Chapter 43: Influence
Jackson gingerly massaged his hand, it still sore even though he'd changed the bandage and took some pain medicine. He was still shaken a little by the other night's events. Getting in a bar fight, fine, but what his friend did... it just didn't fit. He'd been there when James had beat the shit out of the bouncer that slugged him in the face. He'd been there his friend had hospitalized a burglar in their apartment. Hell, he'd been there for James' first kill.
As vicious each incident had been, there had at least been some restraint, a sign that he cared about what he was doing. What he'd seen was nothing like the man he knew. Gone was the emotion, the guilt and the understanding of what had been done. Or maybe the understanding was there, but he just didn't care anymore.
It nearly broke his heart. Sure, everyone he had worked with had problems, all of them did, it was part of the norm. But out of everyone, out of all the shit they'd gone through, he thought Kaughn would have been the very last to crack. Maybe it was everything finally catching up to him. Maybe it was the transition into this crazy pony filled world they'd been stranded in.
No, that wasn't it. Here Kaughn had friends that actually cared. Ones that looked past his flaws. Hell, he even had a girl that understood enough to not just dismiss him as some kind of freak. Maybe it was always there, waiting, biding it's time before it finally tore out of it's cage. Honestly, he didn't know, but he wanted to find out.
After the guards carted away the thugs that night, he and Mayfield had gone looking for James, but without any results. They still hadn't found him the whole next day. They asked Dash about him, but all she could tell them was that he'd come back acting strange before taking off again. He was still missing and it worried Jackson greatly.
There was a gentle knock on his door. Getting up from the desk he was sitting at, Jackson went over and cracked it open. Outside was a pegasus of the Royal Guard. "Message from Her Royal Highness. You are to gather in the the vault along with your human compatriots in thirty minutes." He announced.
"Thanks, I'll be there." Jackson closed the door and moved to the bathroom to ensure he was presentable.
After fixing his uniform up some, he grabbed his cover and left. His room was in one of the less damaged wings of the Palace, so he had a bit of a walk ahead of him, even without the obstacles made by the ongoing reconstruction. Still, with some skillful navigation, he made good time and arrived at the vault doors in about twenty minutes.
The Guards standing watch acknowledged him with a nod and opened the massive doors just enough to allow him to pass through. As he stepped inside, the portal behind him shut with a resounding boom in the vault's ponderous space. He didn't see anyone yet, so he made his way further inward, walking into the deepest recesses of the vault.
As he neared the end, he could hear conversations and soft whisperings ahead. It seemed he and Mayfield wouldn't be the only ones in on the meeting. His prediction proved accurate when he marched into the back room and spotted not only the Princesses, but Sparks, Flash, Garth and the girls. Mayfield offered a wave from where he was standing by the back wall, near an opening he didn't remember ever seeing before. And then there, in a dark corner, he saw Kaughn, leaning against an old battered crate.
Jackson wanted to rush over and confront him about the other night, but now was not the time. So they both made do with a slight nod to each other as Jackson approached the group. While the girls were having their talk, the Princesses were having a conversation of their own. One filled with hushed whispers and secrets Jackson strained to make out.
It took a minute, but after a small lapse in time, the Princesses stopped and turned to greet him, "Ah, it appears we are all finally here." Celestia said. "I hope you are recovering well this morning?"
"Yes ma'am." Jackson dutifully replied, gingerly flexing his injured hand. "Should be all good soon. You needed to talk to us?"
"Indeed." She told him as the girls stopped talking to pay attention to the new conversation. Celestia began addressing the group as a whole, "While the threat to our nation has been surpassed, the threat to our world and perhaps many others still lingers."
"Princess Celestia?" Twilight raised a hoof.
"I'm not sure I understand. What do you mean about a threat to 'other worlds'?"
"I'm glad you asked, you will eventually have to learn this as your training progresses. As you all know, except for maybe our guest," she said, referring to the humans, "my sister and I came to be the shepards of this land through years of experience and growth, obtaining the powerful magics we have today. We use this power to help guide and shape the land, but this was not always so.
Even as our world was young and still forming, much of it's existence was governed and watched over by powerful beings of essence. They held no earthly forms and their influence was great, as was their varieties and attributes. They were not beholden to our world alone, nor the common laws of magic. As such, they were present on all worlds and could flit between them like spirits as they so chose. Most were benevolent, guiding the land and its inhabitants. Some were benign, not trifled with the affairs of mortals, choosing instead to sequester themselves in their own personal projects and whimsies.
