• Published 12th May 2014
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Mente Materia - Arad



Twilight’s trip to Earth and friendship with the humans brings new friends and enemies to her peaceful world. With the specter of war hanging over them, Equestria will have to form an alliance like no other to fight the menace from the void.

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12 -- Distraction

"If you are far from the enemy, make him believe you are near."
-Sun Tzu

------

11:05, 11/07/2015, XCOM COMPOUND, CANTERLOT

Lana only had to knock once before Fujikawa answered with a terse, "Enter."

I guess that means I'm late... Lana thought with a sigh as she pushed open the door and walked into the commanding officer's quarters. Yumiko was sitting in behind a large desk, looking down at her tablet computer while being flanked by a few pieces of paper and Equestrian parchment. Zhang was also present, sitting ramrod straight as he always did in front of the desk.

"Have a seat, Sergeant," Fujikawa said without looking up, and Lana was quick to do so. A few moments passed before the major set the tablet down and rubbed her eyes. "Princess Luna reports that the purge of Everfree Forest is complete. Pegasi lightning strikes and Unicorn fire magic finished burning it to the ground, and dirtside infantry elements prevented any Chryssalids from escaping the area. We were damn lucky the aliens didn't attack here while the Equestrians were tied up."

Lana said nothing but inwardly she agreed wholeheartedly. It seems strange that they wouldn't take advantage of that. They're usually really on the ball when it comes to that kind of thing. That train of thought led to darker conclusions. Maybe they were somewhere else? Or did they think their Chryssalid seeding would be more successful and didn't have plans to back them up? Hell, maybe they had some ulterior motive, like using Chryssalids to force us to destroy the forest. Ugh, why can't alien tactics make sense?

Fujikawa ran her hand down her face before giving Lana a tired look. "How's Victor doing?" she asked.

"Headache's gone for the moment. If he tries anything more than a short range teleport, the pain is crippling," Lana summarized quickly. "He's also going out of his way to avoid contact with the Equestrians. I can't really blame him there I suppose." Especially since I was the one who told Twilight what 'Code Black' entails.

A long, drawn out sigh escaped Fujikawa as she sagged back in her chair. "No disrespect intended to Captain Harris, but I'm starting to question the wisdom of bringing Victor along with us. He's too much of a political powder keg, even if he's the only one with the Gift that can teleport." Again, her hand came up to rub her eyes before she straightened. "I suppose that brings us to our next point. How are you two doing with your abilities, plus Finch and Durand? Any problems or... unexpected side effects?" Though the question was directed at the both of them, Fujikawa ended it with a sideways glance towards Lana.

"Nothing yet," Lana said, and her unease only increased when she caught Fujikawa shooting Zhang a quick glance. "You're expecting more than just headaches, aren't you? Is that why Zhang's been pulling the stalker act since we got here? What exactly should I be looking for?" When neither one spoke, the pieces came together. "You think I'm going to flip out and start killing people like Matt almost did, right? I have to ask... why? The closest thing I've ever had to a psychotic rage was the skirt incident with Nova Beam and Firecracker back on Earth, and that was months ago." Lana finished her thought with a laugh and a grin, but the question still lingered in the back of her mind.

Why?

A long moment of silence passed as the question remained unanswered, before Fujikawa placed her elbows on her desk and steepled her fingers in front of her face. "Lieutenant Zhang is aware of these details, as is Hamil. What I'm about to tell you does not leave this room, the exception being the Captain." Lana could only nod in the face of the suddenly serious turn of the conversation. "After Captain Harris's... incident, the Equestrians confirmed that the element we know as Elerium can exponentially increase the precision and power of magic users. We knew this already, as it is an integral part of the PSI gear that Mente Materia uses. What we did not know is that once that power reaches a certain threshold, the weakest part of the spellcasting process begins to burn out."

"The weakest part being the spellcaster, I'm assuming?" Lana asked.

Fujikawa nodded. "The spellcaster's body, at least. The conscious mind provides an anchor for the energy that is pulled from the Field, and it interacts with Elerium to pull far more than what the body can support in certain settings. Settings like this planet. Running theory is that the impulse control centers of the brain are disconnected or damaged during this process. The Equestrians have two reports in the recent past of individuals having exposure to the Elerium-like elements on this planet having a dramatic power spike and losing their minds to genocidal plans."

"Well," Lana started as she digested those revelations. "Well, I suppose that would explain why the PSI amps are a no go from here. But what does this have to do with me?"

