“Taking on that dragon was borderline suicide, Lieutenant,” General Titus chided, “You’re lucky to even be alive.”
“Luck?” I replied, “Heh. Yeah, guess I am, aren’t I?”
The two of us sat in the living room of Twilight Sparkle’s tree-home, morning rays peeking through the windows. The place, comfortably placed within a hollow oak tree, also doubled as Ponyville’s library. Books of every description surrounded me, and I had to wonder if Twilight had read them all. Given how much of an egghead she was, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she had. A set of stairs leading to Twilight’s bedroom ran up the far well, and I knew that she was slumbering peacefully after last night’s events. Mostly because I could hear her muffled snoring through the door.
“At least you admit it,” the General grunted, before turning his gaze to my wounded left shoulder. I was in the midst of stitching it closed, a process that required me to take off the outer plates of my suit and remove the top half of underarmor. As a result, I was sitting bare-chested in the library’s living room, bloody cotton balls scattered haphazardly around me. “Are you certain you don’t need me to bring Nurse Redheart?”
“Nah, I’m good. Armor kept it from piercing too deeply. It hurts like a son of a bitch, but I’ll live.” I winced as I pushed the needle into an especially sore spot. “I woulda taken care of it last night, but I was helping you round up the ponies who’d booked it out of town.”
“That was quick thinking on your part,” Titus replied, nodding to himself, “You probably saved lives, Lieutenant. The dragon still damaged the town, but it’s nothing we can’t fix.” He sighed wearily as he looked at me. “First legionaries and now a dragon. Aurelius’ influence and power seems to have grown these last few months. A part of me fears what he’ll unleash next, I daresay.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, General,” I said, finishing the last stitch on my shoulder and discarding the bloody needle. “Way I see things, Aurelius is getting a little anxious to kill me. I don’t think he was expecting me to become such a pain in the ass, so he sent a heavy-hitter to try and off me. A plan that didn’t work out too well, in my opinion.” I rolled my shoulder experimentally as I spoke, testing the strength of the stitches. “He’ll start getting desperate. He’ll slip up. And when he does, we’ll put him in the ground.”
General Titus smiled slightly, but before he could respond, the door leading to Twilight’s bedroom opened. The unicorn yawned loudly as she made her way downstairs, blinking her eyes blearily. I wasn’t expecting her to be up so early, so I hurriedly set about picking up the mess I’d made while patching my wound. Before I could lean over and dump the handful of cotton balls I held into the waste bin beside me, Twilight Sparkle trotted over and gave my bloody shoulder a concerned look.
“It’s fine,” I assured, tugging my underarmor back on to cover the ragged stitches, “Trust me, I’ve had a lot worse.”
“If you say so,” she replied, before glancing at General Titus, “General, do you mind if I had a word with Jack in private, please?”
The towering pegasus nodded and rose to his hooves. I briskly saluted him as he trotted out the door, before turning back to Twilight. “Something the matter,” I asked her.
“No, no,” Twilight said quickly, scratching at the floor with her hoof, “I just wanted to thank you, Jack. For everything you did yesterday. Saving Applebloom, fighting that legionnaire and the dragon….” She gave me a small smile, “You were very brave and selfless. Just like the knights of Old Equestria.”
“I…er…” I replied tactfully, rubbing at the back of my head. Honestly, I wasn’t used to my deeds being praised. Sure, the missions I undertook with the Special Forces often saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives, but I wouldn’t be getting any monuments. I wouldn’t be attending any award ceremonies, or shaking hands with the president of EarthGov. My face wouldn’t be on the holonews, and my name wouldn’t be etched onto a memorial when I died. Despite my deeds, I was nothing more than a ghost. And a ghost hardly ever receives praise from the living. Which was fine by me. I hated the limelight, anyway.
“Did I say something wrong?” Twilight asked, biting her lip in uncertainty.
“Of course not,” I replied quickly, clearing my throat quietly. “I’m just not used to being thanked. But, uh…you’re welcome, I guess.”
Twilight Sparkle giggled, before wrapping her forelegs around my neck in a hug. I stiffened slightly, but didn’t outright shove her away. I patted her back instead, even as I glanced around the room for a way to escape the sappiness. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t despise Twilight in any way. She was tough, intelligent, and could sling some serious magic. I owed her a debt for saving my life, and I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t starting to grow on me a little. But affection was not my forte.
Thankfully, Twilight released me before things got too mushy. “So!” She said happily. “I was hoping we could talk a little this morning.”
“Talk?” I grunted, leaning back against the bookshelf behind me. “About what?”
“About you, of course.” she replied. “You never really went into detail about yourself in Canterlot. Now that I’ve been around you for a few days…” Twilight blushed slightly. “I’m interested in getting to know you better. I mean, you’ve just never told me much about… well, yourself.”
