Chapter 17: Hellbent Graduation
James suddenly sat up, twisted and punched the wall next to him leaving a fist sized hole. Beads of sweat were running down his face. His breathing was short and ragged and his heart was jackhammering against his ribs. The moon out the window was beginning to set. He threw off the covers and went down to the bathroom. James turned on the faucet at the sink and splashed some cold water on his face. He stood there, hands gripping the sides of the sink, trying to calm himself down.
'Why. Why now? It's been so long since...'
After almost three months without a nightmare, tonight he was visited by the same disturbing images. Explosions, gunfire, blood, missing limbs, the stench of death. James looked down, expecting the blood from his dream to still be stained on the skin of his hands. When he looked back up, in the mirror was one of those creatures from the old castle, the ones they now called Lotkin, staring back at him. Only instead of the usually grisly visage, a face that resembled his own stared back into James' eyes. He reacted without thinking and shattered the reflective surface with a strike, pulling his bloodied fist away with a few shards sticking out of it.
He carefully pulled the broken slivers of glass from his knuckles then rinsed his hand in the sink and wrapped his hand with some gauze he had found under the sink. He heard a door nearby open and the sound of hooves on a wood floor made it's way towards him.
"James, is that you? Everything ok?"
"Fine! I'm fine." He hid his injured hand behind his back.
Flash appeared in the doorway, "Was it another one of those dreams? What happened to the mirror?"
"Sorry, I'll go get a replacement in the morning. We got any beer left? I could use one."
"Yeah, sure. I'll go grab a couple."
While Flash went into the kitchen, James lifted up his hand and flexed it a few times. It hurt and blood was starting to seep through the bandage, but it wasn't broken. He picked up all the other shards of glass on the floor and deposited them in the small trash can next to the toilet and went to join his friend. Flash was now sitting at the dining table, a couple of cold ones sitting already opened on the surface. As James walked over, he tried to conceal his injury.
"Dude, you don't have to hide that, I saw the blood in the sink."
"Shit, I'm really sorry about that."
"I saw something that spooked me and I just kinda reacted."
"No worries. You wanna talk about it?"
James sat down and took a sip of his beer. "No, this time I'd rather not."
"Ok then, just remember, me and Sparks, we're here for you."
"So how did your date go?"
"Isn't that what you and Rainbow Dash were doing yesterday?"
"I wouldn't say it was a date exactly. Though we did have a lot of fun together. What about you? I heard you had a little marefriend over from the other night." James teased.
"Oh that? I don't know, she's really cool and all..."
"I get it. One of those drunken decisions, right?"
"Meh, I'd just go with the flow on this one. See how it works out."
"Yeah, probably. So are you going back to bed?"
"Nah, I don't think I could sleep right now. It only looks like an hour or two until sunrise, I think I'll go for a run. You wanna come with?"
"Ha, no thanks. I have a feeling I'll be doing a lot of that Monday morning."
"Heh heh, you better rest up then."
It was almost noon, Thursday. The view from the balloon was spectacular. James and Flash floated high above Ponyville.
"Are you sure about this? You know if this doesn't work you could die right?"
"Only if you can't catch me."
James double checked the straps and buckles that completely encircled his body. It was a simple harness that could support his body weight very well. That wasn't the part he was worried about. He was worried about the home made pack strapped to his back. He and Rarity had done their best to properly construct it, but he wouldn't know if it would work unless he tested it.
"Hey James, Flash! What're you two doing up here in Twi's balloon?" It was Rainbow Dash.
"Nothing much, just trying to test something." He replied, producing a set of goggles and fixing them over his eyes.
"What are you guys testing?"
"This." He gripped the edge of the basket and hurdled his body into open air, quickly gaining speed. He had only about a minute and a half, two tops. He flipped himself over and looked up to see Flash and a clearly panicked Dash diving after him. He smiled and gave his little two finger salute off the top of his brow before flipping himself back over. James tucked his arms and legs down to his sides and angled down, rapidly accelerating to the ground. When he was only a little over a thousand feet above the earth, he spread himself out again to lessen his speed then arched his back and pulled a cord that was secured to his shoulder, ripping it across his chest. There was a loud flapping staccato before he was suddenly jerked upwards. A charcoal and blue rainbow blur shot past him on either side.
James reached up and wrapped his fingers around two small handles attached to cords that led up to an airfoil constructed out of the lightest material Rarity had in stock. He gave the left one a tug which caused him to bank in that direction. He repeated this action with the right, getting a similar result.
'Ha ha, holy shit, I can't believe that worked!'
The ground slowly rose to him, as well as two pegasi, one looked a little bit angry.
"What the hay James!" Dash yelled at the now aerial human.
"Ha ha ha, yeah! I can't believe it, it works great!"
"Not that, you apple bucking idiot! I thought you were gonna die!"
"Oh yeah, sorry. Probably should have explained first. On the other hand, the looks on your faces were priceless!"
"You should of at least told me you were ready to jump. How was I supposed to catch you if that thing didn't work."
"I'm sure you would have pulled it off. Now if you'll excuse me, I have just one more test to do."
James concentrated on the ground rushing up to meet him. He gave one of the handles another pull and put himself into a head wind. When he was only ten to fifteen feet from the deck, he gave both handles a hard tug, flaring the parachute and allowing for a relatively soft landing. As soon as he came in contact with the ground and absorbed the impact, he turned around and started quickly wrapping up the cords with his arms before the wind could catch the airfoil and drag him around like a ragdoll. This was a prototype and it didn't have a quick release. Dash and Flash alighted next to him.