"Since our arrival here on this world, every piece of Elerium-augmented equipment has malfunctioned or underperformed in some way, with the notable exception being our Rule Breakers..." Fujikawa held up her left wrist to show the small black watch with the metal band. "... and your prosthetic limb, Sergeant. Its flawless operation is certainly interesting, but our cause for concern is that you are manipulating it directly with your mind. I'm sure you understand the concerns that we have."

Lana opened her mouth to speak, but she found that whatever she had to say died in her throat. She spared a glance down at her left hand, which balled into a fist then relaxed without any sort of difficulty or murderous impulse. "I wish I could tell you what's different with me, Major, but nothing comes to mind immediately. Matt started doing the magic thing at about the same time I did. I don't mean to second guess the engineers or the Equestrians, but are we sure it's not a problem with the PSI amps or our hardware?"

Fujikawa shook her head. "They're as certain as they can be. Shen and Vahlen sent an update from Earth, and they're doing research on some of the alien tech to try and find why their gear works perfectly fine here. They're hoping within a week they'll have a prototype that can perform without any side effects." The Asian woman leaned back in her chair and dropped her hands to the desk. "I was actually hoping that Captain Harris would volunteer to test the device they're making, as they're building it into his prosthetic arm."

"Ah, and you want me to pitch the idea to him when he wakes up?" Lana asked, and was rewarded with another nod. "Twily seems confident he'll wake soon. I suppose I can pester him until he caves in. I'm good at that."

Fujikawa chuckled at Lana's wide grin, before giving her a serious look. "Thank you, Sergeant. And I'm glad you're in a good mood that is free of murderous urges, because we've been assigned a cultural liaison to brief us on the other races that Princess Luna has called for council. He should be here any minute."

Lana's brow furrowed as her smile slowly faded. "I'm not sure I get your meaning." The moment the sentence was spoken, the light clicked on for Lana. "Wait. Wait a minute. I really hope this 'cultural liaison' isn't who I think it is." A moment later there was a knock on the door, followed by the most obnoxious greeting she could possibly imagine.

"L~~~~adies, and Zhang," Firecracker stretched the first word of his greeting far too long for Lana's comfort, and addressed the only other male in the room as an afterthought. "I'm told you all might have some questions about the upcoming council. So, what can I do you for?" The grey-coated Unicorn flicked his head to bring his bright orange mane to one side of his face while giving Lana a look that convinced her that every word he had spoken was quite deliberate.

"That is correct, Specialist," Fujikawa said, and both her tone and the use of his rank was enough to drag Firecracker's roaming eyes back to her. "We were hoping to have some cultural insights into the other big players that will be attending. It's in everyone's best interests that this council goes smoothly, and I'd rather not be responsible for the collapse of the meeting due to a social faux pas."

"A perfectly valid concern!" Firecracker agreed, and with a quick telekinetic tug a third chair was wedged in between Lana and Zhang. If it inconvenienced the man at all, he showed no sign. Lana, however, did her best to scoot her seat over as much as she could. Firecracker seemed not to notice her movement as he hopped up into his seat and continued. "There are five expected parties at the Council meeting, not including yourselves. The first and second will be little cause for concern, as Princess Luna and Princess Cadance are both firmly in the united front camp.

"Orthos is representing the Zebrica Union, and from what I understand he is already here in Canterlot. He has spoken at length with Zecora, and do not be surprised if he seeks you out to thank you for saving his daughter," Firecracker's smile widened as Fujikawa's eyes widened at that bit of information. "The Union's usual place in these types of meetings is the tie breaker. They almost always remain silent and hear all sides of the debate. They are polite to a fault and will never interrupt except in a dire emergency. I suspect that they'll break tradition to give their support to you right out of the gate, especially since Orthos himself got to hear a first-hoof account of just what's out there."

"The picture you paint for us is rather optimistic," Zhang observed. "I assume the remaining attendees will be more difficult."

"Correct. As much as I'd Iike to say we could stick this out with just Equestria, the Crystal Empire and Zebrica, it would be a lie," Firecracker finished with a sigh. "Your biggest obstacle will be Asterion, the representative sent by Minon. Most Minotaurs visiting Equestria adopt a name that fits in with the local traditions to fit in. When visiting Gryphos they might take a name like Andolf or Greta. In Equestria, the name might be Strong Arm or Iron Will. The fact that Asterion is not bothering with adopting a name means that he'll likely fight tooth and nail if there's any debates."

Fujikawa ran one hand over her face in what was becoming an increasingly familiar action. "So it will be like Goleman all over again."

