• Published 2nd Jan 2013
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Slipping Through A Sideways Door - hornethead



A man accidently follows his friend, who was believed to be dead, to a strange and colorful land mired in conflict.

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At The Point Of Breaking

Chapter 26: At The Point Of Breaking

The air rushed by her head, whipping her short cut mane back and forth. As she flapped through the sky at speed, Rainbow Dash thought there was nothing in the world that could equal the pure, unfettered freedom in the sky that was flight. At the moment she was in no particular rush, but she was meant to go fast, so that's what she did, it was second nature.

Even with the weight of the saddle bags on her back, her speed was hardly diminished. They were filled mostly with snacks and some drinks for a little get together with her friends. They hadn't spent much time together as a group in quite a while what with Twilight helping the princess with some magical project that had to do with the Elements, not to mention Applejack's orchard going into harvest season.

It was the first time any of them were in town and free for a while, so they were all meeting at Dash's place in the woods, it was solid so Twilight wouldn't have to cast any cloud walking spells and private to boot. Dash felt a fluttering on her back and turned her head to see that one of the bags had flown open from the wind, the clasp not having been secured correctly. Just in time too, as several items went tumbling out.

So effortlessly it almost seemed lazy, Rainbow Dash pulled up and fell back in a wide arc, putting herself underneath the goods that had tried to make their escape. With a little more finesse, she caught each one in the top of the bag, only stopping to briefly alight on the bough of a tree and secure the clasp before continuing on.

It was only a few more minutes to the house at her speed. With a few quick flaps of her wings, Dash touched down by the house and quickly trotted inside. She was happy to see that Twilight and Fluttershy were already there. "Hey, what up?"

"Hey RD." Twilight said. "Flight ok?"

"A little bumpy over the forest, but other wise good. James here?"

"No, he went out for a run through the forest. Said to start without him."

"Oh, ok." Dash said as she started removing the contents of her bags and placing them on the kitchen counter. She glanced out one of the windows, it was mid afternoon, but she was sure he'd get back by dark. Suddenly she was startled by an impact on the wooden floor. Then another and another until a hulking figure, bent over, squeezed his way through the bathroom door. "Oh, hey Garth." He just replied with a nod.

"Sorry Rainbow Dash." Fluttershy blurted out quickly. "Garth was visiting and I offered to bring him along. I hope you don't mind."

"Nah, it's cool."

There was then a knock at the door. That would probably be AJ, Rarity and Pinkie. "I shall answer." Garth offered as he lumbered his way to the door. Sure enough, as soon as the door was open even a crack, a pink blur forced it's way in like a tornado, nearly knocking Garth down in the process. Not an easy feat. After the initial surge of energy through the opening, Applejack and Rarity traipsed in. Pinkie bounced around for a few seconds before finally coming to the kitchen and started rummaging for snacks.

Rarity went to go talk with Twilight about their recent stay in Canterlot. Meanwhile, Applejack moved to the kitchen where Dash and Pinkie were, a saddle bag of her own over her back. "How's it goin' sugarcube, doin' alright?"

"Yeah everything's great. For once, everything's been pretty chill. What ya got in the bag?"

"Glad ya asked!" Applejack reached back and undid the clasp with a quick tug of her mouth. Then she reached inside and gripped something with her teeth, extracting it and placing it on the table in front of her. It was a small golden bottle of liquor that would occasionally refract a different color of light depending on the angle you looked at it. "First of the batch, jus' pulled it from tha casks yesterday. Yer lookin' at the first ever zap apple whiskey. Thought we could give this shindig a little kick!"

"Sounds great to me!"

"Hey, what's that?" Pinkie popped up between them, a smear of chocolate still around her mouth.

"Some whiskey." Applejack said, "Special Apple Family recipe."

"Neat, can I try some?"

"Go ahead. Be careful though, it packs quite a whollop."

Pinkie un did the top and took a pull. At first, her only reaction was the smack of her lips as she savored the taste. But then she started vibrating as if struck by electricity, eyes going wide. "W-w-wowweee!"

"Drank a little too much there, huh hon? How you like the taste?"

"It's really quite—wait for it—SHOCKING!" She exclaimed with a big smile.

"Heh heh, glad ya like it."

