I stuck close to Magic Barrier as the two of us moved from Manehattan Union Station to Trigger’s preselected drop zone. My partner had already left his crystal-clear instructions with the fellow members of the Mavericks’ Wild, and the news quickly spread through the nooks and crannies of our locomotive until everypony was on board with the plan. Griffons had already been scouting, so it would be best for us to move about the city as inconspicuously as possible. We would not travel as a group, the timing of our movements would be staggered, unnecessary spellcasting would be avoided, and most importantly, I would be making use of one of the captain’s numerous talents.
Unlike most guards, Barrier had gone through the agony of combat. He had spent a significant portion of his career in the Badlands dealing with the same brand of unsavory individuals that DarkOps had been founded to handle, and as a consequence, the stallion had honed a skill set that made the standard ranks quiver in their armored boots. His castfire and rheostatic abilities – by far the most renowned within guard circles – had long since received Trigger’s adulation as well. However, in my opinion, it was the stallion’s defensive and stealth wizardry that truly made him an exceptional soldier.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” he grunted, his head remaining forward-faced as I kept pace at his side. “You guys could have used me in Canterlot, but I was off dealing with other matters.”
Considering that I was tucked away within an illusory shelter of his own design, I assumed Magic Barrier was hinting at the presence of Kinetic. “I’m sure your knowledge was put to good use. Trigger sniffed the stallion out pretty easily; though, the Canterlot defenses could use some improvement. The standard rotation just isn’t trained to look for the same things, and of course, things would have been contained a lot sooner if you had been around.”
“I read the report, and I can assure you that there will be new training initiatives enacted once this business is settled. Some basic protections shouldn’t have been lost to the dark teams in the first place, and Sunbutt owes me a favor anyway.” He looked back as charcoal flames danced along his horn just to shoot me the cockiest grin I had seen in quite a while. “And come to think of it, you will too after I deliver you unseen to Trigger’s little meeting spot. It’s a pain in the ass that he doesn’t want teleportation in play – even though I know tactically what he’s getting at. It’d just save some damn time if we didn’t have to do it the long way.”
“Just what I need in life: another favor due to Magic Barrier.” I rolled my eyes when the unicorn erupted in a fit of laughter. “Though, the last time I made good on that investment I totally saved your flank in front of your wife. That may or may not have made it all worthwhile.”
“Way to drain the fun out of the class, Professor,” the stallion shot back as we rounded a street corner.
I snorted in response before taking a look at my surroundings; after all this time, I still found them breathtaking. A subsequently inspired chill ran up my hind leg and meandered about my spine as goosebumps rose beneath my bristling coat. That particular area of Manehattan never quite qualified as my old stomping ground, but as the skyscrapers faded away to the rows of waterfront warehouses, I could not help but notice the chord that had struck me silent. The noise of my city called to me in an angst-filled drone that somehow knew that the aggressive-looking vessel that dominated our skyline loomed as a terrible omen. No matter how we tried to spin it now, it would no longer matter. The North would arrive just in time to fall victim to Lichlos’s whimsical script, or at least it would arrive just in time to see us engage in our Catch-22. He had succeeded in getting me here, but I would succeed in getting to him.
Trigger had thaumically scrubbed the warehouse that had been selected as our field base. It never ceased to amaze me how the typically go-with-the-flow stallion could plop his mindset into that of a sharp, task-oriented tactician at the drop of a hat. He had transformed the empty husk of old industry into a rambunctious cluster of honor, valor, and pride, and by doing so, the onyx stallion had garnered a following that consisted of members of DarkOps, Princess Luna’s House Guard, and his beloved Mavericks’ Wild.
Gradually, their sights drifted to the Coltston-capped pony as he made his way to center stage. Even with his power cloaked, Trigger possessed a weighty aura that beckoned attention – or at least a feeling of unease – to the surface. “We gained more buckin’ company than I expected,” the stallion began with an imposing bark. “Actually, that’s a load of shit. I knew ya would be here, and I counted on it.
“Ams, congratulations, ya get to fill in as the Mavericks’ fourth. We’re backing up Wing with – eyes, ears, physical protection – whatever he deems necessary during the shit show that's comin’. There are two hours until an airship from the Northern Kingdom arrives at its quay. Advance dispatch from the Armistice Isle indicates that the vessel is the FHW Alton.” Trigger paused and glanced at Silent Knight with a stare that could split stone. It was a stare that shouted, ‘I know,’ without making a single sound, and it was one – based on the lieutenant’s stance – that he had definitely heard.
“House Guard will take an interior position from the northernmost quay with pegasi in echelon formation and all others covering ground flanks. In the event that the griffons fuck it all up, you’re responsible for keeping the North from falling for a bait scheme. At the very least, push the damn buckers out over the ocean so they don’t fuck over my city. Lieutenant Knight, I want ya to take point on communication with that ship. I know your history – more than ya think I know.
