Mente Materia

by Arad

40 -- Resurgent (Part Two)

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
---William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream


00:12, 12/21/2015, CAPITAL ISLES, MINON

“The battalions have been loaded and are already on their way…”

“You say that two of the EXALT airships were disabled? Do you have any speculation as to how many they have?”

“If enemy reinforcements were present then they are already aware of your escape. They’re likely hardening their defenses even now…”

The passenger compartment of The Hummingbird was packed with minotaurs, either loading weapons or other supplies that would be necessary for the fight or huddled around the projected image of the scattered islands that comprised the nation of Minon. Captain Song also stood next to the image with Firecracker at his flank while Matt relayed the current events back to Canterlot with his radio. Asterion stood front and center of the projected image, pointing towards several different islands in the chain before casting an acidic look to Asvarion. The younger minotaur, cradling an ice pack against his face, simply raised a hand to point at one island in particular.

And Twilight sat on the outer edge of the mayhem in the now vacant seat that Sky Bolt had controlled the airship from, for all intents and purposes excluded from the discussions. On the one hoof, I don’t like it when there’s so much planning going and I’m not helping. But on the other hoof, they are the experts at this. Sending thousands of minotaurs into combat by sea and air against a dangerous enemy is a bit more high risk than a Winter Wrap Up, Twilight thought with a sigh before glancing to the other occupant in the cockpit. Well, at least I’m not alone… “Alvar, I would have thought you would be more involved with the planning rather than just sitting and watching.”

“The minotaur’s methods of engagement aren’t similar enough to griffons’ for me to provide any real insight, and I do not want to create any more trouble than I already have,” the young griffon replied before fixing Twilight with a pleading look. “I’m certain that my actions back at Asterion’s island can be forgiven due to the dire circumstances, but the Myrmidon will not be pleased that I was in such a dangerous situation without his protection. It’s tradition that a Myrmidon accompany the High Talon to defend him if his life is threatened.”

A slight shock of deja vu struck Twilight as Alvar went through his explanation with something close to panic. Sun above, he sounds like I did when I was younger and I ended up correcting a professor at school. “You said it yourself that you did what the situation warranted. None of us thought that there would be any danger, right? Why would the Myrmidon blame you for that?”

“The Myrmidon wouldn’t blame me, but I fear he will wrap me in a sack and carry me like a bandoleer for the rest of my reign to prevent it from happening again,” Alvar replied with a visible shudder.

The mental image of Alvar being carried by the Myrmidon like a mare might carry a troublemaking foal was enough to produce a stifled giggle from Twilight, and she was thankful that the young griffon was too shaken to notice it. As her amusement died down, Twilight turned her attention back to the planning

“They’re going to expect an assault from the sea,” one of the minotaurs said as he gestured to the map. “If that’s where the Toybox and EXALT are, then they’ll fight for every inch of ground. It’ll be a bloodbath.”

“We don’t have to commit all of our resources to the beach landings. We have airships, why don’t we use them for a two-pronged attack?” another asked.

Matt shook his head as he provided his own insight. “EXALT will likely have early warning systems in place, and the entire island could become one massive triple-A emplacement. I’ve seen how fast the Toys can switch armament mid-fight, and they’d chop approaching aircraft to pieces.”

“So it’s a bloodbath in the air, or a bloodbath in the sea. I refuse both of those options,” a graying minotaur declared with a shake of his head. He turned to address Captain Song. “Don’t you ponies have the capacity to teleport directly onto the battlefield? If we could at least get hooves on the ground inland, we could force them to divert--”

“When I reported this situation to Canterlot, I requested reinforcements. Their official response was to hold position until their current operation is completed,” the earth pony reported crisply, his clipped tone and narrowed eyes enough to convey his disapproval on the report.

A bitter laugh drew all gazes from the map to another of the minotaurs at the magical projector. “Isn’t that to be expected? Minotaur resources, equipment and lives are needed to defend their home but when we are threatened then we’re on our own. Perhaps Asvarion’s vote wasn’t--” Anything else that was said was drowned out by several shouts from the other side of the passenger cabin, which resulted in a volley of shouts from the other side.

Any positive feelings Twilight felt after her brief conversation with Alvar evaporated as she watched the passenger compartment devolve into chaos. We won’t get anything done if we can’t move past this. The minotaurs need to know that the princesses stand with them, but if Captain Song’s report is correct then there’s nothing to spare! Twilight’s ears dropped and she closed her eyes to try and come up with a solution. When it came to her, she couldn’t resist the impulse to facehoof. “Excuse me!” Twilight yelled but was easily overpowered by the bass and baritone shouts of the minotaurs. She tried several more times to gather attention but to no avail. With no other options available, she took a deep breath and tapped a bit of her magic for good measure. “QUIET!

The shout was enough to force the closest minotaurs to recoil (and elicit a wide-eyed and ruffled look from Alvar), and silence fell as all eyes turned to Twilight. “I understand that this is a stressful situation, but yelling at each other isn’t going to fix your problem. I also understand that it is disappointing that Canterlot can’t help at this very moment. It’s likely that they’re facing something just as dire as what’s happening here,” Twilight said as she rose from her seated position. She took the time to make eye contact with several of the minotaurs who had shouted the loudest before continuing. “What you can count on is that I am here, and I will do everything in my power to help. In case you weren’t aware, a teleportation spell is something that I can do with my eyes closed.”

A murmur rippled through the assembled minotaurs as they looked to each other and to the projected map of the islands. The graying minotaur who had first brought up teleportation was the first to speak after the deliberation. “I apologize for not taking into account your abilities, Princess,” he said as he scratched his chin. “Please correct me if I’m wrong, but without the specialized matrices in Canterlot, isn’t it hard to teleport to a location that you aren’t familiar with. If you aren’t precise, then whoever you send might end up in the air or the ocean... or in the ground…”

“You could teleport The Hummingbird!” Sky Bolt suggested quickly from the doorway to the adjoining armory room. “If we strip everything out of the passenger compartment, you could stack around twenty of your troops plus the Dusk Guard for rapid deployment. If Princess Twilight can teleport us to low altitude over the island, we’ll be able to disembark and disrupt their defenses to allow the other airships to safely land. Plus, The Hummingbird isn’t helpless either. She’s fast, armored, and has enough armament to support the troops we land.”

Again the murmurs swept through the room, and more than one set of eyes turned back to Twilight.

“I can do it!” Twilight replied with a confident nod, her mind already fast at work crunching the magical numbers to teleport something the size of the Equestrian airship to the island that had been indicated on the map. She wasn’t the only one that got back to work, as the minotaurs dove into a slightly more productive debate about the troops that would be a part of the lightning strike. The only ones still in the passenger cabin that were not a part of the debate were Matt and Captain Song, who both made their way to the cockpit and Twilight.

“I never doubted that Princess Celestia had her reasons for teaching you,” Captain Song said with a respectful nod before continuing in a quieter tone. “It’s something else entirely to see those reasons in action. I’m confident that the minotaurs would have taken the island where the Toybox is eventually, but it would have taken many lives and it would have left them bitter given that we couldn’t offer more help. You’ve shown them that we can help them and save lives in the process.”