Garth then surprised the three of them by walking into the kitchen, the floor shaking slightly with each of his steps, and placing some pans on the stove before firing it up. He then continued to surprise them by removing some vegetables and dough from the fridge. Pinkie bounced over, "Whatcha makin'?"

"I thought I might prepare some light victuals for Fluttershy and her friends."

"That's real nice of ya sugar," Applejack said, "when'd ya learn ta cook?"

"When fighting is no longer one's sole purpose, he may take up many useful things to pass the time. Also, the rabbit is often picky."

"Garth, you may be one big ugly lug, but yer awful sweet, y'know that?"

That produced a gravelly chuckle from the large former warrior, he liked her sense of humor. It wasn't long before the smell of the cooking food, lured the rest of the girls over and they were exited with what he was making. They were little blobs of dough with diced vegetables folded up inside them and fried on a pan.

They were soon all munching on the delectable treats and chatting merrily over drinks as the sun began to set in the west. Garth sat nearby with a glass of water—he didn't like to drink—and was content to sit quietly and listen. Dash kept glancing outside and noted the slow decent of the sun towards it's resting place. James still hadn't returned yet, but then he rarely stuck to any set schedule these days.

The small party carried on for a while longer as the sun dipped below the horizon with new plans now being discussed for another get together in the future. Every one was enjoying spending time together like this after being so busy for so long. At one point, Garth excused himself, saying that he'd heard something outside. The girls said ok, Dash wondered if it was James finally coming home, and resumed their conversation, already setting a date for the next party.

Suddenly, Pinkie began spazzing out, her limbs, ears and tail all flopping and twitching at random. Twilight noticed, "Pinkie, you alright?"

"I don't know, but I think I'm getting a doozy."

"That can't be good." Dash said. "You haven't gotten one of those in a long time."

They were all interrupted by a loud crash of shattering glass that came from the front of the house. They all went silent and still. Even Pinkie Pie was stunned into silence. Twilight was the first to speak, "What in Celestia's name was that?"

"Perhaps somepony tripped?" Rarity guessed hopefully, though she sounded as she didn't believe her own hypothesis.

"We should go look." Fluttershy said. "Somepony might be hurt."

Together the girls got up and went towards the front door. What they found shocked them intensely. Garth was laying inside below the windows by the front door. Sharp shards of glass surrounded him and he was covered almost bodily in cuts. It was obvious he had just been thrown through the panes of glass.

The old warrior was still alive though. He craned his head back, gazing pleadingly at them with his one good eye. Softly, he murmured but three words in earnest. "Run. Please, run..."

=================================================



Jackson rolled over in his cot, trying to get comfortable. He was trying to get some sleep, but the cots weren't exactly made with humans in mind, but it was still better than sleeping on the floor which was all concrete. He was in an old, often unused, section of the guard quarters in Van Hoover with the rest of his squad. They had reported in and briefed the city's Captain on the situation and suggested that they ready the city for evacuation should the worst come to pass. This way, if they couldn't stop the plot, they could at least clear an area quickly of civilians and conduct a hunt for the hostiles no matter where they popped up.

In the meantime, Jackson and his squad were taking turns working with the guards to find the supposed caravan of malcontents while the others took a break. Right now, Mayfield was on watch with Swift and Iron, searching the roads into the city with only small, concealable weapons so as not to arouse a panic.

With Jackson, Cray and Redflare remained. For all his cockiness and attitude, Redflare had an insecurity about himself that Jackson couldn't help but notice. Even though he was trying to sleep, he definitely needed it, he couldn't help but listen in to the conversation between him and Iron.

"All I'm asking is where you're from, what's so bad about that?" Cray asked.

"I just don't wanna talk about it, ok?"

"Why not? Look, I'll start. I'm from Filly Delphia. Grew up there with a brother and two sisters. Mostly a pretty athletic family. Well, except for me of course."

"Then why'd you join the RSTG? How'd you even pass?"

"I never really got along with by brother and sisters, didn't help that I was the youngest. Plus my parents weren't very happy about all the time I was spending with my friends, messing around with music and sci-fi crap. I guess I wanted some kind of approval or something. Well, they still didn't like the fact that I specialized as and engineer. Guess you can't please 'em all. C'mon, what about you?"

