• Published 13th Mar 2014
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Fortitude Amicitia - Arad



The Dusk Guard's first joint operation alongside XCOM turns out to be far more complex than anyone anticipates. (Stardust/Dusk Guard crossover)

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The Ranger and The Monk

It hadn’t taken long for Hunter to decide that he liked Yuri, though coming to that conclusion had been an odd journey.

As the Skyranger had taken off and zoomed to wherever they were headed, the human had tried to make conversation with the Dusk Guard by asking about Twilight Sparkle. At first Hunter was put off at the question, having first come to the conclusion that the loud and apparently over-friendly human was asking about Equestria’s newest princess purely to gossip. When Yuri had revealed that he had the opportunity to train in his skills briefly with her while she was on Earth, that judgement shifted to that of a blowhard dropping names to garner favor by association.

But then Hunter had seen it, a flicker of genuine concern buried deeply beneath the forced smiles. Corporal Roland, who had also remained silent through most of the trip but couldn’t stop stealing glances at the Dusk guard, had also asked if she had recovered from her injuries. Yuri had then commented on the regrettable nature of Twilight’s injury but had been cut off from any further comments by a hissed command by Captain Uther.

Guilt had flashed on all the humans faces then, and Hunter made a mental note to ask Yuri some questions as to just what had happened to Twilight. Any further small talk was cut off when the monitor at the front of the crew cabin turned on and Bradford appeared and began the briefing without preamble.

“Interceptors shot down a small scout just outside an urban center, and movement has been confirmed on site. Crew sizes for a ship of this size are no less than four and no more than eight though injuries or deaths from the crash may reduce that number. Sectoids and Floaters are the anticipated opposition, as well as at least one Outsider.” Pictures of the indicated aliens appeared in the display, not that they were necessary. Steel had drilled the Dusk Guard repeatedly on the potential enemies they might encounter in any given situation. “Captain Song, you are in provisional command of this operation. Captain Uther will be providing support if necessary though if the situation deteriorates then he will assume command. This operation will be to test the viability of join operations between our organizations but if you feel there’s a chance that the mission will fail, fall back and the aircraft will sanitize the site.”

“Understood, sir,” Steel nodded to the monitor.

“Very good. Interceptors also report civilians in the area, so check your targets before--”

When Bradford’s instructions halted midsentence, Hunter wondered if the connection had been lost. That suspicion was dashed when he saw the commander’s eyes widen and his mouth slowly close. The humans at the end of the crew cabin had also gone completely still to stare at the monitor. Whatever’s happening, it can’t be good, Hunter thought before lamenting the lack of wood to knock on.

King Fisher, be advised your mission has changed. New coordinates are being sent to you now and I need you there now,” Bradford said quickly, and Hunter could feel the airship turning for a new heading. “Strike Two, multiple terror missions are going to take place and you will be needed to mount a defense. Any organized resistance you can coordinate on the ground will have to hold until I can get reinforcements to you. Local law enforcement and national guard will be present. Expected opposition will be alien ships, Sectoids, Mechtoids, Floaters, Thin Men, Chryssalids and Sectopods. Captain Song, I’m transferring command to Captain Uther as of now.”

Any rankled feelings Hunter might have had at having command reassigned so abruptly was quashed by the rising certainty that things were going terribly wrong. Shouts and alert claxons could now be heard through Bradford’s link to the Skyranger.

“Sir…” Uther started to ask a question but Bradford cut him off.

“Unknown, captain. The attacks are worldwide and we’re looking at eighty percent deployment. As soon as reinforcements become available you’re first on my list. Good luck, Strike Two. Command out.” The monitor clicked and went dark, and the humans in the crew compartment let out a collectively held breath.

“Volunteer for the easy mission, they said,” Roland groused as he loaded his laser rifle and pistol before double checking the pouches around his waist and legs. “You’ll just be observing, they said. The ponies will do most of the work, they said.”

“Stow that shit, corporal. I don’t need your whining, especially before a terror operation.” Uther snapped as he loaded his ‘lance’ rifle.

“What’s a ‘terror operation’, sir? I don’t ever remember the term being used during any of our briefings or training,” Hunter asked, and was rewarded with a tight-lipped expression that the pegasus recognized as tightly controlled fear.