It was an innocent question, but regardless, I still felt a nagging sense of sudden paranoia towards Twilight. She was, after all, Celestia’s personal student, and I still had lingering doubts about the princess. Would anything I told Twilight reach Celestia’s ears? Could I truly confide in the unicorn, or was everything just a set-up, courtesy of her mentor. For all I knew, she could have told Twilight Sparkle to keep an eye on me and make sure I wasn’t going to become a problem like Aurelius. Hell, maybe Twilight was supposed to be the one to hold my leash and snap me back if I started acting out, like a damned dog.
Easy, Jack. I thought to myself. You’re jumping at shadows. Twilight’s just treating you like she would any other friend.
I blew out a silent breath as I shoved aside my paranoia. Twilight Sparkle didn’t deserve it, and a part of me felt like an ass for considering that she was Celestia’s little spy. I reminded myself that Equestria was far different from the cold, chaotic world I was accustomed to. Underhanded tactics were hardly the bread and butter of pony society, after all. Hell, even if they tried, I doubted they’d be any good at it. Compared to humans, ponies were easy to read, and I saw nothing but genuine honesty as I looked at Twilight. Honesty mixed with the same curiosity she always seemed to have around me.
“Well…” I drawled, finally breaking the silence. I rubbed my chin thoughtfully, noting that I desperately needed to shave. “There’s not much to tell, really. I was born on Earth, and raised in a state called Colorado. My parents owned a RIG repair shop, so most of my childhood was spent helping them around the store.” I snorted quietly. “My dad wanted to pass the place on to me eventually, but I ended up joining up with the military instead.”
“What made you want to join?” Twilight asked, eager to know more.
“’My brother, Phillip. He was always sort of my role model when I younger, and let me tell you, a kid couldn’t ask for a better brother than him.” I replied quietly. “I was about sixteen when Phillip decided to join the Earth Defense Force. He’d just turned eighteen that year, and he didn’t waste time signing up for boot camp.” I smiled faintly as I recalled memories that seemed more than ancient. “I remember being at his graduation ceremony, watching him stand at attention. God, he looked just like a soldier in his uniform. And I realized, right then and there, that I wanted to be a soldier too. I wanted to be just like my brother.” I shrugged slightly. “So I joined the EDF when I was eighteen and…well, I guess the rest is history, isn’t it?”
I can’t recall the last time I’d talked about my family. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I hate them or anything. It just wasn’t a topic that was brought up often in the Special Forces. Which mostly stemmed from the fact that we kept very limited contact with our families. Not because were under orders to remain distant, but because it was hard to find time between missions to just sit down and talk. I know a lot of guys who found that hard, especially if they were married and had kids. I may make it seem like the men in the Special Forces are coldblooded, hardassed bastards who kill without remorse, but at the end of the day, most of them are just soldiers doing their job. A job that takes us a long, long way from home.
“I know what it’s like to have an older brother.” Twilight said. “Shining Armor became a Captain of the Royal Guard not long after he finished his training. I missed the award ceremony, but my parents said Celestia herself presided over it. They were so proud of him….” She sighed quietly, before glancing at me apologetically. “Sorry. I just…miss him. Now that he’s married, he’s been busier than ever. We write each other, but…well, it’s not the same as seeing him.”
“No need to apologize. I understand completely.” I grunted in reply. “I’ve only seen my family twice, since joining the military. Hell, I’m only able to talk to them a few times a year.” I felt a small twinge of guilt as I spoke. I know my family missed me, especially Phillip. Hell, a small part of me missed them, too. Maybe, when I was done strangling Aurelius and Celestia got me home, I’d turn in my papers and finally retire. I mean, how could I top fighting Necromorphs on the Sprawl? Or being transported to a land of talking ponies? That’s the sort of shit that makes a soldier step back and think, ‘What could I possibly do now?’
Before Twilight and I could speak further, the door of her home burst open. I drew my pistol in a heartbeat, even as I swiftly put myself in front of Twilight. However, when I saw the armored form of General Titus standing in the doorway, I promptly relaxed, especially when I realized something was wrong with the pegasus. He looked angrier than the Devil himself, to the point where his eye twitched, and when he spoke I thought his voice would devolve into a snarl.
“Lieutenant.” He said. “I just received a letter from Princess Celestia’s personal messenger. A letter informing me that we have a traitor among us.” His face twisted into a grimace, as if the word tasted bitter on his tongue. “After the attack on our chariot earlier this week, the Princess thought it wise to discover who told Jagged Claw of our departure. Her investigation finally yielded results this morning and…”
“And it turns out one of your boys is working for Aurelius.” I finished for him, nodding in understanding. I understood why the General was more than little pissed off. Having a turncoat in the ranks is always bad, but when it’s someone directly under your command? That’s an entirely different beast. Wasting no time, I began clamping my armor in place, ignoring the dull ache of my shoulder. “Do you already have him detained, or are we going on a hunt?”