“Wick, D.H., I want the Bolts to the south, beyond the Talon ship. If they fly the coop to engage in a pissin’ contest with the Cry, ya can hit their rears hard and fast. Since Ams is with the Mavs, everypony left in the Ops is airborne – aside from the newbie, of course. We’ll just have to find something special for him, perhaps forging some new relations with the House Guard’s ground column. Either way, there ain’t time for chumping this shit up fillies and colts, so if ya have any buckin’ questions, shoot ‘em now.”
The silence of the cavernous space hung like a thick veil before a snickering chuckle from Twyst snapped the heads of the ranks. “Damn right I got a question, Trigsy. Actually, I have a couple. Are you going to finally spill the beans to Softy about why you called us? And more importantly, when the fuck are you going to take off that stupid hat?”
My focus methodically shifted from the hellraising stallion back to the stoic Trigger. His amber gaze was already poised to meet mine as a troubled stillness once again shackled every soldier. “The reason I called them, Wing, is because Conrad is willing to scout our family for leverage to get ya here. If he’s willing to go that far, then there is no buckin’ point in waiting to see how far it could go. Did ya'll copy that shit? These griffs are willing to fuck with my family.” His hoof rose to flirt with the brim of his Coltston. “As for your second question, Twysty,” he continued, pitching the apparel to apparent nothingness as a swirl of magic spiraled about his decloaking horn. “Consider yourselves all in on a state secret. I’ll be running hot from the start.”
“Crew of the Albatross,” Lichlos spoke as his beak seduced a glimmering boom microphone, “the time is now upon us all.” His voice skipped in echoes from speakers that graced every corridor, hall, and compartment of the imposing vessel. “A mere stone’s throw from our noble fortress, a bastion of evil has clouded the clear skies. We now stand upon the precipice of our greatest fear – to watch in agony as our most vile of nemeses attempts to abscond with weapons that could hurl our political conflict to the clutches of war.
“I want the Blitz System fully charged as quickly as possible. We will give our esteemed guest one hour to arrive at the quay before I initiate the next phase of my glorious operation. Scouts, keep watch over those slithering bandits of the North. If our target makes contact with their forces, I will likewise move to the next stage.
“Remain vigilant! You have all prepared for this moment. You have all yearned for and sought out the piece of the puzzle that will finally complete the portrait of the Republic’s dominance. We will not allow that image to slip away from us now that it is in sight. For the glory of the End! For the might of the Talon! I will bring you what you all deserve. I will inherit what is rightfully mine from my old ally, and I will rise to become your savior! Await further instruction!”
The griffon switched off the microphone and eyed the port with a wanton enthusiasm that sent a chill beneath Azure Sky’s feathers. “Sir,” she spoke with a restrained demeanor, “if you don’t mind me asking, what is the next phase of the operation?” Her crimson stare fell upon the cream-colored feathers that covered the back of her commander’s head while her body remained in the rigid stance prescribed by her duty.
Lichlos shifted his weight and settled his head atop his curled powder blue talons. He drew a breath with an orchestral extravagance that rivaled an esteemed musician dragging a bow across a string and answered with a somber tranquility that failed to bring his associate any resolution. “I’d rather keep it a secret for now, Lieutenant. Suffice it to say that I have a trump card that should ensnare even the toughest of pegasi.”
My coat flattened beneath the constricting pull of my Bolt uniform. I had left my saddlebag in Ground Cover’s care, opting to ditch everything aside from the trinket of my affection. That singular artifact had been nestled between a stretchy patch of black fabric and lavender fur and sat suspended by a concealed silver chain.
Behind me, the Mavericks’ Wild trotted with a methodically maintained pace. The three stallions possessed the dignity of distinguished veterans, and I could feel their ever-watching gazes upon my frame as I made my way through port security. Amora, on-the-other-hoof, seemed a bit antsier than usual. Her position oscillated between myself and the trio, and her worry over my condition practically condensed from the invisible aura she continuously cast.
Lieutenant Knight, meanwhile, stayed by my side. We were nearing the junction that would force us to take our separate ways – his fate aligned with a visit to the Alton, while mine dragged me to the overreaching claws of history. The ornate stylings of the port gallery fell away as I caught the awaiting sentinels’ glances. Their expressions mimicked Amora’s unsettled composure as their wavering irides sought to capture and comprehend the light that sprung from the unusually paired attires of Wonderbolt blue and Luna's midnight.
The gravity of the situation weighed upon their minds as we passed without a fuss. The tension in that building could be cut with a blade if one willed it, and no pony sought to further fray any nerves. “Good luck, Lieutenant,” I blurted before taking my turn southward. “Please keep Trigger posted on any developments.”
“What do you mean he has to keep Trigger posted?” Amora’s ire spiked as the rest of the group negotiated the corner. “We’re supposed to be your detachment for this operation. How is that stallion going to run intel up to the quay while were standing right in front of a belligerent force?”