"No," Firecracker was quick to say. "Goleman was a buffoon who did what he did for his own personal benefit. Asterion, and most Minotaurs, see debate as a way to test not only the validity of any topic worth talking about, but a way of measuring how strongly the other party holds their beliefs. There is a joke among the diplomatic corps that 'good morning' isn't a greeting to a Minotaur, it's the start of their daily debates. I personally haven't seen one arguing over if the morning is really good or not, but the joke is close enough to the truth in my experience."

"Diplomatic corps? I thought you were an Arcanist with the Guard?" Lana asked, and immediately regretted it when Firecracker leaned towards her and gave what he no doubt thought was his best charming smile.

"Oh, I go where I'm needed. I'm a polyglot, so I can pretty much go anywhere I like without needing a translator once I hear a bit of the local languages. And I just love making friends wherever I go," the Unicorn explained as he continued to lean into Lana's personal space.

Barking up the wrong tree, bub, Lana couldn't help but think even as she gave an uncomfortable smile back while leaning away as much as she could without falling out of her chair. She was saved when Fujikawa cleared her throat and Firecracker went back to his chair.

"Anyway! Expect Asterion to argue every little point he can. The subject of your argument is only half of what he will be measuring. How you respond will also affect how he ultimately decides. Keep a level head during the talks, never raise your voice even if he does, and stay on topic." Firecracker tapped one hoof against the other as he counted off his instructions.

Fujikawa was in the process of taking notes when she stopped and looked up. "Just out of curiousity, has Shining Armor ever been forced to debate a Minotaur?"

The Unicorn's confident attitude cracked a bit and he couldn't help but offer a sheepish grin. "Ah, the good captain had the opportunity to do so a few times in the past. I suspect that when he agreed to speak with the Honorable Senator Goleman, he expected a similar experience. Captain Armor is good at controlling his temper but I could tell he was hiding the thunder before he cut Goleman off. I suppose apologies are in order for that little episode."

Fujikawa merely shrugged as she finished her notes. "Anything else about the Minotaurs that we should know?"

"They come from an island chain that's some distance out into the great sea, and they're probably the closest to humans in terms of technology here," Firecracker explained, eager for the subject change. "They've got rudimentary radio systems and I hear they're also breaking ground with airships as well. Another point in their favor is that the vast majority of their cities are in the underground labyrinths they've cut into the islands. If the aliens attack them, they'll find abandoned surface structures and underground choke points every ten body lengths packed with Hoplite Elites. This is also completely discounting any clockwork deathtraps they might have.

"As for earning their trust on a personal level," Firecracker hesitated before continuing. "Do any of you gamble? Games of chance? Anything?" The Unicorn again turned to invade Lana's personal space. "Come to think of it, don't you go everywhere with a deck of cards?"

Intentionally or not, Zhang came to Lana's rescue. "Finch," he said simply.

"Finch?" Firecracker resumed his seat and gave the Chinese man a sideways glance. "Isn't he the one who's always losing all of his fake money to a pocket card game trinket? I certainly appreciate his enthusiasm but the Minotaurs appreciate a challenge, not an easy win, and they especially dislike sore losers."

"Jack Finch really is the best choice," Fujikawa said with a nod. When Firecracker gave her a disbelieving look, she continued. "Just because you've always seen him losing at his pocket poker game doesn't mean he isn't capable of winning. With card games with living people it's just as much about reading other players, which is something Finch's little diversion doesn't have."

Lana spared a glance over Firecracker's head to Zhang and wasn't surprised to see that he was returning it. Gotta give Fujikawa credit, she's really smooth when it comes to cover stories. Now we just have to make sure Jack doesn't take the shirts off their backs and the fillings in their teeth.

"Ah, you're perfectly right there," Firecracker admitted. "Well, we should probably move on to the last party that may be attending, yes?"

"May be attending?" Fujikawa asked with an arched eyebrow.

"We've not received confirmation from Gryphos that they will be attending, or if they won't be attending. It's rather odd since they're not ones for delaying tactics or subtlety." Firecracker's expression became a bit troubled before shifting back to his default setting. "I imagine the Griffons are something humans are a bit more familiar with. Highly militarized, with mandatory service for all citizens for a number of years, at which point they can pursue their own paths. Some are hatched into military dynasties that are centuries if not millennia old."

"It seems odd for such a culture to develop here. What need is there for such a cultural structure if there are no enemies to fight?" Zhang asked. When all eyes turned to him, he continued, "I am no historian, but I'm fairly certain that a militarized culture with no apparent adversaries will turn on itself eventually."