Twilight accepted the compliment with a gracious bow. “I’m happy that I’ve lived up to your expectations, captain, and the ponies under your command have earned their reputations. Sky Bolt’s suggestion is inspired, as it’s much easier for me to generate a teleport field around a hovering airship than several individuals on the ground, especially for a long range teleport. I can further increase the accuracy while on board the--”

“‘On board?’” Captain Song repeated before he set his jaw. “Princess, my primary mission for this excursion is to keep you safe and out of danger. I cannot in good conscience allow you to enter the battlefield, even if it’s from within The Hummingbird.”

“I have to agree. If Asvarion is correct, then the Toybox and EXALT are both on the island, and Vide would most likely go out of his way to target both you and me,” Matt said with a strained smile. He switched the rifle in his right hand to his left and started to reach to pat Twilight on the head before halting himself. “If you stay here, then you won’t get hurt.”

The giddy sensation of solving the earlier crisis crumbled as Twilight looked from Matt to Captain Song and back again. They aren’t going to let me help the best way I can? she thought before another horrible thought struck her. They want me to stay back where it’s safe and do nothing, so I won’t get hurt?! I stayed back and did nothing, and Lana died because of it! Pinkie got hurt because of it! I’m not going to let that happen again! From her frustration rose determination. “Thank you for your opinions and suggestions, Captains,” Twilight replied as she tried to recall the official tone Princess Celestia used. She turned slightly to Alvar. “High Talon, you can attest to the fact that both of them have done what they feel is their duty in protecting me, and I am using my authority as princess to overrule them. Should the worst come to pass, they are not to be held responsible for my actions.”

Alvar’s body language stiffened in response to Twilight’s tone, and he replied with his head held high. “I have witnessed the commitment of your guards as I have witnessed your own, Princess. Should I return home without you, I will tell those that remain of your wishes.” The young griffon’s words had a note of ritual to them, and Twilight suspected that just as she was mimicking Princess Celestia, he was mimicking someone that he respected as well.

The expressions between Matt and Captain Song varied between frustration and resignation, but both gave way to surprise when Firecracker cleared her throat. The disguised changeling stepped out from behind Matt and offered a winning smile that was at odds with the tense atmosphere. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I just might have a solution that will provide Princess Twilight with a bit more protection without hindering her desire to keep everyone safe. Though I must admit it may be a little uncomfortable for you, Princess.”

“Oh, and why’s that?” Twilight asked with an arched eyebrow.

“I’ll explain as we get ready,” Firecracker replied with another grin. “The first thing you need to do is take those clothes off.”

And just like that, Twilight was suddenly more afraid of Firecracker’s plan than the enemy.


02:00, 12/21/2015, LOW PEAK, GRYPHOS

The heavy snowflakes falling serenely from the sky and the almost completely undisturbed snow drifts at ground level fit the very definition of a ‘winter wonderland’ in Zhang’s mind as the chariot descended. The peaceful appearance was completely at odds with the thundering reports of heavy weapons from the forces clashing above them at High Peak. I am more than willing to assist Alvar, but I question the priorities that were in play when I was assigned to this… Zhang thought as he eyed the only other figures that had joined him for this assignment.

The first was the Myrmidon, the griffon bodyguard’s armored and weapon-clad form at odds with the fact that he was the one pulling the sky chariot to a place that was most certainly not the battle they should be fighting in. The second was also a griffon, its form hidden beneath a black cloak and a staff in one talon. When Zhang had asked them both as to what their mission was, the Myrmidon responded with a head-tilt and the cloaked griffon extended one withered talon digit and brought it up to it’s hood in the universal signal for silence.

Their landing, however, was far from silent. The crunch of snow beneath the wheels of the chariot was punctuated with the occasional thump of striking something buried beneath the snow. They finally skewed to a halt, and Zhang wasted no time in dismounting to scan the area. There’s nothing here. Why would Alvar insist on the Myrmidon coming here if there wasn’t some vital objective? Zhang wondered as he closed his eyes and tapped into his Gift. His enhanced vision cut through the buildings and snow cover in search of some hidden ambush or something that would make their presence necessary. All he saw was empty buildings and decaying bodies. Alvar had begged me to come here, and he swore me to secrecy as well. He said that the griffons wouldn’t understand, but I would. None of this makes sense. “The area is clear,” Zhang reported as he turned back to the chariot.

The Myrmidon had freed itself from the chariot’s harness, no small task given the number of weapons that bristled from his armored body, and had extended a talon to help the other griffon down from the passenger compartment. The latter hobbled forward, leaning heavily against the staff in its talons, before stopping in the center of the roadway. Slowly, shakily, the staff rose in the griffon’s grip, before stabbing it down to the ground with a CRACK.

It should not be doing that. Not even a rifle report would bounce back this much… Zhang thought as the sound echoed several times through the abandoned city, and more than rooftop snow drift cascaded down to the street level. Any further speculation would have to wait as the cloaked griffon began to speak.

“Rise…” the word was drawn out and hissed like a weapon from its sheath as the staff was brought down to the stone street again with another echoing CRACK. “Invaders hold High Peak, the blood of a High Talon stains the ground, your oaths are unfulfilled.” CRACK. “The griffon people fight for their roosts, the enemy intends our extinction, your oaths are unfulfilled.” CRACK. “The Winter has fallen upon us, the living require your aid, your oaths are unfulfilled!” CRACK.

The cloaked griffon’s voice, starting as barely more than a whisper to Zhang’s sharp ears, grew into a crescendo. This is magic, it has to be. But this isn’t like Twilight or anything in Canterlot. This feels wrong, Zhang thought as the staff struck the ground again. With each strike the sound grew louder, and he couldn’t help but raise his rifle as something began to move beneath the snow.

The cloaked griffon grasped the staff in both of its front talons and raised it high above his head as he yelled, “Your oaths are unfulfilled, and the rightful High Talon commands you! Rise, and fight once more!” The red gemstone atop the staff flared with an angry light as it was driven down into the ground. Lines of energy raced down the staff and rippled across the ground like bolts of lightning to the scattered snowdrifts, each one jolting as it passed. Then, just as the staff-holder had commanded, the Myrmidons emerged from beneath the snow.

Armor parts clattered and skipped across the snow-covered road as they converged on one another, from the scorched plate bracers to the metal-wrought talons to the griffon-faced helmets in sequence. One by one, the scattered parts separated themselves from the frozen and desiccated corpses that littered the roadway to reconnect with each other, and one by one the massive Myrmidons stepped forward until nine faced the one that had escaped the massacre at the capital.

As one, they tilted their heads, and a nod was the only reply.

Fast as lightning, the Skysteel-clad Myrmidon drew two of his swords only to let them sink to the ground point-first. A halbert was next off of his back, followed by another pair of swords, and another set of weapons after that. For each weapon that was drawn and discarded, one of the Myrmidons in line rushed forward to claim it before launching skyward. When the last weapon had been given, all ten Myrmidons ascended into the snowy clouds to engage the alien enemies…

… leaving Zhang still on the ground with no way of following. He tore his eyes away from the spectacle of the Myrmidons to look towards the cloaked griffon, only to find the staff upright where it had last struck and the griffon lying on the ground beside it.

