to me. At least I was dying in a nice place, rather than some godforsaken hellhole.
I knew the bolt was coming, courtesy of my helmet’s sensors. I could hear it whistling through the air towards my head, backed by all the authority of fate itself. I clenched my eyes tight, prepared to feel the bolt punch through my helmet and into my skull, followed immediately by complete and utter darkness. There was just one problem, however…
That moment didn’t come. Rather than reinforced metal, I heard the bolt embedded itself into something else with a sound akin to breaking glass. I snapped my eyes open as I heard it, and found myself face-to-face with the lethal projectile, its tip mere inches from my helmet. Hovering just in front of me was a shimmering pane of purple light with hairline fractures spanning across its surface, courtesy of the seeker bolt currently jutting from it. Confused, I whipped my head towards Twilight Sparkle, and saw her horn glowing brightly as she sustained the shield in front of me, her eyes clenched in concentration.
Well, I’ll be damned, I thought to myself, I need to learn that trick.
I quickly rose to my feet as my HUD traced the bolt to its point of origin: the rooftop of a home just across the square. It couldn’t pick up the shooter’s vials, but my HUD did lock onto the weapon’s ID tag and confirmed that it was indeed my seeker rifle. I felt a very pointed sense of annoyance at being shot at by my own weapon, and was already formulating a plan that involved me beating the gunman senseless. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that make life grand.
With a throaty roar the thrusters of my suit activated. I felt my feet leave the ground as I soared into the air, arcing towards the rooftop my HUD had highlighted. My visor’s crosshairs locked onto the gunman as he hastily tried to make his way off the roof, but just before he could leap, I tackled him around the waist with bone-crushing force. My momentum smashed the two of us through the roof, both floors of the house, and out a large window. We separated as we tumbled down the street, ponies screaming and scattering from our paths. I ended up careening into a stall selling bright red apples, scattering produce all over the street.
I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty about the destruction, however. I scrambled to my feet as my opponent, having landed relatively close to me, unsheathed a gladius from his belt. His outfit was similar to Aurelius’s in design, leading me to believe that I was facing one of the legionaries mentioned by General Titus. He, and I assumed it was in fact a he, was shorter than I was and considerably less muscular. But he moved with a serpentine grace as he prowled back in forth in front of me, the blade of his sword gleaming. He was too close for me to draw my pistol and shoot, and besides, I wasn’t afraid of the medieval pig-sticker he was packing.
The legionary struck first, lashing out with his gladius in a murderous arc. The blade swiftly found itself meeting my forearm, causing a trail of sparks to form as metal struck metal. In reply, I lashed out with a right hook that sent the sonuvabitch stumbling back, before following up with a knee to his stomach. He doubled over from the blow, allowing me to grip his throat, heft him up, and slam him into the ground. His sword clattered from his grip, but I didn’t relent there. Instead, I picked him back up, grabbed his head, and forcefully drove it into the side of a nearby building. I repeated the process several times, to the point where the helm of the Legionary was nothing more than a dented, ruined mess when I let him slump to the ground.
“Bastard,” I grunted, kicking him in the gut to make sure he stayed dead, before pulling the seeker bolt from my chest plate and tossing it away. I then strode over to where my seeker rifle had fallen during the scuffle, and gently picked it up. Its worn grip felt reassuringly familiar, almost akin to shaking hands with an old friend. I brushed dirt from its barrel, before ejecting the spent clip and sliding a new one home. I only had three extra clips left, but I didn’t care about the ammo shortage. I was just damned glad to have my rifle back. Happy enough, in fact, that I cracked my first genuine smile since waking up in Equestria. Call me a weirdo, but when it comes to a soldier and his gun, you won’t find a better love story.
“Jack!” Twilight called, prompting me to turn around. She came galloping up the street me, while General Titus and his squadron landed not far behind her. The young unicorn’s eyes were wide with worry and fear, as she looked at my suit’s newly acquired scrapes, and the small puncture hole the bolt had left. “Are you alright? Do I need to teleport us the hospital?”
“I’m fine,” I grunted, slinging my rifle as I spoke, “Trust me, Twilight. It takes more than a tumble to hurt me, and the bolt didn’t pierce my under-armor. Besides…” I hooked a thumb at the body of the Legionary, “he wasn’t so tough.”
