A State of Darkness

by Wing

First published

An ongoing tale of original characters set in an Equestria with secret branches of the well-known guard corps, A State of Darkness revolves around the Wonderbolt DarkOps unit as it protects Equestria from threats both foreign and domestic.

The only currency in war is life. It is a simple creed meant for an era that most believe has long since passed. With princesses, elements, and friendship, what could dare shatter the dream sewn by Equestria’s holy lights? What could ever throw us into a state of complete, utter darkness? Well, they always forget. They always forget that Tartarus exists for a reason – that something trapped by once upon a time spawned their beloved guards. They always forget that even the Sun casts a shadow, and it is in this shadow where we sit – to serve as a bolting line of defense against all threats that slither beneath the pedestal of our magical world.

Cover art by the awesome Baron Engel.

More Background Stuff!
Somehow featured on: 2015/05/10, 2015/08/16, 2015/09/02, 2015/09/06, 2015/09/21, 2015/10/05, 2015/10/08 & 2015/12/03.
A State of Darkness builds upon the alternate universe established by the backstory of my surprisingly named OC, Wing. Since I have a doctorate in physics, I really wanted this world to have an expanded structure regarding education. I also wished to portray an Equestria in which violence yielded consequences that stretched beyond the discovery of good morals. Before touching this tale, I had envisioned a flight school curriculum that included training analogous to graduate level education, and I had fabricated a history in which the demonstration of new combat-applicable techniques during this training brought about the creation of the Wonderbolt DarkOps. There is also a heavy influence from the adventures I have had roleplaying with my closest friends -- who have shaped my characters and worldviews in ways absolutely immeasurable.

This particular group of ponies has shown an ability to handle the somewhat shadier sides of the realm. While this organization relies heavily upon pegasi and their flying skills, it is not limited to one race, which I think is just fine and dandy - especially with regards to variety. All of these historical bits that swarmed in my mind served as the nucleus for what would become A State of Darkness.

One night, I was inspired by the image of a pony soldier awaiting execution. It touched that desire I held to dive into the grittier elements of the universe brewing in my brain. That picture sealed the deal for me. I started writing, and when my fingers stopped moving, there was something present that I wanted to share with the community and continue. I am a busy physicist without a lot of writing time, but I will try my best to keep updating regularly.

Arc Overview:
Arc 1: A State of Darkness The unicorn supremacist group Einhorn Vormacht emerges and jeopardizes the harmony upon which Equestria stands. [Installments 0-9]
Arc 2: A State of History One of the characters delves into his past for the sake of a curious, by-the-book guard. [Installments 10-14]
Arc 3: A Game of Darkness [Installments 15-29] An old colleague of Wing's reappears with plans to to hurl the world into a state of chaos that not even Discord is down for experiencing.

A State of Darkness - Installment 0 - Arc I

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Above the clouds rests one of the greatest pictures our Universe has to offer. Billions of flickering lights grace her heavens, and while that particular area is not exactly my realm of expertise, I can assure you that I would much rather be studying that vision at this moment. The pleasure of this night is repeatedly interrupted by a cadence of icy raindrops that fall from the clouds above my head. Their sharp timbre is somewhat tempered by the uniform clinging to my coat like needy foal, and their relentless march is detoured by the few generous blades of tall grass that have opted to shield me as I wait prone in the field.

The other pegasi are unable to clear the skies, but it has nothing to do with their skills. No, I roll with the best fliers in all of Equestria. It's because manipulating the weather would alert other, less savory individuals of our presence, and right now, that is something we cannot afford. Ponies tend to think that our land is free from evil, that our beloved princesses will always take care of whatever afflictions rise to reap our souls, or that optimism and hope come freely.

These thoughts are merely delusions passed down to maintain happiness and joy. Even the Royal Guard and the Bolts fill flamboyant posts that turn skill into show. The ignorance regarding the undercurrents of corruption and misery that pervade the places forgotten by the facade is only surpassed by one simple fact. What ponies do not realize is that their majesties have already placed capable shadows in the constant state of darkness.

Right now, I am perched amongst the gentle rolling hills of nowhere. Civilization is quite far away, even for a fast flier, and I'm not even close to the best when it comes to aerial acrobatics. In fact, in my other life, you would probably just brush me aside as a nerdy scientist or an over-exuberant professor. When I mentioned that I would rather be looking at the stars, I meant it. Scopes should be trained on targets that move us forward in life and knowledge. Instead, I am spending time playing hero, taunting the night with a uniform of liberty blue and black that might cause an excited colt to confuse me for one of those showponies. Goggles sit atop my lavender muzzle with lenses that can feed information through my chocolate irides even when all light seems crushed. I have my mission.

I press my forehoof to the chilled bolt-loop of the most devastating weapon I ever invented. I refuse to allow these things to infect my Equestria, and that is the true reason why I have been summoned to this wasteland. Downrange, a member of the guard is set to be executed by a band of unicorn extremists; and through my scope, my scope that should be probing, discovering, I see an earth stallion bound to a post of utter misery.

His colors have been tattered and torn, and while the hue of his fur has been lost, I can tell that his head has been bludgeoned. He is clinging to life as a trio keeps him upright through the desolation. He cannot see what is coming through the blindfold that hides his eyes – that shelters him from the reality of having his forelegs unnaturally bent and tied to a pillar. But I know he is not sheltered from the feel and scent of warm blood as it seeps through his mane and mingles with heaven's tears.

He's been deprived of sight, but his imagination is free to wander, and the agape expression that binds his countenance carries a weight and despair that surpasses whatever physical torture these unicorns have done. I can no longer allow the outcasts to script the future of this soldier. The bolt slides back at the behest of my foreleg, opening a chamber that cries for justice. My ammo of choice has been resting in my muzzle for quite some time – a snippet of Celestia's own magic wrapped into a casing 138 millimeters in length. I have never really considered myself to be what I am in this moment – for another member of the team typically assumes this mantle, this duty – but I have to admit that I just can’t get over the satisfying feel of successfully loading a round.

The three will never see it coming. They will never hear the instrument of their destruction, and yes, one pull of the trigger is more than sufficient when you have weaponized the will of your princess. I will dissect the score they had composed for their prisoner – my comrade – and transpose the chords into a sweet dissonance that preserves our elements of harmony. I will watch their heads turn into a crimson mist, and in that eternal fermata, I will suffer the plight of all those who take lives to save lives. I am merely a physicist – a stallion raised in West Manehattan. But when I don this cloak, I am something else. I am a specialist in the science of survival. I am Wing, colonel of the Wonderbolt DarkOps.

A State of Darkness
Wing T.F. McCallister

I have always found Canterlot to be an obnoxiously noisy place – a fact that seemed to amuse the stallion trotting at my side. He glanced sidelong at me with one of his flickering amber orbs, and I could tell from the smug grin that parted his midnight muzzle that he was thinking about the apparent hypocrisy. I, after all, had a habit of being obnoxiously noisy, and Equestria’s roving mercenary just would not keep it to himself. I leaned to the left and gave him a gentle nudge with my shoulder. “Don’t even start with me. You know we both cannot stand being here.”

He shrugged the bump off with a chuckle that acknowledged our mutual dislike of the pompous capital. We each have our own stories, but for him, it was just a rough fit. Trigger was – for all intents and purposes – a tank. He was gifted physically and had combat experience that put even career veterans to shame. There were times when his jagged demeanor made Royal Guard captains quiver, and they weren’t even aware of his position in the military – and had no damn clue when it came to his origins. They could just … tell … that he was covered in that scent of sin that surpassed the bournes of their frazzled ingenuities, and that only brought scorn from the eyes of the bureaucracy.

“You’re just bucking pissy because ya have to endure another debriefing,” he quipped before taking a short pause to adjust the brown Coltston that sat atop his argent mane, “but that shot ya took…” He methodically drew a proud breath into his lungs. “It was a thing of beauty, Wing.”

“Eye of the beholder,” I retorted calmly, picking up my stride as we approached one of the numerous Canterlot libraries. Trigger had managed to prod my heart again. The two of us had a long history, so his admiration and delight did not necessarily come as a surprise; yet, deep down, he had to remember that I could never define such a thing as beautiful. I didn’t care about the shot; I cared about the pony it saved.

The stone steps leading to the library’s entryway loomed before us when the onyx stallion threw his foreleg over my back. I turned to face him, watching as he lowered his head and closed his eyes in a rare moment of contemplation. “Ya did good. There’s no reason to think stupid shit.” He dragged me closer to his powerful frame and smiled before releasing his grip to resume the triumphant march.

I watched him for a moment, gazing at the seven-pointed silver star that was his mark. The warmth of his unusually affectionate maneuver was still bleeding off my coat. It was an aura of protection that the unicorn had provided since he emerged from the Ocean of Reverie within my mind. He was tough, a bit introverted, and at times abrasive, but there was no other pony that I would trust with the armaments that I had made.

“Look at that, the geezer showed up after all!” A feigned crass greeting met our ears as Trigger and I entered the chamber. The others had picked out a somewhat reclusive spot in the library’s tower. Based on the cobwebs in the corners and the layer of dust that still sat atop the room’s walnut center table, it was unlikely anyone had ventured here in quite some time.

“It’s nice to see you too, Mozy,” I responded to an alabaster mare with a teasing tone laced betwixt the notes. A visible ripple jolted the pony’s spine, and it was hard not to beam to the reaction. She should have seen it coming – and probably did – but there was no way I was going to let that one drift unnoticed.

She scoffed, flicking her yellow and black tail aggressively before kicking the neighboring chair out with a hind leg. I was quite fond of the way her mane palette looked as though a vibrant fire had remorselessly pierced the darkness. It suited her passion amidst the burdens of being a true Bolt. “Just sit down. I don’t want you keeling over on us.” Her jaune irides reflected the ambient light in a manner that made her come off as being more of a hardass than normal. I would simply state that those are the consequences of a lax student-teacher relationship.

There were two others already seated when Trigger and I decided to take up our respective perches. One was the team’s medic: a white, brown-maned unicorn by the name of Amora; and the second was one of the group’s founding members: a burnt-orange pegasus called Defiant Hooves.

The former eyed me with crisp blue cores that drenched my mind with a cascade of tumbling anamneses. Having grown up on the same block, we had known each other since foalhood, attended the same school, and shared our dreams. On several occasions, she had applied bandages to my ruffled fur or attempted some new healing spell she had picked up from her parents. I was with her the day she acquired her winged cobalt cross cutie mark, and the moment I saw it, I knew the mare she was destined to become.

The latter first entered my life as a shaggy, nervous freshman during my second year of A-FAM – otherwise known as advanced flight applications and mechanics. He had read my sophomore research proposal with a classmate, and both had become fascinated by the concepts of barrier manipulation and cloud fragmentation. My professors blew the notions off as pipe dreams, and I was far from the cream of the crop when it came to flying. D.H. and Wick, on the other hoof, were beyond capable. They divvied up the tasks and took to the skies; it wasn’t long after our combined successes brought the royals calling. They wanted their shadows, and we provided.

Defiant tapped the edge of a manila folder against the tabletop’s grain while his free forehoof toyed with sepia locks. They were signs he was growing anxious – tics that had also annoyed Trigger to no end. The tension radiating from the black stallion’s body was palpable. I did not even have to turn to confirm it, and he frankly did not give me the opportunity to observe. “Would ya fucking get on with it already, D.H.?”

Ams and Mozy both stifled chortles as their commander placed the folio flat and opened the cover. Playful banter was common in our exchanges, but the expression Defiant formed rapidly shushed the room. It was different this time. “Einhorn Vormacht,” he replied quietly, forcing us to lean forward as he spoke, “a unicorn supremacist group otherwise known as the EHVM. They’ve been operating out of the Galloping Gorge area for several years under the leadership of a wealthy mare, Ashen Mystic.

“Up until recently, she has dedicated her efforts solely to preaching about unicorn purity. We only kept tabs on that because it raises red flags with regards to windigos and no one wants a repeat of that mythology. Unfortunately, we’re not just reading myths any more. Our policy cannot remain in an idle state against an active threat. The capture, torture, and attempted execution of a member of the guard cannot go unpunished, and the assignment from above was pretty damn clear on this one.”

I cringed at the subsequent wave of dread that stabbed me with its piercing chill. Much like the rain that had perturbed that loathsome picture from several days ago, the currents that brought tomorrow ever closer seemed tainted by the promise of war. “It was inexcusable,” I stated, promptly grabbing the attention of the pegasus to my right, “but you all know my position when I don’t know what I’m dealing with.”

Mozy shifted gears and relaxed her posture. A sigh dribbled from her muzzle as she prepared herself to pick up where I had left off. The mare had an accredited athletic history that made her a solid candidate for the Wonderbolt Corps, but it was the development of her skills as a psychological analyst that generated a DarkOps asset. “Sudden signs of physical aggression are certainly reasons to be alarmed. In this case, we need to consider a several things.

“I think we’re seeing the result of zealotry leading to shit. Ashen Mystic’s followers are being compelled to action through her vitriol, so the question is what do we do about it? We don’t know if the militaristic elements are incorporated into the group, or if it’s just the extreme fanatic fringes attempting to grab power through escalation. We also don’t know how deep their resources go. Our information suggests that her riches run deep, and she has a background in archaeology to boot. Money and intelligence merged with an ability to manipulate masses with fear and hatred creates quite the foe; I’d guess that she’s still got a hoof in all of the decision making.

“Either way, what we’re up against, Wing, is something that the general population cannot touch. Unrest along tribe lines nearly tanked the founding of this nation. EHVM is testing its boundaries. It’s seeing if it can get away with what it tried, and while we stopped them this time, they still managed to capture one of our own. The three combatants killed will likely be proclaimed as martyrs for the cause to serve as inspiration to the ranks, and if we do nothing, they will act again.”

I found myself trapped by Amora’s stare. Sorrow had washed over her as she read my emotions as though they were the ridiculously oversized headlines of a tabloid magazine. We weren’t stupid. It was obvious how this composition was building. A somber piece performed by a torn quintet would be transfigured into something far worse. We were given an extermination mission born of ignorance. It was my nightmare thrust into reality – a universe of despair that tossed reason and compassion on the ground to leave confused hooves with nothing but bloodlust.

“I see…” I could not hide the shame in voice. It was an open wound from which sanguine guilt poured freely – one which everypony present understood. I was not a coward. I would defend my country and my comrades. I would snuff the danger Vormacht posed, but taking a life, no matter how twisted it had become, never felt good to me. I always wondered about the loved ones I did not get to see – the keys of my enemies lost to forgotten clefs and phrases. Shots fired resembled jarring, staccato augmented fourths, and the details that resolved that hideous progression were only found…

D.H. pushed a pair of papers from his collection of parchments until they rested between my hooves. “Luna wanted you to have this,” he explained as an almost cocky grin stretched the corners of his lips. “She mentioned that the colt was pretty persistent about it despite being repeatedly told that the operation was above his security clearance. Needless to say, she caved a bit for the guy.”

I scanned the text of the top sheet and my pulse scurried; it was the summary page of a personnel file from the central Royal Guard office. The soldier’s name was Ground Cover. He was young, just getting started, and had a family filled by the amity of two little ones. The corner of the bottom leaf stood out as it peered at me from the penumbra of its brethren armor. I gently coaxed it from its hiding place and took note of its rough condition. It had definitely seen better days. It was crinkled, and the ink pressed upon its surface was applied with evident difficulty – like a child just learning how to scribble. The vocabulary was too advanced, however, and the manner in which feelings and descriptors fought and charged into my soul proved that these verses belonged to another. It was a thank you – a letter from a devoted protector to me.

“I’ll need two days to prepare our things,” I continued, shifting my gaze to Defiant when the grave resonance of my words perked his ears. “I’m going to assume that you and Wick will be orchestrating the plan on this one, but if you want my input, then I’m in.” I folded the dispatch and passed it to Trigger for safekeeping before swiftly rising. My wings, boosted by the surge of energy that recklessly bounced about my nerves, unfurled. In that message, I had found my resolve … in the hopes bequeathed in the face of all doubts.

A State of Darkness - Installment 1 - A Special Bond

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Trigger stood in silence as his hoof parted the violet drapes that adorned our suite. He had almost immediately migrated to the large panes, their wrought iron borders and thoroughfares attracting the rough and tumble stallion back towards the wild. We had been given an extravagant room considering our circumstances, even for my tastes, so I could barely fathom the processes going on in his head. Suffice it to mention that, once upon a time, after taking a job from a mutual friend, he was told to sleep under a bridge and proceeded to do so without hesitation.

I figured it had to do with the fact that he had been inside for oh so very long. Anypony with a younger unicorn sibling will likely cringe in terror at the mere mention of magical growth spurts. They were particularly prominent in my family, often generated crippling night terrors that shook the house with reverberating cries, and practically put a poor foal on the brink of insanity.

My coltish frame emerged from beneath the warming comforts of my bed. Young ears clung to the whimpers of a distressed filly – a little sister – whose cries had yet to awaken our parents from their slumbers. Sluggish hooves dragged over hardwood as I made my way into her room, and her barrel sprang from the bed the instant I opened the door.

Tears stained her white fur after pouring from her bright blue eyes, and the intimidating sparks that leapt from her horn sent a fearful tremor down my leg. A squeal soon erupted from her throat before her forehooves desperately dug into her blonde mane. The sound had been enough to toss my parents’ warnings aside.

I crawled onto her mattress and held my Laizzy close. Her muzzle pressed against my body while she cried to a pain that I had yet to comprehend. “Unbridled spells are dangerous, Sweety. You just have to keep your distance until she’s ready.” My mother’s words went unheeded. I was being a true big brother. Fearless youth had different plans.

“It hurts, Wing,” she sobbed as her sweat-soaked legs timidly caught me in a needing hug. My wings instinctively stretched out to ensnare my sibling in the soft embrace that only a pegasus could give.

Eventually, those sobs subsided into sniffles, and with each tick of the clock, she drew closer and closer to sleep. The overwhelming heat of pride overpowered my exhaustion. I basked in the glow of victory – until I realized that the glow was not just my own. The tender cuddle and the coziness of Laizzy’s bed had been rapidly replaced with an agonizing ache churned by my sister’s magic and the grain of the floor.

Cries once again flooded my ears while the cadence of scrambling hooves set a jarring beat. The greyscale ceiling dripped shadowy blobs of the blackest night, and consciousness gradually faded away. At least she was out of bed again…

I endured another night of her guilt-ridden face being the last thing I saw before passing out. Months after the incident, she was still sleeping with me. I had told her time and time again that she did not have to keep saying sorry. I told her that she did not have to foalsit her older brother. I would deal with her demons. I would buck up – as Dad often said.

My heart skipped a beat as groans began to meander through the Sandcolt’s darkness. They always started quietly at first. They always started far enough away that I believed I could run. Sure enough, I was galloping – galloping hard – as though nothing in the world could catch me. It did not matter that I could barely see in the dark. This time I’d get away. This time…

I wept as the ground melted into a murky brew that crept up my legs. My wings flapped as I tried to fly, but I could never escape that cold, nightmarish ocean. Still, I struggled. I heaved and tried harder, but my pulse simply raced because I did not budge.

Screams, no longer distant groans, stabbed at me from just beneath the surface. The waters shaped otherworldly horrors that wailed out impossible demands. Their disfigured, incomplete limbs drew nearer and nearer, and my breaths grew more staggered once I surrendered myself to the inevitable. They would reach me this time. I was going to die.

And then, they stopped. A black hoof flew in from the periphery of my vision and bashed the muzzle of the closest terror. I lifted my head until a towering stallion captivated my sights. His dark coat shimmered even in this eerie place, and his amber eyes failed to move from the face of his target. A brown Coltston hat sat perched upon his crown, and an unkempt silver mane and tail accented his heroic figure.

“Pickin’ on a little colt,” the gritty voice of my charger of reverie pushed me back from the encroaching calamity. “That ain’t right.” I watched as he reared up and stomped the monster into the sea from which it came. “Never give up, Kiddo. We’re fighting a war, so I want ya to remember. The only currency in war is life, but…”

The only currency in war is life, I pondered, reflecting upon the words Trigger spoke through the onslaught of our first. They were words I did not forget. How could I forget? He had emerged as a manifestation of my id – an unstoppable idol that obliterated the piercing fragments of Laizzy’s sorcery.

There was a reason why the stallion had combat faculties that surpassed his apparent age. Before he came into this world, he had spent a lifetime battling the psychological unfinished that yearned for my internal devastation every second I slept. For years, the stallion remained a part of me as an aggressive fighter that surfaced when a friend needed protection or when I needed support. He spewed statements of blunt wisdom from my lips that eventually led to the founding of DarkOps, and he was there when I drew up the plans for the A0 rifle.

His words stayed with me when a young filly peered up at us with thoughtfulness covering her glistening wine-red eyes and asked me why the other one couldn’t be free. He had earned that currency, and I had the technical knowhow to at least attempt a return on investment. It took me forever, but with the resources bestowed upon me by the government, the fundamental physics of magic were put to the test, and Trigger was plucked from that sea.

“Kix’s L2 bracer spring needs tightening,” he commented with a flat tone that disguised his interest. While the room was a bit lush, I had managed to convince the hotel staff that I would need a workbench brought up. The request was likely unusual for this establishment, but it was a necessity. The A0 would need maintenance following the last sortie, and the twins, well, the twins were just overdue.

My .50 caliber might have been the pioneering venture of the Equestrian National Armaments program, but that build was relatively simple compared to the devices I constructed for Trigger. The physics involved with packaging and discharging magic was not all that complex either. Magic behaved identically to free-running electricity and magnetism, and the connection was easily made once one accepted the realization that unicorns just possessed a unique coupling with the force carrier. The discovery meant that with an oscilloscope, an adequate variable waveguide, and a properly constructed container, one could study and store magical samples. It also meant that one could fabricate ammunition.

Captains clung to the rumors that touched their ears and dreamt of weapons mass produced for their ranks, specifically for earth ponies whose strength might be overpowered by unicorn prowess or rendered useless by pegasus flight. They took quite the exception when I told them all to hold their proverbial horses because the rumors were completely unfounded. My lies were justified; one cannot just drop machines of destruction into a realm built upon harmony without examining anything.

My inner nurturer struck a closet deal with the sovereigns; there would be only two subjects allowed to investigate this bastardization of science, and we would report our findings through the channels established by DarkOps. It was implicitly understood by the group, however, that those results would never amount to anything other than inconclusive. Certain outcomes of research, no matter how useful they might be, were not worth extinguishing the balance of harmony.

We became apparitions – dedicated to shielding our compatriots without exposing them to the dangers of the spear. Of course, Trigger decided to make things difficult for me; he despised the A0’s bulky design and declared that, as a wanderer, carrying around that large hunk of shit would only attract undue attention. He wanted something compact that could fire multiple rounds with a single load. After repeated failures, I eventually drew up a design that appealed to the rustic stallion. It was a novel layout that seemed to match his penchant for Appleloosa charm.

Six rounds could be loaded into a cylinder that revolved around a central shaft. Since the frame was too small for a loop trigger, a pivoting switch was placed behind the drum that would cycle and discharge a round with a simple flick of a hoof. Sadly, this concept came with its own unique challenge. I could support the A0 by inserting a hoof into the loop trigger. It was a dual purpose part that the revolver model did not have. Without a special mechanism, it would be a challenge to pick up the weapon and use it reliably.

My solution was the implementation of spring-loaded bracers that clung to the user’s leg. As a fallback, the plates could be folded, possessed a shape suitable for muzzle holding, and were connected to a separate bite-based firing system. Trigger had no objections to this decision; he had the strength to stand on his hind legs for protracted periods of time and enjoyed exercising his jaw. In fact, when I finished the blueprints, he casually stared at me with his iridescent amber eyes and demanded two.

The engraved gems slept atop the misplaced workbench as I disassembled the indicated plate and went about fetching a replacement spring from my toolbox. The pair of pistols may have been in need of service, but Trigger knew how to keep his pieces in pristine condition. The metal had been tended with oil and showed zero signs of degradation. Even the part he cued for a swap shone brightly upon inspection, and the stainless steel bodies sparkled beneath the hotel’s ornamental chandelier. “I don’t think any of our friends would believe me if I told them you took this much care of your possessions, Trigs.”

“Tools of the trade get special treatment,” was the brazen reply. He had adopted a more combative stance once my comment flooded his ears – that distrust of luxury once again making its presence known. “Ya shouldn’t focus on that shit anyway. I don’t want to wait around Canterlot for two bucking days. You’re more than capable of getting us on the road tomorrow – especially if the Bandwagon Boys get their shit together.”

It had taken her several days to finally reach the site, but she did not wish to risk an appearance too soon. Members of the order had watched as enemies of the flock had poured over the hallowed ground. They allowed the invaders to go about their business, for Ashen wanted them to know the grisly details of how close they had come to ridding the world of one of the unworthy. With the impure in retreat, the assembled were free to gather in homage of their forgone martyrs.

The rose-colored unicorn took to the field as a gust of wind gently tugged at the collection of white and grey strands that composed her mane. She stood in stillness for several minutes as dozens of her kind drew nearer and nearer. She would address them; that was her duty as leader of Einhorn Vormacht, but she had come to this place with a very different purpose in mind.

“My friends,” she spoke after lifting her head towards the twilight sky. Her vermillion irides caught the reflection of the dying light – setting the perfect stage for her speech. “We have made great strides leading up to this defining age in history. For too long, we have allowed our power and elegance to subside. We have allowed the sermons of false sages to take root in the weak. We have watched in silence as the will of deceitful princesses has cemented the greatness of inferiors while casting aside the superiority of our race.

“We gave this world magic and all of its benefits, yet here we stand, relegated to the outlands because the heads of state deem our beliefs too dangerous. We never needed earth ponies to tend our crops! We never needed pegasi to bring us rain! We – and we alone – possess the unique ability to universally transform our surroundings, but we are the ones who are persecuted for embracing our heritage.

“However, even against this great adversity, we can strike at the hearts of our nemeses. Three of our very own captured a member of the occupiers. They enslaved one of the filth, showed dominance over this animal’s existence, and reeducated this trash with the very creed by which we live. We are the rightful rulers of this domain!” The mare lifted her right foreleg as adrenaline coaxed her very essence. A wave of cheers erupted from her disciples as her melody resonated with their hearts.

“Your poverty, your monotony, your conformity rests upon the hooves of the scuz and the windrats! They have taken the jobs and the prosperities that were your birthrights. They have subjected you to meaningless tasks that do nothing but solidify their agenda of feigned equality. I was but a lucky one! I was but a lucky one who managed to fight and struggle through the game that is Celestia’s lie! We are not all equal. We are better, and we have been brutally punished for it for far too long!”

She gradually lowered her hoof and rode the sweltering quiet the maneuver brewed to the diminished climax of her opus. “We are called to action. We are summoned by the fact that, on this very spot, the three saints that taught each and every one of us that action was possible died in their efforts. They were slaughtered without warning, without a chance to defend themselves, and without dignity. Their lives were taken in the very manner that the facets of their lives were robbed by our oppressors.

“The day has come for us to walk amongst the treachery and fulfill our destinies. We have discussed and planned for countless hours, and I have faith that all of you will execute your duties flawlessly. Tomorrow, we awaken to the New Dawn. Fear not what happens to the fallen. Remember eternally the future your deeds shall bring.”

Fervor flowed through the veins of the EHVM. While the movement had come to a close, the collective pride grasped the aspiration of a promised land. The hounds of the crusade had received their marching orders, and with Ashen Mystic’s backing, they would not fail. Most dispersed into the lurking night – a cloak beneath which their insurrection could mobilize.

The mare remained with her closest lieutenant as her stare scoured the field. She probed the environment for information, and her horn bathed in a cerise glow upon the activation of her special talent. “There is residue here, Kinetic,” she said after shifting her attention to the navy blue stallion. “An incredible sorcerer did this to our forces, but something about how it feels isn’t right. The magic seems … displaced.” She briefly glanced at her cutie mark – a sandy excavation brush atop a white horn – and exhaled in preparation for the coming trance.

A barren glaze of archaeological meditation overtook Mystic’s effervescent visage. Ghastly images took shape on this grotesque landscape, and she could picture the sight of her students being torn asunder by Celestia’s energy. Their muzzles evaporated before her internal oculus and only that crimson mist remained floating above their slumping corpses. Her head snapped, following the arc back towards its source, but all she could see was a lens and a single chocolate iris behind it.

“Kinetic,” she spoke again with a character that flirted with panic and trepidation, “I will be joining the cell in Canterlot instead. Please make the necessary arrangements.” Her eyelids had swiftly retracted, and she promptly hushed the colt with her hoof when he breathed to object. “I cannot yet explain what I saw, Lieutenant. However, I do know that an alicorn is at the heart of this matter.”

A State of Darkness - Installment 2 - Rail to Canterlot

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The journey to Vanhoover had been relatively easy for Ashen Mystic and her lieutenant. Again, the prowess of the unicorn reigned supreme, for repeated and interspersed teleportation spells cut a trip through the wilderness that would have taken roughly a day on hoof alone to several hours. The pair arrived relaxed at the town limits, where they were met by another member of the clan – a tan stallion named Wire Wise who carried a beige saddlebag filled to the brim with scholarly articles and papers. “Ma’am,” he uttered in a soft spoken voice saturated with politeness. “I hope your travels went well. Those who came this way in the aftermath informed me that your sermon was inspiring. My apologies for not attending, but…”

Ashen raised her hoof and alleviated the colt’s worry with a gentle smile. “You have no reason to apologize, Wire. I’ll assume from the parchments jammed in your saddlebag that you received my request from Kinetic. Were you able to find anything interesting?”

Wise nodded before proceeding. “I examined publications released within the past five years pertaining to the fundamental properties and storage of magic. There are many interesting pieces, Ma’am, but I believe there are several in particular that stand out. I found a collection of papers written by a professor posted at the University of Las Pegasus regarding magic and its relation to electricity and magnetism.” He paused as Mystic peered at him with an inquisitive stare. “This professor is a pegasus, Ashen. Out of all of the papers I read, his are the only ones not authored by a unicorn.

“I took the liberty of procuring as much material on this pony as I could. The sheets are included for review at your leisure, but I will add that his credentials are a bit unusual.” Wire Wise hushed himself momentarily and spun about to escort the duo to the train station. The preparations had come with a degree of danger – as it seemed as though guards had been placed on high alert following the recent event. “We bought off the tickets of an entire car for your travels. Different agents and cash from the local union were used, so the only suspicion you may need to overcome is the absence of others. However, I expect Kinetic will be able to deal with that issue.”

The navy blue stallion briefly scanned the informant with eyes that appeared ensnared by frost. The frigid leer set its weight upon the back of Wire’s head, causing the data hoarder a sizeable amount of observable unrest. Kinetic snorted under his breath, amused by his own actions as his taupe tail reflexively swirled. The reaction was not uncommon within the ranks of the EHVM. His abilities were known by many ponies with whom he worked, so their fear – or at least apprehension – was understandable.

“Am I freaking you out, Double Dubs?” Kinetic teased in the gruffest manner he could muster. “I know how much it must get under your coat considering what I am capable of doing to that precious data of yours. You have nothing to be concerned about, though. I can assure you that I am going to reserve all my talents to deliver our lady to Canterlot – and to crush the bastard that took down our subordinates.”

Wire Wise nodded again. They were not that far from the station, and luckily, the social scene in Vanhoover was slow compared to the other towns of Equestria. At times, he found it strange that the company even ran a train to Canterlot at this hour. However, there was a sizeable quarrying industry in the area, so in that respect, a red-eye run looked feasible. “Your pranks are notorious, sir,” the stallion replied after briskly attending a rogue cactus green lock.

“Thank you for your dedication, Wire Wise,” Ashen Mystic interjected. “I believe we can all agree that the situation has placed Kinetic’s pranks on an indefinite hiatus. A stern aura rests upon us and the course we have set. Frivolities will have to wait until after our demonstration is complete.” The mare inhaled, taking solace in the rich arboreal smell of the Northwest. It was a required comfort in the rising tides of uncertainty.

The rows of quaint log cabin homes, with their unique wooden carvings and adornments, typically drew out the admiration of visitors; Ashen Mystic only felt the load of the lingering question on her mind and the plethora of consequences that followed. Did those houses contain friends or foes? Would she suffer the same fate as her brave underlings, or would she still be standing tall at the end of this adventure? It doesn’t matter, she thought, keeping stride with the stallions. In the end, we will turn the page one way or another.

Within the span of a few minutes, the trio had arrived at the station – a charming facility that carried signs of recent restoration. The ticket house walls had been painted in a stunning sky blue, and the Mid-Celestian revival elements of the building’s roof had been covered in a complementary pitch of purple. Even under the Moon’s relaxed radiance, the portrait was a rather pleasing one to behold. For an instant, Ashen imagined herself thrown behind the lithograph plate that forever etched the founding of Vanhoover. Her ancestor had leant a hoof in establishing the town’s first mining corporation, and it was from those bits that the mare’s own wealth flourished.

After passing several commuter cars, Wire Wise stopped and gestured towards the door of an ornate, business-class carriage. “Your spot, Ma’am,” he announced, immediately catching the critical countenance of Kinetic. “Yes, Lieutenant, I am well aware that traveling in a standard luxury cabin raises security concerns. However, once our dawn comes, they will be all over freighters looking for stowaways. Now as you know, most of the Canterlot crew has been in place for months, but I have distributed a few friends on this voyage in case things go awry. I do not expect them to. I have built a stage upon which you are free to script whatever story you wish…” His brow descended, and his voice skirted the strange boundary between serious and playful. “You are, after all, Telekinetic Haze.”

Mystic grinned as the stallion disgruntledly boarded the train. “Once again, Wire, thank you for all of your hard work.” She paused to receive the saddlebag from her soldier. “Kinetic will likely be busy preparing our accommodations, so I would like you to please issue the following order to the Las Pegasus branch on my behalf. I want that scientist found and captured unharmed, for I wish to address him muzzle-to-muzzle. There is something that I need to check – something involving the loss of our brothers. Whatever setup he has there, I want it found and infiltrated. If the target is present, apprehend; if he is not, then send a message that gets his attention.”

Groggy was the proper definition for my state the next morning. Trigger assumed correctly that I was more than able to get things ready for our deployment faster than the two day ETC I had declared during the debriefing. Admittedly, I was a bit of a workaholic when confronting a task, and the hourglass grains never gave two shits about my need for sleep. Sunset soon became sunrise, and I missed the memo. I probably should have noticed – considering the ever-growing pile of serviced weapons, specialty rounds, and sorted rations that eventually cluttered my workbench – but the special somepony who typically managed to coax me away from the grasps of labor had her own explorations to attend.

At some point, I had arrived at the juncture where my body would no longer tolerate my persistence. Allowing no opportunity for bedward migration, sleep swiftly anchored my head to the coarse-grained tabletop and enforced my awkward position until the jarring prods of a certain black stallion returned me to reality. I was never much of a morning pony, and I still do not quite remember the origin of those rations or how I arrived on time for this meeting. However, at least I knew that I had Trigger to thank for the latter.

Defiant opted to gather in the palace archives to discuss strategy. It was a definite step up from the dreary confines that hosted our previous engagement. The marble flooring – with its sweeping dunes of sandy night over glassy snow – threw the reflections of candlelight flickers against the exquisitely carved stone walls. The archways extended their gothic crescents in a unified tour de force that I judged to be downright breathtaking.

I watched as Mozy plopped in the chair beside Trigger and immediately motioned to lift the stallion’s hat. Her lips formed a dejected frown when the only thing she saw beneath the accessory was his disheveled silver mane. Since they had met, she had made it a game to catch a glimpse of the mercenary’s legendary horn, but the creature of dream had long ago developed the perfect cloak to hide every bit of his magical essence.

“You’ll see it when the buckin’ time comes,” he grumbled at the mare. Trigger affixed his fiery gaze upon her frame and held it still until his Coltston was safely sitting atop his crown. It flustered him, and I knew it. The stallion never had it easy with anyone. His habits and mannerisms evolved in a world indescribable to the average pony, and his sorcerer abilities followed suit. He hid them as a feeble attempt to fit into a fold – a last-ditch effort to blend into the fabric that was ordinary Equestria.

Of course, these efforts were for naught. Even disguised as a brusque earth pony, Trigger was just one of those guys that others either accepted or did not. For a while, it was just my immediate family and me that put faith in the colt. We understood his history and the protective spirit in his heart, and ultimately, others came to see the colthood hero that I had embraced. Nonetheless, old habits die hard, which is why I found myself still staring at Mozy’s scrunched snout as I descended into my seat.

“Your turnaround is as good as ever, Wing,” Defiant began from his perch at the head of the conference table. “I should have expected Trigger to be pushy, and given the surveillance info we received during the night, it was for the best. Residents tipped off the local guards that a stream of a few dozen outsiders entered both Vanhoover and Tall Tale after dusk. While Ashen Mystic was not spotted, I find it hard to believe that this observed flux into the two cities nearest the Galloping Gorge has nothing to do with the EHVM.

“There have been no reports of violence from those locales, but both have train lines that serve Canterlot, Ponyville, or Las Pegasus directly. Troops and officials in Las Pegasus and Ponyville were alerted at 12:30 AM of the potential threat. Given the high-profile targets in Canterlot, Wick and Amora have been speaking with Celestia since shortly after we received word of the tips. Inbound transit will be subjected to a Shining-type malevolence barrier, and an anti-teleportation field has been erected around the capital.”

“It won’t work,” Trigger blurted. He cut off D.H. and leaned back in his chair. “Shining’s barrier sucks. It’s a princely piece of magical farce that relies on one’s interpretation of evil. These fuckers are doing what they believe is right, so how are they going to set off an alarm if they come? It’s just like the Changeling shit show. Sure, it kept out the bugs that were mindlessly pursuing the greedy digestion of love, but how the fuck did Chrysalis stay inside Canterlot with Lord Armor’s holy defense in action?”

The group fell silent after the stallion’s sarcastic delivery of Shining Armor’s name. Like liquid fire, the burn poured through our ears and spread its message upon our collective cognizance. Trigger looked towards me, hiding from the others the sliver of hesitation that caressed his features, and sought approval.

I returned the glance while the silence held; although, it did not take nearly that long to reach a conclusion. Trigger did not often play the scholarly card, but when it came to tactics, his input was priceless. “He’s right.” The contours of the stone ramparts held onto the dying echoes of my voice, and I inspected the emerging looks of concerned awareness that accompanied the reverberations.

“The red-eye was due in at 6:30 AM,” Defiant Hooves spoke solemnly. “There were no indications at the barrier that things were out of place. Arresting unicorns at random was obviously not an option; such derision would only serve Ashen Mystic’s goal. However, guards conducted a profile of the train’s passengers.”

“I need to check for myself,” Trigger again interrupted. “There’s no evidence that they are here, but if I were calling the shots, then I would sure as shit be sending ponies to Canterlot. What do I do if I’m trying to prove I’m superior? I go show up the top brass. C’mon, ya all know I love making those dumbass captains quake, and that’s just for fun. We’re dealing with psychologically scarred little twits who get wet off their superiority complexes. This is where the decisions get made, so if ya want to make your point and spread fear, then we are in the fucking center of a must-stop destination.”

I coughed to temper Trigger’s emphatic outburst. He sure knew how to put on quite the performance, but the point was utterly lost on Mozy and Defiant. “I believe what you mean to say is that we should assume the EHVM is already here. In that case, it’s worth having Trigs check out the train despite the fact that nothing out of the ordinary was seen. He is the master of concealing magic, after all. There is no one better equipped…”

I picked up the pulse of galloping hooves as a pony approached our location. The cadence was frantic, as evidenced by the hard snaps produced by each rapid step, and I promptly turned my head to the doorway in anticipation of a new arrival. “Wing…” It was Amora’s voice that preceded the pony’s entrance. She breathed heavily, a wary sign that I dared not question. Her expression spoke a thousand tales by this point, and I felt the foreboding pull of future’s horizon through each winded gasp. “Your lab, in Las Pegasus, was bombed.”

A State of Darkness - Installment 3 - The Gameboard

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Trigger made use of my abrupt exit to perform an evacuation of his own. He was not one to sit idly by on any matter, especially when he had already chosen a direction; and he was certainly not going to wait around for the kids to give him orders either. He rose to his hooves, donned his burnt umber vest, and slipped from the archives without muttering a thing to a single soul. Our parting stares, however, spoke volumes, and I could tell that he was searching for something in my own stillness. Our concerns had advanced along their scales and left the realm of frequencies visible or heard to those that simply burned. We both remembered – the only currency in war is life.

Outside, the stallion could now feel the tingle of the anti-teleportation field grazing his senses. “Grating,” he murmured while maneuvering through the usual crowd of the capital. “These idiots don’t detect a thing – meandering about without a damn clue. And seriously, could they really only get a bunch of damn rookies to perform this shit?”

He released an audible grunt of just the right timbre to startle a mare nearby. Instinctively, Trigger’s gaze shifted sideways to examine what sort of creature would counter with such a shrill whimper. Internally, his subconscious projected the image of one of those well-to-do ponies that no sane individual could ever comprehend – the ones that found displeasure in anything normal. He was greeted with Mozy’s unabashed grin instead. “Ah, dammit,” she proclaimed after taking yet another peek beneath his hat.

The mercenary merely rolled his eyes at the discovery and resumed his trek. “Couldn’t take being alone with D.H., could ya?” he asked as Mozy matched her stride to his pace. “Can’t say I blame ya for that decision. Ever sat through one of his data dumps? I know the bucker’s smart, but he’d do well enough to just get to the point and shut the hell up. Everypony knows that all the knowledge in the world doesn’t mean shit if ya don’t have the time to act on it.”

She waved her hoof lazily at the colt and giggled. “He means well, and he is a good commander. Though, he definitely can be a little dull with his deliveries. In fact, he and Wick only really pick up their presentation games when Doc is around. That slide of the dossier D.H. did for Wing yesterday, for example, wouldn’t have happened for any other. It was a slick move, considering his state…”

Mozy spotted the bristling of Trigger’s coat and realized that she had struck upon a touchy subject. “Some days, I don’t think he should be involved in this shit at all. Wing, that is,” the unicorn answered in an abnormally subdued tenor. His muzzle remained forward facing as he mulled over the details a bit more. “He gets conflicted easily, and it’s not because he thinks what he’s doing is wrong. It’s because he thinks he can do better. That physicist mode keeps poking for a solution that lives up to the values he was taught.

“He wants there to be good in all ponies; he expects it, and so he debates every damn move when it’s questioned. Things worked out for the best yesterday because he was able to get the outcome, but it’s not always that clean-cut in the field. Some-bucking-times, ya never learn whether the best call was made or not. Sometimes, ya just have to accept that some fuckers are assholes and that some assholes are in your way.”

Mozy swished her tail absentmindedly and listened to Trigger’s rambling as they continued the trot towards the ever-approaching railway depot. Their conversation felt odd to her. Yes, he was forward. He often spoke his mind without a single hint of remorse, but when it came to matters of emotion, that was a different story altogether. The way he tensed up when she mentioned Wing’s name led the mare to believe that something lingered between the lines – something that, against his withdrawn nature, needed to clear the fog.

“His place, in Las Pegasus, was more than just a lab. That was home.” Gravitas hauled his discourse to the metaphorical gates of Tartarus. “When he walked out, I saw a look in him that I haven’t seen in years. It was a look that understood the bits at stake. When it’s a them-against-him affair, that damn doubt clouds his judgment – makes him slow and vulnerable. The fools changed the rules of engagement. By attacking his home, they made it a them-against-him-and-her affair. And ya know that when it comes to Wing, he always protects his flower.”

“Of course he does,” Mozy replied as she ascended the steps of the central station. The alabaster façade mirrored the brunt of the Sun’s plunging rays, forcing the mare to squint en route to the confines of the sheltered platforms. Her ears jerked to the drone of sentinels standing around the cars that came in from Vanhoover. Their chatter was indecipherable at this distance, but it was clear from the tone that the group had lowered its defenses.

Trigger, on-the-other-hoof, figuratively bucked himself into a higher gear. He appeared to be even more perturbed than he had been, and his trot exploded into a full-blown gallop as he bolted towards the fourth carriage. “Ya fucking idiots!” he yelled – yanking the armored troops from their lackadaisical conversation. He pitched their potential rebuttals to the curb and hopped into the car without the slightest care for their consent.

The lavish cabin reeked of the mangled residue of illusion-based magic, and it infuriated the stallion to no fathomable end. Rookies were already polluting the city he detested with the foul, discordant fail spell. At least that offense was moderately understandable, but this went above and beyond the threshold of incompetence. “How did ya buckers miss this crap!?” His voice emerged as a guttural growl that kept the others – with the exception of Mozy – anchored to the platform.

“Do ya not smell it? Do ya not feel it? This entire car is drenched in a fucking aura of lies.” When he heard no response, he abruptly stopped the tirade and made his way to one of the windows. “No damn answers, huh? Bunch of dipshit cowards.” He shattered one of the glass panes and flicked away the enduring shards before pushing his head through the opening. “I’m talking to ya, asshats. How many unicorns were on this car?”

They stumbled over one another until the stuttered answer of zero teased Trigger’s ear. At least they had not questioned his credentials, which either meant that they were just as incompetent as he previously surmised, or Mozy went ahead and gave some valid explanation for their presence. “Zero? Zero? And that didn’t strike any of ya as odd given what we’re looking for? Let me guess. There were a bunch of ponies on this car, but they didn’t line up with what the brass said to apprehend so ya stopped giving two shits. How could a baddie get through Shining’s barrier, right?”

Every possible aspect of their security had failed. As he suspected, the Shining-type barrier could not detect the malice they sought. Quite to the contrary, its use probably assisted the culprits by skewing the expectations of those on patrol, and if that were not enough, the unicorns assigned to this shift seemed incapable of sensing the presence of innovative magic. The chain fully bore itself to Trigger’s tactical aptitude, and the sheer scope of the fiasco left him seething.

The only pony not trembling in his sights was the moderately entertained Mozy. The rest looked like a bunch of bedwetting foals in need of some dire education, and Trigger possessed no reservations about dragging the unit back to class. “I bet ya all have headaches too, which I’m sure ya collectively shrugged off as an effect of a sudden overnight alert. Care to take a guess as to what that was, geniuses? It was a unicorn shoving a pike up your perceptions’ asses!”

Kinetic was filled to capacity with pride. Sure, the authorities had been tipped off to a potential threat, but they were completely unequipped to deal with his skills. When the guards arrived to poke around the box he had shared with Ashen Mystic, their cluelessness had been practically tangible. It probably did not even matter that he threw up an elaborate display of lesser species as a distraction. The entire engagement was a debacle – for them – that sent his spirits soaring.

Ashen opted to remain a bit more reserved during their mission. The presence of an anti-teleportation field and the use of a barrier indicated that others were at least somewhat aware of her group’s actions. Her lieutenant had certainly performed his duties admirably, but it was far too soon to unfurl a celebratory banner before the ranks.

One of life’s imparting lessons repeatedly demonstrated that even mutts had their days. In fact, society practically gave these trophies to the filth without questioning the consequences. How many times had she heard others praise a useless earth pony for conquering a feat that she could have trivially accomplished with magic? How many times had she watched one of those arrogant fliers swoop down and poach a position that she had slaved to reach?

These instances carved pathetic, indelible stains on her history that, while painful, exposed the mare to the brutal truth. They scraped the fragments of the solar façade from her flesh until nothing but the pure essence of their plight could be retained. Unicorns had been muzzled by a myth that sacrificed their blood for the supposed magic of equality.

Mystic’s heart thumped as her vengeful inferno raged. She would rip the shackles from her race and bask in the glow of her followers’ unbridled light. Yet those lessons, those lessons were persistent. Like ghosts or shadows, they clung to whatever bits of her they could and echoed those ghastly memories that unveiled all that was lost. She would not forget that the smut received favor in this era or that, despite her efforts, some opposition required reckoning.

The cold, biting accent of a mare drew Ashen from her innermost shell. She and Kinetic had arrived at the safe house after the additional hoofful from Vanhoover had trickled to the comforts of company. Sackcloth irides sucked Mystic’s attention before she threw her forelegs around the crimson-maned ally. “Erzsevine!” Ashen shouted as her hooves pressed into the pony’s ivory fur.

“I am glad to see that you brought Telekinetic with you, Mistress.” She pulled back from the embrace and stood firmly before the pair. “We will need his expertise. You see, I’m afraid that we are down to two members from the original cell. The others chickened out once we received the orders to execute New Dawn.”