"Well, I always wanted to join the Royal Guard. Didn't really get around to it until I moved to Canterlot. The stallions just looked so confident and in control in their armor. And one time I caught a glimpse of Princess Celestia in the market. I watched her stop and help a little foal who'd fallen and hurt himself. From then on, I knew I wanted to help her do things like that, maybe even be in her personal guard." Redflare said.

"What did your parents think?" Redflare went silent at the question and just kind of glared. Cray thought he saw some deep hurt flicker through the pegasus' eyes. Feeling it was a sensitive issue, he changed the subject, "Moved from home, huh? How'd the marefriend feel about that?" Cray asked cautiously.

"Meh, never really had anything meaningful."

"Trouble on the relationship front. I feel ya there. Sergeant Mayfield told me you just gotta go find a girl you really like and 'give 'em a good shag.' Not sure what that means."

"Neither am I. Don't really like that guy anyway." Redflare said sourly.

"Now, I noticed that, what's the deal? I think he's funny, when you can understand him."

"You see the way he fights?"

"No, I haven't." Cray admitted.

"I was at sparring class when Lieutenant Commander Sparks showed up with the humans. It was friggin' awesome, they had us go to the sides and then Master Garth came out to test them himself. Chief Jackson ruled, facing Master Garth head on, showing us that amazing fight. Then that guy that sounds like he's from Buckingham walks in an knocks Master Garth out with a stick he was hiding behind his back. Not cool, it wasn't fair."

"Yeah, but you know what Master Garth always said, 'There's no such thing as a fair fight.'" Cray argued.

"That guy said that too, but it doesn't mean you should fight dirty like that."

From the night darkened window, faint pops went off in the distance. Just two, one right after the other. "What do you think that was?" Cray asked with disinterest.

"Dunno. Celebration, maybe?"

A sequence of four more pops when off, but this time these sounded closer and had more of a whumpf to them. Jackson sat up, all thoughts of sleep forgotten. He recognized that sound. Years of experience told him exactly what was going on. He got out of the cot and turned to the two stallions sitting nearby, "Get dressed and armor up, now." He ordered as he started throwing on his clothes, having been in just his skivvies.

"Why, what's going on?" A now concerned Cray asked.

"Those were detonations. I still don't know a lot about your guys' culture, but I know there ain't nothin' special going on today."

Cray quickly got the idea and sprung for his kit bag. Redflare was still somewhat perplexed though, "Detonations? From what?"

"Not to be the bearer of bad news, but bombs, kid, bombs." Jackson was almost nearly dressed. Now he had his ear piece in, trying to raise the other half of his team, "Topher, talk to me, what's going on?"

Redflare got up and started pulling on his armor, he was still in his uniform. "Bombs? Here in the city? How did they get in?"

Jackson paused to answer him, he wasn't getting any responses yet, "Sneaky bastards, kid. They use all kinds of tricks. That, or they were already here." He went back to trying the radio. "C'mon Topher, I need some answers."

His ear pieced finally crackled with a response, but it was Swift Paws who answered, "The Sergeant is busy. He has ordered the guards to start evacuations and is now trying to contact the RSTG team stationed here."

Jackson had almost forgotten about that. Princess Luna had tasked additional teams to each major city on his suggestion. "All right, good. Keep on that and get in touch when he succeeds."

Jackson was now fully dressed out and was checking his weapons. Cray was doing the same with his submachine gun while Redflare was looking anxious in the corner. Then a member of the local guard burst in through the door, "Chief Jackson, we have a serious problem!"

"I know, the detonations, we're on it."

"No, that's not it. The problem's here, they're coming!"

"Who?"

Jackson's question was answered by the rattle of automatic rifle fire. It sounded like it came from the street that ran in front of the guard building. Training took over, Jackson motioned for Cray and Redflare to move away from the window. The guard, inexperienced, need a few polite shoves to get to a safe spot.

Carefully, Jackson edged up to the window and peered out. There were more whumpfs, closer now with a trailing vibration and a dull light on the skyline to give away their position. Else where, plumes of black smoke rose from the city streets, under lit by crackling flames. He couldn't see much else. The window opened out into a small alley that connected to the street. However, he did think he saw a flicker of movement near the entrance. He saw some four legged silhouettes, but also those with only two.

