• Published 1st Sep 2017
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Into the Storm: The Flight of Firefly - Firesight



Before the Wonderbolts, there were the Bolt Knights. And before Rainbow Dash, there was Firefly. The story of Rainbow Dash's ancestor, the founding of the Wonderbolts, and the outbreak of the Great Pony/Gryphon War.

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Rally and Recover: 12 - To Save Two Souls

Greetings to all yet again. As strange as it seems to be relegated to the rear lines in a story that began about my rise and eventual role in the war, ‘tis simply the way it must be right now, as my viewpoint is neither as dispassionate or observant as the events to come require.

‘Tis why I originally intended to give the pen to Blindside, who stood with me and gave me comfort for the entire sequence, but then I was informed by Swift Strike that he had just learned there had been, of all beings, a Raven present for the duel, and that perchance she might give up her story given a personal appeal from me.

I wrote that appeal, telling nopony about it, entrusting it to Swift Strike to deliver. Whatever his methods, I was informed several weeks later that, after some additional back-and-forth between them, she had agreed, and her account was delivered to me ten days later.

‘Tis true I deliberately did not tell Fell Flight or Colonel Osprey about it, as I knew well what their reaction would be. And in truth, I have indeed taken criticism for the previous chapter, though some of it has been surprising.

Some say I should not be giving the Ravens a voice or platform, which was hardly unexpected, but still others said that I should not have included it for doing the Ravens themselves a disservice—that their vital role was only made possible through the greatest of secrecy, and that any story I might share from them endangers them.

My response to that is very simple: ‘tis her choice to make, and between her and her organization. The writings were reviewed and found acceptable by the Council of Crows and, I presume, her own superiors. Even beyond that, Swift Strike has offered his insights into the life of the Lances as well, but ‘tis certain they are no less effective because of it.

Yet another class of criticism is that Captain Typhoon had no business risking Gavian in such an insane and dangerous plan, to which at the time I wholeheartedly agreed. The points will be addressed later by myself and Gavian, but suffice it to say for now, ‘twas cause of much friction between us. Still others cannot fathom what a single Raven could offer over and above my own viewpoint, or any pony’s, for that matter.

To which I answer: read and find out, and then decide if her inclusion was unnecessary or greatly enriched this tale.

—Captain Firefly
Bolt Knight Captain Emeritus
Military History and Tactics Instructor
Equestrian Officer Academy
Canterlot


Cloudsdale
Central District
September 4th, 1139 AE
2150 hours

Methinks me and my Raven team had already seen much that had been unexpected during our approach to and infiltration of Cloudsdale. But the presence of this airship was the most surprising sight of all, requiring some immediate investigation.

Flying in a standard Corps patrol formation, we circled in for a closer look. As we got near, we could read the name on the ship’s bow in the lowering light level of dusk, which our transformed pony eyes were not as able to deal with as gryphon ones—the EAS Loyalty.

My pegasus-disguised team exchanged looks. We knew the name, for we knew the action it had been in. So this was the airship that had charged halfway across Equestria to the rescue of the Epsilon garrison on the first day of war, extracting them and decimating an entire Talon millennium and their attached Knights with the ship’s magical cannons in the process?

And now it was here at Cloudsdale without its escorts—one of which had been lost at Epsilon, granting the hard-hit 16th Talon legion at least one major prize to somewhat salve their wounds—sitting at airship anchor squarely inside thestral territory?

‘Twas more evidence of an already-existing alliance between the two sides the Prelate would need to know. ‘Twas also too good an opportunity for additional intelligence to pass up, particularly as we heard some nearby civilians speaking that the ship’s mistress was offering tours of the interior.

So I dispersed my team, dispatching my two three-Raven elements not to the ship or weather factory, but to the pubs. ‘Tis an old trick but a good one, as a little alcohol combined with a pinch of truth powder oft and quite easily loosens the tongues of those with information. To that end, I told them to use their pony bits to buy some civilians and soldiers cider to see what they could learn about our objectives. And in the meantime?

In the meantime, I would investigate the airship personally and perchance see if I could board her—or excuse me, board him, since Equestrians use the male pronoun to describe a ship—getting a look at the interior to see if there was any intelligence to be gleaned or weakness I could identify.

Ten minutes later, I had switched disguises, stowing my corps uniform and wingblades to present the appearance of a City Hall worker, wearing a vest that amounted to little more than janitor attire. ‘Twas for both appearances and to allow me a means to carry a small array of weapons and tools in my interior pockets, including an enchanted lockpick, a pair of short blades and a double-tubed blowgun. I had intended to approach the ship and inquire about the possibility of a tour, but before I could, a deep voice boomed from the ship over its external crystal speakers.

It invited all ponies present to come forth and witness a duel. A duel that was promised to be between a pony and a gryphon?!?

I knew not what they meant by that any more than the ponies around me—what gryphon? Had they captured Knights or Ravens and were now using them for gladiatorial sport? Surely not, I thought, as even in their more Imperial times, pegasi had not resorted to such barbarity using prisoners of war! But regardless, I had to know who this gryphon was. For if there were captured Ravens here, then ‘twas my duty to end their lives before they gave up information.

So following the proverbial herd—which included some uncertain thestral soldiers chattering in their native tongue who paused their activities to observe; I took the opportunity to examine their uniforms and equipment, including their rather advanced and intricate-looking wrist-mounted crossbows and equally odd, double-bladed gauntlets clipped to their weapons belt—I flew near the airship and I took my place near the front of the quickly gathering crowd, just hovering in the air as one of many ponies present.

A series of angry shouts erupted as the gryphon was brought forth. He was flanked protectively by nearly a dozen Corps and Naval ponies, cringing at the hostile reaction he garnered. ‘Twas clearly no captured Knight or Raven, but I realized who he must be from his youth and small stature as well as the presence of his ‘Mother’, Master Sergeant Firefly of the Royal Guard:

Gavian Ravenoff; the young sky gryphon raider who had been taken prisoner by the ponies late the previous year, following a failed raid on Outpost Epsilon by the now-destroyed Hildyra raider group. Methinks that group had been a particular favorite of the Prelate, extensively used to kidnap ponies for ransom as cover for implanting mind control gems within them. But after a failed attempt on his life, this teenaged cub had given the ponies all the information they needed to uncover that plot and thwart our initial invasion plans.

A failed attempt in which six of my brethren had died attempting to slay him at the then-Consul Gaius’ orders. They had fallen to his Black Lance bodyguard and Commander Firefly, both of whom I could see flanking him and who appeared none too happy at the events unfolding.

Raven leadership had been less than pleased with the now-Prelate at the time, and ‘twas certain the Owls were still upset over it as well, as the hasty and ill-thought operation had compromised their greatest intelligence project ever. Gavian Ravenoff’s survival and subsequent defection had revealed their mind-controlled agents in the Equestrian military to the ponies, and once they knew what to look for, they scanned for and wiped out the Owls’ entire painstakingly constructed spy network in the space of several days.

In fact, ‘tis certain the Owl leadership never trusted the Prelate after that, as they habitually withheld information from him for as long as possible, to the oft detriment of both. Still, the entire situation I was seeing made no sense to me—why was he fighting in front of such a hostile crowd, all clamoring for his blood? Why were they exposing him like this; forcing him to fight a pony?

And what pony would he be fighting?

‘Twas then a great series of cheers erupted as a new figure was led forward down the ship’s gangplank in shackles, his hooves and wings restrained. I turned to see him and my pegasus wings seized in sheer fear, forcing me to alight before I plummeted out of the sky in remembered helplessness and terror.

Methinks I was barely able to control my fright or my flight; ‘twas all I could do to land on the city surface without crashing in the midst of the crowd that had already gathered there before the airship, where my worst fears were confirmed:

The Lightning Demon stood before me again, but thirty paces away.

Under the escort of several guards, he was led forth towards Gavian in very heavy-duty wing and hoof manacles, though he’d been given a wingblade harness and hoofstrikers to wear that he could not yet wield until those restraints were released. Despite his captive state—and had I been less frightened, I might have wondered why he was apparently imprisoned—I shook, praying he wouldn’t look at me or I was certain that despite all my experience and training, I would bolt like a frightened cub.

Even without him doing so, it took all my will to resist the illogical but overwhelming urge to flee at once lest he somehow sense me, strangely certain that even if he didn’t see me, he could smell me. But he never turned towards me, all his attention fixed on the gryphon in front of him. Methinks he was smiling like he could scarcely believe his luck; his expression that of a wolf who had cornered the lamb that strayed too far from the herd.

‘Twas then yet another surprising figure appeared—Captain Typhoon, Commander of the Royal Guard. He had been a priority target for the Owl-controlled civilian assassins in Canterlot, and we knew not his fate as of my departure, but ‘twould seem they missed their mark with him as he bore no wounds. If possible, he seemed even more intimidating than Thunderbolt, standing half a head taller and completely unafraid of him as he brought forth a blue pony command gem to address the growing crowd.

“Pegasi of Cloudsdale! Thestral friends and allies! I invite you all forth to witness a clash of blades between two mighty beings! To my right is a pony who needs no introduction to this city—Second Lieutenant Thunderbolt, hero of the Battle of Cloudsdale!