“Several of my soldiers would beg to differ, Lieutenant.” General Titus rumbled as he trotted up to me. His squadron fanned out around the legionary, and quickly set about covering the body with a tarp. “They are notoriously difficult to bring down, even for my veterans. For you to defeat one in single combat is…impressive, to say the least.”
I just chuckled and reached down to ruffle Twilight’s mane. “Not gonna lie, General. The bastard caught me with my pants down. If it wasn’t for Twilight here…well, I doubt we’d be speaking right now.”
“Is that right?” Titus said, raising an eyebrow as he looked at Twilight.
The unicorn blushed visibly, and I realized then that Twilight was rather…modest. From what Celestia had told me, she was one of the strongest, most talented damned unicorns in Equestria, and that was high praise coming from an immortal alicorn that raised the sun every day. And yet, Twilight Sparkle remained humble through it all. I felt my respect for her go up a few notches, as she stammered out a reply to the General.
“I-it was nothing, really,” she said, still blushing slightly, “I just cast a simple shield spell, is all. But…thank you, Jack. I’m glad I could help.” Twilight glanced at my rifle as she spoke, and I could practically hear her brain whirring with dozens of questions.
“Before you ask,” I said, raising a hand to stall her, “this is my seeker rifle. I had it with me during…well, before I came to Equestria. It was gone when I woke up in that tunnel, and no, I’m not sure how that jackass got it.” I sighed in annoyance, “I’m not even sure how he figured out how to use it. From what the General said, Aurelius likes to use magic, not guns. Hell, didn’t you say that his goons are just mindless constructs?”
“Indeed I did,” Titus replied, nodding soberly, “They are nothing more than beings made from raw magic and given a modicum of sentience. They are fond of using swords, as you no doubt discovered, and never have I seen them wield a…gun, as you called it.” He frowned in thought as he spoke, “Perhaps Aurelius gave this particular soldier knowledge on how to use such a device. If that’s the case, then maybe he knows about your dimension of origin, Lieutenant, and the weapons your people wield.”
Well…that as one hell of a thought. If that was true, then Aurelius had used his magic trick to single me out specifically, and bring me to Equestria. Why? I hadn’t a damned clue. I’m a soldier, not a detective, and so far Aurelius was just an enigma. An enigma I wanted to kill violently, but an enigma nonetheless. And I couldn’t just ask the guy what his deal was, either. To be brutally honest, I was grasping at straws in the dark.
Maybe he wasn’t trying to bring you here, a part of my brain whispered, Maybe he was trying to summon something far different. Something violent, brutal…mindless. Nothing more than husk that wants to slaughter any living thing in its path.
“Oh…shit,” I whispered. I felt the hairs on my neck stand up, and a cold shiver run down my spine. Paranoia began nibbling at the back of my mind, and I instinctively rested my hand on my pistol as I glanced around the street. “Twilight, Celestia mentioned that the spell Aurelius used to bring me here was beyond powerful. If that’s the case, then how many times could he use it? Is there, I don’t know, a limit or something?”
“Theoretically,” Twilight replied instantly, oblivious to my sudden caution, “any unicorn that uses magic for extended periods will begin to feel the strain, and will eventually reach a point where they are unable to cast even the most basic spells.” She furrowed her eyebrows in thought, “Assuming that Aurelius uses magic the same way we do, casting an inter-dimensional relocation spell would leave him utterly exhausted. Not to mention the fact that it can take weeks, even months, for the ritual to be prepared. So to answer your question…no. There is no limit. Aurelius could cast the spell multiple times, but it would take a long time, and leave him vulnerable.”
“Hm,” I grunted, still a bit on edge despite Twilight’s words, “Well that’s something, at least. We know Aurelius won’t be pulling new stuff out of his ass like some Vegas magicia-oof!” I was interrupted as something struck me in the side, sending me sprawling to the ground. My vision was filled by a bright pink mass of cotton candy, or at least something strikingly similar. A moment later, a blue eye pressed against my visor, as if desperately trying to see past the glowing blue glass.
“Helloooo?” a high-pitched, girlish voice sang, “Is there anybody in there?” A hoof began rapidly tapping against my head repeatedly, followed by amused giggling, “Oooh, I see symbols!”
