Chapter 14: Midnight Endeavors
It was late at night, well past the time she needed to be in bed, but still she could not sleep. Celestia sat at her desk, poring over the reports her younger sister had gather during her duties. Reports of attacks and results of reconnaissance, all involving guns.
Guns, rifles, pistols and explosives, all specifically tooled for death and no other purpose. She longed for the time before they had come into play in her country, before the human came, before she even discovered the existence of humans, before she had discovered the existence of IT. There had been a lot less blood shed then. Even so, she believed her subjects would be a lot worse off right now if not for the humans and their violent creations. And then, there was still IT.
IT would still exist regardless of the current situation, doing whatever IT could spread fear and misery, pain and loss. IT had to, IT needed to, in order to feed. That was its only purpose.
Celestia had spent several sleepless nights thinking of how she could get rid of the wretched thing. The Elements of Harmony were ideal candidates, the magic within them could surely defeat IT. But there was a catch. IT could not be simply imprisoned nor could IT be banished. IT could only be destroyed, life ripped out and cast to oblivion.
Could they do it? Could they do such a horrid thing? They had the power, the ability to use it, the courage and determination to take on such a task. But could they take a life, even one as horrible as IT?
No, she didn't think so. And neither could she bear to subject them to such a thing. There were others though. Others suited to the task, accustomed to it. She thought of the two new arrivals, the operatives from Earth, they could do it. But would they be able to wield the elements properly? No, once again she didn't think so, they were not familiar enough with them and she didn't think they ever would be.
Celestia thought. She needed the other, the original, but he was lost. Most thought him to be dead, but that couldn't be the case. No, he had taught her long ago, there needed to be proof and she hadn't received any. Fortunately, whatever was lost could always be found with the right push and incentive. She knew her sister was working on such a project.
Celestia looked up at the grand clock that stood stately in her chambers, it was well past midnight. She would have to speak with her in the morning. For now, she needed to stop fretting and get some sleep.
The craft flew fast and low over the water, so close that the waves below seemed to reach up and grab for it. Fortunately the night was calm and the moon bright, allowing the pilot to easily cruise over the roiling liquid without fear. Inside sat a small team, checking and rechecking their gear for the task ahead.
Jackson stood still, arms out, as Mayfield went over the crude SCUBA system he was strapped into. It was simple and still in it's early stages of development, but suitable for the task at hand. Once Mayfield finished he turned around to allow Jackson to do the same for him.
In another part of the cabin, Sylver stood in front of Swift Paws, giving her a lecture on the equipment and the proper method of its operation. She was hesitant about what she was about to undertake, but steadfast in her desire to complete it. She was, after all, a dog of her word.
Flash was the only other passenger. He sat in a corner reading and re-reading the details of the Op, which had been painstakingly explained to him that it needed to go of without a hitch. Of course he knew better, experience taught him that much. Still, he needed it to be a resounding success, five in and five back out.
The pilot flashed the cabin lights, signaling that they were nearing their drop point. On cue, each member of the team made their final checks, making sure they had everything they would absolutely need to pull of what they were about to attempt. All gear functional and accounted for, they lined up by the door, Flash slid it open, exposing them to the frigid air of the northern isles.
The aircraft started to turn, slowly changing its course into a sideways drift. The pilot flashed the lights again and the team leaped out the door one by one, landing in the chilly water and submerging at once. Her payload delivered, the pilot swung her aircraft back around and made a beeline for the mainland.
Underwater, the operatives checked in with one another, double checking that none of their equipment had been damaged. Everyone was ok and breathing normally. Jackson looked at his compass and air pressure gauge before looking at his watch and judging how much time they had in the water. It would be a thirty minute swim to their destination, more than enough air at the depth they'd be traveling at.
With a wave of his arm, he signaled the team to form up on him and together they all began kicking or paddling forward through the inky liquid on a set course. Sometimes, the two humans had to stop and wait for their teammates to catch up, better suited as they were to swimming. Just over half an hour later they'd reached their destination, a small island off the northern coast.
While snow fell over much of the far north, this island was devoid of any such feature, in fact, it rarely rained there. Still, it was cold and the sooner they were out of the water, the better. With practiced smoothness, Jackson broke the surface of the water without a sound, gazing around the shore to make sure it was clear.
Seeing no other souls, Jackson raised his weapon, a simple M4 with a fitted suppressor, and glided gently through the water until his fins touched the sand. The rest of the team followed suit behind him and once they were all in shallow water, they cast off their swimming equipment and moved up onto the beach.
It was still dark and quiet, none had been alerted to their presence. They found a small rock outcropping and took cover there while miniature waves crashed onto the shore. Flash pulled out a map and a red filtered flashlight while Mayfield and Sylver climbed onto the rocks to watch for any hostiles. Flash laid the map out and gestured for Jackson and Swift Paws to come look at it.
