A State of Darkness

by Wing

A State of Darkness - Installment 3 - The Gameboard

Trigger made use of my abrupt exit to perform an evacuation of his own. He was not one to sit idly by on any matter, especially when he had already chosen a direction; and he was certainly not going to wait around for the kids to give him orders either. He rose to his hooves, donned his burnt umber vest, and slipped from the archives without muttering a thing to a single soul. Our parting stares, however, spoke volumes, and I could tell that he was searching for something in my own stillness. Our concerns had advanced along their scales and left the realm of frequencies visible or heard to those that simply burned. We both remembered – the only currency in war is life.

Outside, the stallion could now feel the tingle of the anti-teleportation field grazing his senses. “Grating,” he murmured while maneuvering through the usual crowd of the capital. “These idiots don’t detect a thing – meandering about without a damn clue. And seriously, could they really only get a bunch of damn rookies to perform this shit?”

He released an audible grunt of just the right timbre to startle a mare nearby. Instinctively, Trigger’s gaze shifted sideways to examine what sort of creature would counter with such a shrill whimper. Internally, his subconscious projected the image of one of those well-to-do ponies that no sane individual could ever comprehend – the ones that found displeasure in anything normal. He was greeted with Mozy’s unabashed grin instead. “Ah, dammit,” she proclaimed after taking yet another peek beneath his hat.

The mercenary merely rolled his eyes at the discovery and resumed his trek. “Couldn’t take being alone with D.H., could ya?” he asked as Mozy matched her stride to his pace. “Can’t say I blame ya for that decision. Ever sat through one of his data dumps? I know the bucker’s smart, but he’d do well enough to just get to the point and shut the hell up. Everypony knows that all the knowledge in the world doesn’t mean shit if ya don’t have the time to act on it.”

She waved her hoof lazily at the colt and giggled. “He means well, and he is a good commander. Though, he definitely can be a little dull with his deliveries. In fact, he and Wick only really pick up their presentation games when Doc is around. That slide of the dossier D.H. did for Wing yesterday, for example, wouldn’t have happened for any other. It was a slick move, considering his state…”

Mozy spotted the bristling of Trigger’s coat and realized that she had struck upon a touchy subject. “Some days, I don’t think he should be involved in this shit at all. Wing, that is,” the unicorn answered in an abnormally subdued tenor. His muzzle remained forward facing as he mulled over the details a bit more. “He gets conflicted easily, and it’s not because he thinks what he’s doing is wrong. It’s because he thinks he can do better. That physicist mode keeps poking for a solution that lives up to the values he was taught.

“He wants there to be good in all ponies; he expects it, and so he debates every damn move when it’s questioned. Things worked out for the best yesterday because he was able to get the outcome, but it’s not always that clean-cut in the field. Some-bucking-times, ya never learn whether the best call was made or not. Sometimes, ya just have to accept that some fuckers are assholes and that some assholes are in your way.”

Mozy swished her tail absentmindedly and listened to Trigger’s rambling as they continued the trot towards the ever-approaching railway depot. Their conversation felt odd to her. Yes, he was forward. He often spoke his mind without a single hint of remorse, but when it came to matters of emotion, that was a different story altogether. The way he tensed up when she mentioned Wing’s name led the mare to believe that something lingered between the lines – something that, against his withdrawn nature, needed to clear the fog.

“His place, in Las Pegasus, was more than just a lab. That was home.” Gravitas hauled his discourse to the metaphorical gates of Tartarus. “When he walked out, I saw a look in him that I haven’t seen in years. It was a look that understood the bits at stake. When it’s a them-against-him affair, that damn doubt clouds his judgment – makes him slow and vulnerable. The fools changed the rules of engagement. By attacking his home, they made it a them-against-him-and-her affair. And ya know that when it comes to Wing, he always protects his flower.”

“Of course he does,” Mozy replied as she ascended the steps of the central station. The alabaster façade mirrored the brunt of the Sun’s plunging rays, forcing the mare to squint en route to the confines of the sheltered platforms. Her ears jerked to the drone of sentinels standing around the cars that came in from Vanhoover. Their chatter was indecipherable at this distance, but it was clear from the tone that the group had lowered its defenses.