“Command, Zhang,” he said into his radio as he rushed to the fallen griffon’s side. He hesitated for a moment before pulling the robe’s hood back to check on the griffon’s health, only to recoil slightly when the action revealed a desiccated husk beneath. Zhang pulled the hood back over the griffon before grabbing the staff to move to a more secure location. He had gotten half a step before he realized that the staff wouldn’t budge.

“Zhang, Command. Go ahead.”

“Secondary objective at my location is complete. Griffon reinforcements from Low Peak will be joining the engagement,” Zhang explained as he stared at the staff. The majority of it appeared to be a simple wood with no real exotic features, but the once-glowing red gem at the top had dimmed to almost nothing. I… think I understand why Alvar wanted me here instead of one of his people. Given what I know about the griffons, if they knew about this then there would be blood. But he needs someone to protect this until the fighting’s done. “I cannot leave my current location without jeopardizing the ongoing operation. Advise griffon elements of my location when available.”


02:00, 12/21/2015, HIGH PEAK, GRYPHOS

The night’s sky was a riot of colors, from beams of magic of every hue, jagged lines of lightning, and stuttering lines of weapons fire from the allied forces attacking the mountain city. The aliens returned fire with blistering barrages of plasma as well as blinding flashes from a Sectopod’s main cannon from somewhere else in the city. The fighting was by all reports a meatgrinder as the last legions of the griffons filled the skies with metal and talons with the support of Canterlot’s forces in what airships could be spared.

Everything’s going according to plan, Shining reminded himself as he trotted in formation with the rest of his group. The golem Beowulf led the group from the point position like some heavily armored prow should contact be made. Lieutenant Romalov and the male half of the Fariq twins followed close behind, while Shining Armor trailed behind them to maintain his position at the center of the group. I might not be as good as a changeling or Twilight when it comes to this kind of magic, but I can hide the group from discovery until we get to Cadance… and the other objectives.

Trailing behind Shining was the woman who had introduced herself as Major Renfeld and a half-dozen soldiers that the unicorn hadn’t recognized. Approximately a dozen more had also teleported in at the start of the engagement, but they had broken off into pairs and vanished into the alleyways like ghosts. Damn Tirek to Tartarus and back! Major Renfeld’s right in that humans will be best against the magic thief, but I would greatly appreciate having ponies at my flank. Even if I’m shielding this group from detection, I feel like a fifth hoof here.

The group slowly came to a halt and bunched up as Beowulf’s pace came to a stop. A glance past the golem revealed a small gathering square or other open area, empty but for the carts and other things that were abandoned when the griffons made their retreat from the city. There was no sign of the enemy, but still…

“We don’t have time to creep along the border of the square,” Renfeld reported as she also surveyed what was ahead of them. “Beowulf, you’re up. Quick as you can to the other side. If nothing shoots then we’ll cross in pairs. Copy?”

Beowulf replied with a simple nod before turning to creep to the square’s entrance. After a moment’s preparation, the golem launched forward in a long-legged sprint. Several tense seconds passed as everyone’s eyes darted along the rooftops and to the windows for any sign of an ambush… which never arrived. The golem slowed from a sprint to a walk as it entered the next alleyway, and it raised one hand to signal for the next group.

“Romalov, Shining, you’re up next,” Renfeld said, not moving from her firing stance near the wall.

“What do you say, captain? A race?” Romalov asked as he approached the mouth of the alleyway, the grin in his voice somewhat at odds with the ghoulish helmet that covered his face.

An arched eyebrow was about all of the emotion that Shining could offer given that his eyes were covered in goggles. Trying to keep my mind off things, are you? “Perhaps we should--” Before Shining could finish, the human had already begun his sprint across the square. The unicorn’s legs flexed as his hooves found purchase on the stone road as he rushed to catch up.

It was that slight hesitation that saved his life.

A spark of power ignited over the square, and the spark grew to form a portal almost as large as the square itself. From the portal, a massive equine body descended, dark coated and with a white tail. Where a pony’s neck and head might be rested a massive and muscled torso, partially obscured by a wild white beard and topped with an angry red face and two curving horns. The plaza shook as the new arrival landed, and it shook again when Tirek roared, “SURPRISE!”

Romalov’s forward sprint turned into a skid as he tried to stop, but he was easy prey for the centaur as his right hand shot forward with startling quickness and grabbed him. The crunch of metal was easily heard as Romalov was scooped up into the air with seemingly little effort. Beowulf rushed out from the opposite alleyway with it’s weapon ready, only to be kicked squarely in the chest by a hoof just as large as the golem and flung through the air into a second story window. All Shining could do to avoid being trampled in the chaos was to dive for the cover of the discarded carts that cluttered the square.

These are the vaunted humans that the Elders are so enamored with?” Tirek boomed as he threw a contemptuous look towards Major Renfeld and her comrades as they scrambled for cover. He let out a thunderous laugh and lashed out with a stream of raw magic straight down the alleyway, cutting a trough of molten stone, save for one spot.

Rather than dive into the neighboring buildings, Fariq had held his ground. His left arm was outstretched in some gesture to channel his magic, but any sign of the spell he had cast hadn’t survived Tirek’s attack. Steam wafted off of every inch of his armor, and the plates on his outstretched arm were scorched. He tried to raise his weapon to attack, only for a portal to open up beneath him--

--and he fell into Tirek’s other hand.

Pitiful, barely as much magic as a foal,” Tirek laughed as a smaller beam of magic shot out at Fariq. He screamed and struggled against the centaur’s grip, only to be tossed away without a care. “Pitiful, but with such potential waiting to be cultivated. Ah, they want to cultivate you like livestock, to craft the physical form they think they need--

Renfeld and another human stepped out from behind the cover of nearby buildings just long enough to throw grenades, but Tirek was already moving. The hand still holding Romalov swung outward and batted both of the thrown weapons out of the area and over the horizon. “Clever trick using anti-magic weapons, but it won’t save you!” Again, Tirek lashed out with his beam and one of the houses bordering the square disappeared in a flash. “You think that your--

The crackle of weapons fire erupted from further down the square, the lethal projectiles and shots bending out of their trajectories before reaching Tirek. He responded in much the same way that he had before, by turning the building to slag with another blast of magic. “It’s pointless to--

The louder reports of sniper rifles from other places in the city reached the square, their heavier munitions enough to penetrate whatever protection Tirek had to nick one of his horns. “STOP INTERRUPTING ME!” he roared as he raked the magical beam across the city for nearly ten seconds. “Your weapons cannot harm me! And even if they could, you would still fail just as spectacularly as you have against all of the other Elders.

The cart that Shining had initially taken cover behind had managed to survive the onslaught from Tirek, and he had taken the opportunity to reposition himself to strike at the centaur… before those last words registered. All of the other elders? Is Tirek so deluded as to include himself in their group? Shining thought incredulously. To his growing horror, Tirek answered that question without any room for doubt.