“Terror operations are indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. Local law enforcement doesn’t have the training or gear to defend against such an attack. National Guard has the numbers but they can’t deploy as fast as we can. Usually comes down to us to hold the line until they can get there,” Sergeant Briand explained before pulling out a small golden cross from a fine chain around her neck and closed her eyes.

Nova spoke next as he asked, “Why attack civilians? It seems…” The unicorn struggled for the right word before finishing, “… wasteful.”

Uther, Roland and Briand were silent as they donned their helmets. Like their armor, the majority of the helmets were pitch black and non-reflective though the visors were a brilliant gold. The one exception was Yuri, who forced a smile as he provided the answer. “Two theories for terror operations. One, attacks on civilians undermines confidence in leaders and spreads chaos. Two, aliens know we are only ones who can stop them and they know attacks on civilians forces us to expose ourselves in defense.”

“Which do you think is right?” Hunter asked as Yuri checked his weapons and picked up his helmet in his hands.

The grin Yuri gave him did nothing to ease Hunter. “Both,” was the answer before the Russian’s face disappeared underneath his helmet. Unlike the other humans, his helmet was almost completely black tinted glass and sported a ghoulish depiction of a skull where his face would be. “Do not worry though. We do this for living. Everything will be fine,” Yuri continued, this time through his helmet radio.

“Cut the chatter and sound off,” Uther snapped, and each of the humans then the Dusk Guard followed suit. Several minutes of tense silence passed before another voice came through the radio.

“Strike Two, King Fisher. We’re thirty seconds from lima zulu. It’s an elevated parking structure that looks clear of enemies, but thermal scopes can pick up a lot of movement on the streets and weapons fire through the rest of the city. Once you’re on the ground we’ll do what we can to establish enemy positions.” The disembodied voice of the pilot reported through the radio.

“Solid copy, King Fisher. Any luck contacting the local Guard units?” Uther asked.

“Long range radio communications are a mess at the moment but we’ll keep trying. King Fisher, out.”

The door at the front of the crew cabin opened and Sergeant Eversman stepped out and made his way to the back of the cabin beside the golem. “Ten seconds to showtime, ladies and gentlemen! We’re going to be on the ground for less than ten seconds so don’t drag your feet on the way out. If the devil himself is waiting for you at the bottom of the ramp, you knock him down and use him for cover, alright?” The crew chief hit the ramp controls before pounding a fist on the golem’s shoulder. “Beowulf, you’re up!”

The armored head nodded and the golem stepped back… and off the ramp. It disappeared from sight but a faint crunch of cracking stone could be heard even over the roar of the airship’s engines. The straps for their seats released and they all rose as one just as the smooth stone surface of the parking structure rushed up to the ramp.

“We’re down! Go go go!” Eversman shouted and the humans sprinted down the ramp with their weapons raised, followed closely by the Dusk Guard. As the humans and Dusk Guard took cover Hunter looked back to see the airship already taking off into the night’s sky.

“Strike Two, King Fisher. We are assuming overwatch now. We’re picking up a small pocket of police holding out—" The airship pilot’s report was quickly aborted as a bright orange line of fire sliced through the night and cut cleanly through its right wing. The engine at the base of the wing exploded brilliantly and the airship tumbled from the sky. “King Fisher, we’re hit! Right wing, right VTOL is gone! We can’t—BRACE!” The last word came through the radio as a scream that abruptly cut out as the stricken airship disappeared behind the buildings in the distance.

“Command, Strike Two Actual,” Uther said through the radio, and nothing but silence came back to him. “Command Actual, respond. Shit. Radio with command is down, our signals went through King Fisher. Okay… okay. We need eyes in the sky. If there are survivors at the crash site I am not going to leave them to the tender mercies of the aliens.” The human captain finished before looking to Hunter then Sky Bolt, then finally to Steel Song.

“Hunter, get some altitude and check the airship crash site, and keep an eye out for enemies or whatever shot them out of the sky,” Steel ordered briskly, and Hunter had already spread his wings and leapt into the air as he finished.

“On it,” Hunter said as he flew into the evening sky. The city sprawled out in every direction and as far as he could see, with mostly four and five story buildings that were occasionally punctuated by parking lots or lonely collections of trees. King Fisher’s trail was painfully easy to follow even in low light. The airship had clipped the roof of one building, crashed into the side of another before coming to a stop on its side at an intersection.