Ashen’s jaw dropped as she listened to Erzse’s words. Someplace in the back of her mind, she had predicted this outcome, but she never foresaw such betrayal from this cell. The Canterlot group was composed of those who spoke as passionately as she did. It was forged in a cauldron of unity that eclipsed the others. It was formed by those who claimed they would go the distance, but only two endured to the hour of need.

“Would you like to see their heads, Ma’am?” the mare asked without conveying any feelings of regret. “I already showed them to the rookies. It assisted in their understanding of our operations off the conventional grid. Now that you’re here, we can actually receive orders directly, of course. I hope you are not mad at me for my actions, but I could not allow sacred blood to flow through the veins of traitors. For once, I didn’t even bother to taste…”

“No,” Ashen stated, having recollected her sentiments, “I am neither mad at you, nor do I have the desire to fuss over trash. Wire Wise selected the ones who travelled with us, so I have faith that we will still observe an honest sunrise.” She pressed her hoof to Erzsevine’s blood drop brand and smiled. “I know where your loyalty rests, and I know that we cannot have defectors fleeing to castle walls.”

“Indeed, we cannot,” Haze added as an expressive beam gradually bloomed, “but I insist that we move on from the small talk, Ma’am. Erzsevine already did what she does best, and time only gives our enemies a chance to prepare. Besides, I am curious. Which target did the Blood Countess select, and which original member lurks within this house?”

It was only then that Ashen Mystic absorbed the dreary conditions of the establishment. Darkened, disjointed floorboards creaked beneath her prodding hooves. Torn wallpaper went unrepaired, and decorations found no home in the dimly lit foyer. From elsewhere in the house, the sounds of stallions bonding drifted all the way to the mare’s heart. In particular, the presence of one vigorous laugh brought a tremendous sensation of warmth to her assailed nerves.

This joy manifested for both Erzsevine and Kinetic to behold, and the mare immediately took the opportunity to confirm her leader’s suspicions. “That is Tepesch, of course. It is a good thing, too. The disposing of that big brute’s body would have been a strenuous, albeit enjoyable endeavor. The plan I drafted is fairly straightforward, but our deployment additionally depends upon your reason for joining us.

“You both realize that communication with the central command was not easy or frequent. This is exactly why the formation of this unit underwent additional scrutiny. We were to function without contact for long periods of time. We have not attended meetings, and we have not engaged in dialog. We have been silent observers – predators waiting for our cue to devour the prey. Wire went through a great deal of effort just to tell us you were coming without blowing our cover, but he did not risk telling us why.”

“Three assassinations took place near Galloping Gorge, and Celestia’s magic was somehow involved in their executions,” Ashen replied with a tinge of sorrow coating her legato notes. “We are investigating a stallion in Las Pegasus, but that is tangential. The Princess is here, which leads me to believe that the answers I seek might be here as well. In addition, it makes sense for me to be on the frontlines during our greatest battle.”

Erzse showed no outward reaction when she took a moment to collect and process what the rose-colored pony had said. “I see,” she responded before moving straight into her briefing. “My plans have adjusted slightly to take into account the presence of an anti-teleportation spell. Considering the heightened level of security, a two-prong assault is optimal.

“There is a farmers' market taking place in the southwest quadrant of the city. Our reconnaissance of this gathering over the past few months has shown that it is attended by primarily earth ponies. Since the Royal Guard is sensitive to our movements and deeds, I aim to exploit a weakness by sending Tepesch to attack this location. It perfectly fits our perceived modus operandi, which will hopefully invoke a strong troop response.

“This will make our true objective, the 13:00 Wonderbolt coliseum race, a more attractive destination for the cell’s second wave. It is true that our own kind will be integrated with those unfit for life, but since it is a well-attended windrat function, I will reserve my remorse for any pony that actually manages to pleasure my palate.”

A State of Darkness - Installment 4 - A Blurred Line

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The relentless stampede of grueling scenarios pounded my brain over and over. My muzzle clenched as I stomped down the hall, and my jaw ached more with every passing nightmare that drove my tranquility further off its mental cliff. The cadence was backbreaking. Fibers of my very essence were being tangled with a construct that begged to ponder the daunting what-ifs. What if more than just the lab had been lost? What if others had been hurt? What if she had been home?

The searing heat of blood pulsing through my body might have been an illusion, but the aftereffects were quite real. Whatever doubts, whatever misgivings, whatever disenfranchised hopes I held in the recesses of my internal cathedral for these enemies, they were hunted down and purged. Enemies, the word itself carried an almost foreign flair. I had seen my fair share of obstacles, and I had been in more combat than most Equestrians could dream; however, I could not recall a single instance in which I had stricken someone to that most-chastised column.

Then again, never before had any opposition connected the dots. As horrifying as the hypothetical questions were, they were at least subjugated to the bounds of conjecture. My house being destroyed, unfortunately, no longer abided by the rules of fiction. In the background, Amora continued to paint the portrait of reality regarding the Las Pegasus assault and response. Several unicorns had been apprehended while attempting to flee the scene, and some rookies had been injured during the exchange of castfire.

“Ashen Mystic was not among the members taken into custody.” The single sentence overcame the sweltering noise that composed my inaudible deliberations. There was no mistaking EHVM’s involvement. They were behind the attack, which meant that I had left something behind during Ground Cover’s rescue operation that revealed a link.

“Bullshit…” My outburst surprised the medic straight into a stupor that halted the ongoing relay. Her lips curled into a sheepish grin as though she had decided to wear the embarrassment on my behalf. We had spent enough years together to know when something slipped out unintended, and this one was definitely such a case. “I didn’t leave anything behind,” I explained, hoping the additional bit would bring the mare up to speed.

“A bit Triggeresque, wouldn’t you admit?” she teased as her awkward expression transformed into something spirited. “But I guess that explains what you’ve been thinking about this whole time. You followed your usual protocol though, correct?”

I nodded. “The only objects I brought with me were my uniform, the A0, and a case of Celestia rounds.” Echoes of that shot still rang in my memories, but the accompanying burdens that I had felt were long gone. To me, there was always a line in the sand when it came to conflict – one that separated a pony’s presence on the field from cherished treasures. Sure, the divide could be trampled easily enough, and throughout history, a few depraved souls demanded such actions. To me, however, that delicacy of equinity made it worth protecting; I just never imagined that I would live to see it recklessly abandoned.

“You said you only used one round. Did you leave the case behind? Maybe…” Amora stopped when I groaned at her overly maternal tone. “I guess you’re right. The cleanup crew would have spotted something like that. Although, you have no right to gripe with me, Professor,” she quipped. “I saw your bedroom when you were a foal, so I know all about your little messes.”

I froze in my tracks and tilted my head with a quick snap. By impulse, her barb had put me on the defensive, yet there was something there that ticked a gear forward and pinched an anxious nerve. The cogs spun as awkward sensations of euphoria and vertigo swept over my limbs. Ideas rapidly tumbled into place – having squeezed into crevices that I had carelessly overlooked.

“Change of plans! I made a mess!” I turned towards the nearest exit as a noticeable wave of confusion washed over Amora’s mien. “They went back to the site after we pulled out. Its values might be jacked up, but we still need to remember that the EHVM likely has some gifted unicorns in the ranks. Ashen Mystic herself possesses an accredited archaeological talent, so what if she saw a spill made with a princess’s magic?

“I need to find Trigs and get suited up; and you need to get back in that meeting to convince Celestia to cancel whatever engagements she has. I still don’t understand how they made the jump to my lab, but it’s too much to be just a coincidence.”

The alabaster mare heaved a heavy sigh once I had concluded. “I’ll do what I can, but remember that I’m your doctor, not a secretary. I don’t particularly have that much sway with the royals, and frankly I think they can take care of themselves. It’s your duty to protect the common pony, and it’s my duty to look after you. So let me just say that you’re doing that dumbass thing again.

“You were boiling a few minutes ago – ready to march whatever order you damn well pleased down the throat of anypony. Every time you’ve bottled up your feelings with a quest, it has never ended well. It’s different this go around, Wing. They came after you, not some other pony you have to save. They came after you and hit your home, so don’t go running off on us to do something incompetent.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Amsy,” I replied in a tone that carried a hint of Trigger’s natural grit. “I’m not bottling up anything for the sakes of these ponies. There is no excuse for what they’ve done. Attacking a civilian target is crossing the line – one that I do not take lightly. Others were hurt, and they were hurt at my expense. I’m not running off to do incompetent shit; I’m running off to deal with every single one of them.”

Ashen roamed the streets of Canterlot with far less apprehension than she had during the venture into the city. Hearing Erzsevine’s plan brought her a great deal of relief, and those feelings intensified with every evaded guard they passed. Kinetic’s powers were working wonders, even against a foe that was clearly at the ready. Whatever these ponies were seeing, it was not a group that aroused or warranted suspicion.

The group of six took an indirect route towards the arena as an additional layer of protection. Like a snake, they would meander to the target until the perfect opportunity arose to coil and strike. They also had to wait for Tepesch to begin his exercise, and Mystic could only imagine what glorious webs of terror he would weave to ensnare the vermin of society.

He was a bulky steed with strength that often surprised those brutish soil laborers, and his violet-touched cores kindled a sense of fear that ran shivers up Ashen’s spine even while merely reminiscing. Once, she had observed exactly what he was capable of doing, and the piercing wail that fled that creature’s dying form was only equaled by the crunching snap of bone. Courage, intelligence, and strength loitered about his demeanor in a manner that she could only describe as humbling – as though she were personally blessed with an immortal manifestation of her oppositions’ nightmares.

Telekinetic was her impervious shield; Wire Wise was her all-seeing lens; Tepesch was her sharpened spear; and Erzsevine was her unquenchable desire. A truly stunning lass Ashen had met in her youth, Erzse enchanted as the ponification of lust itself. She danced along the fringe of sin and dabbled as a graceful unicorn should. Those worthy of her dignity received it – whereas others experienced suffering worthy of her moniker. The pending race provided the perfect opportunity to see how much her faith had evolved.

“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” A young, unicorn colt shattered the mare’s concentration with a sharp shout as he flailed a folded newspaper with a touch of magic. “Lab in Las Pegasus destroyed! Criminals captured!”

Ashen flipped a bit to the scrawny-looking pony and plucked the paper from his charmed grasp. The young one appeared completely improper for a member of her species. His colorless hat carried neither spark of life nor class; and his blue fur had degenerated into a ghastly, tattered condition. The spectacle paraded her reasoning in the open for all to engage. No able unicorn needed to exist in an Equestria where they were demoted to such infantile tasks.

“Soon enough, my child,” she cooed to the perplexed colt before they parted ways. Ashen eyed one of Canterlot’s many clock towers and made note of the hour. The structure, with its sapphire blue face set within shimmering white stone, was a genuinely serene guardian of this moment in history. Deciding that there was enough time, the mare unfurled the levitating parchment and began reading the headline article.

“Our friend wasn’t in last night,” Ashen informed Telekinetic, “but our message will most definitely be received. In fact, the absence of a professor on a school night comes across as out of character to me. Perhaps Wire Wise has once again shown us his genius with regards to data management.” She peered upwards as if speaking to a higher power and added a whispered prayer for her captured minions. “Your sacrifices will not be for nothing.”

When I reached the hotel room, I found Mozy resting comfortably upon my bed as Trigger chambered the specific assortment of specialty rounds he preferred. The stallion had favored an eccentric variety since I released the second generation casings, and there was really no point in persuading him to try something else.

Being a character of dream, he resonated well with the Luna-type shells and used them as a dominant front for his starting volleys. A pair of Little Squirts was carried out of respect for the dagger-loving mare, and of course, there was an added hint of Amora-type and Wing-type rounds to the mix. Beyond that, only his own ammunition made it into the brown backup bands that adorned his forelegs.

The fact that he could effectively wield the full spread of those wavelengths spoke volumes about Trigger’s inherent gifts. Simply firing a round was not enough to utilize these weapons. One had to fashion a bond with the magical extract sealed within each bullet. Without that connection, the reliability of the revolvers tanked, and the probability of catastrophic damage dramatically increased. It was another reason why I did not trust my contraptions to anypony else but Trigs.

“I like the W’s,” he commented, referring to a single golden casing now under his scrutiny. “Ya spent two shits and a Sunday trying to get it to work, but ya pulled it off in the end.” He snickered, alluding to the agonizing task of mining a sample of my own pegasus augury. “By the way, the dumb bucks down at the station blew their assignments. A rank illusion spell was all over one of those Vanhoover cars, and it wasn’t your typical crap job either.

“The city is crawling with unwanted guests, and they have actual talent to boot.” He loaded the last round into Kix and gave the cylinder a gentle spin before throwing a glance in my direction. “But first, I want to know what kind of rant your rampage brought upon us all.”

“The script needed editing as usual, but I’m here for a reason,” I retorted as my own gaze fell upon my uniform. Trigger – having determined that he need not prod further – responded to my words with an affirming grunt and returned to his preparations as I made my way to the liberty blue ensemble. I draped the fabric over my foreleg and peered at the jagged streaks of black that ran along the underside of the body. There was something about this costume that felt empowering – as though the constricting fibers imbued a sense of valiance into my soul.

I slid my hind hooves into their respective slots, fed my tail through a small slit, and hoisted the suit over my flank. With a gentle tug, the material settled along my thighs and unrolled upon my back, which yielded the perfect windows for my forelegs to move into position. My fur compressed as I guided the zipper towards my neck, and with each inch the tab progressed, the surge of valor grew ever stronger.

The hood stretched over my head and muzzle to complete the transformation. In its wake, a reflection stood that seemed unrecognizable. Chocolate irides – partially illuminated with an amber fire – gazed across the argent glass into my heart. I puffed my chest with a gulp of air, for my subconscious yearned for a reminder that this image indeed belonged to us. It did. I had chosen the path of war – for the defense of my family, my home, and the values upon which they blossomed.

The midnight stallion’s instincts had unveiled our battleground. My residence had been needlessly assaulted by bigots, whose audacities reached beyond the ethics and discourse of combat, and now my capital sat drenched in the stank of nefarious dreadmongers. While it had once terrified me, the mission passed down from above garnered an indelible edge that would neither be broken nor altered. We would eradicate Einhorn Vormacht.

As if on cue, sirens annihilated the fragile calm that hovered over the crowns of the unaware. Scrolls, containing direct royal decrees, emerged before our very eyes through spiraling portals of nocturnal flames. I swung back to face Mozy and Trigger. The former had rolled from the bed and stood at attention, wondering what exactly Trigger or I would say. The stallion did not budge from his post. His sights had once again thrown that errant attention past the panes and across Canterlot towards our showground.

“Belay that order,” he answered the unspoken question after pitching the scroll to the floor. “The others can handle one stallion attacking a fucking farmers’ market, and besides, that isn’t where we need to be. That same pitiful aura is creeping in from the stadium. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t a race start seven minutes ago?”

A State of Darkness - Installment 5 - The Pike's Thrust

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Canterlot’s normal drone crashed into a rumbling, atypical murmur. It held its sway over the farmers’ market grounds for several seconds, producing raised hairs and unnerved souls before the shockwave of the cacophonous swell hit. Castfire cracked, its dull-toned blaze chaotically sweeping across the square, as it arced from a slate-colored horn. Violet irides methodically traced terrified ponies as they attempted to flee, but Tepesch would have none of that.

His sorcery burned into their coats, seared their flesh, and forced even the strongest-looking earth stallions to the cobblestone streets. Squeals of frightened children rang to the unicorn’s delight as he brushed a renegade ivory lock from his muzzle. He threw his powerful hind legs into a brutal buck that transformed a prestigious display of orchard apples into a showering snarl of splintered wood and mush.

A sadistic chuckle brewed in his lungs before bellowing forth in an accented tempest. His concerto reigned as he steadily approached a downed victim – a tan-colored pony grimacing in pain. Like the twisted clef dictating the pitch of his sonata, Tepesch made his move as soon as he caught a glimpse of the fear tainting this heretic’s green cores. Just as expected, the inferiors cowered in his presence. Equestria’s lies had made them weak. He could see it in the way this trash quivered at his hooves, and he could hear it in the way the anguished whimpers crawled into his ears.

Tingles of rage spiked the colossal charger as he reared up. He was Ashen’s pike – an impaler meant to deliver the sermon of truth to the unworthy. There was supposed to be a challenge. His boiling muscles were destined to beat the opposition into the hell it deserved, but the throbbing heat simply drove his forehoof into the head of this crumpled mass with ease.

He flicked dangling crimson globs from his retracting leg and took pause to examine his strike. Even in death, panic saturated the stallion’s lifeless orbs, and Tepesch’s posture instinctively adjusted to acknowledge the sin of pride. The impacted skull, the inert form – all features to be assigned to the rats.

The unicorn perked to the bustle of the coming guard. Their sirens and battle cries derailed his concentration, but they also served as indicators that he was indeed drawing them towards his kingdom. The distraction mattered not. He had time to play, and no mortal of Celestia’s troops would have the power to parry his spear. In fact, the point had already secured its next target.

A light-blue earth pony had lain upon his side after feeling the scourge of Tepesch’s crippling magic. He panted heavily, ignoring the tear in his torso as he tried to wave off a yellow unicorn filly defiantly standing in the monster’s line of approach. The connection was as clear as the afternoon sky. The blood that spilled from the wounded also flowed through the young one’s heart.

“Is he your father?” Tepesch asked as he neared the child. His icy intonation sliced the air and made the filly tremble. They had all seen the brute’s diction of mercy – a terse, unyielding scythe that reaped innocence from their world. His horn illuminated with the fire of coming death, and his mouth opened to deliver the sentence. “Filth must be purged no matter the form.”

The bolt sprang from his head before another crack of thunder shocked the plaza, but the castfire did not reach its mark. A silver shield had wrapped its aura around the young pony, protecting her from the demonry that loomed. The blood that stained her father’s fur rose and vanished as his injury was rapidly exorcised into the nothingness.

Dumbstruck, and glowing in the celestial glimmer of restoration, the stallion stood and turned to see an alabaster mare a few paces behind his assailed family. Her brown mane twirled with the breeze in a soothing manner that sharply contrasted the way in which her piercing cobalt stare ground against the sturdy Tepesch. “You will not touch them,” Amora retorted when a fractal spark rolled along the surface of her barrier.

A bright spiral of energy quickly ascended her horn before a radiant blast engulfed Vormacht’s enforcer. He emerged from the spellfire like a ship’s bow cut through the waves, and another boisterous laugh leapt from his lungs as he brushed aside a wayward argent flicker. The medic gawked in disbelief at the state of this stallion. Her internal metronome stumbled furiously forward as she noted his pristine condition. If Trigger had been there, it would have been easy; but this thing possessed a plethora of transgressions that would take time for her to penetrate.

“Impudent child,” Tepesch countered. “For one of the misguided, your defensive capabilities are impressive. However, that offensive strike was nothing more than pathetic.” He reared up again and drove both of his forehooves into Amora’s shield. “I’ve already put the fear in them!” he roared at the quivering ponies who had unconsciously recoiled. “You’re too weak to defeat me, and a shield always inevitably breaks.”

Driven to prove his argument, Tepesch slammed against the sphere once more. The bubble held firm, giving Amora some moments to scan the landscape. There was one confirmed fatality and numerous casualties. The thick aroma of bled iron sat in her nose, and it was obvious to her that many of the injured were teetering on the edge of death’s unnegotiable event horizon.

With the ATF in place, she could not teleport them to safety. Erecting protections around all of them was possible, but there was that ever-haunting chance that she would have to cope with a direct attack. “Where in Tartarus are you…”

Two black blurs preceded a sudden pressure front that tore Tepesch from the task of delivering repeated blows. Decked in matching midnight threads, Defiant and Wick took their posts at the center of the market grounds. Amora was relieved to see them; the aggressor was more than intrigued. Within the span of a few seconds, he had spun from the buffer and lunged towards the commanders.

D.H. lowered his stance while his wings spread to attention. The orange pegasus was ready to take off the instant his instincts gave the signal. Meanwhile, his partner remained still. Wick’s red irides – a canvas upon which nature painted its ardent fire – observed every stride Tepesch took. His grey wings also flared as computations estimating the unicorn’s strength, speed, and skills ran beneath his jet mane.

Wick sniffed when the stallion took another step, and his ear flicked at the recognition of Amora’s choice of spell. “Parameters, Ams!” he called before he and Defiant darted in opposite directions. He quickly rolled atop the street’s surface to dodge a round of castfire Tepesch had flung his way. The magical residue sizzled upon the stone behind the pegasus, leaving no doubt that this pony was a beast incarnate.

“12 minutes, 43 seconds, Colonel.” She expected orders to follow, but they did not come. Wick barrel rolled around another bolt of magic while Defiant swung towards the unicorn’s rear. The pair had entered the dominion of battle, leaving the medic to tend to the wounded and the unsecured perimeter. She shifted her attention to the earth pony stallion and his daughter. “You should evacuate now.” Her serene voice was met with thanks, a gentle nod, and a quick departure. Her prayer had been answered, for she was now free to heal the fallen flock.

D.H. dashed into the opening created by the unicorn’s strike. He would start with a quick jab to the flank that would benchmark the dreadmonger’s close combat abilities. The maneuver did not connect, and Defiant’s eyes grew wide as he sensed the power of the pike’s pending buck. Tepesch had moved with an atypical agility for a stallion of his build, but the Bolt commander would not let anypony one-up him on the field. A single flap pushed Defiant out of the line of fire. He contorted his frame and landed on all four hooves before a pair of surprisingly respectful grins tugged the combatants’ expressions.

The ephemeral fermata gave way as Wick sought to add his own riff to the score. He hopped up about two meters into the air and swooped in Tepesch’s direction. “Fun, but gnats nonetheless,” the unicorn muttered as erupting slate snarls sought the pegasi. The magical bands bounced off the fibers of Wick’s uniform, indicating exactly what type of spell had been hurled his way. All DarkOps uniforms had been enchanted to resist rheostatic, physical manipulation sorcery.

It appeared as though his enemy had gone straight for the one-shot and failed. The greyscale pegasus surged forward, deciding to use the opportunity to demonstrate a little magic of his own. He collected moisture from the air as he flew and seeded a small cloud that had sprouted in his grasp. Wick curved around the beams of the meandering labyrinth and thrust his wielding hoof at Tepesch’s illuminated head.

The cloud compressed during the punch, and a cascade of fragmented lightning emerged from the overstressed tuft of vapor. Surprised, the unicorn pushed up onto his hind legs and twisted away from the sprinting Wick. He growled as one of the sparks dug into his muzzle, and with a shout, he tossed a violent spell at the duo.

“Bucking windrats!” he raged, reacting harshly to the scarring pain of the electrical ejection. The stone-colored stallion returned to his standard posture as flames burst from his horn. The rock beneath his hooves shattered from the force of his supernatural will, and the sky above reverberated with the vigor of his fierce cry. “If I can’t grab you with my power, then I’ll just beat you both down with something that can!”

Amora snapped her head after curing one of the fallen. Her heart pounded as thousands of cobble shards swirled about her friends, and she was slowly drawn ever closer to the trio of warriors. In the span of another step, she had constructed armor around herself, Wick, and Defiant Hooves. “Order rescinded, sir,” she barked. “I can’t allow Wing’s little brats to get their asses kicked while I’m on the job.”

The colts exhaled sighs of relief as the pebbles rebounded off Amora’s defenses. While both had the speed to outfly the circling swarm of gravel, performing those maneuvers over the duration of time required would have undoubtedly led to a lost battle of attrition. “Thanks, Ams,” Defiant spoke as a cool breeze descended upon Canterlot. “If you’d please…”

“Barrier established, D,” she interrupted. “We can’t have others coming in, and we certainly can’t have this nutcase expanding his reign of terror. Now, how about the two of you stop pussy-hoofing around and just up the damn ante already?”

The cheering crowd, the ecstasy of delighted foals, and the misplaced love pushed Ashen to madness. She hated the spectacle to its very core. Even unicorn youth, with their futures so bright and filled with promise, turned their undivided attentions to the likes of Spitfire, Soarin, and Fleetfoot as they proved over and over that all a pegasus was good for was turning left.

The group, cloaked by the resolve of Kinetic’s gift, pressed against the brick archways that circumscribed the arena pitch and waited for the cue to come. Minutes into the race, the piercing tone of brass reached their drums. The guards stationed at the upper levels of the stadium appeared distraught – as if they were torn between a duty to stay and a desire to go.

For the time being, the onlookers remained less concerned. The sport carried on for several minutes until Mystic determined that Tepesch’s decoy had gone on long enough. The six stepped onto the field and unleashed a spectral array of castfire that downed the renowned Wonderbolt racers. A gasp gripped the audience as a stunned panic crept into their innocent hearts. Those near the crashes stared in anxious anticipation as the three pegasi stirred within their painful stupors.

Guards rushed down the stairs once the initial doubt yielded to the unrelenting gravity of truth. Those with magical abilities returned salvos of their own, but they were quickly brought to their knees by the ever-expanding web of Erzsevine’s crimson blaze. A playful giggle leaked from her lips when she cut them down without mercy, and her crescendo only grew to match the dichotomy that flourished before the sight of tumbling heads.

The maniacal unicorn embraced the screams and danced amongst the notes while her smile spread to match her budding joy. Inferior ponies were dying in droves from her touch, and their sanguine cocktails – while of lesser quality – still managed to arouse the mare in manners few others could. Her compatriots, finally opting to sling their own strikes at the spectators, threw their own strokes upon the wicked portrait.

Unicorns in the crowd struggled to fabricate their own barriers of protection. They were not accustomed to the pace of battle or the horrors it wrought. Their fortifications lacked the spirit that had made Einhorn Vormacht a desperate and formidable foe, and as such, they crumbled bit by bit after each inbound assault.

Amidst the bedlam, one of the stallions of the fold spotted a particularly lanky red unicorn colt tending to one of the fallen fliers. The scene yanked the sergeant as a pang of hatred stung his heart. Members had been taught one simple truth. They were the chosen race, and compassion for the thousand-year oppressors was never to be tolerated.

The snow-blue assailant trotted towards the blasphemous display, levitated himself over the metal railing, and ventured into the stands. His blizzard-like gaze descended upon the quaking child while that chill wind ruffled the steed’s golden mane. A sadistic expression exploded upon his countenance as he charged an attack worthy of the scene. He would gouge out this foal’s green eyes and dissect the legendary Captain Spitfire. His name would be etched into the annals of their reich, and he would ascend to greatness.

Awe fell upon the arena as an enormous onyx-hued shield enveloped the bleachers. Erzsevine wailed in disgust as her enchanting strands were cast into oblivion. Telekinetic Haze was taken aback by the utter strength of the barricade, and even Ashen Mystic wondered if they had incurred the plight of an alicorn princess.

If there was one thing that I hated witnessing more than anything, it was the attempted abuse of a filly or colt. The cloud was already condensing in the cup of my hoof as I dropped along the edge of Trigger’s shelter. That stallion’s absurd abilities not only cut the aggressor off from his allies, but it provided the perfect distraction to annihilate with a death from above.

The bolts sprang to life in my grasp, and their cackles grew louder and louder as I closed the gap. Adrenaline usurped my frame for the climax, and my breaths collapsed to deliver a lurid howl at the instant I drove my hoof into that bucker’s head. The cluster of firebolts I had carried discharged in a volatile release that ravaged the stallion’s eye sockets, ears, and skull.

I landed between the slumping corpse and the colt as the odor of burnt hair reached my nose. I had taken another life and could feel the action’s accompanying bitter gale, but its reach was not as strong in the bournes of this carnage. There was no twinge of regret rumbling about my mind this time around, for there were plenty in this warzone who needed and deserved our protection.

When I finally hurled my gaze to Ashen Mystic, Trigger had taken his place at my side. He was still wearing his mask, yet his weapon-wielding stance betrayed the silent fervor that brewed in his magical blood. I knew his glare to be piercing and imagined that its amber snare spoke the same message. We had an engagement with destiny that transcended the calamitous precipice at which we all stood. An intersection fabricated by creeds and crimes tossed the weight of the impasse upon our very souls, and in that moment of locked stares, I swore that Mystic mouthed, “It’s you.”

A State of Darkness - Installment 6 - The Pike's Fall

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The barrel of the A0 slid off Trigger’s back as I pulled the rifle from the stallion. The members of Vormacht were still visibly confused by the enormous barrier, and I could tell that several of them were trying to pinpoint its source. They overlooked the obvious – subconsciously refusing to accept that the earth pony before them was, in actuality, a unicorn of the highest magical caliber. Their confusion provided a window that I had no intention of passing up, and frankly, no tactician ever would.

“Captain Spitfire!” I barked at the downed pegasus, hoping that she could quickly regain her composure. “This is a situation for the shadows. Please help evacuate the arena immediately.” The pop of the bolt rang up the bleacher rows before I took my aim through a small shield gap provided by Trigger. In that instant, everything descended into darkness. There was no crowd, chaos, or dismay. Even the concrete beneath my hooves crumbled to oblivion. Only my targets and my rounds accompanied me to this domain – where we gathered as a collective trio for the almighty solar resonance.

Sparks of that radiant star jumped along my nerves as I depressed A0’s trigger. Celestia’s blaze erupted from the steel mouth in jagged bolts of regal plasma that eviscerated two stallions of the enemy line. Their cadavers, penetrated and mangled, fell like discarded dolls to the field before a piercing cold captured the fleeing crowd in a momentary silence.

The dichotomy of the event managed to overtake the barrier erected by my concentration. I had already pulled the bolt for a second shot when the wails of Ashen Mystic corralled her troops. The three remaining unicorns consolidated their defenses with redundant spells, and Trigger promptly placed his hoof on my back to stop a second volley from ever being fired.

“Pointless,” he answered my inquisitive gaze. “One of them is the bucker I was telling ya about. It’ll take time to tear this magic apart, and until I do, we’ll both have to assume that our experiences are being fucked with.” The stallion had shifted gears. Every ounce of his tenacious tone was inundated with the ardor of a brilliant strategist. “We’re going to have to engage them. Can’t sit it out – fuckers might leave under cover; can’t seal ‘em in – little pissants might not actually be sealed. Only way to know for sure that we’re still in combat is to start some shit for a change.”

“Sounds about right,” I answered as a rush of pegasus-driven wind trundled through my mane. Mozy had flown over my head and touched down by Trigger’s opposite side. She had taken a few minutes to slip into her own liberty blue uniform – a decision that would prove to be a wise one. At least the suits would afford us a bit of protection against the coming castfire.

“Until I dispel that abomination, avoid fatal strikes. We know one another well enough to recognize mannerisms, but we’ll have no buckin’ idea if we put ‘em down or not, and we shouldn’t risk stupid shit anyway.” The midnight stallion, catching the attention of the EHVM elite, stepped through his own shield and leapt onto the pitch. They eyed him curiously as his right hoof reached for the trademark Coltston upon his crown. He flipped it to the clean-cut grass and unbridled his silver strands to the breeze.

The charger took a moment to examine the fallen that soiled the greenery with crimson gashes and singed sinews. He sensed the confusion that bled from his foes and smirked as an obsidian catalyst kindled an argent lock hanging over his forehead. The drums of war called his name, and the beat shoved him towards the long overdue reprieve that aroused his latent talent. A black horn burst from his skull, thunder tore across the confines, and catapulted bands of magical essence lashed cracks into the brick wall that lined the field.

Mozy’s jaw plunged once Trigger’s unrepressed light graced her irides for the first time. Her legs shook as the shockwave’s sustained reverberations explored the structure beneath our hooves, and it was fairly apparent that she was experiencing a swell of emotions similar to what I felt during my first encounter with the stallion. I wished that I had prepared a satisfactory explanation for her; however, even after all these years, the sight appeared just as mesmerizing as it had on that fateful night.

“Hey,” I spoke quietly as an aperture just wide enough for one of us to fly through appeared in the buffer. The expression of astonishment remained static upon her mien when she turned her head to face me. Whatever expectations her imagination had concocted, they ultimately paled in comparison to the actual event. Mozy was my protégé for a reason, after all. Behind the teasing, playful nature, a dedicated mare lived to own her surroundings, and I could diagnose her unquenchable desire to understand just what in Tartarus we had witnessed.

“Just be careful,” I mustered before passing her the A0. She had been training for the day when I would finally trust another soul to handle my abomination. It would not be useful where I was headed, and with the anti-teleportation field in action, I had no other option at my disposal. Carting it around would slow me down, and leaving it unguarded would be foolish. Those circumstances were largely irrelevant in the end, for I had faith in her.

My jaw clenched when I lifted off to join Trigs, and a single order dribbled past the congregated plateaus of enamel to the perked ears of my waiting subordinate. Blood lingered around us; death ensnared the broken bodies of fallen guards and terrorized innocents nearby; and danger lurked mere meters ahead. “Hold the line, and if you absolutely have to … believe in the Sun.”

Wick groaned as his torso skated over the rough cobblestone square. Tepesch had thrown a powerful punch, and although the pegasus had managed to initiate his retreat, he had still been toppled by the meager connection that resulted. Scurrying to his hooves, the commander made a quick, internal reflection; if Amora had not been there, then the situation would have been devastating.

She had neutralized the swarm of debris after devoting several arduous minutes to the production of a counterspell to deal with the brute’s aggression. However, the maintenance of a perimeter barrier in addition to a trio of personal shields was undoubtedly taxing the mare’s impressive abilities. They needed an executive decision, so he had made one. She would protect herself, contain the area, and nullify the stallion’s rheostatic capacity.

Of course, that edict meant that both he and D.H. were forced to rely upon their own defensive devices for the time being, but the grey-colored stallion did not view that particular issue as much of a problem. His mind was surging on the combat high and he knew it. Wick – with his mane disheveled and uniform scuffed – was bruised and battered, but his body could not detect the wounds. They had to buy enough…

He jumped and sprang laterally as an arc of castfire jutted from the unicorn’s head. Defiant, once again, sought an advantage by making a move into the vulnerable gap, and Wick would not allow history to repeat itself. The commander pushed off his hind hoof and sprinted into low-altitude flight. He had to gain speed swiftly if he wanted to correct the timing offset between himself and his orange partner. D.H. was approaching the large pony from the flank, and based upon the observed elevation, pitch and trajectory, Wick surmised that the pegasus was aiming for the wither ridge between the unicorn’s shoulder blades. Experience suggested that Tepesch would rear up to counter the dive with a barrage of sorcery, which meant that the rear legs would become the ideal focal points for any secondary offensive.

He swerved towards the conjurer’s tail end as bolts began to ferment in the cloudy ball swirling about his foreleg. The sizzling snaps joined the choir of energizing voices tuning in Defiant’s grasp. The pair seemed in synchrony as Wick lunged for Tepesch’s gaskin the moment the beast whipped upward to fling a preemptive pulse at the other pegasus.

The blast threw D.H. nearly fifteen paces from the slate stallion. He landed upon the stone with a violent thud that sent a series of defeated whimpers cascading from his winded lungs. The orange flier lifted his head slowly and gazed upon the bloodied tatters that covered a two inch span upon his chest. He grimaced as his nerves began to cope with the raging fire, but thankfully, his uniform had absorbed the vast majority of the strike’s strength.

Meanwhile, Wick discharged the electrical buildup directly into the unicorn’s calf. Furious roars assailed the market grounds as the menacing currents internally charred the muscle. Impulsively, the stallion recoiled his hindquarters and thrust his falling foreleg towards the pegasus, but Wick’s momentum easily carried him out of harm’s way.

Rage irradiated Tepesch’s contracted violet irides. Dilated pupils sought retribution for that vile incursion upon his purity. A windrat had touched him! A windrat had marred his flesh, and every single pang that jarred his intended motion served notice after notice that anything less than merciless vengeance would be unacceptable.

Blades of castfire sliced through the air and set their points toward Wick. He evaded the torrent and dashed into the sky with a surprisingly smooth flick of his feathers. The bird's-eye view gave an opportunity to check on his companions, and what he saw concerned him greatly. Amora’s posture drooped with the signs of developing fatigue, an ominous sign which left the commander wondering if the mare had the stamina to make it to the endgame.

Defiant was mobile, but his speed seemed to be diminishing before the present burden of trying to outmaneuver spell after spell. Their opponent carried an innate endurance that might have even rivaled Trigger’s potent inferno. The manner with which avoided assaults ferociously bombarded Amora’s armor was proof enough of that. The shrill shrieks of each collision produced waves of dread that probably had the common ponies shaking; however, Wick found himself sporting a confident grin as he twisted his frame to put Tepesch right in his path.

His wings contorted to an unusual angle during the brief pause the stallion took at the height of his arc. Enough separation had been achieved, and D.H. was attracting Tepesch’s berserker madness in spite of the wound. In addition, the unicorn had acquired a limp that boosted Wick with an extra shot of motivation. He tilted his frame downwards and accelerated rapidly to the rainboom threshold before performing another feather adjustment.

Instead of outright shattering the legendary limit, Wick caressed the atmospheric ley lines into an air shell that rocketed him forward. Turbulent vortices formed in his wake, and blackened vapor lines blossomed in the whirling sea of inharmonious noise that followed. The pressure wave alone would be enough to likely send the cruel pike to his knees. It would be enough to end this calamity. The pegasus could practically touch the concept bubbling in his mind. All he needed to do was unload the front.

Tepesch whipped around to confront the buzzing of the gnat. Hatred percolated his very essence, and the emotion was only intensified with every reminder that sprung from his damaged limb. He caught the filthy windrat just as the pegasus was about to execute a flyby over his spine. Sharpened sights settled upon the exposed underside of the aerial ace, and the unicorn promptly grasped redemption by goring the officer’s stomach which his horn.

The stallion’s only regret was that he could only hear the desperate cries fleeing the little fucker’s mouth. The feel of bones breaking had escaped him, and the absolute wide-eyed look of terror upon the wriggling pony’s countenance could not be seen from this position. He could hear the sounds of hooves atop pavement as the orange one pressed for his comrade’s rescue. That effort would be for naught. He would channel the depths of hell itself through his magic and paint the plaza with the trash’s entrails.

An unforgivable crimson river coated his fur as Tepesch began to charge the decisive blow. More and more blood began to drench his slate coat and ivory threads while sensations of ache and agony spread about his frame. This was exactly what he had sought – a battle worthy of the ages and filled to brim with fear and revulsion. Yet eyes clouded by aversion do not often see…

In the span of several seconds, Amora had moved from her perch and pulled Wick from the pike’s spear. She had abandoned her protective cradle to envelope the pegasus in an argent wrap of healing light. He wheezed as the grueling injury closed – his leg never untightening its grip on the mare as she stared down the towering Tepesch.

The stallion stood before the opened gates of victory as he realized that the vital crimson tainting his physique did not belong to the razed windrat. The grating discomforts torturing his muscles and bones were not simply born in the thrill of the fight. They were not just mental projections of grandeur. They were real. It was all real.

An accented scream shook the court as Tepesch’s horn splintered and crumbled. Numerous bones fractured and snapped without provocation, and familiar wounds manifested upon the stallion’s skull and underside. His legs snapped and stretched as numerous unspoken questions leapt from his swollen orbs to the tranquil resolve of Amora’s scrutiny. “That worthless spell,” she answered as his skin bruised and ruptured in a plethora of excruciating lacerations, “just returned every injury you inflicted in the name of malice.”

A State of Darkness - Installment 7 - Ashen Snows, Blizzard Haze

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Trigger stepped onward without pause. His brows descended into a sculpted scowl as he drew a path through the onslaught of multicolored beams that flew from the unicorn triumvirate, but the stallion would not be denied. He reached the reinforced barrier and calmly brushed it aside with a single wave of his foreleg. The shimmering rainbow spectacle drifted into nothingness, leaving behind nothing but the lucky residue of a satisfied smirk upon the charger’s countenance.

He spun – as if suddenly possessed with the elegance of a dancer – and dodged the incoming crimson bands that sought the bounty of his blood. From my ever-changing vantage point, it appeared as if Erzsevine had succeeded in skewering the pony with her counterassault, yet Trigger remained unwavering. He pressed his hooves into the softened soil and moved through another blur of chaotic castfire without a scratch, nick, or sign of damage.

For a second, I pondered his less-than-subtle warning. We did know each other better than most, and the manner in which he meandered about the field of battle seemed utterly out of place for our resident dark horse. It was not until I caught sight of that quintessential grin that the pieces fell into place.

The sounds of the magical strikes had not meshed with the stallion’s perceptions of battle. The air did not howl with the frequency it deserved. That sense of adrenaline-induced anxiety was not emphatically marching down his spine. His fur did not pulse to the ever-jolting drive of pressure’s beat. Vormacht was toying with him, or at the very least, they believed he was duped by the charade.

His expression, however, ignored the tale that they had hoped to tell and replaced the script with a piece that could not be farther from the delusion of grandeur. Trigger was thinking – seeking out the one in the pack whose abilities highlighted a potential contender to the crown he unveiled only in the darkest of hours. Etching plans upon my mind, his look stopped me in my tracks with the tomes it hectically scribbled.

Wicked transpositions accompanied pivots about crimson bolts until amber cores glazed over for the thrill of the resolving chord. Something real had been found in the sea of the imaginary, and it was hard to miss the ripple of excitement that rolled along the tufts of argent and black.

Revelation perturbed his frame as he lunged for the navy blue stallion with surreal speed. With a snapping kick, Trigger whirled to buck the dreadmonger in the throat with his hind legs. He cocked the necessary well-built muscles and fired, pummeling Kinetic’s neck with a jarring blow that produced immediate effect. The presence of a caving spine was tangible, and a sharp crack teased and taunted the aural linings of his perked ears.

The crumpled body dissolved and quickly reformed as an animate colt that plunged his horn into the depths of Trigger’s exposed side. Arrogance ascended as the Vormacht lieutenant felt the blast of heated gore drape over his sorcerer’s appendage. “All that allegiance being pissed down the…”

“Brat, don’t kid yourself,” Trigger interjected to Haze’s surprise. “The stench of your shit magic is impossible to miss. I’ll give ya street cred where it’s due though. Ya can prod all the senses, but ya fucked up your own bone density… It kind of ruins the surprise.” The midnight steed performed his own vanishing act and reappeared unscathed before Telekinetic’s awestruck stare. Much like the sweeping arc of his clef, Trigger moved his horn into position and established the bassline he desired.

The rumblings of repressed powers surged forth in haunting strips of ghastly black that cast the glowing runic language of the unfinished upon the frame of the blue illusionist. Without delay, Ashen Mystic sprinted towards her second-in-command as stains of horror plucked the corners of her lips. She leapt upon Kinetic’s back, wishing without bound that she could yank him from the assembling cocoon before it was too late.

I watched as Trigger, Kinetic, and Ashen Mystic were engulfed by the hemisphere of abandoned wizardry. While the mare’s act of desperation had been driven primarily by intuition, I understood the full scope of what Trigger had done. He had reached into our youth for something to combat the dread. He had torn the manipulators away from their developing works of fiction. He had opted to give them a lesson in combat that they would not live to forget – if they lived at all.

Telekinetic Haze stripped the fog from his thoughts and glanced about the nighttime abyss. His gruff-talking opposition had faded into this artificial shade, a deed which left threads of confusion that he and Ashen both struggled to conquer. Furthermore, the relatively pleasant grass of the stadium had been usurped by a cold liquid that crawled several inches up his legs. The clammy brew carried with it the scent of ink, and the appalling sequence of connected sensations was only partially offset by the warmth of Ashen’s body that permeated his coat.

Her rapidly repositioning muzzle continually tugged strands of his fawn mane; it was a sign that she was also searching for those direly needed answers. The light of her archaeological augury raced over the infinite expanse before them. It could illuminate the history of this place. It could reconstruct the details of the enemy they faced. It could…

“That’s impossible…” her voice emerged as a weak whimper that barely managed to cross even Kinetic’s threshold of awareness. A few steps in front of the duo, a young filly peered with a pair of sorrow-laced vermillion cores. Ashen remembered that expression well. It was the one she wore when her family received the notice that she would not be admitted to the school for gifted unicorns. It was the beginning of her long path … the long path that inevitably led to this place – to this moment.

“How interesting.” Manifesting from swirling bands of amber fire, Trigger surfaced behind the Vormacht unicorns. “Out of all the things ya could have pulled from the Ocean, it’d be that,” he commented as an enraged Kinetic whisked around to confront him. His frosted eyes were consumed with a hatred that betrayed the coming castfire, and as such, Trigger evaded the attack with little expended effort.

“Don’t listen to his bullshit, Ashen! He’s just using second-rate magic to put thoughts in your head.” He knew that she was still eyeing the apparition even after he had turned. “He’s not worthy of his horn! There is no way a bucking appeaser could best me with a spell of deception! Do not let trash cloud your mind!”

Kinetic reared up and dropped the mare from his back before launching into an all-out advance. Globs of the murky sea flew from his galloping hooves as he closed the distance between himself and Trigger. His horn shined with the hell-bent glow of fermenting rage, from which he forged and flung serrated blades to quarter his prey.

Haze listened to the satisfying notes that followed. Deep, agonizing wails erupted from the obsidian stallion as the navy blue edges gouged whatever chunks of flesh they could. Red creeks trickled from the injuries to join the mighty ocean that coated this particular shithole. It was a savory juxtaposition that united such an unsightly dominion with a great victory. “You will release us, now.”

The torn stallion staggered forward and panted after dropping into the ink sea. He gritted his teeth for a few moments and clenched an eye shut as the scenery played like a triumphant melody to the boasting Telekinetic. Yet this opus was not meant to last. It ended abruptly when the annoying sounds of echoing laughter filled the space – and when Haze’s biting demand was retorted with the image of a slain Trigger gradually sinking into the depths from which it came.

Wielding a cerise scythe set upon a wrought iron staff, Trigger descended from above and drove the blunt end of the shaft directly onto the top of Kinetic’s crown. His amber irides sought nothing more than Ashen’s vermillion leer while he forced her officer’s head beneath the wavy tides of his unbridled strength. “Call them off.”

Straps of Trigger’s essence bound the navy blue stallion by wrapping tightly around his thrashing limbs. He struggled violently in the ever-constricting rheostats and tried to lift his head against the firmly held weapon. Frantically seeking air, he writhed beneath the imposing stallion for what felt like an eternity. The tempo of his pulse tumbled into a faster beat as his morale collapsed from its invulnerable pedestal to the grave of certain death.

“I told ya to call them off! Now!” Trigger’s words ripped Ashen’s psyche apart. He had allowed Kinetic to gasp for air for a moment before sending him back into the wretched void, but the fury with which he spoke made it clear that he would not allow Kinetic to live for much longer. The gravity of her situation was sinking in and tugging her in a plethora of directions.

They could not fail – not even in the presence of this endeavor-shattering obstacle. They had to put the fear of the superior race back into the hearts of those who believed in superficial equality. The ghost of yore behind her was evidence of that, and from that point on, things simply got worse. The mere fact that this traitor would stand in her midst and demand that she surrender sent a rousing chill through her veins. “Get up, Kinetic! Get up!”

Trigger gave the stallion another breath of air as he tossed his weapon upwards. He pushed his foreleg against the staff, torqueing the scythe in such a manner that the blade began a rapid decent towards Kinetic’s spine. He maintained his gaze upon the rosy mare and wondered what decision she would make. When the slightest bit of grief appeared on her countenance, he allowed the razor to slip safely beneath the stallion’s neck and used it as a prop to lift Haze unharmed from the Ocean of Reverie.

“Ya show compassion for your colt,” he spoke as the navy blue stallion coughed and wheezed, “but ya won’t order him to end the bullshit when you’ve already lost. You’re a smart bitch, aren’t ya? Ya leapt for him as soon as ya saw the runes, so ya picked up the truth somewhere in those deranged studies of yours. I’ll just save ya the damn hassle and get straight to it. Order him to stand down, or I will lop off his fucking head.”

Ashen winced as anamneses poured into her awareness. She had recognized the runes as an ancient practice that arose long before the time of Platinum. They were passed down through sects of the most skilled unicorns as marks of merit, and in some regard, she had used their existences to justify the superiority of her race. This stallion’s abilities, however, transcended what she had considered possible. They were supernatural – even in a world where magic was as common as air or water – and they terrified her. “What are you?”

The strained phrase was not what Trigger had in mind. He planted his hoof against Kinetic’s horn and inscribed a rune upon the hard appendage without a second’s thought. Shortly thereafter, the fallen unicorn was squealing as the fibers of his magical essence were severed from fate’s diction. “Perhaps, I didn’t make myself clear. I have no reason to show either of ya sympathy. In fact, I legitimately hate each and every one of your fucking group, and there is nothing that I would rather do than hack all of ya to pieces. But it just doesn't suit the occasion, so I'll have to improvise.