The Elders captured me along with one of your insignificant little border towns that you failed to save. When I saw one of the Elders, I struck… and I learned,” Tirek explained to seemingly no one in particular. He waved his arms in dramatic fashion, seeming to either forget that Romalov was still clenched in his right hand or simply not caring that he was still there. “The beings you call ‘Ethereals’ are no mere mundane creatures of flesh and bone. They consider their physical bodies as little more than a flesh suit that anchors their incorporeal energies to this world. When I stole one’s magic, the creature controlling it followed.

Tirek’s dark laughter rolled through the square like thunder. “That’s right, my little humans. I am an Ethereal now. I can sense what you’re planning, and I can sense your fear. With my power and that of the Elders, there is nothing that any of you can do to stop me from making this world burn.

“This is Romalov, I’ve almost got one of my arms free,” the human reported through the radio, causing Shining to freeze in place mid-creep to peek over the cart he was hiding behind. It was hard to pick out given Tirek’s wild gestures, but he caught Romalov’s helmeted head scanning the area. “When I give the signal, you’ll need to attack.”

“Copy that, Romalov,” Renfeld hissed in response, her voice sounding forced. “What’s the signal?”

What’s this? Concocting some sort of scheme then?” Tirek asked as his horned head pivoted to try and spot his would-be attackers. He froze and glanced down at his right hand just in time to see Romalov wrench one of his arms free. The human’s hand clenched into a fist and swung straight toward the knuckle on Tirek’s thumb.

The sound of the impact was not unlike a thick tree limb snapping in two, which was immediately followed by Tirek’s earsplitting scream. Romalov slipped from his grasp only to be swatted mid fall by Tirek’s other hand that sent him careening across the square. Sporadic weapons fire also erupted, only to fall silent as the furious centaur’s magic swept across them. Shining had just darted out from cover with his TK blades at the ready when the magic beam raked towards him.

Shining Armor’s defensive magic had always been his strongest area, and the shield he hastily conjured was significantly more than what most ponies would have been able to manage with time to prepare. It was barely enough to prevent him from being vaporized on the spot but his exposed mane and coat was scorched in the process, and three of his four blades were little more than piles of melted metal on the ground. A combination of the burns and the shock of the sudden attack caused him to stumble to the ground, and all of the pain begged him to simply curl up and wait for all of the noise to stop.

I love you, Shining Armor.

Teeth clenched as he set one hoof squarely against the ground, then another. This… this is nothing. Nothing! I will not let this stop me! Shining told himself as he steadied himself and glared up at Tirek as he rampaged. It took nearly all of his concentration just to keep from collapsing again, but what little was left was enough to form something that resembled a plan. So… Tirek knows what we’re going to do before we can do it? How will he react if not even I know what’s going to happen? A small amount of telekinesis was enough to retrieve one specific item from his tattered pouches and hurl it straight at Tirek.

The moment the projectile left Shining’s magic, Tirek swirled around and snatched it out of the air with his left hand. “Fool! I told you that you cannot beat me with such mundane instruments!” he boasted, and made a show of squeezing his clenched fist. The crackle of shattering glass was barely heard over Tirek’s laughter as his gaze locked onto Shining. “Perhaps that is what Cadance saw in you, thinking you are capable of far more than you are able. You will have as much luck defeating me as you had defending your wife, Shining Armor...” the centaur’s gloating drifted off as he gave a curious look to his clenched fist. When the massive digits opened, Tirek’s eyes went wide with horror and he swept his left hand through the air repeatedly as though something was stuck to it.

Shards of smoked glass cascaded to the ground as a result, as well as a single blossom of Poison Joke as fresh as the day it was picked from Everfree.

Tirek’s screams and denials were deafening as he stumbled backward from the flower, his massive frame shrinking with every passing moment. The massive centaur’s muscular arms withered and the arching horns over his head retracted to little more than nubs at his temples. His voice, once powerful enough to rattle window frames, became little more than a whimper as Shining limped forward.

“Please… I was misled! They… they were controlling me! I had no choice!” the once mighty Tirek pleaded as he tried to run, only for the ghost-like forms of the humans to emerge from the rubble around them. “Please, have mercy!

“Did my wife beg for mercy?”

The words cut through the square like a rifle report, and Tirek barely had enough time to raise his hands in defense before Shining Armor’s hooves were on him. The crackle of breaking bones preceded Tirek’s involuntary flight through the air, and the centaur crumpled into a bloody heap at the feet of the human soldiers. “Please…” Tirek rasped as he reached up with his one unbroken arm, but his pleas fell on deaf ears as Major Renfeld pulled an odd pistol from her belt and pulled the trigger. A bolt of lightning shot from the weapon, which caused Tirek’s broken body to convulse before going still.

“Command, Renfeld. Secondary objective has been neutralized and secured,” she reported as she holstered her weapon. Much like Shining Armor, it seemed that Renfeld also had a close brush with the centaur’s magic, as the left side of her armor had taken on a melted texture. Her voice was tight with pain as she leaned against the closest remaining cart in the square. “You may begin deep strike deployments within the city at will. Requesting medical and extraction teams at my location for the wounded.”

When Renfeld began to slide sideways, Shining tried to raise his voice in alarm. It was only when his armored barrel struck the cobblestone floor of the square that he realised just who was falling down. I have to get up… I still have a job to do! While the spirit was willing, the body had reached its limit.

“Double-time on medical at my location, Captain Armor is down!” Renfeld shouted as she rushed to kneel beside him. She had removed her helmet at some point, the angry red skin along the side of her face all but confirming his earlier suspicions of her injuries. “Medic! Now!”

“Healing crystals… side pouch,” Shining rasped as he pulled in another ragged breath. A cacophony of voices soon surrounded him for what felt like an eternity before the cooling feeling of healing magic passed over him. I can already feel it treating the burns and shock, it should make me as good as new in about an hour… Shining thought, but he knew that was time that he didn’t have to spend on himself.

The snap of teleportation filled the square as teams of Equestrians and humans appeared en masse, and the precious few other surviving humans that took part in the fight against Tirek began to emerge from the buildings. Romalov hobbled out of the building he had been tossed through and made his way over to Fariq, while a heavily damaged Beowulf limped out from the other side of the square.

A trio of unicorns with red cross livery were charging straight at Shining Armor as he tried to rise. “Captain, don’t move! The healing crystal has stabilized you, but you’re risking permanent damage if you persist,” one of them said as she tried to place a hoof on his shoulder.

Shining turned to the medic, which was met with a grimace in response. “Cast your fastest healing spells. Painkillers too. I don’t care about permanent damage, it just has to last long enough for me to complete my mission.”

“Sir, I can’t in good conscience--”

“Guard!” Shining said in his best drill sergeant voice and was rewarded with every pony in earshot snapping to attention. “The success of this operation depends upon me being where I need to be. Nothing else matters.” When the healer tried to object, Shining stomped one hoof on the ground. “Nothing else matters. Am I clear?”

“Understood, sir,” came the reply, followed by a series of healing and fortification spells.