"So now that you know it works, what are you going to do with it?" Flash asked.
"Dash, could you please retrieve the balloon for me? Flash, how fast can you get Sparks here?"
"Are you sure this is safe?" Sparks was uncomfortable in the harness. James had had Rarity make two versions, one for himself and one for a pony.
"And all you want me to do is pull this cord thingy?"
"Eventually. First, I want you to jump out the basket."
"I don't like that part."
"It'll be fine, I promise. Look, I have the same rig. I'll jump with you."
"And you've done this before?" Sparks asked, still not trusting the human.
"Thousands of times. With other rigs. Just make sure you look over your shoulder and arch your back before pulling the rip cord. Now hurry up, we ain't got all day here."
"All right, I'm just not too sure about--"
"Welcome to Jump School!" James scooped up the unicorn and tossed him over the side, he and Flash followed almost immediately.
The engineer was screaming and flailing his legs. James pulled his limbs in for speed and spread them back out to come level with the first time jumper. He pointed to himself, demonstrating proper form, and then pointed at Sparks. The pony was a smart one and corrected himself almost instantly. The ground was coming increasingly close so James motioned to Sparks to pull the rip cord. The unicorn stallion did so and his decent was immediately halted almost all together as the chute opened and caught hold of the air. Satisfied his friend would be safe, James followed suit. Once on the ground, James ran over to Sparks who's landing was a bit more jarring.
"You ok? Dude, that was perfect."
"The landing was pretty rough, but over all, THAT WAS THE MOST TERRIFYING THING I HAVE EVER DONE!"
"Sorry, I thought you could have used some of your magic to smooth that out. As for the 'terrifying' thing, you'll get used to it."
"What do you mean 'I'll get used to it'!?"
"Being a special operative means you have to be able to get anywhere, anytime, anyway. This is an effective way to get behind enemy lines without endangering others. Except maybe the pilots, but it's better than using thirty other people to cause some kind of distraction or something."
"Sometimes I hate you."
"Don't worry, you won't be the only one. We also have to teach Feather."
The next couple of weeks were spent teaching the detachment advanced fighting techniques and tactics. James had even upgraded them from fighting each other to fighting HIM. They needed an experienced opponent to spar with if they REALLY wanted to learn some tricks. It was extremely tiring. Every day they would all have one hour each with him while Flash or Sparks led the rest in exercises and training. That meant at the least he would have to put in nine hour days, every day. That didn't even account for time he spent with them in classroom. Unfortunately, it was necessary. He had a schedule he needed to keep to. Currently, James was sparring with a young earth pony of the Day Guard.
The pony spat and snorted, James had just thrown sand in his face.
"Hey, that's not fair!"
"This is a fight, there's no such thing as fair. On the battlefield, there's no such thing as a fair fight. It's a fight to the death and you must use every advantage possible to defeat your opponent. Now defend yourself and counter like I taught you. First distract with pain, then follow through with the actual strike."
It almost became a sort of banal routine. Until they finally came to the day James was dreading. It was morning and they had just finished their firs PT session of the day.
"Alright. Everypony go clean up and return out here with your pet birds. Muster in front of the sand pit." James ordered.
As they all followed his instructions, he dragged out a low wooden table and stuck nine sharp knives into the surface. In a few minutes, every recruit had retrieved their companions and stood at attention, awaiting further orders. This next part, James knew, was going to be heartbreaking.
"Everypony, line up at the table in front of a knife. It's time to say good-bye to our friends."
They all took their places, but were confused at what he meant.
"I won't lie to you all. This is a terrible job to have. Unfortunately, it is often necessary. We are dealers in death. It is our sole purpose to bleed, to hurt, to kill and to die so that others do not have to. With that said, we must become familiar with death. We have to understand it and expect it. What I am asking you to do is not easy, but I ask that you follow through for the sake of the ones you love. Now I need each one of you to take that knife set before you and take the life of your pet. We don't want them to suffer, so please cut their necks cleanly. You know where the vital areas are."
Everyony stared at their commander in shock, eyes wide and mouths slightly agape. What he was standing there and asking them to do was unheard of. First he ordered them to feed and care for their little feathered friends and now he's ordering their deaths!?
"I'm sorry to have to do this to you. But remember, our enemies will be ten times as merciless."
All the ponies were very reluctant to do so, but one by one the picked up their knives and took the lives of the small birds they had become attached to. A couple of them cried. One vomited after.
James accidentally swatted his iPod away from him and almost went back to sleep. Then his brain suddenly clicked into gear and he threw his sheets off and jumped up to get dressed. It was finally here. The week of torture and debauchery. He grabbed his rifle, pistol and his rucksack which was full of spare magazines. He double checked the mags to make sure they were all the right ones. He didn't want to accidentally hurt anybody. Quickly, he ran about the house, rousing his housemates and kicking them out of bed.
"LET'S GO, GET UP, RISE AND SHINE!!!"
He ushered the confused ponies out the door and made them run.
"What's going on!? It's almost three in the morning!" Flash exclaimed.
"Shut up and run!"
They ran at a steady pace all the way to the training grounds. Once there, James issued new orders to his two teammates.
"Get in the barracks and muster everypony out here now! You have less than two minutes!"
Both Sparks and Flash sprinted inside and returned with the entire detachment in just under a minute. It was impressive, but James wasn't cutting anybody slack this week. Oh, no. This was Hell Week.
"Too slow! Everypony here, do two sprints around the perimeter and muster back here, GO GO GO!"