“Ya want to know what I am?” He lifted his hoof from Haze’s horn and gestured towards Ashen. “Then I’m going to have to collect a trade.” Trigger’s tone shifted into a low, serious burr for this overture. His torrents of ink desecrated the cathedral that was Mystic’s story and dragged tale after tale from the cesspool of her subconscious. Ghostly forms of the defeated unicorn roamed the darkened sea. “I am a creature of dream, one bestowed with the gift to wander through your reveries and nightmares.”

Tears flowered in the mare’s eyes as her focus drifted across the stages of her life. Those rough javelins of ice skewered her spirit more and more with every event she relived. Denied admittances, rejected applications, windrat favoritisms, dirttrodder affirmations – all such slights produced a broken, empty shell.

“Even now, my bucking demand is being usurped by the misplaced emotions these instances created. Yet, even given the vitriol they fueled, I guarantee that I hate ya far more for the shit you’ve done. Every dipshit battles hardship! Not every dipshit becomes a psychotic bitch because of it. Ya attacked my family. Ya stole the lives of innocents! And ya certainly devalued the only currency that matters.

“I wonder what it’ll take for ya to say what I want to hear. I mean, I’ve already pitched his defining trait to the curb because ya took too long. And that’s really just about the only worthwhile thing you’ve got going for ya; compassion’s got to be there because ya followed him to his death. But ya can’t just give it up – even with your best friend drowning in front of your very eyes. Ya despise us for doing our best to find a fit in this world – for finding love and friendship where ya chose to ignore it.”

A spark suddenly jumped from Trigger’s horn. Its blackfire blaze ignited one of the scenes – turning the ponies in the portrait into a batch of cinders that dissipated into the abyss. The memory evaporated from Ashen Mystic’s repertoire, taking with it the odious burden it had carried. One-by-one, the onyx sure-shot purged the archaeologist’s recollections until those budding tears fell like rain. She openly wept as the diminishing venom met the unaffected bastions of regret and guilt that had been buried by Vormacht’s zealotry.

“Stop it! Stop it!” she cried while slowly making her way to the pair. “Kinetic… it’s time to stand down.” The lieutenant dared not speak with his neck still resting upon Trigger’s scythe, but his gaze contained all that was needed. Part of him wished that she had let him die in that filth if it meant that she would remain the vision of purity she had always been; yet at the same time, he found her cradling embrace to be a welcomed reprieve from the reaper’s clef.

Trigger withdrew his weapon and began deconstructing the enclave. He had won what strategy deemed a necessity, and he knew that many would not grasp the rationale of his decision. “If ya try to run, I will not be nearly as merciful,” the stallion declared as the presence of Canterlot Stadium became more tangible.

He inhaled sharply as new information flooded his perceptions. The temperature had bottomed out as blizzard-like winds threw atypical drifts of snow atop the powdered turf. That horribly erected anti-teleportation field had disintegrated, and the sky had gone from its stunning blue to a dull grey. A familiar riff of neighs echoed across the heavens while my lyrics soared above the frigid choir to supply instructions. “I need Kix – ammo box three – shell one!”

A State of Darkness - Installment 8 - Death's Frozen Vine

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The rumblings of repressed powers surged forth in haunting strips of ghastly black that cast the glowing runic language of the unfinished upon the frame of the blue illusionist. Without delay, Ashen Mystic sprinted towards her second-in-command as stains of horror plucked the corners of her lips. She leapt upon Kinetic’s back, wishing without bound that she could yank him from the assembling cocoon before it was too late.

Trigger dragged Telekinetic Haze and Ashen Mystic into a hemisphere of abandoned wizardry. He had reached into the depths of our youth for an incredible skill that defied the expectations of even the most vivid imaginations. He had torn the manipulators from their developing works of fiction, which gave me hope that I would not have to combat the potent effects of deceptive fantasy. Of course, it also meant that I would have to confront a unicorn with instabilities that did not require a professional to diagnose.

She spent several moments trying to hack Trigger’s dreamshell to pieces with her sanguine-style assaults. Incomprehensible gibberish sprung from her tongue as her repeated efforts gained zero ground, but the ferocity boiling off her ivory coat did not warrant a translation. Like life’s spilt vitality, the mare’s mane cascaded over her neck and shoulders in rivers of red that adjusted their currents for every slash. Her shifting irides were barely distinguishable from her pupils, and staring at them produced a sense that I was sinking into the fatal clutches of the Grim Reaper.

“What the fuck did that asshole do to them?” A dozen spikes of congealed castfire raced towards my head from behind the crest of her shout. The swarm of possibilities ran through my brain while a cloud fragment compressed to my beckoning punch. A direct counterattack did not look promising with the unicorn’s full fury centered upon my frame, but there was another option. A loitering unknown existed that I yearned to address sooner rather than later.

I sidestepped the spurs and hurled my spark into the bypassed barrage. A few of Erzsevine’s barbs made it through my discharge and traveled on to collide with Trigger’s persisting barrier. The majority disentangled – producing palpable blasts that carried every indication that my senses were no longer under the influence of external forces.

“Dumb bucking windrat!” she roared with a fierce accent and darted in my direction as more magical threads burst from the tip of her alabaster horn. The mare was a bit faster than I had anticipated, and her insult cut me to the core. There were certain words that were never meant to be thought – less even spoken – and that was one of them.

I flew away from the sprawling spell and moved into a sweeping arc along Erzsevine’s left flank. Her blatant ignorance and racism stoked a pulsing heat that radiated from my heart to the tight bounds of my uniform. Cognizance retreated afore the surging swells – leaving my mind to cope with an emotion it rarely encountered. It was wrath – pure, untainted wrath – that aligned my body with destiny.

In the stands, Mozy had lifted the A0 to a firing position. She was not used to such a bulky weapon, but there was no way in bucking Tartarus that she would be caught sitting on her hooves after Wing entrusted her with something only he and Trigger were authorized to touch. He had gained some distance from the surely unstable Erzse, and for a moment, Mozy had considered pulling the trigger.

The concept of ammunition resonance felt foreign to the DarkOps pegasus, even though she had listened to numerous lectures on the subject. This was the first opportunity she had to put the knowledge into practice, but the consequences of failure were incredibly severe. Detonations and arc flashes were possible, neither of which seemed worth the risk amidst a bunch of panicked, evacuating ponies. On top of that, there was the remaining concern that some illusory spells were still in play. The risks mounted against the reward of helping me in combat, and all of that doubt generated enough of a gap for my next maneuver to provide the decision for her.

I had pitched my wings and swung towards Erzsevine, taking away the chance for Mozy to get off a safe shot. The fibers of the mare’s spell tracked my motion, but her damn slur propelled me forward to a blistering velocity. Stormy eddies soon conglomerated behind my hind hooves as the rainboom threshold coiled around my body. Darkened clouds formed in the slipstream, which deflected the trailing attack with its brooding vigor.

The energetic wake overpowered the surprised Vormacht officer, tossing her in an atmospheric tide that broke at a thirty degree angle from my trajectory. She staggered backwards, and the tense grimace that contorted her expression revealed the boding tempest of displeasure. I whirled around, inclined to punt that appearance permanently into the countenance of her face, and performed another hypermach pass.

Scarlet spheres of rheostatic sorcery attempted to take hold of my limbs as I approached the mare. Her tactic was sound, and her aim was accurate, but the energy slithered off my frame like hot, melted wax. To avoid my advancing hoof, she responded on reflex alone – an impressive feat considering that I was flying fast enough to create a debris field in my wake.

I could hear Erzsevine’s ardent scream as the bits of dirt, grass and stone dug through her fur and drew blood. I turned right, setting a corkscrew course around the mare’s backside. The helical ploy not only hurled soil into the air that would screen the disturbed pony from her prime target of opportunity, but it also opened a wakeless pipe in which I deposited fragment after cloud fragment.

Ending the maneuver, I emerged from the dust and headed back to the swerving mare. She was aiming to catch me in her sights at the moment I crossed the bridge of her muzzle at nearly point-blank range. Again, the windward side of her body was bombarded with the wreckage of my blustery drag. She snapped as more ruby stains tainted her ivory coat, but I had already veered behind the dreadmonger’s retaliatory reach.

For once, this mistress of death would be paraded like a puppet for the eyes of Equestria to witness. Sure, she managed to follow the motion of my flight, but her rotation was out of sync with regards to my timing. She was still pivoting when I darted through my array of veils, and the violent sequence of unleashed electric bolts blazed a path to Erzsevine’s exposed rear.

With a grunt, the filly flicked her grazed head in my direction and countered with a spreading collection of crimson vectors that covered the apparent vulnerability. The attacks drew their own battle lines where they crashed into one another, but one of my sparks jumped the stalemate trenches and raked the mare’s side. Her cries grabbed my ears at the same instant a sweltering pain pierced my hind leg. Blood splattered my liberty blue colors as I flew on through the agony, and spite transcended her limits as the gruesome sear howled.

My wings pressed on, carrying the weight of a wounded limb as I set my path for the contemptuous mare. Her moans had shifted to maniacal laughter while her brain registered that she had finally struck her mark. Her frantic eights stumbled upon the ever-morphing score, and although no words followed, the lustful, sadistic intent had been hastily painted upon her face. She savored our engagement.

Canterlot’s plummeting temperature went unnoticed amongst the inferno that was our fight, and Mozy’s terror did not touch me as I swung to charge. I would end this nonsense once and for all as the view of haltered lightning and trembling jetclouds rushed the swarm of life-seeking threads of fate. The meters of separation drifted into history as those serrated fibers shot through my wings and unarmed foreleg. Neither the blows themselves nor the burns of seeping blood could stop my momentum now. I hooked my hoof at her horn and shoved the electrical slug into the magical appendage.

I collapsed onto the rugged pitch behind Erzsevine as her shrill, staccato shrieks echoed throughout the stadium. Her horn had cracked – a painful sentence for a unicorn that might as well have meant death itself. I had stolen her magic, and as her agonizing movement saturated the chilled air with its cacophony, I struggled to rise from the dirt.

Sanguine scarlet trickled down my limp wings, but the discomfort was utterly lost in my mind. They had killed so many. They had terrorized my capital, beheaded its guardians, and scarred our foals. I absolutely hated them. I absolutely hated her, and every beat from this particular tempo impelled me to rip Erzsevine into pathetic shreds.

My legs ached with an indescribable sting as I regained my balance. Unable to cope with the vile torture emanating from her ravaged spike, the mare had fallen. I ignored her pleading wails – although a part of me wondered if she was desperately begging for a return of her power or a swift demise. I had nothing left in the tank, but I knew that – once I crawled to her – I would summon the strength to bash her villainous treachery to pieces.

I ignored Mozy’s voice telling me that the A0 had been ensnared by a block of ice. I snubbed the paranoia that stretched over Canterlot. I disregarded the dissolving ATF, the creeping frost that traversed Erzsevine’s legs, and the engulfing hail that sought my soul – until her fermata.

You’re not yourself, Wing. The hint of sweet southern charm tended to the darkened state of my splintered mind. A job is only a job. That’s it at the end of the day. It’s nothing to live for and it’s nothing to live by. If you work so hard that you’re just a shell of who you once were, then what? You said you’d protect me, and I believed you. How can you protect me if you can’t even protect yourself – if you’re not even yourself? Don’t allow them to steal you away from yourself… Only I am allowed to do that, remember Wing? I love you…

“Amby…” My sockets widened as the scope of the situation snatched my awareness. We were being frozen to death – all of us. From the bleachers, Mozy was still barking at me for instructions. The city yielded to chaos as the typically azure sky surrendered to murky grey. Sheets of ice, snow, and sleet covered the arena as the neighs of windigos wept to our animosity, and Trigger’s spell disintegrated when I broke from the reaper’s clutches to commence my march towards the shivering mare.

“Trigger! I need Kix – ammo box three – shell one!” The warmth of the stallion’s sorcery enveloped my frame with a tender embrace before my underside was rotated skywards. He realized quickly that I had been hurt, and he recognized that the likelihood of me being able to go it alone was poor. We would shoulder the burden together as brothers born from dream for the sake of those dying from disharmony. He approached my shadowy, levitating support and eyed me with a bit of skepticism as the revolver appeared mounted at the end of my good foreleg.

“What do ya mean by box three?” he asked curiously, prodding the notion that a new generation of shell had actually been created without his knowledge. Long ago, we had established a system for ammunition storage that allowed Trigger to teleport needed rounds over great distances. Each generation had its own box – and each box had its own well-defined location.

“Sorry Trigs,” I answered before clearing the cylinder of his preloaded set, “but this one… is just one that’s made for me. You’ll understand soon. Just...” I stopped once the weight of the single bullet rested upon my chest. Its golden shimmer sharply contrasted the dampened colors of my stained uniform – along with the sea of grey and white that swirled around us. Etched onto the rear end of the casing were three characters that revealed the truth to the midnight stallion.

Underneath the sky of deadly frost, I strove to lift that round into a chamber with my gashed limb, and I gasped for breath through clenched teeth upon claiming success. Those three characters touched my heart as I moved the cylinder into firing position. They were the perfect letters to survive the ocean of hatred, for everything they stood for meant the literal world to me. A&W…

“Ya made a dual round…” Trigger spoke in a hushed whisper that disguised whether he was asking a question or making the assertion. “I thought that would result in…”

“Disastrous resonance,” I interrupted, “which is why this round has to be fired by me.” I tilted my hoof, putting pressure upon the surface of the pivoting switch. The internal hammer resisted the will of the spring as my motion continued, and once again, my surroundings fell away. Except this time, I was not consumed by a state of darkness.

I felt love. I caught the scents of cinnamon cookies and a baking pizza. I saw those aquamarine irides scouring my memories in search of everything that made me who I was, and I held onto that tenderness and affection as though nothing else mattered. The catalyst took hold, venting the powerful, unequaled emotions of friendship – of love – into that single shot. We wouldn’t die here today. No more ponies would be lost. We would live… to cherish and smile in the tomorrow for which I fought. We would grasp the opus we all deserved! We would discover that vengeance had no rightful place in war's currency. We would silence the drums of battle with the light that shined within, and with that, the orchestra vanished to the single percussive snap of my trigger pull.

A State of Darkness - Installment 9 - Solstice: A State of Light

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A golden blaze, laced with streaks of lavender and lilac, soared like a phoenix rising into the frosted heavens. The subsequent detonation produced an expanding spherical shell of warmth that drove the windigos from the bournes of Canterlot. The drifts of snow, tombs of ice, and clouds of grey surrendered to the radiant sun and the inspiring aura of love that rained upon the city.

The descending scent of cinnamon teased my nose before my body fell limp upon Trigger’s magical pedestal. I grunted, seizing as the adrenaline-suppressed pain launched its resurgence upon my chemically spent self. Whatever boundaries I had set for the fields of war, they were all surpassed and taxed for my deeds this time around. Even amidst the bounty of the specific piece of reverie I had shared, the weight of the darkest day was squeezing life from my busted legs and broken wings.

Stirrings swelled as more guards arrived in droves. The unicorns came first – as evidenced by the hum of teleportation that still managed to perk my fading senses – but there were others. In times of sorrow, duty remained; I often thought that it was this direction that made the emotion particularly pronounced. A pony without a home could wander without regret. It was the fear of loss that turned events into tragedies.

Several others had gathered around me as Trigger lowered my platform closer to the ground below. He was mumbling something about flowers, but his words did not convey any meaning to me. I was fixated by the thrill of a theory – one that related significance, drive, and disaster with a convoluted web of logic. And that first phase did not even factor in the effects of time. There were numerous variables and an infinite span of models that I would have to explore to grasp understanding from the disorder of being.

My soreness was subsiding as I made headway through my internal ponderings, and a surreal wave of relaxation lazily meandered about my nerves. I felt like sleeping – like riding whatever beat my soul had been given straight into the captivating embrace of dream. Maybe I would find her there – in the gentle tides – waiting like the blossom she always was. That idea seemed magnificent – until Amora’s words shattered the false serenity. “You’re in shock, Wing.” I dragged my head to face the recently arrived medic as my frame trembled to the sudden perception of an abnormally clammy coat.

“Buck Luna, I’m cold.” My sights shifted between the ponies that had congregated around me. Mozy, with the A0 slung upon her back, had – at some point – left the seats to stand by Trigger’s side. Both held incredibly strange expressions that appeared to be an awkward superposition of astonished and concerned, but despite their looks, something about them just being there helped reset my senses. Senses that helped me notice that Amora had taken her post on my opposite flank, and that based upon the fact that her horn was glowing, she had to be the real reason my discomfort had dissipated.

“With all due respect, sir, I do not condone that statement. Princess Luna is a kind mare who does not deserve to be bucked.” I glanced at a white pegasus stallion with an unusual degree of scrutiny while details of the picture before me came into focus. He bore the nightshade décor and armor of Luna’s House Guard, spoke in a surprisingly collected and formal manner – given the circumstances, and possessed a crisp argent gaze that had undoubtedly seen combat.

“Apolo… Geeze!!” My attempt at a sincere reconciliation transformed into a rapid shout when Amora pitched me onto my stomach. I huffed at the awkward tension that tugged upon my tattered wings and took a brief pause to regain some semblance of composure.

“Buckin’ dammit Ams!” Trigger interjected. “Give the colt a little warning, why don’t ya!?” He retrieved Kix from my sprawled leg as his short outburst garnered the scorn of the protective mare. The pair produced the banter of school-bound children as my attention drifted to the scenery that had blossomed beneath my hovering form.

A bed of black ambrosias filled the middle of the field in a shape that roughly resembled my atomic cutie mark. Each flower sat within sparkling shields of lavender that radiated energy in visible crescents. There were dozens of such pairings, each yielding testament to a promise I had made to a certain mare long before this discord began. Tears swelled in my eyes at the mere remembrance of that glorious moment – the niche in time when I told her that I would never let a soul harm my flower. It looks like you went and saved me again, Ambrosia. And to think that I almost forgot that the darkest day is also the solstice. Things can only get brighter…

The emotional spectacle attracted the attention and concern of the lunar sentinel. “I do not think that all of the shouting is doing much for the patient,” he remarked tranquilly after performing a closer inspection of my mien. I peeked momentarily at the waves of navy and royal blue that composed his mane before my concentration returned to the luminescent garden. It had not been my top focus, but the stallion’s statement was correct. I had had enough noise and bickering for one day; I was tired of it all.

“I’m sorry,” Amora replied, resting her hoof upon my neck. “I’m just frustrated. That castfire was laced with healing-resistant charms, which is making everything difficult. I’ve managed to stop the bleeding for now, but you have some broken and fractured bones that I am prohibited from instantly fixing. Since you damaged that filly’s horn, we can’t just force her to remove the blocks.” She brushed the beige bandages wrapped about my legs and sighed. “It’s just gauze and cloth at the moment. We’ll have to do it the conventional way, so I’m going to have to admit you.”

“Princess Luna already ordered a floor at Canterlot General to be reserved for the wounded,” the pegasus added. “I have been instructed to escort the casualties of the Wonderbolt DOC to the facility and stand watch as needed. My unit has also been tasked with assuming custody of those responsible for today’s attacks. Unfortunately, there is no protocol for such an engagement; the princess had faith that someone from this … unusual … unit would have orders for me.”

Trigger audibly drew a breath into his lungs, and I could tell that the stallion was either preparing to haze the newcomer or lash out in response to the sudden imposition. “You’re First Sergeant Silent Knight, correct?” I asked, cutting my onyx unicorn off at the proverbial pass. “My name is Wing, and I’m one of the colonels of this regiment.” From the slight state of surprise that flourished on the colt’s face, I figured that my deduction had been correct. “We keep tabs on those close to the royals. Protocol, you see?”

My gesture undoubtedly resounded with the soldier despite the persistently raspy and diminished condition of my voice. Use of the word ‘protocol’ erased the expression of alarm right off his muzzle. Indeed, I had read some reports detailing a by-the-book character called Silent Knight, which seemed to fit the current bill to the bit – and usually outlined various recipes for calamity. However, Luna repeatedly added merits and praises to his record, at least to the pages that inevitably reached my desk, and that was enough for me.

“Trigger, Mozy, give his unit support on the prisoner transfer. Since it seems as though Ams is all that’s keeping me together here, I’m relieving myself of duty to let her do what has to be done. Our orders were S&D, but I’m guessing Trigs had a reason for not killing the ringleaders over there. While I appreciate your concern, Sergeant, I don’t need you posted at my side.

“There is plenty to do here, so I want you working closely with these two. Trigger’s decisions need to be enforced, no matter how gruff, intolerable or tough he sounds. When it comes to the captives, I want his commands executed to the T. Get that issue settled, but remember that we lost lives here. Their remains need to be tended, and those of us living need to be comforted. Above all, we serve the common pony. Just keep that in focus.”

“Yes, sir!” Silent Knight gave me an affirmative nod as Amora carefully prepared a teleportation incantation for two. A brief wrinkle of hesitation held the stallion’s tongue before the desire to add an assessment overcame the hierarchical clout. “If I may, Colonel, it’s refreshing to meet an officer who maintains such an outlook.”

I smiled as the medic’s magical light coiled around my worn hide. “Let’s just say I had a really phenomenal sergeant as a guide when I was first granted an officer’s commission…”

Trigger exhaled slowly and examined the solemn stadium grounds as he adjusted his Coltston hat. He, Mozy, and a collection of other guardponies had spent the rest of the daylight hours gathering the remains of the fallen. Fourteen members of the Canterlot patrol had been slain, and he did not wish to think about the letters that would have to be written to the next of kin.

There were civilian casualties too, although thankfully not nearly as many fatalities. Nonetheless, the death total from the two sites was greater than the zero Trigger had wanted to see. “At least we got one back,” he mumbled to the adjacent Mozy and Silent Knight. Unexpectedly, they had found one of the injured troopers clinging to the last bit of life she had. “From a spark grows a flame…”

“Thank you,” Silent Knight responded while staring into the dwindling twilight sky. He contemplated continuing, transiently debating whether or not it was appropriate to reveal personal details to an officer of a different unit. “My father always trained me to be a good soldier. He pushed me to be the best of the best, but he never prepared me for the aftermath. There is more to life than just being a guard, and it’s during moments such as this that I’m grateful to be around others.”

His face remained stoic as Trigger pressed his hoof to the rear of the nightshade helmet. “Ya can’t train for everything, but your unit really stepped up today. I probably shouldn’t even say this, but we’re all on the same team, so buck it. DarkOps exists because even elite guards just cannot cope with the realities we sometimes have to conquer.

“We don’t have manuals for the bucking shit we deal with. Everything is done on a case-by-case basis, which is why the team is a clusterfuck of scientists, slick fliers, and some damn useful unicorns. I’ll be honest. As much as I dig Luna, when ya first flew in – decked out in this House Guard crap – I thought we’d be reamed by bureaucracy and bullshit. Now I’m glad Wing spoke first because your squad would’ve made me look like an ass. Although, if ya tell anypony that, I’ll deny it and kick your balls into next week.”

Silent’s feathers ruffled to Trigger’s bizarre mode of approval. To some extent, the pegasus understood. A lot of units held a great deal of attachment and pride when it came to their assignments, and it was fairly common for individuals not to like any encroachment from members of other squads. The memory of his own subordinate getting into a scuffle with Celestia’s House Guard came to mind, which made it challenging to imagine the complexities cranking through Trigger’s head – especially when he considered the ordeal the unicorn had endured. “I appreciate your compliments,” the sergeant finally answered with his typically composed tone. “I believe we are stronger by coming together as one.”

“Yeah,” Trigger responded curtly before stillness stole his voice. “I just wonder what’s going to happen now,” he resumed after lingering in the silence. “Wing somehow managed to pull a miracle out his ass. Those shields down there each have the power to outlive the decay of alicorn magic, and while all those mushy feels of his dispelled the windigos, there is still going to be some pain here. There will still be feelings of malevolence.

“Though, I was impressed that your underlings got my reasoning for keeping the buckers alive. I expected a bunch of resistance coming my way, but no pony gave me a lick of shit. We’re going to need her to contain the other roving cells so this crap doesn’t happen again. And if her friends are dead, then she’ll have nothing left to live for. They’re harmless now, but we’ve got to keep worrying about the ones on the lam.”

“We’ll just have to wait for the shots to be called,” Mozy commented upon leaning into Trigger’s side. “Wing will be on the mend for a while, and Wick took a beating at the market. Defiant got his fair share too, and the rest of us are all pretty tired.” With a touch of spirit lining her yellow irides, she glanced at the stallions and cracked a sheepish smile. “We’ve all got a lot of healing to do, so why don’t we get out of here and grab some drinks?”

“Matcha House off Fourth and Stone.” Trigger’s statement drew a perplexed look from the mare – not just from the casual delivery, but also from the selection of locale. “Yes, it’s a bucking tea house, but I just so happen to know one of the employees. She keeps a stash of Sweet Apple Red just for me and makes this special shit that will have most on their asses after a sip.” He turned his muzzle back towards Silent Knight and grinned. “Bring your fillies and colts too, S.K. They’ve all earned it after that handling of reinforcement detail. First round’s on me.”

The Sandcolt’s grains had descended upon my weary eyes seconds following the completion of Amora’s treatments. She, along with a team of doctors, had spent hours tediously attending to my injuries. My wings had to be reset, and although the process had been painless thanks to the top-notch medic, the sequence of unpleasant motions left nothing to the imagination. And the sounds… were things destined to be repressed and forgotten.

My legs brought their own complications to the stretcher. Special potions and stitches were necessary, and it was obvious – from staring at the condition of Amora’s cobalt cores – that she was exhausted at the end of it all. Even as I started to drift off to sleep, spells of her design were keeping me comfortable by soothing my overburdened nervous system.

The realm of reverie was far more kind to me than reality, for vistas of my past condensed into an alluring sunset date atop a cloud. She had once told me that her job as a traveling baker had taken her all over Equestria – particularly by rail. There was just no place left for her to go, but no pony had ever thought to give her the sky.

She often fainted when surprised, and this evening was no different. Her pinkish muzzle buried into my coat as relaxed breaths seeped into the cooling nighttime air. I kept my legs draped around this gorgeous flower, my lilac mare. I had a vow to uphold, and an everlasting hug was a wonderful price to pay.

I suddenly cooed to the feel of a hoof scratching the space between the bases of my wings. It was one of my favorite spots to receive a back rub, and I soon closed my mind’s oculus to the euphoria that drowned me in delight. Awareness of the outside world leached into my lethargic state, and confusion flooded the void. The sensation remained – along with the saccharine scent of cinnamon that floated to my nose – and the consequences of that realization came swiftly.

Was it actually possible? Had she really ventured all that way just to see me? Did she cease her travels yet again to grace me with her presence? I released a satisfied hum at the thought and took a gentle breath. I did not need to look to know the truth. My amazing Ambrosia had come for me. Like always, she reciprocated my protection with a defense and love that surpassed all hope. “Amby… I’m awake.”

“Well, look at what the rabble dragged into the shop this evening.” A white unicorn set her emerald sights upon the band led by Trigger. Her rosewood mane was tied into a bun by a thin black ribbon, and her gemstone irides possessed an unusual aurum flair that circumscribed the mare’s pupils. She stepped from behind the counter, which was essentially a mahogany bar top devoid of all the standard alcoholic accessories, and immediately moved to embrace the cowcolt. “Sweety, it’s been a long day.”

The stallion set a foreleg upon the mare’s back – much to the chagrin of Mozy, who immediately made a comment about the two obviously being in some sort of relationship. Trigger huffed in retaliation and countered. “Don’t be bucking ridiculous. First, she’s already spoken for, and I’m courting another pony, myself. Although, don’t get me wrong. I’d have some dynamite fun with her if we weren’t both off the market. Just don’t get ahead of your shit, Mozy. This is Autumn Tea; we’re just friends, and yes, it has been a long day…”

Both Silent Knight and Mozy blinked at Trigger’s assertions and the stifled giggle from Tea that followed. Behind the stunned pair, a gathering of Silent’s subordinates waited to take their seats in the establishment, and most felt as though they had missed out on some inside joke between the onyx unicorn and the tender. “I’m glad you’re okay, Trigsy,” Tea added in a hushed demeanor. “You’re sure all packing the place tonight, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. This isn’t the usual watering hole for guards, but I’ll do my best to thank ‘em for their service.”

“That’s what I was hoping to hear. I want my usual, of course, and how about you get these runts a round of Artillery Punches on me? Give them all the true Matcha House experience.”

Trigger set his fifth emptied glass on the countertop as Tea stared at him with a mischievous grin on her muzzle. “I’m not going to get drunk, Tea. I have plenty of tolerance.” He scanned the ensemble of boisterous, toppled, and intoxicated sentries. “But it looks like those spicy specials of yours did quite a few numbers tonight.”

“I haven’t claimed him yet.” She gestured at the neighboring Silent Knight and swung her hoof in Mozy’s direction. “And that protégé of Wing’s seems to be holding her liquor just fine.”

“Damn right I am,” Mozy quipped with a slight drawl etched upon her melody. She smiled and nudged Trigger’s shoulder the instant after he had received his sixth Sweet Apple Red. “Now, you brought us all here, Trigs. Why don’t you raise that drink of yours and give these new friends of ours a toast they’ll never bucking forget.”

The stallion lifted his crystal towards the ceiling. He did not stand up. He did not turn around. He just spoke with a clear, loud, and fervent voice. “Ya survived war! Ya saw the shadows for the first time in your lives, and ya claimed the only currency that matters – life. Ya did your sergeant proud. Ya did your country proud. You’re a unit above the rest, and I’ll suck it up and call ya my comrades without the slightest bit of regret. Don’t forget what happened, but don’t fucking dwell on it. There is no going back; there is only moving forward. And that is what we will do…”

With the exceptions of Trigger, Autumn Tea, and Silent Knight, the group of ponies cheered, sang, and chugged down their drinks. The Wonderbolt magus lowered his leg and sat quietly until a question from Silent Knight jarred his cognizance. “What else is out there?”

“Sure ya want to know that, Sergeant? There’s a lot I could say if ya felt inclined.” Trigger took a sip of his apple-kissed beverage before waving off any developing response. “Actually, I think I have the perfect one for ya. It might make that protocol-centric mind of yours explode, but I definitely think you’ll enjoy the result. There’s no forgetting the shadows, Silent Knight, but perhaps this story will be an educational experience. So… fucking once upon a time…”

A State of History - Installment 10 - Arc II

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~15 Months Prior~

Nighttime in Las Pegasus was a completely different animal than the witching hours of Whynnyapolis. After five years, my tranquil abode in the northern city had been traded for a rather large home and laboratory in the desert basin of Equestria’s tourist trap. To say the least, the move had not particularly been a pleasant experience. It seemed that swindlers were a bit more common in the bustling destination renowned for gambling, booze, and the cowcolt lifestyle, and several such ruffians had attempted to hold my possessions hostage during my tumultuous relocation.

It was not all bad though. In the months that followed, I had garnered a practical legion of friends who proved to be incredibly supportive in my infantile hours at the University of Las Pegasus. I had also met an absolutely fantastic mare, and while she was often riding the rails fulfilling her duties as a wonderful baker, there was a feeling deep in my gut that this blossoming relationship was truly one for the ages.

I had needed a flower of kindness to really find my roots in the West, but Trigger seemed to slide into the locale with ease. He was born into the realm as a rough and ready-to-tumble stallion, and the manner in which he quickly adjusted to the transition to reality was absurdly striking. Of course, once reflecting upon the style with which he navigated the confines of my formerly obliterated psyche, the prominence of his adaptability lost a bit of its jarring luster.

“Ya staring at me for a reason, Softy?” he quipped from the comfort of my sofa while his amber gaze sought to import information to the blue linen domain. At some point, I had looked up from my ever-expanding lecture notes to lose myself in the tangential chain of thought.

“I was just thinking about the last few months. Those reviews with the princesses about the national armament program were brutal. If I have to give another in the next year, it’ll be way too soon. Discussions with Celestia and Luna are pleasant affairs, but the swarm of morons clamoring for their own destructions is just intolerable.”

“What’d I tell ya, Wing? There are two types of folks in this world: those that seek command and those that earn it. We’ve done the dance enough to know how that crap moves. Most of the inner circle is populated by blind seekers.” He lifted one of the revolvers with a forehoof and examined it with admiration before returning the weapon to his loaded vest. “They look at your designs and see a push-button solution to an age-old problem without grasping the buckin’ Pandora’s Box around the whole thing. I mean, c’mon! Ya only trust me to touch the things despite having a couple colleagues and even a new protégé just chomping at the bit.”

“And I want none of them to suffer the consequences. I trust your magical faculties, and I trust myself. Thankfully, we have rulers with a lot more foresight than the rest. Frankly, there were some in the prelims that really did remind me of him.” My emphasis on the pronoun sent a visible ripple of irritation down Trigger’s black coat. A shadow of history had been evoked, one which we had both spent many hours attempting to eject from the catacombs of our minds.

“Don’t…” His response was cut short as the sounds of shattered glass clouded his crystal-clear concentration. For a moment, I settled into an uneasy serenity – unwilling to acknowledge the noise we had heard. I pressed my hind hooves into the lightly toned hardwood and shifted my focus back to my talking points for tomorrow’s lecture on fundamental forces, but the jargon resting atop my oak desk could not contain the brewing commotion that trickled through the wooden walls.

The probability of a drunkard roaming the streets of Las Pegasus at this hour was unperceivably high to an outsider. Chances were that the stirrings arose from a weary trotter who had just lost control of his bottle. It just looks like a simple street corner house. No pony would have any reason to bust in. The denial played with me while Trigger’s glare affixed to the ceiling that hovered beneath my bedroom. He had already accepted the outcome that I struggled to bury. The noise did not resemble a bottle of Applejack; it resembled that of a blown out windowpane.

Restless rumblings continued to drip through my illuminated, pearly ramparts, but the furor growing outside my abode carried with it the unexpected hints of a cadence. “They’ve cut off the roads,” Trigger stated flatly before he rolled from the couch onto his hooves and promptly adjusted his Coltston. “Definitely a guard unit.” He made his way towards the staircase and glanced at me while a fire stoked his amber irides. “But it doesn’t sound like the townies, so just stall the buckers until I find out what’s up.”

I was about to ask the unicorn what he meant by stall when a knocking came from my front door. The gaudy tone of a stallion pierced my ears with a grating flamboyance that would drive even the calmest pony into a mild fit of rage. “Open up! This is Captain Proud Valiance of the 49th Research Battalion. We have reason to believe an extremely dangerous creature has entered your home. If you do not comply, then we will enter with force!”

Containing the sigh that fled my muzzle would have been a futile task. “I’m coming!” I called, trying to abate the looming frenzy that had infringed upon my solace. The journey to the entryway was a short one, and I drew a deep, relaxing breath before daring to expose my house to the officer that lurked in the night.

Trigger stealthily peeked into my unlit room after the quiet serenade of whimpers had lured him to my chamber. The desert breeze swept past the rugged shards of bloodied glass to caress a young filly as she tried to yank the remaining pieces from her slashed torso. The unicorn possessed a mane and coat that looked strikingly familiar to the stallion’s palette, and her frantic demeanor gradually pulled Trigger ever closer.

There was no doubt in his mind that this intruder was the target. She had attempted to teleport into the building and had gotten herself busted by the enchantments he had levied upon the structure. Although, the result was odd. She should have been returned to the street unharmed, but instead, she had wound up caught in broken glass. Either he had screwed up the casting of the spell, or something else was at play. And that something was likely the reason why all those guards were after a little tyke.

The stallion shook the chain from his mind and refocused on the more pertinent issue. There was a kid bleeding out on my bedroom floor, troops were closing in, and he did not want to startle the foal into a catastrophic fuss. Across the board, the choices were complicated, and all of them came with a dose of risk. Eventually, he allowed a gentle whisper to roll off his tongue. “They’re outside. I’m not going to hurt ya. Just keep quiet.”

Trigger pushed the door open slowly and watched as the filly recoiled in fear. She shook as the built stallion revealed his full form to her, but at least she managed to remain silent. He released a soft sigh of relief and tried to make himself appear as small as possible by lowering himself to the smooth floorboards. There was no trace of malice upon her mien, and her lilac cores glimmered like amethysts even amongst the lightless dread that crept in from the bounds of night.

He lay there for a few moments, allowing the trembling foal to gain some assurance that he was good on his word. Externally, he fought to maintain a kind and caring composure, but internally, the stallion was overwhelmed by a rising tide of rage. Few things legitimately bothered Trigger. He was the type of pony that could shrug off most things with a simple quip, but the mere notion of harming a child countered every aspect of his creation.

He exhausted a list of potential explanations while meticulously examining the blank-flank. There was no rhyme or reason to any of the events unfolding around the charger. The little unicorn had very little magical stamina, and Trigger detected no deception in her presence. The fact that she had managed to bypass his spell seemed increasingly incredible, but the lack of danger etched anywhere upon her demeanor won the stallion over. While the swirl of conditionals and consequences was a staggering current, one truth remained firmly cemented in his creed; there was no excuse for bringing harm to a child.

“Buck, I’m starting to think like Wing.” Once again, his whisper broke the fragile silence. “Simple priorities… Ya look a bit beat up, Kiddo. There’s a first-aid kit in the bathroom. How about I take ya down the hall and help patch ya up a bit? Can’t have a fine-looking filly such as yourself bleeding all over, now can I?”

He paused as the painstaking vision of confusion washed over her countenance. Did she not understand what he was saying? She had definitely listened; that much was certain. He watched intently as some semblance of reality constructed itself behind her pupils. Clarity manifested rapidly within those ocular portals, and she responded by suddenly pressing her forehoof gently against the gunslinger’s nose. “Please help me, Trigger,” she spoke with a frantic tenderness one would expect from a scared foal. “Please, don’t let them find me.”

The stallion nodded, preparing to escort her to the washroom, while the waves of questions surfaced from the vault of his subconscious. There were several things that stood out from the backdrop of weirdness that corralled this otherwise boring night, but it had been the obvious question involving his name that sat peculiarly placed upon the unstable precipice of his tongue.

I had opened the entrance of my home to a congregation of armored guards. At the threshold, a unicorn stood who I presumed to be Proud Valiance, and his stance and disposition definitely fit within the uncertainties of my predictions. His deep violet coat – along with the golden plates that adorned his body – toyed with the silvery light of the bright moon. His mane was a shimmering black, aside from the streak of royal blue that ran past the base of his horn to the end of the exotic lock, and sandy gold eyes inspected my movements.

“Good evening,” I answered, having taken a tick to peer around his physique to catch sight of his gilded crest cutie mark. “I would certainly appreciate you all not attempting to bust into my laboratory in the middle of the night. I wasn’t asleep or anything, but I can assure you from the mess of papers on my desk that I did not prepare for company.”

The slightest smidge of disgust pricked the corners of his lips as he began to speak again, and I was positively certain that I had heard an obscenity dribble from one of the subordinate’s lips. Perhaps they had wanted to burst in, magic blazing, in a wave of glory; or perhaps, they just realized the significance of the word laboratory. Whatever misgivings the unicorn tossed about his thoughts, they were temporarily repressed at the behest of his haughty tone.

“As I was saying, I am Captain Proud Valiance of the 49th Research Battalion. We’re in pursuit of an extremely destructive experimental specimen. It is crucial that we search the premises immediately to rule out any infiltration. Please step aside…”

He took a step towards the warm confines of my foyer but was halted as I threw one of my forehooves against the doorframe. The arrogance permeating from the officer’s aura was repulsive, and considering that Trigger had not started dismantling the upper level, the story trickling from Proud’s muzzle did not measure up to my standard candle of honesty. “Captain, I’m afraid I can’t do that. See, you didn’t even let me introduce myself, but if you had, you’d understand that this building is a protected government establishment. Those orders are from Princess Celestia herself, and you’re more than welcome to confirm my academic and military credentials with any member of the local patrol.”

The stallion’s expression shifted to a complicated mix of anger, impatience and angst. His limbs twitched before the bulwarks of my impasse, and his desire to trample me at the porch was undeniable. “You do not understand! We have to locate this beast immediately! There is no time to waste with your foolishness. Now, I will say it again! Step aside…”

My ears perked as Trigger descended the staircase and took up a position several meters behind me. His coat was drenched with water, and his wet, argent mane glistened in the ambient lighting against the stark void that was his fur. Droplets gathered beneath his frame while a wandering hoof could not help but poke the hat that still clung to his crown. “Geeze Wing, I go to take a shower and come back to see a squad at the gates. The buck did ya do this time? They don’t even look like the Las Pegasus guys, so what’s going on?”

“Sir!” Valiance shouted desperately. “Were you up on the second floor? Did you hear or see anything unusual? We have reason to believe a perilous entity teleported into this establishment. It’s imperative that we track it down at once!”

Trigger shook his head and waved his forehoof at the unicorn. “That’s impossible. The building is charmed against teleportation because of the professor’s research. Nothing was upstairs but me, some beds, and a whole mess of wood. However…” He lowered his brow and made a drawn-out movement towards the inception of an evolving plan. “Your lot doesn’t seem to be from around these parts. If there’s a monster to hunt, and ya buckers need an ace in the hole, I wouldn’t mind tagging along for the ride. I am a soldier myself, Captain, and having me in tow might allow ya to move around the city a bit easier – if ya catch my drift.”

A State of History - Installment 11 - Pulling Anesthesia

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The hinges played a gentle serenade as I closed the door to my home. How Trigger had managed to persuade the troublesome inquisition that had descended upon the laboratory had not yet ceased to amaze me. The tactic was simply brilliant. He had placed himself at the epicenter of the undercurrents that sought to slither beneath our hooves. And slither was the proper word.

Everything about the 49th grated my nerves – from the way they imposed themselves upon my evening to the arrogant behavior they displayed. It was not really all that difficult for me to extrapolate my own situation to the realm of possibilities. I had never heard of this particular research unit, but that did not mean much. I had a classified program, so why wouldn’t others? Still, a lingering hunch had established itself in the back of my mind, and the fact that Trigger had so prudently slid into their affairs indicated that he also felt a tingling sense of danger.

The cut grains of hardwood scraped the bottoms of my hooves as I ascended the stairwell. Serene light, providing a clue left in the midnight stallion’s tactical wake, poured from the steamy bathroom while errant vapor wisps swept the hall’s edge. Despite the guidance, there was still a towering pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces irritating my intellect. The plethora of unknowns begged to be solved, and it was only after the timid notes of a foal dripped around the opened door that those mysteries tumbled into place.

Of course, he would put every other care in the world well after the needs of a child. That was the chaos he had been born into witnessing – a sea of unfinished nightmares waiting, needing, yearning to devour the unwinding scraps of my sanity. Of course, he would pitch the comradery of the corps off a cliff if he believed for a nanosecond that anyone was harming even the hair of a young pony.

“Hello?” I questioned with the friendliest tone I could muster. There was no response; however, the abrupt silence that satiated the space spoke volumes enough. “I believe you have already met my friend. My name is Wing. I guess you could say I’m your host, so if you need anything at all, please don’t be afraid to ask. I’m not going to hurt you.

“Sweet Celestia,” the whisper escaped when I caught a glimpse of the filly in my midst. Excluding the color of her eyes, along with the fact that she was a she, the youngster could have easily been confused for a colt-aged Trigger. Her palette was a spot-on match, and it was impossible to repress the subsequent tension that tore through my memories. The clarity with which Trigger’s behavior now shined mesmerized my thoughts. This filly had struggled past his enchantments. She looked like him, and based upon the bandages that wrapped around her midsection, she had been injured as well.

“Sweetie, what’s your name?” I asked, not daring to move from my position as she performed her own inspection. A startling chill of déjà vu cascaded over the infinite expanse of my imagination. Once upon a time, I had experienced this same scan as it scoured my soul for the needed verse. Having uncovered the movement, she took a step out from behind her wooden shield while her countenance clung to whatever shards of confidence she had found.

“I… I don’t have a name,” she replied with an absent, stoic timbre that made the fur along my spine stand on end. “But… they call me E875… when we’re in the lab… that is.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very nice lab,” I responded reflexively after her pause-laden sentence reached its natural end. The insinuation required no further deliberation. Whatever this unit had been doing, it had altered the life of a child and replaced an identity with a number. In one sense, I was a bit happy that she did not consider the designation a name, but on-the-other-hoof, it meant that she was aware.

“Where is Mr. Trigger?” she asked. Hints of anxiety crept in from the bournes of courage that had managed to finally prod the filly from the water closet enclave. “The bad ponies… He’ll know what to do with the bad ponies. He won’t let them find me.”

I raised my hoof gradually and gave a soft smile to the little mare. “Mr. Trigger has led them away from here. He’s going to spend some time with their group for now, and I’m sure neither of us will let anything happen to you.”

The frequency of her breaths quickened before the onslaught of frazzled nerves. “You wouldn’t understand Mr. Wing. I – I need to explain it to him. He’s the only one who will see what they’re doing, but he didn’t listen earlier. He just… kept telling me to hush while he…” She froze as a single tear rolled down the side of her muzzle, and I watched in silence as numerous emotions radiated from the contours of her essence.

“That’s just how he is. I’ve known that stallion for a very long time, so I’ve come to trust his judgement when it comes to taking care of a filly that’s hurt. He looks after others in his own way, and since he didn’t blow your cover, I’m assuming he’s already suspicious of that captain fellow.”

Concern and disdain coursed through her quivering limbs at the mere mention of Proud Valiance. Her brow dropped into a scowl that appeared far too worn for one her age, and flickers of necessity licked her lilac irides. “They’re stealing shadows from foals,” she answered in a darker tenor than I could anticipate. “They won’t be able to stop them, and many will die. That’s why I came to find him… I can’t stop it alone.”

The tension that had choked her frame evaporated once her emphasis settled upon Trigger, but the improvement in mood did nothing to console my fixation upon the dire nature of her warning. My flank soon rested upon the hardwood as various facets of this night began to align with the iridescent anamneses of my past. Shadows, foals, and Trigger… Dread usurped my lungs as a grave wind manifested the construct assembled by my mind.

I was a scientist – prone to reaching conclusions that often stretched well past the routine domain of reality. We were dreamers at heart, at least in our own unique way, and that characteristic tended to brew theories that grossly concealed beautiful, simple truths. In this case, my brain had reached a convoluted conjecture, one which I desperately hoped to see rejected. “Miss…” Visions of the unfinished riled my recollections, and my voice surfaced as a grim minor upon our duet’s score. “Is that unit experimenting with the dreams of foals?”

Trigger listened to every sentence spoken in his presence while sortied to the streets of Las Pegasus with the 49th. The unit was collectively jittery – with the notable exceptions of Proud and a stallion that he had identified as the section’s intelligence operative. It became clearer as the night went on that there were multiple pursuits underway, with the mysterious filly being only one of the objectives. Talk of her was littered with their specific brand of jargon, and subsequent efforts to press the subject of what E875 meant were quashed with skepticism from the captain. Mere whispers of the designation to the breeze evoked groundswells of apprehension that meandered about the troops in repressed murmurs, and the sight just pissed off the onyx stallion even more.

“Look,” he blurted, tired of being relegated to the meaningless duty of bucking with the locals, “I get that it’s your internal shit that’s on the line, but we’re all under the same buckin’ banner. If we run into whatever monster y’all are fussing about, I’m going to see the damn thing anyway, so ya might as well give me some information that’s useful. Sooner or later, we’ll plow into a headstrong townie that won’t back off without me doing some convincing that uses actual facts. I might be the outsider to this group, but you’re the outsiders here.”

Valiance halted his stride and stretched a forehoof to his brow. Trigger’s words had reached the officer, for the manner in which his golden-kissed cores twinkled conveyed the internal scenery of a coalescing strategy. He had been caught in a Catch-22 that formed the moment he had agreed to the unpolished pony’s offer to accompany the 49th. Little doubt existed that they needed a resident drudge to deflect suspicion from the widespread operation, but if he opted to relinquish nothing, then the ruffian would likely walk.

“Wire Wise,” the captain called out to the corporal with a hint of reluctance that instantly grasped the attention of a tan unicorn, “give our rustic cohort the redacted version of the second critical decision review – along with a concise summary of tonight’s briefing. That should give him an idea. In the meantime, my friend, do you happen to know if there are any daycare centers in this city – expressly those tailored towards unicorns?”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Trigger replied before turning his head to address Proud. “There are two. One’s off to the northwest – kinda in a swanky neighborhood – and another’s in the South Central District.” The information nudged the smug commander, who instantly ordered his forces to converge upon the facility nearest downtown. It was a peculiar move to the creature of reverie, who expected a runner to flee from all potential points of contact. A daycare would certainly be closed in the middle of the night, but that particular region of the city was the exact opposite of desolate. The question itself additionally carried reason for alarm. Why in Equestria would an officer consider an establishment for foals to be appropriate hot zone?

