Chapter 12: A Slip Of The Tongue
In the deep south of Equestria, high in the air over an unnamed mountain that stood lonely in the desert, a single Clipper class airship hung lazily in the sky. Inside the main cabin, amongst a plethora of charts and maps and with a radio headset clasped firmly over his ears and a mic extended down his mouth sat a pitch black pegasus with scarlet red eyes.
A voice crackled in his ear, "Gulf-3, in position."
Howitzer leaned over his maps and found a spot on the mountain circled in black. He then picked up a marker and placed a black dot in its center, "Acknowledged, proceed when ready, Gulf-3."
Howitzer left the channel open and listened as the operator he was connected to started huffing and puffing as he galloped into what the pegasus was sure was a hole in the side of the mountain. There was a whole team down there, conducting a raid on what his Intel had indicated might be a cache of weapons. Of course, they couldn't know for sure until they checked.
The operator's heavy breathing slowed as he stopped somewhere, "Contact, three hostiles, armed, permission to engage?"
"Weapons free." The operator said to the rest of his team.
Howitzer listened as several almost imperceptible coughs puffed through his headset. Then there was a silent moment where he wasn't sure exactly what had happened, what he wouldn't give for a live visual from the team down there. His country already had cameras, and even video recording devices, but they were still working on the technology to transmit.
The operator came back on, "Limas neutralized, proceeding to objective."
Then there was several more tense minutes of silence. Every once in a while, Howitzer would hear the cough of a silenced weapon or the scrape of a blade and the team leader would call in another hostile downed by his team. But then, he heard exactly what he wanted to hear.
"Sir," the team leader called, "we've reached a chamber, space is clear. Gulf-3 has eyes on crates."
"Good work Gulf-3, verify." Howitzer ordered.
He then waited while his operatives on the ground began breaking open the containers they found. After a moment of listening to boards crack and pins dropping, the team leader reported back in.
"Sir, we have confirmation, crates are filled with assault weapons and... sir, they have energy grenades."
Howitzer cursed under his breath, "That means they're still making them, we'll notify the Princess. What model are the rifles and condition are they in?"
"The rifle models vary, got some AK's, M16's, old bolt actions. The others are banged up a little, but the AK's look new, if low quality."
"So we know they're manufacturing at least some of them. Good job, Gulf-3, destroy the cache and bang out."
"Roger that, sir, moving."
Howitzer leaned back in his seat and exhaled exhaustedly. He may not be down on the ground any more, but these missions still set him on edge. He wasn't responsible for his own life any more, now he was responsible the the lives of those he sent down range instead. Not being able to personally react physically and instantly to situations was very stressful to him. That's why when the crackle of gunfire came through his headphones, it caused him to jerk back forward, heart rate wildly accelerating.
"Gulf-3, report!" He demanded.
"Sorry about that sir, we got snuck up on. Charges are set and we're on our way out. Call a casevac, one of my guys took one to the flank."
Hurriedly, Howitzer switched channels and called up an airship that was waiting on standby not far away, "Hellcat, you got the call. Gulf-3 is on their way out. Lock and load, they're bringing the party with them, one wounded."
A female voice replied, "I got you sir, we'll swoop in and bring the heat, ETA two mike."
Howitzer switched channels back to the ground team, "Gulf-3, Hellcat is inbound."
"Thank you sir," the team leader said over bursts of gunfire, "we're clear now, detonating charges." The audio popped and went fuzzy for a moment as the explosion overpowered the microphone. "Objective completed... sir, Hellcat's here, boarding and extracting."
Howitzer relaxed a little. the ground team was on their way out now. Unless something really unexpected came into play, they were pretty much home free. He shuffled his wings into a more comfortable position and then switched his comms to his airship's internal channel.
"Ok, Slipstream, we're good, take us on home."
"Yes sir." His pilot replied.
Howitzer felt the deck shift as the pilot turned her aircraft onto a bearing back to Canterlot. Meanwhile, the pegasus still sitting rigidly in the main compartment began gathering papers, packing up his maps and stowing them in a sealed bag. Now all he had to do is get back to the palace and brief his boss on the good, and bad, news.
It was late afternoon. Jackson was out in the back, near the edge of the woods, doing push-ups. The weather was mildly warm, not too hot, and just a little bit breezy. He almost couldn't get over just how perfect it could be out there. But when you effectively had control over the weather where you lived, any day could be as perfect.
Jackson finished up his fitness routine, sweat soaking the shirt front and back before heading back to the house. He had been there a few days now, enjoying the peacefulness, reading some books Flash had in the house that were from the local library. He was surprised when some of these books not only contained knowledge for things like history and cooking recipes, but also in magic. He went through these, fascinated by it all.