“And if you wonder why he is in chains, to my left is the young gryphon he attempted to slay on sight—Gavian Ravenoff, adopted son of the first Armored Guardsmare; Master Sergeant Firefly!”

The introduction caused some murmurs of surprise as well as a fresh eruption of angry noises; methinks ‘twas a mixture of outrage that Thunderbolt had been imprisoned for such a thing, whilst those Corps and Naval soldiers I assumed hadn’t been here for the battle wondered aloud why he was being set free to menace Gavian again.

Wait—that meant they liked him? I sensed there was much to this story I didn’t know as the Captain went on. “By his own request, Gavian seeks to offer Thunderbolt a fair fight in a formal duel with very simple terms—life to the winner and death to the loser!

“I offer this duel not for entertainment, but so that Thunderbolt and all Equestrians may see that there are gryphons who are not our enemy! That there are gryphons just as capable of honorable acts and fighting for others as we are!” he announced to derisive sounds as a few bets were made around me regarding how long Gavian would last. Most guesses were between five and ten seconds, and at least one mare said hopefully he would die in less than two.

Ignoring them, Captain Typhoon cleared a makeshift duel arena fifty paces wide with a single and strangely sourceless surge of wind around him. He scraped a circular area of the cloud surface to perfect flatness with it, its edges marked by its characteristically more puffy cumulus veneer.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at, Captain, but after preventing me from killing him, you serve him up to me on a platter? And give me an audience for it?” Thunderbolt laughed out loud. “Methinks you are either mad, or mayhap finally came to your senses.”

“We will see,” the Captain of the Guard replied in a cool tone. He then approached Thunderbolt and made a series of rapid motions; applying what appeared to be little more than mere taps to the Lightning Demon’s spine and head. Whatever he did, Thunderbolt took a shuddering breath and fell to his knees, trembling violently like he’d just been released from his bonds.

“I’ve restored your power on a delay, Lieutenant—you will be able to use your lightning affinity again within twenty seconds,” he announced to the crumpled and shaking pegasus, causing my brow to furrow in confusion—what did he mean by ‘restore’ it?

He then quickly turned to Gavian, who I could see visibly swallowed in the light of the firegems in the courtyard, which were glowing at low evening illumination levels. “’Tis time. The moment of your greatest trial and triumph is at wing, young gryphon! Are you ready?”

I knew not what the Captain was playing at—triumph? Against Thunderbolt?—but the shaking teenage tiercel stood to attention before him, puffing out his chest to present himself. He was armed with nothing except the Owl-issue shadow scimitar strapped to his back, taken undoubtedly from the Raven team that had fallen attempting to slay him. “Do it!”

“Prepare!” With that, Typhoon struck Gavian Ravenoff in the chest directly over the heart, far harder than he had Thunderbolt; for a moment methinks I thought that Typhoon had just slain him as the blow caused Gavian’s eyes to bulge and his beak to gape open in a soundless scream!

An uncountable number of additional strikes followed, aimed at what seemed roughly his nerve and circulatory centers before ending with a double-strike with the wingtips to both sides of his head. Gavian visibly reeled from it, crying out and finally crumpling hard to the cloud surface.

“‘Tis done. ‘Twill take effect within seconds, but the clock is now ticking!” the Captain warned him. “You must end this duel within ten minutes, my young friend, or your body will be in danger of failing completely and leaving you at Thunderbolt’s mercy!”

Gavian didn’t reply. But then abruptly, his shaking stilled just as Thunderbolt pulled himself back up. Electricity gathered around his torso as his lightning power returned to him; an animal growl building in his throat as he turned his full attention on his gryphon opponent with pure hate and murder apparent in his eyes.

And yet, the Captain remained fearlessly planted between them, blocking Thunderbolt’s path to Gavian whilst he likewise rose to all fours. He gave a feral growl of his own as off to the side, Master Sergeant Firefly clutched her one-eyed comrade, barely able to watch.

None of those present outside the two combatants looked happy, I noted again, leaving me wondering if the Captain of the Guard had ordered this over their objections. But how could he order a civilian, pony or gryphon, to sacrifice himself like this? And what possible purpose could there be in such insanity as facing an unstoppable killing machine like Thunderbolt with a sixteen-year old gryphon cub?

Such were questions for another time as I felt a moment of deep pity for Gavian Ravenoff. I closed my eyes briefly and prayed to my Ancestors that whatever his crimes or treasonous acts, his end would be swift. I might have turned away and left him to his certain fate, but I did not, deciding in perchance a moment of sisterly sentiment that at least one gryphon should be there to stand with him in his final moments, even silently.

Opening my eyes again from my hurried prayer, I forced my gaze back to the improvised duel arena. When Gavian’s green eyes opened again, I flinched—for they were nothing like they had been before! They were filled with a fire and lethal intent that matched Thunderbolt’s; his gaze focused on him like a predator seeing prey.

Or in hindsight, and perchance more appropriately, a captured animal finally freed and about to turn on his tormentor.

“Interesting…” Thunderbolt granted as he studied Gavian carefully. An electrical charge audibly built within him; his guards stepping quickly back as a growing static crackle was heard. “But pointless!” With a massive eruption of sparks, he broke his bonds, sending links of enchanted chains flying in every direction, their mangled edges smoking and even glowing at their fringes before they fell through the cloud surface to the mountain slopes below.

“I know not what you just did to him, Captain, but nor do I care!” Thunderbolt announced loudly and proudly. “As a courtesy for giving me this chance, I will let you declare the start of the duel before I kill him, but make it quick! As I understand the gryphons have launched a new offensive, I wish to slay him swiftly so I can fly to the front and start slaughtering them!” he said to fresh cheers.

Despite the display and boast, both the Captain and Gavian himself were unperturbed, the former wearing an expression of disdain and the latter, one of not fear but eager anticipation. His talons flexed at the cloud surface as a quick but strong series of sinuous movements went through his entire body, his fur and feathers rippling hard with their passage as his muscles limbered, tensing and loosening in turn.

He said nothing, but Typhoon did, giving Thunderbolt a sly grin. “Take him lightly at your peril, Lieutenant. Now that you are both ready, you know the terms—this duel is full combat, and to the death! Fight with all your skill and power! But be warned—should either party deliberately endanger our audience, I will intervene personally! Is this understood?” He looked at both pointedly in turn, receiving a sharp nod from Gavian and a far lazier one from Thunderbolt.

Satisfied, he stepped back from the two as an eager Gavian stood forth, his excited, agitated state in marked contrast to his earlier anxiety as Thunderbolt deployed his wingblades.

At that moment, the large clock on the top of City Hall read 9:55 PM. “Then to save two souls... combatants! Begin!” he announced the formal start of the duel in the pony manner with a slashing motion of a wing between them, then flew back to oversee the affair as I heard what sounded like a choked sob from Firefly just over the raucous cheers of the ponies around me. Most urged Thunderbolt on but a surprising number, all wearing Naval or Corps uniforms, were openly rooting for Gavian.

But the two did not attack each other right away, instead starting to slowly circle at a distance of ten paces. Whatever the Captain had done to him, the young gryphon’s fear had melted away to be replaced with something I couldn’t yet quantify.

And neither, ‘twould seem, could Thunderbolt, who studied him again, and then smiled. “So eager to die, are you? I don’t know what he did to you, my little chickenhawk, but it matters not! I said before you gained some honor by fighting for us, and I would spare you the pain of my blades.” A fresh static crackle was heard as sparks started gathering around his hooves. “I am a stallion of my word, so don’t worry—I’ll make this quick!”

My stomach clenched anew as I saw him gather up the lethal charge of electricity from inside himself, having seen what he could do with it—strike down even a fully-shielded Magus singly or armored Knights en masse. The crowd must have as well, for they—and me—reflexively took several steps or wingflaps back even as they cheered him on; in at least one case, surprised thestral soldiers were yanked bodily backwards away from the danger by nearby pegasi.

And yet, Gavian Ravenoff did nothing at the threatened attack but smirk and take flight into a hover a short distance off the ground, causing those spectating in the air behind him to quickly clear the area. He said nothing, but for as frightened and uncertain as he had looked before, he suddenly seemed not just loose, but completely unconcerned despite the lethal threat. To my eyes, ‘twas as if the anxious and uncertain tiercel that had been brought to the arena only minutes ago had been replaced with a completely different gryphon.

But how? Why?

‘Twas only when a sneering Thunderbolt finally loosed his lightning but a half-second later to a deafening BOOM! that caused my larger pony ears to ring that I got my answer—Gavian disappeared! His image resolved but a heartbeat later a short distance to the side; the bolt passing harmlessly through where he had been—though judging by the jagged path it traced, it might have bent slightly towards him due to the metal sword still strapped to his back.

The ponies around me fell open-muzzled at the impossible feat, and I admit, I joined them—for no creature, pony or gryphon, should have been fast enough to dodge a launched lightning bolt!

“Sorry, Lieutenant, but it’s not going to be that easy!” Captain Typhoon informed a gaping Thunderbolt from where he had landed on the top deck of the Loyalty, whose initial shock quickly gave way to anger as Gavian simply hovered mockingly before him with his forelegs crossed, a smile on his face that was half-smirk, half-sneer. “I have taken his measure as well as yours. So believe me when I say he’s more than a match for you now!”

