“Mount Aris, ahoy!” called the lookout, his voice made thin by the little metal tube.
Commodore Grosvenor stood at the bow of his airship, his feathers swept back by the breeze, peering out into a night sky that was barely discernible from the calm mirror of the ocean below. There was no moon that night, so the stars shone in brilliant detail, both above and below the horizon. He couldn’t see the mountain island of Aris yet, not even through a spyglass, but he trusted his lookout’s eyes.
He grabbed the speaking tube in his talons. “Bearing?” he asked.
“Twelve degrees to port.”
“Bring us about,” he instructed his first mate. “Twelve degrees port. And drop down. No sense letting them see us too soon.”
“Helm!” shouted Commander Fathom, relaying the orders. “Bring us twelve degrees to port!” The earth pony at the steering wheel turned the ship as commanded. “Trim! Take us down to skirting height. Engine! Full speed. Tennant! Signal the flotilla to follow our lead.”
Crew scurried to follow orders, and relay them to the other ships with the signal lamp at the stern. The mighty airship sank gradually down towards the black ocean below, coming to a height where her keel barely avoided touching the surface of the water. The ship creaked as deck planks settled on her wooden beams at the new air pressure.
Behind her, the five other ships obeyed the signalled orders, dropping down to skim the ocean. Each was painted black to avoid standing out at night, and had the minimum of lamps on deck.
“Time to get the troops ready,” said Grosvenor. “We’ll be at this soon enough.”
Fathom turned to a sailor behind him, a gryphon with bright blue plumage. “Ask Captain Granite for his marines, if you would,” he commanded. “And tell the other companies to be ready.” The gryphon hurried off below decks to relay the order, first to the master of marines, then to the other ships through the signal lamp.
Grosvenor sniffed the air, breathing out slowly through his beak. It was time. Time to repay his family’s debt. Time to reclaim his grandfather’s honour. Time to bring the damned hippogryphs to heel.
One by one, the ponies and gryphons lined up on deck behind him, forming a misshapen square. He turned to speak to them.
“All right, lads. Every creature here needs to be ready. We’ll be upon them before they know we’re even here. Flyers, don your blades. Unicorns, charge your spells. We’ll smash our way past their defenses, strike the heart of the mountain, and be owners of that island before sunrise. Now get moving!”
“Fall out!” shouted Fathom.
The sailors saluted then scurried away, with no small amount of bumping into each other. Gryphons and pegasi took flight in a flurry of feathers. The unicorns formed a cluster amidships and began their strange incantations, horns aglow as they prepared spells for the coming battle.
He turned back to the quiet sea. Was that the island he saw? No, it couldn’t be, not yet.
“You know,” he said to the earth pony beside him, “my grandfather once made this trip.”
“I believe you’ve mentioned it before, yes, sir.”
He ignored his sarcastic aide, and instead raised the spyglass to the horizon.
Grosvenor had been just a fledgeling when his grandfather had sailed away. He’d stood on his mother’s back, alongside hundreds of other wives and husbands, parents and children, waving the sailors off. He’d asked his mother how long it would be before grandpa came back. She'd promised it wouldn't be long.
Weeks turned into months, and it became clear the expedition wasn’t coming back. Worse, some fool in the gutter press spread rumours – reported on rumours, they said – that the flotilla had defected, that his grandfather in particular had betrayed the Duchy and joined the hippogryphs’ side.
Foals and chicks can be cruel at the best of times, but the stain of ‘traitor’ had stuck to Grosvenor through military academy. It had challenged him to prove his loyalty and courage at every step.
And so he had. He’d been on the front line of repelling King Guto's war flock. He’d put down the rebellion on Skye. He’d broken the back of the supposedly Mighty Helm, planting the Trottish banner firmly on those islands. And finally he’d taken command of the best part of the Duke’s fleet to take on the fortress of Mount Aris.
A cluster of splashes interrupted his reverie. A school of flying fish? Dolphins? Seaponies? Nothing to worry about, he thought, until a crack and a flash of light against the envelope above alerted him to something more serious.
“We’re under attack!” shouted somepony, followed by a curtailed scream. Blood sprayed across the deck as a wing blade sliced through the pony’s throat.
All around, dark shapes rushed up from below the ship, swarming the deck. Every pony and gryphon there found themselves suddenly engaged in battle, assaulted by wings and hooves and beaks.