But of course, where there were those that sought prosperity and the proliferation of happiness among those who were beneath them, there were those that did not. They were few and shunned by their counterparts for their penchant for destruction and sorrow, but their power was great. Fed by fear and woe, they ravaged what worlds they could with the pestilence of war and disharmony, furthering their influence.
Fearing the loss of their creations, the others rose up and a great battle was waged in the space between worlds as those that existed for love and peace attempted to cast down hatred and fear. The fighting was fierce and diminished both sides, reducing their influence in the universe. Weak and infirm, neither could now directly affect the affairs of the mortal worlds and retreated into the void.
However, some returned to the lands, seeking to regain the power they once had. Being unable to wield what they once had on their own, these beings attached themselves to mortal coils to do what they could with what they had. The Elements of Harmony that reside in you all are evidence of this... "
"As was Nightmare Moon." Luna added with a hint of regret. "These forces attach themselves to what resonates with their core being most. Unknowingly, they help you and work with you, influencing and guiding you. For instance, if you are naturally kind or generous, one of these beings with those attributes might be attracted to that and so chose to join you and enhance that, doing good in the world around you, through you. But should your thoughts turn to naught but darkness and despair..."
"The outcome is not often pleasant." Celestia finished.
"Wait, so yer saying' that some kinda otherly magic critter could be controlling us like Nightmare Moon?" Applejack asked.
"No, not exactly." Celestia explained. "Benevolent ones, like those associated with the Elements of Harmony, would never try to control a free being. Only those of malevolence and hatred seek to dominate their host."
Mayfield stepped forward, "So what, all the rubbish that's been happening here is the doing of some formless god-thing that hates puppies and sunshine? What do we do, find the bugger he lives in and take him out?"
"Not entirely." Celestia answered. "It will not be so easy as that. Over millennia, as these beings accrue power and if they so chose, they could manifest their presence as they are. 'Taking them out', as you so put it, could not be done through mundane means, even if you had an enormous amount of magical energy to release, it might not be enough."
"Ok," Sparks said, "so how exactly could it be done?"
"Excellent question." Celestia smiled. "Luna, if you please?" Luna's horn began to glow and a long box began to levitate out of the secret room as her sister spoke. "Traditionally, the only way to hurt one of the beings is through the powers of the others. There is nothing that I nor my sister could do to harm them. There is, however, a way."
Luna brought out the case and carefully opened the lid. Laying amongst the soft velvet lining, was a most curious short curved sword. It was made of a strange crystalline material, catching and reflecting the low light if the room, but as it was, otherwise lusterless. "This ancient blade, forged of Star Sapphire, has a potential unlike any other." She said. "For it has the ability to harness the power of the Elements."
"With it," Celestia continued, "we can cast out the dark power that threatens to engulf the land and perhaps spare the worlds of others from its wrath as well." Her horn flashed and a small ornate chest winked into existence before her. "You six, as the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, will charge the sword with your power. But that is not all. The path to the Dark One is dangerous and fraught with peril. As such, it requires one of great martial skill, along with the attributes of the Elements to carry and wield the sword." She turned to James. "As you have spent the most time living and learning with Twilight and her friends, I was hoping it could be you."
In his corner, James stood up. "Me?" He said, pointing to himself. "No offence, but I actually don't think that's a good idea."
"Nonsense. Though I know you would not admit it, you show kindness where others would show contempt, loyalty when those would flee and would rather tell painful truths than a numbing, yet destructive lie."
"He sure likes to party too!" Pinkie blurted out.
A soft chuckle arose from all the others, but James stood his ground. He glanced at Luna. She at least knew something of his problem, but she just nodded and urged him to proceed. Still hesitant, he looked over to Dash. Her expression was one of concern, but also determination and confidence in him. With an inward sigh, he finally stepped forward. "Still think this is a bad idea, but ok."
From the ornate box, Celestia extracted six pieces of jewelry, the mundane embodiments of the Elements of Harmony. They quickly floated over and affixed themselves to the girls, from Fluttershy's necklace to the crown settling softly on Twilight's head. Celestia levitated the sword out over the ground and the six mares gathered around it.
"Ok, my little ponies," Celestia said, "concentrate."