Thunderbolt’s eyes narrowed. “A match for me? This cub? Don’t make me laugh! I said before that I would spare you the pain of my blades, Gavian Ravenoff! But no longer!” Thunderbolt announced to cheers from the assembled ponies as Gavian finally drew his own blade in response. And yet, he held it only loosely before him in his hover, not even bothering with a guard stance! Methinks he was all but taunting Thunderbolt at this point, a gesture that did not go unnoticed as his pegasus opponent let out an angry snort.

And this time, when Thunderbolt attacked with speed no Raven could withstand, Gavian Ravenoff waited until what seemed like far too long before bringing his blade up to parry the rapid fire and horrifically powerful wingblade attacks, which he did with impossible ease; the blocks and shrieking collisions of metal only apparent to me from the sparks flying off their clashing blades. The rapid and very loud series of clangs made it seem as though a score of soldiers were fighting in the arena below, and not just two.

Their bright lines and flashes seared my equine eyes in the low evening light, causing the bat-ponies present to wince as their glowing eyes visibly narrowed. At least one donned a pair of opaque flight goggles, which I later guessed were meant to allow them to fight in daylight.

But all that was only noted in passing as my attention remained on the incredible display of combat skill before me. By his rapidly changing expressions, Thunderbolt was first amused, then surprised, then outright shocked at the resistance he met, no more so than when Gavian scored the first hit of the duel instead of him! Though the action was generally far too fast for even me to follow, I was just able to catch a parry of a wingblade reversed into a hilt strike driven hard into Thunderbolt’s chest, knocking him backwards in the air at least three yards!

The two broke contact, but Gavian did not follow up as a stunned Thunderbolt coughed hard, and then rounded on the Captain. “What sorcery is this? What did you do to him?” he demanded to know, rubbing his bruised chest.

“Nothing except unleash his full fighting potential,” Typhoon said with a smirk from his new perch atop the airship deck, whilst Gavian appeared flush with pride and power, smiling even as he still growled low in his throat. “And be assured that no sorcery was involved. How I did it ‘tis unimportant, but just know the gryphon you are facing, Lieutenant, is in many ways your own reflection! I simply recreated your ascension to supreme slayer within him so you could see what it was like to face one!”

“Reflection? Of me?” Thunderbolt shook off the blow and lowered his head, snorting angrily again as he focused fully on Gavian, who snarled and lunged partway forward once like he was barely in control. “You insult me, Captain, as methinks you face me with a mindless animal!”

“A mindless animal?” Gavian grated the words out slowly, giving instant lie to Thunderbolt’s statement as he spoke for the first time since the duel started. Methinks it surprised me, as I wasn’t sure he was capable of speaking in that state. “And methinks you now insult me!” He brandished his blade, which was showing several streaks on its normally pale grey face from their earlier clash of weapons; bright metal gleams peeking out from underneath the deliberately dulled finish.

“Then I have your attention? Good!” Thunderbolt shouted and charged him again, this time making a spiraling attack to which Gavian countered with a forward-looping one, spinning himself head over heels as he held his blade forward in both sets of talons.

A tooth-rattling collision resulted that caused a fresh eruption of sparks; I am not sure but I thought I might have heard something snap. And this time, when they broke contact, there was a shallow slash mark on Gavian’s face and a second on his foreleg, blood from the wounds already oozing through his feathers. “Your fate is the one that awaits all your murderous race!”

“I am murderous?” Gavian gave the scoffing retort I would have wished to as he licked his arm wound and flexed his talons a few times, confirming they still worked. “I am not the one who seeks to slaughter innocents! Who wishes to slay not just me, but all gryphons!”

“No gryphon is innocent! Your entire evil and honorless race is an affront to Equestria and a threat to all ponies who live peacefully! Know that I am but a product of that evil, Gavian Ravenoff, and you are the fruit of the same poisoned tree! ‘Tis my very duty to end you and all gryphons!” he said in Aeric. A momentary glance over the audience revealed that the Lance named Swift Strike was translating his words for Firefly, whose eyes blazed and looked ready to leap forward, only to be restrained by her second and the one-eyed mare.

Gavian somehow noticed. “Stay back! For he is mine!” he shouted over his shoulder towards his adoptive mother before focusing his full attention and rage on Thunderbolt again. His glare then hardened and his talons tightened their grip on his blade.

“Evil? Honorless?” Gavian repeated the words like a Talaeus Centurion about to administer a harsh and potentially lethal lesson to an insulting Talon fledgling. “You know our language, yet you know nothing about us! Or about me!” He pointed the tip of his Raven scimitar at Thunderbolt.

“For the losses I suffered from the Lucavi, I know all I need to!” Thunderbolt began channeling lightning through his body again, rearing up and concentrating his electricity in both forelegs.

“From the Lucavi?” an unimpressed Gavian echoed, hovering fearlessly before the threatened attack. “I barely even know that name!” he said as my lips tightened, for I did know of what Thunderbolt spoke—a raider atrocity that had been unequaled in fifty years.

“Don’t worry—you will!” Thunderbolt promised before firing short sparks like miniature bolts in rapid succession at the teenaged tiercel, who effortlessly dodged them. He looped and veered around their paths with uncanny speed and precision whilst closing the distance between them, keeping his Raven blade bared in front of him.

As his gryphon opponent neared striking range, Thunderbolt flapped his wings to call up a powerful wind, seemingly trying to fling Gavian back. But whatever the Captain had done to him, Gavian’s enhanced flight magic enabled him to fight through it, continuing his advance.

I only realized ‘twas a ruse when Thunderbolt smiled and abruptly reversed his wind. He drew it—and Gavian—inward towards him, charging up a fresh bolt and channeling it into his hoof; he clearly intended to impale his enemy upon it.

But Gavian spotted the ploy and turned it back on him by using the wind to increase his closing speed, reaching and attacking the Lightning Demon before he could fully prepare the strike. His unexpected assault forced a surprised Thunderbolt to hurriedly raise his wingblades in a crossblock to stop the powerful overhead blow; the heavy impact of which still visibly shook his body. It also disrupted his focus enough to disperse his half-formed bolt whilst driving him hard into the cloud surface; a plume of clouds flitting into the air from the crater his body had created.

There was a fresh and very painful sound of grinding metal as the two then attempted to overpower each other, each trying to force their weapon through the other’s before another static crackle announced a new tactic. Pushing a hoof forward, Thunderbolt delivered a fresh but unfocused electrical charge directly to Gavian’s feathered chest, and I instantly realized his intention—he was trying to stop Gavian’s heart!

But Gavian didn’t flinch from it despite the pain it visibly caused him, maintaining the pressure of his blade. An angry and primal growl grew in his throat as he met all of Thunderbolt’s electrical power head-on, forcing his wingblades back until there was an explosion of electricity and outward burst of wind from the pair that threw them both a short distance.

They landed at opposite edges of the duel arena, each putting a short rut and divot in it that marred its previously flat surface. But Gavian appeared to take the worst of the exchange as he was slower to rise and badly singed in places. Wisps of smoke came off his head and wingfeathers; even his tail tip was smoking!

Twitching it hard, he simply dunked it in the cloud to extinguish it as he pulled himself back up and shook his head sharply to clear it. “So you blame not just me, but all gryphons for their actions? I knew them not, but if they were anything like the typical raider group, ‘tis certain they were hated by the gryphon civilians they bullied and terrorized as much as you!”

“As much as me? ‘Tis not possible!” Thunderbolt claimed. “So before we continue this soon-to-be-ended contest, allow me to educate you, my little gryphon—the Lucavi were a cutthroat raider group led by a merciless Mistress who slew a hundred ponies in a single hour! Slaughtered an entire village and their defenders to the last—defenders I led! We were unarmed by orders of our idiot commander, and forced to fight them with our bare hooves!” he said as he launched himself at Gavian again, now slashing with even more speed and hate-fueled ferocity than before.

His blows were only barely blocked or dodged by a shock-shaken Gavian before Thunderbolt slammed a hoofstriker into the young gryphon’s head, stunning him and then proceeding to pummel him with both armored forehooves for several seconds.

Gavian was reeling, and I was certain the fight was about to end when Thunderbolt then disarmed him of his Raven scimitar; a sharp downward slash of a wingblade knocked it from his grasp and sent it spiraling into a nearby cloudbank, to fresh cheers.

But instead of finishing him, the blows and imminent danger only seemed to enrage Gavian, arousing him out of his electrical stupor. He lashed out with his talons as quick as a manticore stinger; the sharp slash sending a spray of blood off Thunderbolt’s cheek and into his eyes. The surprise strike saved him as it forced Thunderbolt to look away, causing his follow-up slash to go wild.

“I had nothing to do with that!” Gavian all but roared as he then headbutted Thunderbolt hard with an audible crack! to gain some separation, landing two more talon slashes on his chest and face before he backflipped out of the way and retrieved his blade—among their other enchantments, ‘tis worth noting, Raven weapons and other items were able to sit upon or even be stored within clouds for later retrieval. “Any more than I had anything to do with the attack here!” He punctuated his statement with a rapid slash of his sword that seemed to briefly cut the air itself.