"Oh, they do turn on each other but it's all highly ritualized and has been a part of their traditions for well over a thousand years," Firecracker explained quickly. "They used to be just what you are thinking of, a conquering band of barbarians that sought to take the world by force. During this attempt they were struck by some great calamity and they did break down into civil war. They only came back together as an empire when they established rules of engagement to control things."

The explanation went on for several more minutes before a realization struck Lana. Firecracker actually enjoys all this cultural study and history. Here I thought he was just using it as a vehicle for sleeping his way around the world.

"Anyway, we're getting off topic!" Firecracker shifted gears and shot Lana what he no doubt thought was a dashing smile. "In times of catastrophe or mutual threat, every Griffon is called upon to serve the Empire. Pursuing personal or clan vendettas during that time is severely punished. If an emissary of the High Talon does attend and can be convinced to speak with the Emperor himself, you'll find yourself a few million Griffons and their entire nation willing and able to fight. The problem is convincing the emissary of your case."

Firecracker paused, and when no one spoke, he continued. "If this does come to debate, their emissary will likely let others argue their cases. However, if they spot any kind of inconsistency in logic or reasoning they will pounce on it and not let go until they are satisfied. Choose your words carefully if the Griffons are listening. Once the emissary has made their decision, he'll simply stop listening."

"Any insights for the Griffons on a personal level?"

"They respect anyone who masters their craft. I'll grant you that they seem to put a premium on fighting skills and the like, but they will honor even a baker if his skills warrant it. Culturally they also equate size with age, and old Griffons are almost always elevated for their wisdom and experience. They also tend to look favorably upon scars as it plays into the warrior mythos they have," Firecracker trailed off before glancing at Zhang.

Fujikawa also caught on to his train of thought, but Zhang spoke before she could. "I will try and speak with this emissary, should the opportunity arise," he volunteered with the slightest of shrugs.

Any further discussion was interrupted by another knock on the door. "Ma'am, we've just received a message from Princess Luna. Captain Harris is awake," the voice announced from the other side of the door.

"Excellent. Jenkins, I want you to check on him, like we discussed," Fujikawa ordered, and was careful not to mention just what they had discussed.

"Oh! I'll come with!" Firecracker hopped up from his chair and moved to pursue Lana even as she beat a hasty retreat to the door.

"No. I need you here," Fujikawa said sternly, and Lana could have kissed her. "I have several concerns about the security of our compound that I need to have addressed..."

Lana made it to the door, but rather than escape the relative safety of the hallway, she gave one glance back into the room and did a double take before stepping out into the hallway. Firecracker always wore full uniform while on Earth, but here he's wearing just the jacket. I suppose it's only natural for him to have a 'cutie mark', but why do three question marks seem so out of place?

------

Rows of people stood in line in front of him, waiting for... something. The line wasn't moving, and he couldn't see just what everyone was waiting for. The nagging sense of familiarity with every person in the line pulled at his consciousness, and he reached out to tap the shoulder of the closest person to him.

As though anticipating the motion, the man in front of him turned. As he moved his profile came into focus and the comforting sight of Carapace armor could be seen. His eyes drifted upward to identify the wearer just in time for a flash of light to remove everything from the shoulders up. The next person in line vanished in a pillar of green flame, and the next was torn to pieces by something the naked eye couldn't see. Several more died in a horrific fashion even as the uniforms changed from matte black to digital desert camouflage. The ground was littered with bodies, and only one small figure remained standing.

"You killed them," he boy said, even as three bloody holes blossomed from his chest. "You killed them all."

------

The first thing Matt felt was pain as he emerged from the nightmare. His entire body ached and his lungs burned as he gasped for air. His eyes shot open but slammed shut almost immediately from the brilliant lights in the room. Matt tried to rise from the bed he now found himself in but a weight on his right arm held him in place. His left arm, his left arm...

Matt slowly opened his eyes and raised his head. His bed was surrounded by privacy sheets, though the one at the foot of his bed was pulled to show the Equestrian countryside. His gaze inevitably fell to his left, and the flat blankets that his arm should have occupied. A horrible feeling of nausea crept up on Matt as his eyes settled on what was left of his arm, so he swallowed and checked on just what was holding his right arm down.

Despite the shifting that Matt had no doubt gone through as he struggled to escape his nightmare, Twilight Sparkle slept soundly with her head and front hooves on his right arm. She was clothed in some form of dress that he couldn't quite discern the details of, as his attention was drawn to the instantly recognizable form of Princess Luna. Matt immediately tried to rise and properly greet the lunar diarch, only for his voice to crack and pain to wrack his body again.