“Eh-hem!” the tan stallion gasped haughtily after throwing a cactus-green lock behind his ear. His gaze settled upon the Coltston-wearing cowcolt while an exasperated expression took root upon his mien. “Our unit researches atypical psychological phenomena. Exploring the effects of unbridled magic in youths is our primary focus, but we have other activities that obviously exceed your clearance. I don’t expect a dirttrodder to comprehend unicorn problems, but this is a messy subject.

“We had an unforeseen setback, and two entities escaped our compound. One was first extracted on the 17th night of our study. It exhibited hostile behavior and was isolated from the test participants and their quarters. That beast looks like nothing any of us have ever seen, and if we manage to come in contact with it, it will be apparent that it is our target. The second entity, the E875 that you seem determined to decode, manifested through sorcery on the following evening. Its form is that of a black filly that looks disgustingly like you, but make no mistake! E875 poses a potentially larger threat to the population than that… thing. Contact with civilians must be mitigated and eliminated.”

Trigger fought to keep his amber eyes from rolling. The racist remark and the rip on the kid left stinging sensations in his gut that made him want to throw his hind hooves clear through the dark, dumbass circular microphone mark engraved upon the guard's egotistical ass. “I see,” he responded through his teeth before the colt exited with a departing rejoinder – something about not repeating himself for a lowly grunt earth pony.

It was in moments such as this that Trigger thanked Celestia for the ability to cloak his horn. He despised relying upon wizardry to solve every problem that came a pony’s way, and based upon Wire Wise’s projected discrimination, he assumed that the predominantly unicorn group pandered to a certain bias. However, the more pressing issue at hoof still swirled in the details conveniently left out from the corporal’s speech.

Unbridled magic was – indeed – a messy subject, and Trigger knew the associated consequences of that more than most. But do they? He fell in step with the squad's movements and took up a position several paces behind the captain. If they needed him, they would grab him; until then, he had some thinking to do and enough time to do it before their arrival in South Central.

Wing’d probably crap himself over the options. There are too damn bucking many to pick one, but that type of spell means that foals are involved. Of course they wouldn’t know any damn better; I bet they kept most of the guards that aren’t in their unicorn club on babysitting duty. He sighed quietly and continued to ponder. It’s a fucking stretch, though. Sure, little foal shit can create all kinds of dumb stuff, but it usually doesn’t produce any havoc worthy of a damn unit.

Trigger’s sidelong glance detected the prying emerald scopes of Wire Wise upon his frame. The intelligence operative was analyzing him – rummaging for a betrayed indication of his thoughts – but there was nothing to be gained. To the outside world, the charger put on a gentle smile and gave a curt nod while his mind tussled with the strong riptides of disbelief and sarcasm.

Worried, are we? Concerned that I’ve pegged your fairy tale for the bullshit infomercial that it is, huh? Your story’s just too perfect. Oh no! Unbridled magic and some scary things, but don’t worry, we’ll keep ya safe. I’ll play dumb for now, boys, but by the end of this, I’m going to find out just what kind of shit amuses ya. And so fucking help ya if it turns out that you’re doing exactly what I think you’re doing.

A State of History - Installment 12 - Until It Sleeps

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Aged wooden fence posts highlighted the perimeter of the daycare grounds. Their white coats had faded long before, exposing dried boards to the more arid region of the realm, and Trigger briefly imagined that – had they been alive – the cool breeze of the night would have felt like a glorious oasis.

As anticipated, South Central was crowded with tourists and residents making the most of the drinking hour. The whole scene hardly appeared fit for a beast – at least one that was attempting a getaway. Of course, the thing they were after might have acquired a penchant for action, which would have made the spot an ideal location for nestling amongst a mass of inebriated ponies.

Contrarily, the daycare lot possessed the woeful mood of a cemetery. Stalks of grass, strokes of deep green painted beneath the moon’s argent veil, stood out against the dusty surroundings and collectively cast the illusion of a void atop the wastes. The sounds of joy that danced about the air fell flat before the desolate darkness that yearned for the lost light of its energetic youth, and Trigger gazed upon this unfolding spectacle while a trickle of anamneses sauntered about his awareness.

A familiar feeling delicately caressed the fibers of his fur, leaving the stallion a bit on edge as the troops of the 49th surrounded the facility. Slowly, they approached the multistory building erected near the center of the estate, and with every step they took, unease continued to wrap tighter about Trigger’s heart. Suspicion mingled with the sensations that slipped beyond the noise of the crowd. There was something in the scent of the midnight wind that was almost maddening – something that drove him to look at the events unfolding in front of his eyes with a scrutiny that eclipsed his typical nature.

The squadron’s maneuvers screamed all of the hallmarks of infiltration specialization. The repertoire did not line up with Trigger's expectations of how a research unit should operate, and as he mimicked the group and pressed his body against the red-wrapped siding of the center, Trigger could not help but wonder why. He had dipped beneath a windowsill, falling in with the cluster of ponies that moved to sweep through the building, and discovered that he had gained a bit of a reprieve from the constant onslaught of Wire’s inspections.

Cimmerian shades stretched from beyond the pane, drawing the stallion of reverie to lift his head and peer into the void. Empty tables lingered in the silence, and toys – haphazardly misplaced by the curious hooves of foals – sang their inaudible hymns of seclusion to the manifested congregation. Through the crystalized sands, he could hear their whispers – terrifying echoes of history that he had never wished to hear again – for their words were unmistakable. Finish us…

The silent signal arrived from the right flank, and the ponies at Trigger’s side quickly rustled to attention. News flooded from the east in rising murmurs that flicked the fluff backing the stallion’s ears. One of the soldiers had spotted a shadow drifting down the bolted halls, and the sighting pulled the flock of lambs closer and closer to the rumor mill.

From around the corner of the structure, Trigger could hear the raised voice of Proud Valiance as it delivered order after order to the guards. Growing tension coiled about their limbs, and weary expressions pressed stoic demeanors to the threshold of panic. They might have been trained in the approach, but the members of the 49th were definitely unwilling to perform the decisive act at the critical juncture of their fight.

While Proud tried to prepare his forces for the penetration phase of the operation, the midnight stallion stealthily slid a slip of magic beneath the window’s frame and popped the latch. No longer inhibited by those distracted eyes, Trigger pushed the glass upwards and climbed inside the bleak confines before resealing the route of his clandestine entrance.

The simple step catapulted Trigger through rewinding threads of fate until his location felt nothing like the daycare it was. It was as if he had trotted through a rift in time to the ocean from where he came – where greyscale shades of the nocturnal domain washed over the Sandcolt’s heavy shores. The wondrous torrents of reverie faded to a jagged chill when an ominous drone drew the stallion’s attention.

The cadence lured him from the playroom to the gloomier hall with cacophonous jumps in pitch that tugged at the strings of experience. Not even Luna’s glow managed to pierce this place, for the few trickles of moonlight that fought for access to the corridor soon surrendered to the ghostly veil. Beneath that mantle, the unrelenting noise grew louder as Trigger ventured down the linoleum path, and the vile scent of lactic acid jerked the composure of his snout.

Negligence incarnate heaved its disfigured vessel into the passageway as a roar as infinite as the cosmos raked the stallion’s ears. His gaze immediately fell upon the hideous nightmare, whose boil-covered flesh could be discerned through a shoddy patchwork of charred-looking fur. Decrepit legs, ripped asunder by grisly wounds that defied the limits of even the most imaginative, stretched towards the midnight charger, and a low rumbling groan crawled through the air as the monster’s mutilated form shifted sluggishly towards its company.

Blood poured from the creature’s muzzle as it howled, for torn sinews struggled to maintain the shape of a pony’s jaw. Its bones cracked to the rhythm of its limping pace, and its murky figure appeared ever more expansive as it closed in upon Trigger’s unmoving frame. The reddened eyes of this unkempt devil glared lustfully at the promise of a peaceful trance while amber irides silently responded with a fire all their own.

It had been a long time since the gunslinger had beheld such a being. Over two decades had passed into memory, yet the discord, gluttony and aura retained the same recognizable hallmark signatures of an unresolved terror. “Been awhile, hasn’t it big guy?” he addressed the mangled beast as exterior rumblings drove the argent-crowned colt to remove his hat. It seemed as though Valiance had finally managed to corral his restless regiment, and based upon the percussive taps of buckling doors and sliding panes, Trigger assumed that his moment of opportunity was rapidly coming to a close.

His majestic horn emerged from its cloak before spikes of shadow engulfed the structure. The prongs of the expanding barrier, mimicking the garbled bedlam that radiated from the entity in his presence, halted the 49th’s advance in its tracks. Displaced wails seeped around the strands of dusk from frustrated guards that could not comprehend the power before them. They recoiled, dreading that the animate mesh was a product of the unfinished they sought.

Their voices faded, lost behind Trigger’s dreamshell as it transported the ensnared duo to a world that sat between the realms of reality and imagination – of reverie and nightmare – where the scents of ink, blood and tears flooded one’s natural senses. The unicorn moved his legs through the emotional brew, taking up a fighting stance to respond to the specter’s aggressive screech.

Without hesitation, it lunged for the prepared stallion, flinging globs of its marred, acidic tissues back into the tides from which it came. Trigger threw his forehoof into its face and extracted dribs of the toxic sanguine mix as a shrill squeal saturated the seascape. “Don’t be a dumbass! I’m not a buckin’ toddler anymore; I know that somewhere in that two-bit brain of yours, even ya can comprehend what being here means. Now stand your mongrel ass up and tell me just what in the fuck is going down.”

“Miss…” Visions of the unfinished riled my recollections, and my voice surfaced as a grim minor upon our duet’s score. “Is that unit experimenting with the dreams of foals?” Her irides contracted as the bow of shock displaced the currents of her feelings, and I observed the less-than-subtle manner in which she caught her breath.

The brief moment of shared silence was utterly traumatizing. Fleeting glimpses of my sister sparkled in the wide expanses that were her pupils. Her tiny limbs quivered atop a fermenting tectonic movement that no composition would ever bring justice, and I did not have to hear her opus to feel its growing power.

With each tick of the metronome, however, my guest cultivated her verbal choreography. Internally, the words she needed to speak assembled until the ramping pressure eventually compelled her to unload the lumbering confession. “They’re using orphans. They’re filling them with the promises of happy lives and amazing things, but all they’re doing is keeping them locked up to use their magic.

“They’re doing things that no pony should do. Stealing is wrong! It’s hurting them. They can’t keep taking the shadows from the children. It’ll kill them! This is why I came for Mr. Trigger. He’ll get it because he isn’t like them… He isn’t like you either… I need him! He’s the only one!”

Her delivery quickened with each word until I was left with a frazzled filly on my hooves. I gestured for her to slow down and smiled when she took my advice to heart. “Well, of course Trigger isn’t like me,” I inserted into the ephemeral tranquility. “He’s a creature of fantasy after all, but – my little pony – there is something that you should know.” I lifted my hoof to my head and lightly tapped the side of my skull. “He came from right here, so you don’t have to wait around for him to find somepony who understands.

“I’m assuming that the reason you feel as though you need him is because you’re also from the Ocean of Reverie. It’s not really a hard connection to make. You honestly look like you could be his daughter.” The statement pulled a rosy blush past the stunned expression upon her countenance and through the tufts of her pitch fur. It was a sign that I had built a rapport, and I did not intend to let it go to waste.

“Friendship can come from those you don’t expect, and it looks like you could use one right now.” I turned and stretched out my back from the young mare. “It also doesn’t sound like we can afford waiting around for nothing.” Solemn concern laced my otherwise lenient timbre. I had been soft for the lady in my midst, but the burden of wearing that stifling mask became more difficult as I pondered the consequences of her minimal statements. “Trigger will likely keep them busy, so we can…”

“I came from San Palomino,” she answered intuitively while crawling into the space between my wings. “That’s where… Proud… is doing all of his bad stuff.” She was sharp for one who had not experienced the world of the awakened for long, and I promptly responded with a nod of acknowledgement before heading down the stairs with the filly in tow. There were a few things to collect – and a few facts to get straight – before I could leap off into Luna’s starry canvas.

San Palomino was a small town settled upon the northern edge of the eponymously named desert. I estimated the flight time to be thirty minutes, give or take, which made my companion’s trek all the more inconceivable. She had wandered to Las Pegasus – all the while being hunted by a commander whose activities jackhammered the foundation of ethics – on a hopeful whim that she could find my partner in mischief.

“I need to know what you mean by shadows. When I was a colt, my little sister accidentally exposed me to a dangerous dosage of unbridled magic. This was the event that led to Trigger’s existence, but… it also created things… things that I could not explain… and things that I still don’t want to explain. I just called them the unfinished because that is what they looked like when they haunted my dreams.”

She pressed her forelegs against my sides as the story poured past my lips. Her small snout nuzzled into my mane, and I figured that the sudden display of tenderness stemmed from the anxiety I was undoubtedly exuding. “They are creating those poor things on purpose when they try to use my friends’ raw powers, but they made a mistake. They brought one here. They pulled it out and terrified everypony. They told my friends that the princess would be proud of them – that saying it was wrong would get them sent back or worse – and that’s when I decided to come here too.”

I fetched my pair of combat goggles from the workbench and slid the lenses over my eyes. “So at least one of those things is on the loose,” I stated flatly before drawing in a deep breath.

“There is one in the city. I can feel my own kind. This is how I found Mr. Trigger, but that was easy because his light shines upon this house. The others are always cold because they are missing something.” She tightened her grip upon my coat. “And Trigger’s warmth seems distant now. I don’t know what is happening to him, but I worry that he might have found it without me there.”

Nothing short of charming, her affection melted away the tension that had relentlessly tugged upon the fibers of my muscles. “It’s like I told you before, Squirt; that’s just the way he is. There’s no need to worry about him. He’s a big stallion and can take care of himself. Being unsure can be a frightening thing, but you shouldn’t get sad just because of that. Besides, he’s giving us a window of opportunity to save your friends, so why don’t you let me know the fundamentals? How many friends do you have, and how many baddies are left to get in our way?”

A State of History - Installment 13 - Sad but True

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Even in the face of Trigger’s strength, the fragmented tempest refused to yield. It frantically attacked the instant the unicorn removed his hoof from its marred muzzle – flinging clumps of rotting flesh to the abyss. Its decay was symbolic of the entity it was – the dying dream of a damaged foal that hadn’t the faculties needed to complete it.

“What were ya meant to be?” Trigger wondered as he hurled another jab into the chest of the brute. Ember-like flickers strolled across the stallion’s amber irides as he glared at the mystical creature. A burning sensation sunk through the fibers of his coat while the lower part of his foreleg sat buried inside the squealing atrocity. “Were ya supposed to be a hero?” he asked with a blatant, staccato ice firmly fixed upon the leading edge of his verse.

It sliced through the rigid shriek with a bitterness that jammed an unexpected silence down the terror’s throat. Behind the horrid shrouds cast by mangled imaginations, every single one of the unsavory apparitions carried a purpose. The realization of this fact came far too late for Trigger to act upon it in his youth. Back then, the unfinished were beaten down without a second thought. They had been overwhelming aggressors upon the stability of his host’s mind, and an entire psychological campaign had been waged across the wasteland of a trampled subconscious until a single creed had emerged. The single currency…

Nonetheless, every phantom possessed its own history, whether or not it had been shredded beyond repair. As a foal, Trigger had feared what these razing specters could do in the confines of a shattered psyche, but he had grown. He was no longer a child that lived in the domain of day or night; he had come to recognize the smearing shades of greyscale that accented twilight’s dance. “Even shadows can dream, mongrel. Stop wasting our time and tell me why ya came into this world.”

Tears of the inked ocean beneath their hooves rose to splatter upon the wounds of the sobbing demon. Flashing glimpses of fulfilled wholeness sparkled in the fleeting residue of those supernatural currents, and Trigger swore that he had uncovered a rumbling chaconne laced within the guttural wails that bombarded his ears. That rasping bassline crawled through the desolate dreamshell and hammered away until a regurgitated name finally surfaced from the catacombs of ignorance. “Proud… Proud… Proud…”

Surly tones swelled with each statement of the captain’s name, and Trigger was forced to retract his hoof from the beast when its caustic anger manifested into a tangible form. A crackling sizzle rang from every unnatural orifice on its body as its false lifeblood transformed into something that retained a corrosive attribute. The stallion scowled as he tossed the cutting froth from his tender appendage. “Yeah, I get that he’s a fucking dick, but I need more than that, ya dumb piece of shit.”

The murmur surrendered to a brassy fanfare that burst forth from the vile bounds of the unfinished’s bulk. A cupric stench – not unlike that of a lingering bit coin – invaded Trigger’s nose after bands of an ejected, nefarious brew defiled the ink of his domain with poison. The garish streams swirled around his frame as he evaded, and subsequent hisses serenaded the colt with sounds akin to brushes running atop spread hi-hat cymbals.

Anger rapidly ascended along the heavy beat as it devoured the shaky sanity of the deteriorating menace. Emotion had always plagued the incubi, and Trigger could sense that the weight of Proud Valiance had shattered this one’s momentary instance of stability. Jets of that toxic mix relentlessly assailed his position with unaimed volleys that drove the guardian of reverie to pivot and rush forward with a burst of speed.

“I told ya! We don’t have time for this crap!” he called with undertones of frustration trespassing upon his melody. The searing sprays devolved into snarling mists that bounced off a thaumic barrier that had formed in front of the stallion’s foreleg, and quickly, the shield expanded into sweeping crescents that enveloped the writhing animus. In the blink of an eye, the growling fantasy found itself surrounded by the very real margins of Trigger’s impressive barrier.

Measures of their composition fluttered by the present as diminishing volumes of the murky poison pooled at the bottom of the creature’s makeshift prison. Eventually, he fell silent – having nothing left to hurl against the cocoon of Trigger’s magic. Once again, serenity managed to clutch an adagio movement and guide the unfinished towards a productive end. “Save… the… foals,” it groaned repeatedly as its decrepit hooves began to be consumed by its own dark sorcery.

Trigger nodded in understanding as the aura around his horn shifted to a brighter hue. Within the shell, the dangerous concoction was replaced with an argent blaze that settled like snow upon the floor of the vessel. “I’ll do my best,” he responded upon rendering another affirmative nod. His spell gradually snaked up the messenger, bathing it an angelic, Celestian light that began to heal the incomplete soul. “And I’m sorry,” he continued in a subdued tone, “for not figuring this out sooner.”

“Save… the foals. Save Midnight Star... from Proud. Hurting them… Stealing us… Go… to San Palomino…” the ghastly tenor drifted through the barricade. For a brief wrinkle in time, the captured beast transformed into a retrained, whole and complete pony before swiftly dissipating into oblivion.

Trigger stood in the blurred haze of his dreamshell and reflected. All the information he had sought had been obtained. There was no longer a need to stay sealed within the strolling tides of the ink-like sea that gently caressed his legs. The monster the 49th had diligently pursued was not the monster at all. Every observation converted the presumed terror into a beacon that had been undoubtedly thrust upon the domain of the awakened to find help wherever it could be found.

The unicorn proceeded with the deconstruction of the emptied sphere and set about retrieving his Coltston from the shallow depths. It came as no surprise when the hide felt soaked to the touch, but the stallion released a burdened sigh nonetheless. The sea’s scent prodded certain memories that Trigger had no desire to remember – and the stench would certainly take weeks to get out. Oh well, he thought, plopping the apparel atop his crown after his horn vanished beneath its cloak.

He would have to look the part upon returning to the daycare. After all, there was a role that needed to be played. To Proud and the underlings, he was nothing more than an obedient grunt, a simple earth pony, and a soldier of the line. Fortunately, it was a disguise that he would happily wear – for now.

Proud Valiance stared in disbelief after the dreamshell violently erupted. Members of his unit had been thrown into the building’s walls during the mysterious casing’s rapid expansion and disintegration. However, it was not that event that pushed the captain to the brink of absolute astonishment. The figure of a single, dark-coated stallion – outlined by the freed swirls of Luna’s light – stood at the center of the developing scene.

“Well that was pretty damn interesting,” Trigger quipped upon shooting a glance at the shell-shocked officer. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen something that crazy in all my days as a guard. I don’t know what fancy shit you’re working on, Captain, but at least I know that a swift ‘n clean buck to the face still brings the desired response.”

“You killed it!?” Wire Wise squeaked uncharacteristically while scouring the landscape for any sign of the enemy. The normally composed analyst staggered forward until he could discern the finer details of Trigger’s condition. While the newbie seemed a little scuffed up, particularly around the hooves, and while his umber hat and vest were a bit worse for the wear, the steed appeared completely unfazed by the confrontation with the dreadful nightmare.

“I killed them, Corporal.” The unabashed lie leapt from his tongue. “And of course I would. Why the buck would I want those things galloping around my town?”

The answer drew a chuckle from Proud’s lungs, and he flamboyantly threw his hoof in Trigger’s direction. “Did ya hear that boys? He killed both of them! It looks like we get to go home early.” His golden cores flashed as boastful reflections dotted his consciousness. So he kills with indifference and took care of two of my disobedience problems. Maybe I can use this one after all. We can clean up the lab, get things in order, and then I can finally go back to those damn bigwigs in Canterlot with useful findings – findings that will certainly bring me a really nice promotion.

“Normally we don’t outsource our responsibilities,” Valiance continued. “Dealing with our less-than-pleasant side-effects typically requires the presence of noteworthy unicorns, which is the reason for the unusual population of my squad. However, since you managed to save your city from – not just one – but two serious threats, I’ll humble myself and admit that we could use a pony like you to assist us at our laboratory. We wouldn’t need you for long – just a day tops to help tie up some loose ends. So what say you, earth pony? Are you available for a brief jaunt to San Palomino?”

Considering I had a filly pressed between my wings, I had made good time to San Palomino. She had wrapped her forelegs around my neck and buried her muzzle into my mane – likely in search of some shelter from the bitter desert night. As we had both expected, the town itself looked pretty barren from the skies – with only the light of a few homes scribing a constellation upon the earth.

With a bit of tension applied to some strands of my hair, the child pulled my attention towards the base that invaded the dusty wasteland. I pitched my wings to start our descent and continued to eye the complex. Roughly the size of a small community college, the site definitely carried an air of activity. If I had described the lights of the town as a constellation, the 49th’s station might as well have been a galactic core.

The grounds were well illuminated, and most of the buildings – with a lone exception – kept windows as a scarce design element. Breaking in would be a challenge, and an escape by land – with eight foals in tow – was out of the question. On the other hoof, my young companion was levelling the playing field by feeding me as much intelligence as she could. Proud had placed the entire laboratory on lockdown, which certainly made the jailbreak seem like an even more insurmountable task; however, the chaos had also left the facility severely short-staffed, which meant that a direct assault was back in the deck.

“The dorms are at the ends of the ‘V’,” the filly stated while thrusting her foreleg out in front of my muzzle to gesture. “The ponies are split up into two groups of four – with a group assigned to each end.” She slid her hoof down towards the point of the facility and continued, “The one with the glass is Proud’s command center. He doesn’t trust non-unicorns very much, so he probably left the pegasi trio behind to stand watch.”

I aimed my trajectory for the tower and rolled my frame to get a better look. Sneaking around with youngsters and their variety of temperaments did not bode well with regards to stealth, but incapacitating a threesome of ponies who probably felt pretty terrible about being left behind hardly seemed like a feat when the element of surprise was on my side. “That captain must not expect any visitors if he put three sentries on watch that he doesn’t even trust.”

“The townsfolk don’t really care. The unit looks heroic to them because it gives orphans a home, but what goes on inside is far from the second chance that’s promised.”

She released a soft squeak and gripped onto me tightly when I increased my rate of descent. There was not much more that needed to be said between us for me to adopt a plan of action. “I want you to teleport onto the rooftop and wait for my signal. If it never comes, I screwed it all up and we’ll have to wait for Trigs.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” she questioned as I closed the distance between myself and the top level of the guard post. I shook my head and moved my forelegs to brace for impact. There were other options, but none of them attained the likelihood of success that a surprise bum-rush against a few unprepared pegasi achieved.

Three guards sprung to attention the instant the sound of shattering glass yanked their unsuspecting ears. Fragments of the subsequent shower fell upon unstationed desks and peppered the bright linoleum floor while the pegasi scrambled to make sense of my intrusion. Only one of the lot – a cyan stallion with a dark red mane – had the wherewithal to counterattack immediately.

There were no words, heroic lines, or witty retorts shared between us. There were no stereotypical hallmarks of a Wild West climax. Instead, I was staring straight into the hellfire gaze of a startled guard as he hopped over tables to apprehend me. I sidestepped his first punch – a flight-backed hook – and hurled a forehoof into his exposed gut.

It was a rookie mistake, one that painted a clear picture of my adversaries. The blue blur had collapsed in a heap behind me and had just initiated the process of regaining his footing while his two comrades remained frozen in something that – based upon their dazed expressions – had to have been a pair of ravishing internal debates. No matter the source, the bequeathed image rendered the conclusion that none of the ponies in my presence had actually seen any combat.

I lifted my hind leg and jabbed the colt’s muzzle with a straight-shock buck that sent his unconscious frame tumbling. The sight plucked at the others’ strings, dragging them from their astray reveries back to the metallic rifts I was scrawling upon their histories. Their stares sharpened as they watched their brother fall, and their muscles contracted before adrenaline-fueled wing strokes pushed the pair ever closer.

Hatred contorted their brows into sinister masks that sought out the shelter I had stolen. Their forehooves had already shifted into positions worthy of unloading damaging blows upon my body, and with each measure of our song that fell victim to the decaying reverb, it became more apparent that I had exhausted the benefits of awe.

Preparatory breaths slipped in and out of my lungs as the yellow and tan pegasus ponies approached. I swept my legs outward, allowing the air to catch my wings when I dropped towards the floor, and spun my underside to the sky. Both had failed to change course to correct for my evasion, and I promptly caught a straggling sallow limb in my grasp.

My wings kicked out in opposite directions, pressing the roll maneuver to continue with the added momentum bequeathed by the charging guard. I torqued him from his intended path and released my hold at just the right moment to send the stallion careening into one of the work desks. The element of surprise had undoubtedly faded, but the laws of physics most certainly had not.

With his two cohorts down for the count, the tan flier made a beeline for the desecrated windowpane. Desperation had driven the steed to speeds that I had not anticipated when planning my hasty entrance, and I exhaled an audible groan the second my awareness jerked with the pangs of understanding. Proud Valiance might not have trusted pegasi, but he could always leave those behind who were good at running away … to him … in the event of an emergency.

The retreating sentry was almost outside by the time I had reset my bearings to begin the chase. I was convinced that my effort, stamina, and endurance would be spent while preventing this pony from making contact with his commanding officer – at least until an aura-incased rock pelted the side of his head. Like a ragdoll, he crashed to the floor in a bouncing mess that came to a halt just short of one of the intact sheets of glass.

“Sorry Shivery,” the bandaged filly addressed the fallen pegasus from atop one of the tables. “We like you all, but we just can’t let you get in the way tonight.”

I peered at the unicorn through blinking eyes and could not stifle the chuckle that dripped from my lips. Her mien of defiance, determination, and loyalty glimmered from her midnight coat – casting tides of familiarity upon the shores of my mind’s eye. From those recesses, I remembered one of Trigger’s youthful combat lectures – one in which he just so happened to preach the effective use of rocks – and drew the obvious comparison.

“Nice aim, Kid,” I spoke after straightening my posture. “I probably could have thought that out a bit more, but the end result is pretty much where I thought we’d be.” I began searching the nooks and crannies of the chamber – searching for anything that would be useful given our peculiar situation. “First thing’s first, though. I need to get those gentlecolts secured before we get to your friends. Can’t have them flying off and grabbing the others, now can we?”

A State of History - Installment 14 - For Whom the Bell Tolls

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My hooves struck the floor in firm and steady beats as I strode down the corridor of the 49th’s research compound. Rifts composed by my racing heart filled the spaces between the sharp clicks. My goggles swayed from my neck to the gain of an imaginary chorus that feasted upon my swelling anxiety, and that budding apprehension unloaded upon my consciousness the moment we reached the annex labelled Dormitory One. Behind the facility’s bolted door, I could hear the murmurs of unsettled foals, and in the midst of their awkward harmony, a rising hymn of sorrow made the brutal trek to the safe haven of my ears.

Multiple bulky latches had been riveted to the iron gate that separated the hallway from the living quarters. They were – almost certainly – protected against rheostatic magic, which made sense considering the dangerous undertaking of the unit. Unfortunately, that also meant that I would have to spend additional time popping the locks manually as opposed to relying upon my companion’s impressive talents.

She gazed as I raised my forehooves to the highest bolt and twisted the bulky cylinder into its maneuverable position. The behemoths Proud Valiance had installed upon the bulkhead were roughly four times the thickness – and twice the length – of standardized locks, and as I immediately suspected, the first one was reluctant to budge.

A staccato grunt jumped from my lungs when I heaved my weight into the push. Piercing whines rose from the clashing metals as I forced the first bolt to yield its grip upon the doorframe. The fact that such substantial security measures were used solely to contain foals sent torrents of disbelief cascading down the pathways of my mind, yet the cacophonous serenade of proof continued until I succeeded in releasing the last rod from its overly-snug shelter.

My hoof drifted to the handle of that metal portal while the filly's lilac irides settled upon the infinitesimal slit between jamb and barrier that was due to expand into a cherished egress. Stubborn hinges resisted my beck and call, defying destiny until a pair of lavender wings unfurled to finish the task. Simple tugs transformed into wingpower-backed thrusts that drove the cumbersome obstacle to its inevitable surrender, and the waiting group of four youngsters made use of the gap to counterattack my companion with an onslaught of hugs.

One colt stood out amongst the nuzzling swarm of four fillies, but all of the new acquaintances appeared to be in miserable conditions for ponies their age. Healthy hues had been bled from their coats, leaving behind faded, disheveled furs that were in need of love and compassion. Lanky figures – accented by the prominent presence of bone – highlighted the malnourished states of these growing foals, and consequent pangs of guilt and anger lit raging fires that shot through my veins.

Their sights soon ventured to me after the joy of their collective embrace decayed to hush whispers and palpable tingles of astonishment. “He’s a creator too,” the colt informed his tiny tribe before the others nodded in agreement. Like burning knives, their gazes cut through me – each carrying the daunting wisdom of ages that long outflanked their physical years.

“The one you sent me to find,” my little friend responded, “came from him.” That aura of astonishment rapidly manifested as small jawlines fell. The worn characters of their stares surrendered to the glistening sparkles that survived dilated pupils, and they motioned to my side as though I had become some sort of showpony star.

“Well, hello little ones, my name is Wing. My unicorn friend here – and I guess friend of yours – told me that you were in need of some help, so how about I take you all back to my place for a pizza party or something?” They fell in line at the mere mention of the promised word, and it took a moment for my mind to consider that – as orphans – they had never experienced the delectable treat. “My fiancée’s a baker, you know? But according to her, I make the best pizza.”

Affairs at the other end of the compound were no different when compared to the first extraction, and upon conquering another set of intractable locks, two colts and two fillies joined the increasingly merry band. Smiles crept upon their weary countenances as the promises of freedom – and a desperately needed good meal – spurred them to gather around their creature of dream.

Despite the progress, there was something that had me a bit unsettled. We had passed a room on the way to the second dormitory that spooked the youngsters, and as we approached it again, talons of fear gradually sank into the demeanors of the foals. They shivered and shuddered as that entryway loomed, and when I stopped before the gate marked Kindergarten, I could have sworn audible gasps underscored all of their breaths.

“It’s where they take those that can’t play with us anymore.” Once again, the juvenile specter of reverie read my contemplations with incredible accuracy. Her words possessed an arctic candor that sent ripples of uncertainty down the spines of our companions. “He’d tell them that it was for the best – that Celestia herself would be pleased with them – that maybe she’d find them a home.”

“Why don’t you wait for me down at the end of the hall? You can think up all the toppings you’d like to try on those pizzas once we get to my place.” My voice trailed as I returned my attention to the doorway, and a nagging suspicion bit at the periphery of my thoughts. The girl’s chorus struck a chord, one with a chiming dissonance that caused my ears to quiver to the imaginary sound.

I pressed onward, stepping inside the unlit chamber as a familiar scent stabbed my snout. The jarring aroma was an unmistakable, complex potion of iron, ink, blood and death that prompted a tense anxiety to swell within me. Impulsively, my hoof moved along the wall until it snagged what I had sought, yet a part of my subconscious forced a moment of hesitation.

Even before the plethora of photons bombarded the brushed aluminum walls, the medical benches, and the numerous trinkets scattered about the room, I knew exactly into what I had trotted. The Kindergarten was a morgue. My nerves pitched their fear aside as I scrambled to the lockers and threw open door after door. Pegasus, earth, nightmare… The labels echoed within my head as I identified each cadaver.

The unbridled beasts – left in pools of their own autopsied filth – made my stomach curdle. However, the images of every filly and colt left within those cold, lonely chambers made my blood boil. Proud Valiance had used all of them. He had manipulated the unicorns into casting fragmented dangers into the vulnerable psyches of those incapable of surviving. Those decaying states of non-unicorn toddlers would have been the perfect festering grounds to cultivate demons of nightmare.

I had only lived through my own turmoil thanks to the efforts of my loving family – and the presence of a capable hero. These lost youth had neither of those things. The 49th provided no love here. It fabricated promises of salvation that ultimately fell upon metal ears after the point of a scalpel devoured whatever tainted knowledge there was to be ascertained. It provided lies and heartache that inevitably led to the creation of a new champion through those barely old enough to grasp right versus wrong.

When I emerged from that Tartarus, nine pairs of tear-ravaged eyes looked up at me. Sniffling sounds caressed the air to break the fragile silence while I fought for the phrases that needed to be spoken. Numerous statements assembled within the enraged confines of my brain, but none were appropriate to bequeath to those in my care. Ultimately, my voice surfaced in a raspy, sorrow-stitched whisper to deliver the only message that they deserved to hear. “None of this is your fault.”

Instinctively, the children pressed against my legs while their sniffles grew into burdened sobs that were finally freed to the winds. We stood there, with one of my forelegs cradling the group, for several minutes before a high-pitched squeal from the midnight unicorn yanked us all back to reality. She peered towards me with widened lilac eyes as the news slipped from her tongue. “Trigger is coming this way. He’s close…”

The sight of the shattered windowpane had sent Proud Valiance into a fit of frenzy. He surged ahead of his unit, bolted up the stairs, and immediately set about interrogating the three guards who had been left unconscious and bound. Groups had been sent to check on the dormitories, and when they returned with reports that both had been breached and cleared, the captain lost it.

He pummeled the nearest pegasus and did not even bother to acknowledge the statement that the Kindergarten had also been accessed. The inferiors had failed him. They had let him down at the utter brink of promotion – the precipice of achievement – the threshold of praise. And now, he had absolutely nothing except for hooves dirtied by the blood of his pathetic, tied private. “Search every fucking corner of this place until those damn brats are found!” he shouted. “And the three of you idiots had better tell me who did this before I execute you for treason!”

“It… it was a pegasus,” one of the guards stammered as rage continued to seize his commanding officer. “He was lavender… and I think he came in with that little one you were all looking for this evening.”

“He came with E875?” The question seeped in a thick heat from his tongue before he spun around towards the exit. “Find me that…” He froze to the sight of Trigger’s leer as the dark stallion stood firm upon the doorsill.

“The rot of blood runs pretty heavy in this place, doesn’t it?” He took a step forward with an intimidating stomp of his foreleg. “Ya know, when I was battling that beast, he had some pretty interesting things to say about ya, Captain. I’ve heard a lot about fillies and colts tonight, and now, right when I get here, I can’t help but stop and think that the scent hittin’ me carries the stain of shattered youth.

“I’m startin’ to get the impression that ya treat foals like shit, and I’m not sure I really approve of that bullshit. Ya said ya needed help tidying up loose ends, right? I hope, for your sake, that that doesn’t involve the disposal of kids.”

“Shove your righteous idealism, you lying trash!” Proud bit back. “What we are doing here is in the name of the greater good. We will revolutionize Equestria’s military abilities and usher in a completely new era of magical understanding. You are one damn dirttrodder surrounded by an entire unit of highly trained unicorns.

“No pony would miss you if we happened to have an unfortunate accident, and you had better believe that I will not hesitate to unleash my troops upon you if I think it is necessary.” He raised his hoof and grinned as members of the squad lowered their horns into firing positions. “So tell me. Will you be a good little boy and get back in line, or am I going to have to deal with you the hard way?”

“Gentlecolts, I think it would be wise if ya all stood the fuck down,” Trigger replied in the grittiest tone he could muster. “See, your cappy is under the impression that I’m just some worthless cadet that probably got assigned to the abysmal Las Pegasus detail of guarding a boring lavender professor. The interesting part of this little tale is that he never saw fit to ask for a formal introduction, but if he had, he’d already be aware that I outrank everyone in this shithole by several fucking paygrades.

“So yes, sir, I would actually be missed. In fact, you’d attract a whole fuckload of really fast and really angry ponies who would love to know why one of their colonels happened to go missing in your establishment.” The stallion took another step forward as shock coated the miens of the sentinels. The combat-hardened veteran recognized hesitation when he saw it pervade the ponies’ limbs, and he knew the look of terror that flooded Proud’s golden cores.

Swiftly, Trigger swung his forehoof into his vest and retrieved one of his revolvers. He had the 49th locked into a state of disarray and frozen in the icy barbs of doubt. They were cowards who had taken advantage of youthful innocence, and Valiance was the head of the snake.

Kix’s polished barrel glimmered beneath the artificial light as the stallion took aim, and with a fluent flick, Trigger conducted an agonizing concerto from the depths of the captain’s tumbling frame. Luna’s blaze had torn through Proud’s kneecap and rendered the appendage worthless. Cries joined the progressing score while sprayed droplets provided a snaring cadence. Another shot made the silent witnesses recoil, for phobias plagued their minds as the vision of their captain’s mangled forelegs saturated their perceptions.

“I wonder why they don’t come to your aid, Captain. I wonder why their magic has absolutely fled them in the hour of need, or perhaps, they realize that your grand opus is really a giant load of criminal bullshit.” Trigger’s voice boomed as he closed the gap between himself and the gasping stallion before a kick to the gut pitched Proud upon his back. “I dishonorably discharge ya from your duties as commanding officer of the 49th Research Battalion.”

Meters away, Wire Wise watched in horror as the third shot ripped open the purple stallion’s chest and painted the broken floor with crimson swaths. His limbs trembled as the realization sunk in that there was no chance of recovering from that wound. Even the most gifted medic in Equestria would have nothing with which to work. The last bit of his commander’s life departed with the slowly dissipating final breath.

His mind pushed for him to escape the dreadful fate that had to linger over the horizon, but he could not bring himself to run. He had never seen anything like it. Nowhere had he seen such a powerful, devastating weapon. There was no intelligence on it. He had never intercepted a memo or document detailing such a pristine piece of equipment. Was this the work that the mysterious colt had been assigned to protect? Was this what other units could acquire?

The train of thought was derailed when the intruding stallion pulled his Coltston from his crown. “I’m going to give ya fuckers a second chance at life,” he stated callously. “I hope ya all make the most of it.”

Something in Wise snapped to attention the instant he observed Trigger’s horn decloak. Reconnaissance reflexes drove the tan unicorn to reach for a sheet of paper and a quill on the nearest desk. His heart pounded as waves of realization spawned frantic scribbles upon the page before the entire unit vanished in a flash of blinding argent magic. He’ll want to know…

The greyscale unicorn stood alone with the corpse of Proud Valiance as the night waned. He tapped a tabletop as he glanced over the downed officer a final time. “Her name is Midnight Star, by the way. That is the name they chose to give her, and that is the name I will pass along.”

He proceeded to the exit in silence as a thaumic blaze began to consume the laboratory. There would be nothing to find in its wake, not even a residual scar branded into the beloved earth. A foolish captain had wasted innocent lives for selfish reasons, and no reward could possibly mitigate the risks that could arise from allowing a single research note to survive.

Just outside, Trigger halted his march and turned his head to eye the space above the door. There was a single phrase scribbled upon the bunker in a hoofwriting style that he knew quite well. It had been placed at a height best suited for a pegasus, and it served as the final indicator that the worst of his intuitions had come to pass. “Just like ya indeed, Wing. Just like ya, indeed.”

~Present Day: Matcha Tea House, Canterlot~

Silent Knight stared intently as Trigger finished his tale. The alabaster pegasus maintained a tight grip on his beverage as his thoughts battled through waves of displeasure that shook him straight to the core. “You killed an officer…” the words emerged from the sergeant’s muzzle in a tone that awkwardly fell between the domains of statement and question, which subsequently pulled Trigger from his latest round of Tea’s famous Artillery Punch.

“You’ve been around the block long enough to know that not all officers are good ones, Silent Knight, and this one was a genuine asshat. He ruined those kids – fucked them up for the rest of their lives. The State found them good homes and folks that can help them, but those nightmares will be there until the day they learn to trot their own paths. And those foals were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones didn’t even get to make it out of Proud’s clutches, so yeah, I killed the fucker. I’d do it again…”

Knight’s argent stare settled upon the subtly curving surface of his amber-colored whiskey. “I wasn’t questioning you, sir,” he responded in a reserved, yet adamant timbre. “I was just thinking. If I were faced with the same situation, what would happen? Would I feel remorse for taking a life, or would I find confidence in knowing that I had righted a wrong? I imagine that I’d do the same thing that you did. I took an oath to lay down my life for those we’ve been sworn to protect, so it’s just unsettling to think that a pony who took the same oath as me – who was one of our own – could destroy his character as an officer – as a pony – by doing such terrible things.”

“He wasn’t one of you,” Autumn Tea interrupted. A shimmer of golden determination laced her emerald irides while she peered upon the stallions. “I’m sure you have a kind heart, Sergeant Knight. Your actions today, and the mere fact that you’d even reflect upon the evil in that tale, speak volumes about who you are. At least, that’s what I figure if Ol’ Foxy here dragged you out for drinks.” She paused when stifled coughs emerged from Trigger’s throat. “Need another, Sweety?”

The nightshade stallion recollected himself and threw a grin towards the mare. “You damn well know I’m going to have another, but that’s beside the buckin’ point.” He downed a gulp of the spicy cocktail and replanted the glass with a thud. “The future’s a bitch, Sergeant. No amount of pre-questioning is going to do ya any damn good when it comes to that subject.

“Ya just aren’t going to know the answer until ya wind up in the field one day and have to make a call. Ya might end up dealing with your own asshole. Ya might end up having to weigh the lives of those that can be saved against those that can’t. Now, I already mentioned the currency, but there’s another truth about combat. You’ll make decisions based on what ya see, but sure as shit, there’s always more. There’s always another piece to the story that will haunt ya, whether it’s acknowledged, unknown, or otherwise… Those are the demons ya face once ya decide to cheat Reaper Time.”

~14 Months Prior: San Palomino~

Wire Wise fiddled anxiously with the letter resting upon his hooves. It had been a month since his previous assignment had come to an abrupt end – since the memories of that moment had evaporated. He could not recall the details of his captain, and the lingering recollections regarding his former facility only indicated that he had worked with fillies and colts. Whatever he had done, the associated setting offered by his anamneses seemed unfit for a pony that specialized in information gathering.

Nonetheless, the fact that he could not remember the details was an astounding piece of information in and of itself. It was as if he had lived for months inside the confines of a dream, where recollections became amorphous blobs meant to be forgotten. However, he never would have wasted time with such nonsense. Prestige mattered to him; he would not have taken a position at all if it did not carry some significance.

One indication that perhaps he had been involved with such a project was the discontinuity that marred his history. Another came from the honorable discharge he had received in the week that followed the schism. He was being pushed out, and his records had definitely been altered to fit the tale another had written for him. The notion that such abilities existed terrified the stallion, for if it weren’t for the blessing of a single sheet of paper, the great realization that not all was right would have likely never been made.

New wep, pful, mgc, wipe, C.L.G. Along with the date in question, the shorthoof script was all that he had written upon the page. It was not much, but it was enough to put together the pieces. A powerful magical weapon had been involved in the events of that day, and whatever had transpired necessitated a wipe of his memories. Certainly, it must have been something incredible to warrant the inking of those initials.

Wire Wise,

I must admit that your recent correspondence intrigues me. My work obviously keeps me up to speed with Equestrian law, and I can assure you that the use of mind-altering magic raises both ethical and criminal concerns. Unfortunately, you did not divulge your recent undertakings to me, so I am unable to fill in the blanks in your record.

Nevertheless, there are gains to be made in your sacrifice. While your vague comments do little to narrow down the field, for magical weapons have always been associated with your past, the fact that Equestria is actively developing new military technology will definitely strike a chord on this side of the sea. My talons are a bit tied for now as you have not given information with which I can persuade, but I will see what I can do.

In the meantime, since you have been honorably discharged, I advise you to take your talents elsewhere. If I recall correctly, you have rather strong views when it comes to other pony races. Far be it for me to comment upon unicorn plights; however, you may find the Vanhoover area to be more suited to your interests. It is my understanding that particularly fervent literature has been distributed from the nearby Galloping Gorge region for quite some time – literature that possesses a certain unicorn-centric flair.

The brain behind this country operation is an intelligent mare named Ashen Mystic. Right now, she seems content to merely stir the pot with prose, but perhaps she would be more willing to expand her operational capabilities if she had an experienced intelligence officer.

Until next time, your loyal friend,
Professor Conrad Lichlos Gänse

A Game of Darkness - Installment 15 - Arc III

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Powder blue talons gripped the edges of a Canterlot newspaper while paws – insulated by charcoal fur – danced atop a brushed metal floor. The date below the journal’s headline had passed a week ago, but the picture plastered upon the front page carried the exhilaration of something new, exciting, and revolutionary.

Green eyes scrutinized every detail as cream feathers ruffled to the heart-thumping beat of realization. “My boy, my boy!” the griffon shouted as he twirled his way past an unoccupied bridge console to one of the integrated island’s many windows. Staggering towers of iron rose from the surface to proclaim the technological might of the Griffonian Republic of Talon’s End, but Conrad Lichlos Gänse had found something far more interesting in his sights.

Over a year ago, the griffon had had a hunch – an inkling of a thought – that perhaps one of his closest college cohorts had placed a hoof into some rather interesting business. For all intents and purposes, that premonition flew claw-in-claw with the notion of a pipe dream; and yet, here he stood at the core of his airship viewing a portrait that undoubtedly captured that very pony’s visage.

“It seems as though you finally managed to figure it out, Doctor Wing.” The muscles near the base of his blackened beak contorted to sculpt the basics of a smile. He reflected upon those years spent in Equestria, how he had toiled in graduate school, and how his drive to succeed had led to an early departure from the nation.

That time in Whynnyapolis, however, had served him well. In that vividly crisp northland, he had come to know a fellow graduate student – one whose peculiar tales of Wonderbolt-backed research and fanciful applications drove most to roll their eyes or mutter, “Only Wing.” Yet, they had all considered him mad, too. They had looked down upon his foreign fascination with magic as strange, as if his desire to tie that mystical paradigm to the mechanics he knew oh so well was somehow invalid.

“How we used to spend the hours flirting upon the brinks of imaginary disasters. I wonder if you gaze upon this creation of yours and recognize any of the beauty that I see.” He dallied about the lavender pixels pressed into the parchment. “That allure of magic made us kindred spirits, Wing, but just like the lot of ponies, you were always fearful of the change.

“You peeked at the shadows but couldn’t turn away from the specter. And now, I get to see the fruits of that labor. Just look at you! You’ve become a riveting entertainer playing hero for the masses. In your honor, they write of concern and curiosity while pondering just how a pegasus could possibly wield the power to dispel windigos. For the fallen, they write with sorrow while still catering to the lowest common denominator with promises that the day was saved thanks to the light. But the two of us both know, my dearest Wing, that the day was saved thanks to the lightless.”

Conrad pushed off the frame that circumscribed the window and once again twirled around upon hind paws to the audience of his ship’s emptied command deck. Delight surged through his body as endorphins swayed to a swelling orchestration that serenaded his numerous calculations. He flipped the newspaper into the clutches of his lion’s tail and closed his eyes for the remainder of the performance.