“It matters not! For you are complicit merely for being a gryphon!” a bleeding Thunderbolt replied, this time rearing up and then slamming his hooves down into the cloud surface hard, causing a series of bolts to erupt upward from it in a steadily expanding circle! The smell of ozone lay thick in the air as his expression hardened. “And now you will die for the sins of your race!” he proclaimed as the bolts formed a cage and closed on Gavian, who looked around in momentary worry, but who then noted the bolts bending towards his scimitar, so he simply threw his blade downward, into the clouds.

It embedded itself to the hilt. The sparks then curled in on themselves and shorted each other out on the focus of his blade, making my pony muzzle fall open—that was all it took to stop one of Thunderbolt’s most powerful and unavoidable attacks?

“I do not die without answers, demon! So tell me and all present—why do you wish me dead? And why didn’t you slay me before?” Gavian challenged, causing me to blink—they had met before this, but Thunderbolt hadn’t tried to kill him? “You had your chance when I last visited, but you were friendly then!” he announced to all as he withdrew his blade from the cloud surface and resheathed it on his back.

Thunderbolt stared at him before forcing a sneer; methinks he—and all others present, including myself—were finally understanding that Gavian Ravenoff was not just swift enough to fight him, but mayhap smart enough to beat him! “Perchance I took pity on you for the story of your upbringing I heard—a pity that was clearly misplaced!”

He next leapt forward and launched a wind-aided hoof at Gavian, who simply turned the blow against him by using the momentum the gale and glancing strike to his jaw imparted by whirling hard; drawing and spinning his blade in a wide arc to impact the back of Thunderbolt’s harness. The surprise strike destroyed the retraction mechanism with a spray of metal shards and knocked the pegasus stallion hard into the cloud. Spots of blood appeared on his back and neck from the metal shrapnel; I could even see a few small holes had been punched in his secondary pegasus feathers!

“Or perchance you weren’t the demon you are now!” Gavian suggested, leaving me in disbelief that the two could deal—and take!—this level of punishment, and that Gavian was somehow fast enough to neutralize Thunderbolt’s ability to predict his strikes!

“Perchance you were still the pony my friends remember—the teacher and mentor who taught them to fly and fight!” he further surmised with a glance back at Firefly and the Corps contingent watching from ground level; I caught Fell Flight nodding sharply at the statement. “They still believe in you, though crows know why! For all I see before me is a hateful demon who thinks what happened to him justifies murder!”

“Slaying in war is not murder!” Thunderbolt somehow charged a blade with electricity and launched an arcing spark from it at Gavian.

“But slaying an innocent is!” Gavian retorted, spinning his scimitar rapidly to form a shield to take the blow; methinks he’d figured out by then that his enchanted blade was in fact some proof against electrical attacks. “You claim I am somehow responsible even after knowing my story? Then you should know that at the time of the Lucavi attack, I was but a five-year old cub about to be abandoned by my parents for being too small!” he shouted in pain, causing the ponies to recoil and my lip to tighten.

For what he spoke of did indeed happen in the Empire. ‘Twas an archaic, and barbaric practice of ancient Sparrowta sects to cast out or even kill cubs deemed unworthy for physical imperfections, whether real or imagined. His Owl dossier had not mentioned that, but it made perfect sense to me, for ‘twas a practice still tolerated by certain clans who could trace their lineage back to that ancient land and time.

‘Twas not legal, but nor could its prohibition be readily enforced. And worse, there were those that, instead of simply slaying their offspring at birth, abandoned them later after it became clear they could never meet such physical standards as was demanded of them. In Gavian Ravenoff’s case, ‘twas clear to me that his undersized frame meant he was not up to those arbitrary and capricious criteria. But this cub was clearly proving those standards were false, as what he lacked in size and strength he made up for in sheer speed and agility!

He would have made a fine Raven, I had the passing thought, as none would suspect such superb skill to come from such small stature! But then again, Swift Strike was small as well—perchance ‘twas his imparted combat style Gavian now wielded?

But such thoughts were lost as Thunderbolt laughed openly at Gavian’s statement, making the latter’s rage grow further. “How apt. They did that to you, and yet you stand here before me as part of the Empire? You stand before me defending them?”

Gavian’s green eyes flashed with a light as bright as Thunderbolt’s lightning. “I stand before you as a gryphon! I hate the Empire!” he all but snarled out the words, his tail lashing and headfeathers flaring in deep anger as he launched a fresh attack on Thunderbolt; a series of sharp slashes that were only barely parried.

“I hate it just as much as everypony here for what it did to me! It cast me out and tried twice to kill me! It treated my life and talents as worthless! And for it, I swore an oath of allegiance to Equestria before Celestia herself!” he told all present between blows, his voice’s volume seemingly enhanced as much as his combat abilities by whatever the Captain had done.

“Gryphon oaths are worthless!” Thunderbolt shouted as he counterattacked with his wingblades, momentarily knocking His opponent’s scimitar askew.

But Gavian turned the attack back on him yet again, letting the strike launch his sword into a rapid arc. He spun it once around his wrist to impact the side of Thunderbolt’s head with the flat of the blade, hitting hard enough to emit a metallic ring—clearly, Swift Strike had taught him some of the Donkey-origin martial art of Judyitsu, which was said to be a Black Lance favorite for allowing them to take on larger opponents and turn their own attacks against them!

“And so is your twisted sense of justice!” Gavian shouted back as his strike staggered Thunderbolt again, allowing a fresh series of blade blows to slowly drive his surprised opponent back. The young gryphon’s offensive continued until an off-balance Thunderbolt was forced to raise a metal-gauntleted hoof to block his latest strike, only to recoil as the Raven blade sliced right through the surface of his hoofstriker!

“Even now, with all calling for my blood, ‘tis an oath I do not forsake! Unlike you, who threw away your oath of honor as an officer and soldier!” Gavian accused as he continued to pound at a grounded Thunderbolt with his Raven blade, which by then had seen such use as to lose almost all its dullness; it was now gleaming ever-more-brightly in the air even as Thunderbolt’s wingblades lost their luster from innumerable nicks and fractures in the enchanted steel.

“Shut up!” Thunderbolt ordered him again with a hard headbutt that made Gavian stumble back, the tremor in his voice and increasingly wild swings telling me that Gavian’s words had struck home. “You were a raider, but you dare claim to have honor?”

“Far more than you, demon!” Gavian reversed his blade to block an upward wing slash and then used the momentum the strike imparted to drive his hilt into Thunderbolt’s chin, causing his jaws to snap together with a loud clack.

Methinks the young sky gryphon’s hybrid style of combat increasingly impressed me even outside of the impossible speed and reflexes he showed—how had he learned this? How had he reached this level in such a short time? Methinks I was forced to examine and discard all my assumptions about what made a good fighter in that moment, as Gavian Ravenoff was turning everything I’d been taught completely on its wing.

The two then separated, bleeding, sweating hard and breathing increasingly heavily; Thunderbolt actually spat out a tooth! “You claim your cause is sacred, but ‘tis certain you’re no better than the raiders you fought!” Gavian then shouted at him.

Thunderbolt reacted like he’d been slapped. “And methinks you would know since you were one!” Despite the loss of a molar, Thunderbolt lunged at him again with blinding speed in an attack that would have instantly decapitated any opponent he fought.

Any opponent he fought short of the one he faced then, as Gavian instantly parried his strike with yet another loud WHANG! that made my pony teeth clench. ‘Twas an involuntary reaction; I could hear and sense the force behind the collision of enchanted steel from the painful screech of metal to the enormous eruption of sparks that flew from them. Ponies around me likewise recoiled from the sharp sounds with a series of winces and audible groans as the pair somehow just kept upping their speed and intensity, refusing to give any ground to the other.

Finally, they separated again; I heard the soft bonging of a bell and was stunned to look up at the clock atop City Hall and realize that it had just struck ten—that for all that had been said and had happened, only five minutes had elapsed since the start of the duel! “Then tell me and all present, young gryphon—why would you join a group of murderous cutthroats if you weren’t one?”

“Because I was lonely and hungry!” Gavian shouted back; the memory was clearly an unpleasant one. “Because I was half-starved and all I wanted was to have a square meal! To have a place to belong and a sword I could swing! I was but fifteen years old and they promised me food and gems and glory! But instead I was only abused further! Brutally bullied and turned into a mere toy for my Mistress’s pleasure!” He clenched his talons on his sword hilt, hard.

The ponies around me gave disgusted sounds; I even heard some angry hisses coming from the thestrals. For my part, I had to look away, for ‘twas true such things happened in those groups far more oft than most gryphons would care to admit.

‘Tis worth noting that in Imperial times, the Owls and Ravens tended to turn a blind eye to raider crimes as they gave us cover for harassing and probing pony border bases and towns. And as raider groups tended to contain the refuse of our warrior society—those who could not or would not meet Imperial standards of strength or honor—we shed no tears for their losses, and simply explained to the Equestrians that they were criminals we could not control.