“Discord’s armpits!” swore the Commodore, gripping the gunwale. “Where did these hippogryphs come from?” He drew his sword and parried an attacker that lunged at him from below the stem. He pressed the moment and succeeded in removing a wing, sending the hippogryph spiralling down into the waters below.
“I don’t know, sir,” replied Fathom, rearing up on his hind legs in order to aim his musket. He took a shot, then cursed under his breath. “It looks like they’re coming from below us.” He tore the top off a powder charge with his teeth, poured it into the barrel of the musket, and dropped a ball in after it.
“How did they appear so suddenly? Are the seaponies helping them? Do they have submarines? How?”
Fathom finished pushing the musket ball down and took aim at another hippogryph who was busy fencing with the pony who’d been at the conn. “I couldn’t say, sir. I’ll be sure to check on my way to the bottom of the ocean.” He fired, scoring a hit and dropping the hippogryph to the deck in a bleeding mess.
Above, a hippogryph stuck a second package to the side of the envelope. They darted away, trailing a wire, and the moment the end of the wire pulled free of it, the package exploded. The detonation heralded a wheezing sound as air began to escape from the airship’s great balloon.
“Climb! Climb!” shouted the Commodore, but there was nopony to follow the order. Every hoof on deck was engaged in battle already, desperately trying to repel the boarders. He rushed through the fray and grabbed the trim telegraph himself, yanking it to the highest setting.
With a creaking and gurgling, the ship struggled to climb against the loss of air. It was a fight she quickly lost, sinking until her keel broke the surface of the water. The envelope sagged, threatening to trap every creature on deck and drag them down to the waves.
It was never easy for the master of a ship to admit that she was lost, but it was decision that had to be made quickly and decisively.
“Abandon ship!” declared Commodore Grosvenor to anypony who could hear him.
“I believe ponies are already doing that, sir,” replied Fathom, tearing the top off another powder charge. “We should probably join them while there are still lifeboats.”
“You go on ahead, Fathom. I’ll join you after a bout of hunting.”
He launched into the air, sword gripped tightly in his talons, and swept down the deck to engage a pair of hippogryphs that were circling a unicorn, battering at her shrinking shield. He sliced through a hind hoof, spun and plunged his sword through the attacker’s slender barrel. He grabbed the flailing body with his free claw and lifted it up to defend against the other hippogryph’s attacks, until that one was split in two by a sudden burst of golden, liquid fire that poured out of his middle and dribbled from his beak.
He turned to see the unicorn sailor he’d defended, her horn smoking. They nodded, then each turned to a fresh battle.
Sure enough, those crew who couldn’t fly were fleeing for the lifeboats. The enemy were glad to use that, lurking beneath the boats then swarming them. At least one lifeboat landed in the water upside down, dragging sailors into the depths.
Three hippogryphs lunged at the Commodore, but one was felled by a musket ball. Grosvenor swept his sword around, forcing the remaining two to back off long enough to engage properly. He drew a dagger in his spare claw and parried both ways at once. He redirected a blow by wing blades with his sword; the attacker lurched at him with outstretched beak, and he used the opportunity to bury his dagger in the attacker's throat. He let go of the dagger and used his own talons to pull the remaining attacker towards him and plunge his sword deep into her chest.
Blood stained the Commodore’s feathers and talons. He shrugged out of the wet, tattered remains of his uniform.
The deck lurched, and he turned to see that one of the cables holding the gondola had been severed. Others were being attacked by groups of hippogryphs, making repeated passes to slice at the cables with their wing blades and spurs.
“Not on my ship,” he muttered, pirouetting into the air towards one of the wrecking crew slicing at the cable. He missed, but forced them to scatter.
He landed upside down, his hind paws pressing into the underside of the envelope, then pushed off, curving into another lethal slice towards an attacker. The hippogryph flew down towards the ocean, pursued by the gryphon. Grosvenor was faster, and the tip of his sword brushed the hippogryph’s tail.
“I have you now!” he snarled, readying a strike as they neared the black surface, but instead of turning away the hippogryph kept going, folding his wings to dive straight into the water. Commodore Grosvenor spread his wings wide instead and swept over the surface of the water.
“Damn them to Tartarus. They really are working with the seaponies!”
His accusation was confirmed when he saw another hippogryph burst from the sea, her wings kept folded until she was clear of the spray. Somehow they were able to move down there under the black surface. They’d lurked beneath the ships, waiting until all of them were in range of the sea before launching their attack.
