A State of Darkness

by Wing

A Game of Darkness - Installment 19 - The Fox of the Rook

Manehattanites were no longer getting in Trigger’s way as he strode with purpose towards the docks. His glare beamed with an intensity that parted the sea before him, and disgruntled syllables slipped off his tongue as he fumed. “Scouting out peripherals already, Lichlos?” The notion that the griffon had already sent his underlings to mark his family sent a brooding burn coursing through the stallion’s veins.

There were some lines that were just not meant to be crossed, and that – much like the event that had transpired in Canterlot – was one that blew the line away and demanded his involvement. “There is no way in Tartarus I’m going to let ya come close to touching them. It’s obvious that you’re here for at least Wing, and now that I know, I’m going to see what else slips out of your shithole.”

His gaze drifted skyward, settling upon the sharp angles of goldenrod-painted metal that hovered ominously above his skyline. More of the airship came into view as the stallion realigned himself on the thoroughfare. Like a talon poised to strike from the heavens, the Albatross resembled exactly what Trigger expected from the griffon superpower.

Its corners protruded like daggers piercing the princesses’ sky, and each porthole reflected the lingering solar glare to direct a thousand-eye leer upon the city below. Two elongated boxes sandwiched the center of the structure, and Trigger assumed that they contained some sort of gas suitable for floatation; however, it was the angled wings that caught the stallion’s wandering attention. They swept outwards from the craft, transforming what amounted to a technologically superior blimp into a vision of Discordian woe. “Leave it to a buckin’ griffon to do that…”

Offsetting the menacing hovercraft was perhaps the only building in the city that could bring Trigger a bit of peace. The central hub of the port was a towering art deco spire that glimmered like bright marble against the assortment of otherwise monotonously grey skyscrapers. Like a dream, it stood out amongst the reality that surrounded it, and in that sense, the midnight stallion absolutely adored the unique contours and glasswork that drew him closer to the threshold.

Eventually, he traded the picturesque façade for the regal lobby. Bands of gold, the drones of busy ponies, and the sounds of running water struggled to usurp Trigger’s attention, but his amber irides remained affixed upon the silhouettes of the two guards stationed at the quay access checkpoint. “Greetings boys,” he spoke with the deepest grit he could muster, “I’ve been sent in to see the griffons. Their ambassador – or whatever he is – requested a get-together with my boss, Professor Wing of the University of Las Pegasus. Unfortunately, he’s indisposed at the moment, so I’m the lucky stallion that gets to sit through some boring flank political meeting.”

The two pegasi shuffled in their navy blue uniforms as one double-checked the evening’s dossier. “That professor is on here, Mac, but we got no relay from Canterlot that there was a substitution comin’ instead. Do ya got any authentication for us?” The rich Manehattan accent shot into Trigger’s ears and promptly drove the cloaked unicorn to reach into his umber vest to retrieve a decree from Princess Luna.

All three took a moment to briefly adjust their respective hats before Trigger was waived through the checkpoint. He was impressed that the guards had actually taken the time to read the memo, a fact that drew a chuckle through his clenched teeth. He would owe Luna a drink upon his return for betting that a forged seal would have been enough; then again, she could have just rigged the whole thing anyway. Seems I’m surrounded by clever girls…

“Thanks for the pass,” the cowcolt continued with a flick of his head. “And while you’re standing down here, just keep thanking sweet Celestia that ya don’t have to go up to that eyesore.”

The sergeants chuckled while one batted his hoof in Trigger’s direction. “The elevator you want is the sixth on the left. A unicorn should be present to take you to the quay. You should have no problem trotting around so long as you stay on the metal walkways. Don’t try the clouds, they aren’t enchanted for groundies.”

The word elevator did not quite encapsulate the true nature of the device which lifted Trigger to the cloud quay. It was some eccentric mix of cable car and boom crane that eventually carried him through the sweeping diagonals of steel to the floating platform. The reds of the descending sun dug into the metal beams, majestic towers, and fluffy clouds to produce a picturesque landscape unique to the raucous city.

Foreboding hues joined the golden glimmer of the Albatross as the unicorn attendant delivered the gruff stallion to his destination. “Just ring when you’re ready to go back down, sir, and watch your step. Be sure to keep to the designated paths.”