“Pinkie Pie!” Twilight said from somewhere, her tone authoritative, “Get off of Jack right this instant!” I would have been surprised at the bookish unicorn’s demand, had I not been thoroughly confused about what a ‘Pinkie Pie’ was, and what it was doing on my chest in the first place.
“Okie dokie lokie!” the voice said. The pink hair obscuring my view disappeared as its owner hopped from my chest. I promptly sat up, and found myself face-to-face with a pink pony. And by pink, I mean…pink. Her coat was pink and her mane was pink, though each was a slightly different shade. Her cutie mark depicted a trio of balloons, and her grin could have put the Cheshire Cat to shame, given how broad it was.
“Hi!” she exclaimed happily, bouncing slightly as she spoke, “I’m Pinkie Pie! You must be new here, ‘cause I know everyone in Ponyville and I’m certain I haven’t seen you around. Unless I’ve forgotten, but that would be silly!” Pinkie Pie giggled joyously as she hopped in a circle around me, “You’re so big and tall, there’s no way I could have forgotten you!”
“I…right, of course,” I said numbly, still uncertain about how I felt about the excited pony, “Pinkie Pie, hm? Twilight Sparkle told me all about you. You’re the one that likes to throw parties, right?”
“Shouldn’t have said that, Lieutenant,” General Titus murmured, trying his best not to smile in amusement at my plight. Before I could ask what he meant, Pinkie Pie stopped hopping, and for a moment, I thought she was going to practically explode with excitement.
“You know who I am!?” she said, grabbing my helmet with her forelegs and mushing her face against my visor, “Oh, I’m so happy! We were already friends from the start!” Pinkie Pie hugged my neck tightly, “I’m throwing a party tonight. It’ll be a ‘Welcome To Ponyville, Mister Big Metal Suity-Man’ party! You’ll get to meet the rest of my friends, and eat cake and have fun and I need to get the decorations right now!”
Before I could even respond, Pinkie Pie galloped off at an alarming speed, leaving me completely dumbfounded at…whatever had just happened. After a long moment, I stood up and brushed dirt from my suit as best as I could.
“I don’t know whether to feel flattered,” I mused to myself, “or violated.” Twilight Sparkle had given me a fair warning about Pinkie Pie beforehand, but nothing in the universe could have prepared me to deal with something so utterly random.
“Trust me, she’ll grow on you,” Twilight assured me, before gesturing for me to follow her, “I was going to visit Applebloom at the hospital before we were attacked. Do you want to come with me? Her sister will want to thank you for saving her, no doubt.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” I grunted, walking beside the unicorn as we made our way down the street.
The walk to Ponyville General was a fairly quick one, and before long, I found myself standing in a clean, cool lobby. I was surprised at how much the place resembled the hospitals of twenty-first century Earth. Compared to Ponyville’s rustic aesthetic, the sudden change was rather unexpected. However, I kept my thoughts to myself as Twilight Sparkle asked the receptionist where Applebloom was.
“She’s just down the hall behind my desk, dear,” the mare replied, fidgeting nervously at my presence, “Room 203. The doctor expects she’ll be able to leave sometime this evening. She’s tired, but the smoke didn’t leave any permanent damage.”
“Much obliged,” I replied, nodding at the receptionist as Twilight led the way to Applebloom’s room. As she knocked on the door gently, I let my helmet unseal and store itself away. Even though my scuffle with Aurelius’s thug had left me cautious, I didn’t want to scare the little filly with my helmeted visage. She’d been through enough that day, I reckoned.
“Hello?” Twilight said softly as she cracked open the door, just wide enough to stick her head though, “Hi, Applejack. Can we come in?”
“You sure can, sugarcube,” a mare with a heavy country twang replied, “Who’s with...you…oh my stars.” The mare trailed off Twilight swung the door open the rest of the way, revealing my armored figure. I walked inside slowly, my eyes sweeping around the room. It was Spartan in its design, with crisp white walls, a single window, and a bed for the patient. Applebloom rested on that bed, her tiny figure partially covered in a heavy blanket. Her head lay on a large pillow, and I noticed that her mane lacked the pink bow that had previously tied it together. Sitting on the other side of the bed was a young mare with an orange coat, blonde mane, and green eyes. An honest-to-God Stetson was clutched between her hooves as she looked at Applebloom, and judging from the trio of apples that represented her cutie mark, I figured that I was looking at Applejack, Applebloom’s older sister
“Applejack,” Twilight said quietly, giving her friend a reassuring hug as she spoke, “This is Jack. He’s the pony...er, I mean, the human that saved…“ She trailed off as Applejack promptly stood, trotted over, and embraced me in a fierce hug. Twilight smiled at the scene, while I awkwardly patted Applejack’s head, unused to such displays of affection from...well, from just about anything.
