A State of Darkness

by Wing

A Game of Darkness - Installment 15 - Arc III

Powder blue talons gripped the edges of a Canterlot newspaper while paws – insulated by charcoal fur – danced atop a brushed metal floor. The date below the journal’s headline had passed a week ago, but the picture plastered upon the front page carried the exhilaration of something new, exciting, and revolutionary.

Green eyes scrutinized every detail as cream feathers ruffled to the heart-thumping beat of realization. “My boy, my boy!” the griffon shouted as he twirled his way past an unoccupied bridge console to one of the integrated island’s many windows. Staggering towers of iron rose from the surface to proclaim the technological might of the Griffonian Republic of Talon’s End, but Conrad Lichlos Gänse had found something far more interesting in his sights.

Over a year ago, the griffon had had a hunch – an inkling of a thought – that perhaps one of his closest college cohorts had placed a hoof into some rather interesting business. For all intents and purposes, that premonition flew claw-in-claw with the notion of a pipe dream; and yet, here he stood at the core of his airship viewing a portrait that undoubtedly captured that very pony’s visage.

“It seems as though you finally managed to figure it out, Doctor Wing.” The muscles near the base of his blackened beak contorted to sculpt the basics of a smile. He reflected upon those years spent in Equestria, how he had toiled in graduate school, and how his drive to succeed had led to an early departure from the nation.

That time in Whynnyapolis, however, had served him well. In that vividly crisp northland, he had come to know a fellow graduate student – one whose peculiar tales of Wonderbolt-backed research and fanciful applications drove most to roll their eyes or mutter, “Only Wing.” Yet, they had all considered him mad, too. They had looked down upon his foreign fascination with magic as strange, as if his desire to tie that mystical paradigm to the mechanics he knew oh so well was somehow invalid.

“How we used to spend the hours flirting upon the brinks of imaginary disasters. I wonder if you gaze upon this creation of yours and recognize any of the beauty that I see.” He dallied about the lavender pixels pressed into the parchment. “That allure of magic made us kindred spirits, Wing, but just like the lot of ponies, you were always fearful of the change.

“You peeked at the shadows but couldn’t turn away from the specter. And now, I get to see the fruits of that labor. Just look at you! You’ve become a riveting entertainer playing hero for the masses. In your honor, they write of concern and curiosity while pondering just how a pegasus could possibly wield the power to dispel windigos. For the fallen, they write with sorrow while still catering to the lowest common denominator with promises that the day was saved thanks to the light. But the two of us both know, my dearest Wing, that the day was saved thanks to the lightless.”

Conrad pushed off the frame that circumscribed the window and once again twirled around upon hind paws to the audience of his ship’s emptied command deck. Delight surged through his body as endorphins swayed to a swelling orchestration that serenaded his numerous calculations. He flipped the newspaper into the clutches of his lion’s tail and closed his eyes for the remainder of the performance.

The chess pieces were assembling themselves with even less effort than he had anticipated. True, he had laid the board long ago – forcing it to weather the inquiring threads of fate – but subtly ensnaring each and every component in those fibers was a challenge that necessitated a level of genius only he could achieve. And all of that still required a firm table of malcontent upon which his game could be played.

It turned out that pawns made the best carpenters, for the promises of a new dawn and a promoted existence propelled them to push the frontlines to new, ever-inspiring boundaries. The griffon burst into laughter as the mental picture snapped into focus once more. He had found his white knight, and the fact that the role had been filled by the choice of his dreams spurred childish giggles to bubble through the professor’s beak.

The manifesting monologue reached an abrupt end when the wheel on the bulkhead door spun to the unlocked position. The steel – piercing the jovial frivolities – squeaked before another griffon stepped onto the bridge. She was decorated in camouflage that captured the blues and whites of a cloud-dotted sky, and similarly hued tufts of hair jutted out from beneath the brim of her cap. Vibrant yellow talons produced percussive pops as they periodically mingled with the floor, but it was her conspicuous crimson stare that managed to halt the overjoyed Lichlos in his dancing tracks. “Sir, they’ve signed off on your motion. We are cleared to launch at your order.”

A sly chuckle slithered from Conrad as he peered at his lieutenant. He had just been pondering the pieces and found it immensely satisfying that the king had dropped into his clutches at this particular moment of his opus. The absolutely most useless player to occupy a square was unfortunately the most essential when it came to his pursuits, but he had held faith that his arguments would persuade the governing leadership of his country.

Relationships between the griffon tribes had been a source of contention for centuries, and while the Republic had eventually established strong ties with most of the smaller outliers, the deplorable state of affairs with the Northern Kingdom of Eagle’s Cry remained exploitable in almost every situation. The two sovereignties had been locked in a cold war for nearly fifty years, and that hostility had generated its fair share of heated outbursts over the course of history.