"Shh, don't move," Luna instructed gently, and a glass of water levitated in front of his face. "Here, drink slowly. You've been asleep for nearly a week."

The glass slowly approached Matt's mouth and the ice cold water felt like a blessing from heaven as it trickled down his throat. The cup slowly tilted upwards to allow him to finish it at his own pace. "Thank you," he rasped once he had finished.

"I have done comparatively little. Twilight has spent many long hours saving you from a fate worse than death," Luna said quietly as she brought one hoof up to pat the younger Alicorn on the head. "Aside from one brief emergency, she refused to leave your side until it was certain she had done everything that she could for you." Luna lifted her hoof from Twilight and fixed Matt with a piercing stare. "Had she not intervened, your body would no doubt have been consumed by your power and all that would remain would be a vengeful specter bent on destroying everything."

Kill them all.

The whispered demand crept up from Matt's memories and he did his best to control his breathing. She's right. God help me... I was going to kill everyone, and I would have laughed as I did it. Cold fear seeped into Matt's thoughts as he followed that train of thought. What if I have that kind of break-down again? I can't put everyone in danger.

"You heard it, didn't you?" Luna's soft-spoken question shook Matt out of his spiraling thoughts. A quick glance to the Alicorn revealed that her stare had been replaced with a downcast expression. "That voice. That terrible voice-- telling me to-"

"Kill them all," Matt finished when Luna's speech faltered. Her wince at the words was the only confirmation he needed.

"I've scoured all our records and to date, you are only the third creature to suffer from this madness, Captain. You are only the second to survive the encounter relatively intact. I was the first on both counts," she admitted after a long moment, and Matt took note of the steel in her voice. "I sense that we shall both be busy in the coming weeks, but if you sense that presence in your thoughts or in your compatriots, come to me immediately." Her expression softened a bit before she continued. "Do not cede control to guilt over events you could not anticipate. That path leads to rot and ruin. Concentrate on what you can do in the moment, and those around you will benefit from your efforts."

The lunar diarch gave one last look to Twilight before turning and walking out of his room.

The moment the door closed, Lana leaned out from behind the privacy curtains and gave an exaggerated salute. "Yo, boss! How you feeling?"

"Up until about five seconds ago, I was doing good," Matt answered sardonically as he fixed the Sergeant with a glare. "Were you in here the whole time?"

"Yep," Lana answered brightly, in defiance of Matt's disapproval. She plucked a stool from somewhere beyond the curtains and brought it down beside Twilight with barely any disturbance and sat. "So, I've been doing research that will help you out in the long run, Matt."

Oh no, I know that grin.

"Due to the skewed gender ratios in Equestria, polygamy is legal just so long as you're up front with everyone. And even if it wasn’t, I'm sure Princess Twily or Princess Luna could pass a law to make it so," Lana explained in a low whisper even as her right hand hovered over Twilight's head as some sort of visual cue of an internal debate on if she could pet her and get away with it.

"Jenkins... wait, why in God's name are you talking about polygamy and Luna?" Matt blurted out, and he immediately regretted it.

"Hey, man, I'm not judging you or anything. It's just that I walk in on you after spending a week in bed with your girlfriend here only to find the Princess of the Night here also," Lana continued, and her smirk grew. "Plus, Luna was naked, you know."

An involuntary flashback of his earlier conversation came to mind. The only things she wears are the tiara and the collar. I'm never going to be able to look at her the same way again. "God damn it, Jenkins."

Lana had finally surrendered to her fuzzy animal impulse and rested her hand on Twilight's head with her index finger and thumb scratching her ears gently. "Princess Cadance is coming for the meeting later today, so I'm sure the Princess of Love would certainly join in. Don't tell Shiny though, he's got enough reasons to kill you." Lana's grin only grew as Matt groaned. "Plus I bet you could sweet talk Celestia into the princess pile. You'll have a complete set once you get the older sister-- Wait. Wait wait wait wait wait."

Matt arched an eyebrow as a look of dawning comprehension entered Lana's expression. Oh, what now?

"Twily's a little sister. Luna's a little sister. You were awfully protective of your little sister," Lana explained, and Matt dearly wished he had an extra hand to facepalm with. "Admit it, you've got a little sister complex, don't you?"

"Jenkins..."

"It all makes perfect sense now. I mean, why else wouldn't you hit on me at least once when we first met? Just about everyone else did before I set things straight."

"Maybe it's because I practice professionalism in the workplace, and I don't mix business with personal pursuits?" Matt asked flatly, and he knew he was going to be ignored.