The chess pieces were assembling themselves with even less effort than he had anticipated. True, he had laid the board long ago – forcing it to weather the inquiring threads of fate – but subtly ensnaring each and every component in those fibers was a challenge that necessitated a level of genius only he could achieve. And all of that still required a firm table of malcontent upon which his game could be played.

It turned out that pawns made the best carpenters, for the promises of a new dawn and a promoted existence propelled them to push the frontlines to new, ever-inspiring boundaries. The griffon burst into laughter as the mental picture snapped into focus once more. He had found his white knight, and the fact that the role had been filled by the choice of his dreams spurred childish giggles to bubble through the professor’s beak.

The manifesting monologue reached an abrupt end when the wheel on the bulkhead door spun to the unlocked position. The steel – piercing the jovial frivolities – squeaked before another griffon stepped onto the bridge. She was decorated in camouflage that captured the blues and whites of a cloud-dotted sky, and similarly hued tufts of hair jutted out from beneath the brim of her cap. Vibrant yellow talons produced percussive pops as they periodically mingled with the floor, but it was her conspicuous crimson stare that managed to halt the overjoyed Lichlos in his dancing tracks. “Sir, they’ve signed off on your motion. We are cleared to launch at your order.”

A sly chuckle slithered from Conrad as he peered at his lieutenant. He had just been pondering the pieces and found it immensely satisfying that the king had dropped into his clutches at this particular moment of his opus. The absolutely most useless player to occupy a square was unfortunately the most essential when it came to his pursuits, but he had held faith that his arguments would persuade the governing leadership of his country.

Relationships between the griffon tribes had been a source of contention for centuries, and while the Republic had eventually established strong ties with most of the smaller outliers, the deplorable state of affairs with the Northern Kingdom of Eagle’s Cry remained exploitable in almost every situation. The two sovereignties had been locked in a cold war for nearly fifty years, and that hostility had generated its fair share of heated outbursts over the course of history.

Those in the Talon’s End believed that the Eagle had long ago abandoned its pride – that it had turned its tail towards the self-sufficiency that made griffons strong. It had turned to outsiders for strength when the Republic sought to garner power from other, worthy griffon lands. It had broken a simple creed – a mutual understanding that stretched back millennia – that the pursuit of alpha status was to forever remain an internal issue.

Spies had been dispatched to detail the proceedings, and each reconnaissance report that made it to the Republic’s Council stoked the ire of the ruling body. Defense agreements with supposed allies to the east, the implementation of foreign techniques into combat training, and the buildup of a voluntary air force all sent ripples down the collective spine of the senate. However, there had been one specific development that Gänse knew he could harness.

A trade agreement with Equestria had perturbed even the most unpatriotic citizens, for they grasped the concept of a tribe bearing the secrets of griffon culture to another species with such contempt that just about any… little… addition could flick society right off its fulcrum. While the Talon’s End held diplomatic standing with Equestria, the subsequent ties were weak gestures that sat on the line of political politeness and nothing more.

Ponies, with that supernatural element of mystery, were in some senses feared. Their traditions seemed completely orthogonal to ordinary griffon aspirations, and it had indeed taken Conrad quite some time to mask his own ambitions once he had gained the rare opportunity to study abroad in Whynnyapolis.

Yet the photo in his possession did not display an event completely clouded by sorcery. A pony – one that he knew – had encroached upon an industrial domain that was a griffon’s birthright. The equines had molded their freakish abilities into something that a non-user could wield upon the field of battle. “I knew they would see it my way, Lieutenant. It really isn’t hard to draw the dots to danger when the newest trade partner of our enemy seemingly develops a weapon that we do not yet understand.”

The professor paused, allowing the gravity of his statement to settle upon the lieutenant’s mind. “Did you know, Azure Sky, that the customs office in Manehattan has the tendency to report diplomatic arrivals to the Canterlot authorities within 24 hours?” Condescending inflections sporadically pulled Conrad’s pitch as he continued. “That’s not such a bad thing if you happen to be seeking an audience, now is it? Go inform the crew. The Aircraft Albatross will be setting course for Equestria at sixteen-hundred hours.”

Three weeks had passed since the eventful day upon which the Canterlot Arena became hallowed ground. My recovery had been far from swift, but at least the collection of ponies at my side had made the rehabilitation process as enjoyable as it could have been. Trigger had occasionally recounted me with his tales of nighttime outings with members of Luna’s House Guard, which – as it had turned out – served as the perfect segue to mention the letter I had received from my sister, Laizzy Chain.

A year ago, after officially adopting Midnight Star, Trigger had decided to send the filly to West Manehattan to live with my flower-shop sibling. The little one had initially rallied behind her own dissent, but in the end, the move was for the best. She was too young to learn the skills that she desperately yearned for the stallion to teach her, and without a developed mind to serve as her vessel of birth, the filly of fantasy was born lacking the tools necessary for a typical life in Equestria.

Regardless, it sounded as though she had caught her stride and was blossoming into a friendly young pony with a boatload of talent. I could not help but notice the fatherly grin that had seeped onto Trigger’s countenance when he learned that she had gained her cutie mark while defending a friend from the onslaught of a bully. A five-pointed silver sheriff’s star set against the crescent of a scythe definitely suited the family heritage.

Of course, Amora had become another familiar presence – especially during the early stages of my hospital stay. It was not an exaggeration to say that I would have died without her magic actively holding me together. Those first few days barely registered as memories in my head. I had been pumped full of pain suppressing spells and had spent most of that time flirting incessantly with the sweet succubus otherwise known as the unconscious state.

However, several images had survived the sleep-induced erasures of my anamneses, and all of them involved the medic’s anguished expression as she fought to drain the insidious aftereffects of Erzsevine’s thaumic brands. Amora was truly an amazing unicorn, and I was blessed to have her as a friend who would remain in my corner – no matter my condition.

And then, there was she. There was the one who had put down everything before the full news could even be spoken. She had rotated her schedule just to slip on the next train to Canterlot, and she had not left my side until every vacation day had been used. When I had gained enough strength to venture outside the dreary walls, she had been the one to push my wheelchair to the stadium.

Civilization had appeared to have regained some sense of normalcy, but from the few inquisitive stares that had fallen upon my bandaged frame, I knew that things had changed. Our veil had been partially retracted, and society had been exposed to the potential nightmare that lingered beyond the bournes of compassion and kindness.

It also did not help that I actually resembled myself – at least the vision of me that somehow made it to the press. The stadium had still been crawling with guards when I arrived at the gates, and not a single one of them had asked for my credentials. At the time, a twinge of worry coursed through the network of my wandering thoughts, but I had been a bit distracted by the request of my significant other.

Word of the unbreakable garden had drifted through the ranks – to the hospital staff – to pretty much everyone. It was only fair that the two of us got to gaze upon the field of shielded flowers together. After all, it had been the essence of our encapsulated love that had driven the windigos from the capital. It had been my thoughts of her that had prevented me from drowning in the ice of hate. It had all been thanks to Ambrosia.

We relished the company – every feel and each touch – for those moments had brought unabashed warmth to the surface. As well as I could, I recuperated by jaunting about town with her whenever Amora deemed me physically fit to do so, and by the end of the second week, I was already back on my hooves – trotting under my own vigor.

With a quaint café as our backdrop, the sweet cerulean-maned mare informed me that she would start using her sick days to remain in the city to look after me. The reflection alone sent my heart clumsily sputtering about like an awestruck colt, but I could not allow her to do that. The brass had already been clamoring for some sort of meeting, and I knew that I would not be able to use my injury as an excuse for much longer.

Once affairs were put in order, she and I would rendezvous in Las Pegasus, rebuild our home, and establish the future we wanted. “The distance doesn’t matter,” I told her. “It doesn’t matter where we go or what we’re doing. The Universe can be rewritten and reforged beneath our hooves, but there will always be one constant. I will always love you.”

“The buck are ya doing, Wing?” Trigger asked while waving his foreleg in front of my eyes. I blinked a few times at his perplexed stare, and my head gradually tilted to the side under the weight of matched confusion. “You’re doing that thing where ya ramble on to yourself about reforging the Universe for your special somepony. It’s cute and all, but ya might want to get your shit together for this one.”

My attention followed his gesturing hoof until my gaze settled upon the entrance to Canterlot Castle. Indeed, this debriefing would not be like any of the others I had attended. This one carried the burden of mortality and a feeling of dread that eclipsed even Celestia’s light. House guards met us halfway up the steps to quickly usher us to one of the more secluded rooms of the palace. Eyes of those in the know dropped upon us like tumbling boulders as we traveled, and the resounding cadence of hoof upon marble that accompanied the otherwise silent voyage only intensified the anxiety brewing within me.

“Any word on who’s been pulled into this shit show?” Trigger asked the guards in a nonchalant tone. His casual address first took me by surprise before I recognized that both of our escorts had been assigned to the Luna watch. They were likely in Silent Knight’s unit; in fact, they were likely at the arena when I was being carted off.

“Officers.” The mare’s curt response carried an edgy timbre that did more to paint the situation than the word itself.

Sure enough, when the doors to the chamber were pulled open, I spotted a hoofful of stallions that had stretched my patience gathered around a cut quartz table. I had become a sheep before the bloody wolves – ones who relentlessly pursued the full production of things I could not allow – and I would either be devoured or survive a grueling bureaucratic climb. At least, that was my perception until a pair of teal irides corralled my unsteady sights.

“We commend you for your services,” Princess Luna spoke as soon as the wooden gates were closed behind Trigger and me. The others in attendance shifted in their seats from the radiance of her fanfare, and I struggled to approach the table without revealing a hint of amazement. “We understand from Defiant Hooves that duties were admirably performed, but the members of staff have a few questions they wish to ask. As such, we believe our attendance is verily needed.”

I sunk into my chair and took a deep breath. From the grin barely manifesting upon the extremities of Her Majesty’s lips, I surmised that her presence was meant to foil the pompous idiocy one would expect to be regurgitated by clueless brass.

“Could you explain to me why you chose to spare three ponies who dealt such egregious harm to their own kind?” The essence of Canterlot arrogance rose from the mouth of a pegasus who looked as though he had not made use of his wings in years. Huffs dribbled through his teeth as he sluggishly moved his mass in Trigger’s direction.

“‘Cause killing them off on the spot would have been strategically moronic,” he responded without the slightest bit of respect in his voice. “I took the bite out of the mouthpiece and kept her alive. If I had offed her, then every damn unaccounted member of the EHVM would be out lookin’ for some trouble. Even deskwarriors can wrap their brains around that concept…”

The princess raised her hoof and spoke in a manner that came across as a mother scolding her errant child. “Enough, Sir Trigger. We have no need for such hostilities here. My sister and I agree with your decision. We believe that too many lives were already lost to that day.”

“Indeed,” a brown earth pony cut into the mix, “what we would really care to know is the status of the EqNA Project. Colonel Wing, you demonstrated before the entire nation the effectiveness of your weapons in combat, yet at every review, you have somehow managed to delay the deployment of these tools. How is this so? Imagine how three weeks ago would have played out if our guards had possessed the ability to strike back against their assailants with magical firepower!”

“Sir, my rationale should have been completely outlined in Defiant’s report. My standard protocol was broken during the confrontation as soon as I relinquished the A0 to Mosaic Breeze. She had ample opportunities to discharge a round when I provided enough space for a clear shot. However, she did not due to the principle of thaumic resonance.

“I’m not just saying these things to pull your legs. If the wielder cannot form a magical connection with each round, then using them brings more harm than good. I’m still learning what my shells are capable of accomplishing. I won’t sign off on handing them out to non-magic users at any time in the near future. I’ve already made that clear.”

“Colonel!” Anger drenched the stallion’s response as he proceeded. “We’ve all heard you say that in the past, but that was before you successfully dispelled windigos before the eyes of the world. You’re in the press! Ponies are scared, and they need reassurance that we’re safe from various forms of attack.”

“First, sir, with all due respect, I’m in the press because somepony’s office didn’t do its job. Second, the round that I – oh so miraculously – used to thwart the windigos was a shell type that only I could fire, unless you feel another would be more suited to discharge a superweapon powered by the love I share with my special somepony.

“Look, I get it. You want to enhance the effectiveness of your guards. I want them to have an even field too, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. I have not even established the training protocol.” I sighed and pushed my forehoof to my temple. “What happened was a tragedy. I know because I was there, which is why I can also say that no amount of reckless armament buildup would have saved the day. It would have likely led to even more sorrow.”

Another at the table readied to speak before a gesture from Luna halted the verbal advance. “Gentlecolts, we feel that the direction of this discussion will yield no solution to the quarrel; thus, we have a proposal of our own. Would ye gain satisfaction from a pony of the royal choice being inserted into Sir Wing’s unit to assess the practicality of these devices?”

Displeasured grumbles submitted to the silence that followed Luna’s suggestion, and I bit my tongue as the big shots mulled it over. The idea absolutely terrified me, but the manner in which her cool gaze soothed my nerves made me wonder if the princess of the night was simply playing a game. When they all nodded in agreement, she promptly dismissed them from the chamber under the carefully stated pretext that internal DarkOps affairs were classified above their paygrades. I always knew I was a nighttime kind of stallion.

“We are aware that thou art disturbed by such meetings, but we hope the proceedings went well enough considering the circumstances.” She was practically giddy as she leaned forward to fish for my opinion like a filly who had been entrusted with a monumental task for the first time.

“Pretty much went as I expected, Your Highness. You dealt with us all well enough – especially when you scolded Trigger like a little colt.”

We chuckled as feigned groans slithered from the targeted stallion’s throat. “Well, we are also aware that creatures of reverie can be a hoofful.” She chuckled again and drew her forehoof to politely cover her muzzle. “But with all seriousness, Sir Wing, there are things that we need to discuss. We did not joke when we said that we wished to assign a new recruit to your care. He has been quite insistent on this path since thou hast saved his life, and we’re afraid that no amount of persuasion has altered these dreams. We will not accept no as an answer; however, we will allow thee to dictate your own timetable.”

“I understand, Your Majesty,” I replied with a defeated tone assuredly etched upon my wind. The decision was certainly not the end of the world, but it was definitely not what I had wanted either. When I had read Ground Cover’s dossier, it listed him as a father. Why would any pony want to leap into the world we faced when there were growing foals waiting in the light?

Her horn illuminated with a frosted azure glow as serene waves cascaded along her starry mane. The magical aura swirled over the crystal surface until two wooden boxes appeared before our eyes. “Ye have both been awarded The Cross for your sacrifices. Normally, my sister would throw a large to-do for such an occasion, but we figured a quiet delivery would be more appropriate.”

“Verily so,” Trigger answered teasingly as one of his legs descended over the medal box. I could sense from his mannerisms that he was geared to continue, but when Luna’s expression shifted to forecast something serious lurking over the horizon, he aborted the thought.

“There is something else that ye should know.” The confidence that had bolstered her speech disintegrated to the rising tides of what I had discerned to be the alicorn equivalent of maternal fear. With the bulk of uncertainty contorting her brow, she levitated an envelope into my clutches and tenderly revealed the news. “We received this dispatch this morning from our customs office at the Port of Manehattan. A Griffonian airship hailing from Talon’s End docked on diplomatic grounds, and its captain sent this letter specifically for thou to read. It appears that the papers have turned our situation into a global matter, and thou hast garnered an admirer for your work.”

She stared as I tore apart the paper shrine and unfolded the parchment it had contained. There were only four words inked upon that page, but that was all it took to send my heart racing into an unbridled gallop upon some frantic, dread-filled plane. “Trigger…” The name emerged as a gnarled, guttural whisper as I let the note drop to the quartz. “We’ll be going to West Manehattan immediately…”

I’ll be waiting. ~Lichlos

A Game of Darkness - Installment 16 - The Wing Gambit

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There were no hidden meeting rooms this time – no nooks or crannies of a library – no out-of-the-way rendezvous spots; my patience for those had ended the second my eyes fell upon the name Lichlos. He had issued a challenge to me – one that stretched across an academic eternity – and it was one to which I intended to respond.

The timing of his appearance could not have been clearer. The countless hours we had spent discussing the philosophies which had thrown us ever closer to our rift stored grain after hourglass grain of truth. Once, he had been a trusted friend, someone with whom I could laugh and share my inner-most thoughts. Where others had viewed my ideas with skepticism, he had always shown interest. However, that enthusiastic support had sat stained upon a mask of his own design. Behind it, there were eagle eyes eagerly affixing ambition to the gains and spoils of malicious opportunity. There was simply no way that mere coincidence could explain his presence upon Equestria’s shores.

“I still can’t believe that both of you received the Celestian Cross.” Mozy’s voice reined the breeze as one of her hooves gently stroked the wooden vessel. From her expression, I presumed that she was trying to uplift my mood, but noteworthy recognition failed to sway my mind when the specter of a demon haunted my every thought.

Luna’s teal eyes had pierced my soul when I allowed Conrad’s parchment to drift back to the quartz tabletop. She had seen the nightmare that had ensnared my essence, and upon the announcement of my intent to leave for Manehattan, she had immediately sent for the members of the DarkOps squad as a precautionary measure.

“While we appreciate the valor of those in attendance, we think this not the appropriate time, Mosaic Breeze,” the princess addressed my protégé before the alabaster mare settled uncomfortably into her chair. “Clearly, the appearance of this Lichlos has perturbed Sir Wing’s demeanor, and he wishes to depart for Manehattan at once. We believe ye can convince him that such actions are the hallmarks of a stubborn pegasus – and not a scholarly one.”

I shifted my gaze to Amora, who stared back at me with the same aura of disbelief I had exuded when I first read the griffon’s name. With the lone exception of Trigger, she had known me longer than the others. Together, we had ventured to Whynnyapolis seeking wisdom amidst the beautiful, frigid metropolis, and while we had found it, we had also met Conrad. She had witnessed his theatrics first-hoof, and as such, the mare was more than capable of vouching for the quality of my seemingly stubborn claims.

“Lichlos is a sociopath,” she spoke with an astounding level of calm, “but Wing, you can’t go – at least not yet.” She raised her forehoof to cut me off before I gave the slightest indication of my brewing rebuttal. “He’s trying to get under your coat, and it’s working. You know the type of griffon he is. He’s calculated everything up until this point, and he’s probably figured out his next twenty moves.

“What do you know about his plan? He just sent you a bait letter, and you’re already set to run off to confront him. What are you going to do when you get there? He’s here on diplomatic grounds, which means you can’t do anything to him anyway unless he assaults an Equestrian citizen or does something that qualifies as an act of war.”

Wick rested his grey muzzle atop his forehooves and furrowed his brow as he gradually leaned forward. “The situation between Talon’s End and Eagle’s Cry isn’t that great. The tension there is known on a global scale – at least when it comes to those in positions of power – which means that we need to be cautious.

“We cannot gallop into the den without an understanding of the motives involved with his arrival. The North might not be too thrilled to learn that its nemesis has dispatched an envoy – especially considering our recent trade agreements. He could just be trying to stir that pot at our expense. Though,” Wick’s face contorted into a contemplative scowl as he continued, “an image of Wing’s stadium shot was published, and the timespan seems right, so we do need to consider that he is here to irk our resident physicist.”

“Ya know you’re all buckin’ pissing him off with logic, right?” Trigger quipped before he kicked back in his chair and set his hind legs upon the tabletop. The others gingerly turned their heads towards the stallion to view the knowing grin that stretched the contours of his muzzle. “Of course, he knows you’re right already, which just makes it suck more, so allow me to break it down and move the shit show along.

“Conny is a weaseling douchebag; he always has been, and he always will be. He cultivated Wing’s trust and friendship with the sole goal of getting on the inside of the armaments project, and at first, things were fine. But any way ya cut it, shit is still shit. Everypony in this room knows about Wing’s rules when it comes to the guns. Lichlos wanted to break them. He wanted detailed information on the shell production. He wanted access to all of Wing’s notes on resonance, and he always spoke about how the project was too small to fit a global picture.

“The bucker’s ambition to bathe his own kind in magic was palpable, and keepin' him around became a risk that no sane pony would ever take. But that’s not the only thing irking the fuck out of our lavender pegasus. It’s Conny’s choice of location. What better way to get under your target’s skin than to hit the family’s hometown?”

“You just can’t risk playing guessing games with him,” I interjected after rubbing my temple. “He could be here simply to piss off Eagle’s Cry, but he could be coming after the revolvers. He was enchanted while we were both in Whynny and borderline obsessed when the whole concept was nothing more than an infantile notion. Unfortunately, those hypotheses might not even come close to conveying the real danger he poses. Manehattan has a huge population, so there’s always a chance that he is here to try something far worse. Either way, I’m not about to sit around and wait to find out.”

“Wing, they’re not going to let ya go, and frankly, neither am I. It’s not because I don’t understand the situation. Lichlos is a crazy dipshit, but let’s face it; no one in this room wants to have to explain to Ambrosia how her knight in liberty blue spandex got fucked over again.” Adding his own refrain to our bantering duet, Trigger played the power chords that he knew best and serenaded us with a brazen humor that often belied his intellect. “He wants ya to go to him, Wing. Why the buck should we give him what he wants?

“Perhaps instead,” he recommended with an upbeat flamboyance, “if Conrad is so determined to seek out amusement like a dumb little foal, we should keep the plaything he wants out of harm’s way and let him find a fox he’s not used to playing with directly.”

The stallion did have a point. He had still been restrained to the confines of my mind when Gänse and I attended graduate school, and while there was a possibility that the griffon would be able to identify some of the more familiar mannerisms of my gunslinging reverie, it was more likely that he would grow frustrated by my absence. At the very least, we’d be able to gauge Conrad’s response, and at best, that response would reveal something useful about the scope of his mission.

“You do know him, and he doesn’t know you. That is a distinct advantage that I guess I can’t afford to pass up. Though, I’m sure you already know that my concession boils down to you pulling the Amby card on me, T, which in this instance, forces my hoof. I’m down with your gambit. Just remember that I’m not going to sit on the sidelines forever.”

“Thou wilt not be held upon the sideline at all, Sir Wing.” Luna’s voice usurped the atmosphere with its boisterous, billowing fervor. “We are engaged in a task that we believe demands your participation. The three ye defeated at the arena are still being held in the castle dungeon. With Sir Trigger leaving us for Manehattan, we could use your first-hoof experience on the matter for interrogation and settling punishment. There are still answers we do not have.”

Shimmering emeralds hawked over their new domain as the Albatross sat docked beside her floating quay. The skyline of Manehattan responded with a glimmer all its own that enticed flocks of Talon soldiers to the clear panes. They stood in a united front upon the bridge, dressed in the same camouflage Azure Sky had worn just prior to the ship’s departure.

After nearly two weeks of traversing the ocean’s gales, they were eager to escape the shells of fiber composite and aluminum that kept their helium-filled vessel pinned to the heavens. “Rambunctious youngsters,” Lichlos muttered as he remained seated upon his velvet throne. The spectacle was more of a distraction than anything else, but it was to be expected. In the end, it would just be another exciting element of his game.

Another thing that he anticipated was Azure Sky’s return. He had dispatched his underling hours ago to deliver the arrival report to the Manehattan brass, but her mission did not end there. Other ponies drifted about the city, ones with which the griffon held particular interest. “Negative Scopes, Spiritual Essence, Laizzy Chain… I wonder if he ever mentioned me to any of you. I wonder if you know just what your cherished child – and adored brother – has been up to all this time. Do you know of the dangers he has been wielding right beneath your noses?”

He inhaled, ending his quiet reflection, and rallied his troops. “With knowledge comes responsibility, my soldiers. We have sailed across the great sea to ensure that the pursuits of this land will not interfere with the glory of our republic. These ponies have chosen to accept a trade agreement with the bastards of the North, and if Equinity’s secrets are allowed to transfer unchecked to our enemies, then we could be simply wiped from this earth.

“I will not hide the scope of this mission from you now that we have reached Equestria’s dominion. This is not just a diplomatic engagement. We are here to monitor those who endanger us the most, and I am here to determine which action is necessary to facilitate Talon’s survival.” Gänse’s countenance did not reveal an inkling of the ecstasy that responded to every subordinate’s nervous twitch and anxious shuffle.

He had struck the taut string with the perfect hammer to produce a pitch that could grace the ears of chaos incarnate. Roots of doubt were easy to plant in fields fertilized by centuries of mistrust, and the mere invoking of the Cry could send any Talon griffon to the precipice of blind devotion. The expanse of possibilities bounced around his brain as move after move played out upon his imagined chessboard.

He ogled the premise of the white knight and scripted the numerous nuances in which his great opponent would dart upon the field of battle, lavender wings flared, ready the reap the benefits of nations tossed to the clutches of calamity. Of course, the cavalier would oppose, struggle, and flail in an effort to preserve the beloved principle of harmony that pervaded all of pony society. But no matter how much you oppose me, Wing, it will not be enough. I’m going to pull other pieces into this match – ones that I’m sure you’re expecting to see and ones that you’re hoping I’ll miss. But it won’t end there. I’m finally going to get what I want. I’ll grasp your sorcery with the bare strength of my claws, and I will finally pit your pathetic philosophy against a situation it cannot endure.

“Message delivered, sir,” Azure Sky announced upon retaking her place upon the command deck. “I verified the courier’s departure for Canterlot myself, and the sergeant-in-charge informed me that your letter would arrive at the palace post before the noon hour.” She watched as malicious flickers danced upon Conrad’s swerving irides. “I also gathered the information you requested. His parents still live in the Bright Sea area of West Manehattan, and his sister owns a flower shop and studio on the corner of Bridleway and Trotter.”

“Excellent job, Ms. Sky. I knew you’d set the bar for our first Equestrian operation.” Lichlos paused as the others stewed silently within their collective sea of trepidation. His tongue gradually meandered along the edge of his black beak, and the weight of sadistic pleasures gathered upon its tip until the accumulated weight drove the cream-and-charcoal griffon to action. “What of your other assignment? Is there any news regarding the Eagle’s Cry?”

The candid address produced a plethora of percussive growls that rose as sharpened talons scuffed the floor. Once again, Conrad inhaled that luscious scent of agony that latched upon the quivering winds of anguish and uncertainty. Succulent, that aroma lounged about the breadth of his daydreams, and it was only bested by the affirmative chirp of his king pawn.

“I became exceptionally curious when I observed the Equestrians’ dock schedule. They have us tethered to the southernmost quay, and the northernmost one is slated to be occupied by another vessel the day after tomorrow. The ponies seemed reluctant to reveal any additional information; however, I found it suspicious that they would spread their resources across an entire port to cover two ships – unless, of course, there was a reason to implement that separation.”

“I expect everyone to remain on high alert,” Gänse dove into the role of a vibrant, nationalistic commander. “Assume the worst and prepare for the coming of an Eagle’s Cry battleship. We can take absolutely nothing for granted. I want it drilled into every soldier’s head that we cannot take a pony’s kindness as truth. They have a standing agreement with our sworn enemy, and they possess a weapon and a magic that we do not understand. Remember that we are here on diplomatic grounds, but do not paint targets upon your backs. Show them the resolute edge of a Talon’s End!”

The ranks snapped to attention as his words raked their ears. Like he had done countless times before, Conrad had twisted their emotions into confused fervors. In two days, their nightmares would come. Each of the little pawns in his presence would experience the desolation of a direct contact abroad. Each of them would obtain the power to hurl three nations into a bountiful war – gifts he had secured himself.

In fact, he ensured it the second he allowed another gift to slip across the sea to his agents in the North. The pieces were indeed assembling to the recipe of his maniacal script, and soon enough, he would flick each and every foe from captured bits of the board. For now though, he would have to remain satisfied with his opening moves. The invitation had been sent to the pegasus, and there was no doubt that the revered King of Eagle’s Cry had expanded his knowledge to ensnare the departure time of the Talon's Airship Albatross.

A Game of Darkness - Installment 17 - Another Knight's Angle

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Rosy eyes blossomed as I exited the chamber with the princess triumphantly marching a few paces behind my frame. The enchanted gaze belonged to a buttermilk stallion whose mane had been sculpted into what every guard could recognize as helmet hair. The deep brown threads practically begged to be resuscitated, and the slate band that ran along one of his part lines was in no better shape.

“Colonel, it’s a pleasure.” His foreleg swooped into a picture-perfect salute, and he held the pose for an uncomfortably long time while I stood there pondering what the hell was happening. It was only when Luna’s giggle seeped into my twitching ears that the vision came into focus.

“I thought you said he was on my timetable,” I blurted before waving the soldier out of the formality. I glanced back at the towering alicorn with an expression of brooding defiance, and the mischief that cradled her rising cheeks and spreading grin only managed to drag my descending brow. “Utterly hopeless… Would you at least mind giving us a moment alone, Your Majesty?”

“Of course,” Luna responded – her voice considerably brightened with teasing cheer, “we will be setting up three floors down in the first room on the left. And fret not, Sir Wing, thou retain the rights to your timetable. We thought it best that ye meet as soon as possible to facilitate the budding comradery.”

For several seconds, we peered in silence as the regal lady of the night departed for her other duties. Neither of us spoke until the last glimmer of her twinkling starry mane vanished beneath the stairwell’s horizon, and even then, an awkward pause dangled its fermata crescent above our heads until a thank you dribbled from the stallion’s muzzle.

“Private,” I responded, saturating my tone with something akin to concerned curiosity, “why exactly are you here? You have a family, and a young one, so why are you so persistent about getting involved with my unit? Were you not allowed to see my medical report? Three weeks ago, I was barely alive. Is that something that you really want to expose your foals to?”

I had spread the guilt as thick as I could, allowing it to stick like grimy mortar to psychological cinderblocks capable of downing even the most stubborn of ponies. However, Ground Cover did not even flinch. The maneuver washed over his sandy shield cutie mark like the waves of an unyielding ocean – always leaving some proof of presence, but not necessarily the one that was intended.

Instead of retreating, the earth pony lifted his head and focused his stare into a fierce beast that possessed its own figurative crisp crunch. “My foals are the reason, sir. If I can’t learn to save myself from those you fight, then how can I possibly hope to save them if the need should arise?” Against the rising turmoil that surged from his flaring memories, he sucked in a deep, yet quivering breath. “I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. All throughout my recovery, it made my blood boil; and then I learned about what had happened here.

“Innocent ponies died, but it would have been a lot worse if your unit didn’t exist to put a stop to it. If you’re asking me if I would willingly put my life on the line to ensure that my family doesn’t have to experience that shit, my answer is damn right, Colonel – speaking freely, of course, sir.”

“I expect you to speak freely,” I replied while waving a hoof absent-mindedly. “Ranks are pretty much useless in my squad. Frankly, the problems that we tackle require a more academic approach. It’s not like we’re sitting on our flanks all day thinking every which way around ourselves, but when you create a solid group of good thinkers and team players, the end result is pretty effective. That being said, Princess Luna put the scheduling of your involvement in my hooves. If you want to be part of the team, then you’re going to have to live up to the same standards as everyone else. What’s your level of education?”

“Enrolled in the guard straight out of secondary. Wasn’t much point in pursuing anything higher when my special talent etched my course in stone.”

“That path has changed. Whatever business you have here, once it’s done, you’re on the next train to Las Pegasus. Bring your family if they can all relocate easily. If they cannot, then we’ll put you on a different schedule. Regardless, you’ll be enrolling at ULP. Report to the guard post at Equestria National Accelerator Laboratory – east side of town – and tell them Professor Wing sent you to receive the Mozy Special. Celestia forbid, they will all remember what that means.”

A look of confusion brewed upon his countenance while the reality of my words battled whatever scenarios his imagination had conjured. A timid hum swirled about the depths of his throat, and it was apparent that the inner soldier was suppressing the urge to question my orders.

“The long story short of it is that DarkOps has equipment that the rest of the guard wants. Deskwarriors up the chain have been clamoring about it for years, and they only get louder every time I refuse to give the sign-off. After your rescue, and after the events in Canterlot, they viewed my rejections with more disdain than ever. We reached an impasse, so Luna struck the bargain that a pony of her choice could join the unit to serve as a guinea pig.

“Since you’ve been a thorn in her side for the past few weeks, you became the perfect candidate. I have enough thorns as it is, Private. Honestly, I don’t need another, and I sure as shit don’t need one of their guys feeding them information. I have my reasons, so that plan of mine that has you humming to yourself is a two-fold operation. One, you need to learn some physics to understand my reasons – and to know the mechanics of pulling the trigger in the first place; and two, by giving you a broader education, I turn you into my guy.”

“Umm, that sounds rather shameless, but I appreciate your candidness, Colonel,” he answered through a sequence of inflections that pushed his statement far too close to the realm of question. “Though, I’ve never really held that much respect for chair-warmers. Words have their place, but so do deeds. You’ve already made me your guy, sir. I’ll get on the transfer right away.”

I certainly was not going to publicly admit it – at least not yet – but I was growing to like Ground Cover more and more with every sentence he spoke. It should not have been a surprise, considering his name, but the stallion carried a down-to-earth, forthright demeanor that made him approachable. “One more thing while we’re at it; my name is Wing, not sir.”

My conversation with Ground Cover had apparently provided ample opportunity for the guards to move the three prisoners from their cells to the interrogation room of choice. It seemed a bit odd to me that the princess would opt to place all of them in one chamber, but presumably they had been at it for weeks already without much success. Today would be my turn, and I could tell from the absolutely perturbed expression that popped upon Erzsevine’s face that she was not all that thrilled to see me.

The three unicorns were seated on their side of a flimsy-looking folding table. Dull grey shackles bound their limbs, and bland thaumic suppressor rings had been fitted upon their horns. In some respects, the additional security measures were uselessly redundant. The stallion’s magic had been sealed with one of Trigger’s curses, and given that the mark was still affixed upon the captive’s navy blue appendage, it was clear that my associate had just out-and-out refused to remove the hex. On-the-other-hoof, Erzsevine’s horn was still mending from my strike, which meant that any cast in her repertoire would likely emerge as a weak shell of its former self anyway.

Ashen Mystic represented the true oddball in attendance. Trigger had used techniques that – in just about any other circumstance – would have been declared illegal. Even in this instance, imagined murmurs of taboo flooded my consciousness whenever I pondered Trigger’s portion of our report. Skirting along the penumbra of morality, he had altered the fabric of her mind to leave a persuadable belligerent in the remnants of a hollowed hardliner.

Ground Cover had trailed in behind me before taking up a post in the remaining free corner. A pair of royal guards and Princess Luna’s right-hoof stallion-at-arms served as the other cardinal bearers for this particular tryst. The alabaster pegasus in question had received an armor upgrade since I had last seen him, and the décor of his nightly themed breastplate bore the insignia of a lieutenant. “Congrats on the promotion, Silent Knight,” I said while taking my place beside the waiting diarch. “I’m sure Trigger sends his regards.”

He was all business in that moment, and after giving me a courteous flick of his muzzle to acknowledge my affirmation, he promptly returned his attention to his sworn duty. Having patiently waited for the completion of the brief exchange, the purple alicorn straightened her posture. “Let the records show that we acknowledge Equestrian Royal Air Force Colonel Wing as the chief investigator for this session. We bequeath all rights of questioning and negotiation. Thou hast the floor.”

I peered upon the dark abyss, the cloudy frost, and the vermillion shade that scoured my still body for answers. The unicorns looked exceptionally uncomfortable, and I could hardly discredit their expressions. I sat in silence as my brain meandered and massaged the sentences it wished to be spoken – while my flank was relentlessly prodded by the metal frame of my significantly objectionable perch. It was as though the room had been arranged – with its faulty lighting and crappy furnishings – to make prisoners squirm and interrogators edgy. In fact, it probably had been.

“This room really sucks, Your Highness,” I admitted with a flick of my feathers before proceeding. “I think I’d like to get the hell out of here as soon as possible, so I hope the State does not oppose me taking a frank approach.

“Capital punishment is off the table for you Ms. Mystic. I really don’t have to go into the details of why. You’re an educated mare who can figure it out for yourself if you haven’t done so already. However, where exactly you go and the particulars of your incarceration completely depend upon your cooperation. The others do not have that luxury. In fact, it’s a buckin’ miracle they haven’t been taken out back in Tartarus and dropped in a pit somewhere, and after the…”

“Shut your bucking face, windrat!” The royal guards inched towards Erzsevine after she snapped, but I responded with a stern gaze that pinned the duo to their respective positions. Concern had crept onto Ashen’s muzzle, and Kinetic clenched his eyes shut from the wave of – what I presumed to be – disappointment that coated his frame.

“I might be a bucking windrat, but I’m the one on this side of the table. You couldn’t finish the job, and I fucking could; so if you want to have a prayer of a chance at living another ten years, I highly suggest you down a shot of shut the fuck up until I give you something worth speaking about.”

The sound of Luna’s wings ruffling beside me poked my swiveling ears while my leer drove the hunched ivory mare back into her seat. No pony had anticipated the words that had exited my mouth, and the levels of shared distaste that darted about the others’ demeanors were all detectable and subsequently ignored.

“I want the names of everypony in the EHVM – top-to-bottom – along with their expected locations, and I want a statement from Ashen Mystic ordering the remaining cells to stand down. They will not be prosecuted if they comply with the cease and desist. None of your ponies – aside from those in this room – have committed atrocities that merit severe charges, so it’s on you to stop them before they do something stupid. If you do that, then I'll take Tartarus off the threat block and arrange for three far-more-pleasant, long-term supervisions.”

The overhead light shimmered across Erzse’s crimson mane as she once again shuffled in her seat. “I’d rather die on the spot than watch Ashen cater to your buckin’ trash needs! You did this to her! You stole her unicorn pride, and now you want to make her your damn little puppet! You know fucking nothing about our plight! Just off me now! Make me the martyr for my ponies so I don’t have to watch this insufferable display any longer.”

Pulling me from my chair, her accent fell like a thick, heavy sledgehammer upon the swelling airstream. “Fine, guards, take the bitch to Tartarus and chuck her ass into the ravine. I honestly could not give two shits if a heartless, spineless murderer gets sent to the reaper on my watch. I do what I do to keep your kind stuck in the shadows, so rest assured that you won’t be earning any martyrdom – just a cold, lonely and senseless death.

“But before you go off on your last ride, there is one piece of information that I think you should know. The reason why I am standing on my hooves today – the reason why I am here with a body unkissed by your sickening, twisted magic is because of a unicorn. And she is the proudest and most compassionate unicorn I know – one I am immeasurably proud to call my friend. Think about that one on your long trot, and when you’re plummeting down to the spiky, jagged demise that awaits you, remember that I’m still living because I didn’t need a misplaced lecture about the talents of your race.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Ashen interjected in a reserved tone that stood in stark contrast to the rambling exchange. “My actions did not bring the change I wanted, and I will not have my own die because of my shortsightedness, regardless of what they may say in the heat of this horribly cramped room. I accept the core of your demands, though admittedly, there are some things I wish to bring up before relinquishing any further information.”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 18 - The Plights of Pawns

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Ashen Mystic and I were the only ponies left in the interrogation room. I had sent the others away, much to the astonishment of Ground Cover – who looked at my against-the-grain dismissal of Princess Luna as though it were somehow the most heinous thing he had ever seen. The Crown had bestowed me full authority, and I intended to use it.

“You know that isn’t going to happen for a while.” Her last question remained cemented at the forefront of my thoughts as I allowed my answer to slip to the winds. “The blue one seems calm enough, but his abilities are an enormous security hazard. And the other one is – frankly – just a crazy bitch.”

“They’ll be deprived of their special talents!” The mare’s voice elevated in both pitch and volume as she peered at me with her strained vermillion eyes. She had shifted in response to the agitation that involuntarily sparked along my coat, for raised fibers and flared wings foreshadowed the renewed vigor to come.

“I would have given a shit about their special talents a few weeks ago. You cannot honestly expect me to grant a release of restriction after what happened here. Do you really believe I’m going to just wave a hoof and give special concessions to a bunch of murderers? The deal is really simple: their long-term confinement in a more suitable location as opposed to execution in exchange for information.

“Now that I’ve lived up to my end of the bargain, the only thing it’s time for you to do is to live up to yours. I don’t owe you anything else. Maybe in some other universe we could have been colleagues or even friends, but in this one, you made decisions that make that impossible. As much as your old vitriol suggested otherwise, it isn’t my fault that your organization turned down that path. It was your own.”

I pushed a pad of parchment, a jar of ink, and a quill across the table to the startled mare. My words had burned her, and a piece of me yearned to lend a bit of sympathy to the altered creature before me. Trigger’s intervention had cast much of the negativity that had spurred her corps into the void of oblivion. The Ashen Mystic that had penned the scripts of hatred, that had orchestrated the mindless violence, was not seated here.

Instead, I was dealing with the shell that had to burden the consequences. It was the reason why she could not be sentenced to the pits of Tartarus and the reason why I had to navigate the meandering teeth of applied morality. “However, you have the power to remove ponies from the terrible path they’ve been placed upon. The consequences of your actions have been shown, and contrary to what others might believe, I’d rather stop further issues before they go and toss their lives away. Now, I’ve said and given enough. I want names and locations.”

Through the several minutes that followed, the only audible sounds that joined the hum of the hanging lights were the repeated rasps of quill over paper. The cadence carried with it the unusual power of sedation, and I found my mind roaming free while my stare remained affixed to the smooth motions of the feather.

From the mind-numbing deskwarriors to the clutches of this supremacist fiasco, my entire day had been ensnared by procedure. Lethargic waves of grogginess swept over me with the mental viscosity of molasses. I was caught in this – trapped in a series of problems that stretched well beyond the horizon.

Princess Luna had delayed the inevitable, but the generals would come crawling back like they always did; I would never escape the haunting reach of my imagination’s shadow. I had saved Canterlot from these … depraved ponies, but I had sacrificed the innocence of my creativity to do so. A month ago, this would have been the point at which I would allow myself to tumble down the agonizing spiral of self-doubt, but those emotions could be easily pushed back simply by looking at Ground Cover’s living face.

I had gone through my recovery. I had watched those around me make their own sacrifices on my behalf, and in that respect, doubt was the emotion most removed from my reflection. I’m tired… I was; three weeks had passed, and it felt as though time had opted to hold all of my baggage in a manner optimized for collapse. Matters had gone unresolved by the Crown, and in many senses, they had just waited for me – whether by choice or not. I was being nudged ever closer to complete exhaustion.

There would always be another problem to solve, student to teach, or soldier to train. There would always be another shadow to outflank, but I was outflanking with my own shadow. I had seen it plastered over Ashen’s body the moment I had let the words sail to her ears. Despite all the excuses that I could render, I was a murderer too.

It would be a decision that I would have to make again. There was no computable way around it. Lichlos had come – for whatever twisted purpose – which meant that regardless of what progress I had made in this room – regardless of what saving I had done – Equestria was likely bathing in the calamity of my own darkness. I’m tired of pitting dreams against nightmares.

My meditative state crumbled once Mystic placed the quill upon the tabletop and slid the list towards my waiting forehooves. Hallmarks of anxiety trickled across her morphing expression as I scoured the collection of names and mapped the geographic distribution in my head. Monitoring all of these ponies simultaneously would be a challenge that would almost certainly necessitate the involvement of other guard units.

“Your stand-down orders will be sent to those on this list. I suggest that your statement be a candid relaying of the events that have transpired. Given some personality traits that I have witnessed, I’m sure there are some that would jump at the chance to believe that your words are forced lies. They need to understand the deal completely.

“The abandonment of violent activities will absolve them of any conspiracy charges that could arise from what took place in the city. Ignoring your degree will result in us hunting them down. I don’t care if you’re forward about your situation either. I think everypony should know all of the circumstances that go into our arrangement. I’m not going to babysit you for a draft either. If you’re really concerned with the lives of your underlings, then I know you’ll just get it done. The palace staff will do what it has to to send it out…”

My instructions surrendered to a growing silence when my eyes fell upon the set of words that concluded Ashen Mystic’s roster. Two in particular bled into my mind with an unrelenting speed that pierced the metaphorical molasses that had thrust me to the dazed realm of depressing rumination. Wire Wise… “I’ll hand this off to the House XO,” I stated after plucking the sheet. “The locals will be looking after you, though I will check in from time to time to make sure that our agreement is upheld.”

Ground Cover was standing at attention when I made my swift exit from the hellish chamber, and he quickly broke form when he realized that I had no intention of waiting around for formalities. Seeing Wire Wise’s name felt like another slap in the muzzle – as though the world itself actively sought to fling my past right back in my face. Some troublemakers would just never escape the trouble they exuded, and there one was, reminding me of the other affliction of history that yearned for my undivided attention.

The bustling streets and harsh glances drew a smirk to Trigger’s countenance as he strode through the heart of Manehattan during its rowdy lunch hour. His Coltston stood out like a sore hoof here, but the edge he felt pulsing from every tourist-worn citizen sent a tingle of pleasure down his spine. If anything, he was finally free to conduct a show of his own once again – free to play the role of a feeble underling when these streets were his.

The port could wait. There was no set timetable or appointment for his arrival, which meant that he was free to declare himself as Wing’s little errand colt whenever he damn well pleased. And frankly, there was something that had been lingering in the back of his mind since the very concept of the sortie sparked into existence. There were several ponies that he had not seen in quite some time, and as he stood at the busy intersection of Bridleway and Trotter, there was no way in Tartarus he was going to let at least one engagement go unrectified.

“Oh boy, would ya be proud of her if ya could see this,” the stallion concluded as his eyes scanned the bold black and gold sign mounted above the flower shop entrance. The whole display – from the lettering to the manner in which the light cascaded along the towering skyscrapers to drape the store in a glimmering veil – proudly displayed the owner’s essence.

Trigger stepped forward and pressed his hoof against the door. Through the cut glass, the full spectrum of floral colors reached out for the rough-and-tumble stallion and pulled him around the swerving wooden frame. No one appeared to be running the counter when the ring of a high-pitched bell sang to summon the shopkeeper, but the solitude proved to be as ephemeral as an angsty foal's tranquility.

The stallion had barely made his way inside when a bolt of argent and black sprang through a rear entryway and coiled itself around Trigger’s forelegs. Lilac irides, glistening with a vivacity that perhaps only childhood glee could hope to rival, awaited Trigger’s paternal stare when he lowered his head. “What’s goin’ on, Squirt?”

“I knew it was you,” she spoke with a squeal practically begging to be released from the confines of her lungs. “My friends and I were upstairs working on our spellcasting practice. I’m a little bit ahead of them because I’m not really the same, but they’re really great. Did you come to Manehattan to finally teach me some things? I think I’m really ready now.” She inhaled sharply, coming down off the high of the frantic scramble as she retreated to proudly display her cutie mark. “See?”

He snorted and chuckled before dragging his forehoof through her mane. “Not yet, Kiddo. Afraid I’m here on official stuff this time. Your enthusiasm reminds me of your Uncle Wing’s though, so it probably won’t be too long before we can tackle some advanced dreamshell stuff.” He leaned until his muzzle sat right beside her ear and continued with a whisper, “And I think your mark is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Midnight, did your friends...” Shock sucked Laizzy’s wind after she emerged from the stockroom and placed her sights upon Trigger’s hunched frame. Her bright blue eyes wavered beneath blonde, swaying curls while renegade emotions anchored her startled unicorn body. “Trigger,” she gasped, forcing the breath through her alabaster muzzle.

She had had her doubts over the last few weeks – wondering if the stallion inked upon the front page of every newspaper in the land had indeed been her brother. She wanted to shrink away and deny the possibility that it could have been me, but the odds of the filly misidentifying my likeness were surprisingly low. “He’s alright, isn’t he?” she pushed again through swelling tears as the thought of my potential demise surged to the forefront of presumed reasons for Trigger’s presence.

“Calm down, Laizzy. Wing’s doing just fine. They did quite the number on him, but he’s back on his hooves. Ms. Ambrosia showed up and helped our little pegasus get right as planned rain – right quick. It turns out concerned mare is a super effective attack.”

The petite unicorn’s worry was promptly displaced by the rising tides of anger that drove Laizzy Chain directly towards the midnight charger. “It’s nothing to joke about. What is he doing getting involved in things like that? He’s a professor, not a Wonderbolt! Why was he even there? And then you show up out of the blue after I’ve been sitting here fretting over that photograph for weeks!

“Our parents don’t even believe it’s him, but I know that stallion when I see him. First you two send me a filly – not that I don’t appreciate your company, Middy – and now he’s showing up in places where he has no place belonging? What is going on?”

