• Published 29th Aug 2012
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Eclipse: House of Frostmane's Few - Spectre_Crystaleye



Bellatores Sub Velum. We are the Unknown. We are the Unseen. We are the Warriors beneath the Veil.

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1.3 "Black Dawn"

CHAPTER 1.3

"Black Dawn"

The cackling thunder of lancefire tumbled and rolled through the forest and diminished with each new obstacle it collided with. Over countless dales and peaks it echoed until it was nothing more than a whisper in the breeze. Miles from the embattled lakeshore the distant rumble rolled past a group of thick storm clouds making their way along a lonely mountainside.

In the winding river that cut a lazy swath through the thick woods below, a solitary lavender sea serpent paused in his dutiful nightly grooming to consider the cumulus mass. He stroked his perfectly trimmed blonde mustache with growing disappointment at the thought of a rainstorm cutting into the brilliant moonlit night. A dejected sigh found its way past his lips as he ran his freshly manicured claws though his luscious mane and settled back into the water, stopping just short of submerging his new necklace. A gentle claw twirled though the shining purple curls of the pony tail, so graciously given to him those score and more months ago, that now dangled on a golden chain over his fine scales as he watched the storm parade by. However, something odd caught his notice after watching for a few moments that began to puzzle him.

The largest of the clouds in the formation was drifting against the winds.

***

“Gah! I fold.” A quintette of playing cards showered down into the pile of bits littering the center of the table from the frustrated hooves of a truly massive pegasus. Even in the dim light of the launch bay, Lieutenant Typhoon’s shining silvery coat and lightning-blue mane glimmered where it wasn’t covered in the drab grey of his flight suit. He huffed at the other three players as he stretched his grand wings and a symphony of huge, perfectly honed muscles rippled about his frame to control their every motion. When he brought them to rest, he shifted in his chair to adjust the light nylon harness that they all wore on alert, which housed their side-arms and various emergency kits that might be needed should they be brought down. He looked with hopeful aqua eyes at the identical sea-green pair across from him focusing intensely on their cards.

A mirror image of his twin brother in every way except the bizarre reversal of their coat and mane hues, Lt. Storm Surge was a similarly mammoth sample of pegasi lineage. A powerful arm broke from the hoof of cards just long enough to bring a wooden cider mug to his lips before he returned to his disciplined focus. A glance shot to either side yielded him no assistance as the other two players glared at each other and tossed another handful of bits onto the mountain. He had a good hoof, but not good enough for another ten bits. “Sorry bro, I’m out too.”

The two leviathan ponies sat back in their stools to enjoy the rest of their drinks and watch the silent battle rage on between their two other squadron mates and mourn the lost bits on the table. The tension between the pair was positively palpable as they struggled to read their opponent’s body language each time they raised the pot.

Ponyfeathers! He must have a royal flush or something. This is ridiculous! Captain White Squall, the flight’s leader, thought to herself as she seriously debated folding her cards. She peered at the delicious straight arrayed over her dainty little cream-yellow hooves and back at her final opponent several times, unable to take even a whisper from his expression. After a long spar of stares, she finally ran a hoof through her short, messy, navy mane in defeat and tossed her cards into the pile before the statue across from her. “You win little brother.”

His ridged yellow beak finally broke in to a grin, the first physical change in his face since the hand was dealt. It wasn’t entirely their fault, after all... It was difficult for anypony to read the face of a gryphon that didn’t want it read.

“You say that like it’s a surprise, Squall.” Lt. Gauvain mused back to his adoptive older sister as he ruffled his spotted white and tawny feathers in a chuckle and mixed his winning hand into the pile before they could catch a glimpse. Three hundred bits wasn’t bad at all for a pair of fives.

“Remind me again. “Typhoon grunted as he finished off his mug. “Why do we play this game with you?”

“Because we know he’ll buy us all a round or three of real cider after our shift.” Storm Surge answered for the gryphon with a friendly hoof nudge. “Isn’t that right, Lil’ Brother?”

“If you’re lucky.” Gauvain replied wearing his trademark suave grin and quirked eyebrow. Long ago, he had resented the nickname that had caught on like wildfire amongst the House, but he hadn’t taken long to realize it was a term of highest endearment by his very large adopted family.

“That’ll be nice. You can buy the rest of the flight-deck crews’ drinks with my money as well.” The petite White Squall laughed as she watched her fellow Xiphos airframe pilot greedily stack and count his small mountain of gold coins like a dime-book villain.

A few of the more alert support ponies milling about the hold overheard the claim and beamed their silent anticipation... Captain Squall rarely jested when generosity was the order. There could be no cheering, as would normally have occurred, however. The cunningly disguised dreadnought carrier was at Combat Operation: Dark, and general quarters had been issued the moment Celestia had approved the mission. The entire flight operations crew had been called to their stations in the bow of the airship, along with the four pilots gathered around the makeshift poker table, in preparation to assist the elite Six-team on the ground at a moment’s notice. Only the soft drone of the auxiliary mana-thrust props astern and quiet conversation could be heard throughout the length of ship, interrupted only occasionally by the chug of a cloud generator touching up their blanket of camouflage.