“We needn’t worry about finding him. I immediately had him restrained, after reading the letter.” Titus replied. “Miss Applejack was kind enough to let us use her barn to hold him, for the time being.” He sighed, shaking his head in frustration. “I tried getting him to talk, but he’s keeping his mouth shut. Either Aurelius has him under a spell that prevents him from speaking, or there’s something else holding his tongue. Either way, I’d like you to take a crack at him. Maybe you’ll have better luck than me.”
“Field interrogation, eh?” I grunted, clamping my helmet into place. “Don’t worry, General. Give me a few minutes with him, and I’ll make him sing.”
Since it was Applejack’s barn, it didn’t surprise me to see the Stetson-wearing country pony standing outside the bright-red building when we got there. She greeted Twilight and I with a broad smile, while giving General Titus a polite tip of her hat. If she was nervous about the squadron of Royal Guards ringed around her barn, she was damned good at hiding it. “It’s mighty good to see you again, Jack.” She said. “Applebloom’s been askin’ about you nonstop since she got out of the hospital.”
“Applejack.” I replied, nodding at her. “I take it your sister’s doing fine, then?”
“You bet, partner. The doctor fellas said she’s right as rain.” Applejack said, . “She’s been beggin’ me to invite you over to breakfast all morning.” She spared a glance at the barn behind her. “Once you’re…finished up here, you’re more than welcome to stop by for a bite to eat. Same for you, Twilight. I reckon Dash and Pinkie are gonna join us, too.”
I may have been a little hungry that morning, but I didn’t know about having breakfast with Pinkie Pie. Don’t get me wrong, she was a nice pony, but she was also…energetic. And that’s just putting it mildly. “I’ll…think about it.” I said, after a moment’s consideration. “Now, let’s get down to business. General, do you mind waiting out here while I….have a talk with our friend?”
“Not at all.” Titus rumbled in reply, gesturing for his stallions to unlock the barn door. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to shout.”
I grunted and began walking forward, but before I could take two steps, Twilight caught my hand with her hoof. I looked down at the unicorn, noticing her uncertain expression as she glanced between me and the barn. “Jack?” She asked quietly, her tone pleading. “Go easy on him, alright? I know he’s a traitor, but please…please don’t hurt him.”
There was a tremor in her voice, so subtle that it bordered on imperceptible. But it was there regardless, and at that moment, I realized something: Twilight Sparkle knew just how far into the dark I could walk. She knew I had no limits when it came to violence, no inhibitions about causing pain. And that made her afraid for the pony in the barn. Afraid for a traitor who’d sold her out. I wanted to berate her for being so naive and, I admit, I very nearly did. But I stopped before the harsh words could make it past my lips. Instead, I found myself squeezing her hoof reassuringly.
I didn’t have limits. But for the sake of my friend, I’d draw a line that day.
“He’ll be fine, Twilight.” I said quietly, before letting her hoof go and striding into the barn. The guards shut the barn door behind me, leaving me alone with one trussed up pegasus. Despite being gagged, bound to a chair and stripped of his gear, the turncoat soldier still managed to look unimpressed with me as I loomed over him. I had to give him credit for that, at least.
“What’s your name, son?” I asked him, tugging away the cloth covering his mouth. “And for your sake, don’t try using the silent treatment. I don’t have the patience for that bullshit.” I began walking around him, my steps slow and measured. “One way or another, you’re going to talk.”
“I’m not telling you a thing, human.” The stallion spat, keeping his eyes focused on the floor. I didn’t skip a beat as I cocked my arm back and backhanded him across the mouth. The blow wasn’t the hardest I could have swung, but it was enough to send him toppling to the floor. A thin line of blood trickled from his nose, and judging from his stunned expression, his Royal Guard training hadn’t prepared him for a human-style interrogation. Go figure.
“You will address me as sir.” I told him calmly, easily righting the chair as I resumed walking. “Now tell me your name, or I’ll bounce your face off my knuckles again.” My fingers popped audibly as I cracked them. It was an unnecessary act, but one that I hoped would rattle him, at least a little.
“Ice Wind, sir.” The pegasus growled in reply, raising his eyes to glare at me. “And don’t think for a second that you scare-” Another backhand sent him crashing to the ground again, only this time, I didn’t bother to sit him back up. Instead I knelt down beside him, my armor’s servo-joints whirring quietly from the motion. I calmly gripped his throat, applying just enough pressure to make it hard for him to breathe. I knew for a fact that outright strangling him wouldn’t make him talk. Rather, I was relying on the panic induced by a slow asphyxiation. The kind where he could take small breaths, but they wouldn’t be enough enough to alleviate the fire that would begin to burn in his lungs, or keep the room from blurring around him. It was a subtle art, and one that I had practiced for many, many years.