"Ok, we got some hostiles on the street." Jackson told his two charges. To the guard he said, "Get all your guys armed up and mobilized. Start evacuations, go!"

The guard nodded frantically before taking off through a back door back to the garrison. Jackson tried the radio again, but Mayfield still seemed to be busy. Cray looked worried, "What now, Chief?"

"We work on keeping any fighting away from the civilians. When I say go, we're gonna dump in the alley and engage." He reached in his pack and rummaged around, taking out a radio set and a large knife. He tossed them to Redflare. "Congratulations, you've temporarily graduated. Take to the sky, you're our eyes the back of our heads. Try not to get shot down."

"R-right."

"All right, you know the plan. On thre—"

*SMASH*

A small, round metal device punched a hole through the window. Jackson's eyes widened, "Shit!" as quick as he could, he picked it up and tossed it back out the window, shoving the two stallions down and covering his head after. There was a loud detonation and the remaining glass in the window blew violently into the room, cutting Jackson's exposed arms and the top of his bald head. Once it was over, he picked up his teammates, "Go go go, the next one'll be cooked!"

The three of them barreled out the back door. Redflare took flight as soon as he was outside, quickly gaining altitude and doing his best to find cover amongst the tall buildings. Jackson and Cray rounded the corner into the alley, weapons raised as they stalked down the narrow passage. "Ok Red, what you got for me?" Jackson said into his comms.

"I uh..."

"In the street."

"Yeah, uh, there's a couple of guys there. They look armed." His voice was shaking, unused to the situation he was so unceremoniously thrust in.

"Calm down, buddy, deep breaths. Give me a count."

"Ok, there's five of them. Three are stallions, but the other two are like you guys, it's hard to tell."

"RSTG?"

"No, human. I think." Redflare's voice was becoming steadier. At least he could adapt on the fly, as it were.

"Position and action?"

"A couple of the stallions are with the human looking thing, they're firing on the HQ. The other two are at the end of the alley. Posted up on corners."

"All right, good job. Me and Cray are moving in, watch our six."

"Gotcha."

Jackson and Cray looked at each other and nodded. Side by side, they crept silently down the alley, covering the corners opposite them. They were halfway there when Jackson saw something peek around his corner. An elongated face, the stallion. He sighted up on it. Then there was a flurry of activity as something ducked into the alley and charged at them. Jackson got ready to fire, but stopped when Redflare's voice yelled in his ear, "Stop, stop, it's a civilian!"

"Dammit!" Jackson lowered his rifle as a bespectacled accountant type bolted by. It was then that the true hostiles showed themselves, standing out from cover and firing down the alley. There was no cover for Jackson and Cray to take in the confined space. Instinct took over. The two stuck close to the walls and aimed at opposite corners, firing as they moved forward.

Jackson downed his target, the stallion, but fell back a few steps as the force of a sledgehammer attempted to cave in his chest, driving the air from his lungs and winding him. Cray went on firing for a couple more seconds, but then he finally came to a stop, "Hostile down." He said. Then he glanced at Jackson and saw him slumped against the wall, holding his chest and wheezing. "Horseapples, you ok!?"

Jackson waved him off and stood up straight, still trying to catch his breath, "Yeah. Fine. Didn't penetrate." He slapped his chest armor, "Good shit."

Redflare came back on the radio, "Hey guys, you might wanna get moving, you got the others' attention. Ah, crap!" There was a rattle of gunfire from the street, but it wasn't aimed down the alley. "They're shooting at me!."

Jackson got on the line, "Stay calm, remember your training."

"I'm going after them!"

"Wait, Red, don't do that. Wait for- Shit, he's not answering. Stubborn sonofa... Cray, let's move, he's gonna need our help!"

Jackson and Cray switched out their mags for fresh ones and moved to the end of the alley, stacking on the side nearest the garrison's front, the body of the stallion was still motionless on the ground at the corner. Jackson took a discreet look around, the garrison building was on fire and the other two stallions were advancing to the alley. Behind them, the third hostile—the humanoid—watched, it's features obscured by the shadows being thrown around by the flames.

