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Crimson groaned and rubbed her head. Last night was a blur of carnal bliss and she was fairly certain there'd been pony-shaped fireworks and a river made of taffy at some point. Sitting up, the griffon looked over the half-drunk, unconscious dragon sprawled out beside her on the floor; the bed having been torn to splinters in the midst of last night's, ahem, celebrations. It wasn't every day you escaped from certain death, joined up with a roguish band of adventurers, and were resurrected as a female, after all!
Letting a small smile play on her beak, Crimson rose to her talons and began absently preening at her feathers, marveling at them as she did. While Grayshaw had never been unattractive, his rough good-looks and battle-scarred visage could never compare to the fiery, ferocious beauty of her new body. She must remember to thank Gadgets for his taste in griffon flesh the next time he was coherent enough to understand the meaning of words.
Still smiling, she strolled over to the trunk she'd been presented with (during one of the few moments of the past three days she could still remember) since The Inconceivable had departed Beakisburg, on its way to nopony knew where. The trunk was a massive piece of sturdy oak, covered in elaborate bronze plating, various mechanics, and clocks, no piece of Gadgets' engineering would be complete without an absurd amount of time-keeping devices.
Crimson tapped a talon against the lock, which sprung open with the whirring of gears and the clicking of small steam pistons. The interior was multi-layered and additional storage space popped out on springs and folded out over the sides, providing far more room than is closed form suggested. The contents were sparse, for the moment, consisting only of what she'd been presented with over the past few days by her friends: mainly gear, weapons, and various mechanical devices.
She took a moment to admire its contents: the weapons, the vials of different potions, books, machines, and the... miscellaneous. She blushed slightly as her eyes roved over those; it was amazing how, even when most ponies in the world went about naked anyway, the right outfit could still bring about a heightened sense of erotica. But those were for another time, right now what she needed was the familiar weight of steel around her flesh; a life-time of soldiering meant that the absence of armor left the griffon feeling positively vulnerable.
Gadgets had based her new outfit on the custom armor she'd worn to rescue Feathers, though this new set was iron-grey and lighter than anything she'd ever worn. Bracers covered her legs and talons, a chest-piece made of hundreds of individual metal feathers, a winged helmet complete with protective neck plates, and plating around her wings. The entire ensemble together weighed less than her original chest-piece alone and was far more durable to boot!
But armor wasn't the only thing she'd been given: her weapons had been upgraded as well. Gadgets had designed a new buzz spear, an elaborate piece of bronze-work complete with a triangular head covered in more of the vibrating rectangles that made these strange weapons so very, very deadly. The spear was also coursing with electricity, courtesy of the generous number of enchantments Feathers had been laying on everything he could get his talons on.
The spear was not her only weapon, though, she'd also received a large knife, several grenades, and a steam-powered repeater pistol holstered around her hindquarters. The weapon had been made to fit her talons, but its unfamiliarity made it uncomfortable, particularly when Gadgets demonstrated its awesome power by shooting straight through a replica of her old armor as if it were made of tissue paper.
Chuckling at the irony of being afraid of her own weapons, Crimson slung the spear through the harness on her back and stepped out of the cabin she and her dragon lover shared. The hallway was well-lit as always, so she had no trouble navigating around the piles of machinery which littered it, many of which got up and moved out of her way.
When she emerged on deck it was the dead of night, a cool wind was blowing, and the sand resembled a sea of silver in the moonlight. Feathers was asleep under an awning constructed by the ship's crew, several dozen of which were scattered about him in varying states of what passed for sleep among the tiny machines. Satisfied and at peace with the world, the griffon glanced up at the moon...and her tranquility shattered.
"All hooves on deck, all hooves on deck!" She cried, racing to the command center and slamming a fist down on the shiny red button she found there.
Alarms blared along the length of the ship, searchlights sprouted from any number of concealed areas, lighting the night sky in gold, and muffled cursing could be heard as the crew was torn from their comfortable dreams. Feathers was the first to arrive, trembling and shaken from the rude awakening.
Gadgets and Minion appeared next, clambering up the stairs, followed quickly by a grumbling Darkfang, nursing his hangover by rubbing a scaly claw against his temple, claws digging so deep it was a wonder he wasn't bleeding. The sudden appearance of the two naked ponies caught Crimson by surprise; it had never occurred to her before, but she could not recall one other time she'd seen their cutie marks.