“Listen carefully, Ice Wind.” I murmured into his ear, my visor inches from his face. “I’m not sure what Aurelius did to make you betray your friends, and frankly, I don’t really give a damn. All I care about it is you telling me what I want to know.” I tightened my grip on my his throat. “So what’s it gonna be, tough guy? You can either leave the barn alive, or in a body bag.”
Ice Wind tried to thrash around, but it was a waste of energy on his part. Between my hand and the ropes binding him, he wasn’t moving anywhere. Finally, he choked out a word that prompted me to loosen my handle on his throat, allowing him to gulp down air by the lungful. “That’s what I thought.” I grunted. “Spill the beans, son. Try and salvage whatever honor your have left.”
“Aurelius…” Ice Wind rasped, coughing weakly. “Aurelius came to me a week ago, said…said he wanted me to spy on General Titus. He wanted information on patrols, battle plans, other things.” Any anger he held towards me was gone. In its place was only a pleading desperation. “I didn’t want to do it, sir, you have to believe me. But…but Aurelius threatened to kill my family if I refused.” He gulped fearfully, genuine tears leaking from his eyes. “Please, sir. Do whatever you want with me, but don’t let him take my family.”
You know what the real kicker was? I had a gut feeling Ice wasn’t lying about his motivations. I’ve met plenty of assholes who cried crocodile tears about how they didn’t have a choice, when in reality, they’d just been given a hefty bribe. But not Ice Wind. He’d betrayed his comrades out of love for his family, and a part of me couldn’t help but respect his decision. After all, Aurelius hardly seemed like a man to make idle threats, and wouldn’t have qualms about slitting the throats of an innocent family.
“They’ll be safe, Ice Wind. I promise.” I said quietly. “How did you keep in touch with Aurelius? Did you meet him somewhere? Send him letters?”
“Sometimes he just… showed up out of nowhere, when I was alone.” Ice Wind replied. “Other times, he’d mentally contact me and have me meet him in random locations.” He clamped his eyes shut as he thought. “He hardly ever talked during my reports, but on the night before you showed up in Equestria, he gave me the option of abandoning my duty entirely and joining him. If I was interested, he said to meet him at a place called ‘Black Reach.” Ice Wind shook his head slowly. “I don’t know if that’s where he operates, or if it’s just another random place, but he didn’t bother elaborating. I wish I could tell you more, sir, but that’s all I know..”
“It’s more than I had a few minutes ago.” I said, my voice sincere. I rose to my knees, straightening Ice Wind’s chair as I did. “I’ll talk to General Titus and see about getting your name cleared. Way I see it, he can’t really fault you for wanting to protect your family.” Of course, I knew that Ice Wind would probably be exonerated. I was in Equestria, after all, and forgiveness came easily to ponies. Even if he didn’t get reinstated as a Royal Guard, at least he wouldn’t be tossed into a prison. And that, much to my surprise, made me feel rather…good. I mean, I’d walked into that barn expecting to find a worthless traitor. But all I got was a pony wanting to protect his family from a monster. Sure, he’d given information to Aurelius, though not because he’d been offered money or power. It wasn’t because he wanted revenge against someone. He was just a soldier looking out for his family, not a worthless scumbag.
It was strange, having to deal with such a blatant shade of grey. I was used to black and white operations, where the bad guys were ruthless bastards that had more blood on their hands than me. I was used to storming the beach and killing anything that shot at me. But shades of grey? I didn’t have any experience with those, and a part of me hoped I wouldn’t have to face another one in Equestria. I didn’t like things I was unaccustomed to.
Pulling the trigger of a gun was easy. But questioning why you had to do it? That was something that drove some soldiers to put a pistol to their temple and blow their brains out. It was something that made the lines between good and bad blur, until there was nothing left but you, the gun in your hand, and the poor son of a bitch who’s head was in your sights. It made you think ‘Who’s the real monster here?’ while you looked in a mirror, your own reflection glaring back at you.
Or it made you like me. I haven’t figured out which is worse.
With a grunt of annoyance, I quelled the voice in my head and strode out of the barn. I could debate with myself later. For now, I needed to deal with a man who was very high on my shit list.
Author's Note: Hey, this chapter didn't take me two months to write! The stars must have been aligned properly. Either way, I hope you enjoy this latest installment of 'When Death Knocks'. I was a bit wary of writing such a dialogue-heavy chapter, but it turned out much better than I thought it would. But make to mistake, my dear readers. This is just the calm before the storm. With the end in sight, I can really cut loose now.
As always, I thank my amazing pre-preader, Invictus, for his help. I honestly think he's a wizard, despite his claims otherwise.
And, of course, thank you for taking the time to read my story. Seriously, you're amazing. Yes, you. The person sitting at their computer right now. No no, the other guy sitting at the...oh, never mind. Thanks anyway!