Jackson spotted Redflare on the roof of the adjacent building. He had the knife out. The humanoid being turned his head in the pegasus' direction. A rifle barrel was raised. Jackson did a quick calculation in his head. The approaching stallions were wary, but they didn't know he was right around the corner. The third hostile was temporarily distracted, but that was because it was about to slot Red. In a split second, he made a decision.

"Cray, pivot on my left, weps free. Move!"

The plucky mustang followed instruction without hesitation. Jackson waited until Cray was almost at the corner before he stepped out himself. Timed right, they swung out like a door and opened fire on the un expecting hostiles, squeezing short bursts into their chests and heads. The humanoid redirected its attention to the new source of interest.

Redflare took the opportunity. With a great sweep of his wings, he dove at the thing, anger sparking in his eyes. Jackson and Cray made sure their targets were dead, pumping a few extra rounds into their bodies in case they decided to get back up. Once that was done, they hurried over to the last hostile. It was splayed out on its back, rifle just out of its reach. Redflare was sitting on top of it, plunging the knife over and over again into the flesh of its chest, blood splattering his features every time he pulled it back out for another strike.

Jackson could already see the thing was dead, its chest was no more than a shredded mess now. Gently, he moved around back of Redflare and grabbed him by the shoulders, easing him off the corpse. "It's ok, its ok, man. You can stop, it's dead."

Redflare wasn't exactly listening. He struggled to extricate himself from Jackson grasp, if only to resume his vicious actions. "That's what they get!" He bellowed. "That's what they get for what they did!"

Jackson was worried, he didn't know this pegasus had such anger in him, he made a mental note to ask him about it later. It took a little help from Cray to finally pull him off and sit him down on a near by stoop. Jackson had Cray sit with Redflare, trembling on the stoop with the anger he still carried, while he checked out the area and made sure it was secure. Fortunately, it seemed that the five attackers were the only ones in the area, but the city still rumbled and rattled from battles still going on elsewhere.

A group of civilians poked their heads out of their homes and Jackson pointed them down a side street where he knew the city's guard would be corralling the rest of the inhabitants for evacuation. Then he used the lull to find out exactly what he was up against. Curiously, he moved to the attacker that Redflare had taken down. It wasn't a pretty sight and he didn't like what he saw.

It was a Lotkin warrior. Or at least it resembled one. It almost seemed like a cross between them and a human. It still had the same skin tones that most Lotkin featured, but the angles of its face and body were more compact, even streamlined. Most Lotkin were skilled warriors in their own right, but this one looked like it had more intelligence to it, more cunning. It looked like it could take a fight to a whole new level. On top of that, its kit was more than the standard sword. The rifle was basic tech, but looked custom made. It was chambered for 5.56mm and had a switch for automatic fire.

Jackson's radio once again sprang to life. Finally, it was Mayfield, "Jackson, are you ok!?"

"We're good, Toph. What's going on? The city's going nuts."

"It's bad, mate, real bad, they're in the city." His voice sounded strained.

"Yeah, I know, we just took a group down here at the garrison."

"No, you don't understand. There's more, loads more! They marched in from the north, once the attacks started. A whole mess of them, all armed to the teeth."

Jackson cursed to himself, "All right, we'll come back to that. You get in touch with the local team?"

"White Raven?" There was an uncomfortable pause. "They're- they're dead, most of them. Two of the squad are trying to shift to our position. Jackson, their bird's down, the airship. Half the guard's been wiped out. Mate, I don't think we can hold the city."

Jackson walked back and sat down on a curb. That was a devastating thing to hear from a man who had been so upbeat, even at the worst of times. In the time he'd known him, he had never heard Mayfield that distraught, or at all for that matter. He was suddenly and utterly lost, completely unaware of what to do next. How far did this go? Was this the only city that had been hit this hard, or was this country wide? He tried the radio channel that connected to a repeater that would let him talk with Canterlot. Nothing.

Jackson rubbed his head with a bare palm, just now noticing that he'd forgotten to put on his gloves. He remedied that by pulling the pair he usually wore from a side pocket on his pants. Cray wandered up to him, "Chief, what're we gonna do next?"