Trigger nodded as he trotted by the retracted gate. The wind coming off the sea immediately gripped his long argent mane and pulled it inland. Strands passed before his unwavering eyes, and his hoof held firm to the trembling Coltston while he stared at the griffon soldier standing at the other end of an iron bridge.

“We were expecting a pegasus,” Azure Sky’s voice rang out as she scrutinized every detail of Trigger’s frame. He was definitely not the pony Conrad had wished to see, and the move left her wondering if Equestria really took the Talon’s presence seriously.

“Professor Wing sends his apologies, but he is not currently fit for travel. There were some recent complications in his life that have kept him in Canterlot, and I can assure ya that my presence is no slight. I’ve served as his assistant for several years now, so I’m more than qualified to represent on his behalf.”

Azure stood tall in her uniform as she pondered the potential outcomes. Lichlos had made it perfectly clear that her orders were to admit only the pegasus known as Wing onto the vessel. It was only he who could begin to pull the threads the griffon commander had placed upon the bournes of equinity.

“I am afraid I am not currently permitted to allow any other Equestrian onboard the Albatross at this time. Those orders were absolute. The invitation was sent specifically to Professor Wing of the University of Las Pegasus.”

Trigger grunted and held his firm hold on the other end of the walkway. Agitation pulled his brow towards the ground, and he hurled a huff through his muzzle before countering. “Again, I’m here on his behalf. I’m sure ya have protocol, but I’m also sure ya can just go inside to inform your commander of the situation. I don’t really want to have to go home empty hooved after makin’ such a long journey.”

The griffon mimicked the charger’s stubborn stance and kept her crimson sights affixed upon the bulky steed. “While it’s regrettable, Ambassador Conrad has no business playing host to an earth pony who is not on his guest list. He has made it ardently clear during the course of our long journey that an audience with Professor Wing is a top priority of our diplomatic mission.”

Blood pounded in Trigger’s skull as he tried to reconcile the reality of the situation with his internal benchmarks for idiocy. Was the whole meeting some sort of giant ruse? Were they just trying to ruffle his coat with an unnecessary delay? Both questions yielded potential outcomes that sat within the realm of possibility, but the griffon's body language suggested that, if there were some underhooved deception in play, she had no part in it. Maybe ya are really trying to wait for Wing, but ya won't get to him just yet. I'm definitely an adversary worthy of discovering your game.

“Perhaps I wasn’t buckin’ blunt enough. I’ve been working with Wing for years. I’m his right-hoof guy, which means there isn’t a project he works on that I do not know about. Did that one sink in? There isn’t a single project that doesn’t touch these hooves.” The words of the last sentence individually popped from his lips in verbal daggers that raced over the catwalk.

“Everything, the stallion says…” The flamboyant delivery faded into silence before Azure Sky even had the chance to finish inhaling for a response. Conrad’s talons wrapped around the bulkhead’s frame, and moments later, cream feathers emerged from the void that shrouded the ship beyond its threshold. “Perhaps the pony thinks this is important, and perhaps it is. I believe the surprise visitor is trying to gauge us, Lieutenant. I wonder! Are you insinuating that the reason I requested an audience with – your boss – my friend has something to do with his research?”

Ripples of apprehension rode through Azure Sky’s fur. Her muscles tightened, and her bones locked into their stoutest of stances as Lichlos practically slithered through the exit. Along with the predatory gleam that swirled about Conrad’s emerald irides, the lieutenant’s fear was something duly noted by an analyzing Trigger. The griffon had placed arrogance at the forefront of his game, and the crass shot regarding relationship superiority was definitely an angle that could be worked.

“Insinuating anything in a diplomatic engagement would be poor form, Ambassador.” He momentarily bowed his head and continued, “Wing was simply guessing why ya sought an audience after all these years, and he was quite upset that he … wasn’t allowed to attend.”

“Wasn’t allowed and wasn’t able are completely different things, my little pony,” Conrad replied before gesturing his talons for Trigger to cross the bridge and enter the vessel. “If Wing sent you though, then we need not stand in the wind to discuss business.” The griffon waited until Trigger was at his side before stepping through the doorway. “The Albatross has a conference room near the gate to facilitate these sorts of affairs. Why don’t we make use of it, and then we can work out what exactly happened to my lavender colleague?”