“I see the crash site but no sign of the shooter. The crash site is approximately six blocks west of your position. I’m not seeing any… scratch that. Movement at the crash site!” Hunter said as he saw the airship’s ramp fall open and two figures staggered out, and his helmet visor quickly marked them with blue circles. “I have two survivors and they’re marked on the HUD.”

When a quartet of yellow diamonds appeared at the corner of his vision, Hunter turned and spotted four figures worming their way through the wreckage littering the street towards the Skyranger. Two were carrying rifles and wore black armor from head to toe with the human lettering ‘S-W-A-T’ stenciled on them. The third and fourth wore uniforms with words too small for the Pegasus to make out from the air but golden badges on their chests were easily recognizable. “Four civilians are making their way to the crash site, looks like police. What do you want me to do?”

“Continue observation and relay their position if they take cover in a nearby building. We’ll need to link up with them and the survivors as soon as possible.” Uther replied.

“Understood. I first spotted them leaving a large brick building with a pointed tower and cross on top. It should be visible from our landing zone.” Hunter reported as he eyed the building in question. His eyes were torn away from the structure when his visor updated with a quartet of red triangles that crested over a nearby building followed by several more running along the rooftops. “Captain, I have Floaters and Thin Men making for the crash site! They’ll be on the survivors and the police in ten seconds. Permission to engage?”

A brief moment of silence passed before the answer came. “Green light! Delay or divert them as long as you can, we’re double timing to your position. Good luck.”

Hunter rolled over through the air and tucked his wings in as he dove towards the Floaters. Like the pictures he had seen during the briefings, Hunter could easily make out the twin rocket engines mounted into their shoulders and torso. Further details resolved themselves as the distance disappeared, such as the mutilated nature of what little flesh remained in the creatures and the glowing green plasma rifles they held in their hands.

The first Floater died before it realized it was under attack. The enchanted claws from both of Hunter’s forehooves connected solidly with the back of the monster’s neck, and its corpse was launched unceremoniously downward as the Pegasus brought his rear hooves down to kick off and change direction. The second Floater turned to acquire the target that was attacking them and was rewarded with a set of claws that drove straight through its face and into its skull. Hunter’s other foreleg pointed his plasma pistol at the third and downed it with a single shot.

A quick kick sent the second Floater’s corpse flying as the Pegasus turned to engage the last one, only to collide in mid-air as it charged him. Incoherent screaming from the Floater filled Hunter’s ears as he struggled to disengage from it. The floater’s metal claws scraped across his crystal armor even as the pair struggled and tumbled through the air. A small degree of panic took hold in Hunter’s mind as he registered the claws finally finding purchase around his helmet. Both rear hooves found solid connections with the Floater’s torso and a kick finally send the pair apart. The Floater careened through the third story window of a nearby building with Hunter’s helmet still in one claw.

The Pegasus let out a war cry and charged after the Floater as it righted itself and raised its plasma rifle. Hunter was quicker though and the claws from both of his hooves sank to the hilt in the monster’s face and neck. The pair’s momentum carried them into the far wall where Hunter pinned it and brought his hooves down twice more on the Floater’s skull. The screaming finally stopped and the Floater’s engines died and Hunter stepped back to let the corpse fall to the floor.

“…now and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

Hunter whipped around and brought his forelegs up defensively even as he spread his wings to dodge whatever horror that was going to attack next, but stopped once his mind caught up with his adrenaline fuelled reflexes.

Two humans cowered beneath what Hunter realized was likely their kitchen table, a mother and child holding each other tightly while looking at him in terror. Further details became clearer about his surroundings such as the family pictures on the walls as well as the worn and well used furniture. The final detail Hunter noticed was his helmet sitting on the kitchen floor. He dropped down from his defensive stance and took one step towards it.

“Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee…” The mother started as she held the child close to her, though her speech fell apart into sobbing Hunter took another step towards his helmet. She brought one hand up to cover the child’s face even as she tried to shield the rest of his body.

Hunter slowly reached out and scooped his helmet up before stepping back into the other room. “Sorry, ma’am,” He said quietly before securing the helmet and backing out of the room entirely before turning and leaping out the window and back into the chaos of the battle outside.

------

“Green light! Delay or divert them as long as you can, we’re double timing to your position. Good luck.” Uther shouted through the radio as Strike Two and the Dusk Guard made it to the bottom level of the parking structure. “Crash site is six blocks west of us, so we should… oh fuck me.”