Trigger, on-the-other-hoof, figuratively bucked himself into a higher gear. He appeared to be even more perturbed than he had been, and his trot exploded into a full-blown gallop as he bolted towards the fourth carriage. “Ya fucking idiots!” he yelled – yanking the armored troops from their lackadaisical conversation. He pitched their potential rebuttals to the curb and hopped into the car without the slightest care for their consent.

The lavish cabin reeked of the mangled residue of illusion-based magic, and it infuriated the stallion to no fathomable end. Rookies were already polluting the city he detested with the foul, discordant fail spell. At least that offense was moderately understandable, but this went above and beyond the threshold of incompetence. “How did ya buckers miss this crap!?” His voice emerged as a guttural growl that kept the others – with the exception of Mozy – anchored to the platform.

“Do ya not smell it? Do ya not feel it? This entire car is drenched in a fucking aura of lies.” When he heard no response, he abruptly stopped the tirade and made his way to one of the windows. “No damn answers, huh? Bunch of dipshit cowards.” He shattered one of the glass panes and flicked away the enduring shards before pushing his head through the opening. “I’m talking to ya, asshats. How many unicorns were on this car?”

They stumbled over one another until the stuttered answer of zero teased Trigger’s ear. At least they had not questioned his credentials, which either meant that they were just as incompetent as he previously surmised, or Mozy went ahead and gave some valid explanation for their presence. “Zero? Zero? And that didn’t strike any of ya as odd given what we’re looking for? Let me guess. There were a bunch of ponies on this car, but they didn’t line up with what the brass said to apprehend so ya stopped giving two shits. How could a baddie get through Shining’s barrier, right?”

Every possible aspect of their security had failed. As he suspected, the Shining-type barrier could not detect the malice they sought. Quite to the contrary, its use probably assisted the culprits by skewing the expectations of those on patrol, and if that were not enough, the unicorns assigned to this shift seemed incapable of sensing the presence of innovative magic. The chain fully bore itself to Trigger’s tactical aptitude, and the sheer scope of the fiasco left him seething.

The only pony not trembling in his sights was the moderately entertained Mozy. The rest looked like a bunch of bedwetting foals in need of some dire education, and Trigger possessed no reservations about dragging the unit back to class. “I bet ya all have headaches too, which I’m sure ya collectively shrugged off as an effect of a sudden overnight alert. Care to take a guess as to what that was, geniuses? It was a unicorn shoving a pike up your perceptions’ asses!”

Kinetic was filled to capacity with pride. Sure, the authorities had been tipped off to a potential threat, but they were completely unequipped to deal with his skills. When the guards arrived to poke around the box he had shared with Ashen Mystic, their cluelessness had been practically tangible. It probably did not even matter that he threw up an elaborate display of lesser species as a distraction. The entire engagement was a debacle – for them – that sent his spirits soaring.

Ashen opted to remain a bit more reserved during their mission. The presence of an anti-teleportation field and the use of a barrier indicated that others were at least somewhat aware of her group’s actions. Her lieutenant had certainly performed his duties admirably, but it was far too soon to unfurl a celebratory banner before the ranks.

One of life’s imparting lessons repeatedly demonstrated that even mutts had their days. In fact, society practically gave these trophies to the filth without questioning the consequences. How many times had she heard others praise a useless earth pony for conquering a feat that she could have trivially accomplished with magic? How many times had she watched one of those arrogant fliers swoop down and poach a position that she had slaved to reach?

These instances carved pathetic, indelible stains on her history that, while painful, exposed the mare to the brutal truth. They scraped the fragments of the solar façade from her flesh until nothing but the pure essence of their plight could be retained. Unicorns had been muzzled by a myth that sacrificed their blood for the supposed magic of equality.

Mystic’s heart thumped as her vengeful inferno raged. She would rip the shackles from her race and bask in the glow of her followers’ unbridled light. Yet those lessons, those lessons were persistent. Like ghosts or shadows, they clung to whatever bits of her they could and echoed those ghastly memories that unveiled all that was lost. She would not forget that the smut received favor in this era or that, despite her efforts, some opposition required reckoning.

The cold, biting accent of a mare drew Ashen from her innermost shell. She and Kinetic had arrived at the safe house after the additional hoofful from Vanhoover had trickled to the comforts of company. Sackcloth irides sucked Mystic’s attention before she threw her forelegs around the crimson-maned ally. “Erzsevine!” Ashen shouted as her hooves pressed into the pony’s ivory fur.