One of Princess Luna’s Night Guard barked out orders, and a dozen soldiers from the assembled races broke off to assemble at the center of the square. “Captain Armor? Specialist Midnight,” she introduced herself. “With Tirek out of the picture, Princess Luna has given Captain Star Shot permission to open the floodgates and deploy all strike teams to High Peak to try and force the aliens to reveal the Windigo. We’ll escort you to the alien structure so you can do your thing.”

Shining drew himself up as best he could before turning to address the reinforcements, but was pre-empted by Renfeld as she stepped forward. “We’re moving out in force toward the alien structures. Damocles has been confirmed as participating in the battle.”


02:00, 12/21/2015, UNNAMED ISLAND, MINON

The monsoon conditions passing over the minotaur islands appeared to have given a small reprieve as the rain had stopped, but the thick clouds overhead prevented even a single ray of moonlight from breaking through. The only illumination on the island’s surface was the flickering red of the Toys’ eyes as they patrolled and flashes from weapons and explosions flickered across the horizon and the shore.

A second source of light sparked in the skies, drawing the attention of dozens of the defenders. The spark expanded into a massive lavender flash, and The Hummingbird emerged as the light dissipated. Broadside projectors flashed with bolts of lightning, which found the Toys as easily as lightning rods. The bolts leapt from one to the next in a massive chain and by the time the second volley was fired, the entire landing area was littered with shorted-out machines. The airship’s ramp descended as it came to hover just inches off of the ground, and a score of black-armored Minotaurs rushed out, followed by Captain Song and the Dusk Guard. Matt and Twilight were the last down the ramp.

“Asterion and his troops will disrupt the surface elements to allow reinforcements the access they need, while the Dusk Guard accompanies Captain Harris and Princess Twilight to destroy the Toybox!” Captain Song shouted loudly enough for the entire island to hear, his voice conveying some discomfort even if his expression was hidden behind his helmet. “Move out!”

This is a rather clever plan, Firecracker, but I think you might be overselling the acting abilities of the others involved… Matt thought as he fell into step beside the Dusk Guard. The minotaur troops had already spread out, and the roar of engines signaled The Hummingbird’s return to the air. I know there’s a name for it, when a compromise is struck and all parties are dissatisfied with the conditions…

“Is there a problem, dear?”

The question sent a chill down Matt’s back as he looked down to Twilight at his side. She had a coy smile on her face, but the look in her eyes was closer to laughter. “No, we should get moving,” Matt finally managed as he followed Captain Song and his troops to a small structure built into a nearby hillside. Even if Firecracker’s plan doesn’t work completely, at least it will keep Twilight relatively safe. We’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope that the plan doesn’t derail too badly.

One of Song’s soldiers, a zebra whose name escaped Matt, set himself beside the door before kicking backward. The door itself was blasted off of its hinges and went tumbling down the empty staircase. When no hail of fire or shouts from the enemy responded, the group charged into the depths of the minotaur stronghold.

The walls were smoothly-cut stone and if the moss on the walls was any sign, hadn’t been in use for years. The only indication that anyone had been down the tunnels was a series of electric lamps set along the floor for illumination. Only the sound of their foot and hoofsteps down the corridor could be heard before they reached a second door. The zebra placed one hoof gently on the door before turning back. “Heavy footfalls from the other side of the door; I suspect our enemies are on the other side. Be ready.”

Their door breach started off in much the same manner as the zebra kicked the door off of its hinges, and the Dusk Guard charged through the portal. A Minotaur Toy nearest to the door was strafed by a beam of frost from one of the Dusk Guard’s unicorns, and it shattered into dozens of pieces when the pegasi launched directly into it.

Matt’s LANC rifle punched a hole dead center in the torso of the other Toy in the next room, but the shot apparently missed the core as the robotic enemy continued to advance. A second shot penetrated the upper torso, and a third just left of center. The fourth shot directly below the mechanical neck did the trick, and the Toy collapsed with a sound not unlike an accident in a bell foundry.

“Asterion, be advised. We’ve entered the lower levels--” Matt reported through the radio, but a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. His rifle came up to sweep the empty corridor. I was certain that the only contacts were the Toys when we first breached the new area. A cloying sense of deja vu nagged at his memory before he could pin the source down. “Captain Song, I’ve got possible contact with our objective. Moving to phase two,” he muttered in a low voice before giving an exaggerated point down the hall and raising his voice to a shout. “Contact, end of the hallway! I’m in pursuit!”

“Wait, don’t go alone, you’ll get cut off!” Song shouted back, entirely too loud given that Matt had barely gone twenty feet. As he rounded the corner with Twilight right behind him, Song’s own whisper came through the radio. “Radio us the moment you have something. I’m holding you both accountable for the princess’s safety!”

Matt acknowledged the order as he raised his rifle, only to catch a second flicker of movement at the next intersection. I knew it. This is just like Applewood, he’s taken the bait! A small thrill at the seeming success of Firecracker’s plan ran through Matt as he sprinted to the next corner. Again, the process repeated itself, enticing to lure the unwary away from their allies. Fortunately, I know what’s happening this time… He rounded another corner and was rewarded with a doorway at the end of a short hallway, which he and Twilight crept up to.

“What we’re looking for is on the other side, Matt. He’s alone, but be ready,” Twilight said, all traces of her previous good humor gone from her face.

Well, this is it, Matt thought as he let out a slow breath and pushed the door open. Despite his anticipation, there was no hail of gunfire or shouts of alarm, or any other signs of movement as they both stalked into the room. Equipment clearly of human design and manufacture lined the wide corridor, all showing clear signs of hasty storage. Empty weapon racks, an ammunition crate on it’s side and only half empty? Wherever EXALT is, they aren’t here, and they left in a hurry.

A flicker of movement from one of the darker corners caused Matt to turn to cover the area with his LANC, only to resort to his less conventional talents when his eyes identified the object hurtling toward them: “Jammer!” he shouted as his telekinetics lashed out to send the grenade flying into the nearest wall and shattering it.

The next sound was a series of sharp reports from further down the storage corridor. “Bravo!” Vide cheered, stretching out the word as he clapped his hands. “After you took the bait again, I was almost certain I would get you with that trick. After all, you lack my level of pain tolerance as our last encounter clearly showed. But I just knew you’d come up with something clever.” As with his encounter in Applewood, the EXALT agent wore an armored vest over a dark uniform, his shoulder harnesses and belt covered with ammunition pouches and various grenades. The only weapons that could be seen was a pistol holstered on his leg and a knife sheathed on his shoulder.

It was almost reflexive when Matt brought his LANC rifle up and sighted in on Vide’s smug expression. He was a split second away from firing when a roar from behind nearly knocked him off of his feet.

EXALT Vide! You are bound by law to stand down for your crimes! Submit or die here and now!” Twilight’s amplified voice was enough to rattle several of the loose pieces of equipment that littered the room, and a brief glance showed her eyes were narrowed and teeth clenched. Whatever spell was used to increase her volume dropped as she widened her stance. “Please, resist.”