Those in the Talon’s End believed that the Eagle had long ago abandoned its pride – that it had turned its tail towards the self-sufficiency that made griffons strong. It had turned to outsiders for strength when the Republic sought to garner power from other, worthy griffon lands. It had broken a simple creed – a mutual understanding that stretched back millennia – that the pursuit of alpha status was to forever remain an internal issue.

Spies had been dispatched to detail the proceedings, and each reconnaissance report that made it to the Republic’s Council stoked the ire of the ruling body. Defense agreements with supposed allies to the east, the implementation of foreign techniques into combat training, and the buildup of a voluntary air force all sent ripples down the collective spine of the senate. However, there had been one specific development that Gänse knew he could harness.

A trade agreement with Equestria had perturbed even the most unpatriotic citizens, for they grasped the concept of a tribe bearing the secrets of griffon culture to another species with such contempt that just about any… little… addition could flick society right off its fulcrum. While the Talon’s End held diplomatic standing with Equestria, the subsequent ties were weak gestures that sat on the line of political politeness and nothing more.

Ponies, with that supernatural element of mystery, were in some senses feared. Their traditions seemed completely orthogonal to ordinary griffon aspirations, and it had indeed taken Conrad quite some time to mask his own ambitions once he had gained the rare opportunity to study abroad in Whynnyapolis.

Yet the photo in his possession did not display an event completely clouded by sorcery. A pony – one that he knew – had encroached upon an industrial domain that was a griffon’s birthright. The equines had molded their freakish abilities into something that a non-user could wield upon the field of battle. “I knew they would see it my way, Lieutenant. It really isn’t hard to draw the dots to danger when the newest trade partner of our enemy seemingly develops a weapon that we do not yet understand.”

The professor paused, allowing the gravity of his statement to settle upon the lieutenant’s mind. “Did you know, Azure Sky, that the customs office in Manehattan has the tendency to report diplomatic arrivals to the Canterlot authorities within 24 hours?” Condescending inflections sporadically pulled Conrad’s pitch as he continued. “That’s not such a bad thing if you happen to be seeking an audience, now is it? Go inform the crew. The Aircraft Albatross will be setting course for Equestria at sixteen-hundred hours.”

Three weeks had passed since the eventful day upon which the Canterlot Arena became hallowed ground. My recovery had been far from swift, but at least the collection of ponies at my side had made the rehabilitation process as enjoyable as it could have been. Trigger had occasionally recounted me with his tales of nighttime outings with members of Luna’s House Guard, which – as it had turned out – served as the perfect segue to mention the letter I had received from my sister, Laizzy Chain.

A year ago, after officially adopting Midnight Star, Trigger had decided to send the filly to West Manehattan to live with my flower-shop sibling. The little one had initially rallied behind her own dissent, but in the end, the move was for the best. She was too young to learn the skills that she desperately yearned for the stallion to teach her, and without a developed mind to serve as her vessel of birth, the filly of fantasy was born lacking the tools necessary for a typical life in Equestria.

Regardless, it sounded as though she had caught her stride and was blossoming into a friendly young pony with a boatload of talent. I could not help but notice the fatherly grin that had seeped onto Trigger’s countenance when he learned that she had gained her cutie mark while defending a friend from the onslaught of a bully. A five-pointed silver sheriff’s star set against the crescent of a scythe definitely suited the family heritage.

Of course, Amora had become another familiar presence – especially during the early stages of my hospital stay. It was not an exaggeration to say that I would have died without her magic actively holding me together. Those first few days barely registered as memories in my head. I had been pumped full of pain suppressing spells and had spent most of that time flirting incessantly with the sweet succubus otherwise known as the unconscious state.

However, several images had survived the sleep-induced erasures of my anamneses, and all of them involved the medic’s anguished expression as she fought to drain the insidious aftereffects of Erzsevine’s thaumic brands. Amora was truly an amazing unicorn, and I was blessed to have her as a friend who would remain in my corner – no matter my condition.

And then, there was she. There was the one who had put down everything before the full news could even be spoken. She had rotated her schedule just to slip on the next train to Canterlot, and she had not left my side until every vacation day had been used. When I had gained enough strength to venture outside the dreary walls, she had been the one to push my wheelchair to the stadium.

Civilization had appeared to have regained some sense of normalcy, but from the few inquisitive stares that had fallen upon my bandaged frame, I knew that things had changed. Our veil had been partially retracted, and society had been exposed to the potential nightmare that lingered beyond the bournes of compassion and kindness.

It also did not help that I actually resembled myself – at least the vision of me that somehow made it to the press. The stadium had still been crawling with guards when I arrived at the gates, and not a single one of them had asked for my credentials. At the time, a twinge of worry coursed through the network of my wandering thoughts, but I had been a bit distracted by the request of my significant other.