‘Twas perchance the first time I had illustrated to me what these groups did to their newest members, and that some joined simply because they had no other options. Such revelations, however, were lost on Thunderbolt.

“Then you still don’t know my pain!” he snarled, intercepting Gavian’s latest sword slash with a wingblade and following up with a hoofstriker that connected with Gavian’s head, staggering him briefly and leaving him only barely able to counter the rain of blows upon him.

“Raiders slaughtered my betrothed! Wiped out an entire village in front of me down to the last pony!” he shouted between his strikes, which were peppering Gavian with fresh slashes and bruises. “There was no justice for that village or my massacred mares but what justice I could give them!

“No justice but for when the Lucavi fell and their Mistress Altima died when I impaled her on her own blade!” He followed up with another hoofstriker hit to Gavian’s chin, snapping his head back. But Gavian again turned the attack to his advantage by using the imparted momentum to roll backwards out of the way, springing up with his wings into the air before Thunderbolt could drive a lightning-charged hoof into his chest—how much electricity could he store?—avoiding a potentially fatal hit yet again.

Gavian spat blood out his beak, but appeared otherwise unharmed—other than the myriad bruises, burns and slashes that were already covering him, that is. “She deserved to die, as did my own Mistress! For what she did to me, I would have slain her myself were it in my power! But ‘twas not! What is in my power is to defeat you! A pony more ruthless and evil than any raider group or their mistress ever was!”

Another five-second exchange of brutal blows followed, this time ending with Gavian knocked hard into the cloud surface and then just barely dodging a lightning strike into it. We all scrambled back or took hurried flight to avoid the anvil crawlers that suddenly crept along the cloud surface outwards from the impact point; they fortunately faded short of the arena boundary.

I am evil?” Thunderbolt echoed the word in disbelief as he fired bolt after bolt at Gavian, forcing him to keep moving. “Methinks you’re the one who wants us all dead!”

The growl in Gavian’s throat intensified as he abruptly disappeared again; I blinked and suddenly he was behind Thunderbolt, swinging his sword hard into the neck guard of his harness; it hit with a shriek of rending metal as the protective steel broke apart and Thunderbolt was knocked into the cloud surface yet again.

“All I want, demon, is for you to stalk me no more! All I want is to return to my friends and new family, who await me by the ship! All I want is for the killing and the hatred to end so I may enjoy the Equestria I’ve come to love! So that I may pursue the life of an artist, son, and swordgryphon! And if fulfilling those dreams requires me to slay you before you end them or any other gryphons’ dreams, then so be it!”

“You cannot!” an initially stunned but quickly revived Thunderbolt proclaimed, and for the first time I heard a definite shrill note in his voice. I knew instinctively what it meant from interrogations and fights I’d taken part in previously—either from Gavian’s words or all the hits he had taken, he was actually starting to doubt! “You know the difference between us, Gavian Ravenoff? I fight for my fallen friends, whilst you, like all gryphons, only fight for yourself!”

“Yes, my wanting to live and not be slain for my race is just so selfish!” Gavian mocked him and I caught furtive glances between other ponies that told me that Gavian’s words were starting to get through to them, too. “How dare I wish to spend time with my new family and pursue my arts in peace! How dare I risk my life for the Captain’s plan in the clearly forlorn hope that I may reach you!”

“Reach me?” Thunderbolt managed a coughing laugh, shaking the sweat that was now covering him away; droplets flung off him in every direction along with specks of blood. “If that ‘twas the plan, then both you and the Captain are foals! If you wanted to live, then you should never have come here! Should never have challenged me! For no gryphon can defeat me!” he proclaimed a little too loudly as he thumped his chest hard.

“No gryphon but this one!” Gavian’s eyes gained an odd and dangerous gleam as he counterattacked, a rapid series of strikes and slashes impossibly driving Thunderbolt back! “And for the sake of stopping you and ending your murderous ways, I will!”

“I am NOT a murderer!” Thunderbolt screamed as he flared his wings to attack Gavian again. “The Imperials are, not me! They were responsible for arming and paying all raider groups! They knew of the IS-2 massacre perpetuated by the Lucavi, and yet they did nothing!” he made a slashing motion with his hoof.

“Not true,” Captain Typhoon spoke up from the deck of the Loyalty, the unicorn Captain and her First Officer at his side. He spoke into his blue crystal so all would hear him; his enhanced voice so booming and instantly commanding that everypony, even the two combatants, turned immediately towards him.

“May all present know that the gryphon border commander of the time, Legate Kamilya Ampok, was sickened by what happened and wanted to deal with the Lucavi herself. But her superiors would not allow it, either because they were afraid to admit error or were blackmailed by the leader of the group—a former Owl intelligence officer named Mistress Altima!

“But Legate Ampok would not accept this. So with the help of her equally disgusted underlings, she secretly withdrew her legions from the area and deactivated the border defenses to allow our attack!

“She even gave us all the intelligence she could find on the Lucavi to ease our entry and the course of our operations! So tell me, Lieutenant—wouldst you truly say that she was honorless? Or the officers she collaborated with? They disobeyed orders and risked their lives to help us!”

“You lie!” Thunderbolt claimed even as I closed my eyes and bowed my head—for I knew well that every word the Captain said was true. The Lucavi raid on the pacifist pony settlement was bad enough, but then we had made it infinitely worse by refusing to hold them to account. Worse, we ignored the dire warnings of our own border commanders that Equestria could not but respond to this atrocity, believing the ponies would not dare invade Imperial territory through a mixture of denial and wishful thinking.

“Then why were there no Talons to meet us? Why did we fight only raiders and reserves?” Typhoon challenged. “Because of her! Because she helped us and lost everything, in part because we could not make the operation surgical as she requested—in large part because of you, Lieutenant!”

“Perchance you are not aware, but she was tried and found guilty of treason! For unknown reasons, the Empress spared her, but her name was shamed and she still rots in a mine to this day! Stripped of her rank and honor because of the damage we did! Damage that far exceeded the losses to the Lucavi!”

“So you expect me to feel sorry for her? We did not need her! We won that fight! The Lucavi are no more, thanks in large measure to me!” Thunderbolt thumped his chest again, earning a series of fresh but fewer and far less enthusiastic cheers that was overshadowed by a derisive pony snort. It came from ground level, where Master Sergeant Firefly and the Corps contingent watched.

“Yes, we won—at the cost of nearly six hundred of our own dead and causing over a thousand civilian casualties! Ten times what the Lucavi inflicted upon us!” the Black Lance named Swift Strike shouted in what I could only guess was rare emotion, which sounded clearly over the blue crystal Firefly had shared with him.

“Thanks in large measure to you, Lieutenant! Your failure to obey orders cost us the element of surprise and nearly got us all killed!” he announced to shocked looks from the ponies around me, who I can only assume were hearing a markedly different version of events than the ones in their news services.

For my part, I couldn’t help but nod in agreement—I knew the story of that attack and subsequent pony retaliation well enough. ‘Twas only by a feather’s breadth war did not result; mayhap because the gryphon leadership at the time, in a rare moment of reflection, realized all that happened was ultimately their own fault.

Regardless, the Ravens were mopping up Lucavi survivors and purging Mistress Altima’s agents from the Imperial government for months afterwards, in an ultimately successful attempt to prevent the group from reestablishing itself. Our lesson learned, we also acted to stop any raider group from growing too large or powerful afterwards, lest they get too big and uncontrollable as the Lucavi had.

“Spare me such sentiment, Sky Sergeant! I did what I had to do in the face of an advance that was far too slow and cautious! The Lucavi would have slipped our net if not for me!”

“You wiped out an entire TOWN!” Swift Strike shouted, the force of his vehemence like a slap to the face. “’Twas an atrocity greater than any raider one, and ‘twas only by the grace of the Sun and Moon that war did not erupt right then and there over our excesses! Over your excesses!

“I know because I was there, Lieutenant! I was with Lance Team Two, supporting your battalion’s advance! We warned you to wait, but you ignored us! You charged into a prepared defense and lost half your command as you plunged us into a war with the populace!”

“Shut up!” Thunderbolt clutched his head as Gavian had improbably stopped to listen to the exchange, perchance because Swift Strike was his mentor. “You know not of what you speak!”

“I know exactly of what I speak, Lieutenant—for I saw you slaughter civilians and wantonly sacrifice your own soldiers at Rial!” Swift Strike drove the point home, causing the civilians around me to mutter; the cheers for Thunderbolt growing steadily less lustful the more information they learned. “You forced us to fight farmers and families that might have helped us but for your actions, and methinks you were so out of control we were ready to kill you ourselves!”

“Is this so?” Gavian asked, his singed feathers still smoking and a few glowing sparks visible within them for all the electrical damage he’d taken. But he ignored them along with the rest of his myriad wounds as, the momentary respite having partially restored him, he resumed his advance on Thunderbolt, his fury growing.

“And you dare to call me a murderer, when I have taken no lives outside of Imperial soldiers? So tell me, Lieutenant—how many civilians did you kill?” He dripped scorn on the rank.

“Stay out of this! For what do you care?” Thunderbolt rounded on him again.