As he neared the house, he thought of the books again, thinking of looking through a book he skimmed before, remembering a part that mentioned time travel. After he took a shower and got dressed in his new clothes, he would take a look at it again. The large man walked up the short steps and reached for the handle, but jumped back when he saw it turn on its own. Just in time too, because not a split second later, it flew wide open, three little fillies barging through and galloping out into the yard, giggling all the way.
A bouncing Pinkie Pie followed close behind. Soon after that, a heavily laden Flash trudged out the door, carrying all sorts of camping gear on his back. Quickly, Jackson moved to help out the pegasus, grabbing a few things like a large folded up tent and a couple of old style lanterns and holding them while Flash made his way out into the yard.
"Thanks." The pegasus grunted.
"No problem, man, these goin' over there?" Jackson gestured over to where the girls were snooping around, presumably searching for a suitable spot to set up.
"Yeah, just set it down and they'll take care of the rest."
Jackson followed Flash's lead and wandered to the group of fillies. They eventually stopped, signaling they had found their perfect spot, near a small copse of trees that formed a horseshoe shape, half cocked away from the house. Jackson put his stuff down and then helped Flash to put all the gear he carried into an organized pile.
One of the fillies, one with a light yellow coat and a vibrant red mane topped with a bow rushed over to the pile, "Thanks Mister Flash, Ah don't think we coulda carried that all by ourselves." She said with a thick southern twang.
"Not a problem, stay safe and have fun!" Said Flash, turning and walking away.
Jackson went back as well, "So those are the trouble makers, huh? Don't look all too bad to me."
"Yeah, you'd think so. Those are Sweetie Belle's friends, Applebloom and Scootaloo, they do everything together. I gotta tell you, I let them try and fix the plumbing one time when we had a problem with the sink and before I knew it, the whole bottom floor was flooded out."
"Really?" Jackson chuckled, "Well I don't think they can do much damage to some grass and a few trees."
"Just watch, they might be able to pull it off." Flash mumbled.
A few hours later, Jackson was sitting on the front porch with a beer and a book, reading by the soft light mounted in the overhead. It was still fairly warm out, even though the sun had already set. He was in a comfortable set of civilian clothing, just a light t-shirt, a pair of dark slacks and his boots, it still seemed that footwear made for anything other than ponies was hard to come by in this land.
Absently, he stuck his hand inside his pants pocket and pulled out the same photo he always carried around. He sat there, lost in time, staring at the image that brought up so many happy, and painful, memories. He remembered just how long it'd been. Two years. Two years since that day at the doctors when everything had gone wrong. And a year after that, she was gone.
Of to the left, in the darkness, a bush rustled slightly. Jackson paused, quickly shoving the photo back in his pocket and quietly setting the book down. The foliage rustled again, his eyes snapped to it and he found his right hand automatically groping for his sidearm, which was locked up in his desk drawer upstairs.
He tensed and got up, taking a loose combat stance and focusing on the apparent threat. Jackson moved down the short steps, placing himself in a good position, ready for whatever came his way. The bush rustled more violently now and a small for leaped out, striking a menacing pose, forelegs held high over her head.
"RAAAAWR!" The short purple maned filly roared as loud as she could.
Jackson dropped his arms, shoulders slumping in exasperation, "Oh, it's just one of you little gals." He looked at the small pony, she had an orange coat with two tiny wings on her back. On her face, she wore the night vision goggles the special forces teams here used.
"Did I get you, did I get you, huh? Huh?" She asked excitedly.
Jackson decided to play along, "Oh, yeah!" He said, placing one hand over his chest, "I thought you were some big scary something, I'm glad it was just one of Sweetie Belle's friends!" He finished with a relieved tone.
The little filly giggled at her success, "Awesome!"
"What's your name?"
"I'm Scootaloo. What's yours?"
"Darius, Darius Jackson."
"You're Mister Flash's friend, you and the other guy, right?" Jackson nodded. "Ya wanna come make S'mores?"
Jackson hadn't had a one of those in a very long time, and right then it sounded delicious, "Sure, lead the way."
Scootaloo brought the large man over to where she and her two friends were camped out for the night. Pinkie was there as well, sitting by the fire they had built, mouth already stuffed full of marshmallow and chocolate. Jackson sat down by her and who he assumed was Applebloom by process of elimination. He introduced himself to the country born filly and started on his own snack, grabbing a stick and skewering a couple of the puffy white sweets.
"Anypony know any good campfire stories?" Applebloom asked.
"How about the one about old nag and her shoe?" Scootaloo suggested.
"The Headless Horse?"
"Heard it." Sweetie Belle said.