Word of the unbreakable garden had drifted through the ranks – to the hospital staff – to pretty much everyone. It was only fair that the two of us got to gaze upon the field of shielded flowers together. After all, it had been the essence of our encapsulated love that had driven the windigos from the capital. It had been my thoughts of her that had prevented me from drowning in the ice of hate. It had all been thanks to Ambrosia.

We relished the company – every feel and each touch – for those moments had brought unabashed warmth to the surface. As well as I could, I recuperated by jaunting about town with her whenever Amora deemed me physically fit to do so, and by the end of the second week, I was already back on my hooves – trotting under my own vigor.

With a quaint café as our backdrop, the sweet cerulean-maned mare informed me that she would start using her sick days to remain in the city to look after me. The reflection alone sent my heart clumsily sputtering about like an awestruck colt, but I could not allow her to do that. The brass had already been clamoring for some sort of meeting, and I knew that I would not be able to use my injury as an excuse for much longer.

Once affairs were put in order, she and I would rendezvous in Las Pegasus, rebuild our home, and establish the future we wanted. “The distance doesn’t matter,” I told her. “It doesn’t matter where we go or what we’re doing. The Universe can be rewritten and reforged beneath our hooves, but there will always be one constant. I will always love you.”

“The buck are ya doing, Wing?” Trigger asked while waving his foreleg in front of my eyes. I blinked a few times at his perplexed stare, and my head gradually tilted to the side under the weight of matched confusion. “You’re doing that thing where ya ramble on to yourself about reforging the Universe for your special somepony. It’s cute and all, but ya might want to get your shit together for this one.”

My attention followed his gesturing hoof until my gaze settled upon the entrance to Canterlot Castle. Indeed, this debriefing would not be like any of the others I had attended. This one carried the burden of mortality and a feeling of dread that eclipsed even Celestia’s light. House guards met us halfway up the steps to quickly usher us to one of the more secluded rooms of the palace. Eyes of those in the know dropped upon us like tumbling boulders as we traveled, and the resounding cadence of hoof upon marble that accompanied the otherwise silent voyage only intensified the anxiety brewing within me.

“Any word on who’s been pulled into this shit show?” Trigger asked the guards in a nonchalant tone. His casual address first took me by surprise before I recognized that both of our escorts had been assigned to the Luna watch. They were likely in Silent Knight’s unit; in fact, they were likely at the arena when I was being carted off.

“Officers.” The mare’s curt response carried an edgy timbre that did more to paint the situation than the word itself.

Sure enough, when the doors to the chamber were pulled open, I spotted a hoofful of stallions that had stretched my patience gathered around a cut quartz table. I had become a sheep before the bloody wolves – ones who relentlessly pursued the full production of things I could not allow – and I would either be devoured or survive a grueling bureaucratic climb. At least, that was my perception until a pair of teal irides corralled my unsteady sights.

“We commend you for your services,” Princess Luna spoke as soon as the wooden gates were closed behind Trigger and me. The others in attendance shifted in their seats from the radiance of her fanfare, and I struggled to approach the table without revealing a hint of amazement. “We understand from Defiant Hooves that duties were admirably performed, but the members of staff have a few questions they wish to ask. As such, we believe our attendance is verily needed.”

I sunk into my chair and took a deep breath. From the grin barely manifesting upon the extremities of Her Majesty’s lips, I surmised that her presence was meant to foil the pompous idiocy one would expect to be regurgitated by clueless brass.

“Could you explain to me why you chose to spare three ponies who dealt such egregious harm to their own kind?” The essence of Canterlot arrogance rose from the mouth of a pegasus who looked as though he had not made use of his wings in years. Huffs dribbled through his teeth as he sluggishly moved his mass in Trigger’s direction.

“‘Cause killing them off on the spot would have been strategically moronic,” he responded without the slightest bit of respect in his voice. “I took the bite out of the mouthpiece and kept her alive. If I had offed her, then every damn unaccounted member of the EHVM would be out lookin’ for some trouble. Even deskwarriors can wrap their brains around that concept…”

The princess raised her hoof and spoke in a manner that came across as a mother scolding her errant child. “Enough, Sir Trigger. We have no need for such hostilities here. My sister and I agree with your decision. We believe that too many lives were already lost to that day.”

“Indeed,” a brown earth pony cut into the mix, “what we would really care to know is the status of the EqNA Project. Colonel Wing, you demonstrated before the entire nation the effectiveness of your weapons in combat, yet at every review, you have somehow managed to delay the deployment of these tools. How is this so? Imagine how three weeks ago would have played out if our guards had possessed the ability to strike back against their assailants with magical firepower!”