"You know, one of Twily's friends is a little sister, and she has a little sister herself. Do you think that would count as two pings on your radar or just one because technically one is a middle child?"

"Jenkins!" Matt hissed. "I don't have to get up out of this bed to make your life miserable."

"Too late," Jenkins answered, and her abrupt change in tone made Matt pause. "With the upcoming meeting with the other races in this world, we were assigned a cultural liaison to give us a quick briefing on what to expect. I'll give you three guesses as to who was assigned, though I think you'll only need one."

"Well it serves you right. I bet you had all that planned and just waiting for some excuse to unleash it on me."

"No, no, I made most of that up on the spot," Lana said before her expression slowly fell. "Seriously though, Luna and the engineers think they know what caused your little incident. I won't bore you with the details but they're going to ask you to test something that should prevent further incidents."

'Incidents', right. More like genocidal delusions of grandeur, Matt couldn't help but think, but before he could respond, Twilight began to stir.

Lana's hand flew off of her ears instantly and the Alicorn slowly brought her head up and opened her eyes. Twilight's mane suffered terribly from a case of bedhead and her eyes were unfocused and drooping until they caught a glimpse of her patient's face. "Matt? You're awake!" Nothing could have prepared Matt for Twilight's launch as she buried her face in his chest and started crying or talking, or both.

"I'll just leave you two alllllloooooone," Jenkins whispered before disappearing behind the privacy sheets. Matt was left with Twilight, and many, many plans for revenge.

And through all those plans for revenge, Matt didn't spend one more moment thinking about how close he had come to killing everyone a week earlier, or how it might happen again.

------

17:30, 11/07/2015, XCOM COMPOUND, CANTERLOT

The circumstances were just similar enough to the unexpected request five days ago to give Shaojie Zhang a small amount of apprehension. Fujikawa and he marched past the two security guards they had placed at the entrance to their compound and into the corridor where they encountered the mysterious messenger that had ended up likely saving all of them a significant amount of hardship in the long run. Saving a civilian from a horrible death was certainly good for public relations but the strategic value of eliminating a nest of Chryssalids within a day's run from their base of operations was the real victory.

The question that nagged Zhang as they marched was the possibility that the creature that had coerced them into acting might have known all along, but didn't tell them. The bright colors and cheer of this world make it easy to forget the possibility of a darker foundation keeping it from collapsing, Zhang thought to himself as they entered the Equestrian part of the castle.

Firecracker was easily identifiable with his orange mane and big smile, and he fell into step beside Fujikawa to guide them to the hall where the meeting would take place. The pair shared mostly small talk, with the Unicorn trying to make personal conversation while Fujikawa kept things strictly within the realm of professional topics. If Firecracker noticed her preferred topics, he showed no sign as he continued his attempts at derailing the conversation with anecdotes and personal questions. They were saved from any further attempts at conversation with Firecracker when they finally approached the massive double doors leading to the meeting hall. The two Equestrian guards, black-armored veterans from Earth, barely reacted as they passed through the doors.

What greeted them as they entered was a round table with six seats spaced around its perimeter. Princess Luna was already seated and speaking with another Alicorn that Zhang immediately recognized as Cadance. Their conversation stopped just long enough for the pink Alicorn to wave and smile, and for the lunar diarch to give Fujikawa a leading look to the chair to her right. Their conversation resumed as Fujikawa took her seat with Zhang standing behind her and to the right and Firecracker pulling up a seat along the chamber's wall.

Less than a minute after they had been seated, the door opened again and a pair of Zebras passed through. The first was clearly Orthos, with old eyes and a modest but well-tailored tan robe. The second was significantly younger and far more muscular as he appeared nearly half again as wide at the shoulders as the first and wore clothing just loose enough to hide a respectable amount of weapons from the untrained eye.

Alas, my eyes are far from untrained, Zhang thought to himself as he briefly let his eyelids close and a slow breath escaped his mouth. His supernatural senses quickly identified a pair of retractable claws similar to what he had seen Pegasi use back on Earth on his right foreleg. The left had what he guessed was a miniature collapsible crossbow folded neatly in place.

"Samahani, I had hoped to speak with you before this meeting began. I am Orthos of the West," the elder Zebra introduced himself with a deep bow once he approached the humans. "As a father I must thank you for saving that which is most precious to me."

Fujikawa rose and returned the bow. "I understand, sir. No parent should outlive their child. I am just glad we were able to save her in time."

The tone was so subtle that Zhang almost missed it. She thinks that the intruder that extorted our cooperation is working for Orthos. Still, something seems out of place.