It was a disciplined serenity spiced flawlessly with anxious readiness until the hammer of duty demolished the calm, provoking a jeweled-clockwork symphony of ponies into action.

“Hurricaine zero-one through zero-four, Scramble!” The clear echo of the Flight Operations Director boomed through the overhead speakers as an array of red lights replaced the soft white glow from a moment prior.

“You heard him, boys. Let’s rock and roll!” Captain Squall called out as she leapt from the table and grinned to her pilots.

The titanic brothers were already bolting towards the bow as she exchanged a nod with Gauvain and darted to her preparation platform on the starboard side of the bay. The victorious gryphon paused to scoop his winnings into a hat loitering on a nearby work table before he thrust himself back on his wings toward his own launch bay to port.

Awaiting the gryphon were a pair of crewmates, ready and poised on either side of the struts suspending his compact Xiphos frame. He wasted no time slipping into the modified lunar royal guard plate barding, taking just a moment to adjust his under-harness to comfort with a curt grunt. The pink mare to his right exchanged a nod with him when he was settled and handed over his flight helmet and mask while the other stallion diligently checked all of his straps and buckles.

The helmet, a lightweight composite contraption, did not really offer much protection from weaponry or spells. However, it had a very important purpose nonetheless as he slipped it over his ears and all the noises of the world were filtered away into a dull mumble. Much like the mask that he clipped into place a moment later and hooked into an air duct on his peytral; it was more meant to help him communicate clearly over the howl of wind and the roar of the twin heavylances mounted to his sides, below his broad wings.

“Hurricane zero-three, Comms check.” Lt. Gauvain spoke into the mask to the bubblegum mare.

“Go flight.” She replied as she prompted him to the next phase on the short pre-flight checklist. “Lance one?”

“Green.” He replied as he ripped back the charging handles of both of them at once. “Lance two is green.”

“Hud?” She inquired as the bay doors before him were slid aside by a pair of stallions on gear cranks, flooding the bay in frigid night air moistened by the cloud generators.

Gauvain twisted a dial on the small device resting on the struts housing the triggers for the cannons. On the tiny crystal panel resting below a glass wind screen; a reticle, not unlike the ones found on the reflex optics of a boltlance, materialized to display the aiming point of his arsenal. His final check before launch was complete.

“Hud is Green, Ready to go.” He verified as he tapped his right cannon’s barrel twice and saluted the mare.

Without another word, he was shot out into the night sky to wait on the true bearers of the squadron’s power.

***

“Hurricane zero-one, Comms check.” Typhoon spoke into his mask as he activated the much more complex array of controls and gauges on the nose-cone console of his larger Spatha frame. The crew was a blur around him as they attached the various sections to his grizzly carriage. All while he rattled off the pre-flight check as quickly as his honed skills and smooth voice could possibly muster.

“Comms loud and clear.” His crew chief, a yellow earth pony, answered back. “Stabilizers?”

“Check.”

“O.E’s.?”

“Green!” Ty answered as he checked the flex and snugness of the Over-Wing Extensions. The mithril-skeletonized, indigo canvas sheaths fit snugly over his already massive wingspan, doubling their surface area to help hold the bulky equipment aloft.

“Console instruments?”

“Check!”

“Starboard lance bank?”

“Primed, three green!” Typhoon answered as he harshly cranked on the small, cable operated charging lever.

“Port lance bank?”

“Primed, three for three!”

“Manticore status?”

“Green, safe and stable.”

“Ammunition?”

“Showing one-hundred percent!”

“Hud?”

“Online.”

“Zero-one is clear for launch!” the crew chief called back to the director in his control booth. He then turned back to the bulky pegasus crammed into the complicated air frame and clapped his hoof over his helmet. “Floor in four and out the door!”

Typhoon grinned at the little flight crew ditty under his mask as he tapped the nose cone twice and gave a salute. Then, with practiced haste, he hooked his hooves back around their control levers inside the nose fairing and tucked his hind hooves into their fin-stirrups, preparing himself for a sensation unknown to pegasi outside of the Wonderbolts and other daredevils of the clouds.

The massive doors before him began to part as the platform he had been standing on was lowered away, leaving him dangling from the catapult chock hooked into the frame. Above him, a massive steel rail that guided the steam-powered launcher extended out and pierced into the faux clouds past the bow, like a solemn bridge between worlds.

“My crew wins again, Storm!” the twin laughed into his mask as he noticed his brother’s doors only just now sliding free. They raced around his brother’s frame, but Typhoon’s victory was secured as he watched his chief crouch down on his haunches and signal the booth to launch. With teeth clenched and breath carefully controlled, he tucked his modified wings to his sides while he jammed his helmet back against the aerodynamic magazine pod on his back… one wouldn’t want to be launched out of an airship while knocked unconscious, after all.