“How many did you kill?” Gavian shouted even more loudly as he neared him, the supernatural rage growing in his eyes. “Civilians? Mothers? Sires? Cubs? Did you not count? Or did you not care?” he spat out, growling low in his throat. “They weren’t part of that group! Far more likely they lived under the Lucavi heel! They were not responsible for what the Lucavi did to your friends, any more than I am for what the Empire did here!”

“It matters not! All that does matter is that I avenge them! That I balance the scales and harness my hatred by adding one more gryphon life to my ledger!” Visibly flustered, he swung a wingblade at Gavian in a wide and whistling arc, forcing the young gryphon to take the blow on his blade braced with his other arm.

Though it knocked him backwards again, his block held. “You mean one more murder to stain your soul!” Gavian shouted as he retaliated, his counterstrike parried but rocking Thunderbolt hard and knocking him equally off-balance. “For ‘tis clear to me they will never be balanced in your mind! Vengeance is just the excuse by which you justify your own atrocities!” He then feinted with his sword only to lash out suddenly and rake Thunderbolt’s face again with his talons, leaving a fresh series of dripping lines on them.

I knew not why Gavian had not gone for Thunderbolt’s momentarily vulnerable throat, except to guess he wanted to punish his enemy now. A quick glance at the latter’s harness showed the damage to his wingblades was getting steadily worse, though they still functioned—pony weapons, we had learned long before, tended to be very well-made; even civilian models were quite close to military grade.

“I sold out my soul long ago!” Thunderbolt’s eyes blazed as he blinked the blood clear of them and came after Gavian even harder now, a quick succession of wingblade slashes and noticeably weaker electrical attacks driving him back. “For vengeance and for justice!”

“And what justice is there in killing me?” Gavian challenged as he recovered and countered whilst raising his own speed to match, regaining his lost ground and leaving them in a seeming stalemate. The two were now breathing very hard; I swore I could see the pounding of their hearts in their chests.

Finally, after another four-second exchange that had included at least a score of traded blows, they separated with a fresh assortment of injuries; blood was dripping off Gavian’s side and Thunderbolt’s sweating face from multiple stabs and slashes, leaving me in disbelief that either were still standing. “What did I ever do to you?”

“‘Tis not what you did, ‘tis what you are! You and your kind are an abomination! A blight on all Equestria!And finally, to my mild relief, the onlooking ponies now appeared very troubled; the cheers for Thunderbolt had completely stopped by then.

“Abomination? Blight?” Gavian repeated derisively as he dodged Thunderbolt’s increasingly wild swings. “I am none of those things! I am a gryphon!” Gavian thumped his chest hard in a salute-like gesture, then flew away from Thunderbolt, rising to where all could see him.

“Look upon me, pegasi and bat-ponies! Am I a monster? Am I a bloodthirsty, pony-slaying beast?” he challenged them all. “‘Tis true that my kind has fought many wars, shedding blood across countless battlefields in forging our race and nation! But we are not defined by that alone!

“We have built great cities, just like you! We have fought and defeated mighty foes, just like you! We have magic and culture! We have traditions, myths, and heroes! And just like you, we are individuals with our own personal hopes and dreams—not soulless demons who mindlessly obey the Empire’s edicts!

“We can be kind! We can love! We can cherish! And yes, we can even form deep and abiding friendships!” I couldn’t help but feel a great swell of pride at his words, so fervently delivered, though ‘tis certain his next ones gave me severe pause:

“The Empire may have forgotten this—forgotten what gryphons are supposed to be, but I have not! For I am what our race and kingdom can be—a warrior and an artist! One who creates and not just destroys! A creature who will spill the blood of his enemies, but not of innocents! A being who values warrior skill and personal honor above all!

“A being who is no greater a friend—” he turned and saluted the Captain of the Guard with his bloodied but intact scimitar, who returned the respect with a wing and a very pleased smile on his face “—And no fiercer a foe!”

He then brandished his blade and charged Thunderbolt again at speeds no gryphon should have been capable of, especially for all the burns and other injuries he had taken, leaving me wondering again what in the name of my Ancestors Captain Typhoon had done to him.

Ignoring the impossibility of his actions, another rapid-fire exchange of blows from blades, beaks, talons and hooves followed, with blood and sweat spattering and sparks flying from metal in every direction. In truth, I wasn’t sure if my own well-made blade could have taken the punishment Gavian’s was, leaving me wondering if the ponies had further enchanted it over and above the Raven norm.

What I had no doubt about was that I had absolutely no chance of withstanding the punishment Gavian Ravenoff was dealt or was dealing, as both he and Thunderbolt were badly battered and bleeding. They had to be near the end of their endurance, yet neither gave any ground to the other. At least, not until Gavian got inside his enemy’s guard and landed a hard strike with the blunt back edge of his blade to Thunderbolt’s shoulders.

The hit to the vulnerable flight muscles caused Thunderbolt to gasp and his wings to seize as the crowd groaned in sympathy, and Gavian took advantage by knocking him earthward with a second strike. It shattered one of Thunderbolt’s damaged wingblades and sent a spray of metal shards into his flank, with the larger fragments falling right through the cloud surface to rain down on the mountain slope below.

Once again, I thought the fight was finished. But before Gavian could deliver a final blow to his opponent’s now-exposed and vulnerable left side, Thunderbolt rolled with a quick gust of wind to slash upwards with his other blade, connecting with Gavian’s torso and carving a furrow half an inch deep before Gavian got his scimitar in the way. He winced and hissed sharply as the two then separated, each looking barely able to stand as they staggered back from the other, clutching at their latest wounds.

“Give up!” an increasingly injured and ragged Thunderbolt ordered, now visibly struggling to remain standing. “Don’t you understand, Gavian Ravenoff? You can’t win because you can’t overcome the power of my hate! I can tell you’re weakening and won’t last much longer! For surviving this long against me, I grant you the honor of a quick death! So enough of this! Surrender and accept your fate!” he demanded far too shrilly, and methinks he was fooling nopony, between his shaking form and lessened electrical charge.

“I can’t win, demon? Then attack!” a visibly hurting but still defiant Gavian invited, detaching his scabbard and resheathing his sword in front of him as he hovered, then alighting on the ground and going into a two-legged pouncing crouch. “You say your hate gives you power? I say ‘tis a poisoned blade that cuts your bonds to your own friends! But mayhap I misspeak! So if you truly believe in it, then strike me down with it! Use all of it against me!”

From his hunched bipedal posture, with his talons flexed against his scabbard and sword hilt whilst his wings were held at an upward angle above him, I knew his intention instantly—’twas the stance for the Coiled Cobra, a rapid-draw assassin strike known to Raven blade arts. It must have been taught to him by Swift Strike, whom I can only guess knew it from his studies—Owl dossiers said he had a fascination for them and practiced them in gryphon form frequently.

That is correct yet again. And ‘twould seem, therefore, that the Office of Owls knew far more about me than I would have liked. —Swift Strike

I knew it well myself, having used it in the past. Though designed primarily to slay an unwary enemy instantly from the shadows, it could also be used to cut down a charging foe, turning their own attack against them. It did this by ensuring they couldn't dodge the sudden strike for being unable to arrest their own momentum, which also gave the blade the added force necessary to slice right through their armor.

The timing had to be perfect as the window of opportunity in such a scenario was very narrow, but the technique used the leverage of the scabbard and the strength stored in a coiled spine coupled with a strong downbeat of the wings. Correctly executed, the combination of these elements allowed a swordsgryphon to draw their blade in a blindingly fast slash—enough, mayhap, for Gavian to end both the fight and a weakened Thunderbolt’s life with one final, unblockable blow.

Methinks Thunderbolt knew it too, as for the first time, I spotted genuine worry and wariness in his eyes as he saw the stance and recognized the intent, but he worked up some bravado anyway. “You dare try to beat me with that? And you think me insane?”

“I dare, demon! ‘Tis certain we are both exhausted, so let this exchange decide it! Speed against speed! Power against power! If your hate enables you to overcome me, then prove it! Strike me down with it! Do you hear me, demon? Hit me with everything you have!” he goaded, gripping his sword and hilt all the tighter, crouching low and ready to release his strike in an instant.

Backed against the proverbial wall, methinks Thunderbolt sensed the danger but still took the bait. “So be it! To be this demon is my destiny! My hate makes me invincible! I cannot lose to you! I will not lose to you!” Thunderbolt pawed at the ground to work up some static from the cloud, his voice wavering and confidence clearly shaken as, despite his visibly weakened appearance, he flapped up a powerful tailwind; the gale ripping a few of Gavian’s loosened chest and head feathers free though he stood fast within it.

“For the sake of my fallen friends, I will not lose!” With those mantra-like words, he launched his final attack, boosting his speed with his wind as he charged his young gryphon opponent head-on.

But Gavian did not move from his spot despite the danger; all his muscles tensing further for a final strike. To my admitted agony, and ‘tis certain that of a weak-legged Firefly as well, he waited until Thunderbolt was nearly upon him and his head was perchance only an instant away from decapitation before he acted.

I regret I missed the exact moment that Gavian so explosively drew his blade, as ‘twas simply too fast for even a skilled and experienced swordsgryphon like me to follow; I only knew it happened when I heard yet another sharp sound of impacting metal followed by a cry of equine pain. It was accompanied by a blindingly bright electrical flash that illuminated the full arc of the strike, searing an elongated crescent shape into my vision.