Minion's was made of a strange, clock-like mechanism sending off waves of blue electricity with six hands made out of varying weapons, which appeared to be moving! Gadgets' cutie mark was a mysterious device that appeared to be every conceivable tool Crimson had ever heard of, and a dozen she had not. But that was not the only thing strange about the naked Earth Pony.
Where his mechanical limb normally was was a large hole encircled by bronze, the leg itself having been removed for the night. A black leather harness extended out across his back and stomach, wrapping around each of his other limbs as well as the base of his tail. Crimson theorized that the purpose of this was most likely to counter-balance the weight of the unnatural appendage he must feel, though she had to admit to a certain amount of revulsion at the gaping, metal-lined intrusion into his flesh.
"Crimson? What the hay is going on?" He asked, leaning heavily on Minion for support as they reached the command center.
"Look at the moon," the griffon answered, pointing a talon at the silver circle in the sky.
Everypony looked up simultaneously and for a moment there was confused silence, then several audible gasps.
"What happened to the face?" Gadgets asked, looking back down to face his friends who met his eyes with shock and a little fear.
For indeed the silhouetted mare's head was gone from the face of the moon, leaving the white surface completely unmarred. Nopony had an answer, though Darkfang attempted to venture one.
"It's the Summer Sun Celebration today," he said, "it's in some place called Ponyville, so I think it's a safe bet Celestia did something to it. Maybe she just decided the night needed a change of pace."
Several heads nodded in agreement, though no heart was particularly relieved at this somewhat unbelievable theory. The ruler of Equestria did not simply change things on a whim without warning anypony, particularly things that affected the entire world.
"Whatever's going on," Minion told them, her voice echoing loudly in the stillness, "one thing is for certain. The world just changed; the world just changed in a big way."
Crimson stood on the prow of The Inconceivable, her feathers ruffling in the wind as the massive airship sank lower and lower as it neared the next town. Morning had come late, much later than usual, but it had come, and the world had continued on as it always did, as if the sudden change in the appearance of the moon had never occurred. The rest of her friends were on deck as well, the entire crew having stayed up all night preparing for what might happen.
They all looked a little worse for the wear, having gone almost an entire night without sleep, but otherwise completely fine, each of them looking particularly formidable in their new gear. Gadgets, having taken the loss of their weapons in the cave-in rather personally, had decided to take the opportunity by the horns and revamp each of their outfits.
Darkfang had replaced his shoulder-mounted Gatling gun with an over-sized, six-barreled repeater holstered on his right hip across a brand new broadsword. He had also added a grenade-belt across his chest, the explosives containing enough destructive power to level a small building. A thick, gem-encrusted knife was strapped to his left shin, courtesy of the Beakisburg markets, though Crimson privately suspected its purpose was more as an emergency food ration than an actual tool for the art of war.
Feathers had been outfitted with armor similar to the veteran soldier's own, though his was far lighter and silver in color, bedecked in colorful cyan designs. Twin knives hung from a grenade belt across his lower body, though they were unlikely to ever see use. The young griffon was minus a helmet and instead wore a jeweled circled upon his brow, the large purple gemstone at its center glinting in the sunlight with thinly-veiled malevolence. Crimson had seen this gem once before and knew its terrible secret: the gem was not naturally made, it was not even technically a stone, it was blood. Alicorn blood.
Minion and Gadgets bore the least visible changes, though their new clothing was particularly fiercer in appearance and their weapons slightly larger, sharper, and all-around more dangerous looking. Everything, of course, had been heavily enchanted by the crew's resident master sorcerer, whose potent spells had drawn more than one maniacal laugh of approval from their very own mad inventor.
They were, without a doubt, the best equipped gathering of particularly deadly individuals she had ever heard of, but they all knew from experience just how little that meant in the face of chance. The jackal chieftain's suicide attack had taught them that lesson well.
"So," Minion asked, stepping up beside the griffon, "what's this town we're stopping at?"
"Nothing special," Crimson told her, "it's a known tourist attraction because of its unique location, but other than that it's hardly worthy of being on the map. We're just going there to get some information."
"Information on what?"
"Mainly, on what Gripeye's doing about the stunt we pulled in Beakisburg. I can hardly imagine he's going to take the destruction of an entire dock lying down, and he can't just blame it on us since we're already 'dead'."