At the signal of the crew chief, the chock rocketed forward on the ramp. Typhoon’s lungs fought to keep from bursting as the frame’s harness dug into his body. His toned muscles and hardened sinew strained near to their breaking point to keep his limbs in check as the inertia from such a radical acceleration wracked him to his very bones. It was only a pair of seconds before a jolt of the frame told him he was loose and he wasted no time wrenching his wings open to catch the cloudy air.

“Hurricane zero-one clear and locked, rolling to one-nine-four.” He announced as he erupted from the cloud bank. Trailing wisps of mist chased behind his body and wing tips as though determined to follow him into battle. The fresh moonlight shimmered ever so softly on the satin indigo finish of the mithril fuselage as he made his wide arc though the matching night’s sky. Corresponding with the gyro compass that dominated the center of his console, he brought himself along the path to rendezvous with his squadron circling the disguised carrier in their lighter frames.

“Hurricane zero-two clear and locked, coming up on your four-o’clock low, Ty.” Storm Surge reported a moment later as he blasted forth from the cloud bank and spread his matching dark purple-sheathed cloth wings. “And I had an issue with my Manticore status light, jerk.”

“Then I still won.” Typhoon replied on the flight’s private channel as his brother closed the gap into formation. “They should ‘a caught that before you ever suited up.”

Storm was going to reply, but was sharply cut off by Captain Squall, “Coming up on your seven low, boys. And, I agree with Typhoon. You need to file a report when we get back. If something had happened to detonate that Manticore, the Grace would be a raining fireball of splinters right now.”

“Yes ma’am.” Storm answered in defeat.

“Now that that’s all settled, shall we go to work, boys?”

The quartet of heavily armed fliers closed in together to form a tight, staggered diamond before banking west towards their objective. They could see the moon’s reflection in the lake from their cruising altitude, and the beginnings of smoke columns and flashes of orange fire from the enraged battle on the eastern shore still miles away.

“Hurricane Lead to Alpha Six, Inbound to your pos. E.T.A. two mikes. Activate runemarkers and update sitrep.” White Squall commanded into an open channel.

Only a moment slipped by before their goggles, enchanted with a simple filter, registered six small green circles in the distant chaos. Four were grouped tightly a few hundred meters north of the other two, separated by a dense tree line exactly as they had reported before.

“Alpha Lead to Hurricane, runemarkers active! Confirm six I-D’s?” Cutpurse’s shouting reply was clear as Celestial daylight, despite the loud reports of her team’s weapons in the background.

“Hurricane confirms.”

“I need a heavy lance run on the tree line between my assault team and my marksmares! Attack direction two-five-zero!” There was a pause that the pilots knew to be her neutralizing a threat before she continued. “Be advised, enemy has aerial assets and arcane capabilities! Recommend nap-of-earth approach!”

“Sounds like the little lady needs herself a natural disaster.” Storm chuckled into his mask as he shared an almost gleeful nod with his twin brother to port.

“I would hate to leave her wanting.” Typhoon shot back.

“Solid copy, Alpha. Rolling in hot.” Squall replied to Cutpurse before nodding her amused agreement with her Spatha pilots. “I couldn’t agree more. Ty, take the first run. Storm and I will drop back for the follow up.”

“Aye ma’am.” Typhoon replied as he flexed his powerful muscles to pull ahead of the formation. “You ready to go, Lil’ Brother?”

“Right on your six high, Ty.” The gryphon replied.

“Sixty seconds out. Drop to nap-of-earth.” Squall commanded and the unit, now spread wide into pairs, smoothly dove down to skim the canopy close enough to groom the trees of their loose boughs if they so wished.

The small green markers, visible despite the terrain blocking their actual view, paved a perfect target path like the goal posts in a game of sky polo. Lieutenant Typhoon noted his distance to target and spent a moment to calm his nerves while his tense muscles masterfully fought to steer the heavy mithril frame over each hill and valley. He took note of the array of analog gauges on his console with trained awareness and checked off each system in his mind. Satisfied that they all showed full and normal, he reached up and flicked a large, covered switch in the center. At once, his gauges dimmed and the softly glowing purple reticle in his hud phased to red.

“Zero-one is master-arm on. Ten seconds to objective.” With a determined grimace and a grunt, he flapped his broadened wingspan hard to rise up to the minimum altitude to begin his strafe. With his wingmate hard on his wind-whipped tail, he arched over the final hilltop to spy the broad line of trees that was his future swath of devastation. Even at his blistering pace, he could make out dozens of projectiles and spells cascading from the forest onto the jade markers hiding in the rocks, beneath the broad amber manashield being maintained by their master sergeant. He drifted over the apex of his short climb, and smoothly lowered the nose of his frame toward the nearest edge of the strip of brush while his hooves prepared to violently pitch the tide of the battle back into their favor.

“Lance, lance, lance!” Typhoon announced calmly as his hoof heals flexed into the heavy triggers his control bars.

Alpha’s lance fire, the draconian fireballs and war cries, even the very melody of the earth at large, was muted as the Spatha’s compliment of heavylances roared to life.