"Ok, here's the plan. There's an old abandoned fortress on a rock ledge not far from here. It was condemned about fifty years ago, but it looks like it's been put back into operation. We've been sent to find something."
"What are we looking for?" Jackson asked, "Weapons, explosives, their plans?"
"If we find these, yes. Howitzer passed down something else though. We're looking for a certain document. A doctrine of theirs or something. They want to know their motives, what's driving them. Now, according to the blueprints we pulled up on this place, anything important to them would most likely be kept in the armory at the central office where there's a safe. Swift Paws, that's where we need you."
The Diamond Dog nodded.
"Where's our point of entry?"
Flash traced his hoof down the coast for Jackson, ending at a point where the beach met the base of a small cliff, "Here. There's an opening for a large storm drain for runoff."
Jackson sighed, he never did like small places, "As long as it doesn't connect to the sewer." Flash remained silent. Jackson cocked an eyebrow, "Does it? Aw shit, fuck it."
Flash continued with his brief, "Sylver will lead you and Swift Paws into the compound while Topher and I provide overwatch in case things go south."
From there they packed up and went north along the beach, Flash and Jackson briefed Sylver and Mayfield on the way up while Swift Paws padded silently in front of them on point, the night vision of her eyes giving her a natural advantage in the dark. Soon the cliff base was in sight. Flash and Mayfield peeled off in search of a suitable point from which they could look over the fortress with a proper height advantage, Sylver, Jackson and Swift Paws continued onto the cliff base.
The rushing of waves grew louder and soon they could here the boom of water slapping against rock. Swift Paws ran ahead, sniffing the rock wall all around for the entrance they sought. By the time Sylver and Jackson had caught up with her, she had found it. Unfortunately, it was some distance away, amidst the turbulent surf.
Jackson checked in with his buddy, "Mayfield, we found the entry point."
"Copy that, Jackie Boy. I got my sights on the compound, rifle shouldered and ready to rock."
"You sure your shoulder can handle it? It's only been a few days."
"It's still a bit sore, but those medics did a superb job on it with their magic tricks. Just let me know when things go pear shaped, I'll steal the spotlight."
"Thanks. Entering now."
Together, the three members of the ground team fought through the agitated water, using the wall for support when they could, struggling to prevent themselves from being washed away to sea. Jackson made it first. He pulled himself up into the pipe, it was cramped, Jackson found he was taller than the ceiling by at least a foot. Once on stable footing, he immediately turned around and helped pull Sylver it, followed by Swift Paws.
A foul rotten stench of tepid water and rotten things mixed in the air with the fresh sea breeze. They all flipped on their lights, low and filtered red, before plunging further into darkness. The smell grew worse and the air stagnant as they continued, but they dealt with it. There were more important things at hand. After a time, they came to a large square room of stone. The sound of the surf still pounded loudly through out the chamber even though they were now far away from the beach.
Sylver stopped and used his magic to pull a square of paper from a water proof pocket on his outfit, quickly unfolding it. To his two teammates, he revealed a miniaturized blueprint of the vast structure that sat on top of them. He found where he thought they were underground.
"Ok, we're here." He pointed to a part of the map with a hoof. "According to this, we can go two ways from here. That way," he pointed to a pipe similar in diameter to the one they had just left jutting out from the wall about five feet above their heads, "will take us further on to the armory. Or," he pointed directly over head, "we could use that access. It'll put us in a basement room near the main hall and closer to the central office. Input?"
"Treasures lay close to the heart, even ones blackened with malice." Swift Paws said cryptically.
Jackson got the gist of her words and agreed, "Specifically we're looking for documents of some kind, they ain't gonna be in the armory. I say the office."
"Office it is then." Sylver decided.
There were rusted metal rungs set into the stone that led up to a heavy iron cover in the ceiling. Jackson and Swift Paws had better a better time ascending up to it, but Sylver found it difficult with his hooves. Ultimately, he let his two teammates go up and clear the room before using a spell to lift himself. It was difficult and left him slightly winded, but he was in.
From there, they checked in with their overwatch, who told them that the majority of the activity in the fortress seemed to be remaining outside in the large courtyard where the majority of the Lotkin host was camped. Only fleeting shapes and shadows could be seen flitting about through the windows. Still, they needed to be extremely cautious. If they were found, it would be terribly difficult to escape.
Jackson checked his rifle and was satisfied when the bolt still moved smoothly, even after its exposure to the salt water. He moved to a heavy door at one side of the room and tried the handle. He found it locked. Swift Paws gently pushed him aside and drew a long, thin knife. Without even the faintest sound, she inserted it into the gap between the frame and door at the handle. There was a faint click and it silently glided open.