Trigger sighed and set his hat upon Star’s head. His hoof instinctively brushed his silver mane while he parsed what exactly could be stated. Perhaps coming here was not the best idea after all. He had not even remotely anticipated this reaction, but in retrospect, it was not at all surprising when one considered the bonds of the family.

“Wing and I – along with a hoofful of other ponies ya know – serve the Crowns. There really isn’t a whole buckin’ lot I can share with ya, Laizzy. A lot of this information is classified. I know that must suck a lot to hear, 'specially if you're pining for the full tale, but there is a lot at stake that I just can't risk. I will say that we’ve been doin’ this for a long time – back to his days in Whynnyapolis. And since ya have been looking after Squirt, it's also fair to tell ya that our commissions had a lot to do with the adoption of this precocious little youngster.

“I’m gonna be blunt. I wasn’t really expecting the hot water, and I think that if ya still have an issue with things, ya’d best take it up with your brother. For now, just let it be. He’s in good hooves – even Princess Luna has got a pair of eyes on him – and ya seem to be doin’ a great job with Midnight Star.”

“How can I let it be, Trigs? Ponies died, and he was there. That could have been him. He could be gone and then I’d never even know the reason why. How could he do that to me? How could you guys not tell us?”

Her words kicked the stallion into a higher gear. “Don’t even start thinkin’ like that. It was never about leavin’ ya out of the loop. It was always about protecting what deserves to be protected. Yeah, things could have ended up a lot worse, but do ya have any idea how many ponies he saved? We’re shields, Laizzy, and ya should know that better than pretty much anypony else. In fact, that’s the reason I’m even here, but I figured that before I go throw myself into another crapstorm, I’d check in with my favorite little fillies.”

“Buster, flattery will get you nowhere in my flower shop. I can assure you that I am more than used to wandering stallions looking for quick fixes to big problems. In fact, I’d say that I made a business out of it.” She spun around, giving Trigger a cold flank after a brief shake of her daffodil cutie mark. The resulting silence stirred Midnight Star to yield a confused gaze until the older mare broke form with a chuckle. “But you’ve been looking after Wing for a long time, so I will trust you as long as you tell me the truth about your official business.”

“No shortage of trickery, I see,” Trigger quipped. “When did ya grow up into such a clever girl?” The stallion snickered as a grin joined the numerous blossoms that filled the locale. “Don’t answer that, and be sure to teach her all your secrets; but to answer your question, I’m here because of a griffon – one really nasty griffon.”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 19 - The Fox of the Rook

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Manehattanites were no longer getting in Trigger’s way as he strode with purpose towards the docks. His glare beamed with an intensity that parted the sea before him, and disgruntled syllables slipped off his tongue as he fumed. “Scouting out peripherals already, Lichlos?” The notion that the griffon had already sent his underlings to mark his family sent a brooding burn coursing through the stallion’s veins.

There were some lines that were just not meant to be crossed, and that – much like the event that had transpired in Canterlot – was one that blew the line away and demanded his involvement. “There is no way in Tartarus I’m going to let ya come close to touching them. It’s obvious that you’re here for at least Wing, and now that I know, I’m going to see what else slips out of your shithole.”

His gaze drifted skyward, settling upon the sharp angles of goldenrod-painted metal that hovered ominously above his skyline. More of the airship came into view as the stallion realigned himself on the thoroughfare. Like a talon poised to strike from the heavens, the Albatross resembled exactly what Trigger expected from the griffon superpower.

Its corners protruded like daggers piercing the princesses’ sky, and each porthole reflected the lingering solar glare to direct a thousand-eye leer upon the city below. Two elongated boxes sandwiched the center of the structure, and Trigger assumed that they contained some sort of gas suitable for floatation; however, it was the angled wings that caught the stallion’s wandering attention. They swept outwards from the craft, transforming what amounted to a technologically superior blimp into a vision of Discordian woe. “Leave it to a buckin’ griffon to do that…”

Offsetting the menacing hovercraft was perhaps the only building in the city that could bring Trigger a bit of peace. The central hub of the port was a towering art deco spire that glimmered like bright marble against the assortment of otherwise monotonously grey skyscrapers. Like a dream, it stood out amongst the reality that surrounded it, and in that sense, the midnight stallion absolutely adored the unique contours and glasswork that drew him closer to the threshold.

Eventually, he traded the picturesque façade for the regal lobby. Bands of gold, the drones of busy ponies, and the sounds of running water struggled to usurp Trigger’s attention, but his amber irides remained affixed upon the silhouettes of the two guards stationed at the quay access checkpoint. “Greetings boys,” he spoke with the deepest grit he could muster, “I’ve been sent in to see the griffons. Their ambassador – or whatever he is – requested a get-together with my boss, Professor Wing of the University of Las Pegasus. Unfortunately, he’s indisposed at the moment, so I’m the lucky stallion that gets to sit through some boring flank political meeting.”

The two pegasi shuffled in their navy blue uniforms as one double-checked the evening’s dossier. “That professor is on here, Mac, but we got no relay from Canterlot that there was a substitution comin’ instead. Do ya got any authentication for us?” The rich Manehattan accent shot into Trigger’s ears and promptly drove the cloaked unicorn to reach into his umber vest to retrieve a decree from Princess Luna.

All three took a moment to briefly adjust their respective hats before Trigger was waived through the checkpoint. He was impressed that the guards had actually taken the time to read the memo, a fact that drew a chuckle through his clenched teeth. He would owe Luna a drink upon his return for betting that a forged seal would have been enough; then again, she could have just rigged the whole thing anyway. Seems I’m surrounded by clever girls…

“Thanks for the pass,” the cowcolt continued with a flick of his head. “And while you’re standing down here, just keep thanking sweet Celestia that ya don’t have to go up to that eyesore.”

The sergeants chuckled while one batted his hoof in Trigger’s direction. “The elevator you want is the sixth on the left. A unicorn should be present to take you to the quay. You should have no problem trotting around so long as you stay on the metal walkways. Don’t try the clouds, they aren’t enchanted for groundies.”

The word elevator did not quite encapsulate the true nature of the device which lifted Trigger to the cloud quay. It was some eccentric mix of cable car and boom crane that eventually carried him through the sweeping diagonals of steel to the floating platform. The reds of the descending sun dug into the metal beams, majestic towers, and fluffy clouds to produce a picturesque landscape unique to the raucous city.

Foreboding hues joined the golden glimmer of the Albatross as the unicorn attendant delivered the gruff stallion to his destination. “Just ring when you’re ready to go back down, sir, and watch your step. Be sure to keep to the designated paths.”

Trigger nodded as he trotted by the retracted gate. The wind coming off the sea immediately gripped his long argent mane and pulled it inland. Strands passed before his unwavering eyes, and his hoof held firm to the trembling Coltston while he stared at the griffon soldier standing at the other end of an iron bridge.

“We were expecting a pegasus,” Azure Sky’s voice rang out as she scrutinized every detail of Trigger’s frame. He was definitely not the pony Conrad had wished to see, and the move left her wondering if Equestria really took the Talon’s presence seriously.

“Professor Wing sends his apologies, but he is not currently fit for travel. There were some recent complications in his life that have kept him in Canterlot, and I can assure ya that my presence is no slight. I’ve served as his assistant for several years now, so I’m more than qualified to represent on his behalf.”

Azure stood tall in her uniform as she pondered the potential outcomes. Lichlos had made it perfectly clear that her orders were to admit only the pegasus known as Wing onto the vessel. It was only he who could begin to pull the threads the griffon commander had placed upon the bournes of equinity.

“I am afraid I am not currently permitted to allow any other Equestrian onboard the Albatross at this time. Those orders were absolute. The invitation was sent specifically to Professor Wing of the University of Las Pegasus.”

Trigger grunted and held his firm hold on the other end of the walkway. Agitation pulled his brow towards the ground, and he hurled a huff through his muzzle before countering. “Again, I’m here on his behalf. I’m sure ya have protocol, but I’m also sure ya can just go inside to inform your commander of the situation. I don’t really want to have to go home empty hooved after makin’ such a long journey.”

The griffon mimicked the charger’s stubborn stance and kept her crimson sights affixed upon the bulky steed. “While it’s regrettable, Ambassador Conrad has no business playing host to an earth pony who is not on his guest list. He has made it ardently clear during the course of our long journey that an audience with Professor Wing is a top priority of our diplomatic mission.”

Blood pounded in Trigger’s skull as he tried to reconcile the reality of the situation with his internal benchmarks for idiocy. Was the whole meeting some sort of giant ruse? Were they just trying to ruffle his coat with an unnecessary delay? Both questions yielded potential outcomes that sat within the realm of possibility, but the griffon's body language suggested that, if there were some underhooved deception in play, she had no part in it. Maybe ya are really trying to wait for Wing, but ya won't get to him just yet. I'm definitely an adversary worthy of discovering your game.

“Perhaps I wasn’t buckin’ blunt enough. I’ve been working with Wing for years. I’m his right-hoof guy, which means there isn’t a project he works on that I do not know about. Did that one sink in? There isn’t a single project that doesn’t touch these hooves.” The words of the last sentence individually popped from his lips in verbal daggers that raced over the catwalk.

“Everything, the stallion says…” The flamboyant delivery faded into silence before Azure Sky even had the chance to finish inhaling for a response. Conrad’s talons wrapped around the bulkhead’s frame, and moments later, cream feathers emerged from the void that shrouded the ship beyond its threshold. “Perhaps the pony thinks this is important, and perhaps it is. I believe the surprise visitor is trying to gauge us, Lieutenant. I wonder! Are you insinuating that the reason I requested an audience with – your boss – my friend has something to do with his research?”

Ripples of apprehension rode through Azure Sky’s fur. Her muscles tightened, and her bones locked into their stoutest of stances as Lichlos practically slithered through the exit. Along with the predatory gleam that swirled about Conrad’s emerald irides, the lieutenant’s fear was something duly noted by an analyzing Trigger. The griffon had placed arrogance at the forefront of his game, and the crass shot regarding relationship superiority was definitely an angle that could be worked.

“Insinuating anything in a diplomatic engagement would be poor form, Ambassador.” He momentarily bowed his head and continued, “Wing was simply guessing why ya sought an audience after all these years, and he was quite upset that he … wasn’t allowed to attend.”

“Wasn’t allowed and wasn’t able are completely different things, my little pony,” Conrad replied before gesturing his talons for Trigger to cross the bridge and enter the vessel. “If Wing sent you though, then we need not stand in the wind to discuss business.” The griffon waited until Trigger was at his side before stepping through the doorway. “The Albatross has a conference room near the gate to facilitate these sorts of affairs. Why don’t we make use of it, and then we can work out what exactly happened to my lavender colleague?”

Just the snake I remembered, Trigger reflected while he was escorted to the chamber. He was probably there from the start, listening for the chance to find his way back into the inner circle. The plan hits a bump when he gets a new target, so he asserts his status as a historical alpha and drags me off to make nice after the first instance of me backin’ down. What a buckin’ little shit.

“While assumptions can yield less-than-favorable circumstances,” Conrad began immediately after establishing the privacy of his space, “they also can clear obstacles rather quickly when applied correctly. For example, I will assume that your boss had unpleasant things to say about me prior to your departure. You do not even have to feign political correctness because I know that it is true. It is something he would do.

“We suffered a rather unfortunate parting simply because the pony way is not the griffon way. You see, ponies have magic. True, we possess a passive power similar to that of pegasi, but unicorns – alicorns – carry a caliber about which griffons can only dream. Imagine if we were to live in a world where your rulers were not sweet benefactors. They could hijack the sun, ruin the day, and prevent crops from ever growing on our land. They could enslave us, compromise our sovereignty, or assist our enemies.”

Trigger struggled to remain attentive as Lichlos bequeathed his monologue. It was a trope he had heard over and over again while bound to the unphysical domain. “But this is where things diverge from the usual tale. Your assumption was partially correct. News travels fast, and it should come as no surprise that I had little trouble identifying the image of a particular pegasus when it appeared on the front page of even Republic papers.

“He finished what we had started in Whynnyapolis, but he did it to a scale that I had not foreseen. Most ponies are naïve. They focus upon the things they can see – like the giant prototype rifle Wing toted around the lab back in the day. Grant givers ate it up, but let us be honest. Wing is a master of slight-of-hoof, and that thing was the greatest redirection of all time. The real crux always sat with the manner in which one stores magic.

“Three weeks ago, he dispelled windigos over your capital city using what I know to be the culmination of his research. My time in Equestria and position as an academic serves me well in this regard. Do not your own legends state that three ponies – each from a different tribe – were needed to dispel these beasts? What am I to believe given this information? I am to believe that Professor Wing has made a breakthrough that can change the world.

“And that, Assistant, brings me to the other reason why we are here. The Republic cannot sit idly by when Equestria has in its possession the equalizer of our generation. My intelligence operatives expect an NKEC ship to arrive at the port sometime tomorrow, and this is information that I do not take lightly. Equestria has a standing trade agreement with an aggressive territory that infringes upon the Republic’s sphere of influence. We cannot risk these new tools falling into the claws of our enemy.”

The stallion had not bothered to sit while Conrad allowed the gritty details to spill from his parted beak. For a few tense seconds, Trigger had no words. Astonishment captivated his mind, and he did not even think to conceal it from his mien. “I’m aware of your history with Wing,” he finally uttered with a subdued flatness to counter the griffon’s borderline zealotry. “His rules have not changed, Ambassador. We aren’t going to…”

“But they have changed, colt!” Lichlos retorted with a twinge of staccato anger spiking his accented notes. “The Wing that I argued with for countless hours would have never shown the world his burden. He would have never risked pulling the veil off of his little enterprise. He would have done everything and anything to ensure that the shadows stayed in the shadows – unless of course, he finally had a reason to embrace the lightless. So tell me, which one was it. Was he not allowed to come, or was he really unable?”

“He was injured during the incident in Canterlot. No one was keen on having him make the trip just yet, and there were unsettled matters at the palace that needed his attention.”

Gänse quirked his eyebrow and gazed at the pony in deliberation. The honest answer had taken the griffon commander by surprise, but it was one that removed numerous anticipated mental loops from his agenda. “Then I hope he has finished his obligations. When the Eagles arrive, things could get interesting. It would be a shame if we were to discover in hindsight that any … unfortunate misunderstandings … could have been settled with a simple visit.

“I will entertain you no further. I want Wing here. There are things that only we together can achieve. There are things that I wish him to see, and I want to hear from his own muzzle if he has obtained the magic that I want. Now, if he’s still hesitant – or if there happen to be other complications in his path – please remind your boss that I docked in Manehattan for a reason. And if that is not enough, perhaps he would be interested to learn that I know more about his little EHVM problem than one might otherwise believe.”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 20 - The Castle's Call

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A starry sky painted the roof of a towering cathedral within which Trigger sat. An argent throne sat above the rows of empty pews, and upon its comfortable black cushion, Trigger waited. Sheets of lavender glass parted the columns of sparkling marble that rose to their inspiring heights. It had been a while since the stallion had ventured here, and it had been even longer since he had acquired a visitor.

The engraved doors of the sanctuary cracked open – their hinges squealing to the rafters – before the familiar form of Princess Luna’s visage graced the creature of reverie. Her teal sights floated higher as her mind once again embraced the vision of Trigger’s birthplace. It had been ages since she had slipped into this realm – one in which she could tread without the burden of royalty, but with the mantle of friendship.

“Greetings, Sir Trigger,” she called once she had taken in enough of his own celestial portraiture. “The creativity ye shared appears just as splendid as it did the last time thou took me as a guest.”

Luna watched the stallion rise from his perch to begin his descent towards the center aisle. She could see his brow fall just below the brim of his trademark Coltston, but it was the lack of any playful quips that hinted to the princess that this appointment was a case of pure business. “Ya won’t be able to shield him from this one. None of us may be able to shield him from this one.”

The alicorn’s feathers, ruffled by the unicorn’s blunt declaration, lifted slightly from the alluring comfort of her body. “Surely, thou art mistaken. We can shield him if we keep him away from the turmoil that looms in Canterlot. Thou art his noble shield, knight of reverie. Verily, your declaration must be false.”

“Lichlos is definitely targeting him, Luna. Our little get-together buckin’ assured it. He chose Manehattan because it’s where the family lives. This isn’t just some paranoid bullshit either. The griffons were actively scouting the city. They showed up at Laizzy Chain’s shop. I’m not keeping that from Wing, and ya know well enough that it will be all that it takes to have him galloping in.

“That shit wasn’t even what really set me off. Conrad kicked me out after he wailed his monologue about magic and his insatiable intention to meet Wing. He capped his rant by namedropping the EHVM, which makes me wonder if he’s just doing some blind stab shit to get a response out of Wing or if he seriously has an inside lead into what happened. He’s a tactician hiding in the shell of a caged animal, one that’s willing to wrangle in other griffons – sworn enemies – just to create a clusterfuck around him.

“He’s a game master who has his beady little buckin’ griffon eyes set on a trophy, and that trophy is Wing. The rules have changed. It wouldn’t matter if Wing were half dead at this point; he’d still find a way to make it to Manehattan. We’re just going to have to change how we protect. We can’t keep him from it, so we’ll have to protect him in it.”

Each statement pushed Luna’s feminine eyebrow closer and closer to the ornate ceiling. Shock staggered through every sentence until the trailing edge of Trigger’s echo died off for the looming silence that followed. For several moments, she practically stood on the tips of her hooves before her regal composure cascaded along the depths of her frame. “We presume thou hast already considered the options, Colonel. Please present them before the Princess of Night.”

“I’ll need something restored,” Trigger answered. “We can’t buck Lichlos off the bat without startin’ a war, but he is here for something that might very well bring one anyway. We’re going to have to go beyond even the standard DT divisions on this one.” The stallion paused for a moment to shift his voice to a tone that came across as surprisingly formal. “Princess, I want the reinstatement of the Mavericks’ Wild.”

Luna studied the flickering fire that burned unwaveringly along Trigger’s steadied irides. The Mavericks’ Wild Brigade was not a name to be tossed around lightly; he might as well have asked for the element wielders themselves – and even that may have been a more reasonable request in the minds of some. In addition to Trigger, the small band of unicorns consisted of Magic Barrier, a captain of the guard who possessed an exemplary combat record; and Twyst, a mercenary who had joined Trigger on more missions than Equestria was willing to admit. And that list didn't even cover the mare...

“Sly fox of reverie,” she answered after turning her back to the pony, “thou troll your princess when thou hast already summoned your companions.”

“It’s just like ya said. The options were considered. I just went and made up my mind before ya even got here. The only reason why I requested this locale is because – given Conrad’s mention of the EHVM – I don’t trust the normal channels worth two shits on Sunday. Barrier and Twyst are headed to Canterlot and should be there come morning. Orders might matter to Barrier, but they don’t apply to Twyst. I just got to love Wing’s conniving concept of plausible deniability. Of course, I’m not going to stand here and step on your hooves; ya have the royal option to interject as ya see fit…”

“Your decisions are made with good intentions, Sir Trigger. We do not see fit to attempt to overrule choices made in the field. Though, perhaps thou should remember to stow your fight with authority in our presence.” Her voice snapped with a crisp bite as her tail swept the floor with an ardent slash. She paused for a moment before Trigger heard the distinct sound of a hushed giggle seep into his domain. “Thou may have your Mavericks’ Wild, but to be sure it does not turn into a foolhardy boys’ night out, we will be assigning Amora to your company.

“We shall speak to Sir Wing when he awakens. We do not wish to disturb him from the dream he has earned.” She pressed on towards the cathedral doors and exited with a final statement to drift to Trigger’s waiting ears. “Fare thee well…”

“Good morning, Colonel,” Silent Knight’s words practically shot me out of my bed as I haphazardly hurled the puffy beige hotel quilt upon the floor. I had just woken up and was undoubtedly still in that beautiful phase known as selective grogginess when the lieutenant’s words infringed upon that holiest of times.

“Lieutenant, what in the name of Tartarus are you doing in…” I stopped when my gaze shifted to a young mare standing quietly at Silent’s side. Pink highlights – falling over their cream white backdrop – coursed through her blonde braided mane and tail. I waited, peering through the dimly lit veil that cloaked the room until a blush rising upon the mare’s muzzle forced the stallion to act.

“Princess Luna ordered a message be delivered upon your awakening. You are to report to Canterlot Rail as soon as possible. A special train has been reconnoitered for your immediate transport to Manehattan. Any and all restrictions placed by the Crown upon your deployment have been removed – with the caveat that you remain under the watchful eye of a special task force.”

“That’s interesting and all, but I wasn’t awkwardly staring because I was waiting for orders. I was awkwardly staring because there is a filly in the room that was apparently watching me sleep. Before I even get to the part where I ask why, I’d like an introduction, Lieutenant Knight. She clearly is not a part of your unit, so … make like a sane pony and be sociable.”

The quick delivery of my last sentence had pinned the stallion’s ears to his head as he pondered how to answer. “I apologize for the intrusion, Colonel. My name is Crystal Wishes, and I am Silent Knight’s fiancée.” The mare grew even more flushed upon declaring her relationship status aloud, but the maneuver had at least managed to relieve the lieutenant from the imaginative chain that had derailed his plans. Crystal quickly recovered from her own flustered state as well – composing herself with what I presumed to be some switch of Canterlot sophistication. “We were supposed to have a breakfast date this morning, so when he was attached to your escort detail, I insisted that I tag along to see him off. I must also confess that I am a romance writer, and I may have used what I had heard about your efforts at the stadium as additional motivation to attend.”

She had likely seen the field of my shielded ambrosias and had let her fantasies wander from there. Then again, the effort to dispel the windigos from the capital might have yielded the closest thing to a fairy tale in the modern age, so I could hardly fault her for the enthusiasm. “Love is love after all,” I groaned upon lethargically staggering to my hooves in a manner that garnered a giggle from the still-sheepish Crystal.

Silent Knight stifled his own chortle – probably through the sheer willpower to adhere to standard rules and regulations, along with the lingering desire to circumvent my previous challenge. “You need not apologize, Ms. Wishes,” I continued, “I would probably do the same thing with Ambrosia if I were in your position. And based on those records I have had the pleasure of reading, your guard here has quite the impressive and busy service record. Though admittedly, given that you decided to use this as a date, I would have preferred a wake up from the get-go.”

“Things are only going to get busier, Colonel,” Silent interjected. “The involvement of the House Guard has not been limited to seeing you off at the train station. Personnel have been allocated for the journey to Manehattan – myself included.”

Groggily, I waved off Silent Knight before initiating a much needed stretch. My bones creaked, tendering complete bliss that drove a delighted moan past my lips. “He’s always punctual when it comes to matters of duty, isn’t he?” I playfully questioned the mare before sliding my focus to the minted officer. For her part, Crystal caught onto the underhooved tactic and refused to make a sound while the soldier stood at an uneasy attention in his nightly armor. “Alright,” I eventually relented, “I’ll get back to business, Silent. Luna wouldn’t have sent you here to fetch me unless Trigger reported back, so tell me, how bad is it?”

Crystal excused herself from the room after Silent gave the curt signal, and it was only once the door was closed that he proceeded. “Your griffon is up to something, sir, and the report from Manehattan was not all that encouraging. Princess Luna did not give me all the details, though she said the following would be enough to convey the situation. The team assigned to your personal detachment is the Mavericks’ Wild.”

I ran through the checklist in my mind as I shot over the streets of Canterlot. My saddle bag was strapped tightly around my waist, and it was filled with little more than my uniform and a few important trinkets. The A0 would remain in storage through this sortie. I would not even allow Lichlos to come close to the rifle that had started our falling out in the first place. The ammunition would remain under seal as well, with the lone exception of her…

Did he seriously call for the Mavericks’ Wild? The question darted through my thoughts like a renegade dagger seeking to strike a ghost. In many senses, the disbanded unit represented Trigger’s ace in the hole. If the situation were dire enough – dangerous enough – then the others would come. They would be there, at that station, waiting for me with crisp expressions that had been birthed through the same knowledge of death that I had come to learn.

The wind tugged my mane upward as I rolled into my descent. Below me, I could see the mass of ponies awaiting my arrival. Several notable members of Luna’s Guard stood upon the platform with their heads held high and armor brightly gleaming. My fellow members of DarkOps were clustered under the station’s wooden overhang, and I envisioned them listening to a straightforward briefing from the mouth of Wick.

However, it was the pair that stood atop one of the train cars that captivated the brunt of my attention. Even at this altitude their stares impaled me. The fiery orange burn of a lime-maned, grey unicorn and the icy blue chill of his charcoal-coated companion tightened their vices around my rapidly beating heart.

Their grins took shape as the distance between us lessened, and they followed my movements until my hooves clicked against the roof of the carriage. “Well, look at that Twyst,” Magic Barrier spoke up after giving a flick of his multi-shaded blue tail, “he decided to wake up after all.”

The shield-marked stallion possessed a booming depth in his voice that rivaled Trigger’s grit, a fitting characteristic considering that the two stallions shared and enjoyed a plethora of similar interests. Both were defenders of the highest caliber, and both preferred the direct delivery approach that made ordinary guards quiver in their boots. On the other hoof, the tie-wearing Twyst had shunned guard work – and the interactions that went with it – entirely. Certainly, he was a witty talker when he wanted to be, and there were instances in which he had put the fear of Tartarus into his marks by simply uttering hellfire threats. However, there had also been times during the group’s wanderings when the grey unicorn had no issue with vanishing into a voiceless domain of introversion. Today though, it appeared as though the latter would not be the case.

“’S about time, Softy. It’s been what, four months, since our last outing? Shame that it takes a bucking new calamity to get the gang back together. You’re just lucky we put up with this shit for Trigs, though Barrier over there wouldn’t shut up about you and your noble exploits for the past hour. Who would have thought that the physicist would have the balls? Oh well, it just means that we’ll have to remind everypony who the real ass kickers around here happen to be.”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 21 - Defending the Blitzkrieg

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I stuck close to Magic Barrier as the two of us moved from Manehattan Union Station to Trigger’s preselected drop zone. My partner had already left his crystal-clear instructions with the fellow members of the Mavericks’ Wild, and the news quickly spread through the nooks and crannies of our locomotive until everypony was on board with the plan. Griffons had already been scouting, so it would be best for us to move about the city as inconspicuously as possible. We would not travel as a group, the timing of our movements would be staggered, unnecessary spellcasting would be avoided, and most importantly, I would be making use of one of the captain’s numerous talents.

Unlike most guards, Barrier had gone through the agony of combat. He had spent a significant portion of his career in the Badlands dealing with the same brand of unsavory individuals that DarkOps had been founded to handle, and as a consequence, the stallion had honed a skill set that made the standard ranks quiver in their armored boots. His castfire and rheostatic abilities – by far the most renowned within guard circles – had long since received Trigger’s adulation as well. However, in my opinion, it was the stallion’s defensive and stealth wizardry that truly made him an exceptional soldier.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” he grunted, his head remaining forward-faced as I kept pace at his side. “You guys could have used me in Canterlot, but I was off dealing with other matters.”

Considering that I was tucked away within an illusory shelter of his own design, I assumed Magic Barrier was hinting at the presence of Kinetic. “I’m sure your knowledge was put to good use. Trigger sniffed the stallion out pretty easily; though, the Canterlot defenses could use some improvement. The standard rotation just isn’t trained to look for the same things, and of course, things would have been contained a lot sooner if you had been around.”

“I read the report, and I can assure you that there will be new training initiatives enacted once this business is settled. Some basic protections shouldn’t have been lost to the dark teams in the first place, and Sunbutt owes me a favor anyway.” He looked back as charcoal flames danced along his horn just to shoot me the cockiest grin I had seen in quite a while. “And come to think of it, you will too after I deliver you unseen to Trigger’s little meeting spot. It’s a pain in the ass that he doesn’t want teleportation in play – even though I know tactically what he’s getting at. It’d just save some damn time if we didn’t have to do it the long way.”

“Just what I need in life: another favor due to Magic Barrier.” I rolled my eyes when the unicorn erupted in a fit of laughter. “Though, the last time I made good on that investment I totally saved your flank in front of your wife. That may or may not have made it all worthwhile.”

“Way to drain the fun out of the class, Professor,” the stallion shot back as we rounded a street corner.

I snorted in response before taking a look at my surroundings; after all this time, I still found them breathtaking. A subsequently inspired chill ran up my hind leg and meandered about my spine as goosebumps rose beneath my bristling coat. That particular area of Manehattan never quite qualified as my old stomping ground, but as the skyscrapers faded away to the rows of waterfront warehouses, I could not help but notice the chord that had struck me silent. The noise of my city called to me in an angst-filled drone that somehow knew that the aggressive-looking vessel that dominated our skyline loomed as a terrible omen. No matter how we tried to spin it now, it would no longer matter. The North would arrive just in time to fall victim to Lichlos’s whimsical script, or at least it would arrive just in time to see us engage in our Catch-22. He had succeeded in getting me here, but I would succeed in getting to him.

Trigger had thaumically scrubbed the warehouse that had been selected as our field base. It never ceased to amaze me how the typically go-with-the-flow stallion could plop his mindset into that of a sharp, task-oriented tactician at the drop of a hat. He had transformed the empty husk of old industry into a rambunctious cluster of honor, valor, and pride, and by doing so, the onyx stallion had garnered a following that consisted of members of DarkOps, Princess Luna’s House Guard, and his beloved Mavericks’ Wild.

Gradually, their sights drifted to the Coltston-capped pony as he made his way to center stage. Even with his power cloaked, Trigger possessed a weighty aura that beckoned attention – or at least a feeling of unease – to the surface. “We gained more buckin’ company than I expected,” the stallion began with an imposing bark. “Actually, that’s a load of shit. I knew ya would be here, and I counted on it.

“Ams, congratulations, ya get to fill in as the Mavericks’ fourth. We’re backing up Wing with – eyes, ears, physical protection – whatever he deems necessary during the shit show that's comin’. There are two hours until an airship from the Northern Kingdom arrives at its quay. Advance dispatch from the Armistice Isle indicates that the vessel is the FHW Alton.” Trigger paused and glanced at Silent Knight with a stare that could split stone. It was a stare that shouted, ‘I know,’ without making a single sound, and it was one – based on the lieutenant’s stance – that he had definitely heard.

“House Guard will take an interior position from the northernmost quay with pegasi in echelon formation and all others covering ground flanks. In the event that the griffons fuck it all up, you’re responsible for keeping the North from falling for a bait scheme. At the very least, push the damn buckers out over the ocean so they don’t fuck over my city. Lieutenant Knight, I want ya to take point on communication with that ship. I know your history – more than ya think I know.

“Wick, D.H., I want the Bolts to the south, beyond the Talon ship. If they fly the coop to engage in a pissin’ contest with the Cry, ya can hit their rears hard and fast. Since Ams is with the Mavs, everypony left in the Ops is airborne – aside from the newbie, of course. We’ll just have to find something special for him, perhaps forging some new relations with the House Guard’s ground column. Either way, there ain’t time for chumping this shit up fillies and colts, so if ya have any buckin’ questions, shoot ‘em now.”

The silence of the cavernous space hung like a thick veil before a snickering chuckle from Twyst snapped the heads of the ranks. “Damn right I got a question, Trigsy. Actually, I have a couple. Are you going to finally spill the beans to Softy about why you called us? And more importantly, when the fuck are you going to take off that stupid hat?”

My focus methodically shifted from the hellraising stallion back to the stoic Trigger. His amber gaze was already poised to meet mine as a troubled stillness once again shackled every soldier. “The reason I called them, Wing, is because Conrad is willing to scout our family for leverage to get ya here. If he’s willing to go that far, then there is no buckin’ point in waiting to see how far it could go. Did ya'll copy that shit? These griffs are willing to fuck with my family.” His hoof rose to flirt with the brim of his Coltston. “As for your second question, Twysty,” he continued, pitching the apparel to apparent nothingness as a swirl of magic spiraled about his decloaking horn. “Consider yourselves all in on a state secret. I’ll be running hot from the start.”

“Crew of the Albatross,” Lichlos spoke as his beak seduced a glimmering boom microphone, “the time is now upon us all.” His voice skipped in echoes from speakers that graced every corridor, hall, and compartment of the imposing vessel. “A mere stone’s throw from our noble fortress, a bastion of evil has clouded the clear skies. We now stand upon the precipice of our greatest fear – to watch in agony as our most vile of nemeses attempts to abscond with weapons that could hurl our political conflict to the clutches of war.

“I want the Blitz System fully charged as quickly as possible. We will give our esteemed guest one hour to arrive at the quay before I initiate the next phase of my glorious operation. Scouts, keep watch over those slithering bandits of the North. If our target makes contact with their forces, I will likewise move to the next stage.

“Remain vigilant! You have all prepared for this moment. You have all yearned for and sought out the piece of the puzzle that will finally complete the portrait of the Republic’s dominance. We will not allow that image to slip away from us now that it is in sight. For the glory of the End! For the might of the Talon! I will bring you what you all deserve. I will inherit what is rightfully mine from my old ally, and I will rise to become your savior! Await further instruction!”

The griffon switched off the microphone and eyed the port with a wanton enthusiasm that sent a chill beneath Azure Sky’s feathers. “Sir,” she spoke with a restrained demeanor, “if you don’t mind me asking, what is the next phase of the operation?” Her crimson stare fell upon the cream-colored feathers that covered the back of her commander’s head while her body remained in the rigid stance prescribed by her duty.

Lichlos shifted his weight and settled his head atop his curled powder blue talons. He drew a breath with an orchestral extravagance that rivaled an esteemed musician dragging a bow across a string and answered with a somber tranquility that failed to bring his associate any resolution. “I’d rather keep it a secret for now, Lieutenant. Suffice it to say that I have a trump card that should ensnare even the toughest of pegasi.”

My coat flattened beneath the constricting pull of my Bolt uniform. I had left my saddlebag in Ground Cover’s care, opting to ditch everything aside from the trinket of my affection. That singular artifact had been nestled between a stretchy patch of black fabric and lavender fur and sat suspended by a concealed silver chain.

Behind me, the Mavericks’ Wild trotted with a methodically maintained pace. The three stallions possessed the dignity of distinguished veterans, and I could feel their ever-watching gazes upon my frame as I made my way through port security. Amora, on-the-other-hoof, seemed a bit antsier than usual. Her position oscillated between myself and the trio, and her worry over my condition practically condensed from the invisible aura she continuously cast.

Lieutenant Knight, meanwhile, stayed by my side. We were nearing the junction that would force us to take our separate ways – his fate aligned with a visit to the Alton, while mine dragged me to the overreaching claws of history. The ornate stylings of the port gallery fell away as I caught the awaiting sentinels’ glances. Their expressions mimicked Amora’s unsettled composure as their wavering irides sought to capture and comprehend the light that sprung from the unusually paired attires of Wonderbolt blue and Luna's midnight.

The gravity of the situation weighed upon their minds as we passed without a fuss. The tension in that building could be cut with a blade if one willed it, and no pony sought to further fray any nerves. “Good luck, Lieutenant,” I blurted before taking my turn southward. “Please keep Trigger posted on any developments.”

“What do you mean he has to keep Trigger posted?” Amora’s ire spiked as the rest of the group negotiated the corner. “We’re supposed to be your detachment for this operation. How is that stallion going to run intel up to the quay while were standing right in front of a belligerent force?”

“You’re not coming up with me,” I answered after raising my foreleg to quell the shouting medic. “The Mavericks’ Wild is possibly the most dangerous assembly of unicorns ever conceived by the Crown. None of them are needed up in the clouds, and Trigger knows that I never intended to bring any of you along. The caveat was clear in the briefing: what I deem necessary. You’d be useless up there in that confined space anyway, and the boys couldn’t make a move without probably starting a war that I do not want.

“Besides, there’s already a griffon standing guard at the lift, and I’d warrant a guess that the only pony that’ll be allowed up top is me. I’m the one he wants to see, and frankly, he won’t kill me until he has something that I have no intention of giving him. Trust me, your places reside where you can make decisions that affect the big picture. Trigger will know if I need him; he always does. Until then, this is a problem that started with me, and it is going to end with me.”

The gate of the elevator retracted at the behest of the unicorn operator, and the griffon sentry who had joined me for the ride quickly swooped across the quay bridge to resume his post before the bulkhead portal of the Albatross. It was the closest I had ever gotten to the harsh angles of a Griffonian craft, and as I traced the contours of the vessel, I had to repress the shiver that sought to traverse my frame.

Sliding metal produced piercing squeaks as the latches on the entryway surrendered to the climax of this moment. The goldenrod sheen of the ship vanished as the emerging dark interior seemed to suck away the natural Celestian light, and a faded blue talon wrapped its grip around the freshly exposed edge before a familiar cream-and-charcoal griffon appeared from the abyss.

“And here I was starting to think that I’d have to go to drastic measures to get you up here, my old friend. It’s good to see that you aren’t as indisposed as your underling would have me believe, and you show up in uniform no less. It’s like this is becoming an occasion! I sincerely hope that it will be one fit for the ages.”

Arrogance dripped from his lion’s gait as I watched Conrad stride to his end of the bridge. My body promptly responded in kind, maneuvering into position with a confident strut that preceded my words. “What do you want, Conrad? What are you doing in Manehattan with a Republican battleship, and what does any of it have to do with me?”

Lichlos threw a claw towards the heavens and essentially squealed in delight. “This is where everything is, my boy! And it has everything to do with you. I already told your little secretary the reason why we are here. You did something extraordinary, and I have to know.

“Do you see this ship? It possesses the culmination of a griffon’s magic. We can do what any pegasus can. We can harness that fervent lightning, much like you so eloquently demonstrated in flight school, and wield it just like you can. The defensive capabilities of this vessel outmatch a fleet of 10000 electrical mages, and the offensive potential is equally terrifying.

“Yet, none of that comes close to what you showed the world three weeks ago. You blended tribal magic of different origins. I know you did because you came and dispelled windigos in the face of your greatest threat. You triumphed on that stage despite the obstacle, and the how eats at my soul. That’s what I’m after Wing. That’s why I’m here. It’s why I travelled across the ocean just to see you. The materials are utterly irrelevant! I just need to know the how…

“Then you’ve wasted your time.” My voice surfaced as a guttural growl that would have even rivaled Trigger’s grit. “I’m going to tell you exactly what I told you in Whynnyapolis. The rules haven’t changed, Conny. My tech isn’t intended for distribution. I’m not giving it…”

“You’re openly trading with the Eagle’s Cry! Do you not see how that looks to us? What is stopping you from putting us under with your magic? What is stopping you from stealing the sun or crippling the Talon’s End with your sorcery? Why do you always keep me pinned beneath your talent? Why can’t your damn equinity share the wealth!?”

Crew members stationed near the entryway gathered near every window they could find, and I stared in awe as the insanity dripping from Conrad’s tongue was devoured as the idealized speech of a messiah. “Go home, Lichlos. I’m not telling you anything, and I’m not giving anything to the Cry either. I have no interest in griffon politics. I just want my home to remain safe.”

“Safe?” Conrad replied with a sharp, grating click of his beak. “I promised these soldiers something that would ensure their safety! I promised them something that would change their world, and I am not leaving empty clawed. Perhaps, it would be unfortunate if I unloaded the Blitz System on the unsuspecting populace of Equestria. Perhaps it would be even more unfortunate if I instigated a war with the filthy Eagles over Equestrian soil, or perhaps, the ultimate misery would be if I had the means to make the bullshit kingdom attack first.

“Do you have any fucking idea what I went through to get you here for this moment, Wing? Do you have any clue? This ship, its crew, proving that you were the one – all of it had to be constructed on that glorious pedestal. Does the name Wire Wise ring any bells? I can tell by that scowl forming on your face that you know exactly what I am getting at. I bet it drives you nuts to learn that, all this time, I have been fur-deep in the Equestrian cookie jar, outsmarting even you, leading your precious ponies around like puppets just to get your flank right here at this second on this day.

“But I digress…” His quickened ramblings slowed to a crawl as a heavy breath lurched into his lungs. “You will keep your city safe by giving me what I want, for if you don’t, I will reveal my surprise. I kept it hidden even from my crew because it was a gift just too good to spoil. What do you think the North will do when I broadcast the execution of one of its own from the expanse of your beautiful, innocent sky?”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 22 - A Bishop's Crucifixion

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A seething anger swelled in me the likes of which I had never felt in all my days. Conrad’s rhetoric dug into me deeper than his talons ever could, and as I parsed the vitriol-laden speech, the indescribable urge to cram his beak down his throat began to jolt through my forelegs. Was he actually insinuating that the EHVM fiasco was his own doing? Was he really associating himself with that affair?

My brow had descended of its own will, yielding the griffon further ammunition as he extended his portion of our extremely one-sided dialogue. With each heartbeat, my arteries burned with a superheated brew. He just kept stabling, clawing, prodding for a way to get at the information that tormented his dreams. Like the froth floating atop a teeming subconscious, the noise stemming from his outburst rattled throughout my thoughts until a final sentence pierced the veil.

“Do you even listen to yourself?” I countered as my hooves dragged me a step closer to my antagonist. “You’re trying to tell me that you had a claw in what brought me here? You’re seriously taking responsibility for what Einhorn Vormacht did? Do you have any idea how delusional that sounds? But then, you go on to tell me that you’d be willing to execute one of your own kind just to put me in a spot where I could capitulate?”

“You think I’m insane and that’s fair.” I listened to the sweet serenity that dripped from Lichlos’s lungs as he pivoted about a hind paw. The rage had dissipated from his tone, leaving a calm tenor that I found even more jarring than his pseudo-psychotic ramblings. “Once upon a time, Corporal Wire Wise worked in a small town called San Palomino. I have no idea what the little guy was up to, but one extremely peculiar piece of correspondence arrived at my doorstep one day.

“His memories had been erased. His records had been deleted, and all his hope had been lost until he found a single scribbled note – one that spoke of an unseen magical weapon. Now, whom do I just so happen to know is Equestria’s single expert on the subject of strange and new armaments? Why, it would be you. So what is an academic griffon to do when toyed with the possibility of such a juicy, tantalizing truth? Wire always had a thing against the other pony races, and I went ahead and connected a few dots on his behalf. His talents were far better suited for the Galloping Gorge area anyway. It was only luck that, for some reason, my fascination with magic put me in his good graces.

“Much to my esteemed amusement, you all took the fucking bait like the hapless equines you are. Ashen Mystic used Wire’s abilities to transform her pathetically fledgling, tabloidesque movement into a force that could march into your capital city and do the number that it did. Though, it would have all been in vain if you hadn’t shown up with the culmination of the research that I knew had to be yours. But then, you went and blew my mind, so yes Wing, in answer to your question, I would gladly risk tossing all of us into the pits of war by executing some Eagle trash if it meant that you would give me some insight into all that you’ve accomplished.”

The inferno of resentment that had been racing across every fiber of my being finally hit its flashover point. There was nothing left unburned, for the devils in his details had incinerated whatever tranquility I had stocked. Either Lichlos had acquired classified information from numerous intelligence documents through unknown, nefarious means, or he had actually influenced crimes in ways that went well beyond the bournes of reason. There was no rationalizing his actions – no making sense of the chaotic web or even attempting to decipher it; he had been manipulating my life, along with the lives of others, like it was all some game to be played upon an imaginary field.

“Are you out of your fucking mind!? Do you have any idea what you’ve done? The fuck do you think you’re going to gain from this Lichlos? Did you think telling me that you had something to do with the worst crime in recent Equestrian history would get you somewhere with me?” Like a rapid pulse driving the sharp bite of a snare, the drum of my cadence harshly snapped into the wind. “The only thing that makes me want to do is trot across this bridge, buck you right in the face, and drag you off to a cell.”

The bastard was actually chuckling as he continued to spin around as though the cares of the universe mattered not. “Diplomatic immunity, my boy, though it’s great to see that the fire is still in you somewhere. I was beginning to think you fizzled out and became boring. But I hate to break it to you; I had nothing to do with what the EHVM actually did. I only advised my dearest friend to partake in other pursuits. I could only hope that the suggestion would one day lead to a confirmation of my hypothesis, and look at that, it did.

“I’m also afraid you have no legal recourse to stop me from executing a prisoner on my ship. Per the Treaty of Baltimare; vessels, embassies, and diplomatically occupied compounds shall adhere to the laws of the land of which said establishments represent.” His snarky hymn snaked through the clouds as he settled himself upon the quay. “And yes, I do plan to deliver the punishment right before your eyes if you don’t give me the fucking key to your shells! So just stand there if you can, Professor, and watch this. Comrades! Initiate Albatross Algorithm 187!”

After a few moments, the entire ship roared to life. One of the griffon soldiers dashed from the ship with a microphone clutched in his talons. Behind him, the cable trailed and sagged beneath the surface of the platform – for it lacked the enchantment needed to remain aloft. The sounds of crunching gears echoed throughout the frame of the airship before bouncing off the contours of the skyscrapers below, and the canopy of the massive craft lifted to expose Conrad’s private suite.

Various sensations attacked my body in rapid succession – from the sight of the garish metal box that ominously loomed about the center of the revealed enclave to the pull of a static field against my lavender coat. Griffons, with looks that covered the emotional spectrum, flooded the deck to gaze upon the prize that had been concealed from them. They waited in anticipation as the crackling surge of Conrad’s readied Blitz System joined the pops of megaphones that brightened at the behest of the amplified officer.

“Revered citizens of Equestria, my name is Professor Conrad Lichlos Gänse! I am currently in command of the gorgeous goldenrod airship you see hovering above your fair city, and I have traveled across the ocean to once again bestow my humble presence upon you all.” His voice boomed from every speaker, coating the area in a cringe-worthy blanket of thinly veiled conceit. “I invite you all to participate in a show of sorts – one that will undoubtedly change the way each of you see the world.

“You see, my country is in a bit of a spat with the rather annoying griffons over yonder. They claim our territories, turn our neighbors against us, and then wander off to form trade alliances with the likes of Equestria. A month ago, this little alliance of yours was viewed in the Republic as a minor nuisance. It was not as if we were cut off from communication with your leaders and your industries, but then, something changed.

“Something happened in Canterlot – an event that produced a miracle in the midst of tragedy – and the rules of the game got tossed out the window the second a pegasus wielded a new weapon of magic. The headlines didn’t just stop at your borders, Equestria. They traveled abroad and seeded the fear that your association with our sworn enemy could actually sway the balance of power.

“But this is where my tale gets interesting. I know the sorcerer who pulled it off. I know the pony that rose to the occasion – the pony who deserves your worship and praise – and that stallion would be none other than Professor Wing of the University of Las Pegasus. That’s right! The stallion of the hour is a teacher, and he was once someone I called a friend and a colleague. Though, as I stand here now, pleading with him to even the playing field with some knowledge, he refuses. He refuses to put the Eagle and the Talon on equal ground, so I will just have to settle the score another way.

“This is a concept that I know can be hard for ponies to grasp, but the Griffonian Republic of Talon’s End and the Northern Kingdom of Eagle’s Cry have remained in a constant state of conflict for generations. True, very rarely has this mutual hostility led to open engagements upon the field of battle, but every so often…” With a flap of his wings, Conrad darted towards the opaque, iron chamber. “Every so often, we hit a snag and get a catch. In this case, I took a prisoner into my care. He’s a political one and a lowly spy to boot – a creature of shame that slithered into our domain and tried oh so hard to undermine us at every turn.

“Now, Duke, since I know that hideous ship across the way is yours, I’ll let your vermin kind in on the secret I’ve been keeping. I have your son, and unless my good pony professor friend gives me what I want, I’m going to return several favors by hanging this little shit to death.”

Unlike its counterpart, the FHW Alton was constructed to be as inviting to the eye as possible. The ship, coated white with bright blue trimmings, possessed smooth surfaces that made it look like the quintessential example of aerodynamics incarnate. Though the underlying technology was the same as the Albatross, the Alton looked like a prince with its regal wings stretching out over the landscape as though it were an alicorn ready to take flight. The situation on the bridge, however, was far from as picturesque.

Silent Knight shuddered as officers of the kingdom pressed themselves against the bridge glass with binoculars deployed in the hopes that they could catch a glimpse of what was transpiring. Conrad’s blaring rhetoric had reached their waiting ears, and the absolute terror and rage that had been transmuted from the acoustic ether left the pegasus lieutenant in a hostile pit of misery.

The duke, himself, was pressed against a pane, leering with unwavering sights as the iron walls of Lichlos’s toy chest fell away to reveal the bound form of a griffon. The details were sketchy at that distance, but when the muffled cries of the captive lashed out across the city, the noble knew the truth. No time was left for an objection before the flight deck of the Alton buzzed. The griffons were prepared, with crossbows in claw, to take off through Equestrian skies to start a war that would have unraveling consequences.