The girls focused, the jewels set in the Elements began to warm and glow. As they reached a critical point, beams of light shot forth and connected all. Twilight's eyes flew open, glowing stark white, as she cast the accumulated energy at the sword hovering above the floor.
As the concentrated energy struck, the crystal that made up the sword flashed multiple hues and colors, the crackle of energy lancing up and down its tang. In a minute, it was over, the girls slumping and panting as if they were drained. In the center, the sword continued its hover, but the once lusterless blade seemed to now contain an inner light, pulsing and roiling.
"Infused with the essence of the Elements, this sword should now be a most useful weapon, repelling and damaging any source of destruction and malice." Celestia said. "Now James, as a protector of these lands and its inhabitants, please step forth and take it."
James took one last look around the room, hesitant to follow through with the task. Jackson, Mayfield, Sparks and Flash looked on with serious features, unsure of what would happen next. Tired as they were, the girls still smiled back at him, urging him on. With one last look to Luna, who seemed as uneasy as he was, James advanced and gripped the handle.
There was a crack and a boom and a screech like tearing metal as the sword flashed an angry and scarlet. James jumped back as burning pain shot up his arm from his hand, the skin turning a mottled red. The limb felt as if it was humming with an intense electrical charge, but the feeling soon began to dissipate. Clenching and flexing his painful hand, James gazed around the room to faces of shock and fear.
"I- I don't understand, what happened, why didn't it work?" Twilight stammered.
Celestia's face became morbid and grim. With a flick of her head, she summoned a plain scabbard from nearby and stored the sword within it. "I suggest that everypony return to their quarters, talk not of what has happened here. Luna, we must speak." She ordered, her voice grave.
Still wringing his wrist, James all too happily walked away at a clipped pace. He didn't get far before Jackson and Dash caught up with him. "Kaughn, you ok?" Jackson asked seriously. James didn't answer.
"James, I don't know what that was, but it didn't look good, you need to tell us if something's wrong!" Dash told him.
"No, I said it was a bad idea!" James scowled, not looking at either of them.
Jackson had had just about enough of it. With unintentional roughness, he grabbed James' shoulder and spun him around so that they were face to face. "Ok listen. We both know that there's been something wrong with your behavior. You haven't been acting the same since we've met up again! You keep telling us you're fine, but that's clearly not the case!" He barked. "Now tell us what's been going on, or I'll beat it out of you."
James looked Jackson back in the face and knew his friend was serious. While he was sure it wouldn't be easy for Jackson to cause any serious harm to him, James didn't like the prospect of fighting the only person from home he had ever considered a close friend and brother. Then he looked at Dash, staring back up at him with such concern for him, but there was something else he saw that chilled his blood. She looked afraid. She looked afraid of him.
"Fine. You want to talk, we'll talk. Follow me."
The doors flew open as Celestia and Luna stormed into the Royal Apartment, banging loudly as they slammed shut behind the two Princesses. Celestia carefully laid the sword down on a table and cast a spell to ward off eavesdroppers and spies. The events in the vault had taken an entirely unexpected turn and she wanted to know why.
Rounding on her sister Celestia started, "Luna, what happened back there was dangerous. I'm not sure why, but it seemed as if the essence of the Elements rejected him. Not benignly, as they should if they simply found him as incorrect for the task of wielding them, but violently, as if he were something to be purged."
"I know, Tia. It was frightening to say the least."
"What do you know of his dreams, have you delved into them recently?"
"I-" Luna had in fact tried several times to enter the strange mind of the human in days past. But it was if something was keeping her out. Each time, she met resistance, a strange anomaly that would let her go no further. All she could glean was what he might have been feeling. But what she found did nothing to assuage her. "I cannot entirely sense them, much less perceive. There is something with him, I think. Something... other."
"Luna, do you know what this could mean?"
The Dark Princess tensed, "I have an idea, but..."
"You remember how he came to be in our world? Forced through the barriers, thrown to the whims of the flow between all things. That takes an extraordinary amount of energy to do."
"What do you suppose?"
Celestia moved to the window, looking out over the sun-kissed gardens. "Dark things dwell in dark places. Travel from one world to the next is not instantaneous, that much we know. One must first cross through the space in between."
Luna picked up on what her sister was implying, "If that is the case, then he is in grave danger!"
"Yes, but it puzzles me. It has been with him for some time, since he arrived in our world. How he has been able to control it thus far..."
"...Takes great friends and greater will power."