“Well now, this is a shocking development,” Vide observed, as though the death threat was no more interesting than a development on a soap opera. His once affable grin turned vicious. “When I had last checked, you were all too willing to hide and cry in a corner while you let your friends fight and die for you.”

A decidedly un-Equestrian growl came from Twilight, but Matt shot her a quick look before turning back to Vide. “She’s right. You get exactly one chance. This is it,” Matt answered, as he tried to keep a smile of his own off of his face. Oh, you smug bastard, I’m going to enjoy wiping that smile off of your face.

“As our withdrawal from this theater is almost complete, I am afraid I will have to decline your gracious offer,” Vide replied with an overly emotive sigh. “I suppose congratulations are in order. With the locations of the Toybox and our allies revealed, I must cede the strategic victory to you.” The woeful expression was once again replaced with a smile as he drew the knife from its sheath. “Tactically, however, you have committed a grave error. So now you are all going to die.”

What the hell? Does he think he’s going to knife us with at least thirty feet to travel? Even with augmented reflexes, the LANC rifle shot is instant. He can’t dodge it, Matt thought as he again sighted in on Vide’s face as the other man crouched down into something akin to a track runner’s stance.

“Personal log, Doctor Moira Vahlen,” Vide quoted, his smile still firmly in place. “It is almost certain that Twilight Sparkle’s arrival on Earth and her exposure to the various personnel here is at least indirectly the cause of the emergence of the ‘Gift.’ Matthew Harris was directly behind Twilight when she used telekinesis to defend herself, and Elaine Jenkins was exposed repeatedly to the ‘Wallflower’ ability. I do not believe that it is Twilight specifically that triggers these Gifts to emerge, but rather the exposure to others using them…”

Why in God’s name is he quoting a report from Vahlen? He likely took it when he was in the XCOM base, but it doesn’t seem relevant-- All of the little bits of information and hints that Vide himself had dropped all came together at that moment, and Matt snapped off a shot immediately. To his growing horror, the shot passed through Vide as though he was an illusion in fog. The glimpses of movement in Applewood and here, that comment about his pain tolerance, and Vahlen’s report… he’s Gifted!

The image of Vide launched itself forward with inhuman speed, completely unaffected by the trio of center mass shots that passed through him. Matt braced himself but the expected strike came from his right flank, knocking him to the ground. The LANC rifle had slipped from his grasp during the fall, and it careened to the far end of the room as though yanked by some unseen force.

“Now, now, let’s settle this like the warriors of old,” Vide said with a giggle as he appeared before Matt, the knife twirling in his hands. “Draw your blade, Butcher. Let’s see how you bleed.”

A spike of anger charged through Matt as he got to one knee, and he drew the griffon sword and swung with one quick motion. The blade passed effortlessly through Vide, the illusion losing coherence from the strike. “What’s this, then? You ask for a duel but you’re too afraid to fight me yourself?” Matt taunted.

“Know your history, Mister Harris. What is warfare but deception and a knife in the dark? Stories of honor and bravery are written by the winners after all the dying is done,” Vide sneered back, his voice coming from every direction.

Shit shit shit, this isn’t good, Matt thought as he rose to his feet before casting a look towards Twilight. Do we use the trump card now? If we do and Vide acts first, Twilight could get hurt or killed. No… not yet. I have to think of some way to see him coming… A memory from months past came to Matt then, and he couldn’t help but hold onto a spark of hope. If this works, I owe Shining Armor a thank you, he concluded as he retrieved the smoke grenade from his belt, pulled the pin, and dropped it at his feet.

Borderline hysterical laughter echoed through the room from Vide. “What, are you going to use that as cover to escape? I won’t let you!” Another image of Vide appeared and charged… but passed through the smoke without disturbing it. What was hard to miss was the hole being plowed through the smoke that was barreling directly toward Matt.

A quick, backhanded slash with his sword met a moment of resistance, and Vide flickered into focus beside Matt with a shocked look on his face and his knife’s severed hilt in his hands. The sword reversed it’s path and forced Vide to bend drastically backwards to keep his head. With his opponent off balance and now clearly identified, Matt brought his sword into both of his hands to throw all of his weight into a strike that would split Vide from the crown of his skull to his groin.


The sword stopped cold barely an inch from Vide’s head, held firmly in place by a bare-handed sword stop. “You and your clever tricks, Mister Harris,” he growled even as blood began to trickle down his palms to stain the sleeves of his uniform. The jovial smile and pretense at friendliness was gone, and in its place was an animal snarl. “I am superior to you! I will not be beaten by a smoke grenade and a sword wielded by a mere human!”

To Matt’s horror and disbelief, he found himself being slowly pushed back despite Vide’s poor footing and tenuous grasp on the sword’s blade. They had almost shifted to even footing when time slowed, and Matt caught sight of a shining object falling downwards between them. That’s… that’s the blade to Vide’s knife. It must have been propelled upwards after he tried to parry my first attack. Well, he’s right. He isn’t going to be beaten by my sword, Matt thought wryly as he grabbed the severed shard of metal with his telekinesis and hurled it directly at its previous owner.

The strike wasn’t clean as the damaged blade struck broadside squarely in Vide’s chest. There was enough power behind the impact to send him tumbling backwards and away from Matt, only to nearly collide with Twilight as she watched the fight. Not one to squander an advantage, Vide lashed out with one bloody hand and caught one of Twilight’s hooves as he rolled backwards. “That’s it, no more games!” Vide shouted as he wrapped one arm around Twilight’s neck as he drew his pistol. “You’re going to stand right there and I’m going to shoot you, or I’ll twist your little Princess Twilight’s head clean off!” He extended his arm to aim the pistol… but hesitated for just a moment when his hostage twisted in no way that was natural. A glance down revealed Twilight’s head twisted upwards to grin at Vide, her mouth filled with fangs.

A gout of green flame was followed by Twilight’s snout transforming into a crocodile’s maw that clamped on Vide’s extended arm with a crunch. Despite the shock of the gruesome injury, Vide was quick to act as he released ‘Twilight’ from his grasp and kicked her away. The disguised Firecracker transformed in mid-air, Twilight’s borrowed clothes tearing as lavender coat turned to black carapace and hooves turned to crab-like pincers. The crocodile head shrank and broadened into the lipless but toothy grin of a Stag Beetle Chryssalid, the spectacle made all the more horrifying by Vide’s severed arm still caught in it’s teeth. Firecracker launched herself back at Vide the moment she touched the ground, pincers and bloody jaws opened wide.

Vide’s response was fast as he yanked a flash bang off of his belt and hurled it with his remaining arm. Matt knew to shield his eyes from the detonation and his hearing was protected by his helmet, but Firecracker’s now lidless eyes weren’t so lucky and her charge became a blind stumble and fall as Vide ran for the exit at the other end of the hallway. He had closed to within ten feet of safety when lavender energy lashed out and hauled him into the air.

“EXALT Vide, you are now detained under my authority,” the real Twilight said as she dropped her own illusion spell and stomped over to Vide. Her hooffalls were amplified by the armor that she had traded from Firecracker, and the changeling’s goggles hid the no doubt furious glare she had. “Submit, and you will receive no further injury until your trial.”