Soaring up to the deck of the trailing airship, he found her in much the same state as his own. “Where’s Captain Bulwark?”
“Dead,” replied a pony. Her own wings were battered and useless, dripping blood and feathers across the deck. She held another pony’s tail in her teeth, dragging them towards the nearest lifeboat.
A flock of hippogryphs flew away from the packages they'd stuck to the ship’s envelope, which detonated across one flank. The cluster of small explosions tore open the port side of the envelope, sending it reeling, spewing air from that side as the gondola lurched beneath it. The ship rocked like a pendulum, until her keel too touched water like her sister, the impact sending ponies, gryphons and hippogryphs alike sprawling.
Every creature that could, leapt into the air. A few struggled to carry comrades off the doomed ship. He saw one gryphon, lifting a unicorn, harried by a hippogryph until he was forced to drop his comrade in the water. Struggling to keep afloat, the unicorn still fired a bolt of ice that froze the attacker’s wings.
With the faintest splash, a pair of smooth forms slid from the water and pulled the unicorn under.
A gargle of screams drew the Commodore’s attention, and he saw a lifeboat being capsized by a school of seaponies, the survivors dragged one by one under the waves, their screams going silent.
“Damn you. Have you no mercy?” he shouted.
He spotted a seapony near the surface. He folded his wings, dove, and plucked the seapony from the waves. His talons dug into his scales, drawing lines of blood. The seapony writhed, flapping every limb. He dragged the hapless fish high above the battlefield.
The seapony was wearing thin blades on the ends of his translucent fins, ones that looked identical to the wing blades worn by the hippogryphs. His front hooves wore sharp spurs as well.
Grosvenor climbed higher, until they could see the whole battlefield at once, the half-dozen ships of the flotilla surrounded by lifeboats and struggling sailors. Shattered lanterns had scattered their oil, making little burning points of light. His flagship was already sinking beneath the waves. After the noise of battle, it was oddly quiet up here.
“How long have you and the hippogryphs been working together?” he demanded, digging his talons deeper. The seapony yelped in pain. “Does your queen know about it?”
Suddenly feathers sprouted across the seapony’s fins and head, fur across his body. His muzzle hardened into a beak, his hooves grew claws and his tail became equine hind legs. He writhed and bucked, breaking free of Grosvenor’s grasp, though the bleeding talon marks still punctured his side, shedding droplets of blood into the night.
Grosvenor realised the truth that had sunk his ships, and so many more besides. “You aren't working with the hippogryphs. You are the hippogryphs.”
The transformed hippogryph grinned. The wind whistled past his wing blades as he hovered in place, readying his spurs. Grosvenor realised he’d lost both his sword and dagger in the fight, leaving him nothing to fight with but his own talons and beak, like any drunk in the street.
Just like so many fights back in the day.
Grosvenor returned the grin. “How'd you manage to keep the secret for so long?” he asked. “This has to have been going on for centuries.”
“How do you think?” replied the hippogryph, his accent thick. “Nobody lives to tell the tale. That's how we keep it.”
Grosvenor nodded. It made sense. Not a soul had returned from his grandfather's expedition, and none would return from this one either.
“Tell me, gryphon, how much of the Duke’s fleet have we sunk tonight? Is there anything left?”
Too much. There were ships left behind in port, of course – the old, the slow, the decrepit, the noisy – but Commodore Grosvenor had brought the cream of the fleet on this expedition. Below them the great balloons collapsed, and the sea filled with bodies and blood. The night’s loss would cripple the Duchy of Trottingham, perhaps irreparably.
The answer must have shown on Grosvenor's face, because his opponent’s smile turned into a definite smirk. “I thought so.”
It didn’t matter, though. Not really. Even if history turned on this night, it wouldn't change a thing for Grosvenor. Word of this battle might never reach his family back in Trottingham, and that didn’t matter either. His grandfather’s honour had been reclaimed. And like his grandfather, Grosvenor would die fighting.
They each yelled as they charged.
Grosvenor dodged under the wing blades, grabbed the hippogryph’s beak with one claw, his forehooves in the other, and bit down on one wing near the base. The hippogryph bit his ear, pulling his head around, and the spurs on his hooves dug into his wrist. Grosvenor's mouth filled with the taste of blood, feathers and seawater as he wrenched the hippogryph’s wing from his back.
Locked together, they spiralled down, back into the fray.