"Hm, maybe he'll think we're zombies!"
The griffon shivered, she'd met the undead once before, and she had no desire to do so again. The mare, however, seemed positively giddy at the prospect as she bounced back down the ship towards the helm, where Gadgets expertly piloted them through the brutal desert winds.
Darkfang was the next to join her, "What do you think it means?" he asked, "The moon changing like that?"
"I expect we'll find out sooner than we'd like, but if the old tales have any wisdom to give, it has something to do with the Mare in the Moon."
"Ah, the old tales of how Princess Luna became corrupted and transformed into a monster intent on bringing about night eternal."
"Something like that."
"Well, it'll certainly make our lives that much more interesting."
Crimson nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She had faced down monsters, ponies, jackals, hay even a bonified demon god, yet this unexplained change in something she'd always taken for granted terrified her in a way she could not explain. The world wasn't supposed to change so suddenly and so quietly like that.
"Soup's on, everypony!" Minion called from the snack bar, where she had been hard at work fixing a breakfast fit for a king. Or a certain princess.
Allowing Darkfang to slip an arm around her, Crimson jogged down the deck and up the stairs to join the gathering of friends. When they were all seated around the table the Chief had brought out for them (the crew was partaking of their own meal in the galley where their constant fighting would not disturb their masters), Gadgets raised a glass of orange juice.
"A toast," he declared, "to good friends, good food, and an uncertain future."
The others raised their glasses nervously as he continued.
"No matter what comes, we will face it, together! United we stand, hoof in talon in claw, until the end of everything! We will never fall!"
The resulting laughter nearly bowled him over as his friends drank deeply, their heaving sides spraying an assortment of fluids across the table.
The kingdom of Guasta was poor. So poor that nine out of every ten ponies could not afford to eat more than once a day. While the remainder could afford more food than they knew what to do with, and could often be seen throwing it away. This was because the ruler of Guasta was a horrible dictator, who used his armies to oppress and enslave his subjects.
"1, 2 skip to the rue..."
A dark figure lay on a hilltop three miles outside the town of Paintedfeathers, where "Emperor" Guacamol Molalol was set to make an appearance. As she waited, the figure made her final adjustments to the strange weapon she carried.
The weapon was unlike anything the downtrodden citizens of Guasta had ever seen before, for it was neither sword, nor spear, nor bow. It was a steam-powered, long-range rifle, courtesy of a crashed airship the figure had come across many years ago, sealed in a crate with a particularly complex lock.
"3, 4 everypony's at war..."
The crimson shards of a fire ruby glittered along the weapon's barrel, stock, and scope. One for every success.
"5, 6 all it takes is a bag of bits..."
Emperor Guacamol's pegasus carriage alighted in the town square to the awed gasps of the few hundred ponies assembled there, wearing only thin rags and gunny sacks against the cold. The emperor himself stepped forth from the carriage onto the wooden platform usually used for the public hanging of anypony unlucky enough to draw the ruling noble class's ire.
"7, 8 they're fueled by hate..."
The figure did not know who had hired her, nor did she care, such was the way of the Black Hoof, the global organization of assassins, feared by one and all ponies with...wealthy enemies. The dark figure on the hilltop made one last, minor adjustment to her preferred tool of murder, before lightly squeezing the trigger just as Guacamol reached the edge of the stage and opened his mouth to speak.
Ponies gasped in horror and elite Imperial Guards, raised since birth to serve their emperor and only their emperor, rushed forward as their "beloved" leader's skull exploded.
"...drown in sin."
The figure put away her weapon with her other supplies: some rations, a few knives, a pair of katanas, and spare ammunition. As she got up to leave, her business concluded, a scroll materialized from grey-and-green smoke before her. Snagging it out of the air she broke the seal and unfurled it, scanning the contents of her new contract quickly.
This had always been the way her masters' contacted her, a simple scroll containing a name and general location, appearing from nowhere by some form of magic she was unfamiliar with. Another scroll would come after confirmation of the kill by a second agent, which would contain information on the dead drop where she could obtain her pay.
This new one looked pretty simple, a typical "Search-and-Destroy" order, no special parameters, no restrictions, just find the target and eliminate him and his companions. The dark figure did not know who this "Gadgets" was, nor did she care. She only hoped he enjoyed his last few days in the world of the living; it was always better to kill someone who was enjoying themselves, so at least their last memory would be a good one.