Just the snake I remembered, Trigger reflected while he was escorted to the chamber. He was probably there from the start, listening for the chance to find his way back into the inner circle. The plan hits a bump when he gets a new target, so he asserts his status as a historical alpha and drags me off to make nice after the first instance of me backin’ down. What a buckin’ little shit.

“While assumptions can yield less-than-favorable circumstances,” Conrad began immediately after establishing the privacy of his space, “they also can clear obstacles rather quickly when applied correctly. For example, I will assume that your boss had unpleasant things to say about me prior to your departure. You do not even have to feign political correctness because I know that it is true. It is something he would do.

“We suffered a rather unfortunate parting simply because the pony way is not the griffon way. You see, ponies have magic. True, we possess a passive power similar to that of pegasi, but unicorns – alicorns – carry a caliber about which griffons can only dream. Imagine if we were to live in a world where your rulers were not sweet benefactors. They could hijack the sun, ruin the day, and prevent crops from ever growing on our land. They could enslave us, compromise our sovereignty, or assist our enemies.”

Trigger struggled to remain attentive as Lichlos bequeathed his monologue. It was a trope he had heard over and over again while bound to the unphysical domain. “But this is where things diverge from the usual tale. Your assumption was partially correct. News travels fast, and it should come as no surprise that I had little trouble identifying the image of a particular pegasus when it appeared on the front page of even Republic papers.

“He finished what we had started in Whynnyapolis, but he did it to a scale that I had not foreseen. Most ponies are naïve. They focus upon the things they can see – like the giant prototype rifle Wing toted around the lab back in the day. Grant givers ate it up, but let us be honest. Wing is a master of slight-of-hoof, and that thing was the greatest redirection of all time. The real crux always sat with the manner in which one stores magic.

“Three weeks ago, he dispelled windigos over your capital city using what I know to be the culmination of his research. My time in Equestria and position as an academic serves me well in this regard. Do not your own legends state that three ponies – each from a different tribe – were needed to dispel these beasts? What am I to believe given this information? I am to believe that Professor Wing has made a breakthrough that can change the world.

“And that, Assistant, brings me to the other reason why we are here. The Republic cannot sit idly by when Equestria has in its possession the equalizer of our generation. My intelligence operatives expect an NKEC ship to arrive at the port sometime tomorrow, and this is information that I do not take lightly. Equestria has a standing trade agreement with an aggressive territory that infringes upon the Republic’s sphere of influence. We cannot risk these new tools falling into the claws of our enemy.”

The stallion had not bothered to sit while Conrad allowed the gritty details to spill from his parted beak. For a few tense seconds, Trigger had no words. Astonishment captivated his mind, and he did not even think to conceal it from his mien. “I’m aware of your history with Wing,” he finally uttered with a subdued flatness to counter the griffon’s borderline zealotry. “His rules have not changed, Ambassador. We aren’t going to…”

“But they have changed, colt!” Lichlos retorted with a twinge of staccato anger spiking his accented notes. “The Wing that I argued with for countless hours would have never shown the world his burden. He would have never risked pulling the veil off of his little enterprise. He would have done everything and anything to ensure that the shadows stayed in the shadows – unless of course, he finally had a reason to embrace the lightless. So tell me, which one was it. Was he not allowed to come, or was he really unable?”

“He was injured during the incident in Canterlot. No one was keen on having him make the trip just yet, and there were unsettled matters at the palace that needed his attention.”

Gänse quirked his eyebrow and gazed at the pony in deliberation. The honest answer had taken the griffon commander by surprise, but it was one that removed numerous anticipated mental loops from his agenda. “Then I hope he has finished his obligations. When the Eagles arrive, things could get interesting. It would be a shame if we were to discover in hindsight that any … unfortunate misunderstandings … could have been settled with a simple visit.

“I will entertain you no further. I want Wing here. There are things that only we together can achieve. There are things that I wish him to see, and I want to hear from his own muzzle if he has obtained the magic that I want. Now, if he’s still hesitant – or if there happen to be other complications in his path – please remind your boss that I docked in Manehattan for a reason. And if that is not enough, perhaps he would be interested to learn that I know more about his little EHVM problem than one might otherwise believe.”