Orthos rose and gave Fujikawa a tired smile. "As an elder, I am afraid I must set aside my personal feelings. Above all, I must consider the good of all my people when I make my decision. From what Zecora has told to me of our common enemy, I have little doubt as to what my decision will be."

"We will be thankful for any help that you can provide, Elder," Fujikawa offered another short bow before adding, "I must offer my condolences for the Pathfinders that volunteered to find Zecora before we went in. I'm sure they fought bravely and died well."

"As did Watcher," Zhang added, almost on impulse.

Orthos's reaction was one of gratitude, and a small amount of confusion. "They were the best at their chosen path, and they will be sorely missed. I am afraid I know of no Zebra in Equestria that answers to 'Watcher'. Perhaps you referring to the Ranger that assisted them?"

A brief moment of silence passed as Fujikawa shot Zhang a look out of the corner of her eye at that unexpected revelation. "Yes, I do believe that is the case, Orthos," she finally answered.

Before the conversation could continue, the doors flew open and a massive Minotaur stomped through. Asterion was easily as tall as Zhang, not including the horns and was half again as wide at the shoulders. His attire was closer to the humans than the Equestrians, with a finely tailored shirt and slacks and a pitch black trenchcoat that extended all the way down to his hooves. The only parts of his body that were visible were his hands, neck and head.

Zhang was thankful that he never relied on stereotypes to define the people he met, because for all of Asterion's resemblance to a top-heavy brute, his eyes were quick and possessed a level of cunning that spoke of a clever mind.

"I am glad that you could make it, Asterion," Luna said graciously as she rose and bowed to the latest arrival. "You are the last to arrive, so as soon as we are all seated, we may begin. Guards, seal the room."

Orthos offered a quiet farewell to Fujikawa and took his seat next to her while his still nameless bodyguard took a seat on the outer walls. Asterion pulled out the next empty seat and fell heavily into it before crossing his arms over his chest. Cadance resumed her official seat and spared one glance towards the last empty chair in the room.

"I have called this meeting to address the threat of malicious and monstrous forces that threaten us even now," Luna began without preamble. "This threat is not something that any one nation can hope to defend against. Our enemy is merciless, indiscriminate, and totally alien in every way--"

"Aliens, really?" Asterion interrupted loudly, and he pointedly ignored Luna's glare. "I know you made your big announcement about getting help from these 'humans'," he continued, and made air quotes as he did so. "I haven't seen one bit of evidence that this isn't something that Celestia swept under the rug a thousand years ago only to return now for some payback." He held up one hand and began to count off his fingers. "There was Sombra, then Discord, then you, if I'm not mistaken. I haven't seen anything that would indicate this is going to be anything bigger than any of those little disasters."

Luna's eyes narrowed before she said coolly, "I believe Major Yumiko Fujikawa will be able to provide the proof that you require."

The human in question produced a small projector and set it on the table beside her, facing the wall. "Can we dim the room, please?" she asked, and as soon as the heavy curtains were drawn over the windows, she produced a small remote and activated the projector. An image of Earth appeared on the massive marble wall, which quickly centered on Europe. The map itself was purely geographical, with no national borders marked or names given. The only alteration to the projected globe was a small red oval that was pitted with two black spots in what Zhang recognized as a caricature of a Sectoid's head over central Europe.

"Approximately one year ago, several unidentified alien objects fell in a the city of Cologne in the country of Germany. What happened next is a mystery as Germany's special forces, the GSG, responded to the crisis but went silent shortly afterward. My colleagues were called in to investigate the site and found the GSG airship destroyed and the team killed by hostile alien contacts." Fujikawa summarized quickly, and Zhang took a mental tally of the details she glossed over. One glance about the room showed rapt attention from all corners, though Asterion's attention seemed partially divided between the presentation and the projector itself.

Fujikawa clicked the remote and a second marker appeared in Russia as the globe rotated before more dots appeared. "The second confirmed attack was in a suburb on the outskirts of Kiev, a city in Ukraine, approximately two weeks later. After that, attacks were recorded in Helsinki, Edmonton, Osaka, Dublin, Sioux Falls, Cairo and Madrid over the next month." Corresponding spots began to appear on the globe and continued to do so even as Fujikawa turned back to the table. Her delivery thus far had been matter-of-fact, as though reading from a history book, just like they had practiced. "Their tactics thus far in attacking Equestria have been radically different than anything we experienced, but there is no doubt that the enemies here are the same as the enemies on my world, and they are not native to either of our worlds."