The six weapons, each pod of three interlinked to fire as its partners cycled, produced an ear-shattering groan of unbroken fury as they bathed the line of forest in merciless annihilation. Nearly every inch of the swath was saturated by either the ruthless tungsten bolts, the molten debris from their impacts with the earth and rock, or the splinters of full grown trees blown to nightmarish, fiery bits as they fell.

The burst only lasted a couple of seconds, but it was enough to shatter the world of the enemy forces blocking the assault team as the pair screamed past. The few survivors had only a moment to contemplate what had happened before Storm dove into his attack run and poured a second helping of destruction into the mix. Where once a lush, thick growth of foliage stood; there was but ash, flame, and rubble that remained.

“Good hits, Hurricane!” came Cutpurse's praise across the network as the shield fell and the green markers began their rolling retreat once more towards their recon team to the south.

“Copy Alpha. I- WOAH!” Typhoon exclaimed as a lightning bolt streaked past his starboard wing, singeing the mithril plating across its leading edge. He banked hard to dodge a second volley of arrows that struck skyward immediately after. “Anti-air confirmed. Zero-one engaging ground forces north of friendlies.”

As Typhoon swooped around to bring himself in line with the mass of troops crossing the meadow below, a winged magi took careful flight to gain a clear line of sight on the devastating new threat. He remained low in the tree canopy to await the pair of Equestrians he saw banking around the water to fly at him. His excitement welled at the almost-perfect opportunity of the pair screaming down directly towards an easily cast and aimed fireball as he ascended for his attack.

Almost perfect.

The gryphon that trailed just behind his burly partner, however, was vigilant in his sole duty of protecting him. He spotted the magi just as the creature thrust up into the sky ahead of them to begin casting his spell. “Ty! Roll left!”

“Copy!” His trust in Lt. Gauvain was absolute and he immediately torqued his body into a sharp spin, clearing the way for the Xiphos’ twin lances behind him.

The magi had just begun forming the flame in his scaled claws when an unexpected and overwhelming pain washed over his body. All at once, to the loud tune of azure flame tongues, his right wing was torn asunder accompanied by several other impacts. His confusion was all-encompassing as he plummeted to his demise, a hundred and more meters below, at the unexplainable power that had defeated him.

The scythe of Typhoon’s frame harvested another column of souls under the roar of apocalyptic horror before White Squall announced a puzzling observation. “Alpha, be advised. There is another force moving in from the east, as well as a detachment moving away from the village towards the northwest on mounts.”

There was a moment’s pause as the leader of the strike team on the ground considered her options before she spoke. “Raptor! Equip designators and vector targets for Hurricane! Prioritize on the assault team’s pursuers!”

There was a long silence before Patch Up’s voice answered the command over the net in a calm murmur, “Hold one, L.T. Raptor has a possible shot on the primary tango leaving with the group heading away from the village.”

There was another brief pause before Cutpurse answered curtly, “Take it.”

***

Far from the fighting, Fek ‘Tawny lead a contingent of axolotl-riders up a switchback trail to the summit of the small, but treacherously steep mountain before them. The large salamander beast beneath him grunted as it rounded another of the tight hairpins on its stocky, yet powerful limbs. The versatile amphibious creatures, native to Frogy Bottom Bog, made quick, obedient work of the trail to rush their draconian riders away from the danger behind, and toward darker endeavors ahead.

The interrogation had proven fruitful, though he had not at all anticipated the severity, and swiftness of the unknown attackers that had hastened their departure. Even now, he held some reserve in his confidence at the unusual capabilities of his new foes, which were tempered further as he rounded the next bend. His mount had just leveled off from its turn to race up the next incline when his keen old ears heard a sharp buzzing drone, rapidly growing in intensity from back towards the village.

The sensation was like nothing he ever felt before. An electrifying tingle washed across his nose as the unseen force screamed past to slam into the rock cliff at his right side. A shower of stone and dust nearly blasted him from his saddle as his axolotl screeched and reared away from the impact, halting the convoy.

From just over a kilometer away, Staff Sergeant Skylancer cursed under her breath at the near miss in her optic. “Horseapples.”

“A half-meter left.” Patch confirmed as she gazed though her binoculars.

“Two ‘till purge.” Sky recounted her weapon’s mana-overcharge status as she fought to keep her calm behind the glass. The range was stretching her accurate lance’s effectiveness towards its limits and her mind to similar extremes, but she knew she could make the hit. She had to make the hit.

“Slow and smooth, Skylee,” Patch encouraged as she laid a gentle hoof on the shooter’s shoulder, “You’ve got this.”

The staff sergeant’s racing mind cooled, like water to the parched lips of a desert wanderer at the calming cascade of words and touch of her spotter. A soft smile found her lips as she ran through the trajectory adjustments in her clearing mind, using Patch Up's support as an anchor against the chaotic storm of combat. The medic had that effect on everypony since her acceptance to Alpha, but Skylancer’s pride would never allow her to admit just how much she had come to rely on her presence during stressful moments like these.