Sabra pulled up short as he caught sight of what had elicited the expletive from the captain. The street and the sidewalks beside them were completely blocked with crashed and burning vehicles, which created an impassible barricade of twisted metal and fire between them and their objective. That could be… problematic, the Zebra thought to himself.

“Okay, new plan! Beowulf, you’ll advance along the rooftops to the crash site, we’ll find another way around,” Uther said as he looked both left and right to try and find some way around the destruction.

The golem had nothing to fear from fire and metal proved no hindrance as it stomped its way across the vehicle graveyard before leaping two stories into the air on a column of fire and smoke to reach the top of the building.

“Sabra, help the golem. We’re useless just waiting here,” Steel added, and he acknowledged the order with a nod before picking his way through the wreckage with an acrobat’s grace before activating his strength mod and leaping up to the second story after the golem. A fast gallop brought him alongside the war machine despite its impressive gate of speed.

The pair wordlessly traversed the buildings until the Sabra heard the crackle of human weapons fire in the distance as well as seeing the occasional bolt of plasma go flying into the air. The golem held up a fist as they approached the edge of the three story building they currently stood on. The golem’s legs folded and it lost a third of its height as it approached the edge. Sabra followed and looked over the edge.

A pack of human-like creatures were clustered on the building next door, one story shorter but overlooking the crash site. Slicked hair, glasses and business suits couldn’t hide the blatant wrongness of them though, and the plasma rifles in their hands all but confirmed their allegiance even as they fired on the humans that were retreating down the street.

“They’ll scatter as soon as I start shooting,” the golem explained as it hunched further down behind the edge of the building. “I can take at least two before they scatter or run for cover. I’ll take my shots then drop down to engage. Can you flank them and flush them out of cover?”

“Yes, I can.”

“Good. And don’t chase them. If they start running I’ll gun them down and you do not want to be in their general vicinity if that happens.” The golem turned to look over the edge again before rising to its full height and bringing the massive weapon to bear. “Go now.”

Without a moment’s hesitation Sabra leapt over the edge and fell to the lower level. A quick flick of his hooves brought his fimbo to bear, and with a soft click it extended to its full length. As the building came rushing up to meet him, he closed his eyes and concentrated.

The crackle of fire was all around him, and he filtered that distraction out. The popping of the human rifles ahead of him was a good point of reference as to where they were, but not important at this point. What was important was the slow whine of the golem’s weapon as it spooled up, and the roar of plasma weapons ahead of him. His keen ears pinpointed no less than seven distinct shooters spread out along the roof, including the ones that weren’t visible from his previous vantage point on the other building. The zebra gave a silent blessing for the skills he possessed, and the surety of his purpose here.

“What is life?” Zhang repeated the question that Sabra had posed to him. He leaned back in his chair and considered for several minutes before finally answering. “Purpose. There’s a significant number of human beings who are born, live their lives and then die without a purpose they believe in. They often struggle with this deficiency in their lives until the very end. Some try to fill this void with vices and are often consumed in their pursuit. Others try and forget the void’s existence by trying to convince themselves it isn’t there with work or family. A precious few, however, find their purpose in life, and it is they who truly live.”

“Samahani, I do not mean to argue, but many of my people find their work and their families very fulfilling.” Sabra replied.

Zhang’s response was to close his eyes and run a finger along the network of scars on his face. “I did not mean to say that work or families can’t be fulfilling, just that some try to use those as a substitute for what they could be doing or what they should be doing. We humans often have to experiment for years before finding something that truly fulfils us. I was once a part of an organization much like your Dusk Guard, where I helped protect the people of my nation from those who would harm them. I learned many skills during my time there.”

Sabra took a moment to consider before asking, “So the skills you have define your purpose?”

“No, skills do not define purpose,” Zhang didn’t hesitate a moment to give his answer. “When I was forced to leave my previous position I lost my purpose but retained my skills, and my skills are in very high demand for those with dark intentions. I killed. I stole. I committed crimes against the very people I swore to protect because I had lost my purpose. I consider myself fortunate to have found a second chance at my purpose here. Skills can make you more successful at your purpose but for some it is merely a happy side effect. My father enjoys gardening more than anything in his life but he is rather terrible at it.” The human finished his explanation with a smile and a laugh before growing quiet again. “Purpose is many things, but it often comes down to being where you should be and knowing you should be there.”