Vide’s laughter was nearly delirious in its tenor. “Ah, were all these your clever tricks then, Miss Sparkle? I had thought Mister Harris was entirely too confident in this fight with a civilian so close by. It’s a pity you didn’t have any clever tricks to draw on earlier, or your precious friends wouldn’t have suffered. Don’t forget, Twilight, if you had followed my advice when we first met, Equestria wouldn’t have--” Any further gloating was interrupted when Twilight’s telekinesis slammed Vide into the stone floor.

Twilight’s head tracked Vide’s body as she then propelled him upwards into the ceiling, then into the wall, then back onto the ground. “SUBMIT!” she screamed as her magic began to mash him into the floor.

“Twilight,” Matt called gently as he slowly approached the alicorn. “Twilight, it’s okay, we’ve got him. He’s ours and he’s not getting away.” He reached out with one hand and placed it on her head. It took nearly a minute but she finally nodded and pulled Vide from the floor.

The sound of metal clattering to the ground was the first indication that something was amiss, and Vide’s gurgling laughter all but confirmed it. The only real movement that the bound man could make was to waggle his fingers, which each had the pin of a grenade wrapped around them.

Where’s the grenade!? I can’t push it if I can’t see it-- Matt thought in a panic as a single second stretched for what felt like an eternity, before realising there was only one option left. He shoved Twilight down to the floor and threw himself on top of her. I’m so sorry, Twilight, but this is all I can do-- Matt thought, the regret of what was about to happen only assuaged by the knowledge that Twilight would at least survive Vide’s last trick.

The blasts were deafening as Matt clenched his teeth... and a moment passed. Then another. And another. A glance from his turtled position on the ground revealed that Vide’s last act had reduced him to little more than a pile of meat scattered on the ground.

“I swear! I know love can bloom on the battlefield but this is ridiculous! Maybe wait until after we aren’t in an active operation!” Firecracker shouted, her now equine form stumbling and nearly tripping over the arm that she had taken from Vide.

“Now’s not the time for jokes, Firecracker,” Matt snapped back as he sat up and gave every inch of his armor a pat-down. No pain… no blood. I guess I lucked out. The relief was short lived as he glanced over to Twilight, who appeared to be in a similar state of shock.

“WHAT?” Firecracker shouted in response to Matt’s response, and a glance to the changeling revealed contracted pupils and ears twitching in every direction.

She’s been flashbanged, of course she can’t hear you, Matt thought, and he tried to stifle a giddy laugh. We survived… we all survived! Even with Vide pulling bullshit, we won!

The door that the trio had come through flew open as a pair of Captain Song’s Dusk Guard rushed in with weapons raised. “Is anyone injured?” the unicorn in the pair asked while the pegasus’s helmeted head turned to glance toward the bloody arm that Firecracker had left behind.

“Did you get him, sir?” the pegasi asked as he remained on guard to cover the opposite entrance to the hallway. “Do we have a confirmed kill on Vide?”

Matt’s initial response was to nod as he tried to reign in his grin. Mother of God, Matt, if they see you smiling next to a bloody mess like that, they’ll start calling you Butcher too. “Confirmed. Vide has been neutralized,” he finally managed waving a hand to the mess behind him.

“I’m not sure I understand, sir,”

“The body over there, it’s--” Matt said as he turned to point, only for his words to catch in his throat. The mutilated remains were gone as though they had never been there in the first place, the only sign of a struggle being a blood trail that led out the door. “Oh fuck me.”


03:04, 12/21/2015, HIGH PEAK, GRYPHOS

The Damocles Ethereal was everything that the allies had feared would happen in the operation. Stalwart forces froze or broke at the sight of it as it glided through the battlefield with a white-armored Muton attendant, and the few panicked attacks that were attempted rarely came close to hitting. Those that might have landed a wounding trajectory were swallowed up by a portal and sent back to the source, which only created more chaos. The remote plasma weapons it controlled swarmed around like hornets around a hive, raining fire upon any creature that might approach. For all of their successes up to this point, the offensive seemed that it would break against this singular enemy.

However, Tirek had been defeated. All reinforcements were being sent to assist in the offensive.

A shooting star cut through the night sky toward the Ethereal at impossible speeds, but the alien was quicker. A portal swallowed the Ethereal up just before impact, depositing it at the end of the plaza where the meteor had landed. All of the remote plasma weapons turned to face the crater as Damocles waited. The alien leader was joined by its attendant and others, most taking potshots at the retreating Equestrian forces.

From the fires of the impact crater, one black-armored hoof emerged, then another as Princess Luna stepped forward to face her enemy. A small cloud of telekinetic blades hovered behind her like a school of fish, all pointed blade first at her adversary.

Apex specimen… acquisition difficult... Damocles’s mind grated against Luna’s mental defenses like sandpaper. A dozen portals opened up behind the Ethereal, which deposited even more of the remote plasma weapons into formation. Difficult… not impossible…

Luna’s narrowing eyes was her only response as all eight of her blades crossed the distance of the square in the blink of an eye. The mental equivalent of a scoff came from Damocles, who countered with eight corresponding portals and sent them flying back at Luna. The lunar princess only arched an eyebrow in response, casting her own portal spells to reverse the trajectory again. The blades volleyed dozens of times between the two before Luna began opening her own portals ahead of and behind those of Damocles.

Frail arms thrust forward, and a shimmering shield deflected the blades before they could impale the Ethereal. The remote weapons jerked to attention and responded with a hail of plasma at Luna, only for the alicorn to respond by teleporting the white-armored muton directly into the path of the fire. The elite’s armor lasted for a quarter of a second, and the alien beneath it less than that, but Luna seized that brief moment of concealment to teleport herself above the plaza. A blast of pure magic launched from her horn to hammer Damocles, only for the Ethereal to repeat its portal trick to escape. Damocles’s guided weapons realigned to fire upwards, but less than half were able to fire as Luna’s telekinetic blades began going after them directly. The remaining remote weapons began to evade and fire on the TK blades.

With their weapons occupied, the two leaders had no choice but to fight directly.

As with many fights, the deciding factor was experience and technique. As with many fights, it was decided by a single mistake.

Luna’s next attack was a hail of lesser blasts that peppered the area around Damocles, but it was little more than a cover as she teleported within physical striking distance. What met her was a gravity field that robbed her of her flight and mobility, pinning her in place. Resistance will result in damage to specimen… not advised… Damocles battered down Luna’s mental defenses as he reached for her. With possibly hundreds of years of experience in dominating the minds of lesser species, such an end to the fight was expected.

Princess Luna, however, had well over a thousand years of experience in the subtlety that makes up dreams. It was all too simple to determine what her enemy expected to happen, and simpler still to show Damocles what it wanted to see.

An armored hoof connected squarely with Damocles’s robed chest, the ancient and brittle bones reduced to dust from the impact. The Ethereal was sent tumbling backwards, all four arms grasping at the fatal wound. The efforts were futile as the alien’s body began to convulse and combust with uncontrolled power. All that remained of his death throes was a dessicated body and a charred black helmet.