“I’m sorry, Silent Knight,” the duke spoke as chills flowed beneath his amber fur and snow white feathers. He did not turn to face his longtime friend, for he feared the mess of emotions that could be spilled if he dared to peer upon the pegasus. Together, the pair had already witnessed the disaster of conflict. They had flirted with those unforgettable shadows. They had watched as loved ones and comrades died in the defense of friendship, but this transcended anything the officer had expected to find. “I cannot allow them to go back on their word. We were supposed to have an exchange, not this… I cannot allow them to take my son – not again.”

Trigger had taken his perch on top of the port tower, and his amber cores swept over the scenery as the deranged monologue nipped at his quivering ears. As Conrad spun his maniacal tale, the threads of maligned fate yanked upon the stallion’s heart. Something felt off about the entire chain of events. The climax felt misplaced, and as the grand chorus of the griffon’s opus unmasked the great reveal, Trigger felt the unbridled need to teleport to my side.

Shock jabbed his spine and his orbitals stretched beneath the weight of dismay. Concepts lined up within his mind for processing as the thaumic sizzles of both Twyst’s and Magic Barrier’s arrivals sprang from his flanks. “How the buck does a griffon have an anti-teleport spell?” Twyst blurted as he anxiously glanced at the other stallions. “We can’t just leave Softy up there alone now! We’ve got to evac him and stop that nutcase from offin’ a damn bitch.”

Taking a deep breath, Trigger settled himself. “He doesn’t have a spell. The whole reason he’s here revolves around magic. Nah, this shit is more fundamental than that. I can feel it. It’s not like filthy fuckin’ ATFs. It’s just like Wing’s...” His head snapped towards Barrier as the epiphany dawned upon the stout protector. “Cover the city! He’s got an EM weapon on that ship strong enough to keep us out!”

The charcoal-colored companion had affixed his focus upon the Alton throughout Conrad’s blaring performance. “We’ve got bigger problems, Trigs.” He gestured towards the tiny, contrasting blurs that popped against the alabaster backdrop of the Alton’s hull. “I’ve seen enough swarms in my day to know it when another has begun. Our primary has their commander by the balls. There’s no rationalizing with that. Silent’s got no chance.”

“Buckin’ shit,” Trigger huffed. “Put up a barrier anyway, MB. We can’t have this garbage spilling into the streets. Twyst, get over to the House Guard and tell them to stand down. They aren’t going to press a determined force of that size over the ocean when it's burstin' at the seams to begin with, and I don’t want needless injuries. So much for a buckin' screen.”

A counterstorm was brewing on the deck of the Albatross as the shadows of numerous griffons danced along the surface of the craft. They had spotted the charging force, and with tensions riled by the potential of a pending execution, many of the End had leapt into the fray toting crossbows and swords of their own. In less than a minute, the opposing forces would collide above the domain of Trigger’s beloved Authority. Blood would fall like rain upon the streets of Manehattan, and bodies would be torn asunder. The catastrophe would be even worse if his assessment of the Albatross’s cloaked capabilities proved to be true.

“Shield the city, Barrier,” the stallion reiterated as a darkened magical spark arced along the length of his horn. A curved blade roughly thirty centimeters in length appeared in front of the onyx charger. His magical aura, diminishing the argent glimmer concealed by its grasp, enveloped the ethereal sword while bands of reverie-based augury jumped from the weapon. The reunion of razor and smith was short-lived, for with all his might, the unicorn lobbed the edge known as Resolve in the direction of its master. “I’ll be taking care of the rest myself.”

I had begun to hover just in time to see the sides of the iron cell fall to the deck floor. My ears pinned back in anticipation of the thunderous clang that followed, its booming knell saturating the microphone and startling even the most composed of the soldiers in my midst. Conrad simply laughed, and he set about reclaiming the shattered attention of his underlings by proudly presenting his frivolity along with the horrific image that he had expertly hidden.

A malnourished griffon stood bound upon a bland pedestal that just beckoned to be kicked away. Chains, meandering through ochre fur like a tormenting river Styx, laced the prisoner’s hind legs together with a strength that probably felt even more painful than it looked. The same links extended upwards, coiling around bent forelegs and hyperextended talons to secure the limbs over cream-hued wings that had been methodically confined with strands of rope.

This creature watched me with icy blue cores as pleading breaths escaped through his gagged beak. A noose had been loosely draped over his neck, taunting the captive with a foreboding promise of death should cord be tightened and the box removed. Of course, Lichlos took meticulous care of his treasure. While the rope had been tied to the top of the structure, a series of additional anchored supports gave the hostage redundant layers of suspension. He had been trussed up to be the majestic act of Conrad’s theatre – leaving me to wonder if the prop would survive without me acting.

“Be a good little boy and say hi to Daddy,” Lichlos jeered as he placed the microphone in front of his victim. He slithered to his desk and grinned at me while his frame moved to strike a dramatic pose. His claws swiftly gripped a ceremonial saber, which he promptly dangled in a flashy manner that I interpreted to be the final warning shot.

In a single vault, he leapt back into the spotlight and jabbed his forsaken nemesis in the thigh. Muffled cries and squeals emerged from the harnessed beast in a cacophonous melody that rattled through the corridors of Manehattan, and within seconds, a swell of morale catapulted roughly 70% of the crew from the innards of the Albatross. They all darted in the direction of the Alton with weapons at the ready, and it was then that I realized exactly what had been done; he had baited the Cry.

“Sir!” one of the griffons spoke up as she took a grief-stricken stance to stage left. Her light blue and white feathers greatly resembled the heavens in which we stood – though the expression plastered upon her countenance could not have been any darker or morose. Indeed, as I peered around the assembly that remained, I noticed that none of these soldiers appeared entranced by the rhetoric that had launched the others into the throes of impending combat. “Sir, what have you done?”

The jovial demeanor dropped from Conrad’s face as he turned to answer his lieutenant. His muscles twitched as the means to the end brewed within him. Azure Sky had ruined his performance. She had spoken out of turn, and that foolish, naïve question had been broadcast to the masses he had intended to mesmerize. He drew a breath as he jammed the tip of his blade deeper into the prisoner’s leg, eliciting a scream that preceded his response.

Whatever he had intended to say, the words never came. They were interrupted by the sound of a sword imbedding itself into the metal exterior of the ship just below my curled legs. The blade – my blade – radiated Trigger’s magic, and its presence revealed answers to questions that I had not even had the time to ask. The EM field, I pondered while gradually reaching for the hilt. They aren’t able to get here in time, but he wouldn’t allow…

My train of thought derailed as a crack of thunder trailed a streak of black lightning that dashed across the sky. I gazed upon the shroud of darkness that fanned out before the charging mass of Conrad’s file, and we all watched in utter amazement as the blanket of night curled and approached the Albatross. Trigger had actually done it! He had actually activated a spell the likes of which nopony had ever seen – a spell with a name alone that could strike terror into nightmare itself.

“Armageddon Dreamshell...”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 23 - A Fallen Horse, Part One

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“I know these aren’t really the words that you want to hear, Amora, but you need to calm down.” Defiant Hooves stood beside the fuming mare while the other pegasi of DarkOps circled above. Conrad’s trump card had yet to be played; in fact, his speech had not yet even begun to serenade the Manehattan sky when the medic turned her attention to the south – towards those who she knew would understand.

“He just let him go up there alone!” she bit back with an icy temperament that shot down the orange flier’s sentiment. “The whole point of having his group here was to provide backup for Wing, so why would Trigger just let him trot right into a situation that is an obvious trap?” Her blue eyes had settled upon the Albatross with a fervor that no amount of convincing would dislodge. She was going to get on that ship no matter the cost. She was going to make sure that she would never have to go through what happened in Canterlot ever again.

“You’ve known him longer than anypony, so it makes sense that you’d want to be at his side right now. We all feel that way; but you have to trust Wing’s judgement, and you have to respect Trigger’s role as a field commander. Yes, the Mavericks’ Wild got assigned to escort duty; however, it’s far more likely that Trigger wrangled them in with different purposes in mind.

“Hypothetically speaking, if I were calling the shots for this operation and had those three at my disposal, I’d want Magic Barrier in a position where his defensive prowess could be maximally distributed across any potential field of battle. Even if Wing’s guess about you all getting access to the ship turned out to be wrong, being pinned to his side in the clouds would have only done wonders for protecting the pegasus and mitigating an immediate threat. It’s worth noting, though, that having that kind of caliber upfront could have also made it look as if we came to provoke a fight in the presence of two clashing griffon powers.

“Likewise, Twyst isn’t exactly renowned for controlling his anger. The stallion is better nowadays, but when Trigger first started bringing him around, well you were there for that nonsense, Ams. What he does bring to the table are sharp wits and quick moves, which are nice assets to have if a certain tactician wants to push information or line up a rapid strike. I think the real question you should be asking yourself is why did Trigger accept you as his fourth. Why didn’t he just brush off Luna’s request, or why didn’t he simply try to yank his original out of retirement?

“The answer to the latter question is easy. He didn’t want to drag her back in after she had finally gotten settled into civilian life. The former question carries some degree of complexity along for the ride, though. There was no way DarkOps was getting bounced from this mission. Her Highness knew that we’d show up anyway, given the stakes, and Trigger was certainly aware of this. In every sense, attaching you to the Mavericks’ Wild was a completely superficial move. Of course, I'm lying for a little dramatic effect; it's a superficial move in every sense but one.

“That stallion has known you as long as you’ve known him, Amora. I know it isn’t much to give when you’re upset, but it’s the best hypothesis I can come up with. He did it because he knew you’d do this.”

Amora kept still for a few moments after Defiant’s explanation roved through her thoughts. She gulped down a rising tide of sorrow that struggled to push its way from the pit of her stomach to eyes that yearned for those sweet, watering tears. “There isn’t time for that now,” she told herself before gently grazing his folded wing with her side. “Thank you, Defy. You always seem to know the perfect things to say to me.”

The serenity shared by the duo proved to be brief once Conrad’s taunting sermon fell upon both pony and griffon ears. With every syllable she heard, Amora found herself falling victim to the same pressure that had pushed the stallions of the Mavericks’ Wild to attempt teleporting onto the deck of the Albatross. “Something is wrong,” she spoke with a rushed breath before D.H. slipped one of his forelegs around the medic. “I can’t teleport to him, but I don’t understand how that’s possible.”

Wick’s red-rimmed gaze was already prepared to meet the tilting head of his orange-coated counterpart. For several minutes, he had watched in silence as Defiant’s care for the mare showed through every generous reassurance and touch, and he knew exactly what question was chomping at the proverbial bit just to escape a muzzle. “Not yet. We can’t take on a whole ship like that on our own. If they engage the other griffons, we’re going in according to plan.”

Overhead, the brassy whines of the megaphones continued to captivate the city with oscillating states of interest and agitation. The Republic’s ambassador proceeded with his grand oration – delivering to equinity a worldview that had been shaped by the largely unknown burdens of fear and conflict. “Now, Duke, since I know that hideous ship across the way is yours, I’ll let your vermin kind in on the secret I’ve been keeping. I have your son, and unless my good pony professor friend gives me what I want, I’m going to return several favors by hanging this little shit to death.”

Astonishment clutched the startled ponies of DarkOps, for the reaper’s scythe had descended quickly and without warning. The announced method of the looming execution sent a visible ripple down the length of Amora’s spine, and even Wick found that his flicking ears were betraying the anxiety that the rest of his form kept carefully contained. With that declaration, the rules of engagement had been upended. Whatever plan Trigger and Wing had concocted, it was certainly in tatters. They had a new responsibility now – one that would have to be summarily fulfilled if Equestria were to stem the broils of a griffon war.

The active microphone picked up the collapsing of the cell walls and the cheers that followed. There was little time to be spared – if any – but Wick had to wait until there was some confirmation that Gänse’s threat was far from idle. When the wails of agony sent waves of soldiers pouring from the northern edge of the airship’s hull, the pegasus had all he needed. The only things keeping Equestrian forces in check were the immunity articles buried within the Treaty of Baltimare. The moment the hostilities spilled beyond the confines of the visiting vessels, the ponies were cleared to go.

“Ams, you’ll support Wing if he needs it, but our top priority is to extract that hostage. Under no circumstances can we allow a foreign dignitary to be executed in our airspace. Defiant, carry Amora in; Mozy, you’re with me. Try to minimalize casualties if you can. The Republic will not respond well to our involvement, and unfortunately, I think plausible deniability just got punted to the curb. We'll have to earn fallout credits the hard way.”

“Come now, Colonel,” Twyst’s voice caught the group right when Wick was about to ascend. The unicorn had materialized through the lime-green tongues of teleportation-backed thaumic fire, and he had promptly settled into a broad, imposing stance upon the waterfront road. “Bitching around the war isn’t going to make it go away. We can’t avoid what’s already here.” The stallion absentmindedly levitated a wrought iron scythe as a conniving smile took shape. “What we can do is make sure that it ends today, regardless of how many asshats need to be cut down. I can feel Trigger surging; he’s up to something big, which means we don’t have a lot of time. I can’t jump onto the ship directly, and climbing that piece of shit elevator contraption would just take too long. I'm going to need a lift.”

Screams of dread meandered back to the Albatross from those griffons who had sought the glory of battle. Trigger’s veil of night expanded before the line in a violent, cracking burst that drove both the forces of the Eagle and Talon away from the brink of mutual oblivion. The enormous dreamshell climbed into the heavens, where its massive midnight arcs masked even Celestia’s light, and its roots shot beneath Conrad’s vessel with a velocity that left onlookers astounded.

The chorus of shouts spread to the interior of the Republican battleship as the glare of the day surrendered to the creeping, eerie glow of the magic of reverie. Embers of panic stoked a torrent of fire that coursed its way through every occupied corridor and room until the strain erupted through the top of the craft. A wide, branching trunk of lighting shot skyward after Conrad’s shaken crew had discharged its superweapon into the leading ridge of Trigger’s incredible assault.

While impressive, the power of 10000 weather-wielders did not even manage to make a scratch upon the ensnaring envelope. Even if there had been a hope that they could have halted the barrier’s advance, the crew had fallen prey to their emotions a bit too late. The event horizon of the trap had already crossed the ship, and the scent of ink was becoming far more apparent with every passing second. Simply put, my rules of physics were being thrown aside for something far more lively: Trigger’s rules of the imagination.

Confusion played its rhapsody through the faces of the disentangled griffon force. Most of them peered into the developing void with captivating expressions that projected their innermost ingrained phobias through their stern demeanors. The hourglass grains stopped falling for them at that moment, for the moonlit sonata of reverie had struck like an argent dagger through each of their minds. For me however, the fanfare had just begun.

Resolve’s hilt brushed against my reaching forehoof before I yanked the blade from its improvised stand. Years had passed since I had last felt its aura pulse through my essence – since I had last felt a drive empowered by the wildest fibers of my mystical dreams. It was my pen to forge a new world – one that had been born in the baptism of the unfinished, and one that would ink my score with Conrad.

I sprang forward, darting around the mass of congregated creatures, and hurled my razor through the chains and rope that hideously toyed with the noble’s life. The links fell like rain over the blitzing Azure Sky, who had appeared beneath me with an equally unsettling speed. She had shoved her commander away from the prisoner, and her talons quickly followed her resolute will to tear through the binds that had restricted the lord’s hind legs.

My sights swept over the motions of the staggering Conrad en route to the crimson gaze of his revolting lieutenant. It was a stare that spoke what no words could as concisely imply; she had decided – in that instant – that the actions of her captain did not speak for the crew. She pitched upwards, gripped the noble tightly, and bolted for the shrinking aperture to the south without bothering to even remove the gag.

Tides of mutiny smashed the weathered troops, splitting the metaphorical stones into islands that either supported Azure Sky’s decision or stood with the discord of Lichlos. Crossbows pinged to life, sending bolts in the direction of the captive and his savior, before sabers defending the lieutenant came to bear upon their frames.

Take him out! The searing thought shot through my mind as I spun into an aileron roll, turned towards the griffon’s midsection, and swung my sword at the flabbergasted strategist. The master planner’s scheme was crumbling before his eyes, and if I could capitalize on the seeds of chaos, then perhaps… Greed had long been woven into the emerald ring that slid to meet my strike – that soundlessly rejected the notion that I would uncover a swift surrender. Against the backdrop of rowdy troops, the reverberating note of our colliding blades popped like the joining of two crashing cymbals. We had finally met within the bournes of reverie, paired by the impish will of our renegade duet, to decide the immediate course of a relentless nightmare.

A Game of Darkness - Installment 24 - A Fallen Horse, Part Two

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Azure flapped her wings as hard as she could, and her heart strained to keep pace. The beautiful blue of the Equestrian sky glimmered like the beckoning finish line it was, while the dreary shade of Trigger’s dreamshell loomed as it drew ever nearer to completion. Through the pain inflicted by a pair of bolts embedded into her flank, she fought to finally free the prisoner from that horrifying place. Adrenaline shot through her veins with every pulse that determination could muster, but it became more and more evident that her speed just could not cut it.

Blood soaked into the fabric of her uniform, and the red heat that burned into her senses grew harder to overcome. Her altitude sagged and her vision blurred as the soothing light at the end of the tunnel faded to black. There was no escape now. If she wanted to make it out alive – if she wanted to prevent a war from engulfing the world – she would have to fight off the crew she had come to call family or at least defeat the captain.

She tightened her grip upon the griffon despite continuing to lose altitude. A worried grunt escaped his beak as he eyed her sweating form, and revelation soon caught his demeanor with a bristling jolt that alerted every muscle it could. His wings and forelimbs had not yet been liberated from the torn restraints, and a part of him carried the seed of doubt that he would struggle to find the strength needed to fly on his own.

Nonetheless, he had to do something. She had taken his burden. She had chosen to save him from those filthy clutches of cruelty. She had thrown away her patriotism for the safety of a sworn enemy – his safety – and her symptoms suggested some sort of toxin was at work. He exhaled sharply as he moved his aching limbs, but he had to ignore it. He had to shake free of those last damning links. He had to push out the sting that tormented his wounded thigh. He had to regain some semblance of honor as thanks for her saving him from that hell. He simply had to fly, but his maneuvering only garnered a stern glance from the female soldier.

“I won’t be able to make it back,” she whispered in a raspy voice while shifting her claws gently to guide the chain from his limbs, “and I couldn’t take you back there anyway. Our way out is closed, and there’s some sort of crazy, hovering dark ocean beneath us.” She winced as a swelling pain crept up her spine, and she cringed to the feel of moisture soaking her copper fur and snaking along the contours of her feathers. “I can’t believe they shot me…”

The noble groaned to the relieving sensation that accompanied the stretching of his unfettered claws. He clipped the ropes holding his wings before pulling that contemptable rag from his beak and pitching it to the mystical sea of reverie. “Let me carry you,” he answered quietly as he worked to cast off the frayed threads.

“You’re not fit to fly,” Azure rebutted without hesitation. “You were kept in that cell throughout our deployment without anyone on the ship having a damn clue. It’s astounding what the captain is capable of doing when he sets his mind to something, but this was not the right thing to do. Our mission was supposed to be about not being left in the dark. It wasn’t supposed to be this. He stabbed you. He threw us closer than ever to complete annihilation! My only option is to make sure that you live. That is all I can do for my Republic. It’s all I can do for any griffon.”

The pace of Azure Sky’s breathing spiked before she tumbled down towards the murky brew. The passion that had been noticed in her spitfire gaze dissipated into something that her male counterpart could only describe as lifeless, and her body had pushed copious amounts of water from her system in a painful attempt to dispel the poisonous fruits of her country’s technological labor.

“You’ve already done more than any other griffon to ensure that such a fate does not come to pass. You have my word that I will live to see that it does not, and Artemis Stoutheart always keeps his promises!” His chest expanded as a preparatory gasp filled his lungs, and his talons took hold of the weakening Sky. The unsympathetic abyss of truth waited ahead of the plummeting pair. The noble would either succeed in salvaging hope from the rim of uncertainty, or they would descend to meet an unknown end.

His withered wings spread wide for the harrowing scream that fled his parted beak. Stoutheart’s limbs quaked, but he held onto the limp lieutenant with the same grit that she had shown while getting him to this point. The seconds ticked by as perceived hours until silvery waves of magical energy took hold of the griffons and placed them upon a floating pedestal that was assuredly Amora’s spellwork.

“Get me closer, Defiant!” she wailed. “They’re both injured, but it looks like we arrived in the nick of time.”

Moments later, Twyst landed upon the platform with a jerking thud. The stallion grinned, his face beaming with excitement as he leaned closer to the perplexed Artemis. “Well, it looks like you two just made our jobs a fuckload easier, and you’re a mismatched pair at that! This has Wing written all over it, but who gives a shit about that? You’re safe now, Your Excellency.”

“Did you really think it would be that easy?” A growl emerged from Conrad’s throat before the griffon pressed forward with a flap of his wings. “Did you really think I’d let you kill me on my own ship after what you’ve done? Did you really think I’d die like a pathetic, gutless Cry?” An urge to escape swelled within me as the scorching blaze of the surrounding mutiny joined the captain’s address to gnaw upon my mind. “When my soldiers finish putting those traitorous fuckers down, we will take great pride in cutting what I want out of you. And now, there’s something else on my list! I’m going to find out exactly what this place is!”

Our swords screeched through the countering bite like two animals jumping into the throes of combat. Anxiety cascaded through my tumbling consciousness while the calculations piled. The large force that Trigger had halted with his dreamshell would return at any moment. Those who had taken up arms against Lichlos would likely be slaughtered, and then it would be me against all. I had to get out. I had to get off the ship and jump back into the glorious Ocean of Reverie.

“Your vessel sucks, Conny,” I spoke upon snapping my weapon back from the front. Once clear, I darted to the east, avoiding the corpses of the blood-soaked beasts who had fallen and their living, assailing comrades. I left the streaks of red, whizzing of arrows, and yowls of battle in the dust, for the pitch-black expanse of the imagination called me away from the metal contours of the Talon’s personal hell.

Lichlos, however, did not let me go. I looked back to catch the glaring heat emanating from his emerald irides. His wide span tore the air with powerful thrusts that tapped into the inferno that had to be raging beneath his coat. The gap between us was closing at a remarkable speed, and I threw my wings wildly to sail into an arcing crescent that brought my hooves to the supernatural water’s edge.

He flew by me in the wake of the maneuver, and his talons tightly gripped the hilt of his weapon before he rolled into a dive. A spark of Trigger’s sorcery danced over the outside of my uniform once I dipped my hind legs in the essence of the dreamshell. Clouds coalesced in front of my reared form, and branches of lightning burst from the horizontal band as soon as I swung Resolve through the vapor.

“Finally graduate from your own class, Professor?” Lichlos jeered as he evaded the forking lances of electricity. At the head of his charge, fog appeared from his exhaled breath. Flickers of ignition spiraled through the mist much like the griffon’s twisting feline physique, and the weight of disbelief shot momentary pangs of quiver-inducing dread from head to hoof. “You’re not the only one.”

The bolt popped from the haze in a searing flash that expanded to fill almost the entire extent of my vision. Warmth crept up my muzzle as the fiery streak approached, and I frantically hurled a hind leg and both wings to throw myself to the side. A foreign gust of wind was there to meet me, its backer waiting with his saber’s edge already closing in on my outstretched extremity.

“Why don’t I make you like your namesake!?” he wailed as he swung with all of his might for my wing. The bastard had improved immeasurably since I had last seen him. His quickness and strength had grown during his tenure as an airship captain, while all I could do was lock up. I had tossed all of my weight like some dumb rookie into dodging that electrical strike. He had followed his shot, and now I was disgustingly vulnerable.

I gulped on instinct in that fraction of a second. Fear trickled into every thought and every fleeting glimmer of an exit until my feathers burned in the passionate perception that they might not be attached to their wielder. Suddenly, I was far above the earth, tumbling within an internal projection that annihilated my mental filters and cast twitchy jerks to all of my limbs. The term ‘horror’ failed to convey the sheer panic that cruised about my body on the mere notion that I could fall from a high place without the ability to save myself.

Conrad jolted to the unexpected bang that followed, and his eyes gradually shifted from the source of his surprise to my prepared gaze. My vision had triggered a massive adrenaline release to oppose the agony that had plagued my hopes. I had been saved by the stored reminders of my tenacity and my creed. I had something to protect, and from this plane, I would do it. Years of youth had been spent crawling through this fascinatingly strange place and sewing heroes from the untapped fibers of fantasy.

From the depths of reverie, an iron pillar had risen to meet the griffon’s sword before it could slice into its mark. It had manifested at my behest – a stark reminder of the power a lucid dreamer held within this space. “I told you already. I will keep my home safe, and you’re not getting anything from me.”

“How is that even possible?” Lichlos blurted as he retreated with his blade in tow. Apprehension seeped into the timbre of his voice, and his body exhibited those same little twitches that were the telltale signs of frantic reasoning. “There is no way that was your doing! Pegasi don’t have that kind of…” He jumped into the air as another iron pike shot from the water towards his chest. “There’s no way you could have done it! You haven’t ascended!”

Dismay stretched the limits of his countenance before I plunged into the sky with the tip of my ardent steel primed for a jab. The sense of being overwhelmed practically dripped from his kinetic language, and the nervous sweat that filled his coat snuffed the vigorous fire that had flashed with every arrogant statement he made. His iron tooth, having lost its bite, stayed still at his side as though the griffon were either waiting for me to kill him or give him an answer. I halted the former path on my own accord once the percussive clamor of curving metal bars rose from the sea to seal the officer in a personal cage.

“Fifty percent,” I spoke after lowering my readied razor. “It’s all my doing, but I would never be worthy of that ascension. Regardless Conrad, this is over. You’re under arrest for the reckless endangerment of another living being and for violating the tenets of the Treaty of Baltimare.” I turned around to face the Albatross and began flying back towards the ship. With the head of the snake confined, I hoped that the other griffons would come to see the errors of this entire sequence of events.

“Don’t you leave here without answering me!” Lichlos wailed. “Don’t you fly off touting your damn equine privilege!” He threw his talons against the bars and relentlessly hacked at the sturdy prison. “I can see it in you! I can see it in that subtly smug composure! You won’t change them! You’re not the righteous piece of shit that you pretend to be! Some may have betrayed me, but that crew will cut you down! So just stay here! Stay here, and tell me what you know!”

A crazed desperation laced the threads of his rant before the pulse of a lightning spark burst from his beak. I spun my head and glanced upon the anguish that ensnared his trembling form. Like a child, he kept trying to bait me back to him. He kept trying to keep me in the deranged tale that his mind was scripting, but his attack had not even made it to me. The cell had been grounded for a reason.

“You’re cutting me out again,” Conrad grumbled after spending several minutes alone. “Look at what you’ve done – exactly what I said ponies could always do. You’ve taken away my sun – with magic. You’ve taken away my freedom – with this bastardization of magic! And you won’t give me the knowledge I deserve. They’ll bring you back to me at any second. They’ll bring you back at the brink of death, and we’ll make you talk. We’ll make you give me what I want!”

His claws dragged across one of the towering, wet pipes, producing a squealing noise that could hurl daggers into one’s ears. A king without the chessboard, he quaked to the razing belief that he had lost his pawns and the means to the end. His voice cracked to the depressing wave that bore down upon his dreams. He had come for the sorcery – the secret of Canterlot – and he had been left to wait in its very clutches. Don’t be left to rot like some inept cockroach…

Inconceivable rhetoric clung to his wind as he cried into the artificial dusk. The burden upon his ambition crippled the remaining strands of sanity until the slithering speakers in his head abruptly launched from Conrad’s clicking tongue. “Use us!” Dilated pupils absorbed the ambient glow of reverie as it reflected off the thin film that coated the griffon’s clenched talons. “They didn’t come for you. Use us!”

Revelation bounced about his shaking body as he spun around to gaze upon Trigger’s realm. The puzzle that had upended him began to take shape, and his frantic wailing settled into the heavy breathing of a scientist that had just uncovered a profound and monumental truth. “They’re not coming for you. Use us!” the spirits of his dream uttered again, casting their shadowy bands of nightmare from Lichlos’s mouth until the portrait came together in his mind. “I will!”

He allowed his saber to fall through the gaps in the iron weave as he inhaled the scent of his newfound perception. “Such clarity,” he mumbled before shattering the bars by simply flicking his claws. Pride resurfaced in his stance as he set his sights upon the Albatross. “Is this what it feels like to the unicorns? Is this what it feels like to you!? Is this how you did it? Is this how you ran off with magic?”

Darkness snaked through his heart as the sirens of nightmare continued to coo. “You all abandoned me when you thought we hit the endgame. You left me in that ridiculous cage to suffer while you flew off to broker a ridiculously biased peace. Progress has no room for cowards. I guess it’s a good thing that I hold no qualms about wiping the board.”

Black tendrils drifted from the corners of his eyes after Conrad lifted his forelimb towards his vessel. He could feel it – and them, clustered like piles of worthless life atop those who actually had the guts to die for his goal. “Your minds are weak, so I will take them. Fly away, sweet Albatross; you have a new purpose now.”

Amora grimaced as she stood atop the Republic airship. She, along with Twyst, Wick, and D.H., had left Mosaic Breeze to tend to the pair of refugees from the confines of her lasting barrier. She scanned the corpses that had been pitched across the exterior of the craft while the carnage that tore through the ragged crew held the attention of her comrades. The scene was appalling to all but Twyst, who stood with an expression upon his countenance that could not be further from the medic’s stunned appearance.

The ponies had arrived just in time to see the main griffon force return to the jarring sight of mutiny, and each group seemed startled and puzzled by what could have driven the soldiers to turn upon one another. “Lieutenant Sky betrayed us!” one screamed moments before an arrowhead lodged itself into the creature’s soft neck.

“Gänse’s actions could have started an open war with two other nations!” another cried back before he rolled into cover behind one of the vessel’s protruding points. “How were we going to survive that? How are we going to survive this? We’re just one ship! This was supposed to be a diplomatic mission!”

The words provoked a lull in the fighting while the belligerents floated in thought, and the momentary reprieve proved beneficial to my own arrival. I sailed over the southeastern point of the dirigible, touched down mere steps ahead of my friends, and immediately addressed the flock. “Stand down and please listen to me! I know national pride is something griffons hold very dearly, and I know that your captain is capable of saying incredibly motivating things. We went to school together, studied together, and dreamt together; but at some point, he put himself ahead of the common good.

“It seems as though I am the reason why you are all here, and while I don’t know the full details of what he did or said to bring about all of this, I can get the gist. It sickens me. It sickens me that something I made to protect my fellow pony has tainted many. It actually pisses me off that two nations sent ships to my shores just to try to gain some upper ground to use against the other.

“Yeah, I don’t know what your captain said about me, my plans, or my rules; but I do know that your captain is defeated, which makes the rest up to you. I stand before you in the open – no sneak attacks – no driving charges through your ranks – no weapons of unparalleled power – so that you can look into my eyes when I tell you the truth. I don’t even allow the vast majority of ponies to even use the weapon that brought you here. The four behind me have never touched them, so I can say without a shadow of doubt that I will never allow my research to be distributed to any griffon nation!”

For the first time, I observed relief wash over the ranks. Their postures relaxed and many stowed their weapons as the grand decision added a degree of sympathy that had been sorely missing. Soon, Trigger could lower his dreamshell, Conrad would be hauled off, and this whole mess would be spun into a beacon of hope for future generations.

Static suddenly shot through my tail as Twyst’s green thaumic aura yanked me into one of Amora’s protective shields. Unsuspecting griffons dropped lifelessly, either onto the platform or into the dreamshell’s ocean, before the unicorn’s barrier could reach them. None of those in sight showed any sign of physical wounds, and the dread and shock that motivated our wide-eyed stares only pushed the medic to spread her protective spell to as many as she could reach.

Rivets exploded from the Albatross in a chaotic chorus that joined the muffled screams of those inside who had been trapped and crushed by the crumpling frame. Helium plumes hissed as the liberated gas climbed to the height of reverie’s scope, and even Twyst opted to release his rheostatic hold upon my vulnerable hairs so he could throw a solid platform beneath our hooves and lend some shield support to Amora. “Did you feel that?” he asked the physician while casting his focus to the east.

I watched Conrad’s ship crumble before my eyes and right below my hooves. Its metal hull ruptured, ripped, and twisted into unrecognizable chunks that surreally wafted towards their imprisoned master. In the distance, a bluish glow highlighted the center of what appeared to be a cylinder assembling from the figurative galaxy of commandeered parts that spiraled around the central core.

As the source of light intensified, Resolve resonated in my grasp, surrendering a warning that pulled me outside of the unicorns’ incredible defensive efforts. The thing in the distance exuded the essence of nightmare, and even from that far away, its pending calamity pulled upon the steel of my sword of dream. The danger was tangible, and the hairs of my coat stood upright as we collectively accelerated towards yet another anticipated climax.

The dark wave of magic came swiftly from that demonic coil, and its piercing blast met a cluster of imagined diamond morning stars that congregated about my descending foil. Amora’s groan leapt to my ears, for the energy of the intercepted strike still managed to burrow into the barrier. I heaved my strength into the counter, fully following through until the hideous burst dissipated into oblivion.

A rumbling zephyr turned my attention to the outline of Conrad’s escaped physique. No time for questions remained once I rolled to face him, for the metallic gleam of an aimed barrel poised before his talons eclipsed both the smug expression that saturated his appearance and the numbness that gripped mine. “Looks like I didn’t need you after all.”

My body’s wail of pain and the blaze that tore through my chest did not register before I impacted the water. Amora’s scream never reached me, and Wick’s shouts didn’t make it either. The sight of Twyst keeping those ponies from doing something immeasurably heroic and stupid went unseen by my eyes, and Lichlos’s maniacal laugh was wasted upon a target that could no longer care.

I sank into those depths while blood dissipated past my tattered uniform, but the only things I could feel were those cold tendrils of that unfinished ether coursing over their next find and Resolve’s pulse still beating by my hoof. It was the forlorn cadence of sorrow that it emitted – the only one I had a chance of recognizing.

It sang of my failures, for I had failed them. I would leave them crying and alone against a foe of my own making. I would leave my handsome creature of reverie without a brother. My sister and parents would suffer, and worst of all, I would leave her. I would break a promise that I had made long ago. I would leave my flower without her gardener, and I knew that no other stallion would ever live up to the joy of her company.

Even there, under the razor of Death’s unrelenting truth, her warmth shined. It seeped from the shattered shell still dangling around my neck, and it filled me with the most touching flicker of light any pony could ever ask to receive when confronted with the tainted Ocean of Nightmare. I embraced that beautiful feeling with everything I had left. There was no more time for the insubstantial things – no more time for regrets – just her light...

and no more…

A Game of Darkness - Installment 25 - Thy Kingdom Come, Part One

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Amora’s chest seized to the impaling pain of sorrow and dread. She wheezed from a lack of breath, having exhausted her wind with a deafening shout in the moments that followed Conrad’s shot, but her scan of the mystical waters below refused to bow to the burn in her lungs. Where are you? Where are you? Where are you? Why aren’t you moving? Why aren’t you coming back up? Denial rode her mind ragged as the plethora of options nipped at the outskirts of her thoughts. They pounded against her, dragging with them the seeds of tears that glimmered in the corners of her eyes.

A thaumic arc danced up the length of her horn as the dying hope set anger in its rightful place. “Shut your bucking hideous face!” her hurt roar opposed the laughter that poured through Conrad’s beak, but the intended target did not bother to listen. He merely gazed upon the ocean, content to watch the nothingness that formed in the wake of his victory.

The medic swung her head around, glancing at all those she had in her protective grasp. Wick and Defiant appeared as though they were both ready to spring into action, while Twyst stood unmoving before her. The griffons collectively looked stunned. They looked betrayed and dejected by the very captain that had brought them here, and for once, Amora did not care.

She winced as she remembered that smile. “’I’ll always be here.’ That’s what you told me, Wing,” she mumbled softly, “and I told you that I’d always keep you in good health. I patched you up when we were little – when you would return after running off to do something stupid.” She sniffed, choking down the rage-driven need to cry. “Have they really taken you from me? I’m already at my limit… protecting those that made this happen. I could dump them. I could cast my spell. I could end them all for you! I can find you!”

Twyst slammed the blade of his scythe into the magical floor. “Knock it off.” The chill in his tone froze the other ponies to core. “We barely held this shit together through an attack that was deflected. He took a pointblank shot to the chest. There’s nothing you can do for him except live, and that is going to take everything we have. He gave those griffons a choice, and they chose, so shitting on them now does nothing but spit in his face. Do you understand me?”

Contorted looks of misery clung to the muzzles of Wick, Defiant, and Amora as they struggled to make sense of the stallion’s words. “We don’t leave our own behind,” the grey pegasus finally spoke as his red eyes affixed their sights upon the depths. He had barely mustered the nerve to talk as every limb quivered to the beat of the unwritten oath.

D.H.’s fur had been darkened by the unrepressed stream that relentlessly fell. His hooves scratched against the barrier, fighting against a tormented will that sent impulsive signals all the way to the tips of his wings. “T-Twyst is right…”

Bolts sprang from the griffon force as the soldiers of Talon’s End launched a counter assault upon their commander. Their bewilderment had whittled away in the seconds that carried the ponies’ grief-stricken cries and visible sacrifices, and they would not allow themselves to remain idle observers when others had taken up their defense. Whatever Captain Gänse had done to their comrades, whatever he had done in this hellish place, they would have a claw in assuring that he atoned for his sins.

Lichlos snapped his head towards the unicorns’ barrier, and his talons lifted to direct a woven cluster of Albatross scrap to slide in between himself and his traitorous underlings. “You ruined my laughter.” His flat, succinct delivery marched in time with the crashing of the metal fragments against the reverberating buffer.

Both Amora and Twyst buckled against the pressure. The merciless coils of Conrad’s invisible power pushed and pushed until the ponies could no longer hold the shield’s shape. “Move it!” Amora squealed through her discomfort as her horn sparked in defiance. The griffons darted closer to the mare as part of the spell gave way, and the spears of the dismantled airship subsequently shot through the fading light before colliding into the edge of the dreamshell with a thunderous clamor.

As Twyst’s lime aura moved to fill the gaps, Amora performed a quick sweep of Lichlos with her magic. Her cobalt-colored irides surrendered to her dilating pupils as the sensation of his malice crawled through her body. She recoiled and gagged, panting for air as she turned to Defiant. Fear pinned her ears back, sent her hooves scrambling for more stability, and stretched her facial features into a grimace before she finally blurted, “I can’t… He’s… a living tantibus.”

Conrad’s attention followed the rumbling that rang from the edge of Trigger’s reverie. His piercing stare ignored the others in his company as his wings unfurled amongst the mass of floating parts. “You’re all insignificant,” he uttered in a legato tenor. “Wing thought I’d lose myself in this imagined shithole, and the fool who cast it into existence thought I’d be contained.

“But I figured it out! I figured it out while in the shackles of my captivity! When you abandoned me, when you counted me out, I ascended to what I am now. I have what I want, and I killed the one pony with the brilliance to oppose me. The only thing left for me to do is to show my brilliance to the rest of world. Eggs are meant to be broken! And my dreams make whispers of bigger things…”

The celestial reach of the pinpricks above gently brushed the depths of the Ocean of Nightmare. The deep-sea wasteland lingered ominously in a discordant grey that swept away the simplest notion of normal life. Yet there, in the midst of the barren expanse, a single creature slithered around the still lavender form of a pegasus body. He alone had driven away the greedy seekers of fortune – those void masses that crawled and clawed towards a spoil of war.

“Wonderful weather this time of year, wouldn’t you say?” the draconequus spoke, unaffected by the presence of the supernatural ether. His talons snapped to summon a glass of chocolate milk, a pink beach umbrella, and a matching folding chair into which he immediately settled. “Not even a chuckle, Wing? I know it’s the offseason, but seriously, what’s wrong? Stiff upper lip?” He batted his paw to the audience of the peculiarly glowing crimson night. “I jest! I assure you.

“See, believe it or not, I really don’t like war. Isn’t that a sur-prise!? The Lord of Chaos despises the one thing ponies consider to be the most evil – most chaotic – most deranged – absolutely most horrible thing in the entire world! Don’t get me wrong! There’s nothing more amusing than sending all you fascinating, little equines scurrying about with a ruse. Harmless, mind you; I am reformed after all. But! If your obnoxiously dull friend up there has his way, he’ll be spreading that icky, disgusting mockery of my work all over the place, and I just can’t have that.

“Yes, I’m afraid I don’t par-tic-u-lar-ly care for that griffon, and I expect that he’ll soon break out of that one stallion’s – oh so amusing magic. Can you just imagine what would happen if he succeeds in wasting explosions on… uughhh… preset maneuvers? You also know how the princesses will react. They’ll fly in, too late, with their powers blazing while the nerdy one ponders the best way to use… friendship… to conquer a mad griffon. How will I ever crash Celestia’s en-chant-ing parties if the parties are all taken away by that insufferable Lichlos fellow?

“Do you see, Wing? I hate war because it takes the things that I find most fun and makes them into things most miserable. I even considered intervening directly for a change, but then I discovered something that simply necessitated our little ocean-in picnic. I hope you appreciate the absolutely huge favor I’m doing for Equestria by coming here. But then again, you’ve already given me something in return that is just oh so delightful.” His pitch practically scaled an octave through the final two words as his orange and yellow eyes traced the curls of darkened corruption that meandered over hoof and leg.

He rolled from the chair and banished his vacation assortment before settling a step above his target. “You’re one of those dreadful scientists, so even you can wrap your tiny brain around this. Chaos comes from choices. The more we have, the more potential I have to create fun, and you are currently sitting upon one of those choices that makes you a Picard to my Q. Well, that’s a lie. That honor is exclusively reserved for Alicorn Princess Twi-light Spar-kle, but for a half-dead pegasus, you...”

Discord paused as a compression wave tumbled along his coat and scales, and he responded by releasing an exaggerated sigh. “Can you believe that!? I’m trying to carry on an important conversation here and he goes and interrupts me by breaking that stupendous dreamshell. Rude! Perhaps I could curse him with an entire afternoon in the presence of Rarity. Wouldn’t that be grand?

“Now, where was I? Oh yes! When I said half-dead, I meant it. Sadly,” he spoke as false tears somehow fell while the draconequus was submerged, “I don’t have the ability to go into that mind of yours like Prin-cess Luna can. All I can do is foalsit you to make sure that those nasty little roots don’t have the energy to make it to that wondrous little barrier of yours.” He gestured with his paw, wiping from existence the tattered fibers of Wonderbolt uniform that cluttered his view.

He looked past the shattered shell that still dangled upon its chain and peered upon the luminescent arcs of laser lemon light that crept through tufts of tattered lavender fur. The unusual barrier had hurriedly sewn together the wound that had opened like a knife’s blade towards the heart. “My little pony, you have no idea how lucky you are yet, but suffice it to say that this love thing you’re all soooo into seems to have held you back from the brink.

“Though, have I ever told you about my love for children? They always think up the craziest things, and it was their sweet cacophony that inevitably set me free from that wretched stone prison. Without their inspiration, where would I be? Who would find joy in all those things that I do in the name of entertainment? Then again, what do I care if some pony finds my efforts interesting? It’s not as though they did before, but Fluttershy always says that I should embrace these feelings with open hooves – talons – paws…

“Ohhh dear, I seem to have gone and gotten off-topic again. How silly of me. The point I was getting at is that you, as it just-so-happens, are extraordinarily…” Discord let out an annoyed moan through his snout as strands of Trigger’s energy began to wrap around Resolve. The sword still remained affixed to its wielder, and the agitated draconequus made sure it would stay that way. He flicked his tail, flinging the white wisps of its tip over the blade to effectively remove the stallion’s magical presence.

“What is with these exceptionally rude creatures today? That shiny thing is going to be needed here! Is that such a hard concept to understand? I don’t like having my kindness lampooned and interrupted. And before you get any ideas about my cleaning skills, I still don’t do windows. As I was saying before your… companion… decided to put his thaums where they don’t belong, you are an extraordinarily lucky pony. While I don’t have the power to extract what’s left of your mind from the nightmare, a particular set of fillies and colts whom you saved are a bit more experienced in this craft than I.

“Oh, I wish I could see into what’s going on inside that head of yours. I bet it’s a feast of calamity fit for the ages. Your little friends will be here soon though, so instead of fretting about what could have been, I’ll leave you some advice for what is going to be.” The playfulness in Discord’s voice evaporated as he pushed his head closer to a motionless ear. “Like the cover of one of Sparkle’s books, the you that emerges from this place will be both a beginning and an end. It will be up to you to choose which path you decide to see. Don’t let me down…

“Besides,” he continued as the squeaky glee of a foal returned to his timbre, “this whole ordeal could leave us with yet another unneeded alicorn princess, and to be honest, I think you’d look just smashing in a coronation dress. Think of the business it could bring to your sister’s flower shop if she got to decorate.” He turned to meet the rolling lilac irides of a silver-maned filly. “Isn’t that right, Daughter of Dream? Or is good old Uncle Discord allowed to call you Midnight Star?”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 26 - Thy Kingdom Come, Part Two

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Barrier’s head immediately swung to Trigger the instant a fiery flare burst through the dreamshell. The captain gazed upon the heaving stallion in the seconds that followed, and concern flirted with his countenance as it became apparent that the creature of reverie would be unable to repair a spell of that magnitude.

Cracks extended along the darkened surface from the blast, battling against the searing arcs of magic that flung off the pony’s horn. “Tolerance, six shots,” Trigger grunted as his body buckled to the pain that shot down his spine. He bit into his lip, drawing blood as he fought to maintain the structure as long as he could. He gulped down some air and promptly groaned, “Shit definitely went wrong…”

“You’re taxed, Trigs.” The stallion gestured towards the blue-tinted shield that protected the city and the Alton. “If the tolerance is six shots, then I’m going to have my hooves full if you’re not back at a hundred percent. Just kill it.”

The feel of Amora’s magic tingled along his coat as the dreamshell began to disintegrate. The sound of squawking griffons tugged at his ears before the alabaster unicorn plunged into him. “Lock onto him now! Bring him back!” Tears fell over her muzzle as she peered into his wide-eyed expression, and in that instant, realization swept through Trigger’s mind like a dredge through a river.

His gaze darted as he tried to find that familiar signature, but there was not a trace to be found. As the search grew ever more frantic, exhaustion crept upon the officer as it drifted through strained muscles and tired bones until he finally huffed, “Ams, what happened?”

The mare just shook her head slowly and pressed farther into the hairs of the stallion’s fur. She wanted to answer, but the more she thought about the words she had to say, the more aware of the agonizing hitches riding up her throat she became.

“Wing took a shot to the chest,” Twyst’s answer came as his hooves landed atop the art deco building. The statement drove Wick and D.H. to look away as they hovered, while Mozy’s mouth hung in disbelief as she stood beside Azure and Artemis. “I don’t know…”

“This isn’t the time to be joking around!” Trigger’s shout pierced the ranks, ruffling even the griffons’ feathers. “Where the fuck is Wing?” He shifted his head through Amora’s mane as he scanned for the slightest semblance of sanity amongst the faces. Each one met his fiery glare with a downtrodden grimace that dribbled whispers of truth, death, and corruption to his mind’s ear.

“We don’t know what happened,” Wick’s voice rose above the silence. “He had just gotten back from dealing with the primary. The griffons starting dying en masse, the ship crumpled up, and Conrad started using what appeared to be high-level magic. He forged Wing’s guns from the parts of his own vessel, Trigger. It was out of the blue. There was nothing we could do. I think the target became a…”

“Shut up,” he growled. His heart raced to a quickening cadence as his gaze swiveled towards the cloud of debris that emerged from behind his failed barrier. “That son of a bitch tainted my reverie.” His body shook before the clinging medic as a violent spark of energy erupted from the tip of his horn. “That son of a bitch… made me a damn fool.” Cracks popped along his jawline as his teeth mashed into one another furiously.

Water began to pool beneath Mozy’s glistening yellow irides. She had been staring at the quiet pair of griffons she had agreed to protect, but the weight of guilt that tugged at her quivering lips spoke volumes. She could not crack a joke this time, and as she peered slightly downwards to look upon Trigger’s quaking frame, she saw fractures in his demeanor that she had never seen before. “Trigsy...”