Once more, Sky began to close off the doors of her mind to the outside world, though with great care this time to leave them cracked ajar just enough to warn her of the dangers of the battles abound. Slowly, the approaching lance fire of the assault team dulled to an echo, along with the blasts of their enemies’ spells and wailing shouts. The target in her field of view was tiny at this range, barely larger than the numbers that floated beside the mil-hashes they quantified on her softly glowing violet reticle. The shot was a challenge, but not an impossibility, for one who’s marked calling was the very art she was now performing. The Arch Magi was stationary, his mount recovering from the shock of the impact blast from before. The wind was settling. Her calculations were perfect. She was about to send him his own personal dose of tungsten doom when one of her mind’s doors shifted on its own, forcing her to remember the most basic rule of warfare.

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

There was a very unnatural rustling of steel and leather far too close for comfort behind them. She ripped her eyes from her optic and glanced backwards just in time to see a very sneaky dragonkin at their flanks, his massive axe poised to end her spotter’s life in one brutal stoke.

“Patchy, LOOK OUT!” Sky shouted as she saw the axe begin to fall. With reflexes honed through years of field operations, the ivory pegasus exploded into motion, rolling onto Patch’s back just in time to bring her canvas-wrapped lance between them and the finely sharpened blade.

The steel axe clove through the suppressor’s brass mana return coil mounted under the weapon like a hot blade through snow, but was stopped cold by the vastly superior mithril accessory rail below. Sky grunted as her limbs and chest absorbed the bulk of the force. She fought to keep the broad blade at bay while her attacker curled his green scaled lips into a razor-toothed grin and pressed his weight down on her. He had the high ground and clearly the physical advantage.

However, she had a teammate.

“NOW!” Skylancer growled as she focused all of her strength into one mighty push, shoving her attacker’s balance askew just enough to clear the way for Patch Up’s tightly wound hind legs to erupt into motion. Her hooves struck squarely into the reptile’s chainmail laden chest in a bone-cracking buck that sent him staggering backwards in shock. That was more than enough time.

Sky brought her long weapon to bear from her awkward position lying across her partner’s back and fired her final two muffled shots the moment his chest was in line. A thick fount of sparkling, dimly glowing blue arcane smoke rushed from the wounded coil below the barrel. It splashed up from the ground like ocean surf against a cliff face, shrouding the ponies in a bank of swirling luminescent fog as the dragonkin’s three brothers-in-arms rushed in to finish the job.

They were met by a sight that betrayed their confident natures. A white tornado burst from the sparkling blue mist, wearing a terrible gleam in her grimacing eyes as the glistening mithil blade of her gladius spun into work. With ivory handle firmly gripped in her pastern, she wasted no time on pleasantries before smashing ungracefully into the closest adversary. An effective, if not entirely elegant grapple had the creature into the dirt before it could react and she plunged the deadly short sword into his ribs.

Satisfied that her thrust was fatal, Skylancer ripped the blade it from its work just in time to parry the incoming swing of the second attacker’s morning star. She redirected the heavy weapon’s momentum safely past her and allowed it to throw her opponent off balance. Hers was not a melee of deflecting moves, feints, and careful strikes, but instead a fierce, and accurate flurry of offense.

The draconian knew his own weapon could not hope to match the unarmored, lightly armed pony in speed. As he fought to recover his swing, Sky bucked him harshly in the stomach and spun on her hooves to tackle him from her flesh striking point. He was strong, but even the mightiest trees will fall when their roots are unearthed below them. He felt the underbrush crumble below his girth as they both crashed to earth before he was met with the cruel pain of a blade unceremoniously forced through his exposed armpit and into his chest.

Sky pinned the struggling creature to his end while the third warrior rushed toward her, only to realize too late why there was no worry painted on the oddly camouflaged pony’s face. A symphony of deafening reports erupted from her partner’s carbine as Patch Up escorted the lizard down to embrace the waiting ground below with his face. He slid, lifeless, up to Skylancer’s hooves as she stood up and recovered her composure with an equine huff.

“Thanks Patchy.” She breathed in a rough pant as she sheathed her ancient sword and rubbed her freshly elbowed jaw.

“Always.” The corporal replied as she brought their packs and Sky’s lance from the compromising arcane haze. Patch tossed the longer weapon to her shooter as she heard the rumblings of enemy reinforcements from the trees surrounding them, “Let’s get moving before they try for round two.”

They both shared a grin while Sky slung her rifle to her back and drew her pistol before keying her collar, “Window on primary tango closed, Raptor is engaged and moving to secondary rally point to vector air support.”

“Move your tail-feathers, you two!” Cutpurse echoed back.

They were both off at once, galloping towards a nearby clearing at the foot of a rock cliff face. They could hear the rustling of the undergrowth as the draconians charged towards the glowing beacon and the last loud blasts and chose to use their stealthy advantages to help them slip by. Once at the base, they each ruffled their ragged ghillie cloaks together enough to allow their wings to breath fresh air once more and shot up to the precipice. They could see the azure flashes of Steel Rain’s billowing heavylance in the forest to the north as the assault team moved toward them. They swiftly fished the designators from their packs. Sky met some resistance in removing the damaged flux conduit while her partner smoothly replaced her own spellshell launcher with practiced ease.