Celestia whipped around to face her sister, "Has he approached you for anything, a favor, a request?"
The question caught Luna off guard. She was sure her sister couldn't have known about the clandestine meeting, she was hesitant to answer. Should she tell her of the arrangement? Would she approve? It was certain that the knew information brought to light changed the situation, that much she knew. But still...
"No, he has not." Luna lied.
Celestia retreated into thought, pacing back and forth across the carpet. "He should be watched, perhaps the other two as well. Closely, but not so as to interfere. We can't be too sure of this predicament and I sincerely hope we are wrong."
"I have the perfect operative for the task, he's been very reliable before." Luna offered. "What of the sword? What will we do now?"
"We shall keep it safe for now. It may not be the Elements in true form, but it holds their power. In the meantime, we observe and think. The threat is still there and we can't allow it to idle. Especially now."
"...and so that's what's been happening to me. I'm sure why, I'm not sure how. All I know is that on that night, everything changed. It's like something deep inside was clawing to get out. It feels like there still is, urging me. Daring me to..." James didn't finish his sentence.
"Shit..." Jackson leaned back in his chair in the small room James shared with Dash and let out a long breath of air. "I mean, at first I thought you were finally cracking, I think you still are. But that... that sounds like something else."
"So far, I've been able to keep the feelings subdued. I don't particularly act out on them, only when I fight." He let out a soft chuckle, "You know, it's almost like the feelings just take over, using me to cause more harm." He became serious again, "But that's not how we do things, is it?"
"No, it's not. You know it's dangerous to get those kind of feelings involved. That's how mistakes happen and you end up hurting one of your teammates." Jackson put kindly. "How are you feeling now?"
"Ok, I guess. Sometimes it feels like they're trying to come up again, but I usually just stamp 'em back down."
"That could be dangerous too."
"So, are you at least feeling better now?" Dash asked him.
James reached over and ran a hand down her mane, "Yeah. Somehow, it's better with you guys around. Things are more calm. Especially when we were living together out there. I just wish..."
"What? C'mon, spit it out. It helps to talk about these things." Jackson said.
"Yeah, I appreciate it, but..." He stood up, "Listen, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Or knock some sense into me in your own way." He grinned at Jackson. "But I need to go take a walk, think things over."
"Sure, man. You wanna come back and talk, you know where to find us." Jackson smiled.
James walked to the door and stepped out into the hall, heading down the corridor towards one of the exits. He wanted to stretch his legs and get some fresh air, they'd been talking for a while now and the sun was beginning to set. Following no particular direction, he let his legs angle him towards the way to the lush Palace gardens.
As he stepped out into the rapidly cooling air, he noticed the stars were starting to poke out in the sky as the sun dipped below the horizon. He walked among the trees and the bushes, letting his feet lead him away to somewhere secluded, somewhere he could think on things. Though the things he had to think about didn't necessarily please him.
After a while, he found himself in a wide clearing with a plethora of statues. And monuments. He recognized one of them. Casually walking up to the bottom of the dais, he scowled at his likeness in stone. A glimmer around the statue's neck in the rising moonlight caught his eye. He looked closer and recognized it as the award Celestia had tried to give him many years prior.
He briefly contemplated climbing up and taking it down, but then he heard a noise somewhere behind him. He whirled around, searching for the source, instinct taking over and putting him in a fighting stance. "Hold on there, not here to fight." A jet black pegasus said as he stepped out from the darkness.
"Oh, it's you. Howitzer, right?"
"What are you doing here?" James asked a little suspiciously.
"Wanted to talk about our little 'arrangement'."
"What about it?"
"Well, it seems I've been ordered to 'spy' on you. A little strange, I thought, but then orders are orders. But then I was told to talk to you. Even stranger. Didn't make sense to me, but here I am."
James relaxed and leaned up against the dais. "So I take it that they might be onto my plans?"
"I'm not sure, nothing about that was mentioned. Although, I'm sure it will be harder to execute."
"Troubling. How soon do you think you can get everything together?"
Howitzer scratched his head, "If I'm careful about it, could probably do it in two days. Why, you leaving sooner than we talked?"
James rested his chin on his chest. Personally, he didn't want to go through with his plan. But now things were seeming to be getting compromised. What was worse, the malicious feelings and thoughts were growing stronger lately, whatever he had told his friends. He didn't think it was wise to linger any longer. His worst fears might actually come true if he did.
"Tonight. It's happening tonight."