“Thank you,” Applejack said, her voice barely a whisper, “Thank you for saving my sister. I don’t know what I’d do without her.” She sniffled quietly, giving me an apologetic smile as she let me go and stepped back. “Shoot, but where are my manners? I’m Applejack, partner.”
“Lieutenant Jack Ventralis,” I replied, gently kneeling down in front of her, And, uhm...don’t mention it? My pleasure, really.” God, I was terrible at this shit. Give me a heated firefight over emotional moments anyday. In order to break the moment of awkward silence that had suddenly formed, I spared a nod at Applebloom as I asked, “Has she talked about why she was in the boutique to begin with?”
“She has,” Applejack said, wiping the few remaining tears from her eyes, “Earlier, when she was awake, ‘Bloom mentioned that she and her friends were playing by their treehouse. The last thing she remembers is falling asleep under the tree, then waking up in that inferno. Doesn’t know how she even got there.”
“Teleportation, maybe?” Twilight Sparkle supplied, resting a hoof on her friend’s shoulder, “Aurelius could have easily used magic to make sure Applebloom stayed asleep while he put her in the boutique. She would only wake up when…” She bit her lip, shivering slightly at what I knew was a frightening thought…to a pony, at least. I knew full well what would have happened if I hadn’t of saved Applebloom in time, and you know what? Unlike Twilight, it didn’t bother me at all. You might think that’s more than a little cold, but I’ve long since accepted death as something that just…happens. You can fight it, of course. You can wail and gnash your teeth defiantly, or run until your heart gives out.
But one way or another, the man with the scythe will come. That’s a fact I understand and acknowledge, but the ponies? Not so much. Still, I guess I couldn’t blame them. When you live in a utopia of sunshine and happiness, shadows are never a welcome sight.
“Magic seems to explain everything here,” I grunted, focusing my thoughts on Twilight’s words, “I wish it were like that back home.”
Applejack furrowed her eyebrows at that, and I groaned inwardly at my slip. I’d told myself earlier that I would avoid mentioning my dimension to any other pony besides Twilight, since I didn’t want everyone asking me a barrage of questions. Consider it my preemptive solution against playing Jeopardy with every damn pony I met. The fact that Humanity didn’t have magic was strange enough to Twilight, and I sure as hell wasn’t qualified to be my species’ spokesman.
“Sis?” a small, weak voice said suddenly, preventing Applejack from voicing whatever thoughts she had. We all looked at Applebloom, whose eyes were starting to flutter open. She let out a truly impressive yawn as she glanced around the room, and it wasn’t long before her eyes settled on me.
“Mister Angel?” Applebloom breathed, her eyes widening. She promptly wiggled out from under the covers and stood, her red mane splayed around her head in an uncombed mess.
“Hey there, kid,” I said quietly, shifting around until I faced her squarely, “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Applebloom replied, looking slightly nervous, “The doctor said the smoke didn’t hurt my lungs too bad. I should be able to leave this evening, depending on what he says.” She bit her lip in uncertainty, before surprising me as she leapt from the bed and into my arms. She hugged my neck tightly, burying her face in my neck as she began quietly sobbing.
“I was s-so scared,” she whimpered, “The f-fire and the s-smoke, and I c-could barely b-breath…” Her words gradually became harder to understand as she wept, to the point where I didn’t bother trying to make them out. Instead, I just patted her head, unsure of what to say. However, as the little filly cried, I felt anger slowly kindle in my chest. It started small at first, but when I realized that Applebloom would be haunted by the fire for weeks, maybe months to come, it turned into something more akin to an inferno.
Eventually, Applebloom cried herself back to sleep in my arms. I gently handed her to Applejack, who nuzzled the filly as she tucked her back into bed. Rather than stick around, though, I promptly stood and quickly walked from the room. The anger I was feeling towards Aurelius was gradually building, and the rational part of my brain was demanding that I get some fresh air. I was more than happy to oblige it, and ignored Twilight Sparkle’s concerned questions as I made my way from the hospital, allowing my helmet to once again sheath my face.