Jackson had his rifle up in a second and moved into the hallway beyond. He caught some surprise, as well as a Lotkin warrior as they unexpectedly met face to face. Without missing a beat, Jackson lunged forward and shoved the end of his barrel hard into the Lotkin's solar plexus before giving the trigger a few pulls.
The weapon coughed gently into the warriors chest and the body fell limply back onto the wall behind it with a muffled thump before sliding to the ground. Hastily, Jackson grabbed its arms and dragged the corpse back into the room, dumping it into the hole from which he had just emerged.
That taken care of, they all moved to the corridor, Jackson and Sylver keeping eyes on opposite ends while Swift Paws remained in the middle. Sylver led the way, with Jackson covering their rear. Stealthily they crept along the hall, senses alert for any danger. Occasionally, they would hear or spot one of the monsters of the keep walking lazily along, eating something messily or en route on an errand, but they were easily avoided.
At one point, they passed a large, long hall with a podium at its head. Jackson stuck his head in, finding it empty. He noticed a large book sitting open on the podium and made a mental note of it. Sylver led them past and took them up a short flight of stairs to the next level where their goal was.
The level was mostly empty, entirely devoid of any hostile life. Tall, narrow windows looked down into the courtyard where the occupiers took up their living space. Across the way, Jackson spotted what he guessed might be the armory. It was almost completely surrounded by the fiends, he was glad of their choice to hit the office instead.
They dodged a few more wanderers before finally coming to the door that they sought. It was mostly plain, like the other doors they'd gone past, except for a single placard on its face that read; "Captain of the Guard" in elegant, but faded print. Without any prompting, Swift Paws moved to the door and pulled some tools from her pack, but stopped when she examined the lock.
"It is open."
"Son of a nag, one of 'em's probably inside." Sylver cursed quietly. "Jackson stack up."
Jackson took to one side, Sylver on the other, Swift Paws moved to the wall behind the unicorn. With a nod, Jackson signaled he was ready. Sylver flared his magic, using it to grip the door handle. Then with a forceful push he shoved it open. Jackson exploded through the door, moving fluidly to one corner of the room while Sylver took the other.
At a desk set at the back wall, a Lotkin stood up in surprise, hand flying to a weapon at its hip. Jackson already had his rifle up and simply squeezed the trigger. The Lotkin's head snapped back, blood mixed with chunks of brain matter and shards of bone spraying onto the wall behind it before its body collapsed and its head struck the desk top with a wet thunk. Swift Paws entered a second later, closing the door behind her and giving the corpse a disgusted look.
They waited a moment, listening in case they had been heard. A minute went by and Sylver decided they were safe for the moment. Then he went behind the desk and looked at the body. Beneath the desk itself, he spotted the safe they were looking for and motioned for Swift Paws to get to it. The Diamond Dog obeyed without a second more and knelt down to place an ear against the safe door while she began manipulating the lock.
Meanwhile, Jackson and Sylver examined the body for anything else they might want. Jackson grabbed its shoulder and shoved it back in the chair, causing its head to loll lifelessly back on its shoulders. He started patting it down while Sylver picked something up from the table with his magic. It was a book.
"Strange," the unicorn said, "the Lotkin are intelligent, but they aren't really known to read. I only know one that can and Miss Sparkle spent weeks teaching him how."
"That ain't all, check this out." Jackson pulled something from the corpse's belt and held up a small black pistol. "T-33, Russian made, 7.62 mm, nasty little thing."
Sylver stared at it and back back to the book. He read the cover of the book and made a connection in his mind, one he didn't particularly like, "This isn't good, not at all. This book is about the Equestrian Royal Guard and their practices. They haven't really changed much."
"So?" Jackson said. He looked at the book, it seemed old, "Ain't nothin' on the RSTG in there, right?"
"Yeah, but look at this!" Sylver flipped the book around so the human could see its back cover. On it was a stylized sticker, "This is from the Canterlot Royal Library! How did they get this?"
Below them, there was a small click followed by a harsh squeak as a metal door swung open. Swift Paws had done her job and gotten in. Inside the small safe was a stack of documents and maps, which the Dog began hurriedly loading into a water proof satchel. She finished quickly, Sylver tossed the book in before she closed it up and Jackson pocketed the pistol. Now it was time to leave.
They moved as fast as they could while staying quiet, dancing light from the fires outside lit their way through the dirty windows. As the went back down the stairs and past the large hall, Jackson stopped. He remembered the book he had seen on the podium. He thought that anything worth putting on a pedestal would be worth taking. So he got Sylver and Swift Paws to stop and beckoned them into the hall.
Sylver gave them and an annoyed look, but followed him in anyway, stopping at the door to keep watch. Jackson went to the podium, stepping up the stairs onto an orator's platform. He thought that back when it was still in use by the ones that built this place, it must have been used for formal and military ceremonies. Indeed, the view from the raised platform painted a grand view of the hall, but now it seemed to be used for much darker purposes.