“You’re not coming up with me,” I answered after raising my foreleg to quell the shouting medic. “The Mavericks’ Wild is possibly the most dangerous assembly of unicorns ever conceived by the Crown. None of them are needed up in the clouds, and Trigger knows that I never intended to bring any of you along. The caveat was clear in the briefing: what I deem necessary. You’d be useless up there in that confined space anyway, and the boys couldn’t make a move without probably starting a war that I do not want.
“Besides, there’s already a griffon standing guard at the lift, and I’d warrant a guess that the only pony that’ll be allowed up top is me. I’m the one he wants to see, and frankly, he won’t kill me until he has something that I have no intention of giving him. Trust me, your places reside where you can make decisions that affect the big picture. Trigger will know if I need him; he always does. Until then, this is a problem that started with me, and it is going to end with me.”
The gate of the elevator retracted at the behest of the unicorn operator, and the griffon sentry who had joined me for the ride quickly swooped across the quay bridge to resume his post before the bulkhead portal of the Albatross. It was the closest I had ever gotten to the harsh angles of a Griffonian craft, and as I traced the contours of the vessel, I had to repress the shiver that sought to traverse my frame.
Sliding metal produced piercing squeaks as the latches on the entryway surrendered to the climax of this moment. The goldenrod sheen of the ship vanished as the emerging dark interior seemed to suck away the natural Celestian light, and a faded blue talon wrapped its grip around the freshly exposed edge before a familiar cream-and-charcoal griffon appeared from the abyss.
“And here I was starting to think that I’d have to go to drastic measures to get you up here, my old friend. It’s good to see that you aren’t as indisposed as your underling would have me believe, and you show up in uniform no less. It’s like this is becoming an occasion! I sincerely hope that it will be one fit for the ages.”
Arrogance dripped from his lion’s gait as I watched Conrad stride to his end of the bridge. My body promptly responded in kind, maneuvering into position with a confident strut that preceded my words. “What do you want, Conrad? What are you doing in Manehattan with a Republican battleship, and what does any of it have to do with me?”
Lichlos threw a claw towards the heavens and essentially squealed in delight. “This is where everything is, my boy! And it has everything to do with you. I already told your little secretary the reason why we are here. You did something extraordinary, and I have to know.
“Do you see this ship? It possesses the culmination of a griffon’s magic. We can do what any pegasus can. We can harness that fervent lightning, much like you so eloquently demonstrated in flight school, and wield it just like you can. The defensive capabilities of this vessel outmatch a fleet of 10000 electrical mages, and the offensive potential is equally terrifying.
“Yet, none of that comes close to what you showed the world three weeks ago. You blended tribal magic of different origins. I know you did because you came and dispelled windigos in the face of your greatest threat. You triumphed on that stage despite the obstacle, and the how eats at my soul. That’s what I’m after Wing. That’s why I’m here. It’s why I travelled across the ocean just to see you. The materials are utterly irrelevant! I just need to know the how…”
“Then you’ve wasted your time.” My voice surfaced as a guttural growl that would have even rivaled Trigger’s grit. “I’m going to tell you exactly what I told you in Whynnyapolis. The rules haven’t changed, Conny. My tech isn’t intended for distribution. I’m not giving it…”
“You’re openly trading with the Eagle’s Cry! Do you not see how that looks to us? What is stopping you from putting us under with your magic? What is stopping you from stealing the sun or crippling the Talon’s End with your sorcery? Why do you always keep me pinned beneath your talent? Why can’t your damn equinity share the wealth!?”
Crew members stationed near the entryway gathered near every window they could find, and I stared in awe as the insanity dripping from Conrad’s tongue was devoured as the idealized speech of a messiah. “Go home, Lichlos. I’m not telling you anything, and I’m not giving anything to the Cry either. I have no interest in griffon politics. I just want my home to remain safe.”
“Safe?” Conrad replied with a sharp, grating click of his beak. “I promised these soldiers something that would ensure their safety! I promised them something that would change their world, and I am not leaving empty clawed. Perhaps, it would be unfortunate if I unloaded the Blitz System on the unsuspecting populace of Equestria. Perhaps it would be even more unfortunate if I instigated a war with the filthy Eagles over Equestrian soil, or perhaps, the ultimate misery would be if I had the means to make the bullshit kingdom attack first.
“Do you have any fucking idea what I went through to get you here for this moment, Wing? Do you have any clue? This ship, its crew, proving that you were the one – all of it had to be constructed on that glorious pedestal. Does the name Wire Wise ring any bells? I can tell by that scowl forming on your face that you know exactly what I am getting at. I bet it drives you nuts to learn that, all this time, I have been fur-deep in the Equestrian cookie jar, outsmarting even you, leading your precious ponies around like puppets just to get your flank right here at this second on this day.
“But I digress…” His quickened ramblings slowed to a crawl as a heavy breath lurched into his lungs. “You will keep your city safe by giving me what I want, for if you don’t, I will reveal my surprise. I kept it hidden even from my crew because it was a gift just too good to spoil. What do you think the North will do when I broadcast the execution of one of its own from the expanse of your beautiful, innocent sky?”