“Jack, wait!” Twilight cried as I stepped outside, standing in front of me to block my progress, “What’s wrong? Please, you can tell me!”
“Twilight,” I replied after a quiet moment, “I want you to promise me something. Can you do that?”
“Of course,” the unicorn said, without a second’s hesitation, “Anything for a friend.”
I didn’t say anything for a while. Rather, I looked up at the afternoon sky, taking in the sights and sounds around me. Equestria really was a beautiful place. A paradise, really. A paradise where friendship came without a catch and love practically permeated the very air. It was a place where harmony ruled, where violence was practically nonexistent…a place I had no right to be in. Because in the end, I was a killer. I was the boogeyman the terrorists and insurgents whispered about, whenever they gathered together. Hell, even my superiors liked to call me their ‘personal Grim Reaper’. And you know what the real kicker is? They were right. I was their Grim Reaper, and even if you find it downright bloodthirsty, I enjoy what I do. I enjoy bringing pain and fear to the people who deserve it. I enjoy the fact that my name scares evil men shitless, that it makes them chuck under their bed at night and sleep with a gun under their pillow.
But killing...killing is what I enjoy the most. And that meant Equestria was no place for a reaper like me. Redemption? I wasn’t looking for it. My soul was already going to a hot place when I died, I knew that. The least I could do was make sure I had a big welcoming committee, when I got there.
“I’m not sure if you’ll be there when I find Aurelius,” I finally said to Twilight, “But if you are, promise me you won’t try and stop me.” I felt my hands curl into fists, “Aurelius is a dead man, Twilight. He’s signed his own death warrant, and I’m going to be the one who makes him choke on it. I’m going to make sure he never hurts anyone ever again…”
Twilight flinched back at my cold, unyielding tone. She swallowed audibly, but managed to keep her voice from shaking as he she spoke. “I promise, Jack. I hope it doesn’t come to that…but I promise.”
I didn’t know if she would stick by that pledge, when the moment of truth came, but I simply nodded at her words. A small part of me felt bad for scaring her, though, and I sighed as I rested my hand on her cheek.
“Thank you,” I said quietly, “Sometimes, there’s only one way to deal with a problem, Twilight. I know that from experience. And the solution isn’t always one we like.” I knelt down in front of her, “I understand it may seem harsh to you. But if it guarantees the safety of innocent lives, then Aurelius must be taken out of the picture entirely.”
“I….understand,” she whispered, laying a hoof on my hand as she looked at me, “How can you do it, Jack? How are you able to live your life so...so…?”
“Coldly?” I supplied, causing her to nod, “It’s the only way I know how, Twilight. Simple as that.” I rose to my feet, “Come on, let’s head back to down.”
Twilight Sparkle said nothing as we began walking back into Ponyville, her eyes firmly fixed on the distance as she thought about what I’d said.
Author's Note: Well, holy son of a biscuit eater. This took way longer to make than I thought, and that’s a no-no. Though to be fair, I was hit by a perfect storm of problems, whilst writing this. Things like getting my driver’s license, visiting my family in Kentucky, starting my college classes, ect. And, of course, that infamous bout of writer's block I battled with. I dueled with the beast for weeks, but in the end, I proved to be victorious! I smote his ruin upon the mountain side and cast the One Ring into Mount Doom...er, I mean, I finished the chapter. >_>
But joking aside, I really am sorry for the delay. You’re all the best readers an author could ask for, given how patient you’ve been. Hopefully, now that I’ve gotten my schedule figured out, I’ll have MOAR time to write this story! It shall be a shining beacon of hope for all to see! Or, you know, maybe just a few people. One of the two.
Finally, I’d like to give a huge thanks to my pre-reader, Invictus. Seriously, this guy’s practically a saint to me. Without him, these chapter’s would be filled with repetitive words and silly, unnecessary nonsense. And if you haven’t checked out his story, ‘Magic, Mayhem, and....Murder? Oh my...’, what the heck is wrong with you? It completely blows my story out of the water, and as a bonus, it updates more frequently. Seriously, go check it out and give it all your likes/favorites.
Besides the reminder that I’m still looking for some cover art, I think I’ll wrap this up. Thanks so much for your patience, everyone! You guys are the absolute bestest.