“I said shut the buck up!” Trigger roared as he studied and cursed the magical tides swirling around the floating Conrad. “How am I going to explain this shit to Ambrosia? How am I going to look her in the eye now? How am I going to explain that shit to anyone? How am I going to explain it to any of ya? I had one task, and I failed… Ya already called me on it, Ams. Ya said it yourself! So what am I going to do? I’m going to kill that piece of shit.”

He tuned out the grasp on his body, the objections, and the world as he pressed on past his limits. “I’ll find him… I’ll find him… I’ll find… it.” Focus vanished from his expression as his senses snared the glimpses of that imagined razor. “Resolve,” he whispered while placing every remaining bit of his reserves into summoning that sword. His pulse snapped to a beat that wanted nothing more than to drive that weapon through Conrad’s skull. It burned him, taunted him, beckoned him with the same strength of a massive snake constricting its prey.

And then it was gone. Resolve had rejected his call. It had taken all that he had left and denied him the chance to seek sweet, cold vengeance. Yet as he collapsed into Amora’s embrace, he could not help but smile to the gritty breeze that serenaded the mare’s ear before he fell into unconsciousness. “Resolve is still active.”

Conrad inquisitively stared at his talons as he flexed them. The sights of Manehattan had returned into view after he pummeled that ridiculous unicorn filth with a few of his test volleys, yet he still heard those beautiful, whimsical murmurs lingering inside his head despite the change in scenery. He had done something no griffon had ever managed to achieve, and the power that coursed through his veins told tales of dreams long ago corrupted by the nightmare.

“All of my hopes and aspirations rest within me now. All of the naysayers and all of the fears can rot! All of the traitors and their bed makers can tremble before what I have become. I am a griffon! And I have magic! I can do more than that. We can do much more. Plunge into night those who scorned our destiny. Plunge into eternal darkness the losers of our game...

The fragments of the Albatross once again assembled into the gigantic cannon that Lichlos had used to unload the first salvo of his fanfare. It glimmered in the rays of Celestia’s mocking light as the beast yielded his worldly limits to the tantibus that simmered beneath his feathers and fur. “Why don’t we start with you?”

He laughed hysterically as the dreadful snarl of iron, tech, and raw magic titled to face the FHW Alton. The soldiers of the Northern Kingdom braced themselves behind the protection of Magic Barrier’s impressive shield, and their feathers shifted to the growing terror that made them curl into defensive postures.

“What in Tartarus happened to their ship?” Silent exclaimed as he hopped towards one of the Alton’s windows. His frame stiffened and his mouth gaped as he peered at the churning cluster of debris. “What happened… to everyone?”

Other griffons on the bridge faced forward with similar looks of disbelief. The incredible aura of Trigger’s marvel had been enough to drive the initial Cry charge back from the threshold of war, but the ghastly image that had taken its place sent limbs twitching atop their respective metal platforms.

Spotters steeled their anxious nerves to cast their keen, binocular-enhanced eyes across the cityscape while the duke apprehensively fiddled with his talons. “Your Excellency!” one shouted. “One target sighted in wreckage. Visibility compromised, but it's likely the captain.” There was a long pause as the lenses shifted over the skyline. “Additional griffon force located above the Port Authority Building! Talons! 10% cap estimate, with ponies, and… and… I believe the package is with them, sir.”

“Motion in the debris cloud!” another called as the iron sheets bent to reassemble Conrad’s weapon. A flickering ball of bright blue came into view as the cylinder pitched into its threatening alignment.

“Cast off!” the duke roared before the crack of the first shot pounded against Magic's barrier. Griffons jumped as the thunderous snap echoed through the Alton’s corridors. Prompting a chorus of short gasps, heat surprisingly spiked through the protective bubble and spread through the glass to the crew. “Praise Aurum…”

The noble pressed his claws against the glimmering sill and collected himself. “Listen up!” he ordered. “Flight teams, go with Lieutenant Knight and do what you can to assist the ponies. Round up those deployed and make sure they stay out of the range of that thing until otherwise ordered. If the opportunity arises, confirm the safety of Earl Stoutheart.

“Deck teams, we do not know how long that unicorn magic is going to hold, and I do not want our beloved ship to be known as the thing that fell on Manehattan. Take us out over the water and get us moving at top speed. That bastard wants to make us a target? Well, a stationary target is a dead one.”

Amora inhaled sharply and flicked her ears as Trigger’s whisper meandered to her mind. She lowered the unconscious stallion to the floor as the rising tide of a smile lifted the corners of her lips, and she could not help but repeat the words he had spoken. “Resolve is still active.” Turning to face Wick and Defiant, she paused for a moment before the notes spilled from her lungs once more. “Resolve is still active!”

A gasp rushed through the ranks as Conrad’s first strike careened into Barrier’s shield. “Buck!” the stallion groaned as the impact pushed his defensive talents. “I’ve got maybe five of those left in me! Get me some damn backup! Wrangle in any unicorns you can!” His stare drifted to the resting Trigger. “We need to call in the princess. She’s the only one equipped to deal with this, so somepony send the damn call!”

The pegasi rubbed the tears from their eyes. Each of them knew the meaning behind Trigger’s declaration, and each of them realized that there was plenty of work to be done. “Hang in there, Captain,” Wick responded. “Amora, what’s the timescale for Reckoning?”

The mare shook her head. “It won’t work on him. The best I can do is cast an AoE to buffer against the sniping he did in the shell. I’ve never seen anything like that before, but the sickening signature was at least clear. I should be able to suppress it in a continuous space.”

“Good, we can’t rely on Magic Barrier indefinitely. Send the word to Luna, then cast the AoE and hold the fort here.” Wick snapped his head towards Mosaic Breeze and continued. “Get over to Luna’s Guard and brief 'em. We have to put some noise in front of that psycho. All unicorns are ordered to help strengthen the shield. Earth ponies are on citizen roundup. All fliers are going in as soon as Amora’s spell is in place.”

“What about us?” Azure spoke up once Mozy bolted northward. The griffon’s crimson glare met the stallion’s equally piercing red eyes, and her sky-colored feathers spread to the invisible flames of her sweltering pride.

“Two options: I say that this is now an Equestrian affair and that it’d be best if you all stay back, or I come to the conclusion that that interpretation is bullshit and promptly remind you that I said, ‘All fliers.’”

Conrad scowled through his state of reflection. The energy of his electrical inferno had dissipated, and for several moments, he was left gazing at the Alton and its scrambling crew. The ship appeared unscathed by the brunt of the attack, for the luminescent obstacle that stood in his way proved to be quite the reverberating nuisance. “So you’re on the move,” the griffon remarked as the airship departed its quay. “Do you think I don’t understand what you’re up to?” His emphatic shout echoed off the skyscrapers.

“Do you think nobility will get you anywhere, Duke? Look at it where it got the great peacekeeper. If only you were there to see me put him in his grave! Well, maybe I’ll be a benevolent creature and show you the same sweet, magical mercy.” A malicious grin separated the halves of his beak before Lichlos jerked his head to the east.

The cannon whirred to its master’s command. The massive bulk pivoted to follow the path of the vessel as it slipped over the ocean. “I’ll play your game,” he wailed as another torrent of maddening current slammed into Magic Barrier’s persisting menace. The titanic cylinder began to rotate, flinging loose bolts and scraps into arms of debris that floated about in Conrad’s mental grasp.

“Shields don’t last forever! They break, crumble, fade, and crack all before drifting off into the forlorn clutches of the forgotten!” Remember us. Remember us. The night… The voices softened as the influence of Amora’s field swept over all he could see. He cringed, curling his talons as the third jet of vibrant plasma erupted from the cannon. “I don’t give a shit about you pathetic ponies yet! Stay out of our way!”

“Maybe you should,” Defiant’s stern response rose over the thunder as he and Wick circled the griffon at top speed. The hallmark shock waves of rainboom threshold manipulation spiraled behind the pegasus equines. Darkened clouds condensed in the streams, and the duo rolled to launch serrated daggers of light from the other’s trail.

Iron rods sprung from the large weapon to surround Lichlos in a cage that negated the strike. The pestering drone of approaching pegasi grew louder, and the sound of snapping bolts from griffon weapons panged off the strengthening barricade while Conrad festered within his assembling bunker. “You imbeciles!” he roared as his fortress shook to a third turbulent flow that breathed in Mosaic’s wake. “Why must you persist in the face of my absolute victory?

They don’t respect our power. They’ve never respected our power.” The staccato accents of his race’s own ammunition sent popping sneers from his beak and tongue. He dealt with that problem swiftly, but he still shuddered when the metallic sheets rang to a cascade of repeated lightning strikes. Screams of infuriation quickly followed as the notion that he had to dismantle his grand weapon for the sake of self-preservation gained an ever more prominent clawhold in his mind. He had to maintain his dominion.

Conrad huffed as a haunting glow dripped from his emerald eyes. The tendrils of dark magic expanded to the inner wall of his enclave, and he quaked while the sirens in his head yearned to snatch more minds from the bastions of illumination that lurked outside. “We can’t take them,” the griffon hissed in a dreadful, phase shifting tone. “I want them. I want all of them. And if I can’t make them mine, then I will kill them off until those that remain accept my divine truth.” The night will last…

A deep breath filled his lungs in the seconds that followed. Relief pumped through his veins as the large onslaught felt utterly insignificant against the cosmos that extended from his acquired darkness. “You surprised me with your counterattack,” he continued with a regained sense of calm and purpose, “but this game is over.” He thrust his talons outward and snickered as a cluster of gun barrels sprouted on the exterior of his stronghold.

“I’m going to tear you all to bloody shreds! I’m going to rip down the blasphemy of your sorcery and eradicate the stain constricting my will! You will all grovel before my kingdom or die at the edge of my veracity! For my night will last forever!”

“Griffs! Hold your fire!” Wick barked as soon as he noticed Cry and Talon shots alike getting absorbed into the growing constellation of parts under Conrad’s control. “House Guard, give us some damn clouds! D, Mozy, cascade chain!” Determination raked the stallion’s countenance as he watched Mosaic Breeze scoop upwards after her turbulent flyby of the underside of the bastion. He darted around the pieces of wreckage at an astounding pace, using the power of his flight to paint a clean wedge of air around his stormy wake.

“Copy,” the other DarkOps pegasi responded in near synchronicity. They arced outward, blazing a pair of cloud trails to join the numerous tufts the House Guard placed on command. A few of the griffons obeyed the orders as well, utilizing their own brand of weather manipulation to add to the building arsenal.

“Three… two… one… spark!” Wick, D.H., and Mozy slammed both forehooves into their jets, setting off three forking flashes that burned through the assortment of clouds until a plethora of sparks bombarded the hovering stronghold. Bits of metal vaporized and melted globs fell into the ocean below, but the jaw-dropping attack could not outpace the regenerative summoning of Gänse’s magic.

“Bucking shit,” Mozy exhaled incredulously. She pitched away from the target and slid in next to the agitated Wick. Her commander’s expression showed the wounds of defeat – though he tried to hide it behind his firmly taut lips. They had unloaded one of the most devastating maneuvers in the DarkOps repertoire, and it made negligible headway.

Eyes went wide as hundreds of barrels grew like flower stems from the diverse grains of the marred surface. “Get back,” Defiant howled the instant he recognized what Lichlos was doing.

They were all blind. In the midst of their fray, no one caught the glimmer of Luna’s magic joining Barrier’s mighty shield. In the midst of thunder cracks and war cries, no one noticed the chorus that had erupted from the foals of Manehattan. No one caught their conductors, the San Palomino Nine, as they took their positions upon the water’s edge.

Those who had dared to venture over the ocean to come to blows with the lightless missed the motions of the moon as it defied its wielder to slide before the sun, and they most certainly missed the gateway to nightmare that blossomed in the penumbra at the behest of the youngster’s horns. Only those on shore caught the summoning of the Revelation Dreamshell and the first glimpses of the gunmetal Equestrian battleship that surfaced from its blackened depths.

Two sixteen-inch guns were mounted on a turret that sat in front of the ship’s control tower. The Flag of the Two Sisters flew proudly from its mast, and the vibrant white designation of ERN Phoenix Star glistened brightly upon the hull. I would make sure that history came to remember that moniker, the vessel’s crew… and its colonel. I would make damn sure that at least one of them remembered its colonel.

“Sir! R-type shells loaded into main!” a pony wailed through one of the Phoenix’s voicepipes. The info emerged in an echo-riddled garble that managed to make sense to my well-adjusted ears. “Allies in vicinity of target, Colonel. Awaiting orders.”

“Tactical, did you forget how to bucking aim!?” I roared back at the lieutenant after cocking my head towards the awaiting funnel. My forehooves were already itching for action, for the two swords resting before me beckoned for both vengeance and salvation. Months had been spent waiting for the moment – this day – when I would finally see his home city once again, and Resolve, in particular, seemed to shimmer through the anticipation.

I waited for his affirmative to drift back through the tube before I took a step forward and grasped my blades. Those on the bridge glanced at me with mixed emotions spanning the entire spectrum from hope to fear. The latter held no place. I had prepared for this. I had trained for it. I had spent all that time completing those unfinished demons of Equestria’s youth so they could operate this craft. The Ocean of Nightmare itself had returned me to finish this one last job, and with the gift of my second razor, I would do it. I would relieve the anger and hatred that spurred a hideously malignant aura from the corners of my eyes. I would end it all.

“Then quit your damn bitching and blow that Luna-fucked grifftrash out of my fucking sky!”

A Game of Darkness - Installment 27 - A Nightmare's Reverie, Part One

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“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Barrier wailed as the energy of Conrad’s weapon slammed against his shield. Twyst had at least taken some of the load off his aching body, but the decorated captain was still putting his cards in DarkOps, Nighty, or Trigger dropping some trump out of the unfathomably stacked deck. The Maverick had claimed a bit of a reprieve after the first shot, but it became clear from the whirring cannon in the distance that Conrad was not willing to retain his patience.

“We have to keep going,” Amora spoke suddenly beneath the glow of her own horn. She watched as her comrades began to race towards the skies of battle, and she dumped all of her focus into keeping them safe with her protective spell. “Come home,” she whispered while watching the trails pour from the streaking bodies of her pegasi companions. “I don’t want to watch another…”

A flagrant spark blazed a rebellious and painful path through Barrier’s coat and mane. “Buck Luna!” he cursed, damning the renegade arc after his armor endured yet another attack. “C’mon! Just hurry up and get that asshat off my shield!” His teeth mashed against one another. His jaw tightened more and more with every second that passed, and his muscles trembled with the rising tension that begged for some sweet release.

The roar of the House Guard and Eagle forces coaxed his ears as they joined the frontlines, and Magic held a bated breath while he wondered if the maneuvers would succeed in giving him exactly what he needed. The audible cadence of conflict swelled to the faded echoes of contorted Wonderbolt jet streams, and the hushed murmur of hurled arrows popped against the calamity that Lichlos manipulated. For a moment, it appeared as though Wick and Defiant had their enemy on the run. For an instant, it seemed as if they had truly put Conrad on the ropes. For a second…

Jolts rode down the trio’s spines. The sizzle of teleportation magic cracked atop the deco spire, and Luna emerged from her cosmic aura along with the scowling Autumn Tea. The latter barreled into Trigger’s midnight coat faster than Luna’s light could join the shield that defended the city, and her whispered words carried a harsh bite that the others could clearly hear. “Get the buck up, stallion.”

“We came as soon as we could,” Princess Luna spoke over the quiet declaration. She assessed the state of affairs, and a frown formed upon her muzzle as she let her eyes follow Tea’s path to Trigger’s unmoving body. “It must be true…” she muttered. The feel of Amora’s spell – one that repressed the powers of a tantibus – finally crept into her awareness, but beneath it, she could still sense the ripples of nightmare that meandered about the inner confines of her mind, leaving little left to the imagination. “And what of Sir Wing?”

“Wing’s M.I.A., Your Highness. Presumed dead, but… Trigger was unable to summon Resolve.” Quick and concise, the response snapped from the captain’s tongue, producing added layers of grief upon both Tea’s and Luna’s expressions.

“We see.” She took a short breath and spent a moment in reflection. The thought that more of her own had died in the line of duty tugged at her eyelids and stiffened her lips. Each of the little ones in her presence had a connection to this loss, and they were all being propped by that one glimmer of hope that shone through the darkness. “This explains a lot to us the events which have transpired here. We will do whatever we can to assist. Lady Tea, if thou would please continue thine efforts to awaken our knight of dream, we would show our gratitude.”

She nodded and ran her hoof against the base of his argent mane before giving the hairs a jerking pull. “Did you hear that, handsome? Princess Luna’s calling your name, and only a bitch sleeps on the job. It might just make up for you neglecting to bring me along on this one.” The mare released her hold as groans dribbled from his lungs, and she was about to roll him over when the chilling sounds of a hummed nursery rhyme crawled through the air from all directions.

“The buck is that?” Twyst blurted before Luna raised her forehoof. Jagged contours redefined the typically smooth edges of her ethereal mane, and the hairs on her legs stood on end as though an icy wind had frozen her to the bone. “Hey, you alright?” the stallion questioned after cocking his head to the side.

In silence, Luna walked to the edge of the roof and peered down upon the waterfront. Glistening lines and thaumic bands arced through the streets below to the shore. Their pink glows carried with them the vibrant energy of youth, and only she seemed to capture the bigger picture of what was transpiring.

The unbridled power of the innocent was being harnessed before her very eyes. It congregated in nine spots along the ocean’s edge, and the darkened figures of colts and fillies stood out beneath the dancing lights. The song grew louder, and the Princess of the Night could feel the ironclad hold upon her heavenly body slipping as the moon crested the horizon at the behest of Manehattan’s foals.

The San Palomino Nine had gathered to repay their debts, and they had brought the city’s children with them. They had come to confront the terror that plagued them – history and all – and they would not be denied the keeper they had selected. Along with her unicorn companions, Luna’s head turned upwards as the shining silvery orb slid into place over the sun. Shock seeped into her chest as a widened gaze absorbed the wonders of that lunar penumbra.

Midnight Star’s power erupted in the shadow, sweeping out across the sea to replace the salty waters with the black-pitched Ocean of Nightmare. From her dreamshell, an Equestrian flag emerged through the depths. It was perched atop the mast of a mighty ship, one that opened the mouths of those who had happened to greet it, one that revealed to the masses the breadth of dream, and one that carried guns – his guns – my guns.

Trigger had not stirred, but his amber glare pierced the walls of the Port Authority along with the bridge plating of the Phoenix Star. The conflicting pulls of nightmare and reverie yanked at the heartstrings of his senses. “What the buck did ya do?”

Pegasi and griffons stumbled as two garnet bolts slammed into Conrad’s barricade. The thaumic arcs ripped through the barrels of the griffon’s charging weapons and stripped the metal fragments from the nightmare’s hold. Shards plunged into the waiting waves as the bluish sparks that had seeded each cannon were snuffed by the oppressive counterassault. As the haunting reddish glow fell upon the allied defense force, the fliers momentarily lost their abilities to stay airborne. The shots had also stolen their magical connections to the skies, and while the skills were returned soon enough, stunned demeanors remained plastered upon their faces as I darted along the firing path.

Kill him, was all I could think as I lifted the transparent crystalline broadsword with my right forehoof. Long strands of my black mane, unrestrained by the colonel’s cap atop my head, caught the wind as I flapped my wings as hard as I could. Kill him. The voice grew more dominant as I slipped into the gap my guns had torn through Amora’s spell, and the anger that came with that whisper sent the stripes of shadow painted upon my coat slithering beneath the faux-leather vest draped over my back.

I blew by the shell-shocked guards and thrust the razor known as Revenir deep into the floating steel layers. Much like the R-type rounds that borrowed her name, Revenir was capable of absorbing magic from whatever it cut. “Get out here, you son of a bitch!” I wailed as the scraps peeled away from Conrad’s control. “Get out here and atone for your failures!” Kill him.

“Wing!” Mosaic Breeze’s pitched squeal pinned my ears back before I snapped my head to the side. Wishful excitement had wiped the dismay from at least her face, and her feathers fanned wide as they blindly strained for a thrill of hope that was nothing more than a distraction.

“No pony has called me by that name for months, and no pony should.” My response practically drained the life from her muzzle as confusion grabbed the reins of her mind.

“What are you talking about, Wing?” Defiant shouted after regaining his wits. He still panted from the heat of battle, and his expression shifted into a perplexed state that tucked one of the corners of his lips and sculpted his brow.

He had always given himself so willingly for the sake of others. But he hadn’t come for me... I scowled. My left foreleg trembled, and my pulse aggravated a burning sensation that lingered in the limb. A lightless veil dripped from that hoof to seclude Resolve’s silver sheen once it succumbed to the dusky dread that fed upon the darkness of my thoughts. “That name belonged to a pony who still clung to compassion. I am not that fuckin’ pony.”

Wisps of shade billowed from the corners of my eyes, and I swiped at the griffon’s pathetic fortress. A thin crescent of nightmare sprang from the transformed blade. Tiers of iron snapped to the strike and popped in succession with a shrill that mimicked the overdriven wails of a guitar’s anthem. The crumpled remains of the Albatross broke away, and in the dusk of my eclipse, Lichlos emerged from his false coffin for a proper burial.

The instant the gap was large enough, I launched forward. The sounds of his astounded cries met my ears as I flew through the wreckage and cut down what dared get in my path. His power exploded into frantic snarls that gripped onto whatever could be controlled. His imagination conscripted the guns of my ingenuity in a pitiful attempt to finish the job, but each demonstration willed my leg to drive Revenir through every abomination he shaped.

I could practically feel the blood pump to my skull as I hacked my way through the evolving labyrinth until I caught sight of those damned emerald irides. “What’s the matter, Conny? Not used to seeing ghosts?” Another edge of maligned reverie leapt from Resolve as I slashed at the griffon.

He lurched to the side, dodging the attack before it sliced through the heavens. His gaze swiftly wandered over my form, and even the aura of his own tantibus quivered as he traced the maze etched upon my body. The calculations finally caught up with him. “You’re!”

“I’m here to kill you,” I interrupted in a flat tone. Debris was hurled aside as my wings tossed me through the dilapidated sanctuary. Lichlos scrambled to the west, pushing away from the remnants of his vessel as his bastardized magic coalesced into a blackened blade meant to oppose Resolve. Kill him, the shadow spoke with a bit of eagerness that made the corners of my lips curl skyward.

He swung his saber as I approached, and we grunted in unison when our unworldly weapons collided. My other leg pitched the point of Revenir towards the griffon’s neck, but the able fencer gained a few wingspans of separation with a well-timed retreat. We had met under the banners of technology and progress, and yet now, we marched forth embracing the most primal natures of combat. We had shed the baggage of our history to pick up the razors of our shattered dreams, and I could think of nothing more fitting or appealing.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” I roared as I charged again. “You wanted the me that would play your dumbass little games.” He backpedaled through the skies, desperately trying to regain some distance as I continued the pattern. Slash with Resolve. Jab with Revenir. Slash with Resolve. Jab with Revenir.

“I got what I wanted! And there is no way I’m going to let you take it from me, Wing!” His talons clutched the hilt, and he struck back with force. “I have the power to take away the sun! I have the power to transcend even alicorn magic! I have what your miserable species denied my race, and I can make Equestria see that it is not infallible!”

Laughter drowned out the crackling arcs that rushed from the locked swords. The sinister essence that had come for me finally overwhelmed the lingering resistance of the heart to flow freely. “You think that’s you?” I threw one of my hind legs back, collecting the moisture off the sea air before condensing it into a stormy tuft. “You think that’s your doing, you arrogant shit? My name is Atomic Caliber! And that eclipse is mine!”

I flew back sharply and thrust the toting rear limb forward as my wings carried the rest of my body behind the cloud shot. Lightning, stoked by the full inferno of my dark magic, burrowed into the griffon and chucked him to the deck of my battleship. He squawked and squealed as he descended, and the harsh scent of burnt feathers drifted from the start of his trail to my muzzle.

My grin stretched when I arched my back and descended rapidly. The Albatross had finally failed Conrad. Its chorus of metallic rainfall serenaded my ears atop the hushed murmurs of Equestria’s defenders. The perfect opus to our endgame played for the moment. It played in homage to the series of checks and counters that had spanned our ages.

The griffon recovered in time to land relatively gracefully atop the Phoenix Star. He rolled across the platform and threw his paws into the floor while a single talon raked the surface for leverage. I would have rather watched him splatter and break, but my strike had served its purpose. It had done enough damage. It had brought retribution. “Nowhere left to run, Conny! Charred primaries don’t do fucking much for flight.”

He snarled and pressed the two halves of his beak while raising his sword to meet the pending blow. I had prepared him for it. I had trained him like the misguided fool he was. Slash with Resolve. Jab with Revenir. I had taught him how to defend against my sword of dream. I had allowed him to flirt with Resolve. But this time, the pieces on the board would be changed. Slash with Revenir…

The crimson blade bit into the manifestation of his magic. It fed upon the desire that coursed through my veins and tore through the weapon as though it had not existed at all. The edge continued downward, ripping into Conrad’s shoulder to the accompaniment of snapping bones and jarring screams. My laughter roared from my penumbra as my free forehoof guided the other sharpened brand towards his throat.

I had struck him with the relic that robs magic from whatever it cuts. “You called me to play a match, Lichlos. Allow me to show you a little veracity. Checkmate.

A Game of Darkness - Installment 28 - A Nightmare's Reverie, Part Two

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“Checkmate.” Blood leached from Conrad’s wound as I readied Resolve for the fatal strike. The griffon’s brow had lifted from the load of his shock. Denial gripped his dilated pupils, and the tendrils of nightmare that had infected his body disappeared into the salvation offered by Revenir.

“What did you do?” Lichlos squealed, his body hastily scouring for the powers I had removed. “What did you do with it Wing? Where did it go!? What did you do!? What the fuck did you do to me, equine!?” His chest rose and fell to the rhythm of his last ride, and I could not help but smile at him in total and complete silence. My other hoof was already in motion, and soon enough I would gift that grifftrash the most appropriate send-off I could muster – a death without an answer.

A surge of magical energy flooded the deck of the Phoenix Star before the blur of moving metal shot into my field of vision. “What the buck do ya think you’re doing?” Trigger shouted as he ensnared the sweeping Resolve with Twyst’s scythe. “Ya can’t kill him like that, and ya damn well know it!” he grunted, leaning into Autumn Tea’s grasp while the loitering sparks of his teleportation spell dissipated from his horn. He clutched the scythe’s shaft out of sheer desperation, and the pained look painted upon his muzzle managed to tear my attention from the incapacitated Lichlos.

Trigger’s muscles sagged, and he struggled to stay upright despite his perch. His eyes, however, burned with the bright fires of unlost candor. They were the hallmarks of a stallion with a point to prove; a point emphasized by those that emerged from the clutches of his cast. Wick, Defiant, Mosaic, and Amora had all been summoned. Luna, herself, had followed, and her teal cores examined the midnight aura that cascaded from my frame through the mask of a guilty burden.

“Why did you stop me?” I blurted the instant I saw the princess open her mouth. I would have none of her long-winded, royal speeches. I would hear no lectures about her personal experiences. I had neither desire nor care to hear them, and the threads of shadow that flared from beneath the lining of my vest held no craving for her lunar light. “This is a matter between Conrad and me. It has always been between us, so I will make sure that it ends today. You should all know that! It’s why I didn’t let you come on the bucking ship in the first place, so why are you here!?”

“Because the eclipse is your doing!” Trigger retorted. “If ya kill him while still a tantibus, you’ll curse Equestria to an eternal night!”

I twitched the instant Conrad’s laughter hit my ears, and I instinctively pressed Revenir deeper into his shoulder to draw a cry from the depths of his lungs. The look of lost agony had vanished from his countenance. It had been replaced by a barely noticeable smile that conveyed a self-assured sense of superiority. “I win,” he coughed, lifting a talon to stroke the sword as he persisted. “I win anyway. Even after robbing me of my greatest treasure… with your… pathetic equine foolishness, I still win. I still win because you’ve become the you that I always saw.”

His joy continued to shine from behind the grimace inflicted by his injury, and he dared to rile my nerves even further. “Go on! Do it! Shove my words back down my throat by removing it! Kill me, and kill everyone with a slow, agonizing death! Or trot away like the pussy coward you became in Whynnyapolis. Either way, I win. I tasted it, Wing! I tasted it, and now I know it can be obtained. It’s the secret of the century – the discovery of the millennium! I’ll get it back, and then we can do our little thing all over again. Maybe next time I’ll let it get even more personal! Maybe next time I’ll even go after that little Ambrosia of yours and…”

Abruptly, the sounds of the griffon failed to reach my ears. Midnight Star, along with the other San Palomino Nine, had appeared behind me, and the unrepressed buzz of young unicorn magic curved along the filly’s spire. She had perturbed the natural flow of air around Gänse’s head. It was a mere parlor trick, a teasing ruse that generally ran its course before the end of elementary school, yet the application here seemed fitting. “Don’t listen to him, Uncle Wing. You were given a choice. It’s one that he doesn’t have. He doesn’t know you like we know you.”

“None of you know me,” I answered, afflicting shivers of sorrow as I blatantly ignored the statements of truth. “The pony you knew died here, and he died a long time ago – more than you can imagine. I wandered the Ocean of Nightmare alone for months, and then I wandered it with my crew for even longer. You may have known me, but you have no idea what I’ve become. You can say the name, but you have no idea what it means. Only one of you came for me. Only one! And that was after… everything.

“I hear them again, like I did when Laizzy… happened. I carry the weight again… just as I did as a colt. I was supposed to save everyone from the shadows, and now I am one. So tell me, what am I meant to do? What am I supposed to do now? I’m a pony displaced from his path! I’m a pony whose creed has been wrecked, and through it all I still hear your mantra. The only currency in war is life. That’s what you told me, Trigger! Those were your words! I battled my way back here just to finish the job, so tell me why I shouldn’t cash in on the currency that matters! Tell me why!”

I jolted at the feel of damp streaks running down the sides of my muzzle. The unicorn stepped forward and maintained his grip upon his staff until he was close enough to throw his leg around my nightmare-tainted body to rest against me. “I’m sorry,” he whispered after placing his lips near an ear. “I should have known. I should have come for ya myself.” He released his weapon and set his hoof atop mine. “I let ya down, Wing, and that’s always going to be on me.

“But c’mon, you’re still Wing. Ever since ya were little, ya had the gift of foresight. The bleeding chessmaster there thinks he’s got ya beat on a technicality, but we both thought about this shit back then – back when we confronted those wild things together. Your mind has always been tinkering. The consequences of reverie weren’t ignored.

“Ya asked if I knew what ya were meant to do now. The only pony who can answer that one is you, Kiddo, but I do know that Midnight Star is right. Ya were given a choice. I can feel it. It’s the one that rests here.” He touched his forehoof to my chest and peered into my eyes with the same fierce, concerned stare. “Don’t make shit for shit’s sake, Wing. We don’t have to deal with that. Just take a look around and remember. Remember what I told ya on the last night.”

The only currency in war is life… That was what he had told me all those years ago. That was what he had told me as we stood within the nightmarish ocean of our own making. We had finished them off. We had annihilated every last creature that had plagued my dreams. We had exorcised disharmony. In the dark, nopony will see my shame. In the dark, I won’t have to see the faces of those who abandoned me.

I found myself casting a sidelong glance at Wick. My limbs burned as though the straps of nightmare tightened their constrictive holds. He left me behind – left me to die. He watched as that bastard blew me away… and did nothing. He never shared a single ounce of… “Kindness…” A dagger ran through my heart at the uttered thought. Pictures flooded my memories, overwhelming my awareness with the images of a younger Wick shyly introducing himself and becoming my friend.

My head snapped to Defiant as my ears perked towards the sky. The only currency in war is life! I have to do it myself, and they won’t do it for me. Why am I going through this nonsense? Why haven’t I put my blade through that bastard’s neck? Why do I care about the night? Why do I care about the ones who deserted me? This one never gave us anything.

“That’s not true,” I muttered. “He volunteered all of that time back in flight school. He’s had my back every step of the way…” My muscles tensed as the sting creeping from those meandering wisps grew stronger. “He’s always been generous.”

No! They failed me, and I know it! My head swiveled until Mozy was lined up in my sights. She trembled as I studied her form, and I watched her give a cautious wave. My protégé doesn’t even know how to act in my presence any more. She fears me, and it’s all his fault. The only currency in war is life. Just get rid of him, and then maybe things will go back to the way they were, Wing. Just finish the job you were destined do. “But she won’t be able to laugh in the dark…”

Amora’s horn still radiated from the power of her repressive spell. Over the course of the last few minutes, she had gradually inched closer to me until I seriously believed that she would reach out for a hug of her own. Even your medic dumped you on the field, Wing! Why can’t you see it anymore? You’re letting them take away the power. You’re letting them do this to you. You’re letting her lie to you through her silence! The only currency in war is life.

A genuine smile crept onto my muzzle as warmth poured from my heart to confront the acidic tendrils of nightmare. “No, she’s patched my flank up more times than I can count because that’s what she does. She’s never lied to me about it either. Always honest – brutally so at times – that’s who she is…” I pulled back from Trigger’s crutch-driven hug and grinned at the wobbling stallion. “And you…”

He’s the creature of reverie who didn’t come for you! He’s the one who abandoned you when you needed him the most. I am your real freedom, Wing. I am your real salvation. I am the only one left that respects the currency that killed your unfinished woes. The only currency in war is life!

“Did we really map this out, Trigs?” I asked in a hushed tone before proceeding. “You’ve been my shield when there were no other ponies around. You’ve been this crazy voice of reason when the darkness seemed unbeatable. Once upon a time, in the midst of some mystical waters, a creature of reverie once turned to an exhausted colt before leaving a proverb for the ages. The only currency in war is life, but when it’s all said and done, the only thing that matters is having a friend at your side. And would you look at that, Loyalty? It seems I have many.”

Golden bands of uncorrupted love bled from my body as I pulled Revenir from Conrad’s shoulder. Tears fell freely from the corners of my eyes as my other shield – my wonderful flower – blossomed. It was through her pure magic that the truest piece of myself was salvaged from the wants and wishes of the id. Her spark combined with those of the other five to cleanse the nightmare, and the resulting horizon of friendship dawned upon Manehattan as the sun emerged from behind Luna’s moon.

We had won… with the greatest magic of all…

A Game of Darkness - Installment 29 - A Nightmare's Reverie, Part Three

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The princess had taken charge of restraining Lichlos and addressing his injuries after the members of DarkOps had collectively hurled themselves upon me. Through the multicolored forest of gathered fur, the essence of that regal face offered its greeting. Her grin was one that I would never forget, for the smooth curvature of her smile and that peeping, glimmering tooth reflected a subtle candlelight of rooted pride.

The giggles of the San Palomino Nine added a soprano flavor to the chorus of ponies that conquered my lavender coat. The young ones danced about the deck of the Phoenix Star, hurling their glee haphazardly about my ship without a care in the world – with the notable exception of Midnight. My little niece had not bothered to lower the barrier surrounding Conrad’s head. In fact, she sat stoically in his presence, watching as his flailing beak and rapid breathing produced vitriol that fell upon deaf ears. She waited with a coy smile and regarded the griffon’s rage-bent brow and futilely thrashing feathers with the same indifference that a mother would apply to a toddler in tantrum. She was definitely Trigger’s filly.

“Swag threads, Boss,” Mosaic quipped after pulling me from my thoughts with a quick slap to the brim of my cap. She slid along Trigger's flank, pressed her muzzle against my neck, and sighed. Her voice had cracked through even that simple phrase, and the quiver in her raspy tone sank into my memory. “You've already read how I feel,” she continued in a whisper, “but I’m not the one you have to worry about. I'm just thankful to have you back.”

I flinched the instant a hoof pressed firmly into my side. The time I had been lost to the nightmare had not dulled the effect or recognition of that touch. It was commanding, unyielding, and frankly, a bit terrifying – like most of the mares in my life when they wished to be. “Your core temperature is low. You’re barely able to stand up under your own power. Yes, I know when a hug pile is being used as a massive crutch for two equally moronic ponies, Colonel.”

The hairs around my neck stood upright to the bite placed in the title, and a seizing jerk of pain pulsed through my chest as Amora sniffled. I draped my wing over the mare’s back and curled the tip slightly until she scooted closer. My limbs burned to the rushes of blood pumped by an aching heart. I had let her down so utterly terribly. Every promise I had made as a colt had been tossed aside and trampled, and Celestia, if she knew. If any of them knew just how much…

“How long?” Trigger set my thoughts to the wind before I noticeably jerked in response. Of course he would know. I clung to silence for a few seconds, hoping beyond reason that the stallion would accept it as the answer. “Ya causally dropped that ya were gone for months when to us it had been a matter of minutes. Stop holding it in! That’s the type of crap that lets the nightmare take hold, and ya know it. So quit keeping it to yourself. How long did you wander the Ocean of Nightmare?”

My jaw clenched, and my legs quivered. For an instant, their warmth was gone, brushed aside by the icy gales of memories. My breath emerged in stuttered heaves, forcing Amora to considerably soften her firm posture. “Fifteen months.”

“Fifteen months?” The question practically crawled past Defiant’s lips. His hold on my midsection tightened, and he pushed his muzzle into my coat. “I’m sorry, Wing. I’m sorry you had to go through that alone.”

I shook my head immediately. “You shouldn’t be sorry. None of you should be sorry. I spent a long time stumbling blindly. I’m tired of stumbling, and I’m sorry for worrying you all. I’m sorry for breaking every promise. I was the one who went it alone the moment I chose to go to that hell-ship, but… I actually wasn’t alone for long.

“I was mad in the dark, corrupted by some twisted need to wait for you to come. It was like I was a foal again, sitting around just hoping my father would pat me on the back. Instead of doing something about it, I just let myself become devoured by those thoughts. I was just lucky that she was still looking out for me. I was lucky to find others that put up with what I became. The entire crew of this ship, every single one of them, reached me eventually; and if not for them, the light may have well gone out.”

I paused for the emerging buzz of Revenir’s vibrating edge. It pulled my attention as it shook in my grasp of its own magical accord – a gentle reminder that there was indeed some work still to be done.

“Uncle Wing needs to return that sword to its owner,” Midnight Star once again spoke with a timbre that outstretched her years. Her mane caught the wind of the sea after she turned to face the group, and her lilac cores glimmered with a contagious understanding that steadied the cluster of shocked ponies around me. “The power that griffon stole needs to be returned to the Ocean.”

“And what’s the plan for that?” Wick questioned. His tail flicked anxiously while his eyes shifted left and right. “I really hope it, in no way, involves Wing going back to where he was.”

“Would you all just wrap this up already!?” an agitated, exasperated voice dropped from the heavens. We all peered upwards just in time to observe the tornado of confetti that swirled about the draconequus. “I’m trying to celebrate, and you’re all just so very boring.” Discord vanished in a flash of light and reappeared in a coiling mass that sprawled over our backs. “I hate anticlimaxes – especially ones that come after something so excitingly delightful.

“You should have seen yourself, flying out of the clutches of death like a crazy pony. And then you did it! You made the choice…” His voice took a momentary detour through a rather sinister rasp. “The one I told you about when you were practically dead. You probably don’t even remember, but the kid does. She was there! She saw just how reformed I really am. And I’m trembling!” He paused to literally shake his body into separated pieces. “Trembling with excitement!

“But you can’t just be all lovey-dovey and not include everyone. I had to get in on the hug. Then there’s that special guest from beyond reality that hasn’t even been introduced yet. Don’t forget him! He might just be important. And this sword, brimming with a brand of chaos that a younger, more evil me might have been inclined to steal – Brand of chaos! Ha, get it!? – is just waiting for your next decision. You may wish to get on with it. The readers are getting restless.”

“Discord,” Luna hissed, “what claw dost thou have in this? Do not think of trying our patience either. We do not have the same affinity for your antics as our sister does.”

The draconequus gasped and rapidly pulled himself together. A sly grin coiled his countenance as he shot the princess a smug look. “My dear Princess Luna, I’m offended that you would accuse me off the bat. I went out of my way to keep one of your precious little ponies alive, but I’m afraid I can’t recall if I used a claw, paw, or hoof. It was just too incessantly boring in that horrendous place to commit every… little… detail to memory. Though, I will say that that icky griffon’s type of bedlam does not sit well with my interests, so I intervened. Of course, now I’m far more interested in hearing about Celestia’s affinity for my suave charm.”

The readers are getting restless? My mind churned over that one sentence for several seconds before I cleared the cobwebs from my head. There was always something nonsensical attached to the grains of truth Discord shared, but in this case, his less-than-subtle prod to move things along was thankfully heard loud and clear over the other ridiculous oddities. “We’ll have time for hugs and discussion later, but right now, there’s still something I need to take care of.”

“You are not going anywhere, stallion,” Amora chided immediately. Her muscles tensed and imposed their constructed wall upon my side.

“That won’t be a problem. We’re already where we need to be.” The scent of salt drifted through my nostrils as I took a deep breath, and the ponies around me fell silent before I screamed my order. “All hooves on deck!”

On command, the bolts securing the doors of the Phoenix Star popped. Dozens of ponies poured out of the ship, an event which evoked an immediate response from Trigger. The stallion stepped away with a renewed sense of vigor and lifted his head high. “Fifteen months,” he whispered as he glanced over the ranks in search of the revelation. “That’s what you were doing for fifteen months.” The hairs on his back shot upright as his volume spiked exponentially. “You finished all of them!”

“The heroes of Equestria’s future, with the exception of my gunner. He was a pretty unique find, and I’m assuming that one was Midnight Star’s doing.” I briefly gazed upon the filly. “He’s an older stallion than the rest, a bit grittier than the others too, and was the source... of my other form’s name. Honestly, I don’t think there is another creature of reverie I could leave this ship to or entrust with the endgame mission. Though, I’m pretty sure everypony will understand that decision once the lieutenant steps forward.”

“Lost the grumpiness already, I see.” A gruff voice meandered through the air as the claps of hoof upon steel marked the unicorn’s cadence. His pallid mane emerged from the sea of ponies like a whitecap riding the currents. A pair of amber eyes stood out against the backdrop of black fur, and a familiar seven-pointed star adorned the pony’s flank. “Good to see that you’re back to normal. Aura really suits ya better than the punk ass foal thing, but I guess I’m not really one to talk.”

Trigger stretched his hoof towards me and set it upon my shoulder. His stare did not waiver from the officer that stood before him, and his mouth hung open as his tactical brain went to work. “Ya redeemed Laizzy’s original? Ya found him – the one who started it all – the one that led to me.”

“Trigger, Tactical Caliber was the first to find me in the Ocean of Nightmare. I said there was a reason I didn't lose the light, and his presence was a big part of the reason. He put up with everything, even when I was in the deepest depths of my descent. There was always a connection near, and on day one, I still remembered your dream.”

“Quit speakin’ about me like I’m not right in front of ya,” the elder interrupted. “We’ve got shit to do, and you’re running your mouth like a politician with some red tape to cut. Buckin’ scientists. Luna bless your sister’s creative roots. Immediate results without the bullshit. Though...” He hesitated a moment as he scrutinized Trigger’s frame. “I’m glad I get to see this without being clouded by terror. You’ve grown up well, boy. Even with the little time I’ve had here, I can tell by your eyes that you’ve turned into the finest Caliber – my little SC.”

With determination plastered upon his face, the imposing stallion lifted his hoof, gestured at Autumn Tea, and released a formidable grunt. “Before I receive my final orders in this world, there is one bit of paternal business that I would like to deal with first. The two of ya need to knock off your around-the-bushes nonsense. Dreams are permeable, Dear, and Calibers always love a mare in uniform. It’s like they say, ‘Don’t buck around if ya could be buckin’.’”

Shades of red pierced Tea’s white coat, and even Trigger buckled from the verbal barrage. Neither of them knew what to say, which while not necessarily unusual for Tea, was a rare event for the stallion. “Tactical,” I finally ended the awkwardness myself, “might I remind you that there are children currently onboard?”

“Gosh, I can’t help but appreciate a new story of young love,” Discord wailed. “It always brings a tear to my left eye, though the right one isn’t much of a fan for sappy things.”

“Yeah, not helping.” I pushed forward through the congregation of Wonderbolts and surrendered Revenir to Tactical Caliber. “Please return it to Lady Verita. Lead this ship like the champion my sister dreamt you to be, and let Shady Cat know that the attack worked dreadfully. She’ll get a kick out of it.

“As for the rest of you, this is your ship too! You built it with me. You traveled through every tide to a different plane of existence for me. She’s yours to take back, and though we’ll be separated by a veil that even my beloved physics can barely comprehend, I hope you’ll never forget the goals we share. Those of the future put us here, so I ask that you’ll continue to defend them where I cannot. Should we meet again, I hope that we will all still be fighting for a better tomorrow.”

“Yes sir!” they responded in unison, though Tactical’s voice stood out amongst the chorus. His aged glare dug through my pupils as though he were searching for some last proverb of wisdom. Lady Verita, I do believe that upon my return, I will have the distinguished pleasure of informing ya that the storms of destiny have a decidedly unique kind of silver lining...

~Las Pegasus~

The chimes of the university’s five-minute bell might as well have pierced my eardrums. The dean had stuck me with a 9 AM lecture in the main hall, which made absolutely no sense for an undergraduate-level currents course. Even the big classes drew a hundred students at most, and the auditorium sat three times that. I was still in the process of rebuilding my home, and there was an eternity’s worth of paperwork to do regarding Ashen Mystic’s long-term rehabilitation program. I didn’t need a morning lecture. Frankly, the students did not need a 9 AM lecture either, though I was assured that it would be worth it. “What a load...”

“Calm down, Professor,” Mozy remarked after nudging my side. “You got blown away in a near cataclysmic event and played a role in establishing the most mind-blowing treaty this generation has seen. I think you can overcome a class at nine.”

I groaned and trudged up the stone steps of the yellow brick structure. “Yeah-yeah, just don’t forget that you’re on detail too, Ms. TA. Not only do you have Ground Cover to keep in line, but you need to keep an eye on our two griffon scholars over there. I expect all of you to pay attention. Your position depends on it, Ground Cover; and I don’t think many griffs would be happy to hear that the symbols of their new peace weren’t doing well as student ambassadors.” The muzzle and beaks of the three trailing creatures bobbed up and down as I grabbed hold of the door.

The soothing cool of the building’s modern western interior seeped through my mane when I stepped across the threshold. At least there was air conditioning. I guess if the dean had invested in that infrastructure, then there was the chance he was not lying about the early class after all. In fact, the drone of students settling into their rooms was like music to my ears. It was a symphony of white noise that I had sorely missed during my tenure in the shadows – the symphony to which I was meant to bring life.

“Cuttin’ it pretty close there, Doc,” Trigger quipped from his post just to the side of the auditorium entrance. He was leaning against the wall with the brim of his hat tipped just below his sightline. “Package has been delivered to her class with a pair of RG’s keeping tabs. Quite the interesting move ya pulled with that one, but I guess since Lichlos was involved, givin’ her a chance here made some sense.”

The stallion gestured to a large box at his hind hooves and grinned. “Then, somepony went out of her way to have me deliver a giant cluster of cinnamon cookies to share with your obnoxiously huge class. Seriously Wing, how ya went out and managed to forge a relationship with such an awesome mare is beyond me. Don’t ever buck it up, and whatever she wants to put in the new kitchen... yeah... don’t get in her way.

“Your guitar is by the podium too. That was another thing I was told to drop off – something philosophical about ya needing to be you. But before ya gallop off to embrace your new students, there are a couple things that ya really need to know. One, since dipshit went and name-dropped ya in Manehattan, your class is absolutely buckin’ packed; and two, our evoking of harmony has attracted the attention of another intellectually inclined lavender pony. Have fun with that one, Professor. I already got out of answering her dumbass chain of questions. Ya probably won’t have such luck.”

A smirk crept onto my muzzle as I picked up the box of cookies. “Scopes are meant to probe and discover, Trigs. I don’t need luck to answer those kinds of questions, regardless of the source.” Freezing my forehoof from opening the door to the auditorium, those words permeated every thought until a one-breath chuckle broke my daze. “Come to think of it, that’s what I told myself when I saw Ground Cover in my sights for the first time. That’s what I told myself before I shelved my place as an educator to take the shot that led to all of this.

“Now we’re all here. Now we’re all free to go back to the lives we love, but they won't be quite the same. It's never quite the same. There’s always the pull of a penumbra trying to drag us back, but in the end, we all gained each other. I think that’s pretty fitting, really. We’re out of the darkness and free to bask in the light... I do believe my fiancée was correct. It’s time for me to be me.”

~The End~

...for now...