“I am glad to see that you brought Telekinetic with you, Mistress.” She pulled back from the embrace and stood firmly before the pair. “We will need his expertise. You see, I’m afraid that we are down to two members from the original cell. The others chickened out once we received the orders to execute New Dawn.”

Ashen’s jaw dropped as she listened to Erzse’s words. Someplace in the back of her mind, she had predicted this outcome, but she never foresaw such betrayal from this cell. The Canterlot group was composed of those who spoke as passionately as she did. It was forged in a cauldron of unity that eclipsed the others. It was formed by those who claimed they would go the distance, but only two endured to the hour of need.

“Would you like to see their heads, Ma’am?” the mare asked without conveying any feelings of regret. “I already showed them to the rookies. It assisted in their understanding of our operations off the conventional grid. Now that you’re here, we can actually receive orders directly, of course. I hope you are not mad at me for my actions, but I could not allow sacred blood to flow through the veins of traitors. For once, I didn’t even bother to taste…”

“No,” Ashen stated, having recollected her sentiments, “I am neither mad at you, nor do I have the desire to fuss over trash. Wire Wise selected the ones who travelled with us, so I have faith that we will still observe an honest sunrise.” She pressed her hoof to Erzsevine’s blood drop brand and smiled. “I know where your loyalty rests, and I know that we cannot have defectors fleeing to castle walls.”

“Indeed, we cannot,” Haze added as an expressive beam gradually bloomed, “but I insist that we move on from the small talk, Ma’am. Erzsevine already did what she does best, and time only gives our enemies a chance to prepare. Besides, I am curious. Which target did the Blood Countess select, and which original member lurks within this house?”

It was only then that Ashen Mystic absorbed the dreary conditions of the establishment. Darkened, disjointed floorboards creaked beneath her prodding hooves. Torn wallpaper went unrepaired, and decorations found no home in the dimly lit foyer. From elsewhere in the house, the sounds of stallions bonding drifted all the way to the mare’s heart. In particular, the presence of one vigorous laugh brought a tremendous sensation of warmth to her assailed nerves.

This joy manifested for both Erzsevine and Kinetic to behold, and the mare immediately took the opportunity to confirm her leader’s suspicions. “That is Tepesch, of course. It is a good thing, too. The disposing of that big brute’s body would have been a strenuous, albeit enjoyable endeavor. The plan I drafted is fairly straightforward, but our deployment additionally depends upon your reason for joining us.

“You both realize that communication with the central command was not easy or frequent. This is exactly why the formation of this unit underwent additional scrutiny. We were to function without contact for long periods of time. We have not attended meetings, and we have not engaged in dialog. We have been silent observers – predators waiting for our cue to devour the prey. Wire went through a great deal of effort just to tell us you were coming without blowing our cover, but he did not risk telling us why.”

“Three assassinations took place near Galloping Gorge, and Celestia’s magic was somehow involved in their executions,” Ashen replied with a tinge of sorrow coating her legato notes. “We are investigating a stallion in Las Pegasus, but that is tangential. The Princess is here, which leads me to believe that the answers I seek might be here as well. In addition, it makes sense for me to be on the frontlines during our greatest battle.”

Erzse showed no outward reaction when she took a moment to collect and process what the rose-colored pony had said. “I see,” she responded before moving straight into her briefing. “My plans have adjusted slightly to take into account the presence of an anti-teleportation spell. Considering the heightened level of security, a two-prong assault is optimal.

“There is a farmers' market taking place in the southwest quadrant of the city. Our reconnaissance of this gathering over the past few months has shown that it is attended by primarily earth ponies. Since the Royal Guard is sensitive to our movements and deeds, I aim to exploit a weakness by sending Tepesch to attack this location. It perfectly fits our perceived modus operandi, which will hopefully invoke a strong troop response.

“This will make our true objective, the 13:00 Wonderbolt coliseum race, a more attractive destination for the cell’s second wave. It is true that our own kind will be integrated with those unfit for life, but since it is a well-attended windrat function, I will reserve my remorse for any pony that actually manages to pleasure my palate.”