“Raptor two, marker online.” Patch spoke as she plugged the device into the accessory node on the weapon and powered it up. She pressed a measured hoof against the designator’s trigger switch and received a strong, invisible beam of infrared light as her reward.

“Hurricane Zero-two confirms.” Storm Surge answered back as he and Captain Squall circled high above the chaos and spotted the beam in their enchanted goggles. “Be advised, Hurricane is armed with two-count Manticores. We are clear to engage your primary tango on your order, Alpha.”

Cutpurse’s reply was almost instantaneous and partially drowned out by the impact of several fireballs around her current cover, “Negative Hurricane! Our primary objective is recovery of the package, and I need you here, clearing my exfil corridor!”

Patch took her team leader’s prompt and searched for a group of enemy from the lofty vantage point that most threatened the embattled Mako group, and aimed her beam directly into their unknowing midst. “Target, infantry. Commence lance run, attack direction zero-nine-zero.”

The heavy spatha pilot complied without delay, and a moment later another ear-shattering torrent of lancefire clove a new blazing wound in the forest floor.

“Raptor one, marker online!” Sky voiced in relief as she finally fixed her own device to her longlance and brought it into the fight.

“Sky, we have heavy resistance at our front! Send some bloody firepower our way if you could be so kind.” Keen’s dry humor flowed calmly, even over the chatter of lances and steel.

“Copy.” The marksmare calmly replied as she took note in her optic of the teams’ runemarkers and placed her beam just south of them. “Hurricane Zero-one, give me a long lance run. Infantry spread out amongst the undergrowth on both sides of my center-mark. Attack direction two-five-zero, danger close.”

“Copy your danger-close fire mission. Zero-one rolling in hot.” Typhoon’s reply was the assault team’s cue to hunker down behind their cover for the impending destruction. In a broad dive from the east, the vehicles’ lance banks unleashed a long, droning roar that saturated a massive stretch of the forest below. Like surgeon with a scalpel, the burly pilot’s incision across the flesh of the earth was placed precisely to cut away the infectious enemy without so much as nicking the precious artery that was the strike team.

“Good hits, Hurricane!” Keen Edge mused into the comms. “Though you could have gotten closer… There are still a handful of follicles you missed on my flank!”

“You’re welcome, Master Sergeant.” Ty’s gryphon wingmate answered back with a snicker as they shot back into the sky.

The cast of players, so versed in their improvisation, continued to press the deadly act forward towards their final scene. A grand menagerie of calculated demolition presented by performers that live and breathe their art, lead the embattled assault team though the brambles of Tartarus’s fury to finally reunite with their wayward pegasi guardians. Following the script of trained proficiency, they smoothly flowed back into the main group as they passed by.

“Hurricane, Raptor has rejoined the assault group. We need the rest of your available ammunition to clear L-Z at primary extraction point. Focus on the tree lines surrounding the clearing.” Cutpurse spoke as her marksmare and medic emerged from the trees and slipped into the rolling tee formation.

“Solid copy, Alpha lead. Enveloping coordinates.” Captain White Squall confirmed as the four pilots changed their focus to a meadow that lay ahead to the south and set about their noisy work.

“Sky, I need my hooves.” Patch Up demanded as she came up alongside the brutalized royal guard captain, uncomfortably perched on Keen’s broad back. She skillfully slipped her carbine’s sling from her neck and handed it off to her partner.

“Miss us?” Sky grinned to the master sergeant as she tucked her heavier longlance once again and took up the much more mobile weapon so Patch Up could perform her duties.

“Like a thrown shoe, my dear.” Keen Edge shot back with a toothy grin as he trotted as smoothly as he could for the doting medic and her patient. Their smirks, matching in their abrasive respects of one another, shown in tandem with their sharpened skills as the enemy continued to advance on their flanks from the shadows despite the careful cover fire.

“Alpha Lead, this is Poise, we are on final approach. E-T-A, thirty seconds.”

“Copy, Poise!” Cutpurse exclaimed as she put down another silhouette at their backs with her quiet weapon. “Alpha is moving to the L-Z from the north with multiple hostiles in close pursuit! This will be a hot extraction!”

“Understood, Alpha.” The communications officer answered even as the team could hear the faintest of echoes of the unusual airship over the fighting and the aerial devastation being sown ahead.

“Cover!” Sky announced instinctively to inform the rest of the team she was reloading. The spent magazine clattered into the dirt as she ripped a spare from one of Patch's exposed flank pouches and jammed it onto place. “Up!” The much less magnified, compact prism optic resting atop the medic's carbine functioned far better than her telescoped marksmare lance to pour carefully aimed shots onto their pursuers.

“Form on me!” Cutpurse shouted to them as they crashed through the now smoldering wreck that was the forests edge against the meadow beyond. She had to shout over Steel’s continuing suppression efforts as the five gathered around her to listen with cocked ears while they engaged any movement they saw emerging from the rear. A massive collection of war cries rolled across the meadow from the west announced that the approach of another wave of combatants was soon at-hoof. “Poise is going to hit hard! Sky and Steel, when they touch down, you need to haul flank under their cover and set up! Patch and Keen will move as soon as your set and we’ll button up! Clear?”