“Sir, my rationale should have been completely outlined in Defiant’s report. My standard protocol was broken during the confrontation as soon as I relinquished the A0 to Mosaic Breeze. She had ample opportunities to discharge a round when I provided enough space for a clear shot. However, she did not due to the principle of thaumic resonance.

“I’m not just saying these things to pull your legs. If the wielder cannot form a magical connection with each round, then using them brings more harm than good. I’m still learning what my shells are capable of accomplishing. I won’t sign off on handing them out to non-magic users at any time in the near future. I’ve already made that clear.”

“Colonel!” Anger drenched the stallion’s response as he proceeded. “We’ve all heard you say that in the past, but that was before you successfully dispelled windigos before the eyes of the world. You’re in the press! Ponies are scared, and they need reassurance that we’re safe from various forms of attack.”

“First, sir, with all due respect, I’m in the press because somepony’s office didn’t do its job. Second, the round that I – oh so miraculously – used to thwart the windigos was a shell type that only I could fire, unless you feel another would be more suited to discharge a superweapon powered by the love I share with my special somepony.

“Look, I get it. You want to enhance the effectiveness of your guards. I want them to have an even field too, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. I have not even established the training protocol.” I sighed and pushed my forehoof to my temple. “What happened was a tragedy. I know because I was there, which is why I can also say that no amount of reckless armament buildup would have saved the day. It would have likely led to even more sorrow.”

Another at the table readied to speak before a gesture from Luna halted the verbal advance. “Gentlecolts, we feel that the direction of this discussion will yield no solution to the quarrel; thus, we have a proposal of our own. Would ye gain satisfaction from a pony of the royal choice being inserted into Sir Wing’s unit to assess the practicality of these devices?”

Displeasured grumbles submitted to the silence that followed Luna’s suggestion, and I bit my tongue as the big shots mulled it over. The idea absolutely terrified me, but the manner in which her cool gaze soothed my nerves made me wonder if the princess of the night was simply playing a game. When they all nodded in agreement, she promptly dismissed them from the chamber under the carefully stated pretext that internal DarkOps affairs were classified above their paygrades. I always knew I was a nighttime kind of stallion.

“We are aware that thou art disturbed by such meetings, but we hope the proceedings went well enough considering the circumstances.” She was practically giddy as she leaned forward to fish for my opinion like a filly who had been entrusted with a monumental task for the first time.

“Pretty much went as I expected, Your Highness. You dealt with us all well enough – especially when you scolded Trigger like a little colt.”

We chuckled as feigned groans slithered from the targeted stallion’s throat. “Well, we are also aware that creatures of reverie can be a hoofful.” She chuckled again and drew her forehoof to politely cover her muzzle. “But with all seriousness, Sir Wing, there are things that we need to discuss. We did not joke when we said that we wished to assign a new recruit to your care. He has been quite insistent on this path since thou hast saved his life, and we’re afraid that no amount of persuasion has altered these dreams. We will not accept no as an answer; however, we will allow thee to dictate your own timetable.”

“I understand, Your Majesty,” I replied with a defeated tone assuredly etched upon my wind. The decision was certainly not the end of the world, but it was definitely not what I had wanted either. When I had read Ground Cover’s dossier, it listed him as a father. Why would any pony want to leap into the world we faced when there were growing foals waiting in the light?

Her horn illuminated with a frosted azure glow as serene waves cascaded along her starry mane. The magical aura swirled over the crystal surface until two wooden boxes appeared before our eyes. “Ye have both been awarded The Cross for your sacrifices. Normally, my sister would throw a large to-do for such an occasion, but we figured a quiet delivery would be more appropriate.”

“Verily so,” Trigger answered teasingly as one of his legs descended over the medal box. I could sense from his mannerisms that he was geared to continue, but when Luna’s expression shifted to forecast something serious lurking over the horizon, he aborted the thought.

“There is something else that ye should know.” The confidence that had bolstered her speech disintegrated to the rising tides of what I had discerned to be the alicorn equivalent of maternal fear. With the bulk of uncertainty contorting her brow, she levitated an envelope into my clutches and tenderly revealed the news. “We received this dispatch this morning from our customs office at the Port of Manehattan. A Griffonian airship hailing from Talon’s End docked on diplomatic grounds, and its captain sent this letter specifically for thou to read. It appears that the papers have turned our situation into a global matter, and thou hast garnered an admirer for your work.”

She stared as I tore apart the paper shrine and unfolded the parchment it had contained. There were only four words inked upon that page, but that was all it took to send my heart racing into an unbridled gallop upon some frantic, dread-filled plane. “Trigger…” The name emerged as a gnarled, guttural whisper as I let the note drop to the quartz. “We’ll be going to West Manehattan immediately…”

I’ll be waiting. ~Lichlos