Jackson wondered just that. As far as he knew, they were surrounded. No, worse, they were in enemy territory now. They had only a few magazines between them and the city hadn't even begun to be fully evacuated yet. Where would they go anyway? The enemy was everywhere. At that moment, there was only one thing Jackson could think of for now. "We survive, Cray. We link up with the others and we survive."

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James always loved how peaceful the Everfree Forest could be at night. Sure, sometimes it looked daunting and foreboding, the shadows playing tricks on you, but that had never really bothered him. The moon wasn't giving off much light tonight, but that was fine, he could see pretty well in the dark nowadays. In fact, there were a lot of things he was noticing about himself.

Even though he was getting older, he had to be, he didn't seem to be aging all that much. Injuries healed much fast than they ought to. He even had more energy than usual. Maybe he'd ask Zecora exactly what it was she was making that tea with, perhaps herbal medicines and all that 'all natural' crap really was the way to go.

With a deep breath of the fresh night air, James gazed up into the sky and all the twinkling stars that gazed back at him. He always wondered what it would be like to fly, to actually fly under his own power, own wings, without anything else to hold or limit him. Skydiving was great, but it wasn't the same and Dash could only tow him around in his parachute for so long until he got bored, or it got too dangerous.

James checked the time on the cool little watch around his left wrist, a gift from Twilight after she'd gone and learned all about human technology from Sparks. It was resistant to most things; water at depth, impacts, high heat, even magic. To a degree. Currently it read 2017 in ever shifting colors. The days were getting shorter. Only a few months ago, the sun would only just have set by now.

Other than that stay thought, James decided he had probably let Dash and the others wait long enough by now. He was sure they'd start without him, which was fine, but they would worry if he was gone too long. And while the creatures of the forest had become cautious of him, some of the larger more dangerous ones even avoided him, they still had no qualms about attacking the pony folk. He didn't want his friends to come out looking for him.

Not wanting to keep them waiting any longer, he set off at a light jog, he wasn't even all that far from home. In just about fifteen minutes he was in sight of the house. All the lights were off. He found that odd, but perhaps Pinkie had had one of her 'episodes' and warned them that he was coming. She always did like surprises.

James neared the house, but now he was starting to sense there was something terribly wrong. The ground in front of the house was all churned up and the front window was smashed in. He didn't think he could chalk that up to six partying mares. As he got closer, he noticed even more damning detail. Shell casings in the dirt and the wounds they'd left on the front of the house.

He broke into a run, swiftly covering the distance to the door and went to open it when he noticed it was already open, kicked in off its frame. James ran inside, scared now. "Dash?" He called out into the dark structure. "Girls, are you all here? Are any of you hurt?" There was no answer. He ran up to the rooms and checked them, all empty, but they looked like they'd been torn apart.

He ran back downstairs and for the first time, looked at the floor. Blood. Blood was smeared everywhere, but he didn't know whose.James noticed he was starting to hyperventilate and forced himself to calm down. He took some deep breaths until his heart slowed. He had to be smart about this. Gather the facts. Reconstruct the scene. There were no bodies, so they had to be somewhere.

He started outside at the front of the house. The low and scattered number of spent casings meant that there wasn't any kind of mass shooting., just sporadic stuff meant to intimidate and coerce. The number of different prints in the dirt indicated five, maybe six, individuals. Also, there'd been a small fight with a seventh by the window. One frightening piece of information, they all walked on just two legs.

James moved inside. He guessed by the blood on the shards of glass still in the window frame that whoever had fought the attackers outside had lost and the blood and glass just inside was the result. The blood on the floor by the window transitioned into drag marks leading back into the house. The marks were wide and the floor sagged in places. It looked like the girls had helped one of the attackers. But that didn't make much sense. He thought about who they all knew wee and who among them knew he was here and walked on two legs. Garth.

James heaved a small sigh of relief. Garth had been there. He would protect them, that was without a doubt, but he had also been hurt badly. There were more shell casings and also more holes in the walls. One of them was accompanied by a splash of blood. He touched it. It was congealed, but only recently. There was also a small trail of droplets leading away from it, but still no body. Good. They were still alive so far.

He moved into the kitchen. It was a wreck, like the rest of the place. The cabinets had been ripped apart and pilfered. On the kitchen counter was a shattered bottle of some sweet and tangy smelling alcohol. The back door was open, there were more drag marks leading out. James ran back up to his room and got his revolver, made sure it was loaded and ran out the back.