“Aye, Bossmare!” The entire team voiced in unison over their own controlled fire as the hum of the ship’s massive mana-rotors grew louder.

Across the meadow to their right, a swarm of dragonkin burst from the trees to tear across the field towards the now-stationary ponies. A few of their rank began to fall at the unseen will of the strange weapons of their foes, but they roared onwards. Until, however, their billowing war shouts were quickly outmatched by a sight and sound that few beings in Equestria had ever seen, and fewer still had lived to tell about.

From what seemed like nowhere, the ground began to tremble in humility before the presence of the Luna’s Poise. The small airship, painted from bow to stern in a likeness to her namesake, exploded from the canopy it had been skimming along to race over the clearing. Its dirigible balloon tucked safely away, the airship remained aloft by a quartet of massive turbine rotors, articulated with perfect symmetry to give the heavy craft unmatched maneuverability for its size. The sleek vessel, commanded by arguably the most hot-headed officer in the House, roared into a violent side-long slide though the air to slow its approach and, more importantly, to bring the dozen and more heavylance ports bristling along the edges of the craft to bear while it rotated in to land.

“Moving!” Sky shouted for both of them as the airship spun to bring its closed rear bay in line with them.

“Move!” Cutpurse shouted as the ear-shattering mob of automatic tungsten-spewing machines tore into the forest on every side.

In an instant, the sergeants were both off like a shot towards the ship as its keel came to a gentle rest on the violently blowing grass below. Balanced on the thrust of the turbines and a pair of retractable landing struts, the rear of the ship settled enough to allow its bay doors to slide open, allowing a compliment of ponies to pour out and bring their own carbines into the torrent of covering fire.

“Set!” Sky called into her necklace over the maelstrom of fire and noise as she slid to a stop and reared up to engage her weapon along with Steel Rain.

The attackers from the west could not have hoped to survive the onslaught in their exposed state, and those that did found themselves alone, wounded, and running away with the fear of oblivion nipping at their scaled heels. Focused communications, overwhelming firepower, and strict training all played a vital role in accomplishing a mission that would have crumbled to dust in less-capable hooves.

Skylancer allowed herself to grin as the contingent of ponies and their ship poured a relentless cascade of suppressing fire into the forest all around them. As Patch and Keen Edge started on their gallop to carry the package to the Poise, she knew they would soon be sailing the clouds at peace. Though she did not consciously lighten her focus on the job at hand, her mind did relax for a split second at the thought.

It would be a mistake that would plague her soul for the rest of her life.

A lone magi, huddled behind a bolder that broke the ebb of withering fire at the edge of the clearing near Alpha, had spent the time in relative safety to prepare a special spell. He cringed as he watched another of his kin charge past, only to be torn asunder by the forces wielded by the mysterious equines. Just a few incantations more and he had a sparkling, cracking ball of concentrated light dancing within his sheltered palm. Far more potent than a normal fireball, the spell would surely allow him to complete the sole task his master, Fek ‘Tawny, had appointed him… Kill the prisoner at all costs.

He took a few deep breaths, savoring the flavor despite its ashen taint from the fires all around, for he knew they would be his last. With one final push, he broke the anchor of fear in his heart and burst into motion. Around the boulder, he quickly spotted his prize. Galloping away from him and toward the strange flying boat was the prisoner on the back of a stout unicorn stallion and a pegasus mare alongside.

Skylancer had spotted him, but her grave lapse in concentration had slowed her reaction time just enough. He felt the ripping pains of the unseen projectiles into his flesh, but there was only joy on his sharpened smile as he watched his deadly spell sail free and true to his target.

“FIREBALL!!” Cutpurse screamed over the chaos at her exposed team.

The world slowed to a dire crawl for the inhabitants of the valley. Patch and Keen both looked back at the alarm to see the blue-white burning sphere loping towards them. There was no cover. There was no time. All that mattered was the mission.

Captain Stonewall was the mission.

In one motion, Keen Edge wrenched his armored head around to cover Stonewall’s front while Patch dove over them both and shielded the battered guard with her ghillie-cloaked body and an outstretched wing just as the energy ball slammed into the ground at their hooves.

The foundations of the Earth itself seemed to wince and shutter at the empowered blast. In a blinding flash, all the sounds of the battle were lost as the concussion knocked all of the operators nearby to the ground. Although the heavylances still fired from the Poise, the world was a dull, humming blur to them as they fought to recover their senses. Above the ringing haze, and the muffled sounds of the lances above, a single, panicked, desperate scream eventually cut through to everypony’s very core.

“Patch!”

Skylancer’s pupils were but trembling pinpricks in the tearing, wide eyes resting over a visage frozen by shock as she cried out to the smoking wreckage and fought to stand. She knew she had not been wounded, but she could swear that a jagged piece of shrapnel was lodged in her chest as her heart twisted in despair. For that brief moment, she was no longer an elite member of Eclipse’s most decorated and accomplished Six-Team; she was once again a helpless little filly being told by a complete stranger in a pair of hospital scrubs that her mother and father were gone forever.