“You have given me much to think about. Thank you for your time.”Sabra bowed and took his leave of the human while pondering just how his own purpose had changed since joining the Dusk Guard.

Sabra was at many times many things. Friend, scholar, warrior. He was also blessed with being aware of the purposes he fulfilled in his life. At that moment, only one purpose mattered. He more than capable of pursuing it now.

BRRRRRRR!

The golem’s weapon spat fire and death as Sabra’s hooves connected with the building below, and in the blink of an eye he galloped towards the collection of Thin Men. One of the aliens outside of Sabra’s line of sight evaporated as the golem’s attack connected while the rest turned to address the new threat. As the golem predicted they scattered to hide behind the various objects that littered the rooftop even as a second one fell to the golem’s weapon.

Even as Sabra closed in on the first of the hiding aliens he heard the golem step off from its perch to descend to the lower rooftop, and he heard the rooftop give way under the golem’s weight as it landed. He even heard the golem shout, “Oh come on!” as it disappeared into the building beneath his hooves. Anything else the golem might have done, Sabra filtered out of his hearing as it was no longer relevant. What was relevant was his first target.

The Thin Man rose to its full height as Sabra rounded the corner and closed to within striking distance. The plasma rifle hummed as it gathered lethal amounts of energy to hurl at the Zebra before his fimbo lashed out and knocked it high into the air. The Thin Man snarled and swung a closed fist, which Sabra easily met with his own armored hoof. The crackle of bones filled the air as the two connected, followed by the snap of its arm breaking as Sabra brought his fimbo under the now outstretched limb. Even as the monster recoiled from the injuries it had suffered, Sabra set the fimbo beneath him and rose up to plant a spinning hoof across its head. He paid his first enemy no more thought as the momentum of his kick carried it over the building’s edge to fall to its death.

The Zebra went into a spinning leap to evade the burning bolts of plasma from the second and third targets, and as he landed he lashed out with his staff at the still humming plasma rifle that was finally descending down to earth. It connected with a plasma bolt just as it left one of the enemy’s weapons and exploded with a thunder clap. Both screeched horribly and went silent, and Sabra again gave thanks for the fortuitous if unexpected development as he leapt over their corpses.

The fourth alien rose from cover to fire at Sabra but missed as he zig-zagged his way across the rooftop. In what it probably thought was a clever move, the Thin Man side-stepped to keep its cover between it and Sabra. The cover itself was a large block of metal and machinery that would have no doubt impeded most close range attackers. Unfortunately for the Thin Man, Sabra was not most close range attackers.

Sabra swung his fimbo like a scythe mere inches above the top of his enemy’s cover, and the Thin Man bent impossibly backwards to avoid the strike. The zebra had anticipated the dodge and allowed the momentum of the swing to spin him around and in position to plant a strength modded kick into the cover itself. The metal and machinery flew out of its housing and nearly caught the alien as it continued its dodge. The alien’s backward movement turned into a hand stand then a leap upwards as it pushed off the rooftop to successfully evade Sabra’s follow-up attack.

Samahani, Sabra apologized silently, but you cannot dodge while in the air. The zebra’s staff continued its circuit as he rotated and slapped the Thin Man squarely in the torso and sent it flying to its death on the street below. Only one remaining now. Sabra set his hooves and turned to pursue the last of his enemies, when a curious sound came to his ears.

Ping!

For the first time since the fight started, Sabra opened his eyes. The retreating form of the last of the Thin Men was marked with a red triangle, and above the triangle was the word, ‘Warning!’ The nature of the warning became apparent when the familiar whine and roar of the golem’s weapon reached his ears, and the rooftop around the Thin Man exploded.

“I am reading no active targets on my HUD,” The golem reported through the radio. “I don’t have an easy way of getting back to the rooftop so I’ll be heading down to street level. Do you have eyes on any enemies up there?”

“No, I do not,” Sabra answered as he scanned the skies and the neighboring rooftops. He caught sight of Hunter taking flight again as well as several yellow markers indicating the humans on the street. The Zebra craned his neck to follow the humans as they retreated but immediately ducked down when several shots came his way. “The crash survivors appear to have been recovered by the other humans. Perhaps we should report our success?”

Before any further discussion could be had, the distinct bass thump of the weapon that destroyed the airship echoed through the city, followed by the radio flooding with new reports.

“Captain Uther is down!” “Scatter! SCATTER!”