I barely had time to register it all before a series of lightning shards and a broken-off wingblade came flying outwards, forcing nearby pegasi and bat-ponies to dodge them. The latter spun dangerously and traveled a hundred yards before it embedded itself halfway into the airship’s hull, whilst the former bounced randomly before dissipating; one even found and struck the large clock that sat atop City Hall, freezing its mechanism.

It stopped at 10:04 PM.

The static crackle of Thunderbolt’s electrical attacks ceased, but a massive eruption of vaporized cloud and sulfuric smoke then shrouded the scene, so we couldn’t see what happened for several seconds.

A great silence fell over the crowd; methinks not a single being was breathing as we waited for the victor to emerge. And when the fog and acrid electrical smoke had cleared, I beheld a sight I never dreamt I would after the events of four days earlier:

Thunderbolt, the lethal Lightning Demon and pitiless slayer of gryphons, lay beaten and broken beneath gryphon talons, baring a bloody gash across his barrel which had cut right through his blocking wingblade and even the chest latch of his harness!

“Submit,” a still-upright Gavian ordered in a shaky voice; his wings flared for bipedal balance and his blade grasped by both sets of talons. He was standing over his fallen opponent, holding his scimitar in a classic side stance at a downward angle with its tip trembling at Thunderbolt’s throat; methinks whatever Blackbird—a title given by gryphons to expert metalworkers—had made it had forged it superbly to come through this ordeal intact. “’Twas the trial of combat, and you lost!” he informed his fallen foe as the Captain of the Guard flared his wings and took flight off the deck.

“Just kill me…” Thunderbolt ordered in a raspy voice as he coughed up blood. He was barely able to move for all his injuries, including the deep chest wound and shattered ribs he’d just suffered. “For I cannot change. If you spare me, I will always be a threat. For as long as I live, the demon within me cannot die.”

“As you wish.” A faltering Gavian pulled himself up one final time, starting to shake again; whatever the Captain had done to him, its effects were waning quickly. “Tis your destiny to be a demon of death who kills my kindred without conscience or mercy? Then ‘tis my destiny… to slay that demon!” he spun his Raven scimitar once and reversed his grip in the process so it pointed downwards, its tip poised at Thunderbolt’s chest.

“I am Gavian Ravenoff! Loyal son and gryphon warrior! I am also the victor of this duel! Now DIE, demon!” he announced as I silently urged him to do it; to end the life of this horrifically powerful and evil creature.

“No!” Fell Flight and her one-eyed comrade shouted in pleading tones as the Captain of the Guard swooped in, deploying his own blades for the first time; Gavian Ravenoff either did not hear them or did not care as he raised his blade overhead with the intention of plunging it in Thunderbolt’s heart. But at the apex of his upswing, he stopped and looked up in surprise.


’Tis Gavian speaking now. At this point, Mother, I feel I must add something to this account. I remember precious little about the fight directly, and mercifully little of the aftermath yet to come. In truth, I cannot say if I heard the cries of Fell Flight and Blindside, as I simply do not recall. I must reluctantly guess that I did not, for my world was entirely limited to myself and Thunderbolt at that moment.

But there is one thing I do recall clearly from the very end. I have never told anypony about this, because I wasn’t sure ‘twas real or some hallucination caused by blood loss or the waning effects of the Captain’s technique. I also wasn’t sure what ponies—or gryphons—would think of me if I told it.

Perchance ‘twas because I got dangerously close to death from sheer overexertion and the accumulation of injuries I suffered, with my pounding heart starting to skip beats within my chest. But in that instant I stood poised to slay Thunderbolt, I looked up to see… not one, but two groups of ghostlike figures surrounding me!

One set were ponies wearing Corps uniforms—Thunderbolt’s lost friends, I somehow knew, begging me to spare him so he could yet salvage his soul. I told them with my thoughts that I had to kill the demon, to which they replied—I already had, and they thanked me for it. Then a group of gryphons came forward—farmers, Auxiliary Guard soldiers, and civilians that Thunderbolt had slain in the course of his rampages.

They told me that I had done a great deed. That I was worthy of my race and blade. That I had brought them peace. And that I had made not just my Ancestors, but the gods themselves proud. ‘Twas this memory as much as my victory that would sustain and eventually restore me in the painful days ahead, and thus, I do find myself believing in a greater power and purpose, whether you call it Harmony or something else.

I fervently believe now that what I said back then was true—that somehow, I was destined to slay that demon, and looking back? It could never have come to be without all the unhappy ordeals I suffered before that, for where they led me and the friends they brought me.

For all the experience and training and mentors they eventually gained me, raising my potential to the point that Captain Typhoon could lift me the rest of the way.

I have more to say, but methinks I will leave it for now, until our surprising writer’s story is finished.

—Gavian

I see. As ‘twould seem we all have ghost stories from the war, ‘tis only fitting that you share yours. And a very powerful one it is! I fear I cannot even begin to describe all the emotions I felt during the course of that battle, as noted by our perceptive but anonymous observer—fear and hope, love and hate, pity and pride all rolled up into ten short minutes that seemed when it was happening like an eternity.

But you did it, my brave and beloved son. Against all odds and my own wishes, you beat the unbeatable and succeeded in slaying the demon within him. His road back to soldier and struggle to reclaim his soul would be a rough one, but ‘twas at least a journey he could now begin.

But that is a story for later. Until then, let this difficult tale be finished, for ‘twould seem our guest writer has yet more revelations to share.

—Firefly


Cloudsdale
Central District Plaza near airship anchorage
September 4th, 1139 AC
2205 hours

I knew not what was happening as Gavian Ravenoff hesitated, his blade poised to make the final strike but not delivering it.

“Our race is in your talons, young warrior…” I said softly under my breath, mentally screaming at him to do it as the crowd waited; nopony saying anything or moving to stop him. But still he did not strike, and as more moments passed, I realized he might not.

I didn’t understand—why didn’t he do it? Thunderbolt was a threat to all gryphons; one not even the Ravens could slay! This demon had to die here and now, or ‘twas certain our race and nation would never be safe!

And then he no longer had the chance as the Captain of the Guard intervened, blocking his sword with a Royal Guard-issue wingblade, which tended to be stronger and heavier than Corps ones. “Hold, my young and valiant friend. Let him go. To kill him now serves no purpose, for you have already defeated the demon within him.”

Gavian’s eyes focused on him with difficulty. “C-Captain?” he recognized tentatively, his shaking getting worse. “I… he…” He suddenly looked confused.

I knew not what was happening, but nor could I ignore the opportunity placed before me. As the crowd watched spellbound, no eyes were on me, so I reached into my janitor vest to draw one of the few weapons I kept with me—the small double-tubed blowgun and a series of even smaller darts kept in a pouch.

I had eighteen of them, in three sets. One set of six was colored blue and tipped with sleeping powder. Another set was green-tipped with a form of truth potion; the same kind that my comrades were likely slipping into drinks. But the third, red-tipped kind, was what I went for, swiftly loading one, and then a second, into the tubes.

In that moment, time stood still for me as I held the blowgun in my pony hooves. In that moment, I had both the Lightning Demon and the Captain of the Royal Guard in my sights; by fate or by happenstance, ‘twas within my power to slay them both. The Owl-issue poison in the darts was quick-acting and quite lethal; with but two quick puffs of air, I could avenge the loss of my team and all the dead suffered at Cloudsdale, as well as cripple the pony defense further.

But despite his high rank and odd abilities, Typhoon was not as important to me as Thunderbolt, who I aimed at first as he lay broken, buried halfway in the cloud. I knew I could end the existence of this demon of wind and lightning who could take on and defeat entire centuries of Imperial soldiers.

A demon who, by his own admission, would slay every last member of my race if given the chance!

But there would be consequences for killing the pair, and I was under no illusions about my odds for escape afterwards. The feathered blowdart tail would be instantly visible against its targets, and the guards present would know they had come from the crowd. The Black Lance named Swift Strike would certainly recognize their origin, and guess immediately that there were Ravens present.

A thorough search of both the crowd and city would result, and perchance even that Celestial Guardspony unicorn, who Owl dossiers said was very powerful and wielded an extremely exotic art, would scan the area with his aura and find me by the magical traces the transformation potion left, followed shortly by the rest of my team as they combed all Cloudsdale for us.

We were skilled fighters and masters of stealth. But ‘twas certain not even we could hide for very long or fight our way free against an alerted populace, all out for our blood. ‘Twas certain to me I would be quickly discovered and perish, followed shortly by my entire team.

But this opportunity was too good to pass up, I was certain. For surely Typhoon’s and especially Thunderbolt’s life was worth mine?

Worth all my team’s lives together?

Worth the intelligence I had been sent to collect on the strange shields and lightning they had used so effectively against us?

Worth the news that the thestrals were in fact sheltering and supplying the city even as they publicly proclaimed neutrality?

Worth the news that the EAS Loyalty was present, thus implying an alliance between Equestria and Thestralslovakia already existed?