“Patchy!?” She screamed again as she struggled against the shackles of her heart to gather her shaking legs beneath her. You can’t be dead! Please, Celestia! Patchy please… Her mind begged and pleaded to everypony and nopony to spare her from her past as she drew herself into a gallop towards the impact point, tears streaming from her eyes as she searched for her team mates.

The three ponies lay in the grass a few meters from where they were launched, motionless. Skylancer slid to a stop over them just as Cutpurse and Shockwave burst through the smoke column in a mad sprint towards the site. Her panic, however, remained in place as she hysterically examined the carnage. Keen Edge was wrecked. His face, neck and chest were horribly burned and his horn was broken off at its base where the blast had torn his helmet from his brow. Patch Up’s ghillie had absorbed much of the heat, but the parts that were left still smoldered around a blackened nub that was once a beautiful maroon wing. The only one to stir was the already-bedraggled royal guard, who coughed as he regained consciousness, having been saved from anything more than a few extra bruises by the ponies lying beside him.

“Medic!” Skylancer bellowed into the night air before she dropped to her haunches next to the pegasus on the grass.

“Patch! Patchy, talk to me!” Sky begged as she threw her carbine against its sling and pulled the unconscious medic into her lap. Her limp form couldn’t answer back to the marksmare’s uncharacteristically growing desperation. “Come on, girl… wake up! Please!” Skylancer subconsciously cared for all of her teammates’ well-being, but something within her had seized control of her every fiber and blinded her to the world beyond the mare in her embrace. However, a battle still raged, and she was an operator of Eclipse. Her commanding officer had to remind her of that fact.

“Sky?!” Cutpurse called once while checking over Keen's wounds before she keyed her necklace. “Poise exfil crew to my pos, Now! Keen and Patch are down!” When the ship’s crew arrived behind Steel Rain, She directed them into action before she hooked her hooves around the dazed shooter’s shoulders and gave her a rough jolt. “Staff Sergeant! Pull yourself together!”

The defeated anguish and shame in Sky’s quivering eyes when she looked up almost shattered the Lt. Commander’s resolve.

“Come on, Staff Sergeant! On your hooves!” Cutpurse coaxed as she slung her sublance and prepared to help Sky carry their wrecked medic to the waiting airship.

“A…a…aye, L.T.” Sky forced out at last as she regained enough composure to step back into the world and do her duty.

Under the continued fire support of the crew around them, the ponies were hauled by their teammates back to the boat. The bay ramp was like the welcoming shoreline of an island to a mass of shipwreck survivors as they all trudged onboard and collapsed at the apex. With swift, crisp motion, the landing ponies boarded behind them, save one that took an extra moment to gather up an item he spotted in the field.

“All hooves on deck, let’s get the hay outa’ here!” Cutpurse called into her comm-piece and the ship immediately rose back into the air. The observant pony that had taken an extra moment in the grass set Keen Edge's helmet down beside him and his bearer, Steel Rain; his broken horn still protruded from the mangled metal that had torn it off. Cutpurse looked over to check on Skylancer, who had resumed apologizing to Patch while she beseeched her to wake. She was going to say something to her when she felt a tap at her flank.

“Ma’am… I… need…” It was Stonewall, his voice was barely audible over the drone of the rotors.

“Shhhh.” Cutpurse hushed him as she leaned in to talk, “Save your strength, Captain.”

He emphasized his dire need with a poignant grip on her shoulder, “No. You need… to hear… Fek ‘Tawny…” He struggled to gather his strength, but more importantly to try and structure his jumbled mind enough to communicate his worry. “He knows about the class…”

Cutpurse gave him a confused eyebrow for his efforts. “The class?”

He grimaced though the pain from a bump of turbulence as he nodded, “The class… the class tonight in the… northern Everfree Forest… The class that Twilight Sp… Sparkle is attending with an administrator from the school in Canterlot…”

The speed at which Lt. Commander Cutpurse's eyes narrowed in familiar shock was unsettling to the guard captain, and without another word, she shot up into a reckless gallop towards the bridge. The ship was a canoe compared to the Celestia’s Grace, but it still seemed far too vast to traverse with such urgent orders weighing her down.

“Captain Nightwatch! We need to change course!” She blurted out as she barged onto the bridge.

“I am well aware of your situation, Lieutenant Commander. We are making for the Citadel at best possible speed” A well-dressed, dark indigo pegasus answered back from beneath the golden crest of his station on his hat. “We will have your ponies in…”

“Black Dawn.” She cut him off flatly, silencing the room as she shared a deathly serious glare with the midnight-maned stallion. “We need to divert to Serpent Fall Cove.”

The usually laid-back captain didn't hesitate for a moment at the utterance of the critical scenario before he began barking orders to his command crew, “Helm! Come around to three-four-two and drop to low assault! Maintain red alert! Engineering, I need every ounce of speed you can possibly give me!”

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