"You provide a convincing argument, so I will cede the point of the extra-terrestrial nature of our enemies," Asterion said, but a small grin graced his bovine features. "I am afraid I have two problems with this little meeting. One, I have no idea what provoked your little scuffle with these aliens but I do know that the Equestrians have been helping you. What proof do you have that the aliens aren't taking punitive action against them for butting into your war? For all I know, they might leave the rest of us alone."

"The first attack on Cologne was done without provocation or warning, and since then they have persecuted their campaign without regard to race or nationality," Fujikawa responded without a second's hesitation. "We do not know their motives but I would bet my life that it would be a matter of when, not if they would attack your nation, regardless of your participation in our war."

The Minotaur simply smiled and nodded before he extended two fingers. "My second point is that this little war council is rather pointless without a representative from the High Talon. You Equestrians might have your Guard divisions but we both know they're entirely unprepared to fight any kind of protracted war. Judging by the fact that the first time I've even seen these mythical humans was in this very room, there can't be many soldiers here to help you either. What is there, a hundred at the most? Simply put, without the High Talon's legions, you just don't have the muscle to make this an effective arrangement."

When no response was immediately apparent, Asterion smirked and rose from his chair. "I see no further reason to participate in this meeting as Minon will gain no benefit from it other than dragging ourselves into a war that you all might have brought upon yourselves. Good day." With a bow that was just a little too fast to be sincere, the Minotaur turned to the doors to leave but stopped when they began to open after just a single step.

The first thing to pass through the newly opened doors was the click of talons on the marble floor. The second was the massive armored form of what was undoubtedly a Griffon. Unlike the others in attendance who wore civilian or dress attire, the Griffon was clad from head to tail in plate and chain mail. Forests of knives and other bladed weapons were strapped to every conceivable location on the armor, and its front talons were wrapped in heavy gauntlets. Even its claws appeared to be coated in some form of metal and Zhang had no problem imagining them flensing flesh from bone with a simple gesture. For all the craftsmanship that went into the armor, the most noticeable part was the helmet. It was a completely featureless but for the vague shape of a Griffon's head that completely obscured the wearer's face. Only the faint glitter of reflected light in the depths of the eye holes of the helmet gave any indication that the newcomer was anything more than an enchanted suit of armor.

The featureless helmet scanned the room and hesitated for just a moment on Fujikawa and Zhang before the Griffon stepped aside to reveal a far smaller member of the species standing in its shadow. It bore all the hallmarks of an adolescent native to the planet, with wide eyes and a small body. Its robes appeared to be a size too big but still finely tailored, and Zhang could have sworn he saw the tiny creature trembling.

"Alvar!" Asterion greeted with open arms and a wide smile. "You're sprouting up like a weed, youngling! Last I saw you, you were about as big as my hoof!" The Minotaur took one step towards the Griffon child but froze when the elder Griffon's helmeted gaze locked squarely onto him like a turret acquiring a target. "How's Gerhard doing? I heard that old buzzard had to put his claw down on some youngsters who thought they could make it big as sky pirates or something. Bah, that's something I can ask him later."

A long moment of silence passed as Asterion looked expectantly into the hallway, then to the child, then to his apparent bodyguard. "Well, what are you waiting for? Announce your father so we can get down to brass tacks."

"High Talon Gerhard is dead," Alvar said with a hollow voice.

"What?" Asterion gasped as he staggered backwards and fell heavily into his seat. "When? How?" He asked, all confidence gone from his tone.

"He died while rallying the defenders of High Peak against dozens of airships of an unknown enemy. He fell no more than four days ago."

"What about Gundar? Hedvig? Anja? Einhar? What of your mother, Dame Freja?" Asterion asked, his once proud voice reduced to nothing but a whisper. "Who commands the Legions now?"

Alvar's voice took on a forced quality as he answered each question in turn. "Talon Gundar is dead. He fell in battle while leading the First Legion into combat with the enemy. Talon Hedvig is dead. He fell when the airships bombarded Low Peak with waves of green fire. Talon Anja is dead. She fell while commanding the Second Legion in a holding action to allow the Third and Fourth Legions to retreat. Talon Einhar is dead. He fell while attempting to save High Talon Gerhard. Dame Freja is..." Alvar's voice faltered as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Dame Freja is dead. She fell in battle beside my father's Myrmidons to buy her hatchlings time to escape."

Alvar took in a breath and seemed to steel himself as best he could before speaking again. "All of the Talons are dead. I am High Talon now, and I've come to beg asylum for any of my people that escape Gryphos."

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