Pinkie swallowed what she was chewing and jumped in, "Ooh, ooh, I got one!" She leaned in close and her voice adopted a spooky tone, "How about ~The Demon Of Everfree Forest~?"
"The Demon Of Everfree Forest? I haven't heard that one." Applebloom quandered.
Scootaloo sat up straighter, "I've heard of that! It's supposed to be based on fact, there are rumors in town of something strange out in Everfree!" She explained with gusto.
"Indeed!" Pinkie started in a hushed tone, "Deep deep in the darkest parts of the Everfree lurks a being of shadow! It stands just a bit taller than most ponies, better to get the drop on them with. Instead of walking normally, on all fours, it strides across the ground and through the trees with just two long legs. At the ends of its arms are not hooves, but multiple wiggling digits!"
Jackson cocked an eyebrow, "You mean hands?"
"Shh! I'm not done." Pinkie chided. "The Demon it very cunning, hard to pursue and impossible to capture. For you see, it has the supernatural ability to blend with the darkness in night and the plants and trees of the day. Many have tried to catch the Demon, all have failed. Those that try to hunt it or venture too deep into the forest fall victim to its traps, all without getting a single view of it."
Alarm bells started ringing in Jackson's head, some of the story was starting to fit a clear picture in his mind, something familiar.
"So beware, BEWARE, for the Demon could be anywhere. Even BEHIND YOU!" She shouted the last two words and pointed to a dark area behind Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo with a terrified expression. They all turned their heads and looked where she pointed, but there was nothing there.
"Uh . . . What's supposed t—"
A creature suddenly dropped from the branches of the tree overhead and into the center of the camp, shaking its head and waving its arms about while letting loose a loud bellow. The three little fillies screamed and ran into their tent, quickly zipping it shut and turning a lantern on inside. Meanwhile, Pinkie and the creature both burst out in laughter while Jackson sat there with a bemused expression on his face.
"Really, Topher?" He asked rhetorically.
The creature reached up with an arm and pulled the hood off its head, "What? That was good!" Mayfield said in defense.
"Sure was, we got 'em!" Pinkie said, still laughing. She put a hoof up in the air towards Mayfield, which he smacked with an open palm, like a high five.
The tent then suddenly unzipped, "Get him!" Came the battle cry.
"Uh-oh, gotta go!" Mayfield laughed.
He ducked low to the ground as Applebloom launched herself at him, sending her flying over his head. Then he took off at a sprint across the grassy yard, three little fillies in hot pursuit. Jackson watched in amusement for a moment before redirecting he attention back to Pinkie, who was already making another S'more. He remembered his marshmallows then and checked, but they had already been burnt to a crisp, the end of the stick falling off into the flames below. He chalked it up to a loss and put the stick down.
"Is what Scootaloo said the truth?"
"Is what the truth?"
"About the rumors. There's something out in the forest like in your story?"
"Oh yeah! But we're really not supposed to tal- I mean, there was, but its just an old myth." She quickly corrected herself.
"A myth, huh?" Jackson asked, unconvinced.
"Yeppers, sure is, just a story!" She quickly responded with a smile, as if she was trying to hide some deception.
Jackson wanted to pressure her more into telling him something, but he didn't want to be rude to his host. There were other ways to get the information he wanted. If there were rumors in the town about it, that would be the ideal place to start.
"Well, I think I'm gonna turn in." Jackson said gruffly, getting to his feet.
"Okie dokie, goodnight!" Pinkie said cheerfully as he left.
Jackson walked back across the yard to the backdoor of the house. Along the way, he spotted Mayfield. Mayfield was currently pinned on the ground, laughing, while the three fillies tickled him incessantly. It bought a small smile to Jackson's lips. As fun as that looked, he had an agenda now. A two legged being that could escape detection and hide out in the forest, sounded extremely familiar to him. He was going to plan a hunt.
Flash hid in shadow near the little campsite. He had listened to the whole story, including the short conversation between Jackson and Pinkie. The orders given to him at the debrief had been clear. He was to report straight back to Sparks with any descriptions matching those he had just heard.
He didn't like having to spy the way he did when he was supposed to be enjoying some time off, but he began to put the pieces behind whatever the reasons were in place. He watched Mayfield get chased away by Sweetie Belle and her friends and Jackson leave to go back to the house. He waited just a moment longer and then backed away, taking a slightly longer route back to his home.
He would go to his room, his marefriend was sure to be out here with the girls until late. That would give him time to write his report and stash it somewhere until he found time to get it to Spike unnoticed. He loved Pinkie, but she and her friends were hiding something. Hopefully, that little slip Pinkie had made with her story would allow him to reveal what it was in time.