The entire fight had taken less than ten seconds.

“Damocles has fallen!” Luna shouted as she took flight. “Regroup and advance! Many innocents depend upon it!”


03:05, 12/21/2015, HIGH PEAK, GRYPHOS

The appearance and subsequent defeat of Damocles on the battlefield had caused the line of advance to fluctuate wildly. The troops nearest to the battle with the Ethereal had been in full retreat with the alien forces close behind, but the rout had turned into a pitched battle with Luna’s sudden arrival. The allied forces had rallied and set themselves, catching their pursuit off guard.

The fighting along the flanks had been far less drastic in its changes, only gaining substantive ground after Luna’s booming voice had announced her triumph over Damocles. Most of these forces had been given the general order of battle, to seek and destroy the enemies as they appeared. One smaller group was an exception to this rule, with very specific orders.

Victor crept up to the corner of the building and slowly peeked around it. Four Mechtoids and two Sectopods on the stairs leading up to the alien structure... nuts. “Are you guys seeing this?” he asked as he updated his HUD with the enemy markers. He looked back to the assembled soldiers behind him. We don’t have the equipment to take out armor… but it doesn’t look like Shining Armor is willing to accept that as an answer.

To say that the Guard Captain had seen better days would be an extreme understatement. Burns covered his face and neck, his mane and coat reduced to a mat of charred cinders. The goggles that were the usual part of his combat equipment were gone, revealing a glare that caused nearly everyone to flinch away.

“Command, Finch,” Jack whispered into his radio as he found his own nook to observe the enemy. “We’re at the entrance, but armor assets are in place. Some support would be quite lovely about now.”

“Copy that, Finch. Griffon air assets are en route, five seconds.”

The first attack to land in the square wasn’t plasma or laser fire or a beam of magic. Invisible against the night sky save for the glow at its tip, a halberd flew as surely as an arrow and skewered one of the Sectopods from above. The machine let out a screech of tearing metal as it struggled to move, while the others angled their guns upward to fire at the attackers descending from the sky.

Silent as death, the Myrmidons dove to engage. The formation split into pairs as they closed, weaving around the streams of plasma firing upwards. The undamaged Sectopod, a walking tank capable of making most XCOM Strike teams pause all on its own, was swarmed the same way that wolves would take down larger prey. The Sectopod stomped and tried and failed to align its main cannon with any of the fast moving griffons, but stumbled onto its side when one of the Myrmidon pairs made a flying slash at its right leg and severed it at the ankle. Its other leg dug into the ground in a futile effort to right itself, but its struggles were ended when another Myrmidon thrust his sword into the machine’s eyes.

The Mechtoids proved to be harder targets as slashing attacks against two of them were defeated by energy shields. Fusillades of plasma launched from their cannons, filling the air with green burning death. The Myrmidons were too fast to be pinned down, and it was only a matter of time before the Mechtoids’ shields were depleted. However, they would not be given the luxury of waiting for attrition to take its toll.

A white-armored Muton emerged from the alien structure’s open doorway to survey the battle. Rather than join in, it simply turned and reached for something along the inside wall. The meaning behind this gesture became apparent when the doors began to close. Unlike the energy fields that their ships typically used, these were solid metal and very thick.

“They’re sealing the the facility! We have to go now!” Shining Armor yelled as he broke from cover despite the protests of the other soldiers waiting.

Victor calculated the distance that Shining would have to cross with the rate in which the doors were closing, and he grimaced. He’s not going to make it, and nothing short of a bunker buster is going to put a dent in those doors. He’s going to need my help… “I’ll get Shining to the door!” Victor shouted as he stepped out from cover and called upon his Gift. A nauseating lurch and a dull headache accompanied his teleport beside the running stallion, and he winced when Shining lashed out with his hooves when Victor wrapped an arm around his barrel. A second teleport deposited them both just past the closing doors. The muton that had closed the door turned and drew a weapon, but Victor used his teleport again to send them into another corridor that he remembered perfectly from the briefing. Despite the blinding pain that using his Gift caused him, it would take a lot to forget the corridor leading to the room that the Windigo was held.

Just as in the briefing, the Windigo’s armored hull was split open. Machinery and tubes filled its interior, and the only part of Princess Cadance that was exposed was her face. Her snout was hidden beneath a metal mask, her eyes wide and horrified as she recognized the intruders. And just like the entrance to the facility, the hull plates began to close around her.

They were not alone, however. As Victor struggled to his feet, an armored leg kicked him in the stomach with enough force to send him flying into the metal wall. The attacker, another muton, turned toward Shining Armor but stopped when a shot from Victor’s laser rifle slammed into its shoulder.

“Go! Go now!” Victor shouted to Shining Armor as his vision swam from the pain of both the teleport and the kick to his midsection. He flicked the rifle’s fire selector to full auto and held down the trigger as the alien charged him. The laser rifle was knocked aside and one meaty hand clenched around Victor’s right arm, hoisting him up to eye level with the muton. The alien had just enough time to draw a serrated blade from its belt before a shout drew both of their attention.

“CADANCE!” Shining Armor shouted as he galloped into the room that housed the Windigo. He dove into a roll to pull a wrapped package off of his back, and he hurled it with all of his might as he came out of his roll. The wrapping slipped off mid-flight to reveal the Crystal Heart as it plunged straight toward the closing gap in the armor plates.

The tip of the Crystal Heart had just passed the gap when the plates closed the distance, jamming the machinery open… for just a moment. Cracks began to form along the Crystal Heart, and it shattered a moment later. Whatever energy that had been stored in the artifact was released, hurtling the Windigo off of it’s upright position and onto the ground. A second later, one of the armor plates flew off and a torrent of light cascaded upwards from the breach. The light was near blinding in it’s quality, but the faintest silhouette of wings spreading from within could be seen.

In that moment, Victor knew he could do anything. It was the feeling he had when he had graduated from the Academy. It was the feeling of the first time he had felt the thrust of the afterburner in a fighter craft. It was the feeling of the first time his flight with the National Guard had downed one of the UFOs attacking Earth. It was the first time his parents said they were proud of him, and it was the first time he realised he loved someone and they loved him back. Nothing could stop him, now.

The effect that the light had on the muton was far different. In that same moment, it released Victor’s arm and dropped its knife, and ran screaming in the opposite direction.

“Command, Spiegel. Be advised, our objective is a complete success,” Victor reported, and he tried to keep from cheering as he scooped up his laser rifle. Judging by the sounds on the radio, I’m not the only one who’s feeling like he can take on the world… but celebrating can wait. I have to open the door so that we can secure the facility. He shouldered the rifle, exchanged the battery for a fresh one, and began to make his way back to the entrance.


As Victor left, Shining Armor limped to the broken shell of the Windigo. He didn’t look at the horrible machinery that had been torn asunder, or the horrible scars that he could see on Cadance’s body, or the parts that the aliens had taken from her in their cruelty. He kept his eyes locked with hers, and he brought his hoof up to the side of her face. “I’m never leaving you again, Cadance. You’re safe now.”

All Cadance could do in response was weep.