The base of the podium was crusted with what Jackson hoped wasn't dried blood. The book resting on it was large and thick, lines on the page it was opened to were scribbled in a dark and cruel text. He couldn't decipher it, he didn't even know what language it was, but someone probably could. His mind flicked to the combat instructor, Garth. He'd have to have that guy give it a look.
Jackson's thoughts were interrupted by a loud howl emanating from the entrance of the hall. A Lotkin stood there, pointing and screaming, "Anjles, anjles! Sarhot mesbaht Rakhti Khot ra!" It pivoted to leave, but found itself suddenly floating in the air. Sylver suspended it above the ground and pumped three rounds into its chest with his pistol before dropping the hostile against the wall.
Then it was quiet. All too silent. They were suddenly aware that the raucous noise and regalement previously heard from the courtyard had come to an abrupt halt. Jackson's radio crackled loudly in his ear.
"I don't know what you did, mate, but I think you might've been noticed." Mayfield warned.
"What's going on outside?"
"They've all stopped. They're staring back at the main building. Oh, shit shit shit, they're going for weapons, get outta there!"
"Got it, can you give them something to look at while we slip out the back."
"We'll do what we can."
Jackson flipped the book closed, tucking it under an arm and hurried over to his teammates who were standing tense and alert for trouble. Once he rejoined them, they quickly dashed through the corridors back towards the basement room. Bright crimson light suddenly streamed though the windows as a flare shot up into the sky outside. It was soon followed by the sound of periodic rifle fire.
A group of warriors almost at the main door halted and turned back around, gathering crossbows and bolts instead of swords and spears. Jackson and his teammates used the momentary distraction to their advantage, hustling as fast as they could to the basement. They encountered few hostiles, the ones they did were expertly dealt with, leaving a small trail of bodies through the halls.
As they ducked back into the room they had used to break into the compound, Jackson waited by the door to ensure they hadn't been followed while Sylver and Swift Paws jumped down the hole. When none came after them, Jackson gently closed the door and chased his teammates down, only pausing to replace the cover over the top. He barely bothered to climb down the grimy rungs, instead just dropping down where he landed on something soft with a wet crunch. He gazed down and saw he had fallen on top of the Lotkin he'd killed earlier.
Sylver and Swift Paws were already racing down the pipe. Jackson hunched down and took off after them. Before long, they reached the end, plunging into the surf with little thought of safety. They swam as fast as they could to the shore nearby. When Jackson pulled himself onto the sand, he contacted the overwatch.
"We're out and on the shore, you guys ok?"
"Just a bit busy! Do us a favor and let our pilot know we're coming in hot!" Came the reply from Flash.
Jackson quickly relayed the message to the extract team. In mere moments, the low hum of a propeller could be heard over the thrashing waves. Jackson and Sylver posted up with their weapons, while Swift Paws crouched behind them with the Intel at their urging. A few seconds later, Mayfield bounced over a low hill, rifle jostling in his arms with Flash galloping swiftly by his side.
They ran together down to the shore with an angry horde of Lotkin hot on their tail. As soon as they were clear, Jackson and Sylver opened up, felling many of the hostile warriors and causing them to pull back to cover before they were slaughtered. This allowed the pegasus and human to gain precious ground and rejoin their teammates.
The Lotkin were firing back now with crossbows and even a few rifles. Luckily, they were terrible shots. Mayfield worked with Jackson, picking off anything that so much as poked their hand out to shoot blindly. Some of the shots were landing far too close, kicking up sand into their faces.
Finally, with a great whoosh of air and a spray of water off the waves, an airship slid into place behind Flash and his team. Up on its top deck, a gunner let loose with a barrage from a mounted machine gun, forcing the opposing fighters to say down unless they wanted to literally lose their heads. At the same time, the assault team piled into the cabin as quick as they could.
Mayfield was the last in with Flash. Glancing over, he saw an old M240B mounted on a swivel bar. Moving fast, he dropped his rifle, letting it clatter to the deck and pushed the swivel bar into place until it locked in the frame of the sliding side door. He was relieved when he saw there was already a belt of ammo loaded in. With a jerk, he cycled the bolt and opened up on the shore. Behind him, Flash shouted at the pilot to take off and with a lurch, they pulled out over the sea, bullets still slapping and pinging into the hull until they moved out of range.
With a huff, Mayfield staggered back and slumped onto a bench by Jackson. The man was staring at a thick, soggy book as big as a bible. "What's that thing?"
"Don't know, but it ain't even the strangest thing we found."
"What you mean by that?"
Jackson pointed to Sylver, who was sitting across the way. Suspended in his magical grip before his face was a small book. He was flipping through the pages with a grave expression. He wondered how the book had traveled so far and how it had even gotten out of the library. Who checked it out?