‘Twas then something else occurred to me—that ‘twas said to be the failure of two Ravens to capture a shapeshifting spy that brought about the early start of the war. Here and now, it could be my failure of judgement that would bring the bat-ponies into the war early if we were caught here, thus suggesting to them that the Empire already knew they were harboring Cloudsdale and would wreak retribution for it later.

I knew not if that would happen. But ‘twas certain I could not take the chance. ‘Twas simply no way to know how the thestrals would take my presence. No way to know what repercussions ‘twould have in the days and weeks ahead.

The more I thought about it, the easier the decision became, as the importance of staying hidden combined with the information my team bore quickly exceeded even the death of the Captain of the Guard and the Lightning Demon himself. It must be understood by those reading that I did not care about my life at that moment, which I considered forfeit for simply surviving the earlier attack. For one could get lucky once, Ravens learn quickly, but rarely a second time.

Yet again, the Lances know the same. —Swift Strike

All that mattered to me was completing my mission and preserving our tenuous peace with the bat-ponies, whilst returning critically-needed intelligence to my side.

And as for Gavian Ravenoff?

Traitor or no, I found I simply could not hate him after what I had witnessed. Whatever his motives and whatever the Captain of the Guard had done to him, this young sky gryphon who had somehow beaten the bane of my race in a battle of both blades and wits had earned the highest of honor in my eyes.

Indeed, he had done what none of us could, acting not as an agent of the Empire, but rather, standing in the stead of all gryphons in that duel. And ‘twas perchance then that I made an important distinction and realized something.

That a gryphon could oppose the Empire and still be a gryphon.

That a gryphon could even side with our enemies, yet still have more power and honor than many a soldier or assassin I had known.

My decision made, I lowered my blowgun just as Gavian lowered his sword. “Very well. For the Captain and for my friends, I will not kill you,” Gavian finally told Thunderbolt as he stepped off him, now visibly struggling to stay standing. “‘Tis been enough death in this city, and I refuse to add another.

“‘Twould seem, therefore, that you are to live with your defeat, and try to salvage your soul… if you can!” he pronounced as he turned back towards the Loyalty where his friends and adoptive mother awaited. ‘Twas then that either the Captain’s technique wore off or his injuries caught up with him as he took but one step towards them before he dropped his sword and crumpled to the cloud surface, toppling forward and then falling on his side as his pony friends rushed to his aid.

The two combatants were then surrounded and tended by healers, blocking my view and blowdarts, and thus my brief but tantalizing opportunity to take the lives of both Typhoon and Thunderbolt passed unused.

Praying I had not just made a grave mistake, I stowed the blowgun and drifted away along with the rest of the very subdued ponies around me as the crippled young sky gryphon was quickly tended and carried inside the airship, badly debilitated by both his injuries and what I can only assume were the aftereffects of the Captain’s technique. Thunderbolt, too, was picked up and carried inside, by Fell Flight and her half-blind Corps comrade.

The duel was done, and ‘twas time, therefore, to complete my mission—to escape this cloud city with our precious cargo of information intact and deliver it to the Prelate. But I decided then that I would not report the duel, only that I’d learned Thunderbolt was gravely wounded, and ‘twas a secret I kept even from my brethren for the next thirty years.

Until just now, as I put these words on parchment. Methinks I never dreamt I would survive not just the war but the three decades hence, for few Ravens ever live to a ripe old age. And yet, here I now stand, still in the role, albeit altered by the post-Empire order, which is one I find much more honorable and myself far more willing to serve.

Such days were unimaginable then, however, as the war for Equestria had just begun. A war my services would be needed in, and with Thunderbolt beaten, I found that—mayhap much as happened with Gavian himself—my fear was gone and fighting spirit was in large measure restored.

‘Twas an odd sense of redemption I felt, in fact. In part for Thunderbolt’s defeat coming at the talons of a gryphon, certainly, but more so for the fact he had fallen to a Raven technique and blade.

For even if the Ravens had been unable to directly defeat him, our weapons and tactics had. And all honor went to the one who wielded them; an unlikely gryphon champion whose speed and skill, courage and sheer strength of will were completely out of proportion to his small size and youth.

“Ancestors protect you, Gavian Ravenoff,” I whispered to nobody in particular as I departed on the strength of my pegasus wings, turning my attention back to the still-uncompleted parts of my team’s intelligence gathering tasks—I was already receiving a signal from my Raven comrades that a lead had been found on where to find the strange lightning and shields, pointing us towards a museum not far from me. “And thank you.”


And thus, do I come to the end of this tale. I thank Captain Firefly for the opportunity, but I must respectfully decline any further offers to write, as I cannot risk exposing myself or my organization any more than this. As for why I ultimately decided to share this story, ‘twas not the Captain’s appeal or even a subsequent talk with the former Lance named Swift Strike that swayed me.

‘Twas simply that I wished Gavian Ravenoff to know, all these years later, that he was not alone that day. That one gryphon knew of his feat—that one gryphon had witnessed his duel and his defeat of the Lightning Demon, standing silently with him in his greatest trial.

That one gryphon recognized his power and honor, and for the sake of all our race, silently rooted for him to win.

I know not how this will be received by him, but in the end, I simply did not wish to pass from this life without telling him. Perchance in revealing this secret, I may gain some catharsis for myself, and perchance he will gain greater acceptance for his restored citizenship in the former Empire by sharing it.

—“Orel Travina”


I thank you for this account, Orel Travina. I know not your real name, nor do I need to. All I do know is that it took courage and honor for you to come forward with this information, against all your experience and training. Fate brought you there to witness the duel, but ‘twas your difficult decision to reveal your presence that shed fresh light on it, and mayhap will help my son going forward as he plans his first trip to the Kingdom.

I could say more, but her final message was directed to you, Gavian. And thus, the final word in this chapter—and the entire book—is yours.

—Firefly

Thank you, Mother. You honor me as always, and congratulations on completing yet another volume in this magnum opus. Methinks you have captured the imagination of two races and nations with these writings, honoring all in the process.

But ‘tis not questions of honor that hold my attention at this moment. For as I read this in my home’s study whilst my wife helps my daughter with her schoolwork, I find myself at a loss. In truth, ‘tis certain I don’t know what to think right now.

Methinks part of me would have been happy for this information to never have been revealed. For now that it has been, ‘tis certain fresh scrutiny will fall upon me, and I wonder if I will earn enmity from certain ponies over it. For those inclined to think poorly of me over this, I urge you to keep reading into the next volume, as the story of me and Thunderbolt is far from finished.

On the other wing, part of me is glad to know that my feat was witnessed and recognized by another gryphon, even one I would have considered a mortal enemy at the time. So upon reflection, methinks I will write this eagless back, entrusting my letter to Swift Strike. ‘Twill be a private correspondence, however.

Whether pony or gryphon, readers must understand that what the Captain did to me and what I became ‘tis an experience that still haunts me, both for the ascended state I reached and the agony I was in after. I did indeed learn my full potential that night, but also why ‘tis so dangerous to attain it—as the Captain said, it came at great cost, both physical and mental.

‘Tis a level of ability I strove towards after but was never able to reach again. ‘Tis still tantalizing to me, that taste of my purest power even for the painful price I paid after. For those few short minutes, when I fought and defeated not just Thunderbolt but the demons who had possessed him, methinks I fulfilled every gryphon teen’s greatest fantasy.

For those few short minutes, methinks I was the greatest warrior in the world.

—Gavian Ravenoff
Headmaster
Celestial Art Academy
Canterlot


“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me... You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” Walt Disney

Author's Note:

Well, folks—given the mixed reaction the last chapter garnered, I admit I was concerned about this one, knowing I had to absolutely nail it to address reader concerns and make sure this didn't go off the rails. My prereaders say I've succeeded in grand fashion, and I hope all of you agree as well!

A few remarks follow that will be spoilered for those who don't want any hints of what's ahead, but I do feel compelled to answer some concerns raised by comments on the previous chapter:

To begin with, this is certainly a turning point for Thunderbolt, but only in the sense that he just hit rock bottom. Everything will not automatically be better for him, as he's got a lot of both physical and mental healing to do; a lot to process and a long climb ahead. Gavian's ordeal is not over either, as the ending implied; and there will yet be an angry reckoning between Typhoon and Firefly for the former using Gavian like this, as well as between Fell Flight and Firefly for the latter believing Thunderbolt is an irredeemable killer.

Nevertheless, I hope everyone enjoyed this for what it was and tried to be—arguably the most epic duel to date in the story. I tried to make it as much of wits as blades, and believe I succeeded. My greatest thanks go to AJ_Aficionado and Denim_Blue, for hitting this quickly and quite thoroughly. There are incorporated suggestions from both peppered all through the chapter, too numerous for me to flag individually but all welcome. There's no doubt my stories and chapters are best when they're a collaborative effort, and both this and the previous chapter (where AJA saved me from a huge mistake) was an excellent example of it.

As a major denouement has been reached, and was honestly quite difficult to write, Firefly may go on hiatus for a bit from my end. It's time I shift gears to work on Nightmare Night, but the story may continue as both Denim_Blue and AJ_Aficionado are working on Changeling and Highborne guest chapters, respectively.

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