There was nothing out there but more tracks, this time with hooves. He followed them into the forest a ways. They were still dragging Garth along by the look of the deep rut next to the hoof marks. The trail soon led him to the river. He looked across to the other side and saw the tracks resume, but with no pursuers. They also seemed to be heading off in the direction of the old training grounds. Good, they would be safe with Myst. Especially if Sparks was there.

He continued a little further just to make sure, following the river to the point where it angled back to Ponyville. Then what he saw made him stop dead in his tracks. There was a glow, a dull read glow over the horizon Ponyville sat under. He knew that's where it was because he knew the forest now like it was his backyard. Hell, it was his backyard.

James sprinted back to the house immediately, his personal radio was there. He would try to raise Myst or Sparks, he continued existence would be a surprise to them, but he had to know if they were all ok, he didn't care any more. As he ran through the front door and past the glass into the kitchen where the stairs were, something bounced off the tip of his boot and skittered across the floor. He bent to pick it up.

It was the necklace he'd given Dash, or half of it really. The stone had been split down the middle, by falling or from a blow he didn't know. Unconsciously, his fist balled around the shard of stone, getting tighter and tighter, an old shake starting to creep back in to a familiar home. He didn't even noticed the faint tickle or the patter of blood that began to splash on the floor beside his feet.

Then something down, deep down inside him stirred. Something awakened. Something that held such a colossal amount of pain, anguish and rage that it almost seemed to be alive in and of itself stretched in its new freedom, all fire and rough torn skin and tattered wings. James' fist stopped shaking. Still and steady as a rock, even though its source was still present.

James slowly opened his fist and plucked the stone from out the blood still welling up in his palm and dropped it in his trouser pocket. He paid no attention to his wound. It was unimportant, unlike what he currently had in mind. But his mind was blank now, there was no thought, only action.

Casually, as if it was a normal evening, he walked upstairs to his room and grabbed his hip flask, giving it a little shake to make sure it was full. It was going to be a long project. Then he went back downstairs and outside to the garden where he picked up a shovel. There were still a few things that Dash didn't know about him, like just how deep his paranoia ran, but he knew she was never good at gardening, so it was the best place to hide what he did in the soil.

James didn't have to dig very deep, just a few feet. The shovel hit something soft, but strong and he pulled up a dirty old duffel bag. Inside were just a few choice items; his Tac vest, some of his old body armor—the armor he'd arrived to this world with, he'd gotten Twilight to have it go 'mysteriously missing' for him—some of his old tools, thigh holster, his knife, his rifle and some left over ammo, about four and a half mags.

It didn't take long for him to put it all on, old habits died hard. After donning his equipment, the last thing he did was grab his radio from the house. Then he set off on a quickened march to the house of the only other inhabitant of the forest and she didn't live very far away from him. As he traveled there, he almost thought how odd it was that he still hadn't yet felt one degree of emotion one way or the other. He was just doing. The thought lasted but a second before it was dismissed as trivial. It was a new feeling.

James knocked just three times on the door of the hut when he arrived before simply opening it and walking in. He found Zecora sitting at her table and enjoying one of her drinks, which was now spilled all over the surface. "Oh, how you have startled me! I haven't been expecting thee."

"Yeah, sorry about that." James shrugged, strangely unapologetic.

"What is it, my dear friend, I can do for you? Would you like some tea? It looks as if you have the flu." She got up and trotted over to get a better look at him. "And why are you dressed as if for war? I thought you were a part of that, no more."

James reached into his shirt and pulled out his necklace, the one Dash had given him. The translucent multicolored stone was just as bright and mysterious as it had been all those years ago. He'd done some reading on the magical properties of certain stones. This one was special, though he was sure RD wasn't aware just how much so. One made naturally was rare in the extreme, more than diamond or even platinum. She told him it was found in the fields under Cloudsdale after a factory accident. But the factory was on the outskirts of the city, so this was the genuine thing. He cradled it gently in his hand.

James looked Zecora straight in the eye, "I need your help, Zecora. I need you to save my soul or spirit or whatever the hell it is we have. Because after I'm done, I don't think there'll be anything left worth having."

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